Wednesday, 10 December 2014

13 Toddler-Approved Picture Books

In Shabdita's first year, we read to her intermittently. She enjoyed it, and I bought a variety of books for her, but we were not able to get a routine going where we would read to her everyday. I started reading to her regularly in Canberra as a way of keeping her busy, and realised too late that reading aloud to her actually keeps me busy all the time. We've now settled into a routine that is no routine. Any time during the day, she will come up to me or Vipul holding out a book and saying 'wooooords'. She is ready to listen to 'words' any time and has firm likes and dislikes. Sometimes she listens to the entire story, rapt in attention; at other times, she quickly turns the pages and wants to finish a lot of books in a little time. Sometimes she says 'bye' to the pages that she wants to skim, seeming to know that she is just passing them by. I like most of these books, though reading them over and over again can rob them of their charm. On some days, I'm so 'read out' that I never want to see a book again. Without further ado, though, here is a list of those picture books that she returns to most often. If you have young kids or are looking to become a favourite uncle or aunt, this list may help. Some of these are books that you and I may not see the appeal of, but have the seal of approval from a two year old 'discerning' listener.
1. Where's Spot? by Eric Hill
This is the first book that Shabdita took to. She loves raising the flaps and saying 'noooooo' as loudly and dramatically as she can. She waits for the roaring 'no' and the hissing 'no'.
2. Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman (author) and Charles Vess (illustrator)
'Ladies of light, and ladies of darkness, and ladies of never you mind"... I love this book for so many reasons. For the fact that the Blueberry girl is not white, and she is different ages across the book. For the myriad creatures on its pages, from the owl that accompanies her everywhere to the whale on whose back she sits. For the line "Ladies of paradox, ladies of measure, ladies of words that fall". For the fact that when I ask Shabdita, "who's my Blueberry girl?", she points to herself proudly. For fans of Neil Gaiman, you can listen to the entire book, read by Neil himself, in this YouTube video.
3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (author) and Clement Hurd (illustrator)
This one is a calming read. I like the fact that there is a moon outside the window, and there is a moon in the picture inside the room. One moon is waxing, and the other is waning. I think that this book can be opened up for conversations about the many different kinds of moons, about reality and representations, when Shabdita is older.
4. Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown (author) and Felicia Bond (illustrator)
This one has Shabdita all excited because it has two cows. There are horses and pigs too, but to her they are all 'cow'. There are also cats, dogs, geese, hens, field mice and even bats. And they all sleep in the night, except the bats, which means that the last few pages are whispered, and that adds to the excitement of the book. Honestly, this book does not exactly set my world on fire, but it is a good introduction to animals I guess. She really likes it and brings it to be read regularly. Seeing her excitement, I considered how to show her an actual living cow, and realised depressingly that I'll have to find a farm that takes visitors and take her there. Sigh. If we'd been in India she could have seen cows everywhere, and while that may have made them less exciting, it is not such a great thing that she should drink milk everyday thinking that it comes from the neighbourhood supermarket.
5. Little Green by Keith Baker
Shabdita loves watching birds and enjoys making marks, with pen or pencil, on whatever surface is available. This book brings together both these things, a bird and a boy who is painting the way in which the bird flies, and does it in the most gentle manner possible. I love it too and don't mind multiple readings, and Shabdita especially likes the part where she gets to turn the book around to see the bird hovering up in the air. Trying to find the earthworm on all the pages is a bonus.
6. There's A Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake by Hazel Edwards (author) and Deborah Niland (illustrator)
Its quite a mouthful of a title and features an older child, who invents an omnipotent hippopotamus friend who gets to do everything that she doesn't, like eating cake, watching tv and riding a bike. Shabdita absolutely loves this book right now, though I am doubtful of how much she actually comprehends. I think her obsession with the book may have a lot to do with the sound of the word 'hippopotamus'.
7. Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss
Shabdita likes this book because she can already say quite a few words in it, unlike most of the other books she listens to.'Up, pup, cup' and so on. I prefer Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss, but that is because I like trying out the various tongue twisters in it. Or perhaps I've just read this one too often. I'm hoping it turns out to be a good way to ease her into reading for herself when she is (much) older.
8. Busy Birdies by John Schindel (author) and Steven Holt (photographer)
Unlike the other books on this list, this one is a collection of photographs and not illustrations. The various photos of birds are stunning, and have captured Shadbita's imagination. I am not too enthusiastic about the words, such as 'Birdies eyeing'... er, eyeing what exactly? The photo of the two owls that accompanies this text, however, is so powerful and evocative that the words cease to matter.
9. The Daddy Book by Todd Parr
There are all kinds of daddies in this vibrantly illustrated book. Some wear suits, some socks, some work at home and some far away, some are yellow and some are purple, some like to take naps with you... but all of them love to hug you, kiss you and want you to be who you are. Yes, I can roll my eyes at the 'be who you are' bit, but we need narratives and constructions to begin with so that we can begin to deconstruct them. Shabdita likes this book and screams 'Papa' at all the daddies in the book, and that is enough to make me all misty eyed.
