Bursting the Olympic Bubble

So, having returned to the world of the living after many scares with a rather too-simple surgery that turned complicated and vampirical, I was going to write about the third anniversary of the reading down of Section 377 from the Indian Penal Code. For the uninitiated, three years ago today, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India in a landmark judgment. But having shouted out to that, I’d like to post, again, on the place I’ve left behind. I have not yet regained health enough to begin my wandering in this so-intriguing, so-chaotic, so-desperately-hot, so-desperate city and as such, cannot write as much about it as I might wish. In the meantime, bear with me. I must tell you why I hate the Olympics. This post was originally written early this May for another blog, and another interpretation of cities, but was rejected, and deemed by the friend I was co-writing the blog with, as being altogether too disagreeable, and “like Polly Toynbee.” I am inclined to take that as a backhanded compliment.

Let me begin this way – I don’t like the Olympics. The level of competition involved, the problems with gender testing, the excuse for jingoism and all that flight-taking and environmental distress has always put me off. But living in such close proximity to the planning of one, this year has alerted me to a whole other problem, which I elucidate here. I have always been interested in how cities have been ‘cleaned up’, whether for environmental reasons or to hide other forms of perceived unpleasantness such as poverty and homelessness. So it is interesting to consider what the Olympic hosts-to-be are doing to clean up and prepare London for this global event that will see tens of thousands of additional visitors in a city that already receives nearly 15 million visitors per year.

This boost to tourism is considered a good thing by many. Reports have painted a rosy picture of how the Chinese economy has received a big boost thanks to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. London – as have most other cities that hosted the games – will try to put up a pretty show, clean itself up, and make sure the tourists like it, and that they spend all the foreign monies they’ll bring with them. They will, London hopes, go home not just with stuffed toy-versions of Wenlock and Mandeville but also the intention to return to charming old Blighty soon for a proper holiday. These are the migrants that countries generally want – the people who have money to spend, and who aren’t likely to outstay their welcome.  London’s authorities will feel under pressure to project the ‘best’ picture that they can of the city in order to make the most out of the intense global attention the city will receive.

There is, however, another type of person who may also arrive en masse for the Olympics, feared and loathed by the readers of The Daily Mail (which has already started drumming up a nationalist frenzy): the undocumented immigrant or indeed the trafficked worker. The Bangladeshi cook, the East Asian domestic worker, or the Romanian sex-worker. This person has no money with which to buy stuffed mascots, attend sporting events or pay large hotel bills, and may come from a violent or politically disturbed home to which she cannot return.

In the language of certain MPs, such as Home Secretary Theresa May, this person is “a burden” to be shared with other countries, offloaded at the earliest opportunity and shipped back ‘home’. Words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘national security’ are thrown about – because, goes the narrative, Bangladeshi cooks and North African refugees undermine the tenor and harmony of the United Kingdom – rather than really just wanting to make a little money, and find a place to live where they and their families can have a little peace. As we found out in Germany in 2006 during the FIFA World Cup, and in Vancouver in 2010 at the Winter Olympics, national governments are not particularly concerned with finding humanitarian ways of dealing with this influx – choosing instead to ‘crack down’ on establishments that might house them, putting vulnerable people at greater risk.

Sex-workers are a particularly controversial group. As to the number of sex-workers who appear at large international sporting events, the statistics are disputed. In East London this summer, a doubling of numbers is predicted. It is evident from recent events that a concern for the sex-workers themselves – the violence they may have been subject to, their stories of displacement as trafficked women, the histories of the homes they have left behind, their health, or indeed their safety – is low on the priorities of the city whose concern appears simply to be to ‘crack-down’ and clean up the city. NHS officials in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney report that the weekly raids have left many more vulnerable, sex-workers, new arrivals and long-time residents alike. The migrants, once evicted, stopped visiting health and community projects that offer them support, and are unwilling to report rape and abuse to the police, for fear of arrest and deportation. It is troubling that Rio de Janeiro – in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics – is already cracking down on undocumented workers of all kinds, as well as trafficked sex workers.

The London Olympics will bring many things to many people – medals, joy, railways, revenues, traffic, and a spectacular new park in East London. To some, however, they signal a time of fear, when social support disappears, when the police could come knocking at any moment, when the opportunities to slowly find a better means of living are suspended and the fear of having to return to a violent or non-existent home runs high.


