July 05, 2013

Abhi Aur Safar Baaki Hai

By Kalpana Khare

 (This is the fourth of a series of posts written from the experiences at CREA of implementing a program called “Count Me IN! It’s My Body: Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Young Girls through Sports”. The first, second, and third posts are available here. CREA is a feminist human rights organization based in Delhi (www.creaworld.org).)


I have been working on women’s issues at the community level for the last 22 years. My efforts have always focussed on enabling women and girls to access the rights that provide them the status of human beings.

Of these long 22 years, I have mostly worked in villages with women and girls on issues of human rights, violence against women, micro-finance, health and livelihoods. Based on my experiences, I always felt that there is a lack of basic facilities, education, and other development policies and plans in villages; women and girls are not aware and informed; they do not get any services and opportunities; they face violence and discrimination; and since they are not collectivised, they have to deal with many difficulties and complexities in their lives. But, two years back, when I began working in Jhansi, a large urban district in Uttar Pradesh  I found many of these notions challenged. As part of CREA’s It’s My Body[1] programme, I work with young girls in five urban bastis of Jhansi to collectivise them into groups and give them information on issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. My experiences from this work in Jhansi, in the last two years, have challenged many of my earlier thoughts and ideas.

I would like to share some of my experiences here in this post.

Ninety-five per cent of men and women in these urban bastis work as daily wage labourers. Some of the women work as domestic help through the day. Later in the evening, they, along with their children, do other work to supplement their earnings, such as rolling bidis. Most of the girls do not go to school, as they have to look after their siblings or help their mothers at work. The men in the communities where we work are mostly junk/scrap dealers, and their earnings are mainly spent on alcohol. Women work hard all day long to earn their daily wage, which is often forcibly taken away from them at the end of the day by their husbands. In case the women refuse or resist, they are abused, both physically and verbally. Due to lack of space, families often live in one room. The children are witness to the abuse and violence that their mothers face from their fathers. Many houses do not have toilets, which means that every one goes out to use toilets. The young girls cannot go out when it is dark because there is always a fear of harassment, which is quite common. As a result, the families put more restrictions on girls. Incidents where girls were harassed are constantly narrated in order to stop girls from doing what they want to do. The girls who are members of the collectives that have been formed in these five urban bastis, as part of our It’s My Body programme, have reported not eating enough or not eating at all at night, so that they do not have to go to the toilet at night. Out of the 22 girls of the Nav Jagriti Manch[2] group, 13 are anaemic. They constantly complain of headaches, dizziness, and weakness. Periods are painful. Some girls shared that their fathers or brothers accompany them while going to the toilet, which makes them feel deeply embarrassed.

Rajni’s (name changed) father works as a junk/scarp dealer. He spends all his earnings on alcohol. He does not go to work everyday, and violence is a pretty regular feature in the house. Her mother, though, has to work everyday. If she does not go to work one day, the day’s meals are difficult. Even then, her father forcibly takes away her mother’s earnings to spend on drinking. Rajni faces this every single day. She sees her mother being beaten up, and if she tries to protect her, her father does not even spare her. Rajni, who is a member of the Nav Jagriti Manch, shared her problem with others in the collective. After hearing Rajni’s story, many other girls in the collective also shared similar experiences. They decided to collectively help each other in fighting this. The next time Rajni’s father got violent, Rajni hit him back and threw him out of the house. When the father got angry and said that he would not get her married, Rajni retaliated by saying that she would anyway get married when she wants and with whom she wants.

The girls have now begun to discuss and address their problems together. This was something new for them. The stigma of violence in their homes had always held them back from talking about it, asking for help, or protesting against it. The sharing of similar experiences of violence in a collective like Nav Jagriti Manch made Rajni and her friends discuss their problems and give each other strength in speaking out against the violence that they have been dealing with for years. This solidarity enabled them to not just share their experiences but to seek ways to address the problem, an eloquent testimony to the strength of these collectives.

When I meet other collectives of young girls in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, where the same programme is being implemented, I see that the strength of being part of an exclusive group for young girls is equally important. But, the kind of energy, confidence, and courage that the girls in Jhansi draw from their group is very different, unique, and indescribable.

Urban and rural areas and contexts manifest control over girls and restrictions on freedoms in different ways. It would be easy to overlook the nuanced differences and simply say that rural areas are more oppressive. And yet while cities and towns offer women a milieu quite different from the villages, class, caste and gender play out in complex ways and control over freedoms and other restrictions are everyday realities. There are these and many other differences that the context presents us with when we implement our programmes. So, we adapt, change, and modify our strategies and plans accordingly. The rural and urban challenges are equally real. I have been questioning my own beliefs and assumptions about rural and urban areas—there are differences, but is there a real divide? If yes, where is it?


This post was originally written in Hindi.

It has been translated from Hindi to English by Meenu Pandey and Sanjana Gaind.



Kalpana Khare works at CREA as Program Coordinator, Grassroots Feminist Leadership. Kalpana has 22 years’ experience in working on violence against women and women’s health issues. She is currently based in Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh, and works closely with the capacity-building programme for community-based groups (Ibtida[3] programme) in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh on women’s human rights. Her work includes extensive travel to all Ibtida members, documenting their work experiences, and ensuring effective reporting of the programme. Kalpana completed her Masters degree in Hindi in 1984 and her Masters in Social Work in 2010.

