Gender (e)quality

For a man of my age & origins it takes a lot of courage – and a blog – to comment on the gender issue. All I can say in my defence is that I left one of the best jobs going in India for the sake of the woman I love/d and we’ve been bickering for well-nigh three-and-a-half decades by now as to which one of us was the bigger fool. We are still married btw, officially and otherwise, though we live in a country, mind, where every third marriage ends in a divorce and marriages last for 14 years and 8 months on an average.

I come from an environment about as innocent as the Garden of Eden: I still remember my first visit to the house of a childless couple, colleague of my mother’s and her, the colleague’s, spouse – this was near Lansdowne Road, in Calcutta. I thought they were living in sin! Later I had joined the Foreign Service and we were in training in Delhi when this absolutely ravishing girl walked into one of the rooms at the External Affairs Hostel and I was told to stop gaping: she was divorced, my first divorcee. Were they allowed to run around free endangering public morals?

Talk of retribution, I ended up marrying a divorcee with a child five years later. Back in Germany, our daughter was born and we still did not know any divorced couples – though some remarried ones. Our daughter – not the blonde and blue-eyed one I’d always wanted to have and had conned my way into getting one for free by marrying a white Circassian divorcee complete with daughter, as if on a special offer! But that’s not the daughter we’re talking about right now, we’re talking about our biological (egad!) daughter, who’d soon be going to the kindergarten and to the primary school and so on. Where was I?

Oh yes, I was in Germany – still am! – and the parents of our daughter’s KG and primary school friends were just beginning to get the seven-year itch and getting divorced. The mothers, being young and comely and intelligent, were finding other partners, not to speak of the fathers, most of whom were getting divorced because they’d found new partners, as is the male custom. To cut a long story short, most of our daughter’s friends were having two sets of parents, two fathers and two mothers, and were getting four presents for Christmas and being taken to the seaside for their summer holidays twice in the season and so on. Didn’t she feel ashamed because she had the same ole’ set of parents every year and got just that one present (she got many more!)? I used to tease our poor fille, making her thoughtful. I fear that I almost led her to believe that no other woman wanted her father and no other man wanted her mum and that’s why they were together, as leftovers, so to speak.

We’ve all grown up since then and now I know that it’s no shame to have remained married to the same woman for as long as I have. Again I’ll say in my defence that I have eyed my share of passing beauties with thoughts too deep for tears – but not too deep for Kasia, it seems, who is very much aware of this universal male frailty. I’ve been noticing other things too, such as how norms change and how it’s the man, these days, who says ‘yes’ to a relationship after the couple have been through all the stages and phrases from ‘Shall we go grab some coffee?’ to ‘What are you doing for the weekend?’ to ‘Your place or mine?’

In other words, I find women saying ‘no’ to any number of ineligible partners while waiting for the right one. And then when the right one has put in an appearance and the woman has been giving every signal that she’s ready for consumer durables – the man seems to have a problem saying ‘yes’. The woman feels like hitting the man on the head with the umbrella every time he says ‘I don’t know…’, or ‘I’m so busy right now, there’s so much work…’, or ‘Let’s go somewhere! What about Morocco?’ or ‘I’ll come and fix that geyser of yours and then we’ll go for a bite, okay?’ No, it is not okay, since not saying yes is the man’s way of saying no.

All I know about the modern woman is that she still seems to be nurturing the same age-old dream of ‘someone just for myself’, and the friend who also happens to be one’s lover, and someone to share one’s migraine with, and someone who can do all the oily and smelly things about the car and be rewarded with something as simple as – unless the children are around. He earns good money and brushes his teeth before and after – in short, the epitome of bliss and domesticity whom one can leave for more than five minutes with one’s BFF without him behaving like Donald Trump – or like Bill Clinton, for that matter. You’ve looked for him on Amazon, until they told you to try e-bay, sigh. He is nowhere to be found. Men are like snowflakes, they melt in your hand and on your tongue. Whereas you didn’t even know that you were so old-fashioned and would be yearning for a breast as shaggy as Dad’s or the Retriever’s in your single mother, single-wanting-to-be-a-mother existence.

Did Mother and Granny and Auntie really have it better? Didn’t have to worry about the bread-earner who came to bed late and started snoring early, whereas romance was the bird in the tamarind tree which called and called and called, to no purpose. Nobody went hungry with those women around: they treated all males as animals to be fed, first and foremost. Feeding the male took the edge off his libido. Feeding the dog made it less ferocious. These were women from well-to-do, middle class families. They had hordes of servants and maidservants to order around, any number of younger brothers of the lord and master to send on errands outside the house.

