rant

Exclusive Art

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Inspired by a New Yorker cartoon

This piece is something that has been brewing for a while and while I tried for it to be published somewhere where it doesn’t feel like a rant as well as gets a greater audience (twin win eh?), it is indeed a “controversial” piece and hence, I could not find any buyers for this. Sigh. I am not one to write lengthy Facebook statuses as well because well, I prefer writing in my notebook more. However, after an evening briefly spent visiting and checking out installations under the Story of Space, I am compelled to barf it out here.

But, before that, lets set a little context.

Those who know me or have maybe known me earlier when I was in school, seem to be surprised at my choice to work as an independent writer and artist – both, self taught. That’s mostly because everyone felt that my brains deserved to be embodied by an IAS officer or maybe, a number crunching CEO or economist. However, this professional choice was inevitable as far as I am concerned since this is exactly what I have known myself to be, since as far back in time as I can remember.

Like most amateurs (if you may), I have believed that art is for all. Of course, there are people who might not “get it” but, that is the purpose of art – for the artist to express herself and for the viewer / consumer of art, to experience it in her own way. Of course, the downside of all this is also the very difficult opinion that people who do not earn a living off making art, believing that they ought to get it for free. But then, that’s another story altogether.

However, as much as I love (f)artsy environs and galleries and conversations and events, I find myself slinking away in a corner at the sight of certain herds of hipsters or whatever the tribe is called today. Till yesterday, I had believed this opinion to merely be a personal prejudice or judgment hence, the need to not proclaim it on my blog earlier on. However, this evening, I found the same sentiments being echoed by a friend who isn’t an art enthusiast nor an artist but, simply keen to see and learn new things.

The Story of Space is a fascinating project that was held between 10th and 19th November in and around Panjim, Goa. The project, broadly speaking, explored the concept of space through an intersection of science and art. While for me, through whatever little I could catch, it pointed towards thoughts of us being made of ‘star stuff’ and the inter-relatedness of science and art, in relation to everything in life / nature.

Most of my sojourns into such shows or art spaces have been alone. I like experiencing the artists’ expression by myself, without the distractions of any familiarity. However, I also enjoy an occasional shaking of the mix, a new thread of thought and opinion to add to my own thought bubble. 

On the last leg of my run to check out a couple of installations at Sukerkar House, a decrepit looking old building minus the usual charm, I found myself uncertain to walk in. I paused and looked around and sensed a strange vibe of discomfort, rushing towards me in waves as if the frequency of the throngs of carefully recklessly dressed artists, volunteers, curators and art and design students / enthusiasts. I suddenly felt an air of being an outsider, if you know what I mean, when you seemingly don’t belong somewhere. I wondered if it was my careless lack of the carefully casual outfit or my missing hipster glasses that did not fit the wannabe winds that blew at that moment in Altinho. Mustering my amateur, self-taught guts I walked in, passing over two and then, a third installation; my thumping headache adding to my misery of not seeing much beyond the already well explored idea of space in them.

And then, we entered a fourth room, into something that was called the Escape Room and that sounded very cool. Much to the chagrin the curator, I did not know about there being batches to enter the Escape Room that lay behind a door at the end of this room. I ended up walking into a room full of men and women with large glasses and long, unkempt hair in buns or braids, wearing lose t-shirts that looked like they came from the same factory in the glare of the single bulb that hung from the ceiling, shadowing their awkward gazes. Each pair of eyes stared at me in that longest moment as I squinted back, questioningly. My attention hating side screamed at them for screening me so intensely and then, my voice finally broke the silence that was pressing on my ears. Upon asking what was happening with raised eyebrows, I was then informed about the groups and that I would have to wait for the next one. Relieved that it was just strange speed of communication and not anything to do with perhaps my scrunched up nose as I tried to focus in light’s glare, I walked out heaving a sigh of relief.

Not too keen on waiting any longer (and keener to get myself a croissant or a coffee…or both), I walked out of the venue checking with my friend if he wanted to wait after. With a frown, he responded that he didn’t want to stick around that place even for a minute. Intrigued that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t just my prejudice I decided to dig further, asking him what, in particular, was the cause of displeasure for him there while he did seem to enjoy the other installations and artworks.

His reply, to summarise, was simply the pretentious energy, the cold, raised-eyebrowed and hooded eyed looks that he saw there. He felt that the people present there seemed to exist is a slightly darker art bubble than at the other places, uninterested in allowing anyone else in.

I was stunned. I have felt similarly about litfests and major art galleries and art show openings, despite admiring a lot of the artists’ works on display. I presumed that it was my own misplaced intellectual arrogance that I thought I sometimes suffered from. Who doesn’t want exclusivity after all, isn’t it?

