Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Voices Against Institutional Homophobia in India

As happens so often in the blogosphere, I came across another blog today and realized that I had missed out on a very interesting and important piece of news. The Paris trip last week is to blame for my being out of touch with the internet, and hence news in general.
Anyways, a large number of prominent personalities led by Vikram Seth have signed an open letter to the Indian government, the judiciary and the citizens on India, decrying Section 377, the archaic law that institutionalizes homophobia, and in many ways makes homosexuality illegal. The law says "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished [by upto 10 years imprisonment]".
This law of course also makes heterosexual oral (or anal) sex illegal, but has only been used to harass homosexuals. Incomplete information (that there has to be evidence for carnal intercourse) and social paranoia of Indian homosexuals have made them easy targets for harassment and even blackmail because of this law. As I read a claim recently (I forget where, but for sure I agree), that India is the only real democracy today that criminalizes homosexuality.
The impressive list of signatories include:
Writers Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri;
Journalists/columnists/editors MJ Akbar, Dileep Padgaonkar, Kuldip Nayar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Shobha De, Bachi Karkaria, Tarun Tejpal, Barkha Dutt;
Academics Ramachandra Guha, Ashish Nandy, Kaushik Basu, Kanti Bajpai;
Filmakers/actors Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Amol Palekar Soha Ali Khan, Saeed Mirza, Mira Nair, Pooja Bedi, Nandita Das, Sarika, Konkana Sen Sharma;
Classical musicians Mrinalini Sarabhai, Sonal Mansingh, Shubha Mudgal, Mallika Sarabhai;
Swami Agnivesh (activist), Soli Sorabjee (former Attorney-General), Lakshmi Sahgal (freedom fighter), Satish Gujral (Artist, Sculptor), Teesta Setalvad (activist)
and many many others.
The letter states:

To build a truly democratic and plural India, we must collectively fight against laws and policies that abuse human rights and limit fundamental freedoms.

This is why we, concerned Indian citizens, support the overturning of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law dating to 1861, which punitively criminalizes romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex.

In independent India, as earlier, this archaic and brutal law has served no good purpose. It has been used to systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorize sexual minorities. It has spawned public intolerance and abuse, forcing tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women to live in fear and secrecy, at tragic cost to themselves and their families.

It is especially disgraceful that Section 377 has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenceless against HIV infection.

Such human rights abuses would be cause for shame anywhere in the modern world, but they are especially so in India, which was founded on a vision of fundamental rights applying equally to all, without discrimination on any grounds. By presumptively treating as criminals those who love people of the same sex, Section 377 violates fundamental human rights, particularly the rights to equality and privacy that are enshrined in our Constitution as well as in the binding international laws that we have embraced, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Let us always remember the indisputable truth expressed in the opening articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind."

