Fear.

And then there are days when you wish for a magic wand.

Or the hand of God.

(Which you know is a construct.)

To make you feel better.

To allay fears.

Dark fears.

Dark, like the blackout in a war.

Dark, like the darkest sky on a cold desert.

Dark, enough to shut out all sensations.

Dark, enough to be called a vendetta.

Which you dare not utter.

Which yet you wish would come true.

Some day or the other.

 

Advertisements

Sacrifice

When anti-establishment is anti-national.
And anti-national is criminal.
When boundaries trump people.
And imagination of a community trumps dark reality.
When a secular deity* kills.
Sacrifices.
Soldiers, students.
Blood spills.
In and out.
Rituals become habitual.
Yet unseen.
When thirst peaks.
So does repulsion.
To contain the endless cycle of violence.
And vengeance.
To displace vengeance.
And anger.
Sacrifice – someone.
The liminal. The unproductive.
The anarchist. The thinker.
Disguise – in love; in nationalism; in sacrifice.
Loose – The last line.

// Scribbled after a thoughtful session on Religion, Sacrifice and Violence during the Cultural Studies Workshop at CSSS Calcutta.

*Term borrowed (c)

For JNU

New Doc 14_1
JNU 2016

When revolution inspires art, sort of.

For democracy,

For dissent.

For fighting for love,

with love.

For moving beyond ‘banal’ nationalism,

For adding citations.

For learning to question,

For finding the answer,

though not always.

For being in the middle of a storm,

and being anti-national.

For spring has come.

For Jaffrelot, who was right.

For the left.

For Kanhayiya. And Umar.

For Shehla. And Sucheta.

For imperfect art,

For art is imperfect.

For JNU.

#SaveJNU #WeareJNU

 

Two travelers lost in the Khand: Day 1

Traveling in style or traveling with all the arrangements made two month in advance is not our thing, however, traveling light and impromptu is.

Last time it all started with a phone call to a friend during coffee break on Friday evening while at I was at my summer job. The result – in the coming 50 hours, we explored Almora, Binsar, Bhawali and Nainital, and returned back to Delhi to make it to work on Monday.

Almora is a small hill town, yet to be spoiled by tourist influx and noise on one hand, and yet to realize its true potential on the other hand with bad maintenance of major attractive spots. Walking around barely took us half a day. There is only one rickety old state transport bus that plies between Delhi and Almora. If you are lucky enough, you will catch it before it leaves casually before its scheduled time if its full. We got the last two seats,located at the rear end of the bus and our backs begged us to stop the anguishing journey all night.

The charm of the uphill drive on mountains, with rocks on one side and the populace and greenery on the other never fails to delight me and I forgot all about my back pain and the steep, very steep, and dangerous turns the bus was taking once we got a view of the rising sun and inhaled the fresh mountain air. Over-hearing our anxious comments (read: shrieks) at every turn, a fellow traveler, a young working professional who grew up in Almora but now works in Gurgaon, re-assured us that this is normal and that the driver is not sleepy or drunk as we might speculate. Apparently, it is precisely because of the sharp turns of this route that no Volvo/Deluxe bus runs between Delhi and Almora.

Talking to co-passengers is my favorite part of any journey. Getting to know where they are from, where they are headed, getting a small peek into their complex lives – I almost crave it as soon I have a rucksack on my back. We were discussing our possible trajectory once we reach Almora and the weather conditions in Uttrakhand when a toothless old man interjected to add this insight – Paharon mei baarish aur thand kabhi bhi padh sakti hai (in the hills, rainy and cold weather can arrive anytime) And, man was he right!

We reached Almora at the crack of dawn, to be greeted by a chilly weather and deserted roads. We had to hunt for a hotel for an hour, primarily because of the early hour, and because we were two unmarried friends who were traveling together. The lines of morality, permissibility and promiscuity are rather sharply drawn for Indian backpackers, and on which side you fall depends on the assumptions of the staff and the place you are traveling from. We had to convince the staff that we were just regular back-packers, looking to explore the state, and there was nothing ‘shady’ about us. (Add to this R’s picky behaviour about washrooms and whatnot, but more on that later). We finally got a clean room on the second floor, with a wonderful view from the window, in a friendly hotel.  We decided to get some sleep first, after that harrowing journey and room-hunting and finally started our day around noon.

