On Leslee Udwin’s documentary

Now that the furore over it has abated somewhat, some stray thoughts on India’s Daughter, the documentary on Nirbhaya made by Leslee Udwin for the BBC:

1. First things first–the title of the documentary was ill-considered and frivolous. The Delhi gangrape may have anguished the entire nation and unified people in their outrage and horror, but that simply does not make the victim the nation’s daughter. Such shallow sentimentality might be common enough in local tabloids but it does not behove a BBC documentary– because it is patronising, even disrespectful.

Maybe this was just Udwin’s way of trying to garner support for her documentary inside India, by appealing to the parental instincts of Indians (who have a reputation of being rather sentimental). Umm, ill-advised.

2. That said, I thought the documentary itself was fairly well made, in that the point it sought to make came across clearly and unambiguously– India has a huge rape problem that owes itself in no mean part to the socially/ culturally institutionalised misogyny. There is simply no way anybody can plausibly deny that.

I only had issues with the over-dramatisation of certain parts, for instance showing the mother of the victim wiping a tear in slow motion while the accused gave details of the victim’s brutalisation. I did find that a trifle jarring. Also, the victim’s male companion on that ill-fated bus-ride was conspicuous by his absence.

3. While chest-thumping nationalists cried blue murder on social media, I was really hard-pressed to see how this documentary was disrespectful towards India/ Indian males in general. It examined a very specific incident. It also explored the attitudes, widely prevalent by all accounts, that encourage and condone such crimes. How is that disrespectful to all Indian males? Where was it claimed that all Indian men are like that?

I actually felt something close to gratitude towards the filmmaker for at least making an attempt to analyse and discuss these attitudes, which most women in India know about only too well but do not talk about so much, and which, God knows, could do with some discussion. And I am sure I love my country about as much as these nationalists. Oh okay, maybe a little less than they do!

5. Another sore point with the nationalists appeared to be that rape is a problem worldwide, but the west deliberately picks out India, just to malign it. Now, that is a little like Apartheid apologists complaining that racism exists everywhere, but sanctions were imposed only on South Africa. Well, my dear folks, talk to any Indian woman who has lived both in India and in the West, and she will tell you just how bad things are in India, and just why it is ludicrous to even compare India’s record on gender-based violence with any Western country.

As about foreigners talking about the ‘private matters ‘ of other countries, I suppose it will be a dark day when the only people allowed to comment on the goings-on in a country are those belonging to it!! When only Germans, and nobody outside of Germany,  will be writing about the holocaust, for instance. ( This is only an analogy. I don’t mean to compare the holocaust with the Delhi gangrape.)

5. It was interesting how so many people were worried about this documentary giving India a bad name, sullying India’s ‘honour’ as it were. Honour is a queer concept in the Indian context. Sexual crimes of all types are hushed up and brushed under the carpet just so the family’ ‘honour’ is untarnished. The dishonour comes not  so much from the incident itself but from ‘others’ knowing about it. All is well as long as the ‘others’ don’t know.

And so it is with this case. The dishonour lies not in the fact that such an incident came to pass at all, not even in the fact that for all the much-hyped fast-tracking of the judicial process the case is still sub judice, but in the fact that a documentary gets made on it and is watched by millions around the world.

6. While we’re at dishonour, a lot was made of the documentary making the name of the victim public. Well, for one, the name was already widely known to whoever cared to find out. For another, was not the testimony of her fiercely proud parents proof enough that they did not consider the publicising of her name the slightest bit shameful? From what I understand, the law is meant to protect victims who dont want to be named in public– what about the victims who want to be named? Will they be tried for breach of law?

I dare the government to take action against the victim’s parents for breaking this law. About time this law was amended to allow victims or their families to make themselves known.

