Friday, December 14, 2012

The price of being free

As law enforcement officers still find more dead bodies in a small town primary school in Connecticut, there is the usual and expected debate on gun control raging online, across cubicles and on the phone.
It makes me wonder, what is wrong with having some control, checks and balances, if you will, within a free society?
I grew up in a free, democratic country and now live in another. And in both, I have seen how easy it is to abuse that powerful concept, and not just while using guns.
A few months ago, the vast majority of urban and educated India revolted en masse when there was talk of possible Governmental regulations on the internet. Of course, that never happened and yesterday the deputy general of India’s telecom department said use of internet should be self regulated. Then he compared it to the solar system and said something about how nobody regulates day and night and how it comes “automatically.”

While I understand the bigger idea here, I also believe he is missing out on one major point: day and night, while not being controlled by any a person or group of people (let’s keep God away from this debate), is not at the mercy of human fallibility. The solar system has been following a strictly regulated pattern for years now and it cannot be disrupted on a whim. For example, night won’t turn into day one day just because. There is a term for when that happens and even that is a regulated pattern. It is called an eclipse.

On the other hand, education, the internet and guns are things that have come as blessings to us as society, science and men have grown. Like everything man–made, they run an extremely high risk of being misused.

So then, why not have some control? I am not advocating blanket censorship and if you are among those who feel their blood boil at the very mention of “rules”, here’s my suggestion. Calm down, count till 5 and then read this again.

I am all for the freedom of expression. What I am not for, however, is abuse, misuse and crassness.

Who am I to decide what is what?

Ok, let us talk about the hullabaloo about internet censorship in India (or anywhere else in the world). A minister reportedly found cartoons of leading politicians on social media websites and that riled him up. The entire internet using population in the country went up in arms against him when he said this was disrespectful and should be controlled.

I don’t know what cartoons he saw, but I have seen some on Facebook. And freedom of expression or not, I have to say they were downright silly and in bad taste.  
If I made a cartoon of your dad in very little clothes, holding his lady boss in an equally ridiculously skimpy dress, would you let it slide, saying “that is freedom of expression”?

I bet not. I bet you would say it was “uncalled for” and “insulting”. So, if it is not OK to do that to your dad, who is a regular ordinary citizen whom no one knows beyond his immediate friends, family and colleagues, how is it OK to do that to the Prime Minister of your country?  If one is an insult and disrespectful, how is the other not?

This isn’t about censoring political cartoons, this is about regulating unnecessary incidences of violence or even death till we as a people are at the point where we can truly self regulate ourselves. Because there is a limit to how much “chalta hain.”
 Because if someone does not tell 10 year olds today that there is satire and there is crudity, they will never know the difference between the two and will grow up into adults who don’t know any better either.

And don’t tell me in a free society; adults know what is good for them. I was once a teenager who championed that cause. I have, thankfully, long grown out of that phase.

If people knew what was good for them and were always in control, 5-10 year old primary school children would not die in an open fire in a random incident. A twenty something year old would not have done it to them, for much as modern society wants to negate it and stay teenagers forever, 20 year olds are adults.

It is not a question of one man tainting the entire population, oh no. For it is not one man. The misuse of the gun and the misuse of the internet are not sporadic incidents. I don’t want to waste my breath trying to convince you of that: just use Google.
Caveat: I am only sticking to the internet and guns because well, the “sun and moon” speech happened yesterday and the shooting today.

 So, in effect, what if there was a measure to take down particularly incendiary cartoons of famous people from the net?  And when I say incendiary, I do not mean the smart ones that the New Yorker or even the Simpsons portray.  I know a lot of people reading this right now will think, “Fine, Yes Minister and the Simpsons make you laugh, the FB ones make me laugh.” But seriously, do you really believe guffawing at this is the same as laughing at this?

Rules are not bad, it is only when we have no control over or clue about how to enjoy what and when that we find them oppressing. In an ideal world, every single person would have enough self control and sense of judgment to ensure proper use of our resources. But till that happens, it might not be a very bad idea to keep a stricter check on who you allow to own a gun and what you say in a public forum.
Of course, the danger here is that in a bid to “check”, the government goes to the other extreme and does things like arrest people for putting up FB posts. 

 But the good news is, every single time any ruling body/person has overstepped the mark, people have rebelled.  They have made sure the “rulers” do not get away with it.
Democracy is a powerful tool. It is of, by and for the people, but when 10 year olds die because a deranged man opens fire at them while they are in school, one is bound to ask if we really know what is good for us.

And if we are not collectively in a place where we can say that without a shred of doubt in our minds, would it hurt to have the same government that we elected to impose some rules on us so as to take a step towards reducing such atrocious behavior?
 Because, I believe those that are truly self regulated would not even feel the change.

For example, say FB sys your account will be frozen if you post derogatory remarks about President Obama or PM Singh (random examples, substitute it with anyone you like).
 By “derogatory”, I mean you say inane things like “he is a d@@#head”. Would that affect any sensible user at all? Will any sensible user say such things in the first place? To my original point, I am not advocating censorship as we understand in Bollywood.  I have read enough scathing reviews of people, books and movies to know that criticism can exist and is often more effective when coherent and articulate.
 By that, I mean say you disagree with every bit of this blog and to show your anger, you write “you are an A###ole”. Another person disagrees but explains in lucid, printable language, why. Who do you think will I take more seriously? So in turn, who is more effective?
 Say there is a rule that says citizens owning guns will have to go through psychological checks at regular intervals to make sure they are, in fact, capable of handling guns. Would that affect a sane person not contemplating murdering movie goers or kids?
 We all submit to security checks and even frisking at airports, do we not?

 But then again, my favorite living author once said that “the idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted.”
 And this is a man that has seen his books been burnt by protesters across the world and has had a bounty placed on his head for writing a book that those that called for his head self admittedly never even read.
If anyone had a right to call on the law to be defended from insult and offence, he did.

That makes it a difficult call, does it not? The gun is easier, of course.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hardliners, Thackeray, and a common outsider's brush with his "legacy"

