LOVE, politics, REALISM, Sex and Gender, social media

TRANScending barriers: Past, present and the uncertain future of India’s third gender

At a traffic signal on a busy day, the slight tapping on my car’s window by a transgender would often unnerve me. They are persistent, and there is a common notion that they will cause you embarrassment if you don’t hand them money. At another friend’s sangeet ceremony, a band of transgenders swayed to peppy tunes amidst peels of laughter. These are the only experiences that I could recall. And so do many others.

But is that all there is to their identity?

Hijra Habba was organised in the capital on the 11th of September. The name may sound weird since its synonymous with the transgender community, and so it was. With over 400+ transgenders in attendance, Hijra Habba brought diverse voices from across the country, of active members from the LGBT community, to discuss the need for change at the level of education, policy-making and community interaction to effectively normalise lives for the third gender. The event held greater significance in the light of the recent Supreme Court decision on IPC Section 377, which decriminalised consensual sex among the LGBTQ community.

Born This Way. It’s not just Lady Gaga’s popular song, but also the theme of this year’s Hijra Habba. Their lifestyle is not an inconvenience but a truth that we have to accept in all its diverseness. ‘’Altering the behaviour and attitudes of the people and sensitisation of the masses is the reason why we have this platform’’, says Sonal Mehta, Chief Executive, India HIV/AIDS Alliance. Alliance India is an NGO credited with organising this gathering. They work on capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy to people living with HIV. ‘’A lot of issues pertaining to basic rights and opportunities need to be talked about. They have a right to lead ordinary lives and not be fraught with glass ceilings in the simplest of ideas such as that of a whole family,’’ says Nipun Srivastava, a consultant for the NGO. While trans people may have been qualified as the third gender, do they, as legitimate citizens, have access rights equity and opportunity as others?

Remember Vick’s tear-jerking ad called Touch of Care? It touched upon the issues of adoption and transgender rights. It featured Gauri Sawant, a beautiful, magnanimous transgender woman and LGBT activist, who adopted a girl named Gayatri, whom she had saved from being sold. She was present at the Hijra Habba, and spoke to timesofindia.com. ‘’I was the first transgender petitioner to file a case in the Supreme Court regarding adoption rights to transgenders. I am not proud of it but ashamed that I had to go to the court to ask for what should be mine intrinsically.’’

Gauri has set up her own NGO, Sakhi Char Chowghi in Malad, Mumbai and dedicates her time to providing for other marginalised – transgenders, hijras, female sex workers among other people. ‘’Motherhood is not a state, it is a behaviour. We love someone, which automatically makes us a mother. This need to nurture is natural, and we deserve it as much as a heterosexual woman or man.’’

Gauri has also started Aaji cha Ghar, a safe and friendly home for the abandoned girl children of sex workers and destitute senior Transgenders. It is a project under Sai Sawli Trust and is her dream project. But sadly, Gauri has had little support from the government. All help comes from Milaap fundraisers. But she believes like Swami Vivekananda did, albeit a little-altered version, that you must not ask the society what it can do for you, but prove that you can do so much for the society.

You and I may celebrate the victory of a minority community that has been suppressed and made to feel oppressed about their existence, and often completely denied any right whatsoever. India may thump its chest loudly for doing away with the arbitrary and unfair treatment meted out to the LGBTQ community, in theory at least. The battle is half won, however for the society, because it isn’t just section 377 they fought tooth and nail. With the law finally in their corner, does the minority, marginalizedd community feel at ease?

No.

This was the response of over three dozen people who were asked this question. And one of the factors is a common understanding, rooted in some studies, that HIV/AIDS is spread more widely in the LGBTQ community.

It is a catcall for discrimination – being HIV positive, or being a transgender. There are some who are both. It. The National Aids Control Organisation in (NACO) in India estimates HIV prevalence amongst transgenders to be 7.5%. In addition to the deviance inscribed on the bodies of those who are markedly different from the ‘regular’ folk, the stigma attached to people living with HIV has made matters worse.

‘’It is a widely believed that HIV spreads more prominently in homosexuals. We have never gone to the root of the issue which is lack of healthcare facilities for the LGBTQ community especially transgenders, whom hospitals have turned away numerous times due to institutional or individual prejudices. The absence of structural support in terms of education employment and health has made Transgenders far more likely to take to substance abuse,’’ opines Ritika, who works with Vihaan, a programme that works to reduce stigma and discrimination against HIV affected people. And her words are true. A study by the National Institute of Epidemiology among 60,000 transgender people across 17 states revealed that the biggest perpetrators of violence against transgender people were police and law-enforcing authorities. In a country where the system is against them, this community has little hope.

