So, since I have glossophilia, this news is something I always look forward to: OED i.e. the Oxford English Dictionary has come out with its list of new words added this year. And every year round, a couple of Indian expressions find their rightful place and it helps us continue to look on to the Englishman with regard. This time, Aiyoh has made it to the hallowed rolls. With another discovery looming. Backstory: I’m a Gujju who finds it utterly normal to utter Aiyoh when expressing shock, awe, or surprise. And that’s not normal at all. So when my fave Aiyoh made it to OED, imagine my sense of vindication (Aiyoh in OED) ! Then imagine my sense of disappointment upon finding out that all this time I had been speaking Chinese. Kudos to my multilingual self but still! Turns out, Aiyoh is of Mandarin origin and Aiyah, Cantonese. So, quite literally the most used word in the South, almost like a punctuation mark, isn’t Indian at all. BTW – glossophile is one who loves languages. Which brings me to another observation: Almost all of our languages have some entirely versatile words that can mean an entire range of emotions, and interpretation of which depends on who employs it, how, and when. Like Achcha in Hindi. Achcha literally means ‘good’. As in, How are things? – Achcha hai! As in… Achaha, so you think you’re so smart! I’ll show you! | Achcha? Is that what happened? | Achcha, I thought so. | Achcha, okay, I’ll do it. So, basically, it’s a reflection of a very pluralistic culture here. These are the Indian words that made it: Langra (the Mango variety), Tithi (dates in the lunar calendar) Very much like the head wobble we Indians do, which also could mean anything from okay to good, to yes, to I don’t know, my bad… and whatever else you want. Are there any such words in your language that mean a whole spectrum of things?
I have to thank the current watchman of the Censor Board of Film Certification in India Pahlaj Nihalani for pointing me to the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ (Lipstick henceforth) because otherwise, I might have avoided it. Just like me, I am sure a lot many women (and men) were egged on to watch this movie after the fact that Mr. Nihalani had previously refused to certify it because he found it ‘lady-oriented’ and that it had dared to portray women’s ‘fantasy above life’. When this controversy erupted, many memes emerged on social media, challenging Mr. Nihalani for using ‘lady-oriented’ as an explanation. After watching Lipstick last week, I want to ask him what led him to think it REALLY was ‘lady-oriented’? Was it Plabita Borthakur playing Rihanna Abidi, a typical college-going girl-next-door desperately struggling to fit in with the well-heeled ‘hep’ crowd? If so, I can’t even start counting the number of movies that have such characters. Or maybe it was Aahana Kumra playing Leela, and her muddled love life – engaged to be married to one and in love (and to Mr. Nihalani’s chagrin, a sexual relationship) with another. Sure, we have truly come a long way in our portrayal of sex scenes, gone are the days when you saw flower bulbs slowly siding up to occupy the frame. Or, if it was a low-budget movie, then the camera panned up to reveal a ceiling fan. Nowadays, sex is portrayed somewhat like it really is, busy, noisy, shabby, and often not pretty. Was that the issue here? I think not. For then, so many recent movies, just to name a few, Delhi Belly, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Ram Leela, etc. wouldn’t have had it easy. But they did. So it has to be something else. Could it be that Leela actually desired another man, and had no qualms about it? But then, I have to ask, what separates this Leela of Lipstick and that Leela of Ram Leela? So no, it probably wasn’t that either. In any case, how is this lady-oriented? Both the Leelas were all about the men they loved. Extremely comfortable about stepping outside of their comfort zones and vocal about what they wanted. Now that could be a problem but the Sanskari Bollywood has moved on. Why not CBFC? Could it have been Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shireen Aslam – who has a secret life? Don’t get carried away. She is *just* a door-to-door saleswoman selling household novelties, nothing more nefarious than that. But, she must hide this from her Saudi-return husband who freely indulges his sexual peccadilloes – nice and plying with his girlfriend when outside and forcing himself upon his wife when at home. I wonder which part of Shireen’s story is ‘lady-oriented’ – A careerwoman in hiding? A woman trapped in a bad marriage? A victim of marital rape? Grimly enough, both have their precedents in Bollywood. Shireen’s lady-oriented life is all about fending off attacks from her husband – emotional, psychological, and sexual. Isn’t this the opposite of lady-oriented? Finally, could it be Ratna Pathak Shah’s Usha Parmar, a much older woman, a widow, known in the community simply as buaji? Buaji likes to be in charge of her business. She is a matriarch, and she has furtive desires. She usually explores these through her secret stash of books – a Hindi cousin of Mills & Boon, until she accidentally stumbles upon an object, a much younger man. She takes to projecting her desires on him. Know what? Maybe that’s the real problem. In our industry, only men are allowed to go after younger women. Like in Buddha hoga tera baap, shaukeen, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Cheeni Kum, right back to Baton Baton Mein, even Pati, Patni, aur Woh, we can talk about love but only when men need it from younger women. All the old women should just giddy up for a session of bhajan-kirtan. Except when they are in the Barjatya genre of family films – Maine Pyar Kiya, DDLJ… have had such aunty characters shredded to comic relief, ridiculously tip-toeing after old men who are themselves sidekicks to the hero’s sidekicks. Usha Parmar isn’t that aunty. She’s different. She’s above Shireen, Leela, and Rihanna, who ultimately toe the line even with their minor acts of subversion thrown in the face of authority. It was only Usha who had picked up the books with her ‘Lipstick wale sapne‘, and later on the phone, got her hair dyed, slipped into a sleeveless blouse. She was the only woman in a group of four who had her ‘Lipstickwale Sapne‘. Maybe that’s why her fall was also the greatest. So, how is this film lady-oriented, really? All four women end up stepping out of bounds of tradition and societal restriction, all four women get punished for their transgressions. Heck, this film is so lady-oriented, not one single frame could pass the Bechdel Test. It is all about the men, actually. And mostly, the kind you don’t want to see. It’s not lady-oriented, silly.
