Sunday, May 10, 2009

Life: Animated

Past two weeks I have been working/hanging with a bunch of youngsters. Read that as, my entire time and existence engulfed in hyper energy, chaos, hormones, irreverence and lust confused as love. The number of love songs and corny love quotes I hear in an hour these days is more than the rate of India’s population growth per minute. Fortunately (?!), my youngsters are comical. In fact too comical even to my only-absurd loving self. I have not been able to have a ‘serious’ conversation for longer than two sentences in past few days without somebody saying something funny followed by hollers of laughter. And I am not complaining…

So I am in Mizoram, based in a place called Lawngtlai, travelling to places called Thaltlang, Sentetfiang, Sangau, Siachangkawn, Vartek. If you try to check these places up on the map (assuming you know where Mizoram is) you won’t find them. They are so far away from the world’s understanding of the world that (I think) they have managed to escape Google and CIA altogether. In the southern most part of Mizoram, these villages lie hidden near that imaginary line called the border between Myanmar and India.

Along with Google and CIA most of these places have also escaped things called road, water supply, electricity and sanitation. You do get mobile phones. Although you don’t really get to use them for their purpose of existence - namely calling and receiving calls. What they have in the name of roads are spaces that have been cleared of forests and curved into steep faces of rocky mountains thousands of feet high. If travelling is supposed to make you wise, the only wise thing I am learning from these travels is that may be it’s not so wise to travel here. It is for sure not wise to do so when you are being driven by nineteen year old youngsters with so much hormone that even the vehicles can run on the overflow. You can save your diesel for the future.

What however keeps me from going insane and dying of heart seizure from the fear of dying is the constantly running comic, thanks to the hormones. It is like living in the cartoon network. And things don’t die in cartoons and everyone is supposed to be mad, no?

My CN characters are a bunch of 5 boys and a girl. All on that wrong side of 25 when high speed bodily fluids direct everything physical in life. The mind has not been discovered yet. And they all watch so much animation that they have actually renamed themselves after popular animated characters forgoing the names their parents spent so much time finding when they were born. Their latest favourite is the Kung Fu Panda and so I am right now working and travelling with Master Sifu, a panda, a duck, a monkey and some other kung fu performing Chinese (I suppose) speaking animals that I can not identify.

Here is a sample of a regular conversation on a regular day at work when we are not travelling:
I am working when one of them approaches me.
“Miss, it’s too hot to wear shorts.” - The shorts wearing duck tells me, flapping its wing kung fu style.
I look very serious in front of the laptop and pretend I did not notice the kung fu flaps. - “Why, what do you want to wear?”
“Hiiiaaa hu (a kung fu style cry)! I want to wear only my undie. When you are not here we wear undies only. It’s too hot.” - Duck takes a different kung fu stance.
“Ok. You can be in your underwear if you want to. I do not mind.” - I show no signs of being surprised at the prospect of wearing undies at work. (I believe in bodily comfort and liberty after all and am also afraid SPCA might get me for forcing animals to wear clothes in this tropical heat).
Hearing my reply, the panda, the monkey and Sifu the master, all come out and stand in front of me, bow kung fu style and shout - “Khaaa ching!” (This, I have learnt from observations, means OK or happiness when wishes have been granted).

Fortunately it started raining soon and even the kung fu animals realised shorts are better than underwear because rain brings mosquitoes and other insects. I also have this sneaking suspicion that when they took the same plea to my other colleague from the world, she refused them the right. She is probably not aware of animals’ rights.

After a few days of meticulous logistical planning, designing researches and assigning responsibilities thru duck flaps, monkey jumps, panda rolls and kung fu master’s wise body contours (all done in Chinese and with appropriate kung fu chants and stances) we set for the mission. To deliver food supplies, seeds and money to the villagers beyond Google and CIA. At least that’s what I thought. What it turned out to be is a frenziedly animated comic strip where I was the only non-comical character. The only thing my character demanded is keeping a straight face. Sounds boring? I wonder how I turned out to be this way! Imagine keeping a straight face, when a 22 year old two legged panda is carrying you on its shoulders shouting ‘hiaa hu and heeii’ to pacify you (under normal circumstances you are supposed to be the boss) because you are angry that he has not done what you asked him to! Well, I can do that these days.

