Category Archives: Sex
[ Down to Earth, 15-28 Feb 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 5 Apr 2014 ]
My home in Kolkata happens to be very near Kalighat. This is one of the holy Shaktipeeths (centres of divine power) that are spread across the subcontinent where different body parts of Lord Shib’s wife Mother Sati fell. For Bengali Shaktos, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Mother Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Mother Kali of Kalighat was not undertaken. Kali, the dark mother holds immense sway over her mortal children.
As I grew up, I have often roamed about in the by-lanes around the temple. The temple lies on the bank of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal flow channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead, rotting creek. This area with river-bank, shops, inhabitants, ganja-sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again. Some of the smaller temples right on the river-bank belonged to goddesses whose names I did not know. In the pantheon of caste-Hindu Bengalis like me, there was an assumed mainstream where Mother Kali and Mother Durga had very important places. It was only by chance that I went to Kalighat once on a weekday afternoon on a chance school holiday due to rains. I was quite taken aback by the huge crowd, a few thousands strong, that had gathered around the temple. But to my astonishment, they were not there for the main temple of Mother Kali but for a very small temple of Mother Bogola. The people had a very intricate set of offerings that looked quite different from what I was used to seeing. And everyone there knew this occasion and at that moment, I was the fool in town, with my pantheon suddenly seeming irrelevant. Due to my very limited immersion in what we call in Bengali as gono-samaj (mass society can be a poor translation of the concept), a divine set had been built in my head that had entirely bypassed what was so near and what was always there. The blindness and illiteracy due to my social locus and ideologies that come with it was very badly exposed. Social alienation creates culturally illiterate beings.
Thankfully, the festivals of Southern West Bengal (where my home is broadly located) gave me many opportunities of unlearning and literacy. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is of the kind whose worlds are not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality they live in but the fantasy worlds they can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of Dharma Thakur, whose few sacred sites spread over the two Bengals, and have a distinct character in the kind of rice product that is offered (called hurrum) among other things. There is the 500-year old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been too have been so enriching in its cultural produce that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for 5 days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of ‘parallel sessions’ (if one were to call the things going on there) is probably more than a thousand and there are no websites to print out the schedule. And that does not matter. The Ganga Sagar Mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in the Indian Union, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different in different times of the day, on different days of the mela and in different years. The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the Sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adibashi areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha. The 2 big Ms associated with this fair is music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, each festival is different in its different parts and substantially different from each other. It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this remembering my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people produce left to their own devices? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspend ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy, White man knowledge systems and the artifacts they produce. This unlearning can be harsh, especially when whole self-identities are built around wallowing on these artifacts. But there are too many brown people making too many things for too many centuries to take imported ideas of superiority seriously. One can live without being exposed to this reality and that wont cause any peril. The urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which they can eat rice but not know the rice-type or the growing area, get a house built but not know where the masons live. But of course they know where Indian wines are grown and the life-events of authors they have read, and other details of the lives of sundry characters of their fantasy world. The mindscape of the ‘enlightened’ can be more enlightening to the rest of us than they would want to it be.
The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology – cultural and natural. These are not American Burning Man type of fossil-fuel powered ‘creative’ fantasies (I have always failed to understand what is ‘creative’ about pursuits that require high fossil fuel burning or require pollution intensive factory made accessories). They don’t say ‘free entry’; that I mention that at all is absurd in their context. They don’t ‘say’ anything at all. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the ‘festivals’ that are primarily thronged by the ‘fashionable’, the ‘articulate’, the ‘backpacker’, the ‘explorer’ and other curious species of the top 5% earning class of the subcontinent. Most of these festivals don’t have the kind of portable artifact quality that is so popular with the rootless, possibly best exemplified both by the Great India Mall and its location (the ‘Sector’ ‘city’ called NOIDA created by destroying many villages like Chhajarsi and Hazipur, now known by more fashionable and presentable names like Sector 63 and Sector 104). Most of them are not part of the ‘Incredible India!’ imagination and hence are largely devoid of white and brown people with cameras. Such a shabby state of affairs, however, has not prevented some of these festivals to go on for centuries, without sponsorship from ill-gotten-big-money supporters.
