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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Pink Sari Revolution – A Tale of Women and Power in India

Bundelkhand is a region in central India divided between the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It is not a good place. Economically, it is often compared (unfavourably) to sub-Saharan Africa. Socially, it is stuck in pre-medieval times, where caste determines one’s station in life. Politically, it is a boiling cauldron of caste politics, where “one doesn’t cast one’s vote, one votes one’s caste.”

Women’s emancipation, empowerment and equality are fanciful notions here, and sexual assault by higher caste men on lower caste women, while not commonplace, doesn’t really surprise anyone. In such an environment, it is impossible to imagine a woman like Sampat Pal – a woman who is all by herself pulling women from benighted darkness into light.

Sampat is the leader of the Pink Gang – so called because the members of the gang (comprising only women) drape themselves in pink saris. She periodically leads her gang members to beat up cowardly husbands who harass their wives, corrupt cops who bully the weak, rapacious politicians who rob everyone. In a short span, she has become a nightmare for men in the region, hitherto unaccustomed to being questioned now face a very real possibility of public humiliation.

Amana Fontanella-Khan’s Pink Sari Revolution – A Tale of Women and Power in India is Sampat’s story, an unlettered woman, with rudimentary grip over her circumstances who learns early on in life that the only way to survive is to fight back. She starts with fighting her husband’s family, and then her husband, for her own space, and then takes on the entire world in the unwavering pursuit of her dream to usher in a revolution to upturn the prevailing status quo that keeps women in servitude and suppression.

She is successful to an astonishing degree. As Fontanella-Khan notes in admiration, Sampat transforms herself from a docile child bride into a feisty and firebrand woman, turning her Pink Gang from a small band of enthusiasts into a mass organization of “about twenty thousand members, making them the gang double the size of the Irish army and eight times larger than the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.”

The book is also the story of Sheelu, a lower caste young woman who is sexually assaulted by Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a higher caste politician. After the assault, Dwivedi accuses Sheelu of petty thievery and uses the state apparatus at his disposal to incarcerate her. Again, this wouldn’t have been different from the hundreds of similar cases that occur and generally aren’t unreported. It is different because of Sampat decided to obstinately pursue Sheelu’s case, and ultimately succeeds in securing the young woman’s release from prison, and get Dwivedi arrested.

Pink Sari Revolution begins as a gloomy tale of exploitation, but rapidly turns into an inspiring saga of women’s struggle to overthrow a culture of male dominance that is seemingly embedded into people’s thinking right from the times of Manu, the post-Vedic Hindu lawgiver, who postulated that women shouldn’t ever be independent. Fontanella-Khan’s book illustrates the improbably and yet unrelenting, irreversible and fast-paced changes that are sweeping India’s Hindi heartland.

Pink Sari Revolution has an outsider’s perspective. The writer doesn’t claim to understand the Indian way of life and living, but is keen to immerse herself in it, and she goes about doing that as a method actor would – by living the part. She lives with the women who are her subject, doing things they do, the way they do it. She empathizes, doesn’t judge, and portrays their life and times, often supressing her own revulsion to their barbaric social practices such as child marriages.

She writes: “One year into my travels to Bundelkhand, I lived with Sampat at her family home in Badausa (in August 2011 and December 2011). I have many happy memories from that time. In those days, we all bathed at the same water hand-pump and I learned by observing others how one washes more or less fully dressed.”

The book also answers an intriguing question: Why did the gang choose the colour pink? The answer is rather mundane: After one woman from the group goes missing during a protest march, Sampat decided that every member of her group would wear a uniform. They settle upon Gulabi (pink) because it hadn’t been chosen by any other social or political group before. The local media promptly dubs these women – draped in pink saris and carrying a lathi (stick) – the Gulabi Gang.

Fontanella-Khan’s unfamiliarity with her subject, language and milieu leads to some avoidable errors. For instance, Sampat Pal’s husband Munni Lal is derisively termed ‘Buddha’ (old man) by their children. The writer erroneously interprets to mean the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Commenting on the Muni Lal’s marginalization in his house, she writes, “Their children rarely sought his permission or advise in important matters. Behind his back they call Munni the ‘Buddha,’ because all he does is sit in a meditative silence.”

However, this is a minor quibble.

Pink Sari Revolution is an important book. It foretells the future of women in India. 

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