Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Article 377 and the usual flip flop

After last Sunday's gay and lesbian parades in major cities in India (including our very own conservative Chennai, where I was heartened to find that women in the parade actually didn't mind posing for photographs), a couple of newspapers including the Times of India went to town proclaiming that the Government was all set to repeal the ridiculous and anachronistic Section 377 of the IPC which makes sex between two consenting adults of the same sex a criminal act. It almost appeared as if it would happen any moment now, perhaps within the very next session of Parliament.

'It could not last, the Devil howling Ho!'. By today, some ministers were furiously back pedalling, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappan Moily both calling for building a consensus, another word for infinite procrastination. Meanwhile, a cleric from the Deoband Islamic seminary has denounced the move to repeal the act (claiming it to be against the Sharia), and it's only a matter of time before some Shankaracharya from some Math, or some archbishop from a major city cathedral also add their voices to the obscurantist clamour. There is even talk of religious groups getting together to oppose this movement. It's almost comforting to see how predictably, religions provide a strong bulwark against change, and the perpetuation of the old order. The same groups, whose extremist elements often go round killing each other, are now willing to get together to oppose any hint of progressive action. And our weak-kneed politicians are only too happy to allow the status quo to continue.

One misses the presence of a person of the stature of Jawaharlal Nehru. Pandit Nehru was a well know waffler in many matters but against virulent opposition from his own MPs and the President of the country, Nehru literally barelled through the Hindu Code Bill which included in its ambit the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), Hindu Succession Act (1956), Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956), and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956). (Alas, he failed to do anything similar for other religions, being overly sensitive to the fact that he had to be particularly careful with minority groups, and with perhaps some justification).

One cannot guess how Nehru would have reacted to the present case, being a product of the early part of the 20th century, but his descendants, who are in power and who never fail to remind us of the grand legacy of the Gandhi-Nehru family, would do well to take a leaf out of their most distinguished forbear in cleaning our legal system of some of the most retrograde remnants of the Raj.

Correction: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code does not mention homosexuality explicitly - it considers "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" whatever that might be, a criminal act. Perhaps it's the vagueness of this statement which has prevented over enthusiastic law enforcement officials from harassing gay and lesbian people. But the very wording of this Section is an absurdity in this day and age.

Update: Delhi High Court legalises gay sex

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Hindu's howler ! And how!

Or is it K. Natwar Singh's? I suspect it's a bit of both but before you figure out what I am talking about, you need to read this Opinion piece by a member of the Hindu's stable of writers, K. Natwar Singh.

Natwar Singh talks of Ayatollah Khomeini in the present tense, suggesting that he is still the Supreme Leader (and with his inveterate habit of name dropping, how he met the 'great man' in New Delhi and Harare). Last I heard, Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeini the leader of the famous Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been consorting with the houris for quite some time now. Presumably therefore (and in view of the persistent present tense) Mr Singh is talking of the present Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whom he could well have met in Delhi and Harare as leader of the Iran delegation.

To compound the confusion the picture accompanying the article is that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the original, so to speak), presumably placed there by the Hindu's sub-editors. When incompetence meets the bush-league, the results are obviously disastrous.

I only hope that our Government is better informed about Supreme Leaders than former members of our foreign service.

Update: The Hindu has provided a correction today (and sent me a letter yesterday pointng to this). But it has a mysterious statement which says "The third, 16th and 17th paragraphs also referred to the Ayatollah in the present tense, leaving many readers confused." Excuse me but the readers were not confused, it was their distinguished columnist who was. In fact it could well have been the present Supreme Leader Khamenei, see Rahul Siddharthan's update. Most confusing...why doesn't Natwar Singh just retire gracefully?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Binayak Sen and Gandhi

A grave miscarriage of justice by the Chattisgarh Government was recently overturned by the Supreme Court of India when they ordered the release of Dr. Binayak Sen on bail after two years of incarceration without even a hearing.

Notwithstanding the fact that his long incarceration was a blatantly illegal act of the Chattisgarh Government, I must confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Dr Sen and his pronouncements. His claim to fame seemed to arise more from this illegal act of the Government than from anything he had done which was exceptional - other than being a good doctor serving the poor and needy in these under developed regions of the country and as a human rights activist. (There are many others who would score higher on that count). Recently Binayak Sen gave an interview to Tehelka magazine. The interview is notable for being fairly balanced and non controversial. However, one particular phrase struck me very forcefully. He says he is averse to violence and then immediately adds as a rider that this aversion does not stem from being a "Gandhi romantic (I’ve always been slightly repelled by his bania personality)" . (My emphasis).

Now, I think it is fair to say that the Mahatma was no saint (he never claimed to be one). There were too many unsaintly facets to his character -- his autocratic methods in getting his way in the Congress, his behaviour towards his family, his quirky and eccentric views on sex and celibacy, his extreme views on prohibition...one could go on. Even his most devoted disciple Jawaharlal Nehru chose not to follow all his diktats in independent India. But to call his personality repellent is clearly, in my opinion going overboard, and that too, not for any of the reasons above but for being a bania (a pejorative caste description), shows a somewhat unprepossessing side to Binayak Sen's personality. I am particularly disturbed by this because in the past I have heard some of my CPI(M) friends also describe the Mahatma as 'that bania'.