10. Jamberry by Bruce Degen
I love this one! There is so much joy in this picture book, which reminds me that a book is so much more than the sum of its parts. Is the joy in the sheer exuberance of the rhyming lyrics or in the illustrations filled with berries on berries? Is the joy in the sense of freedom that comes from a day of picking berries? Is it the joy of saying words like razzmatazz berry and raspberry rabbits? For whatever reason, this book has made a firm place for itself in our repertoire.
11. My Truck is Stuck by Kevin Lewis (author) and Daniel Kirk (illustrator)
When I purchased this book, I did not realise that it was marketed at boys, which is silly considering how much Shabdita enjoys it. I am not too impressed with the language of the book (Rotten luck, can't go, my truck is stuck), but Shabdita loudly proclaims 'car' and 'bus' for every vehicle in the book, and seems quite excited about them. Pointing out that some of them are trucks, jeeps and vans has not made an iota of an impression so far.
12. Usborne Illustrated Nursery Rhymes Felicity Brooks (compiler) and Laura Rigo (illustrator)
This book begins with Humpty Dumpty and ends with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I bought this book mainly because I did not want Shabdita to think of nursery rhymes as "those songs on YouTube". This book has nice illustrations, is not too big for her to hold, and lets her take these songs with her everywhere. I re-discovered Solomon Grundy, who is taken ill, grows worse, dies and is buried at the end of the poem. Such a nursery rhyme written today would probably be criticised for being depressing and may be removed from books for younger children. I knew it as a child and while it did not lead to a deep meditation on the nature of life and death, it did not scar me either.
13. Words
This is not one book but an entry for many different books. What they all have in common is that they are not narratives but collections of pictures and words. Some are organised by categories (farm animals, wild animals, colours, birds and so on) and some are general in that they cover a variety of everyday words that a child encounters. The pictures I have here are not the ones that she has, because I could not find the same ones online and there are many generic variations. For a long time Shabdita was not interested in listening to stories, but preferred knowing the names of all sorts of things, some that she knew very well (car, cup etc.) and some that she had not seen till then (lion and giraffe). Even today, Shabdita will often bring up these books and want us to read the words rather than listen to a story. I guess she has to live up to her name and know shabd first.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The 15 Hierarchies: An Introduction to Decoloniality

We live in a free world. Free being a relative word, of course. There are situations when governments and the powers of one country are controlled by other, more powerful countries and conglomerates, and there are situations wherein some countries are blatantly occupied by others. In this post I am not talking about these situations. I want to talk about the situations we take for granted, wherein power equations and inequalities are so deeply embedded as to have become naturalised. This post is about the insidious presence of colonialism in situations wherein we assume its absence. The decolonial movement is relevant to us today precisely because of how deeply colonised we still are. My entry point into this discussion is an article by Ramon Grosfoguel called "Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality".
The article was one of my earliest introductions to decoloniality. As a movement decoloniality stems from the writings of certain Latin American thinkers including Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, among others. The term has been picked up by other thinkers and movements, and there is much debate about the difference between decoloniality and postcolonialism. To my mind, one point of difference between the two is that decoloniality is extremely critical of modernity and sees it as hand-in-glove with coloniality and colonial oppression, whereas postcolonialism is critical of colonial oppression without that hostile valence for modernity. Decolonial scholars argue that the beginning of modernity and colonialism were forged in the same crucible in the fifteenth century, when Europeans set out for different worlds to conquer and rule. It is not that there had not been invasions, hostility and violence prior to that, but that these colonial/modern invasions brought into being certain hierarchies that captured human selves and imaginations in very specific ways that we have not been able to leave behind even today.
Image courtesy Brandon Archambault, "Why I Can't Stand Junot Diaz: Decolonial Love is About Hate, Not Love", Snakes on McCain,, first published Sunday, Feb 23, 2014.
