31 December 2011

Remembering Bal Bharati

To Parth Taneja


The idea that Bal Bharati, GR branch can be the best school in its area will immediately seem incredulously ridiculous to anyone who has actually studied in the blessed place. Of course, we all have more or less fond memories and of course after passing out we more or less remember it fondly as the good old place, but thinking hard and strong there are few who would actually agree that it was, or is, half as good as the papers would have us believe. Seriously, Bal Bharati best amongst all the other heavy weights in Central Delhi? Khullar Saab must have loosened CES’s purse strings a bit.

Jokes apart, does it really make any sense? Bal Bharati best? Okay, the survey says it scores highest in terms of perception, but even then, who would be stupid enough to perceive that place best amongst all others?

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not to indicate that I don’t or didn’t like being there, nor that after passing out I’ve acquired airs and disdain to acknowledge my schooling. None of that, no: instead, what irks me is this very thing about being best, this entire charade of being better than what you are, of trying to be better and better and better still. It has brought some changes, this aspirational anxiety, but given the inside reports I last had of it, Bal Bharati remains what it has always been and will always be: average.

Thankfully, I say. Seriously, that’s what it’s always been and that’s what it’s best as, an average school amongst so many more better equipped, more professional, hi-fi schools. Average. A charmingly average school.

It’s good to be average, isn’t it? Like anything, Bal Bharati has its faults, but the best thing about it is that it’s average. It’s not like any of your ambitious, verbose institutions aspiring to make the ideal man out of children. Of course, the school diary and PR material has some such bosh to that effect, but then I suppose that’s for the perception surveys. The inside story remains that Bal Bharati has, given the few fortunate exceptions, more or less incompetent, bungling teachers, a lackadaisical attitude towards sports and extra-curricular activities and fails to make anything more than semi-noble savages out of its students.

And yes, that’s the best thing about it. Most students tend to be cocky when they graduate and remember almost all their teachers as bumbling, bilious ignoramuses. Common human tendency which, I suppose, is common enough to apply to most students of most schools. Again, later on in life most people, even as they sentimentalise, tend to think a bit flippantly of the educational institutions they were part of, remembering the good with the irritating but still thinking of all of the latter in a sepia-tinted, oh-old-days way. I have absolutely no doubts about being privy to such sentiments, but when I say Bal Bharati is best being average I don’t just deprecate my alma mater in that half-joking, flippant manner. I mean more.

More in the sense that I feel being average is one of the best assets of any educational institution today. In Bal Bharati, I never felt myself under any extraordinary pressure to perform, never saw myself faced with any larger than life standards to come up to. There were always extra-curricular activities, there were always assemblies and house meetings and sports days, but there was never, as so many students – and more, their parents – complain, any overwhelming, continuous pressure to exert yourself more than what you might desire.

That is to say there was impetus and ample opportunities were always provided, but you were never forced into availing of those opportunities, never taken into the whole paraphernalia of competitions and events for the school’s greater glory. There is always rivalry between schools, but as students of Bal Bharati – and I suppose I’m not alone in assuming so – most of us never felt that rivalry. We couldn’t care less what students of other schools were like and what they would think of us precisely because that intensely cutting competitive spirit just wasn’t around to instil that peculiar sense of pride and belonging which institutions with their glorious traditions and grand narratives always inspire. It was, and perhaps still is, a school where you could be, spend your days peacefully with all the momentous upheavals of infancy, childhood and adolescence without coordinators and managers hammering you for some supposedly prestigious competition designed to make you better. If nothing else, Bal Bharati makes you thick skinned in some subtle ways and so the entire rhetoric of bettering yourself which all schools bombard their students with has little affect on Bal Bharatians.

Which is why when I hear news of Bal Bharati becoming “an international school” and what not, I thank my lucky stars of getting out in time. Being average, it was a healthy mix of ambition and incompetence, of imposition and free will. Certain minimums were always expected and efforts made to attain them, but beyond them only the chosen few fell victim of the headministerial staff’s ambitions. There was always guidance, but you still had enough leeway to explore yourself and find your own way, not be straightjacketed into models of the ideal would-be scientist, the ideal would-be engineer, the ideal would-be accountant, the ideal would-be sports star and so on. I find people of my batch and my class doing various interesting and remarkable things, people whom almost everybody hardly expected to be good at anything being more successful than anybody’s wildest dreams. There are always students of this sort and it is their hard work and genius of course, but what marks Bal Bharati distinct is that it never stigmatised such students for not living up to general, public school expectations. Yes, attempts would always be made to co-opt us into the all-rounded personality network, but something in the very fabric of that place prevented most of us from falling prey to that typically industrialist, market-oriented disease. We had good times and bad, but we never felt the pressure to become marketable in that sense.

Which is why the Bal Bharati I know and remember is best being average.


Author’s note:

On Chaddi Shopping

Buying chaddis is quite the tour de force in layers of gender and class hegemonies. When you buy a chaddi, you’re not just buying a piece of supportive garment: you’re buying into a host of intricate, well nigh seamless hegemonies.

This is painfully apparent from even a cursory consideration of the sort of advertising chaddi manufactures usually bombard their hapless consumers with. Going by the models on chaddi boxes and billboards, one would think only persons sculpted in certain very limited and limiting ways are entitled to underclothes. I don’t see many people objecting to this extremely insensitive piece of very-in-your-face public discourse: it’s almost as if you have to exercise and be ‘in shape’ in that particularly fetishised way globalising urban aesthetics demand to be entitled to something as simple and commonplace as a chaddi.

