29 December 2008


To Nisha, Maya and Vishaan
For me, as a reminder

I’d like to burn some crackers. They used to be so much fun, those phooljaris and those chakris, I wish I could burn some of them again...

I was till a few years ago prejudiced against the North-east chinki people. I still find them a bit strange, especially their names…

I think it’s perfectly stupid that girls should put up so much kaajal to give themselves the dark circled, supposedly seductive look. I’m quite sure they would look better without that; in fact, they do look better without that…

I think The Iliad is the most horrible text I’ve ever come across. It’s full of the most disgusting bloodshed and the most gory violence…

I find homosexuals strange, that is to say inexplicable. It’s eerie that they get sexually attracted to people of their own sex…

I’ve had enough of Christianity and I don’t care a damn about it! Those bloody Christians are pretty much responsible for the mess the world is in right now…

I love the songs Why Can’t a Woman be more like a Man and Never let a Woman in your Life from My Fair Lady and I think I am 16, going on 17 from The Sound of Music is cute…

I think the Punjabis are conspiring to take over the world, that Singh is King was the latest in their covert agenda of overthrowing all culture and art. Most Punjabis and Jats I have met are philistines with no trace of sweetness or light or refinement about them…

I think…

I think this much is enough!

Yes, this is pretty much enough. I’m sure that by now I’ve successfully established myself as a sexist, racist, insensitive, communalist, bigoted, ne’er-to-do-well, devil-may-care monster.

You know what’s more?

I don’t give two hoots to what you think because that’s what I am. I am racist, I am sexist, I am insensitive, I am a bigoted monster.

Just as you are.

Ok, perhaps that was a bit too much, eh? Perhaps you’re not such a monster...

Perhaps you’ve never ever guffawed or told a joke ridiculing nagging wives or simple Sardarjis, perhaps those of you who’re not Punjabi have never cribbed about the degenerative influence of the ‘Punjabi culture’, perhaps you’ve never thought that India would’ve been a better place had Muslims been packed off to Pakistan in ’47, perhaps you’ve never wanted to do and have never done things you know are ‘bad’, perhaps…

Perhaps not.

It would be a real miracle if you’ve never ever done this, or any other politically incorrect, blasphemous thing. Perfection in imperfection is the only perfectly human trait- all of us do, have at some point done, or, at the very least, have thought of various stupid, illogical, unspeakable, ‘bad’ things. All of us are, therefore, monsters.

Bah, you would say. Never! We might’ve thought of, or considered privately something of this sort, but we’ve never actually done anything. No siree, never! How dare you, you, you insolent, battameez brat! Innocent till proven guilty, blotless till party to the act!

And that’s the point. You’re right, one really is blameless till one actually commits the crime, one really cannot be called names till one has actually done something unacceptable…

I really am not a monster.

I know burning crackers is bad for the environment and I know I won’t burn them, even if I want to for a while.

People have the unassailable freedom to dress as they like: I dress as I choose and I definitely don’t like others to question my dress sense. I may comment on others, but I seldom do so vocally.

The Iliad is gory, but that’s one of its points- to fully highlight the horrendousness of war, as also its futility.

I do think homosexuals are weird, but that doesn’t stop me from accepting them.

Anybody studying Literature in English in Delhi University will agree that we have too much of Christianity. I know why, but then there is an excess, and an illogical, temporary repulsion against an excess is a very natural reaction.

I’ll stand for Henry Higgins in any pulpit, just as I would for feminists.

I do despise-sometimes hate-the Punjabis, but that has till now not blinded me to their good points. My oldest friend is a Punjabi, my favourite teacher in high school was a Punjabi, the girl on whom I first had a crush was a Punjabi, my current second-best friend is a Punjabi, my most regular correspondent and pen friend too is a Punjabi. So much so that the semi-academic paper I started with the intention of lampooning the Punjabis and blasting them to smithereens ended up, for lack of rationally justifiable arguments, praising them.

In short, I do not, like you, usually let my subjectivity adversely influence my objectivity. I may believe in something illogical and may want to do or say something stupid, but I usually don’t do or say that.

I think this is what matters.

Jane Eyre thought her rustic pupils below her, and saw her placement as their school-mistress a degradation, a move down the social ladder. Yet, by all accounts, she never let that affect her pedagogy with them- she strove to not just teach them as a schoolmistress but also train them in the Graces as a mentor.

Just so, I, for example, like some deeply misogynist songs, but I also champion women’s empowerment. I enjoy Henry Higgins cribbing about women as exasperating creatures- which man wouldn’t? I’m sure every woman would enjoy listening to a song about men in the same vein- a poem my Punjabi pen friend recently wrote lampooning men was greatly appreciated by all women who read it. These things are enjoyed in good humour, without any real intention of offence…

Which is to say that you don’t let your subjectivity, of liking a song as chauvinistic as I am 16, affect your objectivity as an analyst- instead, if possible, i.e. depending upon the case, you use the former to reach to a deeper understanding of the subject matter so as to enhance the latter. You enjoy the song, but also realise that women were looked down upon as dependants and so get a multiple perspective on the matter, something which goes along with you when you assess the situation today. You are horrified by Homer, and so get one of his main points. You wish to burn firecrackers, but don’t, for you know it’s harmful and so become a bit more understanding and a bit less judgemental because now you know how hard it is to actually resist temptation as compared to preaching.

Of course, you have to be politically correct. You can’t go around saying what you feel, wherever you feel. Yet, it’s important not to forget that you aren’t really all that politically correct, that you may feel like doing or saying something illogical or bad, but you don’t precisely because you know it’s not done, that it’s a bad thing and really not as you think it to be. That is how you improve yourself, by reminding yourself of your follies and, if not fully correcting them, then at least striving to not let them overpower you. Your subjectivity and objectivity should overlap, but only till its constructive and beneficial. It’s a very difficult task, but that's the only way to survive, for always being politically correct means, to put it as Charles Osgood did, “always having to say you’re sorry.”

Which, caring more than a damn about what you’d think, I am not.

14 December 2008

Those Brilliant Black Eyes: Physiognomy in English Literature 4

…while mediating on the very great pleasure which a fine pair of black eyes in the face of a pretty woman bestowed…
Divination, alchemy, astrology…the human mind has always had a fascination for these extraordinary arts outside, as it were, the established order science, arts which present the possibility of knowing more than what is sanctioned by the mainstream. Physiognomy, the art of judging character form the study of facial features, too is one such branch of learning which has attracted scholars and quacks alike throughout human history. This paper will analyse physiognomy as a significant reflection of the Victorian worldview by critically commenting upon its role as an important character delineation tool in the four prescribed novels, namely Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Hard Times and The Mill on The Floss, in English Literature 4. To do so, it will begin with a brief discussion on the Victorian outlook to life, go on to establish physiognomy as a paradoxical substantiation of the same and proceed then to examine in separate sections each of the said texts in context of their reliance upon physiognomy.
The Age of Science and Reason, the nineteenth century, was characterised by a comparatively extraordinary zeal for knowledge in all spheres. Rapid advances in technology were extending the frontiers of scientific knowledge, just as aggressive colonisation was furthering the sway of the British Empire. The almost sudden burgeoning of the middle class, the rise of the nouveau riche from amongst this class and the emergence of a new, industrial working and lower-middle class put the existing framework of society under tremendous pressure: industrialisation had led to a comparative democratisation, a progressive loosening of bonds in the socio-cultural hierarchy, and as a consequence mobility and advancement became the watchwords of society.

In fact, the nineteenth century can be seen as one remarkable epoch, an age wherein the continuing quest for knowledge got fresh momentum. The world was changed, hugely different from what it was just half a century ago: knowledge and ideas were pouring into Britain from all corners of the world and these same, combined with the socio-political developments taking place in British society, made the Victorian intellectual put all existing ideas about ethics, morality and culture under intense speculative interrogation. Faced with a reality of crumbling institutions, growing strife and increasing cynicism-in short modernity-definition and categorisation became one of the vital ways of setting a topsy-turvy world back in order. In this sense, the Victorian intellectual was somewhat like the Victorian colonist: driven by an almost uncontrollable urge to explore, to find out and annex by definition.
Physiognomy caters to this very ideal of precise knowledge. The idea that a person’s character can be divined by a study of his/her features has always been a captivating one: the Victorian passion for exploration and annexation combined with the utilitarian ethics of mathematical precision made it almost irresistible. Here was an ancient art which reflected the quintessentially Victorian motifs of order in flux, of permanence in mobility: such and such shape of the skull meant such and such thing, no more, no less, quite fixed, not subject to the vagaries of time and space, almost immortal. The Victorian mind, trained to be precise and accurate, could not have helped getting attracted to this art which could, by reference to some charts and supposedly unquestionable, immutable facts, reveal, magically as it were, a person’s character and personality, the innermost inclinations of his heart.

