Saturday, 21 December 2013

I Said Something That Wasn't...: On Identity

The title of the film The Invention of Lying is a spoiler in itself, in that the film is about the way in which lying was invented, and the world before and after that act. The film is funny in parts, though one could quibble that not lying and stating at every moment exactly that which is on your mind, are two different things, a distinction that is not made in the film. Here is the trailer of the film.
It is a sophisticated conceit, this world where no one lies. The film does not go the somewhat predictable way and show a dreary world where there is no fiction, no cinema, no advertising. Instead, all the modern familiars are there, but oddly inverted because the 'lying' that sustains them is missing. Thus, there are 'truthful' ads and there is cinema, but only in the form of documentaries and historicals. While the film does not explore it, I can't help thinking: what kind of history it would be, without its debates and its interpretations? The same event was called 'the Mutiny' by the British and the 'First War of Independence' by the Indian freedom fighters - which history would be more 'truthful'? Once you start thinking about it, it becomes clear that the divide between 'fiction' and 'news, reportage, history, politics, religion, culture' becomes unsustainable.
The film does not take this possibility on. Instead, it focuses on specific moments in this truthful world: In such a world, how do doctors interact with patients? What do people tell each other about where they go once they die? However, in this blog post I want to focus on one particular moment. Ricky Gervais' character has just spoken the first lie in the world, and he then attempts to explain to his friend what he has done. He tells him "I just said something that wasn't." And the friend says "Wasn't what?", to which he replies "Just wasn't". This is very clever writing, as naturally you cannot have a word for truth until and unless you have a word for lying, and vice versa.
This brings me to Saussure and the question of identity (and you thought this blog post was only about the movie!) In a previous post, I had summarised Saussure's breakdown of words and concepts into signifiers and signified, which make possible the argument that concepts are constructions rather than essentials. Saussure also argued that each letter (and word-concept) derives its meaning from its position in a particular sequence. What is B? It is the letter that comes after A and before C. Meaning depends on context and contingency rather than on any essential characteristic within itself. What is an apartment? It is a type of house that is not a bungalow, not a palace and not a hut. Within the context 'type of dwelling', it occupies a place that is relational (in relation to other types of houses, an apartment is one) and negative (it is not all these things, therefore it is this). Having grown up in India, the image that comes to my mind when I use the word 'apartment' (and I am more likely to use the word 'flat' rather than 'apartment') is different, presumably, from someone who has grown up in Paris or New York. When we accept that identity is relational and negative, then the characteristics with which we imbue identities are webs of our own spinning. When I assume that a ramshackle apartment in Paris is more 'romantic' than a ramshackle apartment in Mumbai, this idea is sustained by the discursive intertwining of the ideas of romance and Paris, which includes elements of Orientalism. After Wake Up Sid, though, Mumbai's romantic quotient should never be in doubt!
Amol Gaitonde, View from Mumbai Marol Hillview Apt.1, 2003, image courtesy wikipedia commons,
The idea of identity as relational and negative frees up the notion of identity and releases it from its thrall to essential characteristics. In the absence of a relational notion of identity, an Indian is someone who loves cricket, Bollywood, is fanatic about caste and religion, works in a call centre, is argumentative, is intelligent, is not intelligent, knows English, does not know English, is underdeveloped because does not question social norms, is creative precisely because of ability to re-work social norms and so on. This list is filled with both positive and negative characteristics, can be populated indefinitely and volumes written on each characteristic. For example, I would love to write one on the 'unargumentative' Indian, as the idea of making an argument about 'unargumentative-ness' is whimsically appealing. All this activity, this definition of characteristics makes us feel comfortable, as there are bounds to be grains and pearls of truth in all this wisdom, all this information. The relational notion of identity frees us from all this noise, as it were. In this understanding of the world, to be Indian is simply to be not American, not British, not Australian, not Russian and so on. Saussure used the example of the Geneva-to-Paris train to make this point, wherein the train that goes at 8:25 is distinguished in terms of its position in a system where it is distinguished from the 8:20 and the 8:40 trains, rather than understood in terms of its engine or its number of carriages. Relationality allows us to understand identities in relation to each other, enabling us to see descriptions of identities as the fabrications they are.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The first of fifty two weeks

Shabdita turned a year old this month. As I look back on the incredible year that this has been, I can divide it into two big learning curves: the first week and the first year, i.e. the other fifty one weeks. This blog post is the story of that first week.

