Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Was making India "secular" a big mistake?

 If you are remotely connected to India and even very casually interested in general affairs, someone that only glances at news pop-ups while shoe shopping on the internet, you already know what the latest pet discussion in that part of the world is.
Shah Rukh Khan and his recent interview, which has done more good to him publicity-wise than his last elaborate catastrophe on screen did.
  Let's not have the discussion about whether what he said was really what he thought or was a smart ploy to get him back on headlines. Almost five years of journalism has made me cynical enough to not discard the possibility of the latter, and SRK's star, after all, is on the decline.
    Whether you support SRK or don't, one thing you cannot deny in this hoopla is that modern India, for all her various examples of secularism (of which SRK himself is a shining example: his wife is Hindu and he tells anyone ready to listen that he celebrates both Eid and Diwali with equal gusto) is yet to really accept the concept in its totality.
    Indians have made gods of the Khans that have ruled Bollywood for years and years, we have head-banged till the wee hours of the morning when Rupam Islam has strummed his guitar, our hearts have swelled with pride when Abdul Kalam or AR Rahman have been felicitated by the world and yet, deep in our hearts, we've always somehow fostered the feeling of "they are different".
    Depending on who you are and where you've grown up, that difference could become immaterial when we talk about really famous or really rich people, but that's only because a lot of money and success creates a class of its own. It's not fair to compare, say, Aamir Khan, with my friend Aftab.
    To say India is a complex society is a gross understatement. There are so many shades to her cultural tapestry that it is overwhelming to sit and take stock of the situation. This is what makes this country a very difficult work field for foreigners. They tend to vacillate between the "good" India and the "bad" India at alarming rates or with equally scary one-track minds and almost always end up missing the point.
    I know, I know, some of the best works on the country have come from non Indian authors but my blog is about what I generally see everywhere-- anyone or anything that is an exception to a rule is by default not the topic of conversation here.
    The point is, despite all the love, success, fame and popularity that even SRK gets in the country, he can still claim to feel victimized.
    It is somewhat similar to how many people in the United States treat Black Americans and vice versa, but because the US has a much longer history of being free and has a much better economic grounding that India does, maybe it is not a fair comparison.
    Justified or not, SRK's claim touches chords among some and rubs others the wrong way, to the extent that the man now has an open invitation to live in Pakistan if he feels "threatened" in India. (By the way, SRK, the only thing I read from you in response to that invitation was a mumbling "I'm offended" or some such. How about chinning up and saying "I don't want to leave my country you idiots, I'm Indian and this isn't even an option”? Apparently, claims to patriotism can only be made when it is for complaining about our troubles. Or did you decide you've had publicity enough? Why stir up trouble if you're not ready to see it through to the end?)
    There, that bit out of my system now, let's get back to my main point. Which is that, despite the average middle class in India growing up in reasonably secular surroundings (non Indians, trust me here. We do not chase each other with knives every time we meet around the corner, no more than all of us are snake charmers), we are yet to really accept secularism on the whole.
    One of my closest and best friends, the kind that knows your deepest, darkest secrets and loves you nevertheless, is Muslim. I've been born in a Hindu Brahmin family. My family knows of our closeness and I've never heard anyone ever mention anything that can remotely be translated as "but he's not Hindu". Yet, I wonder: If instead of being friends, say we were lovers and wanted to marry each other, would the family still be so Zen about it?
    I understand the practicalities that account for this apprehension. It's two different ways of life. If you think about it, the Hindu-Muslim violent history aside, most people would treat any intercaste/class interaction with the same apprehension. We are similarly skeptical about Malayali/Punjabi weddings, Bengali and Marwari tie-ups. One of my Assamese friends once told me he had a standing request from his parents to "marry anyone but not a Bengali." Lots of baggage there too, but you see the point?
    It really is simple if one thinks about it. How long do you think can a Malayali, fed on a daily diet of academics and comparatively simplistic living adjust to the innate "pomp and show" that comes with being a Punjabi? And god forbid if that Punjabi is also from Delhi. Or say, how long can a Bengali, born and bred on fish and Tagore, live and adjust with Marwari vegetarianism?
    You think it is a trivial non-issue? Hah, say I.  Of course, in today’s set up, it does not matter as much. We’re all eating instant noodles anyway. But the people that have a problem and worry about these things are generally not the live-on-frozen food-in-extremely-nuclear-setup types.
    Does that mean Punjabis and Marwaris are inferior in their choice of lives? Most definitely not. It is not even about superior or inferior; it is about different ways of live. Now throw religious difference in the mix and I think I can begin to understand why people get on their haunches.
   Plus, unlike say Christians and Hindus, Hindus and Muslims have been fighting very violently since the beginning of time and people in power have always swung rules in their favor.
    So, was making India a secular democracy a mistake that goes against the basic grain of human nature?