But some people have been fighting this stigma from within the society. Simran Shaikh, a senior program officer at Wajood is one of such individuals. Having herself battled with HIV for over a decade now, she enlists why events like Hijra Habba are a necessity. ‘’Wajood focuses on access to sexual health and mitigating violence among the transgender community. HIV is not transgender community specific; it impacts people all over. But transgenders have been on the receiving end of a lot of sexual abuse, which also exacerbates the current status. Additionally, due to social ostracization, many trans individuals are pushed into becoming sex workers. It also happens due to the unavailability of other job opportunities. Such social realities need to be kept into account when dealing with an HIV positive transgender. They need to be counseled since most of them face familial boycott at a very young age, among other gross injustices such as tantric practices performed on them.’’

Beyond simply ‘being’

Hijra Habba highlights the sense of community between people of the LGBTQ spectrum but also brings into sharp relief their isolation from the wider society. There were dance and musical performances, a fashion show, and even a theatre performance by Asmita group. It is, however, a sobering feeling – the community has to put on a show to make its voice heard. Many in the crowd quietly mocked the display of exuberance of the organisers and the participants alike.

But it does not deter Simran Shaikh, who adopted a girl, in spite of all deterrence from the society. ‘’Today they are laughing at us, but they must be absorbing something from this experience. Tomorrow, when they see a transgender begging on the road, they’ll hopefully realise that we are not born to just beg or be sex workers. After today, they will know that we can do a lot more, like any other person around them. We just need a chance. It is our right.’’

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art, article, education, free speech, HATRED, Journalism, politics, REALISM, social media

The new F-word: Nothing wrong with a men’s commission, but all this drama?

160 men recently performed the last rites of their divorced wives, who are all alive by the way, to get rid of the bad memories and allegedly the ‘evil of feminism’. It’s their version of lighting a picture and flushing it down the toilet, safe to assume. Feminism has been blamed as the root cause of a whole lot of issues – from rapes to male suicides. And in this race, Indians definitely don’t want to be left behind. With well-meaning intentions stemming from an archaic patriarchal mindset, there was a rumour that IIT-BHU will now train women to be ideal daughters-in-law and wives, a news that has been since denied by the institute.

To start with a fact – I never knew we needed such formal training. Any girl in a typical Indian household has to go through the rigmarole of learning how to be good wives when the time comes because it is taken for granted that it is we who will have to run the house. My mother, who is an educated school teacher, inadvertently tells me that there will be a time where I will have to choose a career keeping in mind the needs of my family. So a B.ed makes sense just in case I need to fall back on teaching as a convenient option. She isn’t wrong, and her concerns are well-placed. But it is archaic, and it is unfair.

While I have no qualms about a men’s commission to look into injustices committed against the male folk, why make it a crusade against feminism? These men have gotten their knickers in a knot because they misinterpret feminism for female domination. The real deal is that these men fear equality, not feminism. Men avoid the appellation of feminist, and female feminists are described as ‘ball-breaking’, angry, crazy women. Women congregations for those rights that have been long denied to them are being perceived by men as an ambush on their rights.

Men, and it has an element of support by women also, consider their rights as entitlement owing to their gender. Women have long been perceived as male property, so much so that we have an entire law on Adultery that leaves a cheating woman out of the ambit of law but punishes the man. Ignoring the absurdity of the law on adultery, if perceived from the prism of gender equality, both the man and the woman are equally culpable. Instead of bridging the gap between the genders, feminism has Indian men scurrying into a corner, thinking that with such leeway, women are bound to take advantage of their new-found freedom. Which is probably why divorced men believe ‘tantric practices’ might rid their wives of this feminism fever, because women shouting for their rights will surely mean broken houses.

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National Commission for Women was created to lend a helping hand to a gender that had been historically repressed by the society, especially their male counterparts. NCW deals with cases of dowry, political representation, biased religious practises, a disparity of pay for women and violence against women. In these matters, the scales are heavily tilted against women. Recently, a BJP MP from Ghatkopar, Ram Kadam, allegedly made an outrageous statement, wherein he promised help to boys in eloping with their lovers, and incase the girl is not inclined, he would help kidnap her. While he has since said that his words have been incorrectly presented, this brings to sharp relief the dominant narrative in the country. Women have for eons being subjugated and consent is a word that is yet to be inserted in our lexicon. This is not to discredit that men are not victims. Social constructions have come out of this system to harm men too. But an ambiguous idea of masculinity has engendered a feeling of discomfort in men simply because women are now speaking up.

