The False Dichotomy Before Her


I just got done watching The World Before Her. It was a nice accompaniment to being confined indoors on a warm summer day and doing chores and my nails and hair.

Anyway. This documentary. It tries to show two supposed extremes in India, one half in a Durga Vahini training camp, and the other in one for Miss India contestants.

The documentary for the most part doesn’t judge much, and I must give it credit for that despite the leading questions posed to those in the Durga Vahini camp on occasion. We are introduced to Ruhi Singh, a Miss India contestant, and Prachi Trivedi, a camp counselor sorts for Durga Vahini. We’re taken through their families, their pursuits, their views, and all that.

It’s a documentary worth a watch for differing perspectives, and for forming your own.

The Miss India contestants bit, nothing really surprised me, possibly because not long ago I used to be pretty addicted to America’s Next Top Model and similar ones on Channel [V]. They are fun as expected, demeaning as expected (There’s one part of the contest where the contestants walk covered in a sheet with only their legs exposed, so that the judges can find the ‘best legs’), and dangerous as expected, with girls in their late teens getting botox injections…. actually, I’m not sure if it was all botox. One bit was some chin-plumping serum, which is totally not the same as botox, but, yeah…. you get the picture.

The Durga Vahini stuff is a lot less expected, but not how you think. In fact, you learn all the fearmongering is actually true. There’s a clip of a woman social activist giving a speech asking all the girls in the camp to stay home and not be ‘modern’ focusing on ‘career, career, career’. There’s a bit where they interview this fourteen year old who says she is proud of not having any Muslim friends. And, oh yes, they are taught to shoot and fight and break bones.

The bits I found very leading however were the ones where Prachi’s father admitted to beating her to discipline her. And Prachi herself laughingly recounts an episode where her father branded her with a hot iron rod when she lied as a child. It’s very easy at this point to go all ‘Hurr durr backward people’. I’m surprised the perspective is lacking here. Until not very long ago, corporal punishment for children was very much acceptable. When I was in school, this rather insane teacher was very pissed with this classmate of mine, and hit her a lot. And hard. Hard enough for the girl’s earring to fall off. We all hated that teacher after that. But did anyone do anything? No. The teacher continued to teach. The classmate’s parents, both leading doctors, didn’t intervene. Life went on. Was it wrong for the teacher to hit a student like that? Obviously. No one says otherwise. But corporal punishment wasn’t frowned upon until recently. I strongly doubt you should be using that admission to make a point.

Likewise with Prachi’s parents saying she needs to get married, because a woman is complete only after she becomes a mother. If you ask around, irrespective of social class and gender, you’ll get the same answer from way too many people. Is it wrong? Of course it is. No one can dictate when someone is complete or not. And how wrong is it? Probably not very,  because people who say things like this don’t necessarily go about abusing childless women as much as they probably feel sorry for them. The impression the documentary seeks to give, of a traditional girl fighting marriage, feels misguided. You talk to any girl around Prachi’s age, and she’s probably having the same argument with her parents off and on. And it doesn’t mean anything.

There’s the other thing where Prachi is asked if she would ‘kill for Hinduism’. And obviously she says ‘Yes’. But what does ‘for Hinduism’ mean? Would she kill someone for reciting a mantra wrong? Would she kill Selena Gomez for making the bindi a fashion statement? Would she kill someone converting to Islam with full clarity of mind? Would she kill someone desecrating a temple? I assume here Prachi is thinking something like being a victim of communal violence or something similar, given she isn’t already out on the streets committing murder Anniyan style.

I didn’t like these easy, lazy ways of building impressions.

I’d be interested in knowing other stuff. Did any of the beauty contestants face corporal punishment as a child? How many of their families are supportive? What are their ambitions? How did they end up wanting to be beauty queens? It’s easy enough to know why Prachi works for the VHP, but what did she study in school? Was she a good student? What are her ambitions? Of course she says her life is the VHP, but surely she must have some interests beyond that? Where do all the girls in the camp come from? Are they of limited opportunity that Durga Vahini sounds fun? What do they do with all the stuff they learn? How much does the hatred for other religions sustain? How does it manifest? What would they do if they came across an elderly Muslim gentleman in trouble? Are they taught to fear ‘Islam’ as a concept, or for every Muslim in the street?