    The BIG thing to not ignore being: the majority of a country’s, any country’s, people choose not to think at all. Of this I am convinced. Even of those that do, very very few have the courage to actually stand up and go against the tide and face the repercussions.    
     When they inserted the term "secular" in the Preamble to the Constitution, it was already late 70s. Sure, the "feel" was always present, but making it official is a big thing. It usually means we've given this some thought and are ready to shoulder the responsibilities that come with it.
    When a constitution says its land is secular, it means we, the people (and hence, the Government) should not discriminate on the basis of religion at all. That "at all" should ideally be non-negotiable. It should also mean every man of the land is and will be treated equal and be subjected to the same set of rules.
    Yet, we have a separate set of rules for Muslims in India that they can choose to follow and are acceptable in a court of law. The Uniform Civil Code is still a Directive Principle, but if we are a secular nation, it should have been legally enforceable.
    We are supposed to be a  "Sovereign Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic." Given how complex India's history and culture is, I'd have said we've done a good enough job of upholding those tenets if a Godhra and the entire circus related to it had not happened. If only we could blot that entire sequence out! People often say it was "unavoidable" and yet I hear a similar situation was much more effectively resolved by that patron of modern Kathak and last of Awadhi Nawabs, Wazir Ali Shah, a long time ago.
    Not only do we not learn from our past mistakes or from past successes, we consistently lack the political motivation and/or courage to stand up to people who keep flouting those guiding principles on a regular basis.
    Sure, the powerful will always abuse. But the problem here is, we are a democracy. We choose to elect these people who then go about their crazy carnage.
   Twenty years after Babri Masjid and some ten odd years after Godhra, my friend is still rejected housing in Bombay because he is Muslim.
   Does make me wonder—did the architects of our free nation enforce a feeling of secularism in a country where there never was any?
    I don’t come from an overtly religious family; my brother and I were taught to be decent, rather than devout. (I try.)
    The quintessentially middle class Indian neighbourhood that I still call home has never been touched by communal violence. Most of its residents are striving for decency and are largely peace loving. I’m not counting spiteful neighbourhood gossips because they, well, don’t count.
But in this flat, boring middle class society, I've heard modern families sit with coffee cups in their well decorated living rooms and talk about how it was “right that the Hindus burnt a few of their houses down. They need to know who is in charge,” when the newspaper lying in front of them tells them what happened to the Best Bakery.
  It will be unfair to throw this out there without a little bit of background.  Issues mainly stemming from minority appeasement for vote bank politics have come to such a head that the non-rich non-minority feel threatened and frustrated all the time. Hence the “in charge” line of thought.
    But dangerously, they do not realize what is wrong in thinking that way, and worse, everyone in that sitting room agrees. Including the woman who had tears in her eyes that morning while reading that article about the bakery.
    One can point out stupidity and callousness and can try to show people why they are wrong, but it is very difficult to change personal opinion. Shaming people into silence is one thing, really really making them change their views is another. 
   I know putting a few words in a book will not change the vast population of India. I also know a thousand wrongs do not make a right and that is why I keep repeating, no matter how good a businessman you are and no matter how much money you bring in, a murderer is a murderer and in my books, it is extremely irresponsible and callous to go about saying we can forgive one mistake and focus on other “better” things.
   You see, there are mistakes and then there are crimes. Kissing your husband’s colleague could be a mistake. Categorically planning the execution of hundreds of people or not stopping it while you could is a crime. Yet, ask around and you'll be surprised how many categorize the two in the exact opposite order. 
   If this be the real pulse of a nation, would it have saved us all a lot of heartache if we were not made secular in the first place?
No luck there. Like a friend pointed out, communal tension, specially of the Godhra kind, is not generally the doing of commoners like you and me. The architects of these are people who chalk out such madness for different ends altogether. So if they didn't have the easy topic of Hindu vs Muslims, they would find something else. Every society has problems that could and often have resulted in deplorable violence. India is more or less surrounded by countries that are not secular, and no one can say they are doing any better.
    Plus, if we were an all Hindu state, I would not have met my friend and would be hobbling in life without one of my rocks. There would be no SRK to pine over and no Eid ka biryani or Christmas caroling to look forward to. Upsetting, isn't it?
    Secular, you win. We'll deal with the rest :)
PS: After I posted this, King Khan held a presser and had this to say:  “I am an Indian and am extremely proud of it. I feel extremely safe in India. My safety is not a concern to me and not for someone else either.”  See how I have gone back to calling him "King" Khan? :D 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Quite a few people said my page of rant does not go well with Bollywood reviews. I agreed, and decided to make another blog for the song and dance chats. Here you go, have fun!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shifting parameters: the standards of “acceptable”

