An homage, a tribute to the Indian Elections of 2014. A set that I was physically apart from, and from this geographically distant vantage point I was able to finally be an observer, or as Derek Zoolander would put it, a eugooglizer.
This set of elections was rather different from any I’ve seen so far as long as I’ve understood what elections were. In a move that I’m certain was meant to capitalise on the youth vote bank, campaigns this year were massively focussed on social media. This increased online participation meant that everyone and their mother was now on Twitter, Facebook and whatever other social network is there, looking to participate. This, as a standalone fact, is an excellent thing in the world’s biggest democracy. The wave of politicians (and therefore, more and more users) on social media meant a massive online democracy had been mobilised to opine, to rehash, to ruminate and philosophise.
Or so it would seem.
While there have been voices from and about every part of the Indian political spectrum, this past election has seemed overshadowed by a very specific section, whether in the press or on the internet. A little digging and some investigative articles suggested that a lot of this publicity was paid for. The entire idea of the press not being neutral is absolutely infuriating, but in a largely capitalist world where money talks, and talks louder and more forcefully than anything ever has, it’s going to happen. Should there ideally be rules against this, irrespective of the type of economy? I believe so. Are there? I’m not so sure. But it is absolutely a worldwide phenomenon, spurred on not by the beliefs of news disseminators, but investors.
Various media outlets nationwide, barring fewer than a handful, have taken rather specific political stances – interviews, analyses and ‘debates’ have all been biased, slanted rather obviously in favour of one candidate or the other. That has happened since public media has existed, and will continue to do so for a while, or at least until some extremely advanced technology, some form of Artificial Intelligence kicks it into obsolescence.
Unfortunately, while the ‘world’s largest democracy’ has now begun to be online, it is unclear whether this media is deliberating on issues to the extent that a democracy does, a la the idea of agonistic pluralism theorised by Chantal Mouffe. It hasn’t just been the victory that has been a landslide, the campaign has seemed that way too. There has been pluralism, there have been campaigners, there have been voices of dissent against what can only be described as predicated on the subject’s apparent success in his home state, the facts and numbers of which seem to indicate thus.
However, it is neither sensible nor fair to pick a candidate entirely on the basis of success in his home state, the data behind which may or may not be true, but was, and is bandied about repeatedly on social media by said supporters.
It is to be noted, however, that the same people refuse to mention, or even entertain any discussion regarding the 2002 Godhra riots, largely seen to have been a form of communalist violence, which happened in the exact same state. If one were to go by the oft-repeated statement that the Supreme Court of India granted the candidate a ‘clean chit’ in the matter, the fact still remains that not nearly enough was done to stem the violence, which seemed to become, to the perpetrators, some form of pogrom, an ethnic cleanse in their minds. The attacks were seemingly allowed to continue well beyond what they should have, the violence unimaginably gruesome and gory. Even if they were, according to the Supreme Court, not premeditated, and no political influence was involved, the fact remains that the same political power permitted the violence to continue. It must also be noted that said party (honestly, much like any other political party/politician in India) is communalist and plays on religious sentiment (sadly all too strong and polarising in India) in order to garner votes.
This is not exclusive to India, however, these communal, divisive politics, this ‘othering’, with a small section of political parties in the UK using this sort of tactic to pull in votes.
Temporarily, however, there was a glimmer of hope in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party. The name literally translates to the ‘Common Man’s Party’, and although they started small, they seemed to want to move in the right direction, their goals for once truly in line with what the country needed. They did not play at looking for votes from a specific sect, religion, section of the economy, but society as a whole. Unfortunately, their campaign petered out early, with their candidate withdrawing 49 days in. In the end, a real pity, as they were the only party that seemed to treat the people of India as people, as an actual society, instead of bits and bobs of an economy, or a market to be sold a product entirely. They cared about the aspects of social change that other parties either claimed to care about or in the case of the currently ruling party, are vehemently against. Regretfully, while their ideals were wonderful, it seems their ultimate execution was not.
Back to the politics of the specific state in question. Numbers were marketed, nay, hard-sold to the public, epic tales were told of wondrous development, of progress and the sort of magic one might seemingly only find at Hogwarts. But ask questions and you may as well be entering the Forbidden Forest.
