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What’s going on with the kaawadiyas? Some insights from conversations with Haryanvi young men

I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.

I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.

My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.

The yatra as permissible leisure……

Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.

….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household

Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.

The yatra as higher purpose…

These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.

I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.

….and who will deny them that?

The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?

But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.

Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.

Street life at midnight #Jakarta

After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about. 

On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….


Re-reading Bhagat Singh: Those who question and disbelieve pave the path to progress

As political parties around us continue to appropriate and re-appropriate historic figures from the past in a desperate (and despicable) attempt to reap mileage from their reflected glory, a few days ago we reflected on the idea of revisiting the writings and documentation of some of these resurrected (and often misinterpreted) heroes. Fittingly, we started this journey on Shahid Diwas, a day to mark the martyrdom of the three icons of the revolutionary side of the Indian struggle for Independence- Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The idea was connected to a discussion last week between Udai (my nearly 12 year old son) and my mother-in-law on atheism and belief, the chief takeaway being the importance of informed opinion that builds from a knowledge of all possible points of view, not just one’s own position.

In this context, we decided to read Bhagat Singh’s famous Essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, written in October 1930 and available here in an English translation from the Punjabi original. I made Udai read it aloud to us (and several new words were learnt and discussed along the way, but that’s another discussion). I hadn’t read it before either and it was eye-opening. I’m sharing some excerpts that I think are particularly relevant, both to today’s political situation in India and to my immediate objective of expanding the debate within our home.

Questioning the status quo

Udai’s outcries against religion (and many children go through this phase) are almost always based on the idea of the lack of scientific proof that a higher omnipresent power exists. Add to that the idea of what the rational arguments could be for or against the existence of God. Bhagat Singh’s passionate plea in support of his atheism, however, rests on the idea that a periodic critique of existing ideas and beliefs is the only way forward. He writes:

“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.

“Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy.”

The corollary: When society represses the urge to question and shrinks that space, especially for young people, we also throttle the pathways to progress.

Belief in oneself despite all odds

All atheists I know have an unwavering faith in themselves, including my late father with whom long discussions on the matter of religion and belief systems were a common occurrence. It is not that they are devoid of self-doubt. On the contrary, they have no choice but to work very hard to find conviction within themselves, to question their own actions and motivations frequently and they work to re-focus themselves. It is an exhausting task!

This is because the solace of faith, in which sacrifice and good behaviour is ‘rewarded’ by freedom from re-birth (as in Hinduism) or the experience of paradise (as in Islam, Christianity) is not available to an atheist. Bhagat Singh points this out very clearly as he counters the allegations that atheist is born out of vanity or arrogance. Remember, he wrote this only a day or two before he was sentenced to death.

“Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be!”

Some questions raised: Does your religion empower you or does it work as your crutch? Are the positions of atheism and faith contradictory or can they both find space in a broader discussion on morality, empathy and self-empowerment?

What are we learning from Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and struggle?

It is getting harder and harder to propose empathy and cooperation as strategies to wage a war that is increasingly violent, repressive and chauvinistic, be this the war on terrorism, the war of identities or the war with oneself as young people navigate the complex pathways to economic mobility and ‘success’. There is no patience for this approach, which is perceived as too slow, too risky. The dangers are put forward as imminent, the solutions needed as urgent. The liberal perspective is not exciting, perceived as the bastion of those already comfortable, and run down as impractical for a nation full of impatient youth in a race to get ahead.

But think: Are the dangers we face today any different in urgency that what Bhagat Singh and Rajguru faced in the 1920s? Are the quandaries and moral dilemmas those young men found themselves in any less heart wrenching and difficult? If Bhagat Singh could question what was prevalent, so must young people today. And that is the legacy we must take forward. Not the machismo, not the ‘nationalism’, but the thinking and rationalism that drove it.

Can Uttarakhand fight out-migration with development?

