Sunday, February 10, 2013

Doses of Reality

'Lincoln' is Steven Spielberg's take on the weeks preceding the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It's not really about Abraham Lincoln. At least it wasn't for me. 
After following & participating in the recent wave of women's rights protests that have taken over India (especially in my hometown, Delhi), I was taking furious mental notes as I watched. 

The film traces that magical climactic moment (well, one of them - no social change happens in one fell swoop) in a movement where idealism, popular(ish) opinion, doggedness, strategy, corruption and plain blind luck converge and allow society to take a historic leap forward. 'Lincoln' does a superb job of laying out the nuances of a freedom struggle taken to its logical conclusion and it's not all romantic.

It's long-drawn out, confusing and makes men & women do things that are surprisingly proper and improper. People die. Not everyone who contributes to social change necessarily believes in it or understands it wholly. Not everyone backs it for the 'right' reasons. Yet, there is an unyielding thread of noble intention that runs through it all, tying it together.

Strangely though, in 'Lincoln' there's precious little screen time spent on the oppressed themselves. There's no mention of the Black abolitionist movement and in a story that's about emancipation from slavery, there are barely any African American faces through the nearly 3 hour film. It's an intriguing choice for a filmmaker whose earlier work includes the hard-hitting & uplifting 'Amistad'.

Which, for me, drives home the point that social change doesn't happen simply because the oppressed are ready to rise up and demand better. It happens when they become loud & persistent enough to turn the minds of the powerful majority and it happens when the oppressive institution becomes outdated or irrelevant. In that sense, 'Lincoln' really is about that point in history when the most powerful (white) men in America decided that slavery was something they were now willing to do without. It's about their moment of transcendence, not the African Americans'.

(And while we're at it: Am I allowed to use the word 'black'? Is it PC?)

(Also, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is pure genius.)


Earlier this week, on a cold & miserable Monday there was a call for protesters to collect at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to oppose the Anti Rape Ordinance signed that morning by the president. It was a hastily organized, last minute gathering and presumably because it had been raining all night & was a Monday, attendance was very low. It was a crowd of usual suspects from the two universities that have so far driven much of the protests.

Once again, there were powerful speeches made, mostly clearing up confusion about why the ordinance was objectionable and how the government had (mis)used the JVC recommendations to offer an attractive but empty package to appease the public. Even more terrifying was the prospect of how easily the ordinance might be used against women. It was a spectacular betrayal by the government I'd voted into power & whose salaries I paid with my taxes.

This was an important moment in my fledgling career as the angry oppressed. 
It made me truly empathise with the millions of Indians who live in the shadow of injustice and aren't guaranteed their rights just because they demand it. It was a necessary wake-up call: We were now firmly tangled in the web of politics. What we'd imagined were basic inalienable human rights were playthings in a bizarre political game. The whole affair was like having ones head shoved into a bucket of ice-cold water and being shocked out of a naive stupor.

It is one thing to know injustice exists, quite another to experience it. I recommend everyone try it at least once in their lives.

(In other news, I can't be sure but I may have become a 'comrade'.)

This guy (holding the mic) had been at Jantar Mantar for 42 days (and counting). He was more distressed than any woman at any protest there. And while many were distancing themselves from his loud rants, his message was unique: "We are all unsafe," he kept repeating, "It's not just the women, even the men are unsafe!!"

This past week I also experimented with a different kind of campaign for gender justice. It was at a gathering for the spiritually inclined (I'm a bewildered fence-sitter). The group leaders were 'seers' who would help us collectively heal the community through visualization techniques (I had to imagine my brain was caught up in a rainbow-coloured inferno).

They explained how the sorry state of affairs in the country represented a spiritual breakdown, where we had become disconnected with the Source - the energy that connects us all as one. By reconnecting with this source, we could not only maximize our potential but in effect, transform society. So far, so good.

Then they explained how science had proven it by locating the God Particle i.e. the Higgs boson, inside each human cell, where it was busy connecting us to God, like a divine SIM card. (They also implied that science had proven we could change our DNA in our lifetime. Has it? If you got the memo, do pass it along.)

After that, pretty much all my chakras shut shop and I gave up on trying to spiritually heal my nation.


Tonight, I've returned from the book launch of 'Seeing Like A Feminist' by Nivedita Menon.

When I was 19, I took Menon's Pol Sci class in college and she'd rocked my world. 
None of us had elected to specifically take her class. We were all majoring in other subjects and required this to pass our exams. But once there, many of us were rivetted. 
Before her, I'd never known what a feminist was. I'd never realized there was a better world to aspire for: one in which my being a female was synonymous with freedom.
She had a light (no, not 'light', as someone at tonight's launch said: 'weightless') way of explaining the most complex ideas in feminism, ideas that challenged the status quo and also, us. 
She'd routinely find ways to nudge us outside our comfort zones. She had a laconic sense of humour and could spot bullshit from a mile away.
From what I gathered today, her book is the same. 'Oddly cheerful' as she described herself and her writing. If that's the case, I can't wait to get started.

(The book launch started with a few words marking the execution of Afzal Guru. Thus I learnt that feminism is fundamentally opposed to the idea of capital punishment. What a relief.)


  1. So, I maybe nitpicking here, but I'm not sure that feminism is "fundamentally" opposed to capital punishment. People have their own versions of being feminist (just like there are versions of libertarians out there), and no denying that certain things are definitely basic to the idea of feminism, but not sure if opposition to capital punishment is one of them. I believe its more a personal idea borne out of a lot of factors in a person's upbringing. Now you may say we find more feminists opposing capital punishment than otherwise, and you may be right (someone out there might have done a study on this), but using the word "fundamentally" sounds like using the word "literally" in the wrong way. Like I said, just nitpicking. :D

  2. I should have clarified that statement. When I wrote I learnt that feminism is fundamentally opposed to capital punishment, I meant that at the event, there was a formal announcement made by a speaker (a leading feminist thinker from India) that feminism and the death penalty are essentially incompatible.