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Four on Friday: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!

29 Jul

1. CARAVAN, which is my new favorite Indian magazine, has a new piece out on sex selection by desi parents. I know I’ve covered this topic on my blog before, but this article—actually, it’s an excerpt from a book—makes a historical link that’s news to me: the connection between Western foundations and the World Bank in the 1960s and ’70s and population control using sex selection.

It started in the 1950s, when India was regarded as a “cauldron” to test population control measures; the thinking was, if it worked in India, it would probably work everywhere else. Rockefeller and Ford Foundation money started flowing into the country, along with funds from the World Bank and even the United Nations. The world population was growing fast, and one of the places it was growing the fastest was India. This was dangerous, because poor people were seen as more likely to lean toward Marxism. Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, from which this article was adapted, writes:

The population control movement arose at the precise moment that Western powers were losing their grip over Asia, Africa and Latin America. Around the world, colonies were gaining independence, with Cold War tensions replacing imperialism. Many early population activists thus belonged to the US business and political elite. Big names included Hugh Moore, the millionaire inventor of the Dixie Cup; John D Rockefeller III, heir to the Rockefeller family fortune; Lewis Strauss, head of the US Atomic Energy Commission; and Will Clayton, former undersecretary of state. Rising birth rates, as this group saw it, would make countries more susceptible to communism at a time when the US urgently needed allies in Asia and Latin America. “We are not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control,” Moore and Clayton once confided to Rockefeller. “We are interested in the use which communists make of hungry people in their drive to conquer the earth.”

So Indians became proxies in this Cold War battle. They started with the All India Institute of Medical Science, or AIIMS, in Delhi, the country’s most prestigious medical center. The Western envoys began teaching the doctors there how to perform amniocentesis, an invasive procedure which carries the risk of miscarriage. But it became so popular for sex determination that parents began calling it the “sex test.”

In their remarkable openness about the tests, it wasn’t simply that the physicians neglected to consider the ethics of sex selection in the face of widespread patient demand. No: not only did the doctors believe sex selection acceptable, they believed that by culling female foetuses they were making the world a better place. Shortly after the amniocentesis tests began, several AIIMS doctors published a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics explaining the project as an experimental trial with potential to be introduced on a larger scale. Indian couples clearly desired sex selection, wrote Dr IC Verma and colleagues. And that interest, if tapped more widely, could be a boon for India—and the world:

“In India cultural and economic factors make the parents desire a son, and in many instances the couple keeps on reproducing just to have a son. Prenatal determination of sex would put an end to this unnecessary fecundity. There is of course the tendency to abort the foetus if it is female. This may not be acceptable to persons in the West, but in our patients this plan of action was followed in seven of eight patients who had the test carried out primarily for the determination of sex of the foetus. The parents elected for abortion without any undue anxiety.”

While the doctors defended their actions with cultural relativism—“This may not be acceptable to persons in the West”—their logic was a variation on Malthusianism, which India inherited from Europe. Verma and his colleagues aborted female foetuses in the name of population control.

The article goes on to detail the power and influence that the envoys from the Rockefeller Foundation and other wielded on India’s population policy—so much so that they were able to redefine the priorities for the country’s director of family planning and shift it from a holistic consideration of maternal and child health and population control to a focus on only the latter. And in 1975, when the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and began forcibly sterilizing poor men in vast numbers, these scientists and philanthropists lined up to empty their pockets for her program.

Western experts later distanced themselves from the excesses of the Emergency, but records from the time show that many advisers supported, if not cheered, India’s fling with despotism. A World Bank official in Delhi at the time the Emergency began returned to Washington to urge that the bank increase its support for India’s family planning programme. The Indian government asked for $26 million from the bank, explaining it would use a portion of the money to build sterilisation camps in remote areas. The committee that considered the proposal turned it down—not because committee members were alarmed at the human rights violations being perpetuated with World Bank money, but because $26 million was, as one employee wrote to a colleague in the bank’s population division at the time, “disappointingly conservative”. Money came instead from UNFPA, which in 1974 had issued its largest grant yet to India, and the Swedish International Development Authority, which in 1976 contributed $60 million toward family planning in India. And World Bank money continued to flow into India. Between 1972 and 1980 the bank doled out $66 million in loans to the country for the express purpose of population control.

A few months after the committee considered India’s proposal, World Bank President Robert McNamara flew to India to make the bank’s support for the Emergency explicit. Arriving in Delhi as men were being forcibly rounded up for vasectomies, he met with Health and Family Planning Minister Karan Singh, who admitted the sterilisation campaign had entailed a few abuses. Still, McNamara was apparently unfazed, writing in a summary of his trip: “At long last, India is moving to effectively address its population problem.” When the archives of Western population control organisations were finally opened, the scholars who sifted through them might be forgiven for overlooking the role the organisations played in bringing sex-selective abortion to India. At a time when the president of the World Bank endorsed the forced sterilisation of millions of men, a few thousand voluntary abortions must have seemed like nothing.

2. About 10 days ago, the Institute of Medicine released a much-awaited report with their recommendations on how to strengthen preventive care for women, as asked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If the HHS approves these measures, then starting in January 2013, insurance companies would be required to cover them, without passing on the costs to their customers. The eight preventive health services the report recommends are:

  • screening for gestational diabetes
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) testing as part of cervical cancer screening for women over 30
  • counseling on sexually transmitted infections
  • counseling and screening for HIV
  • contraceptive methods and counseling to prevent unintended pregnancies
  • lactation counseling and equipment to promote breast-feeding
  • screening and counseling to detect and prevent interpersonal and domestic violence
  • yearly well-woman preventive care visits to obtain recommended preventive services

Importantly, it also stresses, “To reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies, which accounted for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S. in 2001, the report urges that HHS consider adding the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods [my emphasis] as well as patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity. Women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to receive delayed or no prenatal care and to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed, and experience domestic violence during pregnancy. Unintended pregnancy also increases the risk of babies being born preterm or at a low birth weight, both of which raise their chances of health and developmental problems.”

