Saturday, March 28, 2015

Stop War with Menstruation, Make Love

(Rupi Caur, the poet who brought menstruation into social networking)

Rupi Caur, the Canadian Sikh poet is famous because of Instagram’s in-house censoring of offensive images and the post-Rupi Caur protest withdrawal of the censorship it employed on her menstruating pictures. Before this furore over the pictures of her menstruation, she was one amongst many who aspired become future poets. Menstruation has given her a new cult status because she fought her way through the flimsy walls of social networking censorship; today she has become a world icon for feminists though many of us know her not by her face but by her soiled pants, toilet floor and commode. During the debates that followed the act of instagram censorship, she has said something to the effect that she menstruated as a creative act. I am not convinced. My lack of conviction on her act in fact does not make any difference to her reputation or the women’s struggle for being accepted as menstruating beings. Still I would say that her photographs are revolting and they do not have any aesthetic or creative value. If her photographs have any creative value, then the photographs showing the protestors of Jharkhand shitting on the central government’s Land Acquisition Bill also should be aesthetically elevating.

Almost three months back, in the South Indian state of Kerala, feminists and public intellectuals and activists had come forward to create a protest around the women’s right to menstruate and remain socially acceptable human beings during those seven days of ‘you-know-what-I-mean-shame’. Unlike Rupi Caur’s call for the right to menstruate, however justifiable that is, the Kerala women’s protest to menstruate was more historical and relevant than that of Rupi Caur. In fact, the struggle for human rights (irrespective of gender) does not work on the levels of comparison because one struggle is not better than other as each struggle has its own value to add to the general cause of gender equality. Yet, I would say the Kerala strike of Menstruation was much more relevant than that of Rupi Caur because the Kerala women were asking their right to travel in public transports during those days. There was a blanket ban on women in Kerala, preventing them from travelling in the state owned buses that ferried the male devotees to Sabarimala, the seat of Lord Ayyappa where women who could and would menstruate are not allowed. The reason for this is cited that Lord Ayyappa is a Brahmachari, chronic bachelor therefore only pre-puberty and post-menopause women are allowed. In terms of tradition and ritual we could accept this restriction but restricting women from the public transports plying to the pilgrim centre is something really chauvinistic.

(one of the controversial pictures by Rupi Caur)

Kerala women protested against it and Kerala as a cynical society with moral policing as a new trend for preserving conservatism, this protest was seen with much scorn and contempt, once again showing the real chauvinistic mettle of this total literate state’s cultural shortcomings. Sabarimala had also become the eye of a storm as the authorities performed a cleansing ritual in the temple premises as the priest’s young daughter had visited the holy shrine without the permission of the authorities. It was a public humiliating of that girl who had visited the temple without intending to pollute it. Somehow the whole argument of allowing pre-puberty and post-menopausal women in Sabarimala is so skewed that the new age authorities, even from their personal experiences do not acknowledge the fact that it is not puberty or the end of menstruation that makes a woman averse to sexual intercourse. Young children are aware sex these days. Sexual drive of women need not necessarily diminish with the setting in of menopause. As Shobha De says, sixty is the new forty. In that case, the authorities either should think of imposing a blanket ban on women of all ages from visiting Sabarimala or they should let all women to visit the place irrespective of their fixation on menstrual blood. In my opinion the latter would be a feasible and democratic move provided the women want to go there at all. My suggestion to women of all age is this that just avoid Sabarimala because the devotees need not be well behaved even when they are on their way to see a bachelor god.

In fact, menstruation is a biological process that happens in the body of a woman, as it comes to know that the person in question is not ready for conceiving a child. My school biology tells me that a woman’s body prepares an egg for fertilization every month and prepares the whole body for receiving a sperm. When that does not happen, to save the body from complications, the preparatory arrangements are ejected from the female body. These preparations for making a life come out in the form of blood and cleanse the woman’s body, once again rendering it clean and healthy for future conceptions. It is a biological fact. It is not polluting but it is a cleaning process. How can we keep women out of our lives during those days when they are really going through the process of cleaning their own system? To see it in more philosophical and scientific terms, a woman’s body is gender neuter during these days of menstruation (a scientifically learned beautiful mind informs me). She is neither a male nor a female in those days. She could be a male or a female depending on the overt presence of testosterone or estrogens during those days. Once she finishes her menstrual cycle she once again becomes a complete woman and her body is now ready for another cycle of producing another egg. It is an absolutely divine process and one could say the most pure processes in the world. Somehow our chauvinistic thinking tells us that women are polluted during those six or seven days.

This male chauvinistic perception on menstruating women should be having something to do with our ancient life practices and myths. A menstruating woman with minimum clothes (during the pre-civilization years) must have been a fearful sight for the otherwise masculine men. They thought during those days women possessed some extra powers and they were gifted with some divine capacities. The pre-menstrual symptoms (PMS) such as irritation, anger, impatience, aggression, moodiness, depression and so on were taken for divine or evil attributes of women during those days. As there were not any sanitary napkins or pads available, women preferred to sit away from the groups. This might have been later got translated into forced isolation during those seven days. It took so many years for women to have access to proper sanitary pads. They were using traditional cotton pads and out of shame and embarrassment, women preferred to stay away from public gaze. As they were carrying blood smeared clothes with them, they were not allowed to go to kitchen or places of worship, perhaps to avoid inconvenience caused to themselves. It slowly became a taboo; exactly the way endangered species thanks to over killing become taboos. Menstruating women became a taboo because it caused inconvenience to themselves. But the male chauvinist world made this inconvenience of women a virtue. In order to subjugate them, they made menstruating women to be polluting creatures.

In my childhood I have seen my mother and other women relatives using backdoors to enter home. We did not know why they did so. They also stopped entering the family temple. They were restricted to move around or they chose to maintain some sort of shame in those days. Rectangular shaped cotton clothes drying in the backyard used to be a monthly sight and the hieroglyphics of it we children were not able to decipher. Threads and rectangular clothes vanished to nowhere after five or six days till they reappeared after a month or so. It took so many years that something happened to women during seven days in a month. First it was when my sister was made to behave differently on a fine morning. My parents were shedding tears and I was happy to get a share of sweets that the relatives brought for her. Soon, as if triggered by the good fortune my sister got, a few of my cousins went through the same days of euphoria and I ate a lot of sweets in those days. Slowly, I too understood what was happening to my sister and to my cousins. They started behaving different suddenly. With their unnatural behaviour came the television advertisements. Beautiful hands poured ink on cotton pads, while one absorbed it well and the other did not. Beautiful girls spoke of those ‘you-know-what-I-mean-seven days’ in those advertisements. My mother started bringing a black polythene cover every month. It looked like bread and like the black cover, it was a huge white silence inside. It came with different names, Stay Free, Carefree and so on. In North India, I saw it was beef other than sanitary pads and condoms that got the special treatment with black polythene covers.

Today, television beauties do not speak like ‘you –know-what –I –mean’ kind of hush-hush dialogues. They talk about confidence that they exude during those seven days. We have moved from the days of silence about menstruation to women boldly speaking about it and even spreading awareness by giving message written on sanitary pads. The menstrual-phobic men are like primitive creatures who were afraid of blood oozing vaginas in particular and vaginas in general. They thought vaginas would bite. A blood dripping vagina, for them was/is something really bites. They cannot stand it. So they employ censorship. Those who have not kissed their wives without drinking become moral police. Those who have not once held their wives’ hands in public become moral police. Those who have not once dared to have intercourse with their menstruating wives become moral police. Let me tell you, stupid men, menstruating woman is the most pure woman in her elements. With the blood she tells you that she waited for you but you did not come. With that blood she tells you, you come or not I will be prepared because I am the creator. With that blood she enriches the world and with that blood she purifies herself. A menstruating woman should be treated as the most pure being in the world. And as a man, I love to make love to my woman, when she is menstruating. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Know Your Hanuman before you Attack

Hanuman is a chiranjeevi. That means he lives eternally. If someone has just thought that I have referred to, he/she is mistaken. My knowledge of Indian mythology comes from books ranging from Mathew M.Kuzhiveli’s Balan Books to Vettam Mani MA’s ‘Puranik Encyclopaedia’, from Ezhuthacchan’s poetry to the stories from mythologies retold my various writers in Malayalam and English. So when I say Hanuman is a chiranjeevi, I cannot forget Aswathama, the cursed son of Dronacharya, the Guru of Pandavas and Kauravas. In Kuttikrishna Marary’s words, Aswathama is a chiranjeevi who is supposed to live for eons with his curse emblazoned on his forehead. In us, chiranjeevis manifest in various ways. Hanuman manifests in us when we are too loyal to a cause, ready to rip open our chests to show our loyalty to the master. And when we deliberately take a position at the feet of the lord, we become Hanumans. There is no wonder why the extremists amongst Hindus like Hanuman so much.

