Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!

This is a day for bonding and easing into the celebrations. As per tradition, married ladies fast on this day, in empathy with Parvati or Gouri, Ganesh’s mother. This is a day dedicated to the Goddess and to Mahadev or Shiv, her husband and also our family deity.

My camera’s roving eye found various groups of people in conversation, in camaraderie over activities like cooking or decorating or, in the case of the children, on burning firecrackers! Looking back at the pictures I clicked, I see how the young and old come together, how barriers come down as people ease their guard, how the ritual activities of a family festival take over a rhythm of their own and individual moods, opinions and priorities take a backseat. It is this transformation that grips me each time I come to Goa for Chavath. I revel in the slowing down of the pace of life, in the inversion of priorities away from the self and into the realm of family, community, ritual and perhaps even faith.

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Cousins posing....a series

Cousins posing….a series

_DSC1574_DSC1575_2

mamas, mavshis, kiddos...

mamas, mavshis, kiddos…

Favorite mama!

Favorite mama!

My little girl...

My little girl…

My aunts sat together, peeling and cutting vegetables and also sharing memories and planning the menu for the next two days. Ajjee sort of oversaw what they were doing, out of sheer force of habit because this is what she has been doing for the last forty odd years! We cousins swapped stories, clicked pictures and ‘Whatsapped’ them to each other and to other cousins far away.

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

All smiles!

All smiles!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

As evening came, we gathered to sing together. The aarti, to me, is the crescendo towards which the events move. The chaal, best described as the rhythmic tune, in which we sing the aartiyo in Goa are distinct from those in Maharashtra. More musical and complex rather than merely chanted, participating in the aarti is as much about skill as gusto. We all enjoy this bit immensely, as you can see in this video. The kids particularly charm me with their enthusiasm!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Saurabh on the cymbals

Saurabh on the cymbals

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The kids utilize the evening to do what they enjoy the most- Fog, or firecrackers! See the joy on their faces!

_DSC1608_2_DSC1604_2

A lesson in loss of identity, misuse of power and.. in peace

It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

The prayer wheels, everywhere...

The prayer wheels, everywhere…

Faith in motion

Faith in motion

The sanctum inside the temple

The sanctum inside the temple

We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.

Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.

Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.

Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.

Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?

Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.

I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

Making wrist bands, constantly working...

Making wrist bands, constantly working…

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed...he has an artist's eye, my little one!

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed…he has an artist’s eye, my little one!

We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.

But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!

Will liberals (and atheists) survive a radicalising society….or are humans self-destructing anyway?

I am utterly and completely convinced that liberal thought is the only way forward for the human civilization. And yet, when I see the growing power of radical elements around me and how their simplistic solutions have enticed so many intelligent, educated people, I wonder if human beings are simply bent on self-destruction, as a race!

A few ideas from this weekend’s editorial pieces struck me as interesting in this context. The Hindustan Times carried a set of articles on radicalization in India and it did not make for pretty reading. Educated people are turning on this path of blood boiling hate and cold-blooded planning of destruction. Whatever they may be, Islamic jihad or Hindu terror, they are making the world less safe with each passing day.

This idea of radicalisation of society is scary indeed and seems to be happening in the entire subcontinental context. I have not had a lot of time to read up on what’s been happening in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin’s piece “Why I support Shahbag” came at the right time. To offer a background, protestors in huge numbers were out on the streets in Bangladesh to demand the death penalty for a 1971 war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. Mollah, like many war criminals, is an Islamist. Protestors fear that Mollah, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be freed if the Jamaat-e-Islami came to power. And hence the demand for the death sentence. In a nation that is being rapidly Islamicised, the Shahbagh protests stand out in their demand for banning an Islamist organisation like the Jamaat.

This is happening at a time when liberal voices are being ruthlessly suppressed in Bangladesh and atheist bloggers have even been killed for their views. By labelling the protestors at Shahbagh as ‘atheist’, Nasrin writes, Islamists are trying to make pious Muslims who are part of the protest uncomfortable. Protestors are caught between believing in the legitimacy of their demands and proving themselves to be believers! The paragraph below from this piece resonates strongly with me in the context of what is happening around us in India. You could replace Bangladesh with India and Islam with Hinduism and this would still hold true!

“It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.”

Which brings me to one the strongest arguments I have against the Hindutva sort of religious extremism. If we are so critical of another religion’s extremist tendencies, then we really ought to evaluate why we are heading in the same direction. I sincerely hope we are not, though the chain of hate mails below even the slightest criticism of Hindutva extremist thinking is worrying indeed.

