Monday, October 29, 2012

A belated happy birthday note

A young man recently visited us and noticed a sketch of Gandhi up on my wall. He asked if I liked the man. I said I did. He said he didn’t. I asked why. He said, “We were better off under the British”. So I said, “Do you know what it was like with the British?”

He changed the subject, hopping from one general statement to another about how Gandhi didn’t work. I was about to argue, then I realized he didn’t read, and hadn’t seen much of India outside of his family business and an urban college with a fairly high tuition fee.

I could have told him about satyagrah. But that gets you into trouble with most authority figures including your parents and sometimes involves a stint in jail. But perhaps, I should have told him anyway.

I’ve been thinking about Gandhi all this month. The papers were full of photos of schoolkids dressed up like him – shirtless, bald, round spectacles. It’s one way of remembering Gandhi, to suggest that we want our children to be like him. But the baldness or spectacles were the least significant aspect of him.

The critical difference between him and other Indian leaders was that he embraced our greatest nightmare – poverty. He chose hunger. He chose to walk. He chose jail.

Gandhi could have stayed out of jail. With his determination and intelligence, he could also have served the interests of our colonial masters. He could have bent the backs of other Indians further. He could have bought a car, and sent his children to London. And the children could have done the same.

Instead, Gandhi cleaned toilets because he wanted to smash a social system where some human beings are forced to do ‘dirty’ work that other human beings don’t want to do. He believed in peace between communities and was subjected to assassination attempts – from Indians – much before partition.

Gandhi dressed poor and worked like the poor because he needed to remind us – and himself – that the poor exist, and that India was a place of exploitation. The main problem with imperialism is that it leads to exploitation. People become poorer and are kept that way through unjust laws. If they rebel, they are accused of working against the ‘national’ interest.

Today, the ‘national’ interest is no longer British interests. And yet, food godowns overflow and farmers kill themselves and ‘advanced’ technology allows seeds to self-destruct. Slum-dwellers get 24 hours to move before their homes are demolished, but builders must provide comfortable alternate accommodation for ‘flat-wale’ people whose buildings must be demolished. What would Gandhi do?

Some people in Chhattisgarh must have asked themselves this question. I saw photos from Gare village in Raigarh district, where an organization led a coal satyagrah, just like the salt satyagrah in Dandi, led by Gandhi. On Oct 2 this year, villagers decided to pick up coal from the open cast mines. They were willing to pay royalties as well, and they invited local officials to measure the mined coal and give them receipts for the tax purposes. This was their way of asserting rights not only over the land but also over mineral resources.

Were they are breaking the law? I do not know. But I think they are right to want to do this. There are problems of exploitation in every district, every village. But Gandhi did leave us tools with which to fight. And perhaps, if schools had modules on Gandhian philosophy, or at least on human rights, civil rights movements and non-violent political tools, we might feel less powerless.

Published here

Monday, October 22, 2012

Of rice and ministers

What do Kashmiri militants, traditional caste-based panchayats in Haryana and the Chhattisgarh police have in common?

No, not various kinds of illegal violence. (Well, who knows?) But today, what I’m talking about is a hatred of denim pants. Jeans. That is, women wearing jeans. We’ve heard of girls getting shot at for wearing jeans in Kashmir. And now there are reports that the Chhattisgarh Police Training Academy is frowning upon policewomen in jeans.

Not just jeans, though. Apparently, they’re not supposed to wear slacks, leggings or any kind of western outfit during office hours. The funny thing is, most policewomen on active duty are actually supposed to be wearing pants. They don’t go chasing robbers (or alleged Naxals, for that matter) in sarees.

This rejection of ‘western’ denim is confined to its appearance on women’s bodies, incidentally. Male police officers are not obliged to do their bit for the preservation of Indian culture. Which makes me wonder — what were the two cops — now suspended — wearing when they molested school teachers in Rajgarh? And what were the male cops wearing when they were torturing Soni Sori? Were they in their khaki uniform pants or denim?

