Some errors in friendship and conversation

Before I begin this post, let me clarify that I am no saint. The observations I make in this post apply to me as well. I do not claim to have any authority on what friendship truly means, nor am I a perfect conversationalist. That being said, these are my observations after spending more than two decades on this planet, and I would like to think there is a grain of truth to them.

I have recently turned 25, and find (to my dismay) that conversation with most people is not enjoyable. This is not completely new. It struck me in law school too. When I first joined law school (in India) I noticed that people enjoyed doing something called ‘taking someone’s case’. To those who are unfamiliar with this term, ‘taking someone’s case’ is the process of humiliating someone in public, by making a punchline. That is saying something superficial and funny, which on deeper reflection may not really be true. I attributed this to the fact that these were scared 18 year-olds who had deep insecurities about their place in life. But as I grew older, the trend continued. The ‘case-takes’  seemed caught in their self-affirming flatulent bubble, and began to see their ability to pick on people as talent.

This doesn’t mean law school was full of such people. In fact, I met perspicacious and sensitive people, people who were passionate about what they believed in, and humble people. But these really were the minority. Most of them, I became friends with.

But I also learnt to be sharp. To zero in on people’s insecurities, and to be able to say ‘witty’ things, that in retrospect were plain ugly. Perhaps, I was an 18 year old, insecure about my place in the word, but I lost track of the one quality that separates intelligence  (I dare not say wisdom) from cleverness, and brightness from well-marketed mediocrity.  That quality was humility. Growing up in a law school you think that marketing yourself and smooth talking is all it takes to get ahead. I wish I could say this was untrue. But I will say that you can do well without any of that. Some of the most interesting people I know, and the most successful, are the humblest and most self-effacing.

At any rate, I was lucky enough to find a partner who could call my bullshit, and made me introspect on the impact my behavior could have on others. I would like to think I am a better person  now, or at least a more discerning one. These nuggets of wisdom are a result of that introspection.

1) Respect your adversary.

The worst thing you can do in a conversation is make a statement, and then check out. I wish this were not true, but a large number of people make this mistake. They make a statement, and then check out (mentally) for the duration of the time that the other person is talking. Sometimes, it is less subtle. You will occasionally meet people who if you disagree with them, will start checking their phone, or get a glazed look in their eye. Here is a tip: ditch them. No one is worth talking to, if they don’t have respect for your time and effort. If you are one of these people, then I am sure you stopped reading a while back.

2) Don’t make statements for shock value.

Conversation is about the exchange of  ideas, and the persuasion of people through reasoned discourse. If you need to say shocking things to get people’s attention, you probably don’t have very interesting things to say. Of course following this advice is not going to make you popular, it will only make you a bit less of a git.

3) Friendship should be between equals.

We all have friends who doubt their worth, or feel that one person has all the power in the friendship. Maybe sometimes we are that friend. If you have a friend who thinks that it is a one-sided friendship, or who devotes time and attention to you that you can not reciprocate.  Let them go. No good comes of holding on to people who are more attached to you, than you to them. Somerset Maugham said something like in every relationship there is a person who loves and one who lets themselves be loved. Sadly, my favorite author was dead wrong (and this kind of wrong becomes popular wisdom). Not only are there relationships of people who equally care for each other, but that is what healthy relationships are like. Holding on to someone who feels inferior or neglected all the time, is a disservice to them.

4) Pick character over personality. Every time.

If you have to chose between a boring friend and a interesting one with a whacky moral compass. Pick the former. Close your eyes and pick the former. Personalities become boring, just like youth fades. (Unless you have a painting in a cellar somewhere that ages on your behalf.. but that story did not end well). What does not become boring (perhaps because it is boring to begin with) is compassion and patience.

5) Surround yourself with people who have differing points of view.

This helps prevent you from burrowing yourself into an intellectual hole, where you only see one point as legitimate. These days I have the most interesting discussions with people, some of whom are conservative and some of whom pro-life. These discussions teach me to empathize, and to understand that reasonable people of good will can disagree on some fundamental things.

But what you should not do, is to surround yourself with people who like confrontation, and who have no intention of being persuaded. Drop them like a hot potato (as the song goes). You will just feel anguish over interactions with them.

6)Understand that most friendships have a life cycle. 

