Saturday, November 9, 2019

Ayodhya: Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Ayodhya means invincible. But anything with an absolute description like that is surely a metaphor. The town, its spirit and its history are defeated by the human battle over ground and walls and ceilings and this room or that room. The people perhaps defeated by being dragged into what ultimately are squabbles.

The idea... what is the idea of Ayodhya? I think of that para from the Valmiki Ramayana describing Ramrajya that I used to quote a great deal:

“Only more than a month has elapsed since you took the sceptre in your hand, O Raghava! And mortals have become strangers to disease, death does not overtake even men worn out with age, women undergo no labour-pains during parturition and human beings are well-built indeed. An abundance of joy has fallen to the lot of every citizen dwelling in the town, O king! Pouring down nectarean water clouds rain at the proper time. Even the very winds which blow here are capable of giving a delightful touch, and are pleasing and healthful. People living both in the cities and in the country, arriving in the capital, declare, ‘May such a sovereign be our ruler for long’, O king!” (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kandam XLI: 15-21)

Perfect governance feels like a mirage. An idea easily squashed by human stupidity and cupidity.


Ever since I saw the Ayodhya judgment was due today, I have been thinking of our obsession with a physical location.

I have also been thinking of Sita. Abducted and ensconced in a grove that we, with our obsession for tying ideas down to physical locations, identify with Ella, Bandarawela or Nuwara Eliya in today's Sri Lanka, we are told she still found Rama in her heart, with her, in every part of her day. As she was in his.

To paraphrase a book I love, if you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?

Shouldn't devotion to a deity or a divine idea be the same?


I have also been thinking of Rama's perfect and ultimate devotee, Hanuman. Rama does not sit on a throne in a temple. In virtually every traditional illustration, except these stylised angry new Hanumans, Rama dwells in Hanuman's heart.

Hanuman is known for physical strength and valour, for this devotion and for sagesse. He was wise. By holding Rama in his heart, he freed his faith and love and devotion of time and place.

"i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." The Internet is full of criticism of this ee cummings poem but to me it captures the kind of love you express to a beloved toddler--beyond reason and logic and trying to capture intense feeling in inadequate words: I love you to the moon and back. "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." No separation between you and me. Between Hanuman and Rama.


na jāyate mriyate vā kadāchin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śhāśhvato ’yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śharīre 
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 20)

Krishna, also in essence Rama, tells Arjuna that the soul is not born and never dies, does not come into being or cease to be. Then, what birthplace? What birthplace for one who is not born and does not die? One who is without start or end, as we learn in the Vishwaroopa chapter? 

danṣhṭrā-karālāni cha te mukhāni
dṛiṣhṭvaiva kālānala-sannibhāni
diśho na jāne na labhe cha śharma
prasīda deveśha jagan-nivāsa
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, Verse 25)

"Having seen your many mouths bearing your terrible teeth, resembling the raging fire at the time of annihilation, I forget where I am and do not know where to go. O Lord of lords, you are the shelter of the universe; please have mercy on me."

I forget where I am and do not know where to go. You are the shelter of the Universe.

But we will confidently pinpoint the location of the birth of the one who is neither born nor dies, who encompasses and embodies and shelters the Universe, although we scarcely know if we are coming or going. 


Invincible, are our hubris, our ignorance and our inability to love without limit. 


As we wait for the Supreme Court's verdict on the Ayodhya case, in which we have reduced the idea of Rama to the persona of a land litigant, prayers for sense or even magnanimity have failed so we must pray for peace. 

We just celebrated Gandhiji's 15oth birthday. In the words of his favourite bhajan: 

Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram
Pateeta Paavana Sita Ram
Ishwar Allah Tero Naam
Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Of cyber satyagrahis and citizenship failures

Today, there is a boycott of all communications devices being called for--no phone, TV, Internet, radio. The idea is to simulate the situation that Kashmiris have been forced to live with and to write about it what it feels like.

I saw this a few days ago and knew I would not join. Why? I am traveling, my elderly mother is at a distance, my organisation has a major event scheduled. And as I thought this, I thought, this is also true for Kashmiris. They travel, leaving families and offices behind. They have elderly parents, ailing relatives, young children in another location. They need to remain connected.

And this is the point, precisely.

For almost two months, the rest of us have gone about our lives using freely the devices and media denied to Kashmiris. We find them indispensable to speak our dissent, and we find them indispensable to suspend using them even as an expression of dissent.

