Tag Archives: India

‘One Part Woman’: A Book review of a heartbreaking book and some impressions on the pain of dissent in India

I really have to work on those long titles.

Dissent is not dead in India. It exists and is robust. It pops up often like a hard to remove carbuncle on a vain person’s nose, in the middle of summer. However, dissent in India is painful. Kind of like that carbuncle. Some would argue that it should be. Would dissent really be dissent if it was convenient? But we shall return to this theme later. Right now I want to tell you about ‘One part woman’.

‘One Part Woman’ is a book written by author Perumal Murugan, a well known Tamil writer and poet. The reason I ordered this book, was that I wanted to take my own personal revenge on fundamentalists.But the book came to mean much more to me.

You see, Perumal Murugan was hounded by fundamentalist groups who protested his portrayal of certain practices that took place in relation to the Ardhanareeshwar temple in Tiruchengode. For my non-Indian readers, Ardhanareeswar is an androgynous form of the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanareeswar is depicted as half-male and half-female, spit down the middle, and can be considered to be the ‘perfect being’ due to the balance of the male and female elements. The ancient practice, described in the book, that stirred up a hornet’s nest was that of ‘Gods’  having sex with women who desired to have a child. This practice took place on the 14th day of a famed Chariot festival in Thiruchengode. Of course, there were no ‘Gods’ that were impregnating the women, but the mere mortals from that area. But the practice, in the guise of divinity, had everyone’s approval.

The protests by the fundamentalist groups, who were incensed at the portrayal of the practice, were successful. The author decided to not write anymore.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone,”  He said.

In those words I can sense his pique and anger. But it is a pity that Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Because his book is breathtaking. I bought this book as my own personal act of dissent, sitting in faraway South Bend, Indiana (unsure of what it would be like and what it was about).

The book tells the story of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love. But they are constantly reminded of what they lack, by everyone around them. Ponna is considered barren and inauspicious, while Kali’s manhood is doubted on every occasion.  Things go on this way, till Ponna is pressured to go to the festival on the fourteenth day, to get the gift of a child from Gods. Does she agree? I will not giveaway anything here, because that is not really the point of a review.

What is remarkable about the book, is that despite its piercing and acute social commentary, on gender, women’s rights, caste, and masculinity, it remains a book about love. Murugan provides insights about a love that can only be born of years of knowing each other, burrowing into one another’s bodies. He describes longing and desperation in a couple in far away Thiruchengode with a universality that can touch cords in people everywhere. He describes in painstaking detail all the things that the couple do to please the Gods. The endless sacrifices, the penances, the sinking feeling when Ponna’s period comes with clockwork regularity every month.

Kali and Ponna could be any other couple, in another context, trying to attain what is unattainable.  And haven’t we all been there. Running after a scorecard, or a waistline, a salary, or love (depending on what your poison is). We have all had the crippling anxiety that makes us forget to live in the moment, and be prepared to make sacrifices before an unyielding idol. We have all allowed others to determine what makes us happy. That cruel master: social approval.

The author also uses a portia tree as a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between the couple. The tree is a source of cool shade, support, and when times are bad, a sinister menacing presence. As we turn a page we hope that the couple will find peace, will be able to live in the bubble of their love, without worrying about not having a child. Out of every page in the book there emerges a sort of lyricism, that enchants you and ultimately leaves you heartbroken.

But what left me more heartbroken was the fact that ultimately, a bunch of people who do not have any appreciation of art won. What sort of a person does it take, to read something so delightful and heart wrenching and then say that I shall have it banned? What left me the saddest was Perumal Murugan ‘the author’ is dead, though P Murugan the man lives. I always had an idea of my country in my head, and it was never one where fundamentalists thrive and authors hide.

