January 14, 2008

On Foot, My Foot

This essay I wrote is on the oped page of the Hindustan Times (Monday January 14).

As always, your comments welcome.


In Santa Fe with an evening free, I ran across the heavily trafficked street -- itself a thing hardly anybody does -- from my motel to watch a film. It ended a couple of hours later, and I had to return to my grubby motel and its too-charming front desk dude the way I came -- on foot. And as I did, I found myself thinking of Juhu.

That may be a measure of the how memorable the film was, of course. But why Juhu? Because after the ghastly way two women there were molested on New Year's Day, not by one or two men, but by dozens, a "senior police officer" had this to say about the victims: "Ideally nobody should have ventured out of the hotel on foot in that way but these people come from a different culture due to which they did and the incident occurred."

This is, of course, after another senior police officer urged the media not to make a mountain out of this molesting molehill, for "such little things happen in every society."

So you see, here I am in this land -- the USA -- that one officer was alluding to when he mentioned a "different culture", also a land where I'm sure the other officer believes "such little things" also happen -- and I'm returning from a late film. I'm leaving the theatre on foot, but get this: not one other person is doing so. Must have been a couple of hundred people watching the film with me, and every one of them is outside piling into cars. It's a cold night, yes, and no doubt most of these people don't have to simply cross a busy street to get home. But having been to many films in this country, I know it is no unusual occurrence that I'm the only one walking.

I made it back to the hotel OK. But if I had been run over by a car while crossing, would the police officer who showed up on the scene have said this to the press: "Ideally nobody should have ventured out of the theatre on foot in that way but this man comes from a different culture due to which he did and the incident occurred"?

There's some odd logic in that hypothetical statement, if you think about it. In my case, it was underlined by me being the only walker. You can imagine somebody looking curiously at me and, with a chuckle, saying to her husband in the passenger seat: "Ahh, these crazy foreigners!" Because in her experience, it's only foreigners, with their "different culture", whom you'd see walking across a street like this.

So if our hypothetical cop does say that in the US, what should we make of culture? Which culture, whose culture, what culture? After all, on foot here in the US, I am the exception. Yet the officer in my home city wants to suggest that people on foot there, the ones visiting from the USA, are the exception.

And never mind that the majority of Indians you'd find in Juhu, upscale though it might be, are going to be on foot anyway. That's still the nature of things in India.

Certainly much has changed in India. There's plenty of new wealth, lots of malls and multiplexes and movie-star glamour; that last was the reason these people were in the Juhu hotel. There are also plenty of cars, with newer models showing up, it seems, nearly every day. I've often thought that we in India must have the youngest and flashiest collection of cars in the world.

Yet with all those cars and change, there's still one truth about India; it hasn't changed in years, and I bet it won't for years more. This is the truth I mean: when the majority of our people move about, they don't do so in cars. Instead, they are in trains, buses, rickshaws and taxis -- or simply walking. Yes, with all the new cars, it's easy to be seduced into believing that most of the country is in them. But go out on the road yourself and count 'em: on any given street in India, at any given time, there are less people in cars than people using other means of getting around. And crowded as the suburban trains are, they are still the quickest way to get anywhere, as several million daily riders will attest. And look at what those millions do when they get off at their stations. Hordes walk the last fifteen minutes to office or home; most of the rest take buses or rickshaws.

No doubt our roads are choked with cars, no doubt that they are by far the largest fraction of the vehicles on the road. Doesn't mean that they are carrying a similar fraction of the travellers.

All of which makes the police officer's comment even more baffling.

So really, what is this culture that Juhu cop was drawing a distinction from? Is it one where people who merely walk out of a hotel must assume they are unsafe? Is it one in which people who leave their homes -- to visit, for example, a hotel on New Years' day -- must necessarily use cars? Or let me be serious now: is it a culture in which we must try everything we can to explain away and trivialize horrible incidents?

Because it seems to me that's what's going on here. These things happen in all societies; these guys who were tormented are from some alien culture, even if it is a peculiar impression of that culture; they should not have been walking in the first place.

Well, let's say it with the cops. Yes, these things happen in all societies. Yes, they should not have been walking. And yes, they are from that alien culture, whatever it is. So? None of that excuses what happened to those women. None of that should have prevented the police from catching the creeps right there, right then.

And none of that can hide the ugliness that women face every day on our streets.

Not just on New Year's Day, not just in Juhu, not just when they are walking, and not just women who visit from a "different culture." Don't believe me? Ask a random nearby woman whom you don't know. If you're a man, here's a tip: please try to do it without giving her the idea that you're just one more creep.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Or let me be serious now: is it a culture in which we must try everything we can to explain away and trivialize horrible incidents?

As a culture we choose to live in denial.
We prefer to deny facts altogether. If we cannot deny fact we will deny its seriousness. If we are brought to admit both the fact and seriousness we will deny responsibility."