Friday, November 26, 2010


Today marks the second anniversary of ‘26/11.’ Terror in India has a long history - 26/11 was a tragedy unlike any other, but it wasn’t our first.

Many of today’s twenty something Indians, and indeed, most citizens of Bombay, have grown up with terrorism forming part of the backdrop of their lives. My own first memory of experiencing an unease I could not fully articulate dates back to the riots that followed the 1993 Bombay blasts. While I was not directly impacted in any way, I could sense that something in the city had changed. I emerged from those turbulent times unscathed, even though friends living nearby were later to tell me that they slept with chili powder under their pillows and sticks by their front doors. Parsi friends described how either Hindu or Muslim neighbors would come to the baugs seeking refuge – who showed up pleading for help depended on which mobs were running loose on a particular night.

But life soon resumed its course, even as the city slowly disintegrated into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ areas. Members of religious and ethnic communities have always tended to live in clusters, but the riots demarcated rigid boundaries where there was once porosity. This suspicion of the ‘other’ has only grown with time, with the ‘self’ being defined in increasingly narrow terms. Bombay continues to retain cosmopolitan tracts and pockets. But for the most part, the city has splintered, perhaps irreversibly so.

My life (and the city’s) since 1993 has been punctuated by blasts on buses, blasts on trains, blasts around prominent tourist and commercial hubs, and most recently, 26/11. Terrorism has also reared its head elsewhere in this country, repeatedly, month on month, year on year. We are in a permanent state of war, both internally and externally. Assaulted by headlines about blasts here, strikes there, threats inside, attacks outside, we have lost our capacity to mourn and our willingness to remember. It doesn’t help that all our commentators and talking heads seem to react to everything with a knee-jerk ideological perspective, wherein they are so wedded to their constructs of ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor,’ that there is little constructive dialogue and only a trite acknowledgement of loss.

When I read the post I had written immediately after 26/11, I cringe at the quality of the writing. But the truth is that that was how I felt in the moment – angry, shocked, sad – bereaved, almost. I felt it was profoundly important to retain a memory of the attacks, and how they made me feel – bitter, vulnerable, resentful. I believed that my memories, and the collective memories of all of those who were impacted, could compel us to take constructive action, seek change, demand governance.

I was initially surprised by people’s reluctance to speak about 26/11 and attributed this hesitance to denial, to apathy born of disaster overkill, to an inability to care. But now I think it was pure embarrassment – at the apparent ease with which the city was held to ransom, at the conduct of our politicians, at the fact that the South Bombay constituency had an abnormally low voter turnout in the elections immediately afterwards, at the conviction that things would not be very different if the events of 2008 were to repeat themselves. Because, after all, we were not very different either.

Remembering is a conscious act. It requires effort. It demands that we think about what went wrong, and try to do things differently. And in the absence of any evolution in policies, any strengthening of our police and security forces, any improved interaction between intelligence agencies, any indication at all that this city (or country) is any safer, remembering is a hollow gesture. So spare me the TV and print specials, the editorials and the special editions. For over two decades, we have shown ourselves to be less than willing to respond to our memories  in any meaningful way. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Malfunctioning Compass

A friend and I spent a good amount of time this morning mulling over what currently passes as ‘cool.’ She claimed that she was doing research for work, but I had no such excuse. I suppose I was animated by the perverse desire to find out exactly how flawed my coolness compass was.

Cool is impossible to define, evanescent, nuanced. We are encouraged to think that cool is subjective, that it derives from the zeitgeist; but for most people, cool is what an influential subset of people do. Of course, once that subset expands to a significant majority, coolness collapses in on itself. Everyone wants to be cool, but to make the effort (or even the desire) apparent is a fatal error. In fact, striving to distance one self from cool is almost guaranteed to confer distinction – another way in which to interpret ‘cool.’ Whether embodied or articulated, cool is elusive. Or so theory, statistics and analysis would have us believe.

