Saturday, 17 August 2013

Being Indian: Silence v2.0

Recently I had the most prestigious opportunity of meeting a man, only about a year younger than me. We had a lot in a common, which is rare. He had lost his mother recently as I have and he also suffered from frequent panic attacks. So we got along very well and texted often which progressed to speaking on the phone during his breaks at office. Amidst one such conversation, he told me about how he hated Tamilians. How they were pseudo because they listened to Justin Timberlake. And in this conversation as he went on to demean an entire race, he mentioned how Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and Lady Gaga should all be put in one room and bombed. Since I hate music fanaticism, I was left flabbergasted and went on to pose the question,

“What about the men who were responsible for the Delhi gang-rape?”

“Oh I don’t give a shit about that!”

I gasped on this end of the phone line and we went on to discuss many many other things. Rape, homosexuality, racism and sexism.

I’d love to give you a transcript of what that conversation went like and I by no means intend to quote this man out of context. I continued to rationally interpret what it was that this man meant.

“I don’t care about rape. It doesn’t affect me. But listening to Justin Timberlake does, so yes, I want to see that end.”

“Gay people are so unnatural. They don’t need to do that. Why should they do that when women are around?’

“Any man who listens to Justin Bieber is not a man, he is a woman”

“Tamilians are just assholes”

The slurs continued. At his end he continued to laugh every time I revolted against everything he said. The conversation ended when I frustratingly hung up the receiver when he said,

“Gays should stay away from society. They should be banished…”

I met this individual in a pub and I really thought I connected with him. He studied in the best of schools in the city, had knowledge of every rave in Goa and was quite the brand-whore. He had no dirth of access to knowledge. But yet, in our first conversation he thought that I was just kidding about the Shiva lingam being a phallic symbolism. He called it blasphemy. This brings me to the most infuriating thing he said,

“You are a blasphemer, and that’s worse than being a rapist or a murderer”

I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. How can renouncing a religion be worse than forcing one to have sex without their consent, taking a life or being so judgemental of one’s choices that you’d rather have them leave society than change your uninformed opinion.

In our following arguments, he went on to say that

“Gays should be quarantined and if they try to leave, they should be shot on sight”

We argued until my throat went bad, until I was left alone in the dark crying and wondering how I ever encountered such a heartless individual. In all of that chaos, he very plainly asked,

“Why do you care? I think people have problems that they should deal with. I am not gay. I have not been raped and will never be raped. I don’t think anyone will abuse me. Why should I care? You should only worry about yourself. People should worry about themselves. You shouldn’t care about these gays or rape victims, how does it matter to your life?”

It does. I have been silent for long. And I know this silence has bought me much pain and misery. Some of it, I still struggle to digest.

Five years ago, it was a regular night in the university town I studied in. I was out with some friends and was looking forward to the barbecue party at home. There was this one guy, Vinay (name changed), a friend who I bumped into at the pub I was out at. I invited him and his friend to the barbecue.

The barbecue was great. The chicken was tangy and tender and music was live and peaceful. Vinay and I bonded over our love for music and I invited him over to my room to see the posters. And within minutes the tension unfolded and we kissed. Things got heated.

It had only been fifteen minutes since it had begun and I realised I wasn’t ready for where this was headed. I told him that I wasn’t ready and in response he pulled out a condom. I told him I didn’t mean protection, I just wasn’t ready to do anything more. My memory after this seems to be missing a few frames. I remember being slapped and his hand against my mouth. I remember his other hand clasp on to my neck as I tried to bite his hand off my mouth. I felt powerless and angry. But as a skinny tiny person, I couldn’t do anything to let go. I couldn’t stop this monster from overtaking me and putting on the damn protection. The last thing I remember is being slapped really hard across the face.

I woke up some time later naked next to him. I ran to the several corners of the room looking for my clothes. I could still hear the loud jam outside and the laughter. I asked him to get out of my room. I could feel pain in several places. I thought of the short story I wrote when I was seventeen years old about a woman who was raped by her husband on her wedding night. The veins pulled together. Things burned. I was not a virgin but I could feel something was lost that night. I put on my t shirt and sat in the corner of the room in the darkness and saw his silhouette leave with the little source of light from the living room. I cried for hours into the morning.

