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March 16, 1998


Farzana Versey E-Mail this story to a friend

Beholden to the law?

If I could sue people for various niggling things, then I'd probably have to start with my mother for encouraging me to be an Sunil Krishnan's collage independent-thinking being. A lot of people hate that.

Then I could take these people, who hate this aspect of me, to court for trying to belittle my selfhood. If I were in the US, I'd probably make about $1,00,000 as a 145 kg woman did when the federal court directed the state to compensate her for not having hired her on grounds of obesity.

"This is litigation run wild," commented a political science professor. But Adam Cohen of the American Civil Liberties Union wants ugly people too to be protected against discrimination, "People don't realise how pervasive the preference for the beautiful is in our society, starting with teachers who give attractive children better grades. There is nothing wrong with giving people who have a hard life a legal remedy."

But who is to judge the quality or extent of ugliness? Just as beauty is difficult to stratify, specially where parochial and other interests come in. A contestant is crowned a local beauty queen because she gives a 'smart' reply. So where do we pin our sagacity?

Margaret Carlson had written in an essay, "The struggle for a tolerant society… is a worthy goal. But neither resources nor public sympathy is limitless. Treating the discrimination against someone who is fat alongside that of someone who is a paraplegic is part of an effort by special interest groups in the US to make all suffering equal so that all remedies will be equal too."

Although difficult, we do know that some scars may not heal. But if we work on the principle of retribution, then, perhaps there may be fewer scars. Like the Israeli siblings, two brothers and a sister, both over 30, who have been granted the right to sue their father for compensation for the "serious emotional handicap" they suffered after he abandoned them and their mother committed suicide. They were shunted to orphanages, and their father did not visit them even once, which the court felt was a denial of the minimum relationship vital for their health."

I support this. Most people merely live with their tears or learn to get on with life. When my cousin died at a well-known hospital, his doctor-sister from the US attributed it to negligence. We were, of course, disturbed, and I was ready to expose the negligence. I wanted to talk to the authorities and I wanted my cousin to give me medical and emotional input. She flatly refused to be quoted. What is more, the others said they found the hospital staff very co-operative. So who is to judge? And if there are slimy cats, who is going to bell them?

Or will rights be the wool we leave at the door and let others get entangled in? I am afraid if some societies don't know where to stop, others don't know when to start.

Collage: Sunil Krishnan

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Farzana Versey