Of course, as a ‘magical’ revelation of character, physiognomy is actually at odds with the typically Victorian refutation of superstition and condemnation of fables and stories as fanciful and misleading. Indeed, it stands out as a yet another paradox in the Victorian worldview, a milieu wherein on one hand wo/men put extreme emphasis on rationality but on the other took as substantiation of their beliefs in order and utilitarian precision an art coming from the most fantastic traditions of divination.
We will now turn to examine the said texts. First to Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen, of course, is not a Victorian author when it comes to strict periodisation. Yet, in her works, and in the world which she portrays in them, the seeds of Victorian mercantilism can already been discerned as sprouting. In Pride and Prejudice itself we can see the nouveau riche rising- Bingley’s family, in spite of their claims of being a “respectable family from the North of England”, owe all their money to trade, presumably colonial trade. Victorian ideals are yet not firmly in place- after all, this is 1796 and the Romantics are at their height, yet the steam engine has been invented and we are already moving towards

In any case, Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions as it was originally called, is very much about highlighting the deceptive nature of appearances-first impressions-and so there is little reliance upon physiognomy to draw out characters. Indeed, as far as appearances go, Austen actively disproves their validity- witness this in the introduction of Wickham as having an “appearance greatly in his favour…a fine countenance, a good figure and very pleasing address”. Later, Elizabeth is appalled at Darcy’s cruel and insensitive treatment of Wickham, “a young man too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable”. Just how good and amiable he proves to be later is common knowledge...

Next, to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s reliance upon physiognomy and, to a lesser extent, phrenology is abundantly apparent in the way she delineates characters according to what their eyes tells about them.

Mrs. Reed has “cold grey” eyes, “devoid of truth”- correspondingly, Mrs. Reed herself is a hypocrite with double standards, somebody who presents herself to society as a good charitable woman but is actually something else. Then Dowager Ingram and her “precious” daughter Blanche- both have “fierce and hard eyes”, amply indicating to a good reader of faces their ambitious pursuit of the rich Rochester. Blanche’s love for him is, in spite of all her coy and pretty mannerisms, naught but a show, Jane assures herself and her readers: this judgement is later proved to be true when the Ingrams break off as soon as news of Rochester’s fortune being not even half of what they had imagined reaches them.

Rochester, a complex, multi-faceted character has, true to his personality “very fine eyes with hidden depths” and though he’s “not beautiful, according to the rule”, his inner beauty is reflected in his “brilliant and gentle” eyes when his “stern features” soften under a smile. He is emotional, prone to sin, yet a streak of nobility underlies him. Just so, for his foil St. John has no such streak of gentleness. His eye is a “cold, blue gem”, as he is himself a cold, doctorial, ambitiously ruthless man who’ll tolerate no hurdle in his road to glory.

Finally, Jane. As is Rochester multi-faceted with shades to his personality, so is Jane a princess trapped in a pauper, a figure full of the most endearing contradictions, on one hand a common governess, on the other a marvellously powerful and spirited woman, emotional and rational…her eyes are “soft and full of feeling”, “shine like dew” and a “flame flickers” in them. Clearly, eyes are the true windows of the soul in Jane Eyre.

Interestingly, through this discourse of eyes, Bronte, like Austen, disproves the validity of impressions. Rochester’s “square, massive brow” and “firm, grim mouth” establish him as a harsh, brooding, wilful man-of-the-world, yet he has those “hidden depths” which only his eyes betray. Similarly, Jane, in her Quakerish dresses and black, brown and grey coats, is as plain and as dull as a woman can be, yet her dewy eyes have a “flame” in them that shows her to be not what she appears to be. Here, as in Pride and Prejudice, appearances are proven to be deceptive.

Dickens employs physiognomy to create remarkably flat caricatures in Hard Times. The novel begins with caricaturing of Thomas Gradgrind, that extraordinarily square character. Everything about his person is mathematically square, right from his “square legs” to his “square wall of a forehead”. He has a “wide, thin and hard set” mouth and his head is “all covered with knobs”…with such a body, his voice, not surprisingly, is “inflexible, dry and dictatorial” and he himself is as rigid, obstinate and unimaginative as can be.

Of course, Dickens’ most flat character is that “Bully of Humility”, Josiah Bounderby. “A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open and lift his eyebrows up”, Bounderby is the cartoonist’s delight. Just after this unflattering description we are told that he has a “metallic laugh”, a “brassy speaking trumpet of a voice” and, the final nail in the coffin, that he is a “Bully of humility”. The connection between his features and his personality is hard to miss: it’s almost as if the latter was a consequence of the former.

Then there’s Bitzer, “light-eyed and light-haired”, his skin so “unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge” that sunlight seemed to “draw out of him whatever little colour he ever possessed”, his “short-cropped hair…a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face”. With features such as these, it’s not surprising, if not expected, that he grows up “into an extremely clear-headed, cautious, prudent young man”, his “mind so exactly regulated, that he had no affections or passions”, all his proceedings the “result of the nicest and the coldest calculation”…indeed, so cold that he sends his mother to the workhouse- and this was the sort of self-made man who was, as he later does, “sure to rise in the world”.

Curiously enough, the motif of appearances being deceptive is carried over here as well. James Harthouse is “good looking”, has a “good figure…good breeding” and “bold eyes”. So far, so good. One might have expected Harthouse to have been good as well. That, of course, is not to be. He puts “no more faith in anything than Lucifer”, is completely honest about being dishonest and is very much the “trimmed, smoothed and varnished” Devil who, being “aweary of vice and aweary of virtue”, goeth about “according to the mode”.

Lastly, to The Mill on The Floss. Though George Eliot was supposed to have been influenced by physiognomy, very little of it is apparent in The Mill, excepting, of course, Maggie’s eyes.

Admittedly, Maggie has the most brilliant eyes of all the heroines in this paper, “dark eyes which remind you of the stories of princesses turned into animals”, full of “unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied beseeching affection”…these are “such uncommon eyes” which somehow make you feel “nohow”, eyes “trying to speak- trying to speak kindly”.

These of the girl Maggie. As a young woman, they develop, just as Maggie does, to become “full of delicious opposites”, carrying forward the motif of paradox. Rightly are they described as “defying and deprecating, contradicting and clinging, imperious and beseeching”, like a “lovely wild animal struggling under caresses”. Maggie’s persona, her changing moods, her captivating charm, all of these lie in those brilliant dark eyes of hers...
Reintroduced into modern consciousness with Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, physiognomy’s influence steadily increases as one comes into the nineteenth century. A science quintessentially Victorian in its paradoxical underlying assumption of immutable universality beneath confusing, maddening diversity, physiognomy as a delineation tool served well to not just create gripping characters but also project, consciously or not, some of the primary Victorian outlooks to life.

30 November 2008

One for Men

It’s surprising that so many of us Literature-wallahs falter when it comes to men.

Ok, that was a bit too loaded; the title of this piece is in itself a bit too loaded…but still, isn’t that true?

Critical attitudes towards men are often black and white from the one pole of harsh condemnation to the other of negligence with almost nothing substantial in between. Criticism seldom, if ever, focuses on men except to highlight their deviousness, their duplicity, their sadism, their nihilism, their moral degeneracy…so on and so forth.

This, of course, stems from feminism.

Of the few ‘readings’ which are regularly applied to texts, one of the most prominent, and indeed, the most predictable, is feminism. You’re sure to come across this; critiques on the condition of women in such and such society, lengthy essays on this or that aspect of a bildungsroman of a female protagonist, intense speculations on the evolution of constructs and institutions like motherhood, womanhood, matrimony etc…these are stock and barrel strategies of modern (or is it post-modern?) classroom criticism. One begins with discussing the society of so and so period, goes on then to deduce the attitudes towards women from the given text and, with the help of critical material, concludes with an overview of the deplorable conditions of women at that time.

So far, so good. All this is right and proper. Women have suffered a lot, perhaps an inestimable lot, throughout the course of human existence. Our way of life-patriarchy-has thrust onto them innumerable privations and indignities…the annals of social history are full of the most appalling crimes, the most horrendous violence against them. It is important for all to realise the enormous magnitude of these inequities, for only when we are aware of the injustices of the past can we successfully strive to forge a better world. In this, and in many other things, feminism aids us.

Yet, like all schools, just as feminism broadens one’s horizon, it simultaneously narrows it down. An excess of feminism, like an excess of everything else, ultimately brings about subtle changes in a critic’s objectivity till the same dissolves with his/her subjectivity to morph into a more or less indistinguishable body. Texts wherein feminist readings are warranted are given overtly feminist interpretations, almost obliterating other explanations. Be it professors or students, all focus exclusively on the condition of women, on the crimes perpetuated against them, on the hazards of patriarchy, on the tyranny of men…

This is what is dangerous.

First of all, I have a problem with dealing with these issues as concerning females, or being ‘feminist’. I would much rather see them as concerning not one half (or, sadly, a bit less than half…) of humanity but the whole of this race, as being issues which affect males and hermaphrodites as well.