But then, what is simple and commonplace? The air we breathe is commonplace enough, but not so simple that just a slight shift in its parameters cannot easily wipe humanity out of the commonplace. Chaddis are commonplace, everybody seems to have them, but I suppose a percentage survey will reveal that much of humanity still lacks access to them, leave alone good and useful types of them. Of course, what is good and useful when it comes to chaddis is also open to contestation: ay, the very idea that chaddis are good and useful too is open to debate, but assuming that they are, the probable proposition that much of our kind is forced to survival sans them combined with the fact that those who are are exposed to such propaganda as inculcates a sense of doubt and insufficiency regarding their suitability to them is enough for one to question not just the praxis of chaddi advertising, as this article is doing, but the very idea of chaddi itself.

It will be clear to all discerning individuals – if, i.e., there are any individuals – that the mores of chaddi marketing are woven deep into the fabric of global and globalising geopolitical considerations. Chaddis are extended parts of the state apparatus that subsumes rebellious figures into tight-fitting, straitjacketed outlines. A visit to a hosiery shop will establish as much: the panoptical vision of the establishment achieves an inverted power dialectics in which the customer is being looked upon, assessed by an unending elasticity of ideologies. For in this case, the gaze, in looking, is not as much as looking on as looking in, looking on to look in in a way that negates its selfhood – that more or less solid sense of being with which we usually perceive the world – for a naturalised, standardised vision generated much too forcibly by a pre-designed, top-heavy volition of being. In that remarkable sense, it is not my eyes which look: I look, but through the eyes of the chaddi manufacturer in quite the same way s/he wants me to look.

Of course, one does accomplish the task, one does pick and choose, but that still doesn’t negate the functionality of these defining forces. For the choices one makes are as often dictated by availability as by feasibility and in making the feasible available only the sadly happy illusion of consumerism is strengthened. Shopping for chaddis is a simple task of knowing and judging, but what the basis of that knowledge and the parameters of that judgment are are considerations too often overlooked in the strapping desire to fit in.

30 November 2011

Some missives to Indian Men, being suggestions based on observation

Dear Sirs,

There is, of course, nothing fixed and permanent in this world and so whatever we take as being so is but an arbitration of our betters – or simply, of those with more the influence to do so. Still, matters being what they are and ways being affixed to the world, ‘tis necessary to provide a few directions as to habits to be refrained from:

  • Please scratch your privates in private only. We know you feel fully at ease both in and out and would rather not have your freedom to have a ball with your vitals upon any occasion be curtailed, but the action in all its multitudinous forms being not a bit distasteful to some other minor portions of the populace, you are humbly beseeched to have a care and carefully tend to this most beloved of your cares not in human company.

  • Please leave the cleansing of your visible bodily orifices to less demanding times of the day. Every man is a jung bahadur in his own way, but to continually be cleaning your nose and ears and plucking them clean of excess hair in the busy thoroughfares of life is not fully conducive towards making you an amenable companion.

  • Please exercise some greater control on your bladder. The nation is infinitely grateful to you for the fertilising offices performed by the free-flowing catharsis of your humours and would anoint you the crowning glory of creation for these magnanimous services discharged copiously were it not for the slight matter of odour. Noses being noses, to have whole street corners dedicated to such greening impetus is too great a burthen to be conscionably borne by lesser, pettier mortals.  

  • Please rest gaseous matters till a room adequate for discharge be readily available. The world is always regaled by your adeptness in achieving catharsis in as sundry ways as are humanly possible, but in such odoriferous expositions of your humanity you can endeavour to be as humane as possible and leave humanity to its humane business sans smells and sounds descending from your person. 

  • Please display a bit less artistry in spitting your paan. No culture is equal to ours in dispositions artistic and refined and though you in conformity with our long standing tradition of perfection in both form and content have striven to leave marks immortals on all possible walls, it could do well do direct such longings into convenient bins, basins or, if none of these should be forthcoming, much less visible corners of walls and staircases. 

It is with an overwhelming sense of your greatness as a force sublime, a move of the world at large, a shaper of matters inner and domestic, that these humble suggestions are meekly offered to your munificent selves for kind perusal. Hoping that they are as all should and that offence, if caused, shall be readily forgiven for want of experience in dealings of the sort,

Rest of the Population

31 October 2011

On ‘Asking for It’

Or some speculations on attraction and assault, with other considerations


To Jasmeen Patheja
Ajooni Bhogal


“There is, of course, such a divorce between theory and activism that you can’t but be struck by it...”

“Eh? As in?”

“As in, well, as in there’s such a huge gap, such a difference between feminist theory and feminist activism. It’s sort of obvious in a way too, but then I suppose that doesn’t make it any less surprising.”

“But they’re both connected, aren’t they? What I mean to say is, activism does spring from theory and they are both part of the same nexus.”

“Yes, of course they are, but that connection is intangible and unapparent for the most. That doesn’t mean that it’s negligible, no; rather, what I wish to imply is that even though it’s stupid to think these nexuses redundant just because they aren’t too visible, it is also, by trying too much to show they’re not redundant, likely that one may and indeed does forget that there is, after all, a great divide separating the two and, perhaps, having in that divide certain factors which make that gap more or less unbridgeable.”


