Mind It

Still from 'Life of Pi'

"He wants to see the actor's mind in a shot." Actress Tabu said this about Ang Lee who has directed her in 'Life of Pi'.

It was so beautifully put, but what does it really mean? Is the actor's mind reflecting the character or her/himself? Or, is one superimposed on the other? 

Can one see a thought? If so, then the actor contemplating the motives and behaviour of the character would be methodical rather than spontaneous. Is thought not instinct?

You might suggest that premeditated thought cannot be instinctual. But, is there no lapse between thought and action?

Say, we play several roles in life; some we 'perform' because we are directed to - by precedent, norms, or for specific reasons. Is our failure to do so adequately a failure of thought or of action?

Think about some disabilities where the mind is hampered by lack of motor movement. These are unfortunate natural or accident-induced circumstances. However, even those of us who are not so restricted find that we cannot always act out our thoughts. Our thoughts are dependent as much on the manner in which they are received as on how they are conveyed. So, do they remain our thoughts anymore?

If the other person could see our 'mind in the shot', going by Ang Lee's expectation, then would we necessarily be understood? How often do we tear our hair in frustration that what we seek to convey has either been misinterpreted or whooshed past without even a moment of being acknowledged?

Can you read my thoughts? Routine question. But are you reading your own thoughts while trying to decipher another's?

Recently, someone sent a message in response to a call I made. It said, "I wanted to thank the thought." Was my act removed from my thought? Or, does the thought hold greater validity? Had I not acted upon the thought, would a person know? Can there be more than one thought for our actions and many ways to act based on one thought? 

If you can see a mind, then you are probably seeing not just what is but what might have been and can be. Mind or minds?
(c)Farzana Versey

Kerfuffle over reshuffle

The big bang reshuffle that took place on Sunday is only a whimper. 

 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing the new Cabinet members said:

“I would have been happy to include Rahul in the Cabinet, but he has other preoccupations in the party.”

Nobody quite knows what his other preoccupations are, but there is no doubt that he does not wish to be ‘gainfully’ employed.

This reshuffle is less about the ‘youth’ being readied and more about giving a new spin to the status quo. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ajay Maken, Veerappa Moily, Kamal Nath are pretty much to continue with the tried-and-tested method of Congress working style, which they have inherited or been close enough to learn.

The fact that three men who were or should have been out of favour are to play important roles is revealing: this is politics of cock a snook. 

Salman Khurshid gets the important external affairs portfolio just days after the controversy over his Trust being involved in illegal funds. (Made famous by another minister saying that a 71 lakh fraud was too little.) He made it worse by threatening Arvind Kejriwal. One thought Khurshid was at least suave enough not to stoop to this level. Perhaps, in the MEA he might learn diplomacy. 

Song for him: 

Andar se koi baahar na aa sakey, baahar se koi andar na jaa sakey
Socho kabhi aisa ho tau kya ho
Hum tum eik ghapley se tung ho aur mauka mil jaaye

Shashi Tharoor was ousted because of his IPL franchise deal a few years ago. This is another suave guy who also happens to generally convey a clean impression; he uses social networking rather well for this just as he did to make those frank comments which conveyed a westernised attitude that of course we Indians could not apparently palate. Anyhow, he kept himself busy and managed to be the good Kerala boy who will perform in HRD. 

Song for him:

Baar-baar haan, chup ho jaao wahaan
Apni tweet ho, media dosti yahaan
Manish Tewary is one more of those supposedly posh types who takes on the opposition on television debates. He is aggressive, assertive and manages to say a lot without conveying much. He will be busier than he usually is doing the usual things with Information & Broadcasting and trying to add varnish to a few flaws.  

Song for him:

Hum bolega tau bologe ke bolta hai
Eik memshaab hai, shaab bhi hai
Memshaab shab chalaati hai, shaab chal jaate hai
Duniya chaahe kuchch bhi boley
Hum kuchch nahin bolega

There are discussions about whether this was part of the Rahul Gandhi agenda or not. It does not matter. You can bring in anyone at this stage. It is a stopgap arrangement for the elections in 2014. The important thing is that the new faces will not have enough time to prove themselves – the standard power without responsibility.

There is no guarantee that after making changes in their ministries they will be rewarded later. They are essentially expected to give the impression that they are Rahul’s men. Nothing more. Nothing less. 


Be...and It Is. Kun Faya Kun

Eid Mubarak...

The term 'Kun Faya Kun' is not so much religious as mystical. It is about being and becoming...

