Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Mind the Gap between Hearing and Listening

(Ignorance, a sculptural installation by Kauser Jahan)

The work is titled ‘Ignorance’. It would have been a simple expression, very student like, had it not been explained in a certain way by the artist herself. Artist, Kauser Jahan is a post graduate student in the fine arts faculty at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. The work ‘Ignorance’, a pair of ears chained together and fitted on wooden planks, is exhibited in a neighborhood project in the Jamia area which has earned its own notoriety for being a Muslim ghetto; the Muslims live there don’t prefer it to be a ghetto but the political developments in the country has made it into one; the notorious shootout case, the Batla House Shoot out case, has now been made into a Bollywood movie with John Abraham in the lead.

I chanced upon this work of art in a report appeared in the Hindustan Times, a national English daily and Kauser Jahan explains this work saying that ‘hearing and listening are two different things’. Jahan further said that whether it was climate change or atrocities against the minorities the human beings chose to be ignorant about it. This ignorance could come from selective amnesia as put by the socio-linguist, G.N.Devi or it could come from the middle class apathy. People choose to ignore many things because they don’t impact their lives adversely; even if they see atrocious things in the smart phones or in the television screens, they find their safety and comfort in the glassy distance provided by the screens. Accidents always happen to other till it happen to us; immigrants are people who have been evicted from their rightful lands by forces that do not affect us; a land in confinement and the larger seclusion of people from the world could be overlooked because we still live in the illusion of living in a free space. We fail to acknowledge the fact that the space of freedom is rapidly depleting and shrinking. We choose to be ignorant.

(Kauser Jahan)

A pair of human ears tied together is not a great metaphor until it is seen in context. We are reminded of the catastrophic statement made by George Orwell in his book, 1984, ‘Ignorance is Strength’. Ignorance gives us some kind of insulation from the happenings in the world. A modernist poet in Kerala said, ‘Light is sorrow, Darkness is comforting’. Knowledge causes pain, oblivion is a refuge. Of course it is a refuge for the people who are pushed into atrocities and unbearable pains. They could overcome the trauma of occurrences by sleeping or by going mad. Each moment of memory is like creating a memorial for the pains that have been endured. But for the people who are put up safely away from calamities, negligence, ignorance and oblivion are a thing of irresponsibility. Jahan in her work seems to pinpoint this issue and we need to hark upon the visual comment made by this artist. She says, hearing is one thing and listening is another. We choose to hear everything and listen nothing. Hearing by one ear and letting it out through the other is a common saying to show the blissful ignorance of the people in general. But Jahan forcefully ties the two acts by one chain. Those who hear should listen too, she seems to say. Rather it is high time that we all listened to the things around.

In the discourse of the Black people and the dispossessed, it is said that ignorance is a strategy by the powerful people through which they annihilate the physical as well as spiritual existence or presence of the other. It is like we share our secrets in the presence of our house slaves and drivers. We expect them to be blind and deaf and definitely mute. This makes them invisible. There is an elephant in the room but we don’t see it, why? Because we are not looking at it or looking for it. It is like overlooking the obvious and pretending that it is not a big deal. We live in absolute cacophony created by news channels and social media. This sonic environment demands intelligent discernment; to separate truth from the dominant falsehood in all kinds of narratives. Hearing has to be attached to listening to make this discerning possible and viable. Our political discourse today needs careful listening than generic hearing and obeying. The work of art in this sense gives out a powerful message. However, Kauser Jahan needs more sophistication in articulating such sensitive issues visually, especially when she attempts a sculptural installation. For the time being the sculpture makes the impact because the times are pregnant with poignant meanings and a sensitive mind would eke out the adequate meaning chaffing out the unnecessary verbal embellishments that could come around it. Till then we need to bridge the gap between hearing and listening.

n  JohnyML

Monday, August 26, 2019

Gloomy Sunday: When Overground Turns Under Ground in the Days of Authoritarianism

(All Pictures are stills from Gloomy Sunday movie 1999)

A mainstream film could be made into an underground movie, if its audience decides so. After almost twenty years of its release ‘Gloomy Sunday’, a Hungary-Germany co-production directed by Rolf Schubel based on a novel written by Nick Barkow who based the theme of his novel on the life of Rezso Seress, a musician in the interim period of two world wars who had been shot to notoriety with his piano composition ‘Gloomy Sunday’ which as the urban legends go had triggered a series of suicides both in Hungary, Europe and the United States of America. Billie Holiday’s version of it in her melancholy filled syrupy blues voice was banned from the radio stations including the BBC for a long time especially because it meddled with the mindset of the people in the countries that had gone into the war. The film as infectious as the song itself has however got a different story to tell that makes it a potential underground movie liable to be watched by all the democrats in any country that has been currently ushered into the days of unapologetic fascistic governance.

India fits the bill as she has just been introduced to the garden of restrictions, suppressions and undeclared censorship on words and deeds. The current right wing dispensation at the center has proved undoubtedly that it could lock up a state and its people for any number of days, if months need be and use military force to maintain ‘peace’ and ‘normalcy’ until the will of the people are broken completely. While autocrats dream the dreams of everlasting dominance history works in the opposite direction. It in the most unexpected moments would prop up a messiah like leader or leaders who would be ready to either unify a country in the name of democracy or break it up in to independent federal states with dignified affiliation with an administrative center that would perhaps look after the larger economy, military, information and technology. One day, if history wouldn’t fail us decentralization would become a reality where even the right wing political forces could exist without its ugly fangs. Till then we have to watch a movie in the underground.

