The Great Indian Paradox

by Gabriella Sonabend

Today I am still bound to the residency living on a diet of water and honey. Although I feel frustrated about not being able to go out, staying in has given me an opportunity to sit quietly and catch up on local and international news, to attempt to empty my mind and to slowly reflect upon various ideas.

I think I am now ready to write about what I would like to coin “The Great Indian Paradox” (GIP). What is the GIP? The GIP is the status of women in India; the way that they are perceived in religion, in literature and in culture and the way that they are treated in reality. Allow me to expand.

The majority of India’s population, 80%, is Hindu. Hinduism is a religion centered on the worship of a number of different deities, each with a specific role. For example, (to simplify), Shiva is the destroyer, Vishnu is the preserver and Brahma is the creator. Each major deity, although male, has a female counterpart. Shiva has Parvati, Vishnu has Lakshmi and Brahma has Saraswati – without these female counterparts the Hindu gods are in fact powerless. Not only can they not use their powers without the female but they actually have no power of their own. It is believed that it is the female that infuses them with power, thus enabling them to perform their roles. This belief means that it is the goddess who is most revered and worshipped and it is she who is the centre of Hindu festivals, and who embodies the holy waters of the Ganga. She is the most respected and important force in the Hindu world.

Throughout India the most glorious depictions of the Goddess have been created and as I have mentioned before, in October there is a festival devoted to goddess worship, where idols of the goddess are built, installed and worshipped throughout different cities. In Varanasi at the end of this festival they are paraded to the Ganga and here they are returned to the great mother herself.

Within the arts many of the greatest musicians, singers, and actors have been female and there have even been prominent female politicians. Within the Indian family structure it is well known that although the man might be the boss it is women who truly run the family. So with all this in mind let’s think about the other side of the story.

Every morning as I sit with my yogurt and honey in the residency kitchen, I read the local and the national news. Almost every day there are reports about girls or young women being raped and frequently subsequently killed. Alongside these newspaper stories, (which otherwise report very little significant news), there are entire sides of adverts depicting scantily clad pale-skinned women wearing outfits, which no Indian woman would ever consider wearing. For example, in an advert for ‘Berger’ paint, a pale woman is dressed in what can only be described as a burlesque dress, gold with a plunging neckline and a ruffled skirt. Not only is this dress revealing and utterly tasteless, it has nothing whatsoever to do with paint. The model looks directly at the reader, beside her on her right side there is a lit candle sitting on a silver stand. To the left side of the advert there is a large tin of paint upturned so that the purple paint is pouring down towards the model. I hate to state the obvious, but paint is extremely flammable and model who wears an enormous opal ring and gazes sexually out at us, does not seem to be aware of her precarious positioning. It is possible that I am reading too much into this image, but I do not think I am. People are extremely receptive to visual marketing and the message behind this ad is not subtle. It implies, if you buy this pot of paint you will be able to seduce a woman who will arrive dressed like a prostitute and please you by candlelight. The other underlying message is this woman, whose dress closely resembles the colour and pattern of the candlestick, is somehow dangerous. This makes no sense to me on any level. However, what it does tell me rather directly is that sexuality is something, which has become extremely confused in this culture. Adverts like this one can be found in every newspaper, magazine and on billboards and posters throughout the city.

This advert was printed on the same page as an article about a teenaged girl being burned alive after being gang raped. This girl has subsequently died. The article about the girl was a mere snippet on the page which was dominated by the paint advert.

It seem there exists a massive divide between the female divinities who are worshipped, the women in advertisements who are objectified and degraded and then the everyday women of Indian society, who for the best part are treated like second class citizens. Something certainly is wrong when a paper prioritises a picture of a sexy woman over an article about a 13 year old girl being gang raped and killed.

So how is this possible? How can Indian men worship the goddess and abuse the true living goddesses in India? How can they adorn their statues with garlands of flower, sprinkling them in sweet water and then allow their sisters, cousins, daughters to be set alight. How did this paradox emerge and why does it still exist?

People have suggested that the recent emancipation of Indian women, (through work and the rapidly growing middle class), has led to them abandoning traditional values and seeking modern, western lifestyles with all their trimmings (the clothes, the gadgets etc.) As women are advancing into the 21st Century there are a vast number of frustrated men who can’t keep up with the pace of change and feel undermined. Thus for them sexual violence is a way of asserting their power and keeping women in their place. Perhaps this is a possibility. Perhaps it is due to the fact that most Indian’s are educated in single sex schools and have no contact with the other sex until university. (This also leads to the strange phenomenon of heterosexual Indian men walking around holding hands which is something I see daily). Perhaps it is due to the shocking levels of corruption in India, which means that those who commit crimes related to sexual violence frequently go unpunished. There are so many things that I see on a daily basis here which contribute to this intensely sexist society that I can’t begin to guess the root causes of the issue.

There is one thing of which I am certain though, the Great Indian Paradox affects every aspect of life here and creates a strange climate which is rife with suspicion and inauthenticity. It makes me question every religious ritual which I witness and every young man chanting and laughing as he follows in a procession to carry a goddess to the Ganga, (and who leers at me sexually as he passes). It is something, which makes my experience of this country extremely challenging and often hinders me from falling for its spiritual charms.

It seems there were two things that I either overlooked or was unaware of when I posted this yesterday. The first is the obvious sexual connotation implied in the actions of pouring paint over a woman. The second which shocked me enormously is that the woman depicted in the advert I refer to is one of the most famous Indian actresses, someone who has been speaking out about sexual violence since the rape of Nirbhaya in December 2012. It is hard to know what to make of this information; it adds infinitely more layers of complexity to the whole picture.