Saturday, 15 November 2014

Whatever happened to the great debate?

On 6 November 2014 BBC World invited three panellists from different sectors to debate on ‘A New India: Free, Fair and Prosperous’ as part of the World Economic Forum. Issues of content and objectivity apart, one still has high expectations of a group like BBC when it comes to setting high standards of form. But this ‘debate’ fell flat on its face on all counts.
No rules of the game
One would think that in a discussion like this all three panellists would bring in varied viewpoints due to their specialization in their individual sectors. However, if one wants to quote either the minister or the corporate voice in the debate, it would require constant rechecking to distinguish who said what. Of course businesses and governments need not always be in conflict with each other. But this smooth overlapping can be dangerous if those who are to be at the receiving end of this coalition between corporate bodies and governing bodies get completely left out. So for all practical purposes, instead of having three distinct voices, the format of the session (to keep calling it a debate would be to perpetuate technical erroneousness) was two against one. The yesmanship resulting out of this format naturally dulled the sparkling energy any debate worth its salt should have.
In terms of an outline, the talk failed to meet its own description. The issues to be discussed had been listed on the website as:
- Balancing growth with development to reduce inequality 
- Improving governance and transparency 
- Upholding political and religious rights 
Hardly any time or importance was given to the last point. Even with regard to the first two, when questions were raised by the activist, they were dismissed as non-existent issues. For instance, in response to the activist’s question about religious tensions, the minister said there is no such thing in the country, despite the very recent incidents of communal violence in Trilokpuri, Delhi. He also insisted that ‘Dalit’ is an unnecessary adjective and that the government will remove all caste divisions, at the same time refusing to recognize them. One can go on picking up several such superficial statements and proving how they do not hold water. But to question unbacked claims and probe deeper during the debate, if only through pointing the already raised rebuttals in the right direction, was the moderator’s job and he chose not to do it, except in passing.
Have we forgotten to listen as an audience?
As members of the audience, we have our task cut out for us: to listen, and when we are sure we have heard it right, to ask relevant questions. Look before you leap, think before you speak. Someone had put it that simply for us. But we manage to screw up even this simple task. The worst crime scene exhibiting the murder of articulated thought is Twitter. Stomach this excerpt from the debate and a corresponding tweet:
Aruna Roy (in the debate): ‘The other India is unhappy . . . distressed with a whole spate of promises which are being retracted . . . beginning with a promise of keeping the works programme [NREGA] . . . putting back labour laws . . .
Tweet: Nikhil Pahwa ‏@nixxin hypocritical of Aruna Roy to complain about lack of jobs & then complain about the current governments [sic] business focus.
Apples and oranges? Since when did ‘government’s business focus’ start meaning the same thing as ‘jobs for the rural poor and safeguarding of labour laws’? In fact, a ‘business focus’ means exactly the opposite.
Then there are columns where the writer gushes about how the poor of this country do not need ‘schemes’ like NREGA. But all this concern for the underprivileged is not motivation enough for her to find out the difference between a scheme and an Act in her years of writing and tweeting on the same subject while making the same point, before deciding to deprive its beneficiaries, presumably for their own good.
Stigmatization of dissent
The debate was in English for a global audience. Rural India was being discussed by a platform in which they could not participate. On an occasion like this representation of their voices becomes as important as the person in office. (With regard to the government’s work in rural India, the minister could only mention the Jan Dhan Yojna, which, one hears, isn't really in the pink.) No one activist or civil society group can claim to solely represent all of India’s poor. But those who have worked in rural India for a substantial period of time on particular issues are a more direct source of information than others.
This lack of accessibility and representation also applies to minorities or dissenting groups, increasingly being targeted. Yet if an activist working with these groups or if a member of any such group speaks out, they are instantly branded as the perpetual malcontent. The debate was a mere microcosm of how constructive critique is being illogically refuted using reductionist stereotypes. This notion of dissent as being something obstructive, as minister Piyush Goyal called it, cannot further the cause of any government that truly intends to cater to the interests of all of India. It was said that merely pointing out the problems is not enough. But legislations like RTI and NREGA were solutions envisaged by the people suffering from the lack of information and employment themselves, processes that the civil society has been an active and long-standing part of. Laws hard won after years of dialogue and persuasion cannot be sacrificed in a democracy to the caprice of changing governments. It is not a matter of changing the curtains of a newly acquired office.
This deliberate dismissal of strong factual and on-ground evidence, much of which often comes from the government’s own records, is irrational and prejudiced. The concern of grassroots workers is conveniently dismissed as emotion and rhetoric, though to be completely dispassionate about the issues you are invested in shouldn't really add to your credibility. If representation is an issue, the government is welcome to take the debate to ground zero: to the rural workers who fear unemployment; to the victims of riots; to the villages whose land was forcibly acquired; to the women forcibly separated from their interreligious partners.
India did not get independent for a section of the people. These voices being snuffed out will lead to extreme distress and its consequences. If we go on dismissing their pleas, and demand a sacrifice of their lives, even the so-called development would not take place. We need a peaceful society for progress. The persistence that they must pay the cost of ‘development’, whose rewards others reap, cannot be heard in passivity in the era of mobile phones and TVs. People hear election promises and read manifestos. Their articulation is vital. They should be able to decide how much time they want to give to the government, to articulate whether these five months of governance have been too short or too long for them.
Deprivation and injustice are suffered, not taught. Hunger, unemployment, displacement, unfair indictment, communal, casteist and gender-based violence are felt and lived by people everyday. The repeated accusation that civil society is stirring discontent underestimates the power of these unheard voices. It is a negation of the ordinary Indian’s intelligence and sensitivity.

