Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Police in India (part VI)

When the common citizens have no rights, and when the powerful have immunity, not in practice, but legally speaking, constitutionally, then the only conclusion is that India is a failed state.

The Independence struggle has merely replaced foreign bullies with regional ones. And since now we are a so-called democracy, there is no hope that the constitution will ever change to reduce the power of the elite. The powerful have no incentive to change the constitution to transfer their power to the citizenry. There cannot be another freedom struggle. There cannot be a coup.

True freedom starts from a constitution which guarantees that freedom. India does not have that. The first freedom is to be free in one's person and property. The constitution of India does not value that freedom. The trial courts of India regard detention as a routine matter (the statutory form for "judicial custody" after one has been detained in "police custody", and which is filled in by the police, does not even have any space for recording the reasons for this request for further detention). The accused in India have to justify to the trial court why they should not be sent behind bars.

The constitution of India is not what should be taught in civics lessons in India. The list of "fundamental rights" and "directive principles of state policy" are fairy tales which made students like me believe that we have rights and the state has duties.

What should be taught is the IPC, the CrPC, the COFEPOSA and the NSA. What they should be taught is what an FIR is, "bail" is, what "custody" means, what "due process of law" is supposed to mean, why jury trials were done away with in India. What should be clarified is the existence of hate speech laws in India, the laws related to "hurting of sentiments", laws related to "obscenity", the existence of warrant-less phone tapping. They should be taught that though the Supreme Court has ruled that the police is BOUND to register your complaint, if it doesn't, and you approach the court, the court will not even whimper or whisper against this illegal conduct of the police, but will instead ask you to prove that you have a valid grievance.

What should be mentioned is that citizens of this country cannot own a hunting knife, by law, but the elites have access to customs-seized automatic weapons. The young students should be taken to police stations and jails and to courts and to scenes of popular protests where feudal methods of baton-charging are still used against the elderly and the weak to make them run away.

Maybe India is not ready for freedom, maybe we are meant to be slaves. Its citizens, mostly, certainly don't seem to care. Many are too busy surviving, and others are too busy enjoying the fruits of this barbaric state of affairs. There are a few who, having had a personal experience of this state of affairs, are horrified, but not being politically organized, can't do much.

The power of a state lies in guns: and in a modern state, with the police and with the military. If these forces are not in service of the citizens, but are instead in the service of the ruling class, then democracy is just a word, it is not an actuality.

The sine qua non of a democratic state is to protect its citizens from harm, not to protect itself from its citizens.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Police in India (part V)

The fundamental right to liberty is violated by the state if a person is imprisoned without conviction. There is an oft-used euphemism for this kind of violation, and it is called "preventive detention".

Preventive Detention is supposedly a tool of feudal powers, or an extraordinary measure in times of war. Not so in India.

From The Hindu:
... the Preventive Detention Act was passed by Parliament in 1950. After the expiry of this Act in 1969, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) was enacted in 1971, followed by its economic adjunct the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA) in 1974 and the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) in 1985. Though MISA and TADA have been repealed, COFEPOSA continues to be operative along with other similar laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) 1980, the Prevention of Blackmarketing and Maintenance of Essential Commodities Act 1980 and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) 2002; not to mention laws with similar provisions enacted by the State governments.
From an article on the HRDC:
In the normal course of the criminal law, a person accused of a crime is guaranteed the rights to a legal counsel, to be informed of charges as soon as possible, to appear before a magistrate within 24 hours, to cross-examine any witnesses and question any evidence presented, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The National Security Act, however, does not apply any of these rights to preventive detention cases. It permits the extra-judicial detention of individuals if the Government is subjectively “satisfied” that an individual is a threat to foreign relations, national security, India’s defence, state security, public order, or the maintenance of essential supplies and services.
Since the right to liberty does not exist in India, the article continues
The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that on their face, preventive detention measures such as those in the NSA are wholly constitutional.
The National Security Act of 1984 is still in effect in India. If you thought you cannot be imprisoned without due process in India, and that India is a free country, you are just factually wrong. India may have become a democracy in 1947, but it is certainly not a free country.

On the one hand, the crime statistics in India report to a crime incidence of 5% compared to a developed country like the US (in other words, that 95% of crimes in India are not subject to the rule of law). This is obviously a simplification, since violations of law are, if anything, much more frequent in India (for just one example, drunken driving, traffic and parking violations are flagrantly common in India). On the other hand, far more people are unjustly imprisoned in India for their alleged crimes than in any other country in the world.

From the Human Rights Watch report of 2009
The large scale of crime suppression is suggested by the unrealistically low rate of crime reported by the Indian government: in 2007, a total of 215,613 violent crimes were registered nationwide, or 19 crimes for every 100,000 residents in India. Bangladesh also suffers from under-registration, but has a higher rate of 83.21 reported crimes per 100,000 residents. In developed countries like Japan and the US, the rate is more than 1,000 reported crimes per 100,000 residents.
From The Hindu article above, which references the NHRC report of 2003
... as per the NHRC report released in May last year, out of a total of 3,04,893 prisoners in India, 2,25,817 are awaiting trial. In other words, more than 74 per cent of the total prison population are undertrials.
The latest report available by NHRC on their website is from 2008-2009. It indulges in a lot of chest-thumping for its own accomplishments, but does not mention the all-important statistic of the population imprisoned without conviction. But there are some hints. From the report
The District Jail in Jamui, Bihar had 629 undertrials and 28 convicts on the day of the visit...
That is, 95% of the prisoners in that prison were non-convicts. That might be true for one prison, but the mind boggles if that is true for the country as a whole.

I looked up the National Crime Records Bureau report on Prisons for 2009, available here, and found that the situation is slightly better than 2003, but still extremely alarming: Even in 2009, 67% of the prison population has not been convicted but is under trial. The total prison population in India is 370,000 (which is merely 0.03% of the total population of 1.2 billion, compared to 1% - 33 times higher - in the USA).

These are depressing figures, perhaps for India as well as for the US.

(to be continued)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Enlightenment Blues

Enlightenment Blues, My Years with an American Guru (Andre van der Braak)

Finished this book today - it was a gift from a thoughtful friend.

The grip of a spiritual mission or of a guru can be remarkably hard to shake off. The sense of mystical purpose that one derives from that association becomes as essential as oxygen. To give up one's guru or religion is easy for people who never really believed in that, but a devotee risks suicidal nihilism if he detaches from a occupation which demanded total surrender.

The seeker gives up everything for his quest. And therefore, a serious seeker giving up his quest itself due to disillusionment needs all the support that his family and friends can provide. There is a very real risk of profound isolation, clinical depression and suicide.

To have one's spiritual teacher fall from grace is to see one's mother, who one loved and admired, whoring around with drug addicts.

Throughout the seeking, if one is serious, one commits massive and radical surgeries on one's intuitive and emotional apparatus, and on one's capacity for intellectual discernment.

To then limp back into the real world is not easy.

I salute people like Andre, who found the courage and conviction to come out of such abusive and unbalanced spiritual groups. He did it pretty much on his own, helped perhaps by one desperate conversation with a psychotherapist. I hope he is doing well.

These words at the end of the book need to be etched in metal to be worn around the neck of every budding seeker:
But I can no longer believe in a perfection that is removed from human decency, from warm and loving personal attention, from kindness and encouragement, from vulnerability and self-deprecating ordinariness. The myth of perfection is too much like the myth of Narcissus. It is cold and heartless.
The world is a cruel place, and sensitive souls will always seek a kinder haven to live in. But for the sake of all that is alive within you, do not surrender yourself.

Spiritual teachers treat students as recalcitrant egos, ripe for chastisement. And seekers start seeing their own self as someone to overcome. To make a human being his own enemy is probably one of the worst things one can do to another.

Yes, you may have certain impulses which may not be healthy, but you are probably just fine. Being an introvert, you may be neurotically exaggerating your mild flaws.

Beware of a teacher who tells you to negate or deny a major and generalized sense of yourself. That major part can be called "ego", "self", "persona", "instincts", "mind", "soul", "intellect", "dark side", and so on and so forth. Such denunciation is an insidious form of control. Once you are no longer sure of what you feel and whether you can trust yourself, the game is over.

You must understand that any human attempt at getting gratification or pleasure or joy can be denounced as "selfish" and "egotistic". Are you willing to live a joyless, unhappy, painful life? Then start waging a war against your own ego.

Unwarranted pride or an excessive ego (normally called a superiority complex) is a neurotic condition, but usually just an amusing one. A healthy sense of oneself, and having an ego and indulging in human appetites, is perfectly fine. If anybody tells you otherwise, he is a misanthrope.

I hope the era of these gurus is over. Humanity didn't need to worry about another major organized religion in the 20th century. And I hope there won't be any "enlightened" being in the 21st century.

