There’s enough to go around, folks!

Writes Bob Cesca on the Huff Post blog about hor Martin Luther King’s dream is still, well a dream: ‘The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, called “neo-slavery.” Beginning in the late 19th century through World War II, various Jim Crow laws required that African-Americans carry pay stubs or, if they were lucky, a letter from an employer; some form of evidence proving to a police officer that they had a job.’

He goes to note that recent laws that enable arbitrary stopping and frisking, demand of immigration papers and Voter IDs in some cities and States in the US are just modern versions of the same sort of discriminatory laws used against African Americans earlier.

In India too, the urban poor are often stopped randomly and asked for identity or employment papers. Indeed, there are drives to ensure that employment is not offered without police verification about the citizenship of the employee. Whereas in the US,a defaulter would end up in jail, in Indian cities he doles out bribes to police constables and carries on, further embittered and impoverished.

Colonialism, racism- we never defeated them. They are here in other virulent forms. Class bias, insecurity tantamount to paranoia fuel discrimination perhaps more widespread than ever in human history. Clearly, with resources perceived as limited and a general fear psychosis across the planet as economies limp along, we are not moving toward a society of increased justice and tolerance.

So what must we do about it? How do we teach our children to think beyond the confines of the war all around us? If we don’t, aren’t we signing away the last opportunities to enjoy our beautiful world?

I told Aadyaa a story about a carnivorous plant last night. She was really upset with the idea that a beautiful flower could snap up a butterfly! Stung by the unfairness of this, she struggled as Udai and me tried to explain the concept of survival and the food chain. Overpowering and annihilating another creature for survival is so fundamentally different from doing it for malicious ends. And then, I thought, we believe we are in a race for survival in which there isn’t enough to hate with the ‘other’!

It really isn’t that dismal folks! There is enough to go around if we can be rational and logical about our needs, place the best human values at the core and collaborate to achieve breakthrough solutions to problems.

Mumbai eating! The communal dining experience at LPQ

I cannot stop gushing about my weekend trip to Mumbai with the kids and I truly apologize for those who are getting sick of it. But there are a couple of more fun things that are share-worthy, so bear with me!

After the Elephanta trudge, Rachna introduced us to this really neat place Bombay-ites speak of fondly. LPQ is La Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain started by Alain Coumont with the simple objective of serving healthy, tasty, fresh bread. The food was delicious indeed, supposedly locally sourced and organic, superbly put together and subtle in its flavours. We ate tartines, grilled fish and lots of bread plus the delectable apple crumb, entrenched in the memory of my taste buds!

But what really stood out was the experience of communal dining that LPQ offers. They asked us if we wanted to sit at the communal table when we entered and it seemed like a fun idea. I didn’t expect much, however. Perhaps being a Dilliwali I thought it would just be a formality with people continuing to interact within their own groups. Boy, was I wrong!

Within the first few minutes, I had made my first eye contact with a dignified lady who was eating alone near our seats. I think she was amused by my smart-alecy reply to Aadyaa’s smart-alecy question, I forget what it was. Many smiles flew back and forth.

After a bit, a young mother and her cute son moved from a separate table onto the communal one. Soon enough, the kiddo was commenting on what we were doing and saying. Then he threw some question at Aadyaa, she answered back with some help from me on how to frame sentences in English, Hindi being her first language. Soon, the two kids were chattering away and strolling through the space and they had successfully broken the ice for the grown-ups to chat. An elderly couple (European, I thought) across from the young mommy wanted to know what she was drinking, and a lively discussion on drinks ensued with us listening in.

We must have spent two hours plus there, nibbling away at our food, chatting, laughing, just being. Got me thinking about how insular we are usually, going out to eat and only talking to the people we already know really well. Sometimes even hesitating to smile at strangers, avoiding eye contact even; or rather, not bothering to seek out contact. I am always having fun smiling at strangers and seeing how they will react. Some return surprised hesitant smiles, some broad ones and others just stare back. It’s entertaining. At LPG, however, things are set up so you broaden your social world and it’s a great thing! I found this article about communal dining that lists its pros and cons, for those of you who want to know more (there is an entire coffee table book on Alan Coumont’s philosophy at LPQ, fascinating!). Personally, I quite enjoyed the experience and would be excited to try out other communal dining restaurants in my future travels.