Today, the Supreme Court of India upheld the death penalty awarded to all the four rapists – Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma, and Mukesh Singh, who, along with one Ram Singh who killed himself in the jail, and Mohammed Afroz, the juvenile who was the cruelest and most brutal… among the lot of six devilish men who raped and destroyed Jyoti Singh Pandey that horrible, fateful night in Delhi on December 16, 2012. I am not concerning myself with all those who have erupted over how death penalty should be abolished in a country considering itself a civilised one. This is because I am yet to attain the large-heartedness required to view such a person from the lens of human rights. Anyway, Indian law allows death penalty only in the ‘rarest of the rare’ cases and this one has been deemed as such. This is what the Supreme Court has said: (link: Nirbhaya case highlights – Indian Express) “The casual manner with which she was treated and the devilish manner in which they played with her identity and dignity is humanly inconceivable. It sounds like a story from a different world where humanity has been treated with irreverence.” My question is, isn’t every case of rape and sexual exploitation an instance of treatment of the other (women, children – girls AND boys) in a devilish manner in which the perpetrator plays with their identity and dignity, which is humanly inconceivable? Doesn’t every such instance sound like a story from a different world where humanity has been treated with irreverence? The court also said while upholding the death sentence that the offence had created a tsunami of shock. I still think that the above statement reflects the imperfect way in which justice is perceived in our society. What if this tsunami had not come? Would the crime have become any less devilish? Would Jyoti have suffered any less than she did? Which moves me to ask another question: HOW do we really perceive sexual crimes in our society? Is it the fact that so many people in the society got all shook up by this one crime that made all the difference in looking at how severe it really was – trying very hard to set aside knowledge that they inserted a rod into her body and pulled out her vital organs? So, is it the number of people that matters? What if Jyoti and her friend that night hadn’t been left for the dead on one of Delhi’s busy roads and had instead been found in some far-off town or village? What happens to all such cases of extreme brutality but diminished proximity to the Capital? I should not need to utter the word ‘extreme’ to qualify brutality here. Sexual abuse is the very worst form of abuse and there can’t really be a continuum or a scale of suffering or humiliation one undergoes; there may be for the sake of technicalities, which may exist for the sake of a society that finds it hard to choose the appropriate response to such crimes but that’s exactly is the issue here! – we’re back to the drawing board. Where does the mischief end and abuse begin – and abuse end and horror begin – and horror end and devilishness begin? So, think again, is it the numbers that matter? Is it about the large number of people feeling shocked, disgusted, angry and feeling fearful and unsafe? Why is it that this instance had people up in arms at protests across the country while hundreds of rapes occur everyday without this level of brutality but it is rape nonetheless – if you can imagine a non-brutal way that would be a travesty. Isn’t this a societal flaw? A loophole that makes such dangerous elements as these six men feel a lot safer than their victims? Along with the judgement, apparently, the court also had a few words on the ‘situation’ regarding the society. The judgement Link here itself gives the following statistics: A percentage change of 110.5% in the cases of crime against women has been witnessed over the past decade (2005 to 2015), meaning thereby that crime against women has more than doubled in a decade. An overall crime 318 rate under the head, ‘crime against women’ was reported as 53.9% in 2015, with Delhi UT at the top spot. And the following commentary: Stringent legislation and punishments alone may not be sufficient for fighting increasing crimes against women. In our tradition bound society, certain attitudinal change and change in the mind-set is needed to respect women and to ensure gender justice. Right from childhood years’ children ought to be sensitized to respect women. A child should be taught to respect women in the society in the same way as he is taught to respect men. Gender equality should be made a part of the school curriculum. The school teachers and parents should be trained, not only to conduct regular personality building and skill enhancing exercise, but also to keep a watch on the actual behavioural pattern of the children so as to make them gender sensitized. This is what I wonder about. Culturally, we take a very serious view of rape. But our view is extremely flawed. It is consistently victim-shaming. This view is reflected in the fact that for centuries we have chosen to hide our girls and curtail the freedoms of our women rather than let them live freely. We treat rape victims with ostracisation, humiliation, and a huge lack of empathy, individual, social, and sadly, institutional. Our view needs to focus on the perpetrators. What makes these men want to do such things? What makes them think they can go ahead and do it? What makes them think they can get away with it? Wait. Scratch