The Chhattisgarh police have been busy with other kinds of problematic actions too. There are allegations that one young man in Raipur was beaten up by the police, and he suffered hearing loss as a result. One Anwar Hussain was beaten up allegedly after he asked the chief minister Raman Singh a fairly reasonable question at a rally. The question was about rice production.

Perhaps Raman Singh wasn’t responsible for the thrashing. He may have asked the cops to just remove the guy who asked the question. But it was not the smartest thing to do. Especially when he’s just made the appalling public statement that a father should be punished for crimes committed by murderer or rapist sons, because it is daddy’s fault for passing on bad DNA. Clearly, his views on crime and punishment are a bit wonky.

At any rate, rice seems to be sore point with Raman Singh. Other reports suggest that he had yelled at a journalist who asked a question about rice procurement. Which wasn’t such a smart thing to do. When a politician lashes out at those who raise questions, it just confirms everyone’s worst suspicions. So, now, I’m really starting to wonder what’s going on with rice in the troubled state of Chhattisgarh.

Because troubled it surely is. If Raman Singh was serious about fixing it, he’d get serious about rice. He might look at reports coming in from citizens, and hear of people in Surguja district who have not been paid their dues for six months. He would hear of anganwadi workers in Bastar who have not been paid for months.

He might hear that forest-dwelling people would prefer not to have agricultural universities, as minister Sharad Pawar seems to be promising. They might think that they already know their agriculture. They might prefer it if forest land was not given over to coal mining.

Raman Singh would do well to prepare himself for criticism in coming weeks. If the India Against Corruption workers are to be believed, they’re busy digging up dirt in the state because they believe that “Corruption is the root cause behind the Maoist problem.”

I don’t know about the Maoists, but the people of ‘affected’ districts like Dantewada probably don’t want a college for the unemployed, which Raman Singh seems to be offering. I think they would prefer not to be made unemployed in the first place.

First published here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five reasons I am angry this bright Tuesday morning

I live in a country where a woman chief minister can attribute the awful, unforgiveable crime of rape to men and women, boys and girls actually acknowledging each other's existence on the same planet, and she can remain in office. This leader seems not to know the difference between violent assault and voluntary holding of hands, and she is expected to make and enforce laws.

I live in a country where feudal dens of patriarchy that have consistently defied the Constitution of my country are allowed to function. These community 'leaders' can attribute the unforgiveable crime of rape to the eating of chowmein, and they are not taken to the nearest mental asylum to be locked up until their own hormonal or moral imbalances are sorted out.

I live in a country where a popular Punjabi rapper sings of bloodying panties and instead of being being spanked bloody (I'm almost certain he secretly longs for this), he's given work in the mainstream Hindi film industry. Not one singer/lyricist/filmmaker sees it fit to send him to the re-education program he very obviously needs. I live in a country where it seems people fork over their hand-earned money to pack concerts where this creature performs, and I can't do a damn thing about it.

I live in a country where I suspect bribes were paid on my account (though without my knowledge) to enable me to rent a house. And I can't do a damn thing about that either because there's no way of proving anything now, and if I tried, I'd only raising hell for both the real estate agents who were helping me actually find a place.

I live in a country where no service - public, private or cooperative - responds easily to any kind of customer request. Whether it is information or the actual service being offered, you have to claw your way to it. And despite the internet being available, there is no way of reaching companies or their complaint addressal systems. You send an email, no response. You call and you refer to the email, no response. You shout and threaten an escalation of the issue at hand, and you may get a tiny grudging response. You will probably still have to spend time and money going to their offices and drain yourself out by shouting some more.

And it bothers me because things don't work like this in other countries. We do not have to be this way. We want to 'develop' but our idea of development is building glass-fronted stores instead of actually providing the service or product those stores contain. I'm sure the executives who man the customer call phone lines like to shop for foreign brands in new malls. They just don't want to be as good as the best brands who snap to attention the moment a customer expresses dissatisfaction. And I am tired and drained by the whole mess before I've even had breakfast.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Baby blues

I wonder who decided to name her. As a baby name, it isn’t one of my favourites: Ahuti means sacrifice. There she was — three months old and beaten to death. And nobody really knows why. Ahuti’s mother has been arrested. The police say she’s admitted to beating the baby, and being unable to cope with the child’s constant crying.