Save India Family Foundation (SIFF) founder Rajesh Vakharia, whose organisation was the one who conducted the funeral rites of the wives of 160 estranged husbands, told TOI over the phone from Nagpur – “It is said India has a patriarchal society, but there is no law to protect husbands’ rights,’’. Misuse of anti-dowry law is their chief grievance. It is interesting to know that in July of 2017, the Supreme Court stated that no direct and immediate arrest shall be made under dowry harassment laws. Supreme court in effect almost endorsed the view that women tend to over-hype their personal grievance and may rope in all the family members. The low conviction rate in these cases also fans the fire in proving that women may cry wolf according to their convenience. With the law essentially in their corner, how a separate commission will further the cause of men is debatable in the context of dowry law.

Justice should have no gender. And feminism does not necessarily mean favouring women and only their rights. In a wider perspective, it could come to stand in for men and the LGBTQ+ community. An excellent example of such a struggle is Deepika Bharadwaj, who fights for men’s right especially against section 498A (related to dowry). To decry feminism as the root cause of all ills is to fall back into the trap of gender-based stereotypes that we have so proudly carried on our mantle.  

 

article, friends, literature and books, LOVE, movie review, Review

Sierra Burgess Is (NOT) a Loser, though it certainly is no winner

Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is a delve into familiar territory for Netflix- Young Adult romance. All the while I had my fingers crossed that the characterisation and the story arc would be somewhat different but the movie fails to live up to the expectations, primarily because Netflix’s last fling with YA turned out pretty well, with the instant success of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. SBL is only too familiar – a somewhat fat nerd who wants to catch the eye of a pretty boy, with the school’s prettiest/meanest girl in her way. The oft-used trope fails to liven up the screen as the movie slowly fades into predictability.

The lead, shuffled from Netflix’s family, is Shannon Purser, whose last stint was a short-lived character called Barb in Stranger Things. Her nerdy, Stanford-aspirant, non-athletic personality as Sierra is lively on-screen but there is only so much it can do to hold the story together. At least it has a refreshing perspective – a ‘big’ girl who seems to like herself. Till we throw in the love angle. The storyline eventually capitulates to the age-old narrative of one-sided affection and teen rivalry. Except there is cat-fishing involved. Which serves to bring Sierra and her arch-nemesis Veronica (Kristine Froseth) under the same roof. It could have been all candy-coloured drama henceforth, but most things the movie aspired to talk about, got too muddy.

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The rom-com tries too hard to be progressive in the presentation of body-image issues among other themes but relies too much on regressive tropes. The ‘all blonde popular pretty girls have to be dumb’ trope definitely needs subversion. Veronica’s life is pretty much unimportant to the plot and the storyline does little to explain her bullying personality. It goes to the credit of the show that they managed to evoke from the audience, sympathy for her character, primarily because she ends up sympathising with Sierra and partially because of her bronzed mother. Their journey from being enemies to friends, from transcending individual societal expectations, could have been the pivot but sadly the plot ends up being just about a ‘boy’.

Netflix’s (and our) latest chocolate boy obsession with Noah Centineo ensures that he is yet again the center of a romance, riding high on the success of his last Netflix original To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Jamie is adorable on screen with his too-good-to-be-true persona and is a welcome subversion to the asshole-jock trope we’ve come to idolize. Two dorkish goofballs have been predictably added to provide substance to his boy-next-door appeal, as Veronica sermonizes that only ‘losers hang out with losers’. His performance is a rerun of his TATBILB character, albeit in a good way. Both Peter and Jamey have a strong character arc and show a vulnerability not common to rom-com male leads.

While Sierra’s catfishing elicits sympathy because Jamie would be ‘out of her league’ on a regular day, the reactions of Jamie and Veronica make the entire episode look unreasonable and a tad forced. This is where the problem lies. Simply making a character look conventionally undesirable does not excuse their actions. The entire affair swerves into a lot of questions about consent, trying to pass off as naive love( Jamie and Sierra’s first kiss!). Sierra also ends up (almost) sabotaging her friendship with Veronica and goes so far as to slut-shame her in front of the entire school. She also forgets her only friend Dan in her quest for Jamie’s love; his presence in the movie is just a plot device and nothing more. While Jamie-Sierra romance is a pretty modern take on relationships in the perilous age on online dating, the repercussions are only too real and handled way too loosely. 

There are some memorable takeaways from the show – The initial unabashed self-confidence of Sierra’s character and her nonchalance towards the popular crowd; how the perfect person may not always be perfect in the ways we expect; being a dork doesn’t make you a loser (something a lot of us would’ve told our teenage selves, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight). But it loses out much worth in its production. We rarely watch teen rom-coms for depth, but it does add a layer of sensibility. Sadly, Sierra Burgess is a Loser comes out at a time when the genre is being reinvigorated, and by looking back more than looking forward, it stumbles more than it glides.

art, article, fashion

Vogue’s Suhana moment is pure economics. Why bother?

