The Culture Of Conservatism

The dust-up over Mr. Muthalik’s acceptance into the BJP is fresh grist for the mills of the culture-and-politics debate. With the BJP poised to make a comeback, the talk raging in club and canteen alike, is expectedly getting heated and will likely stay that way until May’s answer to this Umm al-electoral Maarik. After which, interest might wane but is unlikely to disappear for the argumentation has at long last found firm ground and is here to stay. That’s because there is a larger something at the nub of it. Something that transcends politics. And that is the right to own and express cultural identity by Hindu Indians without being dubbed fascist or fundamentalist.

In everyday parlance, culture wars pit conservatives and liberals against each other on either side of a fence. Often, that is a doubly reinforced electric fence with poison tipped spikes for backup. Seriousness aside; try transposing common understanding of these terms to the Indian context and the cognitive dissonance becomes obvious when, suddenly, Left, Right, their Wings, Conservatives, Progressives, etc., all morph into un-unravelable skeins of woolly definition. The terms translate this way here: Indian Left is the motley bunch of usual culprits; Indian Right is Right Wing loony; Indian Liberals only get their rosettes if they belong to the upper echelons of one (just one) political party and/or circumnavigate the concentric whorls of the literary sphere and, Indian Conservatives are the indescribable NOTA group. Leaving aside ‘Left’ and ‘Liberal’ which play somewhat true to righteous type; it is ‘Right’, ‘Right-Wing’ and ‘Conservative’ that consistently enmesh to belie definition.

Conservatives and Liberals split fundamentally on economics and culture. In recent years the field of Political Physiology has ensured that the divide gets more evolved company. Biology too now finds its place alongside culture and economics as a credible separator of political preference. There are defined psychological and biological explanations for behavioral differences (twin studies ascribe as much as 40% to DNA) between the two and it is possible that evolution might have selected for that variance to exist. While the arguments over economics have had their fair share of the Sun; considered debate on culture is near absent. What stands in its stead is the noise of outrage. Over freedom of speech, Khaps, marriage and family values, moral policing and patriarchy.

The more traditional socio-religious conservatism has two broad divisions – cultural conservatism and social conservatism; Right and Right-Wing respectively. While there are overlapping areas of interest;  in the Indian context the distinctions are more defined than the overlap which typically, is generalized and overplayed. The two preeminent issues that social conservatism in India is pre-occupied with are: freedom of expression (often demonstrated as aggressive protest over published word or art) and moral policing or vigilantism. Ugly demonstrations of muscle power are indeed more media worthy than critical thinking but, that is not the only reason social conservatism finds pre-eminence in the debate. It is also, artfully deployed as a whipping boy to muzzle conservative thought and voice. More egregious than this however, is the canard that secularism reposes safe only in the cocooned custody of Left and/or Liberal. This unfounded argument of calculated convenience is used to daub the entire mass on the other side of the fence as fascist and communal. It is more than a worrying possibility that the rise in social conservatism is a reactionary response to the relentless ridicule of Hindu customs, belief and thought.

Matters get more interesting when contemplating conservatism from a cultural context. As the term implies, culture and traditional orders of life and living inform the ideology to a great extent and, it is therefore a natural next step to ask: what is the culture in question that is in play here. In the modern context; cultural and religious identity might not be directly interchangeable. Yet, religion is a major feeder of cultural identity and group culture is often rooted in religious affiliation even if individuals are at personal liberty to transcend these definitions. Being thus identified as a prime driver of identity; the principles of Hinduism merit scrutiny. Attempts to do so have immediately raised the clamour that the sum of creeds that rest under the classified banner of Hinduism can’t be corralled similarly under the ideological. Such pronouncements are not just self-indulgent celebrations of ignorance (the subject of texts is addressed, here); they raise suspicion of ulterior motive because of the stubborn refusal to educate and engage. Here verily is a case fit for the dictum: Suppressio veri; suggestio falsi.

There is a commonly held belief that monotheistic religions that have a single codex to follow are more ‘religions’ than those that are not. This is only one perspective (a human one at that) and not a supernatural decree or diktat for how or what a religion is. Yet, that this narrow view spread and took root is hardly surprising given that it is both studied and propagated as such. The most celebratory characteristic of Hinduism is its immense and extraordinary diversity that is yet tethered firmly to a nodal commonality. Features of Hinduism that I describe here-under are not interpretations but direct transmissions of learning from texts of Hinduism and which any practitioner or seer will attest to.

  • Hinduism does not see man as separate and apart from nature and his surroundings. An equal respect for all manner of life-forms whether elemental or complex; human or animal is reiterated in every text.
  • It is not dogmatic and does not seek to be organized into a fixed creed.
  • The two fundamental and distinctive features of Hinduism are Dharma and tolerance. Dharma can be variously construed as duty, law or morality. It is best understood when described as, ‘the law that governs the conduct of man’.
  • Rather than insisting on a credo to experience God and living; Hinduism through its numerous texts directs the seeker to realize the supremacy of the Self over all else. Such thought has an immense capacity for the tolerant acceptance of all belief; even the belief of doubt. It neither preaches violent defence of its principles and/or faith nor, equally, does it believe in asserting its supremacy over other creeds as the sole and only path to Divinity. Rather than occupy itself with converting others to its point of view; it has ever been absorbed with – in the words of the great philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – ‘an eternal quest of the mind’.

