Thursday, May 10, 2012

What I learned from "The Patriarchy"

(Note: This blog doesn't do autobiographical posts as a rule, but perhaps this post could be considered a response to an ongoing conversation, the one started by Saba Dewan on Kafila.)

Reading Saba Dewan's post, on patriarchy and St Stephen's, was a release. For years, I had struggled to make sense of two contradictory things—my years at college were some of the happiest of my life, but the institution that was held up to us as one of the best in India was also built on a flawed and deeply discriminatory set of beliefs.

(It's hard to write about this in part because it always felt like complaining about what was, in essence, a very privileged life--those of us who went to St Stephen's were by definition lucky, in our acquisition of English, in our officially liberal families, in our assumption of a secure place in the hierarchies of power in India.)

St Stephen's in 1989 had many of the elements Saba Dewan describes. The chick charts had gone only slightly underground, but the unofficial college magazines were widely read and almost always singled out “loose” women for harsh, punitive treatment. The editors of Kooler Talk Spice, the unofficial Residence magazine, felt free to comment on women’s figures, attractiveness or perceived sluttiness in terms that were often viciously degrading. Women who protested were marked down as humourless and told that they couldn’t take a joke. This was as much part of the general atmosphere as was the knowledge that you would have to fend off sexual harassment if you took the bus. (NB: My thanks to Amitabh Dubey, who gently pointed out that Kooler Talk, the official college magazine, was not guilty of these crimes.)

When Barkha Dutt ran for college president, one of the more vociferous arguments against having a woman as President was a viciously circular line of reasoning: women weren’t part of the all-male Residence, the college hostel, and so a woman president wouldn’t be able to handle college issues 24/7. The fact that a woman wasn’t able to be on the college premises 24/7 because the college in question had made it impossible for her to stay on the premises was treated as irrelevant.

When several of us, including Barkha, asked Principal Hala why there was no hostel for women, we were told there was no room to build a hostel. Just a few years later, room was found, but the argument was revealing: St Stephens, which had room for some of the finest, most dedicated teachers, room for libraries and tennis courts and a shooting range, room for debate, ideas, engagement of all kinds, had, in the most literal sense, no room for women.

I don’t want to stop with the argument that my college was, in a fundamental and unexamined way, profoundly sexist—Saba has already made that point. Nor do I want to turn this into a rant about a college that in many ways I loved, then and now, even though its present principal seems to want to return to the bad old days by introducing 40 per cent reservation for men, because women are doing so much better than them that the men can’t get their coveted college seats without a little help from Principal Thampu. The fact that no Principal of the college felt the need to intervene when the gender ratios were skewed in the other direction, when the student body had over a 60-70 per cent male composition instead of a 60-70 per cent female composition, is revealing and tells its own story.

But what Stephen's taught me about the way patriarchies work was unexpectedly valuable, and perhaps that might be worth sharing.

Institutions that are deeply, profoundly unfair often do not look the way you expect them to; it may take some time to recognize that you’re living in an unjust system. Logical corollary: an unjust system often co-opts otherwise good, kind, ethical people. Nice people are also part of a functioning patriarchy.

(This is just as true of families as it is of institutions.) Stephen's had some wonderful teachers, inquiring students, and even its architecture—the open windows leading on to the gardens—spoke of open minds and inclusiveness. It was in many ways a fine college, with a tradition of respect for debate and discussion, and this made it harder to either see or believe the extent to which sexism was embedded into the system, to the point of refusing women in my generation an equal right to residence or to political representation in any meaningful way.

For me, in retrospect, this was useful—Stephen's may have been the first environment in which I encountered subtle discrimination that was woven into the system rather than made obvious. Nor was this a function of the times—JNU, in exactly the same era, was far more casually equal, far less insidiously patriarchal.

Patriarchal institutions are not necessarily unequal in other respects--as a friend pointed out, you can have a boy's club that is also staunchly not casteist or classist. But often enough the failure to address deeprooted gender bias can make it easier for an institution, even a highly respected one, to overlook other kinds of prejudice.

