Thursday, December 1, 2016

Demonetisation as Greek Tragedy

Awaiting Burial
 Sophocles,  was a Greek general, who wrote the play Antigone, around 440 B.C.  Creon is Antigone’s mother’s brother and his son Haemon, is engaged to marry his cousin. Their marriage is doomed, because Antigone’s brother, Polynices, returning from exile is killed in battle with his own brother,  Etiocles, who dies too. With the death of Etiocles, Creon, as their nearest relative, ascends the throne. Antigone, her sister Ismene, Etiocles and Polynieces are all children of Oedipus, who through ignorance slept with his mother, and then put out his eyes, when he came to know of the terrible sin he had unwittingly committed.
The chorus has the most important part to play, and through its sepulchral lines it intervenes at all levels to counsel. We, too benefit on hearing it’s voice, for they say, ironically speaking of fate,  “The future is ordered by those who should order it.”  Destiny lulls us into accepting our fate, and free will liberates us.
The real focus of  the play is the arrogance of Creon, who dispenses justice by the measure of his egoism, and it counterposes Antigone’s  love for the divine, and for the ordinances of the Gods, which she will not disobey. There is some  cultural motive, some social habit, or instinct here,  of separating the human from the animal, some space of tremendous courage, where the love for the brother, amounts to a duty, which involves honouring the body, in death.
We often carry out commands because we have no alternative, much like the population of Thebes which was given to mutter. We are under the rule of a variety of despots, national and international, who make no bones about their ability to rule over the destiny of humans. We are pushed and buffeted by oligarchies. We know that  school children are blinded by pellets, in Kashmir, that people are shot in Manipur and not given a burial, but unlike Antigone, we do not press for enquiries and justice. Curiously,  though, human beings everywhere, resist despotism. They protest, they flee, they resist.
Demonetisation came upon the Indian public without warning, since hoarders and black money funds had  ostensibly to be pounced upon, by submitting all to the same punishment. No one  has asked about hawala and Swiss bank accounts, or the role of the Income Tax department in revealing where exactly the black money lies.
People have stood in queues, and have got used to it. They are adjusting to the new dispensation much as if it were a war zone, where rations will soon be distributed through just such queues.  As those vulnerable, and accepting of government claims to legitimation of these political drives,  they must accept their fate.
Ismene pleaded with Creon to release Antigone, and then pleaded with Antigone in turn to accept her, “But amidst your troubles I am not ashamed to make myself your companion in misfortune.”  Ismene has many lines in the play, trying desperately to mediate, speaking as a woman, who understands that laws when passed are totalising, and subjects have no voice. She tries so hard to  translate between her  sister and Creon, bringing  in Antigone’s faithful lover Haemon into her conversation with Creon, using marriage as a plea for her sister’s life. Antigone will not accept Ismene’s delayed overture, for her brother lay without ritual burial, and Ismene had  initially refused to help her.
 The Indian population seems Ismene like, believing that the Finance Minister and the RBI had together really, really wanted to prove the loyalty of the people to their Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the five hundred and the thousand rupee notes lie, waiting to be ritually incinerated. The freedom of speech allows many to ask, “Is digitalisation, electricity dependent and hacker vulnerable, really the answer to an economy such as ours?” Do we really want to do away with the friendly grocer who provides the busy housewife with credit when needed and conversation between routine tasks. Do we all want to stand in malls to have Reliance company vegetables sent in by phone and card? Do we want to support  rapid industrialisation which will pull out iron from holy mountains and render local communities destitute so that urban roads can be further clogged, or outer space rendered dissolute with war heads and missiles piling up? We have a right to our opinions, and the Greens movement worldwide has supported tourism and local communities, with their horticultural and organic food farms. These are political movements as much as ideological ones. If the hostile terrains had people friendly policies, such as access to food, medicine, shelter and education the death rates on all sides would immediately decrease. We could extend this to international politics, which have created a dead land of continuous bombing in the Middle East. Terrorism terrifies, but so does totalitarianism. Creons appear everywhere.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Malthusian Economics