The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health in the United States, said in its release about the IOM report:

Making contraceptive counseling, services and supplies—including long-acting, reversible methods (the IUD and the implant), which have high up-front costs—more affordable acknowledges the reality that cost can be a daunting barrier to effective contraceptive use. The evidence strongly suggests that insurance coverage of contraceptive services and supplies without cost-sharing is a low-cost—or even cost-saving—means of helping women overcome this obstacle.

In a year when the same Institute mapped the amount of restrictions on abortion that U.S. states enacted in the first half of 2011—162!—the IOM report comes as a relief. Now all the HHS has to do is approve it.

Abortion restrictions in 2011 by the Guttmacher Institute

Abortion restrictions in 2011 by the Guttmacher Institute


3. In all the inflammatory talk among right-wingers of abortion and those who perform it as “murderers” and “baby-killers,” it’s worthwhile to go back to a 2010 article supported by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund—where I work—that just this past week won the Planned Parenthood Maggie Award. “Not A Lone Wolf,” by Amanda Robb, was published in Ms. magazine last May, and investigated the case of Scott Roeder, the man who killed abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in his Wichita, Kansas church for his work. The anti-abortion brigade’s chatter after the murder centered around Roeder being a “lone wolf,” i.e., acting alone, without the support of the larger anti-abortion community. But Robb showed that he relied on a network of supporters to carry out the killing, from longtime connections with members of the Army of God—a secretive organization that has bombed abortion clinics and carried out murders and attempted murders of doctors who provide abortion services—as well as with James Kopp and Paul Hill, both of whom have killed abortion doctors.

Kopp was the murderer of Dr. Barnett Slepian, the abortion provider whose death in 1998 shook Buffalo and the national pro-abortion community. It also prompted (my friend and colleague) Eyal Press to write a book, Absolute Convictions, about the killing and the movement behind it, and the death threat to his own father, Shalom Press, who also performed abortions in his Buffalo practice. After the killing of Dr. Slepian, Dr. Press was the only doctor left in the upstate city who offered abortion services—which he continued to provide as part of his normal gynecological practice, despite the danger. I highly recommend it.

4. Did anyone read the recent New York Times article about the progress in male contraception? There are several methods that are being tested, and some of them will be presented at an October conference by the Gates Foundation. Different methods use progestin and testosterone hormones, some use a male contraceptive pill that results in nonfunctional sperm, and others are testing a drug that blocks the production of retinoic acid, which is important for sperm production. (Funnily enough, this drug also acts as one that helps curb alcoholism; if you drink while you’re taking it, it will make you sick. Dr. Amory, who is one of the scientists behind this particular method, quipped to the Times, “The joke is if it weren’t for alcohol, no one would need contraception.”)

Wow, to imagine a day when women don’t bear the brunt of contraception. Right now, there are exactly two methods of male contraception: the condom and the vasectomy. Women have the birth control pill, the nuvaring, the patch, the IUD (intra-uterine device), the diaphragm, and tubal ligation. Am I missing any? The pill, the ring and the patch all have side effects, some serious, as they interfere with a woman’s hormones; the IUD is not recommended for everyone, and the diaphragm is no longer easily available and is hardly used by American women. When it comes to sterilization, vasectomies are much easier procedures than tubal ligations. The former can be accomplished in an outpatient procedure that takes 30 minutes and has a minimum of risk, as well as being up to four times cheaper than tubal ligations. Tubal ligation for women, however, requires hospitalization, general anesthesia, and is more often than not an intra-abdominal procedure with a longer recovery time. It also carries serious risks such as perforation of the intestine, infection, complications from anesthesia and even pulmonary embolism. It’s also way more expensive than a vasectomy.

So why is it that in the United States, according to a 30-year Center for Disease Control report from 1995 (couldn’t find a more recent government study, sorry!), women get tubal ligations one-and-a-half to two times more often than men get vasectomies? I’m sure a chunk of the blame lies with unwilling men, but it’s also incumbent on clinics and doctors to include men in discussions about contraception. (Informal poll of readers: How many of the women reading this blog took your male partners along to the doctor’s office when you discussed methods of contraception? And for the male readers—how many of you asked to accompany your partner, or were asked by her, on such a visit? And did you in fact go with her? This question, of course, assumes that you went to the doctor to discuss contraception when you were in a heterosexual relationship. Do let me know your answers in the comments.)

This discrepancy in responsibility was rather humorously captured in this Washington City Paper blog post last year by Amanda Hess. The post begins:

Allison, 26, and her boyfriend were having sex—an activity they had engaged in many times over the six months they had been dating—when her contraceptive vaginal ring fell right out of her vagina. Her boyfriend paused. He developed a sudden concern over the efficacy of the couple’s method of birth control. “He was like, ‘Oh, no. How is it going to catch my semen?’” Allison recalls.

Allison, it seems, had had ignorant partners before.

“I was dating a guy in college who knew that I was on the birth control pill. Of course, he was concerned about me getting pregnant,” says Allison. “So he said, ‘You know, you should take four or five of these a day—just take as many as you need to,’” she says.

