Wednesday, October 10, 2018

From one of the Queens to the only Empress

‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’

Her self-assessment was in contrast to her role as an astute politician, an enigmatic queen, and an innovative architect. The only woman with a non-imperial lineage to acquire the stature of an empress, Nur Jahan sought to inscribe on her tomb in Lahore ‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’ For one who rewrote history, the epitaph marks her boundless generosity and unlimited humility come alive. History may not have been as kind to her as she was to her fellow beings. During her lifetime, Nur Jahan was always eager to help orphans, beggars, and the homeless. She would often intervene to protect peasants from harassment or over taxation by provincial authorities. Farid Bhakkri, who served the Mughal court, noted that the Empress supported the weddings of orphan girls, and even designed an inexpensive wedding dress Nur Mahali, still used by brides of poorer families. By offering choice of marriage to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the harem, Nur became the earliest feminist in a male Mughal dynasty.     

Till recently, historians failed to recognize her exceptional talents and instead attributed Nur’s meteoric rise to the vulnerability of an inebriated Jahangir, her Emperor husband. Although many of her male contemporaries were in awe of Nur, it was hard for them to swallow that a woman could attain unprecedented political and cultural acumen. Even the Europeans like Thomas Roe and Peter Mundy, who were privy to the Mughal court, could not quite wrap their minds around a woman coming to power because of her sheer talents. No surprise, therefore, most attributed her cunning and conniving nature for gaining co-sovereign authority over a lovelorn king.  

Historian Ruby Lal thinks otherwise. Taking a deep dive into the historical records, she yields provocative and extensive evidence of the forces that shaped Nur Jahan. Who could have ever thought that a baby girl born on a roadside to parents who were fleeing repressive Persia for Indian green pastures would not only become the most favored wife of emperor Jahangir but would attain the status of an Empress? How did it happen? And, how could she do it? From enlightened parental education in early years to an independent existence after first marriage, times favored her expressive inheritance. Also, it must have helped Nur develop a distinct identity as, unlike most Mughal women, she spent the least period in the imperial harem.

Nur Jahan was a product of her time, and did not miss any opportunity to hone and demonstrate her skills. Jahangir’s vow to give up hunting gave Nur an opportunity to show her shooting prowess. No one is sure where and when did she learn shooting but she could amaze everybody by slaying four tigers in only six shots. Jahangir’s mobility too helped Nur deepen and broaden her leadership skills. While the Emperor pursued his interests in nature, geography, art, and philosophy, Nur took on administrative responsibilities by issuing imperial orders under her seal. 

Empress provides an extraordinary detailed account of a remarkable woman, who lived through the reign of three great Mughal rulers. Hailing from a family of Nobles, her father served the Mughal courts of Akbar and Jahangir, she learnt imperial demeanor from her father and brothers. As a result, Nur seemed more canny than other royal women of her age about the workings of the empire. It reflected in the manner in which she conducted herself, both within the court and with the masses. Lal provides a detailed account of how Nur liberated the Emperor from the captivity of a rebellion nobleman, something that doesn’t get as much attention in historical literature.   

While Nur Jahan rise to power was relatively swift, her downfall was even swifter. Her political scheme to anoint her son-in-law Shahryar as the future Emperor did not go to well with the Emperor-in-Waiting Shah Jahan, who made every possible attempt at erasing her legacy by holding her responsible for the succession chaos that took place in the last years of Jahangir’s reign. All attempts at demonetizing currency coins of the Jahangir-NurJahan era were unsuccessful, some coins bearing Nur Jahan's seal survived and are safely preserved in museum(s). Lal’s Empress gives Nur Jahan the due, and acknowledges that if she had her strengths she had her raw ambition and vulnerabilities too.    

Nur Jahan’s last years’ were of isolated existence in Lahore, much of which she spent in building her own mausoleum. That she was a remarkable woman, a perfect example of beauty with brains, whose legend will continue to be remembered with affection, awe and pride. As a discerning reader of medieval history, I yearn to know more about the life of Nur's daughter Ladli, the widow of Shahryar. 

Empress
by Ruby Lall
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 599

Monday, September 17, 2018

Because there are buyers around!

Pulling the world of knowledge from the trap of capitalist economy warrants a shift towards restoring academic freedom.

Neoliberal approaches in higher education have largely failed, as:  it has not led to greater efficiencies but to more bureaucracy; it has not led to greater liberties but to more constraints on teaching, research, and engagement; it has not led to more robust and autonomous institutions but to weakened institutions linked too closely to the immediate concerns of the day; and it has not led to new ways to grapple with the crises that face us but to treading farther down the same paths that created those crises. Prof. Lawrence Busch contends that as the capitalist economy promotes the marketing and branding of everything and everyone, pulling the world of knowledge out from the trap of the business model that aims at investing in education for getting a good job would warrant a shift towards restoring academic freedom.     

Knowledge for Sale could not have appeared at a more important time, as it reflects the painful decline the institutions of higher learning are going through. At stake is the role of higher education as a crucial public good, which is being compromised under the influence of the markets. The crisis is so stark that its symptoms are spread all over: decline of humanities education, escalating student debt, and underpaid contract faculty. One would imagine that with the only knowledge worth pursuing is that which has more or less immediate market value, such a situation was bound to occur.  

Lawrence Busch is not convinced, and challenges this market-driven approach. His thesis is based on the premise that most of the present-day problems – from climate change to water shortages, and from obesity to financial crises – would need new knowledge in addressing each of these issues. To imagine that market alone will resolve such issues is a fallacy worth challenging, because the market is neither inclusive nor transformative. It does alter consumptive habits only to the extent of minting profits, and almost always by externalizing costs of such a transition. Consider how market incentives in our food system promote diets that create obesity, thereby putting extra demands on medical institutions. Markets on their own cannot substitute institutions of higher education and research which co-create knowledge for the state to act upon. 

Drawing a distinction between liberals of 18th and 19th centuries with neo-liberals of 20th and 21st centuries, the author explains that while the liberals had argued that the State should merely leave the market alone, the neo-liberals sought nation-states active involvement in the market instead. No surprise, therefore, that the market has intervened at individual and institutional levels by changing the rules of the game. Hence, markets and market-like competitions have replaced direct government intervention in promoting higher education and research. 

Professor emeritus of sociology at Michigan State University, with research interests in environmental and agricultural research, Busch argues that education is a public good and that an educated citizenry is an essential component of functional democracy. Through an in-depth analysis on the influence of neo-liberalism the book provides a crucial rationale for defending higher education as an important public good, which ought to be protected from corporate control as defined by agents of privatization, deregulation, and commodification. For this to be realized, universities and research institutions must be remade as places where the future is neither already made in the mold of the market nor in which the market is to be avoided at all costs, but where many possible futures are proposed, debated, and discussed.

Among many cases of the kind, the case of 10-year lease agreement worth Canadian $7 million biotechnology research between Monsanto and the University of Manitoba illustrates how market influences research that may not necessarily be in the public interest. For three years, much to the dismay of many faculty members, the university administration unsuccessfully suppressed the news. This isn’t an isolated case of market influenced research. What is more, such dubious agreements erode public faith in research institutions.  

Knowledge for Sale peels many layers of the crises, including individual researchers’ laid back attitude awaiting pay-checks to those who capitalize public resources to maximize personal goals. Such situations have created a ‘moral hazard’ for the public sector, which only helped create an opening for the market to make inroads through open competition for external grants and by tagging institutions as products in the market. Although there is some merit in this approach as it promises to increase efficiency, productivity and profits, it eventually undermines research, education, public engagement, and fails to contribute to promoting democracy. In the nutshell, public good gets compromised! 

