Thursday, 22 October 2009

India Coming Out?

Hi folks! I'm going to cheat a little bit this week and instead of writing something new, I'm going to share something I wrote for the Argosy (our student newspaper) this week, instead. The Argosy is a fantastic publication that I look forward to every week. Sometimes the writing is poor, sometimes the stories are weak, but we at Mt A love it regardless. And this week I get to be part of it. For all of my Mt A readers, chances are you skipped my section and now you can't avoid it. And for all you non-Mt A folk, you get a sweet article! So here it is:

Last week Canada, the US, and a number of European countries celebrated ‘Coming Out Week’. Catalyst – Mt A’s LGBT alliance on campus – invited the university community to participate in the celebrations and discussions surrounding LGBT issues. Having grown up in India – a strongly heteronormative society – the open expression and discussion of LGBT issues is not something I’ve seen often. As a nation India is still wrestling with these issues and only recently have people begun to speak up and speak out against the archaic laws and policies the Indian Penal Code outlines.

The widespread discomfort surrounding these issues is not exclusive to LGBT issues; talking openly about sex and sexuality in any context is enough to mortify the average Indian. This societal awkwardness is apparent at the level of both general society and the government. All of this seems rather ironic given that India is home to the ancient traditions of the Kama Sutra and Tantra, but things are changing for the better.

In 1996, Indian-born Canadian film director and screenwriter Deepa Mehta, released Fire, the first film in her Elements trilogy (the film was not released in India until 1998). Fire is set in India and was the first Indian film to explicitly depict homosexual relations. Its release in India was met with wide-spread and often violent protests by right-wing Hindu groups, though this isn’t to say that conservative Hindus are the only people in India opposed to open expression of (homo)sexuality. Forcing the issue into the public eye, Deepa Mehta spurred a wider debate around homosexuality and freedom of speech in the country.

Barkha Dutt, an award winning journalist for one of India’s leading news channels, NDTV, furthered the LGBT discourse in India by addressing LGBT issues, sexuality, and intolerance on her weekly audience-driven show We the People. Dutt and her colleagues in Indian journalism are finally bringing these issues out into the open and challenging the nation’s outdated societal norms and taboos.

Drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1861, the Indian Penal Cold (IPC) is a powerful piece of legislation, a code to which all subjects of the British Empire in India (those of both Indian and British origin) would be held accountable. Notable within this code is Section 377 – an archaic clause that criminalises sexual activity deemed to be “against the order of nature,” a crime punishable at the very least by a substantial fine or at worst by life imprisonment. Nearly 150 years after its inception, the law has finally been challenged. The issue was first brought to the High Court in 2001 in a public interest litigation demanding the legalisation of consensual homosexual intercourse, and in a surprisingly short eight years, it has made it through the tangle of Indian bureaucracy. In its historic decision on July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court amended Section 377 of the IPC so as to decriminalise homosexual activity among consenting adults. A transcript of the 105-page judgement is available online via the District Courts of India Judgement Information System. The judgement reads,

“If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of 'inclusiveness' … Those perceived by the majority as “deviants' or 'different' are not on that score excluded or ostracised.

In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the satutory criminal law to be held captive by populat misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is the antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual."

The battle isn’t over yet. The amendment has been passed in the High Court but it will be appealed to Supreme Court and has already met with huge opposition from a range of political groups, including the Ministry of Home Affairs and a far-right political party, the Shiv Sena. The fact that the amendment passed through the High Court at all is a sign, however, that the Indian psyche is moving into an era of enlightenment and freethinking. People of our generation in India will soon begin to establish groups like Catalyst and the thousands of others like it and they will continue to challenge our government and our society to broaden its mind. Sixty-two years after Independence, the decision made by the Delhi High Court was one of many steps signaling the beginning of a new period in India’s growth and it bodes well for India as an emerging force in the global arena.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Getting Back Into It

It's been close to three months since I last blogged. Things started to happen and I just didn't find the time. I'm using this blog as a segue way into blogging regularly again. But here's a bit of a summary of all that's happened since my last post.

When I last wrote my family was soon to head out on a epic trip all across India. We were first in a city called Ahmednagar for a week running a field trip for a group of American high school students. The work was based in an organisation called Snehalaya which works with people affected with AIDS/HIV. This includes sex workers, children of sex workers, and children orphaned by AIDS. The trip was dedicated to learning about AIDS/HIV in a biological context as well as a social context so we had classroom-based discussions about the disease as well as visits to NGOs, brothels, and social workers. The trip was in parts shocking and heartbreaking, but it was also wonderful to see the kind of work that is going into this area and the immense strength that many of the women and children showed despite the huge odds they're up against.

