sakshidayal

Life is not a holiday.

A Domestic Dilemma

I decided when I was eighteen that I would never keep domestic help or, to use a more crude term, servants-having someone else do all my dirty work, when the only difference between them and me was in terms of the opportunities I had been lucky enough to have and they had been deprived of, felt wrong.

Now I know better.

I wasn’t brought up with a battalion of servants available at my beck and call, but they were there- washing my dishes, sweeping my floor, cleaning my bathroom.

As I grew up, and realised the people doing my household chores in my home were only a few years older than me, I felt embarrassed and apologetic. It wasn’t as if I spent the day lying in bed while food and water was brought to me, but I did lead a luxurious life in terms of household responsibilities only because these people were available to do my share of the work for me.

I knew I wasn’t superior to them in any sense, just luckier. And I felt as if employing them was misusing that luck, and exploiting them.

But is it?

It’s a give and take relationship, yes. Like any other profession, people do the work, and get paid in return for it, but the money isn’t very much, because manual labor in a developing nation like India is available in plenty, and so very cheap, the usual demand-supply cycle. With the limited income that comes in after hours of physically demanding labor, the people who spend all day working in our homes are able to maintain their own, sustaining themselves and the ones they love.

Were they to lose this source of income, which is what would happen if everyone they worked for suddenly began to feel the guilt I found myself inflicted with, their quality of life would go downhill, and the loss would be their own, as well as societies’.

Money is everything.

With the money that employers pay them, those who have been denied their fair share of opportunities are able to work towards ensuring their children are not deprived of the same. They educate their offspring, giving them the chance to rid themselves of this burden of menial labor, which is the only source of income they found themselves qualified for. With each generation, then, the household betters itself.

Denying those who work as domestic labourers their income would mean denying their children a better life, and society a step forward.

I think the only way to assist them in this endeavour, is to minimise the exploitation they are made to face in the process of earning their daily bread.

There are several people who live in luxurious homes and have extravagant lifestyles, but pay their domestic help half of what they should, deny them bonuses on festivals, or are frugal with the amount they hand over; there are others who give them sound monetary compensation for their work but give them psychological hell, confronting them when they take a day off, following them around while they carry out their duties, to find faults and tell them off, or unfairly accuse them of misusing their access to the home and its facilities.

The more money the employers have, the worse the treatment their employees seem to receive.

The more expensive localities go as far as allotting separate lifts for domestic workers from the one the residents and visitors use, or building bathrooms outside the home for them so that their employers don’t have to use the same one they do.

The saddest part is that, most often, those who are the employers don’t even consider these things as a wrong, or consider them at all. They’re so ingrained in our society that they seem natural, like breathing or blinking, done without a thought.

I felt guilty about the kind of life I had as compared to the domestic workers employed in my home, and I still do. But the right way to deal with that guilt, I now believe, is not to stop employing the latter, but quite the opposite.

Employment of domestic help must continue, but more effort must be made to ensure that they are treated fairly and are able to achieve the long-term benefits that this employment could bring them and their families – this means sufficient compensation, humane treatment, and additional benefits (monetary and in terms of food, presents, or second hand items). This can only come with empathy, understanding, and a realisation that the social and financial ‘superiority’ of the employer over the employee, in such a case, is not essentially a reflection of potential or effort, but of luck.

An Education

After spending nine months away from home, in a different country, studying at a university known for its exceptional standard of education as well as its diversity in terms of the backgrounds and nationalities of students, I can safely say that the trick to gaining maximum knowledge and exposure is to have an open mind, not only in terms of approach to academics, but also in terms of approach and attitude towards fellow students.

I remember my elation at being accepted into my course at the LSE, because I had never expected I would. I knew that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I realised right from the start that academically, this would be an entirely new, fairly difficult experience, but I never predicted the kind of exposure I would get culturally, or the level of understanding I would attain of the kind of person I was, and wanted to be.

There were several factors which made my experience as phenomenal as it has been – from getting accepted into all the modules I wanted to study right from when I applied, to being allotted the residence I wanted, in which I ended up with exactly the kind of flatmates I would have liked – neither intrusive nor judgemental, but helpful and supportive, with a mindset fairly similar to my own.