Turns out, I really have grown up!

What I felt was something to do with my untrained artist / writer status, simply was the tendency of the herd mentality that exists within all but, only a certain chunk of the world manifest it. I think I have a problem with it largely because while knowing that creation is an act of selfishness because it gives the artist a much needed release or sense of purpose, I also believe that as a way of life, art also is something that is universal even if someone is seemingly artistically challenged in the eyes of the most fascinating artists.

Art, for me, is a way of communication, an expression of the heart or one’s soul (mind, if you don’t believe in soul). Sometimes, these expressions are very simple and speak of broad emotions that humanity deals with. Other time, they can be very complicated that maybe only a few understand. However, the intention of any art form essentially is not to exclude because the act of creation in itself becomes a way of the artist opening up and sharing a part of themselves.

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Going Mental(ist) – Errors in Storytelling Today

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One of my guilty pleasures is watching sitcoms on binge. The latest show that I watched on binge and even used Google to end my misery at times was The Mentalist (yes, yes, I am quite late to jump on the bandwagon but, better late than never right?)

While there are many tangents that I can go to in terms of what I loved as well as hated about the show, I will pick up on one broad trend that is a reality for media in most places. Sitcoms even in the Indian industry (can speak for Hindi shows alone since I haven’t watched any other Indian shows in other Indian languages), are the ordinary citizen’s access to a world far away from her daily reality. From TV sets in common rooms to Netflix and the likes on one’s bed, media as entertainment has access to the most private corners of one’s existence. Of course there is the business side to it as well that deems producing things that aren’t just liked but, also accepted by the viewers. It is crazy how the virtual production of the Game of Thrones made ‘winter is coming’ as a mark of cool and awe-inspiring minds.

What I have thought about time and again however, is the need to balance economic orientation behind soaps with creating things that add a new value to the viewers’ minds, makes them question and think. Media and storytelling has that immense power.

With such an orientation however, when one watches an acclaimed show and sees it fall flat on its face, it feels sad. Web series are definitely changing the way things go but, the downside of the trend yet again is the surge of multiple channels owned by a few big business houses that own the TV channels spreading mediocrity.

Why I am ranting about media here is to note one point that has come to mind time and again whether watching an Indian web series or reading a comic or watching The Mentalist. My basic issue is with all of it, especially the series in question, is the reaffirmation of stereotypes that deepen a sense of bias against people. This is a very subtle form of bias that exists in the modern world. One has opinions based on one’s race, class, sex and appearance…the least that storytelling can do, is to break through those typical narratives forcing the viewer to look beyond hearsay. Another classic fallacy in Western storytelling is building everything around one male protagonist (usually white) who is wronged by another man and with the help of a secondary female character who nurses his hurt ego and teaches him vulnerability after he disses her all through the plot, he gets justice and stands taller with his arm around the woman’s waist looking straight ahead. Remember Harvey Specter and Christian Grey? The typical protagonists?

While the entire plot line and appearance of the show is clean, minus heavy words displaying hyper-masculinity and full of humour and love. The characters are all shown to possess their own pasts and like all of us are products of their environments who have evolved a lot with time. All of this is what makes this show very likeable. However, as the series progresses, slowly all the mature writing falls through the cracks. Lisbon then becomes the female cop who was no nonsense and super professional not because she is good at her work and prefers to keep things that way. Rather, she was so because her dark past made her display a tough exterior to protect herself until love comes knocking. The same love that makes her throw away everything that she defined herself by and reduce her existence to anonymity. Jane is a funny, con man turned righteous hero who spends all his energies trying to salvage the murders of his family caused due to his irresponsibility. From the hurt and grief stricken man looking to avenge his loss, he slowly becomes the egoistic narcissist ought to display a sense of superiority especially against the woman he loves, without any care when the same woman loses everything in order to help him. Their story is the typical story, only with a little addition of Lisbon’s past. On the side are 3 more characters – Rigsby (tall, athletic, dumb white male aka jock in the dictionary of stereotypes), Cho (short, pokerface Asian guy with the focus of a horse with blinders because you know, he’s Korean with a gang past) and Van Pelt (red head with the perfect body that is objectified immensely, also a farm girl with the belief in horses, unicorns (not really) and rainbows, she is shown all business unless of course, love grabs her heart).

I would end with just one thought – while adding a background story to the lives of the characters does add a more humane touch giving life to these stereotypes, it still reaffirms every bit of it keeping narratives stale and predictable. Stories, while of course need to be a sort of business to sustain storytellers, are however, more powerful that dumbing down generations by affirmation of stereotypes. They can change the destiny of the world, if only, a little more courage is shown in telling them.

