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Booklove: “Being here” — on Nadine Gordimer’s life

Nadine Gordimer (from
Nadine Gordimer (from

(Published in the Business Standard, July 15, 2014)

“I didn’t know what politics was about until I saw it all happening to people,” Nadine Gordimer said to Alan Ross in a 1965 interview. She had been 15 when she wrote her first short story, about 25 years old when apartheid had been formally institutionalised in South Africa. Gordimer died this week at the age of 90 in Johannesburg. Her legacy included 15 novels and almost 20 short story collections.

By 1965, Gordimer was becoming well-known for her fiction. Some of her closest readers were in the State Publications Control Board, where censors argued whether (1958) was a desirable or undesirable work of literature. Gordimer, unlike many of her fellow South African writers, would not be jailed for her art, though three of her novels – including, A World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter (1979) – were banned for long periods.

There were no picket fences or cordoned-off lines between Gordimer the writer and Gordimer the outspoken political activist: the censors were evidence of how closely her fiction bled into the real world and vice versa. The men who banned authors such as Athol Fugard and Gordimer, who decided that Es’kia Mphahlele was to be banned from teaching, were often colleagues, fellow writers and academics who did their censoring in secret. Censorship under apartheid extended, infamously, from books outwards. People could be “banned”, and not allowed to speak in public or meet more than one person at a time; these laws were in force against Nelson Mandela, among others.

Gordimer saw literature as a sacred calling, the writers’ task being nothing less than exploring the entire world. In her Nobel lecture, given in December 1991, she said: “Writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being. Being here.” But her life as a writer had begun with the refusal to look only at what was safe to look at: when she saw Johannesburg, she saw (with greater clarity over the decades) how her country was split into black and white, how the schools were different, how a black child like her might not grow up to be a writer as she had, because only one of them had the right of access into the local library.

“Censorship is control of communication,” she wrote in 1972. The aim of the censors was to act as a political weapon of apartheid, to bring about a situation “where there is ‘no communication’ between South Africa and the ideas that might cause us to question our way of life here”. Censorship, she continued, had successfully wiped out the literature of black South Africans – either their writings or their own selves had been banned.

The worst kind of ignorance was something she regularly breached, much to the alarm of the censors, in her own writings: the ignorance of white people about the inner lives of their countrymen of another colour. To write about these lives without appropriating them required a particular skill, and there Gordimer trusted her own writer’s ability to inquire as deeply into the human condition as possible. “First, you know, you leave your mother’s house, and then you leave the house of the white race,” she said in another interview in 1962.

And she was outspoken and firm in her defence of Salman Rushdie during the years of the Fatwa. She wanted people to recognise how the plight of one individual was an echo of a wider attempt to silence (sometimes murderously) dissenting, inquiring or provocative voices.

Her later story collections – , – and novels – , – ran in parallel to Gordimer’s active participation in worldwide anti-censorship movements, her growing involvement with the Aids crisis and the government’s handling of public health issues.

In Gordimer’s world, the writer’s life had the private side to it, the disciplined days and weeks when she was alone with her writing, and the public side of committees, protests, letters to various regimes, and she embraced both with almost equal keenness. In person, she was a slight woman with a formidable presence and a piercing gaze; she was polite rather than imperious, but conveyed the unmistakable impression that she would not allow her time to be wasted.

But it was perhaps when she read from her works that she was most compelling. In an early recording, she reads from a tart short story, her voice sharp, birdlike, completely in command of the stage: a voice that invites listeners, expecting them to listen in respectful silence.

Some 40 years later, Gordimer read from Jose Saramago’s touching The Centaur, and her brisk voice softened a little around the sentences that speak of a pursued creature without a homeland, destined to be a permanent refugee. Exiles, the marginalised and the persecuted, those who had been told they didn’t belong: this had been her territory, too.


Speaking Volumes: A Perfect Time For Babelfish

The Tower of Babel, Bruegel.
The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

(Published in the Business Standard, June 30, 2014)

In a country criss-crossed by centuries of traders, explorers, invaders and curious travelling locals, deciding what language should be dominant in the 21st century is no small thing.

The local languages have deep symbolic resonance, but choosing one over another could cause explosive resentment. The institutional languages are imported from elsewhere and formalising one of them as the official tongue would spark justifiable anger. As Morocco grappled with these issues, their struggle with identity politics, history and present-day language domination would have been dazzlingly familiar to Indians – if we had been looking at our language politics in a more global framework, which we’re not doing.