The next morning, I texted him saying I remembered what happened and that what he did wasn’t right and that I was going to tell.

“Complain if you want. My dad’s a high powered lawyer. Nothing will happen.”

I called a couple of my closest friends and told them what happened. One said, I deserved it for inviting him to the party and one, that I deserved it for kissing him. My roommate asked me the same afternoon, suggestively,

“How was last night?”

“It was kind of rough”

I responded.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what had happened. I blamed myself for a long time. My thighs hurt for weeks. I couldn’t go to the toilet without it burning for almost two months. I had visible cuts around my vagina and bite marks on my stomach. I tried to tell some people but they never believed me. A year later, it came back to hit me when I saw him again. And I had a meltdown and told people. My sister, my friends, everyone. They all wondered why I of all people chose to be silent about this. They were angry with me for being silent and I was too.

I still am. I can’t see the current me walking away from this in silence and taking defeat. I’ve met him on a few occasions after that, some of which ended with me violently punching him. I thought with every punch, I’d let go. I thought when I’d write this, I’d feel better. And I just realised I don’t.

So mister, it does matter to me. I know how it is to choose silence. I know how it is to be blamed for something that I will carry for the rest of my life. I am that woman who has been raped or that homosexual who has been ridiculed – they are not all in the newspapers. They are not in cities far away, they are not in villages in secluded farms. They are you and me. They are next to you on the bus. They are in the table next to you drinking coffee. They are having a drink in the bar with you. They are voting with you. They are talking to you. And all in the silence of the shame you contributed to.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Being Indian: Gender Biased Laws

I’ve been disturbed lately. I am obviously angry but this time at an issue that I am yet to wholly understand. Even so, I’m furious. I have never really been a fan of marriage, arranged or love. But as I cross the threshold of the marry-able age and see that everyone I know is getting engaged and married, the horror stories I’ve heard are now drawing closer. Though each of these stories are of only one or two people, a little research leaves one amazed and how common these experiences actually are.

There are monster-in-laws, mama’s boys, gold diggers, hasty decisions and more – all hidden behind the pretty candid albums of engagements and weddings. From parents struggling to pay off wedding loans to parents spending a few nights in jail, I’ve heard them all. I want to start with the one thing that has been bothering me the most. It makes me feel disgusted and helpless and more so, because I’m a woman.

Our country has been fighting a social evil, one that we’ve learnt in school as part of our nation’s history; one that has been in practise for many years and is now being fought with a highly gender biased law – Dowry. There are two sides to this coin; on one, women are being doused with kerosene. The other side is dangerously creating male versions of feminazis, after tormenting and extorting them.

A friend of mine went off the radar for almost a year. Before he went underground, I remembered talking to him a few weeks before he was about to get married. The next time I saw him he looked deeply disturbed. And then he told me the story of his short marriage and ugly divorce. He had an arranged marriage and was married to this girl for three months, during which he made several efforts to give her space and comfort. Three months after they married, she moved back to her parents’ house. And about two months later, the girl’s family filed both a divorce and a complaint against him and his family under the 498a act.

The 498a act of our constitution, one of the dowry prohibition laws, reads as following:

498A. Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.

Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation-For the purpose of this section, "cruelty" means-

(a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health whether mental or physical) of the woman; or

(b) Harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her meet such demand.[7]

The complaint cited my friend as a sex-maniac and stated that he even indulged in wife swapping. It said that he had invited his friends to spend nights with his wife. It also cited that he offered his wife to his father. Apart from this they were also accused of constantly harassing the girl’s family for dowry in the form of money and other expensive gifts. And for all of this there was no evidence apart from the girl and her family’s testimony. My friend and his mother were arrested and spent three nights in jail. He agreed to give her the divorce, but the demands were exorbitant and continued to grow. As the entire thing got uglier day by day, the girl’s family offered to settle the entire thing out of court for about 40 lakhs. And the sum of this out-of-court settlement has been rising at every step.