Kashmiris have had no choice. Nobody asked them, "Is this a convenient time for you to be cut off from the world?" Nobody cares.

On Gandhi Jayanti, we are all writing commentaries on his importance. What he would really like, no doubt, is for someone to say, "End this." And to put their life on the line for it. To fast. To undertake a padayatra. Some kind of civil disobedience. Some genuine expression of solidarity.

I write this and think none of our political leaders would do this. And the question arises, why not me? Why am I not feeling like I can initiate this? Why is it not natural to me to step up and be the satyagrahi in this situation?

I can think of multiple answers to that question. But the challenge remains: Can one of us do what Gandhiji would have to help Kashmiris out of this terrible situation? Can we retain our deep discomfort and pain with this humanitarian crisis? On this day of many celebrations, I can only think that we have failed as citizens. And humans.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Independence Day Prayer, 2019

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Amma, I seek the courage to stand my ground and speak my truth regardless of how people will troll me and what might happen.

   Where knowledge is free;

Please open up all the locked in and locked down and locked out zones of the world, so we can see and hear what is happening there, and people within can learn that our hearts do beat for them as well. Open up all musty rooms with festering conspiracies and stinking closets with rotting secrets and shatter our silences once and for all—let us see what must be seen and call it out for what it is.

   Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Keep us together—different, diverse, debating, disagreeing, but together. We are, because of each other. Remind us of our common humanity and to be humane with each other.  

   Where words come out from the depth of truth;

The depth of truth is a dangerous place, Amma. Please protect us as we try to walk this path of understanding and action. Please watch over us.

   Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

There is so much to do on every front. Replace fatigue, frustration and fear with passion, commitment and love so we might work with focus, fortitude and ferocious energy.

   Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Show us the beauty of patient, thoughtful, attentive and deep learning and critical thinking, and teach us to listen to each other with brains and hearts both, and to sift from an appealing feast of fantasy, grains of fact and truth, and to filter from old custom and tradition, and formulate new and better ways of being.

   Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

These sinking sands are treacherous for those who will linger, whether in fear or in faith. Lift us, Amma, so we can see the world as it is and find within the space and freedom to speak of what we see and for truth and justice.

   Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

We, who are responsible for the vision of that ‘heaven of freedom’ and the instruction manual on how to build it, fell asleep. Wake us up, Amma. Let us recall and resume our labours.


[Posted with apologies to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore for marring his beautiful poem with my clumsy prose, just as we have let go of his dream of  a heaven of freedom with our apathy. His words, which once filled me with joy and hope and dreams now make me sad as they remind me of how we have failed ourselves.]

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Re-Discovery of India

First, let me apologise: I am so much a product of Nehru’s India that I could not think of a more original title. But this is the most apt summary for what this day (May 23, 2019) has brought to me—a re-discovery of India, a world that I thought I knew, but clearly didn’t.

In recent weeks, I have wondered if such a re-discovery was about to happen, and I have waited, with dread, to find out. Well, it’s here and today I learned many things about Indians—my fellow-Indians—that I might have learned earlier if I had not ignored hints and remained in denial.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians are people who don’t care much about other people. They do not care about those whose lives were destroyed in riots. They do not care about those who were lynched at random. They do not care about impunity for horrendous acts of sexual violence or those guilty for inciting communal riots or terror. They’re okay, and so all is well in the world. Today, I learned this about my fellow-Indians.

I learned that the misery caused by demonetization really did not matter to any of them. Today I learnt that flighty polemic is more real to my fellow-Indians than the real misery of those who depend on daily cash wages, those who lost their savings or those who were unable to access care because they could not access their cash. Even those who suffered were apparently okay with it.

Because my suffering pales when compared to the joy I get from endorsing violence against others. Today I learnt that my fellow-Indians live with a long list of ‘others’ that include virtually everyone else. People who speak other languages, follow other faiths, eat other food, are born into other castes and communities, don’t speak like us… the list is long and they are all ‘others,’ less worthy than we are. So, discrimination and violence against them do not matter, as long as we are alright. And as long as we can choose to believe in our strength and superiority.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians have very weak faith, especially my fellow Hindus. We have a philosophical tradition that is millennia-old, steeped in dissent and diversity and home to one of the oldest examples of skeptical poetry, and our pantheon is infinite and ancient. But we do not believe our ideas or our gods can defend themselves. Now, I thought our genius and uniqueness was our ability to embrace new gods and engage with new ideas. That is what I learned from our puja shelf which housed images of Balaji, Ajmer Sharif and St. Jude. Today I learnt that the divine powers in the universe need puny human Parliamentarians or armed mobs to fight for them, or so my fellow-Indians believe.

