Friday, 24 November 2017

After Trump saved Drumstick, we still have to ask: Why do we pardon a bird every year?

According to the White House Historical Association, the tradition of pardoning dates back to President Abraham Lincoln's clemency to a turkey, a speech given in 1863. "A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln's son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared," White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote in an 1865 dispatch recalling the event, writes Melissa Kravitz in Mic. Read on: 

While millions of Americans are picking out their perfect, plastic-wrapped turkeys at supermarkets across the nation, President Trump is protecting one lucky turkey from a roasted fate.

In his first poultry-pardoning act as president, Trump pardoned a turkey named Drumstick. (A turkey named Wishbone, the runner-up in a White House Twitter poll, was not publicly pardoned but will join Drumstick in turkey retirement at Virginia Tech). Trump made several attempts to deliver jokes during the pardoning, including a jab at President Barack Obama, who pardoned two turkeys named Tater and Tot in 2016.

"As many of you know, I have been very active in overturning a number of executive actions by my predecessor. However, I have been informed by the White House counsel office, that Tater and Tot's pardons cannot, under any circumstances, be revoked," Trump said during this year's turkey pardon.

But why does the commander in chief of the United States of America, whose responsibilities most of the year have absolutely nothing to do with farm animals, pardon a turkey before Thanksgiving every year? Though President George Washington officially declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1789, the tradition of pardoning a turkey came decades later.

According to the White House Historical Association, the tradition of pardoning dates back to President Abraham Lincoln's clemency to a turkey, a speech given in 1863. "A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln's son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared," White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote in an 1865 dispatch recalling the event. Leave it to Honest Abe's son to continue the family legacy.

President Ronald Reagan with a White House turkey  Ron Edmonds/AP
In the 1870s, Rhode Island poultry farmer Horace Vose, known as "The Poultry King," sent slaughtered and dressed birds to presidents as gifts. Starting with President Ulysses S. Grant, these Vose turkeys, served at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, became a four-decade tradition, though there's no historical evidence that any turkeys were pardoned following the Lincoln era. 

When Vose passed away in 1913, the gifting of turkeys became fair game, and "turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer," the White House Historical Association wrote.

These gifted turkeys, however, were all dead and ready for roasting, until 1947, when the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board gifted live turkeys to President Harry Truman. Making a show of it, Truman staged a photo op with his 42-pound Texas tom, in an image that has become iconic with historic presidential pardoning.

President Harry Truman with a turkey in 1952  Henry Griffin/AP
The Truman Library, however, notes it has "no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency." That turkey's fate was to end up on a platter for Christmas dinner.

President Bill Clinton pardons a turkey in 1999  PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP
Several years later, President John F. Kennedy was said to have pardoned a live turkey at a 1963 celebration in which the turkey gifted to him had a sign hung around its neck reading, "Good eating, Mr. President." Nothing like a live turkey to put you off drumsticks! "We'll just let this one grow," Kennedy said of his gifted turkey and the LA Times headlined that event as a "presidential pardon," though it's unclear if the turkey actually survived beyond the holiday season.

During his term, President Richard Nixon chose to send the birds gifted to him to a local petting zoo rather than the White House kitchen, though, that was not deemed a pardon but rather perhaps an avoidance of guilt about eating an animal with which he had become acquainted. This event was not called Turkeygate, but it's never too late to go back and rename historical events.

In a Nov. 23, 1987 informal exchange with reporters, President Ronald Reagan became the first president in office to use the word "pardon," to distract from political conversation, specifically about the Iran-Contra affair. He referred jokingly to Charlie, a turkey gifted to him by The National Turkey Federation that was sent to a petting zoo, at the aptly named Frying Pan Farm in Fairfax, Virginia, and pardoned, the Guardian reported.

George H.W. Bush with a turkey at the White House  Marcy Nighswander/AP
It wasn't until November 17, 1989, that the tradition of turkey pardoning as we now know it took place. In his first Thanksgiving in office, President George H. W. Bush officially pardoned a Thanksgiving bird. "Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy. He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now," Bush told reporters. He also noted that the turkey looked nervous, a comment that his son, George W. Bush would reuse in his own future turkey pardoning, TIME noticed.

Every November since 1989, presidents have continued to pardon American turkeys, though that hasn't stopped them from gobbling down turkey at the White House's annual Thanksgiving dinner. Politics, ey?

How the Lata-Asha era of Bollywood music marginalised female singers

Whether Lata Mangeshkar’s monopoly over the music industry can be considered a tale of feminist triumph or not (as director Basu Battacharya liked to see it) is a matter of debate. The downside of this was that no other female singing talents could find a substantial foothold in the industry, and whatever little they could sing had to sound like Lata. Both Lata and Asha have hotly denied all rumours that they squashed the careers of other female singers by allegedly refusing to work with music directors who dared to pick anybody new, writes Tupur Chatterjee, a PhD candidate at the Department of Radio-Television-Film, University of Texas at Austin, in The Ladies Finger. Read on: 

The first time I heard Farida Khanum sing, “Haaye mar jayeinge, hum toh lut jayenge, aisi baatein kiya na karo,” I felt a bit nervous — were women in our part of the world (especially those across the border) allowed to say ‘haaye’ like that? What on earth was this devastatingly haunting sensuality?

Khanum’s languid throaty voice, and her hypnotic powers of persuasion and cajoling clearly belonged to another world. A world very far from what I’d grown up in, listening to the Hindi film heroine lip-sync: this was an adult woman singing an adult song. And, such a world did exist.

Usha Uthup — who in the 1970s sang at Trinca’s, one of Calcutta’s iconic nightclubs on Park Street, donning her trademark Kanjeevaram saris — was reportedly thrown out of music class in her school because her voice was way outside of the acceptable female range.

While she was never hired to sing for the Hindi film heroine because of the gravity in her voice, and entirely marginalised in the Lata-Asha era, she still managed to top the charts on Radio Ceylon with hits like ‘Koi Yahan Naache Naache’ and ‘Hari Om Hari’. Would a singer like Uthup have found more success in mainstream film music today? Perhaps.

My hopefulness is not entirely unfounded: I recently saw 12-year-old Riya Biswas on a singing reality show. She belted out a dense jazz-meets-classical-meets-disco version of Geeta Dutt’s ‘Jata Kahan Hai Deewane’, and followed it up with a modulation of her voice into a significantly thinner pitch for Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Hoton Pe Aisi Baat Main Dabake Chali Aayi’. With some luck, Biswas will not be asked to pick one of these personas over the others.

Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle. iyahoto courtesy Lata Mangeshkar Facebook page
Lata Mangeshkar, the definitive female voice for decades, largely covered two out of the three stereotypical characters available for the heroine: the sexually unaware infantile (grown) girl and the Hindu wife/Mother Nation. Asha Bhosle, her sister, took on the task of rendering the third voice (which Mangeshkar refused) — the ‘bad’ girls — of cabaret dancers, vamps, and tragic courtesans. There were, of course, some spillovers (like the eternal ‘Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’, ‘Aaa Janejah’ with its shockingly racist picturisation, and the Lata-Asha duet ‘Mirchi Main Kohlapur Ki’).

Mangeshkar’s public persona — desexualised, virginal, “pure”, devotional, Hindu — powerfully shaped the Indian national imagination of what a woman singing should sound like. The ‘good’ woman’s voice remained within the contours of the sweet, smooth, shrill, adolescent, and safe. It rarely strayed into the realms of the textured, husky, thick, too warm, or complicated. There was only one standard of measurement for the female voice and it was Lata Mangeshkar’s.

As scholars like Sanjay Srivastava have already pointed out, the dialogue around Lata should move from preoccupations with her voice quality (“good” or “bad”) to the ways in which her singing style helped fashion Bollywood’s predominant expression of Indian femininity. The passing of the Lata-era has indeed created spaces for newer ways of hearing the female voice and its associated gender identities.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Lata Mangeshkar. Photo courtesy Lata Mangeshkar Facebook page
Consider for instance, the case of Neha Bhasin (singer of Bollywood hits ‘Kuch Khaas Hai’, ‘Dhunki’ and ‘Jag Goomeya’). She was one of the girls chosen for India’s first all-girl pop band: Channel V’s Viva. Like most other Indian pop stars, Bhasin soon found that when the initial euphoria faded (the debut album did sell 50 lakh copies), she had to make do as a Bollywood playback singer.

In a recent interview with Anupama Chopra in Film Companion, Bhasin expressed her discomfort with the term ‘playback’ singing. She is not comfortable playing in the back, she’s a performer and wants her due — “I was born a popstar”. She also said that her voice was considered “manly”.