In making a case for the promoting and strengthening public good, Busch investigates four institutional core areas - administration, education, research, and extension – in enlisting specific proposals for change. Ranging from making research institutions secure places with attached conditions to making universities models of democratic discourse, the book challenges the pervasive idea that higher education needs to be run like a business. Citing successful initiatives at many universities and research institutions, Busch has drawn an actionable agenda at the core of which the leading question before the society at large is: what kind of universities and research institutes we want to help us come out of the wicked problems afflicting us?    

For those in the spheres of academics, Knowledge for Sale offers substance to view the current predicaments while at the same time remaining brief and accessible. 

Knowledge for Sale
by Lawrence Busch
The MIT Press, USA
Extent: 153, Price: $25.95

Friday, September 7, 2018

Music to the years

During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity.

Could there be any political underpinnings of the time reflected in this unforgettable song Hum bewafa hargiz na thay, par hum wafa kar na sake of the late 70’s? Not much is there to write home about Anand Bakshi’s lyrics, but Kishore Kumar’s pitch, tone and tenor of delivery made the song a timeless classic. Give a discerning year to the song and one can draw an interesting parallel to this hit-song from a flop-film. Much like the short-lived Janata Party rule at the centre at that time, the much-hyped film Shalimar too had flopped at the box office the same year. And, the song conveyed the message that letting down the people was neither the objective nor the intention. It applied as much to the characters in reel life as to the politicians in real life. 

Differing in their journalistic experiences and personal interests, Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti and Sushant Singh teamed together to draw such parallels, one song per year, to complement the twists and travails of seventy years of post-independent era. As much a book of general knowledge, Note by Note captures the rhythm of country’s socio-economic and political rumblings to the beat of popular film music. The symphony it creates is imaginative, interesting and engaging albeit in parts.

There is no denying the fact that Bollywood songs have held relevance beyond the narratives and situations unfolding in the films. Living in our collective memory, songs articulate some of our deepest desires, delights and even nightmares. Written by some of the great contemporary poets and composed by pre-eminent musicians, film songs have tended to reflect upon our everyday existential, social, national, and universal concerns. The authors argue that rather than narrowing the notion of ‘India’, popular music has continued to expand it. During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity. . 

If Guru Dutt’s reaction to the persistent corruption and degradation of society a decade after independence was masterfully captured in the song Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahan hai, the end of jury system following the landmark Nanavati case was epitomized by Pyar kiya to darna kya. Without doubt, much of the 60s and 70s were youthful years of post-independence generation, the whiff of romance in the air found reflections in first, Oh haseena zulfon waali as an attempt to woo lady love, and second,  Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko confirming  that love has finally found its mark. With one song representing each year of independent India’s history, the book gives music to the years by picking one Hindi film song that was composed and widely heard during the year. 

Nothing could be more challenging than to pick one popular from among hundreds of songs to mirror the development of the nation during a particular year. Some lyrics closely reflect the unfolding realities whereas many other songs need interpretation to match the situation. While the authors argue that the link between words and tunes of songs with the people has been deeper and stronger, the present-day lyricists and composers have the added challenge to generate the level of feelings that can sustain that link. 

Although the efforts by Bhardwaj, Chishti and Singh are commendable, midway through the book a reader starts to wonder if it is a general knowledge book peppered with songs or a book of songs interspersed with general knowledge. However, the authors succeed in making reading modern history musical by juxtaposing short analyses of the songs with thumbnail sketches of development. Papa kehte hain bada naam karega bore little resemblance to the events in the country in 1988, but the lyrics by celebrated poet Majrooh Sultanpuri sought hope amidst all round anxiety. Whether or not one accepts the choice of songs, the selection not only captures the overall mood and groove of the year but the poetic sensitivity with which it was musically expressed as well. 

Be it a reflection of Jawaharlal Nehru drafting country’s future through Afsana likh rahe hoon in 1947 to the period of deaths and strife in 1993 which sought nothing less than a mourner to hum Dil hoom hoom kare, Ghabaraae, the songs of the past seven decades clearly reflect the innate resilience that has seen the country emerge unscathed from each bout of uncertainty. Nothing but the number Anhoni ko honi kar dein, honi ko anhoni, from the movie Amar Akbar Anthony, released in 1977, reflects our national character of pulling ourselves out from all odds. 

Having grown up with the memorable film music of yesteryears, the book evokes nostalgia of the era when rhythm and melody reigned supreme in conveying emotions of all hues. The songs of the past were part of the cultural fabric of the society, stirring emotional chord with its listeners. In the predominant market culture, however, songs are like products on the supermarket shelves! 

Note By Note
by Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti, Sushant Singh
Harper Collins, Delhi
Extent: 159, Price: $35  

First published in Hindustan Times dated Sept 8, 2018       

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Those days of the month

Why is a biological activity viewed as a disgusting aspect of women’s daily lives, and why it remains a subject less worthy of social and psychological inquiry?

Nothing could be more unreasonable to imagine than blood in blue color, and yet it evokes collective embarrassment on spotting sanitary napkin ad on the television screen. No sooner the visuals pop on screen; the channel gets a hasty switch over. This is how our society tackles self-inflicted shame imposed on menstrual periods, head on. Despite half of the world’s population menstruating for large periods of their lives, menstrual-negative culture of shame and taboo has been allowed to persist. Feminists argue that part of the blame must rest with women who have hidden their perfectly natural bodily function, and have in the process punished themselves for being women.

Breanne Fahs, a professor of gender studies at Arizona University, is outraged at the lack of a culture of menstruation. She raises two valid questions: why is this biological activity viewed as a disgusting aspect of women’s daily lives, and why it remains a subject less worthy of social and psychological inquiry? Isn’t the missing public discourse on the subject a reason for menstruation being tagged secretive, hidden, taboo, and somewhat silly? There is little denying that there have been  many improvements in gender inequities in recent years, but little has changed in common perception about women’s bodies and sexuality. In effect, it may only have worsened. 

Fahs loathes at the idea of feminine hygiene, presented with aplomb in a recent movie Padman, because it only seeks to fix women’s leaky and troublesome bodies.  The products to counter unhygienic fixation seem scary as these only give additional cultural momentum to the prevailing notion about menstruation. Contrast it with products for men (e.g. razor, deodorant, aftershave) which directly refer to their individual functions, without being clubbed together under a descriptive phrase like masculine hygiene products. Such linguistic distinctions, feminists argue, hold immense implications for projecting another sex as clean and powerful. 

Using her academic research and drawing lessons from clinical sessions, Fahs forcefully argues for a new culture of menstruation where it gets viewed as an event of joyous rhythms. Only by doing so we could undermine the institutions that deplete and eradicate the natural cycles of human life by favoring sexism and profit. Authoritative, intense, and controversial, Out for Blood takes reader into the world of menstruation where coming-of-age narratives are beginning to challenge the entrenched notions of silence and shame. Only by bringing in new stories on defiance and rebellion can the long history of panics surrounding menstruation ever be rewritten. Else, it will remain trapped within the boundaries of patriarchy. It is a man’s world after all!

Padman: Fixing leaky and troublesome bodies
In her academic journey of viewing women bodies using a radical feminist lens, Fahs has often been chided for writing on such trivial subjects like orgasms, human hair, and fatness. For writing about and engaging her students in the discourse on body hair, she received death threats from conservatives who thought she was ‘ruining America’. Not to be let down by such threats, her resolve in studying women’s bodies became even stronger. ‘The body, after all, absorbs, reflects, and mirrors the fundamental social forces of our times.’ 

