Sunday, 23 July 2017

Before the change: When austerity, simplicity ruled ...

Before the change: When austerity, simplicity ruled everyday middle class life

Updated: Jul 24, 2016 11:15 IST

When the story of liberalisation is written, its chroniclers will tell us that it wasn’t an event but a process. Disregard them. This is the sort of throat-clearing noise historians are trained to make, a professional trick that patronisingly suggests countries change too slowly for ordinary people to notice. It isn’t true. India before 1991 was so different, it was another country.
There are many ways of pointing up the difference: the dotted line between then and now could (for example) be written in diapers. My older child was born in 1992 and spent his infancy in cotton nappies that were squares of cloth folded and fastened with giant safety pins. Only those who have shoved sharp pins—while the world slept—through fabric tightly wrapped round first-born bums can appreciate the revolution in child-rearing heralded by the disposable diaper. (Also, given the pointless pedalling favoured by non-walking babies, these were moving targets.).
My daughter, born two years later, lived snug and dry and safe in pampers, spared both the home-made pothra and the plastic knickers that contained its sodden rankness. Nostalgia is impossible to dredge up for this aspect of infancy before the Change, though there is ecological virtue to be found if you look for it: my son’s carbon footprint was certainly smaller than my daughter’s. Modern childhood is built on the bedrock of diaper landfill. And there was nothing subtle about the change the diaper wrought; it was night and day.
Nights, while we’re on the subject, were darker before liberalisation. When I went to England in the early Eighties, I was disconcerted by the absence of darkness; an orange haze always muddled the night sky. Not so in India. Indian nights were inky black; they filled our heads with occult foreboding and made churails and bhoots seem plausible, even imminent. Now, thanks to sodium vapour street lighting, the haze has travelled east to us and our young will never believe in ghosts again.
But to list the world before liberalisation like a menu of discrete experiences quaintly different from the normalcy of now, is to do it an injustice. For the middle-class desi, life in India before 1991 was an ideologically coherent experience. It was a world where the absence of things — Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, Seiko watches, Parker Pens — was experienced not just as scarcity but as a superior form of austerity.
Superior because the absence of this and that and the other, taken together added up to the republican project of self-reliance. Not consuming the world promiscuously was a form of civic sacrifice in the cause of economic independence without which the political freedom of 1947 was meaningless. Autarky, even if we didn’t know the word, was the state of grace to which we collectively aspired. Scarcity was ideologically sexy because it was the price we paid for self-sufficiency and inconvenience was a hair shirt worn for the greater common good.
The individual craving for foreign things and the collective self-righteousness born of not having them, spawned generations of yearning prigs. In 1972 my brother and I went to Iran for a winter holiday because my father was being paid by the UN to set up a documentation centre in Tehran. The Shah’s Tehran was a temple to consumption. Less than a mile from our flat was a departmental store called Furushga Kourush that in its opulence seemed like Alladin’s cave. Khul ja sim-sim, I said, waving wads of rials, and proceeded to buy cans of tennis balls and quantities of Bic ballpoint pens, two Butterfly table tennis bats and enough Juicy Fruit to see out my youth…and yet when I told the tale of my Iranian travels to my class mates, it always ended with contempt. They import everything, I’d say with the perfect disdain only a fifteen-year-old can muster. Even their butter. The butter in their supermarket comes from Denmark! Amul, in that heroic time, wasn’t just a brand of butter, it was a national champion.
For the most part the unavailability of Staedtler geometry boxes and ink cartridges wasn’t a problem: it was hard to miss things you had never had. The best example of painless envy that I can remember was the sense of wonder stirred in us by a direct marketing pitch on the back of comic books. This guaranteed that American children could acquire Daisy air guns and three-speed bicycles if they sold a certain number of seed packets. Seed packets! A world where kids could turn seed packets into consumer durables was so fantastical that we marvelled at this heaven without the slightest rancour at being excluded from it.
