Friday, December 29, 2006

Blame games I like

A blog that I've been following with a great deal with relish, and which ought to be mandatory reading in my humble, starstruck opinion - I blame the Patriarchy.

From the FAQ section :

I Blame The Patriarchy exists to advance the radical feminist views of Twisty Faster. These views revolve around evidence that patriarchy is a violently tyrannical but nearly invisible social order based on an oppressive paradigm of class and status fetishizing dominance and submission. Patriarchy's benefits are accrued according to a rigid hierarchy at the top of which are rich honky males and at the bottom of which are poor women of color. The Twisty Revolution envisions a post-patriarchal order free of theocracy, gender, race, deity worship, marriage, prostitution, exploitation, reproduction, caste, pornography, rape, and government interference in private uteruses, domestic arrangements, drug habits, lives, and deaths.

I too, I too! Blame!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Skills and schooling

Recently, I saw a report in the papers about unemployment trends and how it may actually be rising in India (can't find the link), and the lack of relevant skills was one of the main reasons.

Which made me think about vocational training. Which usually makes me slightly angry, becausewhen it comes to young adults, training is often restricted to sewing/tailoring for girls and electrician's/mechanic's work for boys. It bothers me: this acute famine of the imagination. I mean, is this all we can think of? Is this all we want - tailors and electricians?

Then again, I was forced to do a rethink about skills, when I noticed that my bai's daughter wearing a frock with her back exposed. The frock was a rather pretty one; it was just that a few buttons had fallen off. I asked my bai (Raj) why she didn't mend the dress and discovered that she didn't know how!

I was surprised, because I'd assumed that everybody knew how to put a button on a shirt. Later, I discovered that the bai working in my mother's house didn't know either.

This is particularly hurtful, because not only can she not afford too many new clothes, but the ones she does get have to be discarded very quickly. One button or hook falls off and the clothes begin to look shabby. As things stand, Raj cannot imagine using her hands to do anything except cleaning, or at most, cooking. Not only does this limit her work options, she is actually spending more than is necessary, paying other people to get the edge of a saree done or loosening a kurta.

Now, I happily wear decade-old clothes. I even wear mom's clothes, at least thirty years old, if they're in reasonably good shape. (There was one pair of socks that I was especially loathe to throw away since my mom's darning is so exquisite). Which got me thinking about the way I acquired my (admittedly limited) skills.

I can replace buttons, create button-holes and hook-loops, hem, seam, make very basic clothes... (regretfully, can't darn or embroider). Despite being terrible at needlework, I was more or less forced to learn, thanks to my mother who headed the school and made this stuff compulsory - even for the boys (a favourite pink lehenga, cut out of an old chikan saree, was a self-made gift from the nieghbours' son).

Similarly, all students did gardening work - we hefted pickaxes, grew small patches of sugarcane and maize, handled manure and took turns to water potted plants.

The strange thing is, we never thought of it as acquisition of skills. We thought of it as an unnecessary pain, because we were sure that we weren't going to become tailors or gardeners. It is only now, when I see how frighteningly limited Raj's options are, that those lessons in Art&Craft and SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) seem to be rather useful.

But the problem is, I don't know if they exist where they're needed. And if they do, then why have separate vocational schools? It would be much simpler to just introduce an extra class focussing entirely on one skill (ideally chosen by the students themselves), let's say, in secondary school. By the time a child clears his secondary level boards, he/she would have at least two sets of additional skills. No?

Friday, December 22, 2006

This business of beauty

This business of thin women... is an awkward business.
We could begin with the feminine shape itself, and how beauty has been interpreted differently in different cultures. All cultures recognize the difference between fat and thin, but traditionally, not all cultures have longed for thin, or fair, or blonde or tall.

We could talk about the statues of goddesses found at ancient excavation sites and point out that they do not look like Kate Moss. The feminine ideal (goddess) was fat/pregnant, sometimes depicted in positions of giving birth, or in the act of coitus, and at other times, simply being herself: thick-limbed, fertile.

But there is not much point talking about ancient excavations. Civilizations change, people's aspirations change, goddesses change.

(Go to Durga Puja pandals in any given year and you will see what I mean. This year, at CR Park, I could have sworn that the statue of the goddesses were modelled on the picture of Aishwarya Rai in the nakshatra ads. They were very white, with long flowing hair, straight at the root and waved just so towards the end. Full bosoms, but narrow frames, slight arms, delicate wrists, colours all pastels.)

The point is that now, the feminine ideal is, unfortunately, firmly, unescapably, the screen goddess, who - sadly - is not fat, not pregnant, and definitely not doing anything as overtly sexual as actually having sex, or giving birth.

From a feminine perspective, I find this change fascinating. Not only has the shape of the ideal changed, the value system associated with her form has also changed. Therefore, the feminine ideal that beckons - lashes laden with a desire that is more yours than her own - from magazine covers, from music videos, from movies, is never completely naked. She will have a towel, a bodysuit, a bikini, a micro-mini, hotpants, etc. In the mainstream, (let us, for the moment, not discuss porn; that has never been mainstream) the new ideal feminine is not naked.

Consider this paradox. A body that looks lovely naked is never quite allowed to be naked. Even when there is not a stitch of fabric visible, the body itself is used as a drape of modesty: legs crossed, arms wrapped round herself, eyes half-closed, face half-averted.

Read the above para again, you will notice that I used the phrase 'a body'. Without meaning to, I used the word 'body' instead of woman, or even 'model' because that is how I thought of it. A body... Is this what they mean by objectification? Is this what it means to stop short of being a person, like all other persons, and turn into something desirable? Some-THING desirable. More importantly, do I have a problem with this sort of objectification?

But we could turn this around so easily.

Delhi is plastered with hoardings advertising a new health magazine. The cover has a picture of a boyish male model with a very flat, gym-hardened stomach; one hand is pulling up his vest to expose his crafted abs. It is a nice body. You cannot see the face. His face is thrown back, upwards, so you only see the man's jaw. This is not about men, or health; this is about the body.

The magazine is not targeted at me. I might have (if I had the inclination and money to spare) picked up a copy to look at the pictures. No nudes, but idealized, oiled, male bodies on show - perfect curls on the head, perfect white smiles, perfectly shadowed chins - tall, slim, young, alluring bodies.

Is this what you call objectification?

I don't know if it is such a terrible thing to look at a person as a thing. I don't know if this automatically translates into an assumption that this thing does not feel, does not speak, need not react, does not carry the threat of getting up and walk off and leave you with your empty desire.

But let us, for a minute, return to the original business. This business of thin women.
I have always been troubled by this question - if thin women are more desirable than fat ones, or like we now like to say 'real' ones, does that make the rest of society culpable for the unhappiness of all women who are not thin?

Are we (especially the media, who constantly generate and flood the public sphere with images of beauty) guilty of breeding a world of eternal physical dissatisfaction - where men are never male enough and women are never feminine enough?

Vijayeta says: '..."curvy" is just another veiled reference to being thin. Look at all the women who're popularly described as curvy. Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce etc. And while they are curvy indeed, they're also super thin. Not a milligram of extra fat, unsightly bulges or spare tyres thanks to an insane diet and workout regime. Be curvy, not skinny is the new mantra. But how?'

This too is a creation of the media. We describe Ms Lopez as curvy, though Ms Lopez is absolutely thin. The bits of her that are rounder - well, compared to Kate Moss - are genetic. If you don't have that kind of genetic shape, you're not going to acquire it through eating more or working out more.

We (the media) airbrush models' skins and shapes. We invest large amounts of money in photo shoots that make an ordinarily pretty woman look like a flawless goddess. We construct myths.

Does the average magazine reader know about airbrushing and money?
Well, thanks to reality shows, we can see how glamour tools transform a face. We know there is an almost 'real' woman out there behind the make-up, beyond the camera. But still, we get taken in by the myth.

Is the media really to blame, in that case? Assuming that airbrushing is a deception of sorts, and assuming that society has outlawed media deception of all kinds - would it be okay if the media continued to use pictures of thin women? Only of thin women?

What exactly is the media guilty of?
Of promoting, agressively, relentlessly, the idea of beauty as a thin body? Of not allowing for diversity of shape and size? Of giving in to the whims of fashion designers who want live, walking-talking clotheshorses, instead of women to show off their clothes?

Whose is the real deception, then?