First published in Kafila, 14 November 2014.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


I assumed it went without saying; I took it for granted
Thought you could read my thoughts whenever you wanted.
Didn't strike me why you would bother to go through the fine print
When I couldn't make the effort to say the simplest thing.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.


I've got a love letter to post 
And nowhere to post it to
A red red letter box 
For a red red love letter
Which doesn't ask 
For a mailing address

And does 
What the sea does 
For a message in a bottle
Would be welcome.

First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A Curse Be upon It

For years now I have been looking to enrich my vocabulary of swear words with no troublesome arrows in the quiver. There are times when I urgently need to use profanity, for example, against all the harassers on bikes and in cars who would hoot at or brush past me, literally giving me a run for my money. I must have the last word, if not the last hand, in the situation and need to yell something out at these harassers. I become frustrated if the limited choice of words in my outdated assortment makes it seem that I am actually providing weapons to the other party, instead of employing the same against them.

Here, I'm using the term 'swear word' to refer to abuse, words that are very clearly directed at another party and not just to be muttered under one's breath as a form of venting. Let's do some stocktaking.

We have motherfucker, sisterfucker, son of a bitch (thereafter referred to as MF/SF and) as well as bastard and several more complex variations of the same, as deployed for instance by Scorsese. (I do not know if I am missing significant, powerful pelt-stones in English but in Hindi, my first language, we do not have a very wide range). Now to use MF/SF would suggest I have resigned myself to believing that men would be the eternal doers and women, the 'done-upons'. The broader connotation is that if some men are not MFs or SFs it is because of their kindness and the goodness of their hearts, though they can (denoting natural ability) fill those roles if they so wished, because women of course will never have any choice in the matter. And not on my life am I going to rob women of agency. As Germaine Greer writes in The Female Eunuch, 'All the verbal linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element; fucking, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female . . .'

SOB is again supposed to be offensive to women though there can be ample speculation on what kind of dark legends were unearthed around bitches to put them in this category and represent them as worse than human. A word like asshole circles back, again, to the body. Why is a body part supposed to cause offence? In a word, shit. The only insult it causes is to Rabelais's scatological oeuvre, which his narratives used in the most imaginative ways. Even if it's a child's idea of grossing out someone, my use of it is not just to make the other person feel bad but also to tell them how exactly they were abominable.

Some suggest that women should use the 'male equivalent' for men of misogynist terms. Many expressions of profanity have already become unisex in their use. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr tells us, 'With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the 19th century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the “West Somerset Word-Book” defines it as “a term of contempt, applied to men only,” as in “He’s a regular shit.” Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.'

But what am I really gaining by calling someone a fatherfucker or brotherfucker? And using these terms now in a gender-neutral way certainly doesn't alter their sexist history. Even if a woman is saying 'Don't be a girl' to another woman or to a man, this is still a reductionist approach where a particular notion of a 'girl' (or woman) as unfortunately feminine and therefore lesser than remains frozen throughout time.

While the above-mentioned expletives are offensive to women, others do not stray far from sex and its consequences. A bastard, for instance, brings to mind the 'illegitimacy' of a union out of a wedlock, a relic from the dark ages. Restoration drama, on the other hand, was busy wishing all sorts of sexual maladies upon its characters. One option is to continue with the old terms and simply use them to vent out, without their having any real meaning at all. But in this way we are merely apprising the other person of our anger and not really telling them why we are angry. So they can attribute it merely to our 'feeling' rather than their 'doing'. Alas, the purpose of swearing would be lost. (I myself have had to bite my tongue several times before calling out one of these very names.)

