Much Ado About Theresa's Sari

Theresa May in a sari Recently, pictures of British Prime Minister Theresa May wearing a sari have been doing the rounds on social media, with captions on the lines of “New British PM’s first day in office and she chose to wear an Indian sari. Many Indians don’t do so. Salute to new lady PM of Britain.” This is partly a hoax. I am not sure what people get by initiating false information. Others, who find the posts aligning with their thinking cannot be blamed for sharing the posts, but why do people initiate lies in the first place? Someone somewhere must have purposefully put a false caption on the picture.
A simple Google search on “Theresa May Sari” brings up a six year old news item from Daily Mail with those pictures. So, no, Theresa May did not wear a sari to her first day in office, but wore it to an Asian Women’s Awards function in 2010, which she attended in her capacity as British Home Secretary.
You go through the comments on such posts and find people (mostly men) expressing pride in the fact that May “wore a sari to work”, and lament why Indian women no longer do so. “Sari has always been the standard dress for women in homes and workplace. It has a unique grace about itself and commands instant respect from colleagues and strangers alike. The so called modern dress for women lacks in grace. It is revealing, inviting unwanted attention. It is inconsistent with the seriousness of the business of the workplace.”, said a very close and dear friend. This prompted me to pick up my keyboard and write this blog post, in an effort to put my opinion out there and gather some feedback. Following are the points I want to make.
1. Of course it is hard to get over our patriarchal mindsets, but it is not men’s business to decide what women should prefer to wear. It is up to women to decide what they feel comfortable with and what suits them better. If we respect them less for not wearing a sari, the problem is with us, not with them.
2. Is a sari an ideal dress for the workplace? Now whether it is Oprah wearing a sari for her show or Theresa May dressing up for a function, I’m sure they need an assistant who coaches them to dress up for the occasion, or at least a tutorial in wearing a sari. I have seen even women in our households taking help from other women to make sure the sari is properly worn, the churis are well made, the pallu is correctly placed. Which other dress, other than archaic dresses like pagri or dhoti, needs such an elaborate tutorial or help, or is so much time consuming to put on? On top of that, a sari needs regular care and maintenance during the period it is worn, lest the pallu or the churis come undone or get misaligned. I think the sari is a great and very graceful dress for a formal occasion, but for the regular workplace, and even at home, you need something that is quick to put on, and easy to handle in a day’s work. A salwar kameez is much easier to wear and handle, and so are western dresses. I’m sure there are companies in the travel and hospitality industry that correctly enforce sari as a dress code, but in other workplaces, it is unduly burdensome.

3. Are western dresses more revealing than a sari? I believe any dress can be made as covering as one wants, and as revealing as one wants, and it is up to the woman wearing it to decide what she wants to do. In fact, I think a sari lends itself to more sensuous styling than some other dresses. A sari dress basically leaves your midriff and back bare, and you have to then manage to cover it with the sari, and it is up to the wearer how much to cover. Just look at the following pictures and try to get the point I am trying to make. (Theresa May’s pictures are from the same article as the one linked above.)

4. If we are so serious about keeping Indian culture alive through workplace clothing, why not start with male clothing? Why not take the lead of the netas and wear kurta pajamas or dhoti kurtas to work?
I look forward to your feedback, positive or negative.

Miscellany News

Dirty Old Man of Indian Journalism

Khushwant SinghEven though I grew up reading Khushwant Singh’s columns in the 70s and 80s, for recent years I had not read much from or about him. For a short period I wondered if he was even alive — until my last trip to India in August when I laid my hands on what may have been one of his last books – “The Company of Women”. This book was a virtual “mastram” book, and even though he kept the reader hooked with his story telling, there were no pretensions of literary class. It looked like he had either lost his mojo in his 90s or had used a ghost writer. Khushwant Singh died today at the age of 99. He will be missed, for being part of my very early English reading, if for nothing else.
Khushwant Singh was famous for writing about his love of scotch, women and gossip. However, although he wrote a lot about these things, he was never in the news for excess of these things in his personal life. If he drank a lot of scotch, he was never in the news for it. His personal life seemed more like that of a regular family man than that of a casanova that he could have been.
The Illustrated Weekly edited by Khushwant Singh in the 70s was my first real exposure to English reading. Then in 80s his column “With Malice Towards One and All” in The Hindustan Times was my regular read. His column always ended with a joke, usually sent in by a reader. I used to send him (recycled) jokes sometimes, and he published mine once. Another time he sent me a handwritten postcard with the message “Mr. Kaul, I published a similar joke already”.
I believe the first time I heard the word “gay” being used for homosexuals was through his column. He wrote something about the Indian word for gay could be “Khush”, even though it pointed to his name and that he was far from being gay.
Even though Khushwant called himself an atheist, he seemed to maintain a close connection with his Sikh religion. He wrote several books on Sikhism, never gave up his Sikh headgear, and even returned his Padma Bhushan in protest against Operation Bluestar.
Even though I haven’t read too many of Khushwant Singh’s books, the “Train to Pakistan” is a memorable one and was also made into a feature film.
Here’s a little excerpt from his column from a few years ago:

