Productivity

I haven’t written in five whole months.

Going by the amount of productive work that I have done, you’d probably say I’d had a hell lot of time to write. But what indeed is productive work? As a student, is it academics? Is it the maintenance of my accommodation? Or the pathetic breakfast that I make? Let us assume, for the moment, that it is indeed academics. Fine, I’ve attended classes, done some assignments. But I have also had weekday evenings and weekends, watched movies, hung out with my classmates. That can’t count as productive, right?

Wrong.

You see, the best thing about my course is that it doesn’t stop within the walls of the book. It escapes those yellow, pink and blue hued covers and enters my thought process. It seeps into my mind, haunts me day in and day out. The mind is the last and most effective place to conquer. Except in this case, I believe it is for liberation. Liberation from unsaid assumptions about the world, from a conscious self, and from an ill-formed moral compass.

We are all political beings, and by political I don’t mean only voting for our political representative at any of the three levels of the government. The feminist slogan of The personal is political” would help a lot in deconstructing the mainstream notions of what is political. If I refuse to stick to traditional notions of gender and caste, I am being political. If you register your protest at the differential treatment of people due to their primordial identities, you are being political. If someone doesn’t enjoy a joke or a movie because it shows a group of people in undue bad light, they are making a political statement. Yes, people are going to call you rebels and party poopers, they are going to say that you’re taking everything seriously, but that’s the point. We are supposed to look at things in the light of universal moral values, and if things aren’t compatible with our value-set, do something about it, albeit in our own small way. That, as far as I’m concerned, is being political, and political in this sense begins from our own selves.

Some of you may feel being political is just about disagreeing with everyone. Let me beg to differ and give you an example. I had thought a lot about whether to wear my bindi anymore, which has been a constant presence on my forehead since I was born. I still wear it everyday. Not because my mother tells me to, but because I believe it suits my face and dressing style. I wear it not as a mark of tradition, but as an accessory. The difference between obeying and agreeing with someone is that of power relations. And politics is all about power relations.

During my evenings and weekends and hangouts, I’ve been constantly engaged in such thoughts and counter thoughts, discussions and debates about my beliefs. So I’ve been political, however imperfectly so, all this time. And I believe it has been a productive time.

From prejudice to pride

Like it or not, each and every one of us is marked into a caste by birth. We may or may not choose to follow a religion, but we are never fully disconnected from the caste group we belong to. Mainstream religion has thus far not been the primary category of discrimination, excluding the pockets of communal violence. Killing and maiming each other in the name of religion has been glaringly visible, while the question of contemporary caste based discrimination is largely unseen by the public eye, yet far more widespread.

India’s foray into a democratic system of governance and unprecedented levels of capitalistic development might make one question whether or not the caste system really exists today. But social and political scientist Rajni Kothari has pointed out that the existence of caste system is unquestionable. A social hierarchy so powerful, caste, a primarily Hindu system, has managed to invade even the people of other religious communities in south Asia. Hence the question should be what form the caste system has taken in the recent years and not whether it exists at all. [Rajni Kothari; Form and substance in Indian politics; 1961]

Proponents of caste based hierarchy have evolved from “Don’t eat from your friend’s tiffin. God knows what jati they belong to” to “People of our caste group are known for their bravery”; from prejudice against other castes to pride belonging to a certain community. If people do not follow untouchability and dine with everyone, they believe they’re free from all prejudice. But in all probability, they would still identify themselves as the member of a certain caste group and be proud of it. The Indian constitution, while deeming untouchability or any other caste based prejudice illegal, is silent about caste based associations. The Dalit upsurge and other such movements by the underprivileged classes resulted in the formation of caste based associations to enable them have a political voice. But this resulted in the dominant castes forming their own associations to soak in their own pride.