This post was first published in ‘Migration Narratives’ on the SHRAM portal, which focuses on migration in the Sotuh Asian context. It can be read here.

The hilly states of India have had a long history of out-migration. In Uttarakhand, officials in the smallest towns and district capitals cite palaayan (migration) as a top concern. Farmers talk about falling productivity, climate change and poor connectivity to markets and youth rue the lack of employment opportunities for them in and near their villages. The sense one gets from conversations is that migration is not always a matter of choice, the city is not necessarily seen as a place of opportunity and that there are many young men (and increasingly women) who would rather live closer to home if they were able to access non-farm jobs.

Development to fight out-migration hasn’t yielded the best results

A key aspect of the hilly region’s bid to disengage from Uttar Pradesh through a long separatist struggle that lasted through the ‘90s and resulted in Statehood in the year 2000 was the concern that focused resources and strategies were required to develop the region and strengthen it economically so that people are not forced to migrate out to earn a basic living. The strategy of fighting out-migration with development has, therefore, been part of the Uttarakhand’s DNA since inception.

However, Uttarakhand’s initial successes have yielded intense development in its non-hilly foothill regions. The Census 2011 shows high growth in decadal population in the four districts of Dehradun (32.5 percent), Hardwar (33.1 percent), Udhan Singh Nagar (33.4 percent) and Naini Tal (25.2 percent) that have much of their land areas in the plains. On the other hand, population in the hilly districts like Chamoli (5.6 percent) and Rudraprayag (4.1 percent) has grown slowly or been in the negative as in the case of Garhwal (-1.50 percent) and Almora (-1.73 percent)!

Can strategic investments impact migration patterns?

Last month, the Chief Minister Harish Rawat launched 15 new development projects worth Rs 62 crore that include road upgrades, pumping of drinking water and housing. While these development projects follow the old mantra of using development to fight out-migration, they seem to be wisely located projects in remote hilly locations like Pithoragarh.

Similar timely interventions are required to develop quality educational skill development infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship and invite private sector investment in hilly regions. While value-added agricultural initiatives like floriculture and cultivation of exotic vegetables has taken off in many parts of the State and the tourism sector is a large employer, service sector jobs created by rural BPOs are also making inroads here. How do these investments impact migration in the State?

Narendra Nagar case study reveals migration decisions are complex, rational

Detailed interviews conducted in 2014 with employees of eGramServe, a rural BPO located in the Nagar Panchayat of Narendra Nagar, Tehri Garhwal, reveal that decisions regarding migration are complex and rational. When a new opportunity emerges in their vicinity, it compels young people to rethink their alternatives and opens new avenues that are alternatives to the dominant pattern of out-migration.

The study found that while aspiration is still strongly connected with migration to the city, imagined as a place of opportunity and also risk, educated youth from rural areas around Narendra Nagar, find themselves unable to or unwilling to migrate far away from their villages in pursuit of a better life. Young people in Narendra Nagar viewed a business like eGramServe as an opportunity to work in an IT-related job that they perceived as respectable and exciting without the need to migrate out in pursuit of one. They also saw it as a learning platform and stepping stone to something better.

With the Internet and mobile telecommunication easily and cheaply available, young people have considerable access to information about opportunities and hardships in the big city. These information flows impact their perceived value of migration, which in turn comes out of an analysis of the expected returns and costs of migration. The respondent analysis clearly shows that while the expected returns of a better job and better lifestyle come with risks, young people are able to identify several tangible and intangible costs of migration that urge them to remain closer to their families.

The responsibility of taking care of aging parents and dependent family members, for instance, was recognised as an inhibitor to out-migration for instance. Said Manvir, a 19-yr old boy, “There is a responsibility (upon us), we have to understand that. The family also needs us. If we go away, how will they manage?” Poor quality of nutrition and low-quality living environment in the city was another. Shakuntala, a young woman who was pursuing her MA while she worked in eGramServe and who lives with her family in Narendra Nagar said, “Here (in Narendra Nagar) I can eat well, home food is good. We like our dal chawal roti (simple food).”

