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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Naked Truth

I studied at a Jesuit school; the school's motto was "Gaudium in Veritate" - (find, or seek) Joy in Truth. A less practical ideal, I am yet to find; a comforting truth is likely only one or the other.

I had reason to remember the dictum, though, when I came across an article on the CNN blog iReport ( ) written by a University of Chicago exchange student. The piece was accompanied by a picture which I assume is of the writer; CNN has since reported her identity as "Michaela Cross". What she speaks about sums up, in many ways, the dilemna of living in India - a joyful, vibrant experience built on dangerously fragile ground.

It would be an insult to try to describe her experiences in any words but her own. I suggest you read the piece. She ends by saying that it is - "...the story you don't want to hear when you ask me about India. But it is the story you need." - a statement which, having read the piece, I strongly endorse. What gets to me - the one thing that is making me stay up through the night and hunt for the right words to express my anger - is the tone of comments her piece has attracted.

Very broadly - because to get into the details is to risk absolute apoplexy, and not an experience I will willingly submit to twice - the comments fall into two categories: the Ashamed, and the Indignant. Before I say any more of them, let me clarify that I am well aware of the perils of entering the comments field, especially given the (new-found?) Indian love for abuse on online fora. I did not venture into the comments here with any high hopes. Yet - given the context, perhaps? - it was profoundly disconcerting to see how people had responded.

The Ashamed commenter will apologise - usually on behalf of India, or Indian men, or even men in general - for the traumatic experiences Michaela faced and recounts. How they arrogate to themselves the stature to do this, I could not say. To apologise for the wrongdoing of another is merely a gesture. At its best, it is a simple and humble act - not an expression of shame, but of commiseration and empathy. This goes right out the window, though, when you turn it into some kind of grand gesture. Does anyone truly believe that the purportedly representative apologies they proffer actually reflect a whit of contrition on the part of the actual perpetrators? Why assert with one breath that you are vastly different from such men, that they are sub-human, and then try to speak for them with the next?

And why on Earth are you ashamed? Because you are Indian, and she met with bad experiences in India? Have you, or those you know, never had an unpleasant experience in your own country? (If not, then I am glad for you, but the odds are you live in a tiny and unrepresentative bubble.) Do you think foreign women have not faced unpleasant experiences in their own nations? How then would you imagine that her experience would differ here?

These attempts to defend some conception of a national conscience comes across as utterly hollow and demeaning. It fails, first, because you are not the appointed voice of our nation. (You certainly do not speak for me.) I could see some worth in a formal apology from the President - at least he actually IS the First Citizen, and empowered to speak in that representative capacity. I would see even more in an apology from someone who actually behaved towards her in the manner she describes. THAT would be a real apology - *I* (not India, not Indian men, not mankind) was wrong, *I* now realise the depth of that wrongdoing, and - for whatever it may be worth - *I* apologise. The apology-as-gesture is worthless.

Worse, this selfishness-masquerading-as-apology shifts the focus from the writer to you, and your presumptuous pride as a nation: "we" screwed up, but some of "us" are "man enough" to "own up" and apologise. What do you want? A pat on the back, some sense of national absolution? Do you honestly see yourself as the "few good men", and think that you can balance out what the "bad men" "out there" have done? With what? Your good intentions?! What amazing egotism! It comes out most clearly when you want to explain away the incidents with those old chestnuts, "illiteracy" and "frustration". Perhaps it is simply eagerness to brush this incident under the carpet and get on with your life - which is really much the same thing. That's what we do in these cases, right? I have offered my prayers at this altar. This deity has been propitiated. Let all be peaceful once more.

