This, By the Way, is My Country

This is an extract from the online news portal Gaylaxy:

The two policemen, in their mid-20s, were posted on duty during the Ahmedabad gay pride march held on December 1st, in which the victim had participated. Today as the man was returning to his car, the policemen recognized and accosted him, asking if he had taken part in the march (images of the victim were seen on the print and electronic media which had covered the pride march). On his confirmation, the cops demanded to see his license and papers and started hurling abuses at him. The victim protested and tried to get away, but the cops started beating him up with sticks and forced themselves on him, abusing him all the time and remarking ‘jab poori duniya se marwai hai, toh humse bhi marwa le’ (when you have got fucked by the whole world, then get fucked by us too) . The man returned home battered and bruised with multiple wounds on his body. The cops were not drunk and were in full control of their senses.

Dedh Ishqiya: Two Gorgeous Women, and All Their Love

The Begum and her Rabbo.

I saw Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam on television a year or so after its release (we shall return to it in a future post, perhaps, as I have much to say about its antecedents). For the next few days, I hounded every acquaintance who could conceivably have read the book, and exclaimed, “Goodness, did you see? Sanjay Leela Bhansali lifted the story straight off Naw Hawnyate! And he didn’t even give Maitreyi Debi credit!”

The connection had slipped most people by, and I felt rather intellectually superior for having spotted it. And I certainly felt very culturally superior when I considered how much Bhansali had to doll-up and commercialise ["cheapen", in Calcutta Bengali parlance] the original story to suit the style of mainstream Hindi cinema.

In my defence, I was young, snooty, and very middle-class Bengali.

Years later and still snooty, I went to see Dedh Ishqiya. Literally “One and a half Love”, it follows the absolutely delightful Ishqiya (“Of Love”) with the same male leads, but Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qurishi taking on from Vidya Balan as the female star. It only occurs to me now, as I write this, that the director had to have made a conscious decision go with the old-school Indian ideal of beauty – generous, glowing, reminiscent of soft buttery richness, deeply sensual, assertive – instead of the toned and sculpted contemporary look. And it is a very wise choice. In a film set in fictional town which has a foot firmly in an earlier era of nawabs, begums and poetry battles, modernity of beauty would not have worked. This decision has also introduced me to the loveliness that is Ms. Qureshi, and for that, I am truly thankful.

Huma Qureshi with Arshad Warsi, as Muniya and Babban in Dedh Ishqiya.

It is also to the eternal credit of the filmmaker, that despite working in contemporary references (“chow mein“) and stylistically making the film entirely his own, Dedh Ishqiya succeeds in being a beautiful expansion – and privileged behind-the-veil view – of Ismat Chugtai’s wonderful story “Lihaaf”.

For those not familiar, “Lihaaf” – or “Quilt” – is the tale of an emotionally and sexually abandoned begum locked in the castle of her conservative and indifferent royal husband, who finds validation, fulfilment, and the will to live in the arms of her maid Rabbo (Muniya in the film, a beautified version of the original).

It takes great courage and wicked amusement, I think, to release a film in an election year – when conservative fervour runs very high – featuring two gorgeous women in a loving sexual relationship with each other, a virile man being – in his own words – “used as a whore” by a woman, beautifully filled-out female leads, a senior cit. male romantic lead, a middle-aged female romantic lead, and general devil-may-care poke-funnery at stereotypical Bollywood “Indianness”. And oh, did I mention how gratifying it is to have Madhuri Dixit back on screen, even if she did seem a little stiltled in the earlier scenes?

The gorgeous Madhuri Dixit as Begum Para, who I am so very glad to have back.

If tribute there must be, or outright stealing of thought, then as an admirer of beauty and a pennywise paying consumer, I must insist they be this clever, this mischievous, this delightful, and this gorgeous. Despite its slightly generous editing – a good twenty minutes off would have made the film crisper and more amusing – this film is one to be treasured. The most enticing aspect of the film is certainly Mr. Shah’s presence, but Arshad Warsi, Madhuri Dixit, Vijay Raaz, the music, and the dialogue all finish a close second.

The wonderful Naseruddin Shah as Iftekhar.

Genius Limericks for “Young Ladies”

My friend Monidipa has written five brilliant limericks illustrating and protesting the state of women in general and queer women in particular after the Supreme Court of India decided last week to keep Section 377 on the books for now. Section 377, for the uninitiated, was penned by young master Macaulay, and criminalised all intercourse that was against the nature of man, woman or beasts. In other words, he criminalised not-heterosexual intercourse amongst humans, and all cross-species congress, gender notwithstanding.