‘Gloomy Sunday’, it is said was not a creation of the spirit of self-annihilation. Surely it was the result of a broken heart; the tune as well as the lyrics says so. Learned people say that ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was the expression of Seres’ personal melancholy but those who would like to connect it with the general history of the time see its affiliations with the post first world war depression. The economic depression had caused the collapse of many a personal nerve. People had gone mad then and the post second world war depression had made Camus to say that suicide was the biggest philosophical problem of the 20th century. The whole of existential thoughts had been birthed by the WW II. When the economies fail it is quite natural that people commit suicide. In India farmer commit suicide; instead of clutching to a vinyl record of the Gloomy Sunday, they drink from the pesticide cans and bid adieu to the world. When more and more youngsters are pushed out of their jobs and their future looks bleak despite the chest thumping nationalism makes its inroads at the border areas working overtime to send back coffins to villages, it is quite natural for the left over population to contemplate on suicide than to ruminate on the virtues of living. In those days it is imperative that we see ‘Gloomy Sunday’ the movie in all the possible interfaces so that we could discern why we live on and if commit suicide, why we do so.

‘Gloomy Sunday’ is a tragic story; of three people Laszlo, Ilona and Andras. For the Indians who think more about daily moralities than the freedom that one could eke out from relationships might find the movie a bit irritating and offensive because in this narrative Ilona, the beautiful Hungarian waitress at Laszlo’s restaurant ‘Szabo’ at once falls in love with Laszlo himself and Andras, the new pianist whom they recruit in the restaurant. She sleeps with both the men and they don’t find it odd to be in that strangely alluring relationship. On Ilona’s birthday Andras writes ‘Gloomy Sunday’ for her as the birthday gift. There is a young German businessman, Hans Wieck, a regular at the Szabo and a friend of Laszlo who also falls in love with Ilona but rejected by her at the first instance itself. With the Nazis taking over Hungary, Wieck comes back to Budapest as a Nazi Colonel who is in charge of sending the Jews to the concentration camps. He takes bribes from the affluent Jews and sends them to the other ‘free’ countries. On a fateful day, Wieck demands Andras to play ‘Gloomy Sunday’ and Ilona sings to the piano. Taking Wieck’s revolver, Andras, once the song is rendered fully shoots himself. Later Wieck assures Laszlo’s free passage upon Ilona’s submission to his sexual demands, which she obliges for the sake of Laszlo. But the Nazi Wieck proves himself to be an Aryan German by doing nothing to save Laszlo. Ilona becomes pregnant and we do not know whether the child is of Laszlo or Andras or Wieck. She lives on to die on another day.

Now about why the film becomes an underground variety in present day India. Though the film could be watched as a love story that ends up in tragedy (what is there in a love story if it is not a tragedy!) the real story is how the presence of Fascism changes human relationships; how it creeps into our daily lives and how treachery and deception becomes a common thing. It tells us how an unassuming businessman could turn into a military man who could ruthlessly fleece people for their personal freedom. It could also tell us how the power that are capable to overlook love and place revenge in its place. It also tells us how during the days Fascism how women are turned into mere puppets in the hands of militarized men. Gloomy Sunday is a metaphor of love but it is a cruel metaphor of authoritarianism as well. The underlying subtext is what makes the movie of underground variety. It is so interesting and ironic to notice that in the whole movie that deals with the war time Hungary there is only one shot is fired; that shot is not fired to kill someone else but Andras, the musician himself. It is the subtle representation of dispossession of human beings during the days of Fascism without emphasizing on the pathos though the music that one of the protagonists writes is melancholic. Andras shoots to fame when he writes a captivating piece of music but he is pushed to depression when he comes to know that the music is used by people as an inspiration or background for their final moments. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is the song of impending ‘unnatural’ death in everybody’s life; any time the knocking could be heard at your doorstep. Watching this movie would empower you so watch it.

-          JohnyML

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Janmashtami Celebrations at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai: Hitting a New Low in Visual Culture

(Inside Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai)

If I could believe my eyes and invest my faith in technology aided communication like an email, then I should say that the cultural discourse in India has hit a new low with the advent of the right wing thoughts within the cultural establishments. With Members of Parliament extolling pseudo-science as the ultimate scientific innovations of India for the global countries to emulate, citing mythology as non-verifiable proof but adamantly asserted dictum which should not be disputed and also with some from the same fold wanting to rename many an establishment including the highest educational establishments in India in the name of the head of the present administrative dispensation, and also with the citizens being segregated based on their intelligence quotient (ironically, the ones who have it a lot go lower in the rungs and the ones who despise it and turn sycophants go higher up in the social ranking) one could just imagine that things are not going to be as expected in the previous years.

Mumbai’s prestigious cultural museum namely Bhau Daji Lad Museum has sent out an invitation, which apparently looks harmless but is loaded with political suggestions and directions that the country has already taken. If someone is not heeding to the hints then they should take a good notice of it and behave or simply vanish from the cultural scene. Had it been in the yester years none would have noticed it at all: the illustrious and also rebellious and cutting edge museum celebrating ‘Krishna Ashtami’ or alternatively called Janma Ashtami, the birthday celebrations of the mythological character, Lord Krishna. There had been many exhibitions titled, Yoga, Kriya, Karma, Ardhanareeswara, Laya, Siva-Shakti, Spiritual Meanderings and so on. None took offence or objection to any of those titles. Maximum response of the intelligent was a meaningful smile. In Delhi, I have had so many reasons to keep smiling all these years. But with the new exhibition coming from one of the cutting edge museums in the country, the smile on my face and on the other faces must be a bit wry and contorted; one could see how the tides are changing and the cheering of celebrations turning into a war cry which would instill fear in the minds of the intellectuals who are now the most ‘unwanted’ creatures in the new India under the new government.

(Facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum)

Bhau Daji Lad museum is not doing anything other than showcasing the Pahari miniatures that depict Krishan story, from its good repertoire. There is nothing wrong when it falls on the same day of Krishnanshtami. But what makes it eerie and ironic is the museum going out and out and telling the world that it is celebrating Lord Krishna’s birth with an interesting exhibition. Nowhere in the world today do we see museums doing shows that really celebrate religion or religious art. Even if they do, it is always done in an academic context or in the context of a survey of religious artefacts and icons. There is always a space for problematizing and vivifying the iconography and epistemology of images. There is always a space for understanding the myth in a non-religious context. Even the Biblical art today has turn to an academic field of research and study, and of course aesthetical enjoyment, nor really about the transcendental understanding or meditation that the people are expected to have while standing before them.

What Bhau Daji Lad museum gives is a new context where the Pahari Miniatures which have been hitherto an academic as well as aesthetical field of enquiry, or an interesting interface to probe the lineage of artisanal traditions in India (as done by Dr.B.N.Goswami) could turn into an interface for an extremely different aesthetical discourse, laden with religious meanings and loaded with religio-political intentions. Interestingly Bhau Daji Lad Museum was in the eye of the storm because the land mafia had made some encroachments while alleging that it was the museum that had made the encroachments. The cultural leaders in Mumbai stood with the Bhau Daji Lad Museum administration and even the rightwing government of the state had relented and let the museum function without much problem. Today the scenario is different. With an absolute majority in both in the state assembly and in the parliament, the writing on the wall is very clear; the government just does not want any ‘rebellious art’ to be featured. Anything and everything that should take place within the Indian museums should be something related to the so called Indian tradition, preferably the Hindu tradition. The Museum authorities have toed the line.

(Historical remain in the Bhau Daji Lad museum campus)

Bhau Daji Lad museum is the latest wicket that has fallen and the bowling is in the body line nature and there are no many good batsmen left on the crease. The National Gallery of Modern Art (D, B and M) have already made alterations in programing according to the present government and its ideology. Artists who are featured in these museums, even if they are not for the present government, their art could be interpreted as something that works ‘for’ the government’s ideology in the long run. We could call such art ‘harmless’ art. And it shows that the future of Indian art is going to be replete with a lot of abstract art works and religiously or spiritually inclined works. We have to wait and see how our art fairs are going to respond to such turn of the winds. The mainstream galleries have already started putting up harmless exhibitions and many a small gallery has downed the shutters. Even if they come back, it is not so complicated to think that their shows would have something to do with either dominant religion or with abstraction that pushes the works towards the so called spirituality.

Government of India is on the way to clear the cultural atmosphere of this country of the smoke that has been created by the secular art and also by the pluralistic traditions of India. With the country’s patronage also plays the same game of the government we cannot expect that there could a different patronage coming out in support and if they do they would be clamped sooner than later as we have seen in the case of the Infosys Foundation. So folks, here we are. Fasten your seatbelts and we are about to take off to a sky path where only conformists could feel all comfort. Be ready with your paper bags; you may retch at any time out of that bad feeling of having eaten that rotten sandwich.

n  JohnyML

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Binary Happy Malayalis, Floods and Noushad of Broadway

(Noushad of Broadway)

Last year it was Jaisal KP, a fisherman from Malappuram district, Kerala. He had genuflected before the frightened women caught in flood waters and helped them to climb into the rescue boats. The visual of him bending his back had gone viral and had heaped praises for him from all over the world, especially from the Malayali diaspora. This time too, when Kerala reels under the flood waters, there is another hero, Noushad, a small time garment seller from Broadway, Eranakulam. For the beginners, Broadway is a nearly ten feet wide (comparatively narrow) street in Eranakulam which could be called the city’s fashion street. A busy market where people shop for daily provisions as well as for wholesale goods, this street has been referred in many a highly acclaimed literary works. When radio advertisements came in 1980s, Broadway had become a familiar and familial name for most of the Keralites.

Noushad is a good Samaritan who shot into fame with the Kerala flood 0.2 as he made a great gesture of charity by opening his small storehouse of garments and handing over all what he had there to the relief collection team. Shocked by the gesture, the collection team members had videoed him leading them to the storehouse and speaking about his big and significant gesture. What he said in the video could be summarized in the following: It was the days of Id, a holy month for the Muslims. During this month, Islamic believers are expected to give away alms and charity in order to underline the religion’s focus on socialism and equal distribution of wealth, though symbolic in nature. Nousahd said that it was his Holy Day gift and it is his celebration of Id. Many people including the ministers, people’s representatives, rich men, film stars and ordinary people thronged to congratulate him and lauded him for his magnanimous gesture of ‘giving and sharing’ what all he had. He refused to accept monetary compensations from the rich and well to do people saying that he did not needed help but he expected all of them to contribute towards the flood relief activities. One of the populist artists, Suresh ‘Da Vinci’ created an impromptu portrait of Noushad befittingly with the clothes collected from different sources.

