Sunday, February 21, 2010

My name is India

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 21, 2010

The other half

My name is India

F or those of us who are diehard Mumbaikars, February is a month we will not forget for a while. Mumbai was spared a swine flu epidemic, unlike Pune. But this month it was laid low by a virus of acronyms — SS, BT, MNS, SRK, MNIK (for the uninitiated, that is Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Shah Rukh Khan and My Name is Khan). For days on end, Mumbai — and for that matter, the rest of India — heard nothing but whether a Bollywood film, which, by all accounts, is the typical concoction of reality and unreality, would be released or not or whether the will of the city's ‘super censor' would prevail.

At first it appeared that as BT and the SS had decreed that the film was unsuitable for popular viewing for no other reason than that SRK had said something they did not like, it would be pulled off the screens. That has been the norm for decades. But this time, thanks partly to SRK's star status, the people of the city said “Boo”, sort of, to the super censor, the state government pulled out most of its police force and stationed it, rather incongruously, in front of cinema theatres, and the film ran.

No victors

BT and SS claimed victory as did the state government and SRK fans. In fact, no one won. Mumbai's so called “spirit” prevailed only momentarily. It was better than in the past when the city's residents stayed at home each time there was the whiff of some trouble from these quarters. Also, rarely have Mumbaikars gone out in the streets to demonstrate for the rights of say, taxi drivers or street vendors, who are the soft targets that the SS and the MNS choose when they seek political mileage and media attention. Yet, it must be said, that even the act of going to see a film, albeit with full police protection, was an act of welcome defiance.

But the high drama, played out minute by minute on all news channels, revealed the emptiness of discussion and debate in this city of commerce. Posturing has replaced politics; violence and confrontation have replaced debate. Mumbaikars have now become accustomed to governments buckling under when these groups raise their voices. They are also used to Bollywood bowing down to the dictates of these political groups without protest. Commerce is more important than democratic sentiments such as freedom of expression.

The MNIK issue is one that every Indian should think about and discuss. What does this say about our democracy? At a recent interaction in Mumbai, Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani journalist and author of the hilarious fictional account of the death of Pakistani dictator Zia Ul-Haq, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, said that India should be glad that it is a democracy and has a judicial system that works, where someone like Ajmal Kasab can be tried. He said this in response to people in the audience who suggested that the only way to deal with terror was to seek summary justice. Hanif suggested that if Indians started talking in these terms, they would not be very different from the Taliban whose ideology they surely oppose. And he was right.

Our own Taliban

Yet, the MNIK brouhaha showed us that our own Taliban are well entrenched. They dictate what people should say, what language they can speak, what films they can see, what art they can appreciate, what books they can read and soon it could be what clothes they can wear. Is this India? Is this a democracy? Why are people sitting back and accepting this state of affairs? Why does a party, that has not managed to win a state election since 1994, dictate the city's cultural life? People of the city came out with banners saying, “Enough is enough” after the terror attack of November 2008. But should this not be the permanent slogan of a city that hurtles from one non-crisis to another?

Ignored issues

Of course, while the media's gaze remains fixed on these non-issues, the real problems that affect the lives of the millions who inhabit this city remain unaddressed. For instance, while the majority of people in the city are reeling under water cuts even before the summer has set in, and women in slums live in constant tension as they wait for water, private builders are advertising new luxury apartments with private swimming pools. Mill workers, who worked in the city's iconic textile mills — now mostly defunct — continue to wait for jobs and housing even as the real estate lobby builds deluxe towers on the vacant mill lands. And even as the city's poor, over half its population, struggle to get basic medical care from overcrowded government hospitals and dispensaries, the city is sprouting five-star hospitals offering three-room suites to its patients. The contrasts have failed to rouse our consciences, make us pause and think what direction the city is taking and who determines how it develops.

These issues should matter not just to Mumbai's residents but also to people in the rest of India. They reflect the absence of real engagement by civic society with urban development in many Indian cities that are becoming symbols of confused, iniquitous and environmentally unsustainable development. And above all, they expose the ease with which citizens and governments can get embroiled in non-issues while decisions that can make a difference to people's lives remain permanently on the back burner.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Anything learned from 26/11?

For 15 months, India was spared terror strikes. All that changed on the night of February 13, when a bomb was planted in Pune’s popular German Bakery. In the ensuing blast, nine people were killed, including three foreigners – an Italian, an Iranian and a Nepali. Oddly many newspapers only wrote about two foreigners, failing to recognise that the Nepali too was a foreigner.

