Saturday, June 09, 2018

Letters not sent

The other day, I came across a bunch of sealed envelopes. There were stamps too! I recognized my writing even though it has changed since, like an old friend who has adopted new fashion trends, and thought about the time when I curled the letters and crossed my Ts differently. What else has changed, other than my handwriting?

I am still in touch with all the friends to whom I promised cards but did not make it to the post box, so that's a good thing for starters. As I pushed those cards away, I realized that I have not written a letter to anyone from around the same period that I did not post those letters. I used to love writing letters and I genuinely wonder what made me stop. 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Revival and Measured Thoughts

The urge to write is nothing but the need to reach out. Authors who have books published to their name might have it easy, with readers actively reaching out to them, but for someone like me who writes mainly to create fellowship with thoughts, alleviate personal preoccupations, and find coherence as I type out each word, writing then becomes an exercise to understand oneself without the intervention of any gate-keeping mechanism. I am confident that my writing will soon pick pace and that this will again become a vibrant community that brought immense joy and creative expression to me. As I shared on another blog, the theme of the first two, or three, posts will be 'Measured Thoughts.' I have been away for a long time, a lot has happened, and yet, I do not wish to tell it all :) Let's see how this goes.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Sanitary pads on big screen

Arunachalam Muruganantham revolutionised the production of affordable sanitary pads. The film Pad Man will depict his journeyArunachalam Muruganantham is a simple man. He doesn’t come from a privileged background. After his father died in a road accident, his mother toiled in the fields as a daily wager to feed her four children. Arunachalam took up jobs as a farm labourer, a welder, a yam dealer to chip in to the family’s income. When he got married to Shanthi, he was possessed with a deep sense of love and protectiveness. One day, the new husband saw his wife doing something rather suspicious. She was scouting for dirty rags on the sly. After much prodding, his shy young wife revealed that she used those pieces of cloth during her menstrual cycles. A shocked Arunachalam asked her why she did not use the sanitary pads available in the market. Pat came the reply. If she paid money for those, there wouldn’t be money to buy milk and vegetables.This conversation set the young man on a mission to impress his wife and find a way of making affordable sanitary pads for women in rural India. The journey was long and arduous. Arunachalam was stubborn and persisted even after his wife, mother, friends and family left him and he was told to leave the village.
His perseverance bore fruit and today, the pad-making machine he made sells for around Rs. 75,000 and is used in 23 states across India. His invention hasn’t just opened a market of sanitary pads and given employment to women, it has also been monumental in spreading menstrual hygiene in rural areas. Arunachalam has given talks at IIT Delhi, IIT Mumbai, IIM Ahmedabad and at Harvard University. His family reconciled with him, the village accepted him back. Now, a biographical film starring leading actors from the industry, is set to hit screens on Feb 9.
Akshay Kumar is playing the lead role – as Arunachalam – in the film Pad man set for release on February 9. The internet is viral with photos of celebrities and common people posing with a sanitary pad. The campaign reinforces the central idea of the film that the taboo revolving around menstruation needs to be wiped off from our society.  During the course of his research, Arunachalam discovered to his utter disgust the women in villages, or even in urban areas for want to money, use newspapers, dry leaves and even ash during their cycles. Those few who use cloth don’t often dry them in sunlight because of shame and so there is no proper disinfection. While these details don’t make for an exactly pleasurable reading, remember that these are real grassroots problems that still trouble unprivileged women month after month. A 2011 survey by A C Nielson found that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads.
A major barrier in spreading hygiene awareness is the taboo associated with menstruation in our cultures. Menstrual exclusion is still prevalent and often enforced. Most communities tend to exclude women out of the family’s daily routine for the period of the cycle. Strict rules are adhered to which leave the women feeling left out and lonely. In Nepal, menstruating women are expected to leave their house and stay by themselves in “menstrual sheds” outside the village. They are susceptible to unfavourable weather conditions, attacks by wild animals and vulnerable to assaults by men in such a situation. Age-old customs, enshrined in religious institutions bolster the taboo and exclusion of women.
In 2015, the issue of menstrual exclusion made national when a priest of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, reportedly talked to the media about a machine to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple. The temple worships a celibate deity and doesn’t allow entry to women in the reproductive age. The open letter by a young woman called Nikita Azad and her Facebook campaign “Happy to Bleed” became viral. The Sabrimala controversy brought the talks of menstrual exclusion on a national platform. Women (mostly Hindu) are forced to follow strict rules for three days that often end up making them feel like outcasts in many families in rural and urban India. The life and struggles of Arunachalam and the recognition of his efforts in India and across the globe has helped change things. In 2016, Arunachalam received the Padma Shri to applaud his work in the field of menstrual hygiene and innovative product design that has made affordable sanitary pad manufacturing and sales possible.
Now, the film directed by the talented R Balki (whose past successes include Cheeni Kum and Paa) takes forward a crucial theme of Akshay Kumar’s body of work. Kumar’s last film was also on a topic pushed under the carpet – need of toilets. The government has made it a priority in its Swaccha Bharat mission, and many cynics wrote off ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ as an outright propaganda. It takes guts, however, to invest money and energy in a project that is guaranteed to be ridiculed and laughed off at the onset. I can’t think of other actors who could put themselves on the line like Akshay Kumar did by being a part of the film. The appeal of Bollywood still reigns supreme and this mode of story-telling gets a far bigger – and engrossed – audience than other media at least in our country. A film like Pad man, with lead characters that also include the talented Radhika Apte and Sonal Kapoor, may be more successful in facilitating introspection and change than public service advertisements.