If you see eye to eye with someone for a lifetime, they are probably your soul-mate. Am kidding. The only way you can see eye to eye with a person for a whole lifetime, is through hard work. That kind of hard work can be put into one or two relationships in your life. With the rest of the people, you will outgrow them. Its inevitable, like the end of the Daily show. No one wants it happen. But happen it will, because eventually Stewart will get tired of being in the same place for sixteen years. Umm, I am digressing. Learn that outgrowing friendships is a healthy sign, it shows you are not the person you were five years ago. (Trust me, we were all morons five years ago).

7) Eat a lot of fiber. 

The wisdom of this is pretty self-evident.

8)Know that you are not self-made. 

It is unfortunate that our embracing of individualism makes us neglect all of the factors that have contributed to us becoming who we are. Our successes, and those of others are a product of a lot of help. That may seem trite (frankly most of this post does). But it is inevitable that you remember, that people’s failures are also not completely theirs. So if you see someone failing, know that in another time and place, it could be you.

9) Realize that 25 is too young to be dispensing advice. 

This last advice, is for me.

If any of you have stayed with me till the very end of a slightly preachy post, I would like to thank you. You really are the most amazing readers, to tolerate a 25 year old, talking like a 60 year old.

The Disrobing of Draupadi: or that in which I wrote Mahabharata fan fiction

Disclaimer

1) This is a fictional adaptation of the Mahabharata.

2) I have done this for kicks

3) If you find any creative expression that centers around women to be ‘feminist propaganda’, then don’t read this. Seriously, don’t.

4) For non-Indians, if you want a little background, read the actual story of Draupadi on wikipedia. (It is not authoritative, but should give you some context.)

Now, to begin at the beginning…

There was something sharp about that evening. A bite in the air, a restlessness among the leaves. Draupadi felt impatient. She hated the days when her husbands had to go to the Court at Hastinapur.

Her husbands. She shrugged. It was strange how she had got used to that word. How normal it was being a wife to five husbands. How she lived with five men and loved them all equally.. (Who was she kidding? Everyone knew Arjuna was her favorite. This is why she was going to fall off some cliff later, on the way to heaven and what not. But people often make the mistake of assuming that Arjuna was the one she loved disproportionately. He was her favorite, the way perfect things are. Bhim, by far, was the one she loved disproportionately. Possibly because of his complete devotion to her. Love has a way of being reciprocated. Anyway, she did not know on THAT day that someday she would fall of the literal stairway to heaven for having been unfair in the doling out of her love. At that moment she was just impatient. She wanted to go home.)

As she was sitting in her waiting room, in front of a gilt edged mirror, she was contemplating what a waste of time it all was. Playing dice. As if Yudhishtir could beat Shakuni at dice. These Pandavas could be such simpletons at times. Anyway, that was an unchaste thought. She checked herself. Then she yawned.

Suddenly Dushasan stormed into the room. (That spineless brother in law of hers). She treated him with the contempt she usually reserved for the men she found uninteresting. (What was he, but an understudy for Duryodhan?).

‘Why brother-in-law? Is anything wrong? Why have you come into my inner chambers?’ she said.

Dushasan snarled, grunted, and rubbed his hands in glee. Draupadi got a bit worried. Anything that made this man so happy, had to be trouble for her. She backed up a little and asked again, more sweetly now, ‘What is it O brother in law, is everything okay?’

He was bursting with glee, and as is often the case with glee-bursters he could not really string a sentence together. ‘They lost’ he panted ‘staked all-whole kingdom-selves…then you’ He stopped for breath.

She could not understand what was going on. He went on ‘We won you.. in … dice.. you belong to us now’.

Draupadi shrank. Of course this man was out of his mind. Her husbands stake her? In a game of dice? (She tried to disregard the unchaste voice in her head that said, you know they are dumb enough to do it!)

Dushasan was now inching towards her. She froze. She was a princess. She wasn’t used to strange men inching towards her! She was not very well trained to respond to this situation.

He grabbed her by the hair. Her actual hair. What should she do? Scream? Shout? Cry? She felt like water. She felt like air. She felt that all the years of genteel breeding had left her completely clueless. Limp. She was limp as her brother in law dragged her through the palace, into the courtroom. Then she remembered that she was menstruating. Shame filled her as the bright lights of the courtroom fell on her eyes. She knew she should not be appearing before everyone in that state. It wasn’t outrage. It was embarrassment. She sort of wriggled, hoping Duhshasan had had enough. Hoping that he would let go now, and she could run back into her room.

