How to be a fringe element: The Vishwaroopam controversy

I thought people who went against the tide of prevalent thought are fringe elements. Now, from what we see around us, those who can manage to find a herd and sponsors for their ideology are called fringe elements (FE).

There have been times I have been critiqued for not saying politically-correct things; some have even implied that I “like” doing it, without fathoming the immensity of what might be (and indeed have been) the consequences.  But, it’s been a lone hunter (LH) sort of thing.  LH is vastly different from FE, and it surprises me. The outsiders should be the real FE, inhabiting that lonely mofussil space. That’s not how it happens.

The loonies, fundos, rightwingers, bigots have taken over the territory. Now, if you happen to stroll at the edge as LH there is every possibility that you might be mistaken for an FE.

Everyone is screaming out about the fringe elements once again in the mainstream media. TV panels point fingers at them. It is with some befuddlement that I watch how they are by default being transformed into some sort of maverick, almost out of Camus. The latest reason is the film Vishwaroopam that has been banned in Tamil Nadu. It talks about terrorism, specifically Islamic terrorism. Its producer, director, actor Kamal Haasan, who “hawked” his house and “pawned” all his properties for this ambitious Rs. 100 crore project, is being held to ransom by the FE.

They are a bunch of Muslims whose religious sentiments are “hurt”. (Interestingly, Kamal Haasan has himself spoken about being “hurt” by what is happening, and now I am confused about this whole LH-FE business of being hurt.)  The film is doing fine in other South states.  It is Tamil Nadu that decided to ban it. I have not watched the film; the FE have probably not; most of those supporting the FE as well as the filmmaker have not.

This brings us to FoS. Freedom of Speech. Nothing in this episode is about freedom. I believe that a film that deals with a certain kind of terrorism might use its ‘inspiration’; it cannot exist in a vacuum. However, this is not about Islam. No one can make a definitive film on any religion, simply because there are just so many ways of interpreting it, and there will be provision for poetic licence. The FE use it, too.   
Here’s a quick manual on how to be one; as the reference is to the current controversy it will be restricted to Muslims:

  • Look at pictures of beard/skullcaps/veils.
  • Call friends on devices that they say the religion forbids. Gather in a herd.
  • Find helpful sponsors to make and put up posters, effigies, shout slogans.
  • Hide all glossy magazines in possession and bring out the Holy Book; play CDs with naats on the way to FE arena.
  • Express anger, but talk of hurt (in psychology they call is S&M).
  • There is 99 per cent of a possibility that some political group will understand your ‘sentiments’.
  • Leave options open.
  • The fire will be kept alive even when you are not around.
  • Go home to watch yourself on TV. Realise you need to get the look right. Dishevel beard, wear a better cap.
  • Set out to battle again. Anger. Hurt.

The Quit India Boo-ment

The biggest mistake people make is to legitimise the FE. If the case is in court, how does the media discuss it? Can the filmmaker give a press conference? Even before the verdict, Kamal Haasan said:

"Now, I shall wait for the afternoon judgement. But add to this, I think I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in. And that choice would be a place where it would be a secular state. If I can't find it within India, I will hopefully find another country, which is secular that might take me in. M F Husain had to do it, and now Hassan will do it.”

MF, for all his flaws – and I absolutely disagreed with him for taking up the Qatar citizenship – did not have a work banned. His museum was burned down; he was threatened. These were not fringe elements, but members of a political party.

As regards leaving the state or the country for a secular haven, that is how the fringe elements credo thinks. They use emotional blackmail. They too question secularism. It is really turning out to be a wheels-within-wheels scenario.

In terms of the majority of the population, and I mean crossing any specific boundaries, Kamal Haasan is also a fringe element. He is not a common man. He interprets reality. However, he has the intellect, and the statement he made might sound like treason, if we choose to rationalise it.

Incidentally, this is not the first time anyone has spoken about leaving due to pressure. When the Shiv Sena sent its men wearing knickers to protest outside actor Dilip Kumar’s house, he said he would leave the city. Singer Lata Mangeshkar threatened to do so if a flyover was built near her house, because the pollution would affect her voice.

We will not talk about those who are forced to quit because they can’t find livelihood or due to persecution for reasons ranging from their beliefs to their gender to their sexual choices to their freedom to just be what they want to be.

In a statement he had issued, Haasan had written:

“I have been ruthlessly used as a vehicle by small groups who seek political profile. Icon bashing is a great way to be noticed when you are not one yourself. It is happening again and again. Any neutral and patriotic Muslim will surely feel pride on seeing my film. It was designed for that purpose.”

He is right about people joining a bandwagon. However, why does he need to emphasise “neutral and patriotic Muslim”? The terminology is all wrong. You can be a patriotic Indian, and it means your religion is not part of it. There can be no neutrality when judging any aspect, least of all a work of art. Has he made the film as a neutral and patriotic Hindu? No. And one would be disappointed if he did. He should create what he wants to, assuming that a sense of responsibility towards anything is inbuilt in the creative gene.

After his “I’ll leave”, he has agreed to make changes in the film and “move on”. It raises some fundamental questions which some of us would not have considered, given that I support him against the FE.

  • Is he compromising because of these elements?
  • Is there political pressure?
  • Has he, in fact, seen his own film in a new light and found certain incendiary portions?
  • Is he concerned about the money he will lose? (He said he does not care.)
  • Has he let down those who stood by him only to please a handful of his “Muslim brothers”?