This friend of mine is not one case. I personally know two others like him and there are even NGOs and groups dedicated to helping victims of the misuse of the 498a act. But how often do you hear about this in the news? A lot of media these days is focusing on the safety of the woman, the status of the Indian woman and how India does not respect its women. And every time I watch one of these advertisements or debates on the news channels, I remember these guys who have been working towards this unjust law for the past 8 years and have received little or no media coverage. I have wondered and discussed with friends as to why when gender equality is in the focus on the media at this time, there has been no talk of the misuse of the 498a act and most responses lead to

“Well, there is always collateral damage.”

No. There isn’t. There shouldn’t be. If you google misuse of 498a, you will be exposed to a world where the Indian constitution has been incredibly unfair to men and their families. There are numerous cases where men are being extorted as victims of the misuse of this act or where men are being threatened to either pay up or be victimised. When it comes to gender biased laws, this is just one act. There are others too including the domestic violence act and the various maintenance laws.

Sadly, the way NGOs are dealing with this issue is the same way women deal with issues that affect women. The activists slander women. Their websites have the Indian woman painted as an evil money hungry succubus just like in recent media, the Indian male has been described as the sole reason for sexual violence in India, the sex hungry animal who disrespects women and treats them like dirt. These activists call themselves masculinists, which brings me to feminism.

I learnt the word Feminism to mean equality of men and women, respect for everybody regardless of gender. I used to identify myself as a feminist, with pride and felt that I was a part of a fair and beautiful movement. But this relentless focus on women’s rights is not gender equality. I know that dowry in the past has contributed to the harassment and death of countless women, and I do NOT deny that to date there are many women who continue to suffer several atrocities due to dowry. But if the prohibition law is being unfair to men, then it needs to be changed and for us to reach equality, both genders need to have a fair chance at dignity of life. I want to see a day when men and women come together to fight the battles of gender inequality. I want to see just as many women picketing on the streets against these gender biased laws as men protesting against sexual violence. Change only happens with inclusion. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Being Indian: Silence

Today, I wanted to write. And then I wondered how many times I was going to rant about rape in this country. How many times I was going to emphasise on the fact that every day I feel a little less safer in this country. My social networking pages are clogged with statuses and photos asking for capital punishment for those six men who gang-raped a girl on a moving bus. The incident has even moved those apathetic people who, most of the time, have no idea what is going on in their country. Many of these posts claim that we Indians are passive and don't really get out on the streets or express our anger towards these atrocities. Little do they forget that all this while they are the ones who have been passive and oblivious to the many attempts that citizens have made to voice their dismay in light of the growing incidence of rape in the country.

The heterogeneous nature of these posts amazes me. There are a few ideas that are dominating, the most prominent being those in favour of capital punishment and castration. How is that a solution? How is such a violent punishment any solution? Dig a little deeper and you will find that in Delhi, the abundance of this crime is due to many loopholes in the system and society. Only a small percentage of it is contributed by the lack of a more trusting judicial system.

I have always opposed the use of death penalty but what is most wrong with this method is that what people want is to get rid of the criminal rather than the crime – to get rid of the problem at hand rather than the root of the problem. Instead, what we need is to rethink our ways of education and outlook. There is so much that contributes to a society that flourishes with sexual violence. Our outlook is outdated and largely dominated by judgement. The men and women who contribute to stereotyping another as “easy”, stripping them of dignity without more than just a glance. Those who will question the attire, the place, the caste, the family life and the choices of the survivor of such a gruesome crime. The society that prohibits its men and women from interacting with each other until a certain age and then throws them into a bed with a complete stranger. The naive society that glorifies its stronghold on the lack of sexual expression and yet considers Bollywood item numbers as glamorous and ultimately wonders why there is rampant sexual violence.

The worst part of this entire episode is that we have all gone on a man-hating, woman sympathising spree. We are talking about violence against women. About the safety of women. About how this entire thing is about the way our culture treats women. At this point, it would be the most obvious thing to also question and stand up for the the safety of and the violence against the men. But this is where I believe we are all lost. It is not about men and women. It is about a crime against humans, a black mark on humanity itself. No human being, regardless of gender, should be treated like this.