Statistics show that despite the grand claims of development, education, nutrition and clean drinking water are all but accessible to significant sections of the population, and in some cases a majority of the state.
Child nutrition is at an all-time low – 47 per cent of children below the age of three in the State were underweight. That figure was 45 per cent in NFHS-2. That’s about twice the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
When a state claims as significant development, or at least a party does, surely nutrition is part of this ‘development’? Or is their idea of ‘development’ only the sort that is measured in money the rich can bring in? The metrics for the analysis that caused state, masses and media alike to arrive at the wonderful rosy scenario known as ‘development never seem to be revealed. When your nutrition rates are abysmally lower than those in sub-Saharan Africa, can you really claim development?
That leaves a staggering 57% of households that do not have access to water, having instead to travel several kilometres, very likely on foot, through arid, harsh conditions, often to bring back enough water for entire families. This water, too, is often not fit for any form of consumption, as “67 per cent of rural households in the State have no access to toilets and members of more than 65 per cent of the households defecate in the open, very often polluting common water sources.“
It seems from this that the purported economic gain did not reflect within the state itself.
While the religious fundamentalism that has historically characterised the party has seemed to be absent from this round of elections, with a significant non-Hindu vote going towards the party, a fair number of significant members of the party hold rabidly religious and social views that seem to be stuck somewhere, perhaps a century ago. With several social movements in India in the last few decades geared towards eradicating exactly this sort of thought process, one worries that this might be a step backwards for India as a functioning society.
The Indian LGBT movement has gathered steam in the past few years, and a general awareness of what many, sadly, across generations, believed to be a ‘curable disease’, rather than an innate biological characteristic, spread. More and more of the Indian public began appearing in public, at movements and rallies protesting the criminalisation (and re-criminalisation!) of homosexuality. It was no longer the taboo it had been in the past, and pride movements became a thing. It was absolutely wonderful.
And now, a party that has stayed apart from the religious fundamentalism it has marked itself by in the past has come to power. But while the party may have stayed away from communalist marketing tactics, its leaders, and the men at its helm still believe in archaic ideals, such as these -
BJP President, Rajnath Singh: “We will state (at an all-party meeting if it is called) that we support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.”
Senior member of the party, Subramanian Swamy, an erstwhile intellectual and former Harvard lecturer, described homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’ in a series of tweets.
Sadly, the Congress party was not much better, with the Health Minister in 2011, Ghulam Nabi Azad, describing homosexual sex, or ‘MSM’ as a ‘disease’. While these archaic ideals may not be party-specific or community specific (in fact, some of the major religions practised in India sadly all view homosexuality as some sort of ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’), it is a massive blow to the movement that the newly forming cabinet is against progress and change in the social fabric of the country.
As I publish this, a woman has just been appointed the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, which is a wonderful thing. Anandiben Patel is, by all means, an accomplished person and politician, and her history seems to bode well for reform.
However, it now remains to be seen whether this is merely lip service or the sign of better things.
It is unfair to treat the country entirely as a market and focus merely on economic development, which, while important, needs to occur concurrently with social change. However, the focus on this seems to have been lost, buried somewhere beneath the cries of ‘development’. Statistics can be bandied about that prove said development – but this is something everybody needs to keep in mind.
Change is never instant, and it is wrong to expect it to be. However, I sincerely hope checks and balances, from within both public and establishment, can keep India as democratic as it has been. Perhaps this election was about development. Perhaps it was also predicated on a strong anti-incumbent sentiment that is fairly justified, all things considered.
Ab ki baar, the change that occurs remains to be seen. The latest developments, however, do not seem to be very promising, with AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal arrested today for expressing an unsavoury opinion of a prominent BJP leader. Genuine worries for the freedom of expression have now grown – will all public opinion be hereafter, er, modified?
One can only hope that in this race, this mad quest for ‘development’, this live-action form of Temple Run, India is still, in the eyes of the powers that be, not a corporate entity that needs to maximise profit, but a country. Made of living, breathing people who retain wholly the right to express themselves, personally and publicly, people who need more than just progress for progress’ sake, and not just the economic kind, .
A disclaimer to those who feel rabid patriotism for no apparent reason (the kind that somehow only reaches its zenith when India wins a cricket match and doesn’t really exist otherwise).
