Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Of Nightmares

I read this today.

My first reaction was 'Will I have to live in dread that the day will come when it will be me, my family that is running from the mob'

In the past, on occasion, I've expressed to a few of my close friends how, in quite a personal way, I feel threatened by all the communal violence. They don't seem to get it – or at least, they didn’t then. As it so happens, all of them belong to Hindu families - which is something that is quite strange to vocalise because it is barely in one's consciousness and never factors into any part of our dynamic.Sadly now, it has everything to do with it.

Despite the fact that they are extremely aware and intelligent, they simply don’t understand what the fuss is all about, why I'm so hot and bothered, why this seems to affect me so deeply. But let me qualify my remarks though before they offend. What I mean, is simply this - a white man in 1950s New York could never really know what it felt like to be black in Mississippi – the lynching and the mobs might have appalled him but he’d never ever relate simply because it is not the kind of stick that you can ever accurately imagine yourself at the other end of.

With my friends, I can see in their eyes this lack of comprehension, the unspoken insinuation that surely I’m over-reacting because the thing is, because no matter how much one might extrapolate, how one might try, it is incredibly difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose existence is threatened by just their identity. So, while, to my friends, this persecution is too far away, removed from their reality, something to click their tongue at in sympathetic resignation and then forget,to me, it's real - a distant but looming threat that clouds my mind with 'someday what ifs'.

To their mind, it could never actually get so bad that I would be in any danger. And god knows, I hope they are right. But I just don't have that kind of implicit faith in our society anymore.We have too volatile a dynamic. And time and again in our recent history we have seen the smallest incident trigger such phenomenal violence. As a nation we are scarred by those memories. And ashamed. (or atleast we should be) But as individuals that were not directly affected, many of us remain largely detached. In the immediate after-math we are of course appalled at the extent of human cruelty, sympathetic to the victims but too easily we transition into conveniently tut-tutting our collective guilt away. Perhaps it is easy to, because it happened to THEM - someone, somewhere that we simply don’t identify with.

While that is understandable, it does not make it forgivable. I always imagined it was and would always be a Hindu-Muslim tussle - Centuries-old resentment mixing with fresh poison - and while I did empathize, there was also a lot of resignation that went with it. And so I distanced myself. Saddened and sympathetic - but in real terms, unaffected – not unlike my friends until a few years ago, when it finally dawned on me that I , as it turned out, am part of that THEM.

The images of the terrible carnage in that horrendous episode in Gujarat that were splashed across papers and screens left stains on my soul. It was the first time in my life that I sobbed for someone I did not know. It left me for days unable to speak, completely ashamed of my countrymen, deeply admiring of those that stood up against it and lent a hand and determined that I would never stay silent again. Since then, my thoughts on this have only precipitated further. I am now acutely aware of how the little-est of incidents can so easily escalate into something mammoth, how religious hatred is routinely condoned, if not actively fostered, how much this erodes at the fibre of our society, how important it is that the moral, logical, sensible among us, stand up and speak out vociferously against this.

Having always thought of myself as half hindu and half christian - both identities being so well integrated within me that I can no more choose one over the other than I can pick a favourite eye, I find myself now forced to separate the two. The christian in me is deeply threatened by what is happening in Orissa - one is left only to imagine whether it will sanction and set precedent for, a new wave of violence towards christians across the rest of the country? (or pretty much any minority the fundamentalists choose to target ) The Hindu in me finds this sort of violence so abhorrent. And that too in the name of Rama, so deeply shaming.

Memories of the Graeme Staines incident come rushing back as I am writing this. It was around that time that there was a strong wave of anti-christian sentiment. And it wasn't just in Orissa although it seems to always boil over from there .The violence was across the country. Churches burnt, Nuns raped, Priests murdered, Children tortured... Andhra, maharashtra, U.P, Bihar, Tamil Nadu even Kerala! And we were fearful. In churches they prayed for peace, and were counselled to be patient, to have faith, that it would pass. But every christian I met, was deeply disturbed. In hushed tones they murmured to each other 'Now, I can imagine what it can feel like to be a Muslim in this country'. Except that it was worse. There was an overriding sense of helplessness that hung about them - They just didn't know what to do. The christian community is still small and insignificant. They could not retaliate. They would not get violent. They just took it. I remember that year well - marked by grave conversations and even graver jokes about how the RSS was bored of persecuting muslims and had decided to pick on the christians for a change. I remember feeling helpless myself and thinking that the Muslim community would never have taken this lying down. In the throes of my misguided 15 year old indignation, I fantasized about lining those murderous bastards up and having them shot for doing this. I remember swearing in dead seriousness that I would leave the country before I was betrayed by it.