A friend of mine put up a very interesting status on the issue suggesting that Delhi rapists must stop raping because they are giving feminists a reason to get things their way:

“I guess it should be made official. Delhi – The most dangerous city in the world for women! Heinous, atrocious and merciless monsters dwelling in the place. Time and again hearing the same news again and again. Thank you Delhi rapists, you're giving the feminists exactly what they need – stringent laws meant for women against men. Laws where even false accusations count in any other safe city or any part of India because of what happened in NCR/Delhi. Bravo, bravo! Thanks to Delhi rapists, the threat of feminist laws would be the order of the day for the entire nation's innocent men. Sentiments from an anti-feminist.”

Firstly, this guy has got the meaning of feminism completely wrong. Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal or gender equality. I understand there are feminists out there whose ideas are simply repulsive but to completely misunderstand the word feminism is sheer stupidity. I agree that the literal term may be misguiding but a little research will lead you to discover that feminism is not pro-woman and anti-man, rather it is adhering to standards of gender equality. Sexual violence is not a women's rights issue. It is a human rights issue. Completely and wholly a human rights issue. The more we exclude the plight of men and focus on a woman's rights in a society like ours, we encourage exclusion. The only way forward is inclusion.

I'd like to keep up with the composed and tempered style in which I have, in the past, penned down my frustrations but at the moment, nothing seems to shake off the anguish that has filled me with this incident. What irks me more is the overwhelming response. In the past we have had the death of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez, the many incidents of rape in Delhi leading to an imposition of a curfew, the gang-rape of a student in National Law School Bangalore, courts not recognising marital rape as a crime, khap panchayats blaming chowmein and countless similar incidents. Did it take this one girl and her friend's brutal torture for you to wake the fuck up?

While I am glad that this incident has finally pushed the media to relevantly deal with and question on the subject, I fear that this too shall pass like the many instances of sexual violence that we have seen on the news. I fear that these stories will come and go as fads for us to exercise armchair activism and at the end of it we too shall contribute to it. What happened to that girl, her plight was not only in the hands of those six men. It was in our hands too. Our society is but a reflection of our thoughts. How often do we walk through the streets, get felt up and walk away in silence? How often do we see other people get teased and molested and walk away in silence? If we don't do so now, at some point we have contributed with our silence. At this point I urge you to not lose the anger, wake up and scream. No more silence.

In the words of a friend, it is not the end of the world we are approaching, it is the end of humanity.  

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Being Indian: Waste Segregation

So, what is it that has made me so mad this time? Is it the lonely plastic tag in the wet waste bin, the used diaper that has been sitting on the footpath down the road for days or the little garbage dumps that have sprung all across Bangalore City?

About a month ago, the BBMP took a great initiative to distribute pamphlets motivating residents of Bangalore to segregate their waste. The reason for this move was that the use of the Mavallipura landfill, where Bangalore dumped its garbage, was suspended. If residents segregate their garbage, the dry waste can directly be sent for recycling and the wet waste for composting. It is a month later and this plan has dreadfully failed. While the government is trying to deal with the problem by bridging the gaps in the implementation of this garbage revolution, some residents continue to strongly believe that segregation is a “waste” of their time and that it is in fact the BBMP's responsibility to do so.

Firstly, it is a lot simpler and less time consuming to segregate your garbage. You dispose of your wet waste every day and your dry waste only once a week. Since we've started doing this at home, we've realised that it is a lot more cleaner and there are absolutely no fruit flies. Secondly, it is impossible to segregate garbage after it has been mixed. All of your dry waste will probably be covered in tea leaves and drenched in tomato juice; and your wet waste will be tainted with non-biodegradable bits of plastic. Dry waste that has been mixed with wet waste cannot be recycled. Therefore, it is NOT BBMP's responsibility to segregate garbage. It is our responsibility.

“Why should we segregate garbage for BBMP if they cannot even provide us with good roads?” We are not segregating garbage for BBMP. We are doing it for ourselves, for a cleaner city, for better hygiene, for the environment and more. Since the initiative has begun, the locality I live in has seen the birth of many small dumps on every street. I am not referring to the large dumps that are emerging across the city due to the anomalies in the system; I am talking about lonely garbage bags that are just lying around randomly. These bags are thrown by residents who are too lazy to segregate.

