Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I realise that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back), and I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think of me of belonging to the highest caste. They never use cusswords when talking to me, while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. Now I notice that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual as an individual for simply being human. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a casteist society.

How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.

 

 

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

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What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)

 

Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.

 

I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)

 

Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.

 

Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.

 

And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.

 

I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)

 

So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing Up Saudi

Saudi Arabia would easily top the list of countries most hostile to a freethinker. I can’t imagine living in a country that has a ban on theatres. Many expats justify living in Saudi, saying it is a good place to work for a few years and save money. After all, there are not many distractions. It’s pretty much Eat, Work, Sleep. But the damages on a person’s self-development are, in my opinion, not worth it. It is not a good place for children to experience life. In the ten years I lived there I never made any Saudi friends. There was very little interaction between the expats and Saudis. In a country like India where children are exposed to a variety of life changing experiences, Saudi Arabia offered very little. For instance, as my father once pointed out, in the time I lived there, I had never seen a death. Never seen a family grieve. This might seem like a small matter, but I feel experiences such as these are important. Reading about death is one thing, but seeing a dead body at a funeral is something else. It puts somethings in perspective and makes you aware of death as very real, rather than an idea.

Now I may not be the best person to write about life in today’s Saudi Arabia. I left Saudi in 2001 and I can only give you my version of the Saudi life until that point.

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“Race is Not Biology, Race is Sociology”

I’m currently reading the book “Americanah” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and loving it.

"African Negro" - Popular Science Monthly - 'The Races of Mankind', July 1881

“African Negro” – Popular Science Monthly – ‘The Races of Mankind’, July 1881
(Image shows a portrait sketch of a young black man in a suit and tie. The journal identifies him as “Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s faithful boy”. Image in Public Domain; links to source.)

There’s a segment in the book where a fictional blog post by the main character talks about what “race” means in America, which I just had to transcribe so you can read it: [Read more...]

Have You Brought Your Disability? Here’s Your Double Standard.

I want you to picture this hypothetical scenario. Upon arriving at the destination, a woman is about to get out of the car. One of the lesser known persons waiting outside lends his hand offering to help which she politely refuses. A moment later as she’s almost done, he suddenly grabs her inappropriately under the shoulder and pulls her out, ignoring that she had declined and making her uncomfortable. What would you call this act? Disrespect? Harassment? Some may say groping, depending upon the nature of contact and gender dimensions involved. Most people, however, would surely agree it is unacceptable behaviour to touch another person like that without their consent. They would probably express their disagreement by openly questioning his action.

Now imagine the situation happening for real. Only this time, she was getting out of the car and transferring onto her wheelchair. The same incident took place but nobody in the scene showed any objection. Why would they when they don’t see it as problematic? When all of it was seen as natural or even ‘good’ conduct? No one confronted the man’s behaviour. Neither did I. All I could do later on was wishing the anger and frustration had hit me before the pain and humiliation. Yes, I’m that disabled woman.

And why pain? Because this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced lack of consideration for personal boundaries from others, nor mine an isolated or rare incident for a disabled person. Meeting someone with a visible disability it seems is a free golden ticket for many to break away from those darned social norms they otherwise have to follow as civil beings. Unwarranted pats, strangers inquiring about my impairment before even asking my name, women I meet for the first time wanting to examine my hands or legs.. all that had become so routine that until the age of 19 I didn’t recognize the oppression of it and used to feel guilty when at times I refused participation. Like somehow I owed it to them. Had the above mentioned incident happened to a non-disabled woman, the conversation would have immediately (and rightfully) been on indecency, violation of consent, unsafe environments, and every other argument that points in the direction of disrespecting autonomy and infringement of bodily integrity. But add disability to the equation and the very same reasoning gets replaced with muddled excuses or efforts to frame it as an overreaction to a not-so-serious issue. I can almost hear it.

“But he was just trying to help you.”
“I think it was made clear I didn’t need it. Besides if you really want to help someone, isn’t following their reaction the right way to do it?”

