Women drinking in Bars

I found myself – yet again – in a packed dingy bar surrounded on all sides by a blanket of noise, cigarette smoke and general ‘run-downery’. This dive, started by a Chinese gentleman – whose portrait hung over the payment counter – was in an old market area of Calcutta – Chandni Chowk – an area where Parsi traders once plied their wares alongside French and Syrian merchants. It is one of many spaces in Calcutta that oozes out History with just a little light tapping at the, apparently, hard surface. Bars are great at offering us those much needed oases for pensive Romanticizing. As I walked and interrogated the market area around me, a swell of Time swept over me. My mind started to over-excite itself with figments of this and that. The bar conveniently offered its (relatively) inner calm for me; to weigh and sort out the thoughts which had been percolating within for the past two hours. I went in hurriedly.

As I sat down on a hard, worn down chair I remembered similar ‘austere’ bars of my hometown. Shillong establishments of old – but ill – repute like Ambassador, Golden Dragon came up. I remembered the loud, smoky camaraderie and the (frankly) stupid (but useful) ideas we often threw at each other. All these things have added layers to my life and I smiled to myself (psychotically) as I sipped the vodka, drawing out the incidences once again in my mind. The bar had wooden booths built along the sides of the wall. They were far more spacious than those we, in Shillong, are used to. There must have been about 10 in all. Out of them came the unfamiliar and pleasant sounds of women chatting. I say unfamiliar because in Shillong you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a woman in a dive bar. Women, generally speaking, are routed towards fancier joints. Places like Pinewood, Cloud Nine and the like are considered ‘women-friendly’. Women can be free and ‘modern’ within such spaces. The rest of the drinking establishments of Shillong are quite clearly a ‘no go’ for women. Especially for ‘respectable’ women.

I had once walked into a bar with some friends only to be told that they would not serve us booze. The reason was because one of my friends had come with his then- girlfriend. We made a show and protest, deliberately trying to upset the men who were already drinking and stormed off after that. In hindsight, there have been many similar incidences like that. But then again we live in a society which has a terrible sense of business; where empty moralism trumps everything else. Must be one of those “salient features” of “tribal” society that I have heard so much about.

A few years ago, there were indeed a number of Shillong bars that permitted women to engage in the wonderful societal event called drinking. However, a slew of molestation/rape cases and a murder quickly led many authorities to point towards the bars as the progenitors of the root problem. It is a fairly common but no less idiotic declaration, in other parts of the country as well. After that, all the bars were ordered to close down by 9 pm and gradually, over time, the curfew was relaxed. However, bar management (probably with directives from the police) had somewhere along the line decided that women were a great liability to their continued business operations. The outcome was that women could not drink as freely as they once did and many bars openly turned them away. This situation still holds true even today, some 5 or 6 years after the murder of that unfortunate woman.

For women, every space is contended space. Even as I sat in that Calcutta dive, I felt this. Ostensibly, it is wonderful that the city of Calcutta seems to have such a nonchalant attitude towards women drinking in bars. It comes out favourably when you compare this to the terrible persecution, women in similar situations, often face in Bangalore, Delhi, etc. By many progressive meters, Calcutta is India’s most ‘civilised’ city. However, the fight for “spaces” is not over by any stretch of the imagination. While we may applaud the permissiveness of Calcutta, we must also note certain things: how drunk women are looked at by the staff and management, how women are usually expected to be accompanied by male friends, how they are hidden away – in their booths or special rooms – from the “serious” drinking lot, how they are talked to, so on. Women should never be complacent. A rape, murder or similar tragedy along with Right wing opportunism (whether political or social) could undo decades of progress. Women themselves must defend these hard-fought ‘battlegrounds’ because fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

The issue is, of course, not simply about a woman’s right to drink openly. It is about expanding the rights of women to do anything they wish to do. It is imperative to “perform” publically against the idiotic patriarchal ideas and practices which characterize most Indian communities. As I sat thinking about these things, with that glass in my hand, the various unfortunate situations which plague women in Shillong came up as well. Being able to drink in cheaper places, like those in Calcutta, ensures that women of every social stratum can enjoy themselves. In Shillong, sadly, this is not the case. If women want to drink, they have to pay through the nose.