I read this bit:

Does man not consider that We created him from a [mere] sperm-drop – then at once he is an open disputant? And he presents an (argument of) likeness for Us and forgets his own creation. He asks (in confusion): "Who will give life to the bones when they are disintegrated?" Say: "He will give life to them Who brought them into existence at first, and He is cognizant of all creation." He Who has made for you, from the green tree, fire. and then from it you kindle (fire). Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Yes Indeed! and He is the Superb Creator (of all), the Ever-Knowing. Surely His Command, when He wills a thing, is only to say to it: Be! and it is!"

Offloading Imran

Imran Khan was in Toronto for a fundraiser. Next stop: New York.  After emplaning on Friday at TO Pearson International Airport, he and other members of his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party were off-loaded and questioned by US officials.

This was not a regular search of the ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’ kind.

“The US officials inquired Imran Khan regarding his stance on drone strikes and the usage of fund collected in a dinner organized by Toronto franchise of PTI.”

Why did they let him board the aircraft in the first place? What does travelling have to do with his views on drones or fund collection? Were any of his party members carrying weapons? Did they not pass through security? Did they not have valid visas?

If the US is concerned about what people think of drone strikes and fund collection, they should ask the voters of America.

Irrespective of what Pakistanis think about him, I hope his opponents don’t drone on about how their country is full of anti-Americans. On the flip side, Imran Khan might just win over some fence-sitters.

Bottomline: this sort of questioning by the US officials is unacceptable. It means people cannot even have an opinion.

Words are not bridges

I had written a poem for a Pakistani friend once when I was in Islamabad on Independence Day — “mine and his”. It conveyed my genuine lack of hostility while respecting the separateness forced by a Partition we had nothing to do with. The response was stone cold; our friendship soon consigned to the mortuary.

Anybody watching the disgusting display of musical warfare of mere desh ki ladaai versus mere watan ki izzat on the reality show “Sur-Kshetra” will realise that it burns in the glare of animosity. That apart, in what can only be termed sado-masochism, after the show viewers are urged to take refuge beneath the shade of poems or slogans “to use words as bridges to build peace and friendship between India and Pakistan”. It is disappointing that the Aman ki Asha initiative chose to get involved in such pugilism.

Write a few words for peace, send them to the TV channel and win a grand prize — to attend the finale in Dubai. Can irony be more telling than that your borderless thoughts will be rewarded in a third country?
India and Pakistan have a common civilisation, but not the same culture anymore. Culture is not a fossil stuck in 1947. Instead of fantasising about how the Berlin Wall came tumbling down (the breakup of Germany was anyway the result of occupation and part of the Cold War), we should pay more attention to the USSR split. Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost achieved little.

The point is, why don’t we address peace within? Where are the aman initiatives by Pakistan in Balochistan or by India with the North East states? Think about the number of movements seeking to assert themselves on the basis of the words they speak.

Does Urdu, the first language of Pakistan, unite people? Regionalism is rife in many parts of the country and politicians have ensured that it remains so. Much of the cultural activity in Urdu is confined to Lahore and Karachi. In Punjab, people speak in Punjabi, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa it is Pashto, in Sindh it is Sindhi. It might be pertinent to point out that these regions add their flavour to Urdu. Even the mohajir Pervez Musharraf spoke in a Punjabi Urdu accent, probably to connect with the largely Punjabi armed forces or, more likely, the epicureans in the havelis. And who can forget that the MQM had objected to Ahmed Faraz holding a position in the National Book Trust because he was a Pathan and Urdu, they felt,
was their fiefdom?

Now, the TV channel asks, “Kya aapke paas hai woh shabd, jo mitaa sakey dilon ke beech khinchi sarhadon ki lakeerein?” (Do you have words that can erase the lines drawn between hearts?). It forgets that there are little Indias that won’t even talk to one another because their identity rests on resisting a national language. The Biblical twist the Wagah balladeers have given to our respective obsessions with the neighbour camouflages pressing internal factionalism.

Linguistic activism is not new. You will find it seeking an anchor in blood-soaked chapters recreating the past. These were the rebels. When people say that Saadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were ahead of their time, it is precisely because they broke the language barrier. Here, language does not refer merely to a set of words; it is another voice, another way of expressing. In India and Pakistan, there were writers from the Progressive Movement and their verses and stories dripped with ideas of dissent. They were scathing about their own country, writing about the tumult, the dictatorial policies. Their honesty scalded. Can words thrown in the wind for amity singe with a similar truth?

History has tales of profanation. Messiahs and prophets, too, went against established customs. Then, why can we not accept the reality of animus, which is less damaging than the cover-up job? Peace endeavours invariably use the ‘time gone by’ nostalgia, even if it is to kill the dead and lay it to rest. Why should the mirror not show the cracks, and reflect the gunshots, the wounds?

One of the compulsions arises from not wanting to change society’s outlook but only to soften the stance. Visiting each other under ‘controlled’ circumstances cannot be justified as having universal appeal. To what purpose are such efforts when they strive to be solely a defiance of formula, not of essence? A parallel consciousness is not an awakening.

