Punctured Conscience: A Study of Violence as Manifestation of Non-Physical Social Bullying
We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds-our own prejudices, fears and ignorance..Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs.
(Thích Nhất Hạnh, 2007, 131)
Violence is not manifested in close bracketed parameters and has both physical and non-physical manifestations. Every rational being acquires and nurtures an empirical and phenomenological understanding of the motive, purpose and most significantly, the method of its own existence. This consciousness regarding the self is implicitly individualistic and does not comply with any universal epistemological paradigms. However, society with its set normative notions denies or refutes the exercise of any such understanding regarding the self that does not adhere to the society's conventions. Some individuals opt for the comfort of embarking on the route set by conventions; some others opt for the route less taken, the route founded on their own understanding. It is here that the stimulus of violence walks in when the individualistic narrative of the unconventional route does not adhere to the grand narratives of society. And before we know, underlined power equations exercised by society encroach upon the life of the individual. Herein lays the genesis of a blatant collective violence in the garb of underlined social bullying. Its modus operandi is to impregnate the individual with fear; a kind of fear that promises punishment to those going against the grand narrative of social conventions. These fears can be classified as, the fear of being ostracized from society, the fear of loneliness, the fear of being cast as unrespectable and likewise.
This paper will try to analyze how this violence against one's personal understanding of one's own life and its working, sabotages the freedom of individual existence of the person; in a way punctures the consciousness of the individual. Studying the autobiography of Protima Bedi, titled, Timepass: The Memoirs of Protima Bedi (Bedi, 1999)1, we get a vivid glimpse of Bedi's perpetual struggle against the incessant bullying by society. Bedi was a woman who knew her mind, her heart and soul and it was her own individualistic comprehension of these elements which guided her path of life. However she confesses in the 'Introduction' to her autobiography:
Nothing is quiet the same if you look at it from another point of view,
and by God, there are so many points of view, all valid in themselves….
But the reality of life is too complex, and I am not interested in painting
for the uninitiated who only understand black and white, the colours of
small-mindedness, pettiness and idiocy. (Bedi,1999,1)
We find that with birth, certain circumstances and institutions automatically encroach upon an individual's life and the individual exercises absolutely no authority over this encroachment. Society is one such institution which encroaches upon us at birth and the bullying begins instantaneously! Instantaneously the individual is required to learn the rudiments of surviving and sustaining him according to the standards preset by society. The pressure escalates from every corner, courtesy demands of family, demands of education, demands of profession etc. Without much protest or even the least acknowledgement of a violence being inflicted the individual readily participates as a victim in the grand act of social bullying. However, certain individuals after the attainment of a certain age refuse to let themselves be victimized by this social bullying. Bedi was one such individual.
At the age of nineteen when Bedi wanted to start living on her own with the person she loved2, her understanding of independent love and relationship was immediately violated by her father. He vehemently refused to accept her stand and its consequent actions, leading to a severe damage to their relationship.Bedi pens down:
Why was he making it so difficult for me? I was not going away to hurt him.
I had no intention of causing him pain. I just wanted to live my own life.
Was that really so terrible?
….He flew into a rage, 'All right, get out!…From today, you no longer
have a father and as far as I am concerned you are dead'….I wanted to
tell him not to be angry with me, to forgive me, to understand that I
was only doing what I felt I needed to do with my life, but I couldn't
speak. Choking with emotion I ran out of the house… (Bedi, 1999,41-42).
It robbed an adolescent girl of the love and protection, the security that a father and a family could have provided. Bedi was strong enough to withstand this catastrophe. But there may be weaker souls, who would implicitly wither under this jeopardizing bullying. In Bedi's father we witness the resonance of that fear, whose germs society has planted in his psyche. His fears here may loom large on the question of respectability. For his family to continue being part of respectable society, he implicitly wanted his daughter to be the proverbial 'good-girl'; a notion Bedi refused to comply with. He might have feared the prospects of his daughter loosing the secure future by standards of society, which he could have offered her by choosing a respectable matrimonial alliance for her. As Khaled Hosseini pens down in A Thousand Splendid Suns, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. You remember that, Mariam" (Hosseini, 2007, 7). Bedi has vividly given voice to her disappointments with her father when she expresses that no matter how he lived his life, he expected his daughter to be the epitome of respectability. Not just her father, after she got divorced from her husband Kabir, her dance teacher, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra could not accept her stand on life. He point blank spoke of his fear of being in social vicinity of such a person as her. Bedi recalls:
In fact, after Kabir and I broke up, there was a brief period of estrangement
between me and Guruji. He wanted me to remarry 'and come back as a decent
married woman'. After much persuasion he accepted me again as his student,
but insisted that his name should not be associated with mine in public
The violence of social bullying also challenges the individual's personal understanding regarding their own identity, body, voice and space. Society has unequivocally demarcated its provinces for each of its inhabitants. The perimeters of these provinces are significantly settled on the guidelines of social hierarchy; a kind of stratification. Here too the individual is abominably helpless. But again, the individual in most cases exhibits no disappointment with this social bullying; rather finds pride in graduating himself to the standards set by it. As Bertrand Russell explicated in his 'An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish' that collective fear is something which stimulates herd instinct in humans and furthur it tends to produce ferocity in those individuals who are not regarded as part of or members of that particular herd. (Russell, 1950). Consequently, it is interesting to note that under maximum circumstances the resistance to this violence is exhibited by only those elements of society who have been bracketed in a marginalized position by this bullying. The elements who have been well accommodated within the parameters of social law or those who have successfully graduated themselves to the standards have no complaints against this bullying. Bedi pens downs her emotions after attending a party:
They had an image of me as a flighty, immoral woman. It was my word
against the words of honorable editors, columnists and the dutiful wife.
