Sunday, June 10, 2018

[The Life of Shaun #561] Footbridge at Zaandam

Sushil and I went to see Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery yesterday.  I can't pretend to know the first thing about art, but as Lottie once told me at the Tate, she doesn't always get it, but there's something about the way it makes her feel.  And there is something about being in a grand space, seeing pieces that you know (if not understand) to be great works of art, that stirs inside.  I love watching people and overhearing snippets of commentary, seeing how they take it in; some are very, very serious, but I think most are like me, just there to add a little bit of special into their day.

I ended up being quite taken with one particular painting, Footbridge at Zaandam.  Tucked away in a corner of the second room, smaller and much less vibrant than most of the works on display, I paused in front of it for a polite amount of time before starting to turn to the next one, when my eyes were drawn back.  At the centre, barely discernable against the rest of the painting, stood a lady I hadn't noticed.  Just a few bits of colour almost hidden against the black door, arms cautiously drawn in close to her body, perhaps a bit frightened.  I started wondering about the woman in the painting, who she might have been, what she was thinking, why she looked hesitant.  Was Monet a stranger to her?  Was she worried someone might see her with him?  How did the inside of her house look?  What was her life like?

Throughout the rest of the exhibit, my mind kept wandering back to her, and it occurred to me that with just a few brushstrokes, a life that probably made no other mark in the world had been captured in that painting.  Dear to the people close to her no doubt, any memory of her would have disappeared within a generation or two.  But here I was, almost 150 years later, thinking about her and what the world was for her.  A couple of blotches of paint recorded a life and connected me to someone I never knew and who, if real, died long ago.  I thought that was extraordinary.  And there was certainly something about the way it made me feel.

Footbridge at Zaandam

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~

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Monday, May 07, 2018

[The Life of Shaun #560] Why I Spent Six Years Making A Documentary on Circumcision

In honour of the 2018 World Wide Day of Genital Autonomy, I am sharing the below from Brendon Marotta, director of the film American Circumcision.  The film has just completed a successful tour of America, including winning best documentary at the Lone Star Film Festival, and will be coming out on Netflix and Amazon later this year.  Sign up for updates to be notified when the film is released (and see my name in the credits!), or make a donation to help spread the word and save a child from non-consensual genital cutting:

Keeping up the fight for everyone's right to their own bodies,

Why I Spent Six Years Making A Documentary on Circumcision

When people hear that I've made a documentary on circumcision, one of the first questions they usually ask is "why did you decide to make a film about this?"
In the past, it has been a difficult question for me to answer, not because I don't have strong reasons, but because I don't know how anyone could know what I've learned and not make this film.
Imagine for a minute that there is an issue that affects every man in America, every person who loves a man, and every parent, child, and family, and that no one had ever made a major documentary about this issue. Wouldn't you want to make a film about that?
Now imagine that this issue affects men in the most deeply personal way possible. That it causes us pain as children, permanently alters our sexuality, literally scarring us for life. People are afraid to speak about this issue publicly, but everyone knows what it is. Regardless of where you fall on this issue, we have a responsibility to talk openly and honestly about it.

The circumstraint, a device babies are strapped down to when circumcised.

When you begin discussing this issue, you'll find that people have false beliefs about even the most basic facts. People will try to claim that circumcision does not involve cutting or removing tissue, that there isn't a specially designed board children are strapped down to when this is done to them, or that circumcision hasn't often been done without anesthetic. People are naturally repulsed by what this does to children and find it nearly impossible to integrate the truth about circumcision into their day to day life.
When I first began working on this film, I thought I would just share information with people, and then they would understand. What I found was that people are resistant to even learning new information. They fear what they might discover.
In our culture, men are only allowed to have one feeling about circumcision: "I'm fine with it." But what does it mean if you aren't fine? What happens when you allow yourself to explore the full range of emotions you feel about circumcision?
When circumcision is discussed in American media, it is typically viewed as a one time decision that parents make and never have to think about again. The truth is it's more like dropping a stone in a pond — a decision that ripples through that man's life — through his sexuality, his body, his self image, his relationships, his feelings, his culture, religious institutions, medical institutions, and even through the laws of his country — for the rest of his life. This film looks at these ripples echoing through time affecting our social order and our intimate relationships — the feelings we're not allowed to explore.
What I've learned by working on this project for over six years is that on the other side of these questions there are answers. The challenges presented by this problematic and painful procedure have solutions, which seem simple and clear when we are present with our feelings. I invite you to explore those feelings with a variety of perspectives I've gathered from interview subjects all around the world. If you approach with an open mind, you might find these people have something to teach you about circumcision and yourself.
Brendon Marotta
Director of American Circumcision

Education leads to protection of boys

The trivializing term "circumcision" stands for the amputation of the foreskin of the penis, which involves the loss of approximately 50% of the entire penile skin - including the parts most sensitive for sexual stimulation - and irreversibly alters the natural physiology of the penis and its appearance. Possible psychological late effects have also increasingly been documented.

