Monday, December 24, 2012

The madness that passes as protest

Looking at the front page photograph of a huge mass of humanity, mostly male, pressing against police barricades at Raisina Hill, I can’t help but wonder how many women protesters were groped and mauled in the melee that is being created over the Delhi gang-rape incident. The crowd did not look like it was made up exclusively of socially aware, conscientious, ethical young men and women. On the contrary, it looked like the usual mishmash of opportunists, bystanders, watchers, and thrill seekers, augmented by a bunch of “swept by emotion and caught up in the flow” kind of crowd.

This has been the character of almost all the recent “citizens’ movements” from Anna’s crowds to Ramdev’s pressure cooker brigade, to this one. This is just another exercise in catharsis and guilt assuaging by the middle class Indian. We know we are largely to blame for the perpetuation of these social evils, and we feel vaguely bad about the fact, and these “MOVEMENTS” give us the perfect opportunity to feel like we are making a huge difference, which in turn relieves our guilty consciences. And yes, there are the usual numbers of opportunists, from pickpockets to those seeking cheap thrills from pinching bottoms. And this became super evident with the violent turn the protests took. As long as the actual protestors were conducting matters, everything was fine, and even when the police – unprovoked – opened up with water cannons and tear gas, the protestors did not retaliate, and stopped each other from reacting. However, pretty soon the more unsavoury parts of the mob took over and full scale rioting began, with its usual side effects, the looting, the mayhem.

While it feels great, and makes us all glowy and warm to think of how the “average Indian” (whoever that might be) takes so much interest in righting wrongs, demanding justice, and making his/her voice heard. But is that what’s really going on? And are we asking for the right things with this voice? Seems not, from where I stand. First of all, we have seen this farce before. The sudden upsurge of anger, the marching on the streets, the chanting, the slogans, and then the dissipating numbers, the disappearing crowds, until the whole things fizzles out. Seems to me like the same pantomime is being played out all over again. A couple of days, and then everything will be back to the usual grind, everything forgotten.

As for the demands, they are fairly ridiculous, and proof of how emotions, not thought, are calling the shots here. Demanding the death penalty for a crime where the maximum allowed penalty by law is seven years in jail, just shows the total absence of any understanding of how crimes are punished. There is NO WAY that a court can LEGALLY award more than the maximum penalty allowed, no matter how loud such a demand might be from a bloodthirsty public. Even if the law is amended, as certain groups and factions are demanding, it would still not apply to this case, which was registered when the old law was in effect. Also, let us not forget the hugely complicated and politically fraught process that needs to be gone through before the law can be changed. It isn’t happening for so many MORE basic things, it is highly unlikely it will happen here, and screaming is not going to make it so.

Anyway… to any rational person the answer to the problem is NOT awarding the death penalty in the “rarest of rare” rape cases, but to properly enforce the current punishments. After all, as the Apex court is already realizing, the “rarest of rare” definition leaves the decision TOTALLY up to the presiding judge, with all his/her prejudices and mental blocks. It is already being applied to randomly in cases of murder, how much worse will it be when you bring in a highly contentious and inhibition arousing matter like rape? Also, such a provision increases the tendency to let most of the offenders go free. “If it wasn’t bad enough to deserve the maximum, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all” is the usual rationale. It has been seen in effect for so long in rape cases which have managed to get to court, for years. Even with a seven year maximum, without any need to prove that it is “rarest of rare”, hardly anyone gets any sentence, with the few who do hardly ever going to jail for more than a year or two.

It is not likely that the judges who won’t even send rapists to jail will suddenly start hanging them, left right and center. An effective deterrent is never one that is heavy but never applied, it is one that may be lighter, but is applied efficiently. If the police register the cases without refusing to, if they stop further humiliating the victim with sneers and lewd comments, if the investigating agencies actually begin to investigate the cases lodged, instead of just making token efforts as a show or completely shelving it, if the cases are tried fast, and effectively, and if EVERY single rapist goes to jail for seven years, pretty soon no one will dare commit the crime. No one wants to lose seven years of their life. Forget the social environment we create that promotes rape, forget families that teach NOTHING of value to their sons, forget the whole socio-economic-political roots of the problem. Simply making it difficult to legally get away with rape will bring the numbers down. As of now, a rapist knows as a certainly that he will probably never be arrested. If he is arrested, he wont be prosecuted. If he is….by some strange and horrible chance… actually prosecuted, he won’t go to jail at all. If, horror of horrors, he IS sent t jail, which is a one in a 10,000 kind of probability, it will be a virtual holiday at a lightly guarded, easy going, jail, for MAYBE a couple of years.

Given this situation, it is actually surprising that more women are not raped everyday, as they are molested. After all, the punishment for both is the same… NOTHING. Just streamlining and making the legal system will change all that. It will make sure more women come forward to report the crime, and more cases are registered, and more cases actually go to court, and more rapists are actually convicted, for a sizable duration. THEN we will see real change. Screaming for a kill on the streets is NOT going to achieve any of this.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Mentality of Molestation

Using Public transport in a regular way after a gap of some twenty years has been an eye opener in some ways, and too familiar in others. The last time I regularly commuted by bus was in my first year of graduation, in Mumbai, Ages and Ages and Ages ago. In fact the only times I have regularly used public transport, especially buses has been in Mumbai, to get to and from college, and before that in school… 6th to 11th standard… to get to and from school.

Since then, buses have gotten better, Volvos are a lot more comfortable than the PTC or BEST buses I remember, and the routes seem to be longer and more varied, but the one thing that hasn’t changed for the better, and in fact has gotten much worse, is the daily molestation every single woman faces. In the aftermath of the news from Delhi, and all the other incidents one sees staring out of the papers on a daily basis, this all pervasive Indian syndrome of “eve teasing” takes on much more significance. It bears thinking about, to examine what it is about the society, the mentality, the values that we teach or fail to teach our children, that has led to this.

As I was telling my non-Indian friend recently, I don’t know of a single woman in 3 or 4 generations who has not been routinely groped, touched, pinched, rubbed up against, and otherwise sexually assaulted on an almost regular basis. Not a single woman out of the thousands and thousands I have spoken to, personal acquaintances or NGO outreach, or whatever, has been able to say honestly that she has NEVER faced such a thing. Each of them has been through at least one, often many, many more than one case of being accosted, assaulted, molested, and discomfited. This might shock a lot of men, who think such incidents are isolated, but I am sure it will not shock a single woman who has grown up, lived, and travelled in India. It is so common, in fact, that we just shrug it off as part of the experience of commuting. We take our own little precautions – the strategically hung backpack to discourage people wanting to get too close to the back, the rolled umbrella under the arm to “accidentally” prod the fellow getting too close, the large nappy pin in the purse to stick in the wandering hand – but we no longer pay much attention or waste much mind space on it.

That in itself should be enough to show how completely all pervasive it is. Even though it is just as much of an assault as a full-fledged rape, although it is just as much as a violation, a trampling of my rights and freedoms, an outraging of my self respect, it is so common that neither I, nor any other Indian woman, can afford to take it seriously or dwell on it. If we did, we would never step out of the home, where we are not safe either. What is it about our culture, our society, the way we treat our women and teach our men, that makes this atmosphere possible? What makes it so easy, common and OK to touch, molest, grope, pinch any and every woman in any and every space, which in turn makes rape just the logical next step. And what about the men who do this? How bad is their value system, how faulty the teaching they receive at home, that at the very instant they are saying they respect women because their mothers and sisters are women, they are also pinching, groping or rubbing themselves against some totally unknown woman? It is certainly not about attraction or sex, because everyone from 6 to 60 and from supermodel to the ugly duckling faces this. The only requirement to qualify for this treatment is that you are female.

