Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Evil of Abstinence

The most common Thai depiction of the Buddha, in statues and art that I came across on tourist-trails, is called 'Subduing Mara'. The Buddha is shown with his left hand in his lap, palm facing upwards and his right hand on his knee. The fingers of his right hand touch the ground, to summon Earth as his witness as he defies Mara and achieves enlightenment.

Parties, strip-clubs and ping-pong shows of Thailand lie casually in front of these portrayals, as acts of iconoclastic humour. Thailand's famous locales are stocked paradoxically with symbols of self-denial and methods to satiate a variety of human desires.

'Mara', the demon of desire - etymologically deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root 'mer' (meaning: to die) - is simultaneously being defied and embraced. The question, however, is whether these - renouncement and indulgence - are philosophies belonging to different ages, or eternal contradictory truths. In order to understand the changing rationale, in the former case, it is helpful to sift through human perception of both hedonism and austerity over the centuries. Have they always coexisted? Did one prevail at the cost of the other? Has there been an irreversible change in perception? Could this be a cyclic process?

South East Asia
The Buddha's depiction in art is a useful place to begin understanding the changing perceptions of indulgence and sensuality in Thai-history. During the Dvaravati period, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, the Buddha is seen in the Tribhanga posture. This leaning position, considered one of the most sensual of classical-dance postures. Probably deriving from Krishna-portrayals in Gupta and Amravati artwork, these forms which are oppositely curved at the waist and neck are indicative of the cultural mindset.

Interestingly, the Tribhanga form is almost entirely supplanted by the seated Buddha (including the Subduing Mara posture) in the succeeding centuries. Even the Buddha's expression becomes more serene over time, elevating him further in the eyes of his followers - perhaps removing even the last vestiges of temptation.

Today, Thai society is oversimplified as the result of Western lenses. Although it is accepting in several ways (including its famous acceptance of trans "ladyboys"), several traditional schools of thought still underline the importance of discipline and renouncement.

Cārvāka (Sanskrit: चार्वाक) is the ancient school of Indian materialism. Ajita Kesakambali, a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira, laid the foundations of this disruptive philosophy which denies the existence of an eternal soul. He spoke of here and now: no God, no samsara, no karma, no fruits of merit, no sin.

While the philosophy is of unknown provenance, it can be traced back to the Vedic period with considerable development in post-Vedic discussions. Most major documented theses and rebuttals date back to the sixth century, when it emerged as an alternative to Astika schools.

Even though the school lasted at least a millennium, it must be noted that most modern understanding of the philosophy is through criticisms present in mainstream works, and not from the Cārvāka fountainheads themselves.

Cārvāka remained an alternative philosophy throughout its brilliant, limited life. It is perhaps because this brand of Indian hedonism didn't enjoy patronage from kings and leaders that it endured on the fringes of civilization. Perhaps it is difficult to govern people who succumb to individualistic urges, who don't believe in a greater and conmon good. Is it easier to control humans who believe in karma, in a merit system and in an after life?

The philosophy faded out eventually, especially after the introduction of Islam by invaders, during the burgeoning Mughal empire. Another open and famous depiction of sex, music, arts and other earthly pleasures - the temples of Khajuraho - also faced destruction by Islamic invaders, including Mahmud of Ghazni.

It is only today, after globalization and the internet, that Cārvāka's lost threads of thought have resurfaced, leaving several self-important right-wing elements red-faced and other self-styled nationalists shouting "Indians discovered hedonism".

Arabia and the Levant
Pursuits of pleasure, historically, has been rife with inequality, even slavery. The subversion of this philosophy therefore lies in the presupposition that achievement of pleasure necessitates one-upmanship. In other words, the affluent achieve their soaring highs only by crushing a fellow human being, and not otherwise.

Moses's great exodus came ended Ramses's policies of excesses. The Old Testament extols the virtues of moderation and equality, and demonizes the Pharaoh of Egypt. Even today, in Egypt, 'Phiraoun' is a symbol of evil and injustice.

It may be argued that the people of the book wrote their version of history vilifying their oppressors, but the story of hedonism does not end there. Upon reaching Mount Sinai, the story unfolds as an iconic scene about Moses - who has just received the Ten Commandments - and the golden calf, wherein he destroys the vulgar symbol and castigates (and, in some versions, kills) his followers, including Aaron.