In his article, Ramon inverts our narrative of colonialism in one significant way, offering a vantage point similar to the one delineated in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Instead of setting out with the colonisers and following their exploits and exploitations, he considers colonialism from the point of view of a native in a soon-to-be-colonised space, and how their world and world views turned upside down. Ramon outlines 15 hierarchies that came to the colonised world through the coloniser, and outlining them 'as if they were separate' vividly hits home the realisation that these intertwined hierarchies form the systems that we live in and that shape us. I quote directly from the article below:
"European/capitalist/military/Christian/patriarchal/white/heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies that for purposes of clarity in this exposition I will list below as if they were separate from each other:
1) a particular global class formation where a diversity of forms of labor (slavery, semi-serfdom, wage labor, petty-commodity production, etc.) are going to co-exist and be organized by capital as a source of production of surplus value through the selling of commodities for a profit in the world market;
2) an international division of labor of core and periphery where capital organized labor in the periphery around coerced and authoritarian forms (Wallerstein 1974);
3) an inter-state system of politico-military organizations controlled by European males and institutionalized in colonial administrations (Wallerstein 1979);
4) a global racial/ethnic hierarchy that privileges European people over non-European people (Quijano 1993; 2000);
5) a global gender hierarchy that privileges males over females and European Judeo-Christian patriarchy over other forms of gender relations (Spivak 1988; Enloe 1990);
6) a sexual hierarchy that privileges heterosexuals over homosexuals and lesbians (it is important to remember that most indigenous peoples in the Americas did not consider sexuality among males a pathological behavior and had no homophobic ideology);
7) a spiritual hierarchy that privileges Christians over non-Christian/non-Western spiritualities institutionalized in the globalization of the Christian (Catholic and later, Protestant) church;
8) an epistemic hierarchy that privileges Western knowledge and cosmology over non-Western knowledge and cosmologies, and institutionalized in the global university system (Mignolo 1995, 2000; Quijano 1991);
9) a linguistic hierarchy between European languages and non-European languages that privileges communication and knowledge/theoretical production in the former and subalternize the latter as sole producers of folklore or culture but not of knowledge/theory (Mignolo 2000);
10) an aesthetic hierarchy of high art vs. naïve or primitive art where the West is considered superior high art and the non-West is considered as producers of inferior expressions of art institutionalized in Museums, Art Galleries and global art markets;
11) a pedagogical hierarchy where the Cartesian western forms of pedagogy are considered superior over non-Westerm concepts and practices of pedagogy;
12) a media/informational hierarchy where the West has the control over the means of global media production and information technology while the non-West do not have the means to make their points of view enter the global media networks;
13) an age hierarchy where the Western conception of productive life (ages between 15 and 65 years old) making disposable people above 65 years old are considered superior over non-Western forms of age classification, where the older the person, the more authority and respect he/she receives from the community;
14) an ecological hierarchy where the Western conceptions of “nature” (as an object that is a means towards an end) with its destruction of life (human and non-human) is privileged and considered superior over non-Western conceptions of the “ecology” such as Pachamama, Tawhid, or Tao (ecology or cosmos as subject that is an end in itself), which considers in its rationality the reproduction of life;
15) a spatial hierarchy that privileges the urban over the rural with the consequent destruction of rural communities, peasants and agrarian production at the world-scale."
I find this list incredibly useful, especially when I am trying to argue for an awareness of systemic inequalities. I think the list is pretty self-explanatory, but as illustration, let me caricature aspects of my life. Growing up in a liberalised world-view which set up the consuming individual at the apex of human being and took modernity for granted, I participated in most of these hierarchies. I read more English literature than Hindi, Gujarati or Indian literature in English translation; I knew more about Western art than Indian art. As far as Indian art was concerned, I could recognise only those that were very well-known (the Hussains and the Raja Ravi Vermas) or know folk forms of art without knowing individual artists (Madhubani and Mughal miniatures, for example). I saw the joint family system as a space of oppression (which it can be, but that need not be its only reality), the theories I used came largely from the West (from Plato to Derrida, I guess), except when reading postcolonial theory, wherein Said and Spivak would get honourable mention. I am still not outside of this system: I work on Gujarati literature, but I write out my conjectures and conclusions in English. I am part of a university system that is based in the West and studies 'India', just as I was once in an Indian university studying English.
As I said earlier, this is a caricature of aspects of my life. I have spoken up against oppression based on gender, sexuality or religion. I think those fights need to be fought, and decoloniality is not about a return to tradition only because it predates the colonial encounter. Decoloniality is about recognising that there are many different narratives around the world, and the Western models of liberalism and individualism are not universal and cannot be the sole arbiters of individual human lives around the world. Decoloniality is being aware of the limitations of modernity as a project, and deliberately being aware of other, perhaps more traditional, perhaps more alternative, ways of being. It is about being aware of the politics, not just of the world but of the institutions that we ourselves are complicit in. It is about being mindful of who you read and who you cite. A decolonial moment need not be complicated. The next time you consciously read a Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali or Marathi book, you are making a decolonial choice. The language of your childhood may no longer be a language you think in, but the good thing about languages is that they are never far from the surface.
NB: There is a decoloniality summer school in Barcelona for those interested. And for Ramon's article, email me if you want to read it.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Love In A Cold Climate

The world of English courtship, of noble families with sons and daughters and marriage on their minds, is familiar to all regular readers of English literature. Jane Austen almost immediately comes to mind. It is a world of manners and morals, a world of perforative elegance. It is popular to berate the modern world for being less elegant, and there is an entire nostalgia industry that cashes in on the charm factor of this world, such as the BBC adaptations of Austen and Victorian novels and Downton Abbey to name a few. When the presence and multiplicity of immigrants becomes too much to handle, it is good to have an all white world to return to. Ironically, this world evokes a certain nostalgia even among the colonised creatures whose history it never was, but whose imaginative geography it shaped.
