Live-in Ruins Careers

This is one of Markendya Katju’s least popular recent social media commentary. And that’s encouraging, because in India, people are still harassed and assaulted for the ‘indiscretion’ he counsels against here.

Screenshot of former Supreme Court justice Katju's Facebook status.

Screenshot of former Supreme Court justice Katju’s Facebook status.

This is the link to Katju’s status about withholding a deserving name from nominations for judgeship, because the person lived-in with a female lawyer, and socialised ‘openly’ as a couple. His reason? “Indian society is largely still conservative, and largely still does not approve of live in relationship, though it is not illegal.. While lawyers can have live in relationship, it is as yet not ethically permissible to Judges [sic].”

Well, here are responses from some of his followers. They are rather heartening, even if they reflect only the top, tech-savvy fraction of the urban and suburban middle-class. The country is certainly changing, if slowly and in patches.

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Lost and Found: The First Americans

Fascinating new evidence about the first Americans. I’d say this is of political as well as academic import, because there is a fringe discourse in United States politics that claims Native Americans aren’t really descendants of the ‘original’ settlers of the continent, and therefore – by strange contortion of the logic of causality – the crimes and atrocities committed against them by Spanish and English settlers should count for even less than the minute amount it already does.

The remains that prove people of Asian origin came to the US and became its first settlers were found at the bottom of an underwater cave called the Hoyo Negro. Along with human bones – that led to the reconstruction of the teenage girl Naia – the dark cave holds bones of “at least 26 Ice-age animals”. Thrilling, isn’t it? Almost like The Lost World, but this time, the real deal.

Here are crucial snapshots from the article, all taken from the National Geographic online archive.

Photograph by Timothy Archibald. Re-Creation: James Chatters, Applied Paleoscience; Tom McClelland Divers who discovered her bones named her Naia. A facial reconstruction reveals that the first Americans didn’t look much like later Native Americans, though genetic evidence confirms their common ancestry.

Photograph by Timothy Archibald. Re-Creation: James Chatters, Applied Paleoscience; Tom McClelland
Divers who discovered her bones named her Naia. A facial reconstruction reveals that the first Americans didn’t look much like later Native Americans, though genetic evidence confirms their common ancestry.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen The bones of at least 26 Ice Age animals—including those of an elephant-like gomphothere—litter the floor of Hoyo Negro.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen
The bones of at least 26 Ice Age animals—including those of an elephant-like gomphothere—litter the floor of Hoyo Negro.

Photograph by David Coventry Simple blades and other stone tools discovered at a 15,500-year-old campsite in what is now central Texas provided clinching evidence that the first Americans arrived at least 2,500 years earlier than previously thought. Chert was an essential rock for toolmaking because of the way it flakes.

Photograph by David Coventry
Simple blades and other stone tools discovered at a 15,500-year-old campsite in what is now central Texas provided clinching evidence that the first Americans arrived at least 2,500 years earlier than previously thought. Chert was an essential rock for toolmaking because of the way it flakes.

Photograph by Erika Larsen Tribal leaders gather in Montana to rebury the 12,600-year-old bones of a boy known as the Anzick child. His DNA confirmed that today’s Native Americans are direct descendants of the first Americans.

Photograph by Erika Larsen
Tribal leaders gather in Montana to rebury the 12,600-year-old bones of a boy known as the Anzick child. His DNA confirmed that today’s Native Americans are direct descendants of the first Americans.

#JeSuisCharlie? Foutre le Camp!

I see on Facebook today that Charlie Hebdo is still trending, and an email informs me that the asinine hashtag ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬, started soon after the Paris attack, is still raging on the interwebs.

Well, I *am* furious about the disgusting – and frankly idiotic – murderers, but this “Je suis Charlie” nonsense is taking pop activism too far. I am NOT Charlie Hebdo, thank you very much, and neither are most of you showing solidarity with the hashtag. European xenophobia – and I say this because most of my friends abroad live in the USA – is a beast quite unlike the hysterically blind, unself-aware American one: it is far more open and unapologetic. In a way, that’s often a better thing than the subtle poisoning of the subconscious, but it is still not a good thing. And much of this xenophobia is expressed culturally through satire.