Academically, LSE has been, if anything, better than I expected. But the knowledge I gained outside of books, of nations and societies other than my own, and the one I was residing in, is what, I believe, has made my experience invaluable.

It’s not often in life that you get the opportunity to study in a classroom alongside students from innumerable countries, or to occupy a flat in which your six flatmates are from six different nationalities. Your true failure at attaining the most you can out of the education such a multicultural experience in itself provides would be if you leave the institution with your prejudices and biases against other cultures and countries intact.

It’s difficult, almost impossible, to meet people from backgrounds other than your own without, consciously or subconsciously, having preconceived notions about them. But this isn’t necessarily a drawback if you’re open to altering those notions based on your interactions and experiences. The danger comes when your interactions are based on a desire to mould the other person into the idea you have of them, rather than to mould your perspective based on what you learn.

An essential factor that should govern such interactions, and the opinions or ideas that are birthed through them, is the understanding that difference doesn’t necessarily imply superiority or inferiority. It’s just difference- be it a difference in language, in accent, in diet, or in appearance. There’s no better or worse, and if you depart still convinced there is, your education has only been successful academically (if that).

The real joy of studying at a university like LSE, with a large, diverse group of international students, is in making an effort to interact with and learn about the kind of societies and histories from which the people around you come. If the time is, instead, spent with a limited few, reiterating stereotypes and judgements based on the minimal interaction you may have had with others, it’s an opportunity wasted.

Education at any institution isn’t an education if it isn’t all encompassing. Attaining bookish knowledge is essential, but that’s only literacy. Experiencing the culture of new places first hand, being exposed to the cultures of others, and being open to understanding them without judgement, that’s what makes it an education, and that’s what makes the opportunity the LSE offers truly unique.

My time at the LSE is done, and the quality of what I’ve learned has exceeded my expectations. The year has been enlightening in every sense, and I leave with a wealth of knowledge, attained from my classes, from my textbooks, and, most importantly, from all the phenomenal people I had the good fortune to interact with and befriend.

The Other Face of Indian Cinema

A lot of Bollywood is senseless song and dance, and always has been, so much so that this has become the face of Indian cinema in the wider world.

I’m not ashamed of that, maybe a little embarrassed, but not ashamed- I laugh at the unrealistic plot lines, the romanticised festivals, and even the sexist projections of characters- but I still love Bollywood. I’ve poked fun at movies like Hum Saath Saath Hain and Mohabattein, but I watch them each time they’re on television, because sometimes I enjoy mind numbing song and dance, and I doubt I could ever thank Bollywood for giving us that, a dimension of films that has now seeped into the very core of our celebrations, of weddings, and birthdays, and even office parties.

A lot of Bollywood is senseless song and dance, but that’s not all Bollywood is. There’s another side, most of which is tucked away under non-mainstream cinema, and it’s beautiful.

Indian cinema is going through a transition, pathbreaking films have always been made, but today they’re getting a much wider audience than before, and consequently, more of them are being made each year. The song and dance hasn’t entirely left the stories, and I hope it never will, but it’s now one of the many elements in films, which are also characterised by well etched characters, strong plotlines, and almost flawless direction and images.

As someone who has spent two years now poking fun at the innane cinema of the 90s and early 2000s in blog posts, I think it’s time to acknowledge and celebrate the other side, the one that is now coming into its own, in India and, hopefully, in the world.

So here’s a list of Bollywood films made in the last ten years, in no particular order, that deserve more appreciation than they have been given, and represent what Bollywood is capable of being, and is hopefully becoming, when it sets its mind to it.

1. Yuva
The title of this film literally translates to ‘Youth’, and successfully captures the spirit of an entire generation through the use of three parallel, very different, plotlines. Also, never has Ajay Devgan been so appealing.

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2. Swades
For any Indian living abroad, for a year, or all their lives, this is a movie will make you want to pack your bags and go home. Shah Rukh Khan delivers an unexpectedly brilliant performance in this one, which makes you wonder why he spent all that time doing romcoms (albeit not so bad) when he was capable of this.

