Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Australian race attacks

This post is primarily concerning the media reaction to these hate-crime incidents in Australia.
The English media takes a theme and then runs after it like a pack of hounds without adding ANY insight into what is going on. Then some get tired of it, turn tail and start blaming ourselves.
This happened with the attacks in Australia.
I noticed two kinds of reactions - along the following lines:
1. Many people who had actually been in Australia started offering advice on how Indians should learn better English, have more white friends and not just have Indian friends and so on.
2. Then some started saying that Indians were racists too. Outlook ran an article titled "Aren't we racists too?". So, the "blame ourselves" phase had started.

Let us address each of these arguments:

Indians do not mingle well
Rediff solicited advice for escaping such attacks. Naturally, you would expect that you will get advice on avoiding some neighborhoods. One person suggested that you pull the door handles of all the cars parked in the road. Because the cars have theft alarms, they will raise a racket and you can run off safely. That is sound advice.
Instead many spent their time advicing that Indians should have white friends; that they only have Indian friends. That they have language issues. One frequent comment was that Indians spoke in Indian languages in public places.
In other words, Indians behaved normally like any other minority - and that is apparently a crime.
The reason such comments come up is because people fail to distinguish between actual crimes and what are, at worst, cultural transgressions. If Australians cannot tolerate people talking in different languages in public places, then the problem is with them - not with Indians. In these situations, some blame "ourselves" mainly because they think we somehow owe a lot to Australians for "letting" us into their precious country.
There is also a class issue here. Some of us do not like the "trash" that make it abroad. We want sophisticated English-speaking, "cool" upper class guys to "represent" India abroad. When we see ordinary people who struggle with English actually travelling with us in flights! Oh, the horror of it! How dare they!

Aren't we racists too?
So, then Outlook had this entire, confusing feature article on how Indians are racists too. I call it confused because most of the time they were talking about the Indian preference for fairness. How is that linked to race? I don't know.
What they WANTED to refer to was discrimination, not racism. It is nobody's argument that India is somehow a country with zero discrimination. In fact we have the ubiquitous caste system.
But these have nothing to do with the Australian race attacks. Why? Because we are talking about the distinction between hate CRIMES and hate speech or discrimination.

When we talk about an issue, we can discuss if it is correct or wrong using three levels:
1. Moral - if by commonly accepted logic, we can decide that an issue is right or wrong.
2. Ethical - if by ethical guidelines of a profession and individual behavior we can judge correct behavior.
3. Legal - if by the law of the land an issue is right or wrong.
Legal definitions are the narrowest and violations of legal standards are worst. This is because legal standards are the most objective and can be "judged" easily.

For example, take the case of adultery. It is held to be morally wrong in most societies. But it is not a crime by law. You cannot prosecute someone for adultery. This is because it is a matter of individual choice.
Recently two news organizations in North India "staged" a burning of Dhoni's effigy after the T20 World Cup loss. Then they filmed it and telecast it as if it were news. This is an ethical violation, but not a legal violation.
The issue of discrimination is similar. While some discrimination is punishable by law, Indians' preference for fairness is a MORAL issue. It is not a legal issue. There is no law that CAN govern a society's collective preferences. It can only be managed through education.
But the Australian attacks on Indians made it a LEGAL issue. By the Australian governing laws themselves, hate speech is different from hate crimes. Most hate speech in developed countries is protected by Freedom of Speech covenants. (Not so in India, but that is for later).
The reason why we are shocked by these attacks is not because Australians harbor racism in their minds or speech. It is because a few criminals actually violated common law and violently attacked other individuals. That is a CRIME - we cannot equate that with whatever we THINK about other people.
In Indian media, I see this confusion and blurring of moral vs legal issues happening all the time. When Ramalinga Raju was caught, some commentators thought this was an ethical issue. It was not. It was a legal issue. He violated the law, not some vaguely defined ethical guideline.
In fact we see this blurring lines all the time - with people confusing moral, subjective determinations with legal determinations. A few years back, an young Anglo-Indian woman was attacked and killed by a few guys in Chennai. She was killed while leaving a pub. This was enough for the magazine Kalki to opine that "while on the one hand the guys were wrong, on the other hand, she was wrong in going to a pub". You see what is wrong with this argument? The "one hand" action was a crime, while the "other hand" was at best a moral determination of Kalki editor. You cannot compare a moral violation with a legal violation.
So, in conclusion, you cannot say "we are racists too" as an answer to Australian crimes. We are not angry with Australians for being racists - we are angry because a few of them are actually committing crimes.