If you’re looking for a post about how awesome India and Indians are, (and they are, in their own ways), this is not it. You have been forewarned.
I’d been to the local club last week, for my evening swim. Adjacent to their swimming pool, unfortunately, is a sort of party ground, if you will, where anyone who’s willing to pay can host an event of their choice. I like to call it the Boat Club Mangal Karyalaya.
More often than not, the kind of event hosted at the BCMK is the kind that brings out ‘aunties’ in flashy, bejeweled saris, dripping in gold, their faces caked in makeup, looking for all the world like overstuffed sausages, and sexist ‘uncles’ who pretend to be ‘above it all’ but will end up in a large group, gossiping, filling themselves with enough whiskey to get an entire battalion drunk.
This time, the ‘event’ happened to be a tiny little sprog’s birthday . The only reason I knew that it was, was because there were gigantic, political-rally-sized posters of the baby, with his name plastered beneath them. At first glance you’d actually expect to hear some holier-than-thou idiot spew rubbish about how roads need to be widened,and communities need to be be closer-knit (again, something that will never happen, because our politicians need communal hatred as much as plants need sunlight, if not more).
The huge, easily 10ft x 10ft posters proclaimed ‘PROUD TO CELEBRATE THE FIRST BIRTHDAY OF OUR SON’, with his name colourfully emblazoned underneath.
The entire idea of having a 200-strong party or really, any party at all, for a child’s first birthday – one that s/he will never even remember, is absolutely idiotic to me. (I could, perhaps, understand the parents wanting a memory to cherish – in which case, the best thing would be the parents and the child spending its first birthday together, perhaps with immediate family or close friends.)
It has turned into the same ostentation-fest that most ‘Big Fat Indian Weddings’ are – that one day (or in the case of certain sects, 3 or 4 days) , where you can put on public display how much money you can afford for your daughter’s or son’s wedding (although in our lovely, still patriarchal society, I think the bride’s parents, to this day, bear the costs of the wedding. Just because.) The whole event ends up being flashier than a pop ‘concert’, with everyone dressed to the nines, trying to do exactly what the host is in the process of doing; showing off their wealth to the world, in a sort of twisted version of ‘mine-is-bigger-than-yours‘.
Gossipy, near-uneducated women, relegated, over the years, to lives of servility and drudgery, gossip about whose third cousin-twice removed is married to whose brother, how they’re related, any issues with the sex lives of the couple, ‘why don’t they have a child yet? Kuch problem hai? (alluding, ever so subtly, to non-functioning reproductive bits) ‘ and so on and so forth.
The men are much the same, trying to boost their own self-esteem by critiquing others, and calling it ‘networking’ (Because finding out who Tony slept with when his wife was away on a trip with her friends is networking, yes indeed.)
Their wives, who are a handful of feet away and doing much the same thing, however, are labelled gossips.
As loud Bollywood music blared out of speakers that I am certain were not at decibel levels healthy for a one-year-old, or really, any human or dog, I saw a woman, her thick, glittery sari draped across her head, run out of the party with a yowling baby held close to her, and she ran into the pool area, just as I was drying off after my swim.
I told her the area was specifically for members, or guests that they brought to the pool, and asked her why she was there. In broken Hindi, she looked at me and said that the baby was hungry.
In that instant, I felt annoyed for many reasons, a couple of which, I admit, may seem selfish.
Then I wondered – if a regular, full-grown human being felt hungry, would they go eat in a loo? As healthy and/or sterile as breast milk may be, I really don’t think a bathroom/shower, or really, any place with a lavatory (and its accompanying Shigella, Staphylococcus, Salmonella and other nasties) in the immediate vicinity is particularly hygienic to eat in.
She nursed the child, and I, still grumbling, had my shower and left.
I kept wondering why in an apparently ‘advanced’ country, the world’s second-largest economy, not only do people still have issues with breasts, but this woman was still in ghunghat (a form of purdah), something we tend to associate with villages and/or the lower socio-economic strata of society except this ghungat-wali , much like the other women there, was covered in shiny jewellery from head to toe, and carrying a Blackberry AND an iPhone.