Are fashion designers deceiving you by pretending that their clothes are fantastic? The clothes are just... what they are. They are meant for a buying public. The public comes in all shapes and sizes and, ideally, a designer should be catering to all of them. Or at least, to the majority, which is not as thin as ramp models. And yet, by using very thin bodies to show off the clothes, the designers imply that their clothes are desirable - if only the woman would lose some weight! The fact that, to most women, these clothes are actually not desirable is hushed up, buried under the hoo-haa-hoopla of just how lovely the models look.

Truth is - most models are rather ordinary. And about as real as the next woman, though possibly anaemic and deeply, psychologically stressed. Fashion designers decide that this woman/this shape/this length is the definition of beauty. Photographers - who get paid to do this - play along and create beauty from an image that is, at best, ordinary and at worst, pathetic. The media buys these pictures. And in doing so, subscribes to the view that this picture/this woman/this shape/this length is beautiful.

And we - ALL of us - buy this view... this woman/this shape/this length.
Why do we do this?
Why do we ALL do this?
Because we are all idiots without an opinion of our own?

Or because, beauty itself is a myth?

Or because, what is beautiful just is beautiful - and we cannot bear to accept it?

Or because, beauty is the sort of thing that has no intrinsic value, unless it is matched by an acknowledgment of desire from somewhere outside of us?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I, object

I like my feminism as much as the next woman. However, I'm a little behind on feminist theory; for one, I do not buy many books on the subject - though I will gladly consume essays and articles on the web. Secondly, none of my friends or colleagues seems to want to instruct me. And perhaps, just perhaps, I like to discover my own feminism. The limits of it, the forms of it, the practical consequences of it. Slowly.

But for the last few days, I've been grappling with questions.

Who is a feminist?

Perhaps, I should modify this a little bit: Who is a woman? How do you define a woman?

As the female of the species? Does that mean an acknowledgment of womanhood as the fact of femaleness - in other words, that part of us which is different from the male?

If you remove the female parts from a woman's body, does it become a male body?

If you remove the trappings of what is usually associated with feminity - long nails, paint, cosmetics, styled hair, anklets, glass bangles, neatly crossed legs, swaying hips, skirts, off-shoulder tops, high heels, soft giggling laughter, sequins, feet pressed together - does that make you less feminine? Is a naked, silent woman in a forest not feminine? Would she be more 'feminine' if she acquired the trappings?

Sacred insanity, through a part-provocative, part-confessional essay 'The shape of things', nudged me closer to questions such as these:

Are feminists hairy, raucous harridans? (Are you not entitled to feminism if you're not?)
Are beautiful women/feminine women silk-smooth, fragile, thin?

But before globalisation, before cable television, just fifteen years ago, I can recall a time when a woman could be indeed 'too thin'. And the women we considered really beautiful then, seem almost ordinary in comparison to the airbrushed, made-up perfection of the photos in the new glossies.

There was a time when I had a poster of Madhubala up on my walls. When I was a child, she was still the epitome of beauty. By modern standards, she would be grossly overwieght.

By modern standards, Kate Moss or Aishwarya Rai (in her new, 'toned' avataar) are the ideal. I no longer have any posters on my walls. Kate Moss means nothing to me.
Why is this?
Is this because she is foreign and I have not seen too much of her in magazines or on TV?
Or is this because I am no longer a child and no longer given to gawking at beauty?
Or is this because Madhubala was Madhubala, a woman whose eyes held mischief, lashes held a dawning age, cheekbones lifted like the rising breath of a nation, and hair waved at the viewer like a million strands of lively abandon, while Kate Moss is.... well, a shape (on narcotics).

What happens to a woman when the quotient of her feminine attraction is based upon her BMI?
What happens when you are considered worthy (or worthier), only when your shape inches as close as possible to a shape transmited to us as the ideal, and the ideal is a fake photo?

Is this what feminists mean by 'objectification'? Why is objectification a problem? Why does it matter so much that the length of a woman's legs or the size of her breasts determine how attractive she is, or how womanly?

When we cry foul at such trends, are we really crying foul at our own inability to meet the modern ideal's criteria?
Or at our unwillingness to try and meet these criteria (and the pain this involves)?
Or, at our resentment at being reduced to legs, breasts, face?

Would the same person be as attractive, let's say, minus arms, minus neck, minus back?
Let us assume that we take each little physical bit into account - arms, fingers, back, backsides, everything - does that then mean that we have begun to treat a person as 'whole'?

What happens if we reduce a man similarly - legs, belly, face, butt?
What happens when we decide how attractive a man is, based solely on how flat his abdomen is, how thin his legs, how broad his shoulders and how chiselled his face? How much hair he has on his head?
What happens when we decide that a man is less worthy of our attention, our affection, our admiration, if he does not have a taut belly, a full shock of hair and long legs?

If a woman is naturally thin, naturally silk-smooth, naturally fragile, naturally quiet, is she less empowered than a woman who is plump, hairy, sturdy and raucous? Do thin-but-curvilicious women lose the right to call themselves feminists?

How much curviness is curvilicious? (I personally find thin women with obvious silicon implants somewhat repulsive, but then, I'm not the demographic they're catering to)

What if you're not thin, in a world that likes thinness? Do feminists lose the right to want to be desirable?

What is a 'real' woman? Are only un-thin, complexed women with flawed skins 'real'? Are thin women not real? Are anorexic women not real? Are obese women more real than anorexics?

What is a commodity? (Any thing? Any thing that can be bought and sold?)
What does it mean to commodify? (To convert from non-thing to a thing that can be bought and sold?)
Why is the commodification of women so important? (Because when you have beautiful women in advertisements, you are not selling a product, you are selling a woman, and everything that she represents? Because what the world of buyers really wants is a woman, and everything that she represents, and not your stupid product? [what does a woman represent?] Is that why there are more 'real' women in advertisements targeted at other women - washing machines, detergent, tea?)
Who is commodifying women? (Businesses that peddle products? Media houses that depend on these businesses? Photographers and filmmakers who depend on the media?)

Because you are viewed as a 'thing', will you be bought as a thing? Once you are an object, as the next logical step, will you be a commodity? Will there be attempts to put you in a nice package, in a box, on a shelf, to be handed over to whoever is willing to pay? What exactly are you being sold as, in that case?
A sexual object?
But what if you are not an overtly sexual object?
A covertly sexual object?
An object that is desirable, but without desire of her/his own?

Once you have commodified one person, does that pave the way for a whole gender, a whole race, a whole world to be commodified? If one woman is an object of desire, does it follow that other women - less desirable, perhaps - are objects, nevertheless, whether desired or not?

Who is the victim in this game of commodification? The thin woman? The fat woman? All women? All humanity? Do men suffer equally, when women are commodified? How?

To all these questions, I don't have answers. I just have more questions.
Any answers?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Children's stories

Children's stories are such perfectly choreographed dream sequences, aren't they? Despite the wolves, the witches, evil stepmothers, greedy kings, the eternal sleep, the eternal wait for one kiss of redemption... and it all comes right in the end.

But whenever I meet children who have lived dangerous fairytales, who have suffered the witch and the wolf and lived to tell the tale, I can't help wondering whether it has come right. Whether it can ever come right.

A while ago, I had written of Bubli, of Sukku, Sohail, Budhiya; these children's stories exemplify why it was so important to ban child labour. Not necessarily because kids should be in school, not necessarily because kids have a right to food and education, but because kids are vulnerable. Because kids don't always know what to do to protect themselves, or indeed, if they have any right to seek protection against adults.

A few weeks ago, I met my own question in the shape of Kalu.

Kalu. Dark-skinned teenager with a genuinely shy, genuinely pleasant smile. An obvious wonder lurks just one layer deep in his eyes. He is very willing to talk.

We met entirely by accident. I had gone to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan office to meet the founder, the general secretary, the adults... but there was this team of excited teenaged boys in maroon sweaters (the kind I wore to school), hauling backpacks off a bus. They'd been on the road for days, driving around the countryside, staging plays and raising awareness about children's rights.

Kalu was introduced to me as the boy made famous by the Clinton visit; he was photographed with the former president of the US and subsequently splashed across many a newspaper and magazine. It made him blush - the teasing from the teacher about how famous his face was. But he recovered soon enough and began to tell his story with confidence. With such guileless, unflinching confidence that it made me flinch.

Kalu comes from village Murho in Madhepura, Bihar. When he was barely six or seven, he was kidnapped when he was out minding the goats (or were they sheep?). Two strangers showed up where he and another small boy sat, while the animals grazed. "You know how kids are, ma'am. They love sweets. These two men gave us sweets. They lured us away, making promises of more sweets, and saying that they would take us to the cinema. That was how we were kidnapped."

