Our experience of flying Air India with a baby

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 9:15 PM

The crisp Friday morning when we left our home in San Francisco to take a 16-hour flight to Delhi (India) with our 1-year old infant was filled with anxiety. The fact that it was our baby’s first flight ever wasn’t making things any easier. She had never been away from home for longer than a day and had never experienced the air pressure challenges of a boxed airplane compartment.

Air India had seemed welcoming on the phone. They allowed infant food and milk on the flight and gave the baby an extra 10-kg luggage allowance on their nominally priced infant ticket. No separate seat for the baby yet though. We reserved a bassinet seat on the phone a few days before the flight. We were told that our Boeing-777 had about 7-8 of them. Upon boarding though, we saw maybe just 3-4. We flew economy of course.

After priority fast-track TSA checks at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), we were at our gate and waiting to board. The boarding started on time and we were boarded on priority here too. Thankfully because it was a weekday flight and because it was peak summer season in India, the flight was sparsely full. We managed to get the seat next to us empty. In retrospect, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Kids have stuff… a LOT of stuff! We had several bags full of baby food, baby formula, cooler for milk, diapers, toys, our papers, blankets, etc. and realized that we totally needed that empty seat to shuffle our stuff around.

Air India’s bassinet seats have a lot of legroom. While we slowly got comfortable with our new surroundings (the airline checked in our stroller at the airplane gate, the car seat had already been checked in with the other bags), an airhostess came to brief us about take off with a baby. The brief was fairly informal and surprisingly simple – just hold the baby against your chest during take off, hold them cheek-to-cheek against you and hold their head with your palm as the plane takes off. No separate seat belt was provided to attach with ours for the baby. I repeat… no separate seat belt was provided (unlike other airlines, I hear).

The plane took off on time and thankfully it was easy on our baby too who sucked on yogurt melts to keep the air pressure from irritating her ears. An airhostess came to ‘warn’ us that the bassinet (which we didn’t have yet) had an upper limit of 14 pounds and could be dangerous for our baby who clearly weighed more than that. She moved a lonely passenger behind us to another row to give us extra room to put the baby to sleep. 10 minutes later, another airhostess came and plugged in a bassinet for us. When I enquired about the upper weight limit, she said it was 14 kilograms. I asked her to please confirm this with some other crew and after assuring me that she would, I never heard back from her. Another 10 minutes later, the first airhostess came to check why we had still opted to take the bassinet seat. Tired of the confusion, I checked the weight limit tag on the bassinet myself to see that the upper limit was indeed 14 kilograms and not 14 pounds. Our 1-year old was good to go in the bassinet. At this point, the airplane’s entertainment system crashed and had to be rebooted which took 30 minutes, much to the dismay of the other passengers. But I’ll save that story for another post.

Did I mention that the exit door right in front of our seats on the left made a horrible clanking sound during take-off? Almost like the door would fall off once we were airborne. But it didn’t. And thankfully it didn’t make that sound again either. We could see the left wing from our middle row seats and it looked charred and burnt out too. A big downgrade from Emirates flights that we normally took, but there is sadly no other direct flight that flies from SFO to Delhi. So we grinned and decided to bear the minor inconvenience.

Back to the much-touted bassinet seat. Well, it was pretty much useless. While it said it could hold a baby 14 kilograms heavy, it could barely contain our 10-kilogramer. She has average height for her age too and still she couldn’t fit with her legs straightened out in the bassinet. Ultimately when it was time to sleep, she slept with her legs slightly bent and her head sticking out a little over the pillow. And she couldn’t turn because there was no room. But to be fair, she did sleep for 4-5 hours in the bassinet, spread across two spells. With the occasional cry out of course from discomfort and not being able to turn (she would fall out!) and from the hard and tight zip-on ‘patch’ that I had fastened around her. It was straight out of the 80s. Maybe when adjustable harness straps hadn’t been invented. Just two pieces of fabric on either side with a zipper in the middle to open it and zip it. I couldn’t zip it up all the way either because it was so tight around her belly, so I made peace with zipping it up just halfway and then put the blanket over it.

The flight crew of course was blissfully unaware that this secure hold even existed on their bassinets and asked us to just hold the baby when the seat belt sign turned on. Which was like over 20 times in the 16-hour long flight. Nope, kids don’t sleep like that. And hence it lead to my discovery of the horrible secure baby hold. We did manage to fit in 3-4 hours of sleep for ourselves too while the baby slept face-up in her bassinet.

The in-flight entertainment system finally came alive after a few hours of take-off, but our screens didn’t roll up because the bassinet was in the way (screens are tucked under the seats in front row seats and need to be rolled up). We managed to pull the screen on the third empty seat up, only to realize that the remote on that seat wasn’t working. And it wasn’t a touch-screen like Emirates (again, that was our airline of choice before we had a baby and had to consider direct flights). So we had a LONG flight with no form of entertainment ahead of us.