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3. Lakshya
Beware. This will make you want to join the army.

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4. Khakee
For anyone who loves a good thriller, Khakee is a must watch. With an exciting storyline, and people like Tusshar Kapoor and Ajay Devgan delivering one of the best performances of their careers, this movie changes the meaning of ‘Good Evening’ forever.
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5. Dev
Dealing with the sensitive topic of the 2002 Gujarat riots, Dev is one of the few Bollywood films to focus on the isolation of Muslims in a city that has been torn apart by communal violence and bloodshed.

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6. Parineeta
Based on a book by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Parineeta is, by far, Pradeep Sarkar’s best. Poetically capturing Calcutta at the turn of the 20th century, this film, revolving around a love story that transcends class, served as the launching pad for Vidya Balan, a face that went on to launch a thousand films.

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7. Iqbal
A career best for Shreyas Talpade, Iqbal is the story of a deaf and mute boy who dreams of playing cricket for his country.

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8. Rang De Basanti
With flawless performances by lesser known actors like Atul Kulkarni and Kunal Kapoor, this movie struck a chord with the Indian youth, capturing on reel the spirit of a generation disillusioned by the government and politics of the country, but unable, often unwilling to attempt, to alter the way things are done. Although melodramatic in parts, this movie deserves a watch, maybe two (possibly more).

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9. Lage Raho Munna Bhai
A new, fresh take on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, by exploring his relationship with a, ironically, good hearted underworld don.

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10. A Wednesday
A thriller, this movie revolves around a police commissioner and his conversations with an anonymous caller who is demanding the release of four terrorists. The inclusion of remarkable actors like Naseruddin Shah and Anupam Kher is an immediate giveaway of the quality of the film, and the buff Jimmy Shergill only adds to it.

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11. Rock On
Rock On tells the story of the four members of a band, focusing on the dynamics they share and how they alter as they cross the threshold into adulthood. It’s about growing up, friendship, and Arjun Rampal’s long locks.

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12. Taare Zameen Par
With a remarkable performance by child actor Darsheel Zafarey, Taare Zameen Par revolves around the life and mind of a dyslexic child and his relationship with a man who changes his life.

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13. Guru
Loosely based on the life of Dhirubai Ambani, Guru tells the story of a business tycoon, with some of A.R. Rahman’s best work for accompaniment.

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14. Gandhi, My Father
A phenomenal film, that got nowhere near as much credit as it deserved, Gandhi, My Father revolves around the troubled relationship Gandhi shared with his eldest son, Akshay Khanna playing the latter, and proving he’s got some serious acting chops. `

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15. Band Baaja Baarat
Band Baaja Baarat deserves a mention, largely, because of its unconventional hero. Based in the capital, the film successfully captures the essence of the city through its narration of the love story between a young boy and girl, who are friends, and partners in their wedding planning ‘Binness’.

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16. Jodhaa Akbar
Although excruciatingly long by the end of it, Jodhaa Akbar deserves a watch, for the hitherto untold love story, the talent (and looks) of its lead actors, and the beautiful music by A. R. Rahman. But you can turn it off once Aishwarya Rai gets off the elephant.

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17. 3 Idiots
3 Idiots is a hilarious take on the Indian Education System, in which knowledge is quickly becoming second to the pursuit of marks. With some of the most lovable characters ever captured in cinema, and a refreshingly idiotic take on the much beloved “old mother, unwed sister” story of Bollywood, this is a pathbreaking film that handles a serious issue by generating laughter.

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18. Love Aaj Kal
With Saif Ali Khan, as the sardaar, delivering one of his best performances yet, this movie contrasts the older concept of pure, romanticised love with the apparently more practical notion of the emotion held by today’s youth. This movie has one of my favourite love stories, and some scenes and songs that are very likely to cause goosebumps.

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19. Udaan
One of the best films I have ever seen, Udaan deals with the complex relationship that a young boy shares with his oppressive father, but the real delight of the film is his little stepbrother, who immediately became one of my favorite characters on film.

