27.2.13

India's 'comfort zone' is not the Oscars

Ang Lee receives his award with a namaste

As is the tradition, I did not sit through the Academy Awards or even catch glimpses of it.  Except for Life of Pi, I have not watched any of the other films, yet. I’d like to, though. This is not about disdain or being highbrow; I catch quite a few Indian soaps.

However, there is no escaping the event. The host Seth MacFarlane has come out with several new notorious feathers in his cap, and I say this because the Oscars may choose politically-correct films, but the show wallows in a sophomoric need for attention. It conforms to the pattern of being mainstream, and in Hollywood you are mainstream if you are a bit sexist, a bit racist, a bit of a victim-predator.

You’ve already read about the wardrobe malfunctions, the gowns, the jewels, the asinine.

It is the India factor that interests me.  As no Indian film or nominee got an award, we did what we do best. It was so very amusing that a little town in Chandigarh was celebrating, distributing sweets because of Zero Dark Thirty. It did not strike them as ironic that the place had recreated Abbottabad, a Pakistani bazaar to be precise, all to trace the end of an Arab who was the nemesis of the West. Osama bin Laden brought a good deal of business to this town in Chandigarh.

It is business.

The same goes for Puducherry (Pondicherry) where the initial portions of Life of Pi were shot. These were locales that Yann Martel had written about in the book on which the film was based. Indeed, the background sounds and a lullaby were Indian contributions, but was it an Indian film?

Director Shekhar Kapur declared in his usual pompous fashion: 

“An Indian film will win an Oscar when it is good enough. Danny Boyle and Ang Lee have opened the gates for Indian filmmakers. It’s up to the filmmakers now. Do they have the courage and the desire to conquer international markets or do they want to continue playing in their comfort zone?”

The Oscar is not the yardstick for good cinema, although it has sometimes recognised fine independent films by outsiders. What is Mr. Kapur’s yardstick for good? Surely, he has been exposed to Indian regional cinema, to quite a few offbeat Hindi films, as well as experimentation within the framework of Bollywood, of which he was a player.

How have Danny Boyle and Ang Lee opened the gates for Indian filmmakers? I think there should be a clear demarcation between the two. Ang Lee, while exploring spiritualism, did not overly emphasise on Indianness. The main characters happened to be Indian. But, it was an international film made with those sensibilities in mind. Fine, he accepted the award with the Indian greeting of 'namaste'.

Boyle was also catering to a foreign audience. As I wrote in an earlier post:

Danny bhai can rest happy that he did a nice helicopter version of struggle and hope. Next time he might like to hang on to one aspect and embellish it with some detailing. This is merely a filmic tourist brochure of the other side of India.

This obsession with international markets seems to demean indigenous work. Did the Africans start discussing about how ‘Our of Africa’ would make them big players? Did the Japanese consider themselves fortunate to have ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ take their cinema overseas?

Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Godard, Fellini, Costa Gavras have had more courage than a Shekhar Kapur and they did not seek out Hollywood acceptance, and the Oscars are just that. Everything else is a satellite.

As regards being happy in a comfort zone, it is rather superficial to ignore that most of the films that reached the Oscars were within their comfort zone. There happen to be differing levels of what varied cultures are comfortable with. The form of expression is bound to differ. We have films that deal with edgy subjects; some succeed, others don’t.  There is also some self-conscious attempt at ‘being different’ just for the heck of it, or to go to Cannes, which has sold out to Hollywood.

At least we do not choose White characters to portray Hispanic, Brown and even Black characters in our films.  

Bollywood is escapist. It has never claimed to be otherwise. And let us not look down on the audience or decide to improve their tastes. The same people who gave a thumbs-up to Dabangg were not as enthusiastic about the second one. Same actors, same gimmicks. They know what to like and what to reject. That is their comfort zone. 

(c) Farzana Versey

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More at What about Slumdog Millionaire?  

and a light take at An hour at the Oscars

24.2.13

Sunday ka Funda

"I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it."

 - Walt Disney 



I woke up to the lemony flavour of this advertisement. I saw it coming when the ubiquitous antiseptic liquid that is a household name started airing ads for its new dish-washing liquid. All of us have learned to add a bit of it to clean surfaces, even in the bath; they diversified into soap and handwash and even though these did not smell of roses, we felt reassured that we were safe from germs. There is something like soup during a cold about it. 

"Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim." 

- Bertrand Russell 

The competition in the market could naturally not take this lying down. After all, it is about the home. It hit out by using the most vulnerable segment - children. The antiseptic became 'harsh' and your dear moppet's tiffin needed something that had the power of a Sachin Tendulkar ton, but gently. 

It is an aggressive appeal and this time I think the ad has hit where it hurts. The soap and handwash segment were relatively fine with an antiseptic version around, for it would probably be the extra choice, the second wash, so to speak. You don't do the dishes twice over, and you don't want what mops your floors to touch your kid's tuck box. 

As a regular user of the antiseptic brand, I think their strategy is to depend on loyalty. No one can compete with that. 

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I have cropped the picture to hide the name of the product and not named the antiseptic brand...because I just felt like it. 

22.2.13

Breaking News...

It is alleged...the prime minister called it a dastardly act...the home minister said he knew about it...then he did not know...the Opposition knew....then did not know...Intel forces knew...then did not know...it was a well-planned attack...no, it was rudimentary...outsiders...insiders...non-state actors...it is alleged....according to reliable sources...(reliable according to which side you want to be on)...yes, reliable sources...

According to news just coming in exclusively from top officials who shall remain unnamed that they have been told by reliable sources that everybody is a fucking idiot.

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Hyderabad blasts last night. People dead. Injured. Shane Warne's botox looks gross. 


21.2.13

What Makes Premji a ‘Muslim tycoon’?
Can we see his philanthropy without religious blinkers?

Right said, Premji? Pic: The Telegraph


Azim Premji is the right type of man. India deserves every bit of him and his contribution, both as entreprenueur and philanthropist.

Therefore, when he announced recently to give more, it sounded just right:

“I strongly believe that those of us who are privileged to have wealth should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”

No one can have a problem with this. However, it raises two issues.

