Thursday, 3 November 2016

India, Pakistan and everything in between



While in most Salon sessions, we try and probe identities that people wear both by choice and as inheritance, this one was different.

In two aspects. Firstly, we have never had such a range, from Kashmiris from both sides of the religion divide, to citizens from both sides of the border. It was also different in that a few of these identities were linked with personal experiences of persecution, grief & anger.

It was a great conversation. Writing about it has proved difficult though. It is a complex subject, that I am not the best qualified to hold forth on, and a sensitive one, hot even as we speak. So let me try and reproduce what happened that evening, with minimal garnish*.

Our participants were as follows:
Neha, Pratibha and Babar, all originally from Kashmir, now living in Mumbai; the first two Hindus, whose families left Kashmir around 1989-1990 and Babar, a Muslim, who also left the valley a decade ago in pursuit of education and a better life, while his parents still live there. Now I apologize to these wonderful people, who so readily agreed to be part of this session, for using such a unidimensional lens based on demography when I know there are many other ways to describe them, ways they have earned rather than be unwilling objects of.
I will say this about them that all three came across as open-minded individuals, who even while narrating their worst experiences, were in control of their emotions enough to be able to actively listen and absorb. At the same time, they didn’t shy away from speaking their minds on some of the pricklier topics – voicing sentiments that were different from those of the room and views that were diametrically opposite to those of other individuals. This was the nature of the beast though, in that dissimilar opinions were bound to emerge and I am just glad, that everyone had the emotional maturity to deal with a contrasting perspective.
Especially for Neha and Pratibha, whose anger and grief were palpable, it was a valiant effort, whereas in Babar, I saw somebody who had risen above his personal grief and an individualist agenda and was now keen to engage towards a solution. A rare group, and I wonder, if they can do it, why can’t the rest of us?
Then there was Ali from Pakistan, now living in Australia, a very articulate and well-informed person. He displayed an unusual impartiality, was truthful yet solution-oriented, as well as extremely patient; some of the questions we posed to him would have been disconcerting to most people.
Aksh, Karan and Kanishka made up the Indian citizenry brigade with widely differing views among them. I have ‘Facebook’ known Kanishka for ages now, and his views are a treat, stimulating & uncomfortable, the best kind. He cares deeply about this conflict, and has a well-thought-out contra-majoritarian opinion on it. While some of his views on Facebook might seem hopelessly unrealistic, I found out during this session that what he is trying to do is to create a new norm, believing that if a gradual shift happens wherein people meet him and others of a similar view, even half-way, progress would have been achieved.
Karan was the only person in the room I knew from before, apart from Ankit of course. I have known him to be an objective person, yet one entirely in-line with a patriotically-charged ideology; that’s a great mix to have as an individual, it was even more significant in the context of our session. He was all this and more, absolutely intrepid during the conversation, willing to challenge his own ideology, a sign of strength in my book.
That brings me to Aksh, I had invited him by virtue of him being a passionate, well informed Indian, putting country above all else. He did not disappoint, making pertinent points, challenging the others’ where required. Every society needs this blend, however, it also needs people with strong views of their own to be able and willing to see the others’, to be willing to change their outlook a tad, when faced with a truth different from their own. I think Aksh did see a little bit of an alternate reality during our conversation.  
Bringing up the rear, were Ankit and myself. I would like to consider myself as neutral, exploratory, but with a very strong aversion to conflict, and as that I will always be in favor of swallowing the bitter pill if it leads to resolution. Ankit is similar, except swayed much less by emotion, much more by practicality, and is often seen playing the devil’s advocate J

So here we were. In my mind, and as is the Ze Salon raison d’etre, the purpose wasn’t to seek solutions, but to understand another perspective. It is another matter that I strongly believe that solutions come through such understanding.

