A life, a death: Aruna Shanbaug

Her death is in the newspapers just as most of her life was. Aruna Shanbaug died after being in coma for 42 years. The headlines continue to talk about her "vegetative state". They continue to objectify her, and her entire life becomes a mere précis — rape, brain damage, lobotomised.

Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse at the KEM Hospital in Mumbai. On November 27, 1973, when she went to the basement after her shift, she was sexually assaulted by the sweeper, Sohanlal Bartha Walmiki. He used a dog chain to strangle her, leading to loss of blood supply and oxygen to the brain. It debilitated her in so horrific a manner that she was rendered paralysed, blind and has been comatose for over three decades.*

Rest In Peace has become an opportunity. In death, Aruna has been socialised, by most internet people, including socialites. Just read about how "Bollywood mourns for Aruna". Bollywood has every right to, but it is obvious that Bollywood is being given importance here. It is celebrity photographs that matter. And we live in times where everybody who publicly expresses a few words of grief is deemed to be sensitive and the possessor of a conscience.

Media persons do not lag behind. They speak about how the country has let her down. How many of them followed up on the rape case? They preferred to carry lingering graphic accounts of what was happening to Aruna Shanbaug's body. They were violating her again. They've taken pictures of her screaming, writhing in pain. What kind of people are these? And then they claim to be sensitive to suffering.

These are the same people who say, "Before Nirbhaya, there was Aruna". As though the Delhi gangrape victim is a benchmark, as though harking back is any justification for anything. In this ordered world of making icons out of victims, the purveyors of heroism sidetrack the crime and the criminal. A victim is made into a hero; she is said to fight a battle when she is not even aware that she has survived, and what it feels like to be alive. Or almost dead.

In all these years whenever the ‘story’ was covered in the media, the emphasis was on Aruna and for the most part her fight in a locked hospital room, hunger, pain, soiled clothes, stiff immobile hands and legs, the voice beastly, the brain half dead. Today at 61, the routine continues. She whines, is still afraid of male voices; we get these same dispatches in graphic detail. Aruna’s helplessness is made to appear heroic.

This is not about a lone woman’s fight nor a miracle, for it neither uplifts the spirit nor her body. She does not even recognize that she has survived.

What use is a lifeless person when the perpetrator of the offence is free? Does it drive home a point at all, least of all about the goriness of such a gruesome act?*

Now the nurses and her relatives a fighting over who should perform her funeral rites. Commendable as their care has been, it is unbecoming to claim the right because they tended to her. Also, the glorification of these 'Florence Nightingales' has given the hospital reprieve from ever being accountable to pursue the case against the rapist, who was also their employee.

This is not the tale of a support system. The crime was committed by a hospital staffer in the hospital premises and the authorities have a reputation to uphold. There should instead be an urgent need to look into the conditions of public hospitals and also the general wards of some private hospitals. They are in a pathetic condition. With Aruna’s case, there ought to have been a greater need to examine the level of security. By cocooning her in a room, the authorities have got away without being answerable for such a lapse. They could have fought the case against the rapist who was their employee; they could have issued notices against him being employed anywhere else.*

Her life did raise questions about euthanasia, but there were valid counter-posers, too.

Dr. Ravi Bapat, who was supposedly among the first of the team that responded to Aruna on the morning she was discovered lying under the stairway, is against the SC petition. “It is idiosyncrasy, no living cell ever wants to die…Aruna is like a mentally challenged person now. Would any parent of a mentally ill child move the court in a similar manner? It is sickening how every five years someone raises Aruna’s case just for publicity.”*

In death, too, the publicity machinery is alive. For 42 years, she had to undergo such close scrutiny. Strangers hovered over, unknown to her.

"From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity." — Edvard Munch

*All these quotes are from my earlier piece Whose euthanasia is it, anyway?


Sunday ka Funda

"I've laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I'm singing the blues
Yes, I've been around a long time
People, I've paid my dues"

(From: "Why I Sing The Blues")

There is always a reason why we do things, and sometimes the reasons become the things we shall always do.

I cannot claim to know much about the Blues, but the genre is rooted in pain, a pain that reaches out. The sweat and tears gush forth in the voice.

This cannot claim to be a tribute to B.B.King, for I know little about him on my own. He had said that playing the blues was "like having to be black twice", and instantly one understands. One understands how art will be judged by who the artiste is when he says that the blues was like a "problem child" only because you are concerned about how it will be perceived by the world. In that itself is an indictment of such perceptions that see the colour of the singer, and not the shades of the song.

However, a true artiste would mesh with his art. For B.B.King, “The blues was bleeding the same blood as me.”