First, Kalu was taken to Allahabad, and for that first week, he was given good food. Next thing he knew, he was put to work on the carpets. Day and night. Day and night. For meals, he was given rice and water. Old sarees were used as blankets. And he was beaten.

Once, he feel asleep at the loom. The punishment was severe. The adults supervising him assaulted him with a knife. He received two wounds on the chest. "They did not take me to the hopsital. To prevent infection, they would burn the wounds. The wound was filled with the 'masala' that you see on the tip of a matchstick. This was set fire to.... the other boys stood on my arms and legs to prevent me from moving. Somebody used to clamp an arm down on my mouth. I was not even allowed to scream."

I stared with a stilling horror at this class ten student, smiling at me, genuinely smiling. The questions dried up suddenly, as I tried to imagine the boy at eight. The boy with fire on his chest, several pairs of feet pinning down his limbs. I did not want to see the scars.

Kalu extended his hands. There were more scars. "Every time I made a mistake while weaving the carpets, they would drive knives into the back of my hands. Again, they'd set fire to the wounds, never take us to a doctor."

There was not that much to say, was there?

Before I could recover from the searing numbness of one story, I met another.

Pradeep is younger, about 13. He's a student of class seven and a little less articulate. Or perhaps, just less willing to talk. He only answered the questions put to him.

He belonged to Agra's Kamlapur village. His dad was a driver. His mother was told by a sadhu that Pradeep would bring ill luck. Not just to the family, but to the whole village. The village had indeed had problems with water scarcity. The sadhu persuaded Pradeep's parents to sacrifice the child during durga-puja.

They blindfolded him and took an axe to him, at the local temple, but he was struggling so that the axe fell on his head rather than his chest. The sadhu decided at this point that the sacrifice ritual had been interrupted, and therefore, was rendered invalid. So, they left the boy there at the temple where devotees found him in the morning. He was taken to the hospital but the boy was so scared that he would be attacked again that he ran away to Agra. Once there, he began work at a dhaba, from where he was rescued by BBA activists.

The chairman himself went to the village, to persuade the parents to accept the boy, but they thought of him as a curse and did not want him back. So, he lives at the ashram in Rajasthan, with other boys. Studies. Travels.

When people like me come to ask questions, he tells them the story.

I tell you... children's stories!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sacking the order

I have always wondered why this didn't happen sooner.

"Deep in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh... the priests are getting sacked.

Dalits have stopped depending on Brahmin priests for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. Instead, they have turned to a Buddhism-inspired book which has rituals that can be performed by any literate person. The wide use of the Bhim Patra, named after Bhimrao Ambedkar, is part of a quiet rebellion against upper-caste domination.

"We have nothing to do with the Brahmin pandits," said Chhabi Lal of Ghunghter village, 45 km from Lucknow. "They tell us, 'Your parents died; so to make their souls happy, give us a bed and a cow as gifts.' As if it is all going to reach them."

For weddings, the bride and the groom light candles, exchange wedding vows and garlands. No dowry, no auspicious dates and times and as witness, a statue of a man you respect and venerate... finally!

Do read the report here.

(Update: Sorry, the link doesn't seem to work anymore, but the report appeared in Hindustan Times a few weeks ago)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trading sides

zig has put forth a challenge - don't take sides; trade sides. Try and be somebody you're not. Try and put on someone else's shoes.

The challenge has been posted in the form of an exercise, over at Caferati, and I'm copy-pasting the rough guidelines.

Pick any topic on which you have very strong views.
Write about it.
The idea is to write postively about something you'd normally write negatively about.
To stretch your imagination to encompass a world view that you despise, ridicule or just don't believe in.

No restictions on genre or style.

You can write it on the exercise thread, or on your own space, or as a comment on the Caferati blog.

Actually, Caferati promotion apart, just do the exercise - write it in your private diary if you please, and don't show it anybody, if you can't. But attempt it.

It should be interesting, at the very least.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bad girls!

Yes, yes, stealing is a bad thing to do. But for some reason, I can only shake my head and laugh at this
all-girl gang of teenagers who call themselves the 'spider-girls' in Chile, who are 'infamous for climbing up buildings in Santiago to burgle luxury apartments'.

And what's more -
Despite both being heavily pregnant, they still managed to climb up to the third floor of some flats.'

What I am not so pleased about is that those who affected - probably the legit occupants of those luxury apartments whose jewelry and clothes these girls stole - want these girls to go to jail. Not to reform centres, not under juvenile justice laws, where some of these girls have already been before.

"Many Chileans have been angered by the girls' antics, saying the law is too soft and needs to be changed so under 18- year-olds get tougher punishments and do not think they are above the law."

Well, they aren't. But why does the idea of stringent punishments for teenaged daredevilry (for admittedly grubby motives) make me so uncomfortable?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Class as a function of fear (Auto-maton 7)

"Classy film."
"He's got class"
"What do you expect? That place has no class."
"Class! Disperse!"
"She must repeat the class."
"You can either cater to the classes or the masses."
"Arre, it's an everyday thing, with that class."
"That class of man is not used to seeing women out, alone. They can't handle it."
"Mom! They don't even have third class seats any more."
"First class first."
"Business class."
"A class apart."

Do not take autos at night. If you must, take a taxi. Take a prepaid taxi. Take a taxi where the driver knows he will not get away with it.

11.30 pm. Airport.
There are pre-paid taxis. There are also autos.
You take an auto, because the driver agrees to a reasonable price. It is an old-ish man. A minute later, he stops and asks another to join him on the front seat. It is a young boy - not more than fourteen. You are relieved it is such a young boy.

12. Midnight. Lutyen's Delhi.
You are lost. In the dark, nothing is familiar. You suspect the driver is lost too. He has not been paying attention to the roads at all, and has kept up a steady stream of conversation with the boy, mostly revolving around what to eat for dinner, and where.

12.15 am. Chanakyapuri.
You know this is the embassy zone. You just don't know how to get out of here. The driver has no clue either.
You admonish him with a single word - "Bhaiyya!"
He reassures you with - "Yes, yes. I'll just find a way."

12.25 am. Chanakyapuri.
The driver is looking grim. The boy is silent. They keep trying various small lanes, some of which lead to a dead-end, others seem to lead you around in circles. You are definitely lost.
You admonish - "Bhaiyya, what are you doing?"
He reassures - "Bas, bas - I'll just find a way."

1 am. Lajpatnagar.
Familiar zone. You are no longer lost and giving crisp, rather cross directions to a clueless old man.

1.15 am. The street outside your home.
The driver stops and does not ask you for any extra money, though you are half-prepared for the demand, after such a long time on the road.
He apologizes - "I'm sorry. I know it is worrying to be lost so late at night."
You decide to be gracious - "That's okay."
He adds - "But I have to say, you're a brave one. Any other girl would have been frightened."

You decide not to dispel the illusion.

1.16 am.
A car slows down when you are paying the auto driver. There are two prosperous-looking young men inside.
One of them peers out and addresses you - "Where do you want to go? We will take you."
You snap - "I want to go to hell. Will you come along?"
Sheepishly, he mutters - "Oh! Well, we could go there too."
but they do not hang around. The car picks up speed and leaves.

The auto driver clicks his tongue - "It is a bad world out here at night."
You shrug, "It's an everyday thing", but you remember to thank him warmly.

Do not take autos late at night? Take taxis, instead?

More on the 'auto' : Auto-maton 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The economics of motherhood - 1

Food is a human 'right'.
Maternity is a 'benefit'.
Gender is a 'problem'.

Never mind, let me tell you a story.

Khairi is a new mother. Khairi has just given birth, at home. Hours after the birth, Khairi is seen sitting up, pressing warm pads (an old saree folded into a cushion and heated on top of a stove) to her belly, in a futile effort to ease the pain. For the next two days, her baby will survive (perhaps) by licking jaggery off her fingertips. The first feed (the thick yellowish breast milk) within hours of birth is crucial to the baby's health - Khairi knows. But she is not feeding the baby, because she has not eaten herself. Even through her pregnancy, she never had more than two-three rotis a day. She hopes that to produce some milk, hopes to feed the baby, hopes to keep it alive.

Khairi will not get three months' leave from work. She is an agricultural labourer. If she does not work, she does not eat. The government offers her or her child no guarantees. She can go to the anganwadi and collect her allocation, which is supposed to supplement her diet. Supplements, yes....but supplement what?

