Conversations with Bangalore auto driver: A woman’s character

I wrote about a part of my conversation with a Bangalore auto driver. Our conversation meandered from NaMo to Muslim-haters, Rushdie, censorship, in that order.

He brought up Rushdie and how ‘westernized Muslims’ do disservice to religion, leave alone others. I asked if he had read the book. He said he didn’t but he has heard what he wrote about – a parody of Prophet’s life. Unable to resist, I asked what he thought of the ‘satanic verses’.

‘Satanic verses?’ (Later I think if he was just checking what I knew?)

groupI explain. ‘Quran, as I understand, was verbally revealed to Prophet by angel Gabriel (Jibrail as I said to him) in the cave of Hira and it was recorded later by his disciples.

So, before founding of Islam, Meccans worshipped three pagan goddesses. One day Prophet came back from cave and announced that these goddesses were exalted. However, few days later, Prophet retracts these verses that angel Gabriel has informed him that Satan tempted him to utter these verses. Hence, the phrase ‘satanic verses’, right?’

At this point, auto driver is ‘impressed’ with my ‘knowledge’. Even while driving, instead of looking at road, he turns to look back, as if seeing me with new eyes.

‘Yes, those goddesses are Allāt, al-‘Uzzā and Manāt. Prophet had perhaps said it out of his desire to make peace with erstwhile Arabs who worshipped goddesses.’

Then, after a brief pause, ‘How do you know all this?’

‘I read.’

Carried away with the subject, I continue: ‘How does banning help though? It only makes stuff famous. I wouldn’t have even known about Taslima Nasreen had it not been for those 1993 death fatwas and hue and cry…’

He interrupts me, vehemently: ‘That woman has brought on shame to Islam. She is no good woman or good muslim…’ He is suddenly full of rage and I am taken aback by this change in his demeanor.

I interrupt. ‘Wait, wait, have you read her book Lajja, one that brought it all?’

‘I have not. I would never. She is such a fallen woman and an insult to Islam…’

‘But I have read Lajja; it says nothing about Islam. Not a word. It is only written from Hindu protagonist’s story of angst in wake of attacks on Hindus in Dhaka after Babri Masjid. She writes a bit about women but the book says nothing bad about Islam.’

Impatient, he interrupts. ‘You don’t understand. I don’t know about the book. She is a characterless woman. You are a woman and so I can’t talk frankly with you.‘ At this point, he starts fidgeting and stammering. I understand it is something to do with sex when he hems and haws again ‘about not being able to say it to a woman’. Though I hate Indian prudishness of avoiding conversations about sex with the opposite gender, I didn’t want to encourage this stranger to be forthcoming either.

However, from his stammers, I pieced he was upset about ‘some video? of Ms Nasreen with six men (not sure all at same time or separately). 😐

Keeping my personal feelings aside on the subject, I reply with as much dignity I can muster: ‘What Ms Nasreen does is her personal business. I am not concerned since it is none of my business. However, the book, I am judging only on its contents. It was not fair for our people to throw her out of Calcutta…’

He interrupts me again, ‘She is khatib’s daughter. Yet she goes on to shame Islam. Do you know what a khatib is?’

I had no idea. He explains a khatib is a person who delivers sermons.

Ms Nasreen has clearly no idea how she has disappointed an entire religion and inadvertently it is left to me to defend her ‘character’. However, I chicken out and swiftly lead back the conversation to safe subject of Egypt.

But this conversation has stuck in my mind since that day. This man is willing to forgive NaMo, who as head of state was expected to prevent 2002 but didn’t; yet he is willing to start with NaMo from a ‘position of trust’. He even makes excuses for Rushdie that he is misguided and anglicized. But, when it comes to Taslima Nasreen, he is unforgiving because he thinks of her as a fallen woman because she sleeps around; as a result, facts about her book/situation are irrelevant. She deserves to be condemned and vilified. So, question is, when it comes to a woman, why are we stuck with this C-word ‘character’? What defines a woman’s character? Why does definition of a woman’s character narrow down to the answer to just one question ie has she had sex outside of wedlock? Why can’t we respect personal and individual freedom of a woman? (This auto driver had no such worries about liaisons of anglecised Mr Rushdie.)

I still remember, as a kid, how few aunties were deeply offended by movie Kya Kehna and were outraging in my mother’s drawing room for ‘misguiding generations of girls’. Decades later, when I would finally watch the movie, I wouldn’t understand what the fuss was about. The thought of recommending Juno to those same aunties brings a sadistic smile to my face.

It is well documented how Muslims are not able to rent houses in Hindu localities and vice versa. However, it is very rarely talked about how hard it is for a single, unmarried woman to rent a house in an Indian city. They are viewed as ‘liability’ by society at large. Several benevolent, elderly uncles politely declined to me saying, we really like you two young girls, you both seem to very nice and managing well, but should you live here we will always be worried of your safety. OK.

I took me 1.5 months to find a place where owner was not defining terms and conditions of how to live, for eg, don’t come home after 10pm, don’t bring anybody home except parents. I have had prospective landlords telling these dictates to me, an adult woman earning my living without any filial/blood relation to the home owners and yet they want to tell me how to live just because I will live in their property for which I will pay them.