Respectable society was their territory, not mine.( Bedi,1999,162)
Bedi further renders into melancholic words the agitation her heart and conscious was undergoing:
Sitting there at the party I felt resentful. What was so scandalous about being
me? That I publicly acknowledged all my relationships and made sensational
statements which went against standard norms? That I wore revealing clothes
and smoked, drank and laughed with men in public? I tried to see things from
the perspective of those respectable, smug, boring and murderously ordinary
Gujarati ladies. I could imagine how scarlet I would appear to them. I felt hurt
and a little humiliated. Not that anyone said anything, but the disdain and
rejection was in their eyes, in the way they turned their faces
Sexual relationships and marriage can be crowned the doyen of controversies since time immemorial and the notion of chastity has been the Brahmastra3 (lethal arrow)in the quiver of social bullying. In many parts of the world, honour killing is handed down as punishment to women who are accused of having sexual relations outside marriage.Astonishingly, these abominable practices such as honor killings and stoning continue to be supported by mainstream politicians and other officials in some countries. In Pakistan, after the 2008 Balochistan honour killings, in which five women were killed by tribesmen of the Umrani Tribe of Balochistan, Pakistani Federal Minister for Postal Services Israr Ullah Zehri spoke in defence of the practise; "These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them. Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid"4. Bedi, however, preached and practiced her stand vehemently, showing all and sundry an alternative, more natural stand to this social bullying. She accentuates:
What the hell was so bloody wrong with sex? The whole world was
doing it. Did it really matter who was doing it with whom? Didn't solid
emotions mean more than fucking? Why should one give up the other?
I wanted to be Kabir's friend more than anything else in the world. I
wanted to be free and I wanted him to be free too."(Bedi,1999,70)
Bedi had a completely novel understanding of her sexual relations. Love and lust for her were not one. Both were important and both had their separate thrones in the court of an individual's life and each had to be respected in its own space. She refused the conventional notion of society where the wife is shackled in for the husband's sexual needs. She challenged the social bullying where a wife is not entitled to sexual liberty. It is not that sometimes she did not regret her decisions; she did suffer a lot on account of her stand, but she vehemently maintained the separate ethics of love and lust. Thanks to most people being so conditioned to social bullying that even Bedi's husband, Kabir Bedi, refused to accept her understanding after having given her hope and promise. Implicitly this puncturing of the conscience, of trust and comradeship made Bedi suffer a lot. She writes:
…after all the understanding, after all we'd shared - and we were the
forefathers of the whole new permissiveness in India - he walked out
saying, 'I want a…cloying relationship.' To me it was negation of all
that we had talked about and shared." (Bedi,1999,110).
The violence of social bullying in its worst avatar leads one to the fatal consequence where the victimiser or victim resort to ways of inflicting pain or causing some jeopardy to self or society. Most wars on the planet have been fought riding on social bullying. Imperialism, holocaust etc, all were the brainchild of social bullying. The hazards of social bullying are rampant at both the individual level or at the greater level of society. It is iconoclastic people as Protima Bedi who highlight the perils of social bullying. Bedi through the oeuvre of her life indefatigably fought social bullying straight on. It is strange that menaces like social bullying are still rampant in a post modern, post structural world that hails plurality! The most fitting answer to this violence was given by Bedi herself to her five year old daughter Pooja when Pooja complained about the harassment she had to face in school because of Bedi's infamous streaking episode5. As Pooja Bedi Ebrahim pens down in the 'editor's introduction' to Timepass:
She kept quiet for a minute, then very slowly, and very intensely, she
said to me, 'This is my life. No one has the right to tell me how to live
it or to question what I do….it must be awful for these people to have
such boring lives that all they can do to make them interesting is to
talk about somebody else's life. I'm glad I provided them with Timepass
conversation. (Bedi, 1999, viii-ix)
Protima Bedi was an iconoclastic lady and it would not be wrong to tag her as being much ahead of her times. She believed in the path of natural justice and practiced it conspicuously in her life. She made mistakes many a times and she suffered on account of those; a fact she resigns to. Nevertheless, she did perpetuate her persuit. One cannot say that her measures and methods were impeccable; they implicitly had their drawbacks.She cannot be hailed as an apostle for others, but nevertheless, she left behind a hallmark for think tanks to ponder on. As a society and as an advanced civilization are we yet mature enough to imbibe her unshackled ways of living life without sacrificing the ethics of community living? If not, can we aspire to acquire that maturity?
1. Protima Bedi passed away in a landslide in 1998. She had left the manuscript of her autobiography, which had not been published in her lifetime. After her death, her daughter Pooja Bedi Ebrahim edited and got the autobiography published posthumously in 1999.
2. Reference is to Kabir Bedi. As Protima writes in her autobiography, she had fallen in love with him and had asked her father for permission to move out of her parental home and live in a pre-marital live-in relationship with Kabir Bedi; what Protima has called 'living in sin' in her autobiography.
3. Name of a lethal arrow in Hindu mythology.
4. As reported in The Telegraph on 1 September 2008, under the heading "Pakistani woman buried alive 'for choosing' husband".
5. Protima Bedi was caught in controversy when Cine Blitz magazine (December, 1974) posted pictures of her streaking on the roads of Bombay (now Mumbai). Bedi in her autobiography clears her stand by saying that she had done it not as a publicity stunt in Bombay, but in Goa when she was part of a nudist group.
Bedi, Protima. 2000. Timepass,(Ed. Pooja Bedi Ebrahim), New Delhi, Penguin Books.
Hosseini, Khaled. 2007. A Thousand Splendid Suns,New York, River head Books.
Nh'ãtHanh, Thích. 2007.Living Buddha, Living Christ,New York, River head Books.
Russell, Bertrand. 1950. 'An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish' in Unpopular Essays,
London, George Allen & Urwin Ltd.