Secondly, and more pertinent to this discussion, is the exclusivity of these interpretations. True women have suffered a lot, but that doesn’t negate the suffering of men. Just as females are gendered into women and womanhood is a construct, so are males gendered into men and so is manhood or manliness a construct. While analysing texts to critically comment on the condition of women as projected through them, we very often forget, deliberately or not, to consider the condition of men.

More than that, we often go overboard with our criticism, blowing things wildly out or proportion, demonising men and patriarchy far more than is necessary. When Calonice in Lysistrata talks about her household chores, we immediately shake our heads with sympathy: poor dear she had so much work to do, how awfully burdened she was with all those petty domestic jobs, what a miserable life she must’ve had…Sidney’s Stella is a figure of even greater pity, a non-existent creature without a voice. In fact, the more things change, the more they remain the same- look at plain old Jane, she had a voice, but then she also suffered so many trials and tribulations. It’s so unfair…things were too easy for men, way too difficult for women!

Agreed things were difficult for women, but that doesn’t mean they were easy for men. The ancient division of labour on the basis of sex and age was very much a survival tactic. This is not to say that women are inferior to men: no, instead, this is to say that males are for the most physically stronger than females and that it is all the more efficient for the former to do the greater amount of manual labour. When poor Calonice would be spinning wool inside the comparative safety of her home and instructing slaves to do this or that, her husband would as likely as not be out in some dusty, stuffy factory painstakingly making that famous Athenian pottery or in some wheat farm ploughing with his own hands or, as is actually the case in the said play, out on the battlefield risking his life for her sake. So very unfair that men had to risk their life in battle every now and then while women would sit at home spinning at the wheel, or making bread, or washing the clothes, or tending to the baby.

Let no one perceive this as an invective against housework. Having voluntarily had some experience of cooking and washing, I have the greatest possible respect for all domestic goddesses. It is hard work, there’s no doubt about it: without our modern amenities it would’ve been harder still. Yet, that applies for men as well; their life too was difficult, their existence too fraught with dangers. Being a woman, leave apart a lady, is no easy task, but then, so is being a man, more still a gentleman, an onerous challenge. The codes of arête and dharma in ancient times, of chivalry in the Middle Ages, of gentlemanly behaviour in the Age of Science and Reason and their remnants in our own (post?) modern days…these are the constructs at the hands of which gendered men have suffered, will continue to suffer along with women. The point is not whether the latter is difficult than the former: no, instead, it is that the both, as more or less universal constructs originating from a more or less universal way of life, are equally difficult, or equally easy, and that while analysing one the other should always be kept in mind

14 November 2008

The Borgoad

To Horace, Dryden and Pope; grudgingly, to Ananya Borgohain

Here me well, guide me through,
O thou Departmental Muses of Literature few:
First thou Queen Bee,
So fair and bright!
Then King G,
Homer’s seed, eternally alright.
Next you Sh-,
So stoic and composed,
Much aft the manner of noble Octavius’ nose.
You, good M, Wife not of Bath-
Possessed, perhaps, with Dryden’s great craft!
Thou Alexandrian Grandma,
Sailing in black Othello’s wake
Greenblatt’s disciple, singing in Bradley’s praise!
You, O Chughtai, our Library’s dread Queen,
Shakespearean master, beyond gender seen.
Now to thee Banger, O Pitampurian Knight,
Thy blessings in Bengali I seek with delight!
As I do with D, in her own Paradise Lost,
Trying to find, only tragic Lucifer knows what!
And finally you, O newly come S
Atwood’s delight, in theory compressed!
Listen to my song, inspire me anew,
For this once while, descend into view,
Leaving behind thy wicker-thrones few.

Unpremeditated verse I shall offer none
(Alas, old Puritan, I shall go not thy way!)
Conscious and deliberate ‘twill all shall be
Pretentious and assuming, certain disgrace to Pope’s remedy
I shall be what I am, you’ll find here no hope.

Of childhood and teenage, little can I show:
Nature’s child (one of the daredevils, y’know),
Once across the great Serpentine Blue she flew,
Much like what young Icarus thought to do,
Then there was a blast, a grievous blow;
Sooth to say, ‘tis all the Eagle knew!

Come I now to Dhillika, so fair and wide
Looking, indeed, like an Ahomya bride!
To its tree-lined avenues, perennially new,
To Sophia’s Citadel, so green and old,
To the good Rai’s college, third of the triumvirate,
To a red-as-rose building, sanctuary of the nymphs,
To a rectangular room, lofty and out of view:
Here sleeps our Queen, our heroine great!
Resplendent in her nightie, battered and frayed,
Her eyelids heavy with the old man’s sand,
Soundly does she sleep, the four-pronged world at her feet!

Slowly comes Dawn, fiery Helios’ gentle herald,
Up rise all, to toil and work;
But our sovereign Queen heeds not a blooming whit!
She tosses around, turns her beauteous face, and
Under Morepheus’ spell, falls again in place.

Seven, eight, nine, and ten pass,
The Sun to its peak rises fast,
At eleven does a spirit gently ascend,
He positions himself, careful not to offend, and,
His Master’s orders still ringing in his ears, w
hispers thus to His beloved dear:
“Awake, O Lady, our mandrake fair!
Arise thou Augustan, thou critical Virgo great!
Take up thy Pepsodent, brush thy mangled hair,
Bathe this body, this fleshy cage,
Dress in thy outfit,
(A new one, of course, for repetition thou so incurably hates!)
Apply some kaajal, that oh-so-black soot,
Paint on some lip-gloss, spray some perfume and
So attired, mascara and foundation in place, venture out!
Great things are for thee set, onerous tasks arrayed!
Thousands to vex, millions to irritate!
KFCs to plunder, D-schools to lay bare,
Springrolls to gorge, breadpakoras to gobble,
CP to terrorize, the Metro to wail!
So arise from thy slumbers, O methodically busybodic maid,
Arise now my Lady, awake!”

So quoth this Spirit, this Hell’s angel great
Watching in earnest, fearing he should fail;
Lo! Parted she her eyelids, displayed she those orbs,
Those brown-black scourges of a zillion chickens small,
Turned she her gaze to that waiting devil apace and
Lo! she set him ablaze! and
As he burned down,
She relapsed into shade…

25 October 2008

In Defence of Sidney

To Maggie, this in spite of myself!
To Samarth Chandola, the only one who believes the author is still alive!
“I just want to make you guys aware of other interpretations.”

Interpretations. Interrogations. Connotations. Analyses. Criticism.


Why? Why do we always have to analyse, critically comment on, discuss with reference to the text every single piece of literature that we come across? Why! Why! WHY!

OK, I know I’m being too passionate, too warm for the cold, rational, balanced critic that I’m supposed to be, that of all of us Literature students are supposed to be. I know I’m letting my emotions unhinge me, that they’re making me narrow minded and with every passing alphabet clouding my judgement. I know too that you, you being the immaculate critic, just smirked maliciously at this and possibly dismissed this as the ravings of a completely deranged lunatic. Yeah, yeah, I know that.

But still, why?

Why can’t we for once let a work, or ‘text’ as we prefer calling it, be? Is it that big a crime to take things at their face value, to dismiss a complex derivation when a simple when will suffice?

“No, that cannot be!”, our critics will cry. It is the critic’s job to dispel illusions, to push back the boundaries of darkness and illumine reality with all its complex paraphernalia of layers and overtones and so on. To accept things as they are will be to give in to mortal temptation- that we cannot do; nay, we must constantly rise above and have nothing but the bare, stark, cold truth.

And when it comes to something as artificial as romantic sonnets, we certainly cannot do with anything else.

The way we critics rave and rant-hold your horses critical reader!-about interpretations and connotations and what not is enough to make me feel sorry for Sir Philip Sidney, the English Petrarch. Poor fellow painstakingly composed a series of 108 sonnets and 11 songs and what does posterity judge him as?

A clever versifier, a shrewd manipulator, an ambitious aristocrat...

Anything but a sorrowful lover.

History tells us that Sidney started writing Astrophil and Stella in 1581, after the marriage of his childhood love Penelope Devereux-whose father’s last wish too had been for her to marry him-to Lord Rich. Is it so very unnatural for a man to lament the marriage of his life-long beloved to another? For him to escape thus into fantasy with his grief and there attempt, as best as he could have, to express all the ramifications of his love in words? Consider the following…
“The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.”

And these…
“True that on earth we are but pilgrims made
And should in soul up to our country move
True, yet true that I must Stella love.”
And these...
“Peace, foolish wit! with wit my wit is marr’d
Thus write I while I doubt to write and wreak
My harms in ink’s poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers that so confuse so my mind.”
And yet these…
“Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some thrice-sad tragedy
I am not I: pity the tale of me.”
And finally these…
“I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”
Are these not brilliant professions of love, of devotion, even idolatry? Are not the lover’s pangs, his great sorrows and dilemmas patnelty visible? Is this not beautiful, uplifting, noble?

