Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reza Aslan and a "Show About Hinduism"

How does mainstream, presumably responsible news media, respond, when a society experiences rising xenophobia, and when certain minority groups have to fight stereotypical depictions and prejudice? If we were to take CNN's example, they proceed to bolster such prejudice further, by promoting them through a TV show.

In the first episode of CNN's recently telecast series "Believer", "religious scholar" Reza Aslan takes his audience to India. He begins by explaining that he has come to the ancient city of Varanasi "to do a show on Hinduism". However, instead of providing an overall understanding of a vast school of belief systems poorly understood in the West, as one would expect, he then proceeds to focus on a few (namely two) very specific aspects within Hinduism. 

Aslan begins the episode with a very high level description of the caste system, thereby missing out on the nuances and complexity of the subject. He then presents a harrowing image of the plight of the systemically oppressed Dalits, or "untouchables". After explaining how obsessed Hindus are with ritual purity and pollution, he introduces his audience to Aghoris, a fringe sect of renegade ascetics, as an antithesis to a caste-based social order, as a radical movement that attempts to break down dogma. In the next three segments, spanning half an hour in total, we encounter three different groups of Aghoris: an Aghori spiritual leader called Lali Baba who takes Aslan to his oddly illuminated chamber adorned with a number of skulls that he uses as drinking vessels; an intoxicated monk (and his disciples) on a secluded bank of the Ganga who horrifies Aslan with utterly grotesque behaviour that includes cannibalism and consumption of bodily fluids; and then finally a less radical group of Aghoris, who do not indulge in taboo practices but focus instead on eradicating caste discrimination through social work. 

Caste based discrimination and untouchability are certainly pertinent problems in contemporary Hindu society; although I was surprised to see a scholar like Aslan confuse the notions of Varna and caste, and not comment on how the caste system evolved to its present form (at their inception, Varnas were assigned based on one's quality and action, not lineage). It was also unclear from where Aslan gathered the impression that Hindus believe people belonging to "lower" castes are perpetually stuck in their "hellish" existence through cycles of birth, and have no hope of spiritual liberation from the vicious cycle of birth and death.
I was more puzzled, however, at the choice of his second topic. There have been numerous reform movements in India that do not accept caste based discrimination, starting from Buddhism and Jainism that emerged before the fifth century BCE. More recently, there have been several Bhakti (devotion) based movements through medieval India, and a plethora of reform movements in the last century, many of which denounce caste-oriented dogma. But instead of depicting better known and mainstream groups like the Ramakrishna Mission or the ISKCON, Aslan decided to present Aghoris, a fringe sect of radical ascetics, as an example of a reformist movement. Without going through the details of their spiritual beliefs and philosophy, without bothering to explain the secretive and extremely closed nature of some of these cults, and without interviewing an expert on the topic who would have helped provide better understanding and context, he then proceeded to show the most cringe-worthy rituals practiced by some of them. 

The take home message, then, was the following: mainstream Hindu society is ridden with that vile social apartheid known as caste, and the people fighting against it are mainly a cult of renegade cannibals.  

Of the thousands of images of Hinduism that CNN could have left their audience with, they chose to use, not those of temples, deities, devotees or colourful festivals, but a haunting image of an intoxicated man consuming human flesh. The audience was familiarized with the caste system in Hinduism, but not of its core beliefs of pluralism, of its meditation and mysticism, of its lack of obsession with sin, of its traditional openness about sexuality, or of its loftier ideas about the nature of reality and the universe. It was, as if, upon encountering a five thousand years old religious tradition, rich and replete with myriads of sects, beliefs, practices and schools of philosophy, the producers, by some strange coincidence, ended up choosing an aspect that would be deemed the most repulsive and vulgar by its audience. 

The naive, over simplified, and patronizing manner in which the entire episode was narrated was deplorable, to say the least. Frames of people bathing in the Ganga were juxtaposed with corpses being cremated in the vicinity.  The presentation reeked of old school Orientalism: often patronizing and insensitive, and  at times, factually inaccurate. For instance, Aslan mistranslated the word "ghat" (meaning a flight of steps leading to a water body, usually a river) to a cremation ground. He referred to Varanasi, an ancient city with a spiritual significance comparable to Jerusalem and Mecca as the "city of the dead" and remarked that the meditation chamber of a monk looked like some "Hindu rave".     

