Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Updated links

In honour of Blog Day (or is it bloggers' day?), I finally got round to doing something I should've done months ago - I finally linked to more blogs that I do read every single day, almost (look right) but I'd simply stored them in my favourite-list, instead of doing the proper blogger thing, linking.

For no reason but that I was too lazy. Or too moody. Or something else, equally indefensible.
But now, I've been a good girl and finished pending blog updation.

Monday, August 29, 2005

PS - IMHO, not fair

When I wrote out the last post, I waited three days before hitting the 'publish' button.
When I titled it 'provocation', I cringed at the ominous irony of it. I guessed that somebody was going to fail to understand and think- 'this amounts to defending rapists'.

That is not a nice thing for anyone to think, so I hesitated.

For the first time, since I started this blog, I stopped to think of how a post would be received and whether this was really what I wanted to say. Four times, I edited it - just to make sure I wasn't saying something I didn't mean to say.

And yet, a lot of people ended up mixing up everything I was trying to say.

I really, totally, am not justifying violation of any sort.
Right now, I am only justifying my having thought and said what I did think and say.

I agree - castrate rapists by all means.
Punch those who pinch you; make mince of those who touch you, by all means.
If you face the threat of pummelling, scalping, torching, then pummel, scalp, torch. By all means.

But where do you draw the line of justified pummelling and scalping?
What is your justification?
Where is the line?

Is rape the line?
Is touching without permission the line?
Is making lewd gestures the line?
Is whistling and singing a silly cinema song the line?
Is staring the line?

When is it okay to turn around and slap a guy?

I know my line: if I am physically threatened, I will react in self-defence. If I am touched, I will slap.

But I also believe that I have the right to retaliate in kind.... measure for measure. No more.
Even in the harshest form of judgement, you are granted an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No more.

If someone says lewd things, I have the right to hurl abuse back at him.
If someones leches, I have the right to, perhaps, glare back. Or to lech back. Or to ignore.... but even if I think that he wants to insult me, I do not have the right to hit him. Or get him arrested, unless I have reason to believe that he is going to physically harm me.
If someone whistles, I do not have the right to hit him. Or even verbally abuse him. It is not fair.
And no, whadeheg, whistling is not the same thing as squeezing/pinching someone's butt.
A man, or woman, does have the right to say or do anything he/she likes as long as he/she is not physically harming you. Or touching you when you do not want it.
Your body is your fiefdom. The mohalla is not.

I understand that different people have different ideas of violation and of personal space. But hey, there have to be some basic rules that everyone recognizes. Every individual cannot go about setting their own rules, wrt 'doses and amounts' of admiration that are acceptable or not.

Some women get upset if someone enters a three-foot radius of space around them... When in public, they'll just have to live with their fears, and sense of violation. It's nobody's fault.

You may get very upset when a drunk stranger leans close, barely six inches away from your face... But you still do NOT have the right to slap him.
I may get very upset when I am followed home. But I do NOT have the right to hit the men concerned. I may get upset in crowded buses, but I do not have the right to hit the men standing next to me. If a man standing next to me tries to touch me, I do have the right to slap him, scream, ask him to get off the bus.

As far as expression of admiration is concerned, I know of women who follow men they find attractive. I know enough women who check out men in public places - pubs, malls, cinema complexes. They comment, they ogle, they giggle, they make blank calls, they say lewd things on the phone and send nasty emails....

I don't like to think of what would happen if the men slapped the women concerned... How do I know they don't feel harrassed? (I do know definitely of two different men who have felt harrassed by women who chased them all over town in cars.... I laughed, when I heard. But the men were not amused.)

Try and put yourself on the other side.

How would you (as a woman) feel if you're in a public space, and you're leching at a man/woman who is dressed to kill, and this person turns around and thrashes you to make you stop leching.

What do you think your reaction will be? Will you say - 'Oh, but he's right... I was insulting him.'
(I'd probably just thrash the person right back, be it man or woman.)

And, for the last time, I am not saying - 'dress like this; don't dress like that'.
I dress like both, this and that. I DON'T care how you dress.
But I do think it is a bit much when you want to control not only the way you dress, but also the ways in which people react to your dressing.
That, IMHO, is not fair.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


When it comes to women, I've been having a lot of arguments, lately. Arguments with women, about women. At a meeting of writers, recently, we ended up having that most delectable of arguments - women, clothes and 'provocation'.

The debate about dress codes is not new. What was new was that it was us, the women, who were in favour of exercising restraint.
What was really new, to me, was that I agreed.

It was strange because I'm not queasy about skin-shows.

I like daring tops... Skirts, straps, transparent fabric... Tube tops and low-waist jeans, sometimes. But I also exercise restraint, depending on time and place. Partly, it is because of my work, because I am often out in buses, rickshaws or walking across a crowded street. Partly, because I respect the sensibilites of the people I'm visiting (based on my idea of their sensibilities).

Frankly, if I could afford to, I'd dress in skimpy, diaphanous clothes all the time.
With brevity, my wardrobe has a more lasting relationship, than has the soul of my wit (as the length of this post is witness).

But I have learnt that bare skin is going to attract attention.
Nudity, or the visible shape of a figure, draws our attention. It doesn't have to be a great shape. Like another good lady said, the sight of curves, of flesh, of a live, warm body - that is exciting!

And by 'our', I mean all of us. Men AND women.
A shirtless man will be looked at, too. A tight tee will make women focus on a man's body more specifically than an expensive jacket. (Salman Khan is a case in point.)

