Category Archives: Eros

A khidki into our minds / Khidki opens a window

[ Fountain Ink, April 2014 ]

Thanks to the mid-night anti ‘drug’ and ‘prostitution’ activism by the erstwhile Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, the Khidki Village in Delhi had suddenly shot into prominence in the subcontinent and beyond. Many from New Delhi and elsewhere, who had barely heard of this place, descended upon the area in the aftermath of the ‘racist vigilantism’, to see the ‘backward’ brown creatures that inhabit that area. They wanted to see the village that lives up to its ’village-ness’, tucked in one of the armpits of the ‘cosmopolitan’ NCR metropolis. The Khidki village is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, older than all the universities of ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation’s bequeathed capital ‘New Delhi’, older than the nation, older than the idea of the ‘national’ and for that matter older than the ‘idea of India’. For all its antiquity, yuppies who claim to have a thing for brown heritage would much rather live in some sector of Gurgaon or Noida. Who wants to live in ‘Khidki village’? You know how that sounds, especially the derogation with which names like Khidki village are taken.

Outsiders (the non-village kind) from New Delhi refer to it as an ‘urban village’ (the inhabitants simply call it their village). There is a certain hip-ness that comes with the ‘urban village’ tag as it prepares the ground for using the area as a creative arts canvas by hip folks whose dads wont allow their own ‘authorised’ neighbourhoods for similar ‘creative’ projects. Khidki village and its extension have yet not earned the ‘hip and cool’ tag associated with another similar largely ‘unauthorised’ village agglomerate in Delhi called Shahpur Jat. This one has excelled as a haunt of White foreigners and brown yuppies with disposable cash. ‘Creativity’, ‘experimentation’, ‘urban village’ – brochures are full of these terms, marking out a niche as a social calendar hotspots. The elite’s ‘art’ studios feeding on low rents and insecurity of ‘unauthorised colonies’ bloom here. The inequality helps stretch the urban canvas – creative ‘arts’ indeed.

But I digress. The residents – they live there. They call it home. They have been calling it home much before six other villages were destroyed to make way for what is the New Delhi of the Union of India. Some people have roots, live in communities and do ‘come into their own’ with the fashionable beam of ‘urban anomy’.

The Khidki extension episode about Aam Aadmi Party minister Somnath Bharti’s nocturnal activism over ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitution’ has made monsters-at-large out of the minister and the complaining people of Khidki village. In circles whose voice comes most alive in European jargon, this has been called the cheap politics of ‘othering’. Worse displays of animus against African people have happened through cases of outright violence and at least one instance of vilification by a Goa minister. ‘Liberal India’ has typically swung into damage control mode. This damage control has included round after round of sanctimonious condemnation of racism against African black people. Television media knows its constituency of self-congratulation well and has followed it up with various talk shows themed around various versions of the question ‘Are we racists?’ and has invariably concluded that some bad apples are. And have added ‘I love you’ notes to Nigerians, at the end of such shows. Such shows also discuss the racism faced by desis abroad. The racism that uppity NRI desis show in their promised land and many desis show in the subcontinent can only be matched by the alarm that raised when some relatively elite brown gets paid back in the same coin in some white land.

With upward mobility for a section of the metropolis janata and the Indian Union taking a ‘greater role’ at the world stage, more of these people have white friends and acquaintances than ever before. Just when elite desis and their known whites seemed to have reached non-racist nirvana – imagining themselves as part of some universal brotherhood of idea, commerce, commodity and romance exchange, the prejudiced desi hordes are letting this emancipated side down. This is the source of embarrassment. Not themselves, but those who share their skin colour and give the whole team a bad name. During the British Raj, this embarrassed class of browns was quite well known and did well for themselves by distinguishing themselves from the ‘uncivilised’ loathsome browns. The overall rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment made such embarrassment less fashionable for sometime. Post 1990s, the sharp rise in the petulance/anger of brown consumer elites with racism they face abroad is matched by their condemnation of racism at home. This is one real contribution of GDP growth and ‘international“10 ization’ of commodity markets. With India rising and shining alongside the white world, in malls and tourist destinations, commercial and academic engagements, and anti-colonialism being passé, the time is ripe for more public display of embarrassment. The audience for this is the white World and self-image the desi liberal has created for oneself and almost believes in. They would hate to be confused with other browns.

But then, talk is cheap. The backward browns have shown their true colour through explicit racism that makes liberal, our homegrown ‘world citizens’ shudder. But what about things that are implicit in patterns of behaviour? Those are harder to track down but when done, do say a whole lot about the people practicing it. Their own displaying prejudice explicitly can be called out for it and asked to change, or at least reassess, their positions. But what about those whose public lives are epitomes of ‘ultra-liberal’ posturing peppered with condemnation of the ‘backward’ while implicit in their behaviour are exactly the for which they publicly bad-mouth the ‘backward’ every day? When you have such a class lecturing the prejudiced at every opportunity, the result is a farce of a poor quality. The farce needs to be exposed for what it is – too many people enjoy excellent views from the moral high ground that they occupy undeservedly. Too many are condemning the ‘backward’ by standing on self-constructed pedestals.When we are all naked, and the ‘liberal’ gives up the pretension of wearing ‘ultra-fine’ clothes, we can start talking truth. We can have a dialogue. We can be embarrassed or not, for what we are – irrespective of whether white people are watching.

