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'

Sunday ka Funda

"Most days it feels as if the world is whirling around me and I am standing still. In slow motion, I watch the colors blur; people and faces all become a massive wash."
- Sarah Kay

When I posted the sidebar image, I also found another one by Henri Matisse called Still Life with Dance. I was immediately struck, not so much by the painting as by the title. Dance is movement and fluidity; still life is, well, still. How and why did they come together.

I have been looking at it frequently, and the more I look the more I find the dance to be still and the still objects to appear moving. The flowers  seem to almost quiver, and the fruits glisten with new dew.

Naturally, then, I'd say the same about all that happens in life too. The moving and the static can interchange at any time.


Hollow Freedom in the time of scrapping of 66A

As news spread about the Supreme Court scrapping Section 66A of the IT Act, the media started propping up the heroes responsible for it. Nothing reveals the limited nature of such freedom of expression than the act of coddling a few. 

I am all for such freedom, having used it myself and been sometimes warned against it and, in the past, threatened for it too. Despite this, I do not wish to take the popular (more likely populist) stand about what FoE in this context entails. If you want freedom without resposibility, then will you take what you wish out to others? 

The celebration of such freedom for online activity comes at a time when the cyber cells are approached with complaints against trolls, stalkers and slanderers. The latter two are cause for serious concern. If everyone is so thrilled about being free, will they stop using the 'Report Abuse' button at social networking sites? 

Those against 66A happily ignore the bully culture of the rightwing with their self-righteous fence-sitting by differentiating between hateful abuse and other free speech. We know the difference. But those at the receiving end of the latter might deem it as abuse. This could be about 'blasphemy', or 'hurt sentiments', or a personal assault in these naming-shaming times. Will these internet warriors fight for the right to privacy of victims of social/sexual violence? 

Let me reproduce a few salient points from what I had written earlier:

What issues?

Forums such as these act as extra-constitutional authorities where elected representatives can clarify their position, blame others, wreak vengeance, and campaign for themselves or against others. How is one to accept their version? Why are the usual official channels not used? Why must government policy be announced and discussed on walls and in tweets where there is more likely to be a back and forth of sound bytes rather than a sensible discussion?

Take any issue in recent times and it has become more exaggerated due to this word-of-mouth publicity. YouTube videos and CDs go viral and, much like terrorists claiming their hand in bomb blasts, these denizens claim to play a role in every major happening – whether it is the Arab Spring, exposing leaders, bringing scams to light, pushing the anti-corruption agenda, or showing a politician dropping his pants.

Is there no room?

We have laws for a reason. Do they work well always? No. Does it mean that forming groups and fighting them online will change the reality? This is the frightening aspect. How many of those commenting in morsel sizes are truly attuned to such reality? True, famous people are on networking sites, reasonable people are there, people who matter are there. My question is: Are they also not in places where it counts and are they not capable of pushing for change from where they operate? They can and some do.

For those who think that news is forced down us, how are they so certain that what passes for exchange of ideas on such websites does not do the same? There is bound to be an element of incestuousness, and it is a community too. 

Therefore, it is a bit amusing that when there is a mention of incendiary talk that hurts religious and communal sentiments, there are sniggers. Yet, when this community of networkers thinks it is in danger of being muzzled, there is a hue and cry. What are they displeased about? That their space is being occupied, right? Their freedom shackled. It just so happens that there are different kinds of freedom, and much as we dislike what we deem to be non-liberal thought, also has a right to exercise its freedom.

How free?

Those who are talking about how those who hate them must also be allowed to have their say are largely popular because of just such infamy. This ‘freedom’ affords them statues even if it is to facilitate pigeon droppings. It is the cult of the dishonourable, and some will fall for it. 

There are positive aspects to such sites, but the opposition to a proposed code leaves one with a slightly distorted picture of the whole anti-system. It really is not a contrarian viewpoint but a ghetto that wants its own protection. Not everyone is capable of self-censorship. There are loose cannons. There is anonymity. The idea that it is the only truly democratic medium free of vested interests is a fallacy. Are there no agendas being propagated on the internet, no vested interests?