My candidates for cool, based on selective and flawed observations of my milieu, included the following – entrepreneurship, photography, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, kitsch, the suburbs, Bollywood style parallel cinema, Japanese (well, maybe Korean) popular culture, teaching, lamenting the death of Indian fashion.

These suggestions were duly dismissed – no small surprise, given that one of the coolest things college students at the world’s greatest universities report they are currently doing is imbibing vodka through their eyeballs. This is a trend sweeping campuses, and is evidently an effective way to get high. Not to mention an equally effective way to disinfect one’s corneal tissues.

Vodka soaked eyeballs? Nuanced? Elusive? The cool crowd deserves more credit. It just reclaimed cool from respectability. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Chaos, Less Consistency - Psychology for a Digital Age

I’m not sure where it was that I first heard about ‘online therapy’ – counseling administered chiefly over the internet. Some quick browsing indicated that a number of psychologists are keen to embrace the opportunity to access clients who may be unwilling or unable to opt for more traditional face-to-face therapy. Several others are worried that an internet-based practice could easily morph into a low-investment, high-returns business wherein the best interests of the client would be less than paramount. Debate about the value of such a practitioner-client interaction is lively and ongoing, and shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon. The only conclusion that seems to have been reached is that the internet is irrevocably here, and that the psychological community will have to come to terms with it.

In the past, psychologists could occasionally seem like sages, providing telling insights into human cognition and behavior. Freud (not a psychologist by training but certainly a clinician) revolutionized our understanding of the psyche, Jung mapped our dreamscapes, Piaget decoded the complex underpinnings of childhood development, Skinner demystified learning, Rogers and Maslow explained motivation and spirituality, and Sternberg and Gardner made breakthroughs in their studies of intelligence and creativity. Psychologists responded to what was happening in the world – soon after World War 2, Adorno and others investigated the roots of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi complicity. New York street crime galvanized social psychologists into examining issues of social responsibility and apathy, and the civil rights movement prompted the study of racial prejudice. Inquiry also reflected philosophical currents – shifting from determinism to humanism to an interest in multiculturalism.

Yet as far as the internet is concerned, psychologists seem to be two steps behind, grappling with a phenomenon they don’t quite understand. This has something to do with the nature of the internet itself – always changing, always expanding, accommodating more strains of thought and special-interest communities everyday. Ostensibly, psychologists are interested in exploring the right issues – how can learning and work be adapted to the internet? How is the internet shaping identity and relationships? What are the methodological issues that need to be addressed in this particular field of inquiry? Yet the conclusions reached are curiously stilted, in all probability due to the nature of the questions being posed. Research topics are either so broad as to be almost generic (“Investigating the relationship between the internet and social capital”) or very narrow (“Understanding narcissism as demonstrated on undergraduate students’ Facebook profile pages ”). It is educators, sociologists, anthropologists and media specialists who currently seem better equipped to situate their queries so as to provide both depth and breadth with respect to topics such as blogging, cyberbullying and instant messaging.

Interestingly, some psychologists have been quick to identify and diagnose internet related disorders such as addictions to surfing, cyber-sex, gambling and shopping online, and to offer treatments for the same. This is indicative of an underlying tendency to look at the internet in faintly moralistic terms – is it good or bad? Questions about what the internet is doing to us posit the internet as a concrete entity acting upon individuals in specific ways. But it is apparent that as with other forms of technology, the internet has insinuated, and been allowed to insinuate, the very fabric of our lives. Any attempt to investigate it as a self-contained object ‘apart’ from its users is doomed to be inadequate.

Does the internet isolate us, or does it enable us to make new connections? Do we use the internet to experiment with multiple identities, or to refine the one we are best known by? These are limiting questions, because they are based on the assumption that there is one answer, or a similar tendency that will hold true for a certain set of people at a certain point in time. At most, such questions allow for the researchers to claim that behaviors lie ‘somewhere in between’ on a pre-defined continuum. They do not sufficiently accommodate the answer ‘both.’

