Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Feminism for the Lay'man'.

Feminism is an issue I avoid, if I can help it-both in conversations and in academic engagements. But after my post on it which was a response to a tag, I have decided to look at the issue again. For two reasons. 1. The male comments and rejoinders which betray an absence of understanding of the issue and 2. a fascinating post by Anrosh. She presents a case which fascinated me by the recognisabilitythe situation at the macro and micro level. Also, i subscibe to her analysis and conclusions.

What I hope to achieve through this post is to demystify feminism for the male blog visitors. However, let me, at the very outset, make it clear that there is nothing original about my reading on the issue. Whatever ideas that I present are all there in the plethora of theories on feminism. Because these ideas come packaged in theories, they don’t trickle out in sufficient quantities from the academicians’ and activists’ study room. And the result,? Society moves on, looking askance at feminism, and associating eccentricity and, to some extent, anarchy to this reality (I prefer to give feminism that label rather than “movement’)

I begin this post (two more posts on this issue to follow) with a clarification.

Feminism does not claim that the genders are the same. Male and female are not the same. They are biologically different. Their biological functions are different. But they are equal. Period. Equal does not mean same. (This was pointed out in a comment to my post). Feminism claims that the two genders are equal in their rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. For a crude simile, the heart and the kidney are not the same. Their constitution and functions are different. But we cannot hierarchise them in terms of their indispensability and importance to the system. The two organs are different but equal. The equality of both organs have to be acknowledged if malfunctioning of the system is to be prevented.

That sounds simple, doesn’t it? And many might be wondering why so much is written and said about this obvious truth.

Obvious truth? Society “accepts’ that truth. There is no dispute about it, eh?

This making-a–fuss-about-nothing attitude of society is the most difficult obstacle that stands in the way of the feminist trying to liberate herself from the subtle social structures which have kept her a prisoner. Ironically, women conditioned by the patriarchal ideology partner the male members of the society in doing maintenance to and jeealously and zelously guarding these oppressive social structures. Anrosh's post graphically describes this. The tendency of society to gloss over/ridicule/trivialize the issue of gender hierarchisation results in the issue never surfacing in a serious way in the society as a flaw in the system that has to be addressed. How can you treat a disease which is not acknowledged to exist. Very difficult to treat a patient who is in the denial mode.

To get more specific – how is this captivity of the woman achieved and perpetrated?

It’s a long story which goes back to time immemorial. And the story is the same across the globe, in all cultures. Differences are minor, superficial. Fundamentally, in gender politics, the woman has always been the second sex. Take the Hebrew culture, for example. The Bible says that God created Adam first. Then took a rib from his side and created a ‘helpmate’ for him. Bible is a divinely inspired work. But it was written by the male, and it reflected the patriarchal perceptions of an order. this order was considered ‘natural’/divinely ordained. This is not to say that this relegation of the woman to an inferior position in the Hebraic culture can be ascribed to the Biblical story of creation. The story itself reflects the gender perceptions of the period in which it was writen. But with the influence and the reach of the Bible through time, those perceptions acquired a religious sanction wherever it was accepted as the Holy Book. I suppose this could be said of all Scriptures.

Several centuries later, Jesus Christ spoke up to rectify this flawed perception. Christ was the most revolutionary feminist. Remember the episode of the woman being stoned for adultery. “Whoever has no sin can cast the first stone”, He said. The point is powerfully established. Adultery is not a gender specific sin. It is a sin irrespective of the sex of the adulterer. No two sets of laws of sexual morality for the two sexes. Again, take the story of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at His feet listening to His teaching. Martha complains to Him that Mary is leaving all the womanly duties to her. Jesus explains to Martha who has internalized the norms of the patriarchal society, that she also can do what Mary is doing. Leave the household chores and listen to His spiritual discourse. “Martha, Martha, thou art worried and troubled about many things; But one thing is necessary; Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” The woman is as much entitled to spiritual quest as the man. That is what he meant.

Yes. Christ was the greatest feminist of all. But not so his followers. I have listened with great amusement at these episodes being interpreted in a manner that doesn’t question the discriminatory code of morality put in place by the patriarchal society. True, Christ said “Whoever has no sin can cast the first stone”, but, obviously, what he meant was whoever has not committed ADULTERY – the sin that she was being specifically punished for by the men - can cast the first stone. It is only logical to presume so. But no preacher or teacher will go to town teaching that by ‘sin’ Christ meant ‘adultery’. For, at all times and in all cultures, society has sanctioned the sexual escapades of males, and condemned female adultery. And the Mary Martha story too lends itself to many many interpretations – but never a feminist one.

Gender discrimination is chronically entrenched in the psyche of human society which was always male dominated. Domination of one group over the other can be sustained only when the latter is made to accept its inferiority status. That’s called hegemony – the acceptance of slavery or subjugation by assent – a subordination achieved in a democratic way! Over a period of time, there evolved formidable discourse on the concept of male superiority in which the subordinate position of woman is represented as ‘natural’ /divinely ordained. This ensured the durability of the patriarchal discourse on gender hierarchy; for the woman was made to accept, through subtle strategies, her predicament as the second sex. She internalized this image of woman , failing to understand that it is a societal construct. Any stirrings or rebellion or questioning deep in her mind entailed a sense of guilt and would be suppressed and sublimated. She becomes a captive of her own conscience.

In my next post, I would like to look at Anroshi’s post which so beautifully unravels the sad story of how such a woman becomes pssionately agentive is transmitting to the next generation the historically evolved traditions of gender perceptions of a patriarchal society.

‘Civilization’, indeed, is built on this foundation of the silent tears of the woman.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This Generation & Ours.