The brouhaha of Suhana Khan’s Vogue cover has done my head in. The entire debate around nepotism has been done to death and there is nothing more to be added to that. Did she get that cover because she is talented and has achieved tremendous success in life? No. Well so haven’t many other people who have graced the covers of famous magazines. Magazines do not sell you empowerment; they sell you a distorted but tempting utopia of beauty. (For whoever reads Vogue for anything other than lifestyle and fashion is surely kidding themselves.)

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Vogue has been a holy grail for all fashion icons and fashion lovers all across the globe. Their sole aim has been to represent, in all its glory, the fashion icons who have dominated their workspace. Suhana has, if anything, made a mark in our little fashion corner of the world, all thanks to the paparazzi culture, which is not exactly ‘pap’ anymore. From gym visits to airport departures, we want a sneak peek into every star’s life from the get-go. So our stars have risen to the occasion.

Suhana’s Vogue moment may seem unfair. But Vogue did not need her to have climbed Mt. Everest to get that recognition. India’s Arunima Sinha became the first female amputee to climb the highest mountain in the world. But will Arunima’s face, or mine get the eyeballs that the magazine grinds its ankles for?  Vogue needed Suhana to be pretty, or have the potential to look pretty, so to say. And they needed enough traction to drive sales, which is where her father’s name comes into play (I would prefer Shah Rukh on the cover of Vogue any day!). Suhana Khan did not need Vogue to be her launchpad; she must have dime a dozen producers lined up at the door. Vogue needed her. It only helped their case that Mr. Khan himself unveiled the cover.

In all fairness, stardom today is no longer (only) defined by the number of films that one has in their kitty. In the age of social media, we have stars springing up in all corners of the planet. Famous bloggers, Instagrammers have taken our lives by a storm and have come to dominate the visual media. While I concede that a lot of interest Suhana Khan generates is owing to her lineage, she isn’t exactly bereft of fashion sense. Fashion + nepotism = a possible aim at stardom. And well her chances at being a ‘star’, or even getting that opportunity, are far greater. Her starting line isn’t the same as of all those who are raining curses on her, and it is not her fault. It is a pity, it is an ugly truth.

Although Vogue often features Rihanna on its cover, it is not the bulwark of diversity representation. It’s still rare to see people with disabilities, dark-skinned women of color, plus-size women and even transgender women on the cover of fashion magazines. Their inclusion is so rare, that any mention is often considered worthy of celebration. Suhana’s Vogue cover may be justified because she is a star, even if her stardom has been quantified only on Instagram and our fashion spreads. It is, however, a matter of disappointment for Vogue India, as a magazine with a great history, that it needed the face of a star kid, to make an impact.

article, literature and books, movie review, Review, Uncategorized

Sacred Games: Gaitonde is at the helm of this beautifully woven tale of a decadent city

From the top of my head, when I think of Anurag Kashyap, I instantly remember Gangs of Wasseypur, Black Friday, Gulaal, Raman Raghav 2.0. While many fear, and I guess so does he, he has been typecast; a director with a profound knowledge of the dark underbelly of India and nowhere else to go. Someone who can uses streets, profanity, nudity and grey to jolt you back to reality from a journey that threatens to appear fictitious. Having never read Sacred Games, I can’t hold up the series of Sacred Games to test, so I judge it simply on its own two legs. But if the series is anything like the book, it is one damn good book.

But the greatest thing that goes to the credit of this indie director is the discovery of India’s most unconventional star – Nawazuddin Siddiqui. And to him belongs Sacred Games. Siddiqui embodies Ganesh Gaitonde, a disenchanted God in the large metropolis of ‘Bambai’. He belongs to Bombay and Bombay is at his mercy. In the 8 hours long, 8 episode series, we come away from the encounters knowing the characters’ in and out. The precision of the characterisation, the evocative cinematography keeps you tethered to the screen, and your eyes follow Ganesh, and his omnipresent voice, wherever it takes you.

Writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath have adapted the 900-page book by Vikram Chandra and have established the themes to be the ugly mess that is created when Religion shakes hand with Politics, and twists it into a vice-like grip. What ensues is conspiracy, corruption and chaos, with the timer to a doomsday that reminds you of 24. The stakes are set in the first episode, with both sides of the chess strewn across Bombay and its squalor. Ganesh Gaitonde’s journey, from the Ghats to Bombay’s shore, places him at the centre of the narrative and around him is woven a squalid yet spectacular tale.

