Friday, November 30, 2018

A traffic legend

Can’t say I wasn’t warned. Friends who’d been to Dhaka before told me not to make elaborate plans; the traffic wouldn’t allow me to get around much.

I thought, but traffic is pretty bad everywhere. Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru... How much worse could Dhaka’s traffic be? Well, let’s just say that it lived up to its reputation.

I was participating in the Dhaka Literature Festival and discovered that the tiniest commute required a few hours of traffic time. It took an hour to drive a stretch that one could walk in 20 minutes. When the car did move, it didn’t move smoothly. Other writers, especially those who were not used to the chaos of the Subcontinent, were made nervous by the jerky, forward-sideways style of progress. Coming from India, I knew there was little danger at those speeds.

However, speeds are not always so slow and there is always some danger. Dhaka discovered this in recent months, after an accident led to a major political confrontation. The city was brought to a standstill by teenagers, after two school students were killed through rash driving and several were injured.

Accidents are a major cause of death in South Asia. India reportedly witnesses 400 fatalities every day, and road accidents are one of the top 10 causes of death in the country. But in Dhaka, something else was brewing. Students weren’t just protesting the deaths of two kids. They were also reacting to everything else that’s wrong on the road. Nobody observes any rules; there’s no lane discipline. There aren’t enough state-owned buses. Private transporters, many of them politically connected, don’t train drivers properly. Most bus and car drivers are very poorly paid and have no job security. Many of them don’t even have licences.

Children were trying to shame the police into doing their job. They turned out in school uniforms and set up ‘check points’ where they checked licences, scolded traffic violators, demanded that the traffic cops take action. Soon, the movement got bigger. University students joined the protests and now the government became anxious. College students tend to be more politically aware.

Perhaps, the government was afraid that opposition parties would capitalise on the student agitation — and there is a lot to be agitated about — or perhaps the leadership just didn’t know what to do with their demonstration of anger. The outcome, anyway, was the police aggression. Some ‘clashes’ were reported, but some of the violence was allegedly caused by youths affiliated with the ruling party. Photos and videos of the attacks were a further embarrassment for the government.

Again, instead of engaging or promising appropriate action, the state tried to stifle all criticism. Photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested and charged with making ‘provocative comments’ after he shared a video on Facebook and talked to Al Jazeera about the reasons for the protests. He’s out on bail now, but the charges haven’t been withdrawn.

All that time I was stuck in that infamous traffic, I chafed. Why are we obsessed with motor transport in over-populated cities? Why don’t our governments move to fix problems before the tipping point arrives? Why don’t we incentivise cheap, eco-friendly modes of transport like bicycles? Someone cribbed about cycle rickshaws slowing down Dhaka’s traffic, but that isn’t true. The sensible thing would be to create dedicated cycle and cycle rickshaw lanes to streamline flow, and to make sure that students and the poor don’t get hurt.

All it would take is for the leadership to be open to dialogue, to not panic in the face of criticism, to not suspect people’s motives. They elected you, after all. Didn’t they?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hairy stuff

Some of the braids draw inspiration from nature: crabs, flowers, rain that comes cascading down over the ears. But many styles also document the way in which human effort in one field, like engineering, leads to inspiration in another, like fashion. Hair is fashioned into shapes inspired by suspension bridges and skyscrapers, which became common only after buildings started to get tall in the late 1960s. 

I was astounded, not just on account of the time and labour involved in creating such hairdos, but the fact that this was everyday fashion. Many young women wore fantastic styles on the street and to work, which is how the photographer spotted them. Other styles were created for special occasions like birthdays and wedding parties.

There is no denying, of course, that hair is linked to economic status and power. If you’re wearing an elaborate style, chances are, you had help with it, and if you maintain complex styles on a daily basis, chances are you need help very often. If you can’t pay a professional to do it, you most certainly have help within the family.

Still, it must have really mattered to each individual for a culture to invest so heavily in hair. I cannot think of a parallel in India. Even the wealthiest and most fashion conscious among us do not wear the nation’s architectural or engineering triumphs on our heads.

These paragraphs are extracted from a longer column I wrote about hair art and self-image for GQ India magazine. Link here (you may need a subscription):

All that art

I stopped to stare at another of Tiepolo's paintings, “The Finding of Moses”. The story is that Moses was a foundling. He was rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. The Pharoah’s daughter would have been a brown woman and if Moses was of the Hebrew people, it is likely that he was brown too. Tiepolo paints them as white. The other women too are generously bosomed white ladies. There are two slightly darker faces in the painting. One, a figure in red, hangs a little to the back, holding a spear and is possibly a guard. Another is a dwarf with moustaches, possibly also a servant or guard. 