Many rural youth feel passionate about bringing development to their villages. They want to return to their villages where they can live on their own land and wish for new kinds of livelihood that complement their agricultural earnings. They see the option of migrating out as a betrayal of what they believe in and hope for. Ajay Negi, who commuted to Narendra Nagar from his village every day to work in eGramServe and was also enrolled in college in NN expressed this conflict well. “I don’t like the idea of going out. People from the village are selling their land, but others are protesting new developments being proposed here by investors from the city. I want to stay here to be part of that movement. Maybe I can somehow save my family from misfortune and ensure their survival,” he said. His passion is reminiscent of the passion that marked the many years of Uttarakhand’s struggle for autonomy.

Understanding youth motivations, developing small cities key to influencing migration patterns

These perspectives run contrary to the larger and rather simplistic understanding of migration as something desirable to educated young people from rural India. The Narendra Nagar case study highlighted the need to listen carefully to these alternative voices. To me, they seem to be saying something important. By tapping into these perspectives, it could be possible to be more strategic about future investments and planned development in the hills of Uttarakhand. It would also be possible for this bountiful hilly State to reposition its small towns as critical conduits for development and migration.

Narendra, who worked in eGramServe in a supervisory role, the development of strategic opportunities in urban locations in proximity to the rural hinterland could trigger return migration as well. “Now I am nearer village,” Narendra told me, “its easier for me to stay in touch (with my family), attend to their needs. I can even manage much better in terms of expenses.” Narendra is also more hopeful about the development that has come to Uttarakhand and the Garhwal region and sees his return migration as his contribution to the positive changes in and around his home.

References

Naik, Mukta. 2014, Vibrant small cities can keep rural youth closer to home: A case study of Narendra Nagar, Tehri Garhwal presented at a Special session on Small Cities at the Annual Conference of the RGS-IBG, 2014

Todaro, Michael P and Smith, Stephen C. 2012. Economic Development, Tenth Edition. Pearson Education

Learning from Lewinsky: Confronting the culture of bullying and shaming, creating a culture of support

If you haven’t read Reema Moudgill’s piece titled Monica Lewinsky Takes On The Cult Of Shame, you’ve missed out on an important conversation about the culture of shaming and the legitimization of the violation of privacy by our blind acceptance of digital behavior. In a flatter world created by technology, it’s obvious to me that we have not simply recreated the ogling men on the corner of the streets, the vicious auntys whose gossip can ruin reputations and the medieval lynchings of ‘witches’. In fact, we have amplified it. We have turned everyone into the voyeuristic creep, the bitchy aunt and the maligning man. Yes, it’s become normal, this online bullying and shaming, the blind consumption of content used to bully and shame in the name of gossip. And, let’s face it, you and I are party to it too.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk is indeed admirable for bringing to the fore issues we will not talk about. Even as we cheer about the win for freedom of speech by the striking down of the 66A, we will not talk about how humiliation, shaming and acts of sexual offense on the Internet are causing deep psychological damage. In India, where talking about a whole bunch of things (especially stuff that matters) is not the done thing, young people are not getting enough guidance on how to deal with bullying and intimidation on the Internet. Cyber bullying is real and we need to wake up to it.

Lewinsky’s talk pushed me to think about how we can create opportunities and spaces for youth to discuss how they feel, what they observe, to bring issues to the table, to learn through shared experiences. If the online world can be abusive, it can host moderated support forums too. But my hunch is that the change needs to start at home, in schools, in the park, among friends. As my children grow and become more independent, I’m constantly under pressure to rethink they way I deal with them. My focus is shifting from managing and controlling their routines, to playing the part of a guide and adviser. How can I co-opt my kids to evolve and follow an ethical code for using the Internet, for instance? How can I set up a system in which they have someone reliable and mature to talk to, even if its not us the parents? How can I eliminate the sense of taboo around topics like sexual abuse, abuse of power, bullying and aggression that are deeply encoded in our psyche?

