Friday, August 28, 2009

The meaning of life, and all that jazz...

I am in a strange mood today...

There has been a death in the family - in my extended family. Earlier this week, my father-in-law's elder brother, who lived in Hyderabad, passed away in his sleep from a massive myocardial infarction. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son.

From all accounts, he appears to have lived a complete life. Moving from Guwahati in Assam, he gradually settled down in Hyderabad. The daughter, my wife's cousin, is well-placed in Bangalore, while the son is studying for a degree in computer applications. Though I did not know them very well beyond exchanging occasional pleasantries with the daughter through the social networking sites, I do share my family's bereavement at this sudden, and somewhat unexpected, loss.

Another part of me, however, moving beyond the obvious grief, is considering the manner of the death. In this world of war, famine and pestilence, countless individuals die every day violent and gory deaths - completely needlessly, more often than not - over petty politics, apathy and callousness, nationalism, fanaticism, accidents, random acts of violence, and even over utterly inconsequential stuff such as religion. How fortunate, then, one is - having lived in that same world - to be able to pass away peacefully in one's sleep. Of course, death rarely arrives in a manner of one's choosing, but I should be so lucky when it is my time to go...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A wave of nostalgia...

Who woulda thunk? No, really - who would have thought that I would be so awash with nostalgia in a - wait for it - fish market?

No, this is not your friendly neighborhood Unhygienix the Gaul speaking from exile... I had to visit India in order to deal with an urgent family medical crisis. In course of all that, I accompanied an aunt of mine to the local marketplace for the weekly procurement of groceries, rice, pulses, vegetables of varied descriptions, and of course, fish. After all, where would the Great Bengali be without the staple of their lives - fish?

In most such local marketplaces in my city, Calcutta, the fish market occupies its own niche in a secluded section. It is eminently understandable, of course. Though there are no physical boundaries between the 'Have fish' and 'No, thank you' sections, the moment you step into the piscine area, your nose is assailed by a variety of odors wafting towards you from the glistening piles of fish. To the less discerning 'fishless' shopper, it smells - well - fishy. To the discerning and sensitive epicurean gastronome, it is but a mixture of the salty tang of the sea, sweetness of the water of rivers and estuaries, gentle breeze blowing the East as the sun rises, and the blood and sweat of the simple fisherfolk who toil day in and day out regardless of the weather to bring us the gifts from the water gods. One has to enter that zone for the commencement of the daily ritual of fish procurement - the first step being haggling over the price.

No self-respecting Maachhwalaah (fishmonger) would ever dream of quoting you the correct price right at the first go. That sort of thing is just not done. Uh-huh. It is not - as they say - cricket. When asked about the price of a particular type of fish (sold by weight), they would start usually at one and a half times to twice the actual price. There is a fine balance at play here. The Maachhwalaah, being good a judge of human character, would never quote a price that is designed to irritate or disgust the prospective customer. The price is adjusted to just beyond the buying habit of the individual customer, so that the customer would find it worth his/her while to haggle over, eventually arriving at a compromise that would satisfy the customer's primal urge to get a deal and pay less than asking price, and leave a margin of profit for the seller as well.

Haggling at the local fish market is easily a performance art. One has to step back and enjoy the back-and-forth. It is not all dry business; the affair - lasting for several minutes - is invariably replete with pithy comments and clever repartees. One common theme is to ask the fishmonger how his multi-storied place of residence is coming along - the implication being that the money he gets from fleecing the customers is spent to fix him a palace. He may reply with a forlorn face, saying that he has only a single-story dwelling place. At this point, the neighboring fishmonger - perhaps a tad jealous that his neighbor is about to make a sale, or perhaps just enjoying the good-natured banter - would jump in and remind the customer to ask the previous fishmonger how many single-story houses he has had built and where. Such questions would be met with a cryptic, yet disarming smile, and the topic would be quickly changed to how to cut the fish - whether into large sizes or small, whether to de-scale or not.