Garbage attracts all kinds of things. From being kicked around and strewn across the street by stray dogs to becoming a breeding ground for insects and pests. But the most hazardous effect of these little garbage dumps is that it attracts and becomes a feeding ground for rodents. When the number of rodents equals the number of residents in a given area, it gives rise to plague. It is not a meager issue, but a larger one at hand.

The effects of unsegregated waste are endless. It poses great risks to the health and hygiene of the pourakarmikas. Try putting your hand into a bin of mixed waste and chances are, you will get scratched and cut by pieces of metal, glass, pins, blades, needles, etc. They are also exposed to infectious sanitary waste, hazardous e-waste as well as rotting wet waste on a daily basis. All of this because we are too lazy to use two separate bins for our waste.

When waste is not segregated, it ends up in a dump. These dumps are an environmental threat and pose many risks to other species. The film, The Plastic Cow, shows the plight of cows that were found with huge amounts of plastic in their stomachs leading to their slow and painful deaths. Many marine creatures fall prey to garbage dumping near the sea. The GreatPacific Garbage Patch is a floating pile of garbage that has been spun together by the currents of the ocean. While the patch exists close to Hawaii, there is no guarantee that we are not creating our very own in the Indian Ocean. 

Not segregating garbage affects the country at large. As residents of Bangalore, we must be proud that our municipality has at least taken an initiative to educate us to be more responsible citizens. Multiply one city's problem several times to envision the the bigger picture. A country such as India, that relies greatly on agriculture, can make great progress with sustainable living. Waste management can ensure that a larger portion of wet waste is composted and turned into useful energy.

In the current situation of the country, we must be resourceful and optimize the use of everything, including our garbage. Waste management only ends with segregation; it begins with acquiring less garbage. Go old school and use steel or glass plates and cups instead of paper or plastic ones. Carry your own bottle of water, do not buy packaged water. Carry a bag when you're shopping and refuse plastic covers. Re-use anything and everything. If you can't re-use it, pass it on to someone who can.

BBMP does need to take some more steps to mobilise this initiative – ensure better waste management by commercial bulk generators, training of pourakarmikas to refuse and appropriately collect unsegregated waste, training of citizens to understand the necessity of waste segregation and a system for identification and punishment for those who break the rules.

No city or society can make progress without active participation of its citizens. So while BBMP tackles the issue of correctly transporting the segregated garbage, we as citizens must not stop segregating. We must start segregating waste as a lifestyle rather than an obligation to the law.

I would like to thank Vani Murthy, Shyamala and their team for providing me with the necessary information and insight for this piece.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Being Indian: Independence

Whenever I feel the need to blog here, I have to find that perfect moment when I am angry but not absolutely overwhelmed by anger. But today, as we approach our Independence Day in a few hours, I am f***ing angry, just knowing how unbelievably false this day is. The one day when we paint our profile pictures with tricolours and finally come around to respect our country and celebrate it. This year, maybe we should all go out and find the first house party and beat everyone up. We should find a young girl on the road, strip her naked and try to grab every inch of her skin; for I am led to believe, that is what Indian culture is.

This year alone, I have had three experiences that have shattered my faith in the fact that I am safe on the roads of this country. Let me begin by the most common one. I was at a restaurant with some friends at about 12:30 am, buying dinner after attending a concert. As I walked towards the food counter, a middle-aged man in a lungi grabbed my crotch as he went past me. I turned around and yelled “Bastard!” and continued towards my friends. It then struck me that that wasn’t punishment enough and that this man would probably go grab some other woman again. So I went on to find him.

When I found him, I asked him “Why did you touch me?” His friend began to defend him as the man in the lungi stood sheepishly behind. I continued to explain that he had no right to touch me and demanded an apology if nothing more. At this point, two of my male friends had joined me and a crowd had gathered. My friends began to shout at them and I explained that I would like to deal with it by myself. Following the apology I received, as I walked away, another man in the crowd exclaimed, “Abey! She just wanted to make a scene!” So, I turned around and asked him if he would have made a scene had I been his sister. At this point, the man happened to push one of my male friends and the next thing I know they are about to get into a fist fight and I am being escorted to safety by a security guard. The man had a knife. While, my friends got away safe, he had absolutely no qualms about bringing the knife out to protect his ego. A knife for his ego and a sleazy comment for my dignity.