No, it’s all make believe, unreal, with dark, covert purposes. Sidney’s not really in love you know, he’s just pretending. He’s this cunning, foxy player of words, he’s lulling his readers into this fell trap of believing he’s madly and desperately in love- he’s actually projecting his own grand ambitions, he wants to impress everybody but Stella. Stella’s not even a real person- she’s many people: Penelope, the Queen, some unnamed Lady of the Court…in fact, she doesn’t even matter in these sonnets: she’s really more, much much more of an afterthought than a significant presence in the sonnets.

Bosh! If this be the truth, then I would rather believe in lies!

Yet, supposing all this were true, that Stella was just a medium through which Sidney-Astrophil was articulating his desires, his ruthless ambitions, supposing all of this was true, even then I would believe in what the critic decries as base illusions. Do not all of us need some sort of opium, some illusion, maya, to keep on living? Is truth really all that desirable? What would you rather have, a beautiful lie or a tormenting truth? Beauty, it must be remembered, lies in the yes of the beer-holder: not, certainly not, in the eyes of the cold, rational critic.

In any case, there is not value of Sidney’s sonnets today, some 500 years or so after they were composed. Yes, yes, one can glean out lots of socio-cultural stuff out of them, establish the position of women, find out the attitudes towards gender and ascertain a zillion such like fantastic things of topical interest from them. All that can be done, is done- it is the natural province of the insufferable busybody of a critic. To the normal student, the real charm, if any, of a work as artificial as romantic sonnets lies in its aesthetics, in the oh-so-romantic sensibilities which it expresses. Who has not dreamt of the knight in shinning armour, of the damsel in distress? Sure, patriarchy is bad and oppressive, but is one justified for being so when the same is so universal? Is one justified in condemning Sidney for being so when it was the only mode of being in existence?

As good old Mr Kitto said, to understand is not necessarily to forgive completely. Yet, one can still try and understand…

7 October 2008

Teri Ma Ki: An Analysis of Common Swear Words

To You Know Who and would-be Bhaybheet’s father, thanking them for their valuable inputs.
To TVS R S: thanks for the encouragement!

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘abuse’ as “insulting and offensive language” and the phrase ‘swear word’ as a “an offensive or obscene word”. In common parlance, a swear word is a ‘dirty word’, something odious and vulgar used to express anger, astonishment, shock and other such like extreme emotions; a medium of not just expression but also of pleasure, if on may say so, sadistic pleasure- of hurting people, of taking out one’s frustration by attempting to degrade somebody/thing else in a given socio-cultural context. It is a word which essentially evokes stock images and ideas: indeed, it’s very strength lies in hitting the receiver with very powerful sexual taboos and bamboozling him/her with great, onerous challenges, things in essence the cornerstones of society. A swear word is, therefore, extremely subversive, a sign of marked rebellion against established social norms and customs.

This paper will critically analyse five genres of the commonest Hindustani swear words in context of the socio-cultural make-up of Indian society so as to establish the same as a genre which subverts by direct attack at the fundamental constructs in a society as well as a set which reflects attitudes towards numerous contentious issues of topical interest. To do so, it will begin by ascertaining the nature of Indian society and then move on to discuss in separate sections the import of each of these terms with reference to their etymologies. It will conclude with an overview of the arguments so presented.


Indian society, to an overwhelmingly large extent, is patriarchal. Since the writer happens to be Indian and the readers, if any, too will be Indians, or at least those well acquainted with India, it will be not only redundant but also extremely tedious if a comprehensive description of Indian society is brought in this work. Yet, for purposes of this study, it will be useful if some salient features of this patriarchy were discussed briefly.

The father is undoubtedly the most important member of the family. The sole breadwinner, he is the solid bedrock upon which the entire family is built. The family, each of its members, derives expression, identity, from the central father figure: without him the whole structure breaks down, dissolves to nothingness. The honour of the family is reflected in his person and conduct; further, as the only link between the microcosmic family and the macrocosmic society, his role as the ‘protector’ is of prime importance.

The notion of honour, of course, is central to this analysis. The Hindustani word izzat, which is translated as “honour, respect or dignity” and hence means more or less the same thing, has various connotations. A man’s, and by extension his family’s, izzat is determined by numerous factors, most significantly by the izzat, or honour, of the women under his care. It is his sacred duty to protect and uphold the izzat of his womenfolk and it is his performance in this field, as a protector of his women from the sexual dangers outside the safety of the home in the wide world of men, which ultimately decides his mardangi, manliness, and establishes him as a mard, man, in society.

Hence, though ambiguous, honour, specifically men’s honour, can, and usually is, defined through the aforementioned parameters of chastity and conjugal faithfulness.


Let us now turn to our case studies. We will begin with one of the most elementary of all Hindustani swear words (hereafter referred to as gaalis)- haramzada.

This is a composite made of haram and zada; while the meaning of the latter is not very clear, some taking it as signalling agreement, the former refers undoubtedly to forbidden, sinful activities- things not exactly permissible in the normal framework of society. This comprises of a lot of things, including extramarital sex: the same is apparent from the connotations which the word harem brings to the mind. In fact, the word harmazada itself means progeny of an illicit sexual relationship, someone who in English is known as a bastard. To call somebody a haramzada is to question his/her (the female equivalent is haramzadi) parentage: specifically, to question the identity of his/her father. As children derive expression and identity from the father, this gaali, by effectively de-stabilising and jeopardising the same, seeks to establish a person as a social outcast, one who stands out as an ‘other’ in hordes of ‘acceptable’, ‘respectable’ people…

The very nature of haram makes it a convenient prefix for a number of other gaalis. Notable amongst these are haramkhor (one who refrains from doing what is right) and harami (an illegitimate child or one who refrains from what is acceptable), both of which attempt in their own ways to establish a person as an aberrant break-away in society and thus disorient by dislocation.


Other commonly used gaalis include kutta, saala, kameena, chutiya and thukai. The first of these means dog, the second brother-in-law, the next bastard, the fourth ignoramus and the last refers to violent sexual intercourse. As is apparent, the first two are more or less incongruous, with no evident reason for causing offence except for the fact that they are now part of genres of “obscene” language. However, the last three, with clear sexual implications, do have basis for causing offence and hence their presence in this study.


Next on the list is chode, taken unanimously to be the Hindustani equivalent of the English fuck. It, like fuck, refers to sexual intercourse in a derogatory sense, having more to so with sex that is the consequence of not love but lust. Forced sex and perversions, all of these come under the ambit of chode. Further, as for haram, the graphic universality of chode makes it a suitable descriptive suffix for numerous types of sexual intercourses, all of which, needless to say, fall outside the domain of accepted sexuality.

Chode usually refers to incestuous, extramarital or casual sexual intercourse: hence the gaalis bhainchode (one who has sex with his sister), machode (one who has sex with his mother), betichode (one who has sex with his daughter) and ladkichode (one who has illicit sex with a girl). The intention here is to establish a person as a licentious misfit with a dangerously aberrant sexuality, something which threatens the existing order of society. The fact that all of these gaalis are usually directed at men makes this genre all the more interesting as one which, by attempting to show the man disastrously incapable of performing his duty of upholding the existing moral codes of society, exploits fully the old motif of protector turned predator/assaulter. This further attempts to strengthen the ‘otherness’ of the unfortunate receiver, making him a creature who deliberately breaks one of the worst possible taboos for his own gratification.


While chode includes all types of sexual orientation under its ambit, there is another genre of gaalis that deals specifically with anal sex, something which, continuing from the nineteenth century, is widely held to be unnatural. Prominent amongst these are gaand marane aya hai, gaand sil de and gaand phat rahi he kya, both of which clearly have connotations related to anal sex. This, combined with the fact that these are generally used in context of male homosexual relationships, makes the two extremely loaded terms. All of this helps advance the aura of unnaturalness which these gaalis attempt to create.


Till now we had been considering genres of those gaalis which attempt to establish those at whom they are directed as deviants indulging in or party to some of the worst possible sexual taboos. We will now briefly consider those which directly attempt to undermine their honour by challenging their mardangi, i.e. their capacity to defend/protect the honour, izzat, of their womenfolk.

Popular amongst these are the fill-in-the-blank gaalis teri/uski ma ki… and teri/uski ma ki aankh[in this context vagina]…, both of which attempt to pose grave challenges to a man’s mardangi by threatening to violate the izzat of his mother, or mother-figure. For one, leaving the threat incomplete, by not mentioning what dire fate awaits the ma, heightens the sense of insecurity. Then, issuing such a threat, of the destruction of that cornerstone of familial and, by extension, social life- the sanctity of the mother, is in itself one of the gravest possible challenges to a man’s mardangi and therefore, to his izzat.


As these arguments conclusively establish, gaalis or swear words are essentially subversive terms which bring into public consciousness some of the fundamental taboos in a society and hence, by exploiting these fundamental fears, attempt to threaten the very fabric of that society. Not just that, by the very virtue of being exploitative, they also highlight attitudes towards, amongst other things, gender and sexuality and so provide valuable insights into the socio-cultural framework of a society.