    This post will be repetitive if you've been reading about it already, and also very long. But I was taught as a kid that the pen (or keyboard) is mightier than the sword and there is something about the overwhelming outpouring of "love and respect" for Mumbai's Bal Thackeray that has been bothering me for days, so here goes :
    I am no Mumbaikar but Mumbai most definitely ranks as my most favorite city in India. I am definitely not Marathi and my only connection with Maharastra stems from the little over two years I lived, studied and worked in Pune and Bombay.
    As a Bengali brought up in Bengal in the late 80s and 90s, my association and acquaintance with Thackeray and Shiv Sena started late in life, mostly when they began ravaging cities, towns and youngsters who, egged on by love and loyalty for Shahrukh Khan and Archies Gallery "dared" to celebrate Valentine's Day. If they found a Feb 14 that was also a full moon night I do not know, but if they were unlucky enough to find rallying Shiv Sainiks while romancing their partners, I am sure no amount of films or Archies or Hallmark could get them back the next year. Love? Only if we live, no?
     The "protests" were all over the papers-- and I remember heated discussions in faraway Calcutta (yessir, I still can't do "Kolkata" unless I'm speaking in Bengali. We all have our own colonial hangovers to deal with, you see)about the ridiculousness of it all. We're bongs, we're intellectual, we are open minded and we turn up our noses in disdain at the conservative till our professors get arrested for drawing cartoons.
    Which, incidentally, was Bal Thackeray's profession. If you hear the man talk and follow closely, you can still see that edge of wit that is necessary for someone in that profession to have. But to what end?
    For, for me, and many others like me that I know, wit is not what comes to mind when you say Shiv Sena. What comes to mind is ethnic chauvinism, Hindu hardliners and mass upsetting of daily lives for reasons that to my teenage mind were non issues. I am not sure I've moved much from my stance on the non-issues bit, but I am definitely in a better place to exercise Voltaire's wisdom. I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.
    Which no one seems to care for anymore nowadays, since Facebook posts and cartoons can warrant arrests, so we'll let that slide. And here, I realise as I type, this post stops being just about this one man. It is more about the ideas he propagated, and the bunch of clones they spawned.
    My first real brush with the zeal of Shiv Sainiks was in Pune, again on Valentine's day. It is a VERY important day when you are 18, you see. Our's was among the rich, yuppie colleges in town, but its day to day running was under the charge of a man who had his priorities set largely in the right places. And the grapevine said he came from Bihar. I do not know whether it was the first or the second that make him stick to his guns, but while  most other colleges shut down for fear of violence on V day, we went to school.
    And sure enough, mid way through the lectures there came the slogan raising Sainks, creating a great deal of commotion in the grounds. No one was hurt and nothing was broken (except maybe a part of the main gate. I am not sure). But there, sitting inside the classroom of one of India's more tony universities, I realised how true that fear of being roughed up, mobbed or threatened could get for other people who were not under the safety net of a well known institute in a prominent city in India.
    The next brush that left a bitter aftertaste was when a PG mate started voicing her feelings against "outsider encroachers" very vocally one night, while a debate on the same topic was on on TV. In the presence of four other girls who were all "outsiders". There, in the middle of the heat of it all, this girl, who had moved from Thane to further her education, said "that is why my family and I support the Shiv Sena. They protect our culture...all you outsiders just spoil it." Ok, I am not  quoting her, it happened some six years ago and I don't remember her exact choice of words, but I remember enough to know the gist. You can understand if I did not form a very warm opinion of her, her family or the Sainiks after that outburst.
    I moved houses soon (not because of the girl but because the college moved to a bigger campus) and found myself in the more Marathi neighbourhood of Viman Nagar than the ultra cosmopolitan settings of Senapati Bapat Road and FC Road. Barring about four students, everyone else in my class was an immigrant like me, which basically means we were from other states. If there's one thing that my Masters degree taught me in life, it is the art of living closely with, appreciating and getting along with people from various regions and of different cultures. It is also where I heard a classmate from Chennai classify Bombay as "North India", but that is another story.
    After my flatmates and I had overcome challenges of budget, security, convenience and singlehood, we were finally staring at the outsider challenge.
    The bhaji-wallah would cater to the Marathi speaking customer before you even if you've been patiently waiting for a long time, the autowallah would be especially ready to fleece you since you are an outsider and can't shout back in Marathi.
    I now know this exists everywhere but when you are a student on a budget you interact more with the local people because you are cutting costs. Read: take the public transport as opposed to cabs, shop at the local kirana shop as opposed to expensive malls. Hence, you are more exposed to the local culture: its warmth and its hostility all come in a package.
    I must not and will not ever say all my interaction with local residents were bitter, no way. My PG owner in the first year went out of her way to make the "bahar ki bachchi" feel at home, I was even invited to their household Lakshmi Puja. Our neighbours in the other place treated me to many a breakfast of pohas and their kids, on more than one occasion, turned our living room into a ball practice arena. But this was not our daily living. Interacting with the bhaji wallah and the auto wallah was our daily living.
    It was here that I started appreciating how hard line groups like the Shiv Sena, MNS and others in other parts of the country survive and grow, feeding on a misdirected sence of local patriotism. I had no such close experience of regional communalism but this is where I made friends from Ahmedabad, who had seen the riots rape their city and watched as their neighbours' houses burnt to the ground. And this is also where I started appreciating why local residents would resent their city being "taken over" by raving, suddenly-taken-to-drinking-and-cannot-hold-their-alcohol teenagers.
    I see that. What I do not see is what gives a local resident the right to refuse housing to a boy just because he is "not from here". I do not see how a group that backs the local auto union can give drivers so much authority so as to have one of them slap a young girl across the face because she was calling out to a guy friend to hurry up and join her, while threatening "I'm a local person, I'll see what you can do."
    I know it is a huge leap and borderline wrong to say all of this is the result or even the heritage of one man and his ideologies. It probably is not. I'll never be entirely sure if popular demand spawned it or it was the other way round. And being a non Marathi, I understand that I may be missing out on a whole lot of local sentiments that spur these outbursts.
    But I do know I have a right, backed by the constitution of our country, to move freely with the land and call any part home (except for Kashmir) without constantly battling charges of "you don't speak our language, you are not from here, you are Bengali and eat fish so we can't house you". Yes, I've heard that last bit too.
    And so, when a Bal Thackeray dies and the entire nation, barring a few, joins forces to sing paeans for him, it scares me. This is a man that proudly said he admired Hitler. I would be apprehensive of any man that says that, for leadership qualities or not, business acumen notwithstanding, a mass murderer is a mass murderer. This is a man that was responsible for the killings of many; who in 2002 and in 2008 asked Hindus to form suicide squads to attack Muslims. While living in a nation that calls itself a "sovereign, socialist  secular, democratic, republic."
    I know enough of India and its politics to not expect him to be taken to task for any of it when he lived. What rattles me is the en masse bending over of the Indian media when they put up his obits. Everyone spoke of how he changed the face of politics in Maharastra. That change was triggered by the killing of Krishna Desai, and if that is someone's legacy, I am not sure it's much to deify anyone for.  One prominent news anchor pulled a suitably sombre expression and went on about how "well managed" the funeral was and "how you cannot prompt 2 million people to attend." I agree, surely most of those people were there of their own accord, but I have learnt enough to know not to mix up the multitude's curiosity and fear of missing out for love and loyalty.
    And I am not sure if any of those on that TV panel who went on about mass popularity have read Julius Caesar closely, but if they have, they would know it is terribly easy to lead the multitude and sway its loyalty if one caters to populism and has the gift of the gab. And with 75 drachmas.
    The same crowd that exalted Brutus went after him after Anthony asked his friends, Romans  countrymen to lend him their ears. For we, the people, do not think. We fit in and follow.
    As for the well managed funeral, all I can understand is we are so used to have a certain sect of people disrupt our daily lives with that an act of normal consideration does not stay that, but gets promoted to an act of greatness.
    For WE have a misplaced sense of greatness. For Brutus was an honorable man.

Friday, October 12, 2012

It isn't "the times". It is us

Some time back, I was asked what age I would like to be born in, if I could choose. I picked the Renaissance, or India around the 1940s if I were to be bound by geographical limitations.

Yes, I’m the incurable romantic. My choices would have told you that. People like me, who some mistake to be naïve, tend to be swayed by quaint traits and things like “courage”, “chivalry”, “love” and “honour” more than others are. Such people are few to begin with in the first place, and convert rapidly as they hit their 20s and go beyond.

 Which is a good thing, for it won’t do at all to have a world full of romantics tripping over each other, especially as we balance grocery bags up the apartment stairs, or walk on super high heels to get strangers to pick up our tabs. (And yet they often don’t, these strangers!)

And while the world goes round in its rigmarole, the closest we get to any amount of greatness is when we manage to find some time to talk to our grandparents or other elders who have fought a war or survived a communal riot, or talk to the odd friend that chose to stay away from the lure of corporate jobs to work full time with a non-profit organization.

Only the truth is, we don’t “manage to find time”, we deign to. We are busy, you see; mostly working away at jobs that we don't even like.

So, we definitely don’t want more complications in our lives: having to decide what to wear to work or where to get lunch every day is annoying enough. And yes, we will sympathize and be sufficiently respectful when we meet “great men and women”, but that’s all we can do, thank you very much. Truly speaking, by the time the work day ends, we are so drained we can’t even find it in us to click on a link and make a donation towards a worthy cause. Where is the time?

We don’t want goodness; we will not even strive for it, not even give it a tiny shot. Greatness? What is that?

We will not teach our children the importance of being good and doing right by others. We are happy to not interfere, because if no one else is making an issue out of it, why should I? We will not help, love, be friends, just because we can. And honestly, why should we? Have you seen what happens to those that do that kind of stuff? They get passed over for promotions, cheated by friends and are made fun of behind their backs.

Why? Because everyone knows we can’t be good in this day and age. We have to earn money, be petty and manipulative, play power games and generally be dissatisfied in life because at the end of the day, we don’t have one thing that we are genuinely proud of to show. What, didn't you go to college? These just aren't the times!