“Well yes, isn’t it apparent? Take my favourite case, the campus feminist. They’re such a queer mix of theory and practice. Much of their theory is basic and so, in consequence, is their practice: mostly pretty zealous, self-righteous and moral in having that rhetoric of good. They’ll argue men and women are equal and bring in all the jingo of various emancipations to their aid, dreaming these sweet dreams of equal opportunities and no discrimination and splendid bosh of that sort. They’ll display a total and complete confidence in the goodness and merit of their cause and arguments and take, more often than not, dissidence as not just a personal insult but also a slight to their efforts towards the larger, universal betterment of humanity. It’s really funny how some of these people carry on.”

“I don’t know about that, but I think much of this is necessary in many ways. What else would you do anyhow if you were a feminist and wanted to make things and relations equal?”

“Ji, you would do this and more, I’m not denying that. All I’m saying is that when you do all these things, when you advocate male-female equality in terms of emotional, mental and physical economics, you necessarily have to rely on a vocabulary which needs must be repetitive and in some ways stunted. The campus feminist as I’ve come across her is just an example of this.”

“Ha! Of stunted vocabulary?”

“Oh no, well, not really, not how you’ve made it sound old chap. See, don’t you, that when you’re an activist you necessarily have to go the rounds, meet new people continually and bring them around to the cause, make them see that the cause is as much theirs as the person who’s missionary-ing to them. Activists are marvellous people in that sense and one admires their pluck and determination. I for one would get bored, as I know I do. It’s a bit like teaching too, you know, in that sense – having to do about the same darned thing every year with a new batch of potential initiate, patiently starting from the scratch again and anon and bringing people to your point of goodness and right.”

“Hmmm...yeah, that’s true. That does seem true...”

“Well of course it is! Isn’t it obvious how as an activist one has to persevere and work in simplified idioms whereas a theoretician can take flights of fancy far beyond the levels of consciousness any activism has reached and, indeed, can hope to perhaps? Because there are so many people and so much to be done, because the way we’ve lived and even do is so fully contrary to what might be thought desirable in this case, there’s no hope of activism ever reaching those levels of consciousness which theory can.”

“But then activism is always aware of these consciousnesses as you put them, aware of them and active in realising them through the work it puts in with people as partners.”

“Of course, of course, but you can’t deny that at some levels, or beyond some levels, that awareness is of little use. One can be both, activist and theorist, and seek to fuse the two, but that fusion, given the enormity of this task of do-goodery, is but just possible. Take this thing for instance. You can talk nice and well about these ideas of self and lack and what to do about them and how to go beyond them – which, by the way, is what I liked the most about that woman, it confirms what I’ve held most important for quite some time now – but you can do as much only with a learned audience, with people who would have some idea of what you’re talking about. You can’t go to lay people and expect them to get what you’re saying if you talk of all of this, can you now? And the aims which you’d have in the academia, the more directly intellectual challenges of figuring out how to make two plus two three and a half and keep on going beyond and abstracting everything to comparative purity, you couldn’t have such hi-fi aims when trying to improve the lot of common people. It’d be all bosh and baloney to them, all of this would be, and so even if you were both, theorist and activist, as I believe many of us are, – or at least style ourselves as – you would necessary have to keep the two separated when being the activist and think of commoner goals, simpler goals, things you could explain to people as having a visibly direct bearing on their being.”

“Hehe! Well, I’ve always said it’s better to keep things simple and present them, artistically of course, but in a fashion that would still make all the nuances comprehensible without bringing in any unnecessary complication.”

“Oh come now, not that bit about complications! You can’t avoid so-called complicated language at times, it’s just necessary and there’s no other way about it if you do want all the nuances to get across. But then that’s the point I’m making about activism, that as an activist you don’t, can’t, get all possible nuances of this thing we call feminism across to your bakre. You needs must talk about money-matter economics, about rights and so on. You know, the whole droll language of legality and rationality, that’s what you have to deal with and in when you’re being an activist. I can’t see any other way to it.”

“But what’s bad about that?”

“Oh, nothing bad, nothing bad per se, but just that while other concerns do often are beyond the realm of legality and human law, activism necessarily has to be framed within those contexts, it has to be couched in the rational logic of law and rights to vindicate its claims. You force people to be nice by bringing regulations against being unpleasant and hope by and by they’ll come across to not needing those regulations and will be nice of their own accord.”

“Legality, yes, it does force you to be what you mightn’t want to be. It is a dilemma in that sense, being good when you’d rather not be so.”

“Precisely. Activism will believe itself to be in the right, good as the word goes, and in its claims to press for that brand of goodness in all. I’ll venture another example, though, perhaps, the time and my own associations aren’t really too permissive of such, well, confessions as it were. But then it’s just you and me and between us we may look over the matter carefully without much prejudice.”

“Ahha! A controversy! Oh-ho-ho, let’s have it, what’s this new conspiracy?”

“Hehe! Well, no conspiracy, no, and I don’t believe myself important enough for my thinking so cause for a controversy. In any case, you know how our feminist-activist friends will tell us no woman ever asks for it, asks to be harassed i.e., and how instead of putting all the blame on women we should analyse the power structures and value systems which put blame in that place and skewer responsibility from men with that charming excuse that they couldn’t help it, the female was asking for it. I have pursued this point often enough myself...”

