Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ready for that Rocket?


The Surreal World of Preparation to Enter Other Galaxies
Hollywood uses a plethora of grey in the new films that it makes for viewers in  cinema halls and of television. The subdued lighting, whether it is space age fiction, or murder mysteries or espionage tales, all tell us that the world has to be understood with it’s new significance, that there is no longer black, white or colour, which will inform our  post modern understanding. The subtlety of this choice is overplayed, not just by shooting indoors, often in laboratory settings or in toned down apartments, but the threat perception is exaggerated with evening scenes and clouded skies.  With post terrorism appearing in the west, the battle lines have changed. The new forms of warfare know no boundaries, there is no ethic, no sportsmanship on either side, and even less,  etiquette. The advertisement breaks return the viewer to the real world, as there are routine chores for the housewife,  such as food to be prepared, and water collected, before the family returns. In a way, the sophoric romances too, so appealing to couch potatoes, have been replaced by sullen dramas which paint old age as vicious, children as traumatic and traumatising, married couples as continually adulterous or suspicious. However, when the  viewer returns to the t.v, she finds the same old advertisements are continually replaying. This nexus between the advertisers and the channels are probably worth millions, but it’s boring to be sold the same shampoos, soaps and face creams over and over again. It has the desired effect of making the viewer feel that the traditional remedies of orange or lemon scrub, papaya, turmeric, cream of milk and friendly oils such as sesame, are quite out of the pale.
Fair skin for men and women is such a premium that it makes one wonder what happened to the debates on skin colour and racism. The dark good looks of Omar Sharif or the great Shakespearean actor Sir Lawrence Olivier are a thing of the past. Their earthiness, their corporeality, their passion have been replaced by the fervour, cunning, athleticism and shockingly cereberal or erudite prowess of the new actors, well paid, handsome, and in tune with the Star Wars manifesto of having blank faces and quick  moves. Indian viewers of Hollywood realise that  every decade finds one or two takers, who can mimic the west’s ideal of how tropical faces can assimilate Caucasian orientations to beauty. Ofcourse, Priyanka Chopra, loved by admen, producers, and viewers equally has entered the world of recognition by the West. But is there a West, anymore? The world, through the contribution of Business Processing Houses is singularly round, and dialects and accents produced according to the consumer’s need. What makes the film industry so relevant is that it jumps ahead of it’s times, it memorises the details of scientific paraphernalia and jargon, is able to create Mars in studios, and to fly towards the other planets, destroying the Moon on the way. However, earthlings always struggle to keep the beauty of the earth going, and the simplest of horticulturists appear to return the earth to its former naivete, before the hazardous plants from scientific revolutions poisoned the earth.
Joan Kelly, one of the most powerful feminists of the last century, asserted that the single parent household should not be viewed as an anamoly. Would she conclude that even if one’s parent was thousands of light years away, love itself is sufficient to keep the bonds of the family together? Desire for knowledge, and for extra terrestrial experiences is sufficient to make men and women, trained for the job, to set aside the obligations to family and neighbourhood. The detachment, thus experienced is not detrimental, but it allows for the evolution of society. That society may not look like the one we know, or like, but the plane of intergalactic experience is such, that the viewer is actually zoned in to accept technological society as the ultimate good. In such a society, we have no right to our personal feelings, our motivations, our ambitions. We must submit to surveillance society, and the janitors who double officially as keepers of the law. The law is ofcourse, concocted by the moment. It is the oligarchy of technicians who decide what individuals may or may not do. The appearance of the individualist is the greatest anarchic moment. Hollywood states very clearly that whether it is war in the Arab countries against a terrorist enclave, or mars wars, the orientation to the doctored voice is the only clue the viewer has to what is good or evil.  We must accept the simian in the cyborg as Donna Harroway put it so brilliantly.


Friday, July 22, 2016

A Cast of Characters (excerpts from an ongoing memoir)



I was writing on the blackboard in Room 27, Hindu College, Delhi University, when there was a knock on the door. It was a man called Rajiv Lochan, not the artist, not the historian, but a Sociology student from JNU, who wanted five minutes of my time. He quickly told me, in the corridor, in a few sentences, that he wanted to compile a book of memories about JNU, and would I write for him? He seemed very young, for such a difficult task, but that’s the amazing thing about JNU, it produces mavericks and gives them confidence beyond the common imagination. I called my essay “The Years” but then Rajiv requested that I change the title to “The Days”, while he appropriated The Years as the name of the book of essays on JNU. Virginia Woolf would have been pleased.
Not long after, I went for an interview for a job to JNU, and was delighted when I got it, a Readership at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences. Dipankar Gupta and T.K. Oommen, who usually never agreed on many issues, had agreed to take me on as a faculty member. The confirmation of my appointment was held in Chandigarh, according to Prof Mrinal Miri, (who was publisher of a book I had written for IIAS Shimla,) so that any disputes regarding my appointment could be held at bay. I just shrugged, since for me, being back at JNU  as faculty had been a dream for twenty years. While I had friends in Hindu College, every alumnus dreams of  returning to JNU as if it were not a mother, but a lover.  The iconic sage,Agasthya ,too, according to legend, was happy in these  low range Arravali hills before leaving for  South India. Being married to the job was a given. My husband was not happy at all when he heard I had applied to JNU. He knew that as long as I was in Hindu College, I would write, teach, run home in time for the children’s school bus. Our life together would be unhampered. Now, a parallel existence would be our fate. I didn’t think about it, I just presumed we would all manage, and live happily ever after.