What constitutes the ‘world’ of the ‘world citizen’– the world is mentally, if not physically located in a temperate zone OECD white-Caucasian country, given that not much of the world fits that description, the extent of the mental world of the world citizen is not so big after all. It is hard to map out the mental world but some things can give us certain clues.

The ‘free choice’ that these brown ‘world-citizens’ in matters of marriage, romance and sex can be revealing. With increasing number of non-browns coming to the subcontinent and a correspondingly increasing number of browns going to ‘foreign’ countries, there are some foreign-brown marriages that happen. That’s all good. Now close your eyes and picture such a couple. There are many such ‘cute couples’ now. Note the colour of the ‘foreigner’ in the frame. Most likely, it is not someone African or Afro-American. The ‘cute’ or the ‘angelic’, sadly is from the same races whose mental worlds have shaped the world-view of the brown liberal – typically French of Anglo.

One in eight Americans are black. More than one in six are non-Whites (including Latinos, not including other browns). Now think of some people you may know or you may have heard of, who have married Americans. Normal human interaction without any colour prejudice or special colour affinity would have resulted in one in six such marriages being with non-Whites. Is that the case? Hell no. Is that the case even among those who would declare that in their post-racist world, love runs blind? Hell no. If you ask them individually, they would have said that their own White choice is ‘incidental’. It could have been someone black. Just that it hardly ever is. Their non-prejudiced ‘choice’ is so predictable, that it takes away all suspense. Many such individual choices hide behind the mask of politically correct speech. This closely parallels the marriage choices of the ‘I don’t believe in caste’ types. Individually, they would burn the sacred-thread (if a male) and/or denounce the ‘caste system’. Just that their life choices speak louder than their speeches and posturing. The cosmopolitan Savarna liberal usually leads a schizophrenic existence.

Let us come back to the subcontinent. Darker Africans have been coming to many parts of the subcontinent in recent years. A large number of them are students. ICCR has offered 900 specialised scholarships for students from African countries. There are more than 10,000 African students in the subcontinent and the largest chunk is in the institutions of NCR. Incidentally, African students consider Kochi, a city without the intellectual pretensions of New Delhi, very safe. There are thousands of Nigerians in the NCR. As for the students, we are talking of very meritorious ones, many of them studying in significant numbers in the NCR’s most premier institutions. But when it comes to campus-coupling of browns with foreigners (especially in vogue among liberal circles of elite institutions), whites rule the roost. The students from Africa may study advanced biology, Kathak dance, journalism, architecture, literature, history, sociology, urban planning, gender studies and many other things, but they are no match. I stress the liberal and elite bit, as these are the spaces from where the shrillest chants against racism typically come, along with pronouncements that they stand above differences of race, caste, colour and such things. For the ‘radical’ and ‘liberated’, neither the African nor the East Asian students do not forms a part of their desirable cohort, for purposes of campus romance or intimacy. Those from Manipur or Nagaland are also similarly excluded, always spoken on behalf of, by the predictable crowds. But when it comes to ‘desirability’ and ‘companionship’ as equals, other aliens matter. Whites win hands on. The white on campus will have an inordinately long line of droolers. Desirability is as much about how one’s views oneself as it is about the desirable one out there.

What is the source of such desire and skewed choices? Doesn’t it have something to do with fantasies tied with the awe that power evokes in certain minds? More often than not, it comes from a weak bond with one’s living environment, developing into a hatred of things associated with one’s own community. This journey away from the self is couched in the celebratory notion of ‘liberation’ – a journey involving progress towards a universal human ‘love-in’. That suits white Caucasians on campus very well, to find suddenly themselves in the enviable position of being able to punch way above their weight. It does not matter who approaches ‘first’ but the white in skin is acutely aware of his/her ‘market value’ in postcolonial lands, especially among the tribe of those with brown bodies with culturally illiterate, trying-hard-to-be-white minds. This state of thing makes it relatively easy for the gora who only has to show a little interest in things native and might even learn a native phrase or two. Before they can show that off, the coconut native is already trying to impress by showing off his/her acquaintance with all things white – their culture (pop and sophisticated), their stories, their sitcoms, their epistemologies, their myths, their histories, their nuances with some half-baked critique thrown in so as to avoid appearing too eager. Gone are the ‘politically correct’ measures of mutual compatibility based on mutual respect – otherwise the East Asian and black African students would not be so undesirable in romance and intimacy compared to Whites, even among the ‘thinking’ and ‘elite’ academic spaces, even among the ‘liberated’ and the ‘radical’? For these coconuts, of course the next best thing after a white body with a white mind is another fellow brown body with a white-mind. Certain kinds of urban agglomerations offer excellent refuges for browns to explore their mutually shared whiteness. They are also the elite – fatafat English, chain-café hangout types, even with browns of the same mother tongue.