The Prosaic Economics of Poetry

This is part-memoir, part in response to the Tory government in Britain moving to make poetry reading and memorising compulsory in primary schools. The Guardian had a great article on the subject not too long ago.

As I start writing this blog post, I have to admit that for at least four out of five elementary school years, my only reason for not dropping out, running away, or otherwise taking a stand against attending the very strict Catholic institution I was enrolled in, was the every-Wednesday-and-Thursday ritual of walking down to the old nunnery during recess to remind eight-something-year-old, half-English, half-French, at-heart-Indian Sister Joseph (originally Sheila Chatelier – like many of her time, she took a saint’s name when she became a nun) that next period was us, and then hang about, and walk her down to the class, because if we didn’t she’d invariably forget, or more sadly, be unable to walk down because of the arthritis that made it hard for her to move.

Sister J taught us poetry. We read from an old book her public-school educated brothers had used: The Winchester Book of Verses (of which I discovered a copy hiding away in a bookstore in Oxford only two years ago), and learned Robert Louis Stevenson and Tennyson and Wordsworth and both Brownings by heart, under her watch. We recited them every year for the parents to hear, attired in our smart uniforms, hair especially washed for the occasion, shoes shined and twenty-five sets of teeth (many with a few missing) gleaming as we stood on stage. I loved recitation, but even more, I loved the love Sister Joseph had for poetry. I loved how much she had read, how much she knew, how much she encouraged me to explore, to go to the back shelves of the library where four-foot-something me was very out of place, and read John Donne, Shelley, earlier than warranted, discover Toru Dutt and express to her my discomfort with Sarojini Naidu. The letters, we agreed, and I was ten at this point, were tolerable, just not the poems.

I remember little of “Rain in summer” a poem that old school certificates my mother has preserved will claim I once won an award for reciting. I don’t even recall much of “The charge of the light brigade.”  I do remember crying as I read Owen Wilson’s tragic denouncement of war, written from the trenches (whose work my older sister had begun to read, and hence I had access to). I remember realising I had my own preferences, for the first time ever, and wondering about death. I took refuge in our conversations on poetry when my beloved, long-ailing grandfather actually crossed that bridge a year or so later, and a year hence, found myself returning to a book she had lovingly given me when dear Sister J also died.

I read a lot of poetry today, for someone who doesn’t study it and never did English Literature after high school. My relationship with poetry is valuable to me, and many memories of people are tied up in the finding and loving of poems. I have since grown to love and frequently cite Emily Dickinson – though in the circles I grew up in she was considered weird and depressing. No one taught me to love Anne Sexton, and to think about mothers and suicide and the wrenching, self-wrecking pain that is part of the territory of being female for so many; and to be intrigued by Sylvia Plath, to be struck by her “Daddy”, but somehow I got there. I found Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde all on my own. And somehow I discovered and fell in love with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in a leaky Oxford college room with a beloved friend. A seven-now-eight-year-old boy and another twenty-five-now-twenty-six-year-old one together, yet in vastly different ways, taught me to love Hillaire Belloc.

I discovered all these poets and had these wonderful experiences with poetry not simply because I was made to memorise poetry as a child, and to read it every week from the age of six, but because my parents invested in books, and in a school that other children whose parents cared about reading went to: a school with a well-funded library. I read because my parents are upper-middle-class doctors, who come from families that read a lot, and talk about literature over dinner, and had the means and the interest and the kindness to lavish many thousand rupees on my voracious desire for books, and indeed were able to give me many of their own books.I read because books were always available to me, in a way that they would not have been if I had been born a few classes lower, or had gone to a different school with a bad library.

I write this to say: no I am not at all against children learning poetry in schools. I loved learning poetry and think it’s a joy, or it can be if well done, if creatively presented and turned into an exercise of thought and bounding, rambunctious introspection. It is however, unfortunate, even stifling that Gove should choose to present poetry as traditionalism: as some sort of core value of English culture, not the adventure, the tactile search of fingers on book spines, the pleasurable wandering through bookstores and libraries, the meeting of many poems along the way, until you find a poem that catches your fancy, that he should somehow not see this encouragement for reading as an activity that is stands in stark opposition to the vast cuts in the humanities his government has championed.

