Undrawing the Line: R.K.Laxman

He was the only public intellectual in India who could make sense of the nonsense. The good thing is that he would baulk at being referred to as an intellectual. R.K. Laxman is dead.

Those who think a cartoonist cannot be an intellectual just need to trace his work. He could pare down the tonnes of bibliography and tomes to one box. He distilled them and came up with a trenchant take.

While some of it made us smile, he was certainly not a comic. His work was political and social commentary at its best. And he exposed it without moral pretensions. You instinctively knew that he was not scoring any points or patting himself on the back, something that latter-day cartoonists in India seem to revel in.

He did not appear to be friends with politicians, but he was no enemy either. That imbued him with a practicality and it reached the reader as an objective and concerned voice.

His caricatures were precise, taking one sharp feature to delineate the personality. You knew Indira Gandhi would follow the moment you saw the nose line. I thought he captured her hauteur perfectly. There are many more of other leaders and I would urge you to look for them.

However, his creation of the common man surpassed everything else, so much so that the dhoti-clad, checked raggedy jacket, half bald caricature has become to represent the aam aadmi. No political caps claiming the common man will ever be able to take the place of the Laxman one, because it came from a penetrating eye and a deep sense of anguish that did not disappear to get political mileage.

His common man is an observer occasionally forced to be a participant. But he does not lose himself. And when the need arises he even contributes with his commonness to become rather special. This gesture is not covered with tinsel as a celebration, but rather subtly it gives us a peek into what equality really means.

R.K.Laxman does not need a photograph to be recognised. His lines are intimations of, pardon the hyperbole, immortality.


Obama, Modi and Chemistry

India's Republic Day has given an opportunity to leaders of two of the biggest democracies to showcase themselves.

The media, and the public that views TV, reads newspapers and is connected to social media, are all agog by the display of camaraderie. Does this in any manner indicate change in Indo-US ties? How good is it really for India?

That does not seem to be of any immediate interest. We are all lapping up trivia. It began the moment an invitation was sent and accepted. To the run-up we were told how roads would be cordoned off, how the four-layered security would work (including 12 dog officers arriving ahead of the visit to sniff out danger).

Obama's office sent out the message that there should be no terror attacks during his trip or there "would be consequences". There was no statesman-like no terror at any time before or after. This sort of arrogant and insensitive statement set the tone for what is clearly modern-day slavery where bonhomie buys acquiescence.

Narendra Modi broke protocol and went to receive Barack Obama. Images of him with the President and the First Lady after they alighted have sent the BJP supporters in a frenzy. Had this been the President of Nepal or Fiji Island would they feel as elevated?

Personally, I do not like over-familiarity between political leaders in the public space. It is less about warmth and more a public relations exercise. Both are conveying a message to their international constituencies.

Their lunch menu became news. Planting a sapling became a huge moment. And tea became "chai pe charcha", which Modi had used during his election campaign. He is apparently still campaigning.

At the joint press conference, Modi referred to the US president as "Barack". He spoke about chemistry between them. One is surprised he did not quote from Linda Goodman's sun signs to establish just how compatible they are.

The BJP had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal during Manmohan Singh's tenure. Today, Modi and Obama have taken this even further. Modi informed us that the US would be an ally in defence. He parroted the terror line. If the US is so confident about its defense, it would not bulldoze other countries.

The so-called largest democracies are really about both wanting to play Big Brother. Sometimes it is good. Mostly it is not and proves to be a nuisance to others.

As I write this, the droning sounds continue on TV. The breathless, "Oh my god!" tone of the anchors seems to convey they've never seen an American President with an Indian Prime Minister feeling so jolly good before. For them, I have a few images from Barack Obama's previous visit.

And Obama cancelled his proposed visit to the Taj Mahal to visit Saudi Arabia to condolence the death of the king. Joe Biden was already attending to that. Here, the Hindutva bhakts we already speaking about how the Taj was a temple once. Should they not, then, see it as a rejection to their claims, if not of this ancient heritage in preference for a dead Arab King?


The monk, misogyny and more

It is surprising that people are surprised only because a Buddhist monk got abusive. As with any other religious community, Buddhism would have its share of disgusting men of faith. 

Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu called human rights envoy Yangee Lee names:

"We have explained about the race protection law, but the b**** criticised the laws without studying them properly."

"Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn't make you an honorable woman. In our country, you are just a whore...You can offer your arse to the kalars (derogatory term for South Asians) if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State."

More than his statements, one must note that the crowd cheered. That is something we tend to miss, and therefore target the tree when the woods are alive with similar sounds. 

The condemnation by Thawbita, of the progressive Saffron Revolution Buddhist Monks Network, was rather revealing:

"The words used that day are very sad and disappointing. It is an act that could hurt Buddhism very badly."

How would such abuse tarnish the faith, and is that the only concern? 

Honestly, though, in drawing attention to the abusive man as a person of religion there appears to be implicit belief that he has morally wavered rather than pointing out the patriarchal notions embedded in religion. 

Name-calling invariably takes away from what is really abused. Wirathu has served time in prison; he is openly anti-Islam and anti-minority. Ms. Lee was speaking about the discrimination against them. After the monk's comments, she said:

"During my visit I was personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues."

However, all we get to read is that the monk called her a bitch and a whore. We don't seem to even want to address the issue of the abuse not being for who she is but for what she says. Indeed, women in such positions or with a political stand are sought to be reduced with such slurs. 

The idea is to keep women away from public space, again mainly because women tend to have a more humane perception of the world. Gender here is also about how it impacts social positions and therefore ought not to be relegated to a victim of misogyny narrative. 

Had the human rights envoy been a man, Wirathu would have had the same problem with the findings. But, he might not have called him names because he would assume they were equals, in that it would be gender reflection. Calling him a dick would resonate with his own, for example. 

Some monks have said there would be no action against him. Even if there was it would soon be forgotten. In the end, Yangee Lee's report seems to have lost to the more potent insults she was subjected to. In that, everybody has become a conspirator. 


Sunday ka Funda

I've been reading about how tomorrow, Januray 19, is going to be the pits. It has been marked as the "blue Monday" of 2015, although nobody will enlighten us as to who decides on our happiness and unhappiness in such a fashion and how this will be the only blue Monday to qualify as the one for the year.

There are experts too on the subject who say the weather, debts, Christmas hangover and low motivational levels will make us all morose. And, yes, they also add failed New Year resolutions, and it is only 19 days since some of us might have made them. Why the hurry to damn us?

Indian papers and news magazines have picked up this 'news', even though our weather does not swing all that much and Christmas, although celebrated with much joy, is not the same as it is in many western countries.

If these are the yardsticks for unhappiness, would the opposite hold true for happiness? Are we all alike in the way in which we respond to the weather, for example? Grey clouds are elevating for me, and for a gambler a few debts are part of the game. Anyway, how much can happen to one individual in a day? Will we all go back to smoking and ditching healthy eating habits together?

In that case, such social congruity ought to be reason to celebrate and be happy.

For those of us with less ambition, there is Berke Breathed who said, "It’s never too late to have a happy childhood."


What they won't tell you about pigs

Who would have imagined that a publishing house would ban the use of common words that are part of the daily routine of so many across the world?

Oxford University Press (OUP) has asked its textbook writers to keep out all references to pigs, pork, sausages and other pork-related items to avoid offending Jews and Muslims.

Refusing to comment beyond the official statement, OUP said, "...Our materials are sold in nearly 200 countries, and as such, and without compromising our commitment in any way, we encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities."

Was OUP hit by a bolt of lightning that it woke up to the fact that pigs don't fly with Muslims and Jews? It seems quite obvious that the publishers are latching on to the Charles Hebdo controversy to garner attention, and more control over the authorial voice. Although these are educational texts, and not academic or creative writing, the stringency is even more worrying.

Besides the obvious fallacy in disregarding that pigs, and pig products, are in the public domain, this amounts to essentially ghettoising societies and thereby demonising them. Did Muslims and Jews raise any objections collectively? Such second-guessing only builds up the reputation of intolerance of communities.

What is naturally available cannot possibly affect "cultural differences and sensitivities". One sees pigs and one sees pork, sausage and bacon on food counters, in restaurant menus and buffet tables.

 Even though pig is 'haraam' in Islam and not kosher for Jews, it cannot be wiped out from existence. And must not. 

