Big Oil v. Big Marches, Who’s Driving Paris?

As global leaders, scientists and advocates gather in Paris to commence the final negotiations that will determine the outcome of the final treaty and nations’ commitments toward emission reduction, climate mitigation and adaptation measures, it is necessary to examine who exactly is pushing for what agenda at the Conference of Parties, 2015. On one hand, there is a fierce, informed and undaunted civil society and the scientific community trying to convince the powers that be to arrive at a binding treaty strictly limiting emissions. On the other hand, a there is a massive lobby, comprising several big oil companies who are not only major influencers in the climate control game, but some are also actually sponsoring the Summit.

As Nick Fillmore reports, that there is clear contrast with the amount of space afforded to both influencing groups. While civil society and public interest organisations will largely be present at the fringes of the negotiations, corporations are hosting over ten major special events for government officials.

As the COP21 is hosted in Paris, several French corporations with reprehensible climate track records are sponsoring and donating to the summit, such as EDF (coal) and BNP Paribas (coal-financier), Suez (wastewater treatment from fracking and mining).

The climate  negotiations by their very structure so far have been very inclusive of corporate voices, and companies like Shell, BP, Dow Chemical which are major players in the dirty energy field, will also have adequate attendance at the summit, if not a seat directly at the negotiations. For example, Shell and BHP, partnered with McKinsey and Company to advise governments on climate policy.

In InfluenceMap’s Report on Big Oil and the Obstruction of Climate Regulations, we can clearly see that although oil companies might project a positive outlook towards binding emissions reductions, they are invariably aligned with several trade bodies and pressure groups which are striving for quite the contrary. Shell and Total are especially guilty of such misalignment.

The Corporate Europe Observatory’s Report titled, “The Corporate Cookbook: How Climate Criminals have Captured COP 21” aptly describes how “World leaders have been lining up to proclaim business the key player in tackling climate change, participating in their conferences and creating new platforms for their involvement.”

Corporate Accountability International’s Report titled “Fuelling the Fire: The Big Polluters Bankrolling COP21, further analyses the inherent conflict of interest in allowing the major culprits in global warming to pay for the event which will determine their eventual demise.

On the other hand, public support for strong climate action is stronger than ever before. Across the world, people are taking out marches, demonstrations trying to convince their governments to agree to a strong and binding treaty at COP21 if we are to have a realistic chance of surviving the climate catastrophe.  A campaign called Kick Big Polluters Out this week, is trying to draw attention to the fact that major climate culprits are paying for and trying to influence the outcomes of the summit. Today, as protest marches were banned within the city of Paris for security reasons, over 22000 pairs of shoes were placed at the Place de la Republique including those of His Holiness the Pope, to express the seriousness with which the public is demanding a solid treaty at Paris.

In the midst of this dichotomy, wherein public pressure demands that governments agree to strong climate action measures, while corporate pressure would preserve the status quo, how governments will eventually decide is a question of concern. While heeding to public demand is always prudent for elected governments who intend on staying in power and have their electorate place faith in them, the incestuous relationships between the corporate sector and governments, are worrisome in their potential to impact the talks. If any of the public interest reports are to be believed, the Big Oil and dirty energy companies have already succeeded in setting the entire premise of COP21, and that it is in their utmost interest to see to it that the Treaty is weak or a complete failure.

In the past couple of years there has been increasing opinion about how changing markets will influence carbon reductions, and how the solution likes in making businesses more sustainable. The word ‘sustainable’ has been bandied about to an extent that it has lost its meaning and become a misnomer. A business can be sustainable if it can recover its costs with enough profit. More often than not this is in direct contrast with the ability of the planet to sustain itself from such business outcomes. Instead of repeated hackneyed buzzwords to justify corporate involvement in our climate decisions, it is necessary to create a safe distance between the COP21 tents and the marketplace. For a situation that has arisen solely out of harmful trade practices and destructive consumer choices, to assume that the solution will also magically present itself from the market seems farcical. And that should be employed across the board. All clean energy isn’t faultless. Clean technology and energy companies should also not be allowed to influence the discussions, because anybody who stands to directly profit from governmental decisions should be kept at a safe distance, if we are to truly achieve a strong treaty which is good for not only the environment, but also existing social inequalities in energy consumption.

Pierre Henri Guignard, the Secretary General of the U.N. Summit said, “we are building a very business friendly COP.” With assurances like these, the battle seems lost before it’s fought. Hopefully, the COP21, like the motto of the city of Paris is Fluctuat nec mergitur.