Another significant factor which perpetuates the caste system is arranged marriages. Around 5% of marriages that happen in India are inter-caste; the rest perpetuate their own caste systems and the norms unique to them. One look at matrimonial columns would confirm my statement. People mostly seek grooms or brides from their own caste. If they’re modern enough, they would mention ‘caste no bar’ but would add ‘SC/ST please excuse’ which is another form of discrimination. The recent storm created by a Mumbai-based gay rights activist whose mother had put an ad saying ‘groom wanted’ for her son was a tad bit disappointing for me because she had mentioned she would prefer an ‘Iyer’ (a sub caste of tamil Brahmins) groom. [The Hindu, 30 May 2015]

Some people would protest Brahmin domination, equating the caste system to something in the lines of white vs. black racist debate, a powerful Brahmin versus the oppressed rest. One of the famous proponents of this view was EVR Periyar. Dipankar Gupta has reminded us that there is no objective hierarchy of which caste is to be placed where in the caste hierarchy. Here, one must remember that the fourfold varna is different from caste. Also, he claims caste is not to be confused with race, citing the following example: ‘While blacks were despised they were not considered polluting. Imagine the horror that would be aroused in the home of a traditional privileged caste in India at the very suggestion of an untouchable cook in the kitchen. Thus, while racism at its height might consider blacks to be despicable, it did not regard them as polluting.’ [Dipankar Gupta; Caste, Race and politics] He also critiques the unilinear narrative of Brahmin vs. Non Brahmin by pointing out that various regions of India have had dominating and oppressed castes, for example- jats are against gujars- together they are against urban castes; kolis are against patidars; thevars oppress pallars or the devendrakula vellalas; the vanniyars torment adi dravidas [Dipankar Gupta]

Let us keep these nuances in mind before delving into a discussion about the caste system.

Might of the ‘Right’- problems of a lefty and a leftist ms

Some people follow all kinds of traditional practices, justifying them by claiming that our ancestors were genius and would do everything for the best. Apart from cultural nationalist, sexist and casteist people who would hold such beliefs for reasons which I’ll explain later, even well-meaning people have fallen into this trap of pseudo orthodoxy and are proud of it, which is a disturbing trend making my perpetually low BP shoot up in anger.

I had gone to this religious gathering last week where the following event compelled me to write this blog entry. At the event, people were impressing each other by stating orthodox rules. Food was served on plantain leaves. At this point, I’d like to tell that I firmly believe in Indian food and medicinal sciences because I’ve been offered good reasons for the same by practitioners of siddha and ayurveda medicine. But serving food to people in a clockwise order and serving food at a certain place on the leaf and nowhere else was absurd.
I was asked to serve food to the guests; obviously, only females were engaged in this activity. I swallowed my wave of rationality and being a left handed person, started handling the cutlery with my left hand to serve food. I was immediately asked to shift hands. When I explained that I’m a left handed person and I can’t handle the cutlery otherwise, one of them suggested I get used to working with my right hand; another asked me not to serve food and leave. I was extremely disturbed, both as a left liberal and a left handed person. I started showing my anger to my mother when she reminded me that the function was not happening at my placeI realized many things at that point. 

Source: www.dreamstime.com Edit: self
Source: http://www.dreamstime.com
Edit: self

I was reminded of the theory of ‘sanskritization’ propounded by M N Srinivas, which suggests that ‘castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes’. Similarly, there is a social hierarchy which places the more orthodox people at the top of the ladder. In religious gatherings of people belonging to upper castes, every minute detail is observed with fear of being ostracised by them. The tradition itself is not important; it is merely used by people as a channel to get more acceptance into more orthodox circles. But the latter would never accept them as ‘one of us’. Irrational as the concepts of untouchability and purity/pollution are, they would probably assert their assumed superiority because they follow these norms best. 

Had my age and gender been different, I could have spoken out against such behaviour and not fear being branded as a spoilt brat. Traditions are perpetuated by being enforced upon women. The burden of culture rests on the character of women belonging to that culture. I refuse to follow anything that I find problematic, because being called a spoilt brat is way better than unconditional surrender.

I agree that some Hindu traditions are based on science and rationality. But let us remember that not all traditions come from the same origin. We have no way of knowing whether a tradition is really scientific or beneficial to us; the tradition might just be an immoral practice which has crept into the system. Some would vehemently defend the idea of following all traditional practices because there must be some rational idea behind them which is good for us. Trusting something blindly and assuming it would do only good for us doesn’t seem like a very rational thing to do. 

