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'ĂȘtre, 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?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kiss of Love. Or Sex on the Beach.

I was invited to the Kiss of Love protest in the JNU campus the other day. I was considering the point of attending such an event of protest; protests have become a weekend-feature in Delhi. They are happening places, much like night-clubs, and they help society almost as much as these establishments.

Acts of revolt often serve only as means to belittle their own purpose. What should be a fundamental right, in my opinion, is being reduced to an unpleasant page-three article.

A few days ago, I was at a concert in HRC, appropriately inebriated and captivated by the drums. The Universe flowed around me. As the lights changed and danced in front of my eyes, the only thing blocking a clear view of the drummer was the silhouette of a couple kissing furiously just in front of stage. At that moment, it seemed the most natural thing - two people lost in each other amidst the vulgarity which surrounded them.

Kissing is Indian

Two days hence, there are people locking lips for the cameras, in an apparent act of protest, and simultaneously issuing statements such as - "It has been shown in the Kama Sutra, and it is there in Khajuraho." All of a sudden, the debate changes from the Right to Freedom of Expression to whether or not kissing was invented by Indians. Some western university adds ghee to the flames by suggesting that kissing is first depicted in Indian scriptures.

But how does that even matter? If it wasn't present in the Vedas, should we consider it wrong? Why define the future based on our opinions of the past? If Vatsyayana was a pioneer in recording acts of love and passion, will it justify an act of pornography? Or on the other hand, if kissing was first practiced in the West, will it make the act shameful?

This entire charade of "turn up and kiss" has done more damage than good, mainly because people aren't sure why they are protesting. Since we're now dabbling with the issue of "natural" freedoms, which we as humans think we ought to enjoy (irrespective of where this freedom was first invented), let me ask you a question.

I asked a friend, who prides his rationale, the same thing: "What would you do if you caught a couple completely naked, having sex on a park bench?"

Boundary Lines

As a response to this question, he rolled his eyes, wrinkled his nose and threw up his shoulders in protest. You think perhaps, as he did too, that I am an RSS/VHP sympathizer, who wants to create a ridiculous scenario and reduce the argument to absurdity. But there is a point to this, I promise.

The responses I have got to this question vary from "That'd be horrible! There are laws against public nudity and public obscenity" to "Just because we allow kissing doesn't mean we want to allow sex in public". But why? Why are we thinking at such conservative margins? Are we not convinced ourselves?

People have told me that public nudity, especially that associated with sexuality, would be a hindrance for them. They say that they wouldn't want their children to be exposed to such scenes until they are "grown-up enough". Legalizing public nudity and acts of sex would cause them mental trauma. And let me tell you that these are same people who are vocal about their support for the "Kiss of Love" movement.

Well, how do they differ from the RSS and the VHP? You stand a foot ahead of those saffron banners and denounce those behind you? Well, perhaps the Indian Right Wing is correct in saying that this is the influence of the West, not because we are trying to emulate them, but because we are limiting ourselves to what they have achieved.

We think kissing is alright because we see it in movies. We see big posters of Ranbir Singh and Deepika Padukone kissing on Mumbai streets. But sex and nudity is not yet acceptable. In fact, the West has a number of bodies fighting the exact same battle: acceptance of nudity and public displays of "higher" affection. In the meanwhile, we are fighting a trivial battle, shooting ourselves copiously in the feet.

They clothed us. Let them disrobe us.

Abbe Dubois's book "Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies", translated from French and edited by Henry Beauchamp stated that "Even the private parts of the children have their own particular decorations. Little girls wear a gold or silver shield or codpiece on which is graven some indecent picture ; while a boy's ornament, also of gold or silver, is an exact copy of that member which it is meant to decorate."
Araimudi, used by girls in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, even until 1950
"Description of the character, manners, and customs of the people of India; and their institutions, religious and civil", also written by Dubois said "The children of either sex are likewise ornamented with various trinkets of the same form, though smaller than those of grown persons. They have also some that are peculiar. As all children in India go perfectly naked till they are six or seven years old, the parents of course, adapt the ornaments to the natural parts of the body. Thus, the girls have a plate of metal suspended so as to conceal, in some measure, their nakedness. The boys, on the other hand, have little bells hung round them, or some similar device of silver or gold, attached to the little belt with which they are girt. Amongst the rest, a particular trinket appears in front, bearing a resemblance to the sexual part of the lad." (Wikipedia)
I spoke about not looking to history to determine our future, but I am merely bringing this as a point to show the possible limitations of modern acceptance. When the British began to "reform" the people they governed, the logic of the age suggested that people should be clothed for decency. By linking clothes to the concepts of hygiene, it became an irrefutable scientific law.