[1] It’s My Body: Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Adolescent Girls through Sports is a programme led by CREA and co-implemented with 10 women-led, community-based organisations in rural and urban areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh.

[2] Nav Jagriti Manch is a collective of adolescent and young girls formed in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, as part of It’s My Body programme. CREA co-implements this programme in Jhansi with Virangana Mahila Manch.

[3] Ibtida is a network of women-led community-based organisations from the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh. With Ibtida, CREA organises trainings and workshops that provide issue-based explorations on sexuality, gender, violence against women, and human rights, as well as opportunities for the sharing of challenges and achievements. CREA organises thematic trainings, ensures the presence of Ibtida members in key national and international discourses, and builds capacities of member organisations to raise funds. 

June 21, 2013

The Muffled Moan

The society I live in – despite being relatively modern, independent, intellectual, and career oriented – has failed to offer some simple explanations, solutions or reasons for certain age-old practices that we follow. One of such practices is ‘sex after marriage’, recently modified to ‘sex-dependent-entirely-on-the-fact-that-we-will-marry’ (a.k.a the practice of marriage-dependent sex). I question this practice under the claim that fucking is as basic to human existence as eating, sleeping, breathing, and shitting. It is as basic a requirement for living beings as food, shelter, clothing, love, care, respect, freedom, and that is probably because it embodies so many of these basic requirements. Ten minutes of a humping and jumping act involving all sorts of bodily fluids envelops in itself the feeling of one’s own self being, and one’s attachment to someone else.

Our old Indian society, trapped in the shackles of its beliefs, values, and traditions, often repeats to the new generation, ‘Sex is for procreation, not for recreation.’ In a polar opposite, western societies – the American Pies and the Naughty Americas – display sex as an extreme form of recreation akin to loud music, disco dance, party drugs, fast cars and video games. But how accurate are either of these? Amidst all the paparazzi around sex, we forget that not just human life but all living creatures -fishes, reptiles, birds, mammals, all of them – from time to time seek the touch from another one of their species. A search for this extended sensation of a feeling of life, of mutual existence, of coexistence, shouts that sex (for all living species) is much more than either recreation or procreation.

The society that I live in disregards, or rather, looks down upon obtaining this feeling of coexistence. The society that I live in disapproves of ‘making out’, or having sex unless 1) you are married, 2) you are a ‘slut’ or 3) you are being physically abused. Yes, this is a society which doesn’t accept its kids making their own choices regarding the person they want to do the nasty with, but constantly does nasty things to its kids, teenagers, women, and weaker males without consent, without acknowledging it, let alone trying to curb it.

We think that this society I just talked about is made up of old narrow minded, parent-grandparent people. NO. This society that I talked about is us: me, my friends, siblings, cousins and classmates. Do we have affairs? Do we make out? Do we use (and misuse) a lot of condoms? Except for a lucky few, the answer for the majority of the unmarried young population in cities is NO. With the advent of education (graduation/post-graduation) and careers for people of all genders, the average age of marriage in any Indian metropolis for the city’s educated engineers, doctors, lawyers and managers has gone up to 24-27. And with it comes a huge flock of 25 year old virgins: both male and female.*

In this matter, I often consider the economically marginalised to be luckier than the rich and modern. At least the poor can enjoy the cheap fun of their bodies rubbing and colliding against each other in their thatched or tin-roofed slum rooms with a weak, not-capable-of-serving-its-purpose door. At-least they get married by 16-21 and are given permission to have a sexual life. However, this marriage at a young age and a lot of nasty acts without any protection isn’t all perfect, and often results in 20 year olds with 2 or more kids and no idea how to take care of themselves, forget the care of the kids. But here, rather than focus on what the underprivileged sections of society do, I would rather look at what the ‘rich and modern’ do with their children.

It seems highly ridiculous for a society to expect its 25 year old sons or daughters to not have any sexual desires, to not masturbate, to not watch porn, or to not have the wish to make out with someone. The existence in itself of these countless 25 year old virgins heavily repressing their sexuality, thanks to the cultural conditioning of listening to parents, family and society without thinking, is frightening. From where I stand, there seems something highly wrong with the youth, something highly subdued and altered. Stripped of their sexuality and turned into asexual beings, they appear happy to wash off in the shower or rub in the bed and muffle their already silent voices. A whole era of crazy and sweet experiences has been taken away from young people whose only crime was to be born in a sex-averse nation. From where I stand, I see a wild sexual being trapped inside everybody awaiting its release, passing 7 years of its sentence, watching its peak years pass by only to be released from its prison with lost potential.

Like the Nehru-Gandhi speeches for the independence of the nation, presented loudly and boastfully on wooden stages, I too feel like giving a speech for the independence of the sexual being. After all, how can a whole nation that comprises a collective of individuals be independent and free when one of the most important rights of their being is controlled by laws, rules, society, traditions, doubts, mistrust and fear?

If only I could, I would say something along the lines of, ‘Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, now the time comes, when we shall redeem our sexuality, wholly, substantially, and in full measure. At the stroke of midnight, when the world sleeps, your bone shall straighten and legs shall open. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in our personal history, when we open our wings, when an age ends, and when the sexuality of our being, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we convert that utterance, into a moan, a roar, a loud cry; into an orgasm.’