There she saw her disgraced husbands. Five strong men, sitting silently and shamefacedly.  She was hoping they would put a foot down.

Duryodhana was laughing. She knew she should never have made that jibe at that git. He really did not know how to let things go. Really. But that was the thing with inferiority complexes, they had a way of sticking around and resulting in full blown wars.. Duryodhan began to say something. She could only hear bits of it. Between her sobs. She realized that she had begun to sob. Loudly. Violently. It was not very princess-like. In a corner of her head, she realized that the debate that occupied the talking heads in the court was whether it was okay for them to disrobe her.

Surely that would not happen. Half the men here were her father’s age. They would not stand for it. Her eyes sought out the elders Bhisma, Drona, Krupacharya. Men of honor. Men who knew what dharma was. They would, she knew, put an end to this nonsense.. Her eyes even went to Dritarashtra, who she knew could not see her. Surely, this man would stop his sons?

But men of honor sometimes remain silent, when their honor is the most necessary. The silence that had engulfed the Court was overwhelming. Draupadi asked loudly, ‘How could mt husbands stake me in a game of dice, if they had staked themselves first?.’ But at that moment she knew it was a forgone conclusion. There really was nothing that could change anyone’s mind, certainly not a rhetorical question.

Dushasan was inching towards her, and she felt oddly detached from her surroundings. As if her mind was trying to shield her from the extreme pain and humiliation that would follow. She wished she could turn into a comet and fly into the sky in a blaze of fiery glory. Impossible to catch. Impossible to stake. She wished she burned with the might of a cruel bonfire, engulfing Hastinapur in her rage, her sorrow, her defeated innocence.

She thought of Sita, from another age, from another story. The perfect woman, who was loyalty itself. Who stepped into the fire to prove her innocence. Who the fire itself did not dare touch. But was that enough? Even Sita was banished. Sent away to the forest because some man doubted her honor. No anger. No reproaches. Sita raised two sons in the forest. An ancient single mom. And then she was asked to  prove her chastity again. Just one more fire ordeal darling. Step in again. You did it once, you know the drill. She could feel rage on behalf of Sita, crawling through her skin. She could feel herself burning like fire. But what had Sita done? Quietly gone into the earth. With all the weight of her suffering, she had disappeared. Draupadi was confused. Was that a sign of great strength or terrible weakness? Surely a woman who was too great for fire to touch had enough power to wreak vengeance on those who scorned her?

Dushasan tugged at the end of her saree. At that moment she knew she did not have what it took to quietly sink into the earth. Legend has it that Draupadi appealed to Krishna to save her, and he did. But I would like to think it was not really Krishna who helped her, but Sita. Perhaps Sita, lying dormant in the earth, had decided that it was time women did not sink quietly into the earth when faced with an injustice. Maybe that great woman decided that what the world needed was some fire and not ice.

Dushasan kept pulling at Draupadi’s saree, and layer after layer of saree kept appearing, till Dushasan could pull no more. Draupadi found herself ablaze, spinning, faster and faster, as layer after layer was pulled from her. Free, angry, engaged in a destructive dance. When Dushasan stopped, she opened her eyes. She looked him squarely in the eye and said. ‘Your whole clan shall be destroyed. I will rip open your chest, and I will wash my hair with your blood.’

Dushasana flinched. This was not a threat, but a future fact.

Why I reluctantly began to like Kejriwal

So here is the thing.

I am a snob. I am not proud of it. But I can’t help it. I was born this way.. when it came to choosing a baby formula, I am pretty sure I told my mother that ‘cerelac’ was too mainstream (actually I don’t think I was fed formula, but I am trying to make a point here). A shiver runs down my spine when Chetan Bhagat or Salman Khan are discussed.  I can only watch ‘Jab We Met’ if I tell myself that I am being ironic. I could go on and on, but I think that you have got the picture, dear readers.

So you can imagine what my feelings would be about Arvind Kejriwal when he first became popular. To everyone, he was the new messiah (and I don’t believe in messiahs). His ‘dharna’s’ caught the imagination of the masses, his persona enthralled them. Kejriwal was going to change Indian politics. He would fix corruption. It was a recipe I was doomed to dislike.