“That women ask for it?”

“Good heavens, no, of course not! No, that, you know, it’s not excusable in men and that women have the right to be what they will – dress as they will and so on, stuff of that sort. I’ve advocated this point well enough and I would if anybody were to ask my opinion on this matter of women asking for it. But, hmmm, well, for some time now, I’ve been slowly thinking whether or not there’s some fallacy in this argument, whether or not women do ask for it...”

“Shahhh! They don’t, don’t be ridiculous!”

“Oh come now, you wouldn’t relent a point without fully examining it, would you? Think about it, what is the basis of attraction in us humans? What has been the basis of your being attracted to the women you have been?”

“Well, many things, and at one time – I did tell you once, didn’t I? – I was thinking of becoming a...”

“Yes, yes, no, leave your particular example, we’d never get anywhere if we took your example! No, well, I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but see, what I wish to imply is that thing about love at first sight for instance – what is the basis for love at first sight?”

“You fall in love with the person as soon as you see them?”

“Yes, and what could you possibly be attracted to in a person to be fully bowled over by when you haven’t talked to them, don’t know what sort of a person they are?”

“What they look like, of course.”

“Of course indeed! Indeed, yes, what they look like. That’s more or less a purely physical attraction then, isn’t it? You see a woman – oh no, not you per se, you generically – on the road and like her and think her beautiful. Do you like her intellect or what she looks like? Of course what she looks like, you haven’t had a chance to even figure whether she has any intellect or not. That’s the basis for everyday attraction then, isn’t it? It’s been and is the basis for high romance and immortality, but it’s the basis for everyday attraction and friction betwixt the sexes too. What we feel beautiful is what we like, hmmm?”

“Fair enough.”

“Yes, and given that, wouldn’t you say clothing had a part in shaping our perceptions of beauty?”

“Not necessarily, not beyond a limit.”

“Of course, I agree with you perfectly. Of course not beyond a limit, but what is that limit?”

“Well, it would be different, wouldn’t it, different for different people, quite subjective a matter really...”

“Yes and no I would say, yes and no. Yes, because of course it’s incontestably subjective and no because even as it is subjective, there is, as there is to all subjectivity, commonality to it too. You and I here are too eccentric, but I think we may safely assume notions of beauty have some degree of commonality about them within certain cultural contexts. Fair and Lovely wouldn’t work if this wasn’t so.”

“Hehe, yes, true.”

“Obviously, for that being so, and ours being a globalising, post-enlightenment, consumeristic world, we can’t but have cross-cultural contexts and, in that sense, some universal notions of beauty.”

“Well, well, as you say, but that has nothing to do with women asking for it!”

“Calm down, calm down, nobody’s saying that – not yet at least. Why don’t you consider this, that notions of beauty being both subjective and objective, being both personal and communal, notions of decency and body shame too will be like that. Beauty, and more so attraction, is closely linked with body shame, with what is too indecent to be shown, with what can be risked to be shown now and then and with what’s perfectly decent to show. These notions are linked with perceptions of beauty and even as they are common within contexts, they have changed across contexts, especially across contexts of space and time. You will grant that perceptions of body shame must’ve been different amongst, say, so-called tribals – the jhingalala blokes of that Achebe’s Nigeria for instance?”


“Ohho, I don’t mean them any harm by that! Think of the point, that notions of body shame, and beauty by extension, must’ve been different in a context wherein both the sexes had little conception of clothing as we do now?”

“Hmmm, yes, that seems plausible.”

“And if plausible that is then so is the idea that with our current, commonly understood if not universally accepted notions of body shame, beauty, or attraction, will have to do with how much a female makes apparent of her body?”


“Note, I say makes apparent, not exposes. The two are linked and though the latter has more bearing on this matter than the former, it’s important to think in terms of makes apparent and not exposes right now. You can make apparent you have a figure you find beautiful, that you have, as they’re called, assets which are desirable, and you can then also, and I wince myself at the sheer vulgarity of this word as I put it here, expose. Wouldn’t these form a basis for attraction...”

“Yes, but don’t forget things happen regardless of whether you make apparent or expose. A burqa can be a tent and people have been done in in even them!”

“Yes, yes, I’m not denying that. Not more a moment am I denying that the impulse is the harasser’s. What I am proposing is that even as the impulse is the harasser’s, it’s not his wholly so.”

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!”

“Really now, my not saying it wouldn’t negate its possibility! I’m advocating the old pass-the-buck tactic in a different lingo, no I’m not. I’m more concerned, as somebody with pretensions to this so-called cause, with the validity of our assumptions. When we say women never ask for it, are we fully justified?”

“I think we are.”

“Oh goodness, do try being a bit less obtuse! You don’t have to stick to it just because it’s a nice point and keeps one comfortable! You’re bound, I say, to see what it’d mean from all possible angles and not just rest secure in your confounded complacency of being right! There can’t be just one simple right, you know! Think of yourself, you’re a man: if you weren’t really, desperately horny and sex-charged and had a selection of females of the type you like physically, whom would you be attracted to more, one in a bikini or in a salwar-kameez and dupattaoed to boot?”