* Statistics from India Today,  Nielson Sex Surveys

Q1: Were you virgin when you got married? (74% Yes, 20 % No, 6% N.A)

Q2: Have you ever tried masturbation (43% Yes, 51% No, 6% N.A.)

Q3: Do you talk about sex openly with your children and family? (14% Yes, 73% No, 13% N.A.)

Another version of this piece was first published on Women’s Web.

June 13, 2013

Talking to kids about sexual safety: Childline India’s school programme

Jack Kerouac – “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

Finding the right words is a struggle. There are manifestos attached to it. There are mottoes. How to encompass concepts of safety and abuse then within 12 point serif letters? How to talk to children? This is what Childline India grappled with in their initiative for Mumbai schools. The programme, which runs in 180 schools across the city, teaches kids about basic concepts related to sexual safety.

When they started devising the programme in 2011, they found that when it comes to sexuality education, “there is a tremendous communication gap between teachers and children, parents and children,” says Nishit Kumar of Childline India. “Parents expect that school will deliver it. Schools shied away from it because they thought that parents will be against it. There is a huge communication gap, huge vocabulary gap.”

To tackle the problem of vocabulary, they turned to the oldest things, the forms that came first — nursery rhymes, fairy tales, stories. The programme uses stories and visual aids to talk to kids in standards 2 to 6 about staying safe. It avoids words like abuse or sex. It works with concepts like safe and unsafe touch, personal safety rules, the concept of trusting someone that they confide in, the concept of recognising actions that make them feel uncomfortable.

Here is an example of one of their sessions:

Session for 2nd, 3rd and 4th Std. (6-8 yr olds)
Time: 30 Minutes

Here are some dos
1. Speak clearly and slowly
2. Ask permission from the children at the beginning of the class to talk to them. It is their right to participation.
3. Tell them clearly how much time you will take, and what are the activities you will cover. (30 mins, story telling and some questions)
4. You may ask a disruptive child if he/she wishes to stand outside the classroom and listen
5. At the end of the session thank the children for listening

Here are some don’ts
1. Never use the term “child sexual abuse”
2. Never use violence (verbal or physical) or force to get the children to listen or “behave”
3. If you feel a child asks a question you cannot answer, do not make up something or lie. Ask the child to speak to his/her Trusted Adult.
4. Do not react to every response, some children might laugh or giggle when you discuss private parts.

Process: Begin with introducing yourself and the purpose of your visit

The Story

Flip to Chart 1


It was a warm sunny afternoon, Bunty was walking back home from school. He had something to talk about but felt scared to talk to his mother or father about it. A friend of his had once told him, that there is a wise and fearsome tiger, Sherkhan living in Rani Bagh Zoo. So today on his way back from school, Bunty went to Rani Bagh Zoo, and found the cage where Sherkhan lived. When he got there the large tiger was fast asleep. He knocked on the cage bars. Sherkhan roared “Who dares to wake me??”

Bunty was frightened but he replied “Hello Mr Sherkhan, My name is Bunty. I have something to talk about but I’m scared.”

Sherkhan opened his eyes, and roared again. “I am inside a cage and you are outside. There is no reason to be scared. Quickly tell me what you have to say.”

Bunty tried to be brave, and said “Well a couple of days ago an aunty I had never met before came to visit from out of town. When she walked into the house, she had a whole bunch of presents with her just for me. A toy train, a stuffed bear, action figures, and a cricket ball and bat, all for me! I was very happy. All evening, aunty and I played with the toys, making up games and stories and it was a lot of fun.

Flip to Chart 2


But then when aunty was leaving she gave me a big hug, and while she was hugging me she put her hand inside my clothes. But I thought maybe it was by mistake.”

“But then the next time aunty came, again she brought me many presents, again we played, but this time aunty didn’t leave until after it was time for me to go to bed. She told my parents that she would help me get ready for bed, so they could finish cleaning up after dinner. She came with me to the bedroom, and helped me take off my clothes. I felt very embarrassed being naked in front of aunty. I put on my pyjamas but still hadn’t put on my t-shirt. Aunty did not give me my t-shirt, instead she came close and hugged me. I did not like aunty hugging me when I wasn’t wearing my t-shirt.”

Sherkhan was listening to all this.

Bunty said, “A few days later she came home again. My parents had to go for a community meeting and Aunty had told them she would watch me while they were away. When my parents left, Aunty asked me if I wanted to play a game, she said that it was a secret game. I wanted to know what the game was so I decided to play. Aunty said that to play I would have to take my clothes off. I did not want to do that. But Aunty said if I didn’t then we could no longer play and she would no longer bring me presents. Aunty said the game was; when she called out a word I would have to touch myself at that place. At first aunty said words like nose, ears, belly button, and we laughed when we had to touch our tongues. But then aunty stopped playing. She came close to me. She hugged me tightly again and touched my private parts. She said “Don’t worry this is part of the game”. I didn’t like it at all, I was very uncomfortable and I started crying. After a while Aunty stopped touching me and told me to go to bed. I put my clothes back on and went into my room. But I did not sleep until my parents came home and Aunty left.”