I was asked at a dinner party in the United States, to name the one thing I loved and hated the most about America. I made up some polite sounding bullshit. But what I took away from living there was a sense of freedom. I know that not everyone enjoys that freedom to the same extent, and America (like any other nation) has insidious divisions. But I remembered the sense of freedom with which I could express myself there, and think. Nuance, that elusive thing, hovered in and out of discussions. Perhaps it was the university environment, but the sense of freedom was like coming up for air. Now I feel that I shall have to spend my entire life, unlearning that. That every expression of a contrarian view will be a struggle. The recent spate of bans does not make me any more confident. But I may be wrong. Are most of our universities still centers of intellectual curiosity (I know some are)? Is a divergence of views respected? Have you, dear reader, enjoyed an academic and cultural environment where you learnt to dissent, to question? Can we be a nation where authors can thrive, and fundamentalists respect their space to do so? ( In their defense, they would not be very good fundamentalists if they did so). Leave your views in comments below, and don’t forget to read this book.

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For the love of the Blue one: or an unlikely girl writing about faith

Dear Reader,

I am writing a story here. But then, it is not really a story. Because nothing quite happens, and you do most of the work. But you can stay you know. I can promise it will be good. The veracity of the promise?

I don’t know.

(Also, Kiran Nagarkar has used the phrase ‘the blue one’ for Krishna in his Novel Cuckold, but that is the only similarity here. Just wanted to make sure I was clear on where the name came from.)

So she was curled up in a fetal position, in the pitch dark of the night. Utterly and completely alone. Was she crying? Well, from the dirt on her face, and the quietness in her body, you could imagine that she had just finished crying for a long long time.

What was wrong with her?

Whatever you want. She is your mirror today. Your insecurities. Your deep feeling of loss. Your sense of inadequacy. Your fear of rejection.

That traumatic incident which happened many years ago. That broken home. Violence. That flaming row. The loss of a loved one. That insensitive friend. Those jungles cut down. All the things that burn you like spent embers not yet quite cold. The fierce force of a life that  will not quit.

Project that on to her. That was what was wrong.

She is all of us in that moment, anyone and everyone.

The night is pitch dark, and the walls a pleasant cream. Funny, you would think the walls would be a more depressing color. The ceiling flat. Like pain. Boxed in, all of us. Unable at that moment to escape the prison of our lives, and box-like apartments.

She remembered a story from long a ago.. A story of a boy who used to be afraid of setting out in the dark forest. Was the forest dangerous? Or was it just his imagination? I don’t know. But he had to cross the forest to get to school. He was one of those boys you find in fables like these. (and this is a real fable from my childhood, mind you. This is not something I made up, though I am taking liberties with the retelling.) He was good, and poor. And always listened to his mother.

So he told his mother that he was afraid of the dark forest, and asked for her help. The mother was widowed, and had her own work to do. She could not really chaperon her son. So she said, if you are ever afraid in the forest, call Madhusudan. (for non-Indians, Madhusudan is another name for the Hindu God Krishna). He lives there. He will help you get across the darkness.

Now this story would be much less exciting if she had said Hanuman (or more exciting, depending on your perspective). Hanuman would probably just uproot the school and move it over to near his home. Anyway, she said Madhusudan. So that is that.

The next day our nameless protagonist went into the forest, he called out to Madhusudan. “Madhusudan Dada (brother in Bengali), where are you?”.  Lo and behold, there were soft footfalls behind him. There stood a man so marvelously blue. So delightedly, wholeheartedly committed to his blueness. With curly kinky hair, and a peacock feather tucked in behind his ears. He was wearing something yellow that certainly could not be found in Big Bazaar’s mega sale. And in his hand was a flute.

You are a musician? The boy asked? Madhusudan Dada smiled, and put the flute to his lips and played sound. He played color. He played the first song the first Koel would have sung. He played the feeling that you get when you smell the fresh earth. He played melancholy, and affection (he did not play love, because few have survived to tell the tale). As he played, he moved, swaying with the wind. He was the darkness, but luminously so. This was the Krishna of Vrindavan. The Krishna on whom Radha had staked her claim. The God, who was so Godly because he was possessed and owned by his devotees. Is there not real Godliness in being claimed? In playing along with mortals the eternal game of love, while you juggle planets on the side?