Similarly, Prophet Muhammad's rebellion against the Quraysh laid out the fundamental tenets of Islam. The iconoclastic philosophy embraces equality, urges redistribution of wealth, and denotes alcohol, drugs and several aspects of sexuality as haram.
O you who believe! Intoxicants, gambling, al-ansāb, and al-azlām (arrows for seeking luck or decision) are an abomination of Shayṭān's (Satan's) handiwork. So avoid that in order that you may be successful.
—Qurʼan, Surah 5 (al-Maʼidah), ayah 90
Is it because human nature is deeply opposed to unnatural concepts such as self-denial, societal welfare and equality that the Quran was made an immutable document? Maybe the only way to rein-in human extravagance is through an unchangeable fiat and subsequent force.

The Persian story is old, continuous and convoluted. The perception of indulgence however is most remarkable in its recent stories, where oil was discovered in this land of layered identity.

It must be remembered that Iran was once a land of great Sassanian prosperity, wherein arts, crafts and literature flourished. Royal pass-times such as polo were a regular feature, and some of the best music of the time was composed at that time. Persian cultural influence extended as far as Rome, Western Europe, India, China and Africa, when Umar ripped through the country (640's A.D.) with his Muslim invaders. While the empire fell, Sassanian unique and aristocratic culture transformed the conquest and destruction of Iran into a Persian Renaissance.

A decadent and ineffective rule of excess was replaced by an efficient but intolerant ruler. Subsequently, a middle ground was reached where Islam became the dominant belief without compromising on some of Persia's essential cultural practices. The pendulum swung one way but its amplitude was dampened.

In more recent times, during the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi - a Western puppet, Iran saw the rise of western amenities and influence - suits and skirts, telephones, alcohol, and chairs in mosques (so that the devout didn't have to kneel on the carpeted floor). Tensions mounted among the people, until he was replaced by his son - another puppet - during World War II.

The new king, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, mainly a person of convenience to Britain and the USA to satiate their Oil-dominance of the world, continued with policies of Western liberation. Finally, in 1979, this culminated in massive support for the Islamic Revolution. Iran's rapidly modernizing, capitalistic economy was replaced by populist and Islamic economic and cultural policies. In a strange exercise of freedom, the masses chose restraint over excesses.

(The repercussions of the revolution and the change of public sentiment during the Khomeini-period make for another discussion.)

Thanks to the Hollywood archetypes of ancient Greece and Rome, we know them today to be lands of great imagination, philosophy, brimming glasses of wine, orgies and Utopian triumphs of human will. "300" shows a patriotic and free Hellenic world threatened by a demonic and oppressive Eastern race. Allowing for artistic exaggeration, and Hollywood's tendency to cater to Western sentiment, it can still be seen that these places - with their philandering, whimsical and drunk Gods - allowed for excesses and even glorified them.

The Viking age, 700-1100 A.D., was a time of a struggle to be the fittest. War, women and wine were common thirsts uniting the various peoples of the continent. Here in Europe, hedonism was synonymous with brutality - and it couldn't exist otherwise.

It is not surprising that the Holy Roman Emperor and the Church became necessities to control these civilizations. The Church moved rapidly westward, riding its strengths of homogeneity, political backing and monasticism. Monasticism is not mandated as an institution in scriptures; it gradually developed into and became guided by the counsels of perfection: chastity, poverty and obedience.

Victorian era stoicism (rooted in the counsels of perfection?)
Abrahamic monotheism united a remarkably fragmented societies, through the sword as well as the mind, and made Abstinence a virtuous commodity. The faith descended into the crusades in the high and late middle ages, during which time inquisitions also took place. The tool which aimed to provide structure killed and burnt dissidents to further its goal.

Against the backdrop of these times and an ensuing darkness (1200-1400 A.D.) began the Renaissance or rebirth. The great explorers - starting with Columbus, painters - later re-branded as the Ninja Turtles, and post-enlightenment thinkers - Kant, Francis Bacon, Newton, Voltaire etc. recorded their influences on human progress. Various forms of scepticism emerged, ranging from liberalism and anti-clericalism to Dechristianization.