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20. Love Sex Aur Dhokha
A very unconventional film for Bollywood, this movie deals with three sub plots, throwing light on some serious ideological and social issues in Indian society- an honour killing, an MMS Scandal, and a journalist’s attempt at a sting operation.

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21. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
The best road trip film Bollywood has ever come up with, this movie revolves around three (incredibly good looking) friends as they travel across Spain, on what becomes a journey of self discovery. Their story includes impeccable music and Katrina Kaif’s best performance yet.

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22. Do Dooni Chaar
A very non commercial movie, Do Dooni Chaar has at its core a middle class family of four, and their struggle to fulfill their desire for a car, with the limited teacher’s salary the breadwinner earns. Neetu and Rishi Kapoor are absolutely brilliant in this hilarious film. If you have a heart, this family will steal it.

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23. Kai Po Che
This production improves Chetan Bhagat’s novel, 3 Mistakes of My Life, to create a phenomenal film, revolving around three men trying to set up a business. It focuses on their friendship, and has at its core the famous Gujarati work ethic. Watch out for the earthquake scene- not all men run to check on their beloved.

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24. English Vinglish
For an industry that barely acknowledges the existence of older women, English Vinglish was pathbreaking. It tells the story of Shashi, an Indian woman who is continuously humiliated by her husband and daughter because she can’t speak English, and has at its core her attempt to learn the language (and to love herself) when she goes to attend a wedding in New York.

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25. Lootera
Lootera is sheer beauty. The scenes are poetry in motion, and the music that accompanies them is flawless. Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh play the protagonists of this love story based on O Henry’s The Last Leaf. This is Bollywood at its best.

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26. The Lunchbox
With stellar performances by Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, Ritesh Batra’s film tells the story of a housewife and a man she accidentally befriends as they write to each other, penning some of the most beautiful lines anyone has ever come up with.

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27. Fukrey
Fukrey isn’t a film for everyone, as proved by the mixed reception it met with, but if you understand Delhi, and its people, this is the movie to watch. With fresh (though not necessarily very young) faces as protagonists, this movie revolves around four very different boys, brought together by a single thing- money. Varun Sharma is absolutely phenomenal in this film, which, though questionable in parts, definitely deserves a watch (and many more). I’m hoping it’s fate will be a little like Andaz Apna Apna- rejected at birth, but going on to become a classic.

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28. Ankhon Dekhi
Ankhon Dekhi has to be one of the best films of the decade. It isn’t a typical Bollywood film at all, but it is one of the best. Sanjay Mishra finally gets a role he deserves, as a man who decides to only believe in what he sees, much to the exasperation of his family, and the delight of his friends. If you don’t become incredibly fond of the protagonist, you don’t have a heart.

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29. Queen
In the same league as English Vinglish, Queen tells the story of a naive young girl who sets off on her honeymoon alone after her groom calls off their wedding a day before the ceremony. We follow her through Paris and Amsterdam as, terrified, she struggles to manage on her own. The protagonist of a heartwarming, hilarious film, Rani is one the most loveable characters Indian cinema has come up with yet.

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30. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy
This movie is Dibakar Banerjee’s take on the famous Bengali detective, etched out by Sharadindu Bandhopadyay in his stories. The plot is thrilling and exciting, with Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead, some high adrenaline, unconventional music as second lead, and one of the most interestingly frightening villains in recent times. Anand Tiwari shines yet again in a supporting role, eliciting more affection for his character in the hearts of viewers than the director may have intended.

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And then there’s others which come very highly recommended, but have yet to be removed from my ‘to see’ list, like Omkara, Gangs of Wasseypur, and the recently released Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

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Bollywood has always churned out mainstream, mind numbingly ridiculous films, but it has also produced timeless classics, like Teesri Manzil (who doesn’t love a good ol shimmy with Shammi), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Chupke Chupke, Andaz Apna Apna, Legend of Bhagat Singh, Monsoon Wedding, and Dil Chahta Hai. But it has never been appreciated for it.