Bhasin’s vocal style is characteristically thicker than the pitch the female singer is expected to have. For singers like Bhasin, the future however, lies beyond film music. Most upcoming artists are exploring YouTube and other forms of social media to create their distinctive musical expressions.

Neha Bhasin. Photo courtesy Neha Bhasin Facebook
Bhasin has tried to avoid being typecast by taking on songs that are challenging in different ways. (It is not only female actors who face this problem.) She says, “I am not that lucky girl who sings 100 similar songs and becomes famous.” In a remarkable series of music videos, Bhasin sings Punjabi folk songs she grew up hearing from her mother and grandmother.

All of these videos are styled distinctively: she dons a new and provocative avatar in each, reminiscent of Lady Gaga. In several of these, including her latest, ‘Chan Mahi’, she even defies the stereotypical Bollywood body. The songs themselves are often traditional, passed down through oral family histories and about women, marriage, and their everyday struggles in the household. It is also a radical feminising of the otherwise masochistic world of the Punjabi male hip-hop/pop star.

Along with heaps of praises for her voice, and her intelligent reinterpretations of these nostalgic sounds and songs, several of Bhasin’s female fans routinely comment upon the ways in which she helps break stereotypes associated with body and sexuality.

These developments, however, are less than a decade old. The after-effects of Lata Mangeshkar were so strong that all other kinds of female voices had very little breathing space. In 1981, India Today carried a cover story on Mangeshkar called, ‘The Incredible Singing Machine’. The journalist called Lata a “modern day Meera”, the “single woman in a white sari who visits the Mahalaxmi Temple every week in a white Ambassador car.”

As for Asha, he concluded that she not only lacked Lata’s range but also had an even greater “problem”: “an oozing sensuality of her voice, a compelling come-hitherness, which makes her slotted only for the cabaret and disco numbers.” He went on to describe Mangeshkar’s clout in the industry — a frown from her would send music directors into a tizzy and a disapproving shake of her head would give everybody cold feet.

In fact, no other female artiste has managed this extent of ownership and monopoly over her craft in the notoriously sexist world of Bollywood. While actresses aged, got married, and had to leave the silver screen, Lata continued to voice each new generation. In other words, the female voice remained frozen in time — always slightly adolescent and “delightfully high”.

Ahsa Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar. Photo courtesy Lata Mangeshkar Facebook page
According to sociologist Sanjay Srivastava (in the May 15-21, 2004 issue of Economic and Political Weekly), Mangeshkar’s vocal style did not have any precedents in the traditions of Indian music or of female singers from the subcontinent — the range of both of which was extremely diverse. He argues that Mangeshkar’s voice was the perfect antidote to national anxieties about performing women and women in public space whose “presence was ‘thinned’ through the expressive timbre granted to them”.

Mangeshkar’s public persona further helped cement the image of the “pure” Indian woman whose desire, sexual and otherwise, did not run amok like other women in the entertainment industry. There was no gossip around her personal life that circulated in the film magazines. She refused to sing cabarets, disco songs, and lavanis.

Her sibling, Asha Bhosle had no such qualms and had a very different personal trajectory. Bhosle eloped from her house when she was 16, walked out of an abusive marriage at 26 and supported three children through her singing — gladly taking on all rejects and leftovers from her older sister. Asha was called upon to sing for female characters whose sexualities could not be curtailed within the realm of family, marriage, or motherhood (think Umrao Jaan, Monica from ‘Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja’ and the pot-smoking Jenny from Hare Rama Hare Krishna.) However some of India’s most iconic disco numbers, like the inimitable ‘Aap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi Mein Aaye’ were sung by the wildly popular Pakistani pop sensation Nazia Hassan.

Whether Mangeshkar’s monopoly over the music industry can be considered a tale of feminist triumph or not (as director Basu Battacharya liked to see it) is a matter of debate. The downside of this was that no other female singing talents could find a substantial foothold in the industry, and whatever little they could sing had to sound like Lata. Both sisters have hotly denied all rumours that they squashed the careers of other female singers by allegedly refusing to work with music directors who dared to pick anybody new.

Despite the denials, it seems as though the career trajectories of several other singers during the Lata-Asha era was mysteriously short and often bizarre. Consider for instance, the case of Suman Kalyanpur, also known as the “poor man’s Lata”. Not many people know that she sang the hits ‘Na Na Karte Pyaar Tumi Se Kar Baithe’ (Jab Jab Phool Khile, 1965) and ‘Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche’ (Bramachari, 1968).

Her voice was uncannily like Lata’s but she did not get her due. In fact, radio stations often played her songs passing them off as Mangeshkar’s. In an interview, Kalyanpur recalls, “Meri aawaaz nazuk aur patli thi [My voice was gentle and thin]. What could I do? Also when Radio Ceylon relayed the songs, the names were never announced. Even the records sometimes gave the wrong name. Maybe that caused more confusion. Shreya Ghoshal’s voice is also thin, but can people go wrong now?”

Others like Runa Laila and Vani Jairam managed to sing a few stray songs and eventually packed their bags for other shores. (Poor Runa Laila was also thought to be a Bangladeshi spy.) To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a “nazuk and patli” vocal tone. What is problematic is when one kind of expression begins to determine and define the entire politics of the female voice.

The Lata-hangover continued well into the 1990s — singers like Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Sadhna Sargam, and Anuradha Paudwal continued the legacy of the nasuk awaaz. Several of these singers started out as dubbing and scratch artists who would record initial versions of a song that would finally be sung by the main artist (mostly Lata).

There were several others like Vandana Vajpayee, but they never really made it big. I recall hearing Sunidhi Chauhan’s spunky voice in her debut film Mast (1999), only for it to have thinned considerably in later projects (clearly her voice had too much pluck as she soon became the “queen of item songs”.) Similarly Shreya Ghosal opted to follow up her adolescent debut — romantic numbers for Devdas — with the unconventional, un-Lata like racy ‘Jaadu Hai, Nasha Hai’ from Jism (2003).

While Chauhan and Ghosal started a few trends, it is only recently that we have begun to hear new and distinct female voices that have their own kind of plural personas, depths, and tonalities like Anushka Manchanda, Rekha Bharadwaj, Shilpa Rao, Jasleen Kaur Royal, Neeti Mohan, Nooran Sisters, Neha Bhasin, Sneha Khanwalkar, Kanika Kapoor, Aditi Singh Sharma, Jonita Gandhi, Alisha Chinoy, Monali Thakur.

Sneha Khanwalkar via her Facebook page
The situation however is complicated. The sudden arrival of a multiplicity of female voices might have shaken the hegemony of the monolithic voice, but these singers still have to operate within the sexist matrix of Bollywood, which has always had a deeply-skewed relationship to female talent and labour. Several of these new talents see themselves as singers, songwriters, and performers — identities that cannot be contained within the oddity ‘playback’ singer. Despite the sudden availability of a range of textures for the female voice, they often remain interchangeable. This is one of the disadvantages of the post-Lata era.

As Jonita Gandhi, Aditi Singh Sharma, Neha Bhasin and Neeti Mohan revealed in the aforementioned interview with Anupama Chopra, songs are written for the male voice with a nominal number of lines given to the female. Often songs are entirely composed for the male singer with the women having to adjust their keys to “fit” the song. The pendulum seems to have swung to the extreme opposite — from a demand for every female singer to sound like Lata, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for the “something new”. (Arijit Singh says: LOLWUT.)

Despite limitations, the tide is definitely changing. A force to reckon with is Sneha Khanwalkar, India’s third female music director with a serious proclivity for the ethnographic. (For the uninitiated, Khanwalkar composed the startlingly refreshing soundtracks for Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Gangs of Wasseypur, and sang my favourite song from GoW: ‘Kalaa Rey’.) She also used her own voice for the hyper-male, super gangster song ‘Keh Keh Loonga’.

The other female voices on the album are Padmashree Sharda Sinha, the “voice of Bihari folk” (‘Tar Bijli Se Patle Hamare Piya’) and 12-year-old Durga (‘Dil Chi Cha Leather’) who use to previously sing on the train stations of Mumbai. For Oye Lucky, Khanwalkar travelled to an all-male, all-night music festival in Haryana to find new ways for us to think about the aural scape of the overdone Punjab. This is her signature style — as we also saw in MTV’s Sound Trippin. She has a ear for the acoustics of our everyday lives.

Jasleen Kaur Royal, another rising singer-composer, is often seen with a mouth organ, a tambourine, and a guitar, all of which she wears on her physical self. These expressions are not only bringing forth the overlooked and plural sonic worlds of popular culture in India, but also finally accommodating new and agile ways of imagining the gendered voice.

If Malayalam classic Chemmeen were made today, it would be banned for glorifying ‘love jihad’

The 1965 film would cause the Sangh Parivar to take major umbrage at its inter-faith romance.