As for me, I am as close to being an atheist as anyone can be, without actually taking the plunge. To me, the concept of God and religion is a cultural one and the world is richer for its varied cultures, isn’t it? I find it unbelievable that we fight so much over something so abstract, but in reality the fights are about the deepest aspect of human greed-access to wealth and resources- and religion seems to hold the key to power and identity, which in turn are channels to achieve material goals.

Revisiting the idea of Patriotism

I often wonder about patriotism. It is a concept I have defended, debated and doubted at various points in my life, but I have always been unashamedly patriotic.On Republic Day, as Nupur and me drove together to a party, we were trying to examine how our concepts have altered over time. Not only in the sense that we now see patriotism very differently as adults in our mid-30s, cynicism and facts crowding our judgement, but also we wondered about how children saw it today.

As a school going child in the ’80s, my consciousness was strongly influenced by adult discussions about Indo-Pak wars in the decades just gone by and we still indulged in a lot of role play that involved skirmishes with the neighboring country. I remember Gautam, my neighbor, would constantly ask stuff like: If you lost an arm fighting against Pakistan, would you want to die or live? I would never know how to even begin answering such a question and would find it hard to try and imagine myself bleeding and cut up in  a war zone somewhere! At school, the Indian freedom movement that overthrew colonial suppression was a large part of what we were taught, through history lessons and every day in the songs we sang and the speeches made at Assembly time for the birth and death commemorations of various national leaders. The glory of our ancient past was yet another refrain that was relentlessly drilled into our impressionable minds.

So yes, my initial ideas of patriotism did involve a muscle flexing superior image of India as a large, powerful nation in the regional context. At the same time, I was also perceiving the image of my country as poor, backward, under-developed and highly inefficient as seen by the West through adult discussions when they returned from abroad or when the various NRI friends my parents had as well as relatives returned for visits. Their disparaging tone hurt me, scared me and baffled me as I struggled to understand the contradictions in the ideas I had about India.

Each year, when I watch the Republic Day Parade on TV, I wonder at the colossal amount of resources that go into that spectacle. I wonder why we need to, in this so-called post-modern era, show the world what missiles we own and how well our bands march and what culture flourishes in our States. This time, I went to see the spectacle for myself. And I was drawn into the old-style tear jerking, chest-swelling-with-pride experience of patriotic feeling. It is a superbly choreographed show indeed and even the cynic in me just decided to shut up and enjoy!

The kids were enthralled, each with their own perceptions. Udai loved the marching, Aadyaa liked the dances. They both practiced the National Anthem in the car, but I realized they are not too sure about which one is the Anthem and which one is the song. And they have no clue about the National Pledge! Those of you who remember the endless jokes about “All Indians are by brothers and sisters” would be having a good laugh. But yes, times have changed. Today’s youngsters have much less doubts about India’s capabilities and see themselves as citizens of this nation with undoubted pride. They associate the image of India with technology and competence, and are less obsessed about military or cultural superiority. In fact, at nearly nine, I think Udai is in more of a global citizen mind frame and is barely conscious of his identity as an ‘Indian’. Quite a contrast from how we were at the same age!

So do we consciously inculcate patriotism in young Indians? And how do we deal with the contradictions in the image we offer to them? I don’t subscribe going back to the hyped distorted way history was often presented to us, for instance. Or do we allow them to develop their own brand of patriotism as they grow, learn more, analyze what is happening around them?

As an unashamed patriot, I know I influence my children without even knowing it to take immense pride in their nation. For its achievements certainly, but also for its diversity and pluralism, and for the simple fact that it is our home.

Survival mantra: Condemn violence, re-invent secularism as our guiding light

It could be true, that inverse relationship between brawn and brain. I haven’t been as alert mentally since I started going to the gym regularly, but today I’m resolving to snap out of that stupor and get back to my blog and my work with total concentration.

I’ve been following the controversy following Home Minister Shinde’s remarks about Hindu terror. And thinking about the intense feeling of discomfort I have about that particular faction of our society. Yechury’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today about zero tolerance reveals the sordid history of the RSS and their commitment to military means to achieve their wins. It also exposes the essential fascism in their ideology. This scares me (despite growing up in a very much Hindu family). Because I was brought up in independent India with the clear understanding that secularism is very much a value we fought for and want to keep fighting for, that this is a deeply ingrained belief.

