Sunday, September 1, 2013

Progress ("Pink Sari Revolution" by Amana Fontanella-Khan)

If the American publishing industry is to be believed, we live in an age of unprecedented revolutions. Even a cursory search on Amazon reveals that we are currently undergoing a revolution in how we eat (The Paleo Revolution, The Slow Cooker Revolution, The Green Smoothie Revolution), where we live (The Metropolis Revolution), how we run our businesses (The Social Media Revolution), how we live our lives (Work Life Revolution), and the role of government (Ron Paul's The Revolution:  A Manifesto), among others. Almost all of these revolutions are gratuitous in nature, christened as such by a series of agents, book editors, and publishers, not to mention the slew of writers who hope to redefine themselves as oracles important enough to warrant fame, follow-ups, and a hefty paycheck. The only true "revolution" here--that is, the only widespread change in the status quo--is not political or economic or even dietary, but linguistic:  we've taken a word with a deep historical and political meaning, especially here in the United States, and redefined it to fit our own silly lifestyles and ideologies.

What's worse is that, while Americans plod along with focus-group revolutions, there are actual blood-and-sweat revolutions taking place throughout the world--the very kind of social movements we should be watching and supporting from start to finish. First and foremost was the Arab Spring, which began with one man's self-immolation and spread to more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries, resulting in the overthrow of five dictators as of this writing.* A 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan ushered in democratic elections and a new Constitution in a region of the world where democracy is often suppressed, and protests in Brazil over a simple spike in bus fares earlier this year highlighted growing issues of poverty, poor education, and the spending of taxes in one of the world's biggest economies. Other protests and revolutions across the world--Spain, Greece, Turkey, the Central African Republic, Syria--exemplify a changing world in which those who are downtrodden or oppressed see a solution in free speech and assembly, even in the face of violence and death.

There is no better example of this than the Pink Sari Revolution happening now in Uttar Pradesh, a Michigan-sized region of norther India that is home to over 200 million people. There, as in many places throughout India and the world itself, corruption among politicians and police is rampant; because of this, crime often goes unpunished and even unreported, especially when committed against girls and women. Much of Indian society relies on an outdated understanding of social class and gender roles, and marrying off underage girls--which means taking them out of school--is still commonplace. Another common occurrence is violence--physical, sexual, emotional--against women, though only recently has the issue gained widespread media attention beyond India's borders.

Leading the charge against all of this--corruption, poverty, and crimes against women--is Sampat Pal, an unassuming housewife who, against a myriad of odds, has raised an army of over 200,000 women to fight alongside her. Together, they push back against long-standing obstacles, no matter the danger. Dressed in pink saris and wielding large sticks, the women organize as best they can--very few have cell phones, and even fewer have the means to travel--and descend upon police stations, jails, power plants, doctors' offices, and anywhere else they're needed to rail against injustice, oppression, and wrongdoing. Should their demands not be met or their grievances be laughed off, they are not above using the sticks to their advantage, even against men in positions of power; often, they are followed by the news media, which delights in gathering soundbites from the savvy and well-spoken Pal for rebroadcast across the region and nation.

Amana Fontanella-Khan's Pink Sari Revolution follows Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang over the course of a criminal investigation involving Sheelu, a 17 year-old Indian girl who is at the heart of a conspiracy involving theft, rape, and threats of murder. Though the facts of the case are unclear, what isn't is Sheelu's innocence:  she is little more than a pawn in the machinations of a local political hack and a corrupt police force, all of them acting in tandem to deflect attention from the politician's many crimes and malfeasances. As Sheelu's story unfolds from arrest to trial, so does Sampat Pal's, and the book alternates between past and present in a way that shows us the importance of progress for two very different people:  a young girl who defied the norms of the day for her own benefit grows up and continues to defy them, this time for the sake of someone else, just as Sheelu is transformed into a symbol of hope for girls throughout the country.

What makes Fontanella-Khan's book so beneficial, however, is the author's ability to talk about Sampat Pal without ignoring the aspects of her life and the Pink Sari revolution that are less than commendable. More than once, Fontanella-Khan details Pal's own home life, which includes a husband who has little visible input in their marriage, at least one daughter who was herself married off young, and a home that is more often than not without its matriarch. There are also issues with the gang's management; as Pal herself admits--on record--there are those below her using the revolution to their own selfish advantages, and a few of them are in positions of power. On top of all of this is Pal's relationship with Sonia Gandhi and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively India's most admired politician and its greatest political party. By aligning herself with politicians, even those who are progressive in their own rights, Pal is both increasing her gang's influence while also attaching it to the very same government that suffers under corruption and social stagnancy. Some in India say this alliance has cheapened Pal's movement by politicizing what was otherwise a grassroots uprising against injustice; Pal, always honest, brushes aside such accusations and says powerful allies are better than no allies at all, though her words do little to address the paradox of fighting abuse alongside the very people who have the power to end it.

Fontanella-Khan's focus on these issues, which goes beyond a simple mention here or there for the sake of appearing even-handed and unbiased, lends her book credibility, as she is able to paint Pal as someone who is leading the charge against a system she herself is still struggling to break. It is an indictment not so much of Pal but of a country--a people--so deeply mired in its past that change requires much more than empty words. It requires action, even if that action comes at the end of a stick, and in a region of 200 million people, her small revolution--less than one-tenth of a percent of Uttar Pradesh's overall population--is a minor one. But how do big revolutions arise if not for the smaller ones? After all, even the tiniest of waves will eventually break down the mountains if given enough time.

*Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Mohamed Mursi in Egypt.