Chemmeen, the 1965 Malayalam-language movie needs no introduction to any Keralite. This movie-adaptation of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s eponymous novel is a Malayalam cinema classic that weaves the story of the tragic romance between Karuthamma (the daughter of a Dalit Hindu) and Pareekkutty (a Muslim trader), set in a tiny fishing village in coastal Kerala.

An article in The Hindu, published on Chemmeen’s 50th anniversary in 2015, describes the eternal and ethereal beauty of this jewel in Malayalam cinema’s crown. An excerpt:

“Set against the vast expanse of the sea, the narrative of Chemmeen offered immense visual possibilities, which the cinematographer and editor exploited creatively. In the film, the seascapes – its various moods, turbulences, ebbs and tides, and also its bounties – punctuate the narrative, virtually turning the sea into a character, raging and roaring, cheering and embracing the human drama unfolding on and before it. The legends and beliefs among the fisher-folk community are evoked time and again, through songs and dialogues, to paint the story in darker, dramatic hues.”

What if Chemmeen were to be first released in the present day?

If the recent “review” of Angamaly Diaries aired by Janam TV – a pro-Sangh Parivar Malayalam TV channel – were any indication, then Chemmeen would have been in for a rough ride. Angamaly Diaries was one of the biggest box-office successes of 2017, apart from the immense critical acclaim it received from even outside Kerala.

However, Janam TV’s film critic chose to trash the movie – and he is well within his rights to do this as a film critic. However, the review ended up being cannon-fodder for the famed Malayali social media satire, due to its blatantly communal colour.

The review, for example, criticised the movie for “showing too many visuals of churches” and even went on to ask whether there aren’t any temples in Angamaly, the real-world town the story is set in. It appeared to be lost on the reviewer that the movie IS about a group of Christian youth in Angamaly who set out to float their own pork-meat trading business.

Or perhaps it was not lost on him at all.

Kerala in 2017 stands tall like the little Gaul village of Asterix and Obelix – a perpetual thorn in the side for the rampaging legions of Caesar Amit Shah. Be it the state’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan or Congress politicians like Shashi Tharoor (the sitting Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram) or Malayalam social media’s top political satirists like International Chalu Union – nobody misses an opportunity to push back and lampoon the Sangh’s attempts to impose their version of religiosity and “sanskar” on Kerala.

What would a young Sangh-supporting intellectual do in Kerala? Nothing much, other than cheer wildly about election results from faraway places like Bundelkhand and Kota. As far as career ambitions go, their best bet would be to butter up BJP’s North Indian bosses and hope to land a job in Prasar Bharati. Or maybe in CBFC, if Pahlaj Nihlani’s successor too manages to get himself fired.

If Chemmeen were to make its first appearance now, how would Janam TV see it? By the looks of it, they might jump at the opportunity to trash it, and perhaps even get it banned.

And why not? It has every ingredient that rubs a Sangh supporter the wrong way: a Hindu-Muslim love angle (“love jihad”), extra-marital love, glorification of local fables, and worst of all, fish-eating (the movie’s name itself translates to “Prawn”).

This is what they might come up with:

World cinema is dotted with works that tell the stories associated with the sea. Jaws, Titanic, Sharknado 1, Sharknado 2, Sharknado 3 are some of the most renowned in this category. None of these are merely sea yarns shouted from the rooftops; instead, they narrated global issues in a sea-setting. Titanic, for example, told the story of post-colonial Anglo-Irish immigration to America, couched as a love story on board an ocean liner. Jaws and all the Sharknado movies were stellar advertisements for ocean conservation and beach tourism, apart from being great action-thrillers.

However, when it comes to Chemmeen, things turn upside down. All that the Sathyan and Sheela starrer does is to glorify the lives of a bunch of fisherfolk in a tiny fishing village called Purakkad in Kerala, as if they were great seafarers from the Vedic era. Does the village of Purakkad have any historical, cultural or political significance in Kerala? One wonders whether the producer Babu Ismail Sait had any role in deciding to ignore the more historically, culturally and politically significant fishing villages in Kerala, such as Marad (communal rioting in 2003) or Poonthura (communal rioting in 1992).

What Chemmeen does is to portray such an insignificant village and its people in the mould of glorious ancient seaside towns like Rameshwaram. A small fishing community, of the kind one would find in most seaside villages, their day to day trials and tribulations, songs, dances, moral decadence — this is the gist of Chemmeen.

The movie’s technicians have succeeded in giving a colourful facade to an inherently weak story using professional editing and decent outdoor shoots. The author Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai should give serious thought to his future as a novelist.

Chemmeen continues the un-Indian trend in Malayalam cinema of glorifying meat- and fish-eating. The last decade has seen a deluge of Malayalam movies that glamourise meat eating. Angamaly Diaries glorified pork eating to such an extent that opportunistic restaurateurs have started pairing even pure indic food items such as idly and dosha with pork varattiyathu — an abomination that was otherwise paired only with deracinated and un-indic food items like appam and pathiri.

A meat sub-culture is growing in Kerala and the prime culprit is cinema. Chemmeen is director Ramu Kariat’s contribution to this carnivore-isation of Malayali youth. The movie is littered with seafood symbology from the beginning to the very end. There is even an elaborate sequence where Karuthamma (the female lead played by Sheela) serves rice and copious quantities of fish curry to Palani (played by Sathyan). Hasn’t Thakazhi heard of more traditional Kerala food such as rice, sambar, aviyal and puzhukku?

Are there no vegetables in Purakkad?

Even the songs — couched as folk songs — are actually nothing but inane glorification of seafood. The lyrics are replete with words “karimeen”, “chakara” etc and that too set to close up visuals of fresh fish. The highly impressionable youth of the communist-ruled state cannot be blamed for flocking to seafood joints after every screening of the movie. Paragon Restaurant in Kozhikode for example, has reported a 300 per cent increase in their number of fish-mango-curry orders ever since the movie released. By the time the movie ends one begins to get alarmed, wondering if Kerala is some kind of Republic of Fish Eaters, totally disconnected from vegetarian India.

The only bit where Thakazhi and Ramu Kariat deserve praise is for their willingness to expose the menace of “love jihad” that is spreading all over Kerala. Pareekkutty’s (has to be short for Fareed Kutabbudin) character, played by Madhu, demonstrates the depth to which jihadis go to infiltrate our communities to cause wide-ranging issues ranging from marital discord to economic downturn. This is the only saving grace amongst all the cacophony about “sea”, “karimeen”, “chakara” and immorality that make up the glorified sea-trash called Chemmeen.

Source: Daily O)

Indian schools are using WhatsApp to enslave mothers and crush children’s independence

My child’s school WhatsApp group registers up to 40 messages an hour. If this were a national security warning system, we’d always be on Red, writes Karishma Attari, the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down, in Scroll. Read on: 

The internet came into my drawing room when I was 17 and it set me free. Once online, I let it all hang out. I typed questions into that I wouldn’t dare ask out loud to the family doctor. I had no curfew and went where the feeling took me. I chatted up strangers with foreign names and forgot about them just as easily the next morning. The experiences I had online felt like an adventure not a community-wide scandal-in-the-making.

Outside roamed nosy neighbours, vigilant uncles and aunties. Outside, I was a demure superhero cursed with protecting, through sheer, visible blamelessness the never-sleeping beacon of the family name. On the internet, though, I could roam wild and free of scrutiny in a way that I had outgrown with pig tails and bloomers. I could be anonymous, independent, alone.

The internet was an infinite grassland of possibilities, limited only by my own limitations. I published my first set of poems in an online journal, befriended editors of a print magazine through email. I was on my way to being heard, and to sharing my voice.

Then, almost before I knew it, the smartphone was here, and the long form of communication had an alternative which was new and exciting. Unlikely relationships bloomed and ebbed in privacy and over once-insurmountable distances. Instant messaging changed boardroom into bedroom and flipped it the other way around too. Everyone was accessible and everything was within reach.

Two decades and two children later, everything is different, because my smartphone has been taken over in a way that makes me feel not so smart.

Always on call
There’s such a thing as too much communication, conversations I can’t simply put a polite end to and leave. My WhatsApp, for instance, stays on silent, because each of my children’s school chat groups registers up to 40 messages an hour – and that’s on a good day. One could argue that the tool is only as sophisticated as the user. By that measure, my gripe ought to be redirected to that peculiar form of obsessive compulsive disorder that many mothers operate with. What are we doing, 30 women between the ages of 25 and 45, discussing how to paint a paper cup black? (Thirty-five messages, seven pictures exchanged.) Why aren’t our children – future fund managers, teachers, doctors, artists, and lawyers (or so we hope) – figuring it out for themselves? Why request a picture of today’s grammar assessment, after it’s already been administered? Why ask questions about what the portion for tomorrow’s biology test is, when at 1am, our kids are in bed, and we should, potentially, be thinking of other things?