Khairi might have a husband. In this story, we don't know for sure. He is probably a labourer himself. Perhaps, he makes enough to feed his wife well. Perhaps, he does not. Perhaps, he does not think that he needs to make enough for her or her baby.

Let us assume that Khairi's husband did not want the baby. He just wanted uncomplicated sex.

Let us also assume that Khairi is willing to bring up her own baby, and that society will not ostracise her. Khairi goes back to work within three days of having a baby. She carries the baby around with her (she can do this since she is an agricultural labourer; it would have been difficult if she made presentations in corporate board-rooms). Perhaps, she already had another child. This child will most likely be pulled out of school to look after the newborn.

We (society) have the following options:

- Let Khairi's baby die. It is unwanted and if the mother cannot keep it alive, well, tough!
- Insist that Khairi's husband pay for the child. Acting on the philosophy that there is no such thing as uncomplicated sex, and that reproduction is the natural outcome thereof.
- Find out whose decision it was to have the baby (after having established without doubt that abortion facilities were freely available to the couple) to assign responsibility for the child.
- Pay for the baby collectively (through taxes), but not enough for Khairi's survival.
- Pay collectively for Khairi, at least for three months, possibly for eighteen months.
Which option sounds the most reasonable to you?
Did you decide that ALL mothers must be taken care of, regardless of background or type of employment, to allow for motherhood?
If not, then - in all fairness - you must also decide to abandon all child nutrition/health/education/safety services; after all, your logic suggests that children are the parents' (at least, the mother's) responsibility. They only deserve as much health, as much protection, as their biological parents can afford. Correct?
And if this too is not acceptable, then, what do you recommend?
Do you recommend that women go on pushing themselves to work, to the dishes, to the hospital, to the boundaries of endurance, because they are the ones who have babies?
Do you recommend that women stop having babies, unless they can find a male human who coughs up enough money to survive a few years?
Do you recommend that companies who refuse to hire mothers (or are found to suffer from a disproportionate lack of mothers in their work-force) be penalised?
Do you recommend that women confine themselves to kitchen, crib and bedroom, and put up with anything their men may throw their way - in exchange for the glorious opportunity to get pregnant?
Do you recommend that women give birth and then abandon babies, because, surely, people can change their minds?
Do you recommend that we allow women to sell babies? Why should the state intervene? Why does society (we) feel outraged and/or concerned when a woman sells her baby? Do we assume the right to prevent such sales? (But rights bring responsibilities.)
I make none of the aforementioned recommendations.
But I would like to know - especially those who disagree with the suggestion that mothers be allowed at least eighteen months of social support - What do you recommend?

[In response to - Why mothers? Why now? Why, when half the nation's children are hungry, and half the women don't have access to pre/post-natal care, and half the men are jobless and half the world at war? Why, when we can't seem to get the population to stop producing a more infernal population?]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Zigzackly points us to Esha, and a simple project through which you could help blind kids.

"You pay a rupee a card to get your visiting cards Braille-embossed. So, your cards can then be read by people who read Braille. And you help visually-impaired people get a little more financial independence.
You can reach Nidhi and Esha at Esha_braille AT yahoo DOT com."

Monday, November 06, 2006

A new kind of fruit.

I get a little frustrated with conversations about 'gender'. It is almost as if we were talking about an interesting vase on the dining table, or a new kind of fruit.

As if, it has nothing to do with the salaries we draw, the amounts we spend on travel and/or self-indulgence, our health, our place in newspapers, the status of the kitchen sink, the vocational courses offered by the ashram for rescued street children. As if, gender was something to be tucked into a recycled paper folder, on a conference table.

Every conversation about gender or feminism quickly disintegrates into 'emancipation' or 'but it should not become a man vs woman debate' or 'learn to be equal, first'.

In recent memory, not one person (politician/activist/student/feminist/writer/friend) has spoken to me about gender from the perspective of motherhood. About the economics of motherhood.

Three months' paid leave, yes. Creches at the work-place, yes. But what about the fact that, despite maternity benefits, a new mother often runs the risk of becoming an economic liability unto herself? Because, with a baby in her arms, it is not easy to cook, clean, commute, stay up late working on projects, functioning on too little sleep.

It is easy to say - let the man take half the burden. What happens when there is no man in the picture? Because, often, there isn't. In any case, that argument is a flawed one, based on the assumption that every mother WANTS to be married/live with a man. What if she doesn't? Where does she get financial help, or social support?

And why are Indians not pushing the boundaries further? Are three months enough? Is it fair to expect a mother to return to work with a three-month old infant? Let me put it this way - does society want three-month old infants in day-care centres, to be taken home by a frazzled mother who must go on working - cooking, cleaning, etc? Is that the ideal way to bring up a generation?

Another question - do we, as a people, as a species, accept that children are our collective responsibility? That children belong to the world, and the world must do its bit to bring them up?

In a world where men do not always assume paternal responsibilities, especially if they have not legally married the mother, how do we make them do their bit? If men were wild creatures like wolves or penguins or something, one could count upon them to feed the young ones, and let the mother recover. Since this trait, however, does not seem to be part of their DNA, how do we, as a world, make men pay their share of the price for the continuation of the species?

Like the USA, do we keep track of fathers, using the law to hunt them down, and MAKE them pay for their biological children? Or do we impose a tax on ALL men, to extend social security to ALL pregnant women?

Do we extend maternity benefits to a year, or eighteen months? Or does the mother quit her job, avail of social support for upto eighteen months, and then look for a new job?

But what happens next? When the benefit-zone comes to an end, do we welcome this not-so-new mother back into the work force? By all reports, we do not.

According to a study, "Mothers face greater discrimination in finding a job than disabled people, Asian women and the elderly, new government research has found.
Women returning to work after starting a family face the highest 'personal employment penalty' of any group in society - they are around 40 per cent less likely than the average white, able-bodied man to be offered a post, says the study.

If we do nothing at all, if we expect that women will fight for equality, on men's terms, and deal with the world of men, by trying to turn into men, this is what you will be confronted with - a baby shortage.

"Britain is suffering a baby 'shortage' with potentially disastrous consequences as work pressures force young women to shelve plans for a family, according to dramatic new research, urging an £11bn campaign to boost parenthood. Women have not turned against becoming mothers and, if they could have the number of children they actually wanted, more than 90,000 extra babies a year would be born."

India is young. India does not yet have the spectre of an aged, dependent majority looming over a shrinking work-force. But we'll get there, some day. It would not hurt to prevent a crisis, for once.

Priyanka will not be avenged

I should have written about Kherlanji earlier, perhaps. Except that I did not know what to say.

When Shivam first sent me the link to the story, it took four attempts to read it through to the end. With each reading, I'd be overwhelmed by a wave - something between frustration, nausea, panic - rising up in revolt.

I did not want to read the story. I did not want to confront the fact that it was true, and that this was what the world like. That the perpetrators were ordinary villagers - like the ones I meet when I travel. Ordinary young and old men with complaints about electricity, the lack of health services and joblessness. That it is not one or two or three or four but nearly a whole village.

I still don't know what to say.

Except that Priyanka will not be avenged even if the whole village hangs. Priyanka will not be avenged as long as you have even one square inch on earth where a woman is held as the repository of male honour.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bedsheet and bigotry

Right now, I am wearing a skirt that my mother unflatteringly describes as a bedsheet.

My mother does not like me wearing bedsheets. She does not wear bedsheets herself. Through childhood, the one constant memory of her clothes comes to me wrapped in chiffon sarees in flowery prints and sleeveless blouses. And stilettos. Turtlenecks in winter.

And then, there is one other memory. Only once have I seen my mother wear a bedsheet.

It was a dark night, perhaps close to midnight, and we were piled into a tonga, from the railway station to the maternal-ancestral house in which I was born, and to which I had not returned since. I was half-asleep, though thrilled to be sitting in a tonga, when, to my surprise, my mother began to unpack a bag.

She pulled out a bedsheet and draped it round her head. By way of explanation, she told me that she did not wish to offend our hosts - the larger extended family.

Once we entered the house, I understood why. Back then, the house was still divided into 'zenana' and 'mardana' sections. Now, this word 'zenana' might conjure up visions of royalty, and a palatial section replete with special, fragrant swimming/bathing pools and jharokhas.

No such extravagance. This 'zenana' was simply that part of the house where 'outside' men were not permitted, and where women could lie about on a charpai, without a veil. When they stepped outside the house, they put on a burqa, or draped a thick, dupatta-like piece of cloth around themselves. A chadar.