Currently, about 600 million to 1.2 billion males worldwide are affected, based on tradition, religion or, most recently, highly negligent HIV prevention programs in Africa. Foreskin amputation has become a mass phenomenon only in cultures and societies where it is performed on children, meaning without the mature and informed consent of the person who solely has to endure the assault and live with the consequences forever. This is particularly the case in the United States of America and parts of Africa and Asia. Little known in the Western world is the fact that around 65,000 boys in Africa are likely to be seriously injured every year and that several hundred boys do not survive this ritual.

Total foreskin removal is medically avoidable except in very rare cases.  A snug or non-retractile foreskin does not constitute a medical condition in children and adolescents if a boy has no painful obstruction, which is a rare condition. Usually the opening becomes wider until the end of puberty. In instances of an actual medical condition, most cases can be treated non-invasively.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~

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Sunday, May 06, 2018

Gahara Peechha

"Every city in the world has a village in its heart.  You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village.  Go there.  When you return, I will see what India has made of you.  Bonne chance!"    


After three years, I went back to India - Sushil's and my first visit back to India together - for the wedding of Sushi's best friend, Rajat.  As the wedding was taking place (relatively) close to Sushil's home, we took the occasion for Sushil to show me where he's from.

Sushil's village is quite remote, so to reach it you need to take a 5+ hour bus ride from one of the nearish airports.  Fortunately, one of those airports is in Chandigarh, a city I've been quite keen to visit.  Akin to Brasília and Canberra, Chandigarh was built in the 20th century as a capital city.  Straddling the border of the states of Punjab and Haryana, it is capital to both, and was designed by Le Corbusier, often considered giving birth to the modern brutalist architectural movement with his Unité d'Habitation.  The city has a special significance in India as it was built after the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, and the states it would govern became home for a large part of the millions of people who fled or were forced out of Pakistan.    

Being a planned city with street grids, sectors and roundabouts, Chandigarh is a surprisingly calm, clean and sprawling city for India.  It's also relatively rich (or perhaps, just more firmly segregated, like Brasília), with no slums or street families.  The city has its fair share of under-maintained, crumbling buildings, but it also has broad avenues connecting parks, lakes and other leisure spaces.  It almost doesn't feel like India at all.

Map of Chandigarh showing its master plan.

The Gandhi building at the university.

A mini Eiffel Tower in a park, in honour of Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier sculpture park.

Architecture museum.

Solitary man sweeping the large plaza in the arts compound, with the modern art museum behind.

Performance hall.

The Rock Garden of Chandigarh was constructed by Nek Chand, who had fled from Pakistan at partition.  "In his spare time, Nek Chand started collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for 18 years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre (49,000 m2) complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals."

High Court of Punjab and Haryana, in the Capitol Complex, the brutalist heart of Le Corbusier's city.

The Open Hand Monument, "the emblem...of Chandigarh and symbolizes 'the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind'".

Palace of Assembly.  The assembly of Punjab meets under the round tower, and Haryana's under the triangular one.  The structure on the left is the Tower of Shadows, a monument built to showcase the architectural devices used in the capitol complex to guard against the city's aggressive Summers.  As soon as you walk inside, you feel the air temperature drop.

Secretariat Building, where Chandigarh's mandarins toil.

On the rim of Sukhna Lake, manmade for the enjoyment of the capital's denizens, complete with boat rentals and a lakeside country club for the elite.

Sushil and his brother, Panku.  Sushil's brother lives and works in Chandigarh, so we met up with him there before heading off to the village.  He was the first of the Thakur clan that I was to meet in the coming days.

From Chandigarh, we took a winding, weaving bus ride (sick bags were passed out and audibly used en route) to Sunder Nagar, Sushil's regional town.  After loading up on beer, bottled water and toilet paper, it was a 20-minute taxi ride along a narrow, precipitous, single-lane road to Sushil's village, Bhanglehra.  On one of my trips to India, before we were married, Sushil casually mentioned to me about "when they built the road to his town, about 10 years ago".  Learning that the village didn't even have a road until into the 21st century really made me realise how remote Sushil's village was, so riding along this rural lifeline was quite poignant and surreal.     

