That Night on the Streets of England

On my way back home from a party around half past one in the morning, I thoroughly looked for a cab, but couldn’t find one. So I decided to walk some distance. Scared out of my wits, I could never imagine doing anything like that in India. Unfamiliar with the roads, I kept walking. I was aware that Brighton is one of the safest cities in England. But how safe could it be, I wondered, for a woman lost on the streets at midnight?

The fear has ingrained itself. To reach home before it gets dark, to not go out at night, to always ask a male friend to accompany, if it gets too late. This has not been thrust upon me; this is what I have embraced myself, like any other Indian woman. There are recurring warnings, and we are discouraged from being too audacious and extrovert. If ever the fear recedes, another assault and a lesson is learnt. ‘She was out at night, her clothes were too revealing, she was drunk, she had gone out with men‘. So we have adapted to being confined to our homes.

The scenario isn’t too bleak either. We (urban middle class) do get equal opportunities as men. We get best possible education. Many of us get to work. Some women are fortunate enough to get everything, majority gets absolutely nothing. Partying, going out at night, coming late defies the moral standards of an Indian woman and only a woman of loose character go as far as consuming alcohol (it’s okay for men).

Nevertheless, urban women are increasingly breaking the barriers. They are competing with men in all arena of life. They are flouting the norms and redefining the status quo. Coincidentally, crime rate against woman is also escalating. Suddenly, there is a sense of déjà vu in the moral brigade of the civil society. ‘Women are better off at home. What else do they expect if they wander alone, wear revealing clothes or get drunk? They are ought to be raped!’

In the middle of nowhere, I still couldn’t find a taxi. I gulped with fear and cursed my callous attitude. It has been a few months in Britain and I am still not familiar with the roads. I could have asked someone to drop me home, but didn’t. Finally, I spotted a taxi and immediately jumped onto the backseat.

On having returned home safely, I promised myself, I will never go out after dark. In England that actually means, I will never go out at all! However, when I sit back and recall the night, not at one instance did I encounter a suspicious move or an uncomfortable gaze. Nobody had anything to do with me; no one cared. I am not a prey here!

I won’t keep the promise for long, I guess. We can’t so much as live in fear all the time. It’s time to break free of the paranoia. Things will be different when I go back to India. I will be told to mend my ways and to stay in my limits. Having confronted my fears, I will try to keep up the attitude, on the face of it. It may take a long time before every woman can feel safe to stand alone on the streets after dark, but sooner or later, there will be a day.

 Also published in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/shweta-kothari/that-night-on-the-streets_b_5573198.html

Tracing Sexuality in Indian culture

When Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the Health Minister of India endorsed morality as a substitute for condoms, Indian youths were embarrassed, I was embarrassed. The ignorant chatter of combating sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) with moral practices, from none other than the Health Minister of a country is a hint at an abysmal state of affairs.

India is not unaccustomed to such appraisals. Indian politicians are vocal in extending malice towards folks who deviate from their culture, overtly those who are promiscuous, freely express themselves and refuse to be dictated in the matters of clothing and lifestyle. This steadily growing number is a cause of concern for socio-cultural pundits. In desperate attempts, therefore, yoga is pitted against sex education and fidelity against condom.

While Dr Harsh Vardhan was rebuked for his callous and uncalled-for remarks on an issue of national importance, the greater questions is whether India is essentially regressive on matters of sexuality.

It is peculiar that repressing sexuality is a relatively recent phenomenon in India, sexuality was not a taboo always! The first literature on the science of sexuality, the nude artistry in Ajanta caves in South India and the erotic 9th century Hindu temples, are profound evidence in favor of sexual expression, found in both sculptures and scriptures in India. In the recent past, the widespread erotica and sensuality through cinematic representation reflected the mood of the century. The period of sexual liberation was cut-short with British occupation of India.

