Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Nature of Order



 

On 28 January 2014, the Supreme Court of India rejected a petition filed by the government to review its decision on section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. I suppose a curative petition comes next, but this time I won’t be getting my hopes up too high.

As it stands, the section reads:
377. Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.

Indian courts have interpreted the phrase 'against the order of nature' to be inclusive of any form of penile non-vaginal intercourse.

In response to the writ petition filed by NAZ Foundation, Delhi High Court had this to say in 2009:
We declare that Section 377 IPC, insofar it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution. The provisions of Section 377 IPC will continue to govern non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors.
The recent Supreme Court judgement overturned this 'reading down' of the section.


The general outcry that the Supreme Court verdict has provoked in many corners of the country – including some totally unexpected nooks of my own family -looks quite heartening. What has been less encouraging, on the other hand, is the string of messy attempts made by both sides at finding non-existent silver linings and consolations. 

A lot of my friends have remarked, for example, that ‘the law is not about homosexuals or transsexuals or any particular group, it’s not about love or relationships; it’s just about the sexual act.’

This is true. But it is absurd to pretend that sex is not a natural part of love and relationships. It is equally absurd to imply that since the law is only about sexual acts, it isn’t unfair or bigoted. Look at it this way, the only ‘type’ of people who will be able to afford supporting this decision without a personal cost, will be heterosexuals. Homosexuals, bisexuals, trangssexuals and trangendered people are out by definition. Moreover, high courts have, in the past, ruled that so long as there is a possibility of intercourse ‘within the order of nature’, everything else two people do can be looked at as a prelude to it, like a kiss. But since with people of the same gender, there is no way it can ever lead to natural intercourse, homosexual intercourse will always fall under ‘unnatural offences’.
No matter how much we would like to pledge solidarity and show support, we are not all in this together.

Or

‘It could’ve been worse. There are countries that put people to death for being gay.’
I’m not sure this point of view even deserves the complement of a rational argument.

Or

‘Is this really the biggest problem facing India?’
It’s not. The question is why this should be a problem at all. It’s true that the number of Indians plagued by poverty and all her sisters far exceeds the number of Indians who will be directly affected by the fate of section 377. But most of the other problems facing India don’t come with easy and fair solutions; this one does.

Or

‘The supreme court was only doing its job. It is not for them to change the law; that’s for the parliament to sort out.’

And this is the one that I find the hardest to digest. There is no question about whether or not the Supreme Court or the Delhi High Court has the authority to ‘read down’ a law if the respective court finds it unconstitutional. In fact, in such cases it becomes not just a privilege assigned to the court, but a duty. The only thing in question here is the validity, rationality, and strength of the arguments made by the Supreme Court in support of its decision. Justice Singhvi, (who, along with Justice Mukhopadhaya, upheld the laconic omnishambles that is the original version of section 377) refused to entertain any questions or criticism on his decision, and told journalists and protestors to read the entire judgement first. So I did. And it did nothing to change my mind.

The text of the judgement maintains that there is nothing unconstitutional about section 377 because:
Those who indulge in carnal intercourse in the ordinary course and those who indulge in carnal intercourse against the order of nature constitute different classes and the people falling in the later[sic] category cannot claim that Section 377 suffers from the vice of arbitrariness and irrational classification.

All it means is that courts have, in the past, been able to define what constitutes the order of nature without much fuss from anyone. And now that there is a bit of a fuss, we already have all these criteria based on nothing but precedent. Any level-headed person will realise that this isn’t a scientific classification. Or even a logical one. We can’t even be sure about the claim that nature does have any constant order to it, let alone the assertions of what is or isn’t within that order (let Jay Mazoomdaar shed some light on how ludicrous the whole notion is).  

The judgement also quotes – and then conveniently sidesteps – the requirement of substantive due process for judging the constitutionality of a provision:
In order to fulfil this test [of substantive due process] the law must not only be competently legislated but it must also be just, fair and reasonable. Arising from this are the notions of legitimate state interest and the principle of proportionality.

What legitimate state interest are we protecting by keeping sec 377 in its entirety? The text of the Supreme Court judgement, for one, does not give any further justification on the matter.

The most wonderful thing about the Delhi High Court verdict was its inclusiveness. Despite the best of intentions, I wouldn’t claim to be aware and sympathetic of all the elusive nuances and manifestations of human sexuality; and I wouldn't trust anyone who does (not least because I’ve grown up in a society that doesn’t like to talk about it. I didn't know what 'gay' meant till I was fifteen, and I still don't know how to say it in colloquial Marathi or Hindi). There is just so much that we don't understand yet. But the 2009 judgement surmounted this problem by refusing to get bogged down in definitions we don’t seem to be able to agree on. The key words here are ‘consensual’, ‘adults’, and ‘in private’. 