Some mistakenly see such ‘peace with words’ efforts as the much-touted trade ties. This form of trade has taken place for years. It was never packaged as quasi diplomacy. Branded institutional attempts cater to a limited group. Where are the families of the people separated by the birth of the countries? Where are the words of solace for those waiting in long queues, filling up visa forms, and uncertain whether they would be approved to meet those they share their genes with?

It is not just a strip of land that splits us. I am often asked: Why did your ancestors not leave for Pakistan? I have no answer, for we never posed that query, just as one does not ask why one is born.

I still have family in Pakistan, remnants of people I never got to know. Except for one — my khala, my mother’s younger sister. She left almost three decades after Partition with her Indian husband. Words connected the families. One line telegrams that lied about illness so that she could visit; later, there would be the recounting of anecdotes about different cities, different homes, different walls. My cousins spoke in Urdu. They sounded like characters from their tele-serials. “Ankahee”. The unspoken. Word bridges can never cover distances unless the river it is built over flows.

(c) Farzana Versey

Also published in The Express Tribune


Why stings stink: Jindal vs. Zee

Jindal shows his evidence: Pic: The Hindu

The media is shocked. An industrialist-politician has done a sting operation on them. What is less shocking, but rather amusing, is how some of the media people are getting so self-righteous. As though they do not know what happens in the big cabins in their own offices. In fact, the reportage at different news outlets shows their own agendas quite glaringly. People have short memories or selective memories.

Here’s a report from The Hindu:

In what’s being called a reverse sting, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) chairman Naveen Jindal has released video recordings which allegedly show Zee editors trying to extort Rs. 100 crore in return for the channel not airing damaging stories on coal block allocations involving his company.

At a dramatic press conference on Thursday, Mr. Jindal, who is also a Congress MP, distributed a CD with a 14-minute montage of footage, which he said was culled from hidden camera recordings of a series of meetings in mid-September between JSPL executives and Sudhir Chaudhary and Samir Ahluwalia, editors of Zee News and Zee Business. Claiming that this was the first time an Indian corporate was exposing media malpractice, Mr. Jindal said: “The government gives channels a licence to show news. They are not given a licence for extortion or blackmail.” JSPL has filed a criminal case against Zee, alleging extortion, and says it decided to make the videos public only because the channel was accusing the company of blackmail. JSPL officials indicated they were also likely to file a defamation suit against the media group in the next few days.

While Mr. Jindal is absolutely right, it is arrogant to even mention about the government giving a license as though it is a favour. Besides, would he have had the same opinion if the channel were giving his company favourable coverage? The answer is evident in his statement that he made the videos public only because the channel accused his company of blackmail. This indicates the possibility that the meeting might not have been for extortion but as a transaction.

Anyone in the media who is pretending that such deals do not take place is lying. Individual media persons might be clean or not involved, but a few things are obvious:

  • News depends on advertising; the lines between the two are blurred 
  • Every single media house has its own agenda and political slant, and the staff is expected to follow it. There might be the occasional story to appear ‘balanced’, but that’s about it.

In this sting, there are two aspects. The politician wanting to silence a channel and the channel willing to do so for a price. Which one is worse?

Politicians have always used the media, and the media has deluded itself into believing that it is all-powerful. This is not new. Go back to the days of The Indian Express and Ramnath Goenka ‘making’ Arun Shourie who unmade a government. Without any sting operation as we know it now, the cement scandal was exposed. Arun Shourie did not last in the Express, and A.R.Antulay got discredited for a while. Indira Gandhi, his boss for whom it was alleged the whole scam was, remained untainted.

It becomes almost a quid pro quo that when you are exposing one political party the others can use that news. It is obvious. You watch TV panel discussions. They have someone from the opposing groups, who invariably manage to snigger. And the circle continues. These kangaroo courts try to influence the gullible public, who would anyway not have much immediate stake in, say, Jindal’s business or what Zee TV does, as it did not in the past when other sting operations and CDs became public. 

This rigmarole is essentially political and grist for a channel war.

“Anyway, it is not something which I am asking you which is out of the world, out of the blue,” says Mr. Ahluwalia in a conversation near the end of the video. “If you actually look at it, it’s actually a win-win for both of us… Honestly, I am saying when we do a relationship with people, when we do a relationship with an advertiser, it’s a relationship in which I will give you more than even you can ask.” The Zee editors claim they are not the only media outlet which works like this. “At least we are doing a proper transparent deal with you, at least we are not doing a front page story which is paid for….”