And then there was Jenna:

Jenna had been living with her boyfriend for several months when he floated his own contraceptive theory. Jenna was taking her birth control pills continuously, meaning that she was skipping the pack’s built-in placebo pills in order to stop her period. At some point, her boyfriend discovered how she had managed to avoid the monthly ritual. “I was thinking you were just magical, like a unicorn,” he told her. “I mean, you hope one exists somewhere, but you never think you’ll get to live with one…a cool chick with no period drama that has sex all month long.” He added, “The guys thought I was making it up.” (Boyfriends could not be reached for comment for this story).

Hess quotes a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which surveyed single Americans of both sexes between the ages of 19 and 29 and found that men in general were much less informed about methods of contraception than women were. And the discrepancy in knowledge widened when it came to female contraceptives, so that 78 percent of men said they were clueless about birth control pills, as compared with 45 percent of women.


Women shouldering the burden of contraception means more than just remembering to swallow a small pill every day. It is accompanied by a host of other responsibilities and costs: co-pays for gynecological visits, annual check-ups, the financial cost of contraception (and don’t forget that Viagra is covered by insurance companies, but not always birth control pills—though that might change if the HHS implements the IOM’s recommendations), not to mention the side effects, which can be myriad and major.

This has an impact on men, too. Their lack of choices for a long-acting, reversible contraceptive (LARC) means they must trust their female partners to take care of the contraception. And if it fails, as contraceptives sometimes do, they are supposed to be responsible for their children, whether they wanted offspring or not. I would think men would cheer a pill that gave them more control over reproduction. (And, it seems, they do. According to this 2009 article from Science Progress by Lisa Campo-Engelstein, a study showed that 55 percent of men would be willing to use contraception.)

But though the medical research community has been making noises about contraceptives for men for years, there is still nothing on the market. Campo-Engelstein suggests that this has to do both with gender perception (contraception is “women’s work;” women’s bodies are less complex than men’s; that men will not be willing to use methods that have side effects on their bodies, the way that women do; and more) and with the funding available for research.

The distribution of research and development money in the 1990s was as follows: 60 percent to high-tech female methods, 3 percent to female barrier methods, spermicides, and natural fertility control methods, 7 percent to male methods, and 30 percent to multiple methods, though mostly for women.[12] Researchers who would like to study male contraception often cannot due to a lack of funding. For example, Richard Anderson, a professor of clinical reproductive science at Edinburgh University, says that “most of the work [on male contraception] has been initiated by university investigators and the World Health Organisation. There has so far not been a lot of money from corporate companies.”[13]Despite positive findings on a male contraceptive pill, Anderson has not been able to conduct trials because no pharmaceutical company will financially support them.

In Hess’s post, Allison said, “I’ve been dating since high school, and it feels like the men that I date now have a very similar idea of birth control as the men I dated who were high school students. They get a preliminary idea in sex ed, and then there’s not really any education after that. Nothing ever changes.”

Let’s all, men and women, hope that this time, something will.

Four on Friday: Mumbai on my Mind

22 Jul

I TOOK last Friday off (sorry, dear readers!) in honor of Jatin’s birthday. But I’m back now, with four new things for you to read/discuss/chew over for this week.

1. I was sitting at home, sipping my morning Nescafe, when I saw it. On BBC, just before they took a break, the anchor announced that there had been three bomb blasts back home (see photos here). I waited, coffee cooling on the table, for more details. Frustratingly, they had none. Google News had no additional information. I left for work, dialing rapidly. Reliance wouldn’t connect. I tried calling directly. All lines into this country are busy, a tinny female voice announced. I was getting frantic. It took me 15 minutes to reach work, 15 minutes before my father called me to say that he and Mom were at Metro, they were ok, and he would call me later.

It’s at moments like these when you really feel the distance that separates you from your loved ones. Phone lines are jammed, email is no good, and nothing can substitute for seeing your family in flesh and blood. (As I write this, news trickles in of a bomb blast in Oslo. Norway! Who explodes bombs in Norway!? So far they’re saying that only one person was killed, but that’s one person too many.)

Mumbai's Opera House neighborhood, where one of three bombs exploded on July 13, 2011

Mumbai's Opera House neighborhood, where one of three bombs exploded on July 13, 2011

Mumbai is too used to terror attacks. It began in the days when Mumbai was still Bombay. I remember being in the seventh standard, in school on a weekday, when the first big bomb blasts happened back in 1993. We had no idea what was going on, except that our teachers announced that we were all being sent home because it wasn’t safe. The riots had just happened a few months earlier, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and everyone was on edge.

And through it all, through the destruction and debris that followed the eight terror attacks that have struck my city, people got up and got back to work, taking the trains the day after bombs had ripped them apart. Newspaper editorials lauded the “indomitable” Mumbai spirit that allows us Mumbaikars to get on with their lives, to not be cowed. And there is indeed something resilient about my home town, though out of necessity, not choice. When you’re so poor that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, you don’t have the luxury of candle marches and shouting matches on TV shows. You heal as best you can, grieve as best you can, and then get back to work.

Last week, my old editor from my TimeOut days, Naresh Fernandes, wrote this New Yorker piece that asks, “What Mumbai Spirit?”

Writing the day after the attacks, Naresh notes:

that cliché was notably absent in the newspapers and on TV. In fact, for the first time, Mumbai citizens were expressing an antipathy towards that phrase. Perhaps they were finally mindful that politicians who had praised the spirit of Mumbai had used this presumed resilience as an excuse to absolve themselves of the need to take the difficult decisions necessary to actually make the city safer and more livable.

2. Speaking of bomb blasts, can anyone forget the shameful blot that was the Indian TV channels’ coverage of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai that left more than 160 dead? There was sensationalism, there were rumors paraded around as facts and never corrected once it was known they were false, there was the blow-by-blow reporting of rescue operations that put the special forces teams and the hostages at risk — it was a disaster. (Read Barkha Dutt’s response to the criticism here.)