Drops of life

“It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things.”
― Nicholas Sparks

There's no water. The overhead tanks were being repaired. By the end of the day even the lone bucketful was depleted and only a couple of jugs could be filled. The jugs became a symbol of all that a daily routine, and life, represents. I became suddenly aware of even drops being wasted.

Strangely, I also became conscious of sweat. In this humidity there can be embarrassing perspiration. However, I'd let the beads of sweat remain on skin; it's as though they were replacing water.

Bath was a towel dipped in water to clean up, followed by lots of wet wipes. If you can't have bread...; the awareness of being elite comes soft-footed. It comes as bottled water and as images that make you cringe, even if momentarily, about the many who walk miles to get just one bucket, about those who have to pull and tug into wells, who have to wait before water taps in a queue, who collect water near rivers where flotsam coats the liquid, who bathe in any collected pool of muddy water, who sometimes die because their thirst was unquenched.

These are images for us. For them, it is life.


A time to build...

There is incessant hammering at home and, although I have still not become numb to the sound, it provides a background score to the thud of chunks of wall falling, of debris being shoveled into sacks.

It is one thing to start from scratch and quite another to watch what you have lived with being stripped down to bricks, the beams holding up much as they did when you were sold a home. You watch, a lump in your throat, as your favourite spot in the enclosed balcony becomes rubble and a misstep could take you straight to the ground several feet below.

It is only when you look at the vestiges that you realise just how fragile you really were. If all it takes is a hammer to break those vitrified tiles, then you have been living precariously all along. Surely, the weight of a hammer is not exclusive to it. There are heavier things, things that fall with a thud, or even a whisper, and cut through the few inches of space you stand on.

Today, the whole bathroom is brick. It is dry. No water, no tears. The door is gone, and I have to avert my eyes lest it appear that I am being voyeuristic. The brick body looks vulnerable, its skin patchy. Right now I can hear scraping sounds. Either something is being scraped away or scraped over. One cannot tell. Perhaps it isn't all that different, for as I have experienced these past few days one is about the other. Build-break-build-break-build.

Every few minutes, I have to get up from wherever I am to check less on the progress and more on how much needs to be broken. Creation needs blank space. It is difficult to shed a tear without being caught out.

I spoke with a friend, and said I could not go anywhere. "This is ridiculous," he said. "Are you applying the plaster?"

No. It's not about my role in the scheme of things, but about my absence. It would mean a lot. I keep quiet.

Things have to be shifted or moved out. This is where the heart tugs really hard. I had to decide, and I decided to part. They too got covered with soot and flakes of old plaster.

The roll-top desk was hardly being used as a desk. I had picked it up from Chor Bazaar, the market of thieves. "Antique, antique," the guy who ran the shop told me as I touched its smooth edges.

"Rubbish," I said. "This is new."

"I can give old look," he assured me, grinning all the time.

"No. Just polish it."

The wood was tough, and it had many little crannies to put things into. I brought out all of these, and left it with mere memories.

Then came the red sofa. It was not the main sofa, it did not get a place in the heart of the living room. This was an add-on purchase. I know, it is ridiculous that anybody would consider a whole sofa as an add-on. I did. Am not sure whether I fell in love with it, but there was something nice about it. It felt right.

But it had become an occupier, and had to go. In the crevices there might be a few hair pins left, one hopes with the scent of pine-infused shampoo.

I had to move out small stools, and a garden table too. What was a garden table doing inside an apartment? I don't know. I kept is propped up against the wall, and it looked like a painting on an easel. A finished painting unreclaimed.

These bits and pieces were wayfarers, and like wayfarers the journey could not have been endless.

Once again I go to check on the work being done. There is dust everywhere I touch. In a corner are two seashells I had picked up. They aren't broken. Yet.


Peeling the layers: Gunter Grass

Günter Grass reminds me of Salvador Dali, which is really less about their art and more about the perception of it. They are bracketed as the weird even if that weirdness is explainable as epitomising a deeper concern.

The comparison is essentially a non-sequiter but somehow this was the memory visual that came to mind as I sat to pay tribute to Grass who died on Monday at 87. Grass always seemed just short of old in the pictures, much as he never looked quite so young in the photographs of youth. It conveys an image of a seasoned man, a man who lived well, contemplated hard but not too hard, and then wrote absurdist lines that got their authenticity from intent rather than expression.

“Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper."

For one with such a sense of urgency, he delayed in confessing about being part of the Nazi Waffen-SS as a teenager. I am not sure if one should look on it as a confession; it was more in the nature of another dare. After all, he was not really a participant in Nazi crimes, and even if he was there are no traces left behind.