  • Did he have to sign up with the ‘Giving Pledge’ group, co-founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? I have discussed my reservations about this sort of philanthropy earlier. It is his money, his country, his concerns. Globalising it obscures intent, if not action. He is right that education is the way forward. Unfortunately, there appears to be an increasing move for ‘quality’ education, ignoring the massive illiterate ‘market’.   
  • Is it necessary to make him into a showpiece of a community? There is a difference between keeping a low profile and not being proactive. It is indeed commendable that he does not flash his faith (a luxury he has, incidentally, because money has no religion), but what about the desperation by others to thrust it on him, and for him to do the proper secular thing?

I will have to reproduce in entirety the piece I wrote in 2007 in Counterpunch as a response to the execrable interview in Wall Street Journal. Azim Premji may be “The Bill Gates of India” (which tells us more about our foreign obsession than globalisation), but even the international media will sell his story tagged with religion:

Is Azim Premji really the world’s richest Muslim entrepreneur? Is there a list which mentions the richest Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Christian, Scientologist, atheist, Rastafarian?

Unlikely. At least nothing that would make the Wall Street Journal want to give it front page legitimacy. Talking of legitimacy, surely we are talking about legitimate enterprise, for the underworld and the mafia, Muslim or otherwise, are flush with money. In all likelihood, they are investors in the big companies.

Mr. Premji heads Wipro, India's third-largest IT exporter. Its fortune rests at $17 billion. I like rich people. But this gentleman is not just rich; he has been saddled with baggage. And the newspaper goes out of its way to prise it open by saying that he defies all conventional wisdom about Islamic tycoons - he does not hail from the Persian Gulf and does not wear his faith on his sleeve.

Where did the term ‘Islamic tycoon’ come from? What is unconventional about not wearing your faith on your sleeve? Is it even important to discuss?

Of course, it is. Imagine the world we are living in. Azim Premji has to be displayed as the nice guy – no beard, well-fitted suit, an amiable demeanor, likeable. He might have been a crass bore with filthy lucre, the Tom Cruise type who had to jump on an Oprah Winfrey sofa to declare his love for a Kate to become interesting. Mr. Premji has been given a moment quite unlike that cheesy one. He has been profiled (and do pardon the pun) in an article titled, “How a Muslim Billionaire Thrives in Hindu India”.

I am an Indian and have always lived in the country of my birth. It is not a Hindu nation. It may have a majority of Hindus, but then it has a majority of illiterates. Why wasn’t the report called, “How a literate billionaire thrives in illiterate India”? There are many such potential headlines I may offer, but I should hope the point has been made.

This ‘Muslim billionaire’ has thrived because he had a family business to start with. He had money to get a decent education and he had the spirit of enterprise. Hindu India did not contribute to these, neither did Muslims. It is an individual achievement.

It is unfortunate that Muslims are being made accountable for aspects of life that would under normal circumstances not identity them with religion.

Yaroslav Trofimov, the writer of the article, says, “Yet, to many in India's Muslim community, Mr. Premji's enormous wealth, far from being inspiring, shows that success comes at a price the truly faithful cannot accept. They resent that Mr. Premji plays down his religious roots and declines to embrace Muslim causes – in a nation where people are pegged by their religion and where Hindus freely flaunt theirs.”

What price has Mr. Premji had to pay? He has quietly gone and made a success of his business. There is no resentment against his hesitation to talk about his Muslim identity, and no Muslim social organisations are dependent on his largesse.

What is resented is the fact that in a country where most of the 150 million people of the community are ghettoized, the likes of Premji are touted as examples of Hindu tolerance. This just does not wash. It is most patronizing, and a huge insult to those who do make a decent living but are tagged in ways that are negative simply because they lack the visibility of a high-profile profession. On any given day there will be a handful of Muslims taken out of the celebrity closet to reveal the mothballed magnanimity of the majority community.

No one wants Premji to stand up and be counted. But there is no reason for him to play along with this secular sham, and he has been doing so for a while. He said in an interview to the paper, “We have always seen ourselves as Indian. We've never seen ourselves as Hindus, or Muslims, or Christians or Buddhists.”

The report further states, “Mr. Premji has mentioned his Muslim background so rarely in public that many Indian Muslims don't even know he shares their heritage. None of Wipro's senior managers aside from Mr. Premji himself are Muslims. The company maintains normal working hours on Islamic high holidays.”

This does not sound like a report in a respected newspaper but something straight out of a pamphlet. What heritage are we talking about? Is there one Muslim heritage? His last name could well be Hindu as his roots are in Gujarat. What is so heart-warming and significant about not working on Islamic holidays? Does it become news when many Hindu-owned companies celebrate religious festivals with a puja (prayer) and in fact during Diwali (that is an unabashed ode to the goddess of wealth) people even offer prayers to account books? Is it news that this includes Muslim entrepreneurs? What is the purpose behind such a statement? And why is it surprising considering that most of the 70,000 employees of Premji’s company are non-Muslim?

These are devious little tricks. No one mentions good old Adnan Khashoggi and his cruise liners in which the international high and mighty had fun vacations.

Isn’t there a mean between riding the Islamophobia and secular waves? The latter is as ridiculous as Mohamed al Fayed screaming about being discriminated against by British society because of his religion.

Azim Premji is a thriving businessman in the globalized world he keeps talking about. A globalized world that is unwilling to dignify him as just another wealthy guy and has to mention his religion not just in passing but as the very crux of his defiance – a defiance that is as imaginary as other stereotypes.

He says with what appears to be an element of arrogance, “All our hiring staff are trained to interview in English. They're trained to look for Westernized segments because we deal with global customers.”

Indeed. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians are doing rather well for themselves, and they don’t go around kowtowing to some colonial mentality that talks about English in such a fashion. He mentions that most Muslims are educated in Urdu. Perhaps he might like to check the statistics that say Urdu is a dying language. Perhaps he might like to sponsor some schools for Muslim children; he can do so incognito so that his secular credentials are safe. Perhaps he might like to know that even madrassas these days use his computers, so it is entirely possible they are cracking codes on them. Perhaps he might like to not even entertain questions about his Muslim identity. He is rich enough to afford to say, “No comments”. That is true liberation.