I don't know about others, but when I was pregnant, even then, it never seemed real, that I would be a parent at the end of that process. I did feel certain physical sensations once in a while, but was mostly all right. I was intent on my work, and interestingly, was procrastinating far less than usual, driven by a need to "do" as much as possible before the baby was born. I was categorically not feeling attracted to pictures of babies, sweet things, sour things, buying things for baby and so on. A colleague of mine would often asked me if I had started shopping for the baby and I started saying 'yes' towards the end only because I did not want to disappoint her. Incidentally, I bought most of Shabdita's things after she was born. I realised that a lot of the ideas surrounding pregnancy (that you will feel x or y or z) are narratives, and one can play into it as much, or as little, as one wants. In retrospect, I should have taken to my bed more often! But otherwise, no matter how little or how much one prepares, the idea of a child is totally different from actually having a living, breathing physical baby in your hands. It 'gets real' in an instant.

It is difficult to capture the first couple of days in words. For one, the emotions that one feels are all jumbled up. You would think that one would be either happy or unhappy. How about both at the same time? How about beyond both, feeling shock, awe, fear, tenderness, guilt (including for all the things you didn't buy!), impatience, patience, love, protection, wonder, worry, exhaustion, exhilaration, an aderanalin rush like no other that will just not let you rest, suspicion, self doubt, competence and a million other emotions that you cannot even comprehend, let alone name. The boundaries of what I thought of as 'my self' had changed and that self would not be the same again.

I am adding to the myth-making, am I not? I struggle with explaining this without it coming across as myth making. I am not a big fan of myths, so let me revisit that last line. 'My self will not be the same again' is not the same as saying 'oh this is wonderful and grand and everyone should do it'. I have lived through one particular experience and I cannot 'un-live' it, no matter what else happens, unless I get conveniently hit on a head with a log and lose my memory, a la Bollywood films. In that sense, I am setting up becoming a parent as an experience that is precious to me, that I choose as meaningful to my life. It need not be so in every case.

To return to the story, all of that was what I was feeling inside. What was happening outside? For one, the nice hospital were Shabdita was born did not allow overnight stay by any one, including the father. Like most babies, Shabdita slept happily through the day and was up all night. It was like being thrown into the deep end of the ocean. Moreover, the hospital was trying to put us on a schedule. Every four hours, I was supposed to feed her, change her, cuddle her, then put her to sleep, express breast milk for the next feed, eat something and go to sleep, that is, get my rest. Alongside this midwives or doctors would come in regularly to check my blood pressure, to see if I required pain medication, to see if I was suffering any after effects of the epidural and so on. As Shabdita was a low birth weight baby, some days they wanted to change the four hour routine to three hours, so that she would get fed eight times a day instead of six. Why am I sharing this in such detail? To highlight its absurdity, I suppose. The first few days, getting her to breastfeed took so much time that it was time for the next feed before I had finished this one. My eating and sleeping were haphazard, but I was carried on by exhilaration and hardly noticed. I was also very tense and high strung because I felt that I knew nothing, was entirely unprepared and was being judged by the midwives. I shed bitter tears the first few days as I regretted not 'reading up' more, not knowing more, unable to accept that nothing would quite have prepared me for that first one week.

Most of the midwives at the hospital were wonderful - supportive, patient and cheering me on. A few were not. There were subtle elements of racism, not direct or deliberate. It manifested itself in underlying assumptions that my choices would be less informed, my practices suspect. My being ill-informed was not just a trait of my personality but an aspect of my nationality. For instance, the importance of keeping the baby in the cot was over emphasised to me because Indians tend to let their babies sleep in bed with them. A white person doing the same thing would be following attachment parenting and 'co-sleeping' whereas the same decision by me would be an unthought acceptance of my native customs.

Once, around midnight, I called Vipul, crying. The midwife on duty that night had told me "If you cannot manage after four days, what will you do when you take her home?" Most of the midwives were overworked, so I cannot blame them for being tired or crotchety. But at that moment I was devastated. If was as if this woman knew the truth, that I wasn't fit to be a mother. I hung up the phone and kept crying. After some time, I heard a whispered 'hi'. It wasn't Shabdita or the woman next door. It was Vipul. He had driven to the hospital and convinced (charmed in his own words!) the other midwife on duty outside to let him see me just once. As I said, most of them were nice. He could not stay long, but his coming made all the difference.