Out for Blood is lively interdisciplinary interrogation packaged in a dozen odd chapters which move through feminist theory, social science, psychotherapy discourses, cultural studies, sexuality and gender studies in challenging the gendered notion of feminine hygiene as a fait accompli for women, and demonstrates the expansive potential for menstruation as a radical form of feminist resistance. From menstrual art to menstrual stunts, and from menstrual zines to menstrual graffiti, the book provides provocative case stories that examine menstrual activism, and a possible playful menstrual future. 

The strength of the narrative lies in it being explicit about equating the taboo of menstruation with womanhood, detaching body physiology (sex) from gender identity. The book is a call for women to emerge out of the ‘menstrual closet’, and engage in what activists’ term the notion of the menstrual party. Will such a transformation be a reality in near future?  

From women being ostracized during ‘that time of the month’ to young girls shying away from school to avoid any ‘embarrassment’, restricting the unavoidable bodily function to just a case of menstrual hygiene will serve a limited purpose. Fahs argues that unless menstruation disrupts the boundaries of patriarchy, and underscore the realities of misogyny, the case for writing a new story to destroy conventional narratives of women bodies will remain to be written. It is a book that clears all the misconceptions about what essentially defines womanhood.

Out for Blood
by Breanne Fahs
State University of New York, New York
Extent: 139, Price: $25.95

Friday, August 3, 2018

The power behind the veil

The Mughals held their women in gratitude for being robust and enduring in suffering along their men in periods of war and peace, who in turn exerted significant influence in shaping their history.

Much of the Mughal history - from Babur’s invasion at Panipat in 1526 to the death of Aurnagzeb in 1707 - is marked by the Europeans experience and their interpretation of the glorious period. Though meticulous in keeping records of their transactions and experiences, these traders, missionaries, and ambassadors to the Mughal courts were not privy to the finer nuances of the culture and comportment of the times as they did not speak Persian or Turki, Though fascinated by the notion of the private space of the Mughal women, the Europeans could hardly comprehend the Mughal women’s influence and power as they were physically and culturally separated from the world of women. For them, it reflected an emperor’s weakness, or worse, incest. 

As their understanding was loaded with whimsical misinformation and bazaar gossip, the Europeans reduced the carefully crafted world of ‘zenana’ into a ‘harem’, which only justified their perception of this forbidden space for satisfying endlessly lascivious appetite of the emperor. The image and the imagination of a place to which the polygamous emperor alone had access gained widespread acceptance as a harem. It was this misconceived notion that led many to believe that harem was a claustrophobic place where the women ruthlessly schemed against one another and wasted the hours of their days in frustrated languor, competing for attention of the emperor for pinning down their sexual frustration. Nothing could be farther from the truth, discovered Ira Mukhoty, whose research on the Mughal zenana has led her to conclude that it was instead a busy, well-ordered place where each woman knew her place and her worth.  What’s more, ‘it was a place where accomplished, educated women were prized; well-spoken, articulate, and cultured women most likely to advance.’ That the harem was a sexual charged place created a void in narrative on the feminine influence on the luminous destinies of the Mughal padshahs. 

Daughters of the Sun is an authoritative attempt at bringing to life the dynamic zenana, which grew from an imperial sanctuary for elderly matrons, widowed women, unmarried relatives and royal concubines to an imposing place that contributed feminine wisdom on matters of governance, trade, and literary scholarship. The book examines lives and influence of some fifteen women – over a period of almost 200 years of Mughal rule - in shaping and strengthening the empire that carefully nurtured the old Perso-Chinizid symbol of the sun. The Mughals traced their lineage through Timur and Chinghez Khan to Princess Alanquwa of Mughalistan who were believed to be impregnated by the divine light of the sun, and hence these influential women were deservedly credited for being the daughters of the sun. And, the astounding efforts of these women were suitably acknowledged by each of the Mughal emperors.   

Through the rule of each of the six great Mughals, one woman of enormous prestige and respect was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she used to retain till her death. Such woman was very rarely the wife of the emperor, signifying the enormous respect and gratitude the emperor had for the matriarchs of the clan, the mothers and grandmothers, for keeping the warring brothers together and empire intact. It began with the supreme sacrifice of Babur’s elder sister Khanzada who was left as a captive of the Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, to secure Babur’s safety. Upon her return ten years later, by which time Babur had become the Emperor of Hindustan, she was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she continued to hold without any stigma well into the reign of Emperor Humayun. 

Mukhoty’s research pieces together that part of the Mughal history which has gone unnoticed despite the existence of extraordinary biographies of Babur and Humayun written by Gulbadan Begum, a member of the zenana and daughter of Babur and sister of Humayun, who was commissioned by Akbar for this onerous task. That the zenana had space for literary foray comes clear from Gulbadan’s account, ‘there are no rigid limitations to the women’s freedom, and the matriarchs, especially, are constantly called upon to fulfill public roles’. She further observed it ‘as a raucous place filled with camaraderie, disagreements, hurt feelings, song and laughter’.       

From the secluded space of the zenana emerged some of most versatile women of the Mughal period - unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives - who not only engaged in diplomacy from behind the jaalis but traded with foreigners, built stunning monuments, and joined their men in the battlefields as well. The Mughal treatment of their women had been exemplary; they held their women in gratitude for being robust and enduring in suffering along their men in periods of war and peace. The life they led and the influence they exerted contributed significantly to shaping the history of the Mughals. 

Aunt Khanzada begum rode 750 kilometers on horseback braving icy winds to parley on behalf of her nephew Humayun; sister Gulbadan begum wrote the only biographies written by a woman of the Mughal court;  milk mothers like Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor Akbar until he came of age; favorite wife Noor Jahan ran the imperial proceedings from behind the jaali; and writer of two Sufi treatises daughter Jahanara owned the most lucrative port in medieval India. These were women of real mettle and substance, political strategists, spiritual scholars and successful entrepreneurs in their own rights. One begins to feel for these women who, despite their immense contribution, remained a footnote in history. 

Daughters of the Sun uplifts these amazing women from the closet of the zenana.  Mukhoty confesses ‘I did not realize that the idea of a constantly evolving and dynamic zenana would become central to this book.’ Not all women in the zenana were sexually available to the emperor. They all had a role to play, a duty to perform, and were respected and paid for their crucial jobs. However, the strength of the zenana would continue to grow as ‘it was an established custom at the Mughal court that the padshah must protect all the widows and dependent members of those who have served him.’ That there was no love life for the Mughal women in the zenana would only be an absurd figment of imagination. Curiously, however, most relations for these medieval Muslim women were based on a number of considerations – expediency, practicality, and complicated genealogical calculations. The marriage of Babur’s sister Khanzada to a nobleman was one such, a marriage of propriety and convenience.

While avoiding the titillating tales of concubines, the book makes reading the Mughal history no less intriguing, engrossing and gripping. It captures one of significant aspects of the chequered Mughal history that has been grossly ignored by the mainstream history. In a well-researched and well-crafted narrative, Ira Mukhoty fills the curious gaps in the Mughal history by swinging the male-dominated narrative away from the prevailing Eurocentric vision. In most history books that deal with the life of the Mughals, the royal harem or zenana is usually a single chapter sandwiched between the imperial court and the royal kitchen. That there was something cooking at all the times within the confines of the forbidden place is what lends historical value to this book. 