When I read the news of some Hindu extremists thrashing up four Dalit men for entering a temple in order to worship the idol of Hanuman, I think about the ways in which Hanuman is incorporated into the mainstream Hindutva ideology. In fact Hanuman belongs to a backward caste, if he is not a Dalit. Hanuman is Vayuputra, the son of Air God. He is also the son of Anjana. Hanuman is called Maruti from his father’s side and Anjaneya from mother’s side. Hanuman got the name Hanuman from the shape of his jaw bones and upper lips. Hanu manav should be the original word. Hanuman had a pronounced jaw bone and a cleft lips; that means he was not like Ram or Lakshmana or like any other Hindu God. He was dark, hairy and different looking. Ram and Lakshman meet him when they are in search of Sita abducted by Ravana. Before Hanuman becomes the devoted servant of Ram, in the tussle between Bali and Sugreev, two ‘monkey’ chieftains, Ram has taken the side of Sugreev and has done away with a self respecting Bali. That means, the tribe that was represented by Bali was subjugated by Ram. Hanuman could not have been a rebel. He joined the force like Sugreev. Later in Lanka we see Vibheeshan, the brother of Ravan, deserting his brother and joining forces with Ram.

This is how rebellion is appropriated into the mainstream mythologies to naturalize the rebels into the fold of the dominant. Hanuman’s distorted look was a problem and there needed a justification for calling him a monkey. Hence, we are told that Hanuman (Maruti, Anjaneya) was a very bold child and once he saw the rising sun. Thinking that it was a ripe fruit the kid Maruti flew up to the sun in order to eat it. Seeing that the world will be in trouble without sun, Indra, the lord of Gods used his mighty sword called Vajra to strike the kid down. The sword hit the child at his lips and jaw bones and he fell fainted. Father Air (Vayu) was so angry that he decided to stop all the movements. The world was frozen at that moment. Once again there was a divine intervention through appeasing. The boy was given eternal life and also was given a new name, Hanuman. He became so devoted to the cause of serving Lord Ram that he remained a bachelor, Brahmachari, till date. That’s why we see in most of the akharas and gyms, they worship Hanuman. He does not waste his semen, which is considered to be the seat of all powers and also he does proper exercises to keep his body fit. Remember he could lift the Martva Mala (Hill Marutva). When Ravna used poisonous arrows against Ram and Lakshman, they fell fainted. Hanuman was asked to get the herb ‘mruthasanjeevani’ from Marutva Mala. Hanuman flew to the spot where the hill stood and as he could not find the particular herb, he brought the whole hill back to the war field. Muscles work where intelligence fails. It was almost like brining a medical store home for the simple reason that one lost the prescription. Most of the people who vouch by Hanuman have taken this story very seriously.

The appropriation of dissent or difference into the mainstream Hindutva has been an ongoing process even during the period of mythological formulations. There was another Bali during the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He ruled over the south of India (today’s Kerala) and was a very just king. Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamana (a dwarf) and pushed him to the nether world through an act of deception and treachery. If Bali was a just king, why did Lord Vishnu kill him at all? Doesn’t the story reek with the smell of North subjecting the south or rather the Vaishnava cult overpowering the Shaiva cult. In his eighth incarnation too, as Ram, Lord Vishnu kills Bali. Here the Bali is a self respecting monkey king. A south Indian must have been referred as monkey in those days. The tail was an addition of imagination. Now look at the word Bali (which is pronounced as Bali and Baali in respective contexts). Bali means sacrifice in Sanskrit. Baali also could mean the same but Baali later becomes Vaali and then the same word is also used for notifying a person with criminal tendencies. In a way, these just kings were made into sacrificial lambs or scapegoats for the proliferation of Vaishnavism. If so, who could be originally these monkey gods? They must be the South Indian musclemen, who were the rulers of the natural world, delivering justice to their subjects. Then comes the subjection by the North Indian kings. And they are forced to live in permanent menial status, indisputably and unquestioningly.

When I see, South Indian boys thrashing up their Dalit brothers, they are just playing the roles of renegades from within a community. There is a difference between a Kashmiri Hindu, a Manipuri Hindu, a Bengali Hindu, a Maratha Hindu and a Karnataka Hindu or a Kerala Hindu or a Tamil Hindu. When a Karnataka Hindu thrashes up another Karnataka Hindu only because the latter is born into a ‘lower’ caste, he is not in fact serving the causes of a Kashmiri Hindu or a Punjabi Hindu. They in fact do not want a Kannadiga Hindu’s endorsement for their kind of Hinduism. When the whole of South India is seen in an imaginary Dalit-hood within the mythological perspective of Hindutva, what is the point in beating up some Dalit men for entering in a temple? That too, a Hanuman temple. Hanuman is a originally a monkey god, therefore a Dalit/South Indian God. So how can one South Indian bash up another South Indian for entering their own god’s temple? If they think that the thrashers are automatically included in the larger fold of Brahminical Hinduism, they are not. Mr.Modi’s OBC-ness is not discussed because he has made that into a virtue and made votes, business boost and political gain out of it. What would these thrashers gain by upholding their ‘Hindutva’? Open your eyes and listen carefully, Hanuman is a Chiranjeevi. He has crossed the Dwapara Yuga in the form of a very old monkey (and shamed another muscle man, Bheem) and must be somewhere around like a Ninja Master, wise in knowledge and might. He will not justify your acts. As I said earlier, Aswathama carries his curse on his forehead and he is a chiranjeevi. Hanuman wears his age and wisdom and roams around in our streets, eternally. He knows that there is no master and no disciple, there is master and no servant, when master and servant are one and the same, there occurs Ram because Ram is the way to reverse ‘MAR’ (death). A chiranjeevi only can tell you this. Stop killing your brother for entering my temple, walking my path, leading their rightful life...stop killing because the more you kill the more you invert your RAM. Ram is here with me, in the street, with Kabir and all those who have burnt their homes called ego and fanaticism. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

33% Reservation for Women in Police Force a Farce

(A Delhi Police Woman)

Recently I saw a news item explaining how the Delhi Police was going to ensure 33% reservation for women in the job. It is good news on two counts; first of all, more women in the force, means more job opportunities for women. Secondly, Delhi being dubbed as the rape capital of India, presence of more women in the force would ensure the presence of security women in public spaces, which would in turn ensure the enhancement of the confidence level of the women folk in general and also would work as a deterrent for many miscreants. However, a second thought on the subject makes me feel that even if more women are included in the police force, it is not necessary that the nature of it changes for good. Well meaning graduates join different work forces and turn out to be deadwood in due course of time. They let the system grow into them and soon there would be no difference between the work force that they had detested once and the one that they have become over a period of time. Police force is not different from this. Men or women, well meaning people join the force and majority of them comes out as a different species of beings that would show the worst side of the human nature.

 (Where is the women police?)

Cultural shock came to me when I went to study in London twelve years back, primarily in the form of flashy mobile phones held so dear by the Black road workers with dreadlocks. Then it visited me in the form of police couple uniformed in black and white. These community police force members are sent out to the streets in man-woman pairs so that they could act as human surveillance agencies. They looked more friendly and social than the ones that I had seen in the English movies. Another thing that attracted my attention was the criminal’s right to demand witnesses during his arrest and the police’s benevolence to oblige. In India I had not seen this sophistication but had seen women police constables very rudely behaving. There are tough cops amongst women and also benevolent cops amongst them. Tough and benevolent ones are a rarity. Those who become tough and rude find the reason in the context in which they work. They work in the most vulnerable, ruthless, dangerous and explosive contexts therefore they have to be tough. Or they grow tough gradually. But is it necessary to be rude to all only because you are a policeman or a police woman?