Udai, engrossed in getting his lemonade just right!

Udai, engrossed in getting his lemonade just right!

Nupur watches

Nupur watches

Noses inside the menu...Boy, were we hungry!

Noses inside the menu…Boy, were we hungry!

The communal dining table

The communal dining table

Aadyaa's friend

Aadyaa’s friend

Two imps with a slate, having a great time on the steps....

Two imps with a slate, having a great time on the steps….

 

Let the movies be! Curtailing artistic freedom is not the answer to the world’s ills

Does watching violent movies inspire violence in the real world?

Most of us seem to think that crazy people will find something or the other to inspire them to acts of violence. I chose that option over ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but I don’t really think it is as simple as that.

There is a complex web of cause and effect in this world of ours, so much so that the dog is eating its own tail at times and at others, several dogs are eating several tails, but no one knows which is whose tail! Sounds complicated? Forget it. Let me come to the point.

Films do contain violence. In some cases, it reflects the violence in the real world. At other times, violence is used as a tool to drive home a point important to the film’s plot. It is hard to make a judgement on how much violence is appropriate.

In India, where I live, the depiction of violence in cinema has been an issue of much debate and crime and violence in general are a growing concern. Yet, some recent Indian films have opted to depict violence for specific purposes. For instance, the violence and the matter-of-fact tone in which it was used in the 2-part film ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ by Anurag Kashyap effectively conveyed to the viewer the geographical, social and historical context in which the film was set. This was important because Kashyap envisaged the consumer of the film to be largely urban, whereas the story was set in a specific period of history in a lesser known mofussil town.

As an urban audience, I found the violence justified and appealing in the context of this film, but many I know disagreed profoundly with the constant violence depicted. In a nation of largely young people, they argued, where movies captured the imagination of the youth to the extent that they lead double lives of reality and fantasy via films, films can be used to justify or even enhance the status of violence! This is like saying porn makes people sex hungry, or showing good food in films makes people eat more and become obese, and so on and so forth.

Films have emerged as a rich source of entertainment as well as information in the modern world. In our present culture, we turn to the movies not just to pass our time, but also to understand a situation better or to simply gain a unique insight. We appreciate the quirkiness of certain films and the thoroughness of others. Most of the time, we understand that what we are seeing is an artistic work to be viewed as just that. But not always, argue those who believe in the idea that controlling content is the way forward, and I agree that a nature bunch of consumers would be an ideal situation. Too ideal, perhaps?

Like any other medium of art, cinema will elicit a variety of reactions and indeed, that is the very purpose of its creation. For that matter, many other forms of art- photographs, paintings, drama, dance, music- can express violence too. Would we consider they too incite violent thoughts or behavior? Answering this in the affirmative would only imply a massive curtailment of artistic freedom, with disastrous consequences. Instead, I would say, bring on the variety. Let’s consume more of all types of artistic expression, talk, debate, enjoy and let people self select the wheat from the chaff!

The larger question: What are our strategies for survival as a society- vilification or empathy, us or ‘them’, paranoia or rationality?

I read this morning with mixed feelings about the arrest of an illiterate teenager from Bihar who is the co-accused in the latest shocking—no, deeply saddening—rape of a five year old in East Delhi’s Gandhinagar area. Of course I am happy that the perpetrators are being brought to book. But just for a moment and because I have been intensely interacting with migrant workers in low-income communities, I thought this through from Pradeep’s point of view.