Perhaps this too was art as accusation, of remembering in order to be accused, for it might lead to not merely personal catharsis but also a collective one. Spectators of historical events that result in torture and concomitant guilt become a part of it by the mere expedient of being there.

Grass used his history well, and it is rather amazing how he came across as quite the opposite of what he had once lent his voice to. Terms like liberal, Left-leaning, even anti-Israel became his calling card. The latter is especially noteworthy. He wrote a long poem 'What Must Be Said' where he eent on to talk about Israeli warheads "capable of ending all life":

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.

Attachment is a loaded word. However, when he did explain his Nazi past, he attributed it to the black and white charm of the newsreels. Such creative license did not wash with all literary voices. John Updike was not too kind. He wrote: “Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can’t be bothered to write a novel. He just sends dispatches to his readers from the front line of his engagement.”

He has a point, except that at worst it could be called niche writing. If it were dispatches, there would have been no room for experimentation with language and analogy. And one cannot just take away from Günter Grass' idea of the world and for it. In his own words:

“I shall speak of how melancholy and utopia preclude one another. How they fertilize one another... of the revulsion that follows one insight and precedes the next... of superabundance and surfeit. Of stasis in progress. And of myself, for whom melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin.”


Voices and Choices

She was articulate, but helpless too. "My having a love child is a scandal, but X as a celebrity is considered bold," she said.

This was her cathartic moment. I was meeting her for a theme-based feature story; at some point she just let out her frustration. I gently told her that the famous often become gossip items, even as they might feel emotions similar to anybody else.

"I am not talking about them, or even X, but how society sees it. They may gossip, but she is still invited to the big parties she always was, she continues with her work and, why, she has more work today. She is not shunned. I am."

X was a well-known person who had a child out of wedlock. The father was an even more famous person. They were, and are, what constitutes the beautiful people of high society. The woman sitting before me (let us call her M) was stunning, but did not belong among the beautiful people. She was a professional, had a fairly visible social profile, but was not a celebrity. And she had a child without marriage. For that one aspect, her whole life became subject to scrutiny.

She had exercised her choice. So had X. In fact, hers was the braver decision because she made a private choice and did not cling on to the man because their terms of engagement had been clear. X, on the other hand, had a public deal and the child was subsequently made into a bait. Yet, both these women had decided what to do with their lives. Why was the response to their choices then so different? M and X had similar friends. What made people react differently to the two women?

All this happened several years ago. I was thinking about it after the Vogue-sponsored empowerment video 'My Choice' became a huge talking point.

Women's empowerment seems to be treated like a marketing gimmick these days. It does not surprise me that some people think it has enabled a debate on feminism. This Swarovski version of feminism does suit certain sections of society because the people featured in it either mirror them or are what (or where) they'd like to be.

There has been much discussion already, both for and against. What bothers me most, besides the jejune script, is the emphasis on the body. I find it distasteful not because the body is something to be shirked, but because it has to be accepted as a normal part of one's being. The mass media objectifies it not only for brand endorsement, but also the self-conscious attempts at 'celebrating' it. We can celebrate a sculpture, not human flesh.

Unfortunately, the social media is incapable of grasping nuance, so those who critiqued the video were seen as the flip side of the rightwing coin. Some Hindutva groups did indeed question it but on moral grounds or how it was the result of western influence.

Criticism is not as uniform as praise. People have issues with a subject for more varied reasons than when they appreciate something. For me, the emphasis on choice makes it seem like it is an abnormality. There are several self-contradictory statements too.

You are my choice. I am not your privilege. The bindi on my forehead. The ring on my finger. Adding your surname to mine. They’re ornaments. They can be replaced.

Fine. But why have them at all? And who are these ornaments for? Him, right? So, she will replace one set of ornaments for another, but it will be an adornment for him, whoever he is.

My choice. To be a size zero or a size fifty.

And to show a pregnant woman as a large size? Besides, it is not always a choice. Some women (and men) become obese and then suffer from debilitating ailments; some lose weight rapidly and suffer too (I won't even go to malnutrition).

My choice. To come home when I want. My songs. Your noise. My odour. Your anarchy. Your sins. My virtues.

Why do her songs become his noise? Is that what she wants? Or is it what he tells her, or she imagines he would tell her? What is she asserting? How does her odour become his anarchy? I mean, give it a break! Would her deodorant then be his discipline? If his sins become her virtues, then are her virtues his sins? This is so much poppycock. As regards asserting that she will come home when she wants, it sounds less like empowerment and more about a teenager raising hell over curfew timings.

My choice. To have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage. To have no sex.