The word “advertiser” was used. An editorial team doing the work of the advertising team may seem unusual, but it is fairly common. In some ways, I am glad this is out, because instead of being sanguine the other media houses should be worried.  Are they? When you read big fat editorials and watch big fat debates, just think about what could be hidden, not what is stated. The louder the indignation, the more reason they have to not be outed themselves.

Headlines Today Managing Editor Rahul Kanwal said:

“Stunned silence in the newsroom as journalists watch the Jindal-Zee sting operation. Anyone who indulges in extortion should be exposed…Not correct for Editors to be discussing revenue deal with a corporate at a time when channel is running series of exposes on the company.”

And what about other times? What about the possibility of other channels being happy because they are already protecting the ones opposing Coalgate?

CNN-IBN deputy editor Sagarika Ghose said:

“I joined journalism over 20 years ago, fresh from Oxford, idealistic about being part of India's great free press. Sad, shocked today.”

Had she remained in the UK, wonder what she’d have to say about the News of the World leaks and where that Oxford-earned idealism would go.

There is a counter-offensive:

Responding to the Jindal CD on their channel, Zee’s editors said they were the ones conducting a sting operation to show how far Jindal would go to suppress the story, adding that they had taken a “dummy” contract with them…In a joint statement released later in the evening, the Zee editors called the Jindal CD a “deliberate attempt to malign and defame” them, to “prejudice” the ongoing investigations, and to “silence the growing demand for an independent probe in the Coalgate scam.”

Why have they kept quiet? What mahurat were they waiting for?

The politician-journalist nexus always existed, but now it has become worse because they can be ‘friends’ more easily. Paid news is only one aspect. I don’t understand why the media gives awards to politicians. I don’t understand why the government allots land for media persons to get housing. Does anyone check on the credentials on the Press Club members and even office bearers?

And beat me with a feather, but how many people in the media will reject a Rajya Sabha seat or a place in some fancy government panel?

There is much to be silent about because there are strong lobbies working everywhere. That is why even casting the first stone is done as a herd, so that the ripples are diffused. 

(c) Farzana Versey


Gadkari's Basic Instinct

BJP Prez in Sharon Stone moment

This is your friendly neighbourhood BJP party president, Nitin Gadkari. If I were to deconstruct this photograph and the attitude of L.K.Advani and the RSS towards him - the former thinks he should uphold certain values while the latter has termed him the "Nagpur boy" who is pretty much okay - then it is clear that Gadkari does not quite care about what anyone thinks of him. 

His legs are crossed at an extreme angle while his gaze is straight ahead. It means he keeps an eye on what's going on, and yet does not lose touch with who he is and who he is with. 

The generous exposure and view of flesh also conveys that he might preempt his opponents with a 'show me yours, I am showing you mine'.


Digvijaya Singh's Tantalising Politics

Has national politics been reduced to gossip? I am not sure whether it is the Congress party that has anything to do with Digvijaya Singh’s latest “killing you softly” stance. But, it is most certainly not how issues of corruption and wrongdoing at the national level are dealt with.

He should either produce evidence and out those he has evidence against or keep quiet. In an interview to Karan Thapar, he said:

I am a politician and I have been in politics for the last 40 years. What my relations do, is not my business. I never ask them. I have got four daughters and four sons-in-law. What they do is not my business.

This is so clearly trying to absolve a certain Robert Vadra. So, if what relatives and family do is their business, why has he even bothered to insinuate about the families of Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K.Advani?

Karan Thapar:  And this is evidence that you say if used would embarrass Advani ji and Vajpayee ji.
Digvijaya Singh: We will never use it.
Karan Thapar:  But would it embarrass Advani sahib and Vajpayee ji?
Digvijaya Singh: Yes.

What is this? It is way more devious and dangerous than what can be stated and done with, whatever the consequences.

It would be naïve to imagine that members of the NDA were above improprieties. If the Congress chose to keep quiet, then they betrayed the country. Political parties are answerable to the nation, not to each other.

It is rather unfortunate that now established leaders and parties are behaving as though they are at a Kejriwal rally and throwing darts.

Many-layered women and memories: Yash Chopra's lamhe

How often have some of us quoted the lines, “Main aur meri tanhai aksar baatein kiya karte hai” (my loneliness and I often talk to each other) and “Kabhi-kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai” (sometimes, my heart thinks these thoughts)…they encapsulated the cinema of Yash Chopra and of many of our own lost and found memories.

He has been called the King of Romance, and perhaps rightly so, but I’d not limit him to that. There are two ways of seeing a movie – the way in which it is projected and the emotional chord that touches us. I do like the sight of large expanses of tulips and love expressed in song right in the middle of these flowers, but it is in the tight close-ups, the speaking eyes, the quivering lips, the short lines and longer monologues that we may find something more to relate to.