My teachers were happy to see me back. Prof K.L Sharma said, “ Ah yes, the girl who could take down every word in class and reproduce them in the final exam.” I blanched. What a horrible reputation, but yes, it was true. Eye, mind , hand and pen co-ordination were unusually good, and most likely the teachers’ words were returned to them in pristine fashion, but who would admit to it? The things we do as students, our teachers always remember. My first experience was to be shown to my office, room 22, which had so many cobwebs and was so disgusting, that I took a step back and thought, “Mrs Havisham!” but then it was cleaned up, Dipankar got me a disused table which was lying  in the sun and rain, but yet undamaged, outside in the open yard in front of my room.  I put up, in usual housewifely fashion, books, pictures, dust collectors, and soon, the room was truly livable in, and I proceeded to write many books on the once discarded table. One of the first books that came out from Room 22 was Structure and Transformation, an edited work, where I got all the people who had taught me interesting things, to write for me. They were from four different universities, and it took me ages to collate it, with lots of disjunctions, since putting together such a motley crew was hard. K.L Sharma handed me three long essays, and said “I don’t have time to write an essay for you, but if there is anything you like, you are most welcome.” So I studiously hammered  and collaged and pinned sections together of the three copious works, abstracting as I went along. It took me ages. Satish Saberwal agreed to write up his lectures to us in  1978 in the optional course I took with him and so nine case studies were presented schematically, which must have taken him the same time and labour but together, Sharma and Saberwal gave us interesting vignettes of caste and mobility. Shiv and I were not on talking terms, since I had chosen career over him, so I took an essay I really liked because he had promised to give it to me before the Long March and the Long Silence. Unlike the other essays which I standardised for uniformity, I left that one alone, and it appears in that collection as a stand alone text.
Teaching was strenuous. My teachers thought me capable, and immediately, on arrival, gave me a compulsory Mphil to teach, and like a book end in the afternoon, I had to handle  the introductory sociology course to Language students.  Personally, I thought the Elders  were totally mad.  I was 39 years old, I had three daughters, who went to school, and the youngest and the middle went to crèche as well. Their opinion however was that,  since I had taught for thirteen years in Hindu College, and as J.S Gandhi put it, “You had a great deal of teaching experience.” Dipankar was clear that everyone should be teaching three courses a year, and went about with a form and a checklist, to find out who did not. So Methodology of the Social Sciences, Introductory Sociological Themes or Basic Concepts and Comparitive Theories in Gender was my lot in the first year of teaching. It was interesting, fun, meaningful. It was everything I had wanted, but the costs on the family were huge. My eldest became responsible for collecting the two younger siblings from different  crèches after school. Since she was only 13 at that time, it was annoying and too much of a responsibility, heating their food and settling them into their homework. Suman, my maid, not finding me at home in the afternoons, dropped all the breakables at home and so dusting became a task which proved to be risk prone for the children. Shiv returned home earlier than me, from CSDS on the collective bus which came back to the residential office cooperative, and could be seen at 7.30 pm, looking irate, holding a weeping child, or catatonically watching tv with them, while wanting to get back to his writing. It was all quite a mess.
Soon after, the exhaustion levels caught up with me, and I started to break bones, by falling off flat surfaces and even ones. My husband began to escape to office, as the tv crews had started looking out for him, and the invitations to travel abroad were consecutively coming in. On one occasion, Sucheta Mahajan and I had taken our children to Lodi gardens together, and since I had just come out of plaster for three broken bones in my right arm, we were celebrating this, with pastries and an outing. I was so delighted to be out in the park with the kids, that I came down an incline with a pastry box in my hand, and fell, breaking six bones, with my hand stuck into my wrist in the most alarming fashion. We went to the bone setting clinic which had fixed my other arm just three weeks previously, and the doctor wanted to admit me with anaesthesia, but I said “No, the kids have school tomorrow, and I have to go to work.” So he gritted his teeth, and pulled my hand out from its self enforced groove. I was in plaster again, this time my left arm, but since it was winter holidays we went to Chennai, and it was not as hard as the previous accident, since I had previous experience of being single handed and appropriate clothing and skills.
JNU was always magical for me. To touch its ground was to be healed, to be happy, and the students were so wonderful, and still are, that I was dazzled. Shiv  had started travelling non stop, and going to office on week ends as well, and soon, the invitations to speak  were so plentiful, that he just boarded planes in continuity, with loyal friends and conference mates in tow. I understood that it was a situation which was fait accomplice. I would not give up JNU, he would not give up the success, and it’s symbols which included absorption into corporate academics, though as a young man  in the late seventies,he had been so much against projects and multinational funding. We were not judgemental of each other, though both of us felt deeply, that the loss to the family because of our career choices were tragic in themselves. When I told him that I wanted to shift out with the girls to become a warden at a hostel in JNU, he looked aghast, and said “But I wash all your clothes, and I pack the kids’ food, and drop it at the crèche, what more can I do , and I send the clothes for ironing, and do the shopping every morning, and see the kids to the bus stop, and I help them with their homework, and phone every evening to see what they need for crafts class.” All in one breath, and as a memory list of good husbanding, perfectly true. But then, after this plaintive plea, he went off to England, and was not seen or heard from, as was customary among jhola carrying academics in the corporate funded international rat race. I packed the books which I needed, the clothes, and the children, called a truck and went off to JNU. When he came back from his tour, he came to JNU and stared bleakly at me, but we fell into the whirl of our mutual obsessive workplaces, and didn’t look back.
