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The fire within

A few days ago, a journalist friend of mine rang to inquire whether I had heard any ``unorthodox'' views on Deepa Mehta's Fire. What did ...

Written by Ritu Menon |
December 9, 1998

A few days ago, a journalist friend of mine rang to inquire whether I had heard any “unorthodox” views on Deepa Mehta’s Fire. What did he mean by “unorthodox” I asked. Oh, he said, you know, that it’s too extreme, things don’t happen just like that … On the contrary, I replied, everyone I had spoken to said how sympathetic and attentive audiences had been in Delhi theatres, and how sensitively made they thought the film was. Besides, I said, this kind of bonding between women isn’t all that unusual, it’s just that it isn’t acknowledged or made public. Remember Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf? She was only writing about what she had observed around her.

But that was before the Shiv Sainiks reminded us about “Indian culture” and went on a rampage, burning the posters of two happy, laughing women who had finally found love and respect and companionship with each other. This was “not consistent with normal behaviour and morals”, said Surat’s Bajrang Dal chief, Ashwin Modi. Meena Kambli, ShivSena Mahila Aghadi’s zonal in-charge, added, “A majority of women in our society do not even know about lesbianism. Why expose them to it?” Maharashtra chief minister, cultural affairs minister, Shiv Sena vibhag pramukhs and MLAs as well as the Jain Vahni Samiti agreed that the film was “against Indian tradition” and should be banned.

Well, perhaps they’ve got a point here. Let me explain. The day the papers carried reports about the dousing of Fire by Shiv Sainiks, the headlines also screamed, “Women sold for Rs. 5,000 in Andhra auction”. The report went on to say that the auctioneer lured bidders with the line, “Look at this beautiful one — this looks spicy and attractive! Pay Rs 5,000 and it’s yours! (“it” and “this”, mind, not “her”). Rs 5,000 was only the opening bid — it kept climbing till it reached Rs 9,000, and the deal was closed. The report noted: “Shocking? Not in this part of the country — it is a practice in two communities that women, meant to work as prostitutes, aregiven to the highest bidder on lease for one year.” Auctions are held quarterly and 8-10 women “leased” out and kept in the custody of the bidder.

So, I asked myself, why didn’t the Shiv Sainiks storm the auction and protest the exploitation of women for sexual purposes? Surely this debasement is an outrage to “normal behaviour and morals”? Then it hit me. The reason they didn’t protest is because the abuse of women is not against the “Indian tradition”. Consider the facts: a study carried out recently by RAHI found that over 75 per cent women suffer some form of sexual abuse, 50 per cent of it at the hands of their husbands; their youngest respondent was 16 years, the oldest, 66. Figures from the Crimes Records Bureau reveal that of the cases of child rape reported, the maximum are of girls below the age of 10, assaulted and abused by men known to them — i.e, within the family or neighbourhood. The same Bureau in 1987 reported that domestic quarrels and emotional estrangement have led to anincreasing number of suicides by women. Crimes like these continue and are on the rise because they enjoy social sanction, and one reason they do, is surely because society doesn’t find them insufferable.

The Indian “tradition” that the Shiv Sainiks and others of their ilk hold dear is the one that endorses the subjugation of women in real life, and their false deification in mythology. And it’s probably this same “tradition” that leads them to recommend, as did Dinanath Batra, general secretary of Vidya Bharati, that girls be made to study housekeeping and mothering at school. Why? Because, he says, this is “women’s need”, and school curricula should be “need-based”.

The mindless protest against Fire by the Shiv Sainiks is not really about sexuality or morality. Otherwise they would be stoning Indian cinema halls every day of the week. No, their protest is about women exercising cho-ice and acting independently. If Shabana Azmi had gone up in flames as a result of her agni pariksha in thefilm, the message would have been clear: transgress the norm and you will be burnt by the fire youignite. But here the two women, Radha and Sita/Nita, take matters into their own hands, tell their husbands they don’t need their selfish ways any more, and leave to lead a life of dignity and mutual respect. Now, this is shocking, because what they have done is to challenge patriarchy and the traditional familiar roles they are expected to play. Definitely un-“Indian”. Note what the petition by the SS Mahila Aghadi objected to: “If women’s physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse … reproduction of human beings will stop.” This cannot be tolerated. Much better that women be beaten into submission, abused and harassed, and if they still don’t fall in line, why then, burn them to death. All part of “Indian tradition”. This is why you will never see a Shiv Sainik protest against eve-teasing, or the SS Mahila Aghadi take up the cause of that wretched studentin Madhya Pradesh who, just a few days ago was killed when a bunch of goondas decided to drive right over her because she dared to tick them off.

The trouble with Fire is not that it exposes lesbianism, but that it exposes, with great delicacy but also with blinding clarity, the sham that passes for marital harmony and peace in most families. It opens bedroom doors (that many would rather leave closed) and presents us with a warm, sympathetic, humorous story about one, rather typical, Indian family and all its complicated relationships. Of course, it also paints a somewhat unflattering portrait of its male protagonists, unfortunately, again, very typical and recognisable. But whereas other commercial films valorise men like them and reinforce the divine right of patriarchy to have its way, Fire does the opposite: it strikes at the very roots of patriarchy by de-glamorising the family. Radha and Sita/Nita, two good women, a jethani-devrani duo, actually decide to act in their own interests. Theyrealise they don’t need to subordinate themselves any more and, what’s more, that they can do without the false respectability of their marriages. Slowly, it occurs to them that together, they can change their destinies. Now, what could be more subversive than that?

So, down with Deepa Mehta, and down with anyone who has the gall to depict a loving, caring, gentle relationship between women. Bravo! the Shiv Sainiks and bravo! the SS Mahila Aghadi for upholding the “Indian tradition” by never protesting the violence against women that is such a daily, shameful feature of our lives.

The writer is co-founder of Kali for Women

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