In the time gap between the terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and February 13, 2010, much has been written about the role of the media and its coverage of the over 60 hours when 10 terrorists held the attention of the entire nation. News channels, in particular, came in for a great deal of criticism for their coverage during and after the terror strike. The jingoistic tone of some channels, notably Times Now, after the terror attack was noted including the way in which its anchors egged studio guests to agree that India should strike back at Pakistan. The media spilled over with pseudo-nationalism and anger against Pakistan. Any attempts to introduce some nuance, to point out the difference between the people of Pakistan and the government, and the difference between Jehadi elements in Pakistan and the government, were shouted down.

Barring a few exceptions, there was a disturbing uniformity in the tone of the media in the days after 26/11. The criticism, however, did not go unheeded. Although there was some defensiveness, several television journalists acknowledged that perhaps they had crossed the line.

It was also evident that the authorities had failed in the way they dealt with the media. In Mumbai, there was no clear centre of authority. Media persons ran from person to person getting quotes, all of them aired in real time. None of this helped create a sense of reassurance or confidence in the public.

After the Pune blast, there was much self-congratulation by the central government and the Maharashtra government on how well they reacted to the tragedy compared to 26/11. Some of this was true. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was available to the media, as was Union Home Secretary Pillai in Delhi. Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited Pune within less than 24 hours of the incident. The media were briefed by those given the authority to speak.

Yet, even this time, there was chaos in the immediate aftermath. For one, television footage depicted police, journalists and the public stomping all over the devastated site, unmindful of the fact that they might be destroying important forensic evidence. The Pune police was clearly unprepared or not briefed on how to deal with such a situation. In any other country, such areas are immediately cordoned off. It will be recalled, that in Mumbai on November 29, when the last terrorist had been gunned down at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the electronic media went berserk, trampling over broken glass, pushing their way into the hotel and even holding up burnt curtains to show viewers the damage inside. Then too the authorities failed to prevent anyone, particularly the media, from entering the battle-scarred hotel.

But even if in these instances the authorities could be faulted, has the media learned anything since 26/11 about its own responsibility during and after such events?

Perhaps not. After 26/11 there was wholesale speculation about who was responsible for the terror attack even before the government could make a definite statement. This time again, the government has been careful to say that all facts must be checked before anything definitive can be stated. Yet, the media has already made up its mind. Here’s a sample of front-page headlines from four Mumbai-based multi-edition newspapers on February 15:

The Times of India: Blast Part of LeT’s Karachi Project? Hand of Indian Mujahideen seen all over

Hindustan Times: Directed by LeT, executed by IM?

The story goes on to quote a ‘senior security official’: “It looks like a combined effort, commanded by the LeT leadership in Pakistan and executed by IM sleeper cells. US citizen David Headley is the man Lashkar used for the recce.”

DNA: Finger points to LeT-backed IM: Govt fears serial attacks

It would appear that the same ‘senior security official’ briefed all three newspapers. So what should newspapers do with such information? Run it with attribution somewhere in the paper or play it up on the front-page even before the forensic evidence has been collected and analysed?

One would have thought that after 26/11, the media had decided to err on the side of caution. But that was then. Clearly, today is another day and we are back to the principle of competition and the best strategy to capture eyeballs and sell newspapers.

Only Indian Express struck a different note with its headline: Govt. decides, terror won’t hit talks with Pak. View is knee-jerk reactions don’t help, priorities may be changed later

The second issue in the aftermath of terror attacks is sensitivity, especially when speaking to survivors or the families of those who died. Within an hour of the blast, television cameras were hounding the wounded being wheeled into hospitals. We saw undignified shots of people, some with their clothes torn off, struggling to maintain some dignity in the face of a battery of lights and camera. TV crews tracked down the families of those who had died and as usual tried to get statements despite appeals from these families that they be left alone to grieve in private. Finally the Pune police chief had to intervene and issue a directive asking media not to harass the wounded in the hospitals. No lessons learned here either.

(The Hoot, Feb 15, 2010)

(See also more detailed analysis on Infochange:

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Of marriages and money

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 7, 2010


Indian weddings have become a cliché, an occasion to display wealth and money. Where is the joy of the occasion?

Where's the fun? Does having fun necessarily mean a heavy price tag?

Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

A question of prestige? Lavish affairs...