I picked up Nancy Mitford's Love in A Cold Climate (1949) not expecting anything very different. I had heard it praised a lot, but that usually puts me off books rather than more interested in them. (I'm working towards changing this cynicism.) Mitford belongs squarely to the twentieth century, and what made me fall in love with her writing, was that it does too. It is still the world of English courtship, but it is no longer asexual or idealised. Instead, it is rendered from close up, with sympathy for its follies and an awareness of its darker shades. There are balls and gowns and big rooms, and small, furtive sexual encounters in those big rooms. To me, what stood out most about the book was the matter-of-fact tone it took to everything, rendering most things faintly comical even when they revealed selfishness, exploitation and conspicuous consumption.
To cite the most blatant example, there is an uncle, ironically nicknamed 'Boy', who is fond of feeling up young girls, and this 'habit' returns to haunt him when one of the girls he feels up, Polly, mistakes it for everlasting love and insists on marrying him. There is not a lot of angst or hand wringing about the abuse, and this universe has a moment of pity for the abuser, when he has to actually live with and love the girl he desired temporarily, or rather did not even desire in and of herself, but only as another girl to fondle. Our perceptions of these matters are so shaped by our own discursive frameworks of child abuse, paedophilia and punishment that this attitude can come across as cavalier. After all, he is an abuser and she is a victim, and how can any reading be otherwise? What this book did, however, is allow me to inhabit a world wherein the mores that governed human sexuality were different. What Boy does is not justified, but neither is it an exceptional act. It is one of the things that happens in the world, and thus it can be shown as banal; its tragic potential highlighted only when Polly insists on misreading Boy's propensity as love and desire. Not only that, this tragedy is not maintained indefinitely and is represented with as little hand-wringing as everything else.
Lest the mention of abuse give the impression that this is a depressing book, I should clarify that the novel is satirical and witty. I laughed out loud right at the very beginning, as the author traced the history of the Montdore family: "they drag forth ancestors with P. G. Wodehouse names, Ugs and Berts and Threds, and Walter Scott fates. His Lordship was attainted — beheaded — convicted — proscribed — exiled — dragged from prison by a furious mob — slain at the Battle of Crécy — went down in the White Ship — perished during the third crusade — killed in a duel". This is a world that rests on shallow, hollow foundations, and isn't that funny? So Lady Montdore is always polite to young girls, even those who do not have a lot of fortune. This is not out of the goodness of her heart; rather it comes from the soundness of her mind. "'Always be civil to the girls, you never know who they may marry' is a aphorism which has saved many an English spinster from being treated like an Indian widow." Polly rues this habit that all the young people have of being constantly in love with someone or the other. She had observed it in India, but had hoped that "in a cold climate" things would be different, hence the title. The book maintains a light and chatty tone throughout, which actually sets off the sexual encounters, familial conflict, homosexuality and murder quite well. Ok, I'm kidding, there is no murder in the book, but I wish there had been. I feel Mitford would have dealt with it lightly and exquisitely.
At one point in the text, two characters want to know what Polly and Boy's marriage is like. They ask their elder sister, Fanny, to find out, and when she points out that they do hear from Polly, this is their reply: "Do people ever sound unhappy on postcards, Fanny? Isn't it always lovely weather and everything wonderful, on postcards?" To me, the parallel to Facebook was striking. It is not a new world that we live in. The world of Love in A Cold Climate is not as different from our world today as it may seem to be superficially, and I don't know whether to rejoice or be sad about this.

Thursday, 2 October 2014


Everyday, during dinner, mid-way during the meal, Shabdita suddenly feels a lot of love for me. She insists on feeding herself, so by then her clothes, mouth, hands and face are full of food. Everyday she comes towards me, arms outstretched, to give me a hug. Sometimes the hug also means "I'm done now, so put me to sleep". Everyday she ruins my T-shirt, and all my clothes end up having food stains on them. Everyday I wait for that moment, and the day she is too grown up to do it, I am going to miss it. What is life without a grubby, food stained baby wanting to hug you?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Beyond Facebook and Twitter...

are Pinterest and Instagram. No, this is not a post about social media. I left Facebook, and then Twitter, almost four years ago. For one, they were addictive and I wasted a lot of time on them, and secondly, I had begun to dislike them for the way in which I found myself performing my life on them. This post, however, is not about those things. I may not have been on social media for a long time, but I am still quite addicted to the Internet. If you quit various forms of social media, barring blogging intermittently, what do you do on the Internet? Well, here is what I do.
Feedly is my crack. It requires setting up, but once done, it is simplicity and beauty itself. Feedly is an RSS reader, which simply means that once you enter the names or URLS of the blogs you want to follow, you can read them all together. I follow a variety of different blogs, changing them as and when fancy strikes. Here are the ones that I enjoy the most.
Design*Sponge: A design blog that includes constellations from the night sky and design icons such as the Sony Walkman and the Chrysler building? Yes, please. Design*Sponge consistently offers high quality articles that open my eyes to the beauty of the world around me, and increase my knowledge of life's aesthetic pleasures. I also like An Indian Summer for its curation of various things Indian.
