Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Getting Home"... a Missive from India by Anuradha Roy

Earlier this week I asked my friend the novelist and publisher Anuradha Roy about the recent protests over the gang sex attack in Delhi.  She offered this account, and then gave her permission to publish it here:
I came back to Delhi from travels elsewhere on Christmas eve. The roads were windswept and foggy and, unusually for any Indian city, almost deserted. Through a drive of about 20 kilometres, there was not a single pedestrian for long stretches. There were fewer than usual cars, hardly any auto rickshaws. Enormous state transport buses sailed past with no occupants other than the driver and conductor.

In response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi on 16th December of a young student, the state had taken several steps, the results of which I was witnessing from the window of my taxi from the airport: the Delhi metro, by which an average of about 1.8 million people travel every day, had been shut down; the state had cordoned off the entire central vista of Delhi where the protesters had been attacked the day before by the police, with water cannon (in freezing December weather), tear gas and batons. It had also set in force something called Section 144, which makes it punishable for more than five people to gather anywhere.

Gandhi described British colonial rule over India as ‘satanic’. It is hard to find any other word to describe the way India is ruled now.

The daily violence against women in India is nauseating enough but people are yet more livid because of the state’s routine indifference to it. The Home Minister has said that if he went to meet the protesters at India Gate today, as was being demanded, he might some day be asked to meet ‘Maoists.'  Both he and the police commissioner justified the violent action against the thousands of students agitating for justice, claiming that the protest had been taken over by hooligans.

The prime minister made a brief statement *eight days* after the rape. It was delivered in his usual robotic manner, successfully dispelling the notion that he had any capacity for  human anguish. The PM is not given to making speeches, he is said to be a reserved economist. Not many days before, he had addressed industrialists – for about twenty minutes. It appears pretty clear what he feels passionate about, if anything.

Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight. (Factually too, this was wrong. She and her friend had got on the bus at 9.15 pm, after waiting an hour for other public transport.) This is not unusual. After almost every rape that makes it to the headlines, someone in power usually chastises the victim for going out/ dressing too provocatively/ staying out too late. A survey in June 2011 named India (alongside Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo) as one of most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. As a woman you know the truth of this every day on the streets of Indian cities, particularly Delhi.

I came to Delhi at 26 for a job, a migrant, just as this young woman is. My housemate, also a migrant, a student from the north-east of India, would tell me she was molested almost each time she stepped out in public transport and was often flashed. We’re used to being groped in buses, leered at on the streets. It’s normal for cars to slow down and for sleazy men to roll down windows and invite us in when we’re waiting for public  transport. We are used to walking with our arms close to our bodies, making no eye contact with men. We don’t stroll, we walk quickly to our destinations. If it’s after dark we try and have someone we know accompany us home. Even so, when we get home safe we count ourselves lucky. Of course many girls and women aren’t safe in their homes either.

It’s impossible to feel remotely celebratory on Christmas day knowing that a young woman who came to Delhi merely to train as a physiotherapist is now on a ventilator in a hospital not far from my house. Most of her intestines have been removed because six men, not content with shoving their penises into her, used an iron rod. They carried on torturing her with the rod even after she fell unconscious from the agony. Then they threw her and her friend, whom they had also beaten unconscious, out of the road and drove away. The woman and her friend were naked and bleeding. That was how they remained at that roadside for the next hour until the police reached and covered them with bed sheets borrowed from a hotel nearby.

Transport restrictions make it hard to reach central Delhi where the main protests are. But in my neighbourhood today, there was a procession of men and women. Not a big one that would stop the traffic, just about thirty or so people holding lit candles and placards, shouting slogans seeking justice. If there is no metro and the roads are blocked by riot police there is no choice but to decentralize the protests. The tragedy is that the Indian state has perfected a system of delaying justice so infinitely that while most of the world thinks of India as the world’s largest democracy, it is actually among the world’s largest and most corrupt tyrannies.
For background, an early account of the attack in Delhi last week, here.

An account of the shooting death of a journalist covering the protests, here.

About Anuradha Roy and her work here, and here.

