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June 19, 2000


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In praise of Indian women

I found it hilarious that many took umbrage at the fact that an Indian woman won the recent Miss Universe pageant. The opinions I read ran the gamut: from those who believe these contests cheapen women, to those who gleefully point out that in the West nobody pays any attention to these things, to those who worry that assembly-line production of beauty is somehow, um..., bad.

In India, and indeed all over the world, there are plenty of things that insult the dignity of women more than these beauty pageants do. The big Conference on Women was held in Beijing exactly five years ago; things haven't improved that much. Just look around the Indian subcontinent: dowry deaths in India, honor killings in Pakistan. White slavery through kidnapping in Nepal. AIDS deaths through prostitution catering to long-distance truckers.

In the affluent world too, violence against women is endemic. There is the astonishing fact that in the US more women -- or a percentage basis -- are murdered by boyfriends and husbands than in dowry deaths in India. Rape, child-molestation and other sexual crimes are widespread. Economically, women are under-served: they make 70c to every dollar a man makes for doing the same job.

So there are many causes that can be taken up by a champion for womens' causes. The beauty contest is not in the same league. It is pure entertainment -- it is so transparent, so vulgar, so rehearsed, so choreographed, that it's almost as predictable as WWF wrestling or other such sportainment. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to consider what other sportainment is widespread in the subcontinent.

What is indisputable, of course, is that woman-watching is an age-old pastime for men, doubtless one of the oldest. Cave-men must have ogled cave-women as they passed by. Of course, women do the same thing, except they do it discreetly, making full use of any available reflecting surfaces. Besides, they prefer to check guys out from behind, anyway.

The success of cheesecake-and-beefcake-infested shows like Baywatch -- allegedly the most popular TV program in the history of the universe -- is proof that skin sells. Of course, I personally watch Baywatch for the plot-line, just as I read Playboy for the articles.

Sex-appeal clearly sells. Ask any advertiser. And academics have shown that in the workplace, too, good-looking people are far more likely to get promoted, get good reviews, and generally be thought of better by their peers.

There is no denying that many of those would-be beauty queens, pneumatic numbers with legs that go on forever, are distinctly easy on the eye. Therefore it is my humble opinion that there is no harm in a little fantasising by the couch-potato brigade. Better this than going out there and, what is that quaint term for loutish behaviour, 'eve-teasing'?

As for aping things that are Western, that is, sadly, one of the trademarks of Indian society today. Take James Bond movies. These are considered embarrassingly lowbrow in the West, but in India they are hot stuff. So much so that some industrial house went to great expense for a ridiculous ad campaign with that prissy Pierce Brosnan.

Take the Guinness Book of World Records. Nobody outside India has heard of it, or pays the slightest attention to it -- a publicity stunt dreamt up by a brewery. Whereas Indians compete to come up with the most inane things to get themselves into it -- like walking backwards or growing their nails.

Similarly, cricket. Nobody in the US has any idea about this; in the UK or Australia, it is a poor second or even third -- after soccer and rugby -- in the mind of the sports-fan. Only in the subcontinent is this considered next to, and often superior to, God.

For that matter, I could argue that beauty-contests are an age-old Indian habit. What exactly do you think a swayamvaram was? A princess would check out a bunch of aspiring husbands and choose one -- and I'll bet she would usually choose the best-looking one. So there it is, Indian-culture-enthusiasts, no reason to feel this is yet another imported idea.

Is the manufacturing of beauty queens such a bad thing? Hard to say. Venezuela has been doing a roaring business in beauty queens for some time, and I'm hard pressed to tell whether this has affected the female population in that country adversely. Even though it's true that all those impossibly perfect bodies and faces and teeth will give a lot of teenage girls an inferiority complex, driving them into anorexia and bulimia.

But I personally think there's benefit to Indian women winning these pageants. For one thing, it is part of the image-building process that India has willy-nilly embarked upon. The newly-discovered beauty of Indian women may result in concrete things for Indian industry -- notably for the fashion industry and for the advertising industry, as Indian models and couturiers get more visibility.