Our pleasures were simple and centred, quite often, on air-conditioning. To walk into the frigid darkness of Odeon or Plaza or Rivoli was to rent three hours of luxe living; the film was almost a bonus. For my generation the smell of sophistication was that blend of air-conditioning, cigarette smoke and vanilla ice-cream that filled restaurants in Connaught Place like a promise. Homes and cars were never air-conditioned. The very idea of air-conditioned private spaces was faintly troubling; for years I believed that men who wore dark glasses and drove air-conditioned cars were likely corrupt and possibly villainous.
It was a massively stable world where shops never died and brands lived forever. Mahattas, Empire Stores, Cottage Emporium, Khadi Gramodyog, Bata, Wenger’s, Handloom House, India Hobby Centre and Uberoi Sports had been around so long that they had gone from being shops, to becoming landmarks and assignations. And when a place did disappear as Cellar, a discothèque, did, there was nothing matter-of-fact about its going; it left a kind of melancholy behind.
All make-up, as far as I can tell, was manufactured by Lakmé while the business of making boiled sweets was shared out between Parry’s and Daurala, though there was a third brand, Dalima, a misspelling of Dalmia that had been allowed to stand. Lakmé was Tata’s frenchification of Lakshmi. There’s something endearing about the story of JRD Tata being nudged into founding a cosmetics business by Nehru because the prime minister was concerned about foreign exchange being frittered away on something as frippery as make-up. Everything, even make-up manufacturers, served republican purposes.
Life in the university was frugal and intense. We were all jholawalas out of necessity, regardless of our politics, because zippered rucksacks didn’t exist. Women wore white kurta-churidars and magnificent tie-and-dye chunnis (with chopsticks in their hair) while men wore vile Jean Junction bell-bottoms that faded in the way a feeble watercolour blue might run.
Our colloquialisms, though, were our own. Where we said ‘yaar’, our children say ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ like stupid, tone-deaf mimic men. To think of the non-specific, native genius of ‘Avoid, yaar, don’t give it those ones’ is to mourn the derivative second-rate-ness of contemporary student idiom.
Many other things were improved beyond recognition by liberalisation. The banks with their tokens, withdrawal slips and paan-chewing cashiers who smoked while counting out money, the railway counters where corrupt babus hoarded tickets, the absence of public phones, the trek to Eastern Court to make a trunk call, the fried hamburgers at Standard Restaurant in the Regal Building, these were just a few unfavourite things.
Perhaps the worst of these was the humiliating mendicancy of foreign travel. There was no foreign exchange to be legally had apart from a derisory thirteen dollars. I remember stuffing fifty covertly bought pounds into my socks before flying to England as a student because I needed money for rail fare at the other end. As a grown-up foreign travel meant begging a bed from some conveniently located ‘friend’ because your foreign allowance wouldn’t run to a bed-and-breakfast, leave alone a hotel, and your credit card helpfully said ‘Only For Use In India and Nepal’.
And who can mourn the passing of the state’s monopoly over radio and television which gave us Indira Gandhi rantings through the long years of her prime ministership and then brought us news of her assassination many hours after she died. Even the worst excesses of shock-jock anchors on today’s 24/7 news channels, don’t begin to compare with the atrocity of gelded news and tedium served up by Akashvani and Doordarshan at the state’s behest, for decades.
Liberalisation brought us a great deal for which we ought to be grateful. But it’s worth asking if the cosmopolitan modernity that it promises can be sustained. It’s hard for Indians to be collectively ‘modern’ because the premise of modernity is the promise of a generalised well-being. It is a promise that has been largely made good in the countries that English-speaking desis admire; not so in India. A knowing hedonism is legitimate in places where you don’t have to step over maimed street children in your New Balance trainers. In cities like Delhi and Calcutta where the poor are a kind of landscape, the promise of liberalisation — that we will consume the world in real time like the denizens of the first world — can seem unpersuasive, even grotesque. For this reason, if for nothing else, it might be useful for policy makers to look back at a time when, for admittedly perverse reasons, consumption was constrained and austerity celebrated. Those of us who lived that time, don’t need a reason to relive it; it’s all the youth we ever had.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. He teaches history at the Jamia Millia Islamia