So how is it that we bring up our sons to see any and all women as simply objects? Something that can be touched, caressed, massaged, insulted, and assaulted without the least hesitation? They don’t even need to see a face! More than one incident faced by any woman would involve someone pressing their erection into her back in a crowded bus or train, or a disembodied hand travelling between bus or train seats to fondle a breast. Are they really getting their jollies from it? What kind of repressed, devalued society are we living in where not only do people have no healthy outlet for sexual urges, but think it fine and dandy to get cheap thrills through non consensual acts? Do they really get any pleasure at all? Or is it just a case of going home and telling their buddies “I touched A boob today” and whose boob, whether they wanted you to touch or not are complete non issues? Is it at all surprising that such bravado, such mob mentality, such mutually pushing MASCULINE behavior so often leads to the next step… actual rape?

What kind of mentally ill, totally repressed, desperate men are we rearing, with what kind of nasty attitudes to sex and sexuality, that this kind of behavior becomes routine, normal, even expected? And why does the public not hear about it more often? My own male friends have been shocked, again and again, to hear how common it is. Why? Because women JUST WILL NOT talk about it. They will generally not protest or make a noise when it is going on, will not report it at home, or to authorities, and they will not discuss it with most friends, especially not male friends. Numerous reasons behind all that of course. First of all, we are Indians, we do not talk about sex – even sexual violence or assault. In fact the concept of sexual violence does not exist, and molestation and rape are seen as just incidents of sex. Hence comments by high ranking cops like “they are having many male friends, they are sleeping with so many, but if they are forced, immediately they are shouting RAPE”. The morons obviously don’t get the fact that it is the FORCE that DEFINES rape. If there was no force…it would be sex….if there is force…there is no sex…there is rape.

Women are brought up from the cradle to be modest, self effacing, not putting themselves forward, not demanding, doormats. No matter what happens to you, you don’t complain, you tolerate. This applies even more to anything with any kind of remote connection to sex in any way at all. Hence 80% of the rapes are not reported, and almost 100% of molestation is silently tolerated by women who feel ashamed to make a noise. If they do make a noise, as a certain woman recently did in a metro train in Delhi, they are abused, assaulted, and made to feel like the villains by everyone around. This only encourages the pervert who knows he is sure to get away with it. After all, in a country where reportage of rape is one of the lowest in the world, and punishment of rapists is so abysmally low, what are the chances of ANY action being taken merely for touching a breast without permission? Even when they go as far as rape, or gang-rape, the entire country is too busy dissecting what the victim was wearing, what she was doing out at that time, what time of day or night it was, was she drinking, was she pubbing, does she have a lot of male friends, is she sexually active, to pay any attention to actually catching or punishing the culprits. Most of the country does not even see anything wrong with what the men did. If she talks, dresses, acts like that, what do you expect? She was asking for it… is the general conclusion.

Not surprising at all then that we Indian women find ourselves on the edge all the time, looking out for trouble all the time, suspicious of ALL men ALL the time, never comfortable in any situation which has any sizeable number of men involved because we know how quickly that can turn into a mob, a gang, a wolfpack. The sad part of this all is the few Indian men who are ethical, conscientious, and would never even dream of violating anyone’s space get tarred by the same brush. They become the object of suspicion for all Indian women because of the nature and actions of the perverted 80% of their gender. Until a woman is seen as a person by society, instead of as just a daughter, mother, sister, daughter-in-law, until the “ghar ki izzat” or family honour stops being her duty to keep, and hers alone, until every woman has a right to decide what she will wear, what she will study, whether she will own a mobile phone, who she will marry, whether she will live with in laws, whether she will have the right to live her life the way SHE wants, until we stop expecting her to mold herself according to anyone and everyone else’s wishes and convenience, this is not going to stop. The only way to curb this alarmingly escalating wave of sexual violence against women is to start thinking of them as HUMAN BEINGS with rights rather than that half of the race born only to serve men.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


“It is quite amazing when someone who is supposed to know you better than any other human being, someone who is supposed to protect you, care for your dreams and desires, can shatter those dreams so completely, so seemingly casually, and for such a reason.” She agonized.

It seemed strange to her that economics would be the decider, especially given her history of making major life changes based on emotions and values with zero attention paid to money. Someone who can give up millions a month in salaries just to have quality time, someone who can “make do” with a 10th of the income, making sure the family, the relationships, and health, gain primacy, someone who basically has never cared a damn for the little green pieces of paper, suddenly has to hear that those pieces of paper are the reason she cannot have her single greatest Desire in life. Seems strange even coming from someone who knows her a little bit, and frankly dumbfounding when coming from someone who has known her most of her life, someone who presumably knows just how much this means to her.

She can remember back to when she was all of twelve yeas old, and starting to figure out who she was and what she wanted from her life. As far back as that she knew this was what she wanted, and as much of it as remotely possible. She would manage, make do, make the adjustments necessary in her life, lifestyle, and behavior, to accommodate this great Desire of hers. Over the years it had only gotten more crystallized, and had become the bedrock for her personality. This was who she was. Her name, her nickname, her entire identity had become bound up, to so large an extent, with this one Desire of her life, this one mission, this meaning that she sought to give to herself.

Life, as it does, threw her its share of curves as she grew up. She had her highs and lows, as does everyone, some more than others. Through the manic highs and the abysmal lows, through the paradise and the hells, through self destruction and therapy and pharmacology, this was one of the things that held her together, one of the essential parts of her personality, of her deepest heart, that managed to survive. There was never even the slightest question in her mind of relinquishing this Desire, of giving up this hope, of letting go of this need. That would have been like letting go of the very base of herself, of becoming someone she wasn’t, of discarding who she so deeply, so fundamentally WAS.

Then, things got better, after a lot of bad times, the OTHER appeared. Things became almost magically, miraculously OK. (Maybe she should have been warned then? Things that seem too good to be true so often are. But she just didn’t see any signs.) The oh-so-long felt agony, the indecision, the loathing of self and everything else, the desire to opt out, all faded nicely into the background, confining themselves to the merest of rare occasional twinges. She had a good run with that, years and years of calm, placidity (is that an entirely good word? She wondered), stability (highly over rated she always thought), adjustment, and all those other desirable states of mind the mental health faculty keeps harping on about. Good things, she supposed, although it did cause all of her creative juices to dry up for a while. Apparently she could not make art unless she was in conflict, or unhappy, or something.

That lasted a while, and the universe gave her the tiny little part of the Desire that she saw as the first step, the foundation of her empire of Desire, the first installment of the many, many to come. Then, things started sliding again, though the process was subtle enough to completely avoid being noticed. The next step, the second installment, kept being put off, further and further, for one reason or another. There were major moves, life upheavals, just wasn’t the right time, trying but not managing to, trying other avenues, and so on and so forth. By the time she noticed what was happening, it was six years too late. Still, one must try to correct one’s mistakes whenever one notices them, so she took a good try.

