Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
There is one answer to all these questions – process flow.
The men who executed these acts are likely to be entry level officials who were thoroughly following the procedure given to them. They were not being deliberately malicious. They were just doing their duty. They are probably actively discouraged from thinking about the process. And they are forbidden from making any changes in the process-flow. Their job is to follow the process, not create it. We can hardly target a Sgt. Crowley or any of those anonymous airport workers for being racist, prejudiced or paranoid.
We should, however, question the processes that instruct these people to behave in the ways they have. We should haul up the creators of these processes. We should criticize the lawmakers who let these unintelligent processes take over serious issues such as a country’s security. We should condemn all acts that push these problems under the carpet, methods like ‘beer diplomacy’. Ironically, it is being celebrated! The problems within the processes of the police force of the world’s most powerful nation cannot be settled over a few mugs of beer and small talk. Sgt. Crowley will maintain that he was doing his duty, and rightly so. For that was what he was doing. If we overlook the fact that lack of deference towards the uniform bothered Sgt. Crowley so much that he arrested a man who showed a valid ID card to prove that he had more of a right to be in that house than Sgt. Crowley did. Well, if the entire government mechanism of the US, including its President is ready to overlook this fact, should we be bothering?
Yes, we should. But for the moment, let us also overlook that slight human emotion that got into Sgt. Crowley’s uniform-clad person. Let us focus on the fact that this policeman reported to a place where someone broke into a home. Being a good policeman he has to go through the checklist set in the procedure given to him. He does that. Mr. Gates, being a scholar of African-American studies reacts as any person obsessed with race issues would. A regular check done by a policeman quickly snowballs into an issue of such gigantic proportions that we see two sides of the world’s most powerful man. As a knee-jerk reaction, he is as astonished at the process as any average citizen of a liberal democracy should be. He is quickly reminded that he is not an average citizen but is the citizen who is responsible for the validity of these unintelligent processes. He retracts with speed. Stylishly sharing a few mugs of beer with the dramatis personae and his deputy on the lawns of his official residence, he indicates that the policeman was doing his duty. He validates a process that had astonished him. The policeman is vindicated. He got to have beer with the president of his country for having stuck to his checklist, if not his guns. That is a big pat on his back for following the process. And the police force in America, now knows, there could be a good incentive in scrupulously following the process.
Similarly, the staff of Continental Airlines and Newark Airport will be appreciated for doing their duty, without letting human elements like thought, courtesy and diplomacy disturbing the process flow. They might actually be penalized if they are caught overlooking the process flow. They will not make compromises in the process for anyone, when they know that changing the process flow might lead to punishment. They will proudly declare that their senators and a former vice-president of the country have had to go through special checks at their airports. They do not see anything wrong with the process. Sadly, their lawmakers also do not see that deifying process is turning it into a Frankenstein’s monster. It is targeting as indiscriminately as any unthinking but powerful monster will.
A process cannot think for itself. And the people who are supposed to think for it have declared it their superior. They cannot recall it without admitting serious system failures. An acceptance of failure will raise an expectation of repair. Instead of admitting failure and promising repairs, they will let faulty processes go out of control. Moreover, they would like everyone to join them in calling their processes fool-proof. They will pour beer over the chinks in the process, as had happened in the Harvard incident. What kind of fool-proof process lets a policeman expect deference for his uniform but will not allow an African-American scholar to react sensitively to being subjected to a police interrogation for forcing open the door to his residence? There is an obvious imbalance in this process. If there is scope for human error in a process, as this one has, is it fool-proof?
It isn’t. And there are two ways to correct this. Either work real hard to make all processes fool-proof or encourage people to use processes intelligently. Show them that processes are frameworks that should guide instances of action. That every action need not have an analogy in the process-flow chart. That every instance that does not fit in a slot in a process flow chart needs to be subjected to more processes.
The process flow chart should be a grammar book not a compendium of every possible sentence in a language!
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
One of the topics that holds the potential to incite violent arguments among the most sanguine group of people is what women should or should not wear. Everyone – men, women, children – has an opinion on this issue. If these opinions are made public, especially by powerful men, they affect large numbers of women across class, caste, race and ethnic barriers. Recently, the French president’s personal opinion about a significant item of a Muslim woman’s attire has stirred a hornet’s nest. Well, Mr. Sarkozy better watch out for the juggernaut that will come rolling soon enough!
Nothing annoys a people more than being told by an outsider that their women should or should not wear some form of dress. I don’t know about other women but I know that nothing annoys me more than being told how to dress. I believe that one of the greatest joys of being a woman is that I have the privilege of choosing to drape myself in a range of dresses that begin with the saree and end with the short skirt. Also, being an Indian, the plethora of colours in our markets increases variety in my closet. I have wilfully resisted being influenced by anyone about my choice of clothing. The only factor that has governed my choice was my mood / state of mind. I have hardly paid heed to the unsolicited fashion advice, never allowed my peers to pressure me into choosing one form of dress over another and barely worried about the opinion of community leaders on my clothes.