Perhaps, a look at how rural communities of Meghalaya ‘handle their drink’ would be beneficial for urban dwellers. My friends and I once had a wonderful sing-along with a group of inebriated ladies in a village beyond Smit. So here is a little secret: We did not rape them, we did not succumb to the ‘beast that lies within all men’; we joked and croaked out popular tunes over the hills, enjoying one another’s company. On their part, the women did not run away at seeing, similarly inebriated, creatures. They saw the fun in the situation and made use of it. To imagine men as “beasts” or bestial, is probably the most harmful thing that we could do. We are not challenging ourselves as human beings, to be very honest, when we assume such things.  

Hiding women away from society, making “harems” (in which ever way) for their ‘protection’, does nothing but create more insecurity. Along the lake garden walkways at Rabindra Sarobar, I would see women moving about at 10 PM or so. This is a victory in a sense. Do the (middle class) Khasi parents encourage their daughters to participate in any activities after 6 PM? Do they encourage their daughters to walk around and explore Shillong? Sure, they might buy them a car and teach them to drive but that is hardly a “public space”. One should not be so surprised then, when women are turned away from bars, because in many ways we – as a male dominated society – are encouraging the recession of their public roles in a myriad ways. As a final invocation to Shillong youths, I would like to say: relax, turn “tribal” again, enjoy your soma. Cheers.

On the Chinkyness of Saif Ali Khan

Been meaning to write something about the recent Nike “all female” ad which ad pundits have been trolling on and on about. When I first saw the ad on TV, my speculation was that the production team must have just given up on any new ideas and decided instead to go down the old safe road of celeb endorsement. Throw in a little “feminism by consumption” and you have yourselves something that can hobble along as a national campaign. Why the hell was Deepika Padukone featured in an ad with athletes? She’s a fucking model! Models (please don’t believe Bollywood) are not athletes. No one cares if she played badminton once upon a time (she was quite good at it apparently). The point is these are professional sportswomen and it is selling them short (and cheap) by glamming up what they do with models. Do not even get me started on the fact that two of the athletes are not even Indian citizens.

Let me ask a question: Where was Mary Kom in the ad? You remember her, right: India’s North East sweetheart, the same one who won shiny medals and brought so much honour to the country? The same country that refuses to lift the oppression of AFSPA from her home state, the same country that remains mute on issues of human rights abuse in Manipur. Why was she not in the ad? Did she decline or was it something else? Maybe she was busy, I don’t have the means to tell you. However, what is clear is that it is becoming very common to airbrush away (nuanced) representations of the North East. The hue and cry over Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom is justified. Sure, Mary is not an actress but neither was Chopra before becoming a beauty queen. The point is Chopra was given ample opportunity to develop her craft when she became a spotlight fixture. So why not for Mary or for that matter any Manipuri actress?

Part of the answer for the neglect lies in understanding someone else’s rise to stardom: Arnab Goswami. Ostensibly, Goswami is from Guwahati, Assam. I am not sure if he is Assamese or Bengali but he is without doubt from the North Eastern city. For someone with such a background, Goswami is remarkably silent on news coming out of the North East. That is because he realised something on his way up the ladder. One has to sell away one’s background in order to be bankable. Imagine if Goswami had decided to opt instead for a career covering news coming out of the North East and not Delhi or Bombay. No one would have noticed or bothered with him. That is the bitter truth. That in order to be bankable one must put one’s lot in with the majority. That what the majority wants must be given; this is the logic of profit. The rest of the country doesn’t care about what goes on in the North East. For the most part, this is fine but when people from other cultures start having stupid biases and stereotypes against North Eastern people then it becomes a problem. Isn’t the media supposed to inform us instead of ‘disinform’? Isn’t the media supposed to sensitize people about other cultures and places? It seems that in order to become a success, one must ‘whitewash’, no ‘brownwash’, no ‘de-chinkyfy’ one’s self. Goswami is the highest exemplar of this selling of one’s self for profit.

