The obsession with “fair and lovely”

Of late, I have come across at least half a dozen fairness cream ads that have offended my sensibilities in some way. Not to mention that “fair and lovely” men suddenly seems to be all the rage in India. What’s this with fair men anyway? I would rather marry an intelligent, loving and dark man than an arrogant, fair one. Uhm…actually, the man I love is…well, not fair. The fairness cream ads of the recent past have been more offensive than encouraging. One ad for the Unilever product “Fair and Lovely” portrays a young danseuse using fair and lovely every day and going on to win the dance finals. What the %#&$@??? Does that mean she was not a good dancer when she had darker skin? It implies that only fair people are talented and successful. Why are we, as a nation so obsessed with fairness? One cursory look at matrimonial sites like reveal the national preference for fair skin. The famous air hostess ad for the same Unilever product was withdrawn from air after widespread protests about its content. The ad features a father lamenting the fact that he has no son: just a dark-skinned daughter who cannot get a job because of her complexion. “Kaash mera ek beta hota,” (I wish I had a son) he says in a fit of depression. Such ads only reinforce the stereotype that fair equals beautiful. I know plenty of dark-skinned women who can easily be qualified as stunningly beautiful.

This stereotype apart, these ads generally suggest that women should be fair for one of two reasons. One, to be able to find a high-profile job as an air hostess or a TV anchor; and two, to find the perfect, handsome knight-in-shining-armour who will sweep her off her feet. Never mind that the said knight-in-shining-armour ignored her just a couple of weeks ago when she was a few shades darker and treated her as if she were transparent. Whatever happened to self-esteem? An ad portrays a woman as winning her man over with some magic potion that makes her skin lighter, and the woman’s only ambition in life is to be fairer than the girl-next-door. Such ads not only perpetrate the popular myth that fair is beautiful, but are also seriously damaging to the self-esteem of those women (and now men too) who happen to have dark skin.

While we are on the subject of fair skin, I must talk about a rather interesting talk show on the Star Vijay channel that featured a debate on Tamilians as compared to people of other states. The anchor, presumably hoping to create some controversy, asked the discussants who they considered more beautiful: people of Tamil Nadu or those from other states. And voilà, the answer was on predictable lines. A large majority of people contended that North Indians were the more beautiful species. When asked why they thought so, most of them said it was because the North Indians had fairer skin. How long are we going to stick to the colonial mindset of fair=beautiful? When are we, as a nation, going to realise that skin colour does not matter as much as character and talent? When are we going to stop obsessing with Fair&Lovely, Fairever, Fair and Ageless, Fair and Handsome etc. and start accepting people for what they are, warts and all? My guess is: not for another millenium. We protest when we are accused of racism (I am guilty of that act myself), but we remain fairness obsessed in our personal lives. Will this ever change?

Saudi Arabia and the Rule of Law

The recent decision of a Saudi Arabian court to award a rape victim a sentence of 200 lashes and six months is prison is indeed condemnable. The court not only punished the victim, called the “Qatif Girl” for allegedly violating Islamic law by being present in a car with an unrelated man, but also banned her lawyer from practising and stripped him of his license. This cannot be justified on the grounds of religion and tradition by any stretch of imagination. This is not the first time that a rape victim is treated as a criminal. Nor is Saudi Arabia the only country to criminalise a rape victim. It is easy for us, as Indians, to blame the entire episode on a faulty interpretation of the Sharia, but what happens in India is no better. While the courts in Saudi Arabia have sentenced the girl on the grounds of violation of some ridiculous law, courts, prosecution lawyers and law-enforcement officials in India shame the victim into withdrawing her case and disappearing from public view.

If in Saudi Arabia, the problem lies with the absence of proper laws, in India the problem lies with interpretation of existing laws. The social stigma surrounding a rape victim is such that many incidents go unreported. If ever a woman finds the courage to report what has happened to her, she finds herself under the scanner and is made to answer humiliating and insulting questions about her behaviour. “The Qatif Girl” is just one among millions of women around the world to be suffering persecution because they dared to speak out. Remember the case of Mukhtaran Mai of Pakistan who was raped because her brother was caught talking to a girl from another community? Every culture, every country and every religion has treated women like objects. This sentence by Saudi Arabian courts is just an extension of the attitude. While the rest of the world obsesses with the US elections, bomb blasts, political gimmicks and global warming, millions of such women across the world will continue to suffer in silence.