While they speak nineteen to dozen, and easily handle a steady stream of customers with aplomb, their hands or the hands of their assistants are constantly moving about an extremely sharp instrument, termed a 'bnoti' ('bow' with a nasal twang, plus 'tea'), a curved scythe-like implement fixed on a flat piece of wood. The same bnoti is used for descaling and cutting the fish into pieces, and is constantly washed with a splash of water. A moment's carelessness can cost someone a finger or cause a gash, but that never happens. Through the banter, their concentration is unwavering. It is kind of mesmerizing to watch. My mind hearkened back to the flamboyance of the fish-handlers in the Pike Place market in Seattle, but would they stand a chance in this magical mêlée - not at this scale!

We got our fish and walked away, promising to return in a few days, looking for more varieties of fish that would be made into different delicacies. I was reminded, not without a twinge of sadness, of the sterile environment of our local Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi grocery stores in the East Coast, of the fish imported from Burma or Thailand, neatly cut into pieces and frozen in slabs of ice, and price-marked - completely devoid of life, of character, of that feel of having won a prize at the fish market through a battle of wits.

The price we pay...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

What is it with Indian men and rape?

Yet another statistic, yet another dark splotch on the sheet... Today's Times of India (August 1, 2009) reports that a 22-year old newly-wed woman was gang-raped in Thane by five as-yet unidentified young men. The police suspect that local thugs may be involved. Who knows when (or rather, if) they will be ever apprehended and brought to justice.

Also reported in today's Times of India, a twenty-something woman was gang-raped by four persons at Savitribai Phule slums in Nagpur in front of two kids in the early morning of Friday. Gagged with a cloth and threatened with sharp weapons, the victim could do little to help herself or her neighbor's two kids, who were sleeping with her, and cowered in one corner of the room during the incident.

This past Wednesday (July 29, 2009), Indian Express reported that a 30-year-old kitchen help in the hostel of Central Government-run Navodaya Vidyalaya was gang-raped and later set on fire by her co-workers in Belora village of the district in Gujarat. The victim is struggling for life in the government hospital here with 95% burns.

Three reported rape incidents in just a matter of a week. Also on Wednesday, a Times of India report conferred a dubious distinction on Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal; India has been recording a rise in the number of rape cases during the past five years with states like Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal registering maximum number of them, the parliament was informed Wednesday.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, an astounding 20737 rape cases were registered in 2007 alone. And that is just the tip of a huge iceberg. Rape in India is largely a safe crime to carry out as it is plagued by very poor reporting levels due to the stigma involved. Delhi-based psychologist Rajat Mitra, who is active in this issue and even counsels imprisoned offenders, says: "People from the upper class and the middle class do not report rape cases. It is mostly the people from the lower class that come out to seek police intervention." It is estimated that as many as 90% of the rape cases actually remain unreported.

What is it with Indian men and rape?

Is it about sexual gratification in a country where, inexplicably, sex is still a taboo subject and the Indian male is a lustful, prurient, sex-starved lot eager to carry out rape to fulfill a sexual fantasy whenever opportunity presents? Is it about power and control over certain individuals, or a group of people - an uncontrollable urge to dominate? Or, is it a violent response, a lashing out, of the patriarchal societal establishment to the increasing economic and social emancipation of the Indian women, whom it finds it cannot subjugate any further?

In India, it probably is all of the above. Rapes are often not crimes of opportunity carried out in the spur of the moment, but in most cases are well-planned and a considered act. The rapist actually enacts the rape in his mind for many times before he actually carries it out; the opportunity in most of the cases is created by manipulating the situation carefully or casing out the vulnerabilities of the intended victim.

Perhaps a lot of it has to do with the traditional Indian male attitude towards women. "streeyaashcharitram devaa na jaananti, kutoh manushyaah" - Rajasthan deputy chief minister Hari Shankar Bhabra quoted a Sanskrit shloka in the State Assembly, no less, to say, "Why talk of humans, even the gods cannot say anything definite about a woman's character..." when commenting upon Bhanwari Devi, a low-caste victim of gang-rape by upper-caste thugs, in 1998. The comment sums up the prevalent general Indian attitude to sexual assaults, carefully couched behind an appropriate Sanskrit shloka to render some legitimacy to it. Rape is assumed to be the woman's fault and a test of her character.

Holy cow! When did we become so utterly insensitive and inhuman?