India's privileged youth caught between old and new [Commentary]

One by one, my students sat down to discuss their topics for a feature story assignment. A quiet and thoughtful young woman in her mid 20s — call her Veena — proposed an article about the lasting damage inflicted by child sexual abuse, a rampant problem in India that tends to get swept under the rug. It didn't take long for Veena to reveal that she, herself, had been a victim of rape by a relative, as had, I later learned, several of her classmates.

But Veena's story could go no further than the classroom. Coming forward to loved ones and the authorities would tear her family apart and sully her own good name, she said. Instead, Veena was destined to live in secret shame and cope on her own with her shattered morale.

Hers was one of numerous harrowing personal stories disclosed to me by students enrolled at the Asian College of Journalism, a graduate program based in Chennai, the state capital of Tamil Nadu in southern India. While there as a visiting instructor of feature writing for six months, I caught a glimpse of what life is like for young adults from India's most privileged classes.

By and large hailing from high caste, well-educated, affluent families, my students were far more fortunate than millions of their desperately poor contemporaries. Yet, they often appeared to have as little control of their futures as their disadvantaged brethren.

The offspring of scholars, lawyers, journalists, business owners and other professionals, they were groomed to shine academically and lead fulfilling lives in a country that had begun to shed its backward image and compete in the global marketplace. Squeezed between the old and the new India, my students were also expected to put their families' interests above their own, a concept that often meant remaining silent about sexual abuse, abiding by intolerant courtship customs and pursuing careers chosen by their parents.

That bind was captured in an essay on competing social values by my student Archita, who wrote: "Those of us, born in the late '80s and early '90s, see this change every day, have grandmothers who believe girls should not talk to boys and that marrying out of caste would 'curse' the family, and younger siblings who believe English is their mother tongue and celebrate Halloween with more pomp than Deepavali."

Although anecdotal in nature, my students' experiences were not exceptional. Veena's research found, for example, that she was hardly alone in her predicament. She cited one survey in which more than half of India's children reported being victims of sexual abuse; yet, only 11 percent of the victims told their parents; their silence stemming in part from the fear of further shame. To illustrate, Veena's article featured the account of a classmate whose revelation to her mother of sexual abuse by a tutor was met with disbelief and a slap on the face.

In classroom conversations, other clashes surfaced between the obligation to abide by traditional values and the lure of Western pop culture, which has infiltrated Indian media with offerings such as "Splitsvilla," a wildly popular Indian dating reality show based on an American television program.

While I was in Chennai, marketing blitzes at shiny shopping malls in celebration of Valentine's Day urged sweethearts to declare their love publicly. Billboards and television ads featured couples in sultry embrace. Yet, dating outside of family-approved relationships remains largely taboo — a situation seized upon by corrupt police officers to make a few extra rupees.

My student Nikitha interviewed young men and women who had been stopped by Chennai police officers simply because they were sitting next to one another on a beach or in a car. Typically, officers demanded hush money in exchange for not telling the couples' parents that they were keeping time together without their approvalAlthough the gay rights movement is burgeoning in India, its LBGT population confronts severe obstacles as well. In December, the nation's Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and recriminalized homosexuality. The decision mirrors the hostile environment many young Indians encounter at home. In a personal essay, one student recounted her family's response to her close friendship with another girl: "Being gay is a disease; it's not a way of living a civil life."

More than a few students were also caught in a tug of war between their parents' and their own career aspirations. Several had enrolled in the journalism college after a brief stint in engineering, considered the gold-standard of professions by affluent parents even though high-level opportunities in the field have been contracting.

Abhishek, a former engineer himself, tackled the dilemma in an article about the increasing number of young engineers who are deserting their field.

The pressure to meet parental expectations to become an IT success story is crushing his generation's drive to pursue their own dreams, Abhishek wrote: "This societal trend of students with intelligence above average aspiring to be nothing but engineers has erased the attitude of following the heart's call instead of settling for something which ensures easy financial stability."

Since graduation in May, some former female students have encountered another quandary. Their parents had encouraged their ambitions in journalism, a discipline that could take them to the far corners of the country and world. But now, it's a different story. I've been corresponding with one bright and enterprising student who has been adjusting to a demanding reporting job in a new city. Her mother, far away and concerned that she wasn't eating properly, is urging her to quit and return home.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former Baltimore Sun feature writer and was a Fulbright-Nehru visiting scholar in Chennai, India this past year. Her email is stephanieannshapiro@gmail.com.

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