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Opinion | Learning to be cool. Learning to be just not cool with it

The nature of social change seems to be like babies you live with. Suddenly they are throwing your Oxford India Ramanujan across the room when last week they couldn't hold a spoon

A Pinjra Tod protest march at North Campus in 2016. Photo: Hindustan Times
A Pinjra Tod protest march at North Campus in 2016. Photo: Hindustan Times

A young acquaintance, S, fell very ill this week and called me on the way to the doctor. When I heard from her later in the evening, she said she was fine. Her boyfriend’s father had driven her back from the doctor and her boyfriend’s mother was making her ice cream. I was secretly awed by all this coolness and tried not to show it. She is a cool kid and perhaps I should also pretend to be cool, I told myself.

She had first come on my radar back when on a noisy night out, I heard her yelling at her suspicious mother on the phone, “Ma, why do you call so late, I was sleeping."

That manoeuvre was impressive but it was a familiar one.

Luckily, when I told a friend about S, he promptly and honestly said, “Wah, wah". He and I are still impressed when young people don’t have to hide from their lovers’ parents. My friends and I are still asking each other, did you think you would live to see the decriminalization of Section 377, did you, did you?

We didn’t. But some of our queer friends and their lovers have been so out to their parents and to the world, they gave us straight folks courage. I didn’t “down" their lives like a cinematic shot of whiskey. The publicness of their loves and likes and their willingness to embrace both #bornthisway and #notbornthisway was a vitamin occasionally popped and then routinely eaten until you realized that damn vitamin had been part of your life for 20 years.

Did it take S effort to be cool with her boyfriend’s cool parents? Did she and her boyfriend have to pretend to be cool at first? Or were they and the parents born cool? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Because today at 21, she is a tiny action figure with a taste for sequins, glitter, pretty stationery and a polite habit of asking you for your preferred pronoun.

Sometimes being an action figure lies in being like my queer friends—in making your preferred world the “normal" one and looking gently surprised when anyone thinks you are “so brave" to wear that/do that/be that.

But sometimes bravery lies in recognizing the ridiculous, recognizing and pointing out that no, that’s not a rose garden you are selling me, that’s barbed wire.

“Ladies Hostel" was once a kind of rose garden, a benign-veering-towards-comical phrase when I was growing up. In my head it always appeared in fat font on a movie poster with women who looked like Hema Malini. Today the phrase gives me the creeps with a Beethoven’s 5th Symphony-ish anticipation of doom.

The details vary but they are almost always horrid. Of the hostel doors that were locked from the outside so women couldn’t get out even in case a fire broke out. Of the lack of decent food and adequate water. Often the horror lies in the alternate reality that the rule setters of women’s hostels live in. As the autonomous women’s organization Pinjra Tod pointed out a few days ago, the women of the Regional Institute of Education, Bhopal are currently protesting the current curfew time of 6.45pm for dozens of reasons. It has taken the residents a lot of work and suffering and standing up to threats of expulsion to delay the curfew minute by minute from the original 6pm. The women had apparently been told by the administration that the curfew was for their safety because “there are black mambas in the volleyball ground which is 100m away from the hostel and we are trying to keep you all safe because they can bite you". As Pinjra Tod noted sardonically on Twitter, “One can only wonder why all the black mambas of Bhopal come out after 6pm to bite women students!" And the students clearly feel that venomous snakes endemic to sub-Saharan Africa (but those who may be visiting Bhopal, let’s keep an open mind) are better than an administration that fines women for the use of bicycles. Or insists that women who want to study late in the library can be there with permission until 8pm, and no later, but also can’t leave the library earlier.

As 22-year-old Kanupriya, the first woman to be elected head of Panjab University’s student council, declared this week (her first week as president) to The Indian Express, “Dress code, hostel timings and moral policing represent a derogatory and patriarchal mindset of authorities. This should have no place in Panjab University. Like 18-year-old boys are considered mature enough, 18-year-old girls who study here are equally mature".

Once it would have been a cute innocuous thing, the phrase hostel timings. Now it’s undeniably a denial of democracy. And we can hear this tonal shift without any particular effort. We can hear it because of the daily relentless work of groups like Pinjra Tod, young people who have clarity about what it means to be in a hostel, hungry and on a stipend, to be in a hostel, hungry and on a massive student loan and to be all these things and a woman. They are not fighting for you to see the New Normal. They are wondering why you can’t see the Old Abnormal.

When I read the news from Panjab University, I thought of a 30-something Indian Youth Congress member I met a decade ago. Back then he must have thought I looked sympathetic and complained to me at length about the invasion of “glamour politics" in the once-serious Delhi University. It took me a while to understand glamour politics was his contemptuous code for women candidates. I wonder now whether the women were annoying him then by talking about hostel timings and dress codes.

Perhaps this week he read about Kanupriya’s win in Punjab and he was disgusted.

Or perhaps this week he read about Kanupriya’s win and thought it normal. Because the nature of social change seems to be like babies you live with. Suddenly they are throwing your Oxford India Ramanujan across the room when last week they couldn’t hold a spoon. In the words of my favourite friend’s favourite quote, “Ye sab kya ho raha hai, beta Duryodhan (What is happening, son Duryodhan)?".

The truth is, of course, Section 377 didn’t get decriminalized overnight. Of course, Kanupriya’s politics didn’t win overnight. Of course, it didn’t suddenly become a decade since you cracked open your once most longed-for collection of poetry. Of course, Baby didn’t become a dictionary bomber overnight. No, Baby has been building muscles. Baby has been fighting black mambas, real, imaginary and the ones in Bhopal.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

She tweets at @chasingiamb

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