Today I learned that while we Indians believe we are among the smartest people in the world, the adage that 'the more you know, the more you know you don't know' does not apply to us. We are experts on everything. And therefore, we are always right. We firmly close the door on learning better or learning otherwise. We remain as Alberuni found us, ignorant, confident and combative about our opinions. 

Today I learned that each Indian is argumentative and brilliant and opinionated and right, but no one else is, and therefore, I was wrong, freedom does not matter. You cannot differ because I am always right and therefore, you must be wrong and if you are wrong, you had better not speak. Freedom is the preserve of the strong and today, I learned that strength lies in shouting, in controlling, in silencing and in the ring of certainty that I find frightening. Freedom belongs to people who are always sure of themselves and who believe that the world falls in line with their utterances. Today I learned the folly of believing that democracy is freedom.

“Democracy belongs to the majority.” Today I learned that this is what my fellow-Indians believe. Now, I don’t know whether this means I am entitled to democracy or not because the lines between us keep shifting. I may be part of the majority or I may not. But just in case, I gather I should keep quiet. I cannot express doubt or ask questions. I am not entitled to clarification. I cannot disagree. Even if I were a part of the majority that is entitled, these speech acts would disqualify me.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians actually have a huge inferiority complex. They need someone who sounds certain and confident and completely lacking in self-doubt. They need someone who can tell them what is good for them and how good they are. All the time. They crave a strong leader—a daddy figure—and while they are proud that they can do jugaad and break rules, they want someone who will punish others who do. Today I learned we do not really trust our ability to assess a situation and while we sit, starving, cowering and censoring ourselves, we are willing to believe someone who tells us we are wealthy, brilliant, valiant and free. As long as it is uttered with confidence, it must be true.

Today I learned that while our constitution enjoins us to "develop scientific temper," we've done better with "temper" than scientific on average, and "science" is a spectacle, not the habit of critical and analytical thinking. Never mind, I misunderstood that one.

Today I learned that while we boast about ahimsa and like to be seen attending Bhakti and Sufi music concerts, we actually do not value gentleness, compassion, honesty or humility in our politicians. We want them to sound like swashbuckling warriors ever-engaged in epic battles. We do not care for subtle reasoning or nuanced vision. It has to be all out there like the garish plaster-of-paris-meets-plastic baubles of television epic serials.

Today I learned many things about my fellow-Indians that I really did not want to know.

This is who we are—uncaring people who do not care about other people’s rights, freedom, culture or bodily integrity. The party in power ran a divisive and hateful campaign and we did not punish them for it. They lied to us about a thousand things and we did not care because it suited us not to challenge them. This is who we are, as deeply disillusioning as it is.

But what I was afraid of did not happen. The re-discovery of India—this India—did not devastate me. I see it, I acknowledge it and I am still standing. As are the hundreds of thousands of Indians who share my values, as I know they do.

My India—that beautiful, diverse, plural, inclusive, compassionate India—is still alive, even if it is now half-hidden under the crush of this brash India that celebrates the worst parts of our legacy—violence, hierarchy, discrimination and mutual disregard. In my India, there is room for everyone, no matter what discoveries we make about each other along the way. As the old school pledge went: "India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters." We are not identical, but this is our charm. Though charm can be toxic and nauseating, we cannot disown or abandon each other. We are one family, right? 

This is who we are. 

This is who we are and I am still here and I will still be when this moment passes, even if it takes years. And in that time, I will do everything I can to engage with my fellow-Indians, to challenge them, to remind them of the joys of inclusion and sharing and the gifts of compassion and empathy. 

In my first act of faith, I will bravely post this reflection. 

Written on May 23, 2019

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Personal Reflections on the Preamble to the Constitution of India in Election Season

Elections are less than three weeks away and there are many who are not sure how they will vote, and even, whether they will vote. I go into this election with definite concerns and preferences. This post is written as a way of sharing those in a constructive way, in the hope that someone will find them useful.