As authors of “Indian concepts on sexuality” put it, “Victorian values stigmatized Indian sexual liberalism. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as “barbaric” and proof of inferiority of the East.” Over the period of 200 years of British regime, India broke ties with its legacy and denounced values that did not conform to modernization.

An incessant lack of ingenuity is what we observe till date. Those ideas that west discarded long ago, continue to thrive in India. The regressive British rules such assection 377 of penal code to social code of conduct, the colonial hangover is far from cured. Trouncing people on Valentine’s Day, closing night clubs and bars, and chastising women who dress-up “indecently“; India transgressed a dangerous path of moral policing, restricting public discourse on sexuality.

The result of uninformed sex or contraceptive unawareness was catastrophic. While the first case of AIDS was reported in 1986, India currently has third largest population of HIV infected – 2.1 million, of which more than 85% are a result of unprotected sex.

As sexual crimes increase, STD cases aggravate and the stigma attached to virginity bolsters, one cannot so much as entertain views that tend to dampen the morale of organizations like National AIDS Control, to carry out the herculean task of educating men/women across caste, region and religion on the use contraceptives.

Social emancipation can be attained via open dialogue and discussion on issues such as STDs, child marriage, rape, abuse and more. Sexuality is indisputably an integral and central concept of Indian civilization and India shall not be governed by diktats of political parties or religious organization, when its cultural legacy speaks for itself.

 Published in The Huffington Post : http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/shweta-kothari/tracing-sexuality-in-indi_b_5543642.html

 

Review: Talvin Singh’s Bombay Talkies

A long queue for tickets outside Brighton Dome Concert Hall suggested an anticipated performance. It’s the British Asian musician Talvin Singh who had managed to garner an audience from across the continents. The show started late in the evening against a scintillating backdrop, only to immerse the audience in a two and half hour robust performance.

The star-spangled show by Talvin Singh took place in Brighton as a part of the ongoing Brighton festival. A packed audience watched the ‘potent blend of film and live music’ through reinvented score of the classic Indian movie ‘Devi (1960)’.

The performance was captivating by the virtue of its soulful music. The synchronization of live music to the facial expressions of the characters on-screen was meticulous. The entire enactment paints a beautiful picture of emotions of an Indian woman shackled in patriarchy.

The show was an up-class contemporary musical concert that successfully binds East and West in a ‘mythical narrative’ on a musical discourse. Talvin Sigh, a masterful Tabla player was at his best. However, it was Roopa Panesar who stole the show with her graceful and seductive solo Sitar.

The crowd often broke into loud applauses, amid an intense and mesmerising performance. The ensemble features Talvin Singh on Tabla, Roopa Panesar on Sitar, Chiranjib Chakraborthy on vocals, Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton on Violin and Zosia Jagodzinska on Cello.

Featured in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/university-sussex-partner-zone/1

We Must Talk About Menstruation

It goes back to 2004 when I first learnt about Menstruation. I was distraught with the sudden bodily changes. Inconsolable, I cried for days for the biological discrimination I will have to live with, most of my life. If the realization wasn’t enough, what followed was devastating.

I am an urban Indian woman. Privileged enough to afford sanitary pads and educated enough to protest against the stigma attached to a natural process, but many of my fellow citizens are not. About 70% women in India cannot afford sanitary pads; they resort to cloths, husk and ash. Lack of hygiene and vulnerability to diseases is rife, but what’s worse is the taboo associated with it.

A menstruating woman is considered impure. She cannot enter the kitchen, cannot cook and cannot touch the male members of the house, for the fear of polluting them. The levels of extremities differ, but it crosses all limits of sanity when women are thrown away in cow sheds.

These restrictions trace their roots to many religions namely Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. They prohibit women from performing daily tasks, systematically deprives them of equality and labels them as unfit.

Menstruation is unmentionable not just in particular African and Asian countries, but also in the western society. While youngsters are at ease discussing the dynamics of sexuality, menstruation is carefully avoided only to be discussed by female behind closed doors. An issue we don’t fancy hearing about, lest discuss.