We can certainly thank Tim Berners Lee for that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Police in India (Part IV)

If a policeman (rather, any public servant) abuses his authority or indulges in torture or worse, you have no recourse under normal law.

This is what immunity in India, a relic of colonial times, looks like:

Section 197, Criminal Procedure Code of India
1) When any person who is or was a Judge or Magistrate or a public servant not removable from his office save by or with the sanction of the Government is accused of any offence alleged to have been committed by him while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty no court shall take cognizance of such offence except with the previous sanction-

(a) In the case of it person who is employed or, as the case may be, was at the time of commission of the alleged offence employed, in connection with the affairs of the Union, of the Central Government;

(b) In the case of a person who is employed or, as the case may be, was at the time of commission of the alleged offence employed, in connection with the affairs of a State, of the State Government:

This is not sufficient for the judges (for some reason), so the judges protect themselves by this additional immunity:

Section 77 of the Indian Penal Code:
Nothing is an offence which is done by a Judge when acting judicially in the exercise of any power which is, or which in good faith he believes to be, given to him by law.

Even this is not sufficient (for some reason), so the courts further immunize themselves thus:

K.Veeraswami vs Union of India (Supreme Court of India, 1991)
"No criminal case shall be registered u/s 154 Cr.P.C. against a Judge of the High court, Chief Justice of the High Court or a Judge of the Supreme Court unless the Chief Justice of India is consulted in the matter."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Police in India (part III)

"I say it with all sense of responsibility that there is not a single lawless group in the whole country whose record of crime is anywhere near the record of that organized unit which is known as the Indian Police Force." (Justice A N Mulla, Allahabad High Court, 1961)

"In the above period it was estimated that 43.2 per cent of the expenditure in the connected jails was over such prisoners only who in the ultimate analysis need not have been arrested at all." (National Police Commission, third report)

The 2009 Human Rights Watch report on Police in India

Wikileaks cables (here and here) on police brutality and extra-judicial killings in India

The Bhagalpur Blindings case

Forbesganj Police Firing

The Hashimpura massacre

The Jaswant Singh Khalra case

The curious case of Sumedh Singh Saini

The Malimath Committee Report

(to be continued)

Police in India (part II)

Police is a state subject in India, thought, interestingly the penal code (IPC), the code of criminal procedure (CrPC), and the the various acts which mandate police action are under the purview of the Parliament. What this, in effect, means is that the though the laws which the police is supposed to enforce are drafted in London (the IPC dates back to 1860 AD) or in Delhi, the rank and file of police is controlled by state level politicians and bureaucrats.

What this also means is that if you are well connected with your local politicians, you need not fear the police. If there is a truly horrendous crime, since it is commonly understood that the police will not prosecute a state big-wig, the central police (CBI) is involved. The matter doesn't end there. CBI is influenced and controlled by the central government. So, if you wish to proceed against someone who is directly or indirectly in power at the Centre, you have to petition the Supreme Court to form a "Special Investigative Team", which reports directly to the court. God help you if you want to prosecute an officer of the court. Prosecuting a judge is impossible, but try prosecuting a lawyer and see how far you go.

In India, lawyers and the police make a pretense of arguing against each other in the court, but they make love to each other in the chambers and in the police stations. Both of these are mafias, whose members gleefully rub their palms whenever a harassed person comes to them for help. The more people suffer, the more money these people make. A decent policeman or a decent lawyer is rarer than a thousand rupee note lying uncollected on a public street.

Since, in criminal trials in India, fair and impartial investigation, prosecution and conviction are at least a few centuries away, what does the state do?

The trend is: it washes its hands off the investigation, and asks the accused to prove they are innocent. With an increasing failure of police and the criminal justice system to punish the guilty, protection of the innocent (which is a higher duty of the law) is being accorded lower and lower priority.

The Malimath Committee report of 1994, which otherwise contains some valuable suggestions, irresponsibly suggests that proving a crime "beyond reasonable doubt" is an unreasonable expectation in India. It recommends instead that, given the (lack of) investigative environment in India, the principle of conviction must be adjusted to be more lax.

More and more laws are being drafted where presumption of innocence is being done away with.

The Dowry Prohibition Act says:

"Where any person is prosecuted for taking or abetting the taking of any dowry under Sec. 3, or the demanding of dowry under Sec.4, the burden of proving that he had not committed an offence under those sections shall be on him."

A news item on the proposed law on honour killings says:

"When a death of a member of a family occurs and a person or a group of persons is accused of acts falling within the fifth clause of section 300 of IPC, then, the burden of proving that case does not fall within that section shall be upon such person or persons."

If the state is helpless to investigate and prosecute properly, then the state of affairs is nothing but anarchy.

It is not that the state is somehow inept while the rest of India is gloriously efficient. The state is an amplified version of the Indian ethos, and of an underdeveloped intellect which abhors clear definitions and processes.

(to be continued)

Police in India (part I)

In India, the basic rights of liberty, equality before law, and free speech do not exist. The state is the aggressor, by far, in violating these rights of common citizens.

Let me start with the absence of liberty in India.

The right to liberty is fundamentally this: The right to be free in one's person and property.

When the other side is the state, this means: no incarceration without conviction.

Since in India, trials take decades to complete, justice is frequently seen to have been served by pre-trial detentions and by the very process of making someone go through the tribulation of the trial. That is a mockery of justice. As much as I am appalled at the scale of the 2G scam, the state should have a right to imprison the accused only if it is able to prove its case in a court of law. We, as citizens of India, don't care about the human rights of the accused in the 2G case, just as we don't care about the human rights of millions of under-trial detainees in India. We are too busy watching television and gloating over these extra-judicial punishments.

Prosecutors oppose bail as a matter of course, citing vague concerns in every case that the accused may influence witnesses or destroy evidence. I have a simple question for the prosecutors: if the accused is powerful enough to influence witnesses, can't one of his acquaintances (or more usually, his lawyers) influence the witnesses while he himself languishes in jail? That is what usually happens anyway and therefore this excuse to keep somebody who is presumed innocent is an entirely lame one.

"Destroying evidence"? I am amazed the judges don't critically examine this phrase. The onus is on the police and the prosecution to collect evidence in an expeditious manner, and not put this burden of delay on the accused.

The only good reason to keep someone in pre-trial detention is the possibility that he or she may evade the jurisdiction of the court. That is why the concept of bail was invented to begin with, and that is what bail guarantors are for, in case you are wondering. Hence, once suitable guarantors are found, there is no further excuse to keep the person in jail.

The police routinely arrests Indian citizens accused of a crime. This is despite a landmark Supreme Court judgment (in 1994) that the power of arrest is not the same as the justification of arrest. Since the police openly spits at the highest court of the land, the state hurries to restrain this lawless arm of itself (the CrPC amendments limiting the power of arrest by police), but the lawyers who make money from bail cases oppose the change and the government, not unsurprisingly, backs down.

Since the police has the arbitrary discretion to arrest a common citizen, the privilege to lodge a complaint with the police is a rather powerful one. No points for guessing that this privilege is not available to common citizens. This is, once again, despite a clear judgment of the Supreme Court of India. Police in India does not register your complaint, unless it stands to gain either the favor of the bosses or unless some bribe is given. They are not your servants, they are your oppressors.

In fact, they are permitted by law to treat certain complaints (a very large category, as it turns out) as "non-cognizable". That is, they will ask you to prosecute the criminal yourself by engaging an advocate and filing a complaint in a court of law. The Malimath committee report, in 2004, advocated abolishing of this distinction between cognizable and non-cognizable crimes, but who listens?

There are many interesting consequences of this arbitrary power of the Indian police. Since the harassment starts right at the start, when the police registers someone's complaint, there must be a way the powerful can evade this harassment. One doesn't have to look far. There are hundreds of rules in place for powerful state functionaries not to be complained against, prosecuted or jailed without "approval" from the state itself.

A second interesting consequence is that it is the police which decides, on its discretion, what you should be accused of. Since the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is hopelessly vague, if you punch someone, you can be accused of anything from abetment to suicide all the way to attempt to murder. The decision of which "sections" (of IPC) to include when accusing someone is such an arbitrary and unpunished violation of human rights in India that the mind boggles. Frequently, a man who loves a woman and marries her without her family's consent, is hounded with active involvement of the police. He is accused of everything from rape of a minor, kidnapping, to criminal intimidation. Sometimes, even his family members are arrested (after all, how difficult is it to include them as co-conspirators?). No wonder lovers frequently commit suicide rather than face this harassment.

A third consequence is that since the police is acting on discretion, and not in the service of citizens, the citizens when they find a petty criminal, routinely thrash or lynch him/her. Nobody protests or complains against these acts of violence, since the petty criminal doesn't (or so the thought goes) have any right to expect decency.

People in government jobs have to be, by law, suspended from their duties if they are in police detention beyond 48 hours. Presumption of innocence? One must be kidding.