Why has being a school mom turned into a relentless, 24/7 activity? The “mom chats” are the first set of messages I see in the morning. The last thing I see before I switch the phone off for the night. If this were a national security warning system, I’d say we were always on Red, perpetually on High Alert.

I know why. Or at least I can make a good guess, and like with all blame games, I’ll pin this on a conspiracy theory. It’s because schools have exceeded their boundaries, and think nothing of seeding hysteria in parents, on the grounds that constant, heightened vigilance improves the child’s performance at school. Schools are no longer places to park your children, for half a day, while you work at home or in an office.

Schools expect your participation, rather than your child’s. The logic is simple: you are far easier to discipline and far easier to shame or scare. What’s more, there has been such little protest from mothers, that schools have come to expect all our attention and all our time. Again, arguably, it has much to do with our inability to just say no.

Right to privacy
How do schools maintain control over mothers? They use the internet to keep us permanently connected to the mainframe. School apps know how to put you in your place – after all, this is a partnership, as the school authorities keep reminding us. I sign in to an app, because, well, my 10- and seven-year-olds don’t own smartphones (yet). And then the fun begins – I start monitoring and checking everything that’s up there, like a good mother must.

Passport photographs of the children in school uniform required, at an evening’s notice? No problem. Can do. Size two, four, eight, and fourteen paint brushes in both round and flat bristles? Sure, I can find them. Science assessment tomorrow? Got it. No need for the English prose notebook, but carry English grammar next Monday? All right, I’ll pack my child’s bag accordingly. Four lines about the monuments of India? Okay, done. Five potatoes with a black marker to be brought in? Sure. Hindi poem recitation tomorrow? On it.

We are on it. We are so on it that we put home-schoolers to shame. We give our children no real space in which to mature, no real sense of responsibility, no real shot at failing, and learning from failure – because, as mothers, we seem to have internalised that their business is our business. We are raising sons who are used to throwing up their hands, sons with moms who sort out every detail of their lives. We are raising daughters who learn a woman’s domestic role is being the scheduler of other people’s lives.

We put our lives on hold for theirs. Schools encourage this by shrugging off their responsibility, their part in the “partnership”.

Attend a parent-teacher meeting, and chances are, you will be told to go through and sign your child’s books every day, checking to see if the day’s work is complete. In my case, that is roughly seven books a day, every day, for two children each. If I have a query, there’s always a WhatsApp group with 30 mothers. They’re always on call, like me. Who wants to be a mom in a WhatsApp group of supermoms?

I dared, at the last PTA meet, to raise my hand and ask politely about my child’s right to privacy. Shouldn’t he have a right to manage his own affairs, and learn from his errors?

I confess I didn’t dare to ask about my own right to some space and time.

Have schools used technology to target mothers specifically? In principle, either parent can download the app, or check on the website. Yet, curiously, in a decade of parenting, I have yet to see a father post a query on the WhatsApp chat group.

The internet which once set me free is now a leash that keeps me eternally tethered to my duty as a child-raiser. There are days I look at my phone with such loathing that I think its monitor heats up in embarrassment. But then, I give in. After all, how can my daughter go to school tomorrow without carrying two pink foolscap sheets, which it was never her responsibility to remember? What else am I doing with my time that’s so important, anyway?

Love is not algorithmic

Online-dating platforms can tell us a lot about potential partners, but people are not made of steady data points, and love is not just about matching interests, writes Jim Kozubek in the Atlantic. Read on: 

There is no higher praise these days than being data-driven. A person who is data-driven is free of bias, and cuts through arguments with a sword of truth. No longer do we need to fumble through life. The answers will come. We will know how to respond, just what to do. We will let the data tell us!

And so it goes with Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), a synopsis of insights he gleaned from analytics while working at the company he co-founded, OKCupid. His company, he tells us, could easily sport the tagline “Making the Ineffable Totally Effable.” Indeed, his book sets out to do this, yielding some gainful insights on dating expectations, along with other, more unsurprising findings: Men like younger women (no duh). These data are amusing, even charming.

But something more is at risk. What is troubling here, as we enter the Age of Big Data, the Age of the Internet, and the like, is that we are also entering an Age of the Axiomatic.

To be axiomatic, at its best, is to be deductive, but at its worst, it is to assume that a system is consistent and complete. For instance, in the field of genetics, we can look at aggregate data from 100,000 patients to deduce a mutation that is apt to cause a disease in any single patient. That is the power of deductive logic. But in assuming the system of logic is complete, we may fail to anticipate alternate causes, in this case “epigenetic” or biological mechanisms beyond DNA. Axioms work well in the realm of pure numbers and physics, but they are often superficially applied to biology, and especially so when applied to the social sciences.

Exactly the point we assume the data of a system to be both consistent and complete. This is when axiomatic logic at its most naïve and dangerous.

This dangerous kind of axiomatic logic is pronounced when we assume that a user is a collection of “data points” with a consistent or complete identity. In fact, online-dating services are notoriously complicated by users’ own impossible burden of fully representing themselves in a two-dimensional personality. Social media has struggled to contemplate the self-contradiction and inconsistency of its own users—to see them as more than flat profiles that can be targeted for advertising. Speaking of users who have multiple profiles, Mark Zuckerberg famously said “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Writer Curtis Sittenfeld quipped in The New York Times: “To which my only response is, 'You’ve got to be kidding.' I mean, I’m not even the same person with all the members of my immediate family.”

Cultural critics have been raising questions about the intrinsic value of such shallow data for years. Jonathan Franzen’s 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College was the most famous but not the only rebuttal. He suggested that “technology provides an alternative to love,” a pleasant distraction that derails our train of thought and drains our empathy. David Brooks’ 2013 column in The New York Times on “What Data Can’t Do” suggested that “network scientists can map your interactions with the six co-workers you see during 76 percent of your days, but they can’t capture your devotion to the childhood friends you see twice a year, let alone Dante’s love for Beatrice, whom he met twice.” The French philosopher Alain Badiou provided the most direct challenge to social networking in his 2012 book “In Praise of Love.” He suggested online dating was a form of “safety first” love, in which love becomes a commodity or a consumer product. He went so far as to suggest that the premise of the user experience is an affront to the spirit of love. According to Badiou, to enter a relationship is not to compliment your “likes,” but to undergo a confrontation to identity, to enter a process: “Personally, I have always been interested in issues of duration and process, and not only starting points.”

Indeed, writers have long described love through its challenge to identity, its contradiction and its process. They defy readers to embrace what philosophers call “alterity,” or otherness—the possibility of being totally blindsided by new facts, to achieve an experience that was before entirely foreign. They impose a stance to reading that embraces antagonism, and incompleteness, and is sunken in process. I admit, I equate books with love. The only way to approach a book as a serious reader is to approach it as a relationship, as something dense and partially submerged. One does not go into reading with an assumption of knowledge or completeness, but with humility, with a willingness to enter into a confrontation that may change you in the process. As the writer Junot Diaz has said, “Every serious reader knows that they don’t understand half of what they read; it’s true, that’s not a joke—because that’s how real life is really like. People you love say shit and you have no idea what they mean.”

In The Space of Literature, philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote: “What threatens reading is this: the reader’s reality, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn resistance upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads—a man who knows in general how to read.” Likewise, do we sell ourselves short by applying a scientific approach to love, one in which we become “prisoners of allusion,” reduced to our web profiles, cliches and guided by trite axioms? In his book, Rudder suggests the importance of a prominent tattoo; he says if you don’t know what to ask your date, the data suggests asking if they like scary movies; it may be a good indicator of your success. That sounds, to me, like someone grasping for straws. In truth, it is probably all a data-driven approach to love can ever do for us.

The data from online-dating platforms will never answer the toughest and most important questions. It cannot tell us why some people never recover from heartbreak, why we mimic some people and give short shrift to others, why some people fall in love too quickly, or why people who should care walk out on us. Part of us will never be “totally effable.” To feel safely assessed and under the control of numbers, you might read Dataclysm. As for me, I will read Badiou.

What’s the real history of Black Friday?

It makes sense that the term “Black Friday” might refer to the single day of the year when retail companies finally go “into the black” (i.e. make a profit). The day after Thanksgiving is, of course, when crowds of turkey-stuffed shoppers descend on stores all over the country to take advantage of the season’s biggest holiday bargains. But the real story behind Black Friday is a bit more complicated—and darker—than that.

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.