I once suggested to my daughter that she should start preparing for the civil service examination. ”What for, amma?’ She asked. “To have some Lalu’s beetle stained spittle sprayed on my face? I think I can do without that face pack!”

And she was not even twenty then but, I noticed, she had the poise of a person who knew what she was talking about.

I was taken aback. Apparently, a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since my time, and I had not kept pace with the changing perceptions of the youth, despite being a teacher and a mother. My generation had looked upon the IAS tag as the most credible index of an educated person’s outstanding calibre, for, the Indian administrative Service was a site that could be inhabited only by a select group - the very best. To us, getting selected for the Indian Administrative Service was the ultimate achievement for an educated person. It’d make you an instant celebrity. We thought of nothing beyond the prestige, glamour and the challenge of this elite service. It was a dream – an unattainable one for most.

For today’s youngsters, it’s not a dream – both in terms of its attractiveness and unattainability.

Today’s youth (I am talking of the youth in their twenties) are a different lot. The difference, I realize, is born out of the changed world in which they grew up.

As teenagers, they lived in an India where Dr.Manmohan Singh and Dr. Sam Pitroda were among the most celebrated names. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s maiden budget was watched by all TV owning families in Kerala, the viewers comprising the teenage children, their parents and grandparents. Expectation was high, though comprehension of the nuances of the budget was inadequate. But all sensed that a fundamental change was in the offing.

By the time it was time for these teenagers to decide what to do with their lives, the path was well beaten and laid for them. India was opening up. The triple mantra of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation had begun to partially ease out the License Raj and protectionism in our economy.

The IT sector boomed all over the world and Indian Engineers became a much sought after commodity. Even the critics who were vociferous about India exporting techno-coolies had the smirk wiped out from their faces when the young Indian engineers and B school products (not from the premier ones alone)started earning in a month what the earlier generation could not in a year or more – sometimes even in a lifetime!

Engineering colleges and B schools mushroomed all over. So did software companies. It no longer mattered what branch of engineering they took. The companies would recruit them if they were ready to “unlearn & then learn”. Opportunities beckoned them with great eagerness from within India too.

And with outsourcing becoming the order of the day, the very gait of the youngsters became different from what it was in our time. New horizons opened up not just for the professionally qualified youngsters, but mere graduates too. Sometimes, the companies did not even ask for a degree. Certain types of employment began to be de-linked from degrees.

The uncertainties and the sense of insecurity did not stalk them. Even stop gap employments were well paying.

Attrition rates troubled IT companies and BPOs and the confidence level of the youngsters rose proportionately. Job jumping became a regular feature in the IT industry.

This is the scene which greeted the present generation as they entered the world in search of a job. They breathed the air of promise - promise of sure livelihood and immense prosperity.

Their self- confidence and poise are indicators of the ambiance in a growing economic superpower.

What I admire about today’s youth is their focus. They know what they want from life. They know what they don’t want from life. And they are honest about it. They don’t get carried away by idealism or dreams. They are smart enough to know that with an engineering degree or management degree, their future is made. Hence, one often hears such remarks:
“I love literature – but what’s the point in doing a degree in literature?”
”Chemistry is my first and last love, but I’ll go in for engineering. No scope for pure science”
“No medicine for me. It’ll take me more than 7 years to start earning. And the uncertainties too”.

Yes. They are down to earth. And their pragmatism pays. They become lucratively employed even before they complete their courses.

The demands of the job make them a disciplined lot. They don’t squander away money but invest it wisely. To think that these youngsters were part responsible for the boom in the real estate industry in Kochin and elsewhere!

Now to come to our story.

As youngsters, we were so different. The world in which we grew up was also different. The India of the sixties and seventies (the period of our teenage and twenties) was still a young nation. Idealism and faith in the system were high, though in the seventies they began to suffer erosion. For a quick reconnaissance of the memories of the sixties and the seventies – the famine of the sixties, Nehru, Socialist Democracy, Shastri, break up of the Indian Nation Congress, the rise of Indira Gandhi. Garibi Hatao, Family planning drive, minor subversion of democratic systems, Bangle Desh victory, Russia our friend, Jayaprakash Narayan, the Emergency, Janata government fiasco, protected economy - -

Yes. We grew up in a nation in its infancy, struggling to recover from four centuries of colonial exploitation. Those were difficult days, but optimism was high. Cynicism about the political system hadn’t set in.

But as job seekers, we struggled. The mismatch between education and employment was huge. Even, marks were difficult to earn. A first class in the family was an event that called for a big celebration. Jobs were hard to come by. In Kerala, the number of unemployed graduates was on the increase.

The youngsters in my days were insecure about the future. The obsession with public sector jobs was an indication of the sense of insecurity the youth experienced on the job front. The number of young girls who wished to pursue a career was rather low. A graduate degree was a qualification more for the marriage market than the job market.

Today girls have broken free of that mindset. They have a level playing field in both education and employment. IT industry is a great leveller of sexes.

And the salary scales in those days were pathetic. An average employee’s dream did not stray beyond a hand to mouth existence. Yet job jumping was unheard of. Jobs were simply not there. The car was a luxury which many could not afford till the onset of middle age.

The creamy layer (financially) discouraged its youth from taking up a job. Family business s or taking care of the family estates were more lucrative.

The comfortable jobs - the executive in a bank or companies or in the public sector – were not as paying a they are today, and the competition to secure them was stiff.

No, we did not possess the self-confidence, poise and affluence of today’s youth. But we soldiered on, cheerfully. WE scrimped and saved. And contributed our mite to the growth of this nation.