What are the democratic and liberal countries of the world doing? Where is the self-righteous indignation of the US and the UK? Does Saudi Arabia’s loyal and blind support of the US “War on Terror” push such blatant human rights violations under the carpet? If the same thing were to happen in Iran, would Bush and Co. not have called for boycott, protest or sanction? What is it that makes Saudi Arabia immune to such international pressure? Or is it stupid on my part to expect that the violation of the rights of women be taken up with as much seriousness as the development of a nuclear programme by Iran? I suppose human rights do not really apply to the allies of the US. Noises about human rights records are made at appropriate intervals, while negotiating deals with China and other undemocratic countries. But, Saudi Arabia is obviously not on the human rights radar of the US. The less said about India’s reaction (or lack of it) to the Saudi rape case the better. After all, it is politically incorrect to criticise Islam (or Islamic countries) in this country. I had better shut up now, lest I be accused of hurting minority sentiments (which seems to be increasingly fragile nowadays).

Education, business, Kolkata burning and Ms. Nasreen again!

Yesterday, I read a satirical take on the state of education in today’s world. Humorous though it was, it deserves serious thought and discussion. This Rediff satire on the recent decision of the principal of a well-known Mumbai college to enforce a dress code in the middle of examinations is something worth talking about. Moral policing apart, the satire exposes one simple fact: that some colleges exist solely to make money. As the principal in Vadukut’s story puts it so succinctly,

“Must I tell you every day? What do you think we are? A shady outfit merely run to siphon off funds? A platform for political manipulation? Some sort of ragtag institute run by the principal like his personal property?”

“Sir. Why do you even ask such questions and insult me? Of course we are.”

Well…can one make it any more obvious why such private colleges exist? The truth is that very few colleges today fulfil their duties as educational institutions. They are simply run to siphon off funds, or to whiten the black money made by their owners and patrons in other, equally shady business deals. Some of the private colleges assume the role of the moral police, when those who run the institutions are themselves totally immoral. Will this ever change? Will private colleges and deemed universities and the like actually be held responsible for their actions before a competent tribunal? It’s up to the UGC to take the responsibility. Whether they will actually do it is anyone’s guess.

Moving on, CNN-IBN tells me, on television, that Kolkata is burning. When I first heard the news this afternoon, I assumed that the Nandigram issue had finally reached boiling point. But no, I was apparently mistaken. A rather shady outfit by name of the All India Minority Forum (AIMF) called for a roadblock this morning. Soon, the protest turned violent and the army was called in to maintain law and order. Now, in India, when the army is called in to restore peace, it means something is seriously wrong. Otherwise, the army just stays out of internal affairs. The policy will normally suffice. Only later in the afternoon did I realise that the protests were not just against the Nandigram issue. Apparently, the AIMF, which called for the protests, want eminent Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen to be shipped out of India at the earliest possible instance. Her sin? That she said something, allegedly blasphemous, in her most recent book Shodh.

This kind of behaviour goes against pretty much everything I was taught as a kid. Or am I being naive in wanting to actually practise what I was taught in school? I grew up in a liberal, rest-not-until-you-get-answers background. I was taught that it is Man’s (and woman’s) fundamental right to speak their mind. I was taught that, in a democracy, freedom of expression is paramount. I was also taught that even if you did not have anything to eat, you must have the freedom to say you are starving. What has happened to the India I know? What has happened to that sacrosanct freedom of expression? This censorship of personal opinion began with the banning of Satanic Verses way back in 1988, barely 10 days after its release. It has not stopped until today. The right to free speech is shamelessly curtailed and the press censored in the name of protecting minority sentiments. I do acknowledge that religious minorities in India must be given adequate protection. But, is this not going too far? If the AIMF can bring an entire city to a standstill today, forcing the army to step in to maintain law and order, is there not something seriously wrong with the way things are going?

What irks me even more that the protests, is the fact that nobody seems to be talking about Ms. Nasreen’s right to say what she thinks is right. Nobody is arguing she is right. But even dissent must be within the acceptable framework of democracy. Burning public vehicles and causing infinite inconvenience to common people in the name of a protest march is simply unacceptable. Will someone please talk about it? Will the state government, and the Centre forget their pseudo-secularism for a moment and defend Ms. Nasreen’s right to live where she wants to and say what she wants to?

Disappearing languages

The November 19 edition of Outlook Magazine carries this article on disappearing languages, which I found extremely interesting. The opening statement that a language dies somewhere in the world every 14 days, is indeed incredible. That is why the endangered language list of the world comprises languages spoken in practically every country in the world. A good example would be Siletz Dee-ni spoken somewhere in the United States, that had just one speaker in 2007. There are many other such languages that are spoken by not more than a handful of people.

