Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Narrow Corner

Short, therefore, is man’s life and narrow is the corner of the earth wherein he dwells. – Somerset Maugham

I stand at the cusp of 22 and look back at the years that have fled by. I suddenly feel like the man from Caspar Friedrich’s painting the ‘wanderer above the sea of fog’. I understand him now. I am sure I do this time. Four years ago I tried to look through his eyes down into the fog. I was a bored first year law student and had not lost my love for the written word yet. I composed a post on my dreams of being a carefree traveler and posted it on my blog with a picture of the wanderer. I had imagined that he was a vagabond, resting for a brief moment upon a precipice, taking in the slightly obscured magnificence of the distant mountains, and listening to the endless, tireless rendition of the wind's symphony before he continued his walk down the dusty roads. A friend of mine commented that he looked more like a rich nincompoop than a free traveler besieged with wanderlust. But to me he was a hero with his back turned to the world, living a dream out, just like I hoped to someday. I was sure his eyes shone with the glimmer of forbidden cities of gold and the wisdom that only the road teaches. Meanwhile, my road stretched winding with many a detour. Some dreams have faded, some lie as dead as road kill and a few have survived on a barren wasteland that my mind is in danger of becoming. With time and time’s ceaseless conspiracies, my world shrunk in commensurate measure to the shrinking of the frontiers of possibilities that my imagination could conceive. Today I glimpsed the narrow corner that I had created for myself. My corner in a row of cubicles and a pile of taxpayer’s forms, a corner that I jostle for in a crowd of people, elbowing them away from my space. If ever in a surreal dream I stepped into the painting and tapped the shoulder of the wanderer, he would turn his head towards me, and I would see a familiar sight. He would have a mirror in place of a face and I would see the listless visage of one who has wandered about hoping to be swept by the tides of adventure, but instead ended up walking into a corner. The wanderer and I stare into the fog, knowing that there is much that we will never see, know or learn from while trapped in our narrow corners.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lipstick is not Empowerment

Today in the morning I was flipping through the pages of a supplement to a leading newspaper when I found a full page advertisement for a beauty and fitness clinic. Nothing out of the ordinary about that! Salons, slimming centres, gyms and skin clinics are making roaring business with us gorging on growth hormone injected-pesticide sprayed-calorie loaded delectables and then huffing and puffing on treadmills like a wolf that already ate two piglets. But what caught my attention was that the ad screamed in bold letters, 'Make a resolution to live powerfully, this New Year' next to a picture of a sylph like woman with a measuring tape wrapped as tight as a boa constrictor around her waist, and a lady with flawless skin staring smugly at a not so flawless me. Apparently blasting at body hair with lasers is empowering. I personally would feel a lot more empowered if somebody gave me a laser gun to defend myself just in case Mars attacks!! And oh!! there was a 'special offer on botox'. Just the thing that we women need, painful shots of neurotoxins. Ahh... ladies...feel the poison coursing through you, don’t you feel like you could conquer the world armed with your mask like frozen visage? My intention is not to judge cosmetic surgery. I suppose it may be a personal choice. But it is my problem, and it is everybody’s problem, when cosmetic surgery and other beauty treatments are projected as empowering. If anything they are setback to centuries of progress made by women.

But notice the theme of empowerment that run through almost every advertisement for beauty products. Apply a skin lightening cream like Fair and Lovely for eg. and land yourself a job, make your parents proud and also marry a rich, handsome guy. Light skin = empowerment. Slather yourself with anti ageing cream ala Ponds age miracle and get your insensitive husband to finally pay you some attention and regain control in your marriage. No wrinkles = empowerment, Botox = Empowerment, Implants = Empowerment, Laser Eye Surgery for cosmetic reasons = Empowerment!!! We all have insecurities, a fear of old age and death in varying amounts and manufacturers and marketing professionals would naturally prey on these. But disguising products that hold us captive to our fears as empowering is the last straw. Attention to physical ideals of beauty is as old as history. From Cleopatra’s lead based eye shadows, the Indus Valley beads to the elaborate wigs of various periods - make up and articles of adornment endure as symbols of the ideals of perfection and beauty of an era. But where do we draw the line between adornment and obsession? Many women go through their lifetime feeling inadequate and unhappy about their selves. A gnawing fear of losing one’s job, promotion, and partner if signs of age are not warded off like a plague eats into the collective psyche of all women. Many women can no longer be shackled by illiteracy, disenfranchisement or denial of equality in the workplace. But they are prisoners of their own bodies.