And our country acknowledged our efforts by giving our children a better life.

Disclaimer: The source is my memory and observation. This is just my take. Please excuse inaccuracies and false information, if any.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Auto Nightmare of Kerala

I sometimes wonder why the atmosphere in Kerala is so charged with hostility. Is there something wrong with us Keralites? Or am I being overcritical about our own state and people? You know a case of grass being greener on the other side?

Do we need to change?

This hostility – I see this everywhere. But a sector where it is tangible, palpable is that of the autorichshaw service in Cochin and Mid-Travancore districts.

As a working woman who does not use her own vehicle, I used to depend a lot on autorickshaws. I once engaged an auto from the railway station in a small town in Mid-Travancore. As we approached the destination, the ride became bumpy – in more sense than one. The road was full of gutters and the driver became more and more angry with every inch of the distance we covered. And abusive too. At one point he turned around and snarled at me, demanding to know why I hadn’t warned him about the road. I told him meekly that I hadn’t been aware of the condition of the road. Just then I spotted my colleague to whom I was to hand over a parcel. She was standing at her gate. I gave her the parcel without alighting from the auto. Seeing the autowallah’s ferocious expression, she looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“Get down, have a cup of coffee.”
“No”, I said. “Have a lecture now”
“OK”, she said, looking uneasy.

And the return journey started. He continued his offensive. Nasty, foul, insulting tirade against me continued till we reached the gate of the college where I worked. I got down and asked him,
”How much?” I knew how much that distance would cost but thought I’d pay him for the damage to the vehicle he had been harping on in the course of his ranting. He switched off the motor, leaned back in the seat, looked at me venomously and retorted
“How much do you think?”
“This distance would usually cost me twenty rupees. But I’ll give you what you want because of the road condition”
He stepped out of his auto, his body language like that of the Undertaker in WWW, and sneered
“You people. What do you care about us? After the petrol and maintenance, we get nothing out of this business”.

I could feel my temper rising. I wanted to tell him the road was not my fault, his business was none of my concern. He should learn to talk more politely and that he was behaving like a barbarian. But I said nothing of the sort, ‘cos we were outside the college gate and I didn’t want my students to see me getting into an argument that was bound to be devoid of dignity. I took out thirty rupees, but he wouldn’t accept the money till he had had his say.

My iron control snapped. To date, I am happy I did what I did instead of indulging in a shouting match. I got back into the auto, and told him to take the auto to the Police Control room. That brought him to his senses for I could see a startled expression cross his face fleetingly. Then he changed his tactics. He turned to a passer-by and started a sob sob tale about the woes of an auto driver and how people like me added to his miseries. I was astounded. What on earth is he trying to do, I wondered.

Fortunately for me, the passer-by happened to be a casual employee in my college. His name was Martin. I asked him to get into the auto to go to the Police station. “You can be a witness”, I said, “Not that I need a witness in this case”. Martin instantly obliged. Our man stood there for a moment looking at us. Then,
“Get down”, he said gruffly. He looked at me and asked, “You admit we too have to live, eh?”

Was he trying to offer an explanation for his behaviour? Anyway, if he was, it made no sense to me. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t understand how I stood in the way of him and his livelihood.

I stared at him, trying to keep my face as expressionless as possible. I didn’t trust myself to speak.

By then, there was a small audience which embarrassed me. Mine was a familiar face in those parts.

And then Rev. Sr. M, my colleague, appeared from somewhere and asked me what the confusion was all about.
“This gentleman has been insulting me from the moment the auto turned into the road leading to Mina’s house. He hasn’t yet stopped. If this is not harassment, what is?”
“But Ammey (That’s how the nuns are addressed), that road was terrible”, butted in that auto driver.
“But why do you insult this teacher for it?”
“I wasn’t insulting”, he lied. “I told her, most courteously, that the road was bad and it was she who started yelling at me!!!!!???” And then very triumphantly
“It’s her word against mine!”

I was furious. “Are you going to take the auto to the Police station. We’ll settle the matter there”, I told him. He didn’t move. I asked Martin to go into the College office and phone for the Police (This happened before the cell phone became common).
Rev. Sr. M intervened. “Leave it, Molly”, she said.
“No. I’ll see that he never drives an auto again – at least not in the near future.”

Apparently, the auto driver had no nexus with the Police,’cos he turned to Sister M and said “What does she want to harm a poor helpless auto driver like me for?”

By then, I realized that I had become the villain of the piece with a section of the small audience. A few autos that were passing by had stopped and the drivers joined the crowd to watch the drama.

My resolve crumbled for some reason. All I wanted was to get away from there and get to work. And Rev Sister M was so persuasive. “File a complaint, and it’ll be a big pulivalu (meaning it’ll be like holding the tiger by the tail). It’ll drag on. You’ll have to keep going to the court. Do you have the time for it? And then that clinching question. “Is it worth it?”

I asked Martin to settle the fare with him, got out of the auto and walked into the college without a backward glance.

But the episode spoilt my day. Left such a dirty taste in my mouth.

I haven’t been able to figure out why the man behaved like that. This incident is but one of the many many unpleasant brushes I have had with the autowallahs in Kerala. Being left with no choice, I have learnt to take it in my stride. I have learnt to deal with it. If I am charged four times the actual fare, I pay it, knowing fully well I am being cheated. If they refuse to be engaged because the distance is too short for the kill, I move on and look for the next auto, and the next and the next - - . That’s much easier than hauling him over the coals; it's much easier than belligerently asking him why the government has issued license to him. or reminding him that I can bring him to justice, if I so wished. This way, I can keep my BP normal.