Understanding Sexual Assault

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Using an old sketch to share a little of what abuse feels like

In the month of March, for the first time in my life, I had read about a case of sexual harassment at the workplace being blown up in social media. It was a first of a kind situation where the same social media that makes a few powerful also used the power of many in body, one in mind to bring justice in the case of grave misconduct by a man employing not one, but many women. There were many debates on it and a lot did happen since then but, I remember finding myself at crossroads.

I was angry and at the same time, there was a sense of helplessness and pessimism that such acts invite the ire of many but, seldom lead to any corrective action being taken against the act. Overwhelmed and charged with a lot of thoughts on the same – I had written a piece by the title above and instead of posting it here, I decided to write for Youth Ki Awaaz, with the hope that a greater number of people will read it and it did happen. The article got shared by numerous people – I am assuming that many understood and connected with my thoughts through my words. The article on the site can be found here.

Why I am sharing the same here (down below) is because I also want the original piece that I had written (minus the little editing that the people at YKA did to reach more people) to be shared with people – simply because the thoughts are worth sharing and also, some parts of the edit that are required with a bigger platform like YKA are not necessary for my blog. :)

Here it goes: 

As Indian women, or maybe in today’s world, as women in general, one psychological training that we get is “how to stay safe” or “how to not do things that we want but should avoid in order to protect ourselves”. It is a sad reality where women are subjected to abuse, especially at the hands of those who believe from their beings that the female sex is secondary. What made me think of all this was the recent furore over allegations of sexual harassment against the CEO of a certain (very) popular entertainment startup. While I do not want to and am not writing a response to the case here, I believe that the conversation is out there and hopefully, the truth will be upheld. My opinion on whether the allegations are true or not do not matter since, the deed of announcing to the world and the style of responses of the party have already dropped big hints.

Why I am writing this today is because I want to talk about the other side of the coin, vis-a-vis, reporting sexual assault. When I read tonnes of women responding to Indian Fowler on her post on medium.com, I found myself angry; angry with them for not standing up for themselves in time. “This is a typically patriarchal Indian thought,” you’d say? At least, that’s what I said to myself the very next moment. I delved more into the subject to really understand why I felt so. I realised that I was angry because in my head, I reasoned that when I faced sexual harassment and lecherous behaviour at an earlier workplace, I reported it and sorted it out, even if it took me some time. Basically, I was applying my general perspective on someone else’s specific situation.

I was thinking of all this and resigned myself to the fact that maybe, the women speaking up now were simply too young and too scared to report. I realised that all these girls who were coming ahead now were seemingly younger in age, were quite new to the city and also the industry. In such scenarios, it is definitely very hard for one to stand up, no matter how strong they may be. I also read a thread on Twitter, where the user shared how she had spoken up against harassment at her workplace following which she was threatened, her parents were harassed and she had to apologise (in writing!) to the person concerned! In that moment, I thanked my stars for working at a good place, that heard me out immediately. But then, as I read further, I started questioning everything again. Here is what happened:

I had been working in a big city in India and went to a smaller one for two days of work. The team there was all men and all fairly new while, I had spent a little more time in the organisation. Apart from the other regular things to be done, one of the tasks assigned to me was to train the new guys. Despite being drowsy from a very early flight, I was excited as it was my first time in that state.

Now the two new people (lets call them A and B) in the team were also the ones who were involved in an important but problematic assignment. Since they were new, and I was in charge of the assignment, I had been trying to teach them the ropes and guide them as best as I could over phone considering that they knew nothing and had no one to guide them. From the last time that I had spoken to them, it seemed to me that A, a young fresh graduate had become friendlier than necessary. Like most women, the red flag rose in my brain but, I let it pass and decided to not to be too polite to him anymore. Maybe a woman’s politeness in a workspace is always interpreted as an invitation to be friendly and personal.

Anyway, as I was going through the day in a car with the team, by instinct or going by the internalised “how to survive public spaces – for women” handbook, I stuffed my backpack right in between A and me so that our bodies did not touch in any way possible; even though, we were two people on a seat made for three. After half a day had passed, I noticed that A was manspreading and for some weakness of spine, kept on falling over the backpack, such that after a while the bag itself seemed half its size making his elbow too close to my arm.

Having internalised the need to not ‘create a scene’, time and again I pushed the bag towards him curtly asking him to sit up straight. He would oblige but, return to the same pose after a while. When we were outside the vehicle for a meeting, I noticed his eyes fixed on the area on my body where my breasts are – I was wearing a salwaar kurta, with a dupatta.