Popular ideas about the national image and national identity are often ludicrous. Most of them are premised on numbers. The larger (or economically powerful) groups decide what the smaller ones should believe in or follow. This is hardly a desirable state of affairs. In this country, in particular, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the field of representation and developing sensitivity towards others. Even larger minority groupings like those in the category of ‘Muslim’ still face much discrimination and hounding, so what chance do small tribal communities have? It is worse for North East tribal groups because they do not look “Indian”, they look “Chinese” or “Nepali” or something along those lines. They apparently look like “momo” or “chowmein” if racial slurs are to be believed.

Occasionally, the national news has to pick up on stories of racial and/or cultural discrimination experienced by people from the North East in the big cities. These are very infrequent but those “libtards” get somethings right once in a while. Much of the reports always come down to one thing: faces. In particular, how someone is discriminated against because they happen to look chinky. I find this very interesting. Why would someone looking chinky warrant such actions? Is there some sort of a value judgement passed on chinky people? Maybe it has to do with their food, maybe religion, maybe their language or their much-defended sense of individualism? I think the main reason why one people might discriminate against another might be owing to a misplaced sense of worth, a pride in being better than others. But if one is so much better than others, why be so insecure? If you are so much better than others, why would you even bother to do such things? It can’t possibly be because of a fear – like many Right-wing Hindus have – of the perpetually Mating Muslim™ who they believe will overcome Hindu control of India through ‘womb and scrotum’ tactics. North Eastern people can’t keep up with that sort of ‘mass reproduction’. The real reason would most probably lie in the truth of insecurity, a fear of the unknown. Maybe this misguided fear is actually a fear of the Big Chinky Mama™, China; and NE tribals just have to bear the brunt of it. Or maybe it is a fear of the mysterious newcomer whose face we do not recognise nor accept. We fear that they will disturb our sense of order. Except if they’re ‘white’, of course.

So who’s a chinky anyway? Personally I think Saif Ali Khan is very chinky. Did he get that from his Afghani (fairly chinky people) forefathers or from his Bengali mother? And yes, Bengalis are quite chinky. Especially those from the East, which is why the Bengalis won’t discriminate against you based on your facial features. They will do it because of religion, language, culture but never on what sort of face you have. That’s just crude! What would Bollywood be today without the chinky RD Burman and his even more chinky father, SD Burman? What about the half-Burmese chinky, Helen ‘’Golden Girl’’ Richardson? This is a country of diversity we are told but to watch the nonsense of Bollywood today one would think otherwise. Take the horrible, recently released film, Mohenjodaro; why is the entire city, in the film, populated by ‘’Aryans’’, where are the “black”, sorry Dravidian, people? Hell, while we’re at it, that famous Mohenjodaro ‘priest’ statuette looks sort of chinky, I reckon. I mean his eyes are slits, for god’s sake! The ‘negrito’ dancing girl might have been his girlfriend. So yes, it was probably a society, in ancient times, where a chinky man had a “black” girlfriend; that sounds more modern than anything we have today. The Bollywood set (this includes Times Now) seems happy to overlook important facts like origin, culture, distinctiveness in their pursuit of an “Indian” identity. We see that it often spills over into the curation of an actual physical appearance i.e. how an “Indian” ought to look like. They do this, not because of patriotism, but because it can be sold for great profit. The simpler it is, the more it will sell. That is the logic of the Market. When you create a simplistic, unilateral identity, you are, in effect, creating a brand. And that is priceless.

Vodka and Ramadan

So Ramadan 2016 had just started and I was in this really shoddy bar which didn’t look so shoddy from the outside. I was once again fooled by that bright coloured pre-fabricated panelling which is ubiquitous these days. I stepped into the dive, sat at a table and ordered vodka with some lime slices. It was a little after 3 pm on a Thursday in Calcutta. This is probably one of the joys of urban existence that I have somehow got around to cherishing: the empty bar. To sit in a quiet, undisturbed space with only the background banter of waiters with booze on call – these are the hallmarks of civilization! After a near hour-long dip into this oasis of tranquillity, I was joined by other weary travelers. A couple, the man had a skull-cap on and his companion was a woman, probably out on a date. They ordered some food and the man asked for a beer. I did not really give any of this much consideration.