My mother does not wear a chadar. But she loves her family, even those of the family who wear the veil and treat her with a mixture of affection and exasperation, for not conforming.

I do not wear a chadar and, to my immense relief, many of the women from the maternal-ancestral household have given it up. Yet, I cover my head in places where it is expected of me - in a dargah or a temple or a gurudwara. I do not do this because I think the demand is justified. I do this as a mark of respect to my hosts of the moment. After all, when you visit somebody else's house, you do not question their rules - if they say 'take off your slippers', you take them off; if they lay food on a dastarkhaan instead of a table, you sit down cross-legged, on the floor.

The trouble arises when people begin to insist that the rules of their house apply to public spaces. If, for instance, the priests began to insist that I cover my head on the streets, I would stop looking upon them as temporary spiritual hosts, and would be very suspicious of them.

On the other hand, how would you feel if you visited somebody's home, and this somebody insisted that you strip down to your underwear, because those are the rules of the house?

That is why this business of the chadar (chador/burqa/burkha/abaya/ hijaab/purdah/ghoonghat) is such a prickly one.

For, you see, I can easily imagine such a situation. After all, we are not allowed to step into swimming pools unless we wear a swimsuit. There could well be beaches (don't know of any, yet) where you are not allowed unless you're in beach-wear. There are clubs and lounges where you are not allowed in, unless you're in formal 'evening wear'. (I clearly recall one instance in Bombay where a journalist was thrown out of a pub for being in a salwar-kameez).

Do you find any of the above situations acceptable? For a society where these rules apply, would you use adjectives such as 'rigid' 'orthodox' 'ultra-conservative' and even 'oppressive'?

Why does the chadar provoke such extreme reactions, then?

To me, this is a very significant question. Partly because, and sadly because, the veil often comes as a package deal. It comes laden with a set of no-nos, with fear and disrespect for women's bodies and ambitions, and with a patriarchy-heavy culture. Not always, but often. Not always in Islamic nations; also in rural India where women are often punished for breaking free of the ghoonghat and stepping into the political-economic limelight.

I find myself recoiling from both ends of the extreme - the injunction to wear the veil, and the insistence on banning it.

On the one hand, I completely agree with the authorities in this sort of scenario, where, in brief -

A primary school teacher - a language teacher, in fact - wears the hijaab, masking the face, except for the eyes. Kids find it hard to understand what she's saying. The school authorities ask her to either give up the burqa or leave her job.

After all, a teacher's job is to teach and teach well. Besides, the burqa serves no purpose in the classroom (if it serves any purpose at all). If your religious beliefs prevent you from working properly, well... too bad. Make a choice.

On the other hand, there is this country that wants to ban all forms of hijaab, including the headscarf, as a move towards outlawing 'sectarian dress'.

This is silly.

Would you also ban hats? What about a fez? What about the cap the pope wears? What about scarves that are worn on the head but tied at the nape of the neck, like a bandana? What about bikinis? What about sarees? Are they sectarian? Are they cultural? Are they are a threat?

Can a woman in a bedsheet/tent be a threat to a nation?

For me, the veil, in any form, is a tricky issue. Not just because it indirectly makes women responsible for the potential crimes against them, not just because it violates my aesthetic sensibilities (though I have to confess, I was forced to reconsider after that photograph doing the forward rounds - the one with a row of women in black burqas, faces covered and legs bared... I can't find it; does anyone have it stored away somewhere?), but primarily because it is incumbent upon women.

I can understand the temptation to call for a ban, because, sometimes it seems as if that is the only way to protect women from a forced tent-ization, to divorce their clothes from their rights and duties.

Yet, I would like to reserve the right to wear a burqa, as and when I choose to.

Because I will NOT do anything you force me to do. I will NOT wear a bedsheet even if that's the only guise in which I am allowed to enter heaven, for I don't believe in a God who cannot bear to see his own creations uncovered. But nor will I NOT wear a bedsheet, just because you don't like it.

And if a woman with her head covered, frightens you, you probably have deep-rooted insecurities and need to see a shrink.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Five things feminism has done for me
(in response to Aishwarya's tag)

I've been trying, but how do I pin-point what feminism has done for me? Besides, there are kinds and kinds of feminists - which of them do I thank, for what? Perhaps, a better way of doing this would be to point out what life would have been like, if it were not for the feminists of the last century.

1] I would not have had the right to vote.

Like I have said (in this post, remembering the struggle for universal suffrage) equality is a long journey on a rough road. Today, I can vote because it is taken for granted that women have a stake in the politics of a nation. It was not always so. To be denied the vote is to be denied citizenship, to be denied the constitution, to be rendered powerless and voiceless in a democracy. I am grateful I was not denied all this.

2] I would not have realised that I have a choice - about everything.

Through childhood, my brother and I were treated the same. I never thought about feminism; it was never discussed and it was certainly not upheld as a virtue or a necessary part of our education.

My earliest recollection of feminism is a family member laughing about the 'bra-burning type'. I did not ask questions, but this little floating wisp of info stayed in my mind - that somewhere, somebody was burning her bra... why? Later, I began to wonder - What does it mean to wear, or not, a bra? What does it mean culturally, socially, intellectually?

I have yet to meet any woman who burnt a bra, even as a token gesture (they're too expensive). But feminism has shown us that we can, should we choose to. And if we choose to, feminists can explain what exactly we will be rejecting - not a piece of cloth with clasps, but an idea - about what a female body is supposed to accomplish.
(Recommended reading - Germaine Greer's The Madwoman's Underclothes)

Take something as simple as the right to be neither Miss or Mrs, to insist upon Ms - I would not have known that I had the choice, if it had not been for the feminists who have exercised that choice before me.

Similarly, it is feminist movements who have argued for abortion rights, contraceptive rights, etc. I feel much, much safer living in a country where I have these rights, legally. I would, for instance, not like to be in Nicaragua, right now.

3] I would not have known who I am, with whom I belong.

The first time I heard the word 'feminist' was when it was hurled at me like an accusation. Which prompted me to go look it up in the library and begin to read up about it. And then I knew - this was where I belonged. Amongst women who are not content to be the gentler sex, the second sex, the weaker sex, the anything-but-equal sex.

Feminism, to me, is an intellectual cave of refuge. Now, I wear the label like a badge of honour. In fact, I admit that I am impatient with women who are not feminists, and unforgiving towards men who are not.

4] I may never have gone to college.

College may not have given me much by way of (academic) knowledge, but it was fun, gave me a couple of lifelong (one hopes) friends, gave me ideas, and the space to find out what my talents were and how I was going to use them. Which led to still-higher education, which led to a job, which led to independence.

5] I would not have learnt to question religion, social norms, economic systems, political systems and my own beliefs.

Questioning is the first step towards freedom. It would have been easy to conform. But as I grew up, read books, argued, confronted this business of being a woman - our place in the world, the rules that bind us, the sacrifices demanded of us - I began asking questions. One question led to ten anothers. One theory led to ten others. When I began asking questions about one thing, I learnt to question everything else. I'm still asking.

I'm tagging -



Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Good essay

I entered my hostel and was given my room. Ten minutes later, I was on my knees with a leash around my neck....After so many years, I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately, but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that, no matter the name used for them. Who were these seniors, and why did they humiliate us so?

From this excellent essay in Tehelka.

Not only did I find myself nodding in agreement, but found myself going down memory lane, and echoing the conclusion the author comes to -

I have never found any use for the education my seniors gave me.... Ragging is a case study for Freud, nothing more.

Do read the whole essay.

Noticed on recent trips undertaken by train

- There is something known as 'Tvarit' reservation, for certain Shatabdi trains.
Tvarit refers to last-minute reservations, as opposed to Tatkal, which means soon/immediate (?) and there is a counter for the same on that platform where the Shatabdi is supposed to arrive.
The counter, unfortunately, was unmanned, both the times I saw it.

- At some stations, there is a facility for charging mobile phones on the platform itself. There is a sort of pillor with plug points on it, with voltage mentioned alongside.

Good ideas, both. No clue if they work.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Empower, unpower, empower

For a minute there, I felt powerful. For a minute, I thought, it would get sorted now.

Now that I am involved, have learnt to speak up, and have discovered a few tools that can out-intimidate the intimidators, I thought I was just about done with street sexual harassment.

I should have known better... All it takes is five seconds of letting your guard down.