The debate in India over dominant languages – the imperial legacy of , the present and contested crowning of – was summed up years ago by in his song, “I am a Third World Child”: “They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Maybe practise birth control/Keep away from controversial politics/So to save my third world soul/They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Don’t be scared of a suit and tie./Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner …

For most postcolonial countries, this was the devil’s bargain: entry to the global world and its suits and ties, at a price. Even when English was subverted, taken over, rendered fully Indian or given a Nigerian accent, it came with Clegg’s warning: to speak in English was to exchange your dreams for the dreams of the foreigner.

This is the platform on which most countries across the world build an argument for the use of local languages, but as with India, few countries stop to see if the position of English remains as culturally dominant as it once was, or check the health of their own languages before making the switch.

In a telling note by the Columbia Global Centre, linguists examine the dominance of English in scientific and educational research. They note that this is a problem of influence. Original research is published in many languages: from French and German to Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. But the journals that make the highest impact and that exert the most influence have been in English.

This has strong implications for India, where the demand for any Indian language to be made official must take into account two major factors. One of them is an institutional failure – just as until very recently, the Hindi-language publishing market had been swamped by English bestsellers by Indian authors in translation, the lack of original research conducted in most Indian languages is both revealing and alarming. This is a failure of the imagination as much as the will, as though we find it hard to believe that the job of academics and scientists should be to think along original, free and creative lines.

Indian researchers don’t yet have the dilemma that Spanish or Arabic language researchers or thinkers do – should they address the local audience that understands them, or reach for a wider audience elsewhere with no shared cultural context in common? But if we do adopt any Indian language as the official one, its reach will have to go beyond courts, schools and the bureaucracy: in order to thrive and have influence, a language must encourage creativity and originality.

The other problem that India has with language hegemony is put very well by , associated with the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which counts at least 780 Indian languages as opposed to the government’s official count of 122. Mr Devy’s arguments for the need to protect rising languages such as Bhojpuri is eloquent. Instead of one tongue to rule them all, one tongue to bind them, the state should look at how best to preserve this diversity.

Some years ago, the writer wrote: “I dream of an english/full of the words of my language./an english in small letters/an english that shall tire a white man’s tongue …

Historically, that has been one way out of the language tangle: the proliferation of feeder languages, pidgins and creoles, so that there are many Englishes, many Hindis instead of one dominant language.

But the world might be changing faster than we realise. It is hard to estimate actual language use on the internet – social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are “deep” sites, hard to search, and Web spiders are not very good at estimating the reach of local-language blog platforms and sites. It seems, though, that English is only one of many dominant languages online; it may be in the lead, but the internet speaks Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and several other tongues.

In 2012, the then Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, suggested that students be given the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese in order to access nearby Asian markets. Importing those skills would be expensive, and the proposal may never take off – but Ms Guillard may have stumbled upon the next wave in language shifts across the world.

Instead of conquest or imperial domination, it might be regional affinities that decide which tongues you bring into your life. And the language of the neighbours might leave a better taste in our mouths than a language forced upon you by conquistadors, internal or external.

sbThe Wandering Falcon

Booklove: Jamil Ahmad and the Last Frontiers

Jamil Ahmad, author of The Wandering Falcon.

(Published in the Business Standard, July 14, 2014)

The work of a good political agent in the days of the British Raj could be splendidly varied. In Flashman and the Great Game, George Macdonald Fraser has a highly coloured description of the “political’s” job:


“After a couple of days, when I’d got the old Urdu baat rolling familiarly off my palate again, I even browned up and put on a puggaree and coat and pyjamys, and loafed about the Bund bazaar, letting on I was a Mekran coast trader, and listening to the clack. I came out rotten with fleas, stinking of nautch-oil and cheap perfume and cooking ghee, with my ears full of beggars’ whines and hawkers’ jabbering and the clang of the booths… It helped to get India back under my hide again, and that’s important, if you intend to do anything as a political.”


Jamil Ahmad died this week, at the age of 81, leaving a lifetime of warm memories and one minor classic, The Wandering Falcon, behind him. The most interesting part of his career had begun in Swat, where he was a political officer in 1971, though unlike Fraser’s Flashy, Ahmad did not feel the need for costumes and theatrical make-up in order to get his job done. Instead, he travelled across Balochistan, until he could have recited the family trees of the frontier tribes in his sleep.


