Progressive India and Social Media

In 2005, when I was an undergrad at JUDE, our canny Registrar went on a holiday, and in the absence of his velvet-covered iron gloves, things fell apart spectacularly. What could have been a small matter, easily handled, became a scandal of novella proportions.

Plotwise, 2005 was almost exactly similar to 2014: legitimate problem, indifferent admin, discontent students, peaceful sit-ins, marauding police force under cover of night. What is different, though, is the reaction of the people.

Back in oh-five, watching the news was hard for us. In the absence of social media, we could only converse with the public via the media houses, and they exploited this power to the full, letting through only the most incendiary edits of interviews, conversations and audience-response. Their TRPs soared, and at the end of the first two days, there was no doubt in the minds of middle-class deltaic Bengal that JU students were spoilt, elitist, alcoholic, drug-peddling, violent colonial dregs in constant state of sexual indulgence.
Similarly, there was little doubt in ours that we were adrift in a regressive, authoritarian and violent society that was hysterically obsessed with our imagined ‘western’ lifestyle because it was too dumb or too indifferent to the violation of our rights and bodies. Almost all of us reported to being grilled by our neighbours and families about “what really happened”. Some of us had scared parents attempting to keep us away from campus.

Imagine my delight and joy when, this time, I saw social media flooded with supportive comments and pledges of solidarity with the students. In eight intervening years, the people have found a platform for their voice, and the media has had to stop defaulting to slut-shaming female students, belittling their concerns, and labelling them agents of violent political militia.

It speaks volumes of great stuff for Calcutta (and Bengal overall) that its residents are contradicting, challenging and openly shaming the city police force on their Facebook page without the comforting veil of anonymity. It’s even more euphoric – yes, euphoric – to see the old popular defaults being trotted out after two full days of fulsome support, as a last-ditch smear effort… and being mocked and shouted down by people who, from their profile pages, appear otherwise conservative citizens.

It’s not true that every dark cloud has a silver – that’s just a silly platitude – but damned if this one wasn’t just shading the whole big sun.

How to Manage the Media: A Guide for India

An interesting aspect of the police brutality at Jadavpur University today has been the response of West Bengal’s most powerful media house’s response to it. As my former classmate and friends SD and PP have pointed out (that latter rather colourfully, much to my delight), the ABP house – as evinced by their print reportage in the Anadabazar Patrika – first chose to speak of the protesting students as a disturbant, a ticking bomb, a threat imminent to ‘shikkhajogot’ (the world/sphere of education).

Then, this morning, the mob that aided the police in beating up and molesting the students made the mistake of being carried away by their licence to violate, and assaulted a Star Ananda journalist (Star Ananda being the house’s television channel). And ABP instantly snapped around and bit a chunk off its former allies.

Of course, in the coming days the state shall broker peace with ABP, and after a few TRP-boosting stunts (perhaps a few studio debates, a special report on campus violence and gendered crimes), ABP will drop the matter completely. But the lesson helmspeople of the Indian state need to learn, once and for all, is that the media is not the same as party cadres. Their loyalty, when not backed by cash or other tradable commodities, is revoked when a kick is delivered to their groins. Unlike the junior cadet waiting to rise in ranks or the senior member waiting for their next ticket, they don’t accept it as a regrettable accident in a mêlée. Besides, attacks on journalists will give media houses higher viewership than parroting a party line anyway.

So be nice to your media partners, parties. It’s part of their payoff package. And breaking the deal will cost you.

Same Old Spilled Blood

This morning, I woke up at 5:30 to be greeted by the news of brutal police assault on Jadavpur University students just three hours prior. One person is in coma, female students had their clothes torn off, and about 30 students are in hospital. Here is a video of part of the violence, and here is a post about it.

In many ways, universities are sites of violence. Mostly, this violence is bloodless, and at an abstract or structural level, teaching young people to think in certain ways that either serve or superficially disrupt systems of power (the government, the market, social mores). In India, however, the violence on campus often takes a more literal form. Inexpensive state-aided universities are where many meet experience diversity for the first time. They meet and socialise with people from different backgrounds, conflicting, discomfiting, debating, resisting, and melding with one another. In a country that offers as much diversity as India to this scenario, this makes the university an institution of great political potency. It is little wonder, then, that most university admins in this country choose to remain authoritarian and ‘traditional'; it provides them with a sense of stability and control, in the face of a community whose very essence, at least superficially, is change.

