Monday, January 27, 2014

Mob-o-crazy or Democracy

There is a difference between mob-ocracy or anarchy, as Kejriwal prefers to call it and democracy. Mob-o-cracy is rule by the mob, such as the mob is. Democracy means that we elect our representatives, not necessarily people just like us, but those we would wish to represent us– people with hopefully wide learning and exposure, with maturity, with an informed opinion – to do the best thing for us. If that were not the case, 18 year olds would only vote for 18 year olds, women would vote for women and we would have the world’s youngest cabinet, 48% female to boot. If that were not the case, a Cambridge-educated lawyer called Nehru would never have become Prime Minister in one of the world’s most illiterate nations.

If mob-o-cracy had been the governing principle that shaped us as a nation, we would never have a Constitution that guarantees civil liberties and equality to all Indians. Instead we would have had the caste and hierarchy system enshrined in a constitution that reflected the current thinking of that time, and who knows, that reflects even today’s thinking by the masses. Freedom of speech, equal right to vote, inter-caste or intercommunity marriages certainly would not be constitutionally permissible in a country in which Khap panchayats or kangaroo courts still hold sway over a large part.

Given that mob-ocracy cannot be the founding principle of a country, it ill behooves anyone from AAP to try and justify the raid on Khirki village under the guise of what the people wanted. It is a fact that India is a deeply racist country, especially discriminatory towards those of a dark colour. In Mumbai some years ago, bars forbade the entry of African visitors. I still remember the time we shot with a handsome African gentleman for a World car campaign and the client protested “Aapne to hupshiyon ko shoot kiya hua hai!”, as if that fact disqualified the model from claiming to be a citizen of the world. Just the other day I saw a quote from one Khirki resident who stated that ‘these people are all criminals or loose women. They roam around in skimpy clothes’. Here’s something thathappened to a friend of mine who happened to live there for a time for the crime of leading a different lifestyle than the average resident thereof.

What the people want may be very different from what they should be able to have, particularly if what they want militates against the principles of equality and fair play. If what they want is paramount, then colonies in Mumbai are well within their rights to refuse to rent an apartment to people from other religions, as they often do. If what people want is paramount, then 3/4ths of the country’s population is right in believing that a family’s honour lies between its women’s legs and that death is preferable to dishonor. If what people want is paramount, ‘lower castes’ should be beaten up and taught their place.

In a democracy, the key rules are equality and fair play – by design and intent, even if they don’t always play out in execution. Given that, the people complained about should have been heard out, as much as the complainants, before any action was taken. The hearing should have taken place in a non-partisan fashion rather than with a mob baying for appeasement. Kejriwal may well be right in describing himself as an anarchist – so far he has not risen above the mob-o-cracy. And the fact that so many people think of him as India’s big new hope – that’s scary!

AAP and its brand of local activism

I admit it, I have been a skeptic of AAP and its manifesto from day one. While I would like governmental fairplay and I would like a political party that has woken up and smelt the coffee and realized that government is supposed to be for the people and not above them, I found myself deeply disturbed by the kinds of poll promises made. I found distasteful Kejriwal’s call to arms to Delhiites asking all of them not to pay for electricity. It’s one thing to say that if you have evidence of doctored meters or of mismanagement hiking up the rates. But to say that any citizen has the right to use and not pay for resources is asinine. The promises of free water and electricity I found as gimmicky as those of any other party. But when it comes wrapped in a thick muffler of self-righteousness, it’s more dangerous than when it comes as the typical self-aggrandizing of a mai-baap dyed-in-the wool politician, because by now the Indian public has learnt to see through it. 

But now the Khirki incident has taken the muffler off and the public can see the truth that’s out there. Any minister who, when he receives a complaint from some disaffected factors in his constituency, decides to act on it like a vigilante and refuses to follow procedures even when someone is advising him of it, is not to be let off easily, even by those who desperately want to believe in the new party. What makes a further mockery of it is that this is the Delhi Minister for Law. What on earth prevented him from listening to the other side – the people complained about – rather than getting them dragged out of their homes? Why did he decide to override the police who advised him on due process, regardless of whether or not he suspected them of being hand in glove with the alleged criminal elements? Why did he decide he was above the constitution and the basic notion of justice, which is fair play? 

