Thursday, 19 October 2006

Against nature?

There was yet another debate on the TV about nature versus nurture, this time provoked by the news that the museum of natural history in Oslo is organising an exhibition on homosexuality in animals.

It is never easy to say what do we inherit from our parents through the genes and what is more a "learned behaviour" depending upon where we grow up. Somethings things that may seem clearly hereditary are not always so.

Like people often said that my voice sounded exactly like my father's. And now on telephone, my son's friends mistake me for him and my friends and colleagues mistake him for me. Is that because of genes or is it because growing up together - did I subconsciously internalised my father's voice and my son did that with my voice?

Illnesses like high blood pressure running in families, have similar confusions. Do you get high blood pressure because your ma or grandma had it or because living in the same house, you share all your habbits of eating, exercising, reacting to stress?

It is much easier to deal with physical characteristics like the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your ears. That you did get through the genes.

There are many practical implications of the final conclusions of such debates, and that is why any conclusion is hotly debated. For example, if we accept that mental illnesses like neurosis are the result of genes, then perhaps all theories of Freud and therapies like psychotherapy trying to find the cause of your illness in the way your mom wrapped your nappies when you were three months old, can be considered as useless!

Another practical example is about criminal behaviour. If we accept that criminal behaviour is because of genes, then what use is putting the fellow in the jail or worse, hanging him? What could he do, he had no choice but to follow his genes?

So to go back to the debate on the TV on homosexuality in animals, the stakes are much higher. Different religions consider homosexuality to be against nature. Here, vatican officially assumes a similar position. If we accept that animals can also be homosexual, such arguments will be difficult to sustain.

Actually such debate is not new. Some years ago there was lot of discussion about some male Humbolt penguins in a German zoo who preferred to stick with their own company while the females were left in peace.

In the debate on the TV, there were similar arguments. They said, for example: it is the stress of living in the zoo, it is the stress of increasing urbanisation, these are not real serious relationships but only playful behaviour in animals, and so on. So it will always go on, each side refusing to be convinced by the other.


Monday, 16 October 2006

A symphony for Bombay

It is a beautiful symphony, played by invisible beings, the kind who walk all around you every day and whom you never see. Perhaps, you are also one of them? Symphony is made even more beautiful because, each of those invisible beings is singing a different song, with a different rhythm.

Poster of 7 islands and a metro

Seven Islands and a Metro by Madhusree Dutta is that symphony. The film was released in some commercial theatres about ten days ago. It is rare that I get to see newly released films but this time, Mukul, my nephew and cameraman for this film, brought me a preview copy. Today, while I was watching it, I wished I had watched it while Mukul was here. In some Dvds there is a director’s cut of the film, where the director explains and talks about the film, while you watch the scenes. If I had watched it with Mukul, I could have had a cameraman’s cut of the film! The film is so beautiful that I really regret not having done that.

Seven islands is about some of the different Bombays that exist for its 15 million inhabitants and for thousands coming here every day in search of a living. Each of them sings their song.

Like the persons who hang at the top of the sky scrappers and clean glass for a living. “I like it up here, there is a kind of peace here”, one of them says.

Like the hundreds of with their pictures, and people standing in queues, answering questions about themselves – name, place of birth, father’s name – in English, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu…

Like the line of cement mixers trailing on the highway like giant snails, their snouts raised up towards the sky to catch the extra-terrestrial sound waves, while helicopter drones above.

Like the girl with grey eyes, who says, “I tell people on the face that I am a bar dancer. I am not afraid. You have to be made stronger to live here. Only money counts”, and suddenly her voice cracks with emotion.

Like angry women protesting against the invasion of UP and Bihar walls, “We’ll butcher you like fish.” Like Kulwant Kaur with icey hands in the story narrated by Manto, who listens to her husband brag about the six he killed and the seventh, a beautiful girl, he wanted to rape. Like the Dawood Bohra bank worker who says, “I was born here in 1944. When he said that you should go to Pakistan, I felt so bad. Why should anyone doubt my patriotism for India?”

Like all those dead and living, living together there in the cemeteries, the Europeans, the Church of England Christians, the Church of Scotland Christians, the Church of North India Christians, the Italian prisoners of war, the Japanese prostitutes and cotton traders, the Chinese.

Like the small window above the graveyard, where a swing is moving in a small room and small feet peep out and go back in. Like the tall and well built Reshma, who talks about her tom-boy days and those trying to dial a "wrong number" with her. She is the stunt women, a celebrity in her area, having done stunts for Hema Malini in Sholay. “Take a look at my pictures. In my time, I was also beautiful, why didn’t I become a heroine?” Like all those small, thin men with faces burnt by sun, who rummage through garbage, who bulldoze houses of poor like themselves, and who talk of hunger, “You can wake up hungry in Bombay but you are ready for hard work, you will not go hungry to sleep.”

Like the young man selling chai during the night. Even beggers and vendors buy the tea from them. “They can deflate the tyre of my bicycle, but I can’t give bribe. I don’t earn enough. They can do what they want.”

Another talks about his love for the girl from the other caste and how he was made to leave for Bombay while the girl committed suicide. “For a days labour, you earn 15 rupees in the village. Here I can spit out betel for 15 rupees in a day.”

Cruel, funny, tragic and comic, they all mix together in a never ending kaleidoscope, each staking their claim to life. The young boy extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, almost unaware of the violence inherent in his words. Or those who talk of the riots and because their religion does not allow them to hurt others, how they gave a couple they had discovered to others “more suitable for the job”. And the hope in their eyes that refuses to die. My future will be better, they all believe. In any case, life here is much better than what ever, I left behind, they argue, perhaps more to convince themselves than others.

