Monday, December 29, 2008

Good riddance, 2008

Most people I talk to seem to agree that 2008 has been a ratty, perfidious, thoroughly avoidable year, and many of them have sworn never to repeat it. It’s been particularly frustrating because much as I’d like to quietly strangle the thing, hide the body, and move on, I can’t, because some really nice things were interspersed among the many really godawful things.

Petrol breached the $100 per barrel barrier, but mobile phones got cheaper and better. Sarah Palin came perilously close to the Presidency of the United States, but Barack Obama actually got it. The Chinese government cracked down on Tibetan protesters, but democracy came to Nepal and Bhutan. Over 400 sq kms of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica melted into oblivion, but Sariska National Park’s tiger population is looking a bit better. The global economy felt a bit queasy and then suddenly had to be taken to the ER, but we all became just a little more invested in the health of the planet. I lost a grandmother, but gained a nephew, whose facial structure I look forward to discovering whenever it fights its way out of his cheeks.

So there it is: A year I’d rather forget, but must grudgingly admire.

All this wouldn’t be so aggravating if it weren’t for my mother’s voice echoing in my head, telling me how everything and everyone is a mix of good and bad, and nothing and nobody is perfect, and that I’d better learn to take the good with the bad, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. (She doesn’t think much of my own theory, which is that if the baby’s been in there long enough it’s probably going to be wrinkly and waterlogged anyway so it’s best to throw it out too as a precautionary measure; you don’t want to risk any kind of mould.)

2008 drove me to consult a Tarot card reader for the first time in my life, at a restaurant, greatly encouraged by a glass of wine and a giddy friend. The format was to fork over Rs 200 to a mean-looking lady with green eyeshadow, who laid down the following rules of engagement: You were allowed to ask one very specific question, to which she would answer Yes, or No. I asked if a friend of mine would be all right in the coming months. She flipped a couple of cards open and, scanning the room over my shoulder for more suckers, said, No. Could you explain what the cards mean? I asked. No, she said firmly, if you want explanations, come to my studio and pay Rs 2,000. I thought the whole deal ungenerous at best, and between you and me, wouldn’t be shattered if her fortune-telling business went the way of Lehman Brothers.

All in all, it’s been a hell of a ride. My mother rolls her eyes and mutters things about the mid-thirties, and I tell myself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, although I really believe that Martin Amis is more accurate when he writes, in a bleak little book on love and gulags called House of Meetings, that “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and kills you later”.
Let this benighted year, declared the International Year of Planet Earth, the International Year of Languages, the International Year of the Potato, the International Year of Sanitation and the International Year of the Frog, cede to 2009, the International Year of Astronomy and the International Year of Natural Fibres.

I have big hopes for 2009. Here’s to that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A few good yarns

When I was three years old, my mother stitched me a little orange frock. It had puffed sleeves and a bow, and was possibly checked. I loved this frock with a passion, and via a strategic deployment of tantrums and sulks, contrived to wear it every single day until I grew out of it. It made me feel like the king of the world, thrillingly glamorous and powerful; and indeed, anyone looking at the photographs would agree that I looked very like a fat baby in a cake.

When I burst, Hulk-like, out of the orange frock, my interest in clothes sighed a mighty sigh and died. I climbed into jeans and a t-shirt, and have pretty much stayed that way. So I wondered, as I drove into Jaipur last weekend, whether I might not be a tiny bit bored at the ‘Mantles of Myth: The Narrative in Indian Textiles’ conference organised by Siyahi. The talks are free and open to everyone, and if you want to participate in special events, you can register for a fee.

It was nice to be at the Diggi Palace Hotel. I’m very fond of the place, partly because I threw up spectacularly all over it on my first visit and they never brought it up (so to speak) on any of my subsequent four visits. And also because when you have back-to-back speakers all day, it’s nice not to have to commute. I needn’t have worried about boredom; I was hooked right from Devdutt Patnaik’s pellucid opening talk, on the relationship between fabric and civilisation.

Some of the best speakers included the gifted writer Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who spoke about Northeastern textiles armed with a dazzling array of stories and cloths, complemented by folklorist Desmond Kharmawphlang from Meghalaya. Kavita Singh, an academic of shining intelligence and fluency, talked about the subversive social commentary that runs through the textiles known as ‘Pabuji ki phad’, which depict the exploits of Rajasthani folk heroes and are sung about by bard couples known as the bhopu and bhopi.