 

Advertisements

Godmen, God-Animals and Godse

This is not meant to be an academic or op-ed piece with elaborately crafted arguments. These are thoughts I have been meaning to discuss for a few days now, and decided to stay back at the office today and not leave till I write them down. I believe it is an effective way to deal with anger. And I can assure you of my anger.

Everyone is expressing their two cents about #DigitalIndia and Internet.org. What makes me uncomfortable is how many are expressing their profound joy and pride at their emotional leader talking about Indian poverty with American corporate honchos. Many members of the Indian diaspora, seem to be #proudofbeingIndian. Let’s all chant in unison. We’re great at chanting anyway, with our skies spangled with Gods and Godmen.  I am not even sure what they’re applauding. Does India genuinely need the intervention of #Google to create WiFi hotspots at train stations? What on earth happened to #MakeinIndia? Let’s just #TakefromIndia instead. Oh sorry, forgot about #FDI. Forgot that the one stop-solution to all governance problems is building gateways for “ease of business”.

Ease of business reminds me… Remember that time when India had some of the greatest environmental laws in the world. Yeah, hold on to those memories. Memories of those laws, and memories of a country boasting of some of the rarest endemic wildlife species in the world. Ease of business isn’t going to be easy on them.

As for the environment, when did the mere beautification of sidewalks become an allegory for environmentalism? Use Dustbins, sure. But, we need to have a conversation about where our waste is ending up. About how consumer, urban India is suffocating and strangling the lives of millions of rural poor and agriculturists by dumping untreated lethal waste in open landfills around their homes and contaminating their rivers. Who’s picking up after us? What is the caste representation among our waste management personnel? Building toilets is a great initiative, but we need to acknowledge the gender and caste associated with its upkeep. So, Mr. Prime Minister, until we have that conversation, sorry I’m not going to like your #swachbhaaratabhiyaan posts. By the way, my friend Devanik Saha, did a great analysis of how your claim of having built toilets for girls in schools, fails scrutiny. Maybe it was a minister being too enthusiastic about their portfolio.

Speaking of enthusiastic ministers, what is with that? Union Minister for #Culture? He wants to eradicate all Western influences from public life in India. That film, theatre and literature should be vetted to ensure that they comply with the required Hindu certification or something to that effect. He seems to be of the opinion that fourteen year old girls in India shouldn’t have night outs. Why, Mr. Minister? Does it scare you, to think of women being allowed to explore their friendships, the boundaries of their life experiences, knowledge and sexuality by bonding with other men and women? To be fair, if I were espousing a blatantly dogmatic and patriarchal cause, I too would be terrified of just that.

Aaaand, speaking of #Hindu, the religion, the way of life, and/or the holy sanction which makes some of us kill others over their dietary preferences. Yeah, that #Hindu. I know the  “appeal to abstain” from meat has existed for years. So, don’t give me that argument about how it’s only being played out now. Allow people the autonomy to decide whether they want too be gracious and not consume meat out of respect for their fasting neighbours. You know what banning does? Yeah, it allows people to think that they have legal sanction to murder people by delivering vigilante justice to those suspected of eating meat. Also, do we really need to go into the specifics of which Hindus consume meat? Now tell me this is only about religion and not also about caste.

There is a section of our society which believes that Gandhi’s murderer was a hero, who “slayed” Mahatma Gandhi (translated from the original Marathi- “vadh karne”). Gandhi wasn’t a vampire to be slayed. Let us characterise it for the cold blooded murder which it was, borne out of organised indoctrination. Today, is Gandhi Jayanti. Have we truly become a nation which has given up on truth and non-violence to an extent that October 2nd only implies #dryday? We can critique him, his ways, question his decisions, sure. It would do us all good if we stopped deifying people, and scrutinised them as mortals, and their followers and fans, if you get my drift, have rational debates about their human fallacies.

And speaking of criticism, there seems to be a massive rise in the number threats to the unity and integrity of our nation. Threats justifying arrests of artists, schoolgirls and folk singers.  In all our current discourse on religion and India, being streamed on Youtube channels and Whatsapp messages, we seem to have forgotten another man. You must have heard of a certain Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. He was a man about whom K. Sankar Pillai made an ‘offensive’ cartoon. He was the man who laughed about the cartoon because yeah, he helped draft Section 19(1)(a) of that book called the Constitution of India. It’s a great book. Would definitely recommend it.