Flip to Chart 3

bunty_english_3Sherkhan got up and came closer to Bunty, right to the edge of the cage. Bunty got scared and moved a few steps away from the cage. Sherkhan asked “How did you feel when your aunty touched you?”

Bunty thought for a second and said, “Well, I like when aunty hugs me and plays with me because I like aunty. But she also makes me very uncomfortable and uneasy. I don’t know how I should feel it is very confusing.”

Flip to Chart 4


“Well Bunty, do not worry. Many children get confused when someone they like does something they don’t like. The important thing is to listen to that little voice inside you. When something bad is happening, your inner voice will set off alarm bells and that is why you feel uneasy and uncomfortable or icky. The voice is warning you, and you should listen to it.”

“But hugging is not wrong?”

“You are right. For example: when your mom or dad, who loves you, hugs you it feels good and makes you happy, this is good touch. But when someone touches you in a way that makes you feel confused or uncomfortable that is not right.”

“But then why is it confusing?”

“Well Bunty because aunty was doing something good and bad at the same time. Her hugging was a good thing but her touching you under your clothes and in your private parts was wrong. Aunty should not have touched you in places that are private.”

“But Mum used to touch me in my private parts while giving me a bath.”

Flip to Chart 5

bunty_english_5“Yes, but she did that because she wanted to keep you clean and healthy. Sometimes your doctor also touches your private parts, but only when mummy or daddy are there and only to keep you healthy. Now that you are older you have learnt how to keep yourself clean and give yourself a bath. As you get older you don’t need help from your mummy.” Sherkhan smiled at Bunty, and Bunty felt the tiger was not as scary as he looked. He stepped closer to the cage.

“I didn’t know adults can do bad things. I thought it was my fault”

“No Bunty, when adults do bad things, it is never your fault. Adults are not supposed to touch you in your private body parts or make you touch them or make you show your private parts. This is unsafe touch. They are not supposed to show you any images or movies that are not meant for children and make you do things that are confusing and uncomfortable. These are unsafe actions. But if they do things like this, it is never your fault.”

Bunty felt better, he went and sat down on the edge of the cage near Mr Sherkhan.

“Bunty are you still scared of me?”

“No sir, I think you a very nice tiger.”

“Good. You have been brave and have come and sit next to me. The same way you have to be brave and tell someone you trust about your “touching problem”, about what aunty did.”

Flip to Chart 6

bunty_english_6“But I don’t want to tell. Everyone will think I am bad. And they won’t believe me.”

“It’s ok if they don’t believe you. You have to keep telling someone until they do believe you. Tell many people you trust, until someone helps you. It is important to feel safe, you deserve it. Also it is important to remember that if anyone does the bad things I described you must Shout NO! And run away to a safe place. And then you must tell an adult you Trust. Remember you did not do anything wrong, it’s not your fault.”

“Ok, Mr Sherkhan. Thank you for talking with me. Thank you for not being scary. I will be brave and tell my mom as soon as I get home.”


The story is followed by a set of questions and an exercise which asks each child to identify someone they trust and would be able to tell if something happened. What I found interesting about this one were the gender roles, the importance of the confidante and the way the child’s guilt has been handled.  I’m going to try and reproduce some of their other material here as well in subsequent posts. Until then, if you have material you want to share or if you have comments, do chime in.

May 15, 2013

Making Choices: The Rhetoric and The Reality

By Sanjana Gaind

 This is the third of a series of posts written from the experiences at CREA of implementing a program called “Count Me IN! It’s My Body: Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Young Girls through Sports”. The first and second posts are here. CREA is a feminist human rights organization based in Delhi (www.creaworld.org).


Sanjay: Yeh aapka kaaryakram theek nahin hai. (This programme of yours is not right.)

Me: kyun? (Why?)

Sanjay: Ladkiyon ke sanskaar bigaad raha hai.  (It is corrupting the values of girls.)

Me: Kaisey? (What do you mean?)

Sanjay: Bahar maidan mein khel rahi hai, football ke liye ladai kar rahi aur humarein muhn lag rahi hai. (They are playing outside in the field, fighting for the football with us, and talking back to us.)

Me: In teeno mein se, aapko dikkat kis baat se hai? (Out of these three things, what bothers you the most? 

Sanjay: Sabhi se hai. Humko teeno ki hi aadat nahi hai na. (All three of them. We are not used to such behaviour of girls.)[1]


On any given day, I would argue with him incessantly, making it very clear that the problem is not with the girls but with him. But, that day, I let him have the last word. Not because I had nothing to say to him, but because I felt a great sense of achievement and pride on behalf of the girls who had upset him and had challenged the patriarchal order and structure which is his comfort zone. He is visibly upset with the young girls in his village who have begun to question his authority. There are many other such men and boys in other villages as well, where the girls have begun to occupy and reclaim spaces like public grounds, which have traditionally been seen to be “male-only” spaces. They are angry, upset, and disturbed by this sudden demand for space by the girls.