As I grew up, various incidents influenced me- the 1984 riots, Babri Masjid, Mumbai blasts and the general observations of how citizens in a city as cultured and nuanced as Lucknow got polarized and compromised in the crush of religious fear and machoism. Yet, my belief in secularism as the ideal to aspire towards never wavered.

Today, an urban practitioner in rapidly urbanizing, rapidly growing India- I hear disparate voices all around me. I know that religious identity continues to be the strongest one for many in this country and, while I do not think that is wrong, I am pained by having to accept that secularism no longer seems to be the agreed upon framework of taking this country forward.

The world over, religious fanaticism seems to be overpowering the voices of tolerance. I often wonder, why? Is it cyclical, moving closer and then way from fanaticism, clannishness? Or are we essentially an irrational and violent race and occasionally we get lured into more rational thinking by great people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who for some reason all seem to happen around the same time?

In my analysis, it all boils down to managing anger. Just like we learn to manage anger and frustration in our personal lives, or should at any rate, collective anger also needs to be managed. When the management tool becomes skewed and leaders would rather incite, and preach retribution and revenge, violence and terrorism appear as very logical alternatives to those in a group. In the absence of reason, no one is able to break the tit for tat and the war goes on…

This is a war on our senses, on our liberties. It is a war that threatens to annihilate the beauty from our lives and marry us all into a culture of violence and retribution, which can only lead to sadness and more anger. It is a vicious cycle. We must break out of it. Secularism is one way to break out of it. Perhaps we must change the way we see secularism- not as a society sans religious affiliations, but as one where each group is tolerant of the faith and the cultural practices of the other strains that co-exist with it, an within that larger fabric of India, Asia, the world.

I would respect that Hindu leader that came out and punished perpetrators of violence from within its folds, same goes for the Islamic leadership. Religious leaders must condemn violence and be unabashed in naming all those who incite it. If they continue to shield murderers, no matter which religion they belong to, they are doing a huge disservice to us all. By luring people into the false cocoon of us-versus-them on hand and by alienating all those of us who refuse to support violence, on the other.

Using the ‘Right to the City’ approach to include migrants and other “others”

I was reminded today by various organizations on twitter that it is International Migrants Day. Migrant, a term that has fascinated me for a long time. What is it that makes someone uproot his or her life and go to a new place, start from scratch, face all sorts of hurdles including social rejection and cultural deprivation, to eventually carve out a new life in this adopted place? On the face of it, migration sounds rather unpleasant and yet, it has been a recurrent phenomenon for centuries!

Migration may be forced (slavery, bonded labor, displacement due to war, infrastructure projects, etc) or voluntary (usually to avail of a real or perceived opportunity), but the status of the ‘migrant’ is fraught with difficulty. In India, economic growth and a changing economic structure along with urbanization has meant an increase in rural to urban as well as urban to urban migration across the country. There are several aspects of migration that are fascinating and need to be studied to develop a contemporary understanding of how our urban centers (these ‘engines of economic growth’, yea!) function and grow. However, citizens and governments usually perceive migrants (esp low-income migrants that belong to the informal economy) as unnecessary and unwanted, people who are competing for meager resources, and would like to wish them away regardless of their dependence on migrant labor for a large proportion of informal and often difficult (read undignified) jobs in the city.

For my research on housing for migrants in Gurgaon therefore, I have been trying to put together a rights-based case for why the city needs to accept the migrant situation and address it squarely, with a focus on housing and employment. I was struggling with something that appeared obvious. I was heartened therefore to hear today from some of the contributors to the newly released book titled ‘Urban Policies and the Right to the City in India: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship‘, brought out by UNESCO and CSH and edited by Marie-Helene Zerah, Veronique Dupont, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal. The book draws on Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ approach, which the UN hopes to leverage to urge governments to adopt a more inclusive approach to city planning and governance.

At the workshop I attended today at the Centre for Policy Research, Ram B Bhagat, author of the chapter on ‘Migrants’ (Denied) Right to the City made a hard hitting point. He pointed out that policy makers in India refuse to acknowledge or address the issue of migrants squarely. There is no policy that accepts migrants and attempts to give them the basic rights they are denied by virtue of having no identity or documents in their adopted place of residence. He spoke about representation by civil society before the 12th Five Year Plan requesting the inclusion of migrants’ rights and the subsequent exclusion of any such provision in the Plan.