Hindi Hindu Hindustani

I was thirteen when I moved to Delhi, thanks to my father’s transferable job. Like every other kid that lives in tier II cities and lesser, I had heaven-like visions of Delhi. I had lived in the same town all my life, and the capital city, no less, seemed to be the perfect answer for change. I bragged all about it in my school and screwed up the final exam of the 7th class just for the heck of it. I was probably already getting into the character of the place I was moving into.

diesel-vehicles-banned-in-delhi
Source: http://www.wordlypost.in

The transition from a town to a metropolitan city has its own share of woes. But if you also don’t know the spoken language of the city, things can only get worse. The written and spoken versions of a language can be very different, and my knowledge of written Hindi when I moved from Coimbatore to Delhi was lukewarm at its best. I’ll leave the spoken part to your imagination. In case you can’t judge my Hindi skills, I didn’t know the meaning of ‘beech me’ (‘in the middle’. I know now.) I got admitted in the eighth grade in a public school, the nightmarish experience of which I usually try to forget.

Apart from a couple of good friends who have helped me with Japanese (it was a compulsory course) and have stuck around till now, most of my other schoolmates teased me for being a south Indian (they didn’t know the various kinds of south Indian). Some asked me why I was fair; others wondered if we had any job other than devouring idlis dipped in sambar and muttering incoherent words; almost everyone mocked my Hindi.

Now, I’m not claiming that north Indians do not get mocked at in Tamilnadu or anywhere else- I have north Indian friends who claim to have been called chapati, startlingly similar to my being called idli-sambar. Neither am I decrying the extent of the discrimination that is faced by people of the north eastern states or whomsoever that has similar racial features. Russell Peters once remarked, very rightly, that “Indians don’t have time for racism because they hate each other”. This joke was more informative than his usual brand of racism. The usual quip about a south Indian in a north Indian household and vice versa would be on the lines of how ‘dark’ or how ‘uncultured’ the “other” is. For people from the north east, it is worse- their character is often questioned because ‘they’ don’t look like ‘us’ and hence they are somehow inferior.

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I’d not have a problem with out-teasing each other had there been a level playing field. I clicked the above picture in a famous restaurant chain. It has two distinct categories- ‘South Indian’ and ‘Indian’. I’m sure some of you would be wondering why I’m taking an almost funny mistake this seriously. You see, they’re saying south Indian food isn’t the same as Indian food, which means south Indians aren’t really Indians, and also propagating this belief to the casual viewer. This ‘mistake’ is the result of ideological underpinnings about what being ‘Indian’ really means. “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani” is being taken to the next level by homogenising the idea of a real ‘Hindustani’ to be a Hindi-speaker (and most probably a Hindu, but let’s not get to those issues here). And had there been north eastern cuisine, it would have probably been called ‘Chinese’.

In India, there is no unity in diversity, but we are diverse in our unities. Let us just accept our diversity and not compete for some non-existent position of dominance.

Every mother in the world

My mother brings two cups of steaming chai and Marie biscuits; she doesn’t want to sit on one of those wooden chairs that come with the dining table. “It is inconvenient”, she says. “No, mom, unconvenient”. “Disconvenient”. “Non convenient”. We go on making up nonsense words by changing the prefix and laugh about it. As she settles in the comfortable chair, I sit beside her and ponder about mom and me.

If there’s something wrong with my laptop or phone, I’d call her. She doesn’t know how to fix them, but somehow I feel peaceful when I tell her about my malfunctioning gadgets.

If I’m too engrossed in reading a novel or watching a film and some unwanted light creeps into the room, I’d call her to shut the door.

If I don’t find something, I’d holler for her and she’d find it in plain view, exactly where I was searching for it. If my mom can’t find it, I can mentally say goodbye to it, because I’m sure it goes to the planet where all lost things go.

She’d go to bed, but not sleep until she is sure I’m tucked in comfortably and asleep.

She’d disagree with me over rituals and holiness, but proudly proclaim to others that I’m a feminist and they better not talk something sexist.

We have fights; they occur about once a day. Sometimes, mom would ask me to do something. I would say I’ll do it later and then she would end up doing it herself because she can’t help seeing work not done and doing nothing about it. I have no such qualms though, leading to arguments. We disagree about everything that has to do with household planning and maintenance. I see no need for such things.