Malthusian economics, as we know well from the works of Charles Dickens, was essentially posed to get rid of the poor and usher in the industrial revolution. Today, we understand the digitalisation revolution as an ongoing aspect of just such similar politics, as preliminary to the journey to Mars. By forcing the population into the strait jacket of conformity to a laboratory society, the Modi government has made it very clear the politics of  its extremism. Ghettoisation of Muslims in Gujerat was the first step, Extinction of the Poor the second, as this government supports industrialised farming and conspicuous consumption, promising smart cities and sanitised waterfronts. Amit Shah promises a car to every villager, as he does not have to face the traffic jams and the poison gas of the city of Delhi, in his siren wailing, gun toting -security guarded,  airconditioned and curtained car.
In America, Trump’s victory establishes the reign of similar right wingers. There too, the poor will be sent off to war, to “fight for their country”. The poor are enlisted from the agricultural populations in stifled hinterlands, and those who in the city,  find no other avenues to work. They are promised University education, on their return, or are treated for medical and psychiatric disorders in state funded camps. While they work very hard to normalise, their real life is represented in the patterns of loneliness and despair, and constant running away, mentally and physically, that makes them typical of a new class of refugees. The occupation of war keeps the arms manufacturing, the medical industry and the insurance companies well integrated with the genetic manipulation of food industries.
A demonetised proletariat in India is rendered servile, and kept from earning their daily wages. They are subjugated by the machineries of the state, which include private security agencies,  as well as police, who threaten them with dire consequences should they break out of the interminable queues to which they are shackled, in order to buy their bare necessities. A death here and there, a suicide now and then, are all flecked off as the unnecessary detritus of a well oiled state machinery that speaks to itself.  The banalities of Mr Jaitley can only come from being completely out of touch with the every day life of the nation. As for the black money, it is turning into white, at the invitation of the government, and we presume that the quantities of used notes will now be recycled into making new notes, which will return to the public, when the machines have been recalibrated. Everyone waits anxiously in queues to withdraw from the bank, and to pay the daily labourers they may employ as carpenters or gardeners or maids. The ideologies of the political parties are varied, so each political party, which has behaved exactly as we expect them to do, which is populist and petty bourgeoisie, including the Communists, ask the same question, “Why were we not told?”
Trump’s contribution to war mongering has been so arrogant, that it causes some embarrassment to the viewer. Modi’s call to war against terrorism carries much the same rhetoric. By demonetisation, the State’s coffers are full, and war is one way of spending the cash. Let’s hope that the military does not become a collective of mercenaries looking to exchange lives for promised pensions. When the Government said, after a tragic suicide by an ex soldier that the  promised OROP was only  to collect votes, the nation was completely startled. A young girl’s suicide after several attempts to get money out from the bank has been horrific. No one more than the Indian media has been alert to the travesties of justice in this government. Can we just stop to ask why the RSS thinktanks in the Government would believe that they can do what they want, without thinking of the consequences. The Ambanis are not in the news, the Adnanis have everything their way, the Swiss accounts of those who siphoned money out of the country are in a haze of anonymity. The rich do not look discomfited one bit, their credit cards are numerous, and their servants stand in queues for them. Whose laughing now all the way to the bank?
Prime Minister Modi  did not know that majority of Indian people are not yet digitalised, because they are wage workers, who  may have mobile phones, but only literacy and computer skills allow for internet banking? For those who are elderly, or first generation literate, the miniscule screen of the mobile blips too fast, before they can punch in the required information. We know, even in the case of 40 naval officers who lost money in internet banking, that education and power are not enough to tackle the hackers in IT. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Business Houses

Family Firms                                                                                                       
 The late K.M Mathew, describes in his autobiography, the famous Mammen Mappillai family, founders of the Malayala Manorama in Kerala. Written at the age of 90 years, Mathew wanders through a labyrinth, with the help of his mother’s ring, symbolising love and integrity, left to him by his father, who had melted down his wife’s ornaments and had a ring soldered for each of his children. So, K M Mathew calls his memoir, “Ettam Modram” or “The Eighth Ring”,  (Penguin Viking 2015) as he was the eighth child.
The book takes on the analogy of the Ancient Mariner, with the parallel of the sea farer who tells a tale, but we remain transfixed as readers as the author writes about the travails of the family which go through unusual situations of wealth and poverty. It is as much a history of Kerala, told from the point of view of dominant caste politics, as well as their relationships with their friends and those who served  them. One of the chapters is devoted totally to the collusion politics of  C.P Ramawami Aiyar against the St Thomas Christians and the Mammen Mapillai family in particular. Participation in the Freedom Movement by the author’s father, , eight years in prison and then to return broken hearted to the bedraggled circumstances of their lost fortunes is told with intimate detail. The banks that Mammen Mappilai owned were shut down, the newspaper closed, and the family had to restart it’s ventures.
“Appachen could not bear the disappointment when the establishment that he had nurtured with his dreams and hard work, and that had grown to become the biggest insurance company in India, changed hands. It had flourished better than our bank. I sometimes think that even if it had not crashed, both the bank and the insurance company would anyway have been nationalised later, in 1969. The insurance company that Chaidambaram Chettiar took over from us became a part of the Life Insurance Corporation of India, the LIC, when all the insurance companies in the country were nationalised.” (128)
Failure was not an embarrassment to the Mammen Mappillai family. The women kept cows and sold the milk to support the family. They all lived together, when circumstances forced them to, shifting out to their own homes when their economic condition improved. Their lovely home at Kuppapuram, near Allapuzha town became their icon, in the days when  several members of the family were shunting around in small houses  in Presidency towns, while finding new trades. The balloon factory became their first successful business during the second world war, with it’s market in Bombay, where one of the brothers lived and traded. The factory itself was in one of their tea plantations,  in Kerrikunda in Chikmagalur District. The smell of latex killed off one of their brothers, K.M. Jacob or Chacko, who had resisted the appearance of the factory next to his  well maintained colonial bungalow, in the tea estate. However, the profit motive and the good of the family  as a cluster, was seen to be sufficient reason to establish  the factory, in spite of the resistance of the brother who had inherited the family gene for bad lungs.
 How the balloon factory led the way to the Madras Rubber Factory is an enthralling story.  The  Manorama Family keeps its rural sensibility, and overthrows a multinational company, using their wit, loyalty of workers, and adherence to norms. Tragedy overtakes them many times, but they just pick themselves up and start again. Among his father’s papers Mathew finds a note to the children about losses incurred while building an empire. These include the failure of a chit fund, which is a type of local banking; a lemon grass producing oil unit; a wholesale business in Kottayam; a coir processing unit; losses incurred in the Kottanad, Tamarasserry, and Nilambur estates; ship purchased and losses incurred; a cigarette factory; a tile factory; losses in land purchased in Punalur, Chengars, Pullikkanam. (199)  Ofcourse these losses were nothing to the closing down of the bank, insurance company and newspaper, during the time when C.P ruled Kerala in the name of the regent.
The women K.M. Mathew writes about dominate the narrative. His mother always hired a house in Alleppey, to have her babies, since she didn’t want to give birth in Kuppappuram which flooded regularly.  His sisters in law are marked by their grit and effeciency. As for romantic love, K.M. Mathew suggests that he never had cause to think about women before his marriage, because it was not the custom. His love for his wife, Annamma is a  palpable and grateful love  which was immortalised through a biography of the same name, which I look forward to reading. Docility and authority were the two virtues women were meant to have, apparently.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Byline Madurai