It wasn’t meant to be. Physically and emotionally devastated by the attempt, she gave up the idea of achieving her Desire through the regular method. The alternative seemed to be something only she was interested in. the OTHER had neither the time, nor the inclination to be frank, to bother with such things. Maybe one installment was enough for the OTHER, maybe the idea of the alternative path was not a welcome or comfortable one (although the OTHER claimed to have been interested in the alternative for years before they had ever gotten together), or maybe the OTHER just could not be bothered to make so much effort for something that didn’t matter so much to them. She had to keep trying, for the sake of the first installment if nothing else, for she could see how essential it had become for the first one. Whatever the OTHER’s reasons for reluctance, it fell completely to her to pursue the matter, to try as hard as she possibly could.

No hope. The law, the social attitudes, the mentality of the people with power in the alternative scenario, all conspired to deprive her of any possibility of achieving her Desire through these alternative channels. One tiny window was left open, one last shred of hope, one last reason to keep trying, but unfortunately for her it was something the OTHER must follow up on. And she was beginning to be more and more sure that the follow up would not happen. And she was right. The whole body language, the attitude, the lack of drive of the OTHER was a clear indication of the reluctance to do this. She kept needling, and it didn’t make a difference. Eventually she simply gave up.

As she withdrew more and more into her shell, backing up from the agony of false hope, and somehow trying to gain control over this gnawing need, the almost obsessive want, she made efforts, for the first time in her life, to achieve the state of numb zombie existence she had rejected in the past. Now she aspired to be that blank, a blankness she had fought in her past, that she had ripped apart just to be able to FEEL. Now, feeling only meant more pain than even she was able to handle. Plus, with the first installment being her responsibility, she knew she could not afford a breakdown. Nor was “opting out” an option any longer. The only choice left was to stop feeling. She withdrew more and more, attempting to block things from affecting her, from making a difference. Some people noticed, and commented, some didn’t, but she began to go blank letting the pain sink to the bottom, rising up only in silent midnight weeping fits, or curling up when she was alone.

Eventually, the OTHER began asking. The change had become noticeable enough to penetrate even the masks and party faces she put on habitually these days. Every time the OTHER asked, she changed the topic, or denied it, or tossed it away lightly, not wanting to get into a crying fit, or a shouting match. Even arguing seemed more effort than she could manage these days, and she could not remember the last time they had had a fight. She just let it all slide, curling up within herself with her pain, unwilling to let anyone see, ask, analyze. Maybe love was ebbing, maybe it had just become too much effort, or maybe things had just become too much to take. What was left was to keep going through the motions, keep feeling only the nice things, and to bury the agony deep enough to ignore.

Still, the OTHER kept at it, asking, and asking, and commenting, figuring out at least some of the unhappiness lurking behind the forced smiles visible all day, until matters came to a head. And what are the reasons for the reluctance? Nothing much, merely doubts about economic capability 10 years down the line. After a lifetime of knoqing, and half a lifetime of togetherness, this is what she got. Her deepest Desires, her need, balanced on a MAYBE, never mind what that does to her, her mind, her heart, and the relationship. “Can anyone be that unthinking?” she wondered, “and can anyone ignore what this is doing, and will do, to the US? What it is doing, and will do to the first installment?”  maybe those things don’t matter to the OTHER so much, or maybe the danger is really unfelt and unappreciated. She, on her part, can feel the drifting, the distances growing, the pain starting to become more than the love can support.

The shell beckons, walls begin to sound more safe than restrictive, and feeling and emotions seem to be overrated. Maybe it is time to become reformed, to join the average humans, to become typical – typical woman, typical partner, typical. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Two evenings of theatre

One of the greatest (and rare) pleasures of being in Kolkata, no matter how short the stint, is the still vibrant theatre scene in the city. Taking advantage of the amazing theatre groups, great plays, fine halls, and extremely affordable (even dirt cheap) tickets is something I make a point of doing every chance I get. In keeping with this tradition, I have watched a couple of plays in the last few days. Interestingly, the experiences were vastly different.

The first play was more expensive, at 100 rupees a ticket, and by a hot, in, theatre group run and directed by a currently well known actor. The play was William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, albeit in Bangla, and the group was Kaushik Sen’s Swapnasandhani. As can be imagined, I had some really high expectations from it. Being familiar with the rich theatre culture in the state, and the history of experimentation and adaptation, I expected an interesting evening of a creative rereading or at least an adaptation of the original. Instead, what I got was a line by line, scene by scene, act by act, straight-forward staging of the original play, only translated into an archaic, old fashioned, over formal Bangla. Frankly… disappointing.

The acting, of pretty much everyone other than Kaushik himself, was average, or less than average, with Lady Macbeth – probably the most complicated, demanding, and interesting of the characters – being played by a current “serial” actress in a shallow, filmy, and nyaka way. This in itself would have been enough to ruin my enjoyment of the play. Add to this some very unimpressive acting by the rest of the cast, boring costumes, and ho hum sets, and the whole thing just wasn’t worth the ticket price. Also, it was frankly too damn long! At over three and a half hours, most of the scenes were stretched painfully, and the only ones really worth the time were the ones with the witches, and even in those half the time you couldn’t hear what they were saying.

All in all, I yawned though the entire show, and walked out with a headache and a sense of lost time and wasted effort.

And then, there was “ja nei bharote” -- ticket price Rs 40. Based on episodes from the Mahabharata, this “what India doesn’t have” was an all around pleasure. Manoj Mitra is a stalwart of Bengali theatre, and a renowned actor of Bengali cinema, and has been for decades. Whether it is the superior experience on stage and on camera, or simply better thespian ability, he comes across as a much more effortless and natural actor than Kaushik. Happily, most of the other actors were close, if not equally good, in acting ability. The play itself, Mitra’s take on the injustices in the Mahabharata, is worth spending two hours over even on its own. And no…these are not the traditionally thought of injustices like Karna. The unthinking as well as premeditated injustices and tortures physical, emotional, and mental – perpetrated on so many of the characters, especially the women, is something that traditional examinations of the epic never pay attention to.

It was great to see the re-imagining and re-reading of this most canonical of our canonical texts, the most epic of our epics. Mitra’s light touch made some very strong and pertinent points, through laughter, and kept me entertained while making me think. The issues raised, the alternatives suggested, and the parallels drawn were quite fascinating and fulfilling. Overall, an evening well spent.

It is what I expect from theatre. Don’t just show me the narrative as is, as I have seen it a thousand times in many languages. DO something with it. Twist it, break it, rethink it, ruin it, transform it, transport it, adapt it --- SOMETHING! I would much rather watch a Maqbool than a straight forward Macbeth, and I definitely enjoy the brain-food that a Ja Nei Bharote provides, even if some scenes could have been shorter, or some people less histrionic. THIS is good theatre!   

Friday, October 5, 2012

The FDI circus continues

The madwoman is on a rampage again. Ever since last night’s announcement of increasing of FDI to 49% in insurance, and a possible corresponding raise in the FDI cap in pension, she has gone on a complete rampage, egged on and supported by such massive well wishers of the “common man” as BJP.  

It is pertinent to remember at this point that the BJP, in its avatar as the NDA government, was the most avid and vocal advocate of financial reforms and FDI, and it was partly over reforms in pensions that they lost power in the first place. So what is this about face really about? Is it a populist attempt at garnering some share of the amm-janta-who-have-no-clue vote bank? Or is it envy, at the UPA managing to push through some unpopular, though much needed, reforms when they were unable to do so? Or is it part of some much deeper political game where toppled governments and early elections are supposed to give them back the lost throne?