In the coming centuries, various systems of the Church came to be seen in the mainstream - one after another - as tools of oppression, and often gradually peeled off. Indulgence became a human right - as critical to progress as independent thought, and methods to curtail these became viewed unfavourably. With the rise of capitalism, the pursuit of individual pleasure is a commonly accepted path and destination. Nietzsche became pop-star while Tolstoy is still seen as a man who spoke difficult words of wisdom.

... the childish originality of Nietzsche's half-crazed thought, presenting nothing complete and coherent, was accepted by leading figures as the final word in philosophical science. In reply to the question: what must we do? the answer is now put straightforwardly as: live as you like, without paying attention to the lives of others
—Leo Tolstoy, "A Confession and Other Religious Writings"

The pendulum has swung periodically in the past, and across different parts of the world. Now, in this globalized age, there must be some common time-period for its oscillation. But has it been dampened over the ages? Is the swing now shorter? Is it quicker? Can the scientific method dampen this oscillation until a final steady-state can almost be reached? With time, we will learn more, and perhaps even find answers.

But until then: what must we do?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Girl in the Delhi Metro

“Ting. Sikanderpur station.”

The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. Two elbows propelled me forward; my messenger bag left my side and I was flung headlong into the train compartment. People were caught at the door, still trying to leave, sandwiching me between immovable objects and an irresistible force.

I managed to pull my bag closer. A large bearded man turned sideways to give me space to plant both my feet. I watched a frail boy being squeezed against the backside of his father. There was still much jostling and swearing; like everywhere else in India, space was in acute scarcity.

“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” the doors began to close. Another man leapt through the gap and, with his momentum, fashioned a corner for himself just as the door shut behind him. Like a tin of atta, there was always space to accommodate more with enough impact. The rubbers pressed against each other and the train gently jumped into motion.

The man in a striped shirt, wearing Beats headphones, stumbled backwards and stepped on my foot. I pushed back on him. He turned and grunted, as if demanding an explanation. I looked away and tried to breathe.

The air smelled of wet armpits and stale cigarette smoke. An oddly shaped canvas bag which poked me in the midriff was the only thing that bothered me more. The train decelerated, throwing the collective mass of humanity in the direction of its motion. “Oh be’ncho” – a sardar drowned my own oath.

I realized, in that moment, the stark absence of femininity in the compartment. Sweating, swearing, testosterone-driven stereotypes. Women permeated the world only through Facebook and Whatsapp. I wasn’t sure if the wetness on my skin was my sweat or another’s. The train stopped.

“Ting. Guru Dronacharya station.”

The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. There was a massive readjustment. I hoped people would rush out of the compartment. Ten people entered instead. I held the pole tightly. “Idiots,” said the grey-haired uncle next to me, “live like cockroaches.”

I looked towards the door. In front of the exit stood a young woman, with her streaked curls tumbling onto her forehead. Her black dress, which ended only a little over her knees, hugged her fragile body. Standing on bright red heels, she stared into the compartment. The compartment stared at her.

Stories of Delhi – no, of Gurgaon! – rushed through my head. I wondered why she would want to enter this world, instead of the first compartment marked pink with white flowers. Her right hand clasped the strap of her Hidesign bag. She held it tightly against her body, and stepped forth into our hell. The compartment breathed the outside air, and waited for her eagerly.

I thought I saw the old man next to me nod in apprehension. The two men nearest me barged into me, compressing me in the process; I dropped my shoulders, brought my feet together and became insignificant. Every man around me reacted the same way and transferred, to some extent, the lack of space to his immediate neighbours. I waited for someone to burst out in anger and frustration.

And then, I witnessed the most extraordinary scene. The lady walked in and turned her back towards the compartment. Two young fellows and a pudgy, middle-aged man formed a semi-circle around the lady, around half a foot in radius. Men backed away, giving her a whole foot of freedom in front of the sliding door. Every other man in the vicinity gave up a few inches to accommodate the lady – to ensure they stayed at a decent distance from her.

In a country known for rapes and crimes against women (in the rape-capital of that country), I could see how statistics could lie. This was a most brilliant and inconvenient depiction of the same culture which is being blamed for violence against women.

“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” and the doors closed.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Value of Human Death

I attended a safety meeting last week, to discuss operational hassles and reduction of health and safety risks. My presentation had two slides, mostly about minor spills and awareness about personal protective equipment (PPE). As I was the last presenter, I waited for my turn in the corner of the room, quietly sipping my Tetley dip-chai. The slides moved on.