Who would 66A have helped?

It could be an anti-government crusader who is abused and can seek recourse to action. It could be an individual whose identity is being tarnished.

It is facile to assume that discourse against the establishment will stop. Before social networking, we threw out the British, we threw out a government that imposed the Emergency, scandals were exposed. That will continue not because of, but despite, revolutionaries with hash tags who ensure a trend for a day or so. 15 minutes of fame has just become a lengthened shadow.

It is anyway mostly the elite that not only get to use FOE but also define it, and hail it.The rest are seen as mere default beneficiaries owing their freedom to these benefactors. 


Muzzling India’s Daughters

Soon after December 16, 2012, India became international news for a rape. Intellectuals and the political class had at the time lapped up the attention, to the extent of participating in the globalisation of Delhi as the rape capital. The shame they felt came with the caveat of their moral superiority.

Today, when it comes back full circle to mock them they stand more exposed than what they are exposing. They had called her India’s daughter, and now they object to the title of a documentary using it. India has banned the film. Scheduled for International Women’s Day, BBC4 decided to forward its telecast. The channel’s editor Cassian Harrison said, “From our perspective, given the strong public interest we feel it’s important it gets out.” The motive is not altruistic, for four days would not have dimmed public interest, which is often whetted to serve commercial demands. How does a rape fit into celebration of women anyway?

There has been much debate, and the triggering on both sides is based on kneejerk reaction and some half-baked ideals.

Leslie Udwin could make a documentary on Delhi’s gangrape victim because Indians had built a monument to pose against. Following calls for a ban, she said,  “I went out there not to point a finger at India - the opposite, to put it on a pedestal, to say not in my life have I seen another country go out with that fortitude and courage the way the Indian nation did.”

Pedestalising is always problematic. Protestors do not constitute a nation, but such groups often take on the mantle of conscience keepers. There have been a slew of comments telling us why the documentary should be seen to open our eyes. It makes me wonder about how removed a section of people are from reality when they believe that one has got to watch a tourist version of awareness to understand what makes men rape. If one relies on this, then it would seem only the poor commit such acts to teach the women who are out late, unescorted. The supporters of such freedom of expression would not have promoted it were the rapist from the same class as them or the victim a poor unlettered woman.

Should the film be criticised as white privilege or a colonial mindset? Ms. Udwin is mirroring what our middle class and intellectuals had laid out by making the rape India's showpiece for everything, from sexual crime to stalking to misogyny. They ensured that it was seen as exceptional, which is not unlike the exoticising they accuse the filmmaker of. What can be more exotic than consecrating the victim with a special name nirbhaya, the fearless one, portraying her as a larger-than-life fighter (thereby denigrating victims who have no such public myth), and their own fight as one for martyrdom by police teargas shells?

When Ms. Udwin says, "Unfortunately what this ill-advised decision to ban the film is now going to do is have the whole world point fingers at India", she sounds like the Indian government that too believes it creates a wrong impression about the country. Evidently, false equivalences seem chillingly true.


The rapists have appealed against their death sentence. Legally, the ban can be justified for interfering with the case, but morally there is no foot to stand on. ‘India’s Daughter’ comes across as far less exploitative than the many Op-eds and personal accounts of dealing with being violated that made their way into the same foreign media that many are now slamming.

One of the convicts, Mukesh Singh, has been interviewed at length. Staring straight into the camera he relives moments from that night: “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy.”

There has been an outcry against his lack of remorse. Are we looking to barter for outrage where the criminal weeps and relieves us of this marketed burden? Perhaps our feudalistic attitude, our own privilege, seeks supplication to judge.