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Hypocrisy of the green life

Hypocrisy of the green life

The search for a green life propels most educated middle class Indians into a similarly hypocritical and phony existence.

I am an architect. Much of my professional time is spent in promoting green buildings, cajoling clients to adopt ways of natural cooling, insulate walls, solar cook, use planting and shading devices to offset the heat, generally make changes to their over-consumptive lifestyle and begin to take a small step in a more natural direction.

This is usually done in a room full of six other architects, chilled to arctic temperatures by a four ton A.C. with liberal juice and water stock from a 2000 BTU fridge in the drafting room corner.

In the mornings after a talk on electric cars and the importance of public transport at the architecture school, I drive off in a 300HP SUV doing a measly six kilometre per litre to a building site. Meanwhile my wife and son have separate cars clogging up and polluting the city. While pushing a different life onto others, I ensure that my own does not change. And I am reminded of Gandhiji not saying, "Change others before you try to change yourself", or something to that effect.

At a screening of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, the hall was filled with people like myself, staunch believers in climate change, armchair radicals and new-age optimists all filled with an unshakable social conscience about a world that must mend its ways or face doom. People raised pertinent arguments against living a developed world lifestyle in a developing country; then we got into our SUVs and left.

The search for a green life propels most educated middle class Indians into a similarly hypocritical and phony existence. Perhaps no other middle class has felt a greater sense of entitlement to a culture of waste, despite continual reminders of the frugal lives all around. Maybe because of such surroundings, an odd sort of material masochism takes over - one that comes from living amongst the deprived. Almost a fearful need to buttress yourself against the blight by deliberately adopting to the other extreme. So people spend whole lifetimes enlarging the distance between the 'us' and the 'them', replenishing where there is no need; hoarding when no crisis exists, only to ensure that the future is safe for many generations. I have friends who buy apartments, as future investments for their children; or get an American Green card for their kids, so they would have an option to hop to a secure First World country, if India plunges into chaos. Many hoard gold, create foreign accounts, or shell out high premiums for all sorts of insurance merely to assuage the fear that they live in a country of perpetual calamity. And there are backup systems in place.

Promoted by architects, planners and designers, lifestyle is part of an erroneous system of personal values. Look at the middle class use of motor cars. 1500 kilograms of steel is charged with fuel, electrical battery pack and electronic systems to merely transport one person across a few kilometres of city space. Not to mention the padded sofa seats, air conditioning systems and a driver to keep the person comfortable and in good humour. Is this the most efficient way to move around a city of 10-15 million people all aspiring to get their own 1500 kilos of air conditioned steel? Maybe two or three of them.


Compare the middle class Indian home to say a European one and you'll get a clearer picture of waste: 1600 square feet for a family of four in Delhi to 700 square feet for the same family in Paris. Space in India is a premium, like insurance against flood, and gold bars in a locker. An unused drawing room still forms the centre piece of a home plan - a British legacy, long since past. A bathroom with every bedroom; now additionally a family room, an entertainment den, steam and Jacuzzi. Is this the new conservation in Indian domestic design? Why is middle class life always directed towards excess: fanciful space, new materials, glass and titanium walls, and an attraction for the loud and supercilious?


For the last few years, soon after the economic slowdown, the air-conditioned lifestyle was being slowly and grudgingly downgraded to a more natural level. People began to value cheaper ways of cooling, doing away with too many electrical appliances, even selecting more thrifty car models. Builders had their dream projects crash; the wish to insert snow making machines and water theme slides in apartment blocks were happily deflated. Making people aware that what they had and what they needed to share was a humbling lesson. The economic downturn was a great and much needed corrective, a reminder that the instantly inspirational was less critical than long term value-based goals. But sadly, the thoughtful period was short-lived. Luxury apartments with private pools are on the rise; Jaguar and Audi are again posting profits.

In other cultures, more often than not, the will to reorder conventions, takes design down a different untested path. The Japanese, for instance, have perfected a forty square foot hotel room that is essentially a sleeping drawer for the guest. Recent legislation in New York now allows apartments of barely 250 square feet - a magical miniaturised cube of a home, where bed, sofa, and kitchen cabinet, all emerge from the wall when required. The Imperial China Hotel in Beijing re-circulates its water completely, using only ground recharge for its use. These are but a few instances where waste is being curbed around the world.

The Indian middle class may take many years to follow the path of conservative idealism. Till then we will flounder between unrestrained excess and extreme frugality. I will continue to send the driver in the SUV 10 kilometres for a loaf of bread; on his day off he will continue to take his family of five to a movie on his scooter.

The writer is a well known architect.

Why the poor don’t kill us

Why the poor don’t kill us

As the master-servant equilibrium of the Indian society collapses, and as the poor become more socially and politically empowered, why do they not attack the rich more often?

Across the nation maids are talking back; who knows one day they may even demand long-handle mops to clean the floors. The rich wonder if it is all because of the employment guarantee schemes conceived by the profligate Congress government—the poor seem to have options these days. The wages, too, have soared. In any case, the middle class, at least the young and the refined, want to be nice to their servants. The conscientious sahib even exclaims on social media how cruel it is that maids are “expected to be invisible”. The madam, though as conscientious, is unlikely to say that, or let the maid use her toilet or the cutlery. Across urban homes, however, the maids are sitting on footstools, even chairs, in the presence of their employers. If there is a time-lapse video of seated maids across a stretch of 10 years, it would show them slowly soaring from floor to sofa. Also, the maids today are not the tragic malnourished women of once upon a time. And their infants are roly-poly.
A cluster of apartment blocks called Mahagun Moderne in Noida, adjacent to Delhi, where hundreds of maids worked, was not very different from the rest of the urban hives until a few days ago, when a riot broke out. A mob of maids and their men attacked the society after one of the maids, a young woman, went missing and her family thought she had been detained by a family that had earlier accused her of stealing money.
Similar scuffles have occurred in other parts of Delhi. The occurrences are rare but they may be a portent of what is to come. The master-servant equilibrium of Indian society is collapsing. The poor are becoming socially and politically more empowered than ever before.
What is surprising is why they do not attack more often. How does vast poverty tolerate the wealth of a few, who are vulgar just to appear so rich in plain sight. Many a time, even if you are just walking with an ice cream in hand, you feel you are taunting the poor. Why don’t the poor rise in revolt and cause end-of-days havoc? Order suits the rich. Chaos is a leveller. Do the poor overestimate the defences of the rich? Why are we safe?
There is a type of phoney Indian who would, with flared noble nostrils, say the poor will not do it because they are such wonderful folk. But just as foolish is the innate suspicion of rich India that the poor are prone to criminality and violence, and that they are kept in check by religious or other mystical forces. But the fact is India’s poor shun violence for the same reasons most human beings abhor violence. They wish to be humane.
There is something far less pleasant that guards the rich—the near absence of human rights for the poor in a police station or a prison, or in the rest of the judicial process. India is not a safe place for the rich but it is safer than it should be, or even compared to more mature economies like South Africa, because the consequences of crimes against the rich are severe in India. Mumbai’s underworld, for example, was an organized attempt by gangs to steal from the rich, but when they began to employ efficient lawyers and use the legal process to free their captured men, society responded through extrajudicial killings of criminals. What India lacks through order it often makes up through informality. The less democratic a nation, the safer it is for the rich. Street safety in China, it will not surprise us, is much better than in India.
But the most important reason why it is hard for anyone to organize India’s poor against the rich is that such a system already exists—in the form of electoral politics. As long as the poor believe that they own politics, they will find greater release in that legitimate revolution than in self-destructive rage.
Indian politics thus is largely a revenge of the poor, or at least an attempt. That is one of the reasons why demonetization did not destroy the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the liberals had hoped. The party has won more than 10 elections since that announcement. The poor thought the rich suffered more than them.
Everything considered, the rich are great beneficiaries of poverty. It is very cheap to be rich in India. As the chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, pointed out, the subsidies that the rich so hate are designed for the poor but are best experienced by the rich. But the benefits are not as trivial as being served by a maid who would skin hundreds of soya beans for hours and crush them into milk. In a poor nation, the social elite can pass through life without facing any substantial competition. That is why the frequent middle-class accusation of “nepotism” in the film industry is somewhat amusing—not just Bollywood dynasties, almost the entire Indian upper class owes its supremacy to the huge advantages its families have provided.
The poor also serve the rich by providing them a clear moral goal—eradicate poverty. Every learned Indian is a poverty eradication thinker. Many among the elite youth lament “inequality”, though all they have to do to reduce inequality is, instead of lamenting, refuse to go to expensive American colleges, and boycott inheritance. In the sheer absurdity of the youth even considering such a drastic sacrifice lies a more disturbing question—can the beneficiaries of inequality really end it? In their subterranean minds, do they actually wish inequality to continue?
As the nation transforms and the facile deference and the isolation of the poor dissolves, the rich are responding by paying a premium for places and experiences that will not be diminished by the other kind of Indians. When India is expensive, it is not because it has something of value to offer, it is the price one pays for keeping the riff-raff out.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

Ayurveda - Balanced Diet

(via 'Jeevani', by Dr. PLT Girija)

Balanced Diet

Given the wide variety of food substances, we should really know what should be consumed regularly, as part of a balanced diet.

A healthy state of the body is the state in which the various body constituents are in a state of equilibrium. A balanced diet is one which does not upset this equilibrium but helps to maintain it.

In other words, the food we consume should maintain the equilibrium of the three doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and that of the seven dhatus (rasa, blood, flesh, fat, bone, bone-marrow and the reproductive dhatu).

Food consumed appropriately gives strength, nourishes the dhatus, sense organs and intellect and bestows a long life.

A balanced daily diet should consist of rice, wheat, yava (Indian barley), meat of animals from arid areas which are easy to digest, tender radish, hareetaki, gooseberry, grapes, green gram, sugar (sarkara or country sugar), ghee, honey, rain-water, milk, pomegranate and rock salt. Among green leafy vegetables, sunishannaka and jeevanti are the best for daily use.

The daily diet should include all the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent). The diet however should be predominantly sweet in taste (e.g., rice, ghee, milk, wheat). Such a diet gives all the nourishment the body requires and prevents disease.

For instance, a diet predominantly sour, salty and pungent causes anaemia. A diet which is predominantly pungent, astringent, spicy and dry (without any fat) gives rise to joint pains and other Vata diseases.