In the process, you cast the writer as victim - instead of what she is, an amazingly courageous young lady. Why courageous? Because she just wrote about it, openly and deliberately, to the whole world. I have had a happy enough life to have no authority to speak about trauma, but I have studied something of how one helps those who have experienced it cope. Getting them to speak about their experiences is a huge milestone. This is in a secure, safe environment, to a person whom they have learned to trust. Getting them to discuss the experience in a public forum is unheard of. It is the equivalent of someone who was violently raped stripping naked in the town square to display the scars left by the incident. I literally cannot imagine the strength of character it takes to write a post on a CNN blog about it. (That's why I said using any words but her own would be an insult.)

AND THEN, NOT ONLY DOES SHE WRITE ABOUT IT, BUT SHE HAS THE UNBELIEVABLE STRENGTH TO BE FAIR. Could anyone blame her for being bitter? Many have been, and I have come across them - in print, and in person - before. The people who, after one (or repeated) bad experience(s), have declared that they never want to return to India, that it is a horrible place, that all Indian men are depraved, and so on? (The irony of their having this conversation with me somehow never strikes them.) There's a few of these in the comments here, happy for the chance to display their racism, or jumping to hijack the issue and direct it to their pet theory of religiously inspired repression or whatever - and look how quickly the "national shame" falls away when we have to confront them!

Michaela acknowledges her experiences as bittersweet. Literally every example she gives is of how excited she was to experience India, our culture, our people and places, and how this came to be mixed with and tainted by strands of assertive, often violent sexism. Ask yourself if you could do this. If you could speak of how you enjoyed a place, a meeting, an experience, when it came in the context of a culture that would view you as something less than human - as just a body, as she says, to be taken or hidden away. Could you speak about how beautiful you found the Taj Mahal, if the hotel staff where you stayed tried to rape you? The pain of her experience comes through in her writing - that she met with good people and good experiences too, that she has trouble reconciling these differences herself, and that it is precisely the incongruity that makes her negative experiences all the more jarring.

And this is where it gets really, really ugly. Because the Indignant commenter, it seems, simply cannot see this. These are the people who will somehow try to deride, invalidate or question her experiences. The ones who will suggest that in talking about them, she is somehow generalising to all of India. The "kind" ones, who "gently" caution her against the "mistake" of projecting a "bad image" of the whole country - they're often the ones apologising for the whole country as well - as well as the "blunt" ones, who will accuse her of racism while calling her experience "unfortunate, if it is true". Makes you wonder, in the aforementioned woman-displaying-scars-of-rape-in-public-forum example, would they be accusing her of sexism, or wrongly slandering all men - while conceding that her being raped was unfortunate, of course? Or would they be providing alternate explanations for how she got them? Or would they simply be suggesting that, by displaying herself thus in public, she's proved she was asking for it earlier?

There are parallels to each of these here. There's the virtual nitpickers, who point to elements of her story that are "too implausible" - for them. First, nobody asked for your verification, and your so-generously extending it to part of the article does not make your questioning part of it look any less parochial / misogynist / idiotic. Second, I assure you, folks - public masturbation is real. I've been masturbated at in VT Station. A friend has been masturbated at in a stadium, another on the top deck of a double-decker bus. I shouldn't even have to talk about groping. Many of us have faced molestation, typically in crowded places. Sometimes you just move away, sometimes you retaliate - violently - and sometimes you literally have no space to move, respond or even protest. These are the experiences of visibly Indian men, in Bombay, reported (with good reason) to be the safest city in the whole country. Is it that hard to believe an American girl's account of a similar experience? That aside, you've all read accounts of rapes in public places and vehicles. So you can believe someone would commit rape on a bus, but they would hesitate to touch themselves? The number of amateur criminologists looking to split hairs over what is or is not an element of which specific crime is simply sickening. That they believe they can disprove the verity of the entire account by finding some such contradiction suggests further study may be required; their faux-sophistication almost makes one appreciate the bluntness of the people who simply declare (apropos nothing) that the story is a fabrication to malign India. Almost.

