Unity in Stupidity

Some proverbial straw broke the proverbial camel’s back today and I have to get it out of my system.

There is one thing that seems to unite people on social media across caste, creed, religion, political beliefs, social standing, educational background, and economic status. The temptation to make strawman enemy, challenge them, ask them questions,  then feel outraged or victorious that it hasn’t been answered, and pass judgment on them. This strawman enemy, at first glance, doesn’t sound like a strawman. Because their names do carry a meaning. Questions get asked to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Atheists, Agnostics, Americans, British, Pakistanis, Indians, Liberals, Feminists, Upper-class Hindus, Sunni Muslims, rich Dalits, Men, Women, Transgenders, Homosexuals, Gay, Lesbians – you name it. And the victorious question typically takes the form of “Why is (category) X not saying thing A about the issue I?”

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“Why are high-caste Hindus not talking about beef lynchings?”

“Why are Muslims not condemning terrorism?”

“Why are feminists not saying anything about this actress misbehaving?”

“Why are liberals not decrying this incident of state oppression?”

And when they don’t get an answer or don’t get a satisfactory one, they proceed to pass on a sweeping judgment about the group (sometimes the judgment is passed beforehand, because they already know they won’t get the answer).

Bhai/Behen, exactly who are you talking about? Do you know all the Hindus, all the Muslims, all the feminists, and all the liberals? Do you know about all the different places, where all of them express things? What on earth does it mean that X is not talking about I? Who exactly is X? Are you asking that question to all the people who belong to X? Do all of them have to talk about it? Are you looking at a certain percentage? Why that percentage? How do you know whether or not that percentage has been achieved? Do they have to talk about it on the specific forum you want? In the specific way that you approve of?

Get a grip. There is no Feminists Association of India that can talk on behalf of all the feminists. Even if there is an AIMPLB, what they say is not what all Muslims think and say. There is no Liberals United issuing memberships. There is definitely no Hindus of the World Association which speaks on behalf of all Hindus.

By all means, ask questions to an organization or a group that has a responsibility or has control over resources important to the issue at hand or whose job it is to have answers and which is identifiable enough to answer it. Ask questions of National Commission of Women (disclaimer: it is NOT a feminist-representative body, just a political-bureaucratic organization). Ask AIMPLB how can it support triple talaq in this day and age. Ask Congress why it had brought 66A and despite that is pretending today to be a champion of free speech.  And ask BJP why it condones lynchings? Ask the government why people are being denied food because of Aadhaar when it was supposed to bring inclusion? Ask news channels why they didn’t cover a particular issue.

You are still not guaranteed an answer. But at least you are not being stupid by asking.

I can’t give you a strict definition of what kind of group can be asked a question, and what kind can’t be. I don’t have a strict classification in my head. If you really started making a list, there would be gray areas. But I know absolute absurdity when I see it. If you stop to think for a moment, you would know it too. Think, who you are asking the question to. Who are you passing the judgment on? If you are asking it to too broad a group with no ‘official spokesperson’, most likely you are being absurd. Most likely, it is just a few individuals you are following or connected to, that you are talking about. Then please do us all a favor and refrain from passing sweeping judgment about a group.

Of course, who am I to stop you from asking and saying whatever you want? Not only do I not have any power, I am a supporter of free speech and all. Even in principle, I can’t ask that you be stopped.  Even if I had power, I wouldn’t. So ask if you want. Your freedom of speech. I will call it ridiculous and stupid. My freedom of speech. And I might especially call you out (and not answer the question) if you direct stupid questions at feminists, liberals or agnostics (even atheists). Because I identify myself with all those labels. Then you will perhaps ask why do feminists not call me out when I ask a question to Hindus. Why only when I ask a question to liberals. Guess what? You are being absolutely absurd!

Disclaimer: This rant is about what we see on social media, where these questions and judgment keep getting absurd by the day. I am not trying to say that groups don’t have specific, identifiable majority inclinations and characteristics. Just that discussing those and understanding the nuances is beyond the ability of our social media scholars.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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दीवाली की रोशनी की मेहनत

ये तो सच है माँ
कि तुम्हारे बचपन में
दीवाली की रोशनी पर
बड़ी मेहनत लगती थी।

दिये लाते थे,
पानी में डालकर
फिर सुखाते थे,
बातियाँ बनाते थे,
तेल लगाते थे,
फिर एक-एक कर के
सारे दिये जलाते थे।

हमारा क्या?
एल ई डी की लड़ियाँ लाते हैं,
सॉकेट में लगाते हैं,
और बटन दबाते हैं।

लेकिन वो लड़ियाँ खरीदने के लिए
पार्किंग ढूँढ़ने में जो मेहनत लगती है ना
उसे कम मत आँको, माँ।

If you are a liberal, how can you be ‘intolerant’ towards me?

Being a liberal is not being stupid or mindless. Being a liberal does not mean we don’t stand up for anything. We stand up for giving space to ideas, for diversity, for freedom of expression, for the value of human life irrespective of people’s group identities.