They had no choice, of course. They couldn’t have an affair with Abinash-kaku or run away with Jyotirmoy-meso if they liked. They had been buried alive in a marriage and were then busy keeping their mausoleum of a household nice and clean and tidy. Children were born and grew up playing in and around that mausoleum getting hardly any more attention than the goats father had insisted on keeping because goat’s milk was good for the children and made them more intelligent – intelligent?

I have not understood to this day whether the women have been punked over this New Deal or not. It’s like heads I win, tails you lose. ‘Danger! Men at Work’ has been replaced by ‘Gender! Women at Play’, while men are declaring themselves to be an ‘engendered species’. Meanwhile, the Working Woman is coming back from work and checking the mails and the msgs, all from stray males she’s attracted over the past fortnight. One look at the typos and she decides to watch a film all alone by herself in her boyfriend jeans.

She doesn’t want to have any one of them around right now, after a hard day at work. Isn’t that freedom too?

Demonocracy

Having sleepless nights over Trump’s victory? Sleeping badly ever since the Brexit fiasco? Your faith in democracy shaken, you are beginning to see demonocracy everywhere? Relax, stop worrying, you’re just suffering from a mild form of (political) anxiety neurosis. In your imagination, the Greek demos – for ‘common people’ – has coupled itself with the Latin Hydra – that’s the hydra-headed monster – to lay an egg on which is written either ‘Donald’ or ‘Hillary’, depending on your confession. ‘Hillary’ failed to hatch, but ‘Donald’ has squirmed his way into the White House while America’s first black President is still in it. For shame.

America is divided, the United States are no longer united – they’re shooting anyone who dares to make that stupidest of all puns from California to New York and from Maine to Mexico, I hear. Otherwise I’d say that for the first time, America is as united as the United Nations, which it hosts. Which brings me to an idea! What Britain’s and America’s democracy needs is a kind of veto – naturally for the educated, liberal, progressive classes. In which case, anytime the folk is stupid enough to vote for Trump, say, we just trump it with our veto, looking as inscrutable or as bland as the Russian or the Chinese representative on the Security Council.

But there’s a problem. All the other groups such as the non-college whites, the blacks from Bernie Sanders enthusiasts to gangsta rappers, Latinos legal or illegal, won’t they be calling for their own veto powers as well? In which case, won’t they be shooting down all our president-elects? Will it not end the way they choose the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the heads of the IMF and the World Bank and so on? Everybody a compromise candidate and no winners or losers and no competition, in effect? But isn’t that exactly what we’re doing, what we’ve always done? Isn’t that the quintessence of democracy, choosing the lesser evil – at times even the least evil! – and hoping for the best?

Funny that everybody’s looking at the White House and sparing hardly a glance for the House of Representatives or the Senate – because that’s where they all sit, the power dealers and the power brokers, though Trump spat in their soup too, as the Germans would have put it. It stinks, as the Germans would say, the whole political structure, and not just in America. I remember asking my father as an adolescent – I was the adolescent, not my father! – why it was so difficult to find five hundred honest and upright men – feminism was still a far cry in India – I was asking my father, why can’t we find five hundred honest men to sit in the parliament and choose the government and pass the legislation and so on. Aren’t there five hundred honest men in India? I asked like a teenage Seneca. ‘Yes,’ father said, ‘but how are you going to get them into the parliament?’ Ah, democracy and elections and what-have-you would get in the way, would they? I saw my father’s logic. Not that it helped.

With almost medieval simplicity, German anchors have been asking their American talk show guests: ‘Trump or Clinton, isn’t that like choosing between the plague and the cholera?’ Perhaps that is what is wrong with democracy, that one has a choice at all. Look at the Germans: they have no other choice than Merkel at the next elections and everyone is happy. Now Merkel will be getting her sixteen years in office like her mentor Helmut Kohl – that’s long enough for two American presidents with extension. But the Americans like having their political Super Bowl every four years, I suspect, whereas the Germans do not. With typical European pragmatism and equanimity, they hold on to a good thing when they’ve found one, never change a winning team and all that. That’s why the Germans have already cast their vote – mentally – more-or-less, and gone about their business, the Kanzlerfrage, the chancellor question, having been solved, so far as they are concerned. The political parties – and they have more than two in Germany, friends in America please note – well, the political parties always have their own ball – to the exclusion of the general public, except by way of popularity polls – when it comes to choosing the Federal President, they’ve just chosen a new one btw, again by common consent, while America was having its presidential High Noon. Which brings me to my second idea! German media and polling institutes have been regularly asking the Germans whom they’d choose as the next US president: 94% of the Germans were for Clinton and 4% for Trump, I think. All of which goes to show that the Americans should leave the choosing of their President in German hands – whereas the Americans could choose the German President, say, in return. What I’m suggesting is a kind of outsourcing of elections and suchlike democratic processes to countries which are less involved and therefore less hysterical. In exchange, the outsourcing country gets to choose the incumbents for less crucial posts in the country of the second instance. This way, both countries – and both folks – can have just as much fun & games with none of the hangover if things go wrong.