Getting into the perp’s mind, for a moment

Illiterate, with no opportunities in his village, Pradeep moves from city to city finding work on construction sites. He lives away from the social fabric he has grown up in. He has to make new friends wherever he goes. Violence, as Nilanjana Roy’s editorial in The Hindu yesterday points out so well, is an inevitable and integral part of his life. Several times has he had to fight for survival against cheats, sexual predators, thieves, rivals at work. His self-esteem is often eroded and no normal family life exists to restore the balance. And then, of course, there is his daily search for livelihood. A daily struggle for basic needs- water, toilets, food. Shelter, a rented room shared with any others, is just a place to sleep, offering no solace. Entertainment is film music, songs from back home traded through memory cards and heard on the phone, B grade flicks watched on the phone. Images of sex flood his mind. He has little or no sexual opportunities. He has little or no economic opportunities, no real skills, no value, no real self-worth. Soon his family back home will find him a wife. More responsibility, still very little income. He has no future. He just has to get on with life. And yet, he aspires to live well. In his imagination, like the heroes of the movies he watches, he finds wealth, love, sex, power and popularity. In reality, he is less than a Nobody. Starved even of dreaming with a semblance of hope, in a moment of depravity, he finds the most vulnerable target and an act of thoughtless unpardonable violence follows.

The gravest crime

I am not advocating for Pradeep. I am only saying that the problem is of a magnitude so large that we are unable to comprehend it. We are breeding millions of Pradeep’s in our country and as a nation, our crime against them of offering them promises that we cannot deliver is the gravest one yet.

Let me explain. In an evangelist mode, we have enacted the Right to Education. Our public, private and non-profit institutions have drilled the importance of education into our citizens. Yet, we are unable to provide the education we advocate is necessary for every child. In my fieldwork among migrant families in Gurgaon, I repeatedly see parents save and scrounge to send their children to schools that often are not even registered institutions! Further, we are unable to provide meaningful and dignified employment opportunities for those who emerge from or fall out of this less-then-efficient education system.

Many young people are resorting to migration as a means of economic survival, and this has been well established by leading economists like Kundu. The inability of agriculture to support rural families, the lack of non-agricultural employment in villages and the lure of economic growth that is concentrated in urban centers all contribute to the massive internal migration India is experience.

 Need to understand the migrant experience

A part of my mixed reaction to today’s news was that, until now, voices in the media were not vilifying the other, that favourite scapegoat, the migrant. Perhaps it is a small indication that the phenomenon of migration has become an accepted and inescapable reality. This is a migration necessary to sustain the economy, but it is also a migration that renders a large section of our population without rights and without identity. Migrants find little recognition in public policy except as the ‘other’.

The intense alienation and confusion that are characteristic of the migrant experience, especially among youth, is no small factor in understanding the crime statistics in our cities. The intangible is easy to ignore, but only in understanding these psychosocial phenomenon, in listening and analyzing the thousands of stories that migrants can tell, can we hope to ease their transition and lift them from the sheer hopelessness they feel and that triggers depraved and abnormal behavior in these young men (and women).

Taking a call: Barbarism vs humanity

What must be going through Pradeep’s mind as he awaits his transfer to Delhi and a confrontation with his partner-in-crime Manoj? Does he feel shame, revulsion, remorse? Does he see his entire life flash before his eyes? Does he imagine the grief of his mother? Does he understand how the nation is reacting to what he has done? Does he hear people baying for his blood?

I just finished reading another book of Alex Rutherford’s series on the Mughal emperors, who meted out the most barbaric punishments to traitors in order to deter any others who might contemplate treachery. Perhaps their times demanded such barbarism and violence. It pains me to hear those who denounce the Islamic invaders as barbaric and hold up the superiority of the Hindu civilization as examples of ‘Ram Rajya’ propose the exact same measures to punish rapists and sex offenders. Clearly, these leaders and organizations do not think we have evolved or need to evolve.

Many other ways to address the issue of punishment have been discussed infinitely in the press and blogosphere since December 2012 and there is sufficient evidence worldwide that disproves the theory that the death sentence, castration and other barbaric means to deal with convicts deter future offenders. However, just as there has been little finger pointing to the fact that the miscreants are migrants, there is also very insufficient debate on the preventive measures we need to take to prevent future crimes—how migrants are to be offered opportunities to assimilate with the society they choose to live in; how communities are to find mechanisms to educate their children about sexual predators and how they are to deal with those who exhibit predatory behavior, for instance. If we were to work to reduce the huge amounts of stress and insecurity in our society rather than do all we can to fuel these feelings, wouldn’t we all be better off?