As the day went by, I found ways to take him to task since I was training him as well but, at the end of the day, I was livid with rage. I had never felt so angry. I felt violated and I kept on asking myself why since he had never touched me and I had, after all, found sly ways to set him right. Why was I still so angry? That’s when the reality of abuse hit home.

To those who might never understand what it feels to be at the receiving end of catcalls, dirty stares, grabs, molestation or any form of abuse, it feels like you do not have any right on your own self. It feels like your body is just a case in which you exist only to be used by those who feel entitled to their bodies and mine. That is what it felt like – as his work senior, I could set him right but, as a woman, I had failed to own my body. It was easier to stand up to a complete stranger – difficult to a colleague. I cannot imagine the plight of those who are abused by relatives, friends or even parents.

The next day I heaved a sigh of relief because A was nowhere to be seen. I was saved but, I forgot to tell you about B. B was this funny, talkative chap and from where he comes, I have seen this tendency in most people (men and women) and hence, I presumed he was being himself. This chap had added me on Facebook, like a lot of my other colleagues, and I had accepted the request (making only my public profile visible to him – sigh, the justifications!). Using Facebook for me has changed to sharing thoughts on the socio-political existence of the country and a little bit of my writing and illustrations. No harm in colleagues seeing that and even better if it leads to a good lunch time discussion next day?

Alas, I was wrong! It seemed that B presumed my acceptance of his friend request as an invitation to flirt and be in a strange non-professional space. I clearly remember accepting the friend request after checking his profile which said he was married. He had a lot of cute pictures of his wife.

Throughout the two days, B was friendly and kept on praising me. I was too focused on A on day one to notice what B was doing. The second day just opened my eyes. He found my name too unique and wanted to name his niece after me, he found my blog post very intriguing and he also felt his wife was not necessary to be spoken about. This made me unsure of what he was doing. When I went back to my city, I received a Facebook message from B asking if I had reached safely. I again, at that moment, presumed that he was just an obnoxiously talkative guy and maybe I was overthinking. How many times do we do that? How many times do we tell our gut, our instincts, to shut up and believe with a wide smile that “not all men” are lecherous and women need to “calm down”?

The next night (read: not day), he sent me a message on Facebook talking about work. We had email, phone, chat messages or SMS as modes of communication during the day but, no, he uses Facebook to discuss work after working hours. My gut laughed at that and just said, “I told you so”. I took screenshots of the message and blocked him. That was the end to my interaction with A and B, and I decided to forget about it all, shushing my rage that I had dealt with them and that was the end to it since the society is full of such people. Then, one day I saw two of my juniors, young girls who were perhaps a year or two younger than my 24-year-old self. My heart sank at the thought of either of them facing what I had and could no longer sit quietly. I could not bear to be in the know and not do anything about it. I decided to talk to someone.

I spoke to a lady who was in the HR department and she was appalled at the news. She noted it down and said that she would like to discuss it with the seniors. I asked her to go ahead and by the next day and for the next two months, I had become a sensation. At the end of it, A was let go and all women in the team were warned against B and that was that.

What stayed with me however, was a question that one of the seniors asked me, a gentleman I was never too fond of because of his subtle sexist attitude. He asked me if I said no to A. I understand that he was trying to be as objective as possible but, I was still taken aback. I was tired after a month of constant rechecking and hushed conversations about it. At the end of it, I trusted one of my seniors to do the right thing and stopped thinking about it, telling my colleagues about the incident one on one and warning the women.

A month after, things got sorted albeit in a slightly unappealing way, the hullabaloo died down and life was back to normal. My mother’s fears of A coming to my city and throwing acid in my face also died down. I still felt upset with no action being taken against B but, trusted a very senior associate’s word that this was the best one could do. I accepted that and moved on.

The Medium post and that Twitter thread have shaken the beehive again. I still have questions. I don’t have anything against my employers per se. The actions taken were indeed the best possible to handle the situation for everyone’s interests but, I still have questions.

  1. Why are we still given manuals as women to adhere to in the public space? Why do we still feel that men are entitled to certain places and hours of the day and not women?
  2. Why do organisations and victims of harassment at workplace feel that lodging an official sexual harassment complaint is a tedious job?
  3. Sexual harassment cases, especially in the workplace must be dealt with a lot of sensitivity. It does take a lot of courage to speak up. We are always asked to adjust and maybe also not “overreact”. Is it because a woman standing up for herself is not believable or acceptable to patriarchy? What about the men who get harassed as well? Where should they go? Can’t we see that patriarchy is damaging both women and men and we shouldn’t go against anyone who speaks up against it?
  4. Why are we okay with crimes happening in smaller cities or in poorer neighbourhoods in big cities? The current furore is just one needle in the entire basket of examples of “educated” men behaving like its the medieval ages?
  5. More importantly, from my own story, the question is still unanswered is how do we deal with such grey areas of sexual harassment like in the case of B who found ways to sit next to me at a restaurant during team lunch or would find ways to take centre stage in conversations and continue to flirt? Why is there no conversation about this? Why aren’t such men taught better rather than the women being asked to avoid them? Why is there no way to take action against them without it being a hassle or an agni-pariksha (test by fire, to determine one’s “purity”) for the affected person, be it man or woman?