Random musings on #politics #youth and #citizenship

I haven’t opined on Indian politics for a while. To tell you the truth, I’ve been ruminating, taking it all in. And here are some randomly picked thoughts from the thousands that buzz around my head.

#1 Let’s stop comparing AAP’s Delhi election win with the 2014 general elections!

I’m really tired of the over-analysis, the conspiracy theories and the general building up of expectations. The truth is that any new government will take time to settle and move forward. And really, can we compare Delhi’s politics with India’s? My quick thoughts: The AAP win is a good jolt for the BJP and hopefully has sent them scrambling to their desks to actually bring out the many policies that are “being worked on” at this time. For AAP, my big question is: Is there a method to Kejriwal’s politics or is it a case of learning to swim so you don’t drown! I’m hopeful, but given his huge mandate, I’m afraid citizens will have to play the triple role of whistleblower, class monitor and audience-giving-polite-applause! Not something we’re used to doing really!

#2 Young people’s politics is confusing and their apathy disappointing

I’m constantly apalled at the strong streak of conservatism among the young today. On Valentine’s Day, I met a young neighbour and asked after her V-Day plans. She didn’t have any. And what’s more, she told me her parents were devastated and upset about her being single and not so ready to mingle! Survey after survey of youth in India have pointed towards a tendency to support the status quo. The Yuva Nagarik Meter survey brought out in Jan 2015 showed these disturbing trends among Indian youth, trends that are consistent with other surveys in recent years:

  • Youth are ignorant about basic civic issues like democracy, rule of law and human rights
  • They are dimly aware of citizenship: “Only 35 percent of high school students consider themselves citizens of India. Nearly three fourth do not know that the legislature is responsible for enacting laws,” as per a Huffington post report
  • They have internalised stereotypes on gender and social justice- 50% are intolerant of migrant workers from other states, many believe that “household help do not have the right to demand minimum wages”

#3 Youth apathy combined with high expectations impacts poll results

I’m not surprised therefore, that we are seeing more absolute mandates than before when elections happen. I think young people are impatient for change but might not really want a radical rethink of positions. Also, they (and it’s not just the young) are given to pass quick judgements and move on if their expectations are not met.

#4 How much does your politics alter your perceptions?

I’m not a BJP supporter and certainly not overawed by the PM’s rangeela personality and flavourful brand of politics. I have a number of friends who are in the opposite camp as well. Many of these left-leaning friends of mine have been upset about something. They claim that previously ‘moderate’ friends who voted for Modi on the plank of development must speak out against the BJP’s divisive politics. There’s a fair amount of hurt going around and the PM’s very recent press statements on religious freedom will, I suspect, add flame to the fire rather than settle things down.

I’ve been arguing with the moderates and leftists among my friends, who tend to shout down anything Modi says or does, on the need to give a fair hearing to the positions brought forth by the current government. Critique them by all means (if possible, constructively), but being obstinately obstructive might not really help! And I’ve been trying hard to follow my own instincts, that tell me that an unconsidered extremist position is a bad one, whether your politics is conservative or liberal is besides the point.

Things we take for granted now, like the ubiquitous A4 paper!

As I drove to work this morning, I saw two young men outside one of the those small standalone offices by the road. They were talking to each other, but what struck me was that both of them were folding pieces of A4 paper and putting them away. My mind flashed back to my childhood. Both my parents were academicians and our house was filled with those thin longer than A4 papers that came out of typewriters. Also those pista green sarkari papers with a blue margin line running one side.

Our childhood was filled with all manner of different types of stationery to write on. From the regular ruled notebooks to one side blank and one side ruled notebooks, to checked ones to long notebooks (register!) etc. We rarely used loose sheets of paper. Even drawings were usually made in drawing books of some kind. Or on one-side used papers that parents painstakingly got bound for us to scribble on.