Becoming warden of Ganga was an amazing experience. I was in charge of three daughters of my own, and three hundred daughters of others. Those three hundred who were residents never stopped ringing my bell at all hours of day and night. It was really perplexing. I thought, first,  they were over-dependent on us wardens because they didn’t have a life of their own. But it was  more than bizarre. One night, a total  hulk of a man student, and an equally well built woman student, both in the Phd programme rang my bell at mid night, saying they were married, and she was a resident of Ganga, but she often stayed the night at his hostel, but the men students were troubling them, and could I intervene at the men’s hostel? Then there was the  case of the young woman who rang the bell at 8 am, on a winter morning, and when I opened the door, she presented a crisp masala dosa on a plate, with the cook standing nervously behind her. “So?” I asked in taciturn fashion. “Open it, Ma’am.” So I flipped the dosa open, and saw a fat green chilly. “So?”  The cook explained it was not a chilly, but a caterpillar that had fallen through the chimney. Another time, a woman rang the bell irate because they had not got eggs in the morning. I asked the cooks why not, when I went to do the rounds, and they said laughing, “One day a week sandwiches are the rule.” What a learning experience. It was endless. They would ring my bell if they had lost the key to their rooms, they would ring it if they did not have ten rupees to pay for some fine, they would just want to see me in the afternoon for no known reason.  My mother came to live with me, but then, the  school buses were being targeted by terrorists, so she was 84  years old and got quite frightened. The children were in three different schools, as their father had the grandiose idea that they should not be growing up in each other’s shadow, so I was attending parent teacher meetings and my appearance as a single parent was very visible. From being “looked after” as a  companionate wife for twenty years,  I became responsible for  everyone, including a very vulnerable old mother, who had locked up her Kerala residence and come to be with  me and the children. There were 900 students in the vicinity, (two men’s hostels adjacent to Ganga where we lived) so she actually enjoyed it, including the eager calls and cries of the men students, as they waited for the loved ones they courted so assiduously. Some of them parked their motorcycles downstairs, and the beautiful Rapunzels would comb their hair  on their balconies, and carry on desultory conversations, above my bed room, at all hours of day and night. When Jhelum Night happened, or festivals and fairs pertaining to student elections, Holi or demonstrations, or carnivals of food and rollicking, the walls of my bedroom would actually shake from the voltage of the megaphones. When Meera, my eldest had her 10th board exams, we had to ship her to friends’ houses, in Dakshinapuram, since February to April the sociability level of JNU students is noticeably higher than other times.
 Unfortunately, I  had a very serious cerebral stroke in October of 2000 which changed all our lives. I was quite maimed by it, but slowly recovered with L-dopa and cortesone treatment for ten days  at Apollo Hospital,  and the attention of excellent physicians, and in time there was no sign of the stroke, which initially  had a scarring facial paralyses to go with it. The Centre gave me six months as “non-teaching semester” since the clerk at administration said sabbatical was only for those who had taught seven years.  Dipankar said in a very kind way, that I.P Desai never left his campus, and the world came to see him, so it would be the same for me, even if I never travelled. He had tea with me most mornings till he developed a clot, several years later,  in his leg from too much airplane travelling, and found teaching three courses a year beyond his physical capability, which is sometimes a function of time and endless committee meetings and selection board responsibilities of older faculty. Two decades previously, when I was a  research student at Delhi University, working with Veena Das,  Andre Beteille had said to me sonorously one morning when our paths crossed, “Lecturers lecture, Readers read, and Professors Profess.” Both he, and T.K, Oommen in JNU have always maintained that  they prioritised teaching over travelling in their active years in the University.
I continued to teach my three courses a year, and to write and publish. My healing was not rapid, it was slow and steady.  I continued with my duties as hostel warden thanks to the really wonderful support staff whom we had. The Manager of the  Ganga hostel was a retired army havildar with a very neat writing,  who drove in on his scooter from Gurgaon every morning, and who was paid, in 1999, very low wages a month, for his onerous duties.  I was never able to solve some of the mysteries of of JNU, but they were probably generated by the UGC since when VC Asis Datta  paid the cooks 10,000 rupees a month as he said they worked very hard, the bureaucratic backlash was huge. So the student audit  for daily wage workers, on behalf of JNUSU, was a typical revolutionary act for which I was always grateful.
 I asked Asis Datta for a house on VC quota a year after I had the stroke, because ABVP students took a procession through my house since I was chief warden and did not permit out of quota accommodation. ABVP students wanted  to be on par with AISA, who had an age old adda in Ganga.  Since rooms were allocated on the bases of an administration prepared list, (and not on the whims of political parties,) by refusing to give in to the political cadre, my action brought daily protests, and I thought I should look out for myself  as an academic and the children’s future. Asis Datta gave me a  neat little house in Poorvanchal,  though committee members said since I had recovered from my stroke, why should I be accommodated out of turn? I lived there happily for ten years, though unfortunately my mother who was 86 had to go to an old age home in Kerala, because she could not climb stairs and the clerks in administration said, “Madam, rules are rules, you have to live in Poorvanchal for two years atleast.” The children were distraught when Mum left because she had put me on my feet, after my illness, and every morning, she was always ready with breakfast, missing notebooks, and the lost belt or the vanished socks, triumphantly producing them as morning anxiety built up before  the school bus turned up at 7 am. The parents of children at the bus stop became my support group, and all of them were eminent scholars and writers, so in a way, the children grew up in a commune of intellectuals who safeguarded them. I can never forget Avijit Sen turning up in his red bulb ambassador to pick up Meera from her exam on his way to the Planning Commission, but I had also turned up in an auto rickshaw, and he said irritably, because he was probably late on his deputation work “But Jayati told you I would pick her up.” Neeladri Bhattacharya and Chitra Joshi, Praveen and Smita, Ashwani Deshpande, Chitra Harshvardhan, the Rathis, so many who just picked up the younger siblings and took them to sports day and other functions, while I took class, walked home, refused cakes and celebrations and fried foods, and read in bed.  I owe the benediction of keeping my job equally to my friends, Ratna and Mani, who were  almost local guardians to  me and my children, and my visits to Ramanasrmam twice a year, and to my homeopath and confidante Mohammad Qasim, every month, and to my yoga teacher Ajay Shastri, who worked in some underpaid capacity in the JNU sports stadium, but was friend, philosopher and physician to so many of us.