The new Commissioner of Swat knew the area well: he had spent time as a political officer in Waziristan, Baluchistan, Malakand and the Frontier. But something changed in ’71; he began to set down his encounters with the tribes on the typewriter he shared with his wife, Helga. When we spoke some years ago, they laughed at the thought of how his writing began—he had aspired to poetry, but Helga, an exacting critic, said that he was wasting his time. He began writing sketches instead, and setting down incidents as they were told to him. They would make up the nine loosely connected chapters/ short stories that became The Wandering Falcon decades later, starting with the life of the orphaned boy, Tor Baz, whose name gives the book its title, continuing through the prostitute and slave markets of Mian Mandi, with Ahmad’s careful eye not shying aware from the death of camels, or the massacre of tribes.


Faiza Sultan Khan discovered Jamil Ahmad when the retired government official sent in a short story he’d pulled out from an old trunk to her literary magazine. She introduced him to editors and when she speaks of Ahmad today, it’s of the integrity and the gentleness of the man as much as of his talent.

 sbThe Wandering Falcon

What many readers loved about The Wandering Falcon was something they sensed in the way these stories were told, the lives of the frontier tribes revealed with compassion and openness, not dug out as anthropological curiosities: Jamil Ahmad’s integrity as a human being was inseparable from his skills as a writer.


As Faiza says, “He wrote about the tribes with such humanity, not seeking to explain them to us, but trying to make us see that we were just like them.” The empathy was mutual. The Powindahs and the Baloches narrowed the distance between the Commissioner-saheb and themselves. Faiza tells the story of how Ahmed had to tactfully decline the offer from his friends to provide a sizeable escort to his daughter on her first date—a well-meant offer, though one can only imagine what his daughter would have felt if he’d sent her off with the escorts in tow!


When we met, he was undeterred by illness, happy to talk about Delhi, where he had grown up and attended St Columba’s school. He was as wide-eyed as a child on the subject of the changes that had overtaken Delhi, though his gravitas returned when he spoke of the far sadder changes that had swamped his friends in Balochistan.


He wrote with gentle honesty and unflinching clarity. What he had chronicled in The Wandering Falcon, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, was the almost unbearable sadness of a proud culture with its own integrity, despite many flaws, coming up against the blank, unyielding wall of a civilisation could not understand, let alone share, the way the frontierspeople saw the world.


In The Dead Camel, Ahmad was blunt: it was the tribes themselves, and the way they lived, that went against the harsh grain of this thing called civilisation. The Pawindahs, the “foot people”, move freely across from hills to the plains in order to find grazing for their flocks. “This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last for ever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”


One way of life had to die. Many historians chronicled that death, but it took a writer like Ahmad to tell the full story of the General and the last of the travels of the Kharot tribes.


As the General reminded us, life is full of unpalatable things: it is best to develop a taste for raw onions, and to find a way of loving the world, even as the old ways collapse around you. There may be flashier, more spectacular writers than Jamil Ahmad, but few had his integrity, his wisdom and his compassion. May his tribe increase.

#flashreads for free speech:

Free speech primer: a user’s guide

#flashreads for free speech/ Feb 14th

Prem Panicker and Nisha Susan asked me to do this for Yahoo! India; it’s a compilation of the work done by many other people, writers, lawyers and activists, on free speech issues in India over the years.

Read the primer here: How to Fight Censorship and Remain Free

One of the earliest references to the power of the human tongue comes from the Rig Veda, where Vac, the goddess of speech, speaks of the riches that she bestows. The line that reverberated with me for years was so simple, and so powerful: “Hear that you are heard!”
That is the argument, in essence, for free speech and freedom of expression: everyone hopes to be heard, and wants to have the space to tell their own stories.”

Speaking Volumes: A is for Apple: what college won’t teach you


(Published in the Business Standard, April 30, 2013)


Back in my day, which was of course when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Delhi University suffered from a serious case of envy.

 It had the St Stephens’ versus Hindu battles, the dazzling brilliance of the Kirori Mal dramatic society, the nerdy appeal of Sri Venkateswara, the steely intelligence of LSR and Miranda, the drama obligingly provided by Ramjas’s swaggering sons of the soil each year. But it remained dismally aware that it was not, despite all its hopeful bravado, anywhere near the twin towers of excellence represented—in those decades—by OxfordHarvard.