And now, 8 years later, it seems to be happening all over again. Deep inside me there is an abiding fear that my friends are wrong and there could come a day when I will be made to feel a stranger in my own country. That it will not matter who I am or what I believe, only that I have one foot in the wrong side of the statistic. Everything else about me will cease to matter in the face of the religious fundamentalism that seems these days to lurk round every corner. I have nightmares, that to the madding crowd, I will not be Indian, nor tamizh or mangalorean, just christian - the daughter of a Catholic man and an Iyer woman who brought shame to her community by marrying him.


Post Script : A poem that hangs on a wall in my mother's office perfectly describes my sentiments. She has it there to remind her of the evils of everyday apathy. And even though I have already quoted it here, I want to again. It encapsulates how I feel - it is my nightmare.

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

--- Pastor Martin Niemöller

Sunday, August 24, 2008


I've been getting way too many complaints about how my blog is difficult to read because of the font/background contrast thingamajigs..

So, there. This drab no-nonsense template must suffice until one is at leisure to make it a little more pleasing to the eye.

The thesis is all consuming... And frustratingly, a million ideas will want to flower just when I have no time to put them down. But I will be in India soon with more time than I know what to do with. One is of course, in true form, terrified that the minute there is time, the idea tap will clog and the words will dry up.

Uffff!!!!! Aaaargggh!! Ayyoooo! and all that...

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Avatar

Those black beads of anger pierce and stare.
No trace of 'you' anywhere.
Only bulging belligerence.
The eyes. The look.
The curl of contempt
scathe like venom from honeyed lips.
And oh, that throbbing vein does evidence.
How frightful you are when you rage.
Unrecognizable - I'll say it again.
With your claws unsheathed.
Vicious, cold and unaware
of the way your face contorts and nostrils flare.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Corporate Grease

I was woken up by the shrill trilling of the phone last night. It was Akshara. I looked across the room to the blue digits of the clock on the wall, it was 4 AM. 'What time is it there? Did I wake you up?' she asks hurriedly. I manage a 'no' , knowing she wouldn't call unless it was important - 'It's ok' I mumble, 'Tell me, what's up' .

'He just won't take the hint!! And I'm so fed up, what do i do? ' , she cried, the irritation bordering on distress evident in the strained higher pitch. 'You won't believe what he did this morning, he put me in such a spot, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except to just keep gently but firmly rebuffing him.' My protective 'you shouldn't have to take this kinda crap' feelings aside, I knew she was right. So far, there was nothing she could do except coldly ignore him. So, I nodded, sighed and just listened as she filled me in on the morning's incident.

She had met him at work, at a job she began not two months ago. It was the perfect job. Everything she was looking for. A fresh start. It was almost providential, the way it had materialized. They had been really impressed and made it clear that they wanted her on board almost immediately. I had been so proud. She'd been brave and ridden out some storms and definitely deserved a break. So when she finally did start working there I couldn't have been happier for her. Everything was taking an up-swing. Until this.

In our post-first-day dissection she jokingly remarked, ' There's something greasy about him and I'm not referring to the tub of gel he works into his hair every morning' . We just laughed girlishly, not really thinking too much about it then. But It wasn't very long before she mentioned him again. He had begun dropping by her desk a couple of times a day with absolutely no business to discuss, just 'chatting her up' . Something about what should have been perceived as just a friendly gesture felt off. As she put it , 'greasy guy is just a little too nice'. I suggested rather flippantly at the time that perhaps she was reading too much into it. As it so happened she wasn't.

Things at her old office were very different. The atmosphere was much more open and the manner amongst hierarchy was one of familiarity. But that was a big MNC in Mumbai. Here, somehow, in madras, it doesn't sit right. Even though everybody in her office is quite young, there is something about the culture of the city that makes informality beyond using first names seem too forced. So when she first told me about greasy guy, I jumped to the conclusion that this was all it was - a difference of opinion about office formality.

It is a well-known but small establishment, where she works, the kind of place where you cannot afford to dislike anyone or be disliked, because you're thrown in together with pretty much everybody in the course of work - It is what one may call a 'close-knit corporate team' - a bit of a euphemism that is often used to describe an organisation that is understaffed and overworked. Be that as it may, as in the normal course of things, she was introduced to him. He is one of her superiors. Not someone she is directly accountable to. But definitely one of the bosses.

He is divorced, he confesses to her among many other things, at what he tells her is a team lunch. He shows no sign of embarrassment when, as she asks to wait to order, he tells her that unfortunately no one else can make it. Brazenly, laughing, he adds that he is glad they can't, almost daring her to call his outrageous bluff, perhaps even leave. She fumes silently, not wanting to antagonize a superior at her new job, pretending to be interested, through a meal where he proceeds to talk solely about himself. That afternoon as she recounts it to me in a hurried chat session, she vows she will avoid him at all costs and that will hopefully be that. He calls her four times that sunday.

