Also, I have had the company of some great women to get inspired from, who have dared to get into the core and have thought and researched things like body hair and masculinity, compelling me to open my senses to minute things that I have been observing since some time but have somewhere avoided pondering over.
The way we practice most of the postures in day to day life, like how do we greet each other, how to we sit in a group, how we walk, etc. shape the belief systems related to these postures. The control of these postures is the basis of controlling women’s and even men’s sexualities in most of the cultures.
Referring to many such postures and beliefs that I experienced, I shall talk about my homophobic self that used to be quite with me till some time back when introduction to some historical facts and the brilliant Queer March 2011 in Bombay made it a history. But the final nail in the coffin has been my tryst with Palamau.
Let me begin with the main town of Palamau, Daltonganj. Daltonganj is now known as Medininagar, renamed after Raja Medini Ray, a Chero king who ruled here in the 17th Century.
The most striking thing after the strong smell of coal smoke everywhere- in Daltonganj, the main town of the Palamau district in Jharkhand- that I noticed, was the audacity with which men used to urinate in full public view on the main roads of the town. Though it didn’t seem to be much different from other towns in the country in the first look, the audacity was a little too audacious!
Redma Chowk is one of the busiest crossroads in the town with buses plying towards Ranchi and Patna in two directions from the town and the movement of students (male and female) towards the GLA College in the third. Even at such a place, urinating for men in open wasn’t much of a task. Women of all ages- though very few in number and exceptionally low in percentage- frequent this area of the town. I regularly noticed them trying to avoid the penis flaunting with faces full of disgust.
The Mohan Cinema is another frequented place, located right in front of the Daltonganj Bus Stand that adds to the crowd in this part of the town. People, who walk out of the cinema hall after a show ends, take the narrow street full of sweet shops and countless street vendors scattered around one of the entrances of the police station. There are at least 50 people walking on this narrow street at any given point. The number of people increases at the show end time. Men and boys would stand and urinate and the passersby, both men and women would try to ignore it. It is at this place that I was introduced to the Daltonganj version of perverted displays of masculinity. If there were a contest on where in the country would men appear to be doing it most overtly, Daltonganj would nail it with ease. Though my colleague Manojji jokes about issues relating to hygiene and sanitation, often repeating his phrase “Sala pehle khane ke bare me socho, fir hagne mootne ke bare me sochna! (First think about how people would manage to eat rather than thinking about how they would urinate or defecate!)”, I consider that infrastructure for public hygiene should be at the greatest priority at every MLA, MP and Administrator’s list for the Daltonganj town. Palamau, however, has other love interests in public administration and governance.
Married women, young or old, wear the deepest shade of red sindoor here. Red sarees with golden art work are a must at the events of religious significance or weddings. These are the necessary conditions to look like a perfect bride.
On the bikes, even girls as young as 14 would sit on one side instead of wide-legged. Of the many things that have got me and my visiting friends blasphemous stares here, going out with a female friend who sits with legs opened wide on both the sides of the bike, tops the list. A female colleague, Indramani once told me that she cannot sit on the bike with me wide-legged (Ghoda chadh ke), as it would not send a good signal to the public, given the fact that we have the image of a social worker (Saamaajik Kajkarta) and we should not disturb the value framework of the people. I accepted her proposal on that occasion but kept my hobby on. Of committing blasphemous (anti-patriarchal) acts with pride and purpose. However, this gave me a lesson on the vitality in discouraging and encouraging certain postures for sexuality control. Some of the seductive dance moves that involve spreading the legs wide apart in an invitational posture must be such a liberatory feeling for women who would have gone through posture control in their lives. In Palamau, however, you must sit with thighs stuck to each other, perpendicular to the driver, in order to avoid the stares.
My colleagues told me that when they started working on building small earthen dams for water conservation in the Palamau Commissionaire, back in 1993, the challenge was to get women out of their homes. My colleagues were known by the name Pani Chetna Manch, who had gained popularity for making good dams that led to assured irrigation and better groundwater recharge. The dialogues for initiating the work at a potential location used to take place with the men as women weren’t allowed to come out of the house. Pani Chetna Manch kept a condition that the dam would be built and water would come to the village only if there was 50% representation of women in all the meetings and work. Everybody wanted water. The condition worked. The men used to pull out their women into the meetings despite reluctance from the women owing to their historical house arrests during public meetings. It was since then that the women started to form Self Help Groups and have bank accounts. They are now doing much better, though. One of them in Hutukdag village, Gulabiya devi, scolds me for being late for a meeting.
At an evening while returning to Chhattarpur town from Khairadohar panchayat, I met a colleague on the way. He is from the Akuwaniya village- that hosts Kharwar tribes and Bhuiyans. Bhuiyans have traditionally been into agricultural labour. There was a death in the village on that day, which became a political matter as one group tried to establish it as murder-by-poisoning. The other group (which my colleague was a part of) cremated the dead body before the police arrived in the village, thus killing the possibility of a post-mortem. My colleague, Muneshwarji informed me that they did a quick Panchayati and decided to burn the body as it would’ve caused police harassment to innocent people. The Panchayati system is a traditional governance system that does not allow women to participate in the decision making process (that involves only speaking). Muneshwarji told me that women’s freedom and all that would take some more time here.
