Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Republic is not for the Public

It is Republic Day 2012. This is one of the only two days in the year when Indians suddenly get uncontrollable attacks of effervescent public patriotism. As is the norm, noise is being made this year as well, flags are being hoisted, spiffy and sloppy march-pasts are being organized and drilled at schools, government offices, residential neighbourhoods, and through the picturesque boulevards of the national capital. Celebrations of the anniversary of the day that India’s constitution came into effect are proceeding with all the usual bells and whistles.  

This year, more than any other year, thinking Indians will be forced to re-examine what Indian democracy really means, if it means anything at all. These last few years have been exceptionally bad for the health of the Indian democracy as well as for basic human rights. One incident after another, one farce after another has shown up the real nature of the fool’s paradise we live in. while we are happy going about our business in the belief that we live in a free and democratic nation, where the constitution – which we are celebrating today – guarantees us certain basic and inalienable rights, in actual fact what passes for freedom in this land of ours is steadily declining, at an alarming rate!

The last few years have seen increasingly frequent, and disturbing, incidents illustrating just how intolerant India has gotten, and how unable and unwilling the powers that be are to control such intolerant elements. The government itself has, for many years, set an example of exclusion and intolerance in the name of protecting the “sentiments” of one community or the other. From banning books, to refusing sanctuary to writers from neighbouring countries, to an inability or unwillingness to protect Indian writers and artists in their own homes, India has shown the world that freedoms and rights come a very, very far second to vote bank politics and an imaginary threat to “law and order”.

Academia is following suit, and writers and thinkers from Rohinton Mistry to A K Ramanujan are feeling the heat. While one expects not only neutrality but an actual pro-liberal, pro-open-thought bias from at least the higher education institutions entrusted with churning out our thinkers of tomorrow, it is increasingly becoming apparent that those expectations are false and far from the truth. In other disturbing developments, students at an eminent, reputedly a-grade, reputedly forward thinking higher educational institution proudly burn books as an emblem of caste pride. While I detest the book they were burning, I cannot and will not accept burning a book….any book… as anything good. It only exhibits and increases intolerance.

The democratically elected government of our great democratic notion is not only pushing a bill through parliament which will eliminate my ability to write the way I am writing this today, but will also have the power to actually punish me, with a fine or a jail term, for “hurting sentiments” (you don’t like what I have to say…don’t listen… is what I have always said. Let those who are offended boycott that which offends them, as I boycott bigoted crap and racist BS floating around, online and off. But they cannot use their “offended sentiments” as an excuse to deny me my say or block my access to what I wish to read or see or hear. How can a FREE government of a FREE country deny me the right to say my piece or hear someone else’s? How can they silence my voice or another’s? By what right?) What is worse, the judiciary, which had been showing signs of growing up and growing an actual spine has regressed, and warned sites like Google and Facebook to ban “offensive” content. Without getting into the debate of who gets to decide what is offensive, and the fact that I find such a demand extremely offensive myself, this demand is childish, undemocratic, and impossible.

It not only shows the absolute absence of the right to freedom of speech and expression in this fair land of ours, but also exemplifies how little the “big shots” know about how the net actually works. When the various companies, who had been issued this ultimatum, tried to explain that it is plumb not possible – if advisable – to monitor or pre-censor the humongous volume of traffic from India, the judges reacted with a knee jerk, and EXTREMELY disturbing and undemocratic remark that the sites better do what they were told OR ELSE they could easily be blocked entirely “like in china”!!!!

DID I HEAR THAT RIGHT???? Did a member of the esteemed judiciary, of our esteemed democracy compare us to an absolutist nation whose record in human rights is one of the most pathetic in the world? Do we really want to be a country where government drives tanks over its citizens and basically OWNS everyone as if they were chattel? Do we want to be a nation where one cannot have a free thought without being in fear of one’s life and liberty? Do we desire to achieve the lofty levels where we imprison and torture Nobel Peace Prize winners and measure out the right to life to our citizens by the thimbleful? I, for one, don’t. That’s the last place on earth I would wish to be. And just as I am starting to simmer down from the fuming induced by this piece of news, something even worse occurs.

A certain organization of clerics, claiming to represent a certain community, yells itself hoarse protesting the plans for Salman Rushdie to attend the Jaipur lit fest. Threatens violence if he arrives. And, surprise surprise, our SCAREDY CAT of a government begins to quake at the thought of losing a single minority vote on the eve of polls in UP. So what do our state and central governments do about this undemocratic demand and threatening of violence? Absolutely nothing! On the contrary, the state government actually applies pressure on the organizers of the event to get Rushdie to change his plans. Reports are sent to him (real or made up is anyone’s guess) of underworld operatives arriving in Jaipur armed and ready to kill him.