Today, February 7, 2010, a young woman I have known since she was nine years old is celebrating her marriage. There will be no lights or bedecked thrones for the bridal couple at this wedding reception. There will be no band playing outside the venue. The young woman and her groom will wear what they feel comfortable in, as will the guests. And there will be good food, good fun and plenty of good will. And best of all at minimal cost.

Why mention costs and weddings in the same breath? Because in India, they are inseparable. Think wedding and think ostentation, heavy expenses, stress and exhaustion. Where is the joy of celebration? Where's the fun? Does having fun necessarily mean a heavy price tag?

Simple and joyous

My young friend and her husband have proved that you can have a joyful occasion without spending too much money. Their wedding, that took place two weeks ago, is one that none of us will forget. The bride came dressed in a nice, bright Kanjeevaram sari. The groom wore a silk kurta. A handful of family and friends turned up wearing an assortment of nice and ordinary clothes. Everyone met in a dark, barely lit corridor of the Old Custom's House in Mumbai leading to the office of the Registrar of Marriages. The dowdy surroundings, the persistent smells from the women's toilet nearby, the sight of a garbage dump in the small courtyard, or the general shabbiness of the environs did nothing to dampen the spirits of the wedding party. Even the dour clerk, whose job it was go get multiple forms filled and signed — each with a photograph stuck on it of the bride, bridegroom and witnesses — did not affect anyone. Mini crises, such as the lack of any glue in the registrar's office to stick the photographs, were deftly overcome, no one quite knows how.

Once the paper work was done, the fee paid, the couple and their hangers on were summoned inside a tiny room that was little more than an enclosed corridor. At one end sat a smiling woman, the Registrar, who had dressed in a nice silk sari for the occasion. At the other end was the dour clerk, him of the multiple forms. And in-between, in the non-existent space were two “thrones” covered in frayed red velvet, under dust-laden plastic flower garlands, awaiting the “just married” couple.

The bride and the groom signed various forms and registers, stood up with small pieces of paper in their hands and declared that they accepted each other as husband and wife. Thanks to friends who had a sense of occasion, they were handed garlands with real flowers that they put around each other's necks. There was much hilarity and noise as all this was happening. The Registrar seemed to enjoy it all. I'm not sure the expression on the face of the dour-faced clerk changed. All that remained then was for the newly married couple to sit on the “thrones”, wait for the sickly yellow light to be turned on, and smile and pose for wedding pictures.

That done, the wedding party of around a dozen trooped to the best known Irani restaurant in Mumbai and devoured vast quantities of its signature dishes. In a couple of hours, the wedding was over, the couple were unstressed and happy, the family and friends were satisfied, and everyone went home knowing that they had just witnessed one of the best weddings ever.


Why go on about this wedding, you might ask? I do so because the Indian wedding has now become such a cliché. There is something almost automatic about the way it is planned and performed. Traditions are all mixed up. North and South have merged in certain customs. And all parts are united in one thing — it is an occasion when vast quantities of money must be spent and put on display. The compatibility or future happiness of the couple involved seems almost incidental.

The wedding I describe above came to mind on reading that the government is trying to tighten the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 by making it mandatory for couples to inform the dowry prohibition officer about all gifts exchanged during the wedding. Such a measure will, some believe, help the woman to reclaim her “dowry” if she leaves or is forced to leave the marital home. But can such a rule ever be implemented in this country? Whether you call it dowry, or something else, the “gifts” exchanged during weddings — most often a one-way traffic from the girl's side to the boy's — are beyond belief. Officially, they are not “dowry”. Yet everyone knows that the girl's welcome in the marital home is closely tied to the quantity of these “gifts”.

And what about the expenses that the girl's family is expected to incur for the wedding? Again, this is not called “dowry”, nor is it a “gift”, yet if money is not spent according to the norms set by the boy's family, it is the girl who will have to pay the price. So parents have no choice, or so they believe. In the end, law or no law, the value of a human being is being quantified in crude commercial terms. What does any of this have to do with “holy matrimony” or women's rights?

The real tragedy of the increasingly consumerist culture in which we live today is that young people, who one would expect are capable of thinking outside the box, who should have the courage to assert what they want, are either going on unquestioningly with wasteful traditions, or are even endorsing them. As a result, any desire to curb expenditure that existed in a generation that came out of the National Movement is now so thoroughly buried that one wonders whether it will ever surface again.

That's why the wedding I write about was such a pleasant change and an example of how young people can think for themselves, can decide to be different, and can still create a joyful and meaningful experience not just for themselves but for others.

(To read the original article, click on the link above)