Naomi Wolf in her book ‘The Beauty Myth’ analyses this phenomenon. She argues that notions of beauty keep women under control by the weight of their own insecurities. Women expend considerable time and resources and subject themselves to insanely expensive, risky and complicated procedures in a never ending pursuit of beauty. Of course it makes evolutionary sense to maintain a degree of physical attractiveness, but the present trend of treating cosmetic surgery like just another pedicure is disturbing. Many women brush away these questions with the retort that they want to look good for themselves! Fair enough, nothing wrong about that. But beauty in itself has become a social construct. This construct needs to be demolished. In a society where people are stigmatized because of their skin colour, body shape and other aspects of physical appearance it is easy to be misled into construing a release from these so called defects as freedom and empowering. But in subscribing to these notions we are only falling deeper and deeper into a pit of self loathing. What a superficial society have we become! Freedom and empowerment would come when we break the chains of the norms of beauty and success that we are continuously brain washed into internalizing and believing by the messages that the society reinforces by behaviour and the media reiterates by images.

I agree that historically women considered beautiful have gained power and influence. But that is no reason to perceiving beauty as an essential attribute for power and success. This idea is only a cultural backlash against feminism. Lipstick feminism does not deserve to even have the glorious F word – feminism attached to it. In the guise of empowerment lipstick feminism urges women to use their sexuality and physicality to find their place in a man’s world. But why must we do it? Women do not lack in brain power or other abilities any more than men do. Why must we use ‘allure’ to obtain something that is rightfully ours? This backlash against the progress made by women by imprisoning them between narrow walls of accepted ideals of beauty adversely affects both men and women. Men are chained to ideals of masculinity as much as women are to constructs of feminity. I actually do not know how to react to the recent spate of advertisements for cosmetics targeting men. Men and women are becoming more equal – but equally confined. It is a disturbing trend with no easy solutions. The solution calls for a collective and individual introspection and a radical change in attitudes in order to foster a more healthy society in which individuality can flourish and men and women can work together in building a future free of prejudices, an equal future.

Till then, advertisers please remember – a cleft lip correction surgery might be empowerment  – but a face lift or a boob job is not – it may be a personal choice and nobody is judging – but just don’t call it ‘empowerment’.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Voting Rights for NRIs - What a waste!

The Prime Minister has announced in the 8th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that NRIs would be allowed voting rights on par with Indian citizens residing within the country. While the contribution of NRIs to the Indian economy and the improvement in the global standing of the nation ought to be recognized, and active efforts be made to protect their rights and ensure security especially in light of the recent racist attacks on Indians in countries like Australia, extending voting rights is an objectionable move on many grounds, and pertinent questions that ought to have been considered and resolved have not been adequately addressed. The NRI Voting Rights Bill was moved in 2006 in the Rajya Sabha and the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the matter was referred to the Ministry of Law and Justice. The Government should refrain from making such vague promises before the Bill is tabled in the Parliament and is open to the public for critique and discussion. Democracy is a basic structure of the Indian Constitution and any major amendment to the Representation of People’s Act that could potentially change the fabric of elections in the country must be subject to deliberation and public debate. The following issues must be addressed before the amendment is considered.  

1. Is the proposed voting right applicable to NRIs who happen to be present in the territory of India during elections or is it applicable to all NRIs irrespective of their presence or absence in the territory of India on polling day?

The most reasonable amendment seems to be to allow NRIs to enroll in the electoral list and permit those who are present within the territory of their constituency at the time of elections to vote. But there are fundamental problems with this proposal. 

(i) In a democracy the vote and the right to vote of each and every citizen carries equal value. Universal adult suffrage entails that all adult citizens be facilitated by the State in the exercise of their franchise. To this end the Election Commission of India has been empowered by the Constitution with plenary powers for the superintendence, direction and control of elections. Democracy would remain only a tantalizing promise if citizens did not have reasonably convenient means of access to polling booths to cast their votes. In the General Elections of 2009, a polling booth was set up just so that a lone voter residing in the Gir Forest could cast his vote. This is illustrative of the fact that in the six decades of India’s experience with democracy, the right to vote has largely been taken seriously and this is something that we all must be proud of. 