First appeared in The Goan Everyday


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Decency trumps birth control, safe sex

Given India's population surge, greater awareness is more urgently needed than debating questions of decency

The government, in an advisory issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on Monday, strictly asked TV channels not to air advertisements selling and promoting condoms during prime time. The advisory invoked Rule 7 (7) and Rule 7 (8) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, banning an “advertisement which endangers the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy practices or shows them begging or in an undignified or indecent manner.” It further states: “.. All TV channels are hereby advised not to telecast the advertisements of condoms which are for a particular age group and could be indecent/inappropriate for viewing by children. Indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment shall be avoided in all advertisements."
The development reportedly follows a request made by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) earlier this month to the I&B ministry to take a call on such ads and their telecast timing. Consequently, the ministry swiftly responded: “It has been brought to the notice of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that some channels carry advertisements of condoms repeatedly which are alleged to be indecent especially for children. Such advertisements may be telecast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to avoid exposure of such material to children."
Population control and safe sex are an undeniable goal of the country teeming with hyperactive youth. A recent Times of India article quotes research published in The Lancet, a respected scientific journal, that claims that 1.6 crore abortions take place in India annually, with 81% carried out at homes, mostly with the help of off-the-counter pills. Take another example: In September, a new condom advertisement, released just before the Hindu festival Navratri, drew protests from a Surat-based group. The ad, featuring Sunny Leone, was displayed on hoardings and carried a message in Gujarati “play but with love” that obviously hinted at the nine-nights long dancing festival. Of course, cultural pride was at loggerheads with the messaging and a city-based group Hindu Yuva Vahini staged a protest; the particular ad was soon pulled back. So what next is on the cards - surrogate advertising for condoms? 
Coming back to the advisory, if the issue was to "safeguard" children from indecent exposure, there is an ocean of information out there, other than television, which can evade all types of censorship unless a blanket ban and trip back to the pre-Internet era is on mind. These are the perils of having being technologically advanced and culturally adapted. Why just target condom commercials? Because they deal with the very pertinent aspect of pleasure and reproduction - and because discussing the same is still not considered kosher? Well, here's some news - advertisements of many other products are sensual in nature and put women as the object of desire even though what they are attempting to sell is a far take from something pretty useful as condoms - chocolates, mango juices, ice creams, deodorants, perfumes, underwear, soft drinks, even inverters and cement(!). 
Given the examples above, the government's move, in targeting condom ads alone, is questionable. On the other hand, if it were to perform a sweeping censorship of whatever is deemed "indecent" based on its mysterious, subjective standards - and factor in the brutal crimes reported 24/7 from all parts of the country - we might have a drastically limited list of things to see on television. It is a rather ambiguous process of determining what is "decent."
India's population surge, spike in sexual assaults and child abuse cannot be denied. Greater awareness is more urgently required than debating questions of decency. Of course, a prime-time ban is not a solution. But, let's move away from the ban a bit and focus on the ads by themselves. Here's the thing, if we leave aside the moral-policing laced decision, and consider the type of advertisements that exist on Indian television - it is undeniable that most commercials in general - and condom advertising in particular - has focussed just on erotica and sensuality. The same issues and flip sides that are raised now to reject the ban, unfortunately, they aren't sufficiently raised by the commercials either.
When it comes to condom ads, there are hardly any glimpses of responsible messaging that promote the responsibility, safety and birth-control aspects. The need for being more open, by portraying women as choice-makers is also lacking. While contraceptive ads do picture coy women intent on respectful family planning, condoms have culturally and commercially been assigned a strictly male domain. This, when the product is by far the only popular scientific way to safeguard both partners from sexually transmitted diseases. Women are vulnerable from a health stand-point if they were only to rely on contraceptives. But, how many women do actually go and purchase a pack on their own. That would be too "indecent" even if it were at the cost of their well-being.
The idea of "decency" is in play with the notion that it is alright, even macho, if men get into a pharmacy to buy a pack of condoms. But, more often than not there are scandalised judgements if a woman does so. A YouTube video captured the comments and discussions that followed a woman's attempt to buy condoms. The sexist comments, which bring up the question of decency time and again in the conversation, completely overlook that fact that sex involves two people and both have equal rights to ensure their safety. 