He cancels his visit (which the cleric organization has the audacity to call a “victory for democracy”) and schedules a video conferencing event instead. But, our spineless government does not have the cojones to ensure even that. So, a few minutes before the event is about to start, it is shut down because the powers that be refuse to provide any police protection to the venue and the organizers (some of whom have been getting death threats). So even his voice is strangled, and this is free, democratic, republic of India which is celebrating the implementation of its constitution with much pomp and show today!

So, what is the point of calling ourselves the biggest democracy in the world? What are we celebrating when we ban and burn books and films, allow pet goons of one political party or another to freely destroy, pillage and vandalise museums, libraries, movie theatres, and what have you. What is the republic worth when we shake in our boots at the thought of someone being upset and as a result deny sanctuary, deny protection, drive out, all the perceived “disturbing” elements? What is the meaning of the constitution, when the constitutionally elected governments are trying to apply forced and arbitrary censorship laws? What does free and democratic India have to offer me if it can’t offer me the right to read, see, and say what I wish? What does a constitution mean to me if I can no longer breathe freely under it?

All I can see is a steady decline in rights in this nation, dangerous precedents being set for future fundamentalists of all colours to take advantage of, a complete lack of political or executive will to control such elements, and the beginning of the end of the Indian democracy. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

the Fantastic Indian role models 2

In my continuing rant against the amazing Indian role models, specifically from that all pervasive mythological part of our culture, I am going to look at another of my favourite fantastic ideal men from our epics… the great Yudhisthir, also known as dharmaraj…or the king/lord of ethics.

The USP of this demigod is honesty and ethics. He never lies, never cheats, does no wrong. Or so the great epics and popular and common understanding of culture would have us believe. But think about it. This man “SHARES” his younger brother’s bride… supposedly because mom told them to share whatever they had brought home. At worst, it is sheer lust and covetousness of a renowned beauty, who just happened to have been won by a younger bro. Mom’s unknowing instructions just acted as a nice easy way, and cozy justification, to realize his own nefarious desires. At best, it is considering the woman an object, a THING to be shared out among five brothers… never mind which one she wants, all because mom said so… with no idea what they were bringing home. Doesn’t really sound very ethical or honest to me.

If this was the worst of his sins, he would still not be a man I would in any way be persuaded to like. However, this is merely the tip of the awful iceberg that is the great personality of this great epic hero. Having co-married a woman very much in love with his younger brother, he assigns himself first conjugal rights, to continue for one whole year. Why? Because he is the eldest of course! How stupid of you to ASK!! Then comes Bheem’s turn, for another year, until she finally, after bearing two children, comes to the man she really loves and the one who won her in the first place. What about what the woman wants? Isn’t she in love with Arjun? So? Who cares? She is a mere woman, property and chattel of the lord and master, so who cares what she wants? She’ll bloody well be amenable to orders and do what she is told!

At the end of the Mahabharata, when the 5 brothers and the wife are on their way to heaven, Draupadi falls by the wayside. When asked why she does not deserve heaven, this man has the temerity to say that it is because she always loved Arjun more in spite of being the wife of all 5 Pandavas!!! OBVIOUSLY she loved Arjun more! Heloooo! That’s the one she always wanted, loved and desired! That’s the one she rigged her swayamvara for so that ONLY he could win, winning her hand in marriage along with the contest! Is she really expected to give up that love, or SHARE it out among four men she does not give two hoots for? Merely because you force her into marrying them?

Having spent all his life pursuing a steady policy of pusillanimous appeasement of the arrogant and power hungry Kauravas, Yudhisthir agrees happily to the beggarly handout of five villages, one each for the five brothers, instead of claiming their rightful half. Be that as it may, the time share arrangement of the wife continues, with each brother being forbidden from interrupting or interfering while she is with one of the others. While this is fine under normal circumstances, it so happened once that Arjun forgot his arms at Yudhisthir’s rooms. With one of his subjects begging for help, Arjun is put into a quandary. He can either disturb the esteemed Dharmaraj in his private time with the time-share wife, or he can disregard his duty as a ruler and a warrior, and neglect to help.

Choosing duty over the inconvenience of interrupted coitus, he enters Yudhisthir’s apartments and gets his arms, helps the subject and returns. Instead of understanding the necessity that drove Arjun, Yudhisthir is unable to see beyond his own interrupted lust, and the covenant the brothers had agreed to. A true DHARMA RAJ, in my opinion, would have seen the difference between wanton and willing interruption of another’s solo time with the time share wife versus the necessity of retrieving arms to protect the weak and punish the wrongdoer. Instead, he punishes Arjun with 12 years in exile, to be carried out in abstinence, thus further eliminating the biggest rival for the wife’s affections for a good solid chunk of their lives. WHAT an amazing role model!