There was no proper hygienic area to actually feed the baby anyway, like a nursing room, or anything of the sort. Are pregnant women in India just supposed to be housebound until their babies stop breastfeeding?
Could the mother, too, not have pumped milk for the baby in advance, or, alternatively, not have brought the tiny little thing to a place where its eardrums were at serious risk of rupturing? But of course, that is secondary to keeping up with the Joneses. [Or the Kardashians. Whatever floats your boat.]
This is a country where breastfeeding (one of the most natural things in the world, not just for humans, but every single mammal in existence) is, for some reason, frowned upon, and the baby is forced to ‘eat’ in a toilet, but men will openly, unabashedly stare at breasts – it doesn’t matter if they are tiny mosquito bites or gigantic melons, they shall be stared at and you will, categorically, be mentally undressed. I say this from the awful personal experience of not being able to run peacefully, for fear of the creeps that stare at my chest which,thanks to gravity, moves when I run. I feel like they’re boring holes into my clothes with their creepy stares.
I’m quite sure men stare at breasts the world over, and it’s not really an India-specific thing. What DOES seem to be India-specific, however, is the fact that here, it’s okay to not just look, but whistle, leer, and sing disgusting,suggestive, third-rate songs as they walk/cycle/ride by and follow you around, trying to bait you into reacting, or try to grab something in a moving bus or at a store counter, the creep surreptitiously sidling up next to you.
The men who do that are the same ones for whom ‘item numbers‘ are made, with the camera panning suggestively between the actress’ legs, lingering for just an extra moment on her breasts, which have been all but smushed into a ten-sizes-too-tiny prison that they seem to be trying to escape from. (Is it really even ‘cleavage’ anymore when it’s about 90% of the actress’ breasts just spilling out of her blouse?) [Some of you might even remember the infamous Mandakini wet sari bit from the 80s.]
In our beautiful, diverse nation, we seem to have trigger-happy, up-their-own-collective-backside censors and lawmakers that seem ridiculously hypocritical. It’s somehow okay to watch Aishwarya Rai gyrating to Kajra Re, shimmying and shaking her chest, (which really, shouldn’t bother anyone) but bar dancers who do much the same thing in real life (but without marketing themselves as ‘thespians’ – which god knows, most Bollywood actresses are not! ) are denigrated, called all sorts of names, and in 2005, had their livelihoods taken from them by the Maharashtra Government, which decided it wanted to impose a blanket ban on bar dancers and dance bars altogether. Somehow, however, it deemed it still okay to allow a scantily clad, near-naked Mallika Sherawat to dance on stage at an upscale five-star hotel in Mumbai.
The audiences were rather similar, lying back in their seats, enjoying half-naked women gyrating in front of them whilst sipping on their poisons of choice – replace glasses of Chantilly and Sauvignon Blanc with Desi Daru and McDowell’s Number 1 and you might as well be looking at the same people.
The performers, too, are more similar than our (undoubtedly beautiful) Bollywood ‘actresses’ would like to admit, especially to themselves; Except for the number of zeroes in their respective paychecks, and the fact that one’s costume is designed by Manish Malhotra, couturier to the stars, and the other by Manish Tailor, Panvel, they are being paid for precisely the same service.
Our politicians and ‘public figures’, however, (and, let’s be honest, about 90% of the general public) label bar dancers ‘sluts’, ‘harlots’ and other misogynistic terms that I’d rather not even mention, because they make my blood boil.
Why are the esteemed members of Tinseltown so saintly and blameless and virtuous, and why are they beatified by the media when they are doing the same thing everybody else is, which is working to earn a living? (I am not even getting into the whole ‘casting couch’ bit – that, to me, is another ‘job’, which both women and men do, voluntarily, which makes it their business exclusively. If it’s voluntary, by both parties, it ceases to matter. Whether it is sexual or not.)
Speaking of sex, India as a whole seems to be singularly self-righteous when it comes to the actual subject. The phrase ‘land of the Kama Sutra’ seems like it’s been done to death, but it’s true nevertheless. For a country that has its own, 2000+ year-old sex manual, we sure are repressed, what with all the publicity ‘kissing’ and ‘lovemaking’ scenes in Hindi movies manage to drum up – simply because they show people doing something ridiculously natural, and something most movies in the rest of the world have been showing for 60 years now, at least.