Yash Chopra was most certainly not making candyfloss, and I am not saying so because he is no more. I cannot think of a single weak woman in any of his directorial ventures. Even in Deewaar, made famous also by that one line “Mere paas ma hai” in the conflict between the two brothers, between good and evil, it is so obvious that the mother figure had nurtured the good. The son was not making the choice; she had made him capable enough to have her close to him. And in the death scene, when the bad son lies in her lap, he does not need any god. His retribution is complete.

It also quite blatantly showed a non-traditional woman, despite smoking and living with the man, as someone in control of her life. There did not appear to be any judgement passed on her, nor did it look like the guy was doing her a favour and making a good woman of her.

In Kabhi Kabhi too there was the ‘other’ man/woman. Imagine a situation where a woman on her wedding night sings a song based on the poetry of the man she was in love with. Here was readymade material for a tear-jerker. Instead, she chooses to move on and build a beautiful and happy life. The man, now the other, also happens to be the other to his own wife, who when taunted with her past (and a daughter from that relationship), chooses to confront him about his double standards and makes ready to leave rather than live with the hypocrisy.

In Trishool, the ‘encounter’ scene between father and abandoned son relied on just one truly cutting sentence, when the younger man tells the older one, “Aap mere najaaiz baap ho" (You are my illegitimate father).

Yash Chopra did deal with 'irregular' relationships within the ambit of mainstream cinema. That is why it was difficult to hail him for these qualities and instead many chose to stick to the romantic genre, which can actually mean so many things.

Take Daag. Much of the film was relegated to the indoors, in the dark. A man with two wives, reuniting with his old love and having to stealthily convey it, “Mere dil mein aaj kya hai, tu kahe tau main bataa doon, teri zulf phir sawaroon, teri maang phir sajaa doon…mujhe devta banaakar teri chaahaton ne pooja, mera pyaar keh raha hai main tujhe khuda bana doon”. Trapped in circumstances, all he can do is ask her if she will permit him to express his feelings. The stream of worship-godliness is woven into this narrative.

With Lamhe, he broke so many shackles. A girl falls in love with the man who was in love with her mother. Of course, she does not know it, and her mother did not know about his feelings either, since she was in love with someone else who she married.  Here too, the young woman is strong-willed, expressive and even when she discovers the truth, she makes him realise that he loved an idea, a thought. Those moments – lamhe – were lost.

I find it strange that this is seen as the Elektra Complex (in fact, it is mistakenly referred to as the Oedipal Complex). Freud is a good way to study anything, but the girl grows up without even seeing the man, who is her guardian. She is also in love with an idea, expressed with birthday gifts that she leaves unopened. It is that heartbeat of meeting him when she is old enough and sees a man, a male, who she first had a vague idea about and who became real enough to fantasise about.

Yash Chopra’s last film as director was Veer Zaara. It is perhaps one of the finest ‘messages’ in terms of communalism, Indo-Pak relationship, prisoners (real and caged by love), and nostalgia. However, he did not stop at the pining. He gave it a fitting ending. Yes, I did wonder why the Pakistani woman came to India and lived her life as she would if she had married him. The answer lies in every moment he spends in chains behind the prison walls, incarcerated without trial, aware that he was protecting her honour. This sounded old world, to an extent even regressive. How important is such honour? But this was early years after Partition; it had to do with families, reputations. It had to do with love that had to be silenced.

Greying, but still running about and active, she does not regret the life she chose. She built a new life, without any monument, without fanfare. We know of it only towards the end when he is free, aided by a strong and empathetic woman lawyer. We know if it when he holds up one of her anklets from those many years ago, not as shiny anymore, that he had kept as remembrance.

 “Main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon
Pal do pal meri kahaani hai
Pal do pal meri hasti hai
Pal do pal meri jawaani hai.”

Sahir Ludhianvi conveyed this best in the Kabhi Kabhi song - My poetry, my life, my identity, my youth are but for a moment or two…only those who create lasting impressions understand the value of such evanescence. 

PS: I have not named the characters deliberately, for as I implied in the beginning it could be you, it could be me.  


Sunday ka Funda

"You never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion. Dogs do not ritually urinate in the hope of persuading heaven to do the same and send down rain. Asses do not bray a liturgy to cloudless skies. Nor do cats attempt, by abstinence from cat's meat, to wheedle the feline spirits into benevolence. Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly. It is the price he has to pay for being intelligent but not, as yet, quite intelligent enough."

- Aldous Huxley

This Chinese man in Phuket with two guns bored through his cheeks is following a tradition that says abstinence and body piercing in the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar brings good health and peace of mind.

Why has he used two guns and not, say, spiky feathers? How can an instrument of violence bring peace?


The Secular Delusion

Forget about separation of religion and state. Can religion survive without a state? Would it be orphaned without patriotic fervour?