However, being called a Muslim tycoon is like being addressed as a hot Eskimo. And who doesn’t like a touch of oxymoron?
Are we grown up enough to accept him without strings attached and our baggage of expectations and stereotypes? Why does he or anyone need to do something specifically, and self-consciously, secular to prove their nationalistic stripes?

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Update Query: Wonder why I forgot to add here that among all the industrialists who sang paeans and promised and were promised a rose garden during Narendra Modi's 'Vibrant Gujarat Summit', Azim Premji was not around. He is or Gujarati origin and interested in development. What made him stay away? A point that needs to be noted. 

19.2.13

Hunt for a baby

Helen Hunt with her baby

When I read about Helen Hunt getting a baby due to an ‘uplifting experience’, I adduced it must have been close to Immaculate Conception. 

What transpired, instead, was a combination of superstition and auto-suggestion.  The uplifting experience was a ‘lift’.  On the David Letterman show, Hunt shared her experience with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, who has been described as a “United Nations-recognised master”.  The UN has a questionable record on political issues; therefore, one wonders on what basis it might have certified a spiritual guru as a master.  In form of address ‘master’ is quite the norm, but it is by believers. Did the UN test spiritual powers and, if so, how did it measure these?

Bollywood films used to have a standard cure for infertility – a visit to a godman or guru. Often, the person would be a villain with beady eyes, smacking his lips and while showering blessings on the woman giving her a once-over. Depending on how the characters were to develop in the script, the woman would either be forced to succumb or escape. Art-house cinema too explored the misuse of tantric practices. This, unfortunately, is not relegated to cinema.

A scene from the recent Bollywood film 'Oh My God - OMG'

Even today, one reads about charlatans from different cults and faiths using their ‘powers’ to offer women more than spiritual guidance. The better-known gurus have an ostensibly clean image and a celebrity flock. They cater to bruised egos, including their own, and in India while their role in politics was earlier mainly on the sidelines, these days they pontificate on major national issues. This camouflages the exploitative nature of the smaller players.

Hollywood has been a good place for those who managed to charm an international clientele. Everyone seems to have been in some form of rehab, and needs succour. Scientology has already asserted itself. Tibetan Buddhism too has done so, for those with political sympathies for the Dalai Lama.  Beverly Hills easily alternates between the good life and the god life, one feeding the other.  People do feel the need to rejuvenate and/or seek a higher purpose.

However, when someone certifies that an important bodily activity has been performed due to such intervention, one needs to look more closely.

Here is the extract from a report:

The guru, who passed away in 2007, was famous for showing off mind-over-matter feats of strength, and he celebrates the achievements of people he admires by lifting them above his head.

Hunt explains, “He lifted people that he felt had achieved something, that had contributed something to the world… (Archbishop) Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Ali and me.

“I went with my goddaughter… and we pull into this place and women open the car door and they’re dressed in, like, floral gowns, and they walk me into this garden. Then I get on this contraption, walk up four steps and he lifted me up.”

It is obvious that Sri Chinmoy understood achievement. It does call for a celebration, although this is a most unusual way to express it. Why did this single experience convince her that she could become a mother? It coincided with her conceiving. “I wanted to have a baby and he was encouraging me to pray and not give up and I did have a beautiful daughter, so he was right.”

There is place for coincidence and serendipity in our lives, and some of us have had what are known as ‘out-of-body’ experiences. These, if we try and understand rationally, are part intuitive and part strong desire. The mind is an extremely powerful tool. Ask those who suffer from psychosomatic disorders. One needn’t go that far. It is possible to experience a state of suspension merely due to a fever.

But making babies does require some amount of hard work and it is far from being a meditative state. One cannot merely wish to conceive or be so uplifted as to create out of nothing. The concept of Immaculate Conception has fascinated me for long and it is a profound spiritual metaphor for creation. Taking it out of the realm of its religious context, it is symbolic of the purest birth of what could change the world – it could be a piece of art or an ideology.

Helen Hunt’s encounter with the guru lacks this sublimity. It appears to have been at best a spiritual transaction; it was also two famous people meeting as a trade-off. Why could she not pray on her own? How much did merely sharing her deep need for a child have to do with it? Is it not possible that the seed had to be sown in her mind for her body to accept it?

She is fortunate that she is who she is. But, the legitimacy she gives to such errant experiences conveys that although thoughts are potent, she could not even think them on her own.

© Farzana Versey

Veerappan's Legacy and a Sleeping State

Veerappan

Veerappan was probably the last of the bandits. Shot dead in 2004 by the security forces that he eluded for a good few decades, he is back in the news. The Supreme Court has stayed the death sentence of his four associates.

It again raises the question about whether the mental agony and physical confinement due to delayed execution is humane. Besides this, the courts must ask themselves whether the severe punishment to deter further such acts of crime serves its purpose. The Veerappan gang survived in the jungles across three states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. It started with poaching, and went on to smuggling of ivory and sandalwood available in the forests.

How he and his band of dacoits survived for this long has spawned many stories, including the complicity of certain forces and the romantic notion of him being protected by the villagers.

I mention this in the context of how the legal pattern of the mercy petition on behalf of his aides is being dealt with. Gnanprakasam, Simon, Meesaikara Madhaian and Bilavendran will have to wait until tomorrow to know whether the amended version of their plea will alter the punishment.

It is frightening to think about the political games that might play themselves. Afzal Guru’s case has already showcased how fast-tracking is done with ulterior motives. There are other precedents, all waiting for the noose. Sandalwood smugglers do not matter as much as an attack on Parliament in the general scheme, but now that the government has displayed brawn it cannot turn wimpy. If it flexed muscles in Kashmir, will it be forced to do the same in Kanya Kumari?

What is particularly intriguing is the Attorney General G E Vahanvati’s reasoning about denying that mercy in this case:

He said Veerappan’s gang members had committed a crime against the state by triggering a landmine blast that killed 22 people— five policemen, 15 police informers and two forest guards. Opposing the petition, the AG said, “These are crimes against the state and must be distinguished from crimes against society.”