In the chapter, he clearly outlines the contradiction between an Indian citizen’s Constitutional Right to relocate to any other place within the country and the refusal of local governments to grant a migrant a form of identity via which he/she can avail of the basic services and amenities required to live a life of dignity. The paper identifies several exclusionary practices and advocates for the use of a Right to the City approach to include the voice of the migrant in the policy discourse. At the very core, Bhagat argues for the recognition of migration as an “integral part of development” and the placement of migration at the core of city planning and development. I couldn’t agree more and I’m happy to find validation for my thoughts and the assumptions on which I am carrying forward my research work.

On a larger scale, such a Right to the City approach that accommodates multiple viewpoints and consultations and redefined citizenship, imbuing it with a participatory framework is the way ahead for many of the situations that disturb us today. I am reminded of this as I observe the rabid hatred and suggested use of violent and retaliatory actions to “teach a lesson” to the rapists in yesterdays heinous incident on the Delhi bus. While the rapists deserve to be punished swiftly and severely, I question the construct that we have, positioning the rapist as the convenient “other” in general discourse even as we know that may incidents of rape in the city are perpetrated by men known to the victim (though not in this case)! The “other” is omnipresent in all our critiques of the failures of our cities- slum dwellers, beggars, municipal workers (or shirkers), apathetic policemen, the ‘system’, the rich, the poor, the flashy bourgeois, they all threaten us while we remain helplessly virtuous. It is a ridiculous situation, for surely we are the “other” for someone else!

To build an inclusive city, we would need to begin with inclusive mindsets that promote dialogue, debate, awareness and provide space and opportunity for free speech and expression. Even as we speak about the need for safety and improved security, better law enforcement, etc….. we all know that moving towards a society of intense and perpetual surveillance is not a viable proposition. Though theoretical, the Right to the City is a good starting point for the State (especially local government) to build a relationship with citizens and radically change the way cities are governed. Idealistically, I believe that there is a collective action that can be taken to address many of the issues that we urgently need to resolve.

Yes, to remember Dec 6th is important, for me! How the Babri incident changed my world, etc

Each year on the 6th of December, newspaper editorials remind us of the Babri Masjid episode in Indian history. I can hardly believe two decades have gone by when I watched the TV screen in utter horror and heard the mixed opinions of the adults we knew and trusted. I grew up in Lucknow and my family was very much liberal and rather left of centre in their political leanings, though never directly involved with anything political. I was brought up in the post-independent ethos of secularism and socialism and held these two as non-negotiable values of life. For the most part, I still do.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement burst my ‘the world is a good place’ bubble. For the first time in my life, I realized that there very radically different belief systems at work even in my little world, that these were contradictory in nature and could create confrontational and tremendously uncomfortable situations.

I was aghast to find that ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ who I thought of as harmless and ‘nice’ were capable of unleashing a diatribe of hate against Muslims. That they had been silent so long and felt empowered to speak after the Babri Masjid incident perplexed me no end. I kept thinking whether I had simply not been exposed to that side of them, or had chosen not to see it, or had they developed these opinions overnight. I didn’t realize that this was the subtext of many conversations to come in the future, that this would test my own beliefs repeatedly, push me against the wall and take me far, far away from God as propagated by religion, any religion.

I remember watching that inflammatory CD that did the rounds at that time, the one that clearly shows BJP leaders egging on kar sevaks, and bodies being dumped in the Saryu. The inane jubilation and naked hatred, the meaninglessness of it all. The sense of jubilation around the room and the sadness in my parents’ eyes.

Life changed after Bari Masjid. No doubt about that.

So many visuals flash past me from those few weeks. No school. My attempt to visit a friend, only to find her street cordoned off by the police, curfew declared and spending many hours worrying if she was safe. The policeman ushered me away urgently and I could literally watch the tension on the other side of the barricade.

The confusion of other people my age, our hesitation in discussing any of this, not knowing what belief system the other follows. The silence. The subsequent breaking apart of a city that had lived in relative harmony for centuries. The segregation of religion, but also of class. The search for security. The changing definition of security. My people, my own, keep out the ‘other’. I wasn’t aware of all this before. I still live in acute awareness today, hoping against hope that people will rise above this and find a more meaningful way to view their lives, their world.

From a politics of exclusion to a society of inclusion and diversity: Can we move in the right direction?

