Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Women's reservation bill

Let me start off by congratulating the Congress on effectively pushing through a momumental piece of legislation through the Rajya Sabha (for the uninitiated: the Rajya Sabha is the upper house of the bicameral Indian parliament). Having said that, I would also like to express a word of caution, as a bill requires to be passed by both houses of parliament to become an act of parliament and that could well prove a rather sticky affair.

Nevertheless, the latest initiative of the Government of India deserves to be applauded. In a country with a billion plus population where women make up nearly half the numbers (in other words, over 500 million), the decision to ensure that at least a third of the candidates elected to power are women is a welcome one that was long overdue.

For all the talk of women's liberation, the undeniable truth is that contemporary Indian society is highly inequitable. Social evils like female foeticide, dowry and marital abuse remain pretty much the norm rather than the exception to this day. As a person who's studied history, I know for a fact that progressive societies have traditionally been equitable ones. Let's not forget that in ancient times, when India was a mighty country, women enjoyed a status at par with men. Is it a coincidence that the end of the first millenium of the Christian era, from which point India ceased to be a progressive country and started going downhill, was also the period when the status of women in Indian society started deteriorating?

The question that automatically follows is: will a single piece of legislation change the status of women in India? Can it change the values and beliefs of a society that has favoured males for over a thousand years? My answer is that it can, if backed by proper implementation and good intentions. There are several skeptics who fear- not entirely without reason- that the reservation is likely to produce many more Rabri Devis and could become a device for politicians to prop up their spouses and kids to capture power by proxy.

Such fears aren't unfounded, but let's make a distinction between a flawed system and flawed use thereof. Any system is finally only as good or bad as the person using it. Admittedly women's reservations could be abused. But abuse of a system does not by itself make the system flawed. True, it could easily come to pass. But should a progressive step be retracted merely because it could be misused? Using the same argument, we could decide to maintain the status quo on all fronts- any change could just as easily be perverted for nefarious ends, isn't it?

Taking an optimist's viewpoint, I would say that women's reservation, together with other initiatives in the fields of education and inclusive growth could foster a socio-economic transformation. At a social level, it should make women more aware of their rights, which in turn would result in the creation of a more egalitarian society. To be sure, the changes would take two to three generations to happen. Should my optimist's beliefs prove true, Indian society should have undergone a metamorphisis in another 3-4 decades.

The forces of transformation have already started, but reservations could well provide the impetus that the socioeconomic transformation so badly needed. If nothing else, our 'representative' institutions will indeed represent our population. It will enable the largely disenfranchised women to have their voice in the running of the country. God willing, it will enable women to have a voice in running their own lives- the one thing most Indian women still do not enjoy 63 years after independence.

The difference between the Women's Reservation Bill being just a piece of meaningless legislation or the force that heralds a revolution could well be the difference between India remaining an inequitable and underacheiving and becoming a truly progressive and inclusive society.

Make no mistake, this bill could shape the future of a great country.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Surendra Mohan Pathak

Recently in my local book store, I saw this book titled the 65 lakh heist by some writer known as Surendra Mohan Pathak. The book was the translated version of a Hindi novel titled "Painsath lakh ki dakaiti". The concept seemed interesting: a heist gone wrong or something along those lines. Although I have not read that book yet, my mother told me that it was a gripping thriller. My curiosity aroused, I decided to find out more about this author.

Surendra Mohan Pathak

I daresay metropolitan Indian readers are unlikely to have ever heard of Surendra Mohan Pathak. As late as three months ago, even I never had. Having done a google search, I discovered that Pathak is regarded as the grandmaster of Hindi pulp fiction. Let me confess that I had little idea what pulp fiction was back then and it was a genre I had never explored even in English, a the language I grew up reading and prefer to this day. Nevertheless, I was curious to know more about an author who had written over 250 books which sold over 2.5 crore (25 million) copies over a career spanning nearly half a century. I was tempted to try and read Pathak. Now that I wanted to read this author, the first question that came to my mind was, why read a translation when I had access to him in his own words?

Let me confess that I did have some misgivings about being seen reading a Hindi novel in a public place (I'm referring to the local trains in Mumbai, which is the only place I ever get the time to read these days) and that too one whose cover reeked of pulp fiction- for sure, the vast majority of English educated Indians would consider it beneath their dignity to read books in regional languages and anyone doing it would be looked at as being 'cheap'. There also was the apprehension that I would be unable to read a full length work in a language I had not dabbled in for nearly a dozen years- and my exposure to Hindi had never extended beyond the textbooks I read in my school days.