A fourth consequence, or cause, of this travesty is that investigation and prosecution are thoroughly shoddy affairs in a criminal trial in India. Since the accused is already being punished by the process itself, why bother with an actual judgment?

(to be continued)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Who to listen to

Everybody has an opinion. One is bombarded with advice on how to love, how to be happy, how to find fulfillment, how to make money, where to invest, what to wear, which attitudes to imbibe ...

Which opinions should you listen to, and which ones should you regard as entertainment?

The first rule is to disregard those opinions which constitute a moral hazard. A "moral hazard" is not about morality, but about accountability. If someone is paid to offer advice, but the advice carries no guarantees, the advice is a scam.

A guru offers you life-altering advice. He is paid to act wise. But he disowns any responsibility when your life goes haywire. Buyer beware.

A chairperson from a gender studies department in a university writes a bitter book about how to act towards the opposite gender. That book costs money. And she is in a tenured position. But when you are going through a child custody battle, she has little money to offer for the child's maintenance, but instead asks you to get it from the "child's father". Whoa there!

A broker sends you investment advice, but puts in a disclaimer about absence of liability. That's a joke.

A management "leader" or "consultant" offers a seminar costing a bomb. A lot of suckers go to such events. But he is not there to recompense you if his advice backfires. He is laughing his way to the bank.

An advertiser pushes a product on you. He is paid to do so. You indirectly pay him if you buy the product. Can you take him to court for misleading you? You must be out of your mind.

A movie describes dating to you, and how to have a fun one-night-stand. And you paid to watch it. Enough said.

NGOs, which would otherwise go out of business, tell you to not get your kid vaccinated because vaccines are "harmful". Will they compensate you if your kid died of a disease?

The lesson is: take advice only from those people who, if you suffer, will suffer as well. Listen to your parents, your spouse, your closest friends, your manager and your subordinates. Read papers in scientific peer-reviewed journals as the scientific reputation of the writer is at stake. You don't have to agree with them, but their advice is valuable in that it does not carry a "moral hazard".

Any other advice, treat as entertainment. Nothing is for free. And if you are getting a message for free, look closer at who is paying the speaker and whether his reputation depends on it being falsified.

The second rule is to evaluate whether the advice has helped the adviser, or whether it is being applied in their own lives.

Gurus will tell you not to be materialistic. Are they themselves living a spartan life, as per their guidance?

Shrill spinsters will rail against patriarchy ruining the possibility of a happy marriage. Do they continue to be in a happy relationship after discovering the secret?

Politicians urge you to work for the nation. Religious leaders ask you to be deeply devotional and humble. Do they look like they are themselves altruistic or devotional or humble?

Such advice should be considered perversely educational in making you reconsider the forces which lead to a state of non-patriotism, domestic violence, materialism. Do not discard a long-standing tradition without understanding how it evolved, and what forces were historically responsible for its growth.

The third rule is to look for humility and the admission of fallibility. If the adviser gets angry when you disagree with him, or if she starts calling you names and takes criticism as a personal affront, or if there is no way the opinions can be verified or falsified, you will be wasting your time in arguing with such a person.

Truthy conclusions and firm, categorical, eternal statements sound wise, but are usually anything but.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Degrees and Aspirations

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an unemployed young man from Punjab. He had an impressive list of worthless credentials. He is a B.Tech. in Electronics Engineering, and an MBA in HR & IT. He couldn't find a job and was seeking help.

Digging deeper into his resume, I noticed a few things: He had completed both his degrees from a local college in Phagwara, a small industrial town in Punjab. These private colleges have mushroomed in the last decade or so, and have almost no real faculty or facilities. Almost every state in India now has a "Technical University" which grants permission to these colleges to award degrees but does little else.

He had completed a few trainings at some local industries, and his English skills were sub-par. A Resume is like a dating site photo. If someone looks unattractive in that photo, or if someone's resume contains errors of formatting and punctuation, it is not a good sign.

I asked him why he had gone for an MBA. He said he couldn't find a job after his graduation, and "the college wanted me to stay on because I was a good sportsperson." After his MBA, he did land a job in a local bank branch, as a "Business Development Executive", a euphemism for an account salesman who cold calls and approaches random strangers to convince them to open an account with the bank.

He resigned from that job after a month or so, because he saw it beneath his dignity to do a job which was also being offered to people who had never been to college, and, perhaps not less importantly, because he was a failure at salesmanship.

When I asked him what kind of a job he was looking for, one of the first words that came out his mouth was: Abroad.

I reflected on his predicament and these thoughts came to my mind:

A degree from such an institute is worse than not having any degree at all. All this qualification does is raise the aspiration of the person holding it. When something is commonly available, it is not possible to flaunt it. But it does make you feel more "deserving", and therefore reject the humble job offers which come your way.

People want to go abroad and are willing to be a janitor, but won't be a salesperson in their own city. That is not hard to understand. In a foreign country, your ego is protected because of you being an anonymous outsider. One is willing to do a menial job there, but not here, where people will look down upon you and will speak in hushed tones to embarrass your family. People are even willing to go to war-torn countries like Iraq, and to distressed economies like Greece or USA. Life as an immigrant is quite harsh in these places, but at least one is free of "society" and its gaze.

This is also the reason why unemployed Sikhs from Punjab, especially from agricultural families, would rather go abroad than find a job or seek opportunities in a big city in India. They have been accustomed to feel a racial and cultural superiority over other races and religions in India, and the mutual back-slapping which occurs in their home regions is cruelly absent in the big cities. There you are only as good as what you can get done. Your name, your caste, your ancestry means zilch to a money-minded employer. You will rarely come across a Sikh beggar or a Sikh rickshaw puller, because that is an insult to their egos.

Markets are cruel, and if you insist on a "high-status" job, you have to prove yourself better than other candidates. Merely having degrees from a low-rung institute is no guarantee at all. Ads for air-hostess jobs in India don't ask for a college degree. They don't need it. If you are suave, smart and are willing to be trained, you are in! An engineering degree is, theoretically speaking, a vocational qualification, but only if the institute is known to impart real education, and not just a piece of paper.

One comes across news headlines in India which go something like: "MA working as a sweeper", "PhDs lining up for peon jobs", "long queue of government job aspirants", "long lines of visa applicants" when on the other hand, the newspapers are full of ads requiring helpers, salesmen, and so on. A few years back, we were unable to recruit a housekeeper in Punjab who would take basic care of an infirm elder lady suffering from Alzheimer's.

The security guard industry, a big one in Indian metros, is mostly populated by north-eastern Indian men. The maid industry, another big industry, is similarly populated by north-easterns and poor Bengalis. Cab drivers are mostly from eastern UP. Why are north Indians absent in these jobs?

It is because they feel destined for higher-status jobs. And this aspiration has been further fueled by them getting worthless degrees in their hands. When this aspiration is repeatedly thwarted and they get frustrated, they take to drugs. Drug-addiction in Punjab youth is probably higher than in any other state.

In India, opening a small business is seen as a climb-down from a desk job in which pension is assured. Only some castes should be selling, the culture goes, the higher castes should dress well and go to a proper office.

And the market doesn't give a damn about the caste and what you think you deserve.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You are what you did

How do people define themselves?

Their are many ways to do it. One can look at the circumstances of one's birth ("I am an American"), the college one went to ("I am an Ivy League graduate"), the skills one has ("I am a computer engineer"), the qualities one thinks one has ("I am a friendly person"), one's spouse and children ("I am a husband and a father"), and so on.

Another way is to define oneself by one's goals. "I am a seeker", "I am an entrepreneur", "I am a student", ...

Yet another way is to define oneself by one's opinions, likes and dislikes.

I think all of these can lead to delusions about oneself.

Let me propose a much more tangible way to describe and evaluate oneself, and thereby, to describe and evaluate others.

Ask yourself, and others, what they did.

Not what they are going to do, what they think they are going to do, what they think they should do, what they think others should do, what others think they should do, what they want from life, what they regret in their lives, but what they did.

A corollary of this question is that one must have been in a position to make a choice about what one did or did not do. Hence, childhood is mostly excluded, so is schooling (unless one chose to drop out!), one's family, one's ethnicity, one's basic appearance, the economic circumstances of the region one was born in, etc.

So, once again, ask yourself, and others, what they did when they had a choice in the matter.

This will lead to surprising insights. This will cut through the projections, the illusions, the idealism, illusions of distinction and individuality, and of course the blame-games.

People like to think they are different. But when it comes to action, humans behave in surprisingly similar ways. People will say money is not important to them, people will tell you that they are altruists, and they are explorers, people will tell you they are forgiving and loving. Those people include yourself.

In effect, the putting forth of this question is asking for Evidence.

An unintended effect of holding this question with you as you go through life is: one must live with the fact of one's past acts. If your primary identity is through your past acts, and if you wish to improve yourself and "be" a better person, then you must act in better ways, starting today.

Not tomorrow, today. Everybody is going to be better tomorrow. That doesn't count.