With this understanding, Hindu cultural conservatism starts to morph, Maya-like, into a Liberal Humanism and the reasons for the confusion with terms becomes clear. From an evolutionary perspective, political liberalism is the new kid on the block; but it has stayed long enough to find itself a permanent seat at the political table. In a scenario where some of our political beliefs might be chromosomally entrenched; the obvious path forward is to embrace diversity rather than attempt to change it – a common characteristic that Hindu cultural conservatives share with liberals.

Hinduism preaches a conservatism for the Self and/or micro-group and a detached liberalism for the community at large. Cultural conservatives in the Hindu context are concerned with preserving this ethic and philosophy of living. As for the economics, for a country like India that has 840 million living under two dollars a day, it is naïve to envisage a development that does not include the active participation of government. Cultural conservatism would ensure the coexistence of the practiced principle of responsibility alongside the morality of a right.

Culture is a living breathing organism that directly influences and moulds the lives of millions. It is not a curio to be exhibited behind glass panes, in galleries, that seems to say: “Look and admire. But don’t touch; don’t feel; don’t practice or participate. I am not you anymore; I am the other”. Finally and perhaps most pertinent of all, culture and cognition feed into and off each other in a virtuous cycle. The effort to divide and isolate us from our own culture has predictably boomeranged and we are now faced with the problem of an unthinking and exploitable social conservatism that has found its voice on the streets.


This is a hymn from the concluding SUktham of the RigVeda which, according to the Paramacharya of Kanchi, – one of the greatest seers of Hinduism in recent times – is the prime dictum for all Hindus and one that should have greater significance than the national anthem of any country:

“May mankind be of one mind; May it have a common goal; May all hearts be united in love. And with the mind and the goal being one may all of us live in happiness”

It can be read in Sanskrit, here: “Sangacchadhvam Samvadadhvam..

Post – PostScript:

This recitation of the hymn was shared with me by Many thanks to them for the share.



Hinduism’s Canon

It is often said of Hinduism that, unlike the Abrahamic religions, it is not a religion of the book; that it does not have a cornerstone scripture to serve as congregator. More than being completely erroneous, this is an uninformed canard that implicitly suggests, Hinduism’s true place is more in line with Paganism than with any religion or creed.

Books are not just the foundational bricks of Theology; they are also essential for congealing communities of belief. The unifying force of a book is integral to the survival and propagation of organized religion. Additionally and apart from that self-serving purpose; scripture illustrates the philosophy and thought of the religion which in turn, serves as a bulwark for cultural belief and evolution.

That texts are important to religion is thus established. However, the notion that ritual use of a single book by all practitioners, is a necessary determinant of established religion is one that must be countered. Hinduism does not have only one text; it has a whole canon comprising fourteen texts. But, the way in which these texts are used, in and by the faith, is very different from other religions.

Hinduism is as much a creed of learning as it is of the Divine. Learning and the advancement of the intellect is deeply intertwined with the practice; deep enough to not be seen as distinct from it. ‘Pramana’ or, the ‘means to knowledge’ has three core elements – perception, inference and textual knowledge or Shabdha.

The Hindu Canon is considered to be just one of the ways of realization (of self and divine). It falls under the category of Shabdha. In Sanskrit; these texts are called Shastras or the Chaturdasha Vidya (Chaturdasha – fourteen; Vidya – learning). There are an additional four that are more akin to subject specializations; but these too are sometimes included raising the number of primary texts to eighteen. All eighteen are extant. Crowning these texts are the Vedas – the prime scripture of Hinduism.

The texts are individually distinct in both content and scope and consequently, do not share the same degree of importance. At the same time, however, they also don’t submit to being categorized into a traditional hierarchy of greatest to least. On the contrary, the onus of intellectual hierarchy is on the learner/ practitioner of the faith. Hinduism’s texts recognize the spiritual and intellectual stage of development of the individual and cater to that hierarchy of personal evolution in the reader, the seeker or, believer.

Like learning, Bhakthi or belief, is also understood as subjective experience and is treated accordingly. The philosophy of – to each is given a unique place and purpose and to each too, the responsibility to serve it well – is exemplified by the collected works in the Canon. Irrespective of the stage at which a text has unique appeal; not one of these texts ever becomes irrelevant. Just as cliches acquire new meaning when revisited with personal experience; similarly, each text when revisited enhances the reader with new shades and depth of meaning.

To most English readers of Hinduism the classification of these texts can be baffling. In my own experience (admittedly limited), most books do not classify or detail the texts in a simple format that facilitates both understanding and recall. This perhaps is a contributory factor for the in-vogue misrepresentations.

From reading collated across numerous sources an easily comprehensible classification is detailed below that should put paid to the myth of the absent book. It is common to divide the Chaturdasha Vidya into Shruthi and Smrithi. Shruthi (literally, that which is heard) are the older texts learnt by the oral tradition and do not have a known author. Smrithi (that which is memorized and lived by) are auxiliary texts to the Shruthi. They are explanatory decoders of the Shruthi and, unlike them, have identifiable human authors. Many learned authorities differ from this dichotomous division in that, it implies a difference between the two. In reality, the Smrithis are best described as one of many auxiliary texts that contain extensions, additions and commentaries of the Shruthi.