Later that week he presses her repeatedly to go out with him. Have a drink, take a long drive, go for a movie. She tells him over and over again, that she can't. Firmly, no - concocting an array of excuses all clearly untrue, hoping he will take the hint. He doesn't. We wonder why he has no pride, why he won't just stop asking after such repeated rejection? Why doesn't he see that being her boss and putting her in such a position amounts to harrassment. Perhaps he does. And he likes it.

She doesn't laugh easily at work anymore - banter with colleagues is inhibited - he seems to somehow always surface. He lurks, greasy guy does. Amidst the others, he throws her knowing looks, like they are close friends forced to formality. He winks at her and smiles, and others see this, but not her cold looks. She is furious, afraid her colleagues will perceive something that is not. So, she works harder than ever these days. barely looking up, filling every moment in activity, skipping lunch with colleagues so she doesn't have to see him. He still calls her unnecessarily. She doesn't pick up.

Coming from a big corporate environment, inundated with feedback forms and a mechanism in place, however (in)effective, to protect from this, she is unsure of what to do presently. She is afraid that it will come down to her word against his and he will smarmily deny it. Except for the 11.45 PM telephone calls, I remind her, there is proof of that. That there haven't been any remarks or conduct of a sexual nature is something she clings to. She thinks (or hopes) he's just another one of those boorish men who simply won't take no for an answer but is intrinsically harmless. I think staying quiet and hoping for the best is taking a biggish risk.

Yesterday, he informs her of the new little mini-project they must work on together, just the two of them , he says with a big smile. He's arranged it with her boss and everything. It turns out to be legitimate, even if her contribution is unnecessary. Obviously she can't refuse. It is work. Nevermind that now she is forced to spend much more time alone with him, in a conference room, possibly having to fend off more direct advances. I tell her, that the next time he asks her about anything outside of work or tries to contact her after hours, she must be polite but firm in telling him that she doesn't appreciate this kind of behaviour and finds it inappropriate. In the meanwhile that she should talk to the other women at work, find out if greasy guy has made a pass at anyone else in the pass. Or at worst she must talk to her boss. Another friend suggests she lie and tell him that she is engaged. It's a small office, I don't think she can sustain the lie. Besides, I suspect that it won't faze him. It is not love or any genuine feeling that drives this man, neither does a fear of any perceived impropriety. He's 17 years older than she is. And he can't take no for an answer. You'd think he'd have some sense, the old, greasy fuck. Is it some form of sadism, to watch her squirm silently, to feel power over her ? Is it a game?

I do not want to say it to her, because I don't want her to think it's her fault, it isn't. His attentions were rebuffed as soon as they were recognized. But I know how people can be. Her open, friendly girlishness is attractive - as is her ready laugh and smiley eyes. Maybe he takes this as invitation. I know that many men are narcissistic enough to think it is all aimed at them. Maybe it is that she is open about enjoying a drink that he has misinterpreted - the old 'women who drink are women who are loose' and therefore fair game. Something I've heard all too often for me not to make the association. Maybe it is that she is 'modern' in a city that is still mind-blowingly conservative. But I do not want to blame a culture, a city, however prejudiced, for this man's indiscretions. I will not make excuses for someone just because he fits a stereotype.

Tomorrow, they begin their joint project. I'm hoping for her sake he will be professional, stick to work and toe the line, even if barely. Going by the past few weeks, maybe it's expecting too much. These things more often escalate than die down I'm told. So, in the meanwhile, I guess I'll turn the volume up on my ringer just in case she calls. From 5000 miles away, the only thing I can really do is hope and listen.


UPDATE : In the short time since I've put this post up, I've already heard from quite a few people. All of whom, (four of them being very sympathetic men) know at least 1 person who has suffered through this sort of thing or worse. Appalled enough by how things can be to write this, I'm horrified even further as it occurs to me that perhaps it is far more rampant than I imagined.
I always imagined that when this sort of thing happened, only meek women wouldn't have the courage to speak up. Now I see that sometimes speaking up has consequences that forces one into situations where it means choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. It can mean setting yourself up for public scrutiny, accusations of mis-conduct (because ofcourse, a woman invites all the attention she is bestowed with) and many aspersions of guilt.

While it's all very fine to rant academically about this kind of thing, those lucky enough to work in a great environment (including me) have little idea what it can be like to have deal with this on a day-to-day basis. Especially for those that work in organisations that don't provide a framework of liability/accountability to check this kind of misbehaviour. Behaviour that is clearly improper, that makes it very difficult for a woman to work and yet doesn't cross over into what ( I think) would constitute sexual harassment. Does anyone know what the line is? Legally, maybe?