Afterthoughts and Clarifications-

Being stuck on damn for quite some years and not in the mood to proceed, doing this was pretty difficult for me…in any case, since I have done this I intend to forget it. It’s quite a horrid thing!

To all those people who’re ready to condemn me to eternal damnation after reading my ‘description of the Indian society’- hold your horses/curses! I have described society as it is seen through the prism of conventionality: these do not happen to be my own views.

And yes, I know that nobody thinks of all of these things while swearing because unfortunately, that has become, and is increasingly becoming, quite an acceptable habit of so many people. Perhaps, though that’s not likely enough (yet there’s nothing wrong in being optimistic!), these will give them second thoughts…

16 September 2008

In Guard of Honour

To Ananya Borgohain




Life is so full of surprises. What is is not and what is not is. You never really know what you’ll come across at the next turn, what will pop up from the most unexpected corner…life is like that; that which you think you know can suddenly morph into something totally unfamiliar.

Which is exactly what happened to me and two other friends in the rehearsals for the Ramjas leg of the Youth Commonwealth Games rally.

Commonwealth Games. Splendid athletes. Noble personas. Exalted quarters. The Queen…

Abhimanyu, Ishaan and I, all three of us had found the idea of being Guard of Honour appealing. It had been on the grapevine for some days before it reached us and there was talk of a grand ceremony to welcome the delegates to Ramjas. The College needed volunteers to assist it in this very job, in making this “historical event” all the more historical, in a way, worthy of being historical. The Sports Department had issued an open invitation to all to “come and be part of this grand extravaganza”. After all, things like this don’t happen every other day in North Campus. It really was a historical event.

And we were to be a part of it.

Yes, a part of the grand extravaganza, a part of history. Our names would forever be there in the annals of history as worthy souls who answered the call, who made the making of history possible, who acted as Guards of Honour.

With eternal glory and posterity in our eyes we left the Canteen for the porch. A respectable crowd was already there- it was heartening to see other kindred spirits rising to the need of the hour. Very soon, the Sports Incharge descended into the crowd. A tall, stately figure, a firm, authoritative figure. All became silent as every eye went up expectantly to her. She began.

“You are all here to be part of history. We need volunteers to make this event a success. We need Guards of Honour…”

Guard of Honour. I heard not the rest of her speech, only the Guard of Honour part remains with me for with those very words I was transported by a flight of fancy to an old, bygone world. Would we be given swords and bayonets? What about uniforms? Would we be provided with the same of were we supposed to arrange them on our own? Where in Delhi would such clothing be got for rent? Was the Buckingham Palace prototype alright or would we be required to go further back in time? What about cannons, would they be brought in as well?

All these questions assailed me, vexed me from all sides till I broke off to find the Sports Incharge done with her pep-talk and now giving instructions to her minions. We were told to form a line, a human chain that would stretch across the length of the chosen path. Seeing this as my chance, I took the lead and with my honourable companions in tow, went ahead to be at the head of the line.

We three had almost done that when a few female classmates who were passing by spotted us and stopped in their tracks to comment on what they saw. With a mischievous, almost derogatory, smile, Ananya Borgohain asked us what we were up to. Ishaan explained the reasons for our presence there- the Youth Commonwealth Games Rally, the dire need for volunteers, the glorious event we were to be an integral part of. To all this I haughtily added that we were to be Guards of Honour.

I still remember that instantaneous burst of laughter.

“Humph!” I thought, “What do these Philistines, these wretched barbarians, know of honour! Let ignorant fools laugh- who cares about their incongruous cackle!” Raising my chin an extra inch or so above the usual level, I turned to look in a direction where creatures as hateful as these were not present to offend the sight. That was the end of that encounter.

Meanwhile, while all these aspersions were being cast on our honourable task, more kindred souls joined the group and the line, with I its honourable head, inched forward.

Half an hour later, it was still inching forward- and it wasn’t even halfway through the entire length of the designated road. With the sun glowering on my back and the humid monsoon clime sucking out the life from my frame, my strength started failing. Yet, it was just the flesh which was tired: the mind, the Spirit, was raring to go in pursuit of that exalted end, to be a Guard of Honour…

Another fifteen minutes passed. By this time I was fairly tired. My bag is seldom light and what with the added baggage of the new found Honour, the weight on my shoulders seemed more and more out of the ordinary. I was sweaty, thirsty, hungry and tired- in short, wanted to take a rest, sit down and relax. But this was an honourable errand for which I had voluntarily enlisted myself, to have deserted my honourable post now would have been sheer sacrilege. So what if the other, equally honourable kindred souls had fallen- they were greater fools and to be ridiculed even more than Ms Borgohain and Co. for failing to understand the gravity of the task which they were honour bound to see through. Let others fall, Anubhav Pradhan is an honourable man…

Yes, an honourable man. So honourable that even when the other two suggested, after yet another quarter of an hour had elapsed, that we leave this now fruitless task I at once rallied them to stand and see the whole affair to its logical end. That, gentlemen, was the only honourable thing to do- to honourably see the honourable job to its end.

Hark! What was that! A call from the nether ends of the line! Attention! A call to duty, to arms and to honour! The time had come at last, honour, true honour, was now to be rewarded!

Down the beaten road came the Sports Incharge and her entourage, now jogging, now running. Now was the time. Chin raised high in proud determination, I joined my legs together in attention and positioned my right hand by my side (the left already being behind the back) in readiness for a salute. Her at-first-incomprehensible call to the honourable souls in eager attendance now became audible. The order was to “raise your hands, raise your hands high up in the air”.

I was ready. This was to be the crowning glory of my honourable life. A fitting tribute to not just that which was being honoured but also that which was honourable.

“Raise your hands high up in the air”, came the inexorable cry of the Sports Incharge and as I raised mine in a prefect salute came her final injunction- “Clap!”

20 August 2008

Lost in Transaction: Gurgaon to Karol Bagh

“Well I’ll be damned!”

As I stood on a dusty, excessively pot-holed road with equally dusty and pot-holed vistas on either side, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was damned…

Let me start from the beginning. My prospects hadn’t been so damning then; indeed, things had been on a roll and there was every chance that the mission on which I was about to embark would end in naught but victory and satiation.

Yes, I had been confident that I would make it safely, if not comfortably, to Karol Bagh from Gurgaon.

After a year’s experience of shuttling around town in Delhi’s notorious buses, I had acquired the air of a seasoned traveller. I had been there, done that. The very route which I usually took from home to North Campus was a circuitous one, slowly traversing two urban villages and the dreadful Azadpur Mandi. Only Bluelines plied on this narrow, bumpy and serpentine route and jams were not rare occurrences. Yet, I had seen it all off, had emerged with my body and, more importantly, my sanity intact. I had passed the test; I was now an established traveller.

With so much experience in my kitty, taking the straight road from Gurgaon to Delhi seemed child’s play to me. The expressway was smooth, the inter-state bus frequency tolerable, the luggage on my shoulders light- what more could a seasoned traveller like me have needed?


In a case fit for demonstration of Murphy’s inexorable Law, everything which could’ve gone wrong did go wrong.

To begin with, just as I reached the bus stop at IFFCO Chowk the monsoon clouds which had till then been promising good weather parted to reveal a merciless Sun. The breeze stopped in its track and suddenly things began to look different.

Now, all those poor souls who have taken the Delhi bus from Gurgaon’s IFFCO Chowk know that it’s a harsh, hostile place. There is no bus stop on the Delhi side of the road, no tree to give its blessed shade to the hapless people awaiting their tryst with destiny. In mid-summer May the place is hell; in humid, sunny July, it’s worse than hell.

Fifteen minutes in that worse-than-hell were enough to not just drench me with sweat but also make me impatient with frustration. All the buses which had appeared till now were the Dhaula Kuan ones, the people standing there could not tell when last a Karol Bagh bus had been sighted. All of this combined with the humidity was threatening to unhinge me; I yearned for some action, for something to happen, to escape this torture by any means.

I boarded the next Dhaula Kuana bus.

So far, so good. “What if the bus ends at DK”, I thought, “I can easily take another to KB from there.” The fact that I did not know of any bus which would take me from DK to KB did not bother me- humanity was still alive and there would surely be some Good Samaritan amongst the teeming crows at DK to help me out. True this was an inconvenience, but it was far better than being stranded there waiting for Godot. I was off now and would reach the Promised Land in due time.

In due time.

At DK I was astonished by the size of the crowd. Teeming multitudes, waves upon waves of all types of humanity, boarding and de-boarding buses, going this way and that. My Solitary Man self shrank back at the prospect which lay before me. Yet, there was no turning back (literally, because the people behind me were almost pushing me out of the bus in their hurry to get off) and steeling my heart a la Livingston, I plunged myself into that dark jungle of humanity.