What did the girls in the camp think of that speech where the lady told them their place is in the home? How many of them take it seriously? How many of them make up names for her behind her back and laugh about it? What are all these girls’ ambitions? Do they like studying? Do their parents want them to study further? What will they do with their newly-acquired rifle shooting skills? Do they plan on joining NCC? Do they know about NCC? What about the alumni? What do they feel about their experiences in Durga Vahini years later? What do they do now? Those saree-clad ladies who expertly shoot rifles, do they go to gun ranges and practice for fun sometimes?

We all know what different people think of beauty paegants, but what do people outside think of the camp? Do they like it that their daughters made new friends, and were more energetic and healthy? Are they concerned that their daughter started hating on people of other religions? Would they recommend it to others?

I sure would like to meet this Prachi Trivedi. If nothing, I just want to tell her she doesn’t have to be that confused. At the end of the documentary she says she is perpetrating a system which subjugates her and women like her. But… y’know, the system isn’t that limited. She can actually be an agent of change and reform within the VHP, especially in a position of power like she has over thousands of impressionable girls. And a bootcamp like that for girls is actually such a great idea.

I mean, seriously. I hated doing drills and marching in the hot sun in those heavy regulation shoes, so I played truant and dropped out of NCC in school. More than a decade later, I kind of regret it, because I don’t really have the enthusiasm for physical exertion the way others do, and heck, I don’t even know to shoot a gun now and have to pay for lessons at a gun range. All I mean to say is, it’s kind of cool to learn all those things, and in India we don’t usually get to, and even less so if you aren’t economically privileged. So stuff like this is great, and there should be more such places where there is a clear emphasis on physical fitness. Besides, it is pretty badass to see a saree-clad aunty teach kids about guns and bullets. I like that simply because it breaks stereotypes of what a girl who knows to shoot looks like.

That said, yes, there’s a lot that’s fucked up, and needs to change, and it is insane how much anything in the Sangh Parivar is reluctant to change and I wonder constantly about how to bring that about. But I also know that people who hold these stupid opinions usually don’t believe it all in earnest, and can actually be pretty decent, accepting people when you don’t talk to them about these things specifically. I mean, I know several evangelical Christians who went halfway across the world to spread the world of Our Lord, but when they are kicking back with a gingerbeer, they aren’t muttering about killing heathen religions and harvesting souls, they are mostly just good people who want to make a difference.

The World Before Her pretty much shows us that women nationwide are presented with a false dichotomy – are you Ancient or Modern? You are not necessarily progressive if you wear modern clothes and model for magazines. You are not necessarily backward-thinking if you wear salwars and sarees and go to shakha. You are not necessarily liberated if you are ‘modern’ and ‘urban’, you are not necessarily shackled if you are in a more traditional family. Hinduism doesn’t have to be subjugating, lack of religion isn’t necessarily liberating.  Just because your father wants you married doesn’t mean he isn’t a forward-thinking man. A girl sometimes just wants to break free of the things immediately tying her down, and sometimes she might choose to be a model to get out of that rut, and sometimes she’ll choose to go to shakha, or if she’s in the Red Corridor, she’ll become a Maoist. And the things she chooses to break out of, she isn’t even sure what they are, and they might not directly correlate with her choice. Prachi doesn’t feel like she belongs with other girls, and the way out of this in her case was Durga Vahini, where she can still have her respect and be more into physical activities. Ankita’s father sent her to a Buddhist monastery for eight years, and modelling gives her that feeling of being liberated. Ruhi considers Miss India an episode of fun before she has to inevitably get married (Though IMO it feels a little excessive to consider her words and impression gospel on that, given she’s only nineteen, and doesn’t seem to be from a family that’ll just force her into a marriage with someone who doesn’t care for her ambition).

If I take anything away from this documentary, it is that before I decide to jump to conclusions about some other girl based on her current station and ambition in life, I probably should remember she’s just a person trying to get somewhere, and usually a product of her circumstances, and rather than ascribing all sorts of notions to her and considering her an agent of feminism or an enemy of feminism or the sort who gives feminism a bad name, I should probably remember first she’s a girl who’s just trying to be.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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