Oct 242015


My mother went to one. Between her graduation and her marriage. Before she went to study for her masters. She learned how to arrange flowers, make a salad, lay a perfect table and the rest. When they got married, my father knew how to make the dal and rice, the rasam and the rest. “i taught her to cook” he would guffaw. They would have been married 50 years this July 12th.

I think that maybe other topics should be included in a course like this – how to have a conversation, how not to snap at your spouse, how to enjoy life without it becoming bogged down by what to cook, and where to eat. I am assuming that modern day marriages are more than food and sex.

Ten years ago, I would have ranted at this ad – and it’s innate sexism. Today, i realise it is fulfilling a need. But, the need is read wrong – it should be less about cooking and make up (there are delivery places and parlours for that) – and more about trying to build a life together, that doesn’t end in bitterness and recrimination. Nice topics – for both parties – would be cooking together, reading together, viewing together, laughing together — but, unfortunately ‘togetherness’ cannot be taught

(via my brother’s FB status update)

Jan 182015

I write for the @Dna on the 14th of January

I am not Perumal Murugan, but I very well could be. So could you or anyone else, who run afoul of a tiny, vocal, rabid fringe that thinks nothing about hounding people who go against their view of what is right. These are people who are an antithesis to the idea of a plural, diverse, multicultural nation and want this country to embody their narrow view of religion, culture and nationhood. It is important that we pay heed to this now, and stand against it, because this is not just a vague concept of ‘freedom of expression’. If we, the people, let this fester and grow, we will end up with the same kind of restrictions that we see across our borders.

Who is Perumal Murugan and what is Mathorubhagan or One Part Woman about?

Perumal Murugan is a Tamil author, poet and Professor and the author of six books.

Photo posted on the author’s Facebook page

Penguin’s author description of him is:

PERUMAL MURUGAN is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.

The book in question Mathorubhagan, whose English translation is called One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple.

Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. (blurb from the Kindle edition of the book)

(I purchased the Kindle version of the book yesterday, and read it till late at night and am awestruck by the author’s characterisations, his narrative and his empathy towards humanity).

Who wants the book banned?

Lots of groups. According to the author :

I think, for the first time, caste organisations and Hindu organisations have come together on the same platform. The Hindu Munnani and three other caste organisations are running the campaign. Their objective has nothing to do with the book, since they are not ready to relent even after I promised to change the name of the village in the next edition of the book.

The book has ran afoul of the right wing Hindu organisations including the RSS and the Hindu Munani. They believe that Mathorubhagan offends their religious, cultural and caste sensibilities, in addition to insulting their hometown, women in their hometown, and the temple. In December, the Hindu had reported on this issue :

Alleging that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has portrayed the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode and women devotees in bad light, the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits have demanded its ban and the arrest of the author. They burnt copies of the book on Friday at Tiruchengode.

What was the impact?

On January 13, after almost a month of protests, which has led the author and his family to flee their home,  Perumal Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page. This is the translation :

Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.

He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.

The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:

1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.

2. He requests his publishers – Kalachavadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal, Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.

3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.

4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.

5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.

Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.

Books by Perumal Murugan posted on his Facebook page

Historically, there is precedence for this kind of recanting under the threat of violence. Galileo, ran afoul of a corrupt, centralised and dogmatic Catholic Church of his era. They objected to his scientific theories that repudiated the scientific vision of the universe laid down in their scriptures.The Church believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo showed that the Earth moved around the sun. For this, the Church ordered him to be placed under arrest and face the inquisition. A 70-year-old Galileo recanted.

After an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves:

Protesting against a book, a painting, a cartoon, a caricature is par for the course, in a vibrant, diverse democratic republic. But, what is not acceptable, is hounding of artists, writers, and those who dissent against a unified view of a religion or culture.  People have the right to profess their faith and follow their cultural norms. What is dictatorial and intolerant is not just to expect that everyone else does the same, but also threaten to cause a law and order issue until such time that the offending piece of expression is banned.

History tells us that Galileo was right. The Church finally apologised to him in 1992.