Perumal Murugan and  Home

 Perumal Murugan spoke in Delhi,  on August 22nd 2016, at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, after his two books, One Part Woman, (Maadhorubaagan) and Pyre, were published  in English, by Penguin. The foremost question in  some people’s minds was, “Will you be comfortable in metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Paris, or Berlin?” Murugan, a quiet, self assured, soft spoken man made it very clear that he longed for home, that he had never slept under a roof till he was twenty. The great outdoors, the cowshed, the loveliness of the trees, the rich earth, that was what he missed most, now that he had been forced out of the familiar places which he was so intimate with.

One Part Woman represents the Aradhaneswar cult, a soft and sensuous code for unmitigated passion, when Parvati comes home to Siva, and merges into him. For those who hated Murugan’s representation of  an arbitrary coitus as serving the practical interests of people without children, the traditions of local communities were forcibly sanitized by them, in popular protests in order to write new cultural histories. Murugan however, was very clear that tradition and history are suffused in our present. He believed that fiction merely clothed emotions which still lie latent, and all the possibilities of promiscuity, when conjoined by faith, deliver us into a landscape that is peopled with other realities, other truths. To write intimately of the wretchedness of traditional practice, with the seductiveness of the novelist’s claim to represent reality, was his only crime. To be forced to leave home because he told a  historical tale, haunted his days, till the  Court came out with the verdict that he was free to write, “Write!”

 The holy hill at Tiruchengode, Namakkal district, where the  Aradhaneswara  (symbiosis of Shiva and Parvati) cult still exists, is a site of tremendous power. The ancient Saivite shrines illustrate that the cult of the goddess is dependent on the absorption of the devi. Much of the advaitin principle of assimilation is brought to our notice here, in the convergence of symbols, and the secret and the hidden are represented as important symbols of a cosmic fertility. The local community reinforces the idea not only of the vividness of sarpa worship, which are chthonic reminders of ancient cultic forms before anthropomorphism takes place, but are also  emotional organisers of contemporary representations of fear, sexuality and effervescence. The rat, the boar, the elephant,  the cow, the bull become the totemistic forms of the meeting of nature and culture, where their  sacred and aesthetic presence becomes of immense importance. Within this, the segregation of local communities can be well located in terms of their personal relations with the animal world. In the hill at Tiruchengode, Amba nestles with Durga, which communicates the primacy of her status during Navarathri over other manifestations of the divine.
The hierarchy that Hinduism imposes in tradition is inviolable when the order of birth is prescribed by tradition. Perumal Murugan describes this inviolability by looking at how each caste then represents its order in terms of the consummation of its caste rules. Lower caste orthodoxies can thus be as powerful as upper caste ones, they can be as forbidding and as totalizing. The real world view of the poor then closes upon itself in terms which are borrowed from varna, or colour, and the power of the presence of existing rules can exclude as much as it can forbid. Love by itself can never survive in the face of these terrible rules, they foreclose destiny, they crumple free will.
Perumal Murugan, named after the great Lord at Tiruchengode,  now resides in  solitude, in exile with his family in  an unfamiliar urban milieu. Yet, the landscape that he describes for us, is so over powering, so exquisite,  that we can only dwell in the calmness of these rural spaces. Here subsistence farming allows the Tamils their historic splendor of unspoiled lands, with  their produce of groundnut, rice, sugar cane, jasmines, plantains, palm trees (providing areca, dates, and nongu, and coconuts,) also the mangoes which ornament every house, and the  moringa trees. The sea at Rameswaram, with its cross bow of water at nearby Dhanushkodi, is  very close. The blue is turquoise and grey, and the sun provides us a  dazzling glimpse of this hot, unfettered land. Not far from Tiruchenkode, the Uttarasumangalai temple presents us the  remembrance of the whispered conversations of Siva and Parvati, an upadesha  which is love itself.
Saivite cults are open to all, choosing the massive hillocks and flat plains  to communicate love and valour. Here are Perumal Murugan’s people, his multi caste village, his green topography of cultivated land on red soil that  he longs for most. Surely the Goddess at Tiruchengode will usher his return home.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Because I don't want war.