This is not your run of the mill hero vs. villain war: Sacred Games has no villains, only antagonists. Ganesh Gaitonde has been the closest anyone has come to crafting the perfect anti-hero. I choose to call him this and not Saif’s Sartaj, although his character also comes on the heel of the same idea. Gaitonde is not the tallest in the room, nor is he a buck-swaggering idiot. He has an alpha-male strut, his presence fills the screen, yet he is not your hero. He has morals, yet they are corruptible. Gaitonde claims to understand the sacred game of politics, religion and how they corrupt, breed hatred – yet he gets sucked in the same vortex, killing at will when a personal loss strikes. He may roar when he is pissed, but he cries himself to sleep when he loses a friend. Anti-heroes are deeply flawed, yet within the crevices of moral corruption, you see little sparks of light. This makes understanding them a lot harder.

 

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Picture credits: Netflix

 

Nawaz delves deep into his character, and finally, on the screen, there is no Nawaz, just Ganesh, the mobster, whose life is made and marred by events around him. Landmark incidents like the Shah Bano case, Babri Masjid demolition and Mumbai bomb blasts make the background of his journey.  As politically loaded the series is (a matter for another piece maybe) the writers have deftly even taken on themes of sexuality and gave their own spin on a love story, between Ganesh and his muse, Kuckoo. Kuckoo, the dancer, the charmer, the third gender. In the moment that Kuckoo takes off her robe, we are as naked and ashamed as she is, writhing in pain, unable to escape the sad inevitable end that she knows awaits her. For him to shine, she must leave. And our hearts break with hers.

The language, the nudity, the bloodshed, nothing seems forced and that is the beauty of Sacred Games. It captures Bombay, what it was to people who live on the fringe, and the Mumbai of today, a teeming island almost always on the brink. And Ganesh is forever perched on his throne, counting days for this decadent city. The multi-narrative structure flits seamlessly between the past and the present, and the past only enriches our knowledge of the present. The show does not shy away from killing your favourite characters, which makes it as ruthless in its treatment as GoT. It takes the pulse of a riotous urban jungle, where our allegiances are united and divide by a God who ‘is sick of us’.

Another series will follow, and they sure have left the best for the last. Pankaj Tripathi will bring with him another aspect – spiritualism, which is, quite often, the bedfellow of moral decadence, as we have come to see at close quarters. Till then, Gaitonde’s castle in the middle of garbage is as real as Mumbai gets. The city where dreamers come, and where dreams come to live and die each day.

 

 

article, life, literature and books, movie review, Review

13 Reasons Why (not)…

I fell in love with season 1 of 13 Reasons Why. My tryst with binge-watching started out with this series and in spite of not having read the novel on which the show is based, I could relate to all the characters, having had a turbulent high school experience myself. I admired how the show, although mired in moral ambiguity, showed multiple sides of a single story, which was the fallout of the suicide of a Liberty High student – Hannah Baker. The show explores different themes which have been brushed under the carpet, especially in India. Sexual assault, drug abuse, depression – all had been dealt with grace, without patronising any character. It had a lot of grey areas fit into one screen.

Season 2 does just the opposite.

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Credits: Netflix

The show picks up 5 months after Hannah’s death, and this time, the episodes start with voiceovers of characters who are testifying in a civil suit filed by her parents against the school. Liberty High is the same bleak place that it was in the first season; however, the events are more sinister and show a deeper problem than we’d ever expect. Slowly and steadily, all characters are stripped off their secrets and the pace of the show trots towards an end that is as ghastly, and prone to criticism, as the final episode of the first season.

Hannah’s batchmates, parents, counselor and an old classmate, everyone takes the stand in this 13 episode marathon. Their narration is like a personal address to the audience. It is probably the most gripping part of the series. Their side of the story may leave a lot of strings untied instead of helping you make sense of why Hannah did what she did. The storyline is so starkly different from that depicted in season 1, that it does not bear an iota of conviction. It does more to pour old wine into a new bottle. The show is all drama and little sense; we are introduced to more bullying, victim intimidation, drug abuse and assault which borders on forced storytelling. No amount of screen relief is a relief.

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Credits: Netflix

However, it’s Tyler’s tragedy that is the most jarring and troubling aspect of the show. While most of the season was spent dredging up the past, Tyler’s struggle with social identification, peer pressure and his slow descent into a violent streak shows a problematic depiction on the producers’ part. It is sad that the premiere of the show coincided with an actual shooting in a Texas school that left 10 dead, underlining how the debate around gun-violence needs to be deal with care. However in the show, Tyler’s growing obsession with guns is a precursor to the finale episode. His abuse at the hands of Monty and his minions is one of the most horrible scenes I’ve witnessed in my life – the graphic depiction felt unnecessary. His abuse seems to justify his decision to almost massacre an entire school. Also, it appears to be a last minute deed to balance the scale of gender by discussing sexual abuse that happens with men, albeit in a hurried manner. Also letting Clay deal with Tyler in order to break his trance is tipping the iceberg in a dangerous direction, one which could’ve gone the other direction with a lot less ease. It is important to discuss the repercussions of senseless bravery.