We will move many steps closer to our goal of achieving a just, pluralistic and democratic society by the ending of Section 377, which is currently under challenge before the Delhi High Court. There should be no discrimination in India on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the name of humanity and of our Constitution, this cruel and discriminatory law should be struck down.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate and eminent economist has added his voice with another statement in support:
I have read with much interest and agreement the open letter of Vikram Seth and others on the need to overturn section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Even though I do not, as a general rule, sign joint letters, I would like, in this case, to add my voice to those of Vikram Seth and his cosignatories. The criminalization of gay behaviour goes not only against fundamental human rights, as the open letter points out, but it also works sharply against the enhancement of human freedoms in terms of which the progress of human civilization can be judged.
There is a further consideration to which I would like to draw attention. Gay behaviour is, of course, much more widespread than the cases that are brought to trial. It is some times argued that this indicates that Section 377 does not do as much harm as we, the protesters, tend to think. What has to be borne in mind is that whenever any behaviour is identified as a penalizable crime, it gives the police and other law enforcement officers huge power to harass and victimize some people. The harm done by an unjust law like this can, therefore, be far larger than would be indicated by cases of actual prosecution.
It is surprising that independent India has not yet been able to rescind the colonial era monstrosity in the shape of Section 377, dating from 1861. That, as it happens, was the year in which the American Civil War began, which would ultimately abolish the unfreedom of slavery in America. Today, 145 years later, we surely have urgent reason to abolish in India, with our commitment to democracy and human rights, the unfreedom of arbitrary and unjust criminalization.
A very heart-felt thanks to all the signatories (particularly those who are not homosexual or bisexual) and to Amartya Sen.
Indians like big names, and so many big names together will hopefully help.
Update: Sepia Mutiny has a very nice article on this.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration and how to deal with the illegal immigrants are a hot topic of discussion in the EU these days, lots of opinions and frayed tempers.
I guess Vienna has its fair share of illegal immigrants, and I would think many of the South Asians and Africans selling newspapers are not here legally. When Roopsha parents were visiting Vienna several months ago, her mother was telling me how they were chatting with newspaper sellers (from India) who were here without a visa.
Not being a great conversation initiator, I have never chatted with one... before yesterday.
It has always been at the back of my mind, but yesterday I realized that these guys would have fascinating stories to tell. Perhaps I should start collecting them.
I was in the bus, returning home yesterday, when a short slightly stocky guy in his mid-20s, of obviously South Asian origin, boarded and sat next to me. I was just wondering whether I should say something or continue reading, when he got a phone call, and answered it in Hindi/Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. My theory is that most often in Vienna this means a Pakistani. And of course I am always intrigued by what the average Pakistani thinks of things. I was in the mood for chatting, so I thought I'd say hello, and asked him in Hindi where he was from. India: Chandigarh. Rony Singh, I think he said his name was. He had been living in Vienna since 4-5 years, and had works at an Indian restaurant quite near my place.
He asked me at two different points whether I had a visa-- it clicked the second time, and I said that since he was asking me this, I assume he didn't have one. Indeed. He had apparently gone to Russia, with a visa somehow. He mentioned agents quite a few times. Then he probably overstayed, or for some reason he spent some time in prison. Then via agents, he somehow found his way to Vienna. Vienna to Russia, that's quite a long way, I exclaimed, how did he manage that without visas? Through agents, he said, of course it is risky-- you'd have to go to prison obviously if they caught you. He said that as if prison was just another bump on the road.
He was upbeat that he'd soon get a visa and would be living here legally, as he'd get married quite soon. An Austrian lady, I guess, I asked. No, an Indian (but an Austrian citizen now, I guess, he meant), a divorcee. She works in a shop somewhere not far. But there was a slight hitch. He could apply for a visa only from India (or at least from outside Austria but for that he'd need papers for that country). And that would take a while. I don't know if getting back to India without papers would be a problem. Probably not.
We had reached our destination, which was a pity, as I would have loved to hear the story of how he got to Vienna from Russia.
I guess I just have to talk to people more often.
As I think back, I have had another encounter with not-entirely legal immigrants. This was quite a few years ago, when I used to live in Germany. I think I was going from Tübingen to Berlin, or Würzburg, or somewhere. In any case this happened when I boarded a long-distance train from Stuttgart station. Three ladies, one of them South Asian, got on after me, followed me, and sat down opposite me. They seemed to be slightly agitated. One of the German ladies, probably in her 40s, asked me if I spoke the South Asian girl's (in her mid-20s) language and whether I could help them in their conversation. My German was terrible at that time, but I could indeed oblige them.
The South Asian girl was from Pakistan, and her brother, who she said was my age (I must have been around 25-26 at that time), was married to the German lady-- the former made it clear that this was a marriage of convenience at least as far as her brother was concerned, as this allowed him to stay on in Germany. She on the other hand was trying to get asylum in Germany. She obviously didn't know what asylum meant (nor could she pronounce the word properly), or why one requests it. In fact she asked me whether I was applying for it to... something the rather young and naively me found extremely offensive and insulting.
She complained about her sister-in-law and how stupid and silly she was (sis-in-law or her companion had turned off her mobile by mistake, and she had left the code at home, and so they couldn't contact her brother-- that was what the confusion had been about for they had need my linguistic assistence help). And German SIL kept on asking me what her Pakistani SIL was saying about her.
At that time I was glad when they got off. But I had missed an opportunity for real life stories.
Vaguely in this context, something I wanted to blog about, but never got around to: I met some people recently who work exactly on this. They do research on migration patterns, of course pertaining to migration into the EU.
In the last beer hour (get-together at our and adjoining institutes with food, drinks and plenty of socializing), Lionel, a French postdoc in a neighbouring lab brought along his girlfriend and two friends-- all of them French. One of these guys, Julien works for an organization called International Centre for Migration Policy Development. Julien was great fun to talk to, he had wanted to become a pilot, and had started studying Aeronautical Engineering (or something like that) but then because his eyesight was not good enough he couldn't become a pilot, so he quit and studied Law. From that he got interested in International Law and from that International Relations, and within that Weapons. In fact he had done a paper on the Indian nuclear devices. With such a wide area of knowledge, it wasn't surprising that I had a fantastic conversation with him.
What was surprising though was when Lionel forwarded me an email that Julien had asked him to, inviting me to his 25th birthday party the following Saturday. Although Lionel and his girlfriend didn't go as the date clashed with the Lange Nacht der Musik, I did go.
I had some very interesting discussions with Julien's boss, another French Julien about migration. In fact he told me about the situation arising because of Spain's decision to legalize its illegal immigrants last year, the stuff that led to frayed tempers in the EU. Basically, because of the Spanish act, they believe that there has been even higher levels of migration because this gives further reason to the immigrants to get convinced that they would be ultimately legalized.
Julien-2 disagreed strongly with the suggestion that it might have been nice of Spain from a humanitarian point of view to legalize its immigrants who had been living there for such long periods.
Like many other things, I have no idea what I'd do if I were forced to take a stand on this issue. Obviously many of these are countries who made money in the last two centuries by exploiting the same countries whose people they want to prevent. Many of these countries, France, for instance are full of hardcore socialists-- even the right wingers there support many of the socialist traditions like agricultural subsidies, limited work hours, tough labour laws etc. Are definitions of socialism different if for citizens of other countries, especially poor countries? Citizens of many of these rich countries refuse to do menial work. Most of the people cleaning the Viennese streets are immigrants, many of them illegal, whether caucasian or not. Similarly, there is a worry in many countries, Germany for sure for example, that declining birthrates would result in an unsure pension and social benefits when the current generation grows old.
On the other hand, yes you should be nice and try to help others, but can you really open your doors to everybody? Wouldn't most people from poor countries live in developed countries, if given a chance? Apart from your own living standards falling, this would also change your home if all the newcomers called it their home and wanted to change the interior decoration. Muslim groups in the Netherlands ranting against homosexuality is an example I like to quote in this last context.
I am always intrigued by people who find it easy to take a stand. Not only that, they find it easy to classify themselves as left, right or centre.
I hope my view of life never becomes as simplistic.


