Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Privilege

I have been thinking about privilege lately, and subtle ways in which those in the majority (in an area, a country, a profession - any context you can think of) flaunt it, often unintentionally. Of course, male privilege has long been paired with sexism, but there are so many other kinds. In India, there's caste for instance. Remember all the brouhaha about the song from Aaja Nachle two years ago? I shrugged my shoulders then, and wondered what the big deal was, feeling that the song wasn't offensive at all. And then I read this, and recognised my privilege for what it was. I live in urban India, I was brought up Hindu and almost always taken for one, I am rarely asked my caste - and if I were, I would probably give a blank look and claim I don't know (which would be a lie, but that's the politest way I can think of of answering that question). I am not from a lower caste, I am not a Dalit: I have never had to face the kind of oppression they still routinely face.

The festival season makes me wonder at the kind of privilege Hindus routinely show. Loud bhajans blare out; young men come around asking for donations for the neighbourhood pooja, people send forwards to their entire contact list invoking Ganesha(or some other Hindu god)'s blessings. It annoys me: I can only imagine what people from minority religions feel.

Last year, the Guy and I visited a friend's house on Diwali. Our host and his roommate performed pooja: they also insisted that we join them in the rituals they were performing. The guests in the room were the Guy and I, both atheists; one Christian woman; and one Muslim guy. The Guy and I were merely amused at the procedure, but the Muslim friend seemed distinctly uncomfortable. It's unfair to abuse your privilege as a host to make your guest take part in a ritual that is against his religion. (And yes, the Muslim friend had politely remained outside the room and only come in after he was asked to more than once; he sat in a corner for some time but was repeatedly asked to participate; and he finally left the room. He was too polite to voice disagreement, however.)

I have witnessed (or endured) marked signs of privilege in north (and to an extent, west) Indians. The other day I was told confidently that everyone celebrates Raksha Bandhan or Bhai Dooj or some similar festival to celebrate brothers, right after I mentioned that it was not celebrated in Assam. Being asked whether I was fasting for Karvachauth merely displays an ignorance of my culture (Karvachauth isn't a part of either Assamese or Gujarati culture, so there's no reason why the Guy and I would celebrate it even if we were religious). But being asked something of that sort - or whether, for instance, we had done a pooja for the house - also makes me wonder why the questioner assumed that I am Hindu (because a name or a face isn't a good enough indicator, is it?) Is everyone assumed to be a Hindu unless proven otherwise?

I am not singling out any particular community, though. One of the most rude comments I got was from an Assamese acquaintance who, on learning that my fiancé and in-laws were vegetarian, suggested that they should be fed non-vegetarian food. He was extremely surprised to learn that I was vegetarian as well (because, of course, in his limited mind, one has to be born into one's life, not make one's own choices: I'm surprised how people of such mental capacities manage to get jobs and earn a decent living).

We Indians are surprisingly intolerant of difference, given how many different communities and cultures there exist in the country. I suppose it comes from being part of relatively insular communities. I can only hope there are so many inter-community marriages that the lines between communities blur.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Diwali, and a Poem on Polanski

Regarding this, see this. It's brilliant.

And a Happy Diwali to you all.

I hate the noise, but I love the lights.
I hate the smoke that spreads through the night.
I hate the crackers made by little hands:
I hate the madness of little minds:
But there's food, and company, and cheer:
So I am really glad that Diwali's here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And This...

...is what I got for my birthday.

The sad part: I am through three and a quarter of them already. They won't last much longer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

We Watched "Vicky Christina Barcelona"

... last weekend. It was interesting, as every Woody Allen movie I've watched has been.

We rushed into the hall a few minutes late. I have this unfortunate - or rather, fortunate in this case - habit of reading movie reviews and plots before I watch the movie (I suppose it's just an inability to stop myself from reading anything remotely interesting), so it wasn't difficult to catch on to what was happening.

I might let loose a couple of spoilers, so you're warned if you haven't seen the movie. This is not going to be a coherent review though, just a couple of thoughts I had.

It is undoubtedly the boldest movie I have ever seen on the big screen. I was in fact, surprised that there were so few people in the theater: I would have expected more, if only for the wrong reasons. The movie depicts a non-monogamous relationship, and posits it as not only normal, but desirable. And that is enough for me to love the movie, that it depicts relationships outside the monogamous heterosexual norm with sensitivity and naturalness, without a load of wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The only person in the movie who seems to find such relationships uncomfortable is treated as a bit of a caricature: a man who is too insensitive or dense to realise that his partner is in love with someone else; who insists upon a wedding in Barcelona because it would be fun to "tell the kids" about it, even though he and his partner would "of course" go back to New York and have the planned conventional wedding afterwards.