And today, while they have the freedom to stand nude in their beaches, we are incarcerated by our own clothes. Perhaps we aren't evolving enough. But how will we, if we limit ourselves by the achievements of other men?

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Three deadlines. Another five hours. And that's my third cup of coffee. It's only eleven am. Lunch soon. The formulas are in there, I'm copying everything. Templates, bloody templates.

But once I get done with these, the review can come... It's worrying, but it's okay. Everybody does it. I'm better? Okay, maybe I'm not better... but I'm not worse. How can anything go badly. You will go badly!

No, I mustn't worry about that now. Deadlines. Focus on Now. I need music. And coffee. The machine is far away, and I'll have to pass by her table again. I've avoided her for a week now. Plan to keep it that way. I'm not going there. For now, music.

Louder, please. I need to hear the bass. Why does everyone want formatting? Why can't they format their own goddamn faces? Okay, I'll do it... but just this time. Idiots, all of them. Louder, dammit. Earphones are useless, might as well throw them away.

So many Sales going on... I'm sure I'll get better stuff cheap. My Q4 targets will be in-line with expectations? All I can think about is work! I should just go to the hills. Cut out this nonsense. Am I made for this? Who am I kidding, no one is made for this. No one is made for anything.

Oh, those chords. Reminds me of Murakami. Or maybe the cat-man talks about this song. Who knows, who cares. He writes very lyrically. That value looks so wrong. Where did all my Math go? Where have you gone, Math? I used to be good at you.

What the hell am I doing with my life? Actually, it's not so bad... Nice people, fun places. Penchant for the dramatic. Everyone wants to be a dramatic retard. Even when things are simple, make them hard. Especially when things are simple.

Like that woman from last evening. Only idiots break up with people they love and crib about everything. They think they're being noble. And they can't stop complaining! That too, to strangers. First date, dammit. And she throws the whole thing at me. I no longer understand this.

What is there to understand? Everything just is. Nothing has meaning. That looks acceptable; that value. Let me get a graph out of you.

Why is everyone walking around me? Am I the only one working? I need to go outside and catch some fresh air. Or maybe some unhealthy air from the tip of a cigarette. No, probably not. I'll end up going with somebody I don't like. And I need to get done with this anyway.

Oh, what the hell - I'm going. Locked the screen. Walk. Why can't I walk faster? Do I look like my reflection when I walk? My reflection walks stupidly. What am I complaining about? - It's a fine day. Look at that crowd - everybody wants chai. They'll all be poisoned by it.

I'll join them. Hot chai, on a hot day. I'm an idiot. I'm as irrational as all these people. Look at them - smiling without reason. They have no idea what's going to hit them. Ha, I want to be there. I want to watch. Maybe it will hit me too.

But I like that tie. And that girl over there. So many pointless actions. So many pointless people. So much beauty. What a fine day. Such infernal noise: horns, blaring horns! It's nice, coming to think of it. Like a symphony.

This is entertaining. If all this doesn't happen, something else will. And I will be entertained.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: Love Lasts Forever

A week or two ago, a friend surreptitiously slipped a green paperback into my bag while I was busy stirring my coffee. When he caught my eye, he not only confessed to this act, but also made me promise that I’d review the book as soon as I’d get the time. Such promises always have strange modus operandi: you are caught in the middle of one even before you know what the promise entails.

The title of the book shocked me further: “Love Lasts Forever”. This book, written by Vikrant Khanna, a Delhi-based author gallivanting around the globe as a merchant-navy officer, and published by Srishti Publications, lives up to its initial expectations. It is an urban-Indian drama-cum-thriller (hardly surprising, given the Indian-author’s penchant for combining genres), heavily drawing on personal experiences of the author, like most initial works.

Ronit, a young officer in the merchant-navy, is on the steaming ship, Adriatic Wave, discussing his toxic marriage with his captain, when Somali pirates hijack the vessel. The crew members are taken to a solitary stretch of sand and kept prisoners there, and told that they will be freed only when their company pays a $ 10M ransom. The cook is summarily killed and thrown overboard. Given the blood and tension permeating through the story, one would expect the story to take the line of a thriller or at least have some impact on the psyche of these marooned crewmen. This never happens.