As we proceeded to leave the restaurant, I sat by the parking lot just trying to wonder how me demanding my right to safety turned into an ego clash between two men. While many of my friends came and applauded me for having “balls”, one went on to tell me that I didn’t need to be such a drama queen. To date, I try to understand the rationale behind that statement. Somebody, please explain to me how telling a man that he had no right to grab my private parts without consent is being a drama queen.

A few months ago, we parked our bike outside UB City at 10:15 pm. After returning in barely fifteen minutes, we found that the bike was punctured. We wheeled it down the road and walked back to UB City where our friends offered to take us back home in their car. As we waited for them, five men on three bikes went past us, made a few comments and parked ahead. We crossed over to the security cabin and waited for our friends, quickly realising that those men were going to follow us. As soon as our friends arrived and we got in to the car, the men got on their bikes and started them. They followed us for a while we slowed down to let one of them overtake us and noted down the number of the bike. A friend in the car couldn’t control her anger any longer and hit the man on the bike with the car door, yelling at him. He scooted and minutes later, so did we towards the closest police station, just in case.

The following day, we took the bike to a puncture shop and asked to see the tube. There were two clean slashes on the tube and they had appeared to have been made with a small blade. The men had punctured our bike in an attempt to handicap us and probably then attack us. After filing a police complaint against the bike, we went on to ask a few people around the parking lot if they had seen anything. They hadn’t seen anything but were happy to provide us with free advice “That is why you should not go out after 9, madam!”

If you ask a woman how many times she’s been felt up at all hours, wearing all kinds of clothes, the answer will be countless. We can’t even count the number of times we ‘have been subjected to street sexual harassment; it’s an experience that we have been “warming” ourselves up to since we were 12. I have been angry for years about being a target simply because I’m a woman. But recently, after watching the news, watching the Guwahati incident, watching the Hindu Activists thrash innocent men and women in a home stay, reading about the deaths of a number of women who are targeted simply because they live their lives differently, I am scared. And I don’t want to be scared because then they get the victory.

The reason I started this blog was to explore what Indian culture really is – the many deep trenches in our society that we hang on to for the sake of tradition? Or is it the way ahead? At this point, I don’t see a way ahead. Unless, everybody stands up against street sexual harassment and moral policing. Unless, women educate their sons and daughters that sexual harassment of ANY kind is an absolute wrong. Unless, the media stops running after the story and calls the police instead.

I mentioned three experiences and illustrated only two. My third experience is every day. Every day, I look at people on the streets and everybody looks like the Hindu Activist, like the moral police and I won’t deny that I am scared. But, I am not completely broken. I will NOT change my lifestyle, my choices and give up my freedom. I know today, that when I walk out of my house, my dignity is a target. My safety is compromised. While all of my posts on this blog end on a positive note, sadly today is not the case. How am I going to celebrate this special day? By going and buying myself a can of pepper spray. That, my friends, is how I am going to celebrate Indian Culture. Pepper spray. Who would’ve thought! Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Being Indian: Divorce

“My parents are divorced”
“Oh I'm so sorry to hear that”
The story of my life. Everybody is sorry to hear that my parents are divorced but they don't bother to imagine what life was like before that or what lead to it. People don't usually get divorced for no reason or selfish reasons (which I will discuss in future), especially when their children are in their late twenties and early thirties. Today, in conversation, a friend of mine said “Obviously you would have gotten over it by now!”

It's true I am definitely over it. But not only because it was a sad or bad experience in my life but because having been in relationships myself I can understand that it may not always work between two people. Especially if they have been given the permission to marry after their sun signs have been matched. Here, in India, it is imperative that the stars pronounce you married regardless of whether you're ready for the responsibility or not. Why, even in Mumbai, you are responsible to marry by 18 or 21 but responsible to drink only by 25. Why do we look at marriage as such a simple threshold to cross while it is in fact such a humongous responsibility?

