Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The surreal world of the great Indian adoption fLAWS

According to recent reports from government agencies, much publicized by the press (accompanied by suitable tongue clicking), adoptions in 2008-2009 have fallen by about half, over even the measly number from last year.

This is despite a concerted effort, on many fronts, to encourage the Indian adult to adopt. The press, as well as the electronic media, has done its part by bringing adoption to the forefront of the Indian mind. TV ad campaign “in public interest” have been backed up by gushy articles in the press about the joys of adoption, its social significance, the pleasures of parenthood and whatnot. The local and central governments have put up hoardings and billboards at strategic locations, pushing adoption. Electric bills are being printed and mailed with social messages encouraging people to adopt a child.

And still the numbers are falling? Is this an indication of the ever unchanging Indian biases against adoption? Is this an indication of the growing selfishness among the prospering middle and upper-middle classes? NOT AT ALL. All this indicates is the age-old “short term fixes ignore the long run” approach of the Indian establishment to just about everything. The system makes it extremely difficult for most people to adopt, completely impossible for some, even though they may be willing and able to love, support, and make a home for a child.

As recently as two decades ago, hardly anyone would even think of adoption. Forget couples who already had children of their own (whn god gives in such plenty why adopt some unknown child with unknown antecedents? Much better to carry on the Vansh, the bloodline), even the majority of childless couples would not imagine bringing a child home. Childlessness was a punishment from god, a fault of their “kismet”, or just bad luck (unless of course the BARREN woman was to blame). And who can fight GOD’s will?

So has nothing changed? Yes, much has. From a time when adoption was the last resort of the childless couple (and even then a child from a known family and bloodline was sought, like that of an impoverished relative with more kids than he could feed), today its more and more acceptable, at least in the more open minded urban culture. So why are the numbers falling, you may ask. There are a number of reasons, and none of them has to do with the reluctance of couples to adopt or with a scarcity of suitable up-for-adoption kids in the system.

First, and most important, hindrance is the superlative levels of red tape an the total lack of organization in the process and the agencies. Although there are thousands of suitable children available for adoption all over the country, and hundreds, at least, of couples wanting and waiting to adopt them, bringing the two together seems beyond the capabilities of the government. There isn’t even a national database of adoptable kids! So, if you are a couple in Maharashtra wanting to adopt, and there are no suitable children in that area, you might have to wait indefinitely for one to become available (through being orphaned or abandoned) even though there are hundreds of children available in other states.

The complete lack of technological application also makes the actual adoption process a long and convoluted one. Running around from one Organisation to another, from one Babu to another; providing a plethora of authentications, documents, proofs, ad nauseum; the months of waiting while the juggernaut of government machinery rolls along at an achingly slow pace. The police verifications and background checks alone take months, or years even, and the total process can last anywhere from three to five years, sometimes more.

Add that to the fact that most couples overcome a lot of mental, emotional, societal, and familial opposition and pressure to take the decision to adopt in the first place, and you have the beginnings of a picture. But there’s more. Most couples, for obvious reasons, seek to adopt infants. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The child comes to you as a blank slate, so to speak, with no preprogrammed language, culture, values an so on. Effectively, it’s as good as having one of your own in terms of seamless integration into the family and society. The child is young enough to be moulded totally into one of you.

Now picture you picking a six month old, and then beginning the process that will ultimately allow you to take it home. By the time the process is completed, the child could be a six year old, brought up in an orphanage, imbibing no-one-knows what values and culture from the people who look after it. Not exactly great for instant “apnapan”. All it means for you is that you will have a long haul of un-programming, before you can even think of beginning the reprogram that makes the child a part of your family, social set, and culture. All the behaviour picked up so far will have to be un-learned before the child can learn the behaviour that is acceptable in your world.

In addition, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Jain parents can only adopt Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain orphans, or abandoned kids, whose parents are not known, where the kid has been brought up in these religions! (What kind of sense that makes, in a country already swooning under the burden of divisionism, I have no idea. Why not let the parents choose? Let them decide if they would like to adopt across communities. Maybe that would even help ease inter community tensions a little). A Hindu woman, the wife of a Hindu man, cannot apply for adoption or be a co-applicant. She can only “give her consent”, and that too only if she herself is a Hindu. There are separate laws for Muslims and Parsis, but for the most part those don’t even allow outright adoption. They only allow kids to be placed in Guardianship, which ends when the children attain legal maturity. All this only adds complications, and makes it more and more impossible for couples to adopt easily or quickly.

And that’s not all. The problems stated so far only arise in the case of a married couple who have no children of their own. Now one can easily imagine how much harder EVERY thing is, for a single person wanting to adopt in India. First of all, let’s not forget the instinctive mistrust mainstream India shows for anyone who chooses not to marry. That’s bad enough, and speculation of all kinds from sexual inadequacy to homosexuality will be advanced as a reason behind such a choice. Factor in the desire of such a “strange” person to adopt a child, and you have an instant “WHY”. The paranoia is so deep rooted that it is excruciatingly difficult for a single person to adopt (in spite of the brownie points the government feels entitled to for even allowing it in the first place), thus reducing the number of prospective adoptive parents even further!

There are other issues too. Twenty something years ago, my parents wanted to adopt a child. They have two of their own, but they had the economic strength to bring up more, and thought it would be a good way to pay-it-back, give back to society. But, the great Indian adoption (f)laws prevented that very, very effectively. They had one son and one daughter, you see. So, according to the Hindu adoption laws, they could neither adopt a girl or a boy. Completely nonsensical, of course, considering that people would only want another child of the same gender if they really wanted it.

Two decades later, it hasn’t gotten any better. My man and I want to adopt, we want girls, and we want not one but two. However there is a hitch, a major one. We already have a biological daughter! So, the government of India, in all its wisdom, and on the basis of a law un-amended since the mid 1800s, tells me I cannot have more, unless I choose to overburden an already overcrowded planet by bearing more. And all this in a country like India, where female foetuses are lucky if they are allowed to be born, where female infants are incredibly lucky if they are not thrown into a well, drowned in a river, or suffocated to death with salt. Presumably, the government knows more about me than I do, and can tell that I am only pretending to want girls. What I probably really want to do, the omniscient feels, is bring them home, pay for their upkeep, education and everything else, only to make them high class slaves to my OWN daughter.

Unless the system loses its prejudices about OWN and ADOPTED children, until the processes are streamlined and cleaned up, until it takes less time – and heartache – from choosing the child to bringing it home, until religion and community stops being so much of a barrier, until single people are accepted and encouraged as adoptive parents, and until people desirous of adopting are allowed, even aided, to do so regardless of gender of child and existing biological offspring, nothing is going to change.

Adoption rates WILL fall. And neither the press nor the government should be remotely surprised by it. After all, a die hard pro-adoption couple as us (I knew I would adopt since I was 12 years old, my man, since he was in college) has been forced to all but give up the plan to bring home a child in the face of such determined and targeted opposition from the Indian government. It’s taken us four years of banging on doors and begging at agencies. Pity really, considering that two homeless, parentless, love deprived little girls would have gotten a family in that time.

School reforms turn out to be self defeatist

When I was a school going child, the system of “donations” was just taking off. What it meant, of course, was that to have your child admitted to certain schools (usually considered the A-list ones, or the best of the best) one had to pay a considerable amount of cash, over and above all the legitimate schooling expenses, as donation to the school fund. Essentially it was, and is, nothing more than a bribe, to sweeten the deal, and make sure that the kid gets into the “right” schools.

Back then, of course, there were large numbers of parents, like mine for example, who didn’t think that getting your kid into the “right school” was essential, even at the cost of your principles. A bribe was a bribe, and they refused to pay. My brother and I have had a first rate education. Both are now well into our adult lives, I firmly settled in a good profession and he doing his PhD in Chicago. So, obviously, we didn’t lose out much from never studying in a “right” school that required donation. This becomes an even greater feat, for my parents, when you consider the fact that they changed cities every few years, and bhai and I have gone to at least a dozen different educational institutions in our lives.

Getting the kids into a new school every two or three years can be tough. The temptation to give into the demand for donation must have been considerable. But they had enough confidence in us that we could clear whatever entrance tests were thrown at us, and that we would be fine in a “not top of the list” school. However, sadly, parents now seem to have lost that confidence in their kids. Everyone has gone completely ape-crazy about the “best” schools, and as a result, donations are now a fact of life. A recently opened, fairly low on the scale school I know looks like a prison, has no play space, has closed dark classrooms, unqualified and inadequate teachers, and charges 50 thousand rupees for admission to pre-school!

With greed going off the charts, and more and more schools (A B C D E list, doesn’t matter anymore) getting on the donation bandwagon, things have gone totally insane. It can cost you anything from 30 thousand to 2 lacs to have your child admitted to primary school, depending on what list the school considers itself! At some point, someone HAD to do something to change the status quo and put the brakes on the ever increasing demands for donation. A recent initiative by the government of India was supposed to do exactly that. However, as things turn out, it hasn’t achieved much. In fact, it’s set itself up to be self defeatist.

The judiciary a few years ago had banned entrance exams and interviews for kids entering primary school, and seeking admission to the nursery. The rationale was simple. Having interviews and tests not only put pressure on the tots (as insane parents try to teach them everything beforehand, from colour combinations to spellings) it also discriminates against kids from a non-English background, or from a lower social stratum (whose parents might not be able to teach the kid everything at home and may be unable to afford a playschool or tutor). As with most judgments, this one too was coolly ignored everywhere. Schools everywhere continue to conduct tests and interviews not just for the kids, but the parents too! (
Insane at school!)

Now, the government is finally putting in place a system of checks and balances. Or so it would seem to the naked eye. Now parents of students, or would be students, have the right to go to court against schools that refuse admission without a test/interview, or demand a donation. Wow! I thought, when I first read the news, finally a step in the right direction. But no! That was a premature celebration on my part. The last part of the plan undoes all the good that the rest of it proposes.