A kind word about the cabin crew would be fair here though. They were super accommodating with doing all that they could to make our journey easier. Their demeanor was semi-professional but friendly. They asked us several times if we needed help with anything. They happily refrigerated the baby milk and food that we were carrying. They took it out for us each time we requested them to. While there are no ovens to heat food and milk on a plane, they gave us hot water to do so each time we asked for it. And they were chirpy while they did it. Not grumpy. Not once. So no qualms about the effort the crew put in to do their bit.

The toilets were a different story altogether. There are no kitchen-style washing sinks on a plane. But baby milk bottles and bowls still need to rinsed out every once in a while (if only for storage). Rinsing had to be done in toilet sinks and on this particular Air India flight, most sinks did not self-drain. A knob had to be pressed while the sinks slowly drained water. It was kind of gross. Thankfully, no toilets clogged up on this flight unlike another Air India direct flight from Chicago to Delhi that I read about where all 8 restrooms on the plane got choked. Small mercies.

The food servings were all Indian and very basic. The beverage options were simply water, juice, coke or scotch. Some people treated the plane like a private bar. But that’s not an Air India problem. One of the three tray tables on our seats was broken and two remote controls out of three (for even turning on the lights or calling the attendant) were non-functional. But we survived that too.

As we prepared to finally land in Delhi, our bassinet seat had to be taken away and the poor airhostess apologized profusely for waking our sleeping baby up and asked if we were ‘sure’ that she could take the bassinet away. Well, that was the ONLY safe option and so yes, we told her that we were absolutely sure that she could take the bassinet away. I broke out into a laugh. Safety is never an ‘option’ in the US. And nor should it be. We are just not used to these type of questions.

The landing was fairly uneventful. We held our baby on our lap, without a seat belt again, and she did fairly well with managing cabin air pressure changes. We de-boarded, collected our bags and were our way home! My observations about flying Air India with a baby are as follows – The planes need an overhaul and the bassinets definitely need an upgrade. I have heard that other airlines like Etihad have amazing bassinets.  While the staff is friendly, they are way too informal to be flying over international waters, or anywhere else, for that matter. On several occasions, I caught the airhostesses chatting sitting huddled in a group at the back of the airplane (a scene straight out of a college canteen) when I went to take out some milk or baby food from the refrigerator. They sometimes even failed to notice me standing there! The airline serves no infant food (again, unlike some other airlines) but is happy to give you hot water at convenience. Overall, I wish there was another option to fly straight from India to SFO, but till there is, we will stay thankful for this Air India direct flight despite the operational and logistical inefficiencies.


Tidbits on Parenting for the uninitiated

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 10:12 PM
This piece is written with the intention of appealing to those who intend to start a family in the near future and I write this because I wish I had access to such pieces when I was pregnant. See this as a sort of preparation article on what to expect. It is absolutely imperative to have full knowledge of what parenting entails before you take the plunge (while I do believe that nothing can truly prepare you for what comes).

Pregnancy, I now realize, is the easy part about the whole deal. It’s still just you and your partner, preparing for the future, and dealing with the minor changes that come along the way. Yes, you worry about labor, and it does come and go… but that’s not the part that you remember in much detail in the future. So what do you remember? Your remember this – your baby’s first year. The longest, most difficult year of your entire life.

Pregnancy is short and temporary- a minor bump in the long road to parenthood. Look at it as nature’s way of giving you some responsibility before unleashing a whole lot of it on you very soon. But once the baby arrives, its not going anywhere. And then it gets real.

Parenting is hard. And that’s no joking matter. It is really hard. Think about the hardest job you have ever done. Now multiply that by 10. That’s how hard parenting is. It’s about making daily decisions about the little one. It’s about giving them constant attention. It’s also about being 100% accountable for them.

Parenting makes you forget about vanity. You will not have time to do your hair or nails (or shave) for a while. Your doctors will ‘see you’ from all angles when you look your most unflattering and your whole house will too… while breastfeeding, while caring for the baby, with white spit-up marks on your shoulder. Unkempt looks and the works. Get used to it. It doesn’t last, but be sure that it won’t escape you either. The good news is that nobody cares. Because you just made life. Your car will have to make room for that car seat. Nope, no more convertibles. Get used to that too!

Parenting is anti-social. There will be no more time or energy for that friendly get-together. Your single friends wouldn’t want to hang out with you anymore because no one wants to be around a baby for extended periods of time. Play is fine, screams are not. They will all come to occasionally meet you and see how the baby is doing, but meet-ups will have to wait. No bars, clubs or sodas. You will have to find parents with kids roughly your age to hang out with because then you can do the same activities. Welcome to this new league.

Parenting is selfless. I remember driving to the hospital three days after delivering to admit our baby for jaundice. I also remember caring for her when my own body was in pieces. My husband and I forewent sleep, comforts and even meals to care for our little one. Our needs and demands are just not as important anymore. That fancy shirt can wait because buying those new bibs is more important. Spending $200 on a baby carrier will be your new idea of ‘shopping’. No vacations and no more movie theatres for a while. And what’s more, you will be fine with it. Because every day will end with that great feeling of accomplishment at having taken them through another successful day.