It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as ‘Kolkata’s young heads to the clubs’ (clubs being dancing places with rhythmic music). Many more young people regularly headed (and still do) to the East Bengal club or Mohan Bagan club grounds for football matches. But this was a different club. The idea was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, on not being ‘in’. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic – particularly because these come without pre-conditions of prior social immersion. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and ‘enlightenments’ celebrate delinking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with White people’s hobbies. If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura (a festival where hundreds of varieties of ‘muri’ or puffed rice is produced, exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. However, they do aspire to tell the difference between different red wines. Anything that requires being socially embedded in a largely non-textual cultural milieu (hence Wikipedia doesn’t come in handy), they are like fish out of water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.
It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money ‘lit’ fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The sudden-ness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning ‘international’ beauty pageants. That ’arrival’ was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly hearing English. ‘Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent’ – read a tweet from one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to that time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. May be I just belonged to an odd social sector, or may be they never counted me. But I am quite privileged otherwise. I never ever saw a headline saying youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti. At any rate, it is a greater statistical truth than saying youth of such and such city head to such and such ‘lit’ fest. This non-counting of many and over-counting of some is a predictable and sinister game that is played by the urbanbubbleophiles over and over again till it actually starts sounding true. The believers in such a worldview fear real numbers – the ‘odd’, the stubborn, the smelly. They would much rather ‘weigh’ according to their ‘subjectivities’. The sizeable ‘hip’ throngs within their tents are never ‘masses’; they are assemblages of aficionados. They have individual minds. They can think. They are human. The rest are better kept out until some floor mopping is required.
When real estate dacoits, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a ‘cause’, one can well imagine the effect. The well lit fests provides a good opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project. There they are, on the newspaper –smiling. They write ‘sensitively’, argue ‘provocatively’, and entertain ‘charmingly’. Ill-gotten prize money from the infrastructure mafia can supply powerful batteries for their headlights as they reach into the dark inner recesses of the human condition through their words. All this boils down to a few days of litting, ‘Think’ing, festing and other things that may get you in jail when done to people who have dignity and the courage to speak up.
The need to distinguish oneself from others can be rather acute in certain sectors of the subcontinental bubble urbania. What distinguishes one from the others whose ‘purposeful’ lives are peppered by sampling cultures whose social roots they are alienated from, long drives, coffee-chain hangouts, mall meetups, multiplex evenings and money-powered ‘rebelliousness’. To see oneself purely as a consumer – a seeker of market defined and mass-produced hatke (alternative for the discerning new Indian) ‘experiences’ and ‘thrills’, can be bit of a self turn-off for the brand and ego conscious yuppie. In a society where they want to define taste, no quarters should be given to others to make them appear as vacuous and crude. Hence, there is the search for ‘meaningfulness’ beyond the necessary evil of quotidian parasitism. This is best accomplished while practicing parasitism with a thin veneer of ‘meaningfulness’. Practising White people’s hobbies and engagements, with a bit of Indian elephant motif thrown in, fits the bill perfectly, at home and in the head. The well Lit fests of the rich with the ‘famous’ for the aspirational and the arrived accomplishes multiple functions at the same time. It is apparently ‘meaningful’ to be an onlooker at ill-gotten money sponsored talk-shows with only a few rows of seated brown sahibs and mems separating the top 5% income audience from the gods discussing the intricacies of brown and paler experiences. This ‘refinement’ is so much more substantive than double-refined mustard oil. And then there is the extra benefit of the Question and Answer – that which gives a feeling of participation and contribution, even accomplishment and ‘production’. That should give enough warmth, inject enough meaning and experiential richness to last through a cosmopolitan, urban winter after the show is over. And if any heat was lacking, such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the ‘winners’ and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan ‘meat’. Some famous winning authors frequenting these spaces are equally famous for drug binges, for serial hunting of fans half their age, with some of these hapless young ones dying early deaths. Such ‘launches’ bring together publisher and author, writer and fan and above all, potential bedfellows. When infrastructure sleaze hosts ‘intellectual’ posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete. And of course it has to be winter. That is the time when brown and white migratory birds from White lands come down to brown land. They are in much demand – hopping from one gawk-fest to another. They dare not hold it in summer, like the Ramkeli festival. Their armpits might just start smelling like those of the ones outside the gates.