That’s nowhere close to all either! The Kauravas, angry and jealous at the amazing pleasure palace and capital the Pandavas have built in Hastinapur, invite the brothers to a game of dice. Yudhisthir the inveterate and obsessive gambler, manages to lose everything he owns, as well as his entire kingdom which he only holds in trust with his brothers, and does not own outright. They give it back to him, he loses it all again! Then, he proceeds to wager, and lose, his brothers, as if they are property he owns, as well as the time share wife because, after all, she is his and his alone, a piece of property to be done with as he wishes. Then he proceeds to sit and watch while the “winners” drag her into a full royal court, and proceed to strip her! This is an IDEAL man? I think NOT!

When, eventually, at long last, he finally goes to war against the Kauravas, he sanctions innumerable unethical strategies and tactics, including lying outright (the great un-lying, ideally honest hero). It is one of the most irreconcilable aspects of the Mahabharata that the supposedly honest and “right” Pandavas use the most amount of cheating and subterfuge, from mild tricks to in-your-face cheating, from a fib and a white lie to outright genocide, this model of ETHICS and HONESTY uses all and every means to win at any cost. Hardly the behavior of an ideal man.

Hardly surprising then, that the whole Indian ethos is so skewed. That we consider women mere property whose only duty and role is to do the bidding of the husband and the in-laws. That we do not even have a concept of “what the woman wants” forget about actually trying to find out. Women do not have dreams, desires, aspirations, ambitions. They cannot have. And as for honesty and ethics? Well, they are highly flexible commodities, to be brought out and paraded when convenient, and coolly circumvented when they stand in the way of what we desire.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Loving words

Arguing about the finer points of meaning and interpretation with a random stranger in a chat room, I suddenly take off on a whole tangent about what things I find most fascinating about language – in learning a language, within languages, and across languages. The original argument, if one can call it that, was about how language limits. Or rather, he claimed that definitions were limiting, and hence unnecessary, and even unwanted, to which I countered that language itself is limiting in many ways, and maybe he should dispense with it. This retort, made in the spirit of fun, obviously didn’t penetrate, and he went on to patronizing descriptions of neotic sciences, pseudo-scientific theories, and so on – at which point the conversation disintegrated into nothingness and I quickly disengaged from it.

However, it did refresh in my mind all the reasons for my enduring fascination with this weird verbal communication medium we call language. Think about it. Growing up, there is no other means of communication open to a child, except crying in different pitches, to signal what it needs or wants. That it succeeds, and survives, is primarily because of how simple a baby’s needs are at this stage – food, warmth, a dry bottom, a cuddle. As one grows, needs become progressively more complicated, and language learning becomes essential to articulate those needs. Clearly, and this is something one sees around one all the time, the more of a language you acquire, the more articulate you become, the more precisely you can express yourself.

Yet, language does limit expression in many ways. This becomes so much more apparent when dealing with various “isms” and ideologies, as one has to do in order to engage in any kind of discourse or activism. It becomes essential then to learn the correct terminology, the right “language”, to be able to not only communicate, but even to understand the concepts and ideas. So, obviously you need language to even think about certain things, not just to talk about them. Subtle nuances, fine shades of meaning, little differences in expressing, these are things that cannot be expressed very well without the possession of adequate language.

The same thing, in another way, presents itself every time I sit down to translate something.  Every new language I learn adds finer shades to my ability to express things, things I think and feel and perceive and imagine, as long as I do so in a multilingual mish-mash my daughter calls my “khichuri” language. This patois, of sorts, is getting more and more complicated as I find more and more that certain concepts, certain shades, certain words, phrases, meanings, just DON’T translate well across tongues. Whether the handicap is attributable to cultural differences, or geographical ones, or what, is a matter for a whole thesis in itself.

What it means, is that I often end up speaking in a cobbled together jumble of three or four languages in an attempt to more precisely convey the ABSOLUTELY EXACT sense of what I am trying to say. After all, how do I translate some thing like sharm or haya for example? It’s a complicated emotion, and certainly not even close to explained with a word like shame. Even in the original Hindi and Urdu, the words mean different things in different contexts and in different combinations. “Mujhe sharm/haya ati hai” is so totally different from “tumhe sharm ani chahiye”, is so totally not the same as “bade besharm ho”. And that’s probably the smallest example. There are so many other words, phrases, expressions that cannot be translated – at least not without writing a 40 page explanation of cultural differences, social mores, and verbose explanations of the nuances.

And that’s precisely what drives me to learn more languages, and to acquire as much fluency as I can in each, simply because I find that as I do that, as I get more and into more and more languages, I begin to be able to have more thoughts, express or think of subtler nuances, and talk about so many more kinds of ideas.