And let me be clear here, it was not just my snobbery that made me suspicious. I don’t believe that deep rooted practices can be changed by one man or party calling for honesty (though yes, one party can be a catalyst for change). I do not think women’s safety is ensured by sitting on vigils after high profile rapes (though yes vigils are important to show solidarity). There needs to be much plodding in terms of policy implementation. Much introspection in the general population about why we live in a society with endemic corruption and gender discrimination .  During the 49 days AAP was in power, I was concerned with the conduct of the AAP law minister in relation to the Khirki raid, which if not racist, was certainly authoritarian.

So you will wonder why I am writing this? Is it some long drawn plan to diss Kejriwal? No. I actually began to like him. A lot. And this post is about explaining it to myself as much as to my dear readers. So this blog post may have a bit of a dear diary vibe, and I hope you will forgive me for it.

Kejriwal had a brief lull in his popularity after he resigned as the Chief Minister of Delhi. While the core volunteers of AAP must have remained loyal, there was an exodus of some of the more visible faces. For a brief while the media had written off the AAP, in its Narendra Modi frenzy. At that time people began to snicker about how Arvind Kejriwal had been slapped on the campaign trail. People found this hilarious, and it became the fodder of SMS jokes.

When I heard these jokes, I began to wonder whether I knew any other present Indian leader who was approachable enough to the people to be slapped. It made me sit up and think. I did not know of any other leader that dealt with the people as an equal: as an aam admi. Of course Kejriwal has a carefully crafted persona, just like any other leader. But he has also given a great deal of deference to the experiences and wishes of the people he is supported by. His tendency to sit on dharna even as the Chief Minister was annoying, but also showed that he was not going to go anywhere. People would be a central part of his scheme of things.

Then came the Supreme Court’s judgment upholding S 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes ‘unnatural sex against the order of nature’ (read non-hetero-normative sex). I was astonished that the AAP made a statement which expressed disappointment with the Court’s judgment.  This was a party with a primarily north-Indian middle class base. A backlash was foreseeable, but they went ahead and made this statement. I was pleasantly surprised.

But I was the most surprised by the fact that after the media wrote him off, Kejriwal did not go into a self-destructive spiral. He went back to his base. He worked on consolidating his position in Delhi. He addressed the Delhi debacle head on. He apologized for what he did/ or failed to do by resigning as the Chief Minister. Again something very refreshing. A politician apologizing for a mistake, and asking for a fresh chance. I don’t remember seeing something like this in the 12 years that I have followed Indian politics.

So here is what I realized about Arvind Kejriwal. He is not perfect. But he has humility. He is willing to call his mistakes what they are: mistakes. He is willing to  learn. He does not eddy around in currents of megalomania.  He does not get so carried away by populism that he forgets the mandate of the Constitution (though of all his faults this is the one to watch). He brings up his volunteers almost all the time, and never hesitates to give credit.

These personal qualities of Mr Kejriwal aside,  AAP also occupies a crucial place in the scheme of things in India. It can use the popularity it enjoys to become a healthy check on the party in power. No matter how good the BJP leadership is, absolute power corrupts.The AAP can be a force that keeps a check on the great power that the BJP enjoys.  Further, through five years of solid governance in Delhi (if it wins the elections) AAP can instill values like transparency and accountability in the institutions it controls. This will be far more effective than ‘Dharnas’, because it will be slow institutional change. Change of that kind is really hard to kill.

I think Arvind Kejriwal has what it takes to be a leader who can bring about that change. I think he can work to be a credible and stable force in Indian politics. But he needs supporters who disagree with him. Who have problems with some of his discourse. He needs supporters (like me perhaps) who don’t think he is the best thing since sliced bread. But he is pretty good, and I hope he proves me right.

Our deeply problematic notion of consent: or how Bollywood messed us up.

I remember a small (but perplexing) cultural adjustment problem I had when I came to the United States. When I went to a party, I would be offered food or some drink. My first instinct would be to say no. Of course it did not mean that I actually meant no, it was just a preparation for the customary hospitality ritual. The way it was supposed to play out was that the host would insist I have something to drink. I would look undecided. The host would offer alternatives. I would finally agree to something.

Only in the US (as is the case in many places), my host would just say ‘OK’, when I said I din’t want a drink. This is because there was no subtle dance of hospitality. If you said you did not want something, it was assumed you din’t want it. Honestly, this is a GREAT way of doing things.