 JNU attracted international students in reasonable numbers, even if those percentages didn’t come anywhere near the casually global feel of a US college campus. Delhi University gawked at the scattered handful of students who had strayed so far from home. The twin ambitions of students in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated a sound grasp of Indian reality: you either sat for the government service exams, or applied abroad.

 It was understood that those who went to an ordinary university in India had already failed, by being either too incompetent to clear the magic trinity of IIT/ IIM/ Medical, or being woolly enough to want to do a degree that could not be converted into instant cash. The only honourable thing to do was to either reach for power—hence the lure of the IAS—or escape abroad. 

 Underlying all of this was an inescapable truth: with a very few exceptions, Indian universities fail miserably in the area of imparting a real education to their students. Before you send me a flood of emails explaining how much you love your alma mater and what it did for you, consider how few Indian colleges encourage students to think for themselves, to prize and value their own creativity. Fewer still treat their students with respect, choosing to see students as overgrown children, rather than as young adults in charge of their own lives.

 There are exceptions; in North India, JNU and Jamia consistently appointed teachers who taught their charges how to question, and open up to, the world at large. On campus, the Delhi School of Economics was one of the few institutions that encouraged students to air their views, and that trained them to consider the logic and structure of a debate, rather than judging an argument by its emotional force.

 The National Institute of Design, the School of Planning and Architecture and at least some of the country’s art schools have been far more successful than most Indian colleges at encouraging their students to think independently and to explore their own creativity.

The IITs and India’s medical colleges, for all their success in other respects, produce surprisingly little original thought or writing on the sciences. The kind of analysis and writing on medicine that Atul Gawande or Siddharth Mukherjee have produced is neither nurtured nor understood in the Indian system. Nor do Indian science students write with the intensity and clarity that Robert Kunzig did about the oceans in Mapping the Deep, that Daniel Gilbert did about the science of happiness in Stumbling on Happiness, or that Mark Lynas did about the weather in Six Degrees.

 Delhi University has always had fine individuals in the teaching profession. But they are all too often pitted against the administration, as has been the case with the recent outburst of anger with major syllabus and systemic changes, pushed through by the authorities without proper consultation. The new syllabus, which would replace the old degree system, has massive flaws that have been pointed out in extensive debates over the last week, and the conclusion that the university preferred not to consult its stakeholders, forcing these sweeping changes through without serious discussion, is inescapable.

 But I would suggest that the problems with Delhi University—and many of India’s universities—go deeper than even this current crisis. The bookshops–or lack of them–were symbolic of the indifference surrounding the university. Most of the “bookshops” in the area stocked textbooks, photocopied notes, cheap guides called kunjis, and a smattering of classics. Though the pavement booksellers of Daryaganj in Delhi, Fountain in Bombay and College Street in Calcutta remain much-loved, pavement bookshops are no substitute for the kind of well-stocked libraries and intelligent, independent bookshops that act as an informal education for students in more privileged parts of the world. Their absence in Delhi University, and in other Indian universities, mirrors a wider absence, a disengagement with ideas and reading that is so embedded in our daily lives that we no longer notice these gaps.

Our universities do not train their students to think in these directions, any more than most of them really believe in giving young adults independence. The “boys” are often seen as unruly, disruptive forces, the “girls” as dangerously demanding creatures: both must be controlled and disciplined.

 The idea that part of the job of a college or a university might be to help young adults handle their newfound independence, and to teach them to think for themselves, rather than as an extension of their families, their clans or their caste groups, has not found wide acceptance. In a speech that went viral across the Internet, the writer Neil Gaiman explained what students in the humanities were supposed to do: make good art. “Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

 Make mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting than when you found it. These are great rules for life, but you’re not going to learn them at most Indian universities.


Speaking Volumes: Anthropology




How to write about the poor:


He knows he won’t get very far if he thinks about them as “the poor”, or as “them”. The reader will sense the impenetrable barrier between him and his subjects, and an acute reader will feel the clunkiness of the dialogue he put into their mouths.


He knows that this doesn’t stop other authors: some write with that barrier firmly in place, for the benefit of readers who like to peer into the worlds of slumdogs and halwais from a safe, germ-free distance. But he’s Mohsin Hamid, so this will drive him to find a better way to write about the poor.