Things change over time. As geopolitics shifts, art and representation changes. There is another painting called “The Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema”, dated 1904. Here, many of the people in the painting are brown and black haired. Does it matter?

The question has found fresh currency with the release of Beyonce and Jay Z’s new release, “Apes**t”.

This is an extract from a longer column published in GQ magazine. Link here (behind a paywall):

The evolution of a man

I attended a girls' college where most of my batchmates were bouncing between three or four options – MBA degree, teaching with a B.Ed degree, hotel management, and air hostessing. Anyone who dreamt of travelling the world and living independently wanted to be an air hostess. None of us dared dream of becoming commercial pilots. A couple of girls wanted to be in the armed forces, but they assumed they would have to quit after five or ten years.

The funny thing was, even as we thought of getting jobs in multinational firms or in hospitality, we tended to focus on “decent” jobs rather than occupying positions of power, or demonstrating leadership. None of my friends ever said that they wanted to take over their family businesses or become CEOs. None of them said they wanted to own an airline or a chain of hotels. None of them said they wanted to be Vice-Chancellors of universities. Our dreams were smaller and always, at the back of our heads, was the thought that we would probably have to get home from office before our future husbands did.

Life, however, has a way of upchucking all assumptions about the self and the world. A year later, I was a journalist, pulling long hours, going everywhere alone, often at night, and being surprised and shocked at how systems, cities, countries worked. I couldn't possibly have returned home to cook for a man who worked ten-to-six, and I didn't want to. Yet, I do recall saying to my boss, a male editor, that it was a woman who was responsible for bringing up children. He mildly argued that a father was equally responsible but, clueless fool that I was, I insisted that mothering was central to parenting.

Now I blush to think of how deeply entrenched the bias was inside my own head, and in families as liberal as my own. In the years since, a lot of things have changed.

This is extracted from a longer column I wrote about how gender roles have evolved over the last two decades. Link here (behind a paywall)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Not letting it slide

At a literary conversation (about a year ago?), the audience expressed fear and helplessness about violence, rifts in the citizenry, prejudice. I remember saying, there are ways to counter it. I don't know yet but we've got to think about ways so we all feel less helpless.

I thought about it and wanted to post this on Gandhi Jayanti. Belatedly, here are some suggestions for those who wish to do something.

Food and diet habits are at the crux of a growing attempt to control and limit freedoms. Women's bodies and 'purity' of clan is another major zone of control. Both of these are linked to perpetuation of caste, class, and deepening prejudices.

One simple thing middle class people can do is say 'no' to school restrictions. Write to schools and tell them that you reject restrictions on eggs and meat in tiffins as well as canteens. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that they teach freedom and choice; they do not have to impose the dietary preferences of one group over the rest. Students have to learn to deal with differences. Parents have to learn too.

Write letters of protest. If you have the option, withdraw your children from schools that do not respect your own choices or your child's right to experiment with theirs. Insist on sending whatever you want in tiffin boxes. Teach your kids how to talk about food diversity.

Suggest to your employers, if they maintain “pure” vegetarian canteens, that they should consider allowing separate counters for eggs and meat. Nobody HAS to eat meat, but is discriminatory to assume that all employees will be vegetarian, all the time.

Campaign for literature produced by marginalised groups to be included on syllabi, starting at the primary school level, all the way up to University. Are children reading Ambedkar and Maulana Azad alongside Gandhi? Are they reading Urmila Pawar alongside Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare alongside Mohan Rakesh? Is the fiction list inclusive of translations from various languages and regions?

Check out the school and college libraries and ask if the admin will not acquire or encourage more diverse readings. Send letters of disapproval and approval. If schools can't handle the extra work, then offer to organise readings in extra-curricular time.

Organise events in each others' homes, and invite your children and their friends. Talk about the difficult stuff.

Make days like Gandhi Jayanti, Children's Day and Ambedkar Jayanti really count. For far too long, we've reduced Gandhi to his half dhoti and his spectacles. Kids are dressed up in his image, ironically enough, by spending more money. If anything, Gandhi was against wasteful expense!

I didn't have 'My Experiments with Truth' as school reading. The book wasn't in the library. Someone – a retired Brigadier Sahukar – once gave me and my brother money as a gift, asking our mother to buy books. She bought us 'My Experiments with Truth' and Nehru's 'A History of India'. We hadn't even heard of Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, not even through college, although I did study Sociology as a subject. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody recommended it.