Whatever the motivation behind the strident anti reform chorus, it is not helping to improve the overall situation. What with an abysmal fiscal deficit, rampaging inflation, and a staggering debt burden in the midst of a global financial meltdown, we can’t exactly ignore the fact that we need serious infusions of cash and hundreds of thousands of new jobs to get us to some kind of sane level where the economy actually functions and maybe even grows. So, where is this cash, these jobs, going to come from? It sure as hell won’t suddenly materialize out of thin air, neither are the billions already spent on fruitless social programs by the government suddenly going to bear fruit for no reason, especially since the billions have already gone well into various pockets of the various babus from the top of the rung all the way down to rock bottom. In short, things being as they are, the only way to breathe some life into the economy and to infuse some much needed lifeblood, is to throw investment options open to foreign players. Provided, of course, that the BJP, and other political parties, ever let it happen.

To top it all, we have Madame Bannerjee, screaming herself hoarse and threatening dire consequences like no confidence motions. She’s always been notorious for reacting first and thinking later, for basing political decision on emotion rather than rational thought, and – more recently – for being unashamedly populist. Given the fact that she had to break the leftist stranglehold of 34 years in the state of West Bengal to come to power, one understands the motivation behind her obviously successful pandering to mass sentiments. However, all she is doing now, is being is obstructive, obtuse, and frankly destructive of the very state she was given – with a lot of trust and hope – to try and improve, to drag kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

For some reason, she has decided to be more left than the left she defeated. This seems strange to normal, not knowing anything, people like me. After all, wasn’t she brought in to REPLACE the left because their system was NOT working? Presumably then, people want you to be everything they were not? So, in my limited logic, it seems that what people want for Bengal is more industries, more jobs, more open market, more opportunities for earning, given that those are the exact things that the left government systematically eradicated over the 34 years of their reign. However, she seems to have gone the opposite direction.

Instead of encouraging industries and laying down the red carpet to Indian and foreign investors, throwing open retail markets, and basically doing everything she possibly can to bring in the moolah and the jobs, what she’s actually doing is the exact opposite. Having begun her march to power on the back of the Singur/Nandigram controversy, she seems to have assumed that “revolutionary” posturing and pig headedness are more important than governance, especially in the run up to the municipal polls. So, neglecting the glaring problems at home, and the questions being raised about mismanagement and unnecessary delays in funding and completing projects of essential infrastructure and so on, she chooses to pay more attention to, and invest more time in, proving her revolutionary mettle on the national scene.

As for her own state, she is driving away whatever investments had already been inked, like Haldia, and talking of closing down even existing domestic retails chains like Spencer’s and Reliance and More, thus depriving a whole section of semi educated but presentable young men and women of decently paying jobs. She is rabidly anti FDI, supposedly to protect the common man when both farmers and the man on the street stand only to gain from the changes big chain retail can bring in, from contract farming, better prices to the farmer, better prices to the consumer, better quality, huge number of jobs from front office to back end operations, to better infrastructure to cater to the needs of these investors. So who is she trying to protect? Either the middlemen and business interests who pumped in money for her rise to power are being given their pound of flesh, or she is reacting in her usual irrational, emotional, knee-jerk way without any real thought or concern for the overall welfare of the state. Given the approaching municipal polls, where she desperately wants to establish a majority, the choices make political sense, maybe, even if they are unproductive and harmful in the long run.

As for the UPA, its sudden passion for reforms is suspect in itself. Had they made these moves soon after they came to power, one could have given them uncomplicated applause. Given that they choose to do this so late in the day, with the 2014 elections on the far horizon, in the middle of general public outcry and disgust over some of the greatest scandals and scams of our independent history, the whole thing smacks of a roman circus. Looks like a case of give the public, and the market, a feel good lollipop of reforms, and they will forget about all the indecision, inactivity, and the scams. Also, given that their numbers in parliament ate precarious at best after Mamata withdrew her support, things become murkier still. The cabinet has passed the reforms, well and good, but these are early days. The bills have to be passed by Lok Sabha, marginal possibility, and the Rajya Sabha, which is almost impossible.

Seems to me like the Congress is playing one of its age-old games. The bills will fail in parliament, and the party will go to the polls telling Johnny public “look, we tried, we want to make changes for you, but these allies, and this strong opposition, they didn’t let us succeed! So the next time give us a clear majority so that we can push the reforms through without hassle!”  God help us if the public takes them at their word! For now, all one can hope for is that some of the parties will see sense and help make these reforms a reality. Because we really can’t do without them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Driving across the country can be so much fun!

My entire insane family is totally addicted to wheels. No, we are not car freaks in the ordinary everyday sense of the word. We don’t want expensive or phoren cars, and we don’t speed or drive rashly in the city. We are NOT that kind of car freaks. Instead, we drive small cars, a Wagon R, an Alto, an 800 Duo, and we drive well within the city speed limits, preferring to take our time getting from point A to point B. we also follow the traffic rules, yes, even when no one is watching, even in the middle of the night, even on totally empty streets!

And yet, we are the biggest car freaks I’ve ever met! How so? Well, there is absolutely no other form of transport that we would rather choose, no matter what the distance, than a car. On any holiday, any kind of travel plans, we are likely to just head off in a cavalcade of small cars rather than fuss with buses, trains, flights and such. We all find it a lot more comfortable, and flexible, and we enjoy the freedom of being in control, stopping where we wish, not stopping if we don’t wish, choosing our own route, and so on. Plus, we really enjoy driving. So, long drives have a whole new meaning for this family!

For example, when a huge move was planned, all the way across the country to Kolkata, instead of sitting and looking at railway timetables and things, we sat down for a family conference. Our family unit, my parents, my man and I, and our two-year-old daughter, were about to move from Pune to Kolkata. Democratic to the core, our major family decisions have always been made via family conferences, even when we were little kids, so having one now, for such a major move, was the obvious course of action. Ideas were batted around, as we tried to decide whether taking a flight was a better idea than trains, how to handle the packers, and more. Should someone go with the stuff? In their truck? What about receiving the stuff? If we sent off all the stuff too early, how were we to manage the last few days? And if we left on the day we sent the stuff, we would get to Kolkata too early, way before the stuff arrived, and then how would we manage? That was a problem for sure. Pretty soon, from all this brainstorming over how to manage, the simplest, easiest, and most likely for all parties to agree with solution soon came up. “Let’s just drive!”

 To many Indians, especially of my father’s age, who are living in India, this would be an impossible, unimaginable trip. Drive two thousand four hundred kilometers across the country! With two senior citizens! And a tiny little kid! I could imagine any number of people, my friends as well as those of my father, having heart attacks at the very thought! For Indians of my father’s generation, the famous and infamous midnight’s children, this is not a very surprising attitude. Cars are comparatively new things for them, things they met pretty late in life. Born at the time of or growing up around independence, they were witnesses of the changes India saw in the following decades.

They saw the country go from the “Mother India” type, chiefly agrarian, mostly village based country – to the growth oriented, urban minded, raring to be a world community member, nation it has now become. Yet, in the initial years after independence at least, the change was quite slow, and old habits really died hard. However, with economic growth picking up pace and becoming much more rapid and e-controlled in the 1980s, people like my dad, basically middle class, recently upwardly mobile, and firmly urban, began to be able to own cars. Loans became easier to get, and cheaper to pay off, and a new spurt in the automobile industry gave people like my crazy old man a much wider choice in models and types.

