16.9.16

"Come near me..."

Few people realise that you could fear the familiar. The places and spaces you've been to before might have memories that claw at you. We stand by the door because of trepidation, unsure of our ability to walk beyond...

Anyhow, here is one trance-like walk:

"We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me
We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me"

The Fashion Industry and Disfigurement

Reshma before the catwalk. Pic: The Independent, UK

Reshma Qureshi, an acid attack survivor, walked the ramp for the New York Fashion Week on Thursday, September 8.

That same day, three years after he threw acid on Preeti Rathi causing her death from severe burns, Ankur Pathak, her spurned suitor, flashed a victory sign after the court awarded him the death sentence.

Pathak got sentenced because his victim died. Reshma's assaulters are free; most such perverted criminals in India are free. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) cites 309 registered cases in one year. They have access to all manner of chemicals and these come for as cheap as Rs. 25 (37 cents).

Reshma was assaulted by her brother-in-law. She was 17 then. As she lay writhing in pain, nobody came forward to help. At the hospital the doctors would not attend to her peeling skin and flesh until she had filed a first information report with the police. The cops made them wait. It took eight hours before she was attended to. By then she had lost vision and most part of one eye, her face had turned pulpy. It would take months of reconstructive surgery before she could get a face, not her own anymore.

The mirror became the enemy.

That day on the ramp, all eyes were mirrors. She was the face of acid attack, like others are the faces of Dior and Givenchy. Few must have noticed what she wore or how she walked. But they would have seen the scars.

***

The ‘fetishisation’ of scars should concern us.

Much as I admire Reshma Qureshi for her immense courage and poise, I do not believe that the fashion industry exploiting her disfigurement conveys any message other than the primacy of beauty.

Reshma’s videos for Make Love Not Scars have a powerful message. As its representative Bharat Nayak explained: “We wanted to create a contrast by using a topic as superficial as makeup to address a hard hitting issue of acid attacks. There is so much stigma attached to this, that we felt that video of this kind can change people’s heart and make them feel survivors are as normal as they are.”




Applying lipstick and eyeliner, and then telling us that acid can be procured as easily, she immediately connects and forms an intimate bond with the viewer. On the other hand, as an audience nurtured to watch silhouettes of seasonal garments and pulchritude on the ramp she is held up as an anachronism, the celebration of which is philanthropic rather than intrinsic.

The producer at FTL Moda New York, the fashion house that invited Reshma, said:


“We want to give voice to these amazing women, who have been silently suffering, hiding, and too often depriving themselves of the opportunity to declare how beastly, and cruelly they have been attacked. FTL MODA and Global Disability Inclusion are activating a powerful movement called #TakeBeautyBack, in partnership with Fashion Week Online, to make all diverse models, feel beautiful and included in fashion and entertainment. We are working to create a world where acids used in these attacks are unavailable to the public.”

Did any of those watching her even imagine the pain she went through lying in the street? What sort of awareness is possible in a bespoke controlled environment?

***

This is a huge personal victory for Reshma and her intent to inspire other women who have suffered is commendable. However, the sheer eyeball-grabbing might act as a hindrance for others due to the overwhelming global attention it has garnered. An acid attack survivor might want to be a teacher, a doctor, a cab driver or a homemaker if she chooses, and such examples too need to be highlighted. The world is not a ramp and women, especially those who have been targeted with intent to make them invisible, should not have the disfigurement projected as their selling point by an avaricious industry.

The assumption behind reinventing the idea of beauty is that there is only one. There isn’t and there never has been. The fashion industry itself shows off thick eyebrows, man boobs and curvy profiles during different seasons as the beauty trend; a trend is not supposed to be perennial. An acid attacked face or the lack of an arm or leg is.

By flaunting one or two examples, you only underscore the trending standardised looks. Amputees, including children, somebody with Down’s Syndrome, acid attack survivors are coopted into buffering the looks trade. The Bionic Model, for example, stands apart and if anything is a tribute to ‘otherness’.

Beauty is certainly not everything, but one does not hear it said when a Giselle Bundchen or a Kate Moss sashays down the ramp. Reshma has been told this. All the time. The belief that this will end the stigma is stigmatic.