For many of us, not eating pork is subconscious conditioning; there is no dramatic assertion of it being haraam or that casting an eye upon it would ensure purgatory. Muslim countries too stock pork in varied forms to cater to their expat population, pretty much the way they do for alcohol.

Does OUP want to censor the words associated with alcohol? No. Pigs, the publishing house knows, could trigger all kinds of subliminal messages. It is a good time for these.

 Those who find the move ludicrous are however not doing any good. The general observation is that according to Jewish law and Islam only the eating of pork is proscribed, not the mention of it. It need not be reiterated in this context. For, if the mention were proscribed in  scriptures of major faiths, it would not be common parlance at all.

It might help to remember that words too grow over a period of time to include tangential references that may not have been in the realm of understanding at a time far removed from the one we live in. 


The howl...

Nights seem more evanescent than days, even though the night passes without much occurrence. I cannot see the moon today. Possibly, there is no moon.

I am deeply fascinated by the idea of howling at the moon. Today, I felt like doing so. But I can't spot the moon. Such howling, where the wolf is said to invoke spiritual guidance, perhaps occurs in a state of cloudiness.

Spiritual guidance is often less mysticism and more a communion with oneself. We wish not to be guided so much as we want to be unknotted. The howl is more deeply-felt than any invocation conveys.

Censoring Gods and Aliens: The Neo Prophets

Published in CounterPunch, Jan 13

Why were religious sentiments not hurt when the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said at a conference, “We worship Lord Ganesha…There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery”? Is a new mythopoeia acceptable only when it is not in opposition to another?

A BJP campaign poster depicting Modi as Krishna

Contrast this with Hindu extremists burning posters and vandalising movie halls screening a film that they assert insults their gods. Now, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, those protesting against the film PK find themselves on the same side as the Islamists, who also believe they are ‘protesting’ against caricatured depictions of their faith.

The sudden volte-face by the Hindu rightwing for freedom of expression is typically self-righteous. Its adherents use what they believe to be a trump card: Islamists murder; we don't. This is not quite true, for they have even killed a rationalist for being a rationalist. Their enthusiastic liberalism regarding the caricatured portrayal of the Prophet of Islam while seeking to protect their own deities, who they themselves caricature, does not allow for an equitable empathy in the hurt stakes.

Us vs. Super Us

One of the cartoons that came up in the “Je suis Charlie” period had a plane flying into two pencils mimicking the Twin Towers. It uses the one act in contemporary history that has resulted in the peace-making colonisation of several countries. The drawing seems to suggest that the USA and all of the West as mighty upholders of free speech are threatened into silence. Such a theory will not brook a valid poser as to why a recent event like 9/11 needs to ‘barbarise’ the enemy, evident from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as well as the American audacity in assuming the role of lion tamer in an imagined circus.

Rupert Murdoch posted two tweets: “Maybe most Moslems (are) peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” and “Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy”.  His contention is less consequential than his belief that political correctness whitewashes what is inherently a serious problem.

J.K. Rowling responded with, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.” She is implying that any sensible person who has to accept responsibility for people they do not like should auto ex-communicate themselves, which sounds a lot like the self-annihilation by martyrs. In that, she turns out to be a Murdoch clone. She later writes, “The Spanish Inquisition was my fault, as is all Christian fundamentalist violence.  Oh, and Jim Bakker.” Don’t rub it in. Televangelists do contest presidential polls in the West.

Political correctness when combined with a sense of entitlement is deeply problematic for it constantly seeks affirmation of narrow versions of good. The Muslim who saves the Jew, the Christian, and the Hindu is the only one who can be trusted. Such acceptance that expects this sort of saving as penance for what bad Muslims do is not too different from evangelism.

FoE vs. FoE

A creative work that uses extremism as inspiration cannot exist in a vacuum. However, nobody can claim their creation to be a definitive statement on any religion, simply because there are just so many ways of interpreting. Yet, how many are willing to accept that their art (and poetic license) is, in the words of Roger Fry, “significant deformity”?