The response to this has been the most widespread. Some have said it is licentious, others have stated that men should then claim similar choices. That is the reason I think it is problematic: this seemingly bold pronouncement would free men to not only do their own thing even when they are in a committed relationship but also use it to bully their partner when they might wrongly suspect her. How two adults choose to conduct their relationship is a private matter and intensely personal. Some people choose fidelity too, but the moment it becomes a pulpit statement it comes across as moralising.

As for celibacy, Mahatma Gandhi chose it; his wife Kasturba did not. She accepted it later. Would this be her choice?

It would be unfair to pick on Deepika Padukone for she is only a medium here. But, given that this is largely Bollywood, how come she or even the director did not think it fit to show women demanding more, if not (why not, though?) equal pay? The entertainment industry for all its liberal values refuses to see women as being financial assets on par with their male counterparts.

It is everybody's right to have an opinion and voice it. What is rather troubling about such promotional concern is that it is not meant for lasting impact. Go viral, bask in it for a few days and then move on to the next cause, preferably about women. Because, whether it is a woman's body or her spirit, there are infinite possibilities to exploit her.

Yes, she is infinite. However, her spirit does get caged when she is made to mouth bad clichés.


War of anarchists: The tu-tu-main-main in AAP

It had to happen and it has. The Aam Aadmi Party, a group of disparate people cobbled together under the pretense of democracy, increasingly seen as variety, has split. The single unifying factor was Arvind Kejriwal. It just so happens that he is incapable of unifying.

I have disliked his politics from the moment he debuted as a public activist, and have had no reason to alter my views, not even after the huge mandate he got in the Delhi elections to once again become the chief minister.

To now watch senior members expose his autocratic methods and his resistence to follow the ideals they had to set them apart comes as no surprise. However, why did none of these worthies come out with the truth before the elections? I am particularly perturbed by Medha Patkar. She seems more concerned that her other colleagues have been treated shabbily rather than how the AAP is essentially about pulling wool over people's eyes.

But that has been the AAP hallmark — to cater to its middle-class constituency by giving them the honorific of the common man. If two party members are calling him out today, this too appeals only to the intellectual mall, the mass buyers of 'ethics'.

To put it simply, the AAP, more than any other political party, is removed from ground realities. Street protests and designed anarchy mean zilch if you pander to the WiFi seekers.

Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, the dissenters, are both well-educated men; they also happen to be clueless about real politick. Kejriwal has accused them of trying to get AAP defeated. The fact is that the party won. It means that these two do not even qualify as leaders.

If Kejriwal is merely casting aspersions, then it reveals his insecurity as well as his viciousness. There are noises about how he is the only one who matters and can gather votes. It is true. Bhushan and Yadav would find it difficult to win anything more than a lawyers' collective or academic election respectively. But that is the least of their failures. They are running round in circles over technicalities, masking them as idealistic demands. Nobody outside their professional coteries would give a damn.

If people do give a damn about Kejriwal it is not so much for what he stands for but for what they have come to stand for. They want to hold on to that, which is why they will continue to be in denial.

Honestly speaking, none of the AAP members has any serious political currency, including Kejriwal. None of them can even be called pale reflections of any mainstream political leader, for qualities good or bad. This is not a sign of originality, but of dissonance. This is what I wrote in October 2013:

What does a headline like "How AAP made the common man relevant in democracy again" really mean? To begin with, Kejriwal is the product of our democracy, not its creator, and certainly not a renaissance figure. As regards the common man, which common man has been walking in Lodhi Gardens with a cheque book to contribute to his cause? What kind of common man is really affected by corruption as hidden in Swiss banks and invested in antiques, when he has to deal with chai-paani demands and is sometimes the one making such demands?

The "surge from the bottom" is a falsification. The movement against corruption was and continues to be an upper middle-class conscience picnic. The 'I am Anna' caps have been replaced with 'Main Aam Aadmi Hoon', which does not sit well with the common man who might have no roof over his head, but is given a topi. The other slogan of 'swaraj', self-rule, negates a democratic India, by harking back to a colonial era term. Who will decide on the nature of the community that is to be built? Will there be no hierarchy at all?

The hierarchical battle within the party has given rise to sting operations where the leader calls senior members "kaminey" and other such things. Whether or not it constitutes abuse is irrelevant. What one must remember, though, is that one thing is certainly common to all at AAP: snooping on others. Remember Kejriwal telling party members prior to elections that if they are offered bribes by rivals they should take it and sting the briber?

Therefore, while each side is claiming moral superiority, neither has a foot to stand on forget a higher ground.

A touch of arrogance: The Kejriwal USP?
The posh anarchy of the 'aam aadmi'