By now there was a conflict within myself. Should I approach any one of my fellow beings and ask them for guidance or should I trust in my own heart. The Solitary Man allied with the Seasoned Traveller cum Explorer. I chose the latter. I boarded a bus which I believed would take me to Karol Bagh.

No, please don’t condemn me outright as either hopelessly egoistical or insufferably idiotic. Its not as if I acted just on impulse; no, in deciding to board a 729 which had just come in I was influenced my three considerations, the first being that I had noticed several times while waiting for the Gurgaon bus at the junction of Ridge Road and Pusa Road a bus destined to the Kapashera border, the second being that this bus which had just come in had Kapashera boldly printed across one half of the board and the third, and most influential, being the bus conductor’s assurance that the bus went where I wanted to go.

May he rot in hell!

All those even remotely acquainted with the ways of Delhi’s Blueline-wallahs know that most of them stop at major fare change points to scoop in sawaris. Our bus-wallah was no different. He too stopped contently and let his minion the Conductor act as a vociferous shepherd to the stray flock of passengers in the human cesspool of Dhaula Kuana.

What a stop it was!

In about two minutes the bus was full with passengers, in five it was jam-packed with loads of them, in ten it was over-flowing with them, in fifteen it had become a serious contender against the Black Hole of Calcutta. All this time the Conductor kept on shoving more people inside, assuring those at the doors to get in, shouting to those in the middle to give space. Call it positive thinking or call it sheer perversity, but it’s a quality unique to bus conductors to create illusions about space. They’ll keep on telling you to move in, move in, damn it move in thorha aur till people are so close to each other that it’ll be obscene if I elaborated more upon the degree of closeness. All of them are inclined to think of their bus as the Knight Bus, a structure capable of magical bewildering of the dimensions- there’s always some more space in the middle, it’s always khali down the aisle…

These last fifteen minutes in the 729 had been far worse than those spent on IFFCO Chowk and I had almost decided to de-board when the conductor, now convinced that no more people could be got in by any amount of devious manipulations of bodies, called out to the driver, the ustad, to start. By now it had become exceedingly hot and asphyxiating and people had started shouting out for mercy and divine retribution, so the sudden movement was a welcome change. With a bang which would put Chitty to eternal shame, the bus lunged forward and started once again on the road which went forever on and on…

Reasoning that KB was not far from where I was, I purchased a ticket of the lowest denomination- the three rupee one. As the bus turned and entered the Ridge, I, displaying moves which would put many a Rakhi Sawant to shame, started inching forward towards the exit door: after all, the distance was but miniscule and in a crowded bus like that it’s always better to be at the door when your stand comes. After a ten minute long gruelling struggle at the prospect of which I would’ve readily baulked had there not been the inspiring force of freedom and fresh air forcing me forwards, when I did manage to reach the third seat from the door I unceremoniously pushed aside the arm of a man to eagerly look out for some familiar sign. What I found horrified me.

We were opposite RML Hospital.

I was dumbfounded. All I could do was to stare out helplessly as the conductor shrieked to all RML-wallahs to de-board. I couldn’t believe this, my first instinct was to then and there get out of that accursed bus: I had almost stepped forward to step out when something inside told me to stay. The area was wholly unfamiliar to me and the bus stop looked lonely. “Perhaps the bus takes some sort of long cut to Karol Bagh”, I told myself, “If that be the case, then I should stay to my post and wait and watch. In any case, I’ve parted with three precious rupees and getting down will only result in more ill-advised karcha.”

Had I but followed the promptings of my heart! Had I not been such a Scrooge!

Assured with that flawless piece of logical analysis and deduction, I stayed on. The bus now turned into an area unknown to me even by name and went along roads which I never before had taken. With each passing minute my anxiety grew and I had once again decided to de-board at the next stop when I saw the rotund figure of the Grand Post Office come in sight. To my strained heart it was as the oasis is to the desert traveller. There was a way from the GPO to Karol Bagh, I knew that there was. The mystery seemed all but solved now. I chided myself for being my mother. I had been impatient; this must serve forevermore as a lesson in patience. A jam on the road ahead was visible, but arguing in the temperance of all worldly things, I braced myself to overcome that final hurdle with forbearance and lo and behold arrive at my destination.

We humans have a marvellous capacity for self-delusion. Even after half an hour in that wretched traffic jam and out of that on to Parliament Street, I still believed that the bus would take me to KB.

And why not, when there are others to contribute to our myths as well. The turn into Parliament Street saw me once again question myself and in desperation I asked the man standing next to me whether the bus went or passes through Karol Bagh.

May he too rot in hell!

As the bus passed alongside Outer Circle, I could not help feeling triumphant. Yes, triumphant. I was sure, cock-sure, that the bus was going to turn into Panchkuian and then go to Karol Bagh. “What if it did not enter Pusa Road from the Ridge?” I told my sceptical part, “Many buses have variations in routes and it seems that this is just one of them.”

Oh had it been that! Had it been that!

From Outer Circle to Minto Bridge, from Minto Bridge to New Delhi Station.

New Delhi Station. That was it. That was where the Sceptic rose in furious revolt. I could stand it longer. I had suffered innumerable privations in the course of the last two hours: had been shoved and pushed, been subject to immense body odour and other earthly smells, grazed by other men’s private parts…I could take it no longer. I had to find out-for sure this time-whether or not this bus was going to Karol Bagh. I made my way to a middle-aged Jat who was boasting to all around him his knowledge of Delhi’s buses and in general behaving very much like an animate bus-Bradshaw and asked him this simple question: “Excuse me, kya yai bus Karol Bagh jayegee?”

The look of incredulity on his ruddy face gave me my answer.

In between loud exclamations of surprise and pity at beholding such a pitiable specimen of the human race, he managed to confirm what then I already knew. Never in mortal human history had this route passed through anyplace near Karol Bagh.

That really was it. I pushed and shoved and excused and made my way to the door and got down at the first stop on which the bus happened to halt.

That was where I damned myself...

30 July 2008

Blank Noise Spectators Special

The public on the street comprises of those who 'experience' street sexual harassment, i.e. the survivors; those who cause street sexual harassment i.e the perpetrators and those who witness street sexual harassment i.e the spectators.

Blank Noise Spectators Special asks members of the public, both men and women to share what they witnessed. What was your first reaction? Was it to intervene? Was it to ignore? What did you do? What would you rather have done? Can you share your thoughts about being a spectator. If you have been a 'special spectator' , that is, intervened in the situation, please tell us how! Was it with wit and humour? Or did physically assault the 'perpetrator'? Did you walk away? Or call the cops? Or gather a crowd? Or see another spectator take charge of the situation and participate in any way.

To participate in this online event please register by emailing us at blurtblanknoise@gmail.com subject titled Blank Noise Spectators Special. Link this post to your blog, and send in your blog address. We will add you to the list at http://blog.blanknoise.org
Deadline for your post on being a spectator is August 15th.

This event hopes to be one in the series of events planned in bringing together 'survivors'(http://blanknoiseactionheroes.blogspot.com), 'perpetrators' (male only event coming soon) and 'spectators'.

In spirit!

Blank Noise Team

7 July 2008

As Counsel, to Ms Taneja

Our psychoanalyst friends will have us believe that sexual instincts are the strongest amongst all that we possess, indeed, that all others stem from it, it being the root cause of all our motivations, feelings, emotions and ailments. Yes, even ailments and diseases, for links have been established between unfulfilled desire and common illnesses such as stomach aches, ulcer and cold! These desires are ostensibly asexual, but their origins lie in the mires of sexuality. Indeed, a child’s love for his/her parents too has been analysed as one full of sexual desires and wants.

These contentions, though shocking, offending and earth-shaking, are in the most not unreasonable/difficult for the lay(wo)man to understand, provided, of course, that s/he puts aside her/his feeling of outrage and dispassionately employs her/his faculties. Humans, after all said and done, are animals- the garb of civilisation and ensuing morality and ethics with which they cloak themselves is just a natural consequence of their myriad customs, traditions, ideas and conventions, all of these being in turn inspired and supported by ideologies which nobody else but they themselves have invented for their own gains. So comes the essentially patriarchal concept of marriage, of the subordination of women in this institution (notice that man remains man but the woman becomes a wife, a creature found not in nature but in society which is nurtured by sets of abiding ideologies). So comes the concept of the parent’s so-called pure and self-sacrificing love for his/her child, this being remarkable a mixture of survival instincts and social gendering. So indeed comes the notion of devotion, of bhakti, all of which is naught but an attempt to divert unfulfilled sexual desires and channelize sexual energy towards a futile and socially ‘safe’ (read unthreatening) goal.