It shocks me in retrospect to see what we accepted as normal, part of the Delhi University way of doing things—the easy division of our classmates into the Yadavs and the Rajputs, the ‘harrys’—Biharis, with each group virtually voting in separate blocs. Given that so many members of our college were quite politically aware and capable of passionate engagement with, say, the Israel-Palestine issue or apartheid, the widespread acceptance that this was the way things worked is even more disquieting. (I was equally guilty of not examining this disconnect, being a quiet student, an armchair radical rather than any kind of real revolutionary. Coming from Calcutta, I ascribed this inexplicable set of divisions to the general barbarism of North India rather than looking more closely at what was going on under the surface.)

Looking back, what strikes me about the Stephen's experience are absences—the missing women from the Residence and from key leadership roles, the missing or absent Dalits, the near-complete absence of support or understanding for the few SC or ST students. I don’t think these divisions, of caste and more rarely of class, could have taken such deep root if the gender discrimination had not also existed. This is hardly a radical observation, but it may bear repeating—many kinds of prejudice flourish once you allow one kind of discrimination to take root in any institution.

As a corollary from the previous point—patriarchy in action is every bit as damaging to men as to women, trapping men into a constant and often exhausting struggle for power, and relies on a constant erasure of its own past in order to thrive.

Though our batch had joined Stephen's only five years after Saba Dewan’s batch, their history of protest had been wiped from the collective memory of the college by the time we joined. I often wonder how different all of our experiences of college would have been if the authorities had encouraged discussion, instead of erasing this history of dissent down the years as inconvenient.

There were two interesting lessons from the Stephens’ years—one was that joining an institution that was by definition for the privileged, in terms of language, class, opportunity, was no protection against discrimination. The other was that each generation of women, each generation of students who suffered discrimination because they were darker or came from a lower caste or were called “Chinks” because they came from the North-East, felt that they were the first to fight these battles, and so we all fought our battles from scratch, in small, personal ways. None of us built on a previous history.

There were some unexpected lessons, too. Whether we talked about it or not—mostly not, given that most discussions of ‘College’ centred around the mince at the cafĂ©, the idyllic October days on the lawns—the experience seems to have changed many of my batch, in quiet ways. So many Stephanians from my generation went on to fight for equality in their own private and professional lives. Perhaps we did learn something after all, and perhaps many of us chose to reject the lessons of discrimination and to keep only the better parts of our education.

The institution may have been riddled with discrimination, and it may to this day carry the legacy of decades of patriarchy; but the institution was also made up of teachers and students. What many of the teachers at Stephen's, from Vijay Tankha and Arjun Mahey to Nandita Narain, tried to pass onto their students went counter to the official history.

They taught us to think for ourselves, and to always speak our truth; in their own, often fierce, battles with the administration, they tried to teach us that it is worth fighting for the right thing, even if no one else around you believes that you’re right.

Perhaps what Dewan has started with her piece on Kafila will lead to a reconstruction not just of Stephens’ history, but of all of our private histories. Once you start filling in the gaps and the silences, it becomes so much easier to see your history for what it really is.

A few months ago, Gloria Steinem said in response to an interview question about the role of feminism today that perhaps the real need for all of us was just to imagine what equality would look like. It’s actually a very challenging, difficult idea; if you don’t live in a world where the genders are equal, it’s hard to imagine equality into existence.

In an ideal world, the places where we grow up—cities, families; the places where we learn—schools, colleges, playgrounds; the places where we work and live would all answer Steinem’s question. This is where Stephen's, for all its other virtues, failed my generation of men and women: it did not allow us to imagine what true equality would feel like. Perhaps, in the twenty years that have passed since my generation was in college, things have changed enough to allow this generation to see and experience what we couldn’t.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Divide-and-rule: the DRM effect

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2012)

A ferry crossing on a quiet Goan river is the perfect time to contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of ebooks for an Indian reader. The advantages rest in my backpack, where the twenty or so books on the week’s reading list reside in my Kindle, part of a growing portable library.

