Saturday, 28 March 2009

Crime and Punishment

Incest can't be punished in India. The incestuous fathers will have to be tried for rape. By not having laws to deal with particular crimes, is a society's way of choosing not to see the crime. For at the root of it all is the so called sanctity of the family. An Indian family. And it raises uncomfortable questions and the society would rather not accost them. So pretend it does not exist.

It is the same with the media. If the media takes note of an issue it is an issue. If it chooses to ignore it, it becomes a non issue. There are so many non issues for the media today. For it chooses not to talk about them.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Is the internet the new age shrink, guru and what have you

There is something about the internet. The anonymity that it offers to those who wish to remain so, and still seek out information, advice, or even give info and advice....

A young woman sexually exploited by her father, mother! and a former neighbour for nine long years, finally broke her silence and came out in the open telling her uncle about her ordeal. What made her do it was a friend on the net, who advised her to break free. Kudos to the friend. The journalists still do not have his name; all that we know is that he is a married man and gave her some very sound advice.

The 21-year-old could not tell anyone of her ordeal…suffering in silence… We learn that she did not study beyond  Class 10 as her father did not let her continue with her education. But as he needed her to help him with his number plate design business, he taught her how to work the computer.

And she found a friend online, who we are informed she has never met. When her parents (her mother was an active accomplice) pushed her younger sister into having sex with their once-upon-a time neighbour Rathod, the older girl was very upset. She did not want her young sister to go through the misery she had been through for all these years. She told her friend on line who advised her to come out. And she did.

The story has a sequel. Seeing the coverage of the sordid tale set in Mumbai on the television, a college girl in Amritsar, sexually abused by her father (incidentally a political leader!!) took courage and went to the police.

The two instances show the power of modern communication tools. Subjects which were kept hidden, to be brushed under the carpet or in dark family closets, can now be brought out into the open, debated and discussed. If it had not been for the net and the TV, the girls would probably never have been able to speak against the beasts they had as their fathers.

The stories of incest are now appearing on the front pages of newspapers. I remember while doing a study on women and their portrayal in the media a good nine years ago, I came across a shocking news item - A judge in India actually gave a reprieve to a rapist, for he felt that the man was needed at home as he had daughters who were of marriageable age and his presence was necessary for their marriages to be arranged! And there was no public outcry against this insane decision. Not a word appeared in the papers against this mad judge. I wondered at the horror of it all. Wouldn’t the girls have been better off with the rapist father behind bars?

But such subjects were rarely discussed those days.

When Anuja Gupta, set up RAHI Foundation to help victims of incest around the same time, many of us marvelled at her for taking on such a tough task. How would she reach the victims? Or would they come to her?

Anuja’s organisation has been helping many young and old women who have survived incest. She was the one who told me, “Do not call them victims, they are survivors….”

We can only applaud the two young women survivors for speaking out against incest. It must have been terribly hard… The internet made it possible.

After all that courage that it takes for a girl to speak out, the support structures are so inadequate. This is an example of how the police and our law deals with such cases, making it all the more tough for girls to speak out.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Bye, Bye Tanchoi

I saw the most gorgeous saree a quarter of a century ago in a plush New Delhi silk house. Finely woven silver grey threads spread themselves
effortlessly in a delicate floral, mind-capturing jaal design over rich maroon. I reached out to feel its rich texture, truly mesmerised. It was my introduction to the royal Tanchoi, the special woven silk from Uttar Pradesh. Soon a mother-daughter duo was by my side. I knew they coveted the saree from the look in their eyes. The mother announced "We will take it." "I was looking at it first," I announced. "Sisterji", said the salesman, "I have so many other sarees... See this one, this one..." I dug into my purse to pay him and said, "But I want this one." It cost about a thousand rupees. I found, to my horror, that I was falling short. "Here, you keep this money. I will be back tomorrow with the rest and take the saree," I told him. "We will pay you all the amount right now," said the duo thrusting the money into his hands. I wasn't letting go of it that easily. We soon marched to the owner and he agreed to keep the saree for me.