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Indian cinema has never really got its due – it has been loved and scoffed at in turn, for its dance, music, and some seriously dramatised action, but it has never been respected. Hopefully, with unconventional films finally finding a place in mainstream cinema, and an increasingly wide audience amongst people, Bollywood will finally get the appreciation and acclamation that it deserves.

The Life and Times of the Only Man Eater I’ll Ever Love

I saw Ustaad four years ago, and he was breathtaking.

I had been travelling to Ranthambhore National Park with my family for years by then – I had visited the jungle innumerable times, and seen some of the most popular tigers, including the famous Macchli. But Ustaad, or as I first knew him, T 24, was by far the most beautiful creature I had ever set eyes on.
We sat in our gypsy as he strolled across the road, just meters away from us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, his stomach hanging low, which, as our guide told us, meant he had just eaten. He seemed to be like any other tiger I had seen, his appearance and his behaviour resembling those of his contemporaries.
But then he did something that set him apart, in my mind, forever.

While we stood in our vehicle, alongside all the others around us, the sound of camera shutters working like background music to set the scene, Ustaad suddenly stopped in his endeavour of manoeuvring his way among the bushes, turned his head, and looked, it seemed, straight at me.
Our eyes met, and I literally felt like my heart had stopped, along with the passage of time.
His glance wasn’t lingering, like that of other members of his species who I had encountered. Instead, he held my gaze for what felt like hours, but was probably a few seconds, then nonchalantly turned his head, and walked out of my life, leaving me awestruck.

Ustaad has been a central part of the news the last few days, the topic of great controversy and debate. The reason? After three attacks on people in five years, he carried out a fourth. This time his victim was a forest guard, Rampal Saini, who worked in Ranthambhore for eighteen years, and then breathed his last, before his time, because of one of the creatures he worked so hard to protect.
Following this, in the midst of passionate arguments, the tiger was relocated to Sajjangarh Park, a decision that has met with a lot of flak and protests, with several pictures circulating online in the animal’s support, including images of ‘Je Suis Ustaad’ (honestly, at least use the local language for this).

A lot of the arguments in favour of Ustaad have got my blood boiling, something that hasn’t happened for months now, and which is really not a feeling I cherish.

The prime amongst these is one that claims the tiger has a right to kill people when they encroach into his territory, and hence anyone who goes into the jungle has no right to cry foul when he is attacked. The solution? Leave the animals alone.
The reality? If even forest guards leave the animals alone, poachers will have free reign. It is necessary, if the animals are to be protected, for some amount of human encroachment into the jungle to take place, even if you exclude tourism. This does, whether we like it or not, involve some amount of movement on foot, into parts of the jungle where vehicles cannot go- a task T24’s latest victim was entrusted with for many years, and while doing which he risked his life, day in and day out.

Saini died days ago, but stories about the events surrounding his death that continue to circulate are many, each more offensive than the one before, all claiming the victim was at fault, had done something to provoke his perpetrator.

There are, inarguably, tigers who only kill because they are provoked, who attack to defend themselves, to kill people they believe are a threat to them, and these are deaths that everyone who lives around the forest of Ranthambhore- hoteliers and villagers alike- have reconciled themselves with. These are deaths that occur more regularly than we hear about them, and are seen as the fault of the victims.
But the fact is, Ustaad wasn’t provoked, not this time, not before.

The reason his attacks have attracted so much attention is because they were uncharacteristic, because they were unprovoked. He attacked from behind-he stalked and followed, then attacked. Attacked, not defended.
Of the animal’s three victims before Saini, two were villagers and one was a forest guard. The bodies of the former were partly consumed when they were found, and that of the latter only survived because it was removed, keeping the tiger at bay, before it could meet with the same fate (crucial facts that have been left out in almost all the news reports I have read).
A tiger that, when unprovoked, has killed three people, is not to be taken lightly- this is something I, at the age of twenty-two, being only a regular visitor to the jungle, know. To believe that a man who has worked in the jungle for eighteen years will suddenly decide to let his guard down, or do something foolhardy, in the very area where such a tiger dominates, is ridiculous to say the least.