Stop 1 was Binsar, which is a Wildlife Sanctuary around 35 kms from Almora. It took us more than an hour to reach. It has a small entry fee, on which we got a discount with our student i-cards. (Tip for all students – travel as much as you can on your student i-cards. Every tourist destination offers discounts!). We really wanted to stay at a Homestay in Binsar but due to the last-minute plans, couldn’t get a booking. If you are around Almora or Binsar though, you must check this option out. Another option is the KMVN Tourist Rest House which located 10 kms inside the Wildlife Sanctuary but has a limited number of rooms, at steep rates.

We reached the KMVN Tourist Rest House in time for the lunch buffet and had our fill of Kumaoni Daal called Bhatt with lots of papad, sabzi and roti. It was delicious! Just after a cup of chai, when we decided to walk to the Zero Point, it began to rain and the weather became really cold! After all, Paharon mei baarish aur thand kabhi bhi padh sakti hai! But that didn’t deter us. We took some detours on our way to the Zero Point, tried identifying the humongous variety of flora that we encountered and took shelter under big trees. Every time we would come across a tree with a particularly dense foliage, R would stop to narrate Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s famous poem from Agneepath – Vriksh ho Bhale Khade!
He really doesn’t get tired of it. Ever.

I can’t quite put to words the joy I felt walking around unrestrained, smelling in the gilli mitti, that familiar smell of monsoon on wet soil and treating my eyes to BluRay-level of greenery. The fact that it was a rainy day also meant that we were the only two souls out there, and we could hear every crunch of a twig and every rustling leaf as we walked. I could almost hear the silence that surrounded us. On rainy days, I still can.

After loitering around for a few hours we walked back to the KMVN Rest House where our cab was waiting for us. How much I wish I had stayed overnight at Binsar, in the middle of nowhere! But that is for another time. This trip had far more adventurous things in store.

We reached our hotel around 5 pm, half-drenched, and decided to buy umbrellas straight-away! Our hotel was located adjacent to Laala Bazaar which is famous for copper items and chocolate barfi. Mind you, chocolate barfi is not made of chocolate, but of burnt khoya! We learnt this when we chanced upon a 151 year old sweet shop, called Joga Shah Halwai whose owner proudly showed us the invitation card for lunch signed by Jawaharlal Nehru that his Grandfather had received. The nationalist pride augmented his persona when he was telling us the history of chocolate barfi and baal mithai and the house which the family has owned since over a century. The front part of the house serves as a shop in Laala Bazaar, where we stood tasting sweets.

Chocolate barfi was alright, and NOT as heavenly as I had imagined it to be. But our best buys were the absolutely fresh and delectable apricots, locally known as khumanis and fresh peaches! I was so delighted by their abundance and their affordable rates that I decided to buy a huge bunch of Khumanis and munch them for the rest of the journey! We walked up and down the road, discovered a deserted, dirty and ill-maintained sunset point and I wondered how would it have been to grow up here. Or to live here now. My reverie was broken by R when he spotted a old church hidden away behind a tree and called out to me for attention!

We decided to sleep early that day, which in the hindsight was the best decision because the next day was packed with Nanda Devi temple, fruit-stop at Bhowali, evening around Naini Lake and missing the last bus out of Nainital.

 

 

The Politics at Raahgiri

It was a rather interesting day for a researcher of Politics of Gender and Sexuality in Urban Space.

This morning I went to Raahgiri, an initiative to reclaim the streets with the catchy slogan of ‘Apni Rahen, Apni Azaadi’, wherein the roads are blocked for vehicular traffic from 6 am to 9 am every Sunday in CP (Delhi), and instead physical activities such as cycling, walking, sports and dancing replace the usual honking and puffing cars and buses. An excellent idea for expanding pedestrian access to public spaces, it was first launched in Gurgaon in November 2013 and has now spread to several parts of Delhi. (To read more about the event, Google. Much have been written it. For example, see: http://embarqindia.org/RaahgiriNewDelhi)

I have been meaning to attend Raahgiri since sometime now primarily due to my research interest in urban space, but the fact that Euphoria, the band I have literally grown up listening to, was performing to mark the one-year anniversary of Raahgiri-CP was an added incentive! And so, we donned our track pants and headed to CP, sleepy eyed, in a crowded metro at 7 am, later than we had planned. But as soon as we reached there, all our drowsiness was swept away by the level of energy on the roads. Hundreds of people – men, women, children, teenagers, families, friends occupied the otherwise commercial area of Connaught Place – cycling, walking, playing badminton and football, chatting and of course, clicking selfies (we weren’t an exception here). It was a flood of humans and morning joy.