Even when the pirates are rough, burning people alive among other gruesome acts, the love-stories of the protagonist and his captain never cease. They talk through pain and bullets, about the lovers who are no longer with them. The captain’s story is the hook, which keeps the reader turning the pages of the novel.

All things considered, the book would make a suitable plot for a Bollywood flick, given its mushy themes and exotic locations. And that certainly cannot be a bad thing.

If you are looking for a quick read – it took me all of two hours to read this novel – you may want to pick this up here.

P.S. This blog will have a regular Book-Reviews section, to which I promise to remain faithful. And you know how promises work!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

She - Who Had Everything - Went All-In

Today, I met a woman who quit a job which gave her responsibility, power, money, personal space and the opportunity to live in a place she loved. There she sat across the coffee-table gambling away everything which carried any weight. In fact, the only things she was choosing to keep were attributes which she cared little about or those which couldn't be placed on the betting table. Perhaps better things were coming her way - but what's better than a regular job with assured stability and monetary inflow, one which allows you to be surrounded by people you love? No, she wasn't gambling away such luxurious certainties in the quest for greater material wealth or spiritual meaning; she was betting with everything she had because of what they were - certainties.

Seldom do we behave so expressively as when we are given great certainties in life. It does not matter if these are perceived by us as advantageous or unfortunate. At the sight of a given, there is an overwhelming urge to flee, and it does not matter where. It is quite ridiculous that we think we prefer the tranquil charms of stability over the ruthlessness of change, for we are brought up to stand-up to the latter, while the former draws us out of our depths.

There was a lad who had everything figured out: he had satisfied the expectations of everyone around him, excelled in a test which only the brave attempted and was all set to move away to a city far away from where he lived with a girl whose company he most dearly enjoyed. He didn't know when he would return - two years? Three perhaps? Maybe four. Only one thing was for certain - he was going away for a long, long time to live a life he thought he would enjoy. Unable to accept the finality of this step, he found a girl he was quite indifferent about and told her that he loved her.

This should not seem strange to us, for the mind is initially programmed to reject permanence, just like it feebly combats change. "Change is the only constant" is uttered as a pacifier, as if "constancy" was a desirable trait, that we yearn for and will cling-on to, and "change" is the part we reject. This is foolishness. We clearly do not understand the implications of such a constant.

Is the Bachelor Party a last temptation that the body must get past in order to enter a life of sacred marriage, or is it a last-ditch attempt to escape an impending constancy - a thought which is only quashed by society and external will? Why is it that we are truly free to do what we want to do when the calendar is marked with the day we will die?

It is amusing that freedom, which we humans seem to value as all-important, is never true until we are surrounded. Much praise has been showered on constancy as well as on freedom, although they stand opposite each other for much of the time. Anything permanent, by virtue of being immovable, acts as a wall, however distant it might be from us. Therefore it is a constraint to our motion. Paradoxically, it is only when there are walls on all four sides that we feel truly free; we make life-altering decisions and place great bets.

This alarming prospect suddenly turns amiable when one becomes conscious of this fact and can live with the knowledge that true freedom can be achieved only while in chains. Perhaps this is not such a bad way to live.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Artists Series: Evam, Chennai

When Jaipur Pink Panthers won the Pro Kabaddi League, I was left with the lasting image of Abhishek Bachchan ejaculating, exulting and allowing his team to carry him on their shoulders. While the event itself did provide something of a face-lift for an indigenous sport which still lies precariously at the edges of our collective memory, the "IPL effect" is hardly a decent solution for anything other than cricket.

Then again, Cricket in India doesn't need a solution. Almost everything else does.

Pumping the millions into neglected sports and dwindling arts will, at best, prove to be a short-term solution for reviving interest. These instant-coffee variants bring forgotten elements back into our heads, but success is possible only by nourishing the roots and building upwards. So it is with sports, and so it is with the arts.

Last Thursday brought a smile to my face, even before I ingested all that beer and humour. Evam celebrated its 11th birthday recently, and the outfit comprising of Karthik Kumar, "Baggy" Ramakrishnan, Yessae and Aswin Rao were outstanding examples of laughter at the bottom of the pyramid. #EST or Evam Standup Tamasha, soon to be available (like Saravana Bhawan) in the US of Yay, is a perfectly inappropriate comedy-act about Tam-Brahm obsessions, NRI dilemmas, matrimonial columns and mor.