I also got a lot of hate mail. It did not upset me. However, one letter from Canada became a memento. It had the foulest Punjabi abuse accusing me of all manners of incestuous relationships. They were in Gurmukhi. Only the address was in English and very brief: “Bastard Khush-want Singh, India”.
I was most impressed by the efficiency of the Indian Postal Service in locating the address of the one and only bastard in the country.

Good bye, Khush!

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7 Myths That Need Broken for Pro-377 Indians

Read this post in Hindi

In 1861, the British created Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing homosexual behavior. A century and a half later, our attempts to get rid of this archaic law have come to a naught. Most of my friends on social networks have had something to say about the situation, and very few of them have found the Supreme Court’s decision reinstating the anti-sodomy law deplorable. Some who find the decision correct are from a generation before me, who don’t surprise me that much, but there are many who are from my generation and some from the next generation – so called millennials. I do find myself to be the lone liberal in this group of conservatives, but there is a good thing to this — the conversation has started and it will only help bring facts to life and inform people and open their eyes. At least that is what I hope. I have myself had my share of reservations about homosexuals, so I cannot fault the naysayers completely. But as I have read up and got more information about the issues involved, my opinion has evolved into full acceptance of homosexual people. I hope the Indian public and policy makers keep an open mind, get informed and rethink their opinions.
I have not had time to watch the debates on the issue on Indian TV in recent days. However, people on social networks have been complaining about media’s “outcry against the SC decision”, therefore I assume the opponents of Article 377 have got some kind of a platform there. On social networks, however, supporters of the article seem to be having a field day. Following these conversations has brought forward a number of prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions that people have about gay people. Since most of these people have a logical and scientific bent of mind, I hope for some change of hearts.
In this post, I will try to debunk 7 major myths that Indian people have about homosexuality.
1. Homosexuality causes AIDS
Yes, I have heard some people say this. But, as we all know this cannot be farther from the truth. AIDS is caused by transmission of the HIV virus which can be transmitted by many methods one of which is promiscuous unprotected sex, be it heterosexual or homosexual. Yes, anal sex (man-man or man-woman) is understood to increase the possibility of transmission of the virus. Hence among AIDS victims, MSM are in a greater percentage. However, if a homosexual couple is healthy and committed to each other, and has no exposure to the virus, there is no reason for their sex acts to cause or spread AIDS. So, if your worry is spread of AIDS, be an opponent of unprotected promiscuous sex, not of homosexuality itself. Encourage commitments in same sex relationships, not their criminalization.
2. Homosexuality is a mental illness
Yes, people claiming to be psychologists have told me that. However, American Psychiatry Association (APA) says it isn’t so. Now this association is not some club of western culture, but a group of educated physicians who have reached this conclusion after detailed research and studies. Forty years ago APA removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in their DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered a reference standard by psychiatrists and psychologists the world over). If you haven’t removed it from your list, it may be time to do so now. Even Indian Psychiatry Association has some interesting articles on the issue on their website, all indicating the same thing – that homosexuality is not a disease and nobody becomes gay of their free will. Who in the world would want to be a social outcast on purpose?
3. Homosexuality is unnatural
OK, what do you mean by unnatural? Something not happening in nature, or not intended by God? If you believe in God, then possibly this is how God made them (homosexual people), therefore who are we to judge them and not accept them as part of the society? There are 1500 species in nature who commit homosexual acts. If your argument is that sex between same gender does not produce children, then tell me what is the prime purpose of sex — expression of mutual love, enjoyment, or procreation? Out of all the sexual acts you have committed, how many have been with the purpose of procreation? Moreover, sex is not all that relationships are based on. Just like us, homosexual couples also have multidimensional relationships and sex is just one of those dimensions. If you don’t believe in God, then I expect you would not have such prejudices in the first place. If you do, I would like to hear from you in the comments box below.
4. Homosexuality is a Western malaise, and against our culture
If you ask me, I’d say it is the Article 377 that is a Western malaise, not homosexuality. This law was created by the British in 1861, and its inspiration must have been the Western prejudices not Indian culture. Now the British have left, but left us with their laws. Back in Britain they have even legalized gay marriage, but we are still wedded to their laws. In Hinduism, homosexuality is not as explicitly condemned as it is in Islam and Christianity. Hindu mythology has characters like Ardhanarishvara and Shikhandi. Khajuraho and other ancient temples are full of sculptures depicting homosexuality (see this page). What I want to say is that in ancient India many aspects of male-female sexuality were possible. On the other hand, in some Muslim countries, it is a crime even to talk about homosexuality. Even in Western countries, while gays are gaining more acceptance, custodians of “culture” are crying foul. So, whom do we want to emulate in India? Or do we want to keep our laws secular and not inspired by religious dogma? It is not a matter of aping the West, as some make it out to be. It is a matter of doing the right thing. Now if you would rather talk about Indian culture, let us talk about the practice of Sati, untouchability, casteism, etc. Are we not trying to get rid of all these evils? Then why not get rid of our prejudices against homosexuals too?
5. The number of homosexuals is negligible
This argument is used to justify that homosexuals do not need specific laws to protect their interests. This argument is faulty on many levels. Will you make laws discriminating against people who are blind, deaf, or left-handed if their numbers are small? Secondly, their numbers seems low particularly because they have to keep themselves hidden to escape social ridicule. Granted their numbers are much much smaller than those of heterosexuals, but they are not as negligible as Ahmedinejad claimed to be in Iran. In your school, in your office, in the train you ride, you may have come across people who are living double lives because they cannot come out. OK, let’s leave homosexuals aside and talk about hijras. Why does our society force them to live secluded lives and almost beg for their survival? Why can they not work in offices, schools? Are they responsible for their plight? Nobody wants to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender of their free will, nor can they change their sexual identity even if they wished to. Try to be in their shoes — what if you or I were in their place?
6. Same sex marriage reduces the sanctity of marriage
Well, this argument is not that common yet in India, because we are still stuck in criminalization of homosexual relationships. Same sex marriage is still a far cry from reality. However, as same sex marriage becomes more acceptable in the West, Christian fundamentalists keep complaining that this is changing the definition of marriage. Another faulty argument. It is not changing the definition of marriage for you. You can still marry whom you want and nobody is forcing gay marriage on you. But if gays are getting married to each other, how is that impacting you? How does someone else getting his right make the rights you have lesser? If you force a gay person into matrimony with a straight person, two lives will be ruined. In India, we may have countless such couples. So, we have no right to snatch others’ rights, particularly when their rights do not harm us.
7. If you allow homosexuality, what is next – sex with animals?
Lots of people talk about the “slippery slope” to incest and bestiality. But there is no logical reason to be afraid of that. First of all, advocates of rights for homosexuals talk about consensual sex, which is not possible in case of bestiality. Either way, laws should only concern themselves with rapes and forcible sexual encounters, and not define who one can have consensual sex with. On the other hand, if religious reasons are used to guide our laws, many other laws infringing on our personal freedom can be made.