Five seconds, when I step inside the kirane ki dukaan near my house, to buy milk. A man follows me into the shop, and pretends to be just another customer, looking for Archies' greeting cards (in a kirana shop!). I leave, and as I open the gate to my place, the man stops me. Offers to 'make friendship'.

I have heard this so many times, and have responded to it in so many ways that I would have laughed outright. If it was not for the fact that I was suddenly frightened. By the knowledge that the man had probably been following me for some time without my noticing, that he now knew where I lived and that I was alone at home.

I say 'no thank you'.

He does not leave. He says 'don't misunderstand... genuine friendship, I promise'.

I tell him that I have many genuine friends and don't want any more. I ask him to leave. I say 'please'.

He does not leave.

I am reluctant to climb the stairs and open the lock until he has left.

He tries to give me a phone number.

I do not take it. He does not leave.

Finally, I have to turn away, run upstairs and lock all three doors behind me until I reach the top and can peer down to ensure that he has left.

Five seconds on the bus, when I am on the phone with my mother, and thus, have forgotten to stay alert and look aggressive.

The man sitting next to me has placed his hand on my thigh. At first, so lightly that I don't notice. When I do, I turn to look at him, aghast. I am so surprised, that for a full five seconds, I cannot find my voice.

And then, all I can think of saying is - "Ye kya kar rahe ho?" (What are you doing?)

He withdraws his hand with a sudden, quick movement and looks out of the window.

The rage is slow to arrive, for some reason. But while I get steadily angrier by the fractioned second, I notice what a pitiful picture the man cuts - he is a mouse of a man; a trapped rat of a man... if I wanted to, this minute, I could beat him up. Not because I am stronger, but because he is such a coward and I am so angry. All I can feel is contempt.

I say "Get up and get out. Right now!"

He gets up immediately, mumbles something about having to get off anyway, and gets off at the next stop.

The humiliation is his, but minutes afterwards, I continue to simmer. Others have noticed this little exchange of words and some men are turning to stare at me. I stare back at them and they quickly look away.

When I get home, I catch myself wanting to take a bath... And yet, something has changed. This time, my reaction is different from what it would have been two years ago. I did not hit the man. I did not scream. I did not panic. I did not feel the need to create a big scene. I was surprised, felt contempt and anger - I did not feel fear.

This, I realise now, is because of blank noise, partly. I have gotten used to dealing with the problem, talking about it, taking it to the very streets where we endure it... So used to it, that it seems incredible that somebody should actually dare to go on harassing me. A corner of my brain was wondering - 'What? Don't they know?'

And that is why getting involved was good for me.
Blank Noise is not just about getting men to lay off. It is also about empowering women to deal with men who will not keep their unwelcome hands off you. It is as much about dealing with women's fear of public spaces and strangers, as it is about dealing with sexually abusive/intimidating strangers

Which is why I encourage every woman I meet, especially college girls and young professionals, to get involved.

It is hard to get involved, I know. It is hard to make time for a battle that's everybody's battle; there are too many personal ones to fight. But hard though it is, it makes sense. For my own sake, for my sisters and for the women we will bring up, some day.

To show up, to do something - anything! - against sexual harassment in public spaces. Because these are my spaces too; and I can't let somebody alienate me from my own spaces simply because intimidating shit happens out there.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


My friend Smriti likes to give herself names that almost belie her... Names like Tattle-tale (though she does spin beautiful tales). And Chatterbox (which she can be, too). But the names say nothing of the understanding, the depth, the challenge of her writing.

Most recently, she has made me re-think Sita, as a feminist model. Sample this -

"She remains loyal to Ram during captivity.
She trusts Ram to remain loyal towards her. Upon rescue she does not demand an agni pariksha of him though she could have wondered what Ram had been up to while she was away.
Her trust matches her love.
After the washerman incident she leaves Ram's palace to never return.
Her self esteem is fiercer than her love.
She is proud and capable and does an excellent job at being a single parent."

And here's something equally thought-provoking about Kekayi - why, after all, is it so hard to forgive her?

"Kekai chose the throne over Ram.
Ram chose the throne over Sita.

Why is it so easy to not forgive Kekai?
And why is Ram a god?"

And here, the miserable linkages between religion, war, texts and media.

"Are you very sure the removal of Islam from politics in Islamic countries will bring peace and order?
Stalin ruled and murdered without religion, so did Hitler.
Killing Jews does seem like a very religious thing to do…Jews being a religious sect. How come you don’t view the World Wars as a religious war?... Why is the Abu Gharib just another political/moral crisis?
Would you call such torture if conducted by Iraqies another political/moral crisis?"

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Aggression, nights, news reports

Aggression has a purpose.

Something deeper and more instinctive that most of us understand, but which most of us experience only when we allow it expression, through our eyes, our posture, our tone.

Aggression needs to be restrained. But it also needs to show itself, like a flash in the dark, like a sudden snarl, like the hard assertion of its potential.

This, I have learnt after being involved with the Blank Noise interventions over the last month.

For instance, I learnt to look. To stand in a crowded public space and look. Not to smile, not to shuffle my feet, not to use my phone as a social shield, not to speak to my companions, not to flinch, not to give way.

Not to give way.

Just stand there and look into the eyes of the passersby.

True, I was not alone. There were about eight of us women in a busy subway near a south Delhi market. A few male volunteers accompanied us but did not join us in the more confrontational, challenging actions. They stood to one side and guaged crowd reactions.

We, the women, just stood there and stared back. Some of us sat down on the stairs, others stood right in the middle of the subway, facing either direction. We were instructed not to pay attention to anybody who tried to ask for explanations. We did not owe anybody any explanations. But we did give out letters, starting, 'Dear Stranger', and going to describe a woman's first-person account of street sexual harassment.

We heard a few warnings; for instance, a watchman told a college-going volunteer that she should not stand around because 'koi galat samajhega' (somebody might misunderstand). She retorted with 'Let them misunderstand... I'm just standing'. He tried telling us that it was forbidden. We told him to show us where it said so - any sign saying 'Do not stand'? Any written order?

Somebody suggested that we would be brushed against or pushed about because 'you are in the way'.

The point was - we were not! We were neither pushed about nor brushed against, nor pinched nor groped nor even came up to suggest that 'make friendship'. Nobody dared.

Because all we did was to stand there and stare, right into the eyes of the passersby, men and women both. As soon as they realised that they were being stared at, they'd look away.

And I discovered something wonderful - we women were not just standing there, looking. We were confronting. We were challenging. We were daring.

And nobody dared.

In the face of aggression, there are two ways to react - one is to fight with one's own inherent aggression, which might result in a physical fight. The second way is to look away, acknowledging that, for the moment at least, you are giving way.

Too long, women have given way. When a man comes striding down the street, we step to one side. When a man takes up too much space on a shared bus seat, we cower in our corner, uncomfortable, but silent. When a bunch of men hang round, staring at us, we hurry past, trying to ignore the threat of their eyes.

This time, we did not. No slogans, or placards, or black arm-bands, or violence. All we did was let our inherent aggression loose. Stand there - feet apart, eyes unblinking.

Jasmeen organised interesting variations each time. One evening, there was a sound element - two recordings playing simultaneously. One was that of a group of boys describing what they looked at in a woman - what their bodies should be like. At the other end, there was the sound of a woman's laughter, hysterical, uproarious.... ever noticed, that in public spaces, very few sounds are feminine? Women rarely laugh loudly, uninhibitedly.

[In fact, when I was in school, our Hindi teacher specifically told us not to laugh openly; it was not considered proper for girls].

But before that, there was the night walk.

To our collective discomfort, there was too much media. Too many cameras, too many TV crews. This was a problem, because the point of the night walk was that a bunch of women should be out at night, doing what they wanted, wearing what they wanted, challenging the public space that prevents women from being out at night.

The moment you bring a TV crew into a space, things change. People perceive the whole proceeding as a film shooting, a sham, a staged drama, and not something that is - or should be - a normal part of the cityscape at night.

The TV reporters had been warned - if they wanted to come, they'd have to come as participants and volunteers, not as people who gawk, ask questions and leave. This, perhaps, was too much to expect.

However, what really made me feel ashamed of my tribe was this article.

It says - "the protesters were “leched” at, ridiculed and booed along the three-kilometre stretch of the march, the first of its kind in New Delhi"

Factually incorrect. I did the whole stretch and was neither booed nor ridiculed. Questions, yes. Arguments, yes. Booing, no. Leching? Possible? We were too busy to notice.

Further, "The organisers, who ran into trouble even before the roadside Romeos, managed to round up just 15 participants."