I'm not a fan of arranged marriage. The legal binding of two people for life, normally decided by stars light years away. The story of one of my uncles goes like this. He fell in love with a woman and asked her to marry him. She said yes. After this, he went to his parents with her horoscope and they said “If you've already said yes then why check the horoscope?” But not everyone is that lucky. And so my sister and I are now children of divorced parents.

Yes, growing up at one time was tough. Yes, there were times I felt like I was the parent with two children (my parents). But I realized that the decision was good for all of us and once the dust had settled, we really started to look like a family again, even if it was a dysfunctional one. The point is that there is a social stigma attached to divorce and those with divorced parents. What with the Delhi police making an assumption that we will go wayward and therefore asked to be raped?

The recycling guy down the road asks every time he comes home to pick up the newspapers, “Aunty yelli (Where is aunty)?” I can never bring myself to tell him the truth, so I say “Oor ge hogidare (she is out of town).” I am scared of the very same reaction that the Delhi police had.

I had heard of divorce before it hit my family. I thought of it as common. But after having gone through it, I realized that it wasn't that common. I may not feel the need to think twice before telling people that my parents are divorced. But they need to think a few times before they can respond to it. Even if I'm okay with them just not having a response. Or even joking with it saying “Explains why you're so bad with relationships!” No, I have never had that response, but it sure would give me a good laugh.

People sometimes like to give me some comfort and say “We also went through the same thing, but just that our parents never got divorced. I know what you went through.” Recently, I took a friend up on this just to see what they meant. He said his parents too had problems. A bunch of questions followed.

“Did you ever ask them if they were happy?”

“Did you ever talk to your sister about it?”

All of the responses were negative. Well, then I'm sorry but you don't know what I went through. The journey to now was hard. It was bitter. It involved a lot of soaked up tissues. It involved a lot of messed up conversations and even a plate flying across the room. But it ended for the best.

Being a child of divorced parents, I can honestly say that divorce, as much as it is in the papers, on TV, in the movies and more is still a rare event. One that calls for a lot of sympathy and a lot of unnecessary pity. Yes, my parents are probably more liberal than yours because they have had to face the stigma of being divorced. And there is a section of society that still doesn't understand what being divorced means. I recently had to explain to a saleswoman that we do not need a romantic holiday for two (which you can only avail if you're married) because I am single and my parents are divorced. She asked about three times after that because she just didn't get it.

Divorce is not a bad thing. It may require years of thinking but in the end it can be fruitful. I see posts on Facebook that show two old people holding hands saying “In our time, if things went wrong we fixed them.” This just makes me realize how regressive even young minds are about divorce. Statistics show that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves. Does marriage petrify me? Certainly. I will probably think a million times before I commit to someone on a long term basis. Do I think divorce a convenient way out of a bad situation? No. I would rather spend a whole lot more time making a decision about the enormous responsibility of marriage than spend time later worrying if I need a divorce.

As a child of divorced parents, have I lost faith in the institution? To a certain degree, I do believe the institution of marriage is a meaningless invention. And I would certainly not choose it at this point or in the near future. But it has worked for some people and is working for several friends of mine. Marriage is a personal choice; it is a huge responsibility that will affect you and your future offspring. If you do decide to take it, give it your best. But, in the end if the institution is making either of you unhappy beyond repair, there is no harm in getting a divorce.

When my parents were about to get separated, my friends assured me that it was a passing phase and that all marriages had problems. Nobody geared me up for the divorce that was coming. And I wish they had. It took me a lot longer to accept that it is okay for my parents to get a divorce than to accept that my parents were unhappy. I just don't get the logic. First we match people up based on the sky and then we look down on those marriages that didn't work. I, for one have no pressure to get married and I am lucky. But it's high time we stopped looking at getting married as just another milestone in life. Think a million times before you tie the knot. And double that before you plan a family. With that big fat wedding, comes great responsibility.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Being Indian: Freedom Of Expression

I try to vent out my anger with this country and my fellow Indians by posting once a week. Most often, I don't feel better when I let it out but with this blog, I am able to channelize my anger productively. But now, the newspapers tell me Facebook, Google and most of these open spaces are going to be banned. This makes me mad because I know that my writings and many others are going to be targeted and defined as “objectionable and offensive”. This is an abomination because you and I are entitled to our right to freedom of expression and this does not happen in a democracy.