Does that mean Charlie Hebdo’s staff deserved to be slaughtered? No. Litigated against, perhaps, but not violated physically, much less murdered. On the other hand, do they deserve to be universally applauded for ‘bravery’? I don’t think so. It’s easy to be part of the cultural majority of a land and claim to be an equal-opportunity satirist, but that is not how power works. And indeed, if googling serves me right, I believe France – which is trotting out it’s historical culture of appreciation of satire as a moral brownie point – once banned a magazine for satirising Charles de Gaulle [UPDATE: Facebook connections tell me the banned magazine was Charlie Hebdo’s earlier avatar. Fascinating.]. So much for historical equal-opportunity.

In summary, Hebdo had every right to print what they did, even if they didn’t have sterling taste or a clean social or political conscience. On the question of religious ‘offence': if you’re a deliberately uninformed Hindu, you’re free not to eat beef (or any animal protein), but you have no right to stop anyone else from consuming it. If you’re a devout, conservative Muslim, by all means never draw the prophet, but you have no right to attack or slaughter those that do (but of course, you could take them to court). If you’re a conservative, stupid Christian, stay away from the school curricula. Your ignorance is your choice, not society’s collective burden. Let things stand at that, and all shall be well.

Well, well-ish. It’s a pity that that is the best we can ask for at the moment.

A Quick History of Prostitution in Bengal

From “Introducing Phulmoni and Her Sisters”, Dangerous Outcast, the Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal,Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, Calcutta: 2000.

In his 4th century B.C. treatise on governance, the Arthashastra, Kautilya laid down rules and guidelines for the interaction between prostitutes, customers, and the state. Prostitutes were recommended to deal with customers is specific ways, and punitive measures were defined for defaulting or aggressive customers. Prostitutes paid taxes (worth two days’ earnings) like other skilled professionals. Their work was not a crime, nor a sin. Indeed, in Chandragupta Maurya’s time, their skill at making people relax and converse was recognised and used by the spy/intelligence system.

Centuries down,in the 1200s, we find anonymous Bengali poets extolling the beauty and grace of ‘the courtesans of Bengal’, concluding rhetorically, “who would not be bereft of his mind, to behold [such beauties] as the Bengali baranganas?”

NOTE: Some Hindu lawmakers, such as Manu, decreed that prostitutes belonged with thieves and blackmailers, and any Brahmin consorting with such criminals should be punished. However, as A. L. Basham points out, in medieval India at least, this stricture remained largely theoretical because brahmans – guardians and promulgators of Manu’s sacred laws – had their identity and very real economic existence tied to various temples, and temples had hundreds of prostitutes on their staff.

From rhyming record-keeping traditions, we find that prostitutes continued to be major partners in social and cultural festivities and royal expeditions in Bengal in the 17th century, as evident from the following description of the entourage accompanying a prince embarking on a journey:

Alim, pandit aar jyotish, ganak
Nana jantra, raj-beshya, gahon, nartak

(‘Learned Muslims, Hindu pandits, astrologers, astronomers; various musical instruments, royal courtesans, singers and dancers’. Please note that ‘dancer’ here is a male person.)

Such laudatory reference to prostitutes and eulogistic descriptions about their life style – which continued in Bengali literature from the medieval period till the early 18th century – indicate a continuity of certain societal values as well as of state patronage which allowed the prostitutes to enjoy a [relatively] privileged space in society. Their task as the cultivator of the arts, especially, provided them with avenues for participating in the wider society through cultural and religious events. For example, Vaishnavis, depsite their non-normative sexual behaviour, were welcomed to religious gatherings at caste Hindu houses, especially rich ones that could afford their musical/spiritual services.

In the prevailing anarchy of the early years of 18th century Bengal [the British were making inroads, the Portugese and French were establishing control at port-towns, local administration was in turmoil, attacking each other], faint silhouettes of the courtesan of yore were to be found among the free women living on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society – the singers and dancers from the lower castes; the Hindu widows who joined Vaishnavaite ‘akhras’ or clubs and were free to choose their male partners; and the so-called fallen women (those deserted by their husbands, or seduced by lovers to be abandoned later) forced to eke out a living after having been discarded by their families. NOTE: Not all of them could be strictly called professional prostitutes, since they made their living by being flower-sellers, milk-maids, barbers and so on, but their economic freedom gave them greater social flexibility than the average ‘mainstream’ woman in contemporary society.