This was when my family’s own love for wheels, and for the road really began. With as many as seven people jam-packed into a miniscule Standard 10 (more or less the equivalent of a VW beetle), or eleven people (8 adults) in a Maruti Omni (a smallish minivan), we began to drive around and travel South India by road. One of our more infamous and wild trips included the four of us – dad, mom, bro, and I – driving from Chennai to Bangalore in the middle of an actual cyclone, while the little car kept side-slipping in the gale force winds and the massive torrents flowing across the roads kept trying to wash away our little metal box on wheels with them! We kids inherited this insane love of the road from the oldies, in a most natural way, having grown up practically IN cars. And we have been lucky, both of us, to find partners who share that love. Not surprisingly, the third generation of the clan, my daughter is now being taught to revel in the complete freedom and convenience that “let’s just take the car and head out, and forget about all this ticket-wicket!” can give to travel, and my brother’s kids are very likely to learn the same!

So, with a detailed route mapped out, and with stopovers tentatively planned, we headed out on our long trip, Christmas morning, really early in the morning. The plan was to go via Hyderabad, rather than via Nagpur because – as we have seen – the roads down south are so much better, the streets much safer, and we really wanted to take advantage of the brand new Golden Quadrangle – a perimeter like stretch of six lane highways that are still under construction, in an attempt to make India much more easily navigable by road. The Pune Hyderabad stretch we had done many times at this point in time that we were very familiar with it, and we covered easily in roughly nine hours, in spite of a longish stop for lunch in the middle of the 590 km.

Now most of the people I know, even the ones who do drive to places further than Lonavla or Mumbai, could never imagine being out on the road, with two women and a small child, without rock solid reservations for all the stopovers. We however, knew that India has, finally, made enough progress that technology would solve the stopover accommodation issue for us. Driving into the city, and all the ones after that where we wished to stay over, we simply called the information service Justdial, a version of which is now available in most of the larger and some smaller Indian cities, and asked for phone numbers of hotels in Hyderabad. A large bunch of names and numbers soon arrived to both the laptop and the cellphone, and all it took was a couple of calls, and we were soon driving to our first night of well earned rest.

The next morning, bright and early, in keeping with our grand road trip plan of “leave early, take frequent breaks, and stop before it gets too dark”, we started the next leg of the journey after a quick but filling breakfast. This was a new stretch of road, a stretch we hadn’t done before, and the plan was to get to Vijaywada that day. On this stretch, we noticed other changes in the overall travel experience on Indian roads. Now tea and snacks by the roadside, in the dhabas and little hut-shops have never been a problem on any Indian highway. However, when we began our nomadic, independent, self driven style of travelling, actual meals were not really so easy to come by at the road side. We have had many misadventures in trying to find lunch on the road, ranging from super yummy but super small Tamilian “meals ready” places, to really awful shacks where we only ate because we had to, otherwise we would all have passed out from starvation! As for “facilities” that was a whole different adventure leading to a lot of familiarity with roadside hedges and farmlands! This trip, I realized that more Indians are on the road than they were even ten years ago, and as a direct result of that, fuel stations on the highways are now little islands of fun and convenience. There are parks for kiddies with fun things like swings, slides, and assorted other treats. There are little stores selling biscuits, chips, snacks and things. There are restaurants serving meals, as well as all hours of the day fast food. And, best news of all for the fastidious and the ladies, there are well maintained and clean restrooms.

As the trip progressed, as we went through city after city, and got on to the super highway, my daughter pointed out something we were all seeing but maybe not registering consciously. “Do you see how many private cars there are on the highway now?” and it is true. Where we had habitually been among a small minority of people travelling long distance in our own cars, most of the people we saw on the roads were in buses, shared semi public transport like Tata Sumos, and Tempo Trax, or just truckers. That was no longer the case. A lot of people were on the road in private cars, often self driven versus the “let’s get a professional driver for the long trip”. It seems to be an indication of not just the changing economic climate, but also of changing attitudes, especially among younger Indians for whom cars are no longer a new thing, Indians who have grown up riding in, and driving, their parents’ cars, and who can afford to buy their own cars at a much younger age than their parents could have even imagined in their lifetimes.

This trip showed us that Indians are definitely travelling a lot more, and not just by car. Whether for business or pleasure, the increased fluidity of the new Indian populations is a large part of why travel has become so much easier now. There are now really good hotels, at very decent prices, even in the much smaller cities, as we found in Berhampore, Odisha, for example. Where we had pretty traumatic experiences of quite horrific hotels even 10 yrs ago, in our many cross country jaunts, when trying to find a decent place to lay our heads, finding a comfortable, clean, and safe hotel, in almost any budget, is no longer a problematic issue when seeing the country by car. Roads overall, at least the important roads, are also better maintained, and the introduction of toll highways has made driving in India much smoother, and much more of a pleasure. Some stretches are even good enough now to do a 120 or 150 KMPH on, cutting down the time between stopovers significantly.  There are highway patrols, and helpline numbers visibly displayed on the fringes for the traveler, and, best thing of all, the help-lines actually work and help arrives quite promptly. In the same spirit of change, hotel employees are no longer surprised or shocked to have unannounced arrivals of an entire family disembarking from a car, looking for a room for the night.

All in all, things have really changed on the Indian highways. As a result of all these positive changes, we managed to drive into our own parking spot, in our own housing complex, early on the night of the 28th of December. With long lunches, more than 12-hour stops every night, and frequent bathroom breaks for the little one, we still managed to get from Pune, Maharashtra, across the widest part of India, taking the long way round detour via Hyderabad, to Kolkata, West Bengal, a distance of over two thousand and four hundred kilometers, in four days of driving! It would have taken twice as long even a decade ago.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Watching the fools’ theatre on TV

Admittedly I am no economist. Neither am I one of that super articulate all knowing intelligentsia that is so visibly everywhere these days. But I do have half a brain, and yes, I have a load of opinions too. And I really don’t see what the hoopla is about certain economic reforms that the so-far-completely-useless government of ours is finally introducing.

Fine, I understand that raising the prices of fuel oil is a problem. I personally have been dealing with steeply rising prices of petrol over the last few years which has basically thrown the domestic budget for a major curve, and managed to put a damper on even our obsessive road trips. But, there’s a problem here. Apparently, this price rise is because of the heavy losses being suffered by the oil companies in importing the oil, because of the international prices, and so on. Makes me wonder then, why it is that I have to pay almost Rs 75 here, for a measly liter of petrol, when the same thing costs 3 dollars, or Rs 150, for FIVE liters in the US! Why am I paying more than more than double the price?

Doesn't sound like a problem caused by international market to me. When you look a little deeper, it’s the taxes. So, instead of raising the price, maybe one can take a new look at all these weird taxes, octroi, surcharge and whatnots? And are the Indian petrochem companies really suffering such huge losses? If that were the case, how are they declaring hundreds of millions of rupees of profits every year? How are their CEOs paying themselves millions of rupees in salaries? So that’s definitely something that needs to be looked at, reconsidered. Yet, subsidies are not the answer, they are never the answer. So maybe that’s something the economists should think about?

As for the corresponding increase in the more heavily subsidized diesel prices, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Yes, diesel is the lifeblood of our entire goods and freight transport system, and any rise in prices has a ripple effect on prices of everything, essential commodities to luxurious fripperies alike. However, there is another angle to this. Diesel is also what the most expensive, luxurious, status-symbol, cars – like a whole range of SUVs, run on. So, while on the one hand subsidizing diesel prices is essential to keep an overall check on inflation, especially of essential goods, what it also means is that the richest people in the land get to drive around in their cars at less than half the cost of my driving in mine – which is utterly ridiculous.