It stipulates that no case or complaint can be initiated without the prior go-ahead from a “properly appointed” official put in place by the government. Hmmm…interesting… having lived all my life in India, I am understandably wary of such arrangement and such language. In my experience, as it is in of those who know the system, “government appointed” anything is just another excuse for not taking any action, miring the issue in miles and miles of red tape, and making it easy for some BABU or another to make a fortune in under-the-table dealings.

What’s the point of making schools liable for this type of misconduct if that liability is not likely to be properly imposed? If the parent has to waste time, money, and energy in running from pillar to post trying to get the OK of some SARKARI BABU before they can even consider going to court (which in itself involves discouragingly high levels of expenditure of all those resources), what is the likelihood of any cases being lodged at all? And what is the guarantee that these “appointed” officials are going to be any more honest and any less corrupt than their brethren? Isn’t this just a way of giving the schools an out so that they can financially, or otherwise, influence these “officials” and prevent parents from taking action against them? Sure seems like that to me!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Insane at school!

“Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said when she found herself in the wonderland down the rabbit’s hole; that’s exactly what you would feel like saying in view of certain strange goings on in urban India today! To anyone with a little balance and grounding, the current behaviour of parents and guardians of most tiny tots, seems incomprehensible.

Two year olds, in playschool, have mother’s taking a day off from work to ask about “progress reports”. The favorite topic of conversation at the “waiting for the tot to be let out of playgroup” gathering of parents and guardians is how many and what schools one has got a “form” from. The biggest, most well known, most expensive, and most uppity schools are compared and contrasted ad infinitum, and everyone expresses how worried they are at how little the kid seems to be learning at the current playgroup.

One could almost believe these were high school students, close to their career defining board exams, that were being discussed, instead of two to three year olds who can hardly talk properly yet, let alone hold a pencil or a tune. Come admission time, the older (that means three plus years old) kids’ parents go completely insane, it seems, in their effort to get the child into a “good school”. Good, of course, is decided by how much insane pressure they put on the kids, and how famous they are… for whatever reason. Actual analysis of what they offer in terms of personality growth, mental development, or even curriculum seems immaterial.

Taking advantage of this insane rush, the so-called A schools basically make their own rules. They not only take interviews of the child, which would be mad enough, considering the child is just over three, but they also have “interviews” of the parents. One well known “open plan” foundation even makes the prospective parents take a one hour written test, before the whole rigmarole of interviews! Is that insane? Or what? To admit a three year old to school, to pay for its education, making the school a lot of money, the PARENT has to take a test?!! And that too when the judiciary has recently expressly forbidden schools from even interviewing parents?

After all, you take your kid and put him/her in a school. The idea is that you pay them, and they teach your child. Right? So why must you and your spouse have to prove that you are presentable, English speaking, literate, educated, articulate or any such thing? That’s none of the school’s business! Their job is to teach your kid to be all of those things, which they usually don’t, not to examine your status and worth! It is not for them to say “you cannot speak good English, therefore your money and your child is not good enough for our school”. According to the order by the courts, they are supposed to admit any kid who turns up, on a first come first served basis, as long as there are seats!

To make the parents not only give an interview but to sit through a one hour written exam is plain insulting! It’s worse than humiliating, it’s a downright affront! What is amazing though is that every year anything like 400 sets of parents turn up to put themselves through this humiliation and abuse, for the 30 seats that are open. Are these schools really “all that”? Will a child automatically become Nobel Prize material for having studied in one of them? And if a child has to, god forbid, go to a smaller or lesser known school, will it automatically become a useless burden on society?

Isn’t it time we, as parents and citizens, begin to think about these issues a little and have and show a little self respect? Isn’t it time we ease up a little on our infants and let them actually have a childhood for a change?

Global Good Manners are still far away for most Indians

As a culture, we don’t really learn global etiquette. The way our society is still largely structured, we don’t see the need for universal politeness. The feudal and caste hangovers (very much present today, just under the surface) make us very selective in who we are nice to. While we traditionally kowtow to our “superiors” (the thakur, the mahajan, the boss, the guru, the elder) we are notoriously callous to the “lower orders” (the junior at work, the waiter, the jamadar, the maid, the waiter, the hammaal, the list is virtually endless).

While this worked fine (or did it?) in the strictly regimented feudal system we seem unable to forget, it makes us dysfunctional in the new world order. It’s bad enough right here at home, where social-economic changes have blurred age old boundaries of categorization, replacing them with new, and still unfamiliar, categories of class. But it becomes a downright handicap when going abroad, working abroad, or dealing with foreign colleagues/friends/superiors in India.

Traditionally, the modes of behaviour for each section of society, with regard to upward and downward social intercourse, were strictly defined. Lateral social behaviour was left, in the main, up to the person. But, since lateral social intercourse was confined almost entirely within the family-extended family-business circles, it wasn’t such a big deal to be particularly polite, and all necessary guidelines were easily provided by the rules for “how to behave with those older/younger than you”. When circles expanded, to not only include non community, non family members, but non nationals or ex-nationals as well, things changed and suddenly etiquette began to matter.

Yet, there wasn’t, and isn’t (with no likeliness of being in the near future), any formal training in etiquette at the school level. Nor are these new laws of global social behaviour taught at home. As a result, most of us blunder extensively. Some of us have rubbed shoulders with “the other” for long enough, and imbibed enough of the exposure available today, to realize how important etiquette is. So, they try to learn on their own, from various sources, not excluding soft skill classes. However, most still don’t seem to care, and not only ruin the impression they make, but bring a bad name to the entire “Indian” community around the world.

So what do we do wrong? Where do I begin? It can be as basic as not knowing when to use Hello versus Hi. For example most “yo type” Indians have given up the Hello altogether, even in formal situations. While this usually passes muster in the local context, in the case of a foreign posting, an interview, etc, it can be an impression ruin-er. Hi is for friends, intimate circles, family, informal situations. In an interview, or when being introduced to someone “important”, hi just wont do! Hello is the only greeting for formal or important occasions.

We also have no concept of basic etiquette when someone asks “how do you do” or “how are you”. First of all how many people realize that “how do you do” is not a question? If someone says “how do you do” it’s a greeting…like hello….they are not asking the state of your health or life, so don’t tell them. The correct response is “how do you do”. If someone says it, you say it back. On the other hand, should someone say “how are you” or “how are you doing” you reply with a “I’m fine/great/good thank you”. It’s not an invitation to dump your troubles on the enquirer. It’s just “duniyadari”. So don’t tell them about the aching back, the corns, downsizing, or any other small upsets taking place in life right now.

With our feudal heritage, another thing we never learnt was to say Please and Thank You. Lower orders are CREATED to serve the higher orders, so where’s the question of thanking them? So we generally come across as very rude, uncouth people. We never say please when placing an order for food for example, or thank the waiter for bringing us our water, or the food, or anything. After all, we rationalise, it’s his/her job! Well, etiquette does not care if it’s their job, if someone does something for you, however trivial, you thank them; if you WANT someone to do something for you, however trivial, you say please.

Every time I say “good thnx” in reply to the regular “how are you”s from my friends (offline and online), I get the highly predictable “thanx for what?” Uhhh…. “thnx for asking??” There are two aspects of Indian social life acting here, making people wonder why I am thanking them because I am fine. One of course is the absence of any etiquette training, at any level, for the general public. The second is the concept of formality versus familiarity. Because of the way social intercourse used to be structured here, (and still is to a great extent) there were two totally different sets of behaviour for “others” and for “our people”. So, any contact with “apne log” was seen to be free of any necessity for FORMALITY. Plus, we have any number of Bollywood, and other, movies telling us really nonsensical and counterintuitive things like “no sorry or thank you in friendhip”, which doesn’t help the overall situation at all.

The way I see it, my friends and loved ones are the most important people in my life! All the more reason for me to request them to do something, rather than order them, or to say thank you, showing my appreciation for whatever they may do for me. In fact, it’s less of a problem to forget to thank the waiter than it is to forget to thank my man for example. After all, my man means a lot more to me than a waiter does, and I wouldn’t want him to feel taken for granted. All of us have, at some time or another, felt unappreciated and known the pain of a thankless job. Why should we inflict that pain on anyone, much less our friends and loved ones?

Oh! And who can forge the famous Indian Standard Time syndrome? When I throw a party, I tell my non-indian or ex-indian friends the right time to be there. For my Indian friends, I quote a time at least a hour before. So, if I want everyone to be there by 8pm, I will tell them 7pm, and STILL many would not have turned up by 9. We just don’t seem to get the concept of punctuality. And, while being late for a party or to hang out with friends may not be such a big deal (it is too! especially if it is a recurring phenomenon) the same cavalier attitude to time, in the case of a Meeting or for an interview, can have serious effects on one’s career and one’s general rep, not to mention the immense amount of irritation it engenders in the one who has to wait. why should we think that only our time is important and that everyone else exists but to wait for us, indefinitely? Whether it is traffic, or the inability to get dressed fast, or whatever, why can’t we plan ahead? Personally, I’d rather get there an hour early than five minutes late.

And is that all the list of our transgressions? Not even half. Basic things elude us. For example, I take my little daughter to a shop or a mall. Now precocious and self reliant as she is, the heavy glass swing doors are more than a three and a half year old can manage. So, most of the time, I would be laden with bags, juggling baby’s bottle of water, bag of snacks and change of clothes, and heading for the doors I know she cannot open on her own. Anywhere else in the world, someone would open the door for me. Here, unless there’s a security guard at the gate, no such hope. Not only will I have to struggle the doors open, while I wait for the baby to toddle out, at least half a dozen adults will shove her aside and traipse in and out as if I am holding the door for them!

We are completely unable to queue for anything! Given any situation where an orderly queue is required, whether at a ticket counter, the bank, the bus stop, or wherever, Indians will invariably all try to get to the counter at once, or at least look over each others’ shoulders and press forward for a better view of the proceedings, thus subjecting others not only to sundry shoves, and body odour, but also considerably slowing down the basic process itself. If everyone just took their turn, not only would everything proceed much more smoothly, and faster, but would cut out the immense frustration, irritation, and even anger, felt by the better behaved!