Generally, this works more or less successfully, because Indian authoritarianism prefers the ‘blind eye’ approach to the ‘ferret and punish’. Students can party, but not too loudly; students can drink, but not too much; students can smoke, if they are willing to pretend secrecy; and students can screw, if they pretend they’re not even holding hands. When students break this unspoken covenant, the administration responds either by ignoring them till they fade, exhausted, or by assaulting them till they drop, destroyed. And then things spring back to their usual form, for life, for all its violence, has great elasticity.

Occasionally, however, this elasticity should be resisted for as long as possible. Life must return to normal, but that must not mean aiding the obscuring of uncomfortable facts.

This is the third (or is it fourth?) time I have witnessed police brutality on campus. The last time things were this bloody, cops had been sneaked into campus at night to disperse a 24-hour non-violent student sit-in. Same story this time. Here’s a brief summary: today at 2AM, the police put about 30 students in the hospital, tore clothes off female protesters, arrested about 40 students, and threatened further violence if the sit-in wasn’t dispersed.

The following is a compilation of the timeline that I’ve managed to construct from online sources.

28th August: during the ongoing festival Sanskriti (note irony), a second year student from the Department of History was allegedly dragged inside a hostel and molested by a group of people within campus premises. Her male friend – not a JU student – was beaten up.

29th August: she gets in touch with the VC. He says that (a) he will need 15 days to act on the matter, (b) she should stay home for that period for ‘security issues’, and (c) he would’ve installed security cameras but students would protest. (NOTE: students did indeed protest, during my MA years, to security cams. Details on that in a forthcoming post.)

1st September: she lodges an FIR at the JU Police Station, identifying one of the alleged molesters. Police remains inactive.

5th September: in support, the university students organise a protest rally to Jadavpur Police Station. Same day, two alleged representatives of the University admin. pay the alleged victim a visit at home. They refuse to show identification and question her clothing and sobriety on the night of the alleged assault. This is a violation of the Vishakha guidelines that assert that there should be no external pressure either on the victim or the accused during the investigating procedure.

8th September: students organised a protest rally to the VC’s office, demanding to know the Uni’s victim-blaming stance. The ICC (Internal Complaint Cell), charged with the investigation, refuse to make a public statement. The students’ rep to the ICC, also the GS of AFSU, (Arts Faculty Students’ Union), resigns from her post in protest, citing a biased investigation. In response, the students decide they will not let the ICC leave campus till they’ve opened dialogue on the matter. Finally, three student reps are allowed an audience with the ICC. The ICC denies bias, and urges the students to not sensationalise the matter by speaking to the media.

9th September: speaking to a daily, an ICC rep. claims she was assaulted (kicked, strangled) by students while leaving the building. Students, however, claim that they had only formed a human barricade, and that un-uniformed men arrived to provide protection to the ICC, and they assaulted all students, irrespective of gender.

10th September: students decide on an indefinite sit-down at Aurobindo Bhavan, the uni admin. building. Later they decide to petition the Chancellor to set up an independent investigative committe, since the ICC has violated the Vishakha, attempted to pressure the alleged victim, and is accused of bias. The VC states he will ask for police intervention on campus. Police does arrive and attempts to intimidate students sitting in.

Jump to 17th September: news breaks that after a week of protest, police were brought into the uni tonight at around 2AM, with men identified as TMC goons (not sure about the authenticity of this identification). They assaulted the sit-in brutally, landing some 35 students in hospital, including one who is reportedly now in coma. 40 more were arrested. The RAF (Rapid Action Force) was also visible, and the police has threatened further violence if students will not disperse.

Rural Bengal in Bombay

I started a crowd-sourced project on this blog and on Facebook, about spatial memories. Predictably, absolutely no one responded to the blog, and lots of people embraced the idea on Facebook. Owing to various things – chiefly embarrassment at having to claim ownership of something actually successful – I avoided the Facebook page for ages. Today, however, having woken up uncharacteristically early, I was driven to finally read the stories people posted on the group. Here’s why.

