Friday, May 21, 2010

Identity Issues

This post is seriously overdue. 
My friends have commented on the previous post and raised pertinent issues. One of the foremost of these  being a displeasure with my interpretation of the Gita. As I had stated earlier, I am not claiming that mine is the definitive interpretation. However, I will not accept it to be wrong. An interpretation cannot be declared right or wrong; the critic can at best ask for a justification or an argument to support one's hypothesis. 
It is generally agreed that Arjuna was advised to do his duty. While I go with that part of the common interpretation, I would like to ask the following questions: 
1. Duty towards whom?
2. Duty for what?
3. Why should I not worry about the result (and in some cases the outcome) of my action?
4. If I do something how can I shrug off the responsibility of the results of my action?
5. Where does my rationality figure in all this?
The last question is the most important one. I am not demeaning faith here. I have immense respect for the faithful. It takes a lot of courage to believe in an abstract concept and to let your faith guide you through life. Also, it takes a lot of courage to hand over your rationality to an abstract concept. Even Arjuna, the Nar of the Nar-Naryana duo and therefore our preceptor, didn't do that. He believed in his hero, a human form whom he could perceive with all his senses. But his descendants outdo him. 
Most of the faithful, follow some interpretation of one or more of our religious texts. Very often they believe or are led to believe that the interpretation they follow is the most authentic one. This leads to fundamentalist thoughts and practices. While the people who identify with the group that is usually recognised as the intelligentsia feel there is not an iota of fundamentalism in them, I believe all of us are confused, for we are straddling between contradictory group identities.  
Take the case of Nirupama Pathak, a member of a professional class that is considered part of the intelligentsia in most societies. Her story is rife with contradictions. Not just the kinds of contradictions that make investigation difficult but also the kinds that make life difficult. The media tells us Nirupama was told by her father that the Sanatan Dharma precedes the Indian Constitution. He was not stating a historical fact. He was revealing the group he identifies with. Dharmendra Pathak was telling his daughter that his identity as a follower of Sanatan Dharma is more important to him than his identity as an Indian. Making such a declaration is not an act of treason in our country; nor is it an instance of disrespect to the constitution. The very same man was spending hard-earned money to help his daughter crack a rigorous set of tests to join the elite group that formulates public policy in our country. This sort of ideological confusion in more a norm than an exception in our country. His daughter was prey to similar confusions. This girl trained to become a journalist at one of India's most competitive journalism schools. She moved from a small town in a backward state of our county to the capital of the country to join a demanding profession. Probably, she set an example for dozens of girls in her town to think of careers. The very same girl addressed her lover in the form that is reserved for husbands in traditional Indian marriages. Her lover, who reminded her that she was a journalist and therefore cannot be coerced into anything, was fully aware of her rights and power as a journalist. Parallely, he seemed to have accepted her formal way of address and thereby endorsed the power imbalance between them. And as we all know, this power imbalance arises from age-old perceptions of gender roles in our society. This young journalist couple, with one of the best training in their field, were mimicking the power-structure that their parents followed; at least in form. Here is an instance of education leading to good careers but not to radical change in personal choices of social practices.
Poor Nirupama lost her life due to her confusions. There are those also who thrive in them and glorify them. The less said of the leaders of the khap panchayat the better. These men are committing atrocities in the name of duty towards their culture. Most of them might not be able to state the religious source for their diktats on the kinds of alliances they will endorse and the kinds they will condemn. They get self-righteous about practising obsolete customs and do not feel the need to give their declarations even a semblance of rationality. The leaders of these khap panchayats wield an immense amount of power under the guise of culture. And once again, the most vulnerable are the women. With their rules, these men efficiently ensure that a woman marries into a village where she has no support; a place where there are no chances of finding a connection with her natal family. With such customs, a bride enters a domain where she cannot find the comfort of familiarity, will have to set out to be amiable and create a support structure. No wonder they cry as they do towards the end of the wedding ceremony. And the few who dare to defy these culture czars are killed. 
And these culture czars of Haryana are very clever. They have declared that tradition is on their side. They now want the law of the land to support them too. And they have roped in a few representatives of the people to speeden their goal. While one would not blink an eye over their getting an Om Prakash Chautala in their team,  Navin Jindal was a total suprise. He stumped his party by identifying with his electorate rather than with his public persona of a progressive, educated, cosmopolitan young man. No wonder they have asked him to explain his group identity. 
So, Mr. Jindal which group do you identify with more? The urbane man or the jat?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Group Identity

