Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fifty Years, A Love Story

Over half a century ago, my grandfather set out to do what most Indian fathers do: find a 'suitable boy' for his daughter. Amidst all the boxes he had set himself to tick, his daughter - my mother - had added one of her own: the 'boy' had to be in the army.  My mum has always liked uniforms!

My grandfather found such a 'suitable' boy. Except that particular road was frought with Shakespearan complications: jealous stepmothers; odd mixed messages; mistaken identities because Rajputs seem to have zero imagination when it comes to naming our daughters; and also actual threat of bodily harm to the bridegroom who was serving on the border. An uncle sent out by my father to check out his bride was too shy to lift his eyes and thus reported that 'she had beautiful feet.'  And then there was my mother, the 'ice princess' herself, who was - and remains - too beautiful for words and very much a daddy's girl. Could any man match up to her father?

In face of numerous complications, my maternal grandfather, a man dedicated to modern judiciary, eventually gave into his feudal instincts and took a train full of men armed to their teeth to the engagement ceremony. He decided he was going to walk off if my to-be dad didn't meet his standards even if it triggered a blood feud. Phew! Dad's good looks - or undeniable charms - avoided that particular bloodshed.

Things didn't improve much when I came along a couple of years later. My first  memories are of my  mother searching casualties lists in the newspapers to find my father's name and weeping over those of his men who did not come home.

My dad thankfully did.

And my mother wore a sari the colour of the midnight embroidered with silver stars.  The silver stars made her lap too scratchy for me to sit on but my father told me that she looked beautiful. She teased him that if he 'truly' loved her, he would have brought her Dhakai silk that would be as soft as butter. Thirty years later when he returned to Dhaka in peace time on a work trip, he brought back two of those beautiful saris for her.

They stayed that  way: glamourous, mysterious, even when my sister was born. They danced till the early morning hours in officers' messes in far off army camps. Amongst our military home gear, the most precious possession was an expensive 'hi-fi' sound system. Wrapped carefully in towels, it travelled in the back of my dad's government issue Jonga across India's north eastern region. In far off army camps, in the midst of the jungle, the hi-fi sound system would play Indian and Western songs while my parents danced in the soft glow of dozens of storm lanterns.

Until another war - and a life in hostile territory - came about. There was a new baby - my brother - and a new war: the Soviet-Afghan one. Our house was bugged so family conversations happened in the shower. My father had given up his uniform for strange games of shadows, reflections, smoke. And my mother had a crochet knitting bag full of knitting needles and balls of wool. She carried it everywhere but we were not allowed to touch it. Because the bag held the gun. And my mum is a damn good shot!

My parents locked into each other during those years in Pakistan. Call it co-dependency. Call it addiction. Call it battle fatigue.  Or just call it trust.

And so it has been. Mr and Mrs Smith have nothing on them.

But then there were the years in the wilderness.  Not with eachother, but for the world. Where everything seemed wrong. Or at least harder. And they were not made easier by the  many questions about the choices they made - not in the least about their children (my choices have never been easy to defend - mum and dad, I am sorry) .

And there have been the years of empty nesting where all of us left. I remember my parents' bewilderment at having to negotiate a relationship that was unmediated by a child. Any child.

They grow old now and relatively feeble. So no more forty kilometers a day marches for my father.  And more cautious; so no more family trips through war zones. But it amazes me that they still have so many things to talk about. After five decades, my father still wakes my mother with a tea tray in bed. My mother still buys my dad's clothes and knows exactly what he loves. But more importantly, they have a lot to say each other every moment of the day. And they still have lots to argue about. And they hug each other when they nap.

After fifty years, that's a damn high bar for relationships. But it is also the right one!

So happy 50th anniversary, parents!              

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The End of Beauty


The year when beauty ended. The year that robbed us of David Bowie. And Prince. And S.H. Raza. And Mahashweta Devi.  From the very first day of the year, the stars aligned against music and words and colours. Against creation and art. 

Steadily, inexorably, a dull, grey storm cloud rose until it engulfed the planet.

The storm had been germinating for a long while. Or do I mean a cyclone? Shall I call it a hurricane? Over the horizon. And yet all around us, in maelstrom of horror, it built and gathered fury. In soft nostalgia peddled by hipster cafes and fashionable boutiques. With reclaimed - upcycled - kitsch that nodded to a past that had never existed but could be sanitised and sold for ludicrous sums. It gathered strength in the swamping of literature that provokes complex thought with simplistic cliches that were lauded for their great value. And it grew monstrous in brush strokes that produced nothing of value beyond meaningless critique and auctions that were only notable for the vast sums of money invoked by newspapers. In music that nodded to our childhoods but did little to guide us into our precarious old age. 