A more felicitous way to classify the texts and their subjects is in the manner of the branching of the tree – main trunk, limbs and branches. The Prime Scripture: Four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, AtharvanA, SAma) Each Veda has further divisions based on structure and function. Structurally, there are three sections – SamhitA, BrAhmanA and the AranyakA. Functionally, two – the KarmakAndA and JnanakAndA. The Samhita and the BrAhmanA together comprise the KarmakAndA. These sections concern themselves with recitations, work and worship rituals. The AranyakA along with the Upanishads are intellectual and philosophical expositions of the KarmakAndA. The text and its divisions have been likened metaphorically to a fruit bearing tree. Wherein the trunk is the Vedas; the forked limbs – the KarmakAndA and the JnanakAndA; the branches – the Samhita; leaves – the BrAhmanAs, flowers – the AranyakAs and finally the fruit of the entire endeavour – the Upanishads. Auxiliary subjects: The primary division called AngAs; the secondary, called UpAngAs. The six AngAs:

  • 1. Shiksha – Phonetics
  • 2. VyAkarana – Grammar
  • 3. Chandas – Prosody
  • 4. NirUktA – Etymology
  • 5. JyotishA – Cosmology and science
  • 6. KalpA – Application manuals

The four UpAngAs

  • 1. MImAmsA – Is an exegesis of the Vedas. It’s also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA. MimAmsA has two divisions along the lines of the Kandas of the Vedas – the Purva-mImAmsA and the Uttara-MimAmsA. The two differ from each other and from Vedanta on the role and nature of Ishvara – God.
  • 2. NyAyA – Logic or reasoning. Is also one of the six systems of thought or DarshanA
  • 3. PurAnAs – Eighteen in number. The collected chronicles and legends of history that are used to elaborate the philosophy and the teachings of the Vedas. The PurAnAs are some of the most important texts of Hinduism; both that they are beloved and are in more common use by the multitude than the other texts.
  • 3a. ItihAsA – The Epics: RAmAyanA and MahAbhArathA. The importance of these two to the Hindu Canon is so great that they have often been called the Fifth Veda
  • 4. DharmashAstrAs – are the SmrithIs. They are auxiliary texts that serve as explanatory reference, manuals and commentaries on the Shruthi. In this respect; they are very similar to KalpA and are an extension of it. Law, the conduct of rituals, personal conduct are elaborated in detail here.

Unlike the Abrahamic books, the Hindu canon does not assert an eternal and insurmountable distinction between God and man. The purpose of these texts is not directed at cementing the influence of the creed but at the intellectual and spiritual growth of the individual. When and if approached in the prescribed method of learning, the seeker is gradually steered away from belief, ritual and materialism to seek and realize the divinity within. The religion, thus, actively promotes a movement from the religious to the philosophical.

Hindu Philosophy is not an esoteric external rumination but an active process (incorporated in daily living) of contemplation, realization and renunciation. In socio-political terms, the religion steers the growth and/or shift of the individual from the practice of duties as conservative householder to those of a progressive intellectual. Once the structure for belief and thought is mastered, the believer is set free to explore his learning in pastures of his own creation, even if, that exercise leads him to denounce the very faith. There are no condemnations here of heretics, apostates and agnostics. Even the denial of faith is approached as its mere converse and is respected and welcomed as a contributory advancement of thought.

Viewed through the lens of time, it is fairly reasonable to assume that a single book of God might struggle to withstand the test of humankind’s insatiable quest for the unknown. That, it continues to thrive as the oldest living religion, perhaps suggests that the multiplicity of Hinduism’s texts is a theological example of successful evolutionary survival.

Does Feminism have a gender?

Search high and low and you will perhaps, come up with a clutch of male names who bravely call themselves feminists. This is more than a little surprising if you consider that most people agree on the fundamentals of equality, freedom and justice, for all. Our age records ‘humanist’ as a proud badge; yet, it marks a palpable hesitation with ‘feminist’. Both sexes stand together as one species under the umbrella of ‘Homo sapiens’; why then is one standing aloof and apart from what is increasingly recognized as the defining concern of the other? Which begs the question: Is feminism, female? This is not to say that no men support the cause of feminism; far from it. They exist, in individuals and in groups; but, their support has low visibility. Some have even rallied under a sub-classification: Pro-feminists. While that is heartening to know, its breaking-off from the main provokes the inevitable question – why do men need a separate definition for the same cause?

The problem might lie with the word, Feminism – an excluding and exclusive term that possessively holds woman alone in the embrace of its roots. It might also extend to disquiet with what feminism has come to represent; a reason too why many women themselves fight shy of the term. What began as equality has gradually shifted to embracing entitlement and to a more radical form that mistakes misandry for empowerment. The entry of fringe radicalizations has done undue damage to mainstream debate of the real issues by muddying common purpose. Yet, most women are uncomfortable with publicly denouncing these positions. Their hesitation makes men uncomfortable with lending full throated support on the larger issues.

The women’s rights movement started as a struggle, in the West, for equality with men in the political, social and economic sphere. As expected, the political goals were relatively easy to achieve. It was political equality that was the threatening notion of its time. Once that took root and rapidly spread, suffrage automatically followed in its contrail. The other two fronts were slow to keep pace. Rather predictably too; since change herein directly threatens the social order as it exists. Equal pay for equal work is a principle most men align with reasonably. It has not yet translated due to structural impediments created by vested interests and delays in governance reform. This should have been the focus of feminism’s next major thrust. Instead, it was side-tracked by the tumult in families wrought by the rapid devolution of the social order.