(Suresh Da Vinci with the portrait of Noushad made out of clothes)

Noushad’s gesture of humanity not only went viral but also it inspired many to make similar contributions but many of them, as expected did not become viral. In an argumentative society, any good or bad deed done there will always be a multitude of views (in Kerala we say that even if someone beats up his mother the public will have two views on it) defending and critiquing the deed. While some people said that similar efforts by the real ‘Christians’ (means someone who believes in doing charity in absolute secrecy) went unnoticed, such flamboyant gestures like Noushad’s got undue recognition and mileage. We could call them sour grape people. But there are cynics still around who go into digging the past, present and future of Noushad and come up saying that the man has been a member of the Communist Party therefore it was natural for him to support the left led government’s cause. Noushad says that he is not goaded by any party politics but the gesture was inspired by God love and human piety.

Good social gestures are always welcome and should be lauded for their goodness itself, nothing more nothing less. Heroes come out of the most unexpected spaces during the hours of crisis and as I written elsewhere, adversities are the touchstone of many to prove their real mettle. Noushad, a hitherto ordinary man, I am sure, once the flood waters are receded would go into his quotidian life and perhaps would come up once in a while as a socio-cultural reference. But many have not taken it for that; for them they want to make a hero out of Noushad, and as we know for sure that it is hugely a sentimental response. Those who want to make Noushad a hero in fact play out a repressed need for becoming a hero themselves. This is a displaced desire that they want to see fulfilled in another human personality or body. This saves them from directly getting into action or doing something that would affect their personal well-being and physical body. They feel elated when they pass the message regarding Noushad in their social media and most of them grab the opportunity to be in the reflected limelight.

(Jaisal KP during the rescue operations in Kerala flood 2018)

Interestingly, Noushad does not matter for most of the people who share the news. What matters for them is their perennial need to create the binaries; of good and bad. Malayalis have been good at producing binaries for their socio-cultural survival. Even it could be seen reflected in their political thinking. Only in the field of economics that none tries to create this binary of good and bad because money is something that eventually creates good even if the means of producing it could be wrong. Even in the carnivalesque multiplicity that the Malayalis generally hail and stand to protect at any cost there remains an innate wish for binaries; they want to be in an either or OR position. They always want to choose from two than many. Noushad is an easy choice that becomes the embodiment of all virtues and goodness, whereas they could posit the vile politicians and those cynics to the other side of the discourse; the negative/bad side. One may find it is quite logical but let me tell you that in the final analysis there is no logic in making such a binary because there is no absolute good or bad existing in our action for many of our actions are triggered by the effort to survive in the game that we are in; whether it is surviving in the daily life or wriggling out of a legal matter. This is a human instinct; so there is no black and white goodness or badness. All what we could talk about goodness or badness be based on the reach of its effects on a large number of people. If it works for the common good, then definitely it is a virtuous thing to do. On the contrary, if it affects a larger population, however good it is for the doer, it should be termed as bad. That means all gestures are judged by the effect that they produce.

Noushad’s is a commendable gesture because for the time being, in the given context, his gesture does good to a number of people. But if you look at the scale of the tragedy that has befallen on Kerala (now Kerala is one of the states in the Federal Republic of India that has been affected by flood. China, Vietnam and other South East Asian countries are also reeling under adverse climatic disturbances in these days) his is only a contributive gesture which is not different from someone giving a packet of biscuit for the relief camps. So here why Noushad becomes emblematic in his charity act is because of his own economic status as a ‘not so affluent merchant’ and his ability to part with a major portion of his wares which would have brought him a moderate wealth. Once again we go back to the religious dictums that tell us or fix us by saying that the ones who are poor get easy access to the Heaven rather than the rich people who would find it as difficult as getting through a needle hole. This is an imbalanced view and not of welfare ideology at all. It makes the poor to contribute by pricking his conscience while the rich could do adverse things to the nature and cause a huge damage to human beings and property while getting away from the responsibility of committing such things by making moderate contributions in the name of charity. This is what exactly Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and all those charity mongers including our own Yusuf Ali do. Held against the Noushad’s gesture of charity, these people gain global traction because of the alleged goodness caused to the world by their charity activities because they reach out to more people.

(The poster that Orhan Pamuk refers)

Noushad may be seeking a divine redressal to his personal woes and at the spur of a moment he must have done that charitable gesture of giving away his merchandise. I hope that he wouldn’t regret his act because as a Communist he walks a different path where socialism, which is fundamental to the communist ideology holds hands with religious teachings. This can’t go a long way together. To create a just society, it is imperative to do away with the religious side of charity and work towards a scientific society that would create equal justice and opportunity to all. We need an ideological revolution which is based on science and literature than a deadly combination of religion and politics. Both religion and politics say that the poor should contribute through their noses while the both of them most of the time (even apart from the crises times) keep themselves off from human woes and majorly contribute difficulties to their daily lives. Noushad is an emotional human being. Emotional acts are not always directed by reasonable thinking. Orhan Pamuk in his novel ‘Black Book’ says about the spreading of a picture of a crying European child’s face all over Istanbul or even Turkey in general without any rhyme or reason. Nobody known why they bought it, if they did, because everyone was buying. Noushad did know what he did, but the binary seeking and binary happy Malayalis really don’t know the emotional quotient behind that gesture. Hope they too would do similar gestures without much thinking like the Turks bought the picture of a crying child. This would definitely go out of fashion and its place would be taken over by more effective administrative measure. With the drying coffers amidst a sinking land, the governments must be wondering what an irony it is! The Binary Happy Malayalis celebrate their deeds while back patting themselves but they forget to ask the governments to be more effective and accountable.

