Sunday, December 29, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
The fuss over Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's maid has had an immediate fallout on Indo-US bilateral relations. Given that this was an affair involving diplomatic protocol and even national sovereignty, this was only to be expected. Less anticipated, however, was the impact of this controversy on two very separate groups of Indians: the middle class Indians resident in India and their social counterparts now resident in the West. Far from acting in unison, circumstances have propelled both groups to turn on each other with a measure of hostility that was unimaginable.
At the heart of the dispute is the vexed "servants" question. To the middle class Indians with a reasonable exposure to the West, the charges levelled by the nanny-cum-domestic help were easily explained. Sangita Richards' status in the US was directly linked to the tenure of her employer. If she wished to acquire a permanent right to live and work in the US, she had to carve out an independent status for herself. This was only possible by charging her employer with violating her human rights and depicting herself as a victim of servitude. This she successfully did by preying on the gullibility of do-gooders who are accustomed to viewing the Third World as an undifferentiated area of darkness. Indeed, by blending piousness with America's self-perception as the world's good cop, Richards was even able to secure the 'evacuation' of her family from Indian tyranny.
This was the story most middle class Indians and the mandarins in South Block, including those slightly embarrassed by the dodgy track record of a member of India's Dalit aristocracy, chose to believe. To them, the domestic help was a street smart operator out to short-circuit the US immigration rules. If that meant levelling extraordinary charges against her employer, she was game.
Predictably, in a battle involving the country of their birth and the land of their adoption, overseas Indians had to exercise an unenviable choice. There was, quite naturally, a large degree of envy at work. Many who earned much, much more than Devyani's modest relatively salary resented the fact that purported diplomatic status allowed her to maintain a flat in Manhattan and import a maid from India who was paid less than the going New York rate.
It didn't stop at that. The journey from envy to resentment involved frenzied breast-beating over how Indians habitually treated 'servants' disgustingly and how the relationship was deeply exploitative. Overseas Indians who were hitherto happy to enjoy the luxuries of domestic help during their holidays in India, suddenly woke up to the belief that privileged Indians lacked any form of social conscience. The subtext was also apparent: by emigrating to the First World, these sons and daughters of India had exorcised themselves of the accumulated sins of their families in the subcontinent. Judging from the visceral comments on social media, it almost seemed that those who had migrated westwards had so as a protest against an iniquitous social order. India, it was tacitly suggested, could redeem itself by transplanting the transactional social relationships of the New World into a society that is pre-modern, modern and post-modern at the same time.
For many Indian-Americans, the Devyani Khobragade affair was akin to the Tebbit test of loyalty. There may have been some awkwardness with the high-handed treatement of a woman diplomat but, overall, there was vigorous nodding approval for District Attorney Preet Bharara's carping suggestion that the US wasn't accustomed to treating important people with kid gloves. In exercising choice, those who India likes to view as its overseas citizens, chose to spurn the old country.
This is a lesson that won't be easily forgotten in India. For the past decade at least, the New World and even some European countries have proceeded on the assumption that ethnic Indians are better able to understand India and relate to Indians than the average white or black. The assumption has often been questioned by Indians. Anecdotal experience suggests that Indians with different passports have a monumental chip on their shoulder. After Devyani's Bharara encounter this prejudice is certain to turn into a conviction. It won't be a bad idea if the West acts on this realisation.
Sunday Times of India, December 29, 2013
Friday, December 27, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
For a very long time--indeed, till I was well into my 20s--I was fanatical in my insistence that Burra Din, the way we natives used to refer to the festival the burra sahibs called Christmas, was best spent in the city we knew as Calcutta. The reason was actually absurdly simple: Christmas in Calcutta was not a private or even family occasion (as it is in the West, for example); and it was only perfunctorily a religious occasion that began and ended with Christmas Carols of uneven rendition and the midnight mass at St Paul's Cathedral. Burra Din in Calcutta was, above all, a good natured festival of drink and gluttony and possibly the only time its residents tacitly celebrated the good old days--a euphemism for the time Calcutta had not lost sight of its European moorings.
As a member of the ever-growing club of the bred-in-Calcutta individuals who bought a one-way ticket out of Bengal, I no longer yearn to be jostled in New Market in the final days of December. Including this year, I have spent only four Burra Dins in the city of my birth in the past 25 years. Yet, each year, wherever I am in the world, my thoughts invariably drift to Christmas in Kolkata and which cousin is doing what.
