Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Gender as delusion/reality; inequity

I thought this month's piece would fairly write itself given that it is meant to discuss that which is closest to what I do, and what I've spent roughly half a lifetime (and counting) obsessing with: the workings of that structuring principle of/in society we call gender. As is often the case with anything we're too close to though, it's almost impossible to decide where to begin, or what is to delimit the discursive field this piece will inhabit: do I speak about the constructedness of sex (yes - think outside the binary of male/female and realise these are constructs too - read Anne Fausto Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) for more on this theme) and gender (this is now almost a given - everyone knows, after de Beauvoir, that "one is not born, rather one becomes, a woman,"[1]), or  am I to muse, after Butler, on what it means to "perform" one's gender (Butler holds that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief,”[2])? Or perhaps explore the import of work like Cordelia Fine's[3], when she takes on the current glut of pseudo-scientific posturing which seeks to reaffirm biological essentialism? Sing odes to Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, Showalter, Moi, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Kristeva, and the scores of others, from the earliest suffragettes on, who made it so that the world didn't have a choice but to recognise women as equal players in spheres public and private? I'd like to, but it would take more an epic in terms of genre than a blog-post to make that happen.

So I'll do what I learnt to do from an old, sometimes imperious imp you might've encountered in my posts before - you know the one - and start by examining my immediate context. What does it mean to be a woman in India today? How does my generation look at gender and its attendant politics? Does young India persist in reading the body of the woman as the repository of her family's honour (and shame when this body is violated)? How do caste, class, religion, access to education and other factors coalesce in the making of this mythical beast we call woman? There is a gender wage gap here of course, one of the worst in the world - see the chart I've attached below for more - but honestly, that's the least of my concerns. Why? Because more worryingly, for what it tells us about the society it refers to, is the fact that India ranks 120th out of 131 countries in terms of the number of women (around 27%) who participate in its work force at all[4]. This could be for various reasons of course, but the one I find most troubling comes from a youth survey conducted by CSDS-KAS in 2016. This survey found that 40% of its respondents - over 6000 young Indians between the ages of 15 and 34 across 19 cities - agreed with the proposition that women should not work after marriage[5]. On matters pertaining to caste and gender, as becomes obvious  very quickly through even a cursory glance at this survey, young India is probably even more conservative than the generations which came before it.     


Is there a way out of this mess? A move towards gender justice and equity? I think there is, but it feels a painfully long way away from our present. If it is to come, I think our only hope is to realise that no one is free till everyone is; it is to recognise - and inevitably do the hard work that such recognition necessarily demands of us as a corollary - that intersectionality is our only hope for salvation: till the women's movement speaks to the Dalit movement, and both to the various movements which seek to eliminate poverty whilst arguing for a developmental policy which isn't premised on bankrupting the natural world of its very finite resources, I don't know how change can come. We live in a country where kangaroo courts (khap panchayats, anyone?) order 'honour-killings' (Hint: there's nothing honourable about killing. Ever.) if a woman marries outside her caste or religion; a country where to be born a woman is to police one's every move - or have it done for you by family, friends, "well-wishers" who only want to make sure we don't get hurt if we decide to come home late one night - from literally the moment we're old enough to walk; a country, ultimately, which feels less and less like one where there's room for women to be read as human beings, not defined by their relationship to men (as wives, mothers, sisters and c.). For every hard-fought gain made by the women's movement, it seems like we take two steps backwards, and this backlash is violent and vicious.
Young India dreams, but from the look of it, these dreams are gendered. And they are not my dreams.

[1] Simone de Bauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
[2] See this link for more:
[3] Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of her Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010)  immediately.
[4] See this article for more:
[5] See this for an analysis of the survey:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Learning from a learner who knew that to learn was to live


I say to my students - so often that it's become something of a catch-phrase - that if they're the same people who came into this postgraduate school when the time comes to leave it, their stay here has been a colossal waste for everyone concerned (and a bloody expensive one, at that). What's the point - and where's the proof - that we're alive at all if we aren't  every moment grappling with the idea of 'becoming' rather than merely 'being'? Needless to say, as with most of the ideas I paw-play-toy with, I can also trace this one back, at a tiny remove, to that old imp who causes me so much grief because he's a very demanding task-master. Yes. You know the one. 

I'll let him speak for himself:
"I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject." This, of course, could only be Gandhi. He writes these words in an article in Harijan in 1933, from where they come to form the 'Note' to the Reader in the 1938 edition of perhaps the single most vital manifesto to emerge from the 20th-century, the terribly misunderstood Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule.

Think closely about what the old man is saying here. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the very foundation of our education system, which largely sees the realm of learning as a bulwark against doubt; against not' knowing', which is to be eschewed at all cost. Such a system would impose upon us a consistency (because as critical pedagogy demonstrates, education is political: if it doesn't teach you to question what you take for granted as your 'reality', and is innocent of the socio-economic conditions that shape the very classroom space you inhabit, such learning can only serve to maintain and perpetuate the status quo) and foreclose the possibility upon which the world lives and dies: change. To live is to learn is to change, Gandhi seems to tell us, adding that age or station or profession have little if anything to do with the project of education which is little more than a promise to ourselves which we keep each time we are willing to concede (to paraphrase Einstein) that the more we learn, the more we realise how little we can possibly ever know. 