ModernMrsDarcy: With a name like that, how could I resist? Modern Mrs. Darcy talks of books, movies and tv shows, occasionally meandering into clothes and homeschooling. I also like A Penguin A Week, especially for Karyn's determination to read every book in the Penguin series that she has identified, no matter how forgotten or mundane.
The vegan blog Oh She Glows is my escapist fare. I ogle at all the beautiful pictures of the food, though I have not tried even a single recipe to date. Someday...! I also have a love-hate relationship with the Happiness Project, so I follow it for some time and then am off it, and then back again and so on.
I follow two Indian blogs: Jabberwock by Jai Arjun Singh and Baradwaj Rangan by, well, Baradwaj Rangan. I like their takes on cinema, and Jai Arjun's book reviews are always enjoyable. I owe my introduction to contemporary Indian graphic novels in English to Jabberwock.
On minimalism, I read the usual suspects: Zenhabits, The Minimalists and The Minimalist Woman. I used to follow various other blogs on this topic, but I like to think that I have internalised minimalism to the point where I am minimalist about the minimalist blogs I follow too!
I also like this irreverent and highly relatable blog called GenerationMeh. And surprisingly to me, I follow Seth Godin's blog. I nod in agreement when Seth talks about perseverance, rigour and quality, though he is talking about marketing and consumer relationships while I am thinking life and academia in my head. I especially like the way he uses brevity to increase his impact, which I find myself sadly unable to emulate.
I read a wide variety of parenting blogs, perhaps more than is good for Shabdita or me. I keep changing them though. The ones that I like the most and have been following regularly include Not Just Cute, An Everyday Story and Janet Lansbury. Not Just Cute and Janet Lansbury are about respectful and intentional parenting while an Everyday Story follows the project based homeschooling adventures of a family in Canberra, and has the most inspiring photos and ideas.
So you can see how Feedly keeps me busy. Every day, I have around 10 to 15 blogposts/articles to read on a variety of topics, leaving me carrying out various arguments in my head. It makes for a good day. Also, on a self-promoting note, if you set up Feedly for yourself, you can follow my blog on it too!
Apart from Feedly, I also use Dropbox and Evernote a lot.
While reading or writing, I keep the document in Dropbox, and so can access it from different computers and my phone, which spares me from emailing it to myself all the time.
As for Evernote, I have many different notes in it, and I intend to consolidate them someday in an organisational frenzy. For now, it is a great space to store snippets and ideas, and indulge my fetish of making all sorts of lists. Inspired by a blog post I read, I kept a list of the books I read in 2013, and am now keeping one of those I am reading in 2014. Looking at the list at the end of the year was illuminative: it made me aware of the directions in which my reading was headed (more parenting), what I had enjoyed and what not (some books that are so much fun in the moment can seem dissatisfying later - 'why did I waste so much time on this one?') and suggest possibilities ('I loved this one so much that I am going to track down more books by this author'). I'm toying with the idea of starting a new list, this one of all the films that I see this year.
Another useful aspect of Evernote is that I can make notes of different arguments as they occur to me, then shifting them around and assigning them to papers or chapters. I also have a list of ideas for potential blogposts, and one beautiful day, I shall turn them all into substantial blogposts and inflict them on you. Another app that I use alongside Evernote is Houzz.
As the name suggests, Houzz is an app of home design ideas. I save pictures of rooms I like, in Ideabooks on Houzz (that lets you save pictures that you see on Houzz directly) or by pasting pictures I like into Evernote. These pictures are, at one level, pure fantasy. I am unlikely to become an interior decorator or incorporate every idea into any one home that I have, but these pictures and the possibilities they suggest bring delight, joy and colour into my world. Here is a picture from one of my notes, a great space to curl up with a book:
Last but not the least are Zinio, the Kindle App and Podcasts.
Zinio is an app that lets you read magazines. I use Zinio and my local library subscription together, and download almost every magazine possible, and then read them now and then. I credit my reading of Martha Stewart Living and Australian Architecture to Zinio, as I never actually picked them up in a library. Only having to click on a link to issue a magazine makes you willing to try everything!
Similarly, the Kindle app allows me to buy ebooks as well as download various free ones. In terms of the free ones, there is more chaff than wheat. I like working through them, and deleting the ones which seem irrelevant.
Podcasts are a relatively new discovery for me. I like listening to a podcast as I get some work done alongside. The difference from a radio is that here you can select what you want to listen to, though I actually like the varying rhythms of the radio and not knowing what is going to come up next. This is why I subscribe to podcasts selectively and am less enthusiastic about trying new ones out. They may be wonderful, but I am perfectly content with ABC national radio and You Tube playlists for Indian music. The podcasts I listen to regularly include SBS Hindi and After the Jump, which is the podcast of the Design*Sponge blog. I also like The Broad Experience, which talks about women's professional lives. Finally, I like the Radio Lab for making science interesting to me.