The well lit festivals have as much connection to ground realities as the owners of the palaces have with the local population. The court-like atmosphere, graced by tropic-charred whites turned native and tropic-born natives itching to be white, creates much gaiety and banter. Typically and predictably, the pre-eminent language of these well lit courts is something that most localites would not identify with. That goes for most of the books and the preferred language of the authors. Collectively it represents their fantasy world, as they claim to represent much. It is not as if the writers thronging these places are most sold or most read. The English-speaking spokesperson who has captive white and coconut (brown outside, white inside) ears becomes the chosen voice. He is the authentic insider and quite often a chronicler of the urban ennui and excitement of the parasites. The subcontinent has many authors who have sold more and been read more than all brown Englishwallahs taken together, but no infrastructure mafia wants to honour them by prizes. The loot of people’s money from the Commonwealth games by a famous prize giving company is better utilized elsewhere. Why is it that the Chennai or Kolkata book fair, with more attendance of authors and readers than a desert jamboree can ever manage, will never be covered by corporate media with the same degree of detail, as an event of similar importance. One has to ask, what are these choices meant to convey, why now, for what, for whom, against whom. The benign smile of prize acceptance of some of these first-boys and the fellowship of enthusiastic clappers need to be seen for what they are and what they represent. Why this project of pumping air into the English cat so that it looks like a tiger, to assist it to punch above its weight? Who does it want to scare into submission? Who does it want to provide confidence? Cultures, especially those that come associated with upward mobility, hubris and power, seek to displace others. As Hartosh Singh Bal puts it, ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy.’ The soft hearts of sensitive beneficiaries of cultural-economic hierarchies are too sensitive to probe their complicity in this project. Elsewhere, as Akshay Pathak has shown, the way some well ‘lit’ fests have tried to replicate their foreign idiom of ‘storytelling’ through festivals in less ‘lit’ places like Dantewada shows another aspect of the dark underbelly of the ‘articulate’ beast. Such beasts hunt in packs, as shown by their excellent ‘teamwork’.
This odd idea of non-local ‘exploratory’ tourism cum weekend-thrill is a symptom of a deeper disease. This disease adds layer after layer between the earth and the birds who float atop that earth, with the organizers making sure that the undomesticated and the unrefined stench of the earth does not make its way in to this stratospheric paradise. Such ‘cosmopolitan’ inhabitants who belong nowhere produce nothing. Of course they know about the Sati ‘tradition’ and shur their book and minds with that. These are those who see no intrinsic value in any tradition but partake in its goodies, document it, sample it, sell it to visiting firangs, package it as if they were wares on sale but contribute very little to the richness of the human condition, on a long term basis. If this worldview and lifestyle becomes the dominant one, I shudder to think what kind of a cultural desert the flittering non-traditionalists will produce with their contempt of tradition and rootedness. Given their clout and power, that urban-industrial dream of an atomized society might become true, till every grain looks the same. Individual grains of sand around Jaipur have more heterogeneity and character than this.