I was being lulled to sleep by the quiet monotonous affair, when the slide switched again. The title of the slide: FATALITY

In black and white, with a few pictures and aerial maps, the grim incident unfolded before my eyes. There was a tractor, probably faulty, almost certainly devoid of critical maintenance, which had rolled over and fallen off the side of the road. As it was past sunset on a relatively unused road, response wasn't immediate. The driver of the vehicle, a poor man wearing a colourful turban, might have removed his seat-belt at the time of incident.

"The Injured Person or I.P. did not comply with policies," said the presenter. Without blinking, he explained the occurrence with an unwavering voice. "Since the previous accident, we have enforced strict driving rules. But compliance..."

The fact that a man had died grew upon me. A driver who I might have even seen on the road had suddenly ceased to exist. In front of me, people spoke of his death with academic interest. In the next slide, he appeared as a blip on a frequency chart and as a red block on a pyramid. The men accepted that their numbers didn't look pretty.

"He died," I said slowly to the man who sat next to me.
He looked at me and said, "Yes, they were better off last month."
"What do you mean?"
He pointed at the graph. No one had died in February. The other months had 1s, 2s and occasional 3s.

"Those are deaths?"
"Only the red ones."
"What about black? What's worse than red?" I asked, reading the colour-code.
"Oh, that's when many people die. Haven't had one in a long time."

The slides about the fatality had passed. They began to discuss an oil-spill. The man would remain as a point on a graph. And his family would get a six-figure sum as compensation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

A farmer jumped off a tree at an AAP rally. Maybe he wasn't really a farmer, maybe he was a land-owner. He was, perhaps, rich. Maybe he wanted to contest elections as an AAP candidate. It could all have been staged.

But as the story goes, a man died in public view. No one could do much about it. And while there was temporary disruption in activity, nothing really changed. The show went on. The media arrived on the scene, and they have minted money off a corpse ever since.

If this had happened away from public view (and an AAP rally), Gajendra Singh would not be missed. There are have been nearly 3,00,000 farmer suicides in the country since 1995. Each one of these deaths could potentially bring a family to a stand-still. In a country of a billion, perhaps they don't matter?

On an average, 30-40 people have killed themselves per day. Some of these get reported, in the inside-pages of national dailies. Most of them don't get mentioned; they are unrecognized in life and in death.

                             * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Did you know that 15-20 people are killed daily by Mumbai locals alone? 20 more people are maimed, crushed or left bruised and bleeding.

For every 1,00,000 vehicles on the road, nearly 210 people are killed on an annual basis. One person is killed for every 475 vehicles in this country. 2.5 lakh people are killed annually on Indian roads. Again, it is perhaps a small number and insignificant on an Excel sheet.

Nothing can be said about the accuracy of these figures, and statistics in developing nations are hardly reliable. In 2013, a medical research panel discovered that India was heavily under-reporting its Malaria fatalities. They found that the average number of deaths were in excess of 40,000 against a reported value of around 1,000.

We also report that around 6 children die out of every lakh simply because they don't get enough food. They die because there aren't enough grains of rice which enter their mouths, probably because they rot in remote godowns.

Each number represents the termination of as many human beings: humans who ought to be protected, nourished and allowed to grow in life, humans who should be mourned in death.

I still remember the boards on highways in the USA which sent shivers down my spine: "$100,000 FINE" (for hitting a pedestrian). Clearly, the value of life is vastly different in different parts of the globe. The Indian citizen isn't worth much. A poor Indian is worth nothing.

What are you worth?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Tambrahm's tryst with Atheism

It all started a few months ago, when God died.
Picture credits: Arun Raghavendar


I was brought up in a typical Tamil Brahmin household. I woke up to the melody of Venkateshwara Suprabhatham and to the smell of Cycle brand agarbathies, and sometimes to the sound of bells interrupted only by the rustling of the pages of The Hindu. On auspicious days, the bell in the nearby temple would be rung some two thousand times. I was taught to wake up and look into my palms, and say an ancient prayer invoking Lakshmi, Saraswati and Govinda.