Evam has that endearingly rough home-grown edge, picking on local idiosyncrasies and not sparing even one fake Amaerika-returned accent. So even with the show taking place at the slightly overpriced (but quite brilliant) Social in Santhome every Thursday, it is a runaway hit - and rightfully so. The best part of these acts, according to me, is the informal setup and the way the artists become one among the crowd. It could perhaps change with increased attention and demand, but I sure hope it doesn't.

The fact that new talent is introduced every now and again is very heartening, and this also ensures that the faithful aren't easily bored. And if what I hear from the team is true, they always have an eye out for people with a funny-bone: so audition, and the spotlight could be on you!

P.S. If you want an assortment of 'Kundi Jokes', you can follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.
P.P.S. Thanks Vasudha, for showing me something I didn't know about my hometown.

This is the first post in a series about India's indigenous art-scene. You can follow me here to stay tuned. Cheers.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Birthdays: A SWOT Analysis

Instead of sitting on Facebook, answering Birthday wishes and expressing gratitude (which I am told mustn't be done until the day after the birthday), I have decided to spend this day doing a comprehensive SWOT analysis of birthdays.

My findings have disastrous consequences. I think you should see this.

I feel better now that I understand the phenomenon as the factors influencing it better, I shall bid you farewell. But before that, let me savour this quarter-century moment:

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Ramu shifted uncomfortably in his seat, jamming the horn two more times, drowning Honey Singh’s melody within the car. Slanting rays of the sun scattered through the dust and smoke before falling on the hanging form of Hanuman carrying the mighty Sanjeevani. The monkey God swung violently every time Ramu stepped on the accelerator. The car lurched forward through tiny capillaries which the driver spotted in the clogged road.

In the back seat sat a man who was referred to only as Sharma sa'ab within the car’s confines. Ramu could see in the rear-view mirror above the monkey God that sa'ab was busy with his computer on his lap and his phone sandwiched between his left ear and shoulder. He was in a hurry; Ramu had fifteen minutes to make sure the boss got to his meeting on time.

“Lower the volume,” was the command. A knob was turned. The horn blared again through the static traffic.
“Be’nchod!” swore Ramu quietly. What would normally take him twenty minutes was now taking him over half of an hour. He felt the cards in his pocket, and thought about the game he had won the previous afternoon. The memory calmed him.

He slid the window down halfway, leaned towards it and spoke over the noise of the expressway, “Problem kya?”

“Pata nahin (I don't know)!” said the rickshaw-wallah whose vehicle stood alongside his own.

A motorist managed to squeeze in between Ramu’s right-side mirror and the auto-rickshaw. “There’s an accident in front of us,” he said, staring ahead through the cracks between trucks and SUVs. He nonchalantly closed Ramu’s rear-view mirror and passed them, expertly entering the gap between the bus and the divider.

Sharma sa'ab saw the motorist’s action and momentarily stopped his work to swear at him. “They are idiots, sir,” said Ramu in agreement. “They are from villages. They don’t know better.”

Sharma sa'ab stared ahead at the stubborn vehicles in front of him, and eyes widening, looked at the time on his laptop screen. “Jaldi!”

“Yes sir,” said Ramu, hitting the horn again forcing the traffic to move another centimetre. “Bloody fellows chose to have an accident today.”

“Yes, my luck is horrible,” said Sharma. “It’s always like this.”

Ramu looked at the dashboard-clock, then at Hanumanji and then at the red tail-lamps in front of him. Suddenly a gap opened up in the corner and Ramu, with all his experience, was the first to react. Driving is always a series of challenges and achievements: you overtake a supercilious fool, you give way to an old lady, you joust with a young man your age…

Ramu stepped on the pedal and turned the wheel ever so slightly, thus throwing the car brilliantly into the gap on the left hand side, stealing the rightful space of the vehicle alongside him. He glided between the remaining vehicles almost as if he was cutting through the jam with a hot knife. Horns blared behind him, and this satisfied both driver and boss greatly.

“Bas five minutes, Sharma sa'ab,” said Ramu as he drove out of the jam. The man in the back seat dialled a number. The car emerged from the cluster of vehicles, passing the sedan with a shattered windscreen - the culprit. As Ramu sped through shards of glass scattered across the asphalt like the brilliant stars of the night, Sharma saheb spoke on the phone – “I’ll be there in five. There was an accident in the middle of the expressway. One car has brought the city to a standstill.”