n  JohnyML

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Flood, Kerala and Sanitary Napkins: A Positive Story

Sanitary napkins fly off the shelf in a supermarket in Trivandrum. Young boys in their late teens and fresh in colleges touch and feel the well packed pads and look at the price tag. Young sales girls tell them about the virtues of the wares that they sell. And the boys insist that they need a few packets. Of course they do not use them and their purchase is not meant for their sisters or mothers. It is for their unknown sisters and their mothers who are in the relief camps in the places that they have seen only in the television screens or smartphones, devastated and irrecoverably lost. The posts in the social media say that Kerala shall overcome this flood too. The state is optimistic because it with its concerned citizens had done it in the last year. And all of us pray that it shouldn’t be an annual occurrence.

When boys buy sanitary napkins, none giggles or darts suspicious or surreptitious glances towards them. All of them are serious and business like. When I stand among the same racks and picks up a few packets of sanitary napkins for the women in relief camps, I realize why the boys also do the same. The government advertisements as well as the exhortations of the volunteer groups from all over Kerala send out lists of requirements and sanitary pads top the chart. And sanitary pad is no longer a taboo word in Kerala. There was a time when young girls sent their menopausal mothers or aunts to the medical stores to buy sanitary pads. The men across the counter looked away while handing over the pads covered in black polythene as if they were exchanging contraband. A young girl in Baroda told me last year (when I was teaching them a course in their design institute) that the shop owners even today lampoon them or chide the girls for asking for sanitary napkins. “It’s like we have done some crime,” she told me thoughtfully.

(Rupi Caur)

Kerala has a different discourse now about sanitary pads. A year back the word menstruation that requires the use of sanitary napkins, was a taboo in Kerala. None spoke openly about it. In every language there must be words to connote menstruation. In Malayalam they are ‘Masakkuli’ (monthly bath), ‘Theendari’ (Untouchable days), ‘Thottooda’ (untouchable), ‘Thodakku’ (untouchable), Masamura (Monthly turn) and the euphemism and code words like ‘you know what I mean’ and ‘those days’. In my childhood I had seen my mother and elder women in the family entering home via kitchen side and many years later I came to know that it was ‘not to pollute’ the areas where men moved around, that means the courtyard, veranda and the drawing room. Those women never used sanitary pads because they were not available to begin with and even panties were not used. The clothes they used for protecting themselves during the menstruating days were washed and hung for drying far away from the public eyes. It was a thing to hide, a shame and a crime!

Sabarimala changed it all. The ‘decent yet indecent word’ that meant menstruation, ‘Aarthavam’ (recurring cycle) became the focus of socio-cultural and political discourse when a section of the Hindus protested the entry of women between12 and 50 in the Sabarimala Temple. They said that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappan was a ‘chronic bachelor’ (naishtik brahmachari means one who has decided to be a celibate) and the presence of women in their menstruating age would challenge the deity; to put it in other words the entry of women was against the tradition and the accompanying rituals. There were two opinions regarding this within Kerala itself, especially among the women. With the Supreme Court upholding the right of women of any age to make a temple entry had caused all hue and cry in Kerala. The Government of Kerala, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was under obligation to support the Supreme Court order and protect those who wanted to enter the temple. This divided an otherwise egalitarian Kerala into two; a state of believers and non-believers. There were many protests, counter protests, sit ins, hartals, strikes, riots, baton charges and so on. It is said that the outcome was detrimental to the electoral prospectus of the ruling left which was trounced in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections when its tally was reduced to a mere one.

Women intellectuals, as I mentioned before, took two difference stances on the issue; a section of the women intelligentsia in Kerala argued that with or without the Supreme Court order it was unnecessary for the women to venture into a place dominated by the hyper masculine bodies. They said that the shrine is a place that reproduced the patriarchal values and it was useless and a huge waste of time addressing it. The other faction, which was proven right as the outcome turned out to be positive in the discursive field of Kerala, insisted that it was not their theistic attitude that took them to the shrine but the constitution that gave them right to enter in any place of worship. They were demanding their rights as full citizens of the country; and they were not in loggerheads with the male folk in general but with the ones who said that menstruating women are bad. The worst thing that could happen to Kerala was the mobilization of the upper caste Hindu women, a section of which came out in throngs to oppose the women’s entry to Sabarimala saying that they were ‘Ready to Wait’ till menopause set in.

Today there is a temporary truce; neither of the sections has won the argument. But the Kerala society as a whole could remove the taboo around the phenomenon of menstruation. The menstruating woman is no longer a taboo in Kerala, nor is the word ‘Aarthavam’ a word to be spoken in shame or under breath. From school boys and girls to the older men and women now utter this word without the shame attached to it in the previous days. There must be people who still observe the traditional ‘untouchability’ pertaining to menstruation. But the apparently everyone has become comfortable with the word. The word lost its taboo and negative connotations because the word menstruation, Aarthavam was made visible by the temple entry discourse in Kerala. The more you make a word visible through utterance the more it loses its taboo edges. Menstruation was made visible in Kerala. Today, Aarthavam is a word that both parents and children speak with a lot of pride. Reaching menstruating age is still a private celebration, just to let the relatives and immediate neighbors know that the girl is now of the ‘marriageable age’. There was a time when girls kept the news a highly guarded secret for the shame attached to it. Even in the girls only schools, I am told that girls used to speak of it as if something wrong had happened to them.