Some of the substances which should not be regularly consumed as part of our food are curd, blackgram, meat of domestic animals such as pig, sheep, cow, buffalo, and fish, sprouted grains, dried
vegetables, raw (uncooked) or matured (not tender) radish, alkaline food, boiled curd and dried meat.

Food should not consist predominantly of vegetables, since vegetables are usually Vata-increasing. Only small quantities of vegetables should be consumed with food. Food should be freshly cooked and warm and not reheated.

There shall always be a few people who can violate many of these rules and still not be affected much. These are people with very strong power of digestion, those who are physically very active,
and young.

The order in which food is consumed is important.

The order in which food is consumed is important.
Heavy to digest, fatty, sweet, solid foods – such as sweet dishes – are consumed at the beginning of the meal. The traditional practice of serving sweets at the beginning of a meal is based on this theory. In the middle of the meal, food that is predominantly sour and salty – such as sambar and rasam in the South Indian meal – is consumed. At the end of the meal, light, easy to digest, dry (not fatty), liquid type of food is consumed. Buttermilk is an example of such a food.
These days, perhaps under the influence of the Western habit of having a dessert at the end of the meal, we have taken to consuming sweets at the end of the meal. The advantage of eating the sweet dish at the beginning of a meal is that after this heavy food, we can correctly estimate the remaining quantity we need to eat.
A more important reason has to do with the relationship of the doshas to the process of digestion. Food when consumed in this order gets digested properly.
Abraham Thomas If the sweets were made of jaggery, I'd agree.
Aparna Krishnan In ayurveda jaggery is not advised, sugar (the traditional boora sugar maybe) is advised. Regular use of jaggery can cause worms, blood disorders and many other pronlem. Yes, modern medicine says something contrary.
Abraham Thomas Sugar is the bleached version of jaggery as far I know. Jaggery is rich in iron, micronutrients, and fibre. Worms perhaps because those days handling the jaggery was perhaps not so hygienic
Aparna Krishnan No, sugar, the traditionally purified form, is what is superior for the body as per the ayurvedic texts, Jaggery, even if rich in iron, is bad for the body in many ways if taken regularly.
Kokilashree Alangaram Aparna but these days sulphur and dozen other harmful chemicals are added to make sugar, that would not be superior to Jaggery. They are carcinogenic. Should we still consume refined sugar?

Reply55 mins
Aparna Krishnan No, search for cottage sugar. Here i am talking of the properties of sugar and jaggery as such.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The political myths on vegetarianism

A meatless argument

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

The realities of diet in India are far more complex than Westernised notions will grant.

The U.S.’s National Public Radio ( NPR) recently featured an article entitled “Egg War: Why India’s Vegetarian Elites are Accused of Keeping Kids Hungry.” On the face of it, the concern expressed by the writer was legitimate: the nutritional needs of poor schoolchildren in Madhya Pradesh following the State government’s >decision to remove eggsfrom the menu. But, as the rather judgmental term “vegetarian elites” suggests, the article seems to be more about perpetuating a common misperception in reporting on India, that somehow vegetarianism is an “upper caste” Hindu ploy to make the poor in India starve. After all, just a few days before that, TheNew York Times addressed the beef ban issue with the headline, “Saving the Cows, Starving the Children”, complete with a photo of a woman offering a pranam to a cow.
The irony, as readers have pointed out already, is that both NPR and NYT have usually been liberal when it comes to coverage of the disastrous implications of a global meat diet for the environment, not to mention animal lives. When it comes to India though, not only have these environmental and animal ethics aspects been ignored, but a wholly insulting edifice of distortion and disdain has been erected on that silence about what “diet” issues are all about. Using the cliched and colonial trope of starving children, we are offered one more lesson in how Hinduism is somehow responsible for all that is wrong in India today.
Wrong formulation

Let us examine the idea of “vegetarian elites” more closely. This has become a part of commonsense in the West, and in the well-educated sections of the Indian intellectual and media communities too. As the NPR article says, quoting a much cited 2006 survey of diet in India, “vegetarianism is limited to privileged, upper caste Hindu communities.” Given the general association of diet and caste in India, this might appear to be true, and sustain the whole accusation of a vegetarian elite making children starve.
However, what this formulation misses out on is one key question: how vegetarian really are Indian elites? If you walk into the mid- to upscale restaurants or in many of the hundreds of malls that dot urban and small town India today, where the “elites” go to eat, do you see the majority really eating only vegetarian food? On the contrary, the more expensive the place, the more likely it is skewed heavily towards non-vegetarians. It is not just about personal choice either, but a social and demographic reality. If you look at the most influential, and politically powerful communities in most States in India today, is their “traditional” diet likely to be vegetarian or non-vegetarian? For example, in my home state of Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, the ruling elite castes are non-vegetarian. Those that are traditionally vegetarian are probably a minority among them.
Conversely, if “vegetarianism is limited to privileged, upper caste Hindu communities”, how do we account for a vegetarian Prime Minister who happens to come from a less than privileged, backward caste background? How do we account for the saints, gurus and just ordinary people from slums and villages who renounce meat for its innate violence? And even among Hindus who do eat meat, how do we account for the fact that for many of them there is a great deal of traditionally ingrained respect in their practices about what, when, and how much they would eat? None of these realities is considered when what is being produced in reportage is not so much an honest discussion but a relentless perpetuation of Hinduphobia.

The realities of culture, ethics, and diet in India are far more complicated than what some static and simplistic four varna oppressor model taught to middle school American children might proclaim. 

Hinduphobia needs to be understood not only as a systematic denial of Hinduism in academic and media discourses, but also as an integral part of a broader distortion in the global, modern commonsense on nature, animals, diet, and life itself. By reducing social problems, even serious ones like malnutrition, to an ahistorical fantasy narrative that blames Hinduism, and by failing to introspect on the assumptions about carnivory formulated in other lands and times, the “Hindu elite vegetarian myth” feeds a failing propaganda for violence. The effect of such pronunciations is palpable. It is not surprising to find Western readers, unaware of the nuances of Indian culture, jump to offer simplistically, racist comments like “lose the religion and eat some beef,” even on the usually intelligent media like NPR.
The real need now is for reporters and academics to cultivate enough respect for their work and for the subjects of their study so that something useful can really be done for the children of India, and the world.
Caste in flux

The realities of culture, ethics, and diet in India are far more complicated than what some static and simplistic four varna oppressor model taught to middle school American children might proclaim. The reality neither American textbooks nor national newspaper columnists seem to be aware of though is the fact that castes and cultures have been in great flux in India, traditionally, and profoundly and rapidly so since Independence. Even if much more still needs to be done for the poorest, the simplistic myth of a static, caste-dictated dietary system cannot be taken seriously any longer. Unfortunately, in the popular Western imagination, caught up with delusions of its own agency and the lack of any such for the other, the realities of Sanskritisation and Mandalisation in India are too much of a headache to acknowledge. We find that old, pervasive Western notion, the “why don’t the starving Hindoos just eat all those cows instead of praying to them” now informing serious debates on Indian news media as well.
Way of life

The problem today is that the right in India lacks the intellectual resources to invest in an Indic narrative of decolonisation, much as its younger minds want to. Whether it is a cause, or an effect, I do not know, but it also often lacks the heart too to go about what it thinks is a restoration of ancient Hindu glory in a wise and compassionate manner, celebrating its bans not as efforts to help animals or the environment but as lessons taught to “those people”. As someone who sincerely hopes that the right will grow up, I have no hesitation saying that. The bigger problem though is the intellectual inertia and malaise that has allowed an old, colonial, racist mythology about India to become synonymous with the progressive, anti-casteist position in India today. To put it simply, I think the beef bans and beef festivals both miss the point by fighting over rights (real or imagined) bestowed by the past on the present. It has to be about the present preparing for a future where one day we might well wake up with a start, as we did about second-hand smoke, about the needlessness of the mass industrial slaughter of animals, birds, and sea-life that we routinely accept as a global way of life today.
For such a realisation to dawn, we have to proceed carefully on how we treat debates about diet and identity and not presume to pass off orientalistic homilies like “In India, you are what you eat” or about how “scriptures (that most of us hardly know or follow) prescribe notions of purity.” We must not dismiss what is perhaps the oldest, living, continuous tradition of vegetarianism in the world as mere superstition. Such an appropriation and denial though has already happened in Western discourse, which increasingly highlights animal rights but somehow turns its back on India’s past and present. Eminent scholars like Steven Pinker, after all, hasten to add to their pet theories about how the West helped reduce violence in the 20th century little details like how even if the Hindus avoided meat it wasn’t because of animal rights concerns but just because they believed in reincarnation.
The facts are simple. All of India may not have been vegetarian all the time. But the importance given to vegetarianism in Indian life for the simple reason that our ancestors knew we could live without taking an animal life, is an enormous leap in human civilisation that the modern West has had a very tough time coming around to accept.
Sadly, even as the West is outgrowing the limitations of its own religious and secular mythologies about humans and animals, we find some of our own experts now playing into a medieval mindset, even in the guise of fighting on

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Why India Doesn’t Need The Sanitary Napkin Revolution