My upanayanam - the initiation ceremony - happened when I was thirteen. Ever since that day, even though the frequency of Sandhyavandhanam rapidly fell from thrice a day to zero, I have worn my poonal every minute of the day, every day of the year. I found peace in temples and other such places of belief. I didn't believe in God in a particular form, but I believed in the eternal being. Long after I left the house of my parents, I continued to pray, light the lamp and apply prayer ash on my forehead.

I have tried to remain unselfish in my prayers - asking for love, mercy, wisdom and peace for the entire world. When I entered temples, I would extinguish every incantation in my armory before proceeding to ask Him for rewards. I was almost always ashamed of asking; it trivialized the act of praying. But I always asked, and often traded things I had for things I wanted. It used to work.

One fine day, everything changed. In my mind, God died.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


In a moment of madness and revelation, it all fell apart. The firmament was ripped open, drenching my world in blood. God, from an unquestionable truth, became an abstract entity. I could no longer be sure of anything; the ground beneath my feet yielded. I fell.

The myths were no longer accounts of God's greatness. I could no longer imagine them as exaggerated versions of truth. They were as false as my poems. Time had put them on a pedestal! A false height, from where they were told to us repeatedly, until we no longer listened to them for their beauty or their nuances. They were absolute.

But now, the layers began to peel off. The Ramayana - probably our most fragile tale - was unsurprisingly the first to break. Slowly though, in quick succession, every story bit the dust. Nothing was sacred. Not only did the stories stop relating to God, their final morals disappeared. Truth was wrecked. And fact didn't exist. I was thrust into an eternal nothingness.

Without a guiding force, I began to question every action and every result. It is easier to believe in a God who doesn't play dice than in the conceited theory that our world is an orderly speck of dust in a chaotic, meaningless universe. Day after day, I asked stupider, and therefore wiser, questions, none of which had answers.

My world imploded when everything associated with myth and belief also yielded - classical music, painting and sculptures, traditional clothes and languages. We have stored eons of history in our cultural and religious fabric. And now, it was impossible to dismiss only one of these attributes - you cannot extract God from songs and literature. Along with God, my world was dying.

In the absence of heavenly rules, life was easier and harder. There were new freedoms. And unkind responsibilities. In the past, I have always prayed in misery and in gloom. When God doesn't exist, can you still pray? I did not discard the threads on my body, but I renounced God, and severed the umbilicus. In the absence of rules, you must make them. Alone and empowered, I ventured into this challenging world where no one was accountable, where there was no fate, where there was no control. Everything was hanging by a withering thread which wouldn't entirely break.

I was alone and free.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


A few days ago, I went to the temple again. I found myself at its doorstep quite unintentionally, and if I had retained my earlier beliefs, I'd have termed it Destiny. Even in the brighter confines of this modern temple, there was peace. A beautiful silence enveloped me. I paused to think. And then, thinking paused.

The very same confines which stir some men to murder and violence blessed me. I wanted to believe that God wasn't dead. I wanted to talk to Him and to myself. I didn't have anything to ask, but I wanted to offer my belief.

I am convinced that humans need to believe in order to live, if not in God then in something or someone else. But true belief doesn't require you to hold on, because a satisfying peace is never insecure.

I could sit on a rock in the middle of the sea, or perch myself upon on a jagged rock jutting into the infinite sky, or gaze into a crackling crimson flame or watch the night sky with its billion stars. These, for me, are moments of God.

That day, the temple - because of its peace or its cool grey stone, or simply because of its familiarity - brought me closer to this exalted state. For the first time, in the stone, I could see His presence and His absence. In such a moment, I realized that my beliefs would disagree with everyone who has contemplated on the subject. But I knew that my beliefs would not exist if others stopped contemplating.

Just as belief in God is a compartmentalized thought, disbelief is also. Only the simultaneous existence of both possibilities encompasses the whole. Tolerance stems from the whole.

There is now contentment and ambition, peace and passion, earth and heaven.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

Charb is dead. Twelve people are dead, including two police officers. There are at least six other associated deaths. And yesterday, Said and Cherif Kouachi (prime suspects) died.

That is a lot of blood over a bunch of cartoons. Perhaps a moment of silence to mourn the dead? Maybe we need two minutes to pay our respects... Wait, respect? In 1970, de Gaulle died a few days after a catastrophic fire in a nightclub, the Club Cinq-Sept, in which nearly 150 people died. Enter Charlie Hebdo headline, spoofing newspaper coverage of the event: "Tragic ball at Colombey. One dead."

