Adam, Darwin and Androids

Creationism need not be equated with religion. Science too deals with the intangible. All hypotheses are based on possibilities; that the possibility is not god does not make a difference to the idea of belief in exploring it.

Through the Evolving Door
Adam, Darwin and Androids
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, March 30

Science has a problem with morality, but will create a robot with a conscience. Is there a difference between insecure theism and insecure science? Neither accepts an element of doubt – doubting of its completeness in isolation to all else.

One can accept such righteousness from religion, but why would a man of science who discusses ‘intelligent design’, the belief that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, be sacked from his job at NASA? David Coppedge has taken the organisation where he was part of the “team lead” exploring Saturn and its moons to court. They say he was “pushing religion”. This is distressing even for those of us who are not theists. Scientific inquiry cannot live in a bubble, and ignore that many more people pray to some god or the other rather than to test tubes.

Such a stand reeks of arrogance, besides being as irrational as it considers faith to be. Was it necessary for Coppedge to treat Darwin as god to be able to pursue his scientific mission? In an interview to Creation in 2005, Michael Tigges, a Senior Aerospace Engineer at NASA, and a practising Christian, had made a fine distinction between operational science and evolutionary theories:

“By operational science, I mean to say science that deals with the outcome of repeatable scientific experiments. For example, if I design a trajectory that returns men from the moon using the Earth’s atmosphere as a braking mechanism, then this approach can be simulated and tested and verified regardless of my “belief” in the age of the Earth or the mechanism of creation of life on this planet. If you carry this train of thought through, there is very little operational science that is affected by the creation v. evolution dispute. Regardless of a decision in this matter, computers still operate, stars and planets maintain their orbits, and planes and rockets still fly.”

Around the time that the Coppedge case came into focus, by sheer coincidence, science had decoded a way to point out longevity. With one blood test, you are armed with such amazing information that “measures the length of a person's telomeres, which are the pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. As cells keep dividing with age, the telomeres get shorter and shorter.” Jerry Shay, professor and vice chairman of cell biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, played safe by stating that “although the test is an indicator of biological age and is possibly a factor in determining life span, it cannot definitively predict how long a person will live”.

Like religion, science uses obfuscation. It is not about how old you will live to be, but how old you look. At $700 a prick, this caters to vanity as much as it does to posterity that mortality will allow for. These are tantalising areas, and the human spirit thrives on hope. It is not much different from a cosmetic makeover, or even an astrological prediction. Shay admits: “This is likely to spur a whole bunch of snake oil.” Worse, it would make insurance companies the beneficiaries of prior intimation of life and death.


Science has often intruded into abstract human concepts as well as emotions. To the extent that these can be medically comprehended, it makes sense. However, is there any reasonable basis to treat racism with a pill? There are psychological dimensions to it, but how would it address the social dynamics? The suggestion that a drug for anxiety and panic, Propranolol, can be an answer has serious implications. If racism is based on such fears, then it transforms an attitude into an illness, taking no account of the malice and mayhem it causes. The world is not an asylum, and racists consider what they are doing as normal and, more importantly, as a right to superiority.

Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck said:

“Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. Given the key role that such implicit attitudes appear to play in discrimination against other ethnic groups, and the widespread use of propranolol for medical purposes, our findings are also of considerable ethical interest.”

Can values be measured? And how free is the thinking when they have to work within the parameters of what is before them and not beyond? Where is the space for individualism? This is rather intriguing. And just when humans are losing track of their consciences, Spain designed the world’s first robot with a ‘conscience’. Unlike other androids that are programmed to act in specific ways, AlSoy-1 is adaptable. It was conceived to provide company to the user, but its main objective is simulate the human that “senses, has emotions and makes decisions”. With the weight of a newborn, the robot “is almost a living being. It has the same activity as a living being, it has its own autonomy and conscience”, said Diego Garcia, one of its creators. It also has a series of “basic needs, like nourishment and security, and other more advanced ones, like love, recognition, freedom and, above all, enjoying itself and getting along well”.

The whole idea behind robotics has been to assist humankind in its endeavour to learn from and improve upon existing material. Does the idea of an independent robot really serve the purpose? It is said that if two of these androids were placed in different environments they would take on the characteristics of the two places. Therefore, are they capable of taking decisions or are they being subjected to decisions already adapted within the given environs they have been placed in?


What has adaptability got to do with the conscience? The conscience is not based on outside factors. It is an area of light in the darkness, a soul-seeking moment, a clarity that comes from a value system that has been ingrained but is often forgotten. The conscience, when it does rise to the occasion, is not independent of the motives that gave it birth. It is a product of a certain frame of reference and may differ in individuals because of cultural, intellectual and personal factors.

Will the robot pick up those signals that are invisible or will it assume them to be ‘conscience’ signals when they could just be a bunch of moralistic ideas that are thrust upon us in everyday life? Having acquired this conscience, what exactly will the robot do? Is it supposed to live its mechanical life with ethics or to show us the mirror? If it is the latter, then the mirror has been cracked several times by our automated behaviour.

Why imbue an android with perception skills when ways of seeing are prisms? These experiments dehumanise the human. It is like the creator becoming the created.

Creationism, or whatever word is employed, need not be equated with religion. Science too deals with the intangible. All hypotheses are based on possibilities; that the possibility is not god does not make a difference to the idea of belief in exploring it. Many scientific discoveries have been born of serendipitous moments, from apples to bathtubs. The scientist is, therefore, not always a rationalist. As regards unquestioning faith in a religion, how many of us question gravity or relativity or the speed of light? These do not affect us in real terms, so we take them for granted. Believers do the same with god.

Faith makes no claims to logic. In fact, it could well be a Pavlovian response. If we are spoonfed by scriptures, then it is not much different with science. The religious evangelist sells us the idea of light; the scientific evangelist markets the discovery of the light bulb. Genesis, anyone? For a curious mind, both can be imagined even in a tunnel.