(Waiting for what?)

Systemic aberrations and the loyalty to the force/state that is taught during the training days make young male and female recruits tough cops. First of all they are made to believe that the system is faulty; as the system is faulty, one is permitted to take certain liberties that include negation of instance justice that includes avoiding the filing of FIR. Secondly, their loyalty is primarily to the regiment/force, which in turn is an arm of the state. But the state is not an abstract value here; it is coloured by the ideology and policy of the ruling party. In this reality, the police force becomes a force of rogues who work for the ruling party and its definition of the state. In India we hardly see policemen and women trying to diffuse the anger or a group of protestors. There is nothing called negotiation in their dictionary. There is an order by a senior police official through the loudspeaker asking the protestors to disperse. The governments and the police force then confront their own people with rubber bullets, batons, water cannons and tear gas shells. Caning which is fondly called Lathi Charge in India, is the crudest form of dispersing people who come for protest march or protest meetings.

 (Police protecting India's integrity. But show one police woman)

Police force needs to be tough and pro-active. But in our country Police force is tough and pro-active mostly for self serving businesses. Recently in Kerala, when an old person who was caught in the mayhem got severely caned by the Rural Superintend of Police. When asked for an explanation, he said, if someone touches one of us, I will not leave him alone. Here, police behave like a criminal groups rather than modern forces that maintain law and order through persuasive and mild punitive methods. Hence, whether it is not sure whether the police force would become more benevolent if more women are included in it or not. Mostly women in police force are depicted as masculine women, who overtly show some lesbian torture techniques. In the public imagination a police woman is a prop that accompanies her male counterparts. If at all she is portrayed as a leading figure, she is an IPS officer, who ‘(wo)man handles’ thugs and politicians suing the real ‘man force’. This stereotyping of police women is more or less adopted in the real situation also. We do not see police women patrolling the streets in order to ensure the safety and security of women folk and girls. We see police women sitting in groups thoroughly bored. Difference between the bored women work force of any other government department and these police women is only in their war fatigue. They unnecessarily carry heavy weapons, shields, helmets, batons and other weapons.

 (A Cosmetic force?)

Indian police women should be trained in combative methods and there is no problem in presenting them in full combat gear in armed forces. But they are under used or used just as props. Nowhere in the Indian protest videos we see women constables caning women protestors. We see them carrying the stubborn and adamant women protestors to the waiting police vehicles. Their job is a bit ‘domestic’ in this sense. They are supposed to clear out the spoils of their male counterparts’ aggression. This situation should change. Mere inclusion of women into the police force does not ensure equality or justice to women or men. It is a cosmetic move than a fundamental change. In order to change the fundamentals, there should be a thorough change in the basic idea of policing. Good teachers becoming bad teachers, good clerks becoming bad clerks, good engineers becoming bad engineers and so on are attributed to the unavoidable corruptions within the system. Similarly, good police force becoming a bad police force has become a norm. This attitude of becoming bad should be changed and the policy makers should try for it. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

At Forty Six I am Music

(JohnyML at 46)

Today I turned forty six years old. This is not a worth remembering number like forty or forty five or even fifty. Unglamorous and un-cool a number as it is, I tend to think of becoming fifty in another four years time. I cannot be forty six or fifty alone anymore. Each year that I advance in age or each year that takes advantage of me tells me that I am not alone. I am connected to a few people directly or indirectly who also advance in age, become mature, become older and turn themselves into mellowed down and wise people. Habit has made me think of my birthdays in comparison with the age of my kids. One year added to my lived past is one year added to the living present of their lives. I have been away from them for the last one year. I have become one year older and they too have undergone the same test of time. I think of my mother; she has also become one year older, a little bit wiser and calmer. I think more of my late father. He had left me when he was fifty five years old. I am just nine years from that cut off mark. I now know how my father had felt when he was forty six years old.

At the age of forty six, I am worried about two things; my health and my wealth. Generally speaking, people start worrying about their health when they cross forty. It is then hormonal changes happen. It is when your children go to school or college. It is when they fall in love and fall out of love. It when your son comes back after a fight with friends. It is when an accident changes the course of life. It is when your partner loses interest in you. It is when you realize that you have managed a life so far and now it is the time to live. So many things happen. You either become a dry conservative or a radical non-conformist at this age. All these changes bring different kinds of illness to your life. You call it life style diseases. Some take pride in it and some get depressed by it. The more your stress level increases the more you become prone to diseases. Like any other ordinary human being I too have undergone high level of stress during the past few years which has resulted into blood sugar. Doctors say that I have diabetic conditions. Hence, I enter the threshold of my forty sixth year holding hands of a health condition called diabetes.

I underwent a period of depression once I came to know that I have this condition. I have been doing physical exercises for over twenty five years. I should not have any health conditions. All these years I have had only one prayer; let my children see me live and die a healthy life. I had seen my father suffering from all kinds of ‘life style’ diseases and closing the last chapter of his life in a very painful way. I never wanted to give my kids that experience. But the genetic passage cannot be closed down permanently. Diabetes, they say, comes because of two reasons; bad life style that includes stress and genetic transference of illness codes. If I have a health condition today, then I cannot look for any other external reasons. But I am not a meek person to go down without giving it a fight. At the age of forty six I say it with certainty that I could stop smoking and drinking without thinking twice. Almost forty days back, when I came to know that I have blood sugar, I stopped drinking and smoking on the same day. Till date I have not touched liquor or cigarette. I have intensified my work out regime and I do not feel the legendary fatigue and other symptoms that generally the diabetes patients undergo. When I look at the mirror, I feel good about myself. Sometimes, I feel that abstaining from social drinking is some kind of fanaticism or foolishness. But as I have tremendous control over my body and mind, I could say no or yes to myself and stick to it to the T.

The second thing is wealth. Once people hit forty, they really worry about their wealth. But the smart and intelligence would have made their money by this time. The rest of their life is all about stabilizing the inflow of wealth, saving it for the future and enjoying a good life. If that is the case, I should really worry about my wealth. At the age of forty six, I do not have any wealth to claim for myself. I do not have a house, a car, a job or anything that comes with a married man. By the way, I have to tell you that I have filed for a divorce in a family court. Hence, for the time being, I do not have a family either. I do not own any land or property anywhere in the world. And a portion of land that is supposed to come to me from my ancestors would come only when mother decides to give it to me. If she decides against it, then I will be completely free of wealth in this world. But I am a happy man today. I live off a suitcase, living in different places, in different people’s homes, with different people cooking and serving food for me, with no baggage, with the books bought, read and kept for keepsake in those houses where I happened to spend a few days with an assurance that I would pick them back once I am settled somewhere at some point of time. May be this is the price that I have been paying for the TIME on this earth to spend the life of a writer. And I am happy about it.

Recently, one of my college friends from Trivandrum, who is settled in the US with her family, and doing well in life took an initiative to create a whatsapp group of the students from the Bachelors and Masters in English Literature of the University College, Trivandrum, from 1987 to 1992. I happened to be one of them and I joined the group. I found all of my college mates have progressed in life and have done good things so far with their lives. In their midst I look the odd one out because I do not have a job to talk about or anything else to flaunt. I have some writings but I do not know how many of them would be interested to read me at all. But it is a happy feeling that I am in the company of a few people who all might have turned forty five or forty six by this time or would turn soon.