In an interesting aside – and a commentary on mass ignorance – people lauding the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a colonial law think they’re “protecting Indian culture”, when ancient Hindu texts, of course, records ample instances of queerness, including the carefully-worded description of the relationship between Lord Krishna and his friend Sudama, the cross-dressing warrior Shikhandi, the king who was pregnant, and the life of the great masculine hero Arjun of the Mahabharata, who spent ten years in drag, earning his living as a dance and music instructor.

But here are the lyrics, the lovely little gems you’re here for. I’m quoting them in the order I prefer reading, saving the best for the last.

There was a young lady called Son
Whose parents had but only one
Offspring – not male;
Inconsequential detail;
They thought she was lesser to none.

God bless those parents – my parents, in fact. The “culture” of son-preference is a poison that goes far beyond the insidious idea of choice, and results in thousand of foeticide and infanticide the world over. It doesn’t help when we read reports of first-world parents preferring daughters over sons, because little girls are more docile and obedient and easier to “handle”. 

There was a young lady called Mister
Who might have been somebody’s sister,
Girlfriend or wife,
But she chose her own life,
So all of the people dismissed her.

Where have we faced that before? Right. ‘most everywhere.

There was a young lady called Dude
Whom boys at the school found so lewd
They ripped up her skirt,
Smashed her face in the dirt
And advised her not to be rude.

This has become so normalised that for a fraction of a second, the irony didn’t sink in. That’s right, even for someone who has faced violence for looking at a man straight in the eyes. That’s hegemony for you… thankfully just for a second.

“There was a young lady called Sir.
We heard from her angry neighbour
That she had been cravin’
Some three seventy-seven.
We closed in before she could stir…”

Think of this as a report from the local police, dedicated to keeping you safe. Unless, that is, you want to live outside the books of anachronistic sexual propriety.

And finally, my favourite, and a damned statement of existence for so many people, pushed to the margins and living through it all, because hope is brave like that.

There is a young lady called Man
Who will hold out longer than your ban.
She has stared at the face
Of your curse and your grace –
You have done to her all that you can.

A Valentine for Her Gay Ex-Husband

My country is mired in blood and secrecy at the moment. None of it has touched us personally — for we are the invincible urban middle-class, flayed by the market and government and social systems every day but alive till the end like cockroaches — except the fear that our streets might suddenly burst into riots.

Speaking of love in such circs might reek of pink escapsim, but speaking of this love isn’t.

This love speaks of people whose very existence was mired in blood and secrecy. It speaks of friendship, loyalty, dignity, and freedom. It is beauty carved of steel, and decorated with hope.

Read the full article here. If it makes you want to cry, let yourself. Some things deserve the validation of your tears: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-newton/gay-husband-valentine_b_2641159.html

It was the middle-sixties, and homosexuality was still widely regarded as a neurosis, and my own ignorance was profound. But most importantly, I wanted to believe that therapy would be the “cure,” because I felt with him what I had longed to feel for most of my existence — happy, valued, loved, secure, at home.

[...]

After he began his sexual journey, we both fell in love with other men, but within two years, we were living as roommates and would continue to do so for the next 10 years. “If ever two people were made for each other,” we said, “it’s us.”

He met another man; I met another man too. Mine came to live with me. And Dick. I married my new man — with many second thoughts — and the three of us moved to a three-story Victorian house, ideal for sharing. When my daughter was born the following summer, life felt complete.

[A year later] On Thanksgiving morning, as we held hands, he died. [Of AIDS.] He was 46.

Perhaps the story of our love belongs to the 1960s, when everything seemed possible, a spirit we never lost. Had we come to each other in the 1970s, our marriage might never have taken place because in the 1970s, the lines between gay and straight were strictly drawn. But had we met in the 2010s, who knows? Genders, sexualities and modes of attachments have multiplied and blossomed and anything is possible today. In honor of him, I want to celebrate the day of romance with a Valentine that honors the many kinds of love that are in the offing — if we are flexible and creative enough to make them work, and if, in the end, we are open to possibility.

 

Like Drunk Elephants

[Or, Why I Love My Friends, #4]

Friend to me: It would appear that X’s antics last night woke just about everyone up. And then kept them up. As a collective, we are not amused. Sex is understandable and acceptable. Making more noise than a herd of drunken elephants in the small hours of the morning, and then continuing to do so for hours, is not.