It was Carol Hanisch, a sixties-era feminist who popularized the phrase: The personal is political. While that indeed is true; its corollary is not. The political is not always personal. Not in an emotional or social sense. The political and economic facets of equality for women can deservedly target the ideal position. However, on the social and familial front, equality is a hard nut to crack. Here, the chasm splits wide open between the ideal and the actual. Change at this micro-personal level will not happen with a single tectonic shift. It has multiple interwoven interests and will necessarily be in fits and bursts with revisions and edits. Unfortunately, frustration with its tardiness has transformed feminism into activism aimed at enforcement. This is rightly interpreted by many as the long arm of the State extending into the personal spaces of relationships and families.

At the level of the family; feminism is but one cause in many and feminist is just one hat. It jostles with multiple kinships, competes for space, and is no longer an identity absolute. With this contextual shift, there are many hyphenated roads to its end-goal. Expectedly, the feminist label has split into a bewildering mélange of: liberal-feminists, conservative-feminists, cultural-feminists, eco-feminists, material-feminists, pro-feminists, etc. The cleaving is especially jagged on social issues. Irrespective of the reasons this fractured identity has fragmented the faith. No more does feminism reside in an unquestionable resplendent absolute; it now cowers in the shadows of an adjectivized state.

Indian feminism reflects the heterogeneity of its origins. Broadly it can be grouped into two categories: activism against oppression and activism for equality. This neat slotting, while diligent on paper, is confounding on the ground. Oppression of, and brute violence against, women violates the lowest bar of their fundamental rights. Curiously, it is not restricted to any one economic or educational stratum. Disagreement between the sexes on this issue is rare and is the exception to the norm. It is on the matter of social/familial/work-life equality that gender divide raises its clunky head. The easy transmutation of what is really an equality debate into one of oppression and the latter’s over-use as a convenient, brook-no-opposition, fall-back for all and any disagreement, alienates men and denies both sexes the opportunity of a more harmonious co-existence.

At this juncture, the women’s movement would do well to heed the models by which political equality gained success. Time and again, we are shown historical evidence of the patterns by which a collective end-goal was achieved. The most successful ones are homogenous in purpose, have a well-defined goal, have multiple players invested in it and importantly, have invariably had the support of breakaways from the privileged class. ‘Subordinate’ groups have easier gained a seat at the table when they’ve commissioned the active support of ‘insider breakaways’. Whether out of genuine or opportunistic belief insider involvement is critical to the process. For women; this implies the active and tacit support of men. Every familial issue – whether that is education, marriage, children, work-life balance, elder care and support – necessitates the hands-on involvement of both sexes. A cooperative approach to and with men will not only hasten the fruition of feminism’s goals; it will also ensure a stable and sustainable change in the social order. An inclusive and participatory change has a better chance with longevity than enforced and regulated change.

Equality at home is best achieved by a balance of compromises. Fathers and grandfathers (along with their women) were feminists before we were. They and many others of their ilk from even older generations made great and bold sacrifices to enable the empowering reforms of the 20th CE. Whether as proto-feminists or pro-feminists, both women and men have more control over challenges than we are willing to accept responsibility for. One way of exerting control is through a mature response, not a shrill one. Through assertion; not aggression. Our mutually cooperative response to the challenges of our times will set the agenda for the coming generations. Ideally, (having transcended these divisions) that should be to merge feminism into a more universal humanism.

I’ll conclude with a couplet which says more than all the words I’ve summoned to make my case. Written by one of Tamil’s greatest poets, a 19th-20th CE Indian Nationalist and an Ur-feminist, Shri. Subramania Bharatiar: Kangal irandinil ondrai; kuthi Kaatchi keduthidalamo? Pengal arivai valarthal; vaiyyam Pedamaiyatridum kaaneer [Would it be reasonable to destroy the vision that two eyes contribute to, by intentionally destroying the sight of one? Will the world not be a better place if we encouraged the intellectual development and progress of women?]

(Sincere apologies to Tamil readers and scholars for my weak attempt at translation)



The unsung merits of Doordarshan in a consumerist age

Doordarshan Bharati is India’s PBS. Only, a more fusty version that continues to have a dedicated viewership due to the nonpareil content of its archives. It is a veritable Geniza of everything Indian – culture, language, music, arts and literature. The words, India and Indian, mean many things to each of us and the diverse experience and interpretation of Indian-ness seems to grow exponentially each year. Much has changed in the past decade; enough to feel a generational divide with those a mere ten years younger than us. Their experience and obsession with consumerism is one that my generation did not have and in any case, could not afford.

I am from the Southern part of India; a region distinctly different from the North, in both attitude and approach to life and living. In my time, those that could afford more than most were subdued and restrained with their wealth. Conspicuous consumption was frowned on. Severely. The appurtenance of wealth was seen, in maybe a big house (often with the same interiors as your own; only bigger spaces) or a car; but personal display was almost non-existent. All retired grandfathers wore veshtis and shirts. All mothers and grandmothers wore demure, mostly cotton, saris with red pottus and flower strands in their hair for adornment. All ate with their hands. There was a homogenizing sameness of lifestyle that transcended money. Not much distinguished a rich girl from a poor one in dress, food, habit or lifestyle. At the most, one had short hair and the other had a plait. And then she was called, ‘modern’, not rich. One wore maybe a city styled ‘fancy’ chappal; the other had Bata. When I was growing up, all kids, rich or poor, wore Bata chappals. That’s it. I only woke, with wide eyed astonishment, to the realization that there was something called ‘party shoes’ in my twenties. Indeed, it happened with the excruciating embarrassment of the universally experienced rite of passage; and yes, in an alien culture. ‘Children’ have party shoes today!! I am not a curmudgeon dinosaur (despite a sincere effort to have portrayed myself thus), but in my world, children do not need and, will never need party shoes!