My family had a couple of houses in Jhargram. Well, we had considerably more than a couple of houses, the entire market was built on land my great-grandfather donated from the family estate, but by the time we came along it was just a house on my grandfather’s side, and a house on my grandmother’s. The grandfatherly house had permanent residents (cousins of my mother), so whenever we visited – and it was rare, because the annual Durga pujas has stopped by then – we stayed at the maternal abode. This morning reminds me of those mornings: the sense of clarity and peace the coolness of dawn brings, especially when it’s punctuated with stray crow-call sand the sound of brooms hitting the ground. The gold-edged eastern leaves and grass, and the house would cast its shadow beyond the western boundary wall and onto the red road outside. A low mist would sometime hang in the distance, lending a soothing, almost physical caress to the sense of solitude in the landscape.

Going back to rotten Calcutta after living in IIT will be hard. This place, with its lakey mist and greenery, has become the vessel for so many of my blissful childhood memories, homeless for years in my loud urban life. I think we’ll stay here for as long as I can.

Book Quotes: Push by Sapphire

After ages, I have discovered a cache of e-books that were stashed for a suitably rainy day in one corner of an old storage drive, and promptly forgotten. My memory can always be counted upon to keep me from my little treats.

Anyway, Push, by Sapphire, is the first of the lot my finger landed on, and right now I am a sleep-deprived, red-eyed, shaken-and-stirred person who cannot let go of Precious Jones till the last word about and by her has been read. I’m going to keep this post open and record bits of the book that grab me especially hard, so I can have them at hand to read back later. Although it isn’t the entirety of Precious’ troubles, this book drives home the fact that ‘body image issues’ is not just code for ‘I hate that I am not thin’. It is rage against the hierarchy of genetic attributes, self-hatred for involuntary pleasure, and a desire for dissociation from one’s embodied life experience.

p. 13:
It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.

p. 35:
The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver—my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit… And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist.

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. I know who they say I am—vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

p. 35:
Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out.

p. 78:
Thas the alphabet. Twenty-six letters in all. Them letters make up words. Them words everything.

p. 130:
My clit swell up I think Daddy. Daddy sick me, disgust me, but still he sex me up. I nawshus in my stomach but hot tight in my twat and I think I want it back.

p. 135:
Ms Rain say write our fantasy of ourselves. How we would be if life was perfect. I tell you one thing right now, I would be light skinned, thereby treated right and loved by boyz. Light even more important than being skinny; you see them light-skinned girls that’s big an’ fat, they got boyfriends. Boyz overlook a lot to be wif a white girl or yellow girl, especially if it’s a boy that’s dark skin wif big lips or nose, he will go APE over yellow girl. So that’s my first fantasy, is get light.
Then I get hair. Swing job, you know like I do with my extensions, but this time it be my own hair, permanently.
Then, this part is hard to say, because so much of my heart is love for Abdul. But I be a girl or woman—yeah girl, ’cause I would still be a girl now if I hadn’t had no kids. I would be a virgin like Michael Jackson, like Madonna. I would be a different Precious Jones. My bress not be big, my bra be little ‘n pink like fashion girl. My body be like Whitney. I would be thighs not big etc etc.
I would be tight pussy girl no stretch marks and torn pussy from babies’s head bust me open.
That HURT. Hours hours push push push! Then he out, beautiful. Jus’ a beautiful baby. But I’m not.

One For the Books

It’s a rainy, booky, pots of tea day, and so I will finally try and compile that book list I’ve been asked several times to do. The request, if I remember right, was to list books that have influenced me the most. I’m not sure what that means, exactly; Sarat Chandra, for example, makes me cry buckets of easy tears, but I wouldn’t call that emotive affect an influence. And while I disliked the dry sanctimoniousness of Vidyasagar‘s Bornoporichoy [An Introduction to Letters], it influenced me immensely by basically teaching me to read and write in my own mother-tongue.