Let me Take a #Selfie!

*This post is random freestyle. To be taken as a rant, and not a nuanced opinion.*

For the past couple of days, Prime Minister Modi has been encouraging fathers to share selfies with their daughters with the hashtag #selfiewithdaughter,  in order to create awareness against female infanticide and the deplorable sex ratio. This call was inspired by such a selfie competition in a town in Haryana. I would expect smartphone companies, or mobile internet companies to come up with such obviously superficial gimmicks. Why our elected leader has decided to reduce a question of grave public importance to the self-laudatory confines of social media is beyond me. It might be well intentioned, but I highly doubt that a person on the verge of killing his/her unborn daughter is going to undergo a change of heart upon seeing his Twitter feed inundated by #selfiewithdaughter. Tackling the disgusting foundation on which our patriarchal society is based is far too much work. Instead, first let me take a selfie!

celebs animated GIF

I admit, once upon a time, I was rather amused by the idea of selfies, and found it rather strange that people kept taking photos of their own faces. Also it was so mainstream, that I got a kick out of opting out of the selfie- culture. Over time, I warmed to the concept, and have happily embraced selfie culture. Mostly because of my friends and family who seem to be quite adept at the art of selfie. I love it when my friends send me selfies of their travels, when my boyfriend sends me a random selfie just to say hello or when I can quickly send my mum a picture of my new haircut. I am always more comfortable behind the camera. However, I appreciate how selfies are an interesting way to document one’s travels, events without being MIA from all the pictures yourself. Instagram especially has made sure that some careers are built entirely on the basis of the selfie.

However, the selfie has stopped being just a photograph. Not only is it testament to our collective and individual narcissism, exhibitionism and need for cursory validation, but it has grown to occupy an important place in politics and business. Everyone from Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and Obama and Cameron keep uploading selfies, in a bid to reach out to their fans, customers and electorate. The Selfie is the great equaliser, isn’t it? What it says is, “Hi, we’re supposedly important people, but we’re not above doing something as fun and frivolous like taking a selfie, so we appear spontaneous, and part of the people!”

In India, the selfie has become an institution of mammoth proportions. Which is to be expected, since our Prime Minister is often referred to as the SelfiePM. Check out my friend Devanik Saha’s post selecting the top PM selfies. What does the selfie of Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang actually say? Maybe that although our countries may be in a permanent race of come uppance against each other, we have dreams of world domination, and we are in disputes over our border, this cheerful casual photograph of us leaders can help pretend otherwise. I am not being cynical. But, I would genuinely like to see how effective selfie-diplomacy will prove to be. I think #selfiediplomacy should be a thing.

selfie

Also, while we’re at it, can we please stop hating on selfie-sticks? People travel; it’s difficult always to capture your face and the vistas behind us simultaneously with just an arm and a front facing camera. Now there is a simple contraption to solve that problem. Most people who have no qualms about selfies in general, are now taking a moral highground against selfie-sticks. Maybe because it makes the process of selfie taking so obvious. It’s the same logic that says that you should appear beautiful, but effortless, you mustn’t reveal the beautification process, because then the delusion of grandeur disappears. Photographers have been using monopods for years. Unless people use the selfie sticks as potential weapons, I think we can let them be. Although, to be honest, I’d never buy one. I am more of a remote-control-DSLR kinda girl. 😉

Coming back to the topic that triggered this post. All the previous banter aside, I think it is time our prime minister stepped up his game. The Indian Government is not a company that should feel good about itself after looking at smiling photographs advocating empty goals. Girls are being denied the opportunity to be born, and an extremely massive upheaval of the system is required if we are to even begin to address this tragic reality. Our cities and villages are filthy, and we live in a nation where manual scavenging continues to be a livelihood, where sanitation is swathed in caste politics. Reducing these questions to father daughter selfies, and selfies of celebrities sweeping their high-end neighbourhoods, is trivialisation, especially when espoused by the government. We can do better than this.

Book Review: Drowning Fish, by Swati Chanda

When I was thirteen, I was lucky enough to be taught Engish by a certain Mrs. Swati Chanda. I am not exaggerating when I say that she made me fall in love with the language. She would tell us stories of her days at Purdue University, from hikes up the Niagara Falls to anecdotes of her childhood in Calcutta. She was funny yet mysterious and her GK lessons were the highlight of my week. I even wrote her a poem at the end of the year.

