Alison McQueen

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My affair with India

Today, another shocking story seeps out of India. The headline: Woman gang raped on orders of ‘kangaroo court’.

I first visited India in the late nineties, and returned every year thereafter, travelling around the country, often with my Indian mother. I fell in love with India instantly. It was as though I had found the piece of me that had never quite belonged here. Like most love affairs, I spent the early part of it utterly smitten, yet the more I saw over the years, the more despairing I became.

I am sad to say that my feelings towards India have soured considerably in recent times. I was last there a year ago, and I was not sorry to leave. As one of the fastest growing economies and the largest democracy in the world, one would have hoped that India might have at least tried to drag its attitudes towards women into the 21st century.

I have always been vigilant while travelling in India. I dress conservatively in loose cotton trousers and long shalwar, but still men think nothing of openly staring or behaving in a deliberately intimidating manner. (It was a lot worse during my thirties.) I keep my eyes facing front and never, despite being sorely tempted, have I ever responded. I keep my mouth firmly shut and walk on quickly, knowing that women are attacked often in India, with little or no provocation. As if that isn’t bad enough, victims of rape are sometimes killed by their own families for bringing shame on the family for having lost their purity.

These are the things you have to deal with mentally if you’re going to travel around India as a woman, and I had to get my head around it long ago, which meant pretty much putting it out of my mind otherwise I would be filled with such bile that I would never set foot there again. Then there is the endless pestering, not just from a sexual harrassment point of view, (which is euphemistically called Eve-teasing), but also with everyone being on the make, whether it’s the taxi driver who wants to take you to a particular shop or hotel and just won’t let it go, or the swarms of traders who push and pull to sell you things when all you want is a few vegetables from the market. It’s exhausting.

Racism is rife in India, and I’m talking about between the Indians themselves. Cast, class, outrageous snobbery, attitudes towards servants (everyone with any money has servants). Even amid the servants, there are class tensions – this servant for that, another servant for the other, and they won’t do any job they feel is below their rank. Trying to get anything done in India can be intensely frustrating.

Villages in the more remote rural areas are like going back in a time machine. All the work seems to be being done by women while the men sit around talking and smoking and drinking, sometimes tea, sometimes feni, probably before going home to give their wife a beating. I have spoken to a lot of poorly-paid hardworking women in India, and their husband’s fall into two general categories: the ones who drink, and the ones who don’t. It amazes me how good-natured the women are, particularly the ones whose husband’s hit them. It makes my heart clench.

My mother has always said something about India that sticks out in my mind, which reflects a deep vein of dislike she has for her own country: “I am very angry with India. She keeps her people down.” Corruption is rife, from the highest public officials down to the single-buffalo families who water down the milk before selling it. It’s every man for himself.

There is no getting away from the bad things in India that are being openly allowed to continue with the laws of statute ignored. Religious “crimes” being judged by the elders of a village, who are invariably men. Children being sold into illegal marriages. Women and girls living in fear, and for very good reason. This is a country where mind-bending fortunes are being made, yet where millions are living hand to mouth, many working in atrocious conditions and being paid a pittance while making fortunes for the few. The imbalance in inequality is hard to stomach, and it’s created a toxic, dangerous atmosphere that is getting worse.

I have no plans to travel to India this year. I feel sad about that, as I have traditionally gone there every winter to write in peace for a while. But I can no longer keep a lid on just how appalled I am by what goes on there and the widely-held attitudes towards women.

It makes me so angry that I want to throw bricks through windows and demonstrate alongside the people who have taken to the streets in India and around the world where women are in constant danger simply because of their gender. But I know that that is not what I am.  I am not a political activist. I am a writer of stories, and I believe that stories can be devastatingly powerful.

We all know the story of the girl on the bus, and the boy she was with. That is the kind of story that has the power to turn the world’s head and make it face up to the unacceptable.

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