Why am I sharing all these memories here on this post today? Partly because, as I said in an earlier post, we need to voice some of the silences around motherhood. I also want the personal story to make a political point. That moment, which represents the lowest moment of that week to my mind, came about because of a certain institutional environment and certain circumstances. For me, it was that place, that woman, that moment. For someone else, it would be something else. Women give birth under a variety of circumstances. Some get respect, some don't. Some have family around, some don't. Some do it in their own countries, following customs and practices that they may not want to. Some do it as immigrants, ill at ease or happily welcoming new ways of doing things. Some do it naturally, some use pain relief and some have caesareans. Some are deliriously happy afterwards, some are calm, some are still in shock and some are unable to cope. For each and every first time mother, the learning curve is steep. Some situations are perceived to be 'easier' than others, and there is no doubt that giving birth to a child in a hospital with pain relief options is not as difficult as doing it where doctors are scarce. Each story, however, charts one growth on that learning curve, each story deserves to be voiced, shared and heard.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Unpacking My Library

I have started a new project. I am going to read the books I own. Yes, I am admitting to the almost blasphemous: I have not read all my books. I have flagrantly put on display knowledge that I actually do not yet possess. In my defence, buying a book is my tribute to the idea of a future. I have bought it today, and someday I shall read it. For the present, there are always books borrowed from the library.
This resolution came about when a visitor looked at my gleaming bookshelves admiringly. "So you have read all of these books?" he asked. The guilt that I am ready to feel at just about anything immediately floated to the front of my consciousness. "Erm... Most of them" I said. A knowing grin came to his face, and this of course compelled me to keep explaining "The ones that I have read were things I was either studying, teaching or researching. And I have read almost all the detective fiction and fantasy that I own.... and a few random ones here and there". I gave up the attempt, and I am sure that he now thinks that I never read. Sigh. It is true. My likelihood of reading a book increases drastically when I have borrowed it from the library rather than purchased it.
I know some of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. Brought up in a middle-class household, book-buying was reserved for the 'best books', the ones that one 'should' have read. And the frivolous stuff was meant to be issued from the library. I have read all of Agatha Christie's books, but never bought one through my childhood. Similarly for P. G. Wodehouse and a myriad of detective and fantasy fiction. As I began to earn my own money, I always bought books that I felt that I should read, mostly literary masterpieces or theory. I have nothing against them and have come to enjoy reading philosophy and history more than most other things I read, but it has created a large bank of 'someday' books that I bought willingly, almost dutifully, but resisted picking up as I was unconsciously prejudiced against them.
My book buying really took off after I came to Australia. For one, books are more easily available here than in India, and the second hand stores are endless sources of treasures. The joyless Puritan in me still bought two kinds of books: 'those that I will to keep forever' and 'those that I will read and then donate'. The latter were, of course, variations on the library theme, but mercifully without a deadline. So I kept reading and recycling books like the Game of Thrones series. Once in a while, I liked an author so much that I decided to keep the book (Raymond Chandler, I will never say farewell to the lovely you!) I also kept adding to my collection of someday books.
Not any longer. I have already started reading some of my own books and find them fascinating, and wonder at myself for holding on to my fear of uncharted waters for so long. I have come to terms with what I like, while also accepting that I may like something else, but will never know that until I try it. I think I am in for an exciting time. The title of this post is a homage to/plagiarism of an essay by Walter Benjamin from Illuminations, available on this link as pdf. The essay is a delightful read. Naturally, I especially enjoyed the idea that the non-reading of books is the characteristic of all true collectors. Of late, I have been reading quite a few books, blogs and articles around simplifying one's life. Most of them have resonated with me. At the same time, as Benjamin says "Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects". How does one reconcile the wish for simplicity with a love for objects, books in his case? For me right now, the answer is to keep what I love and consciously choose to keep. I am unpacking my library in two ways: by reading it and then by giving away that which I do not love or do not choose to keep. Knowing myself, this is most probably not going to result in a substantial reduction. But then that is not my aim anyway. What I wish to do is far more ambitious: to know myself by getting to know my library.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Supermarketisation of Activism

Sometime around a couple of months ago, as we sat down to dinner and television, we saw on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that the US Supreme Court had struck down an important section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a part of Civil rights legislation. According to the previous legislation, certain states with a history of racial discrimination could not amend any electoral laws without getting prior permission, or pre clearance, from the Supreme Court. Now, those states can amend electoral laws to make it more difficult for the poorest people to vote, leaving them disenfrachised. For example, people without specific kinds of identity cards would be people without identities as far as voting is concerned. I am not making up this example. American politicians regularly carry out all sorts of gerrymandering in order to be elected, and the nation's democracy gives the word a bad name. Not that it stops them from using it for other countries as a litmus test, one that they are mostly doomed to fail.

