Monday, October 15, 2018

Chaat Masala, anyone?

Chintan Girish Modi is a peacebuilder and writer, among a range of other things. He recently founded Chaat Masala, an initiative to create safe spaces to engage with curated conversations with artists, academics, authors and activists all over India. Here's his story. 

1) What's Chintan up to, now? What's his world view currently?
I am in a space of quiet, intense churning where it feels equally important to be engaged with social justice issues and with self-care that combines physical health and emotional well-being. The world is at my doorstep, quite literally, thanks to social media. Does that mean my compassion automatically extends to everyone who is suffering? Not really. It takes a special effort to anchor oneself back in the body and the breath, in the present moment itself, because there is much to take one further away -- books, Netflix, Facebook updates, Twitter feed, WhatsApp messages, and my own imagination. Without that quality of awareness, it is difficult to know oneself, leave alone anyone else!

2) Tell us about CHAAT MASALA. How did it come about? 

It's a project that is very close to my heart. I spend a lot of my time thinking, reading and writing about South Asia. What irks me, however, is that American and European scholarship often frame this region as a 'conflict zone', reducing us to nothing but a hotbed of identity politics and sectarian violence. It would be dishonest to overlook our legacies of caste discrimination, genocide and sexual violence but it is also problematic to see the region as nothing but this. Colonization was possible because we were deemed as chaotic and unable to look after ourselves without some benevolent White supervision. Intellectual work around South Asia and development sector discourse are reproducing those colonialist narratives now without accounting for the role played by the global North in bringing us where we are. We have vibrant traditions of faith, cultural practices, artistic production, built heritage and rigorous academic research. They merit serious attention and enquiry. This colour and diversity is what I wanted to capture through the name CHAAT MASALA.

3) What is CHAAT MASALA all set to do?
I envision it as a digital platform that would catalyse exciting conversations with artists, academics, authors and activists from all over South Asia. Pardon my affinity for alliteration. As is the case with most of my work, CHAAT MASALA will encourage dialogue, resist bigotry and promote alternatives to violence. It was launched on September 21, the International Day of Peace. Our first initiative is a celebration of the Bisexual Awareness Week from September 23 to 30. Through our Facebook page and our Twitter handle, we will gather and amplify stories of bisexuals from South Asia and beyond, and also share resources that can help cultivate deeper understanding of bi-phobia and bi-erasure. Though there is greater awareness around the rights of queer people, bisexuals continue to be doubly discriminated. They are not accepted within a heternormative universe, and are also shunned by many within the queer community itself who view bisexuals as unwilling to commit to either a gay or a straight identity because they want the best of both worlds. On September 28, we have our inaugurual tweet-chat with lawyer, academic and playwright Danish Sheikh who will join us on our Twitter handle @chaatmasala3 to talk about his work at the intersection of queer rights, law and literature. He is an assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law, runs a theatre group, and his written widely about his experiences as a gay man and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that used to criminalize carnal intercourse against the order of nature, effectively making it illegal for men to enjoy sexual intimacy with each other. Thankfully, the recent Supreme Court judgement has decriminalized consensual lovemaking. This should have happened long ago. We still have miles to go in terms of intersectionality because queerness does not exist in isolation from caste, class, religion and race.

4) Can you tell us a bit about how your idea of Peace and Gender Equality looks, now?
That is a really broad question, and I hope to do justice to it. Sometimes, challenging questions can make one articulate some really crucial insights that are surprising, to say the least. I think my own understanding of peace has grown after I have invested more time and energy in learning about patriarchy and masculinity. I can now see why women feel angry about men not doing enough in terms of emotional labour. I can look back, and identify moments of misogyny in my own relationships. Building peace demands that we address structural violence in our society. I think there is this notion that only a limited amount of power is available, and that it has to be claimed not from within but by snatching it from other people. Because of this erroneous idea, patriarchy has systematically worked towards devaluing women and queer people. Their rights need to be respected if one wants to see peace in action. It is time for toxic masculinity to retire and die.

5) You've been doing some interesting work through your #MardonWaaliBaat campaign. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I had been looking for a space that would bring together men for conversations about gender roles, masculinity, intimacy, body shaming, sexuality, mental health, sexual violence, consent and self-care. I did not find one, so I decided to start it by hosting sessions that I would facilitate using a mix of fun activities, videos, one-on-one peer sharing and whole group discussions. I have been conducting workshops around gender sensitivity with high school boys for a while but I really wanted to work with adult men as well. I have got an encouraging response so far with men saying that they have been hungry for a space like this where they can be themselves and share openly without the burden of manning up or masking vulnerability because men are expected to be rought and tough. I use #MardonWaaliBaat to also document interesting tweets, news items and commentaries. The name #MardonWaaliBaat is now also being used by an organization called Equal Half, and I want to use this platform to clarify that mine is an independent initiative. I do not buy into the #Planet5050 language because it is built on the binary of male and female. It invisibilizes diversity in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation/preference. It deliberately overlooks the issues faced by trans, queer and non-binary people.

6) One of your longstanding initiatives has been Friendship Across Borders. Can you tell us what's in the pipeline with FAB?

Friendships Across Borders or #aaodostikarein, as it is more commonly known, will complete five years in February 2019. I am in the process of reviewing what has happened so far, and what might be a beneficial direction to take. India-Pakistan dialogue is very much an area I would like to continue devoting my energy to because there is much distrust and animosity in that relationship. It has been a happy journey, not terribly illustrious in terms of accomplishments to show off, but I feel confident that it has made a positive contribution. #aaodostikarein has managed to reach teachers and students in Trivandrum, Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Lahore, Islamabad, Vermont, Maine, Vadodara, Chennai, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Jodhpur, Panchgani, Chandigarh and many other places, and I am grateful for their participation. I do not really measure impact in terms of number of people who attended my talks or workshops because I think that is an inauthentic way of learning about attitudinal change. Peace education happens in a slow, almost invisible manner. One can think only in terms of seeds sown. Some will germinate, some will be carried away by birds, some will go deep into the ground and come up when the time is right, and some will die sooner than expected. I believe in smaller, quieter work, so thinking in terms of scaling up does not come naturally to me. I would like to do more peace journalism workshops with media students because that is an area that could benefit from my engagement. Young journalists in the making can be inspired to stay steadfast in their belief that their words and their stories matter. They do not need to grow wistful because everyone else is a sell-out. We live on platters of hope, a few crumbs cannot sustain us for long.