What state interest does it serve to criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults in private, apart from keeping a few religious zealots happy? What exactly is this order that the Supreme Court wants to maintain? What disorderly hell did the Delhi High Court judgement break loose? In spite of being marginalised, humiliated, and discriminated against for years, when have homosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered or transsexual people - as a group - ever threatened Indian society? The only real threat involved is the imagined threat of what reactions the decision might invite from people like Suresh Kumar Koushal, from groups like Trust God Missionaries, Revolutionary Manuist Front, and All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and from political parties like BJP . 

The text goes on to defend the judgement by saying that:
a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC and this cannot be made sound basis for declaring that section ultra vires the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.

And also that: In its anxiety to protect the so-called rights of LGBT persons the High Court has relied on judgements from other countries which cannot be adopted blindly in India. The staggeringly tactless example given in support of this argument is that of the fact that India still employs capital punishment when several ‘western’ countries do not.

Are these really the words of people who are willing to empathise with the plight of sexual minorities? Why doesn’t the document even once acknowledge the need to rethink the law, however strong the presumption of constitutionality may be?  How many ill-treated citizens does it take to render a provision unconstitutional? 

I cannot pretend to be competent enough to take on the biggest judicial body in the country. I’m well aware that a few rounds of thorough lawyering might easily leave this post limp and useless. My intention is not to win an argument. The argument is over. But the Supreme Court verdict is only a reflection of where we stand as a society, and how much we really value tolerance and diversity. 

The question is how uncomfortable we, the privileged, are willing to get, in order to do the minimal amount of right by those who have spent years and years outside the convenient borders of norm that we tend to draw around ourselves. I don’t doubt that one day India will learn to be happy with all manner of LGBTQ people and behaviours. Of course we will. The question is how quickly and gracefully we can pull off that transition.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Not all those who wander are lost...

I specialise in taking trivial obsessions to epic levels and finding pointless connections between things. Some day, I'm sure, it's precisely this set of skills that will help me finish my PhD. For now, it's helping me write blogposts that might call my sanity into question.

I'll just come right out with it.
Doing a PhD, I've come to realise, is a lot like being Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Ideally, you will have 2 supervisors- A Gandalf and an Aragorn. Gandalf - possibly your HOD - seems to have been around forever. He's been everwhere, done everything. Now, he could retire if he wanted to, or move to the darker side and make his own life much easier, but he won't. Because he loves fireworks, and loves the little people. He's too proud and wise to let the enemy take over without a fight. (I don't know who exactly the enemy is. Bad science, I suppose. Hmm. This is all getting a bit too utopian isn't it? But hey, you get to do a PhD under Gandalf and Aragorn, so just lump it, okay?)

Aragorn is a lot younger, and much more, well, mortal (maybe he only gets tenure at the end of book/ year 3!). But he's a pro when it comes to the methods. He makes it look like he did his own PhD at Rivendell,  and has access to special elven wisdom. It's just a lot easier to be brave and noble if Strider has your back!
At some point during your first year, you’re likely to bump into Tom Bombadil. He’s that guy. The timeless hippie. He’s neither corrupted nor vexed by things like grants and publications and impact factors. Those things just come to him while he goes about being cool and pure and magnificent in his own field. Why can’t everyone be like him, you ask. Why can’t Tom Bombadil be in charge? This is a mistake. Don’t get too cosy at the house of Tom Bombadil. You have a long way to go, and he really couldn’t care less about what you get up to in the outside world.

Then you have your Legolas and Gimli. The other post-docs. They might have 'a history' and some unresolved issues between them, but that doesn't mean that they won't help you. A real-life post-doc laughed at me when I said this and called me naive for thinking that it's the post-docs who are there to help the PhD students, but then, Frodo has naive coming out of his ears.

Which brings me to my next point. Frodo doesn't quite grasp the full picture. Gandalf and Aragorn do, but even Gandalf can be wrong some times, and even Aragorn is not always sure about everything. There are brief moments when Frodo becomes acutely aware of the sheer enormity of it all, but that's about it. Which is just as well, because if he had known what he was getting into right from the start, he probably wouldn't have gotten into it.