I am hurt because he has caved in and because of his preemptive implication that if some people who are not the lumpen were to later object to parts of the film their neutrality and patriotism could be questioned.

It bothers me that the fringe elements as well as the filmmaker are playing with the sensibilities and intelligence of many of us.

In saying so, I realise that in spirit some of us are more on the fringe than both, the streetfighters and the filmmaker, for not being backed or backing out.

End Note:

Imagine if a hardliner were to ask the director to make changes and it would include his name. Kamal means lotus and is the BJP symbol and Haasan, which is spelt as Hassan sometimes, is a Muslim name.

(c) Farzana Versey


How Shahrukh Khan got their goat

Shahrukh Khan has as much of a right to victimhood as those who are weeping over the loss of heritage structures mowed down by colonialists. That their ire is against selective colonisers must be noted.

What has got this country’s – or rather the rarefied species of media-garnered analysts' – goat now? Pakistan. Shahrukh may have mentioned something about minorities, but that bothers us less than what our neighbour says.  There is much to be upset about Pakistan’s interference.

The Interior Minister Rehman Malik said:

"He (Shah Rukh Khan) is born Indian and he would like to remain Indian, but I will request the government of India (to) please provide him security."

The report states he was “reacting to a first-person account by the actor in an Indian magazine focusing on his experiences as a Muslim in the post 9/11 world”. Hafiz Saeed, too, placed an offer before him to move to Pakistan if he felt unsafe in India.

This plays into the general perception (false) that Pakistanis love Indian Muslims. They do not, and in fact look down on the community – sometimes with pity, sometimes with envy for the freedom they assume everyone has at least in a secular country. None of the Pakistani leaders will come forth and invite the poor and disadvantaged Muslims. Besides, Khan has his roots in Peshawar; he speaks less fondly of it than Raj Kapoor did simply because he belongs to another generation. There are a number of Pakistanis who have memories of their origins as do Indians. Unfortunately, and this has been pointed out, the response to Khan reveals how insecure India is where minorities are concerned.

Political leaders have jumped in to express anger and announce how we can look after our citizens. The BJP has joined forces. The same BJP and rightwing groups make whoopee each time a Hindu is treated badly in Pakistan. They get mileage from it. Pakistan would, then, see it as interference too. Those Hindus and Christians, and for that matter Ahmadis and Shias, chose to live in Pakistan just as Indian Muslims chose to live here.

Pakistan’s minority laws are despicable, but one does not hear their citizens asking Hindus to “go back to India”.  Indian Muslims are asked to “go to Pakistan”. This is the truth, and Shahrukh mentioned this. This is where the trouble started.

There was a disgusting piece with the headline, ‘King of Victimhood: Shah Rukh Khan bites the hand that fed him’.  It has pretty much rubbished all the Khans, and reveals a deep communal stance suggesting they don’t have much talent. If that is so, then much of Bollywood suffers from it.

I’ll rebut some points, not because it is about Khan, but about how the rational lot look at minorityism:

At the peak of his career, Shah Rukh was spoken of in the same breath as the Shahenshah of Bollwood, Amitabh Bachchan. That comparison may have been valid in terms of the box-office appeal that both held, but a certain indefinable element of classy refinement that Bachchan exuded even when the cameras were not whirring remained forever out of reach of SRK.

What has that got to do with his ‘victimhood’? Incidentally, does anyone recall Mr. B’s victimhood during Bofors? Or, his failed attempt at a corporate enterprise? SRK has probably never attempted this studied refinement. He always mentions his not-so-classy life in Delhi.

So, by every verifiable metric, it’s fair to say that Shah Rukh Khan has enjoyed more success – and earned more fame and fortune and fan-love – than he arguably deserves. Which is why it’s difficult to account for the victimhood chip – rooted in his identity as a Muslim – that he bears on his shoulders.

One was not aware that off-camera refinement is a yardstick for success.  We may as individuals not care much for certain ways of acting, but this is obviously not about acting anymore. Khan, or anyone, does not know what fame and fortune they will be bestowed with. He began his career on TV. He could have gone unnoticed. Would we get to read about this? Is a Muslim who has got fame but is not visible and yet carries a chip on his shoulder something that is difficult to fathom? What about the real victims? Heard about them? They don’t know what chip on the shoulder means, but they carry the burden of an identity because you, bullshitters, tell them so.  It is your pathetic chip on the shoulder that cannot handle it.

There have been occasions, he said, when he had been accused of “bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country – even though I am an Indian, whose father fought for India’s freedom.”

Oh, cry me a river, Shah Rukh. Millions upon millions of fans in India made you who you are – without pausing even to reflect once on your religious identity. In an earlier time, a Muhammad Yousuf Khan may have felt the need to rechristen himself Dilip Kumar to give himself a better shot at survival in Bollywood, but cinema fans in India today are truly blind to the religious identity of their stars…

Cry you an ocean…ask a whole lot of Muslims and the answer will be, yes, these are questions we have faced. Shahrukh has millions of fans. Period. While fans today may not care, the media makes it a point to highlight their secular credentials when they visit pandals, do secular things (read Hindu) to be accepted. 

The fact that someone had to rename himself Dilip Kumar despite being an Indian to make it in a secular country should tell us we started with trepidation. The list includes Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Ajit, among the few prominent ones of the time. But let me educate you: There was Nargis, Nimmi, Suraiyya who did not change their names. Why, music directors, lyricists and singers contributed hugely to Indian cinema. Would these punks dare to question the talent of Naushad, Mohamed Rafi or Sahir who wrote, "Jinhein naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai?" (Those who are proud of India - where are they?) It was cynical and questioning the countrymen. He had every right to do so, just as I and Shahrukh and anyone else who lives here can.