A Crush in Paris

I'm "in crush".
Well, not really in love, nor in lust, although neither would have been really difficult. But I think being "in crush" describes it better.

I haven't blogged about my second Paris visit last week because I have been busy. Since I intend to post about Paris, let's just give the basics for now. We had a conference there on our specialized research area, and except for the technician, our whole lab went there. The conference was from Monday, the 18th (although the registration and mini-party was on Sunday evening) through Thursday, the 21st. We were in Paris from the 17th through the 24th.

Right from the beginning, from the registration mini-party on the 17th evening, I had been eyeing Sebastien, his beautiful eyes and smile. As happens in such cases, wishful thinking led me to suspect he was looking at me too.
Later on Monday, I saw his poster-- a row behind mine, and I learnt he was from the Avner lab at the Pasteur. Both his and my posters were scheduled on Thursday, but on Tuesday I saw him near his poster and asked him whether he'd take me through it.
Ah, the smile!
Those eyes!
He was explained it to me and another guy, when we saw Jeannie hovering around. Jeannie is a big shot-- the biggest shot?-- in Sebastien's direct area of research, and it was obvious she wanted to talk to him. Finally she came to his poster, and started challenging him, apparently their data were in contradiction. I was impressed by his confidence, and his refusal to be bullied.
The eyes and the smile looked even more beautiful now.

That evening the organizers had arranged a barge trip along the Seine. I spent the latter part of the evening talking to Sebastian and co.
He said he loved dancing, and pointed to a place on the other side where one could dance Tango. Ah did I ever regret before this day that I am not much of a dancer... leave alone Tango.
I asked him which district did he like the most. No, I didn't hear him mention Le Marais (the gay district), but a rather vague "depends on my mood and the circumstances".
He is from southern France and had grown up in Toulouse. He had been living in Paris for the past four years, and had been doing his PhD for three.

