being brown

Posts tagged “politics

Sexuality and its discontents

Recently, because I had an ongoing (it was something that surfaced on and off over the course of three weeks) argument about sexuality with P, I decided to speak to A for an outsider’s perspective. After listening to my version of the debate, A, first, felt that I was confused about sexuality and I was projecting that on P. ( yeah! I have friends who can be brutally honest!). Her second observation was that if P was, herself, from a sexual minority community, she would consider it an affront if I had something to say about sexual minorities ( ofcourse, A assumed that P assumed that I was heterosexual). I didn’t know if P was heterosexual or not. So this was a moot point.

The argument itself was on semantics. What word would one use to describe something? But during the course of the argument, P said, ‘ in most homosexual relationships, one partner plays the role of a woman and the other the man’. This raised red flags in my mind, because for one, it isn’t true and for another, it smacks of heterosexual morality being reproduced in homosexual relationships. Subsequently, from context, I discovered that P was specifically talking about sex between men and transsexuals. The whole impasse between P and me was the result of the imprecise use of words. Clarity regained seat, and all was well with the world.

P had the best interest of sexual minorities at heart. She even worked with some of them. In fact, while she was talking to me she said, ‘ why should the knowledge of someone’s sexuality, what ever it is, affect our behavior in anyway?’ And i am in complete agreement. But, in our enthusiasm to be inclusive and non-discriminatory, we tend to categorise all sexual minorities in to one category, losing critical nuances and tending to generalize within the category. Hence, P’s sweeping statement and my overwrought reaction to it.

But A had brought up an interesting question. By virtue of ‘appearing’ heterosexual, do I automatically lose credibility in discussions concerning sexuality?  If yes, why? Is it beyond comprehension that some one with a majoritarian inclination should actually understand the nuances in a discussion about a minority? Or is it that such a person really cannot understand those nuances? In corollary, do gays always and fully understand the issues that concern lesbians and transsexuals? What do you think?


Two pieces of great writing

Recently, in a span of a week, I read two articles that to me meant all that writing is supposed to mean. The first was Vinod K. Jose’s analytical look at Narendra Modi in The Emperor Uncrowned. And the second was K.P.Sasi’s reflections on his father, a veteran Marxist, and the journey of Marxism in the country in K.Damodaran: An Unfinished Chapter. The subjects themselves are very different. While the former is written by a journalist about a controversial ( fascist) but extremely successful politician, the latter is a more heartfelt critical reflection by a left-leaning film maker about his father and the politics of his time. Both articles, however, raise two all important and all-consuming contemporary questions ‘ For whom, this Development?” and “ is there anything in the world that can excuse mass killings- ever?” Enough about the content of the articles; I will let you read the articles yourself to determine their merits.

However, what really makes me sit up with both these articles is that, they embody the best things in writing. K.P. Sasi’s article is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgia-ridden eulogy. Not only is it looking at the father with a critical eye, it makes parallel critical observations about communism in Kerela, India, the USSR and the world in general, making that subtle but significant link between the personal and the political. Along the way, he also makes important observations about the current state of organised Marxism in India- what is, essentially, an outsiders view of a movement in which he is well enough invested ideologically, to have reasonably high expectations. What is beautiful is that he uses Marxism as an analytical tool to scrutinize the movement and its personalities!

Vinod K Jose’s article is laboriously researched. It makes all the right linkages and demonstrates journalism at its best. Complexities of life and personality gives perspective to a man who is, for the most part, known either as ‘the best thing that happened to Gujarat’ or as a ‘mass murderer’.

Finally, contrary to contemporary aesthetics of web writing, both articles are long. I am a slow reader and I took almost half an hour to read each. So this is where I will have to disagree with contemporary internet aesthetics and say this- some subjects cannot be written about in bite-sized pieces.

Now, I urge all of you to read these articles. If you have time for only one, do read the K P Sasi article! And tell me if it didn’t move you.


In defence of my right to not provide a defence

The freedom of expression is well and truly under fire. All our national debates seem to revolve around some form of freedom of expression or the other. With social media, much of our personal debates also seem to centre around the freedom of expression.

Take, for instance, this reprimanding email (from an aunt) that my sister and I received for quarreling on my Facebook wall. For the record, the quarrel was in jest. And yet the email told us off for fighting in public.  Just to put things in perspective, I have been an adult for more than 10 years now and my sister is 5 years my junior. I reassured my aunt that it was indeed in jest.

But what if it wasn’t?  What if I did have a public spat with someone? Wasn’t it my right? What was it that made someone wag-a-finger-scold us? What I concluded was this. Yes, I had the right to have a public spat. And yes, it is none of my aunt’s business. No, there is no question about it. And yes, I have wasted my time and energy thinking about it. So does this mean that my freedom of expression is not important? It is only as important as my aunt’s scolding has made it out to be. The freedom of expression debate sticks us into a polarized world of pro-against that, in reality, exists only in the minds of those against.