Statistics apart, this piece of information set me thinking. Why exactly do languages die? How can someone, whose mother tongue is language X, totally forget the language and neglect to teach it to the next generation? What motivates a person to abandon his/her mother tongue completely in favour of another, alien tongue? Of course, the mother tongue is not compatible with the economic activity of the individual. My mother tongue, Kannada, is certainly not compatible with either security studies or French language teaching. But, that does not mean I forget the language, or not bother to teach my kids the language. My cousins speak both Tamil, the language of their father, and Kannada, the language of their mother. I do acknowledge the problem of expatriates and others, far away from their families. But, why do families as a whole decide to adopt another language, as is the case with Siletz Dee-ni or any other language?

It’s a pity that, along with languages, whole cultures are disappearing. A language brings along with it a host of practices, values and a whole new outlook to life, that is irretrievably lost when the language becomes extinct. What is even more shocking is that even India, which is lauded for its astounding linguistic diversity is home to several endangered languages, of them, Greater Andamanese, which has a mere 7 fluent speakers. I can only hope that the initiative of the the Central Institute for Indian Languages to revive them is successful.

My brand new food blog

It’s finally up! After vigorously debating the pros and cons of Paal Paayasam and Baadam Halwa, I finally posted my first recipe. Unfortunately for you sweet-lovers, it something rather spicy. Maybe I will get around to posting the recipe for Baadam Halwa some time soon. Anyway, check out the new blog here. And let me know how you like it, I mean both the blog and the recipes.

Nalanda, Asian universities and the former Yale dean

This opinion column by Jeffrey Garten (former Yale dean) in the New York Times is worth both reading and commenting. First, he acknowledges and appreciates the importance of Asia to the world in general. Second, he realises, unlike most other western policy-makers that countries like India, China, South Korea and Japan joining forces to create a state-of-the-art university could have a significant impact on Asia’s future role in world affairs. As an external observer, he asks the many questions we tend to overlook in our euphoria about a potential superpower status in the near future. One important question is whether these countries, especially India and China can effectively cooperate and pool their individual strengths, given their obsession with national sovereignty. Not to mention that Nalanda is in Bihar, as Amit Varma puts it so effectively, and explains in the update to his post of November 14. In a state where there is no guarantee of safety of limb and life, can we honestly expect a world-class university. Ok, ok. I am not saying that Bihar is a horrible place. I am simply observing the apparent and total absence of any kind of government activity in the state. I know many of my readers will blame the state of affairs on the “neglect” of Bihar by the Central Government and lament that there are no national highways in that immensely large state. But still…

That does not solve our problem of founding a world-class institution in India. India has many universities, both private and public. I could not find the actual number of universities in the country, but this Wikipedia article gives you a rather exhaustive list of recognised universities in India. Given the ungodly number of universities that already exist in the country, what exactly is the need to found yet another “world-class” university? As if that is not enough, our beloved policy-makers want to revive the Nalanda University, which is one of the world’s oldest universities. It is a Buddhist university. Need I say more? This is ample chance for the Hindutva brigade to appropriate credit for the existence of a university that disappeared in 1197. And also a chance for the wonderful “secular” forces to cry wolf yet again. I would seriously like to know why we cannot just improve the facilities in existing Indian universities, given that there are so many of them? Do countries like China, Japan and South Korea have any objection to contributing to the improvement of our IITs, IIMs and other universities? Maybe the name must change. After all, why would China want to contribute to the Indian Institute of Technology? But, what about others? What is stopping these guys from renaming the Jawaharlal Nehru University as the Pan-Asian University or something like that? Or improving upon existing infrastructure in any of the countries contributing to the task? This obsession with something that has been dead for more than 800 years is beyond my comprehension. As Garten says, we are simply not thinking big enough. We need to move ahead into the 21st century because great ideas are as important as tonnes of money.

Blog surfing, casteism etc…

I have been blog surfing for the last few days. I must say I came across quite a few interesting ones. The most attractive blog title was Anna Mosaranna. Being the eternal mosaranna (curd rice) lover, I realised that I shared this passion with at least one other person: the mystery writer of Anna Mosaranna from Boston. Anyway, another potential Thayir Saadam blog was that of Asal Tamizh Penn. It’s humorous, and makes for good bedtime-reading. But, these blogs, coupled with a repeat telecast of the Big Fight on NDTV yesterday on racism, set me thinking about things that one is not supposed to take seriously anyway.