In a situation like this, I feel naïve. I remember in school, we were taught to think of our constitution and country with pride, a country that was for the people, of the people and by the people. A democracy. And we spend years believing how true that is and are stunned at a point like this. What part of pre-screening content on social networking sites is democratic? A cartoonist would use his drawing board to express his anguish against the many issues that haunt our society.* As much as we believe social networking is a complete waste of time, it is a common man's canvas to express himself about the same.

Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and many others serve as platforms for free speech. Anyone can log on to any of these sites and write or post a video with his/her opinions. There is no editor telling you that your opinion doesn't count. There is no authority that is preventing you from being heard. It is absolute freedom of expression where every opinion counts. The best part about these websites is that any information that you find offensive can be reported and removed. It is a reflection of the democracy that we want to see in our country.

Yes, this kind of freedom is not always used productively. It is being misused by many to defame people and to spread hate speech against certain races and communities. Desecration of religious symbols too are common but generally don't last because people retaliate and make sure that these images and posts are removed. But is the solution to hate speech controlling free speech? No. Free speech in fact is the way out of it. Free speech enables one to sensitize people to issues. It invites discussions that use rationality to help people realize that in a public forum you must watch what you say. And this happens everyday on our Facebook walls, our blogs, on Youtube, etc. Most people are using these mediums responsibly, very well knowing that they are accountable for what they say thanks to traceable unique IP addresses.

While many us waste a lot of time on the internet browsing memes and taking stupid tests, the web is also being used productively to implement change in the society. The internet has helped mobilize many movements – today more people know about Irom Sharmila's protest thanks to pages and posts while Anna Hazare received attention from mainstream media. People are able to be vocal about their support by signing petitions from the convenience of their desks. The Ugly Indian on their birthday using Facebook, made people get out of their comfort zones and clean up parts of their neighbourhood. For activists, the reach is endless, it is no longer local – an activist can gather support for a cause from across the globe. As we speak, people are contributing money to buy this child a real drum kit to play on. That is the power of the web.

The internet is also a rich source of knowledge and is extensively used by students and working professionals to keep themselves up to date with the fast changing world. Harish Gupta from Bengali Market was recently quoted in the news stating that the children in his school often use Google to write their assignments. This received criticism from many stating that there is a lot of pornographic content on the internet and that children should be protected from the internet rather than encouraged to use it for educational purposes. This is absolutely irrational. This is saying we shouldn't step out of our houses as coconuts may fall and land on our heads. What is necessary instead is to educate parents and children to use this medium safely. Plenty of software is available to prevent pornographic and offensive content from showing up on search engines. A number of controls are already in place to prevent this. What we need is a better understanding of this medium rather than a ban.

My biggest concern however is how this is going to affect artists. A few years ago, social networking opened up countless opportunities for artists to showcase their talent to a large audience, absolutely everyone who's on the internet. The entertainment industry may have suffered a hell lot with the rampant piracy of their material. But upcoming artists have gained a platform that has helped them establish themselves without going through the mainstream media. What happens to these artists? What happens to the livelihoods of social media consultants and media professionals whose jobs revolve around the web? It is not just our ability to share the mundane details of our life that is at stake here. It is a lot more than that.

But what happens if the government decides to ban these sites and takes control of the user edited information that is being posted on the internet. It is a term that we are all well aware of. It is an act that we have at some time been victims of. Moral policing. Who decides what is objectionable and offensive? My friend said my blog is sure to go if the government has its way simply because everything I say will be defined as not Indian Culture. The writer from Mumbai will surely agree with them. If the control of information on the web goes to the government, the political party in power will decide what you say, what you see and what you should think.

Right now the power to decide what we say and see on the internet lies with us. But if this ban is in place, it is going to slip away. I am sure that people will stand up to this then. But why wait? Are we waiting for them to take our freedom away before we do something about it? This is a democracy. We all have the right to freedom of expression and if there's anything money can't buy, it is that. So before it's too late, stand up to this – write to Kapil Sibal, change your profile picture, put up a status about it or write a blog. Trust me, they are listening.

*Courtesy: Cartoonist Sudhir Tailang on Big Fight, NDTV