Pooja and Lalla

"Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations and ages it is the rule."
– Friedrich Nietzsche
There was a time in this land when a woman could express her spiritual devotion, her ecstasy at being alive, in some shockingly simple ways. Lalleshwari, the 14th-century Shaivite Sufi poet more commonly known as Lalla, used to set Kashmir aflame by dancing naked in the streets. This was her teaching as well as her prayer – in addition to her rebuttal to the hypocritical clerical orthodoxy and the 'respectability' of her day.

Humanity has made much progress since then. Purdahs have fallen on women's freedoms. Christianity and colonialism have wrought their effect throughout Southasia. Victorian values have conquered and left their stamp on Hindu morals. Had she been alive today, Lalla would probably have ended up in a roguish prison ward.

Like Lalla, Pooja Chauhan, the 22-year-old from Rajkot, Gujarat, who recently made headlines by marching down the street in her undergarments, has also had an unhappy marriage. She was habitually abused by her husband and in-laws, particularly for not bringing enough dowry; her in-laws reportedly demanded that she bring them money "even if it entailed the flesh trade". Pooja and her young daughter now live separately from her husband, Pratab Singh Chauhan. But unlike Lalla, Pooja does not wish to end her unhappy marriage, because she does not want Pratab to victimise "another Pooja".

After having been forced to arrest Pooja's husband, her in-laws, and her equally abusive neighbours, the Rajkot Police Commissioner announced that he was "also planning to take action against Pooja, for indecent behaviour in a public place" – although the esteemed officer added that his forces would first "examine her mental condition". Since when did the police become arbiters of human sanity?

National dailies across India immediately put Pooja's picture on their front pages, striding defiantly in her underwear through the waterlogged streets of Rajkot. She had a baseball bat in one hand (with which she wanted the police, who had repeatedly refused to record a first information report, to hit her attackers) and bangles in the other (to put on police forearms, should they refuse to do so).

This woman is not mad. She is clearer in heart and mind than the rest of us. Pooja's action is on a par with that of the Manipuri women who, in 2004, stripped naked in front of the Imphal headquarters of the Assam Rifles, the paramilitary force accused of large-scale rape and murder in Manipur. The women, carrying banners that read Indian Army, Rape Us! were also highlighting the cowardice of the Indian state in overlooking human-rights abuse under the auspices of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

And indeed, the reaction to Pooja's protest reveals that the naked female body exercises the same power on the public imagination as it did in Lalla's age. The saving grace is that the media is still alert to atrocities like the ones that Pooja has suffered. But then, the same media accounts lapsed into confusion, choosing to open up the issue for debate by posing the question as to whether Pooja was a 'victim' or a 'culprit'. Debate for the sake of debate is the most wasteful use of the human intellect, and some Indian newspapers are becoming unusually fond of it. Shall we debate the pros and cons of farmer suicides, too? Let the false moralities that govern so many respectable lives face up to their hypocrisies. The hour is getting late.

What is not confused is the consistency between so many leading Indian newspapers (and television channels) in the ways that they display women's bodies. Some of the representations are unambiguously vulgar – reflecting the demands of the fashion industry, rather than being a celebration of women's freedom. (Lalla herself would make a poor advertisement for anything.) The editors might themselves retort that they have to cater to public taste – and indeed, doing so certainly helps to expand a newspaper's circulation. To them, this writer can only quote T S Eliot: "Those who aim to give the public what the public wants begin by underestimating the public taste, and end by debauching it."

Instead of wincing with false shame, weep for joy, Mother India, that you still have daughters of such courage as Pooja. At such a time, we would do well to listen to Lalla again: Dance, Lalla, with nothing on but air. Sing, Lalla, wearing the sky. Look at this glowing day! What clothes could be so beautiful, or more sacred?

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