What is the role of the State ?

The state has one very important role – to protect the rights of the individual citizen and ensure that politically motivated groups do not impinge on our constitutional rights. The Tamil Nadu state administration has failed miserably in protecting the rights of Perumal Murugan. They have allowed fringe elements to bully, harass and finally exile a writer from his mode of expression. They need to collectively hang their heads in shame.

Do people have the right to protest against books, films and other forms of expression?

Yes, unambiguously so. They have the right to show their ire and objection, it is part of their right to free expression. But, and this is an important caveat, this stops short of violence, threats of violence, threats to life, livelihood and hounding of people till they flee the country or stop writing. Freedoms are not just for people and causes that you like and support, they better be present for everyone. Every time the State fails to protect the right of expression, the right of the individual and allows fringe groups to gain victory, each individual in India loses a little bit of their freedom. This is not about Perumal Murugan alone, it is about all of us and our right to express without fear.

Finally – what is this about? 

An author hounded till he gives up writing. This is not what my religion or culture or nation is supposed to stand for – this is not in my name. As a culture, dissent is a part of our civilisational ethos, as is questioning everything around us. Offence or even blasphemy is not a good enough reason to stifle and strangle expression of ideas and views. We have always been a culture that respected dissent. When Tulsidas wrote the Ramayan in a language people could understand, he ran afoul of the orthodoxy who bayed for his blood; when Dnyaneshwar wrote the Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita in Marathi) that every one could understand, he faced the same problems. Today, no one remembers the names of those who opposed these great men. All we do, is imbibe from the Ramcharitramanas and the Dnyaneshwari.

Today, we are facing one more push back from the orthodox and those who wish to interfere in our right to religion and free expression (which is both a constitutional right and a civilizational one), it is time we took a stand and asked our government to be steadfast in protecting our rights.

Dec 292014
I write for the print edition of @dna on the 11th of December
The first step to tackling crime against women calls for radical attitudinal changes

One more December and one more rapein the nation’s capital that has made women across the board feel far more insecure than before. Last weekend, a woman called for a radio cab using an app on her phone – it was a Uber app. She believed that travelling by radio cab would provide her the safety and security of being able to reach home without being attacked. Her faith was shattered, her security breached, and her person attacked by a man who threatened to do to her what was done to the woman in the December 16th rape case — brutalised with an iron rod. Unlike the December 16th case, this woman survived, complained to the police and a manhunt resulted in the accused being arrested.

Most women in India (possibly elsewhere too) would tell you that at least once in their lives they have faced momentary terror at the thought of their safety and security being violated brutally. Most of us would tell you of all the things that we generally ignore — being groped in trains, buses, planes or any crowded space. We would tell you of the taunts that we block out on a regular basis. What we would also tell you is the truth — it is not about the clothes we wear, or the lifestyle that we adopt, or the time we get home. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, modern or traditional, inside the safety of our home or out and about; whether we work outside the home or are homemakers, whether we are students or workers. It doesn’t matter who we are, and what we do. We are attacked for one and only one reason — we are women. And, what we see is the increased frequency of the crime of opportunity, an almost Russian Roulette with any one of us being a target. The woman who went to Shakti Mills to cover a story, a Jyothi who climbed into a bus expecting to get home to safety, a woman who gets into a rickshaw or a cab, you or I — we are all walking targets, except that we don’t know where the attack will come from, or the men involved.