A chief minister is killed. Does he constitute the state? Does the state not include society? One understands the validity of symbols, but without wishing to sound insensitive how are policemen, aware of the dangers of their job, more important than others? Going by the AG’s statement, is it not the business of the state to protect society and, therefore, crimes against the latter could also make the state responsible for laxity?

Where was the state when Veerappan was committing the crimes? People might recall that the police went full force only when Kannada superstar Rajkumar was kidnapped and held captive for over three months. This gave the Centre enough ammo to get Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to fight it out. 

Elephants, sandalwood, ivory may be state property, but they are also about business. Whose business? How did the dacoit manage to have an army with him? Had he not been shot dead, he and his men would still be on the run, continuing with their activities.

It is important to understand Veerappan a bit. At the age of ten, he picked up a gun and killed his first elephant. Was it for a lark or were these the makings of a criminal? One suspects it was pathological, for there were instances where he did not just snuff out a life, but beheaded the victims and even choked a six-month old lest its cries alert the police. And he never expressed remorse for any of his actions.

Yet, he remained in touch with those in power. He offered to surrender on the condition that he got a presidential pardon, the right to continue to hold arms and a movie to be made on his life. Part of it could be attributed to his close observing of Phoolan Devi whose post-dacoit ‘mainstream’ life he was beginning to be inspired by.  His numerous video cassettes were less about communicating to the outside world than to project himself as an invincible man; it was the trailer of the film he hoped would one day be made by a director of international standing.

Veerappan decided he was a messiah of the whole region. When he sent his list of demands, there was nothing for himself. What he said sounded like a politician’s manifesto – a solution to the Cauvery dispute, Tamil as the administrative language of Karnataka, and an ensured daily wage for the Manjoloi estate workers in Tirunelvelli. He wanted to portray himself as the king of Tamil Nadu, a real-life version of the celluloid MGR.

He even compared himself with Jayalalitha, saying that if she could be chief minister with cases pending against her, why could he not be set free? The fact is he would never get any credence as a free man. His appearance was geared to cause fear as a bandit. In the urban jungle, he would become a part of the history of thuggery. So he ensured he remained in the news every few months, and propped up his image as a folk hero.

He often said he respected women and hated the security forces who raped them under the ruse of trying to find him. It is true that women were arrested for helping him, for providing him information and food.  Then there were his aides.  It is possible that he captured them and they worked for him under duress.

The government and police forces that rely on informants ought to know how they use their powers to keep such people safe. It is barter. What applies to them would apply to the criminal too.

These people constitute society. They could well be victims, of the bandits/terrorists and the state, and one cannot with certainty tell anymore what comes first.

The killing of Veerappan was justified because it was a case of one force against another. But getting four aides executed now reeks of political opportunism.  For argument’s sake, if the state is convinced that capital punishment is the best way to deal with criminals (it is not and it will have to face the music by right-thinking citizens), then instead of looking back in anger, it ought to immediately address recent cases of terror against the state and announce the death sentence. Only then can it afford to take a high moral ground.

Justice seen to be done is not always justice. It is sometimes a coverup con job by those in charge of booking cons.

© Farzana Versey

17.2.13

Sunday ka Funda

"The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant."

- Salvador Dali

12.2.13

Brussels Spout: Children as symbols


What makes Belgium’s capital boast of a little boy urinating? The last thing you might want is a spray of piss on your face as you pose before what is considered an iconic structure in Brussels. Is it fun? Is it funny? Does it have to be?

I read about the Manneken Pis a while ago. Standing two-feet high, the sculpture of a boy urinating was created in the 15th century. It continues to be one of the most-visited sites and it is said “no metropolis boasts such a well-known fountain engaged in the same bodily function”.

It might look cute and provide a few chuckles.  I like the idea of irreverence.  Installation art has not shied away from exploiting such bodily functions.  However, I am a bid disturbed about how this image is being marketed beyond its iconoclasm.

The report states, “Even as society has lowered its tolerance for images of nude children and become hypersensitive about sanitation, the politically incorrect statue has gained stature.”

This is beyond rubbishing political correctness. Just look at the examples of how the mascot is employed in ads and logos, as well as edible products such as chocolates, fries, lollipops.

Much of the market for these comprises of children. Would it not send out a message that not only is it okay for them to perform the job in public view, but it is utterly charming to do so? Even more worrying is that you might eat them – this can have a subliminal erotic impact. There are perverts roaming the streets, and the message that might go out is: if these naked tots are sitting on shelves waiting to being taken, then it must not be such a bad thing.

There is a further reason that bothers me:

When city officials wanted to promote a job-creation plan in 2005, they used ads depicting an office full of Mannekens at computers and in meetings. Another poster showed a construction site bustling with Mannekens in hard hats.

Is this not pushing the idea of child labour? One has to only watch photographs of children carrying loads on their heads, or toiling in fields and factories, some without clothes and with distended bellies, or crapping near railway tracks or in street corners in the poorer nations to understand that this stops being sweet.

Part of the fun is 896 suits of clothing that have been officially donated to him over the centuries and which he regularly wears. Many are displayed at the city museum, including a spacesuit, an Elvis Presley sequined jumpsuit and a French military officer's uniform that passing French soldiers must salute when the Manneken dons it.

While this seems harmless, who would really get excited about the adult prototype behaviour? Being a space scientist, or a musician, or an army officer might well be later ambitions for young people. But, how different are these from Barbie and Ken in different clothes? If we have issues with Barbie’s curves, then how do we explain the innocence of a child being exploited? Since we know the symbolic nature of the hoodie, what could a teenager wearing one imitating the Manneken convey?

Back then, statues at public fountains often performed biological functions including spitting, bleeding and lactating. “Before Victorian times, people didn't have all those complexes about nudity,” according to historian Roel Jacobs.

Lactating imagery is quite profound as it is a symbol of creation and nurturing. One might say the same about bleeding, for blood is about life and death. One does not perform bleeding as a ritual, though; menstruating too is in a manner a natural way of the body cleansing itself of unused eggs. Public spitting is disgusting, but one may consider the metaphors of ‘to spit at’ or ‘spit out’. Likewise, urinating could be to ‘piss off’, ‘piss on’.  For example, there is the satirical image of the Manneken spraying Nazi occupiers.