And most of all in our obsession with digital fever dreams of what we named Reality TV - a lurid, sordid screenscape that blocked out all that we could have lived in reality itself. 

So naturally the growing storm found its core in a man who is a star of this elaborate artifice. A man who confidently proclaims that he knows words; that he has 'the best words.' A man who lumbers about an awkward lubber of a body of a colour never found in nature. A man who took that lack of meaning that we had dulled ourselves with and piped them directly into our television screens, and speakers, and twitter feeds. A man who didn't need to tell the truth because we had grown to accept and expect artifice, falsehood and meaninglessness. 

And yet we stayed transfixed by the horrorscape on our screens, incapable of action even when Reality TV bled into reality. Many never noticed that the 'best words,' the false words, the knowing words, transformed themselves into echoes that grew louder with each passing moment. And those who noticed, remained powerless as the voices of inanity, of ignorance, of brute stupidity grew into a tall cyclone. Or even the tallest cyclone, the Orange Man would say.

Those of us who love beauty could not escape the horrorscape even when those echoes became a cacophony of atavistics howls of a mob driven mad by illusions of grievance. By delusions of oppression. By false memories of greatness. 

Until one morning when that storm, that hurricane, that cyclone of meaningless words, of sloppy brushstrokes, jangling notes, of comprehensive moral vacuum swamped us. Mute, paralysed, we watched even as it grew ever nearer. Some of us shrieked, shouted, raged, warned but our voices were lost in the dissonant racket. And the monstrous storm raged and screamed and howled nothing. Until it engulfed us all into nothing. And then whirled on to become Nothing. 

1985. The year my family moved to New York City. Ronald Reagan was President. Cold War was at its height. And aptly for an international, politicised, informed family, what my siblings and I - ranging in age from six to sixteen - feared most was Mutually Assured Destruction. We knew far better than most adults - thanks to my father's job - the complex processes, the nuclear protocols, the range and time till an ICBM launched from across would be counted as First Strike. 

While the adults worried and tried to change reality, we - as kids - tried to find comfort. We wanted a plan of action. Any plan. Any action. We thought of escape. Of grab bags with passports and money. Of cars and boats. And skills required to survive the nuclear winter we were afraid would happen on any day. 

Then we realised that if a strike were launched, we lived within a mile of the epicentre. So instead we decided - as children, albeit very well informed ones - that we would walk down to the UN Plaza. We knew we could get there before that first atomic orange flash. 

There, if we were lucky, we would have time to arrange ourselves. To make shadows. To make the best shadows. The most beautiful shadows. Nuclear Shadows that would remain behind for the survivors of our world. Or aliens who stumbled upon our destroyed planet. 

Powerless yet informed, we wished to leave behind something beautiful. Something that would let the future know that there were some of who were informed. And thoughtful. And creative. And fundamentally moral. 

To leave a trace that somehow, somewhere, despite complete annihilation, ours had been a world of beauty. With beauty. It was Beauty. 

And in that beauty, we found hope. 

I no longer know if those who are children today - on this day - have any hope or ability to reach or create beauty.

UPDATE: I would like to change the end of the piece with a quote from The Buddha Smiled who tweeted:

"Yesterday my heart was breaking. Today, I ponder how to cast a shadow that will be long and enduring."

And in that shadow, there is still hope. There will always be hope.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Neutral is Really Default Setting For Male (and White): A Slightly Non-Scientific SocMed Experiment

I have written before about online gendered harassment and trolling.  The recent report by the Women's Media Centre provides horrific - if unsurprising - statistics of gendered harassment that in large part echo women's IRL experiences (please do read. Makes for an illuminating if unedifying read). The centre's director recently shared this handy illustration to make sense of the scale and forms of the issue:

The wheel however leaves out aspects other than visible gender that impact our experiences online, including but not limited to race, nationality, religion, and sexuality.  Here I want to talk about just one of the above intersections: of gender with race. 

As a non-white woman who has spent much of her adult life on line as a blogger, writer, journalist and social media user, I am particularly aware of how visible markers of race - especially name and photograph - add to the gendered interactions. Women of colour face - IRL and online - a harassment on both axis. 

Moreover, given the scope of the Speech Project, the wheel does not take into account the drip feed of gendered, sexualised and racialised micro-aggressions  (such as derailment, dismissal, sealioning) that women, and more acutely, women of colour must cope with online. It is also necessary to differentiate the two - legally defined harassment and microaggressions - even though some impacts may be similar and the intents and tactics may be on the same spectrum. 