Anyway, that night I thought to myself "they'll pass some sort of gay rights bill soon". The very next day, the American Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus rejecting as unconstitutional the act which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. It is an important moment in gay rights activism, one well worth celebrating. Why had I been so sure, though, that it would come? Perhaps because it allows the 'you win some, you lose some' narrative of modern activism to be perpetuated.

This is not to imply that there is a conscious deep dark conspiracy wherein 'they', i.e.the sources of institutional power, deliberately take away something one day and give something the next day, thereby keeping protestors in check and appeasing the more conservative elements of society. What I am trying to point out is more insidious. It is the 'supermarketisation' of our activism, wherein we can choose between different causes, and embrace certain oppressions in the name of emancipation in other areas. In this scenario, one step forward and one step backward seems to make perfect sense, even if all it does is keep you in the same place that you started from.

The fragmentation of activism makes it difficult to conceptualise and challenge systemic formulations of any kind. Things are always tackled piecemeal, and it is hoped that these different and independent improvements will aggregate into a better world. At the same time, there is a tacit understanding that some battles will be lost, which effectively nullifies the aggregative utopia even before it comes into being. It is time to claim another way of being radical, it is time to be radical by radically re-ordering the world.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The ABCs of Our Home

Shabdita is learning the ABCs of this household. A for Apple computers, B for Bollywood and C for Cricket. We are open to suggestions for other letters of the alphabet. Yes, K would definitely be for Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, but, as it has to be meaningful for both of us, may end up being for Khanwalkar.
In a bid to make Shabdita a true blue Bollywood baby, we decided that we would each pick one dialogue that we would repeat to her endlessly, and hopefully make it her first line. I decided to go with the iconic and the appropriate "Mere paas maa hai". After all, even A.R. Rahman felt compelled to refer to it, irrelevantly but endearingly, in his Oscar acceptance speech. I was pretty happy with my choice, and even felt bad for Vipul. After all, the most iconic line for a father is "Mera baap chor hai". Until I heard his pick. Now, morning and evening, Vipul tells Shabdita "Ek chutki sindur ki keemat tum kya jaano Ramesh Babu". Its beyond iconic, definitely epic, and I'm jealous about how uncool my choice now seems to be.
Shabdita however seems to have a favourite line of her own, that she lives up to through her actions rather than words. Her line is "Aankhen nikal ke gotiya khelta hoon". After all, my spectacles come off, so why would not my eyes? Everyday she goes after them with a vengeance, pausing only to try and pull off my nose or teeth. I think we should forget cricket and go with C for Crime Master Gogo.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Decolonial Dreams: Good news to share

Excitement and modesty war in my heart as I write this post. I want to share the exciting news that my first solo-authored article has been published. It can be accessed online in the First View section of Modern Asian Studies here. Friends with institutional access, please download the article. And thank you if you do that more than once, or circulate it among those whom you think may be interested. Friends without institutional access, if you want to get a copy, please let me know and I'll inform you when the print version is going to appear.
Those of my friends who are not academics may be wondering "Why is this a big deal?". Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a young academic in possession of intellectual ability must be in want of a publication. And getting accepted by Modern Asian Studies is exhilarating, as it is a prestigious journal published by Cambridge University Press and, like most prestigious journals, it has a high rejection rate. (Yes, modesty lost by a large margin!)
At the same time, there is another, less selfish reason for my happiness. And that is because my article, the beginning of my life's work, is on Kanyailal Munshi. Not Shakespeare, not Jane Austen, not Kurt Vonnegut, not Thomas Mann. Not that these are bad writers. Yet I am happy that I am beginning to decolonise my mind. In their focus on specific times and places, Shakespeare and Austen are as "particular" as Munshi and Premchand; in their focus on the interaction between human self and the world through ideas of love, courage, honour, glory and so on, Munshi and Premchand are as "universal" as Shakespeare and Austen. Premchand, Govardhan Ram Tripathi, Dharamveer Bharti, Mohan Rakesh and countless others need the academic industry behind them. They need to be read, discussed and analysed from post-structuralist, feminist, decolonial and other perspectives. When academic literature around them abounds, we shall realise that "universalism" and "particularity" are narratives created by academic industries, and new narratives will allow new valourisations. I dream of a future where literature departments across India will teach Indian novels written in Indian languages. Students can read translations in their mother tongue, closer to the flavour of the original. They can then dissect them in whichever language they prefer, including English, and spread information about them far and wide. The language may be the coloniser's, but why should that stop our thoughts from being decolonial?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Unrequited Love

