Posts Tagged India

The invisible nation*

(The following is an extract from an e-mail from a friend. Thanks, PK.)

My father, who was in the army, was in Nagaland in the 60s, in Kashmir at the end of the 40s. When I was a child I heard from him about the army trying to arrest the Naga “hostiles.” His unit was patrolling in the Naga hills (every one is scared–by the forests, by the guerrilla tactics, by the idea that the Nagas are different) and somebody stepped on bamboo.

Have you heard bamboo split?

A guy fired a mortar. This was near a village. He just fired, in no particular direction, at no particular enemy.

Nobody was hurt. My father, if I remember correctly, had to have his own colleague tried.

When I went to study in Delhi, I stayed with a Kashmiri student. A Naga used to live in the next room. The room was about 6 feet by 4 and this chap–a student, too–had a music system that occupied half the room. He was extremely shy. My roommate and I went to introduce ourselves. This extremely gentle man, very courteously asked us to sit down, beamed while showing us his music system, told us what he was studying, and went on to tell his story.

“When I came to India,” he began.

I do not remember much but I do remember the landlord. The man must have been about 60 years old. He used to walk up the stairs demanding the rent. He would wear a shirt for the occasion, otherwise he would be in his striped, knee-length underpants. Some students from the northeast, boys and girls, used to live together in one of the rooms on the second floor. The landlord found it easy to collect the rent from the first floor; the Kashmiri and I spoke Hindustani. He would sigh, though, while trudging up to the second floor. “These people all sit around half-naked,” he would mutter. He would stand outside the door, trying not to look inside.

I do remember some bras giggling. Happy laughter. I was young, and never cared to find out which state they were from.

My son has recently learnt in school about the “seven sisters,” the states of the northeast. He was asking me if they were clubbed together because the people look different.

I guess they have yet to get to the “two brothers” of Kashmir.

* From a twitter comment.

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Death (by terrorism) the leveler


In this country of frustrating divides and inequalities, we now have something that makes us resonate alike. Death by terrorism. Finally it’s not just faceless masses at crowded market places, the poor and the defenseless. The rich and the privileged in five-star hotels, foreigners, tourists, top police officers, all face the fire, too.

We spent a frantic few hours on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning trying to reach my parents who are in Mumbai, visiting an ailing relative; they were out in the city till late Wednesday night. Turns out their phone was dead. I was sitting utterly distraught, by the phone, willing it to ring, when the kid came up to me and asked quietly: “Amma, is Ammama going to be OK?” Does he have to grow up like this?

My little one knows more about grenades and AK-47 rifles, and has seen more charred, dismembered human flesh, than I ever did at his age. Does he have to grow up like this?  

We spent a sober hour last night, the spouse and I, explaining to our little one why some people pay with their lives for no fault of theirs. Does he have to grow up like this?

Just last week, I gave in a detailed proposal at my son’s school’s Board meeting (I’m on it as Parent Advisor) on how we can alert and train children to cope with terror. Do they have to grow up like this?

Terrorism is here to stay. These attacks will happen again and again. They are now as much a reality as government, legal and security ineptitude. I don’t see any of this changing. Given this, I think what we need is to learn and share coping mechanisms. The resilience of the Mumbaikar’s spirit — yes, clichéd it may sound, but isn’t this what’s keeping people going? A spirit born out of the stark, compassionate knowledge that it could have been me, that tomorrow it could be me or my loved ones.


Good reads:

Bombay Burning

The Right Way for India to Respond

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Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)


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Leave frogs in wells please!

Andhra Pradesh is now officially Andhera Pradesh. We are back in the Dark Ages – we have no power and no water. Well, we have power cuts and rationed water, to be precise. So my entire life (by which I mean the measuring out of my day in coffee-spoons) is now structured around those two hours of power cuts and those precious hours when potable water gushes forth from the tap. No packaged drinking water for me, thanks to the pesticide scare. Not that I think (Aquaguarded) tap water is any safer. It’s really a devil-and-the-deep-sea kind of choice. Middle-class boom it seems. Superstar India it seems. I’m not amused.

But we, the people of Andhra Pradesh, do not despair easily. We are nothing if not feisty. We leave nothing to chance. So, while the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences & Weather Modifications (CASWM) of the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University is undertaking cloud-seeding operations, a few women in Hyderabad are roping in frogs to help bring the rains down on us. The picture says it all.

Courtesy: The Hindu, Andhra Pradesh/Hyderabad News/ July 15 2008

These women got together and performed holy matrimony, Hindu-style, on two frogs. Seriously. The Hindu reports it. And I am trying to fathom what this is all about.

Now, I know that rain and croaking, mating frogs kind of  happen together. But I’m assuming it’s a metonymic relationship – you know, one of association and not of cause and effect!  Did they think that “marrying” them would encourage them to mate?! And bring forth the rains? 

My background in Biology tells me that frogs mate anyway, and with multiple partners, without the social sanction of marriage!  I’d think the whole ordeal of marriage would probably kill the drive. In fact, the story goes, one of the frogs took such a fright that it ran away, and had to be caught and brought back. Consequently the marriage, originally scheduled for Sunday, was brought forward to Monday! And, apparently, no one one knows whether the runaway frog was the bride or the groom. Croak! Have they at least made sure it was a male and a female that were married?

 And where, pray, amidst these merry goings-on was that champion of Animal Rights, the SPCA? And Hyderabad’s very own Blue Cross? Huh? Huh?

I’m not making fun of anyone or any practice here. Even though my jaw dropped right to the floor when I read the story. And even though I’m guffawing even as I type this. My heart goes out to those poor frogs locked in holy monogamy till death do them apart, when actually Nature had ordained them for healthy polygamy .

This is a one-off post. Written only because I think it is a story worth recording. Maybe I’ll write a poem on this, Prasanth. Croaking frogs do not a monsoon make. Or some such thing!


Update: Not even the dead are spared the travails of the power crisis in AP. The Hindu informs  me today that crematoriums are beginning to feel the heat, with bodies piling up thanks to delays due to prolonged power cuts. So I’m going to be plagued by this even after death?!

Forget the frogs, I now have an existential dilemma: Should I live or die?

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