In the past, Charlie Hebdo used a guest editorial titled “halal aperitif”, where ‘Mahomet’ says, “Ennahda promises (Tunisians) that their personal freedoms will remain and it will not introduce Sharia law. Ha, ha, no kidding? Why should a religious party take power except to impose its ideas.” There were protests. In a 2011 CounterPunch piece, I had written:

The real editor Charb was, of course, shocked at the pre-release hostility: “Why do people only get angry when we attack religion? We are just commenting on a news story. We are not presenting Mohammed as an extremist.” An attack on anything, including religion, should be clean and sharp, not with a blunted knife. This is not a news story because Tunisians died fighting.
When his film Viswaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu for its portrayal of Islamist terror, Kamal Haasan had said

"I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in...If I can't find it within India, I will hopefully find another country, which is secular that might take me in. M F Husain had to do it, and now Hassan will do it.”

Artist M.F. Husain — who accepted Qatar citizenship – did not have a work banned. His museum was burned down; he was threatened. These were not fringe elements, but members of a political party. As regards leaving the state for a secular haven, that is what the fringe elements credo is. It questions secularism.

The onus on some as opposed to others in the free speech battle is against freedom.  On Husain’s death his peer S.H. Raza, who had chosen to live abroad for 60 years, stated:

“If I had been in his place where some of my ideas or paintings offended the Hindu community I would have apologized, explained myself and talked it over. I don’t know if that was done…one has to be very careful in these things.”

Raza left of his own accord; no one shunted him out. The peculiar problem with Husain was that his support group too accepted him because he was mainstream enough for using Hindu mythology.  His liberty was conditional to their theist-political appeasement.

Verity vs. Veritable

In India members of parliament who wear saffron robes and are referred to by their religious titles of ‘swami’ and ‘sanyasi’, ironically, object to religious interference in matters of state in the form of political Islam. Almost anything in the public sphere can be seen as a threat to bolster this image. In the case of anti-PK protests, we must not see them in isolation, for the subplots expose intent. 

They accused the male lead Aamir Khan, who happens to be Muslim, of a jihadi agenda and being sponsored by Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI. As ridiculous as these accusations are, it becomes clear that nobody is protecting the gods. What bothers them is that the female lead is in love with a Pakistani. That this story has appeared against the repulsive anti love jihad backdrop makes their position most laughable, endorsed as the Pakistani is by an alien, the main character, a non-sectarian, non-denominational and therefore a balanced and presumably secular entity.

Curiously, even those applauding the movie are not commending it for cross-border love, revealing some amount of discomfort. The approbation is for exposing charlatans and questioning blind belief, a charade carried out almost every evening in the news programmes with their own charlatans sitting in outraged judgment.

Much of the debate has concentrated on "hurt Hindu sentiments". This is shaky territory, for Hindus revel in the display of images of gods and goddesses, whose idiosyncrasies devotees worship according to their specific needs. For the ritualistic, it is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship. They have watched many performances of the Ramlila. Watching the human enactment of godly powers by actors wearing cardboard crowns and fighting with cardboard swords does not shake their faith; if anything, these depictions democratise the gods.

In many ways the alien in PK too is a quasi-mythical figure — unreal, from another planet but human in sentiment. He picks up clothes, language, and mannerisms on earth. This is akin to how deities are bedecked and acquire qualities to make them accessible, even believable, to the believers. But the alien and the deities both need to be from another world for them to be the moral voice.

Senior leader of the rightwing L.K. Advani, who had in 1992 taken out a rally riding a Toyota rath (a religious symbolic wagon) to protest against the Babri Masjid, and subsequently its demolition, endorsed the film. The cart-before-horse liberals lauded him for saying, “...all patriots (have) a duty to ensure that nothing weakens the unity of the country – neither caste nor community nor language nor region, and certainly not religion”. The emphasis on religion and the responsibility of patriots is precisely what Hindu extremists talk about.

As the film is about to reach a denouement when the alien would finally trace the lost key to his kingdom, there is a bomb blast at the train station. His messenger of glad tidings gets killed. Without any investigation, it is inferred that an Islamist group committed the act. Deviously, it does so without blaming anybody but speaking the “not all Muslims are like that" language.

Muslims did not object to this depiction. It only proves that social stereotypes are taken for granted and not considered offensive although they affect everybody much more than any mythology or religion ever can.