The ex-colony is indeed an unfortunate thing. There is always a lingering infection at the head, because the vernacular non-elites could never quite take over and are on a retreat. Transfer of power happened so that the production of brown bodies with white minds could go on with locally produced grease. Not quite Macaulay. Way sophisticated. Way sordid. At least Macaulay’s children looked like buffoons to the rest of the browns and they themselves had few illusions of reciprocal equality with the whites. Now, the illusion of reciprocal equality with whites is strong. Alienated from their own communities, they need to maintain self-respect by these means. Due to their ubiquity in media and academia, they have an inordinate influence over the aspirational dreams of the masses. The new buffoons have indeed turned the joke on the people. It must be supreme irony that some of these ‘liberated’ browns will go on to lecture us other browns on agency, structures of power, media representation, feminism, politics of culture, indigeneity, even equality.

This holding of whites in high esteem is not peculiar to certain browns. Data from millions of users of the popular US dating website OKCupid suggests exactly the same (http://qz.com/149342/the-uncomfortable-racial-preferences-revealed-by-online-dating/). Disproportionately high (as in higher than what population percentages would suggest) desirability of whites as partners cuts across most non-white races, except African-Americans. The funny bit is that the data also reveals that this special desirability is not reciprocated by whites to any non-white group. One non-white person probably gets tantalizingly close to the origins of disproportionate desire by a description. The person talks about having grown up filled primarily with white narratives and depictions of white people and felt as if she was ‘in a movie’ when she was romancing a white. From the lists of ‘hottest actors’ to ‘sexiest actresses’, from fiction to philosophy, they cast a very deep shadow on the person’s mind that felt during intimate moments with the white partner that one was living a long-pregnant fantasy, as if it was a movie. The African-Americans, having to live with the reality of whiteness, as opposed to the nurtured fantasy about whiteness, have no illusions. They are confident enough to have a spine to hold them up straight without white crutches.

The ‘conservative’ in brown-land at least makes his/her mindset clear. They probably neither like the white nor the black. However, for the ‘liberal’, among the itinerant foreigners who come for study and pleasure, it is mostly the white that gets intimate attention, with others largely avoided. The ‘liberated’ typically talks his/her way out by jargonised hypocritical bluster. In fact, the observable action of black-avoidance being same, this bit dishonesty makes them a notch worse than the conservatives – and there is the rub. For the ‘enlightened’ and the ‘liberated’ are loathe to admit that they too are products of the ‘dominant’ worldview of white-worship. That in practice boils down to racial preference and that does not sound nice. The ‘liberated’ believes that dominant world-views only affect the ‘mindless’ hoi polloi. Facts show that they are not outside but inside the circle of dominance. Such stark demonstrations can be heart wrenching. Liberation warriors become quivering and petulant balls of self-defence, alarmed at the tug at the ground beneath their feet, the ground they had fashioned into a pedestal to preach others from. All kinds of desperate and verbose ego defences come up, aided by jargonized bluster.

Those who are busy condemning and vilifying the people of Khidki extension en masse stress that some of the residents who had gathered had even uttered the ‘N-word’. It was. The ‘N-word’ was also used to build brown-black solidarity against racism and anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States of America. One does not expect the yuppie anti-racists to have heard about the song ‘Negro bhai amar, Paul Robeson’ that Kamal Sarkar composed based on Najim Hikmet’s verses, a most popular song that the legendary folk-singer Hemango Biswas extensively sang. For that matter, the N-word vigilantes probably have not heard of Paul Robeson. For them, history started with 1991. One might add that the song inspired more people in the subcontinent to develop serious anti-racist views as well as a critique of the American state that newly-learned knee-jerk political correctness about ‘N-word’ and other White speech-forms can ever evoke. The particular charge that comes with the ‘N-word’ has a certain context. Ashis Nandy has repeatedly taught us one thing – to take people’s categories seriously. Grounded social and cultural literacy is not to be expected from those who think that only white people’s categories are the ones with meaning. A peculiar kind of browns whose cosmopolitanism almost always translates into a greater understanding of nuances and contexts of things from white lands than things back ‘home’ (the flittering class actually doesn’t like to be ‘tied down’ to the concept of ‘home’) possibly doesn’t realise the ridiculousness of charging the people of Khidki extension of using the ‘N-word’. Having gained adulthood by being consumers of Anglo-American public discourse and pop trivia, they often forget that their books, TV shows, webpages and magazines are part of their bubble-existence. To think that the bubble is the world may be fine for life and times in the bubble-urbania. The problem happens when they venture out into the real world and use their bubble-derived notions and categories to judge that. While being exquisitely literate about the ‘N-word’s horrendousness, they would not be able to name even 10 derogatory words used to refer to dalits in the subcontinent. This is no sign of enlightened purity or post-casteism or castelessness but the stench of super privilege by which everyday categories and realities have been shut out of their lives. Forever coddled, forever urban, forever ‘non-casteist’, forever offended by the N-word, neither can they name 10 dalit sub-groups (not that those who can pass the ‘name test’ are virtuous, but they are at least in touch with the structure they benefit from and have no illusions of innocence). Some of the disproportionate beneficiaries of a system can afford to not know the details of the victims. What is offensive is that these are kinds who are stomping all over the Khidki residents, with a righteous indignation. The browns are an unfortunate people. Those divorced from reality are the narrative-peddlers and the chroniclers of social tension and cultural flux of the browns. Sleek presentation in elite language and idiom, coupled with political correctness has helped many of the chroniclers go places.

