Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sporadic Diaspora

I am an Indian writer in English. Yes, that’s a new official category in the world of words. It also gives you an edge if you wish to be published. An added advantage is to be a person of Indian origin living in the Diaspora. However, that’s a category I don’t officially fit into, because I am an Indian living in India. A lot of noise has been made in recent times, especially in literary circles about the experience of the Diaspora, and how the displacement, the clash of cultures seems to produce great depth in art. The person of Indian origin in the US, the UK, and around the world is living the Diaspora, creating and destroying ‘imaginary homelands’ and, occasionally, making art.

But are displacements, and culture clashes, only a result of movements over such large distances? What about people like me? The way I see it, I am a third generation nomad; more than 60 years into my own family’s Diaspora; and there are hundreds of thousands like me in India, and millions around the world. The only difference between them and me, is that a large part of our displacement, at least during my own lifetime, has been voluntary, while most internally displaced people have been “forced” to leave their ‘homes’, usually by civil war.

One of the persistent problems I keep having when I meet people, online as well as offline, is questions like ‘where are you from originally’. In the Indian context at least, most people are almost single mindedly obsessed with roots and origins. And even if issues like caste, surname, and language can be avoided or explained away (for more on this check out Chat Masala 2009 ), hometown, “native”, or ‘bari’ is an obsession. No matter how much you try to explain that you have lived in too many cities to call any one of them ‘home”, it does not compute. You still have pressure to tell people what your gaon is. The concept, of course, is that everyone – but everyone – has a nice little ‘native village’ complete with grandparents, ponds, cows and acres of land.

It is practically impossible for these people to grasp the fact that I don’t have a Native. The only semblance of an ancestral home, native, bhite, bari, had to be abandoned during the madness that was the partition. My barely-forty grandfather and his much younger wife landed up in a small mufassil town in West Bengal with three kids, and barely the clothes they stood in. The story was more or less the same for my other grandparents as well. Thirty something years, and at least six cities later, both passed away, one in Kolkata, one in Tripura.

My parents, having grown up in half a dozen cities, married, and moved to another dozen or so cities in their turn. Bhai and I lived, and loved every minute of, a completely nomadic life. Bengalis though we are we’ve never lived, or been educated in, Bengal and we don’t have a family home there either. In his late middle age, dad did acquire a flat in kolkata, but it’s a kind of way station. Locked up most of the time, it is used as holiday accommodation for my still-firmly-bitten-by-wanderlust parents. Dad has changed four cities in the last two and a half years, if that’s any indication of how mobile they still are.

Having grown up in so many cities, I really don’t feel like I have a hometown, and I definitely don’t feel that I am “from” Bengal. I am proud of my Bengali heritage, sure, but I am much more than that. I have absorbed so many things from practically every corner of the country, growing up as I did, that “who are you” – for me – has become a very large question, demanding much more than the pigeonholing definitions we are accustomed to think in.

Another side effect of having moved so much, and never having lived in “our state”, is that although I speak fluent and idiomatic Bangla, my knowledge of contemporary Bengali popular culture is sporadic at best. After all, all the music, films, books, that I have been exposed to, were things my parents owned. Cool and hip as they are, they are still the previous generation, and themselves removed from the source to boot. Obviously they have gaps too, which have been passed on to me, and become intensified in the transfer, as newer things have been produced in Bengal.

So, essentially, I am twice removed, at least, from my roots. Like all the second or third generation displaced, all I know about the place my family is from, is as a result of stories I have heard first hand from my grandparents, or one step removed, from my parents. That’s textbook ‘imaginary homelands’, because their memories and renditions are also coloured by the passage of time and a sense of loss. This puts me firmly in the Diaspora in certain essential ways. In others though, I am not so displaced after all. Like all results of internal displacements, voluntary or forced, I am surrounded by the familiar. The larger similarities that exist in most Indian states and their cultures camouflage the many differences to a large extent. This also prevents one from feeling as lost, alienated, and confused as first generation immigrants to any land feel, mitigating the sense of loss and the hurt of leaving everything behind to a large extent.

