Thursday, March 23, 2017

Of Carpenter's Squares, Property, and Love in the Time of the Great Derangement[1]

 For your entertainment (and edification) this month, we've been asked to weigh in on the institution of the modern family: what might this curious phenomenon look like? What do we understand by 'normal' in the 21st century? 

Before attempting to think-write my way through the first part of this editorial prompt, I have to deconstruct the second part of it, because what is 'normal' anyway?

Semiotics demonstrates, convincingly to my mind, that there is no such thing as absolute meaning; all meaning is contextual, and endlessly deferred besides (every word you read alters your understanding of what preceded it). What therefore, I ask in a second rhetorical flourish, is 'normal'? A dictionary definition might suggest that it means conforming to a standard; encountering only the expected. If you trace its etymology, you'll see that it was derived from the Latin for 'norma', a carpenter's square, in the 17th century. I like this. A carpenter's square; a measure of sorts, to establish right angles. Nothing uncommon, untoward or acute about 'normal' then.

However, I put to you that 'normal' is a relative measure, not an absolute one - more a band, really - and it is an entirely contextual construct, prone to change. Slavery was once 'normal' lest we forget, as was the idea that the earth was squarely (hah) the centre of the known universe; burning women at the stake for practicing 'witchcraft' and infant-marriage have been the norm too. Change has almost always come from a challenging of the normative, not compliance with it.

With that out of the way, I can now focus my attention on the other part of the editorial prompt: who or what is/makes a modern family? Setting aside the 'modern' for a moment, let's decode 'family' first: families are the building blocks (the kind delineated with a carpenter's square so that they're just 'right')  societies are made of. The historian in me cringes at playing so fast and loose with 'broad-stroke' tellings, but it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to trace back the institution we call 'family' to the beginnings of settled communities practicing agriculture, and the concept of 'ownership' which seems to have come with this development. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engles holds that the monogamous family "is founded on male supremacy for the pronounced purpose of breeding children of indisputable paternal lineage...(which) is required, because these children shall later on inherit the fortune of their father. The monogamous family is distinguished from the pairing family by the far greater durability of wedlock, which can no longer be dissolved at the pleasure of either party. As a rule, it is only the man who can still dissolve it and cast off his wife," (1908, 76). For this society to perpetuate itself, heterosexual monogamous coupling has to be the norm. And this is almost certainly one of the most important reasons why any sort of challenge to this creed - whether from the women's movement or from the LGBTQIA space - has been rabidly lampooned and dismissed. Here: have a neat little 'vintage'  poster that ties in misogyny, homophobia and general all-round bigotry in equal parts. Never say I give you nothing.


Not to sound like too much of a wet blanket, but to me, the modern family looks a whole lot like its predecessor, the one rooted in power relations which place the patriarch squarely at the heart of its structure, with this structure itself serving as just another brick in the wall that capitalism and consumer culture have together built around us all. But what of the gains made by the LGBTQIA movement you ask? The legalisation of same sex marriage in America (and a host of other countries) or the recognition of same sex civil unions elsewhere? Sure, this is a victory that cannot - should not - be understated. However, it comes at a time when fewer people are getting married at all (and divorce rates are higher among the people who do)[2], suggesting to my mind, a last-ditch effort to raise flagging numbers for a system of societal organisation which is finding less takers than it ever has within its historically traditional demographic (read: heterosexual couples).

What bearing marriage has - and will continue to have - on the societal building block we call the family, only time will tell. In the meantime, more power to them each and all, who seek to design the size, shape and origin story for their choices and couplings; for their ability to create communities premised on love, understanding, compassion and the possibility of happiness in a world intent on destroying itself whole. Family, to me, is what you make. Family, to me, is what you choose to be a part of. So much more powerful than the double-bind of blood (birth) and ownership (right), no?     