The driver adjusted his rear-view and kissed the locket around his neck as he peered into the mirror: police, stretchers, strangers and a boy whose world had come to a standstill.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Corner Man

His chair was in the corner, almost hidden, as it lay in one of those places the dull tubelight simply wouldn't reach. He wore a cream shirt, or perhaps it was white - only rendered cream by the lazy flourescent bulb. His khaki pants were clearly khaki; any idiot would tell you that much. He wore open-ended slippers, with a ring which went around his big toe. A lazy smile completed his outfit, as he sat comfortably on the chair in the corner, almost hidden from view.

I must confess that I am perhaps fooled by youthful perspectives and tricks of the mind. Maybe the light was bright, maybe I was too busy marching up and down the corridor to notice people who sat in the corner. Nevertheless, my reality allows me to tell you this - be it truth or be it lie.

As the years passed, my chest grew wider, getting itself a shape I'd often admire at length in front of a mirror, but the man still sat in the corner. My shirts then began to tighten around the belly rather than at the top, and the man still sat there. I wore ties now, and he was in his khaki trousers. He wore a whitish shirt though, but that was only because I had the bulb replaced. His heels were cracked and his slippers were old. It is strange I noticed all this without registering his face.

The meetings then began and my room shifted. I seldom walked the paths I used used to. The doors were made of glass and the air was 12% dryer and 3.5 degrees cooler. I had some weighty fabric over my shoulders, adding value to the opinions of peppered head. I spoke softly now, for there was no need to shout. People now listened to me. I made a lot of money. I polished my fine leather shoes.

A few years later, I went back to the junior office building on a routine inspection. I met the old folks, everyone was greyer, wiser and slightly more lost. The boys now had families, some were even grandparents. They had houses, phones, planned holidays and debts. They had dreams, great dreams, almost as brilliant as the ones they used to have.

As I began to leave, I spotted a smile. I turned around to identify the culprit. In the corner, on a chair almost hidden, in a place where light didn't truly reach, sat a man - crosslegged. He wore khaki trousers and a cream coloured shirt. The tubelight required to be changed. I noticed that his slippers which were on the floor were the same as the ones I remembered from my youth. The one on the right had a withering toe-ring. It bothered me that this man was smiling, and I wished he would stop. I walked away quietly after shaking hands with the senior folks.

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Today is retirement day. I gave a fabulous speech, after which everyone clapped. The applause went on for two minutes. The memory will go on forever. I received souvenirs and gratitude. I passed on the baton, and they told me that I would be missed along with my vision. There is much left to do even after this: so many dreams still worth conquering. I feel sad about leaving, so I will take another trip around the office.

I am walking down the old corridor again. I will be out soon. I see the man in the corner. He is smiling. This distrubs me. Who is he and why is he sitting there? Why does he wear the same clothes? I walk up to him, breathing heavily. His face still doesn't seem important. But his smile, why does he smile?

I put my face close to his, almost until our noses touch, and I scream - "Why do you smile?"

He doesn't answer. He simply slides his feet into his slippers.

"Why are you here?" I shout. My cheeks feel wet. I don't want anyone to see me this way.

No reply.

"Why? Please. Tell me," I sob.

"Okay, I'll go now," he says. And he leaves.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Tamil and the Concept of India

Narendra Modi's "maximum Governance, minimum" Government has taken a minor detour, throwing in another troublesome issue into the pot of problems. The directive aimed at maximizing Hindi and minimizing English has Indian bureaucrats scrambling for Hindi dictionaries. Quite predictably, regional leaders seeing red, have issued strong written responses to the Center, causing the Modi-regime to partially recall their broad-spectrum antibiotic.

However, this stirred hornet's nest now smells of Annadurai and Periyar and of a certain Mr. Raghunath Vinayak Dhulekar who famously said - "People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in the House to fashion a constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy members of this assembly. They had better leave."

The days of Hindustani ended a long time ago when the two-nation theory was practically imposed. The Persian-Arabic influence on Hindustani quickly decayed, quite naturally but with a few political nudges from here and there, until what remained was only Hindi. The fact that the Indian Constitution was written in English irked many in those days, but it stayed that way due to political and administrative vision that remained in an assembly ravaged by nationalistic fervour. Sixty years have passed since those turbulent times and we're back where we began. The same parties which had issues back in the day have troubles in accepting changes which are being imposed on them.