By viewing history from the women’s perspective, Ira Mukhoty has opened a new window to view the complementing world of zenana in re-narrating that part of Indian history.  It is must-read parallel history of the Mughal Empire and its women. The book shows that the Mughal women were not just names in dull history textbooks, but were people with emotions and ambitions, loves and jealousies, and were equally accomplished, educated, articulate and cultured.

Daughters of the Sun
by Ira Mukhoty
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
Extent: 246, Price: Rs 699 

First published in Biblio, the issue dated July-Sept 2018.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Where arts meets mathematics

‘I am attracted to curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman’

Einstein had remarked that to appreciate the universe one would need to understand curves. Not sure if he was seduced by curves, but it is clear that straight lines and square corners do not determine what we make of the universe. Like human body, the universe is beautiful because of its magical patterns and exquisite shapes. Be it the human cell, the lowly creatures or the distant galaxies, the remarkable theory of curve is at work everywhere. Such is the magic of this theory that the entire universe manifests itself in curves, from the fold to a wigwam.

Reproductive biologist may consider curve as a work of evolution but for a structural engineer curve is what connects mathematics with art. And, within this connection may lie insights on understanding why things are shaped the way they are. While we often take shapes for granted but deep within each must be a cause for the object to take a particular form. University of Cambridge structural engineer Allan McRobie, who previously designed boringly rectilinear bridges and towers, found that the stability of engineering structures is essentially governed by their smoothly curved energy surfaces. This is how an unexpected link between the world of careful engineering calculation and a freer graphical expression emerged, leading to a beautiful language of folds, cusps and swallowtails.

Nothing comes closer than ‘human nude’ to draw a connection between art and mathematics, as a large part of our fascination for curves originates there. Need it be said that evolutionary biology rests on curves, our genes guide us to like the body shapes of our mates. The pervasiveness of these curves is striking because human body is a one-stop object for viewing different type of curves, a perfect justification for a book connecting mathematics with art to have a seductive curve on the cover. The curve resembles a swallowtail, the essence of beauty depicted by two back-to-back cusps connected by folds. Beautiful though it may be, a swallowtail on the waist of a human body is nowhere near as profound as the immense organization required to create all the components of that living, breathing, thinking human. The question worth exploring is how biological shapes emerge to be the shapes they finally become.

In some ways, the beauty in the swallowtail curve is indeed a precarious point of stability which engineers use to explain the catastrophe theory, the sudden change that induces abrupt outputs, developed by noted mathematician Rene Thom. However, the final shape of an object is on account of the energy of a protein that folds itself into any one of a number of possible configurations, indicating which stable pathway will eventually be followed. That is how some cells arrange to become bones and others into hair follicles.

The Swallow's Tail
The Seduction of Curves is a colorful and richly illustrated book in which human bodies are described through geometry, and connected to structural engineering, optical physics and more. The beauty of the book is that it pulls curves out from the confines of subjectivity, and situates them in the objectivity of mathematics. It is a book of mathematics nonetheless, which can be simply seen as a work of fine arts. By giving special attention to outrageous Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s iconic painting The Swallow’s Tail, McRobie brings together the theme of the catastrophe theory in understanding curves. Having met Thom towards later part of his life, much of Dali’s work then on was reflective of their intense association ‘everything I do from now on will be devoted to the phenomenon of catastrophes’.

Spread across nineteen profusely illustrated chapters, the book is about seven curves, four from cuspoid (fold, cusp, swallowtail and butterfly) and three of umbilic family (elliptic, hyperbolic and parabolic), which are the basic building blocks, the fundamental components of curved form. These curves also represent a way by which something can suddenly change. This is the essence of the catastrophe theory, which studies how smooth and subtle changes in a system can result in sudden and abrupt outputs. Collapse of elevated roads or oil rigs are classic examples of such drastic end results. Given the significance of curves, one wonders if as children we should have been taught alphabets of curved geometry beginning with fold, cusp, swallowtail and butterfly in place of straight-line Euclidean geometry sequence of terms like triangle, square, pentagon and so on. Will it begin to change anytime soon?

In many ways this is a remarkable book which has more visuals than text, and it will be a pity if it goes unread. Interestingly, the illustrations and pictures are a study in themselves providing depth, dimension and relevance of curves in our lives, making one wonder if there were no curves in our universe. At some point in reading through the book one begins to view straight lines and angles with disdain, much like well known Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was influenced by Le Corbusier but had developed an aversion for straight lines. Niemeyer was attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves, and had remarked ‘I am attracted to curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman’. Several of the famous architectural structures standing today bear testimony to the power of the curved form. The future seems to be in triggering sensuous resonances in the minds of observers.  

The book is a bold attempt at evoking multiple feelings towards curves. Allan McRobie deserves praise for sensually drawing parallels between natural and the constructed world.

The Seduction of Curves
by Allan McRobie
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 159, Price: $35

First published in Current Science, dated Aug 25, 2018.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Not that desires didn't exist!

Far from what the laws state and what the state feels, Indian women have come of age in exploring their sexiness.

Rich in the forbidden content, Cyber Sexy tracks the search for satiating desire from those mythical days in the elusive garden to the brave new world of virtual flesh. Howsoever the individuals may shun it publicly for being politically and morally incorrect, desire runs deep through various facets of our individual and collective lives. Demand meets supply as countless categories of desire dotted across the internet help people in their daily swim across the fleshy landscape. If we were to look within ourselves without judgement or shame, as Richa Kaul Padte echoes, there is a high chance that we will find ourselves faced with variations of the same desires that we condemn others for. Variants may range from sheer pleasure to dreadful perversion. 
 
Taking readers on a cyber tour of online pleasure, the author provides a nuanced understanding on why our foregone conclusions on the topics of sex, identity, and desire are gender-biased and flawed. Why is it that sexual desire, and not sexual pleasure, a moral problem? Why is there an undue emphasis on male desire for seeking sexual pleasure? Why does society make women feel ashamed of expressing their desires?  And, why is there an almost default assumption that online sex (read porn) is worse for women? 

David Leeming, author of upcoming Sex in the World of Myth, lends a helping hand by arguing that sex is as important in myths as it is in our lives. Despite ancient sculptures and medieval paintings bearing testimony to desire being eternal to humans, the irony is that reality manifests itself between the sheets or behind the closets. Further, the colonial idea that anything related to sex is immoral and dirty persists under regressive laws, holding forth the obligatory need for the state to protect women from its purported impact, both moral and physical.

The book blows the lid off such assumptions. Far from what the laws state and what the state feels, Indian women have come of age in exploring their sexiness. They are as adventurous as their counterparts, or even more if the case stories are any indication, as 30 per cent of all visitors on the porn websites were women in 2017. This does indicate that women have agency and autonomy to explore their hidden desires, caveat being that their conversation on the subject can refresh the narrative on the harms of obscenity or objectification. Not many will agree though! 

Cyber Sexy is a provocative undertaking on a subject that is pregnant with hitherto unnoticed categories of desire. Not that these desires did not exist, internet only enabled people who desired differently to feel a little less alone by giving shape and support to the thing that lives inside them. And, it proliferates because it stirs the universal set of emotions that lie buried underneath. But not for the conservatives who frown at such notion being outrageous and insane as it ends up corrupting unsuspecting minds. Little is realized, and the book offers enough evidence, that people are exploring each other’s bodies, sexting one another, and uploading their unmet desires on the internet. To pretend that these aren’t happening does not make them any less true.