So he will, in a deceptively slender book called How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, pull off an act of stunning audacity. He will not be deterred by the fact that what young Asia wants is unrelenting banality—rewarmed and defanged myths, love stories discounted down from television soaps, tidy novels that reaffirm safe middle class values, diet and self-improvement books. Instead, he will smuggle in an original, moving novel, one that holds to the dated values of clean sentences and literary worth under cover of the self-help banner.


He writes about his characters, a boy and a girl breaking out of their grindingly impoverished and limiting world, with flair, even with style, and definitely with intelligence, which will make some readers suspicious. To soothe them, he will soften them up with regular reassurances that they are, indeed, reading a self-help book: “…A self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.” It is possible that the intelligent reader will see right through his pretence—here he is, an astute novelist pretending to belong on the same shelf as Who Moved My Cheese?—so he reassures them: “This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia.”


In other words, he will write about the poor the only way one can: by lying, so that people put off by the idea of reading about the poor–*shudder*–will be lured into his net. This is cunning of him, just as it is clever of him to pull off the second person voice throughout. It allows him to write about the world with precise sarcasm, and about the poor with a measure of respect. The third person voice would reveal the layers of reportage that went into his book—the world of dusty new arteries, gray effluent water,  the internet cafes that smell of women’s hairspray, sweat and semen.

Writers are used to grabbing and squeezing the lives of the poor for juice; but Hamid’s use of the second person gives back “the poor” some privacy. He is aware of this; he knows his characters as well as he knew the rich bored boys in your first novel, Moth Smoke. But the second person allows a little distance, a little dignity, a little space—all those luxuries we reserve in India for the filthy rich, never the poor.


How to write about the rich:


The other night, at one of those Delhi dinners set against a tastefully crumbling monument hovering like a respectful khidmatgar in the background, I watched a young girl who reminded me of Daisy Buchanan. Like Daisy, her voice was low and thrilling; it promised that there would be “gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour”.


F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the rich in The Great Gatsby from the perspective of a privileged outsider, someone who was invited to all the parties but doesn’t have his own polo ponies. Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy wrote about being wealthy from the inside, but they were among the exceptions—the rich don’t like holding up a mirror to their own lives in print.


Many of the authors who write with the sharpest intelligence on the subject of property, wealth and their subtly warping ways either had little wealth or came to the security of wealth late in their lives—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Fitzgerald himself.


The film version of The Great Gatsby comes out at a time when the glamour of being rich has been significantly tarnished. If the rich in the US are responsible for bank crashes, and the rich in Europe are selling their islands along with the family silver, the rich in India have a disturbing tendency to pick each other off in farmhouse murders. But what makes Fitzgerald such a wonderful writer wasn’t that he unpicked the corruption that accompanied wealth—that would have been boring.


He understood the true allure of being rich: you stood, as Daisy Buchanan does, “safe and proud above the struggles of the poor”. And what made the rich dangerous wasn’t that they were corrupt; it was just that they were careless. They were so good, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, at smashing things.

(Published in the Business Standard, April 16, 2013)

Speaking Volumes: Invitations to a Hanging

(Published in the Business Standard, 12 February, 2012)




Not so long ago, the streets of Delhi echoed with the cries of “Phansi do! Phansi do!” Teenagers as young as 17 and 18 called for death to rapists, holding up hand-drawn posters that showed shaky, childishly scrawled gallows.


It is so easy to bring the scaffold back into the public imagination. Pleas for mercy were made, but in softer and less telegenic voices. These calls for hanging had the ring of sanction to them: they were bookended with executions, the hangings of Ajmal Kasab in November, and of Afzal Guru last week.


The gallows—and its once-popular cousin, execution by trained elephant—loom larger in history than they do in Indian literature, where the hangman’s art is on display chiefly in novels about the 1857 Rebellion, in Orwell’s essay on attending an execution, and in Shashi Warrier’s The Hangman’s Journal. The 1857 novels tend to use the gallows as a colourful backdrop (to your right, peacocks and jackals, to your left, dastardly mutineers swinging in the hot summer breeze).


Shashi Warrier’s novel, which will be reprinted soon by Atlantic, Grove, was based on his interviews of Janardhanan Pillai, the last hangman of Travancore. The hangman does his job with care and skill; but he is the sin-eater of the village. “Only the hangman would go home with blood on his hands and a life on his conscience,” Warrier writes. (The names of the executioners of Kasab and Afzal Guru have not been released to the public, though Afzal Guru’s hangman was imported from outside Delhi.)