So these apps are my additions to my leisure time, my variations on reading or watching television. In a day spent running after a toddler and protecting everything else in the world from her, it feels good to sit down with my laptop or iPad, with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, and opening up a transient world with the other. You're welcome to peek into this world or build another of your own.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Of Being Indian

I recently read Pavan K.Varma's Being Indian: Inside the Real India as part of the project of reading my own books. I understand that there are quite a few books that attempt to distill the essence of India into chapter sized generalisations, such as The Argumentative Indian and India Unbound. Like all good social commentators, Pavan K. Varma acknowledges that for every generalisation he offers, the opposite is equally true for a vast country like India. He sets out to break certain myths - that Indians are spiritual or other-worldly and inherently non-violent - and takes on the behemoths of technology and pan-Indianness.
Varma argues that Indians are as materialistic as any other people on earth and that their spirituality co-exists undisturbed with materialism and the quest for Lakshmi. I agree with most of his observations about the pursuit and relentless exhibition of wealth and power in India. I have two main quibbles with these sections of the book though. For one, some of these myths are not as widespread as the author thinks they are. The book was first published in 2004, and by then we were sufficiently into the liberalised economy for materialism to have become a common societal malaise. The idea of India as a spiritual and non-violent cocoon may have been an Orientalist construct, but by 2004 it is more an easy straw figure against which Varma can lay out his argument. One should argue against stereotypes, but neither the stereotypes nor the arguments against them should be simplistic.
Which brings me to my second quibble. Yes, Indians are materialistic, pursue and display power blatantly and chase wealth as an ideal goal without any niggling sense of discomfort. But how is that different from a majority of people anywhere in the world? We do not grow up outside the world, and the world today, whether London or Ludhiana (the problem with easy generalisations is that they are catching!) is a world that extols the virtues of wealth and success, that thrusts the messages of consumption down our throats 24/7. I do not think I can say of any space in the world that the people living there do not pursue power. Yes, I am aware that there is a minimalism movement in the West, and I am thankful for it. That movement however shapes itself as opposed to the dominant culture, and unfortunately the dominant culture in the world today is very similar, no matter what part of the world you are in. If I wax philosophical, I would argue that this is not only about the world today. The desire to acquire and possess has always been a part of the human condition. Merchants found plying the Silk Route profitable because there were men and women desirous of buying silk and willing to pay well for it.
As far as technology is concerned, Varma argues that the almost universal emphasis on a certain kind of higher education - engineering and English (the language and not the literature) for example - makes Indians better at being the outsourcing capital of the world. He also discusses how they are usually software coolies, doing the more manual of the work while the creative work is done in the West. Some Indians working in American environments are able to tap into creativity and compete alongside the first citizens of the online world. Varma states that "Indian society encourages status-quoism and tolerates mediocrity" (p. 122). As a student and a teacher in India, I came up against the vagaries of the system often enough to sympathise with this idea. At the same time, I would argue that these phenomena are as much about colonialism and structures of power as about systems of education. When you praise Indians for their 'jugaad' in the chapter on business but declare their inability to be creative in the chapter, you are not only undermining your own argument, but also demonstrating that perceptions change as context changes. Current perceptions in technology rest along the Orientalist axis of Western work as inherently superior to Eastern work. After all, it is American freedom that sets glorious Indian minds free! I have studied in both Indian and Australian universities, and I would argue that a lack of resources is as much of a problem as the lack of innovative thinking. Universities in both India and Australia have good and bad thinkers, and I am sure both Indian and American IT companies have similar pools of creative and not-creative thinkers.
The final section of the book focusses on the idea of pan-Indianness. This topic is of special interest to me, given that my thesis flirts with the ways in which ideas of India are constructed. Varma attributes greater cohesion in Indian identity to the usual suspects - popular culture, which is mostly Bollywood, and greater mobility within India, courtesy transportation and the new jobs of a liberalised economy. I am just surprised that he does not mention cricket. It is a familiar argument, and I do not oppose it in the sense of 'no, this is incorrect'. Yes, Bollywood does interest a large number of people in India (except me, of course :P). At the same time, the rise of the vernacular television channels and movie industries show that both these seemingly contradictory arguments - "Bollywood brings India together" and "the rise of regional cinemas shows that regional identity is not dead" - are equally valid and relevant. They bear each other out even as they cancel each other out.
It is in this section that Varma brings up the stereotype of non-violence. He argues that Indians can be violent when it has social sanction, and prefer to compromise when the opponent in superior and there is the prospect of annihilation. The violence perpetuated on a regular basis against Dalit, minorities and poor people certainly makes the notion of Indians being nonviolent seem like a cruel joke perpetrated on those who live with the routine violence of everyday Indian life. At the same time, Varma argues that violence levels are relatively low because of a certain kind of pragmatism in the Indian fabric. Violence is bad for business, and different religious communities find ways of living and working together that work for them and keep violence at bay as exceptional rather than the norm. Again, I do not disagree with the argument per se. I do have two quibbles again. One is that 'not too much violence' is a slippery slope kind of an argument. In a nation of a billion people, how many people have to die before we think that too many people have been killed? (yes, I badly paraphrased the song) What I mean is this: the idea that India is relatively peaceful works in certain contexts, wherein we look at violence and deaths in other countries or at an abstract number that seems large, and so we derive notions of relative peace and relative goodwill. Just like everywhere else in the world, religious identities are far more complex, and ways of living and working together enmeshed in these identities in far more complicated ways than 'we are all a relatively not so violent family' would suggest. Yes, people from different communities work together, but who owns the business and who is the labour?