“Oh shuck modesty, you’d of course see more and wish to see more of the bikini female for the first few moments, no matter how ugly you would later think her if the other woman’s face and features were more to your liking. Everybody would, I say, everybody would – notions of body shame and the basis of attraction being what they are, everybody would! Now, don’t you think I mean their thinking so, our thinking so, would justify an assault. It might provide the basis for such intentions, but we have the law and rationality to inhibit that sort of behaviour – or at least make it reprehensible and dangerous. I just say that meboy, just that and nothing else, that the basis of sexual attraction being what they are, when women do dress in certain, contextually determined ways which renders them attractive and beautiful just on the evidence of their bodies, they do ask for it in a way – ask not to be assaulted, perhaps, at least consciously, not even for attention, but they do provide the basis for attraction and the intentionality which springs from attraction. To be in possession of beauty, and not just feminine and sexual beauty, is a very strong drive in most of us and even though violating in order to possess is undesirable to an overwhelming degree, the intention is understandable in a way. One doesn’t condone the act, one wouldn’t, but one cannot but see where and how the idea comes from and that it does make some sense.”

“Well! Well, at least just on that plain, as an idea...”

“Of course, totally, totally, just that, just as an idea. It would dissolve our social order to admit it otherwise, to believe women do ask for it. They do and they don’t, but happily, even as there is the do, the don’t is always much the stronger dynamic.”


Hmmmm...well, that was so damnably silly, that was so perfectly, so ridiculously absent-mindedly silly! Oh well, oh well, let’s see if there’s some way out, hmmm...

“Um, suniye?”


“Well, main soch raha tha, well, ke we could possibly talk to the saamne waale to see ke neeche se motor ko...”

“Jo ho gaya woh ho gaya, baar baar use yaad karne se, uski baat karne se woh badal nahi jaayega.”

“Haan, par, well, mujhe bura lag raha tha soch ke ke sab kharab ho jaayega...”

“Yeh sab pehle sochna chahiye tha. Jo hua usspe ab pachtane se, pareshan hone se koi fayda nahi.”

Ha! Just like her! Strictly Roman when calamity strikes! Oh well, to think all of it will be ruined for her just because of a minor lapse on my part! Hmmm, well, hmmm...it’s a damned world, so it is! Oh, how I wish I’d reacted when there was some time, when...well, what’s the use now...

“Kahan se ja rahe ho?”

“Wahan neeche se jam hoga na, yahan upar se nikal kar pahuch jaayenge jaldi.”

“Kahan jaldi? Yeh aage jam nahi dikh raha? Kya yaar, namaz bakhsne gaye the, roze ginwa diye!”

Ah! Yes, yes, this seems good. Hmmm...we’ll, we’ll be late perhaps, yes, hmmm...hmmm, we’ll naturally have to turn back then. Anyway such a poxed idea, this ridiculous thing in the middle of everything, to the middle of nowhere! Better, yes, better to not...

“Nikal le yaar, nikal na wahan se!”

“Jagah kahan hai bauji...”


“Uffo! Inko nikalna bhi zaroori hai, jaise usse kuch ho jaayega.”

“Well, mann ki shaanti...”

“Kya shaanti, chal gaya toh...dekho, chal bhi gaya! Kahan hain yeh? Uffo!”

“Patani yaar, dekhiye, hmmm...haan, woh, haan, aa gaye!”

“Chal beta, nikal le, jaldi se, haan, yahin se, charha de upar, haan, aise, haan, nikal de!”

Hahaha! Est consummatum! It’s beyond redemption, this venture, it’ll be over with even before we’re out! Back, then, and having that redemption, making up for that! Ahha, yes! Hehaha!

“Kahan le ja aha hai?”

“Entry wahan se kar di hai bauji, aage se mor ke aana parega.”

“Time kahan hai, time dekh na!”

“Aap log...aap phir yahin utar jao, yahan se paar kar ke chale jaana...”

“Tum saalon ka yehi kaam hai, jaanta hun, pareshan karna!”

“Ahum, ab issme uski kya galti hai...”

“Arre yaar, aap chaliye, ethics ka baad mein sochenge!”

Oh drat! Oh damnation! Can it be? Could we possibly, in spite of...oh well, damnation! It can’t be, it couldn’t be, it couldn’t! That was somewhat fast, yes, but still, we possibly can’t! It’d be too filmy, yes, but oh! Damnation!

“Kya number hai? Kahan?”

“Yahin se, jaldi aao!”

“Par board pe toh...”

“Chorho board ko, aao! Main uthaun kuch?”

“Nahi, chaliye aap...haan, haan, chaliye, main aa raha hun...”

“Aao, aao sab, jaldi aao!”

Can it? This isn’t even...what...what? What? Oh, oh well no! Oh...

“Haan bauji, haanji, train der ghanta late hai.”

31 August 2011

On Rakhi

The simplest of decisions can be so difficult to execute.

Take rakhi for instance. I’ve been saying it for quite some time now, but this year I firmly decided to stop observing rakhi. A simple decision, one would think, involving no one but me and the sisters concerned. Just a matter of personal choice, of talking it out and being done with it.

If only.

A paternal outburst was expected, but that ‘twould come a full blown storm was the least of my expectations. Bitter accusations and criminations apart though, the incident proved interesting by throwing in sharp relief some of the many values and behavioural patterns which we tend to take for granted and which provide a comforting cushion to everyday existence – that, and the validity of our, or at least mine, questioning of them.