Everybody gawks when there's skin on show.
That is a given. But a man who is not used to skin-on-show is just going to gawk a little harder, lech more obviously. It may not be polite, but hey... spitting isn't either. There's even a law against it; it happens anyway. And there's no law against leching...

Which is why I don't wearing a tube top too often. I may not worry if I'm at a club, but at a railway station, I worry.

Not because I'm afraid of molestation or abuse or verbal harassment (there are more opportunities for violence and violation in a club, rather than a train) but because I understand that I might attract so much attention that I'm not happy with it, any longer.

Is this elitist? I don't know.... I'm not elite; I don't think I can afford the elitism.

But I do know that the concept of 'invitation' and 'provocation' is very, very subjective and culture-specific.

In my village, a girl wearing a kneelength skirt would raise eyebrows.
In my under-grad days, a girl wearing 70s-style bell-bottoms raised eyebrows.
In my post-grad college, nothing much raised eyebrows... Ooh, yes, Sarees did. In this 'cool' college, people assumed that you wore a saree to attract attention.
At the other end of the spectrum, my grandma thought that only married women should wear sarees. It wasn't decent for unmarried sylphs to go baring their tempting tummies.

The problem with cities is, there are all colours of the clothing-provocation spectrum in each corner of each suburb.

Fine, so you won't find a rickshaw-wala in a swank pub - which is what you're really paying big bucks for, right? - but when you step outside the pub, and want to return to the safety of your home, he's there. And yes, you're going to shock him, attract him, make him want to touch you.

I know enough women who carry shawls and jackets for this reason - they come off for one set of people; they're put on for another set.

Elitist? I don't know.... maybe yes.
Practical? Yes!

There have been times when I've let out a low whistle when a really delicious body walks past. And my argument was the same as that of men - you don't want to attract attention, don't look so good. Your body, you dress as you please. My mouth, I whistle....

Like the good lady who initiated this discussion pointed out, even women can feel the palpable attraction of a real body, in clothes that allow you to see it. It doesn't matter whether it's a guy or a girl....
You automatically want to reach out and touch this piece of heaven.
Some men will not impinge on this piece of heaven's state of heavenly unattainability.... some of us have been trained to exercise restraint.

One man, who was arguing against restraint (in clothing), said that the only way to tackle this problem was to train men. To teach them not to violate a woman's personal space.

But we all agree that violation, in any case, has little to do with clothes. Most women can vouch for the fact that harassment or abuse often happens when you're dressed in demure salwaar-kameez-with-dupatta. When you look suitably non-threatening and accessible? When you least expected it?

Mini-skirts do not provoke rape. We know that.

The spoilt brat who's learnt that he can have anything he wants, with or without permission, will not wait to seek permission. He may not even wait to notice whether you're in a mini-skirt or a salwaar. You could be covered head-to-toe, and he could still have decided to commit what he knows is a violation, and a crime.

Another guy, who does not kidnap or rape, will take his chances and brush against you, or sing a song from some Hindi film.... A man who is possibly neither rich nor poor, but simply can't keep his hands to himself will pinch your bottom, or punch you in the bosom, or rub against you in a crowded bus.

And it's not just women. Men violate other men too, without waiting to seek permission. Men, in general, don't wear mini-skirts in public, do they? What provokes their getting felt-up? What about the little boys who get raped? Who can you blame?

Not the mini-skirts... Not the tube tops...

But this post is not about rape or even about violation. It is not even about men Vs women.

You can dismiss the 'violator' guys as frustrated desperate wierdos.
But a lot of women are also frustrated and desperate. I strongly suspect that the only reason we don't jump a man is that we aren't really strong enough to overpower him, and even if we did, it wouldn't help if he wasn't willing.

This post is about the impact of women's clothes, about skimpy clothes...

So what is one to do? I can hear people scream already - should we all disappear into the burqa?


My problem is not women who wear skimpy clothes- I am one of them!

My problem is, women refusing to acknowledge that their clothes, and the wonderful bodies barely restrained by the clothes, will turn men on... even the men we wish didn't exist.

My problem is, women who aren't honest with themselves. That they refuse to recognize that bare legs and exposed navels are very attractive.

Women often say that they dress to please themselves, because it is just a style statement, and has nothing to do with men. There was a time I said so too...

I see women in no-men-allowed situations - at home, in hostels - they dress differently. Comfortably. Not in really tight stuff. Not in plunging necklines. And when they do so, on special days, even in girls' hostels, they attract attention. And they enjoy this attention.

So, let's face it: There's this instinct to dress up and, consciously or sub, we want to be looked at. By women, by men too. By whoever we are drawn towards. We want their approval. We want their admiration.

We do not like the way this admiration is expressed.
But that is something we have no control over. There will be whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, the works...
And yes, I don't think we have a right to stop this expression of admiration.

If I have the freedom to wear what I like, I have no business getting offended by a man's reaction, as long as he is not hurting me.

My mother says that dressing skimpily in public is like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. Well, then, we're dangling the carrots, and some of the donkeys are bound to get restive and start braying....

And before there comes some reader's slipper, smacking my face, let me add: I don't agree. Donkeys eat carrots and carrots don't go report them to the police. But as a metaphor for attraction, it holds true.

Very likely, we have nothing to fear. Very likely, we won't provoke anyone into violence.

But we've got stay aware that every time we step out in public, we run the risk of exciting admiration from people who are not necessarily desirable to us. We run the risk of getting attention we don't want. The more skin we show, the more people we attract.