From the starting of the journey, the nineteen year old driver (who is just hired and not yet corrupted by popular animation) kept his head turned towards my side and had his eyes fixed on me while the winding mountain road remained unnoticed in front. After about 5 km, out of fear that he will either twist his neck or drive us down the steep crag, I asked him what was wrong. “Miss, I love you.” - He declared with absolute lust in his eyes. I sat back shocked, examining my own behaviour which might have given him some wrong signal. Am I sitting too close to him? Should I not have worn sleeveless shirt and shorts? Did I make the wrong decision to take the front seat? (Surely I did it purely out of self-preservation? Back there it is an animated zoo and I was sure one of them would have eaten me up). A few extremely moralistic questions ran thru my mind. I do not know which was more shocking. His declaration of love or discovering my own moral hang-ups. I remembered to keep a straight face and asked one of the boys to tell him to concentrate on the road and not to talk rubbish. I am older than his mother, he should know.
“Khaa ching!” - came the reply from the ninjas.
Quick exchanges were done in Mizo and kung fu. The driver straightened his neck to the road.
“Miss, don’t worry. We tell him he must not say like this to you. Otherwise master Sifu will punish him by giving him the ninjatsu treatment.”
I murmured a thank you and tried to look more serious.

After that there was much singing and clapping in Nepali with kung fu ‘hiaa hu’ and ‘aieech’ punctuations through out the 8 hours drive. I do not know from where the ninja gang learnt a shoddy Nepali song with so many opportunities to fit the kung fu cries perfectly in. It went something like this (the parts in italics are the kung fu cries and the Nepali is not exactly correct) –

Gali tere… koti ramro cho (
Gali tere gapi-kapi
Tere lago aho (aaa…ho) (eeyy ho)…

The only time, I noticed, the animals would become boys is when we passed a village. They would stick their heads out of the windows and shout – “Chass! Chass!” (Translation –“Chicks! Chicks!”) and smile very broadly at the girls. Sometimes they would tell the girls how beautiful they (the girls) were. Sometimes they would tell the girls where they (the boys) were going. The good part is, the girls smile back. The bad part is, that triggers unbearable cries of boyhood lust and animated kung fu warriors.

Every time we passed a dog, they would shout, “Catch it! Meat!” followed by loud kung fu cries. The dogs, chickens, pigs and children would all scatter away to save their lives.

They do eat dogs in this part of the world and it seems to be quite a favourite. Every time I visit a village, they kill a dog in my honour. I but with all my radical ideas have not managed to digest the idea of a dog on my plate yet. And the horrifying stories of how a dog is killed and cooked are not something I want to talk about. All I am going to say is that I live petrified when I am served an elaborate meal and behave like a non-meat eating Brahmin these days. Along with fears of being eaten by animated animals, flying off mountain faces, having to be the object of a 19-year-old’s lust I also live with a constant fear of having to see Puchki’s face on my dinner plate. (Puchki is my much loved pet bitch. Fortunately she is dead now). So I have sent strict instruction before hand (although I hate sending instructions) that no one is to kill any dog in my honour when I am visiting. They can do that when I am gone.

We reached the village very late (around 8.30pm!) in the night. The whole village was dark and quiet. In the faint light of a quarter-moon, the silhouettes of the bamboo houses on stilts against the high Blue Mountain (highest mountain in Mizoram) looked like a picture from the jungle book. I felt the goose bumps coming from the chilly breeze and the smell of the forest mixed with pig sty odour. But only for a few seconds. Before my goose bumps could get into full bloom, kung fu cries shattered the silence of the night and peaceful sleep of the villagers. They were greeting the family of the volunteer in whose house we were supposed to stay. When I saw the startled faces of the volunteer’s old parents, smiling thru their shock, believe me, I wished I knew that death trick that kung fu masters can perform by which they can blow people into tiny pieces of nothingness.

Over the next couple of days we distributed food to hundreds of people; tediously collected innumerable signatures in return, socialised with the villagers while trying to fill undecipherable research formats and had lengthy conversations with village elders about life and politics. The ninja warriors kept their cries high and their stances agile. They lifted 50 kg bags, filled out forms, took photos of children and flirted with each and every girl that was of flirtable age in the village. They would carry water for the family and help the women cook at night. They made me innumerable cups of tea and served them with appropriate kung fu etiquette each time.