7. The focal point of the documentary, the carte blanche as it were, was the interview with one of the accused. It made for difficult viewing but it was a coup of sorts, a journey into the mind of a brutal criminal. There was not even of shred of remorse in whatever he said. Clearly, imprisonment does not achieve much by way of reforming criminal minds. I was left wondering whether perpetrators of brutal crimes should ever be allowed to return to the society, as they do in India. As far as I know, life imprisonment in India works out to be only fourteen years imprisonment, if that much. What if the Supreme Court commutes these rapists’ death sentences to lifers? * shudder*

I don’t care if Udwin’s broke laws to get this interview done. This story needed to be told and I am glad it did get told.

7. I was dismayed by the sharp divide between male and female opinion on social media. Most women on my facebook friend list were supportive of the documentary and critical of the government ban. Most men on my Facebook friend list were opposed to the documentary, and supportive of the ban– including men whom I have hitherto known to be fairly liberal, and not quite chauvinist :-(.

The fact that opinion was divided so sharply along gender lines does not augur well for the (already precarious) gender dynamics in the country. Also, most women(including me, because my appetite for argument is limited) got shouted down after a while by the men, who were a lot more vociferous in their damning of the documentary than women were in their support for it–a little like how it plays out in the comments section of the TOI below any article that has to do with women. Women just kind of withdrew and decided that ignoring naysayers was the best option.

So for a while my newsfeed was full of critical, sarcastic, sometimes obnoxious posts on the topic by some men, which were liked and commented on by other men.  I had to resort to hiding updates from some of them, an option I had not had occasion to use so far.

It wasn’t so surprising that the most vocal critics of the documentary also happened to be the most vocal supporters of Narendra Modi– the right-wingers everywhere happen to be ultra-nationalist conservative people– but I sure was surprised at the sheer number of them.

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Hello Hello Hello

Anybody’s in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone home?

(Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd)
Hello people. Much water has flowed under the bridge since I last posted. I have been away from my blog so long that I half feared I had forgotten the password to it. I was relieved to find that I had not.

Where have I been and what have I been doing ? Ah, long story, but since you ask… 😉

Early last year, I found myself a job as academic editor(the work involved editing research papers for grammar and making sure they conformed to specific international journal style manuals, hence the adjective “academic”). I loved my job thoroughly–it was demanding but interesting and challenging. Too bad I had to quit sooner than I would have wanted to, owing to my husband’s transfer to Hong Kong.

We moved to HK in September, and the first few months went by in a blur of househunting, furniture-shopping, and the usual rigmarole of setting up a house from scratch.

I am totally loving life in HK (more on HK in future posts)–now if only I could get a job here too! Unfortunately, out here most jobs similar to the one I had in Mumbai require the applicant to have a working knowledge of Putonghua, the local Cantonese dialect. It is probably their way of promoting their language. Too bad for me!

It’s good to be back at my blog though.

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Day 31: On Finishing The Blogathon

Yay!  Somebody who did all of twelve posts last year managed to do thirty-one posts in one month! Woohoo! Who would have thought! 🙂

Congratulations to everyone who participated in and successfully finished the blogathon and thank you Maya and R’s Mom for hosting it.

When I committed to do this blogathon, I thought I would just give it a try, take it one day at a time and keep doing it as long as I could. I seriously didn’t see myself finishing this. But the mood was set after the first few posts–I knew I just had to stick around till the end!

A few thoughts on the blogathon:

–The reason why I did this blogathon was to give my near-dormant blog a shot in the arm–and to a large extent that did happen. The zooming stats were exhilarating– and what fun to see that orange button on the title-bar of my account glowing every morning!! Blogathons are certainly good for the health of your blog 🙂

–Prompts, even though optional, do help. They help you focus your thoughts. No less than twenty of my posts, including some that I thought turned out the best,  were in response to prompts. Some of them were topics that I would never have written about otherwise–last book read in the mother-tongue, for instance! Speaking of which, I loved this beautiful post by simple girl on the topic.