I have just stepped out of an academic presentation of some serious research on the link between memory and self-identity. When I saw the notice for this presentation, I felt that it would not interest me at all, couched as it was in social science jargon. I gave in to a gentle nudge to 'waste my time' over it only to realise that it gave me well-researched answers to questions that have been plaguing me for over a week now.

Before all of you who have no interest in academia or academic debates stop reading, let me clarify, this is not a blog championing the cause of academia or an appeal to intelligent young people to consider academic careers. This is one more post adding to my corpus of such posts, on the need for young people to spend some time thinking: thinking about issues around them, issues that affect their lives and their choices. It is easy to take the "beaten path" and reach one's goal within the time-frame set by oneself but can one live with that kind of success if it involves trampling upon family and friends? Old question, I know. Most Indians would immediately think of Arjuna, Krishna and the Bhagvad Gita and various interpretations of Krishna's legendary advice to Arjuna. So, here is my version of that famous dialogue, it went somewhat like this:

Arjuna: How can I wage a war with my elders for a kingdom?
Krishna: Kingdom, you are not fighting for something as paltry as a bit of land, I created a kingdom for you, remember, that can always be taken care of; you are fighting for your right.
Arjuna: But is my right greater than peace?
Krishna: Well, your right might not be greater than peace but your duty of fighting the evil in the world is. These people you see in front of you are perpetrators and / or supporters of evil. Fighting them equals fighting evil. Now that, as you very well know, is a good thing. So, while you seem to be doing an evil thing you are actually doing a good thing. Go ahead, fight your family, teachers, cousins, nephews, childhood mates for this will lead to ushering a better world.

I know many of you will tell me that is an extremely simplistic interpretation of an important part of the great song. Yes, I know that. It was deliberate. Simplistic never means incorrect. Let us start with simple stuff first. Anyway, this is not an exposition on the Gita; I am using my interpretation of this famous conversation to illustrate my point.

In this famous instance, the warrior was convinced by his political advisor that he should identify the group he belongs to and act accordingly. The legendary warrior is not the only one who learnt his lesson well enough to lead his group to a Pyrrhic victory, most Indians learn this lesson rather well. We pick the groups we belong to and live by the rules of the group. Sooner than later, we learn to identify with some social groups and accept its rules. We then internalise those rules and develop our persona. People we interact with regularly can usually predict our behaviour and our reactions to social situations. That is possible because they learn to recognise the groups we belong to. The problems and discomfort begin when we shift allegiances from one group to another. Say, Arjuna decided that his allegiance lay with peace and not with helping in destroying some people identified as evil. What could Krishna have done then? What advice would he have given to Arjuna? That would have changed the Mahabharata significantly. It would probably have changed the Indian mindset also quite a bit, for we are a nation that takes our legends very seriously. Unfortunately, asking such questions borders on blasphemy. My intention, though, is to ask such questions and ask them of people whose behaviour affects the lives of millions in this nation.
Watch this space for on how group identities killed Nirupama Pathak and many more young girls in the recent past.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