Raahgiri has been applauded largely as an effort to make the city pedestrian-friendly and pollution-free on one hand and  to promote physical activity and communal spirit on the other. However, what are the implications of a movement for public space like this for gender politics? Is it markedly affecting the ways in which women access public space – dancing and playing uninhibited on roads of Delhi, or it is re-enforcing the necessity of security of family and friends and anonymity  of crowd to enable women to access public space? Do ‘good women’ participate in public aerobics, zumba and open gym activities or do these remain the reserve of men, with a few itinerant groups of female friends daring to enter pre-marked circles? My observation tilts to the latter.

With these thoughts in mind, I was sitting in Central Park and waiting for Palash Sen to take stage at 8 am. One of the most energetic performers, he seemed completely amazed at the huge turnout for the concert on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, while interacting with the crowd he blatantly used sexist and chauvinist humour which completely took away the charm he had. When statements like “men are intelligent and women are just beautiful and this arrangement is important in order for men to appreciate women’s beauty” was met with disagreement from the sensible Delhi crowd, he went on to say that the women who are disagreeing here are the ones who aren’t married yet. (REALLY, What? Post-this, I would much rather listen to Euphoria’s music online.) Not to mention, the concert was conveniently turned into a propaganda machine for BJP with Meenakshi Lekhi occupying centre stage and introduced by Palash Sen as one of the biggest/prettiest (one of those) faces of the party.

On another note, the emphasis that was placed on “dilli-walon” and the identity of Delhi as a community was rather intriguing to me since more than half of Delhi Residents are actually immigrants (including me, and my group of friends). In such a city, how does one build a sense of community anyway I wonder.

I spent my afternoon reading Leila Seth’s Talking of Justice and her take on gender issues from a legal perspective while the questions and observations from the morning kept circling in my head.

How does one begin to build a movement for equitable access to public space when any good initiative is conveniently hijacked by political, patriarchal and/or commercial interests?

As I said, interesting day for a scholar of Gender politics.

More on this, and other things, later.

They took it all away

They took it all away.

The window seat on a train, where the wind from the countryside could clear your head,
They took it away.
The lazy walks on starry nights, when you could be with yourself or share a romantic moment with that someone special,
They took it away.
The early morning run to let your body breathe and release happy hormones,
They took it away.

The view from a foot over bridge at night,
The desire to go back to your own house after a late-night party,
The pure joy of walking a deserted street at midnight to surprise a friend,
They took it all away.

The freedom to sleep in a park, or walk in the dark,
The freedom to backpack across the country, alone,
To enjoy a meal alone,
They took it away.

The dawn, the dusk, my being, your being,
They took it all away.

#Pangsofawoman #urbanspace

Musings over Chai: Loiter or not to Loiter

One month into the job and already working on the weekends.

It’s been a rather fun filled and hectic one month. I was made to sing, cook and make tea (all in good spirit I must add), I visited Delhi slums to research on urban infrastructure, interacted with 13 farmers from UP, Uttarakhand and Bihar and made more than 20 charts in a week’s time to help with the Ground Level Panel being organised on Climate change and agriculture. That, in a nutshell.

Last weekend, I had to go office for work and  a talk to attend later in the evening. To kill the intervening time, I decided to find a cafe and read for an hour and so I headed to SDA market. As a chai-enthusiast, I was quite excited to visit Chaayos, having heard about it so much. My first response was to wish that the space was bigger so that the constant noise made by chattering, social, fellow chai enthusiasts could be dispersed. That aside, the place smelled refreshingly nice – freshly brewed tea instead of the usual coffee. I ordered a peach iced tea (given the heat wave North India was experiencing that week) and settled in a comfortable corner to read, only to be distracted by interesting (read: loud) conversations on adjoining tables. Two men on a work-meeting, discussing social media strategy and website design sat on the table in front of me, and two women gossiping about someone brought up wrong on the left. On the right was a group of two women and a man busy in some engaging conversation but sensible enough not to raise their voices.