Just as Robbie Williams is more popular in Germany than in the UK, Barack Obama is naturally more popular in Germany than in the US, I suspect. And Obama is now passing into History real Hollywood style, strolling around the Parthenon and lecturing the Greeks about democracy at President Pavlopoulos’ dinner – the Greeks, of all people, who invented demokratia by putting together demos (common people) and kratos (rule, strength), as the Wikipedia would have told Obama. He should have remembered that an American president cannot ride into history as into the sunset here in good old Europe, which always devises a system and a way of cheating it, both at the same time. In Europe and its eastern extension, every revolution eats its own children, in the end. Obama should have looked around him from the Ritz-Carlton in Berlin and realised that the European masters of manipulation have been chipping away at democracy too: Hungary has Orban, Poland has Kaczynski, Spain has Rajoy all over again and Britain even has a Trump look-alike as the Foreign Secretary.

The original Greek word daimon did not have any negative connotations; it meant a spirit or a divine power similar to the Latin genius. In Christian demonology, the demon became a fallen angel and an unclean spirit. They used to exorcise the demon and burn the witch, in medieval times. Somewhat like the latest American elections or at least the reaction to them, don’t you think?

The realism of Hindi films

I’m thinking of my missionary activities in this regard here in the West since the late ’70s/early ’80s – before the great proselytiser Shah Rukh Khan took over and converted all Teutons to Bollywood. Now the ‘natives’ lap it up, and have their Holi raves with environment- and skin-friendly coloured flour, and take lessons in Bollywood dancing, and are generally more hep to any and every Khan on screen and off it than I could ever hope to be – at my age and after my prolonged, self-imposed exile.

And then there’s Zee.One, a Hindi film channel specially created for the Germans which I am yet to watch. And I’ll tell you why. I hardly watch Hindi films these days, ever since they changed the tag to ‘Bollywood movies’, which camouflages a subtle but not inconsequential difference. These new Bollywood movies are far too realistic for me and far too much like Hollywood, especially in the action scenes. The heroes have real six-packs and the heroines wear saris which I don’t see at first glance if I’m not wearing my specs. On top of that, all the girls seem a bit too thin in my eyes, even when I’m wearing my specs. We used to have heroines who used to fill the screen and fill the hoardings, hide ugly buildings and busy intersections and bring a smile to the betel-stained lips of bidi-smoking bus drivers and chatty minibus cleaners. Now the heroines look like badminton players off court and off carbs.

And the joke is that the Germans tell me to shut up when I try to talk to them about the lack of realism in Hindi films. They tell me what I can do with my realism – and they can be rude. They tell me to leave them in peace and let them have fun. Watching the antics of Indian expats in New York or wherever is fun? I say. They do it because it’s easier to shoot on outdoor locations in NY than in Mumbai, didn’t I know that? these ur-Germans enlighten me.

They represent the emerging German deprived classes getting their first taste of reality: they are young, to begin with; have no jobs or contract jobs or badly paid jobs; husband and wife are both working and trying to raise a kid or two on their sparse income in their spare time; no savings and hardly any hope of a decent pension… Yes, they are about ready for Hindi films, I tell them. Soon they’ll be making Hindi films specifically for the Western market, I prophesy – wishing Sachin Bhowmick was around, who used to write the scripts in English which were then translated back into Hindi for the shooting. They’ll be making Hindi films in the crossover category, East meeting West till the bedsprings creak and Kipling turns in his grave – I predict. Shah Rukh Khan’s love will save blonde-haired single mothers on rehab in Potsdam, whereas Kangana Raut and Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt will be rendering their Western male leads speechless – all to the good, considering the kind of trouble they’ll be having trying to get Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer and James Franco to speak the statutory number of words in Hindi for the coveted ‘B’ certificate – for Bollywood.