The touchstone for me are Constitutional values. I grant, none of our politicians show a steadfast devotion to them, but which group is less likely to want to intervene and actually change them? In my head, the answer is clear, but I will not spell it out for you. I will instead take you through my reflections on the Preamble, which offers us the clearest distillation of the values that our founding leadership in the Constituent Assembly thought were important. You can make your decision.


“We, the People of India”

This phrase thrills me, always has, but in recent years, I have had to meditate more and more on it.
Who are we, the ‘People of India’? Even when I was a child, I knew that this was not a homogeneous lump of humans. People were different from me, like my classmates in school and their parents. Their languages were different and their lunch dabbas were different. Diversity looked like the floats on Republic Day.

I see so much more when I now look, as an adult in a world where we are learning to think intersectionally and take better cognizance of how each one wants to be identified. And all of us, each of us, with our full wardrobes of identities, make up the ‘People of India.’

A Brazilian friend once said, “I am not Brazilian because I am White/ Black/ etc. I am Brazilian and therefore, I am all those things.” In that spirit, “we” who are the people of India are Bangla and Tamil and Muslim and Hindu and cis-men and transwomen and Dalit and Brahmin and music-lovers and kabbadi players and an infinite number of our identities-as-numerous-as-our-gods.

I thrill to try and imagine that unimaginable possibility of being so much and so many. Now that I am learning that our diversity and my possibilities are infinite, I do not want anyone to boil me down to a simple two-ingredient soup stock. And I will vote and advocate for a government that enables me to be all the different people I want to be.



Nationalism loads ‘sovereign’ with agendas that the word need not have. It once simply meant being acknowledged by the world as free to decide for itself and acknowledged by people within as competent to decide for them. The idea of self-interest, very narrowly and contentiously defined by nationalism, I am uncomfortable with.

Nehru’s much reviled idealism is the kind of sovereignty that works for me. I want India to be focused on doing the right thing and to be an imaginative influence for a more peaceful world. I want us to be secure enough in our sovereignty to be a part of global regimes and conventions that promote human rights, justice, sustainable development and equity.

Within India, I want the government to show the moral courage to take decisions that create a more equal and fairer world and to take a strong stand against those whose speech and actions diminish the humanity of others. I would consider such a government worthy of the authority to make decisions in my name.

It is ‘we, the people of India’ who are constituting ourselves as sovereign and not the government of India which is sovereign. Whoever is the agent of our sovereignty—the government of India—must engage with us, respond to our questions and challenges and be accountable to us. They cannot take actions in our name that violate the core values we go on to list.  

Yes, it is true that disrespect for civil society and public questioning are common traits of Indian governments in the last few decades. However, I would vote for people who would be more likely to hesitate to slap sedition charges, and less likely to disdain media interactions or revile civil society. That would be my way of understanding how ‘sovereignty’ is meant to work.


“Socialist,” read with “Equality of status and opportunity”

The Constituent Assembly of India did not feel the need to write the word ‘socialist’ into the Preamble. It was perhaps assumed that justice and equality would suffice. By the time this word was added in 1975, we had however been speaking of a ‘socialistic pattern’ of society for a long time.

India is a hierarchical society and the only way an Indian would not notice that is if they were sitting at the top of the hierarchy. A hierarchical society and a democratic polity are mutually incompatible, and the very intelligent people who debated and drafted our Constitution knew that. In order to balance the individualistic orientation of the Fundamental Rights chapter, they wrote the Directive Principles of State Policy which essentially asked successive governments of India to place the common good over individual interest. While the word ‘socialist’ was not in the Preamble for the first twenty-five years of the Republic, the idea of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” certainly informed the government’s approach to development—from planning to nationalisation to the public distribution system to food self-sufficiency.

Some things improved, but so much inequality remains. While the post-liberalisation boom has extended some benefits across the board—maybe the ownership of consumer durables like televisions, mobile phones or scooters—so much that is essential remains shamefully inaccessible to too many Indians—drinking water, decent schools, primary health care. We are still talking about the same shortages that prevailed forty years ago. Some of us live in comfort we could scarcely have imagined then, connected at the tips of our fingers to the whole world, and others, still cannot read, cannot reach a hospital in time or dare to dream about what they will be when they grow up.
India’s burgeoning youth population is growing up with the same unconscionable inequalities and discrimination as their parents did.

