28 February 2011

On visiting the Mughal Garden

A visit to the Mughal Garden is instructive in very many ways. There is, first of all, the…but wait. What is the Mughal Garden?

Well, for the uninitiated, the Mughal Garden is, um, a garden in India’s Rashtrapati’s Presidential Estate. It’s Mughal not because the Mughals built it, of course not, but because it’s structured on the archetype of the gardens they used to. Why? Well, first, because those gardens them Mughals built were really pretty and exquisite, just the place you’d want in your blooming big estate and second because, well, the British being British, they couldn’t resist the charm of incorporating something of their predecessors in Hindustan into their own topos of power and so they built a garden to suit English tastes in the Mughal style. You know, just like the empire’s here to stay, the sun never sets and so on? Well, exactly like that: the Mughals thought they were here to stay, but oh no, we are going to stay and look, we can even build better and bigger than them, so a hearty hurrah to us and the crown!

Ah well, didn’t exactly turn out that way and in less than two decades of its being built the British were out and, well, let’s say, the Indians were in, but that being that, back now to the Garden. More properly, a visit to the Garden. Instructive, in very many ways. Here’s how.

First, if you visit on a Sunday, you can put yourself off for a dumb mutt. No, seriously, I think Sunday’s the worst possible day to go to the place. The entrance is from Gate 35 of the Presidential Estate and the line extended half a kilometre or so to Gate 38 on one side and around four hundred metres up North Avenue on the other. This for starters, for a hundred metres or so from the gate the drive in had been enclosed and barricaded with stalls for depositing your stuff on one side and narrow aisles for entrance on the other. Announcements repeatedly asked visitors to deposit all their belongings before stepping up to the entrance and extolled every now and then so and so from such and such unheard of town from this and that part of the subcontinent to please, please come in through the metal detectors because their family had been frantically waiting for them the past half an hour and now they were all getting hysterical.

Yes, quite the mela. We’re all quite capable of that, anywhere, anytime.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against melas and crowds – I mean, isn’t the exotic Indian experience all about that? No, no, I’m all for them and stuff of this sort, oh yes I am. However, sometimes, it’s just that it gets a wee bit too much, and some places perhaps are meant to be without the milling, maddening crowd.

The Mughal Garden is such a one.

Oh yes, very bad; very, very bad. But one really can’t help it. Democracy’s so bad for beauty.

Think about it. How many monuments or cultural artefacts adjudged beautiful or worth preservation have been the result of fair and equitable systems of labour and economic production? I, well, I for one can’t really think of any right now, not as much because democracies all around haven’t erected monuments to their glory but because there really hasn’t been a system of labour and blah-blah-blah which has been really, seriously fair to all possible stakeholders. I suppose it’s a bit like that old dialectic our sociologists and cultural critics so used to love, of there always being someone who gets the hard end of a bargain, of beauty being so not because of itself but because of it’s polar extreme, ugliness, which makes a comparison possible. Those who enjoy are beautiful, those who labour ugly…

And it there, in that garden, it was pretty ugly.

Not, of course, that there was no enjoyment, no, but whatever there was was of that closely supervised, guarded type which allots you only as much time for a glimpse or so after which you needs must move on because logistics demand so. The crowd management was pretty good, but a crowd it was nonetheless and for the life of me I can’t imagine how one enjoys a garden in, as a crowd.

Aren’t gardens supposed to be taken in? Aren’t you supposed to stand there, sit, look in the distance, admire the myriad hues of spring, ruminate on the might of the fallen empire, walk barefoot on the lush green grass and run your hand through the water channels?

Not if you’re common citizenry of India.

No siree, if you’re common citizenry of India, you needs must stay off the grass, keep walking, never stop and sit, not cross any barricade and never ever touch as much as half a tiny rose petal. No, I don’t blame anyone, I seriously don’t; these measures are necessary, they’re just what I would’ve done if I had a big, beautiful garden and allowed visitors in the time of the year when it was the loveliest. The management, I say, was very competent and Madam’s Men deserve all possible accolades.

But what, I wonder, of Madam herself? It is her garden after all – or at least hers as long as the other Madam wills it so; to what good use, I wonder, does she put it to?