The realism of Hindi films has always been in acknowledging that the lives of most people in India, or in the world, or in the universe, being nothing to write home about, it is always a pleasure to get away from such shit for a couple of hours for the price of a cinema ticket. You leave the heat and the dust and Ruth Prawer Jahbvala outside and come into the dark, air-conditioned recesses of the cinema hall. You take only Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” with you, which you’ll need in the reels to come, believe me, as Shammi Kapoor gives Pran (or Pran gives Shammi, I’ve forgotten) a right upper cut in Bombay and Pran (or Shammi) lands in the Kashmir valley (aerial distance 1,673 km), where the fight continues. You’ll need that suspension of disbelief when Manoj Kumar aka Bharat Kumar, the greatest film patriot of all times, is tortured by Chinese soldiers in a prison cell at some remote Himalayan outpost and the walls (including the ceiling) run red with Bharat’s blood but Bharat survives. “They’ve poured it by the bucketful!” you’ll complain, only to be told by the Manoj Kumar fan in the next seat: “Paid ten annas for your ruddy entrance and now sitting two rows from the screen, you expect Manoj to show you real blood?” And you’d finally have met your realist.

The ten anna seats were a kind of ‘last minute’ chance of getting into a show, all other seats being open for advance booking. One stood in line in the passage next to the cinema hall – strongly smelling of micturation – and fought it out with all the other hoodlums for the privilege of a seat right up front, so close to the screen that one got exotropia, that’s wall eyes, trying to take in ‘the whole picture’. Otherwise it was as much fun as watching a football game from the ramparts – no point in trying to explain if you don’t know what that is, or was. And an anna used to be one-sixteenth of a rupee in the pre-metric system, four pice to the anna and so on. The anna went but the ‘ten anna seat’ survived in the cine-goer’s jargon. Where was I?

Yes, the realism of Hindi films was like the Kantian dialectic, or like Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Whenever and wherever life is as hard as it used to be (yes, Modi-ji) in India, you will have the Hindi film as the antidote. Hindi film audiences used to be like children listening to a fairy story: they are ready to believe anything, so long as they’re sitting in their hard-won ten anna seats watching a famous wrestler-turned-Bombay-film-actor race electricity to save the heroine from electrocution! In the end the hero has a brainwave (?), takes out a pair of scissors and cuts the tube, so that blue electricity drips, drop by drop, from the conduit… That’s a joke, btw, in case your suspension of disbelief has gone that far. But see how it works?

The aim of surrealism – which began in the early ’20s of the last century – was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality”, as Wikipedia will tell you. You can go from there to sous-réalisme and rêve-réalisme and what not – but don’t waste your time. Watch an old Hindi film from the ’60s, say, and ask yourself: This is Rajendra Kumar; he is a sub-inspector of the police; he is returning from work in a police jeep with a swagger stick in his hand – ever seen a sub-inspector sporting a swagger stick? Now you have. The jeep enters the sprawling grounds of a palatial mansion which would have put the Nehrus with their Anand Bhavan in Allahabad to shame. How can a police sub-inspector afford to live in such a p(a)lace – with only his widowed mother – unless he is the crookedest, corruptest police officer in existence? And why is he a lowly SI, when he could have been the police super or at least the assistant police super of the district? Ah, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you?

Firstly, please note that we Indians always refer to our actors by name – Shammi did this in ‘Teesri Manjil’ and when Raj Kapoor was singing that song in ‘Awara’ etc. Ask their best – or worst fans, and they won’t be able to tell you what name Shammi had in TM or Raj Kapoor in Awara etc. – because we Indians know, we know that it is all Maya and a Schauspiel and that Thomas Carlyle could have known nothing about heroes and hero worship since there were no Hindi films in his time.

And the sub-inspector? He has his office in the thana or the police station and emerges from it like a tiger from its cage to shout at the police constables and kick the asses of the general public – we Indians know him, he is a visible god, the SP, ASP &co. being the gods higher up in the echelon whom we do not get to see, hence there’s no point in worshipping them, is there? Power and wealth must be visible, as every Indian knows. See Sub-Inspector Rajendra Kumar drive his Dodge Kingsway into his ‘go’r’ment quarters’ which just happens to be a palace and you’ll know why life is a Hindi film with you in the ten anna seat. Jai Hind.

Autumn, a fairy tale

Prague, 1981, my third autumn in Europe.