In a bizarre of a situation we have simply sidelined an important and intricate phenomenon to the wimps of religious convulsion.This blatant discrimination by the virtue of anatomy is appalling and the fact that it’s religiously sanctioned makes it very difficult to counter.

The silent treatment has acutely misled the reception of menstruation among women. Rather than advent of womanhood, it is marked as the beginning of a difficult and extraneous times. We keenly speak against all sorts of discrimination, assert our rights, fight for equality, but continue to turn a blind eye to this very important issue.

As a Hindu woman, I was made aware of the religious sanctions early in life. While I was not thrown away in a trench, I have been treated like an untouchable in my own house on many religious and auspicious occasions.

In our vociferous struggle and feminist assertions, there is apathy towards self-worth. The needless shame inflicted on women in the name of religion is reprehensible, but what’s dreadful is that women choose to peacefully live with it. They accept the prescribed code of conduct, and religiously adhere to it.

The role of menstruation at the heart of reproductory cycle calls for greater sensitivity towards this biological phenomenon. It should not be precluded from public discourse and discussed more frequently, if circumstances are to change.

 

Published in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/shweta-kothari/we-must-talk-about-menstruation_b_5016701.html

 

International students: life as we know it

It begins with thrill, continues in hope and ends in despair. Welcome to the world of overseas students! Like many others, I am currently in the second phase of the journey, trying hard to not slip into third.

The expedition starts a few months prior to the course commencement. Rallying around to collect transcripts and recommendation letters, arrange funds and apply for visa. All in search of a world-class education and a bright future. While former is quite attainable, latter seems to be highly unlikely.

As an overseas student, I have no great expectations, but to get a degree and a decent job. I do not wish to settle abroad, however I do want to get an insight into the job market, acquire a few skills and enhance employability before going back home.

It makes little sense to pay nearly double the tuition fee of home students and incur a total expenditure that runs up to 20 K only to go back to our country with a foreign degree, to start from scratch.

While it is difficult to trace an employer that can sponsor international students, the Surge of immigrants following eurozone crisis has made it all the more tough to get a job.

No, I am not asking things to be served on a silver platter. All I am asking for is time, time to prove my mettle and carve my way. This too has been rendered null and void with termination of post-study work visa and changes in immigration law.

Scrapping of post-study work visa has severely hit the chances of foreign students making a career in the UK. A fall in the number of overseas students is therefore imminent.

While it may amuse Home Secretary Theresa May and a certain section of population; it can be a dangerous precedent for an economy which generates about £10 Billion in Education from international student expenses. Business secretary Vince Cable rightly puts it when he says that international students no more feel welcome in Britain.

In my own research before applying to British universities, I was well versed with the fact that the changes in immigration law would leave me with just 4 months to hunt for employment, but I took my chances and soon realized that odds are stacked against me.

A professor in college once told me that a job is hard to come by, but it’s next to impossible for a foreign student to be employed in media industry which largely operates on proficiency in indigenous matters. I was outraged and I felt discriminated. Wasn’t I supposed to be told this before?

With a new immigration bill due to receive royal consent in spring, the international student community fears that things may get worse. As for me, with a few months left at hand, I am waiting for the one mail that says my application has been successful.

Published in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/shweta-kothari/international-students_b_4913109.html

Barely Racist?

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It was an everyday lunch and all classmates were sitting together to discuss an assignment. Suddenly I said something which made all the eyeballs roll towards me and one of my classmates remarked, “Jeez, are we in seventies”? I didn’t comprehend the reaction very well. All I had asked was whether a woman being discussed was coloured.

Must be a cultural thing, I thought. After all I don’t really get English jokes and satires. This was one of those things that I didn’t understand, until today when one of my friends said that it’s offensive to refer to someone by their skin colour. Honestly, I wasn’t in agreement.