Consumerism is not always a bad thing. It is a necessary driver of the economy; but, our children must be protected from its corrosive power. There is an age which indulges in it (and should); there is an age that retracts and detaches from it and there is an age that should not know it at all. It is hard to instill values of empathy, equality and sharing in children when materialism is competing for mind and heart space. This age is better served by intellectual consumption than by material consumerism. When these foundations are firmly in place; we build a citizenry of integrity who, while not shunning the consumerist experience, will be well schooled in not falling under its rapacious influence either. The ugly sights of a spurious entitlement, visible all around us today, might finally fade and die. And wealth might cease to be the sole arbiter of justice.

For those like me, whose days are filled with a perpetual nostalgia for a culture, past and with a shrinking horror of the new; Doordarshan is a reassuring balm. At the end of a working day in India when body returns home with a numbed mind; nerves on edge and crumpled souls sink into the pillowed comfort of its quiet monotone narration, its languid landscapes, sublime, identifiable music and richly illustrated documentaries of our history and traditions. In the rapidly alienating environment of modern India that questions the roots of our belonging; it is Doordarshan that reminds us each time that we are indeed, home.

I wrote this, in some agitation, after listening to a stirring poem by Gurudev, that was sung by Sasha Ghoshal as the title song of a documentary on Indian Nobels aired on Doordarshan. It left me with a profound sense of loss and a helplessness that is hard to explain in words. I dearly wish for you, my dear reader, to listen to it. The translation, from the Bengali, is copied below. This was the caliber of the people that made and shaped our identities. Remembering them, their lives, their words – how can we not mandate that as a daily exercise for ourselves and for our children? Do the young watch Doordarshan, anymore?

——————————————————————————————————– ——–     When my footprints no longer mark this road – Rabindranath Tagore

When my footprints no longer mark this road,

I’ll stop rowing my boat to this ghat,

I’ll cease all transactions,

I’ll settle my accounts and clear all dues,

All business will stop in this mart –

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


When the strings of my tanpura gather dust,

When prickly shrubs sprout in my doorsteps,

When the garden flowers put on a mantle of weeds,

When moss spreads all over the pond’s banks,

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars. 


Then the flute will play on in this music hall,

Then Time will flow on,

Then days will pass just as they do now.

Then ghats will fill with boats as they do now –

Cattle will graze while cowboys play on that field.

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


Who can say I won’t be there that morning?

I’ll be in all your fun and games then – this very me!

You’ll name me anew, embracing me as never before,

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


Essential Tagore.  Translated by Fakrul Alam, Radha Chakravarthy


The Cricket of our entertainment: Bollywood

The past few weeks have heard and seen much comment on the typecasting of women in commercial Indian cinema with discussion centering on the consequences of cinema’s commodification of women as symbols of sexual desire.  A closer look at both the medium and its controversies seems to reveal a paradox at play.

There was a period up until the eighties when sexuality and its portrayal was delineated as the vamp’s role. Depending upon the plot, her characterization would swing between the extremes of artistic courtesan and shameless harlot. Irrespective of where her role landed within that range, this character was burdened with representing the sexuality of women and male fantasy and desire found expression in her. Although a classic example of objectification; it was nevertheless socially decentred, separate and distinct from the lead character. The vamp’s alternate reality was exemplified by the women who played these roles, themselves backstage dancers or ‘extras’ nurturing the hope of a rare promotion to sex symbols or icons. On the other hand, the lead actor played the girl in innocent love (of the kind that holds hands and peeks around trees in fervent song) who graduated in the prescribed style to wife and mother. This lead played the nurturing figure stereotype – the sort of woman every man wanted to take home. If ever sexuality was allowed in the lead, it was as that of the coquette in perpetual come-hither mode essayed with a restrained biology that stayed appropriately decorous by defining the limits. You can look but not touch; you can touch but not kiss, you can kiss but not ……. Female sexuality was thus neatly split and compartmentalized. One satisfied the very real need of the mass to be entertained and watch something other than the usual; while the other assuaged and reinforced the status quo.

These divisions merged in the latter half of the eighties. The lead actress gradually absorbed the vamp role into her repertoire and the suddenly improved role-playing prospects of Bollywood’s women have not looked back since. [The vamp remains in a residual avatar in a form called, ‘Item-girl”. But, that distinction is created more around crude lyrics than role playing or picturization]. Artistic achievement was stretched to include the portrayal of a lusty sexuality in virginal innocence. That sounds like the lead female role essayed a lot of nuance. In reality, it was anything but. The nuance was expected to be in our (the audience) head. That we saw a woman on screen gyrating in the vulgar throes of an extraordinary sexual abandon was a reflection of ‘our’ crude and insufficiently liberated selves. This unreal duality of the virgin and the vamp in one embodied self was especially dissonant. The already confounding lines between vulgarity and sexuality, between liberation and commodification, between experience and reality were further blurred and bludgeoned into a congealed mess of subjective interpretation. A chronicler of this cinematic shift is better placed to examine the reasons for the change. Was it commercially prompted or was cinema ‘mirroring the mirror’. Was cinema merely reflecting changing social norms by allowing lead roles to portray sexuality, albeit in a distorted and risque garb? Whatever the reasons, by merging the roles of vamp and lead actor, feminine sexuality was, to a degree, legitimized. No more was a Jaya Bhaduri and an Aruna Irani needed; a Sreedevi could play both just as well and still remain the girl who rode the palanquin in the end.