It is hard to miss the irony in calling Bal Thackeray as nationalist and paying him last respects with “full state honors” considering his politics was divisive, which is what attacking immigrants from within India as outsiders certainly is. Many on twitter  and even Markandey Katju have elucidated the essential conflict between Thackeray’s propagation of the idea of ‘bhoomiputra’ or sone of the soil, and what the Indian state is founded on- a belief that everyone born in India, anywhere, is a citizen in equal right. We Indian do not know it, but we are incredibly lucky to live in a nation where moving from one city to another, from State to another, is rather easy. In fact, mobility has increased considerably over the decades alongside rapid urbanization in India. In India’s cities, most social interactions begin with an elucidation of how diverse, multilingual, multicultural we are as individuals. Our exposure to cultures within the nation that are other than the one we are born into endows upon us a certain sheen of understanding and sophistication that most of us wear with pride. Our diversity enriches us, helps us bridge gaps and find common ground, even bailing us out in adverse circumstances at work and otherwise. Or at least, that has been my experience.

Migration has been a favorite subject of study for me, for the longest time. In my view, societies within a geographical frame of reference can be categorized as those who are against immigrants and those who welcome them. Of course, the response varies from immigrants from different social classes, economic classes, caste, religion, etc. But essentially, immigrants are resented because they are perceived to impinge on resources that are scarce. And residents feel they have a higher claim on these resources (jobs, water, land, infrastructure, etc) than those coming in from the outside. Yet, migrants come in to fill specific needs that the city/region is unable to meet with the existing resources. Unless there is opportunity, migrants would not come in. Governments and private investment create an economic climate that attracts migrants; and measures to keep migrants out through artificial means (not allowing land/residency rights like in China, quotas for jobs) are simply illogical in a nation like India where the Constitution confers equal rights on all citizens irrespective of state of origin.

We are therefore obliged to develop an inclusive approach to people from diverse backgrounds. A rational approach to the conservation, allocation and management of resources is a better way to deal with the issues that are arising than using violence to exclude some and favor others.

Of course, the matter of identity is one that is emotionally charged. To manage the sense of identity in a globalizing world where mobility and migration are only going to increase, is a serious challenge. This, more than others, is an intensely political issue and political parties worldwide have always been quick to step into this space and play with people’s minds and hearts. It is very easy to succumb to the psyche of fear and believe that our best way forward is to protect ourselves and ‘our own’, while pushing ‘others’ away. However, our lives are too intertwined to be able to define who is who- who is ‘apna’ and who is ‘paraiah’. Those definitions change with age, exposure, circumstance, sometimes even from day to day.

Of late, I have been gripped by the fear that India is imploding, that we are disintegrating into a chaotic state where we will no longer be able to make sense of our world. That we are moving into a psyche of fear and paranoia, a state of mind to which communalism, regionalism, casteism and any kind of similar ‘ism’ appears like a safe refuge from the ‘other’.

I want to desperately fight for the last breaths of fresh, rational, liberal air. I want to believe that the democratic tools that we are lucky to be entitled to can give us a way out of the chaos. I want to know if India’s liberal voices can become more politically engaged and move beyond intellectual debate, which is very important indeed. But we do need to do more. We need to make the tone of discussion and engagement calmer, move away from the shrill shrieking finger-pointing circus that politics and media have become and address real issues, make sense of the chaos for ourselves and motivate people around to do so as well. That is the only way forward that makes sense to me at this point.

Feminism ahoy! We need more brave, outspoken women to inspire a contemporary feminist wave in India

This was a strong strain at THiNK2012. Shoma Chaudhry at one point actually said the audience had been complaining about it! We aren’t really comfortable with feminism are we? Well, I am, and increasingly so. That does not mean I think women must become like men, nor does it mean that men must defer to women, though most sensible ones do for obvious reasons!

For starters, I think we misunderstand feminism considerably and have a fuzzy idea of what it entails. The fact is that like any other movement, feminism has evolved over the decades. In its current form, the movement rejects absolute definitions of what being a feminist is, and includes the experiences of women from diverse racial, ethnic and class backgrounds.

I had a chat with Mona Eltahawy, a prominent figure in the activism related to restoring democracy in Egypt, a feminist and a grassroots leader. The experiences she shared silenced the audience into a hush. She was herself a subject of brutal sexual assault and threatened gang rape by the Egyptian police in the wake of the Tahrir Square liberation. She told us that women activists were picked up en masse and assaulted, raped, beaten into silence. And this continues. Horrifying? Well, just as horrifying as the rapes in Haryana, which aren’t political, but born out a deep sense of male superiority. Apparently it is fine to believe that women can be beaten and raped into silence.

Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian activist and feminist, set me thinking about what it means to stand up to the unequal norms in our society

I agree with Mona’s appeal that women must speak out and I admire her bravery for being able to do so again and again. I was rivetted when she declared “The shame was that of my assaulters, not mine!” It is terribly hard for women to believe that, but we must if we are to lead dignified lives.

I was also struck by the parallels between what is happening in Egypt and in the part of India where I live. The constituent assembly in Egypt, which is rewriting the country’s constitution, has suggested bringing down the marriageable age for women to, hold your breath, nine! Thos violates all child rights norms, conventions, treaties and is downright inhuman. Like many khap panchayat leaders in Haryana, these guys seem to not have heard of marital rape. To think that a woman can only exist under the protection of a man is regressive and reprehensible. Women must speak, write and stand up against it. For starters, those of us who consider ourselves liberated must stop thinking and living within this disgusting framework (yes we do, we all still do in some ways). Perhaps if we can negotiate our own balance, we could dream of a world in which women are respected and treated as equals.

THiNK2012 and how it opened my mind- Nov 6, 2012

It’s been hard to explain to friends and relations in Goa (and elsewhere) what exactly the Thinkfest is all about and why I would come all the way to sit for three days through this conference that is not directly related to my work! See, that’s the thing. It’s hard to say what is and what isn’t related to my work. In a sense, everything is inter-related and that is exactly why, at the Thinkfest, you can strike up conversations with people from very different backgrounds and make sense of those! Everyone here is in a mode of looking at the world as a continuum, as a complex arrangement of connected ideas and cultures, as a world in which any two people can find something in common with each other.

Today, after the deluge of lectures and panel discussions that have flooded my mind with information, ideas and controversial conversations has sunk in, I really wonder what is it that I am going back with. Here’s an attempt to synthesize some of the takeaways, for me.

The silos in our heads: They need to be broken every now and then, but they exist for a reason. I find that no matter how broad minded I may be or how radical the thoughts I am exposed to, I continue to look at everything through the social and political lens that is fitted inside my head. That lens was forming when I was a child and was fairly hardened even in my early twenties. It’s darned hard to change it now. For instance, my parents were rather staunch Congress supporters and we have always had a slightly off the centre thinking in our family. Today, I am being forced to deconstruct this in my head. The left off centre is promoting reforms that traditionally seem extremely right, the right is opposing the idea of free markets. In India, being neutral about religion actually just puts you out of the framework, everything is so linked to the religious divides. And to add to matters, living on one side of the class divide and empathizing with the other really leave you nowhere. Yes, that’s me. The one who feels like I belong nowhere and yet want a say, albeit a tiny one, in deciding the future for my country. And so, being in a silo can give you the sort of leverage that no man’s land never will!

The heart and the head: Many talks at Think2012 moved the audience to tears. The adivasi girl Kamla Kaka spoke about police atrocities from a very personal perspective. The police fired at a village meeting that was being held to plan a harvest festival because they misunderstood it as a meeting of Naxals. That wasn’t all. She told us how they treated them, did not return dead bodies for an entire day, threatened them, came back and then killed another man, did not let a women go back to her newborn baby while she was returning from the fields, threatened rape and assault on the women….we had tears rolling down all of us, men included, industrialists and bureaucrats included, but what can we do, how do you make sense of a State that has different rules for difference classes of citizens? Then when I see Baba Ramdev say on TV that the Congress is bought over by big industrialists, I am forced to wonder….

Yes, we do use our head to make sense of things, but our hearts must drive our judgement as well. When tears stream down, you must recognize that injustice has been done. Then make sense of the different voices in the fray.

Indian morality: Think2012 consciously tried to break the mold of middle class Indian morality that is rather on the prudish side. Erica Jong said fuck a million times during her interview, and that somehow diminished the value of what she said for many among the audience. Of course, she says this for effect, but where she comes from and with the life she has led. But somehow, it was ok when Sir Bob Geldof, legendary rockstar and philanthropist, did the same. To be fair, he said fuck only half a million times, but even so, I see a really chauvinistic pattern here.

Sex in itself did not offend the rather elite crowd at Think2012, but a feminist talking about sex did! Being immoral and feminist and female, that was too much for the guys to take. The women mostly loved Erica AND Bob!

I have a lot more to share and everyone will have to bear with my post-THiNK rants for some more days.