The women’s rights activists Ruchira Guptaand Gloria Steinemkept a diary of their travels throughout India as they met the country’s young feminists, writers and thought leaders (their most recent post is here). In the final installation for India Ink, the two wind up their tour of India in Kerala.
Day One: Beginning this last week of my month in India — and the last day of the Kolkata Literary Meet, where my joint book with Ruchira Gupta, “As if Women Matter,” has brought us — she takes me to Seagull, her favorite bookstore in this city where she grew up.
Escaping off the crowded street and into two small and peaceful rooms lined with books and artworks, I can see why. This is a kind of heaven that offers travel of the mind, plus guides and companionship. It’s a world not just of ideas, but a global community.
Up a daunting spiral staircase are two more book-lined rooms, with chairs for leisurely reading and a table for tea. We have the luck to find a friend, Gayatri Spivak, whose writing and teaching have helped to decolonize the humanities, whether questioning Europe-centered or male-centered assumptions.
While having tea, I also meet a woman who heads a local group working against domestic violence in Kolkata, and this makes us residents of the same psychic country. After all, if I added up all the Americans killed in 9/11 as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and then added up all the American women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 — there would be more lost lives in the second group than in the first.
I call these Supremacy Crimes because they’re much more about control and “masculinity” than about self-defense or any rational gain. We also might include “honor killings,” plus senseless shootings of strangers.
When I was a student here decades ago, I loved bookstores and teashops like this. It seemed to me that wherever four or so Bengalis were gathered together, there was a political argument and a new poetry magazine. Now, women are not just an audience. We are talking and also putting our own books on these shelves. You might say we are creating a psychic country of women and men in places like shelters and bookstores that circle the world.
Day Two: Ruchira and I join Jessica Neuwirth and the five American activists who have been supporting the grass-roots anti-sex-trafficking work of Apne Aap and came to see it firsthand. Jessica’s Donor Direct Action website had linked them through stories, but that’s still different from meeting people where they live.
It’s the virtue of these woman-led, girl-led days — a bridge pioneered by Jennifer and Peter Buffett of the NoVo Foundation — that they create two-way empathy, not just one-way support, but it’s sometimes more painful for new arrivals than for the women and girls who have now begun to see a way out. As my friend Bonnie Schaefer says as we are about to leave, “The good news is: We can’t forget. And the bad news is: We can’t forget.”
Because of this — plus my hope that no first-time visitors leave without seeing the south — we’ve arranged a few days in the older, smaller, gentler villages and waterways of Kerala.
Day Three: Differences begin with the driver who collects us from the Cochin airport. As he navigates past roadside shanties, rows of stands selling everything from fruit to saris, and wandering goats of many colors, he stops at a cluster of cashew trees where he plucks a small branch and shows us how nuts grow inside each pod.
He’s glad to be back home after months working in Saudi Arabia as a well-paid forklift operator, but he is about to marry a nurse with a career of her own, and she would be miserable living under Saudi restrictions.
I wonder: Would his north India counterpart make such a wife-respecting decision? Sons in that big swath of the country often receive preferential medical care and schooling, and that plus sex-selective abortion, illegal but common, has resulted in a son surplus and daughter deficit so severe that brides may be bought or kidnapped from other parts of the country, or even made to “marry” brothers. Scarcity is supposed to increase value, but capitalism is wrong one more time. It doesn’t help women.
That night, we sleep in a small oceanside hotel, with showers outside under palm trees. I wake up to soft air and quiet and the clean smell of salt air.
Days Four and Five: It takes two houseboats to ferry us up the wide waterways of Kerala, between rice fields of a unique peridot green, past small houses, schools and an occasional church or temple along the shore. People are also washing, praying, cleaning fish or poling smaller dugouts that enter from rivulets feeding into the wide waterways.
We dine — and also have breakfast the next morning — to the soft sounds of Bollywood songs and ritual religious calls drifting across the water. Since I’ve recommended this experience to tired friends who might have preferred a hotel, I’m relieved. Magic is here.
Even when we take walks along the paths next to the canals and run into swarms of children, they don’t beg for money or food as in northern cities. They only ask politely for pencils or pens. When I ask our boatman why, he explains that they have their own, but they just want something from another country.
Some children introduce us to their mothers who are gardening amid the rice paddies, and one shows us his chickens, each of whom has a name.
Outside some houses are signs inviting paying guests, which seems to be a less expensive alternative to hotels. Altogether, there is a feeling that the people here are more in control of their destiny.
After the second night, we have breakfast and walk through a palm grove to our waiting cars. At the end of a dirt road, a small parade of a dozen or so people is forming for a holiday celebration. The women are clearly in their best saris and carrying placards from their part of the Communist Party, but two young men in T-shirts are ordering them around, clearly in charge.
Marx and Engels got their earliest ideas of so-called primitive communism from Lewis Henry Morgan’s book about the Iroquois Confederacy in North America, yet they didn’t quite get the woman part. As friends back home in Indian Country sometimes joke, “Why do people call a society primitive? It has powerful women.”
Day Six: I ask the gentle young man who is guiding us around the spice and antique shops of Cochin: Are girls and women kidnapped or sold from here? After all, the ratio of females to males is normal, and this once-matrilineal state of Kerala — where land ownership passed through women and the literacy rate remains among the highest in the world — could yield brides who might have high economic value.
He says he doesn’t think so, partly because northern men prefer fair-skinned girls. People here are descendants of the Dravidians, before fair-skinned invaders came over the Himalayas and imposed the caste system, and British colonialism added another layer of color consciousness. Also since India’s independence, Kerala has elected various Communist governments that value education, and Kerala women are in demand as nurses in this and other countries.
Since this earnest young man is learning his craft as a tour guide, I ask him if he has been told to offer prostitutes to male tourists, as was the case with guides in northern cities. If someone requests a prostitute, “one would be found,” he says, but he doesn’t have to offer — something he seems proud of.
Day Six: I am lying on a kind of towel-covered table, with a young woman on either side rubbing warm oil into my back with identical gestures. I think this must be how babies feel. My sybaritic guilt is somewhat diminished by the fact that this ayurvedic spa pays well, and the young women seem genuinely content to be here. So does the doctor who lessens my longtime cough with a dark liquid that tastes like the essence of a tree.
Altogether, these days have shown my friends the diversity of India, from gentle here to brutal where women and girls are less valued. Because Ruchira has built a bridge, the women and children of Apne Aap have gifted their visitors with a new purpose — and vice versa. And because of our mutual book, my writing will be published not only in English, but in Hindi and Bengali, something I never would have imagined.
Altogether, this month has been so intense and complicated that I’ve forgotten everything about my own life in New York.