This means, as I reflect on the Preamble three weeks before elections, I am going to seek out those who feel for ordinary people and place them front and centre in their politics. I am going to look for people who condemn discrimination on any grounds. I want a government that will balance growth and equity but when tough choices are made, will have enough compassion and fairness to place equity first. I want a government that will engage with local communities before dumping infrastructure projects and economic zones into their lives. I want leaders who understand how hard it was for women to save those 1000s and 500s that suddenly lost value. I want a government whose heart places economic and social justice ahead of private profits and Davos invitations.



I am particularly passionate about this rather dry word. India as the home to people of many faiths is a part of what defines me.

The people I grew up around were from families that followed many faiths and many versions and variations of the same traditions. All of these taught the same values—truth, kindness, generosity and faith. The manner of observance, the dates of celebration and the feasts may have been different as well as the ways in which we named those we worshipped or venerated. But something at bottom was the same and as children, we understood that.

As an adult, I have sought help and succour where I could reach when I needed it, and I have found it. Music from all faith traditions has touched me in the same way. And I am convinced that if there is a god, as it comforts many of us to believe, that god could not be so petty as to discriminate between one cry for help or another.

An India reduced to one faith community, whose faith (mine) is simplified in the most unimaginative way with all of us expected to conform is an unbearable idea to me. What I do cherish is that the way that I get to be Hindu is the way that appeals to my heart and mind, and if you take that away from me and impose your essentialised notion of this magnificently plural civilisation of traditions and ideas, you will kill all that is appealing about being a Hindu.

Secularism is about keeping the state, the government and the raucous majority out of my house of worship, my sacred text, my communion with what I consider divine and my way of relating to that. Secularism is about freedom of religion (or no religion) and freedom of conscience.

I will not have the government define faith, tradition or culture for me. Nor will I have a government that wants to tell me what to eat, how to eat or when to eat. The only relationship a government should have with my food is to make sure I have some and that it is safe and healthy. Everything else is a violation of my freedom.



A few weeks ago, we had a discussion in our office on the Preamble and in response to my question about democracy, a young student chimed, “Government of the people, for the people, by the people.”

The word ‘democratic’ ties together all the other words in the Preamble. It speaks to popular sovereignty—by the people. It speaks to equality and justice, socialism and secularism, fraternity and freedom—for the people. And it is the people who choose the representatives who will make all this a reality for all of us—of the people.

How democratic is India? Indian elections make history every time and they are an awe-inspiring logistical exercise but not perfect, as anyone whose name has mysteriously disappeared off the electoral list will tell you. However, elections are not the only way to judge democracy. Others include: autonomy and unimpaired functioning of institutions; accountability in systems and in political culture; rule of law and freedom of speech, expression and conscience.

I am old enough to have reason to be cynical, but still, I am going to vote hopefully for a government I think will at least have some qualms about decimating democracy in India.



The word ‘republic’ has two common meanings. The first is that sovereignty resides in the people and the people rule. In most republics, they rule through representatives they elect, directly or indirectly. The second signals that those who rule, do so by the authority people vest in them through elections rather than through hereditary right. And yes, this means that the children of politicians cannot assume that they will inherit the ‘throne’ but have to work for it in some way.

But there is a larger, and to my mind, more important point. Even a government with a large majority, even a majority of votes, ultimately acts in our name, and must have the humility to communicate with us. Communication means a two-way exchange—you tell me, I tell you, I ask you, you respond and if you cannot, you tell me so honestly. Communication is not a broadcast; you talk, I listen. And if I have any questions I dare ask, I am anti-national and seditious. That is not how republics should work.

It is my duty to hold governments accountable and good governments invite and respond to that act of citizenship with grace and honesty.

I will state honestly that most governments I have seen in my life fail to meet that bar but that means my only way to control that tendency is to give people just one term so that they do not feel that can perennially get away with silencing me.


The Preamble explicitly states that we decide to constitute ourselves as a republic in order to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. That is, the whole point of being India, and the government of India, is to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for ALL of us, who are citizens of India.


Justice, social, economic and political

In a society that has been deeply hierarchical and unequal and where recent economic choices have exacerbated those divisions, justice sometimes seems like a distant dream. And yet, no other signs of development or progress have meaning without it. The case for social and economic justice has been made in the discussion of socialism and equality.

The Preamble speaks, however, of political justice. What does justice mean in the political realm, I wonder?