Me: Of course not. I…

F: And I will add, for your benefit, that I have had the misfortune of hearing a herd of drunken elephants. They came looking for alcohol in an army camp in Assam. Army regulations state that in this eventuality, alcohol is to be ceded to the elephants without resistance. So they were very happy drunken elephants.

Me: Unlike, despite his best efforts, X.

F, with grim satisfaction: Indeed.

Those Sexy Secrets

There’s a lot of talk — most of it high-flown fluff — about our ‘twisted desires’ and it’s ‘inhuman’ consequences. I object very strongly to the use of ‘inhuman’ in such contexts, because it encourages the delusion that human beings are a chirpy, light-hearted number, brimming with wuvv, cuddles, and the milk of smiley kindness. But let’s stack the history lesson for now.

So then, we’ve been talking a great deal about casual brutalisation of women on our streets, and how those exhibiting such behaviour should be hanged forthwith. This is all very well (well, perhaps not the hanging bit), but ‘the nation’ — as we fashionably refer to ourselves these days — has been rather slow in acknowledging how it fosters the root of such violence in its own misguided — and almost always misinformed — convictions about ‘Indian culture’. Institutional repression of sexuality — its discussion and expression — is a hallmark of such misguided zealotry. The first thing that we (as girls, but I’m sure also as boys, if in different ways) are taught about our bodies is to keep it secret. Given the degree of sexual freedom and gender flexibility the inhabitants of our land once enjoyed, this is rather ironic. From a diverse and inclusive place, the subcontinent has become an incredibly bloated schedule of social strictures, stifling its people with farts of anachronistic indigestion.

This was driven home rather hard yesterday at a lunch, when five women of my acquaintance spent half an hour — half an hour — analysing a throw-away sentence by an absent sixth for possible sexual connotations. All thirty minutes of this conversation was interspersed with secretive giggles, gleeful shushing, scandalised exclamations of ‘ishhh!’, and quick glance-arounds to check for eavesdroppers. At the same time, however, each of those five asserted that they’re ‘normal’ and ‘properly-brought up’ people, who consequently have no attraction at all towards such ‘dirty’ subjects and ‘shameful’ acts. Indeed, they all agreed, people who obsessed about sex were incomprehensible. How could anyone keep talking about sexual matters for hours? Indeed, it shouldn’t be discussed at all! Much less in public!

The righteous distaste was unanimous (as was the lack of self-awareness).

It never fails to amuse me how the most evangelical of forswearers are the ones most dedicated to the thing they claim to abhor. So yes, I did enjoy this exchange. However, as my fellow-subcontinentors will affirm, attitudes such as this are very common hereabouts, and very commonly expressed. We’re breeding a nation of repressed, suppressed, and therefore twisted, shamed, sly, starved and occasionally violent desires, bubbling and churning inside a firmly lidded pot. All in the name of our sanskaar — our traditions — about which most of us know squat.

Healthy, isn’t it?

The Disciplinary Nookie

Even with the overwhelming rat-race to hog rape-limelight in Indian media lately, this bit of news is a headline-stealer.

Like lambs sent to the wolves, an NGO entrusted with the welfare of minor girls — many of them disabled and mentally weak — had been sending them for months to the boys’ hostel next door in the name of “punishment”… the girls, almost all of whom were too terrorized to talk [when rescued], would be forced into the boys’ rooms whenever they “made a mistake” or complained to officials about the poor facilities they had to live with.

Quite apart from this forced prostitution, Usha Chaturvedi — chairperson to the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) — reported post the rescue-raids that of the 48 girls listed as being lodged at this particular hostel, only 30 were found. The remaining 18 ‘hadn’t turned up’ after the Diwali holidays. That is, eighteen young girls have been missing — without their appointed care-givers providing the state or their families with any notice of it apparently — for nearly three months.

The happy thirty that were lodged at the hostel were stacked, all together, in a room 121 ft. square. That is, in a room of 11×11 ft. floor space.

How large is your cupboard?

To Aunty, From ‘Those Girls’

Facebook linked me to this guest-piece on Women’s Web, one of those gendered portals for women in or from India. I thought it worth re-posting. The writing is perhaps a little too earnest in places, and the style far too open-lettery, but the content — despite a certain simplisticity imposed by the style — is spot on. This is indeed how certain older women of our community help destroy the safety of other women and feel righteous safegaurds of ‘our culture’ while at it.