Front page of an issue of DNA India

Front page of an issue of DNA India

The TV channels weren’t as bad this time around, though they weren’t great either. But a July 16 DNA India op-ed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy is just vile. (I don’t want to send traffic to DNA by linking back to it, so I will just quote as much of it as I can stomach before the poison becomes overwhelming.) It starts:

The terrorist blast in Mumbai on July 13, 2011, requires decisive soul-searching by the Hindus of India. Hindus cannot accept to be killed in this halal fashion, continuously bleeding every day till the nation finally collapses.

And then it gets worse.

Fanatic Muslims consider Hindu-dominated India “an unfinished chapter of Islamic conquests”. All other countries conquered by Islam 100% converted to Islam within two decades of the Islamic invasion. Undivided India in 1947 was 75% Hindu even after 800 years of brutal Islamic rule. That is jarring for the fanatics.

In one sense, I do not blame the Muslim fanatics for targeting Hindus. I blame Hindus who have taken their individuality permitted in Sanatan Dharma to the extreme. Millions of Hindus can assemble without state patronage for the Kumbh Mela, completely self-organised, but they all leave for home oblivious of the targeting of Hindus in Kashmir, Mau, Melvisharam and Malappuram and do not lift their little finger to help organise Hindus. If half the Hindus voted together, rising above caste and language, a genuine Hindu party would have a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the assemblies.

The first lesson to be learnt from the recent history of Islamic terrorism against India and for tackling terrorism in India is that the Hindu is the target and that Muslims of India are being programmed by a slow reactive process to become radical and thus slide into suicide against Hindus. It is to undermine the Hindu psyche and create the fear of civil war that terror attacks are organised.

It goes on in this vein for many more paragraphs, spewing hate and bigotry and communalism with every word. It is an outrage that the editor of DNA India, a national Indian daily, gave 1,251 words to Swamy. After the blogosphere erupted (here and here, h/t to Shivam Vij whose post first alerted me to the piece), and its Letter to the Editor column was deluged by angry readers, DNA published several counterpoints to Swamy’s “analysis” two days later. But I have yet to see an apology from the paper’s editor-in-chief, Aditya Sinha, or an explanation for why he published Swamy’s vitriol in the first place. His most recent column, published on July 17, the day after Swamy’s, didn’t mention it at all. You can send a letter to Sinha expressing your opinion at asinha at dnaindia dot net.

3. Kafila takes on the Delhi police, who claimed to have “solved” the Mumbai blasts case after listening to a 60-second phone call. ‘Nuff said.

A still from Rabbi's Bulla ki Jaana

A still from Rabbi's Bulla ki Jaana

4. All this talk of bombs and terrorism attacks and city spirit and patriotism brings to mind one of my favorite songs by Rabbi Shergill, best known for Bulla ki Jaana and Tere Bin, from his first album, Rabbi. It’s called Bilqis – Jinhe Naaz Hai, and it’s from Avengi Ja Nahin, his second album, which came out in June 2008, five months before the terror attacks that November.

Before you watch the video (and note the changing images on the screen in the background), here’s a bit of context for the stories. Bilqis Yakuq Rasool is a Muslim woman who was gang-raped in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and her family massacred. Satyendra Dubey was a civil engineer working on the “Golden Quadrilateral,” the network of highways meant to link India in the north, south, east and west. Discovering massive corruption, he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister’s office about it, naming the companies involved. He asked for his name to be kept secret. It wasn’t, and a year later, he was murdered. Manju Nathan, a sales manager at the Indian Oil Corporation, sealed a petrol pump in Lakhimpur district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for adulteration, and was killed for doing his job. Navleen Kumar was a social worker who tried to help adivasis whose land had been taken away by politicians and corrupt developers. On June 19, 2002, she was stabbed 19 times and killed while she was walking her dogs. The “Jinhe Naaz Hai” reference is from a song in the famous Guru Dutt film, Pyaasa.

I love this song so much I’m going to paste the lyrics here, in Hindi and English.

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool            
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool            
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko            
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein            

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha    
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha            
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki        

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the        
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain            

Mera naam shriman Satyendra Dubey        
Jo kehna thha vo keh chukey            
Ab parhey hain rah mein                
Dil mein liye ik goli                

Bas itna kasur ki hamne likha thha            
Vo sach jo har kisi ki zuban thha            
Par sach yahan ho jatey hain zahriley        

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the        
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain                

Mujhe kehte hain anna Manjunath            
Maine dekhi bhatakti ek laash            
Zamir ki beech sarhak Lakhimpur Kherhi        

Adarsh phasan jahan naaron mein            
Aur chor bharey darbaron mein            
Vahan maut akhlaq ki hai ik khabar baasi        

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan hain        
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain                

Mazha nau aahe Navleen Kumar            
Unnees june unnees var                
Unnees unnees unnees unnees                
Unnees vaar                

Unnees unnees unnees unnees                
Unnees unnees unnees unnees                
Unnees unnees unnees unnees                
Unnees vaar                    

Looto dehaat kholo bazaar                
Nallasopara aur Virar                
Chheeno zameen hamse hamein            
Bhejo pataal                    

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan hain        
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain   

In English:

My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool
I committed just one mistake
That I stood in their way
When they were looking for Ram

First, one asked me but I knew nothing
Then another but my answer was the same
Then so many that now I have a question

Where are those who are proud of India
Where are those who are proud

My name, gentlemen, is Satyendra Dubey
I’ve already said what I wanted to say
Now I lie on the road
With a bullet in my heart