Still, there are growing similarities, and the differences are waning around the world. Racism, for example, which is a fact of life for most immigrants is supposed to be absent in internal displacement scenarios. But is it? Resentment for the ‘other’ who has come in to snatch my jobs, my opportunities, and to claim a share of my resources is ever present, and only natural. You can see it in the still-existing bangal ghoti rift, more than 60 years after partition; it is evident in how the ‘locals’ and the ‘refugees’ still look at each other with suspicion, and talk about each other with derision not just here but all over the world.
With ‘dhartiputra’ movements gathering strength in more and more Indian states, there is an ever strengthening muted murmur of ‘go home go home’ that seems to be ringing in my ears these days. This causes a not inconsiderable problem for the likes of me. What is home? Where is this ‘native place’ that I am supposed to belong to? Where am I supposed to go to when I am kicked out of the places I live in for being something called a Bengali?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Epistolary adventures

When I was about fifteen or sixteen, my man and I used to write to each other three or four times a week. Each letter was fourteen or fifteen fullscap sheets, about thirty pages. Living as we did, one in Dehradun and one in Chennai, the only means of communication really open to us was letters. Telephone calls, especially interstate, were prohibitively expensive, and mobiles in every kid’s hand was not even a remote concept. Back in those dark ages, we had not become used to the idea of personal computers, and the internet was still a US Government and NSA fiefdom. Snailmail, as we know it today, was the only way two sundered hearts could keep in touch over 2000 kilometers.

The excitement of receiving each letter is still so fresh in my mind I can virtually taste it! This was “first love!” This was my “boyfriend” writing to me! Just that would have been enough to give anyone the total thrills. Consider the age. Fifteen years old and in love for the first time, we were living so faraway from each other. Distance denied us all those little intimacies and pleasures that people in love take for granted. No little looks, no shared laughs, no “how was your day”, no handholding, no stolen kisses were possible for us. From acknowledgement of feelings to sharing our lives, letters had to perform the functions of all the senses.

I can never forget, or recapture, the wild, heart thumping, pulse beating, palm sweating suspense of seeing that letter, with that “oh so familiar” handwriting on it, on the dining table as i came home from school. Pretending to be nonchalant about it, leaving it there for just a little longer while I changed and had something to eat, so as not to seem overeager, added to the high. After what seemed like a safe amount of time (and felt like hours and hours), I would get up the courage to pick it up from the table, and escape to my room with it. Oh heaven! Oh hell! I still had to open it and actually read what D had to say!!!!

Trembling hands tore open the envelope and picked out the pages. Hmmmm… only 11? My last one was 18 pages … huh! I knew it! He loves me less than I love him! Every little thing was a matter of life and death almost. From counting the pages to weighing the words, and the tone, of every page, it was all more important than any of those paltry national security matters. The first reading went like a flash. In my eagerness to see what he writes next, I would just completely miss the line I was reading. It was like some intense, hopped up, speed reading session where nothing penetrated the consciousness.

Calming down enough to read through again, and understand this time, wasn’t easy, especially since we had a “no closed doors” rule at home. Pesky bro would choose just these moments to get on my nerves more than he did (and oh! How he did get on my nerves sometimes!), going into his “dikha na dikha na” mode. Mum or dad or both would be in and out of the room on some routine errand or another, and I would have to pretend it was just another letter from just another childhood friend….nothing special y’know. (Of course, I realize now that there was no need for all that pretence and tension. The folks knew, and had no problems with a little natural, innocent romance. But at the time it was an added thrill, I guess, to think of myself as one of those misunderstood and persecuted Hindi filmy heroines).

Once I had read the missive twice, thrice, a couple of dozen times, and practically knew every word by heart, it was time to compose a reply. Another massive undertaking. Every word had to be analysed, for tone, emotional intent, and all kinds of subtext. Then a fitting retort, response, reply had to be drafted. Always failed at this though. Being the emotional creature I was, I always got too carried away by what was happening in my life, and my own emotional responses to his words, to make too much headway in the who writes better letters game. My man tells me that was the fun part of getting my letters – knowing that there would be tear stains and angry rants, and other nonsense.

There were others I wrote to as well; pen friends in Edmonton, Canada, in Germany, and elsewhere; other childhood friends in Dehradun and Delhi; the occasional cousin; and so on. Each letter was a labour of love. A thought intensive communication that took hours, if not days, to plan and write. And I saved all the replies. They were pieces of that person, to me, little fragments of someone I loved, that I wanted to hold on to for all time.

Then, came the internet. I got my first PC in 1995, and now these machines are like an extra limb. I began to write on the desktop, finding that words flowed more easily when I saw then ALIVE in black and white, on the screen. Editing poems was easier with a backspace or delete key than with run-throughs on a page. By the time the internet, and email, became a household phenomenon in India, I was already an old hand at both. My man and I broke up, and lost touch, and all the other friends of the plume and the epistle fell by the wayside. People still in touch switched to technology, as email became part of the “cool quotient” and phone calls became simpler and cheaper.

