Wednesday 11 September 2013

Half the Sky: Endangered on Earth

Primetime television commercials and full-page newspaper jackets zoom on fresh young faces and sleek new gizmos stressing how technology has moved forward since the time of Ambassador cars and HMT watches.  If you have any memory of the Licence Raj economy, when stifling entrepreneurship was the raison d’etre of the system, the brave bold today ads flaunt a brash, happening India.

We are made to believe that because of a new car model hitting the road every three months or the screen of our television getting bigger and bigger, we have been able to usher in a new dawn and leave behind all that was old and stagnant. But modern machines do not make modern people. Technology is most certainly a major route for reformist change, but its role as an instrument of change depends on its users and so it can be as potent in propagating stultifying stereotypes. Technology can help us grow in the direction we want but may not be able to help if we are misdirected. Just think of the supercomputer which can be used to trace the footprints of an erratic monsoon and – and develop nuclear weapons as well. 

Moreover, when newer electronic avatars threaten to throw asunder the old order, the keepers of the crusted establishment know a thing or two about protecting the status quo. When a Khap panchayat in Uttar Pradesh banned the use of cell phones by women, the diktat of the male-chauvinist kangaroo court sought to put an end to the many possibilities technology held for women in those remote villages, because the holders of power saw a definite threat in the little device. The exclusively male group was afraid that the SIM in the hands of the ‘onion peelers’ could shake the ground beneath the smug footholds of patriarchy.  (You see, all it takes is a missed call.) At such times, it is not technology but its users who would have to intervene. What would need to come into play are something as basic as the human values of courage and empathy. These cannot be substituted by technology.

The other aspect of the date between gadgetry and youth has been that while access to knowledge has never been easier, while participatory platforms have never been wider, these alone are not sufficient to pave the way towards a more egalitarian world. Yes, we now know a lot more; yes, we now are more on talking terms with more of those like us . . . But has all this ‘increased talktime’ helped the urban, privileged lot to reach out? Has it helped us be more sensitive to those that fight the survival battle in Other India, the vast tribal hinterland unvisited by the laptop and fast-food culture?

Then there is the question of those who do try to use modern media and technology to change warped mindsets. A social campaign against rape by a Bollywood personality comes to mind. The heart of the campaign may be in the right place, its intentions noble. But the principle of gender sensitivity is carried only halfway through. So while its aim is to end gender violence, the logic is flawed. It does affirm that women have their own identity and that they should not endure violence but these right noises get lost in the absence of a sharper focus. It reminds men of the many roles women play in their lives and how, therefore, they should be respected. Maybe inadvertently, but it ends up encouraging the notion that women have to be related to men and their lives in order to be deserving of this respect. It talks of what ‘real men’ do, thus solidifying gender binaries and stressing that there is something quintessentially masculine and feminine instead of an all-encompassing humane bracket. It is naïve to say that as men would take time to come out of familiar categories and would feel lost if old certainties are taken away, first one should expect them to become better men and then better human beings. The gender binary in our society is hugely skewed. One cannot take five hundred years to achieve step one, the next five hundred to step two. We can’t apologetically shrug and say that, till then, we would have to accept the present forms of violence arising from prejudices we are wary of disturbing, while new kinds of attacks each day continue to take place. This is precisely why the more things change, the more they remain the same.

At the same time, to achieve a fast solution, one ought not to pluck a half-ripe principle. Even if we forget the ideal of honest means for an honest end, this is not sustainable. If a man tries to be a ‘real man’ by not hitting his partner, he may also have some expectations from her that he thinks should be fulfilled by a ‘real woman’. So, at its very inception, such patchy logic is ridden with holes.

The sellers and propagators of technology, companies offering new technological ‘solutions’ every day and swearing by the notion of ‘progress’, cannot operate in a value-neutral vacuum. If women are threatened with rape on Rediff chat or Twitter, the portal and service providers cannot throw up their hands at these ‘non-technical’ issues. They are being run by people, not machines, who are a living-thinking-feeling part of our society and they cannot but address these violations in the strictest manner possible.  Such contradictions are also blatant when ‘new age’ IT companies practise gender-based wage difference and evade putting women in top positions notwithstanding their merit.

