Something very complicated happens when we speak. Vocal cord vibrations are modulated by the snaky movements of a little appendage called the tongue. Twisting around the mouth cavity, tapping on the roof or on teeth-backs up front, it shapes sounds before they exit the mouth’s mini echo chamber. The hewed-out sounds have travelled a long way from cords to eardrums and then brain. When these sounds at long last go through the brain’s transliteration engine other connotations are spliced in, en route to final meaning. The way we speak reveals a lot about us. Read the transcript or listen to Meghan Sumner, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, speak in this Freakonomics podcast. The revelations that other people have about us can be biased. The accent of your speech may cause the person listening to reduce you to a stereotype.
Old patterns in our working brains could use rewiring from time to time. A decade ago, pop science asked if we were left brained or right brained. Now that question has been tweaked to: is your brain conservative or liberal? Conservative ideas are connected to strong emotions and spring from deep inside the brain from the region of the amygdala. While in liberal brains, parts of the anterior cingulate cortex light up, as these areas are involved in reasoning out conflicted issues. It could be that such partitioning will always be imperfect like everything else in life. We could be conservative about some things and liberal about others.
Often I come across readers and commenters indignant when newer analyses or younger readers find older, beloved works of literature or art to be racist or sexist. The year-end Christmas special of Sherlock Holmes: The Abominable Bride was trying to make up for the original, which had mostly minor submissive female characters dedicated to the male universe of Sherlock Holmes. As a young child, I would curl up with Conan Doyle’s stories with nary a consciousness that my gender was being excluded in some way. With dawning adulthood, I realised my existence had been circumscribed by way of gender, and that I could never be a Holmes or a Watson without upsetting or upending the world in which I lived. My society had chosen for me the limited role of Mrs Hudson.
There’s nothing a government hates more than a flood. Droughts and floods expose man-made calamities for what these really are, and there’s no hiding behind catchall phrases like climate change or natural calamity. Climate change can only explain the record rainfall, it does not explain why cities do not have contingencies in place to divert floodwaters. Climate change does not explain why town planners consistently ignore hydrology and terrain to allow builders and encroachers to take over river banks, swampland and low-lying areas. Climate change does not explain why a government does not repair and overhaul a city’s storm water drains or its sewage systems.
Continue reading A southern deluge that shook us all
Time is this flexing, rubber-band thing that joins us all everywhere at once. We seem to possess the ability to warp it around ourselves, snipping off bits of time and culture that we like — to create little life-raft time capsules. I found out about relativity at recess in the library at my school. I remember taking out all the reference books I could find then in my quest to understand, and since it was my misfortune to be dyslexic with numbers and equations, I began to hunt down every bit of prose I could find on the subject. I have spent a lifetime wrapping my head around time and space. And there are still things I am not able to grasp.
One afternoon in hot, tropical Kerala, I was staring out the window. Through the gaps in a field of coconut trees, I watched a woman setting up a makeshift cooking station outside. Slowly, she began to pile up a mound of gathered firewood. She set a blackened aluminium pot of water to boil on the smoking pile, finally throwing in some washed rice. I tried to get a closer look in at her. She reminded me of women I had seen when my grandmother was still alive. She was deeply tanned from a life spent clearing other people’s lands. Her hair was rough, straggly and sun-bleached. And she wore garb that women in my grandmother’s time had worn. A sarong or lungi wound around her waist and legs. Over bare midriff she wore a short-sleeved blouse. A thin white Kerala towel called a `thorth’ in Malayalam was tucked into her sarong. The loose end of the towel was thrown over one shoulder and this carefree towelling was used to signal modesty. She walked the pebbled ground beneath on unslippered feet.
In my country, the victory of good over evil is a big deal. It is celebrated with increasing bone-rattling noise and furore around this time every year. Giant effigies of a mythical ten-headed Dravidian king Ravana is burnt, and people come in droves to view plaster-of-paris scenes of a white/fair goddess slaying yet another ancient dark-skinned pagan lord called Mahishasura, who has been designated evil.
As strange and counter-intuitive as it may sound, nothing can warp civil society and whittle away the rights of women like an extended family unit. Witness India. Here, big families rule. The most famous companies, and even Bollywood, are family-run enterprises. Civil society requires citizens to reserve some of their focus for the world outside, but this challenges the internal-focus instilled in a big family unit. Within families, we learn the value of being good little insiders. Institutions like caste, religion, race and even the state have co-opted the extended family paradigm to harness this loyalty to institution that comes with individuals, who, almost drone like, have their gaze turned inwards.
Continue reading Family versus civil society
Last year, a friend told me that as feminists, women are sisters and we need to help each other as much as we can. I was a little taken aback. Where I am at, very few people even help a person lying bleeding on the side of the road. Over the years, I have learned to keep my mouth shut as stray expressions of feminism or agnosticism only invited looks of hostility from women and men in my world.
Far too many women are like that young woman who popped up on BBC a few days ago during a debate about film-maker Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter, now sadly, but quite predictably, technically banned in India. The Indian woman panelist was aggressively patriarchal, pouncing on anyone who didn’t agree with her, accusing them of betraying their country for criticising the ban, repeatedly questioning the channel for defying the Indian ban, and asking why India was targeted when rapes happen in other countries? She also kept reiterating a common refrain we hear bandied about in Indian families: “this is an internal problem, and we need to deal with it internally”. I wish someone could have pointed out, for example, imagine all those years ago if South Africa had said Apartheid is our internal problem, go away world. Well, probably they did, as does every country when the rest of the world imposes sanctions on it. When the young panelist termed it an internal problem, she was speaking the language of patriarchy, and often you need interpreters to understand its skewed and stilted phraseology.
Mr Spock from Star Trek was the first rationalist in my life. The late great Leonard Nimoy was able to imbue the pointy-eared alien with bits from his own personality; the Vulcan neck pinch was his contribution, apparently. Though completely fiction, Spock came to represent so much more. Why did Spock become such an icon? When so little reason is available to repair the human condition, propped up on crutches like religion, humans will yearn for it. Through Spock, we began to appreciate the crucial function of logic—to bring us back from the brink. As humans, we are perpetually on a cliff-edge needing to be pulled back. Spock’s cool logic was one of those life-savers. It saved us from ourselves.
Continue reading For Spock, the great rationalist
In India, we are all kinds of complicated. Being ‘good’ is simply too spartan. We prefer embellishment instead in a myth-making culture that has primed our senses to the make-believe. The contradictions in daily life are immense because of this clash between the bare minimal rules of modernity, goodness, and the florid curlicues of a persistently fictionalising, feudal past. People can be soap-opera mean, as they cannot suppress the urge to crush and subjugate, top other people, with a kind of remorselessness that is subconscious, ancient and passed down.
Continue reading The trouble with being good
I can’t shake the awful feeling that we are cannon fodder here in the third world. Last month, in the northern Indian state of Chattisgarh under-privileged, poor village women were taken to be ‘sterilized’. Thirteen of them died after operations designed to stop them from having babies. The state government quickly executed a cover-up blaming pesticides in medications for the deaths. But independent fact-finders revealed on December 5 to television reporters that what killed these hapless women were horribly unsanitary conditions. The doctor allegedly did not even change gloves between operations.
On the news again was the story of a group of poor villagers in the state of Punjab who attended an eye-camp and went blind. This is a blip on the news, with added footage of the member of parliament for the area arriving chewing gum, in a big people-carrier carrying only him, in between mouthfuls of gum he mouthed customary utterances like `we are going to find out what happened’. That was it; scapegoats will be found and the blinded will be forgotten in the mess and chaos of this large country.