There are two ways of dealing with this the awareness of the impact you're creating - One, let your wardrobe be dictated by the variations in all sections of the provocation spectrum.

Two, if you can afford it, move from home to car-with-tinted-windows to the bunglow of a friend whom you DO wish to attract, to car to home to.... don't see the sunshine; don't see people you don't want; don't be seen by people you don't want to attract.

If you can't afford it, too bad...

like... wow!

Just came across this (via Jaygee), and was reminded of a recent conversation.

I was looking for the unidentifiable 'something' in leather that might define the indefinable something that is me; all women do, when they go bargain-basement shopping.

Two women entered the shop. One was large, wearing a tight black top that slid off her shoulders and exposed a large expanse of cleavage.

My companion blurted out, meaningfully loud, "How can people dress like this?"

I walked out of the shop.

Fifteen minutes later, she was still thinking about the woman-in-the-off-shoulder-top.
"But how? How do they go about like that? Doesn't anyone tell them?"

I finally countered, "Tell them what?"

"That they can't wear such stuff."

"Says who? She looked happy enough, wearing it."

"But she can't carry it off... she's too big for that kind of dressing... if she was slim and wanted to show off her figure, I'd understand."

"How does it matter? The point is - she was happy. She thought she looked nice."

"But still..."

I changed the subject. I knew my companion would not understand - she's been on a strict diet for weeks. Eats soup for dinner, fruit for breakfast, and tells me to watch my weight.

I remember that woman - or at least, I remember her bare, rounded shoulders. I remember her flashy make-up, her bare smooth skin. I do not remember being disgusted. I remember thinking out an expression my aunt uses often, to great effect - 'Like...WOW!'

I remember thinking 'Wish I had the guts to carry off something like that'.

I envy her her confidence, her desire to flaunt what she has. I envy her the dare-bare act (in a bargain basement! In Delhi!). And yes, I even envy her so much cleavage that it fairly runneth over the edges of her blouse.

Corollary: I see many bare-shouldered women near my office - tall, blonde, skinny girls wearing strappy blouses and short skirts. The funny thing is - I don't remember their faces; I don't envy them.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

sharing amongst the shoe-less

When I last mentioned the mists and mountains of Chakrata, I didn't tell the story I most wanted to tell.

Some fifty years ago, no one wore shoes, around here.

Partly, this could be because footwear of a certain kind has got cheaper (also less sturdy; besides, most people can only buy cheap plastic slippers, which are just NOT right for climbing hills or farming in).

The other reason is that now, everyone MUST have their own shoes. Even if they didn't want, or couldn't afford, shoes... they don't have an option.

Fifty years ago, they did have an option.

Fifty years ago, each village (let's say hamlet, as opposed to revenue village or panchayat) owned only one pair of shoes. It was, more or less, communal property. Just as land or cattle is sometimes shared by the whole tribe, one good leather pair of shoes was acquired.

Mind you, this was not necessarily a joint venture. Very likely, one person, who was slightly better off than the rest, would buy a pair of shoes. Nevertheless, the whole village would have access to it.

Nobody actually wore this pair. It used to be saved up for special occassions.

So, let's say you have this beautiful girl in the next hamlet and want to marry her. You'd borrow this pair of shoes and set out to meet her family.

Often, there would be only one good coat and one new umbrella, also shared by the hamlet.

On the way to the beloved's home, you would not wear these shoes. You would carry them in your hands - over misty cliffs, through streams and rain-dripping forests, you would be very careful with them.

Just outside the hamlet, you would put on the shoes and enter your beloved's home with due pomp and footwear-show. The would-be in-laws would be duly impressed. You'd be able to cut a dashing figure... a match would be possible.

On your way back, you'd take off the shoes, dust them, wipe them carefully and carry them back home. Ready, for the next person who needs to make an impression, or perhaps, for your own wedding.

Today, the system has vanished.
Every family might own a pair of cheap slippers. Few wear them. They'd need very sturdy, very expensive shoes, up here. And there's nobody to borrow from, on special occassions.

I don't know if this is significant, in any way. I don't know what it means for the economy. I don't even know if it's important to wear shoes in the hills. But I know that it makes me sad - this story. It makes me sad, that it is just a nostalgic story now.

And judging from the faces of the people who told me this story, I'd say it makes them sad too.

A rare 'ugh'

(As anyone who knows me will tell anyone who cares to know) I'm not a food person.

I will eat stale roti with sour curd. I will eat daal and bread for dinner, or glucose biscuits for lunch. I will eat on streets, off highways... Punjabi-style chow-chow and tandoori-style pizza and greasy halwa off stalls in the narrow gallies, flies abuzz... anything goes.

I will not whisper a word of complaint.

I do not rant about unpleasant food experiences, but!
Wimpy's has tested the absolute limit of my gastronomic tolerance.

I've eaten a lot in my time, but!
I've never eaten lamb burgers that taste like chewed-up Hawai Chappals.

Either that 'lamb' was sacrificed at the altar of muscular depolarization... or else, they tried to cross a rubber duck with a frigid goat, and fed me the result.

For the first time in my life, I have been grateful that Pepsi existed!

My friend was served a squishily yellow drink that passed for cold coffee. It reminded me too much of Bombay's gutters; didn't dare sample it.