Its interesting how people in urban areas are increasingly accessing these semi-private spaces since the last decade. Men and women throng these cafes not just to catch up with friends, but to discuss work (which is a big move away from the earlier monopoly of high end restaurants offering the quiet of formal dinners and lunches), to read or write, or to just escape the drudgery of this weather. These places are re-discovering old 1990s games like ludo, jenga and scrabble and transforming them into ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ things to do on a weekend. A lot of this is because of higher consumption capacity of the middle class and, what I call the aspirational class. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not unique to metropolitan cities alone. Agra, where I come from, has also seen a massive eruption of the cafe and coffee shop culture in the last 10 years. When I was growing up, there was hardly any place to ‘hang out’ with friends – we often ended up at the local market, some friend’s family restaurant or one of the several parks. Now, there is a range of cafes for the teenagers growing up in the city and for young adults who are NOT migrating to metropolitan cities. In fact it is much more interesting to study this phenomenon in a smaller city like Agra because the changes are so much starker. Take for example the recent cafe opened up by acid attack survivors which has become quite popular in a short span. I am yet to visit it, because honestly, I am still used to staying in when I visit Agra, given the innumerable times I faced eve-teasing while growing up, imbibing in me the fear to walk un-alert on roads.

Trust me when I say this, as compared to Agra, Delhi is a much safer city. Masculinity is constructed in such a way in Agra that men feel it is their birthright entitlement to ogle, touch and harass any woman occupying a public space in any way – walking on the road, sitting in a park or going to the movie. I don’t know how much has changed in the past 6 years, but I am not very optimistic. I still hear stories from my friends of being followed, ogled and touched inappropriately. Interestingly, while cafes and malls have brazenly entered the map of Agra, the older public spaces like parks and local markets have become deserted, and consequently, even more unsafe.

I do not know if it’s the fear of the police (though not entirely dependable) or rather, policing and surveillance, or a diverse and exposed populace that makes Delhi safer as a woman for me. But please to note, I say safer and not ‘safe’. If in Agra I feel vulnerable and unsafe to step out of house after 7 pm, in Delhi that is 10 pm. There is still a line that I feel the need to draw, which is unfortunate.

The talk I attended later that evening, organised by Centre se Left at Artszia, resonated my musings over tea. A fierce discussion on the Why Loiter movement, interspersed with gyaan of pop-feminists made the evening interesting for a researcher of gender and urban space. Though the focus was more on proper public spaces, instead of private or semi-private recreational spaces like malls and cafes, any discussion on subversive potential of occupying space is incomplete without taking all spaces into account and analysing the changing urban landscape as a whole.

While the idea of Why Loiter movement and gender-ventions is appealing, and excellent at the level of an idea, I wonder  how much can I change and subvert as an individual by occupying a street at midnight alone in a country where the legal and social mindset is against loitering of women, where police-men ask you to go back to the safety of your homes if you are seen taking a stroll at 2 am on Saket roads and parents ask you not to hail a cab at odd hours for fear of molestation. For all practical purposes, women remain under Cindrella curfew every day.

At a personal level, I continue to occupy those public spaces where I feel a certain level of safety, even if advised otherwise. But what is the benchmark of that safety? How safe should I feel to take the risk to loiter? It’s also important to problematise the idea of safety itself. Safety from what – sexual violence, robbery and mugging or accidents?

Unanswered questions and a long journey. Why loiter? Why not to loiter? A movement in making. 

On other note, my Iced Tea was not ice cold, which I prefer, since otherwise the coldness overpowers the taste. It was the right blend of tanginess and sweetness, and the peach flavour was prominent. Next time I visit Chaayos, I am going to try the aam papad chai and pahadi chai.

Looking forward to occupying space, loitering and more chai thought.