Certainly not to have sherbets and then make out, I suppose. I mean, the website says she has her At Homes a certain number of times a year in the front lawn and I suppose she goes out for a walk with hubby dear every now and then, but, with all due respect to age, you can’t really imagine a wizened old dear like our Rashtrapati making merry in the garden. Leave aside making merry, you can’t imagine her with her pallu down. Very prim and propah, I agree, and very Rashtrapati like too I believe, but not, well, not what you’d imagine the owner of a blooming big house with a blooming big garden to be like.

Come to think of it, not only is democracy not good for beauty, it’s also not good for glamour.

Well, at least in India. We have a thing for ji-huzoori and as a result tend to ritualise almost everything into codified institutions. It’s alright mostly, but you feel it the most when it comes to pleasure. A well maintained and landscaped garden’s your bit of the earth, your version of jannat. If we are to have national symbols, then let them be impressive: for a house as big and a garden as beautiful, we need a figure who would complement them both. Not youth necessarily, no, but then also not genial grand-dames, or erratic, eccentric rocket scientists, or bespectacled diplomats…these are, were, all good folk in themselves and undoubtedly did good to their office, but then that was it. Whatever intelligence, cunning, wit and malice they had hardly came out, the President’s office being sacrosanct in a way in which even monarchies are not today. All said and done, India’s more a throned republic than a true blue democracy.

Not that I have too many problems with that, not here at least; but then if we are to be so and not what we profess ourselves to be, then we could at least make sure our figureheads look worthy to wear a crown. It doesn’t have to be someone with a particular build and colour, just anybody who’d look impressive walking down the steps of the world’s largest presidential manor, who’d inspire a certain awe taking the salute from one of the world’s only surviving mounted regiment, who’d hush audiences into attentive silence, not by the dint of his/her office but by his/her mere presence…

Ah well, ah well, well, well…democracy! We all owe much to it; I owe the ability to say this to it. Ingratitude? Somewhat, yes. Can’t really help it, can one? When you have symbols pregnant with a certain unsaid but pervasive sense of power, you cannot but be so. Humanity, I suppose, craves a light to follow…yet, uneasy the head that wears a crown. So, I believe, the rituals which balm the constant prick of thorns, the institutions which temper awe from and for the mob…a beautiful garden, after all, is not just a bit of land done up nicely to please. Not just, for to please though it is, it is also to remind, to reassert hierarchies and power, to put in mind the might of the gardener to and for whom we are all bound.

That, I suppose, is what this one was ultimately all about.

20 February 2011

The Misogynist Feminist

(this piece was written for a journal that was never launched; it might be in the not-so-distant future, but here it is anyhow)


I don’t usually put it in so many words, but then there’s nothing really to hide about it. I’m a feminist, no doubt about it, but I’m a misogynist as well. A misogynist feminist.

Yes, you read it right: a misogynist feminist. Incompatible contradictions? Not really; to me, perfectly in sync.

Think about it. How can any one of us not be misogynistic? Simply defined as hatred of women, misogyny as a concept is part of a larger ethos of behavioural norms and communal organisation that keeps civilisation running the way it does so that you don’t literally have to hate women or be violent to them to be so. In as much that patriarchal language itself is phallocentric, no patriarchal medium of communication can possibly be not misogynistic in some way or the other. Electronics and computing admittedly are not specific to gender, but then the ways in which these are handled – conceived, produced and used – are not outside the ambit of gender politics, much of which has tended and still tends to be patriarchal, if not overtly misogynist.

Ditto for cultural artefacts, for even if they’re produced by people self-consciously against patriarchy and patriarchal idioms, their being in an overall patriarchal structure eliminates the possibility of their being out of that structure, its idiom. Rebellion may be effected, but oblivion is well nigh impossible to achieve: a feminist, anti-patriarchal consciousness may be articulated, but the very language of that articulation – and language is not just words – cannot be outside overall, existing patriarchal idioms – not, at least, till someone takes the trouble to invent an Orwellian feminist-speak, a possibility with very little probability.