The complexity of the internet lies in the fact that it allows untrammeled choice with respect to self-presentation and community membership. The lines between the public and the private are in constant, often intentional flux.  The possibilities for agency are immense, and so are the possibilities for conformity. One can be one’s best and one’s worst self online. The high-tech world of the web is uniquely suited to the expression of the most primitive fantasies and desires, even as language and information are evolving to keep pace with the potential for knowledge sharing and communication.

One interpretation of this constant upheaval is that engaging with the internet is a project in being truly authentic, in many ways at once. The internet places us in multiple contexts at the same time, and accordingly, a person can choose to edit, censor or express. If, as Erving Goffman explained, our social lives involve the enactment of multiple roles, then the internet can be thought of as a theatrical kaleidoscope that permits us to essay more than one role at a time, although we do think strategically about how our performances will be refracted onto different stages and for different audiences. This is not an argument in favor of lives being lived online to the detriment of day to day functionality. It is an assertion that what is online need not necessarily be ‘fake’ or a ‘façade.’ Even pretense is likely motivated by an authentic psychological need, just as purported internet-specific addictions are often symptomatic of persistent ‘offline’ problems. The relationships between users and the internet, online and offline behavior, the public and the private are clearly more complex than psychological inquiry has currently allowed for.

Cognitive psychologists have it simpler, since the neural responses to stimuli are more easily measured and more standardized. But when considering the personal and social implications of internet use, it may be too much to expect a consistent clustering of responses. Bottom-up analysis and qualitative research (suited to understanding lived experiences) would be a good place to start, even if the goal is to catch up with the subject(s) of interest.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Julia Roberts Has It Wrong

Last week’s edition of the HT Brunch was a particularly anemic and formulaic exploration of Diwali, with checklists on how to decorate one’s home and throw festival parties. Today, the papers are telling us what Bollywood has-beens will be doing to bring in the New Year. Julia Roberts has gone on record to say that Diwali belongs to ‘everyone,’ that it celebrates self-confidence and humanity – a wildly inaccurate interpretation that in its misplaced earnestness, itself plays to type.

Fortunately, in spite of what the media serves up as the ‘festive spirit,’ Diwali has largely managed to transcend clichés; has evaded the more corrosive forms of commercialization; has retained relevance, appeal and allure.  

Like all festivals, Diwali offers a way in which to mark time; offers respite from the grinding realities of everyday life; offers a very large collective the opportunity to look forward and begin things anew, unblemished by the failures and setbacks of the past year.

Diwali also has meaning that is all its own. Hindus believe Diwali marks the return of Ram to Ayodhya, Jains believe it is when their last tirthankara, Mahavira, attained nirvana. Everywhere, Diwali has been adapted to fit a range of cultural and sub-cultural narratives and myths, but most people will celebrate it as the New Year, filled with promise, a time for food, family, friends, bonhomie, largesse and shopping.

In my experience, Diwali is a festival for pragmatists, for hard-headed accountants and businessmen as well as for the devout – an example of how Hindu theology, vast, sprawling and complex, can accommodate the spiritual needs of both the ascetic and the merchant, the yogi and the bhogi. It is partly a festival that celebrates wisdom, and mostly a festival that celebrates wealth. The meek may eventually inherit the earth, and karma may reap dividends in other lives, but it is money, ambition and enterprise that will turn the wheels of the world in the present. It is important to remember, though, that this is not a festival that valorizes greed, but rather one that encourages people to respect wealth and the responsibilities attendant upon its accumulation.

My community has celebrated Diwali in the traditional way for years, fusing Hindu rituals with Jain beliefs. All the rites center around prosperity and wisdom – the cleaning of our homes so as to welcome Laxmi, rituals marking the placement of orders for books of accounts, the worship of these books and silver and gold coins, the ceremony accompanying the inaugural credit/ debit entry into the books, the purchase of new clothes and the consumption of deep-fried and sweet food (everyday cooking being considered inauspicious, and diet-friendly food wholly blasphemous). A few days later, Saraswati is appeased through the worship of books, pencils and lately, CDs – all the paraphernalia of learning and knowledge.

