"Ah, mon cher, we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there's no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves."

- Albert Camus as Jean-Baptiste Clamence, 'The Fall'

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life in the Government - Part II - Mythologies of Patriarchy

So I was watching this movie, last night - Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, starring Kay Kay Menon, Chitrangada Singh, Shiney Ahuja). You might have watched it. If you haven't, I recommend you do so. It's a nice movie, informing the viewer about what life was like for people from the upper, middle, and lower classes, during the tumultuous years of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister of India.

The movie begins to pick up after Emergency is declared and all opposition party leaders are systematically arrested. That's when the director chooses to show the action happening in Bihari hinterland, especially in the district of Bhojpur.

I really like the handling of the character of the policemen in the film. I have rarely seen so accurate a depiction of district-level Indian policemen in film. There's this one scene in which the character of Chitrangada Singh, an adult literacy activist, confronts a policeman, probably a Sub-Inspector (SI), over a large number of villagers arrested in connection with a dead body that the police claim is one of theirs, murdered by Maoists from the village. The SI who is in the Police Station - his place of Power - after venting his rage on the lawyer for the villagers, sits upon his desk, his eyes upon Singh's breasts, slowly moving up to meet her eyes.

In that one movement, he seems to very effectively convey a supreme and total internalization of centuries of patriarchy.

This problem, you see, is not limited to just the police. The point I'd like to make here, is that in states of North India (note: I can write only about what I've seen for myself, so I'm not talking about the Southern states here, at all), the nearer one gets to the heartland, that is to say, the district towns and villages, the more one notices a distinct strain of patriarchal thought and action that seems to pervade the different levels of administration.

Here's a real-life example, something that happened to me:

A very senior officer in the District Administration here sat down in his stenographer's office and lit up a choti Gold Flake cigarette. I was there to look through some paperwork that had arrived the previous day from some departments in the district. The officer took a long drag and decided that he'd like to chat with me while he smoked. So he asked me, "Tum Bambai se ho, to tum Maratha hoge."
To which I responded with, "Main Marathi hoon, lekin main Tamil bhi hoon."
"Woh kaise?"
"Meri maa Tamil hai, aur mere father Marathi hain."
The officer smirked. "Nahi. Pata hai, tum galat ho."
"Woh kaise, sir?"
"Tumhari maa galat hai. Agar woh apne aap ko Tamil bolti hai, to yeh galat baat hai."
A self-satisfied look, and he continued.
"Hindu mythology mein, aurat ka koi jaat nahi hota. Shaadi ke baad, uska jaat apne husband ka jaat hota hai. Iska matlab hai, aap Maratha ho. Tamil nahin."
A man, passing by, was stopped by the officer and asked for his opinion about the matter. The senior officer's views were, of course, corroborated without hesitation. I realised, this wasn't a matter of seniority. That man, passing by, really did believe that men were superior to women, and that this 'fact' has its genesis in the Sacred Texts.

What's funny is, that senior officer spoke of Hindu 'mythology', and I can say, with complete assurance, that the man has never read - or for that matter, even heard of - Roland Barthes. Patriarchy, among so many other things, is sustained through mythologies that provide the structural framework for wisps of smoke to appear (and feel) as thick as concrete.

I'd like to write more about this, but I have to return to work now.
Maybe I'll update this post later.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Life in the Government - Part 1 - English, August / Bagdi*, July

Working within the structure of Indian government exposes one to a variety of experiences.
Since the 1st of May this year, I have:

-been treated with respect
-been treated with contempt
-been treated with utter contempt
-been helped
-been asked to call later
-been asked to come back another day
  ... and the such.

When people meet you here and you tell them you're working with the government, their first reaction is to pull back a little. Why this is, I have yet to figure out. Then they'll ask you what your position is. Then, what do you get? I try to avoid revealing my specific pay by telling them that I'm in the pay-grade of a Class-I Officer and my position's that of a Lecturer in my Institute. But no, how much? Sometimes I tell the truth, sometimes I don't. Depending on how I'm feeling at the moment.

Often, I remember the book 'English, August' by Upamanyu Chatterjee. In the book (Spoiler Alert), Agastya Sen, a newly recruited IAS Officer is posted to a sleepy town in Northern India, called 'Madna'. With a predilection for marijuana, he is thrilled to see the plant growing wild in the environs of the town. This is his first experience, navigating the corridors and halls (with paan-stained walls) of 'Sarkar' or 'Power' that is the Government or the District Administration.

Agastya (or August, as called by his friends from his school) meets the Deputy Commissioner / Collector / District Magistrate and experiences what it means to be an 'Officer', a babu-in-the-making. He gets accommodation in the Circuit House and encounters the staff there, eventually coming to terms with their attitude. If my memory serves me well, I think he is eventually made a Block Development Officer (BDO) and eventually works his way up to the position of District Collector.

Why am I writing about English, August? Because - and I say this without intending to sound presumptuous - I find parallels between the character's experiences (metropolitan city to small town, learning to speak Governmentese, etc.) and mine, over here.

Oh, I should mention, I'm working as a Research Officer with the Haryana Institute of Public Administration and I've been posted in a district named Sirsa, on the borders of Rajasthan and Punjab. It's a pleasant 40 degrees plus right now, and since my arrival here more than a month ago, I have ingested at least a few kilograms of sand. Yummy.

But it's almost 5 PM and the office I'm in will be closed for the day at 4:59 PM (I'm starting to believe, all those who work here have an internal clock. They just seem to know when closing time's near and the anticipation in the air is so thick, you could slice it with a knife). I'd better start winding up, lest I invite the wrath of the room's custodian for making him stay a few minutes longer.

More later.

* Bagdi is a dialect of the Hindi language, belonging to the Rajasthani tonal cluster  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

revisiting fear and silence

an old friend

and told

of confusion conflict and company
but chose
not to alliterate (as above)

alluding to/
expressing through

squiggles of language
the abstract notion
of cognitive commotion

figures of speech
were well within reach-
alliteration too (but forsaken)

but tendency to compare
was pehle se there
extending from
written words
to writing people

oh, the people
she wrote
some smitten
some smote
Spirits Free'd
into ironic chains

but this is the realm
for meetings of old
friends and odds -
beginnings - and ends

Freddy said “You must have chaos\

within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
but all stars become supernovas
and chaos - like infinity -
is always too far