Saturday, January 26, 2008

Indo-Stalinist Architecture: A New Masterpiece

The Ministry of External Affairs is getting a new home on Rajpath, that magnificent road in front of Raisina Hill, and it will be designed and built by those masters of Indo-Stalinist architecture: The Central Public Works Department.

Gautam Bhatia, PWD Classic on Rajpath, Indian Express, January 26, 2008.

Now the difference between Bombay and Delhi will be the difference between Indo-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic buildings in the former and Indo-Stalinist buildings in the latter. If we were to read the skyline and the landscape as text, what would we learn about the two cities?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Do Indian women feel safe?

If you need to think about that answer, here is some information you could use.

Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar, Outside home, Indian woman unsafe; inside, she needs luck, Indian Express, January 24, 2007.

See also their box with data 1 and box with data 2.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Because I know her mother...

Nina Paley is a well-known American cartoonist who discovered the Ramayana when she lived in India for a while.

Shocked by what Sita had to endure, she did what every Indian has done since the first appearance of this story, and retold it the way she liked as 'Sitayana.' This narrative has since evolved and taken the form of a critically acclaimed animation film: When Sita Sang the Blues.

A story on the film and Nina's fund-raising efforts, here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mister ya Missus? Neither please, leave me alone!

Statutory warning: This is not a post or an essay so much as a rant, and a rant which has brewed a long time.

I have noticed in the last few years how people cannot tell gender any more: from name, from dress, from voice, from personal appearance. The reason it has taken so long to record this rant is that I get irritated by this to the point of incoherence.

Some examples of what I mean:
1. The doorbell rings during courier hours. I turn on all the lights in the doorway area and answer. The package bears my name: Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan. The courier lets me sign for it. And then asks: You are? I say, same person. He asks again: You are? I get annoyed. I shut the door.
It was not important enough to ask me while I took the parcel from him. But now that it has been delivered, he wants to know. Why? Because Dr. cannot be a woman. Because laydiss cannot possibly receive official looking packages.

2. I go to an office for a business transaction. Let's say it is a bank. I fill out a form to open an account or fixed deposit. The entire transaction has been conducted in person, I have furnished identification. There should be no doubt about who or what I am.
A week I get a parcel, delivered by another courier, who does not seek to ascertain my identity at all. I take the package and go in. And then I notice.
The account or the FD is in the name of MR. Swarna Rajagopalan. This has happened with new phone connections, bank certificates, insurance.
A couple of years ago, I stopped accepting letters addressed to MR. Swarna Rajagopalan. This policy applied to bills, and my reasoning was: I am not this person, therefore, the bill does not apply to me.
Moved by my resolve, if not my logic, corrections would hastily be made.

3. A couple of days ago, I got a call from my ISP. They wanted to speak to Mr. Swarna Rajagopalan. I was (go ahead, be proud of me) very calm. I asked if the business could only be transacted with him. The young lady was very accommodating; she would be happy to do business with me. Would I identify myself? I did.
And then the inner teacher took over: why, when she was also a woman, was she reluctant to grant that account-holders could be female? Did she have no pride in her gender? (Oh go on, feel sorry for her, but only if you can feel my pain at being mistaken for a man.)

My first inkling of this social revolution in India was when I was a graduate student. I had presented a paper on South Asian politics at a conference. The nearest Indian consulate wrote to Mr. Swarna Rajagopalan asking for a copy. I did send it, but recorded my objection to the error in a cover letter. I have no reason to assume they read it or cared. I got no apology.

Lest you, the unwitting reader, wonder: some of my best friends are men. I have no intrinsic problem with them. I just find it deeply offensive to be mistaken for one. I find it offensive because of the underlying assumption that only men could belong in the public sphere of paper-writing, account-opening, parcel-receiving and buying or selling. As a woman, even, the only way my activities are possible is if by some magic, you can commit a speech act and turn me into a man.

I cannot tell if this is worse or better than being taken for a married woman. Again, for the record, I have nothing against marriage or married people. Good for them, I say, and may they be happy for as many lifetimes as they wish! However, I am not Misssusss Swarna. No thank you, I will not miss you, and you may vanish instantly from my sight.

I am so close to my middle-years that they are teetering under the pressure of my closing in on them. But I am not married.
I am a grown-up, and I make decisions about domestic and professional matters. But I am not married.
I am a ladies (nothing in Tamil Nadu is singular). But I am not married.
I am not married. (Can you hear the scream coming on?!)
I am not married. I do not have a ratty old mister looming somewhere behind me. I do not come with brats attached. I was not stupid enough to get married; just stupid enough to be in an interaction with someone who thinks the only way to show me 'respect' is to marry me off, at least in title.