Here, the child image is used not only to understand a violent credo, but also to fight it. It amounts to brainwashing the vulnerable. The statue cannot be seen as pure fun if it is imbued with the responsibility of being more than a national symbol.

I do not think it is only about nudity.  There is the depiction of angels and the perennial Cupid in art. And while the Victorian era did bring morals into the forefront, we have no way of gauging whether strictures or openness truly altered human bodily functions. Morality and the lack of it invariably leave people with the choice to exploit others rather than themselves.

© Farzana Versey

10.2.13

Sunday ka Funda

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

"I do not need a lantern," he said. "Darkness or light is all the same to me."

"I know you do not need a lantern to find your way," his friend replied, "but if you don't have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it."

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him.

"Look out where you are going!" he exclaimed to the stranger. "Can't you see this lantern?"

"Your candle has burned out, brother," replied the stranger.

- - -

('Teaching the ultimate' - a fable)

9.2.13

Not the End of Afzal Guru: Politicians as hangmen:



“I only asked for pardon to stop millions of Kashmiri people hitting the streets. If I am hanged, I would take it as a sacrifice towards the people of Kashmir.”

 – Afzal Guru in 2008

The state has imposed curfew in the Valley. Early this morning, Afzal Guru was hanged to death.  It was a silent operation. He will be buried in Tihar Jail. This is to ensure that there is no backlash.

This is probably the worst mistake the UPA has made. If it wants ‘peace’, it should not have announced it at all. This is a government of hangmen. Of course, there are political compulsions. I wonder whether our Congress Prince also wants the blessings of some seers at the Kumbh Mela.  

Some might say that Afzal’s plea for clemency was already rejected, so it was only a matter of time. For this, we need to revisit several important events, including the crucial fact that his case was never a watertight one.

  • The prosecution produced 80 witnesses. None of them even mentioned that the four persons accused of conspiring to attack the Parliament have any link to any illegal or banned organisation. All of them were acquitted of charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

  • If Afzal was a surrendered militant how would the Pak-based JeM use him?

  • His confessions were made under conditions of torture and the police made him implicate himself before the media.

  • One of the other accused, Prof. S.A.R. Geelani, was framed on the basis of forged documents and fabricated evidence. After his acquittal, he has been speaking out and giving details about the conditions under which prisoners in the high risk cells are kept. The National Human Rights Commission instead of investigating the allegations closed the case filed by Mr Geelani on the ground that the jail authorities have denied the charges.

In 2001, the NDA government was in power; they did nothing. Now, the BJP is gloating and complaining about the delay in the hanging.

The history

They entered Parliament. They managed to get a sneak look into the House (watch the TV pictures of the terrorist taken from inside Parliament). Mr. L.K.Advani said it was a fidayeen attack - if they could do this in the USA, then why not us? But, there were air strikes on the Pentagon and Twin Towers – here you had these fellows driving in, coming out of their vehicles and managing to get close to three gates. And they were just five men. Anyone who has visited Parliament, and I have, knows that there is a huge security cordon at all times and more so when Parliament is in session.

Yet, in 2008, Afzal had said, “I really wish LK Advani becomes India's next prime minister as he is the only one who can take a decision and hang me. At least my pain and daily suffering would ease then…I have also requested that till the time they (government) take a decision, they shift me to a Kashmir jail.”

He did not consider the undertrials, little kids, old men, who have been arrested on fake charges (sometimes not even that courtesy was extended; they were just hauled up) who waiting for justice for years. At that time, he was reading India wins freedom by Maulana Azad about the country's independence movement. The Kashmiris would not quite get it, the Kashmiris who he was fighting for.

There is too much politics, and even terrorists were forced to play it.



The politics

Every few months the Afzal Guru mercy petition was brought out for airing. In 2011, the government advised the President to reject his plea. Everybody likes a nice linear structure, and no one better than the media. The Times of India had written:

“Guru, along with some others, was accused of plotting the audacious attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 in which a group of jihadis came very close to wiping out India’s political brass. The aggression almost provoked an Indo-Pak war, with India mobilizing troops along the border to force Pakistan to cut its support to terror groups.”

This is plain over-the-top dramatic. Where are the points about how a group can enter Parliament? Let us also not forget that Professor S.A.R. Geelani was arrested for being part of the “group of jihadis” but had to be released.

And here is the precious sanctimonious ‘TIMES VIEW’ that ends in a typically foolish manner:

“As a philosophy, this paper is opposed to the death penalty. One of the very few exceptions we make is with terrorists—when guilt is beyond the shadow of a doubt. Guru execution will take weight off Cong back.”

It will be interesting to see some turncoat behaviour now. I am particularly curious about Dr Farooque Abdullah’s stand. Back in 2006 he had said:

“You want to hang him? Go ahead and hang him. But the consequences of hanging him must also be remembered. One of the consequences will be... we have paid the price of Maqbool Butt’s hanging by the judge who was shot in Kashmir. Those judges will need to be protected like anything.”

Judges have been shot at in courtrooms by goondas and the underworld too. And people in the public eye in controversial cases are always at risk. That is the reason our country has Z or is it “Zzzzz” security.

He also said the nation would go up in flames. This was the language Bal Thackeray used all the time, and of course everyone just indulged him; some even felt he was right.

What now?

Omar Abdullah has no choice but to be calm, call for calm.

In September 2011, he was trapped between the BJP and the Hurriyat. At any other time it would have been a wonderful place to be in, berated by two extremist groups. Unfortunately for him, their reasons for putting him on the mat were vastly different.

The chief minister was quoted from Twitter as saying: "If the J&K assembly had passed a resolution similar to the one in Tamil Nadu on Afzal Guru would the reaction have been as muted? I think not."

The death penalty for Rajiv Gandhi's killers has been delayed by state intervention. This is unusual.

