About Praveen (PT)

Lawyer, Foodie, Delhi-ite, Cat-owner and Newly Minted Dad. Garnished with liberal politics, Laissez Faire social attitudes and a few Grey hair. Served warm and gentle on a mildly world-weary sauce.

When the Dust Settles

There’s a glut of terminology here. Call it the Damini case.

This was a case that shook us all. At least, all of us relatively privileged urban-ites. Some of us rallied and raised our voices, and lobbied for change. We denounced the horrific attack, on the internet, on television, with friends, on any sounding board we had access to. We hoped and prayed for the victim’s survival. When we heard the news of her death, we hoped and prayed that it wasn’t in vain. Above all, we felt our very souls quake at the sheer horror of the violence that this innocent woman (and her friend) faced.

Two months and ten days to the day of the event, the dust finally seems to have settled. There will be a brief revival when the perpetrators are sentenced, but by and large, ‘Damini’, as she has been called by the media, is no longer at the very forefront of news coverage and public memory. Yet, something did change.

Moving along in the morning traffic, I watch as Delhi hustles and bustles and huffs and puffs as it heads to another grueling day at work. Life as usual. The usual ragged people selling tissue boxes to posh South Delhi commuters at the traffic lights. The same impatient honking. The same continuous, barely audible undercurrent of unprintable language from the youngish fellow driving me to my destination, all directed at fellow commuters. It’s all the same, and yet it’s different.

At the bank, a small TV set suspended off the wall blares out news of yet another gang rape. The agent pauses for a bit. Then she catches my eye, and her mind switches back to my portfolio.

At a dinner party, we laugh about how corrupt our respective workplaces are. I laugh harder than most, not being part of a corporate workplace anymore. Eventually, the laughs dry, and the topic changes to the government’s new ordinance regarding rape. The atmosphere becomes serious, not because of the law, but because of what it took to create it.

Over dinner, I talk with my wife about Nishtha (our daughter), about the weather, about rhododendrons, and about perhaps visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art sometime. The conversation turns to culture, and then to Delhi, and then Delhi’s culture. An odd silence follows. We both know why.

Buried under the overwhelming normalcy, there’s a sense of vague, barely perceptible unease. As the city pulsates and gyrates and dances its dance of folly, there are moments of disquiet that break out when one isn’t quite looking. What do these moments mean? Are they symbolic of a paradigm shift? Is our misogynistic culture finally changing?

Regardless of whether or not there is a significant change in popular culture, I believe it is safe to say that of those who are alive today, few will forget the Damini case over their lifetimes. I am nearing forty, and yet, I do not remember a case in Indian history that resulted in so bold a questioning of the status quo.

And yet, we remember in different ways. To some, Damini will be symbolic of Indian womanhood, a reminder of our ‘sisters and daughters and our mother at home’, an innocent, helpless persona victimized by a group of deviant males.

To others, she will be the one who brought to the forefront a social issue, the issue of gendered violence, an issue that has long been taboo in public discourse, an issue that it was vital to raise.

To other still, Damini was one of many, sacrificed at the altar of a patriarchal culture bent on putting women in their place, a culture that she fought against in as direct a manner as is perhaps possible, for which she paid the ultimate price.

The manner of our remembrance defines not only the incident in our minds, but just as well the very essence of our attitude towards the multifarious structures that continue to oppress women today. Perhaps more precisely than any straight-talk, it describes our view of a society which is mercilessly exploitative to any unfortunate victims of patriarchy, exploitative in ways that are much more subtle, but not much less damaging, than the one this unfortunate young woman was forced to reckon with one evening in the National Capital.

Picking Up The Keyboard Again

This Blog has been in suspension for a fair amount of time now. Certainly, there are many reasons for that, ranging from a simple glut of professional commitments, to major, life-changing personal events which have kept both of us too busy and preoccupied to write anything worthwhile. What started as an experiment ended up being mothballed in rather short order – circumstances simply dictated so.

Having said that, I am happy to report a change in those circumstances. Time is now our friend, life is a bit slower and a bit more wholesome, and the many minutes and hours required for rambling away into cyberspace have now been found.

Stay tuned.

The Prisoner

She’s up at the crack of dawn, and she knows it’s over. There’s too much to be done. Too many people to be satisfied. Too many expectations to be met.

The morning chill lays low upon the house. The drought is bitter, but she is used to bitterness. After all, it is the dominant flavor of her life, the one emotion she knows best. There used to be other emotions. She used to love and hate. Laugh and cry. Experience beauty and disgust. Feel pride and shame.