If you have the slightest imagination, any perusal of a prison manual will tell you what it means to hang a man by the neck until he is dead, and perhaps this should be essential reading in all countries where the death penalty is legal.


You need, for a hanging, two ropes from Manila (Delhi gets its ropes from Buxar), 19 feet in length, well twisted, oiled and fully stretched; a gallows of solid construction; a sack of sand or clay to test the rope; an executioner who can make the necessary calculations for the drop, to avoid either death by slow strangulation or death by the other extreme of having the man’s neck torn off by the rope. The rope will sometimes “take large portions of skin and flesh from the side of the face that the noose is on”, and the body must be left hanging for half an hour to ensure death. Indian executions are performed in the morning; elsewhere, at midnight; the Japanese as a courtesy to the prisoner, do not inform him until moments before the execution so that he should not suffer excessive fear and grief.


Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Truman Capote were marked by what they saw of executions. Orwell was struck by the enormity of this act, sanctioned by the state, and his moment of revelation came when the man about to be hanged stepped aside to avoid a puddle on the path: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…. the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Capote knew in detail what the murderers he wrote of In Cold Blood had committed, the pathetic bodies of the Clutter family; and yet he could not witness Perry’s execution.


Hitchens called the execution he saw “a creepy, furtive and shameful affair, in which the participants could not decently show their faces”. For witnessing this “dark and dingy little ritual”, as a “complicit spectator”, he did not know whether he could ever quite excuse himself. Nor was this just a wince of distaste; Hitchens had a famously cold eye and began his essay by pointing out what we find unusual about executions. Nothing is more predictable than death, and yet nothing is less predictable and less certain—the only exemptions being suicides and the executed.


In India, where the executioners and the wardens, those who do our dirty work for us, are the least likely to leave behind diaries and memoirs, we have no tradition of the other kind of writing about executions. This comes from wardens, as in Donald A Cabana’s Confessions of an Executioner, or in the histories of hangmen, as in the stories of England’s famous masters of the sword and the noose, and in one instance, from a minister in France. M Robert Badinter, criminal lawyer and minister under Mitterrand, witnessed many executions as he formed his opposition to the death penalty. And yet, his arguments were different from the usual pleas to mercy or warnings of possible miscarriages of justice.


The scaffold, he writes, had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state”. Those were the grounds on which La Guillotine was finally dismantled in France in 1981, her blades never again to be stained by the blood of the guilty.


Executing The Neighbour

(Published in The Hindu, December 20, 2012)


Like so many other men and women in Delhi, my friends and I kept a quiet, helpless vigil on Tuesday night for the young 23-year-old woman in Safdarjung hospital. All day long, on TV, in private conversations, on social media, the demand for justice was voiced, with rising anger and with grief. Over the last few years, the anger over the way we treat our women in India — killed before birth, starved and neglected as babies, denied education, respect, safety, freedom, brought up to be bartered into marriage, beaten, raped, burned — has been escalating, becoming more open. Sexual violence, the safety of women on the streets and in their homes, a media focus on one horrifying gang-rape after another: all of these have become mainstream news, at least in urban India.

When I think of that young girl, fighting for her life after sustaining severe injuries when six men in Delhi raped her and assaulted her male friend, I also want justice. Like many Indians, across the board, I want those men to be jailed forever, so that they can never hurt another person again; a base but very human part of me would like them to suffer as much as they made that woman suffer.

But when the conversation moves, as it does so frequently these days, to the question of the death penalty for rapists, I find myself unable to want that kind of vengeance. There are the practical reasons: aside from reasoned opposition to capital punishment, there is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty will act as a deterrent. There is the strong possibility that it would make an already low rape conviction rate even lower, since judges would be unwilling to hand down such an extreme sentence except in the worst and most brutal cases.

Then consider this: in the two-week period before this brutal gang-rape, a number of rapes were reported from Delhi and the neighbouring State of Haryana. They included the rape of a five-year-old girl by a local temple priest, the rape of a nine-year-old by a neighbour, the rape of a 20-year-old girl who was initially too scared to report her neighbour, the rape of a 70-year-old woman in Haryana by a young relative. These incidents — women raped by neighbours, relatives, people who know them — are far more common than the gang-rapes, horrifying as those are, that draw intense media scrutiny.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau data for 2011, most rapes are not committed by strangers. “Offenders were known to the victims in as many as 22,549 (94.2 %) [of all cases reported in India in 2011],” says the NCRB report. “Parents / close family members were involved in 1.2% (267 out of 22,549 cases) of these cases, neighbours were involved in 34.7% cases (7,835 out of 22,549 cases) and relatives were involved in 6.9% (1,560 out of 22,549 cases) cases.”