Another unintended effect of defining oneself in this way is to reduce the influence of consumption, even mental consumption. Reading, watching TV and films, web-surfing, listening to music, window shopping or actual shopping, eating, are all non-acts. They are a preparation for action, if anything. What do you do after you've provided energy to your body and food to your mind? Sleep?

Writing is an act. Reading is not.

Cooking is an act. Eating is not.

Traveling is an act. A package tour is not.

Computer programming is an act. Buying or having a smartphone is not.

Discussing a film is an act. Watching a film, and reading others' discussions about it is not.

Doing work is an act. Getting a paycheck is not (in itself) an act.

Spending money is an act. Saving money passively is not (though portfolio management is an act).

This also means, that you must get out of your head and start interacting with other people and other objects. Intellection is useful, no doubt, but a small act is infinitely better than a big idea which never sees the light of day. Thinking about loving someone is to delay the act of loving that person.

Before one knows it, years go by and one's mind becomes a graveyard of thoughts not acted upon, ideas still-born due to lack of motivation to express them, opportunities lost because of indecision, adventures not undertaken because of fear, people shabbily treated because one wants to be achieve one's goal and then be generous or good...

If a typical day goes as: wake up, read the paper, watch the news, go to office, read the emails, go to meetings, respond to requests for information, have lunch, surf the web, read more news, absorb office gossip, go back home, watch TV, have a few drinks, eat and sleep, then it may be time to wake up. And no, Virginia, I don't mean for you to look through a catalog of vacation packages.

An old quotation goes something like this: Life is what happens while you are busy planning for it. A more precise phrasing of this would be: Life is what does not happen while you are busy planning for it.

Pondering over this, one might find that one seems to be alive, but not really.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Men and Women, part V

Some interesting, and thought-provoking, reading on post-feminism, masculism, and gender roles:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Films Seen Recently

Band Baaja Baaraat (Maneesh Sharma, 2010): A charming tale of middle class living and ambitions, spoiled by needless shrillness in the second half. I had high hopes after watching the post-coital morning scene of mutual discomfort, but the director couldn't stay at that peak and quickly brought the film back to the "level". It is obviously a feel-good film, with the entrepreneurship dream proceeding smoothly without a real hitch. Anushka Sharma sure can dance.

Kabhi Kabhie (Yash Chopra, 1976): Saw this film for the first time after having been a fan of its soundtrack songs. A big let-down it was. Instead of mature ruminations on relationships, the script and the direction (not to mention the hastily put together sets) were evidently B-grade, with cliched dialogues, unbelievable coincidences, loud acting, and a ludicrous plot. Shashi Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor didn't act in this film, they just shouted and jumped around. Amitabh scowled and glowered, and the women mostly cried. I am still a fan of the music, though.

Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne & John Stevenson, 2008): The animation genre has turned distinctly new-age. I didn't really care much for the film's message (being as it is an apology for the inadequacy felt by millions of unhealthy, overweight, alienated middle class wage slaves). "Believing" in yourself is a good way to achieve difficult goals, but the film takes it too far and the message becomes laughable. Did you notice that nobody ever gets hurt in all the fighting that goes on? "There are no accidents" is the Paulo Coelho mumbo-jumbo which makes people ascribe meaning to meaningless random events. Life, to a large extent, is magnified Brownian motion and our pattern-seeking minds see meaningful symbols and patterns where there are often none.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Films Seen Recently

Shaitan (Bejoy Nambiar, 2011): An interesting take on denial of reality by fun-loving youth. Kidnapping themselves to extort money from their parents to pay for a bribe to cover up for a hit-and-run. While the first half is dripping with black humor, the second half is too much of a thriller. A satire on Gen-Y, more than anything. As in most Anurag-Kashyap-esque films, music is definitely eclectic and creative.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Zoya Akhtar, 2011): Tales of quarter-life-crisis juxtaposed with a tourist brochure of Spain. Starts slow and only the last half hour can be considered having even a whiff of drama. Stilted dialogue delivery. Caricatures abound and G-rated infantile jokes by grown men. Safe for families. The chic-consumerist lifestyle in full view, with the goal obviously being to "discover" oneself. Mr Roshan is handsomely built, but did I see some crow's feet around his eyes. Time for Botox, Sire? (going by the epidemic of cosmetic surgery in Bollywood these days). Unearned privilege and self-created problems come easy to these guys. Women are merely props: the possessive fiancee, the teary-eyed mom, the fun-loving platonic ho (whose body double rides an Enfield Bullet which is obviously ubiquitous in Spain's countryside). And I realized that Macbooks are very popular in India.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(Rupert Wyatt, 2011): Typical Hollywood melodrama-action-preachy-sci-fi-CGI-feel-good-summer-hit. But I did enjoy the CGI shots of the Golden Gate Bridge. Americans seem to find inordinate glee in seeing police cars topple. Maybe that is the suburbia's vision of Armageddon. It is a comic book movie, where the bad guys are identifiable a mile away, and the good guys are just so CUTE and COMPASSIONATE that they seem to have held each other's hands and look empathetic with a tear of understanding all their lives. Yawn. This seems to have made a shitload of money at the box office. Sigh. To each his own, I guess.

Kamla ki Maut (Basu Chatterjee, 1989): A rather funny take on middle class moralizing about sex. Some scenes (such as Pankaj Kapur and his friend's wife seducing each other and being later found out by the MASSIVELY clueless hubby, and Pankaj Kapur's reaction thereof) are so well-done that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Highly recommended.

The Next Three Days (Paul Haggis, 2010): I like such thrillers. A Frederick Forsyth kind of plot, containing a lot of intimate and real-world detail about how to break into a jail, get into somebody else's car, evade airport security, get around urban surveillance and suchlike. A slow build-up leading to an electrifying, if a little too convenient, climax.

Kalyug (Shyam Benegal, 1981): A modern retelling of Mahabharata. Well done conceptually, but in an effort to copy every part of the mythic tale, a bit labored in parts. It was mighty interesting to see the faux-cuckold Dharamraj, and the virile markers of Bhim da Kharbanda. And the reaction of Arjun when he finds about his mommy having had spiritual liaisons? Priceless. Will perhaps be enjoyable only to those who remember the details of the old tale. One cremation ceremony, too many, I felt. But. These joint family dramas are such fun! And oooh, Shashi...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Men and Women, part IV

Socialization and social roles, if too opposed to human nature, will lead to massive unhappiness. To act according to our natures is distinctly fulfilling, and if that is thwarted beyond a point, one wonders what is the meaning of life, after all.

In the state of alienation, when men are not allowed to be men, and women are asked to be not just women, men as well as women will not know themselves, and seek endlessly for a feeling of what essentially is their own nature, suppressed.

With the proliferation of the knowledge industry, jobs and homes are no longer stable or restricted to one place for long. While white collar jobs are alienating for reasons long known, it is also important to see what urban ghettoized nuclear living does to what I call fulfillment of gender roles.

We are born with the same genes that we've had for thousands of years, even though our environment has undergone a drastic change. Is there harm in wondering whether there is a limit to human adaptability? We may adapt, but there may be a steep psychological cost of that adaptation. We may survive or even seem to thrive, but we will not know what or where a home is.

By all indications, gender warfare is escalating. The genders loathe each other, but want to win each other's affections. This is leading to an epidemic of sociopathy.

Not only this, due to massive cultural programming (which I think is driven by complex factors, more on this later), women cannot easily admit to themselves that they want a protector-provider male, and men feel guilt at looking at a woman's body and seeing primarily sexual fulfillment. This leads to self-deception in relationships. Both genders (want to) think that they are pursuing "love" and not a biologically driven destination, not able to realize that the ideal of "love" is a fiction created by mass media.

One doesn't need to imagine too hard what happens when this fiction of "love" dissolves into a realization of what one actually wants and expects from the other, and what the other actually wants and expects from oneself. "Unconditional Love" between a man and a woman is such a fraudulent concept that even very otherwise aware people fall for it. There is always an expectation from the other. But it is politically and culturally incorrect for women as well as men to admit what they want. Hence, the confusion.

But why all this cultural re-programming? Why, day in and day out, are men being asked to be accepting and altruistic, and why are women being exhorted to be aggressive and demanding? I think it is naive to imagine that this is solely because of women "awakening" to their oppression, that this is perhaps a historical or a political reckoning.

That too, but one has to ask: why is the media so interested in this political upheaval? Mass media is never known for agenda of social consciousness and enlightenment. Why are magazines, television, movies, all so insistent on creating an empowered female, or for that matter, a sensitive new age metro-sexual guy? Statistically speaking, what does that empowered female do with her new-found enlightenment and power?

One word: consumption.

Analyze women's magazines, closely examine chick flicks (a horrendous recent example is Sex and the City 2), go through the newspaper color supplements, and what is the one thing that jumps out of all these? Happiness is to "feel good about yourself". And that "good feeling about oneself" presumably comes through spending and consuming and having no real goals beyond oneself.