[1] See last month's post on climate change for more on what Amitav Ghosh calls the 'Great Derangement'.
[2] See the 2016 OECD report on Marriage and Divorce Rates for more details:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Living (?) in the time of the 'Great Derangement'


 This month, we've been asked to muse on Climate Change, the increasing frequency with which natural disasters seem to occur around the world to-day, and whether it is still possible to believe that nations can, indeed, come together to turn their words into actions in a bid to contain or reverse the never-before witnessed changes we as a species are effecting on the planet we call home. Proof of the (increasingly visible) effects several millennia of human habitation have had on this planet are everywhere to be espied: 9 out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000; Carbon Dioxide levels are at their highest in 6,50,000 years; in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice shrank to its lowest extent on record[1]: they don't call this the Anthropocene[2] for nothing.

I'm going to come at this from another vantage point: I'm going to leave it to you to work out whether you want to know about the back-story of the various UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) conferences and what they amounted to, because this is information readily available in the public domain. What I'm going to talk about instead is the precarity of the moment that we inhabit. Amitav Ghosh calls this the moment of the Great Derangement (also the title of his spectacular treatise on climate change and the "unthinkable", which came out in 2016). 
In this ridiculously immersive and spine-chilling text, Ghosh argues that future generations are going to deduce our derangement - collective, absolute - from our inability to contend with the fact of climate change. Our imaginations - literary (except for stray forays into science fiction), cultural, political and, ultimately 'historical' -  have failed us when it comes to articulating what it is that ails the planet we inhabit; the violence and scale of the forces unleashed by climate change. More, we've come to think of the earth as a site - a backdrop - for our lives and actions, when it is anything but a silent player. Ghosh makes a searing case for the planet as a sentient (and sapient) character/actor, without anthropomorphising it (because that would just be human hubris at play again).

What is of paramount importance here is to acknowledge that while climate change is bigger than us - bigger than anything you or I can hope to stall or solve or "do" anything about - any form of collective action necessarily has to begin with the recognition that it is here; climate change isn't something that "will" come upon us: it is now.  However, while on collective action, from the Kyoto Protocol onward in the early 90s, we've seen government after government ratify, take on bits and pieces of, move away from, or even rescind entirely the binding agreements it would take to reduce green house emissions. This begs Ghosh's eminently pertinent question, "When these institutions refuse to even acknowledge what kind of problem we're actually facing, what do you do?"[3] Weighing in on the unending arguments between the so-called 'West' and developing nations in Africa and Asia when it comes to reducing global carbon footprints, Ghosh asserts that nature simply doesn't care: "When that monster cyclone comes towards Chennai or Mumbai, what are you going to say to it? 'No you're coming for the wrong person. You should go and attack the US?' Frankly, the strange thing about the world around us is that it's neither good nor bad, nor does it care for you, it's not beautiful; it is utterly indifferent to you. You are nothing. It will crush you in the same way it crushes rocks," (Ibid).
This is what is at stake, and if our governments hesitate to act, because politics has come to resemble the theatre of the absurd; an arena where grandstanding takes precedence over the will to engage in concerted collective action, then being thought of by future generations as the befuddled or 'deranged' ones who did not know how to engage with the fact of climate change will be the least of our worries. For this to come to pass, there would have to be "future generations," in the first place.

[1] See for more.
[2] "The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans." For more, see:
[3] See for more.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Because We Looked Away

The Oxfam report, An Economy for the 1% (2016), tells us that the richest 62 individuals on this planet own more than half the world's population put together. As you let this statistic sink in, let me throw a couple of others at you. I don't often take recourse to images, but on the theme of rising inequality, I can do little more than point you in the direction of this graphic illustration I came across a few months ago. As visualisations go, this one is staggering. I can't look at it, to-date, without a shiver coursing through my body.  