Actually, as things go, the options aren't all that great. Christmas in Kolkata is, and has been for as long as I can care to remember, all about deciding which club to go to. There was a time when each of the clubs had their own distinctive character and attracted distinct individuals. Bengal Club was for the European boxwallahs, Calcutta Club was for the Bengali professionals, Saturday Club appealed to younger, sporty types in the corporate world; the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club boasted the liveliest bar and a perfunctory interest in team sports; and the Tollygunge Club, situated on the southern outskirts, was quite definitely for weekend recreation. Yes, there were other clubs too including the Dalhousie Institute, an Anglo-Indian institution that, until the 1980s at least, served food that was so reminiscent of the old Bengal Nagpur Railway Hotel in Puri.
Regretably, it is difficult to distinguish between the clubs these days because most well-heeled Kolkata residents are members of multiple institutions. My most enterprising cousin who hasn't lived away from the city in his 60 years is, for example, a member of Calcutta Club--a family tradition stretching back three generations, Saturday Club, CC&FC, Tollygunge Club and, as I discovered to my surprise this visit, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club which boasts the best view of the city across the maidan. Another cousin is this year's President of the Saturday Club. And a third cousin, a retired tea planter who once spent a harrowing fortnight in the captivity of Bodo insurgents, combines his Tolly and CCF&C cards with membership of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club.
There is a certain class of Kolkata that spends the bulk of its leisure hours in their clubs. Predictably, since I happen to have been born into such a class, the question of a family Christmas lunch boiled down to spirited disagreements over which club was most agreeable. And, as usually happens in Bengali families where there is too much leisure and too much boredom, there was no question of unanimity. The eldest cousin, a grand dame of the tea gardens, chose the rarefied splendour of the Bengal Club; my planter cousin chose CC&FC because he hated crowds; and my cousin with multiple memberships, into whose safe hands I had entrusted myself, booked us in the Tolly.
It's a choice that I had absolutely no reason to regret. Having been away from the city for so long, I knew few people and could afford to concentrate single-mindedly on the wonderfully old-fashioned food. I call it old-fashioned because where in today's health-conscious environment are you going to get glazed ham where the fat hasn't been discarded or non-lean bacon? Or Shepherd's Pie where the oil from the keema rose above the potato mash? To people like me, this was a Christmas lunch that doubled up as comfort food--and particularly the soufflé and trifle puddings.
This is not the way Europeans eat their Christmas lunch these days. Maybe they never did. But in the collective memory of Calcutta, particularly the kitchens that were dominated by the "Mug" cooks from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, this is what must be served for Christmas--at least in the clubs.
It is so different from the family Christmas lunches. Three years ago, I was invited to an open house of a well-known Anglo-Indian family of the city. I had just returned from a club Christmas at the Tolly (where the fare was exactly the same as this year's spread) and expected to find a few roasted birds being delicately carved. Banish the thought. The Christmas lunch of this Anglo-Indian family, who may even have a superior claim on the city's European pedigree, was home-made chicken biryani and chicken curry. The only concession to the Occident was the ubiquitous plum cake or what the sahibs called Christmas Pudding.
I loved the mismatch. It encapsulated the charming absurdity of our lives, the orphans of Macaulay who had clung on tenaciously to our few fragile certitudes. On December 25, there are tiny corners of the old imperial city that are forever draped in a mythical flag of nostalgia. There's no need to send in the bulldozers: in a few decades we will be nothing more than memory. Yet, for many like me on Christmas Day, it was good the Empire lasted as long as it did.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, December 27,2013
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Friday, December 20, 2013
|Public life is replete with unintended consequences, particularly in a country where people live by their wits. Earlier this week, to illustrate the point, I was told by a distraught gay businesswoman of the experience of another entrepreneur who practices what one important politician has dubbed “unnatural sex”. A few days after the Supreme Court judgment restoring Section 377 to the Indian Penal Code, the businesswoman decided to terminate the services of a casual employee who was clearly underperforming. Upon receiving the marching orders, the angry employee told his employer in no uncertain terms that he must receive a hefty compensation package. Alternatively, he would go to the police and make a complaint that his employer was engaging in criminal misconduct by having gay sex, and thereby open the floodgates of humiliation and harassment.|
It is entirely possible that the threat was all bluster. We have, after all, been reminded that Section 377 is hardly ever used, and that since its enactment more than 150 years ago, has been used in only 200 or so cases. Yet, ironically, as my friend pointed out, earlier this pre- Independence law was largely unknown and rarely enforced. However, after the huge publicity surrounding the Supreme Court judgment, there is widespread awareness that homosexuality is a criminal offence. Consequently, the scope for its opportunistic misuse is all that more.
Yashwant Sinha may have been guilty of overstating the absurdity of the United States of America making a fetish of local laws when he suggested that foreign diplomats could be made subject to the draconian provisions of Section 377. But that he chose this particular issue to drive home the absurdity of the harsh action by the New York administration against an Indian woman diplomat is revealing. As things stand today, gay persons in India potentially face greater harassment than they did before the Delhi High Court de-criminalized gay sex in the summer of 2009. That is because Section 377 is no longer a decorative and relatively unknown facet of the law.