My teachers were in the first decade of the 21st century beginning to retire. One by one, with grand farewells and acknowledgement of 25 to 38 years of service they went on to do other interesting things, and have alternative careers as catalysts of the state and the Sociological Association. We had eight departures during the years 1997 to 2011, and were fourteen teachers for many years, so the  work load was huge. Each one of us, who remained and graduated to be Elders ourselvers, were responsible for 12 to 20 Phd students at any given time. After seven years of waiting in the threshold when T.K Oommen retired in 2004, I got the Classical Thinkers Course to teach, and it was a great moment, since that was what I liked best as a course. I also taught Historical Method in Sociology, a paper which our teachers Yogendra Singh and T.K Oommen had passed as an optional Mphil course, many decades ago when they founded the department. I   taught Gender Studies, Sociology of Religion and Modes of Cultural Analyses.  One year, I taught Economy and Society, since my former teacher  M.N. Panini wanted to go for a stint abroad, and it was tough, but  by chance I was blessed with a class which had ten students from Presidency College that year, so everything took a natural Marxist turn towards understanding the market and consumption.
The students were always scintillating, respectful and hardworking and continue to be. Even if I had personally missed the Marxist boat, though my father was a card carrying Marxist in the 1950s, and now the Ambedkarite one, no one taxed me about it, as writing was a form of practice for me. I learnt a great deal from the students, both the M. A as well as the researchers. They came with their hopes and aspirations, some had four years, others seven in JNU, to fulfil their ambitions. I helped them as best as I could, since my mentor Leela Dube, who was my colleague at NMML in 1989 to 1993, had instilled in me a certain tenderness toward younger scholars by her own behaviour to those of us who were perhaps thirty or forty years younger than her, but were treated as equals. My JNU teachers were also very much around, and both Y Singh and T.K. Oommen brought to the Centre their grandeur and their memories. They made the Centre seem like a legacy, and though they were growing older, they kept up the momentum of conference appearances by saying something new everytime they were on the platform.
When a phalanx of women first joined in the 90s, beginning with Patricia Uberoi, the old guard were a little hesitant about our polemical perspectives as feminists. The stance that “gender neutrality was value neutrality” was slowly whittled away by the presence of so many of us who were recruited in that decade, who brought the intense strands of anthropology, feminism and dalit experiences. Our teachers adapted very fast, and distilled these into their own teaching curricula. Nandu Ram had been a very steadfast voice since the late 70s of the crucial interventionist method of secular dalit interpretations. He would begin his first M.A class to newcomers  by saying, “Is it possible that humans can be born from the feet or the mouth?” As Dean of School of Social Sciences in 2011  before he retired, his term coincided with my chairpersonship of CSSS. He was meticulous with ledgers and records. The Ambedkar Chair which never found an occupant after his departure had been vitalised by his experience as an intellectual  who knew hundreds of people whom he networked with and invited to his conferences.
 All our teachers in CSSS gave us the feeling that the inviolability of work was the only refuge. We really knew nothing about them personally, and Nandu Ram often complained that the generation, ( which is today the “old generation”) never bothered to drop by to the Professors rooms  and chat. We just did not have the time and to tell the truth, nor did they as they were famous intellectuals constantly writing or managing the Sociological Association. We were busy with duties at home and at work, and had no social skills. Just getting past the details of the day’s work was exhausting. Our teachers had wives who ran the house, paid the phone bill,  and left them free to read, write and travel. We were run off our feet with doing both, chores at home and work, whether men or women. To admit to this, may be politically incorrect, but then, that’s the Sociological imperative, for Feminists, to speak of the hidden.
When I joined in 1997, the faculty meetings were like football matches. The men raised their voices, there were contestational spaces, and if the women intervened they would shout louder to drown out our voices. It would get quite noisy, and on one occasion when the different opinions became a site of public display, Nandu Ram almost wept because of the lack of courtesies. What our teachers managed very well, and which we are not yet perfect with, was the façade. They had huge differences among themselves, and they were open about it in faculty meetings. At public occasions and in the corridors, they would greet each other with politeness and yes, affection. It’s a tribute to these courtly manners that  we, the middle generation, tried to keep up appearances but the relationships were much more brittle, given the general climate of distress and psychological turmoil in the city in which we lived in. However, the students were never pawns in the display of differences, and the ability to keep the Centre cohesive depended on the sophistication of our cultural abilities to hide our feelings. Centre for the Study of Social Systems was always run on the smooth, oiled and natural bureaucratic abilities of our teachers. The managerial administrative staff was always very supportive and even if there was the natural turn over of secretaries and Administrative Officers, the spine remained constant, allowing for both memory and filing cabinets to be in synchrony.