Despite all this, I wouldn't have complained so much if it wasn't for the damn copycat attitude in that place. They've tried to model it exactly on MacDonalds faux-cheery countenance.... The counters. The queues. The menu. The prices. The tables. The uniforms. The trays and wrappers and dustbins.... Then why, oh why, was it so difficult to produce something edible?

And why, oh why, would anyone come to Wimpy's, for the joy of eating chewed-up hawai chappals, when MacDs is exactly a sixty second walk away?

When was the last time the owner sat down and ate at the eatery? If anyone knows him/her/them, please do communicate my sentiments: Ugh!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Independence Day unvisited

There's been something I've been wanting to say about independence for a week now. But I could not put it into words. Perhaps, because for me, patriotism has always been about music.

I could not explain what it was that made me want to turn off the radio when they played the same songs about this wonderful cuntery and our unbending, unending, unrelenting love for our 'Mother'land.

This year, the high-pitched squeal of 'Nanha munna rahi hoon; desh ka sipahi hoon' on the radio, made me want to throw up my daal-chawal, achaar and all.

Each chest-thumping melody was played no fewer than three times, on every radio station.
When they ran out of 'mere desh ki dharti', and 'Maa tujhe salaam', they resorted to digging up the tombs of long-buried raggedly tunes about villages, culture and soldiers.

Independence Day 'culture' and 'soldier' don't do anything for me.

And I don't suppose it's okay to say so, but I don't particularly think there's much of a difference between 'the' army and a hired group of mercenaries - ours or anyone else's.

I've been wanting to say that I don't feel jubilant about August 15th any more.

That, finally, the ogre of cynicism has eaten up that little scurrying mouse of patriotism, which used to feed off the memories of boondi-in-brown-paper-packets-in-marigold-layered-bamboo-baskets.

That loudspeaker-ed filmi songs and the reluctantly unfurling sunrise of the Tiranga no longer make my heart swell up with that undefinable soaring mixture of identity and adventure.

I'd been wanting to say why.

I hadn't been able to explain that this country - somewhere, somehow, over the last year, especially - has lost claims on my pride. Lost claim to being the best, ever.

I really believed that, you know... I believed in 'saare jahaan se achha'. I believed in '...parbat vo sabse ooncha, hamsaya aasmaan ka'

Until I realised what an idiotic claim it was - Mt Everest is in Nepal!

And Nepal is not India, though many of my countrymen like to think it is, potentially... I've heard 'why don't we just march in and take over?' from perfectly well-intentioned people. I've even heard, 'It's a Hindu country; they wouldn't have any problems with us.'

In fact, Nepal's biggest fear is that one day, India will decide to open her mouth really wide and swallow up the tiny kingdom - mountains, maoists, mists and all.

I really believed in that nonsense about unity in diversity. About hindu-muslim-sikh-isaai-bhai-bhai.

I've seen enough bhaichaara.

'Bhaiyya-Bihari bhagao' in Bombay; the 'Saale, Madrasi... kaale' in Delhi; I'd heard too many men refer to north-eastern girls are whores; I'd heard too many Bengalis say that the rest of the population is a moron, and deserved to be cheated of all the money that could be siphoned off them; too many south-Indians say 'the South should cede and become another country: the real India; the cow-belt is a strain on us.'

Bhaichaara, eh?

I've read too many reports about our bhaichaara - 1965. 1984. 1992. 1993. 2002....
we like manifesting our unity by employing more or less the same tactics when it comes to organised rioting.

I really liked to think that our men were the bravest, our women the most beautiful... remember, 'yahaan chaudi chhaati veeron ki; yahaan bholi shaklein Heeron ki; yahaan gaate hain Ranjhe masti mein...'.

But then, I remember what they did to the lovely Heer... andto Raanjha

'yahaan hansta hai sawaan baalon mein; khilti hain kaliyaan gaalon mein...' -

Here, we have too many innocent faces splashed with acid. Too many lovers killed for honour. Too many old women burnt as witches. Too many paraded naked; too many gang-raped....
not one; not two... year after year, after 58th year.

They tell me we're free.

I wonder - what am I free from? What did we win - midnight, August 15, 1947?
What did I gain? The ability to say I am a subject of India, and not a subject of Queen Elizabeth II? Was that all?

Or did I win the right to walk into a club that wasn't marked 'whites only'?

What about Goa, then? What about the whites-only parties there? What about the 'rights of admission reserved' joints. What about clubs where you get thrown out for wearing salwars?

What about the pubs I can't walk into, because there will still be violence of a certain kind? What about the places I can't get admission into, unless I have a 'domicile' certificate? Which 'soil' am I the daughter of? Or does that not matter... is it only about sons, whatever the soil?

Did we win a whole country, or did we only win a corner in a flat in a city in a state?

Yesterday, I attended a dharna by a group of people campaigning for a full-fleged employment guarantee law in this country - possibly the only one of it's kind in the 'third world', at least.

The government has sneaked in a clause, in this yet-to-be-passed bill: if corruption is revealed in any project funded through this law, the government will stop sending funds to the village.

Which means, for instance, that if a village panchayat does manage to expose irregularities, they will be punished by the government, who will stop funding the project that is supposed to provide a livelihood to the poor.
Fancy, eh?

I can't think of a more effective way of undermining the Right to Information Act.

Who will bother to expose irregularities if the first head to roll is your own - the corrupt officials will be thrown out later, if at all - inquiries will be held... suspensions will happen, though the suspended officials will continue to draw a salary... paperwork will happen, cases will be filed...
and you?