No, giving away your bus seat to the older woman does not count.  Plus, do we do that regularly out of habit or only when we know we’ll get off in a couple of minutes and don’t care anyway?

But you see, it isn't the times, it is us. While we were busy window shopping or planning our next vacations or debating between the sparkling or still, a young girl of 14 was shot in the head for fighting for her and her friends’ rights to go to school.

She was 11 when the Taliban decided to stop girls in her locality from going to school. Instead of blaming the times and "adjusting" to her new fate, she wrote a blog for the BBC speaking about her life under the new regime, and was eventually shot at as she was returning home after a taking a test.

That happened this week, in these very times, which are not supposed to be meant to produce great or brave men and women.

In another instance, a fragile woman fought for a shot to bring in Democracy in her country, living under house arrest for 15 long years before she could walk freely. That change happened. The Arab Spring also happened.

And for every story we get to know about, there are many others that we don’t, shining examples of doing good in our own neighbourhood or among our friends, who we write off as “idealists”.

Know what? Standing for some ideals isn't that bad a thing. Not everyone can be a Suu Kyi, nor do we even need to be. But I can bet you anything you want (and I have) that none of us are too busy to make a little more effort, be a little more passionate, concerned, involved.

Do we really need to?

That is not for me to answer, for remember, I’m the romantic that still believes in rights and wrongs.

And listens to ghazals and reads shayari with alarming levels of interest.

“Kaise aakash mein suraag nahi ho sakta,
Ek paththar toh tabiyat se uchchalo yaron.”

(Roughly: You say the skies won't part, but have you tried hard enough?)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The place of pride.

   Pride goes before a fall. People love humble men, the gods always do good to them. And the world is the moral science studies version of utopia where the cheat is always punished and the honest boy given top marks.
   I know a lot of young people that are in that important cusp of life where they have to make career choices, and horror of horrors, get enrolled into choice colleges. So much of my conversation in the past couple of months have been about interviews, CV writing and the paraphernalia that go with it.
    And through those conversations, I realized how Indians have an inherent manner of discrediting themselves, or, at least downplaying their achievements (yours truly not exempt from the allegation). It stems from very old traditions and cultural practices that teach how it is not for men to tell others what their achievements are, it is for others to notice. Clearly, they hadn't yet dealt with private firms and bad bosses.
    The premise of those teachings, like all things old and Indian, are very correct, based on the notion that if you do good work, people are bound to take note. But like all things old and Indian, no one has bothered to adapt them to fit into today's life, leaving a generation that either suffers from internal conflict and lose out on jobs because they can't sell themselves right, or go the absolute other way and turn into wind bags that could cause the equivalent of atomic explosions.
    Pride, for most Indians, comes mixed with negativity, often confused with snootiness, disdain or worse, rudeness.
    Pride, if looked upon as a quality in itself, is not necessarily any of those, and when exercised in the right way has the magical way of boosting people's moral and even uplifting careers. I am a wordly girl, and I'm not going to go all esoteric on you. Boosting. Career. You read it right.
    The Oxford English describes pride as "a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired." Also a pack of lions, but that is not what this post is about.
   I hear the phrase "xyz makes America a great country" thrown into so many daily conversations in real life or on TV, see so many houses proudly host the national flag in their yards, so many bikini clad women wear the stars and stripes happily on the beach it is difficult not be effected by the enthusiasm. I'm not saying hot Indian women should start parading the beach in the Indian tricolor, there is a cultural roadblock to it that does not need to be altered at all.
    But in my years of living in various Indian cities and towns, I have not seen one private residence that has a regular fixture for the national flag. Now that I think about it, I can't even recall any big mounting or presence of the tricolor in even the new, jazzy, international airport at New Delhi. That airport also does not have a bookstore, though it has a Chanel store I think. It naturally devastated me and upset my travel plans a bit, mostly because I can't afford to buy Chanel off the cuff, but then to be fair, when did the world promise me no devastation or upsets?
    In retrospect, for every genuine "I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage" I've heard, the sarcasm and belittling has exceeded it by ten fold, with the intellenstia having sought refuge to the all encompassing "what can we do? This decline can't be helped." Of course it can't, because no one, including you, is doing anything about it. And when I say you, I mean you, unless you are doing something about it. Which I very much doubt.
    We love to live in a bubble of inverted understanding  where not reading or knowing about the Mahabharata or Gita is decidedly cool, though one can read the Iliad or Odyssey. Or wait, not read at all. Who needs books when you can buy clothes, right?
    We will not learn about politics or economics from Chanakya, but we will pay a lot of money for subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, we will not practice or experiment with sex like they did in the days of  Vyasdev or Kalidas, but we will watch Sunny Leone and Kim Kardashian on T.V.
     And lotus eaters that we are, not knowing the gayatri mantra or the national pledge is totally ok with us, though we can recognise strains of the "The star spangled banner" from 50 feet away. The star what, did you ask? Oh well.
 Also, I am not ready to tow your line if you say "but I am proud, I just don't show it."
 Here's why.  Once upon a time, a diffident young girl had asked the monk who frequented her house why it was necessary to worship god at all if He was everywhere anyway. The monk asked her if she had a boyfriend or had a crush. The wise man then said, like all relationships we build with other men, the relationship we build with god is also a two way traffic. It needs nurturing, and it needs some external manifestation to let the other party know you are interested. "If you just keep the fact that you like this guy to yourself, will you ever have a relationship?  How will he ever know, and how will he ever get a chance to reciprocate? We all need to express ourselves, more for our sakes than for others."
 I've never forgotten that reply, and though  I won't claim to have followed it to the T always, I know from personal experience that I've been better off when I have. God, country, boyfriend, teacher, friend, spouse: all relationships and bonds need attention and  some outward show of affection at some point. Unless you are Bruce Almighty and can communicate directly with the powers that be. But look how that turned out!
    Moral fibre, that will-o-the wispy stuff that differentiates real men from the multitude, often goes hand in hand with a sense of knowing and being comfortable with  oneself, which in turn comes from a sense of pride in one's achievements. Or so one hopes. If you are a latent wife beater/rapist/cheat/murderer, none of this applies to you. (I am hoping no active any of those mentioned is reading this post).
    One does not really need to compare countries and continents to see the difference.
    I felt it the most when I was graduating. I can proudly say the college I attended is still counted (like it has been for the past 100 years I think) among the 10 best colleges in India. Note: there is justification that goes along with pride. In India, where millions graduate each year, it is not an easy job finding a place in the college of your choice. Or finding a place at all, for that matter, unless you can buy your way in, of course.
    I've been to three different educational institutions, but till this day, when someone asks me "where did you study", I say I graduated from this college. One reason for that is that graduation is the most relevant while judging a person's education in India; anything you did before that is too insignificant and anything beyond too erudite.
    But I suspect the real reson is that that was the one instutute which drilled into me a sense of pride of being associated with it. I can see that pattern repeated in countless other students from other similar esteemed schools and colleges. There is often resulting cockiness; the by-product that makes it a dangerous proposition, but the confidence does the kids a world of good. It is a deciding factor in many a group discussion and interview where these "smart" kids talk their way to the coveted colleges or jobs, while others flounder.
    I now see the same pattern repeated later in life, where "docile Asians" have complained about being pushed over by "more aggressive Americans". Asians (I can and do vouch for Indians at least) can and often are as aggresive and volatile as Americans if need be . But Indians are yet to shake off their colonial hangover entirely-- everyone from Gandhi to Mark Tully will side with me on this-- so we lose half the battle in our minds because we are yet to feel decidedly confident about who we are and what we can achieve. Nevermind countless examples to prove the fact. And till we do that, we will never be truly proud of who we are. Not the MBA'd executive, not the H1B visa holder, nor the server at Cafe Mondegar who will categorically give you the cold shoulder till his white guests have been tended to.
    Those of who are,  face no trouble in navigating colleagues and others in any part of the world at any time.
I'm no big fan of her works,  but Jane Austen, that self styled feminist that made so many of us drool over a certain Darcy, has a very lucid explanation of what consists pride and what does not. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us," she says through the otherwise uninspiring character of Mary.
    Be proud, not vain.  Or if you are, be sure not to use this blog as an excuse.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reporters are not superheroes, though many try and a few do come close