After over twenty-five years online (cue bad memories of early web and late 1980s fashion), I have come to expect abuse, trolling, harassment (as per the wheel) but also gendered and racialised microaggressions such as sealioning as the norm. This is simply by dint of presenting as a visibly nonwhite woman at the same time as holding opinions. Yet I am still (and frequently) surprised that often those opinions don't need to be about 'big things' like war, politics, economics, or even 'controversial' topics such as feminism or free speech (or Gamer Gate!). Even opinions about relatively niche topics such as theatre or art can suddenly trigger massive pushback with gendered and racialised language.  

Two weeks ago, before going to bed I tweeted some relatively innocuous thoughts about Caryl Churchill's new play at the Royal Court. I woke up next morning to a surprising amount of pushback, some abusive, other merely condescending and/or dismissive. On another day, I would have probably moved on but this came on the heels of weeks of Berniebros who seemed to stalk the internet looking for even the mildest criticism of their idol. First hint of even a question and they would pounce. Or perhaps I was just tired of the constant dripfeed of mansplaining and whitesplaining, both online and IRL. Without particular planning, I decided to embark on a social media experiment (do check that twitter thread as it outlines the parameters and concept). 

I decided to change my twitter profile photograph. From back in 2013, when I was harassed and abused systematically for nearly ten months, I already knew that when I had used a diving photograph - underwater, with a mask and regulator hiding my face - not only had gendered abuse dropped to zero but male 'experts' also assumed I was a man and approached me in a more collegial way. This time I wanted to see if non-human avatar would have a similar result, especially as quite a few feminist friends use similarly 'neutral' photographs for their profiles. 

Then a twitter friend suggested that Sunshine Mutt as my handle as that would also partly veil my racial/ethnic identity. Of course a closer look on twitter would still show my name but it was worth a test. 

Initially, and perhaps as a defense mechanism, I used this photograph. I found it secretly amusing as it is our young puppy, a female Rottweiler named Pixie (talk of subverting stereotypes!). 

Unsurprisingly albeit sadly the results were instantaneous. The change in photograph dropped sexualised and gendered interactions to zero instantly. Surprisingly, racialised interactions also dropped instantly. The change in handle took all sexualised, gendered, and racialised interaction to zero. Some discussion with women friends on twitter raised the additional possibility that perhaps a large dog, especially a Rottweiler, was being read as male. The next step seemed to test out (1) if this were true and (2) would a dog visually read as more 'femme' change the interactions. So next photograph was of our little Dachshund.

Through the changes, I kept tabs on the progress, posting and discussing the experiment on twitter regularly: I posted: 

1. after 24 hours. Zero harassment, abuse and microaggressions although my tweeting topics, opinions, language, all remained the same. 
2. 48 hours. Still zero. This was particularly interesting as I had posted and critiqued Bernie Sanders online but received not a single one of the usual pushback accounts. 
3. Even four days later, there had been zero racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions. This again was interesting as the Iowa primaries took place in this period and despite the 'coin' controversy, I got zero racialised, gendered, sexualised pushback. (The above links are for twitter threads and may be worth a read).

On the third day of the experiment, I switched my handle back to normal to see if the pushback was primarily racial or gendered, or whether race added an additional axis to gendered pushback. Despite the switch to a racially/ethnically identifiable handle, nothing changed. With the dog avi, I still got ZERO racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions.

Initially I had planned on switching back to my normal photograph and handle after 48 hours. But testing out various permutations meant that nearly a week went by. That's when I realised the full extent of the toll of the constant online microaggressions: I was so enjoying being read as a man, so relieved that I could express my opinions without fearing immediate condescension, aggression, abuse, that I really didn't want to change back to my normal photograph.  So instead I enjoyed the fake neutrality which is really the privilege of being perceived as a man for another few days. 

A week later, I finally switched my photograph to my own. And wouldn't you know, five minutes later, I was back to be being mansplained, patronised, abused, sealioned. 

Conclusion: the primary and first trigger for online harassment - as perhaps can be said also of IRL - is gender. My name can and is often read as male so I have experienced a sort of misplaced male privilege before (especially for book sales and professional correspondence but that is material for another blogpost).  So even after my name was visibly and clearly racially identifiable, I got no aggression. This chimes with experience of male friends who are continuously surprised that they can speak on the same topics (even express the same views) with absolutely no aggression at all. 

My theory is that gender is the primary - and universal - trigger for pushback. However, race when visibly identifiable becomes an additional target. Other axis of marginalisation - including sexuality, ability, class, age - also play a part to aggrevate the silencing and erasure. Yet gender - at least - in the past two weeks of my unscientific social media experiment emerges as the first and most obvious starting point. 

And then they say feminism is dead. Or not needed. Sigh!