Around mid-18th century, the depradations of the Marhatta raiders (known as bargis), created widespread anarchy in the countryside with the abduction and raping of women. In accordance with the conservative norms of Hindu society, families seldom took back these unfortunate victims, since they were considered ‘polluted’.
Then the disastrous famine of 1770 hit. It wiped out a third of the population of Bengal and forced the survivors to sell their children to survive. One could see boats filled with children coming down the river for open sale at Calcutta, stolen from their parents, or bought perhaps for a measure of rice. Many of these women and children ended up at brothels, or as personal slaves in rich households.

NOTE: Female Domestic Slavery: Indeed, a boom in slave traffic happened all through the 17th and 18th centuries, carried out mainly by the Portugese pirates from Arab settlements in Africa and South-west Asia, leading to the importation of large numbers of black women slaves (known variously as habshis or kafris in local Bengali) to serve in Muslim aristocratic households in cities like Dhaka, Murshidabad and eventually, Calcutta.

Rich Hindu families, too, had maintained dasis or female slaves from medieval times in Bengal, as evident from contemporary Hindu rules and regulations formulated by the 12th century Bengali lawmaker, Jeemutabahana, who laid down meticulous rules in his Dayabhaga as to the distribution of these dasis, along with immovable property, among male heirs of the family. According to Maheshwara, a later commentator on Dayabhaga, and interpreter of, Dayabhaga, the female slaves were used to satiate the lust of the household’s men, and whoever they loaned or gifted the women to.

Throughout the late 17th and 18th century, however, ‘kept’ women or mistresses had a social acceptability they later lost. Officers and lawyers of the courts of this period, when introducing themselves and their colleagues to some newly arrived bhadralok used to describe them in these terms: “This gentleman has built a pucca house for his mistress”. Building a pucca house for a mistress was considered a sign of honour and prestige.

The restrictive and punitive attitude adopted by the British administration in the 19th century was in sharp contrast to the permissive and accommodating policies pursued by generations of rulers in pre-colonial India, although the latter subscribed to the same patriarchal values that compelled the British to accept prostitution for their soldiers as essential. The British, however, introduced a moral dimension by attaching a stigma to prostitutes, and banishing them from society.

Sophisticated official measures like the repressive Act XIV of 1868 accompanied aggressive campaigns by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok against prostitutes’ participation in socio-cultural activities. These were accompanied by systematic psychological assault through verbal violence-abuse that were aimed at reinforcing their inferior and degrading position in society. Over the years, these abuses and sayings became a part of popular culture in Bengal – building up the stereotype of a blood-sucking vampire, out to fleece ‘unwary’ and ‘innocent’ men.

NOTE: Some English settlers – particularly senior officials who did not want their underlings ‘distracted’ or sympathetic to the local culture via local women – concurred. “The climate is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of this great propensity to sexual intercourse, the results of which prove generally so unfortunate to my countrymen”, one of them wrote. “The Hindoostanee women (under this denomination I class both Hindoos and Moslems)… form a cluster of delights, to the temptation of which it is not surprising if we see men, in other respects prudent, fall the victims.”

Capt. Thomas Williamson claimed in his East Indian Guide and Vade Mecum that prostitutes were part of a ‘debash and crafty’ Indian mechanism to trap and devour young officers: “Nothing can be more dangerous than this irregular indulgence; it never failing first to drain the purse, and, in a few days or weeks, the constitution also.”

In conclusion, Sumanta Banerjee sums up the situation thus:

Even in the state of comparative freedom enjoyed by the courtesan, she had to cultivate skills mainly for the entertainment of the male. But significantly enough, the cultivation did not remain confined to skills of sexual entertainment alone. It embraced the fine arts-music, dancing, painting.

In contrast, in capitalist society, like other wage workers in a system that thrives on intensification of the division of labour and specialisation of skills, the prostitute, also, is pushed into a strictly defined narrow space. She is condemned to the exclusive role of a specialist in sexual entertainment. Stripped of all emotional and intellectual attributes, she becomes the female body – an input required at one level in the long line of the production process in a capitalist society. Reduced to a source of purely utilitarian needs, her body is expected to produce the regular nocturnal fantasy of pleasure that deceptively fills up the vacuity of the soul of the alienated worker who comes to her as a client. She represents the ultimate in alienation in a capitalist society. The alienation of one section of the exploited feeds upon the alienation of another.