(c) Farzana Versey


The President and the Hoodie

He won’t utter the R word. He won’t call it racism. His job matters. It took the President of the United States of America one month to comment on the gruesome killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white guy with a weapon. His crime? He was black. The President of the United States of America will not say it.

Instead he said:

“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

If he had a sister, she’d look like Whitney Houston. What does this really convey? Nothing.

He wants to humanise it, make the Americans feel like they are one big family. It is such a lie, such a lie in Georgia, in Harlem, in the fetid streets where they don’t give a damn about who is looking, but they can beat the shit out of the ‘other’. Yeah, sure, not all whites have jobs, not all whites have it good. No. they do not. But he knows it is different. He ought to know for when he became the first black president of the United States of America he was basking in his blackness, this otherness, this chance to bring about change. He did not. He could not. He became just another mainstream guy, as white as snow. Even the white Cheney looks evil. But not our man Obama.

One month later he wakes up from his sleep to tell his people:

“I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. Every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

How? He does not know? Of course, there should be investigations; for that he did not need 30 days. He does not have to pull up all American parents, and ride on their backs. He can express his views. He must stand up for what is right and what is wrong legally, criminally, and racially. He should have the courage to utter the word and not push it under the carpet like so much dust.

If he had come out earlier, there would not be scenes of little kids holding placards in the streets, crying for justice. Already, there are attempts at giving another perspective, anonymous eyewitnesses. It is a shame to see black wearing hoodies, making it beyond a symbol of cultural clothing. It is eerie that they are highlighting it, for it could become one more reason to be beaten up, easily identified as they are. They are not wearing sharp suits and designer gowns and getting their athletic healthy training with organic food added to their menu.

No, mastah, they dun have it so good.

(c)Farzana Versey

Sunday ka Funda

How can one always express? How do we answer questions, ask questions, care about what people say? I don't know. And I don't know what this song has to do with it, but I like it. 

"mushakil ho arz-e-haal to hum kya jawaab de
tumko na ho khayaal to hum kya jawaab de
duniya kare sawaal tau hum kya jawaab de"

Movie: Bahu Begum
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music Director: Roshan
Lyricist: Sahir Ludhianvi
Actors/Actresses: Meena Kumari
Year: 1967


A close shave?

Imagine if one fine day men turned around and said they want all women to wear lipstick or they will not listen to them. Sounds bizarre? Something quite similar is happening. The “No Shave, No Lipstick” movement by a razor company is reducing women, men and relationships to such basic common denominators.

It is true products use several tactics to subliminally convince potential and existing customers to go for better options. Will an ad such as this convince men who like their facial hair to shave? If it does, then it reflects rather poorly on male self-esteem, and much more poorly on how women strike a bargain. This is a strike of a petulant kind. The women will let go a bit of vanity, a cosmetic, to ensure that men turn up the way the majority supposedly like them. The implication in the words is that women are exercising this power. In fact, they are denying themselves something. Or, worse, assume that their appeal lies in what they wear on their lips. They are limiting themselves.

The “common platform” is an “aversion to stubble”. The basic philosophy is that if men cannot groom themselves for women then they must not expect the same from them.

Is there a single yardstick to measure grooming? Is it all right for the man to be unhygienic, loud and crass so long as he shaves? What exactly does the ad wish to convey by saying that men think a woman looks less appealing without a lipstick? There are thousands of women who do not wear lipstick, and I mention this because the ‘movement’ has talked about middle-class women too. And don’t we often read in style magazines how the nude-lips look is so in? What about it, then? Besides, the lipstick is an external object that can be applied. A stubble grows naturally. A man may not be able to deal with it immediately or everyday – he could be unwell, he may not be in the mood, he might be busy with other things. This is a kind of pressure to perform, and it is unfair.

I also dislike the manner in which words are used to describe the hirsute man as untrustworthy, giving rise to suspicion that he could be hiding something. He is hiding his chin, if at all, and sometimes this could be the real reason. Like women opting for a fringe if they have large foreheads. Although clean-shaven is mentioned, I am intrigued by the reference to stubble, and not a moustache.

On the other hand, guys who shave are confident, affable and hardworking. There is a small little footnote which says the ad is not intended to hurt the sentiment of any gender or community. This is about men and men with hair on their face. So, forget the hurt, the message could rule out the good qualities of people from certain communities. Are Sikhs not trustworthy? Are Muslims not hardworking? Do cultures where many men sport beards, like Malayalis or the goatee among Bengalis, less affable?

Perhaps the women who are taking part in this silly movement, wasting their time to support it, should ask the organisers to give them a list of criminals in the past few years who have not been clean-shaven. Ask them to provide a list of wife-beaters, drunken drivers, those with poor performance in the office, those who slink in corners waiting to molest, rob, even kill. Ask them to check out what the clean-shaven men wear, if their shoes are polished, whether they bathe regularly.

Let us not forget, there are women who might like men with facial hair. Think about some artists, philosophers, scientists, academics, and even pop stars. If, in the latter case, women can cry out of sheer joy if they get hold of a sweat-soaked T-shirt, then they certainly cannot really mind the stubble.

And if they really care about ‘issues’ they should wake up to reality. I know, I can hear those smirking voices say, chill, this is an ad. But an ad is not just an ad, especially if it purports to be a movement. We have reached a stage where everything is a movement, and it assumes the stupidity of women by making them seen like ‘concerned citizens’, in charge of the whole ‘clean up’ operation, so to speak.

And the poor dears are sacrificing their lipsticks for this. They do not realise that some smart chap might flash the razor in front of them as bait. They are just fishes in the huge sea…

PS: I wonder whether men trust women who do not shave.


Mine and The Artist's Silence

I watched The Artist during a silent phase recently. Not that I wasn’t expressing myself or talking to people; it was just a time when tranquillity got superimposed over words. The sentences seemed to wait. If what I had to say was happy, then there would be a lingering haze of anticipation. If there was tumult I felt, then it became a silent scream.