Because of the tedious trend of being offended without the benefit of facts, the writers of the article clarify straight off that this isn’t a blanket attack on older women, because let’s face it, that would be inaccurate and deeply stupid. So in case you were getting ideas about indignantly huffing at the *awful* ageism on display… well, go ahead and spit them out. It’s a free world, after all.

UPDATE: The writer of the article very kindly let me know that I had violated Women’s Web’s copyright policy by reproducing their content here — full attribution notwithstanding — without their express written permission. To remedy this, and in accordance with her request (cf. comments below), I am removing the body-text of the article. But I recommend you read it from the Women’s Web archive, here: http://www.womensweb.in/2012/12/girls-of-these-days/

‘Servants Can’t Rape’

Or so the sentiment appears to me.

My FB buddy Siddharthya posted this tweet from Madhu Purnima Kishwar, who is the director of the Indic Studies Project, housed in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. In other words, she’s an academic, and a self-proclaimed feminist. This is the tweet:

I feel safer among men of conservative values and villages who establish “didi” “mausi” relationship than among Leftists, westernized males and others who preach equality.

Of course, Kishwar may have been quoted out of context, and indeed this may not have been meant as a denigration of ‘Leftism’, westernisation, or gender equity or urban, ‘modern’ men at all. Neither was it meant as public entertainment, which is sadly what it is (for a given section of the public). We are probably reading it wrong.

But it is an interesting statement nonetheless. Because, y’see, if we agree for the sake of shutting dissenters down that Kishwar did indeed mean what she appears to mean in this tweet, then she is far more in need of a re-acquaintance with ‘leftism’ and ideas of equity than victims of gendered violence are in need of her wisdom. The reason she feels ‘safer’ amongst village-folk who establish didi/mausi [sister/aunt] relationships with her, after all, is because she is an urban upper-middle class ‘connected’ academic, possessed of far greater social capital than them. She bears all the markers of prestige that upwardly-mobile Indians (or Indians who wish they were upwardly mobile) wish for themselves and their children: a degree-enabled education, fluency in English, possession of a ‘government job’ [read: security, pension, allowances, perks, possible path to power], a city address in the nation’s capital. Consequently, provided she doesn’t ruffle feathers too much, she’s less of a generic woman for these men (and women) she mentions, and more of a figure of consolidated power, and a conduit to all those elements of prestige. Why should they then treat her with violence and scare her off?

Of course, had there been no rural-urban divide between them, no socioeconomic gradient, I doubt she’d have felt this cuddled and secure. She would then have been at par with them, and her ‘modernity’ would then no longer have been a distant aspiration for her rural neighbours, but a possible index of her outsider status.

It is this same illusion of safety, born of the belief in the ‘simplicity’ and ‘loyalty’ of the little people that leads people-like-us, for example, to have resident domestic help that they bother to find out very little about. After all,  poor ‘village people’ may be conservative and loud and ‘unsophisticated’, but they’re also sweet and meek and obedient — and hardworking, and not ambitious and lippy and money-grubbing like these urban bustee chaps. When we go to the villages, they just come running out to greet us, ask after our families, do so much of our work for us! When we leave, we give them hundred rupees each, and they’re SO happy with it! Really, to experience pure humanity, you must go to our villages!

Of course, this imagined innocence and confidence doesn’t stop the occasional domestic help from slitting throats, and making off with the cash and kind she or he is surrounded by and made to serve each day, but never allowed to access. A point, I think, that supporters of ‘ye olde Indian culture was cosier than global modernity’ would do well to consider.

How to be Cool?

Oblivious as I frequently am to pop measures of coolth, I didn’t realise that ‘meeting people online’ — which is often a euphemism for dating and for casual encounters of the carnal kind, apart from more vanilla friendships — was the epitome of drab, dreary, left-in-the-ditch geekiness.

Oh deary, deary me. I can rustle up maybe one friend I first met in ‘weal life’ (though intimacy brewed mostly on chat applications, late at night and from the comfort of pyjamas and our own beds). The prettier flowers of my affection, likewise, were plucked from the sides of the information superhighway.

Siiigh. Whatever shall I do? Will madly fangirling Twilight, Justin Bieber and ‘organic’ cosmetic brands on FB lift me back up to ‘normalcy’?

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