Visibilisation of the word ‘Aarthavam’ has changed the whole social discourse in Kerala, one should say. While the selling of sanitary napkins came home with the television sets since 1980s, the advertisements still used the euphemistic words or the taboo words in a more appealing way. People in front of the television looked the other way when the advertisements came flashing in the screens. But the advent of the contemporary technology has now enabled a majority of girls feel good about their bodies and the bodily cycles. The advertisements also have lost it ‘you-know-what-I-mean’ whispering style. They are now bold and beautiful. Girls like Rupi Caur post their photographs in the social media showing the menstrual stains on their bottoms. Women artists started working with sanitary pads as their medium of expression. The world has changed.

When the boys pick up a few packets of sanitary napkins to send their invisible and distant sisters and mothers in the relief camps, I am sure they are not feeling any kind of perversion or distortion of facts. They know that their female counterparts have something called menstruation and they need additional appendages to deal with it. And like tea and coffee, fresh clothes and night gowns, they need sanitary pads too. They also need privacy to deal with their bodies. The government and the district administrations talk of providing hygienic toilets in every relief camps. Film stars like Jayasoorya send chemical toilets to the relief camps. They have also developed systems to dispose the used sanitary pads. In Kerala, data show that during menstruation 85% of women use sanitary napkins. 6% use locally prepared napkins. Only one percent use tampons. It is interesting see that when the relief camps started, men sitting in different places started suggesting over social media that the women in the relief camps could use ‘menstrual cups’ because it was reusable. Another set of experts came up in the same threads saying that it was not advisable to use menstrual cups in relief camps because that needs a comfortable environment,  first of all to use and secondly to get familiar with the use of it. The lower percentage of tampon usage could be aligned to the ‘strangeness of it’. Menstrual cup would take a few more years to be in general use and that also could happen only when the health workers, NGOs, Government agencies and above all the advertisements do their work for propagating this idea. Remember all these discussions were/are initiated by men and they feel responsible while doing it.

I have portrayed a very positive image of Kerala men and women vis-à-vis the sanitary napkin and its use during the days of deluge. I do not claim that Kerala has overcome all its social taboos. There are several avenues where the state has to make headway. Slow and steady work would turn this society much egalitarian. And the second flood situation would make people think more scientifically and less religiously so that the discussions of such private matters in public would lose its taboo and become normal so that the discomforts of the others could be easily understood by the people who are in comfortable positions. This is a good sign and, remember, the boys are becoming more aware of their sisters.

-          JohnyML

Monday, August 12, 2019

Doctors of the Universe: Santhosh Kumar SS and Ajitkumar G

(Dr.Santhosh Kumar SS)

“We go around and initiate young people to volunteer for the organization, Doctors without Frontiers,” said Dr.Santhosh Kumar S.S, Deputy Superintend of Trivandrum Medical College and an active member in the Paris based Medicine Sans Frontiers that works in the conflict ridden countries that desperately need medical and trauma care. “Most of them pull out of the mission at the last moment citing the objection of their parents, partners and children. To volunteer in the medical field you need a different mindset,” Dr.Santhosh said categorically. Serving in the conflict zones, though sounds romantic, proves to be contrary for the people who really dare to venture and serve. We were talking about his forthcoming book tentatively titled, ‘From Gunpoint to Syringe’, a collection of essays that he penned for one of the major Malayalam newspapers, detailing his experiences in around fifty countries, mainly the African ones, as a member of the Doctors Sans Frontiers. I was curious about his statement and asked why so. “You should be a person having more than humanitarian piety and that quality is something akin to thrill and excitement derived out of life threatening adventurous,” Santhosh explained. He filled in me with more examples related to mountaineering, street brawls, accidents and calamities.

Meek people may prove to be lions when adversities confront them. Adversities are the test of a person’s true mettle. Those who brag about their prowess in any situation may turn cold feet when they are really in a life threatening situation. During the first and second World Wars, there were many among the writers, poets, doctors and painters who went to the fronts as fighters. They were not really volunteering but were forced to serve because compulsory military service was in place in those days. Wars perhaps enriched them and the trauma helped them to purge their minds of bad feelings for humanity. They became great artists. I remembered all these when I was invited to be a part of the four members team that just decided to travel to the flood affected northern districts in a car. It was a very lucrative one for the thrill of adventure was the first reason for that invisible adrenaline pumping. However, soon I checked the pros and cons and found myself unsuitable and perhaps unwilling to take up that journey because I had something else to care for at the home front. But the friends made the crumpled seams of my ego smooth by assuring me that the invitation was just a formality and they were not really intending to take me along because the seats were already full.