Every department has at least one Boromir. He will seize every opportunity of informing you about everything that is a bad idea about your project. You might think he's a loser, but he probably has a point. Just make sure that your supervisors are Gandalf and Strider and you can get away with ignoring him.

There is no Frodo without Sam and Merry and Pippin, of course. The other PhD students who started with you. The bastards! Sure, they're some of your best friends. Sure, they help you. And sure, they too have their moments of grumble, whimper, shudder, mumble. But on the whole, they seem to be coping with it MUCH better than you are. How are they doing it??
 
I won't stretch this feeble metaphor (or is it a simile?) too far, but if your project is the Ring, then it's certainly true that in spite of all the help and guidance that is bestowed upon you, it's solely and entirely your burden to bear. Try not to hang on to it for too long. Try not to let it make you think that it's more precious than the rest of your life. Look at what that did to poor Smeagol. Just take it to journey's end as fast as you can, as best as you can. Not that submitting your thesis is tantamount to throwing it in the fires of Mount Doom. But what do I know, maybe it is. I'll write about that when I've been there and back again.

(Note how there aren't that many women in LOTR. Coincidence? I don't think so.)

Friday, 5 April 2013

Reaper Man


 IT WON’T HURT, said Death. If words had weight, a single sentence from Death would have anchored a ship.- Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic
                                        
Two days ago, Iain Banks announced, with characteristic grace and charm, that he has cancer- and only a year left to live. 
‘Too soon!’, I thought.
I know a lot of people who are much bigger fans of his than I am.
‘Way too soon!’, I thought on their behalf.
How awful it must be to see your heroes die before their time, and right before your eyes.  It made me angry. I thought about all my heroes who are now gone, and before I could grab my imagination by the scruff of its neck, pin it against the wall and punch it in the stomach for even trying to go to that dark, dreary place, I thought about all my heroes who are still alive and well- working, writing, inventing, creating- and about how unbearable it would be if one of them suddenly died (Thanks, Imagination! Aren’t you a charmer!).
I thought about Douglas Adams.
Too. Bloody. Soon.

“Haven’t you heard the saying, ‘A man’s not dead while his name is still spoken’?” - Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

And then, yesterday brought the news of Roger Ebert’s demise. Again, I know a lot of people who probably admired him much more than I did, but you should see the Roger Ebert shaped hole that’s in front of me right now. It’s pretty big.

“Despite rumour, Death isn't cruel- merely terribly, terribly good at his job.”- Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

What does ‘too soon’ mean, anyway? What a cold, callous thing to say! Is it too soon because they were still writing? Because they would have gone on to write much more? If a person who has already done all they were ever going to do, lived a nice, long life, been good to everyone, and seen happy days, then dies without much pain or discomfort, does that make their death okay for the rest?
It should. But I know from experience that it doesn’t. Not really.

YOU FEAR TO DIE?
“It's not that I don't want... I mean, I've always...it's just that life is a habit that's hard to break...” 
- Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

It’s just that this is the world I’ve been living in. If you take one person out of it, that’s one step away from the world that I know has been great so far, and has kept me safe, and alive, and inspired, and more or less happy. Yes, there will always be new amazing people and things. And they will probably bring more joy, and wonder, and excitement than I might imagine. But you know, it’s like that thing with the human body, where by the end of every seven years, each cell in it has been replaced. Bits of your world substituted, one by one, until nothing is left of the world you originally came into.

I MAY HAVE ALLOWED MYSELF SOME FLICKER OF EMOTION IN THE RECENT PAST, said Death, BUT I CAN GIVE IT UP ANY TIME I LIKE.  - Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

About two years ago, my grandparents lost a lot of their siblings and cousins in a short length of time. We were worried about them. But I remember overhearing a conversation between my mum and my aunt where one was saying to the other that, at their age, they must be a bit more prepared for this. It’s a loss, yes, but not as much of a shock.
This is true. But right now, even that thought seems to hold a lot of anguish, and not enough comfort.

“The thing is, I mean, there’s times when you look at the universe and you think, “What about me?” and you can just hear the universe replying, “Well, what about you?”” - Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

We did a neuro-anatomy course a few days ago, which involved dissecting a human brain. It was the first time for most of us -we got to hold it, stare at it, make cuts, take out the blood vessels on top, peel away the connecting tissue, the whole deal!- and the only thing weird about it was how it didn’t feel weird at all. Every few minutes it would hit us that this used to be a person, and here we were, holding it, talking about it, laughing around it, observing how its texture, after being formalined, was now almost like that of a mushroom! We weren’t really doing anything inappropriate at all, but there was still a sense of ‘Is this allowed? Are we allowed to laugh in this room?’. Our lecturer told us about his days at medical school. Yes, they would laugh. Medical students - when they start off - are usually just kids barely out of their teens. Making jokes is a kind of coping mechanism, because there is almost no real way for them to even conceive or process the notion of death so directly, let alone confront it. At the time, I found this idea of young people not knowing what to do in the face of death quite sweet, and funny, and touching.