The reality is, hundreds of African students stayed in the Khidki area. The same cannot be said of most ‘respectable’ yuppie locations of New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon. Not every locality allows a ‘ghetto’ to develop. The curious bit is that areas without African ‘ghettos’ are typically places where the Khidki-haters like to live in. Whites get treated differently. May be they would have been treated differently at Khidki too. But wouldn’t those who criticize the Khidki residents while regularly lounging at ‘artistic’ cafes and other upscale hangout-with-whites-like-whites locales also treat them differently? The ‘backward’ Khidki-wallas do not hide their feelings. Khidki residents have not (yet) learned the language and style of appearing to be non-racist. The ‘backward’ often responds with equal alienation to black and white. Others who hide their selective alienation, having learned the language of not letting feelings and subjectivities publicly known, uses the ill-gotten pedestal to preach against racism.

The Khidki incident has given rise to many paeans to the ‘diversity’ of New Delhi and how the ‘othering’ of the black-Africans is a blot on its ‘cosmopolitan’ image. This ‘othering’ bit, a category dutifully imported from ‘Continental’ discourse, is a non-issue here. The problem is segregation. That is a broader issue than Africans. It is also about who is typically rounded up by the police when a car-lifting happens, or who is issued an ID card or is asked to register at the local police station because one happens to work as a domestic help in a upscale area. Just because these browns do not have an explicit skin-marker, does not make the treatment meted out them any different. However, all that is normal, even as youths from these posh homes have also added their voice against Khidki. It is not a simple blind spot. What are the predictable triggers of righteous indignation? Why does it typically parallel what would trigger indignation in a supposedly post-racist Euro-American society? Why are our daily segregations, born in the belly of our society, not similarly spectacular and newsworthy? The yardsticks of whose social realities have we borrowed to assess our own? What makes us chose among the segregations? What is the rank-order in our heads? From where did we import this hierarchy? By choosing to privilege one kind of segregation over another, which audience are we signaling to? Are all these audiences domestic? What does this tacitly self-congratulatory ‘anti-racism’ vis-à-vis the silence over daily seggregations tell us about our selves?

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Filed under Acedemia, Community, Culture, Elite, Eros, Gender, Non-barbarians, Our underbellies, Sahib, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

Supremely unjust / 377

[ Millenium Post, 12 Dec 2013 ; Shillong Times, 12 Dec 2013 ; Daily Excelsior, 13 Dec 2013 ]

Many had assembled in New Delhi to hear the Supreme Court judgement on the case of Suresh Kumar Koushal & Ors. v. Naz Foundation & Ors.(SLP (c) 15436/2009), in popular terms the constitutionality of Section 377 case. Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 is a colonial era production that criminalizes what it terms ‘unnatural sex’. This has typically been one of the legal excuses behind the routine police harassment and extortion against homosexuals – not that the police needs legal excuses most of the times it abuses queer/trans people. It also means that certain sexual practices, even when indulged in without coercion, are illegal and the practitioners are criminals. This effectively makes being gay a criminal offence in the Indian Union. Many of the assembled had expected to party. The Supreme Court judgement set aside the earlier Delhi High court judgement that had effectively nullified Section 377. The court has referred this to the parliament, which alone has the authority to make and change law.

The court that has been of late accused of ‘judicial activism’ has skillfully evaded the case at hand. By doing that, it has dealt a huge blow to the lived reality of queer people in the Indian Union. Make no mistake  – in a society where increasingly legal defines right and transgression of law defines wrong, this is bad news. It is not as if the scrapping of Section 377 will overnight change what it means to be queer in the subcontinent, but its continued criminal content will make it even harder, given the amount of attention the case has received. Why is the enlightened judiciary so selective in its activism?