We spoke about a wide variety of themes, from light-hearted ones such as the things we liked and didn’t about our countries, to intensely personal ones like why the subject at hand was important to each one of us. This second one is where a lot of the stories emerged, personal tales of persecution and frustration. Some we had known about as a collective, but a lot of it was unfamiliar.
The Kashmiri pundit saga is an example of both of the above for me. While we know the outlines, we treat it casually, too casually. Growing up, I was more engaged with the holocaust, than something that came to pass in my own backyard. It is amazing to me how little we speak of it, how little is known about it, and how these people walk around having rebuilt their lives, survivors of a heinous act of war that happened in our own lifetimes.
And coming back to why India-Pakistan is relevant to all of us, while we can never understand fully the pain of the victims, on either side, each of us has a right, indeed an obligation, to be concerned, enraged and engaged. We live in an interconnected world today, with people and war, both having traveled out of their traditional bastions. None of us are exempt.
Some of the ‘impersonal’ reasons as to why a resolution was imperative, ranged from the sheer distraction that such a long running conflict posed to development and welfare, to the tragic waste of lives over a struggle nobody could anymore stake a righteous claim to.

Then there were a few controversial discussions.
One of them was India’s stance on the ownership of Kashmir. While there were people in the room who believed in the undeniability of it, there were people, both Kashmiris and non-Kashmiri who challenged it.
What also came up was India’s cartographic insistence on showing PoK as a part of itself, which some believed to be needlessly provocative and delusional.  
While there is no easy answer, I think it’s worth acknowledging that there is a question.

Another contentious subject was the treatment of Kashmiris by India. And here, we had Babar’s story, who having grown up in Srinagar, spoke about how as a boy the face of India for him was the Army, an association that was less than pleasant for him. Now, we would have to be delusional to believe that the Army is an entirely benign presence in Kashmir, and his account of a life spent under its watch, where one could get pulled & detained at what might have seemed like whim, corroborated it. While a lot of us might feel resolute about Kashmir belonging to India, we should also ask ourselves if Kashmiris today are treated as Indians. We cry foul on being excessively subjected to demographic profiling in foreign countries, rightly so, however, here is a population that has spent an age experiencing a disrespect that’s more harmful in its being so everyday.
In spite of this situation, he revealed that a majority of the Kashmiris, if put to vote, would want to be with India, due to the sheer number of opportunities for progress India offers. He also spoke about his own feelings towards India having transformed in the time he has spent out of Kashmir, having seen so many facets of the country, and what it stands for, all this largely inaccessible to youth living in Kashmir.

There was talk of possible solutions.
Plebiscite was, of course, mentioned, as were some of the challenges in executing it.
One of those being the stake of the Kashmiri Hindus as a minority in the state, as potentially being at receiving of an unfair referendum. Another, which wasn’t discussed in this conversation, but came up as part of another I was in recently, is the geographical security a mountainous border region bestows. If we were to lose Kashmir as an outcome of this referendum, it might pose grave geopolitical risks.
The other solution discussed was demilitarization or a gradual reduction of it. A lot of the possible options here were proposed by Kanishka. The gist of it is a rehabilitation effort that includes demilitarization, development efforts for Kashmiri youth and an open communication channel for the people to see India as the benign power it wishes itself to be seen as.
I want to add here that solving for the frustrations of the Kashmiri people may not be a holistic solution to the Kashmir issue, in that there are not just unhappy locals at the root of it, but an organized effort that rides on these voices to destabilize the region. Any solution of this nature will have to be complex, staggered, long-term with backing from governments & people.
It is not easy, but what other choice is there? Who does this stalemate benefit? Nobody, including the Army. To quote someone I spoke recently with, half the problem in Kashmir is that all parties believe they alone are victims, case in point – the attitude towards the Army. Being stationed in Kashmir can’t be something to celebrate about.   

There were a few questions raised on article 370 and how it prevents private investment, thus blocking the road to development. There was a point on the highly militarized Pakistani state never allowing the conflict to die down due to the power it derived from it. Alternately, Ali spoke about how the civilian government today is beginning to assert itself over the military, about civil society getting more aware.  

It was an extraordinary evening, emotionally draining though satisfying. I wish I had been able to get together even wider a set of perspectives, say those of the Army, policy experts, historians. Nevertheless, this conversation is merely one of the many that need to happen or are already happening; but I do think it served a purpose.
I know a lot of those who read this article may not agree with large parts of it, but agreement is reached over time. Right now all I am looking for is the possibility of different voices to co-exist and inform one other.

*  the garnish was significant. Since you have taken the trouble to read the entire piece, my apologies on that count

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Ze Salon #3: Reservations

Ze Salon #3 was a step change conversation in our community, and not just because of the controversial topic we chose. For the first time, we introduced our (now regular) one-topic-chosen-through-a-poll format. We had been rolling out polls on Facebook around many topics (one a week), and we gauged that "reservations" is one of the more contentious topics garnering the most number of votes, and the most number of divergent opinions at that. Also, for the first time, we had a participant joining in through Skype.