UPDATE: The victim of the attack has died, as report here.  Meanwhile, it should be noted that the immediate neighbors of those arrested have strongly condemned the attack and the attackers.

Track backs, and thanks to those who've linked to this post: The Browser, 3QuarksDaily, and others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Children of Hannibal

The Arab Spring has not been going particularly well... or, I would say "not as planned" but I'm not sure anyone, other than the Muslim Brotherhood, engaged in a great deal of planning.

This sweeping political change throughout the region began in 2010 in a small Tunisian town.  The peripatetic on-line correspondent Michael Totten revisited the country recently and found some signs for hope.  It's an interesting piece with a broad historical perspective:
It should come as no surprise, then, that this area [of North Africa] became the overseas core of the Roman Empire. But an advanced civilization existed there long before Rome arrived. Legend has it that in roughly 900 BC, a princess named Elissa was exiled from the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what today is southern Lebanon. (Most Westerners are more familiar with her Greek name, thanks to Virgil, who immortalized her as Dido in The Aeneid.) She founded a new city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and became its queen.  That city was Carthage, and it became a megacity by antiquity’s standards, with 300,000 residents. Indeed, the city was so dense that the Carthaginians built six-story apartment buildings to house everyone, a feat that had never before been accomplished.
Totten tends toward pessimism but even he found some signs for hope.
The fact remains that Tunisia, while politically liberal in some ways, has no actual experience with working democracy. “My feeling is that Tunisia will cross five years of uncertainty,” says [Tunisian diplomat Ahmed] Ounais. “But the trend is toward a strong Arab democratic society. Within five years, I think we will stabilize with a new legislative assembly and create a new tradition of democratic rule in the country. We are the ones who are creating this pattern of Arab politics. We are the first.”   Will the Arab Spring succeed in its extraordinary birthplace? Years are likely to pass before we’ll know for sure.
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tours of Literary New York

Last weekend the New York Times published a much commented upon piece of putative travel journalism, "A Critic's Tour of Literary Manhattan," by staff writer/editor Dwight Garner.  Even my mother sent it to me.  Garner is a very fine critic, but his travel reportage here is rather curious.

As a former editor myself of an effete New York literary magazine... The Paris Review... which is neither in Paris, nor does it review anything... I did in my time many a tour of such literary haunts, and of course I have an opinion.  In his article, Garner details the sorts of places patronized by well-educated, white, writer types in their late thirties and early forties (ie, people like him)... and then he throws in the Algonquin Hotel for historical perspective.  It's a nice selection, and gives an amber-hued picture of a world and life that is changing as print moves to digital. 

Somewhat, missing, however, are where today's twenty-something writers gather (I'm not telling... by which I actually mean they haven't told me).  And there's no mention of where an older crowd might congregate, such as Elio's, the Upper East Side restaurant started by a waiter from Elaine's, still a "local" for Nicholas Pileggi, Gay Talese and others, especially since Elaine's restaurant has closed.  And, incomprehensibly, no mention of Elaine, the den mother over five decades for comers in the quality lit game.  Many an eve, at the end of book party, my old boss George Plimpton would pipe up to a group of staffers and young writers, "What say?  Shall we go to 'The Fat Lady's'?" and off we'd be to the northern, and not particularly glamorous, reaches of Yorkville.

Lastly, there is no mention in Garner's piece of Brooklyn, where most writers now live and drink and dine.

As one commentator on the piece observes:
There's a sweet kind of denial in going to Manhattan to report on literary nightlife. It's like going to Coney Island looking for freak shows. Or heading over to far West Side to do a report on longshoremen.  Times change, but not at the Times? 
Still, during my most recent visit to New York last month I happened to gather with a few friends at one place mentioned in his piece, Cafe Loup.  I also made a few new friends there.  What's more, I spotted the current Editor of Paris Review, one Lorin Stein, who is doing a superb job.  Attempting to do our part, our group closed the place at 2 AM... on a Monday.  Cafe Loup seems better than ever.  New York is all right too.

Read Dwight Garner's literary tour here, and take it with a grain of salt, and leave a comment there... and here too.