The fact that this show came from someone who claims to be a "scholar" of religion makes one doubt either the quality of erudition of the said scholar, or their intentions, or perhaps both. That he doesn't have a good understanding of Hinduism was demonstrated in a four minute CNN video titled "What Hindus really believe". Ironically, this scholar has been known for cautioning the world against making generalizations about a certain religion, and for actively fighting prejudices, and yet in this case we find him in a slightly different role. The equivalent of how Hinduism was depicted in the show, would be to air an episode purportedly "on Islam" with ten minutes on Saudi Arabia, and half an hour on ISIS. And if that was indeed done, ever, there would be outrage in the USA, and rightly so. In this case, however, there wasn't much. 
Sir Winston Churchill once described Indians as "a beastly people with a beastly religion", capturing the prevailing sentiments of the West he was a part of. The CNN episode demonstrated that some people would like perceptions to remain that way in 2017. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

India 2014: What to Expect

As the results of India's marathon election finally started to come out, revealing that the Bharatiya Janata Party is going to form a government with a strong majority, my facebook feed got flooded with reactions from Indians from across the country and beyond. These reactions could be broadly classified into two types. Those that represented a sense of jubilation, an intense hope, religious almost, that the new government will transform India into a paradise of development; and those that reflected a deep anguish and panic, a fear that India will see an unhindered rise of fanaticism, communal strife and massive repression. While the first saw in the new prime minister of India some sort of a messiah with the power and will to magically solve all the problems that the nation faces; the second perceived in him an Indian Hitler: a personification of pure evil whose only mission is to butcher minorities and threaten the so-called "idea of India", defined by tolerance and multiculturalism. Such a bipolar characterization of reactions was not particularly surprising, given that the key figure around whom the election was fought and won had for the last ten years been one of the most hotly debated politicians of the country, and opinions about him have since then been highly polarized.  Presumably, the future, however, would lie somewhere in between. We would neither see a gigantic leap in terms of development, nor would we witness concentration camps.   

Let us begin with the narrative of development. The prime ministerial candidate emphasized repeatedly on how "development" was his top priority. Interestingly, very little detail was furnished on how this development was going to happen. The aspirations and expectations of the electorate in this regard are based mainly on the much discussed Gujarat model of development. However, while the PR team of the BJP did a phenomenal job in pushing propaganda through various channels of media to establish the idea of a near perfect Gujarat, akin to a Rama-Rajya, all relevant statistical data indicate that Gujarat is a mediocre state in pretty much all the metrics of human development. As Jean Dreze pointed out in a recent article, "If Gujarat is a model, then the real toppers in development indicators, like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, must be supermodels". Indeed, in all social indicators, including poverty, education, healthcare, malnutrition Gujarat ranks somewhere in the middle among the Indian states. It is only a leading state in terms of economic indicators like GDP per capita, but the fact that it does poorly in these social indices in spite of being a (relatively) rich state, raises big questions about the inclusiveness of its growth. If such a model is followed and implemented in India, it is therefore naive to expect any real improvement in healthcare, education or extreme poverty. 

But while the expectations of development are naive, unreasonable and unfounded, so are the fears of a Nazi takeover in India. It is a fact that the BJP has its roots in the RSS, an organization whose founding fathers drew inspiration from Hitler, but then the BJP itself has done little in recent years to indicate that it has any sinister motives to implement Fascism in India. It is worth noting that throughout the election campaign,  the leadership spoke almost entirely of its desire of ensuring good governance, of reviving economic growth and creating jobs, and of curtailing inflation. Issues like the Ram temple featured in the election manifesto, but were given insignificant importance in the campaign narrative of the BJP. In fact, this was the first election where the core Hindutva issues were largely neglected by the BJP throughout the campaign. It is also interesting to observe that in earlier elections, where communal issues did take centrestage, the BJP failed to gain as many seats. Clearly, the massive victory, then, could not be attributed to a growing fanaticism among polarized voters but to issues which where key to this particular election. It would be very unlikely, then, for the BJP too indulge in fomenting communal sentiments at this stage, because A) they don't need to as far as their pre-election promises are concerned; and B) they don't want to antagonize a large chunk of voters who supported them on election issues but are opposed to their social conservatism and religious agenda. Finally, the probability of a full scale riot or genocide happening in India is close to zero. To encourage something of that sort would be suicidal for the prime ministerial candidate, who would not only embarrass himself on a massive level, but also justify all the censure showered upon him by his critics; and jeopardize his chances for a second term. In all likelihood, the state will throw in all its power to stop communal strife from snowballing into high casualty riots. 