Section 295-A and the Indian Law on Hate Speech

I also believe that the Indian law on hate speech is highly restrictive. It should be more liberal and protect free speech. For example, I don't think Varun Gandhi should have been prosecuted for saying vile things on the campaign trail. Adding to this, was the fact that he was booked under the NSA. That made little sense - you cannot punish people under the National Security Act just for SAYING something.
Let us consider the text of Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code:
Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6[ citizens of India], 7[ by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8[ three years], or with fine, or with both.]

This is very broad. There are other sections which talk about punishing speech against ethnicities.
While Indian law should vigorously punish hate crimes, the above provision has led to harassment of liberal and secular commentators. For example, actress Kushboo was harassed for talking about pre-marital sex (a few years back) and dragged to the court by the above provision.

I believe that caste-based or color-based feelings can only be removed from a system by education on a long-term. Meanwhile, the only choice left to civil society is to prosecute EFFECTS of such discrimination, such as civil suits and criminal suits on attacks.
The least we can do is not to confuse the debate further by comparing actual crimes with vague thoughts we are supposed to feel guilty about.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nothing wrong with Talking while Walking

A recent Idea! ad generated some controversy about talking on the cell phone while walking. People protested that it was contrary to Road safety.
This is not unusual - in India, collectively people have decided that pedestrians are to blame for their own deaths or loss of limb. The other day, I saw a girl crossing a junction with no signal - she was talking on the cellphone. A passing scooterist speeded up on seeing her, came very close, and yelled at her for talking on the cellphone while crossing.
This seems completely weird to me - what these people are seeking is a justification that the roads belong to vehicles; vehicles have right of way in unmarked crossings.
To me, it is perfectly ok to talk on the cellphone while crossing an unmarked (no-signal) crossing.
Refer to my post on pedestrian rights here - I think what vehicle owners are out to do is to cheat and bully pedestrians out of their right to walk freely in the road.
Indian cities are not pedestrian friendly - there are no sidewalks and most crossings have no signals. In this situation, pedestrians have right of way in unmarked crossings.
What is wrong with walking while talking on the cellphone? Pedestrians do not need licenses to walk on the roads. They are perfectly within their rights to talk on the cellphone while walking.
This whole myth of "oh the evil pedestrians mess up traffic" is a product of plain thuggery. What these people want you to believe is that pedestrians would simply stop and chat on the middle of the road. As we all know, this assumes that vehicle owners are reasonable people who mind their business while pedestrians are somehow loafers with nothing to do.
The true factor behind such idiocies is that vehicle owners believe that they have potent weapons (their vehicles) which can cause irreparable harm to a pedestrians' life. So they are using this bullying tactic to deny pedestrians their rights - in reality, this is the age-old Indian trends of abuse of power and blaming the victim.
I hate people who provide an intellectual justification for such power-abusers.
In reality Road-safety in the Indian context has nothing to do with pedestrians - it has to do with drivers who respect no rules and are ignorant of other people's rights; and roads which force pedestrians to share space with vehicles.
Meanwhile pedestrians have every right to talk while walking.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Translation for Tamil short story - 3 (Iravum Pagalum)

The original Tamil version of this story is here. You can read my other short stories listed in the left hand nav bar under "My Short Stories" (below the "Featured Posts" section).

Night and Day
Ramiah Ariya

Ekambaram sat in the watchman's room outside the school. It was very quiet. A little bit ominous.
Ekambaram thought he could retire and spend time at home. But his son had not yet taken a proper job. Ekambaram wanted to work as a day watchman. It is easy to be a watchman in a school. You can chase around the children. Working as a watchman in a bank was the toughest. You have to salute people as they go in and out. Also, you need a gun license. Ekambaram liked the idea of shooting with a gun. But he had never touched a gun in his life.
In school, you just needed a small stick. He had a big moustache. He thought the kids would get scared easily. But the principal said they needed a night watchman.
Usually when the clock strikes nine, Ekambaram was ready to sleep. He had not slept alone for the last thirty years. His wife Meenakshi would keep talking and he would sleep hearing her prattle on.
Ekambaram was frustrated. What would ahppen to his health if he kept awake like this?
He asked his wife to accompany him. "We can spend the night talking", he said.
"I have work in the morning", she said. "I will be talking and you will just go to sleep."
The first day he felt like going to war. His son scanned his uniform up and down.
"You look like you are in the military", he said.
Then he turned to his mom and said, "Last week a student at that school committed suicide."
Ekambaram started and said, "Where? In the school?"
"No, at his hom. But apparently his teacher said something that caused it"
Meenakshi said,"Stop scaring your father."
"No. Ma, they say if someone dies at a young age, their soul keeps wandering round and round.."
"Why don't you start?" said Meenakshi to Ekambaram.
Ekambaram prayed for a couple of minutes and then left.