Taking a deep dive into the kinky treasure of online porn, Richa comes out holding a mirror on society’s totally subjective moral judgement. As the country runs through its millennial churn, the question worth probing is why women’s bodies are often the battleground on which the fight for morality takes place? Why cyber technology is held dangerous for women only? Reading through this intrepid narrative, it is tough not to agree that the solo aim of pushing desire into morality’s deepest trench is to monopolize the power for defining gender roles in a man’s world

Cyber Sexy provides an equalizing narrative on how the artificial binaries have begun to blur. Although concerns regarding seeking consent, avoiding objectification and curbing coercion are not entirely misplaced, the need to redefine our approach towards fleshy fruits freely hanging on the internet is critical for the society to begin acknowledging desire as an integral part of human rights to sexuality. While there is no denying the need to fix the parts that are going wrong, there is an equally compelling reason to prioritize peoples’ rights to bodily autonomy and agency. 

Radical and uncompromising, Cyber Sexy is a book on woman’s perspective on cyber porn by a woman. This is a timely study as the impact of internet outreach has yet to be felt by two-third of the country’s population. But it puts to rest the fallacy that by valuing desire one compromise on family values, societal norms, and inner spirituality. It is an engaging and must read book on a subject on which only male giggles been heard in the past. Richa Kaul Padte invites the other half to join in serious conversations, but cautions upfront that women are not coy anymore – we have agency and autonomy, and have desires and fears too.  

Cyber Sexy
by Richa Kaul Padte
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 255, Price: Rs. 399

First published in Outlook on July 19, 2018.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The coming of conscious machines?

The development of thinking machines evokes as much hope in the future as fearful dystopia.

Mankind has gone through three distinct turning points in its evolutionary history - discovered fire 100,000 years ago; developed language 10,000 years, and invented wheel 5.000 years ago – which triggered multitudes of other advances that have revolutionized human existence. Since then, within the overall arc of human history, not much seems to have changed. Else, we wouldn’t be living like those who lived five millennia ago, with parents and pals in cities with markets and governments. And, we wouldn’t fear life, share gossip, build relationships and celebrate birthdays like those in the past. Isn’t it a trivia that lot has changed without much remaining the same?

With a deep understanding of human history, tech entrepreneur and futurist Byron Reese offers a nuanced understanding of the change that is at our doorsteps, in the form of what he terms ‘the Fourth age’. This age will unleash the power of artificial intelligence and conscious computers in our daily existence, seemingly intelligent non-humans who will act autonomously to perform tasks that will ease our lives. There is every reason to believe that automation will bring efficient and healthy living within the reach of everybody on the planet. The prevailing technological turbulence will bring about dramatic breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics in the next fifty years compared to what has been witnessed during the last five thousand years. 

The next generation artificial intelligent machines will outsmart its predecessors – from self-driven car to the talking robot – by being as smart as you and me. These will do more than what it would have been programmed to do, by figuring out what the new task expects it to perform. Within the emerging world of artificial general intelligence (AGI), the development of thinking machines evoke as much hope in future as fearful dystopia. Will machines make human redundant? Will smart automation gobble up all the jobs? Will it usher permanent Great Depression? 

Since it is about the change we haven’t seen yet, any discussions on the subject leads to confusion and misconception. The confusion is further compounded when the likes of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates propound that artificial intelligence is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, while their illustrious compatriots Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Ng, and Pedro Domingos lend weight to the argument that human future is safe in the hands of intelligent machines. Despite such polarized positions, the foremost fear concerning AGI is about its impact on jobs. Fears of a permanent Great Depression are beginning to cast its impact on people in the streets. Everyone seems to be asking: Will I lose my job? Will smart robots eliminate more jobs than the economy will create?  What should I do to protect my job? 

Reese takes the question head on, although it is devilishly complex because it isn’t known what all jobs robots can replace; to what level business will invest in developing artificial intelligence; and how will cost of labor impact the adoption of technology? Therefore, it is not a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine the net effect of technology on jobs. What is perhaps easy is to realize that there are just three possible scenarios i.e., robot will take all jobs; robots will take some of the jobs; and robots will take none of the jobs, to make some sense of it.

Without doubt, introduction of technology does reduce the need for workers in particular sectors. Although the transition is often difficult, those eliminated from low-skilled jobs graduate into improving their skills to take on different jobs. However, the question is whether these numbers add.  The Bank ATMs and online trading websites are two interesting examples. It did rattle the bank tellers and the stockbrokers but over time technology has not only helped employ more people in building ATMs but the stockbrokers have exhibited their cognitive abilities too. The erstwhile low-skilled jobs have gained value through the use of computing technology. 

Although understanding the ever-expanding job market is mindboggling, no visible relationship between the use of robots and loss of job has yet been established. Despite the installation of far more robots between 1993 and 2007, Germany lost just 19 per cent of its manufacturing jobs compared to a 33 per cent in the US. Same has been true in other countries such as Italy, South Korea, and France that deployed more robots, lending credence to the widely held view that technology mostly augments workers, not replaces them. On top, people have always been able to create new jobs, more in the changing time now than ever in the past.   

The Fourth Age is about comprehending the accelerating change, and about understanding the universals of technology that drive progress. Understanding those universals will give us new insights on humanity’s unmistakable journey toward social justice and personal empowerment aimed at liberating humans, in the words of Charles Dickens, from the clutches of dehumanizing jobs. The need is to gain clarity on duality of co-existence with machines.

For robots to replace humans at home and in the workplace, AGI would need to exhibit the entire range of the various types of intelligence that humans have, such as social and emotional intelligence, the ability to ponder the past and the future, as well as creativity and true originality. To overcome the hurdles of attaining consciousness in computers, Elon Musk is proposing commingling computers with human brain to take directions. To make the best of both, the challenge lies in decoding the billions of synapses between a hundred billion neurons.  

While the cost of building robots is coming down, the challenge to build an AGI on the structure of the human brain has yet to show any tangible results. After spending a billion of dollars, the Human Brain Project is in total disarray. Reese provides a detailed account of the current competing societal perspectives on the relation between humans and our machines, on accelerating technological change, and on the future of mankind in a world of robots and humanoids. 

The core of the argument, however, is draw distinction between monism and dualism as two dominant beliefs about the nature of reality. While for monists creating a machine with human attributes is a serious possibility, dualists fervently disagree that a silicon-based computer will ever grasp the intricacies of a carbon-based human. Science is nowhere close to describing something like consciousness yet, but our relentless move forward and upward characteristic will reduce us from being Homo sapiens to Homo dissatisfactus. Byron Reese takes the reader into the rapidly unfolding world of artificial intelligence and robots, the one that is sure to revolutionize our physical being but our mental domain as well. Without doubt, The Fourth Age, is upon us. 

The Fourth Age
by Byron Reese
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 320, Price: Rs 399.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, dated July 9, 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The new metaphor of life

Farming is no bed of roses; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles.

Midway through this racy narrative, one pauses to wonder what the fuss is all about being a farmer’s wife. In these troubling times when farmers are in the news for all the wrong reasons, no woman in her wildest dream would imagine being a farmer’s wife. Neither did she, a working mother of three hyper-active kids, whose life twirls between the extremes of managing a dreary boss fixated on selling chunking-looking tabs to the kids to a surefire husband in pursuit of creating a steady supply of organic milk from his own farm. Between these extremes lies a life which is as ordinary as it could be, and as exclusive as she has made it look like. 

Part memoir and part fiction, How I became a Farmer’s Wife reflects an unending quest for change from the urbane life laced with repetitive conditioning. Outwardly everything may look calm; it is the turmoil deep down that disturbs life’s rhythms. Metaphorically, it is akin to the tea cup which seems normal on the surface, but for the soggy biscuit bits which lump disgustingly at the bottom to destroy the tea-drinking experience. The comfortable steel-and-chrome high-rises of Gurugram are like the tea cup, with its soggy posse of challenges.  