One more crash

Early in the morning my husband was recalling the first time he saw the new Boeing advertisement in a newspaper. It seems he noticed the image of a flying plane before he registered the name of the brand being advertised and was suitably impressed that the latest model from Boeing was being used in the ad. Having read about a plane crash a few seconds before our conversation began, I was struggling with memories of another plane crash and was not in the mood to appreciate his obsession with aeroplanes. I skeptically remarked on his recognition of the specific model via the miniature image in the advertisement. That was just the impetus he needed to launch into a tutorial on aircrafts. Within a few minutes he complained that I was not listening and that I was simply not interested. He had forgotten that my first ambition was to be a pilot.
It is just that as a child I had not heard of women pilots in our country. Considering that I grew up in an airport colony, this kind of ignorance is appalling, in retrospect. The concept of real women navigating planes was introduced to me by my English textbook through a story about Amelia Earhart. Around the same time, Saudamini Deshmukh captained an all-women crew and once more I began to dream of navigating aircrafts. Soon my career dreams changed. I went through a range of them before picking up the area that I am trying to build a career in. Over these years I kept hoping that at least one girl from my airport colony will choose to become a pilot. I heard that a girl whose parents lived in our airport colony, before she was born, is an Airbus pilot now!
I have had a long association with aeroplanes and aviation in India, through this airport that grew as I was growing up. I was witness to its transformation from a small airstrip to an international airport. This transformation involved awesome stuff like installation of new technology to enable landing of planes after daylight hours, new radar machines and a brand new air traffic control tower along with expansion of the runway. I remember going with a bunch of kids to see the inside of a plane. I was about five years old then. It was a Boeing 727 that had developed a technical snag. The pilot gave us a guided tour of the cockpit! We couldn't stop showing off at school the next day. I remember the sudden beefing of security after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I remember the drama of a mock highjack staged to drill the then new Black Cat Commandos. I also remember running to the airport gate to see the first international flight that landed there. It brought the then French President Francois Mitterand to promote an Indo-French Friendship Program. I vividly remember climbing a neem tree to get a closer look of the wheels touching the tarmac of the first flight that landed there after nightfall. These memories are very dear to me.
The one memory, though, I'd like to erase permanently is that of a plane crash at the said airport. This was in 1993. It was the 26th of April. A very hot summer day. I was, unusually for me, cooking. My mother was not in town. My father had gone out. I heard some kids chanting noisily about a plane falling. I had barely heard a plane takeoff and somehow did not associate that plane with the children's chatter. I rushed out to the garden only after I heard the fire engines. To my utter horror I saw a tower of fire and smoke at the eastern horizon. Within seconds the fire engines whizzed past. My father was driving at top speed towards the control tower from the direction of the fire. He halted at our gate to tell me that the plane had not crashed into the airport wall and that it had fallen somewhere near an acquaintance's farm. Being at his storeroom opposite the airport wall, my father had heard the snick of the rear wheel and left wing against the stationery truck. He had hurriedly advised the truck driver to call the owner of the truck anticipating the hullabaloo that would ensue. He, then, rushed to appraise the airport manager about the probable cause of the crash and the general location of the crash site. In a few minutes he was back at our gate wondering if we should go to the crash site. I agreed that we should. And we did. The scene at the crash site is best forgotten. I cannot forget, though, that one of the airport employees was trying to convince me that the charred stump we spotted was a tree trunk while I was vociferously arguing that it was surely a woman's leg. Ironically, this sensitive man was one of the few who lost their jobs after a departmental inquiry into the crash.
To this day I don't know why we went there. For years I have wondered why my father and I felt the urge to go to the crash site. My current theory is that we felt we needed to be there because it was happening at our airport– a place that we saw changing and growing every day of our lives.
Each time I read about a plane crashing anywhere in the world memories of that crash come rushing back to me. I wonder why we are not more careful while using sophisticated technology. There could be a hundred thousand reasons for a plane crash. Many of these are admittedly beyond our control. Some of these occur due to human error, some others are caused by perverted humans and a few others owing to human greed. But the thought that hurts me most is that no prophylactic measures are taken to prevent such mishaps. Why are faulty planes not grounded? Why are technically unsound aircrafts bought for our defense personnel? Why are aviation norms flouted by builders and town planners? Why cannot people take up suggestions for constructive use of space. Check this article written by a friend around two years ago; it has some wonderful suggestions to use the old Begumpet airport. If only someone had taken it seriously this crash would have been prevented. Two pilots would not have lost their lives and the lives of three families would not have changed for the worse within a few seconds.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Flamingoes and Food for Thought