Is it the justice that ensues when institutions are respected and allowed to function autonomously so that each is able to protect those processes and values that are in its charge? Is it the justice that ensues when the relationship between central and state governments are not repeatedly abused using constitutional means like Article 356 and unconstitutional means like shopping for MLAs? Is it the justice that ensues when all points of view are heard and policy and project decisions are made in consultation with those who will be affected by them?

Political justice, in my view, also points to the impunity with which men, including male politicians, male celebrities and agents of the state, get away with acts of violence—verbal, physical, emotional, economic and sexual—on a routine basis. A culture of impunity is inimical to democracy, good governance, justice and peace.

Political justice must mean to respect dissent and to make equal room in the national conversation on any topic for naysayers, questioners and challengers. It is unpleasant to feel constantly challenged but only if your sense of self and security depends on being unassailable rather than amenable to reflection and learning. Political justice follows when there is a great degree of comfort with a public reckoning on policies and politics—and when leaders are able to say, this is what we are thinking, tell me what you think, what you know. Shutting people up and locking them in jail for disagreeing with you, is not political justice.

This means that dialogue in conflict situations is also political justice. Instant action and vengeance work in the movies but in the real world, solutions are found through restraint, listening, talking, reconciliation and people to people interaction. Anything else is unfair to those who are caught in the crossfire and deprives them of the justice promised to them.

Finally, political justice lies in defining Indian citizenship and protecting equally the political rights of all Indians, regardless of how inconvenient it is to one’s vested electoral or economic interests.


Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship

Elections do not make us democratic; liberty does. In Tagore’s poem, which we learn in school, the India he prays for has freedom of thought (“the mind is without fear”) and there are no strictures on learning (“where knowledge is free”). No one insists on rewriting history or dictating appropriate subjects for PhDs or reinventing science. There is neither fear of independent thought nor of learning. This is the India that the founders of this country meant us to have.

I cannot believe that I have been living in an India where people have been jailed for human rights advocacy and legal work. I cannot believe that I have been living in an India where people have been assassinated for the way they thought and the things they wrote.

I cannot believe that when something happens, more and more of us self-censor what we write. It is not that we lack conviction or courage. It is a strategic choice. Let me keep quiet for this; it is smaller than the other thing that is likely to happen next. Let me hold my fire now; I will need when the crisis comes closer. Let me wait; I don’t have the energy to argue with trolls. This is not Tagore’s “heaven of freedom.”

It is not even the country of my Constitution which guarantees me six fundamental freedoms and the right to defend them against the state. Yes, my freedoms are limited by the condition of the security of the state, but that, any citizen with a conscience will tell you is an extreme contingency and not one to be invoked like the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ just on a personal whim.

In this election, I will vote for the party I trust more to know that difference. I will vote to defend my freedom and your freedom to disagree with me. I will vote for a government that will allows us both room to say what we want but will not tolerate hate speech, mob violence or targeted assassinations. I want a government that will be proactive in defending my freedoms not in taking them away from me.



I just want to add here that we are very lucky to have a Constitution that gives primacy to the Right to Equality. The very first right listed in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights is equality. I want a government that recognises how essential equality and justice are, ahead of everything else including looking good in international business circles.



“India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.” The opening words of the pledge printed in most of our textbooks underscore the ‘unity in diversity’ theme we grew up with.

Today, we are a country of siblings urged to fight with each other over issues as trivial as food and dress. We might still recite the words but we seem to be forgetting what they mean. We do not feel for each other, we judge each other, we are unable to put another’s need first. Or so it seems to me.
I want that other country back.

When farmers march across the country to say they have a problem, I want a government that feels shame that they had to march to be noticed, and that too, after media prodding. When women speak about violence, I want to belong to a country that will not second guess the timing of their revelation or speak ill of them, adding to their trauma. I want a government whose response is empathy and justice and not to lock up women and cover them head to toe. I want us to care about human rights violations in parts of the country we may never visit.

I want to vote this time for the party more likely to show empathy. I do not want a unidirectional broadcast of crocodile tears. I want someone to quietly act with common sense and compassion both. I want a government which seeks to unite India, not divide us.

