On the Making of Electricity : Ravi Shankar

January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ravi Shankar discusses the origins of his recent Brevity essay “Electricity“:

shankarThough born in Washington DC, the son of Indian immigrants, I always have had a particular affinity to India, which I still consider my spiritual and ancestral homeland. I try to return to see family every few years and these experiences were utterly transformative when I was a young boy, a sort of existential suspension of the person—an American, an athlete, and cool (whatever that meant)—I was trying desperately to become. In India, I could eat with my hands off banana leafs, bathe in rivers, and have my head shaved at temples.

I was simultaneously an insider and an outsider there, someone who looked like the teeming others who surrounded me, but knew little of the language and none of the cultural idioms or social mores, a fact that became more and more apparent to me as I grew older. As I settled into a painful adolescence, buffeted by hormones, I grew particularly intrigued by the gender relations that seemed to exist in India, the paradoxical place that sexuality had in Indian society.

Sex was taboo; in Bollywood movies, on-screen kisses were forbidden, let alone showing a little skin.

Sex was celebrated; some of the most ornate erotic art lit up the friezes of temples with deities intertwined in carnal, polygamous embraces.

Sita, who, though kidnapped by lecherous demons in the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana, remained undefiled by them. Rama, her betrothed hero and the “perfect man”, doesn’t quite believe this and makes her pass the agni-pariksha, or fire-test, literally having her walk through a flame to prove her purity. When she passes through unscathed, she becomes the paragon of female virtue, purity and loyalty. The quintessential good wife.

Yet on trains and buses, in villages and the city, women are sexually assaulted on a daily basis, subjugated to furtive touches and rubbed up against by too horny males who seem to have no healthy outlet for their sexual energy. And if a woman is raped, it was probably her fault.

This was context that my piece “Electricity” was written in and it speaks to me both of the aspirational and hypocritically quality of Indian society as I experienced as a young man. Eve-teasing is an euphemism that is still used for public sexual harassment and molestation of women; the connotation of the term comes from the Bible, Eve being the temptress who makes Adam stray from the path of rectitude in the Garden of Eden, and the teasing, being to allure a man, sometimes just by moving one’s hips or showing a bare neck or arm, with no intention of satisfying the desire that such behavior elicits.  The woman is to blame, according to the quasi fun-loving term, much the way in Arab cultures females are asked to cover their heads and bodies, lest they inflame a man with lust.

I had heard and ever read about this but to experience this first-hand, with my own flesh-and-blood relation, my first cousin, doing the molestation was shocking and yet, to my great shame, so was my reaction to it. I was incensed, but didn’t say much in response.  I kept my distance after that episode, and ostracized the fellow, though I wish in retrospect I had been vociferous in intervening.  But if I am to be totally honest with myself, while the largest part of me was repulsed and irate, there was a smaller part that was genuinely captivated at the courage it took to actually make contact with another female.

Being desperate for a girlfriend myself, shy and painfully unsure of how to even speak to a girl, let alone touch her, I fear I mistook his cowardice as a form of bravery. And on the way home, I spun out a fantasy, that I had been this woman’s savior, her Rama, saving her from my cretinous cousin and as a reward, she had clasped me to her bosom and taught me all about bodily pleasures of which I could only dream.

On my way home, leaving behind one skin to slip into another, thinking again about how I would integrate into American school, be accepted and admired by my peers, I decided I would invent just such a story and brag that my summer vacation with my weird Indian parents was not so bad. That I had been a hit with the ladies and even had a summer fling.

In order to produce a simple electric current, you need three things: a source of voltage, like a battery; a conductive path, such as a wire; and a resistor that converts the energy into work, like a light bulb. In the triangulation between my cousin, Bilji, and myself, all three elements were at play, each of us playing our role to create a closed circuit. In the end, I was just as complicit and just as guilty as my cousin in what eventually happened, both in the flesh and in the eventual transmutation of the entire episode into a story.

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