Breastfeeding is mean in the beginning. It is the reason most women slip into postpartum depression. I had no idea that it would be so tough. Your nipples will be sore and cracked but you will still keep going because your doctor, pediatrician, lactation consultant, family and friends will keep reminding you that breast milk is still best for your baby. And it really is. But the struggle is very real, my friend.

Parenting makes you forget about sleep. Sometimes willingly but mostly forcefully. Newborns don’t sleep through the night. Their pea-sized stomachs need constant feedings. Infants wake up at night for various reasons too. Discomfort, teething, hunger, reflux, etc. You wake up in the middle of the night with them and play the guessing game. Its fun. Or not.

Parenting is expensive. And it makes your house look a lot smaller. That crib, bassinet, swing, play mat, high chair, toys and stroller need money and space. Get ready to loosen those purse strings and save up to move to a bigger house. Don’t forget to save for their college, future and your retirement. The list is pretty long and no matter how much you make, it is never enough.

Parenting is research-oriented. Everything will be new for you and everything will require research. Bottle-feeding and pumping queries, what works best for colic, best baby sitter, best day care, best pediatrician, best toys, best baby carrier, best rocker… your little one deserves the best of everything and that requires research. Signs of teething, symptoms of infection, the color of their poo - will all be topics that you will find yourself googling on a regular basis. Every free minute will be spent imbibing new knowledge. Soon you will be giving gyaan like me.

Parenting requires support. Those first few weeks after your first baby arrives will be maddening and you will need a parent or friend to take you through them. You will need to learn how to bathe the baby, massage the baby, etc and an experienced eye will be key to take you through your learning. As the months progress, you will need to find support groups, in your locality or online, to stay in touch with parents like you to discuss daily problems and to realize that you aren’t alone in this.

Parenting is anxious. You will always be worried – about them eating enough, sleeping enough and pooping enough. You will wake up in the middle of the night to check if they are well and breathing. You will compare their monthly milestones with their peers and see if they are doing okay. You will worry if they aren’t. Even when they really just are!

Parenting is time consuming. The cycle of feed, burp, sleep and change is endless and you will find yourself going through it almost eight times every day (it gets better with age). And the cycle with take time. Weekends will mostly be spent catching a breath. And your little guy will be your new boss.

Lastly, despite the troubles, parenting is oh-so-rewarding! Their cute little faces, supple round cheeks, the way they smell, the way they hold your face with their little hands when you lean in, the way they sleep with a smile when you are close, the way their faces light up upon seeing you, the way their breathing and warmth feels against you when they fall asleep on your shoulder… is all so precious and irreplaceable. It is going to make you forget every struggle and it will remind you to find that super human inside you to keep them alive and thriving. Because everybody has it in them. You just need to find it. And then the joys are unlimited. Happy parenting!

Picture of my love for attention.


The Sunny Leone interview: Should capitalism be confused with morality?

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 5:31 AM

‘Morals’ and ‘morality’ are the most misused excuses for justifying sexism in India. Before I write more about that, lets be clear that one or another form of sexism exists in all countries around the world. But my post today will focus specifically on India. The intention is not to criticize the country for what it believes to stand for. The intention is just to highlight the hypocrisy that exists in the fabric called ‘our society’.

The Sunny Leone Interview

The Executive Editor of India’s leading English news channels recently did an interview with porn star-turned-Bollywood actress Sunny Leone. Sunny Leone, originally named Karenjit Kaur and born to Punjabi Sikh parents in America, has worked as a porn star in the United States for several years. About four years ago, she ventured into mainstream Bollywood and has since worked in some small-budget hindi films. She also made an appearance on Indian reality show Bigg Boss in 2011, a stint that made her popular with the average Indian household.

Sunny Leone followed the same publicity path that most film stars follow to promote their films. A guest appearance here and a celebrity interview there to keep her name current in mainstream media before the launch of her films has been her PR strategy. All stars do that and she seemed no different. So when I heard Bhupendra Chaubey almost chiding her for her pornographic ‘past’ in a television interview before the launch of her film ‘Mastizaade’, obviously I was very shocked.

First and foremost, the smirk on his face and the judgment in his voice was apparent and totally cringe worthy. It almost seemed like he felt a sense of entitlement to question Sunny on her career choices. He asked her repeatedly if her past (working as a porn star) ‘haunted’ her and whether she would do anything ‘differently’ to change it. Thank god Sunny held her fort and answered back with tact and confidence, confirming that she doesn’t regret anything in her past and wouldn’t want to change anything about it. It would have been a real shame to see her crumble to such blatant sexism on television.

