Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Castro

As the SEED seminar ends, I have an evening in San Francisco. What best can be done in this limited time? Friends and colleagues have many suggestions to offer. After all, San Francisco is a vibrant city.
Of many things I have heard about this city, the film ‘Milk’ have informed me this is where Harvey Milk’s campaign had started and took its form. I ask a couple of people and look up online about it. I am referred to the Castro Street. When I read about it, I’m more or less told this to be a ‘gay neighbourhood’ of the city. I wonder what it means. Like, homosexual men and women walking on the street, hitting on other men and women, respectively, all the time?

Well, anyways. I decide The Castro is the place for me this evening. As my shuttle stops at the entrance of the street, I am welcomed by a huge rainbow flying high in the sky, with a street sign that reads, “Castro”. I smile.

The Castro Street and Market Street are places that look like pride-365-days. A local person here tells me, “Probably, this is one place that exudes utmost freedom, both political and personal.” He adds jokingly, “You will see people protesting against one issue or the other all the time.” Like any other neighbourhood, this place has schools where children learn and play, a church for people of faith, shops with usual and some not-so-usual stuff to sell, restaurants that serve amazing food, theatre that would screen any movie and homes where people live like they do in any other neighbourhood. Further as I roam around the streets, I see many heterosexual couples too. I question, “What are they doing here if this is a ‘gay neighbourhood’?”

My thought is further intensified by a news paper post in the museum, “Don’t call us queer city”. Exactly my point! Do we start calling all neighbourhoods in the world where heterosexual couples live and express themselves freely as ‘straight neighbourhood’? I’m still debating with myself if such categorization helps promote the cause of equality or simply regenerates the stereotypes. However when neighbourhoods are defined and categorized as such, they lose their purpose of being ‘just a neighbourhood’ and are put under pressure to be seen from a certain lens.

In addition to everything else, The Castro offers a sense of freedom, which most other places lack. Not for any one in particular but to all – gay, straight, lesbian, transgender, queer – whatsoever you would want to identify yourself as. No, it is not some place where gay people have sex all the time. Or may be some do. But they also play, go to school, eat, laugh, dance, pray, protest and do such other things. What’s important is, whatever they - gay or straight - do, they choose without much contemplation of what others may think or do. And if their personal choices are affected by political influences, they don’t hesitate from voicing against it. Well, of course, our personal IS political and vice-versa.
If anything The Castro is, it is indeed, a neighbourhood where pride for ALL is valued and advocated for. Here, I smell freedom!

Friday, April 4, 2014

You and I

First, I loot your land,
Then, your voice.
I take away your sense of self.
I do charity.

First, I let you loot my land,
Then, my voice.
I give away my sense of self.
I receive charity.

Image source: http://merapoetics.com/tag/oppression/

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Desh Kya Hai?

देश क्या है?
कागज़ के टुकड़ो पर खिंची हुयी लकीरें ,
या उनकी चौकसी करते कुछ नौज़वान ?
तेरे -मेरे अधिकारों और जिम्मेदारियों की एक क़िताब ,
या उन अधिकारों और ज़िम्मेदारियों का आधार ?
क्या है ये चंद गिने-चुने लोगों की मिल्कियत,
या गणतंत्र के हर गण की है एक आवाज़?
देश क्या है? देश है क्या?

सिनेमाघरों में जन-गण-मन सुन,
खड़े हो जाना है ये देश?
या हर इक जन गण मन को
समझ पाना है ये देश?
तेरे-मेरे होने की वजह है ये देश?
या तेरे-मेरे होने की वजह से है ये देश?
देश है क्या? देश क्या है?

मेरे बिस्तर को सड़क पर उछाल
तमाशा करते लोग?
या मेरी मोहब्बत को अपराध
करार देता ये कानून?
मेरे होने को झुठलाता हुआ
मेरा परिवार, ये समाज़?
या आज तेरे-मेरे बीच
मेरे होने की हुंकार लगाता... मैं?
देश है क्या? देश क्या है?

Kaagaj ke tukado par khinchi huyi lakirein,
Ya unki chaukasi karte kuchh naujawaan?
Tere-mere adhikaro aur zimmedariyon ki ek kitaab,
Ya un adhikaro aur zimmedariyon ka aadhar?
Kya hai ye kuchh gine-chune logo ki ek milkiyat,
Ya gantantra ke har gan kihai ek aawaaz?
Desh kya hai? Desh hai kya?

Cinema-gharo me jan-gan-man sun
Khade ho jaana hai ye desh?
Ya har ek jan gan man ko
samajh paana hai ye desh?
Tere mere hone ki wajah hai ye desh?
Ya tere mere hone ki wajah se hai ye desh?
Desh hai kya? Desh kya hai?