***

The higher purpose of ‘beauty beyond’ is firmly embedded in the beauty myth. It is not easy even for those with no apparent ‘handicap’ to conform to exhibionistic norms. In cases such as Reshma’s why does the fashion house emphasise “Take back beauty” and not self esteem? Although self-esteem too is hinged on the idea of looks because confidence is low due to its loss.

Pause here for a moment to consider what Rekha Lodhi did to herself. Six years ago, she was the toast of Pilibhit in North India. Her husband and his family showed her off as their charming daughter-in-law. She became popular in the town and drew a lot of attention. In a couple of years, her husband and his father began to taunt her for being “too beautiful”. Rekha could not take it anymore. She burned and disfigured her face.

So powerful and patriarchal is the hold of what is deemed to be beautiful that a woman sought to destroy it to become acceptable to an insecure spouse. Her self-inflicted scars are as much a comment against the beauty stranglehold as somebody attacking a woman for it.

An attack of another kind occurs when she is held up as an example of a distinctive allure. There is nothing unconventional about an acid attack victim. She is the target of a crime, and while her grit to survive and conquer is admirable the fashion industry trying to give it a soft-focus halo reduces the severity of the crime.

***

Uniqueness in fashion is a market creation. It helps corporate business to expand. To be fair, one cannot accuse it of such expansionism in the case of the subject under discussion here. However, causes often come in handy as a peg to hang wares and corner new markets. Remember the Benetton ad that 'celebrated' models from different races? The 'multi' industry seems to create its own stereotypes, and stereotypes in the bazaar are lucrative. It is to be noted that mainstream fashion decides on what is different and what those who are different may wear.

Instead of dealing with biases, the fashion industry indulges in symbolic opportunism.

During the period of supposed self-realisation it might even appear to be downplaying its pet contoured mascots. But you will never hear about a celebration of blemishes and pigmentation that regular models too suffer from, for it will cash with their allied interests.

Holding a pennant on the ramp for those who are victims of a heinous crime or accident and are battling with more than beauty issues is the equivalent of finger-pointing in the street. It’s like a dose of realism in the fairytale world. How can you normalise a physical impediment when you make all the effort to highlight it?

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Published in CounterPunch

2.9.16

Roads and Ways

I have been watching Abbas Kiarostami's roads, and I have to confess that a few respectful minutes after he started speaking I muted his voice.  It is not because I dislike his voice - but if you watch the amazing topography and the unobtrusive, almost silent, music, you will know how speech comes in the way.

I am glancing at his words in the subtitles, for I do not understand the Farsi that he speaks. It is indeed a journey. But like the great artist he is, he makes the viewer look for their own journey.

That is what I have been doing. There was such a moment of metaphysical serendipity in the shots where after the slow movement forward the camera moves back, as though retracing every step. Sometimes we just go ahead without caring about what we are going through, what we should be seeing along the way.

The roads look sometimes like flowing rivers, occasionally like limbs and often as slivers on a larger landscape. Do we look this closely when we travel - be it for errands or work or for leisure? Even on our long drives, we switch on the music or talk with whoever is with us.

Kiarostomi was right. "I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it's inside a frame."

And so he framed these for us:

Maggots, Miracles and Mother Teresa

I met Mother Teresa above an antique mantelpiece in the living room of a celebrity. Her image shared equal space with Husain’s horses on the walls. The ‘saint of the gutter’ seemed anachronistic in that high-ceilinged room. For many of those 'touched' by her, she had transformed into a collection, an investment, even a penance providing absolution for guilt.


On Sunday, September 4, when Pope Francis canonises Mother Teresa, there will be many walking around with the halo of samaritans in the cause of the saint. Sainthood does not depend on ideology but the ability to produce miracles, and Mother Teresa has had two to her credit. Canonisation is a religious matter. Yet, it becomes political, because the miracles infringe on society and mores. 

***

In 1998, Mother appeared in a paddy field – as a vision to Monica Besra, a tribal woman with a cyst in her stomach. She says she got miraculously cured when she held a medallion that had been blessed by Mother: “I tried many doctors, lots of medicines but nobody could really heal me. On the death anniversary of Mother Teresa, I prayed to her and I could see Mother herself.”

