The many faces of India

The idea that India is "the rape capital of the world" needs to be challenged but without refusing women's experience of fear and violence.

A University of Chicago student recently wrote about her experience in India on a study trip. RoseChasm (the name she’s written by) recalls “men filming our every move” when she and her friends danced in the Ganesha Festival, “clawing at our breasts and groin”, “the smiling man who masturbated at me on a bus”. She also describes how she lay in her hotel bedroom holding a pair of scissors while the staff member of the hotel who had attempted to rape her friend called her over and over on the phone. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder on her return to university.

It is no doubt a difficult account to read, but for various reasons. It is distressing to hear of RoseChasm’s perpetual fear and experience of instances of violence. It is probably more so because I and most, if not all, women in India can relate to those experiences – getting into an auto-rickshaw and being vigilant to see if the driver is indeed taking you where you want to go, being brushed against and groped in busy buses, trying to hide from staring eyes and so on. But it is also disconcerting to read that RoseChasm assumes that it’s because she’s white that she experienced sexual harassment in India: “I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize.”

RoseChasm’s contention is problematic because her only view of India seems to be as a white woman. I am not alleging that Indian men do not see white women as different from Indian women; however, ‘different’ doesn’t necessarily imply easy to sexually harass and assault. If anything, the delivery of justice in India in cases of rape, functioning as it does under pressure, has been more of a sure shot for travellers than for Indian women. One of the quickest rape trials to be conducted in the country was that of the rape of a German tourist in Rajasthan in 2006 which concluded in 15 days. By contrast, the trial of the case of gang rape of Delhi student in December 2012, which saw large scale protests in India, is still ongoing eight months after the incident.

Unintentionally, RoseChasm’s narrative obliterates, and paradoxically overstates, violence against women who live in India. It obliterates because she doesn’t mention talking to or sharing her experiences with other women in India (even though it is stated that she wrote this account in hope of spreading “international exposure about what women travellers and residents experience in India”). And it overstates because it quite easily lends itself to the assumption that it must be really bad for women in India if it’s that bad for a female traveller; an assumption that leads to the Chinese Whispers myth that the rest of the countries in the world don’t have a ‘rape problem’.

This very paradox underlies my own dilemma when writing about violence against women in India and, in this specific case, in criticising RoseChasm’s account without invalidating her experiences. It’s the same dilemma I face when I give out advice to friends planning to travel to India - the time they should get back to their hotel by, the people they shouldn’t talk to, and a few Hindi words that could help them manage emergencies - without making them feel like they’d be responsible if some wrong came their way. My issue indeed is not with what RoseChasm has described (which, as I said, I can personally identify with) but with how she’s described it.

Interestingly, a fellow student of RoseChasm who went on the same study trip followed up RoseChasm’s account with her own experience of travelling in India. The only black student on the trip, twoseat (the name she’s written by), writes: “I felt that I stood out even more because I stood out very starkly from the Indian population and especially from my white and Asian peers.” However, she wishes to steer clear of generalisations and emphasises that she met many warm and honest men too while in India. Her account is important because it drives home that travelling in India is, as in any other country, plural in the experiences and interactions it presents.

RoseChasm’s dilemma of how to respond to friends and family when they ask about her trip to India is also part of this story. India still conjures up colonial images of colour, chaos, virile men and oppressed women in travellers’ minds which often seem to inform all those questions about that one trip to India that a cousin or a friend or a neighbour took. This narrative that portrays India as a singular entity, the land of elephants and snake charmers, the rape capital of the world, needs to be challenged but without refusing the experience of fear and violence by women living and travelling in the country.

Protestors chant slogans as they hold up placards during a protest in December 2012. Photo: Getty

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.