But I don’t stop wondering - Why do they treat the passengers so shabbily? Why do they look upon them with such hatred and enmity?

I sometimes get the feeling that they take an instant dislike to anyone who earns a livelihood doing anything other that driving autos. And if the passenger happens to be a woman – and a working one at that- they throw all pretence of civility to the winds.

God’s Own Country.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Am I a Feminist?

Tag ed by cris

I once got into trouble for confessing that “Feminism is not my cup of tea”. Ever since, I nod emphatically in agreement when asked it I am a feminist.

Am I a feminist?

I guess all women are that, without quite realizing it. By nature, I don’t make a song and dance of it, and am quite indulgent to male chauvinism wherever and whenever I have to deal with it. I don’t get very vocal or hyterical but keep my cool and usually have my way without any friction. You can say that I'm one hell of a survivor in this patriarchal world!

But there were a few occasions when I chose to stiffly resist the entrenched gendered thinking. On this one occasion that i'm about to talk about in this post, it was in the domestic front, and the fury and intensity of my reaction to a typical situation were , at that moment, inexplicable even to me. Looking back I think what provoked the full activation of the feminist in me was my anxiety not to pass on the legacy of male chauvinism to the next generation. As a woman, that’s the least I could do for our sex.

On that particular day, my help had not turned up.

We had a huge compound with every tree under the sun in the front yard, and, if the fallen leaves were not removed twice a day, the yard would look like the Sleeping Beauty’s palace compound when Prince Charming came a hundred years later to wake her up with a kiss (would some one like to offer a feminist reading of that tale?).

I started cleaning the compound. My daughter, as was usual when the help didn’t turn up, came out, took a broom and started sweeping from the othe r end of the compound. I insisted she go back to her books as she had a test that day. The poor kid went away, looking very guilty and feeling very sorry for me. A few minutes later ,my seven year old son Mathew came to the verandah, and seeing me clean the compound started to help me. This was the first time I saw him at this work and was pleasantly surprised to see he was doing a good job of it. I allotted a portion of the yard to him and together we continued clearing the compound. Just then, his grandfather, a octogenarian came out into the veranda and was heading for his armchair when he noticed Mathew sweeping. I saw him stare incredulously and then go back into the house.

A minute later, his grandmother came, all upset and ordered Mathew to stop what he was doing.
“Go in Mathew, Don’t you have anything to study?”
“No.I’m helpimg amma”
“I’ll do it. Why should YOU do it”(don't miss the emphasis on 'you')
“Why shouldn’t he do it?”, that was me. Why was I reacting like that, I wondered. Why was i creating an unnecessary situation early in the morning?
“He’s a boy”. I coulldn’t believe my ears.
By then, Mathew had dropped the broom and had started back ”Mathew”, I called. “Finish what you are doing”
He came back and picked up the broom.
“Give the broom to me, Mon”. His grandmother was very diplomatic. ”I love doing this. Let me do it”
“There’s one more broom, amma”, I persisted. “Use that if you want to sweep”.
“We don’t need three people to do this”
“There’s enough compound for four people”.
She turned to Math and very gently told him to run inside and have the boost that’s kept ready on the dining table.
“Mathew can have his Boost after he finishes the portion allotted to him”
“But, but, he’s a boy, Molly. Boys shouldn’t be doing this”
“Where in the Bible has Jesus Christ stated thus?”, I asked quietly, unkindly. But I had to say it. I had to make a point. And Christ. I believe . is the greatest feminist ever.
She gave up, and went into the house, looking very worried about how she is going to convince her husband that there’s nothing wrong with a boy sweeping the compound.
My feminist blogs: http://pareltank.blogspot.com/2008/04/bringing-up-nazrani-girl-child.html;
http://brokenmuse.blogspot.com/ - except Deshamsam ?10%, the peoms have feminist themes, written during that phase in my life(and every woman's life) when resentment of the "man's world' turned me temporarily into a third rate poet.

Am tagging

Strange that i have three males on my list? Well, their views on "FEMINISM' will complete the picture :-)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I think some of my blog visitors got me all wrong. What I meant about India's Obama was not an Indian citizen with attributes that correspond one to one with Obama's. Expecting to find someone like that is as ridiculous as desiring it. Most certainly, I was not talking of an Indian with cross national lineage, or a law degree equivalent to a Harvard law degree or or or or or - --

What I had in mind was the 'Obama Impact' which I would define as
  • a nation being inspired to rise above a historical prejudice fundamental to its psyche
  • the people being inspired to put their country above all other divisive interests
  • a people being charged with enthusiasm and energy at the prospect of correcting the mistakes of the past
  • a people being inspired to cast away cynicism and to believe in the possibility of their participation in the governance of the land
  • the youth being inspired to believe in a great future for their country

My take on Obama is informed by the unusual nature of the campaign which involved people of all age groups and all walks of life. My source was not just the media. The blogs were a real eye opener and I realised that Obama is an impact, a movement. People talk about how happy they were to contribute to this campaign, people who were averse to contributing to political activities.

To see the Obama impact, one has to only go back to the 'we can' chant, the like of which I haven't seen anywhere. Black and white, red and yellow and brown - all were chanting without any inhibition. A leader with that kind of hold on the people can take difficult but momentuous decisions.

That's the impact. We dont know how he will perform as a president, what policies he will make, how he will deal with international issues. But those are not the issues here.

The issue is the Obama Impact. It's all about the curing of a nation of its cynicism and restoring faith in the system. It is uniting a people not with narrow nationalism, but with patriotism.

Is there a person in India who can do it? That was the question i posed.