Behind the secrecy of ballot, suppressed women taste freedom for a brief, ephemeral moment, the poor and oppressed classes experience dignity that they are otherwise robbed of by an often apathetic state, and we are all given a chance to rise above our prejudices, bigotry, selfish interests and act with deliberation and consideration for national interest. The vote is empowerment. The vote is our voice. And the vote is our best hope for change. The right to vote is of crucial importance and the ability of every individual to exercise their franchise must be guarded fiercely. In this context, imagine if the right to vote is extended to NRIs who can visit their constituencies during election time. I suppose when most of us think of NRIs we envision accented moneybags. But it is not the affluent successful lot alone who are within the scope of consideration. Hordes of migrant labourers who leave for foreign shores in search of a livelihood that our nation has denied them are also NRIs. They work in often inhumane conditions; lead a frugal existence just to be able to save money for those they left behind when desperation pushed them away. The government does not act adequately to protect their interests. If anyone deserves the empowerment of the vote it is them. But they would obviously not be in a position to travel to India to just cast their vote. Not that I believe those who can afford to, would take the trouble and expense of doing so. So in practice granting NRIs the right to vote conditional on physical presence may not make much of a difference to the present state of affairs. But the concept is flawed as it is inherently elitist and has a class bias. It would afford only the rich the opportunity to vote.  

If the right to vote is recognized, all NRIs must be treated equally regardless of the size of their remittance or investment capability. The red carpet that is rolled out for NRIs should be for entrepreneurs and intellectuals as well as oppressed migrant labourers to tread on. It would entail reaching out to every NRI voter and facilitating their vote. This problem is faced by migrant labour in India too. But they have the option of enrolling in the place of current residence as the voter lists are constantly updated, which NRI workers do not. Hence any proposal that has the effect of protecting the rights of the elite rich alone is abhorrent to the democratic and socialist principles on which our nation is founded and violates the equality that our Constitution cherishes.

(ii) If facilities are to be provided for NRIs to cast their vote from abroad so that every person can equally exercise their right to vote, what are the options?

a.) Voting at Indian Embassies:

This proposal does not solve the access problem. Embassies are located only in capital cities. What about those spread out in other areas of a country? Moreover what about the issue of transparency? India prides herself on free and fair elections. This is possible due to an intricate system of superintendence and monitoring by civil servants, security arrangements by the police and armed forces, independent observers from organizations for civil liberties and observers deputed by the candidate. How would the same standard of monitoring be ensured? Would not deploying personnel in every country of the world to conduct elections impose an additional burden on the public exchequer? How can such a burden on the public exchequer be justified? Elections are a massive exercise and involve an immense strain on national resources in terms of both finances and manpower. With the Indian diaspora spread over the entire world, allowing NRIs to vote would only increase the complexities and expenditure involved in the election process. In a country where even the basic needs of the countless poor have not been met, where most children do not have access to education, where people are deprived of primary healthcare, sanitation and nutrition, the idea of adding an additional burden on the material resources of the community by extending the right to vote to NRIs appears to me a cruel mockery of the very ideals that the concepts of citizenship and democracy stand for. There is no cogent argument for the right to vote by NRIs that can negate the wasteful and inadvisable character of such expenditure. Until there is freedom from want for the common man and woman living in India, any such proposal is necessarily a cause for public outrage.

(b.) Online Voting:

No system of online voting can be made completely secure from fraud and tampering. Even if such a system is devised, the results of an election must be free from aspersions regarding fairness and must be transparent. The recent EVM controversy has proved how resistant to technology we still are and has emphasized the importance of a system that convinces the voter of its immunity to doubt and challenge. Anyway, online voting is not comparable to EVMs. The EVMs have been proved as tamper proof. But no internet based system is safe from attacks by malicious elements. Any breakdown in the process would bring the entire election mechanism to a standstill, posing a legal quandary about the validity of the results. The price of this chaos would have to be paid by the people of the nation.

2. Which constituency is an NRI to register in?

The residential address stated in the passport seems to be an obvious choice. But there have been suggestions that NRIs be allowed to choose their constituency. The consequences of such a provision would be serious indeed because a group of people may collectively decide to register in a particular constituency and vote. They would then essentially be remote controlling the politics of that constituency. It is a luxury not afforded to the resident citizens of India and under no circumstances must it be allowed to anybody. 

3. How will the Model Code of Conduct be enforced?

The shenanigans of political parties during election time are the stuff that legends are made of. Towering billboards with the wide smiles of candidates, walls defaced by posters and graffiti, the endless blaring of loud speakers, election rallies and processions that could put the devout fervour of temple car festivals to shame, countless promises that last as long as words written on water do… money and muscle power combine in the spectacular circus that the elections in India is. In this cacophony the strict enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct is the only respite and an attempt to provide level playing ground for all candidates. And yet we are not rid of the scourge of money power in politics and the criminalization of politics. At this juncture who is to ensure the application of Model Code of Conduct in the campaign amongst NRIs and how is to be done? 