Given this, then, no feminist, no champion of women’s rights and female empowerment can help being enmeshed in patriarchy and, to varying extents, misogyny. From the (under) clothes we wear to the way we walk, talk and even shit, everything is rooted in (so-called) patriarchal norms and mores. In that sense, rebellion too is an act of confirmation: one rebels to be rid off, but as long as that rebellion is not complete and the instruments of oppression totally wiped out that which is cause for rebellion will continue to exist and, as in this case, be further consolidated.

This last qualifier is of note: feminism’s rebellion against patriarchy, the inequity of patriarchy, is, like most such rebellions, unachievable. For one that sense and purpose of enmity which guides a rebellion cannot be sustained here: what most of us are rebelling against are, immediately, our own families and friends. A generation may stand up and sever ties for an ideal, but ultimately the promise of comfort and security in communality is too great to be perennially put aside. That communality, in spite of the lessons of that first rebellion, continues to be inspired on patriarchal models; whether it can be built on a completely and purely equitable model is a matter still open to contention, given, again, the very nature of our language and models of thought.

This is closely linked to that other catchword, nature. Is the feminist ideal – or more appropriately the generally understood, lay feminist ideal – of equality and equity natural?

Indeed, one can argue it’s not. One can argue that with great merit and justification that feminism is against nature; nature not confused as nurture, not as what’s thought natural through habit and the dint of convention but as the evolutionary, elemental state of being of the plant and animal world. Not many species are concerned about equality and equity in inter-personal rights, sexual norms and family structures so that while each has its own attitude to all of these, humanity – howsoever organised – alone seems unique in striving for well nigh unattainable ideals. The feminist dream, if a dream for equality, is likely to remain as such, a dream – and unnatural at that. Our trying to achieve it is very nice and proper, as it should be, but we should keep the un-attainability of that dream always in mind.

That’s not all though. As much, with the digression, on why even the best of feminists cannot but be implicated in the dynamics of patriarchy and misogyny, to however little an extent. Now to myself in particular, why I am self-confessedly a misogynist feminist. All of the above applies, yes, but there’s much more. First is the idea of the male feminist.

The male feminist. What brings you here, female feminists ask me. I’m no abnormality I think and countless men believe in feminism, but just the very fact that those four words have been posed to me so many times now is to me proof enough of the novelty with which the male feminist is viewed not just by society at large but by the feminist establishment as well. Why not too, for it is a position of privilege and comfort: I can just as well as not afford to be a feminist and be none the worse for it. I can be the proverbial nice guy, the good bourgeoisie male with all the proper family virtues and be in the good books of all. I can, methinks, even be downright sexist and still get away with it. There’s nothing personal really, nothing which compels me to be so beside ideological identification, and that too – at least for me – is nothing permanent.

In being feminist thus, I’m but too keenly aware of the complications which nuance my status as a disinterested (itself quite nuanced) feminist. I choose to be one, but I stand nothing to lose by not being one: this, combined with my own sceptical, questioning temperament, makes me play devil’s advocate and, at times, the devil quite easily amongst the flock.

This, of course, is not to say that no man can be a true feminist – if indeed there can be such a person as a true feminist. Instead, it’s to put forth first that men can be as much of feminists as women, though their being so is commendable in the way that they work to change a power structure that invests them with much authority, and second that, being so, they are just a wee bit more likely to be able to see the excesses which zeal carried beyond its limits leads to in various manifestations of the movement – thought this last really isn’t concomitant to gender.

Yet, it serves my purpose here quite beautifully. As a sceptical male feminist, I am aware of the privileges ingrained in such a nuanced position and so also of the light in which feminist endeavour appears from the comfort of these privileges. Simply put, I tend to see things as much from – if such dichotomies may be allowed – the feminist side as much as from the confirmed patriarchal side. Like everything, this has both its merits and demerits, but that which concerns me here is the deliciously simple way such a consciousness allows for the subversion of feminist talk and ideal. It’s very good and nice to be a feminist and so I am one, but it’s also great fun undercutting feminist dogma by sheer, old-fashioned misogyny. In this way then, though with some righteous guilt, I am, more or less, quite happily a misogynist feminist.