At night we would walk along the mountain watching the moon wash it over. Of course the animals in them would cry out animated expressions in Chinese (I suppose) when the whole feel got too good. Sometimes towards the end of the trip, I started feeling these strong emotions towards them that I often feel at the sight of real animals. (You know that feeling when you see a tiger cub?) My perfectly serious face must have slackened for a moment. Just then came a flying panda, taking a kung fu stance with a bent elbow, folded wrist, standing on one leg asking - “Miss, they kill a dog in your honour. Don’t want some?”
I got the straight face back and said, “How did you kill it?” - As if the method of killing might decide whether I want some or not.
The panda said, “Like this.” - Hitting his monkey friend on the shin and toppling him over, both breaking into hysterical kung fu cries and ruckusous laughter.
And I am glad they did not tell me the real story.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Currently no one is paying me for anything. I am not doing anything for money. And I am finding it increasingly difficult to avoid that unavoidable question that strangers ask you every time you meet some – ‘so, what do you do?’ Or the slightly different original version from the ones who are no strangers to you – ‘what are you doing these days?’

My definitive answers like – ‘um..uh…actually I am writing’ (a lie that has been told for so long that now its almost a truth. At least no one can challenge it) or – ‘err.. eh.. I do not know’ or even the one that I deliver with dead-sure confidence – ‘aaa.. I think I am thinking of planning to do something’ - get some of the world’s best really-unbelieving, very-insulting and supremely-mocking expressions. Some of our Bollywood actors could learn from my questioners.

Anyway, before I digress, the story I am trying to tell is that, to avoid these questions and more to avoid giving my questioners more opportunity to practice their disbelieving, bewildered expressions, I have decided to look for a job. (Of course my depleting bank balance has got nothing to do with it. It’s all, their fault). And guess what I am having to do these days? Answer more questions!!

There are two kinds of organisations in this world. The kind that pays you nuts and the kind that ask you so many irrelevant questions before giving you the job that you go nuts. It’s the second kind that is making me stay up burning my midnight fuel etc and write this thing. What I found is that not only most of these questions are irrelevant - What’s your middle name? Did you ever change your name? Do you have dependents? Have you lived in another country recently? Why do you think you should be hired? - some of them are downright personal and insulting – What is your age? What is your gender? What is your religion? Are you married or single? Do you wish to take citizenship in another country? What was your last salary?!!! The guys who devised these forms/questionnaires are lucky they do not have to ask me these things in person. The answers they would get, if they ever do, will surely be more personal and more insulting.

Anyway, the one that floored me totally is – HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO JAIL? or HAVE YOU BEEN IMPLICATED IN A POLICE CASE BEFORE? Why on earth does an organisation that is supposed to remove poverty and HIV/AIDS from this world want to know if you have been to jail? What would they do with the answer? Is your chance of getting the job related to the answer to this question? How is it related? Are you sure to get the job if you have been to jail? No?

I have not been to jail. (Yet and touchwood). I have been to worse. But the question made me think about all the people I know who have been.

My brother went to jail when he was 17 or 18. (I am including being locked up in a police cell when I say jail). He went to jail because he was a rock star, irreverent, drove a red scooter and had long hair. My police father rescued him the next morning and there was no case registered. My brother is a musician and although a pest to the family, is a generally harmless guy.

A friend (a couple actually) went to jail because she and her boyfriend were sitting in a restaurant. The local women nearby complained there was prostitution going on in that restaurant. So my friends were arrested along with other people in that restaurant although probably the only thing they knew about prostitution is that it’s bad. The boy friend got into trouble in his company and had to change his job because of this. These two friends have a happy family with two kids now.

One more friend went to jail because he was involved in an accident and the other person died in that accident. There was a police case. But he was acquitted. He is also doing well in life.

Another group of friends had to go to jail along with a baby because they were caught with some marijuana while coming back from the mountain. They were released on bail. They had a party going back to the mountains every month during their one year trail. The state has freed them with their honour intact (ba-izzat bari) and they are partying still.

Yet another friend in South Africa was in jail because he and his brothers were coming back from a party and they were little drunk. They were released later. Although given the option from the beginning, they refused to pay bribe and chose going to jail instead. One of them is a highly placed government employee and others equally well known figures there.

Apart from these friends I know fellow activists who have been to jail for promoting homosexuality (as if it needs promoting), writing sexually explicit material in HIV/AIDS educational booklet (how do you talk HIV without talking sex?), being revolutionary and hundreds for being sex workers and for fighting apartheid in South Africa. I smoke marijuana, keep funny hair, very often take implicit economic favours in return of sexual ones, a few times I have even taken sexual favours in return of economic ones. I also very often bump people around while driving and am involved in a lot of drunken driving although indirectly. I write sexually explicit materials and not always for educational purposes, am a radical at heart and believe in destroying all authority including the state. Twice I was nearly in jail. Once in South Africa getting busted for smoking marijuana in a cricket match and the other time in Mozambique for not getting our passports properly stamped before entering the country. Both the times I was detained for a long time although I refused to enter the physical prison/cell/jail. And it scares the shit out of me to think how easy it is to go to jail, how easy to get arrested and how easy never to get a job in decent place later on because you are a criminal now!!!