To be a lifelong learner, therefore, takes humility: to concede that my 'self' of yesterday was wrong, in the face of information I might have acquired today. And that this doesn't stem from fickleness, but honesty and self-reflexivity, both of which can sometimes feel cripplingly overwhelming. But can there be any other way, if one is to respond to the "call of Truth" Gandhi speaks of? We need, if we are to "be the change we want to see" (relax: it doesn't matter if he said it in quite these words, like the coffee mugs you've undoubtedly seen this quotation on), to start by reclaiming the power of uncertainty and revelling in everything we do not know today, with the (sometimes kept; sometimes deferred) intention to learn it tomorrow, and perhaps change our minds about why we do what we do along the way. Done honestly, and with everything we've got, I suspect this would make Bapu smile.   

Monday, May 22, 2017

To care or not to care, that is the question (or not. I don't know. whatever.)

I'm torn about this month's editorial cue: we've been asked to think about what political movements Millennials care about and what shape/s activism to come might take, buffeted as this space (also) is by advances in technology and the fact of globalisation. Are we more active in politics than our parents? I want, more than anything, to be able to answer this question in the affirmative. Can I, in all honesty? Nope.

Because generalisations (such as the one I've just made) are anathema to me, I'm going to dial this back somewhat, and focus on what I can speak about with some authority - my location in the heart of a 'developing' post-colony, and what I see of political engagement and activism in and amongst those of my peers I share this space with. But that can only come after I've been able to frame this discussion by locating its back-story. The Indian context is polyphonic in the extreme; as I've said so many times before, it is impossible to speak about India in the singular at all. We are a fractured and fractious polity,  structurally premised on inequality (think of the caste system) and its myriad manifestations.

The fact that the freedom movement managed to - for brief periods of time between the 1920s and 1940s, mostly under the direction of an astute semiotician and all-round splendid gent named Mohandas Gandhi - cobble together the semblance of a 'national' identity and front, and that this oozed into the early years of independent India's very sense of self, is an undeniable truth. This movement was all encompassing, with room in it for everyone from the ryot to the student; the great-grand mother to the stripling 5-year-old who was schooled young into the idiom that we leave no (wo)man behind. It must've been a heady time to be alive, pregnant with possibility. Political engagement was not something "out there", it was something you lived and breathed; its visual markers and symbols were all-pervasive, from one's sartorial choices to one's alimentary ones.

How, so, did we get from there to here?         

In the answer(s) to this question lie stories of heartbreak. Mine, anyway.

The idealistic 'youth' of the nationalist movement became the (slowly - the sheen took some time to wear off) disenchanted parents and 'elders' of the next phase of India's story - decades rife with wars, famines, sanctions (remember the permit raj?) and an increasing distance between politicians and those they purported to represent. By the time the 80s rolled around, and with them the birth of the demographic this entire series attempts to make sense of, politics was already the immoral swamp it is today - something people would attempt to insulate us from as opposed to encourage us to engage with. The 90s brought India kicking and screaming into the global marketplace with our euphemistically titled 'liberalisation' programme, which effectively rendered the 'Socialist' descriptor in our Constitution a dead letter. The state has taken so much of a back-seat that for most of us - those of us privileged enough to not have to depend for subsistence on a leaky, broken public distribution system, I mean - we can spend all our lives thinking about the government merely when we're whining and moaning about the taxes we pay (or, more accurately, design elaborate jugaadu schemes to not pay).

No, we're not political, mainly because most of us are self-absorbed in the extreme, but how can we not be when the mainstream narrative of 'success' we've imbibed from the time we're in our (private) schools and universities and then go to work in (MNC) corporations is so ridiculously monolithic? Capitalism has defanged not just the state machinery charged with our welfare, it has defanged us, by selling us the idea that we can - and should - be apolitical. News flash: there is no such thing. Do you think I'm overstating this point? Think about it for one hot minute: what was the last mass movement you remember having spurred massive youth engagement here? 'India Against Corruption' (circa 2011-2012). What brought people out into the streets then? What drove them to that dim-witted closet-fascist Anna Hazare's arms? The fact that they once had to pay a bribe to a cop who tried to make a fast buck? That they had to pay a petty officer to get him or her to move their file along? We're only really inclined to be a part of something that affects us personally.