We have even given up some good habits we were forced to follow under the “older system” too. As we give up the traditional values, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and have totally failed to reach the standards of the “western” world that we are aiming for. The “yo” generation has given up trying to be, and is indeed actively resisting being, “good” in the age-old Indian sense, but seems to have stopped short of achieving, or even coming close to, international standards of polite social behaviour.

And the malaise has spread into all age groups and all classes. No one, for example waits a few seconds to let older people pass anymore. Everyone is in a tearing hurry, in this age of instant gratification, and anyone – old people, kids, or people who are ill --- who can’t keep up will be trampled underfoot or shoved to the side. And this is not true only of the “office time” rush hour when people seem totally blind to anything else, but happens at any time of day or night. Not only do we shove past anyone who is moving at a pace fractionally slower than ours, we don’t even have the manners to say “excuse me” when we do! No one, and I mean no one – youngsters, mature people, men, women, -- ever offers their seat to an elderly person in a bus or a train anymore.

This has become so much of a rare occurrence, that when I did so recently, in the Shatabdi Express, a supposedly up-market train, the lady I gave up my seat to was completely astonished! We seem to all be coming from a “plane” of entitlement. We feel that this is “MINE”, “I deserve it, I got to it first, so why should I give it up?” its immaterial if it is a 20-year-old sitting, while an 80-year old, or a pregnant woman, or someone carrying a lot of stuff and older, might be standing precariously in the rapidly lurching behemoth. We have ladies seats in buses. However, no seats reserved for the elderly. And, this has happened with me, when I give up the seat to an elderly male passenger struggling with bags, he was argued and scolded out of his seat by a 23-24 year old at the nest stop who insisted that she had more right to the seat because it was reserved for “ladies”! Very un-lady-like behaviour as far as I could see.

We also don’t have basic table and social manners. We shove, sneeze, cough, burp and belch in public, all without seeing any need to either cover our mouths or apologise. We chew with our mouths wide open, and we pick remnants of chicken from between the teeth with a toothpick, without feeling the slightest need to cover up the gaping orifice. Since this is not a big deal to us personally, and since we don’t notice this kind of uncouth behaviour in others, we assume we have the right to treat all and sundry to an excellent view of our gullet with half masticated food…. Surely they find it fascinating!

In a supermarket…the lack of manners is worse. Supermarkets are quite a recent concept, and most of us have no clue of the rules of etiquette necessary to negotiate through these places without being a total barbarian. We park our carts in the middle of the aisle while we browse the shelves on both sides, blocking the entire stretch to anyone else. We let our kids loose to run around, cannoning into people, carts, and shelves, and driving the attendants up a wall. We block an entire shelf while six of us have a “family conference” about which brand of coffee to buy. If there is even one person in front of the canned soup, we think nothing of reaching over their shoulders, or under their arms, to snap up that can of our favourite, before They decide they want them all.

This last transgression is a factor of another major lack in our concepts. The idea of personal space. Living in an overcrowded developing nation, traveling cheek-by-jowl in buses and trains bursting at the seams, and being brought up in a culture that gives zero importance to the individual, and places full emphasis on family, community, and so on, we never learn the idea. Yet, the people we are now interacting with and working with have a very clear, and strongly held, belief in personal space! We DON’T get the fact that getting too close, physically, makes most foreigners, and some urban Indians, very uncomfortable.

The same social structures also make us nosy and over-familiar. A French friend of mine, a woman of a certain age, always found it extremely offensive that Indians, after about half an hour of acquaintance, asked her why she wasn’t married yet, and whether she was seeing someone. This is a common issue. Culturally, we place so much importance on marriage, and have so few boundaries, that we don’t realise how personal a question of this sort is to the rest of the world! A close friend might ask something like that, but not a passing acquaintance or someone in a more formal social situation!

Along the same lines, a couple, married for about four years, always complained of how everyone not only asked about why they were not having kids, but also assumed there was a problem, and offered a plethora of unwanted advice! The idea of a couple “choosing” to wait some time before procreating, or “choosing” not to have kids seems to be something we cannot grasp. In our system, by the time you are 30, if not before, it’s a given that marriage is the next step. And since this marriage is usually with a total stranger you know nothing about and care less about, the only purpose of marriage is to “have issues”. The concepts of consolidating a relationship before taking on a huge, lifelong responsibility does not exist. After all, having kids is something everyone HAS to do, and as for bringing them up? “bacche to pal hi jate hain”

The list is virtually endless, and I encounter more and more examples every day! To mention them all here would only lengthen this far beyond the immense length it has already managed to acquire. So many little things escape us, because of our total unfamiliarity with the politeness principle, and basic civic sense, but they all affect the way people around the world look at us, deal with us, and feel around us. Seemingly small, tiny, things can leave a bad taste in the mouth for the visitor or foreign colleague. It ranges from the way we speak, what we say, to body language and “nosiness”. Considering that India is going all out in a bid to be a global power, and Indians becoming more and more “unconfined”, maybe it’s time we paid a little attention to how we present ourselves to the world, and how we interact with its members.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Magazine Shmagazine

My regular magazine, Outlook, has been unavailable for the last few weeks, for some strange reason. As a compensation, hoping not to lose the money, my paperwallah has been giving me India Today instead, and this has made me very unhappy. Strange that, considering the fact that until very recently (just a few years) India Today was my preferred magazine. Yet, getting it now, I have just re-realised why I stopped reading it in the first place. It’s become a rag, descended to the level of just another glossy tabloid.

What’s more, I got something called the India Today Woman with the mag. Hoping against hope, remembering the once quality magazine that India Today used to be, I went through it, in spite of all my usual disgust of the “women’s magazines”. Sure enough, I was disappointed yet again. One, count it, one article about Lara Balsara stood out like a lonely little light among reams of nothing but shopping and beauty pages. And even the one sole article took the so-called “female” angle. It seemed to be much more about her preferences in partying, clothes and food, than about any of her achievements as one of the most promising young women in the business world.

Makes me wonder where the editorial board of the mag is coming from. What’s the rationale behind this terrible excuse for a magazine? Do they really believe that women, ALL women, are interested in only beauty and shopping and where Lara Balsara prefers to shop? Or do they think that women, ALL women, are incapable of grasping the finer, or even broader, points of a woman’s career in the business world? Or does it go deeper than that? Is this part of the larger unstated unconscious conspiracy to KEEP women interested in the shallower things of life, keeping more thought provoking topics, and fields, a male bastion?

Whatever the underlying cause, it is depressing and disappointing in the extreme, especially for a woman like me, who IS interested in, and capable of grasping, things deeper than the latest fairness treatment, and the newest “long-stay lipstick”. This is not a new problem either. It began with adolescence, when I entered a certain target demographic. I never could stand the Feminas and Women’s Eras of the world, nor their much hyped, much glossier, but equally depthless foreign brethren such as Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping. Nor could I stand the Filmfare, Stardust, Cine Blitz ilk, whose sole obsession was the private lives of movie stars.

What, then, was an intelligent educated Indian WOMAN, not interested in obsessing about cooking, shopping, and housekeeping, or stars stars stars, supposed to read? Thank god for magazines like The Illustrated Weekly, and Frontline. Both, at that time, were well balanced magazines, which gave me much more to think about than whether I should regret not being able to buy a Gucci or a Prada. I could get my teeth into them, ruminate, digest, think, and come away with something worthwhile. But the Weekly shut shop in the early 1990s, and Frontline became more and more highbrow and politicized, going to the opposite end of the spectrum from the fluff peddlers, and dissapeared into the rarefied realms.

For a while, there wasn’t much to fill the gap, and for people like me. Then, outlook was launched, and grew into just the right kind of magazine. Politics, current affairs, analyses, news, “women’s” pages, shopping, films, books, and much more, in a neat little package, with good writing (a huge rarity these days), usually good English (an even rarer commodity), and insightful and concise commentary. Just the thing to engage the mind without overwhelming it. After all, if I want political theory (or astrophysics for that matter) I am more than willing to pick up a book on the subject.

Now, with my dislike for even stalwarts like India Today being reconfirmed, I guess I have no option but to sit back and wait for my own Outlook to be available again. I would rather never read another magazine again in my entire life, than pick up a Femina/Women’s Era/Eve’s Weekly or a Filmfare/Cineblitz/Stardust. So, unless I want to invite more stress and frustration than I am willing to stand, I’ll just sit here and hope my paper guy finds Outlook again soon!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mobile phones in India

It’s amazing how fast the phenomenon has caught on. Ten years ago, mobiles were a rarity, restricted to the very few who needed constant contact-ability, constant access to work, news, and so on. Tycoons and businessmen, fillum wallahs and bade babus, stockbrokers and paisewallahs this was the segment that needed or owned mobile phones even as recently as a decade ago.

Now? My bhajiwala has a cell phone, my bai has a cell phone, the autowallah whips out a cell phone and says “meeting me hun…karta hun phone”. Suddenly, they are everywhere, these gizmos, in every hand, stuck to every ear. Its amazing how fast and how far they have penetrated. From an item of luxury, they have become a necessity, essential to the day to day life of most people. How did this happen? What changed? What turned the “I don’t even need a landline” Indian into the “I can’t live without the latest handset” Indian? The way I see it, it was a combination of a lot of things.

Money for one. A huge change has been creeping in, almost unnoticed. Almost everyone has disposable cash these days. Even the humblest of wage earners seem to have discovered that money is for spending. Consumerism and a growing retail culture has converted India into a “buy, buy, buy” land, where the motto, even a decade or so ago was “save, save, save.” Loans are easy and aplenty, needs redefined by swanky foreign ads on TV, and availability through the roofs with every major global player fighting it out for a piece of the Indian pie.