Well so the ritual was. They would meet in the forest, and Madhusudan Dada would escort him to school everyday. Playing the flute sometimes. Sometimes walking in peace. Sometimes speaking the language of the birds.

Needless to say, no adults in this story figured out that a God had come down to chaperon our dear protagonist. The mother, probably attributed her son’s ramblings about the blue one to white-lies of childhood. And the son, did not quite understand he was dealing with a God here. Kids are like that.

But one day, there was  a feast in the school, and each child had to bring one item of food for the whole school. (A rather unreasonable request, but then perhaps it was a small school.) When the protagonist went to his mother, and said “well mother, I have to take yogurt for the whole school tomorrow”, the mother panicked (because they barely managed to put two square meals together), and did what panicked people often do. Deflect. She said, “why don’t you ask Madhusudan Dada”.

So on the day of the feast, he asks the blue one for some yogurt to feed the entire school. Krishna, took out a small pot of yogurt and gave it to the boy. The boy took it with a sinking heart, because there was no way it would feed the entire school. But he took it because it was better than going empty handed.

Of course the yogurt was magic! When the people at the school, who made fun of him for only bringing so little, tried to pour the yogurt out into something else, there was a tiny problem. You see the yogurt never finished. It went on and on. No matter how much people ate. (And might I say Krishna has done this sort of stuff before, with Draupadi’s sari). Someone needs to speak to him about overkill.

Of course the boy was asked where he got it from, and replied with a straight face that his blue colored, flute playing, peacock feather wearing friend had given him the magic yogurt. Of course everyone rushed to find Krishna in the forest. But they din’t, did they? Because he never lived in the forest. Where was he? Go figure.

But our unhappy lady, on her floor, utterly alone, in the dark night thought of this. The corners of the mouth twitched in a smile. She understood why Radha, Meera and countless Gopis had longed for Krishna. He was the only God who switched places with the devotee. He took the pain, and the hardship, and you became divine. For a moment, you became unreal.

She called out. Softly. Very softly to the carpeted floor. Madhusudan!

The night descended on her.

Can customers crack-down on Child Labor?

In 2014 India’s Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai shared the Nobel peace prize. Ironically, it was a time when border tensions had resurfaced between India and Pakistan. But hopefully this shared peace prize is going to remind people on both sides of the fence that there are values we share.  The future of our children is hopefully one such value.

Kailash Satyarthi is an activist who has worked, over a period of thirty years, to eliminate the practice of child labor in India. In 1983 he formed the ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’ (the Save Childhood Campaign), which has since rescued about 80,000 children from illegal and hazardous work across India.[1]  Subsequently, he founded ‘GoodWeave international’ (formerly known as Rugmark) to rehabilitate children working in the handmade carpet industry.  GoodWeave approaches the problem from a ‘supply chain’ and ‘consumer’ perspective.

GoodWeave international is an organization that certifies rugs (that meet certain standards) as ‘child labor free’. [2]It also provides education and other opportunities to children rescued from these rug factories. [3] But before talking in greater detail about the work done by GoodWeave, it will be useful to understand the widespread problem of child labor in the rug industry.

Children between the ages of 4 to 14 are kidnapped or sold and forced to work for up to 18 hours a day to weave rugs meant for export markets in places such as the United States and Europe. [4] The working conditions in the rug industry lead to these children developing malnutrition, impaired vision, deformities caused due to sitting hunched up in loom sheds and respiratory diseases from inhaling wool fibers. [5] Further, girl children who are trafficked for the purposes of the carpet industry are often forced into commercial sex work. This situation makes the work done by GoodWeave International very important.