But when it comes to it, isn’t that where we always are? There’s always a reason for it to not make sense.  Too soon, too sudden, too slow, too cruel, too close, too big, too small, too painful. There is always something to make it not okay. I doubt I will ever understand it or make peace with it.
And I really, really hope that death knows what it’s doing, because I sure as hell don’t.

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN? - Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man


 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Facebook is Like...


Human beings are capable of anything.
I mean anything! If you don’t believe me, just go and see the new Facebook advert. If you had come to me a week ago and said that a multigazillion dollar brand that doesn’t even need to advertise, would do it anyway, and that too with a combination of calling itself a chair, saying a lot of words that sound like sentences but don’t actually mean much, and putting together a string of video-clips that could make hallmark cards look as profound and stimulating as the works of Dostoevsky, I would’ve laughed at your naivety. “Don’t be ridiculous!” I would’ve said, “Surely a company that’s basically creeped into a billion people’s heads and made ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ shaped dents in their brains wouldn’t be stupid enough to do such a thing?? And who would even buy this crap?”

Well, like I said, human beings are capable of anything.

Are we really to believe in all honesty that Facebook is like a chair? You cannot be serious. What’s that, Barack Obama? Yes, you can? Yeah, you know what? You are right. Whatever happened to imagination, eh? Of course Facebook is a chair! And a doorbell! And if you squint and tilt your head to the left, it’s a bit like a toothbrush. One small problem though; that’s not ALL that it is. My chair doesn’t, for example, have impenetrable privacy settings. If I put my chair on my phone, it wouldn’t insist on being ‘updated’ every twenty minutes! If I gave my personal details to my doorbell, it wouldn’t sell them to the next person that walks in with a ton of cash. No, no, Facebook is so much more!

So, continuing with the spirit of second-rate but inspired drivel, I present to you, my own comprehensive and even-handed list of things that ‘define’ Facebook-

Facebook... is like snot. It’s icky, and distracting when you are trying to work. Facebook is like crystal meth, in that it’s hard to tell just how much is too much. Facebook is like a wet towel. It is disgusting, but sometimes you HAVE to use it, because no one planned ahead, and everyone’s been using it and now it’s all you’ve got.

Imagine walking into a room wearing your best outfit, but also with a piece of gum stuck in your hair. People can’t take their eyes off you, can hardly talk about anything else. You seem to be the centre of everything, if only because your pitiful attempts at trying to appear charming are helping everyone else feel that much saner and healthier. Facebook is that piece of gum.

Facebook is like dog poo. Once you are in it, it’s too late. You know that box of leftovers in the fridge that you try not to think much about for a long time, and then it gets scary, because it starts growing new stuff? Facebook is that box. Facebook is like a padded bra. Sure, it gives you a renewed sense of self, but it’s not fooling anyone. Facebook is like a dead rat on the road that’s been run over by a hundred different cars. Every time you come back and look at it, it appears a tiny bit different, and a tiny bit worse.

Yes, Facebook is like a chair. But it’s also like a table. You could bang your head on it all day, but the table is not the one that is going to get hurt.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Man of Large Friendly Letters

At 5' 2", I spent most of my time in England being shorter than those around me. Then one day when a few of us were drunk enough to have categorically cool ideas and sober enough to be able to execute them, we decided to play a little game where I stood on a chair and everyone else sort of scooched down and so both sides knew what the other felt like! Maybe it had more to do with the vodka than the chair but this was a world so utterly different from the one that I normally inhabited that it was as if I had been smacked in the face with some sort of a height-racket.

Now, imagine a very funny author instead of the chair, and imagine life, the universe and everything instead of height and you might get an idea of what I went through when I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The author in question was Douglas Adams.

Douglas Noel Adams (or DNA which I know he quite liked) is usually described as the writer of a series of comic science fiction novels. But it wasn't until I read this description somewhere that I realised that it was science fiction.

