Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review & Reflections: Vaasanthi's "Birthright"

I spent Sunday evening reading Vasantha Surya's translation of Vaasanthi's Tamil novel, Kadaisee Varai. Titled Birthright in English, the novel is about female foeticide. I wanted to read this book but didn't know what to expect--a tirade? a Tamil soap (unlikely but..)? a weepy rant?

I did not expect Dr. Mano, Vaasanthi's complex protagonist, an obstetrician-gyanaecologist practising in a village in Salem district. I did not expect a protagonist who performs scans and abortions for the desperate women who flock her clinic. Vaasanthi's protagonist is not even a conservative product of patriarchal society who believes that male children are inherently more desirable. It's her completely matter-of-fact approach to the scanning and abortions that is most shocking. Chilling, even.

So you willingly follow Vaasanthi on the journey through Mano's psyche.

Never feeling wanted or adequate just because she was a daughter--and not just that, an only child who was a daughter--Dr. Mano expresses her anger and disappoinment with the world in her own way. Knowing full well that her willingness to scan and abort female foetuses is against the law, she calmly acquiesces when desperate village women beg for her help. Just as calmly as they face the prospect of abortion. There's a very sad, shocking and heartbreaking exchange between her and her sociologist (and feminist) friend visiting from Delhi as they look at a female foetus on her scan screen.
"'Do you still have the heart to do it, after you've seen this?' she said softly, in an awed voice. Smiling a little, my eyes still on the screen, I told her, 'You wouldn't understand how merciful a creature I really am.'... Arguing about this thing with a person who doesn't have the slightest idea what it is to breathe the air in these parts is especially meaningless." (page 10-11)
Later in the novel, Dr. Mano reflects:
"Women asked me to destroy the females in their wombs, pleading, "There's no other way for me!" Our epics and legends say that a woman who wants to achieve anything at all must renounce not only sexual desire, but every sign of femaleness." And as Dr. Mano remembers Auvaiyaar, Karaikkaal Ammaiyaar, Kannagi and Andal, heroines from Tamil epic and mythic ages, she compares herself and Raasamma, their housekeeper, to them, thinking, "Our outlets for the sacrificial impulse were different, that was all. The TV screen for her, the scan screen for me." (page 49)
Vaasanthi's skill as a writer is that she is able to make us feel compassion for this person who is educated, privileged and still does this thing that is morally reprehensible, not to say criminal. Moreover, she lets you into the pain of every woman who comes to Dr. Mano for an abortion, sometimes after trying more rustic methods first.

And when Dr. Mano "speaks" these words, they speak to something inside many, many women--including me.
"This loneliness that's been haunting me since my birth--I'm the only one who knows what that is like. That's why it has never been enough for me to be just myself, I need a larger frame." (page 22)
The push to do more, do more, do more, because what you are is not enough becomes a theme in many lives. It's the contemporary, maybe feminist, equivalent of dowry--a way of compensating for who you accidentally and inadequately are--a woman.

I can only hope that generations of girls after Dr. Mano and me can never relate to these words. I can only hope that the idea that they're "only" girls or that they "can never be men" is so extinct that when they chance upon this blogpost, they want to discuss it in class as a historical curiosity.

Read this book. It's very sad but very worthwhile and if you can read it in Tamil, I am sure it will be even more powerful.

Vaasanthi, Birthright, translated by Vasantha Surya, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2004. 

Related post: And what if their baby could choose?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is there a teaching moment we're missing today?


Every moment is a teaching moment, I believe, because every moment is a learning moment.

In the noise and clamour of the social network, it is hard sometimes to have a coherent thought. Rather like being caught in a mob in the real world and struggling to get out of the way of a stampede. But some things must be said, even if out of sequence and context, and in the quiet of an unknown blog.

1. Everyone who is not a beneficiary of corruption is against corruption; I think we can take this for granted.
If someone finds they have questions with your particular solution, it does not mean they favour corruption or support the corrupt. It means they want to think things through to find another solution. You want these people around. They help us move towards perfection.
In today's context, it means that those who have issues with the Jan Lokpal Bill are not necessarily government supporters or themselves corrupt. It means they have identified specific problems and would like to have them satisfactorily resolved. It may mean they have a better idea.
It also means that those who speak for institutions, and who believe that constitutional processes must be respected, are not favouring the corrupt. They are simply speaking their mind (and I happen to agree with this view) given what they have seen and read of human history.
Those who support the government position also have a fundamental right to do so. Just as government critics have the right to protest peacefully within the limits of the law.