My only fault being that I wrote
A truth that was on everyone’s lips
But truth here turn poisonous

Where are those who are proud of India
Where are those who are proud

My name, brother, is Manjunath
I’ve seen the corpse of conscience lying
In the middle of the road at Lakhimpur Kherhi

Where ideals are stuck in slogans
And the royal courts are full of thieves
There the death of righteousness is old news

Where are those who are proud of India
Where are those who are proud

My name is Navleen Kumar
Nineteenth June and nineteen wounds
Nineteen nineteen nineteen nineteen
Nineteen wounds

Nineteen nineteen nineteen nineteen
Nineteen nineteen nineteen nineteen
Nineteen nineteen nineteen nineteen
Nineteen wounds

Loot the villages and open markets
Nallasopara & Virar
Snatch our land and send us to

Where are those who are proud of India
Where are those who are proud

Note the interweaving of the tune of the Indian national anthem in the chorus. It makes a shiver go down my spine every time I hear it.

Four on Friday: Just for Laughs

8 Jul

IT’S that delicious part of summer, when dull winter coats and snow-slushed boots seem like a thing of the past, and belong to a remote future, when free concerts and movie screenings and other outdoor events abound, and when you never have to walk more than two blocks for a scoop of chocolate ice-cream. In that frothy spirit, here are some fun amuse-bouche to start you off for the weekend:

Samosapedia screenshot

Samosapedia screenshot

1. I don’t know when this website popped up, but I am so glad I discovered it! It’s a witty compendium of South Asian slang, from “lau” (Lau, not Dau), “Kiney” for Kinetic scooter, and “monkey cap” (oh, how that brings back memories of camping trips from school!). Here’s the meaning of “Lau:”

Originally derived from the digga pronunciation of the English word “love”, it has now wholly eclipsed the English word in usage and meaning.

Now it is a Kannada slang word meaning “romantic intent” but carrying more suggestive overtones. Road-side Romeos distinguish this word from a similar yet orthogonal word dau which means “lustful intent” and is more anatomical in execution.

The gap between lau and dau is the saga of frustruated youth in Bangalore.

And an entry on the necessity of ordering a “gravy dish” when eating out:

Apart from the obvious division of dishes on Indian menucards (vegnon-veg), there’s the more subtle dry and gravy distinction.

If you order too many dry dishes, the waiter will grow increasingly concerned for your health and safety, and will gently suggest “gravy dish, saar”. A gravy dish is considered essential to a meal, and unnamed, horrible things happen to diners attempting to eat rice or rotis with only dry dishes.

If you turn down the waiter’s offer, his eyes will widen, he’ll start shaking a little and there’ll be tears in his eyes as he implores, “No saar, gravy dish is a must. Cancel one dry dish?” He’ll gesture towards the ladice and children at the table as if to say, “How can you treat them so?”

If you’re pushy enough to persist, he will bring you the dry dishes, and then triumphantly set down gratis bowls of “gravy”. “To have with naan, saar.”

Gravy dish is a must.

Delhi Belly poster

Delhi Belly poster

2. Speaking of language and its usage, I have to mention the new English-Hindi movie Delhi Belly. If the title doesn’t offer enough of a clue, let me be very clear: if you can’t handle scatological humor, stay away. The use of language, local idiom, and Hinglish slang in the film is pitch perfect, with the characters peppering their conversations with gaalis and desi-isms. Sounds like something you’d overhear on a college campus, except wittier. I’m not going to summarize the plot here, or write a detailed review, or discuss whether the film captures Delhi, or any of that. There are weaknesses in the plot; the ending requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief, and I had about run out by then; not to mention that the Aamir cameo at the finish needed much cutting, but would I watch it again? In a heartbeat.

3. One of the trending topics on Twitter today is #againstIndianCulture. That’s just an invitation to snarky comments about inquisitive aunties, cutting lines, and Rajnikanth. Here are a smattering of my favorites (sorry, I had to remove the Twitter handle as it got too confusing and there were so many RTs):

Having a low-key marriage without calling the whole neighbourhood #AgainstIndianCulture

Buying software #AgainstIndianCulture

So true !!! Staying in a hotel when your mother’s cousin’s brother-in-law stays in the same city. #AgainstIndianCulture

BE PREPARED! Today, Arnab will probe the fact what was there in the hashtag #AgainstIndianCulture that led us to go complete nuts???

SO true! Not asking salary of someone you just met. #AgainstIndianCulture

bollywood dances without pelvic thrusts #againstIndianculture

Not wanting to attend your uncle’s brother-in-law’s son’s thread ceremony is #againstindianculture

Removing the plastic seat covers of a new car #AgainstIndianCulture

India vs Pakistan during World Cup and people not bunking office/school is #againstindianculture

Taking signboards seriously #againstindianculture

4. Beautiful photographs of Sudan, on the eve of South Sudan becoming an independent country tomorrow, July 9.

Four on Friday: Reclaiming Streets, Language and More

1 Jul
SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

1. ONE afternoon almost a decade ago I was walking from my house in Bombay to Breach Candy, a 15-20 walk, and about five minutes in, I noticed that there was a man following me. I don’t remember what he looked like, or what he was wearing—he was a typical Roadside Romeo, one of those lewd, cat-calling types who like to sing suggestive Bollywood songs and make like an octopus with their grabby hands, that women in India encounter daily on the streets.