I write this article as a Tamilian and as an Indian, hoping that I don't have to choose between the two or explain which I am more - a Tamilian or an Indian. Since Tamil Nadu has been the most vocal state about its displeasure with these new directives, leading to questions about Tamil Nadu's patriotism and "why does TN have a problem if Andhra Pradesh can accept it?", I will give you a Madrassi's viewpoint and state, in clear terms, where we stand.

But for that, we will need to take a short trip into history.

History and Individuality:

The third century BC was a truly glorious period for the land which is now India, with great emperors such as Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka creating some of the greatest land empires ever known to man and subsequently consolidating this powerful territory, ushering in a truly golden age. This (see left) is what the Mauryan empire looked like at its peak.

Ashoka, after relinquishing his arms rather dramatically after the Kalinga war, contributed majorly to the growth of another major Indian religion - Buddhism. The languages of his state, namely Magadhi, Sanskrit and the Prakrits flourished during this period.

At quite the same, the southern end of the Indian peninsula, was divided among three dynasties which were each centuries old already.

"Bindusara (Chandragupta Maurya's son) didn't conquer the friendly Dravidian kingdoms of the Chola, ruled by King Ilamcetcenni, the Pandyas, and Cheras. Apart from these southern states, Kalinga was the only kingdom in India that didn't form a part of Bindusara's empire. It was later conquered by his son, Ashoka."
Over the coming hundreds of years, the northern plains would change hands several times - with the seat of power remaining in Pataliputra and with Sanskrit gaining great prominence. The beginning of the golden Gupta age incidentally coincided with the last of the great Sangam meetings in the Pandyan kingdom.

Subsequently, while the kingdoms in the North fragmented further, the Chola empire also faded around the 4th Century AD, and remained hidden for nearly five centuries. This period marked the ascendancy of the Pallavas and the Pandyas in the southern part of the peninsula.

Even during this time, the cities of Mayiladudurai, Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Thiruchi and Pudukkottai fell under the sway of the fallen empire. Meanwhile the ascendant Pandyas further south extended their influence from their capital - Madurai.

Between 800 AD and the end of the thirteenth century, the Cholas were once again a well-established empire and often the most powerful kingdom of the south. Gangaikonda Cholapuram is, in fact, said to have been built after a successful military campaign all the way to the banks of the Ganges.

Beyond the thirteenth century, the Pandyas still flourished and even reached their peak. It wasn't until the raids by Malik Kafur and the formation of the Madurai Sultanate that this last great empire of South India was finally vanquished. All this after 2000 years at the helm of affairs.

Even after the end of the great empires of the south, India as a land was never fully consolidated. Below are two great Mughal empires from the 1600s, and both of them failed to completely absorb 'India' completely.


In fact, it wasn't until the British Raj that the map looked like this:

What all these millenia of indigenous rule has created - please note that the separated territory involved is predominantly Tamil Nadu and Kerala - is a strong sense of identity with language, which has been the pole-star in Tamil history.

Hindus, Muslims and Christians live cheek-by-jowl almost everywhere along TN's coastline today. In fact, some of the best assimilation of different communities in a particular area can be seen in the state, where you can easily mistake a dargah's ritual as that of a temple's, or confuse Mariamman with Mother Mary. These are people divided by faith and united by language.

Unlike most Northern communities where people identify most strongly with religion and caste, the divisions down south are on lingual lines. Although I previously removed AP from this picture, one will do well to remember Potti Sriramulu (picture below), who born into the Madras Presidency died as a Telugu martyr.

His death reshaped India's map and gave us states based on language. Interestingly enough, there were debates as to whether Madras was to be part of Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu (with C. Rajagopalachari and Nehru, both favouring to keep it in TN) owing to the large communities of Andhrites as well as Tamilians in the city.

When human beings draw careless boundaries on the map, they reshape the future of civilization. Only a few decades after the formation of AP, we have only a small (but often influential) representation of Telugu-speakers in Chennai today. Similarly, Tirupati - where boards in Tamil were ubiquitous - has been cleansed of the Tamil language and replaced by Telugu. Stronger divides still, happen on the national level, as in the case of India and Pakistan, where now the respective scripts are mutually unintelligible. 