Should we be teaching children poetry? Oh yes! Should we teach it to them as something solid, part-of-the-establishment, and institutional? No. Because poetry, like every other art is an experience, it’s deeply political, it’s deeply rooted in multiple cultural traditions and interpretations of the same works. Like any other reading, poetry is about the pleasure of discovery of something somewhere in the written word that opens a door that we have been pawing at, or resonates with an incomprehensible voice inside. As with any other kind of art experience, a micromanaged curriculum doesn’t guarantee that experience: the availability of a diverse collection to learn from goes further in that direction.

Cutting funds from the people who produce and nurture poetry for a living, while trying to teach school children to recite poetry on the other hand, makes little sense.

On Lizzy W’s Upcoming Party

Elizabeth Windsor must be a fine woman – I don’t doubt it. She looks elegant, has never publicly embarrassed herself in the way her husband tends to, and has worn her crown with style and dignity. Now – of course, in my opinion, if she had a little more style and dignity, she’d give up that crown for ethical reasons: step down in protest of the anachronism and symbolic elitism of monarchy.

Diamond Jubilee Oyster Card! Like the soon-to-begin Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations are also a time for the mass production and purchase of products that will soon find their way into the trash. I wonder what the Diamond Jubilee’s carbon footprint is!

Not until I was exposed to the grand Tolstoy-esque tragedy of the Royal Wedding and then, a few months down the line, to the vulgarity of the Sarah Burton dress hanging in a bright red room in Buckingham palace, did I begin to care about the British Monarchy. Until that point, they were just pretty people who turned up in the papers. But suddenly April 29, 2011 came, and I was cornered in everywhere with this compulsory celebration of a wedding. We had to stand by and watch, whether we liked it or not, indeed we were encouraged to applaud, as a young woman with an education from a great school and a great university threw her future to the winds without responsibility or caution, and chose over the possibility of a great career, to be someone’s wife.

From that point on, Kate Middleton, was Duchess Catherine, because she had become the wife of the Duke of Cambridge. She will be the Princess of Wales, when her husband is allowed to be Prince. And someday when Wills becomes King, she’ll be Queen. If he should contract a deadly disease or be hit by a car and die (I hope none of these things happen), Harry will get to be Prince and King, and Kate M will be forgotten except by fashion enthusiasts who remember her wedding gown and those fanatic royalists who keep a tab on what the lesser royals are up to. She will be a more realistic Miss Havisham – no more. The gown hanging, funereal, in the Buckingham Palace illustrates this eerily. In all of this, we may already have said goodbye to Kate Middleton.She kissed herself goodbye on her wedding day. And somehow, many who call themselves feminist watched this spectacle and lauded it: a real life princess, proof that anyone could be a princess. Right. But why would want to be one?

And now it’s Lizzy’s turn for pomp and show, and to have plates with her face on it bought and eaten out of by everyone and their pets. And again we are to keep calm and carry on, to understand the Monarchy brings in tourism, doesn’t cost very much and is if, anything only a set of figureheads. And yeah yeah – I know they are all pretty (except for Princess Beatrice and that pretzel – I’m sorry) and everyone likes a pretty face. The monarchy bothers me for the same reason they are comforting to most: because they symbolise a comfortable continuity in a world wracked with change. Iraq could get bombed and the underclasses might rise up in fiery August 2011, but Elizabeth Windsor will take tea, keep calm and carry on, Phillip will make a racist joke, we’ll find out Harry did something outrageous and that Prince Charles has been giving us lectures on architecture again. Some things never change.

The monarchy symbolises, for me, why that particular British brand of conservatism is so attractive to so many: because it’s a combination of stylish, beautiful, witty and comfortable. It’s not vulgar like American Tea Party conservatism – it isn’t loudly, bible-thumpingly Christian, it likes gays and women if they are a bit like Elton John and Anna Wintour: well-dressed, witty, not radical, and entirely sold into corporate capitalist paradigms of success. It likes its champagne and cocktails and art, and a good party. Who could refuse those things lightly? It refuses challenge and any challenge posed to it is perceived as a lack of romanticism or sense of humour: you suddenly become no fun at all, the kind of person who doesn’t like to be involved in a fairy tale. How odd, it says, when you refuse to cheer and shed tears at the idea of a Royal Wedding, to be such a frozen up unromantic!