The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten. Since then, the one-day sales bonanza has morphed into a four-day event, and spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday. Stores started opening earlier and earlier on that Friday, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. According to a pre-holiday survey this year by the National Retail Federation, an estimated 135.8 million Americans definitely plan to shop over the Thanksgiving weekend (58.7 percent of those surveyed), though even more (183.8 million, or 79.6 percent) said they would or might take advantage of the online deals offered on Cyber Monday.

(Source: History)

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Padmavati has been a part of Indian theatre & cinema for 111 years, and nobody protested

Since 1906, the Rani Padmini-Alauddin Khalji story has been told and retold multiple times in various forms, without people going up in arms, writes Mahrukh Inayet in The Print. Read on: 

Former Central Board of Film Certification chairman Pahlaj Nihalani, not known for a reasonable approach till recently, has perhaps made the most pertinent comment on the controversy over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati. He asked: “Why is it that earlier versions of Rani Padmini’s life invited no wrath from any Rajput groups?”

Indeed, many versions of Rani Padmini’s epic story have been part of Indian theatre, film and television for about 111 years, and none invited strictures.

Bengali poet and playwright Kshirode Prasad Vidyavinode’s play Padmini in 1906 revolved around the same story – Alauddin Khalji capturing the Rana of Chittor using deceit, Rani Padmini managing to rescue her husband, and later, as the battle ensued, all Rajput women including Padmini self-immolated.

Three years later, in 1909, Abanindranath Tagore’s Raj Kahini was published. This children’s literature collection told a similar tale of Padmini-Ratan Singh-Khalji, adding a part where the Rajput king offered to surrender his wife to Alauddin to protect Chittor, but his fellow Rajputs refused the offer.

Cinema history is also littered with retellings of the Padmini story. In 1963, Tamil film Chittoor Rani Padmini had actor Vyjayanthimala playing the lead role. Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan played Rana Ratan Singh and M.N. Nambiar played Khalji. The film didn’t create any protest before release, nor any buzz at the box office.

A year later came the Hindi version Maharani Padmini, starring Anita Guha as the queen, Jairaj as her husband, and Sajjan as Khalji. The film was a damp squib at the box office, but the songs, featuring Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Suman Kalyanpur, and Usha Mangeshkar were hits. This film saw no protests either.

Apart from these two 70 mm versions, the story of Rani Padmini also found its way to the smaller screen. Shyam Benegal’s epic show Bharat Ek Khoj had one episode on Padmini, with Om Puri playing Khilji, Seema Kelkar playing Padmini, and Rajendra Gupta playing Ratan Singh.

In 2009, Sony Entertainment Televsion began broadcasting Chittod ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur, a show directed by National Award-winning art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai, featuring Tejaswani Lonari as Padmini.

The show didn’t complete its six-month run due to low TRPs and high costs. And while it was in the news for its opulent sets and costumes, it never witnessed protests for its historical content or context.

Bhansali’s Padmavati is clearly not the first time the story of Rani Padmini has been the inspiration for a creative piece. Khalji’s infatuation with her has also been used as a significant part of the narrative.

So is the film just an easy target for fringe groups and right-wing elements to force their beliefs on one man’s freedom of expression? History certainly seems to show that.

What non-Malayalis don't get about Kerala

'A House for Mr Misra' by Jaishree Misra is an an interesting attempt to learn some facets of Kerala that's more like a patchwork quilt with appliqué work, depending on how you look. Here's an excerpt from the book:   

The fast-changing culture of Kerala was clearly exercising the police force in more ways than one. When we went to supervise the construction, we found that the beach was a magnet for young, illicit love, especially in the hot afternoon sun when no one else came to the beach and college lectures were at their most boring. They sat there, under brightly coloured umbrellas, motorcycle helmets flung on the sand, holding hands and canoodling and doing all the things young lovers do with such rash hope. What these hapless folk did not know was that the Vettukaud police liked nothing better than to round up young lovers and haul them off to the police station for a good ticking off. I had seen a few such youngsters sitting wide-eyed with fear in the back of a police jeep, and was tempted to halt their progress to ask why the police force was wasting its time when there were murderous motorists to catch (perhaps even murderous murderers) but, alas, I lacked the gumption. I had, after all, only very recently been described as “law-abiding” by one of their own kind and wasn’t in a hurry to disabuse them of this notion.

This is the thing that’s so difficult to explain to non-Malayalis. The strong streak of conservatism that overshadows and negates all those statistics that Keralites love bragging about; enviable demographics around education and health and child mortality and women’s empowerment that are shared with developed countries. A subtle example of that conservatism emerged in a conversation with a friend who recounted visiting an elderly relative that morning. When she arrived at her aunt’s house, she found that the lady had gone for a walk.

“Ah, nice. Does she walk with friends?” my friend asked her uncle.

“Friends!?” the man responded, a touch horrified. “No, no, no such thing as friends and all such nonsense. Luckily, my wife doesn’t waste time that way. I allow her to go for a walk every morning because the exercise is good for her.”

See what I mean by “subtle conservatism”? So subtle as to be nearly invisible when we’re talking about women who enjoy all the obvious trappings of emancipation. Malayali women come across as particularly fortunate when compared to their sisters in other Indian states (the best example being offered by Mr M’s home state of Uttar Pradesh) who continue to be severely downtrodden by deep-rooted patriarchy and chauvinism that take much more obvious forms. But stating with pride that a wife has “no friends” and is “allowed” to go for a walk every morning? The worst chauvinists are those who do not even recognise their own chauvinism.

Kerala is indubitably a good aberration in modern India and most people are aware that it is the only state to have achieved total literacy many years ago (not an untrue claim, although the measure of literacy is sometimes merely the ability to sign one’s name).

Most non-Malayalis also have a vague notion about the matrilineal system followed by the state’s large Nair community and genuinely believe that Kerala’s women are highly educated and empowered beings. Again, this is not untrue. Most women in Kerala, especially the poor, go out to work and proudly bring home their own bacon/beef/fish.

The problem, however, is that this veneer of feminism is a double-edged and very sharp sword. Perhaps its history does go all the way back to the matrilineal system, but the very act of empowering women to own their own homes and earn their own money would appear to have emasculated some men to the extent that they feel little responsibility towards home, hearth and even, sometimes, their own children. My maid’s husband was a shining example of that pathetic male species, lurching drunkenly back to her house whenever he was in need of money or medication and raining blows on her if she got mouthy or refused help.

This male apathy extends, unsurprisingly, to unemployment, alcoholism and sometimes results tragically in suicide (few know that Kerala’s suicide figures are amongst the highest in India).

An unexpected offshoot of this — in an odd reversal of the Gulf rush — is that the state has become something of a Mecca for large numbers of migrant workers from other states who now flock to Kerala in search of well-paid work.

They come from as far away as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal and, at the present time, number an enormous band of 2.5 million people, mostly single men between the ages of 20 and 30.

Like migratory birds, their arrival is in times of good weather and rich pickings, specifically during those five months from October to March when the tourist season fills up Kerala’s resorts and the demand for exotic food is high.

We soon became frequent day-trippers to Varkala, one such seaside resort just up the coast from us that had a couple of calm blue bays perfect for sea-swimming. In October, we discovered that it was a popular destination for young back-packing Westerners escaping the European winters. As a result, by November, up cropped row upon row of temporary Goa-style shacks along the eating strip on the cliff. Every single one of them was manned by non-Kerala staff and Mr M plunged with great glee into the joy of being able to chat in Hindi, his mother-tongue.

I noticed the torrent of words that he had been stocking up behind Malayalam floodgates as he jabbered non-stop that November afternoon. Less than a week later, he was asking, “When can we go to Varkala again?”

Thanks to those 2.5 million North Indian migrants, he did not have to travel to Varkala every time he wanted to speak Hindi, however. Even our new electrician, a man called Cleatus, turned up with an apprentice in tow who turned out to be from Mr M’s state of UP.

“Cleatus? Is that a Malayali name?” Mr M asked, still unfamiliar with the inventiveness of Kerala Christian nomenclature (our neighbours included a “Bosco”, a “Jijo”, a “Joji”, a “Donaald” and even a rather Asterix-ish “Scholastica”).

“Yes, I am full Malayali,” Cleatus replied.

“But your employee here is from UP.”

“Ah yes, I refuse to employ Malayalis, lazy bastards,” Cleatus explained. Mr M found this hilarious, naturally, and got chatting animatedly to the pair of them.

“So you communicate with each other in Hindi then?” he asked.

“Well, I learnt Hindi in Goa,” Cleatus replied. “Worked there many years before coming back here, you see. You worked in London, sir? You are English?”

“No, no, not English. I’m full Indian too. Though not Malayali, alas,” Mr M replied. He then turned to the apprentice, “And have you learnt any Malayalam?” he asked.