We can only thank the Fates for their generosity in keeping the “just balance”, as Simone Weil called  it, and when CSSS was ranked as one of the best Sociology departments in the world, it seemed a chance but opportune moment to thank our teachers, across the different universities in India and abroad, all still alive   and working, innovating and thinking, though edging into their seventies and eighties.
Susan Visvanathan

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Udtha Punjab


Udtha Punjab
 Udtha Punjab takes the story of modernisation forward by  depicting  antiheroes as pawning their motherland, in the name of diaspora Punjabis, who bring back cultic forms of hip hop and addiction to cocaine to levels which are as huge as the opium wars of the 18th and 19th century. Who should we blame, ask the journalists, who follow the film maker, and with the typical courage of the Indian newspaper men and women, follow the real addicts to their various dens. The parallels  between fiction and reality are extreme. Each one faces their God, the film maker seems to say, in some cases, it is science and rationality, in others it is their faith and optimism, and in yet others, it is their dealer. Mexico is the analogy, as the relation between the drug dealer and the State, whether the police or the politician is earmarked for special attention. It is interesting that television brought visuals of how rehabilitation centres in Punjab were involved in  the trade in opiates, which were handed out to patients for helping them phase out, but infact were addictive too.
In Jamaica, Rastafarianism legitimates cannabis use, since it is freely available, and users refer to it as the gift of Ganga, brought to them by indentured labour. The memories of slaves from Africa and India combines in this friendly atmosphere of mutual recognition. Like Bill Clinton, it is impossible not to have inhaled in a country, where the very air is potent with marijuana. However, the inhabitants are not complaining, and what happens in Jamaica remains in Jamaica. An important musician, who had his hashish confiscated from him by a Policeman, was later returned it, because it was of such good quality, much to the amusement of both parties. The judgementality of good and evil is blurred in many cultures, because as a social given somethings may be permissible in some cultures and some may not. Cultic evil, cultic death, lodges of secret obsessive and violent behaviour are known in all cultures at all times.  At New York Airport, I not only had to go through the body scan like everyone else, I was put through the most alarming check by a young police woman in a manner, which led me to ask her, “Aren’t your body scans efficient enough?”, but she prodded and pried in full public view, till I took off my sweater as well, and then, she said, after using a rubber mallet and gloves to check my body yet once again, and passing her gloves and tool through yet another scan, “You can go back to your normal life.” Oh New York!  No residue on my skin, and I was sent on my way. Two women in Burkhas who had gone through the same treatment were collecting themselves in  another corner, and one said to the other, in perfect European diction, “That was a very seminal examination!”
People feel cornered all the time, someone or the other is always targeting another. The feeling is so comprehensive, it can no longer go by the name of racism, or casteism or male chauvinism, since the women as representatives of any ideology can be very emphatic too. about their so called "agency".
 One can imagine Gandhi refusing to be bullied by the coach inspector. There are many of us, who have gone from day to day, saying to the honey pot crusader, yes, you have an internet site from which you can hack anyone’s email id, but what the hell, you live in hell and so do I, so let’s just say, this is planet earth, and you are welcome!  The most significant thing about  hackers’ creative commons, is that their  own fields are never accessible.
This tolerance for one another’s disadvantage is what makes mutual recognition possible. It is what makes us look at the smiling faces of assassins, who say they are doing what they do because the Lord told them, or because they feel called to do it, or it’s fun anyway. We no longer understand the rage of others, but we are moved by their ineptitude, because as very young people, caught up in one religious ideology or other, they leave such a trail of destruction behind, including their own corpses. Sociologists are trained to communicate to their students that God is a social construction, God is a social representation, when the Gods are forgotten, they die. Udtha Punjab with it’s loss of the sacred, it’s loss of the humane represents just such an entity. It shows a new generation born of the Green Revolution, either as migrant labour, or as a quasi propertied class  being ransacked by it’s own incompetence. This is the generation that has spawned out of the hatred of the 1980s, and has victimised its own children by its boredom and it’s frustration. Whoever thought it would be the “white” (cock/coke as the film’s character Tony Singh puts it) cultural revolution that would kill Punjab and Haryana with its axes of being a remnant culture, where forms of feudalism would surface in new ways. Ideologies remain where they do, in the heads of people. The real truth is survival, and the codes would remain different for the people who agree to engage in some transaction. For the generation born in the euphoria of the 1950s, the culture of  contemporary greed is by itself variegated, and requires its own analyses.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Stalking


Stalking
The woman/man feels alone, in the house, in the city, in the office room. She/he may be with or in a crowd, she/he may have family, many friends. Yet, when she crosses the road, there is someone looking at her, following her, making unseemly eye contact in a lewd fashion. When she is at home, she maybe woken up by the bell. It is her neighbour, her husband's friend. He wishes to come in, the watchword is friendship, trust. She believes it’s a risk, but she lets him in. And what follows is years of regret, because he takes advantage of the situations, professes his undying love. She is embarrassed, they are friends, she does not know how to handle the situation. The predator knows no remorse, he is guileless, and friendly, abject and controlling all at the same time. The woman argues and vents her anger, when that has no effect, she tries to communicate that it is a crime. He laughs. Most often,  however, as in the recent case of Swathi in Chennai, it is a stranger, who the woman finds repelling, but has no reason to complain about officially because he has not done anything except gaze at her, and follow her.