The GoodWeave model uses the concept of business goodwill to combat the practice of child labor. The certification system is premised on the notion that consumers would prefer to buy products that they know have been ethically manufactured. In order to earn the GoodWeave label rug exporters and importers need to sign a contract to adhere to GoodWeave’s no child labor standard. GoodWeave insists on extensive monitoring and auditing in every stage of the supply chain. The contract requires the exporters to agree to surprise inspections and to pay a licensing fee that supports the educational programs run by GoodWeave. GoodWeave’s arrangements with importers in markets such as Europe and USA, ensures that they import only from GoodWeave certified exporters in South Asia.

Let us turn now to the effectiveness of this movement. Rugs carrying the GoodWeave mark constitute 5% of the import market in North America and Europe.[6] The reason for the pervasiveness of child labor in the larger rug industry is that there is a ‘market demand’ for child labor. Since employing children means that employers can pay lower wages, the manufacturing cost of the rugs in driven down. This is where the certification plays a role by creating consumer awareness and a demand for ethically sourced products.

But it must be noted that labor activists have shared concerns that the complexity of the modern supply chain does make assurances difficult. This difficulty is highlighted by the fact that since its inception, 3700 workers have been ‘rescued’ from factories that were affiliated with the GoodWeave brand.[7] However, the GoodWeave logo is as close as one can get to an assurance of child labor free products.

Concerns with child labor are not restricted to the rug industry only. According to the ILO (Global Child Labor Trends 2008- 2012) there are 168 million children involved in Child Labor all across the world[8]. Concerns in relation to child labor are prevalent in industries like garment[9], electronics[10], and chocolate. [11] The International Labor Organization has Conventions that govern the field. These are the ILO Convention No 138 (the Convention Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Work) and the ILO Convention No 182 (On the Worst Forms of Child Labor). The ILO has also issued the Recommendation 190 (on the worst forms of child labor) and the Recommendation 146 (the minimum age recommendation). Sadly, India (with a very high number of child laborers) is among the few nations that have not ratified the Convention on the Worst forms of Child Labor. Despite this there are stringent laws relating to Child Labor in India, in addition to the Juvenile Justice Act and Article 24 of the Indian Constitution.[12] The problem, it seems, is in the implementation.

Though there has been a decrease in the numbers over the years, child labor is still a problem of massive proportions. One of the ways in which this can be tackled (along with laws being well implemented) is through supply chain monitoring (of which the GoodWeave model is a species). It seems appropriate that countries should have laws that require their Corporations to share supply chain information (or at least the lack thereof). Such a law has already been passed by California and is known as the Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010.[13] It requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the State (having more than $100,000,000 in annual worldwide gross receipts) to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains for tangible goods offered for sale.  This kind of legislation will ensure that there is supply chain transparency, and allow the consumers to make more informed choices. It will also bolster certification systems like GoodWeave, that can use the licensing fees they obtain from the businesses to rehabilitate the rescued victims of child labor.

Before I conclude, I would like to tell you dear reader, what you can do to tackle this problem. You may not buy rugs, but I am pretty sure you buy chocolates, clothes and electronics. If you are Indian, I can bet you buy crackers on Diwali. I want you to start asking questions about where the stuff you buy comes from. Are those crackers child labor free? Are those clothes made in sweat-shop conditions? What about that delicious piece of chocolate or the cool phone? Some of you, who are more sartorially inclined might want to check out the Ethical Fashion Forum. [14]  It will not be easy for you make lifestyle changes immediately, and some of you may elect to not care. It doesn’t matter. ASK. On some brands you will find information quickly, on some you won’t, but when you ask for information, you become a part of a process to effect change. Your questions will create a demand for answers, and once it is out in the open that a company uses child labor or sweatshop like conditions in manufacturing the products, there will be a loss of goodwill for those companies. This is already happening, and we need to create a momentum for it. It is time that we gave information to consumers, and created a market where there is a disincentive for unethical practices. It is also time consumers asked!