Omar is right in that there are different standards. Interestingly, the muted reaction he was complaining about has agitated people and 'unmuted' them. The BJP is going hoarse with sudden concern for Rajiv Gandhi. (They are quiet over the acquittal of Haren Pandya's killers. Pandya was a BJP man who later had a fallout with Modi.)

The BJP uses the phrase "sovereignty of the nation" rather loosely. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, unfortunate as it was, had its own dynamics that had to do with policy. The LTTE is not an Indian organisation, although it has its supporters. Such support results in huge electoral gains.

The BJP is worried about this aspect. After all, Priyanka Gandhi had met Nalini, one of her father's killers, in Vellore jail in 2008. The death verdict was given 11 years ago. Why did the BJP not put pressure to expedite it as they have done on a regular basis in the case of Afzal Guru, an Indian?

Omar Abdullah was pointing out the double standards, and one should see this as part of a thriving democracy that we are so chuffed about, with people out in the street.

However, the Hurriyat's Mirwaiz Omar Farooq had wondered why if he was so concerned about Afzal did he not resign. Again, this was missing the wood for the trees situation.

Omar Abdullah was in fact speaking as a political leader and expressing the helpless predicament of dealing with Kashmir. He chose the wrong forum to do so.

A few 'other' questions too need to be asked:

1. Would he raise the issue in the J&K assembly?

2. If so, would it mean he is doing so on humanitarian grounds or on a legal/factual basis?

3. If the latter, then would he risk providing possible loopholes?

4. How often do fake encounters figure in the assembly?

5. Does exposing political hypocrisy - I am assuming the muted reference was to politicians - enough?

This is a question for all parties. We do live in times when terrorists too have a vote bank, that is those who are not behind establishment-buffered terror.

Answers need to be sought in the right place, unless the 'people's movement' has seeped into the system's bones. In that case, stone-pelters should be excused.

(c) Farzana Versey 

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Much of these are sourced from my previous articles/posts

8.2.13

Quote uncoat

“Keep up with the Joneses”

This means you want what others have, and that is not good. Right?

Wrong.

There is an assumption that each thing on this planet is monogrammed for individual consumption and enjoyment. Since it is not, we have no choice but to keep up with the Joneses, the Janardhans and the Jaffers. Most objects are essentials; some are luxuries. To desire these only because somebody else has them is considered materialistic. But, think about it. What if you do not know of anybody who has them and still crave for them? Who are you then competing with? The Joneses inside you?

You go shopping and the person next to you at the counter has selected something nice. Suppose it is table linen. Her eye espied it first; perhaps you missed it. You might ask for a similar set. Are you keeping up with anyone? You like the look on a magazine cover and want it, if it means a lipstick or other cosmetics. Are you competing? The best way to judge how stupid this theory is to visit a sale that offers huge discounts. Then everyone is keeping up with the Joneses to just get hold of items that are close to reaching expiry date, are no more a fad, or, in the electronic world, have been replaced by upgraded versions.

The problem is that we only seem to notice the tangible. The assertion is restricted to what we can see. The ‘materialism’ of competing with thoughts – not in the sense of brainstorming or expanding on ideas – to spread one’s own wares is far more acquisitive. Intent is sometimes worse than action.

Also, one has to be rather insecure to believe that by keeping up with the Joneses you will lose yourself. It might happen if you strive to be a clone. I have several objects that many others do. It is how I use them that will tell me apart.

And to be honest, I do get a kick thinking that I too might be the Joneses that others breathlessly want to keep up with…

Silencing Kashmir? The Valley’s Voices



Everyone is singing the Kashmir tune. An all girl-band has been banned. Most of us outside, and many in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, had never heard about them until this happened. The problem is not that one should refrain from opposing such censorship, but how the arguments are reduced to basics.

Most engagement with social issues is increasingly becoming one of transaction. This conscience barter is extremely populist and the agenda is clearly not to topple political correctness. Those who profess freedom of expression do not entertain even a devil’s advocate stance, which only reveals how close-minded and muzzling such ostensible independent thinking is. If we want to permit all kinds of thought, why do we seek to curb what in our opinion is regressive?

Three high school students – Farah Deeba, Aneeqa Khalid and Noma Nazir – formed a rock band.  Pragaash (First Light) has performed only one concert. Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmad, Kashmir’s state-appointed grand cleric, issued a fatwa asking them to “stop from these activities and not to get influenced by the support of political leadership”.

Odes are being sung to their talent, their courage. The right to expression does not need a quality certificate and those who back them could well be ignorant of their music. It is about not being allowed to do what they like.

I agree with this, but having lived all my life in Mumbai, the pivot of modern India, I can cite several instances where parents have objected to their teenage children participating in cultural activities, let alone taking an initiative to independently perform. This information is crucial because we use the convenient subterfuge of censorship to camouflage our own dissonant private behaviour. When we speak about Pragaash we are already dealing with young women who have not been stifled, have been exposed to world music, managed to train, buy equipment, and market themselves in a state that is considered repressive. It is rather unfortunate that even though they are way ahead than many of their well-wishers, they are now the object of sympathy.

Those fighting for their freedom are essentially offering condolences. After saying, “We are with you”, has support for the band gone beyond disingenuous analogy?

***

Pragaash’s manager and teacher Adnan Matoo, quoted in The Washington Post, said: 

“They feel terribly scared and want an immediate end to this controversy once for all. First, the girls had decided to quit live performance due to an online hate campaign and concentrate on making an album. But after an edict by the government’s own cleric, these girls are saying goodbye to music.”

As it did not start with the cleric, but an online hate campaign, it would fall under cyber law. Unfortunately, in India the hyperactive media ensures people are drugged and religion takes centrestage in almost every argument. Is the Grand Mufti’s fatwa the final word?

Mr. Mattoo follows the pattern set by the mainstream: 

“I know it from my last eight years’ experience that we could have easily dealt with the online abuse. We were failed by the government-run mufti, who asked us to forget our music and declared our band against the religion.”

While Indians have been arguing for long about the separation of state and religion, it is not possible in a country where building of a temple is the main agenda of the largest opposition party and the ruling party panders to all manner of minority votes. There is also talk about the Islamisation of Kashmir. Part of it may be attributed to the influx of jihadi elements in the separatist movement. However, intellectual discourse too harps on this aspect and uses ‘progressive’ quotes from scriptures, forgetting that much of what we call contemporary culture did not exist in the time of prophets and messiahs.

