Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cultural norms for ladies (+foreigners) playing out beyond the classroom

It is about 4am now on Monday, and I'm sitting on my couch with the laptop aptly sitting on my lap; there is a reddish-brown cockroach on its back ten feet in front of me (it looks lifeless), and I have a soothing glass of tea on the table. Feeling cold is atypical in Bangalore, except perhaps when you are riding on the back of a motorcycle at night, or when you are standing outside with the police at night as the wind nips at your neck, because in this case you can't use the driver to help shield you from the chill.

Shailesh is the closest Indian friend I have. A few years older than me and a computer engineer, he is a relaxed and respectful dude. His living in the States for two years has made it easier to get to know each other. Anyways, last evening, he picked me up to see a play called "Dancing on Glass," a dramedy (drama-comedy) based on a relationship of two people who work in the IT industry. It was the first play we had seen at the Ranga Shankara, a lovely theater that puts on affordable plays every day of the week besides Mondays. It was fascinating to observe how the Indian audience responded to the comedy.

Anyways, post-show we dined, grabbed a cone of chocolate walnut brownie gelato, and headed to his place to watch one of the warmest movies I can recall watching. "Life is Beautiful" is a reminder of how the mind can help turn a gruesome situation (life in the concentration camps) into one of the most beautiful things (a game between a father and his young son). If you have not seen the movie, you need to; you will be better for it. After the film, I decided it best to go home, so we hopped on his bike. After stopping for him to tinkle, we jumped back on the bike, and then we got the signal by two policemen on a motorcycle to pull over.

They asked for my friend's ID, and then questioned him about me. What was he doing outside with a foreigner, a lady foreigner, at three in the morning? (They thought something unkosher was happening.) I furnished copies of my residency permit, passport, and visa. The cops were still skeptical; they tested my friend on my basic information, asked how we knew each other, and then repeated the question of what we were doing out so late, because didn't he know that ladies should not be out at this time?!? The cops spoke in Kannada (the local tongue) and in English. I wanted to tell the men in tan that I was doing nothing illegal by riding with a friend at night, but I didn't want "to be fresh." They asked my friend about his college degree, and then told him that, "as an educated man, he should know better than to travel around with a foreigner at such an hour." Shailesh acquiesced, providing the "yes, Sirs" that they expected. They nearly dragged him to the station to demand bribes, but let us go, probably because Shailesh was so polite.

It truly astonished me to have been questioned for twenty minutes in the cold after both my friend and I had furnished the proper documents. There was no evidence of having broken any laws, so we should have been free to leave after a few minutes. This exemplified the strange role of many police in India; they do not necessarily have to follow procedure, as do cops in the U.S., and can easily demand bribes that are difficult to deny. If you don't pay them the bribes, they will just create more trouble for you. While saying "no" to the corrupt cops is the best way to get rid of this behavior, it is quite impractical. Though no bribes were demanded, I still felt stifled to have been questioned at length about riding with my friend, especially because I got the feeling they thought there may have been a business exchange, rather than a friendship, between the two of us. It was also the lack of dignity the police had for us that made me feel mistreated, and the fact that Shailesh had to pretend to agree with them when they were telling us our behavior was inappropriate.


Dad said...

That is a very interesting and thought provoking slice of Indian life.

Well told too.

Keep it up.

Kristen said...

Why is it that we put so much stock in legal documents and laws when clearly they depend on honest people creating and enforcing them.?

Looks like you are learning to watch your behind girl.

I'm enjoying your posts and will enjoy the stories even more from your mouth to my ears.

all the love in the holy city,