You will sit on your bony haunches, in your (possibly drought-hit) village, twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the law to take it's course.

Yet, strangely enough, it was at this dharna, that I found music, once again, to define my attitude to Independence Day - a deep mistrust.

A simmering anger. An impatience. A need to appeal to the long-dead Father of the Nation, to come and take a look at the mess we've got ourselves into...

I heard them sing 'Gandhi, tere desh mein'

"Gali-gali mein phailaa danga; Gandhi, tere desh mein
har koi bhooka, har koi nanga; Gandhi tere desh mein
.... har daftar mein chor, o bhaiyya; ye dil maange more...
jaisa-taisa, aisa-vaisa; paisa-paisa-paisa-paisa...
ye dil maange more, bhaiyya, ye dil maange more."

A deep mistrust.... That, was my definitive 58th Independence Day song.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

wee bits from the weekend

Cafe Turtle, in Khan Market, is a nice-ish place to hang out.

For one, it's inside a bookstore and any cafe that's inside a bookstore scores over a cafe that is ... not inside a bookstore (though it does seem like the menu has been designed for the firangs, or the aunty-on-a-perenniel-diet... I had to eat leaves inside my sandwich! And no matter how much mustard you douse it with, a raw leaf is still a raw leaf).

So, I ate my sandwiched raw leaves and was just beginning to absorb the atmosphere - the pictures lining the walls, two little blonde sisters with thick spectacles, grey hair, rumpled cottons, the old photographs... all very romantic in a bookish sort of way...

then we noticed the black felt-pen notations on the paintings:

"Rs 30,000
+ VAT."

You know, what really killed it was that '+ VAT'.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Terrorem populi - the old disease

Justice Gita Mittal (in one of her landmark judgements dealing with compensation for riot victims in the Delhi High Court) has made some lovely (if lengthy) comments, while interpreting Article 21 of the constitution, in the context of communal violence.

"It is the duty of the State to create a climate where the cleavage between members of society belonging to differen faiths, caste and creed are eradicated. The State must act in time so that the precious lives of the people are not destroyed or threatened.... Like disease prevention, the state must take every precaution..."

Violence - group violence especially - is a disease. One we have not learnt to vaccinate our children against. One for which we have no trained doctors. One for which, we are told, there is no cure.

Maybe we just need to begin tackling it on the same scale as we do epidemics, like the plague. And with the same shiver of disgust for administrations that allow disease-inducing filth to linger in their backyards.

However, reading further in the same landmark judgement, I can across this:

"it (the State) cannot escape liability to pay adequate compensation to the family of the person killed during riots as his or her life has been exinguished in clear violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which mandates that life cannot be taken away except according to the procedure established by law."

Life cannot be taken away... except
according to the procedure established by law.

The law, eh?

Friday, August 12, 2005

With much reservation

This, and this, and this, is why I think, we need reservation.

Even as the judiciary is busy ruling out reservations in unaided educational institutions... even as the parliament hems, haws and figures out how to get rid of this pain-in-the-backside they call the women's reservation bill - I think we need to introduce reservation, for women, at least, in every sector.

Every institute. Every system of governance. Every force. Every organisation. Every service.

Not because women are wonderful and men are awful.
But because we live in a world where differences spell doom, way too often. Way too often, I'm reminded of the fact that if one needs such heavy-duty defence, there must be a war on, somewhere. This war of the sexes needs more ammunition for my side, as far as I'm concerned.

Because Anjali Gupta would not have had it so bad if some of the superiors judging her, were women. Or if they did judge her harshly, they would at least, not be blind to the fact that Anjali's story was theirs, give or take a date and place of incident.

Because I can't forget the liberation I feel, every time I see women at work - women at petrol pumps, women as security guards in stores (in Kathmandu), women driving tuk-tuks variations of our tempoo, Vikram, whatever-you-call-it, again, in Kathmandu), women driving buses and autos, women running roadside dhabas.

That, to me, seems to be the only way out. The only way half the human race will stop feeling entrenched, embattled.

And if the army and air force and police force had 50% reservation for women...
Manorama just might have been alive.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The absence of time-bondage

I'm allowing myself some 'venting' today, even at the risk of being impudent.

Can somebody explain to me - this concept of 'timeless' stories, in journalism?

What kind of story is worth writing, but not worth publishing... yet?
Not because it is not relevant; but because it is eternally relevant. Not because it fails to tackle an issue of significant social import, but because it will remain significant in the given spectrum of social concern.

What kind of stories are these that are not bound by 'time'?

These are, invariably, stories of oppression. Stories of caste-driven violence... sustained violence of the economic kind. Stories of hunger. Stories of displacement.

What we call 'bleeding-heart' stories.
That a lot of people are slowly broken, body and spirit, until they lose the strength to protest, is... a timeless fact.

Timelessly noted, recorded, written about and stored in the 'kept' folder. The 'held-over' folder... the timeless 'can-be-used-anytime' folder.

Sure, they need telling, these stories. Sure, they need writing.
But not yet. Not now. Next time... ok?

Now, there's this controversy raging about the leader of the opposition having said nice things about a man dead for more than five decades.
Now is the time when we need to discuss how lovely Europe is, in the summer.
Now is the right time to talk about what Laloo will do, if he loses the impending election.
Now, there's this slew of rapes in the capital.
Now, monkeys are photographed, water-skiing.

These are 'timely' stories...

That a 14-year-old tribal boy was killed in custody is timeless.
That the police opened fire on a group of demonstrators is timeless.
That women are disappearing, even from the womb, is timeless.