Yet, this is digressing from the subject. Jeffery Archer is what may be called blatant about sex and sexuality in his works, yet these do not lie at their core. I say what may be because I will not characterise the same with that epithet. He deals with the thing maturely, in the way it should be dealt, and it is, with all due respect to your cousin, only low minds with an even lower grasp of art who judge works of art with such vulgar and totally inappropriate clichés as “non-vegetarian”. True, promiscuity is present in his novels, yet it is there because it is here- in life. ‘Casual’ sex has, is and will always be a reality- it’s an assertion of the Homo sapiens’s nature, for s/he too is an animal and, as all animals, has an inherent inclination towards promiscuity. Archer’s works are not racy, saucy pornographic accounts- they represent different facets of life, different extraordinary and ordinary people in their respective circumstances. Sex is just a part of it.

Some may argue that Archer sets a bad example by portraying minors having sex. To these upholders of so-called morality I remind that Archer-and indeed most artists-are not out there to come out with conduct books and morality plays. They are there to express themselves, not to write nursery books for nannies. They have licenses for artistic creation and we must forever be careful in breaching upon them.

Furthermore, humans, like all animals, are sexual from the beginning. All animals copulate as soon as they mature, i.e. attain sexual virility; all of us in the animal kingdom have that inherent, undeniable inclination towards sexual intercourse. For us humans, these desires start originating as soon as puberty strikes with all its trials and tribulations- more often than not, they culminate in intercourse by the late teens. Consider the history of our race, the widespread prevalence and acceptance of child marriage in all of our ancient cultures, the gradual ‘taboo-isation’ and ‘Orientalisation’ of the same as Christianity, the ‘biggest’ of all anthropocentric religions known to this race, evolved and spread to form industrial democracies. Remember that child marriage was a reality in Europe also-girls were usually married by fifteen-sixteen during Shakespeare’s times. That these realities passed from public consciousness as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw industrialisation dynamically change the very nature of families is quite another thing which most people are not aware of. Indeed, colonialism and racism made it essential for Europe to pass on this as a vice which belonged only to the savage Orient.

Indeed, when it comes to sex, humans actually beat all other animals in their intensity and passion for it. All living beings upwards of cellular organisms like the amoeba have their particular mating seasons during which they copulate in select locations- it is only humans (and our cellular friends!) who have sex anytime, anywhere, whatever the season. Moreover, Darwin has shown us that many animal and bird species remain loyal to their partners for a whole season, something which most humans are in varying degrees extremely incapable of. Humans are the only creatures who have sex for just pleasure; they are the only organisms which abort their off-springs in the embryonic form. It seems that our attempts to curb the ‘beast’ within us have only made that caged creature more powerful, more virile, ever so much more prominent in our (sub)conscious.

Society as we know it today is a culmination of years, centuries-even millenniums-of nurturing which later on comes across as natural, all that is currently classified as vice is mostly an assertion of a wo/man’s deepest desires, her/his inherent inseparable, inalienable inclinations. This is not to say that every inherent inclination of ours is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’-indeed many are actually obstacles in the path of civilised life-yet we must consciously and deliberately avoid falling into the old human habit of denying everything to the animal within us, of dismissing the animal for the ‘beast’.

10 June 2008

Aakhir Bhagwan Bhi To Mard Hai: Feminism of the Common Man

In repentance, to Mrs. Sushm Malhotra

“There’s just one more thing”, I said as I rose from the cushioned chair in the Senior Staffroom “Is Mrs. Malhotra really a feminist?”…

It was an ordinary day in the last term of my last year at school- which meant that it had been awfully boring. I had just finished chatting with my English teacher R.N.-which was my favourite pastime to enjoyably while away time on such ‘ordinary’ days-and was rising up to leave when suddenly something which a friend had told me some weeks ago came hurtling back and I blurted out with that question.

The answer was clear and concise- “Yes, I do think that she is.”

I was triumphant, my assumption had proved to be correct. Mrs. M was indeed a feminist- and a hard boiled on at that! Why, how often does one hear somebody, and that too an Indian Hindu woman, complain while teaching a class full of adolescents a chapter on women’s empowerment and liberation that it was actually futile, that she couldn’t really expect them-her pupils-to grasp the essential point of the matter, for, after all said and done, God too was a man-“aakhir bhagwan bhi to mard hai”?

Not too often!

The remark, of course, created a minor sensation of sorts in Bal Bharati’s twelfth standard society- or at least in that part of it to which I belonged. Mrs. M was quickly and unanimously condemned for what many considered as sacrilege and blasphemy. Even atheists like me conceded that it was a most indiscrete and insensitive comment to let loose in a classroom. For a week or so she became the topic of debates and discussions, unofficial and informal forums which always came to the same, inevitable conclusion- Mrs. M was the worst sort of a woman-a fire breathing dragon in fact! - who completely hated men, did certainly not enjoy happiness in her married life, had perhaps homosexual tendencies and said that provocative thing to just spite the male section of her students (and hence, indirectly, dangerously influence the female portion too!). Anti-social elements like her ought to be bundled off to he savages in some coral island in the Pacific so as to rid society of such raving lunatics.

Now, when I look back at that a year and a half or so later, I once again come to a single, inevitable conclusion- what muddle headed dolts, absolute idiots, complete chauvinists we were. As for me, I-I who had always prided himself for being reasonable, sensible and liberal-I was the worst of them all for the simple yet now embarrassing fact that I actually had the audacity to go ahead and confirm-and that too long after the incident was dead and almost forgotten-whether or not that good woman was a feminist and had then prided myself for being the discoverer of that then derogatory fact.

What a muddle headed dolt was I!

When I now look back to my own school days, I see traces of misogyny-at times blatant, often subtle-spread all throughout them. From the now sepia tinted days of the “We Hate Girls Club” in fourth and the “Girls are Idiots Society” in sixth to the Pygmalion-ised, “Never Let a Woman in Your Life” days in twelfth, I had always been what I now, after a year as an undergraduate student of Literature, recognise and call a misogynist. It wasn’t as if I had been walking down to become a strict patriarch- no, I had always been a champion of women’s rights in my circles, had always written the best reports and articles on women’s empowerment in English exams and had always believed in the urgency of eliminating, totally wiping out from the face of this nation, the twin evils of female foeticide and dowry.

Yet, somehow, I never ceased to hold girls as my mental inferiors. That is not to say that I did not respect my intelligent female colleagues in school for their talents-and there were plenty all rounders who were my superiors-but it was just that I did all of this along with extolling a Henry Higginian sort of attitude towards women.

I’m surprised that it never struck me- I was such a hypocrite in that context.

But then, I suppose I am really not alone in this- this indeed is a class to which most Indian men-and a majority of the women too-belong. Our whole social structure is like that- two (or perhaps more) faced and duplicate a monstrous edifice which on one hand waxes eloquent on women’s rights and such like humanitarian issues and on the other indoctrinates medieval patriarchal concepts and ideologies through the daily humdrum routine of life. For medieval it now seems to have wondered about Mrs. M’s married life- not just medieval but also completely disgusting.

It is one of India’s abiding paradoxes that while we in principle gave women all constitutional rights, we still unabashedly continue to consider them our inferiors. We may all vehemently and vociferously deny this, but nevertheless, there are very few men in whom misogyny has not found a safe haven. That I, a ‘liberal’, ‘enlightened’ and so called ‘forward looking’ mind right in the beginning of the twenty-first century could roundly criticise feminists as dangerous weeds to be plucked out of society is proof enough of this.

Political correctness is a significant factor which all of us ‘enlightened’ minds consciously or not take into consideration when publicly stating out support for so called ‘women’s’ issues (why ‘women’s’? why not ‘human’? why alienate them as things which do not affect men?). So, while many of us ‘officially’, ‘on record’ and ‘publicly’ speak out in favour of reforms and change (and thus unwittingly campaign for what traditionally have been feminist concerns!), we baulk at the very mention of the word feminist and, by dismissing them as either deranged or sexed up lesbians (very few can imagine, let alone accept, the idea of a ‘male’ feminist), betray our poor understanding of the subject. Indeed, the common man’s abysmal comprehension of the same can be gauged from the startlingly amusing fact that many confuse feminist for feminine and thus regard it as a grave affront to any ‘self-respecting man’s manliness’ to be connected in any way whatsoever with the same. I write from personal experience, for I have close friends who have aired exactly the same views.

We are all in some way or the other like the oh-so-admirable Professor Higgins- we all wish to create our own Galatea’s, our most, but not quite, equals in life. We may become accustomed to their faces-to our political correctness- but they’ll still remain the ‘baggages’ and ‘damn nuisances’ which they were right from the very beginning.

Oh Mrs. M, you were so right- ‘Bhagwan’-the Sculptor, the God-too, after all said and done, is naught but a ‘mard’

27 May 2008

On Love

An Apologia-

Though this is exposing the central weakness of all my arguments beforehand, but still, I would like to confess in the beginning itself that most of the claims made her, most of the cases argued under the following heading, are pure speculation. Not exactly pure though, for there is a little bit of personal experience as also that which has been personally witnessed. Along with this, I have drawn heavily from all the as-of-now-insufficient information/knowledge of the real world which I have gleaned from the modest number of books which I have read in the course of my small (as in temporally) life. All that I have said here is more or less a hunch, and hunches can never really either substitute the real experience of life or act excuses for a glaring or otherwise lack of it…

I also pray tolerance for the obviously didactic tone in this, an article which talks, or at least attempts to talk, about a thing so personal that no definite pedagogy can be applied to it!