The judiciary does not exist in a vacuum. Well meaning elite can talk to the judicial elite via the code language of articulately argued details of Common Law. While this tactic can yield good results (the Delhi High Court judgement decriminalizing Section 377), a perception of such initiatives being elite can do serious disservice to the cause. No right can be won or defended by only employing high fangled lawyers with donor money and lobbying, bypassing the majority of the very people one is supposedly fighting for. There is no replacement to organizing among the people, including those who oppose you for whatever reason. The Supreme Court has pushed the onus of 377 to the parliament, in a shamefully smart way. The way the ‘queer movement’ of the subcontinent has mostly steered clear of the queer who are poor, who are not from the upper castes, who are non-urban, who dont speak English, who are illiterate, who dont use the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves, who do not describe their life, identity and experience in big neologisms, and has instead created a ‘movement’ that moves without those who they claim to move for. But then this is to be expected of those thriving in the Delhi-Mumbai bubble urbania.

While the Supreme Court should not be let off lightly on this, the connectedness of all assaults on human rights needs to be appreciated. We also need to appreciate, how those rights were won. If habeas corpus, banning child labour and many other things that are considered inalienable elements of human rights, were effected by movements pressuring power and not by court adjudication, why would one think this would be any different? It is also important that one appreciates the associations and dissociations of the court and the state, as well as the statist context of the court. The supreme court of India has previously upheld the suspension of habeas corpus during the Panditain’s brief dictatorship. Only recently, it has found the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be perfectly in line with the fundamental rights of a citizen as per the constitution. Given this record, should this order on Section 377 come as a shocker? It will be infantile to suggest that people’s pressure that goes against the grain of state interest and ideology will force the courts to give rulings. But it certainly can help. And for that, one needs to start with the people. People who have direct stake in this. People who are potential allies of the direct stakeholders. There is no judicial shortcut to politics for the underdog.

To live in a state that denies the right to not be shot dead on mere suspicion or whim of state agencies needs a constant working around the state and its apparatus. Life has not stopped in AFSPA areas. Neither has people’s resistance, inspite of the court ruling it as perfectly legal. Hence, life will go on. So will ‘unnatural sex’. Given its acute sensitivity to what White people think of them, the elite of the Indian Union and their representatives in the parliament might suddenly discover that ‘unnatural sex’ is not unnatural after all.

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The many avatars of Asaram Bapu / The Asarams around us

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Oct 2013 ]

The way the likes of Asaram Bapu and other ‘godmen’ have allegedly taken sexual advantage of the iniquitous power dynamic they had with their ‘disciples’ makes any consent in their acts questionable. Especially in the case of Asaram Bapu, the image of this man with ‘fans’ and disciples half his age or even less has evoked widespread revulsion from disciples and non-disciples alike. What Asaram preaches cannot be separated from what Asaram does. Can we extend these criteria to others? Which other people get away by taking advantage of iniquitous power dynamics?

There is something called ‘artistic license’, a concept often used to create a smoke-screen of exception around activities otherwise abhorrent. Some things are apparently okay if an iniquitous power situation is perpetrated by an artist, writer, poet, musician, visual artists, film-types – some ‘creative’ person. Not everyone is like this but you know the type we are talking about. In this ‘creative’ crowd, one often discovers characteristics that Asaram would recognize. A famous Bengali poet-novelist was known for his ‘intellectual’ communion with fans, typically half his age. Another equally famous and now-deceased writer of romance from Bangladesh married his daughter’s friend who was into films. Typically, they marry or propose to people half their age. The need for ‘fresh meat’ is a sick mentality that they can couch well by their word-wizardry and their ‘artistic’ bent. Some who marry early (like the deceased poet-novelist) put their spouses through a life of shame and indignity. Those who were just too cool for marriage before their 40s make it up by marrying people half their age. Are god-men the only schemers while these are on experimental ‘journeys’? Do these writers write why they mostly like them young – or will that literary ‘exploration’ destroy the ‘opportunity’ at hand one might be nourishing? Will abstract painters paint and film-types make ‘experimental’ films on the nitty-gritties of their inner schemes? That we don’t call out what’s going on here should cause serious self-reflection in those of us who condemn the Asarams. This blind-spot is especially troubling due to the deep sexism embedded of these circles. In such inequities, the less rich, famous and younger is mostly a female.

How do these wreckers of families and individuals, get such a long leash? Just because they are rich celebrities who can charm young ones in whirlwind summer romances of ‘special attention’ when people of their own age cohort have moved on? The combination of age, power/fame and economic difference is characteristic of a predator. Sadly, the victim’s false sense of agency is characteristic of the ‘liberated’ circles. Just like god-men, predators also often have a fully liberated person in every town, you know, just in case on has to drop in for some relief and ‘catching up’. Some victims are lured into thinking that they too are part of the predator’s dreamy, ‘interesting’, ‘care-free’, ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental world. This charade of agency is important for the ‘liberated’, for from that flows a sense of consent. Tragically, the predators know this too well and use to the hilt to their advantage.