The only discordant note in the symphony comes from the comments of the two writers, Sadat Ali Manto and Ismat Chugtai, and the effort to add abstract symbolism to the film, like the broken picture of Gandhi or the red shawl. Harish Khanna as Manto is suitably intense and Vibha Chibbar is a delight to watch, but their philosophical posturings sound false and superfluous like the burqa clad women pushing carts with polyfoam Mumbai maps or the burning kite or the red coloured water with I.D. pictures floating in it.

Words of ordinary people are like swords, cutting and cruel unapologetically. “No more Bihari and UP walla bhaiyas here, let them stay where they are”, says a woman bluntly. There is no need to add abstract symbolism, it is already there in plenty.

They all say that it is about money. No one talks about community, the relationships. After leaving the small towns, what communities they create? What relationships sustain them and replace the warmth they left in home towns? The film does not explore them but you get glimpses of it, like the boy running along the train, who is pulled in by others hanging at the door.

The idea of watching a documentary film for 100 minutes is a bit daunting but once the film starts, it is difficult not to get involved and forget time. Bombay never looked so beautiful as it looks in the rain scenes. Music, sound, images, people, everything fits well together.

In the end, I was feeling a bit jealous about Bombay. I have been there a few times, but my heart is in Delhi. I wish someone had made a symphony for my Dilli like this!

Below, some credits of the film.

Title: Seven Islands and a Metro
Director: Madhusree Dutta
Actors: Harish Khanna & Vibha Chibbar
Cameraman: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Editing Reena Mohan, Shyamal Karmakar
Dialogue: Sara Rai
Sound design: Boby John
Music: Arjun Sen

Note: Poster of the film if from the press kit


Saturday, 14 October 2006

Ragging lessons

Note (2013): I had written this post 7 years ago, to share my own ragging experiences, that were not traumatising to me. Since then, I have heard and read numerous testimonies of people who have been through harrowing experiences in the name of ragging. I agree completely that ragging is a terrible menace there is no justification for it, and should not happen. I think that people who "rag" their juniors are persons with inferiority complex or lack of self-confidence and sometimes even psychopaths. They require support from mental health professional.


There are broadly two kinds of persons in the world, I thought to myself. Those who live surrounded by transparent shells and life’s woes seem to touch them lightly, leaving them to live in their blissful ignorance, and those filled with angst, their sensibilities weighed down by the injustice of it all, every experience leaving a burning hole in their souls. Probably Sujit Saraf belongs to that second group, I thought to myself, as I read his article on Tehleka about effects of ragging he received at IIT Delhi twenty years ago.

Actually his description of ragging is quite funny:

We did many things in that one month that now appear harmless and amusing. We stood on benches in the dining hall and recited the national anthem; we crawled on all fours and barked like dogs; we brought cigarettes and Campa Cola for our seniors; we cleaned their rooms; we dropped our trousers so they could measure our penises; we formed human trains — each car holding the penis of the car in front — and whistled our way through hostel corridors; we simulated orgies; stripped naked; then wore underpants over our trousers to turn ourselves into comic book phantoms.
The impact of these experiences are summed up by Sujit as, “After so many years, I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately, but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that, no matter the name used for them… Ragging is a case study for Freud, nothing more.”

If Sujit belongs to the second group, I probably belong to the first. While he seems to have been traumatised by that experience, his words brought back many happy memories for me.

The first time I encountered ragging was when I went to submit some form at MAMC near Delhi Gate. A pimply seventeen, I was suddenly pulled into a small door at the side of their auditorium. Soon my pants were around my ankles and I was asked to wank. It was slightly embarrassing to admit but I didn’t know what wanking meant!

I knew the words all right, they were used often by boys, but I had no idea that you actually did something. Probably I was too busy day-dreaming or reading or playing, and though it had been many years that I had “wet dreams”, I hadn’t ever thought much more about it. I did have some vague basic ideas of what fucking entailed and that was my sex knowledge. I don't think that I thought kissing caused a women to become pregnant, but probably I was not so sure about it.

My raggers screwed up their noses but were not too surprised, apparently they had seen other ignorant boys like me before? Any way, I was shown the simple practicality of wanking and let off. I won’t bore you with the details of my experiments with that knowledge later that day, but just for that lesson alone, the word “ragging” brings a smile to my face.

The other lesson came in Meerut a few months later, in the hostel. Fifty or sixty boys, running around naked and doing hundred little things like the ones described by Sujit above, was an opportunity for close observation of the variations in that small appendage that is apparently supposed to the centre of men’s lives – the penis. It was the best cure possible for all those anxieties about is it too small, is it too long, is too thin or thick or whatever, that seems to afflict many of us. It did cure me of those anxieties any way. After the first two times of being naked with other boys, any sense of humiliation or shyness disappeared.

It was fun and a way to look at things that earlier, I didn't have the courage to ask or think about.

The third lesson was about female sexuality. Fed mainly on Hindi literature, where sex is hardly ever mentioned directly, I had an idea that sex was something pleasurable for men that was “tolerated or suffered” by women. Both, male and female students of the medical college had their “anthems” full of obscenities, and it was the women’s anthem that opened the magic door for me – sex could be something desired even by women!

Probably I can come up with some more lessons that I received from ragging that perhaps today’s generation won’t care about. I am sure that today’s twelve year old knows much more about sex than what I knew at seventeen. If they don’t know, perhaps internet is better medium to learn than other guys slightly older than them through ragging.

My parents never spoke to me about sex and with friends, one spoke about it but that was more to experiment with words and our developing identities as men, but at least, I was shy about asking any real questions. Years later, when I tried speaking about sex to my teenage son, I soon realised that he already knew much more about it and probably I could have learned somethings from him! How times have changed.

I know that some persons were really traumatised by that experience. One of our classmates, she left the medical college and went back to Delhi to join some other course.

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