Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fair and Lovely

In a recent Telugu film Dhada, the comedian Brahmanandam, at a party, goes around the room trying to chat up women - all of them fair skinned - and fails each time. Then, he is approached by a black woman (who I thought was quite pretty), but he rejects her outright, running out of the room to get away from her. 

Discrimination within a system is often difficult to recognise as such without outside perspective, and can remain as a matter of fact, unnoticed, until something happens to highlight it. That is not to say that the discrimination stops once it is in the open, only that thought and debate on the issue begin once it is recognised as an issue. For example, discrimination according to caste, while still prevalent, is not something that can happen unnoticed, as a matter of fact, any more. The issue is in the open, and every new instance of discrimination is catalogued, and debated upon. 

Discrimination based on colour is not one such an issue in India. It happens everyday, all around us, but nobody pays attention to the fact that discrimination is taking place. This discrimination is not against a particular segment of the population, it does not have an agenda. Unlike elsewhere, it does not factor in the economic or political spheres: people don't lose jobs or elections because they are dark skinned. The negative bias restricts itself to considerations of potential sexual partners. 

One possible theory of the origin of this bias goes back to the migration and consequent subjugation of the darker native Indians by the invading fair skinned Aryans - and the later demonisation of the natives by the ruling Aryans. This might have been reinforced by two centuries of British rule: I wonder if while rebelling against foreign rule, Indians developed an inferiority complex which manifests itself as this colour bias. Not to say that Indians desire fair skinned foreigners, no: what they want are fair skinned Indians. Looked at more closely, this discrimination appears not to be a malicious degradation of the other, but a deep dissatisfaction with something within, and an attempt to rid itself of that blemish. 

Whatever the reason maybe, it is a widely accepted in India today that fair skin is more desirable than dark skin. I can't seem to recall even one major actress with dark skin, and even those actresses who are somewhere in the middle are touched up on screen to appear as fair as possible. I remember an ad for the fairness cream Fair and Lovely a few years ago, where it is shown that a girl is rejected for marriage because she is too dark, and after using the cream for a few months she becomes much more desirable to prospective grooms. Jokes on screen about the undesirability of dark skinned men are quite common, especially at the expense of comedians - Sunil and Babu Mohan (of the Telugu film industry) come to mind immediately.

As I said earlier, this discrimination, while ubiquitous, has not gained significance as an issue yet. Biases of other kinds, those based on caste or religion or social status are easier to deal with: while it might still be difficult, education and reason can go a long way. But sexual bias - while still socially conditioned - is far more primal, and cannot be combated with reason. It could take generations to reverse it, if it can even be done. As it is though, I am actually worried that we Indians are going to breed the dark skin right out of our genes: quite sad really, given how much healthier dark skin is for the Indian climate.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Absent institutions

in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

                                          --B.R Ambedkar (closing address to Constituent Assembly)

When I look at the give aways that the recently elected Jayalalitha government is indulging in, I am reminded once again of the populist nature of contemporary Indian democracy. Successive governments have found out that it is easier to appease their wards with freebies (such as a fan, a tv or free electricity) than making an effort to do something positive. Arguably, one source of this populism could be India's vast poor and unaware, and hence, gullible, population. Under the surface however, I think, this populism has more to do with the feeling of helplessness that Indians experience over not having any other viable alternative. In contemporary India the disillusionment of the average Indian goes so far as to consider that if the government does something right, it is incidental, a serendipitous aligning of the personal interests of politicians and civil servants with the interests of the country. Given this, the Indian public at large, I believe, has stopped being willing to sacrifice comforts that a momentarily vulnerable and generous government bestows upon them - if only for votes - even if such a comfort means greater pain somewhere down the line. Because, even if they do sacrifice, they do not trust the government to invest that capital into the country's future. So, they take as much as they can get, even being aware that it is going to be at the cost of the future.

Indian public institutions are for the most part viewed with suspicion. The negative light in which they are usually cast in Indian films give us a taste of the popular sentiment. In the average film, whatever the problem maybe, the protagonist casually deals with it as an individual, outside the law; where an attempt is shown to be made by the protagonist to seek the system's help, the problem is cast aside with disdain by the system, thus forcing the option of a non-legal route on the protagonist. That the means used by the protagonist are in violation of the law of the land is not even an issue, more often than not the violator is considered a saint rather than a criminal; the message in summary comes to this: the triumph of right, of justice, due to the sacrifice of an individual in spite of a callous, uncaring, often corrupt system. The resentment of the public has reached to such levels recently that blatant killing of corrupt officials (Tagore, Telugu, 2003), or the taking over of governance by private individuals (Sivaji, Tamil, 2007) seem perfectly reasonable options to the viewers.

Problematic also is the unhealthy obsession Indians have with 'leaders'. While celebrities and symbols have played an important role in most cultures around the world, I believe that Indians are obsessed  with the idea of a 'leader'. Sometimes I cannot help but think it a wonder that India has not devolved into an autocracy in the time since its independence (though it almost did end up being one under Indira Gandhi). 

That is the contradiction India today has within itself: tired as Indians are of the system governing them, their first instinct is not to deliberate upon the manner in which the system could be reformed, but to look for, or rather, worse than that, helplessly pray for a 'leader' who would deliver them from the system (while doing the best they can, by hook or crook, while under it). It is one of the reasons why, I think, Indians are so easy to stir up to become a mob: at the first hint of a leader providing direction, promising deliverance, they are ready to follow - some times not even caring what the cause is - casting aside concerns of law and order.

India would be a much better place if Indians shed their pessimism, and do what they can to slowly change the cogs of the system - uninspiring work though it is - rather than hoping for a revolution under a 'leader'.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Musings on relics

As a tourist I 'see' places that have been standing for centuries. I often wonder what they mean, these places. Some of them are still used in some form or the other. Others have ended up being just tourist attractions. I wonder about what they were intended for when they were built...and of the subsequent changes they went through, each change transforming their purpose, while banishing that minority of 'users' who still yearned for the place in its previous form....that disowned minority that needed the place in its earlier form...its earlier purpose.

When I see old temples for instance, that is what I struggle with: my urge to preserve warring with the notion that if I do try to preserve the place would lose its purpose and become a relic. Why do we like looking at dead things and not the living? The living in all its energy and flux draws the venerable into its flow transforming it into but another instance of the mundane? Only the dead stay still long enough to be looked at, maybe?

At the Sun temple in Konark - dead to its purpose for a few centuries now - my eyes went straight the architecture and the sculpture. There was nothing else in the way. At the Jagannath temple in Puri though, the energy of the crowd, their singularity of purpose, easily decided the primary focus of my eye: not until I had come out of the temple and talked to my mother did I realise that I had not paid much attention to the architecture after all. I went back a few days later: it was as amazing as at Konark, I just didn't notice it before.

The aura that attaches itself to places: my first view of Ajanta or the Palladium (in Rome) overwhelmed me, so many centuries of history brought together in one place, stories still living in a dead place pressing down on me with the weight of the strength of their claim on me - concentrated as it is in one place - as my past.