The Supreme Court verdict had stated that “the rarest-of-rare test largely depends on the perception of society as to if it approves the awarding of the death sentence for certain types of crimes. The court has to look into factors like society's abhorrence, extreme indignation and antipathy to certain types of cases, like the case in hand – of gang rape with brutal murder of a helpless girl by six men”.

The court ought to realise that all cases deserve apathy; all those who are violated are victims and not just “certain cases”. After the Delhi gangrape, it has become mandatory to calculate the extent of damage. This is a dangerous trend, for it devalues other kinds of sexual attack by known persons who may employ tact to get their way. Inmates of remand homes and prisons who are sexually abused, villagers in remote corners, and victims of the armed forces and the police may not even be in a position to put up a fight.

Four months after this case, a four-year-old was raped and dumped in Seoni district, Madhya Pradesh; she was airlifted to Nagpur. The report said: “Her grandmother fervently asks God to grant her just one wish – ‘send down a helicopter to fly the child off to Dilli’. She paints a vivid picture of ‘the biggest city in the world which has a magic hospital where they put together and cure sexually brutalized little girls’. The girl, the old woman is sure ‘would certainly live to be 90 if only she could somehow reach that hospital’.”

Disturbingly a grandmother in MP, misled by media images of chasing ambulances and doctors giving updates on a patient's health, with ministers discussing it, and candle-light vigils, placards, began to believe that this is what hope looks like.

A five year old was kidnapped, raped, and locked up for three days in Delhi. When she was found, she had obviously gone without food and was in deep pain. Pieces of candle and a 200 ml hair oil bottle that was forced into her had to be surgically removed. The marks of brutality scarred her in several places, some that would even after reconstructive surgery leave her with permanent incontinence.

The media that is now questioning a documentary by a foreigner had insensitively referred to it as “Nirbhaya again” and “Delhi Shame 2”, as though rape is a serialised soap opera. Senior media person Pritish Nandy had tweeted then, “It all begins with molestation. Tackle molestation, you will beat rape. We accept it as normal. That’s where the real problem lies.”

No woman treats molestation as normal. The Ramboesque tone of “beat rape” by dealing with molestation implies that women would know what is to follow. It is as bad as the moral police suggesting that women ask for it when they are dressed in a certain way or seen in certain places. The five-year-old was kidnapped. The four-year-old was lured with chocolate. This is not molestation. Dalit women, those in slums, in offices, returning late from work, are taken unawares and raped; they are not molested as a warning.


"A girl is just like a flower…” says the defence lawyer for the rapists in the film. “On the other hand a man is just like a thorn. Strong, tough enough. That flower always needs protection. If you put that flower in a gutter it is spoilt. If you put it in the temple, it is worshipped.”

We have found a voodoo doll we can stick pins into. There is nervous laughter over his broken English, some anger. This is the male mindset, is the chorus. Yet, every other day Indian women are being sold apps that should protect them. An industry has come up that in a convoluted way is making women dependent on commerce as patriarchy. From a revolver for women – “an ideal to fit a purse or a small hand bag” – to sprays the braveheart pedestal comes with built-in spooks.

Such fear psychosis puts the onus of the fight on women, suggesting in a way that ‘she brings it upon herself’, and if she ventures into certain places she could be raped. The emphasis is on danger rather than creating a secure environment. Bollywood divas advertise for these products, and acquire a halo of sensitivity and public spiritedness just as Hollywood celebrities are endorsing ‘India’s Daughter’. Putting a few cases in the media glare diverts attention, forces politicians to visit hospitals and homes of the victims, and promise sops. A documentary can therefore be accused only of building on the myth Indians have written.

Those upset with the final shot showing a burning pyre would do well to remember that protestors had taken out the victim’s mock funeral to make a political point even as she lay dying in a hospital bed. Her dignity was sacrificed at the altar of their liberal autocracy.

The moot point is not whether the film ought to have been shown or even made. This case itself should not have been turned into a shrine that other rapes would need to live up to for the crime to be addressed and the cries of the victims heard.


Published in CounterPunch and Countercurrents