Here, then, is an exploration of the texts that have, in my rather limited reading experience, ‘influenced’ me in ways I can consciously identify.

1. Aranyak, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: the most unpretentious lyrical ode to the eastern forests and life in them, rendered in everyday prose. It is one of the most beautiful books I have been reluctant to read, because which child would willingly read a decidedly non-adventure non-sci-fi type book based in the forests of Jharkhand? In the end I read the book so many times my grandfather – whose copy it was – had to have it rebound, because the spine came off. Apart from the sneaky charm that hooks one subtly by the first twenty pages, Aranyak is also an ethnographic account of the tribal and rural life in the area, as well as a recording of caste-capitalism’s first advances into these now-ravaged lands. It is perhaps a testament to the appeal of this book that the slight factual marring, caused by the author’s social outsider status, is acceptable to most readers, when in other instances it might have been proof of narrative colonialism.

2. “Ghanada” stories, Premendra Mitra: Tenida was the house favourite when I was young, and I loved its “boys adventure tales” humour to bits, but I always, always preferred Ghanada. If one looks beyond fond nostalgia, one finds in Ghanada an enticing mix of fascinating sub-genres that were nearly absent – and certainly unnamed – in Indian literature at that time: secret/alternative history, science fiction, spy stories, political thrillers and action-adventures, with a touch of the con/heist and just a tiny dash of parodic noir. To pull this off this is impressive enough, but what recommends Ghanada even more, in my opinion, is Mitra’s dedication to scientific and historical accuracy. In an environment where even realism was not necessarily required for kishor (young adult) fiction, meticulous adherence to scientific and historical fact is absolutely admirable.

3. Michel Foucault. The structure and functions of power are always, always, at the core of anything social. To Foucault I owe confirmation of suspicions, legitimisation of lower-middle class third-world female frustration, and just the glimmer of change via policy, and policy via better understanding. I’m just going to leave it at that.

4. The Sandman (in particular “Ramadan” and “The Tempest”), Neil Gaiman: my first encounter with the reinvented comic-book format. Visually opulent and intriguingly disturbing in parts, marrying the mundane to the mythical, full of meta narratives and open endings. Absolutely the stuff I eat up every time.

5. All non-detective stories, Enid Blyton: so utterly removed from my cluttered, urban, tropical world, Blyton’s landscape of sea-fronts, tame woods, cosy villages and quaint boarding schools, magically clean and comfy barns, white Christmas, and back gardens with hidden paths enchanted me utterly. Had Blyton only written of the wonderfully strange children who lived in it – children who went to perfect little farms on Bank Holiday, picked berries from the bush, ate delicious-looking suppers at impossible times and called adults by their surnames – the books would have magical enough for me. The brownies and pixies were just an added bonus I didn’t take very seriously.

6. Rabindranath Thakur. I’ll just leave it at the name, because the spectrum of Robi Thakur’s influence on me is varied, and very wide. If I had to name names, I’d cop out cleverly by saying Sanchaita, an anthology of his poems, the collection of all his essays (even though I may not agree with every one of his assertions), and the short stories “Hoimonti”, “Streer Potro”, “Khudhito Pashan”, and for an unusual touch of horror, that story about the old, wealth-obsessed man burying his a young boy alive with all his worldly assets, so his unreleased spirit can guard it till the man’s estranged grandson can come to claim it. He only realises on his deathbed that the child he thus murdered was his grandson.

7. Upendrakishor Shomogro, Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury: this is an anthology of stories from the Vedas and Puranas, and a summarised, simplified version of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This book held me captive for weeks, after which I could quote at will from nearly all of it. This book was why I started talking to my grandfather about religion and Hinduism, and why, a few years later, began reading about ancient Hindu texts. The first-hand knowledge has stood me in good stead, especially in the current political atmosphere in India.