Why did Kejriwal the righteous decide that it was his job to stage a dharna asking for the cops to be suspended rather than suspend his Law Minister during the enquiry? Why did AAP decide that no enquiry was required into Somnath Bharti’s action? How did the party decide that the complainant’s word was above that of the victims of the Khirki raid? Is the party unaware of the deep, ingrained racism of India, particularly against people of colour or anyone with a non-mainstream lifestyle? If they are unaware maybe they have lived in a paper bag for the last several years. If they are not unaware, they should have been all the more determined on seeing justice and fairplay rather than a one-man show of vigilante justice. Added to their plans for a citizen force, it sounds like vigilante justice coupled with Kangaroo courts will replace the constitution if they have their way. 

If they are truly ‘the party with a difference’, they, like ‘Caesar’s wife’, need to conduct themselves with a higher moral compass than other parties. They cannot storm people’s homes like a lumpen mob, stating ignorance of the law and procedures as an excuse. They cannot be one-sided in listening to the public, they have to listen to all sides. And they cannot let their own members off the hook for ignoring the law, while expelling those who have dared to disagree with the party leader. That’s paving the way for this to turn into yet another political party without a difference.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I don't know

The other day, on my way to work, I passed a flyover under which there are usually a few poor people clustered, many of whom rush out and start begging as soon as the traffic lights turn red. That day, there was a bigger crowd than usual, several families in fact, men, woman, children and babies. One of the babies, a girl between 7-9 months old was rolling about on the brick floor of the space, howling at the top of her baby voice, loud enough for her voice to pierce through my closed car window. She was crying as if in agony for something, rolling from side to side across that floor. And not one of the many adults clustered around her so much as turned, paused their conversations to even look at her. One of the ladies had a bamboo pole about 10 feet long and used it to nudge the baby farther away from her. The many children under that flyover didn’t blink an eye, didn’t turn to look. No one seemed to have felt an urge to pick up that baby, to hold her close and comfort her, to find out what she wanted. I don’t know what to think about the incident, it keeps haunting me. I used to think my kids were pampered because they have a nice home and good clothes, toys and books…but maybe they are pampered because they have people in their lives who will listen, who will hear them crying, who can’t bear to see them in pain. I think back to the juvenile in the Dec 16th case and wonder if he grew up in a similar environment, whether he grew up in a home that never taught him anything but self preservation and survival by any means…whether he never knew what it means to have compassion, empathy because he had never experienced it himself. I don’t know if …contrary to whatever claptrap the movies sold us about the nobility in poverty, it leads to such a dominant survival instinct that you only care about yourself and no one else, maybe not even your own children.. …this weeping child was even theirs or was it just a convenient orphan picked up to ease begging… …I have turned cynic or biased onlooker…

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Dove ad and the Beauty Stereotype

The interesting thing about human beings is that they have the mindspace for the intangibles…like beauty. What an abstract concept, and yet, every day, human beings have the capacity and desire to appreciate beauty in myriad forms – in nature, in other people, in architecture and so much more. I don’t know another species that does so, except in Disney cartoons. So why does the new Dove commercial, which talks about women being more beautiful than they think, bring out mixed emotions?

On the minus side: I don’t know whether it was the editing of the ads or the way that the strangers these women interacted with actually used only these terms to describe the women, but the overuse of the word thin had me cringing. Thin chin, thin face, thin this, thin that. Why weren’t more of the descriptions phrases like ‘strong chin’ or ‘smile-creased face’ or ‘intense eyes’, apart from the fact that the strangers may not be Mills and Boon writers in their spare time? Did they not use these types of descriptors? Did the editing cut these out? Are there more ads showing a wider demographic of women – Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, African, younger, older? Are there more Dove ads on the anvil which have different types of descriptors? I don’t know.

