Old people can be hugely entertaining, as anyone who has ever heard their grandfather casually emit a jackhammer-style burp in public will agree. If they’re extra old, they may even throw in some ‘Thunder from Down Under’ in the middle of a serious conversation and carry on like nothing happened. But those bodily noises are nothing compared to the sounds that sometimes come out of their mouths, causing outrage and embarrassment among people who are still young enough to care about things.
One such incident took place this week when former Press Council chairman and retired Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju tweeted, and I quote, “I regard Shazia Ilmi much more beautiful than Kiran Bedi. If Shazia had been made their C.M. candidate BJP wud have definitely won the Delhi elections. People vote for beautiful faces, as in Croatia. Even a person like me who does not vote wud have voted for Shazia.”
There were two kinds of reactions to his statement. One: “I don’t see the problem. He’s right and now I also want a pretty CM so I’m going to vote for Deepika Padukone.” And two, which was “It is sexist and demeaning to reduce women politicians to their looks, especially when their job is dependent not on beauty but on other skills, like taking U-turns. After all, nobody ever says that about male politicians even though most of their faces look like the underside of my shoe after a trek through Dharavi.”
Mr. Katju later clarified that he’d made the statement “in lighter vein” which is completely believable. I’m not even being sarcastic here. His thoughts echo a sentiment that flows naturally off the whiskey-soaked tongues of Indian uncles. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. They’re the ones who will forward you “hilarious” pati-patni jokes on Whatsapp, where the punchline is about how all a wife does is nag and then suck the life out of her husband’s credit card. Or the thigh-slapper about how all mothers-in-law have Nazgul DNA. Old people would be a great audience for comedy shows that take place in 1950 aka Every Show On Indian TV Right Now.
Despite how good we are at it, sexism isn’t just an Indian thing. It is universally understood that no matter how accomplished or brilliant a woman, she will always be judged on her looks. This is a problem because despite years of conditioning, women stubbornly refuse to morph into item girls with the brain of Stephen Hawking. Instead , they have the audacity to demand equal treatment. I’m sorry, but equality is for men only.
One good thing about this demand is that it sometimes leads to awkward hilarity. Take, for example, the case of Colleen McCullough, a best-selling Australian author who passed away this week at the age of 77. She started off as a neurophysiologist and then, deciding that the human brain was too simple a challenge, went on to write books that sold upwards of 30 million copies.
So naturally, any obituary of hers should include the words “Thanks for making me feel dumb and useless”, except that an Australian paper chose to open with, “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.” This is basically a polite way of saying, “Meh, she wasn’t like, hot or anything, but she was okay.”
This caused a fair amount of outrage as well, and understandably so. It’s a bit like writing an obituary for Marie Curie that goes, “An ordinary face, on a boring body that won two Nobel thingies for science, despite being a girl and sucking at math.” Or penning a teary farewell to Sachin Tendulkar that says, “Short of height, with frizzy hair and a mousy voice, he nonetheless managed to hit a ball successfully for many years until he retired and cried in public, that little wuss.”
I’m sure if you tried to explain the nuances of sexism to an Indian uncle, he’d just dismiss it as a ‘first-world problem’ and compare it to his childhood where women weren’t allowed to breathe unless they had a panchnama signed by a male gazetted officer or something. It leads me to wonder about the rubbish I will spout when I’m grey and cranky. Will it be harmless stuff like, “Kids, your music is giving me a nosebleed” or will it be something more insiduous? I have no clue, but whatever it is, I’ll be sure to follow it up with a nice, long belch-a-thon. Because that is real beauty.
(Note: This is my HT column dated 1st Feb 2014.)