And "love" is the ultimate commodity these days. The harder it economically becomes to actually love another human being (and emotionally it always was a chimera anyway), the more insistent is the message that we must find it, that everybody else (the characters in the movies, that is) is finding it without much difficulty.

But what happens when you are chasing a feeling which mass media is telling you is very important to find, but which may not really exist in the manner that you imagine it to be? You will become depressed and will feel bad about yourself.

And how to feel better about yourself, or to "be oneself" in this miasma of alienation? For that see the facing page of a woman's magazine article about love and "being yourself". Revlon.

Paulo Coelho and Cosmopolitan are saying the same thing. You just have to decipher their code.


Now, if we agree with the proposition that Fulfillment Through Love is a fiction created by propaganda (though the feeling of love certainly isn't a fiction), and that attraction between males and females is biologically driven and is intended to bring them together to have children, then the way out of this mess may become clear.

To be sure, this attraction can express itself in subtle ways, since we are undoubtedly more cognitively developed than other mammals. And this loving attraction is a great trigger to kick-start a relationship. But to mistake the initial spark of attraction with the stable warmth of a steady relationship is where the confusion reigns.

"Love" is a means, and provides strength, to a relationship. Limerence is a nice state, but not something that can be sustained, or something that should even be considered sustainable.

Men and Women need each other. Disregard the cultural programming that you can find happiness and fulfillment within yourself. That is not human nature. We are communal beings. Disregard even more vehemently the cultural message that the feeling of being loved is more important than the happiness of loving someone.

And believe at your peril the feminist rhetoric that gender roles are social constructions.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Delhi Belly by Abhinay Deo

Delhi Belly is a serious film to study, for cultural scientists.

Let's leave aside the obvious criticism that the film's humor (that is, when the hall depressingly bursts into laughter) is either scatological or due to the usage of words (crass by middle class standards) related to fornication. When people are sought to be entertained at the sound of farts, the visual of feces, or by the use of vernacular swear words in a clearly anglicized film (with clear hat tips to The Hangover or Trainspotting), it is time to stop clapping and to start listening to the claps.

Let's also leave aside the slightly reflective criticism that becomes an inane script with too many lame subplots, poorly developed characters, and just-for-that-dose-of-realism-momentary-visuals-of-the-third-world-city-that-delhi-really-is.

And while we are at it, let's also not talk about the homophobia which this film tries to make light of, but ends up doing the exact opposite.

What I am more interested in is what the target audience (English speaking, service sector employed, in their 20s, unmarried or recently married) is subliminally absorbing as it enjoys this comedy of errors.

A few notes:

When goods which were once not in easy reach become accessible, it is a symbol of fashionable elitism to hark back to tradition in a chic way (the old rickety scooter, the Maruti 800 being driven by a woman who can obviously afford a much better car, the clay cups in which filter coffee is served from a carafe (milk chai after all is so middle-brow), the ancient flush and the ceiling fan, the retro spectacles, and so on. I confirmed this agenda when a new red hatchback (which is now a middle class car) is shown in a clearly sarcastic visual montage.

Observe also certain musical incidents in the film when exaggerated expression of tradition suddenly becomes a distancing device. Observe the caricature of the traditional Indian dance and the dance teacher, the clearly archaic voice of K L Saigal and his contemporaries (the nasal era, so to speak), the flamboyant interpretation of Elvis Presley (also done in Dev.D) and the disco era, etc.

Meterosexuality as an ideal. Observe the casualness of relationships, the lack of incident with which they are entered and ended, and the situational and impetuous nature of sexual arousal instead of it being emotional or personal. Observe the buffoon who, horror of horrors, feels jealous (jealously is so old school, no?), and the obvious making-fun-of-a-bride-to-be-who-slaps-her-husband-to-be-because-he-takes-her-gifts-but-kisses-at-liberty as well as the caricature of smothering, suffocating parents and parents-in-law ("leave me alone, motherfuckers!" seems to be what the protagonist is saying. "What, me, meet your parents? I like only you, and you are nothing but a hot air-hostess for me and the audience, perhaps that's why.") Observe what the film is telling the recently-graduated-from-middle-class-employed-with-Accenture-employees what HOT sex SHOULD be like: screaming and moaning, woman on top, man giving oral pleasures under the sheets, "do it in the other hole", french kissing in public. In other words, situational and positional rather than personal. "I just wanna have fun, baby."

The disdain of authority and rules. Burqas, bah! Parents, bah! Boss, the asshole (even though he is just instructing the employee to improve his work)! The police, inept! Middle-class-work-ethic (observe the room-service-boy, clearly shown to be a lowly, subservient not-yet-married, effete), just take the money and don't be a pest, man (observe that the situation demands that you side with the bribe-giving), and so on.

The I-can-get-away-with-it-because-I-am-hep attitude. This is the most subversive, and I think dangerous-for-an-impressionable-audience, message provided by the script writers of this film. I understand, I get it, that this film is a slapstick comedy, not to be taken literally. But, but, BUT, I am not talking about the stupid slapstick shit at all when people fall from the ceilings or when something hits somebody's head in a funny way, or when you stick a firecracker in somebody's bum. What I don't understand is: why is the business-minded jeweler, and the landlord are to be considered villains or at least pests (that is clearly the intent of the script writers) but the opportunistic protagonist and his blackmailer friend are heroes. The answer is: because the jeweler is old-school, middle-aged, uses-oil-on-his-scalp-kind-of-guy (and similarly, the landlord has a wife and kid and is wearing a TIE, for crying out loud, dude!) whereas the heroes are US, the uber-cool who wear over-sized wrist-watches, trendy t-shirts, shave their heads to get over a break-up, live in chic flats (or decrepit flats which are chic in their own way, see above), speed on the highways, drink orange juice from the cartons but forget to get up to fill up the bucket when the water supply is on (getting up in the morning is so blah and aastha-channel-like, right, my friend?).

The culture in which real work is boring and better left to the illiterati, and creative professions such as journalism, photography, illustration, music-video-production, etc. (the new media jobs, which are primarily driven by the engine of consumerism and disposable cash) are where fulfillment truly lies. Quite a few of Aamir Khan Productions' last few films have been telling people that if you just end up in a normal profession (unconnected to the media that is), you ain't cool. That if you fail in math, it is ok, because you are a great painter, see? In essence: That to be chic is more important than to be useful. The corollary is obviously: That to be rich, by whatever means, is more important than to provide value to others.

And then we wonder where we are headed. We are not the only country which is corrupt or consumerist, but we are uniquely placed as a nation which has a free media pumping desire like all get out, where vast swathes of young people are suddenly prosperous and can at least imitate if not live a western lifestyle, and where it is too much effort to think about the costs of this sudden affluence and consumption on the hinterland which is more and more like Africa. We may institutionalize means of thwarting corruption, but as our literate population laps up the message of consumerism, live-for-the-moment and short-term opportunism, sex-not-relationship as the ideal, coolness versus substance as what is important, we should not then be surprised when the Haryanvi drop-out rapes the skimpily dressed BPO employee, when maids from West Bengal or from Nepal murder their masters, when the passport office employee or the policeman are full of resentment towards the prosperity that they see burgeoning around them and demand a piece of the pie from what-have-you-done-to-deserve-seventy-k-a-month-you-just-graduated-son-of-a-bitch-offshore-slave-of-uncle-sam, and when people need private guards for their mansions in Greater Noida (which overlook Golf courses built on the graves of farmers).

I am sorry. I just could not take Delhi Belly lightly. I did not laugh once during the film. It was not funny to me. Maybe, as was advised in the film, I need to "loosen up and chill".

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"I Love Shahrukh Khan"

The first thing to note is: You do not know Shahrukh Khan. You have seen, on screen, the characters he has played. He is an actor, and a rather mediocre one at that. He has never even been nominated for an international film festival award, for example.

Whenever somebody (usually a woman) says they love Shahrukh Khan, you can assume that they've been had. They are in love with a manufactured good.

Nobody loves screenwriters or music composers. People mistakenly have crushes on actors and actresses because the characters they play are designed to be lovable. It is to mistake a greeting card for a greeting.

It would all be rather funny, were it not that it is leading to depression and impotence and frigidity when it comes to interactions with real flesh-and-blood human beings. How can a real spouse compete with the manufactured image of an ideal spouse?

We expect our friends and lovers to be at least approximate the caricatures manufactured by media. You may say that you do not. But you are not you, you are your influences, which more than ever are meant to morph you into a pliable consumer of entertainment and shiny gadgets. Subconsciously, you are comparing people with what you have seen on the screen.

You say, "Cute", "cool", "chic", "crass", "gross". I say, "brainwashed".