There was shocked laughter in the hall at any displays of non-straight, non-monogamous affection, and while I curled up my lip in disdain at the audience's uncool lack of liberalism at first, I soon recognised that this was remarkably tame for a country used to the likes of Dostana presenting the 'gay' angle.

I felt the film was slow and predictable, at least in the beginning, but I now think that was because I was waiting for something to 'happen'. Everything that happens seems predictable, but yet I think that's because the film set up the characters so well that their actions seem convincing and even inevitable.

I also found the narrating irritating: there is much of it, telling us, for instance, that certain characters are having dinner or eating chocolate when we can see the event unfold on the screen. But the narration was so over-the-top that I suspect it was put in to irritate: either as a spoof on the condescending narration that is present in so many movies nowadays, or to mislead the audience on the protagonists' characters by, for instance, reiterating how free-spirited Christina is.

As expected, I liked conservative Vicky much less than freespirited Christina; yet the director sets up a paradox. It is Christina who is straightforward about what she wants and what she does, and Vicky who ends up being deceitful and manipulative. Not an unlikely unfolding of events in real life, but Allen sets up the unfolding very well in the movie.

I think the acting was very good: Penelope Cruz definitely deserved her Oscar, and it says a lot for Chris Messina's talent that I wanted very much to punch him in the face.

Like most Woody Allen movies I have seen (barring the relatively recent ones Cassandra's Dream, Match Point and Scoop), I like the fact that nothing much 'happens' by the end of the movie. The characters remain much where they were at the beginning, all the adventures in the movie forming just a detour on their paths back to normal life. The film turns out to be more an exploration of their characters than the narration of their life-stories. Some critics wrote that Vicky Christina Barcelona is more like Allen's earlier movies than his recent ones: I agree.

In other words: go watch it, if you haven't already. If you have, what did you think of it?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Goan Holiday

Let me just say this was the best holiday I've ever had. Fun, exciting, relaxing and romantic. Of course, it was much too short, even though I did wish I could fly to my own bathroom and bed every night!

The day before was ominous: I had a bad backache and was in pain that night. Much as I hated to, I seriously considered cancelling the vacation, especially as we were going to drive down. "Let's see how I feel in the morning," I told the Guy. The copious applications of pain-relieving gel and a few hours sleep helped, and I got up in the morning feeling all excited about our vacation.

We started on Friday morning. It was the Guy and me, and my friend and her husband. Just as we drove out of the city, we encountered masses of orange flowers on both sides of the road. (I was too busy staring at them to take a picture, so here's what they looked like, only there were thousands of them.)

The drive down the highway was beautiful, and smooth. The weather was perfect: cloudy and breezy, so that it was cool and we had the windows down and the AC off for much of the way. We soon found out why the weather was how it was. Our agent from Goa called up to confirm that we were on our way, and informed me that it was raining heavily there. We hoped that the rain would let off by the time we got there, and drove on.

We drove past green fields and over rivers. City slicker that I am, I exclaimed, "That looks just like Farmville!"

Then we took a turn off the highway, and drove on a small road that went through fields. The road was a little bumpy, but it was so amazingly refreshing, driving past farms and fields.

The Guy and I had made sandwiches for the journey, so we didn't even stop for lunch, just munching sandwiches and stopping for tea. As we turned into the hills, we encountered mist, beautiful swirling clouds.

We came across a waterfall, and stopped for tea and to take a few pictures. There were pot-bellied men walking around in their underwear, and I even saw one man taking off his wet underpants under a towel. And I remarked on the double standards that make this acceptable while women are supposed to be dressed modestly and demurely.

We encountered some serious mist that slowed our journey down. We could barely see a few feet ahead of the car, and we moved forward slowly and hesitantly. Fortunately, my friend is a terrific driver and we felt safe in her hands.

We reached early in the evening to dark skies and rain. We were too tired to go down to the beach, so we just went out for an early dinner.

The Guy and I got up the next morning and had a quick breakfast in our hotel before hurrying down to Calungute beach. We spent most of the next day by the beach. It rained intermittently, and lifeguards went about warning people not to go in, so that all we did was get our feet wet. But the sound, the smell, the sight of the sea was exhilarating.

In the afternoon, the four of us went into the water again: we went in deeper than we had been allowed to before. The sand was treacherous, sinking and shifting beneath our feet as the waves receded. The receding tide was strong. As the Guy plunged into a trough, he clutched my hand, and my foot twisted a little. The cold water made it hurt.

We went back to our hotel late in the afternoon, talking of naps... But the sight of the pool invigorated us and we quickly showered and changed into our swimsuits. We splashed around until the pool closed. Then it was time to shower and change again and go for dinner. It being Saturday, we went to Tito's.