Attitudes have changed too. Keeping up with the Jones’, a universal preoccupation, has reached obsessive and epidemic proportions now, and the world has grown smaller, making more and more varied kinds of Jones’ available to compete with. It’s a boon for all kinds of manufacturers, from clothes to “modular” kitchens, from “tish” furniture to consumer durables. The more people compete, the more they update, which means more sales of progressively higher segment goods. And the same applies to mobile handsets.

Me? I own the cheapest most basic handset. And no, money is not the only consideration in this. First and foremost, the Jones’ leave me cold. I never could se the logic in “keeping up”. I buy what I need, what I can use. And I use basic call and sms functions on a mobile…as do most people. So, to me, it makes no sense to buy one of the top end handsets with a thousand “features” that I don’t need and will never use. Add to that the fact that I have a child at home, whose favourite pastime is chucking mommie’s things about, and the lower end and hardier the handset is, the better it is for me.

As it is, how many people really use all the features on their swank phones on a regular basis? I haven’t seen anyone do it consistently. Sure they take a lot of pictures with their camera phones, shoot a lot of video, and send MMS messages, but that lasts for a few days, weeks at most. After that? Back to the basics…making and receiving calls, sending and receiving messages. So, essentially, the only reason most people (barring a very few I know) buy a 25 thousand rupee handset, is to show they can. It’s another way of saying “look how much money I have, to throw away”.

It’s permeated every section of society, every stratum of class. And, to this “show-off” mentality has been added the illusion of grandeur that a mobile phone gives us. Everyone likes feeling important, needed, sought after. A mobile phone gives us the illusion that we are all of those things. After all, it is the most important, most needed people who have to be in contact with the world all the time. It is the indispensable people who cannot be unreachable for even one minute, lest something should go horribly wrong in their absence. Look around you, and you will see that everyone with a mobile phone today is as important as the national security advisor to the president of the US.

Every free second, snatched in between whatever it is one does all day, is devoted to this new fetish. Crossing the street or grabbing a cuppa, walking or chilling, on a date or hanging with friends, the mobile is never far from the ear or the fingertips. Do we really need such all-encompassing connectivity? Do I really need sales messages and credit card companies calling me in the middle of a hot date? Do I need a customer satisfaction survey in the middle of my siesta? Do I absolutely need “Bollywood gossip” updates when I am at a movie theatre?

And what about the increasing number of parents who are giving mobile phones to their kids, “to keep tabs on them”? now that’s the most spurious piece of nonsense logic I have ever heard. Keep tabs? How? The kid could be sitting in a pub guzzling alcohol, phone rings, all he/she has to do is say “haan ma, I am at the temple”. There is no way of knowing. If they don’t want to be disturbed, they can just switch the damn thing off, and say “network nahi pakad raha tha”. All a mobile really does is to give the parents a false sense of security, which probably does more harm than good.

And kids with mobiles, or stupid grown ups with mobiles for that matter, are a danger to themselves in more ways than one. Not only do they run up exorbitant bills, they can put themselves in direct danger too. its amazing how easily kids, and a number of adults, give their numbers to total strangers, on the net for example. What they don’t realize is that it is highly dangerous to do this, and against all the common sense measures for internet safety! Anyone who knows your phone number can cause inconvenience in a number of ways.

For one thing, they could call you at all hours of day and night, or SMS, which can be merely irritating (in the case of normal calls) to downright disgusting (in the case of obscene or vulgar calls and messages). But that’s only a minor issue. After all most service providers provide call barring services and you can delete messages without opening them. The real problem, that most people don’t realize, is that if someone has your mobile number, and knows where to look, they can find out where you live.

This may not seem like such a big deal on the surface. But imagine this – this is a person you don’t know at all. All you know, or think you know, about them, is from their own words. How do you know that this person is not some kind of a criminal, a stalker, or worse? Your mental, emotional, physical and financial safety could be in very real danger!! What’s the bottom line then? Are mobiles good or bad? Useful or dangerous? Like all technology, the answer would lie in how we use it. Amazing connectivity and any time availability can be a great boon, in emergencies (see
Mobile phones – miracle or curse?), and for people who need blow by blow accounts of their work etc. using it wisely, in a balanced way, with conscious thought and prudence, and these wonders of technology are quite amazing (if one could only get rid of the pesky telemarketers)!

Mobile phones – miracle or curse?

When cell phones were still a new concept in India, many people debated whether cell phones, or mobile phones as they are known here, were really as useful and essential as they were being made out to be. A decade or so down the line, one can clearly say that whatever the outcome of the debate, the public has decided unanimously in favor of mobile phones.

However, since the popular thing is not always or necessarily the best thing, it doesn’t hurt to think things over and decide for oneself if mobile phones are a miracle or a curse. What does a mobile phone mean in your life, both in terms of convenience and inconvenience? Is it all good? All fabulous? Or are there any downsides? It’s not a cut-and-dried, black-and-white issue, most things aren’t. Where they have a number of advantages, they have or cause many negatives as well.

It is an amazing example of technology to be able to call anyone anytime from almost anywhere. And yes, there is a huge difference made in day to day life, all because of these little gadgets. They are useful almost anytime, great in an emergency, and convenient to carry around. There are any numbers of examples I can give of how useful these little gizmos are. There was that time. For example, when we were driving to Mumbai on a hot summer’s night, just after the first toll booth on the expressway, and miles and miles from anywhere, we had car trouble. What kind? Well, we didn’t know. The damn thing just shut down!!! And refused to start again!!

Anyone who has been on that expressway knows how serious such a situation can be. First of all, the road is deserted and literally in the middle of nowhere. There are regular police patrols now, but at that time there weren’t that many, and there were a spate of hold-ups and robberies happening frequently on the entire stretch. So, what was one to do? Well, simple really, whip out the mobile phone and call the highway assistance number. Instant action resulted. In five minutes flat there was a police car at our location, and a tow truck pulled up within twenty minutes.

We got towed to the nearest petrol pump/gas station, where we found everything other than a mechanic. Out came the mobile again, and a mechanic arrived in another ten minutes! In a total of about two short hours we were all set to rights and on our way! Before the age of mobiles, we could very well have been robbed and murdered in that time, at worst, or have had to spend the night among the mosquitoes, at best.

Another time, Mumbai to Pune, we had a sort of run in with a car at Chembur. They cut across, we honked, they got mad at the honking and tried to make trouble … the usual. We dove away, refusing to get drawn into an ugly scene. By the time we got on to the expressway, the car, a quails with about six guys in it, had been consistently following us, overtaking, braking hard, and then speeding away, slowing, following, crossing, braking, speeding and so on. Apprehension wasn’t long in arriving, especially when we realized that the guys were drinking, and there was only me and my man in our car. Out came the ever present cell phone. One call, and the Qualis with the six guys was stopped at the Kalamboli toll booth, and we drove off with a big sigh of relief!

However, it is not all rosy and hunky dory. I hate the constant reach-ability for example. Although I do turn the phone off at night, it’s a little iffy, as I don’t have a landline and may not be contactable in an emergency. But leaving it on all night, or at certain other times doesn’t work too well either, because Indians have no cell phone etiquette. Not only do we not have a clue about things like “timing”, we think nothing of calling up anyone at anytime, without any thought to their convenience.

Any idiot would know that 3.30 or 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, for example, is “rest time” for most. Yet, every single Sunday, people will call, between 2 and 4 pm. Why? Because they don’t think, they are not taught (traditionally) to consider other people at all. It’s a “racial” thing. Our society does not place any emphasis on etiquette and basic manners. And so, just because I am awake at some ungodly hour, I don’t pause to consider whether calling someone now may be a problem, or an irritant, for them.

Another example of the total absence of manners is the phenomenon of the cell phone in the movie. Every time you go to see a movie in a theatre, there are bound to be some half a dozen cretins who will disturb your viewing pleasure with loud-ringing cell phones and louder and inane conversations. That’s one of the most irritating things on the PLANET!!! When you are in a theatre, “TURN THE GODDAMN PHONE OFF!!” After all, Barack Obama is not going to call you in the three hours that the movie will last (an hour and a half in the case of English ones). And if you are so bloody important that you cannot be incommunicado for even that much time, DON’T GO TO A MOVIE!!!! Rent at home or something, or give up films altogether. What you cannot do is ruin my enjoyment.

The levels of this kind of rudeness was brought forcibly home to me at a recent theatre festival. Even more than films, cell phones are an irritant in a play. Not only do they disturb the audience, they interfere with the actors on stage, making them lose their concentration, and create a lot of havoc with the sound system and so on. If you can’t turn of your cell phone, you should not go to a play at all. At a theatre festival I was at recently, the audience was reminded, again and again, to turn off their cell phones before the play began. In the first place, such a warning should not have been necessary at all. Any halfway decent person with a modicum of common sense should automatically realize these things.

But apparently that’s not the case. Not only do people have to be told, and reminded, again and again, some idiots STILL don’t get it!!! Throughout the festival (eight days), every single play had some a***ole or the other, often more than one, loudly informing a seemingly deaf caller “I am in a play, cant talk now, call later”, or better still, actually conducting a conversation!!!

Even if you are insensitive and rude enough to leave your phone on, you could at least put the ringer on silent, if you cant be bothered to do that, at least have the phone somewhere u can reach immediately, not in some inside pocket where it rings 20 times before you pick it up, if you cant be bothered even to do that, at least take the conversation outside!!! Nope….too much to expect from an Indian…one play actually had to be stopped, and the actors walked off the stage, for this unbelievably uncultured behaviour by the audience.

We don’t know how to talk softly either, volume controls are absent. If one has to have a mobile phone permanently stuck to ones ear, (and Bluetooth technology has made that description literal), one can, at least, cultivate the habit of speaking in an undertone. But no, ambient noise, often faulty technology, and native Indian brashness combine to fill the air with overloud conversations you DO NOT WANT TO HEAR, but have no choice but to listen in on. From inane to ugly, nasty to stupid, I suddenly become privy to everyones secrets, like it or not!