In doing all this, the British Monarchy and its more active brother, British conservatism are oppressive. They recruit a woman in a diamond hat to tell us to be austere and cut childcare tax credits in the same year that we throw the mother of all parties to celebrate that E. Windsor has been Queen for sixty years. We tell college students that they have to go into debt now to fund an education, and cut pensions and healthcare funds, while still celebrating the idea that it’s somehow so utterly cool simply to be that rich, that bejewelled and that beautiful. Would the Queen give a few of her diamonds to fund education and healthcare? Could we draw attention to the fact that in the midst of Tory Britain’s onslaught against immigrants, against minority populations, against the poor, this show of pride for elitist upper-class nationalism symbolised by the monarchy is grotesque rather than beautiful?

Now I’m not against parties – I just don’t like what we’re celebrating this weekend, or the hypocrisy of it. If at the end of the long weekend, Queen E II stood up and said right, folks, that’s it, tossed her crown in the Thames and donated her lands back to the people, took a reasonably sized pension that could maintain her and her corgis in a comfortable but not opulent house, declared her wish that the monarchy be dismantled, and retired, then I’ll throw a party. This I promise.

Bellies and Babies

As I clutched my cramping belly this last week, another Indian woman’s belly was being nationally examined – that is when the TV channels, newspapers (not merely tabloids, mind) and Facebook users weren’t discussing Shah Rukh Khan’s squabble with a guard (as all the while the diesel price silently climbed- to the interested I offer David Harvey’s “Spaces of Hope” as an explanation): Aishwarya Rai.

Disclaimer: I have no affection for Rai or the beauty industry she represents. The latter has been the source of many a woman’s feelings of inadequacy and the vehicle of much misogyny. Rai herself has come to represent Indian femininity mediated by this industry, produced within its ideals: she has, until now been polished, reasonably thin and transnationally appealing. Academic scholarship as well as journalistic articles have commented on how this ideal of the beautiful woman as being always skinny, fair and charming has been widely circulated and is in fact constitutive of the famous New Indian Woman of the 1990s and after. As it happens, Rai has recently given birth and subsequently appeared at parties and most lately at Cannes proudly flaunting the baby weight. I shall, some other day write about reproductive ethics, because the focus of all this national rumination is not so much the baby as the weight.

Now again, I am not concerned with Rai personally. It’s the excuse this has provided for unmitigated misogyny in the media and on social networking platforms that is irksome. Close-ups of Rai’s double-chins and her bulging belly have flooded the cyber-space and we are expected to regard them as humorous, and interesting, indeed laugh at them rather than simply find the idea of enlarging a woman’s individual body parts objectifying and grotesque. You see so many male stars in Bollywood grow large over time – the entire Kapoor clan really – and no one produces pictures of Rishi Kapoor’s distended belly for laughs. Of course, there has been some defence of Ash, as some fans call her. She is a mother, they whisper, and to say anything of the mother is unholy. So yes, of course if she had simply gotten this way the way most of us do – by not starving and living on a treadmill as we get older – she’d be fair game then.

The last straw for me was when this popped up on Facebook, shared by a female acquaintance.

The man in the pink shirt below, photoshopped into the picture is the actor, Salman Khan and the speech bubble reads, “Fatty!! This is amusing.” In a short but rapidly heated comment exchanged that followed the woman who shared this picture made some arguments feminists have heard for decades: this is a joke, she told me and that if I thought like “normal” people instead of being so political I’d find it funny. She invoked freedom of speech, and said (is Zižek listening?), amidst some name-calling of my political leanings, that she had merely just had a laugh, and not in any way contributed to the misogyny that surrounded us in India (and the world). The argument ended with the woman insisting (after having had the time to write several long comments) that she didn’t have the time to explain to me what this was about, but it certainly wasn’t making fun of the female body.

But of course that’s exactly what it’s about. Consider this: In a world where the implicit “thin women deserve respect; fat women don’t” doesn’t exist, this picture would have no performative value at all. If that statement weren’t a crucial part of a patriarchal-capitalist power paradigm that India’s neoliberal expansion has rapidly plummeted us into, and which has slowly become the one space within which to seek power, through a narrowly constructed middle-class ideal of self-conduct, so many women (themselves potential ‘fatties’ at some point in their lives whether post-procreation or otherwise) wouldn’t, with no attempt at examination, find it so funny. Again – all of this has very little to do with the star in question. Her body becomes here, a symbol for the idealised female body “fallen out of shape,”

To the audience of this blog (that I know to be largely left-leaning and feminist), it might seem like I am making an obvious point. But only the other day I found myself unable to keep calm and carry on as a saleswoman followed me about at a mall attempting to sell me a whitening cream: my dark skin wasn’t good enough, nor her own. When I asked her why not she had no answer: all she knew was “fairer is better”. And anyone finding the above picture funny is, like a parrot simply repeating “thinner is better.” This public rumination on Aishwarya Rai’s body is not about the actress herself but really an excuse for public misogyny. And I’ll have none of it thanks.