Within the familiar off-beat tales of techies quitting their high-paying jobs, this story is about the coming to life of Vijay who only a few months ago was slump-shouldered and resigned to his daily routine. That he found a new meaning of life in cows and crops is only part of the breezy narrative, his better half finds comfort in yoga as she unwillingly pursues a corporate career to help him with his dream is the second part. Only one sacrifice in the real world will suffice. 

Running on two parallel tracks, the tongue-in-cheek narrative is about de-stressing life as the leitmotif of urban existence. ‘Why don’t you take up yoga again, you seemed to feel a little better at that time’ is a subtle advice to the lady of the house to keep cool while the budding farmer gains roots in the startling unfamiliar territory. With an incredible knack of story-telling, Yash captures the microcosm of change sweeping the household amidst its daily ordeal. Capturing delicate moments, cheeky encounters, and weird incidents, she lets the writer in her take control of expressing what it takes to be a farmer’s wife. 

With the choice thrust on her, there is little that Yash could do but float in Vijay’s dream world of fresh milk and organic gobhi. The list of items coming out of the leased farm did grow in the dream sequence, but it was only milk which started flowing with some packs of organic veggie tossed in. Getting into farming was an on-the job-exposure that the entire family was forced into. Away from tabs, the weekly visits to the farm were engaging experiences for kids. Choosing nature over technology, the kids learnt to be empathetic towards puppies, cows and the crows. 

Amidst the unending efforts of getting the city out of her, the lingua franca of farming weighed heavy on her and the kids. While jatropha sounded like Jethro Tull to her, the kids took a fancy at savoring some dung cakes. Nonetheless, prodigious vocabulary and distinctive techniques turned farming into an engaging and entertaining vocation for everybody. Despite her initial reservation, Yash soon discovered similarities in tending cows and mending kids. Her sympathy for Vijay translated into an unconditional support to let him be a farmer, and she a farmer’s wife. 

Written with wit, humor, flair and purpose, How I became a Farmer’s Wife chronicles the mid-career crises that most discerning techies often go through. After all, there is a limit to which urbanscape comforts can comfort these upward mobile couples. But farming is no bed of roses either; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles. Not only challenging, the transition could fall short of expectations too. 

Towards the latter half of the story, Yash realizes that success is more than just winning the race. Even if the transition didn’t go the full circle, it did create a farmer in Vijay and converted Yash to accept herself as a farmer’s wife. The passion he exuded and the freedom he acquired had lifted the morale of the entire family. As the couple rode out of the farm for the last time, Yash felt an incredible sense of freedom and a distinct sense of connection with the man whose waist she hung on to for dear life. Finally, the parallel tracks had begun to merge. Freedom comes at a price, only if one is willing to pay for. 

How I became a farmer’s wife
by Yashodhara Lal
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 318, Price: Rs. 250

First published in the Hindustan Times on June 8, 2018

Monday, June 4, 2018

Nature, like mother, only generates musical lullaby. Ironically, we the mortals miss the lullaby for the words as we love noise and miss the embedded signal.

In her debut fiction, Kunjana Parashar creates a child’s imagery on nature that is fresh, insightful, reflective and persuasive. Syaahi, meaning ink, is a restless 9-year old girl chided as a slowpoke in class who, like most children, sticks a tongue out towards her uninteresting school building as she heads home for the vacations. Instead she finds solace in nature, amidst the garden trees and creepers, conversing with mute trees about all that she is unable to share with her grandma and the class teacher. In her little mind, trees are great listeners and respond through rustle of leaves or an occasional falling inflorescence. Much to her surprise, the old Rain Tree, under whose feet she had spent countless hours feeling the texture of its roots and bark, seeks to whisper that only she could hear and comprehend.

Lamenting a lack of interest among kids towards nature, the Rain Tree finds a discerning pupil in Syaahi, and exposes the strengths that her grandma and school teacher have not been able to discover. Erasing her of self-doubt, the rooted giant instills a sense of self-belief in the child. Reminding her to nurture good seeds of patience and care, the child is pumped up with irresistible energy to embark on a secret journey to make her vacations ‘green’.  

Kunjana, an English literature graduate, has let her imagination take wings as Syaahi begins to sway on the long aerial roots of the friendly Banyan tree from one part of the city to other. Her worldly encounters on sowing the good seeds are short, but detailed and accurate. Such innocent indulging is the narrative that one finds being flung up high with the child, only to be reminded of the follies that have been collectively committed on the ground. Syaahi’s Green Summer is about appreciating simple pleasures, and generally easing up in a society that encourages materialism and competitiveness.

At this time when people are pulled in separate directions, often directionless to say the least, Syaahi fuels life into the ecosystem with her innocent charm. Showering compassion to birds and beasts, she gets their roaring, squeaking, barking and purring in return as if the garden was but a colorful Indian wedding. The notion of co-existence, of interdependence on each other is reflected as all creatures join the tiny doll in her affable greening initiative. There are hardly any dramatics, just plain narration that catalogues every moment in detail.

In her imagination, the author creates a character in tiny Syaahi who is observant of every little thing around her. No wonder, the garden is like her secret, private den and sanctuary. It is here that she will compose lullaby of musical sounds and musical whistles – no words. She believes that if you use words in a lullaby, you would wake up the one you are trying to put to sleep. I envy Kunjana for the effortless ease with which she conveys a profound message. Nature, like mother, only generates musical lullaby. Ironically, we the mortals miss the lullaby for the words. We love noise, but miss the embedded signal.      

It is book about reconciliation, first with self and then with the surroundings. This could well be the most rudimentary takeaway from Syaahi’s Green Summer, but the central preoccupation in the book is about possibilities, and the conviction of turning simple dreams into transformative realities. This tiny gem of a book doesn’t preach but leaves a message that can inspire every discerning mind into creating his/her own set of actions. Without employing an expansive definition of ecological prudence, Kunjana nonetheless offers a simple but doable body of conscience choice with humane values.

Despite it being written from a child’s perspective, the book is a thoughtful tour in the garden that blows a layer of dust off from our clogged minds. Syaahi’s Green Summer is more for the teachers than children, a must read for evoking all round interest in understanding what we seemingly consider as given. Ignoring the disappearance of tiny sparrow from our daily lives, for instance, carries an ominous sign on our own existence. The author invites her readers to connect with her with cheeky comments and snarky witticisms. She deserves accolades!

Syaahi’s Green Summer
by Kunjana Parashar
APK Publishers, Pune
Extent: 84, Price: Rs 150

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who decides what is good for us?

With the idea of stable water thrown into the tailspin of prevailing/emerging water crises, the need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries was never more compelling.  

Cape Town may be the first waterless city and surely not the last, but that humans are drawing more than their geological share of water should make us shudder as things are becoming worse before getting any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has turned it into an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the anthropocene. With the idea of stable water thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.  

By altering the planetary systems humans themselves have attained the status of a geological force, influencing the philosophy of water management that connects culture, geography, and economics to lose its relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological limits but beyond regional and national boundaries too. Unless this predominant approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, addressing inequalities that exist on a geological scale cannot be addressed. 

And, there is no opportune time to question it than now as humanity’s total share of natural materials and energetic throughput accelerates at a phenomenal pace. While it is agreed that dividing humans from nature may not help in understanding its impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had engineered oppressive logic which enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do contradictions over water, such as those over the right to water, gain civil status?  