Stalking is so common in India, that every woman has experienced it either directly or vicariously. The most wretched situations arise, when the family is sympathetic, but believes that the woman is over re-acting. They say, “Don’t worry. I’m sure it won’t happen again.” They themselves don’t know how to react to it, so their embarrassment is covered up by their routine actions, like returning to the newspaper, or to cooking.The stalker is anonymous, the woman is too ashamed by his daily covert attentions. She too, believes that the problem will go away. And then, she too begins to respond to the situation in covert ways. When the family member asks, “Is the man still following you?” she looks away and says, “No, not a problem.”
The stalker uses romance/love/obsession as the  reason for his/her behaviour. He communicates that the feelings are beyond him, he believes fate has a reason for choosing her as the object of his affection, his romantic interest. Whatever she says, objecting to his advances, he has an answer: ‘because it is predestined, because we have known one another in a past life, because I do not feel this way for another etc;’ and since he is a practised liar and felon, attempting to steal the body and soul of another, his words become his only password into a stranger’s life. The victim tells her friends, she does not want to worry her  parents any more. She shows her friends when he appears, but he is too vague, too distant, too amorphous, too quick to  fade into the shadows, the bubbles of the glass in the train window hide him. They are frightened too, but they can only comfort her, and they also communicate that he is essentially harmless.
Young people cannot tell their parents what frightens them most, because the order of existence demands that they continue with their normal lives. If they tell their parents, then the latter stop them from going out, or escort them everywhere, which takes out the vibrancy of daily routines. To be an adult, is to be in control of the situation. So the victim starts each day, with a sense of panic, of shame. She knows he will appear,  proposition her, and leave guiltlessly, enjoying her fear.
In Chennai, Swathi took the train, routinely. Her murderer turned up, with a sickle, and killed her in view of the other passengers waiting to board a train. The commuters thought them to be friends arguing, and were non-plussed when she was killed. Stalking and being decapitated are so routine, that they just did not bother. The televisions they watch every evening when they return from work, show many  similar instances of terror and death. This was another instance. Not very different from the JNU case, where a class mate killed his woman friend because she refused to marry him. He too, was carrying a machete in his carry bag. He committed suicide, but he told the Professor of Russian, who was holding the wounded body of the woman, while the class remained numb, “You’re a Muslim, and I am a Jat.” These identities, so arbitrarily produced out of a suicidee’s mouth, as he lay writhing in death pangs, were the epitaph to the India that we know. Returning to tradition means that a man can kill a woman because she does not agree with him. Justice however, in constitutional terms means that citizenship comes before cross cutting identities. In the JNU case, the predator died, but the victim survived. Now, with predatory Islamic terrorism, Muslims are being targetted and with them their secular friends. The lovely  Tarishi Jain is no more, and the assassins, posing as if for a toothpaste advertisement frighten us by their joi de vivre.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trip to Nelliampatti, Palakkad, January 2016



A Visit to a Palakkad Hill Station, January 2016, or the Case of an Antarjyathi
I started out  on field trip on a bright January morning, camera in hand and took a bus some sixteen kilometres from Palakkad, since I had to change buses. After walking up and down  at that interim rural bus stop, for quite sometime, and watching the lottery ticket seller, I realised that he was a terrific  informant. People not just asked him whether their bus had gone, they also wanted to tell him about the latest quarrel, the price of paddy, the wedding in their church and the pilgrims who visited the village on the way to Sabarimalla.  As I was eavesdropping on these conversations, I saw the bus to Nelliampatti as it reached the stop. I ran and caught it, but then it went into a long wait, as buses going to obscure places do. The people who got in were rural, they had come to Nellampara to sell or buy something and now they were going back to the tea estate at Nelliampatti.
When the bus  took off, it did  so with practised ease, rolling along country roads with a man in a blue shirt driving, yelling greetings to all his passengers, and villagers enroute. The Kerala bus drivers have a hard task, since they have speed limits to observe, pouring rain, narrow roads, on  occasion there are uphill climbs, and regular passengers who love to hear ear crashing loud music as they go from point to point. On this occasion, we had to travel 30 kms uphill, on an unusually pristine route. The forest guards are particular that there should be no garbage disposal, no cigarettes, no alcohol bottles junked out of windows. The signs say that it will cause the offender to pay a fine of Rs 2500. I wish this was the case for all of Kerala, where garbage piles up and is put to burn all over the State.  The bus goes up to the orange farms run by the government, in Nelliampatti. Here the  wage workers, the honey moon couples, and young children with their parents get off. The oranges are grown under huge tarpaulin green houses, and the fruit  sold by local merchants in tourist friendly shops, which also advertise tea and natural honey.
A woman sitting directly behind me, a small, fair, Tamil Brahmin woman,  smiles at me whenever I turn around. I have nothing to say to her, there is something so innocent,  so vacuous and intelligent, about her simultaneously. She lives by her prayers, it’s clear. There is no reason for us to talk. While I sit comfortably near the window,  she is someone  well known to the tea workers, for  all three of them sit together, squashing her a little bit, but she smiles, and says nothing. There is no bifurcation of caste and class and religion here. They are labourers, dressed neatly, their scarves covering their hair. They are jubilant that they have received an increase in wages, thanks to the struggle of the communist workers, some of whom were put away in jail as Marxists and Maoists for months, but recently released, thanks to digital activism. The newspapers had been full of the news of Marxists in Nelliampatti for weeks! The Nelliampatti  workers do not convey their regret, except with the smallest of frowns, that the tea workers in other plantations after similar struggles received higher wages than them. For the moment it is enough that they got an increase, it allowed them to visit their children in local towns and receive and give gifts.