The mysterious polaroids is a plot device that is put in to take the narrative of the season forward, implying how Bryce’s corrupt character is far more sinister that shown in the first season, how the culture of Liberty High does nothing to prevent sexual assault and mental trauma. In his conversation with his mother, we finally see how cruel and depraved Bryce is. It is only his character on which the story takes a rigid stand. But post that, the polaroids are an unnecessary, complicated addition, sending the characters on a blind goose chase, which is evidently felt as the end draws nearer.

Every other character oscillates between the black and the white when their story is narrated, so much so that the show ends up condoning the actions of the students. Alex, who shot himself in the first season, has survived the ordeal but is left with physical and mental scars. Justin, who took to the streets, is found by Clay who tries to wean him off his heroin addiction. Jessica is dealing with the scarring reality of attending high school with her rapist. Tony finds love, but he too has to face his demons this season. The show tries to humanise the trials and tribulations of the young protagonists to an extent that they portray all the actions as having emerged from a harsh reality and an unfair system but not as a product of their own choice. But there always is a choice.

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Credits: Netflix

The one thing that 13 Reasons Why season 2 gets right is the absolute shock that awaits the parents of various protagonists. From Hannah’s mother’s struggle to maintain sanity in her world that is falling apart at the seams, to Clay’s mother trying to hold on to whatever remains of her son after he has lost his love, their struggle is a reminder of how important it is to involve parents in a constructive dialogue with their kids. Parents know of our struggles and vices, like Bryce’s mother did, but it is the egotism of a parent, that Bryce’s father epitomizes, which convinces them that for whatever reason, their child is different from the crowd. Clay, in a very telling scene, says to his father ‘…maybe we are trying to protect you’. It is this chasm, between reality and a perceived reality of the parents, that needs to be bridged through communication.

Season 1 called on our empathy, the exact emotion that was denied to Hannah. We went on to give it to all characters regardless. The show became a collective call to all people, institutions who continue to pass the buck, to parents who themselves are victims of this system. But in season 2, the entire base on which our sympathy was triggered for the characters is turned into a fallacy. Hannah is stripped of all honesty, her constant ghostly presence is dredged to a point you hope she disappears from the screen. By trying to uncover a new mystery about Hannah’s death in a facile manner, 13 reasons why gives us enough reasons to give it a miss.

LOVE, malaysia, road trip, traveling

An enchanted forest and the fireflies of Malaysia

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of these little lightning bugs is the famous song by Owl City titled Fireflies.

You would not believe your eyes

If ten million fireflies

Lit up the world as I fell asleep

In a little coastal hamlet an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, magic unfolds each night. We reached Kuala Selangor with the sun setting behind us, a spark on orange lighting up the sky. We had been told about the firefly forest by a young couple we had met in Taman Negara, which is another hidden gem that Malaysia has to offer. And it does not get truer than that. A firefly cruise is one of the most happy-to-your-bones kind of experience in Malaysia.

The place will be underwhelming initially but we are glad we gave in to our gut feeling and good advice, and went in, travellers waiting to uncover some glorious treasure. We were ushered into a park that proudly announced itself to be the Bukit Belimbing Firefly Park Resort. Having been hurried into a boat, a young man quickly scuttled behind us and introduced himself as our boatman for the evening.

It’s a different world as soon as you step onto the boardwalks. Under the dense foliage, it’s nice and cool. We pushed off from the banks of the Selangor river into a marshy mangrove-ish route that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala. The narrow channel slowly opened up to a wide mouth of the river with crowded embankments made of entwined roots that made up the forest. These mangrove mainstays have attractive cerise flowers whose nectar lures the fireflies. I was straining my eyes, the sun having set completely, and the darkness of 8pm hindering my perception. I struggled to search for the blobs of light as we turned into a wider channel. And find them I did.

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Out of nowhere, I see mesmerising patterns of twinkling lights that suddenly fill the space around us. The glow of the fireflies reflecting on the surfaces of the clear stream of Selangor beckoned us to a world akin to a fairy-tale.

Fondly called “kelip-kelip”, in Malay folklore, fireflies are believed to be the nails of passing ghosts, or so our boatman told us. This is supposed to deter the children from going out after dusk. I doubt it works though. I had been oblivious to bioluminescence except for an occasional little encounter with a firefly as a child, and here I was, surrounded by thousands, in each direction. And just like that, it was Christmas all over again – whole bushes of berembang lit up with little dazzling fireworks.