What all this tells us is that language, like any other aspect of civilization, requires patronage and support in order to exist. The invisible hand of market forces can hardly stand up to the real force of political will. In such a scenario, it makes perfect sense to protect a language and preserve heritage. Reactionary steps are only to be expected when the Government of the land tries to propagate one of its languages preferentially, albeit not necessarily at the expense of another. But we are talking about identity here, and there are few things that come with higher stakes.

The Modern Notion of India:

Sometimes, I am perturbed by the fact that restaurants in Delhi have on their boards messages such as:
"Cuisines: Indian, South Indian, Chinese". The definition of 'India' then begins to confuse me. Is South India a sub-set of India (as would seem logical) or is it another part of a vast region, thoroughly separated, united only by national elections?

Even today, I am asked - "Why do your people not speak Hindi? It is the mother tongue of the majority of India!" To clarify things at this point, I speak Hindi and Tamil, although I can write only in the former, much to my chagrin. My parents, brought up in 20th Century India, decided that it was better for me to learn the language spoken by the majority first, before my own mother tongue. While all that is water under the bridge, this only helps me consolidate my point that the people of Tamil Nadu are not opposed to Hindi as a language.

However, we expect our guests to speak in Tamil (or at least feign to learn) when they are visiting us, just the way we learn Hindi when we visit them. To say that Hindi is more Indian than Tamil is, or the even more inane "Hindi is the national language", is a poor line for a patriot to take. I am reminded of a vivid quote made by C. N. Annadurai - "It is claimed that Hindi should be the common language because it is spoken by the majority. Why should we then claim the tiger as our national animal instead of the rat which is so much more numerous? Or the peocock as our national bird when the crow is ubiquitous?"

It must also be noted here that Hindi and English are both, to some extent, foreign languages in the southern tip of the peninsula. The fact that enterprising Malabaris have picked up the languages quickly and become trilingual (I am assuming not all Malabaris can speak Arabic also) is something they should be credited with, and this is not something one can hold against people who haven't become multilingual with such rapidity.

While the question of whether a person from Region C should be encouraged, or perhaps forced, to speak in Hindi is widely debated, the more basic question regarding whether an outsider should be asked to learn the tongue-of-the-land is being left unattended. When I first went to Roorkee (which lies in the state of Uttarakhand), I was appalled to find out that people couldn't match the southern states with their respective languages. In fact, even today, I'm fairly confident that few will be able to tell which language is which from among the following:

So, another thing that the imposition of Hindi by the state does is promote one-upmanship, and let citizens take it for granted that Hindi is more important than any other language in India. In fact, prominent books written in the twenty-first century use those very words - "Hindi is the most important language in the country". Such statements beg the question: "Does Indian-ness have its roots in Hindi?"

Is it wrong for an auto-wallah in TN (who probably doesn't know Hindi) to speak in Tamil to a Hindi-speaker, while it is right for the Prime Minister (who clearly knows English) to converse in Hindi alone with a non-Hindi speaker? Why is the promotion of a state-language any different from the promotion of a state-religion? Why is only one of these considered taboo?

Second Language and The Future:

Because most higher-learning in this world is being transmitted through the medium of English, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reject the language altogether. Unless the state can magically conjure a similar infrastructure in Hindi, as there exists in English, it will be wrong to ask people of the southern states to choose Hindi over English, as their second language.

For all practical purposes, this would imply that quarter of a billion people become trilingual at least, to ensure a smooth transition. Learning languages isn't an easy task, especially when the languages belong to entirely different families. This is another reason why Gujaratis, Marwadis and even Maharashtrians can understand Hindi more easily than Tamilians. Similar scripts and shared roots are a great advantage while learning new tongues.

Contrary to a popular misconception, Tamil does not have its roots in Sanskrit. The other three languages have different proportions of Tamil and Sanskrit, as they evolved over the millenniums, gradually developing a flavour of their own. Kannada and Telugu especially, have incorporated far more Sanskrit, and are therefore slightly closer to the northern stream of languages.

All this makes it difficult, both in terms of learning and in terms of ideological acceptance, for Hindi to become a widely accepted second-language in the south, especially in Tamil Nadu. It is possible that, over time, there will be organic growth of the language (this is actually highly probable due to the one-sided language transfer within the country) and that is the only acceptable solution.

Until then, we don't need any more link languages. And thank you very much, we're well-integrated into mother India. We certainly don't need anyone to tell us how we can be better Indians.