Why India Doesn’t Need The Sanitary Napkin Revolution

Foreign organizations are promoting the need to introduce sanitary napkins in India by saying that 88% of Indian women are using cloth.
But in their own country, they are promoting reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups, citing environmental reasons.
Open any write-up on menstruation in India, and you will find horror stories of how only 12% of Indian women are using Sanitary Napkins and that the others are almost dying from lack of access to such products. You will read about the poor Indian girl in a village who is dropping out of school because she suddenly started her period. And you will read about how India is full of superstitions and menstrual taboos that are coming in the way of us breaking free and embracing our body….and Sanitary Napkins.
Yes, these are horror stories; because most of what is written about India and menstruation is not true. And it is on the basis of this false information, that decisions are being made for India.
Having worked on ground for over 5 years now and interacting with over 15,000 women and girls across rural India, I have been witnessing a disconnect between the reality of the situation and what is projected in the media, by developmental organizations and even by international organizations such as UNICEF and UK’s Water Aid and WASH.
I initially thought, rather naively, that it must be their lack of understanding of the ground reality. Recently, I had the unfortunate privilege to find out why such organizations talk of India as they do. I was invited as one of the key speakers at the International Conference on Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice, held in Boston in June 2015. It was during the course of this conference that I discovered what is really going on and the intentions of those who decide for India.
Celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day in Amra Padatik, India. Photo: WASH United
Celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day in Amra Padatik, India. Photo: WASH United
As I presented the contradictions that exist between the reality in India and what is spoken of, I was welcomed with applause by the audience of feminists and researchers, and avoided by the representatives from organizations who have built their identity (and finances) out of portraying India in poor light. One of the representatives of the large organizations asked me to “modulate” what I speak so that I can build allies! But before I go into that, let me explain the glaring gaps in the menstrual hygiene management initiatives.
Cooking up statistics to create a false need
The most often quoted statistic, is of a study done by A.C Nielson and Plan India, which states “Only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins (Sns). Over 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand.” Here is why this study and others like it are incorrect in representing Indian women:
  • The lesser known fact about this study is that it only interviewed 1033 women, i.e. < 0.00029% of India’s menstruating women! How this sample size is representative of a country as diverse as India is really questionable.
  • Even if 88% women might be using cloth, it is absolutely incorrect to club the usage of sand, ash husk in the same percentage bracket. The usage of sand, ash husk or dried leaves for menstrual absorption happen in extreme conditions (less than 1%), such as in Rajasthan where some women have been using fine sand for ages since water is scarce. In these cases, we need to further investigate if indeed such usage has been detrimental to their health, since such practices have prevailed for hundreds of years. Obviously if such practices were harmful, people would have let it go a long time ago
  • On what basis are they calling the cloth ‘unsanitized’? Are the cloth pads being sold by foreign NGOs sanitized? In fact, if we look at the stitched cloth being sold by NGOs, it is more difficult to dry and sanitize it in sunlight because the inner layers are never exposed to sunlight. Whereas, the loose cloth used by rural Indian women can be opened and dried with complete exposure to sunlight. It is foolish to take a traditional practice such as using cloth, and package it to give it the look of a modern pad, and in the process missing out on the point of maintaining hygiene using cloth!
Pads for India, reusables for the West
The hypocrisy is such that while foreign organizations are promoting the need to introduce sanitary napkins in India by saying that 88% of Indian women are using cloth, in their own country they are promoting reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups, citing environmental reasons. If that is the case, then India is far ahead of the rest of the world in being environment friendly.
In the light of the latest wave of western feminism, movements (such as the Free Blood Movement) which promote women’s right to bleed without using any product are being applauded and encouraged. At the same time, international organizations look down upon indigenous women who for generations have bled naturally without using any product.
But what took the cake was when, at the conference, an excited American activist told me that I should tie up with one of these cloth-pad making NGOs (which I’d rather not name) to start distributing cloth pads to rural Indian women because it is environment friendly and a safer alternative to sanitary napkins! Imagine the drama of telling our rural women to throw away their piece of menstrual cloth and instead use my packaged version of it, which by the way will also cost them. Imagine teaching her about being environment friendly as a new concept, when all along she has not used a single bit of environmentally damaging menstrual product. Imagine trying to educate her about cloth being healthy, when she and all generations before her have been quietly following natural methods of managing menstruation.
The ridiculousness of the suggestion made me both laugh and seethe with anger.
Are the boys also dropping out due to menstruation, then?