Sure, they happened, these stories. They happened now, here, sure... but they've happened before. They're timeless. They are not 'bound' by time.

I understand the compulsions of production, in media. I understand space constraints/air-time/relevance/burning controversy-of-the-moment... I understand.

I have one little problem, though: What face do I show to those people, for whom time is running out?

What shall I say to Bhado Devi? What shall I say to Uma? What shall I say to Dhoda Meena? That their lives are timeless? Next time... ok?

I go to them, telling them I can become their voice. What shall I tell them now? That they need to find a way of handcuffing themselves to this bhaagta bhoot called 'time'? That they had better do something that will make headlines quiver will timely excitement?

And if I do tell them this, what do you think the desperate and the angry poor will do, to create headlines?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Of fun critics and unapologetic potshots

I think I've finally begun to understand what I like most about gatherings of writers.
It is their ability to be so charmingly human, while being smart and sassy. There is jealousy, there is ego, there is ill-will; there is many a coterie and 'camp'. Writers can't stand each other and will lose no opportunity to run each other down, in public.

They do so with grace. They use wit and sarcasm, irony and innuendo. They will make sure that you seethe and the world laughs at you, but they will also sit back and allow you to have your chance at potshot-taking...

As an illustration, let me tell you about Saturday evening, when I was attending the 20th anniversary of the Hindi literary magazine, Hans (although, to be fair, it is unfair to describe magazines like this as only 'literary'. It stands for the best and least apologetic literature; it cuts across socio-politico-economic-cultural boundaries). This is an annual event that the progressive-literary circuit rather looks forward to, and most people land up at Rajendra Bhavan on the scheduled day, with or without an invitation.

The editor, Rajendra Yadav, invited the panelists up on stage; he began calling out to well-known critic Namvar Singh.
Somebody in the audience said, "Vo zaraa neeche gaye hain..." (Translation: He has just gone down).
Yadav promptly came back with, "Ab aur kitna neeche jayenge?" (Now, how much lower can he sink?).

The audience was in splits.

Prof Namvar Singh, white hair neatly combed back, smilingly arrived, took his place on the panel, and we all sat through an interminably long lecture about 'Premchand and the issue of Land (reforms)'.

The moderator for the discussion was a venerable old marxist, who seemed determined to claim Premchand as a marxist, too.

Prof Namvar Singh stood up. Then, after reminding the audience that Premchand was a land-owner and not necessarily an indebted farmer, he said, "I'm only going to comment on one short story by Premchand. And I will leave the pontificating, dissection and theorizing to the theorists."

He went on to argue that Premchand's attitude to land was visible in his beautiful descriptions of a farmer's attachment to 'mitti'. That Premchand had never once spoken up for the abolition of the zamindari system, and that that was natural enough since he was a Congress supporter, and not a part of the farmers' movement.

Mr Old Marxist (I forget his name) was red in the face. He took to the mike again, had a stammering fit, and asked Prof Singh to go back and read such-and-such letter from Premchand, who was, very definitely, in favour of Kisan Sabhas, and by implication the 'movement'.

For the rest of the evening, Prof Namvar Singh was accused of being anti-labour, anti-farmer, anti....

Prof Singh just sat there, unflappably popping sweets into his mouth, looking like he was going to explode with mirth. He was actually enjoying all this name-calling! He loved having upset everyone, especially those who gave long boring lectures. He loved each minute of it!

And that is what I like about a literary gathering - that you can share a platform, while insulting each other; sitting at distant edges of an ideological see-saw, you can still have fun with wit.

Nobody walked out. Nobody sulked. No blood was shed, no bonds severed. I am pretty sure that, after the event, Prof Singh sat down with Rajendra Yadav and Mr Red-faced Marxist, and consumed liberal amounts of chai. I can bet that nobody felt the need to apologize.

And I knew that, this - this war of wits, this unflappable mutual respect - is what I'm looking for, in a writer's group. This ability to see words (harsh words, insulting words, silly words) as the tools of the trade, use them to have some fun. And poke some too, while they're at it.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Cobbler Cobbler, again

I always learn something new, whenever my sandals break.

This morning, when I visited the cobbler's corner (the corner-cobbler's...?), I took along my laptop-bag.

(It's an old second-hand laptop, help together at the joints with cellotape. The bag is in worse condition. When the zips completely failed me, I took the bag to the bag-repairman and he refused to fix it. The local tailor also refused. I turned to the cobbler as a last resort.)

The cobbler is a greying man who had, probably, never encountered a laptop bag before this. At first, he refused to touch it. When I just stood there, looking helpless, he finally took it from me and began examining the damaged zip.

He used something like pliers. He used a tiny hammer. Then, he picked up something that looked like a hard glob of greenish-grey wax. He rubbed it all over the zip. And guess what? The bag's usable again!

For his services, I asked the cobbler how much he wanted. He shrugged. He laughed. For mending my sandals, he demanded three rupees. But this?

He didn't think it was anything worth being paid for - rubbing a little wax, tweaking a zip with a pair of pliers... when I offered him ten rupees, his eyes grew round with surprise. He took it very sheepishly, with a bowed head, as if he had no right to it.