We don't need token school holidays. Prepping for such days means prepping for life in India. Dressing up in wire framed glasses and dhotis is okay for six year olds. It isn't enough for 10 year olds or 16 year olds, who are on the cusp of voting.

Start campaigns to get discussion groups going and workshops that encourage critical thought in government and municipal schools. Gandhi, whatever his faults, examined ideas and changed his mind when he was persuaded. It's the least we can do to honour him. The same applies to other leaders and thinkers we have been honouring only through lamp-lighting and garlanding of photos.

Parents need to use platforms such as parent-teacher meetings to talk about bias and prejudice. Start the conversation. Don't be shy to ask the school what they do to ACTIVELY foster diversity and understanding of different cultures. Ask how many kids from different backgrounds – economic, religions, castes – are admitted. Point out the dangers of insulation. Don't be afraid that your kids will be asked to leave. If they are, you are really just saving your kids.

At job interviews, ask prospective employers if they are investing in diversity and multi-culturalism. Ask, why not?

Build pressure to de-segregate apartment complexes and neighbourhoods. Talk at RWA and Cooperative housing society meetings. Write letters. Write anonymously if you are afraid that you will lose your own housing.

Ask if there's a policy of not accepting tenants or buyers from various communities and ethnicities, or if there's a policy against single people.

Also, ask whether this separation of elevators for 'staff' or 'service people' is not akin to racism and very, very close to untouchability, which is against the law. If you are already aware that there is such segregation, then say that this makes you uncomfortable. Say that you don't buy their arguments about 'hygiene'. Instead of calling out random strangers or celebrities on twitter, call out the uncle-ji and bhabhi-ji upstairs.

Call out brokers too, and builders.

Resenting loss of freedom and tolerance is pointless. Send out positive messages, and do so publicly. If you are looking for tenants, or putting out ads on property sites, say specifically that you will not discriminate.

Actively support single men and women. If you have problems with their choices, focus on spelling out those problems, rather than shifting blame onto their personhood. Say you don't want noise. Say you don't want to hear from the cops. Don't say “no visitors or parties”.

If neighbours or your own landlords complain about parties, learn to keep your chin up and say: Then don't celebrate kiddie parties or religious festivals because those events also involve visitors and noise, and you are not obligated to trust that the neighbour's brother-in-law as a decent or trustworthy person.

Build consent as an active rather than passive practice. Teach girls emotional and financial responsibility as much as you teach them to be safe. And teach boys the same.

Campaign for social conflict becoming a module at the high school level. Pretending that conflict doesn't exist, only fuels more conflict.

Build a debate about social and economic development, what existing systems are costing us, and what alternative models look like. Make that conversation mainstream. Talk about how much things cost in the short and the long term. Put this information out everywhere. Not just on social media. Put it where the schools are, where the PTA is, offices, wherever you can.

Start campaigns against parental interference in registered marriages. People who choose not to marry in traditional ceremonies should be able to walk into a registrar's office and, without any notice period or any fuss, be able to do it instantly. Build pressure for the law to be changed accordingly.

Stop interfering with your own kids' romantic aspirations once they attain legal age.

Start campaigns to equalise marriage age. There is no logic to the minimum age of marriage being 21 for boys and 18 for girls. The implication is that boys need to study or work a bit more before they can support a wife. This is discriminatory and embeds notions of inequality in marriage. Both need to be 18 or both need to be 21.

Please feel free to add to this list.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Movies: a lost mania?

India went to the movies though, despite the rats, the torn seats and the hazards. We went because it was a now-or-never situation. If you didn’t watch the film in the hall, you’d likely never watch it. Television networks rarely bought films for broadcast. Besides, most people didn’t have television.

In the new millennium, things changed. Thousand seaters were knocked down and small multiplexes were built. TV networks began to show a lot of mainstream films, sooner and sooner after a theatrical release. Then came the Internet – YouTube, illegal torrent downloads, Netflix – and things have come to such a pass, movie-goers shrug off a new film thinking: Well, it will be out somewhere, sometime.

So, what does it mean, going to the movies? Timepass on the weekend? Overpriced popcorn? What does it mean to really want a film?

For film-goers like me, the magic of the movies unfolds just one week of the year. We attend a festival like MAMI in Mumbai and we transform into the desperate, passive-aggressive, sneaky audience of filmmakers’ dreams.

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