But that was a long, long time ago. Another universe, another time. She was human then. A person. A girl, with hopes and dreams. But no longer. She is now a Wife and a Daughter-in-Law. Nothing more and nothing less. The girl is gone and the emotions as well, numbed by the bitter winds of her own private winter. He hates the sight of her. They don’t want her back. They just want her to adjust.

The first rays of light hit the house. Weak and cold. The warmth is elusive. A metaphor for her own life. The light is harsh to her eyes. She, the prisoner in the dark.

She, who is her own jailer. A gilded prison it is not, occasioned as it is by drudgery and abuse. These prison bars were forged long ago, by the very people who wished the best for her. Those who brought her in this world. Those who paid for this prison. Those who thought the prison was the best place for her to live her life in.

And now she cries out. The bars are too strong and the prison too bleak. The fatigue is overwhelming. All she wants is that rope… and everything is peaceful. Forever.

———

This “drabble” is inspired from Sweety’s story (IHM did an excellent post on it here ). This story in particular really saddened me and shook me up, but it must be remembered that Sweety is not the only one. There are thousands of Indian women (and men) who are stuck in bad marriages but are unable to leave, thanks to their social conditioning and the stigma of divorce.

It is high time that we stopped looking at divorce as though it is a cardinal sin. When people decide to separate, they USUALLY have a good reason for it. If divorce was a respectable option in Indian society today, Sweety may still have been alive and well. It was the mental block that really killed her; the rope was just an agent. 


Engineering A Death Brew

A lot has been written about education in this country. Some positive, a lot negative. There are indeed plenty of valid criticisms – it promotes rote learning, prefers form over content in language, fails to deliver content in an engaging and effective manner, and so on.

This post is not about that. 

What I really want to highlight here is an attitude problem.

In an incident reminiscent of a scene from the hit movie Three Idiots, an IIT Madras student hung himself from a ceiling fan minutes after he was informed that he would not graduate that year.
This is nothing very new for the IITs or Indian colleges in general. Between November 2005 and 2010 for example, IIT Kanpur alone has recorded a whopping seven undergraduate suicides. With an undergraduate strength of 2,800 in any given year, this translates to more than 57 suicides per 100,000 every year; five and a half time the national average of 10.5.

Why is the situation so bad?

Academic stress is one reason. The IITs are prestigious, premier institutions. As a result of the ridiculously low acceptance rates, their students are the creme de la creme of the high school student crowd. Naturally then, the competition within the institutions is intense and is bound to result in some amount of stress. Failure is not considered an option in Indian society and the pressure to succeed no matter what can easily break even far more battle-hardened and experienced men and women.

But there’s a second reason too – one of attitude. The attitude of the faculty.

In July 2008, students from IIT Kanpur filed an application under the RTI Act to find out what the institute had determined as the cause for the alarming number of suicides. Their answer?

The IIT stated that modernization, social imbalance, irrational use of Internet and mobile phones are the chief reasons

IIT-Kanpur Dean Partha Chakraborty justified that cryptic response as follows

Parents can keep in touch with their sons and daughters on campus. Maybe there can be pressure from various parts of the society because you’re easily connected

But as the students pointed out, doesn’t that also mean that parents can provide much better moral and mental support? After all, communication is key to reducing suicides and mobile phones help immensely in that direction. With all due respect to the honorable Dean, is this not flawed reasoning?

I have long felt that we do not seem to value life here in India. That may or may not be a correct perception, but  this statement really took my breath away. When asked about what the Institute in general and Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) in particular was doing to address the situation and to improve the response against such incidents, IIT Madras dean of students Govardhan M said (emphasis mine),

Why are you always reporting negative news about IIT Madras? We also have the maximum number of patents but you didn’t report that. But you would want to report the death of 3 out of 5000 students which is statistically not important. Why don’t you go to other engineering institutes and find out how many died there. Why only IIT?

Er…what? “Statistically not important”? Since when are reporters only to report on statistically “important” events? Is it not shameful that entirely avoidable deaths of some of our best and brightest students are thought to be offset by the fact that the college has a high number of patents? Can patents be equated to human lives?

Parents aren’t entirely blameless either. Indian parents routinely push their kids too far, and too hard. Here in Delhi, I’ve seen kids from class VII already dreaming of getting into specific engineering colleges! Is a twelve year old kid really old enough to even decide what career s/he wants to pursue? It’s good to be driven and focused, but this is ridiculous! 

So what’s really killing our students?

In my view, it is a deadly combination of parental over-ambition, official insensitivity and immense academic stress that are working like a cancer in our society. These factors form a vicious circle that are wrecking the mental health of our future generations.

This must change, sooner rather than later.