The increasing number of female bodies in a playground, running, playing, jumping, laughing, and fighting is upsetting norms, challenging controls, and transforming spaces. These are bodies that are meant to be invisible inside and not visible outside in public spaces. These are bodies that are meant to be monitored and controlled inside homes, those four-walled bastions of patriarchy. In this established order, how they choose to dress, choose to roam, choose to express, and choose to interact with others is not their decision. However, now in small and not-so-small ways, these structures of power, of domination and silencing are being challenged. While some men and boys are not very happy with this overt display of female bodies in the field, there are others who are being supportive and encouraging of this trend. Some react angrily, some positively, and some violently.

It is not just the men and boys who are curious about what is happening. When sessions on topics like bodily changes, menstruation, sex, pregnancy, choice, consent, pleasure, rights, and autonomy are held as part of the It’s My Body programme, many mothers accompany their daughters to these meetings to check what is being ‘taught’. The local health workers are keen to participate in sessions on health, hygiene, nutrition, and menstruation. Sessions on sex, sexuality, choice, consent, and pleasure make them uncomfortable. The discomfort is not just at their end.

We also share this anxiety in talking about these issues freely and openly. The fear of backlash and antagonism makes us choose our strategies, messages, mediums and language strategically and carefully. The title of the programme, ‘It’s My Body’, when translated into Hindi— Mera Sharir, Mera Adhikaar, comes across as ‘bold’ or ‘radical’ and there is some hesitation in using it, both on our part as well as that of organisations co-implementing this programme with CREA[2]. The programme is very often projected as a programme on Reproductive Health, and the ‘S’ and ‘R’ in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights are used cautiously. Words like ‘hak’ , ‘adhikaar’, ‘pasand’, ‘anand’ ,’yaunikta’ (right, preference, pleasure, and sexuality) are used selectively and only in certain ‘safe’ settings and spaces. But, what happens, when these conversations are translated into actions outside these constructed ‘safe’ spaces?

When Rashmi (name changed), from Jharkhand, insisted on wearing jeans in the village, her mother pulled her out of the programme. Neha (name changed) has refused to marry the boy her parents chose for her because she doesn’t like the way he looks. Her parents are shocked and unhappy with this new assertion of her right to say ‘NO’. Kavita (name changed ) slapped the boy who grabbed her hand at the tea shop. The first thing that she had to explain to her parents, family, and others was – why was she roaming outside the house in the evening? Sunita, Mamta, and Jyoti (names changed ) come to attend these meetings on their bicycles. Some boys hide behind the trees place thorn traps on the way to puncture their bicycles, so that they can trouble and tease them. As a result, the girls have stopped staying back for volleyball practices in the evening and head home before it gets dark.

There are several question marks and circumscriptions outside of these ‘safe’ settings, where girls feel ’empowered’, informed, and confident. All our conversations and discussions in these spaces and the choices girls make often have repercussions. What is the kind of resistance they face outside these safe spaces? How do they negotiate with those who are not part of this ‘safe’ space? How do they retain this confidence when they are outside this setting? What are the struggles they face to be a part of this group? Why is it that if something goes wrong, it is the girls who have to back down? Why does the fear of harassment, abuse, and violence hold them back from participating in these collectives?

The fear of the consequences for some of these young girls, who are questioning, challenging, and transforming the established social order, is ever-present. This compels us to reflect on our own strategies. We often ask ourselves whether we should tone down the rhetoric? Or should we let this fight run its own course? How do we make our processes of change more inclusive to include others who serve either as gatekeepers or as allies in this process? Creating exclusive, rights affirming and safe spaces for women and girls is necessary. But is that enough when the application of these rights is in the “real world”?


Author’s note: Big Thank You to Meenu, Shalini, Pooja and Rupsa for the ideas and feedback they shared.

[1] This conversation took place with a 26- year-old man in Jharkhand on 11 March 2013, at an International Women’s Day event that was organised by CREA and Mahila Mandal, as part of CREA’s ‘It’s My Body’ programme. Sanjay [(name changed]) is the captain of the village football team.

[2] It’s My Body- Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Adolescent Girls through Sports, is a programme led by CREA and co-implemented with ten women-led, community-based organisations in rural and urban areas of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. 

May 14, 2013

Book Review: The Song Seekers

A powerful and poignant exploration of the oppressive darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of ‘modern’ India, Saswati Sengupta’s debut novel, The Song Seekers, raises compelling questions that continue to haunt the reader for a long time.

Set in the turbulent 1960s in Bengal, the novel revolves around the life of newly wed Uma, an English Literature graduate from Miranda House, as she steps into the threshold of her marital home Kailash, the ancestral mansion of the highly reputed Chattopadhyay family of Calcutta. Even as she tries to find her footing in a new, unfamiliar world, Uma is intrigued by the shadows that seem to linger in the sprawling mansion; her husband’s silence about his mother’s death, the presence of the enigmatic green-eyed Pishi, a few old letters kept safely in her father-in-law’s bedside drawer – all hint at a mysterious family past.

Uma is drawn by the overwhelming presence of the traditional Chandimangal – a mahakavya in medieval Bengali literature which celebrates Goddess Chandi – composed by her great-grandfather-in-law, the ascetic Brahman poet Neelkantha, and printed at the family-owned Ganges printing press at the height of the anti-colonial swadeshi movement in Bengal. Gingerly at first, Uma begins to read aloud the Chandimangal of the Chattopadhyays to an audience of three – the mysterious, aged Pishi, the lower-caste Bagdi maid Khema, and the poor, but upper-caste, cook Bamundi. These seemingly innocuous reading sessions, in which a motley group of women gathers in the kitchen of Kailash every afternoon to read and discuss an epic narrative, soon lead to a thrilling investigation of the past itself, as smothered histories begin to emerge.