If you look at the Preamble, it associates Fraternity with the ‘dignity of the individual’ and also with the ‘unity and integrity’ of India. These are not contradictory. I can feel for the young people who have lost their sight thanks to pellet-guns, I can lament the use of those guns and I can also wish—not that the government somehow holds on to Jammu and Kashmir but—that we can all find a way to reconciliation and peace, so that young people can worry about the things they should be thinking about at 18 and 20 and 22—studies, careers, romance, adventure, science and art—and not being dead, injured or left with a permanent disability. I can have my vision for that ‘unity and integrity’ even if it is different from yours. Our differences will not divide us, because we are bound to each other by another feeling…. or we should be.

I will vote for that integrative, inclusive vision of India.


On April 18, 2019, I will be voting for the Constitution of India and for its core values, spelt out clearly in its Preamble.

Written on March 26, 2019

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Not that bad... (much worse, really)

The week after I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony on television, I purchased an anthology of essays edited by Roxane Gay, Not That Bad (Harper 2018). The subtitle of this book is 'Dispatches from Rape Culture,' and I thought I would find more ideas, insights and words that I could then bring to the everyday work I get to do with Prajnya on gender-based violence.

It has taken me more than two months to make my way through this powerful book. In small part, this is a function of my life, but largely, it is because the essays are so powerful, so disturbing, so heart-breaking that you really cannot binge-read. They are also inspiring in their courage and exactly as I hoped, have left me with insights and words that I think will find their way to things I say and do in training sessions and workshops.

The essays--and I am using this word to describe what are mostly first-person testimonies, because they are written in the spectrum of styles that 'essay' covers--are almost all by survivors, of all genders, and include a couple of essays where the writers reflect on whether or not they gave consent. Through almost all the essays, the deeply internalised stigma attached to the experience of violence is expressed and sometimes rejected.

I am going to share some excerpts here, for several reasons. First, I don't think I can summarise. Second, I want you to experience the power of the words, and maybe go read this book. Third, there are people out there who cannot afford this book and will not have a library from where they can borrow it. This is not meant to undermine copyright or sales, and I do hope lots of people will read this. Women should read this because it will resonate so strongly, as most of us live with the experience and all of us with the fear of sexual violence. Men should read it to know what that really means in our heads and in our days. And yes, the book is full of potential triggers, so if you think you will be sensitive to them, tread cautiously (these excerpts are for you too).

The idea that what happens to us, is not so bad, is so deeply ingrained that it stops survivors from seeking help. If you survived, that's already not so bad, is it?
"At least you weren't killed. At least you have access to medical care. At least you have insurance. At least you have wonderful friends. Because the ones who tell me this are my friends and my teachers and the social worker and the doctor, I hold their words and outstretched hands even though my anger is mounting and I want not to be touched. 
These days, I speak few words, and I certainly don't have the vocabulary to dismantle what's been forced on me by people called safe. I don't have the breath to say: No, I will not be grateful for my rights. I will stand with two feet on this earth and I will always say thank you when somoene does something kind and sorrt when I've done something wrong and never outside of that. And, yes, I am furious that I am pulled between poles of gratitude and apology--both of which are violent erasures. 
Thank goodness I wasn't killed. 
I'm sorry I'm so inarticulate. 
I can't name it then, but I feel the words at least eroding my voice. I sense that "at least" marks an end to the story I'm supposed to tell, that I'm supposed to say something gracious in response--"thank goodness"--or else nothing more at all. "At least" curbs my telling too much truth. It's a blunt instrument wielded to club a reckless retelling into submission. The story ends here. But the truth is, I have no story--nothing I can corral into a coherent narrative." (Claire Schwartz, pages 35-36)
I found this extremely powerful: "pulled between poles of gratitude and apology--both of which are violent erasures." The week I bought this book and even when I picked it up to read in December 2018, in India we were witnessing a cascade of #MeToo revelations, that began with women in media and then spread to some other fields. Most of the women encountered the stock responses: Why now? Why not earlier? Why did you continue to work with this person? Many of the experience reported were not rape as traditionally defined (vaginal penetration without consent), so really, they should have been grateful, people seemed to be saying. Gratitude for that, and apology for upsetting the apple-cart.

Ally Sheedy in her essay mentions Hollywood's #MeToo moment in 2017. She writes:
"This isn't about naming names. I don't have enough for a lawsuit, but I do have enough for a broken heart/ spirit. Nothing will change in Hollywood. Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out. What's so disheartening is knowing Harvey Weinstein's sick actions will be addressed (finally) and yet the entire culture and context for his sick shit will remain in place." (pages 112-113)
Just four months after India's season of revelations, hardly anyone has been punished, and some are already being gently rehabilitated into public life. The defamation cases filed against the women who made the charges--those remain.