I was afraid to get off the bus at the Orangery, though I had a phone number for a local community of organic farmers, thinking if I missed the bus on it’s way back then I would not be in a position to go back to Palakkad before dark. So I stayed in the bus, as it went up and up and up. The air got cleaner and cooler. The tea gardens transformed themselves into coffee plantations. The tea workers got off the bus, they said they had good accommodation,  children went to local schools, each community had a place of worship, and they did get medical attention.  Lots of signs proclaimed that visitors should not throw garbage, and that there should be no photography.  At the last stop, we got off, and the smiling bespectacled, slightly balding but robust man at the back had one of the emaciated workers still with us, help him with a large sack. The conductor and driver went off to visit a relative who lived nearby (there were only two houses on that lonely hill top). The lovely passive woman sitting behind me turned out to be the wife of the bespectacled man. She  smiled sweetly at him, and went ahead. One could never have guessed their relationship previously, as they showed no sign of acknowledging one another. Clearly, that gentleman was on an official trip. I asked him what he did. “Ration shop owner.” Earlier there were two hundred families who came to him for cereals. Now there are  hardly half a dozen. He said he loved living here, “Great sky, great hills, great mountains, great country!”  he said grandiosely. Living alone with his wife on the top of a mountain, he felt immensely proud. Interestingly, he made this invocation to me in English, saying they got many visitors, mainly Japanese.
A closed temple to Mariamman, the small pox goddess, had a sign board in Tamil, since plantation workers were often from Tamilnadu, and close by was a more recent idol to Ganesh, the god of Beginnings.  A huge white bird flew out into the sky. I returned to the bus, and in a few minutes, the conductor and driver were back. The driver said he had driven the same route for forty years. When we drove downhill the conductor picked a few coffee seeds for me from a bush, so that I could see the deep red hue of the berries. A little later, we saw an agent of the coffee plantations, with a dog,  and a walking stick, dark glasses, and a cap, wearing bermudas, smiling, assured, clearly a man who enjoyed his solitude and his whisky, and was happy with his line of trade.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mother's Day


Mother’s Day
Everyday I set out, my identity as an intellectual intact, and that’s the greatest blessing my parents gave me. Hallmark cards did not exist in those days, and the only day which my father celebrated was May Day, though he had a lot of respect for Good Friday, and Diwali and Christmas. And ofcourse Eid, since he taught in Jamia Millia Islamia, having been one of the founding member of Rural Development, as his department was called in the 1950s. Dad was a real mum to us, since it was he who was always at home, when we came from school, and it was he who taught us to cook, and to do our homework, and had  a constant surveillance system in place, going through our books, and letters and even our dreams. We were never sufficiently grateful, thinking him to be just so intrusive and overpossessive. Mum was much more liberal, and we enjoyed her company in the real sense of the word, her love for books, and unlike my father, who had a lethal sense of humour, Mummy was amusing in a different way. Now I feel that the gifts of ancestors are the things we remember about them, and when we die, those memories go with us. We really have no idea about who our great grandmother was, for instance, or how we understand the gift of a fishing net adorned with shells which was my great grandmother’s dowry to the family, along with one gold coin and  five rupees. My mother was always snooty about that legend about my father’s family, and it was probably the elephant which her mother’s family owned, that she brought to her mind, when thinking about the fishing net. Whether either elephant or cowrie bedecked net really existed is anyone’s guess. I had a guest over at my place once, who told me that he was descended from those who were sent away by the king for killing a cow, and the women in their clan were  Nair princesses who were then sold to fishermen. And he looked at me, and said, “Your father’s father’s brother married one of our women.” I looked blankly at him, and wondered if the family knew of this legend, and whether the dowry of a fishnet could be explained for our line as well. Between fiction and genealogy there is never too much gap, only those are remembered who can further the interests of the group. Now, that artisanal castes are fighting for recognition, the sum of class interests are focussed on them. It is they who have the voice, it is they who are producing a new intelligentsia, and backward is as backward does, which is to negotiate a space between dalit intelligentsia climbing rapidly to the top and the Brahmanic upper castes.
For my generation, it really does not matter who we married, and how we brought up our children, it was the survival instinct that we wanted to harness most. We were a generation who listened to Janice Joplin’s “me and bobby mcgee” and while the real battle between the cowherds and the macaulayites  escalates, it is the past which beckons, the past which has no genealogy, but only a dna stamping which takes us back to Africa. One of the young woman lecturers who dropped in to see me last week, as tempers frayed on JNU campus, and the barometer climbed relentlessly, said that it was a struggle teaching African kinship and social structure to undergraduates, as they could not see the relevance of it in their lives. Comparative Sociology never needed legitimation in the 70s of the last century. Reading about the Mother’s Brother and bilateral filiation among the native Americans and about ghost marriages in Africa were always exciting, and our teachers released our imagination.  Teaching is always a strenuous occupation, it is a vocation, and not the sum total of knowledge garnered for purposes of passing the NET examination. Passing or failing the NET exam can never be the index  of academic achievement. To be a good teacher one must be free of worries, of where salaries come from, or what the State will say, or what the agenda of the clerical and administrative bureaucracy is. It has it’s own checks and balances which include teacher student ratio, and the continuous feedback from young people, who enrich our bibliographies with their own rite of passage.