The recent Salman Rushdie controversy is a case in point.  Here are the facts. Rushdie might have written blasphemous fiction. However, you cannot issue fatwas and threaten to kill him. He is free to move anywhere in India including Jaipur. If the government cannot provide enough security, it has to acknowledge administrative failure. Period.

No need for Chetan Bhagat’s pompous sound bite imploring the media not to make a hero of Rushdie. No need for Justice Katju’s comments about the poor and substandard nature of Rushdie’s novels. No need, in short, for the media brouhaha that ensued. What else was read and discussed at the Jaipur Literary Festival, we will never know. And all this for a book that was published more than 20 years ago.

I am reminded of a year ago when Aditya Thakeray, that philistine offspring of Udhav Thakeray and undergraduate student at St. Xaviers college, decided that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey should not form part of English Literature course. I will not go into ‘why’ because, like Rushdie’s blasphemy, the ‘why’ is immaterial. And yet, he wields so much power ( so bad for one so young) that the university vice-chancellor removed it from the syllabus effective immediately.

Like my aunt, these numbskulls have been allowed to determine the contours of the ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The truth is I don’t want to ever defend my right to free speech ever again.

And with that, I am off to read The Satanic Verses (a book that my country has deemed unsuitable for me), a PDF version of which was posted on Facebook by an ever resourceful friend.


Literature at its shocking best

When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!

Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.

My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry.  The first poem I read of hers was

Becoming a Brahmin

Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,

Advaita: The ultimate question

Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,

An Angel Meeting Me

Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,

Mascara

oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,

How they prostitute a poem

By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”

But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones.  Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.

Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.


Ranting!

Ok! This has to be written about. I am fuming. My heart is racing. I feel like I am being choked and stifled. Why?

Because the Bangalore Municipal Coproration doesn’t allow me to do the one thing I want to do ( I need to do to retain my sanity) at any other time than 3.30 PM to 4.30 PM. Unfortunately, that’s when I have to be hard at work. But fortune has nothing to do with it.

One of the main reasons that my shift to Bangalore wasn’t bad was because the Bangalore Municipal Swimming Pool was but 10 minutes away from home. I went there on Saturday evening to find out the timinigs, now that the winter is well and truly on retreat. And I realized that the pool is open from 6.00 AM on wards. Also there was a 3.30 – 4.30 ladies special batch. The rest of it was general. I mentally noted the timings and resolved to come by on mornings before work.

I went there this morning, sharp at 6.00 AM. And I was told the ladies batch was at 3.30. I said I knew it was, but I wanted to go in the general batch. Errrr…the person at the counter looked taken aback and said, but that’s only for gents. A little more debate with him, I was proudly told that this has been the rule for the last 25 years. I asked then isn’t it time to change the rules considering lost of women work now. He asked me to come at 10 AM (another impossibility for working people) to speak to the officer in charge. (seriously, I have never hated anyone as much as I have hated him for no fault of his).

As I walked back, the tears welled up in my eyes. I have been turned away from places because of rules before. But this cut too close to the heart. Quite literally, me outside water is like fish outside water.

Heres what I think happened?

Theres the general timings for men, women and children. And theres the ladies special timing. Both rules made 25 years ago by men in the largess of their hearts. ( their generosity just bowls me over). Over the years ladies have been using that exclusive time slot not venturing to go another time. So it soon became the ladies slot and the gents slot. I am sure if we were to unearth the dusty rules, this is what we would find.

Apart from the obvious implications of this to women, women’s’ development, feminism and the general gender sensitivity of the government, what this also says is that women are not expected to take on exercise/entertainment that requires them to strip to the bare minimum.

Bangalore, grow up!

P.S. part of me wants to take this up with the authorities. But I am afraid I will end up slapping someone…or worse.


Will Peter go back?

The rather amazing turn of events in international politics serves as a reminder that even if you are saturated with ideas of revolution and political upheaval, so much so you suddenly yearn for stability when there’s been nothing but simply because you have been thinking about it for ever and you are exhausted, it’s still a need, a romantic one, but inevitable never the less. It also tells you that people are more like you than not, something that comes as a surprise because everybody you meet thinks you are crazy. Just shows, it is not that the world is small but YOUR world is small.