More than most others, you always had access to sympathetic media treatment – and the unstinted support of everyone who spoke up in your defence (and even provided security cover for screenings of your film). And, by the way, have you given voice to a word of solidarity for Kamal Haasan, whose film Vishwaroopam too currently faces criminal intimidation from others like you who are feeding off Muslim victimhood?

The media feeds on celebrity as much as they do on media exposure. It is a convenient arrangement. The piece forgets to mention Shabana Azmi who complained about not getting a house in Mumbai. It forgot Javed Akhtar who while claiming to be an atheist will participate in rallies with clerics to ‘fight terrorism’. Why? Because this so-called liberal media will protect the high-brow. Refinement, remember? While Muslim groups seeking a ban on Vishwaroopam must be addressed, why should Khan be the one doing it? Has Kamal Haasan stood up for him? Or, other films that have got into trouble? If Shahrukh did issue a statement supporting this film, would all the sins attributed to him be wiped out?

Heck, even when you made a colossal ass of yourself by getting into inebriated fights with fellow-stars in Bollywood – or even just a lowly security guard at Wankhede Stadium who was merely doing his job – you’ve had media divas offering you therapy sessions on their studio couches to present your side of the matter, such as it is.  Not many others get the chance to redeem themselves after such exceptionally boorish conduct.

True. How does this become a Muslim problem? Back in the days Dharmendra chased a columnist; the older Kapoors would drink and misbehave; several Kumars and others get into fights; Anupam Kher slapped a photographer. We will not even get into the rape cases and casting couch. Or, the more subtle boorish conduct of the refined folks, okay? These ought to be treated as socially-despicable behaviour, and nothing to do with a person discussing his identity question. 

In any case, My Name Is Khan was itself premised on a sense of victimhood – and we haven’t exactly forgotten how you milked your brief but propitiously timed detention at a US airport about that time to market your film. And to think that unlike what happens to countless other plebeians in similar situations, the Indian government scrambled to get US immigration authorities to let you off because, of course, you are a superstar. And you complain today – to an overseas publication – that you’re being targeted for being a Muslim?

The film was indeed based on a sense of being victimised, and it was made by Karan Johar. Shahrukh did use the detention episode and pulled strings, but other prominent people weren’t exactly ecstatic about the treatment meted out to them. George Fernandes did not take too kindly to it.

How does this nullify Khan feeling targeted as a Muslim or his talking to a foreign publication? These publications write about our slums. Do we have issues with it? If a Hindu talks about feeling victimised due to increasing ‘Muslim terror’ in a foreign publication, will we have problems? Only because the man is famous, has fans, and access to the powerful, why can he not discuss minority issues?

So, grow up, Shah Rukh, and learn to take it on the chin like a man. Don’t bite the hand that fed you – and made you who you are – by running off to an overseas publication and crying your heart out, thereby providing the space for low-life terrorists like Hafiz Saeed to take potshots at India.

Whoever wrote this piece of crud is utterly juvenile, running around with a water pistol. The country is not doling out anything. We do not have social security. Everyone tries to earn; some get more. The country is an amorphous whole – it cannot make or break anyone. Its people do, and the person must have worked at least a bit to get where he is. It is pathetic that some terrorist’s statement makes people so touchy. Hafiz Saeed has done worse earlier than take just pot-shots at India.

India may not be a paradise – not by a long shot – but, as writer Patrick French observed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, you only have to look around India’s neighbourhood – including the “neighbouring country” you couldn’t even name in your interview – and ask yourself where else you would rather live…

This is stupendously hilarious. The writer of this nonsense complains about Shahrukh Khan talking to a foreign publication, but quotes a foreigner to legitimise his rant! Shahrukh Khan and other Muslims do not need to be asked or told about any country or the choices they have, whatever be the quality of that choice. The fact that he said “neighbouring country” should tell you, the superior Indian with a chip on the shoulder, that he does not give a damn, like most of us, and that people like you are no better than Hafiz Saeed wanting to protect Muslims like SRK, ride on his fame for getting hits, but don’t really care about minorities.

So, crawl out of that hole and go watch a movie. Try Life of Pi. It stars a Khan, Irrfan Khan. And it’s a foreign film. Bite that. 

(c) Farzana Versey 

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Update on Jan 31: Did not want to dissipate the argument on the minority issue with ifs and buts about Shahrukh Khan's other aspects. Now since it has been a couple of days, you might want to read my comparison of him and Aamir Khan: Bollywood's Hypocrisy



“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong it's reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” 

- Abraham Lincoln

I found this quote applies rather well to us in India as we celebrate our existence as a Republic.

There is much to question, but the Indian Constitution ensures rights. It is our duty to not misuse them. Among these, the right to life, livelihood and dignity should get supremacy. Unfortunately, we as individuals are helpless.

The right to breathe in a secular environment is important. Anyone who dreams of a nation based on religion - and any name given to it in disguise will not help - has no right under this Constitution.

- - -


Nehru, Ambedkar and a Cartoon

Cartooning the Constitution: Look before you leak

The peppers that got in...