Second, the chief point of having a guest on your show is to let them speak! A lesson that Chaubey clearly forgot to learn at journalism school. He masked his own personal opinions as questions and hogged most of the interview himself with insulting remarks about Sunny’s ‘shameful past’. He constantly cut her midway through her answers and dumped yet more demeaning remarks and outdated self-beliefs on her. He educated her about ‘the grace of being covered from head to toe in a saree’ and once even asked her if sitting with her was making him ‘morally corrupt’! He blamed her movies for the increase in the number of porn watchers in India and asked if she saw anything wrong with that (according to him, how could she not!?). Through it all, Sunny sat there with a smile on her face and tried to remain as calm and confident as is humanly possible through such barefaced adversity. And just for that, it became hard not to love her.

Third, and this was the funniest bit, Chaubey was completely oblivious to the sarcasm that Sunny threw his way in return for his barbed attacks. She politely offered to leave the interview if it was ‘corrupting’ him, she pointed out that only he saw her publicity as ‘negativity’ and that he was also the first person to call her acting a ‘danger to the fine art of cinema’. She also said that like Indian politicians, she was waiting for Obama to include her in his speeches! Dear old Chaubeyji failed to take the cue each time and continued hounding her with age-old views and his backward opinions. I wonder why he chose to do the interview himself in the first place. He could have easily asked someone else to do it. I also wonder if his own secret crush on Sunny Leone made him so thick-skinned about her oncoming sarcasm. Or maybe, he was just trying to prove to his wife sitting at home that he did NOT have that little crush (he also questioned Sunny about her views on how ‘every Indian housewife is threatened by her stealing their husband’!)

Why the furor?

In my opinion, the interview was completely offensive and chauvinistic. It was hard not to feel sympathy for Sunny Leone for her poised stance and seasoned responses. If I had been in that seat as a guest, I would probably have walked out of the interview within the first five minutes. Or at least a little bit of my anger would have shown on my face. She did neither and that made her a real-life hero. It was also disappointing to see Bhupendra Chaubey pose such crude questions. I personally respect his channel for quality journalism but with this interview, his credibility took a severe hit. Safe to say, while some would agree with his line of thinking, the mood on social media was gruff. Audiences and celebrities criticized him for his coarseness and questioned why such an opinionated interview was conducted.

If India chooses to buy tickets to (or download) Sunny Leone’s movies and watch them, Chaubey has no business blaming the actress for it. As a commercial actor, she moved from America to India in the search of greener pastures and she seems to have found them. I see no harm in doing that. She seems well aware of where her niche lies and what’s her appeal as an actor. If someone doesn’t like that, they can choose to close their eyes. Do Indian actors not visit Hollywood and act in foreign films? How could we look up to them for doing that but show scorn to Sunny Leone? She seems to be harboring very realistic expectations about the reason for her popularity in India and the kind of roles that she will be offered in the future. She didn’t seem starry-eyed about working with ‘big Bollywood names’ and said that she still read every script before accepting it… all standard procedure for an actor and nothing different because she is an ex-porn star. I wonder if Chaubey would have found the guts to pose similar questions to the male actors who star in ‘Mastizaade’. Or to a member of the Censor Board who passed the film. Such impunity, given India’s patriarchal set up, only comes while questioning women actors. Chaubey clearly talked to her differently because she was a 'former porn star' and cut her mid-sentence repeatedly, showing deep discourtesy on his part. The furor on social media after the interview was actually heartening. Small beginnings lead to bigger ends.

But I am mostly penning this blog down because it is hard for me understand why we as a society can’t treat an entertainer as just that, an entertainer. They simply do what they know best to earn a living. It is the society as a whole that makes these actors so popular by watching their movies or downloading their work. So in such a scenario, who is the culprit? Actually, why should anyone be labeled the ‘culprit’ at all? It sexual liberalism not a good thing? Does it not reduce the advent of gender-related crimes in a society? Is sexual repression the way forward? How can we continue to have the second largest population in the world and still continue to show disdain towards the act of ‘sex’? Frankly, when will our obsession with sex end? Or does it always have to be a love-hate relationship? Can we not see it as something as normal as eating food? Do we really believe that the people who carry out these interviews with such judgmentalism have never watched porn themselves? Or that they are saints behind closed doors? The problem arises when such prominent journalists earn the field of journalism a bad name with their personal prejudices. The familiarity that Chaubey displayed while conducting the interview was contemptuous. Sure, you have seen her work on screen. But that doesn’t mean that you know her personally, can forget the fact that she is a guest on your show and inundate her with your under-developed views about what the viewer wants. Like Sunny pointed out, he gets paid to interview her just as she gets paid to sit and chat with him. So where is the shame in that for both of them? Or if there is, then there is equal shame in it for both.

Small voices of dissent are a good thing. They might seem inconsequential at the time, but they go on to stir up bigger changes. We can’t leave everything to chance and time. If Sunny was still living in the United States, I am sure people would have found the good sense to see her for just what she is – an actor and an entertainer. No politician would have cared to include her in his political speeches, the people would not have blamed her for ‘corrupting the society’ and she would most probably have been lost in the stream of similar actors who do what they do best to earn a living. No one would, and they actually didn’t while she lived there, make her the topic of daily discussion and offer her the stardom that she now enjoys (and that the givers themselves so dearly loathe).