The trouble with single planetary story on water, triggered by a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist but simply posits that we should do without them. Instead, Schmidt presents three philosophical concerns to counter it: first, water resources should be managed without privileging any particular cultural understanding; second, acknowledge different social relations that take shape around different water use practices; and third, appreciate the different symbolic ends that others may hold as intrinsically meaningful. 

These three concerns – over subjects, social relations, and symbolic goods – could be critical entry points into initiating a new discourse on water management, as the paradigm of ‘making things public’ is inadequate since it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed 19th century solution associated with the society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to emerging social entrepreneurship around water, the basic contention here is to ask what questions arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water through a theory of modernity. 

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge an understanding on engineering solutions relate to the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an ‘unfolding water drama’, there is a great deal required to depart from the previous ways into new ways of managing water in the anthropocene. The challenge, however, for the global water governance is that it does not substantively depart from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve. Schmidt does not offer any solution, but attempts to implicate ideas widely held in water management that have contributed to unequal water relations.

Making a strong case for re imagining water management, Schmidt refuses to think of water as only a resource because it lends credence to the surplus-scarce-security trilogy that reinforces structures of thought leading to a single planetary story regarding risks to people, the planet, and the economy. And such a story, far from generating empathy, offers further justifications for the existing approach to water management. Such an approach fosters unequal practices (of access, allocation, and pricing) that favor one cultural understanding of water over others.           

Schmidt questions the existing philosophy of water that had rejected older ideas as too metaphysical or too far down the evolutionary ladder of social development. However, the chosen philosophy was not without its own mythical elements. Did it not claim that the idea of liberal forms of life was uniquely equipped to manage water within vast array of social and economic demands? The end result of this philosophy is that water which was once abundant is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed the way it is, majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water, if at all.  

The book offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to address water, which remains ever restless in this new geological era, and the choice to continue pursuing it as only a resource may offer limited resolution to the magnitude of the problem at hand.   

Water 
by Jeremy J. Schmidt
SAGE, New Delhi
Extent: 307, Price: Rs. 995

First published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReview and Current Science dated Sept 25, 2018. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ringing that bell of justice

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

So widespread is its appeal and demotic reach that its cinematic rendition too had to face it - a real PIL against a reel PIL – for representing legal profession in a poor light. Though the case was quashed, it did in a way justify the strength of contemporary jurisprudence in the country. Jolly LLB and its sequel Jolly LLB-2 appealed to viewers as these movies celebrate the power of PIL in challenging deeply elitist and exclusionary dimensions of legal procedures. To an average cinegoer, PIL is the reminder of the bell that Emperor Jahangir is believed to have hung outside his palace for aggrieved subjects to pull at any time to seek instant justice. But why the poor didn’t get justice in the first place has remained unanswered!

In response to the slow paced court procedures which exemplify ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ the PIL was introduced in the late 1970s as a tool to represent subaltern interests, aimed at erasing the class-based biases. It was hailed as the most responsive move by the judiciary, providing speedy justice by easing traditional judicial procedures. It did work as judges donned their activist avatar, and in the interest of the public proclaimed solutions, reprimanded officials and enforced orders. A celebratory clamor followed as general public found recluse in court’s role in filling ‘vacuum in governance’.

But what began in the late 1970s as a judicial revolution was reduced by mid 1990s to a tool that worked against the very interests it had promised to serve. Citing the ruthless ‘slum demolition’ and the controversial ‘sealing drive’ cases in the capital, Anuj Bhuwania unfolds how a promising judicial tool was appropriated by the court to jump jurisdictional limits in taking control of urban governance through PIL. It did improve matters but at the cost of larger public good. The sealing drive is a case in point wherein then Chief Justice Y K Sabharwal took personal interest in turning a long-running PIL about relocation of industries into a case about misuse of commercial properties, purported to serve the interests of his own family. Although the charges of corruption remain unproved against the now deceased judge, the ideological slant in favor of corporate capital affecting livelihoods of millions remains evident.

The cases referred to in Courting the People make it amply clear that the non-procedural and arbitrary nature of PIL has helped the court initiate a case in public interest on its own, appoint its own lawyer, investigate the issue, and issue orders for implementing its decision. What is more, in a majority of cases the victims were neither consulted nor allowed to enter the court room before the court pronounced on their fate. Class-based exclusions were materially inscribed. Taking cognizance of such pathetic instances, the author wonders how PIL has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

However, it will be erroneous to conclude that the book views PIL entirely in poor light because it argues that with the right kind of judges, who do not take procedural liberties on offer; a right kind of judgement is still possible. Bhuwania’s emphasis throughout the book is not so much on the unjust outcomes of PIL cases, but rather on the profound injustice of the judicial process adopted in them. In this context there is little denying that the pathology of PIL has infected legal culture more generally in the post-liberal era, as armed with radical potential of PIL the appellate judges could pursue political causes they deemed fit.

It goes without saying that in the din of emerging PIL culture the important and challenging aspect of integrating the three-tiered judicial system into well-oiled functioning machinery that can provide timely and quality justice to the subaltern has largely been side-stepped. The lower judiciary with its inefficient and corrupt system continues to be perceived as purely pathological, whereas the heroic persona is reserved for higher courts that are viewed, thanks to PIL, as the panacea to endemic social and political ills. In the market-driven demand-supply scenario, the culture of PIL with its star judges and celebrity lawyers has acquired a conspicuous and higher political status in the country’s appellate judiciary. Its self-congratulatory nature with its inbuilt justifications will only perpetuate it to grow.

Courting the People raises more questions than what it sought to address in the first place. It is a somewhat disturbing read that points out at its (PIL) fundamentally protean nature which stems from its mimicry of ideas of popular justice. As long as it is believed that the poor can gain justice from benign paternalism of the presiding judge, the idea of Emperor Jahangir’s Zanjir-e-Adl will continue to resonate in the corridors of appellate courts. Bhuwania’s efforts will be well served if his research is made available in a language palatable to a wider readership.

Courting the People
by Anuj Bhuwania
Cambridge, New Delhi
Extent: 157, Price: Rs 495

First published in the Hindustan Times dated May 12, 2018.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The ran and the banned

Such is the power (lure) of advertising that it not only makes the egoist socialites dance to its tune but inspires the macho celebrities (stars) strip to their bare essentials.

Had he not been married to Mary Pears, daughter of soap company owner Francis Pears, Thomas Barratt would not have invented the catchy phrase ‘Good morning, have you used Pears' soap?’ as the first ever advertising campaign in the late 19th century. Pears gained the desired traction among consumers, impelling them to prefer it over other brands. Barratt did not live long to see the expanse of his pioneering work, but the impact of advertisements on our life choices has only grown. However, what goes into the making of a short but persuasive form of communication that can even influence a bald person to buy a comb is worth a curious look in. 

Clearly, there is much that goes into making of a short advert than what finally gets served on the prospective consumers. Else, how would women of all hues continue to believe that a teeny peck of cream would make them fair and lovely? And, why would men have unstinted faith in a diminutive capsule to restore vigor past their prime?  Converting products into habits is what the advertising industry excels in, announcing with aplomb the relevance of each product. Such is the impact that some of the taglines stay in popular memory long after the product disappears from the market. What an idea, Sirji is one amongst many, and so is Yeh dil maange more

Pulling quirky insights from her stint in the world of advertising, Ritu Singh reveals the truth behind somewhat amusing world of advertising that quite often blurs the divide between the sublime and the ridiculous. From evoking a feel-good feeling of owning a scooter through Buland Bharat Ki Buland Tasveer to a sexually suggestive expression Yeh toh bada toing hai by a village belle washing hubby’s undies, a wide canvas was laid bare for affirming consumers’ emotions on one hand to fiddling with perverted fantasies on the other. The outrage that followed was enough for the sexpressive ad to be banned. The ad continues to evoke interest in the virtual space. 