Few days ago, that was reinforced in a Panchayati meeting that I attended that involved two brothers that were fighting as the first one accused the other of putting evil spirit on him and his family that led to the death of his goats and cattle. The accused brother, while narrating his tale in the meeting to the Panch log (the men who decide the fate of any case and charge a handsome amount from both the parties), was cursing his first wife (who died of a disease few years back) of causing all this trouble by being an evil spirit. “I went to many Godmen and did many divine treatments (like burying a headless chicken in the paddy field, paying 1100 rupees to the Kuldevta in a pooja, sacrificing a goat, etc). But inauspicious events (like not getting good agricultural produce, death of cattle or goats, disease in children, etc) keep happening. I don’t know what to do now”, he said. His second wife, who was sitting at one corner in the meeting, tried to support his husband by saying that he was telling the truth. But was quickly silenced by loud and immediate shouting responses by the men present at the Panchayati. They asked her to shut up as there were men trying to resolve the problem. The system was clear: All the lovely ladies, need not speak.
In another village, Joura, a Panchayat Samiti (the Block level unit of the Panchayati Raj system) member is struggling to protect his wife from the villagers who believe that she is a dayan (witch). Panchayat Samiti members are generally highly respected in the village society but in this case while trying to save his wife from being an outcast, he is struggling for acceptance from his own villagers who voted him to power only 3 years back.
Men love the cheesy lyrics of the Bhojpuri songs that objectify the women’s body to no resort. The lyrics of one of the songs that I heard while returning from a field visit, said, “Nimbu bhayil tarbooj, madamji, tani dheere dheere chala! (Lemons have become watermelons, Madam, you better walk a little slow!)” pointing at a young girl growing up with changes in the breast size. Till some years back, I used to feel uncomfortable watching girls participate in sports as they would run or sprint and their breasts would move. I used to think, they should better not do all this, as all my friends used to pass lewd comments on the girls with bigger breasts and those who had smaller ones. Metaphors like carom board and football, indicating two extremes of the sizes, were common in the description of breasts. Some of the girls were good friends and I used to feel bad about them. Thankfully enough, I still feel disgusted about songs like Nimbu Bhayil Tarbooj.
A Colleague of mine, Bharat took me to his village along with his wife, Rekha and son, Deepu. Deepu was with me and Bharat was riding the other bike with Rekha sitting behind him. I noticed that well before we were in the 5 km radius of his village, she put her saree on her head as parda. When I asked her if she purposely did so, she said she and many other young women are still not allowed to go outside the house, even for agricultural work or shopping alone. Whenever she comes to Daltonganj to meet Bharat or goes anywhere outside her village, she wears Salwar Kurta. She says that Salwar Kurta is much comfortable than the polyester Sarees.
My colleague Jawaharji informed me that, before the Maoists had turned the social relations characterized by utter feudalism upside down by targeting the Zamindars and tyrant upper castes in the 80’s, all the Dalits in Palamau used to take ‘blessings’ from the village Zamindar before taking the Baraat to the bride’s home and the bride had to spend the first night at the Zamindar’s place before going to her actual husband. Hence, the Bhuiyans and other small land holders including some tribes, joined the Maoists in huge numbers.
Sunitaji belongs to a village in the Chiru Panchayat in Chhattarpur block in Palamau. She has been working with women since the past 12 years, has fought an Assembly election and District Panchayat election on the support from the women she has worked with. She was surveying a village in which she found out that there was a household with 12 children. Quite obviously, she felt the need of asking the woman about it. She asked, “Why don’t you stop producing children now? There are 12 already.” The woman replied, “Ka kari Didi, bhagwaan bachcha jamawe dewat ba har baar (What to do Didi, God keeps giving me babies every single time).” Sunitaji advised her to go for family planning measures to which she said, “Hamar parivar naikhe tor parivaar jaisan kamjor, didi (My husband isn’t weak as yours, Didi!)” She laughed about it graciously and left Sunitaji with nothing more to suggest. Nareshji, Sunitaji’s husband who’s a thin man (he lost considerable weight after a major accident in which his leg has been damaged and he walks with some limping), has proven thrice over that he is man enough; the couple have two sons and a daughter. But in the eyes of the mother of 12, her husband ought to be the most manly man ever!
All these incidences built an image of Palamau as a highly patriarchal society in my head. In such societies, men have to be as masculine as possible; even if that means being needlessly rude and violent, with fellow men, women and children alike.
However, what I immediately noticed was that there were other things that indicated that some of the rituals of masculinity were quite different from the urban society. Male friends here hold their hands quite comfortably. Hand in hand, fingers in fingers. Of all ages.
The first time I noticed it was when I saw my roommate, Bharat holding hands with another colleague, Jitendar with a noticeable coziness. What instantly clicked my mind was that in an urban environment, where it is more likely to find homosexual people, it is generally considered quite obvious to assume that the men showing too much coziness (like Jitendar and Bharat in this case) might be homosexual. A few days later, I saw my senior colleague, Jawaharji hold hands with Bharat during a field visit. Jawaharji is a powerful person in the organization, almost an institution. People respect him and also make sure that they act sane in front of him. People of this stature are expected to be even more masculine in general perception. But when even Jawaharji did it with ease, it was established for me that the male to male camaraderie that existed during my school days had withered because of a social phenomenon and my consciousness about it.
I realized that the consciousness was a nothing but a fear type, which is generally known as homophobia. Post that, I enjoyed walking hand in hand with Bharat, Jawaharji, Umesh, Amardev Mukhiya and many others who became friends from colleagues.
This realization of mine (and almost a discovery from an anthropological inquiry point of view) does no good to the patriarchal society that Palamau is. But amongst many other things that have happened to me during my stay (which include myth bursts and dismantled misconceptions) in Jharkhand, this has been one of the sweetest.
The death of the homophobic me!