On the positive side, it is a good message to send that each and every woman is more beautiful than she thinks. Women are conditioned to expect impossible standards of beauty from themselves, from the time they are little girls buying into Barbie’s unrealistic curves or the Princess trope. As they grow up, the beauty and fashion industry, with its emphasis on almost anorexic figures and extensive airbrushing works to further enhance the anxiety and drive us to the arms of the nearest beauty counter.
My husband commented the other day that I have a space in my brain where compliments go to die. When it comes to compliments about my abilities - cooking, work, public speaking - I'm fine. But when it comes to compliments about my appearance, he's bang on. I either don't hear them or my inner self-critic comes out to meanly spit on the nice thing I just heard. It's a social construct- it begins from childhood, where girl babies or children are routinely commented upon from the perspective of beauty, while boys are commented upon from the context of ability or intelligence. There are Tshirts for girls that say 'Too pretty for homework', as if that were an empowering thing for them to hear. And these early messages set in in some primeval part of the brain that's hard to reprogram.

I still remember my father's colleague meanspiritedly telling me when I was seven that I was wearing a very pretty outfit and what a pity I wasn't pretty myself. Or my aunt saying that my mother cried for months after I was born because I was so ugly. Or the myriad friends of the family and relatives cooing over my sister as a baby because she was so fair with beautiful, curly hair and then pointedly staying away from the topic when looking at me.  Years later when a close friend described me as glamorous, I had to rub my ears in disbelief, because beauty and glamour, in my mind, were things to which I couldn't even aspire, because my standards or the images I carried of beauty were so different to my own appearance.
This level of unrealistic expectations, followed by constant underrating of ourselves is consistent with what Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In. Women at the workplace constantly second guess themselves, underestimate their own abilities and therefore end up settling for less. It seems to be a running theme in the lives of women – the setting up of impossibly high standards of perfection, be it in appearance, as mothers, as workers - which are almost designed to make us feel inadequate, with the consequent impact on self confidence. You can see it in public spaces in any Indian city, where women have made the effort to turn themselves out well, dressed in whatever represents fashion or style to them, impeccably groomed, but walking with shoulders slightly hunched, next to a man who struts in, Tshirt stretched tightly over a paunch while his jeans hang loose over spindly legs, hair combed over to hide the bald spot, convinced he’s looking like Adonis. With that as the context, it’s an extremely empowering message to send to the wide swathe of women out there, that they are more beautiful than they think.

Should Dove or any other brand still be focussing on women and their equation with beauty? Well, it merely reflects the truth of society. Women are not only judged by society on beauty, they also buy into the beauty myth themselves and scrutinise themselves with a harsher lens than others do. Women are more prone to doing this than men, metrosexuality notwithstanding. If the brand uses the current context to send out its message, as a former advertising professional myself, I don’t have any quibbles with it. Dove is a beauty brand, not an NGO that works for women’s welfare or world peace. What did you expect them to promote? This ad and the brand do not owe it to society to overturn expectations that are centuries old. The ad’s job is to position Dove as a beauty brand in a way that differentiates it from other beauty brands. The fact that they have been using real women in their campaigns for years now, instead of airbrushed, size zero superhumans who live on a lettuce leaf a day, alone is enough to make me applaud them, as compared to other beauty brands.

But the message in this campaign is  that the standards aren't nearly as unrealistic and impossible as you have defined for yourself. Does the ad say that the women are to be judged by beauty alone? Does it say that’s all there is to them? No.  If Dove's campaign helps women be more self confident about how they look already instead of waiting for that elusive last five pounds to drop, or the right dress to come along, good. If it does so by painting a more empowering, inclusive idea of beauty, that’s great.
For more articles on this, read http://www.independent.co.uk/
 

 

  