“Him? Malayalam?” Cleatus interjected, thumping his apprentice on the back. “Is he capable of learning anything, I ask you? He’s a UP-wallah, sir. Stupid bastards, the lot of them.”

Most non-Malayalis also have a vague notion about the matrilineal system followed by the state’s large Nair community and genuinely believe that Kerala’s women are highly educated and empowered beings. Photo: PTI


Talking of stupid bastards

As mentioned earlier, Kerala’s muddled alcohol policy went through a number of baffling changes before getting finally derailed by a change of government. Its latest avatar was, however, totally nobbled by a Supreme Court ruling in 2017, which disallowed any commercial establishment anywhere in the country from selling alcohol if said establishment fell within 500 metres of a highway. Good intentions, but we all know that the road to perdition (or, in this case, highway to hell) is paved with etc etc.

Now, anyone familiar with the narrow shape of Kerala will know that the state is energetically criss-crossed by several state and national highways. If you spit hard enough, chances are your spittle will fall on a highway of some description. Uncle was particularly devastated to find that his beloved club (Trivandrum Tennis Club) was found to lie on one such highway. Even more gallingly, said highway veered off at a nearby roundabout, turning right rather than going straight as one would reasonably expect, leading to the scandalous outcome that the other two clubs in town (Trivandrum Club and Sri Moolam Club) were not sitting on highways. The iniquitousness of this travesty had reduced many a TTC member to bitter tears, I am reliably informed.

Anyway, overnight, Kerala was back (pretty much) to its dry state, this time by default. This was terrible news for the tourist trade — one of the last successful industries left in the state due to the havoc created by unions. Of the Supreme Court decision, even the principal secretary of tourism used the media to gloomily declare, “This is the death knell as far as Kerala Tourism is concerned.” Certainly, the numbers would appear to bear this out. Two years after the implementation of the 2014 alcohol ban, foreign tourist arrivals decreased from 7.6 per cent to 6.2 per cent.

This might not sound like too devastating a slide until somebody informs you that in 2010 the number had been a glorious 18.3 per cent. In direct consequence, the foreign exchange earnings went from 15 per cent in 2014 to 11.5 per cent in 2016 and is no doubt headed firmly south as I write.

When will our governments realise that bans do not miraculously stop people from indulging in banned substances, merely driving them to carry on their activities underground? A few ingenious ideas swiftly emerged among bar-owners, necessity being the mother of invention and all that.

My favourite one came from a roadside hotelier near Ernakulam who, rather than running around squawking in blind panic, calmly set about building a walled labyrinth between the highway and his bar. The papers were full of aerial images of this charming cement construction vaguely reminiscent of the hedge follies of ancient English gardens. It even made it to the pages of The Guardian. By creating this labyrinth, the bar-owner had cannily increased the distance from the highway to the door of his establishment to just over 500m. The local police station confirmed that this was perfectly lawful as the ruling did not measure the distance between road and bar as the crow flies but in distance walked. (See, that thing again: for every clever law, there will be a cleverer solution floating around somewhere when you’re dealing with Malayalis.)

Even if such bans did achieve the happy result of people shunning the amber nectar, a government simply cannot instruct foreign tourists to steer clear of alcohol during the one luxury holiday they have saved up for all year. Kerala, going by the tourism department’s own prize-winning advertising campaign, offers a lush green paradise, restful and easy-going, crammed with fresh healthful seafood served aboard converted rice-boats that chug lazily along palm-fringed backwaters.

Try asking the average Western tourist to board one such boat on a hot afternoon and fail to stick a chilled and gently sweating bottle of beer in his hand... I guarantee trouble ahead.

Government bodies should remember: tourists are not exactly coming to Kerala for the customer service.

We found that out for ourselves whenever we ate out, increasingly accustomed to being told that this or that was not on the menu. Given the hot climate, the most puzzling of such permanently non-available items was ice as Malayalis seemed strangely unacquainted with small cubes of frozen water that, in England or America or even in Delhi was brought to your table in massive buckets. Whenever (which was often) Mr M asked for ice in a Kerala watering hole, we were met with expressions on a procession of waiters’ faces that ranged from mystified to baffled to downright antagonistic. It had got so bad that the minute Mr M uttered the word “ice”, it triggered a migraine response somewhere deep inside my head.

One evening, a new neighbourhood restaurant took star rating in our numerous experiences of poor customer service.

We’d taken a large group of friends and family with us on this occasion. Once we’d settled around a large table in the garden, there rose the question of drinks. We knew there would be no point asking for ice or even for beers as this was, no, not bordering a highway, but merely an unlicensed establishment.

“Do you have Diet Coke?” Mr M asked.

“No, sir, ” was the response.

“Diet Pepsi?”

“No, sir, only normal Pepsi.”

“Fresh lime soda?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, what do you have then?”

“We can get you fresh lime water,” the waiter said decisively.

Mr M was always unwilling to be taken in by assurances of “filter water”. He decided to push it. “Well, if you can make fresh lime water, surely you could get a couple of bottles of soda from the shop next door and make fresh lime soda, couldn’t you?”

“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Why not?”

I started to shift in my seat, aware that from this point we were a hair’s breadth away from storming out, friends, family and all. And we hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning the word “ice”. That familiar old migraine was rearing its head somewhere at the back of my own. I was also keenly conscious that Mother and Aunt, with various pairs of bad knees and ankles between them, were in no position to do very effective storming.

“Your water is filtered, isn’t it?” I asked, trying to distract and symbolically using some of said substance to douse the flames that were just about to leap to life. But the waiter, silly man, had no idea I was at this point in time his best decoy.

He ignored me and kept his eyes on Mr M in an admirable effort at being manful. “Sir, there is no one to go to the shop for soda, sir.”

Mr M’s hackles were by now sky-high. “Okay, how about this? I will go to the shop and use MY money to buy a couple of bottles of soda. Then I will bring them back and YOU can take them to the kitchen and ask them to make us seven fresh lime sodas. Do YOU think you could ask THEM to do that, huh?”

Everyone at the table jumped a little at the shouted use of each pronoun. The waiter, unused to having seven sets of terrified eyes fixed on him, awaiting his response in breathless anticipation, chose the wisest form of least resistance.

He backed down, mumbling, “I will go and check, sir.”

But Mr M was really into his pronouns now. “Check with WHOM?”

“Manager, sir.”

Mr M was clearly too thirsty to wait for the manager and jumped up to depart for the shop next door. By the time he reappeared carrying two large litre bottles of soda, the manager was at our table, being sweet-talked by various female members of my family. We had managed to soften him considerably for, as soon as Mr M came, he accepted the bottles of soda with a charming smile and promised us our drinks in ten minutes.

Pleased with this small victory, Mr M beamed around the table, accepting the congratulations. At this point Uncle joined us, coming straight from the bar at Trivandrum Tennis Club in a slightly belligerent state. After Mr M had narrated our experience, he turned to the waiter who was still hovering, notebook and pencil at the ready.

“You don’t serve hard drinks?” Uncle demanded.

“No, sir.”

“You don’t serve soft drinks,” Uncle continued. Now the hapless waiter took refuge in polite silence. “Then let me ask you this. WHAT do you serve?”

Aunt patted Uncle’s arm and, as is his wont, he swiftly subsided. “Let’s order food,” she said, using her maternal voice, which always worked a treat on him.

“My order is very simple,” Uncle said. “Fish curry and rice.”

“You have fish curry and rice?” aunt asked the waiter, though it was only a rhetorical question as there could be few establishments in Kerala that did not serve fish curry and rice.

“We have fish curry, madam. But no rice, sorry, madam. Rice we only make at lunchtime.”

Our friend Rema, probably taking her cue from Mr M, leapt out of her chair. “Then let me come into the kitchen and make some rice for you,” she said.

Of course, Rema was pressed back into her chair and the restaurant did eventually come up with the goods, serving Uncle a bowl of steaming rice to accompany his fish curry. But the question remains: why does customer service have to be beaten thus out of a Kerala establishment?

I have a long-winded theory about a proud race that has never encountered domination or suffering and, therefore, does not know how to serve and kowtow and gratify. But Mr M has a simpler explanation. Just blame the Commies, he says.

(Source: Daily O)

Celebrations for 82-yr-old seer’s male child: We’re still feudal when it comes to sex

We live in a Bharat where we celebrate an octagenarian ‘finally’ having a male heir, but are enraged that a youth may watch porn or have sex, writes Preethi Nagaraj on the TNM. Read on: 

In the last few weeks, the state of Karnataka – which gets a ‘trickle down’ of national politics – had two incidents to react to. One was the birth of a male heir to the ‘educational empire’ of a Lingayat ‘pontiff’ (note the quotes – they are there for a reason). The second is a regular staple of the mainstream media – the release of a sex CD of a leader in his 20s associated with the Patidar community in faraway Gujarat.