Some victims return to society to cut losses. It hurts the pride of the ‘conscious’ and ‘liberated’ victim to admit that. Society holds the bag to collect the wreckage; due to ties it considers sacred – family values, matrimony and other markers of ‘backwardness’. If only these backward types could mix in the right circles, read the correct books and be ‘articulate’, snort the right stuff in right company, then they would understand such ‘creative’, ‘consensual’ projects. But alas.

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Hiding behind porn / Studied ignorance in India attributes rape to watching porn

[ Daily News and Analysis, 14 May 2013]

No son of Bharat-mata is bad himself. In the subcontinent, not for once have I heard from the parents of any errant youth that bad actions of their child might have something to do with, well, their child. Typically, it is ‘bad company’ that is the culprit of choice. The reasons of all things bad with us are to be found outside of us – a curious position that helps a perpetrator look like a victim. Externalities explain our vices; our intrinsic qualities are the source of our virtues. When this way of absolving the self gains wide public currency as a social ideology, we have a society that is always looking for scapegoats. The types of scapegoats that are found also express the subterranean ideologies and anxieties we have. When the migration of the rural poor to the city gains currency as a ‘cause’ for rapes, it tells us less about causes of rapes and more about ideology and anxieties of the people with whom this ‘cause’ resonates with. Such is the case with pornography as another cause of rape. What is even better, pornography has also been bandied about as one of the causal elements in contemporary rape. Rather than implicating the training in gender violence that society and family’s own values and norms faithfully provide on a daily basis, porn has been identified as public enemy. Legislators and the chatterati in the Indian Union are deliberating whether pornography, especially the online variety, should be banned. ‘Does porn cause rape’ is a question that has been discussed in these circles for public consumption. Certain women’s rights workers, virulently swadeshi ‘porn is Western, rape-causing evil imported into pure India’-types, free speech wallahs and freelance libertarians debated the issue in various fora. Many asked whether anyone wants their mother to be a porn-star? No one asked whether anyone wants their mother to be brick-kiln worker working 16 hours a day at slave-wages.

Beyond the obvious impossibility of showing causality of porn and rape, this debate has illuminated something quite embarrassing. In spite of web statistics that clearly document the subcontinent as being one of the top enjoyers of porn, almost no empirical work exists that studies porn and rape in brown folks in brownland. A minor part of the reason is that folks who abhor quantitative methods of research and analysis have the shrillest voice when claiming causality and/or correlation between porn and rape. A cocktail of moral righteousness, so-called ‘common sense’ and homemade theories of human psychology dominate the porn/rape discourse in the subcontinent.

This also points to a greater void. For a people so numerous, research on their sexual lives and on sex in general is scanty beyond textual and media analysis. Where are the physiological, psychological and behavior-analysis studies on sex and sexual enjoyment of brown people? Numerous journals on sex studies and sex research exist. Why do studies from the subcontinent figure in them so rarely, especially at a time when scientific research output from here has actually grown in almost all other fields? This gaping hole in the body of research closely parallels the ludicrous illustrations of the human body in the subcontinent’s biology texts, where all hint of external genitalia are erased. It is this air-brushing of reality that sustains a warped conception of propriety. What can studies inform us? Lets take the example of one of the few such studies done here. A 2011 paper by Kalra, Subramanyam and Pinto  studied the sexual behaviors of  a cohort of Mumbaikars over age 50 and report that 57% of those aged 60 and above were sexually active. Geriatric sexuality, thankfully, is goes beyond Hugh Hefner. How does that sit with the casual bundling of grand-children with grand-parents at night, with a tacit assumption that old folks do not have sex? In the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, Elizabeth Barrett-Connor’s research group at the University of California at San Diego reported sexual satisfaction increases with age. Where is the corresponding study about our brown mothers and grandmothers?

During my student life, I have been the subject in numerous experiments, mainly at Harvard and New York University, where I have been shown sexually arousing pictures on screen. My reactions to them, in the form of galvanic skin responses (GSR) were recorded. Such work seeks to understand emotion-laden visual information processing by our nervous system and also the psychological underpinnings of certain facets of human experience. Where are such studies from the psychology departments in India?

Without research and knowledge about the full expanse of the human experience, how long shall we go on understanding society? Sexuality being an integral part of that experience, empirical research into sexuality of brown people is needed. Sex exists beyond health, disease, adolescence, safety, and reproduction. It has to be studied for its own value.

Finally, prurience is as old as life itself. Try not scratching an itch. It is hard. Do not scratch other people’s itches unless they ask you to. It is easy. Let us not mix up the two.