We need to stop this sense of entitlement that Indian men feel towards a woman’s career choices. Not just a woman that he knows, but any woman. No one has the authority to be judgmental about a choice that someone else makes. No profession is ‘shameful’ or deserves the scorn of the entire society. We need to realize that supply is only churned where the opportunity for a demand exists. The blanket cover of ‘morality’ cannot be used to justify a man insulting a woman on television. I guess that is my fundamental problem with the interview. Again, I am not saying that sexism doesn’t exist in other countries or that it only plagues India. My larger point is simply that we have to make it harder for people to get away with such blatant sexism. To uphold the respect of women, all women, is a fundamental value. Not a choice and definitely not a thing to be toyed around with. All power to Sunny.


Why is Dow Jones plummeting?

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 3:16 AM

The Dow Jones Industrial Average continued its New Year fall by slipping over 400 points through the day on January 15, 2016. The index that started the year at 17,405 was down almost 1500 points and hovered below 16,000 for the first time since August 2015. The big question on everyone’s mind is – why the rapid fall and should we be concerned about a recession already? According to me, these are the major reasons for Dow’s incessant drops-

1) China’s Economic Turmoil
China is the world’s second largest economy after the United States. It touches businesses and countries around the world. China is also the third largest export partner (the first and second being Canada and Mexico respectively) of the U.S., making up about 5.3% of the total U.S. exports in 2014 (good and services valued at roughly $124 billion). China also happens to be the biggest import partner of the U.S, accounting for 16.4% of the total imports of the U.S. in 2014 (roughly $467 billion). Thus, the trade balance (exports minus imports) of the U.S. vis-à-vis China is negative. The deficit is financed partly by the capital flow from China. This makes China the largest creditor of the U.S. as well, holding the largest part of U.S. treasury securities - amounting to $1,270 billion in May 2015. That is about one-fifth of the total U.S. treasury securities outstanding.
These numbers give a clue about how any positive or negative economic developments in China can affect the U.S. economy. For example, a decrease in the level of consumer spending in China, owing to a falling economy, will affect U.S. exports negatively which in turn will lead to a decrease in the U.S. GDP. Additionally, with exports decreasing but imports remaining largely unaffected, the deficit in the US balance of trade with China will widen further. Unemployment will also increase in U.S. companies that generate a major part of their revenues from Chinese exports.
Another problem that China might pose for the U.S. is the selling off of U.S. treasury securities to use the proceeds to provide stimulus to its economy. Potential massive selling of U.S. securities will create a threat to the U.S. economy because a large supply of such securities will pull the prices down. Unexpected increase in the interest rates may also increase pressure on GDP growth through lower valuation of investments.
Largely speaking, China matters greatly to the world. Its explosive growth and a huge appetite for Chinese goods and raw materials lifted economies in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia and elsewhere. As a result, it becomes obvious that China’s slowdown is having a huge ripple effect around the globe. Concerns about China’s economy are amplified by the fact that it remains a bit of a black box to investors. Few trust the accuracy of Beijing’s economic stats and many believe that actual growth is a lot lower than government reports.
The devaluation of the Chinese yuan that began in August 2015 has led to global markets falling by 7.1% since January 1st this year. China’s economy continues to remain caught in a dangerous no-mans-land between market and state control. Hence, the jitters are also being felt and seen on U.S.’s Dow Jones index (along with other local indexes).
2) Falling Oil Prices
We are currently in the midst of a great oil collapse. Global share markets, including the Dow Jones, tumbled at the prospect of an end to the Iranian oil export ban. Prices have slipped below $30 a barrel for crude oil (lowest since 2003). News is that Iran could restart its oil exports (after lifted sanctions) as early as this weekend if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that it has complied with measures to curb its nuclear programme. Iran has the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves and any additional oil would add to the 1 million barrels a day supply that has already led to more than a 70% collapse in oil prices since the middle of 2014. In simpler terms, oil supply has outstripped demand globally.
The demand for oil from China has fallen as its economic growth has slowed. Meanwhile supply has increased, partly due to the rise of US shale oil. In addition, Saudi Arabia (the world’s largest exporter of oil) has refused to cut production – something it has done previously to support oil prices. Experts estimate that about one million barrels of oil are being produced above demand every day. While consumers and some businesses have benefitted from lower oil prices, oil-exporting nations have suffered. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the oil industry.
Crude oil trades in U.S. dollars. That means when the dollar gets stronger, oil gets more expensive for overseas buyers. While cheap oil is great for American consumers, it continues to contribute to the losses in the stock market. Shares of S&P 500 energy companies are already down 10% so far this year. Some others like Marathon Oil and Anadarko Petroleum have plunged over 20%. The same trends are playing out on the Dow Jones index. Investors are worried that historically cheap crude is an ominous sign that global demand is far weaker than economists think.
Bottom line
The rout of the Dow Jones index is in tune with a global crash in stock markets, owing largely to global factors such as the fall of the Chinese economy and plummeting oil prices. Experts say that local factors like deteriorating corporate earnings and revenues, overvaluation of stocks and rising interest rates could also be contributing to the collapse. Some investors are also playing safe and dumping their stocks before the long MLK weekend. Maybe it is good advice to stay un-invested for now and observe where the stock market heads before making any monetary bets. The year looks bearish, the emotion is cautious and it is prudent to listen to money management gurus who say that it's better to be safe than sorry!