[SCREAM!] Sorry, needed that release.

I don't know what infuriates me more: being taken for a man or being taken for a married woman.

To you, these may not be huge issues. For me, this is like nails on a blackboard and then some.

I have so many questions about this ridiculous binary: Mister or Misssusss.
1. WHY? (We will return to this later.)
2. What happened to Amma, Didi, Akka, Madam (I cannot spell the Tamil version) or even Aunty? (No, strangely, I have no problem with Aunty!) Hey, give me a few years and I will even take Paati.
3. What is the need to list a telephone number with a Mr. or a Mrs.? Is my name not enough? If you do this, is my friend or colleague supposed to look under M, S or R? (And that is another issue, writing my name as Mrs. R. Swarna, but in the interests of salvaging a working Sunday, I will desist..)
4. If you can indulge in creative social licence and make me a man or a married woman, I ask you, why not: Your highness, Your excellency, Professor, Commander, Captain, Doctor, Alampanah, Bharat Ratna... you get my drift?
5. Finally as promised: WHY?

Last words then: Because of this, I introduce myself to couriers, plumbers, electricians, cab company despatch clerks and other service providers as Doctor Rajagopalan. They deal with me, I pay for the service with a cheque bearing my name, but the fact that I am called 'Dr.' comforts them: I must be a man (or may be assumed to be one: Aswatthama atah kunjarah), so they can serve me well with a clear conscience. You can call it sneaky; I call it payback!

Somewhere, someone... cares!

2008 is the International Year of Sanitation, the UN Secretary-General has declared.

Do also check out WaterAid's report on The State of the World's Toilets 2007.

Finally, I propose that now that Ratan Tata is done with his one-lakh car project, he turn his attention and ability to get things done to another people's need: public toilets in India. I think that Shahrukh Khan, whose views resemble mine on this topic, join forces with him. Between them, we may actually solve this problem to my satisfaction: Tata will get things done, and SRK will convince people it is what they always wanted.

That may well be my Pongal wish for India! And if the two of them pay heed to my blog post, I will strongly recommend their names for the Bharat Ratna.

January 14 Postscript: Darn, someone else got to Ratan Tata first! Reeba Zachariah reports in the Times of India that he is going to work on clean water provision next. Just remember: I am next in line with my idea!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What Gandhiji, Dev Anand and Vikram Sarabhai have in common

I have read three biographies in the last twelve months, choosing to do so with great enthusiasm either for the author or the subject or both. Last night, as I made my way through the third, I was struck by the similarity between these remarkable individuals, however unlikely it seems when I list their names: Gandhiji, Dev Anand and Vikram Sarabhai.


Gandhiji is a fixture of any Indian child's early history lessons, an impossibly moral figure who cannot be real, a sculpture often overlooked in our city-scapes, a road which is often the 'main street' of our urban centres... anything but a person who lived, thought, felt, struggled as we did. This, in spite of the fact that he wrote copiously, candidly and compulsively about his life, thoughts and 'experiments with truth.'

Rajmohan Gandhi's account of Gandhiji's life and times brought home to me a person who was heroic mostly because he was trying and so honestly. I was moved by his transparent uncertainty, his need to be true to oneself and others, and his ability to reconcile life with ideal and do so without compromising the latter. I am awed by his ability to treat small and big things (by my definition) on the same plane: a household/prison/ashram routine, remembering details about individuals around him, projects that reflected his individual predilections (from naturopathy to brahmacharya) and visions that embraced humanity (satyagraha and independence). Not for him what is so easy for me to do: I cannot finish this chore today because I have a paper to write; I cannot exercise because I have to think about conflict resolution.

Dev Anand

Dev Anand. I cannot type this name without smiling; can you read it without smiling?

Dev Anand has epitomized charm for me since long before I thought about 'charm' or knew the word 'epitomize.' As he sashayed through town and country, wearing baggy pants and open smile, a beautiful SD Burman or Jaidev song on his lips, building houses and solving mysteries and facing moral dilemmas, I thought, they don't make real people like this! And even when the orange scarf came to stay and his face and mannerisms aged (it hurts to write this) while his spirit did not, I thought, they still don't make people like this! A few years ago, he was on 'Walk the Talk' and his energy was as infectious as his smile and his charm had been. I discovered another layer of Dev Anand-ness that I could really, really admire.

Dev Anand announced then that he was writing his memoirs and I waited for them like his countless other fans. He said he would launch them on his birthday (September 26) last year, and I ran to the bookstore on the very day. But how ironic! For this is a person who wrote about his past with the impatience of something speedier than Shinkansen (the Japanese bullet-train) and pronounced in his promotional interviews that he never listened to any of his old songs. Excerpts dwelt on his love-life, as does he in the manner of a stock-taking exercise. But this is not what is interesting about him. This is not why I think he is just phenomenal.