That Saturday evening, ten of us got together (one virtually over Skype), to discuss the what, why, how of reservation in the Indian context, specific to education. We were a motley mix of people for and against the topic, armed with strong opinions and facts, to put across our points as emphatically as we could. 

On the anti-reservation side, one strong argument was around how reservation should strictly be based on economic inequalities and not social ones as, today, the social reservation system is really only used by second and third generation beneficiaries, whose parents and grand parents have already come up in life through reservation - the classic creamy layer case. The second overarching argument was about how the so-called forward castes have been marginalised and become minorities over the past 60+ years because of reservation favoring all other castes.

The for-reservation arguments were equally strong, if not stronger. "How do a few years of reservation make up for thousands of years of caste-based discrimination?" was a point that made us all halt and ponder. "Untouchability" is a key theme in many rural areas still, where there are water wells demarcated for upper castes and lower castes, where upper caste students sit on benches in class as the lower caste sit on the side on mats, or on bare ground. Caste-based killing is still rampant, and many many people categorized in the lower castes are yet to see the light of day as far as education is concerned. When basic rights such as equal opportunity to food, water and education are denied, we as a society are accountable to make this country a better place. 

This isn't a topic where minds can get transformed over a couple of hours of discussion, because this is a deep rooted issue all of us have grown up with and faced one way or the other. However, the group was in agreement that our country is not in a position to do away with the concept itself, only that much better execution is required to ensure the benefits reach far and wide, those nooks and corners that are still denied by basic rights of equality and justice.

One of the group members put it very aptly - This discussion has not changed my perspective or opinion on reservation completely. However, the next time I do think about the subject, I will halt and weigh both sides before jumping to conclusion, because this is one contentious topic that has no clear blacks and whites, but greys all around. 

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Ze Salon #4: Nationalism


Nationalism is the flavor of the season, food for thought for some and indeed, bread & butter for others. We, of course, wanted to poke & provoke in order to understand better.

The first element of controversy turned out to be the poll. Now, Nationalism is such a finely nuanced feeling that it is almost impossible to capture what everyone feels in three tight sentences. We tried, however, and received some flak for making the flag-worshiping kind of Nationalism sound like remnants of a bygone era and for making folk on the other end sound pretentious and irrelevant to the argument. I don't know what it says though when half of the votes come to the above mentioned option ze pretendre. I hope good things.

So, we curated our guest list as always. We created an equal mix of die-hard patriots and what you could crudely call the remaining, containing myriad shades of the non-nationalist, ranging from the left-of-center rational & balanced individualists to the spacey-sounding world-without-borders John Lennon reincarnates (yours truly being one of these). Even the patriots had some interesting variety, we later found out, from the intuitive patriot who'd probably never considered not being one, to the rationalist patriot who'd probably arrived at some of his conclusions through introspection. It was all quite fascinating. We intentionally included someone who had an intimate knowledge of the life of an Indian Muslim, and unintentionally ended up with a psychologist in our delighted midst. Our endeavor had been to also get an erstwhile government employee with a keen eye for insight as well as what we deemed to be a dyed-in-the-wool flag-carrying (pun intended) rationalist liberal, a Bong, no less. These two were to join on Skype, as our last session on Skype had gone so well, however this one ended up being a non-starter as the duo in question could not make it at the last minute.

Nevertheless (and really we were quite a handful) discussion ensued.

From the question of the national anthem being mandatory, to separatism, different facets kept tumbling out in quick succession. While we studiously tried to avoid the JNU issue for sometime, it did come up and become central in that it provided a smorgasbord of angles to lead off on - from freedom of speech to challenging supreme court judgements.

And it was a fantastic discussion! With passion coursing through the room, we lost track of all things temporal. One of the things we want to do with Ze Salon, is to ensure it challenges people wrt the issues they feel strongly about, where it is not just a hypothetical intellectual debate but one that compels you to rethink your value-system, indeed your identity.

Even for this debate, one of the key answers for me lie in how we define our identity - through a set of facts you have no control over but which are the only unshake-able, unchangeable parts of you - your birth identity, OR through what you've evolved to be in this lifetime - your earned identity.