To summarize, in terms of social indicators our country would maintain status quo. There would be no significant improvement in healthcare and education, although there might be a minor reduction in poverty as a result of economic growth. On the other hand, India will not become a Fascist country, or a Hindu state, and the state itself will not get directly involved in persecuting members of any vulnerable community.  Instead, here are some of the things that probably will take place in India, as a result of these elections.

Markets would open up more in India, foreign investment in various sectors would be encouraged, more SEZs would be created, and tax cuts and benefits would be gifted to big corporations. Forced land acquisition might become common. An improvement in ease of doing business would presumably boost the economic growth and create more jobs for the middle class. It would also fill the already deep pockets of our Ambanis and Adanis. The government would be made smaller, in terms of number and size of ministries and possibly in terms of overall investment in the public sector. Some of the existing welfare projects aimed at the poorest members of the society might be scrapped, and new ones would not be introduced. This would also reduce government level corruption and wastage of taxpayers' money to some extent. Some of the less powerful politicians of the previous government would be prosecuted on corruption charges.

India's foreign policy would become more assertive, and in some cases mildly aggressive. This would be a shift from the soft state that India has traditionally been perceived as, especially throughout the last decade or so.  There will be no war, but there might be increased skirmishes at the border and escalation of tension with Pakistan and China. On the other hand, stronger relations would be sought with countries in South East Asia, Japan, the US and Israel. Relationships with Iran may deteriorate. Strong anti-terrorism bills would be passed, targeting both Jihadi elements and Maoist insurgents.

Public funds would be spent on propagating Hindu nationalist ideology. This would be implemented through subtle changes in school curriculum by depicting Hindu glory; through promotion of Sanskrit, Indian astrology and Ayurveda, and through  more ostentatious displays of Hinduism in government activities. Funds would be earmarked for the protection of cattle. These influences, would mainly entail a softer version of Hindutva. The effects of a stronger version of the same would be felt as well, though not directly through government initiatives.

Groups that do not enjoy economic influence or political clout, or those who represent ideas that do not conform entirely to the doctrines of Hindu nationalism would be targeted and persecuted by fringe groups that adhere to a more extreme version of Hindutva. Target groups would range from religious minorities, homosexuals and Kashmiris, to the politically liberal. Vigilant groups and self-appointed moral police would feel encouraged, and incidents of rogues beating up people celebrating Valentine's day or women drinking alcohol would increase. Freedom of speech and freedom of press would both decline to some extent and critiques of the government or Hinduism would be attacked more severely and frequently; again not so much by the government itself but by fringe groups who would now enjoy some level of state protection.   These spurious attacks, however, would still generate further criticism from sections of the population, and at some point, the government would be forced to draw a line and put a check. Moreover, the BJP would be keen to not antagonize Muslims, knowing that the landslide victory would not have been possible without a considerable number of Muslims voting for them this time. 

All of these, needless to say, are mere speculations, and the truth will only become evident in five years' time. It can be guaranteed, however, that overall, India will continue to be the slow and sluggish elephant that it has been as far as change is concerned, since time immemorial; and neither would its problems go away, nor would its rich and diverse social fabric be destroyed.  Both India's problems, and the "Idea of India" are too deep-rooted to be obliterated by a single election. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rediscovering the Dolma

Our Ukrainian friend  had a knack for cooking, and would surprise us now and then with something interestingly delicious. The most memorable dish she cooked, comprised roasted green and red bell peppers stuffed with chicken and seasonings. Savouring the intricate flavours entangled underneath the glazed layers of pepper (or Capsicum, as we call them in India), I was reminded of a personal favourite from home.  Consisting of gorgeously fried Pawtols (they are apparently called "pointed gourd" in English, but the name lacks the charm and sweetness that one associates with this vegetable) stuffed with cooked fish and spices, Pawtol-er Dolma is a mouth-wateringly popular speciality from the Indian state of West Bengal. The commonality wasn't particularly unusual, I thought. After all, filling the hollow inside of a vegetable with food and cooking it seemed like a simple and generic idea which might originate in many cultures independently. I told my friend of my reminiscence, and how I was pleasantly surprised to notice the similarity between a delicacy from Bengal  and the dish she had prepared.

"Do you call it Dolma?" she asked. 