While the sexual urges of a healthy young man in his mid 20s were seen as a ‘blotch on his character’ (thank god the target here is a man and not a woman!), the news of the octogenarian’s son being born was seen as ‘news’, and only that. The mainstream media followed up on celebrations that broke out at the educational institutions and mutt run by Sharanabasappa Appa, a father to seven daughters and many grand children.

Don’t get me wrong here. My goal here is not to deride the existence of sexual desire among 80-year-olds. That’s hardly the point. The whole argument here is about the way the media perceived and projected both news items to create a public perception.

So, the ‘good news’ from Karnataka seemed to be that Appa could now finally put a full stop to his ‘mission male child’. His second wife Dakshayani, who also happens to be his sister’s daughter, had borne him an ‘heir’.

Dakshayani married Appa in the late 1990s, after his first wife passed away, leaving behind four adult daughters, some of whom were already married by the time Appa married again. One daughter passed away some years ago.

Now 48-years-old, Dakshayani married the septuagenarian Appa in her early 20s. The objective was clear. She was to bear a male child for her ‘maama’ as maternal uncles are called, in Karnataka. But unfortunately, there was only news of daughters being born. Appa fathered three daughters with Dakshayani, before the son came around less than a month ago.

Appa is thought to be a descendent of the ascetic saint Sharanabasappa Appa, who lived in the 18th century in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, which was under the rule of Nizams. But the contemporary Appa is a ‘laukika’ (lives in the material world), who has established an empire of educational institutions in Gulbarga and its surrounding areas, and is one of the most ‘well-respected’ persons in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region.

He has even built a dedicated college for girls who want to study engineering. With all this, when he remarried with a clear brief and objective, the Lingayat community spoke in whimpers against it. Interestingly, Appa’s elder brother, who stays away from this humdrum, has a son. Many Lingayat leaders suggested that Appa could take that son under his wings and train him to carry forward his legacy. But, no. None of that was palatable to Appa.

The cases of Appa and Hardik Patel are a fine example of how selective disparaging of human desires happens through media. Appa is obviously a big shot who can ring the right notes. His influence is far and wide. Hence his penchant for a male heir is justified in view of his grand legacy.

But what does a man in his late 20s have to do with sex? Should he not abstain himself from that ‘human desire’, that’s as natural as hunger and anger?

In perceiving and accepting the senior citizen’s ‘male baby’ desire, we seem to be furthering the feudal mindset we thought we had shunned long ago. We may live in cities, drive cars and use technology, but for us, nothing is more enraging than a youth watching porn or having sex.

Somewhere on the way to our journey of being an IT superpower of the world, we left our commonsense behind and trusted to some unseen forces to further our hallucinations.

Which is why, a Karni sena in Rajasthan can threaten to chop off the nose of a female artiste over a film like Padmavati, and a Hardik Patel will have to defend his libido or be forced to apologise for possessing it. Yet, an 82-year-old can rejoice the arrival of his son in media, irrespective of whether he’s done the most responsible thing or not.

This is Bharat – home to hilarious and ironic contradictions.  We can only hope that our unprivileged, unrepresented daughters ask us some tough questions and demand better answers from us.

Indira Gandhi, a goongi gudiya who went on to become Iron Lady

Indira Gandhi had almost decided to quit politics and move to London for a few years when a tragic incident brought her at the centre of Indian politics, writes Prabhash K Dutta in India Today. Read on: 

Two weeks after the mysterious death of Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent (then in USSR, now in Uzbekistan), Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the prime minister of India in January 1966. Indira Gandhi was not the automatic choice of the Congress party leadership, which was dominated by a group, unofficially called the Syndicate.

Indira Gandhi took oath as the compromise candidate but she ended up as the second-longest serving prime minister of the country. Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister who moved away from idealist policy framework and built her politics around populist measures.

On her centenary birth anniversary today, Indira Gandhi is best remembered for historical events like creation of Bangladesh and imposition of national emergency in the country which suspended basic human rights.

She was considered the most authoritarian and most popular leader in India of her times. But, much before that Indira Gandhi had been dubbed as a goongi gudiya (the dumb doll) by socialist stalwart Ram Manohar Lohia.

The The Syndicate was a powerful grouping of the then Congress president K Kamraj, Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy of Andhra Pradesh, S Nijalingappa of Madras, SK Patil of Maharashtra and Biju Patnaik of Orissa.

The Syndicate played a key role in Indira Gandhi's transformation. The Syndicate owes its origin to the question asked by many in early 1960s: Who after Nehru? Morarji Desai was the tallest leader in the Congress after Nehru.

But Desai was disliked by both Nehru and the Syndicate for different reasons. Nehru did not approve of Desai's pro-business policies while the Syndicate feared that if he succeeded Nehru, his ambition would leave no space for them. After Nehru, they outmaneuvred Desai and elevated Shastri, who inducted Indira Gandhi into the Union Cabinet.

Though a compromise candidate for his affable nature, Shashtri outgrew the Syndicate led by K Kamraj with his political astuteness and the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Shastri was even getting uncomfortable with the way Indira Gandhi handled political situations. Once she set out to meet victims of natural calamities without prior approval of Shastri.

It was speculated that before Shastri went to Tashkent to negotiate peace deal with Pakistan, he had made up his mind to drop Indira Gandhi from his Cabinet. Indira Gandhi was the Information and Broadcasting Minister, which was not considered high-profile in 1960s. She was considered a weak leader with mammoth legacy. She was even heckled once in Parliament while she was the minister.

Indira Gandhi was said to be so frustrated with her political fate in India that she was seriously considering shifting to London for few years. Under such circumstances arrived the news of sudden demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri on one morning in January 1966. The plan to move to London was shelved promptly. She made her moves and appeared to be in the good book of the Syndicate.

The Syndicate was not yet ready. K Kamraj was said to be harbouring ambition to become the prime minister. The Syndicate controlled most of the Pradesh Congress Committees and was confident of getting numbers in favour at a time when Morarji Desai was once again in the contest.

At the last moment Kamraj backed out saying "No Hindi, no English" how could he unite the nation behind him. But, he was not ready to let Desai have a field day. Indira Gandhi, thought as weak and submissive, suited the profile well.

The Syndicate backed Indira Gandhi and in the election she defeated Morarji Desai by 355-169 votes to take oath as the first, and till date only, female prime minister of India. Desai became her deputy.

During the initial years of her prime ministership, Indira Gandhi appeared nervous and shaky. In 1969, she found it difficult to present the Union Budget. She was too nervous to read out the speech. She was cornered by the Opposition leaders and opponents in the party while Ram Manohar Lohia gave her a nickname, goongi gudiya (the dumb doll).

The staunch opposition and dominating handling by the Syndicate proved to be the trigger point for Indira Gandhi, who responded with utmost force and vigour. She decided to test her leadership mettle by going directly to public. She had begun experimenting with her own capability and popularity among the masses during the 1967 Lok Sabha elections.

Indira Gandhi extensively toured the country. She covered over 36,000 miles. She gave the slogan of garibi hatao (remove poverty), campaigned against Privy Purse enjoyed by the erstwhile princely state rulers and nationalised 14 big banks in 1969. The Syndicate and Morarji Desai opposed these moves.

Indira Gandhi was expelled from the party. But, she announced her own Congress (I) in response. Her political moves exposed the existing Congress leadership which sided with the rich royals.

In two years' time, Indira Gandhi was the changed politician. By the time India-Pakistan war over the question of Bangladesh happened, Indira Gandhi had emerged as the tallest leader in the country. The Syndicate had been dismantled.

The 1971 war reflected her quick decision-making ability on the question of securing the interests of the country. Indira Gandhi was involved in the strategic-planning of the war, which brought Pakistan to its knees. The defeat of Pakistan was so complete that it never again entered into a full-fledged war with India. The Kargil war was limited in nature.

The success of 1971 war led to Indira Gandhi being referred to as the "only man in Cabinet". The western press hailed Indira Gandhi as the Iron Lady of India. This sobriquet stayed on despite controversial decisions to impose national emergency and order troops to march into the Golden Temple of Amritsar at the height of Khalistan militancy.

The weaker sex? Science shows women are stronger than men

When it comes to longevity, surviving illness and coping with trauma, one gender comes out on top. Angela Saini meets the scientists working out why. Read on: 

Four years ago, completely spent, blood transfused into me in a frantic effort to allow me to walk, I lay on a hospital bed having given birth the day before. To the joy of my family, I had brought them a son. Blue balloons foretold a man in the making. Not just the apple of my eye, but the one who would one day open jam jars for me. The hero who would do the DIY and put out the rubbish. He who was born to be strong because he is male.

