Monday, May 27, 2013

On mirrors and foggy lenses

For the first time in years, I found my toes literally curling in fear during a film. My stomach was in knots and my knees were drawn up to my chest. The film was 'The Whistleblower', set in post-war Bosnia and based on true events. One scene was especially difficult to watch. A young woman was raped in front of many others – to teach her a lesson for trying to escape and as a warning to the rest. Yet, there was no lust involved. The film makes it quite clear that this brutality is essentially about money and power. Half-way through the film, I began to wonder if the director was a woman.

What was happening to those girls was torture and it communicated itself as torture. The camera focussed a lot on the girls' faces but it did not shy away from the violence done to them. I went online later to confirm my suspicion. Indeed, the director turned out to be a woman, Larysa Kondracki, who wrote the script along with Eilis Kirwan.

How and why did I start thinking about the gender of the director? 

Read the rest of this essay on how sexual violence and gender stereotypes play out in cinema, and the question of how women filmmakers in India hope to hold up a mirror to society if their work carefully avoids the rampant sexual violence in our society. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

More (or less) racist

I was traveling a few years ago, reading a book. The family seated opposite me began to eat. They offered to share their food with me, and I declined. But the young wife was rather insistent. 

After I’d said ‘no’ twice, she said: “It’s okay. We’re not from a low caste. We’re upper caste.”

I suddenly felt weary. This was a literate woman, trying to be friendly with a stranger on a train. Why did she think I was more worried about caste than being drugged and robbed? What made her assume I was ‘upper’ caste and therefore she could, and should, let me touch her food? And if she thought I was the sort of person who wouldn’t eat her food because of my caste, why did she want to talk to me at all?

I am thinking of her now because of the Washington Post survey that claims India is among the most racist nations in the world. And now begin the disclaimers – people are stepping up to assure us (or themselves) that while we are indeed bigoted and casteist, we are not more ‘racist’. Which, of course, bring us to – what’s the difference?

Traditionally, the western view has been that racism is about discrimination based on racial (genetic, physiological) differences. The colour of your skin or eyes, the texture of your hair, the shape of your nose – this betrays your genetic history. There are far too many people in the world who believe their noses make them worthier and that your nose and hair must condemn you to an eternity of less – less food, less water, less comfort, less education, less property, less cultural space. They also believe that people who carry different genetic histories should not marry.

Sounds a lot like casteism, no? 

In fact, caste is covered by the UN’s Race Convention, although it’s not much discussed. Besides, a quick dip into India’s ancient history will tell you that the roots of casteism are racist. The Aryans and Dravidians were from different races, with different cultures and social norms. One dominated and began to crush the other. Over centuries, there were a lot of conversions across caste and religion, a lot of up- or downwardly mobile marriages, a lot of migration, and breaks away from caste-dominated religious practices. That complicated things. Which is why Indians are no longer able to judge caste just by looking at your face. Which is why that woman on the train felt the need to clarify that she was not from a lower caste.

I suspect we want to believe that casteism is somehow softer, less dangerous than racism. But there’s no difference between killing a black man who flirts with a white girl, and killing a lower caste boy who wants to marry your daughter. One look at Indian matrimonial websites should tell us how racist we are.

Are we ‘the most’ racist? Well, I don’t want to believe it but I will say that India is far too tolerant of every intolerance, including racism. Sample’s decision to give a prize to a woman who tweeted that she did not want ‘black’ kids. Other friends have been regaling me with descriptions of ‘melas’ where casteism is borne aloft like a pennant. There is not even a token attempt to pressure the company into taking a stand on the caste issue.

If a website in the USA actively encouraged people to marry within ethnic groups, and allowed a platform for race-insensitive remarks, there might have been some outrage. In India, there’s mainly relief that such platforms exist. And I think that does make us more racist.

First published here

Monday, May 20, 2013

questions of what to drink and how

The question of water

The official cause of death was 'cardiac arrest', brought on by exhaustion and dehydration. Parvati Jadhav was tired, stressed and needed to drink more water. A year ago, Jadhav died in a hilly village called Dolara, district Thane. According to news reports, people counted on a government-supplied water tanker. 1,400 people needed 20 litres of water per day, or 28,000 litres. The government sent 8,000 litres once in four days. That's 1.5 litres per head.