How does one explain the sharp disjunction between the imagined power and freedom of the goddess, as celebrated by the upper-caste male poet, and the lived reality of flesh and blood women? How did the goddess who rode lions, slayed demons and roamed forests freely, get reformulated into the compliant, subservient wife, confined to the domestic sphere? Does the goddess, too, have a history? As the women of Kailash unravel the layers of the Chandimangal and interpret the figure of the goddess in terms of their own lived experiences, the answers begin to take shape. The normative feminine sphere of the kitchen turns into a space of subversion where the women grasp the “cunning of their opponents, no longer in awe of the sacred thread”, and the reader becomes a secret sharer of this subversive female knowledge.

As the plot unfolds, so does the tainted history of the Chattopadhyays – where every male member from Neelkantha onwards is a namesake of Shiva. The ‘kulin’ status of this respected Brahman family, it is revealed by the green-eyed Pishi, is inextricably linked to a horrific act of violence. The deep foundation of the great family mansion named after the abode of Shiva conceals the muffled cries of a small seven year old girl being smothered to death by a stranger who had married her. This gory family secret serves as a scathing indictment of the caste structure, and the Brahmanical preoccupation with purity of blood and lineage which inevitably has dire consequences for women.

The picture that emerges with the progression of the novel reveals how knowledge that is hailed as the ‘truth’ is consciously shaped, formatted and interpolated in order to consolidate the supremacy of the elite upper-caste male. As the four women of Kailash gradually learn, Brahmanical hegemony is established through an accommodation and annihilation of the culture, literature and social practices of those who are lower down in the caste hierarchy. Women and the lower-caste are denied any articulation in such a caste-patriarchal society, and are thus left to seek a song that they can call their own. The novel ultimately lays bare the oppressive assumptions that continue to operate in the name of tradition and asks for a new conception of culture, not as “sanskriti with its devouring fire sacrifices, presiding Brahmans and elite ways” but as “krishti that reminds us of the sweat of labour and the peasants’ lives”.

The novel does not progress in a linear manner, but continually flits across space and time, thus effortlessly weaving together the history of the militant goddess, the presence of the Portugese in Bengal, the rise of print, and the freedom movement and its repercussions, even as Uma attempts to unearth the dark secrets of Kailash. The constant flashbacks and parallel narratives, against the backdrop of Bengal’s political history, add to the density of the narrative and make the novel a layered one. The storyline is engaging and forceful, and the characters convincingly portrayed. The narrative is sprinkled with irony, such as that directed at the small and smug Brahman man who perhaps palpably felt the “purity of the blood that was coursing through his veins”, or at those elite upper-caste men who refused to interact with the children of prostitutes and set up the Hindu Metropolitan College, “though it is not known if at the same time they also stopped patronising prostitutes.”

In all, the book makes for a stimulating reading experience and is highly recommended. With its subversive feminist thrust and persistent questioning of what constitutes religion, tradition and culture, The Song Seekers is sure to strike a chord.

May 07, 2013

Good Girls Don’t Dance: Film Screening Announcement

By Padmalatha Ravi


Date: 12 May 2013, Sunday

Time: 3.30pm to 5.30 pm

Venue: Jaaga, KH Road,Bangalore

Map –

Entry fee: Free

About the film:

Good girls don’t dance.
Good girls don’t go out after sun down.
Good girls don’t use mobile phones or have Facebook profile.
Good girls stay away from chowmein-eating boys.
Good girls don’t loiter.
Good girls don’t fall in love.
Good girls don’t wear jeans or show skin.
Good girls don’t drink. Good girls don’t question.
Good girls don’t party and good girls definitely don’t have fun.
But then, good girls don’t get raped or molested, or do they?

This is a crowd funded documentary film. It explores the notions of good girl and bad girl and the role it plays in society’s reaction to sexual harassment and rape. It is an effort to understand why the girl is blamed when she’s molested, sexually harassed or raped.

For more on the film: https://www.facebook.com/GoodGirlsDontDance


May 06, 2013

Transportation as a Social Justice Issue

On the evening of the 16th of December, 2012, a young woman and her male friend boarded a public bus in the city of Delhi, India, to go home after watching a movie at a local movie hall. The woman never returned home. She was raped and beaten to death by the driver, conductor and four other men on the bus. Her friend barely survived the beating he received. The rape and murder of this young woman has shaken Delhi and the rest of the country and has opened up the dialogue on patriarchy, violence against women, government and police apathy towards rape to a much larger audience.

A few months ago, I attended a conference in Washington DC on transportation and cities. In general, I find that these conferences focus on technical content like cost-benefit analyses, climate related issues and transportation modelling. Many of the participants at these conferences are architects, engineers, urban planners and economists and the discussion tends to veer towards econometric modelling, physical master plans and transport master plans. This, of course, seems a natural extension of the hours and hours of work spent on producing physical and economic plans of cities, defining road systems for our constantly growing cities, and the detailed work and research on more efficient and optimal transport networks for  cars, buses, trains and other modes of transport one typically sees in a city. It is, in many ways, endearing to see the passion at these conferences for transport (planes, trains and automobiles) and climate related subjects.