Shabdita has given her heart away. The object of her affection is literally that: an object.
It is the ceiling fan that hangs above our bed, and is more fascinating to Shabdita than all her toys put together. Often, while drinking her milk or playing, she will stop suddenly, look up, make sure it is still there, and then continue with whatever she was doing. If she is lying on her side, she will roll over to get a view, but will not go back to feeding until she has seen it once.
Sometimes she is in my lap, on our rocking chair, and I am talking to her and she is gazing at my face, in the intensely concentrative way that she has, smiling once in a while. She glances around the room. She looks at her toys. But none of this will do. She looks up. It is still there, weaving its magic by turning round and round, both motion and stillness. She is happy to see it. She can then give all of these other things her attention again. Her mother matters again.
Like all relationships, this one is not perfect. The object of her affection doesn't know she exists, and doesn't really talk to her. And her mother disapproves. I hope that the next love of my daughter's life, at the very least, does not look down upon her!  

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Corruption of A Republic

[I first wrote this blog as a commentary on the MnM website and it can be accessed in that form here.]. 

Eminent Indian psychoanalyst and social commentator, Dr. Ashis Nandy, found himself in the middle of a controversy recently after he made a few remarks on corruption at a session entitled ‘The Republic of Ideas’ at the Jaipur literary festival, 24th – 28th January, 2013. Author and publisher of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, spoke of corruption as an equalizing force, to which Dr. Nandy said ‘Just a response to this part, very briefly. He’s not saying the most important part of the story, which will shock you and it will be a very undignified and, how should I put it, almost vulgar statement on my part. It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs  (Other Backward Classes) and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive.’ A journalist present at the panel took up this statement, which was later endlessly replayed on a 24-hour television news channel. Dalit organizations and activists protested against Dr. Nandy. Not surprisingly, considering the upcoming elections in some key states, some politicians jumped into the fray and called for Dr. Nandy’s arrest. In India, anti-Dalit speech is punishable under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989, and is a non-bailable offence. There were demonstrations, and police complaints were filed against him in three different locations. Fearing physical harm and the possibility of imprisonment, Dr Nandy and his family went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of India did grant a stay order on the arrest warrants against him, but at the same time, the Chief Justice of India told Dr. Nandy’s lawyer “Whatever your intent, you can’t go on making statements. Tell your client he has no license to make such comments”.
The Indian social media and blogsphere exploded, with various arguments emerging on behalf of and against Dr. Nandy. The most common complaint against Dr. Nandy is that he was a casteist, and that he had stereotyped Dalits,  and a few such complaints came even from those ostensibly defending him. An emotional critique by Anooop Kumar outlines Dalit oppression in India and accuses specific media personalities of defending Dr. Nandy instead of interrogating “upper caste anxieties”. There are blogs that, while disagreeing with Dr. Nandy, argue for his right to express his opinion and to “be wrong”. There are those who argued for his remarks having been made in humour, and lament the dearth of an understanding of wit, satire or irony. While the case seems to be closed after the Supreme Court judgment, there is still debate about whether this was a victory for freedom of speech or another instance of the way in which the upper castes in India can get away with any derogatory statement against the lower castes.
The freedom of speech argument is unsatisfying. The difference between ‘provocative speech that forces you to think’ and ‘provocative speech that is intended to hurt, denigrate or provoke’ is very context dependent. The intentionality of any speaker is not only difficult to prove, but also difficult to know. I would like to base my defense of Dr. Nandy neither on his right to say what was on his mind, nor on his intentionality. Instead, I would suggest that his remarks be understood through a discussion of corruption, and the way in which Dr. Nandy uses the term.
What does the signifier ‘corruption’ stand for? It refers to bribe taking, circumventing legal, administrative or social rules for personal profit. It is often tied to moral decay and decline, as in ‘the corruption of a society’. Developing countries are said to suffer more from this malaise, and it is seen as an obstacle to ‘progress’, which is understood not only as shiny buildings and invisible poor but also as the absence of corruption. The idea of corruption as entirely negative, without any beneficial aspects, has become firmly entrenched in current public debate in India, partly due to the popular anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare last year. One example of this is this newspaper article written by a civil service aspirant, who condemns corruption as entirely evil in hectoring terms.