I had been followed by men before, and I tried all my usual tricks to throw him off. I stopped to enjoy the view of a park, hoping he would pass me by. He didn’t. I strolled into a nearby store, browsing the jewellery on sale, lingering over the silver section, but when I walked back out, he was across the street, waiting. Our eyes met and he gave me a cheeky wave. I had been irritated before, but now I was seething. On the next corner I saw a policeman, and I stalked right up to him. The words rushed out of me, how this person had followed me all the way from home, and how I had tried to lose him but he kept right behind me, and now this, the final straw, him waving knowingly, as though to say, “I’m still here. I’ll always be here. You can never be free on the streets of the city.”

While I was talking, people started listening in, as they are wont to do, and offering their own opinions. One Parsi lady, with hair fully white and cut in a bob, offered her support and congratulated me on doing something about it. Two women in salwar kameezes nodded knowingly; this had happened to them many times. A few men, enraged on my behalf, marched over to the man, who by this point was trying to slink away, unnoticed. They dragged him over to face the policeman, and I, who am not normally known for my bloodthirstiness, I was fiercely glad. They formed a knot around the man, who had no more sly smiles left in him, and I heard the sound of palm meeting flesh.

I walked away then, feeling powerful and vindicated. This was for all those times that a man had stuck out a hand and grabbed a body part that did not belong to him, for those moments of embarrassment and humiliation when I had had to walk past a group of men who were determined to undress me with their eyes, for the shock and violation caused by their crude comments and the baring of their privates—something that every woman, in India and around the world, has had to endure at some point or another in their life.

2. That’s why I’m so glad that an organization like Hollaback! exists, and that it has come to India. Hollaback! is an international movement to stop street harassment using mobile technology. Their “about” page says:

Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against… [It] is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay. At Hollaback!, we don’t buy it.

We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK… The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment… By collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! breaks the silence that has perpetuated sexual violence internationally, asserts that any and all gender-based violence is unacceptable, and creates a world where we have an option—and, more importantly—a response.

The way it works is this: if you have been harassed, you can take a photograph of the harasser with your smartphone (using their Droid or iPhone app; global apps to come this summer) or a digital camera, if you have one handy, map your location, and share your story on your local Hollaback! website. And as the Mumbai site says, participate in the Main Hoon Na! campaign: “The Main Hoon Na Campaign provides real options to people who want to help end street harassment with a simple message: If you see someone being harassed, go to them and ask them if they are OK, and if there is anything you can do to help.”

It’s simple, but powerful. So the next time you see someone on the street being harassed by a Roadside Romeo, shout, make a ruckus, tell a cop, take a photograph, or simply offer your support.

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Speaking of safely strolling down the street, a book came out earlier this year which addresses this very issue and I am dying to read it. It’s called Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets and it’s by three formidable women, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. The authors argue that “though women’s access to urban public space has increased, they still do not have an equal claim to public space in the city” and they draw from feminist theory to argue that “only by celebrating loitering—a radical act for most Indian women—can a truly equal, global city be created.”

Mumbai is famously safe. Unlike Delhi, which has acquired a bhayanak reputation, what with taxi drivers raping tourists and terrible tales of gang rape at gunpoint, Mumbai is supposed to be safe for women (well, relatively speaking, anyway). And indeed, even with my occasional encounters with leering, lunging men, I usually feel safe in my hometown as well. Why Loiter? shatters that belief.

As this review in Himal says:

The authors take us on an insightful and eventful journey, though one that leaves the reader a mite frazzled. Whirring through the bustling bylanes of Dongri and Nagpada, the posh Malabar Hill and Ballard Estate, middle-class Shivaji Park and the teeming gallis of Dharavi, we glimpse the array of women out on the streets, in the bus stops and parks. They take us on a desperate (and unsuccessful) search for a ‘ladies’ toilet in Andheri Station; a squashy ride in the ubiquitous local train; leave us breathless after a brisk walk across the Oval Maidan, where no woman must linger; and finally allow us to feel the sea breeze on the Marine Drive promenade. The book breathes Bombay, Bambai and Mumbai; it never lets us forget that there are distinct worlds in this city of 21 million. From the eyes of women, these worlds, separated by class, caste and religion, are hard to reconcile with the stereotypes of the freewheeling ‘Bombay girl’.

In a section on public toilets, the authors write, “If public toilets were to be your guide to imagining the city, what would they say about Mumbai? First, they would imply that there are very few women in public as compared to men… Second, they would suggest that if Mumbai women need to pee, they do so at home… And third, they would say, since even fewer facilities are open after 9pm, respectable women have no business being out in public after dark.”

Loitering without purpose, they say, is a way to reclaim public space, and I am going out right now (ok, when I finish this post) to go do some loitering of my own. It’s on the streets of New York, true, but no doubt I will attract at least a curious, assessing glance or two. I will go stand on the street corner, and not pretend to be texting someone, or waiting for a friend, looking impatiently at my watch, or window-shopping while walking slowly to my destination. I will loiter, because it’s my city too, and I am claiming its streets.

I am going to do my part in creating a city “with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breastfeeding, exchanging corporate notes or planning protest meetings. If one can imagine that, one can imagine a radically altered city.”

3. Many of you will have heard by now of the SlutWalk movement which began in Toronto this past January when a local cop, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, told students at York University during a safety information session that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Despicable remarks, and from someone who should have known better. People get assaulted every day, regardless of what they are wearing. The madonna/whore dichotomy is ancient and damaging and sadly, still in use. The women in Toronto had had enough, and they organized a SlutWalk, a march of women down to the police headquarters, in protest.

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

The movement spread like wildfire around the world, and to India: Delhi will hold its first SlutWalk in July. Though the word “slut” itself doesn’t hold the resonance in India that it does in the rest of the English-speaking world, the sentiment behind it is the same. As this DNA India article detailed:

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is a rape every 18 hours, and molestation every 14 hours in Delhi. One of every four rapes in India is committed in the capital. Only one in 69 rape cases in India are reported; just 20% of these cases result in conviction of the rape accused. In other words, the chance of a rapist being sent to jail is 0.28%.