In 2006, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Bernard Jenkin was sacked when he used the word ‘Coloured’ in a radio interview. It sparked a debate in Britain regarding the use of the word, which is otherwise widely used in the US and other parts of the world. Some said it is highly derogatory and reduces a person to their skin color, while others proposed that it is merely used to identify people and does not entails racism.

As for me, I do not consider addressing people by their skin color to be offensive or racist, unless it is used to devoid them of equal rights. As an Asian, I proudly call myself brown and some may acknowledge that black has become a fashionable word after the appointment of Barack Obama.

Don’t we say ‘white men’ in a discriminatory manner to refer to any imperialistic or colonization aftermath and to vent out our anger? Then why is this hypocrisy?

Some people go so far to ward off racism that after a point it becomes fallacious! I am sure I was looked upon as a racist when I said that and it made me reflect upon my own upbringing as an Indian.

An essentially pluralistic country, India is divided on the grounds of caste, creed, religion, ethnicity, dialect and geography. A country where a northerner dismisses an easterner, a southern discriminates a northerner, coupled with an age-old caste system and gender inequality. All these do not make India very tolerant.

People seldom use the ‘N’ word, but the ‘C’ word is widely spoken while referring to people of North-East. These slurs are used in a very casual manner without much care for the offence they cause to the people around. Lack of awareness, insensitivity, persistent prejudice and absence of law enforcement make Indians highly racist.

Grown up in such an environment and berated for saying a cautious line such as that, did annoy me. However, after much contemplation I recognize that it is not the best way to address people and sow the seeds of racism in a long run.

As Indians, we presume ourselves to be forbearing and do not pay heed to our day-to-day attitude where we unconsciously nurture stereotypes. Death of a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, a few weeks back in a racist attack was what it took to bring the spotlight on a long neglected issue of racism.

As hostile as we are to the LGBT community and people of North-East, we must change our outlook towards fellow citizens for the sake of humanity. As a developing country there is a need to educate and sensitize people towards diversity, so that youths like me understand the gravity of a racial phrase, before we land abroad.

Published in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/../../shweta-kothari/barely-racist_b_4829310.html

 

The journey so far

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In an afternoon class one day, a professor was demonstrating a scene from Pakistan and the call for prayer in the early morning. After a failed attempt and garbled speech, he looked at me and politely apologized for his ignorance. Dumbstruck, I could only say, ‘It is fine and I am not a Muslim’. While I said that, I had a strong urge to declare loud that all Asians are not Muslims but, I let it pass.

It’s been a few months in Britain now and I have had my own share of experiences. The freedom, equality, civility and tranquility has enthralled me beyond words. Never before have I seen a culture so vibrant. I have come to revere the spirit of the Englishmen and developed a deep fascination for the English heritage.

England has had a profound impact on my outlook towards life. As a woman, I have never felt more secure, as a student, I have never been more valued, as an individual, I was never more independent. However, like all other countries Britain too has its own problems, the most striking of which is its state complacence.

As diverse and rich as Britain is, it constantly shields itself from the influence of other cultures and remains in a self-imposed state of trance. In an attempt to safeguard its individuality, it appears to consciously avoid learning more about different cultures around the world.

Since my arrival, the most frequently posed question  to me has been that, where did I learn English. For a language, English is widely used as a medium of communication in most Asian countries and is widely spoken by urban youth. Is it some righteous claim over the language or mere ignorance that people are so surprised to see an Asian fluent it English? I settle for latter.

While it can easily be brushed aside as lack of awareness, it is dangerous for a country as diverse as Britain to be unaware of the languages and religion around the world. It is imperative to protect one’s identity, but too much of conformity can make way for prejudice and stereotype.

In this context, it is not surprising that the immigration hysteria has grappled Britain for a long period of time. When a country fiercely guards its cultural and intellectual borders, what trespasses is fear and xenophobia. The fear that has been constantly exploited by the right-wing media to portray immigrants in a bad light and only highlight events such as genocide in Syria, bombing in Afghanistan and molestation in India.