Fast forward ten years, and you can imagine my excitement and expectations at reading her first novel, ‘Drowning Fish’. Every once in a while, you read a book that feels like it was written to order. As it compiles the elements that appeal to you, and resonate it with you in places you did not know existed.

Without divulging spoilers, the plot revolves around the life of a young Indian woman- Neelanjana, who leaves for the United States to pursue a doctorate in English. The transition to American life, and her encounters with friends, colleagues and lovers provide an interesting canvass to her own self exploration. Neelanjana’s story is alternated with the story of her grandmother Nayantara who migrates from erstwhile East Bengal to Calcutta after the 1950s communal riots, and her journey from a wealthy landowner to a destitute widow in a foreign land, alienated from the land and rivers she has known all her life is unsettling. Her furniture, Victorian teak and exquisite is almost a main character of the novel, a symbol of change and constancy simultaneously. The book weaves together the diverse cast of characters with themes of alienation, misunderstandings and most importantly of nostalgia that threatens to suck out the life force out of them, like fish living in an environment that has become poisonous,  drowning fish. And how every generation battles its own identity crises and persecution, whether it is post independence East Bengal or post 9/11 USA.

My favourite aspect of the book was Neelanjana’s pursuit to explore her feelings and sexuality. Too often, we encounter tales of Indian girls and the culture shock of the free West. Drowning Fish offers an honest and identifiable portrayal of a girl who is unafraid, conscious of her limitations, yet ambitious in her friendships and relationships. Much like her favourite ensemble of a cowl necked top worn with silver bangles from Calcutta’s new market.

Another interesting aspect of the book that I loved was the depiction of diaspora nationalism. The need of first generation immigrants to hold on to your past, the overcompensation, the rituals, the Bharatnatyam and the spices in San Francisco, to make up for a land left behind. Fish that aren’t drowning, but swimming in a sanitized aquarium.

The book lies predominantly in the strength of the female narratives, of a childless  and exuberant aunt, who loathes and upholds her marriage to a sexual offender and of women rolling up their sleeves and shedding their saris to earn a living on railway stations when the mass exodus and refugee status leaves no other option. Of the transience of female beauty and the schadenfreude of the reader when the vain crumble.

I also really loved the landscapes throughout the book. The author conjures up breathtaking visuals, of mid twentieth century East Bengal, of the fetid squalour of Sealdah and the gilded mansions of Minto Park in Calcutta, of tea gardens in Siliguri and public parks in the Bay Area.

At the heart of this novel, there lies an unusual love story. About how it is possible to love singularly, and without expectation of reciprocation, honestly and devoutly, and the guilt and dishonesty associated with the inability to love back, and the inevitable cruelty of unequal relationships. The following lines, slightly cliched yet primal, kept playing on repeat in my head,

“‘If you are the flame, how can I stay away?’

‘If I am the flame, how can I stop myself from destroying you?'”

I read the entire book on a train journey from Delhi. Towards the end of the book, I started crying and kept on crying long after I had finished the book, surrounded by a bunch of nonplussed strangers.

Just go get yourself a copy. 🙂

Education: Hogwarts, Batch of 2007.

So, I just happened to read Caroline Siede’s lovely piece on how Harry Potter shaped our generation. I was pretty inspired and decided to write my own tribute. I’m going to write about the books, but use the film gifs, because that is what the movies did, provide a singular visual reality to our collective literary fantasy.

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” 

When I was nine, some cool kids in my class were reading this red-covered book with a kid looking at a train engine. Intrigued, I picked up a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wasn’t very impressed. A few months later, my aunt gifted me Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. I read CoS,and when a certain Ms. Hermione Granger figured out how to brew Polyjuice Potion and a Basilisk was killed by a sword dropped by an ancient hat delivered by a Phoenix in an underground chamber, I had fallen in love. Then Prisoner of Azakan followed, with its Hippogriffs, Dementors and time travel. PoA will always be my favourite book in the series. By the time I was finished with Goblet of Fire, I was obsessed.