I am very fond of social networks.  I have already said why in an earlier blog, but apart from how it helps my work, there’s another, more voyeuristic reason why I like them. I find it interesting and entertaining to see what other people are reading, thinking, saying and count as important, and compare their preferences with mine. Not that it matters much, but it can be very educational.

For example, a teenager from the town I grew up in recently posted an open invitation to her friends, asking “who all want to bunk class tomorrow”? Many responses and comments followed.
I know times are changing and I also know some tuition classes can be mind-numbingly boring and that because sending kids to classes for extra help is like a contagious disease where I come from, students are often forced to attend. Parents, peer pressure, and a bunch of the usual issues.
 I too was at a place once where I had taken to giving a particular teacher’s classes the miss pretty regularly, because spending an hour in the same room as this man who thought everything else in a student’s life that wasn’t Chemistry was automatically useless annoyed me. And because he was extremely boring and I never had much patience for Carbon and its many avatars anyway.  I learnt more Physics and Chemistry from my Biology teacher, I swear. Mostly because she had a magical way of making equations and refraction interesting even to me. And I now suspect,  also because she would offer me samosas, my favorite Indian snack, when I would have to attend her classes directly from my dance practice and also allow me 5 minute breaks when I complained about having to solve too many Physics problems in a day.
 Eventually, thankfully, I saw good sense and officially stopped wasting time and money at the Chemistry teacher’s class. And I passed both Chemistry and Physics, thank god.  My best friend from school can take some credit for that.
Apart from my English tutor, who and whose classes were by far the best thing that happened to me while growing up (and here we are moving very far from the realms of just learning about Shakespeare), I think my Biology teacher’s was the only other class that actually made me want to attend.
Diversions aside, I have no complaints or judgment against this young girl at all.
But the fact that she can plan bunking classes so openly on a network that her elder brother also uses actively did make me wonder: would I have done the same if these networks had been invented while I was in high school? No one knows for sure, but I think not.

I also wonder, did her brother, who is a grown, married adult, notice this? If he did, why is the post still up?  