Charlie Hebdo would not want the world to sit back and mourn. So, let us take this apart with academic precision and, if possible, some satire. But first, let us say this aloud: shooting is wrong.

Equal-Opportunity Offenders?

Being a magazine which describes itself as anti-racist and left-wing, Charlie Hebdo claims to be an equal-opportunity offender. In other words, they claim to be fundamentally irreverent. The only thing holy in their scriptures is the act of irreverence. They lived to mock and, unfortunately, perished in their mocking.

But in order effectively implement equal-opportunity mocking in a real-world scenario, it is paramount to understand the prevailing socio-economic pulse. In France, where the minority Muslims still find themselves a marginalized population, Charlie Hebdo failed to recognize the zeitgeist (or they understood it too well, and decided to ride a hate-wave while it lasted).

France's Muslim population is predominantly Algerian, owing to their 150 year long relationship with the north-African country. Due the enormous flux of people - population moved both ways - across the Mediterranean, and due to the return of several "pied noirs" with their families in the 60's, there is a huge Muslim population in Europe.

Like in most other parts of the world except the Arab peninsula, these Muslim communities are poor and often neglected. In addition to this, France's continued meddling in Algerian affairs, through direct and indirect aid to fight the Islamists, pours more oil into a steadily growing flame. With the backdrop of growing volatility and Isalomophobia, France has previously come up with laws to ban the head-scarf "l'affaire du voileand other such methods which only further the unrest. Today, the minority-Muslims fill French prisons, making it virtually the only place where they have a sizeable majority.

Charlie Hebdo is not wise in expecting this affected population to have the same sense of humour such as, say, Nicolas Sarkozy. And while the latter has a powerful voice which we can hear, downtrodden masses often shout to deaf ears. An early message came as a legal suit (which failed) in 2006 after the  Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. There was another warning in the form of a petrol bomb in 2011. In 2015, they died.

They died in the same way the terrorists died, defending a rather indefensible idea - that of provoking for the sake of provoking. Ironically, both the artists and the terrorists have, in very different ways, martyred themselves. Today, I condemn the killings and mourn the humans who died. But have we lost artists who were of any value to society?

Die and Let Die

Charlie Hebdo had a regular circulation of about 100,000. It showed a sudden increase in circulation by up to 200% during the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. At the time, Jack Chirac condemned the publication for stoking communal disharmony. The Islamic world condemned the magazine, in good spirit, via litigation and through unveiled threats. Nicolas Sarkozy however voiced his support for free speech.

Invasion of faith is often invasion of a person's personal space. While being vociferous in propagating one's religion can be decried, so too must ridicule and derision of that faith. Perhaps, a day will come when religion is utterly unimportant, when we can happily laugh about petrol-bombs and crusades. But that day is not today.

Charlie Hebdo realized that polarization was critical to the magazine's success, and they capitalized on it. After the fire-bombing, Charb said that the attack was carried out by "stupid people who don't know what Islam is" and that they were "idiots who betray their own religion." Big words for someone who claims to hold nothing and no one sacred.

On Self-Censorship

In a historic move, the American Civil Liberties Union took a stand on "free speech". They allowed Nazis to parade through a holocaust-survivor neighbourhood. While this did not actually happen, this is what we could come to expect of free speech: the right to hear a dissenting voice without necessarily approving of it.

However, there are several cases where this is not yet applicable. For example, a Bangalore based techie was arrested in December for running ISIS's Twitter account. Later, police said that he had links the terrorists and could provide valuable information, but the premise for his arrest was the fact that he ran a terrorist-organization's social media operations. Is this not a variation of the same free-speech? Or must we device a clean way to distinguish between association with historical crimes and with crimes which are currently underway?

In the current scenario, freedom of speech is usually a moderated freedom granted with the expectation that self-censorship and "common sense" will prevail. Take, for example, Raj Shetye's recent photo-shoot which made so many of us go up in arms! This is "gang rape artwork" as opposed to "ridiculing religion artwork". Just because the people who were affected in this case did not fall under an organized group, the opposition was not decried. In fact, the very media which today sides with #jesuischarlie ensured that Shetye's website was shut-down.