I try to be positive and want to keep my calm though I blow my lid off at times. I live in other people’s houses. Though I create temporary routines for myself depending on the cities where I live, when I am forced to request for food or any other support system, a sense of humiliation comes over me. But I soon overcome this negative feeling by filling myself with a sense of gratitude towards all those people who have been appearing in my life from nowhere and helping me to wade through the waves of time. Sometimes I feel that I am a tamed animal. But as the poet said, I keep a forest in my mind and there I walk like a king and talk like a king. I write from my wilderness; I have winds, darkness, moonlight, stars, coldness, rocks and rivulets, trees, hills, rocks and loneliness for company. When I write I write their memories, when I live I live their present, when I sleep I sleep their remoteness, when I live I live their celebrations. At the age of forty six, one has to be an excellent actor. But in the forest of my mind, I am a naked man, devoid of costumes, roles and dialogues. I am mute like a day’s sun and I am vocal like a night’s silence. I am powerful like a mighty rock that loves a dark cloud and I am weak like a rain that showers on a hill top. From there I flow down, like a murmur and then like a roar. In between I am music. At forty six I am music. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I want to Sit and I want to Pee: Demands of the Slave Girls in Kalyan Sarees

(Kalyan Silks Advertisement)

This ‘International Women’s Day’ be dedicated to the sisters of Kalyan Sarees (now onwards referred as Kalyan Silks, its parental group), a textile retail chain in Kerala, who have been continuing with their ‘right sit and right to pee’ for the last few months. For the beginners, in Kerala major textile and jewellery showrooms hire young girls as saleswomen for meagre salaries. Though the labour laws have stipulated eight hours of work that include lunch, tea time and washroom breaks, these girls work for twelve hours a day, with no breaks for washroom or any other form of relaxing. They are not even allowed to sit during the working ‘hours’ and if they do the floor managers would shout at them and even threaten them with dire consequences. Their demand for washroom breaks are met with sexist comments that include ‘attaching hose pipes’ or ‘plastic covers’ under their dress. A detailed report has been written by Malavika Narayanan, a research scholar in Delhi University and is posted in by the noted feminist theoretician and activist J.Devika. For detailed reading please visit:

Since 4th January onwards these salesgirls are on strike and their strike is called ‘Sitting Strike’. It does not have a common connotation as in ‘a sit in’ or ‘dharna’. Though these girls demand the right to sit, it is not just about the right to sit. It is a demand for lawful working hours, healthy working atmosphere and above all right to sit and relieve themselves during the working hours. The name of the strike however comes from a historical strike initiated by the Tribal and Adivasi people in Kerala who demanded legal rights over the lands where they have been living and cultivating for many generations. From the hills and forests, from the fringes of Kerala society, the dark skinned and apparently remote looking people came down to the administrative capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, and ‘stood’ in front of the old Secretariat for almost a year till the conscience of the Kerala intellectuals, public and finally the political parties responded to their demands. The ‘Standing strike’ or ‘Nilppu Samaram’ was a success though it was a yearlong torture for the tribal and Adivasi people who came down to the planes to strike. They sang, danced and drummed the way black people all over the world did when they were in pains or in protest. They showed their empty buckets to pedestrians for contributions and distributed pamphlets. They stood like totems of patience questioning and challenging the complacency of the Kerala middle class and political leaders and won a battle which Gandhiji himself would have loved to emulate.

 (Sitting Strike by Kalyan Silks saleswomen )

‘Irippu Samaram’ or ‘Sitting Strike’ or ‘Right to Sit Strike’ of Kalyan Silk girls comes from this historical background. Kerala has always been in the forefront of strikes that demand rights of women for equal rights and justice. Though today in Kerala strikes have taken this comic turn of becoming a Hartal, by any political formation calling out for it and making the normal like of a state stand still for twenty four hours, gender related strikes have always been a part and parcel of the general strikes for establishing the rights of the downtrodden and subaltern. It started with the nascent nationalist movements that initially asked for the removal of untouchability in Kerala. This coincided with the reformative movements from within the upper and lower castes and communities, which eventually with the arrival of independence merged with the common stream of nationalism and national resurgence. Gender disparities where more or less brushed under the carpets of the discourses of nationalist struggle, by bifurcating the roles of women as a frontline fighter and as a sideline caregiver at once. Gandhiji showed this division of labour by submerging the difference under the lofty discourse of women’s role in nationalist struggle and nation building. However, in Kerala, from the rights on public paths to rights to enter the temples to widow marriages to women’s education, to right cover one’s breasts and so on more less interspersed with the mainstream struggle for national independence. In that sense, striking is not new to Kerala women.

Kalyan Silks strike of its salesgirls demanding the right to sit and use washroom is however pivotal not only in the central discourse of feminism but also in the general discourse on moral policing on women and their relationships. Seen in a larger context of ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary and its aftermath, this strike assumes a very important dimension. Unorganized job sectors are always the sites of labour as well as sexual exploitation. The feudal lord standing under the shade of an umbrella and seeing the hanging breasts of the lower caste women who work in the rice fields, sexually loaded comments directed at the coir workers, beedi workers, cashew nut workers and match box workers are the pictures that are still etched clearly in the minds of Kerala women. Though unionizing in each sector had/has helped women to escape from obvious and subtle forms of exploitation, the emerging job sectors are still not unionised; for example the part time teachers in private schools and colleges, call centre workers, salesgirls and boys, nurses in small hospitals, domestic helps and migrant labourers and so on. As these are floating job sectors where one is expected to gain experience against a small salary, unionising becomes the last concern for the workers. While many of these sectors do not entertain workers for a long time, workers too consider these sectors are temporary avenues. However, girls working in textile retail shops and jewellery shops do not consider these jobs as floating jobs. Yet, they do not unionise.

 (Adivasi Standing Strike with leader C.K.Janu, college students show solidarity with touching the strikers' feet)

They do not unionise mainly because they are too dispersed and diversified in aims as workers and as human beings. A retail chain may be a district centric or it may have shops in a few districts. Depending on the demand of the locations of these shops, the girls are expected to report for work. Though there could be uniform timing for a particular retail chain, considering the footfall frequency, some shops may give some relaxation in their reporting time. Secondly, they are not inclined to unionise because the kind of harassment that they face on a daily basis automatically put them into a precarious position of losing the job if they complaint or try for opinion building. As most of these girls come from lower income group families, their salary seems to be so pivotal for the general aspirations of their families and they find it extremely difficult to jeopardise their job. Thirdly, many girls work towards collecting dowry for their own marriages! Their work and salary are so much a determining factor in their lives that having a job with a salary, and getting out of home daily become so important for their future. Though they dream future of their own, the working atmosphere literally kill their dreams as they are prevented from connecting with other people or friends of male or female gender, or even using the mobile phones.

However, one may ask why these girls are still attracted to such jobs. While the scare poverty looming large over their families could be cited as the primary reason, sociologically speaking, it is the respect that a uniformed job gives to the girls makes it so important for them. These girls are given a uniform, as per the aesthetic sensibility of the owner of the retail chain and this uniform gives them a temporary authority over the customers who come to purchase dresses, textiles, or gold and ornaments. Here the sales girls play a double role; first of all they are salesgirls so they need to be really pleasant and be capable enough to sell stuff to people. Serve with a smile is a motto. And, entice the customer by being friendly yet not over friendly, coaxing and yet not yielding, such games become natural to this job. As they are uniformed and play role in controlling, enhancing and at times killing the desire quotient of the customer, they feel a sense of authority at the cost of their own freedom and sense of self worth. In her article Malavika Narayanan writes that these girls also become sales props, a sort of living mannequins though they do not exactly wear (or ever wear) the kinds of dresses that they sell. Though this is true in certain dimensions, they are forced to live in a sort of perpetual incompetency because the kind of wares that they sell are always away from their own desires and are also ‘sold’ by glamorous super models from elsewhere. So they should be facing a sense of inadequacy also at the time of playing hot and cold with desire quotient of the customers.

(Additional work. Kalyan silks sales girls during the inaugural function of their Trivandrum showroom)

This sense of inadequacy is inclemently accentuated when a hieratic division is done amongst the work force of these girls by the floor managers or by the owners themselves, by categorising them into good looking to presentable to not so presentable types. Though a girl’s good looks do not assure her a fat salary packet as a salesgirl, she automatically gets the most precious sections in a large showroom where silk sarees, wedding garments, haute couture type of dresses are sold. Presentable girls are employed at other sections and not so good looking girls are sent to the places where not too many people visit. Their jobs are always to fold the things back or run up and down to get the materials. While good looking girls are promoted to stand at the welcoming area of the sections to entice the customers, not so good looking girls do not get much chance to hold that position. Though, I have not done on the ground research on this aspect, I have come across this division automatically put in place in many famous textile and jewellery shops. While this creates an ego clash amongst the working girls themselves, the regular frisking they are subjected to (especially in the jewellery shops) is quite demeaning.