In such an environment, to suggest that corruption is not necessarily a bad thing is to risk derision, contempt and incomprehension. Even at the Jaipur literary fest, at the discussion in question, corruption emerged as the obstacle to the utopia India could become. What Tejpal and Nandy argued for was a rethinking of our notion of corruption. In India, corruption frequently allows a way in for those outside power hierarchies. A poor woman can pay 50 Rs. to a policeman and sell flowers on the roadside, whereas lack of corruption would mean that only those who could afford the rent of a shop would sell flowers. Successful corruption becomes enterprise, and the successfully corrupt person an entrepreneur. It is interesting that when he talked about corruption as an equalizing force, Tarun Tejpal, used the example of Dhirubhai Ambani, who became one of the richest businessmen in India from humble origins by often circumventing the restrictive trade laws of pre-liberalisation India. In corporate circles, paeans are sung to the Indian ‘rule breaking/free thinking’ spirit, and Ambani has been mythologized as the pre-eminent rule breaker. If Dr. Nandy had responded to Tejpal’s comment by praising the spirit of jugaad in the Indian psyche, he would have been lauded as an astute observer. That he used a more controversial example to suggest corruption as a form of social mobility, and prefaced it by calling it a ‘vulgar and undignified statement’, does not take away from the fact that he was re-orienting the idea of corruption.
To liberal and neo-liberal attitudes, such a re-orientation of corruption is frivolous at best and disgusting at worst. In the neo-liberal framework, it is not corruption but education that is a social leveler, education and opportunity that will raise people out of inhuman conditions. One Dalit response to the controversy, Anoop Kumar’s post, lays bare the illusory nature of the educational panacea: “It took us several videos on suicides of Dalit students from premier educational institutions to even get some acknowledgement that these institutions, completely monopolized by 'upper' castes since inception, might carry some casteist prejudices and discriminate against Dalit students.” Education is a part of society, subject to its privileges and prejudices, and is not constitutive of it. Most parents, earning above a certain income, send their children to coaching classes, which poorer and socially backward families are not able to do. Coached children do well in school, university entrance and public examinations. Such ‘merit’ is constructed and is a result of the resources available, yet very few people would think of the ability to send one’s children to coaching classes as corruption. In a nation where one can pay money to cut the queue and get darshan of the gods faster and closer, what is outside of corruption?
Dr. Nandy suggests, as scholars do, a proposition that is counter-intuitive, appears outrageous, but bears thinking about. In the absence of education, in the absence of social and political justice, in the absence of freedom from prejudice, perhaps corruption is not a bad thing after all. It offers the socially marginalized an option previously unavailable to them. Money makes it possible for them to send their children to better schools, money makes it possible for them to live a certain kind of lifestyle, money makes it possible for them to make more money.
This is why Dr. Nandy’s argument falls into the category of ‘provocative speech that forces you to think’. It is our intellectuals who challenge our comfortable ideas, and force us to critically examine the world we live in, by turning regular, glib assurances upside down. I can understand people disagreeing with Dr. Nandy’s proposition and arguing against it. What leaves me shocked, however, is that very few people actually take his idea on board and react to it, reasoning for it or against. Instead, they react unthinkingly, remain steadfast to a one-dimensional idea of corruption and then call Dr. Nandy “reductive”! Even amongst those who defend him, those who actually discuss his notion of corruption as an alternative to the bureaucratic and legal framework are few and far between. Meanwhile, the liberal narrative remains unchallenged – corruption is bad, it is only the government and administrative bureaucracy that is corrupt, not the people themselves, and once we remove this corruption we shall have attained Nirvana. Or at least be Singapore.
The Indian Supreme Court was equally unthinking and uncritical. In matters of provocative speech, where the lines separating different kinds of ideas are thin, it is crucial for lawmakers to understand context, and engage with the argument as a whole. The Court disappointingly ratified the popular opinion, that Dr. Nandy would not be arrested after all, because that would be taking things too far, but he really shouldn’t be formulating arguments for public consumption. Dr. Nandy was only doing what scholars to – presenting arguments for people to work with or argue against. The Supreme Court’s verdict may seem to uphold freedom of speech on paper, but what it actually does is stifle provocative ideas without attempting to understand the argument. The saddest part about the controversy is what Dr. Nandy said after the Supreme Court’s decision, that he will now voice his ideas “in some other country or within the four walls of my home”. The Indian ‘republic of ideas’ is the poorer for that.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Valentine's Day 2013