But above all the need of the hour is a reexamination of our understanding of citizenship. There have been proposals to make voting compulsory. It is a sad state of affairs that something as fundamental as fulfilling one’s duty towards the nation and its people by sagaciously choosing a government has to be enforced. This sense of obligation has to arise naturally and no number of laws can inculcate it. Election day is treated as a holiday by the educated, affluent urban lot, even while rural voters in Maoist infested areas defy violent calls for boycott of elections and line up to cast their vote. There is a depressing sense of apathy in our national psyche. We are apathetic to the criminal antecedents of our politicians; we turn a blind eye to their corrupt ways and moral turpitude. Those of us who have had the privilege of education do not consider it necessary to vote even though it us who have the means of making an informed choice. How many of us actually have the moral standing to talk about citizenship? Citizenship is not a bundle of rights alone, but also a set of duties. Even if a person chooses to be apolitical, she has the duty to go up to the polling booth and state it. 49 – O of the Election Rules, 1961 provide for such an option for a citizen who wishes to state that she does not consider any candidate deserving of her vote. Civil and political rights are valuable rights of a citizen. Citizenship is participation. Only those who contribute to nation building deserve a say in determining the governance of the country. Then to what extent is an NRI entitled to a say in the nation’s governance? How much of a citizen are they?  

This post is not intended to deprecate NRIs in any way. But fact remains that many Indians view an opportunity to live abroad, especially in the western world, as a great escape and achievement. Many retain their Indian citizenships only because they are yet to receive the citizenship of another country. Things are changing of course, with India’s economic and political might in the international arena increasing, everybody wants a piece of the great Indian idli, but for all its global clout it is still a country where its poor lead a miserable existence and the gap between the haves and have-nots is ever increasing. It is yet to make significant process in terms research output and development of indigenous technology in comparison to other similarly situated developing nations. In our country each one of us who have had the opportunity to avail a decent education has done so at the cost of others. We have excellent institutes of higher learning but who benefits from this education when the students of these institutes leave at the first given opportunity? These Universities have been built from the common material resources of the nation. The moment students enter an institute of repute like the IITs or NITs, IIMs, Medical Colleges and National Law Schools, it seems to me that most are suffused in a glow of a feeling of entitlement. But before we let this notion of ‘merit’ inflate our egos we must understand that it was not merit but an accident of birth that led us there. We could have just as easily been somebody who did not get adequate chances, and that all our opportunities are the cost of that somebody. 

It is easy to deplore the lack of opportunities and infrastructure in the country and blame the bureaucracy and red-tapism for slow growth. Shirking responsibilities is always easy. Which is why India produces some of the world’s finest doctors, but people die in piteous suffering for want of medical care. Our Universities educate brilliant scientists, and yet, we have to import most of our technology. Nation building is not an overnight task. Infrastructure development, wealth creation and administrative reform are endeavours that require the services of educated, enterprising and honest individuals. Lack of monetary resources is not the problem that today’s India faces. It is the lack of enough discourse, research, dissemination of knowledge, active individual and collective involvement in implementation of policies that is the bane. Governments cannot change everything for the better, citizens should and must get involved. 

To leave or not to leave a country that needs educated individuals is a personal choice. Staying behind is a choice that calls for sacrifice and a certain amount of selflessness. That decision is not subject to value judgment. But that being said, true citizenship is much more than nationality. The vote is a right that has to be earned. So, the Government can make the economic environment as conducive for investment, it must protect the rights of NRIs, and it can continue with the reservation of 15% supernumerary seats in educational institutes, but let the right to vote be earned not gifted.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Sunset

The divine artist wielded her brush to adorn the sky,
To paint the distant horizon with orange flames,
They were bathed with the dying sun’s tired yellow sigh,
It was these stubborn embers that the night was trying to tame,
With a deluge of midnight blue pouring down,
Turning pale at the sun’s farewell gaze,
The soul yearned for the perfection that can be no mortal’s own,
Struggling to tear down existence’s twisted maze.
Such beauty must surely be truth’s real face,
But such perfect beauty surely cannot be true.
So much that is yet to be understood and so little the human world,
So high the aspirations of the mind, so weak the will of the body,
Entrapped in this cage of flesh and blood, the spirit struggled,
And the eyes turned for one last lingering look,
To etch it on a leaf of memory’s book,
And as the colours faded into the darkness,
The storm that raged subsided,
And that spark that glowed died into nothingness,
And the mind returned to its lethargic slumber,
Revolutions and rebellions, inventions and inspirations,
All that we hold good and true, and all that is shunned and despised,
Will merge and fade away like the colours that I saw one evening in the sky.

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