There is outrage, and there is fear. And there is that sickening, nauseating feeling that comes from knowing that despite being advanced enough to unearth the secrets of how the universe came into being, we still live in a world where a school girl can be mobbed, stripped and molested, just because.
 And then, there is a lot of blaming people, mostly of the media. I’ll take a detour from my usual policy of not mixing work and blogging today, because a wise man once said desperate times call for desperate measures. And though this will not amount to an apocalypse for most, I am frustrated enough in my head to bend my own rules and write about it. I’m a little weird like that, the rules in my own head are the only ones I usually find worth sticking to.
My first memory of mass scale blaming of the media is that of a cricket match in India, presumably an international series, which had to be rescheduled because some miscreants dug up holes on the pitch. My memory fails me, but I think it was seen as an attempt to upset the always inflammable Indo-Pak relationship. The next day, a national daily ran a picture of  what looked like two people in the act of digging up the pitch. I am rusty on details, but the point is, I still clearly remember the outrage it generated. “So the photographer just stood there and took shots?” “He could have stopped this game from being rescheduled!”
And I remember, even back then, thinking “well, the photographer was doing his job. It is not his duty to guard the venue of an important match, where was security?”
Of course, life is more easily categorized as black and white and it is far more easy to made judgment calls when you are a pre-teen, blissfully unaware of the jokes our father in heaven can play on us. Twenty seven years of dealing with his pranks have taught me better. Or, enough to have long moved away from that mental high pedestal that lets people judge others.  
Today, my Facebook page is peppered with angry comments from people speaking out against the appalling and downright sick (fine, I just judged, but in this context do you blame me? If you do, I’m not sure you and I will ever be on the same page) molestation of the teenager in India’s far eastern city of Guwahati. And, along with those expressions of angst, I see the inevitable “so the reporter just stood there and shot?” 
As a member of that larger community, despite all trainings in objectivity, it is difficult not to be affected.
Some professions in the world come with more moral responsibility than others. It is one of those things that have no end in cold logic, but that make the world an easier place to live in. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians (yeah ok, I know my list is becoming a joke now) and the fourth estate more than, say engineers, bankers or marketing executives.  I, of course, mean no disrespect towards the last three professions. If you want to be difficult and nitpick about that, save it for later please? I promise I'll entertain you then.
Right now, let’s deal with the issue of “so the reporter just stood and shot?”
Journalism, as far as I can tell, is not a career that happens to people by default. Unlike doctors, engineers lawyers and even actors, parents do not bring up kids with the aim of becoming journalists. They don’t study hard because they have to become a successful reporter. So, for most of us, it is a conscious decision, a choice we make because we feel some passion, love and respect for what we do. There will be good men and bad men in every turn, nook and cranny of life, and the profession is not an exception. It can’t be, I’m writing this blog under the presumption that my current reader set is beyond such naiveté.
So while the world gets ready to draw blood from the reporter that caused err what did he cause exactly? Brought out to the world a case of gross misconduct and violation of personal rights?
I can already hear all the questions you are mentally hurling at me (I’ll sift through the abuses) and will try and deal with some as best as I can. Of course, this is all from my very limited understanding of life, people and the profession. I have no claims of greatness in any of those departments, but I’ve known some fine people who’ve excelled in all, who’ve been inspirations and anchors in life.
So the reporter shot. I have said this before and I’ll say it again. A reporter is not a superman. He cannot tackle a mob of 50 odd rapacious men by himself, just like anybody else. If we could do it, we would stop wars with our presence, instead of reporting on them. Trust me, there is more blood, gore, and violations of all kinds that go on in a strife torn area. In fact, you’d be surprised how much of it goes on in rural India and other countries across the world in everyday life, and the only ones we know of is because some reporter, somewhere, took up his pen or camera and told us the story.
I do not know what exactly went on in front of that Guwahati bar, but I’m picturing this. A reporter finds himself at a mob site, and it is obvious to him he can’t stop it. Come on, even Salman Khan can’t take on so many frustrated men intent on preying on a girl by himself. Oh but wait, he can. This is exactly when I wish life was more of a movie with heroes a possibility. Anyway, so the reporter, unable to stop the mob, does the next best thing he knows to do. He picks up his pen (here, a camera) and reports on it. And despite running the risk of sounding extremely callous, I’ll still say this. Because the video is out there, we know who these miscreants are. In a society like India, I can guarantee you no one would have offered any help by way of witness if that bit of evidence was not available.
I’ll ask you a simple question. If the video wasn’t around and you were an onlooker and were asked to offer eyewitness evidence the next day, would you volunteer? Don’t answer me, but I think you would do yourself a favour in answering it honestly to yourself.
Some of my Assamese friends, who know the area, have said the reporter was sloppy in finding help. That his office was a mere two minutes walk from the scene of the mob and that reporters in that part of the world have enough clout to stop something like this with a shout out. Again, I can’t tell what exactly happened, and if it is true that he could have stopped it and didn’t, I’d be ashamed for him and the community. This might be a conflict, but I’m not objective to that extent. If I can stop a rape/murder/accident, I’d do that over reporting it. But if I can’t, that’s the next best thing I’d do. Write about it, oppose it, and make people sit up and realize what has gone wrong.
After all, isn’t that better than looking away, not stopping your car/bike to help the victim, going home, watch the video on youtube and then call the media the wolf?
But I must say I’ve my doubts on how much pull even a respected reporter has in a mob scene gone wild.
Most reporters, like most other people in other careers, are mediocre, lazy and like the good life. But I think our choice of profession makes that little voice at the back of our heads more vocal than in others.  And then it depends on the individual to choose whether they’ll listen to it, or not. The voice, you see, makes no claim at physical subjugation.
We are not superheroes, but we do try when given a chance. Be it a Daniel Pearl, a Jyoti Dey, a Bob Woodward, or the young Tarun Sehrawat.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Aamir Khan, the truth and his handling of it.

Satyamev Jayate, in my opinion, is the best thing that has happened to Indian television in a long long time.  Despite having seen enough to support the contrary, I remain a firm believer in giving people a chance in any attempt to make a difference for the better.
And chance did Mr. Khan have, till he went overboard and spoiled it all in the latest episode, raging against pesticides and ordaining, without much statistical backing, that all inorganically grown food items are substitutes for poison. Which they might be, but my gripe is in how Khan and his team handled the episode and in his dangerous flirting with being the modern television equivalent of the khap panchayats that he so ridiculed in one episode. Plus, it is taking me all my willpower to not go on a detour on Coca Cola and his endorsement of it.
The show was poorly researched and badly presented, unlike anything they’ve produced till now. Khan, in his agony-aunt-cum-messiah-rolled-into-one avatar has spoken about female infanticide, caste and class struggles,  domestic violence, child molestation, the problems of the handicapped in India and the rotting of the health sector (oh America, you have company).  And he has been armed by his research team well enough to hold largely sensible and fair discussions. But then on Sunday, they moved away from concepts that are directly linked to human emotions.
The killing of lovers for caste incompatibility or hubris, killing a girl child, mistreating handicaps and beating up women in the household can all be broadly, and correctly, categorized as WRONG by all men (ok, and women) with any compunction.  The use of pesticides, on the other hand, is a little more complicated than that. It is a scientific invention, has helped India achieve its only “revolution” of a broad scale (please Google for reference), and like most good things in the world, has been misused to the point where they are now largely believed to be doing more bad than good.
Fair point, but is that what the show showed? No. Slipping into disappointing mediocrity, the show had already made up its mind on what its outcome would be and played around with its participants to reach that end. The format requires Khan to play part journalist, interrogating and asking difficult questions.. 
Well, journalism 101: you never, ever decide on your story’s outcome before you’ve given all parties an equal chance to speak.  And if your reporting changes your initial hypothesis, so be it. Any basic journalism course will teach you that.
Khan brought in the CEO of Asia’s largest pesticide company in an attempt to make it look fair. And then in a great show of being the professional he is reputed to be, he guffawed while he spoke. Then to make it worse, he took advantage of the fact that his interviewee was not as stage savvy as others, and kept cutting him in mid sentence till Bollywood’s most intellectual Khan, bolstered by canned laughter, thought he had proven his point such that there cannot be any further room for debate. Reality check: that never happens, unless you are proving a scientific theorem, and  people are now challenging E=MC2 too.
The man’s efforts to make his point (whether he was right or wrong is not of importance here) —that pesticides sprayed in regulated amounts can do no harm, or that there have also been considerable health risks from organic produce were summarily dismissed.  No attempts to counter them with logic, facts or figures at all.
Satyamev Jayate is a bold effort—one that has me hooked from half way across the world. It has a good agenda, is thought provoking, and is educational for a big part of the population, if not for all. Provided its compere can hold on to just being that. Khan showed us sensible television can co-exist with the Kardashians.  It is a great show, and the price of greatness is responsibility. I didn’t say that, Churchill did. And he should know. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Of Sita, Ram, you and me.