The sales girls who are undergoing strike today for their right to sit and relieve themselves, not only face subtle sexual harassment at the workplaces but also they face it as they commute between their homes and work places. As their uniform tells the world that they are ‘mere’ sales girls, a section of the society also considers them as girls who could ‘sell’ their bodies for survival. While uniform in general command respect, the uniform of these girls (which are often heavily patterned sarees with one colour on the pleats and another on the rest of it) invite general disparage and condescension. While the morning commuting to the workplace is rather easy for these girls, going back home at night is really a difficult task for them. I have seen these uniformed girls with their plastic covers and cheap handbags standing like a flock of sheep waiting to be carted to the stables, at the bus stops and other pick up points. There too they are subjected to face cat calls, unwanted attention from pedestrians and unsolicited invitations from fringe elements from the male community that could any time turn into a social guards who wear their morality on their sleeves.

 (Noted actors Prithviraj and Dhanush together inaugurating Kalyan's Dubai showroom)

Is there a remedy to this deep rooted malice? Or unionising is the only remedy? Is sensitising possible in the workplaces? Can the employers be lenient and led by humanitarian values? How could the general society react to this menace and save the girls from this ongoing indignity? How long are they going to strike for their rights to sit and pee? How long the public intellectuals going to write about them and support their cause? Will theorising and vocalising their concerns in the elite platforms in anyway help in alleviating their plights? If not who could be the right forces to make these blind law makers and blind employers to have certain kind of operations on their own eyes and see the truth? How could we help them see sense? I think it is possible; it is possible if each family in Kerala decides to boycott the showrooms and textile and jewellery retailers that treat their sales girls like slaves. The boycott could start from the doors of Kalyan Silks itself. This company or any company like this flexes its muscles because they would get cheaper workforce. But what would they do with the cheaper workforce if none is there to buy stuff from their shops. Kerala women are shopaholics. They shop till they drop dead. Death and birth, marriage and divorce, anything and everything is celebrated with buying new clothes and jewellery in Kerala. If every family decides not to patronize those shops that mistreat our sisters, then things will change. And social boycotting would eventually make the law makers bend their knees and take stringent action against the slave drivers. Can our conscience keepers of the society, both our print and electronic media negate the revenue from the advertisement of these big retail chains? Can our film stars stop endorsing their products? Can our celebrities and politicians stop going for cutting ribbons of their expanding showrooms? If we all together decide, then our girls will be treated better. Any takers?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Story of our Mothers 4: Hindi Graduates of Yesteryears

(Asha Parekh- illustration purpose only)

I have never heard my mother singing a Hindi song though she sang moderately well, especially when she used to sing lullabies for us. Those were in Malayalam and when my mother lost the original lyrics she created her own words and sang without losing the rhythm or meaning. Never trained in classical music, she at times attempted singing some Carnatic music pieces emulating the swaras and jatis with exaggerated action that made us laugh like little angels did in heaven. Though my mother never sang Hindi songs, she was/is a graduate in Hindi. I have never heard her speaking in Hindi and whenever she tried, as she made a few shorts visits in Delhi, she failed miserably. She started off in Hindi, got entangled in English and sought rescue in Malayalam. When she spoke Hindi she made more gestures than words so that the listener could get what she exactly wanted to convey. I used to wonder how my mother managed a graduation in Hindi or why she chose Hindi as a main subject for her graduate studies.

Growing up in late 1960s was not so exciting. There were not too many options for my mother or her sisters to pursue. If she passed the tenth standard (in the British education system it was called Sixth), a woman, if she was really career oriented and her parents were really keen on getting their daughter ‘educated’ and self reliant, could have pursued a graduation or joined a course called TTC- Teachers Training Course. If you are not immediately married, a teacher’s job is the right career option for you. If a woman was not married off by the age of sixteen or ‘sweet’ seventeen, she could pursue an intermediate course and then a graduation. Most of the girls of my mother’s time failed in crossing the final hurdle, that is SSLC or Sixth or Secondary School Leaving Certificate course which is equivalent to today’s tenth standard. They failed deliberately, I think because they knew that whether they passed or not they would be married off, then why burn all those midnight oil? Why take risk? There was a saying in the village economy that if a girl was not doing well in her studies, her natural place was either in the kitchen (literally, near the stove) or under a wheel. Wheel here connotes the mechanical device which made coir ropes. As our villages were making coir products, rotating the wheel was one of the job options that girls kept in mind.

 (a type writing institute in Kerala- illustration purpose only)

All the families did not need an additional income. So a girl who had failed in the tenth standard was considered to be ‘standing houseful’. That means she was ripe enough to be married off. Parents used to ‘lose sleep’ over this houseful girl/s. So till a proper alliance came on the way, she was sent to learn type writing. Type writing institutes were the study centres which remotely and crudely resembled today’s computer labs, where most of the boys and girls went to learn this technique of typing and short hand which would assure them a clerk’s job in future. Girls were sent to type writing institute to pass their time fruitfully, and at the same time it provided them with a couple of free hours daily in which they could flaunt their beauty to the expectant road Romeos waiting for them. There was a consensual acceptance from the parents’ side to display their daughters publicly in this way so that some eligible bachelors’ eyes would fall upon them on the right time. In those days of primitive technology, girls used to elope with either tuition masters or type writing institute masters as they were the only lucrative options available in the village. Those daring ones used to eye the bus drivers, conductors and cleaners, in that order. As they led a static life, any men who moved out of the village was a thing of wonder for them and they just wanted to see the world with them. Parents often told marriage brokers to keep an eye on their girls and in turn these marriage brokers worked as mobile CCTV cameras for the parents, obviously for a fee.

My mother was not one of those girls. She never went to learn type writing. May be my mother did not think about herself as a beautiful young woman. She came from a very ‘busy’ background that she found very little time to deck herself up or maintain her looks. May be because she had very low opinion about her looks she did not think she could become a ‘typist’ in future. Besides, she had passed the tenth standard with good marks. Beauty became an important pre-requisite for the type writing female students because in the popular narratives of that time used to show women of exaggerated beauty as typists, stenographers and private assistants to the bosses. Hence, those village girls who thought themselves as women capable enough to give completion to the film actresses stressed less on studies and pressed hard on the type writing keys. If they could pass the lower and higher grades in type writing, even without passing the tenth standard, they could become typists and office secretaries. Their beauty and looks compensated their lack of education. My mother thought she was not so beautiful (but in my eyes she is very beautiful) and she opted not to learn type writing. Then one may ask why she decided to study Hindi language and literature as her optional subjects for graduation.

 (Women's convocation picture- illustration purpose only)

The answer is any subject would have been good for a graduate then. If you are exceptionally good at science and mathematics, and your parents had good money, you could become a doctor or engineer. But it was a time when women were supposed to become educated homemakers than caregivers for a larger population either by becoming a doctor or engineer. Women with a graduate degree was a much sought after ‘property’ in the marriage market then because the bridegroom could boast that his would be wife was well educated and also she had the potential of becoming a clerk in a government office, which added to the aggregate income of a growing family. Also a graduate woman could go for a B.Ed, bachelor of education, which qualified her to become a teacher. While the TTC teachers became primary school teachers, B.Ed holders could become upper primary and high school teachers. It also eased the burden of the parents because they could bargain for a reduction in the estimated dowry for their daughter in the marriage market, citing the potential of her ability to earn in the near future as a teacher or a clerk. My mother might have had the same idea in her mind while taking admission for a Hindi graduation.

