Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Cows, mothers, and cow-mothers

The cow is not your mother. She doesn’t give you milk; you take her milk (which wasn’t meant for you) away from her forcibly. Although buffaloes do precisely the same job that cows do, and supply a good chunk of the milk consumed by Indians, for some reason, nobody seems to be claiming descent from them. If providing nutrients is the criterion for motherhood, all edible plants, and animals yielding milk, meat, honey, etc., should be your mothers. If it is not nutrients in general, but milk in particular, any mammal should be eligible to be your mother.
 
Is confinement to a shed or a mostly dirty circumscribed area; access to garbage as food; extraction of heavy physical labour; administration of loads of antibiotics (therapeutic or prophylactic); crossing with quite possibly immoral studs, or cutting out the work of the studs altogether, and artificially inseminating repeatedly to stack one pregnancy on another the way to treat mothers? On deeper reflection, maybe this is why people call cows their mothers, confessing in this roundabout way that they mistreat their human associates, or at least treat them as cash cows. Also, 'bovine' is not a complimentary adjective: Try calling a human mother a cow.
 
People who do not eat meat may be going into contortions patting themselves on their backs for their animal-friendly ethos, but killing is not the only cruelty. Daily milking (by anything other than the calf’s mouth); robbing colostrum, honey, etc.; shearing; confining animals to cages, sheds, or dirty, narrow streets; and making them slog pulling loads, all involve inconvenience at best, and torture at worst, of the animals in question. And animal-rearing, particularly cattle-rearing, contributes hugely to global warming, a disservice to more than the animal species in question.
 
If you claim to be against cow-slaughter on grounds of avoiding cruelty, in the first place, you need to be against the slaughter of any species, at least, any species that expresses pain that you can perceive, and in the second, you need to turn totally vegan, since most animal products entail some cruelty in their extraction. Feel free with the urine and dung though – no cruelty there, and no bullshit.
 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ditch and varied heritage

I went on a heritage walk in the Charminar area. It involved picking my way through filthy streets to avoid litter, garbage, traffic, slush, and shit, and contriving to look up at intervals to glimpse the heritage structures I was there for. It was awful. My sense of belonging in Hyderabad may have seen me through some of the discomfort, but my friend from out of town didn’t have that buoy. I felt a blend of sympathy for her and embarrassment on Hyderabad’s behalf throughout the trip.

How can we get away with interpreting filth as quaint and cultural, and worthy of immersion in to get the true feel of a place? All the while, paradoxically, we get affronted when outsiders call our places filthy. Dirt, as in dust, mud, sand, gravel, may be mildly romantic. What is not is stinky garbage, poor municipal sanitation, thoughtless construction of roads and pavements, and bodily wastes on streets. Roadside eateries where food and beverage spills are wiped up with the same rag as the seats you are ushered into are not confidence-building.


Wastes have changed – in quality and quantity. People’s ways of dealing with them haven’t. The result is hillocks and streams of unsightly, and dangerous, garbage all over, particularly in celebrated places bursting with “culture”, unless the place has been taken under the wing of a foundation that cleans it up, restores it, and charges a fee to keep it visitable.


It is too easy to blame people for littering. But it doesn’t come naturally not to litter. The environment — physical, and socio-political — plays a vital initiating and maintaining role in such practices. If there aren’t user-friendly urban infrastructure designs; good urban sanitation policies, facilities and enforcement of rules; handy receptacles for wastes of different sorts; reminders at points-of-decision while the new behaviour is learned; and inspiration from role-models, not to mention pride in one’s home and surroundings, it is too much to expect people to keep their neighbourhoods clean, particularly when they have spent years adapting new wastes to old styles of disposal, e.g., flicking a plastic wrapper away like they used to flick the leaf and blade of grass that held snacks together in the old days.


This is a failure of intersectoral collaboration, preceded, unfortunately, by failures of each sector’s work. The tourism department puts its resources into organising visitor-friendly guided routes and schedules to showcase the architectural beauties of a place, and gets dismally let down by a set of other government departments, e.g., the local governance, traffic police, roads and buildings. Some more thought and concerted action are needed to make places habitable, visitable, and worthy of their attractive tags. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The plight of the favourite


I know someone who dislikes her boss (true, that’s at least half the world), but is favoured by him. She receives due acknowledgement for her work, opportunities for more productive work, and some aid in negotiating administrative hurdles in her professional life. She didn’t seek this special attention, and doesn’t really revel in it, although the availability of opportunities and the absence of hurdles are not unwelcome. What’s unwelcome, and not entirely fair, is the inexorable envy of her colleagues.