What appeals most to me is the festival’s emphasis on light – lamplight, lantern-light, fairy lights, firecrackers and electric razzmatazz of all sorts – as a redemptive, protective, even healing force. Almost every part of the country is luminous at this time of the year, and even battle-scarred, world-weary Bombay takes on a softer glow.

Wisdom, wealth, bright and bold beginnings. I wish you a Happy Diwali and a Prosperous New Year.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failing Feminism

This past week, I’ve been exposed to some interesting interpretations of femininity and what it means to be a woman. I watched Anita Ratnam present ‘Her and Bliss,’ a wonderful lecture-performance that depicted some of the many facets of the sacred feminine. I then attended a lecture that outlined Kali’s evolution from a little-known tribal goddess to one of the most powerful divinities in the Hindu pantheon. Being a goddess, clearly, is complicated.

Being a woman, even more so.

But it was when I was reading anthropological literature about women’s experiences as fashion models – supposedly as research for an ongoing project, but largely just an exploration of a topic I found oddly compelling – that I was forced to acknowledge that being a feminist is, quite simply, fraught.

Feminist scholars have long shared a love-hate relationship with fashion. To oversimplify the extant literature I’ve been skimming through, fashion models are either perceived as agents in the perpetuation of stereotypes about femininity, or as beautiful women caught in the same cycles of discipline and power as us lesser mortals.

Either-or. Something to make one long to hear faint echoes of old-school feminism, when change and progress seemed less nebulous, and when feminism seemed like it could claim something resembling an overarching agenda. Although, even back then, this unity of purpose must have seemed tenuous – for how could one ‘ism’ ever be expected to satisfactorily address the aspirations and demands of radicals, structuralists, race activists, cultural relativists, well-meaning liberals and socialists?

Feminism today is thought of as being deeply unfashionable, if not entirely antiquated. It doesn’t help that contemporary feminism is difficult to terms with, continuously assuming new positions and striking changing poses against the backdrop of a complex world. Contemporary feminism allows for all actions, gestures, conditions and objects – high heels, burkhas, arranged marriages, prostitution, becoming a home-maker, French parliamentarians taking their babies to work, abortion – to be interpreted as either empowering, or as symptomatic of socio-cultural oppression, depending on where one comes from and how one sees things.

The oppression-empowerment binary seems superficially similar to the ‘for-against’ foundation on which early feminism was built, but it is in fact fundamentally different. The words can be, and are, frequently used interchangeably. To put it simply, where one feminist sees oppression, the other sees empowerment. All except the most intractable contradictions are reconciled by invoking the word ‘choice,’ which fulfills the remarkable function of making the inequitable – such as the commoditization of women’s bodies – acceptable. ‘Choice’ as it used in the discourse of contemporary feminism is semantic sleight-of-hand at its most accomplished.

The politics of choice, the complexity of choice, the idea that social conditioning and obligations might, in fact, be shaping choice – these are questions that contemporary feminism, at least in its popular forms, often neglects to address. Academic feminists will engage with such questions, but all too often, their arguments are theoretical feats, having little or no bearing on change as it must be achieved in the world.

It’s impossible to define and describe feminism in any one way. It is also true that different women will interpret feminism differently, and will try to adapt it to the truth of their own lives. It's almost amusing to suggest it, but feminism needs to reconsider its own political correctness - there are only so many competing interpretations or points-of-view that any movement can accommodate before it collapses in on itself. And things can truly be said to have reached a point of no return when Sarah and Bristol Palin are anointed as flag-bearers for the new wave of Christian feminism. 

Feminism has had more than its fair share of adversaries and critics. Today, the criticism seems at least partly justified – which is unfortunate, because gender inequity remains pervasive, and the world needs its feminists. It’s often hard, though, to tell whether it is feminism that has failed women, or whether it is women who have failed feminism. 
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