When someone can afford to spend a minimum of 10 lacs for a car, versus my little garib-rath costing 2 lacs, what kind of sense does it make that I have to pay 75 rupees when they buy fuel at 32? So what’s the solution? If you raise the prices, as was recently done, it affects mass transit facilities, and freight. Keep it low, and it not only puts a huge strain on the budget and the exchequer, it is hugely unfair to people who earn less, but have to pay much more to travel in their vehicles, while the wealthy get away with paying peanuts. One solution could be to have differential pricing for the fuel…. When a truck or tanker or bus rolls in, sell the fuel for 32, and then, when a rich man’s SUV rolls in, charge them 70.

Anyone can see that THAT’s not going to work. Even apart from all the cries of partiality, unfairness, etc, … how are you going to implement it? How can you make sure that the rich get billed higher? Not likely, not feasible, not possible to implement or oversee. So what then? The other suggestion offered, and it’s the only one with any chance of working is to increase the taxes, surcharges, etc on the SUVs substantially. This way, the rich man does end up paying a large amount extra while buying the car, which he can presumably well afford, which then gets forwarded to the government as taxes. Not an ideal solution, given that I will end up spending much more over the years of using my car, but slightly more equitable than the system in place now.

As for cooking gas, or LPG, I completely support, agree with, and applaud the recent move to de-subsidize anything above six cylinders per family per year. This is perfect. So far in India ALL domestic LPG has been heavily subsidized. Where the market price is around 750 rupees, the consumer has been getting the cylinders, endless numbers of them, for 400 each. That’s untold billions going straight down the drain. And all it does is encourage wasteful cooking practices. 99% of Indian families I know don’t use pressure cookers for their kitchen activities, most of them don’t make any effort to conserve gas, leaving the gas on while they chop veggies or clean rice etc. at this rate, most families I know get through a cylinder in just 15 to 20 days. And so, they are all having heart attacks at the thought of having to pay double the price for any cylinder they buy from the 7th cylinder onward.

My family unit uses 4 to 6 cylinders a year. If a gas refill finishes in 2 months, I sit and wonder why. Average is about 2 months and 20 days. And why? Do we starve? According to the chief minister of Bengal, one of the most vocal protesters to this move, even if u just have tea or coffee, you need 24 cylinders a year!!!! TWENTY FOUR?!!! What are you doing? Leaving the gas on all night? We have 3 meals a day, more cups of tea and coffee than the average Indian home, and in winters, and pretty much all through the year, we heat bathwater for the baby. And we still don’t need more than 6 cylinders a year! Do I know magic? No…. I own and consistently use four pressure cookers for anything from rice and dal to maccher jhol and chicken/mutton. In fact, I feel handicapped without a pressure cooker, and make practically everything in them. Also, I make sure that everything is ready before I light up the gas. Veggies are chopped and washed, masalas are ready, utensils within arms' reach. Not a single second of gas time is wasted.

Years of messages on television and radio and on billboards have not managed to inculcate these habits in most Indians. People have gone blue in the face trying to explain to them that fossil fuels are a limited resource, or that subsidies cost the government (and me as the taxpayer), billions every year, and it has made zero impact. They have just continued cooking their mutton in a kadhai (that’s TWO hours instead of 20 mins!!!), boiling their rice and dal in hanndis (20 to 30 mins instead of 10 mins), and even boiling green bananas for their koftas in a pan (30 to 40 mins instead of 10 mins). They continue to let the gas burn away as they wash utensils, chop vegetables, wash vegetables, grind masalas, and take care of a thousand cooking chores that they should have finished BEFORE lighting up. These are the people who ONLY understand the language of double prices. If they have to buy every eighth cylinder …and every one after that … at double the price, then, and only then, are they likely to even try to change their habits and to try and make the gas last longer. This is essential not just for the nation and its budget, but for the planet as a whole too.

As for FDI – foreign direct investment – in retail, there’s a whole lot of noise being made by people who don’t seem to have really even thought about it, or understood it. Sure, I am the worst person to talk, being from the urban middle class, and the direct beneficiary of FDI if and when it happens. I will get a wider choice in produce, at better prices, with retailers competing for my custom. In a real retail market, consumer is king, and being the consumer, I would much rather have a huge Wal-Mart to go to than have to deal with the sullen baniya who treats me like shit and sells me 100 gms of stone chips for every Kg of rice I buy. However, BECAUSE I am the urban middle class, no one cares about my opinion. I don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t farm, but I do have relatives who do. They are among the most vocal SUPPORTERS of FDI in retail. How come? Aren't these the people that great leaders like Mamata Bannerjee are trying to protect from the rapacious FOREIGN retailer? The farmers tell me simple things. They sell potatoes for 3 rupees a kilo. The middleman who buys it sells at the mandi for 18 rupees a kilo, and it is sold to me for 20 or 22. The farmer is not the one benefiting in this scenario. However, when the big scary pepsico came in, and started buying potatoes from them, they got a much fairer price! If big chain retail stores come in, they will not IMPORT their potatoes, or rice, or dal, they will buy them here, source them directly from the very farmers Ms Bannerjee is so energetically trying to protect. And they will pay much more than the middlemen now pay. The end consumer will also get the produce for much cheaper than the prices we are paying now. So who is really being protected? The farmer? Or the dalal/agent, the middleman who is such a powerful force in Indian politics.

Add to this the sheer numbers of jobs that the huge chains will bring in… from the basic cleaners and janitors all the way up to regional managers, and it boggles the mind. Even back a decade or so, when the domestic retail chains appeared, they changed the face of urban and small town India. A whole new niche was created for not so educated but able to speak a couple of languages well youngsters to find good, paying, respectable work. The entry of foreign retail chains will only hugely expand this opportunity, providing massive employment options to previously unemployable youth. This is much more than all the jobs that our esteemed leaders fear will be lost because of smaller retailers shutting down. In addition, when you think about it, the jobs lost are not just fewer, they are only in front end niches like counter sales. The ones created will be in every possible field from cleaners to counter sales, from truck drivers to inventory keepers, from loaders to managers, and everything in between.

As for the big boogeyman, that all the little mohalla stores and kirana walas will go out of business, we heard this same tune when chains like Spencer’s, Reliance, Pantaloons Big Bazaar, etc were opening up their doors. And did it happen? Nope! After all, I am not likely to run to the Big Bazaar, much further from my house, stand in a long checkout line, and waste a lot of time when I need a quick dozen eggs or a loaf of bread for the morning. Even if I do my major monthly shopping at a megastore, all the daily top-ups, as well as the milk, bread, eggs, type daily needs, are much more likely to be picked up at the neighbourhood store on the way back from work. In addition, I have seen my neighbourhood kirana wala buying his stores regularly from these retail chains! Seems to me like he benefitted too! So who are we trying to protect? Again, it looks like the middle man, who bought cheap from farmers and sold so expensive to the stores, is the main beneficiary of all this protest against retail markets being opened.