Designer Wendell Rodericks presented his research of the last many years, tracing Goa’s colonial history though the Pano bhaju, a clever insinuation of banned Indian clothing into Portuguese norms. Jaya Jaitley spoke about namavalis, or Devanagri textiles, which feature verses or god’s name, and have a particular status and ritual use. Prof. BN Goswamy talked dreamily about the delicate Himachali textiles known as Chamba rumals.

There were other fascinating talks, about women’s personal histories in Phulkari embroidery from Punjab and sujni and kantha embroideries from Bihar and Bengal; the tree of life in its varied forms; the Ramayana stories in kalamkari textiles; the Vaishnavite textiles of Assam; the ceremonial pichwais of Srinathji; and Buddhist tangkhas.

The closing session, on the narratives of a nation, featured Lord Meghnad Desai, the eloquent Prof. Dipankar Gupta, and Namita Gokhale. The whole event was capped with a haunting Naga song, Aye Kuzu Le, which is sung to pass on weaving skills to other women, and was performed by a group of Naga women.

Over the course of three days I felt my mind burst, Hulk-like, out of its indifference (a process commonly known as ‘education’). Indian cloth is suddenly not just beautiful, but meaningful. I swear I feel like spinning cotton, re-reading mythology, and reacquiring the Indian textile treasures that lie in museums in Paris, London and New York. I miss the tiny toy loom I had when I was seven, on which I wove ill-fated scraps of cotton and wool. I’m turning over, in my head, notions of tradition, colonialism, citizenship, democracy, and the sacred. I can’t wait for Siyahi’s next offering.

Yes, you should have been there. Next time, sign up.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Horace and Wilfred

The other day I met someone who had recently been in a car accident. She lifted her shawl casually to show me her arm, and the sight of her poor purpled, contused flesh from shoulder to elbow made my stomach turn. It’s true: the body revolts in adrenalized sympathy at the sight of violated flesh. It must be a self-preservation thing. Usually, when you’ve seen a few things like that, you go off the idea of seeing more.

So imagine my surprise when I came across a phrase in a newspaper article written by what we call a ‘senior journalist’ who, you’d think, might have seen a few stomach-turning things, even if only grinding poverty. It went something like: “I’d love for us to have a little war”, so it really stopped me in my tracks.

We’re hearing a lot of that these days in India, occasioned by our newfound passion for wounded indignation in the wake of the atrocities in Bombay. The people who say these sorts of things do so because they don’t actually have to go to war themselves, having cleverly arranged not to be in the armed forces or to live near our borders. They’ve got others to send to war while they spew fire and brimstone about The Enemy over dinner and a movie.

They must be thinking of the video game version of war, in which having opposable thumbs is the only qualification necessary to be on the battlefield. Some of them would faint at the sight of a blister; none of them is likely to ever have to get anywhere near a frontline; and pretty much the only thing they’ve ever shot is their mouth off. They’ve certainly never tried to imagine themselves in a conflict zone.

They possibly think that the clean-cut, whole, healthy young men and women in shiny uniforms look that way all through a war. It’s the same sordid disjunct between propaganda and reality in which the poet Wilfred Owen suffered and made his name. Owen, who fought in the trenches of the First World War, took the idea of the glory of war and destroyed it verse by verse, speaking as eloquently about mental as about physical trauma.

I have never been able to shake one poem of his that I read in elementary school. Speaking of a soldier who can’t put his gas mask on quickly enough, it’s a quiet little piece drenched in bitterness. An excerpt:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin line is taken from an ode by the ancient Roman poet Horace and the literal translation is, It is sweet and right to die for your country.

If you’re with Horace rather than with Owen, if you buy that line, then walk out the door, find the nearest recruitment centre, sign up, and prepare to die gloriously. Don’t send someone else instead.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

TV killed the TV star

You didn’t have to be in Mumbai on November 26 to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome today. Life offers very many good, solid reasons to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, but in case you were running out, here’s another one: the excruciating television news coverage of the initial attacks and the three day siege that followed. Everything you knew or suspected about Indian media, compressed into four hysterical days complete with promo montage and jingle.

Our news reporters and anchors provided screechy real-time accounts of exactly who and what was where, and when—terrorists, hostages, armed forces personnel, grenade launchers and helicopters—possibly because the force of repeated explosions and gunfire had knocked their brains clean out of their skulls, leaving them incapable of making the connection between giving the game away and more dead people, though I should mention that this is the charitable interpretation.