I think about Dharmishtha Joshi too (Who named her? What sort of childhood did she have?).Some counselors are already being quoted in snap articles, suggesting that we as a culture are getting to be more intolerant, angrier.

But I think of Dharmishtra Joshi, alone at home, trying to cope with two infants (and one recently dead); a frequently absent husband with whom she clearly did not have strong, tender bond. She was furious about something. Or about many things. And because she didn’t know what to do with her fury, she lashed out at the baby.

What life did Dharmishtha dream of? Did she want those children? If she did not want to bring up those children, what would she do with them?

We ought to condemn her violence, but we also need to think of the consequences of burdening women with reproduction without changing our social and moral ecosystem. In the current environment, a woman faces less flak for beating her own children than for refusing to have children, or offering to give up her children to foster care if she feels unable to cope.

For all our breast-beating about the falling sex ratio, there is less moral outrage about dead daughters than discotheque-going daughters.

Now, there is talk of updating our laws to check female foeticide. There are plans to monitor women’s wombs, keep tabs on each pregnancy. In effect, we’d like the female child to exist because we’re worried about a nation with not enough females in it, but we don’t particularly care about what the female child wants from her own life.

There is talk of amending anti-dowry laws, to prevent misuse. But there is no acknowledgment of the fact that any family willing to give dowry has no business crying about it later. There is not one politician in our country who is willing to run an anti-dowry campaign along the lines of: “Don’t stay with a husband who wants dowry. Get out. Don’t try to ‘save’ a marriage through money.”

In fact, some states encourage dowry indirectly, coming up with schemes that give money to girls when they attain marriageable age instead of giving it out in the form of scholarships or vocational training; chief ministers enabling ‘kanyadaan’ so that the community bears the cost of the wedding feast. There is no clear dismissal of unaffordable feasts.

The focus of most women-centric laws is prosecution: Who can you nail? The woman? Her husband? The doctor? The radiologist? But we refuse to grapple with the moral hypocrisy that makes such laws necessary.

We need to understand that we cannot protect baby girls in a culture where grown women are not protected. In an ecosystem where panchyats can declare that marriage is a good way of preventing rape, where people aren’t free to choose a mate, where there is no way of getting out of a motherhood that one may or may not have signed up for — can we expect gentle mothers?

And so, sad as I am about Ahuti, I am also sad for Dharmishtha. I cannot imagine what demons plague her mind, but I do know that marriage and motherhood are often just ways of gaining respectability, and buying peace, or freedom from assault. Which is a hard, cruel bargain.

First published here.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Try growing your LPG

A family outing was spoilt recently after we got into an argument about prices, economic policy and so on. It started with a comment made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to explain the new LPG and diesel prices. He reportedly said that upping prices wouldn’t hurt the poor directly, since LPG wasn’t meant to be the poor man’s fuel anyway.

Which brought me to that awkward question — what is the poor man’s fuel?

I agree that LPG and even kerosene should not be subsidised. Subsidizing non-renewable fuels is the worst long-term policy we could invest in. But these fuels are getting too expensive even for the middle class. So what should the nation cook with? Wood?

Even at the cost of my lungs, say I was willing to use a wood-fired stove. Would I then be allowed to cut trees? But in general, people are not allowed to cut trees without permission.

An argument was put forward — the poor should be planting more trees, and then cutting them down for the wood. But that brought me to another question — what have the non-poor done to deserve petrol or LPG?

If the poor grow their own firewood, they probably have a right to it. But how will affluent citizens ‘grow’ the gas they consume? And if they cannot replace LPG, then why do we expect that the poor will replace any trees they cut down?

One could argue that it is not the poor who ‘discover’ coal or gas. Somebody invests money in locating it. Somebody else extracts it, refines it, delivers it to the market. Those who can afford it, buy it. If most of us can’t afford to buy fuel in the market, how can it be helped?