–Having to post daily keeps you in a state of perpetual high-alert–carefully observing the world around you, looking everywhere for inspiration and a topic to post on! One finds that there is a post lurking in every nook and corner –you only have to look closely enough. One also needs to  fine-tune one’s strings to be in  more in resonance with the outside world. It is a different kind of experience for sure.

— I came to write more about myself this one month than I had in the two years five months I had been blogging, and it felt like the most natural thing to do! It has also been a welcome exercise in introspection.

–I also tried to keep up–with limited success, since there were too many of them–with what other participants were writing . I loved this post by Chattywren on how the new year is ushered in in Belgium and this hilarious post by R’s Mom on those Tambram Mamas (her words, not mine) 😀

— I cannot thank GVji enough for commenting on every single of my blogathon posts. And such wonderful comments too!!  Thank you, GVji. It is an honour to have you commenting on my posts. Your support and encouragement mean a lot to me.

–Much as I enjoyed doing it, I am also relieved that I no longer need to post daily. I suspect many of my readers would be relieved too 😉 I promise not to inflict any more blogathons on you–not this year, certainly!

Posted in Blogathon January 2014 | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Day 30: Procrastination

“I’ll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
–Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With The Wind

I suppose it is quite apt that Scarlett O’ Hara should be amongst my favourite fictional  characters. I find shades of her in myself–certainly her tendency to procrastinate is something I can relate to very well.

In Scarlett O’ Hara’s case, the procrastination is at least an attempt to put off something that she would rather just never face up to, something unpleasant or something she deeply fears. My brand of procrastination is more in the nature of evasion–of things that are not even really unpleasant. For instance, I may have been meaning to call a friend for several days but all too often just never get around to doing it. And then I wince when I see a call coming on my phone from that friend–I know I am in for an earful and my feeble” Oh, I was just going to call you” will be treated with the contempt it deserves. Thankfully my long-suffering friends are used enough to my ways to not mind.

What can I put it down to? Laziness? Maybe. Or maybe it is just that I am–in my heart of hearts–not too fond of talking on the phone and hence avoid doing it unless I have to?

And while we’re on the topic, let me also bring up the example of this blogathon itself. Technically, it was not impossible for me to be done with my daily post during the day itself. In practice though, that just never happened. I found myself busy with a million things all through the day. When I did manage to find time, I found I just did not know what to write about.

Ultimately, almost all my posts–including this very post– got started in late evening. The ideas would rush forth only when I would start running out of time. I would type furiously  to be able to hit publish in time. I amazed myself by finishing some posts in under half an hour–I never knew I would be able to do that! I probably never would if there had been no deadline. Often the next day I would spot a cringe-making typo or two (there were two in yesterday’s post) in the previous post and correct them!

I have been thinking about this. Do I actually like to work under pressure? Or maybe I secretly like the thrill of having to rush against time, the adrenaline rush of managing to finish a task just in time? Or maybe this happens with other people too? I read somewhere that procrastination and perfectionism often go hand in hand– so if you’re afraid that whatever you want to write about is not going to be really good, you will put off writing it till the last moment. Hmm, that makes sense.

‘Procrastination’ was a spare-prompt in this blogathon and I am glad I decided to do a post on it because it made me really introspect. On a lighter note, I am also glad I managed to do it while there was still time. What an irony that would have been–putting off doing a post on procrastination till the very last day 😉

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Day 29: Surely You Are Joking , Mr. Feynman!

…is the name of one of my all-time favourite  books–one which I keep on my bedside table just so I can reach it easily any time I want to . I had received it as a gift from my brother some ten years back and must have reread some portions of it several times. It is hilarious, wise and insightful–and full of a fascinating love for life and all that comes with it.

Richard Feynman, whose reminiscences as narrated to his friend Ralph Leighton form the subject of this book, was a renowned physicist and Nobel laureate who was also intimately involved with what was called the Manhattan Project–the top secret project in which thousands of American scientists worked on the nuclear bomb during the second World War. He was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics in 1965–but Physics was by no means his only passion.