Is the body fake? Check.
Is the voice fake? Check.
Is the emotion fake? Check.
Is the expression fake? Check.
Are the situations carefully designed? Check.
Is the feeling that you get fake? Nope.
Have you been had? Check.

I think it is reasonable to suspend disbelief in a movie theater. But what if movies are the prime vector of your cultural education?

And when reality hits, and you commit suicide, people wonder why you couldn't be well-adjusted.

Shahrukh Khan is in the business of manufacturing dreams. And if you believe otherwise, may god save your soul.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lucas by David Seltzer

A sentimental ode to adolescent romances, a grave study of the sexual marketplace, a treatise on "coming of age", a Hollywood film which transcends genre limitations, this is a lesser-known film starring Corey Haim in a tour de force performance.

There are many memorable scenes in this film. My favorite comes ten minutes into the film when a bunch of jocks carry Lucas to the dais, trying to humiliate him. And he turns the tables on everybody, but not quite. He leaves defeated, but not before showing us all what a gem of a person he is.

I found it distressing that such a gifted actor died of drug-abuse at a young age.

Highly recommended. The stellar review by Roger Ebert is here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Songs from the Second Floor

Here are some of my favorite songs. Almost all of them have come to me via good friends, over many many years.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

An Incisive Comment ...

On a rather academic article. (Thanks to Darshan for the link)

The comment goes:
One of the emerging conclusions of neurology is that the idea of a single "true self" must be discarded. We have no indivisible soul; we have multiple systems acting independently, thinking different things -- ... Those systems may be in tension -- base hormones are telling me I want a cookie, even when my frontal cortex is labeling the desire as unwise. Tension demands resolution, but this demand need not be met. Sustained tension can be either productive -- the relation between parts becoming part of a whole self -- or destructive, in which case growth or healing will seek to resolve the tension one way or the other, by making one system ascendant over the competing systems.

To "I think, therefore I am," I respond "I think many things, and therefore am many things."

The Last Article by Harry Turtledove

Blurb from the Harry Turtledove Wiki
The Last Article is a short story by Harry Turtledove (originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1988; reprinted in Kaleidoscope; The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century). It is an alternate history which depicts the occupation of India by the Nazis during World War II. Mohandas Gandhi continues to employ techniques of Satyagraha against the occupation forces led by Field Marshal Walter Model.
I had been looking for this story for a while, and finally found it. Interested people may read/download it here.

On Men and Women, Part III

Let's consider that both men and women have a nature, which makes them act in certain ways. Their nature is an effect of their distinct reproductive functions.

In the civilized world, however, men's nature is increasingly under attack, and women's nature is increasingly under protection.

A man acting according to his instincts is considered a brute.
A woman acting according to her instincts is considered virtuous.

A man wanting a no-strings-attached physical relationship is considered a cad.
A woman wanting a commitment for life is considered the paragon of virtue.

A man wanting to be promiscuous is considered anti-social.
A woman wanting serial monogamy is considered a victim of circumstances.

A man's desire for "just that" is considered animal-like and worthy of condemnation.
A woman's desire for "not just that" is considered family-oriented and worthy of admiration.

If we consider the stability of the family unit as a worthy goal, worthier than the happiness of its constituents, then it is obvious that a long-term commitment (that is, Marriage) which go against male nature is the primary yoke that society is enforcing.

The institution of marriage, and the legal safeguards it offers women, is more commonly a burden and restriction for men than for women. This observation will be rather unacceptable to many modern women, but consider the obvious fact that male mammals want to run away (after impregnating, they lose interest), whereas female mammals want to hold them down to provide for them (their interest continues, and becomes more significant after getting impregnated).

The woman seeking long-term commitments is as much a fact of life as a man seeking to spread his seed far and wide. I don't think this fact is going to change anytime soon as it is in our DNA.

It is easy to see that the female's instincts lead to the secure upbringing of the offspring. On the other hand a question might be asked whether an alpha male contributes to the propagation of the species by his philandering.

Of course he does. He increases the overall fitness of the population by making sure his (better) seed gets wider reception. If the rule of "one man one woman" is strictly enforced, then over time the genetic fitness of the population will wither. It is a rather obvious conclusion of Darwinian selection.

An acceptance of and a mutual respect for each other's distinct sexual nature is getting rarer these days. I wonder sometimes if that is such a good thing.

(to be continued)

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Rage of the Middle Class

The current fasts and ultimatums by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev in India, and the subsequent responses by the government, are a phenomenon worthy of deeper analysis.

What is going on? What about "democracy" and why aren't these people resorting to "democratic" means? Why aren't they standing for elected offices? What is corruption, really?

In my opinion, this phenomenon can be seen as the rage of a disenfranchised middle class towards what it considers illegitimate power.

India is a mostly poor, illiterate, agrarian, religious nation. The political power in India lies with a certain elite who can manage to rally the ignorant and the poor behind them by promising short-term, caste or religion oriented, or populist gains. On the other hand, the corporate power lies with a different set of elites who are managing the economy very "resourcefully".

In short, political power is the fiefdom of the leaders of ignoranti, who are joined in their endeavor by the capitalist elite.

Middle classes, the salaried, tax-paying, fixed-depositing, diabetic, high-blood-pressure, worrying about television and pranayama classes have no representative in these times. Even in big cities, the vote banks lie with the poor, the illegal settlers, the religious fanatics, the ones who vote on strict pragmatic considerations of benefits offered, and so on.

The middle classes are aghast that both the filthy poor and the filthy rich are milking them dry. But they have no real recourse. The legal system is dysfunctional, the middle classes neither have the time nor the ability to enter politics or to fight court battles (except against each other), and they are wondering if democracy is really such a good thing for them. They are taxed, but they have no voice. Their money goes to the poor (think free power) and to the privileged rich (think CWG) alike.

Media seems to be their only friend, even if a hoary and shrill one. They are the target audience for most of what goes on on television. The only good reason for an intellectual to watch television these days (I think) is to gauge what the middle classes are interested in: gadgets, cooking oils, air conditioners, song and dance, infotainment, urban crime stories, etc.

Democracy is not coming to their aid because of a number of reasons:
  • They don't vote, already pessimistic that the other vote banks are far more powerful.
  • They are not organized, and hence have almost no lobbying power.
  • Due to the career progressions and the invasion of the knowledge economy, they are being scattered far and wide, and far too often, across the country.
  • They are living in a media-fed cocoon with no time for anything except their domestic concerns and rising bills.
  • Due to the way they bring up their kids, all moral, non-violent and risk-averse, their kids don't end up being political leaders or corporate plunderers.
But, and especially since the markets have opened up, their discontent is rising, their sense of entitlement is becoming more flagrant and insistent, and there is growing sense of helplessness, unease and rage.

In this environment, when they understand that the political leaders serve either the very rich or the very poor (the former because of their money, the latter because of their numbers), the middle classes are frustrated due to their lack of power. This frustration stems from the realization that at least for the foreseeable future, there is not going to be any real change. The poor will continue to vote corrupt leaders into power, and the rich will continue to exact their pound of flesh.

What are the middle classes to do?

They, not unsurprisingly, spit at the system, the democratic process, the institutions of the state and want a short-circuit path to glory where they lord over both the filthy rich and the filthy poor. They don't have any leaders, and people such as Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare are not really politically astute. Nor is there hope that they will have a great political leader anytime soon. Any political leader in today's system has to: a) appeal to the illiterate masses, b) have a nexus with the corporates. The middle classes are handicapped when it comes to both of these. They are educated enough not to mouth jingoistic platitudes to win ovations, and they are also not versed enough in the "ways of the world" (or insensitive enough) to hobnob with the rich and lord over umpteen servants regarding them as sub-human creatures.

They are mediocre, and they don't have much of a say.

Hence, they are saying (through Anna Hazare and through Baba Ramdev) that processes and voting be damned, just give us the power and the money back. The media being their daddy, is making it appear as if there is a nation-wide consensus over their demands, when in fact there isn't. The intellectuals are aghast at their shrillness and their painfully naive rhetoric tinged with religious undertones to short-circuit process and institutions, the rich are a little cautious and are watching the scene unfold, the poor are not in the picture at all.

The demands of the middle classes (despite impressions to the contrary) are not the same as those of the much more numerous poor, and are definitely not the same as those of the much more powerful rich. The poor want short-term remedies: reservations, free rice, free power, low-cost diesel, freedom from regulation (environmental, economic, educational, and so on). The rich want the status-quo: privilege, opacity, a crony police force, a subservient executive, a consumerist ethos...

Even amongst the middle class, there is a great majority which evades taxes, encroaches upon public land (just an extended porch or a driveway, usually, but still), and gloats whenever they are able to run through a red light.

Hence, their leader, if at all he comes up, will always lose when fighting against the establishment. They have no chance in hell of making a dent in the current system through democratic processes. And they know it.