Needless to say, to me, these little gizmos are often more trouble than they are worth! There’s a lot more I want to say about the whole “mobile” movement, but that will have to wait until another day.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kaminey – something to look forward to

I am a very, very picky person in many ways, and in many things. And this pickiness definitely applies to films (refer “Thank God For “different” Hindi films” on this blog). The state of Bollywood being what it is it takes quite a lot, these days, to get me excited about a film. The reason that I am so looking forward to Kaminey is the pleasure of the many layered experience of a Vishal Bharadwaj film.

I am a blind fan! From his Makdee (2002), all the way to the perfect Omkara (2006), Vishal has progressively shown me qualities that are seriously lacking in most, if not all, other Indian (Hindi) film makers, he has given me the complete experience time and again. He has over time, made movies which are well written, or brilliantly adapted; he combines strong storylines with brilliant direction; coaxes amazing performances out of the cast; brings great technical values, and fabulous music to the mix, to serve up a complete movie going experience.

Before Vishal Bharadwaj showed Bollywood how it was done, Hindi movies were frankly a totally incomplete experience for me. Even the so called good films ended up being good in any one way or in another. If it had a good storyline it had bad acting, if it had both story and acting, it probably lacked technical values; if it had polish, the story, or acting, or screenplay sucked big time. Any which way you looked at it, it wasn’t complete. Most of Bollywood worked on the theory (and to a large extent still does) that more is more, where acting or direction or even special effects and camera work were concerned; the movies thus end up becoming one 3-hour-long ham scene. It’s not as if India doesn’t have good actors, it does, it always did, but they were forced to become either hams or bad comedians. Just think of what a Naseerudding Shah or an Anupan Kher was reduced to in a mainstream film. All true potential was destroyed, and “visible acting” was what was expected and extracted, painfully.

Over time, Bollywood has perpetrated such heinous crimes as turning the super sensitive Dharmendra of Anupama and Stayakam into the old fart, beefcake, action thing of Veeru Dada. Superb actors like Ajay Devgan, sensitive, effortless, and intense as they have now proved themselves, were forced into the yelling screaming, overacting “action hero” mold in Bollywood, where they rotted until Vishal came along.

Although Ajay at least had started to showcase his talent with films like Zakhm, until vishal made Omkara, no one in India could have imagined, even in their wildest dreams, that the uber-urban Saif could give such a brilliant performance. From the very beginning of his career, Saif Ali Khan has been the “Chhote Nawaab”; foreign educated, polished, anglicized, and very, very sophisticated. It was a visceral shock to me, to see the raw, uneducated, violent, gruff, Langda Tyagi that Vishal managed to create out of those raw materials.

Now, with Kaminey, Vishal has turned his magic hand to two other young actors with possible potential, but no opportunity to develop it. Shahid Kapoor is a Star. In India you don’t have to be an actor to be a star, in fact, it is better if you are not. Shahid has, so far, been a victim of the age old star syndrome. With Pankaj Kapoor and Neelima Azeem as parents, he has the right breeding (definitely) to be a great actor.

It’s started to come to the fore in a few small ways. In one or two recent films, like Jab We Met, he has shown promise. However, his talent has been methodically squashed by mainstream Bollywood, which went about making him a STAR. Now, with this double role in Vishal’s latest, I expect much from the young man, where real acting is concerned. Priyanka Chopra has also shown that she is a natural actress with a fair bit of potential, in films like Fashion. But, she too has been hobbled by mainstream Hindi film stardom, which is worse for the women, who end up getting glamorous bit-parts with little or no scope to show talent. I sincerely hope that Kaminey will give her the much awaited opportunity to show her true capabilities. After all, if Vishal can get the cartoon character called Kareena to turn in the kind of performance she did in Omkara, much can be expected from Priyanka.

Another hallmark of Vishal’s films, and something I always look forward to, is his superb music. Normally directed by Vishal himself, it turns out to be a brilliant fusion of Indian classical, sufi, folk and international styles of music. He encourages non-mainstream voices, often giving me a taste of something new, and showcases such unusual voices as his own and that of his wife Rekha, among others. His soundtracks, as evident from those of Makdee, Maqbool, the Blue Umbrella and Omkara, are all quite well rounded, complete, and a pleasure to listen to.

To top it all, there is slick cinematography, great look and feel, brilliant camera work and very impressive art direction. No wonder I think Vishal’s films are genuinely complete films that are worth waiting for! I sure hope Kaminey will live up to expectations. Oh well! We’ll know in a few weeks!

Chennai rocks!

Having lived all over this land of ours, having seen how things work (and don’t work) in the north and south and east and west, I think I am ready, at long last, to take a stand on what the ‘best place to live’ is, at least in my experience. And the winner is……. (drumroll)….. CHENNAI!!!!!

Why? Well, there are a number of things a city must give me before I would call it a good one. People feel thrilled when they hear Mumbai and Pune. Wow! They think. What amazing places. Well, I beg to differ…in spades!! Neither the presence of film stars, nor the overwhelming and “in your face” presence of malls and multiplexes can make a “good” city in my eyes. And as far as Pune is concerned, it has nothing else to offer. No brain food, no cerebral pursuits…NADA. If you are a young, rich person out of your village for the fist time, Pune is heaven. You can go pubbing every weekend with a different boyfriend or girlfriend, you can “hang out” at the malls and plexes, and you can talk up a storm at the cafes.

But if you need a little more from life, if you want something else to do….Pune is a desert. One measly “theatre festival” a year, one “music festival” and you are done. Your dues paid to CULTURE, you can now wallow in all the same shallow, and expensive, pursuits the year round. As for Mumbai, the culture scene is much better, of course. Something happening all the time, music, theatre, languages, film. But there are other issues….and major ones. The stink, the dirt, the sheer press of humanity you may be able to ignore (and most mumbaikars do), but how do you get to where you want to be?

The biggest problem I have with Mumbai is the huge amount of time I have to spend simply getting from place to place. If I have to do everything I want to do in a day, I would have to spend something like three fourths of the day traveling! There just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to live a full and fulfilling life in Mumbai. Add to this the frenetic and unrelenting PACE of the place -- everyone running, running, running, all the time….and I say “thanks a lot but no thanks”. It’s great for people who like to run, or for people who get a kick out of having “gawaar relatives” think that they shop at the same bhajiwala as Shah Rukh Khan. For me… it does nothing.

Dehradun, Nagpur, and the other small towns of my experience are laid back and slow, but are too provincial for my tastes (which are clearly too picky, hmmm). There is ABSOLUTELY nothing to do in places like that. If you are a retiree looking for a quiet place to spend your golden years, they are fabulous (although Dehradun has lost much of its charm and almost all of its natural beauty since becoming the capital of Uttaranchal). If, however, you need to see and do things, not forgetting the occasional trip to a disco balanced finely with the more cerebral and arty pursuits, surrounded by a certain type of people, these places are not for you. To top it all, if you are as “unconventional” and “individualistic” (that’s what I call it, most people call it bad, immoral, black sheep, and so on :D) as I am, the small town mentality, where everyone’s business is everyone’s business, is to be avoided like the plague.

Kolkata is heaven in almost all those mental ways. Short distances, good access, and a simply unbelievable range of things happening (not once a year at some festival but every single day!) Arts, theatre, languages, lectures, films, discussions, or simply adda with stalwarts of the pen and other crafts, all combine to make this city a sheer pleasure for the intellectually inclined. Add the fabulous street food, the ‘ever ready to argue about anything from philosophy and politics to cricket and football’ Bengali, and the huge number of civic spaces and people’s rights organizations, and it seems to be the perfect place to live. Not quite, as I have found, sadly. While cerebral pursuits are ample, even to the extent of surfeit, infrastructure, metropolitan mentality, and most importantly Professionalism are still sadly lacking.

Kolkattans will be up in arms, lambasting me for saying so, for we bongs prefer not to see, hear, or speak evil of our “Eden”, but facts are facts. Everything takes forever to get done, from opening or closing a bank account to something as simple as getting the electrician to come and fix a faulty ceiling fan. Everything works on the “hocche hobe, cholcche cholbe” principle. We are masters of procrastination. While this probably makes for better abilities in the leisure and cultural field (debatable) it does nothing for a stress free lifestyle. It’s improved amazingly, almost unrecognizably, in the last decade, but much, much more needs to change before it becomes an ideal metro.

But Chennai! Ah! Chennai is simply perfect! All the conveniences of a true world class metro, combined with the wonderful cerebral life of an “artists’ village”, combined with the simple lifestyle of a small town, it’s the most well balanced city I have seen in India so far. And its not today, 2009, that I am talking about. I arrived in Chennai in 1986. When most of India had not heard of credit cards, we shopped almost everywhere with plastic in Madras (as it was still called). Six years down the line, in Mumbai (top Indian metro, financial capital of the country, on par with Tokyo and the Big Apple, blah, blah, blah), we had to travel from Lokhandwala Complex, in Andheri, all the way to Hill Road, Bandra, to find an ATM, while in 86, they were easily accessible in Chennai!

People are swooning over multiplexes in metros in 2009, having met the concept barely a decade ago. In 1986, Chennai had multiple cinemas (Sathyam-Santham-Shivam, and sapphire-blue diamond-emerald, he latter of which ran continuous shows!!! A concept still unheard of in big city India!). It had the “drive-in” theatre on the beach (Prathana on the road to VGP) when the only other drive-in in India was in Mumbai, at the Bandra Kurla Complex (which shut down before you could say film). The rest of India still knows drive-ins only from Hollywood films.

When people all over India are just now talking about superstores and malls, Chennai had Vitan, and the Spencer’s Plaza back in ’86, where you could buy everything a person could need, under one roof! It was a concept unheard of at that point in time, anywhere else in India, but in Chennai it was already old enough not to be a novelty to the local populace. The roads were wide and clean (except in the old city which is a dingy narrow maze in any Indian city, and around the world) so that if you kept out of the interiors of places like Mylapore, you could travel fast and happy. While metros are falling over each other today in an attempt to build the most number of flyovers to ease traffic, Chennai already had a good network of flyovers assuring smooth flow of traffic back then.