- First published in The Goan Everyday


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dignity for senior citizens

Even with the help of 248 NGOs engaged in 314 projects, only 18225 elderly people benefitted from welfare schemes

A news item had a stressful, unsettling effect on me last week. Of all the news pouring in, this news hit me the most, because of the sheer emotional corrosiveness that it depicted. A 36-year-old man pushed his 64-year-old ailing mother from the terrace of his building in Rajkot, Gujarat, in cold blood because, apparently, “he was fed up of her illness.” A video clipping, that was graphic in its own way, shows how Sandip Nathwani calmly walks his wobbling mother out of the house, nudges her up the stairs. Moments later, is seeing returning alone; he nonchalantly removes his slippers outside the flat and enters in with stomach-churning aloofness. It was as if he had just thrown a garbage bag out and came dusting dirt off his hands.
This episode made me dig deeper into the kind of welfare services that the state can provide for people with children they hoped they never had. Unfortunately, because of the social stigma, family prestige and the general social fabric of our country, many elderly continue to stay in abusive, life-threatening conditions instead of walking out and seeing help. This attitude may have started a vicious cycle of shedding responsibility because the state-supported welfare units are few and far between. The number of beneficiaries is abysmal.

According to Population Census 2011 there are nearly 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India; 53 million females and 51 million males. A report titled Elderly in India – Profile and Programmes 2016 released by The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation throws light on the demographics of the senior citizen population the country. It also talks about various government schemes available for them, however, the statistics provided regarding the number of beneficiaries highlights serious concerns about the efficacy and outreach of the programmes. Indeed, one particular observation made in the introductory section of the report is objectionable in its insinuating tone that, in so many cleverly masked words, reduces senior citizens as being an economic and social liability. The said paragraph from the report is reproduced below:

“Social security spending of Government also increases with the increase of old age population. Due to increased longevity of life, pension bills increase. On the other hand, lesser people of working age means lower number of working people leading to lower tax base and lower tax collection. Economy grows slowly as less money is available for spending on things that help economy grow. A sizeable portion of money is spent on meeting requirement of old age population. Government, thus, has to face the double whammy. On one side the resources are shrunk, on the other, expenditure is increased.”
The above paragraph reads like a list of expenses that are a burden to the government. It is as if the state is rather doing the citizens a favour by even trying to do something for its elderly population in the first place. I was shocked by the tone of the above paragraph. If nothing else, it clearly shows a lack of commitment to bring dignity and comfort to the lives of our elderly. Statistics provided in reference to the various welfare schemes reaffirm the alarming state of affairs.

The National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP) was announced in January 1999 to reaffirm the commitment of the State to ensure the well-being of the older persons. The Policy envisages state support to ensure financial and food security, health care, shelter and other needs of older persons, equitable share in development, protection against abuse and exploitation, and availability of services to improve the quality of their lives. On paper, the list of projects carried out under NPOP is exhaustive: maintenance of old age homes; respite care homes; running of multi service centres, mobile medicare unit, day care centres for the elderly with dementia, centres for old widows, physiotherapy clinics, help lines and counselling, forming senior citizen associations, volunteer bureau for elderly – the list goes on. The question is, how many of these nice-sounding services are actually made available and how many elderly benefit from them.  The figures are disappointing.
The number of NGOs assisted in 2012-13 was 296; number of projects assisted was 496 and there were 30775 beneficiaries. In 2013-14, the number of NGOs assisted dropped down to 255, number of projects fell to 413 and the number of beneficiaries reduced to 27913. In 2014-15 even though the number of NGOs engaged (248) remained more or less the same as the previous years and 314 projects were assigned for the welfare of senior citizens, the number of beneficiaries showed an alarming drop – the services reached only 18225 elderly people in the entire country.

Only 18225 elderly people – out a demographic of 10.4 crore elderly persons (assuming the population is same as in the population census of 2011) - translates into the welfare schemes reaching only 0.02% senior citizens. How shameful is this? Talks of Indian culture, where the elderly are supposed to be treated with respect and tender care all vanish in thin air. What a shame that officially, on paper, the government has admitted that it reached out to only 0.02% of the senior citizen population? Agreed, that not every old individual may be in need of state aid, but even after factoring that in, the reports clearly indicate that there is a huge vacuum in providing services for the elderly.