On a personal level, I have felt this yawning (literally) gap in the modernity of a techno-savvy blooming glowing shining dining young India and the way we lead our lives and make our choices time and again. A year or so back, when people I know had not started chiding me for the pounds I had gained, I got a call from a friend in advertising. A couple of actors/models had backed out at the last moment, and my friend had been assigned the task of looking for replacements. I have problems with something as commercial as product endorsements. But this was to be for a publication and promised a ‘public interest’ message. I love doing different things; this was something I had never done before, and I got all ears for the details. She described the scene to be shot to me.

Two women are in a public space, a man tries to harass one, the woman is nervous, the other woman intervenes, thus lending strength and solidarity to the first one. It seemed simple enough. It wasn’t. The two women could not be just any women. They had to be a particular sort. The target: thin, preferably fair. The intervener: someone bigger. 

I had to be the target. Always allergic to stereotypes, I asked to play the latter. My friend went back to the director and asked him. He said he couldn’t flip, that he had visualized the scene a certain way and couldn’t play with the aesthetics of it, and that it wasn’t about stereotypes. I wasn’t convinced, and my two minutes of potential fame went down the archetypal drain in less than two minutes.

My first job involved working on the Right to Information. A journalist friend informed that her magazine’s next issue was on young activists and for a change they wanted not models but activists for the cover. I appreciated the nous of the magazine in wanting to have real, ‘flawed’, and not airbrushed people on the cover, something that most mainstream magazines are loath to do. As for being on the cover, I felt I was young enough but not activist enough. I asked her if I could pass the brief around, thinking I’d ask a young friend who had been engaged with activism longer than I had. My journalist friend asked her editor. She reverted to hesitantly inform me that while the magazine was looking for activists, they wanted someone thin, and preferably fair. I stated that I wasn’t up for it if such were the criteria for selection. But I told my other colleagues about the opportunity. (Looking back, I felt I shouldn’t have passed the word around for a shoot that ostensibly chose people for their work but based on their skin colour and body type.) I thought I shouldn’t impose my opinions on them. Finally, someone was chosen from our group who, though not fair, was slim enough but was even newer to activism than I was.

The cover needed men too. When my friend proffered, they required him to get rid of his facial hair. He refused.

The magazine cover we eventually saw on the stands had some stiff models, except the person chosen from our organization, in fashionably ‘ethnic’ clothing. Considering that the magazine was conforming to stereotypes, it hadn’t done a great job of it. The models were more ‘model-like’ than ‘activist-like’ but, the lord be blessed, reflected enough white light and had all the right angles.

That we live in a regressive society riddled with stereotypes around gender, class, caste, race and religion is yesterday’s news. But the jab of disappointment is particularly sharp when as young people, ‘with it’ in every way and adept in playing with the toys of technology, we go back to walking on all fours the moment we are called upon to stand up for things. In the first instance, a young director, in whose hands sophisticated technology willingly yielded to enhance his creativity, felt turning stereotypes on their heads would interfere with aesthetics. I do not have his skills, experience and expertise, and I am in no position to question them. But can aesthetics and politics not go hand in hand? Does art have to be apolitical and politics unaesthetic?

When I ask my friends in advertising about why commercials still try so hard to conform, they say that while they are dying to do brave new work, their clients are afraid of taking risks and have no romantic notions about traversing the road less taken. So on screen, we hardly see men changing diapers and women being the breadwinners, though such real-life instances have been around for quite some time now, even if they aren’t the norm yet. Technology, claiming to deliver things ahead of our times, fails when as popular media it cannot even keep pace with the times.

Of course, there do exist some young people discerning enough to acknowledge that this is not how it should be. Having studied literature, my friend went for an advertising course hoping to introduce to that world the gender sensitivity and non-conformity she had always believed in and absorbed even better in college. Upon joining the new course, it did not take her long to grasp that advertising expected her not to use her previous education but unlearn it. She tried to change things, came up with exciting presentations of her ideas but nothing budged. She ultimately decided to quit and got back to academics, instead of doing something that flew in the face of all she stood for.

There are also some who stay but keep trying to create a dent instead of allowing themselves to get completely co-opted. An editor I know ensures that the primary school textbooks she handles have Ravi and Sunil fetching water and doing other household chores, apart from studying.  ‘No Malti or Susheela would ever wash utensils in by book, while Ram goes to school,’ she promises. While publishing is a business, she ensures that being responsible for the content she does not lend a hand in planting gender stereotypes in young minds.

