Sunday, February 27, 2022

How can I keep from singing?

On Thursday morning, even as President Putin declared war on Ukraine, I was speaking with two Afghan women friends. These were work-related conversations but how could they not talk about the reality that is uppermost in their mind, omnipresent in their day.

Both were lucky enough to have left and to have their immediate family with them. But with reprisals on the rise, what of their extended family, and in our part of the world, there is really little difference in the intensity of our caring for second cousins and the mother-in-law of your cousin’s daughter?

More immediately, they were fearful for and heartbroken about their friends and colleagues—other women human rights defenders—who have been disappeared in recent weeks. 

Read more:

·         Afghanistan: US envoy says Taliban detained 29 women and their families, Economic Times, February 14, 2022.

·         Emma Graham-Harrison, Taliban have detained 29 women and their families in Kabul, says US envoy, The Guardian, February 12, 2022.

·         Six women’s rights activists still missing in Afghanistan, UN News, February 1, 2022.

They are hearing that the women are being tortured to give out names and other information. They are also therefore, fearful of reprisals directed at others in their circle. They are afraid of being targeted abroad. They are furious at the silence around what is happening.

The abductions have made it even riskier to speak out—impossible within Afghanistan and increasingly difficult outside. And if a cloak of fearful silence falls, we have permission to ignore what the Taliban are doing and they have impunity.

When Afghans are facing hunger and repression at home or evacuated and stranded in other countries, unable to immediately find livelihoods, the decision to freeze Afghan assets and redistribute them among others makes no sense.  

Read more:

·         Charlie Savage, Spurning Demand by the Taliban, Biden Moves to Split $7 Billion in Frozen Afghan Funds, New York Times, February 11, 2022.

·         Charli Carpenter, A Better Use of Frozen Afghan Funds, Foreign Policy, February 18, 2022.

Afghans who are now refugees abroad are among the luckiest few, because they are alive and relatively safe. However, refugee life is not easy. You leave your home, your land and your community to end up in places where you are dependent, for a long time, on the charity of others. You may have assets at home, or at least, savings or a pension fund, or land that will feed you. Suddenly, everything given to you is already more than you can ask for. What happens if you fall sick? In many of our countries, someone will find you a doctor. In some of the advanced industrial countries, finding a doctor takes several months and if you have no insurance, it can be too expensive—especially if, as a refugee, you also haven’t found a job yet that will feed your family.

Warsan Shire wrote “no one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.” No one. Anywhere.

This week, my brave Afghan friends sounded so defeated, worried and tired. And I listened to them, unable to do anything other than listen. I preach when I teach, about global citizenship, about our interbeing and about claiming and exercising agency, but really, am I also not trying to convince myself? Yes, I can write, but the men who decide read the men who think they decide. The rest of us are shouting into a void.

The world is worried about Ukraine. So am I. War is just wrong.

But we run global politics like a scorched earth policy. Decide, or least state, that something is wrong. Go to war. Get bored, get tired, get distracted, get real, get out. In the meanwhile, we have reduced places to rubble and lives to PTSD. We have theorised the disdain for discussion and listening as ‘securitisation’—if something is a security issue, we allocate more resources to it and limit access to information. This is what is. The theory ends up justifying the practice. So we either learn to ask no questions or cannot remember whom to ask. No one is listening anyway.

On Thursday, through my conversations, the song in my head was Enya’s recording of “How can I keep from singing?” The rest of the song is unrelated but as my friends’ worries go unheard, how can I keep from singing?

The world’s attention is focused on Ukraine. And because our attention spans are so shrunken, this means that everything, including improbably the pandemic and its miseries, have begun to fall off our radar. How can I keep from singing?

Monday, January 24, 2022

Militarism is an Eternal Flame


Last week, the Amar Jawan Jyoti was extinguished after lending its flame in December 2021 to India's new National War Memorial

There are many points of view on this, broadly divided along predictable political lines.

To me, this underscores a change that has been creeping in on us, as a society, for many years. Simply put: We have now gone from remembering the unknown soldier--my son, your brother, her father, his uncle--who died in a war someone else decided to wage. The soldier, usually male, may have enlisted for any reason, making a commitment to take or give a life in the line of duty. We recognise that this is a sacrifice anyway, and we recognise that families suffer losses in the name of this duty. 

Tombs to unknown soldiers, around the world, recognise the courage and sacrifice of the individual soldier. They mark what Rupert Brooke wrote about in "The Soldier":

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
      In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
      Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
      Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
      A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
            Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
      And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
            In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

We justify this dying and killing in the name of nations--"imagined communities," to use their most elegant definition--fictions we write ourselves for a host of reasons. Married to the legal entity of the state, the romantic ideal of a community of affect and aspiration becomes mired in the reality of monopolies of violence and turf-battles within and without states. Just as the individual soldier loses their name and identity in these battles and must be commemorated anonymously, so does their memory become subordinate to that of war itself.

It is telling that we have moved our commemorative flame from the tomb of the otherwise forgotten soldier to a monument that immortalises war. War is both a tragic, traumatic, human-made disaster as well as a lofty venture, ennobled by rhetoric and aggrandized by ceremony. 