This column first appeared in The Goan Everyday in January 2018


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Jihad against love, actually

It is not just inter-faith marriages that are riddled with scrutiny from outsiders. Inter-caste marriages still meet with staunch opposition

On Saturday, members of a Hindu fringe group called Hindu Yuva Vahini beat up a Muslim youth and his two brothers, allegedly in the premises of the Baghpat court in Uttar Pradesh. Video footage shows the men dragging Kaleem outside the court, roughing him up even as police stand by in mute mode, and later rejoicing after packing off the Kaleem and his alleged girlfriend into a police jeep. The woman, who hails from Punjab, is reportedly a Hindu and had eloped with Kaleem, following which, her parents had filed a case of abduction. Hindu Yuva Vahini members have indulged in cases of moral policing in the past. They also take pride in their active roles against "love jihad" and saving the pride of Hindu girls who they say are "lured" into relationships for religious conversion. 

Filing an abduction case is often a classic strategy even if the woman is a major and it is evident that she has left of free will. A case of abduction is promptly registered. Once the couple is caught, the police often happily takes up the role of marriage counsellors - the man is probably roughed up and the woman shamed in the name of family's prestige. Such a scenario is commonplace all over India. The case of Hadiya, a young Hindu woman from Kerala who converted to Islam, made headlines for a better part of December last year. The idea of a 24-year-old being returned to her father's "custody" by a high court raised questions about patriarchal leaning even in the judiciary.

There are legal provisions for inter-faith marriage where in there is no religious conversion for either spouse. In spite of legal provisions, there are instances when either spouse converts to accept the other's religion before marriage. Whether this is under social pressure, like many argue it is, or by free choice, religious conversion shouldn't throw doubts on the intentions of either the bride and the groom, because the conversion also points to a conscious choice to remain together and that the couple puts personal preferences over religious obligations. Far-right groups cannot tolerate such choices. As soon as they get a whiff of an inter-faith affair, they take it upon themselves to separate the couple. 

According to a recent Times of India report, these fringe groups have a widespread network of informers and "depend on a large and intricate mesh of informers, from bus drivers to waiters, advocates, farmers and sometimes even labourers to alert them on inter-faith affairs." There is rampant hooliganism which makes for good visuals that are promptly picked up and repeatedly telecast by news these fringe groups engage in such activities just for the sake of footage and free publicity? As they say, any publicity is good publicity. But, at what expense? Which religion says that separating two people who have made up their mind to be together is an honourable act?

It is not just inter-faith marriages that are riddled with scrutiny from outsiders. Inter-caste marriages still meet with staunch opposition. Cases of honour killings abound. The 2016 Marathi film, Sairat, dealt with the issue and was a resounding hit. With the rise of love vigilantism more and more tales of love end up being ruthlessly silenced. An optimist would like to believe that there would never be anything that would go against the honourable principles of love. But, such a utopian world doesn't exist. Even in the most civilised of kingdoms, discrimination and persecution has existed when it came to accepting the exercise of free will of two human beings in being drawn to each other and consequently, deciding to stay together (The iron-walled institution of marriage, and the concept of 'forever and after' as they dreamily say, is a relatively recent innovation in the human species). 

History shows that the act of two individuals falling in love has always been the subject of opposition, criticism, wicked plots of subversion, revenge or murder. In fact, folklore and legend the world over thrives on such tragedies. Take the legend of Heer Ranjha popular in Punjab. Heer fell in love with Ranjha, and predictably, her family opposed. The couple continued to meet in secret. A river separated their villages. On the night they were to elope, Ranjha waited for Heer at the other end of a river. Heer didn't know how to swim and was to get across the river by floating with the support of an up-turned earthen pot. Heer's sister-in-law got to know about their plan and changed Heer's earthen pot with an unbaked one. That night, when Heer tried to cross the river, the unbaked pot began to give away. Clumps of mud dissolved in the river and Heer drowned. Ranjha waited at the other end, not aware of Heer's fate, and is believed to have died waiting. 

Is human race sadistic when it comes to love? When there is an opportunity to let love blossom, we turn away, resist and even obstruct the union. But, years later, we epitomise these same lovers made miserable by the same prejudiced mindsets that existed then, as they exist now. Stories of unrequited love abound. Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez has famously noted that it is not happiness, but unrequited love, that is the basis of all literature of the world. Honestly, I would just prefer happy couples than having grumpy writers plagued by unrequited love churning one soul-stirring tragedy after other. 

*This column was first published in The Goan Everyday