When thinking of it, I understand that my mother had taken Hindi as an optional subject because many women found this as an easy subject to pass. Why so? The educational hierarchy in Kerala had been in a peculiar way for a long time. As I mentioned elsewhere, the toppers went for science degrees which helped them to become either doctors or engineers which eventually transcended their social and economic class. Second option was given to English literature, which most of the students could not pursue because of their lack of proficiency in the language. A few of them opted for the regional language, that is Malayalam, for graduation which assured him a post either in college or school as a teacher provided they could gain further degrees in the same subject. Economics was not studied the way students opt for it now. Commerce was looked down up on and only male students who had an idea to leave the native place looked at its possibilities. Home Science was a later introduction which had prepared women to become good homemakers. Hindi was a suitable option for two reasons; it gave three assurances in the job front; a clerk, a teacher or a professor. And Hindi was the national language. It also prepared you for Bank tests. But in my mother’s time bank was one of the last options. What made many women take up Hindi as their optional subject was this; Hindi being the national language, the central government had a policy to spread language all over India. There were public and co-operative agencies set up for spreading the awareness of Hindi language. So anybody opted for Hindi language, in a way was expressing their solidarity with the national cause. And above all, the passing percentage was subsidised. You could pass even if you scored less. I think so. I have never asked my mother about it.

(an old steam engine)

I grew up in a house where there were two prominent photographs mounted, framed and hung from the wall. The first one was in the front room (which was not called a drawing room then), placed next to the large clock wound everyday dutifully by my father, and it was a big portrait of my father. It showed a young man with dreamy large eyes and thick moustache and clear jaw bones and well shaped lips and ears. His hairline was slightly receding but it showed thick blackness. Though I had never seen my father like that in real life, I liked this portrait. As it was hung from the wall in a forty five degree angle, as a child I could see reflected myself on the glass frame of that photograph. I had invented a game for passing my time by standing in front of that portrait (to look at it I had to look up) and see my image merging with my father’s face. I used to imagine that it was my portrait. Today when I look at the mirror,  I do not see myself but I see my father there. The second game was looking at the dial/face of the clock. It was a wonderful pastime to see how the large pendulum oscillated with a tick tock sound and the needles moved with a mild jerk. Children generally played this game as I could see a similar scene in Anantharam, a film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, many years later, when I myself was a graduate student in Trivandrum.

From the front room one moved to the second room which automatically became a bedroom at night and playing room for the day. It was called an ‘idappura’ (a room in between) and stood between the dining cum kitchen and the front room. It had a wooden attic and our first ceiling fan (A GEC Gold Like) was fitted from this attic. Above the door that leads to the kitchen (so meaningfully?) there was the picture of my mother as big as my father’s portrait. While my father’s photograph was a close shot of his bust, my mother’s photograph was a medium shot where I could see her standing tall and proud with a lawyer’s gown and a roll of certificate in her hand. This was a convocation photograph. All the graduates of that time took this kind of studio photograph, a sort of show off and kept it in the house so that the guests and visitors knew that the lady of the house was a graduate. This used to give them immense pride. In the picture she stood awkwardly, holding her lips tight in tension as well as in an effort to keep her buck teeth well within the boundaries of her lips. As I look at the photographs that she has taken later on I could see her growing up in stature and confidence and the earlier awkwardness giving away to a newly found confidence and grace. This photograph has been there for a long time and even today one could see that in our old home. I do not know whether seeing it every day at least once gives her any remembrance of those good old days or has it become a habit and has become one of those old discarded things though not moved from its original position because one could not find a suitable place for it to be removed and forgotten.

 (Sunil Dutt and Asha Parekh- illustration purpose only)

Between my mother’s home and the college that she studied there was a distance of forty kilometres. The railway connected the two destinations in one hour. Today the same distance could be covered in twenty five minutes by a fast train. She studied in the Women’s College in Trivandrum. Near Vazhuthakkadu, in the heart of the city, this college is an illustrious one established by the Travancore kings for encouraging women’s education. My mother left home early in the morning with a few other students and office goers, and took a shuttle train that ran between Quilon and Trivadrum (Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, two district centres). She packed her food in a seasoned banana leaf and covered it with an additional paper and she continued it till she could manage to gather money to buy a proper tiffin career. My mother had started wearing half saree (a combination or long skirt and a diagonally worn piece of cloth) when she was in the school final and in the intermediate classes. And when she went to the college, she started wearing sarees. She remembers that those sarees came as hand-me-down pieces. A couple of them were bought by her father for and a few others came from the two elder sisters. The trains were not driven by electrical engines or diesel engines. They were good old vintage steam engines. The compartments were rickety and my mother reached college covered in a layer of dust and soot. She came back home by seven o clock in the evening, and took charge of kitchen along with my grandmother and sisters. She studied, whenever she could but most of the studies were done in classrooms only.

I never asked her whether she had a boyfriend at that time or not. Even if there used to be graphic depiction of love and sex in the movies and novels that she had seen and read, I do not have any reason to think that she had any inclination towards boys of her time because in those days good girls from decent families were not supposed to even look at other guys whom they happen to see in train, town or college. But I think this libido drive was less amongst people in those days (who knows) for I found that my mother had very good friendly relationships with many men. Whenever my mother meets a man of her age in the bank or street, they talk with such cordial feeling and care for each other that I wonder how they become such thick friends. Her answers shock me at times: He is X or Y. He studied with me in the village school. He is so and so, he studied with my younger brother (my uncle) and he used to come. He is so and so. We all used to go to the railway station.” They all came from the same village and they all cared for each other. My mother got married in the same village and the village became her own place where people not only identified herself as so and so’s daughter or so and so’s wife, but also as so and so’s mother. But I am happy that above all these acknowledgements, she is known to the village for her own merit and status. Though she takes a lot of happiness to say that she is so and so’s wife and so and so’s mother, I still feel a lot of happiness to say that I am my mother’s son. Even at the age of forty five, when I accompany my mother somewhere, to a relative’s place, or a temple or a friend’s place, I prefer to stand a step behind her, if possible holding her saree’s edge and if need be hiding behind it. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Holi: A Sexy, Sexist and Oppressive Festival

(Times of India report on 5th March 2015, page 11)

In the newspaper Times of India, dated 5th March 2015, on page number eleven at an inconspicuous left corner I saw a ten liner story, which I would have missed without remorse had it not been the words ‘Dalit’ and ‘Holika’ in the title. Eminently miss-able, this tiny little news item told me about a Dalit man who was attacked by a mob comprising of ‘naturally’ upper caste Hindu men. The reason, as the story went, was this Dalit man’s audacity to burn a Holika effigy. He was thoroughly beaten up. The dateline showed an interesting name: Varanasi. I would not have felt a sense of surprise and frustration had it been just Varanasi, which is the seat of all Hindu holy men and women. But today Varanasi has an added value; it was from where India’s Prime Minister was elected with a thumping majority against conscience of Indian youth, Arvind Kejriwal, who within nine months showed the Prime Minister that the defeat in Varanasi was just a preamble to a big win that he would script in Delhi in February 2015. Mr.Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister now, after a spate of attacks on the Christian religious establishments by fringe elements of Hinduism, had said it in parliament that his government would never tolerate such highhandedness and intolerance by any religious group. But in his constituency, a Dalit man was attacked for burning the effigy of Holika, to herald Holi, a festival of unity (in diversity) and colour.

I do not want anybody to smear colours on my body for two reasons; one, hygiene, and two, the hypocrisy that has come in our daily lives. There is a third but very important reason behind it. Mythological-ly speaking, this festival is a huge injustice done to women. Holika was Hiranyakashipu’s sister. Hiranya’s son Prahlada was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. Holika was a devotee of Shiva. Holika was asked to hold a rebellious Prahlada on his lap and enter into the fire. Agni, the lord of fire had assured her that she would come out unscathed. But she was burnt to death while Prahlada came out without a scar. When Vaishnavism was fighting for supremacy such dissenting Shaivite women and men were either killed or decimated. Shaivaites have become today’s Dalits. They cannot emulate anything that is legitimate in Vaishnavism. The Dalit man who was setting fire on the Holika effigy did not know the political implications of that burning. If he knew that Holika was his sister, he would not have attempted it first of all. Having done that, he faced the ire of the upper caste men because he was encroaching upon the legitimized system of burning Holika in the dominant Hindu religion.