Our boatman skilfully manoeuvred his boat, weaving in and out among the tree branches that hung over the water, and often took our boats right in the middle of a dense grove, up until I had a dozen fireflies in my head, peeping from underneath my hair. The fireflies drifted lazily over tree branches and leaves, glowing a warm yellow against the night sky. I wish I had pictures to prove how surreal the experience was but cameras aren’t allowed there, damn it. Coming from a concrete jungle with skyscrapers that pierce the sky, being amid these glittering berambang bushes was heaven in a nutshell. We drove back to the shore, the entire experience as fleeting as the life of a firefly in your palm, but as beautiful as anything can ever be.

 

 

Picture credit: Kuala Sepetang

art, artificial intelligence, deep learning, education, employment, prose, university

Why my kids may not go to any university…

Artificial Intelligence and Internet are two sides of the coin which need to be the currency of our education system

I studied in a classroom with peers who were probably as clueless as I was, and chose to stare at the walls or look at the teacher to feign attention (we’ve all been there eh?) I did my undergrad, and diligently pursued mass communication to now pursue a career in journalism. A lot of my friends went ahead into specialised fields like engineering, medical science and computer courses. But probably two decades from now, our kids won’t need to cram up information or study in a classroom with mute coloured walls to get a job. The era of specialised learning is at its fag end and the millennials know it.

The rise of online learning and free massive open online courses (MOOCS) are a clarion call to the future and spell the end of the traditional college model, which has a lot of apparent flaws. Our education system’s blueprint uses a cookie cutter approach– measuring all students at the same level in a classroom. But truth of the matter is that college degrees are an asset in a country like ours, which still favours a thorough (but not quality-centric) education. But we too are slowly progressing towards more skill-based education.

While a lot of skill-intensive training was undertaken in the manufacturing sector in our labour-intensive country, we now need to look towards two things that will soon run the world- Internet and Artificial Intelligence. The former has pervaded all aspects of our life while the latter is greasing its wheel and revving up its engines. Our focus needs to shift from manufacturing towards ordinary service sector occupations, which even world leaders have come to terms with. The founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, warns of significant market disruptions, especially in the manufacturing sector, because of how AI will change the world.

The education system has been disrupted equally by the two. Learning process will and already has undergone a significant change over the past decade. While automation may sound scary, it sure turns in profits, and most human endeavours will soon yield to a machine. While it may(or may not) tantamount to lack of jobs, the fact remains that we as prospective workforce, need to evolve to quickly move from one sector to the other when automation hits us with full force.

With easier and greater access to electronics by students, education sector for most start-ups is a cash cow. Companies are capitalising on this by creating advanced learning programs. E-learning will eventually combine artificial intelligence to help students excel at a task and supplement their efforts when need be. AI can undertake cluster studies and decipher hidden patterns in a classroom to figure out the understanding level and modify course structure appropriately. The internet allows them to pursue education at an individualised pace. One of these undertakings, that uses AI in the classroom is Century Intelligent Learning, which allows teachers to create online curriculum always accessible by students. AI identifies gaps in knowledge and recommends what topic the student should study next based on their aptitude. While online courses lack the sophistication for a measurable impact on a student’s life, it has increasingly been used to supplement the learning process. Which is why online teaching portals, especially the ones using AI are witnessing a rising graph.

Our education system needs to create a space for automation in the future. AI will create new jobs in the future for which we need many short-term skill based courses instead of tedious and cumbersome degrees. No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, some jobs will always likely be better done by humans, especially those involving empathy or social interaction. I do not imply that teaching will be extinct, but a wider education base, which includes a variety of subjects, are the need of the hour, starting with Artificial Intelligence. Hence unless my kids want to be scholars, they’d be better off with hands-on experience in different fields instead of completely theoretical 3-4 year of undergraduation in one core department.

However one drawback of the entire hullabaloo around automation and the internet is its impact on the poor, who make up the majority our country, and have limited access to education. Internet penetration in poor neighbourhoods in more than what basic amenities receive but its unregulated structure makes it hard for the government to implement internet as a mode of knowledge dissemination. However, the emphasis on regional languages may target digital inclusion of the marginalised. Internet and MOOCs may give them a shot at education, where the government has failed miserably.

I do not foresee a future that replaces teachers by robots and AI algorithms but our current system needs to reboot and be perceptive to change, because as Bob Dylan puts it, the times they are changing…

drinking, life, liquor, ode

My tryst with rum and an ‘Old Monk’ I won’t remember…

My dad loves rum. As a teen, I never understood why. My throat would burn with each sip and every whiff smelled of nail polish remover. Stealing sips from my father’s drink, I wasn’t too keen on it and would immediately retreat to a familiar sweet taste of my fruit beer (duh!). Two years short of my quarter-life crisis, with almost no money in my pocket and an array of experiences, I am much wiser.
And I love rum.