During his Manhattan Project days at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he entertained himself in his spare time on weekdays by picking locks and playing drums and achieved considerable proficiency in both. He practiced his safe-cracking skills on his colleagues, often scaring them witless.

The weekends though were reserved for his wife Arline who was suffering from tuberculosis and was lodged at a sanatorium a couple of hours away from Los Alamos. Arline died in 1945, only three years after marriage. Feynman was twenty-seven at the time. There is a poignant bit where he says how he had been prepared for her death and it didn’t affect him much at the time. He didn’t cry until months later in New York when he saw some nice dresses at a shop-front and instinctively thought, Arline would have liked one of those. That was too much for him.

Despite the emotional upheaval of a much-loved spouse’s death, he continued to learn anything and everything that caught his fancy–some of the funniest anecdotes pertain to his experiences in trying to learn new languages. Well into his forties, he took to sketching and became good enough at it to hold exhibitions of his own. He was also careful to use a pseudonym when sketching, just to make sure they didn’t sell only because a Nobel-prize winning physicist had made them!

He of course also continued to play elaborate pranks on unsuspecting people.

The most awesome aspect of this unique memoir is that it wasn’t even really written–it is only an edited version of taped, free-wheeling conversations Feynman had with his drummer friend Ralph Leighton–and yet, how it dazzles with sheer brilliance! How it makes you laugh! Feynman sure was one extraordinary person.

I recently also read ‘Don’t You Have Time to Think’, another book on Feynman which  is a collection of his personal/ professional correspondences compiled with much love by his daughter. I’ll admit this upfront– you have to be a fan of someone to want to read the letters he wrote and received. But then you only have to read ‘Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman!’ to become his fan for life.

Among the letters are some he wrote to his parents, trying to explain why he wanted to get married to his high-school sweetheart when she was already sick with TB. His parents were very worried that he would contract the illness from her, and he tried his best to convince them why that was unlikely, citing the opinions of the doctors he had consulted. Of course his parents were not convinced, and he went ahead regardless, but the letters in themselves are as eloquent an expression of true love as I have ever read. Hats off, Mr. Feynman!

Posted in Blogathon January 2014 | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Day 28: When RaGa Met ArGo!!

Okay, credit should be given where it is due–Rahul Gandhi may or may not be many things but he surely is brave. It is a brave person who subjects himself to an hour-long interview with Arnab Goswami–all the more so if said person is in the unenviable position of being responsible for steering a sinking ship to safe shores.

Rahul Gandhi must certainly have known that he would have to face some tough questions–from a journalist who is not known for being polite or softspoken. The vision of Arnab Goswami banging his fist on his desk, glowering at his guest and shouting “the nation demands an answer” must surely make even seasoned politicos quake in their boots.

On the other hand, I also wonder if RaGa’s bravery didn’t verge on foolhardiness. What possessed him to allow Goswami to make mincemeat of him on prime-time television? Why couldn’t he at least learn from his mother who, as far as I remember, has only ever allowed Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt–both favourably disposed towards her–to interview her on television?

And if at all he had to take on Goswami, the least he could have done is to come prepared. He should have known that he would have to field questions on the desirability of dynasties in politics, for instance. I know it would have been difficult for him to justify his dynastic privilege and the rampant corruption in UPA regimes but at least he could have shown more earnestness in defending himself. For example, he could just have said that dynasties are not out of place in a democracy as long as they get voted in–just the lines his very own partymen employ to defend him–and have made a valid point.

Instead, he beat around the bush and did not appear to have to say much in his defense except that he did not choose to be born into the family! On the issue of corruption, he said it was the UPA government that brought in the RTI and  and appeared to suggest that the RTI was the reason why so much corruption was exposed during UPA II. Not the best of arguments but well, this was tough to wiggle out of.