A beautiful country as Britain is, it needs to broaden its horizons and better assimilate with different cultures, for the sake of intellectual prosperity and global understanding. While the country has taught me a lot, for all its greatness, I am sure that Britain will be more amicable in times to come.

Published in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/../../shweta-kothari/xenophobia_b_4759803.html

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”

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Quote by Edward R. Murrow, a veteran journalist who bravely fought anti-communist propaganda in US which led to censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He spoke these famous lines in response to questions raised over his nationalism. Today, when I stand in the same milieu, I can well relate to his grief when his patriotism was doubted, while his intent was to serve his nation.

Lets come straight to the point, over the last few weeks, I had written some articles in good faith, condemning certain societal malpractices and drawing comparisons between India and the west. To all those who know me, my critical viewpoint did not make much difference, while some chose to bombard me with hate messages, criticizing me for portraying my nation in the bad light in a foreign land. However, a line was crossed when a random person said I have acted like a traitor.

While I write this, I am not trying to defend myself. I do not feel a need to justify my actions to petty minds for whom peripherals of nationalism are too narrowly construed or those who turn a blind eye towards problems of our country. I speak on behalf of all those who are bullied because they share a viewpoint which does not hold popular mandate in the society.

I am writing this to convey my solidarity with all those who are attacked for speaking their mind, by people who believe they possess the moral right to correct every opinion and clamp down dissidence. The vociferous intolerance grappling our country is alarming. I am aware that certain mindsets are too rigid to change, but I firmly believe that progress in human civilization is unfeasible without free and fair dialogue and discussion.

Deeply hurt by the language of certain messages, I choose not to prove my patriotism to anyone. However, to those who think we condemn and criticize our nation beyond reasonable doubt, to them I say, we do not do so to undermine our country but, in hope of overcoming the deterrent. The umpteen criticism does not come from a drive to pour scorn on the reputation of my nation; it comes from the belief in my nation and its glorious past, a belief in my countrymen and their will to fight all the odds.

I hereby refuse to be subverted and give up writing on subjects that I strongly stand for. No piece of advice or letter of contempt will subjugate me and my likes. And we shall continue to abide by our duty as citizens of this country. There are underlying problems that requires immediate redressal, and the first step towards solving a problem is recognizing there is one!

China’s quest for civil liberty

The famous photograph shot during Tiananmen protest when a lone man (popularly know as the 'Tank Man'), tried to stop the column of tanks. Courtesy: The telegraph

The famous photograph shot during Tiananmen protest when a lone man (popularly know as the ‘Tank Man’), tried to stop the column of tanks.
Courtesy: The telegraph

The fastest emerging global power in the world, China conceals a gruesome face behind its progressive label. A government that shuns every voice of dissent and arbitrarily quashes protests. An authoritarian rule that subjugates freedom of expression, censors media and holds no accountability to its people.

A new defaulter in this state machinery is once again a group of peaceful protesters. The founder of New Citizens’ Movement Xu Zhiyong and its twenty other members have been put to trial for disrupting public disorder. Their crime is what people in a democratic setup assert as the right to information. They were arrested for demanding government officials to disclose their assets, after reports of  massive corruption and money laundry were disclosed in the Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Government officials in China have been long accused for sending their wealth away in secretive offshore tax havens. The reports came to forefront amid the call for a campaign to end corruption, organized by president Xi Jinping. Instead of complying with the demands of people, government took a back foot when it proceeded to clampdown the New Citizens’ Movement.

Hypocritical are they are, government actions outraged citizens who remain secluded for the fear of being identified. Not just the members of the movement are taken to task, but it is also reported that their families too are harassed and threatened. The despotic government actions have been denounced by many nations for prosecuting those who peacefully challenge the official Chinese policies and actions.

Dissidence in china has been long met with violence and bloodbath in the history. Back in 1989 in Tiananmen Square protest, the rebellion led by student bodies was violently subverted by hardliners. The incidence is reminiscent of a worse kind genocide carried by government on civilians. However, stringent media censorship ensured that the starling facts of incidence are neither reported nor propagated.