Unless I drop the Kindle into the Calvim River, I could theoretically spend the next three months in Goa and never need to visit a bookshop. For readers like me, or for the average business traveler, the ability to carry around our libraries is a significant advantage.

So far, though, the ebook market in India has been as sleepy as the placid Goan backwaters, except for a relatively tiny number of early users. This is not for a lack of potential readership, or for lack of Internet access—retail giant Flipkart has proved, for instance, that a huge number of readers will buy books online if they are guaranteed safe delivery and enough choice.

Though the difference between the physical book and the book is often raised as a major deterrent, this hasn’t proved to be the case in equally sophisticated markets elsewhere. As the rise of ebook sales in countries from the UK to Canada, South Korea to China, demonstrates, the initial resistance to reading on a device melts away once readers discover the ease and convenience of ebooks.

A few purists lament the loss of beautiful typography and the feel of paper, but you only have to browse the average bookstore to see how few physical books are designed and printed with love. The mass-market paperback is not a thing of beauty; it is as functional as the average ebook, and as unlovely. But with ebook sales rivaling and sometimes exceeding paperback sales in many cases, the ebook versus paper rivalry has had unexpected consequences.

In an effort to underline the uniqueness of the physical book, many publishing houses have begun placing more emphasis on well-designed books—at least for the most prominent literary books on their list. It’s just a matter of a time before publishing houses start exploring the many—and unusual—possibilities of ebook design.

There are already creative sites out there--Booktrack, for instance, does editions of Rushdie and Garcia Marquez novels with sound effects, and some of the indie publishing houses are focusing on creative typography, understanding instinctively that the ebook also opens up possibilities that the plain printed page can’t match.

The market for Kindles and dedicated ebook readers is tiny in India—but the market for tablets such as the iPad and the Galaxy Tab, which double as excellent reading devices, is both sizeable and growing. The problem for the Indian reader is different: buying ebooks is an exercise in frustration, a return to the bad old days of socialism when everything you really wanted was tantalizingly displayed in the window of a shop to which you had no entry.

Most Indian publishers haven’t yet digitized their books—or haven’t digitized a significant percentage of their books, or don’t have an Amazon account—so most of the lost classics, drama, poetry, rare histories and biographies that you might want in ebook form are not available. Indian books in translation—which would make up the bulk of great Indian literature—are only sparsely available in ebook form from online retailers.

The global publishing industry’s insistence on DRM—digital rights management systems, which allow readers to access ebooks only in specific territory—has little impact on readers in the US or the UK. With large ebookstores and an ample selection, most US or UK readers have access to a far wider variety of books than do their counterparts in other territories, creating a kind of unofficial but deep-rooted system of digital inequality.

But for an Indian reader trying to buy ebooks legally, the reminder that you are part of a marketplace that carries over colonial inequalities is sharp. You will pay higher prices—given the dollar or pound exchange rate—in order to read some books. And because of DRM, even if you’re willing to pay higher prices, many ebooks will remain unavailable in India because of territorial copyright agreements.

Many of the arguments against DRM systems for ebooks have focused on the impractical nature of DRM. Because books, being essentially text files, are so much easier to pirate than other kinds of media, DRM is a barrier only for the law-abiding reader. The rest will switch to illegally downloaded books, benefitting neither author nor publisher.

But we rarely discuss the ways in which DRM continues to divide the world of books—and music, and films—into haves and have-nots. If you live in the First World, you are unlikely to realize how much greater your access is to world cinema and world literature, except for those writers who aren’t allowed in past the borders of Barnes & Noble or Amazon. If you live in the grey zone known as Elsewhere, you are unlikely to be allowed to forget how carelessly widespread the restrictions are on what you can read, and how much more you will be charged for the privilege of reading like a First-Worlder.

One might then argue that DRM functions as an unfair barrier. For readers and writers in many countries outside the West, the promise of ebooks was the promise of equal access—our writers could travel elsewhere, theirs could be read across borders. Instead, DRM sets up bristling electronic fences, dividing the world into territories of more and less privileged readers. Until these fences come down, the ebook market in India will remain a shriveled, bonsai version of what it could be.

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