I say this with feeling because if it weren't true, man, a lot more of us would be protesting and marching and rallying and organising against the disgusting spate of cow-killings and vigilantism that has India in a vice-like (very saffron) choke-hold. I say this because very few of us give enough of a fuck to do anything about the fact that marital rape isn't - even today - recognised as rape at all; because Dalit atrocities are as high as they've ever been and all we can talk about is how reservations are anti-'merit'. Study after study shows that we 'the youth', also don't vote in large numbers, but are happy enough to spend an afternoon (especially if it is a sunny one) marching to protest results we're not tickled with. Sample this: "Immediately after the vote on Brexit, thousands of young people marched in the streets of England to show their disagreement over the choice to leave Europe. But polls indicated that had they voted en masse (only 37% voted), the result of the referendum would have been the opposite."[1] 

So are we truly as liberated or progressive as we believe we are? Are we hotter on posturing than putting in the time and effort to make a difference, especially if it isn't our own lives which stand to change or benefit from it? So, to end in and with my beginning, to care or not to care? At the rate at which things are spiraling out of control, I'm afraid this isn't going to be a question with more than one answer for very much longer.                     

P.S. Just today I read about the glorious turnout at the 'Bhim Army' rally in Jantar Mantar - 20,000 people, by some estimates. The Bhim Army was founded by an erudite and fiery young lawyer named Chandrashekhar (or 'Raavan'), and Vinay Ratan Singh, and started by "running a school for Dalit children, providing them with a sound education which the government-run schools were failing to impart. In July 2015, the first school was set up, and within two years, the number of schools run by the Bhim Army has shot up to over 300, run by Dalits for fellow Dalits and other children from underprivileged backgrounds."[2] The rally in Delhi was to protest the sharp increase in Dalit atrocities in Uttar Pradesh under the new Adityanath administration. Chandrashekhar seems to recognise that in order for this to work, the movement needs to be intersectional in the extreme - women, Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis - we must all come together. The Bhim Army will undoubtedly come up against the apathy I lament in the post above, but I'm holding my breath to see what will come of this. Is this (tantalisingly titled) front the beginnings of the resistance we've been waiting for? I don't know. But today, I chant full-throatedly, Jai Bhim!   

[1] See this incredibly detailed piece for more:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Of machines, cyborgs, an old imp, and a spinning-wheel (also, technically, a machine)

G. Ramachandran, a young scholar from Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore's ode to life, learning, and all that is beautiful, spent a few days with Gandhi in Delhi, in October 1924. Bapu took the time to engage in wide-ranging conversations with this young student, and in them, the two covered much ground. Ramachandran managed to draw out the old man's views on art (anything that "helps the soul to realize its inner self"),  how beauty and truth are effectively the same (I didn't realise how much he loved Keats before I read this), and ultimately, how he felt about machines, given his well-known aversion to them, on account of the fact that they 'dwarfed' human capacity. Ramachandran asked Gandhi quite straightforwardly if he was against all machinery - or the idea of machines, even. To this, Gandhi's response was one which might have surprised his young interlocutor: "How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning-wheel itself is a machine; a little tooth-pick is a machine. What I object to, is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on "saving labour" till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might,"[1] (my emphasis). Remarkably prescient for a text that is 93 years old, don't you think?

And why, pray, do I feel the need to revisit Bapu today, apart from the fact that I'm currently spending my days at the Ashram (and my nights reading that other architect of modern India, Babasaheb Ambedkar)? We were asked, this month, to think about what it means for us as a species, living and working our way through the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' which seems to be upon us. I would imagine this means dealing with the ubiquity of the internet, fast-changing everything we  do, the ways in which we 'know' (in terms of knowledge production/dissemination, the professions that are currently available to us, economic and business models and c.); more, we'd also have to venture into the post-human space (and you would have no choice but to recognise quite quickly how much the 'future' looks like the present when you read about the various biohackers, cyborgs and other suchlike who 'walk among us' already[2], or note the popularity of shows like the dystopian (but is it? really?) 'Black Mirror' which indicate the firm grapple-hold this theme seems to have on popular culture, always an excellent barometer of the spiritus mundi).

But I realise I haven't answered my question yet, and to it my response is a simple one: the reason I bring Gandhi into play today, to frame this discussion, is that I don't see how we can theorise the so-called Fourth Revolution when we haven't adequately managed to wrest ourselves from its predecessor: you know, the one which gave us Modernity (with a capital M, no less). In the form of late-capitalism and the global corporate order we function (or, more accurately labour and suffer) under today, this is not something we've finished living through quite yet. From it emerges that which will be, and this is why something that was true in 1924  remains so to-day: we run the risk of being 'dwarfed' by technology; slaves to machines (big ones, of course, but so too little ones, as Tagore was to remind Gandhi, on the subject of his precious spinning-wheel). How are machines or the 'craze' for them which now seems inescapable, given how thoroughly they've permeated every aspect of our existence, going to transform our lives? In myriad ways, forcing upon us new epistemes; reconfigurations in how we define 'privacy', 'relationships', 'knowledge', 'work', 'leisure', and other givens around which we've thus far constructed meaning in and for our lives. Is there a chance that this will have to involve re-imagining and re-defining what is meant by the descriptor 'human' itself? Hasn't it always?         

[1] CWMG, Vol. 25, pp 247-256.  You can access the entire 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram's online archive,

[2] See this fascinating piece for more: human-biohackers-embed-chips-their-bodies-n150756