Ironically, today Shiva and the Shiva cult are hijacked by the dominant Hinduism. Shiva is no longer a dissenting god. From his pagan roots he has been enthroned as an avenging god who unfortunately avenges his own clan people. If we look at the basic pattern of playing Holi, we could see that most of the lower caste people including Dalits play this so vehemently that even the upper caste ones cannot match the vigour of their playing. From the Dalit’s part it must be a way to gain social acceptance or social equality or even a mode of breaking the invisible and visible norms of untouchability. By smearing colours on people’s face or body and by masquerading one’s caste identity in the masks of colours, one may be revelling at the same time taking revenge upon his detractors. But that could be a protracted reading. What I want to believe is that Holi is a politically lost festival which does not any reason or rhyme to exist in the current Indian society. Look at the poor people who do not have enough clothes or cleaning materials carrying on with the same colour stained dresses and hair for another two or three months. Holi is a game of the rich and for the rich to which the poor are lured into cut themselves extremely sorry figures.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I do not like playing Holi mainly because I have tactile phobia. I do not know whether such a condition exists but I can tell you for sure that I do not like people touching and feeling my body. I do it in privacy with the ones whom I love. I hold hands with the ones whom I love. But I do not want my neighbour to come and hug me and stain me with colours just because it is a festival and he wants to insist that he is in ‘love’ with me as my neighbour. I just do not want him/her to do that to me. Children are lured into this business of colour festival because they like anything that breaches the norms of daily routine. They like break free from the strict regimes of school and they like getting drenched and getting cuddled up. They are like puppies. There is no problem if children play it; they are innocent. But when the grown ups play it is all about hypocrisy. Throughout the year they bitch about another community, another region, another language, another religious, another sect and another whatever, and on the Holi or Diwali day they come with godforsaken colours, sweets and sweet words as if they do not have any other problem with any other human beings. These are the same people who kill for a parking space or litter the neighbour’s doorsteps.

 (they play it apolitically- some foreigners playing Holi- source net)

This hypocrisy ridden society plays Holi, the sight of which makes me sick. They say this festival heralds the arrival of spring and the emphasis on colour makes it more attractive. If it is a spring festival then it must have been a pagan festival which later got adopted to the dominant Hindu religion. Psychologists say that in such festivals the collective repressions come out and by playing it out it serves as a social venting, which would transgress gender and caste boundaries. Krishna myths would prove that there had been a sort of collective venting of suppressed erotic feelings during the festivities of Holi. If a red bindi or red sindoor on the forehead of a woman could suggested her marital status, then smearing of colours all over the body could equally suggest that it is a transgression and releasing of the restricted ideas of sexuality. If that is genetically coded in the Indian psyche, then Holi festivals we could see how men and women become a bit ‘outgoing’. I have seen women getting literally molested during the Holi festivals by their own male relatives right before the eyes of her husband. Like any other festival in India, Holi too is gentrified and hieratically arranged. For the film stars and politicians there are different Holi venues. They have sophisticated the acts with affluence. For the rich business families and neo-rich there are different types of Holi venues. For the middle class it is always an occasion to transgress. For the lower class it is to do all what has already been mentioned. In Haryana, there is a Holi called ‘Lathi Holi’ where women could beat men with long bamboo poles on the Holi day. They take out their anger on men not only by beating but also by rendering beautiful and descriptive expletives, leaving nothing to imagination. Feminists may support such a Holi festival but the rest of the year they would bear the brunt of what they have done for that one day. In Mathura, I am told there is a ‘pathar Holi’ means stone pelting Holi. Too dangerous and too perverted.

(Krishna playing Holi with Gopis- illustration)

Holi was in my mind when I was a child. Always the pastures at the other shore are greener. Hence, during childhood, when we were reading social studies texts, we came across North Indian festivals like Holi, Dussera and Diwali. We had small scale Diwali then. But no Holi and Dussera. Now I believe because of the resurgent Hinduism in its worst possible ritualistic forms, any kind of festival is available anywhere. The migration of work force from the poorer parts of North India to South India also has caused the proliferation of such festivals in those parts. Someone had gifted a couple of calendars to my mother. One of them was a Russian calendar with all those pictures of space ships. The other one was of Indian festivals. One of the pages showed a Holi festival. Beautifully rendered watercolour picture on that calendar showed a turbaned man and women in colourful clothes splashing colours at each other. I dreamt that one day I would also play Holi. When I went to Baroda to study, I came across Holi for the first time and in the faculty they played Holi in the dirtiest possible ways by dipping friends in a dirty ponds filled with muck. I never played Holi there. In Delhi,  I started involving in Holi because the neighbours took this festival very seriously. When my children were born and when they grew up to play festivals I partook in the festival reluctantly though. I never liked Holi and I do not think that I will ever like Holi in my life. When a Dalit is thrashed for burning the effigy of Holika, how can a level headed human being in India play the same festival? I have decided not to celebrate any religious festival, including the Hindu festivals. I know my Hindu religion. I do not want some rogues to smear it with silver paint. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Confessions of a Beef Eater

Beef is a part of my memory; part of my world view. Therefore erasing beef from my plate is as cruel as erasing my memory. Authoritarian governments make people undergo shock treatments so that they could erase their memories. Demagoguery is a form of shock treatment. Mentally sick people are treated with shock treatment so that rebuilding a set of new memories could be possible. Autocratic governments consider people as patients who are liable to undergo shock treatments. Ban on beef is such a shock treatment.

Beef plays an integral role in my childhood memories. My mother never ate beef though my father relished it. In their Sunday moments of togetherness which remained absent for prolonged periods, my father peeled small onions and chopped green chillies. My mother washed the beef clean and fried the ingredients in a frying pan. The fragrance of the frying coconut crumbs mixed with the intoxicating smells of the spices filled not only our home but also the neighbourhood. Almost everyone in the vicinity knew that we would have beef for lunch. But we were not alone in this well known passion for beef. Each house in the area, on Sundays turned out to be a special culinary zone where beef was cooked with the imported taste of ladies who were brought in marriage into our village.

(A painting by Chaim Soutine)

It was beef that made me aware that everyone who came near me was not a friend. My mother never liked to go near a butcher’s shop. So when I was grown up enough, that means around nine years old, I was sent to the market to buy beef. My mother had fainted once she saw a huge carcass of a buffalo or bull hanging from a butcher’s hook. It was in her childhood. But women generally made sacrifices at that time. Though she did not eat, she cooked beef for her husband who became our father in due course of time. My father did not go to the market to buy beef because he thought it was a notch below his dignity. So I was sent to buy beef. One kilo beef, I was supposed to buy that. One kilo beef was then priced at Rs.5. My father, on one Sunday gave me five rupees and sent me to the market. On the way a friend joined me in the walk. He threw his hand around my shoulder. In those days holding hands and throwing hands around the shoulder were not considered to be bad acts. Moral policing was an unheard of notion. At the market gate, my friend took leave of me and went to his way. I went to the butcher’s shop and bought my beef. When I put hand into my pocket, to my horror I found the money was missing. My ‘friend’ had taken it away. Crying, I went back home. My father caned me and later gave me another five rupees and sent me again to the market. Beef had made its mark not only in my mind but also in my body.

Every year, on a particular day which is called the Sankranti day, every household in Kerala bought beef, cooked and ate. Buying beef and eating was considered to be auspicious on that day. It was a Hindu festival and no VHP, no BJP, no RSS then told us that it was a bad deed. Cow and bulls were like word and meaning then also. They were in the scriptures, they were the vehicles of gods, but there was no objection. We Malayali’s had a maxim also to justify any act of killing to eat: Any sin incurred by killing will fade off if you eat it. Irrespective of caste and creed, irrespective of gender and age, people ate beef. And let me tell you cows and bulls were butchered then and we knew only their flesh as beef. Buffalo meat was very dear. Only in certain spots you got buffalo meat. And you had to book it well in advance, even then. It was Indira Gandhi’s time. Information technology was limited to radios. The fastest message was the messages sent by a cycle rider. So on that Sunday morning, after visiting the local temples, young men in the village rode their cycles to the butchers’ shop. Beef was not a taboo then.