To Mamma, Dadi, Nani, Maggie, Terence and all the other writers whom I
had the honour of reading in my life- without them this would not have been possible.

“To be in love is merely to be in a state of perpetual anaesthesia- to mistake an ordinary young woman for a goddess.”


Even though it is has been described umpteen times as the most exalted emotion known to this feeling race of human beings, even though its powers have been held in the highest possible esteem by some of the brains known to this thinking species of homo sapiens, love, like all others of its ilk, resists all attempts to a clear cut definition and thus, in spite of being one of the most talked and thought of things in the world, remains ambiguous, subjective and hence, difficult to define. Indeed, it would be not just extremely ambitious but also extremely injudicious to even attempt define an experience so rampant and so widespread that it is personal to the last alphabet and has different connotations for every other individual.

Nevertheless, as for all things mortal and human, it is really not too onerous to observe various types and patterns of love. Here, I intend to talk about all those types which to me appear as the most common and the most easily recognisable.

Sociological and psychological critics have often used the terms ‘spiritual love’ and ‘sexual love’. While quite ambiguous themselves, these two terms do give us a starting point to embark upon this investigation.


The word ‘spirit’ is generally held to refer to all those feelings/emotion/beings which belong not to the world of material desires but to that higher one where all is sublime and wherein one loses all ‘human’ (and by this (in this context) degrading virtue, worldly) attributes/qualities for divinely inspired peace, calm and bliss. The word ‘spiritual’, therefore, would refer to such a blissful state of existence above, and hence, free from all the struggles and strives of common, petty life and the term ‘spiritual love’ would, in its most general meaning, be seen as a selfless sort of love wherein one devotes oneself entirely to the unconditional service of one’s idol of-as is in this case-worship. This can easily be recognised as the love of the sages and the saints for their Lord, the love of Lakshman for Ram, of Peter for Christ, of Meera for Krishna…this is the sort of love which, for a few queer reasons-for here happens a complete abnegation of the self, total abandonment of one’s life for that of one’s beloved-has been and still is held as the highest order of love which a human being can possess. Herein on would become the seraph, completely immersed in the bhakti of one’s idol…

In polar contrast to this is ‘sexual love’ which, as the name very obviously suggests, is completely carnal, having only to do with all those desires and urges which fascinated Freud-and which fascinate all of us at some point of our life-so much. Even though an amateur, I feel no hesitation whatsoever in claiming that all religion would tell one that this is one of the greatest weakness of this race, that this indeed was, is and will always be the cause of its downfall. While the theological and mythological aspects of such a statement are debatable, it is undeniable that the type of love based completely on physical (or sexual) attraction does more often than not culminate in that now open characteristic of this race- casual sexual intercourse. By the very virtue of being ‘casual’, this is devoid of not just long term commitment but also of any sort of feeling/emotion in the participating couple(s) (except, of course, raw desire and lust)…


However, the analysis does not end at this. As for life, so for its upholder love- reality is often a complex mixture of such extremities.


“The mark of a true crush is that you fall in love first and grope for reasons afterwards”

-Shana Alexander

“Deceiving others. This is what the world calls romance”

-Oscar Wilde

The typical love story is about the handsome young man falling [notice here the defining role of religion- this type of love, which is physical and human to human, is described as a ‘fall’] for the beautiful woman or vice versa. This is love at first sight- the couple meets accidentally, falls for each other immediately, pines for each other in separation and in general acts in a manner oft described as ‘bewitched’ (so to highlight the so called ‘magic’ of this state). All time spent in the absence of the beloved seems dull; all routine tasks seem dreary and monotonous- in general, life seems impossible without that one person of one’s hearts desire…

Though cloaked since antiquity under the pleasantly familiar epithet of romance by umpteen creative writers (poets, playwrights, novelists…), this is nought but another nuance of that extreme type of sexual love which borders on lust. This is not to say that love here is replaced by love. No, in spite of its possessive undertones, this does not usually happen in this type, the thin line demarcating love and lust is hardly ever crossed here.

Nevertheless, it really is unquestionable that this sort of love-‘love at first sight’-is, when it happens, i.e. initially, entirely physical. There are variations to this, but it is more or less certain that the desire for sexual relationship(s) is/are often the catalytical motives for this type of love.

The confidence with which I make this claim is founded on the observation that initially in this type of love, one hardly ever knows anything about one’s person of desire except for his/her physical characteristic which strike him/her as attractive and desirable. Emotional (by this I mean intellectual) compatibility-which may (leading to fairy tale romances) or may not (ending in bitter divorces or hellish conjugal lives) be discovered later-is always a secondary consideration, often so much so that it does not figure in in the beginning at all. Furthermore, the archetypical adjectives used in this umbrella type–fair, handsome, beautiful, smart, blonde, gorgeous, dusky, cool, buxom, hot, healthy, sexy, rosy, slim, lovely, petite…-refer not to the intellectual or ‘inner qualities’ of the beloved but essentially (as if by default) to his/her physical characteristics (all of which are in turn determined by the social make up of the person concerned and hence, are different for different societies). Love at first sight doesn’t necessarily mean that one gets blatantly amorous like the heroes of Terence-the romantic poetry of the Victorian ‘Lady’ writers as well as the oh-so-romantic sensibilities of filmi, read Bollywood (and to an extent, Hollywood also), scriptwriters does as well…


It can be argued that there are shades of sexual/physical love in some cases of spiritual love as well. We may hesitatingly exempt from this all those who never actually see their idol of worship but where human interface occurs, i.e. where the devotee sees his Lord, then the physical aspect of his/her love becomes significant. Rare indeed is the ugly God- Shabari was old and wrinkled, not her dear Lord Ram!


“True love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked.”
-Erich Segal

The sort to which I now come may or may not find its beginning in love at first sight. The beginning is more often than not in indifference, or in friendly cordiality- certainly not in the head over heels situation of love at first sight. Physical attraction gets superseded by emotional and intellectual compatibility- it now becomes a secondary consideration. This sort can better be described by words like ‘liking’ or ‘affinity’-words which, though synonymous, do not mean exactly the same as love. The couple fully knows each other by the time it realises it has fallen-no, why fallen?- risen in love- sexual attraction leading to desire is the culmination, and not the kick starting agent, of this type of love.

Oh yes, this type cannot be described as a fall. It has elements of both the extremes and its ideal is a perfect amalgam of the two- neither absolute renunciation nor unbridled lust. Emotion here is tempered with reason, service and devotion are a part, but a token is required in the end.


In fact, this which I discuss now is a feature common to almost all sorts of love, except, of course, the extremes. Once again, the idea of token of love is highly subjective and even though it is shaped by one’s background, one’s social construction, it does vary from person to person. Many hold children as the foremost token of a couple’s affection for each other, yet there are those whose views vary. More often than not, there is a degree of reciprocacity and sensitivity involved in this- love for love, care for care…

One’s ability to adjust, to compromise and to change is also seen in the light of the wide-ranging idea of ‘tokens of love’. Indeed, considering that changing one’s habit’s and tastes-which very nearly accounts for changing oneself-is one of the most difficult things, be the person concerned be fifteen or fifty-five. Changing oneself for one’s beloved-as long as it does not infringe upon other human beings’ rights and fundamental privileges-my be considered as an exemplary token of love, a instance of sacrifice sans renunciation. Since intellectual (discussed above) and familial love establish emotional bonds beforehand, it can be argued that people who ‘rise’ (and not fall!) in this are better off than their counterparts.


“Love doesn’t make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile”
- Franklin P. Jones
As far as familial love, especially parental and sibling love, is concerned, the most significant remark which can be given after due observation is that they are ‘there’ from the very beginning of life (i.e. in a considerably significant number of cases). Freud has given it hidden, yet sufficiently strong sexual connotations and motives and the Romantics have ascribed to it a (divinely) pre-ordained reason, but fact still remains that where and when ever it happens, this is the first experience that one has of love. A parent’s love for his/her child as also a child’s love for his/her parent(s) has a considerable number of reasons, all of which are discussed by theorists of the mind. Amongst these, duty and responsibility figure in as factors not devoid of importance.

Insane love is yet another type of love, a type under whose umbrella can be included unnatural (read uncustomary) possessiveness as well as fetish-ness and quirky-ness. This sort is usually force upon one or more persons by one or more individuals- this is the type which fascinates (as also horrifies) the psychologist and the sociologist, experts who study aberrations in society.

Even though an attempt at classification, and so, simplification has been made here, it would be foolhardy to even suggest it as either absolute or a success. The range of emotions experienced by the human animal is as vast as it is diverse and when it comes to love, the greatest of them all, no attempt at definite categorization can be judiciously claimed as comprehensive.