The middle classes, being a minority, want their values imposed on the majority. They are certainly becoming a more sizable minority, and may even outstrip major caste-based vote banks. But there is another curious reason why they will never have faith in democracy: they are narcissistic. They have some ego, these days. And an unfulfilled one. They are neither too poor not to have an ego, nor too rich to have it constantly gratified.

And their pattern of thinking is: Just because I want something, it should be done. Telly tells me so, no? To have their vote and protest and online petition go waste because the opposing block of votes was bigger is a big blow to their world-view. They don't want to participate in the system, ever. What a fucked-up system, they say to themselves.

And want Ramdev to go on a fast to bring them quick justice.

100% justice in two years, as he says.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Cultural Factor in Suicides

It is axiomatic that someone kills himself if he is deeply unhappy or depressed about life.

It is not that simple, however, to analyze the wider, economic and cultural causes of such unhappiness and depression.

I find it is a useful device to divide the suicides into two categories: of those who have material complaints, and those who have psychological ones (some of which are due to immediate provocations, an example being this). The rationale for this division will be apparent in a moment.

In the former category are the suicides of debt-ridden farmers, of a person in painfully bad health, of someone who has lost a lot of money or a close relative, etc. One rarely reads about these kinds of suicides as they are not really newsworthy.

In the latter category are the suicides one reads about in the papers: Pre-20 lovers jumping to their death, denial of a TV remote leading to suicide, bad score in the exams triggering an overdose of sleeping pills, etc. These are suicides coming out of situations which seem quite tolerable, and where one reading such news wonders, "But why?".

One wonders if the parents were too harsh, if there was a lot of pressure on the youngsters to conform and perform well, and so on.

I think one needs to ask another question in these situations. That question, being more diffusely directed, is not as interesting, but can lead to insight.

Consider the following propositions:
  • Stress can be socially induced. In the absence of comparison with other humans, the comparisons are media-driven.
  • The nuclear family in a metropolis is an isolated unit, its best friend being the television.
  • The lesser the number of human beings one relates to in a significant manner, the more amplified are the emotional reactions in the thereby reduced number of relationships.
  • The media ideal now-a-days (for the middle classes), be it about beauty, wealth, charisma, comfort, trendiness, and so on, is pretty much unachievable in most ways unless one becomes a part of a "mill of slaves" which in itself is highly distressing because it curtails autonomy.
  • One is unhappy to the extent that one's expectations are not being met. Who creates those expectations?
  • The lesser the expectation from oneself, usually the more expectations one has from "life".

It must be clear what I am trying to say: There are environmental and cultural factors which lead one to have an unrealistic expectation from life, and from other human beings. When these expectations are not met, or when one is apprehensive of oneself not meeting the devouring expectations of one's "loved" ones, suicide can loom as a possibility.

When a low-scoring kid from a nuclear family commits suicide, people generally think, "Oh, but the parents must have had high expectations from the poor child. They should have taken it easy and not put so much pressure on the child." This is somewhat valid, but ignores that parents are also part of an ecosystem. Given their alienation and isolation, their entire emotional energy is focused on the child. And given the increasing ruthlessness of a market-driven economy, their concern about the future well-being of their kid is not unfounded. And pressure from parents is just part of the picture. With a cool-winner-takes-all, losers-should-just-die, message being incessantly blared from the television and films and music videos, failure of any kind is more and more an intolerable blow to the ego.

It is the ego-wound which precipitates such suicides. For this, I hold the culture responsible. The prevailing culture of individualism and narcissism has made the ego very fragile. One is so much more invested in one's persona than in the past.

And that kind of investment can't bear any losses.

More and more "right" parenting is becoming a chimera about which hundreds of books are being written. Like dandruff, the more superficial remedies there are, the more one should suspect the problem to have deeper causes.

The parents can't really do much in this environment. They are competing (with the force of their expectations) with the economic forces and the forces of the media. If they let up, the child will either be gobbled up by the media, or lose out and become a BPO worker. There is also a crop of messengers(ref the educational films by Aamir Khan, and the various books by writers like Paulo Coelho) which give the rather beautifully feel-good fatalistic message that every child can grow into someone beautiful only if the parents and the teachers don't try to direct his growth and just provide a soil for the "seed" to find its own light.

That's very bad advice, for a number of reasons. For one, the expectation of growing into something beautiful is going to be even more insistent. The parents will say, "Ok, you don't want to study. But at least be a world-class painter." Secondly, not every child has a gift. Most are going to be regular people. Thirdly, if the parents and teachers stop directing, what else is going to fill up that void of a lack of influence and direction? You guessed it: the media. Good luck with that.

Suppose the child is unable to find "true love", or "fulfillment", or is unable to realize his "dream". Because these are fictions, the possibility is almost 100%. If he is able to withstand this disappointment, "great!", otherwise, ... , and don't just blame the parents.

Send the television to jail for ten years under section 306 (*) of the Indian Penal Code.

(* IPC 306: If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.)

Democracy and Dissent

(I do not claim to be an expert on political affairs, these are some thoughts that I wanted to share.)

Democracy is essentially the will of the majority. Hence, in a democracy, the quality of leaders is the measure of a region's quality of voters. The subversion of democratic principles can only be with the concurrence of the majority (otherwise they would rise and revolt), hence the criticism that India pays only lip-service to democracy is also a damning criticism of Indian population.

It is no use decrying a political party for using cash or bonanzas or reservations or communal slogans to buy votes. They are doing what the people want.

Given that a leader has to appeal to a vast audience, it will be only by sheer chance that there will come a great leader who will not just be an amplified version of the followers. Unless he shares the same prejudices and beliefs (but with a more astute political sense), he will not be able to win many votes.

Dissent in a democracy, if it is undemocratic, is a short-lived remedy. Very soon the establishment will find a way around it and everything will be back to business as usual.

Democratic dissent, to be useful, presupposes a high level of exposure and evolution in the voters. They can dissent only if they know what they are going through. And their demands can be visionary only if they are visionary and are not merely focused on the most immediate pain. Otherwise they will demand immediate reliefs, and perhaps get them.

Real progress, not short-term measures, comes from education, economic policy and legislative changes. Thankfully, much of that is in the hands of experts rather than political leaders who are merely signatories to bills presented in the parliament. Though of course, the experts can only do so much in the face of a cattle-like populace.

A threat of violence, or of suicide, will be very unlikely to bring about a major beneficial change because people will fall back to their median ways soon after. If anything, it will undermine democracy and encourage people to follow similar ways.

A cancer having environmental or constitutional causes cannot be cured by violent excision. It will relapse, or the organism will be killed in the process.

The only remedy is to study the causes, the environmental and constitutional factors which are leading to the cancer, and to address them, incrementally, slowly, with determination.

In India there are indeed identifiable factors of both kinds, and they nourish each other:
  • A history of fatalism and spirituality.
  • An archaic and dysfunctional system of laws and jurisprudence.
  • Lack of proper food-grain management, which is one factor in exacerbating a malnourished and low-intelligence populace. Also significant is the lack of protein in the diet, and a few people have remarkably ingenious ideas to address this.
  • Lack of accountability in the PSUs and lack of regulation of the private sector and the financial markets. This is not just a problem in India.
  • The unnatural maintenance of military tensions with our neighbors, which results in massive expenditure on defense.
  • The lack of a simplified and well-enforced tax-regime. There is slow progress on this.
  • Lack of a reliable identification of citizens. There have been many attempts at this, and I am hopeful some recent measures will work.
  • Dependence on non-renewable energy, and poor energy management.
  • ...
A few of these can be addressed by policy measures, while many others are very volatile issues which cannot be addressed without building consensus.

Friday, June 03, 2011

It's Not About You

What an article from the NY Times!

I reproduce it here verbatim:
It's Not About You
David Brooks

Over the past few weeks, America’s colleges have sent another class of graduates off into the world. These graduates possess something of inestimable value. Nearly every sensible middle-aged person would give away all their money to be able to go back to age 22 and begin adulthood anew.

But, especially this year, one is conscious of the many ways in which this year’s graduating class has been ill served by their elders. They enter a bad job market, the hangover from decades of excessive borrowing. They inherit a ruinous federal debt.

More important, their lives have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On Men and Women, Part II

Some excerpts from Chapter VIII (Sociopsychology of the Sex War) from The Culture of Narcissism (Christopher Lasch):

It has been clear for some time that "chivalry is dead". The tradition of gallantry formerly masked and to some degree mitigated the organized oppression of women. While males monopolized political and economic power, they made their domination of women more palatable by surrounding it with an elaborate ritual of deference and politesse. They set themselves up as protectors of the weaker sex, and this cloying but useful fiction set limits to their capacity to exploit women through sheer physical force. The counterconvention of droit de seigneur, which justified the predatory exploits of the privileged classes against women socially inferior to themselves, nevertheless showed that the male sex at no time ceased to regard most women as fair game. The long history of rape and seduction, moreover, served as a reminder that animal strength remained the basis of masculine ascendancy, manifested here in its most direct and brutal form. Yet polite conventions, even when they were no more than a facade, provided women with ideological leverage in their struggle to domesticate the wildness and savagery of men. They surrounded essentially exploitative relationships with a network of reciprocal obligations, which if nothing else made exploitation easier to bear.