While experimenting with my personal style, I have driven a gay poet to writing a poem about my sartorial choices, exasperated my mother with a long drawn battle over the issue, driven my dad into repeating the Hindi proverb ap ruchi khana aur per ruchi pehenna countless times, got teased by my siblings, aggressively defended my choice of dress with my extended family and survived disapproving looks from my husband’s extended family. However, I’m yet to control my temper when I hear someone, especially a man, tell me or any other woman in the world what a woman should or should not wear.
I understand that people set a lot of store by clothes as representative of their cultural leanings, their lifestyle and their social moorings. However, I am annoyed by the fact that the responsibility of representation is laid squarely on the shoulders of the women of their community. This role of representing culture through clothes is one of the last vestiges of cultures where women were seen but not heard. It is absurd to expect articulate and efficient women to use clothes to represent themselves or their affiliations. Not only are they insulted by being reduced to mannequins of culture but injury is also inflicted upon them by snatching away their agency.
I believe the right to choose her dress is a fundamental right of a woman. She has the sole right to decide whether she wishes to dress according to the rules periodically given out by the world of fashion or she wishes to please her family, friends, employers, workmates, community by representing them through her sartorial choices or she dresses for her comfort. This ought to be as much a right as the right to free speech and the right to knowledge. Most of my peers would like to believe that all of them enjoy all the three rights I mentioned above. I would like to sit with each one of them and show them the various ways in which families, friends, communities, teams, societies and states curtail each of these rights.
At present, I’ll deal with the right to choose one’s dress and try to show the ways it gets curtailed. If we begin at home, off the cuff, I can present a list of half a dozen sets of people who believe they have a right to state their opinion: spouse, children, parents, siblings, parents-in-law and grandparents. The minute she steps out many other players join the game. Friends will declare what is in and what is out of style and will gently nudge her to dress appropriately for each occasion. Communities will judge her abilities as a member of their group, as a member of society and even as a member of her family by interpreting her style in clothes. She is supposed to follow dozens of overt and tacit dress codes at work. She is expected to follow the diktats of her religion and every once in a while she expected to wear her ‘traditional’ costume to represent her home state or country at some forum.
If a woman sets out to fight with each set of people to reserve her sartorial choice for herself, she will be embarking on a task that will be as unending and exhausting as that of Sisyphus. So, most women choose to turn a deaf ear to the people who are imposing dress codes on them and wear whatever they want to. That is definitely the pragmatic way to handle such interference but is it helping in sending the message that women ought not to be judged for how they look?
Should women allow the ancient role of representatives of culture to be foisted upon them? Shouldn’t they claim agency in this area too?
Friday, June 12, 2009
The details of Andersen’s tale are a bit fuzzy in my head but I seem to distinctly recollect that the child in the tale is mentioned just as a child – name, gender, accurate age was not specified – in one version and in another one the child is a five year old called Gloria. I also remember that I had then preferred the previous version to the latter one. As a researcher of childhood I needed a peg -- some cliché, stereotype or depiction that would give me a ‘quintessential’ dimension of childhood. And in the previous version of the tale, this child whom I chose to see as the Universal Child, in my naivety, represented the brutal honesty that grownups like to associate with childhood.
Many books, many libraries, many discussions and many observations later, I now know that ‘scholastic’ assumptions about childhood and children are just about as harmful to them as market driven ones are. I try my best to steer clear of generalizations about childhood and ecstatic reactions to children’s ‘unusual’ behavior. Some incidents, however, lead me to the brink of glorifying some dimension of childhood.
I was playing with a five year old niece, during a wedding in the family, when we were informed that we were missing out on witnessing an important ritual in the elaborate Hindu wedding. We were also told that we ought to postpone our game and watch the rituals because both of us had travelled quite a distance to be there; she had come from the US and I had gone from Mumbai. I was sufficiently admonished and she was equally curious. We made a dash for it. At the scene of action, I tried holding her aloft so that she gets a ringside view of the ritual. Soon I had to confess that I might break my back. Promptly she stepped down and we hunted out a corner from where we could see the proceedings in minute detail. The ritual we were witnessing involves the bridegroom walking out of the wedding, accessorized as a sanyasi, and declaring that he cannot turn into a householder while his calling is that of a monk. The bride’s brother is sent to coax the bridegroom back to the altar. The rituals deem that this mission ought to turn successful, in each case, by merely offering the groom some jaggery. Knowing that most guys of our generation don’t quite like eating raw jaggery, the bride’s party keeps some chocolate handy to help the proceedings along.