Apparently, i didn't make myself clear. I dont know if I am making myself clear now.

On Being Absent Minded

Ever since I remember, I was absent minded. As a child I was terrible in this aspect, and the cover-up operations of my forgetfulness related escapades were even worse.

My father once asked me to switch on the geyser in the bathroom and open the tap so that the plastic tub (not bathing tub – a huge tall bucket which we called tub) would be filled with hot water when he came for his bath. As I opened the bathroom door, I saw my face in the mirror above the wash basin. I stood there making faces at myself for sometime and then came out forgetting all about the geyser. Exactly 15 minutes later, he called me again to remind me to switch off the geyser and close the tap. (He was such a meticulous person that it’s a mystery to me even now how I didn’t inherit even an iota of that quality). I rushed to the bathroom and did what I was supposed to do 15 minutes earlier, and as I turned around, I saw him standing at the door of the bathroom staring at the empty tub.

Perplexed, he asked,” What happened?”
“I don’t know”, I lied. “Water stopped, I think”
“It’s not good for the geyser (it was not a storage geyser & not the automatic cut off type – this happened some 40 years back). It’s dangerous too. Might cause shorting in the house.”
Then, “Hereafter, you better remain in the bathroom till the tub is full”.

God’s punishment for lying, I told myself.

The next day, around the same time, I was asked to switch on the geyser and remain in the bathroom and keep a watchful eye over the flow of water from the tap. I switched on the geyser, took an Enid Blyton’s Noddy book, and sat in the dressing room reading. Half an hour later, my father came in to find me engrossed in the book and the tub overflowing.

“The tub is over flowing”. He sounded angry.
“It wasn’t a minute back”, I lied through my teeth
“Why? Did the water stop like yesterday? It takes only 15 minutes for the tub to get filled”
“Yes”, I lied again. “Water stopped again”
“Did you switch off the geyser then>
“Then what happened?”
“Suddenly it started flowing again”
“What could be wrong?” he was puzzled. “Maybe something goes wrong when the water channel becomes hot”.

After his bath, he switched on the geyser to fill the tub for my mother, and waited to see for himself the symptoms of the geyser’s malady. He made me wait with him. But nothing happened. In fifteen minutes, the tub was full, and he appeared relieved.

“Strange”, he said.
“Strange” I agreed.


Absent mindedness has been my faithful companion through my life. There were a few times when the two of us nearly set my house on fire, or brought it dangerously close to the brink of disaster. And there were times when I was able to see the strangest spectacles when this faithful companion chose to assert himself - like that day when I put a round bottomed vessel of water on the stove and forgot all about it. After some time, we got a strange smell of molten metal, and I suggested to my husband and children that it might be coming from the dyeing unit of the Bombay Dyeing factory in the adjacent compound. Lunch time came around and I went into the kitchen. I’ll never forget the sight that greeted me. The round vessel had changed its shape and looked like the perfect female figure – and there it sat on the flame like a woman sitting on a pyre. And the flame had acquired a supernatural hue, bringing to mind the biblical burning bush!


But one absent mindedness related episode I would like to completely blot out from my mind happened at the turn of this century. It was a Saturday, and my cook hadn’t come. So, I got into the kitchen to make quick biriyani. The black elastic broad hair band I used to wear to prevent hair from falling into food, was nowhere to be seen. Just then my eyes fell on a huge notice my mother-in-law had brought from the church. The hats the chefs in TV programmes wore came to my mind and I made a cap out of that notice and placed it on my head. I knew to make only one type of hat – the conical dunce cap. I fixed it on my head with a couple of slides and started cooking.

The door bell rang.

I forgot all about the dunce cap on my head. I opened the door, and there stood the newspaper agent with the bill. He looked at me and his expression changed abruptly. He looked flabbergasted and was staring at me as though he had seen a ghost.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, totally perplexed.

“Nothing”. He said, his eyes darting towards my head. And then I remembered my topi. Immediately, I ducked behind the door. Then, realizing that he was waiting there, I stuck out just my head from behind the door and told him to wait while I got the money.

Guess I was too flustered to remember that the problem was with my head and not the rest of me. The man, by now had a strange expression in his eyes. With eyes like saucers, he looked at my head crowned with the dunce cap peeping out from behind the door. I thought he looked nervous. AS I walked to my room to get the money, I looked out of the small window overlooking the stairs which led to my first floor flat. And I saw the man running down the steps, three steps at a time, as though the very devil was after him.

He sent the newspaper delivery boy the next day with a note for the money. Ever since, that became the arrangement to collect the payment for the paper.

Monday, November 10, 2008

India's Obama - Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera

Please read through before you decide on bouquets or brickbats.

Why Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera?
(Some of the references I make by way of illustrations might appear trivial. But, Ms. Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera is not a public figure and has kept a low profile, and so I had to go by the available evidence).