So what is it with our almost vulgar fascination with crime and punishment? And more with vice and punishment? In this world where most people do not have food to eat, it is not criminal for Mukesh Ambani to build a 2 billion dollar personal house in congested Mumbai where there is no place to stand in the footpaths. Nor is it criminal for politicians to use state resources and power positions for nefarious nepotismic business deals. It is not a vice to take or give bribe, to jump queue, to flash money that is obviously not hard earned, to crack bad sexual jokes about women or to crack bad jokes in general (sorry about the frivolocity, could not let the opportunity pass). In a country like India why is it not criminal to spend so much money on defence and keep a white-eplephantal military force at poor people’s expense? Why is it not criminal to privatise natural resources? Why is it not criminal to be publicly anti-Muslim? The list is endless, but what I want to go back to is that piquing question, what is this dirty titillating thing that keeps us occupied with vice as crime while actual crime continue as norms and normal?

Crime, as definitions go, is an act that is injurious to another person or a group of persons. On The Theory of Punishment (see URL below) an author defines crime - “It is a crime only when the offense is of such a grave character that its occurrence would likely cause, in the "average citizen," a horror or an extreme repugnance or disgust. But; more than that, I suggest – a crime is an act, which, while it might be injurious to a particular person (though not necessarily), is injurious to the body politic…” If this is the definition of crime then none of the offenses under which my friends went to jail is a crime. Being a rock star, smoking marijuana, drinking, doing prostitution are not acts that are injurious to others or injurious to the body politic. But all these offenses do have punishments. And once you are punished you are an established criminal. Why do we have punishment? What is it that the state and the system want to achieve through punishment?

Deference, retribution, rehabilitation and removement (as in removing a criminal from opportunities to commit crime) are some of the reasons why punishment is considered to be necessary in criminal justice system. Going into criminal justice theories now is going to take a long time. If these are the reasons punishment is necessary then a sentenced term of punishment that one criminal serves is enough to defer, retribute, rehabilitate or remove them. Those who believe in the legal system should also believe that the law knows how much punishment is needed to achieve its goals. And the organisations that are asking this question that is making me write this thing are entities that believe in the legal system. Why are they then asking these question post one has been convicted, sentenced and punished? (We assume one has been convicted). What purpose do they then want to serve by life long persecution of criminals? If their intention behind this question is not persecution then I am sorry that I am a paranoid junkie. But I have a gut suspicion things are not so simple. Why then did my friend get into trouble in his company? Why then will you not get a visa to go to America or Europe although the reason they give you might be something else?

In criminal justice theories there are many explanations as to why we use punishment and how much punishment is to be used. From public torture to rehabilitation centres, the legal system has evolved much along with civilisation. We no longer need grotesque public displays of punishment to make people realise there is a law watching us.

There are also many theories about drug use, drinking and prostitution. They all try to understand the complexities of these situations. Many fascinating theories about our fascination with vice say that vice threatens to disrupt the constant illusive homogeneity societies want to maintain. I am not going to discuss them here. This already feels like boring discussion paper.

But what I am worried about is that unless the people, who design those questionnaires, the human resource experts who think they are doing a rummy good job of knowing and selecting people to do a job and above all, the above-it-all authorities and police forces who think nothing of using redundant laws to show their power and to momentarily spite people, learn these explanations, a whole lot of us will be in constant danger. At least I will be. I am not so worried about being to jail for a few days. (I hear it will be uncomfortable but I guess I will manage. 33 years with my mother has turned me into a tough chicken). But what I fear is, having to answer that dreadful question – HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO JAIL? To apply for a new job. To go to grad school. To pay my taxes. Even worse, to get a visa to Brazil!!!! Somebody stop them….

And for the questionnaire designers’ attention a small quote that might make us think some more about crime and punishment …

“It is an inherent difficulty in the administration of punitive justice that criminal law has a much closer connection with politics than has the law of civil relations. There is no great danger of oppression through civil litigation. There is constant fear of oppression through the criminal law. Not only is one class suspicious of attempts by another to force its ideas upon the community under penalty of prosecution, but the power of a majority to visit with punishment practices which a strong minority consider in no way objectionable is liable to abuse…” - Roscoe Pound


P.S. Written a while ago