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/10/who-is-indias-kailash-satyarthi-the-other-nobel-peace-prize-winner/

[2] http://www.goodweave.org/about

[3] Ibid

[4] http://www.goodweave.org/child_labor_campaign/child_labor_handmade_rugs_carpets

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[7] Ibid

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[9] http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2014/08/31/time-to-get-children-out-of-factories-and-into-schools/

[10] Ibid

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/15/child-labour-product-certification

[12] http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1540780/

[13] http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/164934.pdf

[14] http://ethicalfashionforum.com/

A few thoughts on the NLU Delhi comedius interruptus Incident.

Okay.

a) I apologize for the appalling headline. I was just trying to illustrate that humor is not for everyone.

b) This is going to be a short post, because those International Dispute Resolution readings are not going to do themselves.

c) Frankly, I know everyone wants to throw in their two cents about this incident, and you are entitled to roll your eyes at one more such effort. But as I have said before, my blog my rules.

Now, what is this about? Abish Matthew, an Indian comedian, went to N.L.U Delhi (a law school) to perform a stand up act. He made certain jokes about Malayali men beating their wives, the appearance of a female politician and women’s ability to drive (or so the news says).  Now some students were offended by his humor, and walked out of the venue. Subsequently, they returned holding a placard that said ‘Get out, sexist pig’ and showed their middle finger to the comedian. They continued to heckle the comedian till he decided to cut his act shot. After this the irate audience turned on the women, pushing them and commenting on their clothes. Now I was not there (and this is second hand news from newspapers), so if I have got any of the details wrong, please correct me.

Well there are really three things I want to say:

1)Is Sexist humor okay? 

Personally, I don’t like that brand of humor at all. I think that it is lazy. Why would a comedian want to hide behind stale stereotypes to evoke laughter? I know a lot of great comedians who don’t have to do that (such as John Oliver and Jon Stewart). Secondly, one must remember that behind sexism, lies a sea of historical discrimination and sometimes violence. Look at domestic violence. Having seen it happen to neighbors and on the street (and having tried to intervene) and spoken to survivors of violence, I don’t find it an appropriate subject. This is especially because, if I were a comedian, I would think about what would happen to a victim of domestic violence, if she were sitting in that audience.

However, I am not a comedian, nor am I very funny (though I have my moments). I cannot imagine what is going through his head, but  Mr Matthew is young, and is developing his art (or his ‘voice’ as the hip people say). He must be trying to come up with stuff to keep things edgy and have some element of shock value in his act. Comedians often do that. Sometimes, they use their humor to throw light on a subject that bothers them (like child sexual abuse, a war, corruption). I am willing to believe that this might be what Mr Matthew was trying to do.

Now, it is up to him to ask himself whether not making fun of domestic violence takes something away from his jokes? Does he have an obligation to respect the sensibilities of victims who might be in the audience? And, whether his humor will be prone to misinterpretation. That is for him to figure out, because if comedy is art then you cannot expect an artist to be dishonest with it. He must display what he feels is the most authentic expression of his world view.

2) Was the protest wrong?

Well, in my opinion, no. Just as Mr Matthew has the freedom to decide the best comedic expression of his world view, the students who protested have a right to express their anger and outrage at the humor. That is the way democratic life is supposed to be. The girls did not vandalize the venue. They did not resort to violence. They did not take support of the coercive mechanism of the state. All they did was hold a placard, and show the middle finger. Frankly, showing the middle finger and using the f-word, is the sort of stuff A.I.B (which Mr Matthew is allied with?) has been very gung-ho about protecting. Though a lot of their humor is political satire, it is also fully of hip thrusts and ball licking gestures. (*graphic image alert* :\) So yeah, if we love freedom of expression, then we should support both freedoms. Now if Mr Matthew wanted to make a point, he could have powered through the act. The girls could have gone on holding their placard and heckling. You don’t like that? Well suppressing those voices, leads to the vandals and the vigilantes being born.