I. She has conducted herslf with extreme dignity to date. She is a very poised, level headed and a confident person.
2. The Nehrus continue to have a national appeal. In fact, they have more of a national appeal than regional. This will help people to rise above the narrow, parochial obsessions that are threatening the unity of the country. There are many regional leaders with excellent political track record, but they have only a rgional following. A country like ours with its hetrogeneity will find it difficult to relate to such a person.
3. She does not carry the baggage of controversies or scandals.
4. She is young enough for a long innings ahead.
5. She has proved to be a person with an iron will. Remember the way she took charge of matters when Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated, how she cleared within a matter of minutes the official hurdles regarding helicopter etc to bring his body to Delhi.(Source - magazines that covered the assasination)
6. Yet she is a gentle soul with a forgiving heart. Her visit under utmost secrecy to the prison to meet Rajiv Gandhi's assasin, was probably to come to terms, after all these years, with the brutal killing of her father. It is so important that a leader is not vengeful.
7. After her studies, she took up a job as a teacher in a school, probably because she wanted to experience the real India outside the palace gate.
8. She works hard for the constituencies of her mother and brother. She works at grassroot level in these constituencies and is familiar with the terrible level of deprivation in rural india. She is a much loved figure in UP.
9. She dislikes sycophancy. Soon after the UPA came into power, an official in the secretariat was suspended for spelling 'Vadhera' wrong on an invitation card. Priyanka immediately had the suspension withdrawn, and is reported to have expressed her displeasure at the party having gone that extra yard to please the Gandhis.
10. She is a person who does her roles -both social and public - to perfection.
11. She has politics in her blood.

One often hears wishful thining that Priyanka would join politics, as she has the fire and guts of Indira Gandhi and a passionate commitment to democracy like Nehru. At this point of time, an icon with this particular combination of qualities is what the country needs.

There was a time when I was a hardcore critic of Indira Gandhi. But older and wiser now, and terribly distressed at the way the country in being splintered by megalomaniacal politicians, I backtrack on all my criticism of Indira Gandhi, and recognise the fact that we need a strong person at the helm, a person who can fire the imagination of the people enough to make them forget their differences, a person who can promise change from the votebank and communnal politics which is rending the country apart and a person who has the courage to address the problem of the rampant corruption pervading the country. The Bofors fiasco would have taught her the important lesson that Caesar should keep himself above blame.

If anyone can bring the misled youth back into mainstream life from communal politics and class war, I think it is Priyanka. She has the charisma, dignity, courage and mass appeal.

Priyanka, it can safely be assumed, is well versed with Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's socialist leanings, and Rajiv Gandhi's initiatives which brought liberalisation and technological progress into India. Sonia Gandhi's choice of Dr. Manmohan Singh is a continuation of the good work done by Rajiv Gandhi, as also the desire to have a clean and competent man at the helm of affairs in the country. It is only natural to assume that coming from this political family, Priyanka Gandhi has been ivolved in the debates and deliberations in connection with the choice of Prime Minister after the last general elections.. There were also reports at that time that ascribed to Priyanka the decision taken by Sonia Gandhi not accept the PM’s post. So, inexperience is not an issue where she is concerned. Though she has yet to launch herself into the political arena, she has the political moorings required for a leader. Remember, Rajiv Gndhi was a novice in politics when he became the Prime Minister.

Yes. Priyanka Gandhi is the person who can turn things around for India. I was once a loud critic of dynastic politics. But in the case of this young lady, being the daughter of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, the grand daughter of Indira and Feroze Gandhi and the great grand daughter of Jawharlal Nehru and great great grand daughter of Motiilal Nehru should not be considered a disqualification. Sometimes. grooming and breeding come in handy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

India's Obama - Part I

Yesterday, CNN/IBN conducted an sms poll on “Who is India’s Obama?” The preferred names were Rahul Gandhi, Lalu Prasad Yadav & Narendra Modi!! I have my reservations about all three of them. Coincidentally, the last name was already slated as the Obama of India in an exchange I had with a co-visitor of a particular blog I read regularly. The idea was so scary that I ran for my life!

I suppose the answer to that poser is derived from one’s perception of the President –Elect of the USA.

So, what does Obama represent?

The issues that were hotly debated in the US election campaign had no role in shaping my take on Obama. Like that of my compatriots, mine also was an outsider’s academic interest in the fresh and new star that rose in the American horizon, and dominated the imagination of America for over a year.

I suppose experiencing Obama as a voter is very different from watching him from across the seven seas from an Asian country which has one thing in common with the USA – a fierce possessiveness about its democracy.

And this is not all. Many factors inform the individual’s perception of a world leader, and these factors differ from person to person.

As a person whose academic engagement with the political fact of the Empire was more than two decades old, I reacted the minute Obama's victory was confirmed with the comment ,“The Empire strikes back”. Knowing that I had a bee in the bonnet about this issue, my husband smiled indulgently, but a minute later said, “Come to think of it, you are right”. Call it colonial hangover, if you wish (all Indians are afflicted by it but not many admit it). The race superiority theory which is axiomatic to the Imperial discourse about the white destiny to rule and civilize, had been exploded. Jesse Owens did it some decades ago on a smaller scale; but Obama’s victory had an important difference. Owens' was a one man’s effort. The just conducted US election was an emphatic statement of a nation, which brings me to my next point.

Colonization is a dual process. It involves the colonizer and the colonized. Decolonization too, similarly, is a dual process. Both the victim and the perpeterator have to be cured of the colonial complexes. Otherwise decolonisation is not complete or comprehensive. Thus it is that I claim that the people of the US released themselves from the psychological bondage of the imperial rhetoric by giving a resounding victory to Obama – it was a deafeningly loud acknowledgement that colour is but skin deep. It was a major step in the intellectual and psychological decolonisation of America. The effect was cathartic. Once a nation unloads an oppressive burden from its mind, the peace that follows is a near bliss, and an atmosphere charged with positive energy is created, which, in this case, should prove to be the ideal soil for the Great American Dream to strike roots in its unpolluted form . We in India share that joy with the people of the USA and wish them a fast recovery from the economic crisis under their new President.

The long and short of it is, it was the decolonization of an imperial people that was evidenced by the election . (The nature of the US colonialism is not the same as Britain’s and the other European colonial powers, but can be considered under the same umbrella despite the difference).

Now to come to the question of Obama.