Sidon is a coastal city of Lebanon. Life goes on, as it does everywhere. One day, early this month, a store selling food items caused a furore. Here is the report:
While shopping at Spinneys a man, who preferred to remain anonymous, discovered a bag of three kinds of peppers made in Israel. He immediately contacted local authorities who in turn contacted the Lebanese Army.Members of military intelligence and police arrived to Spinneys to discover 13 similar bags that have the word “Israel” printed on the sale tag. Police also noticed that the international bar code for the items was scratched with a blue pen and a new code was handwritten on the bag. The case was then referred to the military judiciary for investigation into how the products made it through the customs department at the port or the airport.Spinneys had a similar incident almost ten years ago when shoppers discovered mugs made in Israel being sold at the retailer.

What if the word 'Israel' was not written on it? Did the peppers taste any different? I understand the delicate political situation, but when people get killed in those regions a bag of peppers causing police intervention seems farcical.

But then, could those peppers hide something lethal? In that case, they would be better targeted. Is it possible they were poisoned? Could it be they weren't Israeli at all and there was a fake barcode over which someone had scrawled to create a story?

I am thinking about the sold ones. Did the customers know? Having read this report, would they start looking at the packets carefully? If they are strongly political, would they boycott the store, stop eating peppers?

I recall once being at a Spinney's outlet in Dubai that had a bookstore. I was browsing and struck up a conversation with the sales assistant. A few minutes later, a tall, lean woman came in and asked for a map. A world map. I don't know what she was looking for, her eyes narrowing till she found the place. "Israel. Where's Israel?" she asked.

It was missing. The sales assistant did not know. Turning to me, she let out a litany. "How can a map leave out a country?"

I did not need to ask about her andecedents. It did surprise me. It raises questions about how we wipe out things, cultures, people and imagine they will all disappear. It only serves to remind us of their existence.

End note:

With Bibi re-elected as Israeli Prime Minister in the recent elections, one newspaper asked, "Netanyahu's back - can Obama learn to work with him this time around?"

It's like asking if wood can work with the carpenter.


A cop, a poem and redefining freedom

Why do we protect the freedom of literature and the arts and deny the same to others, even if they might use a similar creative medium or idiom?

Salman Rushdie said in an interview:

“I really worry about how it’s become so easy to attack books, movies, paintings, works of scholarship there have been so many attacks in recent years. That trend worries me a lot. It’s partly driven by expediency. It’s easier to stop something than defend its right to happen. The police tend to blame the writer, painter, filmmaker for being a trouble-maker, rather than defend them against the actual trouble-makers creating threats, sometimes violence. I worry we’re getting things upside down – were not defending what we need to defend.”

Is there some sort of hierarchy where only a bound work of writing or a framed painting on canvas can claim legitimate freedom? There is a rich oral tradition where stories could well have undergone much change along the way, with different versions depending on who was relating them. These formulated new myths. Then, there is a thriving culture of graffiti art, slam sessions, stand-up comedy.

They are live and not likely meant to become history, although given the short attention spans today this is probably how history will be recollected – a sum of jokes, scrawls on walls and the sound of a verse slammed into our consciousness.

Azad Maidan rally

Where does a cop’s poem figure in this narrative? Her target was Muslims who held a rally in August last year against minority killings in Myanmar. It had turned violent. Her poem got into trouble; she has now apologised. The report in TOI states:

Traffic police inspector Sujata Patil has apologized for writing a hate poem that was published in the Mumbai Polices bulletin, Sanwwad. The poem, which had left the city police red-faced, had termed the Azad Maidan protesters as traitors and snakes and suggested that the rioters should have been gunned down.

In her apology she writes, “My poem was about crimes against women. I have written my feelings about atrocities against women. My intention was not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments.”

No liberal would sympathise with her. The reason would be that it is hate speech directed against one community, a group. Here is one bit: “Had we cut off their hands nobody would have complained. We feed milk to the snakes and then talk of harmony.” Should we treat her words in literary or political terms, when politicians resort to such language often? This is a rhetorical query, for the expression of freedom can never be absolute. It is relative to a situation and relies on a mindset. In that sense, it is reactionary.

However, if we apply a certain standard for this cop, then we need to introspect about other forms of expression too. The argument proffered by writers and artists is that there cannot be such shackles on creativity. A work of writing or painting is not geared to incite hate. But, does it not?

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticised for its ‘tolerance of torture’. Its director Katherine Bigelow giving her version said:

"But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen."

Unfortunately, the reaction goes beyond the torture as expressed by some viewers:

Snapshots of responses

These are reflexive responses and might not have a long-lasting impact.

The cop’s poem would have reached all the police stations and a force of 44,000, which is often a lot more than the number of copies most books sell. However, due to the media attention it got for its ‘hate-filled’ message, it reached many more people. So, who should be censored and censured here – the poet-cop or the newspapers and television channels?

A pertinent point here is that, like political hate speech, this poem could influence the police. It is a known fact that there are a number of cops who are biased, to begin with.  The poem is not merely a creative work; it is an expression of just such a preconception. Let us begin with the premise that we are all prejudiced in some way. How do we judge the impact of what we express? Does self-censorship not contradict artistic license? Is there a simple yardstick for all of us to follow across cultures?

And, on a larger scale, the question is: should individual expression not be used as a standard collective opinion? Undoubtedly, it ought not to. Individual creativity may be influenced by the environment, but it gets filtered through an intricate process between subject and response. Yet, fairytales too can be analysed for political meanings. It is a minefield and reality is perception here.

Therefore, much of the symbolism may not register as creatively as it was meant to be expressed. It will be read in a soap-box scenario. What does one do, then?