(Dr.Ajitkumar G)

One of them was Dr.Santhosh Kumar SS and the other was Dr.Ajitkumar.G. Accompanying them were the social thinker and former activist Maitreyan and Anu Devarajan, a woman activist. Having served in conflict areas in more than fifty countries, for Dr.Santhosh the flood situation is one such conflict which makes him act out of the routine. “Some are people who prefer to be in one place and serve the maximum number of ailing people. I like that kind of ethics in my friends. But I am a kind of person who just gets bored by the routine of a place and work. It is not the cheap thrill that goads me to pack my bags and fly upon the intimation from the Parisian Headquarters of the Doctors sans Frontiers, it is a way of life that cuts the routine out and rings in the new experiences, new people, new lives and new stories,” says Santhosh. Dr.Santhosh has carved his life differently by finding time for working away from his office but at the same time performing his duties efficiently. He finds time for writing columns in the newspapers and also spare time for friends. With a vast number of influential friends on his side Dr.Santhosh doubles up as a fund raiser for ‘revolutionary’ projects imagined and executed by his artistically inclined activist friends, of whom Dr.Ajitkumar tops the chart.

Dr.Ajitkumar G is fondly called AKG, an acronym for one of the legendary communist leaders in Kerala, A.K.Gopalan who was also a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. Though Dr.Ajitkumar does not resemble AKG in any manner, when it comes to the organizational qualities Dr.Ajit stands almost at par with the legendary namesake. Came up in the forefront of political struggles during the early 1990s as a medical student, Dr.Ajitkumar not only earned a medical degree from the Trivandrum Medical College but also innumerable friends  from different walks of life including politics, art, literature and of course from the medical field. From the very beginning Dr.Ajitkumar was more interested in dissecting human form on papers with colors than on the dissection tables with scalpels. He became a university winner of drawing and painting. “We were a pack of trouble shooters, future doctors who moved around in packs for political reasons but lived lonely lives in our minds where we remained extremely creative,” remembered Dr.Ajitkumar in one of our conversations. “We went to the University Youth Festivals in a small bus. We were a few people. But we came back with a busload of trophies, shields and certificates. If Medicos were there then there was not much hope left for other colleges,” said Dr.Ajitkumar.

(Dr.Santhosh Kumar with the patients in Wyanad)

Remembrances are not about just boasting or boosting the self-image. Despite the talents they all individually had, they were destined to politically struggle against the existing educational system. They were fired by a romantic zeal to change the world by all means necessary, which obviously brought them lathis and tear gases and temporary imprisonments. Dr.Ajitkumar still nurses the memories about his political struggle and the kind of thrashing that he had received at the hand of the Kerala Police. Dr.Ajitkumar had the fire of an artist in him rather than to pursue a regular career in medicine. However for the time he worked in some hospitals only to start his own with a few friends, who were equally romantic. Hence, the hospital did not become a huge establishment. Instead Dr.Ajitkumar became an establishment in himself by organizing art projects and similar programs while pursuing his individual creative activities as a painter, installation artist and conceptual artist. An extremely good watercolorist, Dr.Ajitkumar was instrumental in inspiring a few youngsters who later on went to art colleges and became artists. Amal Pirappancode, an artist, writer and illustrator who lives in Japan these days remembers that it was Dr.Ajitkumar whose watercolors that inspired the artist in him and the guidance that Dr.Ajitkumar gave him years back helped him to find a foothold in the art scene.

Dr.Ajitkumar initiated Arteria, a public art project in Trivandrum collaborating with the Tourism Department, Government of Kerala. He has done two phases of it with the participation of many important artists in Kerala. Dr.Ajitkumar and Dr.Santhosh Kumar SS and Maitreyan, their fellow traveler of the day, besides many more doctors and friends were at the forefront of the ‘We the People’ movement that upheld the Indian Constitution through mass mobilizing through political, social and cultural involvement. Dr.Ajitkumar has also been the Director of the Shanghumugham Art Museum. A man with more than one project always in his pocket and many more in his mind, Dr.Ajitkumar is an ardent pursuer of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, genetics, history and socio-biology. The multi-disciplinary approach to anything and everything in the society helps him and his friends to be on the track of science and they vouch for a scientific revolution of the society.

(Dr.Ajitkumar with patients in Wyanadu)

Seeing them at the flood relief camps is a wonderful feeling. It is more heartening to see Dr.Ajitkumar who generally denies that he is a practicing doctor (but in fact most of his doctor friends discuss medical matters with him before they go into real action. Also many friends seek medical advice from him before they go in for any medical procedure) attending the patients and looking at the medicines with Dr.Santhosh Kumar SS. When I saw the pictures posted in the facebook I thought of celebrating them and of course there are thousands of doctors in Kerala who are currently serving the flood affected. I acknowledge them all. And it is great to have such wonderful friends.

n  JohnyML    

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Modern Superstitions and Scientific Approach to Life

(Lewis Dartnell)

“And in spite of this, we are currently living in a world of alternative facts, in which there are climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers.’ ‘Many of the challenges we have been facing recently are because people have, to certain extent, rejected science….I think the solution isn’t to teach people scientific facts but to teach people a more scientific way of thinking, of thinking logically about what might be the better solution.” – Lewis Dartnell, Astrobiologist. (Quoted from an article by Rushati Mukherjee published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine dated 11/8/2019)

World population could now be divided into two: one section practicing a scientific approach to life and the other, the illogical section that lives in ‘modern superstitions’. By modern superstition what I mean is what exactly Lewis Dartnell means, a way of life dominated by ‘alternative facts’ where people believe that everything that they do with the environment is good and one does not need to vaccinate for prevention of life threatening or incapacitating sicknesses. People practice modern superstition by employing the scientific innovations and technology in order to perpetuate blind faiths and age old superstitions. For instance, a larger section of the people in the world who use smartphones with internet connections to pass on trivia, fake news, unconfirmed reports and age old superstitions. Word of mouth now has been replaced by ultra-modern technology and the scope of its reach has been multiplied into unimaginable numbers.