Does it mean that I imposed my inner self on the film or did the film awaken me to that silence in a manner where it became deafening? I usually ‘see’ a film to be able to read between the scenes and see through it. It is not a taxing process, for it happens naturally. However, taking this particular movie experience, I think about how instead of cinema manipulating us we manipulate it. This is not about emotions and feelings where we laugh and cry with the characters or at the situations. It is a philosophical exploration of ourselves as observers and the observed.

The Artist appears to be deceptively simple. It is about George Valentin, a celebrated star of the silent movie era, a young aspirant Peppy Miller who does bit roles but is ambitious and loyal. What seems to be contradictory aspects in an industry where stepping on toes is part of the game becomes a revelation about how one in fact emboldens the other, and how trapped we are in ways of seeing.

The moment when she sits in his dressing room and caresses his coat and it morphs into him is about how a fancy can be real, for he comes in at the very moment. Among the barely few subtitles, the one here says, “If you want to be an actress, you must have something that is different” and he takes a make-up pencil and marks a small dot on her face. The kind Marilyn Monroe had. It is a beauty spot; it is also the quiet contribution to her life.

From their unspoken and unexpressed relationship – part of the silence – what emerges are the subtle changes in the outside world. The advent of talking films will spell the death of his career. That moment when he stands before the mirror shrieking and we cannot hear him is heart-wrenching. Had the film not been silent, we would not have heard the scream so potently.

Silence is a metaphor throughout. About gagging of the old era, shutting out, shutting in, and how true fidelity is unfussy and hushed up. The dog stands for it; the Man Friday does and so does the young woman whose love remains leashed but which can be legitimately articulated through loyalty. At the auction, she is the bidder hiding behind the visible bidders. Instead of displaying all his mementoes, the grand statues, the furniture and trying to replace his stardom by replicating him, she preserves them in a room covered with cloth. In the stillness of the room one can perform a post-mortem, but every shroud reveals more than it hides. It bleeds.

It is in these layers of covers, of spools of film, of held-back emotions, of the absence of colour, of the musical as a bridge between the talkie and the silent film, of exaggerated pantomime where only the body speaks words that veins burst.

So, where does the viewer come in? I could have looked at the film as either a brave one or as ‘cute’ or even an interesting gimmick. How did celluloid silence and my own become one? Is there identification? In parts, yes. But it is, as I mentioned earlier, how we ‘characterise’ ourselves through such a symbiotic relationship with characters. It is beyond an “Ah, yes, it could be this, it could be that”. It is a manifestation that is truly unspoken.

From the scream that resonated without a sound to the stillness of the dog’s bark to the frantic appeal of the girl to the tickety clicking of toes and heels in the dance, I realised the preciousness of what we speak when we do not speak at all.

(c)Farzana Versey


Should Modi's Time-ing Affect Muslims?

I do not like Narendra Modi, but I find it unacceptable that there should be objections to a cover story on him. Would there be such a reaction if it were not Time magazine and a local one? Are there no op-ed pieces praising him often within the country?

A Muslim organisation based in the US has decided to react. The headlines say “Muslims” object. Which Muslims? The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) sitting in the US is called “an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India's pluralist and tolerant ethos” and has condemned the cover story on Modi as “a dismal PR exercise intended to whitewash Mr. Modi's complicity in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002”. If it is a PR exercise – and Time magazine cannot claim to be radical – then it is hollow, and even more reason not to give it so much importance.

But, hitting out at straws has replaced dealing with issues:

"Although TIME's cover story is not an endorsement, it contains inaccuracies, half-truths…Mr. Narendra Modi as the potential Prime Minister of India is a diplomatic and moral conundrum for the United States and other countries of common human values.”

This is kneejerk reaction, and I object for a few reasons:

  • This organisation does not represent Indian Muslims
  • So long as there is no attempt at glorifying violence against any group, the story has every right to project who it wants in whatever light.
  • Time magazine does not decide who becomes the prime minister of India or which party will come to power. The majority of the electorate does not go by such coverage.
  • People are not fools that a PR firm trying to clear the image of its client will negate his role in the Gujarat riots. By even suggesting this, the expat organisation reduces the concerns of the local population in India and the consistent battles fought by people like Zakia Jaffri and Bilkees Banu.
  • They have no business in meddling in our affairs. On what grounds do these migrants to America equate India with the US and countries with “common human values” when the US’s record is abysmal?
Another comment:

In 2005, the US State Department, in an unprecedented move, placed a ban on Mr. Modi from entering the US on the grounds of egregious religious freedom violations under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Right. How does a magazine cover feature change anything? The US State Department itself does not always go by “facts” that IAMC is saying the article lacks. There are a number of people who are under vigilance by the American establishment. Does one assume that a PR exercise on their behalf by their supporters would alter perceptions? Empowering the US to make tacit decisions conveys a lack of self-esteem and, more importantly, projects it as a general Muslim need.

IAMC has also called upon the Brookings Institution to salvage its credibility as a think-tank by conducting an official study into the situation in Gujarat both on the human rights and the economic front, instead of merely repeating Mr. Modi's fallacious claims.

On what basis can an international think-tank be granted the power to conduct an “official” study? There are several reports and cases from Indian agencies. These are the ones that may be relied upon. The appeal to Time magazine to run another story from the human rights point of view is really pathetic. All sensible Indians should protest against this ridiculous idea. It will do greater PR for Modi than his agency purportedly has done, for it will prove his ‘fearsome’ reputation. The US and the west love leaders who bulldoze.

Here are a some quotes from the Time piece:

"Modi, 61, is perhaps the only contender with the track record and name recognition to challenge Rahul Gandhi."

Any article that puts Modi, a seasoned politician, against Rahul Gandhi is worth a laugh. If I were Modi, I’d want to disown the article just for this.

"It's Modi in makeover mode: an act of self-purification, humility and bridge building in a state that is still traumatised by the Hindu-led anti-Muslim massacres of 10 years ago and the flawed investigations in their wake...”

This, in fact, makes it look like the chief minister is a sinner put in the Confession box.