that last question – the answer to this is completely obvious. Our policing and judicial systems, and of course our political class, should be made to answer. The problem lies with our men. Only with our men. It is not about the victim. Who is Nirbhaya? Nirbhaya was a woman who was brutally gang-raped on December 16, 2012, who succumbed to her injuries 2 weeks later in a Singapore hospital. And who is Jyoti Singh Pandey? Jyoti was a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and daughter of Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh, one of the three children in a family from Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. Her parents sold their ancestral land to make sure their daughter, along with their sons, had equal access to education. She always wanted to be a doctor and serve people. Yes, she died a victim of a brutal, cruel gang-rape. Let’s not hotfoot around her identity. Maybe we have this the wrong way up in our society. This is what her father had said earlier: “We want the world to know her real name. My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.” Let’s face it. This is damaged men who know nothing but a perverted world view. For them, anyone who is less powerful than them is just a place, a theatre, a thing where their acts can be carried out. They and their less active variants – individuals or institutions that aid them to act around in our society pose an ever greater threat to our safety. This is not about teaching men to “respect” women. This is about teaching men how to be human. Sadly, most of these aren’t. And the quantum of punishment is another travesty – max 7 years life imprisonment. Which is rarely given. That’s why it falls upon us women to become ‘nirbhayas‘ and ‘daminis‘ and all. Because we simply do not have a choice. This shouldn’t be Jyoti’s fate after all she has been through. She should be Jyoti Singh Pandey.
The news of a New Zealand river being granted legal personhood by its Parliament was as widely shared in the #socialmedia as it was treated with a sense of subdued wonder. But, at least it wasn’t scoffed at. The river is called Whanganui. And it is now legally a PERSON – as in, it has the same rights as those of a New Zealand citizen. Apparently, this battle for Whanganui’s rights is 160 years old and New Zealand’s native people, the Maori, who fought it, sang the traditional waita folk song to celebrate this win. A personhood for Whanganui isn’t just about solving a legal tangle, it’s about identity, ecology, and human history above all else. It’s also about something else: Confluence of Maori heritage with ancient Hindu (Indian) heritage and cultural history. According to the article, the local Maori people have always recognized the Whanganui ― which they call Te Awa Tupua ― as “kin” and an “indivisible and living whole”. They view their own health as inextricably linked to the health of the river. There’s even a Maori saying that says: “I am the river and the river is me.” Indians still call the river Ganga, fashionably contorted in English as The Ganges, Ganga Maiya or Maa Ganga. Maiya and Maa both words mean ‘mother’. Ganga maiya also has very many mythological stories about her. She finds a mention in the Rig Veda, the oldest of ancient Indian scriptures. She is also the holiest, purest, and most sacred of India’s rivers. Ganga isn’t alone in her personhood and her divinity. She is joined in confluence by Yamuna and Saraswati, all three of whom merge into one another at the beautiful Triveni sangam (confluence of three rivers) at Prayag (meaning confluence, also a way of referring to Allahabad, a major city in Uttar Pradesh) in Allahabad. Whanganui’s personhood entitles her to ‘$80 million in damages as well as $30 million to improve the new “person’s” health and $1 million to set up a framework to represent the river’s interests’ (link to the HuffPost article). Her interests will now be represented in court by two guardians from the indigenous Maori community. While the modern New Zealand embraces its ancient culture despite its modernity, modern India has tried its utmost and continues to distance itself from that very culture that makes it great. As Indians, we need to keep in mind that when Ganga was Ganga maiya and not The Ganges, pollution and dams were not routine. That for us too ‘I am the river and the river is me’ was as true and pure as the life-giving powers of Ganga’s waters. But, all went downhill when Ganga Maiya became The Ganges, and commission after commission has failed to stem its decline into a highly polluted water body. If we want to become a modern country, we should do it on our own terms – by reclaiming our cultural identity. Our ancient cultures have survived because we learnt to live WITH our surrounding environment and ecology, rather than exploiting it. Whanganui’s legal personhood resurrects the need for this approach in our modern societies. Our emotional involvement with our environment is what makes us truly human, not the cutting off of it. Yes, we think rationally but our motivations have to come from a place of feeling and not logic. The sooner we realise this as Indians, the better it will be for our generations to come. Let us accept and embrace who we are as a people. Let others not guilt us into mocking our own cultural identity that made us valuable enough for them to come and ransack, loot, pillage, and rule us for control over what we had once built. Let’s join in the spirit of the Maori today…