Celebrations and Family: Is Generational Isolation A Good Thing?

Pepsi adverts are usually the pits, stupid writing and empty glitz, but this little short film on the importance of homecoming, family, and celebrations – with the barest glimmer of product placement – is touching, and rather sweet. Here it is.

The film is appealing on many levels apart from the sentimental. One of it the depiction of social changes that economic modernity has brought in India.

Unlike previous generations of Indian children, most of whom settled close to the son’s parents (if not in the same house), current young professional are setting up homes elsewhere, leaving elderly parents to tend empty nests without any real sense of fulfilment.

Urban parents of the previous generation also tended to have just one child or two, instead of the battalions of yore. If that child – or those children – happen to be daughters, then the chances of the parents leading such lonely and/or independent lives increase manifold. Not that all sons make their homes with their elderly parents, of course, but in our patrilocal society, there’s at least the expectation they might (whether or not that means domestic bliss); parents of married women are denied even that.

Of course, as the film shows, technology – not too long ago limited to shoddy overhead lines and whirly-disc phones – has seeped into most nooks of of our human living, simplifying it enormously. But banalisation of human interaction is often the flip side of that. It’s great to video-chat with one’s parents several times a week, but precisely because the technology of virtual nearness is present, distance might no longer makes the heart fonder, and regular family-time may begin to feel forced, banal and tedious. There is of course the convenience of shutting Skype off or hanging up the phone, but the discontent it produces ferments, and is either carried over into future conversations, or, as in the film, into deliberate silence.

On the other hand, in a country where intergenerational households are common, Indians are all too used to the multiple small and large conflicts of interest, lack of personal space and freedom (especially for women), and constraints on the development of individual tastes. Of course, marital units of a large intergenerational family saves more individually, and bringing up children becomes easier in a house full of adults and other children. But most people – again, especially women – who have experienced the lacks of a growing up in a joint family in post-liberalisation India are prepared to forgo these benefits for greater freedom of individual expression. Celebratory reunions, in such contexts, are sweetended by the small guilt of living apart (against social expectations), and the assurance that the holidays of memory-making are fleeting, and separation will soon commence again.

Unless the holiday reunions happen under duress, or the family has a troubled dynamic, I’d say this is what makes holidays in contemporary India happier for the ‘separated’ family.

But the reason I like the film especially, is because it depicts the elderly parents as agentive: not whiny, not aggressive, yet capable of standing firm and demanding their needs be acknowledged too. Such a refreshing break from the tradition of weepy, self-effacing, ever-sacrificing parenthood on Indian screens. For that stroke of realism or encouragement – depending on your own relationship to your parents and offsprings – I recommend the film even more.

Food My Lovers Taught Me to Love, Part I

You know how advice columnists always say, “If he’s trying to change you, put on your lace-up flats and run!”?

Now usually, I’d be completely on their side. If ‘love’ for someone is predicated on wistful goodbyes to everything else, then the time to cut the cords is NOW!.

However, ‘change’ could be a good thing. It might mean ‘positive affect’. It could be a broadening of horizons. It can certainly be personal growth, and in some cases it might mean ‘intensifies’. For instance, you might be a clock-watcher dating another punctual type. If you two move in together, you’ll probably enable each other till you’re both obnoxious human clocks, being forever on time and tut-tutting at the rest.

Don’t go down that route unless you fancy punches to the nose.

Now me, I’ve had some pretty colourful relationships. And being Bengali, a large chunk of them have revolved around food. My first relation propre was with an Anglo-American gent. In my initial American months, mealtimes were a despondent chore. I cooked simple curries twice a week and hated eating them, because cheap supermarket vegetables in America taste like soggy newsprint, and I knew no other way to make them more edible. I also hated cheese, dismissed bacon, ill-trusted sausages, and looked with suspicion upon roasting and baking.

Then, as my supply of home-ground spices was finally running out, I met him.