I must have read the first four books roughly thirty times, each, by the time Order of the Phoenix was announced to be released, in 2003. During those couple of years, I discovered one of my best friends. Lubna and I would spend hours in class discussing and refuting each others’ theories as to what would happen in the next book. We even filled a notebook, our eleven year old selves writing Tom Riddle’s diary. It’s hilarious. Reading the Harry Potter Books was an exercise in living, an inalienable part of our being. We would hang out on Mugglenet.com and Veritaserum.com for hours, when Broadband cables were just entering the market. I even hosted a birthday party on 31st July (JKR’s and Harry’s birthday), when we made Butterbeer using online recipes. My parents were so worried that I was harming my eyes by reading the books past bedtime, that I was banned from buying any more. I used to cry so much everyday at the dinner table begging that they pre-book my copy of OotP, that my maid, oblivious to the context, assuming I wanted a textbook and stirred by my heartfelt pleas, insisted that my parents dock her salary so I am not deprived of an education. And that is what it was, an education. (By the way, my parents are amazing, they surprised me on my birthday with the pre-booking receipt and my Dad drove me across town for my copy, the day it released, because the local outlet had had a fire.)

I met Antara Jha when she moved to my neighbourhood in 2004, and went to my school. When I saw her collection of the books in her bookshelf, I knew she was best-friend material. So, when the delivery of my copy of HBP got delayed, she gave me hers to read. And seven years ago, 21/7/07, was Antara’s sixteenth birthday, when we spent the day by bringing the journey home.

When I joined law school in 2010, and met my room mate of five years-Vasvi, we realised five minutes into our first conversation that the other was part of the fandom. I do not exaggerate when I say that a significant aspect of our friendship involves overzealous discussions over genres of fanfiction, and our respective OTPs (She’s a Harmony shipper, and I believe in Romione, because well, I believe in Hermione, and she chose Ron. Just sayin’.)

And speaking of OTP (fandom abbreviation for One True Pairing), I became friends with this boy around ten years ago. We had almost nothing in common, (he was into advanced mathematics, while I was into languages and history). However, we were both firebrand fans, and would spend hours refuting and brainstorming theories about the books. He’s a Harmony shipper, so we’d often indulge in the Harmony versus Romione argument. Ten years on, we still fight about Harmony versus Romione, still don’t have anything in common, except maybe that we’re crazy about each other. 🙂

 

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I learnt most of my life lessons from J.K. Rowling. The most fascinating aspect for me has always been the clear parallels that can be drawn with the Muggle World. The house elves and racism, Giants and immigrants, The Weasleys and the significance of the class divide, Purebloods versus Mudbloods and Apartheid, Death Eaters and the Gestapo. Imperius Curse and brainwashing, Cruciatus and torture in custody, The Ministry of Magic and the corrupt politburo of our times, The Daily Prophet and a paid news media, Quidditch and Football+Basketball+Formula One.

As Muggles, it was easy to slip away  from the dreary desert sands of dead habit to a world which was magical, and make that world completely our own. Without realising it was always our world. Which is why I am fascinated by the academic literature analysing the world of Harry Potter. I would highly recommend Michael Barton’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

 We might have lived in the Muggle world, but we went to Hogwarts, and we studied Transfiguration, Potions and Defence Against the Dark Arts, as much as we learnt the value of friendship, courage, intelligence, humour, family and love. We learnt that even if you were picked on as a kid and labelled a loser, you would grow up to destroy Volemort’s horcrux, that it was okay to be weird and believe implausible things, be laughed at but still be one of the smartest witches around, that you can drop out of school and build the successful startup of your dreams, that you could be the smartest witch of your age and vulnerable at the same time, that love stories can transcend age, class, disabilities and prejudice. The world of Harry Potter, with its multitude of characters granted identification to us all and let us believe that it was okay to be different, as long as your heart was in the right place.

We have cried when Dobby died. We have queued for hours in front of bookstores. We have written, beta-tested and read scores of fanfiction.  We made a genre of music called Wizard Rock. We have an International Quidditch Association. We have a global non-profit called the Harry Potter Alliance. We suffered from severe withdrawal symptoms, this time seven years ago. We have stuck with Harry till the very end, and Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home.

We are, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Batch of 2007.

On Sexism, Humour and Good Looking Girls

This piece is in solidarity with Arpita Phukan Biswas’ post about the sexist comments by Palash Sen  at this year’s edition of Mood Indigo, IIT Bombay’s annual fest. I base my opinion on her piece, and of course it is hearsay. The piece is obviously valid based on the assumption that the account is true, IF the artist in question did make the statements reported.