Our dear leaders are concerned that “these foreign investors” (spoken in the same tone of voice as “these rotten tomatoes” or “these stinking fish”) will siphon off all the money to their own countries. First of all, why would u allow that to happen? Why would u not put in place regulators, and laws, that make it mandatory for them to reinvest a large part of their profits into the market? We’ve done it successfully with the insurance sector, I am sure we can manage in retail too. Secondly, assuming that they do take their profits away – the hundreds of thousands of employees working in the hundreds of thousands of newly created, better paying jobs, will presumably not be sending all their money abroad? They live here, work here, earn their salaries here, so they will SPEND here, injecting huge amounts of liquid cash into the economy, which it badly needs!

And, instead of looking at all these advantages, or in spite of knowing them very well, our leavers and rulers are playing political games, whipping uninformed, unthinking public into frenzies with the FEAR of the dreaded FOREIGN HAND. Ms Bannerjee goes one step further and actually decides to table a motion to shut down even domestic retail chains, with another stalwart of Bengal politics, Asit Mitra makes a completely stupid statement like “contract farming by pepsico must be oppose, so what if it gets farmers a better price”.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Devout Assault

Trying to work in the privacy and personal space of my own home-office is an impossibility today. Through tightly shut windows and almost-hermetically-sealed doors I am assaulted by wave after wave of loud, raucous, ear-drum-blasting waves of sound. It has been going on all night, and with most of the day gone as well, it shows no signs of abating. Four different sets of loudspeakers are playing four different – but equally loud and offensive – sets of something they think is music. The resulting ripples and cross currents and clashes are almost more than I can bear!

It happens to be one of the millions of pujas, or days of worship, of the Indian calendar. Given an estimated 33 million gods and goddesses, it is almost a miracle that it doesn’t happen twice a day, everyday. In addition to the major deities and their holy days that most of the country celebrates, there are the many smaller local or class/caste specific deities who come in for their fair share of adulation every year. Depending on where you live, this sort of public puja celebrations can be an almost daily occurrence.

And what does a public puja celebration mean? It is a bunch of people deciding to infringe on my rights to peace, the right to not be treated to inhuman levels of noise, the right to unblocked roads, the right to not have to deal with drunken louts dancing obscenely in the streets, all in the name of religion. And, because it IS in the name of religion, no one dare protest, the cops wont act, and the people having to bear the brunt have no choice but to go on bearing it.

In my lane, and within roughly three minutes of walk from my apartment building, there are some six of these shindigs going on full blast. This is a celebration after all, and in India what that means is loud, loud film music – often of the more raunchy sort – played to all willing and unwilling listeners via loudspeakers. There’s a little bit of actual worshipping going on, sure, but that’s hardly the most important thing. A lot of money has been collected, via door to door voluntary (read give or else…) donation collections, sponsorships, and more, and since a large part of it has been judiciously saved by the organizers, it is their right to spend it on what they want (read huge boom boxes and lots of booze).

Why they should assault their deities, and everyone within a 3 mile radius, with way higher than acceptable decibel levels of the trashiest of trashy music is beyond me. And if you have to have such inappropriate music… for whatever reasons… leave the rest of us out of it! Why must worship involve getting mindlessly drunk and dancing in the streets? Why must it involve misbehaving with women, children, the elderly? Is this what religion, devotion, spirituality is supposed to be? And even if it is… for you… leave my eardrum, my body, and my kid out of it!

Of course it is immature and unrealistic to expect them to think of others, that’s not how this nation works. We rather like rubbing our religions/devotions/beliefs/opinions in other people’s faces whether they want it or not. We like showing every reluctant neighbor and disturbed muhalla person how much we revere our gods, never mind the ill, the dying, the pregnant, or simple the lover of peace and quiet. And, what is more, with our cultural ethos and our strange brand of secularism, we have full rights to assault everyone within hearing range for 72 straight hours with ear piercing renderings of ancient hymns, mantras, or simply the worst songs from 10 yrs ago. And – and this is the best part for them, the worst for everyone else – no one else has the right to object. If you do, you are infringing on their rights to practice their religion! The cops are not likely to be very forthcoming controlling the noise either (half of them being part of the CELEBRATIONS).

This is a free country after all, and a secular one, and apparently everyone and their uncle has the right to bring their religion into the streets and parade it in your face, LOUDLY, all the time! This I do not get. To me, secularism would mean having the right to believe or not believe, worship or not worship, celebrate or not celebrate, within the confines of one’s own home, or place of worship. How can blocking traffic, encroaching on a public road to turn it into a temporary kitchen for the jagrata, keeping everyone up all night because I am up (saving their souls, making sure of their entry into heaven with so many bhajans), assaulting them with Sheila Ki Jawani, wolf whistling at them when they pass, surrounding them in a drunken wolf-pack and molesting them, and in general acting like a total SOB be a religious thing? How can it be celebration? How can it even be secular or democratic?

Take it home damn-it! And keep it there! 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Freedom Land

What the situation is, 65 years after independence.

·         20 crore Indians live without adequate food
·         Eight thousand die every day of starvation
·         2 crore children don’t go to school
·         20 crore Indians are illiterate
·         43% children suffer from malnutrition
·         66 crore Indians don’t have access to hygienic sanitation
·         India ranks 66th (Pakistan is 61) on the international hunger index
·         India ranks 132nd among 142 countries in terms of developmental index

These are numbers from a bunch of information links doing the rounds online. While they may not be exactly accurate, (at least, I am not sure whether they are) they are pretty close to the real situation overall. Not much cause to celebrate, if you ask me. Add to that India’s “record” showing at the London Olympics 2012, with 6 whole medals, not one of them gold, and I really don’t think there’s much to CELEBRATE right now.

And then there’s the madness going on all over the country with thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people FROM the seven north eastern states fleeing their places of residence all over India because they no longer feel safe in those places. And why did I just put the FROM in all caps?? Because many of them have been living in those places of education, work, residence, for years, decades even. Yet, one whiff of trouble in some far corner of the country, and they are being attacked, harassed, and driven out to go BACK to this place they are supposed to belong to. Rumours are flying, threats being issued and realized, attacks made, and a large segment of Indians are feeling  threatened within the sovereign territory of India. And news channels and papers are playing up the immigrant situation and the harassment of immigrants. (are these people immigrants in their own country? By what definition? What law?)

It began as a riot/ethnic clashes in certain areas of Assam primarily between illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the resident farmers. The trouble was over rights to the land, and the attempt to prevent sneak-over-the-border-in-the-night people from encroaching on it. As is the nature of such conflicts, things got bigger and more complicated as it was allowed to go on for longer (although local Muslims are still pretty happy there, and safe), and since the news channels didn’t bother to even try to put anything other than a religious/communal colouring on it, this territorial, anti illegal alien clash began to be seen as another of the Hindu-Muslim riots that we are getting more and more used to. That’s new, although riots in themselves are not. What is really new this time, the year of the 65th anniversary of our becoming a nation, is the backlash against people seen to be from the “north east” in far flung parts of the country -- parts that have nothing to do with Assam, and face no added pressure from the refugee movement generated by the clashes.

From flash riots in Mumbai, to threats and rumours in Pune, Bangalore, and more, the overall perceived threat level has risen sharply, especially in places with a considerable presence of students and workers from the north eastern states. People are leaving in droves, with something like 9700 tickets to Guwahati booked in a single day from a single station, and four extra trains having to be made available to accommodate the huge waves of people leaving from Bangalore on a that ONE day. So, what’s really going on here? Does a bunch of mixed ethnic, mixed community hooligans (the bunch arrested in Bangalore for rumour mongering etc include Hindus and Christians) really care so much about the trouble in Assam? Are they so emotionally invested in, and swayed by, the people rendered homeless in Assam that they have to avenge them by harassing, assaulting, and killing people from Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, and West Bengal?