It is, however, very rare to hear a discussion on issues that stem from more human events such as the rape on the public bus in Delhi, like security for women and children, access for all members of society and gender that are and must be front and central to the discussion on transport and the growth of our cities. I keep hoping that I will see more work on the actual connection of public transport to human beings.

Public transportation speaks volumes about a society. It speaks about racism, economic injustice and the patterns of historical development of a nation – economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental – which are embedded in a transportation system that people take for granted. To me, public transport is a political service but at its most basic level it is a tool of independence, both in the city and in rural areas. Truly free societies see people stream through their cities with ease and freedom, using transport in all its forms, public and private, engaging in activities with an energy and verve that at some level, comes from the freedom that movement allows, and make the city or region vibrant and exciting. Another critical element of a truly free city is safety and security associated with public services, especially transport.

Twenty years ago, I took the same buses to traverse the city of Delhi. I never ever felt safe on those buses or even in the auto rickshaws (an event that was rarer as autos were more expensive and not affordable for the student that I was). For such a beautiful and well planned city that Delhi is, with many a master plan, transportation plan, BRTS, cycling plan and conservation plan that has been developed for it, somehow to me, the humanity of the city seems to be lost in the eternal cycle of technical and economic planning.

As a long term student of cities and urban planning, and as a keen proponent of the work of David Harvey, Jane Jacobs and Lefebvre on cities, I am keenly aware of the politics and power structures related to transport: the radical transformation of lifestyles that bring about new products such as two cars in every driveway, the increased consumption of oil, the suburbanization of America and the expansion of the highway system that feeds in the discussion and rhetoric of transport and climate change development. With the new infrastructure came an altered political landscape, with the segregation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ becoming more and more distinctive, primarily with the ‘have-nots’ stuck in the city, often dependant on poor public transport options and effectively disenfranchised.

I still use public transport extensively both in Washington DC and Baltimore, and especially in Baltimore, I notice how my co-passengers in buses are very rarely middle-class white people. Mostly, they are non-white and poor. Most are incredibly dependent on an aging and inefficient bus network and the stress and tensions associated with leaving home two hours earlier to catch a bus to work is often etched on their faces.

Is there a more humanistic solution to dealing with the ugliness that befell the young woman on the public bus in Delhi and that faces the riders of buses in Baltimore? Is there a way that we can speak about transport, cities and the climate in a more humane and gender nuanced manner? I am always on the lookout for a more sensitive approach to the way we plan our cities and approach transport planning. Maybe the planners, economists and transport experts at the next conference will surprise me with the narrative, tone and scope of their work.

(Editors note: This is part of a new open-ended series on public transportation and gender. Contributions welcome and invited!)

April 30, 2013

Woohoo, Jazz Hands Everyone!

[Editor’s Note: Continuing with our Feminism & Humor series, here is the first of what we hope will be Lavanya Karthik’s many comic strips for Ultra Violet. This was first published in the DNA, Bangalore, and can also be viewed on the cartoonist’s website. Feminism and the funnies are not mutually exclusive. Come laugh with us!–Dilnavaz Bamboat]

Comic courtesy Lavanya Karthik



April 24, 2013

Event Announcement: Talk






Women and Democratic Movements in India: Changing Dynamics, Altered Perspectives

Date & time: Tuesday, April 30, 2013; 1 pm

Venue: Encina Hall West, Room 208, Stanford University, 616 Serra St., Stanford, CA

About the event & the speaker:

ilina sen poster

Fee: This event is free and open to the public.

April 24, 2013

Ta(l)king sex beyond English

This is the second of a series of posts written from the experiences at CREA of implementing a program called “Count Me IN! It’s My Body: Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Young Girls through Sports”. CREA is a feminist human rights organization based in Delhi (www.creaworld.org).


(Take fifteen seconds for each of these words.)

Think of one regional language word each for the following: Consent. Assumption. Choice. Pleasure. Agency.

These are some of the words which form the foundation of the world of sexual rights. How many did you get?

How does one talk of sexuality? How does one express desire and consent? How does one articulate violation? What do we call the body parts, what do we call ourselves? How do we claim identities or demand space and rights on sexuality? In societies where conversations about sex are silenced, how do we talk about our everyday lives, which are as much about sexual boundaries and norms as they are about the politics of caste, religion, gender, class and so much more besides.

Working on sexuality in local languages is not only crucial but radical. It is radical because it dispels the myth that most of sexuality work happens in the ‘English world’. It is also radical because it demonstrates that no cultures are devoid of sexuality. This means, saying that “we don’t have the language to talk of sexuality” isn’t correct. A friend from Meem[i], Lebanon, berating the mainstream western understanding around the ‘Middle East’ and sexuality, said recently to me, “it’s not that we don’t talk of sexuality, it could be that we just don’t call it sexuality.”

Also, the concept of sexuality isn’t unpacked in a uniform way everywhere. Different meanings are made of it in different contexts. A group of young girls we work with from Jharkhand, when asked what what they understood by sexuality, said in unison,“sexuality means what we like and don’t like in all aspects of life.”