And I was reminded of other services - of the fancy coffee shops where it is inconceivable to leave a tip of less than a hundred rupees. Of the durbans (is is okay to call them that?) in fancy hotels who expect to be paid, just for holding a door open, and saying 'Welcome to the Radisson'.
Of doctors who will not even look at you, without extracting five hundred rupees, even if it is only to tell you that you cannot be cured

On the other hand, I look at the way the cobbler deals with his customers - if I bring black shoes, he uses black thread. Brown for red. He makes his stitches discreet, so that the patch-up job is not so obvious. And once he's done with it, the sandal is stronger than ever was - it lasts several months. He is polite. He works fast. His work is neat. And I pay him three rupees. If I pay more, he looks sheepishly guilty...

Then, I think of that precious thing - lihaaz.

I think of the years I spent in Bombay, especially at Mid-day. There was a pattern, and any city reporter will back me up on this - if I'm doing a story about the rich, I can pretty much forget about lihaaz...

In posh, or even upper-middle class colonies, no stranger is ever welcome (except, when one of them wants you to cover their 'charity' dos, their son's winning the first prize in a silly drawing competition, or help them fight their annual cooperative-society wars). You are never invited inside.

You are never offered a glass of water. You are never given any answers. Often, you are verbally abused. The only time I was almost beaten up during a story was by the relatives of some members of a family, who died under very suspicious circumstances (later, relatives were arrested for the murders).

If you do manage to coax/ threaten/ beg your way into a building, you are asked to stand outside, and speak through the outer security door.

Amongst the poor, even in desperate circumstances - a daughter is raped, a child commits suicide, a house has been demolished - you are invited to sit where they sit, eat what they eat, seen off when you say goodbye and spoken to politely. Nobody will let you leave without a cup of tea. Even when you cannot help them. Even if you are asking questions you have no right to ask.

I don't know why it is so. I don't know how it became this way. How did lihaaz become a prerogative of the less-than-privileged?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Doordarshan, nostalgia and the lack of answers

Charu speaks of the seventies-born generation and television. She speaks of Doordarshan, attitudes, our politics and what made our generation what it is... and I am not sure I can answer any of those questions.

But I'm indulging my nostalgia, today... I'm trying to think back.

Back to the time when television was Doordarshan. And vice versa. The logo slowly forms itself in my mind - the oval lines, the tangentially curving edges, the Hindi alphabets forming themselves.

The screen coming alive in the afternoon, but before that, the sharp, whining sound of the vertical colourful lines on the screen, as I switched the television set on, and immediately turned the volume down to zero - I wasn't allowed more than an hour a day, initially.

I don't remember what values and aspirations I absorbed from all those years of TV and DD.

I do remember being hooked. I remember slowly upping my television intake as I grew up, and mom relaxed the rules a little, or was too busy to keep an eye on me all the time. One hour turned to three. I ended up watching Chaupal and Krishi Darshan. And advertisements issued 'in the public interest'.

I even remember staring, over long, long minutes, at the 'Rukawat ke liye khed hai' (Sorry For The Interruption) notice, which had a cartoon of a man carrying a briefcase, not watching where he was going, about to fall into a manhole.

For years, I wondered whether this meant that some of the television crew had fallen into a sewer.

I remember watching regional movies - Tamil, Malayalam, Assamese, Punjabi - on Sunday afternoons. Some of these were award-winning. I also remember that, once cable television came in, I didn't get a chance to watch such movies again (now I go looking for 'different' cinema, at film festivals).

I remember watching only one late night English movie on DD.
The film was Tom Sawyer, and since we had the book in our English syllabus, mom (who worked in the same school) wanted all her students to watch it. I remember being the only student - the only person - who sat up half the night, watching it. Everyone else fell asleep. Including mom. (I don't remember seeing Tom kiss Becky Thatcher, though I swear I didn't even blink.)

I remember being thrown out of the room (by mom) the first time they showed a James Bond film on DD. It was not until I turned 17, when I was finally, officially, taken to see a James Bond film; it was dubbed in Hindi.

I vaguely remember Buniyaad. I remember that one scene, at any rate, in which Lajoji (Anita Kanwar - I remember thinking she was beautiful) sets back the clock, so she can spend more time with her Masterji (Alok Nath, with his shy smile, khadi kurta, and a lot more hair).

And Karamchand, with 'Kitty'. And the spine-chilling theme music for 'Honi Anhoni'; for some strange reason, I remember that Asian Paints used to be the sponsor for that program.

I remember waiting, week after week, for Fauji. I remember Shah Rukh Khan, before the symptomatic mannerisms were acquired.

Then, Zee TV brought cable into our lives. But there wasn't enough programming to fill the day, so they'd play and replay and rerererereplay old Hindi film songs.

The same ones, every day. I remember watching them - the same ones, every day. Even the order of the songs was the same, everyday.

Sanjeev Kumar singing Taal Mile Nadi ke Jal Mein, driving a bullock cart... Asha Parekh consoling a disconsolate Rajesh Khanna with Aaja Piya Tohe Pyar Doon... a screen-father leaning against a piano listening to his screen-wife hum Dheere Dheere Machal...

Then, the transition.

Game shows came in. Not just quiz contests. Not just tough army-style obstacle-clearing challenges. There was Snakes and Ladders, with tall girls in little shiny dresses and everyone getting all wet. I remember thinking that they didn't look like they were enjoying themselves so much.

Tara came in - Tara, with her cast of rebellious, fun, unhappy girls, and their complex, twisted destinies. And Banegi Apni Baat, where no one kissed anyone, but everyone ended up getting pregnant by someone.

There was firang cable TV too. But a lot of it was forbidden.
Mom got hooked to Santa Barbara; I had access to the Wonder Years, Small Wonder, Different Strokes, and much kissing.