The Jaipur Literary Festival is once again in the news, and not for books. The rightwing RSS does not want Pakistani writers to be allowed to participate. Just the other day, the country’s hockey players were sent off home. The reason this time is that earlier in the month there was a firing incident across the ceasefire line at the border in which two Indian soldiers were killed, their bodies mutilated. Much has been written about it, including an Indian armyman’s denial. While this sparked off varied emotions, from anger to remorse to schizophrenic talk of war and peace among political parties and civilians with social network accounts, it did not stop diplomatic ties.

The Hindutva groups are using nationalism as their calling card. It really is an assertion of their political credo. Is it any different from last year when some Muslim organisations protested against Salman Rushdie’s participation? There was devious literary politics at the time. He was to read from Midnight’s Children and not The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Who started the fire? Why did four authors read excerpts from the banned book when it was not on the agenda? Was it an act of rebellion or a marketing strategy that got the festival a whole lot of additional publicity?

The caption on NYT: Crowds at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.

I say this because the New York Times piece on this year’s festival shows a photograph from last year. In the foreground is the back of the head of a skull-capped man, an unmistakable reminiscence. A ghost that will transmogrify into another demon, with another set of strictures.

Despite my love for words and art and all things creative, I do believe that the artiste cannot and does not live on an island. If we wish to show the mirror to society, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that it also holds our own reflection.

I do not like what the cop wrote. I do not like what some authors write. I understand symbolism. There is a difference between the two. In intent and expression. But the cop, crossing all boundaries, is the pariah here in the elite and rarefied world of arts. A litterateur who might milk tragedy, and agitate about being beaten by the system, by fundamentalists, by riots, and probably write such angry, hateful words would continue to be the pampered poodle. This I do not understand.

Those who claim to fathom nuances seem to selectively miss out on these layers.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

I've been discarding quite a few bits of writing. They don't read too bad; they might even be good in parts. But something seems not right when I internalise it yet again from where it came. There could be an explanation. Here's one that may or may not apply...

From 'Incense Burner', a Zen story:

A woman of Nagasaki named Kame was one of the few makers of incense burners in Japan. Such a burner is a work of art to be used only in a tearoom of before a family shrine.

Kame, whose father before her had been such an artist, was fond of drinking. She also smoked and associated with men most of the time. Whenever she made a little money she gave a feast inviting artists, poets, carpenters, workers, men of many vocations and avocations. In their association she evolved her designs.

Kame was exceedingly slow in creating, but when her work was finished it was always a masterpiece. Her burners were treasured in homes whose womanfolk never drank, smoked, or associated freely with men.

The mayor of Nagasaki once requested Kame to design an incense burner for him. She delayed doing so until almost half a year had passed. At that time the mayor, who had been promoted to office in a distant city, visited her. He urged Kame to begin work on his burner.

At last receiving the inspiration, Kame made the incense burner. After it was completed she placed it upon a table. She looked at it long and carefully. She smoked and drank before it as if it were her own company. All day she observed it.

At last, picking up a hammer, Kame smashed it to bits. She saw it was not the perfect creation her mind demanded.


Buoyancy vs. Vibrancy: Modi's Bubble

A Gujarati friend living in London was chuffed. "I think he's done it, he'll make it," she wrote. Her family could be here, but they are not. And will never. The excuse is "The children were brought up in a western culture, they won't adjust."

So, how globalised is it really? Many like my friend are mere cheerleaders. I avoided writing about it, but that note made me think.

Narendra Modi turned out in good form as a salesman during the recently-concluded Vibrant Gujarat Summit.

When a man hawking his state is trumpeted as hero, he is pushed into a slot. The background noises about Modi as national leader and prime ministerial candidate come from soothsayers, not pragmatists.

Modi has scuttled his chances at being a national leader, forget the candidate for the top job by acting as drumbeater. As he said:


"Once upon a time, Gujarat was the gateway to the Globe from India. Now it is becoming the Global Gateway to India. Gujarat welcomes you through open arms with this event which has grown far beyond the boundaries of Gujarat."

The statement proves just how regional he is. A good indication of a thriving global economy would be if migrants from the state have returned despite doing well abroad and not because of a slack overseas economy that forces them to invest in their roots.

For foreign investment, Gujarat has always had a thriving middle class. Modi has only given it a visible face, a name. He has made the trader his brand - marketing asmita, self respect. Curiously, this version of swadeshi is essentially based on a western model.

Much has been said about big business tycoons and their syrupy odes to him. Let us see what they really mean.


“I am proud to say that RIL is a Gujarati, Indian and a global company. We began from Gujarat and we come back here again and again to invest." - Mukesh Ambani

Indeed, Dhirubhai Ambani started from here. Their major benefactors back in those days were in Delhi. The AGMs of Reliance are held in Mumbai. They've built schools, hospitals in Mumbai. Their showpiece houses are in Mumbai. Their wives' promote cultural activities in Mumbai. They are not investing in Gujarat, but investing in property for their pollution-causing factories there.


"Narendra Bhai has been described in different ways. My personal favourite comes from what his name literally means in Sanskrit - a conjunction of Nara and Indra. Nara means man and Indra means King or leader. Narendra bhai is the lord of men and a king among kings." - Anil Ambani

This was probably the most treacly account, but we are a nation that deifies. Narendrabhai himself dresses up in mythological garbs and it pleases the junta, just as any road show would. Anil Ambani, like his brother, will pick and choose the options in Gujarat. They know they are the real kings, as Forbes keeps telling them.