Paradoxically, it is the over- exposure of gay activism that may have contributed to this dismal state of affairs. That the intolerance of homosexuality was imported into India by, first, the Christian evangelists and subsequently by orthodox Islamism is a matter of record. In traditional Indian society — there may have been local variations — homosexuality was no doubt treated as individual deviancy, perhaps an example of odd behaviour, but it was never subjected to persecution. In most families where an individual preferred to depart from ‘normal’ sexuality, it was covered up in a conspiracy of silence. People preferred to look the other way and not speak about it in polite society.
This contrived sense of denial was no doubt a deeply unsatisfactory solution and subjected countless individuals to emotional trauma. However, the mere fact that Section 377 became a public issue a mere 15 years or so ago, coinciding largely with the encroaching globalization of India, suggests that society was comfortable pretending that homosexuality was too fringe a matter to lose sleep over. Indian society neither condoned nor persecuted those who deviated from conventional, straight behaviour.
The option of the government acting on the recommendations of the Law Commission and removing consensual, adult gay sex from the list of criminality by stealth has, however, gone. Today, unfortunately, the debate over Section 377 has generated a social schism. There is a brewing conflict between social consensus and individual freedom.
There is a simmering disquiet — and this has gone largely unreported in the media that has quite unequivocally championed the individual’s right to choose his or her sexuality — over the in-your-face assertion of gay pride, particularly as shown on TV. Many politicians I have spoken to have privately suggested that taking up the gay cause would repel voters and even lose votes. In Haryana, for example, Congress functionaries are unhappy that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi went public with their criticism of the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377. There are few takers for the callow minister of state who told some MPs that since there are (by one estimate) some three crore of people who fit the LGBT definition, the Congress’s stand will influence some 30 crore votes in the coming general election — the assumption being that each LGBT will influence at least 10 more people.
The questions go beyond the imaginary numbers game. The Bharatiya Janata Party president, Rajnath Singh, may have been articulating conservative concerns when he argued that the law could not condone ‘unnatural sex’. Yet, he didn’t grapple with the question as to why the law should address any consensual act — no one denies that 377 has a role in punishing both involuntary sex and sex with minors — in the first place. Homosexuality may well be the subject of individual or even collective derision, but should the State be concerned with what happens in the privacy of a bedroom?
Alas, the State does intrude into what may seem to be private. There are restrictions on both food and drink that are born out of either custom (the ban on beef in many states) or invented tradition (prohibition in Gujarat). Institutions such as marriage are regulated and there are laws governing inheritance and adoption. For a statist, Section 377 could well fit the scheme and be attributed to the need to preserve what the philosopher Roger Scruton called “common decencies”.
For social conservatives who attach primary importance to family and other kinship ties, the great fear is that an extra dose of permissiveness will lead India mirroring some of the social dysfunctionality of the West. Interestingly, this does not always lead to a full-throated endorsement of Victorian morality. A very prominent BJP leader, who has maintained radio silence on the recent controversy, remarked to a colleague that, in the West, the state routinely separates minor children from their mothers and entrusts them to State-sponsored care. This, he suggested, would be unthinkable in India, except in the rarest of rare circumstances. The implication of his observation was clear: homosexuals are members of a family and cannot either be disowned or brutally criminalized for their sexual inclinations.
India may comprise of many conservative societies. But this wariness of swimming with the latest fashion is also balanced by accommodation and tolerance. To my mind, this is the key to a pragmatic resolution of the recent challenge.
The issue is not the legitimization of homosexuality by moving towards the recognition of gay marriages. Nor is it a question of conferring social legitimacy to gay sex. To some, same- sex relationships will always remain unnatural and sinful and no amount of persuasion will alter that view. To others, it will be value-neutral and a matter of individual choice.
Yet, what is deemed sinful or unnatural need not necessarily be criminal. At the heart of the Section 377 debate is the issue of criminality, and here it is indeed possible to distinguish between the legal and the social. In the past and even now, society has come to terms with morganatic relationships. Sheer pragmatism and an overriding sense of humaneness should also be allowed to prevail in society’s approach to gay relationships.
In today’s India, gay relationships embrace a wide social diversity. Indeed, there are creative professions where gay people rule the roost. Far from being disruptive deviants, they are very much in the mainstream of productive India. For such individuals to be harassed, humiliated and tarred as criminals is plain wrong. The social consensus depends on an ever-changing moral majority; the law, however, must be based on fairness and justice.
The Telegraph, December 20,2013
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Sunday Pioneer, December 1, 2013