As it turns out, the road doesn't actually go to the village, but next to it, on the top of an overlooking ridge.  The only way to navigate the village is via dirt footpaths down the hill from the road, winding amongst the houses, fields, stream and various farm animals of Bhanglehra.  From what I could tell, other than a couple lower-caste homes on the outskirts, the village was made up entirely of Sushil's relatives.  His grandparents live directly behind his family home, and his aunts, uncles, cousins and their children lived in the rest.  As children marry and families grow, most people don't move, but instead build a house next door, or, like Sushil's parents, add another level to the exhisting house.  The result is a collection of colourful, spacious houses that most Londoners can only dream of, but conspicuously short of possessions, as the region's legal minimum wage of ~£2 ($3) per day might imply.    

As the villagers (ie, family) go about their days, they walk amongst the houses and shout out to see if anyone's home, or ask a question.  Several of his cousins, and soon his brother, have settled into their arranged marriages, built homes next to their parents, and made a life for themselves with blue collar jobs in Sunder Nagar, supplemented with some crops and dairy from the fields and animals they tend.  There's an overwhelming sense of insularity and acquiescence in the village, like leaves floating down a stream; they've been set on a life path, centred around marriage, and peacefully and unquestioningly follow it.  On the last night in the village, Sushil’s father was, not for the first time, telling me in basic English that Sushil needs to be married within six months (sometimes it was four).  I asked if it wasn’t important for each person to also be happy in life, and he looked at me a bit uncomfortably answered “No.  No.”, and then told me his society expected it of him.      

It must be terribly hard for him, but I can say I am so proud of, and amazed by, Sushil.  Seeing the village, and meeting its people and their tiny, tiny world, it truly is amazing that Sushil has done what he has, moved away to Mumbai and now London, and has the mindset he has.  He’s truly exceptional.   And also very lucky that his parents elected to send him to the English language school rather than the Hindi.  His world of opportunities is so much larger than his Hindi-speaking cousins left in the village.  Everyone's life is a roll of the dice to some extent, but Sushil took that lucky roll and worked hard to turn it into a life for himself that he loves, in which he's comfortable and honest, and which would be unfathomable in the village.

The hills of Sushil's home state, Himachal Pradesh.

Sushil's father outside their house.

Sushil looking out at their fields.

Sushil's mom in her kitchen.

The grandparents' house, and Sushil's grandfather on the terrace.  His back is permanently bent at that angle, he can't get any more erect.  Life was very hard in India two generations ago.

My favourite bit of the house was this portal between the dining room and the kitchen where the men could request things from the kitchen.  Here Sushil is exchanging our dirty dishes for a bottle of beer.

There is no hot water in the house, so to bathe you first heat up a bucket of water with an immersion heater, and then wash yourself using a pitcher to scoop water from the bucket.

The road, heading out from the village towards Sunder Nagar.

Sunder Nagar

Sunder Nagar only has two big roads, the state highway and this shopping street, which feels like so much of urban India.

One of Sushil's cousins drove us around the area one day and we stopped to have some drinks at a restaurant with a terrace.  When I saw this guy there, I was shocked to see another tourist, as I hadn't since Chandigarh.  But turns out he's wasn't a tourist - he was our waiter and was as Indian as Sushil, right down to speaking the local language.

View from the terrace.

Sushil enjoying a local treat.

Me with the "suburbs" of Sunder Nagar behind.

On my last night, we got the whole clan into the dining room for dinner.        

Last, but not least, before going home, was Rajat's wedding, a full-on, multi-day affair.  Unfortunately, due to our work restraints and the timing required by the bride's and groom's stars, we were only able to attend the first (but most important) ceremonies.  The wedding was very much what you expect of an Indian wedding: huge, boisterous, colourful and accompanied by a neverending supply of food (and total dearth of alcohol).  It was great to see Sushil relax a bit away from the family, and to laugh and banter with his university friends.  One had decent English, so I was even able to give Sushil a bit of a break from summarising lengthy conversations into a sentence or two.    

By the end of the week, we were both ready to get back to London - out of the heat, back to our life together, and to take a break from curry.  The wedding also being in rural Himachal Pradesh, this of course meant a two-hour taxi ride to Shimla, then a flight to Delhi, connecting flight onward to Mumbai, where we stayed overnight before flying back to London.  Accessible, it ain't.  But worth every effort.

Traditionally, the groom would arrive at the bride's home on a white horse.  In modern India, a white sedan is the norm.

In our full wedding finest!

I loves me an Indian buffet!

The bride and groom, suitably understated.