An owl emitted a wild cry. He could hear a dog howl far away. He remembered watching a movie called "Jagan Mohini" and getting so scared, he had a high fever for a few days. During those periods, most places had a burning ghat.
The clock struck twelve somewhere.
Are ghosts real?
He shook his head. Why think about that now..let us think of something good.
He started remembering his old friends. There was a guy called Rao. He worked in the military for a long time. His wife used to cook very well.
At one point, Rao said he had actually seen a ghost. He conveyed this information when they were all sitting and chatting in the terrace of a house in Villivakkam.
They were playing cards and one of them was narrating his visit to the Chottanikkara Bhagavathi temple. He said the women danced wildly like ghosts and one look at them was enough to scare you for life.
In that gathering there was an intellectual who used to read newspapers. He said, "All of that is caused by mental illness".
"It is not mental illness. If you don't believe in this, you can't believe in anything."
"If there is a God.."
"If you don't have faith, there is no life"
"I can understand believing in good..but why believe in this?"
Another person said,"You are talking as if there are no ghosts. Remember the time Maari's father died? Remember how that ghost scared all of us?"
Everybody agreed with this.
"In the night there were weird sounds. Sounded like someone crying. We all ran away."
The intellectual said, "We have to be rational and think about this."
"By the time you are half way thinking, the ghost would beat you up and run off"
"If you are so brave, why don't you go to the burning ghat at night?"
"Why don't you go? The ghosts would chase you and kill you"
"It is only because of such people without faith that we have no rains", said a guy from Thirunelveli.
"Boss, I can understand if you believe in God. Why should we believe in ghosts?"
At this point, when nobody knew how to counter the intellectual, Rao started talking. He was staring at the sky. He spoke in that pose.
" In Nineteen Sixty Seven, I saw a ghost".
Everyone looked at him.
"Yes, I saw a ghost. I even touched it"
The intellectual joked, "Did you get married at that time?". Nobody laughed. The nearby trees whispered to themselves.
"I was walking near my home in Pattukottai. A white female form came before me. It came straight for me. I tried to step away. But it came right in front of me. When I got very close I waved my hand to push it away. My hand went in and came back out"
Rao's voice kept falling.
"Yes, I saw a ghost", he finished.
Nobody spoke for a long time.
Ekambaram got up and started walking. He had to go round the school building. What if someone came floating in front of him? His body shook thinking about it. It was two in the morning. He went through the school corridors.
In the second floor, he heard some noise. There was a door named "Biology". He could hear something scratching the door. He turned and walked stiffly away.
There was a movie called "The Exorcist". Some guy went to watch it alone. AT the end they found him dead after vomiting blood. Ekambaram had heard of this. Who asked this guy to go watch the movie alone?
This job was like watching the Exorcist. If he were at home now, he would be fast asleep, hugging Meenakshi.
Dawn arrived soon. Ekambaram ran home.
"Meenakshi, let me quit this job", he said.
"Why? Are you sleepy?"
"No, I keep remembering ghost stories. Remember we saw this movie "Jagan Mohini"? All those ghosts are dancing before my eyes."
"Mother slept very well here", said his son.
"Did you really?" said Ekambaram.
"Shut up. If it is very quiet, it is natural to be scared. Take our transistor radio today."
Ekambaram begged his son to accompany him that night.
"I will come tomorrow night", he said. "Tonight is the New Moon day - a period in which ghosts go nuts."
That night Ekambaram saw the skeleton.
When he was walking near the Biology lab, he took out his whistle and blew it. The sound echoed around in the still night. When he turned to go, he felt someone observing him.
He looked around slowly. It was his own reflection in the glass window. He cursed himself for being so afraid.
A guy took up a challenge to go to the burning ghat in the middle of the night. He did go. When he was leaving after going around the burning bodies, he felt someone grabbing him from behind. He yelled out and fell dead of shock. The next day, they found that his shirt had caught in a tree branch. That was it.
Like that story, Ekambaram thought he was afraid of everything. He went without thinking, to the glass window and peered inside.
First nothing was visible inside. Then, slowly, like the riverbed showing up in disturbed water, he could see a white skeleton.
Ekambaram rubbed his eyes and looked again. Yes, there was a skeleton there. And it seemed to move slightly!
In dreams sometimes he used to feel like moving. But he could not move his arms or legs. The same feeling came over him now. He moved with great difficulty. After stepping away from the window, he ran down the stairs.
He came panting to his place. If there was someone there it would have helped. But in the houses around the school everyone was sleeping. They were sleeping without pity or knowledge of the blood bath going on here.