Would the dominant idiom and language of these well lit fests survive if Whites paid reparations for colonialism and slavery? Will any of these well lit fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes becomes crime-free? Something that owes its very survival to dirty money and claims to be a festival of ‘mind-opening’ needs to be exposed. This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes- they don’t exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most human beings) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these creativities would even exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary pre-condition. But there is art beyond that, in persisting oral traditions, lores, gods, non-‘cosmopolitan’ ways of everyday creativity and knowledge and earth inspired insurgents like Namdeo Dhasal and Gaddar but that is beyond the well lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful for the ‘enlightened’ ones to imagine that the world can actually go on without their collective knowledge being at the centre of it. But it does. It always has. And whether you like it or not, and whether you matter or not, it always will.
[ Millenium Post, 13 Feb 2014 ; New Age (Dhaka), 14 Feb 2014 ; Echo of India, 17 Feb 2014 ]
Browns are peculiar in being invested in what can only be a firangi-appreciation disease. Woody Allen is a famous Jewish-American actor-director and author. He is quite an idol to many people. They like what he films he makes, what he says, and often nod at what they think are ‘deep’ statements on life itself. Recently, he has denied the allegations by his daughter that he had sexually molested her when she was 7. She describes the sickening details and bit-by-bit the pretension behind the awkward, bespectacled one comes apart. When such idols are exposed, the reaction of idol-worshippers are a good clue to how sections of society are happy to look away from the sins of one person, if they like some other aspect of the person. Whether these aspects are different from each other is a different matter.
Somehow, some of those who think they are specially qualified to appreciate the ‘arts’ often create an exception for such idols. They would happily separate the ‘artist’ from ‘other’ aspects of his life. That this is a prejudiced stance can be shown by a related example. There may be something, say trade union activism, in which the ‘artsy’ ones may have no interest. Now, if the trade union activist is a regular wife-beater, then of course, the wife-beating aspect clouds all other things of the trade union activist. If anything, one would be doubly condemned for their pretension of trade unionism while doing such dastardly things at home. Some acts cloud everything else you do, as they should, unless of course, you happen to be an ‘artist’ or a ‘creative’ person. Then, as we say in Bangla, it is ‘shaat khoon maaph’ (forgiving seven murders). World over, there have been too many people from the film and literary world who have associated with such ‘creative freedom’ so that they are revered years after being exposed as sick creatures. Their fan base remains loyal. The romanticized notion of the ‘alternative’ and the ‘creative’, things that untutored plebians don’t understand, helps create the society of ‘alter-creative’ lovers. This gives many of them a bloated sense of exclusivity, refinement and understanding, and is crucial props to their notion of selfhood.
In the case of the ‘artist’ or ‘creative’ person, people defend him as if his ‘intellect’ and ‘creativity’ comes from a different mind than from where his ‘personal traits’ arise. The long leash these elements get, because of ‘creativity’, is shameful. This is what allows such elements to regularly prey on younger ones. Some artistic people have ‘special tastes’. Society should try to understand, I guess, and let them carry on. They are eternally ‘misunderstood’ or society-at-large is not ‘ready’ for the kind of ‘rebellious’ alternative’ lifestyles they lead. Surely, in their ideal world, perverted religious leaders, who are often rightly condemned for sexual perversions, are to be vilified while these art-types are to be glorified. But broader society does not see the fine differences between different sets of the Emperor’s new clothes. That must be because they are unrefined and cannot appreciate the true genius of the ‘creative’ ones. By refusing to put the ‘creative ones’ at the same pedestal as the other molesters, if we are to not take the allegations against an alleged paedophile seriously, then we, as a society, are in trouble. If our first instinct is one that disbelieves the victim, then we better look back at our belief system and the value that it accords to certain forms of creativity. If there is a place for benefit of doubt, I think, it should go to the survivor who was bold enough to speak up.