These are figures we should all be bitterly ashamed of—and do something to change. You can start by listening to Jaclyn Friedman’s amazing speech at the Boston SlutWalk. Here are a few snippets:

Well hello you beautiful sluts!

Do you see what I did there? I called y’all sluts, and I don’t know the first thing about what any of you do with your private parts. (Well, maybe I know about a couple of you, but I’ll never tell.)

That’s how the word “slut” usually works. If you ask ten people, you get ten different definitions. Is a slut a girl who has sex too young? With too many partners? With too little committment? Who enjoys herself too much? Who ought to be more quiet about it, or more ashamed? Is a slut just a woman who dresses too blatantly to attract sexual attention? And what do any of these words even mean? What’s too young, too many partners, too little committment, too much enjoyment, too blatant an outfit? For that matter, what’s a woman, and does a slut have to be one?

For a word with so little meaning, it sure is a vicious weapon. And, while the people who use it to hurt may not agree on what they mean by it, they’ll all agree on one thing: a slut is NOT THEM. A slut is other. A slut is someone, usually a woman, who’s stepped outside of the very narrow lane that good girls are supposed to stay within. Sluts are loud. We’re messy. We don’t behave. In fact, the original definition of “slut” meant “untidy woman.” But since we live in a world that relies on women to be tidy in all ways, to be quiet and obedient and agreeable and available (but never aggressive), those of us who color outside of the lines get called sluts. And that word is meant to keep us in line. To separate us. To make us police each other, turn on each other, and turn each other in so that we can prove we’re not “like that.” That word comes with such consequences that many of us rightly work to avoid it at all costs.

But not today. Today we all march under the banner of sluthood. Today we come together to say: you can call us that name, but we will not shut up. You can call us that name but we will not cede our bodies or our lives. You can call us that name, but you can never again use it to excuse the violence that is done to us under that name every single fucking day.

Friedman ended with this rousing call:

If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together—I am a slut. If you love someone who’s been called a slut—stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve ever been afraid of being called a slut, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve been blamed for violence that someone else did to you, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business, and we can all live our lives and pursue our pleasures free of shame, blame and free, stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.

So SlutWalk Delhi, ignore the catcalls and the cynics who will try to pull you down, and let’s all say together: You can call me a slut, or a kutiya (bitch), a chinaal or randi (whore), but that doesn’t give you the license to commit violence upon my body.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

4. And thanks to my friend Meghana for bringing this excellent HuffPo article to my attention. (Meghana has a little girl of her own, who’s so smart she can say my name already, so she’s on top of this parenting stuff.) In it, the author recounts meeting the five-year-old daughter of a friend for the first time. Despite wanting to coo over how adorable she looked, the author made herself talk to the child about her love for books. Because it’s the constant discussing and praising of the way our daughters look—over the praising of achievements—that has led to the American girl’s obsession with physical appearance.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Read the entire article here. And the next time you see that little girl in your life, give her a book. Maybe Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Four on Friday: The India Files

24 Jun

FOUR tidbits from the homeland this week.

1. Coke Studio has come to India! For those of you new to Coke Studio, it began in Pakistan four years ago, as a television show sponsored by Coca-Cola featuring live music and collaborations between Pakistani folk, eastern, classical, and contemporary musicians. It has become a runaway hit, and there is nothing quite like it in the region.

From the melodies in Pashto and Dari to the pop compositions of Strings and Ali Zafar, from the sweet voices of Zeb and Haniya to the gravelly Garaj Baras rendition by Ali Azmat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the irresistibly foot-tapping Chambey di Booti (Jugni) by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi, Coke Studio Pakistan enchants and delights. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what the lyrics mean or what that instrument is called, it draws you in and doesn’t let you go.

Noori in Coke Studio Pakistan

Noori in Coke Studio Pakistan

In a behind-the-scenes Newsline interview, Coke Studio Pakistan’s producer, Rohail Hyatt talks about the show’s beginnings and what he hopes to achieve with it. Hyatt laments the fading out of traditional music and said he hopes the music show will provide a new platform for dying musical languages. He adds that Coke Studio isn’t “a commercial platform, it’s become commercial because people have liked it, but it was never meant to be. We have never succumbed to the pressures like, ‘Oh God, there are so many fans now that we have to cater to the public taste.’ In fact, it’s even more experimental this time.”

Asked about Coca-Cola taking the show to India, Hyatt is hopeful. “From what I am seeing and hearing, India is also trying to reinvent itself. Trying to totally steer away from Bollywood. Just look at the palette they have in terms of raw talent. Music is part of their philosophy. With a palette like that, you could paint a very interesting picture.”

It’s true that Indian radio stations play Bollywood beats obsessively, and it’s only in recent years that non-movie songs by Rabbi Shergill, Kailash Kher and others have made it to FM. As composer-singer Shankar Mahadevan—who featured in the first episode—told NDTV, “Bollywood is huge, I admit, but isn’t our country huge too?”

As someone who only discovered Coke Studio earlier this year, I didn’t have quite as long to wait for Coca-Cola to bring their venture to India. Perhaps that’s why I don’t share the skepticism of long-time fans when Coke Studio India, officially known as Coke Studio@MTV, debuted in India last Friday at 7 p.m. on the popular music channel. The blog Kafila pronounced, “The unanimous verdict is that Coke Studio India (first aired on the Friday that went by) is no match for Coke Studio Pakistan.”