Working Girl with a Hobby: Part II

…continued

I woke up with an absolutely sore body today. For someone with low stamina, and has grown up with frequent asthma attacks, the decision to join something as grueling as Taekwando was itself an act of strong will. I reached the practice hall after work yesterday, hungry and exhausted but determined to learn. I changed into the uniform, expecting to be briefed about procedural and conceptual details, like an ideal |read: stupid| social science student. But the coach simply said, “go run 15 rounds”. I could manage 12, by the time the class did 20 and then I joined them for the next steps |read: suicidal mission| – squat walking, squat jumping and sit ups. I did them, panting, huffing, and puffing and stopped to catch my breath. But no sooner that I did that, the coach moved to next set of exercises. I fell while doing the second of those, sweating profusely, asking for water and breathing heavily only to be told that this was just warm-up. Oh good lord of heaven. This will make a fanatic out of an atheist. It took me 20 mins to gather myself and stand up again. I gave up after that and took an autorickshaw back home which was barely half a kilometer away in spite of the coach’s attempts to motivate me to rejoin the class.

But, I ll go back today, better prepared (with biscuits and glucose) and try again.

Working Girl with a Hobby: Part I

Part of my summer checklist, apart from getting a short-term job, travelling, learning two new things and finding time to read fiction  is to renew an old hobby. So here I am, back to blogging, in a more informal and personal tone this time.

Today was my first day at work, and also my first day at learning something new. I usually take up short-term projects because like a total arse, I chose academics as my career, and now for another 4-5 years I’ll have to sustain myself by working part-time, SEASONALLY, since rest all other time and seasons I am busy – Thinking and Problematising, critiquing and reading. But I need these short-term jobs for two reasons. One, because otherwise life becomes too stagnant and I start feeling that everything is pointless. And two, because we are paid peanuts for contributing to the knowledge pool of this country since social sciences is underrated and undervalued. I should have perhaps listened to my school principal and stuck to science so that I too could have become an engineer, picked up a back-end IT job or given it all up for civil services. But no, I chose to read, and it wrecked me. Looking at the world with a blurred vision was so much easier. But wait, I digress.

So today was my first day at work, that I have taken up for three months to conduct a research on slum governance in Delhi. The office is spacious and people are warm, which is a big change from my last summer project where I was the Research Associate, plumber, intern coordinator and social media in-charge all rolled into one in a two-room office!  This new office has some cool traditions to break the ice between employees and I look forward to be ragged. What stayed with me for the day is that they have the most efficient and friendly admin officer I have met till date. If people like him sat in DU college admin departments, our life would have been so much easier.

Shifting between student life and work life has its set of boons and banes. I dont dress to impress, generally. I ll be the one found in PJs in a mall, and would readily share those listicles about low-maintenance people. Thats partly because I am into academics, and no one really cares. But everytime I join a office setting, I feel this pressure on me to look presentable and adhere to the norm, atleast for the first few days. So there I was, looking neat and ‘pretty’, trying to catch a bus after work today, hoping that the strike over killing of a bus driver in Mundka would have quietened by evening. How naive of me to think that. The autos were difficult to get and buses nowhere to be seen. I was contemplating ordering a cab, but with my meagre budget I waited some more and finally got a private, rickety, dangerously overcrowded bus. It was 7 pm, it was a main road and the bus was full of testosteron-y and sweaty armpits. And I entered without a second thought. The conductor overcharged me for the journey as he did all others due to simple supply-demand principles of economics. The men around squeezed and writhed to make space for me and eventually I was given a place to sit by a fine gentleman since, in his words, i was alone. I was dropped off somewhere close to my destination, safe, sound and exhausted. But i dont know whether to celebrate the chivalrous crowd of the bus or lament that I had to be protected, as an inferior, seen as someone in need without having asked for it and respectfully called ‘madam’. I wonder how does the ‘Why Loiter’ argument work here, when women are allowed into otherwise male zones as ‘others’ to be treated with a distance so unbecoming of equality.