It is either a very happy relationship or a very unhappy one when dates do not matter anymore. Luckily, Vipul and I fall in the first category. We routinely forget our wedding anniversary. Once when Vipul told someone a wrong wedding date, I quickly 'corrected' him - with another, equally wrong date! Every year, both moms remind us enthusiastically of the marriage date, sigh at our seeming apathy, and ask us to celebrate it In some way. As people who eat take-away more often than one reasonably should, we celebrate by cooking at home. We've been a bit better with birthdays, but just about. Naturally, any other anniversaries or dates don't even stand a chance. Here is a sample, from yesterday.

Me: ( from the kitchen) what date is it today?

Vipul: (from the living room) it's the 13. (After a pause) no, it's Valentine's day today. It's the 14th.

Me: Then the yogurt has expired. I hope you didn't use it to marinate the food."

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Delhi, December 2012.

The gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December elicited some very regressive views. Most of the reactions of bureaucrats, politicians and socio-religious leaders were insensitive or plain inane, such as the suggestion that the perpetrators of the gangrape in Delhi would have stopped had the victim only addressed them as bhaiyaa. In such a mindless climate, the media had a field day; all they needed to do was ask a suitably prominent public figure to react to the case, and then step back and berate them from a morally high standpoint as the person in question proceeded to make a fool of himself or herself.

This also allowed the media to escape any sort of soul searching. Most news reports sensationalise sexual crime, and extensively cover Bollywood violence and sexual innuendo. I don't want to single out any one media outlet, but newspaper websites that regularly carry content like "5 signs she wants sex tonight", "B town babes this week - hot or not?" contribute to the sexualisation of a culture. Arguments about responsibility tend to run thus "we all grow up in the same media environment, and not everyone of us is a rapist or a killer." This is true, and that is why there is a difference between culpability and responsibility. While those who perpetrate the crime are the ones deserving of punishment, none of us lives in a vacuum. And this is not only about the media or about Bollywood, sexist though they both are. It is also about power, and what is possible in what context. When people see other people get away with rape, murder and whatnot, it emboldens them to act on their worst impulses.

I have been following Tehelka's coverage of Delhi's rape case(s), though at times I read the headlines and skip the article. I avoid them only to lessen my nightmares. I do agree with Ajaz Ashraf's piece that this particular incident resonated strongly with people because of the familiarity of its social and geographical markers. As a student in Delhi, watching a movie at a PVR complex and catching a bus home is routine. Most of us would heave a sigh of relief if we got a private, air conditioned bus "aaj baithke jaane milega", "aaj dhakke nahi khane padenge".

Another searing piece was an interview with a woman who had been raped, an article that I could not read in its entirety. What I will not forget, however, is how she went to AIIMS for the physical checkup, and as they were waiting to see the doctor, the nurse shouted "Kiska rape hua hai? Andar chalo". I can picture the nurse, who is probably a good woman, ordinary, overworked and underpaid, who has become desensitised and utterly unthinking in the routine course. It requires sensitivity and thought to figure out who could be the victim, walk up to them, talk to them in a low voice, and spare them the gawking glances of the entire corridor. If such behaviour is not innate, it could perhaps be enforced through training. What I want to highlight is that it is not only "men", condemned in blanket terms, who need to be sensitised and their mindset changed, but society as a whole. There is nothing wrong with people wanting the government to make public space safe, but they have to be equally willing to introspect, and think of the variety of ways in which women are made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe, day to day, in familial spaces and outside.

An aspect that struck me strongly - perhaps because I currently live abroad - is the way in which the international coverage of the case has cast it as a conflict between modernity and tradition in India, such as this story in the Wall Street Journal, an informal survey of Delhi men on what causes rape, which insists on the 'Western influence' narrative. As an explanation for the event, it is simplistic at best and downright insidious at worst. The point is not the argument "rape happens because Indian men cannot deal with 'their' women who have become too 'bold' because of Western influence" itself, but the purpose that the argument serves in this setting. It allows for the perpetuation of the idea that the rest of the world, or the non- west, is traditional, and that Western influence is a liberating force that meets conflict at every turn, but will, like the true hero, emerge victorious in the end. There is no place in such a narrative for plurality or difference. What about rapes that happen in New York? They will be castigated in many different ways, but the narrative of 'modernity v/s tradition' will never make an appearance. All of Amercia is modern, you see, each and every inch of it. In such a vision of the world, any violence, sexual or otherwise, in the Western world, is just itself, whereas in the non-western world it is a reaction to Western influence, to modernity and what not. If we accept that human beings are complex creatures, let us also accept that there are many reasons for rape - misogyny, abuse, power, lack of power, sadism, opportunity and so on and so forth - and resistance to modernity may be one of them, but cannot be the single most important factor.