Anyway, there is no end to arguments and counter-arguments. What I am trying to say is that people who are against rights for homosexuals are on the wrong side of time. Future generations will fight these laws and sooner or later these draconian laws will end, just as Sati practice and untouchability ended. Also pay attention to the fact that the Supreme Court has not basically justified the law, but has said that the law needs to be changed by legislation. This is technically correct, but there is not much hope from the Parliament here. The highest court in the land has lost an opportunity to correct a historical wrong.
To some extent, one can be thankful that such laws are not enforced as strictly as they are in Muslim countries. But still, the existence of such laws means that the Police can keep asking for bribes for yet another act which should be legal. It also means that LGBT people will keep facing problems in getting jobs, housing, getting married, adopting kids, and so on.
With this hope that in near future all LGBT people will get full rights, I sign off and welcome your responses.
Oh, one more thing. Even though Article 377 is considered an anti-homosexuality law, it does not meet even that objective properly. It only outlaws sodomy, which means on one hand it does not outlaw lesbian relationships, and on the other hand it does outlaw anal sex between legally married man and woman, which carries a ten year imprisonment as punishment. Therefore, it is not just a matter of annulling this ridiculous law, but of ending the discrimination against homosexuals as a whole. Yes, in our society PDA makes many people uncomfortable; therefore both types of couples should limit their intimate acts to the privacy of their homes and bedrooms. Our conventional society deserves at least this concession.