How commonplace sexual violence is, is something women at least know intuitively. This exchange in Stacey May Fowles' essay underlines that, but also makes me wish we could so sensitize doctors, counsellors and nurses in India so that they would respond to survivors with sensitivity.
"When I finally managed to splutter out "something bad happened to me," she just knew. 
Without saying a word, she slipped a small square of yellow paper across the desk toward me. It was printed with information about the rape-counseling clinic.  
I was struck by the ease with which she provided me with the contact, as if she'd done it hundreds of times before." (page 279-280) 
A counselor says to Fowles, "Every one believes there is suffering worse than her own, that they should be strong enough to cope without me." It's not that bad, why seek help? And if it were that bad, how come you are alive to seek help? How many Indian, Southasian girls can go to a doctor or a hospital and get help, leave alone expect sensitivity? We have tried in a small way to change this, but there is such a long way to go.

So Mayer writes about words, enjoyed and deployed as weapons of control (page 136). She titles her chapter Floccinaucinihilipilification and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition: "The action or habit of estimating something as worthless." Gaslighting, sealioning, lollipopping, Cordelia-ing and mansplaining--she gathers all these words into this suitably long one (page 137).

So Mayer's essay compares rape to colonialism, calls them "kin" (page 140). She writes:
"...I learned the blazing insight that rape was not an act between an individual and an individual, hidden in a dark room... Rape was and is a cultural and political act: it attempts to remove a person with agency, autonomy, and belonging from their community, to secrete them and separate them, to depoliticize their body by rendering it detachable, violable, nothing. (page 140) 
...When we talk about sexual violnce as feminists, we are--we have to be--talking about its use to subjugate entire peoples and cultures, the annihilation that is its empty heart. Rape is that bad because it is an ideological weapon. Rape is that bad because it is a structure: not an excess, not monstrous, but the logical conclusion of heteropatriarchal capitalism. It is what that ugly polysyllabic euphemism for state power does." (pages 140-141)
Michelle Chen also writes about the politics of sexual violence in her essay on the violence experienced by women who are displaced or in flight. "The place where sexual violence is most readily weaponized is the one where other social instruments have become unhinged: the interface between two societies. Sexual domination, a familiar pillar of every nation-state's culture, fills the liminal spaces opened by mass displacement." (page 191) As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem, Home: "and one prison guard/ in the night/ is better than a truckload/ of men who look like your father."

In the final essay in the book, Elissa Bassist lists all the reasons why she stayed in a violent relationship and did not think of it as 'violence.' This is one of the most heart-breaking essays in the book.  She says, in more powerful words than I could summarise that she stayed because she and her boyfriend were both a product of their milieu, which is misogynistic and violent. She closes the book by saying:
"Because worst-case scenario is murder.
Oh, because it wasn't that bad." (page 339) 
We become accustomed to the language of violence, the culture of rape. It is us, as we know ourselves. 
"Violence in a family comes down through generations: long before my father (finally) left my mother, her father left her mother, and her father's father left my great-grandmother... 
Sometimes by mother tells me stories about her father, or stories about my father. They are not mine to repeat. "I want you to know," she tells me, as if she feels guilty for explaining our history to me. I am amazed at how much violence we can contain--internalize, suppress, hold on to, narrate. How much we can swallow and still survive." (So Mayer, pages 132-133) 
Women who speak about the violence they experience, who name their assailants or harassers and who express anger are accused of making trouble. Speaking about their experience of violence, several of the survivors writing in this book talk about how this feels.
"Forgive the abuser. The only solution for female anger is for her to stop being angry. 
And yet, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple, his rage was lauded. King David railing to the heavens to rain fire on his enemies is lauded as a man after God's own heart. An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets." (Lyz Lenz, page 164)
Amy Jo Burns writes: "The truth no one told you is that, in order for a good girl to survive, she must make some things disappear." (page 167)

This includes the memory of violence, the name of your harasser, the resultant trauma and every one of those inconsequential details from that consequential moment--what you were wearing, the colour of that vase, the food on the table, the light in the room. As Dr. Ford said“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” We never forget, but we must. It wasn't that bad, after all.