I do not wish to read more than necessary into what was presumably a casual remark, and he could well have been 'misquoted' or 'quoted out of context'. However, even Binayak Sen's admirers will admit that it does not leave one with a very pleasant taste in the mouth.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Urinals in Schiphol

Warning: This post is not for those who have Victorian mores of propriety

Recently I passed through Dharavi...oops! sorry, I meant Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Contrary to what you may have heard, it's a perfectly modern and sparkling airport, with one difference, from all others. Every urinal has an image of a fly etched into it, near the outlet. All nit-pickers will now want to know whether I went and checked all of them. Well, no, but I did actually check a few, (hopefully when nobody was looking) and indeed they all had it.

Of course, as it turned out, this is not new. The net, as I have found with many other things, even has pictures of these. (Did you check out the site name?) The idea being, in case you haven't guessed it, that it psychologically works to improve the, er, aim. (Or simply put - if a man sees a fly, he aims at it). Authorities at Schiphol claim that the flies etched on the urinals "saves us a lot of money on cleaning" and reduces "spillage" by 80%. I would take the percentages with a grain of salt, but there you have it.

As one of my colleagues recently reminded me, in college we used to have signs which said, "We aim to please, You aim, too". This is merely the graphical version of this admonition.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Name Boards in Tamil !

A recent news item in the Times of India reports that "The Labour department will strictly enforce the rule that names of shops and commercial establishments in the state should be displayed predominantly in Tamil, labour minister T M Anbarasan has said. If traders want other languages on display, then it should be Tamil first, followed by English and an optional language."

So why is this news and why this post? Well, it isn't actually. The Hindu has ignored this news item altogether. Most name boards in TN and in Chennai are in two languages, Tamil and English and the labour department is just reiterating a rule that has always existed and has mostly been followed. Even well known American brand outlets like Levi's, Lee, McDonald, KFC take the trouble to transcribe their names in the Tamil script on their boards. It is taken as the natural order of things that signs and name boards should be in the local language, in addition to perhaps another 'link' language. There has been no hand wringing by non Tamilians about chauvinism, no heart wrenching blog posts have appeared about how the culture of the place is being destroyed by local language and culture chauvinism, in other words, it's a non event.

How refreshingly different from Mumbai! Here is an example. All over a name. And here is another. All over a script and the local language.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Suriname food

Recently, I had my first taste of Suriname food, not in Suriname regrettably, but, as you might guess, in Amsterdam.

Suriname for those of you who didn't major in geography, is a small country in Northern South America. The majority of its population, around 37%, is of East Indian origin (Bihar and Eastern UP) and a majority of the Surinamese who migrated to Holland after Suriname became independent, are of this stock (more than 320,000 as of 2005). As a result Surinamese food, which is only second in popularity to Indonesian food in the Netherlands, is heavily influenced by Indian cuisine - in fact to a certain extent it is Indian food. The Surinamese are very well assimilated into Dutch society (unlike, for example, the Moroccans) and many players in the Dutch soccer team are proud of their Surinamese origins.

The most popular are the Roti platters. which are served with a couple of vegetables (say potato and string beans) and a meat dish, made somewhat in the Indian restaurant style of a fairly spicy and oily masala gravy. The roti is like the Indian one but the ones I had were more like the large and thin Roomali roti, made more like a paratha in oil rather than on a dry tawa. Suriname food has dishes also made of Cassava, owing their existence to the African origins of many Surinamese, but these are less popular than the Indian ones. The food is somewhat rough and ready, not in the nature of the more sophisticated Indonesian restaurants, but it's popular with the locals, the white Dutch as well as Africans, Indians and other ethnic minorities. Interestingly, they provide no cutlery and you are expected to eat with your fingers, scooping up the food with a piece of roti. Predictably, and unlike any European restaurant, there is a sink in the dining area to wash your hand and rinse your mouth.

I have met Surinamese earlier too, in the Netherlands, in buses and trams. They all speak a kind of formalised Hindi at home (learnt from their elders and from Hindi textbooks that are still imported from India and completely comprehensible -- not a pidgin variety). This is remarkable considering that they are all descendants of Indians from UP and Bihar dating from the late 19th century imported as contract labourers. (Some of this migration is described in Amitav Ghosh's recent book Sea of Poppies). In fact the Surinamese of Indian origin in Holland speak Dutch and Hindi as their main languages, and only the well educated speak English. Most of them have never been to India since they obviously have no contacts after almost 150 years. One of the tell-tale signs of their Bihari and generally Eastern Indian origins is something called Phulauri -- similar to the Indian Chatu. Chatu is a very heavy patty made from boiled and mashed yellow split pea, popular in Bihar and amongst the very poor in Eastern India (rickshaw pullers in Kolkata live mainly on chatu - it's cheap and gives then a burst of energy that they need for their back-breaking job). As far as I know, it doesn't exist anywhere outside that belt.

Overall, an interesting sociological and culinary experience. The world is indeed, to use a cliche, such a small place.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tiananmen Square -- Twenty Years on

The massacre of students at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 is all but forgotten. Goes to show that if you give people enough to eat and a comfortable life, they won't worry about all these pesky revolutionary ideas like freedom of speech, democracy and all mumbo jumbo. Indifference is the word here. At the Chronicle Review, a walk through the last twenty years since Tiananmen happened.

And here is a view from the other side -- one of the soldiers told to clear the square, even if it meant firing into the crowd.