From Ahmednagar we traveled on to New Delhi to meet a second group of students. This trip took us from Delhi to Dhar
amsala. In 1959 when the Tibetan people were forced to flee Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion, India gave them refuge and allowed them to settle in Dharamsala and establish their Government in Exile there in 1960. Today that is where the Dalai Lama has his residence and is essentially the home of the Tibetan people in exile. Dharamsala is known as "Little Lhasa", after the name of the capital city in Tibet. We spent some days in Dharamsala exploring Tibetan culture, medicine, language, and Tibetan Buddhism. We headed back to Delhi via another town called Dalhousie and ended the academic portion of the trip. We were in Delhi for a short time and then drove to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We were in Agra for a day and before returning to Delhi. My family stayed in Delhi a few days after the students flew out and then got the train back to Kodai. That took almost an entire month and by the time we were back, it was August 17th and I was leaving for Sackville in two weeks. On the left is map of where my travels took me.

I spent the my last two weeks meeting all the people I needed to say bye to, doing all the last-minute shopping I needed, and organising my things.

I flew out of Chennai on the 5th of September at 1:00 am. I flew Chennai-Frankfurt-Montreal-Halifax and it took me over 24 hours. I arrived in Halifax at 4:00 pm on the 5th. I got a shuttle bus from the airport to the city and checked in at a hostel on Gottigen St - the sketchiest part of Halifax, as far as I'd been told. I had a sleepless night because I was terrified I wasn't going to wake up to get my cab at 6:30 to the bus terminal and that I would miss my bus. It turns out that everything went fine and I was in Sackville at 10:30 am on the 6th morning and Nathan and Victoria were waiting for me with Vic's car. I was thrilled to be back in Sackville. I missed it very much this summer.

Rhiana, Cate and Noah were waiting for me when I got to our apartment with Nathan and from then on, it was just like being home. That was Sunday and school started on Tuesday. I just about managed to get unpacked by Monday night and being back in classes so soon after arriving was a bit of a shock. This semester definitely started at an insane pace and has hardly let up since it started, but I'm generally enjoying the classes I'm taking and most of my profs are great.

Our apartment situation is also going incredibly well. Nathan, Rhiana, Noah, Cate and I are good friends and living together is very easy. It's been everything and more than I hoped it would be and it turns out that my apprehension was completely unwarranted.

I'm part of a number of student groups this semester and they're all keeping me fairly busy. I'm running SAN - the Society of All Nations, and I'm part of EcoAction and Unicef Mt A. It's a really interesting range of activities because they're all very different and I get to work with completely different groups of students on completely different projects. It's going to be a lot of fun, if a bit hectic.

I was on a field trip on the weekend of the 2nd of October to St Andrews, a town right on the border of New Brunswick and Maine in the US. The trip was for my Marine Biology class and we were studying intertidal zones and the plants and invertebrate animals found there. The trip was a lot of fun and great experience in data collection in the field. We were up at 5:00 am one morning so that we could be down on the beach at 6:00. We were out sampling for about two hours and then we headed straight to the lab to begin keying out and identifying our samples and recording all our data. We were on the beach again for the second low tide that evening and again, once we were done, we went straight to the lab to identify our samples and record our data. We ended the night by taking our aquarium of creatures back down to the beach near our lab and releasing them back into the ocean. It was a great experience and I got to see all kinds of neat stuff like starfish, sea urchins, sponges, sea anemones, crabs, mussels, barnacles, limpets, little shrimp-like creatures, a variety of gross worms, and one group saw a nudibranch but I (heartbreakingly) didn't manage to find one myself. It was a great reminder of why I love biology so much.

This weekend is Thanksgiving and Nathan and I drove to PEI with our friend Stephen to spend the weekend with him and his family. It was one of the most relaxing weekends I've had in a long time and it was absolutely lovely. I've been to PEI before but I didn't really get to see much of the island so it was great having Stephen to show us around since he grew up in PEI and gave us an insider's view of Charlottetown. The first night we wandered around the downtown area and looked a all the great old buildings, bought books at a used book store, had dinner at a great placed followed by drinks at this sweet Scotch lounge. We ended the night with a long walk on the boardwalk on the bay. We spent the next day trying to get work done and had a really nice Thanksgiving dinner. Yesterday we drove out to the beach and wandered around and then went back into town. We walked around Province House with Stephen giving us the grand tour, got ice cream at 'Cows' which is famous in PEI, and then drove around the downtown a bit. We left PEI at around 6:00 and we were back in Sackville by 7:30.

Today is Thanksgiving proper and we're having a massive potluck this evening. Nathan's in the process of basting the turkey, Rhiana made pumpkin cheese cake, Cate's making chicken pot pie, and Noah and I'll be doing veggies and mashed potatoes later. We have about 14 people who we're expecting over and we'll probably get a few other people who show up and it's going to be great.

And that's essentially all that's happened to me since I last wrote. I should be writing more often from now on. Happy Thanksgiving, folks! I'll check in again soon.