There is a school of thought, I admit, that this works both ways -- cosmetics majors are salivating at the prospect of the huge Indian market and may be manipulating the contests for Indian women to win. Perhaps. Women friends of mine are awaiting the 2001 lifting of import restrictions to indulge in Jean-Paul Gautier, Maybeline, Victoria's Secret, etc. Men are terrified at this prospect: a sweet nothing from Victoria's will cost Rs. 1500.

I am biased, of course, but I think Indian women are absolutely gorgeous without all this chemical makeup. It's their skin, their eyes, and their hair. What lovely skin -- colour ranging from sandalwood to mahogany to burnt sienna to ebony, Indian women have beautiful, smooth and silky skin. Lustrous eyes that issue discreet invitations, causing the poor male heart to skip a beat; and cascades of raven hair the average male would love to bury his face in. I agree with Kalidasa's breathless and erotic word-pictures in Rtusamharam.

In pure good looks, I think Aishwarya Rai and Juhi Chawla can lay fair claim to being among the most beautiful women in the world. Aishwarya Rai is a veritable goddess; although a recent film does achieve the practically impossible by actually making her look dowdy. Juhi Chawla is also stunning, of course.

I also believe Indian women are exceedingly sexy. All that demureness and shyness is just a fašade. No wonder the Kamasutra as well as enormous amounts of erotic poetry were written in Sanskrit, and all those erotic temple-carvings, a la Khajuraho, were done in India. The Indian male has no option but to worship his woman.

In the spirit of equal opportunity, I must confess that I am partial to blondes, too: Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone, Darryl Hannah et al ring my bell. Although not that new crop of Hollywood blondes such as Gwynneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz -- they seem somehow... unfinished.

The thing about white women, and particularly blondes, though, is that their skin can be porous and unappealing at close quarters. (This is not true of some of those alabaster-skinned brunettes.) Terrific from ten feet off, but a little wanting at one foot. They ill-treat their skin through over-exposure to the sun, too. I generalise generously, of course.

The other thing about white women is their homogeneity -- they all look the same, same haircut, a bland sameness because they cover up all their individuality and blemishes through makeup or cosmetic surgery. They all want to look like whoever is 'in' at the moment. Admittedly, the average white woman ends up looking rather good after she puts her face on. There is much greater variation among Indian women -- some really beautiful ones, some really ugly ones, and the average isn't quite so good.

Whenever I watch Indian TV I am struck by a singular fact -- the girls are outstandingly pulchritudinous, but the guys are, by and large, um... dogs. This is true among Indian models too, with exceptions like Milind Soman. Some male Indian models and TV personalities -- no, I don't dare name names -- are so ugly that I am sure small children run from them, screaming in terror.

A woman I met claimed this is because the average Indian man is not as attractive as the average Indian woman. I disagree, from what I have observed on city streets in India. There are equal numbers of good-looking men and women. I guess pretty girls decide to take up modelling in larger numbers. Maybe there are other explanations.

And it is not just the modern urban woman in India who is beautiful. I remember watching a village woman in Bangalore in astonishment -- she was so poised, so confident, in her blouse with puffed sleeves and jasmine in her hair.

Similarly, gypsy women, universally viewed with suspicion for their tendency to pilfer small objects: I noticed a group of them near Hyderabad once, clothed in rags, but laughing in gay abandonment.

Or a young tribal mother outside the great temple at Chidambaram, infant splayed on her hip, begging for small change: I'm afraid I gave her far too much money because she was gorgeous.

I have enjoyed people-watching in Bangalore, Bombay and Delhi. Alas, woman-watching in Kerala has taken a beating in recent years because of the arrival of the tent-like salwar-kameez. No woman under 35 in Kerala wears anything other than this ghastly contraption that leaves everything to the imagination -- no flash of smooth midriff, no belly-button, no skin-tight blouse, no cleavage, nothing. Sigh. Shalwar-schmalmar, indeed. It's a blooming conspiracy, I'm convinced. There ought to be a law.