I know someone who through chance events (X-Y pairing, and originating in the family of a particular person) became the favoured grandchild of a certain grandfather who held a good deal of sway. The grandfather, despite being well-supplied with grandchildren of either sex, chose to demonstrate his adoration of this child flagrantly, with visible gifts and special privileges, in full view of the other grandchildren. The favoured one is reputed (by his irate cousins) to have had his head turned by this coddling, which, even if true, lays the blame at the parents’ and grandparents’ feet rather than the child’s. In any case, he earned a great deal of bullying in his childhood, which turned to private scoffing and aloofness as maturity intervened.

I know someone who is a decent, insightful, intelligent, responsible and fun person, deserving of most of the popularity he enjoys. In addition, he is a light-complexioned Indian male, of a fairly privileged community, and holds the positions of son-in-law, brother-in-law, etc., which grant him special status more or less automatically. He has to contend with the annoyance of his less-advantaged peers, of either sex, who cannot dismiss all the adulation he gets as unjustified, but chafe, all the same, at the moiety of the adulation that is (unjustified by his character, skills, or work).

Persons in power – relatives, friends, bosses – often pick one or a few of their ‘subjects’ to favour, and to unabashedly and insensitively shower with attention, gifts, and opportunities. The ones bypassed are rightfully aggrieved, and often demonstrate their displeasure in resentful silence, plentiful gossip, complaints through ‘proper channels’, if any, or all too often, in mistreatment of the favourites. This last is an unfortunate, and seldom justified, recourse.

Not all favourites are sycophants, diligently sucking up to the authorities to ensure a smooth and undeserved ride for themselves. Some certainly are, and this is not about them, the *$#@&%! Others are simple souls, wending their way through life in all rectitude, neither seeking nor enjoying the glare of the authorities’ attention. That they do not shun the opportunities that come their way does not automatically make them undeserving. And the fact that some of them merit at least some of the favour they enjoy, making it tough for a fair observer to summarily dismiss their popularity and detest them whole-heartedly, is not their fault. This is more or less a ‘poor little rich boy’ situation. Many favourites even experience a measure of self-doubt at intervals, when contemplating the smooth path that stretches out before and behind them. It can be tough to negotiate the intricacies of these social associations, various combinations of fair and pleasant.

Not having had (or at least, not admitting to) first-hand experience of such favour, but having observed representatives of both the favoured and the envious subgroups, I speak from a point of detachment and empathy!

Thursday, August 06, 2015

How come you’re in a sari?


If you’re someone who wears saris on and off, you’ve almost certainly heard that question. And chances are, you’ve answered it quickly with a ‘good reason’, e.g., I’ve to attend a wedding. / There’s a puja in my cousin’s house. / It’s sari-day in office. / I have a lecture to deliver. / There’s a meeting with some (stuffy?) bigwigs. Or the latest legit one – for the #100sareepact. Some people, sometimes, say, “No particular reason. I just felt like wearing one. Just like that.” And get puzzled reactions.


You’ve also surely come across women (perhaps you are one of them yourself!) who make urgent pre-event enquiries among friends about who all will wear saris, in fact, if anyone is going to wear a sari or not, to ensure that they aren’t alone or in a minority as sari-wearers.


It would seem that the women of today are sweeping saris off to the sides of their wardrobes and their lives, lest people get the impression that they may actually wear them for pleasure, and be at ease in them. Things seem to have reached a point where a woman who chooses to wear a sari, and doesn’t declare it a chore to some degree, opens the door to suspicion as not very independent/not very modern.


Saris have become something of a symbol of the oppression of women, and true enough, they may impose certain limits on movement, and may be heavier to bear than some other garments. A few questions leap to mind: How many of us are engaging in the full range of motion even in non-sari attire? Don’t pencil skirts, stilettos, or tight tops restrict range of movement? Don’t many carry off (literally) heavy jackets, boots and leather garments without breaking a sweat?


The widely accepted explanation for the hesitation to wear saris is that they are not comfortable. At least not as much as tight jeans and synthetic tops on a hot day, or narrow high-heeled footwear, apparently. And draping them needs skill, and/or practice, hence the legitimacy of the excuse ‘I’m not used to them’. We undertake several learning activities, such as driving, which take a lot of ‘getting used to’ with attendant (ideally reducing) risks during the process. Sari-draping is unlikely to pose as many risks, or even need as much attention for as long.


We are fast becoming (if we haven’t already become) a society that curbs recourse to traditional ways for people with professions to progressive thinking. You are exercising choice if you wear skinny jeans, or hot pants, or palazzos, or kurtis, or spaghetti-strapped tops, or Pakistani-style parallel pants trimmed with lace, but not if you pick a sari and an un‘worked’ blouse to go with it.


The lives that women lead today call for multiple roles, skills, and naturally, a variety of outfits for a variety of activities. No single type of outfit could do for everything, even putting aside the certainty that the wearer and viewers alike would get bored out of their skulls with one type of outfit forever. So, a wide range of outfits it is, or should be. And that range could easily include saris, without any hesitation or apology.