"Many Indians recoil at any mention of a man whose name is indelibly linked to Gujarat's brutality of 2002; choosing him as India's leader would seem a rejection of the country's tradition of political secularism and a sure path to increased tension with Muslim Pakistan, where he is reviled.”

This is not the whitewashing of Modi, but of the US administration that is always finding new ways to try and control Pakistan, and “increased tension” is just what it wants. Indians give as much leverage to the Pakistani view of Modi as Pakistan does to India’s opinion on their political leadership.

"But when others think of someone who can bring India out of the mire of chronic corruption and inefficiency of a firm, no-nonsense leader who will set the nation on a course of development that might finally put it on par with China they think of Modi.”

There are different versions in India about Gujarat’s development, and as I have said often Narendra Modi is a regional leader, quite happy ruling a small kingdom. He can manage the elite among his 5 crore Gujaratis, but not all Indians. Most industries keep special funds for corruption purposes; what they dislike is red-tape. It is easy for Modi to do away with it as he was establishing a brand and consolidating it.

"In the decade since that carnage, dozens of individual rioters have been convicted, but the state has never had to answer accusations that it failed to halt the violence: no top officials have been held accountable or had conspiracy charges proved against them.”

This is nothing new. Time magazine is not going to solve this problem, and those who get swayed by falsehoods are already amenable to such a viewpoint.

As regards glorification, it starts at home, in India. He is an elected chief minister, and it is the system that has to deal with what went wrong and how to correct it.

(c) Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

The sun won't shine till the clouds are gone
The clouds won't go till their work is done
And every morning you'll hear me pray
If only it would rain today

Heavy cloud, but no rain - Sting


Pakistan on an Indian Spiritual Trip

The guru in Pakistan

I stood in the sun, eyes blinking. On that dry Delhi summer afternoon of parched throats and heat without sweat, I was waiting in the queue outside the visa collection window of the Pakistan High Commission. People started exchanging notes. The moment they discovered I had been there before, the questions were rapid: Do you have family there? What are the good places to visit, shop, eat? Are they like us? I became a Pakistani expert, until I saw someone watching me with a bemused smile.

He was a tall lanky man with longish hair that he kept pushing behind his ear in a rather effeminate manner. In that line of nervous people waiting to know whether they had been granted entry, he seemed supremely confident. “So, you’ve been to Pakistan before?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said, now that I was the ‘source’ the group around us had made me into.

“Is this your first time?” I asked.

By way of explanation, he opened a file. The sun was beating down and there was just too much light to read. I shrugged. “Many times,” he said. “For how long do you plan to stay?”

“I’ve applied for a month again, let’s see. And you?”

“Six months.”

“What? Do they give a visa for six months?”

He had a boyish grin that did not quite go with what he was about to tell me:
“I teach.”

“Oh, ok…” I was not sure if asking anything more would be deemed proper. He held up that file again.

“Actually, I teach the art of living.”

When spoken, it sounded like he was teaching Pakistanis the fine art of going about with their lives. But, obviously, he was a tutor with the Art of Living Foundation.

"Do you know about it?"

"Of course. They let you stay there for this?"

I must admit I was envious because of my own experience with visas. I was fairly certain then that there was a spiritualist inside me waiting to come out.

I got my passport and, unfortunately, just then he was called to furnish some papers, so no contact details were shared. If only I had looked at the file he had opened for me. Perhaps, he did not wish to make a public display.

I was curious then as I am now about how in a supposedly Islamic country there was enough space for such quick fix spiritual solutions. I met a few local soothsayers, too. One particular palmist was very popular in Karachi; people would go in their cars and stick their hands out. It sounded like a takeaway joint, only bizarre and fascinating. My friends took me there, but he wasn’t around on that day. The fact is that despite the Islamisation, these kinds of activities have been prevalent.

I recall this now because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, visited the country recently. I am amazed at the manner in which his trip has been portrayed in the media. ‘He is going to teach the Taliban to de-stress...this is a peace mission’, they say.

Quite naturally, he is not going to let go of this opportunity to appear as more than a soul spa. So he said:

“All those who fight have fear and concerns; they want to feel valuable. Our techniques give them a sense of well-being and calmness, and once the inner calmness happens, the feeling of wanting to fight and the urge for revenge disappears.”

Why has he not tried that in India? We have terror groups, criminal gangs, separatist organisations. He has met some, but will he dare to approach them to stop taking revenge? Can anyone imagine the Taliban members doing a breathe in-breathe out?

This is nonsense only to project the guru as someone with a higher purpose, and a vague Taliban rather than real criminals come in handy. Besides that, he is treading on dangerous ground by getting involved in politics:

“We want to talk with the Taliban in Pakistan. We’ll go in with an open mind, to find out who they are, their problems and their intentions—that has always been my approach.”

He is talking about the ‘we’ of his organisation, not as an Indian. I am surprised that there has been no objection to this. Even ministers who appear in studios with people who are considered enemies of India are lambasted. Those writing anything positive about Pakistan are questioned. And here we have this man talking about an “open mind” regarding the Taliban.

And how are the Pakistanis taking this? Do they not complain about their nation being run over by the Taliban?

At the time of the Lal Masjid incident when Islamabad was supposedly under siege, there were Pakistanis in deep meditation at the Art of Living Foundation, not to solve the country’s problems or shut them out, but to detoxify their indulgences. There are 5000 such people. It is part of one more salon trip.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s mission is possible because he is not interested in really doing anything. If that were the case, then the government as well as the Taliban would have found ways to keep him away. His is a commercial venture, catering primarily to the elite or to those among them who want to ‘help’ others through pop philanthropy.

There is nothing more to it than this. However, it just does not sound important enough. After all, this is Pakistan. Both Pakistanis and the guru need to make it seem like ‘peace’, one of the most abused words in the Indo-Pak context. It takes on the pugnacity of a war-like situation.

This is the guru’s hope trick and ticket.