Contrast this tent with the traditional Kerala woman's-wear of just a mundu (dhoti) and a blouse (known as a jumper). Or, for more formal occasions, a two-piece mundum-neriyathum, adding a discreet gold-bordered shawl. Shapely women look stunning in this outfit. Truly a treat for idle spectators, of which there exist many in Kerala.

Going back to the whole issue of beauty pageants, I am of the opinion that whatever brings India some positive press is goodness. The visibility of Indian women in these contests is an indicator of interest in India as a whole in the world media and entertainment empires. The issue of race is also intriguing. I think the concept of beauty as more than just blonde-and-blue-eyed is gaining currency in the US, which drives global culture.

East Asian women have begun to appear in larger numbers in larger roles in Hollywood and on TV, doubtless due to the increased presence of Hong Kong Chinese shoot-'em-up directors in the US. Similarly dark-haired Latin Americans as well as black/mixed-race women are now seen as icons in the US -- such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Halle Berry.

It appears Indian women are now getting to be popular with white men, presumably those tired of what they consider shrewish, bra-burning white feminists, and looking for caring, homey, old-fashioned brides. Said men may be getting more than they bargained for, but that need not detain us here.

I know several women from India meeting white men on the Internet: two girls met an American and a Scandinavian, respectively, and are talking marriage. A friend in Bangalore had an arranged marriage -- yes! -- with a white Australian; a distant cousin is about to marry another white Australian.

I have also noticed there is a certain class of Indian woman abroad who are 'fishing-fleet' types, intent on hooking some white guy as some kind of trophy husband. And then they are full of themselves and their Irish-Inuit-Polish-Italian or whatever husbands. I feel like saying to them, "Get a grip, woman! This isn't such a big deal!" One such specimen sent me email ranting and raving at me -- apparently I offended her by saying the 'melting pot' business is bunkum.

Occasional exceptions aside, the Indian woman is also noticeably intelligent. Yes, last but not least, on average, Indian women are very smart. An Indian woman grows up figuring out how to let her man think he's in charge, whereas in fact he is as putty in her hands most of the time. Excellent training, incidentally, for a manager. No wonder the Indian women executives I know in the US are outstanding.

In fact, all other things being equal, I think Indian women are winning these silly beauty contests because they are not bimbos. They are poised and clever, and they know how to use their beauty as a weapon to get what they want. More power to them, I say. Three cheers for Indian women!


I have always regretted not learning Sanskrit properly as a child. I am delighted by Samskrita Bharati's efforts to make spoken Sanskrit widespread -- it will help open up the treasure-trove of Sanskrit writings at least to the next generation. I received email from Govinda of their North American operations, and here is the announcement from him.

"Samskrita Bharati is conducting a nine-day residential Sanskrit camp at Coloma Resort near Sacramento in California from July 1 through July 9, 2000. Shri Krishna Shastry and his colleagues from Samskrita Bharati will be coming from India to teach and train camp attendees in Conversational Sanskrit. Since 1995, Samskrita Bharati has organised Speak Sanskrit day-camps in various cities. In the SF Bay Area alone, there are at least 50 households who speak Sanskrit at home on a regular basis. If you would like to know more about Samskrita Bharati's activities, please visit our web site or send an email to or call 408-871-0351."

My friend Radhika sent me a book, beautifully designed by her, of Sanskrit subhashitams interpreted by her grandfather. The book is Gems of Speech, Selected Sanskrit Subhashitas, by Sri Manhar Jai, 1998, pp. 100, Rs. 250, distributed by Anand Publications, Mumbai, The author makes these epigrams accessible to the lay reader by explaining the Sanskrit structure as well as meaning. Here is one of the sayings:

Acharyaat paadamekam syaat paadam sabrahmacaribhih: |
Paadam tu medhayaa jneyam sesham kaalena pachyate ||

Only a fraction of one's knowledge is received from teachers, a second source is discussions with co-students; a third portion sprouts from one's native intelligence; and the remainder comes with the passage of time.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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