“I’m sure his intentions weren’t bad.”
“Maybe not. But intentions aren’t always necessary for something to be inappropriate. I could attempt to insult a man by calling him a pussy and it would still be sexist even if engaging in sexism wasn’t the plan on my mind.”

“Ok so you’re disabled and now you’re saying you shouldn’t be assisted? Isn’t that being arrogant?”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t ever want any help. I’m just saying I didn’t require it in this particular case. What he did was the opposite, it was hurt. Please understand the difference.”

“Fine, I get that it must have been bad for you. Now just let it go. Why are we even talking about this?”
I don’t know, maybe because for a brief moment I had the delusion I was equally human…

 

Let’s have a look at this in the larger social context. Study after study show that women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence than non-disabled women, are likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of the violence. Similar but more often than non-disabled women, their abuser is someone close to them. It could be their guardian, spouce, relative or caregiver. [Quoting one of the links] “Frequently they do not report the violence. Institutions of the justice system are often physically inaccessible and do not provide reasonable accommodation, they often lack access to legal protection and representation, law enforcement officials and the legal community are ill-equipped to address the violence, their testimony is often not viewed as credible by the justice system and they are not privy to the same information available to non-disabled women.”

Yet response to this obvious reality remains quite minimal. The mainstream media and larger public while becoming increasingly conscious and giving more visibility to awareness generation regarding gender issues, are yet to turn proper attention towards those affecting disabled women. What are the reasons they face such discrimination? According to the same study, “women and girls with disabilities are at high risk of gender-based and other forms of violence based on social stereotypes and biases that attempt to dehumanize or infantilize them, exclude or isolate them, target them for sexual and other forms of violence, and put them at greater risk of institutionalized violence.”

And how do we know that? From countless experiences like the one above.

 

 

Related Links:

1. http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason/2013/06/25/touching-people-without-their-consent-still-a-problem-even-if-its-not-sexual/

2. http://kractivist.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/india-not-a-safe-issue-disabled-women-and-sexual-violence-vaw-disability/

3. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/the-disabilities-bill-is-a-mixed-bag/article3927212.ece

 

 

Memories of Street Harassment as a Boy

In the Nirmukta Facebook group last month, there was a discussion thread on street harassment during which one commenter, a woman, asked the following question:

I was wondering. Do you all think average Indian males understand what street harassment feels like? If not, I would like to explore this through my writing. My understanding is that men relate to bullying and ragging and understand the horror of it. I want to show that walking on an Indian street as a woman is like being surrounded by bullies every day, all of your life. I also don’t think men know how pervasive it is. In my experience, it starts when you are about 10 years old and doesn’t stop until you are about 55. I would write something that portrays a fictional world where men are constantly bullied.

"Young Boy in Profile" (1886) - a painting by Marie Kroyer

“Young Boy in Profile” (1886) – a portrait by Marie Kroyer. Image in public domain; via Wikimedia Commons (links to source).

We really can’t understand what it feels like. The social systems, identities and power relations being what they are, and given the frequency and severity of street harassment of women by men, men just cannot understand what it feels like. Thought experiments of a fictional world of constant bullying could make some impact I guess. Anyway, that question made me remember my own experiences growing up. I have some history of being street harassed by other men, and that’s what this post is about. My objective in writing it is to show what a toxic mess the man box is (more on that at the end).

I have a small build and am light-skinned. When I was a young boy, I had what is derogatorily called a “pretty boy” look. And I used to get street harassed by other boys, and grown men (they were were all male – each and every one). The street harassment consisted of staring/leering, passing comments, making kissing noises, pointing-and-laughing, etc. I think the purpose was to mock and “mess” with me, show dominance, goad me into a fight (which I would lose). Here are some instances and things I remember:

Going to play tennis, I’m in an auto-rickshaw, wearing shorts. At the signal some college-aged men lean out of the bus right next to me, and start saying (stuff).

Playing badminton/tennis, again in shorts, passer by stops to watch and starts saying (stuff), trying to provoke me into a reaction.

Walking back home from my bus stop, or walking to the market, alternating my routes so as to avoid harassers.

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