Burning the Flag

We limit ourselves to religion, and therefore define 'freedom of expression' rather poorly. Why are the same people who are with #jesuischarlie against the idea of burning the national flag? If I burn a flag or the constitution, I am only expressing myself.

Why was the media in a frenzy when this happened?

Infamous Ganesh swimsuit

While the idea of free-speech is important, it usually makes sense to take account of people's sensitivities. Throwing a banana at an African player on the football field still counts as racism. Why can we not sit back and laugh at that?

Equal opportunity bigotry (i.e. hate everything, mock everything) seems a good way to dodge racism charges. But we will most certainly, as I read in Arthur Chu's article on the Daily Beast, end up with chan culture.

In India, we are still debating if PK was targeting religion or not. Perhaps there were moments in the film which can be construed as religion-based humour, but we are perhaps at a stage when these transgressions can be ignored. However, when a magazine makes it a point to poke an oppressed section of society in the eye time after time, with no other purpose than to make some people laugh and others scream, sometimes people throw bombs. Is this right? - Probably not. Will this happen? - yes.

Did Charlie Hebdo achieve its goal, and glory - which their cartoons are not worthy of - through death?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rape: Patriarchy and Freedom

Girl was drunk. She booked herself a cab. She got into the cab and fell asleep. Some minutes after that, she was raped.

Who was to blame? Is Uber culpable? When there are rapes on buses, why aren't the bus-services banned? Are the laws strong enough? Was the girl right in getting drunk and falling asleep in the car? Am I even allowed to have that thought and remain a decent human being? Why did the cabbie rape her?

Let us suspend judgement, take a step back and think.

Background Story

There are coaches reserved for women in metro services and local trains. In the Delhi Metro, there are seats reserved for women, which are sometimes left empty even in jam-packed compartments. Sometimes, I hear women joke about how their "fragility" is being exaggerated. On the other hand, there are rapes in cars and buses.

Women around the country are still being oppressed: girls have curfews, they are being beaten, some are forced into marriage, out of education, into submission... On the other hand, women are being liberated at the highest level: companies have diversity targets, there are reservations for women, the gender ratio in many forward societies is skewed in their 'favour'.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times?


A friend once asked me - "Must I hold the door open for her?"
Difficult problem. So I said, "Why don't you hold the door open for everybody?"
He did not relent - "Must I run around and open the door when she is getting into my car?"

When I meet a woman alone, on a date, do I take the cheque or do we split? Should I be upset if she doesn't offer to pay? Should I insist on paying if she wants to split the bill?

Given the number of rapes in the country, should women be asked to be more careful? At the cost of their freedom, I mean. Are men in society truly free? Will the bravest man not shiver while walking alone through a dark narrow alleyway?

Am I right in feeling disgusted when a young woman, bursting with energy, demands for her 'reserved seat' which an elderly man, drenched in sweat, now occupies?

Sometimes, when I see similar traits in men and women - like profligacy, recklessness and capriciousness - I often find myself guilty of terming the woman as free and courageous, and the man as immoral and shallow.

There is this girl with cascading, streaked hair. If she sneezes, there will be a dozen men rushing towards her with outstretched handkerchiefs. So, are there not women who can use this scenario purely to their advantage? Is it not a simple matter of leverage?

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times?

P versus F

The 'P' word: Partriarchy
It is not a bad thing; it is what used to protect people from rape and murder.

The 'F' word: Freedom
It is not a bad thing; it is what will protect you from rape and murder.

But what today? - We are trapped between the P and the F.

Like all great dichotomies, these coexist precariously and they supplement each other. In almost every situation, we choose one value over its supplement; this case is no different. We are open in thrashing the 'outdated system of patriarchy', which is seen increasingly as a system developed just to oppress women. We cry out for freedom, without understanding the responsibility which necessarily accompanies it.

And we ask for equality in a game where the playground is tilted.

What Can I Do?

(1) First and foremost: understand. We are not in an equilibrium. We live in a constantly evolving society, which has forgotten yesterday's values and is in the process of forgetting today's as well. Tomorrow has not yet arrived.

The last vestiges of patriarchy need to be appreciated in the sense in which they are intended. Obviously, when push comes to shove, people will resist. I am not advocating different degrees of freedom for the sexes. I am preaching logical restraint. If you know there is a thief hidden in the shadows, don't wear flashy jewellery. Yes, the thief may be brought to justice for a crime he may commit, but what is the point if it comes at the expense of your life?

