COLOUR OF PREJUDICE

Why does India think every brown woman with a white man is promiscuous?

The sight of an Indian woman in the company of a man of another race seems to bring out the worst in her countrymen.

Elephant Beach in the Andamans was not where I thought I would have to justify my life choices. Yet there I was, feet dipped in clear water, staring into the horizon, trying to convince two middle-aged women whom I did not know that the man I was with was indeed my husband.

By the fourth day of our vacation on the islands, we had got used to being stared at. But when curious glances turned to quizzical looks, we began to realise that we were considered an oddity: a brown woman with a white man.

“Who is he?” one of the two women asked me as soon as my husband left my side. “My husband,” I replied after a while, snapping out of savouring my first-ever snorkelling session. She then asked me questions about our wedding and everything that had led to it. Then the other woman, who had remained silent until then, asked me for proof. “Where is your mangal sutra? Where are your bangles?” Her tone reminded me of a teacher scolding an errant student in moral science class. I showed them the fading mehendi on my palms. Why did I do that? I later kicked myself for having misunderstood their questions as friendly banter.

When many Indians see one of their women with a man of a different race, they make assumptions, and offer unsolicited advice. An Indian woman who has got a white man must be enlightened, even by complete strangers. A lawyer whose services I was seeking for a few marriage-related formalities started by giving me a sermon on running a background check on the man I wanted to marry because “you never know how these firangs are”. I didn’t call on her again.

White poison

Probably every woman in India has one story about having been subject to lecherous looks as she has walked down the street. Now make her walk next to a white man. The male gaze turns more brazen by several orders of magnitude.

Ketki Pradhan, a French teacher in Pondicherry, told me about the time she was holding her German boyfriend’s hand when a group of men started making vulgar gestures. “One of them grabbed my other hand and held it very tightly for a few seconds, and ran away,” Pradhan recalled. "I was so angry that I shrieked, and we ran after them. At first, he laughed. Then seeing that I was not going to go, he apologised." Another time, a group of men sneered as they passed by the young couple: “Hum mein kya kami thi joh iss gore ke saath chali gayi?” What do we lack that you chose this white guy?

My friend Neha Belvalkar’s first visit to India after two years in a film school in the US was “appalling”, in her words. Chris, her American boyfriend, had accompanied her. One day when walking on a street in Pune, Neha’s hometown, a biker slowed down near the couple and almost hit her. She asked him to watch where he was going. She said she sensed a mixture of repressed fury and lust in the man’s tone, when he hissed back: I will f*** you.

To many Indians, the idea of a mixed-race couple is alien, repulsive even. Nicholas Chevaillier, my friend Aarya’s French-American husband, has been asked more than once in India where and how he “picked up” the woman he was with. Her experiences in those two years in Mumbai before the couple moved to Los Angeles forever clouded the way Aarya thought of the city in which she had grown up.

“Being with my own husband would make me uncomfortable because men would pass lewd comments with even more alacrity than when I was alone,” said Aarya. At times she ignored the comments, but when she did try to fight back, some men found the aggression titillating: “Kya fataaka hai!” What a firecracker she is!

A closet full of stereotypes

At play here is the stereotype that Western men are interested in women mainly for sexual gratification. By extension, the Indian women they are with must be promiscuous. Then there is patriarchy: women who venture out of the nest to seek a mate must lack decency. And there’s the drive towards conformity: the ugly head that raises itself at the sight of anything that dares to deviate from the norm.

Milan resident Divya Kapahi was visiting Jodhabai’s palace in Agra with her Romanian husband when their tour guide made a comment that angered her. “While talking about Akbar’s many wives of different faiths, he cited our marriage as an example,” said Divya. "I found it out of place since he was talking about Akbar having a good time with many women."

Mixed-race couples often have to deal with scepticism about their relationship masquerading as concern about cultural differences. When Aarya decided to tie the knot with Nicholas in 2010, she often got lectured about the sanctity of marriage and how it should be preserved.

Such attitudes towards mixed-race couples are just another expression of the intolerance that won’t countenance Hindu women marrying Muslim men or an upper-caste woman someone from a so-called “lower” caste. And a mixed-race couple in which one person is black often brings out the worst kind of racism.

Family and friends

When I decided to marry a Frenchman, my family’s concern was the normal one that parents have about whether their children have made the right decision; my partner’s nationality played only a minor role. So when a neighbour took it upon herself to tell my mother that I was being an irresponsible daughter by marrying outside my “caste” and moving abroad, it upset me at many levels. I wondered whether she would have felt as much concern over my being so far away from my mother had I married an Indian.

Or whether a policeman from a Mumbai police station would have muttered under his breath when Aarya went for a no-objection certificate required for her American visa: “What else would you expect from the daughter of divorced parents?” Or whether sadhus at Pushkar would have rebuked Divya for being a “bad Hindu”, marrying a white man and not making him convert to Hinduism.

Or whether Ketki would have been asked to leave the building she was living in, in Nashik, because other residents did not want their children to be exposed to a “modern, unmarried mixed couple”, as some might put it.

In a country where jingoism is at its peak and love is being politically exploited, such comments are no surprise. If romantic love is not confined to the community, which is as narrow as a person’s worldview, it becomes, in the minds of some, a serious threat to the social order.

I urge them to listen to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who said: The doves that remained at home/ never exposed to loss/ innocent and secure/ cannot know tenderness.

To the neighbour who tsk-tsked at my life choices, I would like to extend my tender invitation to a home cooked Indo-French meal.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.