I still love the way it falls and feels 25 years down the line, with its sheer elegance and style. I marvel at the craftsman or woman who would have woven the magic, his or her heightened sense of design and colour, whenever i catch a glimpse of it in my cupboard. I found fakes in Sarojini Nagar market two years ago and knew then that the wonder saree fabric was in trouble. The shopkeeper informed me that the mechanised form was from China. I found a reputed saree house from South India, whose name is synonymous with the best of silk, stacking the fakes in its new upmarket South Delhi showroom and realised just how serious the trouble was. Oh what a fall! Were there no takers for the original? Something a friend said made me weep. She had recently returned from Varanasi, having met people who once worked the magic in gossamer silk threads, the master weavers. The mechanised fakes have spelt doom. Who will spend thousands now, when the machine-made variety is available for a mere fraction? The weavers have turned rickshaw-pullers. It has taken just a couple of years to reduce a centuries-old flourishing, artistic industry into nothingness. Will it be bye, bye, Tanchoi forever? Will no fiscal or other packages come to its rescue? Those hands that steer the rickshaw must get back to the loom.

The article first appeared in the March 20,2009 edition of the TImes of India.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Four women in search of a future

Creativity killed, Talent murdered, Growth stunted
By Shree Venkatram

This is the story of four brilliant students: Shivani, Tara, Tanvi and Anita, who passed out of school in 2004. Their names have been changed, for their story is being told without their permission. They are all at the exciting age of 21 years, getting ready to claim the world. Unfortunately, something has gone terribly wrong.

Shivani was the head girl of her school. Bright, extremely creative, she scored well in her school exams and got into a leading college, counted among the top ten in India. She became an active member of the college’s dramatic society, then its secretary and in the final year was its President. She wrote, produced and directed plays, winning acclaim at inter -college festivals. She received an invitation to perform one of her plays in Pakistan.

She spent a summer vacation equipping young people in the slums of Delhi to bring out wall newspapers. She worked with them on their writing skills and taught them how to draw and paint. She spent another holiday brightening up the lives of little children in a slum. Every day for two months, in the gruelling heat of Delhi summer, she jumped over the garbage heaps and drains to put the children, a few years younger than herself, through rehearsals to produce a lively play, that gave the parents and the community an evening of colour, joy and laughter.

She was keen to build on her creative talent, and applied for a post-graduate degree course in mass communications specialising in film making at a university in Delhi. Her name did not figure even on the list of those called for a first-round interview. India had said “No” to a person of her calibre. She is now preparing for CAT (Common Admission Test) conducted by the Indian Institutes of Management. She might get in, chances are she might not, for her aptitude lies elsewhere. But one thing is definite: A budding film maker has been stymied, throttled.

Tara went to one of India’s best schools and made it to a leading college. Her results have been brilliant. She writes lyrics, composes music and plays in an all-girl band. Highly motivated and creative, she brought out a campus newspaper, conceptualising it, putting it together, seeking ads and then selling it, along with a bunch of students.

She too had sought admission to the same course in mass communications. She too failed to make it. I do not have her reaction, but the people who know her are dumbfounded. Why are such brilliant students failing to secure seats to institutes of higher learning? Have reservations taken over to such an extent that promising students are being turned away?

Tanvi had set her heart on medicine. A conscientious student, she had scored well in school. So keen was she on pursuing medicine that she took a year off to prepare for the Pre-Medical entrance examination. While other girls her age caught the latest films, hung around with friends, and took vacations, she sat through special classes and took the medical entrance exam. India denied her a seat. But many aspirants, way down in the list from her, made it. Two of them were her classmates. She says while in school she was not even aware that they belonged to a ‘backward category’. Their parents were high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians. The children owned the latest gadgets, wore branded clothes and came to school in chauffer driven cars.

She lost a year, but what is worse, she lost the belief that hard work gets you what you want. She learnt that modern day India sacrifices merit. Embittered and disgusted, at the age of 18 she sought admission to a regular BA course.

While still in school, Anita volunteered her Friday evenings and Saturdays to teach at a neighbouring school for disadvantaged children. In college, she spent time with an NGO working for women in mental trauma. She entered an international competition and her entry, based on the work she had done, got selected. At the age of 19, she had the distinction of being published in the leading medical journal of the world. She coordinated the women’s development cell of her college and got interested in pursuing a course in development studies. She applied to two prominent British universities well known for their development studies course, and a leading Indian institute that began a course in development studies this year. The British universities gave her admission. But her parents, neither rich nor in politics, could not afford the fees. The Indian institute said “No” to her. Disheartened, she entered another stream. India has lost a caring individual who wanted to learn and work in the field of development.