To summarise as briefly as possible, (although I strongly recommend reading her post) the facts of the matter are as follows. Palash Sen, member of the popular band Euphoria, while performing at the fest engaged with the audience using questions and comments such as:

meme

  • Repeatedly asking ” “Are there good-looking girls in IIT-B?”
  • “Don’t worry guys, you will find the best looking women when you leave this campus. Aur woh tumhaare liye roti belenge.(And they will make rotis for you.)”
  • “Women are for beauty, men are for intelligence. You have to agree that men are more intelligent than women, don’t you?”
  •  “Women are the most beautiful creation by God.”
  • “[Girls]… ought to become as intelligent as boys to come to IIT.”

Most importantly, it is crucial to remember that these were not isolated comments made by a celebrity alone, but an interactive dialogue between the performer and an audience largely comprising of men, who cheered and laughed self-congratulatorily at these statements.

I have been fervently discussing this incident with several of my peers, from various disciplines and received a variety of responses.  While most of it has been shock at the blatant misogyny of it all, some of the reactions have been tempered with riders along the lines of:

  • He was probably just doing it to please the crowd. People do stupid things on stage.
  • Banning them from fests in the future is too harsh a step.
  • This is my favourite: “It’s just his opinion, man. Free Speech!”

I don’t know Palash Sen, apart from liking a few of his compositions. I have no idea  why he said what he did.  His motives behind saying the reported statements, even if they were playing to the gallery, without actually believing in what he said, however, cannot be an excuse for perpetuating discriminatory and offensive beliefs against half the population, in public fora. More importantly, the representative audience, even if in majority, approved of and appreciated the comments, it still does not legitimise the public bullying of the minority here, in this case, the female students of IIT Bombay.

Many comments on the post are extremely defensive and critical of the authors views. Some examples:

  • “While I can understand your veritable anger at what you perceived to be crimes against your sex, it is in all probability a case of well , “boys being boys”. After a whole semester of stress , anxiety and assignments, we “boys” are finally able to unwind.”
  • “Maybe its just me, but at first glance it seemed genuinely satirical. Maybe, the way he said it was different but if you read what he said it seems like he is making fun of the guys for running after superficial beauty or something along that line. “
  • “Sarcasm. Look it up. It is a long-running gag on the internet, (and off it), that there is a severe dearth of girls (attractive or otherwise) in engineering colleges, and what Dr. Palash Sen said, was merely a play on that very fact. If we force our artists to be politically correct in their concerts, then we may as well limit recreational performances to Gospel bands and the like.”
  • “I guess the comment hurt the writer’s ego and hence this incident has been blown out of proportions.”

I am reproducing these statements, only for representative value of the kinds of responses a woman can expect to receive if she decides to take it up with the so called funny men. Feminists have no sense of humour, of course. We lurk in the shadows, only to pounce upon every joke, so that we may take offense, because of course we have no understanding of sarcasm, humour  or generally an idea of good fun, when boys are just being boys.  And of course, we oppose sexism, only if it personally hurts our “ego”, and not when it is directed towards our gender as a whole.

I’d provide extensive analysis to differentiate amongst sarcasm, satire, irony, parody and so on, but that’s really not the point of this post. One thing I am certain of, is that comments along the ones reported are not excluded from being constituted as misogynistic, and it is imperative that we at least acknowledge them for what they are, instead of rushing to defend the singer out of some misplaced sense of loyalty or fanhood. People cannot simply excuse this as a joke, laugh and brush it off as nothing and continue to label themselves as supporters of equality. 

The author has asked that the university not permit the band to perform at the campus in the future. I was told this constitutes a rather harsh reaction, and would not achieve any end; it would merely enrage the fans of the band and garner sympathy for the singer, instead of creating the desired effect. I cannot help but disagree. If IIT-B and other universities decide to boycott any band for this sort of speech, it sends out an institutional message that irrespective of talent or popularity, such speech will not be tolerated and encouraged, thereby ensuring that performers in the future refrain from similar behaviour. As a vehement proponent of free speech, I genuinely believe that this does not constitute a restriction on creative liberty or political freedom. It is a way of ensuring that the rights of the minority do not get trampled upon in a hostile majority discourse.

Arpita Biswas has written a wonderful firsthand narrative of the problems with what was said on stage. We also need to pay attention to another character in this drama. The audience of men who apparently egged on this sort of bullying. A faceless mob, delighted at having found a common voice for their own misogyny. I personally know dozens of people who dedicated years of their school lives to be able to “crack the IIT-JEE”. Men and women. After that kind of rigorous competition, when you finally arrive at the Mecca of Indian education, I assume it is a reaffirmation of your intellectual abilities. To then have the female students objectified, and made to feel  somehow inadequate for not ascribing to some arbitrary media created beauty archetypes, is not indicative of an education system that students should aspire to.