* * *
Two days ago, a barrage of tweets and posts exploded, and people paid obeisance to a man I had never heard of. He ran a company I hadn’t heard about and they chanted numbers I couldn’t concern myself with. For a country that obsesses over Old Monk, the man behind it went unnoticed for 88 years. Until this week. Kapil Mohan – who popularised the much-loved dark rum, and one who gave us many a night that we cannot really remember – passed away after a cardiac arrest.

As a mid-twenties woman, on the lookout for cheap liquor, Old Monk had been a companion since the time I could differentiate between my spirits. When I moved to the city to start my job, my dad, while dropping me off, handed me a bottle of our common love, as a reminder of all the good times we had together. My mum had rolled her eyes and given me a shy smile of approval. My friend and I, to celebrate our college, drank to our favourite songs late into the night in the girls’ hostel, after sneaking in a bottle of rum. We had it neat, and it’s safe to say that she does not remember much of the night. That was Old Monk for me. Love. And memories.

While most were downing Tequila or raising lagers to good company, I confided quite a few tears to the sinfully amazing cocktail of rum and coke. I was a rum loyalist, much to the chagrin of my male friends. Wine, they said, is what girls preferred. Beer, if they were ballsy enough. Well, I beg to differ. But Old Monk did more than just lift my spirits- it was an equaliser.

No I won’t preach for preaching sake. But poor or rich, men or woman (yeah!), heavy pockets or light like mine, Old Monk was our go-to liquid sin whenever the occasion arose. And boy do these occasions come by regularly! The weirdly shaped bottle was a regular feature at our parties, and more so if the nights were bone-numbingly chilly in the northern subcontinent as they are now. I never bothered to look up who brewed it, or where the breweries were. Like most my age, I was busy looking for liquor at 2am in the night, banging on closed shutters.

And am I poorer for it? Yes. Kapil Mohan left behind a legacy. Even if he did not leave his name etched in our memories. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution. I will probably not think of him again after I am done penning this down. But I sure will, whether in good times or dampened spirits, go back to the rum this Old Monk left us. And in that memory, this day, I raise my glass to a man I never knew.

article, free speech, life, literature and books, REALISM

The Handmaid’s Tale: Why adaptation of Atwood’s dystopia deserved the Emmy

“We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Who could’ve predicted that a dystopian show could give online streaming portals a run for their money? The king of streaming did shake in its place when “The Handmaid’s Tale” won eight Emmys very recently.  And that is no mean feat.

What is so eerie about Handmaid’s tale is how close it is to the nightmares in the present cultural context. It instantly drives home the fear of a totalitarian state, towards which the ideological warfare in our times is pointing. To take women as pivots in a story and do it justice, all the while staying true to the essence of the novel is marvelous. The producers have contemporized Margaret Atwood’s dystopia by the same name and given us something that is beautiful yet horrific in its portrayal. The Emmy was well on its way.

Gilead (which is what the US has been named after being taken over by religious fundamentalists) is home to women who serve at the whims and fancies of their male counterparts. Fertile women serve as concubines to men, their voices muffled by power and threats. The story revolves around Offred (the very beautiful and charming Elizabeth Moss) and other women, who have been separated from their families and forced to bear children for their superiors.  The narration is in an omniscient first person, which lets us peek into the psyche of the lead and witness the raging internal conflict which is a microcosm of the external turmoil to a certain extent.

I had to pause and process different situations on more than a few occasions. I binge watched the entire season, which is breath-taking in its entirety. The show is layered- it has political overtones, and the show’s target audience is very specific. But it reaches out and connects more people in its portrayal of how sections of this community live without access to basic rights.

Without giving away the plot, the resemblance of the narrative to our world is both awesome and nerve-wracking. Religious fundamentalism with some wacko ideas about creation and women rights, the show can be read as political work on the current plight of women in the middle east. It is also conscious to the debate of pro-life vs pro-choice raging in the United States.

The scenes of power, subjugation and slavery leave you on tenterhooks; the rule of ultra-religious hypocrite bigots makes it eerily like something that is overtaking our own country. People are being killed in the name of religion and ideology. To use old religious texts as blueprints to create an ideal world now and the consequences it may bear has been realistically displayed.

Certain hard-hitting scenes – the demolition of a church, burning of old texts and the underground brothel which houses women who have a ‘little shelf life left’ – all serve to highlight the hypocrisy of their time (and ours). What would we be in a world devoid of free speech, movement, LGBTQ rights and religious order (whatever that even means anymore)?

What I loved about the show is how normal the cast is – you don’t have superbly good looking models parading as serious actors. All the characters are indeed very memorable- you have the crazy woman, the obedient wife, the rebellious lesbian and so many others who give you different perspectives on the issue. A certain hamfisted characterization could have been avoided in the black and white portrayal of individuals. That critique apart, the show spells must watch if you think this world is a circus and we are all either clowns or spectators.