    I am late on this, but it has been a very busy couple of weeks.
Anyhow, so the Bombay High Court, while hearing a divorce case, recently observed that married (Indian?) women should take a cue from the goddess Sita (pronounced Seetah, to rhyme with Cheetah) from the epic The Ramayana.
    The context? The husband was/is seeking divorce because the wife refused to follow him to Port Blair where he was transferred, and presumably chose to lead her own life in Mumbai(and complete a computer training course, media reports say.)
   Sita, the human goddess (unsure if that is a legit term) followed her husband Ram into exile for 14 years, giving up her queen's life for the hostilities of the wilderness.
    That, among other things, makes her the ideal wife, as it does Lakshman, who followed brother and sister-in-law.
    It is another thing that Ram, in the end, returns her favour by asking her to undertake the fire test or "agnipariksha", where she literally had to walk on fire and not get charred to prove her innocence and purity.
    Her fault? The mega king of Lanka, Ravan, kidnapped her and kept her a prisoner for some days before the mighty Ram and Lakshman and Hanuman (monkey god)  beat him and rescued her. So the Doubting Thomases of that age whispered about her chastity, and this was Ram's way of proving Sita's loyalty to them.
    The more I try to simplify this, the more I realise how ridiculous it sounds. So here's an aside for people unfamiliar with the epic. Like all epics, The Ramayana has its own share of extraordinary characters who do extraordinary things. And like all epics, it is a great piece of work not for that, but for what these characters represent and for the plot that is a deep philosophical reflection on mankind.
    Plus, one has to remember that for all of Ram's shortcomings, he was a great man with many virtues that cannot be recounted in one measly blog. The fire test too is much more complex than the one graph I wrote above.
    According to some versions, Ram (who had superhuman powers) had ensured Sita be under the protection of the lord of fires and made sure she would not be harmed. Once Sita passed the test, he explained to her that he did it put malicious toungues to rest.)
    He had a kingdom to rule, you see. And it would be increasingly difficult for him to build that utopian kingdom he did eventually build if his people kept casting doubts and making sly innuendoes about his wife. Image mattered even back then I guess. That however, does not alter the fact that he did give in to peer pressure to hurt his nearest and dearest.
    From what I read in Indian media reports, the husband has some kind of "ship duty" that includes transfers and travels and the woman, refused to join him in Anadaman's Port Blair, which is cut off from mainland India by the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal.
    I do not know what her reasons are, and I will not comment on whether she is right or wrong-- I've seen and heard of enough similar real life examples across the world to know that there are no set rights and wrongs in these cases. My consternation is in the judges' "observation."
    That highly educated men in today's day and age can make such childish and irresponsible official statements is also extremely amusing, to say the least.
    One could argue that the judges, of advanced years, were making a fatherly suggestion in trying to make peace and keep a marriage from crumbling. But if the couple needed that sort of advice, they wouldn't have spent a ton of money and gone to the HC -- they would actually go to their fathers and get it for free.
    And why invoke Sita, of all people? Even if one is at a point where one doesn't doubt her existence, she was a god, married to another. How is it a fair comparison?
    Think about it -- Sita was faced with two choices. Either follow the handsome and largely fair man who won her hand and with whom she was already in love, or to stay behind in a strange land by herself and deal with an extremely scheming mother in law. I don't know about you, but it doesn't feel like a very difficult choice to me. Especially since there were no careers or computer classes to factor in.
    What is interesting is that Valmiki made a big deal of her move. In the rural, or even urban (as the divorce case tells us) India I know, women giving up their careers and lives and ecosystems to move with the men they marry is considered the most natural thing in the world.
  Note-- it does not go the other way. Exceptions always prove the rule, but even as I count in my head, I can think of at least seven families where educated and working women gave up their jobs and lives and moved cities or countries with their men. I can't think of a single instance where the man moved. Maybe one.
    I am not judging, and I understand the need for a compromise in every relationship. But it also begs the question of why is it so difficult to find a man who moved for his woman? And we can't even really blame our history for it.
    That Valmiki (the rehabbed dacoit who turned saint and penned the epic) gave Sita special mention tells us that society back then was more respectful of individuality that it is now.
   Even a 100 years ago, circa when Tagore lived, we were a mature, grown-up, respectful society, if his novels are anything to go by. Basics like you do not read other people's mails even if the other person is married to you, you ask your family if they agree to your world view and do not just assume they will, you give free-will a chance, are quite often the refrain of his works.
    How did we then come to this place where we type away at our iPhones and simultaneously say things like women should "take a cue from Sita" and get away with it?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why I Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg’s brain child now has more than 900 million monthly active users, and chances are it is there that you found this post as well.
900 million—an article I recently read said if that were a country, it would be the third most populous! At least, that is what the latest stats say.
For more details you can always Google the latest news stories or check their filings if you are that fastidious. Or else, you can just trust me and go with it! I won’t link a news article to this blog. Reason one being I think if you are curious enough, you’ll Google it. Reason two, I try to keep my work and blog posts as far separated as possible. As a reporter, I don’t opinionate. As a blogger, that’s all I do.
Well like with anything else, once the first blast of news is done hitting you in the face, people discuss it, and some, even in this day and age, actually try and attempt to go beyond the stats to understand what it means to the everyday man. Don’t pick on me for not saying “woman”, I am not your nitpicking, irritating-to-everyone-else-but-their-own-closed-group kind of feminist and I do have something of a dislike for them.
Anyhow, when some people I know asked me why I Facebook, and presented their ideas on why people should not, it obviously got me thinking.
Here’s this immensely popular social networking tool that seems to have made the world a much much smaller and well connected place than was thought possible. And yet, here are some otherwise very logical, thinking individuals who vehemently oppose its popularity and think it is rotting society in some way. In fact, I also saw billboards inviting people to attend a session titled “is social network making us unsocial?” at the Red line train stop.
I have no desire or will to go and attend that session, but think it’ll be fun to hazard a guess on what the non FB-ing intelligentsia’s problems with the lesser mortals are.
What will be the obvious complaints? “Kids” are always on their phones, FB-ing. Now I am your average working girl with no claims to anything extraordinary, so quite obviously I’m totally in with the multitude. I’m almost always on FB, I have my Blackberry to thank for that, and I have a clinical urge to respond to messages and posts addressed to me. Just like with emails.
And I would like to think it stems from some sense of courtesy. When people talk to you, or ask you something, or include you in a conversation, you respond. If you do not want to, you say “I don’t want to”, or “I think you are a moron, so leave me out of this”, but you still respond. Basic good manners, I say.
That and a bunch of other stuff like my daughter does not talk to me because of FB, I got hit by a truck because I was poking someone etc etc.
Well, here is the thing.
Your daughter does not talk to you because she thinks you are immensely boring, and because you have nothing interesting to say to her that will hold her imagination. Don’t blame it on FB. Don’t blame it on anything, really, other than yourself, because if you had that bond with your kid, s/he would respond. They still do talk to their friends, don’t they? Or to the “cool” teacher from school who is everyone’s favorite? Or the neighbourhood aunt/uncle all the kids love.
You get my drift? Trust me, if there was no FB, the kid would hide in a book, phone, or in anything that could rescue her if she has decided to give you the cold shoulder. The problem lies deeper than that, fix it.
And of course, if you got hit by a truck because you were poking/ commenting while on the road, you are plain stupid. No other words there. If there is one thing that we owe to ourselves, it is to be careful about what can hurt us and what is OK. That you still haven’t been able to figure it out, or are unable to teach your ward the rights and wrongs of life are hardly Zuckerberg’s fault. Just like when my class mate in junior school crashed with his motorcycle, it wasn’t Gottlieb Daimler’s fault.
Oh yeah, my mind has collected enough useless trivia over the years, as I realize intermittently.
Blame the addiction to reading. I remember, as a very young kid I even read the back of the shampoo bottle while my mom would wash my hair. Till she decided to ask me to stop it because I would get shampoo in my eyes while reading and the strange redness would creep her out. I would also cry sometimes, depending on the intensity of the wash.
But I deviate (hey, my blog, my memories!) and I’m sure no one finds an account of a precocious baby getting her hair washed that captivating. So, let’s return to my point.
Which is that, I think most of the so called problems that FB and other social networking sites have given us are really allegations that we can easily ignore. Indeed, if we are honest enough, we might even accept our own shortcomings here and agree that these sites are really not the villains they are often made out to be.
There is only this one “crime” charge that I am not sure I can totally defend social networking from. That of creating shallow bonds and making us lazy. And, of encouraging very bad use of grammar and language. OK, so that makes it more than one. But let me try.
My use of FB grew tremendously in 2010, when I was away from India for the first time, and was phoneless for about a week. FB was an easy and accessible way of keeping in touch with friends and family, and it helped them to know that I was safe and not dead/robbed/raped/dying/sick in some foreign country.
I have kept at it since, and have found many, many long lost friends and acquaintances through it.
One of those people I mentioned among the anti-FB group avoids social networking studiously because that person believes if someone really wants to talk, or cares enough, they will find a way to get in touch without help from a poke/tweet/comment. And say something meaningful in the process. It is a great thought, and as someone who loves reading long emails that are NOT forwards, I totally understand that demand.
But here’s my counter argument. If I really want you in my life, I will definitely find a way. But does it prove anything when you make my attempts more difficult by avoiding a popular platform that could make you more accessible to me?
And what guarantees that the people that do manage to connect with me beyond the shallow “likes” will, in fact write or say anything that is more meaningful?
I once had a teacher who was brave enough to encourage discussion in class. Not a common trait among people anywhere and less likely when your paycheck depends on finishing a syllabus that no one really cares about.
I learnt from him how important it is to hear other people out, and to try and give everyone a fair chance. It might not be the most perfect platform, but I would like to say social media does it. The number of arguments, discussions, conversations I’ve personally had on FB over countless issues that touch our daily lives is proof in itself.
All shallow, you say? How many people in your friends list do you really know about, you ask? Not all, sure. Do I want to be best friends with the girl from school I reconnected with after more than a decade? No. But do I still want to keep in touch and exchange occasional snippets of our lives and share her happiness when she puts up wedding pictures on her wall? Yes!
Would this be possible in an age before FB (or any other social media that you like, but 900 million commands respect. If you haven’t already figured, I’m using FB as the generic term for social media here. Like “Xerox” and “Maggi”)? Having lived in that world, I think we’ll all agree and say “no”.
So shallow bonds with many notwithstanding, it really helps to communicate. And you never know when an acquaintance becomes a good friend, right?
Now the bit about making us lazy—that people would rather wish friends ”happy birthday” on FB and comment on walls than pick up the phone and make it more special. And that people do not remember birthdays unless it is on your calendar.
Guilty as charged. I have done that at times, and I know it is not a good excuse to say I was tired and it was the middle of the night for my friend. But how about this—thanks to the websites, I could at least let my friend know that I tried but was not able to get through, when that was the case. Better than getting lost in a hole of non-communication, no?
So that leaves us with the bad grammar and bad language charge.
*I surrender*