What was this supposed trouble that the organisers supposedly ran into?

"The protesters, in their spaghetti tops and accented English, made quite an impact on the streets. Those who hadn’t turned up in a “mod and hep” attire seemed clearly overdressed."

False. False. False.

Not everyone was in spaghetti tops. [I was.] The women had been asked to come dressed in something they would not normally wear. One friend came in a mangalsutra - the one thing she does not wear. Her friend was in a shalwar-kameez. Many others wore standard T-shirts and jeans.

Also, except for a couple of foreign nationals, nobody's English could be described as 'accented'. Unless they meant Punjabi accent, Bengali accent, Dilli-wala accent etc.

The reporter has placed 'mod and hep' in inverted commas. Any particular reason? Was this supposed to be a reference to western clothes? Also, those who were not in western clothes were in regulation cotton shalwars... Overdressed? Who?

And even if a woman is overdressed. Let us say she feels like walking about in a Benarsi silk saree... when you come to cover what you describe as a protest (it was never described as one by Blank Noise; it was a night walk/night action plan), why are you so busy taking detailed notes about who was wearing what?

There's more.

"Armed with placards, posters and red arrow tags, the protesters..."

We had posters and red arrows. There were no placards. Did the reporter dream those up? What we did have were stencils.

This article got it right. Unfortunately, the same media group carried another article, two days later, about the same event, but in a very different tone, possibly because it re-carried the story as given out by a news service provider.

"A midnight march by women to protest against "touching, staring, groping, pinching and stalking" sounded heroic enough until the protesters ran into stalking Romeos lining up the path."

We did not run into stalkers lining up the path.

I did run into two young men who seemed concerned at my putting up a poster in Sarojini Nagar. One of them said, "Where's the point of putting it here? This is a government colony..."
Implying, of course, that sexual harassment is not a problem in government colonies.

I responded by asking, "Why? You think government people are all very shareef (decent)?"

That made him laugh in an embarrassed sort of way, and leave. That was all.

Anyway, being on the receiving end of media ignorance and inaccuracy is not pleasant. But what really bothered me was the tone of the article. The insensitivity of it. Here is this bunch of women, trying to do something that is generally acknowledged as a huge problem, across the country... And all you can think of writing is the straps on their shoulders or the accents they spoke in?

Music and the minar

The Qutub Festival is back!

This is one of my favourite music festivals because it is the only venue where you can lie on the grass, look at the stars against the lit-up shadow of the Qutub Minar, hear the rising strains of somebody's voice, a tabla, a sitar, a guitar... wander off for some hot chaat or halwa or chai, and have the music call you back to its feet.

The festival organisers also claim that it is dedicated to the youth of Delhi, which is why there is always one popular fusion band each evening, to go with the classical performance.

This year, there are Pt Debu and Prateek Chaudhuri, this Saturday, along with Euphoria (of dhoom pichak dhoom fame).

On Sunday, there are the Nizami brothers, the Qawwals, and Shankar-Ehsan-Loy (of Dil Chahta Hai fame)

Now, I'm happy.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Shit - 3

Most of us, let's face it, do not think about things that do not concern us. We say, or at least, think - "What's it to me?" or "Not my problem" or "Hame kya? Hamara kya jaata jaata?"

Most of us look the other way. I don't pretend to be very different. Things that absorb my time, attention, capacity for outrage, are usually things that I see, feel, fear. Things that resonate with me because, in some form, however briefly, I've experienced them.

Manual scavenging, as a problem, as an outrage, resonated with me because, although I have never had to pick up anybody's shit, I know what it feels like to step into it.

My real association with this story, thus, begins four years ago...

I was a very young reporter working for Mid-day, and had to be out on the 'field' most of the day. As all women reporters know, one of the biggest problems with being on the field is toilets. Or, the lack of them.

This is not just because of our anatomy, or because of a special need for privacy. This is also because women's toilets - by and large - are non-existent. Especially in cities.

For instance, there are stalls for men - operational urinals, some of which even have running water... the luxury! - at almost all railways stations in Bombay. Not so for women. The few urinals that do exist are often locked - yes, padlocked, for god's sake! - with no attendant in sight. (I once asked why, and was told that this is because 'unsuitable' activities happen inside the women's loos. Go figure.)

Some women's toilets are used as a dumping ground - concrete and rubble from some railway construction project - or as store-rooms (have seen bags of cement stored inside). The logic being that 'women don't like to go here, anyway'.

And some are simply abandoned.

One day, at a station on the western line - somewhere between Andheri and Dadar - I actually managed to find a women's loo that was not locked. And made the mistake of stepping inside the darkened enclosure.

My foot squelched and sank into something soft. It took a couple of seconds to register what the mess was - it was about two inches of shit. Human shit all over the floor.

I withdrew the foot and stepped back outside.

Suddenly, it seemed as if the world had turned dark. As if the station was empty. There was just me, and my outrage. And the overwhelming humiliation.

I didn't recognize the feeling, immediately. At that time, I burst into tears. It took a week to recover, a week before I could stop my mind from going back to that moment of shock and bursting into tears all over again, before I stopped feeling like I needed a million baths.

But now, I clearly recognize that feeling - it was humiliation.

When I discovered that there are people in this country who must handle shit for a living, the humiliation returned. The outrage returned too. If one accidental brush with a clogged toilet could make me so miserable, could reduce me to tears - how must they be feeling? What does it do to you - psychologically, emotionally - to have to do it, day after day?

If I cannot forget that one accidental day, how do they live - constantly struggling to forget? Why should they not live in denial? Why should anyone expect that, one fine day, they will rise up, revolt and throw away their brooms, because we tell them to?

I know that if I had to do their work for even one week, I would be destroyed. My spirit would die. What right have I to expect that their spirit, their sense of dignity, their sense of self, will be intact? Intact enough to make them stop doing their work, without a moment's thought?

No wonder, the one effective bargaining tool activists have is the word 'children'. Your children... do you want them to go on living like this? And it always prompts a response - 'No. Not our children'. For the children's sake, they will throw a lifetime of humiliation away, throw away this livelihood, break down the structures that lead to this humiliation.

And no wonder, public sanitation IS an issue with me. It IS personal. It IS a part of my politics. That day, four years ago, at a suburban railway station in Bombay, it ceased to be somebody else's problem.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Shit -2

Every morning, the women get up and leave their own homes, to go to the homes of people whose excreta they will shortly handle. Some go at 4 am, or 6 am, or 7 am. It all depends on how many homes they have to clean.

Nowadays, there aren't that many. But there are enough to keep an estimated 12 lakh people involved in this shit-handling business.

No gloves, no face-masks. No disinfectant, and often, no water to bathe with, afterwards.

90 % of the time, it is women who do this. Sometimes, they even profess a deep sympathy with their employers, because they understand that women, at least, must have 'a place to go'. Where public flush toilets are not available, it is but natural that dry laterines will persist.

This, I did not understand.

When I pointed out to the scavenger women that these poor women, whose shit they were going to carry, were often loaded with gold jewelry, and that the government anyway gives huge subsidies for the construction of new toilets, they fell silent. They had never thought about that. Nobody had ever taught them to think like that.

So, I prodded - why do they do it?

Because, they said, they didn't know how to do anything else. They were never sent to school. Their brothers were sent, often. But they were not. Or, if they were, they were withdrawn after class 3, or 4 or 5.

And what do their men do?

Some men do the same task. They are more often assigned to community dry laterines, where - because of much larger volumes of shit - they use wheelbarrows to transport the stuff. Sometimes, they get the women to do the actual cleaning of the laterine and only do the transportation themselves. Many more men tackle the sewers.

Many toilets - even though they are pour-flush/wet laterines - are built on top of a septic tank. Once every few years, people need this tank cleaned. Once, every few years, the male scavengers will go down into this sewer, wearing only their lungis or their underwear, with a bucket and a stick. That's all.

Some die. All that trapped sewage makes for noxious gases. Open the manhole and, if you don't watch out, the posionous gases knock you out. Once unconscious, if you fall in, you're as good as dead. If you don't fall in, you could be very seriously sick.

Each life-threatening cleaning job will only cost Rs 500-600. It is done mostly at night. Because, in the daytime, the open tank will stink and the house-owners don't want the smell. Also, because the law stipulates that - if such tanks must be cleaned, the worker be provided with proper equipment, and that oxygen masks be handy. Of course, there is no oxygen mask. Of course, there is no protective gear.