I come from a country that is secular. Yet, its largest opposition party has dreams of a Hindu Rashtra. The government offers sops to every faith. There are regional groups that seek special status for language and ethnicity. Tribes and scheduled castes have their own demands and the nation owes it to them, not because the Constitution has failed them but the faith they were born in has. The Constitution, in effect, is keeping belief systems alive.

Does India have a right to be called a secular republic? Is this not merely about multiculturalism, the subsuming into an Axe effect that starts wearing off once the pores start emitting sweat again? ‘Iftaar’ and ‘pandal’ politics are now so well-entrenched that it would be unthinkable for any political party to upset this neo-status quo, which is quite precious for a status quo is usually an established model. There appears to be only a re-packaging of tradition.

The recent Pew Research Centre’s study that reveals 19.6 per cent Americans believe in “nothing in particular” is considered a departure from stratified norms. It draws attention to US politics within the framework of piety. To suggest that one in five adults is not using traditional patterns does not mean much. Even in states with a religious constitution, there are the rebound and rethink dissonances. Pakistan is a prime example. Rather, religion gives the state a long rope to hang itself with.

As the study team said, “Sociologists have shown that Americans are more likely to pick their place of worship by their politics, not vice versa.” How does this bode for the religion of the state when not only is the faith factor divided by race, but political choices made by the ‘nones’?

Dan Barker, Co-President of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks it is a pertinent yardstick: “…when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us? Secularists are looking for candidates who share a commitment to America’s foundational principle of separation between religion and government.”

It depends on how deep one excavates to get to the foundation. After the American War, the states expected government office-bearers to express fealty to the Trinity and declare the divine inspiration of the Bible. We may move on, but history is embedded.

In the run-up to the elections, FFRF is putting up billboards showing regular families – the big American fantasy – with catchphrases: “This is what an atheist family looks like”, “I’m secular and I vote”, “We’re too old for imaginary friends”, “Atheists work to make this life heavenly”.

How different are these notional divisions from devotional ones? Who will they vote for? What are the candidates promising besides the usual civic issues? Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both alluded to religion. ‘Other’ faiths are mentioned either as a species to be protected or as a threat.

Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion partly as a reaction to 9/11 has suggested that whatever may have been the hijackers’ political or social motivations, it was a religious act based on the conviction that they would be rewarded in the afterlife.

The proponents of such theocracy do use this as a cover-up. It might explain the ‘non-state’ nature of these actors too. Their religion gives the attacked country a carte blanche to choose its opponents from the many streams of Islamic thought. Curiously enough, the US did not strike at the fount – Saudi Arabia.

Would the ‘religious act’ argument apply to the violence in Tibet, a Buddhist state? The self-immolation by monks and nuns could also be seen as a violent act, and the ethnicity of the people depends to a great extent on its religion to survive. Devotees are blamed for deifying the founder. The moot question here is: Why then are there Buddhist states? Hypothetically, without a supreme being or an emissary, as much as a political or philosophical leader, is it possible to sustain any creed?

Even in non-religious societies, as in Communist states, there will be fringe pious groups – whether it is the Russian Orthodox Church or minorities in China. The state is expected to uphold their rights, or else deal with ideological skirmishes and bloodshed.

There is a belief that superimposed unity is counterproductive. Douglas Murray, director of the Center for Social Cohesion in London, quite naturally upholds ‘purity’: “State-sponsored multiculturalism treated European countries like hostelries. It judged that the state should not ‘impose’ rules and values on newcomers. The resultant policy was that states treated and judged people by the criteria of whatever ‘community’ they found themselves born into.”

In Britain, where the Church of England is effectively the state religion, what culture could be used as a standard and how would it negotiate nationalism? We do tend to use the word culture to take away the harsh reality that almost all cultures depend on value systems and these, even as heresy, are often imbibed from sacred texts.

Therefore, the non-canonical is perforce born of the consecrated and remains a recusant faith, as it were. To prove otherwise is merely akin to spilling ink over scriptures. Secularism as negation is as hallucinatory as the perennial queries about god. In fact, god is not even germane to a discussion on the role of the state in religion. It must be pointed out that over-the-top nationalism putting country above all else uses a theistic paradigm.

If the nation did not identify me as a Muslim I would have, as when the rare occasion permitted me, filled in the religion column with “Not Applicable”. The onus is on the state to stop acting like a shrine.

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Published in The Express Tribune


BJP's Backroom Boy: Kejriwal

The only person who is probably surprised that Nitin Gadkari’s name has come up in the grand Arvind Kejriwal expose would probably be Nitin Gadkari himself.  

Not because of the accusations of financial deals, which no politician likes exposed, but due to not being even recognised as a politician at all:

“Gadkari is not in politics, he is not a politician. He is using BJP to further his business interests. It is sad that BJP amended its constitution to give a second term to the BJP President.”