He wanted to lock up the doors and leave the school. If they asked the next day, he would tell them he cannot spend the night with a skeleton.
But he had no wish to walk in the pitch dark to his home.
He switched on the radio. Initially there was just static. Then a shrill female voice started singing "Beez Saal Baadh..".
The next day, during lunch hour, Ekambaram and Meenakshi entered the principal's room. A girl was just leaving the principal's room crying. The principal's face changed as soon as they came in - she smiled at them.
"Come in Ekambaram. Come in..what is the matter?"
"Madam, I am not able to work the night body hurts."
"But you have only been here for two days."
"He is scared", said Meenakshi.
The principal laughed. "Scared..why?"
Ekambaram responded: "No Madam, I am not really scared. Why should I be scared. I have worked in hospital mortuaries earlier"
"He is lying Madam. He is always a little easily scared. This morning he came running home"
Ekambaram felt humiliated. Now, in day light, when he thought of the skeleton, it looked funny.
The principal said, "Do you have any other job available?"
"No Madam."
"OK, from tomorrow come on in the day shift. Let us try that for two or three days."
Ekambaram was happy. He said, "I am not really scared madam. In my younger days, when we came back alone from night show cinema.."
"Let us go", said Meenakshi.
The next morning, Ekambaram twirled his imposing moustache and was ready at work. The principal arrived at eight thirty. He saluted her.
"Close the door exactly at Nine" she instructed and left.
No body came till eight fifty. Suddenly, with ten minutes to go, students started rushing in. Moms and Dads came dragging their children and threw them in through the gate. Some children went wailing inside.
Ekambaram looked at the clock. It was nine. It was time to show the legendary Ekambaram strictness. He tried to close the door. Students ran faster inside. A couple of people rammed into the door.
Somebody yelled "Hey..." from behind the closed door. They pushed the door from the other side. Ekambaram imagined that he was defending the fort from enemy soldiers and pushed back.
"Boom!" The door opened wide and Ekambaram fell down.
A woman built like Sylvester Stallone stood at the door. She laughed at Ekambaram.
Ekambaram said, "I have to close the door", and ran forward.
"Why are you closing the door?"
"Why don't you come before nine?"
"Do you know who I am?"
"I don't care..rules are rules"
Several mothers stood behind the door in anger. The principal came.
"Ekambaram, why did you push the door"
" said..Madam"
"Yes, but you should not have done this..sorry madam"
Stallone lady went inside after yelling, "Be careful" at Ekambaram.
Ekambaram sat tired all over. He has just finished watering all the plants. At some distance, Kinder Garten children were coming out of their room. They ran helter skelter. The teacher was herding them together.
Ekambaram closed his eyes. Someone shook him awake. It was the KG teacher.
"Come with me", she said.
There was a pump close by. Two boys stood below the pump. The teacher pulled down the boys' trousers.
"Start pumping", she told Ekambaram.
Ekambaram started pumping water.
Suddenly there was some commotion in in the ground. The children started running back and forth. The teacher said, "Wash them clean" and left.
Ekambaram looked down. The two children held their trousers in their hands and leered at him.
At lunch time, Ekambaram started for the biology lab. Some students were sitting in the room. He entered with hesitation and stood before the skeleton.
He thought, "Was I really afraid of this?". It looked sad. Who knows whose skeleton this was. It was tall.
They used to say long back, that you need not be afraid of vampires or poltergeists - the only ghost you should really be afraid of is the Mohini. When you are walking alone in the night, the Mohini comes behind you and asks for betel leaves. You have to handover the leaves on a knife edge. Then it would leave you alone. Otherwise, you are finished.
When he turned around, the students were standing behind him. They were also staring at the skeleton.
"It is the previous watchman", said one of them.
Everyone laughed at this.
"It looks like Thanigai", said another guy.
" looks like your father", said Thanigai.
"Hey, be respectful", said the first guy.
"Boys.." started Ekambaram. But when he turned to look at them, the fight had started. Two of them were hitting each other and then, quickly, rolling on the floor.
Ekambaram said, "Boys..stop it." The other students were watching the fight like watching cricket.
Ekambaram tried to separate them. He got a couple of blows himself. Then one of the students pushed him away.
He staggered and fell at the feet of the skeleton. The skeleton seemed to be laughing at him.

The principal looked at Ekambaram with pity. He had a small band-aid on his finger.
"So you want to go back to the night shift?"
"Yes Madam"
"I know..I feel like running away from here myself."
Ekambaram started for home. At night he would think of all those ghosts. It would even be soothing.