Can you imagine surviving on 1.5 litres of water? Dehydration is a given. Disease is expected. Conflict is inevitable. In Jadhav's case, she got nothing from the tanker, had to trek a few kilometres further to a well, where a fight broke out and probably brought on her cardiac arrest.

In Dolara, the only water source was the well and reports suggest the water was not really potable. Since 2012, there have been reports of water being sold in tribal villages for Rs 15 a bottle. Now Maharashtra is supposed to be reeling under a drought. In Thane district alone, the state acknowledges a water crisis in 388 villages. But the action plan reportedly involves sending tankers to 100 villages. There is no clarity on how much water will be sent – 1.5 litres per person? – or what happens to the other 288 villages.

Meanwhile, Thane's 'guardian' minister Ganesh Naik has been quoted as saying that there is no water crisis. There are also reports of a fresh influx of migrants in the district's urban areas because people are fleeing water-scarce villages. Mumbai is also perpetually reeling from a crisis of overcrowding.

I think now would be a good time to start asking a lot of questions. Thane district has two rivers, Ulhas and Vaitarna, which flows across Shahpur and Vada, which are water-scarce areas. How does a place become so water-scarce if a major river flows past? There are at least seven dams in the district and some articifical lakes created to supply drinking water. Yet Parvati Jadhav had to die, fighting for water. So, who exactly is the water being supplied to?

Recently, there was a joke on a radio station – something about a child misunderstanding the 'save water' campaign and wanting to mix the sev (from sev-puri) with buckets of water. It's intended as a pun. Which is alright, I suppose. The man's voice laughs, then mentions kids playing around a water fountain. In a newly constructed housing complex. Essentially, it's advertising. Which is also alright. Who wouldn't want to live in a complex with lots of space and lots of water?

But the ad made me think of our blinkered relationship with water. Even in areas much closer to Mumbai, like Diva, there is a crisis. Reports say that Diva residents spend several hours a day commuting to Mumbra just to fill water. And yet, homes are built (often illegally) and bought in Diva. The assumption is that the administration will eventually start to supply enough water.

Nobody really cares where the administration will get so much water. Some lake or dam, right? But diverting water from rivers means that people who used to depend on the river will now be left, quite literally, high and dry. People like Parvati Jadhav.

Mumbai and Thane and dozens of other cities in the state are seeing new suburbs come up. I wonder how many of them have considered making water harvesting compulsory. Do city administrations have a plan for water that does not involve snatching water from the villages? I think now would be a good time to ask these questions.

First published here

Monday, May 13, 2013

The naked and the humiliated

This week, a childhood memory comes to mind. As high school students, we were sometimes asked to help 'mind' small students. These were toddlers, barely three years old, and already frightened at being put in strange new uniforms, forced to sit still on benches with dozens of other kids in the room, crying and screaming. 'Discipline' was definitely in short supply.

One of the kindergarteners was being difficult. A young (female) teacher was kneeling in front of her, asking the child to do something, or else... The teacher was saying: “Do you want to be punished? I'll take off all your clothes and parade you naked around the school.”

I was watching the child's face. She was too little to understand why taking off one's clothes should be a punishment. After all, she still needed help washing her bottom. But she did understand that she was being humiliated and threatened. As the teacher began to unbutton the loose tunic that hung down to her ankles, the child broke into a howl.

It still saddens me when I think of that kid. I was tweeting about violence against children a few weeks ago when somebody wrote back to describe the time she was punished in class – made to stand up on a bench, arms raised, a teacher threatening to strip her. Clearly, the humiliation has not been forgotten, all these years later. I wonder how many millions of people in India have been brought up to associate nudity with public humiliation, or as a negative condition that is worthy of punishment.

And now there's this little to-do about Congress-affiliated student leader Suraj Thakur being suspended for taking off his clothes and dancing. He and two other NSUI office-bearers have been accused of 'indiscipline' and of course, it is the party's prerogative to decide what it sees as disciplined behaviour. Still, it is so saddening to think that leaders who fail to keep electoral promises are not punished for 'indiscipline'. Leaders who are corrupt, who live beyond their official income, who spend hundreds of crores on weddings while their constituencies reel under drought, who misuse the state's armed machinery against farmers demanding water or land or seed soverignty, against women demanding their right to be acknowledged as human beings – none of these politicians have been suspended.