If the prevalence of green gourd-like vegetables filled with delicious stuffing in both Bengal and Eastern Europe had surprised me mildly, I was quite startled to know that they had the same name as well. What I had always considered a very ethnic, very local item turned out to be ubiquitous across Eurasia in its many forms: from the Balkans and Russia, through Turkey and Iran, to all the way to Central Asia and Mongolia. The word, wiki says, is of Turkish origin, and it means "(something) stuffed".      

Two years after this enlightenment, as I finally take out my own version of stuffed peppers with potato, chicken and onions from the oven, and as I happily relish the creations with a mild sense of accomplishment, I cannot help reflect on the amazing journey made by this remarkable dish, and its evolution, through hundreds of years, across thousands of miles and perhaps a million kitchens.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Adieu, Sachin!

The second test match of a seemingly unexciting home series against one of the weakest teams wouldn't normally be expected to bring one back to watching live test cricket after a hiatus of almost six years, that too in the middle of the night. It's slightly different, however, when the match happens to be the last in the career of a man who was by far the biggest star the game of cricket had ever seen. 

I grew up in a time, when, propelled by the World Cup victory, and through increasing commercialization and media coverage, the popularity of cricket was attaining a level of religious fervour in India. Live telecast of international matches on television brought cricket into the living rooms of the middle class, and it quickly became one of the biggest means of entertainment. 

The nineties in India were not a cheerful period. In a nation ravaged by abject poverty, rampant corruption and communal violence, frustration and disillusionment were widespread, and there was little to look forward to. When almost everything else about the nation was discouraging and sad, cricket became our only source of inspiration. The nation needed heroes. We did not find them among our morally bankrupt political leaders, but among our cricketers; and never ever was there a greater hero than Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. 

There was no IPL in those days. The national team was the only team to cheer for. The passion for cricket got intermingled with zealous patriotism. We did not perceive the Indian cricket team as employees of the BCCI, or even as just a sports team to cheer for, but as representatives of a nation. As the most prolific member of that team, and as the only unchanging face in the squad for two and a half decades, Sachin Tendulkar became the man who bore on his shoulders the hopes and aspirations of a billion people. 

There were no expensive merchandise back then, or even if they were, they were not the means through which fans channelled their devotion. Our veneration was expressed through the excessive purchase of  bubble gums to collect the cricketers' cards that came for free, through posters and photographs collected from sports magazines and Anandamela, and through compilation of newspaper cuttings of scorecards in days when cricinfo was unheard of. If not a religion, cricket in India was certainly a cult, and Sachin was its central deity. The nation was united in the extolment of this man, and his flamboyant straight drives could bring smiles on the faces of a seven year old and a seventy year old with the same ease. 

For the 15 years or so that I avidly feasted on cricket, Sachin Tendulkar was the man to watch out for.  The fall of India's second wicket was always met with a huge cheer in home grounds, often much to the bewilderment of foreigners, for it marked the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar at the crease.  When there was a big target to be chased, we would often only watch as long as Sachin was batting.  Sachin's dismissal commonly resulted in the turning off of a few million television sets, with people grudgingly going back to their daily chores. 

We watched with awe how he amassed hundred after hundred, often under difficult conditions, when all his teammates failed; how he massacred the greatest bowlers of his times with his impeccable stroke play; and how he, often with single-handed efforts, saw India home, match after match. On tours overseas, when all the other batsmen faltered on fast, green wickets, Sachin Tendulkar stood his ground, firm and determined, and saved the nation's grace. We watched how he decimated the Australian bowling attack in Sharjah, how he went after Henry Olonga, how he danced down the wicket to Shane Warne in India and gave him nightmares (literally), and how he slaughtered the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar at the 2003 World Cup. We also watched, often with tearful eyes, his vulnerability: matches where he could not make us win in spite of all his efforts: the world cup semifinal in 1996 on that sinister wicket, the Chennai test against Pakistan where he almost succeeded in leading India to an unlikely victory despite being in excruciating pain. 

Notwithstanding the jokes in social media that predicted a career lasting for eternity, Sachin Tendulkar's retirement was, of course, an inevitability. The fact that he could survive, nay dominate, close to 25 years of international cricket speaks volumes on his tenacity and perseverance. But all good things must come to an end, and so must the career of Sachin. Tonight as I watch the man bat for one last time in an international test match, I cannot help feel sad for having missed dozens of matches in the last six years or so, partly because of being in a different time zone, but mainly because the passion, enthusiasm and romanticism of boyhood and early youth had disappeared slowly over the years.