Isn’t one of the greatest advantages of being an (unoppressed) Indian the easy access to the wealth of fabric and sartorial styles that the place has nurtured over the centuries? And isn’t the sari a star player in that wealth? Why not embrace that huge variety, try a few saris, ‘get used to it’, and evaluate them then rather than a priori based on received notions of comfort and choice?


To do:


Observers: Ditch the question ‘How come you’re in a sari?’, and replace it with remarks (if compliments) on the outfit or the wearer.


Sari-wearers: If you’re asked this question, either don’t bother to answer it, or inform the asker that you prefer it to going nude in public.

Sunday, June 07, 2015


My word... bahut lamba hai!

Many seem to follow this policy: If a word meets your needs, overdo it. To illustrate,

(i)           “Weddings in Kerala are known to be simplistic.”

(ii)          “I did badly in the half-yearly exams, and decided to improvise myself by the time the finals rolled around.”

(iii)        “I’ve collected the ingredients. Now, please guide me on the methodology of making mirchi ka saalan.”

By and large, longer words go with greater scholarship. But merely lengthening a word doesn’t enhance your erudition. Some words may stay unchanged, very slightly modified or intensify with the addition of a few more letters, e.g., apt-appropriate. Others transform into different entities altogether, e.g., beside-besides.

‘Why use a long word when a short one would do as well, or better?’: That’s a question often asked, but not by me! I am not against the use of long, polysyllabic words: Quite the opposite, actually. I love exploring the intricacies of complex words. The horde against sesquipedalianism does not include me. Getting one’s meaning across quickly is not the only purpose of language. Neither is language always a means to transmit one’s message to a huge number of people. Sometimes, words are strung together for the sheer beauty in the configurations, and some messages are meant for smaller, specialised audiences. The shortest, quickest, easiest-to-pronounce word is not always the best word.

Interesting and entertaining convolutions find me a willing audience. Not words getting mauled and becoming ridiculous and unfit for their purpose, though. How do we guard against this? A simple (not simplistic) method (not methodology) to follow: Improve (not improvise) your understanding of the meaning of the words you are considering for use. Then use them carefully and lovingly. An ill-used long word leads to a more ill-used reader than does an ill-used short word!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clean? My foot!


A very pragmatic protectiveness of footwear may be at the root of people’s clambering all over train seats and berths without shedding their footwear, regardless of the dirt they are gifting their neighbours and persons who use the seats or berths after them. Many travellers go to the other extreme – walking around barefoot in a train, getting their soles black with dirt before the trip is through. A highly frustrating and uncivic traveller is the parent who lets shod children loose on the train. Are adults under the impression that kids’ shoes are untouched by dirt? Or that dirt transforms into something harmless, even pleasant, by contact with kids’ shoes? That others don’t mind their seats or clothes being stepped on by kids (not their own)? That’s one kind of parent on a train. The other is someone who just suspends all notions of kids’ cleanliness once on a train, letting kids move around barefoot, climb over whatever appears in their arena, and even escorting the barefoot child to the bathroom, a place where extra foot protection would not be out of place! The sight of a 3-year old walking out of a train bathroom barefoot, led by his/her parent in stone-studded sandals ranks very high on my list of disgusting sights.

What of pets’ feet? Many pet owners welcome the frolicking of dogs and cats on their floors, furniture and persons. Many of these pet owners are particular about the cleanliness of their homes, insisting on a distinction between indoor and outdoor footwear, washing their hands at intervals, and wouldn’t dream of strolling around barefoot in their neighbourhoods. Not every one of these pet owners, however, attempts to clean a pet’s feet when it re-enters the house after an outdoor sojourn. And pets’ feet, just like kids’ feet, do not necessarily attract only acceptable kinds of dirt.

Feet are important for Indians, playing vital symbolic roles – we touch feet, or at least dive in the general direction to signify reverence; display photographs of the feet of godmen to stimulate reverence; recount legends of a prince lugging his forest-dwelling sibling’s footwear to the throne in the capital; preserve the footprints of a bride exiting her parental home; embellish toes with rings in elaborate ceremonies; watch with bated breath as a bride tips over a vessel of raw rice to mark her entry to her husband’s home; and so on. We also, particularly if female, make a biggish fuss of the appearance of our feet, colouring the skin and/or nails, ‘curing’ them of calloused skin and cracks, and adorning them with jewellery.

But feet are by no means an exalted part of the body. In fact, that is exactly why we pay attention to the feet of respected persons – as the lowest (fig. and lit.) aspects of their body, and the only ones we would presume to access. Hence, too, our discomfiture when we step on something sacred, or touch someone inadvertently with a portion of our feet, and our speedy amends* thereafter (* touch person/sacred thing and touch own head/heart immediately).