Well, i reached my campus, and then started the second part of my day – taekwando classes.

to be continued…

Questioning Heteronormativity in India

“Sexuality is today at once the most personal and private, the most public and the most political of issues…”

Queers (Homosexuals/ Lesbians/ Gays/ Bisexuals/ Transgenders/ Transvestites) have long been treated as outside the dominant notions of sexuality and heteronormitivity. The LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) Movement, which has emerged in different parts of the world in past few decades challenges this hegemonic norm and has tried to deconstruct such essentialisations of normativity.  As Sherry Joseph points out, this politicization of sexuality i.e a new form of political assertion, focusing on sexuality has been a result of oppression on basis of it.

The Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in 2009 after a prolonged struggle by LGBT groups and activists. This judgement has been overturned by the Supreme Court recently and is seen as a huge set-back for the movement.

When LGBT rights were first raised in India, like Baba Ramdev today, fundamentalists earlier, argued that homosexuality is against the basic tenets of Indian culture. Should we even be concerned about ancient sources while shaping our modern attitudes on sexuality? We should not forget that these ancient scriptures and legends are the ones, which sanctified the caste system and the subjugation of women. So if we criticize the caste system and the subordination of women, then why accept their criticism of homosexuality? But the underlying question that many have raised today is that how accurate is this belief that ancient India rejected homosexual behaviour?

In Tamil Nadu, there is a popular folk tale according to which, Pandavas, the five brothers in Mahabharata, were told that if they wanted to win Kurukshetra’s war, they need to sacrifice Aravan. However, Aravan, Arjun’s son, did not want to die a virgin. But no woman wanted to marry him since his life was to be sacrificed within a day. Consequently, Krishna’s help was sought, who transformed into a woman and married Aravan. Aravan, as desired, lost his virginity and then sacrificed the next day.

This story is among the many others that signify existence of same-sex intercourse in ancient India but on heterosexual basis. According to another legend, Lord Vishnu himself turns into a beautiful woman called Mohini to lure sages and deceive demons instead of designating the task to a Goddess or a nymph. Does this not indicate an aspect of Lord Vishnu, hitherto unknown and unexplored, where he tries to attract men? However, followers ridicule even the mention of homosexual undertone.
Religions that originated in India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, do not discuss sexuality explicitly but in general, homosexuality is rejected as it’s not aimed at perpetuation of species but only for sexual passions and hence sinful. Manusmriti, the Hindu Book of Law, does acknowledge same-sex liaisons, directing strict punishment for it. Contrary to this, Kama sutra, the book of love for Hindus, states, “Homosexual sex is to be engaged in and enjoyed for its own sake as one of the arts.”

The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 19th century Europe when people were opening up to sexuality as a whole, during modernization. It was defined as “morbid sexual passion between members of the same sex” and was considered ‘unnatural’ as it was not aimed at conception. Along the same lines, the religions that rejected the idea of same-sex intercourse did so only because the believers wanted the population of their religion to grow. The colonial rulers, who were heavily influenced by Christianity and the evangelizing mission, declared homosexuality illegal, ignoring its perception in other cultures of the Third World Countries. This had a deep impact on minds of people.

In India, homosexuality was neither condemned sternly, nor accepted firmly as it was the practice of the minority and did not jeopardise ‘the prevailing heterosexual social construct’. An implicit acceptance of homosexuality did exist in India before the colonial rulers came. How else would one explain the acceptance and the importance of Hijras, the Third Gender, in the Indian society? And how can one ignore the countless intimate and erotic images on the walls of ancient constructions like the cave temples and prayer chambers of Jain and Buddhist orders? How does one explain the intricately carved figures like those in Khajuraho of men exhibiting their private parts to each other or women hugging other women erotically? In fact it were the “Victorian sensibilities of the British excavators that were shackled” when they discovered Khajuraho in the 1800s, while Indians accepted it without making it an issue out of it.

Thus, the fact cannot be ignored, that ancient India, as evident from some scattered scenes in epics, popular tales and legends, and the imagery in architecture did acknowledge homosexual behaviour. According to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, “one may interpret these tales and imagery as repressed homosexual fantasies of our culture.”

This short analysis, goes to show that homosexuality is clearly not against “Indian culture”. Sec377, a colonial legacy, continues to haunt the LGBT community through its very presence by policing an activity which has nothing to do with culture, tradition or being “unnatural”. The sooner the Parliament corrects this constitutional error, the better.