Nights out, closed in: Guwahati is a city where the old and new collide

Guwahati is a city of malls, nightclubs and pride parades as much as leaf-fringed sleepy neighbourhoods where the traditional middle-class once led contained lives. It is also a city where personal freedoms come up against the moral police on TV.

Two years ago, on an ordinary Sunday morning in February, a corner of Dighalipukhuri, a neighbourhood in Guwahati, became the base for a small march. As the tiny group of protesters traversed different localities, shouting slogans, holding banners and even breaking into song and dance, people stood on their balconies and porches watching. Was it a festival? Why were they in masks? Maybe it was a fancy-dress competition. This was the middle-class Axomiya’s first encounter with a pride parade.

That night, on local television, a section of primetime news was dedicated to the parade, described as a “sudden” and “chaotic” display of antics by hijras. Pooja Sharma (name changed to protect privacy), a young woman who took part in the parade, swears she “didn’t give a damn” about what the media said, or who saw her marching down the street holding a poster that said “Lesbian, and proud to be one”. At 21, Sharma is still unsure about coming out to her family. She grew up in a traditional middle-class Assamese home in Sibsagar, a town in upper Assam, much smaller than Guwahati and definitely more conservative. Back in school, when she first started questioning her sexuality, she confided in a friend that she might be a lesbian. “Do you have regular periods?” her friend asked. After that, Sharma guarded what she thought to be her “dirty little secret” for four years, until she heard of Xukia, one of two LGBTQ support groups based in Guwahati. Sharma tries to take little — and probably unnoticed — steps towards telling them: actively supporting Xukia (which her parents think is a support group for transgenders ), changing her “interests” from “men” to “women” on Facebook, making it a point not to wear a mask at the parade. “But I have a long way to go,” she says, “and so does my city.”

Guwahati and its one million plus population are experiencing, like most other Indian cities, the growing pains of change. While over the last decade, high-rise residential and commercial complexes, several malls and nightclubs have come up, it’s a city with a complex modernity, caught between the old and the new.

Perhaps most discernible is the chasm between the conservative middle class and the moneyed upper-class. “It’s the typical change versus tradition predicament the city is grappling with. And more often than not, tradition triumphs,” says journalist Anupam Chakraborty. A few years ago, pubs didn’t allow girls in short skirts to enter on New Year’s Eve. If a woman is seen smoking in public, it might become an item of primetime news tomorrow. And if she is in a pair of shorts, that is it. “Even shorts have a lakshman rekha,” says Chakrapani Parashar with righteous conviction. Parashar is a journalist with Pratidin Times, one of the top three regional television media channels (the other two being DY 365 and News Live) in the state. He is convinced that rape and molestation can ultimately be traced back to the clothes women wear.

Parashar, who comes from the small town of Gohpur in Assam, along with fellow journalist Hemen Rajbongshi conceptualised a news report, aired on Pratidin Times a few months back, which likened girls wearing shorts in public to monkeys. Even primates, the report said, have more sense than these girls who have nothing better to do than “expose”. The video, which shows numerous women in Guwahati walking around in shorts went viral on social media and was criticised by thousands, who demanded that the channel apologise at once. This is the second time that Assam’s television media has found itself in national spotlight for the wrong reasons. In 2012, a gang molestation case left the city shaken. A young woman was molested by at least 12 men, in full public view, outside a bar called Club Mint on the busy GS Road. The incident was recorded and broadcast by News Live.

Like in many other growing cities, a boom in real estate and aspirations is accompanied by an estrangement in social ties. Gone are the days when a walk down the streets meant bumping into at least one familiar face. You no longer catch up with friends at each other’s homes. You go out — a concept that did not exist till about two decades ago. Independence Day doesn’t mean being locked up inside your house, apprehensive that a bomb might go off the moment you step out. It means queuing up outside shops, buying the Tricolour and hoisting it on rooftops and terraces. “It’s far more cosmopolitan than I ever knew it to be,” says Delhi-based author Aruni Kashyap who grew up in Guwahati.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in September 2015. Full article here.