8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller: this book has always seemed to me to be an expanded, enriched, dipped-and-fried in cynical satire version of the essence of Langston Hughes’ much more sincere and direct poem,”Will V-Day be Me-Day Too?“. The book destroys hope in pretty much everything. And yet when you finish, you realise there’s more cause for hope in this dark, cynical book than there ever will be amongst good, subservient citizenry. Here’s a little taste:

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”

9. My old diaries, me: I discovered these while cleaning out my almirahs before moving cities. Give my utterly destroyed capacity for memory, my own young life was a revelation to me, a stranger’s stories with only vague flashes of familiarity. I was slightly disappointed to see the lack of modern identifiers of teenage and childhood from these records. I suppose the person who told my mother “Your daughter was born forty” had it right.

10. (Abol Tabol + Haw Jaw Baw Raw Law + Jhala Pala + Pagla Dashu, Sukumar Roy) + Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll: the absolute delight that is wonderfully-done nonsense and silliness, streamed through a steady narrative. And unlike Lewis Carroll – at least in my opinion – Ray’s work can be read subversively, a response to the political climate he lived and wrote in, even though he was never actively involved in political strife against the British Raj.

And here’s the bonus, because why stop at ten when eleven will bore just as well?
11. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys + Cereus Blooms At Night, Shani Mootoo + The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood + Subarnalata, Ashapurna Devi: dystopic tales centred on violated, exploited, and above all, silenced and marginalised people, most of whom happen to be women. It’s amazing when one stops and thinks how ‘natural’ the absence of these stories were for centuries, how identities lived daily couldn’t be legitimised – or even explicitly recorded – in writing. We are very much a society in denial about itself. If there was such a thing as existential therapy, we’d be on its metaphorical couch right now.

And that’s all for tonight. The dogs need airin’ and feedin’, my soul needs drinkin’, the dinner needs eatin’, and so I’m offski kitchenwards.

Yet Another Indian New Year

Oh man, is it Navroz already? How did this happen? I remember Navroz happening when I was still at my last job, and thatwas surely just a few months back!Or was it?

Time, you’d better slow down, buddy.

You know, as an Indian, I always feel we tend to hit middle-age (and pot-bellies) quicker than most because we live through a dozen new years in each calendar year. First, towards the end of our tropical winter, there’s the English or Western New Year. Everyone parties hard and eats western food, and then dead-walks back to work the next day. If you’re in the much-ignored North-east India, though, you’ll notice the fun really begins once January has properly taken hold. In Mizoram, there is something called the New Year Festival, and it takes place on the third of Jan, not the first (or even the second). I know this because they list it on the official holiday list for the state. The Naga new year Kaing Bi is further in, on the fifteenth. Rounding up January festivities comes Bam Khana Shnong, the community feast celebrated by Khasis in Meghalaya. It’s not strictly a new year, but prayers are offered at the feast for a good new year, which I understand follows closely after the feast.

February passes without event.

In March, coinciding roughly with the Bengali month Chaitra, spring sets in. Or it used to, before industrialisation killed our six-season cycle and left us with just three – hot, cool, and rainy. So anyway, around what would once have been spring, the first wave of ‘ethnic’ New Years kick in, all over the country. Telugu people celebrate Yugadi, Marathi people Gudi Padwa, Rajasthani people Thapna, Sindhi folks Cheti Chand, and Manipuri people Sajibu Nongma Pangma.

Then, when days are getting nicely sweaty and mangoes are beginning to show up in the market, my people celebrate their big day, Nawbo Borsho, along with the Punjabis (Vaisakhi), Tamils (Puthandu), and the Assamese (Rongila Bihu). I believe the Oriya Pana Sankranti also falls on this day, but I’m not completely certain.

The rest of the year goes slowly by, till we arrive at Diwali, usually in October, when Marwaris and the Gujaratis – two of the most prominent business communities in India – celebrate their new year on Diwali. Muharram also tends to fall on October, though not everybody celebrates the first day of Muharram as ‘new year’s day’.

Finally, come December, while the rest of us are still dragging the old year around, tribal communities of Tripura end theirs with Tring. And that brings us right back to the Western New Year. A year has passed, and we in India have lived through at least four sets of new years. Pat those bellies, people!

Oh, and happy Parsi New Year, everybody! I am now off to steal some of your eggs.

BONUS: Classic Parsi ‘akuri’ recipe for you lot to try at home. Go for it!


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