So, cry hoarse as much as you want to. Kejriwal is the BJP’s backroom boy. After outing Robert Vadra and Salman Khurshid, he had to portray a semblance of parity in corruption. His India Against Corruption (IAC) is not breaking new ground. In fact, his target is the UPA. Here:

Kejriwal said that Gadkari was illegally favoured by Maharashtra government in allocation of farm land and also alleged quid pro quo with the ruling political party in this land allotment. Kejriwal said that Gadkari was in league with Congress-NCP to get undue personal favours. “Is BJP the opposition party or the partner of the ruling party?" Kejriwal questioned.

When he accused Robert Vadra, it became a Gandhi family and Congress issue. When it was against Salman Khurshid and his Trust, it again became a Congress issue. Now that it is the BJP President, why is he not as scathing against the party?

One has to be naïve to imagine that when it comes to making a political choice Kejriwal will not join hands with the BJP. His revelation against Gadkari has two purposes:

  1. Show that he is non-partisan
  2. Choose the out-of-favour BJP man as target

Neither works as intended. 

Gadkari has a business empire. So does Sharad Pawar. Why has he not named Pawar? Why has he not named other BJP leaders who stashed money? Is corruption only about acquiring wealth or also about ensuring that you stay in power by disbursing wealth and permits? In the Vadra and Khurshid cases, he was certainly more clear.

Everyone knows that certain people in the BJP want Gadkari out. Kejriwal is playing for them. More importantly, he has made the BJP into some sort of martyr trapped into making this tough choice. There are the usual noises in the BJP. It seems too pat, in some cases rehearsed.

Would he like to stretch the argument and ask how the BJP president, by denying the farmers of what was theirs, managed to hold on to his seat in the ‘clean’ party? Was he possibly keeping some people happy within? Does it mean that every single person who is in a position is capable of doing so?

It is unfortunate that every single day for a few months now, Indians are being treated to this bizarre tantalising show. After the Anna and Ramdev tamashas, Kejriwal – the most self-righteous among the lot – is indulging in what he accuses others of: playing politics. That is his aim and that is what he has always been from the very start.

Forming a political party on the basis of exposing others is churlish. However, we give him space and time because we are spoon-fed this sort of weak ideology of uprightness in contemporary times. It is essentially an advertisement for the man. He is selling himself.

Why are we buying him? Does everyone believe him? Is he the new messiah?

The answer to all is an emphatic no. Arvind Kejriwal will be swallowed into the big party and sent off to handle farmers.For all his concern about them, he knows that in the Indian political scheme this is "chillar" (small change), a word Nitin Gadkari used for his expose.


Kofi with Rajat Gupta. Gates too

We talk about corruption in India, of sycophancy, of using influence. We are ready to take those who commit financial irregularities to court. This is as it should be. 

After the farce of the 'Friends of Rajat Gupta' cabal, it seems to be the turn of the international frat boys club to come forward to support Gupta, who is being tried for insider trading. In what is a clear case of pushing in his favour, many prominent people have asked the judge in the US to show fairness. This is extremely insulting to the judiciary as well as being ridiculous and arrogant. According to a report:

Microsoft Corp co-founder Gates, in one letter among about 200 written to US district judge Jed Rakoff, wrote that he wanted to help “round out Rajat’s profile as you consider the appropriate sentence for him.”
The judge would know his job, but Gates has got his reasons. Those not blinded by his philanthropy would understand how these things work. The report says that when Gupta chaired the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Gates became acquainted with him. Is this reason enough for him to have the temerity to write that “many millions of people are leading better lives -- or are alive at all -- thanks to the efforts he so ably supported”? 

I do know of hardened criminals who help social causes -- to make use of tax benefits, or to appease their guilt, or because they truly believe in giving. Does it take away from the crimes they commit? Millions of people benefit from employment in the mafia and with underworld gangs. In times of recession, this is probably crucial to their existence. Will anyone be permitted to speak up for these gang leaders?

Bill Gates' Foundation, its good work notwithstanding, is only one among the many that support the underprivileged. Several NGOs and international agencies too work relentlessly for these causes without as much fanfare. The attitude of, "Look, we save lives" is not only half the story; it does not give those who offer financial assistance the right to believe they can be absolved of anything else they do that is suspect or anti-social. 

The world cannot be held accountable to Wall Street.

The timing of the letters is disconcerting because it is close to the date of the final court verdict and also the US elections. Well-known industrialists and academics are not the only ones to have pitched in with their bludgeoning tactics garbed as good wishes. 