Isn’t advertising an evolving art, a creative undertaking on testing hypotheses even if some (sexually suggestive) ideas remain ahead of its times? Why is there no space for such adverts in the land of Kamasutra where some explicit (rather abusive) expressions are affectionately used to greet each other, and where not long ago the entire nation was singing ‘Bhaag bhaag DKBose’? Why the society has a line drawn between what is cultural and what is public? 

Adhering to such norms, the ad world remained cluttered with dull and drab commercials during much of the recent past, creating more noise than signal. Occasionally, there have been attempts to break free to shake up socially and culturally diverse landscape, seeking re-evaluation of consumers entrenched notions in the changing world of want and necessity. Some worked and many didn’t, as merging tradition with modernity and frugality with profligacy has not been easy. 

Written with wit and flair, Stark Raving Ad takes the reader on a giddy tour replete with unforgettable taglines, naughty storylines, brand scuffles, and industry scandals. There is a story behind each short commercial. Take the case of the only ad featuring actor Dev Anand in the early 80s which was taken off air because no one seemed to notice the fabric he was seemingly promoting, and the  most watched ‘one black coffee’ mobile ad of the mid-90’s which clicked more for the gaffe than the handset. Howsoever imaginative and creative the treatment might have been, these ads did not make businesses feel needy, and had their lifespan cut out.

The ultimate challenge argues Singh, is to create moments on screen that can guide viewers’ aspirations, stir their emotional quotient, solicit their pride, and trigger envy in others through their purchase. And the consumer market has everything on offer for the creative guys/gals at the ad agencies to burn their butts, as insiders call it, to generate few seconds of lasting impact. Be it detergents or undergarments, biscuits or condoms, paints or pizza, and jewelry or motorbikes, the challenge lies in pitching adverts for as diverse the viewers as the products. The ultimate test being that everybody agrees with the storyline and/or the tagline, and the product sells. 

Grouping hundreds of ads in a dozen odd curious chapters, like Thoo-Thoo, Main-Main and  Mummy Badnaam Hui, Stark Raving Ad is a run through the world of Indian advertising with its hits and misses, and the ran and the banned. That there are more hits than misses is evident from the fact that it has kept an eye on the social-psyche of everyday living, the quest for variety and the appetite for questioning, in creating a mosaic of short commercials. What amuses me is the fact that the advertising industry has not only made the egoist socialites dance to their tune but inspired the macho celebrities strip to their bare essentials, all for enticing the aam aadmi

Stark Raving Ad is an exercise in nostalgia, in the makeshift world where the aam aadmi enjoys the forbidden apple while gulping mango juice in the land of (k)aam-sutra. 

Stark Raving Ad
by Ritu Singh
Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 276, Price: Rs 350.

First published in BLink of the Hindu BusinessLine on May 5, 2018. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Fine Head for a Story

Alum Bheg was a nondescript pawn sacrificed in the tumult of 1857. His story, told without empire-bashing or nostalgia, throws light on a brutalising colonialism.

It may not have caught the attention of historian Kim Wagner had there not been a neatly folded slip of paper in the eye-socket of the skull, which read: ‘Skull of Havildar Alum Bheg 46th Bengal Infantry who was blown away from a gun. He was a principal leader of the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition.’

Intrigued by the manner of execution and the subsequent collection of the skull as a trophy, Wagner sought to restore some peace for the dispossessed by piecing together the history of barbaric treatment of the natives by the imperialists. It is a work which scholars call a subaltern prosopography, depicting the cruelty of the natives and the barbaric retribution which followed. 

Following the execution the skull was carried home by Captain A R G Costello, who was witness to the execution in Sialkot on July 10, 1858, before it resurfaced a century later at pub The Lord Clyde in 1963. It took another fifty years before the inglorious skull, directly linked to a part of colonial history, coincidentally reached a Danish historian researching on imperial executions. The Skull of Alum Bheg is a meticulously researched, gripping narrative that brings to life the human aspects of imperial domination. Staying clear of both mindless empire-bashing and jingoistic empire-nostalgia, the narrative provides a nuanced understanding of the past by portraying the personalities on all sides of the conflict. The final brutal outcome is reflective of the relationships and circumstances between the ruler and the ruled, guiding us to address the enduring legacies of imperialism that are still with us today.

Resentment was brewing following the Barrackpore mutiny, in which hundreds of native sepoys were slaughtered in 1824, with the soldiers increasingly getting convinced that their officers were deliberately, and insidiously, undermining their ritual purity leading to infidelity. The British did little to assuage doubts and fears attached to biting the cow or pig-fat greased cartridges. Instead, by disbanding the sepoys of first Barrackpore and later Berhampore garrisons they only managed to stoke resentment amongst their most trusted and most needed support to rule 200 million people. The native foot soldiers outnumbered their counterparts in the army; there were five native sepoys for each imperial soldier. Relying on their numerical strength, the natives mutinied against their racist and rapacious ruler.

Wading through reams of historical records, Wagner weaves together a compelling history of mutiny as it spread across most of the northern areas. In some ways, the popular uprising was an armed rebellion against a longstanding climate of dissatisfaction, brewing out of perceived religious subjugation, which had played out differently across regions. Sialkot cantonment was on the tenterhooks of an uneasy calm, partly because the sepoys of the Bengal Army constituted a uniquely coherent group who found a sense of unity as they lived far away from their villages in Awadh. But they could not be insulated from the disturbing news of mutiny for long, and in the ensuing chaos personal animosity had merged with general discontent to claim innocent lives. 

Shockingly, however, the existing evidence makes no mention of Alum Bheg as the principal mutineer at Sialkot, for which he was held guilty and sentenced. Neither is there any indication that he played any role in brutal assault and killing of Jane Hunter, her two-year old son, and Dr Graham. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, Alum Bheg and his men chose to head for Delhi to offer their allegiance to Bahadur Shah. It was to their undoing, as they were waylaid on at Trimmu Ghat on the banks of river Ravi in Gurdaspur, and were forced to flee into Kashmir. The imperial forces hunted them down as an act of betrayal was considered morally and politically indefensible; severity of retribution was implicitly justified. 

Wagner uses the story of one man’s death to excavate the weak under-belly of the nineteenth century empire, which considered the outbreak of mutiny as personal attacks on themselves. As an act of retributive logic to Kanpur killings wherein slaughtered European women and children were dumped in a well, the British took an unmistakable sense of achievement by consigning innumerable mutineers to a well in Ajnala. Wagner notes with dismay that there are no heroes in the book, only victims. Convinced that the execution of Alum Bheg was a deliberate attempt to deny him his funeral rites, the author proposes the peaceful site of the Battle of Trimmu Ghat, on the island in the river Ravi, as his permanent resting place. 

Meticulously researched and vividly written, it is a page turning narrative that lays bare the Victorians’ macabre fetish for collecting body parts. But, cautions Wagner, the complexities of the past must be viewed beyond the moral binary of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  

The Skull of Alum Bheg
by Kim A. Wagner
Hurst & Co, London, 
Extent: 287, Price: Rs. 599

First published in Outlook magazine, issue dated May 7, 2018.