Last week, my mother wished me to mail something for her, ‘the old fashioned way’. A huge civil war erupted, and everyone came in for a lot of flack when none of us could remember seeing a post box anywhere close by. All kinds of theories were advanced, ridiculed, and discarded, including ‘there are no post boxes now other than at post offices’. Lambasted, yelled at, and made fun of, I finally went on a post office hunt, found one in the back of beyond, and posted the damn letters! It still didn’t strike me! This morning, on my way to pick baby up from school, I finally spotted a red postbox in an alley close by (probably noticed it because of the recent hullabaloo).

It was while I was laughing at myself for having missed it before that I realised I can’t remember the last time I WROTE to someone! In fact, when I was about to mail those letters for mom, I realized I had no idea what amount of postage was necessary. Dad, on the great post box hunt with me, suggested that a rupees two stamp was probably the minimum now. Turns out, those days are long gone! The minimum postage is apparently five rupees these days! And I had no clue!

I email people, sure, all the time; I text frequently; I call often; but cannot, for the life of me, recall the last time I put pen to paper for anything, much less to communicate with someone. My work gets done on word and php, my writing on blogs and wordfiles. The only things I use paper for anymore is to make shopping lists or draw pictures for my four year old! It’s amazing what technology has done! Not entirely sure if it’s all good though. Sure it’s a lot more convenient, and definitely cheaper, at these prices. However, I have a horrible feeling that the excitement of getting letters is lost forever.

The avalanche of technology has changed the way we communicate forever, and though I love the scraps, walls, glitter, and cartoons, I miss the hand drawn caricatures my man used to draw of himself. Maybe its just nostalgia. I am, after all, hitting the age when people begin to say things like “humare zamaane mein” and “aajkal ke bacche”; when everything old seems golden and everything new seems like trash. And although I love technology, use it extensively, live it, and earn my bread from it, I can’t help but breathe that tiny little sigh of regret for those “pehele pyaar ki peheli chitthis” that I will no longer be able to hoard for posterity.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Runaway Brides

I was reading the paper this morning, and came across a “human interest piece” on what the writer perceives as yet another evil of the cyber world. The article tells the story of a 32-year-old woman from an upper-middle class family whose “main concern” was apparently, “to find herself a suitable match”. Now, according to the article, this woman surfed some of the online matrimonials and got chatting with a 48 year old Chennai-based man “who promised her a job and a good life” provided she ran away from home and went to Chennai. This woman, at this point, left home with her clothes hidden in a shopping bag and boarded the train for Chennai. The rest of the article goes on to describe state-of-mind of family, steps taken to trace her etc etc etc.

In all honesty, I have things that I need to say. What is wrong with the women of today? Where has our common sense gone? Have we become so fooled by so-called feminism that we cannot see reality? How can anyone live in India, be a woman, for 32 years and still be so stupid? How desperate are we to get married and why?

Even if I was desperate to get married, as a rational human being would it not be a lot more logical for me to ask the man to meet me at a neutral, safe, public place, get to know him, meet his family, get him to meet mine, before even thinking about marriage? This is a complete stranger! Why have we started taking people at cyber value? Why do we assume that everything they are saying is god’s own truth? And even if we assume that the person is 100% genuine, would my mental alarm bells not start clanging like mad the minute he expected me to run away from home? Do we not read the newspapers or watch news anymore? Why have we suddenly become convinced that we are living in an ideal world where everyone is honest and good and genuine?

I am a woman. Having lived in this world, and specifically India, for 30 something years I have learnt certain ground realities. Yes, I would love to live in a world where women are not prey. I would love to live in a world where my safety is no longer my concern and does not even need to be thought about. I hate the fact that there are so many predators out there, so many perverts, and criminals; but this does not mean that I will, or should, suddenly decide to live as if I was in utopia. My safety is and will always be a concern that is primarily mine. There is a difference between being a victim, and going out there and inviting, practically insisting on, trouble. It’s not right I have to be this way, but it is the reality.

This brings to mind certain other incidents in recent times that have been made much of, specifically by the media. There seems to be a trend of sympathizing with and non-criticism of, the victim. Sympathy yes, I agree is necessary. However, I think, it is this non-criticizing attitude which is turning girls dumber and dumber. I’m not saying we should lynch the victim! Of course not! But why is it that the smallest question is never raised when she has been downright asinine? As a case in point, take the incident in Pune recently. The facts are something like this.