A4 sheets aren't just used to write and draw! In a pilot's home, they get used for this!

A4 sheets aren’t just used to write and draw! In a pilot’s home, they get used for this!

A4 paper was a luxury back then. I remember teachers cribbing about how early they have to set exam papers because the ‘cyclostyle’ machine (ha!) would need to be free to make copies. Today the photocopy machine rules the roost and A4 paper is easily (but not freely we must remember) available. A lot of the work done by kids are not not in notebooks but on worksheets. The idea of working on loose pieces of paper floating around sort of bothers me, but it’s normal now even for adults in workplaces to pull an A4 out of the printer in the middle of a discussion without bothering to look for a notebook or diary to do the same.

Language of youth. These two participants of a Jan 2013 workshop in Delhi, one from a low-income settlement in Delhi and the other from Univ of Wisconsin are sharing music through the earphone! It;s a new world all right!

Language of youth. These two participants of a Jan 2013 workshop in Delhi, one from a low-income settlement in Delhi and the other from Univ of Wisconsin are sharing music through the earphone! It;s a new world all right!

This train of thought made me think about how many things we use nowadays were rare, expensive and exclusive items just a few years ago. Like earphones! Very few could afford portable music playing devices before, but now with mobile phones being ubiquitous, you see wires coming out of people’s ears wherever you go!

Life is changing and changing fast. Sometimes, It’s good to think back to what it was like before. No judgements, just nostalgia!

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Let’s try non-judgemental ways to engage with young people

I find it curious that Orhan Pamuk features as sixth in a list of authors young Indian urban readers intend to read in the near future, after Chetan Bhagat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amish Tripathi, Charles Dickens and JK Rowling, in that order. I do not know what that aberration means (I see Dickens as one too, but can still be explained by a classic hangover!) and whatever little Indrajit Hazra’s article in August 4th’s Hindustan Times (the survey is conducted by partner C-Fore) publishes is not offering clues either.

The events of the past few months have made me change my views of how I see the world around me. Like the Chandravanshis in Amish’s Shiva trilogy, I now accept that each human lives in his or her alternate reality. The reading preferences of the youth are an alternate reality that we snobbish literature enthusiasts may scoff at, but it is a reality nevertheless. Hazra offers explanations even as he looks down on these reading choices, telling us that the Indian market is going through a phase before it inevitable matures into a more evolved market that presumably will prefer more refined literature. He implies that it is important to be able to consume more thought-provoking literature, for “we are what we read”.

Sure, we are. But then, we are a young nation of wannabes. We are in a constant flux of identity–developing or undeveloped, rural or urban, lower middle class or upper, young or mature, traditional or modern, confident or uncertain, and so on and so forth. Young people have to negotiate complex relationships with themselves, peers, family and society. Young people are fundamentally different in the way they consume, process and engage with information and remarkably astute about the way they see the world around them. Yet, as has been so effectively put forth in the recently published ‘The Ocean in a Drop: Inside-out Youth Leadership’ authored by Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Shekhar, the opinions of the youth apparently don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. We are not interested in understanding young people and their aspirations and worse, we are seriously afraid of placing decision-making in their hands. We prefer to see them as consumers and part of the workforce. We forget that they can be effective change-makers as well. We, the elders, hold the reigns. We expect too little from young people.

Then how can we blame them if their reading preferences are not up to snuff? It is unfair, isn’t it, to provide measured inputs, to box the thoughts of young people into regimented education systems, to prepare for a life whose purpose is to produce and consume, and then to judge them about their lack of interest in art and literature? Or indeed, about their lack of values or disinterest in serving society, accusations that I have heard often enough!