Of course, there are other things to ponder about - the question of control, of security, of politics. And we touched upon many of these as the evening progressed.

So while we figure out how to get to you a good gist of these perspectives through podcasts (don't hesitate ye readers in giving us suggestions), we wanted to give our well-wishers a glimpse of what we have been up to at Ze Salon; hence this post.

And we have to say, we've been fortunate enough to garner quite a few well-wishers along the way. Sometimes we can't believe the level of interest in this eccentric little initiative of ours, who would have thought :) Highly encouraging, we promise to make it bigger & better.

P.S: A couple of days after our session, we got this brilliant message from one of our Saloners - Amit Pai, and this is what he had to say: Hi People. Day before yesterday we had a good discussion on Nationalism and today i read about Asaduddin Owaisi daring Mr Mohan Bhagwat that he won't say Bharat Mata ki Jai even with a Knife on his throat. If this happened before 12th March perhaps i would have reacted differently to this news but after hearing totally different perspective i am now able to think and understand clearly about Owaisi remarks and why certain section of people are reacting in an absurd way over it. I think that is goal of Ze Salon to find answers to random thoughts in our mind which are latent and we normally ignore. Again Thanks For inviting.

This is the stuff that makes us go on :)


Saturday, 23 January 2016

And Ze Salon meets again

The salon convenes: 19th December 2015
The theme was discussion, the agenda conversation. As I walked into the Salon, 7 others were present already. We were a diverse and large group of 8 people that met. Equally represented by both genders, professionally ranging from the corporate to entrepreneurial, covering marketing, strategy and finance in between.

The ice breaker
"What worked well for you in 2015?" was the question thrown open to the group in an attempt to break the ice. I found the responses interesting, and very varied - joys derived from a spousal relationship, happiness in becoming a parent and focusing with single minded devotion on that new entrant into their lives, improving as a person and identifying what's important to oneself, volunteering to teach a child and learning from that child how intelligent and curious kids are, making new friends. It was interesting to see how all of us placed importance on things that cannot really be quantified or bought, joys that need to be experienced and internalised.

Business of politics
We got down to serious business, what the salon called the 'medium' topic, in between drinks and pizzas. "Do you think this government is performing to your expectations. If not, what will you do better if you were the PM?"
I was thrown off a bit by the suddenness of the question, because it isn't everyday that I think about becoming the PM and doing something for the country. But, really, as citizens who do take a keen interest in our nation's welfare, we all had dreams to share with each other.
We were all aligned on the fact that there have been disappointments with the performance of the government, after all the hoopla about Achche din and promises on development.
Each of us had our pet topics that we believed the government should take accountability for and focus on - infrastructure, education, environment, foreign policy being a few.
On foreign policy primarily, one group member did feel that there was a lot that could be explored on the trade / business front with Pakistan, which might be a long term fix to the troubles we face on the border.
I mentioned the importance of calling out focus areas so that we as citizens know where the Government's priorities lie - just like a CEO of a corporation, there would be 2-3 things they would focus on and call out to the nation instead of dabbling with everything ranging from foreign trips to Swachch Bharat to GST to development.
How little and one sided is communication today? Is the unrest and the unhappiness over every day things like beef bans, lynchings, and hate speeches questioning our core proposition on secularism due to lack of communication? As PM, I would perhaps communicate more and give comfort to my people that things haven't changed, that we are still a country committed to the principles we started out with when our constitution was drafted. That was yet another thought that came across.
It is definitely difficult to reach a conclusion on topics like these, but I do believe I came out of the discussion much the wiser, about my fellow countrymen and what we believe is right.

The God delusion. Or acceptance?
The next topic the salon introduced amidst us is what was termed "heavy" - our thoughts on God and our beliefs in an external entity. God is personal, prayer even more so. But, I was intrigued by the varied responses.
For all, the concept of God had started as one that we were forced, bribed or coerced into by our parents at an early stage. However, with age and maturity, our thoughts have become more erudite, our beliefs more discerning, our choices clearer. Many did strongly subscribe to the idea of God, only the form and shape have a difference. There seemed to be an underlying thought that God is an entity we are answerable to, and that we can ask things of.
While jokingly mentioned, the thought was serious - that those who pray to God consider God as an entity that gives when asked. It is really not a meet and greet and socialise and be thankful for relationship.
While the theists, many of them, still follow rituals if not out of complete belief but at least to keep their families happy, the atheists' point of view was driven by multiple factors - the very fact that God and religion have taken us apart more than brought us together, the constant reminder that science and nature are more reasons than an unknown God for our existence, conscience and the inner soul are more God than an external form of God.
We could have gone on and on, but the clock was striking the midnight hour and the day had to be called to an end, albeit with the hope of renewing the topic and the session soon.