There's the absolutely surreal comment - it was the most recent one as I read - from a gentleman (I use the term loosely) who wants to know why she stayed on if she faced sexual harassment, which could have been lifted from the Victim Blaming Script Hall of Fame. He goes on to say - and I'm quoting here -
"Not a sentence from her about reporting to the cops. The cops in India are very efficient and quick in punishing those who harass foreign women... The "good" white women report any bad incidents to the cops immediately and if they do not get any response, they take it up with their consulate or embassy. The others wait to get more spice and a story such as this to put them in the news. She says that her friend was raped! And she did not report it to the cops to the embassy, nobody?" 
I contemplated actually replying to that one, then figured anyone who
a) can't read what he's writing on to notice that she said attempted rape, not that her friend *was* raped,
b) doesn't realise that not speaking about filing a police case or approaching an embassy is not the same as not doing it, and
c) actually believes what he's written applies to most Indian police, is living in a fantasy world.
His conclusion is Victim Blaming 101 again - that the account is of an attention seeker, who deplorably causes "unjustified" damage to an entire culture. There's a smarter variant, down the line, who uses the girls' smiling at strangers as an example of "inappropriate behaviour" to justify "inappropriate responses", while trying to caveat with "I am definitely not victim blaming". Bit like protesting innocence in the middle of a rape with "I am not raping" - and about as convincing. Especially since his "evidence" is the videos of her group on Youtube, which she's explicitly said she's tried to have taken down - no reason you wouldn't read this story and then go look for the pictures and videos she said were part of the violations she experienced, is there? And then there's the absolutely-blind-to-irony lady who writes, based on her own experience (Gods grant that it remain unblemished) that India is as safe for foreign women as it is for Indian women.

The ones who make my blood boil, though, are the ones who have the sheer temerity to suggest that her "personality disorder" has led her to exaggerate, be untruthful, seek attention etc. Again, admitting in public to having a psychological condition is still an extraordinarily brave act, precisely because it opens one to misunderstanding and labels. I would be charitable if I called the way these comments use this information "misunderstanding", though - they are too well reasoned to be anything but deliberate. I may reasonably assume that these are people who know that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as the name suggests, is not a personality disorder, but rather a prolonged reaction to trauma. Working through the trauma is universally seen as an important part of the healing process. When someone tries to articulate their trauma, you will use the fact that they have a psychological condition to cast aspersions on the validity of their experience, or their memory, and so discredit their entire character and perceptions? And why, because their account led to some perceived insult to your patriotism? There are times when I want to be a devout Catholic, simply so I can reassure myself that some particularly gruesome patch of Hell awaits these particular specimens.

And the pages and pages and pages of overblown comments give rise to a simple question: what is making us (Indians, men, the inexplicable-apparently-foreign-women-sticking-up-for-India) so defensive? A girl visited, had a traumatic experience, and wrote about it. Why must we jump to character assassination? If she's lying, people will know, and others will find out. It's not as if people are suddenly going to stop coming to India as a result. If she's telling the truth, then surely she is owed some respect?

Somewhere around the 100th violation I reported, I realised that this overwhelming insecurity probably did not come from anything to do with the country. It was deeply personal - because the truth she was telling clashed, strenuously and utterly, with the narratives people have built up to insulate themselves from it. She has called out people's lies as lies - fabrications, white lies, whatever - but all fundamentally untrue. And the reaction, in all its vituperative, misogynistic, pseudo-patriotic hues, is all about the discomfort that results. It's simply a giant wave of liars, hitting back almost on reflex.
Terry Pratchett has a novel, published in 2000, called "The Truth". Fittingly, it's about journalism. At a critical moment, Pratchett's hero is told - "a lie can run around the world before the Truth has got its boots on." He's right. Lies will always have a smoother path. Doors will open for them, because they look and sound right. Why wouldn't they? They were tailored to fit expectations! They can take shortcuts - your beliefs, your heuristics, everything that would make you feel comfortable with them. Lies, like water, will find the path of least resistance, and flow along it with ever-increasing momentum, until they cascade across the landscape and submerge whatever lay there before.

