Dented and Painted

On Christmas day, fifteen of us went trekking at Ananthagiri, a clutch of low hills with some farms and some ponds, about 70 km from TIFR-Hyderabad. On our way down the steepest terrain I have done this sort of thing on, we had to crouch down under the thick shrubbery. At the bottom was a quiet little pond with its assorted birds. By the time we made it down to the pond, all of us had scratches and cuts, and even some bruises. Mine were relatively minor and healed needing nothing more than cold cream. I am, I suppose, dented and painted.

The gang-rape of a 23 year old student in Delhi has shaken up middle-class India. The brutal nature of the assault on this woman and the man who was with her in the Delhi bus seems to have woken up residents of Delhi to the fact that this society is misogynistic and unsafe for women. The Delhi gang-rape isn’t the only horrifying thing that we as a society have seen — not even just since the Delhi incident: see this, this, this (18 women get raped every day in Delhi, say statistics). One can only wonder why we don’t see mass-protests against rape and police inaction — or even active sabotage — more often.

It is hard not to notice that the people protesting the lack of safety for women seem focused — barring some sane voiceson tougher punishment and more policing than on changing the conditions that led to this tragedy in the first place. Raziman points out that this baying for blood is society attempting to wash its hands off any responsibility to actually change for the better. People have asked why this rape gets the attention of “the nation” while many other incidents get brushed aside, their victims left to fend for themselves, if not actually persecuted by the State’s official machinery.

It is against this backdrop that I first read about Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of India’s president, making the remarks that gave this blogpost its title. I remember glossing over the details and deciding that he had simply made a poor choice of words in trying to express the sentiment that we need structural change in this society’s treatment of women.

At the breakfast table yesterday, Sriram Ramaswamy brought up Mukherjee’s comments and the fact that even his own sister has condemned him for making them. He asked us if we know what ‘dented and painted’ means. I confessed to not having thought about it too much. He had; he had also seen Arnab Goswami give Mukherjee the full Monty.

A car that has had a minor bump and has to have its body reshaped – by the sheet-metal body getting its kinks hammered out and re-painted to cover up the bump and the body-work – is what is colloquially called ‘dented-and-painted’.

Calling women protesting an unsafe society ‘dented and painted’ isn’t just a poor choice of words. It is symptomatic of the same malady that makes our society such a dangerous place for a woman to live: the same backwardness that mandates that a two-finger test  be performed on a rape-victim to ascertain whether she is “habituated to sex”, the same misogyny that led members of parliament in 2010 to reaffirm that marital rape will not be punished.

Mukherjee says that he was a student once and that he knows what a good student “should be”: no student who is so morally loose as to go to a discotheque has the right to also hold a candle-lit vigil against rape. And anybody who does, presumably, is only doing this so that she may continue her lifestyle of getting dented and painted.

UPDATE, 29/12/2012: I wrote this last night and posted it this morning. I have learnt, since, that the woman who was gang-raped in Delhi has died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital.