Thursday, 13 May 2010

Witness the Night

I recently purchased a book titled "Witness the Night" by an Indian author called Kishwar Desai. I have hardly ever read Indian writers before and I seldom venture into fiction unless it be detective or pulp fiction. And yet, something about the book intrigued me: the book is about a woman who investigates a murder case where a 14-year old girl is accused of butchering her entirely family in cold blood. In the course of her investigation, she encounters countless hidden facts and comes face to face with the worst aspects of Punjabi society.

The concept looked interesting. Let me confess that I know absolutely nothing about North Indian society, having lived in Bombay all my life. Besides, I trace my roots down to Kerala- the southern most state in India, culturally and geographically far removed from the north (most people in my part of the country would consider anything north of Gujarat as north, which would include even Madhya Pradesh!).

Having finished reading it, I must say that much of what is written in that book is extremely disturbing. Its hard to imagine a book more scathing on Punjabi society. If there is any truth in what is mentioned in that book (and the author's note states that the incidents mentioned therein are indeed true), the life of ladies up north must be incredibly difficult. Indian society has traditionally been patriarchal and unfair to its women, and yet I never imagined that it could possibly be so unfair.

If that book is to be believed, families routinely abort female fetuses (quite conceivable, seeing as a ban against sex determination tests had to be legislated in India). Worse still, girl children are killed right at birth. There even is a scene in the book where the girl accused of the murder discovers the skeletons of little children in their farm and figures out that those are the remains of girls born in the family who were murdered right at birth by family members anxious to escape the burden of dowry when the girls would get married.

The book describes how girls are treated in their own house as second class citizens, subordinate to the boys and whereas boys enjoy considerable liberty in terms of having pre-marital and even extra-marital sex, while girls enjoy nothing even vaguely resembling the same liberty. There is even a mention of how the status of women depends on their capacity to give birth to boys, how women who repeatedly give birth to girls have to bear the taunts of their relatives and all biraadari waale (the term is difficult to translate into English).

If the facts mentioned therein are indeed true, then Punjabi society must be extremely unfair to its women. I know I'm not going to be popular for saying this, but someone has to speak the truth! For the record: I have quite a few Punjabi friends (including my present boss). Much of what's mentioned in that book may be exaggerated, but its hard not to suspect that there might be a certain element of truth in it.

I know for a fact that dowry is a massive social evil common to most parts of India. I confess that I have little idea how it works, belonging as I do to a community where dowry has long since gone out of use- to the point where I do not even know the Tamil word for dowry (I am Tamil, although I trace my roots to Kerala). Nevertheless, I know and appreciate that the problem is far more deeply rooted than most of us appreciate.

There would be many who would dismiss that book as the work of a writer keen to cater to a predominantly western audience and hence writes what her writers like to read. And yet, it would be foolhardy to discount it so hastily. The facts flying in the face are simply too many and too hard-hitting to ignore. Let me present a few examples:

(a) the 2001 census revealed a shocking sex ratio of 754 females for every 1000 males in Punjab as against a national average of 927 (Source: Sex Ratio Declines Further in Five States, The Hindu, 14th December 2007)

(b) It was estimated in May 2007 that on an average one woman falls victim to dowry every week (Source: Dowry Deaths in Punjab, The Tribune, 29th May 2007)

(c) It was estimated that there one woman in Punjab was criminally assaulted everyday and at least two women were kidnapped or molested everyday (Source: Crime Against Women on the Rise in Punjab, Haryana, The Hindu, 8th January 2009)

And it would be worth pointing out that the figures mentioned above could just be the tip of the iceberg. Given the dishonour associated with rape, molestation or kidnapping, only a fraction of the actual number of cases ever go reported. Taken together, the above facts present a pretty grim picture. How can we progress as a country if half our population is suppressed and treated so cruelly?

The inevitable consequence of such a situation is that India's population growth is going to plummet sometime in the next half century or so. With so few women around, there are going to be millions of unmarried men in the country who will never father a child. Fewer women would also inevitably translate into few mothers. Ironically, the social inequality is going to do for population control what our government has abjectly failed to do in the sixty odd years after independence. What is perhaps most worrying is that the presence of so many men without a partner is surely going to lead to spiraling sexual crimes.

These are obvious dangers Indian society has to realise and confront before it gets too late. No society that treated its women so dismally has ever progressed. For those who like to talk about the golden age of Indian history, I would like to point out that ancient Indian society was very liberal with its women and that our decline as a society around thousand years ago also coincides with the period when the status of women started deteriorating.

Hopefully women's reservation will prove a beginning towards a better and more equitable society (I have commented on that subject in another posting earlier in this very blog). Hopefully the bill will see the light of day in the near future. God willing, I shall live to see a far more equitable India than the one in which I now live in.

Whether that comes to pass, only time will tell.

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