“Gujarat has made a remarkable progress. We see almost every state embarking on an investors' summit now - a pro-active approach established with a walk the talk approach of the government here." - Adi Godrej

This is essentially playing politics. Investors' summits have often been organised by business organisations. You don't need a political leader for that. Giving Modi credit for it is the sort of palm-greasing industrial houses do before they get their files pushed. Here, it is a preemptive strike.



“There is something about the food in Gujarat that makes Gujaratis not just entrepreneurial but they are remarkably free of the fear of failure. And to me, this freedom from the fear of failure is at the root of entrepreneurship and innovation. In future we will talk not just of China model in India, but Gujarat model in China.” - Anand Mahindra

This is the consolidation of the state as a separate entity. When big industrial houses attend summits in Mumbai, do they reduce such talk to Maharashtrian food or the Marathi characteristics? No. It is redundant to their own aspirations. What Mahindra is in fact conveying is that this spirit was there before Modi and shall be there always.

The China reference was cheeky. China has gone ahead with its economy, but internally continues with its heavy-handed policies. It would be more than happy to clone any model and later make cheap fakes that will probably sell like hot dhoklas in Gujarat itself.


The state is an option like any other. Those investing here are contributing to its image- building much like a wedding family ensures a sturdy and trussed up mare for the groom to ride on to take back his wife.

Ratan Tata spoke about how he first did not invest and then he did, and is now convinced about Gujarat. He forgot to add that he was shunted out of West Bengal where he started his Nano project.

I felt a bit sad when Narendra Modi said in his concluding speech:

"All these people who are greeting us, trying to speak our language, they just want to be part of our economic success."

Foreign diplomats made the right noises and it was to ensure that the huge diaspora in their countries continues to add to the economy from their spice-laden havens in Wembley and New Jersey. Not in Jamnagar and Ahmedabad.

But it does not hurt to look through a bubble and see sudsy rainbows.

© Farzana Versey

Love Anarchy

Kang Yi stripped down to a thong while a young woman gave him love bites. Performance art is almost always controversial. What was the significance of this one staged on a podium at a Guangzhou auditorium?

He said: 

“It's a critique of the concept of chaotic love. I hope that my art piece will call out to today's youth to seek out the excellent genuine love and feelings of traditional China.”

A young woman, a student, spent an hour and a half bruising him with her lips. His chest, abdomen and arms were soon covered with hickeys. It is pertinent that he chose to stand in a Christ-like pose. If we use this as metaphor, then he sees excessive expression of love as no different from hate, of being nailed to a Cross, all to save his people.

The report states:

He also donned tree roots in his hair to signify time and tied three roasted chickens to the plank across his shoulders that positioned his body into a cross-like shape.

Does Time here denote going back to an age where love was mostly devoid of feeling? The roasted chickens covey death as well as sustenance. It is about survival.

Chicken skinning, cooking, carving are as much part of modern-day culinary tradition as they were in rudimentary form in the early days.

By trying to demonstrate what is wrong about such love, Kang is in fact making it seem desirable. He is the centre of that universe where a woman submits to him. His stoic stance is less of a saint and more of a taker. The master commanding that his needs be ministered to. His hot flesh waiting to be bitten into. And his being tied up frees him from having any commitment.

The woman whose lips too would have tired after 75 minutes of such activity is just a tool for his needs. Had the performance shown her writhing or expressing some emotion, it might have been ‘chaos’. Besides, the nature of physical love is subject to how two consenting adults choose to ‘perform’ it. No one is privy to what the traditionalists did in their bedrooms. Chaotic love is not one-sided, unless it is exploitation.

Emotional love is more often about an individual pitted against another. Two people cannot feel the same for each other with similar intensity and the nature of that love will witness varied shades along the way. This does cause turmoil. Tradition cannot save it. If anything, people have been forced into dismal relationships because tradition left them with no option but to follow the rules of the game as reckoned by their roots. This happens in most societies even today.

Kang is merely a revivalist who is using exhibitionism, much like a man enjoying life in a nudist colony trying to sell clothes to others. 

- - -

Images: Daily Mail


Sign Qua Non!

As with any written word, I am intrigued by signatures. My own has caused banks and other institutions much confusion simply because I 'forget' a turn or twist there, or am in such a hurry to put my stamp on paper that the pen overtakes, leaving behind unwanted slashes and mysteriously-placed dots.

Yesterday, while doing the needful, as the bureaucratic term goes, I decided to first give it a dry run. The back of a used envelope served as my zone of experiment. My work looked quite tidy, which surprised me, and fairly aesthetic, which did not!

So, how does it say anything conclusively about me? It is quite possible that my aesthetic sensibilities have become more compact. But, outside of the confines of a signature, I can appreciate the scattered, expansive, and bohemian as much as the minimalist. It could be in art, music, theatre, literature, or even everyday living by way of clothes and food.

Does a signature reveal or deceive, as in put you off the scent, to prevent forgery, to guard oneself?

The ‘messy’ signature of Jack Lew was in the news recently. President Barack Obama has nominated him as US secretary of treasury. If confirmed, his signature will be on every new dollar bill.

A report said, "Obama later added that Jack has assured him that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase the currency..."

While the "series of spirals" do look unusual, how would it debase the currency? Does anyone even look at it closely? In fact, its idiosyncrasy could well make it recognisable and prevent against fakes. The President did joke that had he seen this, he might have decided against the nomination.

I am told that some companies check on signatures when they hire people. Apparently, it is a good enough gauge of personality. Even if it is, individuals in a work environment need not be identical to 'who' they are as opposed to 'what' they are. Situations throw up challenges that test one's mettle and occasionally force one to go against type.