Now my little friend could not make head or tail of the proceedings. I clarified them as briefly as possible; that the bridegroom is scared to get married and the other chap in the scene will give him a chocolate to make him come back to the altar. She had two quick queries: “Does he get to eat the chocolate?” and was suitably impressed by the assertive from me and followed it with, “So, they are not putting up a show?”. Now, the second one was difficult to react to. “Of course, they are!” ought to have been my answer but sudden aid from the part of my brain that stores information made me hold my horses. I remembered the catastrophe that ensued the child’s declaration that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes in Andersen’s tale. To avoid the immediate catastrophe of my little Indian-American friend publicly calling an Indian ritual a show upon my confirming her hunch, I quietly took the cowardly grownup route out of the situation by telling her, “No, that was not a show; that is how one gets married”. My spirits sank at my cowardice but were instantly revived when the child turned to me and planted a kiss on my cheek and ran away to play with people nearer her age.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Obviously, the general perception towards breast feeding has changed. As a public activity, it generates discomfort. Whereas it is being continuously promoted by medical professionals, maternity literature, health-workers and activists. The message to new mothers is that babies ought to be breast-fed. Breast-feeding enhances the physical development of the child considerably; at the same time it nourishes the budding filial bond. Well, if mothers are to feed their children, then one of two things needs to be addressed quite urgently. Either there should be well-organised campaigns to curb the new-fangled discomfort towards this activity, or there should be comfortable private spaces within public spaces that mothers can retire to when they need to feed their babies. While the need for the former suggestion has not been felt acutely enough by the various bodies that run public campaigns, the latter is not a new concept. Feeding rooms have been around, at least in theory. I have never seen one. And I'd heard of only one in our country, until recently. I am told that there is a very comfortable feeding room at Goa airport. Last week, I saw another being as one of the USPs of the latest shopping mall in our area. Well, if feeding mothers are being offered this facility at a shopping mall, then our railway authorities should definitely think of sparing some space in long-distance trains.
I know I am being unrealistic in my hopes. Historically, we have celebrated matrutva and ma-ki-mamta through popular media and literature. In such fora, the demigod-mother is glorying in her matrutva and indulging in her mamta within the confines of her household. When mothers started joining the workforce, in significant numbers, they brought their babies and motherhood along with them into the public sphere. These women multi-tasked between their maternal and professional duties. Somewhere down the line, women started identifying more with their professional rather than their biological selves. While it is beyond the scope of a blog post to discuss the pros and cons of this change, it has definitely made women more conscious of their bodies. Motherhood has become more complex. Complex, and a lot more uncomfortable, despite the increase in the overall comfort levels of a large chunk of human population. If you are tempted to contest this, recollect your reaction when you saw a pregnant woman in a local train compartment or bus. I remember one of my students exclaimed in awe, "How brave! She travels in these crowded trains!" when a woman in her final trimester made her way into a crowded ladies first class. In true Mumbaiyya style, I deadpanned, "What choice does she have?"
Here are some of the alternatives to crowded trains that Mumbai offers pregnant professionals:
1. Take as much maternity leave as possible. If none is sanctioned, quit your job.
2. Fork out half your salary to commute by cab.
3. Start for work a few hours before your usual time and take only less crowded public transport.
4. Negotiate work timings to avoid rush hour traffic.
5. Find work-from-home jobs.
6. Quit your current job and find one nearer home.
I must admit, I spent the last 30 mins listing these half a dozen ‘alternatives’. Do they sound feasible? Frankly, these are not real options for most women. So, here is another aspect of mothering in urban India that requires urgent attention.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The list of services offered at disocunted rates for women to celebrate their womanhood ranged from spa treatments to pedicures to getting dental plaque removed! The range of goodies women could grab at sales stretched from diamonds to underwear! And the gamut of experiences open to the adventurous included yachting and flying! The conventional lead story about the 'development' of women, however, made itself conspicuous by its absence. Every year, on reading that cursory gesture towards women by the media, I would ask myself whether any real stock taking happened around early March to note a significant improvement in the lives of women around the world.