2. People can disagree but support each other's right to hold and express their views.
Today this means that a lot of people who are very sceptical about the Jan Lokpal Draft are also upset by arbitrary arrest and disproportionate responses. But bear in mind that these people may also consider serving an ultimatum to an elected Parliament a variation on this theme. And that even if they think that, they will concede that the state always bears a greater moral burden for good behaviour.

3. Institutions do matter.
In fact, they matter even more when you want to enforce accountability. What is an institution? Political scientists use the word to describe anything that endures, that has a certain set of functions, rules and procedures attached, that adapts and that is not arbitrary. Institutions are essential for 'rule of law,' which all of us want.
The Lokpal, in all its avatars, is an institution. It will be bound by the functions and rules we invest it with, just as Parliament is bound by its rules.
As the constabulary (a local law and order institution) cannot start doing the work of the Income Tax Service, and the Income Tax Service cannot take over the Air Force, and the Air Force cannot become the Indian Forest Service--though individuals can, institutions can't--so must each institution do its own work. The Lok Pal cannot become the judiciary, and the judiciary cannot become Parliament.
Moreover, when institutions function properly, they act as checks and balances for each other's excesses and over-reach. An overpowerful Prime Minister, an excessively endowed Army or an ombudsman (Lokpal) with sweeping powers, destroy the fine balance that is needed for democratic governance.

Here, I want to interject, that every description of the Jan Lokpal, ever cry for a powerful, avenging Lokpal, has reminded me of Robespierre. Remember him? After the French Revolution, he rose to the position of the chairman of the Committee of Public Safety. His extremely strong convictions and his confidence that he (alone) was right, was an important factor in ushering in what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. I think after learning about him, extremely self-righteous people fill me with a sense of anxiety. And should such a person assume such an office with sweeping powers? Maybe it's just me.
Maybe the younger generation which is so sensitive to every question about its lifestyle choices can find a way to live with Robespierre. So then, what I think really doesn't matter.

4. Civil society is not the same as democratic government.
Civil society is a rubric that takes in all manner of beasts (including my organization, Prajnya) and creatures (me). We're like the entire range of non-human actors in the Puranas--sometimes animal, sometimes magical, sometimes scary. Democratic government may contain some of us, or many humans that are worse, but it's great virtue is that someone took the trouble to choose those people. (Were you one of them? I was, and next time, I may vote differently. Or not.)
Civil society cannot be empowered to make laws; that would be a democratic travesty. But civil society must inform citizens and governments about policy choices and concerns; and civil society must hold government accountable on behalf of citizens.
Somewhere along the way, civil society has forgotten that it has this public education role, and begun to sound like it always knows best.

We've all failed in this role. Those of us with the training and temperament, haven't taken the trouble to engage with and create opportunities for engaging with this important debate, of which the Lokpal proposals are really only a small part. So, this is what my organization and I are doing to somewhat atone: http://www.prajnya.in/lokpaldebate.htm It's a resource page we created following the National Campaign for People's Right to Information's call for a real debate. Do use it to inform your discussions. And do suggest resources we should add.

5. Either/or is a pointless way to engage with others; it's actually code for, I don't really want to talk to you.
See this, see that, mine is better, is also not a way to have a public debate. This is the kind of debate we've had so far on this question.
The Lokpal is one institutional measure to ensure accountability. Have we given any thought to others? Can we breathe normally, talk civilly? Today, I just don't feel optimistic.

I don't know. Today I am again feeling really sad. In despair. At the way the government has acted. At the tone and terms of the Jan Lokpal campaign. Thinking that these are all really intelligent people with lives of public service behind them. That it's become about sides, and not about India. It's become a screaming battle about loyalty and ad hominem attacks. That we are forgetting that governance and policy-making are really complex issues. I am in despair that this may not be a teaching moment after all. But a moment for putting your head in your hands and closing your eyes and hoping for the best. Hoping it will all go away.

I don't know what to learn from today. And I don't know what to teach.


This post has now been featured in the Britannica Blog: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2011/09/anna-hazareteaching-moment-missing-today/ 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blocked..??.. so blogging

I am having so much trouble writing. That's what I want to say. But it's not entirely true.

I am tweeting continuously and reasonably grammatically. I am posting multiple tweets on a subject so my brain is able to construct a few thoughts at a time.

I am reacting to this and that. So I have some grasp, some thoughts.

But I have just tossed out five laboriously written versions of this article I should have finished a couple of days ago. And no, of course, they weren't full versions but still in my head, each time I knew, or thought I knew, what to do.

So what's the problem?