He is a person who has his finger on the pulse of the nation ripe for change, and ashamed of the big bully image created by successive administrations.

Equally important, he recognized the fact that America has a CONSCIENCE, which had been lying dormant for a long long time. During his election campaign, Obama had the courage to awaken that collective conscience, and transform that force into a concerted clamour for change. The change was bound to be painful. It was bound to call for sacrifices and adjustments in a consumerist society. He realized that the people of the America were willing to take up the challenge if they had an honest man to lead from the front.

That man was Barak Obama.

And he caught the imagination of the people by using a rhetoric outside the existing one.

The success of Obama lies in his diagnostic acumen which enabled him to detect the ills of the American polity, in his courage to address these ills and inspire the nation, particularly the youth, to take up the challenge.

That’s my take on Barak Obama. I had to have a theory on what is Barak Obama in order to decide on India’s Obama, which is what my next post is about.

Guess who my choice is?

India’s Obama has to be honest, courageous, charismatic, a person with national appeal, therefore not parochial. She/he has to have fire in the belly, should be a humanist with a forgiving heart, and should unite the nation, salvage the people’s faith in the democratic systems, inspire the people groaning under the poor governance of self seeking politicians, boldly address the class, caste and creed divides. She/he should inspire the nation into craving for moral uprightness.

There comes a time in the life of every nation when it craves for change. When a Messiah comes with a promise of change, the nation will embrace him warmly. We saw it happen in the US. India too is ready. But who is that Messiah?

I appeal to my blog visitors to respond with their choice before my next post. Would be nice if you could get your blog circle also to respond.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama and The Indian Media - Snippets

The inevitable has happened. The conscience of America has asserted itself. Obama is, among other things, the American voters’ emphatic apology to the world for the wounds inflicted on it under the banner of ‘making the world safe for democracy’.

We hope things will be different from 2009 January.

The Indian media has been covering the election very enthusiastically. Its reaction to Obama’s election is quite fascinating. Here are random samples of it.

Let’s begin with the Ernakulam MP Sebastian Paul who was the expert commentator for one of the Malayalam channels. He felt that through Obama’s middle name, Saddam Hussein had his revenge on Bush and the Republican administration! To hear a Marxist talk of Saddam Hussein’s SOUL finding peace now, was indeed funny! He, as also Karat and the other commentators of Kairali Channel, took a few potshots at PM Manmohan Singh. They wondered what the PM would do now that the party of India’s “best friend’ Bush was voted out of power. It was, they felt, the people’s verdict on Bush’s international and domestic policies. The Ernakulam MP was very positive about Obama, but chose to keep his fingers crossed. He hoped it would not be like the Janata government’s fiasco after it was voted into power with great expectations after the Emergency.

The anchor person put a strange question to Sebastian Paul.
“Suppose the whole world were to participate in this election. Do you think Obama would get such a massive victory?”
Mr. Paul came up with the typical leftist answer. “Yes”, he said. “Obama stands for the oppressed people of the world. He represents the concept of liberation”.

There was this journalist (I didn’t get his initials right-so shall keep his name out) who thought that Obama cannot make much of a difference. He felt that the only thing that can pull USA quickly out of the recession is a boom in the arms industry. So the threat perceptions around the world would have to be kept very high. "Obama may not be able to resist the pressure from the arms lobby which decides the foreign policy of the USA”. Very cynical, I thought.

He felt that Obama’s victory was the verdict of his countrymen on Bush’s failure – in Iraq, in the Arab- Israeli peace negotiations, in Iran and in east Europe where he could do nothing against Russia’s high-handedness.

Mr. T C Srinivasan felt that Obama’s victory should be partly ascribed to Bush’s success in internal security. There were no attacks after 9/11. So there was no need felt for a tough President.

All the persons interviewed agreed that the recession was responsible for the undecided voters casting their votes in favour of Obama. These were negative votes-against Bush’s economic policies. And McCain’s statement that he was a babe in economics was badly timed.

Sara Palin's conservatism, many thought, frightened away the moderates among the Republicans.

All eulogized over Martin Luther King’s dream coming true. All the channels played and replayed the "I have a Dream" speech. However, the references in Malayalam to idea of "Black", was not well handled by the media, particularly when they appeared in the headlines. The racial angle could have been handled a little more delicately, I thought.

Regarding Indo-Us relationship, no one had anything substantial to say. Sebastian Paul felt that India never figured in Obama’s election rhetoric till June 2008, notwithstanding a Gandhi picture on the wall of his office. Most felt that whenever India did figure in his speeches or interviews, he said nothing to get really excited about. On the other hand, his references to India caused a few eyebrows to go up. Media never misses a chance to remind us about Obama’s campaign memo referring to Hillary Clinton as “that democrat from Punjab”. “New Delhi is starkly absent in his vision of a larger Asian framework. There is no Obama talk of India in the UN Security Council” (V. Sudarshan)

Obama’s last minute remarks on Kashmir has left a lot of people confused. There was talk about a possible shift in the US attitude to India, and a couple of commentators expressed hope that the traditional US policy regarding Kashmir will be adhered to. Many remembered that Obama was a critic of the Nuclear Deal. There are references to Obama “moving the poison pill amendment to address his proliferation concern”. V. Sudarshan of Indian Express quoted from Obama’s letter to the PM Manmohan Singh about his desire for ‘greater collaboration with India on nonproliferation issue” as “one of my highest priorities as president”. He feels Obama is not as “predisposed to Delhi as his predecessor who personally intervened many time in the tortuous passage of the 123 to keep the deal alive”. Obama’s conservatism on this issue “will tell on the implementation 123”. Needless to say, Marxists, who have already begun sneering at Manmohan Singh, are eagerly waiting to see the Deal run into trouble.

