I live with a bunch of young men, some of whom are in college while others work in some capacity or the other in Bollywood. Since I teach young people for a living, I tend to get along well with them - I am attuned to what works with this demographic, thanks to my profession. Around the boys, accustomed as they are to late nights, the occasional snorting of mind-altering substances, and having friends over for sex, I tend to merely look askance, and not in a judgemental way.
However, there is one area where I have had trouble acclimatising myself. It is the bountiful world of verbal abuse. All my flatmates, bar none, parrot the most misogynistic, improper, disdainful things in the most normal of situations without batting an eyelid. When they see something cute, they tend to vilify its mother. When they feel love for a friend, they go ahead and disrobe his sister. If a man does something even remotely effeminate, they cast aspersions on his anatomy.
I understand there is a cultural component to abuses being about doing unmentionable things to sisters and mothers. It stems from an atavistic outlook that looks upon females as representative of honour. Some party non-poopers would even say that it's all in good humour and without malice. But the very fact that this passes for good humour indicates deep flaws in the way we think and structure language.
The other day, one of my flatmates had a tiff with someone in college. He came home all worked up and started abusing that person left, right and centre. Well, strangely, he actually said very little about the person with whom he had fought. His fury was instead directed at female members of the guy's family. The guy's mother became a prostitute (he employed a harsh, hissing voice to utter the Hindi word for this), the guy's sister sold her body to willing men, and the guy himself did all sorts of things to the two of them together.
I was gobsmacked. I have been raised in the Hindi heartland so it's not like I am unaware of such phrases, but rarely have I been in a setting where they were thrown about with such abandon. Really, why are we so surprised at the high incidence of rape, since even non-rapists - such as my flatmate - think nothing of dipping into the same egregious cultural pool?
Let me relate another incident that indicates a confusing mishmash of how our new "modernity" nuances, not eliminates, a patriarchal outlook on how women ought to behave. Another of my roommates has a steady girlfriend, who comes over every now and then. The two of them have been seeing one another for a year. You'd think my flatmate would be an enlightened individual, respecting women's sexual choice and freedom to do as they please. And you will be totally wrong.
It is okay to sleep with your girlfriend, he explained one day to no one in particular, because it has become acceptable in Hindi films. Seriously, that's what he said! If you are committed, sure, go ahead and do the deed. But, and here is the difference, he also spoke about "this girl" at his hometown who had switched three boyfriends over two years and was, clearly, a "r****" (the same word referred to above for a prostitute). How did he know this? Because the three men had been his friends and told him so. No word on their possible position in the sex trade!
So if Bollywood says you can have premarital sex with a steady girlfriend, then it's cool. If Bollywood thinks hopping boyfriends is bad, then it's not cool. If Bollywood thinks women must not exercise sexual choice, then they mustn't. If Bollywood corroborates the hierarchy and the utter difference between "stud" and "slut", so much the better.
Where does this leave me? How do I stay with otherwise nice, reasonable people who, when they want to criticise someone, start reaching for the nether regions of female relatives? Do I keep quiet and behave as though I am complicit in their world view or do I leave to find another accommodation? And how far can I run, given everyone is steeped in this gunk - everyone is a perpetrator, or, more accurately, a victim?
I guess I will just have to wait for the world - and Bollywood - to change.