All it took was for a young man to take off his clothes and look like he's having fun. If they had accused him of ragging, the suspension would have made sense. That would have been tantamount to breaking the law. But this whole furore seems to be centred on the fact that he took off his clothes!

It's such an ordinary, innocuous thing. Taking off your clothes does no damage to other humans. Even if you take off your clothes and dance like you've been electrocuted, you still damage no human being. You come off looking silly. Some colleagues might never be able to keep a straight face when, in the future, you stand up in Parliament to debate an important Bill. But there is nothing criminal, nor even indisciplined, about being naked.

This is the trouble with an attitude of shame vis a vis the human body. We refuse to look at it for what it is – a body. This is precisely what is wrong with our nation's attitude to women. We punish women for having women's bodies. We humiliate and terrorize children. And we squash all attempts by men, especially politicians, to actually enjoy their bodies. And what does this accomplish?  What, except keeping us fearful and eternally humiliated? 

First published here

Monday, May 06, 2013

What's wrong with us

Heard about the father who killed his daughter in Murshidabad district? She was ten years old and, according to reports, she was resisting her father's decision to sell her off. This isn't the norm, I know. But some fathers (mothers too) sell children (boys too) or even kill them. Some just give in to a violent impulse. And even if such incidents are not the norm, they happen often enough to make us wonder about India – 'What is wrong with us?' is a question one often hears these days.

In an online chat about helping prevent sexual crimes against children, Anuja Gupta of RAHI, who works with people who have survived incest and child abuse, pointed out that the solution lies in the problem itself. “Abuse thrives in silence, secrecy, ignorance, denial, shame and stigma. In order to stop sexual abuse, you have to remove these conditions... Learn to listen to and respect children.”

It may seem like an ordinary thing to ask – respect children. But one of problems of mainstream cultures in India is that we don't respect children (or women). We idolize them. We fetishize them. But essentially, we think of children as property. We worry about them but we rarely take responsibility for our own behaviour towards them.

In the current psychological atmosphere of fear, we are starting to talk about what to do to save kids from violence. Now might be a good time to remind ourselves of children for whom we are actually responsible collectively, as a society.

There were 48, 338 child rape cases recorded between 2001 and 2011. A significant percentage of these happened in 'observation' homes, special homes, or children’s homes registered under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. A recent study by the Asian Centre for Human Rights highlighted 39 cases of child rape. 11 of them were reported from government-run institutions, 27 from private and NGO-run homes.

There are 733 juvenile justice homes that receive grants from the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD). Thousands of others exist without registration. The report said that the Ministry did raise the issue of non-registration with many states last year. But there is no punitive provision for non-registration of institutions.

Some of these kids are orphans. Many are girls. Some are disabled, perhaps abandoned. Some have been trafficked. Some may have been caught stealing or begging. We're shocked at children being raped inside their own homes but forget about the thousands tortured and raped because we – as a society – put them into 'homes'. We're relieved they're out of sight but unwilling to consider that they're being treated like adult criminals even when they've not done anything to deserve it.

Technically, there are 462 Child Welfare Committees across 23 states but there is very little actual inspection of children's institutions. In fact, some states discourage surprise visits. In 2010, Karnataka appointed a new committee with a warning: “members cannot visit child care institutions (...) without prior permission of the heads of these institutions”. This is the Karnataka where 1,089 children (younger than 14 years) went missing from 34 children’s homes between 2005 and 2011.

We – as a society – are more likely to gather for a satsang or majlis or cricket match than volunteer time to conduct inspections of 'homes' and schools. We are more likely to raise funds for a festival than to adopt. Or donate towards community-run education and counselling programs. And I think now is a good time to think about why we do this. It is part of the answer to 'What is wrong with us?'.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Chicken Claws at Midnight

A poem was published recently in the Prarie Schooner, as part of a special 'feast' themed issue. This one is called 'Chicken Claws at Midnight' (upon which I was not feasting; stray dogs were).
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