In another half hour or so, another couple walked in. The men glanced at each and apparently knew one another. They exchanged a bout of words which I was not able to discern. I took all this in with long sips of vodka. After some time, I noticed that the men seemed to be annoyed with each other. It is that strange malaise which afflicts men in bars whereby they start shouting incoherently about something, their eyes wild and unfocused, their heads bobbing side-to-side. Sometimes there is foam at the mouth but rarely.

At first I was bemused and unable to understand what exactly was going on. Then it began to dawn on me. The man with the ‘topi’ was obviously breaking his fast before time and this somehow irked the other man. The fact that he was doing so with beer must have been a further point of anxiety. I suspected the other was also Muslim and as I mentioned earlier acquainted with the ‘offender’. It was quite interesting listening to them. The aggrieved party told the other to at least hide his ‘topi’ if he was going to insult his faith when he came to such places, the offender countered the attacker by asking him why he was there himself if he was so pious. The man maintained that he was there to simply keep his lady friend company. The women, I could see, were enjoying the show while merrily chomping down on chicken legs. They were both non-Muslims, I suspect.

“The one above knows”, said the attacker as he pointed to the sky. “So let him judge”, was the reply. Now when I think about it – why did that man have his skullcap on? Did he simply forget to take it off in the excitement of going on a date? Or did he do it intentionally? Was it some sort of a performance on his part? Maybe he just naively assumed that no other Muslim would bump into him in such a place and at such a time in the year? These deductions were quite fascinating to think about and I began to also construct a life for him beyond the bar. I was a little drunk and imagined him as a rebel who drank regularly, smoked weed openly and dated only girls outside of his own religion. Later at home, I re-read an article about how a Muslim man and a Hindu woman had been too frightened to register their marriage for fear of repercussions, somewhere in rural UP.

People cannot believe there is any love in such unions, they believe only in agendas. We have become objects with no will outside of stereotype. Worse is we submit ourselves to these ideas eventually, even when as children we fought hard against them. We slowly subdue ourselves and perpetuate the crude sketches, lewd jokes taught to us by our parents, who in turn learned it from theirs. We have invented and sustained a tradition of hatred.

Could our hero in the bar shake aside such reductions? Would he enthral his detractors with his wit or show up their poor reasoning with his own? Or maybe he is just lying drunk in his bed at home, having nightmares about the argument in the bar and acknowledging his fault? Maybe he will turn as well, in his pursuit of becoming ‘respectable’ and ‘grown up’? We will never know for sure.

Lies

I’m drowning in an ocean of lies,
My entire life is just an illusion,
A composite built of several lives
Made mine, by a single grand fusion.

They are beckoned forth by arrogant Pride,
Unknowingly they slip out of my mouth –
How tentative I become after I have lied
Lest my words should incur some doubt.

These tales that I so intricately weave,
Have but a few visible flaws;
But should tedious Inquiry refuse to leave
The palace of lies comes crashing to the floor.

I cannot stop these absurd pretensions;
I’m afraid my friends will hate me.
Truth will bring distrust and apprehension –
The rusted lock sees no turn of the key.

There were times I had been undone
By the very words I spoke.
I try to flee, I try to run
But I am tethered to this yoke.

Blattodea

When my mind is ill at ease I often force myself down in front of the keyboard, hoping that out of the turmoil something will creep out. Perhaps something that bites and spits in every direction without any distinction or sympathy for anyone. Something perhaps that coils in the shade, bright colours indicating its malicious intent, but tempting all the same. In spite this, it is mine. I gave birth to it and am bound to it by the strong bonds of maternal affection. I will defend it should people raise their voices or hands to strike it down. I will look at it and think that there is a bit of me in its eyes and that its mouth is shaped like my own. Out of hurt, it came into this world. And has to learn to look out for itself, if I am not or no longer around. My child must seem malformed and emaciated and, it is true, will never grow beyond a point. Its progenitor lies in darkness, forever pregnant and mothering both fliers and crawlers, with ever-increasing attritional effort. Each time, it gets more and more difficult. The dream is that the children may spawn colonies elsewhere in new fertile lands.