This should have brought a lot of cheer to feminists; but alas, the joy, if any, was short-lived. The medium is as important as the message; but Bollywood does everything King-size and in a paradoxical twist, instead of applause, vocal protest about the commodification of women is now getting louder. Under the artful direction of our talented lot, female sexuality which should have become part of the normative cinematic discourse has morphed into an aesthetically challenged, hypersexual, libidinous outrage. Yet, it is Bollywood that might still have the last word. While criticism is heaped on cinema for its treatment of women; not enough credit is given it for the silent phasing out of the depiction of violence against women. It was not uncommon, once, to see a Dilip Kumar slap a heroine or two; it would be unthinkable for Sharukh Khan to do the same now.  Today, whole films have female-centric scripts that ride safely on the dagger clavicles of a new generation.

However, on the matter of sexuality, Bollywood continues to challenge our hypocrisies in its own peculiar style. Is commodification really in the eyes of the beholder? Is a woman pole dancer symbolising liberated sexuality or is she a commoditized sexual object? Much blame for the confusion lies with the speed of evolution of the format. Cultural and sexual evolution, like everything else, is best achieved in gradual progression. The West has had the benefit of a gradual and visible timeline of this movement. The hems of dresses evolved in a measured succession of inch reductions from whalebone skirts to the mini over centuries. Instead, we have made the meter-leap from the demure sari (the kind our mothers wear) to bikini tops and Daisy Dukes in less than a generation. The dissonance is not just between Kareena Kapoor and us; it is also between us and our mothers. It is with the ladies on the television clothed in a full body armor of Tussar, clamoring for the rights of girls (who use public transport) to wear revealing clothes. It is with a society that accepts the norms of workplace attire but sees conservative retrogression when elders implore the same of their children for the street.

Where we reach as a progressive society will be defined by our response to these conflicts. Much as we might have preferred a more orderly evolution, a backward movement to an extinct time is a regressive move. Attempting to restrict the creative licence of one simply because it jars the aesthetic desires of another is an illogical exercise. Does life imitate art? Can negative portrayals of everyday women in cinema influence young and malleable minds? Probably, yes. But in  a sea of variables; that is but one. Until and unless there is hard evidence of the negative impact of crude cinema on kerbside behavior; curtailing creative license based on correlative assumptions is a retrogressive move. It could equally well be argued that a restrictive environment was what prompted the surreptitious and steady advance of a perverse sexuality in mainstream cinema. Bollywood should be allowed to trundle along in its unreal exoticism and it should be given the chance to evolve at its pace. In any case, commercial cinema has its finger on the public pulse and is more responsive to social change than most. We have a censor board that restricts access of certain sorts of cinema to defined groups and that degree of regulation should suffice. A more pressing point, often ignored, is the absence of other available avenues of entertainment in our cultural landscape. This has had the predictable consequence of cinema and its celebrity culture, coming to occupy a preeminent place in public consciousness. Bollywood might always sit at the head of the table but the active presence of parallel movements in theatre and in the literary arts will eventually dissolve its vice like grip. While urbanization is often a precursor to cultural explosion; a simultaneous development of urban public spaces will offer us arenas for diverse but inclusive civic engagement. Paradoxically again, the resolution of our many conflicts lies in the center of, and within, our tangled and dissonant voices.

[This essay is also up on the CRI website. You can follow the discussion there and read other opinions too, in under, ‘Comments’]

‘Madagascar’ and Omega3 Fatty acids. The philosophical and nutritional impact of food on violent behaviour

[This essay is also published by CRI and is on their website under the title, ‘The biology of vegetarianism’. You can also follow the lively discussion under ‘Comments’]

It is often said of sausages, that if people knew how they were made, most wouldn’t eat them. In the carefree period of my days as an avenging vegetarian vigilante; I put to good use a variation of this argument to implore my meat eating friends to change. My unfettered zeal was not beyond resorting to liberal mention (in inappropriate settings) of the methods of slaughter in abattoirs; an exercise that would shock folk, one way or another, into distaste. It was a different matter that I hadn’t been to any either; the intention was to frighten with a horrific picture of violence that would then interrupt acculturated eating patterns. With the mellow tempering that comes with years, I have long realized the futility and the possible crudity of my ways. Yet, I am unapologetically glad to say they did bear some fruition and that I was able to convert a couple along the way.

Because of the inherent violence in slaying animals that don’t have a choice in either resisting the assault or protesting it; vegetarianism is commonly linked to and laced with ethics. Talk of animal slaughter (for any reason, let alone the exquisitely base reason of cuisine), provokes mental images of violence, bloodletting and gore. Despite the effort of some quarters, who have undertaken to make the exercise more ‘humane’; the imagery of slaughter has altered little. The rising global movement towards vegetarianism owes (in so small part), a debt to its origins in the discomfort with the ethics of violence. In the context of civilization as an exercise to domesticate our base instincts; this is a welcome turn on the road to betterment.

The ethics of food has been finely articulated in the world of letters by many; but, three people, to my mind, have especially influenced the discussion. Peter Singer who brought animal rights to the table in the seventies with a seminal work on the subject titled, Animal Liberation; David Foster Wallace with a cult essay, ‘Consider the Lobster’ and Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee in innumerable writings and interviews but notably so in, ‘Disgrace’. In recent years two other books have been received with much favor – Jonathan Safranfoer’s eponymously titled, ‘Eating animals’, and Temple Grandin’s “Animals in translation’, on animal behavior and on humane restraining and transport systems.