(painting by Chiam Soutine)

We were growing up. I too was growing up. In my late teen years, growing up was marked by a few signs; switching from half pants to dhotis was first in the order. Shaving the facial hair was the second one. Third, you moved alone at night in the village and your night was limited by the stroke of seven thirty. Fourth, you could gather at a junction or culvert and spend time with your peer group people. Fifth, secretly you could smoke a cigarette and could chew all those herbs hanging from fences to ward off the foul smell. Sixth, you could look at girls with a different heart jumping inside your ribcage. But the ultimate thing was defined by beef. If you are really a big guy, you ate beef and porata from a local restaurant. You go to temple, on the way back home you ate beef and porata. You could sport a tilak on your forehead and eat beef. None objected, if someone objected, one plate of beef for him would have solved the problem. With that beef we built up our muscles in the local gyms where one dumb bell shared by the youths from the whole village. Beef literally gave us our bodies.

Slowly beef became an exotic food, the way tapioca became exotic. People stopped eating beef because they thought cows, bulls and buffalos generally came under the category of ‘mother’ but because now they could afford chicken and mutton. Economy had changed the mindset people. Once upon a time we ate chicken once in a year and we felt that day very special than our birthdays. Mutton was a scene, which was meant to be looked at than eaten. Beef was humble enough to be democratic. But change in economy brought change in food habits. People started drinking coke and cola instead of lemon water, chaas and simple water. The day Indians started taking water in plastic bottles for using at the two openings of their bodies, we could say we have ushered ourselves into the new economy. Beef lost out in this new economy. But as it turned out to be an exotic food item thanks to it being pushed to the margins its price increased in direct proportion with that of chicken and mutton.

 (painting by Chiam Soutine)

Whenever we went to study elsewhere, we looked for a beef outlet. Sadly we knew, in the so called Hindu dominated areas beef was not seen. So we hunted down the places where beef was sold. It used to be in the places where mosques were located. Muslims ate beef and we became very close to those Muslim brothers who sold us beef. In Gujarat we found the places where beef was sold. In Delhi , in UP and in Hyderabad we found out beef outlets. Once, away from home for almost two years without eat beef, on the first chance when I could put my hand own raw beef, I got a kilo, cooked it in a pressure cooker and ate it all by myself in one go and on the next day found myself admitted to a hospital for loose motions. The love for beef was so much. All my friends were/are good cooks and when it came to the cooking of beef they were magicians. One of my friend poured whatever he had in his hand while cooking beef and made it into a special dish. I never kept acrylic colours near while he was cooking. He tried rum, coke, whiskey, beer and even bhang with beef, and the result was intoxicatingly good beef fry and curry. One of my friends tells me that he calls himself a hunter when he goes to buy beef on Sundays because it was a rare thing and to be hunted down from some corner of the city.

When I am in Mumbai I go to Leopold to eat some beef chilly. It is a must for me. I had even vomitted a whole day once after over eating beef from there. But still I eat like a devotee eating the Prasad of a beloved god. I am a lover beef. In Delhi I got to the INA Market to eat beef. I may not be eating beef today for health reasons. But I vote for beef. And I am ready to defy the rules by eating beef throwing the advices of the doctor to the wind. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Three Little Things That You may Also Have Experienced

(a dream- illustration purpose only)

A Dream

When I walk, when I sit and when I get up from a deep sleep, the hopes that we have woven together are still with me. They, like shadows cast by sun and moon, walk silently along. That scene, which always reminds us of the picture postcards that we had seen in school days perfect in everything but for the absence of people, is one of the places where we need to take our shadows to dwell forever and ever. I have not forgotten that awakening touch of grass blades laden with the morning dew, I have not forgotten the fragrance of those flowers veiled in a golden mist and I have not forgotten of the reminders that linger all over the wafting breeze. I promise, one day, some day we are all are going to be in that picture. But haven’t we told each other that we do not like crowded places? Then let us sit with erasures like some school children who never get their pictures right, and rub off the people one by one, till only we remain. Let rains fall on that picture and let sun shine over it. Let all those colours fade gradually, brining the game of seasons play around it. Let all the colours of the world fade and turn the universe into a grey, still we would remain there like memories frozen in ash. In stirring memories of stones there will be a bamboo thicket and a little cottage near it. Inside, with light of sun turning an ethereal white as it passes through the curtains of dreams, I would sit at an oak table and write all those stories of invisible people who have been muted for ages. There at my left, you will guide me through the lines with your colours and music. Let the future keep this picture framed on one of its shelves.

 (old man on a cycle- illustration only)

An Old Man on a Cycle
I was walking lost in thought and with a book in hand and a sigh in mind. I did not know where to turn so I kept on walking till I earned some sense of direction. The road was abuzz with the noises of speeding automobiles. I was remembering the lines of Bob Marley, “My Feet is my only carriage, so I have got to push on through.” An old man overtook me on the footpath and he was on a rickety bicycle. A small red bundle was clipped on to the carrier and he was pedalling awkwardly. His close cropped hairs were completely white and he was wearing a traditional dhoti. Suddenly a car took a turn to the left, knocking the man on the cycle off the track. I rushed forward to hold the old man but he had landed safely as the hit was not so fast. He struggled himself up and my helping hand was not his wish. I picked up the cycle and put it back on its stand. But the man went to the car. Impending was a fight going by the city’s grace. Surprising everyone, the wasteful onlookers, he with his staggering legs walked up to the car, folded his hands and apologized!! In the car, I could see an old family, man driving, woman sitting and someone else in the backseat, astonished by the old man’s act. Was it fear, was it humility or was it wisdom that prompted the man to apologize? I did not know but I too was shocked. The people inside the car too folded their hands in humility for where else could have they got such response for that erroneous driving? I walked out of that little commotion and the old man climbed on the cycle again and rode past me and the disgrace that he had just faced and overcome.

Strange Kid
My mind was full of those images that Prof.B.N.Goswami had shown as he was giving the second Ram Kinkar Baij Memorial lecture at India Habitat Centre. Erudite and stately, Goswami led the audience through the surprises of ancient artists. And it would take a few days for anyone in good senses to come out of that aesthetic impact. Ruminating over the points he told I walked alone the station a kilometre away. The footpath and the service roads along were lined with silent cars waiting for their owners to come back after the weekend engagements. Tired drivers slept off in the cars keeping the windows panes down for when the masters came, the car would not stink of the menial breath, sighs, sorrows and bad dreams of the drivers. Night was cold, rain was somewhere there waiting to fall, breeze heralded the arrival of something ominous. Like a Dostoevsky character I walked all huddled up but suddenly felt something small and round and dark following me all along. Startled I looked on my left where I felt the presence and found a strange little boy as if he had just landed in a strange shore from his abode. He did not look up me but with his hurrying footsteps he was not overtaking me but was keeping pace with my stride. I knew in a flash that he was frightened by the yellow light from the lamp posts that intensified the darkness of night. Compassion flooded inside me and I asked the little boy where he was going all alone at night. He told me in clear voice that he was going to Nizamudeen Darga. Who are you going to meet there, my child, I asked. My father, instantly came the reply. He was wearing dirty clothes and was sucking a misshapen something; it must be a candy, I thought. What were you doing here at the junction, I asked him. I was with my mother, he said. His mother must be either selling some toys or flowers at the traffic signal or must be simply begging. The boy kept his pace up with mine and I slowed down. What is your name, my child, I asked him. Tathiya, came the reply. My cultural conditioning made me ask him, what, Shoukat? No, Tathiya, he corrected me. I did not make out the head or tail of that name. Do you go to school? He did not give an answer to that. He was hardly two and half feet tall and I had to really bend to speak to him. How old are you, I asked. “Ten,” said he with a lot of confidence. But, my child, you do not look like a ten year old, I said. “Then I must be five,” he said without changing his face or pace. I was astonished. I took out my purse and gave him a ten rupee note, which he instantly took and pocketed. I knew that he was prone to begging and getting money from strangers. Or he knew money matters. While he was catching up with me, he did not ask me for anything. Generally street kids beg the moment they see somebody vulnerable or not feeling comfortable with their own splurging. This boy was a silent traveller with me. He just wanted to come along because he was afraid of darkness. I had to take a right turn to the station and he had to go further ahead. I stood there and asked him whether he would go alone or should I go with him. He said he would go alone. I made him to look either side of the road and cross it and reach the other edge o the footpath. He ran into the darkness and vanished. Suddenly I found myself raining down, standing alone at the gate of a metro station deserted by people and presences.