Sister Nirmala, Mother’s successor at the Missionaries of Charity, had said then, “It has been investigated scientifically and it has been proven it’s a miracle.” Aside from the verifiability claims, does not the stature of an ecclesiastical event get reduced if science is brought in to confirm it?

Anne Sebba, associate producer of ‘Mother Teresa: The Making of a Modern Saint’, wrote, “There is an especially strong paradox in Mother Teresa’s case, since she did not devote her efforts to effecting miracle cures. Doctors and nurses, even those who wished to join her order, had no particular role to play there. She said many times that she was, quite simply, demonstrating Christ’s love in action by helping people die a beautiful death, not by helping them live an extra few years. So why the need for a miracle? Because it is the only way to insist that God, not man, has directly and specifically intervened in the process.”

Faith can move mountains, but it was too pat for a simple villager to have prayed to Mother and even remembered her death anniversary. That she converted to Christianity after the miracle and her family was provided for by the missionaries of charity, and that some years later she would accuse them of neglecting her, seems to suggest a transaction. The sudden cure should have been boon enough. Why would the nuns take charge of the family?

29.8.16

Romancing the Activist

Pic: Wire.in

As a new bunch of young followers lend hashtag support and start a social media campaign in her name, the process of moving on, of forgetting begins.

But she needs to remember, for in that memory alone is lodged her identity.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, known to the world as “the longest hunger striker in the world” and a prisoner of conscience, broke her 16-year-long fast with a drop of honey. Soon enough media commentary that had earlier given her a pedestal warmed to the altered position and began to humanise her, quite forgetting that it was her inherent humaneness that made her take such an extreme and committed step to fight the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North Eastern state of Manipur. AFSPA allows the army to shoot at sight, arrest without warrant, use any ruse to spot “contravention of the law”.

On November 5, 2000, anguished upon seeing pictures of blood-soaked corpses of ten civilians shot dead by the Assam Rifles, she gave up food. As she said some years ago, “I was so upset that I didn’t eat. My colleagues told me to take my fasting from outside the bedroom and into the public sphere…”

She became the face of the movement.

Attempting suicide is a crime in India, so she was put under house arrest. A room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal served as home, where she remained incarcerated with a nose tube force-feeding her. The state spent Rs. 10,000 a month on her liquid diet of vitamins and protein. $150 does not seem like a huge sum, but Manipur ranks second highest in the below poverty line index. Around 40 people, including doctors and cops, kept vigil.

As simple as the beginning of the hunger strike was, her decision to end it without getting anywhere close to the goal is wrapped in mystery.

There are no visible shackles now. Is it the undertrial who has been liberated from prison, or the activist from lobbies, or the woman from her nurturer of the cause role or the wannabe politician from martyrdom?

Sharmila did not tell anybody about her decision. Her mother Irom Sakhi who had blessed her, her brother who was her supporter, her close associates, nobody knew. Would they have coerced her to remain the totem?

On August 9, not only did she end her fast, she also announced that she would get married and contest the state elections. But the man she wanted to marry was nowhere in sight and she has no identity card to even prove she is a citizen of India. A friend said, “It is unimaginable for anyone without a voter ID to be a people’s representative.

For 16 years without any tangible evidence of her status she fought as one who belonged, who felt the pain. Nobody asked her for documents of proof; the supporters accepted her as their symbol of struggle and hope. For 16 years she was the people’s representative.

***


She says she wants a normal life. In many ways by fighting for a people’s right to life she challenged life itself by denial and self-destruction. She may not have wanted to become an icon but her act, tenacious and brave, was iconic.

Pic: BBC
Such was her position in the state that it was said there could be riots were she to die. As late as 2013 Human Rights Alert director Babloo Loitongbam reiterated it: “Then there would be incalculable damage to this country.”

Sharmila did not think she could have a national impact. She had no hopes from politics at the time: “Could Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have afforded to ignore me for 10 years if I belonged to a state in mainland India?”

What changed her perception overnight? Manipur remains on the fringes; the army has killed and raped many in the years she was tied to the hospital prison. Politicians did nothing.