Then there are reports and debates around the relocation of the tiger, with some of the people against the move blaming it on hoteliers who they believe supported the relocation only because they were afraid a man-eating tiger would scare tourists away and ruin business. That makes little sense. If anything, a man eating tiger would be much more likely to attract more tourists, adding to the thrill of the forest.

It is also important to understand, when talking of relocation, that removing Ustaad from Ranthambhore was essential because his actions, while there, posed a threat directly to humans, but indirectly to other members of his species as well.
The villagers around the forest have been living more or less in harmony with its occupants for years now. If, however, they feel the creatures have started to pose a threat to them, could attack them when they have done nothing to deserve such behaviour, their protective instincts will most likely take over, and in the battle between humans and animals that will follow, the latter will undoubtedly lose.

I see nothing wrong in voicing an opinion regarding Ustaad’s relocation, in favour or against it. I don’t agree with those who argue for the latter, but that doesn’t mean they are at fault. What annoys me is that most of the arguments emerging in support of the animal seem uninformed, ignorant, and, worst of all, disrespectful to the memory of his latest victim- a man who died while working to protect the creatures of the forest, including the one who killed him.

I have loved tigers for as long as I remember. The first time I saw the pug marks of a tiger in Corbett National Park, I promptly claimed I wanted to do the big job, because I didn’t want to admit I was terrified, and I knew it was a strategy that would get us out of the jungle and back home quicker than any other I could adopt (It had been tried and tested in Goa- I was terrified of the water). But from being terrified of pug marks, I soon lost all fear of the owners of those marks.
I warmed up to tigers. I began to admire them, and eventually fell in love with them.

But I don’t think I ever admired any animal as much as Ustaad, who made a lasting impression on me with just one look. I don’t know what his fate will finally be, but I don’t see his return to Ranthambhore leading to good things for anyone, especially him.
However, despite everything he’s done, regardless of what the consequences of his actions will be, he continues, in my mind, to be the king of his species- majestic, regal, magnificent.

Ustaad, June, 2011

                                  Ustaad, June, 2011

Is Delayed Justice Justice At All?

India believes in delay.

Trains are delayed.

Traffic is delayed.

People are delayed.

Justice is delayed.

It took thirteen years for the verdict to be announced in the hit and run case against Salman Khan, a Bollywood actor who has finally been sentenced to five years in jail for running over five people with his car, injuring four and killing one, while he was drunk. Thirteen years during the course of which the star delivered several movie hits, hosted two television shows, made exorbitant amounts of money from advertisements, started a charity organization, and failed to kill any more people.

Even if you put aside the surprisingly little time he is being made to serve considering the magnitude of the crime, the amount of time the sentence has taken in coming is astounding, and can lead one to question its purpose and effectiveness.

As I understand it, the purpose of legal repercussions for a crime is reformation- to punish the culprit so that he never commits the act again, out of fear of punishment if nothing else.

But what’s the point of a punishment that comes years after the crime has been committed- years in the course of which the culprit has either already had time to realize his mistake and reform, or in the course of which he has had the time to repeat his mistake several more times knowing there will be no immediate consequences?

Furthermore, the magnitude of the crime, in the eyes of a large part of the public, seems to diminish over time, which indirectly affects the extent to which justice is finally served in the case. Public pressure and opinion, directly or indirectly, can do much even when it comes to the judiciary, and when cases come under consideration years after they have been filed, the public, it is likely, may no longer feel a need to get involved, especially if the culprit has had time to redeem himself in their eyes.

The latter seems to be exactly what Salman Khan has done with his charity organization. It may not have been an intentional move- maybe he wanted to actually help the world when he started it, or maybe he wanted to atone for his crime- but what he did end up doing was, to an extent, in the eyes of the public, redeeming himself.

Salman Khan deserves punishment, that fact is unarguable. But it must also be acknowledged that when it’s taken so long in coming, its effect is almost redundant. In this case, the delay in justice had little effect on society at large since the culprit didn’t repeat his crime.

But if the Indian Judicial system continues to take this much time to announce the verdict on cases, it is very likely that the delay in punishment for the criminal will become a punishment for the wider society.

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