Recently, I was at a university, running a workshop. On the first day, as students were introducing themselves, a petite girl rounded off her self-introduction with the remark, ‘And I have a boyfriend.’ She was no exception. Several other girls took pride in stating that they too had one. A girl even rued the fact that she didn’t have any, yet. As I listened to them, my mind drifted back in time. My wife too had a boyfriend when she was at college in the early 1970s, but it would have been unthinkable for her to declare the fact in a mixed-gender class, that too when a teacher was around. In the last forty years, lots of things have changed for the better around us, but the most visible among them is the confidence that young women of India display today.
If you go to an engineering or management school, you will often find more girls than boys. Even in subjects that were once male preserves, like geology or civil engineering, you find lots of girls. And usually, the class topper is a girl. Many of them are actually masters of their own destiny. And their confidence is reflected in the way they dress and behave. Girls in spaghetti-strap tops and tight jeans confidently present their bodies to the world. Young women today hug their men in public as they ride pillion on motorbikes. And that is not the only change.
A few months ago some students of the Presidency University of Kolkata were interacting with the state chief minister in a televised programme. When a girl, Taniya Bhardwaj asked the CM an uncomfortable question, the latter shouted at her, called her a “Maoist”, and stomped out.
As I watched the absurd drama on TV, I was amazed by Taniya’s composure. Although she was taken aback initially, she was not seriously awed by the situation. She held her ground. On top of it, she followed it up with an open letter to the CM, saying: “One of the most important features of a true democracy, which I have learnt as a student of political science, is freedom of expression.”
It would be insane to expect the Bengal CM taking lessons in democracy from a young girl. But ironically, the chief minister of West Bengal was the only girl who made a mark as a student leader in the hoodlum years of the 1970s. A grandmother of mine, then the principal of a girls’ college in Kolkata, once told me, ‘A girl named Mamata is making my life miserable.’ While Mamata’s male comrades in Youth Congress were notorious for their vulgarity and violence, her principal claim to fame was that she had danced on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan’s car, something that she denies now.
However much I might detest our CM’s brand of politics, I have respected her – I still do – because she has overcome the twin disadvantages of her gender and subaltern background to reach where she has reached today. Mamata Banerjee and Taniya Bhardwaj are two strands of the same evolutionary process, one representing our pathological past and the other, a possibly different, desirable future.
I began this article with a conscious phrase, “young women of India”. Actually, we live in two countries simultaneously. Let’s also spare a thought for the young women of Bharat, who live under the watchful eyes of “khap panchayats” which rule that girls should be “married off” (what a sexist expression!) before they are sixteen so that they are not raped. Things haven’t changed much for them over centuries. Let me correct myself: we not only live simultaneously in two countries, but also in modern times and in the Middle Ages.