Not being an expert, and clueless about him, I'd still take a go at Mr Lew's signature in the spirit of fun.

To begin with, it looks like a pair of his own glasses reflected on a glass-topped table. He gives the impression of being gregarious, but soon clams up. Is ready to extend himself if there is a defined goal.

He seems to like eggs, curvy women, and perhaps Woody Allen films. He reads Harry Potter when no one's looking.

And chances are that he'd like seeing the Olympic rings in a laughing mirror than at a stadium.

Is this about Lew or about me? Or, a perception of a perception? I guess, it's time to sign off...

Sunday ka Funda

Just because I felt like it...


India and Pakistan – a Perpetual War: Decapitation vs. Capitulation

Are India and Pakistan at war? If we take a pragmatic view, then there has never been peace between the two nations. Does this translate into war? Should crossing the border, killing soldiers, infiltrating be treated as war during peacetime?

On January 8, the Pakistani army killed two Indian jawans, Lance-Naik Sudhakar Singh and Lance-Naik Hemraj. It was made out to be as though they ambled across, fired at the two, beheaded one and took away the head as trophy or proof. But this wasn’t a random act. The mainstream media has largely been talking in terms of “giving them a bloody nose” whether it is stated explicitly or implied.

Combat across the Line of Control (LoC) where both countries are involved does not amount to “diversionary manoeuvre to push infiltrators into J&K”, especially if the Intelligence Bureau was aware of it.

Winters in Jammu and Kashmir were generally considered as downtime for infiltration, the snow making it difficult for such incursion. If the IB had tipped off the Army, why were there no adequate pre-emptive steps taken? This is where it gets interesting.

False peace

Pakistan has, expectedly, denied any such killings. But what has the Indian government done? It termed it “provocative action”. The Indian Army also called it “grave provocation”. If the ceasefire is not respected, it is beyond provocation. This is not some game.

Foreign minister Salman Khurshid said: 

“I think it is important in the long term that what has happened should not be escalated…We have to be careful that forces ... attempting to derail all the good work that's been done towards normalisation (of relations) should not be successful.”

Who are these abstract forces that want to derail the peace process? Unlike in most countries that have a dispute, here peace is the Damocles Sword that hangs over the heads of India and Pakistan. It is ridiculously forced and caters primarily to the commercial and elite classes that gain points at seminars and encourage exchange of artistes to uphold a common heritage. If the heritage is common, why do we need clones?

Has any treaty been signed without ho-humming about the Kashmir issue? No. So, let us accept that the two governments are not interested in peace or a solution to Kashmir. We treat such casualties as collateral damage for a non-existent détente.

The two sides have taken position – away from the border – and ironically both are using the same excuse: non-state actors. This is particularly perplexing, for after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai India had categorically blamed the Pakistani government and finally its ‘non-state actor’ Ajmal Kasab was hanged to death. This time, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has suggested that the mastermind behind those attacks, Hafiz Saeed, was seen having a chat with people across the LoC and therefore the Lashkar-e-Toiba could well be responsible.

How, then, can we blame the Pakistani government for being in denial? If this is an act of terror, then no government will accept the blame, even if there is complicity and jihad training camps.

Besides, between different versions of truth and lies, facts become the casualties. According to a Reuters report

“The body of one of the soldiers was found mutilated in a forested area on the side controlled by India, Rajesh K. Kalia, spokesman for the Indian army's Northern Command, said. However, he denied Indian media reports that one body had been decapitated and another had its throat slit.”

The theory of provocation assumes that needling is part of our respective foreign policies.


Risky Riders

You must have read about how drivers in Andhra Pradesh’s public transport have transformed because their dashboards carry photographs of their wives and children.

“Every driver leaves home promising his family that he’d return home safe. A soft reminder of his family motivates him to be alert. This has gone down well with the drivers.”

I am not too gung-ho about it. One is aware that this bit of news has been highlighted because the Delhi gang-rape took place in a bus and it has been mentioned in the reports, although there is no connection at all.

My point is that not all drivers would be married. Besides, many dashboards have some talisman or icon of deities. Since religion is a huge factor in the lives of many, why does the fear of god not make these people careful? Why do they imbibe alcohol? Rash driving is simply a case of bad drivers – licences are bought by rookies after paying the RTO officers. Then there are bad roads, poor lighting, lack of proper road signs, no concept of road etiquette, both by drivers and pedestrians.

And why blame only public transport. What about private vehicles? Check the number of accidents caused by fancy wheels, and with prominent people behind them.

There is a fine for using mobile phones while driving as it diverts attention. Will not looking lovingly at the photograph on the dashboard have the same effect? If we wish to take a psychological look, then rash driving may have something to do with a sense of insecurity that suddenly finds a tantalising stretch that can be conquered by wearing blinkers, so to speak. There is no one in the line of vision except the road ahead. The cocky look in the rear-view mirror is only to make sure that no one overtakes one’s own road. This is a spatial phenomenon, where ‘I own this territory because it is under my feet’ prevails.

I am merely giving a flipside argument, because we really need to get our act together rather than resort to filmi prototypes.


Welcome, Jamat-e-Hind, to the mainstream!

[Disclaimer: Today's papers reported the Jamat-e-Islami (Hind)'s views on co-education, sex outside marriage and other such regressive measures to 'protect' women. My views below on the organisation were posted yesterday and although it is clear that I am discussing the formation of a political party, I would like to in strong terms oppose the Jamat's stand regarding women. My opinions expressed here, however, remain unchanged in the larger context of a political discourse.]

