I kid, but it isn’t funny: women in India face significant challenges, and too often, it seems, issues like gender parity fall by the wayside as the country focuses on its spectacular economic growth, etc.

It’s probably just lip service, but it is heartening to hear the country’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, thrusting the issue into the public eye. In a speech Monday, Singh said, “We are an ancient civilisation and we call ourselves a modern nation. And yet, we live with the ignominy of an adverse gender balance due to social discrimination against women built into our societal structures. … Our record in female literacy is far from satisfactory as the last Census recorded only 54% female literacy in the country. The last Census again showed a declining child sex ratio. This is a national shame and we must face this challenge squarely here and now. It indicates that growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation of the problem.”

For a good primer on the social status of women in India, I’d suggest the Bridge “India Gender Profile” (PDF). The Wikipedia page on women in India, though of debatable quality, also surfaces a number of issues and provides a bit of historical context.

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(Image from the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh.)

And have lots to recommend from it, including Sichan Siv’sLast Breakfast in Cambodia,” a meditation on the future of the country only now beginning to recover from the implosion of the ’70s. An excerpt:

Cambodia today is not unlike the Cambodia of my youth — there is deep poverty and enormous wealth, side-by-side. There is unrest beneath the surface, the unrest that helped to make the horrors of the last century possible. And so, as I walk from one memory-filled place to another, I pray for a new year in which Cambodia’s leaders will find a way to bring about peace and stability.

Really interesting report, “Eviction Slip,” at Guernica Mag site. The author, Mark Dowie, touches on the human cost of conservation, explaining how adivasis are being displaced to preserve forest or other land for wildlife. A brief excerpt:

In early 2005, a national debate erupted in India over the future of its national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Media reports of a “tiger crisis” led to the creation of several “Project Tiger” sanctuaries around the country. As one might expect, the sides taken on the status and protection of tigers were, on the one hand, wildlife conservationists intent upon saving a truly magnificent species from extinction, and on the other, anthropologists and tribal activists intent upon preserving the cultures of tribal people, 325,000 of whom still live inside the core and buffer zones of tiger reserves. …

Gujjars [a traditional grazing community] and tigers have coexisted in Sariska [a wildlife reserve] for thousands of years. The decline in tiger population is a consequence of development—large dams, iron mines and the shifting appetites of distant elites—not the lifeways of forest dwellers whose habitats have likewise been threatened by the same phenomena. “Why then punish one victim to save the other?” asks Indian historian Ramachandra Guha.

In almost every respect, the relocation of Gujjars was badly planned and executed, and evictees were compensated at unbearably low rates. Those relocated inside the forest still had access to firewood, water and livestock fodder. But for years they faced an uncertain future about the permanence of their new residence. Some evictees have returned to their original villages in search of better soil and water, forsaking schools, clinics and other amenities built in relocation communities. The outcome, in a word, has been chaos. However, relocation has continued despite the real threat of pushing another traditional community into utter destitution, while accomplishing next to nothing for endemic wildlife.

Little-known fact: surly old T was a varsity cheerleader for a number of years in high school. Her caboose was loose, and her team was boom dynamite, and even when a rival high school burned the words “white trash” in 20-foot letters on her alma mater’s football field, she kept high kicking.

But even she is skeptical of the Washington Redskins’ stunt to cobble together a cheer squad for a new cricket side in India, as reported by Tunku Varadarajan in today’s Times op-ed section. And though I find the idea objectionable, I do like Varadarajan’s take on things:

Inevitably, moral scolds — of which India, as a society, has a surplus — will write letters to the editor complaining about the vulgarity/anti-Indianness/neocolonialism of the cheerleaders. It is conceivable, too, that there will be demonstrations outside the cricket stadium by women’s groups and Hindu fundamentalists.

All this, however, pales when compared to the broader lessons. With the Redskins cheerleaders on Indian soil, one can safely declare that the British cultural influence in India has been entirely replaced by an American one, cricket notwithstanding. India’s relationship with the United States — economic, strategic, diasporic and cultural — is now its primary external alliance, with a complex nuclear deal at one end of the spectrum and 12 cheerleaders and two choreographers at the other.

Spotting of the day: Sarah Chalke from Scrubs in an advertisement for a pharmacy, shot at the market near the bus station in La Antigua, Guatemala. Trust her! She’s neurotic and quirky!

So I was watching network TV today, which I rarely do (I usually save my TV watching for the weekend and catch up on NBC.com, &c.), and a commercial for Vitamin Water that featured Kelly Clarkson came on.

“Oooh! K-dawg! You’re muh girl! I wanna break away!”

She looks awesome and cute, but the commercial is utter tripe — and not only because the product she’s shilling is, at best, utterly unnecessary. I think it’s supposed to be a spoof of German talk shows (?!), and the host is like, “Rock und roll! I hear you’re into trying new things! Like India!” And then Kelly’s all “Yes! I wanted to learn to be a snake charmer!” and the host honks “Rock and roll!” and then we cut to a guy dressed up kind of like one of those monkeys that wear fezes, and he’s playing a tiny piano, and he’s in … brownface?

Oh, India. More than a billion people, and the American media would have you believe that all of them fall into neat categories like (1) gurus/godmen, (2) starving peasants, and (3) tech geniuses.

A piece by Salman Rushdie, “The Shelter of the World,” ran in last week’s New Yorker, and while I didn’t find the story (a tale of Emperor Akbar and maybe-real, maybe-imaginary wife Jodha) as gripping as I have some of his work, one passage jumped out at me:

“The court was also full of foreigners, pomaded exotics, weather-beaten merchants, narrow-faced priests from the West, boasting in ugly, undesirable tongues about the majesty of their lands, their gods, their kings. When the Emperor showed her the pictures of their mountains and valleys they’d brought with them, she thought of the Himalayas and of Kashmir and laughed at the foreigners’ paltry approximations of natural beauty, their vaals and aalps, half-words to describe half-things. Their kings were savages, and they had nailed their god to a tree. What did she want with people as ridiculous as that?

They came in search of—what, exactly? Nothing of use. If they had possessed any wisdom, the inutility of their journeying would have been obvious to them. Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and spirited you away into fairlylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Not sure whether it’s happenstance or by calculation, but Rushdie’s not the only person who’s got something to say about the erstwhile emperor. Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood flick billed as “a sixteenth-century love story about a marriage of alliance that gave birth to true love between a great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa,” debuted on February 15 and has been in the news ever since, not least because its historical accuracy has been called into question. The Times gave it a fairly good review, but people in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Sonepat, and Ambala will have to wait for pirated VCDs of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Cecil B. DeMille-esque grasp of cinematic grandeur.

The Times of India offers a fairly good precis of recent controversies related to Bollywood releases; the Hindustan Times also chimes in with analysis of the phenomenon.

Mass hysteria, the making of a mountain out of a molehill? Or a microcosm of a deep sense of unrest about (historical and contemporary) identity in India? I can’t say that I have any answers, or even insight. But Bollywood — and artistic expression, disciplined studies or street-level outpourings — does, however, seem like an important vehicle for understanding the subcontinent; I certainly find it, and the way people in the middle class interact with it, more enlightening than figures from the World Bank about the economy’s growth.

Additional links:
Bollywood literacy for the 1990s and today, a Berkeley course coordinated by Leena Kamat and Katherine Good
Hindi cinema: making meaning of a popular culture
Desi critics
Queering Bollywood
Bollywood as India’s cultural ambassador
Bollywood for the skeptical
Upperstall: a better view of Indian cinema
Bollywood fashion police
BollySpace 2.0
Beth loves Bollywood