I had the unfortunate opportunity to make my 5 minute presentation at the conference, just after the UNICEF representative, who of course spoke of bringing girls back to school thanks to the toilets they are building and so on. UNICEF’s intervention in Indian schools has been about building toilets, providing Sanitary Napkins and Incinerators, in the name of bringing the girl child back to school.
For the record, let me be clear – I think functional toilets are a necessity in any environment. But the link between the absence of sanitary napkins to menstrual hygiene and therefore school drop-outs is really like a poorly written movie script. Why would a girl stop going to school because she doesn’t use a Sanitary Pad? And if school dropouts are due to menstruation, then what about the boys? In most States of India, we have more boys dropping out of school than girls (according to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan survey of 2007). So are we going to distribute Sanitary Napkins to boys then?
Yes, sometimes girls take a few days off when they get their period. And so do we adults, if we could afford it. Taking a few days off due to menstrual pain and discomfort is not the same as dropping out of school. Increasingly, doctors recommend that menstruating girls and women honor their period and take the needed rest to avoid menstrual problems. Movements such as the Red Tent movement are built around the idea of getting women to honor their period and take time off.
Modern reusable cloth pads in differing sizes.
If and when girls do drop out, the reasons have to do with parents fearing teenage pregnancy, or requiring another hand at home to work. And let’s not forget the really out-dated education system in government schools which does nothing to retain the interest of anyone with the tiniest capacity to think. So no matter how many toilets you build or Sanitary Napkins you distribute, it will not address the problem of bringing the dropouts (boys or girls) back to school.
After I spoke of this disconnect, the UNICEF representative diplomatically clarified, albeit a little later, that they don’t really build toilets to reduce dropouts due to menstruation. And that, it is just a way of bringing children to school in general.
Perhaps, UNICEF would also want to make that correction in all their material on menstruation in India.
Menstrual huts are patriarchal, while Red Tents honor womanhood
Water Aid’s project WASH had put up a “World Taboo Map” at the conference. The idea was to list all menstrual taboos across the world. The Menstrual Hygiene day, an initiative of WASH focused on breaking the taboos such as menstrual seclusion. Menstrual practices are often spoken of as the result of a patriarchal society in India which is deliberately attempting to suppress women. However, our interactions with women of the Golla Community in Karnataka, revealed that women chose these practices inspite of men telling them that they have a choice. (Link to our work with Gollas – Voice of the Gollas)
The glaring contradiction at the same conference was the screening of a film on the new concept of Red Tents, which was applauded and embraced. What is a Red Tent? It is a movement which raises up a Red Tent in local villages, cities and towns (in U.S) to honor blood cycles and womanhood journeys. Here are women from the U.S choosing to take time off during their period and stay in exclusive Red Tents, rather than at home!
So, how different is the Red Tent from the age old practice of seclusion through menstrual huts practiced in rural India?
The traditional practices of menstrual seclusion came into being to address practical issues of maintaining hygiene and having privacy and comfort during menstruation, since indigenous women lived in small homes with large joint families. Whereas, the Red Tent and similar new movements have evolved from a somewhat pretentious attempt to honor one’s period. I call it pretentious because there was no sense in why the American women in Red Tents wear Bindis and dance around with Duppattas to native music, trying to imitate practices of ancient societies like India and Africa! (Click here to view the Trailer of the Red Tent)
The manufactured need
Most movements begin with a need. Either a real need or a manufactured one. In the case of the newly emerging space of menstrual hygiene management, the need is a manufactured one; specifically, for sanitary product manufacturing companies to enter the untapped market of India, especially rural India.
Organizations working on menstruation and even Sanitary Napkin companies (Whisper’s ‘Don’t touch the pickle’ ad) have started talking about cultural practices around menstruation by demeaning them as Menstrual Taboos. These institutions, in their attempt to create a market for sanitary products and infrastructure in India, have chosen the path of dismissing all cultural practices around menstruation as regressive taboos, and emphasising that Sanitary Napkins are the progressive expression of the modern woman. Happily joining hands with such organizations are the sold out Indian NGOs, who have made menstruation their means of sustenance.
One can, at best, express their views or disagreement of their own personal belief system. Imposing upon another’s belief system and forcing women to “break the taboo” is unnecessary social engineering. The intent behind such intervention is to uproot the very foundation upon which Indian women have been menstrually independent, by ridiculing traditional practices around menstruation.
India does not need the Sanitary Napkin revolution.
What we do need is a simple solution of providing information in schools and communities on maintaining menstrual hygiene, be it with cloth or pads. And leave it to women to decide what they wish to use.
There is something wrong about everyone deciding for the rural Indian woman, except for herself.
Sinu Joseph is a menstrual hygiene educator, counselor and founder of Mythri Speaks Trust which works on issues pertaining to women and children. For more details about her work, please visit Mythri Speaks