I don’t often read a book or watch a film that has animals in it. Most such ventures put their audience through the predictable loop of great sadness to get to the happy place – an immensely avoidable experience in wrenching anxiety. Yet, some years back I watched a lovely animation film, ‘Madagascar’ that told the tale of four friends – a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe, born New Yorkers and raised in the confines of the Central Park Zoo. Marty, the zebra, wakes up on his birthday to a primal longing for ‘home’. In a misadventure, that all but he are wise to, the loyal friends set out to Africa to discover their roots. All is well until Alex (the lion and his best friend), gets hungry and can’t find anything to eat. The Manhattan-ite with the splendid mane was reared on aesthetically shaped platters of ‘food’ and had never known the experience of the hunt. The desperation of hunger in the jungles of Africa stirs his inner hunter and suddenly Marty’s stripes (the zebra) start seeming like the delicate axial cuts of meat that was once his urbane diet. But ‘that’ was an unknown innocuous thing the keeper called, ‘food’, and ‘this’ was Marty! In shame, despair, and with a destroyed sense of self, Alex runs away to hide from his best friend. After some twists and turns, a happy resolution is found and the story ends well. Madagascar is a masterful depiction of the moral conflict of a carnivore. Using the argument of innocence rather than judgment, it incited debate over meat-eating and steered reason away from morality and towards process. It explored by example how; to meat eaters, meat was simply food sanitized off violence and stocked as just another packaged product on the shelf. When confronted with the violence of meat, most people are jolted out of their safe zones; enough even at times, to retract from and disown their eating habits. Tastefully served platters, sanitized packaging, and the lack of mainstream debate on farming and slaughter, spare omnivores from having to confront the ethics and allows them to fall back on the comfort of familiar habit.

imagePic courtesy: @ChirurgeonsAppr

The spectrum of meat-eating as food culture spawns a range of experience with gore. From meat eaters outside the confines of home, to packaged-meat buyers in supermarkets who cook at home, to buyers who buy at butchers and deal with sanitation issues in the process of cooking, to the butchers, to the slaughter house workers and finally, to the farmer who breeds, rears and trades in animal life. One’s positional coordinates in the spectrum determines the degree of gore that one is subjected to. Whilst, from this, no causal inferences can be made to violent behavior; it might not be far off the mark to regard a correlative connect between omnivores and forbearance with violence. Than say, vegetarians. Acclimatization to the taking of life, to the loss of life in violence might be directly related to the degree of involvement with the process of slaughter. It is generally accepted knowledge that vegetarians are prone to non-violence and have a low capacity with and for active aggression. The scientific evidence of that might lie more with their ideological beliefs and from the lack of exposure than to any specific aspect of diet. India’s diverse cultural heritage is unsurprisingly home to ethnic groups (a readily available cohort) who practice a staunch and rigorous vegetarianism as a cornerstone of identity. Prominent amongst them are the Jains, Marwaris, Brahmins, Namboodhiris, Lingayats and Saiva Pillais. Vegetarianism with these groups stems from ahimsa (non-violence) and a quasi-animist belief in the respect for life in any and every form; not just the human. In modern times, not all people born into these ethnicities follow the prescribed lifestyle. But for those that do and for the millions of vegetarian converts around the world, the abhorrence of violence is a common bond. Eating habits of any sort are hard to break out of.  Given that knowledge, should children be allowed to make their own choice with meat eating at an older age? I have seen parents deny children ‘adult’ beverages (read coffee and tea) to young tots. The same people don’t think twice about taking kids to a MacDonald’s or a KFC for a meal. Do the children know that every packaged burger or KFC meal has a ‘Marty’ within? Wouldn’t they want to know?

Aside from philosophy, is diet interlinked with behavior? Research into the impact of diet on mental conditioning and aggression unravels a role for both Omega-3 fatty acids and for the ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty acids. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential fatty acids (EFA). [They are also called PUFAs – polyunsaturated fatty acids]. EFAs are fatty acids that we must (why they are called, ‘essential’) incorporate into our diet since our bodies don’t make them in sufficient enough quantity. The research on fats is on-going and the debate goes back and forth on the importance or otherwise of different fatty acids to health and illness. There is accord, however, on the importance of EFAs (especially Omega-3) to the maintenance of cardiac, circulatory and neural equilibrium. Omega-3 (specifically, a type of Omega-3 called DHA) is concentrated in brain cells. Low levels of this fatty acid, in the body, are detrimental to the vitality of cell membranes. Imagine a cell as a circular or a rectangular structure; the cell membrane is its external limiting boundary. The vitality of the cell is obviously dependent on the integrity of the cell membrane. Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA especially) are an important component of cell membranes. Weak cell membranes cause cellular malfunctioning. This ultimately leads to the dysfunction of organs. In the brain, dysfunction manifests as behavioral change, mood disorders, aggression and violence.

image                                                                                         Note: [red arrows: ALA is convertible (but inefficiently) to DHA and EPA in the body]; [dark blues: DHA is the EFA of brain cell membranes. AA competes with DHA for the cell membranes but is toxic to the cell. This is why the ratio of the Omega-6 to Omega-3 is important; the ideal ratio should be 1:1. Modern lifestyle foods that are heavily processed have high Omega –6 counts and skew the balance. The natural food that closely approximates the 1:1 ratio is ghee (1.6:1).