(c)Farzana Versey

Sexist media

There is much to get excited, I understand. But even a discussion on the Budget reveals how mainstream media needs to sex up everything. Unfortunately, it indulges in horrible sexism. Here are two examples from the Times of India.

Do women smokers outnumber men? Why use the image of a tribal woman to say that "Pranab sticks it to smokers"? Besides the obviously skewed use of image, it also implies that men can afford to smoke. Such 'affordability' is not just financial but also about socially acceptability.

There is a place for pulchritude; this is not it. It stares you in the face. Again, it demeans women. The headline: "Gold fingered, by customs".


Prostitution and Marriage

The married

Is the place that is a “village of prostitutes” its identity or its infamy? In what appears to be a hope-filled initiative, there is an element of sadness. It is apparently the first time since independence that eight daughters of sex workers from Wadia, a village in Gujarat, got married.

Here is what happened:

Wadia was shunned for ages as it was known as a village of prostitutes. But, Sunday was different. Grooms in colourful turbans strutted into the venue brandishing swords. They came in various vehicles, including bikes, autorickshaws and trucks.

I have a problem with the publicising of the event. A minister and the district collector were present. I know of and have met sex workers in the filthiest red-light areas in the congested lanes of Mumbai, and am aware that quite a few of them have got married. They strive to keep their children away, or at least ensure that they get some education. The girls are not always safe, but there are voluntary agencies that attempt to minimise their getting co-opted into the profession.

Many of the children think that a favourite or regular client is their father; however, the mothers fear for the budding bodies and how the ‘father’ might well turn his attention to the young girl sooner rather than later. Such marriages have to be seen holistically: What prompts the customer? Is it altruism or the possibility of turning into a pimp? (Incidentally, they too become prospective grooms and might use the girl’s past to ensure her future.)

Among the 3000 people who witnessed the wedding in the village, some would be clients. The grooms came from elsewhere – what were they brandishing swords for? It can be reasonably assumed that these men would not be from a higher caste or economic status, therefore even though tradition might demand such symbolic display of valour – an exceedingly sexist idea under ‘normal’ circumstances too – it sends out the wrong message. It also draws attention to these people who could be taken aside by some guests and given a sort of tittering lowdown on the performance possibilities of their new brides. The jealousy quotient of the male has been subsumed into a shareholding stake, to put it bluntly.

There will be some young women who can lead regular lives once they move out of the village, but it will only be possible if they hide their identity. They will be completely dependent on the man. What if things do not work out between them? What if he pushes her into the profession and lives off her earnings? Most are brought up in the brothels and are not trained in the role expected of home-makers. To suddenly want them to transform into cooking and cleaning machines would put a good deal of pressure on them. Also, I dread to think about what could happen if the woman gets pregnant early. The question dangling over her head might well be: Whose child is it?

My scepticism is not unfounded. The report further states:

Besides the wedding, 12 minor girls were also engaged. “If a woman gets married or engaged in Wadia, she is not forced into prostitution by villagers. We have been able to protect these girls from flesh trade,” said Raju Param of Vicharti Jaati Samuday Samarthan Manch, which is spearheading reforms in Wadia.
The engaged

It is astonishing that 64 years since independence no government has intervened, no NGOs have been successful in altering the perception and the reality although it is a known place. It is not about scattered sex workers who cannot be traced and rehabilitated. I do not have a moral position regarding prostitution; it is the herding of them, their exploitation and the fact that they get tainted while the men who patronise them remain invisible and can lead respectable lives in the same village that is of concern.

How can the children be forced into the profession right under the eyes of what are endearingly termed “village elders”? Child marriage is illegal, so the minors have got engaged. This rules out any consent. Again, this is common in conservative societies (how interesting that they have to mimic such conservatism), but what happens during the period until marriage? They are ‘taken’ in a different context, yet there could be taunts, their mothers’ histories will be revisited, if not their present. Have all the mothers stopped their work?

Once the children grow up, what if the boy rejects his fiancée? And dreadful as the thought is, what if the girl watching her mother’s fading allure decides to replace her and be the provider?

None of these questions is speculation. I have seen people in similar situations from the community of sex workers. That is the reason I hope, but with trepidation.

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I have deleted the post-script. Completely agree that mentioning Modi here takes away from the topic and questions I raise.

(c) Farzana Versey

Soldiers as Terrorists: The Smaller Afghan Wars

It makes one wonder whether one man did it. It makes one wonder whether the administration is covertly drumming up the negative sentiment.

The Smaller Afghan Wars
Soldiers as Terrorists
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, March 13
Also published in Countercurrents, March 14

The sun had not risen. In the dark, a man walked into homes of people and killed nine children, four women, three men. This is what criminals do, what terrorists do. But the western mainstream media has found a nice term: “rogue US soldier”.

Think about a rakish guy in a Western, disguised as an ornery chap, to expose the evil and get rid of those who eye the holy land he represents. The great white hopes that make the world aware, send their reporters to ‘war-torn areas’ at much risk – a risk that is created by their countries’ overlords – portray what often suits the administration. They are the PR men.

The man who killed 16 people without provocation has not been named. No journalist has tried to find out, despite the varying versions of whether he was arrested or gave himself in. They will be on first-name basis with members of the Taliban and even the victims of the atrocities of the jihadis. They will give you the despicable faces, the helpless faces. If they can do this to their own people, they suggest, can you imagine what they will do when they land up at our door?

The killings of civilians in Afghanistan, shocking as it is, only embolden the viewpoint that the US administration has used self-righteousness to attack the country and it is using a similar superior attitude to exit. Such an attitude affects the forces that have been indoctrinated. It makes every drone strike into a crusade.

The murders by a terrorist soldier are being explained against the background of the burning of the Quran by the US forces. The violence had resulted in protests; six US servicemen were killed. In a theory that serves to prop up political opportunism, this makes it look like the Sunday, March 11 killings were a reaction. That ‘rogue’ was also a moralist.