But first things first. Why did I want to stop observing rakhi? Well, simply because I think it’s an antiquated ritual which has lost its symbolic value in the present scenario. Of course, when I say the present scenario I mean my own milieu, the narrow circle I move in and not the world at large. Also, when I talk of the symbolic value of rakhi, I take the meaning understood and inculcated in most of us urban bourgeoisies – that rakhi, as a pan-cultural symbol common not just to the Hindu religion, is an observation and assertion of a brother’s duties to his sisters, to love and protect her from all harm.

Which is what’s problematic. Protect her from all harm? Of course, it’s not written anywhere, but that’s what’s implied, and being so includes almost everything possible, from bees to boyfriends, rats to rapists. I always say I’m a sorry excuse of a mard and that I manage to keep myself alive is enough without being specifically tasked with the protection of any female as a particular duty. If it’s bad, it’s bad for me as well as for the sisters and so it’s unfair to expect me to be a saviour of any sort for anybody. Got enough to fend for myself without bothering being ever-so-old-fashionedly chivalrous.

Sounds valid? That’s what I thought. It’s nice to put an end to these patriarchal, paternalistic rituals, isn’t it? As feminists of some sort of the other that’s what we ought to do too, I suppose. Put an end to patriarchal, paternalistic, phallocentric modes of being.

For what? Ay, for what? For what and what for?

In this specific case, given my narrow, urban, predominantly kayasth bourgeoisie circle, none of that bit about rakhi meaning protection is valid. Nobody expects brothers to protect sisters from harm in that bhaiya mere mode of the 70s; in particular, nobody expects me to bother much. It’s just a ritual shorn completely of its meaning, a collective habit which is just observed. Of course, it’s all very nice and proper to argue that even if the ritual’s meaning is not evoked its symbolism still stands and that to be enmeshed within that too is a sign of ideological indoctrination so that it’s still our responsibility to resist and change, but then, well, even that’s a bit facile, hmm?

How? Well, first and foremost, not only can the ritual not be taken in a particular way, but its symbolism too can change. There isn’t anything particular which can fix a meaning to something in any inherent manner, is there? If rakhi can mean paternalistic protection, it can also be just another bahana for meeting.

Which is what it’s taken as for the most. True, brotherly obligations are still part of the world we live in, but then those values are not in the least thrust upon us as writ in stone to-dos. As family one has certain obligations – and indeed, obligations which, given proper indoctrination, needn’t appear so – towards caring for and feeling, to varying, subjectively determined degrees, responsible for the welfare and well-being of family members and the brother-sister dynamic, if not exaggerated back into the 70s of Hindi cinema, is a legitimate part of them. That scratching the surface does indeed propel quite a few of us back there is also true, yes, but so is the fact that in quite a few cases it doesn’t. Besides, while it’s alright to argue in isolation that families are patriarchal and their idiom and basis phallocentric, one can’t but concede that with a little give and take, with a little adjustment – indoctrination and assimilation if you will – there’s nothing too bad about them. What, indeed, would we do without them? Do we have any alternatives to families? Not families as we know them, families as they have been, but families, groups of humans clustered together with a certain commonality of birth and relation – can we exist without being together?

We can. Not in the same way of course, but then not with the same, or even similar, basis. Humanity can be organised in a zillion other ways I suppose, but then all of those would be conscious efforts, would be structures systematically thought out and rationalised. We can have, with a supreme, well nigh impossible effort, a society structured on the basis of equality and justice – and equality and justice as some of us who bother about them today understand them – but then, well, is that even desirable?

Seriously, is a just and equal society even desirable? I’m all for comparatively just and comparatively equitable, but wholly so? A society where legality and the rhetoric of rationality would keep in check all truant desires, negate the possibility of violence and discrimination by intricate mechanisms of checks and balances and create, enforce, a sense of equality is just way too Orwellian for my comfort. Personal relations and subjectivity would, in such a world, be subsumed under the larger need for objectively defined equality. Men and women would be equal, yes, but what then all those gamut of passions and desires which make inter-sexual dynamics what they are today would no longer be valid. Just as it wouldn’t do to expect your female partner to cook your food (if you were a male i.e.), it would also not do to abuse someone just because they cheated on you. Truths tend to be ossified, but in a social setup guided wholly by rationally determined codes and legality that sort of ossification, backed by appropriate indoctrination, would be complete.

Which, even if it were not for an overwhelming taint of absolutism, would be stifling boring.

Wouldn’t it? I mean, who would want to live a life wholly determined by received notions of rationally acceptable behaviour? To be correct all the time, to always give a damn and never, ever be wrong, who would possibly want that? Of course we need safeguards to make sure we don’t all run amok, but isn’t doing that every now and then part of being human as we know it? Who would want to completely change that, to deny themselves the privilege, even if rare, of not caring – or pretending not to and doing all possible bosh in the guise? To not do as one is expected to but deliberately go against, to feel that sheer, perverse joy of going against and do so knowing, after all, that even though it’s not justified completely it is, given certain received circumcisions, understandable, even pardonable. All said and done, there might be an essence to things – that there needn’t be one, that for all our rationality we needn’t be so all the time, that we may let go and accept, critique that acceptance, nuance it, but let go, let be.