In my late twenties, I’ve been called “quaint” and more recently, "a vestige of a long-ago time" by friends, who insist they mean them as compliments. Frankly, because I know these people are fond of me in varying degrees, I quite like it. Plus, late twenties is old. Anyhow, despite my very strong resolutions about accepting things as they come, sometimes I am amazed by what we have come to accept as acceptable and how we react to the constant lowering of expectations.
The other day, I sent my girlfriends an article in the NYT that talked about how dating as a ritual was vanishing from the world because of online dating sites. You can look it up; it isn’t ahead of the curve in terms of trend-spotting, but like all things NYT, is written very well and makes some very valid points.
The point here being that because there are online dating sites,  young and single men (and women) know they have many options and hence they put in less effort when they’re asking people out. I’m not an active member of the dating club but my friends are, and I thought it would be interesting to know what they think. 
My pet peeve in here was/is that very few men actually know how to decently ask a girl out (ok, I’m not an active member, but I do have a social life. What, you thought I sit in front of my computer and rant all day?). Random, haphazard invites of “let me know if you are free sometime this week” do not make the cut, and I’ll never be free for you, even if I am. It’s not just about a boy asking a girl, I would think it is basic decency. Even when I ask my girlfriends out, the least I would do is pick a time/day. “Are you free Wednesday” is so much more compelling than “let me know if you are free at some vague time during the course of the week or month, for I don’t really care.”

What my very active-in-the-dating-club friend had to tell me, however, made me feel like a Victorian prude. Here’s what I learnt: texting last minute and open ended invitations that mean mostly nothing is de rigueur and perfectly acceptable.  I also had a sneaking suspicion the people I talked to have no idea they could ask for more. I’m going to make a broad generalization here and say I think my single and dating friends in India have it better than those here: there is still some flowers and dinner prevalent there. But we also rape, kill and harass our women a lot and brand people sluts if they sleep with more than one person, so it’s a tough call.
 But to each her own, and as a non-active member of the community, I don’t really have much say. I don’t have much say anywhere anyway, which is why I blog.

By the way, if you’re still with me through all the rambling, here’s a heartfelt thank you. 

I was in a bus some time ago, travelling from my parents’ house to Calcutta. Now due to some unfathomable reason, buses (at least in India) insist on screening movies that a) have a lot of raunchy humour that does not make me laugh at all (Victorian prude, I accept it) b) have what I think are sleazy songs with starlets shaking their booty in front of the camera . I love dancing and am a trained Indian classical dancer. I appreciate that Helen’s movements to “Yeh Mera Dil” and Katrina’s movements to “Mashallah” are very difficult feats to achieve. But there is a difference between dancing and randomly shaking your booty in front of the camera, please accept it.
There was this other family- mom, dad and kid – who were travelling with me. The bus screened “Rowdy Rathore”, which fits the play-on-the-bus bill perfectly and has a song that goes “Pallu ke neechey daba ke rakhkha hain utha doon to hungama ho.”  (I have a problem with this movie. If you’ve watched it, you’ll know why.)
While I could feel my ears turn red as I shifted a little uncomfortably as the song played on, kiddo stood up on his seat and started singing and dancing to the song with total abandon.  Mom seemed embarrassed; dad was not, or was making a good show of not being embarrassed and none of them were able to hush up the little boy. He knew the lyrics by heart, so it clearly wasn't the first time he was listening to it.

Other co passengers laughed, some even encouragingly. How did it become acceptable for a 10 (my random guess, he looked about 9-10) year old to sing these songs? But then fully grown men apparently blast “Aaja Teri Ch##t Maru” from their car stereos in Delhi, so who can blame a 10 year old? Women allegedly have come to accept it, they pretend they don’t hear. Because know what? If you react, you could get killed. Or if you are Sushma Swaraj, you’d say worse, raped.

It is also acceptable for the upwardly mobile and rich women and men to mistreat their partners openly at parties, even hit each other. For the gentleman to beat his wife because he’s “had a difficult day at work and just snapped”, for intelligent and smart young women living in the emancipated first world to accept that men can “rate” them at a club or call them “fat” and other names when they feel like it. For people to “go along” with relationships they know are dead just because they don’t want to tackle the entire world and their questions.

All acceptable. Even murder or shooting people randomly is. But if you’re in India, kiss in public, and watch the fun. If you’re in the US, you’re probably still wading through various versions of “let’s meet up…at some point”. More on that later.

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

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