There may be multiple reasons to rape, but the reason not to rape is perhaps simpler - respect for another human being as a human being. It is very difficult to not despair in the wake of such events, but as someone who has depended on the kindness of strangers, I want to end with the blog post 'this is also India'. Hopefully, there is still hope for us.


Monday, 7 January 2013

Reading Motherhood

2012's life-changing gift to Vipul and me was our daughter Shabdita, born at the end of the year. A friend asked me if I was now going to write blog posts on motherhood. "No", I'd said complacently. What I've realised, though, is that to not write about the things I'm thinking of, and instead write an 'objective' book or film review is playing at being a blogger rather than blogging. So that resolution, and that complacency, goes out of the window as I write this post.

Ever since we got Shabdita home from the hospital, I've been incessantly reading in whatever little spare time I've had. Reading books, magazine and journal articles, Internet articles and forum posts, blogposts and debate pieces - all on parenting, or usually, on mothering. As I navigate my way through an ocean of information, I realise that parenting, like everything else in the world, is a socio-political and ideolgocial minefield. And just like everything else in the world, the various shades of conflict within it acquire greater resonance as you enter the spectrum.

One of the earliest books I read was The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn't by Susan Maushart. It is available in India here. Greedily, hungrily, I devoured the book page after page. The argument of the book is as follows: motherhood changes everything, in that one's life, after becoming a mother, becomes devoted to the care of a tiny creature that is intially entirely dependent on you for everything. This is invisible labour, in that you can spend an entire day looking after your little one, and many such days like that, and have very little to show for them. Susan is not saying that this is wrong. Most mothers do this out of love. This love involves a loss, that of one's sense of self. What Susan does point out, however, is that this loss of self is undervalued and downplayed by all participants in the process, including the mother. As women talk less about it, most new mothers have to resolve their emotional ambivalnces out for themselves, keep reinventing the wheel, as it were.

Current discursive framing of motherhood conceptualises it as 'one more option that you have', which will not, in any essential way, affect the tenor of your life. You will go on, you will manage everything, and if you can't, then this is because of some individual failure on your part - lack of organisation, lack of time management skills and so on. What this does is that it leaves women (and some men) on a treadmill, running all the time to stay in the same place. I too was part of this rhetorical framing. During my pregnancy, I worked harder at my workplace than I have ever done in my life, just to show myself that motherhood would not change me. I rarely talked about my pregnancy, even with my closest friends, because I did not want to become that woman who could only talk about her pregnancy or her kids. Rarely does anyone say "What I am currently doing is valuable, challenging, exhilarating, frustrating and absolutely exhausting. I do it while majorly sleep deprived, with little ability to focus on anything else, and everything else I do is an achievement that I should be applauded for". Instead, we drive ourselves to do more and berate ourselves for all that we cannot do. To catch up with work, for instance. To write blogs :)

There are also arguments in the book that I disagree with. For example, Susan argues that women of earlier generations expected less from their lives, and so the loss of self did not bother them as much as it does us. This seems to me to be a facile argument. It also marks the book's ambivalence towards feminism. On the one hand, feminism is applauded for having made a lot more choices available to women, and on the other hand, it is critiqued for how hollow these choices turn out to be. I have seen variations of this argument crop up with reference to feminism very often. I feel that this kind of circularity leads us nowhere. Our choices are framed by our being in our world, as they have been and always will be. Feminism is one way of making certain arguments and fighting for certain positions. I believe strongly in some of those positions, and that is why I would call myself a feminist. I will not accept that feminism, and by extension, the choices it offers, are outside social construction, outside human discursive practices.

The good thing about social construction is that we too are small builders in there somewhere, and we can help construct and reconstruct our feminisms. I want to take on motherhood and do it in a feminist way, for myself. I will not stay silent about it and let other women keep reinventing the wheel. I will talk to you about it, as long as you want to listen.