This, finally, is how I personally approach this campaign of ours. If you’ve come till here you must’ve wondered how any of this is related to the Safe University Campaign. Being a campus feminist is, to me, as nuanced as can be and all of the above was to give just a glimpse of the dynamics of what is otherwise often considered as a monolithic, single-track identity. Just as the sceptical male misogynist feminist has a lot to contend with, so is the campus feminist an interesting mix of contraries and contradictions.

First, feminism in this University seems mostly the preserve of the Humanities and, for a variety of reasons, usually English Literature at that. Nothing objectionable about that except more often than not it’s the Women’s Cell which ends up being active, not the much larger Gender Forum which is supposed to be constituted by elected representatives from all courses and years. That being that, and no active prejudice being hinted, the activities organised by these bodies tend to be limited in the sense of being in an idiom which would appeal to and be comprehended mostly by students of the so-called liberal arts. One of the primary challenges before this campaign, therefore, is to continually reach out to departments and students who inadvertently get sidelined in such campaigns and to create a stronger sense of involvement therein. If we do not manage to create more stakeholders thus we would fail again in ending preaching to the converted.

This journal is one such endeavour towards that. From now on seven more copies will be issued on a fortnightly basis for the remainder of this session, each addressing some issue of note pertinent to us, the University community, within the larger context of sexual harassment, gender politics and, of course, feminism. With technical support of Jagori’s Safe Delhi team throughout, each of these will be managed by the respective WDCs/Gender Forums of the colleges of North Campus so that we ultimately end up involving as many voices and experiences as possible. Each of these organisations will attempt to generate consciousness in their respective colleges around the issue chosen by them so that along with diverse voices we will address a range of diverse issues as well. The ways in which this would be attempted would, naturally, have to be much more than the usual run of the mill awareness and sensitisation attempts: from surveys to continued poster putting/pamphlet distributing to informal discussions in canteens, classrooms and corridors, each of us will have to innovate beyond seminars, talks and competitions to engage as wide and as uninterested a pan-campus audience as possible.

Second, even as we reach out and involve others, we must continue to assess our own position as feminist activists. Women’s empowerment and feminism are big words and mean different things to different people so that given the diverse backgrounds of our stakeholders we cannot really have just one standard for all of us. To what extent are we feminists and champions of women’s rights and where in the larger matrix of ideologies and power equations our feminism is placed? Who, for example, is more of a feminist, a female student who feels empowerment is being able to come here and study and considers this as the end of her brand of feminism or one who believes she has a right to go where she will at whatever time even as she acknowledges the wisdom of arranged marriage? Can there possibly be a paragon of feminism and, even if there can, is it really fair to impose this same upon unwilling others?

How far, therefore, will sensitisation in our context be an imposition? As a campaign we agree to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, but can this be applied equally onto other dynamics of gender and gendering: zero-tolerance, for example, of sexist art – Munni and Sheila could never then be badnam and jawan – or a complete no to gendered concepts of beauty – no waxing, kaajal, ear/nose rings and so on. Indeed, can we really have a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment? We all, for example, unanimously agree that staring and touching constitutes harassment and expend much energy in asserting so, but can we really expect legal action to be taken for such crimes? On what evidence could such cases be put forth and even when they are proved before committees and the police, what sort of action can be expected? Should, can, colleges suspend men who stare in that perfectly subjective way which otherwise can be flirting, or should the police impose a fine on touching and groping? How, as we generate consciousness against these, do we suggest and evolve strategies to tackle these same when, to me at least, it’s simply not feasible to expect legal action to be taken for (minor?) offences of this kind?

It is issues like these which this campaign and these journals will address and, hopefully, resolve. But even as we do that and even as I end here, a parting qualifier for the Campaign as a whole: take it seriously, but not too seriously. Many will have bones to pick on that, but I think many, if not more, will agree that ultimately we are all students and that there’re things infinitely more important than making it a better world. A majority of us in any case behave that way so we might when we go along a-sensitising and a-jagaoing do better to have that perspective in mind that would make us seems less of missionaries and more of people like people. After all, righteousness put on more often than not makes righteousness redundant and it is to escape that apathy and indifference with which endeavours like ours tend to be seen than to escape the ridicule which all of us are – perhaps thankfully – subject to that I would have it so.

So too it is, finally, just as well to acknowledge that though feminist, none of us cannot but be misogynistic.