India’s Daughter: What is wrong with our judicial system?

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 12:33 AM
Leslee Udwin was born in Birmingham, England. She grew up to become an actress and then ultimately changed her career to being a producer. Her most notable achievement was winning the BAFTA award for her film ‘East is East’ in 1999. She is also a prominent personality among NRIs and feminists in UK. The brutal gang rape of a 23-year old girl in India in December 2012 moved Leslee so much that she invested two years of her life afterwards towards making a 58-minute documentary on the victim, who is also commonly referred to as ‘India’s Daughter’ (or Nirbhaya in Indian media reports). Leslee decided to name the documentary that as well.

But as a reward, her film was banned from being aired in India. The reason - she had interviewed one of Nirbhaya’s rapists, Mukesh Singh, for the film. The Indian government had objections to giving a public voice to the rapist. BBC in the UK still went ahead with the broadcast in several other countries even ahead of its scheduled airdate of March 8 (International Women’s Day). People across the world, including India, watched it on popular streaming websites like YouTube.

So what lessons did the Indian Government learn from this episode? Well first, that the ostrich mentality of banning unpleasant things (films and books) is not a strategy that works in today’s digitally savvy world. People always find a way to watch a video or read a book that the government has banned by simply logging on to the Internet. Furthermore, such bans increase the curiosity and interest in the content that is not being allowed to circulate freely and hence leads to higher viewership. Second, the Indian government also got a reality check of what kind of influence they yield on the world media. It is easy to regulate content within the country. But the country is not yet globally positioned to dictate terms to international media houses. We (Indians) are not as big and important as we think we are.

The whole discussion brings me to the moot point of writing this blog post – what is wrong with India’s judiciary? The thought first crossed my mind when I watched Nirbhaya’s parents talk on a chat show on NDTV. The aggrieved couple has been vociferously and fearlessly voicing their angst for over two years now, demanding death for the culprits who perpetuated the heinous crime against their daughter (they gang raped and brutalized her, and then inserted an iron rod inside her vagina and pulled out her intestines that ultimately led to her death). The pain in their voice is evident and we all realize that while nothing can soothe the agony that stems from losing a child and now lives permanently in their hearts, our only hope of giving them some relief is by doling out timely punishment to the monsters who perpetrated the crime.

In 2013, the Delhi High Court had ‘fast tracked’ Nirbhaya’s case after major protests had erupted across the country. One of the accused, Ram Singh, had died in police custody on 11 March 2013 in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. On 10 September 2013, the four remaining adult defendants - Vinay Sharma (21), Akshay Thakur (29), Mukesh Singh (27) and Pawan Gupta (20) – were found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The act was deemed as ‘unnatural sex that counted as a rarest of rare crime’. One unnamed juvenile accused in the case was sent to a ‘special home’ for three years - that being the maximum punishment by law for a juvenile in India, following which he would be allowed to roam free in the society. Soon after the verdict was given, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court and even after a year of that appeal being filed, it has not been overturned. What’s more gruesome is that not even a single hearing has been conducted in the case since then and it stays pending.

Nirbhaya’s parents are obviously hyper agitated. They say that if justice can’t be ensured and expedited even in a case as high profile as theirs, there is no hope whatsoever for the other rape victims in the country. And we can’t help but agree with them. The confessions are all there. All the accused have admitted to committing the crime. The CCTV footage recorded by a hotel’s camera clearly shows which bus was used for the crime. Even Nirbhaya’s statement, the one that she summoned the courage to record before succumbing to her painful death, is also present. So we ask, what is stopping the Supreme Court from giving a final verdict? What has this one year been wasted over? Additionally, despite pleas from all sections of the society, why have laws for juveniles not been amended? Sure, fingers are being pointed at Leslee for interviewing Mukesh. But we ask whether it is not this very administration that has kept Mukesh alive for all these years? Do they not realize that justice delayed is justice denied? Do they not know that it is their own lethargy and tardiness that has emboldened the rapist to come out and make inflammatory remarks against women? Such hypocrisy and double standards do not go down well with the intelligentsia of the country that has declared its clear defiance by watching, and sharing, the banned documentary. Maybe it is time for the Indian government and judiciary to engage in some soul-searching.