But then, physical strength can be defined in different ways. What I was yet to learn was that, beneath our skin, women bubble with a source of power that even science has yet to fully understand. We are better survivors than men. What’s more, we are born this way.

“Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing, and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama. For almost two decades, he has been studying one of the best-known yet under-researched facts of human biology: that women live longer than men. His longevity database shows that all over the world and as far back as records have been kept, women outlive men by around five or six years. He describes them as being more “robust”.

Robustness, toughness or pure power – whatever it’s called – this survival ability cracks apart the stereotype. The physically strong woman is almost a myth. We gaze upon great female athletes as though they’re other-worldly creatures. Greek legend could only imagine the Amazons, female warriors as powerful as men. They break the laws of nature. No, we everyday women, we have just half the upper body strength of men. We are six inches shorter, depending on where we live. We wield power, but it’s emotional and intellectual, we tell ourselves. It’s not in our bodies.

Not so, says Austad. He is among a small cadre of researchers who believe that women may hold the key to prolonging life. In extremely old age, the gap between the sexes becomes a glaring one.

According to a tally maintained by the global Gerontology Research Group, today, 43 people around the world are known to be living past the age of 110. Of these supercentenarians, 42 are women. Interviews with the world’s current oldest person, 117-year-old Violet Brown, who lives in Jamaica, reveal she enjoys eating fish and mutton. She once worked as a plantation worker. Her lifestyle betrays few clues as to how she has lived so long. But one factor we know has helped is being a woman.

Grey power: 42 of the 43 people over the age of 110 are women. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer
Yet there is bizarrely little research to explain the biology behind this. What scientists do know is that this edge doesn’t emerge in later life. It is there from the moment a girl is born. “When we were there on the neonatal unit and a boy came out, you were taught that, statistically, the boy is more likely to die,” says Joy Lawn, director of the Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She explains that, globally, a million babies die on the day of their birth every year.

But if they receive exactly the same level of care, males are statistically at a 10% greater risk than females. What makes baby girls so robust remains mostly a mystery. Research published in 2014 by scientists at the University of Adelaide suggests that a mother’s placenta may behave differently depending on the sex of the baby, doing more to maintain the pregnancy and increase immunity against infections. For reasons unknown, girls may be getting an extra dose of survivability in the womb.

Wherever it comes from, women seem to be shielded against sickness later on. “Cardiovascular disease occurs much earlier in men than women. The age of onset of hypertension [high blood pressure] also occurs much earlier in men than women. And there’s a sex difference in the rate of progression of disease,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director of the Centre for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Ageing and Disease at Georgetown University.

Austad found that in the United States in 2010, women died at lower rates than men from 12 of the 15 most common causes of death, including cancer and heart disease, when adjusted for age. Of the three exceptions, their likelihood of dying from Parkinson’s or stroke was about the same. And they were more likely than men to die of Alzheimer’s disease. “Once I started investigating, I found that women had resistance to almost all the major causes of death,” he says.

Age of reason: Violet Brown, centre, the world’s oldest person, was born in Jamaica in 1900. Photograph: Raymond Simpson/AP
Even when it comes to everyday coughs and colds, women have the advantage. “If you look across all the different types of infections, women have a more robust immune response,” adds Sandberg. “If there’s a really bad infection, they survive better. If it’s about the duration of the infection, women will respond faster.” One explanation for this is hormones. Higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone could be protecting women in some way, not only by making our immune systems stronger, but also more flexible. This may help maintain a healthy pregnancy. A woman’s immune system is more active in the second half of her menstrual cycle, when she’s able to conceive.

On the downside, a powerful immune response also makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The body is so good at fighting off infection that it attacks its own cells. And this may explain why women tend to report more pain and sickness than men. “This is one of the penalties of being a better survivor. You survive, but maybe not quite as intact as you were before,” says Austad. Another factor is simply that men are dying more. “Part of the reason there are more women than men around in ill health is to do with the fact that women have survived events that would kill men, so the equivalent men are no longer with us,” he adds.

When it comes to biological sex difference, though, everything isn’t always as it seems. At least some of the gaps in health and survival may be social, reflecting gender behaviour. Women may be more likely to seek medical help, for instance. Men may have less healthy diets or do more dangerous work. Nonetheless, Austad and Sandberg are convinced that nature accounts for a good deal of what we see.

If they are right, this raises a deeper scientific conundrum. Our bodies adapted over millennia to our environments. So what could it have been in our evolutionary past that gave the female body a little more of this magical robustness? How and why would one sex have developed a survival edge over the other?

Studies of hunter-gatherer societies, who live the way we all may have done before fixed settlements and agriculture, provide a few clues. Many anthropologists studying tribal communities in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia believe early humans lived fairly equal lives, sharing responsibility for food, shelter and raising children. The Flintstones model, with wife at home and husband bringing back the bacon, just doesn’t stand up. Instead, the evidence shows that women would have done at least the same physical work as men, but with the added burden of bearing children.

“There’s a general consensus now that hunting-gathering societies, while not perfectly egalitarian, were less unequal, particularly with regard to gender equality,” says Melvin Konner, professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, who has spent years doing fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Africa. “Because of the scale of the group dynamics, it would be impossible for men to exclude women.”

The more research that is done, the more this is reinforced. Even hunting – that prototypical male activity – is being recast as a female one, too. Anthropologist Rebecca Bliege Bird, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offers me the example of the Martu, an aboriginal tribe in Western Australia. “When Martu women hunt, one of their favourite prey are feral cats. It’s not a very productive activity, but it’s a chance for women to show off their skill acquisition.”

Keep on running: Paula Radcliffe continued to train through her two pregnancies. Photograph: Getty Images
Indeed, women are known to be particularly good at endurance running, notes Marlene Zuk, who runs a lab focusing on evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota. In her 2013 book Paleofantasy, she writes that women’s running abilities decline extremely slowly into old age. They’ve been known to go long distances even while pregnant. In 2011, for example, Amber Miller ran the Chicago marathon before giving birth seven hours later. World record holder Paula Radcliffe has trained through two pregnancies.

Why, then, are we not all Amazons? Why do we imagine femininity to mean small, waif-like bodies? The lives of most ordinary women, outside the pages of magazines, destroy this notion. Visiting India’s cities, I see female construction workers lining the streets, hauling piles of bricks on their heads to building sites. In Kenya, I meet female security guards everywhere, patrolling offices and hotels. Out in rural areas, there are women doing hard physical labour, often hauling their children in slings. Our ancestors would have done the same.

In evolutionary terms, these were the circumstances under which our bodies were forged. For an enormous chunk of early human history, as we migrated through Africa to the rest of the world, women would also have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, sometimes under extreme environmental conditions. “Just reproducing and surviving in these conditions, talk about natural selection!” I’m told by Adrienne Zihlman, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when I visit her at her home in San Francisco.

Zihlman has dedicated her career to understanding human anatomy, and in particular the evolution of women’s bodies. “Women have to reproduce. That means being pregnant for nine months. They’ve got to lactate. They’ve got to carry these kids. There’s something about being a human female that was shaped by evolution. There’s a lot of mortality along the way that really can account for it.”

When I gave birth to my son, I did the most physically demanding thing a human can do. Yet I am considered the weaker sex. Zihlman reminds me that my body was made strong by the struggles of countless generations of women who went before. “There is something about the female form, the female psyche, just the whole package, that was honed over thousands and thousands, even millions, of years to survive,” she smiles. I happen to remember, in that moment, that at home I do all the DIY.

Making a stand: women are better survivors than men. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer
Myths and misses: five more things you didn’t know about women and men
Separate symptoms Women and men present different symptoms for the same medical conditions. Women are more likely to have insomnia and fatigue in the weeks before they have a heart attack, rather than the chest pain commonly experienced by men.

Changes of life Women in India, Japan and China experience far fewer menopause symptoms than western women who commonly report hot flushes, night sweats, depression and insomnia. Scientists at King’s College London argue this could be due to women lumping together their experience of growing older with the menopause.

Casual sex Women are choosier but not more chaste than men. A study by two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, found that women want casual sex just as much as men and were as likely as males to have sex with a stranger, as long as it was in a safe environment.

Boys’ toys A 2010 study by Professor Melissa Hines at the University of Cambridge found that girls on average were genetically predisposed to prefer dolls while boys liked to play with mechanical toys such as trains.

Risky business Testosterone is associated with higher levels of optimism, rather than aggression. Saliva samples taken from traders on the London Stock Exchange confirmed they had higher than average testosterone levels. Scientists from Britain, the USA and Spain concluded this increase made the traders more optimistic so more likely to take big financial risks.

(Source: The Guardian)