The two villages of southern Kandahar where he struck are about 500 yards away from a US base. Did no honourable officer of the US armed forces hear any sounds? Weren’t they alerted? Don’t they jumpstart their defence strategies the moment such threat perceptions hover anywhere close to them?

Did he act alone? The question is irrelevant. The West arrests lone people who bomb places, but hold organisations accountable and in their search for them occupy territories they assume they will be hiding in.

It is despicable to read that “NATO officials apologized for the shootings but did not confirm that anyone was killed, referring instead to reports of deaths”.

Does the NATO function on its own? Will this be a convenient front for the US administration to keep its political and military wings separate, making the Barack Obama administration invincible and yet stain-proof? What respect has been shown to the Afghan people?


Sunday ka Funda

“Just as tall trees are known by their shadows, so are good men known by their enemies”

- Chinese Proverb

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renenwed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien


Did a woman backstab Osama?

The Osama sage is not likely to end soon. After Pakistan saying that his wives were illegal entrants, the latest news is intriguing, although not implausible. Why retired Pakistani brigadier Shaukat Qadir would want to carry out his own investigations is, of course, a bit strange.

It looks like a neat cover-up job, for there are reports that bin Laden’s body was taken to the US and cremated there. Qadir saab could have written a soap opera:

“In the cramped Abbottabad house... Tensions erupted between Sadah, described as 'the favoured wife' and Khairiah Saber, an older woman who occupied a separate floor.”

A report further states:

Bin Laden's youngest wife also told interrogators that her husband shaved his beard and disguised himself as an ailing Pashtun elder as he leapfrogged between safe houses across northwestern Pakistan, eventually regrowing the beard after finally settling in the Abbottabad house in 2005.

Armed with this news, and despite being the favoured one, she squeals to the US intelligence authorities so that they can capture her husband? How did she contact them when she was probably hidden in there and a prisoner of sorts? Or, was she so favoured that Osama let her go to the market to buy eggs and perhaps those potency pills, and she let out little secrets to the shop-keeper who was perhaps an ISI agent?

Mr Qadir knows this old and new wives’ tales sounds a bit too ‘homey’, so he has another story as a standby:

"As a former soldier, I was struck by how badly the house was defended. No proper security measures, nothing high-tech in fact, nothing like you would expect."

Yet, for six years no one could trace him. Apparently, the former armyman has discovered that there were problems between bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri – no, not over the wives:

"This divide grew with time, and remained a source of tension until the day bin Laden died. His role had been diminished.”

The Obama administration is happy with this theory. Heck, it would be happy with anything. It helps them sell another story. Osama was a nobody, therefore it was not possible to locate him. His position was so inconsequential that now we have to find the new culprits, the new guys who will try to finish us off.

With Macbeth gone, Hamlet is holding a skull to keep the ghost alive.


Bahut shukriya

I knew Joy Mukherjee only for this song. Or chose to. This defined him for me - a romantic, and not flashy. In fact, he was a mediocre actor. It was the 'averageness' that endeared him. Like many actors of his generation, it was the songs that made him a hero - the balladeer, the serenader. The music conveyed the emotions.

khushi to bahut hai, magar ye bhi gham hai
ke ye saath apna kadam do kadam hai
magar ye musafir dua maangtaa hai
khuda aap se kisi din milaae
bahut shukriya, badi meherbani
meri zindagi mein huzoor aap aaye

(The happiness is tinged with sorrow
For we measure togetherness with every step we take
But this traveller prays
That god wills we meet again
Thank you for coming into my life)

The steps have halted. He left this world today

Movie: Ek Musafir Ek Hasina
Singer(s): Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhonsle
Music Director: O P Nayyar
Lyricist: S H Bihari
Actors/Actresses: Joy Mukherjee, Sadhana
Year: 1962


The Female Gaze

I like watching people. In malls, in the street, at cafes. I like watching women and I like watching men.

When I look at the women, there are myriad reactions. They might check out the superficial stuff – clothes, hair, trinkets. They might meet my eyes and stare with confusion – why am I looking at them? They might see my smile and smile back or my frown and frown back or they could react in an opposite manner – frown for smile, smile for frown. They might touch their face or glance at their own clothes – to see if everything is okay. They might grab the hand of the man they are with – to reassure themselves. They might look away – a kaleidoscope of emotions: embarrassment, nervousness, arrogance.

And then there might be a woman who may ask me something, strike up a conversation, and we will decide to sit someplace and within minutes we would be familiar strangers. Rays from the same sun. There are quite a few such women, and we do not stay in touch all the time, but one day we meet again in some part of the city, the country, the world, and it is the same sun that shines upon us. We forget that it all started with a look across the street or in an escalator.

When I look at men, they always look back. Wide-eyed, with a smile. Sometimes, it ends there. Sometimes, my gaze has to be averted. Their space that I intruded upon now becomes a territorial battle. The colonisation begins. The eyes pierce deep. If it was a travel glance, as is more often the case where I journey through momentary passersby, then it is difficult. Every part is deconstructed. It does not matter that you are not a bubbly youngster anymore.

People use the standard line that men strip you with their eyes. I don’t think it is as simple. Men would prefer that you strip, that is the reason they like it if you are dressed to tantalise. If you are not, then you could be a tease, a challenge. It may not always be negative, but the complexities are daunting.

The man might strike up a conversation. It will be direct – about some part of you, your clothes, your demeanour. Next: Where are you from? Are you alone? With family?

I will be honest here. I indulge in fantasy. My range of husbands is rather interesting; my brood of kids can qualify for American Idol as well as top Mensa scores.

Would a ‘No’ not suffice? I’ve done that too. But, occasionally, because of the female gaze that could have started it, I feel duty-bound to steer the ‘deal’.

So, should I feel guilty about the female gaze? Can’t I immerse myself in the book, the coffee, the menu card, the stores? I can, but then people are books, coffee, menu cards, and stores. It would be disingenuous to say that one looks at women and men in the same way. One does not. I am aware all the time that when I watch women I am watching myself in another garb. When I watch men I am watching myself as the ‘other’. It is subliminal.