My second quibble is similar to the one I made above. Violence is endemic to the human condition, as 'natural' as natural can be. These instances - of violence against specific communities or groups of people, as well as co-existence - are not exclusive to India alone. Across history, in all sorts of conflicts and wars, we have seen the best and the worst of human behaviour on display. This brings me to my central problem with the book, and probably with other such books, with the idea of such books. Whatever the aspects identified as being Indian, whether positive or negative, are ultimately narratives created to serve their purpose in arguments. They may or may not be true, but their truth or falsity is not the point. Any series of circumstances or phenomena can be woven together to present one picture, and we can go on creating multiple such pictures. Some arguments are more compelling than others. I am sure some books on Indian realities are more insightful than others, and I hope to find and read them. At the same time, all these books create realities as much as document them, and there is not an Indian reality that exists outside of such documentations.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

16 June 2009

We have been married for five years today. Half a decade has gone by. It feels like time has simply flown past, as if it were just yesterday that Vipul and I went to Prithvi theatre in Mumbai for a date. At the same time, it feels like forever, as if this was always the way life was meant to turn out. So do I have any words of wisdom, any pearls of truth about what makes a happy marriage? Yes I do.
The secret of a happy marriage is simply this: Marry Vipul. And everything will turn out to be wonderful. You'll have to find your own Vipul though. This one is taken!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Narendra Modi's Opening Gambits

I am doing my PhD at the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) at ANU, which falls under the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP). What does that have to do with Narendra Modi, you may well ask. Well, I have written a blog post called Narendra Modi's Opening Gambits, and it has been published on the College's website. Here is a link, in case you are interested.
Any further sharing shall make me happy. If that's not your goal in life, what else is?!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Canberra Calling

On a windy day last month, Shabdita and I moved to Canberra to start a PhD at the Australian National University. I was sobbing with apprehension, not sure if I was making a big mistake moving with a child younger than two, starting afresh in a new city. Vipul's job, unfortunately, is in Adelaide, and so we have become a three member family in two cities. He comes on weekends and whenever he can, and stays as long as possible. When he's not around, mostly on weekdays and sometimes on alternate weekends, I learn what it is like to be a single mom, and we both learn anew how much living together in one house means to us.
As I settled down in Canberra, the apprehension slowly turned into excitement. Yes, it is challenging to be on my own, whether it will be less or more difficult also depends to a large extent on what I make of it. I am really happy to be back in a University environment, and just walking around a University campus with Shabdita feels so good. I hope I pass on this sense of excitement to her; I hope that she is happy to be in an atmosphere of learning someday. There are logistical environments to be established. I need to get Internet at home, for example, which has currently become a task akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Yes, that's not entirely true. Climbing Mt. Everest is surely easier! Anyway, I am on my way to getting these things done and sorted. When I look back to last month, I can see that I have come a long way. Shabdita and I have a home and are working towards a routine. She comes into my office with me, which has toys and a table for her, and sometimes she lets me work while she plays!
What are the biggest lessons that I have learnt in the last month? First and foremost, I have learnt how much Vipul's presence matters to my life. It is but a half life, literally, when spent apart from him. I have also learnt that it is important for me to work,to have hopes and dreams and plans and goals. I have also learnt that I am stronger than I think I am, and I am not as much of a disaster in the domestic department as I thought I was. Food gets cooked, the house gets cleaned, the laundry gets done and the dishes get washed. The house has not fallen apart. I think living on my own revealed to me the beauty of self reliance. As long as there is one more person in the house, there is always something that you think the other person will do. Now I don't have that mental luxury any more. Shabdita is not really cleaning up yet! I've realised that rather than think 'X (or V in my case!) needs to do this', it is not just simpler to do it yourself, but also more satisfying. After throwing out the trash, killing insects and cleaning up after dead insects, I realise that normally I would have waited or nagged for these things to be done. It is incredibly liberating, for I now feel that these things do not matter at all. Chores get done. They are not worth arguing or getting worked up about. Doing them everyday has a rhythm of its own and can become comforting and even beautiful if you want to see them that way.