There are many terms, words and connotations that find space in a regional language, but not in English. Hindi offers the space for many terms that connote a cultural construct – such as Hijra. There is no equivalent term in English for Hijra – the only word that comes closest is ‘transgender’, an unsatisfactory translation. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s work[ii] brings together diverse texts that uncover stories of same-sex desire and gender diversity, spanning centuries of the subcontinent’s history and numerous linguistic traditions. Non-English speaking people have not needed English to claim and articulate their realities. Their lives are lived, and desires expressed in a manner they find appropriate for themselves.

In its initial phase of work, sexual rights activists in India were constantly told that poverty was a far more pressing issue than sexuality. These activists brought forth an understanding of  intersectionality as a perspective to do any work related to human rights. This perspective also sheds light on access to language in which work is done and the need to work in different local languages is something that became clear fairly earlier on. Since most of the activists who began this work were themselves urban and English speaking, their work would be inaccessible, possibly culturally-alien, if it remained only in the realm of English.  Sexuality is a deeply cultural thing – in terms of its specific taboos, the controls, the ways in which it is allowed to be expressed, the breaking of norms, articulation of experiences which are different, naming desire. In India, how can these multilayered cultural manifestations ever be fully expressed in English, without losing its richness?

A few friends decided to say words which we used for our nether regions. Cunt was one of the most used. We felt very empowered, smugly so. At some point one of us said, but what are the non-english words? We came up with a few, choot being one of them. None of us appropriated a single one of those words for ourselves or our amorous moments. We were empowered in English. Elsewhere, we were as good as people who didn’t/couldn’t say cunt.[iii]

One of the challenges of working in Hindi is that sexualised words often also used as slang, and are therefore considered obscene, or are stigmatised. It could feel less personalised. But what is it really that makes us uncomfortable? Could it be that for the English speaking people, our language of thinking limits our expressions around sexuality?

In this work in Hindi, creating new language, and sometimes modifying the existing language becomes crucial to convey meaning.[iv] In the latest edition of the annual Hindi journal on sexual and reproductive health and rights, Reproductive Health Matters (RHM), themed Abortion and Rights, we wanted to highlight the element of ‘right to choice’ for termination of pregnancy.[v] The popular hindi term, garbh paat seemed stigmatised at one level and on further research, it was clear that its literal translation means miscarriage. To keep the right to choice about one’s body and life inextricably linked to induced abortion, we chose to use a lesser used but thought provoking term, garbh samaapan (termination of pregnancy). Such experiments in translation and creation of a new language to talk about sexuality and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), keeps our work political.

Another crucial point is about the kind of hindi scholarship around sexuality being created. Is it influenced by the assumption that theory is for English-speakers, while practice is for non-English speakers? This despite the interconnections between practice and theory, and the influence our everyday worlds and their construction have on theory. The diversity in resources available on sexuality in English isn’t the same as that in Hindi. We felt the need for Hindi RHM, a peer reviewed journal, precisely because such theoretical scholarship was not available for Hindi speaking activists. The Institutes on Sexuality, Gender and Rights in Hindi have as much reading and engaging with theory as the English Institutes.

Sometimes popularising certain English terms may make more sense. The term Intersex in Hindi would be antarlingi. Not only does this term in Hindi have no resonance in colloquial Hindi, it is a highly sanskritised way of using language, which we are, very consciously, trying to move away from. The words sex, transgender, surrogate, sex work are some more of such examples.

As part of our sports and SRHR program, It’s My Body, we produced resources for young girls. We wanted to steer clear of the producing material which looks like SRHR outcomes – HIV transmission and menstruation. We realised that we need to think about the kind of language we want to use. We wanted to talk not only of menstrual cycle, but how young girls should have information around their bodies. We wanted to not only talk of how to have safe sex, but that young people should be able to decide who they want to have sex with, when and also have the knowledge, confidence and agency to be able to say yes, no as well as maybe. We decided to use words like sahmati, poorv-anumaan, chaahat, chunaav, haan, naa, pasand – the language used in the work with the groups of young girls. We designed them in a way so girls can keep them hidden, if they needed to; to take out and discuss and read with peers when they felt comfortable.

A conversation on language and sexuality is incomplete without thinking about who is creating the Hindi scholarship in the sexuality world. The people who live in both ‘English and Hindi worlds’ are different from people who live in ‘Hindi worlds’. If we are clear that practitioners are also capable of creating scholarship (as we should be!), a larger objective of creating Hindi scholarship on sexuality must be to put this work in the hands of people for whom English is not the first language. That will alter the canvas of negotiating the language of sexuality.



Author’s note – Big thank you to S. Vinita for thinking this through with me and Sanjana and Vrinda for their very useful feedback.

[ii] Same-Sex Love in India, Readings from Literature and History: Edited: Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Macmillan 2000

[iii] An old conversation between a group of  English speaking friends.

[iv] This blogpost focuses on Hindi as a language but the arguments are relevant for any regional language.

[v] Reproductive Health Matters (RHM) is an independent charity, producing in-depth publications on reproductive and sexual health and rights for an international, multi-disciplinary audience. http://www.rhmjournal.org.uk/ CREA has collaborated with RHM since 2005 to bring out annual editions of the journal in Hindi.

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