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sex is not such a bad thing. And neither are strip clubs

There, do I have your attention now? Good, because the rest of this entry is about algebra.
    Hah, got you!
    Why I'm writing again is because I visited a strip club last week. Not my first visit, may I add, but being there as a customer is definitely nothing like being there as a reporter who's trying to be all business-like.
    Because for starters, I could actually stare. And second, I could get out when I wanted to.
    So that was that, and apart from the initial 10 minutes of ickiness, we all eased into the ambience pretty well, and was at home enough to compliment a dancer on her shoes, and reject a lap dance.
    And no, I'm not going to give you a blow by blow account of their routines. You get your own trip for that. Or read Savita Bhabhi or whatever. Basically, look elsewhere because what I would actually want to do here is make some observations, as always.
    1. Didn't Bernard Shaw ask whoever looks at beauty when it's been around for three days? Make it 30 minutes. The rule still holds, and equally well for everything from the nice painting you paid a bomb for, to SRK (yeah I met him once when I was in college) to naked women. None of us said the experience was life altering, all captivating, or even that big a deal. And yes that includes the man in the group. His wife appreciated the lingerie, my other friend liked how fit the dancers were and I, well, complimented one girl on her shoes.
    2. When I was over the gaping, I noted how controlled the environment was in the lounge/bar. Not one person misbehaving, not one unwanted or unsolicited comment or even gaze. If you want some action, you pay and you get it. If you don't, no one will bother you. One might argue that the big bouncers have that effect on people, but hey, it is a dark room and the bouncers aren't everywhere. Plus, the men who were getting dances were not allowed to touch the girls, and I actually saw one poor person's hands go up and then him willing them back on the couch. Couldn't help but feel bad for him, poor bloke. I really did think it comes from people trying to behave by themselves. I mean if external control stopped men and women from misbehaving, why would we have weirdoes touching themselves in a crowded bus?
    3. Which brings me to the real reason why I am writing this. Sex and sexuality is so very oppressed in the society I come from, it is really ridiculous. And it is refreshing to see a change from my norm. And this extends way beyond strip clubs into everyday living.
     Most Asian families I know behave like the very concept of sex does not even exist, and yet we give birth to more and more children every passing year. I mean sure I am happy that society has cast some rules that people are expected to follow.
    A free rein sounds cool, but think about it-- would you like to be the person who is not really sure of who your father is, just because no one can tell? Call me a prude, but I like to know where I come from. I also like the fact that I get to decide who I want to be with, and no one has the right to force/persuade me if I don't want them. And that in the current social framework, all sensible men accept that. Or I've just been lucky.
    But does that mean we turn a total blind eye to the very fact that men and women have some urges and that it is needed that they satisfy some of it? Mostly to stop them from turning  to be weirdoes that get kicks from throwing themselves at random strangers in public areas?
    Think about that man I just described at the bar. That he could freely walk in and buy his dance probably saved New York City one sexual offender.
    And what is the other option anyway? Fine, we as Indians (my favorite sample, because I know us the best) won't accept that our children have any physical desires, so we don't allow "dates" and if we are really that stuck up, we don't even allow free mingling of both sexes. Do we even look around us?
    Each public park that I have been to in India is a make-out spot for teenagers and sadly, even older people to various degrees and at different times of the day. We are generally still not at home with kissing in public, but we accept the fact that grown men and women can slip their hands inside each other's clothes at places where children can watch, under the safety net of an umbrella. An umbrella!
     I appreciate cultural differences, and I subscribe to the idea of not everyone needs to be "Westernised". But why is it that while we have no trouble accepting Coca Cola, mini skirts, Hollywood movies and even foreign accents, we can't man up and accept this one true fact of life? One of us did write the Kamasutra, did he not?
    I have seen parents being extremely protective about their children-- no boys/girls, no late nights, no sleepovers, no nothing. And I know for a fact that ALL of those protected children have consistently done all of it, but without telling their parents.
    Or, the one chance they could try out "freedom", they went totally overboard leaving the rest of us to clean up after them. Literally and metaphorically. Concept of freedom lost, and concept of self restraint totally done away with. Not funny. Especially since these very boys and girls grow up to be men and women and still do the same. Why else would 50 year old men throw up after drinking too much at parties? Most people across the world would agree that the throwing up stage comes and goes with your teens.
     At 50, or for that matter even at 30, you need to know how to hold your drink. Or how to control your hand that "slips" below your lady dancing partner's waist or rubs against her in such a way that you can't tell if if was deliberate or not. Why do people do that? Here are my guesses:
    A. Because they do not know that there is another way of propositioning. That you can actually talk about it without being sleazy.
    B. Because how can you ask! It is so "isss chee chee". Or because even if one did ask, there are very few people that will say "at least s/he was upfront and respected my decision of going with it/not going with it." Most will say "OMG, can you believe what s/he did?" And the honest person gets branded a philanderer for life. So let us just molest each other and pretend nothing happened.
    From what I understand, on a deeper level, this culture of having a fake respectability also breeds a more dangerous culture of lying. I mean, because most parents won't say "yes, I am ok that you have a boyfriend at 16" even if they are and even if they know it is really normal, in a twisted manner, they force their children to lie.
    Were you with that girl? No mama. Is aunty lying? Maybe mama. Where were you? In the coaching class that was never actually scheduled for that day and so on and so forth till meddlesome local boys find the young kids fornicating under the slide in the park and raise hell. 
    The park keeps coming back, sorry about that.
    Wouldn't you rather these kids had some chance at normal mingling under some supervision than be forced to hide in dark alleys? I know a 8 year old that was introduced to pornography by a 13 something year old. In India, in a decent, bhadralok middleclass environment. So the naiveté of "our children are not like that" is lost on me. Every children is like that, ignore the English.
    Having siblings and cousins that are as much as 15 years younger has its benefits-- I am unusually up to date on the latest in teen and tween town. And take my word for it: 14 and above year olds in mid to big cities in India not only have sex, smoke, and generally do whatever their parents think can never be done, they also do it under the constant pressure of not letting people find out. Which equals to lying 24 X 7.
    (I add my usual caveat here: not everyone does it, and I did not conduct an official poll. But I do know that the percentage is rising, through first hand accounts and anecdotes.)
    You think I am exaggerating? I am not.
    Now give me the argument that not having any control or rules will only create a mess of everyone. Yes, I agree, but the point never was to do away with all kinds of rules and regulations. The point is to do away with rules that are so far removed from reality that you would think those who come up with them never lived on planet Earth as we know it.
     So do I have to sleep with someone just because they want it, because we are cool like that, and society won't disapprove and/or I want to one-up them? Hell no.
    But should people be able to do it if/when they both want to without fearing the collective raised eyebrows of everyone they knowl? "Yes" seems to be the only logical answer, does it not?
And that begs the question: is it so bad then, to pay for it? 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Beneath the jazz, we are all the same.