A young boy and a girl, presumably a couple, are sitting, (by the roadside one assumes), in a badly lit, secluded part of road. A man drives by, stops, and comes back. He disembarks and tells them that he is a cop and asks for their driving licenses. They don’t have them. He then tells the boy to go and get their licenses from the hostel or wherever, and the girl to get on the bike behind him to be taken to the police station. The boy leaves! The girl gets on the bike! He then takes her into the university campus, presumably driving straight past one of the two police chowkis that are there at the two gates, and rapes her. This was splashed all over the print media in Pune as an example of how unsafe Pune, and specifically the university campus, has become. However, to me it seems to be about how stupid our youngsters have become! Here’s why.

First and foremost, during the entire proceedings, no one bothered to ask for the man’s ID to verify if he really was a cop. Fine, lets assume the kids were flustered at having been caught doing whatever it is that they were doing. Also, lets keep in mind, it’s not easy to stand up to cops and ask for identification. No problem. But, why were they out, on the road, on a two-wheeler, without a driving license? Also, when it was suggested that one of them go and retrieve the licenses, and the other go with the cop, how stupid was it for the guy to go and the girl to be left alone with a man neither knew? Should not the girl have gone for license and the man with the so-called cop? Or at least, the boy go with his girlfriend and the cop to the station, see that she was there safe, then go for the licenses? That’s what common sense says. But then, as I have discovered, common sense is actually highly uncommon. Accept for the moment that they arrange things the way they did. When the man was driving PAST the chowki, didn’t that make her suspicious? And if not, what does she use for brains? Also, the spot where this incident allegedly took place is about a 100 yards from a very well lit and highly populated park. Does she mean to say that she followed this man, willingly into the darkened bushes after having seen that people are around and help may be found? Also, it is unimaginable that while she was being raped, she could not cry out even once, for one second. Even one good scream at that spot would have brought at least 40 people running!

Another case in point is the recent gang rape of a girl in Ahmedabad. Shock waves have been set off at the fall of such a ‘safe’ city into the rank of the crime ridden ones. The case is simple. On New Year’s Eve, a young girl tells her parents that she is going to a sleepover at a girl friend’s place and instead leaves for a party with her boy friend. This boy is someone they all know, he has been to their house and met her parents. So far so good? Anyway, they go to the party where he drinks, and presumably she has a few as well. Then they decide to go to a “farm-house-party” at his friend’s farmhouse. They get there, and she sees no evidence of a party happening. Instead, she finds four other boys there. Alarm bells go off, and she insists that her boyfriend drive her home. So far it sounds like a disaster narrowly averted. Doesn’t it? Now here is where things get really weird. Instead of home, the boy takes her to a hotel, where she walks with him (presumably past the receptionist and other staff, as well as maybe some guests) to a room in the hotel. When they get there, she finds the other four boys already there and is gang-raped by all five.

How stupid is that? If your alarm bells have gone off earlier, at the farmhouse, if you have seen that your boyfriend took you there under false pretences, and you have had the sense to insist on going home, why do your brains suddenly freeze? When he takes you to a hotel instead, why do you go to a room with him? Should you not have lost some of your trust in this boy? She may have been forced, or dragged, some might say. But if she had, surely the receptionist, and other staff, and guests would have seen or heard something. If she was forced, all she had to do was scream and someone would have come to help or at least notified the police! It’s awful what happened to her, but just because she is the victim, and in this case dead (she committed suicide a few days later) must we not ask relevant questions? The press is treating this as another evidence of how spoilt rich kids are turning to crime. The point is that they always have had that propensity. It is not enough to say that the rapists are animals. One needs to ask these questions in order, at least, to show other idiots that this was a preventable, and if not that at least protest-able, incident. Yes they were animals…. But must I go into an animal’s lair without any protest and any attempt at saving myself? If she had tried to run, to scream, and failed, she would have been a complete victim.

A number of other recent cases share the same features. Deplorable yes, but not unquestionably the fault of someone else. What happened to “safety first?” what happened to all those rules we are supposed to teach our kids to protect them from just such predators? And more importantly how exactly does all this get ignored by the media and therefore by everyone else? I think it is essential that these issues be raised, especially in the mass media. It might, just might, prevent another girl from being such a complete dolt. I agree it would be nice if there were no predators, but must we willingly put ourselves in jeopardy in a foolish self-created, media abetted, delusional, daydream? Why can we not teach ourselves to be smarter than this? Much as I would like the world to be a safe place for women, it isn’t and I see no reason for relaxing vigilance and turning stupid.