A rebellion once again fueled in 2011 when the people of republic of China called for a Jasmine Revolution, inspired by its namesake in Tunisia. The demand was to bring about a peaceful democratic transition. This was once again suppressed with brutal hostility and several activists, leader and journalists were arrested in retaliation.

The New Citizens’s Movement which aims to promote civil society, the rule of law and limits the power of party officials, is being crackdown since 2012. As Xu and his close allies remain behind bars to be prosecuted in a court of law administered by government, chances of a free and fair trail remain bleak. Some suggest that the trail is a mere formality and the sentence has been decided before hand.

Hilary Clinton at the peak of 2011 protests dubbed government’s repressive actions as fool’s errand, adding that they may contain the agitation for some time, but they cannot stop it. As previous generation rebels continue to inspire people and instigate solidarity and nationalism, we are hopeful that China will one day emerge as a successful democracy and when it does, it shall be the biggest in the world.

An open letter to Mr. Kejriwal from a common man

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Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kerjiwal

Dear Sir,

A heartfelt congratulations on successful completion of 23 days as the Chief minister of Delhi. I have always been cynical about politics, and therefore your tall claims and impractical manifesto gave me a good laugh. Honestly, I never thought you’d come this far.

To begin with, I would like to express my contempt for what law Minister Mr. Somnath Bharti did. He has the audacity to go for a raid all by himself at night, merely because some people complaint to him about a drug and a prostitution racket. Then he calls the police and asks them to arrest these people without a warrant. This is totalitarianism.

I understand the urge to contain the growing crime rate. We ourselves are not happy with the current state of criminal jurisprudence. Efficient ministers need to take charge of the situation. But I vehemently oppose Mr. Bharti’s act. This kind of vigilantism is not accepted (I heard that one on TV channels). He could have waited for a few days to fetch a warrant, and catch hold of the perpetrators some other day (If only he could find them). Or he could have turned a blind eye. A law minister is expected to sleep in his home at night and not roam on streets. Sir, you do not know governance.

You crossed the limits of sanity today, when you went to sit on a protest outside Rail Bhavan. You are a Chief Minister sir. Have you gone crazy?  You don’t have to do that and that too for suspension of three police officials. The anarchy you are creating is reprehensible. You have to maintain the sanctity of your position. Look around at your contemporaries, they are not even approachable. Whereas you are sleeping on streets!

We did ask for a revival of an old political system. The stagnant governance could not render much results, so people voted for a change. The desire was for a fearless leader who could alter the discourse of politics. However, the gumption that you portray is beyond our acceptance. We have grown up believing politicians to be an elite class. And of course, you do not know governance.

You appeared on news channels recently to narrate your achievements in the past weeks. On water tariff subsidy you said, it costs just 200 Crore to the state exchequer. Is 200 Crore too trivial an amount for you? Let me clarify, I do want subsidized water. Nevertheless, I will criticize your measures as populist and  that’s because, you do not know governance.

I heard about the chaos in your first Janta Darbar (Grievance redress meeting), when thousands of people flocked to register their complaints. They bumped into each other and then crashed onto you. There was an utter mismanagement. Could you not control some thousands of people? You definitely do not know governance.

If we go by the news doing the rounds, you are shifting to a new house in Tilak Nagar. Did you not say that you will live a life of a common man, if voted to power? That lavish bungalow is least common. But, I also object to your living in an ordinary flat currently. Please stop exhibiting humility and moral righteousness. I must say, you do not know governance.

I want to criticize your intentions too, but I did not get my hands on anything (Oops, I said it).  Nevertheless, I ain’t going to let you govern without agony. I am a common man of India. I have always been neglected and deceived, year after year. So anything you do, I will slate you and if you don’t, I won’t leave you. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Love and Regards,

A common man