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Clothing the sacred in the vain / The race to Riyadh / Religious imperialism at the heart of a plural society

[ Daily News and Analysis, 10 Apr 2013; Millenium Post, 11 Apr 2013; Echo of India, 14 Apr 2013 ]

In the amazing race to match cities like Riyadh and Kabul, famous for free-thinking, art and culture, Mumbai stole a march on Kolkata by threatening Maqbul Fida Hussain and disrupting the exhibition of his paintings of goddess Durga and Saraswati. Not to be culturally outdone, the so-called ‘cultural capital’ struck back by expelling Tasleema Nasreen, giving in to the threats by some angry Muslims. In a classic ‘one-two combo’, Kolkata followed up this act by successfully keeping Salman Rushdie out of its limits. Mumbai had actually hosted him – it had fallen back in the race. But recently it roared back in the race by despatching its best sons of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti to the Jehangir Art Gallery to remove paintings of goddess Kali by Kolkata-based painter Eleena Banik. Game on.

But this is a dangerous game. For people of faith, it is important that gods and goddesses be taken back from the loudest and the most threatening. Rather it should be asked that in a plural society, how is anyone able to violently attack, threaten, issue death-threats and shut down other voices. The plurality of divine forms in the subcontinent does not originate from scriptures and strictures, but from the agency of humans, however negligible in number, to be able to own, disown, partially own and partially disown the divine. No definition of how gods and goddesses ought to be or ought not to be can be enforced by force in a civilized society. If a group thinks that they are the thikadars of divine beings, I feel it is important to remind them that I did not appoint them to such a post, as far as my gods and goddesses are concerned.

The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti’s targetting of mother goddess Kali has forced me to respond, especially because I am from a Bengali Shakto ( followers of the divine mother) family. Our ancestral worship of the divine mother goes back at least four hundred years. We take our Kali seriously. Till now, Bengali Shaktos have not had the need to look to any Hindus from Mumbai or elsewhere for its ‘jagruti’. We have been worshipping mother Kali before Mumbai got its first temple for Mumbadevi.

The saffron neophytes who forced Eleena to take down her paintings of goddess Kali did not approve of the fact that she had painted her without the garland of skulls. Her breasts were visible, because she has them. The mother goddess does not wear garlands to cover her breasts from the scandalized. She is both maternal and sexual. And if your like your goddess to have lesser qualities than my mother goddess, that is your problem. If you feel ashamed of my naked holy mother, thats your problem, not mine. Keep your shame to yourself. Dont come draping my mother with your cloth. Your mother may like being told by their devotee-sons what to wear. My holy mother has a divine mind of her own.

People have conceived goddess Kali variously in different times, in different places. For someone to dictate how my conception of the goddess ‘should’ look like is religious imperialism. While a monolithic Indian Union nation-state helps such pan-subcontinental ‘standards’ to gain wider currency, the goddess is older than the constitution. Those who take their definitions of shame from the sensibilities of the Victorian British have long been ill at ease with the naked glory of goddess Kali. They have tried to make make the garland an essential accessory, have made the garland-heads bigger, have made the goddess always have her hair in front of the shoulder spread out on her body – essentially every cheap trick in the book to cover her breasts. Breasts are sexually desirable. Breasts are also symbols of motherly love. If you have a problem with a sexually active, breast-feeding mother goddess, try a ‘nirgun’ god. Don’t come draping my goddess.

Sometimes we do not realize how recent some of our imaginations of gods and goddesses are. For example, many consider the blouse of the goddess to be a ‘sanatan’ item of clothing – just that it was virtually unknown in the subcontinent in that peculiar form before Empress Victoria’s reign. My holy mother is older than that. Maqbul Fida Hussain, that sterling admirer of goddess Durga, had liberated her form from the patently mid-19th century blouse clad look, re-imagining her in naked matriarchal glory. You expect me to give up my holy mother’s timeless antiquity for your second-rate desi version of imported Victorian sensibility?

By way of distortion of an oft-half quoted line by Karl Marx, one can say that in a plural society, religions have to be defended from becoming the tool of bigoted creatures, the face of a heartless worldview, the mechanical output of scripture-reading zombies. It has to be defended from becoming the enemy of a plural society. So-called ‘distortion’ is the long-term life-blood of plural, democratic societies. Joy Ma Kali.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Culture, Eros, Faith, Gender, Plural pasts, Religion, Sex

Parading Pinky, reporting Pinky

[ Echo of India, 26 Jun 2012; Millenium Post, 2 Jul 2012; Globeistan ]

The Bengalee athlete Pinky Pramanik, who has won numerous medals for Bengal and the Indian Union, has been at the centre of unprecedented media attention surrounding the issue of her biological gender. A woman who was living with Pink for some time has accused Pinky Pramanik, who considers herself female, of rape. The way this case of alleged rape has been taken advantage of, by wide sections of the print and television media, should be enough for serious soul-searching about the nature of media we have and the depths it has reached for a few eyeballs more, for more and more revenue. The media has finally taken unbridled infotainment to its sordid extreme by manufacturing information and conjectures to provide entertainment – that too by massaging already existing prejudices against gender and sexual variance.