I hope that by reading this, you will understand the politics of abuse better and learn to fight it. It takes tremendous effort but, is worth every sweat and crease of worry. Of course, it can be scary as was for someone on Twitter and yes, I have been luckier. However, I feel that the spaces where patriarchy slyly hides in guise of business, politics, power and so on, will slowly be peeled off one layer at a time.

We should start talking about it more (with friends, family, colleagues) and train our minds to speak up. When it happens, you don’t know your body to be yours since someone else seems to have ownership over it. You need to train your mind and body to be yours and yours alone. The next time that something like this happens your response will be quicker and you will claim your body then and there.

Daily doses of sexism

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There have been way too many times that well meaning male friends, co-workers etc. have given me the “not all men” logic when talking about sexism. One in particular, I remember giggling at the mention of the term believing that too much education has damaged my brain. Typical, right?

This morning and evening, I experienced the typical on road sexism of women can’t drive in very unique ways. This came about when I read the following quote by an early Japanese feminist this morning:

“In the primordial age, woman was once the sun.” – R. Hiratsuka

As this further goes on, she says that woman has been the moon for too long, the moon that takes its light from the other and has an ashen pallor. Reading this made me question and hunt parts or instances of my life where I might be the moon? It was a strange exercise ’cause after a lot of work, I did believe that I have overcome all conditioning of patriarchy meant for my sex and I could start afresh.

One example of being this moon is in making way for others before the self – be it entering a room, be it exiting or even driving on the road. Now, I have known a few men also like that but, they are not totally perceived as masculine in the society and that becomes a bane for them too, bringing in a strange sense of denial of everything masculine. As far as I can remember instances in my life, even while getting out of a rickshaw, I would apologise to the rickshaw driver for taking a little longer to whip out the money but, be angry at the car behind to honk. A couple of times, I got a warm, “don’t worry” from them. My reason? I dont want to be an inconvenience for anyone and wouldn’t entertain another person be one either. I felt it was balanced that way until I was told by a friend that I tend to wait way too long to cross the road and that the other cars can manage their own business. Sigh. Didn’t know this is where my moon shone.

Anyway, so today, I brought the Sun out in almost full blazes. It started first with a man at the petrol pump. As I got ready to turn the key and scoot off from there and the gentleman waited in the queue behind two others, I hear him loudly ask me to move ahead, when in my moving ahead and him immediately gurgling the fuel down his throat tank were totally not related. I know one could say it was a sign of impatience and it very well is but, my question is what made him believe so naturally that he has every right to ask me to do anything and not any of the five others (all male).

On a lighter note, let me self doubt like a ‘woman’, why did he think he could ask me to move as if I was planning to set up camp there? Did I seem to have set up camp there? Oh no.

Anyway, after this, I encountered the silent ‘women can’t drive’ attitude. As I was driving, I could hear a strange whirring sound. Since I could not see anything up until the end of the road in the rear view mirror, I presumed that my engine was a little wonky and must be checked. As I turn some 200 m away after having given the signal, I am suddenly faced with this wiry chap and a lady on a bike. THAT was the whirring source! Taking a recap, I was turning right, had the indicator on and was in the middle of the two way road leaving the entire road on my left free for anyone to go straight (where Mr Wires was going) and the dude decides to overtake me from the right just when I turn. While I know idiots abound on the road, what was the highlight of this incident was the man’s attempt at scaring me by giving me a murderous glare while the woman in fear and panic continued to apologise eventually whacking him on the shoulder as he tried to go ahead while bike brushed against my foot. While I was in full control, I could not stop being angry at his stupidity nor could I say much for the sake of the panicking woman behind him. At the end of it my head buzzes only with questions – what is it with men like these? Classic examples of “women can’t drive” road sexism? Classic examples of cowardice and egosim to simply not admit to one’s stupidity and move on? Where does this conditioning for idiocy and childishness begin?

Sigh, men. You make me wonder how old the child within you is.

PS – Dont want responses of “not all men”. I know, I know!