They stuck their mikes and cameras into the faces of traumatised survivors and the traumatised friends and family of survivors and non-survivors to screech, “How did you feel when you were locked in your room without food or water with the sound of gunfire and smoke billowing under the door for sixty hours/when you found out your loved one is missing/when you discovered your loved one was dead?” To be fair, that’s standard operating procedure; they always do this in any situation involving human pain, looking for that one maverick who might say, “I feel wonderful, just wonderful.”

They trampled all over the crime scene, providing screechy and wildly astute commentary on how there appeared to be broken glass on the ground. The camera zoomed in on it, presumably for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn’t have believed this unless they saw it with their own eyes.

They became outraged and weepy, because for the first time terrorism was targeting privilege, to which most reporters and anchors belong. It’s hard to forget the moment when one reporter came to poignantly startled self-awareness as she hesitatingly recapped an interviewee’s question about why the media were obsessing over the Taj and ignoring all the dead people at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: You mean, she said, that we in the media tend to identify with our own class?

For that same reason there was a lot of candle lighting and pontificating in the studios about how it’s all the fault of the politicians, when the same media spends the rest of its time engineering discussions not about whether the constitution should be changed to break the politician-bureaucrat nexus that is crippling the country, but about whether A displayed a shocking lack of patriotism by calling B a dog.

They seemed to figure that right then, in the middle of the siege, was a good time to pester the NSG and the police for interviews—though if that was stupid, it was stupider still for those organisations to oblige, instead of having one spokesperson who could coordinate information from various agencies and have a single press conference instead of wasting the precious time of each agency.

We saw incessant coverage of the funerals of the men who lost their lives fighting this crime, but have heard nothing of the innocent victims who lie unclaimed in hospitals. And now we’re hearing the media increasingly cry for war, because why would we learn from the experience of the US after 9/11?

Hitting out is easier than doing the very hard work of self-examination and self-correction that is missing at every level of Indian society. from the law-maker in Parliament to the beat policeman, from the company CEO to the householder. It requires us to put intelligent systems in place, and then take individual responsibility for following them. It doesn’t make for great TRPs, but we might end up with a decent country.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ask, and ye shall receive

Elections season is back in India once more, and once again we’re going to be treated to a long series of bickering exchanges conducted via press conferences and newspaper headlines. The prospect is nothing if not starkly depressing.

In India, we have in place three ingredients vital to the democratic process: many politicians (sellers), many participating voters (buyers), and many television sets (advertising and trials). Here’s an idea: Why not put them all together in a more deliberate fashion, so that the electorate has a better opportunity to scrutinise its aspiring leaders? Don’t we deserve to examine what we’re signing up for?

At the moment, all we get is the media report of rally speeches, insults and allegations traded between political individuals and parties, and, on the occasional debate show, questions put by journalists which usually fall rather far short of tough or persistent, or are entirely irrelevant to voter concerns.

The problem with most of our existing political fora is that we, the people, don’t get to ask questions. The other problem with our existing political fora is that we, the people, are socialised to be so sickeningly deferent to power of any sort that we think it’s rude to ask questions, and that confrontational questions are beyond the pale. But if we were able to suppress centuries of politesse, it would be nice to have our own chance to ask the questions that matter to us.

Like: How come your government was able to put an Indian flag on the moon but is incapable of building a road that doesn’t melt into dust every few months? Apparently building roads is not rocket science, as they say, and many countries we count ourselves superior to seem to have no trouble with it at all. Why don’t you ask them how it’s done, maybe sign some technology transfer agreements in the road-building department?

And so forth.

At the moment, we all too often let ourselves be fobbed off by replies like “The other government did it” or “We will demand a probe into the matter” or “We are doing our best” or “These things take time” or “That’s an anti-national statement”.

For some reason, Indian voters are willing to put up with much more than they should. Urban voters in Delhi breathe deep lungfuls of foul air and drink deep draughts of poisoned water—where water is available—and don’t seem to connect these conditions to their declining health, the poor nutritional value of their food, and their quality of life. If we do make this connection, we don’t sit up and make a song and dance about it.

We don’t seem to connect the state of civic hygiene—stagnant water, festering rubbish heaps, excretion in the open—with diseases that show up every year and take lives. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that civic agencies fulfil their responsibilities.

We don’t seem to connect the state of road signage and maintenance, and the state of road usage education, with the state of gridlock traffic and accident rates. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that the government find a way to enforce the laws governing how one gets a driver’s licence, and how one drives.

We just don’t demand quality of our politicians, and perhaps if we fussed about it enough, we might get it. I realise that large numbers of people will run, squealing, from this idea, on the grounds that nobody can bear to see more footage of our politicians. But if nothing else, putting them through some quality control questions would allow us to despise them for more informed reasons.