I cannot analyse or rationalise it. It is a maze.

As a woman who supposedly knows her way around, I am quite often lost. It can be beautiful to get lost somewhere. It is in these goalless moments that I find serendipity. Serendipity takes no effort, you might say. But to chance upon something, to submit yourself to fate can alter the course of not just the road you take, but the destination too.

I celebrate this state of suffusion.

This is for you today...the women who looked back.

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Also She


Of shooting orders, noses, and pictures that brutalise

President Barack Obama can kill anyone. Or, his administration can. Needless to say ‘anyone’ here means persons who pose a “threat”, and for the United States of America it is the al-Qaida. Now that it has done away with Osama, is moving out of Afghanistan, and is a bit strapped for taking any overt action against Iran, the target practice begins at home.

If the threats come from US recruits of the organisation, the President’s office can get rid of its own citizens abroad without consulting a federal court.

US Attorney General Eric Holder said:

“Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, it may not always be feasible to capture a US citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the US with lethal force.”

This is dangerous for a few reasons:

  • If the US government does not know where the terrorists hide or how they operate, and we have evidence of it by the long-drawn out wars, then how would it assume there are threats?
  • If you do not know where they hide and therefore it is not feasible to capture them, then how will it be easy to spot them to kill? 
  • If the US knows that there is a possibility of violent attack, its intelligence agencies would know where it comes from. Isn’t it amazing that these agencies can recognise an American citizen as an al Qaida recruit who is a threat, but cannot figure out what to do with him? Has he put up the Stars and Stripes in some hidden location so that people can recognise his nationality?
  • How would the American government be so sure that the lethal threat is planned against the US? How many times in the past decade has the country been attacked?

This move is just a carte blanche to do as it pleases, round up the usual suspects and make it difficult for ordinary American citizens whose origins are elsewhere. They may be second generation immigrants who have no links with the country of their parents’ birth.

This is not to deny that young people have become acutely aware of their identity. Part of it is brainwashing, and part of it is most certainly the result of being socially targeted without any cause. These are a few. The US is supposed to know a lot about everything that happens in the world, so why can it not keep a track of its own citizens?

Why did it insist on getting David Headley back for trial? How did this US citizen manage to visit India and Pakistan? The US did not capture him. He was handed over. And the story of what he did and why will continue because the United States of America does not want anyone captured. It wants to kill, and not have to answer inconvenient questions.

- - -

Cosmetic surgery is not halal. An Egyptian member of the Islamic Al-Nour party has discovered. Or, rather, he knew already, that is the reason Anwar al-Balkimy explained away his bandaged nose as the result of being beaten up by gangsters in a robbery attempt.

His fib was exposed and he was expelled from the party and had to issue an apology. However, there will be an official inquiry and if found guilty he might be imprisoned for “creating anxiety among the public” and “worrying public officials”!

Does the public care? If only some of these purist groups took a look behind the hijaabs, they’d find blonde streaks and heavy make-up. Men probably use quite a few things that make them look and feel good.

It is indeed possible that somewhere in the religious texts there is a provision for not tampering with the body. There was no concept of cosmetic surgery until a few decades ago. If a person suffers from severe burns, will there be no skin grafting? This is reconstructive surgery and is meant to repair the appearance, for it does not necessarily hamper the functioning of other organs. So, what is the fuss about? Perhaps, the MP had problems with breathing because of his nose structure. Or, it may as well be that he wanted to alter the shape because he felt like it.

He has not changed as a person, so his nose should concern no one but him and his god, if they insist.

- - -

You are seeing this photograph and are revolted. Everyone is. However, what does come out of this? Today’s Mumbai Mirror had a front page story on this one picture – of a man who survives by begging, has no one and lives on the streets. He was beaten up, and it transpires it was by the cops. The important thing to note is that this photograph first appeared in yesterday’s issue. The writeup expressed remorse and anger, but no one knew who the people beating him up were. In today’s edition, Pritish Nandy says "These brutes must be punished". But, when he states that people just stood there and did nothing, he forgets to ask: did the newspaper’s photographer do anything?

And this is the long caption that went with it:

On a pavement opposite CST, scores of people were momentarily distracted from their vada pavs and chai by the screams of this dishevelled man in the picture. The drama started around 2 pm when a group of six, carrying canes, ordered the man to get into a police vehicle, which already had around 20 others. When he refused, he was thrashed mercilessly; the lashings didn’t stop even when blood started gushing out of his forehead. Shopkeepers by the pavement said the man was homeless, and would often be found looking for food in the garbage bins. There was no confirmation whether the assaulters were policemen; the man was finally bundled into a vehicle, driven away to an unknown destination.

Apparently, somebody wrote this seeing the picture and talking to the photographer. It was a “drama”, and now we have a story.

Is it always about a story, and then the claim of being the first to ‘expose’ how callous we are? Are they not ‘we’? Brutality, anyone?

- - -

Images: Telegraph, The Guardian, Mumbai Mirror


Who is pimping for America?

That Barack Obama invoked Gandhi’s name reveals delicious irony as it posits morality with “unlimited sex”, in Rush Limbaugh’s immortal words.

I’d like to draw your attention not to the moral versus the amoral, but to the two moral paradigms here. While Limbaugh can be taken to the laundry, the President can only be accused of basking in reflected glory. I don’t see what the fuss is about using the names of the ‘sainted ones’. It is election time:

“Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term. It takes more than a single president. It takes more than a single individual. What it takes is ordinary citizens who keep believe, who are committed to fighting and pushing and inching this country closer and closer to our highest ideals. And I said in 2008, that I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president. But I promised you, but I promised you, I promised you back then that I would always tell you what I believe. I would always tell you where I stood.”