Disagreeing is not intolerance. Liberals stand for the right to disagree, to argue their case, to bring change in the society. What is intolerance and what is not accepted by a liberal is bullying, oppressing, silencing and in the worst case killing of people and ideas. Most liberals will be particularly against a powerful entity like State (or a big corporation or a powerful person) indulging in or encouraging such oppression on people. And opposing THAT is not intolerance. It is very much being a liberal and being a human being with a spine.

I disagree with people who think there should be a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. But I don’t believe that they should be bullied, murdered or thrown out of the country for their belief. I will defend their rights to their opinion which is contrary to mine. And their right to express it. But I will not stand for it if they bully, threaten, harm or kill me or anybody else. And yes – I will also defend to the death my own right to disagree with them and express it without having to be fearful of persecution.

This in no way contradicts my liberal position.

Thank you!

Defenders of the regime these days think that they have closed the debate by asking this question to the liberals. “How can you say I am wrong if you are supposed to tolerate different ideologies?” is the question they pose in some variation or the other and think that they have illegitimized the liberals (‘libtards’ in their heads and even their speech all too often now) once and forever.

Above is an answer I wrote to one of them. If you get asked this question, and this answer helps, please feel free to copy-paste it. Just give a link back to this post so that some hate can flow towards me too and I can keep a track of just how f***ed up the world is.

 

21st Century isn’t What It Meant

IITK001At the turn of the century, I was an undergraduate student at IIT Kanpur. It was a time when I was looking on at the world in wonder. I was experiencing unprecedented freedom and independence. I was discovering new and varied ways of looking at the world and its affairs. I was learning that being judgmental about things you have not been exposed to wasn’t a great idea. That being open to different value systems could enrich your lives. That the right and wrong weren’t the absolutes I had grown up with.

It was a lot to absorb, but it was okay because that’s what 21st century had meant for us before it arrived. We used to worry about certain things. That we would have depleted ozone layer by then, or that population explosion would have ended the world, or that robots would have started ruling us.  But on the bright side, 21st century also stood for progress. We expected it to bring a more rational and liberal world at our doorsteps. A world where equality would be a given. A world that would value individuals for who they are, and not be bigoted about religion, nation, color of skin, caste, creed, gender, and sex.

Unfortunately, while the scary things 21st century meant for us have caught up with us in one form or the other, the good things haven’t. Refrigeration technology changed in time to save the ozone layer, but there are myriad of other environmental disasters that we have brought upon ourselves and continue to. Population explosion transformed into population dividend for a while, but our economics is in no position to really absorb all this ‘dividend’. Poverty and unemployment haven’t gone anywhere, even though you can slice and dice the numbers in different ways to make things looks rosy or its exact opposite, whatever be the flavor of the month. We may not be seeing tiny, humanoid robots as our liege lords, but automated systems, decision and policies based on large-scale number crunching, and data-driven ‘artificial intelligence’ are taking the world to a place where no human will be able to understand the systems that govern our lives.

The good things tell another story. Science and rationality aren’t making great strides into people’s lives. People are returning to religion, and not in a harmless way for personal consolation, or a useful way that could make them kind and considerate to others, but as a way of defining collective identity and practicing bigotry with impunity. The Internet and social media have given more people voices. But the technologies haven’t succeeded in making them listen to voices different or contrarian to theirs and broadening their horizons. The result is not a broad-minded world where different voices are coming together, but a cacophonous, nauseating world where every narrow viewpoint is fighting louder to drown out everything else. Crowdsourcing of wisdom is not bringing the progressive voices to the forefront, but only the most jingoistic and regressive. Liberal values are not an object of aspiration, but that of mockery. Individual’s dignity and freedom are being considered a fair sacrifice at the altar of clan, caste, religion, nation or even just megalomaniac leaders. Not in an apologetic tribute to the past, but in a stubborn claim over the present and the future. The more accessible, widespread and ‘democratic’ channels of communication have become even more of a powerful tool for pushing agendas, falsehoods and FUD than traditional controlled channels were.

And amid all this, I hear distressing news from my alma mater. A place where I had roamed in the nooks and corners with abandon at midnight, poring over whatever grand philosophical questions life throws at you at that age, without anyone ever batting an eyelid, has become such a paranoid place that students are being detained by the security at the flimsiest of the pretext, their movement controlled, their attempts at dialogues and exchange of ideas thwarted and alumni being threatened with police action for trying to be a part of the community.

Like the rest of the world, even at IIT Kanpur, 21st century isn’t what it meant.

Italy Nuggets: Curious, Funny and Scary Experiences

Meal Ordered in Hindi

IMG_20170526_224219673We had reached Rome late in the evening and landed in a restaurant close to our hotel for dinner. The English-speaking staff was not in abundance and after struggling with our first Italian menu, we tried unsuccessfully to convey to the waiter what we wanted. Then he spoke a sentence in (very broken) Hindi. He confessed in the same broken Hindi that neither his Hindi nor his English was very good. But we realized that fragments of simplified Hindi were better understood by him than fragments of simplified English.