The secession of South Sudan is one that has me interested. Sudan has had its share of trouble. Obviously, I am slightly more clued into her Darfur angst than her South Sudan angst, the former having received lots more international deliberation than the latter. Here’s what I knew about South Sudan

  1. There’s been unrest for quite some time now.
  2. it’s been bloody
  3. South Sudan has all the oil
  4. South Sudan has the Christians while Khartoum has the Muslims

Peter told me these things. I haven’t verified them. But I took them to be one version of the reality as seen by a South Sudan student refugee.  Peter was in the students’ hostel I was staying at in Oslo during my 6 month student stint there. I had chosen this one particularly because it was cheaper than the rest. I soon realized that cheap meant a whole lot of fellow immigrant students and refugees as housemates. In fact, the area where I stayed was full of black and brown people of all kinds of nationalities with Pakistani and Indian store owners.

My very first friend was Moufid, an Iraqi who took me under his wing immediately and introduced me to the rest of my housemates. That’s how I first met Peter. He was studying tourism Oslo University. Both Moufid and Peter new better Norwegian than English. I suppose that helped them survive better. Also, the Norwegian government invested in giving their refugee population free language lessons. Apparently, they also taught their refugees how to cook and clean so that they can live independently. That’s what Peter told me as he gave me some channadal cooked like Indian dal with no spices and only salt. We ate that with some bread. And he told me how when he came to Norway, he didn’t know the first thing about cooking. Customarily, his mom and sisters cooked.

Peter had been here for more than 10 years now and had become well adjusted to the Norwegian independent way of life. He had made good friends. Some of his family was also here. He couldn’t go back any time in the near future, he said, because there was an arrest warrant for him in South Sudan. He had participated in anti-establishment activities at home. His eyes welled up when he said he missed home.

It’s been more than three years since I saw Peter last. I wonder if with all that Norwegianising that he has been through, he will ever come back to South Sudan for anything longer than a short term visit. Now that this is a new country, will he take on the difficult task of building the nation? Has the nation lost its refugees forever?


Unknown wars in unknown places

One of the strongest images I have of Egypt (other than the museum and the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings) is the overwhelming presence of the Egyptian police. In white pants and white shirt like Indian naval officers (the only difference was that the shirt was not tucked in but was held by a black belt), these well built, hawk eyed, men were everywhere. On the streets, in the museum, at the railway station, at the pyramids, in the Valley of Kings – everywhere!

We were waiting for a train at Cairo station. The train was to take us to Aswan (where Agatha Christie stayed as she wrote Murder on the Nile). At Aswan we were to board a cruise that sailed on the Nile all the way to Luxor. We had arrived at the platform slightly early, which meant that we had to wait and entertain ourselves as best we could. The station was like any railway station in India (less crowded, of course). A whole lot of people were waiting about for trains; some families, some individuals, no individual women though. The platform was dirty and there were quite a few stalls selling snacks and other knick-knacks. In fact, we felt quite at home.

My father asked one of the policemen about our train and he said it should come in sometime but there were two trains due before ours. Did I mention there were police men to the tune of one for every 100 metres at the platform? In fact the station was so well secure, the car that carried us to the station was stopped for security check and our driver had to tell them who the car belonged to, who we were, where we came from and where we were going. As a family, we look pretty harmless so after a cursory glance at our faces we were allowed to pass.

My sister and I decided to take a walk down the length of the platform seeing that we had quite a bit of time on our hands, to do with as we please. As we walked the length, we realized that a lot of the men that had gathered at the station were in military uniform. With their large rucksacks and their huge metal boots, they looked ready to jump into war. Back at ‘campsite’ (where mum and dad were standing with the luggage), I asked if Egypt was in some kind of war. Mmy father answered in the best way he knew (read longest way). Apparently, Egypt had had/has forced conscription of males in the military until sometime ago. Not sure if the practice continues now and definitely not sure if it will continue after the revolution. Now, forced conscription is one of the things that interest me immensely. The reasons would make for another blog post that I would save for another day.

One of the primary things that interests me about forced conscription is the individual’s own perception of this kind of conscription. And as I watched the young men, some alone, some with their families waiting for a train, the writer in me was building for each one, a story. Sitting atop our luggage, I removed my camera meaning to store this poetic picture for ever. I did not focus on anything in particular but wanted to catch the length of the platform with atleast some of these men with their romantic baggage. And as I held out my camera, I heard my father saying that its against the law to take pictures in public places like the railway station. But I had already clicked and as I clicked, I saw the severe expression of the policeman in the screen of the digital camera staring right at me. He slowly moved forward a couple of steps, raised one arm and shook his finger from side to side, scowling all the time. I meekly put the camera back in the bag and realized that being a girl just saved me some uncomfortable moments. That and the fact that mum, dad and sis exude a certain respectability that the policemen read as ‘good people’. Moreover, my father looked ready to give me up to the policeman, if need be.

Well, in a rather anti-climactic turn of events, the already full military train arrived and the platform turned in to this long film strip of goodbye scenes. As men packed into it like sardines in a tin, Egypt’s military strength left for unknown wars in unknown places for an establishment they may or may not have loved.