Unfortunately, the people who perpetuate modern superstitions are far more in number and they could easily outdo the section of people who practice a scientific approach to life. Scientific approach to life is always contested and looked down upon by the majority mainly because it discards the religious beliefs and the rituals associated with them. They think that an uncontested and unquestioned life is not worth living. But they are up against a huge wall which has been raised by the religious believes over the centuries using well-crafted mythologies, superstitions, metaphysics, spiritualism and fatalism. Together they support the political ideologies that come to dominate the socio-cultural and economic spheres anywhere in the world. Dominant ideologies, for their perpetuation and survival need the fuel of modern superstition as well as modernizing superstitions; market and the life style products are such modernizing superstitions.

(Dr.Krishnan Balendran)

Superstitions of all kinds have survived time and adversities mainly because the politico-economic powers have always supported them. Against this substantially deep and binding impact of the superstitions, scientific world views though will have fewer takers for the time being, make a strong presence and bring about certain lasting changes in the society. Unscientific statements made by the political leaders for ideological expediency often contradict themselves by using the most modern technologies and by living a no-nonsense life. Scientific approach has been trying to expose this and also developing and implementing new parameters to enhance social life and longevity so that slowly but steadily more people are looking up to it for a much more sophisticated and comfortable life. Old habits die hard; that is the only problem now people are facing when they attempt to discard the old superstitious ways. It will take time but it is bound to happen.

When an internationally reputed scientist like Dartnell says that scientific approach is what we needed people sit up and listen. However, here in our place too we have egalitarian social thinkers, scientists and doctors who speak in the same line. Task at their hand is more difficult than that before Dartnell, especially when we consider the deeply superstitious societies within which our scientific people have to work. Dartnell is right when he says that it is not important to teach people about scientific facts for they may find it absolutely dense and repelling; superstitions are easier to comprehend because they come in small doze of parables, allegories and socio-cultural entertainments. Science does not impact the society through stories and myths. As I understand it, science does not have a story to tell but it has many examples, which have been successfully tested with evidence and positive results, to display. While an anti-vaxxer insists that vaccination is against belief, it is for the multinational corporations, it is against faith healing, it is for economic domination and so on, he has only partial records, projection and spurious data to substantiate his arguments, meanwhile ‘vaxxers’ have solid data to prove that how vaccinations have helped people in different contexts by saving and improving their lives.


Though they do not enjoy the fame of a scientist like Dartnell, Dr.Krishan Balendran, a famous forensic surgeon in Kerala has been propagating the very same idea in his speeches and writings for a long time. According to him, our ‘scientists’ who take the ‘chandrayan’ (homemade space shuttle) model to the Tirupati Temple for divine blessings before the actual launching of the rocket, are not scientists but people who do scientific work in a detached way. Dr.Krishnan categorically says, “Many of our scientists are not scientific,” and in the same breath he adds that many scientific people are not scientists either. Same is the idea expressed by Maitreyan, a social thinker and activist who takes a wholistic analytical approach to anything that is either presented as facts (even scientific facts) or commonly held beliefs. During the last few years Maitreyan also has been pointing out how our scientists are losing out in scientific spirit and are getting into the esoteric zones of metaphysics and magic. Sunny M.Kapikkad, noted social thinker raises this point in one of his highly impactful public speeches and asks why a post graduate in Science (MSc) still thinks that the Dalits who have passed the same examination and come out with first classes and ranks are ‘lower’ in merit than an upper caste person. According to Sunny Kapikkad, the scientific education that he gained has not impacted him at all. If he understood what he had learnt in the university such a doubt would never have raised its ugly head in him.

To develop scientific approach we do not need degrees in science. Nor do we need to read scientific journals and keep in company with scientists. We just need to develop an attitude that goes in tune with scientific spirit, which is not superstitious and retrogressive. There rationalists and atheists who try to spread scientific spirit in the society. But their problem is, if I go by the views of Dartnell, that they try to teach people ‘facts’ scientifically and try to teach them scientific facts ‘logically.’ It is the same coin of superstition flipped the other way round. We have emphatic logicians who knock in facts into the minds of people who go back in a zombie state with undigested facts and live in conflict with the superstitiously conditioned social ethics that includes believing in god, doing charity, visiting temples and going with the majority opinion. To develop scientific approach in life one needs to nurture an open view of the world. One should understand that oneness is not created out of one but many. One should also understand that world functions based on law of science not out of the diktats of a furious god or a pantheon of godheads. Mythologies are literature generated out of limited physical and intellectual resources with glimpses of liberal and intuitive world views. But it cannot be taken for the guiding principles of today’s life. A flood cannot be stopped by sincere prayers. A flood could be tackled only through scientific methods.

(Sunny M Kapikkad)

I am not a scientist nor do I read a lot of scientific literature. But I keenly discern the scientific out of a host of superstitious life practices and reject the latter without a second thought. When in the right company that makes you think and act, you tend to be scientific than in the wrong company that compels you to act out of a spur of emotion. With scientific approach to life every parameter changes and with that you become a new human entity that would surprise you upon encountering it in the street of emotions and inconsiderate actions.

n  JohnyML