What it is, is a bunch of people making a noise, lashing out, creating trouble, for reasons and motives of their own. From chauvinistic political parties looking to strengthen their communal vote bases, to ruffians looking for any excuse to indulge in a little vandalism, reasons and motives are many and varied. What concerns me however, really worries me, is how easy it seems to have become to drive a large number of people out of your city, area, state on the pretext that they don’t belong. I am concerned because, this has a lot to do with people like me. As I blogged in January 2010 in SporadicDiaspora (premonition? Foreshadowing?), I belong to the increasingly larger segment of the population who are not really FROM anywhere. Of course, this is a concept most Indians don’t seem to get. So, for me there was never a question of going BACK to some safe place where I belong.

As populations grow and resources become strained, such things are only going to get more common. The refrains of “go back to where you belong” will continue to get louder as the years roll by, as they have in the last few decades, posing a massive problem for me and my ilk. I don’t BELONG. Having lived in some six different states till date, I have no domicile, no hometown. As for Bengal, I have no roots there, I don’t have a mental emotional connection there, and I don’t belong there. Yet, I have recently acquired a flat in Kolkata, a sort of roof over the head arrangement, even though it is no secret how much I have come to dislike the place over the last few years. A childhood friend, someone I have known for the last 36 years, and who is in kind of the same predicament, was fantasizing last week about selling up Kolkata flats when we are older, and moving back to Dehradun, where we were born, to live out our retirements.

While that sounds unbelievably lovely, and nostalgia inducing, I realize it is never gonna happen. As I was explaining to my chuddy buddy, no matter how much we feel like we are not  REALLY Bengali, no matter how much more comfortable we are outside Bengal as opposed to in Kolkata, no matter how much Doon, or Pune, feels like home, like where the soul belongs, for the “other” we will always remain outsiders. People will always ask “are you a local?” and mean “are you Garhwali/Maharashtrian?” they will always ask “where are you “originally” from?”, leaving you speechless, and when push comes to shove, they will – nicely or not so nicely – ask you to leave. It happened and continues to happen in many states, and is only getting worse. The Bengalis I know who chose to remain in Dehradun after their retirement are already facing problems, and they belong to my parents’ generation. How much worse are things going to get by the time we are ready to retire? In Maharashtra too, the erstwhile muted murmurs of the “Maharashtra for Marathi manoos” political language have been getting louder over the last decade. As the focus shifts from Biharis to the North Easterners, I can only wonder how long before it shifts again…to the Bengali.

And if it does, as it eventually will, where do I go? So, I have that little roof over the head insurance in the land that I feel no belonging in, in case I have to leave all the lands I feel connected to, in case it becomes impossible for me, or my child, to live threat free, safe lives in all the places I would rather live in. what makes me really sad, angry, disillusioned, disgusted, and depressed is to see this drama unfold each morning on the news, where on the 65th anniversary of the formation of a nation people of the nation are not free to live in their choice of location in it. To see that in this free land, this secular democracy, a segment of its own citizens is being called “immigrant”, to see that they are being driven to drop educations, livelihoods, settled lives to go BACK to a state where they supposedly BELONG, makes me fear for my future and that of my child outside the mythical land of my belonging.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The delicious horror of the daily crime fix

For someone who is not at all into TV, even to know what show airs on what channel, at what time, is some sort of an unheard of event. The Hindi and Bangla channels are still a completely unseen land to me, and I continue to have absolutely no clue whatsoever of the goings on, on those planets. Nor do I wish to know. However, for the past year or so, I do find myself getting the occasional “crime fix” as a dear friend puts it.

So what is this crime fix then? Well, a large number of intelligent people – especially in India – seem to have become regular viewers, even addicts, of the regular crime shows on the English language satellite channels. And, as a result, the prime time slots on most of the channels are given over to these programs. This, in turn, means that I manage to catch at least an hour of these programs – on most days.

For me, of course, it is simply a matter of convenience. Mornings are news news news till about 9 or 9.30am. 9.30 to about 11.30am is usually spent in things like household chores, work related filing, and such. 11.30 I leave to get the little one from her school, and the rest of the day is mad. Any TV that is watched between work, food, games, homework, mum and baby projects, and more, is always of the animated variety. Her day winds up by about 7.30 pm, and it is only then that any question arises of anyone else watching TV.

One could, I suppose, watch some trashy saas bahu serial during the day, with the child sitting there open jawed and absorbing all the nastiness and tear jerking, like many mothers do. But I cannot tolerate that crap, nor can I imagine exposing my child to  regular doses of such consistently unethical, nasty, backstabbing, evil behavior, not to mention the horrible gender and community stereotypes. So, cartoons it is. And there are restrictions there as well. No child of mine is ever going to sit and watch shinchan, and monkey knows that in this house, with this mum, “no” means no. many others are on the off limits list, or on the occasionally only list. I could also watch any of the violent or gory crime series or movies
So, essentially, it is after about 8 pm that the adults finally get down to any kind of TV viewing, and that’s just fine with us. Between 8 and 9 is when the joint production of dinner is usually created, and we generally pay scant attention to the idiot box, because we have the whole day to catch up on with each other. So, it is during dinner, and in that narrow time slot of 9 to 10 pm, that we get down to some semi serious television intake, and…guess what!... it coincides with a crime show! Not a “real crime reenactment” kind of bullshit, mind you, but a thriller type show with the storyline based on crime solving activities.

Come to think of it, most of the shows I have even remotely liked in the past few years have been of this type. From CSI and NCIS to Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, White Collar, etc, most of them fit into the crime thriller genre. And no, this fascination does not carry over to the really badly made, over explained, “treat the viewer as if she is an idiot” kind of Hindi series like CID. The shows I like are the English ones, and no, its not entirely because of my English type-ness. Sure I think in English and am most comfortable in English, but no one can deny that these programs are much better made than any Hindi one can ever hope to be. They are tighter, sharper, more succinct. The science is much more current, and they don’t spend minutes at a time trying to explain every single detail of it to you. They assume that you have the brains to figure a few things out without having them spelled out for you.

Although it’s not regular, or consistent, we have kind of fallen into the habit of the 9 pm crime show and begun to call it our nightly crime fix. Last week, for one reason or another, we missed quite a few of them, and I found myself feeling vaguely uncomfortable, even contemplating catching the rerun the next day. I didn’t, of course, but it made me think about what it was about the crime fix that had me craving for it. Of course there is the morbid curiosity that is such a human trait, the thing that makes people slow down and try to get a glimpse of an accident (although I cant ever imagine doing that). Then there is the delicious fear of watching a horror film in the safety of one’s home (which I, as a horror addict, am so very familiar with). But, to me at least, it seemed to be a bit more than just that.

There seems to be an element of the talisman in the whole phenomenon. Watching the worst of the worst happen to someone else, someone imaginary, seems to somehow subconsciously convince one that it cannot happen to “me”. Its like some kind of magical catharsis that not only eases and purges those feelings of horror and pathos, but also protects the watcher against the same happening to them. That’s the only way I can explain the addiction, with a healthy sprinkling of the normal human negative traits thrown in, the morbidity, the delight in gore and pain, and yes – the subconscious reveling in the triumph of good over evil (after all the bad guys are always caught) which fits nicely with the way we imagine the world is, or should be.