Overall, it was a food for the soul evening for me, and I look forward to many more of these events, with some stimulating conversation, and some new perspectives that will widen my own view of the world.

- Kavitha.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The First Ze Salon


This is a guest post, written by Amrita, one of our first patrons :)

Btw, do vote for our poll (also on Facebook) to decide what gets discussed at the next Salon and generally, to have some fun thinking about something perhaps a little unusual.
Link: To Baby Or Not To Baby

Team Ze Salon.

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We often get so comfortable in our situations and within our friend circles, that we shut ourselves from several other realities and stimulations that this world offers. We somewhere along the way, also lose out on our ability to empathise with people.

Having been stuck with this feeling for some time, I jumped onto the opportunity to join the Ze Salon group – a place where people from various walks meet & talk about stuff that interests them.

The first session that I attended was incredible! The format was simple, we were to share our views on the topics, which were selected by the organiser. The intensity of the topics moved from light to medium to heavy, as the evening progressed. We weren't given the topics beforehand which ensured that we were spontaneous and honest with our views.

The first question not only helped break the ice but also compelled me to think of my life creatively. The question was- "If your life were to be a movie, what would it be about?" A simple question which forced me to think of what that singular string in my life is, which ties together all the pearls that I hold so dearly.

We all answered passionately, honestly; letting a little window of our lives open for others to peep into. It was wonderful! We could see each other for who we were, without any expectations or judgements.

Rest of the evening, we discussed about stereotyping, movies, terrorism and religion. There were no rights or wrongs but a lot of stimulating thoughts and opinions.

I felt invigorated baring my feelings and thoughts in front of people I hardly knew. I felt this oneness - a feeling that we are in it together which enabled me to speak out my mind without any inhibitions.

It was an evening of good conversation with some good wine and beautiful people. Looking forward to many such sessions at Ze Salon!


- Amrita.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Why Ze Salon?


Let's begin at the beginning. Why this endeavor, why 'Ze Salon', why 'Salon' and most importantly, why 'Ze'?

Like with all things in life, this didn't come to me overnight. A host of things had to happen - movies, books, Ted talks, conversations and friends - for me to become me.

And this me realized that while we go buzzing from place to place, armed with to-do lists and communication gadgets of every size and shape, the moments we enjoy the most, feel our most creative are the ones when we actually Converse.

Conversation - that most uniquely human of all activities, that which let's us harness the wisdom of centuries past, for what are books if not extended conversations, that let's us give passage to our half formed ideas and create tangible shape out of them, that brings us one crucial step closer to understanding a completely different point of view, or that which simply let's us vent, let off steam, feeling more able to apply ourselves thereafter to our chosen pursuits.

I would go as far as to say that conversation - Inspires. Every conversation holds a kernel that has the potential to expand one's mind, bring in a new perspective, and in its best form, lead to a solution that can change the course of one's life.

So, Ze Salon is all about Conversation. About anything and everything, from Bollywood to Bertrand Russel, from Pet Peeves to Politics, from Snoop Dogg to Spirituality.

Now why the name Ze Salon? Well, a salon is a living room, or a reception room and as that, quite ordinary but I remember coming across the magical concept behind it for the first time in the movie 'Midnight in Paris'; in that film it is shown as the focal point, a regular gathering for authors, painters and other interesting folk. The creativity and the drama that would have filled the air with people such as Hemingway, Picasso, G. Stein, Fitzgerald and the like gathering for bakchodi, shorts my imagination.

But then I think that we are the thinkers & creators of our time in a world that has succeeded in the democratization of ideation and that, today, we are all potential innovators.

Ze Salon is then an ambitious attempt at creating a shadow of that Salon, a meeting place for people who want to understand, learn or even create, where ideas are currency and conversation the medium.

And why Ze? Just.

The team comprises myself and Kavitha, with inputs from our loving and supportive husbands, who frankly don't have a choice.

Many more to come,
Shreya,
On behalf of Team Ze Salon.