For all of our forward thinking, the damned spots of regression continue to show. We still shudder to think of the 'sins' of the flesh and therefore think the worst ills of the world have to do with sex and the body. Surely it is not a bigger 'sin' to be born a 'bastard' than to be fundamentalist, cruel or dishonest. Yet these latter words are mere adjectives, not 'swear words'. Our choice of abuse is a reflection upon ourselves, of what we consider acceptable and what we let pass. Even if we are able to invest these words with a stronger meaning, the shadow of their sexist etymology would continue to loom large above them. If we are truly committed to equality, now is our chance to build a novel, gender-neutral vocabulary of profanity.

First published in The Feminist Wire, 20 Oct 2014.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014


I smear my lips with red chili pepper,
Salivate between my short breaths.
Biting hard, the searing taste reassures me
Of iron within my dream of hot pursuit.

I wake up in a sweat,
Pour my head into a bucket of water.
Clamp down my nose and mouth
Counting one, two, three . . .

I stand upon my head,
Feel the welts on my soles.
Welts course through my brain and erupt.
A crown of thorns pierces my temples.

My thighs give way under the weight of bullets,
My first realization of how many layers pain can exist in.
But numbing as it is to try to live
In your body, to live what it lived, lives . . .

I wonder whether I have it in me
To some day see your body as only yours
And mine as mine alone.
But I don't want that, I don't

Want to be left alone.
It's pathetic, I know;
A sick mind makes the real absurd.
It scares me shit

To imagine that numbness.
How can I not follow you,
How can we not be in this

First published in Kashmir Lit, October 2014.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Dead End Street

Two minor girls in Rohtak (Haryana), Madhu and Nikita, who ended their lives on August 25 after being stalked wrote in their suicide notes 'of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging'. 'Everyday a new man would come and chase us. They would pass lewd remarks and offer us phone numbers. The people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong. You know how bad our colony is . . . how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us . . . even though we are innocent.'

As a school student in Ranchi, Jharkhand, a boy in my tuition class would at times ask me to lend a pen and on days would trail behind my bicycle on the way back home. Once I bumped into him at a wedding party in the locality and he asked me to tell the time by my watch. I later thought of how instead of just sullenly giving him the answer I should have said something that would have thrown him off balance, like interrogating him about his own watch that I saw gleaming on his wrist. But then he could have said it wasn't working; I won't have gone close to him and peered. Or he could have used the pretext of tallying the time. No, no, this won't do, I thought, I must come up with something better in case the incident repeated itself. I didn't really get many of these chances because the boy, a student of another school, stopped coming for the classes at some point and that was the end of it.

Today when sharp repartee rolls off my tongue in the vicinity of any unwanted presence, my friends laugh saying that it seems I have spent a good deal of time creating them. In a way it's true. I have had years and years to think. When people say girls mature faster I can't see it as a compliment because they shouldn't mature faster; they are forced to do so by other people and circumstances. When I was first harassed on the road, I couldn't give it back with the rage I feel today because I wasn't ready. More than anger I remember feeling the shock. I and others around saw me as a schoolgoing child and I couldn't see why a middle aged man would choose to fling upon a schoolgirl his slimy air kisses. A persistence of such occurrences forced me to think and act like a grown woman when still a child. I would have preferred not to but the choice that should have been mine to make had already been made by others, random strangers who had no claims upon my life. The self-training imparted thereafter was in the line of making myself more formidable and better prepared to answer back anyone who targeted me assuming I won't, a characteristic that stayed with me in the years to come and still often gets misconstrued as arrogance by many.

But never did it strike me to think of the police; I never knew that these acts of harassment, vile as they seemed to me, would be seen by the law as criminal offences. And while at that time I hadn't been given a list of things I must do to preserve my family's 'honour', there had also been no open talk of such things at home. We didn't learn about it in school or peer groups either. I sometimes heard my mother talk of how she handled her college students who cheated in exams or threatened to use their 'connections' if they were complained against. So there was a general sense that it was good not to take any kind of bullying lying down. But nothing was said around sexual harassment, stalking, or any other form of abuse. I lived with my grandparents and would have felt mortified at the thought of making them confront something against which they might have felt duty-bound to act but wouldn't have known how to. They would have probably asked me to stop cycling to tuition, as they later did when I once fell off and hurt myself.