Recent research has affirmed the influence of supplementation of prisoners’ diets (with multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids) on violence reduction. More than one-third of study subjects (in two large RCTs with good sample sizes) recorded a marked decrease in violent and aggressive behavior. Based on these findings, the American Psychiatry Association has recommended the addition of 1 gm. of EPA+DHA to the daily dietary intake of individuals with mood, impulse control and psychotic disorders. A more rigorously designed trial, on these same lines but with the addition of blood chemistry and detailed psychometrics is currently under way on more than 1000 prisoners in three UK prisons to confirm definitively the nutritional link to violence.

Biology is an endeavor in optimism. It is the self-flagellating science that constantly looks at and into itself for the whys when human health and function go awry. Finding a biological basis for behavior gives us hope for a fix; holds out promise that we can control and modulate it. This is especially true for conditions with great social import such as violence and aggression. The accessibility of nutritional biology lays it bare to the dual threat of pseudo-science and commerce. Their rush to publish causal inferences makes the process of denying or reaffirming media conclusions harder on the science. Despite these pitfalls, current scientific opinion reiterates the positive psychotropic effect of Omega- 3 fatty acids. And so, for now, correcting our diets (both the vegetarian and the omnivorous) with the additional supplementation of Omega-3 fatty acids is a sensible starting point. As also is Madagascar. As the wise say; ‘the colors might change but the stripes they be the same’; once an evangelist, always an evangelist.

Note: Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids: For vegetarians – walnuts and flax seed. For omnivores – fish is ‘the’ recommended source.

Recommended reading:

In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: Omega-3 fatty acids. Evidence basis for treatment and future research in Psychiatry.

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with coronary heart disease

In Aggressive Behavior: Effects of nutritional supplements on aggression, rule-breaking, and psychopathology among young adult prisoners;jsessionid=666C4EE3FF042BCE364FBCD79798A6C1.d02t02

In the British Journal of Psychiatry: Influence of multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners.

How to choose the right cooking oil.

Capital Punishment as deterrent – Flawed reasoning?

This is written in response to the recent article in India Real Time on the rising clamour for Capital Punishment in the wake of the barbaric rape of and assault on a young 23 year old girl in New Delhi. As the headline suggests; the gist of the argument is that Capital Punishment (the focus of the article) is a flawed answer to Rape and some reasons why, are detailed in the body of the text. I disagree with the author’s conclusions as also with the characterization of Capital Punishment as flawed reasoning.

A. ‘The data is counterfactual. What are the proponents of capital punishment comparing to when they say the death penalty will be a deterrent?’ That seems like a fair-enough point. But there are few answers either to what the author is comparing her energetic claim with. The article cites two studies from the US; one in support (Ehrlich) and the other (Donahue), not in discord; but with a carefully worded conclusion; ‘found it impossible to conclude with any certainty that capital punishment is a deterrent’. This latter study would have served the purpose of the article, and/or of its author, better if it had concluded the corollary – that it is possible to conclude with certainty that capital punishment is not a deterrent. These two conclusions, most will agree, are entirely different things.

Reading the study’s abstract from the link provided; we learn:

1. That this was conducted to study the inferences of ‘other’ studies that had concluded a substantial deterrent effect of capital punishment

2. That the metaanalysis was undertaken to verify the veracity of the conclusions of those other studies. It reviews the inferences of others and is not designed to study the critical question of independently assessing capital punishment as, or as not, a deterrent. Other study conclusions are put to the test; not the deterrent ability of capital punishment.

3. In conclusion, the study ‘found it impossible to conclude with any certainty that capital punishment is a deterrent’ because the other studies suffered from poor study design and I quote: ‘short samples and particular specifications may yield large but spurious correlations’.

B. There are a couple of other reasons the author adds to bolster her case.

1) ‘the morality of fighting barbarism with barbarism is complicated and that every country in the West has abolished it except the US’. I am deeply uncomfortable with the portrayal of a demand for the death penalty, as an option on the table, for the crime of rape as, ‘barbaric’. If this demand came from the victim or her family, would anyone dare to deem it ‘barbaric’? Morality being a deeply subjective issue; it is prudent to be cautiously restrained with its assessment especially in the face of grave tragedy and, 2) ‘there might be emotional satisfaction to the victims and their families’. That possibility is quickly refuted by the author because she has ‘doubts’ on this score! There is also a reference elsewhere to common sense. All assessments of common sense, morality and emotional satisfaction are subjective and informed by the biases of all participating sides.

After spending time reading this article, given that it has great visibility due to the platform of its publication; are we convinced to some measure (any measure) of the reasons for the flawed logic of using capital punishment as a deterrent? The answer is a clear, no.

Crime and culture are deeply intertwined. While the study quotes the Western experience with deterrence; it ignores that of Eastern nations completely. What, for example, is the deterrence ability of capital punishment under Sharia Law in progressive and theocratic Islamic Nations? The impact of capital punishment on behaviour, societal shaming and ostracization  cannot be ignored. The law is formulated taking into account socio-cultural circumstances unique to the people of the land. Just as human behavior in its normal and perverse forms falls within a spectrum of possibilities; so too does the application of the law. The law is not blanket applied to every case of crime based on its classification. The judicial prudence of the judge is applied to the specific circumstances of each case. Measures to rein in the abhorrent rape statistics include a plethora of suggestions ranging from the cultural, the familial, police and security reform and yes, judicial reform. While we wait for behavioural and cultural reform; the last two can be instituted with greater immediacy and have the capability (when strictly enacted) of influencing and enforcing behaviour. The endemicity of rape forces us to revisit and rethink the law.