The larger question: My survival or ours?

I saw my daughter Aadyaa off as she got on the school bus this morning. She is five. Innocent, with a huge zest for life and unlimited energy, she waved her goodbyes with a twinkle in her eyes. Inadvertently, I shuddered at the thought of something terrible happening to her that would destroy her innocence forever. Even something as small as a touch or glance could do that damage and that moment will come, sooner or later, I know. But let me not make it worse by feeding her with suspicion and paranoia. Let me believe that most people are good. I intend to take her and my son Udai on my interactions with migrants later this month, to see for themselves how other people live and work, deal with problems in their lives, how they are as normal as we are in what they wish for, in how they struggle to reconcile their dreams with their realities (except that the difference between the two is achievable for us and impossible for them). I hope that, as they grow, they will discover that there are beasts among us, aberrant personalities that have tipped over and fallen out of line. I hope they understand that they need our help and our empathy more than they need our hatred. How do they learn this even as they learn to protect themselves and fight for survival? That’s the larger question that we are dealing with, isn’t it?

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.

Our voices and efforts can make a difference: Let’s keep fighting! #Delhirapecase

There has been much banter on social networks, much outrage and genuine frustration, a lot of noise, a multitude of voices reacting to the Delhi gang rape. The incident is being seen as shameful, rightfully so; Dilliwalas are feeling ashamed and angry at having to feel so, people from other identities who reside in Dilli have felt a tad better shrugging and being patronizing about being from elsewhere. And so it goes on.

For many of us, the real point of frustration is that this incident will go off the radar and be relegated to the back of people’s minds. Yes, it will happen. Society and human memory are known to be fickle. However, there is a point to making a hue and cry about things. There is a point to signing petitions and participating in protest marches. For all of us who sit in the comfort of our homes, clicking ‘likes’ on FB and feeling frustrated that our genuine outrage will amount to naught, we should not feel so terrible.

First of all, speaking out and putting yourself out of your comfort zone to think about issues that are not immediately impacting you, but could, is a first step to engagement with social issues. In a new way, this sort of engagement spawns new tools for democracies to function. Strong voices emerge that pressurize authorities to take action. Whatever may be our opinion about the actions taken in the short term, the hue and cry has jolted the government into releasing some rules that could be the beginning of a system of checks and balances. Much more needs to be done and civil society is taking up these aspects vehemently. For instance, today’s reports suggest that schools should verify the drivers and staff for buses and otherwise and report and irregularities to the owners/contractors or police. In my children’s school, we recently had an incidence of drunken driving and made the same suggestion to the school. Clearly, preventive measures and checks to identify repeat offenders and remove malfunctioning individuals from positions of responsibility are one way ahead.

On a larger scale, pressure from civil society can lead to convictions and impact judges to change verdicts to harsher ones. The Jessica Lall case, for instance, set a precedent for influential offenders to be brought to book. In law, as I understand it, precedence is an important aspect. So if someone is given a harsher sentence for a rape for this case, it will pave the way for harsher sentences to be given in the future for similar cases. The point I am making is that every little step goes a long way. We need to believe in the power of our efforts, however small, to create change. We need to protect ourselves from cynical dismissal, we need to not give up the fight. Most vitally, while we continue with efforts that address symptomatic problems, we need to broaden our efforts to impact the root causes, which might appear complex but could generate better results over time. Hence, education and awareness, changes in the law and policy, stronger processes are all essential aspects that we can also contribute to. And should, even after this incident has been buried in public memory, to create better cities for us to live in.

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.

Of sexual repression and the search for a new freedom @THiNK2012

Christopher Turner. A session on psychoanalysis for the 21st century. Rather refreshing. Here are a few random thoughts…

When Tarun asks Christopher why a Brit academician turned to investigating matters of sex, Chris actually blushes. Yes, he turns beet red!