To think of rakhi just as a patriarchal custom and so condemn it is, then, to be naive in a way that that curious creature, the campus feminist, is. Yes, it is patriarchal and heavily consumeristic as a festival, but even as it is, to argue against it just on those grounds, grounds based on the logic of rationality and semantics, is to further deprive our lives of those moments of sparkling irrationality, unthinking-ness if I may, which the larger social framework of post-enlightenment global capital has already made suspect. In many ways one is and must be thankful for that, for the life we live is quite literally a creation of these ideas and ideals; but even so one cannot but be wary of the banishment of irrationality, of craziness and insanity, from life. The world, perhaps, is not half as crazy as it used to be a hundred or so years ago and one must be glad that it’s not, but if it were to wholly be not so – and regardless of the way, good or bad (again, these as understood by most today) – it would be not half as nice a place to live as it is now. Rakhi, as a ritual without meaning, a symbol sans its symbolism, is just one instance of the insanity we are intent on proving obsolete: it might be nice to prove it so and push it out of consciousness, but then whether it’ll be worth the effort is, and will be, open to continual contention.

Which is why, I suppose, it’s so difficult to execute the simplest of decisions.


Of course that bloke off Har-ki-paudi was right – in just this one instance, that this would materialise. This, then, to him.

An Invitation

Considering the demographics of this City
of this, its University,
it is felt necessary
make reparations
and thus
ensure a degree of equity
participation and representation
of those
denied their rights
claims to welfare
the ov’rwehleming tide
migration, outlandry and factionalism.

It is deemed fit, then, to
the creation of
The All Delhi University Non-Punjabi, Non-Baniya, Non-Bengali, Delhi Male Students’ Welfare Association

Our agenda shall be to guarantee
equitable representation of our community
in spheres academic, administrative and sportive.
We shall work to secure
those natural rights
denied to us
ov’rbearing oppression of the dominant.

Those part of the elect may join:
to liberty, equity, fraternity!

31 July 2011


The Department of English, Ramjas College – the Department, of course, as we knew it.


It baffles me. Yes, his and mine is understandable, perfectly understandable as she put it, but the others’ just eludes me! Why, why would someone do that? Why would someone leave Ramjas?

Okay, let me qualify: not Ramjas – not that I can say or think of anything that would make me think of any reason for Ramjas itself – per se, no, but more specifically the Department of English, Ramjas College. RED as they’ve come to call it. Why would anyone want to leave it?

Beats me! It’s not, yes, reckoned amongst the best by the general public, but almost everybody who matters and whose views can be trusted to be reasonable agrees that rankings and ratings are but inflations to create hierarchies for those poor deluded parents who don’t know any better. Everything’s a matter of perception and when it comes to rankings and the standards on which they’re premised it’s all the more so, these notions being, such as they are, more notional and based on tradition established by vested interests and power structures than considerations of performance and results – which considerations, of course, are also subjective and exposed to vagaries of pedagogy and examination patterns. To think purely in terms of rankings, then, is to only be redundant and retrograde.

Which is why when people swap loyalties just on the basis of rankings it becomes difficult to digest. When you’ve spent time in a particular institution and received training from it you do come to develop certain associations with it and to deny their claims just on the basis of ranking is, to me at least, indicative of a certain cold blooded ingratitude. So, that being that, when I’m told such news of Ramjas, even though I consider myself guilty of desertion, I have some problems accepting it.

Seriously. Ramjas is one of those charming places that are neither here nor there. Saying this involves one in the vocabulary of ranking and hierarchy which I spoke against just a while ago, yes, but that’s how Ramjas may best be described in my opinion. It’s old and full of history, but still not one of those colleges which have a heavy burden of tradition on them and where one is expected to be a certain way and conform to certain behavioural notions in order to be an accepted. To be in Ramjas – and more particularly RED – gives one a certain leeway in forming all sorts of interesting and mutually satisfying associations with all sorts of people which is not the case with all those colleges who’re too conscious of their being so and so college and so too involved in living up to their imagined ideals. In that sense, while others are occupied enacting rituals and being so and so, we’re usually doing whatever we please with little to restrict us in thinking and/or doing.

That much about the college itself, the atmosphere and the feel as it were. Besides that, the faculty itself is such that I would imagine one to have little reason to leave it. There’s a healthy mix of various sorts, some downright eccentric, some too enmeshed in theory, some wildly flamboyant, some full of an old world charm, some too perfectionist, some cheerily easy going…this, and none with that sense of being such and such faculty that makes quite a few teachers ridiculously obnoxious. Plus, in my knowledge at least, it’s the only college to have a video library and a very well stocked department library that literally (and unfortunately too, I suppose) spoon-feeds students so unless someone makes it too hot for them I can’t think of any plausible reason to leave it once you’ve been there and known it for some time.

Ramjas English is one of those rare spaces which allow you the freedom to explore and fashion yourself any which way; it grounds you in certain discourses and imparts a certain training, yes, but that’s usually flexible enough for you to evolve your own style, even up to the point that, as in my own case, you can turn become more or less opposed to your training and your trainers will still not come down with vengeance upon you. Why, then, would anyone want to leave such a place? Beats me!


In retrospect, this piece seems a bit unnecessary but since it shews me in a light many think me incapable of, it might as well as stay.

30 June 2011

On Reading The Last Mughal

To Prashansa Taneja,
hoping this proves explanation enough.


The Last Mughal is without a doubt one of the most horrible books I’ve read in a long time now.