Mere bistar ko sadak par uchhaal
Tamasha karte huye log?
Ya meri mohabbat ko aparadh
karaar deta ye kanoon?
Mere hone ko jhoothalata huya
Mera pariwaar, ye samaj?
Ya aaj tere-mere beech
Mere hone ki hunkaar lagata… main?
Desh hai kya? Desh kya hai?

 P.S.: A part of this poem was written to introduce The Republic Day Poetry Project for my students. While engaging with this theme, we realized how the idea of republic needs to be explored and understood better to fully realize our individual and collective potential. Often, I have found myself struggling to understand my political, social and personal spaces of freedom and this poem is a response to that struggle.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


We recently mourned for Nelson Mandela, one of the biggest Human Rights champions of our times. Quoting Jonathan Capehart*, “he is heralded for doing something no other head of government has ever done. As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1996, Mandela ushered in that nation’s new constitution, which included protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The first of its kind.” 

Six days later, on 11th December, 2013, Supreme Court of India recriminalized consensual same-sex relationships between adults, even if it is in private. In my country, it seems law is informed more by popular imagination and religious orthodoxy than scientific enquiry and philosophy of human rights. Today, I can’t choose whom to love and who do I have sex with. Forget about choice, in fact I am a criminal by my mere natural existence. But the law doesn’t really care about what is really natural. It only cares for what may feed to fancies of some people in this country. And maybe that is our understanding of democracy – a country for the majority, by the majority and of the majority. Otherwise how could a Supreme Court of any country so irresponsibly say that “Delhi High Court overlooked that a miniscule fraction of country’s population is LGBT”? How large should a population be in order to receive your justice, milord?

The question today is – Whether this is my battle or yours? Or ours? Do I have to stand up against this verdict only if I am a gay man? Or will I still stand up even if I assume other identities? Should I not participate in the battles that don’t really fall in the immediate realm of my identity and life issues – Battles that may be against the oppressiveness of caste, against the atrocities towards religious minorities, against the gender-based discrimination, against someone’s forced homelessness, against malnutrition of an entire population, against educational inequity in my country… and the list goes on? Tomorrow, if government takes away my right to my choice of food or shelter, will I stay quite? Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” Will justice denied to someone not diminish the justice for everyone?

Fighting for sexual liberation is not just an LGBT issue. It is a human rights issue and hence has to be fought at a larger canvas. Well, I shall fight my own battle and I shall join in yours too. Because if an act against human rights go uncared for somewhere; we dehumanize ourselves by being party to the act. I realize my humanization is linked to yours and yours with mine. To deserve my human rights, I shall first remain to be human. And hence I shall stand up, today, and each time any human being is treated any lesser than others. And no, not for charity towards those who may suffer from the said injustice, but for myself because if an act of injustice has happened, my silence has a role in it and I must speak up to voice my stand. If I have my biases I shall clear them up. If I am unaware or unsure of the facts, in this case the naturalness of homosexuality, I will educate myself. I would let my opinion be informed by knowledge and not by fear. Because my fear and misinformed opinion may lead to someone be denied of their basic human rights. And that is not okay.

For how long can we shove off the conversations around sex and sexuality in the name of public morality? Unless we move sex out of ethical and moral realm and view it as a basic human need, it would be difficult to have any meaningful discussion around it. We need to look at it beyond religious texts and engage with some objective scientific inquiry into this. That should then feed into the construction of our constitutional morality. And that should happen irrespective of how many citizens of this country identify themselves as homosexuals, even if the number is just one. 

It is some coincidence that I received a very thoughtful mail from our CEO, Ms. Vandana Goyal, reminding us the great legacy that Mr. Mandela has left for us on the same day as Supreme Court gave away its verdict. She posed these questions to us, “who is there to take his place? Who will we look to now, to fight the necessary battles for justice and equity? Who has not just the courage of conviction but the ability to speak to all of humankind -- to compel and convince even the most sceptical of us all?” And while reading this, I happened to listen to Mr. Gautam Bhan**, a Lawyer and activist who in response to SC’s verdict said, “If we can go and mourn for Mandela while insulting his legacy, then we have lost our way as a society…” 

I think to find our way back, we all will have to ponder over what Vandana has proposed, “There is not someone else there to take his place. It must be us.”

The title of this post is inspired by Vandana’s mail to us. Ubuntu# is a South African word that roughly translates into human-ness, to the idea that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. 

* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2013/12/06/nelson-mandela-lgbt-rights-champion/
** http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqCfviKW1EQ

# http://mg.co.za/article/2013-12-10-obamas-tribute-to-mandela-the-full-speech