When asked is his family disapproved, he says he is glad his family doesn’t read everything he writes!

We all fight our own battles of sexual repression. In every culture, in every time. To me, sexual repression is something we need to take seriously here in India. I live in Gurgaon, Haryana. Yes, that place where all the rapes are happening! Where rape is almost condoned.

Of course I know that rape is a form of releasing anger and exhibiting power; but there is something in the theory that if sex were most accessible, rape would not be that default form of expression it seems to be becoming in parts of the nation where women are right at the bottom of the pecking order!

What is it about sexual liberation that threatens the very core of our culture, here in India? Where the sexual liberation is happening right now in our cities. Children as young as eight are in the know about sex. I doubt the idea of sex would surprise my own son. The other day, I was chatting online with someone who reads my blog often. I don’t know this guy personally, but he pops up now and then to have random conversations with me. But this day, he asked me if I had done it before marriage! I was taken aback, but more amused than shocked. What do you even say to someone who is asking for such personal details? I didn’t think it as intrusive, rather it seemed like he was really struggling with this idea of how to contextualize sex in his life. It’s a struggle many young people from traditional backgrounds need to resolve for themselves.

Chris talks about advertising using the sexual revolution to sell stuff! Well, that’s proof that we are having this revolution in India. Think Axe Deo, car brands, chocoloate, fairness creams, anything and everything uses sex to sell it!

Another thing. Chris says- Intellectuals can’t have good orgasms! I’m wondering about that. Somehow it makes sense. Intellectuals cannot truly enjoy anything. They are so busy analyzing the present, they cannot really experience the now in a spontaneous manner. Same goes for sex perhaps. But maybe they can have an intellectual orgasm with their partners and methinks, that might be doubly pleasurable!

Can’t let FB replace real contact: Am resolving to call and meet the people that matter to me this festive season- Oct 19, 2012

I love social networking, but I realized how much it had changed my life when I caught up with a dear friend recently. She is not active on Facebook. In fact, she is only comfortable with visits and phone calls. Even sms and email is a no-no. In a way, she is how we are were before the communication madness hit the world.

This friend and I go back a long way to a time when we were snivelling, crazy children in primary school. We were a riot. Parents would be looking high and low for us while we played ghar-ghar under some row of bushes somewhere, or up in one corner of the terrace! We fought, we yelled, we played and we were mostly inseparable for some four years of our lives way back in Parel, Mumbai.

Yes, that was a different place, a different time. A world gone by. A world in which a landline phone was a luxury. And letters and occasional phone calls were how people communicated. Friends met up, like face-to-face met up, all the time. Despite lives being equally busy, I remember my parents took out a lot of time for meeting family and friends for outings, dinners, walks, or even just a cup of tea in each other’s homes.

So this friend and I live in the same city, sort of. She lives in Delhi, I love in Gurgaon. We speak on an average once a month, usually when one of her children is ill and she is stressed out. When you know someone else for most of your life, just speaking with them is comforting. So yes, we use each other as support, to boost our morale when we are down or simply to let off steam when we are mad.

We meet a couple of times a year. And we have no contact in any other way. No FB, no sms, no BBM, nothing. That seems strange at times. So many people who are merely acquaintances are reading my status updates and blog entries, looking at pictures of my children. They know about what’s happening in my life. I meet them and they comment on some pic they liked or someplace we had been to. And this best friend from my childhood is oblivious to the details of my life.

When we meet, the catching up is very very real, intense and pleasurable. We actually have to fill in for things that have happened over months. We have to share our ups and downs, our state of mind. We have to indulge in nostalgia, laugh about old incidents, discuss the health of our parents and children, remember my father’s fun loving ways (he was a big factor in both our lives).

But it’s not only the exchange of information that enriches the meeting. It’s the joy we feel at seeing each other…I love the familiarity of her voice, the expressions that flit across her face, the idiosyncrasies that are so endearing, the comfort that she knows me so well that I can say anything I feel and get away with it….it’s a different sort of joy from seeing a friend’s picture on Facebook or exchanging an email. Nothing substitutes for real contact, no matter how much pleasure we get from virtual interactions.