Feet play a starring role in cleaning procedures. From the mundane washing at the courtyard before stepping into the house, and the cursory dousing before sleep, to the ritual scented rinse of the bridegroom’s / guest’s (standing in for God) feet in ceremonies.

Footwear is key in the maintenance of the cleanliness of the feet, and therefore person, and that of the house as well. Thus the traditional insistence on not using footwear indoors. Thus the particularly low status of footwear among garb/accessories amongst Indians. The shedding of footwear, ostensibly the shedding of dirt from the outside world, before embarking on any activity with even a touch of sanctity about it is customary – visiting a temple or even a puja room in a house; taking/bestowing blessings; practising yoga or a traditional dance or martial art form. But, trust people to follow the letter and skirt the spirit of the injunction: Since footwear is not allowed in a temple, people routinely make the entire trip to the temple barefoot, tracking generous amounts of dirt and contributions of spittle, dung etc. into the very place which is meant to be maintained clean and hallowed.

Why this fuss? Is it such a big deal if something from the outdoors enters a living space via feet or footwear? Isn’t the whole of the Western world sailing through life blithely hopping onto sofas, beds and chairs in shod/booted feet to reach a nail on the wall, relax with feet up, or for no particular reason at all? Don’t people routinely pack footwear with their clothes, often without any barrier between the footwear and the garments, when they travel? Aren’t modern Indians who traipse around the house in outdoor shoes and prevent guests from shedding their shoes to be appreciated as free thinkers? Are Indians too stuck up on this matter, like on many other matters? Do we need to get with the times?

I believe that if Indians are stuck up on this matter, it is a very valid sticking up. We may westernise ourselves, our clothes, food, homes, and language, till we go blue, but the world around us isn’t playing the same game. The spittle, sputum, sewage, sand, dung, urine, grease, guano, garbage, construction dust, and mud that we encounter on a daily basis is not the lot of most people in Western nations. A walk outside followed by a rapid, naked-eye examination of the footwear used should verify this. Exposure to a typical Indian road will yield a lot more to shudder about than a stroll on a Western city or suburban road. That said, even the cleaner appearing shoe doesn’t guarantee the Westerner a clean, non-toxic environment. We do need to get with the times – and understand that there is a lot more chemical dust out in the air, and on the ground, than we are aware of, and certainly much more than we are capable of dealing with physiologically. Here is a situation in which the Westerner would do well to easternise – segregate footwear from clothes and furniture, and avoid using outdoor footwear indoors. As for us, we need to review our attitude towards feet, footwear, and our token adherence to cleanliness.

Monday, February 09, 2015

W(h)ither the lungi?



The good old 2x1.2 sq m daily staple rectangle/cylinder is fast disappearing from the Indian landscape, its place taken by short shorts, bermudas, capris, drawstring pyjamas, track pants, and most ironic of all, lounge pants made of checked (very reminiscent of lungi) fabric. Why?

It is odd that as people’s daily lives have got increasingly sedentary, they have shed lungis/mundus and taken refuge in more secure cloth cases, fastened at the hip/waist, for their lower limbs. Compulsory transit and large crowds of strangers being the rule, no one is surprised at this sartorial segue for professional/daytime wear. But what of sleep? What of lounging at home of a summer evening? Why the switch to grey trackpants with a white or red stripe down the leg from the blue-checked or paisley-printed lungi or the off-white mundu?

Not everyone has the skill to wear a lungi/mundu securely. It needs to be taught/learnt and practised. And not many are bothering these days. This is much like the situation with saris and young Indian women (YIW). Where it differs from the situation with saris and YIW is at important ceremonial occasions – YIW get some expert or the other to get them into saris. Increasing numbers of YIM don’t even attempt this avenue. Too often at a South Indian wedding these days, you will find the bride in a dazzling sari, and the male protagonist in a chudidaar kurta/sherwani, liberally supplied with hooks, zippers and drawstrings, and a gorgeous stole to boot to swathe his body (or lack thereof) in safe layers. Or perhaps he will be in another kind of suit – the dark, pinstriped one which will next appear at a professional conference. No space for a dhoti/mundu, with or without upper garments.

Why are Indian men chickening out of wearing the 2x1.2? Afraid that they will look wimpy? Afraid that they can’t carry off the style? Afraid that they will be seen to be sticking to a sensible tradition? All valid fears. Not everyone looks impressive in a lungi/mundu. Poor posture and lax gait do show clearly in this outfit. Poor physique too, in some styles, e.g., the folded-up-from-the-knee style, particularly when topless. All this makes the good wearer of a lungi/mundu a sought-after exhibit, and now, sadly, increasingly rare.