But then, who is to say who had the right to the fuel in the first place? Say, person X wants to acquire fuel and market it. The fuel sits inside a piece of land owned by a village, ABC. Here, people have a bit to eat, and most people have work of some kind. The village does not want to sell to X. So X goes to the government to ask for help. The government has been elected by the majority of the people, mostly villagers like ABC. But instead of siding with ABC, as it ought, the government sides with X. It buys up land from ABC at low prices, claiming it is doing so for overall ‘development’, and gives it to X to exploit as he will.

The process might create some jobs. Say, A finds work, but B and C don’t. In fact, A’s job might place him in conflict with B or C. The soil or water or air may get polluted to the point of causing health damage.

X sells fuel to Y, who sells it further to Z, who sells it to all citizens, including ABC, who buy it if they can afford it. X makes a profit, Y makes a profit, Z makes a profit. As for ABC… well, too bad, eh?

Chances are that ABC can neither buy LPG nor do they have enough land or water for their work to translate into loose cash. If they migrate to cities, they may not have space to grow trees for firewood. And if they plant on public land, how do they prove that such and such tree is their own and they are entitled to cut it down?

So, although I understand the need to stop fuel subsidies, it would be really nice if the Prime Minister spent some time thinking about this – what, exactly, is the poor man’s fuel?

First published here.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Made of words

In the beginning, there was probably no word. More likely, it was a sound, or a tiny movement. Perhaps, it was no more than the invisible blink of a formless divine eyelash. Perhaps, it was a rogue electron. Or perhaps, the 'beginning' as we know it was the moment when we decided to be us - speaking animals with words as their primary currency.

Perhaps that is why we tip-toe around words. Because we trade through words before we give of our time and energy or possessions. We bind ourselves in word cages - legal agreements, contracts, the Constitution, the penal code. We conduct our rituals through words -- wedding vows, mantras, Quran readings, election manifestos and parliamentary speeches, obituaries. And of course, we educate and entertain ourselves with words - songs, fairytales, religious kathas, radio programs, and of course, books. Where we cannot easily depend on words, we turn to image -- election symbols, cave paintings, films.

So yes, we have reason to fear words. Words run us. And we can only make the world run the way we'd like it to, if we can control words. So we seek to contain the words that frighten us. We try to erase them from public view, and eventually, public memory. We hope they will die out, though we aren't yet sure what the world will be like without those words, without their meanings, without the people who utter them.

It is hard, of course, to control words. Harder than it is to control images. People talk all the time. They fight wars and give up their lives for the sake of the words they use, and the meaning those words lend to their lives. You can't shut up every whisper of the night. You can't fight lullabyes. You can't fight the language of dreams. You can't get rid of words that are written in sand or snow. The less tangible they are, the cleverer, the stronger. 

But you can fight words printed on paper, or spoken out loud on a stage. You can threaten to kill them because you can kill the people who speak them, write them. And so, you try.

In our own way, we are all part of this conspiracy to get rid of words. It's not just the right wing. It's every wing. We know of pseudo-religious militants who kill writers. We know of re-education programs in technically non-religious nations. We know of democracies who arrest people for writing a pamphlet. 

But we also know of ourselves, don't we? 

I will confess. I have thought to myself that some writers and speakers ought to be banned. Because I have thought of the consequences. I support controls on hate-speech after all. When a court summons a leader who is trying to cause rifts between communities, I am glad. I consider it a sign of sanity, of safety. When a leader is jailed for exhorting people to kill, I am relieved. 

Sometimes I begin to think, with what face do I say, 'Let's not ban books'? How can I say, 'Let us not discriminate between what is worthy of a ban and what isn't'? 

I worry about this question. Is it right to ask for uncompromised free speech? Where do we lay down the law? Free Speech can't be free if it is constrained by ideas of what is acceptable and what isn't. If, for instance, somebody believes in sex with minors, or minors born with mental difficulties, and writes a book extolling the idea, what are we to do?