Of course, I am glad social networks exist we can connect to many more people. But because we have an easy way out, we don’t make the effort any more. A few other friends, who also still believe in the traditional modes of contact, continue to call and speak to me a few times a year. And I love those conversations. But I find I hardly ever make a random call to a friend nowadays. That act has been replaced with writing on someone’s wall. And at times, when I am down and out and just want to reach out, I find I am inhibited and don’t make that call I badly need to cheer me up. I end up thinking I have very few close friends and wallow in self pity for some time. But the truth is that I am ashamed to call a friend to whine when I haven’t called her in ages to just catch up! And it simply won’t do to whine on FB, would it?

Social networking has, in a sense, replaced quality with quantity. And sometimes that’s not such a good thing. So here’s to making a renewed effort to call and meet the people I think matter in my life! And what better time of the year to start than in the festive season…

Violence is an easy answer when real issues go unaddressed: Cases of South Africa & India- Oct 9, 2012

J M Coetze’s Booker winning book ‘Disgrace’ is deeply disturbing. It tells the story of the cultural backlash against whites in South Africa. The story caused me to have violent and dark nightmares because of the matter of fact reactions of the “victims” of violence, in this case a middle aged man and his young daughter. I finished the book last evening in a grim mood, wondering how it would be to live in a society where being safe was apparently not even a right any more.

Today, on cue as it has happened often enough lately, The Hindu carries an editorial by Anita Lakshmni Powell titled ‘Bring my my machine gun’ about the violence in South Africa. Shocking stats: One of 4 men in a nation of 50 million admitted to committing rape, half of them say they’ve done it more than once. Murder is commonplace; the police system reports one million unsolved murders a year!

A report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation report, released in 2010 claims that violence is cheap, easy and the thing that works, the only answer where there are none. The report draws strong correlations with the disbalance is South African society (SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.7 in 2008;  the top 10% of the population accounted for 58% of South Africa’s income, the bottom 10% accounted for 0.5% and the bottom 50% less than 8%, as per a  recently released World Bank report). A quarter of South Africans are unemployed and traditional routes to prosperity, like education, simply aren’t working well enough.

To me, all of this sounds scarily familiar. Unemployment, growing disparities, rampant violence, rape as a means of expressing frustration, hatred, rage…..we see this all around us. And a weak policing system, a judiciary that simply cannot cope, political apathy.Is this where pockets of our country are going as well (13 rapes in Haryana within a month!)? Is India destined to be a violent nation? Will we also be no longer able to step out of our homes without fear? Will our children live a gated, over-protected life and never experience freedom, for fear of reprisal from their youthful counterparts who happened to be born on the other side of the social divide?

The real bad news in South Africa, the editorial claims, is that violence is a language that was endorsed as the rightful means for recourse even during the anti-apartheid movement. The establishment turns a blind eye to violence and politicians glorify violence in their campaigns. Violence is culturally acceptable.

Fortunately for us, we did not win our freedom through violent means, but the aftermath of Independence saw a nation steeped in blood and gore. Our system still frowns on violence and there is no social endorsement yet for it. In SA, a gang rape of a mentally deficient girl was distributed brazenly as a video on mobile phone; here rapists still try and run away from the law. But that’s neither here nor there. Increasingly, we are become inured to violence and perpetrators are becoming bolder. Increasingly, we want to believe that the bad things happen to someone else and live in fear of becoming victims. The larger issues are taking way too long to be addressed and in the meantime, paranoia is taking hold of our society.

The South African experience should be a wake up call for us. Inclusiveness is not a warm and fuzzy type of concept that idealists (like me, I have been told recently and yes, I am a bit angry about that) promote. Inclusiveness is a necessity, so that we do not become an inhuman, abnormal, highly stressed and unworkable society. Equal opportunity, as much as possible at least, regardless of religion (ref: Sachar Committee report), caste, ethnicity, gender, income level, is the goal we must adopt, as a nation. Otherwise, we are doomed indeed. I shudder, I hope. I fervently hope for change.