Why did it take a month for the Mufti to issue a diktat? Was he under political pressure, too? This might seem like a shocking query, but his mosque comes under the government’s purview. J&K isn’t really a rocking state.  Since the concert was for the paramilitary forces, there is a likelihood of intense anger among the locals. Stories of abuse of women by the security forces are a constant refrain in the troubled area. Why did the hate campaign against the girls not address this and instead choose to harp on their ‘un-Islamic’ vocation?


Pragaash band members

One reason is that the moment they criticise the ‘saviours’, they’d be dubbed militants. Anonymity might imbue them with temporary courage, but even in their unknown status there is a need for self-recognition. This is as much of an identity need as the cultural space for freedom. It is their azaadi (freedom) call versus the azaadi of what they perceive to be the copped-out coddled lot. A more nuanced reading would be that Islam, with its broad brush-stroke possibility of what is haraam (heathen), can factor in their ire and keep it alive. Politicians wake up. Pontiffs wake up. Separatist organisations wake up.

This is not to imply that there have been no strictures on modes of dressing, education and cultural activities. But these certainly do not happen in Kashmir alone.  It does not make them right. However, should there be no room for more than simplistic ideas of right and wrong?

The chief minister, Omar Abdullah, was applauded for standing by the band members: 

“I hope these talented young girls will not let a handful of morons silence them. Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing.”

However, on Headlines Today he said he had not asked them to sing so he cannot ask them to continue to do so. He would be willing to provide security for them, though.

The BJP only needed this to further its anti-Islamic position. Its party president in the state said: 

“It is an attempt towards 'Talibanisation' of the society by certain fundamentalist groups who are uncomfortable with the return of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The BJP ought not to speak out of turn. Its record in giving women liberty is abominable. The rightwing does not permit even the celebration of Valentine’s Day, using the same argument that the Mufti has used – it is western culture. Besides, the BJP has earlier had an alliance with the current party, the National Conference. Did they reach normalcy?

***

One cannot wish away politicisation. In fact, pop culture is political, in that it attempts to convey popular consumerist sentiment as retail therapy. Does this exclude political theism?

Mehbooba Mufti, president of People's Democratic Party (PDP), was being intimidated on a TV debate. Despite it, she made a most reasonable comment by saying that as a believer although she would not abuse a religious leader, she could well disagree with his views. Did this get any attention? It does not suit the archetype.

As happens with anything to do with Islam, when in doubt bring in the Sufi. The prevalence of Sufi music is mentioned as an example of the existence of such open expression in the Valley. People do not realise that it is deeply rooted in religion. It may not be seen as theological, but the fact is that it almost always addresses the Higher Being and seeks to drown the identity of the singer into the pool of devotion. The reason Sufi music is now being given a wider platform is because it falls well and truly into the ‘music bazaar’ as a commercial product.

Is this what drives liberalism? Asiya Andrabi, leader of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, has had some amazing achievements to her credit – blackening the faces of women, shutting down beauty parlours. But, then, her political affiliations do not lie with India, as she openly states. For a moment, let us stand aside and check whether what she says and what some feminists do is much different. She believes that women are objectified; feminists think so too when they discuss certain advertisements where women expose their bodies. How do we decide to accept one version and not the other?

***

If this is indeed a larger issue about artistic license, then why did the Pragaash supporters have objections to rapper Honey Singh soon after the Delhi gangrape? His song, “Main balatkari hoon” (I am a rapist) was not new. It was obvious that this was not about concern, but a need to be acceptable and part of a trending movement. Among the many voices was one of senior journalist Vir Sanghvi, who used the social network to say: 

“For God's sake, Bristol Hotel. Cancel the Honey Singh show. Are you guys in the rape business or the hotel business? If the Bristol does not cancel the Honey Singh show then I would urge every decent Indian to boycott the hotel.”

No one seemed to have realised that the terminology, “rape business”, itself was offensive. Besides, how does one define decency? 

The moral spine of the amoral and unconstrained tends to be willing to bend as the occasion demands. Had there been no immediate ‘case’, there would be no such importance given to the singer or his lyrics. If we understand that art does have freedom – in films, paintings, music – then it follows that there ought not to be conditions that curtail it. Why is one boycott legitimate and another not? Why are the words of liberal sages acceptable and the concerns of the socially-conservative reprehensible?


MC Kash

Omar Abdullah too raised the question about local rapper MC Kash, wondering why he has not been banned for his obscene lyrics. This is telling and not surprising, for the singer questions the authorities and the security forces: 

“You sit your ass down & don't make a sound/you take off that Pheran, you Mother Fucking clown - Words said by Indian Forces durin' a crackdown.” 

Is such obscenity not proactive rebellion?

The online campaign referred to the girls as “sluts” and “prostitutes”. These words are used by supposedly reasonable people in the social media for what they look down upon, be it the item girls in Bollywood films or the increasingly brash young women who do not consider nudity to be an issue. One rarely hears any applause for them. Therefore, who really is in a position to take a high moral ground?


Kashmiri dancers for video albums

Perhaps we’d like to consider this story about dancers and singers in Kashmiri music albums. One of them, Sweety, said: 

“My mom accompanies me to the bus stop when I have to go to Srinagar. My profession annoys my maternal uncles, neighbours talk (bad things) about me.” 

A choreographer explains: 

“Most of them join to support their families after the death of their father. It comes as a handy option because they come from uneducated families and here they do not need any educational qualification. I request them either do something else or to be careful.”

This is a universal concern, more so when people cannot do “what they like” even in their daily routine because death is not too far away. Because singing and dancing are not about the luxury of freedom, but the last resort of orphaned hopes. 

(c) Farzana Versey

5.2.13

Praveen Togadia: Modi's Nemesis?