An incident recently reminded me how much society keeps a watch on you. Two young men were loudly arguing/gossiping in front on my balcony at around 10pm. The location, in front on my balcony, was incidental, I am sure. A well-meaning uncle from the colony shouts to them, ‘Move away from there. Two good girls live there.’ Wow. I have no idea who this uncle is but he clearly knows us. Second, he has, with some observation, arrived at this conjecture we are two ‘good girls’ who are worthy of ‘his protection’. Third, he has no bloody idea how foolishly he has now publicly announced that two girls live here in this house.

I am not sure why does society be so ‘protective’ of us and consider us a liability to be watched over. Why don’t women have rights to live their lives as they wish without moral censorship of society in general?

P.S: (This section is optional to read. )

1. But here is that verse from Quran that corrects the ‘satanic verse’.

Are yours the males and His the females?
That indeed were an unfair division! (53:21,22)

A suggested translation is: When you Arabs have sons (whom you prefer to daughters!), how unfair of you to say that God has daughters! The idea of a plurality of gods or goddesses or sons or daughters of God is ridiculous. God alone is God. The three goddesses are false.

If you notice this is not only about monotheism, but also about gender inequality. Contrary to the perception, Rushdie didn’t create ‘satanic verses’, he just wrote about it. Disclaimer: I have not read the book either, just excerpts.

2. Btw, I googled about Taslima Nasreen. I didn’t find any reference to or the video that guy was referring to. It is quite possible I didn’t know where to look. 😐 However, he had his facts wrong. Taslima is daughter of a gynecologist and not a khatib as he said. There maybe some truth that she may have offended Islam in some other ways but Lajja is definitely not one of those works. Also, it is well-known that Ms Nasreen has written several auto-biographical books detailing her sex life and of those involved with her. I have not read these books. If Ms Nasreen herself has made some references about ‘six men’, honestly, I am unaware. However, this guy though well-informed on several other matters seems to have formed his opinions on erroneous facts. Or was it because he wanted to?

4 Responses to “Conversations with Bangalore auto driver: A woman’s character”

  1. 1 asuph March 17, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    I know I’m a book maniac, when the first reaction I have to the piece is, what, you haven’t read “The Satanic Verses”? Please do. Just about 10% of the book is about the verses business. The rest is about “home” and its corollary, immigration. About mumbai, and this and that … Has it’s flaws, but I’d still rate it as his second best book after Midnight’s Children.

    That said, nice writeup. Didn’t comment on part I as I was waiting for part II. Sometimes, we get blinded to attitudes all around us that it takes someone to point it out. That suffocating/limiting side of the “chivalry” is one such thing. The harsh judgement against someone like Taslima Nasreen (with male writes, even abuse is forgiven, for instance) are not puzzling given the double standards that are there almost everywhere. To the extent that even people like me who like to believe they are either sympathetic or champions of feminism could be doing it without knowing it.

    The other curious thing in the narrative is, and I’m not sure if you intended people to notice it, how quickly people change from rational/reasonable to conditioned/aggressive when a fundamental belief (in this case women need to be “pure”, perhaps?) is in question implicitly/explicitly. I’ve seen this happen in discussions with people of all persuasions — religious or otherwise, and indeed could be guilty, myself, of the same, but unable to see it, and stop it at that moment. It’s scary, sometimes.

  2. 2 Poonam Sharma March 17, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    @Asuph I am reader with several quirks. I never found a copy of ‘Satanic Verses’ that had good print/font, perhaps because mostly they were pirated. I have read about Mumbai bit too, again in excerpts. I will try to remedy this soon.

    I am pretty sure, despite having strong views on the subject, I err on this side of gender stereotypes, sometimes unconsciously. It is too deeply ingrained.

    I notice it all the time – how people change quickly when it comes to their own bias. Reminds me of Lee Cobb’s character in 12 Angry Men. (I find this movie has high re-watch value) He starts in the beginning of the movie, ‘I have no personal feelings about this. I just want to talk about facts.’ As it would turn out by the end of meeting, he turns out to be most prejudiced and aggressive. Transformation is complete. I felt the same with this guy and often feel same way with several friends when their fundamental belief, as you put is, is challenged.

  3. 3 thandapani March 17, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    This was a most unusual conversation. It became quite a commentary on the prevalent attitudes against women as it progressed.

    We know so little about people (Ms. Nasreen here), and we are so quick to form prejudices and agree to notions trotted out by others (our friends and family). I am pretty sure the auto driver was subscribing to the views of his contemporaries regarding Ms.Nasreen’s behavior.

  4. 4 Poonam Sharma March 17, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    @thandapani I blog rarely but couldn’t get this conversation out of my head. The awkwardness of unstated sexual connotation in the conversation, the faint frisson of fear at witnessing his rage – I don’t think I would recommend such conversations to anyone. The imprudence of it. (Hindsight is always easier.)

    You are right, Ava, I do think he was sort of brainwashed on the subject and he was parroting whatever he was told. But, his natural instincts seemed to lie with this belief system.

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