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Patriarchal Mythology

I have always cordially hated the Ramayana, even as a child. My C. Rajagopalachari copy of the Mahabharata is in tatters from frequent reading whereas the Ramayana lies pristine. In light of the recent gangrape in Delhi, and even more, the spate of violence against women which seems to be spiraling upwards, I am increasingly convinced that the Ramayana was a text written to enforce the patriarchy. Rama, the ‘Maryada Purushottam’ whom all men must strive to emulate is either misogynistic, a disrespecter of women or a spineless coward. Beginning with blind obedience of a father’s unjust command, to humiliating Shoorpanakha whose only crime was that she desired him, to killing Vali by foul means because Sugreeva coveted Vali’s wife, to making Sita go through an Agni Pariksha because she had the misfortune of being captured – where was his agni pariksha for having remained sans spouse in the forest, may I ask? – to his final rejection of Sita because of what an uneducated man said, rather than showing intelligence, compassion and a better sense of equity by rebuking the washerman for his attitude, what is there to emulate in this man? And Sita too does not cover herself in glory, with her final sinking into Mother Earth – I would have thought better of her if she asked Rama to undergo an agni pariksha too or gave him a stinging slap when he dared question her again. But that would never happen in a text written for the purpose of enforcing a patriarchal worldview, would it?


What are the lessons that can be drawn from this mythology?

1. To blindly respect and obey elders no matter what they command. Well, our elders today include Shiela Dikshit who says women should not be adventurous and Asaram Bapu who thinks that appealing to a rapist’s compassion and saying, “Bhaiya, Bhagwan ke liye mujhe chhod do” will prevent rapes (PS. That line didn’t work in countless Hindi movies, why would it work in real life?), and Sushma Swaraj who thinks rape is a fate worse than death.

2. To understand that ‘good women’ should not feel desire or they will get their noses cut off (Naak kat jaayegi – just understood the origin of this phrase) a la Shoorpanakha, and that it is the right of ‘good men’ to humiliate such women.

3. To not cross the Lakshman Rekha – lines in the sand drawn by men that tell women where the limits of their freedom lie – or else there will be a Raavan waiting in the wings.

4. That it is the fault of the woman in such cases and she must pass an agni pariksha (or the 2 finger test) to prove herself innocent.

5. That even if she is innocent, her husband has the right to reject her, because…please read learning #4.

I’m not surprised that so many of the politicians and godmen and such like crawling out of the earth right now espouse such views. They are wedded to the patriarchal view, a) because they are older, and hope the Ramayana rules about blind respect and obedience will work in their favour, and b) because many of them are men and see the Ramayana as a salutary way to teach women what happens when they step out of the boundaries drawn for them by men.

In the Mahabharat, written later than Ramayana going by the chronological order of the Dasha Avatar, and set in the beginning of Kalyug, by the way, women have a much better role to play. First of all, they are not passive doormats who say “Jo aagya” meekly to their lords and masters. Even while they do not actively participate in the war, they are catalysts, opinion-makers and take decisions in their own right. From Kunti who has a child out of wedlock – and then is catechised not for that but for keeping it a secret and giving away the child – to Gandhari who voluntarily binds up her eyes to keep her husband company and eventually, is the only one who curses Krishna, to Amba who vows revenge on Bhishma and becomes a warrior, Rukmini who takes the ‘bold’ step of writing to Krishna asking him to elope with her, Subhadra who similarly chooses Arjuna against her elder brother’s wishes, Draupadi, of course, who is the only one to fight back against the Kauravas while the entire court full of men sits silently, who later goads the Pandavas into fighting the war – the Mahabharata is full of women who dare to live and think and breathe freely, rather than cower meekly in corners. No wonder that the familiar trope in our society is to advice women not to read the Mahabharata when they are pregnant. No wonder no one in Indian society tells women to follow Draupadi or Kunti’s example – that would upset the patriarchy, wouldn’t it?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why is India no longer silent?

Looking back not only at the horrific gangrape in Delhi, but the aftermath – protests by concerned citizens across the various cities of India, protests by the youth, and the outpouring of shock and support for the survivor, the lack of respect that we Indians now have for the politicians, it’s interesting to think about the sociological implications of the changes overtaking India. It’s also important to remember the kind of protests that took place against corruption over the past year or so, with again an outpouring of support from the white-collared workers of India, software engineers, corporate types etc taking to the streets. Similar to this, in Gurgaon there have been several protests by the citizens – CEOs and other corporate types, against the lack of roads, garbage management and other poor civic services provided to us.