Then you have guys like this one, and the entire country goes up in arms when Richard Gere (somebody I am a big fan of) came to India to promote HIV/AIDS awareness (something we all know India needs, desperately), and swept Shilpa Shetty off her feet, rather literally, as he gave her a peck on the cheek, recreating a scene from Shall We Dance?
Self-proclaimed activists and the media went into a frenzy, with some of them setting fire to effigies of Gere (which seems to be a very popular way to denounce people here, especially politicians and cricketers. At least the former are a group of numpties who deserve it), others proclaiming how ‘vulgar’ and ‘cheap’ it was, and shouting from the rooftops how Mr. Gere had insulted ‘Indian Culture’.[ I hate the term with all my heart, and I'll be damned if I know what 'Indian culture' is supposed to be - wanting a wife as a substitute for a cleaning lady/cook/carer for one's parents , being sexist, ogling, spitting on the street, being obsessed with religion to the point of idiocy, or perennially being the moral police to everyone?]
In the end, everybody forgot about the event that was supposed to create sexual awareness – an event that, ironically, managed to show people’s lack of it.
Indians, as a people, frown upon sexual conversation, public displays of affection, even mildly sexual content on television (as evinced by this woman, who moved the Bombay High Court to have any programs with remotely sexual content (again, a term that is so ridiculously broad it is impossible to know what really is ‘sexual content’ and what is not) taken off the air. Here, it meant that even a couple kissing or making out on-screen was ‘obscene’ somehow. [If you do watch an English film on the telly in India, you will notice how it skips awkwardly when you know a kiss is about to happen. Yes, it looks incredibly stupid.]
Although there are ads for condoms in India, they are few and far between – one I remember seeing on the TV while growing up was for Kohinoor condoms, and I remember them being marketed aggressively (no pun intended) during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Sure, it was a little weird watching a mattress shake like that with my parents in the same room, but the content didn’t really bother any of us.
In the last two, maybe three years, I’ve seen two ads for condoms – one in which a cleaning woman finds a pack of condoms in her employers’ bed as they nibble at each other on a bike elsewhere, and another with a half-dressed, extremely attractive woman licking melting chocolate off her fingers. In both advertisements, someone or the other was giggling stupidly, for no reason at all. Condoms are not disgusting, profane, or funny, but somehow they seem to be portrayed as such.
The saddest part of all this is the fact that if the Indian public (by Indian public, I mean the aam junta, not the swankily educated) were aware of condoms, we wouldn’t have the second highest population in the world. For a country that has a billion-and-one issues with anything even remotely related to sex being shown in the public eye, we sure seem to know what sex is – obviously SOMEBODY (and by somebody, I mean hundreds of millions of somebodies) are having it – these babies aren’t dropping out of the sky. But if Khushboo, or any other public face for that matter, talks about premarital sex (which somehow is only an issue in India, an issue that befuddles me),she is, again, vilified in the media.
As a result, you have women who feel the need to ‘pretend’ to be virgins for their ‘arranged’ marriages ( another issue that sends my rage into overdrive) seeking to have reconstructive hymenoplasties.
We will still, however, deny schoolchildren sex education in this country. My personal view is that by the 6th standard, all children, irrespective of their gender, should be given basic sex education, by a trained professional, or a biology teacher. With puberty hitting teens lower and lower, and the internet providing access to all sorts of sexual content, I think it is essential that these children grow up with a clear idea of what sex is.
While I see absolutely nothing wrong with pornography per se, and I know most 12-and-13 year olds have already discovered it, I don’t think it’s the best way for an impressionable young kid to learn about sex, simply because they should have some semblance of an idea of ‘normal’ sexual contact and human bodies, instead of thinking that the only good breasts are the ones filled with silicone, or that everyone has to be a certain ‘length’ or ‘girth’, including themselves.
Is it not, then, better for a teacher and/or a parent to talk to their child and give them the ‘talk’ ? Infinitely safer than having them discover one of the millions of pornography websites out there, managing to confuse them completely and destroy their self-esteem in one fell swoop.