The issue on which Rahul Gandhi really tied himself up in knots was the 1984 riots vis-a-vis the 2002 riots. He said the difference between the two riots was that the former was not aided and abetted by the government of the day while the latter was. He eventually did admit that some Congressmen ‘may have been involved’ but continued to insist that the government had not really looked the other way–whatever that meant. And finally he was reduced to saying that at least he was not around when 1984 occurred ( and so he should not have to answer for it. ) He refrained from unequivocally condemning those involved and whatever regret he did express did not sound entirely sincere.

What irked me most was his tendency to start talking vaguely about entirely unrelated issues like women-empowerment and youth-empowerment at the drop of a hat. Women -empowerment in particular appeared to be his favourite phrase–he must have used it more than ten times in one hour. If RaGa thinks he can get women to vote for him by brandishing such terms, good luck to him.

In the end, it was Arnab Goswami who earned brownie points by giving Rahul Gandhi a good grilling, though he did tone down his aggressiveness a bit. I half-wished Arnab would pump his fist and do his ‘the nation demands an answer’ routine in front of Rahul Gandhi too. I quickly banished such evil thoughts from my head, though–surely poor RaGa was having a harrowing enough time as it was!

Posted in Blogathon January 2014 | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Day 27: Maid in India

Apologies for the cheesy( and trite) title –I just could not resist it–but this is something I have been thinking about ever since the Devyani Khobragade incident shot into limelight. Do we in India treat our maids right?

Having domestic workers do our dishes and clean our homes is a comfort most of us here take pretty much for granted. So used are we to their services that the very idea of having to do without them makes us break out in a cold sweat. As someone who has to move often, I am frequently in the state of being ‘in-between’ maids, even if it is just for a few days–and those are stressful times for me. I am very grateful when a new maid arrives to deliver me from the misery.

I do my best to keep them happy, though I do always stick to prevailing market rates. Here in Mumbai, for instance, I pay Rs. 1000 for work that takes my maid a little more than an hour to do. Apart from doing dishes and cleaning at my place, she also cooks for a few families and makes on an average Rs. 2000 per household per month through cooking. She comes to work in our society at 7 in the morning, works till three and makes Rs. 12000 per month in all–not bad for someone who is illiterate and for work that requires no investment in the form of training. It compares favourably with what security guards at buildings/malls or assistant shopkeepers at provision stores make for working similar, if not longer, hours. That they may all be underpaid is a topic for another day. Underpayment is a curse that afflicts the entire blue-collar workforce in India.

Coming back to maids in Mumbai, I have noticed that attrition-rate is also high. In the one year that my maid has been with me, I have seen her drop several jobs and take up new ones immediately–she is actually spoilt for choice. If anyone tries to mess with her, I don’t imagine her putting up with it just because she has no other option.

But then again, I realize this is a metropolitan city–maids have it relatively easier here. My maid in Chandigarh, for instance, got Rs. 800 for the same work that fetches Rs. 1000 in Mumbai. She also did not appear to have the luxury of going job-hopping. I guess it is very possible for people in her position–people not having too many choices– to face exploitation.

The trouble is, most domestic workers in India are either women or children, and are therefore vulnerable to abuse just by their so being. That they are also largely illiterate and untrained means that they are more or less trapped in the profession–which again increases their vulnerability.

I have never employed an underage domestic worker ( I once had a maid who would sometimes send in her fourteen year old daughter to do the work–I would always send her right back. She stopped sending her over eventually, but I think she continued to send her to other homes.) It is their plight which saddens me most of all. They are mostly just children–and they do not have the wherewithal to deal with adults or enough knowledge of the world to even realize that they are being overworked or abused.

I once knew someone who had a live-in help– a boy aged around eleven–and it bothered me a lot. In her defense she said children were more trustworthy when it came to having live-in helps–but said nothing when asked why she needed to have a live-in help at all. I am glad we lost touch.

Posted in Blogathon January 2014 | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments