Category Archives: Media

Disability in literature, mythology, folklore and films

Captain Hook

Have you read Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham? The central character of the novel is a young man with a club foot. If you haven’t read this book do read it not just because it has a character that has a disability and has something “different”, it is a story that tells you how failure and success, sadness and happiness and intelligence and stupidity go hand-in-hand and despite that, we move on. The disability of Philip Carey affects every part of his life and it doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he would have liked to live, but that is not the central theme of the story. These are the problems that he has, but aside from these problems, the major problems that he faces are quintessentially related to the volatile human nature that is extremely unpredictable. He can be mean and judgemental just as people can be mean and judgemental to him. His disability doesn’t necessarily make him sensitive and if he is sensitive compared to his friends and colleagues, it is because that’s the way he is and it has got nothing to do with the way he walks. The greatest thing about this novel is that Philip doesn’t have to prove anything because he has a disability. He just tries to live his life the way he wants to live irrespective of the fact whether he succeeds or not.

These thoughts were triggered while I was reading this blog post that was published on the occasion of the Blogging against Disablism Day. I never knew that the word “disablism” existed, but it has a nice sound.

The author rightly says that people with disabilities are often depicted as vile, scheming and demented characters in various works of fiction:

There are far too many books out there that portray characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses in ways that are deeply destructive and have a seriously negative impact on the understanding of disability in general. However (and this is a big however), most of these books are clearly written by authors who have not considered their portrayal at all, and who clearly fail to respect experiences that are different to their own. These are the authors who fail to realise that disabled people are also, actually, people. These are the authors who consistently portray disabled characters as, for example, useless and/or monstrous. But these aren’t exactly difficult tropes to avoid if you treat disability as a genuine character trait, part of the full colour of your character’s depiction, rather than an easy symbol or device for your plot.

This problem arises from the fact that disability is not mainstream. You don’t see disabled people roaming around in the streets, catching public transport, getting into arguments with other people on the street, fighting elections, watching movies, doing shopping at a grocery store, visiting prostitutes, getting married, becoming successful professionals, going on dates, going to office and doing all sorts of things that people are seen doing matter-of-factly. Coming across a person with disability is always a special occasion.

Whereas situation in the comparatively developed countries might be improving and you may come across persons with disabilities more often than not, in less developed countries like India, they’re mostly seen when they are struggling with basic necessities. A visually impaired person is totally at the mercy of someone who can see especially at public places like roads, stations, stairwells and markets. A person with physical disability is often seen being helped with climbing stairs or walking across the road or something like that. Worse, you see disabled persons begging. You never see a disabled person simply going on with his or her life without having to bother about getting some sort of help. This is the problem with the environment, the infrastructure. We haven’t reached a state when public places, offices and institutions are made in such a manner that they can be universally used rather than just by people who fit in a conventional box of able-bodiedness. Once this happens, we will see persons with disabilities depicted just the way they are in literature, hypothetically.

Another problem is that we take visual cues as behavioural patterns. We have a very strict definition of what is pretty and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not and how good people look and how bad people look. For example, in most of the TV ads you will never see an intelligent person taking intelligent decisions despite being on the heavier side. He or she is always shown fumbling, unsure, doing stupid things. And then there is this slim, fit-looking, preferably taller person who has a very confident expression about him or her and takes the right decision at the right time and solves a problem that a person on the heavier side does not seem to be able to solve. It’s not just shape, even the colour matters. A darker person is shown to be under confident and not doing much in life. And then he or she suddenly uses a face cream that makes him or her fair and lo and behold! The world is nothing but a plethora of successes and happy moments.

This stereotyping is also extended to ages, social backgrounds and professions. Younger students are always making fools of their teachers and professors. In mobile phone ads, people in their 40s and 50s are often shown fumbling with their gadgets while their teen kids are shown totally cool about the latest features in their mobile phones.

Recently I saw an awareness ad in which a person from a socially disadvantaged background is shown to be gawking at a good-looking girl in a public transport vehicle. A college going well-off-looking yuppie sort of a youngster notices that and comes stands between the girl and the gawking guy. The stereotypes would have totally gone topsy-turvy had they shown a well-off guy gawking at the girl and the dark looking person from a socially disadvantaged background feeling offended and coming between the girl and the guy.

So I think more than disability, it’s the perception that is at work. You want to show a bad person or an ill-mannered person in the visual form and because you’re not very sure of your writing abilities, you use disabilities like a crooked eye, or a stuttering way of talking or walking with a limp.

As I have mentioned above, to a normal (read able-bodied) person disability is quite alien. It’s like for the directors of art movies, especially in India, depicting poverty used to be an exotic activity. That is why people like Satyajit Ray would make voyeuristic movies about how poor people live, how they dress up, how they eat and procreate. Then these movies were shown to foreign audiences because they had never seen such glaring poverty and the behavioural attributes attached to it. That is why when there is a disabled person in a movie, the highlight is his or her disability, and not what sort of life he or she lives.

Even in Indian mythology and folklore, disability is used to exaggerate villainous as well as saintly characters, or they are used symbolically. In Mahabharata, you have a limping uncle (Shakuni mama) who is the most scheming person in the entire plot. Then you have the visually impaired Dhritrashra who can see nothing and he is totally indecisive as well as impotent. Ashtavakra (having 8 physical deformities) in Ramayana had to prove his worth by showing exceptional intelligence. The jealous and evil uncle of Heer, Kaido, also had a limp and walked with a stick, but his character is a bit complex because his evil and jealousy originate from the raw deal that he gets from the society for having a disability.

Anything that is not ordinary becomes a stereotype, and I think in most of the stories, disability, whether depicted in good light or bad light, is used as a stereotype rather than making a statement. So when a writer writes about a villain who has a limp, he or she is not trying to say that people with limps are bad, he or she usually just wants to express it stereotypically. I’m not saying this is right, but this is how stereotypes are used.

Will this change once disability becomes mainstream? I don’t think so. Things will surely improve, but do you really think people who create stereotyped characters using race, color, regional accent and body shapes will be open-minded enough to depict persons with disabilities in a non-stereotypical manner?

What is the future of news and journalism?

Have you noticed the pattern of news broadcasting especially on the Indian news TV channels? Normally there is no “news” no matter how loudly some channels scream “Breaking News!”. Most are predictable political controversies. Then these controversies are used to target political parties and individuals. It normally begins with the statement or a declaration and then there is a litany of debates where they invite known and unknown panelists to scream their brains out until you can’t make sense of what they’re saying and what they want to prove, to each other, and to the viewer.

For instance, as I’m writing this, a woman NCP leader who also leads the Maharashtra Women’s Commission said yesterday that women get raped because of the way they dress or the way the stay out late. About the Nirbhaya rape she said, why was there need to go watch a movie late in the evening? Predictably, all TV news channels today are going to hyperventilate on the insensitivity of the leader, the patriarchal mentality that ails our society and whether the person should resign or apologize. Parallels will be drawn to various other personalities from various other political parties and fields who have previously mouthed such rubbish and the crescendo will be reached in the evening during prime time TV debates. I’m not saying that such debates shouldn’t happen and such characters shouldn’t be held responsible and taken to task, but when they go on and on, it becomes a bit overbearing. It becomes an obsession.

That is why from 8 PM onwards normally there is no news. There are debates. No news, just debates, and even if it is humanly impossible to ignore some major news, it is shown in flashes, between the debates.

Anyway, I’m talking about this just to stress upon the point that news these days doesn’t mean gathering information at various spots and attempting to inform people in a timely manner unless there is a catastrophe. Panelists and anchors are more famous than journalists and reporters; in fact many anchors unabashedly call themselves “journalists”.

Newspapers in the West are mostly dead (if not in terms of circulation or viewership than certainly in terms of revenue) although this might not be the case in India where a majority of population still relies on newspapers – mostly local, vernacular newspapers – to access news. The roadside chaiwala is everyday witness to highly charged up debates on various bits of news published, including politics.

The same happens on social networking websites like Twitter. A majority of links posted over there are from newspapers – both online versions of conventional newspapers as well as web-only newspapers. Then people discuss these links. They debate on the data and information contained within the link and then many post counter information and this goes on every day. Blogs and articles are written contesting the disputed article. However much powerful social media is, the main source of information remain conventional news agencies. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook cannot generate news themselves unless there comes a day when professional journalists start posting the news and investigative works on their own profiles rather than through newspapers and magazines. This may happen if a workable financial model can be developed.

Merely having an opinion doesn’t make you a journalist. It can make you a columnist, it can make you a writer and in some cases it can also make you an analyst (fair enough, and you can also make money). A journalist needs to go out to the places where an event is actually taking place and then give a first-hand experience – “first-hand” is the key word here. If you are not writing a first-hand experience you are merely gleaning information from here and there and then compiling it just the way one writes a blog post. In the early days of the Internet I came across many such “journalists” who would visit various news websites (very early in the morning) scouring the information needed for their own articles. I stopped tracking consciously, but I’m sure most of the journalists work like this these days. There may be very few journalists who visit places and events in order to write about them. Of course there are many niches where you cannot work without visiting actual places such as travel, entertainment and even technology summits.

As social media becomes more and more a part of our daily grain I think the quality of written journalism is going to improve tremendously. I’m not sure about TV news channels because they are more noise and less voice. A good thing about social media is every journalist is held accountable the moment he or she says something factually wrong or culturally/socially repulsive. This may force journalists to do their research and represent the actual truth rather than creating their own individual versions as they used to do when there was no direct way to hold them accountable and they couldn’t get immediate feedback. There are many journalists who don’t like this trend but this is because they are forced to work harder or they miss their ability to run political and ideological propaganda unencumbered and uncontested.

Just 5 minutes of watching NDTV

While having our morning chai my wife was flicking news channels and suddenly she stopped at NDTV Hindi as some reporter was interviewing the locals in Bihar regarding the imminent split between JDU and the BJP. It was quite refreshing to see common folks sitting around a tea stall sipping tea and talking politics (my wife often says this proudly, that only in UP and Bihar you will see people sitting by the roadsides talking about important national issues).

Most of the people said that it was wrong of Nitish Kumar as it was only because of the BJP that he was in power and was able to defeat Laloo Yadav. Most were of the opinion that once the BJP support was missing, Laloo, along with his lawlessness, will come back to power. There was even a Muslim sitting who downplayed the negative propaganda being run against Narender Modi.

Hearing all this, the reporter said, “Galat group me phans gaya, yahan to BJP supporters jada hain” – I ended up talking to the wrong group as they are more BJP supporters here.

Although it is NDTV and such behavior is expected, we immediately noticed the “galat group” expression. Why does it become a wrong group if it talks in favor of the BJP? This is why…

Then he comes across a couple of folks who say that Nitish Kumar was doing the right thing and he should severe his ties with the BJP. The reporter says to the camera, “Yahan kuchh secular log bhi hain jo BJP ko support nahi karte” – we also have some secular people here who don’t support the BJP.

So within 5 minutes the reporter told you that if you support the BJP you belong to the wrong group, and if you oppose it, you are secular.

This was just 5 minutes of viewing because we cannot take this channel more than that and we quickly had to change it.

Harsha in the comment section has shared the link of the video I’m talking about.

The new Twitter censorship policy might not be as bad as it looks

There is lots of buzz on the Internet regarding the recent announcement by Twitter that it would be blocking certain tweets in certain countries, although the same tweets will be available in the countries outside of the jurisdiction of those countries wanting to block that particular content.

In the beginning, as soon as I came across this news my first reaction was, “Whattha…” but then I did some reading on the issue and found myself agreeing to many commentators who, although cautiously, understand Twitter’s point of view and deem the development not as bad as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t live in a Utopian world where freedom of expression and speech is available unshackled. It is not. While tapping on your keyboard, writing for your blog or for Twitter (or Facebook, or for that matter any publishing platform on the Internet) you may take your right to express yourself for granted, but your freedom ends where another’s discomfort begins, and this discomfort can be anything – political, social, ideological or religious.

In the current scenario the governments can block Twitter completely and this doesn’t work good for anybody. Countries like China can block Twitter for just a single tweet. There are many media companies that remove the content from their servers and it is available nowhere in the world. This is the worst case scenario.

Although it is a cyber platform, it works and operates in the real world. Also, it is not a non-profit entity. Somewhere down the line Twitter needs to earn money and it will be earning money via its presence in various countries, and when it plans to have presence in various countries it needs to comply with local jurisdictions whether one likes it or not.

While trying to comply with the local laws Twitter has very carefully drafted its censorship policy and has made censoring content a bit difficult. Particular tweets, while blocked in a country whose government wants them blocked, will be available to the rest of the world and you will also be notified when those tweets are blocked. At Twitter help Center they say:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

I think this is a clever thing to do. The governments will have to follow procedures in order to block particular tweets. The same governments will not have an excuse to block entire Twitter at the drop of a hat. Twitter can always say, look, we’re complying with your local laws so you cannot block us.

The good thing is the transparency factor and also a clever way of keeping the content visible in the regions where the local laws are not applicable. Transparency in the sense that the content that is blocked will be marked as blocked content and as mentioned in the above quoted text from Twitter, all the requests to withhold content by particular governments will be listed at the Chilling Effects website.

Since all the Internet companies have to operate in the real world, they have to follow the real jurisdictions. Perhaps one day we will have utopia and the cyber world will be totally different from the real world, but right now everything boils down to the real world, where we all have to operate. Twitter is trying to comply with local laws as well as allowing free flow of information wherever it is possible. So far, it sounds fair.

It’s not about being clean, it’s about the country

Phew! Scam after scam and now journalists-businesspersons-politicians wheeling dealing: we have a roller coaster society going on here. There is “outrage” and this is really stupid, I mean, who are we fooling? We have always been in the list of the most corrupt developing countries in the world (and this is what keeps us “developing” and not developed).

The problem is not with our businesspersons, politicians and journalists: they have always been the way they are, and the nexus has always existed.  It’s just that due to the Internet and social networking websites the news spread like wildfire and people no longer have to depend on newspapers and electronic media to get news and exchange opinions.

The 2G scam (4G is already out, by the way) is one of the biggest scams the country has ever endured, and so is the Commonwealth Games scam (1,70000 crores – approximately $ 37570000000 — and more than 35000 crores, respectively). There has been a litany of scams under the present government and even the most tolerant are forced to point fingers at the Prime Minister who quite undeservedly enjoys a clean image.

What is clean?  Cleanliness can be of many types:

  • You just wear clean clothes but underneath you never wash your body
  • You wash your body but wear dirty clothes
  • You neither wash your body nor wear clean clothes
  • You appear very clean but from the inside, spiritually and mentally, you are unclean
  • You are totally clean, from the outside as well is inside but you operate in an environment that is totally unclean

Manmohan Singh probably falls under the last two categories. He has the saintly image and he draws a very miniscule amount of salary. But what is the reality?

The country witnessed a deluge of scams when he was the Finance Minister and now when he is the Prime Minister.  Of course the sudden gush of liberalization could have fuelled the corruption engine of the country, but what is the use of you being clean if everything and everybody around you is dirty? Are you really clean if people around you are unclean and you mingle with them and allow them to run the country knowing all the time what harm they are causing to your country?

In today’s The Pioneer column Swapnadas Gupta has written about how Nehru and Indira Gandhi tolerated, if not encouraged, corruption as a necessary evil bi-product of socialism. Is Manmohan Singh perpetuating this string of misguided philosophy? It sure looks so. But at what cost?

This mentality has cost the country billions of dollars. According to an international report discussed by Kanchan Gupta in the past 60 odd years the country has lost more than 20.85 lakh crores, and that’s a conservative estimate as most of the data is unavailable. Some excerpts:

The outpouring of moral outrage over Raja’s crime may have served the purpose of forcing one of the most corrupt Ministers (by no means was he the lone wolf in the Cabinet) in the present regime to quit office in disgrace although he remains defiant as ever. But it has also swamped a revealing report on Global Financial Integrity that was released last week. The details of the report indicate the extent of corruption in India and confirm what we refuse to accept: We are a corrupt society with a corrupt system; a nation that silently indulges in corruption while raucously protesting against it, as is being witnessed at the moment.

The GFI report says, “From 1948 through 2008, India lost a total of $213 billion in illicit financial flows (or illegal capital flight). These illicit financial flows were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, and criminal activities.” Illicit financial flows pertain to the “cross-border movement (or transfer) of money earned through illegal activities such as corruption, transactions involving contraband goods, criminal activities, and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities”. The total of $213 billion is a misleading figure because “the present value of India’s illicit financial flows is at least $462 billion,” the GFI report explains, adding, “This is based on the short-term US Treasury bill rate as a proxy for the rate of return on assets.”

The GFI report provides some other interesting insights. For instance, contrary to the claims of successive Governments, more vociferously by the UPA regime, India’s underground economy, which is “closely tied to illicit financial outflows”, continues to expand with each passing day. The present value of illicit assets held abroad ($462 billion) “accounts for approximately 72 per cent of India’s underground economy — which has been estimated to account for 50 per cent of India’s GDP ($640 billion at the end of 2008)”. Just above a quarter of illicit assets are held domestically.

Go to his link for more juicy data.

Corruption has seeped into our very psyche. In fact people who are not corrupt are looked down upon. “Ooper ki kamayi” is a given. You’re termed as silly if you don’t pay a bribe and get your job done faster. Breaking rules and then getting away by bribing corrupt policemen has become an act of bravado. corruption has become a part of our daily lives and people have given up on the ideas of an upright society ruled by a principled government.  The common citizens have started following the philosophy of “if you can’t beat them join them”.

Well, that’s the problem, but what is the solution?

The solution against corruption is not a mystery, we all know what needs to be done.  As of now our politicians, businesspersons and bureaucrats will never let the rampaging dinosaurs of corruption go extinct. Too much money is involved.  Just imagine having 170000 crores stashed away somewhere in your account.  It will be mad to think that they will deal with the putrefaction when almost everybody is involved. People like Raja and Kalmadi are not so powerful that they could orchestrate scams of such proportions.  Some bigger people are involved and somehow our media and intellectual commentators are avoiding taking their names (understandable, actually). Even we know their names, but I’m not going to name them here for obvious reasons.

If ever we are going to see a resistance against corruption it is going to be as monumental as the independence struggle. Or by a miracle we may get a person at the helm  who follows a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to dealing with corrupt individuals whether they are in politics, bureaucracy or business.