Perhaps, Sachin Tendulkar's retirement makes us sad and contemplative not only because we would never get to see him live in action, but also because he was a symbolic link between the present and the past, because he was like a living memory from a period otherwise only remembered through fond reveries along the streets of nostalgia. With him gone, a bit of our childhood is gone forever.  

Sachin Tendulkar leaves behind him a legacy comparable to few before him. We do not know yet the future of his records, or of his fame. Surpassing the runs and the number of hundreds he scored is going to be difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps there will come a day in our life times, when all these records would be broken, and new heroes would come to dominate the cricketing world. It is also possible, that some time in the not so distant future, test cricket would be deemed obsolete and rejected by the fans, one day internationals would become rare, and Twenty-20 would be the only form of cricket watched and appreciated. In such a hypothetical but not particularly unlikely future, the glory of the man who for over twenty years bore on his shoulders the hopes of an entire nation would be gradually forgotten. The happy memories that he leaves with the men and women of our generation, however, would last as long as we live; and we would, when we are old, frail and infirm, proudly tell our grandchildren that there once was a man called Sachin Tendulkar in this nation, and that we had seen him bat.   

Monday, August 19, 2013


To quote one of our teachers from high school, our birthdays are the results of biological accidents, and as such, there is little merit in making a big deal out of them. Our ages too, one can say, are just numbers,

In Physics, half-life is defined as the time required for a quantity to fall to half its value as measured at the beginning of the time period. The term is primarily used in the context of radioactive decay: "the carbon-14 isotope has a half-life of 6000 years" implies that if a sample contains 100,000 carbon-14 atoms today, then 6000 years from now 50,000 are expected to remain, while the rest is expected to wither away.

Unlike carbon-14 atoms, human-beings are in general, not known to be radioactive. However, if there were some ways to quantify the vitality of our spirits; then there's little doubt that that quantity would undergo a decay much similar to that exhibited by radioactive substances. I'll venture to say that the half-life associated with our species is 30 years. That is not to say that I assign a pessimistic life-expectancy of 60 years at birth; it only means that when we are 30 we lose half of the life-force that we are born with.

On my thirtieth birthday, therefore, I reflect on how I expended the first half of that force. I remember my days as a child: the trinkets that my mother used to bring for me  on her way back,  our regular vacations to my grandparents' place at Santiniketan and the long walks with my father, and the stories told by my grandmother; who had a remarkable memory and knew all the classics to minute detail. My retrospection is filled with a myriad of fond images and experiences: of cheerfully jostling through packed crowds in Kolkata during Durga Puja, of playing cricket in severely constricted spaces, of the summer holidays spent immersed in Tintin, Enid Blyton and Satyajit Ray, of the games that my cousins and I used to concoct  and play, of the cricketers' cards that I used to collect and that I eventually started manufacturing on my own, of the poems and stories with which I filled hard-bound notebooks, of the stuff that I used to write in my journal; and so many more. I think of the things I learnt and the stuff I forgot; of the friends I made, and those that drifted away; and of the girls I had crushes on and those that developed a fondness for me. I recollect many trivialities and many of the little pleasures of life that had chanced upon me. For thirty years, I have had the joy of experiencing the sights, sounds and fragrances of this planet and that in itself I find fulfilling enough. 

But while the ride this far has been fascinating, the path ahead, still, is fraught with sudden turns and detours. It is generally expected that by the time one is thirty, one's life should be settled or at least in the direction of being settled. The lives of many of my friends approaching thirty follow this norm. They have good jobs, years of professional experience, regular salaries, well-planned financial investments, and loving spouses or fiances. Some of them share pictures of their children on social media while some share pictures of the houses they have purchased; some others do both. Most of them, while pursuing their career and personal goals, seem to be converging steadily towards a state of order and stability, towards a life that is regular and secure.

About thirty years ago, when my parents observed their thirtieth birthdays, they were married for six years, had  stable jobs in academia and were expecting a child. Of course, they still had a long journey ahead, but they knew where they were going, the path was in sight. 

My life, on my thirtieth birthday, however,  lacks more or less everything that society assigns value to. It would seem that I had clearer directions when I was twenty, than what I have now. I am still a graduate student, working towards an academic degree that, while self-gratifying; has little utility in the market, and my only experience in the industry was for a mere 10 month period some 6 years ago. Far from settling down, I have little interest in spending the rest of my life in the same country, even continent; and have no idea where I would be living in, in a year from now. Finally, the prospect of me marrying and/or starting a family is slightly more far-fetched  than that of an asteroid colliding with the earth. 

And yet, it is this uncertainty, this lack of direction, that makes the journey exciting. Like a particle undergoing Brownian motion, a life without stability can go in any direction whatsoever. Instability and lack of planning give rise to a lack of rigidity; potentially keeping open a sea of possibilities, and between a stable life of perpetual boredom and an uncertain life with the potential of unexpected surprises, I have already made my choice.  Today, therefore, I do not resent my uncertainties but revel in them; and when I think of all the places I want to visit, of the languages I intend to learn, of my unfinished novel and of all the remarkable things that can happen, I see no reason why the second half of my life's energy would not be spent in a way at least as interesting and as fulfilling as the first. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why falling in love is a terrible idea

But this, this is far more intimate. This is your heart. And you should never let it rule your head... I've always assumed that love is a dangerous disadvantage. Thank you for the final proof." - Sherlock, A Scandal in Belgravia 

Society has a tendency to uphold certain ideas and commodities from time to time and promote them relentlessly.  In the 60's and 70's such focus used to be on sex, drugs and rock and roll and in the present era, this applies to free market capitalism, smartphones and internet memes. One idea that has maintained its status as popular and mainstream and has continued to enjoy enthusiastic promotion from society over the past few centuries, nay millennia, is that of romantic love. So much so, that many people spend their entire lives deeply believing in the notion and expecting it to happen to them. Worse still, a lot of people consider "falling in love" a good thing; and keep practicing it repeatedly; under an environment of indulgent encouragement from the arts and entertainment industry. 

The reality, remains, however, that the most likely conclusion of "falling in love"  is seldom pleasing to the lover; and varies from the sad and gloomy to the macabre and morbid. In the following, please excuse my political incorrectness as I write from the perspective of a heterosexual male. The calculation remains the same for any pair of people from mutually attracted sexual orientations. 

Basic math tells you that if you have a chance of X% of falling in love with a random girl, and a random girl has a chance of Y% to be romantically interested in you; then assuming attractions are independent of each other; the probability that you are in love AND the girl you have fallen in love with is not going to fancy you is X(100-Y)%. Let us call this the factor of Unrequited Love or FUL. Higher the FUL, higher is your chance of ending up in a romantic limbo. Note that the FUL is a measure of your unacceptability as a lover. If Y is low (which it is, by the way, when you are neither exceptionally outgoing, nor an arrogant, possessive and self-obsessed alpha male), this factor will be very high. Additionally, if you're the kind of person that tends to  fall in love regularly and are easily attracted, X will shoot up, resulting in a dangerously high value of FUL. 

Popular culture traditionally puts a lot of emphasis in glorifying the idea of a true, deep-rooted, undying, romantic love. The consequence of love when it's of the unrequited kind (which also happens to be the more common variety), is often denied the attention it deserves. When Paulo Coelho and his peers delude their band of idealists with an idyllic picture of romance, he doesn't mention that that scenario is remarkably rare and experienced by a tiny fraction of all those who fall. For the majority, it is like a plunge into a tunnel where one's expectation for light on the other end is met with disappointment. For them, falling and being in love is a disturbing, depressing episode; fraught with varied amounts of  sorrow, self-pity and despair.

Therefore, it is not a wise idea to be romantically involved; or to let deep emotions take hold of our relationships with people.  "Relationships" as such are fine; as long as they remain relatively superficial and shallow. It's another matter that they are hugely overrated; and are much like having a suit, or owning a house, or eating non-vegetarian food; in the sense that without any or all of this, one can still lead a perfectly fulfilling life (except, may be, non-vegetarian food, in my opinion). It's also true that there are a thousand wonderful things to do in life without getting involved in a relationship. But useless as they are, one good thing about relationships is that they are still not as devastating, provided one exercises extra caution to ensure that any deep emotions are not being invoked unilaterally. The moment one makes an emotional investment and involves their heart, they put themselves at the risk of a heartbreak; and in matters of heart, as our math indicates, heartbreaks are overwhelmingly probable. Of course, there always remains a non-zero probability that feelings become mutual, and falling in love actually leads to a state of ecstatic peace and happiness; but the stakes are simply too high. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lest We Forget

It has been exactly a month since the incident. Culprits have been arrested, we hear. Attention of the press has predictably drifted to regular topics. The black circles have mostly disappeared from  facebook profile pictures; and status messages are no longer dominated by angry outbursts. Apart from a few protesters at Jantar Mantar; for most of us, concerned or unconcerned; it is back to business as usual.