Oh no, don’t get me wrong please. I don’t mean horrible in that sense, that it’s a badly written or badly research book or that it strikes at our moral or ethical fibre, assuming momentarily that I believed in such a thing. No, I don’t mean horrible in that sense, for far from that The Last Mughal is an engaging, thought-provoking work that fills the supposed divide betwixt creative writing – or fiction as it’s generally considered – and academic discourse, showing, as Khushwant Singh observed in a review, “the way history should be written”. In reimagining the events that led to the fall of Delhi in 1857 and evidencing experience from both sides of the divide and from the respective factions within these, Dalrymple adopts a remarkably nuanced and humane approach that is neutral and biased at the same time, thus appealing at once to both the emotional and intellectual faculties of the reader. No, The Last Mughal is a very well written and intensively researched book, a must-read, as they say, for all those with even an iota of interest in history and India’s colonial past.

Still, it makes one shudder: without a doubt, one of the most horrible books. It is, admittedly, not a bad read in this sense, this sense I’ve discussed above, but it’s certainly more than just bad when it comes to the ideas and associations it brings to mind by virtue of being good, being well written and well researched. That, I suppose, is the catch with good books as it were: they’re good, yes, but usually they leave you nowhere close.

Which is precisely the case with The Last Mughal. It is well written, but it cannot but make you wonder at the cupidity of the human race. Reading that book, one cannot but be grieved at the many mistakes our kind has made throughout its recorded history, the misunderstandings and prejudices that have time and again pitied one community against another. Of course, human history is naught but a chronicle of human avarice and insensitivity and so no account of any period or any battle cannot but give rise to such gloomy speculations on the nature of humanity, but to read such accounts of one’s own history, of events which directly made one’s present environment what it is is manifestly different from reading of just another chip off the historical block: one can feel a connect otherwise, but it’s hard not to be affected when the connect is to one’s own.

The Last Mughal worked just so for me. A great burden of history weighs Delhi and none can live in it without being aware, however dimly, of the past, a past that is at once dead and living, a past that informs our thoughts and actions even as it stands apart, aloof as a vestige of unknown days and years. To those who think about this much, who engage with the ways in which the present flows into the past and interacts with the needs of the future, it is difficult, or so I believe, to be unaffected by works that draw attention to those awesome events which cataclysmically changed the course of time.

Reading Dalrymple’s lucid prose on the events of 1857 does as much. Delhi is a city, a culture of gaps; the course of a violent history has scarred it time and again in as many ways as can be imagined. It has risen, yes, but like most such coming to terms with disaster stories, that seems more owing to the will of conquering armies than any never-say-die spirit of the butchered mass of generations. In that context, in being a year of general rout and massacre, 1857 is no different from, say, 1398 or 1739, but in marking a sudden and extremely regressive end to a flourishing cultural ethos 1857 is, perhaps, distinct from all earlier and subsequent disasters. It may be because it’s comparatively recent and we still feel and see its consequences in the nature and structure of the city or it may be a totally personal bias, but to me nothing destroyed Delhi and all it stood for as 1857 did. The sense of loss, that peculiar sense of being rooted in an ethos without roots and of being without a coherent past in spite of all the imposing spectacles of history that causally and daily regale the eye, this particular sense which informs a Dilliwaalah’s engagement with his physical environment and time and again makes him aware of something missing in his being, something valuable and precious the lack of which makes his identity at once tenuously solid, solidly tenuous, this sense is, I believe, directly the consequence of what happened in 1857, of what the British did to the city in their mad and manifestly misguided lust for vengeance and power.

It is, of course, not wholly correct to blame the British: the blame of what happened should be assigned in varying measures to all parties, not just the British whose brutal reprisal has left certain parts of the city without as much as an inch of ground untainted with blood. But why blame anyone at all? To read is to understand, to understand is to contextualise, weigh the complex mass of actions and motives against reasons and causes and unearth thus the forces which materialised as processes. It may or may not be to forgive; it is certainly not to forget, but to understand is perhaps to not hold a grudge, to not forgive, no, but to move beyond blames and learn and not repeat.

Which is something humanity has seldom, if ever, done. Works like The Last Mughal strike you not as much as for displaying the cupidity of man then as much as man all along, man throughout his recorded history, a history that is nothing but a rutted, bloody chronicle of opportunities missed and lessons unlearnt. That we, we who live in this supposed age of technology and information, this age of learning and knowledge, that we should know so much and still fail in our endeavours to understand each other, to accept difference as natural and healthy and turn bias interactive and productive is a vindication of the deep seated unwillingness of humanity to take stock of itself, a blindness that prevents it from seeing what it was, what it is and what it is moving to become. Works like Dalrymple’s remind one of that, of not just the intense pain man extracted from man and of the blood and gore on which our greatest civilisational endeavours are built and ultimately reduced to but also the grief which we continue to inflict on each other in failing to understand the roots of our existing biases, problems, and tackling them thus, not superficially, from above, but as a whole with patience and tact. It is our continual failure to do so, to exorcise the ghosts of our past and to not attempt reconciliation that contributes steadily to the tragedy called man. The Last Mughal reminds one of that, of the ruin and end an entire civilisation came to, of the lives unnecessarily lost to prejudice and greed. It’s a tale we should all remember, but to remember it in itself, to understand and come to terms and still not forget, that is the challenge, that is what it demands of a reader: to live, even if for a while, the fall of a city, the death of thousands, the heart of a people...

...and that, precisely, is why I say it’s horrible.