This is not the first time that justice has been delayed. Another high profile case that invariably comes to mind is that of Ajmal Kasab. The terrorist was recorded clearly on CCTV cameras shooting innocent people on those fateful days in November 2008. The court proceedings had still taken almost a year and a half after the incident to find him guilty on 80 counts, including murder, waging war against India and possessing explosives. He wasn’t hung in Pune’s Yerwada Jail until November 2012 – four years after committing the crime, despite the presence of irrefutable and clear evidence from the first day of trial.

We can’t help but question our judicial system. Along with the many things that are wrong with India, this one sticks out the most. We often turn to the Supreme Court for a dose of sanity in an otherwise insane country. But when years are allowed to pass between crimes and punishments, it is hard to keep faith in the idea of India. We wonder why families of the aggrieved are allowed to live with such overwhelming grief when at least on our part we can ensure speedy justice. The wait is not for the want of evidence. That much we know. The files are stuck in endless strings of red tape and bureaucracy rules the game. If such is the state of affairs, then can we really blame the citizens for living in a constant state of anger and disbelief in the fairness of the judiciary?

As for the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, I think it is brilliant. It shows the Indian society for what it is. It is also riveting, engaging and extremely well researched. The first step towards eliminating any evil is to identify it. And that’s what the documentary does. It pitches several voices together, the ones of the aggrieved and others of the accused, without ever imposing an opinion of its own. It lets you hear all sides and like religious texts, it lets you decipher them on your own. Some people will invariably choose to get offended by the documentary (because it is their nature to get offended).  Some others like me will appreciate that such films are being made to serve as a mirror to our completely flawed society. Why do I say that? Because as a woman who has lived in equal measure in the metropolis of Delhi and in a small town, I know that several evils exist within the Indian society specifically targeting women. The culture of subjugation and rape is one of them. When we see this documentary and hear the lawyers of the rapists give medieval arguments like ‘women are like flowers’ or ‘women are like diamonds, and if you leave them on the streets, a dog is bound to take them away’ or something completely outrageous like ‘we have the best society because women have no place in it’ – we commend Leslee for bringing out these voices to the fore. Because we know that they exist. Another aspect of the documentary that totally pleased me was the level of research that had been conducted to trace down, for example, the gynecologist who had first treated Nirbhaya, or the patrol officer who had first found her bloodied body by the side of the road, or the parents of the accused, or for that matter the hotel that had recorded the CCTV footage of the bus. We wonder if even the police in the Nirbhaya case were so thorough in their investigation.

About Mukesh – well, everything that he says is loathsome. His words blaming the women themselves for getting raped sound like sheer poison. In Leslee’s defence, even she admitted that she felt like her soul had ‘just been dipped in tar’ while interviewing Mukesh. What had shocked her the most was his answer to the question – “Why do men rape?” But to her credit, she brought out the horrors that exist within the minds of the Indian society. We teach our daughters how not to get raped but no one teaches their sons to not rape in the first place. Even the mother of accused Ram Singh was more upset by the fact that he wouldn’t be around to take care of her in her old age than she was with the fact that he was a cold-blooded rapist. ‘Budhape ki laathi chali gayi’ were her exact words (my old age support is gone). The wife of one of the accused said that she was also a woman and with her husband gone, no one would take care of her now.

Leslee is merely the medium of a horrifying message. And by banning her film, the government has repeated the classic mistake of shooting the messenger. We have much deeper problems than just a short film called ‘India’s Daughter’. Some thought over the slow judicial process of delivering justice will go a much longer way in making the idea of a better India a reality.


Charlie Hebdo and Islam: How I see it

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:17 PM
Who defines the limits of journalism? Who decides when the journalistic pen crosses the boundaries of objectivity and ventures into obscenities? You would probably say that common sensibilities define the boundaries of journalism. But I believe that the field of journalism is too dynamic to be defined by boundaries. I guess that that is the whole point of the exercise of the freedom of expression: it is hit and trial, like medicine, with the use of discretionary perceptions aiming at not hurting or targeting anyone in particular without a solid reason. That is a loose definition, one that you won't find written anywhere. But the principle purpose of journalism, to show the world as it is with its several shortcomings, inevitably allows space for some expression of freedom. And it isn't logical to expect all journalists to be artful with this freedom. Or moderate. That would be like an attempt at controlling people and free will. And who has ever been successful in doing that? The field of free writing can only prosper and continue to part-deliver on its promise of a well-informed world where journalistic articles make a difference IF and only IF journalists continue to get the freedom that they get now (in some countries at least) to write what they like. We can then only hope for them to be unbiased and non-judgemental in their reporting. That is the best logical hope for the world, and I say this without getting diluted in the fantastical vagaries of idealism that really exist nowhere.