To start with Anna Mosaranna, à la Anna Karenina, it says very little about mosaranna of any kind. It devotes itself, rather disappointingly, to the principles of Economics, both real and imagined. 🙁 Moving on, Asal Tamizh Penn is, well, very Tamizh. While I recognise and appreciate the humour with which most of her posts are written, a tiny bit of me can’t help but wonder why we Indians are so…clannish. It’s not as if I am the most inclusive and tolerant person in the universe. But, I try. I try very hard to sound as cosmopolitan as I possibly can. Despite my best efforts I do sound very Tamizh sometimes, notwithstanding the fact that I am not Tamil, at least, not genetically. I mean, are we not better off without out caste-based, language-based, region-based, or whatever-else-based identities? Why must I be expected to behave in a certain way simply because I was born into a certain caste/religion/region etc.? Every post by Asal Tamizh Penn (henceforth known as ATP because the name is too long to type) reinforces a stereotype. Want to know what?

  1. All Tamilians are obsessed with Engineering and Mathematics
  2. Tamil = Brahmin = Vadama Iyer (or Vaathima or Brahacharanam or Iyengar depending on who the writer is)
  3. All Tamilians watch Metti Oli (or whatever else is on now) on Sun TV as against Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Girlfriend Thi (oops! Bahu Thi…) on Star TV
  4. All Tamilians can’t speak (or refuse to speak) Hindi because it is injurious to their rather fragile Tamizh pride
  5. The only place worth living in (if you are Tamil and Brahmin) is the overly crowded and increasingly intolerable T Nagar.
  6. All Tamilian parents have this general obsession of getting their sons married to a nice, well-educated, homely, fair, intelligent, and cooks-like-Madisaar Maami Tamizh girl. Actually, that is true of most Indian parents irrespective of language or region. Just replace Madisaar Maami with Sanjeev Kapoor and you get the general idea.

This, and many more stereotypes are reinforced by Ms. ATP. Well, you know, there are people in Chennai. People who are not Brahmin, Tamil or engineers. As unlikely as it may seem, the rest of the world is not as…uhm…stuck up…as our conformists are. What’s this about conformism anyway? Why is it so hep to be conformist? Guys, cmon! Lighten up. It’s fun to break rules. It’s fun not to be traditional. Ever tried sneaking into the kitchen when mum is not around to steal a sweet or a toffee? You must try it some day. It’s thrilling beyond measure. I assure you it’s just as thrilling not to be Asal Tamizh Penn. Try being not-so-asal. It’s fun.

Ok…now, moving on to the Big Fight. It was pretty ridiculous to see intelligent individuals talk about how racist India is. Casteist, well…that’s true. But racists? How the hell can Indians be racist when there are so many different skin colours within India itself. Of course, being fair is considered paramount for women. But not too many people really care about the complexion of men. And, the last time I checked, Andrew Symonds was a man. It’s simply stupid to argue that Indians taunted Symonds because he was black. Other Australian, English, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players have been taunted by spectators. Of course, such behaviour cannot be condoned, but to call it racist abuse is simply going overboard. All I can say is, let’s stop exaggerating issues and tackle those issues that really need to be addressed. Can’t decide what is important? How about female foeticide, education for all, economic development and empowerment of lower castes? Symonds is a sportsman. He must learn to deal with crowd behaviour. Nothing can be done to 70,000 spectators. The mindset must change. And that change will take time. In the meantime, the Australians would do well to learn a lesson or two about not racially abusing people too.

Sounding an idea out…

I have an idea. Why not begin a food blog? And display my not-negligible cooking talent, helping the many who don’t cook in the bargain, by publishing recipes on a new blog called Nalabaagam? (The name is just an idea. It may change.) Does that interest any of you out there? Please do leave comments so that I know what you are thinking. If it does seem interesting, you can expect the first post of the new blog in a couple of days. What say?

Outsourcing revisited

Yesterday, I watched, for the second time, a Discovery Feature by Thomas L Friedman that deals with the phenomenon of outsourcing in India. When I first watched it a year ago, I was impressed by the depth and range behind the feature. I stopped there. I did not bother to go through the comments to the video on YouTube. But yesterday, I found the comments more interesting. The video explores the changing relationship between the service provider and the customer. Call any service centre in the US and chances are, you will hear an Indian voice on the other end. You could have problems with your computer, your bank account, your investments, your food processor or your hair dryer and more often than not, it will be an Indian fixing it for you. This state of affairs would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. The internet, falling cost of communication and technological development have made this kind of outsourcing, not just possible, but very common. Think about it, you have decided to mortgage your house. The bank approves the mortgage. The next day, the formalities are complete and you have your money. Would this be possible in the pre-BPO world? I doubt it. For, when you are enjoying a good night’s sleep in the US, India is awake and working to complete the paperwork you will need in 12 hours.