This was neither unexpected nor unusual. It is as natural for us to be alarmed, appalled, upset and angry when something bad happens; as it is for us to forget and eventually move on. Sensational news gets us excited and charged up but only for a limited period. Our lives are far too complex, far too eventful, far too burdened with our own petty problems to let anything linger for beyond a threshold period. Except for those affected directly, unpleasant news gradually gets buried under layers of busy life; only to resurface when something unpleasant of a similar kind happens again. The fire that devastated a building on Park Street, Kolkata in 2010 was largely forgotten until a similar tragedy happened in AMRI a year and a half later. Memory of the terrorist attacks in local trains in Mumbai in 2006 resurfaced in public psyche when the siege of 2008 happened. The massacre of Aurora came back to haunt us after the shootings at Newtown. It would have been more beneficial perhaps if we had better memories; for if such issues continued to make us ponder; we would have continued to push for reforms long after the events ceased to be subjects of recent news; but that is not how society works. In that aspect, the incident of December 16 is not unique. Like everything else, the frenzy associated with it, too, appears to have been a passing phase.

There is, however a significant difference between what happened in Delhi that night and other disturbing news that bring forth public response. As much as a lot of us would like to think, the former was not an isolated tragedy; not a random act of insane brutality. Rape (and other forms of sexual violence and molestation; and subsequent torture and murder) is more prevalent in India (and indeed, the rest of the world) than one is perhaps inclined to believe. According to the United Nations, there are about 20,000 rapes reported per year in India on an average; for the period 2004-2010; and the number seems to be increasing steadily (22,172 in 2010). This, one must keep in mind, is the number of recorded incidents; and rape still remains the most unreported criminal offense in the world; more so in a conservative country as India. Add to that the fact that Indian law does not recognize marital rape as a criminal offense. Indeed, 20,000 per year, then merely gives a lower bound to the number of incidents; i.e., there are at least about 60 cases per day. When one adds to that, the myriads of cases of "eve-teasing" (which, by the way, happens to be a strange euphemism for sexual harassment ) that happens across the country everyday, one only begins to get a picture of the seriousness of the problem.

What happened on the night of December 16 was horrifying enough to say the least. What is even more horrifying is that rape is so common in our country that it is no longer an issue of significance at the national level. It does not make frontpage news; nay, news even; as long as the venue is not high profile or the incident does not involve sufficient savagery. Unlike lunatic gunmen, brainwashed terrorists or irresponsible building personnel; sexual offenders strike every day; and if even a tiny fraction of such incidents were to be covered by the press as news of prominence; it would but be hard even for a patient of the most severe amnesia to forget and ignore. It would then be exceedingly difficult not to accept that violence against women is a serious problem intrinsic to our society.

A great many of us seem to be deeply concerned about ensuring the greatest possible punishments for the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the level of enthusiasm is not as high when it comes to try and identify the root cause of the issue. It is in fact fair to say that there is a general lack of response in that direction. A number of statements have been issued by our leaders; both political and spiritual; and an overwhelming majority of them have placed the responsibility on victims; and indeed, on the liberalization of our society under "evil" Western influence. Western outfits, item songs in Bollywood movies, discos, women staying out after dark, free-mixing through co-education have all been blamed. One leader has made disparaging remarks about the protesting women, while another (who incidentally is female) has falsely accused one of the victims of being a prostitute (with the bizarre implication that raping a prostitute is justified). Sadly, there has been little effort to put these people in their respective places; nor have these outlandish remarks made by leaders been countered by an equal number of balanced, thoughtful remarks from their peers. Over all, there has been a conspicuous lack of a call for introspection from the ruling class.

Elected leaders by and large represent popular opinion. And it is this opinion, this attitude that is the most disturbing aspect of the situation. As long as our press does not deal these matters with the seriousness they deserve; as long as we continue to remain in our state of denial; and as long as we fail to accept that we are a part of a system that reeks of chauvinism and encourages sexual prejudice; we would continue to encounter such incidents. A mere acceptance of the situation would not immediately solve it; but one must identify the disease before even attempting a remission.