These statistics have been remarkably consistent over the years: you can say with confidence that on average, 90 per cent of rape cases in India are perpetrated by people known to the victim, from their neighbourhoods — perfectly ordinary uncles and brothers and fathers. (We aren’t discussing male rape here — because there are very few statistics available for survivors of male rape. It’s one of the least discussed crimes in India.)

And there are other, more clinical questions to ask those who support the death penalty. What about custodial rapes, and rapes by serving army officers and military personnel? The soldiers accused of rape in states Such as Kashmir and Chhattisgarh — if those accusations are true, shouldn’t the death penalty apply to them as well? The eight men who raped a Dalit woman in Haryana this year in October, who took cellphone photographs as trophies: death for them, too? All of those implicated in the rapes of women from the lower castes, in every State from Haryana to Madhya Pradesh to Bihar: if we could, would we send them to the gallows along with the Delhi six?

So if you agree that the death penalty should apply to rapists, be consistent about it, and prepare for the consequences. The people you’ll be hanging, more than 90 per cent of the time, won’t be strangers, the gangs of youth whom we can safely think of as marauding outliers, the threatening outsider beyond the threshold of our homes.

Swinging from those gallows, you’ll have local shopkeepers, tutors, friends of the family. In 2011, if you’d had capital punishment for rapists, that would have been 7,835 neighbours, 1,560 distant unclejis and mamajis and 267 fathers, brothers, grandfathers and cousins on death row, plus thousands of family acquaintances and distant colleagues. And that’s without adding in the policemen, the army officers, the paramilitary troops and the odd politician playing out caste wars on the bodies of women, whom we’d discussed earlier.

It’s going to be a long queue of familiar faces, the queue of those we want to hang for the act of rape. I wish I could believe that this sort of mass public execution — if we agreed that this was the way forward — would do more than slake our collective need for vengeance.

I wish I could think that public hangings would miraculously solve the problem of violence against women, but I don’t believe in fairy tales. Hanging the neighbour will not address the clear and present need to examine how violence works inside our own homes, within our own families.

We all want justice, and we desperately want this assault on women to end. I know that I want my niece, and every young girl in India, to grow up without the fear that stalked my generation of women. I know that I want them to have the freedom and the equality that so often eluded us, one way or the other; if we had it in our homes, we lost it when we stepped out into the wider world. If we fought for better working conditions for office-goers and domestic workers, women still often went back to face cruelty and fear in their own homes, where they should have felt safe and free. I would like this generation of young women to feel more than safe; I would like them to feel that they have the right to live with freedom, and to be treated with respect wherever they might be.


More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape

Writers, October: Ismat Chughtai

The Lihaf trial, from The Journal of Urdu Studies:

 “There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting  ‘ashiqs  ’ (lovers) is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or ‘‘ashiqs’?”

“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.

“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”

“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.


“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”

“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”

“Uh … uh … no.”

“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs.”

“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!” The witness thundered.

“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.”

(Ismat Chughtai; died, October 24th, 1991)

Journal: Kitabkhana on the Nobel

From the vaults: Kitabkhana, Hurree Babu’s old blog, in 2005 on how the Nobel Literature laureate is chosen.

This is always a difficult decision: “Vargas Llosa?” “Na, too famous…” “Kundera?” “Na, it’ll look like we’re bowing down to the pressure exerted by a reading public incredulous that we hadn’t given it to him before.” “Okay, Rushdie?” “Na, we forgot to support him during the fatwa, remember? We’ll look like we’re apologising…” “Philip Roth?” “We-ell..great writer, but I have to say no. Never been able to eat liver since I read Portnoy’s Complaint, still hold that against him.” “I thought it was his narrator who held liver against his…” “Never mind. Don’t we have any obscure poets on the list?” “Plenty!” “Great, then we hold them in reserve. Unless someone wants to ruin our record by giving the Prize to someone who really, really deserves it?” (Raucous laughter.) “Didn’t think so.”