Fatalism of the Left

It seems that I must contend myself with some dire facts about the Indian Left through a survey of raiot.in, scroll.in and other similar websites. For one, people who share the items that are found on these websites, seem to be thinking and reacting (this is an important word for politics in India – reaction) as a monolithic, homogenous entity. I am very welcoming of any and all objections to this generalising and reductive statement. A simple perusal will show you what is trending at the moment i.e what is trending everywhere i.e everywhere with similar ideologies.

Sharing does not necessarily mean that a post has been viewed or read. If it were the same thing I would not find the trend so frightening. Firstly, I think it is frightening when so many people share posts without even opening them.  And it is equally frightening that people might actually read something critical and engaging but refuse to share it because it makes them question beliefs and/or staves off their clicking fingers. For example, an informative, well-researched article which discusses the crucially important (and neglected) state of agricultural health in the country (a topic that should be the kernel of the Left’s political foundations) is thus less shared than one that repeats the jaded theme of ‘anti-Modism’. He is not worth your time; prioritise people! Lovers of the Left, please deactivate your Facebook accounts today!

The traffic on social media in the last few months, in the aftermath of the JNU, HCU fiascos has weighed favourably to the side of the persecuted. Maybe social media has actually helped in turning things around; perhaps it is social media that has redeemed the persecuted in the eyes of the middle class. But let us not kid ourselves further beyond that point. This is just a war of visibility. The key feat should be moving towards representation. And I am not talking about a “space” – online or imagined – but a physicality that we should work towards. The Left has always and probably will always be powerful in the realm of ideas. But this is not good enough, not now in this global age of hunger and strife. The ground is overrun with Right wing psychos and their close cousins, the Liberal psychos. Where is the Progressive Left in all of this?

Examples like those of Syriza, the POTUS candidature of Jill Stein, the triumph of Kshama Sawant have helped make us less orthodox across the Left spectrum. The realm of ideas is being slowly reclaimed from the Facebook intellectuals and confined academics. It is now becoming truly more democratic. Revolution will only ever occur when we talk less of it. I think enough time has passed now such that the concept has become part of the ideological foundation of many comrades across the spectrum. However, like a bad preacher – merely quoting verses, by hearting psalms – we keep haranguing on it as though we are the only ones who know it or have heard the blessed word.

Meghalaya/India needs a political intervention by a Progressive front. “Struggles” should perhaps give way to “movements”. Why be so masochistic? The very word “struggle” smacks of pessimism. We cannot and never win so we “struggle”. We struggle when we have no floor-plan, no vision of the future, when we are reacting. We glorify the underdog, and it is a fantastic thing because it keeps us honest and alert. But the basic thing about underdogs is: they always win.

Dying with a Little Patience – On the Indian Left

We have heard a variety of opinions from the Left about the events surrounding JNU, Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban, the Patiala House assault etcetera. Our attention was drawn to the hypocrisies of the supposedly radical (the main stream Left parties) who tried to explain away the issues, or did not acknowledge them at all. Then our already ‘weakened’ belief systems were further complicated with the entry of Dalit perspectives on the matter. One writer commented quite eloquently on how the JNU violence was a response by the Hindu Right at the re-assemblage of the Left into a force that was bringing together non-Manuvad and ‘minority’ elements together. This might very well be true. The whole thing was quite a storm but I think our minds are better for it. I was sitting in Shillong, enthralled by the events that occurred in Delhi, like the rest of the country: I empathised with the trio, I railed against Goswami. There was even a small demonstration here in solidarity with the students of JNU and their cause. The ridiculousness of the situation shall be chronicled for our future generations to ponder over.