If you wanted to get closer to nature, all you had to do was to drive into the Guindy National Park or drive around the IIT campus where spotted deer calmly crossed the street while you waited in the car. Unlike in Mumbai, the beaches were clean and not overcrowded (except Marina Beach), and walking or running on the beach was not only possible, it was a downright pleasure! Innovative ideas for theme parks and public entertainment were pioneered by places like VGP Golden Beach, where (back then at least) you bought a ticket to get in, used all the facilities including rides, sights, puppet and magic shows, and parks, and redeemed the ticket price by getting free food costing an equal amount!!! What an incentive to draw in more footfalls!

Culturally the place was amazing! I have seen some of the most memorable concerts of my life at the Music Academy, including stalwarts like Bhimsen Joshi, and an amazing three way concert by Ustad Allah Rakha on the Tabla with his two sons Zakir Hussain and Taufiq Qureshi. Simply scintillating and a regular feature of Chennai cultural life. As for food! Wow….having lived in such foodie heavens as Pune and Mumbai, and regularly visited such destinations of gastronomical delights as Kolkata, I can still say Chennai is probably the best city for food. You want cheap but wholesome (and yummy) south Indian food? Well everything from the nukkad Udipi joint to the nearest Meals Ready eaterie will supply it in copious amounts! International cuisine? Right there too!

Go for a “sunrise” stroll on the beach, and nip into the nearest shack on the way back for steaming hot Idlis with fresh coconut chutney and “gunpowder” (molagapodi). How to find the place? Just follow the delectable scents wafting on the fresh morning breeze! Cheap and extremely tasty, no one could blame you for hogging on these pieces of ambrosia to the bursting point! Lunchtime? Looking for a solid and balanced meal that sits easy on your stomach and on your pocket? Just look around you and find the little blackboard outside a little eatery that says “meals ready”. Walk in for a piping hot, amazingly tasty, and “unlimited” Tamilian meal. Something like 20 items comprise the meal and all repeat helpings are free!

More the international cuisine sort of person? No fear! Even back in ’86, when international food and gourmet cuisine wasn’t much of a concept in urban India, Chennai had some of the best restaurants, in my experience (which is considerable) serving world food. Good Chinese (and I don’t mean janta chines with jeera ka chhaunk, I’m talking about all the subtle flavours and the perfect balance of Cantonese blandness versus Szechuan spice) is something I have never come across in restaurants in that price range anywhere else in India. In Mumbai, Kolkata Delhi, I can get comparable food, but I pay 5-star prices for it. And, surprisingly, Tandoori and Punjabi places were amazing too!

And the infrastructure and services…oh WOW! Service with a smile is something the rest of India (especially the east zone) should learn from Chennai. And efficiency is unparalleled. In five years, we never saw a road being made or repaired! Might seem like an example of inefficiency until you realize there were no badly maintained roads in all that time either! A mystery, until we realized that all making and repairing of roads happened in the dead of the night, after traffic let up, so that you had a magically perfect road in the morning, by the time rush hour took off!! The snarls and hours-long jams caused by “roadworks” that are so common in the rest of India, was something we never experienced in Chennai. Things got fixed immediately, service people, both government and private, came when you called, and did the work required with a minimum of fuss and bother!

Renting or buying a home? Having shifted something like 40 houses in my 33 years, I consider myself a sort of expert at telling a badly designed house from a well designed one. Every time I have had to look for a new house in Mumbai, pune, Nagpur, Dehradun, etc, etc, etc… it was a P A I N. I would have to look at something like twenty houses before I found one that had enough natural light and air, didn’t waste space in unnecessary passages, and had a decent balance of dimensions for rooms versus kitchen and bathrooms. Not so in Chennai. most houses, at least in the “non-old-city” areas, were well designed, airy, with ample natural light, and (unheard of in any other major city!!!) most had inbuilt cupboards and shelves (the only other city I have seen this in is Hyderabad, another city I love….hmmm maybe its not just Chennai, maybe its South India !!!)

All right! This eulogy of Chennai “the only truly international city in India” has probably gone on long enough, and I am probably getting boring now. Suffice it to say (as is quite obvious from all the praise just heaped upon it) that I consider Chennai the BEST city to live in (except maybe Hyderabad) for the modern, thinking, culturally inclined, food loving, efficiency appreciating, global citizen. (And no it has no lack of the more FUN things like pubs and discos, malls and multiplexes, for when the “cerebral” takes a back seat and you just want to let your hair down!) It is possibly the best and most BALANCED city I have had the pleasure of living in, in India.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

why i support LGBT rights

The debate over gay rights has been raging for years, and even decades, worldwide. The issue has been suddenly thrust to the forefront of the Indian consciousness by the recent Delhi High Court judgment on Section 377 of the IPC (check Section 377 bites the dust…. Or does it? and 377 update for more info). All the religious fanatics, “pillars” of society, religious gurus, bodies, authorities, and large sections of mainstream society, are up in arms, vehement in their condemnation of the decriminalizing of homosexual activity among consenting adults.

I wonder sometimes exactly what it is about homosexuality that seems to make perfectly logical, rational, sensitive people go haywire, and turn into total blithering bigots. What is so scary about the concept of two human beings loving and respecting each other regardless of gender? What is so threatening about the idea that “gay” has to be equated with all the evils on the planet, and resisted with the knee-jerk, automatic fear and disgust that most people show? I hope more people really take a look inside, examine their own motives and reactions, before we begin finger-pointing.

For me, regardless of the religious debate, regardless of the whole natural/unnatural debate about homosexuality, there are a range of much more essential arguments FOR gay rights. For me, as it should be for any global citizen, it is much more an issue of civil rights and fundamental human rights and justice. Whether one understands, or even accepts, homosexuality or not, is not the issue in question. The point is simply this --- can any conscientious citizen of the world deny to a section of humanity those very basic rights and freedoms that the rest of the world takes for granted? So much for granted, in fact, that we hardly ever pause to consider them, unless forced to?

When this question is asked of other minorities in any country, whether African Americans, Muslims in India, Kurds in Iran and elsewhere, and so on, the answer is always a resounding NO! There, we are all for equality under the law, and civil rights, and basic human rights and freedoms. Why does all that change into fearful and angry negative reactions, bigotry and denial as soon as we talk of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual/transgender (LGBT) community?

“Mainstream” people all over the world don’t even have to think twice, or even once for that matter, about whether or not they have the right to choose who they love, commit to, spend their lives with, and marry. It never even occurs to most people that the right to legally and socially announce and celebrate their love and commitment can ever be in question. So why is it so difficult for us to understand that the same should apply to the rest of the world? The intelligentsia, the elite, even the middle and working classes in developed nations are horrified by practices like apartheid, child marriage and the state of women in developing and Islamic nations. Yet the same people are totally comfortable with effortlessly ignoring the denial of basic rights to a section of their own populace, to their friends and neighbors!

When a straight married Indian files tax returns, they include spouse and kids as dependants, without a second thought. But their neighbor, in a committed relationship with her partner for 20 years does not have the same right! Not only that, until two weeks ago, they could be intimidated, exploited and harassed in the name of the law! When you or I is ill, or dying, our partner/spouse has the automatic and undisputed right to be at our side, hold our hand through the illness, and make all the relevant decisions about surgery, medications, life support, and so on. However, the long term, committed partner of a gay or lesbian citizen has no such rights and can, and often is, driven out of all decision making, and even visitation rights, by families who suddenly come back into the picture after years, and decades, of having ignored or actively mistreated the couple. Post death, you and I automatically get a number of benefits, both social and financial (of course in India this is less true of straight couples in a “live together” than of married ones). We also have the sole right to make the final arrangements. Not so for the “love that dare not speak its name”. The partner not only does not receive benefits, pensions, and so on, they are often denied the basic right to mourn their life long companions.

We are happy to let “them” live with each other, in furtiveness, guilt, and social stigma, as long as they don’t claim equality with “us” by seeking legal and social acceptance in the form of visibility and equal rights. We are happy to ignore, or make fun of, their existence, but the possibility of actually having to accept that LGBT people exist is horribly scary. Straight people have the right to be who they are, love who they choose, marry who they like. Straight couples have the right to live together (although it’s not easy), and have the complete right to marry if they choose to. And it is wrong, absolutely and completely, to deny the same right to a sizable section of the world population. As for the huge brouhaha over nature, choice, religion and morality, that’s a whole other story, and needs much more space and canvas than this piece. I’ll get to it some other day.

Doctors in Bengal to be paid double for rural duty

While catching up on my weekly dose of news from Bengal, I come across a piece announcing that doctors in Bengal will henceforth (at some indefinite date I presume) be paid double for rural duty. Hmmmm interesting. Two thoughts are bubbling to the surface.

First of all, I must applaud the West Bengal government for finally waking up and smelling the coffee, and hope that more states realize the need for steps like these. Ours is a country where a huge majority of the population lives in rural areas, where most basic amenities are still appallingly lacking. The access to Medical services in even larger mufassil towns is dismal for most of people who cannot afford the sky high “private nursing home” price tags.

Although a number of states, like West Bengal, make it mandatory for all young doctors passing the MBBS exam in the state, from Government run institutes, to serve a few months in a rural posting (at a health center) before they are issued a license. This is a laudable effort to improve the services provided by the government health centers. However, in practice, it doesn’t work.

My own social circle in Kolkata has a number of doctors who hilariously recount how they managed to avoid going to the health centers during their postings. It seems to be a matter of pride among them, a sort of “look how smart I am and how I am taking the government for a ride” contest, not to have actually gone on duty even once. Even the ones who actually bother to travel all the way to the allotted posting site, almost never actually treat a single patient. They sign the roster, and leave.