Here in India, sadly, we have no law in place for sex education – in fact, just last year, Indian policy makers shot down efforts to make sex education mandatory. Their reasons? The content is ‘embarrassing’ and ‘too explicit’. They also bandied about their favourite term, yet again. ‘Indian culture’ and social values would be affected, they said, if sex education happened. How, exactly, I am not very sure, especially considering part of India’s culture is the fact that we are multiplying in the millions, day by day.
For anybody in India who has ever read their local variant of TOI publication The Mirror (unrelated to the English newspaper) , a quick scan of the Ask the Sexpert column will show you just how little people know about sex. For anyone who is not in India, you can read it online, too.
A childhood friend of mine who is studying medicine, both of whose parents are also doctors, specifically in the field of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, recounted a scary, scary incident to me, one that highlighted just how much,and how urgently, we need sexual education in this country.
A couple came into their clinic one day, complaining about how they had been unable to have a child, a year into their marriage. After a thorough examination, they found that the woman’s hymen was still intact. They had never, in fact, ever had sexual intercourse.
You know you really shouldn’t expect too much, however, when the Union Health Minister labels homosexuality an ‘unnatural disease’. (Anybody who wants to read more about this or watch the video can do so here.)
I’d like to go into India’s LGBT awareness, but that is an issue that deserves attention all its own, attention that I will give it someday.
For now, I’d like to go back to an issue I did not expound on earlier, when I was talking about our beautiful stars being completely blameless. Let’s face it, we’re a Bollywood-obsessed nation. (Three things sell in India – sex, Bollywood, and cricket. Want to maximise your profit? Combine them all!)
It’s pathetic how much fame can blinker people – which, again, is something that happens all over the world, but not to the extent it happens here. In Bollywood, you can shoot innocent wild animals for sport, be inebriated and attempt to beat up your significant other, be inebriated yet again, drive, and kill a bunch of people in the process, and then sell t-shirts labelled ‘Being Human’ – because, clearly, that is something you know how to do if you’ve done all those things I just mentioned.
Still, you will find people on the street – rickshaw drivers, cleaners, paanwallahs, random guys referring to these stars as ‘bhai’, and talking of them lovingly, as if they were their own brothers.
A few years ago, a convicted terrorist, a man who, along with his girlfriend, was wanted by Interpol, was in the news, with the paper polling college-going girls, asking them to rate how ‘hot’ they thought he was. A few months later, his girlfriend landed a spot on a ‘reality show’ here, had her own fan following, even, and is probably back in Bollywood, doing something or the other.
The last edition/season of this same reality show, which, for some inexplicable reason, seems to be ridiculously popular, played host to an international face (?) in the world of pornography, a certain Sunny Leone, an appearance I am certain was engineered to help her gain a foothold into Bollywood.
People on the street will pretend to be scandalised when you talk about sex, sex education, or anything even remotely related, but ask them who any given Bollywood actor is sleeping with at any given point in time, and you will have an instant answer. Talk about sex on a realistic basis and you’ll probably hear something along the lines of ‘ghar pe maa-behen nahin hai kya?’ , which translates to ‘do you not have a mother or a sister at home?’, a line I hate. Are you not supposed to respect a woman unless she is your ‘maa’ or ‘behen’?
And hypocrisy shall continue to rule. As we avert our eyes from sexual education, 51 babies are born every minute. We will continue to blame rape victims for ‘dressing provocatively’, instead of the creepy men who can’t keep it in their pants.
Politicians will wax eloquent about Indian morals and how our culture does not promote over-sexualisation, about how it is all the influence of western culture that has led to the degradation of our nation, only to go back to their homes and be the philandering slimeballs that they are, to rape women, be third-rate philanderers, get them pregnant, and have them murdered.
And people, at large, while being obsessive about their own privacy, will still find it exciting to know where Aishwarya Rai had her baby, whether she pushed or had a c-section, whether or not she had an epidural, probably even how many centimetres she was dilated as of 0600 hours on the 16th of November (and the celebrities, of course, oblige by telling us via Twitter that they aren’t ‘too posh to push.) [If I could respond, I'd say 'who cares?', but clearly, more than a million of the man's followers do, so I would be in the minority.]
And we will live amongst a public that knows precisely where Anushka Sharma is and who she is or is not dating, but is absolutely unaware of the existence of a true ‘celebrity': a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi.