Opinion

#LongMarch: So what if Mumbai was inconvenienced? Listening to citizens is the essence of democracy

Unless we heard the voices of our fellow citizens, we won’t be able to understand their concerns – and help solve them.

Over the past several days, Maharashtra’s farmers have walked (note: not driven, and there is a point there) nearly 200 km to bring their concerns to the state government’s notice. Scratch that: to your notice, really. This is no easy thing, because of the heat, and how old some of them are, and what they will lose by this #LongMarch – but maybe, most of all, because so many of us are so reluctant to listen to them.

But then again, you know what? They knew it was board exam time. They did not want to inconvenience all those Class 10 and Class 12 students so they walked their last several kilometres into the heart of the city in the dead of night to avoid triggering rush-hour traffic jams.

No parent wants their child to have difficulty with transport on a board exam morning. But it must say something about our democracy that our measure of willingness to so much as notice thousands of marching farmers – let alone understand their demands – is the degree to which they “inconvenience” a city (or don’t).

All of which reminded me of the recent CEAT Tyres #ItHelps advertisements, the ones starring “India ke alag alag mahapurush” like “Hamara apne yeh Usain Bolt”, or “Mr Haath Dikhao”. These fellows on foot make the road a tough place for drivers, who must brake or swerve suddenly. The message? India could be an orderly place where drivers could zoom along without worry, as is their birthright, if not for these inconvenient fellows on foot doing silly things all the time. Never mind the drivers we see every day flouting “No Entry” signs and red lights, driving on pavements, speeding up to prevent people from crossing.

Never mind that the vast majority of people who use our roads are not in cars. It is their inconvenience we should really be thinking about.

The farmers walked the last several kilometres into the heart of Mumbai in the dead of night, to avoid triggering traffic jams. (Credit: Shone Satheesh)
The farmers walked the last several kilometres into the heart of Mumbai in the dead of night, to avoid triggering traffic jams. (Credit: Shone Satheesh)

Traffic stoppers

But let’s talk a little about inconvenience. Mumbai residents are now inured to years of Wednesday evening traffic madness around St Michael’s church in Mahim: Novena time, of course. Friday namaz faithful spilling out on to our roads, completely blocking many of them is just normal. Ganpati, Durga Puja and Janmashtami that are celebrated with noisy processions that also choke roads: we are okay with that too. Some of this also shuts down our schools for the day. What was that again about inconveniencing children and getting in the way of their education?

Not that it is just religion. Our rich and powerful regularly barrel along in their cars, their police protection imperiously stopping us until they pass. Tell me about inconvenience.

Muffled voices

In 1993, the Narmada Bachao Andolan staged a protest in Mumbai against the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat. Medha Patkar and some farmers from areas affected by the dam went on hunger strike. Several hundred more farmers were in town for the protest. All this happened on a platform near Churchgate station, so they were able to distribute leaflets and speak to commuters throughout the day. This visibility also meant the press was there in force, with reports appearing every day in every newspaper. That created the pressure that got the government machinery to at least pay attention to the demonstration.

You may not agree with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and in any case the dam has been built. But those things are beside the point. I have no doubt that there were those who felt that 1993 demonstration inconvenienced them. The thing is, during those weeks, they and everyone else listened to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and those farmers. Plenty of us heard the voices that were making certain demands there. That very act of listening amplified the demands. If you think about it, what else is this thing we call democracy? What else, but the airing of voices that we listen to and think about, that we otherwise would not hear?

Yet that was 1993. Because they so inconvenienced the city, that was the last demonstration of its kind allowed in a spot like that in Bombay.

Since then, any group of people that has some demands, some concerns, some grievances is shoehorned into one corner of the vast emptiness of Azad Maidan. Just as the #LongMarch has been – though of course, in this case, their numbers do not quite allow for shoehorning. Visit that corner on any given day and you will find one or more groups staging a demonstration. Over the years, I have seen slum dwellers, government typists, insurance workers and more. And there must be even more groups that I have not even heard of and neither have you. Each group stages their demonstration essentially in a vacuum, until the next group turns up to do its thing in the same vacuum. Being shoehorned, they do not inconvenience the rest of us. We go on with our daily commutes without a clue that these exercises in democracy, diluted though they are, play out in our midst. We do not hear them. They do not get amplified. The issues they raise are never addressed.

A quarter century now of this: so we have an entire generation of Indians that must think this is normal in a democracy. That anything else – noise, traffic slowdowns, yes, even trouble getting to exam centres on time – is, you guessed it, an inconvenience.

Sort of like the CEAT mahapurush. The next time you try crossing the busy street near your home, you may want to think of that. You are the inconvenience. Go to Azad Maidan and cross there instead.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.