If there were more such who insisted on pushing against the wall instead of predicting it won’t give way, or resisted becoming a part of something they did not believe in, if we did not let ourselves be a supine mass of wood floating in any direction that wind or water would deign to carry it, undoubtedly the tectonic shift one had never dared to hope for because of its scale would have happened. Still can.

In the case of the magazine cover, we had a well-established publication for the youth trying to do something different and real. But the media house was trying to be radical in a halfway, conditional manner, not confident that their young readership would be welcoming enough of their initiative. When I was in the Film and Television Institute, Pune, we had a guest lecture by young film-maker Dibakar Banerjee. He has contributed gems to the Hindi film industry like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Love Sex Aur Dhokha and Shanghai. Among other things, his films often expose middle-class hypocrisies. In each of his works, he has shown brilliant film-making and has got his politics right, thereby answering the question of the compatibility of politics and aesthetics. Speaking to us, he shared his frustration over how young couples ‘modern’ in every sense of the term would say that they cannot marry each other because one of theirs is a no-onions-nor-garlic family. No different are our matrimonial ads where the young gleefully participate with their parents in a caste-based elimination-selection of prospective partners.

In Love Sex Aur Dhokha, we witness an India which is abreast with technological advancement but is actually using it to fulfil its greed, creating a divide between the doer (the user of technology) and the done upon (the ones against whom technology has been used). One example shown in the movie, and something rampant in recent India, is the use of hidden cameras for pornography and blackmail. The employment of technology to commit crimes like foeticide is also common amongst the middle class. At the other end of this lie our daily soaps where they reveal that girls are valuable indeed and, of course, the best way to understand this is to see them performing sacrifices and participating in trials by fire, all in order to do what they do best – ‘keep the family together’.

All these issues are related to the young inhabitants of India, who know their iPods like the back of their hand but are shy of breaking free of the old dogmas on which they base their lives. The old principles – honesty, truth, standing up for ourselves and others, sharing our privileges – lying forgotten are the inconvenient ones. Even as I wrote this, it came as a small shock to me that I paused to think of whether there are ‘cooler’ substitutes for these words; words that should have been basic to our existence now sound ‘loaded’, ‘outdated’, ‘moralistic’, as if human values also come with an expiry date, and all rights and wrongs have become perspectival (unless we are at the receiving end of those wrongs). Those of us who have discarded all ideologies need to find them back. Those who think who they have them need to probe deeper to practise them with complete scrupulousness. The young, technology-driven India is an India privileged like never before. But on the other side, there’s the underprivileged India, some of whose young members are fighting brave battles on their personal and societal fronts. The privileged India cannot simply be the benefactor of a modern India and refuse to acknowledge its accountability. If a girl from a family where ‘honour killing’ is a threat runs away to escape a fate imposed by her family, she is of huge inspiration to me. People like us are clearly better ensconced and do not run risks so dire. In comparison, and also in deference, to that girl if we do not even shake ourselves out of our stupor to assert to our (surely, more understanding) families a right as basic as that of choosing our partners, we should shed all pretensions of modernity. One expects this young India to raise the right questions and find some answers, and if the process causes discomfort or inconvenience, to kindly deal with it.

After the 16 December rape case in Delhi, we had cried ourselves hoarse asking the state and the police to deliver justice and had sworn that we would not let this go on. To fulfil that promise, we ought to do justice to our own lives as conscientious beings. We have to use technology and all the privileges we have received as part of the modern world package to seek and destroy whatever is rotten in the state of India. There is no other way we can allow ourselves to go on.

First published in The Equator Line, August-October 2013.


manju said...

A very thought provoking article for the present times. Read it again and again.India needs to change.

manju said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ankita said...

My prompt reader always :). Thank you for reading.

manju said...

The pleasure is mine.:)

Unknown said...

i read it in in the morn, and i was thinking about those techno-sexuals whole day. Indeed a must read. Please do write about how personal laws in India, though they violate various fundamental rights(art. 14 and art. 15), are exploiting women, and still unheard and uncared.
Thanks and regards.

ankita said...

Thanks, Prashant. Personal laws are definitely something worth understanding better and writing about.

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