But such jobs don't come by every day. In Nand Nagri, I was told that one man only gets to clean a septic tank maybe once in two-three months. The household is run by women, the rest of the time.

These women are not always brought up cleaning shit. Some, like Meena, went to school. She, clearly, did not enjoy lifting shit.

Why did she do it?

Because she didn't have a choice.

If their mothers don't induct them into scavenging, their mothers-in-law do. Or their husbands do. If their husbands are also scavengers, they will often work together. For instance, the man, using a stick, will un-clog the gutter into which the shit is flushed. The woman will pick it up and carry it in baskets.

The filthiest task is left to the woman, wherever possible.


Because, like I've said here, manual scavenging is about caste, about gender, about oppression.

In the caste order, it is not the sudra, but the sudra woman who is at the bottom of the heap. And you oppress those you can oppress, because they're at the bottom of the heap. Those who have been conditioned into thinking that this is their lot, and this is their duty. Those who think they cannot escape, for they have nowhere else to go. Those on whom you can collectively gang up, and whom you can accuse of breaking a social code, should they try to escape. Those whom you can beat the shit out of, because everybody else does it, and has been doing it for centuries.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shit - 1

A month ago, somebody asked me what story I was working on.

I told her.

'Manual? What?"

"Manual scavenging."

"What's that?"

"It's when people lift other people's shit. Real, literal shit, not the metaphorical kind."

She shook her head. "Really? So where will you be traveling?"

"Different places. But I will start will Delhi."

Her husband shook his head. "Delhi? This doesn't happen in Delhi."

He refused to believe it. "It can't be... maybe in villages where people are backward."

I don't blame him. We all think we're so progressive and this sort of thing doesn't happen in India. Not in the cities. Possibly, in the villages, where people don't know any better.

That is what we want to believe. That is what we cannot bear not to believe. That is, nevertheless, the truth. It is illegal. It is unfair. But it is the truth.

Yet, I understand the reluctance to accept it. I find it hard to speak about it. And naturally, even those who must do this ultimate-in-filthy-jobs are reluctant to talk.

In Delhi, in Shahdara, I met the women whom you could call, in polite terms, manual scavengers. In Panipat, in Haryana, I met some more. In Punjab, in Samral, yet more.... when we talked about it, we referred to manual scavening as "ye kaam" or "kacchi khuddiyo.n ka kaam" (work of the dry laterines).

They're usually neat, polite smiling women. Women who scoop up human excreta with a piece of tin and a rough broom and put it in bamboo baskets which they must carry away. On their shoulders. On their hips. On their heads.

Which is why many a government document mentions the term 'headloading'. Some government officials have even been insensitive enough to counter dalit activists' accusations of the continuing of the practice of headloading by saying that "they don't carry it on their heads; only their hips."

It is hard to come to terms with it, is it not? That there are a few thousand, tens of thousand, a few lakh people who must lift other people's excreta to be able to survive. That we immediately take to technology via mobile phones and CD players, the moment we can afford it, but we will not invest a few thousand rupees to build new toilets, to buy better sanitation, to hire consultants to think about what can be done towards better sewage systems.

To think that we let it happen - that nobody takes out processions in protest, that no bandhs are called in the capital, that nobody ostracises anybody in your city who employs another human being (at the rate of Rs 20 a month, and the occassional roti) to lift and carry your shit.

These are not nice things to think about. And I don't blame anybody for not wanting to think about them. But think, all the same.

Listening to radio in Bankok?

"on my way back from the airport, I flipped on the radio to 102.5 and SexyBack by Justin Timberlake was on, followed by silence, then Nelly Furtado's Maneater, and then...more silence. For some reason I have this mental image of a military dude sitting in a closed radio booth trying to decide on what to turn on next -- Stars are Blind by Paris Hilton or Buttons by the Pussycat Dolls? Oh, the dilemma!
In the meantime, all other radio stations have resorted to playing hotel elevator music."

This is about the radio situation in Thailand, extracted from a Thai girl's blog, which is being updated fairly frequently.

Here's another blog from Bangkok.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gentlemen's letters

A few months ago, I met an old gentleman (and there is no way you describe him, except as a gentleman) who used to work in public health. In his seventies, and still volunteering, still very upright, very straight-backed, very soft-spoken and very 'correct'... (if it was possible to fall in love with somebody in the future that is suggested by the present, I could easily fall in love with him). The sort of man who will draw up a little cushioned stool to the telephone which is kept in a corner of the corridor near the hall, dial the number for you, hand you the receiver, ask you to sit on the stool while you talk, and step away to stand at a polite distance himself.

I found myself thinking that if only I was sixty years old, I'd marry this old man (except that he already has a charming wife in her sixties).

This is the sort of man who begins his email, addressing me as 'Dear Ms Zaidi' and 'with reference to your letter dated.....' and goes on to tell me about his most recent holiday with his wife, before moving onto more professional matters.

I found myself responding with a letter that began with a prim "hope this finds you in a best of health and spirits".

Having written this line, I paused and thought - I have never, ever, used this line before. We were taught to use it in school, in semi-official correspondence or when writing to a great-aunt you've never met but who religiously sends you boxes of chocolates. Nobody says things like 'hope this finds you in the best of health...' outside of school homework in language class. Maybe not even there.

But I did say it. Because it seemed right. Because now, I know what it means. Because it was a straight-backed, upright, correct, gentlewomanly sort of thing to say.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Night Out; Step Out

Blank (that which is not allowed meaning, form, articulation). Noise (that which heightens, builds itself).

There will be articulation. There will be meaning. There will be a build-up to something we all want.

Safe streets. Safe nights. Women out on safe streets at night.

Friday Night.

9 pm.


[Confirm by calling Blank Noise Delhi at 98734 85284 at Jasmeen]

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Of fruit peel and invisibility

There's a fruit-stall near my office building. Actually, it is not even a stall. It's just a woman sitting on the ground with a basket of fruit, a knife, a bowl, a packet of kala namak and masala, a stack of leaf-bowls (we call them donaa; what's it called in English?) and toothpicks.

I'm a regular customer.

Today, there was some sort of argument going on. A man was berating the woman for leaving fruit-peel lying around. She doesn't, actually. She puts the waste in a separate basket behind her seat and carries it away at night (I think).

The trouble, it turns out, is not littering. The trouble is that a lot of poor kids have been falling sick. The fruit-wali is being accused of letting these poor kids eat her waste.

She denies this. Says that it is the migrant labourers' kids and they don't even ask her permission. They sneak up behind her and as soon as they think nobody's looking, they grab some fruit-waste (cores from apples and pears, papaya or mango peel, badly bruised bananas) and run.

I stood there, looking left and right and all around.

This is an office area. There are no poor kids, except the regular ones begging at the traffic signals; I have seen them hiding their rotis by sticking them in the iron railing on the road-divider. But I saw no labourers, no slums, no shanties, no children.

And suddenly, I saw that it is possible to become invisible.

So invisible that you eat fruit-peel from a trash-basket in a busy office area in the heart of the capital, and nobody really sees.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Evicting thinking minds

Vikram is a good friend who delights in irreverence and for whom I have a great fondness, in part, because of this irreverence, his love of laughter and his quest for the funny side of things.

However, some things are never funny. Mobs, for instance. Especially 'patriotic' mobs who don't have a single original idea in their head. Even their chest-thumping love for the motherland is derivative, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

Vikram writes -

I was already feeling very angry at people who refuse to question their beliefs (of religion, society, childhood conditioning, education, politics, etc.). And instead, choose to push me around to confirm to their beliefs.

So when the national anthem started, it was the LAST straw. I decided I WILL NOT be dictated by politics. And I WILL NOT stand up for the national anthem. I BELIEVE that one can show respect sitting, and so I WILL do what I BELIEVE.

As it turned out, he was abused, assaulted and evicted from a cinema theatre in Mumbai, for choosing to feel patriotic in his own way. This is tantamount to abusing, assualting and evicting a thinking, questioning mind, a creative patriot.

I usually stand up for anthem without any fuss, partly because it is too much trouble to fight the norm. Also because I don't want to face mobs. But yes, I'd like the option not to. I'd like the legal, constitutional, public option not to.

Because, like the poet said, ishq par zor nahin....

Love (and respect) is about wanting to. Love (and respect) - even if it is for a piece of geography and barbed wire, even if it is an incomprehensible mix of things you love and loathe - cannot be forced. You will, when you will, how you will, if you will.
Tweets by @anniezaidi