I was reading President Obama’s response to the Trayvon Martin murder, and couldn’t help wonder at how similar all the people in the world are, once you cut through the jazz of lifestyle, region and developed versus developing economies.
While  reading the articles (I hope there aren’t many who don’t know what I’m talking about, but if you are one of them, I do hope you have clicked on the link by now) I was reminded of this one instance where I was having a particularly tough day in college, and poor mom called at the wrong time.
Well, Bengalis have a bit of racial snobbishness ingrained in them, and I had just been exposed to new levels of inanity – a Gucci wearing classmate who had just said something to the tune of Thomas Hardy being one of the Hardy boys—I kid you not.  And she was my partner for an assignment which I obviously was doing all by myself, not trusting her film evaluating capabilities after that statement.
Now the mother is a riddle.  She is your average middle-class Indian parent with middle-class values that are constantly having head-on collisions with the urban, global platform the kid brother and I find ourselves operating in.
 And yet, from time to time, she will say or do things that will totally overwhelm us with the “modern” approach (“of course your daughter should get out of your house and live by herself. She is 19. How else will she learn to be independent?”) and make us thank our collective stars.
For those of you who are a little lost, it is not very average for kids in middle-class India to be on their own. Hell, we have 40 year old men living with their parents. Some families resist the move on excuses of safety, others do not even think of it as an option, especially if it is a girl, and yet others don’t just accept the fact that there are things in life that you never learn unless you are on your own, paying your own bills.
So while I went on a tirade on how I could lose my culturally rich Bengali mind if I was exposed to such intellectual stimulus for 2 years, my mom stopped me, and said, “You have to learn to deal with everyone and learn that beneath all the jazz, we are all the same. You are a Bengali and you like your books and music, but she is from the class that makes the money.  Each people have their own skills and that does not make anyone good or bad. She might drop dead if she finds out about your great mathematical skills.”
Despite that reality check (yeah ok, I suck at math), I still can’t wrap my head around Thomas Hardy being Fenton Hardy’s fictitious son.  But the bit about ‘everyone being basically the same” stuck on, and has helped me appreciate a lot of people in life.
What does this have to do with Martin?  A lot, I think. I am not going to get into a discourse on the unfairness or the unbelievable outrageousness of the entire episode. That will take 100 pages. But to my non-American eyes, it did bring out one basic problem in the American society that most of us are only too happy to ignore, or overlook.
People in the “emerging world” celebrated with absolute gusto when Obama was made the President. Office chatter revolved predominantly around how “only in America can you break free of the slave trading history and have a Black president”, college kids wore “yes you can” T shirts and bags, and people sang praises of the great democracy.
No conflicts of opinion there— it is, in many ways, a great country with great people.
 But the image most Indians or South Asians have of this country is kind of airbrushed.  
And as the Martin murder shows, the problems here are not only about distant issues of Ponzi schemers and rich, irate ex bankers.
We deal with our cross of caste and creed, and Americans deal with their baggage of apartheid.  And it is a dangerous baggage. Most people (needless to keep reminding everyone, most in this blog is most of those I met or have interacted with) in the country that has a black President still largely sees “blacks” as a group to be avoided when you are a minority in numbers, categorizes fashion in terms of “this is very black, I am not sure I can wear it”, and advises you not live in areas dominated by them. My through and through American familiarization guide categorically told me this and this block is more black and so unsafe and my rental agent told me she would not set up viewings in those areas at all, even if there were good or cheap apartments. Not that I had any particular liking for any of the off-limits places or that I am challenging their judgment. These women have been doing it for more than 15 years and they know their job.
But that is pretty much like we treat Muslims in India, I thought. Most of us have Muslim friends, respect the fact that there are many erudite Muslims who are a blessing to the society, and know that there is no reason for any educated and rational being to feel any bit threatened by them, and yet we treat Muslims pretty much like how black men and women are here. Avoid in large groups, steer clear of areas dominated by them especially after dark, discard fashion that is associated with them, and go on in our fake erudite lives without accepting that this is a problem.
Now I know from experience that there is some valid argument to this. At least in India, it is true that many Muslim neighbourhoods tend to have high crime rates, and from what I hear, such is the case here too.  As a Muslim friend says, “it is true that all of us are not terrorists, but it is also true that 99 percent of terrorists are Muslims.”  So ok, no smoke without fire, agreed.
But India is a backward, developing nation that is still struggling with basics like clean drinking water everywhere (which is not available everywhere in the US either by the way), female infanticide and general discrimination against girls (which I would love my American friends to give my Indian friends a lesson in), and so on and so forth. So on that level, I still grudgingly accept the fact that the large lot of Indians will have these illogical biases. But how does this persist in one of the most developed nations in the world? What is their excuse?
There need be none, because like my mother in her non English speaking wisdom realized, basic human nature tends to stay the same despite the differences of how and where you grow up. More so in its fallacies and biases. 