When we talk about freedom, it goes without saying that some journalists take more liberties than the others. They are more callous in their depiction of the news and more fearless in voicing their opinions, knowing pretty well that they might even qualify as judgemental to a significant part of their target population. Some readers continue giving patronage to such pieces of journalism for this very fact – because they love the loud and fearless voice. Some others see it as plain news and filter what they feel is the essential component hidden within the lines. Charlie Hebdo is one such publication. The weekly satirical newspaper is published in French and features political jokes and cartoons. Its non-conformist tone had managed to anger a certain section of Muslims who took great offence to the paper’s cartoons on Islam (of course they chose to turn a blind eye to similar cartoons on Catholicism, Judaism, etc). Before the horrendous January 7, 2015 shooting massacre of twelve people at the newspaper's headquarters, the magazine had also been firebombed in 2011 after the publication had named the Prophet Muhammad “editor-in-chief” of an issue. The publication’s rebellious response had been the following cover:

 When translated, it simply meant - "Love is greater than hate". 

Charlie Hebdo was not ordinary. The work that they did was in no way similar to what other news publications do. Plain reportage of news was never their forte. But that did not warrant for the intolerance, hate and death that was bestowed upon the newspaper for the work that they did. With warnings or without, no one reserves the right to take away life for the sole reason of discomfort with someone's artistic expression. You don't shoot an author for his book. You debate it. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo could have been given a taste of its own medicine by the initiation of another publication with similarly loud views, the terrorists could have boycotted the newspaper for its supposedly vitriolic work OR they could have chosen to go on a silent protest on the streets against what had been drawn. Social media wars are also not out of question in today's digitally savvy world. But one CANNOT pick up a gun and start shooting people in the name of saving the Prophet.

Islam as a religion is like all other religions. It has a holy book called the Quran. It also has its own prayers, teachings and customs. But like all other religions, Islam is also subjectively translated by different people in different ways. Some Muslims say that Islam teaches them tolerance. Some others say that it teaches them that Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of God. There is yet another sections of Muslims who believe in Jihad. Jihad is the religious duty of Muslims. A person engaged in Jihad is called a Mujahid and the plural of that term is Mujahideen. 

Unfortunately, the world today sees the term 'mujahideen' as one related to terror. It has ever so often been used by news organizations in the context of an Islamic bombing or a terror attack of any other form. The image has stuck on and the word 'mujahideen' has become a sullied one. Who is to be blamed for the plight of Muslims around the world? Who is to be blamed for the questionable looks that a Muslim name evokes in different parts of the white-world and the eyebrows that it sometimes raises? The terror attacks of 9/11 made life miserable for all brown people, and particularly Muslims, living in America. Similarly, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the violence in its aftermath will come back to bite all Muslims in France. It is not their fault and they are not at all related to what happened. They might disapprove of this savage act of violence inflicted upon the journalists and policemen by their bigoted counterparts. But while the perpetrators are eventually caught, and they will be, and punished, it is the Muslims in France and around the world that will carry this burden on their heads for the times to come. Yet more eyebrows will be raised when they say their name aloud. Did the perpetrators not worry about the bad reputation that they bring to their religion around the world - the same religion under whose cover and for whose 'protection' they conduct these killings? Do they not worry about the misery of their fellow 'brothers' that inevitably follows these attacks? Clearly not and it leads us to wonder what the whole point of the violence was anyway.

If the point was to save Islam and bring it respect, the aftermath is always quite the opposite. Muslims around the world are labelled terrorists and leading lives becomes a little more harder for them. No one likes labels and tags. Nobody wants to be judged. But what do perpetrators of violence expect at the end of their heists? Do they 'avenge' the Prophet? Is the Prophet so weak and helpless that his teachings won't survive without these terrorists picking up their guns? The term 'terrorist' is defined as anyone who indulges in any act of violence and views himself as the victim of a historical wrong. So anyone who commits homicide in the name of religion becomes a terrorist. They do not 'avenge' anyone by such acts, they only endanger their own lives in the process and make the lives of other people like them around the world more miserable. Is this logic too hard to see? Is it too complicated to understand? Is tolerance such a bad virtue that it absolutely has to be shunned for anything to stand? Despite the many reasons that these terrorists give for their actions, at the end of the day, there is no rational justification for their acts.

I started this opinion piece by saying that the flourish of journalism cannot be curbed. It thrives in the multitude of artistic freedom of expression, punctuated by the desire to tell real stories without prejudice. Religion is something similar. Its existence has to be taken with a pinch of salt. There will always be elements who translate religion to suit their needs. They will exploit it and mangle it to propagate their capricious views. They hide in the vein of religion, without realizing that they are the cancer that plagues the body. They will pick up the gun and shoot people over silly cartoons. They shall not laugh at themselves and their gods. And they will slaughter anyone who chooses to do so. They will not be fair and they will not be objective. They will also continue to make the lives of their fellow brothers around the globe difficult with their actions. History is full of people who have acted irrationally. Irrationality is in fact the chief cause behind history being written. Someone's belief in their superiority and someone's inherent belief in their inferiority, someone believing that something needs to be avenged and someone else believing that they have been slighted. Some slighting others and some others mocking the slighted. Some sane ones who ask everyone to stop the irrationality. That is the order of the world. And we continue to live in such an imperfect world.

"One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too."
-Friedrich Neitzsche

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