But we were hungry, and it was only 7.30 when we got there. We sipped drinks and ate each course slowly, whiling away the time till it was 10.30 and the real Tito's opened. Between courses, each couple took turns at a walk on the moonlit beach while the other kept the table.

By 11, the little lane was crowded with vehicles and pedestrians. There was a small crowd outside the disc. We got in and found a much bigger crowd inside, everyone dancing away, bumping into other people. We joined them. For a time, the Guy and I danced with abandon. But it was too crowded, people kept pushing past us to go in or out, and my foot had begun to hurt again. We decided to get out.

It seemed impossible to find our friends in the crowd, so we just walked out and found a cafe on the street where we could sit, sip a drink, and look down on the street. It was 1 am, and the street was crowded. Women in slinky dresses walked by nonchalantly. I thought of how it's nearly impossible to find an open restaurant around midnight in our city, and revelled in the atmosphere.

Our friends found us in an hour or so. But the car was hopelessly stuck down the street, and they were determined to wait for it, so the Guy and I started off for the hotel. We walked for nearly a kilometre, past swollen traffic and stuck vehicles, and then we took a taxi home. We lay on our hotel beds and read until we fell asleep.

The next morning, we didn't wake up our friends because they had had a late night, so we got up and went for breakfast on our own. It was a late breakfast - we started at 11 - but a very good one. We then took a taxi to Baga beach. The red flags signifying no swimming were still up, so the Guy and I walked along the beach, played with our frisbee, and then settled down in two long beach chairs below an inadequate umbrella. The sun was out, and it quickly grew unpleasantly warm. I finished my book - a delectable Georgette Heyer - and clamoured for lunch.

We sat in a restaurant overlooking the sea and had a leisurely late lunch. Our friends joined us there some time later, and then we went back to the hotel.

As much as the beautiful beaches of Goa, I love the touristy atmosphere of the place: everyone seems to be on holiday there, even the locals; people are friendly; there is little of the shady-creepiness that I associate with most popular tourist spots in India. Vendors can get annoying, but even that is not too bad. Also, I love how kind they are to animals: stray dogs walk in and out of restaurants; birds pecked food off a newly-vacated table and the waiter barely shrugged when I asked him to clear that table; and cats too walked around looking at home. That may also partly explain why I rarely heard dogs barking or growling there, even though there were many around. Here at home there's a regular midnightly cacophony that we have to close our windows for and never quite succeed in shutting out.

Monday was our last day there. By the time we dragged ourselves out of our rooms it was mid-morning and too sunny to go to the beach. We went for another large breakfast, and then decided to go sightseeing. We drove down to Old Goa and saw St. Francis'. But it was hot and humid and we were getting tired, so we decided to go back instead of going to Panjim, as we had planned.

We got back to the hotel after a late lunch and decided to go to the beach by sunset. Our friends went off to rest while the Guy and I changed and rushed to the pool. After a pleasant hour, we hurried out so as to be in time for the sunset.

We were well in time. We placed a bedsheet on the sand and lay over it, staring up at the evening sky. I could hear the loud waves twice, once through carried through the air from the sea a few metres away from me, and once through the bed of sand under the sheet.

When it grew dark, we settled ourselves into a restaurant so that we could still see and hear the waves. It was our last evening in Goa and we wanted to savour it.

We started off early next morning. We met rain and mist on the way again, and broken bumpy roads. We also drove through the most beautiful sights: mist rising over the hills, green fields all around us. Once, I looked down over the cliff and saw still water, the far side covered with mist so that I could not see where it ended. It looked magical. I thought it was a lake: it was only after we drove by it for some time that I realised it was in fact a river. Then we crossed it, and the magic passed.

On our way back, we saw the orange flowers again, only, instead of thousands, there were millions this time. The rains must have brought more out. They reminded me of Wordsworth's daffodils. Unfortunately, I again forgot to take a picture. Maybe I'll persuade the Guy to drive us out there again this weekend, just to take a few pictures.

It was our wedding anniversary, that day when we drove back. The entire vacation had been a celebration of our marriage.

And look what I got for our anniversary!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Announcement: Holiday Hiatus

I meant to write a nice long post today, but the eight-hour-long power cut foiled me. I am off tomorrow to Goa. Will be back mid-week, so see you all then. I promise:
  • An account of the holiday
  • Another installment on "Why I Am a Feminist"
  • An account of how I loved this amazing fantasy series (for teenagers) I read lately
  • My thoughts on infidelity in a relationship
  • Hopefully, another short fiction piece
Which do you want first?