Google Books Ngram Viewer

Google does some interesting things. Ngram Viewer which I found about just today is one such. To know what the Ngram viewer does, we first need to know what an Ngram is. Well, according to Wikipedia, an Ngram is “a subsequence of n items from a given sequence.” If you just wanted to know how often a single word appears in a whole book, or a series of books, it would be a unigram for the word. Similarly, there would be bigrams for pairs of words, and n-gram for a group of n words.
So, what Google’s n-gram viewer does is, it looks for a word or group of words in all the books scanned by Google Books — millions of them — and tells us how often the words have appeared in those books. This gives us an idea of how trends have been, even before the Internet.
Read about the n-gram viewer on the Official Google Blog, or head over to the n-gram viewer to do your own search.
I did a comparison search for “India, Britain, England, USA” and following is what I found.
Google N-gram Viewer
You can draw your own conclusions from the chart. Note that the searches are case sensitive.


Dhar Mann – Raja of Ganja?

Dhar Mann, picture from FacebookOK, another Indian sounding name was in the news today – Dhar Mann. The news on CNN was “‘Walmart of Weed’ to open in Arizona, promote growing your own“.
So, here is the background: Marijuana, Cannabis or Ganja (as we Indians know it) is illegal in most of the United States. In the state of California (and apparently in some other states), however, you are allowed to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use — obviously upon obtaining a doctor’s prescription. This prescription, as expected, is misused by many to consume, grow and even illegally deal in this “drug”. Now, for obvious reasons (among them: privacy, cost, and type of growing environment needed), it is best to grow marijuana indoors. This brings us to Hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. This is where Mr. Mann comes in. Betting on the market associated with the equipment needed to grow marijuana, he started a group of specialty stores selling such equipment. Today, his company WeGrow Store stepped outside California and opened its first store in Arizona. Here’s the news from CNN about the store opening:

Reading the news and looking at the name, I thought Dhar Mann does have a very Indian sound to it. Dhar is not really a common first name among Indians, but it is used as a last name or middle name in many communities. If a name starts with a bh, dh, or a jh, I go straight for the South Asian. Mann could have been German, but the dh was too much of a giveaway, so I wiki-ed the name and sure enough there was a Wiki page on Dhar Mann, pronouncing that

He is the son of Baljit and Surrender Singh, the wealthy owners of Friendly Cab, who for a time held a near monopoly on taxi service in Oakland, California.

Well, so Dhar Mann could be a short form of Dharmender Singh Mann, or something like that. But, aren’t Sikhs traditionally non-smokers? Well, this is what the Wikipedia page on Cannabis (drug) says:

Cannabis is also known to have been used by the ancient Hindus and Nihang Sikhs of India and Nepal thousands of years ago. The herb was called ganjika in Sanskrit (गांजा/গাঁজা ganja in modern Indic languages). The ancient drug soma, mentioned in the Vedas, was sometimes associated with cannabis

Well Sikh religion didn’t even exist “thousands of years ago”, so I am not sure what he Wikipedia author in this case was smoking.


Hardest to Enter American Universities

Huffington Post ( has just released the “list of hardest schools to get into“, which is American English for “list of American colleges or universities with the lowest ratio of number of admitted students to number of applicants”. Here are top three from the list:
1. Harvard University: 2,110 accepted out of 30,489 applicants (6.9%)
2. Stanford University: 2,300 accepted out of 32,022 applicants (7.2%)
3. Yale University: 1,940 accepted out of 25,869 applicants (7.5%)


Air Travails 2: Do I Need a Transit Visa in UK

As I was shopping online for airfares from Washington area to Delhi on Oct-2, I came across this incredible price of $569 return fare on British Airways (via Travelocity). Normally any price below a thousand bucks is considered a deal. So, as I was drooling over that price (the site said only 3 seats were left at that price), I considered if I needed a transit visa if I bought this itinerary that transited through London Heathrow.


Verb "Googled" Not in Google's Spellchecker

It has been several years since the verb “to google” was added to the English dictionary. According to Wikipedia,
It was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary on June 15, 2006, and to the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006.
However, Gmail’s own spellchecker shows the word “googled” as a spelling error. Check out the following screenshots:


Air Travails 1: Eccentricities of Air Tickets

Past one week has been kind of a roller coaster ride for me. It started with a travel plan and ended with no travel at all, with a number of lessons learned along the way. News of a family member’s death in India came on last Friday night. Within minutes I was online looking for air tickets to India.
There are two things about air ticket pricing that I fail to understand:


Charlie Foxtrot – Who is that?

Charlie Foxtrot is not the name of a person (actually it may well be), but my “word of the day” today. Charlie Foxtrot, according to is a noun of military origin, meaning:
clusterfuck, as expressed in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
[Usage] That project has become a huge Charlie Foxtrot; who’s in charge over there?”