One does not need to be an expert to decode this. He wants one more term, and he wants the “ordinary citizens” to take responsibility for what the establishment has mucked up. “Highest ideals” are vague, so how would these ordinary citizens know how to get there? The idea of a flawed leader is rather romantic, especially if he admits it himself. It is a game of defence, and alludes to the possibility that despite the imperfections he would tell you where he stood. Look here: An imperfect man is leading the way and you have no choice but to lend a hand even if he is taking you to the edge of the cliff. Does the American, then, know where he stood?

But you know where Rush Limbaugh stands. He has an opinion on reproductive healthcare for women. It is not a policy decision; it is his personal opinion, however chauvinistic it is:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”

This is the moral high ground, the ultra conservative, as people like to say. He obviously does not believe in choice. Yet, is he the one who is insulting women who get paid to have sex? Or is it the liberals who found the comments “reprehensible” because they need one totem to use and Sandra Fluke is that card? What if a commercial sex worker had raised the issue in a Congressional testimony to say that insurance companies should fully cover birth control for all women? Would Mr. Obama call on her cellphone, as he did in this case to convey “disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate personal attacks and to thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on an issue of public policy”?

If Americans had all these rights, they would not be occupying streets to push for many of these issues. Isn’t healthcare a sore point? It is not Gandhi-Mandela that the President has used, but Ms. Fluke. Rush Limbaugh got it wrong when he perceived the Mahatma reference as a comparison and reportedly mocked him because the “moral example is making us provide contraception for women who want unlimited sex”. This is amusing. Gandhi would not have liked contraception, for he was an advocate and adherent of celibacy.

And it is unlikely that Gandhi would have said this:

“I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. I don’t bluff.”

Sure. The lines between the moral, the amoral and the immoral are blurred. One can be relatively certain that Barack Obama has a healthcare plan for this too. A condom for the Iranian bomb?

©Farzana Versey

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Images: Daily Mail and The Guardian

Filming Osama and Indian Denial of Pakistan

Pakistan in India

Is there any difference between rightwing Hindutva and Islamist groups? Both have objected to the shooting of Kathryn Bigelow's film on Osama bin Laden. The director would, for obvious reasons, not be permitted to shoot in Abbotabad, so the natural choice seemed to be India. She chose to recreate the garrison town and other areas in Chandigarh and Patiala.

The first protests came from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists who removed the sign boards in Urdu put up in a few shops, raised slogans against Pakistan and removed its flags that were placed to recreate the spot in Abbotabad where American Navy SEALs killed Osama in May last year.

One would have imagined that the saffron group would be happy to see the terrorist killed again for celluloid and get a chance to hit out at the Islamists. So, what is the issue here? It cannot possibly be Urdu hoardings. It is one of the official Indian languages; there are schools and charitable trusts that use Urdu. Urdu writing is an important component of Indian literature. Urdu was taken to Pakistan from India.

Is it the sight of Pakistani flags that bothers them? When we play cricket matches against them, they are waved in the crowds and painted on faces of spectators. They are visible from the border. They are like any flag, representing another country. Besides, the purpose was to portray a scene. How can we forget that the Ram Sene, a rightwing group, had in fact hoisted the Pakistani flag in Karnataka outside the secretariat to cause a communal problem and make it seem that the Muslims were behind this move?

What is the problem then? Denial. The Hindu identity as seen by the rightwing groups is largely dependent on its largest minority. For them, this minority represents the faith of the ‘pure’ nation. Hindutva nationalism needs to be tethered to this otherness. Indian Muslims threaten both these ideas – of Ram Rajya and of not being Pakistani. However, instead of feeling empowered, they too suffer from denial, of the 'others' within and across the border.

While there are sections that might be considered sympathetic to our neighbour – a fact that would ordinarily have not had such a baggage, for after all they often have families there – the denial often arises due to insecurity.

Most Muslims would not consider the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind as their representative, that is if they have heard about the organisation or have anything to do with it. But when its North India General Secretary sent a memorandum to Chandigarh's Deputy Commissioner, the fear appeared palpable:

“We express our great concern over the shooting of Zero Dark Thirty or ZD 30. This picture will create more differences between Muslim and other communities. It will provoke other communities and law and order will be badly affected and the peaceful atmosphere of the region disturbed. If they have to shoot this film, they should go to Pakistan and not shoot it in India…The film will portray Muslims as terrorists, which is wrong.”

India has had several communal riots, so a peaceful atmosphere is one of those imaginative states. The reason for this statement has little to do with India and more to do with Pakistan. That Osama bin Laden was not Pakistani is of no consequence here. He was ‘found’ there. The “other communities” obviously refers to the small section of Hindutvawadis who will use the opportunity to question Muslims once again.

The characters in the film are shown wearing burqas, salwaar-kameez, chappals and skull caps. It is probably not much different from some of the local bazaars in predominantly Muslim areas. These are primarily places where people of a lower socio-economic strata live. The same can be said about much of Pakistan, although the veil has become a more visible identity these days.

While these are stereotypes, the film will certainly highlight this aspect. The death of Osama needs to examine jihad, and jihad cannot come without an obvious ‘characteristic’. The physical traits will be like the ones mentioned. The possibility of this ghetto being targeted is not unusual. It is always the poor and uneducated who are hit the most or seen as suspects.

When we think about the Hindu rightwing, there is almost a related pattern – saffron bandana-wearing kar sewaks, people with huge tilaks carrying trishuls. These are not symbols, but clichés, the faces we can recognise.

And recognition of these is also a denial of them being part of something larger or of not. This could be the cusp people, really. They do not hold the keys to the kingdom. Someone else does.

A film on Osama bin Laden, or any person who has to be hated before he is understood, would not go there. It would circle overhead like the drones and then reach for the kill. It is a strategy employed by vultures. To expect a cinematic portrayal by an outsider, and often insiders, to explore beyond this would be futile. In all these years, has anyone bothered to check out Laden’s considerable influence as a socially agreeable mover in the West before 9/11? If history itself is reduced to mere acts, how can one expect fictional reality to be anything else?

In this case, too, there is denial. Acceptance has become the exception rather than the rule.

(c) Farzana Versey

Published in Countercurrents