Like the December 16th incident, there is collective outrage over this case. That outrage is looking for a target — the cab company in question (Uber) — whose promise of security turned out to be a marketing line; the home minister, who is ultimately responsible for the safety of citizens; the system that allowed a man, accused of rape to be out on bail. As more details of the case emerge, the level of rage increases — the accused was a serial sexual offender and had prior cases against him. He was out on bail for sexual offences. While Uber failed to conduct background checks on the man, it is also true that there is no centralised database of those convicted of sexual offenses. While things can definitely improve if employers conduct stringent background checks and law and order is enforced in Delhi and elsewhere, there is one area that needs to be addressed, and is often ignored: Women are seen as targets because that is how boys are brought up. “Jaa rahi hai woh chhammak challo’ “kya item hai’ “Aati kya Khandala” are all things most women have heard at various points of time. Most of us have developed filters to block these out — because hearing them means reacting, and reacting means starting a fight which you cannot win. And, the bigger problem is the consent of many political elders on this. Every time I hear a politician say “boys will be boys” — when it comes to this sort of behaviour — the reaction is not a civil conversation or an outrage on women’s rights, but a primeval desire to pummel sense into him. Physically. Along with other women who feel the same rage.

There is a list of things to improve safety for women. Starting with sensitising police and the judiciary to crimes against women and sensitising politicians and leaders on a changing world. You can have better background checks, but they won’t deter the first-time rapist. You can have more police on the street and faster courts, but they won’t prevent rape at home. So what do you do? Whatever you do will be doomed to failure if boys are brought up thinking every woman is out for the picking and that they have the right to force sexual intercourse on women. If women and girls have to be safe, there has to be a systemic societal and attitudinal changes at the individual family unit. Laws have to be strict. Punishment has to be stricter, and this ethos of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘what happens to the Indian family if marital rape is penalised’ needs to be met head on and demolished.

The Justice Verma Committee Report that made so many fantastic recommendations to ensure women’s safety needs to be accepted in its entirety. Those dilutions that were made to ensure its passage through Parliament would need to come back in as amendments and, hopefully, passed. The security and safety of women cannot be held hostage to politicians who want to give a free pass to stalkers and rapists.

Being paranoid is not going to help. Being angry is not going to help. Effecting tangible changes that is what will make the world safer for the next generations. It is too late for my generation – we have to live in a world we have made. But, can we ensure a better tomorrow for your daughters and sons, for your grand children – and the answer is, if we have the will to make hard decisions and make the change.

(A version of this had earlier appeared on dnaindia.com)

Sep 262014
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.


A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Jun 122014

An edited version of this appeared in today’s dna

Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Baduan in Uttar Pradesh.  Around 200 kms and less than a 4 hour drive from the national capital, Delhi – the area hit the headlines after a particularly brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls.  It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins – some accounts put them at 12 and 15, others at 14 and 15 – had to attend to nature’s call. They had no toilet in their house and they went into the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging, with their own dupattas, from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. 2 young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.

This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last.  A report by PRS Legislative in 2011, looked at the abysmal state of women’s safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India – almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are a number of reasons for this – the starting point of which is the social stigma assigned to the victim of the rape, and the perception of her having lost her honour.  Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward – maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had ‘loose’ morals, maybe she said no but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better – politicians, policemen, ‘elders’ of the community and the like.

At the core of the debate on women’s safety lie 3 main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces – sanitation within the house or rather the lack of it or street lighting or the lack of it, both indicate the lack of safe spaces. The second is the lack of spaces where the two sexes can meet socially on an equal footing – schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. And the third problem is a age old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the social acceptance of the rapist and the social boycott of the victim.

The one thing your realise when you travel the length and breadth of India – visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don’t shut and windows that give your full view of the world, and the world a view of you –without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges – public spaces where both genders congregate – show a similar problem.  Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don’t discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet – apart from issues of health and hygiene that crop up – there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is factor that most of us, living in relative middle class comfort in cities, take for granted. Associated with this is the issue of darkness. Unless you have electricity our towns and villages are going to be in dark. And darkness encourages the breach of law.

Where boys and girls grow up together, studying together, sharing playtime – and understanding and respecting differences there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and older mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equal, but also where their  individuality and personal preferences are respected.   The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also their parents, teachers, elders in the community, and administration.  Police reforms and Judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in synch with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking – no amount of police on the street or stringent punishment is going to help.

And lastly, there is a problem social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is a factor as is class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reform may take generations and women’s safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved.  And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape case – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty – without fear or favour of powerful local interests.  However,  as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in shame – nothing will change.