What’s happening to this country? Have we all become armchair activists? What does it mean for the future? Let’s start by looking at some of the demographic changes impacting India. 1. We are becoming more and more urban – 33% of the country at last count, growing by 2-3% every decade. 2. We are an overwhelmingly young country, with over 75% being under 35 years of age – that means a huge chunk born just before or after the first wave of liberalization. 3. A growing middle class – 50% of urban India is middle class or above; and about 10-15% of rural India

With a growing urban population, people are less moored to traditional affiliations of caste and community. Added to that, mobilization of people is much easier in the cities, through social media and mass media penetration. The youth of India have grown up in a liberalized country. They are used to a certain sense of control over their own lives, which comes from the confidence of knowing they will never be destitute. Used to demanding and expecting a certain level of service and comfort from private institutions, they see no reason why they should not expect this from public institutions.

And, the growing middle class – the rich have always had easy access to power and don’t need the institutions of the country. The poor do not expect the institutions of the country to care for them; sadly they have grown accustomed to being ignored and overlooked; they continue to look up to a mai-baap sarkar, hoping that someday their ship will come. It is the middle class which finds it necessary to have functioning institutions and expects the law of the land to be followed; it is the middle class which expects a certain predictability to daily routine, because neither do they have access to the extra-constitutional powers of the rich, nor are they comfortable being resigned to fate.

It is from this urbanized, young, middle class that the protests are stemming. It is this class of citizens who have lost respect for the institutions of the country, for the politicians of the country, because those institutions continue to ignore this class.

Most of the politicians of the country are pretty old – many stemming from Indira Gandhi’s era. In those times, a mai-baap patronizing attitude towards the citizens of the country worked just fine, because the citizens did not expect any better. They did not have the confidence to raise their voices. The politicians have yet to wake up to the fact that the electorate has evolved while they were twiddling their thumbs locked away in their ivory towers. They have not yet realized that today’s citizens require a responsive government and will no longer stand for being treated like recalcitrant children who can be told to shut up and sit quietly in a corner. The younger lot of politicians is no better – we have yet to see even one of them step up to the challenge and make a single sensible pronouncement about any issue.

The protests about the Delhi gangrape may die down in a few days. But there will be another issue and yet another in the days to come which will inflame the passions of a public no longer willing to be ignored. Attitudes like the Home Minister Shinde’s, harking back to the 70s, will only rub an increasing number of the electorate the wrong way!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ek Tha Tiger

The movie starts off explosively – plenty of action, fast pace, fisticuffs in inimitable Salman style. But then in comes a stale Yash Raj plot about a love story and out goes the interest. The plot is full of holes – a spy sent to find out more about a nuclear scientist supposedly selling secrets to Pakistan spends more time ogling his assistant. SPOILER ALERT!! The said assistant has free access to the scientist’s home and computer any day of the week but chooses to get in during a play that she is directing, to download something off his computer. The movie is then all about the love affair between the two spies who have RAW and ISI chasing them through picturesque locales all over the world.


The chemistry between Salman and Katrina is practically nil in the first half, which is when the said falling in love part of the story happens. The dialogue is turgid. The pace is so slow you can take a nap, then wake up and find that pretty much nothing new has happened. The second half is full of action scenes and pretty set pieces, but all in all, we go to a film to be moved, to laugh, to cry, to exult – if we wanted to see pretty scenery, there’s always a travel website!

It’s such a pity because the story could have been a modern, fun, action film with spies from Pakistan and India, just like the initial premise. Only, instead of Veer Zaara reprised again, it could have actually built in an intriguing story, with a zippy ending that involved the spies taking off into the wild blue yonder. It’s high time Aditya Chopra broke some new ground in his plots. And Salman needs to watch out because if he starts selecting movies that only ride on his star quality rather than plot, he’ll go the way of many a fallen Bollywood Idol.