However to think that students “run” the university, or that they will do so,  after anarchic and life asserting moments are absorbed into the university calendar as part of student democratic rights, is pushing the mile stone too far. We have a breathing space, let’s use it to be just, fair, generous and reasonable. Alma mater has a history, a written constitution, a logo, a chronology of achievements and we need to keep moving. While aggressiveness in speech is recognised as reprehensible, the student community need to know that the teachers are not with them on all the vile things they shout when they are looking to upset the apple cart.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Museums and Childhood


Of Museums and Childhood.
When I joined Hindu College in 1984, I made a gang of friends, who on odd Saturdays would go somewhere, do something, meet for lunch. There were a dozen of us, I was twenty eight  years old  and I had a new baby, and so did another member of the English Department, Renuka Booth. Going to the National Museum, or to Dilli Haat,  or to the Cottage Industries at Janpath,or to the hills with students was not something we did often, but it was memorable. We were salaried professionals, and enjoyed the pleasures of our financial independence, though the pittance we brought home went to paying grocery bills or house rent. I bought a bunch of cowbells from Dilli Haat, and though my upstairs neighbour at that time, borrowed them and did not return them (because her child liked it too much) it still remains as one of the significant purchases of a first job. College lecturers, all of us, somewhat looked down upon by the general public (“Lecturers koi kam Nahi Karte” were the invectives of the middle class upon us, and ofcourse the professoriate  in Delhi University at that time,were kind, patronising and mildly contemptuous. The fact that the publishing record of undergraduate lecturers in the Arts and Humanities was hugely  higher than that of the post graduate departments in the 1990s is a fact not to be forgotten. The new systems of  academic accounting actually dull the teachers; leave them free and let them pursue their intellectual ambitions without saying ad nauseum, “Where is the output?” like the king wanting hay turned into gold.
I remember the Mohenjo Dara and Harappa section of the National Museum in the early 1990s, when my three daughters were growing up, and learning to know the city of Delhi. On hot summer days, it was a nice place to browse, with young children, and the  teams of school children following their energetic teachers.  Corpses folded into earthen ware pots left us completely tongue tied. There were the amber beads, and the miniature toys, and the lovely designs on pottery. The Gandharva exhibits with the greek looking heads of Buddha and the sundry warriors and damsels were lovely too. Up and up you go, seeing the clothes the Mughals wore, and the delicate detailed painting of Rajputana. When the currency section opened, the coins of Gudnapheres had me completely entranced, not to mention the plethora of Mauryan and Roman coins, and ofcourse cowrie shells gleaming in the boxed light. 
And then there were days, we went to the Natural History Museum. When I saw the staff sitting on the pavement after it burned down, I felt sorry for them, it’s bad enough to lose your life’s work, but not to have a place to go to when the hot summer winds blow? What could be worse than that? One of the members of that group was a gifted artist, who once had an exhibition at Triveni Kala exhibition in the late 1980s. He drew the forts of Madhya Pradesh, which one sees from the train, perched high up on bare rocks. They were black line drawings, austere, skilled draftsman’s drawings. I felt totally in love with his work, but although they were priced at 800 rupees, circa 1980s, I did not have the money.  We were fighting union battles those days, and our pay went up from 4000 rupees to 6000 rupees per month, but rent and food bills, just did not allow us to have that additional spending money. Window shopping and friendships were sufficient for us in those days.
In the Natural History Museum, the children never dragged their feet, which they could when they went to the zoo with me, as the caged animals were never pleasing to them, and only the snake cage created a mild ripple of interest, or the greedy catatonic crocodiles in their fetid state of stupor. The Natural History Museum welcomed us with that wide mouthed laughing dinosaur, and then there was the image of the worms any ancient mariner would have been proud of, from whom we humans had ascended. And the musty exhibits in their glass cases were so remote from our lives, including impaled butterflies.  After climbing the stairs, right to the top, the children complaining a little,  we would go to Triveni for lunch, and shake off the sense of extinction that accompanied us.
 The National Gallery of Modern Art on days when summer was depleting its store of fatal days, and running into the monsoon was equally delightful. The children got their sense of the world from the rooms in which Amrita Shergil paintings led you from company art and it’s  black and white etchings to the Tagore School, and then upstairs to the larger rooms where the Hussains, Tyebs and one summer a whole new array of the generation of Rajiv Lochan and his age set were on display with their luminescent or dread oils. Museums grew bigger, better, ticketed, tourist friendly. The reproductions hung in our homes, often not framed, just tacked on with scotch tape on the wall.
 Now, I wonder what will replace the  Dinosaur exhibitions at Natural History Museum, with their plastic reproductions and terrifying cries, creating immense excitement among five and eight year olds. 
I’m waiting for my granddaughter to grow up, so I can do the rounds of the Museums again, after 20 years. And the zoo ofcourse. But let me mention the Science Museum as another delight, with it’s frequently broken exhibits, where eager children must have turned the handle too aggressively, and ofcourse the black and white photographs of our science pundits looking gravely back at us. What’s family, but the continuous sense of rotation and revolution, and the feminist space of recreating the world, regardless of blood or war, fiction or fact? In the Lal Quila, the markets of the traders with their extravagant turqoises, and the baths of the Kings, and the howling of the Delhi wind accompanies the slaves  as they move in that relic past to give the last king his food and drink while he writes in the middle of the pond, where he had a room to tide his summer days of writing and reading before being pushed off to Rangoon. Let’s hope we can keep our monuments and museums. Humayun falling down from the stairs of his library still echo in our ears when we visit his tomb, as does Bairam Khan’s gentle presence in the company of eager young lovers and old people walking to ease their bones. But picnics in the old forts is another story, that includes Tughlakabad and Suraj Khund.