He was tall, blue-eyed, Boston-blond, and just as impoverished as I was. But he knew his way around American shops and kitchen. He introduced me to high-protein breakfasts, salads-from-scrap, crispy bacon, sausages with mustard, fluffy pancakes cooked in lard, homemade pasta sauces and deli-end sandwiches. We could rarely afford the good stuff, but he also taught me to love cheese – the nutty gouda, the sharp cheddar, the rich goat, the creamy brie.

When I look back at my time with him, I almost can’t believe how comprehensively he changed my palate, yanking at the edges of my considerable stubbornness till I gave in, and fell in love with it all.

My range in the kitchen expanded dramatically, too. Till the Transatlantic Sojourn, I was a dab hand at Bengali things, but everything beyond that was a vague, foggy mass.

Union Stars and Stripes helped me bake my first cake, and taught me how to make a lovely four-ingredient salad dressing. When November rolled around, we bought a turkey, made our own stuffing, prepped and roasted the bird, and made a lip-smacking gravy with the pan-droppings. You’d think mashed potatoes are easy, but before I met this kitchen-dreamboat, I had no idea alusheddho with salt, butter, milk and pepper – instead of, you know, mustard oil and green chilies – could be so divine.

By the time our relationship had unravelled beyond repair, I had begun keeping roasted garlic and pine-nuts in my kitchen for comfort meals, homemade peach preserves and cantaloupes for snacks, broccoli and pork chops-on-sale for quick pick-me-up dinners. If ever a man succeeded in endearing boiled broccoli to a woman, it was this man. Of course, he also drove me to the best chowder and bisques in town, but as a Boston man, I’d think that was more his civic duty than an act of love.

The best thing he taught me to make and love, however, was damn near a miracle, for it involved almost every single thing I once hated: bacon, hard-fried eggs, cheese. What he put together with these things, though, was just fabulously wonderful. I’ll call it the baked egg, because ‘baked’ is effectively what the eggs become.

You begin by lightly greasing a thick-bottomed saucepan, and layering it with deli-ends or bacon. You flip the meat after a minute of browning, and layer the cooked side with cheese, onions and chopped chilies. Then, you break whole eggs over it, two eggs per person. The final garnish is salt and pepper, and maybe a little parsley and sage. You give the eggs a minute to cook on medium flame, then cover the pan, and simmer. In about three minutes, you have soft, creamy baked eggs, on a bed of melted spicy cheese and crispy bacon or meat. This, you eat with hot buttered toast (though I must say Americans are rather stingy with their toast. ‘A stack of toast’ is not a transatlantic phenomenon).

It’s been a few years since the Anglo-Am and I have broken up, but the strange foreign things he taught me to love has changed the way I cook and eat almost completely. Tucked away beyond north Calcutta, I missed the cheese and meats for months, as my tongue readjusted to dal-bhaat and curried veg at every meal. It’s true we had rather fierce arguments about food and cooking, and there are favourites of his that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole (banana-split, yuck!), but a man who imparts the secrets of crisp pork fat has, in my opinion, transcended the judgement of schmucks who used to turn away from bacon.

Fairer than that Word

I am editing a book meant for west African school-going audiences. Amongst many other slightly-sermonising pieces, it has a parable about honesty, featuring the Aesopian woodcutter who drops his iron axe into a river, and is tested by the goddess of the river, who tempts him with a gold and silver axe instead of his own.

Our author – subject-matter experts, they’re called – has recast the goddess as a fairy. A “beautiful” fairy, because she has golden hair and blue eyes. Mind you, this for a west African impressionable audience, by an Indian person – two countries with histories of white supremacist assault, and two cultures still plagued by the post-colonial disease of hating their own dark skin.

Barbie

I thought about the troubles of overriding authorship for a while, then I quietly deleted the description, changed “fairy” to “the spirit of the river”, and put in “curly black hair” and “kind eyes” in place of golden and blue. Third world children are swamped enough with blonde hair, coloured eyes and photoshopped white ideals of beauty. For fewer instances of bleached skin and self-hatred, they should perhaps trip across comforting little details like this, showing them that magically wonderful creatures can look like them, too.

Besides, there is no comparison between “kind eyes” and “pretty eyes”. The younger we teach children to notice people’s positive attributes rather than their looks, the better it will be for them, and for us.

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