The blame is easy to heap, but there’s more than pone side to this. Most doctors will tell you the pathetic conditions of the health centers. No medicines, almost no basic equipment, lack of nurses, are only the tip of the iceberg. Given such conditions, one is almost tempted to excuse the derelict doctors, and blame the government. But there is another side too. if the government is callous, so are the doctors. If doctors visited regularly, and made their presence felt, things might just improve. After all, young doctors in Kolkata seem happy enough to get together to assault the press and public for any real or perceived insult, slight, injustice. Why not show the same solidarity and the same strength for a worthy cause?

Which brings us to the main point. The increasing shallowness and “not my problem” attitude that we are growing, encouraging, and inculcating. Basically, we, them, doctors, powers that be, et al, couldn’t care less! Duty, service, ethics, morals….just words. And not very meaningful words either. Even basic humanity is fast evaporating from India, and the world. Given these circumstances, maybe double pay is what it will take to make some doctors available to rural India. Maybe now one less person will have to take a dying relative or friend over miles and miles of bad, or nonexistent, roads only to find a center with no doctor and no medicines.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Will they ever overhaul the school system?

eThere are noises being made, yet again, about how the Indian education system, especially at school levels, needs an overhaul. Congratulations, to the powers that be, for seeing and recognizing this fact (and no bragging about how every average, common, Indian on the street has known about this for at least a decade now). Some of the ideas are good, some not so good, and the reactions to them, from all and sundry, is not only extremely interesting but supremely illuminating.

Most countries have a single national board or education authority that maintains a uniform standard of education, regulates the national level tests and exams, and oversees the entire schooling system. Not here though. What we have in this wonderful land is a complete mess. Not only do we have some boards that are called “national” such as CBSE or ICSE, we also have State Boards, an added complication. Each state in India has a local board that a majority of the schools in that state are affiliated to. What this essentially means is all round confusion for everyone, at all levels.

First, the parents. With the thought of providing the best possible education to your child, it becomes a huge chore, and a major decision, to choose the right board for your child to study under. Do you choose one that gives him/her an all round education and development? Or do you opt for something that fetches her high marks instead? While I personally would choose better all round education, with an eye to the long term future and evolution (as a human being) of my daughter, others might be more interested in high scores so that the child has access to “better” colleges, an engineering or medical degree, and a chance at worldly success.

There is a lot of brainstorming, juggling, and research involved in such a basic decision as the child’s first school! Having studied under something like six different boards all over India, I am in a better position to judge, from my own experiences and those of the people I have met and interacted with all my life. Others might just blindly choose whichever board they studied under, or one they see as “scoring”. A number of parents even change their kids’ schools at the penultimate stage of the 8th or 9th standard from a “less scoring” to a “high scoring” board, in order to give them a better chance at an impressive mark sheet in the all important BOARD exams… 10th and 12th.

Given this divergence in scores and standards, it is no wonder that the college admission and higher education scene is a total and complete mess. Each university has its own, seemingly arbitrary, way of trying to neutralize this standard gap. Not unnaturally, most universities give a huge amount of preference to the local boards rather than CBSE or ICSE, an added incentive for the “score” seeking parents to transfer wards to state boards at the 11th hour. Apart from reserving seats, universities implement measures like adding extra marks to the scores of their “state board” students (at graduation level), or asking only the students from “other” boards or universities to sit an entrance exam (at post graduate level).

As a result, exam time and admission time is a time of stress and frustration all around. Why, one wonders, do we have all these complications? Why not one national board, and one qualifying exam for all mainstream higher education, like the A-levels in the states? Wouldn’t that make everything much simpler and a lot less stressful for everyone? Amazing that someone hasn’t thought of it already!! Well, now someone has, officially. Some of the recommendations are a single board, no 10th standard board exams, one single national test after 12th standard. Sounds good to me! One of the biggest problems, obstacles, is the fact that the idea is to follow the CBSE system and the NCERT books as the national standard.

This has got a huge number of people up in arms (specially the mug and vomit and get good scores brigade I am sure). Personally, I have studied in a number of school affiliated to half a dozen different boards in my schooling career. From personal experience of ICSE, CBSE and a few state boards I can vehemently state that CBSE is the most fair and student friendly system. If you have a basic level of intelligence and comprehension, and in my experience most students do (before it is drilled out of them by our system), you would find it close to impossible to fail.

Does that mean…as some relatives and friends of mine (with kids in other boards obviously) claim, that CBSE standards are abysmally low? Not in my experience. I don’t agree that flunking a large number of students or making them learn by rote is a sign of a very high standard. While it is truly difficult to flunk out in CBSE, it is also extremely difficult to get good marks without really knowing your subject. You cannot mug and vomit and get away with it. And that’s the real threat being felt by the detractors of the idea. We like the idea of mugging….at least most of us do. It’s the people like me …who cannot mug even if they try who hate the system. For most others, its comfortable. Learn nothing, retain nothing, expend no grey cells, don’t think….just learn by rote, vomit on paper and forget instantly.

As for the NCERT, a lot of people have been telling me “well it’s a government run research facility yaar. What do you think they achieve anyway?” well, as far as I am concerned, any research is better than no research. Most other textbooks seem to be arbitrarily thrown together without a single thought to presentation, or any attempt at making it more accessible or interesting for the student. On the other hand, government or not, someone at NCERT at least tries to keep the end user, the student, in mind while designing the books and their content.

Another hurdle on the way of integration is the fact that each little board is a little fiefdom. It has its own set of lords and masters, decision makers, powers that be. And none of these little lords and masters would be too happy at the thought of having to give up all that lovely power (not to mention a lot of under the table money sometimes) in order to be INTEGRATED. So all they have agreed to, and with alacrity, is scrapping the 10th standard boards. Which, of course, shows the world they are oh-so-serious about educational reform while changing the power equations not at all. Good old Indian runaround all over again!

As far as I can see, nothing major is going to change in a hurry. So, for me the answer was to put my little monkey in a CBSE school, as I have done, and enjoying the little circus that goes on in the name of overhauling the education system, and looks like going on for a long, long time.

Is Maharashtra going nuts?

As any non-Maharashtrian living in Maharashtra now well knows, Maharashtra is not very friendly to “outsiders”. Now I have a problem with the word Outsiders in the context of interstate migration within the nation. After all, a Bengali is as much an Indian as a Marathi. However, letting that point slide for the moment, one does realize that there is some degree of ill feeling, mistrust, and dislike towards “outsiders” in most states in India (true around the world too, I think). On a smaller scale it manifests as ghettoisation, clique formation, and vaguely tasteless jokes at the expense of the OTHER.

However, Maharashtra seems determined to take its xenophobia to the extreme. When I arrived in Pune, to do an MA at the university campus, I arrived with highr expectations, having heard of the many similarities of Pune with Kolkata, of the amazing parallels in Marathi culture to that of Bengal. The university was reputed, and the Department of English supposed to be among the best. Needless to say, real Maharashtra was a rude awakening. The first shock was to find that although I had higher marks than most of my co-applicants for the MA seat, as a graduate from an “outside university”, I would have to take an entrance exam, where as students of Maharashtrian, especially Pune, universities would traipse in solely on the basis of their mark sheets.

And the number of seats I was vying for with all the students from all the OTHER universities of India? Less than 50%! 51% seats were exclusively for “Maharashtra” students. Add to this the existing reservations for SC, ST, OBC ,etc, etc, etc,… and I was fighting it out for about 6 OPEN seats with some 300 students, just at the university campus. Still…I had it easy, compared to today, when the Maharashtra NCP government has announced a 90% (WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?????) reservation in junior college seats for students of the local SSC board versus students from all other boards put together (even in PUNE schools) who can divide the bheekh of 10% seats amongst themselves.

When my brother, and kids of family friends, did the bachelor’s degree in engineering from Pune University, PU bhagwan was a common joke. Everyone knew, although the authorities never openly acknowledged, that “out of Maharashtra” students and people without a “kar” in their last names were treated differently. The smarest of them, with unspotted un-besmirched academic records would flunk in as many as five papers at a time. Not a single non- maharashtrian engineering student I know passed all for years of the course with an all clear, and most had at least one “year down”. Now while some of this may have been justified, it is a little hard to accept that ALL of them suddenly lost their brains as soon as they hit Pune University, or found themselves totally unable to cope. And that all their “Maharashtrian” contemporaries and classmates, even the ones with abysmally worse previous records suddenly all became geniuses.

Either the exam system was more geared to the “apne bacche”, or the examiners were horribly biased and not afraid to indulge those biases. Either way, it made for an unpleasant experience, academically, for many a bright non-Maharashtrian child forced to suffer years of repeated humiliation, and an ultimate damage to their entire careers, for the xenophobic tactics of some people.

Recently, Raj Thackeray put Maharashtra on the map (finally) for chauvinism when he and his MNS beat-up and threw out, out of state applicants for the railways recruiting exams and went on to perpetrate systematic violence against migrant workers and all other OUTSIDERS in Mumbai. Toda, all of Maharashtra is on the same wagon, it seems. I remember when phone and chat contacts from around the world asked me, after news of the Mumbai atrocities broke, about the situation in Pune. At that time I was happy to be able to say that I thought Raj Thackeray an isolated fanatic, and that he didn’t seem to represent the majority of Maharashtrians, who in my experience at least, were not openly chauvinistic or violent. I have now been proved wrong, and am ashamed to say that Maharashtra is not as I thought it to be.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em like you” seems to be the NCP motto. In a bid to recapture the vote of the “marathi manoos” who is increasingly swaying towards Raj and his exclusionary politics, the NCP has been quick to introduce measures such as Marathi as a compulsory language up to the 10th standard, in ALL schools of ALL boards in Pune!!!!! Whether or not this holds up under the PILs and the lawsuits that are sure to be filed by concerned citizens and parents, the fact that they could even propose such a measure shows how deep the rot of “dhartiputra” has really gone. So now, as a Bengali in Pune, not only am I not allowed to vote here (read
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING POLL BHOOTH and THE COMEDY CONTINUES…. on this blog), but now my child will be forced to study Marathi, at an “exam oriented” level, competing with kids whose mother tongue it is!