I used to walk from the ulice Veverkova, where I lived, to Valdstejnska, where I worked, that’s near the Mala Strana metro station. The walk took me through Letna Park, which lay in-between. The park is on a ridge running parallel to the Vltava river – Moldau in English. One had a breathtaking view of the river and its bridges from the park. But in autumn and early in the morning, the mist would still be hanging like smoke on the water while the trees in Letna lit up like Tiffany lamps in the sunlight.

wp_20161029_13_56_54_proI remember I had returned to my flat on Veverkova after an unsucccessful hunt for Czech fairy tales in German, which I had wanted to present to my future stepdaughter – she had turned eight that year. I had tried the GDR shop and then even the Hungarian shop – all government outlets, in communist Czechoslovakia, by the way – but I had failed to unearth Cezch fairy tales, whether in German or in any other language. It was evening. I was wondering… a fairy tale? Why not write one? But how did one write a fairy tale?

Autumn in Prague. Light burning in the window of a first floor flat on Veverkova in which a solitary Indian male sat sucking his ball point pen – not the writing end, thank God! – trying to concoct a ‘real’ Czech fairy tale in German for his Polish stepdaughter-to-be. Head swimming a bit? Same as mine. That’s when I wrote ‘Das graue Kleid’, that’s ‘The Gray Dress’, feeling like the long-lost third cousin of Brothers Grimm.

I’d done the Pilsen-Stribro-Bor-Primda route from Prague to Germany so often that I had developed an affinity for the Czech countryside, beginning with the coal-dust smothered Pilsen. So I began my fairy tale many many moons ago in a small Czech town in the dark and lonely recesses of the Bohemian forest, where the winds howl when the wolves don’t. And then I brought in the old Slavic gods Veles and Perun – now also in Wikipedia – who are born enemies, in fact. Veles, in Czech, is of course Weles, in Polish, and Volos, in Russian. Veles is the god of earth and water, of forests as well as of the nether world, whereas Perun is the god of thunder.

The two were having a breather in the middle of their fight – naturally in and over the forests of Bohemia – when they saw a young girl in a gray dress standing among the fallen leaves of the chestnut tree in their garden. The fallen leaves gleamed like tarnished gold in the stray shafts of sunlight. The girl seemed happy in her gray dress, a bit too happy perhaps. So Veles – or was it Perun? – asked her who she might be and what she was feeling so happy about. It was her birthday and her stepmother had made her this wonderful dress, a frock – the girl said. Wasn’t it full of colours, brighter and prettier than the colours of autumn, as her stepmother had claimed? the girl piped. That’s when the gods noticed that the girl was blind.

The gods made themselves invisible and listened to the girl’s stepmother boasting to the girl’s father: ‘Why waste money buying good cloth with a nice pattern for someone who can’t even see? I’ve told the others not to tell her’ – the others being the girl’s stepbrothers and stepsisters – my stepdaughter-to-be used to love that. Those stepbrothers and stepsisters – the nastier and the more hateful the better – were naturally teasing the girl about her gray dress and reducing her to tears. They chased the poor girl out into the street, where everybody, from the street urchins to the big fat mayor of the town, joined in laughing at the girl and her gray dress.

That’s when Veles and Perun decided to teach the hard-hearted townspeople a lesson, together with the girl’s family. Suddenly the whole town turned colour blind, nobody could see colours any more, let alone the autumn colours. Everything was in black-and-white – or grey. But the girl could see again! And the girl could see colours! ‘Tell us, tell us,’ the townspeople crowded round her and clamoured, while the girl walked down the streets and past the gardens and along the high stone wall of the local squire’s residence which was covered with vines and lichen and moss – next to the river, exactly as in Bonn, I added, much to the delight of my stepdaughter. wp_20161029_13_54_43_pro

The townspeople could see no colours, so the girl told them the colour of the leaves and the colour of the sky; which tree was red and which tree was brown, which a flaming yellow and which still green…

To this day they have this strange custom in that small Czech town in the Bohemian forest – yes, near the German border, just after you’ve driven through Primda and think there’s nothing but the dark and dank forest till the border crossing at Rozvadov – well, on the first day of autumn – that’s the autumnal equinox, tell you about that later – well, the people of that town, including the mayor, whether fat or not, blindfold their eyes and let a young girl lead them through the streets and lanes and by-lanes of the town telling them all about the wonderful colours of autumn. And when they remove their blindfolds, the trees are bare and it is winter.

‘Is that the new Walt Disney film?’ my stepdaughter said. ‘He discovered Technicolor, you know that?’

I haven’t ‘written’ a fairy tale since.