Dev Anand's autobiography impresses upon you his optimism, his self-confidence and his need to keep moving. He is sure we love him (of course!); he is sure his creativity is boundless (and it is!) and he has too much to do to conduct post-mortems on anything: movies, relationships, anything at all. I read the tome virtually non-stop, finishing it in two night-sessions. The writing style is unmistakably colonial university and there are stretches that are tedious for even those who do love him, but the compulsion to keep moving is irresistible and finally, that drives the reading process as well.

Vikram Sarabhai

And then, Vikram Sarabhai, as depicted by my contemporary at Elphinstone, Amrita Shah. Sarabhai was not someone I knew much about, but this looked like an interestingly written biography, fluently balancing the individual's story with that of his times. If I had to analyze my motivation for buying this, it would be partly that Amrita wrote this and Amrita writes well, and partly that biographies of this sort are still unusual in India.

Having never given Dr. Sarabhai any thought, I did not expect to find myself reading the story of a visionary, an institution-builder and a team-builder. As I read her account, I found myself thinking, 'Wow! Could I be like that?' I envied him his confidence and hoped there were things about him that I could identify with. The story of small beginnings to major institutions, the chutzpah to just go out and ask for what you need, the ability to take no for an answer and most importantly, the charisma and energy to draw talent to one's vision and the self-confidence to nurture another's genius--are all inspiring to one who is setting up a space of her own, with far fewer resources.

The commonalities

As I read Amrita's book, I found myself reflecting that in one year, I had been drawn to read three life-stories that have certain elements in common. Gandhiji, Dev Anand and Dr. Sarabhai were all raised in comfortable-to-affluent homes, but each in their own sphere of work was starting afresh. They were not without support, but it cannot have been easy to predict the way things would turn out for each of them. All three showed an unusual measure of self-confidence, whether because of temperament, a prediction or because they were to the manner born. However, that kind of confidence can also make a person stagnate and this happened with none of them. They chose their line of work, they followed their conscience/creativity/curiosity and they took chances.

All three individuals are high achievers but because their own success and achievement became by-products rather than their singular objective, they were able to create legacies that will survive them by generations.

In Gandhiji's case, arguably, we are that legacy, each of us Indians. In Dev Anand's case, it is a tremendous body of work, hits or flops, in Indian cinema which we will enjoy and analyze for years. In Dr. Sarabhai's case, that legacy is a network of enterprises and institutions that have been benchmark centres of excellence.

All three individuals began right where they stood. They did not wait for another life, another stage, another moment. Gandhiji's political career began when he found himself in a situation that needed a neutral arbiter soon after he arrived in South Africa. He did not ask: is this the moment, am I the right person? He just did what was needed to be done. Dev Anand did the rounds of studios and auditions, working as a postal censor during the Second World War. He took risks and capitalized on whatever opportunities came his way. Vikram Sarabhai put his fine education and his family resources to work in ways that remain visionary today. His biographer tells us that his scientific work pales in comparison to his institution-building, without prejudice to the former. To envisage the need for research laboratories, for cultural centres and for institutions for management education is not unusual, but to start them confidently in sheds, in available houses, with what one has, confident that other things will follow... to do this without waiting for the perfect moment. To me that is what he has in common with the two Librans in this discussion.

Those who spread dread are countless, especially, I am sorry to say, in India. Those who dream are fewer, but still not impossible to find. Those who make their dreams come true, a rare breed.

But rarest of all is a quality that these three gentlemen had/have in common: the ability to make their dream the dream of many, many others. Gandhiji told us we could win freedom through non-violence, and most Indians came to believe it with all their hearts. Dev Anand's portrayals of urban sophistication and charm are iconic, and his choice of themes and stories always surprising and new. Navketan's oeuvre will outlive his own story. Sarabhai, we are told, made everyone around him eager to make his dream come true and be the best they could be.

In all these life-stories, I saw glimpses of what every spiritual teacher advocates: mindfulness, being in the present moment, integrity, creativity and the courage to be creative. Ego, too, does not seem all bad; it is where confidence and conviction can receive reinforcements and it is what allows you to bounce back from failures. The ability to build partnerships and coalitions is also a common factor in all three stories, with Gandhiji being the best communicator by far of the three.

I don't really have a conclusion for these reflections are works-in-progress. I do know that this year, I will need a lot of these lessons as we work on creating our own non-profit research space in Chennai. The examples of these fine people will have to take me through the challenges of fund-raising, coalition-building, team-building and an endless procession of drafts and revisions for every single thing we write. I am sure this is not the last you will hear on this subject in this blog!