When states build war memorials, they celebrate themselves in their rawest expressions of power. They remind us of the resources they can command to wreak destruction. They remind us that once they fought and won--because which loser builds a monument to loss, right?--and that they can do so again. As the soldier is lost in the war, they are lost in these statist celebrations. 

And while, when we revisit and rewrite history, the category of "unknown soldier" might expand to include many outside the state forces who also give their lives for a larger good (albeit still defined by others), official War Memorials are very clear about who the good guys were, and who, the bad. 

I have been commenting for several years about the metamorphoses of our Independence and Republic Day celebrations. Where we would have folk dances, and skits about social reformers and freedom-fighters, it is now all about the military and the police. There seems to be nothing left for India to celebrate except the valour of soldiers (which is real but perhaps we should also ask, to what end?). In skits, speeches, songs and dances, we are always the virtuous "us" vis-a-vis undefined but obvious enemies. As we become more militaristic in our celebrations and assertions, ironically, our identity is defined less by who we are than who we are not. 

The Amar Jawan Jyoti, which said to the deceased soldiers and their families, "Sorry, we decided and you died but we are so grateful to you for this sacrifice," is now replaced by "Behold, the grandeur and triumphs of this state!" This is who we now are. This is who we are choosing to be. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Sunshine and a multi-coloured crayon!

Another New Year, another resolution. The most important nursery rhyme we learn (in English) may well be 'Insy Winsy Spider,' what life seems to be nothing but an endless series of climbing up walls, sliding off and trying again. I am not sure what the spider's goal was but as I grow older, the doing itself has become my goal. Just to be writing. Writing what, who will read, is it good? I actually don't care. But this is like those fifteen minutes that you get to soak your feet in a tub of hot water with salt or something fancier--wonderful in the moment. 

Year-end lists, new year resolutions--been there, done that. I might actually have nothing left/ new/ useful/ interesting to say. 

So let me capture this moment in words, just for the fun of it. A lovely morning sunlight, with the glimmer of a threat--"Shall I remind you of summer?"--in the glint of this light. All quiet on the Kamalabai Street front. My messy desk, left with all the residue of last year that I had no energy to actually tidy up. This reminds me of the mess I would leave behind were I to die this minute, this week, this year. Too much stuff, too much stuff. The baggage of a lifetime lived in hard work and anticipation. I spy three gifts on the table. A mobile stand, new, gifted by a new entrant into the family. A mug, designed in the 'ethnic cuteness' style, faded now on the outside but bright as ever inside--maybe like my spirit? A violet acrylic jar, a little visitor gift by a poet friend, repository of unpoetic but essential pendrives, of which I own many. I also have two tubes of hand-lotion--something else that I buy freely. I still spend more money on small things than large ones--the legacy of a lifetime of financial uncertainty. New diaries, old bills. Cables, cables, chargers, chargers. Three mugs full of pens. Because the aspiration to write--many words in many colours--will not die. 

When I die, just burn the material stuff with me. It is not worth the bother of sorting and filing. We are just dust and ashes, after all, and all our profound thoughts, turbulent passions, heartbroken fatigue and tickytackystuff are just waste material. Like this empty dabba that once held mints, or this sample 'activating essence' (activating what?), or this 'Refreshing Tissue' from some long-forgotten flight. 

There are also some nice little things here. A box of copper-coloured ("rose gold") binder clips that improve every printed text. A lovely multi-coloured crayon (another gift) I still haven't tried but that I realise must become the image that goes with this post. In the photo I just took, it separates the gloomy from the bright, brings colour and the promise of time spent creatively into this New Year weekend. Perfect! 

There has not been a day without writing in my life--email, cards, tweets, posts, brochures, prospectuses, articles, talks, pep-talks--but when I say that I need to write, I mean this. This feet-in-a-tub-of-water feeling of just sitting down and writing what I want, and away with the world. This is, once more, my promise to myself this new year, for which my uncleared desk might well be a metaphor, given all its tired, painful baggage. May we all find sunshine and multi-coloured crayon this year! And now, I must remove my feet from this tub-of-writing-water and hit the publish button so that I might play with the crayon! 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Beyond the #facepalm! A single post with all my #IWD articles

Writing that International Women's Day article or blogpost is a March ritual that I look forward to--though I am not sure why. Over the years, I have now written a few and instead of tweeting them all out one by one and annoying you, decided to build an archive post. I will just keep adding them here and sharing this one instead!

The first media article I did was at the invitation of Prayaag Akbar ten years ago. It was the centenary of the observance.

100 years later: We've come far, but have a long way to go, The Sunday Guardian, March 22, 2011. 

Before that, on this blog: DON'T celebrate Women's Day..., March 8, 2007.

Seven myths to dump on this International Women's Day, The PSW Weblog, March 2012. (Compiled for someone at the Deccan Chronicle but I am not sure they used it.)

This International Women's Day, make a promise towards gender equality, DNA, March 8, 2015.

How to observe International Women's Day: Do's and Don'ts, DNA, March 5, 2016. 

Women, global norms and local rights, The New Indian Express, March 6, 2020.

International Women's Day isn't a day for sales or roses, Mint Lounge, March 8, 2021.