And this is not about IIT Bombay, or the IITs, or any other Centre of Excellence. We all encounter instances of hate speech, all the time, every single day. Every time we brush them off, or laugh, the bullies get another shot in the arm.  An educational institution must ensure that it upholds the basic values of mutual respect, gender sensitivity and equality, and not least for the creation of an ideal academic environment. Jokes about how good looking the women are (whatever that includes), aren’t funny.

Little Miss Geek: Miss America Edition

Apart from being an American of Indian origin, brown etc., Nina Davuluri is also a textbook nerd. 

A  lot  has been written about the massive racist onslaught against  Miss America,  2013- Nina Davuluri.  The  abuse and hatred that spewed forth following her crowning was unprecedented. The online media especially rose up in arms, supporting Davuluri and condemning the racism.  I bet most of you have already read  these articles. I just got down to writing this, (vacation,  whee!) a while after the hype has died down.

(c) Ageowns.com
(c) Ageowns.com

Many of these counters seem to show support for Davuluri while  mentioning how the a first generation Indian American Miss America pageant is representative of the cultural melting pot, that is the United States, and how we should consider all colours and ethnicities beautiful.  I am uncomfortable with this sort of support,  and here’s why.

As I have mentioned in my post on the Dove real beauty campaign,  even when we appreciate diverse  and inclusive beauty, we fall into the trap of creating  beauty standards. This need to define beauty as a product or a service almost, is the problem. Miss America and the thousands of other pageants in the world are showroom for  that product.

The idea of women parading in various kinds of clothing, exhibiting etiquette, posture, grooming and other such autocratic terms seems a bit like a televised cattle show to me.  Something like when farmers go to the cattle market, and examine physical attributes and pedigree to get the best return on their investment.  I don’t want to even compare it with dog and horse shows and the like,  because I’m personally opposed to exhibiting animals, but that’s for another post. The show format to me, demeans the contestants and the audience simultaneously.   The market rules rule, so we get what we want. Check out this brilliant quote by Tina Fey:

“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.”

When Davuluri’s defenders wax eloquent on the inclusive representative value of her win, they are trying to approve another set of beauty standards which can be included in what is considered beautiful, and what women are now allowed to aspire to. She has been described as ‘chocolate-skinned’. Ah, the edible nature of beauty.

I am against  the idea of there being competition to tangibly assess a personal, subjective and abstract concept such as beauty, and granting a person vetted by this arbitrary beauty archetype to have even nominal representative value. The pageant is supposed to be a path to  winning the $50000 scholarship.  It has a talent round. Davuluri performed a pretty great Bollywood dance routine. It’s great to celebrate talent, and to be rewarded for it. There are competitions for it, even if they are accused of being farcical. Talent shows do exist.

(c) Uragaaru
(c) Uragaaru

Talent need not be joined together with beauty standards, like a consolation addendum. Contestants are made to answer questions about their lives, social and world issues. Have you HEARD some of the winning answers? It’s absurd to call Miss America a scholarship.

With all these reservations against the Miss America pageant, I  am forced to confront a rather interesting dichotomy. On one hand, the Miss America pageant  has influenced typical beauty standards, while not giving great importance to academic achievement.  I don’t approve of stereotypes. However, I have to agree  with the stereotype that somehow pageant winners are not seen as the smartest people out there, and the general nerd and geek community does not enter pageants in large numbers. We cannot deny that there has been an established mutual exclusivity between the beauties and the geeks, which has added substance to the critique of the representative value of these pageants.

Miss America 2013 is surprising.  Davuluri has a degree in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science and is going  to medical school.  Pop  culture-wise, she is also a proud member of  the Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms. Pretty much checks the boxes of being a textbook nerd. The first runner-up Crystal Lee,  is a Stanford alumnus, and is working on transportation of vaccines at a startup.  Kudos to them for  being such brilliant women.

Is this a one-off accident or the start of a trend, of diverse intellectual profiles and backgrounds in the beauty industry? Are the geeks proud of now having a Miss America, as a member of the community?  Are the beauty queens wearing their SAT scores on their sleeves? Is smart the new Black?

It would be interesting to find out.  Regardless, I’m going to continue finding pageants problematic.