Sudarshan is anxious about Obama’s position on Kashmir. “More worryingly, Obama sees Kashmir being in the way of Pakistan effectively dealing with America’s central front in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan”. Referring to Obama’s article in Foreign Affairs(July/August 2007), he writes, ”Parsed properly, Obama seems to think that Kashmir needs to be resolved as an incentive for Pakistan to do a better job fighting al-Qaeda…..How quickly does Obama think he can persuade our Pakistani friends to cut their link with Kashmiri secessionist? In the first two years of his presidency? The notion itself is so excessively simplistic and so like a campaign speech but has that touch of dangerous naivety that bears watching how this develops.”

I would have shrugged this off on account of my skepticism about the New Indian Express, had it not been for Obama’s s statement on Kashmir hours before the election.

But we in India want to be optimistic like our Finance Minister Chidambaram who, when asked by journalists about outsourcing soon after Obama’s election, said that a comment here and a comment there before the elections should not be taken seriously. “Once he studies the situation, he’ll realize that in this interconnected world, such drastic steps cannot be taken”.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama and Kashmir.

Why should Kashmir figure in Obama's election speech? Don't know how Am-Indians feel about it but we out here are getting a little jittery. The Government at the Centre, still in the grip of India - America bhai bhai euphoria, is playing it down as the the product of the high excitement on the eve of the elections. But why drag Kashmir in? and speak of it in the same breath as Afghanistan? Is his understanding of the issue flawed? The BJP has started going hammer and tongs after Obama. The Kashmiri separatist groups are ecstatic.

Many who ( like me ) put this nation above evrything else are confused, and a wee bit anxious. Why Kashmir as the last stroke before the people go to the polling booths? It is our internal matter. And wherever the US has stepped in, they've left behind a mess.

For the first time since Obama entered the election fray, I began to wonder at the significance of his middle name.

The Anatomy of Modern Anglophiles

(Rumaging through some old papers, I came across this piece I'd written a more than a decade ago. I remember it was a journey in the local train in Mumbai from Bandra to Churchgate in the company of a group of young convent educated ladies with magnficent mastery over the English language that inspired me to write this piece)
They come in all shapes and forms. But the classic specimen usually wears her hair short, hoping, perhaps, with the severing of locks can be effected a cut off from the traditions of the culture she was unfortunately born into. However, time and again, she discovers to her embarrassment and ( irritation too), that roots cannot be severed as easily as the mane, for shoots keep sprouting up from some stubborn, hidden roots much faster than her hair grows back.

She speaks English taking immense pains to keep the vernacular flavour from tainting her impeccable language. A votary of the concept of Standard English, she’ll brook no arguments about standard being out and differences being in. Should you dare merely hint at such an outrageous idea, she’d immediately plunge into a heated defence of the sacrosanct nature of the English language with such indignation that it’d silence you forever. And so there she goes waiting for an “S” to be trapped among vowels so that she can go ZZZZing over it while looking down with celestial contempt at her riff-raff compatriots who are too preoccupied with expressing themselves to worry about preserving the Anglo-Saxon quality of a language thrust upon them by a quirk of history. She struts around, poor girl, too pleased with herself and her flawless English to detect the merriment she arouses among those around her who are twisting the language, sometimes stretching it out of shape to accommodate their Indian sensibilities which they respect more than the alien tongue.

And the most distinguishing quality of a present day anglophile is her withering scorn for anything Indian.
”What? Indians write novels in English?” She goes into peals of laughter.
“Rushdie? Oh, he has been in England all along.
“Seth? Well, he was in Los Angeles.
Roy? Mmm, she’s been out of India at least.”
“Indian journalism in English? huh! A disgrace! Indians should stick to the vernacular,”
“Haven’t Indian English journalists brought down governments, caused many an eminent head to roll, exposed scams and kickbacks?”
“So what? Their language is not up to the mark”
Which mark, one does not dare to ask.
And Indian cinema? Poor thing. If not for her superhuman efforts, she’d have retched all over the place.
“Cinema is a western medium”, she manages to stammer out. “Indian film makers can never be comfortable with it”. With a final heroic attempt to contain nausea, she declares that Indian should give up the idea of making movies.
“Plenty of English movies in the market. Dub them”. Mustering courage from her swooning condition, you venture to say,”We are not conditioned enough to enjoy them all that much. We like a little bit of running around the trees with music in the background, a little bit of romance, a dash of mush”
Oh, the pitying contempt in her eyes for the poor Calibans!
And the plight of music in India? How it makes her flesh crawl! When Beethoven thunders, her eyes close and she gets transported instantly to wherever he is at the moment. When the Spice Girls screech, she thrashes around in sheer ecstasy. Let not a Lata Mangeshkar or an Udit Narayan interrupt. Her ecstatic sway would come to an abrupt full stop and her nose would go up, up, up----the sky is then limit. An expression of supreme indifference would mask her countenance.

Did I say she hates everything Indian? Allow me to withdraw that statement. 'cos she doesn’t, you see. She likes everything ethnic – even if it is dried cow dung used as tablemats. You see, Europeans like all these ethnic stuff. Like them, she too believes that India’s glory lay in the remote past. Nothing of the present is really worthwhile except these relics from the past.

Cocooned in western rhetoric, these creatures head westward when they develop wings. If the westward pilgrimage fails to materialize, they seek out those with feathers of the same hue, and flock together.

This is a vanishing species. Thank God for his little mercies