First came the police, then the reporters with cameraman in tow, and then in the TV sets came doctors and psychologists. The doctors conjectured about the biology of intersex, ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones, the merits of ‘early treatment’ of ‘such’ cases and what not. Only a few tried to delve beyond a crude form of biological determinism to talk about what gender one may consider oneself, in spite of their penis or their vagina. However to think that gender ambiguity is something unknown to our populace would be a cover up. This cover up seeks to ignore the huge number of male children dressed up in sarees and ornaments, even if for a photograph, in certain Bengalee homes – a practice becoming far less frequent now. That biologically determined sexual features and the gender of the self, both lie in a continuum and not necessarily in tandem, is a consciousness we have strived hard to cremate. Which is why in public discourse built of posing, the richness of human gender identities and forced to coalesce into two polar forms, thus forcing most of humanity into performing roles and not living their lives.

This case of alleged rape and the prurient ‘reporting’ around it stems from a certain feature of the Indian Penal Code, that only a man can rape. A woman can commit a sexual assault, but not rape. This asymmetry in law stems largely from archaic and make-believe notions of gender roles in sex and by extension sexual predation. Many countries, including France have gender-neutral rape laws where rape at its core remains sexual intercourse without consent, with certain exceptions of statutory rape. It is from this ludicrous asymmetry in the IPC stems the need to demonstrate Pinky Pramanik’s gender, for ‘rape’ as defined by the IPC can only be committed by a man and hence Pinky Pramanik can be charged with rape only on being shown to be a man. This is where the media came in and took it upon itself to supply masala and queer-hate masquerading as a rape-case reporting. Every time a hijra is violently raped by members of the police force and other extortionists, something that happens with gut-wrenching regularity, where is this debate of rape or not, article 302 or 377? There is no report, there is no conviction, and there is no case. This same media doesn’t report it. That violent sexual crime is not the monopoly of the ‘sexually deviant’, is hardly a sensational story. If anything, it can give rise to sensations that threaten to open a Pandora’s box.

From the very outset, the basic assumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was thrown to the winds. Pinky’s whole life was brought in public scrutiny, including instances where she had reportedly shown ‘unwomanly aggressiveness’. What sterling examples of gender sensitivity we have in our media, which finds female aggression extraordinary, and by implication, male aggression as ordinary. What is this but an extension of the sick mentality found in numerous books of religion and law where disciplining the woman by aggression is placed when within a man’s right.

Pinky Pramanik’s story has not died down. Her picture is all over. So are detailed second, third and fourth hand account of many events in her life. How all this discussion in the public domain affects the legal decision-making in her case is a pertinent question – at the least this provides unnecessary and prejudicial information to the judges and magistrates who will sit on Pinky’s case. The police have constantly handled her with male constables. It appears they are better judges of gender than the 7 member medical team set up at the Barasat Hospital to determine the same. The same police has been freely circulating a video clip of Pinky naked as ‘proof’. So we have a set of law enforcers who have trampled the rights of the accused and have taken upon themselves to spread naked clips of the accused. When under trials at Abu Gharaib were filmed naked, many reacted in horror. Our police can do this and get away with it. And that, alas, in this much-famed democratic republic, is not the media story.

Couching our worst prejudices as a simple search for the resolution of a law and order technicality, we are being fed Pinky’s day in custody, Pinky’s medical report, her past life, in amazing detail, in bits and pieces – anything short of a high-resolution photo of Pinky’s genitalia. This competitive detailing of Pinky’s life day by day reminds me of another dark episode of journalism in the Subcontinent when the daily life of Dhananjay Chattopadhyay, condemned to hanging by death, was printed day after day for the voyeuristic consumption of the worst kind.

Pinky’s case, sans the sensationalism and rape allegation, is a heart-breaking one. It has been set up in public discourse as if her physiology and bodily features, however it is, is somehow criminal. This is the worst kind of profiling, making us indistinguishable from societal systems which publicly stone rape victims for adultery.

Bengali, English and Hindi media – among those I could review, fared sordidly, selling sex and gender ambiguity by sensationalizing any hint of difference on this issue. As a society, we were indulging in criminalizing sexual marginality and having a good laugh at the same time with friends – wholesome family entertainment for respectable people.

But every time this laugh was happening, every time this was being discussed in the public square, in homes- those among us who identify as anything but normative genders, were squirming. They were being made to feel unwelcome, just by dint of their being, ‘sexually deviant’ potential sexual predators in waiting. And those among us who daily derive ingredients for masturbatory fantasies by reading accounts of specific circumstantial details of rapes that papers produce expressly for that purpose, will go on to rise another morning as respectable people, to judge other people again. Do we have no shame or fear of gods?

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Eros, Media, Our underbellies, Rights, Sex