Where do we go from here? Are we going to let talent waste like this? Are we going to let our politicians lead us this way?

Wake up India! Let us not do this to our best talent, to our most creative youngsters. Let us not kill hopes, but nurture them. Let us set up more quality institutes of higher learning. Though there are many fly by night institutes proclaiming to teach mass communications and charging exorbitant fees, why is it that we have only a couple of quality institutes? And what logic is there for reserving seats in courses that build on creativity? Can creativity ever be reserved?

Isn’t it ironical that 60 years after Independence we continue to look West to deliver our people from poverty and want? What kind of education policies do we have that we have not been able to set up departments of development studies in all our universities? Why are there only one or two institutes offering a postgraduate course in development studies with almost 50 per cent of the seats being reserved?
India needs to assiduously build its pool of talent. It needs to nurture its young socially committed youngsters. And it needs to do so very badly.

The article first appeared in the Indian Express.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Rowdy censorship and Deepa Mehta's film -- Water

The issue of censorship, or how some elements in our midst have a say over what the rest of us do, is troubling. We need to examine our response to such elements who decide what we should do, how we should think, and how we should project ourselves. I wrote the article on Deepa Mehta's film some years ago. What happened to the film, the protests that it faced fall into the category that I term 'rowdy censorship', where a few loudmouths scream and shout, and even vandalise, forcing the artist to move away from the locale or hide his or her work. The photo you see here is a still from the film Water showing Chuhiya, the child widow with an older one.

The article first appeared on Voices-Unabridged - The E-Magazine on Women and Human Rights Worldwide.

"Water" the Forbidden Movie

by Shree Venkatram, 10/08/06
Deepa Mehta’s film, “Water”, has been drawing crowds ever since its world premiere four months ago. It ran full house in Australia and has become the highest-grossing Hindi language film in North America for 2006. But in the country of its origin, India, it has yet to be released.

Set in the 1930s, “Water” tells the story of upper caste Hindu widows in Varanasi. Seventy-five years later, young and old women still sit in the ‘widow houses’ of the holy city, packed off there by relatives who either found it too burdensome to look after them or wanted to grab their property. Poorly educated and often illiterate, these women live a life of penury with barely a sari to cover them and hardly enough food to see them through the day. Although separated by three fourths of a century, both sets of women are prone to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Though not on reel, “Water” tells another story about politics and perceived ‘national honour’. It is a contemporary story of how a small vocal group, playing the role of moral police, curtails free expression.

Deepa Mehta, the Indian-born Canadian filmmaker, had the necessary license from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to shoot the film on the Varanasi ghats in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2000. Unfortunately, in a country that values democracy, stands by free speech and prides itself for its tolerance, the government issued license could not ensure the filming. The will of the cacophonous group prevailed. It burnt the main set of the film and threw it into the river. It shouted slogans demanding that the film troupe leave and burnt effigies of Deepa Mehta. Its statement to the press said, “They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the West. The West refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them."

Deepa dashed to Delhi, met with the minister, cleared the script again, and armed with an order that filming be allowed, returned to film. Under heavy police protection, the filming began. But after a couple of takes, the local authorities arrived on the sets, reporting that since they could not guarantee the troupe’s safety, they would have to leave.

It would be four years before Deepa would resume work on “Water” again, this time in the neighboring island country of Sri Lanka with sets made to resemble the ghats of Varanasi. The change of locale did not alter the story in any way, except for some details. In one sequence, for example, the people who go past the widows outside a temple look Sinhalese.

The protest about “Water” had a precursor. Deepa’s earlier film, "Fire", which dealt with lesbian love between two sisters-in-law, saw protests after three weeks of a successful run in cinema houses of Delhi and Mumbai. This was when a group decided that the film was “contrary to Hindu values, anti-Indian, corrupting of morals.” Cinema houses screening it were stoned and there were protest marches forcing the government to ban the film. Ironically, most of those who were protesting against “Water” had not read the script. Just as most of those who shouted slogans against “Fire” had not seen the film. Deepa Mehta said in an interview that she had come across people in Varanasi who had rewritten leaked pages of the script.

