The New Year, I'm told, is a time for joy and the renewal of hope. That sort of sentiment. No need to spell it out, I'm sure. Now I'm no kind of grouch, and I'm all for joy, certainly quite intent on renewing hope, and generally in favour of that sort of sentiment. Not even necessarily just when a year turns over.
Then things happen that leave me dejected, far indeed from hopeful.
Driving through a small coastal Maharashtra town in the afternoon of December 31, we stopped to buy some snacks. Looking around idly, I caught sight of a Sumo-or-equivalent vehicle, parked across the road from us. Grey and nondescript, except for a boldly lettered sign stuck on its side. The sign was in Marathi, and here's a translation of part of it:
- Gudhi Padva is our real New Year! Don't send New Year's greetings on the night of December 31 or on January 1. Celebrating the New Year on Gudhi Padva means boosting and developing pride in our religion, culture and language.
Why do we wish each other well anyway? Because we want to boost and develop some ephemeral pride? Or because we care for family and friends? And if you answer that question as I think you will, does when you wish people matter in the slightest?
Tell you the truth, I was startled by how dejected this sign left me. How do I explain to a kid, for example, that some people around us think there is a "real" time, one associated with "pride", to greet others? It depresses me more to imagine these people admonishing their own kids when they say "Happy New Year" on December 31.
Of course, you might say that's not much of a reason to feel a slackening of the seasonal joy, and you might be right. So then I heard about something that happened on that same night of December 31. At the Gateway of India, somewhere in the middle of a huge crowd bringing in 2007, under the noses of policemen and even a photographer from this very paper, a few dozen louts assaulted a young woman standing in their midst. They groped her, she screamed, nobody heard her in the general noise, they groped some more, her male friend tried to protect her, the louts pushed him aside, they pulled off her skirt, she fell, they "pounced on her with even more venom" (said the photographer).
Ten minutes of this -- think of how long that is if you're terrified and helpless -- before the woman's male friend managed to drag her out and they left.
There are photographs of this horror. I hope the louts are found and punished. But there's something more to this than just the effort to find them.
Talk to nearly any woman in urban India, and you'll hear from her stories of groping, or being followed, or being threatened. It happens on buses, on trains, in bars, in housing colonies. One woman I know tells me that in the colony where she grew up, every young girl spoke of being fondled by the same older man. Another woman I know was followed by a man in a car who made a U-turn, screeched to a halt behind her, jumped out, came up in the lift with her and got out on the same floor. He gave up only when he heard the unmistakably grownup male voices of her family members through the front door.
As an aside: Some reports of the Gateway outrage say that these things happen only in Delhi, so how astonishing it is to find them happening in Mumbai. Yet that's just a convenient impression too many of us Mumbaikars -- male Mumbaikars, mostly -- like to hold on to: that we're somehow better than those Delhi-wallahs. The women know the truth. End of aside.
I hear about this over the first few days of 2007 and I'm thinking various confused thoughts. Like, if the crowd had gathered at the Gateway on Gudhi Padva to bring in the New Year then, would that poor young woman have been safe? Like, what might boost our pride in ourselves more: the specific time of year that we greet each other, or an effort to build a climate where women feel secure even if surrounded by men? Like, why not a poster campaign to promote that climate, instead of one that tells us we must not greet each other? Like, which poster campaign is a better tribute to our culture?
So right: call me silly, call me a grouch, whatever you like. But this New Year did not start on a good note.
Of course I realize I should not say that. This was not the "real" New Year.