I have also enjoyed getting to know Canberra. It is a quirky city that takes some getting used to. Its combination of roundabouts, greenery and sector-like suburbs makes me feel as if I'm back in Gandhinagar again. It is slow and sparsely inhabited, and again this requires an attitudinal adjustment. I've heard people complain that there is nothing to do here, and I've had difficulty motivating myself to leave the University to return to my empty house. The house is filling up now, and my books and Shabdita's toys will arrive soon from Adelaide, and then the house will be populated with old and new friends. Even now, it is the leaving that is difficult. Once we are home, I have the radio playing (no Internet so no Bollywood music, sadly) and the whistling kettle on the stove. As my make dinner, Shabdita plays around. Often she wants to be carried and see what I am up to. She babbles alongside the radio, and is definitely more entertaining. Some nights she is full of energy, running around, babbling, dancing and trying to jump. Some nights she falls asleep soon, and I curl up next to her under the warm duvet, reading until I fall asleep. I like this pace of life. I must be officially old, but I think such an evening is a wonderful one, and the only thing missing is Vipul to talk to. I like not having a tv any more, and am planning not to get one. I want to try other things, which I shall update here as and when vagary strikes.
One thing that I'm very grateful for is the kindness of strangers. In my very first week here, desperately house hunting, I ordered a coffee and then couldn't find the card in my purse. I was already exhausted and started blabbering to the owner 'I can't find my card. I'll call my husband on the mobile and he can read out his card number to you, that you can fill out. I'm sorry. It's just one of those days' even while dialing the phone to Vipul, who was not able to take a call then. A woman walked up to the counter and paid for my coffee. Once Shabdita and I were in the bus and it started raining heavily outside. On top of that, she sneezed and that too more than once. The girl sitting next to me asked me 'when you get off, do you want my umbrella?'. At another time, Shabdita and I were caught in a sudden burst of rain and made a dash from the car park to my office building. A woman who was about to start her car rushed out and insisted on giving us her umbrella. When I told her I only needed to get till the building, she personally escorted us to the building, holding the umbrella over us like a protective charm, which is what it was. To all these women, thank you. Your kindness has warmed up this cold city for me. A note, especially for the grandparents: I have an umbrella and I now carry it everywhere. I wouldn't let Shabdita get wet, so please do not worry.
This had to be saved for the last. In Canberra, when a bus reaches the final stop, the announcement inside the bus reads thus "This bus, on arrival at the next stop, terminates. Please disembark.' I get a mental image of a bus, empty after the passengers have disembarked, exploding in a flash of self-pity, a la Marvin the paranoid android. Ah, bureaucratic town. Wouldn't it have been simpler to just say 'The next stop is the final one' and leave me without visions of exploding buses in my head?!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


I would call my grandparents in Rajkot, where they insisted on living on their own. It was an inconvenient house, with the toilet on the ground floor and the rooms upstairs. The stairs were winding, and the ones that led to the top floor were precarious. They were not entirely healthy and it must have been difficult but Ba refused to shift anywhere else. It was where they had lived all their life and no other place must have felt quite like home, I imagine.
So I would call them. My grandfather would answer the phone. Over the past few years, he has lost his hearing. He would begin the conversation by saying "Hello I cannot hear you." I would start screaming too "Bhi, its me. Babli. (His pet name for me)." I would scream louder and louder, and he would keep repeating "I am calling your Ba. I cannot hear what you are saying. I cannot hear any more. Just wait, she is coming". Meanwhile, Ba would begin her long journey to the telephone. Her legs hurt and she would walk slowly, muttering loudly all the time. "Why do people call us? It is so difficult to walk all this way. Do they think I have nothibng to do?" She would finally get to the phone and say "Hello". "Ba its me". I would say. "Oh my child, I am so happy to hear your voice. How are you?" All that she had been muttering would not matter. She would discard that persona in a moment and become the affectionate grandmother. She would ask me about life in Australia, interested in the daily minutae of my life. "What did you cook today? What time is it there?"
At the end of each conversation, she would say "Have toh bhagwan lai le toh saru" (Now its good if God takes me). I would always respond with "Ba, evu kem kaho cho? Evu na kaho." (Ba, why do you say that? Donb't say that). Over time, this statement and its response had become routine. She said it, but it was difficult to believe that she meant it. She loved living. She was inquisitive about everything, gossiping about family, friends and neighbours with gusto. She was fiercely alive, and age did not make her withdraw from the world or become cynical about engaging with it. She wanted to know what everyone was up to, attend weddings and funerals, meet people and talk to them. At my cousin's engagement, she got mehendi put on her hand with everyone else. I saw the picture on whatsapp, and knew that she would have participated in each and every ceremony, insisting on following the rituals and trying to get everything done her way. I remember family functions where she would do or say utterly outrageous things, and exasperate my mom or my chachi, and their eyes would meet sympathetically in a crowded room, commiserating with each other.
She passed away in November last year, a fortnight before we went to India. She never saw Shabdita. It was sudden and unexpected. The house in Rajkot lies empty. My grandfather is a prisoner of his own senses, unable to see or hear; lost in his memories and the conversations echoing in his mind. With her,an entire way of being 'our family' has gone. There were typical things that we would say or do, actions, reactions and patterns evolved over the many years of being one family, which now have to be reworked. We all have to learn how to engage with each other anew. Rest in peace, Ba. I'm sure heaven for you is a place where everybody knows each other and gossips about the achievements of their families and the secrets and failings of others. I hope to find you there someday, and then you can tell me everything about all the people you have got to know.