I observe a curious mixture of over-confidence and under-confidence among young people. On one hand, they can conquer the world, being confident of aspects like new technology that fall squarely in their domain. On the other hand, they are constantly searching for identity and trying to grasp the soft skills and the right attitudes that they instinctively know will serve as the icing on the cake in their pursuit for material success. The latter explains why genres like self-improvement, health and spiritual are so popular.

I am, however, heartened to read that 37% respondents read authors other than those six listed in the beginning of the article, showing variety. Entertainment (38%) features as the most significant reason to read, followed my ‘Material that makes me think’ (27%), ‘Easy reading’ and ‘Material I can talk about with friends and colleagues’ come in 3rd and 4th (23% and 12%). The motivations are still the good-old ones and that should tell us that things have not changed as drastically for the worse (ouch, there is judgement there!).

Clearly, given the right exposure and guidance, young people can be encouraged to read a wider selection of fiction and non-fiction. We have diversity in genre and language to offer in this country. New technologies have made reading material more accessible than ever before. Perhaps the most fundamental changes we can make is to allow young people more ‘free’ time to read and engage with cultural and creative aspects of life, to expand their minds, so to speak. Also, we must invest in cultural resources to do so- libraries, accessible and affordable spaces and opportunities for the arts to save us from going under the intellectual poverty line Nilanjana Roy so eloquently blogged about recently. I’m sure experts have many more suggestions, but as a parent of two kids aged 9 and 5, these are the two principles that I am actively trying to follow- allow them time and space, and expose them to culture and creativity. Let’s see how it goes!

Let the movies be! Curtailing artistic freedom is not the answer to the world’s ills

Does watching violent movies inspire violence in the real world?

Most of us seem to think that crazy people will find something or the other to inspire them to acts of violence. I chose that option over ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but I don’t really think it is as simple as that.

There is a complex web of cause and effect in this world of ours, so much so that the dog is eating its own tail at times and at others, several dogs are eating several tails, but no one knows which is whose tail! Sounds complicated? Forget it. Let me come to the point.

Films do contain violence. In some cases, it reflects the violence in the real world. At other times, violence is used as a tool to drive home a point important to the film’s plot. It is hard to make a judgement on how much violence is appropriate.

In India, where I live, the depiction of violence in cinema has been an issue of much debate and crime and violence in general are a growing concern. Yet, some recent Indian films have opted to depict violence for specific purposes. For instance, the violence and the matter-of-fact tone in which it was used in the 2-part film ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ by Anurag Kashyap effectively conveyed to the viewer the geographical, social and historical context in which the film was set. This was important because Kashyap envisaged the consumer of the film to be largely urban, whereas the story was set in a specific period of history in a lesser known mofussil town.

As an urban audience, I found the violence justified and appealing in the context of this film, but many I know disagreed profoundly with the constant violence depicted. In a nation of largely young people, they argued, where movies captured the imagination of the youth to the extent that they lead double lives of reality and fantasy via films, films can be used to justify or even enhance the status of violence! This is like saying porn makes people sex hungry, or showing good food in films makes people eat more and become obese, and so on and so forth.

Films have emerged as a rich source of entertainment as well as information in the modern world. In our present culture, we turn to the movies not just to pass our time, but also to understand a situation better or to simply gain a unique insight. We appreciate the quirkiness of certain films and the thoroughness of others. Most of the time, we understand that what we are seeing is an artistic work to be viewed as just that. But not always, argue those who believe in the idea that controlling content is the way forward, and I agree that a nature bunch of consumers would be an ideal situation. Too ideal, perhaps?

Like any other medium of art, cinema will elicit a variety of reactions and indeed, that is the very purpose of its creation. For that matter, many other forms of art- photographs, paintings, drama, dance, music- can express violence too. Would we consider they too incite violent thoughts or behavior? Answering this in the affirmative would only imply a massive curtailment of artistic freedom, with disastrous consequences. Instead, I would say, bring on the variety. Let’s consume more of all types of artistic expression, talk, debate, enjoy and let people self select the wheat from the chaff!

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