But Coke Studio Pakistan is mature, and in its fourth season, having produced more than 80 songs; Coke Studio@MTV is six tunes old—an infant in comparison. It’s true, the Indian show could lose the flashing strobe lights and nightclub-like atmosphere, and there’s a lot out there apart from drums and catchy beats, but I for one enjoyed the debut and am looking forward to more. (Watch the first six episodes here.)

The second show is tonight. I, for one, am holding back on the criticism and am cheering with all my might. As much as MTV channel head Aditya Swamy says, “We are not at all worried about TRPs. All we want is to promote pure music [and] youngsters to enjoy the sound of various regions of India,” I am in no hurry to lose a genuine attempt to foster dialogue between India’s diverse musicians to low ratings and an indifferent audience.

Upma as prepared by Top Chef winner Floyd Cardoz

Upma as prepared by Top Chef winner Floyd Cardoz

2. Speaking of success stories, I was buoyed to learn of Indian chef Floyd Cardoz taking home the top prize in the 2011 season of the reality show Top Chef Masters. Top Chef—my favorite cooking show—is a competition among chefs featuring unusual challenges. Past episodes have featured cook-outs on the beach, with the chefs catching the seafood they will serve; cooking with no utensils; cooking with whatever ingredients are on board a ferry; cooking meals reminiscent of their childhoods; cooking healthy versions of the favorite meals of contestants on The Biggest Loser, a weight-loss reality show; creating their own restaurants; and more.

Fellow Mumbaikar Floyd Cardoz won for his preparation of the South Indian upma (as part of a three-course meal that also included a rice-crusted snapper in fennel-laced broth and a reinterpreted version of a beef stew called rendang). Not my first choice at an Udipi restaurant, but still so exciting! Cardoz’s $100,000 grand prize will be donated to the Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund in memory of his father, who died of cancer. After his win, Cardoz tweeted, “Woke up with a hangover. that’s what a magnum of Dom does to you when you celebrate a #TopChefMasters win. I welcome this headache anytime.”

Cardoz, recently of the Indo-French restaurant Tabla, which shut its doors last December, is the new chef of the forthcoming Danny Meyer seafood restaurant in Battery Park, North End Grill. Am looking forward to trying it out!

Meanwhile, here’s his recipe for upma if Top Chef inspired you to give it a try:

Wild Mushroom Upma Polenta with Kokum & Coconut Milk

Four servings


2 cups cream of wheat
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shallots
1 tablespoon ginger
1 tablespoon chillies
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups coconut milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cilantro, as garnish
Pea shoots, as garnish
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup oyster mushrooms
1/2 cup Maitake
1/2 cup king oyster mushrooms
2 shallots
1 chilli pepper
1 knob ginger
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup white port
1 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

1. Heat oil and cream of wheat and toast for 10 minutes on low heat. Remove from pan
2. Heat oil mixture then add mustard seeds and whisk until seeds pop. Add cumin and reserve
3. Heat pan. Add spice oil and butter. Add shallots, ginger, chillies, and cook for 2-4 minutes. Add cream of wheat and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add stock and coconut milk. Mix and cook. Simmer
4. Should be smooth.

Directions for mushrooms
1. Heat oil in sauté pan. Add mushrooms and cook with lightly coloured sear
2. Add butter, shallots, ginger and chilli
3. Deglaze with white port
4. Season with salt and pepper and cilantro.

3. You’ve probably heard of “coyotes” who bring Mexican undocumented immigrants across the border to the United States for hefty sums; in India, the coyotes are called “linemen” and they’re not much different. So says Scott Carney in the new issue of Foreign Policy, in his excellent story, “Fortress India.” In it, Carney describes a “Berlin Wall” that is being constructed by India on its border with Bangladesh, to keep its northern neighbors out. The wall has been in existence since the late 1980s, and is close to completion—the final section will be completed in 2012.

Shockingly—or perhaps, not so shockingly—the Indian Border Security Force guarding the wall has notched up nearly 1,000 killings since 2000, roughly two per week. Carney writes:

In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

And with climate change wreaking havoc on ecologically sensitive Bangladesh, things are expected to get a lot worse.

Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a “threat multiplier,” sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

The migrants will continue to come, and many will die—unnecessarily—at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers. Since liberalization of its economy in the 1990s, India has been keen to imitate the United States’ worst habits: McDonald’s; privatization to the detriment of the population; the workings of its newspaper industry, now foundering badly. In this, too, the U.S. example has not been a successful one. Criminalizing immigrants, erecting fences, xenophobic attitudes: none of this has worked. It’s time to find another path.

The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb

The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb

4. Finally, we are seeing India’s new Internet laws in motion, in the recent lawsuit for “grave harassment and injury” that businessman and Bollywood dabbler Arindam Chaudhuri has launched against journalist Siddhartha Deb, the publishers of The Caravan, which published Deb’s profile of Chaudhuri, Penguin, which is publishing Deb’s forthcoming book, The Beautiful and the Damned, of which the Chaudhuri chapter forms a part, and, bizarrely, Google India.

Check out my previous post about the broad, vaguely worded and regressive new law. I hope to write more on this issue later, so I will keep it short here. Please do read Deb’s profile of Chaudhuri: it’s exceedingly well-written, incisive and even-handed (apologies for the formatting; The Caravan was forced to remove the article from their website by the Assam court, where the suit was filed), and Chaudhuri’s fulminating rebuttal—where he praises the new Internet rules, and which was published in a magazine that he owns—here. The Caravan promises to keep readers updated on the progress of the case. In their editorial on the issue, they say that they intend to “fight this suit because we believe that we must defend the right of journalists to report on controversial subjects or persons without undue fear of legal intimidation from powerful entities or organisations that seek to insulate themselves from criticism.” Amen.