By Nisha Susan
Among the sharpest things the great Alice Walker ever wrote were these lines: He said come/ Let me exploit you;/ Somebody must do it/ And wouldn’t you/ prefer a brother?
I’ve held on to these lines like a talisman through my 20s spent among lefties, revolutionaries, revolution-lite-types and Hunter S Thompson-wannabes. Walker wrote it in the context of being betrayed by her fellow male travellers during the Civil Rights movement. Her description of the situation as “the age-old dilemma for the masculine of what to do with the feminine after political change is made and woman clearly intends to remain by man’s revolutionary side” was one that I found useful everyday among activist men.
Take three pieces of news on Thursday. Vikas Bahl, director of Queen, has been accused of molestation. Kumar Sundaram, an anti-nuclear activist, has been suspended from work at the leftie site India Resists because of extremely serious instances of sexual harassment. The Kochi Mayor Soumini Jain has filed a police complaint against Malayalam director Jude Anthany Joseph for abusing and threatening her when she refused him permission to shoot in a park.
Among the responses to each of these cases is a strong streak of surprise that liberal men would behave in this way. Even Joseph’s own defence on Facebook takes the position that it is excusable that he raged at the Mayor because he had the noble intention of making a film about child sexual abuse.
Back in the day, I clutched at Alice Walker to remind me that just because a man called himself a liberal didn’t mean that he believed in my liberation. It taught me to trust my instincts if I didn’t like being in a closed room with a man, never mind if he was the toast of the sexual revolution or the environmental movement. And certainly, it allowed me to feel utterly sourpuss about explanations from liberal gents such as “he beats his wife but subalterns feel so oppressed that rage must go somewhere”. Or he has had such a difficult life, you don’t know. If he has had a difficult life, how does it get better by pawing/enslaving/torturing women?
My friend Paromita Vohra points out, “Women need to introspect about why they are fascinated by these characters also. If you look for a ‘progressive’ man, let him be progressive in love, not in world-changing ideas.” So often for women, especially young women, the road to freedom, whatever that freedom looks like, may lie in the shape of a man. The man may be someone who tells you that being a Kalma-reading woman is the path to resisting a world in which you are struggling with Islamophobia. He may be someone who tells you that studying continental philosophy is the way to escape the dullness of your Kolkata college life. He maybe someone who tells you that shaving your head and not shaving your armpits is the way to freedom from your petty bourgeoisie life. Or he may be the man who thrills you with his knowledge of a golden-age India you would have liked to live in, before the Mughals or the Brits or the Congress when we were all tolerant, caste-free Hindus. All keys to your way out might seem man-shaped so it’s hard to remember that the doors that keep you shut in are also man-shaped.
“What will we do if all liberal men get arrested for rape,” wailed a much-admired feminist figure to me. So we are shocked, totally shocked, that a man who made Queen or the man who ran Tehelka or the man who revived dastangoi or a man who worked on nuclear non-proliferation or a man who chronicled caste wars could be violent to a woman. But should we be?
We may be saddened at the loss of people we admire but we can’t be so sad that we don’t want them to be punished. We can’t have a painful, clannish response of what is happening to ‘our’ men, followed by the idiotic response of: this is a political conspiracy. We cannot be clannish about men, sisters, because men are not our clan.
The liberal end of American media has been shocked recently at the snippet that US Vice-President Mike Pence doesn’t dine with a woman other than his wife. Where does that leave his staff or professional acquaintances? Does this mean he is saying he can’t hold himself back if he is alone with a woman, op-eds asked? In the second cycle of coverage, think pieces argued that it doesn’t make Pence creepy — look he has a history of hiring women. This is just how he chooses to live his life so who are we to judge, they asked. More interestingly, a piece or two floated the proposition that his choices are an explicit acknowledgement of the complications of workplaces where men and women work together. Liberals are so silly to pretend they don’t exist, was the subtext.
Does this mean that a man on the right-wing end of the spectrum is to be trusted more? Certainly, I have found it extremely pleasant to be friends with some conservative men—single and married—who would never talk sleaze. They had the emotional vocabulary and sense of security in their personal choices that they could talk of me as their dost, and of their dosti with me with open, unqualified pleasure. Did I find this pleasant because of my incipient prudery?
No. It was from being sick of being around boys and men—for decades—whose idea of 2-minute instant-intimacy were sexual references, sexual jokes, sexual competitiveness. My vrat-keeping, arranged-marriage-loving pals were a wonderful contrast to encounters such as the time I was unexpectedly alone with a senior oh-so-radical male colleague. We were having a great work chat, I thought. I certainly gabbed on about layout, content and the amazing ideas I had just got from a young male designer I had met that week. He listened for a bit and then replied: Well, he is a good designer, but the question is, is he good in bed? I was shell-shocked. Not because I am a wilting maiden but he might as well have said, ‘I am so bored by you, I am just going to be obnoxious in shutting you up’.
Should we instead trust the men in our lives who go to church/mosque/temple regularly and are comfortable calling themselves traditional or conservative? Please, no. Though I love them, if trapped in a design discussion with me, my conservative pals are also likely to make some lame reference to my Jhansi-Ki-Rani tendencies, or how glad they are that their wives have not put on weight after marriage.
Alice Walker had a line for this moment too: No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.
The man maybe a card-carrying anything but sisters, don’t look at the card or the man for freedom.
This is hard to do when even sensible people are engaged in this search for good men. My friend Arundhati Ghosh says her mother has a line, Shujoger obhabe choritrobaan (good character only because of lack of opportunity). In this hilarious line lies a hard-packed truth. Male oppression comes in every shade of the political rainbow. A young woman once told me about the story of how she fell in love with a self-proclaimed radical who taught her the word ‘patriarchy’ and helped her see the extreme discrimination she faced at home. Against much opposition she married him. Now, she spends a chunk of her time struggling with him. He would like her to eat what he likes to eat, to support him financially and otherwise in his political causes, be silent about his berating her lucrative work and of course, is wildly jealous of any men in her life. Liberated was just a box he ticked like another man would have ticked ‘fair’.
In some ways, women who are in relationships – either professional or personal – with men who they don’t think of as ideologically pure/purer in any way are likely to have a better deal. Is it because your expectations are just low? No, possibly it’s because you are not blinded by the idea that something larger than both of you will protect you and your interests. It’s because you know you are the one in a permanent state of revolution.
Co-published with Firstpost.