Then, Kanhaiya came out of custody and wooed the young men and women with his speech. Sadly as my Hindi is very basic (to say the very least), I could not understand him in entirety. In the English translation text, he hit all the right notes and checked all the right boxes. Some people opined that this “Kanhaiya moment” could be seen as the emergence of a New Left – a Left which could bring together Dalit, tribal, Muslim, LGBT, the poor, farmers, rural workers et al in the struggle for a better future. Well, it is optimism which must be appreciated though realities are, of course, difficult.

In 2014, Scotland organised a plebiscite to decide whether it would continue to stay or leave the UK. It was an actual historic event, it was not simply chatter. No one interfered with its decision to hold the plebiscite, none of its actions were considered sedition, and secessionism was not a crime but a right. In India, words like secession are straightaway censored, speakers of such words arrested. It’s just a word! Its articulation does not mean the breakdown of the Indian state. Its articulation does not mean chaos and lawlessness. It’s just a word. What about the way people in the North East feel (or felt) towards the Indian Union? Do the feelings of difference that they have towards the rest of the country count as sedition? In the eventual course of history, do they not have a right to decide what their own aspirations are?

Now, turning our attention elsewhere. I have a problem with many Leftist friends and foes in that I do not think politics (as in the canvassing-winning-elections type) is a bad thing. This is because I cannot imagine a future where we are simultaneously “emancipated” but also bound by helplessness. If anything, it seems like a very selfish liberation: how can I be “free” but cannot change the world? We MUST change it. Some opine that would be a “co-opting of the radicalism of the revolution”; others say something as insipid as “politics is a dirty game”, to which I say “don’t hate the game, hate the players!” I sometimes wonder if this problem is because Left intellectuals are almost always situated in urban centres – in spite of their contestations to be rural or pro-poor. Could it be that the urban solitude and spiritual distance keeps them (in the Left) from fully imagining a political future together? One in which we could all take part in? How can we talk about workers’ rights, labour reforms etc when we do not think seriously about how to bring them about? ‘Movements’ and ‘struggles’ are all well and good but perhaps we must insist on expeditiousness in the face of starvation, abject poverty and horrible livelihoods. People are dying while we debate revolutionary praxis. The CPI, CPI (M) and others like them have apparently failed us, so do we lose steam and faith because of that? Or do we learn from their mistakes?

Judging from what I read of Kanhaiya’s speech, I personally feel that he would be well-suited to formally enter politics, not just remain within the activism which has made him famous. Someone called him an Ambedkarite. That is very high praise. Do we remember that Ambedkar was not just an activist, a gifted lawyer and academic but also that he was a seasoned politician as well? He contested elections and won. He also lost later on but that is not the point. The point is, and it’s a jaded maxim: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. The Right and Neo-libs might not be evil (or maybe they’re all pure evil!) but we have definitely not done enough. In terms of the footwork and organising, the Left is woefully behind. We are always caught “reacting” to situations, events and then we flex our muscles to show that we still have strength. There is a lot of talk in a lot of universities about ‘revolution’ but very little about people – people like the ones I see daily, suffering and struggling in life. Let’s say, tomorrow if Kanhaiya and thousands like him join the AAP or INC, can we get angry at them, would the decision be entirely their own? Are there no lessons to be had from the path of George Fernandes and others like him? History is cyclical, apparently.

I feel terribly apprehensive about the future of Kanhaiya and his comrades. What will happen to these guys? I am not talking only in lieu of the authorities. What support system can we provide for them after this traumatic ordeal? What about their prospects after being tried and vilified in front of millions? I hope that they are not abandoned by those who cheer for them now. I have been going on about the need for a political groundwork which would challenge the current scenario. Before this, people in the Left must decide what they believe in (I realise this is hard). If one is an anarchist, socialist, Maoist (and everything in between) then declare yourself as one. It’s absolutely fine, you have every right to. But having patchwork ideological frameworks, without any teleological commitment, cannot be the stepping stones to a better future. Perhaps the most crucial question that everyone needs to answer is: what is their idea of the future?