It should also be remembered that freedom of expression is not freedom from all consequences. It is merely freedom from violence and coercive mechanisms of the state. But people who don’t agree with you are free to heckle you or hold placards.  I think I much prefer their brand of protest to the lawsuits of a certain Dinanath Batra, the F.I.Rs lodged against the A.I.B roast, as well as the vandalizing that various political parties do.

3) A small word to the girls who protested. (who may never read this)

I don’t know you. And I don’t know what your law school is like. But I know what a college experience is like and the crushing weight of conformism on all of us. If I was in that auditorium, I probably would just have walked out, and written about what offended me. Your method of protest is not something I have a natural affinity to. You chose what one might call a more ‘militant’ protest. But you did something. You stood up for your convictions, when you knew that there would be a backlash from your peers.

You cared enough about something, to stand up to an auditorium full of irate people.

For that. Thank you. 🙂

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.

The India that I love.

One can exorcise a ghost, how does one get rid of a country?(Paraphrased from Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold)

Dear Readers,

It has been a while since I have made a blog post. While I have been busy, I have not been so busy as to warrant such a long absence.  Perhaps with so many changes in life (read graduate school), I felt there was too much to write. Perhaps I was not up to the task.

So the fall colors whizzed by, and I saw the first snow fall  of my life. And I did not write.

But the blog has been on my mind. In the days before I came away to a different continent, in a different country, it was my voice. And as the cold wave of nostalgia sweeps over me, it is my voice again. A voice that I need, to express that feeling we try to describe as homesickness.

Those that are less discerning among us would mistake homesickness for unhappiness. That is not the case. Sure, you are unhappy when you are homesick, but that is where the relationship between them ends.

What is it that I miss? Is it the company of loved ones? Maybe so. But more than that it is that visceral relationship with my country. Its deafening noises, its food, its dust, its light, its people.

Don’t take this to be a bout of patriotism. To love India, is not to love it like one loves one’s country. It is not the chaste love of duty and honor. It is that aching love of fresh pine-laden Himalayan air in your lungs. It is the love of the half burnt smell that hovers Delhi in melancholy evenings.

To love India is like to be in love with a paradox.

I could say some more trite things about how amazing India is.

I won’t.

I will just tell you of some memories dear reader. Jama Masjid, old Delhi. You sit there for hours. Watching people come and go. They keep  changing but they are the same. You go out to Karim’s to jostle for a table and probably end up ordering the wrong dish.

It is near Diwali night. The bite is just getting into the cold Delhi  air. The auto guy is ripping you off, but you don’t care at the moment. You are passing North block South Block. There is the India Gate in the distance. That moment in time, you want to bottle it up. Never let it go.

It is Bombay now. Wet. Always wet. The sea is a dark dark something color, and the queen’s necklace glitters. I won’t call it a city of dreams or some crap like that. It is a city of grit. Of fighters. Storming bastions. Braving conditions. Getting their little victories. Someday it will be home. Someday I will storm my own bastion there.

And there is Calcutta, the first love. A city that I never understood. Perhaps could truly never be a part of. I could see Moidan, I could stand at the edges and imagine the life of a boy who lives in Garia, who comes here with friends to smoke up. I could see how this city can be enough for those it loves. Enough for those that love it.  Its genuine love of food, its complete contemptuous indifference to appearances. Its book fair. Its prickly heat.

But then perhaps it is time to talk about where I am really from. Bhubaneshwar. I don’t think I ever owned up to it, till my boyfriend joked that ‘where you are really from, is the place you want to escape the most’. So yes perhaps I am from Bhubaneshwar. With its sleepy evenings, its beautiful parks, and more temples than you can count. Perhaps there is still a little girl there, who goes out for ice cream to Indira park. The Ram Mandir still stands tall there, I guess, and the Rasagulla’s must be amazing.

So there it is. That longing for the smells, sights sounds. The longing for the warmth of its people.

One can exorcise a ghost, how does one get rid of a country?