When I joined college in Delhi University, the STD booth at the entrance to my hostel had numbers of the police and women's helpline. Teachers and seniors talked to us about it; leaflets were given out. I lodged my first complaint in the coming months itself and have registered around nine others since, along with having 'handled' other cases on my own. Except a couple of times, it was not like the police were encouraging. Some even tried to dissuade. But I knew the law and the course of action they were supposed to take and they knew I knew. So they were compelled to oblige despite themselves. Sexual harassment and police inaction were openly talked about in the city; protest marches were taken out, and the authorities may have felt that not all of us would be prevented by a skewed notion of shame from talking about it if they did not even perform the basic act of registering a complaint. Once an officer nudged another and asked him not to delay writing my complaint any longer because I may just get together with my fellow students and sit on a dharna.

My own experiences have motivated me to hand out a lot of unsolicited advice to my younger cousins about harassment and how to tackle it. I held on to a small patch of satisfaction and relief when my teenage cousin in Ranchi called me up to tell me how she shut up a guy trying to harass her and her friends in a park. She had called not to boast but to get reassured that she had done the right thing, because all her friends were scared and had warned her against it. As I told her about the varying ways of dealing with such situations in crowded and abandoned places, I couldn't help worrying about her, wondering if my tips would be enough for her to deal with the specifics of each situation, whether she would find herself finding a lonely battle at many other times. I am proud of the girl she is growing into and her doubts have been replaced with immense confidence. But I wish the familial and legal set up were more open minded, one that instilled more confidence in each girl about herself and the unconditional support she would receive if she were harassed.

I don't want to change the person I have become according to places, people and situations. So when I go back home today I tackle my harassers the same way I do in Delhi. But if some situation requires further intervention, I do not know how the police would be there or how successful my relatives would be in overcoming their own conditioning and awkwardness around the issue and at least not impeding me in my efforts.

Madhu and Nikita were intelligent girls. They did well in school and had been relying on their academic performance to take them abroad. They had been able to find out the name of one of the stalkers and had seen the number on the registration plate on his bike. They had also told their family about it, who tried to nab the culprits but could not. The family did not go to the police to report the stalking. We do not know why, and we do not know what conversation Madhu and Nikita had about it with their families. We do not know about their relationship dynamics with the family, the trust they shared, or where and how they learnt that the doers of wrong could roam about uninhibited but the done-upons must pay, else the honour of their family was in question. They had been planning to go to the United States. Probably they expected no better of this country.

First published in Quartz, 28 August 2014.

Saturday, 26 July 2014


You were so brave that night, I'll never forget. Single-handedly you took on the driver of the 'shared' auto to assert that the correct fare was five, not ten rupees. An icy bead was frozen at the tip of your nose, your wrinkles subtly frowning at it not to act up in front of strangers, withholding it within their folds. 'This is what I always pay,' you said. I looked with awe at your mouseholed monkey-cap head that remained proudly erect while saying it, 'This is what I always pay.' You stood your ground, not moving away till you had made your point, though you could have moved away, now that you stood on your own ground.

The rest of us sat quiet in the auto, breathing a bit easier in the vacant space you had left behind. It was soon going to descend on us that the cold would also bully us worse, finding us weaker by one. Till an hour ago, we had not known of your presence. Now we found it hard to make do with just the memory of you. We missed the easy intimacy our knees and shoulders had established with yours, discovered in the rhythm conducted by the auto. I had become related to you when I had inhaled the bonfire ash of your clothes and had make-believed warmth.

And now that you were out there, the 'out there' we had all been saving ourselves from, we did not even dare to unshawl our faces lest they got slapped by the wind. We did not know whether we should commiserate with the plaintive driver in his losing battle, who was whining, 'If this is what you always pay, you should've said so in the beginning.' We did not know if you needed us to be with you, in an already won but long lost battle, at least sharing your triumph if not your struggle.

By the time the frustrated auto restarted, I was glad of one thing. I was relieved that you said so in the end ('This is what I always pay') and not in the beginning (good for you). I am glad you did not say it any earlier, when you could've been left behind by the auto driver (though it would have been pure business, nothing personal), between a lonely village and an urgent town (Date: 13 January, Time: 8.26 pm) with hardly any other vehicle around to bail you out, neither for five rupees nor for ten.

First published in World Nomads, 14 May 2014.


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