I’m a single child. I can imagine but not fully sense what mom goes through every day that I spend in Delhi- waiting for my morning call at 8, panicking because I might be in danger, but at the same time not calling because I might be getting late for class; asking me when classes would end for the day and calling me precisely at that time and ensuring I’m going home safe, but still calling me 30 minutes later wondering if I reached my residence safely; wondering what I had for lunch and dinner but not asking it out loud because she knows I’d be irritated, but still wants to know if I’m having healthy food; not calling on weekend mornings because I’d be asleep. I sometimes wonder if I’m Ron from Harry Potter, having an emotional range of a teaspoon, because if I worried about these many things, I’d probably burst from pressure.

As I sip the last dregs of tea, she insists that I have a couple of dosas before I go out for my driving class so that I don’t get hungry.

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License tales

I was going back to Delhi after my study holidays last month. The person sitting next to me in the flight started chatting; he was a surgeon from Austria. He had come to India for a month to learn about open wound trauma care. I felt immensely proud of my country for a moment, but then it turns out that open wound trauma happens due to road accidents and India is famous for them, and that’s why he had come here to learn. My nationalistic fervour suffered a noticeable dent.

The frequency of traffic collisions in India is among the highest in the world. This begs the question: Why do so many accidents occur in India? “Because that’s how we are” is too inadequate an answer to appeal to the intellect. If there is some problem with the driving, we must look at who authorizes it and how they go about it. I went to the local road transport office to obtain my learner’s license today (yes, I’m 18 after such a long wait). Turns out the driving institute would take care of the written test that you’re supposed to write. The average institute would teach you the most basic steering and gear shifting and would totally ignore the compulsory safety instructions that are necessary for a person to become a safe driver. The transport authorities are no less; they accept bribes from these instructors and issue licenses to their ‘students’ indiscriminately, flouting all norms. My driving instructor is one of those rare persons who takes government norms seriously and holds compulsory theory classes. But is it adequate? I’d drive carefully, but some or other person might hit my vehicle because they haven’t been trained properly. Even if I manage to dodge it, they would hit some or other person in all probability. The combined callousness of most training institutes and the road transport corporation is killing and injuring people everyday.

But they alone are not to be blamed. The popular Tamil film culture, apart from other things, promotes the inevitability of a stylish bike for a self-respecting teenager. This, apart from the necessity of a bike to ‘correct’ a girl and take her out (with or without her consent). Thus, the contemporary teenage guy is more often than not equipped with a bike, driving illegally and recklessly. On top of it, he is short of a helmet and the rear-view mirror because they lack machismo. This is the cause of many accident-related deaths in youth.

The total lack of respect for traffic rules is somehow common to most Indians. This observation comes up in spite of my tendency to not be self-depreciating or racist. Metropolitan cities have come up with stringent rules and strict punishment for flouting traffic norms. Other cities should follow suit. Issuing driver’s license should become a matter of careful consideration of driving skills, not money. Let us not lose more and more people to something as paltry as a road accident.

I assure you that I’ll take the driving test in all seriousness and brush up my driving skills (yes, I learnt how to drive a car at 16 and how to drive a scooter at 14, but at least I followed all traffic rules, wore the seat belt, never jumped a signal, never got caught or bribed an officer, and most important of all, never hit any person or vehicle during training). My parents never allowed me to drive after I’d learned it, because it is illegal. Learning to drive isn’t the problem, the careless driving that follows it is.

Politics Is Everywhere, So Is Misogyny

(This post is from March.)

I’ve seen disturbing tweets generously coated with sexist remarks against this girl who asked a painfully relevant question to Christine Lagarde, whether or not inclusive growth would be restricted to Hindu males in this extremely patriarchal society coupled with a Hindu right-wing government. And I agree wholeheartedly with her not just because I know her personally. Some tweets said economics and politics were not related. Dear guardians of the country, kindly know your Marx before posting such stupid tweets. Politics is the base and economy is the superstructure. You just bashed her because you know that male privilege does exist and that Hindus are at an undue advantage and you don’t want to acknowledge it. None of your rash misogynistic tweets make any real sense. Asking sensible questions does not make her anti-Indian or dumb.