The truth, on the other hand, can only take one path - the direct path. It is an arduous road, beset with thorns and worse. That path leads nowhere quickly, and it is painful to even contemplate. But - and this is the key to answering Pratchett's challenge - the truth doesn't need to be faster. And she doesn't need boots. Because the true power of the truth is unleashed in her nudity.

No one who has faced the naked truth can dismiss her image from mind. She makes for an ugly sight, toiling uphill, feet bloodied, hands crusted with who knows what grime. Most will look away, or pretend that they have not seen. Perhaps you can only come upon her unawares, but when that happens - when you come face to face, and cannot avert your gaze - then the sight of those burning eyes is branded into your memory forever.

That was what happened when I read Michaela's piece. It was one of many news stories I came across that day. I read it idly, as I would any other account of travelling in my country. Too late, I realised that I was face to face with the naked truth, and I could only squirm under her gaze. I was fighting for a chance to deny her account. It does not tally with my lived reality. And to accept it - to accept it as true - is to consider that my lived reality is a lie. That my experiences are not as valid as they feel to me. That I have no right, really, to speak on such matters. It is a deeply humbling experience, and a deeply disturbing one. Innocent experiences take on sinister overtones. Cherished memories have to be questioned. I write this on raksha bandhan, a festival that celebrates the protective bond between brother and sister. I step into a minefield if I ask the obvious questions - protect her? From whom, or what? Why did I never ask before? And how could I believe the answer? How do I reconcile the sanctity of this ritual with the fact that somewhere in my country, today, some of the men Michaela has written about have celebrated it with their sisters?

I want to believe that's where all those comments come from - from profound discomfort, from the contemplation of this irreconcilable dichotomy. From men and women who were squirming as they read. Again, my experiences leave me with no authority to comment, only speculate. Perhaps their minds, like mine, refused to even look at this hideous new terrain. And perhaps they never had a teacher, parent, priest or guide explain to them that when something feels wrong, it may just be because the feeling - rather than the thing itself - is wrong. That one must reflect on this discomfort rather than reject it.
(To be precise, I'm supposed to revel in it, but that may take a while. That whooshing sound was me not holding my breath in anticipation.)

I can neither summon the indignation to admonish these people, nor the pride to apologise to Michaela. They have done me no wrong, any more than I have done to her. I dare not presume to speak for either - increasingly, I despair even of speaking to them. A chasm separates my experience from theirs, just as it separates mine from hers, and I must find stable ground underfoot before I dream of bridging either. I am tired of shouting into that abyss merely to hear a hollow echo of my words return, and will waste no more breath on that effort.

I can only articulate the kernels of truth I could preserve: a profound sense of admiration and gratitude. Michaela, I am glad that you are seeing a counsellor. You have chosen to work through your feelings, to speak of the trauma you experienced, and to bare yourself before the world. I deeply admire the courage you show thereby, and I hope it will see you safely out of this crisis. You say, can there even be a cure? You ask what cure there is for coming face to face with reality, when reality is inhuman. I do not know the answer, but I have to believe there is one. And some part of that answer - the first step, as it were - is for those of us with the power to affect and alter that reality to see it for what it is.

When you chose to write, you brought me face to face with that naked truth. You chose to become the first step of that cure. Thank you for making that choice. 


  1. “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.” - Mark Twain.

  2. Brilliantly written. Partly because it's an opinion strongly held but fairly presented, partly because you lauds a woman for being honest about India even if it's a stark portrayal of how unsafe India is for (foreign) women.

  3. how could you have been masturbated at as a male?

    1. I imagine you don't mean the mechanism? It works the same. If you mean, why would someone do that, well, you'd have to ask the person themselves. I didn't try to find out.

    2. Wonderful article, Ameya. You took the words right out of my head (only you articulated them far more eloquently!)