"Water" shows widows shorn of their femininity (tonsured and dressed in a shroud of white), being pushed to the fringes of society and made to beg for a living. Even the child widow, Chuhiya, has to follow the strict dress and behavior code. She is reprimanded for looking longingly at goodies in a sweetmeat shop, food a “woman” can’t enjoy after the death of her husband. Though society barely acknowledges their presence, it is not averse to exploiting and sexually abusing them.

The moral keepers of the 1930s had no qualms about the subjugation and sexual exploitation of the widows. The moral police of today gets offended because the film shows the country in a bad light, even though it has never raised its voice over the exploitation and the degradation of these widows.

Although the film has a tragic ending, the spirit in which it ends is uplifting. It is about winning when the odds are stacked against you. In a way, this is Deepa’s story—of how even with her sets burnt, her funds run out, her initial team of lead actors not able to give her new dates, she picked up the pieces to complete the task she had embarked upon. “Water” is a story of determination, of the indefatigable human spirit.

The link to the article on Voices Unabridged

More links to posts on Rowdy Censorship
Extremists frigthen us into silence

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Have a cry

When artistic freedom gets curtailed, it is time to get worried. Of late instances of moral policing are on the rise in India.

Fearing police intervention over the display of supposedly ‘obscene’ artwork, Mumbai’s oldest public art gallery, the Jehangir Art Gallery, has told Delhi-based artist Damayanti Sharma, who had booked its gallery number 3 for a show, that she could not put up some of her paintings “for fear of offending the sensibilities of some quarters”.
The shocked artist plans to go ahead with her show – minus the censored pieces – from today. “I had already created the artworks for my show. I didn’t consider them offensive at all, but when I sent photographs of 15 of my works to the Jehangir Art Gallery, I learnt that about a dozen of them could not be put up. The gallery’s secretary Karthiyani G Menon sent me back a list of my works, most of which were marked as inappropriate,” said Damayanti. Menon confirmed that she had seen Damayanti’s photos and recommended that some works be removed from her show. “Of late, we’ve faced quite a lot of harassment from the Colaba Police Station. The cops come, confiscate the art, sometimes arrest the artist – it’s embarrassing for us. We are, after all, a public institution. We’re still reeling from the legal repercussions of hosting a photograph of Vikram Bawa’s work that focused on homosexual love,” explains Menon. Vikram Bawa’s case went up to the High Court, where a private party sued Jehangir Art Gallery for vulgarity. Senior inspector Deepak Vishwasrao of Colaba Police Station, however, defended the police stance on action against ‘offensive’ shows. “Nude art or anything that offends the religious beliefs of any section of the people is problematic. It is not my job to decide whether artistic licence can be granted simply because an art work is in a gallery. We just implement the existing laws, and respond to the people who take offence,” Vishwasrao said.

To see a painting by the artist click on the link below.

Have a laugh

Appeared in the March 19, 2009 issue of Hindustan Times

Daryaganj monkey on a power trip

The police in Daryaganj are investigating an electricity meter theft. Nothing unusual in this: only the suspect has a tail.
Zafar Ahmed Khan, a musician from All India Radio filed a police complaint blaming “a monkey” for the disappearance of his electricity meter. “When our meter got stolen, everybody said it must have been the monkeys as they routinely open wire boxes in the area,” he said.
Last month, Ahmed found that his electricity meter, that unobtrusive box, which ticks away quietly at a dark corner in every house, had vanished. “No man would be stupid enough to steal something like that,” he had told his neighbours.
His neighbours reckoned it wasn’t a human being. “I still went to the police station for a formal complaint,” he said.
But instead of registering a case, a friendly cop also gave him similar advice. “He looked sure that a monkey had taken off with my meter. So I wrote that in my complaint,” he said.
The police, however, denied having anything to do with the monkey business. “It is not our job to chase monkeys. But we’ll probe it,” said a senior officer. On Monday, BSES installed a new meter at Ahmed’s residence. The police, however, haven’t made any headway.

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