What is educational in the reaction of certain fans are the differential standards / burden of proof, when it comes to regular sexual perverts vis-a-vis these ‘creative’ ones. The fan either says that the ‘creativity’ and ‘personal life’ have different sources, or is simply in denial, saying they cannot believe someone so ‘sensitive’ and ‘creative’ could have done this. In the latter case, the exposure to ‘ creative work’ of this person clearly has something to do with the over-all assessment of a person. In this schema, the public creativity is deemed to be an expansion of the ‘personal self’. This is all good during adulation. But when the times are rough, the watertight non-communicating public and personal schema rules the roost. That is all very convenient as we often chose what we want to continue to believe. Nobody likes to see heroes fall, especially when portions of their brittle selfhood are derived from hero worship.
However disturbing may be its implications, at some point, one must recognize that a human being is an organism whose private is in communication with the public, each shaping the other. The one who writes also does the molesting. It is not a monster-self that molests and the gifted-self that writes. Some blind-fans would actually try to have it both ways by insisting that some forms of giftedness actually has monstrosity as its Siamese twin – there is surely no limit to excuses and white-washing. It really is up to the ethical choice of the audience, with an appreciation of human dignity, the ‘refinement’ that really matters, as to what kind of ‘creative’ human being would they like to engage with. I would like to believe not all artists are sick and just may be that the world wont come to an end if sick people’s ‘creativity’ lost popularity preferentially.
There is nothing inherent in art that would attract only the deranged and perverted to it. Art lives among people. Most artists are regular folk who live everyday lives. Most male artists – one the street, on the bus, in their not-so-rich homes live family lives. Some people may romanticize mental conditions as well as the fame associated with some male artists. That is part of the aura the older male artists develops and only a few succumb to in response. Given that we live in a society on unequal power relationships, in ‘relationships’ between people starkly different in age, fame and money, we typically know who is the male and who is the female- and it says something about them. Thankfully, not everyone is looking for a power trip and not everyone is looking for a celebrity trip. If the idea of alternative rebelliousness were more often than not a power trip for a rich old celebrity male, then I would count myself out of that ‘sexy’ alternative rebellious world. As for who cares, all well-wishers, parents and family of victims care. The world, thankfully, is still not simply a society of atomized individual, whose goal in life is to seek experience and pleasure, without heed to the power inequities that define the world.
The more crooked one is, the greater stake they have in perpetrating the notion of a world where anything goes – for everything is in ‘shades of grey’, that the world is nearly bereft of general goodness, however defined – and there is a general moral ambiguity all around. There are too many good people who are not counted and this probably has something to do with the kind of people who do the agenda setting – probably trying to cover their misdeeds, by putting everything into a morass of relativism. We have to seriously expand the ambit of the aesthetic and the beautiful. That can only expand life experiences. Then the rigidity of overlooking the sick will probably not hurt as much as it does now. Of course one has the right to appreciate and oppose simultaneously. But would such compartmentalized (if that is possible) appreciation jeopardize the opposition, given that opposition is a public political act (and not some private state of mind), especially given that ‘creativity’ can draw from various sources, including those from which the sickness/perversion arises?
There is a different question here that cannot be pushed aside. Why does it seem that the ‘creative’, ‘artistic’ types are much too often at the centre of such allegations? This is probably because, art and creativity, only when narrowly defined by powerful and their worshippers, produced such skews. This serves these people well and they would like to make art and art appreciation a non-mass thing that requires arbitrary yardsticks of immersion and engagement. The truth is most of the world aint sick and the world is full of art. There is a huge world out there for the rest to avoid paedophiles and other sick species, and still maintain a very rich conception of the aesthetic. The problem is not simply about liking some tarnished person’s ‘art’, but about the blind fan’s instinctive defence of the artist, when some disturbing facts emerge. At that point, a choice arises and the result of that choice making might be informative. To barge or not to barge into the bedroom of a paedophile or a rapist who ‘creativity’ one appreciates is a choice one exercises. This can be an ethico-moral choice for some or there can be a policy of separating art from the artist. That choice that would be exercised by someone would be a reflection of how much that person values what over what at what cost.
[ 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.
[ 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.
[ 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.
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.
[ 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?