A Spatially Disoriented Belly, or An Ethnographer Arrives

I am a ‘native anthropologist’ (though strictly more a human geographer really): the breed that doesn’t venture far and wide into the unknown to tell us how obscure and scandalous societies live, and instead chooses to study the place that was ‘home’ before we were adopted by the Ivory towers and flushing loos of Western academe. I miss the loos: there are books aplenty in India, and intellectuals.

So I flew into Chennai, twenty-four hours short of a week ago, thinking I’d adjust in a day, sleep off the jetlag and get going. But Chennai – or should I say Madras to lend it that air of colonial/anthropological romance? – had other plans for me, and chose, in some ways, to welcome me in as it often does other visitors and tourists, other non-native ethnographers. I thought this wrily, as I lay writhing on my bed, ill over the weekend, suddenly, and stupidly, a little homesick for all the things I had once turned my snooty, critical Indian nose up at in Oxford: the bland food, the empty streets, the impersonal speed with which people walk, the dear (reasonably) clean loos every five minutes along in some library or college. I found myself, though I had desperately wanted to feel that sense of homecoming upon reaching Chennai tarmac, calling Oxford ‘home’ too, and missing it as desperately as I missed Chennai when I first moved to Britain.

Now I would have been ok with jetlag! That’s not embarrassing – I could blame it on a maladjusted body clock. No – it had to be Delhi Belly. My stupid spatially disoriented stomach has forgotten what to do when food is seasoned. Used these last two years to the bland fricassees and saltless lasagna of Wolfson College’s famous dining hall, it now recoils in cowardice at the sight of the chilli, at spicy pickles, at molagai podi (untranslatable joyous accompaniment to Dosa). Apparently all it can ingest without violently rebelling an hour later is yoghurt and rice – yes that’s what I have been reduced to. The foreigner, the NRI, the weak of stomach that I once mocked, is now me.

Regardless, today, I braved the streets in a 45 degree C afternoon. The city is unchanged in some ways – I recognize autorickshaw-wallahs, I remember some of the noises: it sounds altogether more desperate now; it too appears to be screaming from a cramping belly. The autorickshaws-wallahs are angry about the diesel price hike. They all talk about it to me. The parents of young women in the colleges that pepper College Road and Nungambakkam are angry about the pace of the admissions process. They drink water, lecture their daughters on the value of an education, and look expectantly at a door ominously marked “enquiries”. I sat there today – an odd figure, with my letters to introduce my research, waiting for someone to come let me through as promised.

It’s a slow city. People stroll on the streets, walk at snail’s pace on the pavements as though trying to prolong lunch-breaks. No one appears to really be going anywhere. There’s a lot of staring. This annoys me a bit, as I find myself often waiting impatiently as the crowd moved thickly along: I click and wipe sweat off my brow, clutch my stomach and want to scream “Stomach cramps! Coming through!” But today, I slowed down, and suddenly the heat was more bearable: the dust-air appeared to calm my stomach. I let myself stand and stare: stare back at some of the men staring at me, at the traffic, and at the mangy cats. I listened in on a conversation between two men – a couple it seemed – on their way back to work after lunch; I walked on slowly behind them, separating comprehensible sounds from the cacophony, and let my Delhi Belly ease itself into Chennai.

But when the interesting conversations die out and I have no one to eavesdrop on, the heat catches up with me again: guiltily looking up, I see others, people who haven’t spent the last two years complaining about freezing temperatures on the island of spice-o-phobia, also mopping their foreheads, telling each other they are dying from the harsh sun, and the power cuts. My stomach cramped again, as I slowly wound down from the exhilaration of suddenly making sense of the cacophony. I sighed and hailed an autorickshaw.  The anthropologist, it would appear, has arrived in her field, and oddly, also returned home. Too bad ‘home’ like the proverbial toy just won’t stay in the same place when you leave it and go off to play elsewhere for a while.