I saw very little of him on Wednesday because the afternoon was free, though I thought his eyes sought me.
Nothing new about wishful thinking... or was it?

A gala dinner had been scheduled on Thursday evening in the Evolution Hall of the Natural History Museum. When I finally got to him at the beginning of dinner, I stuck to him for the rest of the evening... no, that is not true, and this is not wishful thinking-- we stuck to each other for the rest of the evening. He certainly did enjoy the evening and my company.

Later on, I went with him and several others to an expensive bar near our hotel. He chatted with others, I chatted with others, but then most of the others left and we chatted until around 2:15 am and then went our ways. I'd asked him where I could by French DVDs, specifically Francois Ozon's (gay director) films , specifically his latest Le Temps Qui Reste (the protagonist is gay). He said he'd seen a few of Ozon (non-gay), but not this one. He said I could look in one of the FNAC shops.
Earlier I had met Damian from his lab who was doing similar stuff to mine and had been getting nowhere. Damian had invited me to the Pasteur the next day to have lunch with them and discuss work.

So on Friday I met Damian and Sebastien for lunch, at 1:15pm, and then after finishing discussing Science with the former, all the three of us went for a drink at around 6pm. This got converted to dinner and then we parted at around 10pm.
In the course of our conversations, I understood that Sebastien had had a Portugese girlfriend, and a Romanian girlfriend.
Wishful thinking insists: "so what?"

I had given hints, but maybe they were not good enough. Every day is a lesson, and that days was that in future such circumstances should be handled by a deft introduction of a "one of my ex-boyfriends..." into the conversation, however fictitious such a boyfriend may be. As long as I put my cards on the table, I would not feel like kicking myself for not trying hard enough.
At least there would be a fullstop instead of an irritatingly persisting question mark.

I have no idea whether I'll meet him again.

Today I put his name on google, and found that he had a blog... it is rather new, less than a month and a half old. It is in English too, that's a boon... who would have imagined a French guy not blogging in French! He seems really interested in India, as he has watched a lot of Indian films. Probably that was the reason he was interested in me, as he obviously was? He has watched La Mala Educacion, he seems to like Wilde's books. He blogs about varied things, but no girls, no girlfriends, no guys, no boyfriends. I cannot of course link to his blog, as he'd find mine, and I'd not want that, would I?

His blog has a tracker, and if he looks at it regularly, he'd certainly see that someone in Vienna had reached his blog by googling his name. Our lab, the eight of us, were the only ones from Vienna at the conference. Tatsuya does know him, but considering that I spent so much time with him, I am sure it wouldn't be difficult for him to guess that it was me. That I am the stalker. What then? Well I don't know.

The question mark remains.

But perhaps that is good. Paris is far from Vienna. A crush is managable, a long-distance love affair is always difficult to handle.
And it would have been really easy to fall in love, had there been any indication that that smile, those eyes, that look straight into your eyes, whether these were available.

So that's yet another crush on a guy who's very likely to be straight!


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

"Greetings to God!"

Oh no, don't worry: I haven't suddenly come to believe in an omnipresent omnipotent creator. Rather, I was referring to a typically Austrian (and Southern German) greeting, "Gruß Gott!" (note: the "ß" is pronounced like "ss"), which means "Greetings to God". So instead of saying hello to you, they greet God.
Not only do I find this hilarious, but being an atheist I also find it uncomfortable (or should I say I find it kinda dishonest?) to utter this greeting. I stick to "hallo" or a "Guten Tag" (Good day!).
I have been told (or did I read it somewhere?) that when some northern Germans visit the southern Germany they jokingly retort "Ich grüße ihn wenn ich ihn treffe!" that is, "I will greet Him if I meet Him" in response to such a greeting. Of course, I doubt the northern Germans would dare to try this on Austrians... the latter seem to dislike the Germans anyway, and call them (rather derogatorily) "Piefke".
I am always tempted to use this joke as well, and on the rare occasion, I do use it on German or Austrian friends when they say "Gruß Gott" to me. Strangely most people don't know this joke, and it takes a while for them to understand it.
The expression on the recipient's face when the joke dawns, is worth photographing.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Parents, kids... and the usual off-track ramblings

Tatsuya is a Japanese colleague who has joined the lab recently. He has a 3-4 year old daughter who's started kindergarten since early September. But she isn't quite enjoying it and has been crying every morning before going to kindergarten. Tatsuya thinks this is because she doesn't speak any German yet (neither do Tatsuya and his wife) and so can't communicate, make friends and play with the other toddlers. He had been telling me that if she continues disliking it, they see if they could move her to the kindergarten opposite the institute so what he can visit her once in a while.