While I dislike the idea of a religion-based political party, I am not as dismissive about the launching of the Welfare Party of India (WPI) that is supposedly a part of the Jamat-e-Islami (Hind), described as a “fundamentalist Muslim movement”.

Here are a few reasons for my grudging acceptance:

There is often a question raised about ‘Muslim leadership’ and why no proper political party contests elections. From a report in the TOI it seems to be making just such an effort:

Having established units of WPI in eight states — West Bengal, UP, Assam, Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, AP and TN – it will soon launch its unit in Maharashtra.

Though WPI’s name doesn’t suggest its link with the Jamaat, and some of its senior functionaries are non-Muslims, it remains primarily a Muslim political party guided by the Jamaat-e-Islami ideology. “It is true that Jamaat took the initiative to form this party and spared some of its members to launch it in different states; it is a broadbased party which will work for the marginalized minorities, dalits and tribals who have been betrayed by the so-called secular parties,” claims Qasim Rasool Ilyas, WPI’s general secretary and a Jamaat member.

There will be an element of opportunism, but there is genuine discontent with mainstream secular parties that have used the Muslim vote without making any difference to the lives of the ordinary Muslim. In fact, by treating them as a consolidated group, these parties have encouraged the mentality of cowering and waiting for scraps to be thrown their way. Perhaps a Muslim party might be able to see, through its own pigeon-hole, that there are different kinds of Muslims. That is where its leadership will be tested. It is easy to include Dalits and tribals – who are disadvantaged, but outsiders – and quite a tough task facing the hierarchy within.

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) had remained largely confined to a few constituencies in Hyderabad. Despite its attempts to moderanise education and make Muslims self-reliant, it has got more importance due to the hot-blooded speeches by MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi. (It is my view that he ought to be arrested, or not be given importance at all. There are those who think this might sound like tacit approval. It shows just how much they like to milk a controversial cow.)

If the BJP that promotes Hindutva as nationalism can become a nationalist party, why not any other? It unabashedly wants a revival of Ram Rajya, which amounts to turning the clock back and is no different from, say, the Saudi model that it derides for backwardness.

Besides, regional parties already have a huge stake and push their agenda, whether it is Tamil Nadu, Punjab or the North East states. There are Hindu, Sikh, Christian, tribal, Muslim concerns that they address. It is necessary to be cynical about the motives of the leaders, but the intent cannot be brushed aside because of this. The WPI may cater to a small section of people, which will be a win-win situation. It will reveal that Muslims do not vote en bloc and yet make the complacent parties rethink about taking them for granted.

Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy, representing the mandatory liberal voice, says:

“Since Jamat-e-Islami’s appeal among Muslims was limited, it has changed its strategy and wants to enroll Muslim support through a political outfit. It will fragment Muslim votes, help Hindutva parties to further polarise Hindu votes and weaken secularism.”

This is so typical. I’d see this statement from a positive perspective. The JI’s appeal is limited, which means that Muslims have not bought into the narrow religious political view as yet. The new party will need to have larger appeal, and in a democracy it has every right to. I do not see how liberal or fundamentalist voices can try to nip it before it has even been sown. Why should Muslim votes not be fragmented? This thinking is not much different from any ghetto one.

How will it help polarise Hindu votes? We have a large number of parties, and it is unlikely that Hindus will clamour to join this one. I am amazed at the confusion. How will this help Hindutva parties? The BJP’s allies in the NDA were not all Hindutva groups. Once upon a time not long ago, in the land that causes the greatest heartburn, Jammu and Kashmir, the National Conference was its partner. It has managed alliances in the South, too.

With such buffets on offer, pluralism can be channelised. The ‘this will weaken secularism’ argument sounds lame and exposes how liberals are willing to get moulded into a pre-formulated shape. They know that they will lose their right to speak for secular values in a democracy. They just might cease to be the sole voices of moderate Muslims.

This is not 1947 where the polarity was limited and we were still basking with our trust with destiny.

I am, therefore, disconcerted by the fears expressed. To suggest that Jamaat-e-Islami in India should learn from its co-ideologues in Pakistan makes no sense. JI has started a party that will have to work within the framework of the Indian Constitution. It will have to shape up or ship out. More importantly, it has to take the high moral ground and not follow the Hindutva prototype.

For those talking about its baggage, what is the history of the BJP, of Communist parties, of the Congress? No one was born yesterday. And it is time for the so-called voices of Indian Muslims to stop assuming the ignorance of the community. Do I have to keep repeating that Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid lost the elections in a Muslim-dominated area? It will also be interesting to watch the token Hindus in the Muslim party.

We all love secularism, don’t we? Now stuff this.

End note:

While we are discussing communal groups, tributes were paid to the assassins of Indira Gandhi yesterday by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in the presence of Jathedar of the Akal Takht.

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh had assassinated Indira Gandhi her at her residence on October 31, 1984. Beant was shot dead while Satwant and another conspirator, Kehar Singh, were hanged on January 6, 1989.

Besides SGPC officials, leaders of radical Sikh organization Dal Khalsa and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) were also present on the occasion. Sources said Jathedar of Akal Takht Giani Gurbachan Singh honoured Tarlok Singh, father of Satwant Singh and Bhupinder Singh, brother of Harjinder Singh Jinda, one of the assassins of Gen Vaidya.

There are no straight answers. No straight reasons. 

(c) Farzana Versey