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has written to the judge:

“I urge you to recognize Rajat for the good he has done in the world, to give him the credit that he deserves for helping others and to take into account his efforts to improve the lives of millions of people.”
Perhaps, these people do not realise that insider trading is not only about a few million bucks shared between friends. The ramifications have a trickle-down effect that pinches everybody in the long run, and that is precisely what has happened to the US economy, that snowballed and reached half the world. 

This selfish bunch has no ethical right of talking down to the beneficiaries of their wealth simply because of who they are. It is such bluster that makes one wonder about their intentions.

I was told that the American justice system in matters of financial scrutiny is above-board. It would be prudent for the court to call upon Bill Gates and Kofi Annan, and whoever else has written to them, to appear as wtinesses providing evidence that Rajat Gupta is not guilty of insider trading, for which he is being tried. He can sing lullabies, put in dollars in donation boxes, and make the world a better place from his room with a view. That is not what the case is about. 

He may well be let off, and his friends can then celebrate with bubbly and talk of saving the lives of millions. Until then, it would help if they stayed away from matters they have chosen to ignore.

(c) Farzana Versey

My earlier post on Rajat Gupta's Indian friends.

Sunday ka Funda

“May we be fearless... from friends and enemies...from known and unknown ... from night and day...May all the directions be our allies.” 

 - From the Atharva Veda 


Mo Yan and Joseph Anton: Yo, Man, the Mainstream!

Yo, Man, the Mainstream!
by Farzana Versey
CounterPunch, Oct 12-14

If Mo Yan had chosen to live in a swanky hideout in the nowhere space offered as asylum, there would be much jubilation over his being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead, he lives in China, was educated in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) school. He is the bad guy, not because he has books titled Big Breasts and Wide Hips and The Republic of Wine, but because he was part of a group of Chinese writers who helped compile Mao’s speeches for a special commemorative issue.

Human rights lawyer Teng Biao said:

“On the political front, he is singing the same tune with an undemocratic regime. I think for him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is inappropriate. As an influential writer, he didn't use his influence to speak up for intellectuals and political prisoners – instead he catered to the government's interests by handwriting the speech.”

Was he doing it out of fear or a genuine loyalty to the once supreme leader who appears as a symbol of power and desertion, one aspect trailing the other like a scorpion biting its tail?

There are movements in the world that still use the Mao name. If indeed Mo is an establishment man, then why did the Nobel Committee choose him? Don’t they stick to the tried-and-tested western module with a touch of exotica? It is perhaps akin to accepting that Apple products are made in China.

While oppression in the world is something that needs exposure, why does international recognition for it matter? Have his writings made an impact on the society he writes about?

In a curious transposition, the Peace Prize two years ago went to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. (More in The Nobel Dissonance) He dedicated the award to “all those lost souls who have sacrificed their lives in non-violent struggle for peace, democracy and freedom”, the reference being to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese army. Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, was born in a village in Shandong. He wrote some of his works as a soldier of the PLA.

As I have not read him, except for bits and pieces that have now been made accessible, I shall rely on the idea of literature as pamphleteering. Is all anti-establishment writing truly breaking the shackles? Does it not follow its own ‘system’? The exile often has the advantage of distance and the romanticism associated with the fallen angel.

Mo is an insider, who strides two worlds, carrying a double baggage.  One of his books has been banned in China. He has been called vulgar. He writes about the world around him.

In Red Sorghum he spoke about the brutalities in rural China in the early years of the century. Is he using the past deliberately, so that his present and future are ensured? The PLA got the book banned, but it was made into a film that won an Oscar nomination and a Golden Bear at the German Film Festival; its English translation got him a Man Booker nomination.

Commentators have said that although he deals with sensitive issues he has managed to steer clear of rubbing the regime the wrong way. Why is acceptance by the west more legitimate than those by his government? He is living the life that others see as a cage. When he says, “I think writers write for their consciences, they write for their own true audiences, for their souls”, his isolation is complete. There is no escape route he seeks.

It is easy to dismiss a person for professing fealty to a system we as outsiders find reprehensible. But, how many supposedly free regimes are truly free? Don’t we have a situation where creativity begs solitude and ‘misery literature’ wallows in self-inflicted pain? Mo has said, “Loneliness and hunger were my fortunes of creation.” This is not a bombastic statement. His roots are in peasantry, and while the idea of someone toeing the party line may not appeal to our concept of expression, can we ignore the fact that the outsiders seek the patronage of fellow rebels, if not shrewd opponents of their origins?


As “Mumbai boy” Salman Rushdie said of Britain:

“I am a knight of the realm and I feel deeply, deeply connected. I have lived in this country longer than I’ve lived anywhere and I am a citizen of this country. My children are English and both of their mothers were English. These are roots which are deeper than my roots in India.”

Joseph Anton – A Memoir lies near my bed table unfinished, a half-eaten apple turned brown.