And thus, we ended up ordering our first meal in Italy in Hindi! The language barrier was still too high for us to figure out why and how he learned Hindi. He looked South Asian but was clearly a local.

A Bus Ride to Elate Monisha Sarabhai

IMG_20170526_203622460We took a day trip from Rome to Cerveteri which boasts of some well-preserved Etruscan Necropolis. The nearest station is Ladispoli-Cerveteri and you need a take a bus from there. The very helpful newsstand owner outside the station managed to convey to us the bus number we were supposed to take (while pronouncing the ‘u’ in the bus as in ‘truth’, thus making the process of communication a wee bit stretched out). He also sold us the tickets.

The bus came almost immediately and we rushed to grab a seat. For a few minutes after the bus started, I tracked the route on Google Maps, then satisfied that we were on the right track sat back and relaxed hoping to reach Cerveteri in fifteen minutes. Except as the time neared we saw no stop that looked like Cerveteri. So, I opened the Google Maps again. We had deviated from Cerveteri’s direction a long time ago and were now in an area we knew nothing about. We looked around the bus and knew instantly that there were no English speakers there. After worrying and panicking for a while, Abhaya managed to find the bus route online. It turned out that the same bus travels in two different directions from the station, although it enters and exits the station from the same direction. We should have carefully checked the timing before boarding the bus and taken one at the right time. Too late. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute ride was already into its fortieth minute or so. However, now knew that we will eventually reach Cerveteri after once again crossing the station. We lost time, but we had a nice ride through the countryside. And we didn’t even have to buy another ticket.

Monisha Sarabhai would have been proud.

The second time the bus left the station, I watched Google Maps with hawk eyes. We were on the correct route this time.

Ticketless Travel

This was the scariest one. In Florence, we didn’t have a pass for local transport, because the add-on to the Firenze card that was supposed to give us that access was not available where we bought our Firenze card. Buying a transport pass separately would have been more expensive, and Florence is supposed to be immensely walkable. So, we decided we will make do with individual tickets. But we returned from Pisa late at night. All the tobacco and other retails shops that were supposed to sell the tickets were closed. The tickets are supposed to be available on the bus also at a higher price. But the bus was so crowded we couldn’t even reach the driver to ask for the ticket. We breathed a sigh of relief when we got down from the bus without any incidence. We will stock up the tickets first thing in the morning, we promised ourselves.

Except in the morning, we had to leave early to meet with a walking tour group we had booked! The shops were not open. The bus was empty – so we hopefully asked the driver for the ticket and realized that even if we had managed to reach the driver last night, we wouldn’t have gotten the ticket. Although the drivers are supposed to have tickets, they usually don’t. Perhaps because nobody buys them onboard. It is inconvenient and also more expensive. Another bus came at the same stop and we made the mistake of asking that driver too. He also didn’t have one. We would get late if we didn’t board one of those two buses. We were distraught. The place was a little far, and after days of walking in Rome, Cerveteri, Pompeii, Paestum, and Naples, my legs were revolting.

The lady driver of the first bus noticed our distress and helpfully suggested that we can take the other bus instead of hers. I think she was trying to tell us that we shouldn’t ask the driver and just board. But we had already asked him. Finally, the same helpful driver told us that we can ride with her, there will be no problem, and we should buy the ticket once we get down. Oh yes, yes! We will. We will buy a few extra too. Happily, we boarded the bus. She also gave us the wise words of advice. “Florence is so walkable; you don’t need to use the bus.” That statement, often heard, had started hurting by then. Especially to my legs. But she had been so helpful that I could only smile is extreme gratitude and thank her from the bottom of my heart.

This is NOT recommended. Do not travel ticketless. If you don’t have the pass, hoard up the tickets in advance. When the ticket checkers do come, the fine is enormous and the experience, I am sure, mortifying.

Tours in Italian

IMG_20170527_170613474The first time it happened at Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. We reached just in time for their last tour of the day. We hadn’t known that taking a tour was necessary to go underground. It was, though. So, we would take the tour. Only caveat. The tour was in Italian. Uh oh! We said we would join. At least we get to go inside. We had our own research on what to expect inside. They agreed and also gave us an English handout that would help us understand at least some of things. When we asked questions, the guide explained to us in English. Somebody else in the group was translating everything to her partner in French. I guess it was quite a multilingual group with many in the same shoes as us.

The second time it happened at the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri. The lady at the ticket counter had helpfully told us the timings when the film was played at their office inside the necropolis area. She forgot to tell us that the next one was in Italian with no English subtitles. So, we ended up watching a half-an-hour movie about the necropolis in Italian, understanding nothing. We thought that perhaps they will play the English version after the Italian one. But that was not to be. The staff there, realizing our predicament, did take us to a couple of tombs nearby and turned on the video presentation there in English. I don’t think that was a replacement for the movie. But, count the blessings and thank the sensitive, helpful folks when you find them!

A Pen to End Your Meal?

After our lunch at Paestum, I waved to a waiter and signaled to him what I wanted. He nodded in understanding. He came back promptly. With a pen.