Oh yeah, there’s another evidence of how badly the state is LOSING IT, and giving into fanatic, extreme right wing, narrow minded, and extremist pressure groups and mindsets. This does not affect me personally, but seems equally incomprehensible, and is yet another symptom of the underlying CANCER. The CID has just been given the order to investigate why, in rural Maharashtra, hindu girls are marrying Muslim boys. What has a premiere investigative body got to do with peoples’ love lives, you ask? Well, according to some of the nuts in various positions of power, and positions able to exert pressure on the dear government, this is part of a “systematic conspiracy” being perpetrated by Muslims to increase their numbers.

Even if I believe for a minute (which I don’t) that it is a conspiracy, why have “they” chosen only Maharashtra as their target? And what’s the CID going to do about it? Are they going to prevent, by force, legally adult women from marrying whom they choose? Are they going to prevent the men from wooing whom they like? Please note that all these are love marriages. Not kidnappings, not forced nikaahs, MARRIAGES by the consent of both parties.

Doesn’t the CID have better things to do? High profile criminal cases are its normal forte, and there is no dearth of those in India. When a Salman Khan goes scot-free after killing pavement dwellers, when politicians and their families routinely rape, murder, pillage, defraud and cheat without so much as being charge sheeted. When business tycoons are making illegal billions and riding roughshod over ethics, morals, sensibilities and rights. When Dawood Ibrahims sit in luxury in surrounding lands happy in the knowledge that we cannot touch them. Are a few inter community marriages enough of a threat to need the experts from the CID?

Taken all in all, adding the really expensive cost of living, the increasingly surly and unfriendly locals, and all my apprehensions of what tomorrow might bring, Maharashtra in general, and Pune in particular, are no longer worth living in if you are a non-maharashtrian. Even if you have been born and brought up here, as some of my friends are finding out, you are still an “outsider” AND YOU ALWAYS WILL BE. And, more and more, Maharashtra is proving that it does not like, and will not tolerate OUTSIDERS. Marching orders methinks!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

377 update

A day has gone by since I wrote about the 377 decision of the Delhi High Court, and a lot of things are beginning to crystallize. First of all, the terms of the decision are clearer, to me at least. The court has NOT thrown out 377, merely read it down to exclude criminal tag for CONSENSUAL sexual activity between adults of all kinds….gay, straight, whatever. So people who fear that scrapping 377 will leave no protection (protection! That’s a good joke!) for men, women, or children who are forced into sex, abused, or molested, can breathe easy. Rape and molestation are still criminal acts.

What the court has done, is merely to point out the unconstitutionality of criminalizing any PRIVATE SEXUAL ACTIVITY between consenting adults, and to recommend that the law be amended to exclude this, while maintaining the criminal status of violence and molestation and rape. This is a very very small step really, and a huge lot depends on whether the UPA government will have the guts to follow the directive (which I doubt) and whether the law will finally be amended (which still needs a parliamentary act). There is still some confusion as to whether the ruling applies pan-India, or only in Delhi, although most experts are leaning towards the pan-India interpretation.

And, as I predicted in my last blog post, the backlash has started….and HOW!!!! This one decision has managed to do what has NEVER BEFORE happened in the entire history of India! It has united the conservative, fanatical elements of every single religious community into a unanimous uproar! Bigoted, uninformed, and narrow minded citizens are making statements such as “how do I explain to my kid what gay means” (the same way you avoid explaining what sex means, you dolt!) and “what if this makes my kid turn gay?” (Does open practice of Islam make all Hindu and Christian and Sikh kids turn Muslim? Or the open presence of women make all your sons go for a sex change? What nonsense!!!) A truly straight person could not TURN gay if they tried! As a gay person cannot TURN straight!

The media too is showing the full range. From “trying to be neutral and politically correct but failing” attempts at analysis and reportage (“kya adhunikta zyada nahi ho rahi?” “par humein to isis samaaj me rehena hai” being some examples) to out and out tasteless and disgusting (a male RJ “humorously” quipping “mujhe to meri izzat khatre me lag rahi hai” as is all gay men do is rape straight men). Much worse will happen in the near and the far future, and I am waiting to see how it goes. I have no faith in the UPA government where upholding civil rights is concerned (as I think is obvious from my posts) so I expect some major events in the next few weeks or months.

We will see what we shall see.

Section 377 bites the dust…. Or does it?

The biggest news of the day, and one that is likely to cause a lot of controversy and lead to a lot of repercussions, is the one about section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Delhi High Court has just scrapped the section, and declared it unconstitutional, and already I am inundated by phone calls from enthusiastic members of my coterie gushing congratulations.

It’s huge! It is certainly something I hadn’t expected to see in my lifetime. Born and brought up in India, I am well aware of how slowly attitudes really change here, especially about anything to do with sex. And let us not forget, 377 is completely about sex! I am sure by now that most people who have read the newspapers today have at least a vagueish idea of what the law is about. But just in case you don’t, here’s what it says. Whosoever shall have carnal intercourse “Against The Course Of Nature” shall be liable to a hefty fine or a life imprisonment term!!! Bravo say the hardliners and most mainstream straight people. They call it the “gay” law. What most people fail to see is that 377 applies to straight, even married, people as much as it does to gay men and lesbian women.

How!!! I hear shocked cries! How does the Gay Law apply to me and my spouse? Well it’s simple. Section 377 includes, in its list of unnatural carnal acts, such common heterosexual activity as anal and oral sex, even if it is in a consensual adult relationship or a marriage. As far as I am concerned that’s an invasion of my privacy and my rights in the worst way. What I do with my partner, with their consent, in the privacy of my home and my bed, is none of anyone else’s business, least of all of the state! The government has no right to try to regulate, or interfere in, my personal and consensual sex life!!!!

And punishable by life imprisonment?????? In this country where a rapist gets a maximum of seven years Rigorous Imprisonment (hardly ever awarded to the full), and where there are no laws protecting children from sexual abuse, a perfectly normal, common sexual act, performed by two consenting adults is punishable by a far worse than the perpetrator of such a violent and heinous crime as rape or child molestation???? That seems extremely extreme to me, to say the least! And, as the Delhi High Court rightly pointed out, it is completely unconstitutional. No only does the government have absolutely no right to poke its long nose into a person’s marital bed, it also has no right to single out a particular community and say you have no right to fall in love or express it.

Where the criminally insane, criminals, rapists, murderers, and every other kind of person has the right to love, express and live with whom they choose, how can the government of a so-called democratic nation say to a sizeable minority of its population….”thou shalt not love”? Had this same been said about Muslims, Christians, Jains, Dalits, or any other kind of minority or marginalized segment, anyone can easily imagine the kind of furor it would have caused. Yet when it comes to the LGBT community, everyone shuts up and pretends its ok. We are even willing to tolerate a law that implicitly and explicitly humiliates US, as 377 does, because it is never, in practice, used against us, and always used against “gays” whom we love to hate anyway.

That’s hardly the reaction of thinking, rational, open minded individuals. This kind of knee jerk reaction smacks more of bigotry, narrow minds, something more suited to medieval societies in the far flung wildernesses of the world rather than a wannabe-first-world nation in the 21st century aching to join the ranks of the global giants. Moreover, the issue to me is quite separate from your own identity. Whether you are gay or straight, whether you agree, comprehend and understand homosexuality or not, whether you think “they” are normal or abnormal, whether you think “they” are natural or unnatural, whatever your personal relation to the issue, the one thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is about INDIVIDUAL rights, above anything else.

As an educated modern Hindu, for example, if you don’t understand or know much about Islam or Christianity, would you demand that all Muslims or all Christians are prevented from finding a partner or expressing their love? As a modern, rational Tamilian, to take a random example, would you demand an embargo on the love lives of all those Bengalis, Marathis, or Punjabis that you don’t understand, and may not like? No self respecting, educated, modern, secular, democratic Indian will answer with a yes to these questions. So why does the same not apply to the LGBT community?
As for me I truly don’t give a damn what your colour, religion, orientation, beliefs, caste, class, blah blah blah, EVERYONE must have the same rights in this country if we have to call ourselves modern, enlightened, democratic, and ready to join the global community. So, in my opinion, this decision, regardless of what happens tomorrow, and what may or may not come of it, is a step in the right direction. There’s much to be done yet, and while activists, community and sympathizers alike take a break from the struggle to celebrate this historical event, lets not lose sight of the problems ahead, and let’s keep things in perspective.

There WILL be backlash from the orthodox, bigoted, fanatical elements. And this time it will be worse because it will come from every single religious community. Legally the LGBT community can no longer be chucked in jail for loving each other. However, in a country where a huge number of “chuckings in jail” are illegal and off the books, what real protection does this give the person on the street from sadistic and virulently homophobic cops?
There cannot be legal prosecution anymore (unless the decision is reversed by the Supreme court on the basis of one of the many appeals that will be filed sooner than you can say what the… and unless the Congress led UPA government pulls another “Shah Banu” and disregards the judgment of the court…just like that… under pressure from religious leaders. Remember that in that much talked about case it was only a section of the orthodox Muslim religious leadership that succeeded in making the government overturn the decision of the APEX court! How much worse will it be now that all the bigots of all colours will find common ground, a common enemy?). But, realistically, that does not mean that the community has equal rights in terms of marriage or legal “common law” partnerships, or that one can take the rights of ones gay relationship and ones partner as “for granted” as the mainstream heterosexual does. This does not mean one can make out on Bandstand, cuddle in a public park, or take one’s same sex partner home or to a party at one’s relatives.

Not unless attitudes to the LGBT community and to alternative lifestyles changes, in general society. And that’s not likely to happen in a hurry. The way I see it, this is the time to launch a new campaign. A campaign of sensitization, outreach, dialogue and education. Something that aims seriously at making a change at the roots, where it will really make a difference. Until then, KUDOS to the Indian judiciary for showing true maturity and responsibility. And a big “YAAAAAAAY!!!!” to all the brothers and sisters of the struggle! More power y’all!