Why should Praveen Togadia be arrested for some hate speech? I wish people would not be so narrow-minded and try listening carefully. In a democratic country, not only does he exercise his right to free speech but his words can prove to be valuable evidence. Yes. The brave man has just put his hand in the alligator’s mouth. Now it is upto the authorities to register his speech not on grounds of hate or that ridiculous “causing enmity between two communities”, but because he has accepted culpability, that minorities were killed.

Some people are saying he ought to be arrested just as MIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi was for his incendiary speech in Hyderabad last month. Owaisi has a position; Togadia does not – he is the proverbial harlot with the privilege of power without responsibility. (It is also important to note that a few Muslims filed a case against Owaisi.)

Togadia’s arrested development needs to be examined rather than caged. I watched this part of the speech and, to be honest, had some bits not been about tragic events, it is pure pantomime. That the International Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – I had earlier wondered whether his job profile meant trying to get funds from overseas to prop up our ancient heritage – should feel the need to respond to Owaisi reveals insecurity. Like all insecure people, he plays up others’ deficiencies to show that what he stands for is superior.

He talks about communal riots with glee:

“Woh Assam mein….Nelli…teen hazaar laashein thi unme, miyan, Hindu ki laash eik bhi nahin thi… Bhagalpur ke nazdeek Ganga behti hai, laashein hi laashein thi…gin nahin paaye…unme eik bhi laash Hindu ki nahin thi…Aisa hi UP mein…Meerut mein Moradabad mein hua, arre Gujarat mein police khadi thi, dekho kya hua…” 

(In Nelli, Assam 3000 were killed, but Miyan, not one Hindu. Near Bhagalpur where the Ganga flows, there were bodies upon bodies, but not one was Hindu. The same in UP’s Meerut, Moradabad…and in Gujarat the cops were there and yet what happened…)

His organisation is closely associated with the BJP that rules in some states and is the largest Opposition Party in India. The VHP, like the RSS, has always provided tactical support as well as been an intrinsic part of the brainstorming sessions (more on that later). He is saying quite forcefully that these killings during riots were the handiwork of Hindutva groups. In Gujarat he has openly implicated the police. Will the BJP just call him a big mouth and continue to be in denial of its role in these riots?

The party has a master strategy of using its satellites as foot soldiers when it wants to put on its moderate face. However, it is time to use this as a record. Unless, of course, the BJP decides to push for the arrest of Praveen Togadia. This is unlikely, and as always it will use its ‘action-reaction’ argument.

We should go beyond politics and just as the majority of Muslims who were not at Owaisi’s rally did not find his speech rousing or amusing, only those Hindus who were at Togadia’s rally were laughing. Or, perhaps those in the web world using their anonymity to get a high they lack in real life.

There is, however, one serious issue here. Togadia may be a backroom boy, but the BJP has never distanced itself from him. This lends him legitimacy by default. Given the manner in which minorityism is being viewed almost everywhere, these words having some sort of subliminal impact on the reasonable and the rational cannot be ruled out. I have maintained that Syed Shahabuddin can be more dangerous than the Imam of Jama Masjid.

We have been watching how Subramaniam Swamy with all his Ivy League credentials has taken it upon himself to make Muslims admit to their Hindu ancestry. This has got a lot of mileage, although the late K. Sudarshan of the RSS had said this many years ago. Now, Togadia raised the same subject in his speech when he called Muslims cowards who left Hinduism: “Kaayaron Hindu dharm chhod ke chale gaye…”

Next time the saffron parties use this word, they will have to remember never to talk about Mahatma Gandhi again, for he had famously said, “The Hindu is a coward, the Muslim a bully.”

So, who is the coward and who is the bully? Do social interaction and the nation’s Constitution take cognisance of such terms? Is Togadia trying to possibly proselytise? How does one become a Hindu when they say Hinduism is a way of life? Every religion has scriptures and rituals and places of worship. If it were a way of life, people would not need those.

And Togadia forgets what he said a couple of years ago:

“SIT has called me because I am a Hindu. No Hindu in Gujarat is safe. In this country, Hindu saints, temples, organisations are targets of jihadis.”

So, is the coward on the rebound? The pugnacity of Togadia is seeking sanction from a wider variety. He is performing a soap opera. He is targeting the female population:

“Ma Durga bhavani ka dharm hai…humne apni maataon ke haath mein belan dekha hoga, aaina dekha hai, lipstick dekhi hai, pressure cooker dekha hai, washing machine dekha hai. Durga maa ke haath mein belan nahin…meri Durga Bhavani ke haath mein yadee talwar nahin tau Durga Bhavani nahin hai…” 

(This is the faith of Goddess Durga. We have seen our mothers with rolling pin, mirror, lipstick, pressure cooker, washing machine. Durga does not have these. If there is no sword in her hand, then she is no Durga.)

It would be interesting to see what all these godmen who have been making expert comments on everything from women’s clothes to rape in the most sexist manner have to say to this ‘feminist’ tripe of Togadia. Indira Gandhi was called Durga; so is Mamata Bannerjee. No woman from the BJP or its acolytes has been given this honour.

Will we see homemakers internalising the war cry and imagining they have slaughtered the chapattis with the rolling pin?



More importantly, is the BJP going to distance itself from the Togadia? Impossible.  For, on February 7, the BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi is to attend a meeting organised by the VHP at the Allahabad Mahakumbh. Starting tomorrow, it is a two-day event of seers, who will decide whether they want to endorse NaMo as PM candidate for the BJP. The report says that it might not go all the way and the “sant samaj (the order of monks) might extend its blessings to Modi”.    

Further, the report states:

If the seers support Modi’s candidature, there will be pressure on the BJP’s central leadership to declare him as their candidate. However, Sources said that even after the saints’ endorsement, BJP’s parliamentary board might stop short of announcing anyone as its candidate for now, keeping alliance partners in mind. But, the party expects that saints’ open support to Modi will help get Hindu votes.

Ergo, the BJP cannot move an inch without its major backers. This is where Praveen Togadia’s statements could prove to be Modi’s nemesis. But that would be in a world where justice prevailed and not where a supposedly brilliant politician who is changing the face of his state willingly opts to be at the mercy of sadhus and stunts. 

(c) Farzana Versey

My open letter in 2010: Dear Praveen Bhai Togadia