Yet, only the government can change the status quo and repeal a law. However, unaccustomed to the territory and with new admirers, she will have to continue in the civil society mode. The system is usually quite relaxed about it, for while the protests get teeth they are in no hurry to bite. For the trouble-makers there can always be trumped-up charges.

Loitongbam, a close associate, believes, “If after 16 long years, her fasting has had little impact on the government and there has been no progress in the move to repeal AFSPA, then what is the guarantee it will happen if she fasts for another 16?”

There is no guarantee that contesting elections will bring any result. Proponents of the new strategy ignore the fact that in politics fighting as an independent candidate does not amount to remaining independent. The major parties have welcomed her decision. Those who sponsor strikes on civilians – which her battle was against – want to woo her now that her status reads ‘single’. Her rebel resume will add edginess to their drab portfolio.

Politics is not the best strategy for the idealist.

Soni Sori, tribal leader imprisoned and abused for being a Maoist, is now a card-holding party politician. She continues to be beaten up, her face blackened. Worse, diversted of dissidence, the opposition accuses her of using the victim card for petty politicking. Sharmila is more ambitious. She wants to be chief minister – to bring about positive change.

These are genuine emotions, but in their utterance they seem to negate all that has transpired before, whether it is decrying that she did not receive the kind of mass support that the Anna Hazare movement did or of being isolated. 

It is indeed possible that had she conducted her hunger strike in a public square many more would have joined in, but it would not have sustained itself the way it did. Her strike is important precisely because it was not coopted by the leadership or big corporate houses. Only a Mahatma Gandhi could get away and remain a saint with such populism.

***

A teenager was one of the victims of the November strike that inspired Sharmila’s fast. His father Tokpam Somorendra is disappointed today: “By choosing a political path, she has come down from the highest Himalayan peak to a hillock.”

She has every right to choose her life but she had chosen a public form of protest for a public cause. Her decision would affect both. Those closely associated with her and the movement against AFSPA feel let down. The Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) that carried her name has been dissolved. From a fight for the common good it has transformed into a love gone sour. 

Her supporters are being criticised for questioning her ostensibly impromptu decision to give up the fast and enter politics. The media needs a vulnerable hero even if all it wants to do is pay lip service to the cause. For one who said her supporters considered her public property, she will now be crowd-funded with every rupee contributor claiming her. But she is enjoying what she sees as a fresh wind blowing: “I have been deprived of this for the past nearly 16 years and it is overwhelming to be a part of this change that we all yearn for. The distance between me and society is now clearing.”

While she has reiterated her commitment towards it, she might no more remain the light of the movement.

***


Desmond Coutinho, even in absence, looms like a shadow in the Irom Sharmila story.  It was a role he was prepared for. He had written once, “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing, which is give witness to the oppressed. I am marrying a mahatma and I have a rough idea that it’s not going to be an easy-going life.”

Pic: The Quint


Normality is seen as antithetical to activism. As goddess Irom Sharmila could be canonised, but the woman preserving gifts from a man she barely knew was viewed as brimming with illicit promise.

It was after reading a book on her that Desmond wrote to her. All they’ve shared is a short meeting, and waiting. He has been demonised, and those doing so have their reasons. He claimed to be Sharmila’s spokesperson; he was said to influence her, despite having access to her only through letters; he was an outsider, a Goan Indian UK citizen. Perhaps the biggest threat he posed was that he made her desire life.

Her confessions about Desmond may have fractured opinion, but he anticipated it quite some time ago when he said, “I am grateful to our opponents for putting so many obstacles in our way that it has forged in her mind that I am some kind of picaresque romantic warrior monk…” He would not have anticipated that her feet would stand on shifting sand. Within a week of declaration of intent he has become conditional to her public acceptance: “I've imposed one condition on entering my personal life. If the masses ignore my new strategy and abandon or insult me, I'll begin a new chapter of my life.”

What sort of ordinariness and normal life is Irom Sharmila seeking? How well does she know her new supporters? If she sticks by her resolve to contest as an independent she will remain isolated; if she goes along with a political party, she will have to toe their line.

She may have chosen a utilitarian option, but it is not a normal life. Perhaps, all she might have wanted to do is to savour the taste on her tongue and hold a hand and reclaim at least some of the dreams of the youth she has lost. Another struggle has just begun.

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Published in CounterPunch