All this sounds fantastic, but some of the comments to the said video on YouTube are shocking. One person says,

“i can hardly begin to tell you how disgusting this phenomenon is. You people that are so impressed by this “great” video do NOT seem to understand that 99.9999999% of Americans HATE getting an Indian voice when they call and need something. Please take a moment and let? it sink in. AMERICANS CAN’T STAND INDIA CALL CENTERS!!!”

Need I even comment? This person, who so hates getting an Indian voice on a call can’t spell the word Indian properly. And yes, he seems to think that people are objects. No wonder people that are impressed don’t understand something. I mean, what the &^@!?? Being American does not give someone the right to be derisive of those who are not. The last time I checked, Indians spoke English as well as anyone else. In fact, we stick to conventional English grammar more closely that the Americans. And, I thought English was English and not American. Honestly, I don’t care what the Americans like and what they hate. If I were a call centre employee in India, I would do my job because I am paid for it. Whoever said I needed to speak with an American twang to be considered competent? Try telling the Quebecois that their French is not French. Or the Australians that their English is not English. You wouldn’t dare, would you? So why do people assume they can say what they want about Indian English just because we have other, well-developed languages? (Or is this guy/girl simply racist?) Are we any less fluent than the Americans because we don’t have an American accent?

I have nothing against Americans in general. But, this comment by one American effectively ensures that other, moderate voices are never heard. This guy (or girl) goes on to claim that the American Customer Service people clean up the mess Indians create. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Don’t believe me? Visit a call centre and find out for yourself. Or, believe people like Friedman who are, at least, objective in their evaluation of outsourcing.

No matter what the Americans, or anyone else for that matter, think, the fact remains that outsourcing is here to stay. Live with it! If people don’t like hearing Indian voices when they call, they should learn to live with their million gadgets that don’t work. I have lived in France for two years. It is a fact that people cannot survive in the west if their gadgets were to stop working. Try living with broken computers, banks that take 8 days to clear your cheque and investments that go haywire because the financial consultant is on vacation. Then, you will understand how much easier your life has become thanks to outsourcing. The reason is simple. Indians do the same job, as well as any American (or Brit/Frenchman/Australian) for half the cost. And companies exist to make money. Indian call centres are not disappearing any time soon. The sooner the world learns to cope, the better.


Today was Diwali (Ref. earlier post of the day for explanation). Every year, I fall sick on this day. No, it’s not some strange and unknown curse like that of the Pharaohs that gets me, but a simple allergy. Every year, I get allergic to the smoke caused by firecrackers and fall sick. Last year, it was a throat infection. The year before last I was, thankfully, in Paris. And in the preceding years, I was variously sick with cold, sneezing, throat infection and even fever. This year, I suspect it will be wheezing. I can hardly breathe. The air is full of smoke. I wish I could do something about it. Before any of you begin to accuse me of double standards, I have never burst crackers, even as a kid, nor do I intend to in the near future. I refused to burst them, not because I was making a statement against pollution, but because I was terrified of the noise it made.

Anyway, my rants apart, the point is, is this really necessary? The last I heard, Diwali was also known as Deepavali: the festival of lights. I don’t see too much light here in Chennai. Instead, I hear the kind of noise one would expect if he/she were stuck on Mount Road with everyone around them honking. One look at the price list of the local supermarket reveals rather a lot. One would have to spend nearly Rs. 2000 ($50) on firecrackers for a child. This, assuming the said kid likes to burst them and have a good time. And in India, Rs. 2000 is a lot of money. Is this really needed? Can’t we teach our kids to spend that money better? Even a trip to a restaurant or new clothes would be worth it. It appears a criminal waste to buy firecrackers for $50 only to burn them up (literally) the next day. Be honest, would you burn a $50 bill for fun? I wouldn’t.

Oh well, I am ranting again. My cousin tells me my questions attest the fact that I am old. She is 12. Maybe she is right. At the ripe old age of 25, I fail to appreciate the intricacies of cracker-bursting and look at it as a waste of money rather than necessary expenditure. Yes, she is right. I am growing old!