If somebody writes a book putting forth the notion that parents should have a right to get rid of unwanted children at any point -- before or after birth -- what are we to do? If someone puts forward a proposition that anyone who eats the meat of fish should be quartered and drawn, what are we to do?

And if we are not to ban these ideas, what are we to do? How can we say that other people should not seek bans on ideas that we find harmless, or even necessary? 

I struggle with this question. Because hate speech worries me. Child pornography worries me. The extolling of plastic surgery as a lifestyle choice worries me. But if you are stupid enough to kill or maim yourself or someone else just because a book/advertisement/website is telling you to, who is to blame? The words, or you? And if it is you, what good will banning the book do? 

If you are a killer -- or even just a damager of property -- and the people who run the judicial systems in your country have not been able to deter you, what will be accomplished by banning the books that inspire you?

On the other hand, a child is made or unmade by the words s/he is exposed to. How do we hold a person responsible wholly for their crimes without also holding those responsible who formed their minds? 

Like I said, I struggle. But first of all, we must answer this question: Are we willing to let each person take the fall for his actions, or are we going to allow him to get away, using another man's (or woman's) words as his excuse. I suspect, when we have held each adult to account to his actions, we might fear his words a little less. 

Monday, October 01, 2012

Fish-eaters enclave

Blurbs that promise oddities – ‘a manipulative-philanthropist ghost of a chairman’s mother; a footless whore in Siberia…’ – make one nervous these days. An outlandish cast of characters and wild leaps of fancy are no longer novelties in modern fiction. But there is a risk that the fantastical elements plucked out for the back of the book might be the most interesting thing about it.

Happily, this is not true of Lopa Ghosh’s ‘Revolt of the Fish Eaters’. The nine stories in this collection are compelling and Ghosh does deliver on the promise of taking you into a zone of glass towers, elevators, and recession-struck businesses.

‘The Chairman’s Mother’ tells the fate of a high-flying, award-winning executive after his dead mother begins to haunt him. She distracts him from the pursuit of profit by talking incessantly of floods. ‘Siberia’ tells the heartache of a professionally content research analyst whose school sweetheart has gone off to work in Siberia, and their conversation is mainly online. ‘Red Shoe’ tells of the encounter between a gritty young woman who has worked hard to pull herself up the corporate ladder, and a red pair of sexy heels that can no longer be bought for love or money.

‘Corporate Affairs’ is the most corporate story in this collection. It tells of a senior executive, an American, who is handing over his own responsibilities and during the course of a farewell dinner, discovers the conspiracies that have been brewing behind his back.

‘Richest Man in the World’ is not strictly a tale of the corporate world. The main protagonist is a slum-dwelling school-girl who is receiving a computer education at a center run by an NGO, thanks to a very rich man, while her abandoned mother howls and shouts and turns to black magic.

‘Death by Pineapples’ is the only tale here that unapologetically dives into magic-realism, for it is set in a plains town that finds itself overnight transformed into a hill town. It tells the story of a talented executive who is thrown out of his job for no fault of his, but the reference to climate change is obvious.

‘The Lockout’ is this reviewer’s personal favourite. This is the only story that is not just set in the world of corporations and the conflicts presented to their employees, it most directly reaches for the gruesome edge of employer-employee relations. What makes it refreshing is that the story is told as witnessed by the very young daughter of a top manager dealing with irate workers during a factory lockout. The victim label is hard to attach and politics doesn’t tip the story off its centre.

The only story that is more politics than business is the one that lends its title to the collection. It is also the one that offers the least surprise, the least tension. It attempts to traverse so much terrain – art, class war, elections, media, love affairs – that the reader is left with only a hazy impression of its context and purpose.

Overall, these stories are memorable. Ghosh successfully imprints her protagonists with a human ache, so that their financial and social drive lies crumpled around their ankles. This, along with a lucid, insistent narrative style, makes the book a worthy inhabitant of your ‘new writing’ shelf.

Published here.
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