A- Because with DNA's books, as with Wodehouse's writing, the actual plot matters very little. What you are really after is the next ridiculous metaphor, the next brilliant transferred epithet, the next rant about the wicked ways of the world, the next sentence that just as you are about to finish it, turns itself upside down and takes your brain with it!
And B- Because he never told you anything. He just went on and on about some random thing or another until you went, 'Ah! I think what you're trying to say is...' and felt very pleased and clever indeed for having arrived at the end of the thought process a moment before this poor baffled author could. There are few greater pleasures that a reader or an audience can share with an artist.

He was a lover of science and a lover of art. He showed me that Science is as much a matter of romance and passion and humour and wonder and inspiration as art and art as much about practice and frustration and calculation and knowledge and boredom and helplessness and -ultimately- enlightenment as science.

He made me appreciate the idea of existentialism without my even realising it (which is more than I can say for all those mainstream existentialists with their heavy handed depression and homicidal holiday-makers) and this he did with stories of spaceships and galaxies and cows and fish. He never put you off with talk of 'serious issues' and 'ethical imperatives'. He was always on your side... by your side, probably pointing at something and letting you in on some absurd inside-joke that was bound to make you giggle. It seems if an idea seemed important to him then it also deserved to be amusing, and wherever possible... hilarious!

I owe a lot of what I have found and loved since I came across the hitchiker's guide – be it in literature or music or films or science-to him. But I also owe a lot of what I have written since then to him. Because as a writer who found it essentially impossible to write for the most part he has been my biggest source of inspiration and my brightest ray of hope! It is because of DNA that I can say bollocks to those who think that all great artists just go around spewing out brilliancies, spending all their lives in a bubble of pure genius with a special spot for 'inspiration' in their brains where normal people have itching or wanting toast.

It is because of him that I know that writing is a lot of hard work and requires a great deal of sitting idle and feeling hopeless. The key is to just get on with the sitting. If your forehead starts to bleed, that's a good start!

It is because of him that even in the most desperate of times, I 'Don't Panic'.



(This is actually a very old piece but turns out I completely forgot to post it here!)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

I miss England. Part of it is being torn away from the work I loved so much but it’s not just that. I miss the streets, the trees, the buses, the people, the food, the drink, the music, the TV, the charity shops, the books, the thoughts, the fun. What’s more, I’ve developed a reluctant dislike for most of their Indian counterparts or lack of the same. I always used to look down upon people who had been to another country- most likely in Europe or America- and now constantly rambled on about how India didn’t have half the wondrous things that made life worth living. But now, I find myself doing the same more often than I can unashamedly admit. Well, I at least try not to say it out loud even if I’m thinking it. Because even though it’s not voluntary at all, I’m not sure if I’m right in feeling this way. I love India; I’m proud of India. But it’s like having two people inside my head, constantly arguing; both thinking the other a hypocrite for refusing to see what is obvious.

Do I not love my own country? Do I think it’s okay to be ungrateful to everyone and everything that helped me go and see England in the first place? Does India not have scientists and musicians who can blow your mind with their creations? Didn’t some of the best friendships of my life happen to me in India? Weren’t the british just a bunch of imperialist fuckheads who thought it alright to go to wherever they wanted and bully people into slavery? Aren’t people in both countries equally obnoxious when it comes to religion? Aren’t the politicians in both countries equally stupid? Equally incompetent? Equally missing the point? If nothing else, judging by my own example, can an Indian not share my notions, opinions and sensibilities? What right do I have then to feel so self-importantly different and un-understood?

Not all these questions are rhetorical. The fuckheads are in the past and so are many of the things and people that are behind everything valuable and awe-inspiring about my country; locked away in that same period of history if not in an older one. But again, that’s all quite beside the point. What it is, is not being able to find a place to belong or having found a voice you want to listen to and agree with, which not many around you can hear because it’s coming from so damn far away. And it’s a little about not knowing whether the film you are in is Donnie Darko or Dev D or Lost in Translation or The Motorcycle Diaries. As far as that last one goes, something tells me I’m not the only one.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

American Gods

Many a myth and legends be

That tell of blood and sacrifice

Many a tale of vicious gods

But few of dismal godly vice.


The tale unfolds a thousand pasts.

Across the seas and back again.

Imprisoned, wrecked or rescued souls,

Some of gods and some of men.


Talks and tricks and thunderbirds

Cloak-and-dagger cons and coins

Maddening hopes and madder still

The riot when the realm rejoins.


A menacing storm looms and hums,

No self, no name, no age, no death

Can weave a life for those you made

If not for you, if not for faith!


So the story breathes and bleeds

Laughs and loves and sings and cries

This, a tale of troubled gods,

This, a tale of godly vice.