PS: did you know apartheid is still a huge problem in South Africa, as vouched for by my South African friend on a project here? "If I date a black guy no white guy will ever date me again." Her words, not mine. And judging from the fact that this is a 30-something working individual who has traveled quite a bit of  the world, I would bet it is not a "certain section of the society" there that we are talking about. I mean if the urban, working crowd says this, it can't be any better in the really rural, orthodox parts of the country. So all in all, it is the story of the pot calling the kettle black. 
Oh, pun was not intended. Maybe we should change that idiom and make it "dirty" or "sooty". 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mind your Ps and Qs

    Of the many things that Indians have to adjust to in this country, one of the most difficult is understanding and maintaining the standards of propriety in daily living.
    I said in my last post that there is great respect for people and their work in this country.
    I have noticed almost without exception, tenants talk to the building boy the same way they talk to their neighbours and all human labor-- from your carpenter, to house cleaning, to whatyoumayhave is extremely expensive.
    A simple translation is: "you are using my skill set, so you had better appreciate it. No one is stopping you from cleaning your house yourself, or mending your bathroom sink, but if you want my help, you pay. And that does not make me a lesser person than you."
    (most)People in this country think like that, so the regular cleaner is often asked to join for a drink after work, and also tipped while at work.
    However, years of practising this has extended this well measured cordiality to such extremes that one has to be blind not to notice the plasticity in the entire scheme of things.
    Commuters on a bus at 6 in the morning wish and greet the bus driver on the way out. I know, because I take that bus everyday (yes, I wake up that early.) Sounds good, but before long, I was forced to wonder if every single person in the bus is actually grateful that the bus driver is doing her duty, or it is just a reaction mechanism?
    I took a closer look at those people, and realised that none of them were even looking at the driver when they said thanks, and neither did the driver. People just go through the mechanism because that is the way they have grown up.
    Just like people in India do not even think of greeting the bus driver on the way out because that is the way they have known.
    It IS a reaction mechanism. I don't blame anyone. No one can be that bright and cheery everyday so early in the morning, but then the natural question is, why make yourself to do it?
    And I will preempt you and say this here. A fake greeting is probably better than the stand offishness drivers and other blue collar job holders get from the rest of us back home, but what gets to me at times is when that falseness creeps into all aspects of life, and somehow makes it difficult for people to interact.
    People here may be friends, but they formally check with each other every single time they make any small decision or move. For example, my Indian friends would think nothing of taking a bottle of water from my desk for themselves if they need it, or sharing my food.
    My American friends will. Actually, most won't even ask, because they do not think it is nice or courteous to ask me to share something I bought with my money.
   Now when it comes to my pricey stilettos, makeup or even wine, I appreciate that mentality like every other urban, educated, working friend or acquaintance back home.
   But I doubt people can take it beyond that to everyday living without some kind of a hit. Manners practiced in extremes does have a way of draining you out.
    In this case, it is easily noticeable that it is more difficult for a person here to let others in than in India.
    There are so many "rules" to follow, that natural interaction is almost always stunted, because you are busy keeping a mental tab of the dos and don'ts.
    A friend who has lived in this country for some six odd years, had a date the other day and was describing it to me.
    "You have to keep note of all the rules, especially if it is a first date, because otherwise you will be cast as a 'type'."
    This is so well ingrained in society here that people practice it subconsciously-- you are a cat person or a dog person, you are an icecream person or a chocolate person, you are a trousers person or a skirt person.
    Difficult for someone like me, who dislikes both cats and dogs and wears trousers or skirts depending on what ironed top is avaliable to go with it.
    True, I like chocolates and have no great love for icecreams, but I dare you to stereotype me for it!
    Rules were always meant to help people, not turn them into zombies. A Delhi and a Calcutta can probably do well with following the rules of the road, which say bus stops are the places where the bus should actually stop.
    But if it is an emergency, sure, go ahead and stop it at the first convenient spot.
    Not so easy here. I had gone out for dinner one day when on the way back, it started snowing. We saw an empty bus in an empty street waiting at the light, and a friend asked if we could be taken in and saved from the snow. The driver said no, waited for the lights to turn green, and then stopped at the bus stop that was less than 3 feet away.
   Sure, me caught without a hat and gloves in the snow may not exactly make it as an "emergency" (I will give in to that argument, thought trust me, it felt very much like an emergency to me), but that somehow mirrors society here in its obsession with rules.
   There is this other anecdote that comes to mind. Someone I know had to recently call NYPD after he found a fellow student and roommate in such a state of waste it was difficult to figure what he had taken.
    In his words: "the guy is unconscious and retching, but because NYPD cannot touch him physically without a fair warning, they keep asking XYZ,  to please cooperate."
    Apparently after 3 such questions which were obviously met with no answers, my friend and his other pals butted in to assure the cops/paramedics that it was ok to lift him and do what it takes to take him to the hospital.
   You see what I mean?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Customer service, professionalism and efficiency: what we can learn from the US of A

Yesterday, I went into the Nike store on Michigan Avenue to buy running shoes. A pronounced cat, I left the ones I owned behind when I moved, quite confident I would never ever need another pair. As a friend once pointed out, it is a wonder I don't get along with those feline furry domestic animals. I think it has to do with the fact that we are too alike, at least when it comes to curling up on the couch and enjoying some cheese.
But I digress from what I set out to discuss.
So I walked into Nike Town, fell in love with a pair, over paid, and came home. And because I had to justify the money I spent on them, I went for a jog (I don't/can't/won't run).
But when the great wise men came up with idioms, they must have put a lot of thought into it. A leopard, you see, never really changes its spots.
The initial euphoria of the purchase over, I went on a guilt trip on how much I spent for shoes that I could not even motivate myself to use regularly. I'm not telling you how much, it is much too embarrassing, but let's just say I paid more than double of what I could really afford. So I looked up Nike's return policy.
Now I was more or less familiar with such policies thanks to my job, but even so, was completely bowled over by how efficiently stores here run themselves.
The entire process can be described in less than 10 words. I went, returned, got my money back. Just like that, no questions other than the necessary asked. (Do you have the receipt? Do you have the card you paid with?)
When that happens, it is but impossible not to compare similar Indian experiences. I am not your poster starry-eyed-over-Umreeka kind of person-- there are things about this country that totally get my goat-- but inefficiency is not something I can fault this land with.
I remember when I had to exchange (not even return) a pair of shoes at a Metro store on Bangalore's 100 feet road. I had to wait for about 15-20 minutes before a store personnel could tend to me. He took the pair from me, asked me edgily about when I had purchased them even though I had handed him the receipt, and then vanished into the interiors for another 15 minutes.
When he came out, I was told they do not have the size I wanted, so I had to check with them next week. Could they call me to let me know? No. Note here, stores in India do not have a refund policy-- shoppers can only get store credit.
And it is not just pricey Nike. Shop at Ikea, the mecca of everything affordable for home furnishing, and one sees the same kind of efficiency. Sure, you won't have two store people waiting on you when you shop at Ikea, but then they never promised you that. What they promised is cheap and efficient furniture, and that you will get.
On a budget, I bought lamps that were towards the lower end of their price range. When I set them up at home, the bases were wobbly. I told myself that cheaper products will come with some defects, until the Ikea person fixed them for me. And I realised what India lacks in its "shining" and why so may foreigners have some genuine problems adjusting to the ways of the country.
We make too many false promises, and take too much for granted.
A shopkeeper can be cocky with his client there because they know they can get away with it, especially if the client is younger. (We still try to stick to a strange code of respect towards elders that is getting more and more irrelevant, but more on that later.)
Shoppers deal with the fact that the ready to eat dinner they bought will not taste/feel like what is on the box, because "waisa hi hain."
Here, Trader Joes, a grocery chain, will take back an open pack of dip/sauce/food if the buyer is not happy with it. Almost no questions asked.
And I won't hear of the argument that there are too many people in India who would resort to cheap tricks like using the merchandise and then returning them. There are people who do that here too, and anyway, I don't see the lower income group shopping at Nike, Spar or Shoppers Stop in India either.
Respect begets respect, and I realised that all other points I talked about : customer care, efficiency, professionalism, are natural derivatives of that.
I respect the fact that you are taking time out to meet me, so I will be on time. I appreciate that you are not happy with the purchase you made and don't want to spend money on something you won't use, so I will accommodate you without making you feel cheap.
I understand that the boy waiting on me at the store is probably doing it to save up for his college funds, so I won't be snooty to him and talk to him like an equal.
India as a country has a long way to go to cover these basics, to say the least.

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..