I desisted from saying anything to Tatsuya, but I think children learn a new language incredibly fast. I know that from my own experience as a kid. When we moved to Bhubaneswar, I was 4.5 years and my brother 3 years. We were fluent in Oriya in a few months... so fluent that other local people used to be surprised to learn that our mother tongue was not Oriya. On the other hand my parents took a long time to learn Oriya. My father had lived in Bhubaneswar before he got married, so he'd had a longer time to learn, but I doubt my mother ever really became completely fluent even by the time we moved back from Bhubaneswar 3.5 years later. However, my brother and I forgot the language within six months of moving from there, while both my parents would be able to hold proper conversations in Oriya even now. For the first time since leaving Bhubaneswar in 1982, I visited Orissa (Bhubaneswar and Konark) again during my India-visit in Jan-Feb 2003 (the time I came out to my parents). I could understand a bit, but then that could be because the language is a bit similar to Bengali, but I couldn't speak much of it. As an adult I know I am bad at languages... mein Deutsch ist noch schlecht (my German is still terrible), although I find myself picking up bits and pieces of quite a few languages.
Children also make friends very fast, very likely because of the lack of inhibitions. Again I can quote from my own experiences as a kid.

Anyways, to get back to Tatsuya's story. Last friday when I asked, he said that his other Japanese friends in Vienna have told him that crying before going to kindergarten is quite common, and happened to all their kids. But as I'd have thought, it doesn't last for long. His wife had gone to the kindergarten and stayed the whole time on Friday, on Monday (yesterday) only for an hour or two and not at all today.
That seems to be working, and although she was she was not very happy about going to the kindergarten, she didn't cry.

One of Tatsuya's comments on this matter really struck me, and is the main reason for this posting. He said he is no longer worried about his daughter going to the kindergarten, he knows very well that she'll be fine. But what he can't bear to see is her being unhappy and crying.

Parenthood is so beautiful.
Would there be anything more tender than this state?


Sunday, September 03, 2006

"The Greatest Surprise"

In the greatest of Indian epics, the Mahabharata, there is an episode where Yudhishthira, has to answer philosophical riddles of a Yaksha. One of these questions (that my father likes to quote) was [I really should know this shloka in Sanskrit, but unfortunately I don't]:
"What is the greatest suprise?"
"People die everyday making us aware that men are mortal, yet we live, work, play, plan etc as if assuming we are immortal. Kimashcharyam Atahh Parahh? What is more surprising than that?"
This came to my mind on Saturday evening in an "encounter" with the unexpectedness and inevitability of death.
I had met Fahad in a CouchSurfing mega-get-together a little more than a month ago. Fahad is software guy from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and has to spend a couple of months in Vienna for work. We got along very well, and had planned to meet up, but for various reasons (including his visiting Pakistan for two weeks), it never happened until yesterday. He had called around noon and since the weather was quite wonderful, and he'd not seen the Belvedere and the Karlskirche, we decided that I'd show him these sights. We met around 1pm and wandered around and had lunch and chatted about all kinds of things until around 5pm, when I left because I had to go to the lab. We had spent a really nice time together.
We were to meet again around 7:30pm with some other acquaintences from CS at the Rathausplatz. I was delayed, and I arrived only around 8:30 or 9:00pm. Fahad wasn't there, and I was told that he had suddenly received a phonecall informing him that his father had passed away.
It must have been really sudden. We had talked about his father and his family in general during the afternoon, his closeness to his family and how he was missing them. I am sure that this was completely unexpected.
I texted him and he said he was trying to find a flight to Pakistan. I should have called today, but I forgot. I hope he has found something and is already on his way back.