But my blog post today is not about food and hospitality. It is about the deep ambivalence about the meaning of consent that is seeped into our Indian psyche. There will be some stereotyping (alas, it is inevitable in a blog post based on anecdotal evidence. I apologize for this, but request my readers to try to find the kernel of truth in the chaff of anecdotes).

What made me jump on this train of thought was this article I read. It is a Legally India article on how an Australian lawyer successfully argued before a district court in Tasmania that his Indian origin client should not go to jail for stalking women, because Bollywood movies had taught him that pursuing a woman hard enough would make her fall for him. Of course I will not comment further on this case because I have not read the judgment, which is unavailable online.  But there is some truth to this statement. Bollywood films do teach you that pursuing women relentlessly, gives results. Also crass sexual harassment is actually charming when SRK does it. Check out this scene from “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” an iconic Bollywood film that a lot of boys and girls grew up watching. Our charming hero spends the better part of four minutes singing inane songs full of innuendo, toying with the heroine’s bra, trying to put his head on her lap when she is clearly uncomfortable. This sensitive and well written scene ends with him saying, eloquently as ever, ‘I hate girls’.

But if you thought this was the exception, that is not really true. Let us note that I am not even talking about the objectification of women in films with songs where a woman compares herself to chicken drumsticks or a golden doll. Really, I am willing to let that slide.  I am talking about generations that have been brought up watching films where good girls don’t want to have sex,  where persistently pursuing women almost always leads to results, where (for the longest time) rape was a source of voyeuristic titillation is movies. What does a generation that grows up watching these movies do? How does it understand the role of women in society and relationships? Is there a genuine problem in understanding and articulating the meaning of consent?

There is also a deep ambivalence about sex in the Indian psyche ( stereotyping alert).  I know what you will say, we are the land of the kamasutra and the khajuraho paintings, so really ancient India was pretty cool. Let us blame all our faults on the Victorian mindset. But I have some bones to pick with the treatment of some women in our epics. Look at Ahalya for example. She was a woman who had been turned to stone because she had sexual intercourse with an impostor who pretended to be her husband. The reason she was cursed was that deep down, she knew that the man who she was sleeping with was not really her husband. Of course I am no torchbearer for adultery, but consenting to a sexually ambiguous situation is not really something that is punishable with being turned into stone (literally or metaphorically). But wait, if Ahalya was the adulterer that she was, why is she celebrated as one of the “Panchasatis” or the five chaste wives? Was she innocent then ( and her curse a tragic mistreatment of a good woman)? Or is it that the reference to Panchakanyas is actually ironic, given that all of them (Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari) have ‘known’ a man, or more than one, other than her husband. For further details and a sophisticated analysis read this article by Pradip Bhatacharya.  If any of my readers happen to be experts on the scriptures, perhaps they can tell me what the reality is. My ramblings, however, were intended to point out that even the rich heritage of our past has some deeply problematic understandings of consent. A single transgression by a good woman (which in some versions is actually rape) makes her liable to be turned into stone, but her unflinching acceptance of her fate redeems her. Similarly, a woman may, to keep an ill-thought promise made to one’s mother, be forced to have five husbands (the story of Draupadi). That is her dharma, because promises made by one’s husband cannot be broken.

My purpose of going into our not so rich Bollywood history, and our rich cultural history was neither to denigrate India nor to justify the terrible violence against women that takes place. The purpose was rather to reflect on what our attitudes to sexuality are. I began to think of what made grade 3 stalkers and gropers of so many men (as a bus-ride or a walk alone on the roads in Delhi in the evening would show). I also wondered whether this unhealthy attitude to women and sexuality came from the fact that sex itself was a taboo subject. The fact is, as this taboo lifts, we are left with men and women caught in the churning of history. This churning engenders reprehensible violence, guilt, confusion, and sometimes great freedom.

I would like to end by talking about a feeling that is hard to quantify. For the past six months or more I realize, I haven’t been stared at on the street. I haven’t been whistled at, or ‘accidentally’ brushed against. I walk home late with a jaunty spring to my step. This doesn’t mean that violence against women and sexual harassment are not problems in the USA . But it does mean  that there are pockets (perhaps pockets of privilege) where there can be relative safety.Can we start creating such pockets in India? Cities and campuses where women feel safe? But going further than that can we ensure that poor and indigent women, who often lead the most sexually vulnerable lives, can live in safety, comfortable in their bodily integrity. Really, safety is such a great feeling.