The magic of words
We must believe that words have efficacy. More importantly, we must hope that people believe what they say. War is an easy word, and drumming for war makes the war mongers feel that they have a job to do. Soldiers are people who have families, and while soldiering on is something they do, occupationally, for love of the country, the war mongers see them as fodder in war. The second world war was fought to end all wars. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasake left the molten shadows of men and women on the kerbside as they ran.
Water wars are the worst, for our common humanity becomes lost as we view the ‘other’ as the enemy. We always blame someone else for our troubles. Colonial water sharing devices are out of sync with modern needs, and egalitarian motives. Across the border, the Pakistani enjoyment of lands is represented through 200 families owning most of the land. As in India, when land redistribution occurred, the wealthy families gave away unproductive lands to the cultivator farmer, and kept the better acreage. So the ways in which we understand how tribals represent the  force of an illegal marauding army which in India we call “terrorist”, is placed back in terms of how terrorism manipulates emotions of border people. The line of no return faces us very soon in terms of how we think of every day questions of blocking water to Pakistan, which the present government thinks as practical.
These are mighty rivers, which cross the borders of China, Pakistan and India. We have seen how floods over run North East India, when dam work across the border releases excess water. If we block the Indus, Punjab will be flooded and while boundary lines are political, river basins are not. The arsenal that Pakistan develops is nuclear. If they bomb us, they too will die. We do not live in isolation from one another. If the emotional encroachment in Kashmir over years has been so huge, it is because the local people have been singled out for attention by terrorist infiltration and for martyrdom, by specialised training in camps. We have to be very clear that the presence of the army in border areas is a natural phenomenon. The case for  territorial supremacy in India is a question of history. The British could never suppress the emotions of  people  of the North West or the North East of India, and over decades, the Indian government was able to provide a sense of solidarity to tribal communities in both areas to invest their sense of belonging to the presence of the Centre. Federalism was seen to be the answer to these multi sited loyalties. Kashmiri merchants following their trade routes  arrived in all parts of India, without feeling the necessity for secessionism. If we look at the protracted battle between the Centre and the State, comprising Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, we must presume that Kashmir is a part of a larger entity, and should it receive it’s Azadi, then it will be surrounded by segments of the state which remain loyal to the subcontinental image of India.
The map of India  presents it’s own logic of subcontinental identity. Terrorism can never promote democracy, as Paul Wilkinson argues in “Terrorism vs Democracy” ( Routledge 2001). The armoury of guerrilla warfare is time tested, with successful results, and the price that the civilians have to pay is huge. Where the state practise of terrorism gets in the way of diplomacy, we have to understand that the grammar of mediation must come from other legitimating institutions, such as ambassadorial functions of surrounding countries. Without State support, the idea of freedom and autonomy, regarding the right to work and travel may well be taken away from us by parochialising interests which sees war as the first option available. Why should we think that people across the borders of our country want to die? They would be the first victims, and evacuation would create more wounded, more zones of loss and privation.
Citizens’ forums have a great part to play in both India and Pakistan. Their role is primary in avoiding war. Unless we identify our share of common interests, the soldiers whom we value as true patriots will die terrible deaths in war, or in post war camps. Anyone who has been to Kargil, knows that the heroism of our soldiers cannot be disputed. Even now, the stones leach blood. To put the army to dysfunctional use, by shooting and killing citizens in Kashmir, who think differently from us,  is a terrible act of finality. It is true Gorbachov and Rasisa Gorbachov died in penury and singularly difficult circumstances, but let us not forget the first lessons of the 1990s, the lessons in dialogue.

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.