Democracy and feminism have now stripped the veil of courtly convention from the subordination of women, revealing the sexual antagonisms formerly concealed by the "feminine mystique". Denied illusions of comity, men and women find it more difficult than before to confront each other as friends and lovers, let alone as equals. As male supremacy becomes ideologically untenable, incapable of justifying itself as protection, men assert their domination more directly, in fantasies and occasionally in acts of raw violence. Thus the treatment of women in movies, according to one study, as shifted "from reverence to rape".

Women who abandon the security of well-defined though restrictive social roles have always exposed themselves to sexual exploitation, having surrendered the usual claims of respectability. Mary Wollstonecraft, attempting to live as a free woman, found herself brutally deserted by Gilbert Imlay. Later feminists forfeited the privileges of sex and middle-class origin when they campaigned for women's rights. Men reviled them publicly as sexless "she-men" and approached them privately as loose women. ...


What distinguishes the present time from the past is that defiance of sexual conventions less and less presents itself as a matter of individual choice, as it was for the pioneers of feminism. Since most of those conventions have already collapsed, even a woman who lays no claim to her rights nevertheless finds it diffiult to claim the traditional privileges of her sex.


All women share in the burdens as well as the benefits of "liberation", both of which can be summarized by saying that men no longer treat women as ladies.


Today women have dropped much of their sexual reserve. In the eyes of men, this makes them more accessible as sexual partners but also more threatening. Formerly men complained about women's lack of sexual response; now they find this response intimidating and agonize about their capacity to satisfy it. ... The famous Masters-Johnson report on female sexuality added to these anxieties by depicting women as sexually insatiable, inexhaustible in their capacity to experience orgasm after orgasm. ... Sexual "performance" thus becomes another weapon in the war between men and women; social inhibitions no longer prevent women from exploiting the tactical advantage which the current obsession with sexual measurement has given them.


Both men and women have come to approach personal relations with a heightened appreciation of their emotional risks. Determined to manipulate the emotions of others while protecting themselves against emotional injury, both sexes cultivate a protective shallowness, a cynical detachment they do not altogether feel but which soon becomes habitual and in any case embitters personal relations merely through its repeated profession. At the same time, people demand from personal relations the richness and intensity of a religious experience. ... The degradation of work and the impoverishment of communal life force people to turn to sexual excitement to satisfy all their emotional needs. ...

An easygoing, everyday contempt for the weaknesses of the other sex, institutionalized as folk wisdom concerning the emotional incompetence of men or the brainlessness of women, kept sexual enmity within bounds and prevented it from becoming an obsession.

Feminism and the ideology of intimacy have discredited the sexual stereotypes which kept women in their place but which also made it possible to acknowledge sexual antagonisms without raising it to the level of all-out warfare. Today the folklore of sexual differences and the acceptance of sexual friction survive only in the working class. Middle-class feminists envy the ability of working-class women to acknowledge that men get in their way without becoming man-haters. "These women are less angry at their men because they don't spend that much time with them," according to one observer. "Middle-class women (on the other hand) are the ones who were told men had to be their companions."


Not merely the cult of sexual companionship and "togetherness" but feminism itself has caused women to make new demands on men and to hate men when they fail to meet these demands. ...

The woman who rejects the stereotype of feminine weakness and dependence can no longer find much comfort in the cliche that all men are beasts. She has no choice except to believe, on the contrary, that men are human beings, and she finds it hard to forgive them when they act like animals. Although her own actions, which violate the conventions of female passivity and thus appear to men as a form of aggression, help to call up animal-like actions in males, even her understanding of this dynamic does not make it any easier to make allowances for her adversary.


"You want too much," an older woman says to a younger one. "You aren't willing to compromise. Men will never be as sensitive or aware as women are. It's just not in their nature. So you have to get used to that and be satisfied with . . . either sexual satisfaction or theoretical intelligence or being loved and not understood or else being left alone to do the things you want to do."

A woman who takes feminism seriously, as a program that aims to put the relations between men and women on a new footing, can no longer accept such a definition of available alternatives without recognizing it as a form of surrender. The younger woman rightly replies that no one should settle for less than a combination of sex, compassion, and intelligent understanding. The attempt to implement these demands, however, exposes her to repeated disappointments, especially since men appear to find the demand for tenderness as threatening to their emotional security as the demand for sexual satisfaction. Thwarted passion in turn gives rise in women to the powerful rage ...


Women's rage against men originates not only in erotic disappointments or the consciousness of oppression but in a perception of marriage as the ultimate trap, the ultimate routine in a routinized society, the ultimate expression of the banality that pervades and suffocates modern life. ... "It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he'd left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he'd expect a big dinner, and I'd spend the evening washing up, even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted." If the man protests that he is exhausted too, and that his "fascinating day" consists of drudgery and humiliation, his wife suspects that he wishes merely to give her domestic prison the appearance of a rose-covered cottage.


On the one hand, feminism aspires to change the relations between men and women so that women will no longer be forced into the role of "victim" or "shrew", in the words of Simone de Beauvoir. On the other hand, it often makes women more shrewish than ever in their daily encounters with men. This contradiction remains unavoidable as long as feminism insists that men oppress women and that this oppression is intolerable, at the same time urging women to approach men not simply as oppressors but as friends and lovers.


For many reasons, personal relations have become increasingly risky - most obviously, because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence. Men and women make extravagant demands on each other and experience irrational rage and hatred when their demands are not met. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that more and more people long for emotional detachment or "enjoy sex", as Hendin writes, "only in situations where they can define and limit the intensity of the relationship." A lesbian confesses, "The only men I've ever been able to enjoy sex with were men I didn't give a shit about. Then I could let go, because I didn't feel vulnerable."


The most prevalent form of escape from emotional complexity is promiscuity: the attempt to achieve a strict separation between sex and feeling. Here again, escape masquerades as liberation, regression as progress.


Enlightened authorities ... insist on the need to humanize sex by making it into a "total experience" instead of a mechanized performance; yet in the same breath they condemn the human emotions of jealousy and possessiveness and decry "romantic illusions". "Radical" therapeutic wisdom urges men and women to express their needs and wishes without reserve - since all needs and wishes have equal legitimacy - but warns them not to expect a single mate to satisfy them.

The humanistic critique of sexual "depersonalization" ... exhorts men and women to "get in touch with their feelings" but encourages them to make "resolutions about freedom and 'non-possessiveness,'" as Ingrid Bengis writes, which "tear the very heart out of intimacy."


Today men and women seek escape from emotion not only because they have suffered too many wounds from emotion but because they experience their own inner impulses as intolerably urgent and menacing. ... it is the very character of those needs (and of the defenses erected against them) which gives rise to the belief that they cannot be satisfied in heterosexual relations - perhaps should not be satisfied in any form - and which therefore prompts people to withdraw from intense emotional encounters.

Instinctual desires always threaten psychic equilibrium and for this reason can never be given direct expression. In our society, however, they present themselves as intolerably menacing, in part because the collapse of authority has removed so many of the external prohibitions against the expression of dangerous impulses. The superego can no longer ally itself, in its battle against impulse, with outside authorities. It has to rely almost entirely on its own resources, and these too have diminished in their effectiveness.


The narcissist feels consumed by his own appetites. ... He longs to free himself from his own hunger and rage, to achieve a calm detachment beyond emotion, and to outgrow his dependence on others. He longs for the indifference to human relationships and to life itself that would enable him to acknowledge its passing in Kurt Vonnegut's laconic phrase, "So it goes," which so aptly expresses the ultimate aspiration of the psychiatric seeker.

But although the psychological man of our times frightens himself with the intensity of his inner needs, the needs of others appall him no less than his own. One reason the demands he inadvertently imposes on others make him uneasy is that they may justify others in making demands on himself Men especially fear the demands of women, not only because women no longer hesitate to press them but because men find it so difficult to imagine an emotional need that does not wish to consume whatever it seizes on.

Women today ask for two things in their relations with men: sexual satisfaction and tenderness. Whether separately or in combination, both demands seem to convey to many males the same message - that women are voracious, insatiable.


Whereas the resentment of women against men for the most part has solid roots in the discrimination and sexual danger to which women are constantly exposed, the resentment of men against women, when men still control most of the power and wealth in society yet feel themselves threatened on every hand - intimidated, emasculated - appears deeply irrational, and for that reason not likely to be appeased by changes in feminist tactics designed to reassure men that liberated women threaten no one.


The abolition of sexual tensions is an unworthy goal in any case; the point is to live with them more gracefully than we have lived with them in the past.

(to be continued)