I still remember the year I was home alone, watching a forbidden (or would have been forbidden, if mom knew it existed) romantic film where the heroine and hero wake up in bed, and the heroine saying, 'Lie here in bed, for a while;'.... I remember thinking 'You idiot, what else has he been doing all this time?'

I remember the first uncensored firang film, courtesy the local cablewalla. I remember the shock of it... for weeks, I used to stare suspiciously at the cablewalla. But most days, he'd just show us Mr India.

Again, and again. And again. Six times I saw it. Mr India. He made sure that we all came to appreciate 'Kaate nahin kat.te' and a bosom-heaving Sridevi being seduced by an invisible man.

When Mr India first reached us, on cable (we didn't have any movie theatres where I lived), none of the girls in school would sing this song. Because it had 'I love you' in the first verse.

At the end of the year, we were singing it, always in low voices, humming through the 'I love you' bit. (We practised heaving-bosom dancing, in the short lunch break, when the boys were out playing basketball.)

In news terms, I don't remember the transition from DD to cable.
One day, I seemed to be watching Rini Simon/Khanna and Sultana somebody (the one who read the news, wearing a rose in her hair)... and suddenly, I was a grown-up, sitting beside my grandfather, as he demanded that we watch ALL the news on ALL cable channels, one by one.

So first we heard a name-forgotten reporter talking about the latest blasts in Kashmir on Star News. Then, we were watching a name-forgotten reporter talking about the latest blasts in Kashmir on Zee News. Then we were watching the name-forgotten girl on CNN... somebody else on BBC...faces, names, channels... all melted into an indiscriminate slush of recorded misery. Same clothes. No flowers.

I forget when one turned to three, and then into a dozen news options.

But I remember Aap Ki Adalat. I liked the program - watching politicians and other important people being grilled by a sneaky-smart Rajat Sharma. He asked uncomfortable questions, ever-smiling. But he never screamed or outshouted anyone... I remember Vinod Dua and his talk-show too. (Both were better than Mr Sardesai, or any of the others, on any of the 24-hour news channels we have now.)

I don't watch TV now. I get my news from the papers or the web. I have never enjoyed news, and unless it's an emergency situation, I don't watch news channels.

When I did watch TV, until last year, I picked the garish, MTV-type of programming. The films, the songs, the mindlessly chattering veejays who wore nice clothes sponsored by designer boutiques. One didn't need to listen. I didn't want to listen.
I watched Friends. Or Will and Grace. Or Sex and The City (yes, that... unbelievable that!). Even Oprah.

I saw Office-Office (the only decent comedy show this country has produced over the last decade). Then, they started this show on Hindi poetry, Wah Wah, where poets would come on and compete, and I enjoyed that.

Nobody I know enjoys the saas-bahu drama. Nobody from my generation. Some married cousins do, perhaps. But none of my younger cousins would be caught dead watching Kyunki whatever.

Some of my friends watch cartoons. Even now. Some of my friends watch Pikachooo!!! And Bob-the-builder. Made for pre-schoolers. (Hey, the Sony Playstation was not designed as an adult toy either, was it?)

Yes, I saw Smriti Tulsi Irani do her silly stunts in Kuch Diiiil Se. Once or twice, I watched. Then I was disgusted and I stopped watching... she was judgmental, rude, inconsiderate of other people's compulsions or choices, super-conservative.

Charu, I cannot understand why the MTV generation voted for Ms Irani as a youth icon.
But, just like the TV channels give us few watchable options by way of programming, this country gives us very little by way of role models. Why single out this country? What does the world offer us? Who leads us? Who do we follow?

At least, Ms Irani stepped into politics at a time when she didn't need to. Not because her acting career was fading. Not because she was retired and missed the limelight. At least, she professed to stand for some ideals.... I don't know. The wrong ideals, maybe. But she stood up and spoke of the need for cleaning up the system. Maybe that was why?

Reminds me of the time when I spoke of some very uncomfortable truths about a certain celebrity-writer, to a friend.
He responded with a couplet: "Ye akhiri but bhi gir gaya... ab hum bhi musalmaan ho gaye..."
My last idol has fallen; perforce, I am now a Musalmaan (one who doesn't believe in idols).

Who are our icons, anyway? And who is the youth?
If youth is defined by idealism and innocence, where is that?
What ideals? And what are we innocent of? What is this post-MTV generation innocent of?

What, but a vast landscape of socio-economic truth, that our communication systems (TV, newspapers) increasingly keep us sheltered from?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

of building civilizations

When I was little, mom used to ask me whether I thought I could build a civilization.

If, let's say, something terrible happened to all of us, would you be able to start from scratch? What skills would you need to build a city? Who are the people you'd need?

And the answer was always - always, and in order of priority - farmers, masons, teachers, doctors (yes, teachers above doctors).

We can do without computers and the world wide web. We can do without dress designers. We can do very well without television (I already am), and nobody will die for the lack of a newspaper.

At a cinch, we can even do without electricians and tailors and domestic labour and cobblers and carpenters and writers. But they're pretty high up on my priority list, on the second layer of needs, just after the farmers, masons, teachers, doctors.

These are the tools, the foundation, the roots of civilization.
And a civilization that gives its farmers so little return on their labour that they'd rather be someone else, is a civilization in danger of wiping itself out.

Go tell the government, somebody. Ask them, when this one is gone, what will they build a new civilization on?
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