Ever a person looking to experiment, I decided that this was a world that demanded exploring. And so I took my first plunge in late December (2009) with a book titled Naqaab (the Hindi word for a mask), which was a murder mystery- the mainstay of pulp fiction. I confess that my expectations were rather low: of finding a superhero, femme fatales and loads of sexual innuendo.

Pathak's Bestseller

Having set out with such low expectations, what I discovered was an outstanding work of crime fiction with superbly sketched and highly believable characters. One problem with English authors is that the Indian writers apart, they belong to cultures far removed from mine and beyond a point, an Indian reader cannot connect to the characters. Here however, was a writer whose characters were quintessentially Indian and to whom an Indian reader- even a primarily English speaking one from a metropolitan city- could easily connect with. The language was the typical lingo urban hindi speakers would use.

I confess that the very first book got me hooked. It was ages since I had read any work of fiction and it was perhaps the first time I was reading an author who seemed to be able to intrigue the reader to the point where he seemed to have the ability to hold them as if by a thread (a description I've frequently used with reference to the great Alfred Hitchcock). My curiosity aroused, I decided that this was a field that demanded more exploration. One book led to another to the point where I'm currently reading my sixth.

The one thing remarkable about Surendra Mohan Pathak's books is that the characters are almost without exception morally ambiguous. Even more remarkably, unlike most Indian writers, Pathak does not judge the actors in the drama; the reader is free to draw his own conclusions about them. In many ways, the characters are highly reminiscent of the ones you see in Hollywood films noirs from the 40s or 50s.

In fact the one question I've been tempted to ask is just why on earth no one has bothered to make movies based on Pathak's stories. Considering the shameful number of Hollywood 'inspirations' (industry talk for plagarism, that sometimes goes to the extent of frame for frame rip offs), it fairly beats me why our filmmakers bother to do it at all when quality content with Indian characters that requires no adaptation is easily available. Given the popularity of thrillers as a genre and the paucity of good thrillers in Bollywood, its hard to understand why not a single filmmaker has so far troubled himself to explore the gold mine lying right under the nose.

If only I had the time, I would have surely adapted a book or two for the screen. Hopefully, I could get to do it some day in the future... maybe another aspect of life to explore!

The Australian Summer

Pakistan recently returned home fresh from a tour of Australia that could only be described as an unmitigated disaster. In all, they were whitewashed 0-3 in the tests, 0-5 in the one-day internationals and lost the one-off T20 game by a solitary run. In short, they lost every international fixture they played in the course of the tour. Shahid Afridi's ball biting antics only added to their embarrasment.

To Indian fans like me who grew up in the late 90s, Pakistan's near farcical tour brings back memories of India's even more disastrous tour to Australia exactly ten seasons ago. For the record: India were whitewashed 0-3 in the tests and lost 9 out of 10 one day internationals on that tour. Indian fans old enough to remember that tour would surely agree that India's turn of the century tour was an even bigger disaster than Pakistan's recent tour. Whereas Pakistan actually competed well through most of that tour (and with a little more confidence would surely have won a few games), not once did India even remotely look like winning a game on that tour.

That tour marked a new low even for fans of a side that was expected to get flogged the moment they set foot abroad. So despriting was that tour, that the demoralised Indians surrendred their first home series in 13 years to the touring South Africans within a month of their return. Let's not forget that the very same Australia tour was also the one in which Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja got a raw deal- just months before their names would figure in the match-fixing controversy would rock Indian cricket. By mid 2000, it seemed that there could be no redeeming Indian cricket.

And what happened thereafter? Within 15 months of that humiliation down under, India came back from behind to beat Australia 2-1 in an epic series. Anyone who has followed Indian cricket closely over the last fifteen years or more would agree that the 2000-01 series against Australia was the turning point in the history of Indian cricket. That path-breaking win started India's rise as a cricketing power, culminating in the rise to the summit at the end of the decade.

What it goes to show is that sometimes the beginning of bigger things might be just after the worst is just over. As the saying goes (in Hindi) "sehar se pehle raat sabsi lambi hoti hai" (the night is longest before the dawn). Pakistan could surely take heart from what India managed a decade ago. If anything, they are better set with a talented side that competes much better than its Indian counterpart a decade ago. What it needs is a visionary leader and some visionary administration.

Whether Pakistan can find such a leader and bunch of administrators remains to be seen. But surely, Pakistani cricket is far from dead. If anything, this could be the opportunity to make a new start.