Undeniably, we have more choices in terms of careers than our grandmothers did. Also, we exercise our right to choose more often than our mothers did, be it about our careers or our personal lives. But does that mean we have more real choices to make our lives more comfortable? Here are a couple of scenes from the lives of more than 90% of Mumbai's women:
Scene 1: A women manages to rush out of her flat, after finishing all the morning chores of cooking and packing lunchboxes for herself and her family, about 15 mins before the scheduled departure of her local train to work. She knows it takes about 5 mins to reach the station if she takes an autorickshaw. A slight drizzle starts while she is on her way to the nearest autorickshaw stand. To her dismay she finds that no autorickshaw driver will oblige her by driving such a short distance during rush hour on a rainy morning. She alternates between jogging and trotting to the station and manages to reach nearly 3 mins before the train is scheduled to pull in and realises that the train is going to be late that day. She is not sure if she should be relieved that she gets time to catch her breath or should be exasperated at the delay. As the seconds tick by she notices that the crowd at the station is swelling. The people who usually take the next train are already on the platform. The train pulls in and this crowd of women rush towards it to get in. The regulars as well as the newcomers. She resents the presence of these 'extra' passengers. She cannot empathise with their fear of getting delayed in case their regular train too gets delayed. She does not curb her impulse to snap at them and elbow her way into the compartment. Afterall, she has more of a right to be there than those 'newcomers'.
Scene 2: It is a bright october morning in Mumbai. The weather is on its best behaviour. A young woman walks smartly into the station and takes her regular position on the platform, in front of the pole marked with red and yellow diagonal stripes to indicate the place the first class compartment will be when the local train pulls into the station. She is smartly dressed and well made up. Looking as cool as the proverbial cucumber she digs into her extra large tote and fishes out earphones that connect to some kind of a music player. She seems oblivious to the bustling sweaty crowds around her. She glances disdainfully at young men eyeing her and blocks herself with the help of her earphones from the chatter of the mob of college girls around her. She dislikes them. She has a reason. They crowd into the already miniscule ladies first class and bunch up in gossiping groups till the terminus while they pay one third the amount she does to earn the dubious privilege of travelling in a first class compartment. It is a dubious privelege for it entails being cooped inside a compartment that is a quarter of the size of a regular train compartment with close to 200 women at any given point in the journey for the next half an hour or so. While she prefers the proximity of perfumed bodies to the sweaty bustle of the larger ladies general compartment, she has to admit that she thanks her stars each time she gets out of her first class compartment in one piece. Each time she feels claustrophobic trapped in the sea of strange human bodies, she mentally ticks off the advantages of a first class pass, the advantages of the local train and the advantages of living in Mumbai and holds her breath till she can jostle her way out at her stop and get some air, even if polluted with particulate matter, on the crowded streets outside the train station.
These two scenarios are not at all extraordinary or exaggerated. These are two glimpses of the real experiences of almost all Mumbai women on their way to work, every day of their lives. Undeniably, the Mumbai local train grind is not gender specific. And any Mumbai man who has ever travelled by either of the two offered classes of travel by Mumbai locals will rightly point out that the ladies specific comaprtment trains are less crowded than the ones the men struggle through every day of their lives. Once again true. However, most men do not need to calculate every minute of the morning hours to be able to hurry out of the house just in time to catch their trains. They mostly do not worry about facing a frowning domestic help if the fridge is not well stocked with vegetables or bother about saving time by using the commute to cut vegetables. While they share the women's taxing experience of the dreaded commute, most of them do not juggle with household chores during the few waking hours at home. In such a context, the real choice for a Mumbai woman is not choose between being a housewife and a mortal avatar of the multi-limbed Durga.
Mumbai women reel out comforting information about the 'social life' in local trains: train friendships, long gossip sessions, learning skills such as knitting, saving time at home by cutting vegetables during their commute and, the best of all, buying trinkets at unbelievably unMumbai prices. I can vouch for just the last one. I have done that, in the ladies general compartment at non-rush hours. They choose to block out memories of the painful elbow digs at various parts of their bodies, the rude abuses hauled at them, the risky jump onto moving trains and the frequent fights for space to stand inside the compartment. No one, of course, wants to think of the periodic tragic falls from local trains that newbie commuters suffer from, some times fatally. For if they thought of all these things they would be left with only one choice -- sitting at home. And the only acknowledgement the railway authorities occassionally make of the increasing number of women commuters is an arbitrary move of declaring a couple of compartments as reserved for women and requesting the male passengers not to enter them.
The first class ladies comaprtment, which is supposed to be an improvement over the general one, has only the range of perfumes to recommend for itself! The much-touted camaraderie of the ladies general compartment is non-existent. Rudeness and abuses manifest themselves in more 'sophisticated' forms and the density of people is much worse than the other kind of ladies compartment. This particular type of compartment was designed and launched about a hundred years ago. Probably it was a luxury then. I assume all the career women a hundred years ago in Mumbai got to sit during their commute to work if they could afford the first class pass. Isn't it time the concerned authorities woke up to the fact that the number of women who can and do commute to work by the first class compartment has increased by a thousand fold in these hundred years? Wouldn't the women of Mumbai appreciate such much-needed concern more than crazy discounts to buy diamonds that they can ill afford during a recession?