Hold on to the 'P' until the era of the 'F' is here to stay.

(2) Chivalry isn't all that dead. If she is drunk and the hour is late, please drop her home. Split the bill if you want to, or make her pay. Dropping her home is not just a nice thing to do, it is necessary.

(3) Don't try to be the other sex. There are differences between men and women which need to be accepted - perhaps even glorified - and not compromised upon. We are perhaps not advanced enough to entirely embrace a man with a woman's mind or vice-versa.

(4) Push for stronger implementation: While I have previously championed the causes of restraint, awareness and protection, I am not advocating perpetuating status-quo. The era of Freedom and Social Security will come, and it is our duty to usher it in. Several laws which exist, hang on so poorly that they might as well be absent.

We need to voice our displeasure. Is Uber to be blamed for the recent crime? I don't know, but our Law and Order System has been an abysmal failure.

(5) Awareness: Yes, several men need to be taught to respect women. Objectification is here to stay (we will soon equally objectify both men and women), but it can be done respectfully, I am told. We need to gradually inch towards that F-era. Society doesn't respond well to shock-loading.

There are going to be several more rapes before things finally fall into place. Each rape brings us closer to the justice that we long for. This is unpleasant, like most other things which are real.

Frankly, I only wish for a world with safe cars, an even sex-ratio and trains without reserved-seats. And I hope I live to see the day.

Friday, November 28, 2014

At a Wedding

1: The food here is so great. Is this all you people do at weddings - eat? Our guests have more elaborate duties.
2: Having never given it a thought, I cannot answer that question. But what else can you do at a wedding? Try the gaajar halwa.

1: Mm, I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks. But how can you not know about weddings?
2: Haven't been to any. The gulaab jamuns are nice too, if you have it with vanilla icecream. It is like winter outside, winter inside.

1: Desserts are all in queue. They will all get their turn to mingle with the juices in my stomach.
2: Yes, yes. You must try them all. This is why weddings are great!

1: You're seriously telling me that there is nothing else here? Where is the fire, the saat phere and all that?
2: I've seen those only in movies.

1: It does make sense for you to know. You will be put on the spot soon enough.
2: Oh no. But my younger brother will get married. I suppose I'll see then.

1: Eh, your younger brother before you? That's progressive.
2: Actually I'm not getting married.

1: And your parents don't hyperventilate? Have they not yet disowned you for opting out of the gene-propagation scam?
2: I told them that I don't want to do it. My brother has a steady girlfriend.

1: But don't you think you'll feel alone? There are times when you want to trust someone more than the rest of the world.
2: Think of what you lose by trying to gain that trust. Freedom. If I want to quit my job now, I will resign tomorrow. Once I'm married, I'm bound.

1: Have you quit spontaneously before?
2: No. But I want the option.

1: You will sacrifice the promise of eternity for this low freedom?
2: I think it is a fair trade. Yes.

1: I know that eternity is a sham, as is a promise. But they are comforting words; they have nourished generations.
2: But if the present is comfortable, why get out of it?

1: We substitute one deep connection with myriad fleeting ones. It's a temporary solution for a permanent problem, like cello-tape to fix your glasses.
2: Some people keep the temporary solutions going. If you try hard enough, temporary solutions become permanent. But I don't require these connections.

1: Deep or shallow?
2: Deep or shallow.

1: You can stay away from humanity and still be in peace?
2: I must stay away from humanity to be in peace. Why do you think I lock my door?

1: You have lucky wiring. But you are giving up on the one thing which will allow us to cheat ourselves.
2: Ah, you mean - a reason to continue existing?

1: Raison d'être, yes.
2: But there is no reason.

1: Are you comfortable with that truth?
2: Truths needn't be comfortable.

1: So you can exist without the grand charade?
2: Hard days may come.

1: When you are forty, without a wife or children, when you decide to quit your job, what will urge you to continue living?
2: I am convinced that I will reach the same state after marriage too.

1: But you have others to live for. That is the only thing that we will believe, in all our conceit.
2: Must a question of the future be answered by altering the present?

1: So you will consider it then?
2: Maybe. You want to try the rasmalai?