The most hectic weekend of my life ended in such physical exhaustion that I could sleep for three whole days! But the weekend was more than just a tiring one; it was a stimulating one too! So stimulating that I'm back to my blog! Although I must admit, I required some not-so-subtle nudges from Anuradha to get over my inertia.
Ever since Anuradha and Samhith introduced me to the joys of birding I've wanted to go on a birding trail with them. So when she told me late friday afternoon that she planned to sign up for Adesh's saturday morning trip to Sewri, I agreed to join them knowing full well that I had already planned too many things for the day. After the trip I had to go for a brunch, tidy up the house for a party, go for my driving class, shop for presents and host the party. Yes, I managed to do all that – to all those skeptical friends who've seen me frozen in the same posture for hours with a book in hand. And no, it was not a typical saturday for me; I'm not a socialite – to all those who are getting introduced to me through this post.
The day began with a joyful ride on a nearly empty Mumbai local and a walk to the jetty from the station. The sun had not quite done its rising for the day when we reached the jetty but we didn't get time to exclaim about the dawn. For there was a more unusual sight. The sea was bursting with flamingoes, literally thousands of them. And there was such silence that Samhith's excited, "hey look" was instantly shushed by the spoilsport grown-ups Anuradha and I turned into; however he bravely went on, albeit softly, "the flamingoes look white". Oh yes, they did! Owing to the soft light of the dawn, we reasoned in true grown-up fashion. But Samhith likes his magic as much as any six-year-old would. He adjusted his small binoculars, waited for a few minutes and declared, "they look pink through my binoculars, see". And of course they did.
We exclaimed, we watched in awed silence, we mourned human callousness; meanwhile the birds went about completing the elementary task of feeding themselves before the tide set in. Thousands of them were searching for food, while thousands of other living beings were turing into food. An entire eco system was working perfectly without any help from humans. In fact, we might have been disturbing it by our very presence. And yet, we have the arrogance to believe that the universe was made for mankind to use.
Thankfully, there still are a few people who care. Some of them were around that morning; telescopes, binoculars and cameras in tow. It was not very difficult to locate them. Soon, Anuradha and I realised exactly how wet we were behind our ears. Birds that we had assumed to be sandpipers turned out to be a dozen different species of birds. The pros in the crowd forgot about the flamingoes and gave us a well-meaning but totally unexpected lesson on the common errors in spotting and identifying birds. They patiently showed us precisely twelve kinds of waders in ten minutes within a radius of ten meters! I got a ringside view of the excitement seasoned bird-watchers feel when they spot a bird they would not have expected in those surroundings. A Black Capped Kingfisher's appearance generated quite a buzz!
The good girl in me made yet another public appearance: I fished out a pen and paper and jotted the names of all the birds we spotted. I will refrain from listing them here. In case you want to see the list, check Anuradha's blog. After having learnt about waders and stared at the graceful flamingoes to our hearts' content, we left to begin our noisier weekend activities. I did manage to do all the things I had set out to do that day and, in fact, enjoyed doing them. When I plonked into bed that night, I drifted into sleep with the peaceful picture of hundreds of flamingoes ploughing out their food.

Friday, January 29, 2010


A whole new year ahead! Good news is that I've decided to post more often on my blog. Bad news is that I already broke my resolution of blogging everyday!
Anyway, I thought some glimpses should include accounts of visits to places and reviews of books. After all those are glimpses to too, into cultures and minds.
So, here's to a lot more writing and reading this year!