I'm almost painfully aware of the privileged position I occupy in this country, one of the world's most glaringly unequal societies. My education, the fact that I am not persecuted on account of my religious, caste or sexual identities, my socio-economic position - pretty much everything apart from the fact that I am a woman - all serve to insulate me from the horrors that could have been my lot in what is a devastatingly fractious society. What is essential to understand, and I cannot stress this enough, is that in India, to talk about class is almost always to simultaneously talk about caste. The caste system is our own special 'gift' to the world, originating as it does in this country, and it is the single most bone-crushingly inhuman system of classification anyone could have ever conjured. More, it is, as Babasaheb warned us decades ago, premised not upon the division of labour (as so many caste apologists claim), but on the division of labourers[1]. As old as organised society itself, despite the many efforts of Babasaheb and his ilk to demolish this monstrosity, caste lives on in India today, tenacious enough to take on new forms as it cements its place in our urbanscapes, resisting every attempt at affirmative action[2] which seeks to create a less unjust society.

Numerous scholars and activists have written about the 'spaces between' the India which looks a little like the one I am fortunate enough to inhabit, and the lived reality of, say, the hundreds of people who live down the road from my sylvan campus, on the 'rurban' periphery of Ahmedabad, which is (by population), one of India's 10 biggest cities. My campus stands in the middle of what used to be an agricultural zone, and is surrounded by the tiny rural settlements of Shela and Ghuma. I walk my students to Shela every year, when I'm talking to them about Gandhi and the salt march; about politics-as-spectacle. It is the first time since they come to Ahmedabad that a lot of them have had to engage with their immediate surroundings. In all honesty, my own engagement with Shela only began in earnest when I designed this module, and this is precisely my point: we curate our spaces - sanitise them - till they become ivory towers, minimising any and all contact with those that caste and class or religion have long colluded to 'other'. Why? Because it is easier to, as Harsh Mander puts it in his searing indictment of modern Indian society, look away,[3] than to think about the endless structural inequalities which have made it so that some of us 'have' while so many - too many - simply do not. 

As Mander puts it, "many people believe that inequality is an inevitable part of the surge of economic growth and globalised technological progress. But in fact inequality “is the product of deliberate economic and political policies”, of which the two biggest drivers are market fundamentalism and the capture of power by economic elites,"[4]: this is to be evidenced world over. These ideas are the very bedrock of neoliberal ideology, and taken to their logical extreme, oppose public investment on the part of the State in all areas, ranging from healthcare to education, and labour protection to the acquisition/clearance of land and other natural resources. In India, Mander adds, the tax exemptions "of around five lakh crore rupees" (to corporate houses, in almost every recent budget) "could substantially finance India’s education, nutrition and health care gaps...if India just stops inequality from rising, it could end extreme poverty for 90 million people by 2019. If it reduces inequality by 36 per cent, it could completely eliminate extreme poverty," he writes. 

Mander concludes that we know the way to dam the "surging tides of inequality" which are upon us: a more equal society can be crafted by raising and enforcing minimum wages, imposing wealth taxes, enhancing government spending on education, health and agriculture, providing social protection for the aged and disabled, building on our affirmative action policies for socially disadvantaged groups to counter the travesty that is our caste system, and ensuring basic necessities such as water, sanitation and other utilities to the rural poor and urban slums.

However, this remains a tantalising pipe-dream indeed, all the more heartbreaking because it feels doable, if only our governments were more inclined to ameliorate the lot of their citizens than appease the rampant greed of their corporate overlords. 


[1]The full quotation reads like this: "It is a pity that Caste even today has its defenders. The defences are many. It is defended on the ground that the Caste System is but another name for division of labour and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilized society, then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the Caste System. Now the first thing that is to be urged against this view is that the Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilized society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilized society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. The Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. In no other country is the division of labour accompanied by this gradation of labourers," from The Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar (1936). Access sections of this text at:
[2]In the form of India's 'Reservation Policy' in educational institutions and government organisations.
[3] See Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India by Harsh Mander (2015) for more.
[4] For the full article, see: