This is the house where Jack lives

Would you wish to enter the house of a character? I’d much rather enter the mind. A home, it is assumed, reveals how the character thinks, and this is of course if such a place exists.

Recently, Slate did a detailed piece on Jay Gatsby’s mansion, which prompted CBC to track a few others. There could well be tremendous interest in these in a manner of ‘seeing is believing’, but a good story is suspension of disbelief. I use this phrase consciously to permit an exploration of how seeing is not necessarily believing.

There are often replications, to supposedly bring the reader closer to the actual setting if the real one is not around anymore. I do not relish the superimposition of the real; it is an intrusion. It is like visiting concentration camps or war memorials or Graceland and Neverland. These are tourist sites, where you pay homage to the dead, to history — beloved or tragic.

One might conjecture that it is indeed possible to understand the characters better when you see where they “come from”, the hip terminology that these days denotes one’s mental state, to suggest that a person is aware of your motives or the baggage that makes you who you are or say what you do.

When a writer gives the character a home, another character is created. It is not so much about Jay Gatsby's mansion, but about a mansion in 'The Great Gatsby' and what happened in it, how the table was laid, the garden pruned, the pillars, the antiques and mantelpieces. Did the cupboards smell of mothballs and the coverlets on the beds hide secrets?

Unless a home is a standalone, it works better as the backdrop, especially in the case of the protagonist. Some years ago in Salzburg, there was the mandatory stopover at the locations where 'The Sound of Music' was shot. Except for the undulating greens, and I am not quite sure about the lake, it is said that the huge mansion was nowhere quite like the real one that the von Trapps lived in.

Later, when I watched the film again, I saw myself there, a different time, a different crowd, cameras in hand. There was the familiarity. But would I care to share a brandy with Maria, although I'd have delighted to swap places with her and take on the Baroness when she asked, “My dear, is there anything you can't do?"

I was jotting down some portions of a chapter and I realise now that there are too many details about the house. It was not intentional. As I keep re-reading it, I find that the characters are the props here, subservient to where they live. They have been overtaken by their surroundings and are, in fact, nothing without it.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House would probably be one such. And what about characters that have no home? There are books about vagabonds or the eternal travellers. And how would any home be able to contain The Outsider?

In a sense, the writer is a character. I have seen quite a few homes and landmarks, but visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, walking about with squeaky sounds on the wooden floor, looking at the table with the quill, I could not imagine Shakespeare here. I could not think of Macbeth or Hamlet conceived here.

Characters are born to live in the recesses of our minds. Their homes, like the garments they wear, reveal their tastes, not their thinking. I'd like to dust the cobwebs from and throw open the windows of thoughts.

© Farzana Versey


Image: Jay Gatsby's mansion, Slate


The sexual harassment of Mallika Sherawat

Mallika at Cannes and with Obama. PR?

It is unbelievable that a woman who is independent becomes an object of derision for saying what we do almost on a daily basis.  I’ve already made a reference to her earlier and elsewhere. What I’d like to understand is that at a time when we are applauding some women for “having balls” (sexist terminology, anyway), an anonymous female on a social networking site, whose own picture is a pair of legs taken lying down, dismisses a woman as being “all boobs and no brain”. There are many such ‘brave’ people whose vapidity hides their stupidity.

Mallika Sherawat, who we are talking about, is successful partly because we are what she says we are: a regressive society, enjoying a spectacle. Initially, no one was even bothered about the content of her comments; it was the accent that they found weird. Yes, she is speaking with a twang, in this interview to Variety, as much as Aishwariya Bachchan does. It is as fake as that of some urban Indians. Was she dishonest for saying she was the first woman to kiss on screen and wear a bikini? I agree she is not quite on the dot here, but I am amazed that those very people who have problems with exposure on screen are now dusting memory files or running a search to find out who really sucked face first or wore a two-piece. Then there is this business about her wearing too little, especially at major events. Who does not? If you talk about a woman having control over her body, then she is well within her rights to dress as she wishes. If she stated that following such attempts, “instantly, I became a fallen women and a superstar at the same time”, then this is true. In fact, the reactions to her only prove her point.

I first watched her many years ago. She had already become known for her bold statements – yes, she does that too. It was a debate on just such a subject and in that panel that comprised a well-known media person and a feminist, she held her own without shouting down anyone. She made a whole lot of sense, and even as I write this it does seem so patronising. Why do we have to certify others? Who has given us the right?

Oh, but she was running down our country, they say. Ah! An India they remembered after they ran out of jokes about her accent and her body.

If she is of no consequence, why did Aseem Chhabra, the New York-based analyst of all things Indian, especially culture, write an editorial piece in Mumbai Mirror? “How is Mallika Sherawat walking red carpets all the time?” he asked, aghast. And answered it himself: “By splurging on a PR team.”

And then he does what any good man would do – pit her against other women.

“She is not a former beauty queen turned actress like Aishwariya Rai, with a major contract with a cosmetic giant, who has actually worked in a few non-Indian productions that do qualify as Hollywood credentials. She is not a former beauty queen turned actress like Priyanka Chopra, who is legitimately trying to establish a signing career in the west.”

What does legitimately mean? Since when have beauty queens, who are recreated in ‘labs’ and taught how to speak, become superior beings? Does Ms. Chopra not have agents? Heck, she needed one to handle the dead body of one of her team because she was too busy being legitimate. And what she sang is essentially mimicking the west, using their fantastic music studios to sound like anyone but herself. And, yeah, heard that accent? Aishwariya has a PR team that her brand arranges for her. Besides, for someone living in the US, it is surprising that the writer does not know that all Hollywood stars have their lobbyists. It is part of the business. But he is doing his business:

“So what or who is Mallika Sherawat and how does she get invited to parties and get pictures with genuine celebrities that she tweets all the time? That question baffles me sometimes, although usually I do not care much about it. The only answer, if any, is that she has spent a lot of money on a public relations team, which ensures she dresses sexy, is spotted on red carpets and paparazzi take her pictures.”

Are the others dressed like nuns? She wore such clothes before she got anywhere near the red carpet; they are probably now designer labels.  If it is a PR team that is managing it so well, then many more people ought to hire its members. At least they do not stage wardrobe malfunctions and make their real celebrities look like rag dolls. Are the big film festivals taking money from PR agents to let anybody walk the red carpet? What does it reveal about them? The same goes for the paparazzi that the stars love to hate.

“It is less clear what she gets out of all the partying and being spotted on red carpets. I know she made Los Angeles her temporary home. Even her Twitter handle - @MallikaLA says so. I suppose she believes that handle gives her certain respectability, an edge over other Indian stars who insist on living in Mumbai.”

He obviously has not seen our Page 3 and the fact that people do party. They do not have to give explanations and there might be none. Is it so difficult to understand? And if she is just doing it without any purpose, does it not mean that she is getting nothing out of it, and is not on the make, so to speak? What exactly does “certain respectability” mean? Is he implying that she lacks respectability? What is his yardstick for measuring it? I’d really like to know, for it was difficult to find any substance in the verbiage of inanities.

He mentioned her being photographed with “genuine celebrities” (I suppose Paris Hilton would figure prominently in the list, although he has missed out on President Barack Obama), forgetting that celebrity is itself a term that has to do with popularity and little to do with genuineness because all possible means are employed to get it.

He dismisses her acting, which is fair enough. It is also true that she does not have big films, although a part in a Jackie Chan movie would be considered an achievement by some, especially when our own biggies do walk-on parts in Hollywood films.  But to take a statement she made and then snigger is no different from groupie behaviour at a dorm:

“So I wonder what kind of ‘a lot of love’ Hollywood was showing Sherawat? Hollywood does do inexplicable things like inviting people with unknown celebrity quotient to parties. But Hollywood producers rarely take the risk of casting unknown faces that do not have much promise.”

If Smarty-pants has the answer, why does he go on and on? Has her PR agent hired him?! (You know what they say about bad publicity, although this is not even bad – it’s a lot of slosh.)

He too manages to get hot and bothered about the “peculiar accent”, but quickly covers it up with the patriot card:

“Sherawat managed to make a few jibes at India – ‘a hypocritical society where women are really at the bottom’. She said she made a conscious decision to divide her time between Los Angeles and India. ‘So now when I experience the social freedom in America and I go back to India which is so regressive for women, it's depressing,’ she said…The interviewer failed to ask her how India was regressive for a woman like her, who presumably is financially successful and a well-known Bollywood personality.”

Does he recall how Indian women and celebs were the toast of news channels after the Delhi gangrape? How every misogynistic statement was paraded so that people could hit out at it? This was Indians discussing our hypocrisy, our patriarchy. Even our prominent film stars discuss inequality when it comes to roles and pay. The writer probably lives in a cocoon where he believes money and celebrity save you from regressive behaviour. The Hollywood he is so in awe of has several such examples of chauvinism.  

But to expect depth to understand pop culture is asking too much from someone who says, “In fact, what has stayed with me about her is that she is Haryanavi and I smile when I think about it, a slight Delhi arrogance I have over people from Haryana.”

Priyanka Chopra poses with Gerard Butler. PR?

Think about how a woman from Haryana, without the ubiquitous godfather, made it. It is pathetic that Priyanka Chopra has decided to oppose her by stating:

"I think we are a progressive nation. I disagree that we are a regressive nation. We are all sitting here and talking about educating the girl child, taking our country forward. I think it`s a misrepresentation of what our great nation is on the world platform…When it comes to Mallika`s statements, I think they were very callous and I don`t agree with her. It was upsetting for me as a woman. It was upsetting for me as a girl who comes from India. I think it was extreme misrepresentation of our nation. I don`t think it`s fair."

As regards the world platform, even Satyajit Ray was accused of marketing our poverty overseas by actress and Rajya Sabha member, the late Nargis.

Unlike our cantonment beauty queens, who live in a protected environment, Mallika Sherawat comes from a conservative family in a region where khaps issue diktats. Mainstream films in which Priyanka acts also misinterpret India. As do Miss Worlds who talk about changing the world. Why, the fact that they want to do something for the disadvantaged means that there are a whole lot of them. And we talk about it because it exists. She said it and so do you. What makes you superior?

© Farzana Versey



The Battle for Hierarchy: A Mango, Songs and Cannes

There is this tutti-fruity hierarchy that really pisses me off. It is not anymore about what is offensive, but who is offending.

Someone has gone and named a mango after the Delhi gangrape victim, or at least one of the names given to her by the media.

Kaleemullah Khan has achieved success with new varieties and is a known name in the field. This was “his way of honouring the bravery and spirit of the young physiotherapist". He has other varieties named after Nargis and Aishwariya Rai as well as Sonia Gandhi. I know of a rose in Ooty named after Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha. And the mangoes also have male names, including Akhllesh Yadav. And there is the Sitaphal (custard apple). Obviously the step ladder does not notice that it is a goddess's name.

If someone wishes to pay tribute, why is there an outcry? Is it because he is considered lower down in the scale of 'concern'? Those who are talking about "where to draw the line", did any of them do so when they went on a rampage to become newsmakers for simply holding candles? There are awards named after her, a fund in her name, not to forget rallies. And can we forget how several people came out of the woodwork with their forgotten stories to ride on the 'event', that continues to manufacture and feed several other events?


I am darned tired of women being treated as an about-to-be-endangered or a protected species.

Recently, actress Shabana Azmi hit out at some lyrics. Mumbai Mirror's report quoted her: “I cannot believe that the song Ishq Ki Ma Ki... has been written by a woman Pallavi Mishra. Revolting, shameful, disgusting. Condemnable.”

A small problem here is that the lyrics have been changed, and it was not even written by Pallavi, who thought that the attack wasn't only personal, but revealed a discriminatory attitude: “She made such a noise about it because she thought a woman has written it. But she never raised any objection when the men of the industry churned out songs replete with expletives and double meanings in films like 'Delhi Belly' and 'Gangs Of Wassyepur'. Why this hypocrisy?... If one wants to be moralistic, then they can’t choose their situations.”

But choose they will. In fact, Azmi was part of an event organised by the Mumbai Police to discuss Rights on Womens Violence. There was adman Alyque Padamsee, famous for the Liril ad that put a woman in a bikini under a waterfall and for making many sexist comments. Obviously, it did not bother her. Among the others were two mainstream actreses — Karisma Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee — who have both lip-synced "offensive" lyrics. Why, one never heard Ms. Azmi utter a word about "Halkat jawaani", "Sheela ki Jawaani" or "Munni badnaam hui". These are big-ticket productions, after all.

Besides that, what passes for realistic cinema is allowed to bend the rules, while it strives for the same awards and encomiums as mainstream films. For the audience, this is about the movies. In fact, if it is about realism, then do the actors use such cuss words? Why assume that this is common lingo among the poor? Even if it is, is this the only realistic aspect? In that case, don't show trimmed eyebrows and hair bangs. There is an inherent superiority complex, not only about what they are but also what they portray.

She is not the first one to say this, but Sonam Kapoor is right that most actors want to be stars. The old avante garde movement has transformed into slick, although even back then there was a pecking order of 'stardom'.


I've been watching some clips on the news channels covering the ongoing Cannes Film Festival. It is so obvious that everyone wants to preen, even those who cannot. Why is the poster boy of edgy cinema, Anurag Kashyap, selling his films all dressed up? Because Cannes has always been about glamour. It gives space to cosmetic and jewellery brands, and fashion designers. So, if people comment on who is wearing what, it is because they are paid to get noticed.

What actress Vidya Balan wore was over-the-top and in no way reflected 100 years of Indian cinema that is being celebrated. As a jury member, she was under no compulsion to follow fashion, but she did, and badly.

She can't brush it off. But there are and will be the groupies who say these things do not matter. Her designer had his brief was to show her as respectable. As opposed to what? When she was not in nautch girl mode or the tamasha artiste one, she went for the lady from the NGO attending an activist's wedding look. She carried nine suitcases, so she will be judged by the standards applied to others.

I am aware this will be considered catty. Why? Because she is a serious actress. Had I said something similar about Mallika Sherawat or someone with a 'reputation', it would have been considered all right. This is stardom where you are not answerable. All this business about being part of good cinema has nothing to do with it.

Let's get this straight. People do dress according to the occasion. I'd like to know how many will not snigger at a suited man or a lady in chiffon at a protest rally. They darned well will.

Activists too have their dress code to appear the part. It's not just the scruffy look anymore, but various versions all screaming out the roleplaying. Do not forget Arundhati Roy wearing a bandana for her walk with the Naxal comrades.

I am particularly perturbed by how vocational feminists are not concerned about the women who are derided for their 'reputation'. They who become subjects for the serious actresses to happily enact their stories, give interviews about the research they've done and applaud their courage. But do they even remember them when they go up on stage to collect their awards?

If what the mango man has done in exploitative, or in poor taste, then these divas in denial are a notch higher at being predators.

© Farzana Versey


The last accusation?

Now a dying declaration can be recorded by anyone, according to a judgement passed by the Supreme Court in its reversal of a high court verdict.

The case: A dowry death where the woman's in-laws set her ablaze. She suffered 100% burns. Her statement was dismissed because the Madhya Pradesh High Court doubted its veracity.

The counter-argument was that she had suffered abuse in her matrimonial home and there was every reason to believe her. The SC agreed and according to a report, “You need not be a police officer, doctor or a magistrate to record the dying declaration, a statement accusing those responsible for the death of the person making his last possible statement".

The bench further added, "The person who records a dying declaration must be satisfied that the maker is in a fair state of mind and is capable of making such a statement...Moreover, the requirement of a certificate provided by a doctor in respect of such state of the deceased, is not essential in every case."

Besides the ability to gauge the state of mind, what cases will be exempt?

The court has specified that such an allowance will be certainly applicable in burns cases. It is true that it might help a lot of women who continue to go though this torture. But what if the burns are not as severe and she dies due to other complications?

The possibility of such declarations being questioned increases simply because the person recording them is likely to be close to the victim. The law relies on evidence, and it would be more sensible if the case was dealt with by the police.

On the face of it, this appears to be a move to ease the bureaucratic method of having a doctor or cop at hand. However, it could end up in further legal wrangles.

A person dying is not in a stable mental condition, so the very crux of the provision could be argued. What happens if the woman had a history of depression, quite possibly as a result of the incessant abuse? Would her dying declaration hold? Unlikely.

It may be used against her, whereas an 'authority' figure recording it could have helped. Some things do appear progressive and easy on paper, but their execution is not only never foolproof, it leads to even more problems.

I do not see why a declaration is needed at all. No woman will douse herself with kerosene and light a matchstick.

Imagine the complications where other means are used to kill. Suppose the woman has been strangled to death, or poisoned? The same queries might be posed in other cases, too, irrespective of gender.

It might sound like something from a bad film, but what if together with the dying declaration a helpful relative or friend manages to get other declarations, including property papers or even establishes a relationship closer than the one that exists? And since the 'recorder' is an expert at judging mental balance, and the victim is deemed to be in a state of sound mind, how will the court manage this side-effect?

© Farzana Versey


Was the Woolwich murder a terror attack?

They hacked a soldier to death. What was as bad as the spectacle of TV anchors giving tantalising sound bites about the possible images of the beheading was the surprise over Prime Minister David Cameron cutting short his visit in France and calling for a special meeting. Is this not what a leader would do, especially since he has preempted it as a terror attack?

I watched a bit of the news, and it is inhuman that anyone would want to kill in this manner. Machetes and knives were used, although the two assailants had guns.

What is surprising and unfortunate is that not only did the men kill the soldier who was returning to the barracks in Woolwich, they had an audience. They asked them to film them. They gave statements about their motives.

What did the people do? They shot the video. Some called the police. The cops took 20 minutes to reach. Whatever the problems, could they not have alerted the barracks that were just round the corner and would not the colleagues of the victim arrive to help?

CNN kept showing one of the murdererers. Worse, it said, "They're black." We could see that. Do they ever specify white?

Surprisingly, they stayed around and so did the people. What did that one guy say?

•“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you."

•"I apologize that woman had to witness this today but in our lands woman see this every day." [Apparently, a reference to an eyewitness.]

•"Remove your government - they don't care about you."

The obvious assumption would be that he is a jihadi, a religious fanatic. He is also talking about other lands where this happens — it is not clear whether he was referring to western interference or killings by militants within the countries by rebels or fundamentalists against their own people.

When he said "remove your government", who was he addressing? This was in London. There are many different ethnic groups. Muslims cannot remove the government, so it would seem he was appealing to all the citizens.

From the little that one could gather, it looked like the murderers did not choose the specific target. Was the soldier in army fatigues? If so, then they wanted to hit out at the institution they believe is causing trouble in their land of origin.

Has anyone given them the right to speak on behalf of their people? No. They are disgruntled. Perhaps their families or friends or neighbours back home have been killed. This is no excuse, but a possible reason. If they beheaded him, I wonder why they used this form of vengeance against what they believe is bad government.

One innocent man was killed. Besides the killers, others are already making a killing of it. It has started with a warning that this is a terrorist attack, and Al Qaeda is mentioned. Someone suggested that lone operators could not be ignored. Most certainly. But they are called murderers. 'Terrorism' changes the dynamics. The government has already issued warnings of more attacks.

Instead of making the public feel secure, it frightens them.

As expected, Muslims organisations have condemned the attack. This is all very good as a humanitarian gesture, but could they not wait? Why this rush to prove that the community is not to be blamed? It is not. No one blamed Koreans when a student went on a rampage at a university in the US. The apology plays into the media shrillness, and reaches the people. The message gets distorted along the way.

One family is grieving today. They do not even know why this happened. Think about them too, and not only about the killers. That is the job of the police and the investigating agencies. One hopes they are not influenced by the media's bloody-mindedness.

Updated May 23, 10.50 am IST:

I cannot understand how what takes place miles away lands up at our doorstep. The ridiculous assertions include:

Arabisation of Muslims: What is that? One has to keep repeating that there is no uniform Muslim ethos. The fact that a country is prefixed before Islam while discussing Arabisation makes it clear that there will be ethnic aspects. Even within the Arab world there are different streams.

 People from poor countries go to the First World and then behave like country bumpkins: Besides the obvious ignorance, it reveals a superiority complex. This makes no sense considering their own people are on dole, are homeless, are fighting regressive laws.

They “bite the hand that feeds”: What about the majority that are taxpayers, who contribute to these societies? By this logic, the high profile financial scams would also qualify as “biting the hand” because they loot the country’s economy.

MJ Rosenberg, Washington Spectator’s special correspondent on Middle East affairs explained it succinctly: “Most Muslims, like most everyone else, are horrified by London horror. But 100% of Islamohaters are ecstatic.”

So where does this come from? Why do they not outrage when there are killing by the Taliban or Al Qaida in Muslim countries where the victims are Muslim? Who are the real haters? What do screaming headlines mean except to wallow in violence as porn? And, yes, the man did use the name of Allah. What does Pastor Terry Jones say? Or those who muffle voices in basements wshile they torture their victims? Is this not terrorism?

© Farzana Versey


Pehle Aap: Targeting Muslims with Urdu

In a completely regressive move, the Muslim community is being targeted through the backdoor. Take this report from The Times of India:

“The Mumbai police have started a two-month Urdu training program for anti-terrorism cell (ATC) officers. The crash course that involves an overview on the Islamic history as well aims to enhance their investigative skills and weeding out misconceptions, if any, about the Muslim community."

This assumes that Muslim terrorists refer to Islamic history. The assumption can be dangerous, for is a crash course a reliable method of getting to the facts? What about misrepresentation?

It is particularly important given that the cops were concerned about it. An ATC officer has been quoted saying:

"The training programme will help us track and interpret communications of terror outfits. Many a times, we recover documents from anti-social elements. There is no guarantee that the translator called will give correct information. We have to believe what is read out to us. The training will be of great help."

If the force does not have interpreters they can rely upon — and given that we are a secular nation I am sure there are many non-Muslims who can read and understand Urdu — why should people, the investigating agencies, the judiciary accept something learned quickly from a handbook?

Besides, are the codes written in Urdu? Do Muslims involved in terrorist activities only communicate in the langauge? This is worse than a stereotype. You go to different states and they speak the local language. Did the cops need to learn the Bhai lingo that the underworld employed? No. It was universal and applied as much to Chhota Rajan as to Chhota Shakeel. Dawood Ibrahim probably speaks better Konkani and Marathi than Urdu.

The next thing we know is that policemen would get busy watching films like 'Mere Mehboob' and 'Pakeezah' to figure out the possibility of some codes and implied gestures that are 'historically' relevant.

If all this is not infuriating enough, then there is more:

“The training is not restricted to language training. It also provides the ATC officials with detailed information about a certain community and its history. 'For example, the current batch of ATC officials getting trained in Urdu language is also taught about the history of Islam. Top cops and officials from intelligence agencies give lectures on how different terrorist groups formed globally and how they functions, how recruitments and training are given to the people,' said a senior ATC officer."

The certain community is the largest minority in the country. Which means all its members, due to their history, are now part of the detailed dossier. It is not anymore about finding what was loosely termed 'jihadi literature' (as though it is a genre of writing), but the crux of origin of this 'species'.

When the cops cannot get hold of criminals, the next best thing it seems is to get to the root of the problem. That the crime may have nothing to do with the roots or branches or whatever other part of the flora that engages the powers is a different matter.

What universal history would they refer to? Do they not realise that globally terrorism has not followed a single pattern, and I will not even mention terrorism by non-Muslims because those are 'gunmen', right? Or, closer home, they are just a few who were forced to react and there is no evidence against them, right?

For some political groups that are in thrall of our ancient civilisation to justify their contemporary pugnacity, this Urdu training is just what they'd want. It is pathetic that some Muslim groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind had offered courses on Islam, but the police officers had not reverted. Don't they realise how degrading it is, given the reason for it? And what is this about "sensitising" the cops to the minorities? The police force is supposed to be sensitised towards all citizens, and during times of crises certain groups might need special attention.

It does not mean giving them a lecture on Islam or having a word with them in Urdu. it means not treating them as suspects without reason and evidence.

And while we are at it, did the police need to learn the history of Hinduism and Sanskrit to understand Sadhvi Pragnya or Swami Aseemanand, not to speak about the various people within their own force involved in encounters and their political mai-baaps?

Clearly such codes have no language.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

“The biggest guru-mantra is: never share your secrets with anybody. It will destroy you."

— Chanakya

I do not suppose the makers of Coca Cola gave much thought to this. But the ingredients of the fizzy drink have continued to be a mystery. Now with a book on the subject and another person with inside knowledge of a later version, the secret is back in the news.

The Coke guys insist that the special recipe is well-hidden in a vault in Atlanta. It is a bit stupefying that with so much scientific activity that can break down compounds and recognise complicated chemicals this should remain an enigma. My guess is that the Coke guys are protected legally, and the white coats in the labs perhaps decided to keep quiet.

We are not talking about a mocktail that has specially been whipped up. This is mass produced stuff. Chances are that if you kept a glass before people, they might not be able to tell the difference. I can't.

Reminds of an amusing incident. I was at a coffee shop some years ago. Aamir Khan was at the adjacent table. He ordered a Coke. At the time he was endorsing Pepsi and the interesting ads had the tagline, “Yehi hai right choice, baby, ahaa..." I had avoided looking towards him until then, but at that moment in an impulsive reaction I turned and probably glared at him for the deceit. He just smiled and changed his order!

Because Coca Cola is a huge conglomerate with a believable brand, the ones who are outing it will never be taken seriously . Though it is not the USP of the drink, the fact that nobody knows how it is made gives it an edge. The rumours only add to it...

“If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees."

— Khalil Gibran


The Reformist as Pacifist: Asghar Ali Engineer’s Islam

Let not the fact that they buried him in the Sunni graveyard, where his Leftist friends are interred, mislead anyone into believing that Asghar Ali Engineer was a Communist. It was a pragmatic wish upon which the decision was taken. He died on May 14. The Dawoodi Bohra community to which he belonged would not have accepted his last remains, much as they did not acknowledge him in life. He was excommunicated. However, he was much more than a nemesis of the Syedna, the spiritual head of the community.  

Engineer did not become as much of a name as he deserved to be simply because he was not a prototype moderate Muslim. The tag of “Islamic scholar” sat lightly on him. He was a believer who questioned many of the belief’s practices; a secularist who prayed regularly; a rationalist who did not lose touch with his emotions; an outcaste who did not suffer from the arrogance of an outsider, although he had every reason to. For speaking out against the stranglehold of the priesthood within his sect, he was abused, beaten up, his house and office were broken into and destroyed. Every utterance by him was used against him.

How would a person in this position feel?  Following is a collation of excerpts from some of my interviews with him:

FV: What does a lonely hunter contribute to society?

AE: “History is full of instances of people who challenged the mighty forces of evil and they were not only fighting a lonely battle but were left alone to die. If somebody asked me about achievement I would have to talk qualitatively because my forces have depleted. So what? People who were swearing by my values finally succumbed. I have been ex-communicated.”

FV: What does that mean?

AE: “You are declared a non-Bohra, you are not allowed to meet your parents, your children, your marriage gets dissolved, you cannot meet your friends, relatives, you cannot take part in any community activity, or enter any holy shrine, I lose all those rights. But my family has stood by me”

FV: But technically your marriage is invalid, your children illegitimate?

AE: “Yes.”

FV: Yet you believe in god?

AE: “Yes, because atheists blame religion when priests do wrong. Anything can be misused, whether it is nuclear power or a matchstick. So, how can I blame religion? Patriotism too can be misused, by misinforming others and eliminating people, so do we start hating the country? Religion helps you relate with the universe. Buddha was indifferent to the concept of god yet he gave us values.”

FV: When you were fighting the dogmas were you aware of the consequences?

AE: “Not to the extent that it could lead to such consequences. I was vaguely aware that I was going against the grain. I thought I would get people to respond because I was fighting for the truth, but people don’t respond just because you are fighting for the truth. They take their interests into account. I did not know I would suffer so much. But then I did not care.”

FV: What was the real suffering…being beaten up?

AE: “Not only that. You can bear such attacks because physical wounds heal, but those on the soul are difficult to heal. Weapons are less harmful than words. The psychological torture that I suffer is terrible. The kind of loose talk among the orthodox that I have sold myself, that I am an agent, that I am trying to destroy the community, I am an enemy of religion and the way some of my closest friends and relatives turned their faces away, that is more hurting.”

FV: Then did you not want to question yourself when those you loved moved away, did you not wonder whether your truth was what you thought it to be?

AE: “Self-examination goes on. I would not have continued had I not been convinced; it wasn’t just my ego.”

FV: What role does individualism play when it gives an identity but can take away from commitment to society?

AE: “I am not an individualist in the Western sense. Collectivism can become oppressive when it tries to dictate; the rights of the two should not clash. The individual cannot exist on his/her own and the collectivism should respect freedom of conscience, that is why the fight with the Bohra community. I do not deny its importance. My struggle is about the freedom of thought.”

FV: You talk about Islam in a modernist light. How valid is it to tamper with a whole body of work that has come through generations?

AE: “I am not taking away the historical legacy, but it should not become a burden. In a context it served a purpose at one time but times change and we should change and grow, and yet be proud of our legacy.”

FV: If you want religion to be dynamic you have to rationalise it. That can become dangerous.

AE: “What is religion? I want to remove the chaff from the grain. For me it is not what it is for the common people. If you take away certain social customs, they think you have taken away religion. For me it means purifying it. For example, women’s position includes so many pre-Islamic customs that have become an integral part of the Shariat. I am fighting that. Triple talaq is not mentioned in the Quran. Of course, there is a controversy; some maintain that the Prophet approved of it. Even if he did, maybe he had social constraints.”

FV: What about jihad?

AE: “Jihad is misused by fundamentalists. The Quranic meaning is not meant for war at all, in the sense of killing. Jihad is nothing but making efforts to realise goodness in life.”

FV: Who, then, is a kafir?

AE: “It is not one who believes in this form or that. Real ‘imaan’ is faith in humanity, so those who deny goodness are kafirs.”

FV: Islam has this macho image. I suspect it is because there is no idol worship. Without something tangible to submit to, can the gun not become a potent idol for some?

AE: “I would not agree with you at all. Those who take to guns could do so due to deprivation, suppression, or historical legacy. The Afghans have lived through violence for centuries, by the Mughals, the Russians, their own people, so they have always had to fight for freedom…we cannot take away the context. But they legitimised it by using jihad, a religious sanction, so they could be seen as mujahids, fighting for Allah. And you cannot say there is nothing concrete. Muslims going to mausoleums have created a concrete concept. An abstract god may be difficult so they found alternatives. My personal belief is we should not bow to any object. But Islam was aware of this human weakness and fulfilled that need through Haj to kiss a stone. A stone is a stone but the vacuum was filled and it became the holiest object. I have performed Haj and seen the devotion of people braving stampedes only to kiss that stone.”

FV: Then why is there a mental barrier against others practising idol worship?

AE: “It is not as much religious as political and cultural. That is because they have been taught. Quran says do not abuse others’ gods, they will abuse Allah. But most people do not believe in this…they feel their way is the only right one. This is to maintain religious hegemony.”

FV: But when maulvis were invited to perform ‘namaaz’ at a Ganpati pandal, some people said the place was desecrated.

AE: “That is narrow-minded people; you can pray where you want. You do not worship that idol there. Even here there are differences of opinion. The Sufi saint Mazhar Jaan Jana of 18th century Delhi believed that the Quran condemns bowing before deities because in pre-Islamic idol worship stones were considered god. But Hindus pray to god through that idol, which is a reflection of god. In Vedas god is nirguna and nirankara, that is, he has no attributes and no shape, that is the real belief of Hindus. As Muslims visit graves, so Hindus worship idols…”

FV: I don’t agree with that Sufi saint. Ganesha and Lakshmi and the rest do represent something.

AE: “We are talking about beliefs, not how people do it.”

FV: How people do it is what religion becomes. Culturally, what is the role of the minorities in a majority state where they have to retain their identity and yet be part of the mainstream?

AE: “This demand to merge in the mainstream is fascistic. Who will define what the mainstream is? Will the RSS chief define it or the people of India? If it is left to the people then all are part of the mainstream. To protect one’s identity is a Constitutional right.”

FV: Then why do Muslims form ghettoes – is it just insecurity?

AE: “If the communal riots had not taken place there would not be this ghetto feeling.”

FV: But Bhendi Bazaar and Chandni Chowk have always existed.

AE: “That is true, but it was not exclusivist with Muslims running away from Hindu areas, Hindus running away from Muslim areas. So Bhendi Bazaar is only a community living in one area. It is different from refusing to open out to others, which is real ghettoism. At the level of feeling, it did not exist before the riots.”

FV: Could it make them less assertive, maybe even stop believing in themselves as important elements of society?

AE: “Potency does not mean being unnecessarily aggressive; one has to be wise. I believe the minorities need to have a strategy of survival because needless aggression when you cannot change the situation does not help. Wisdom is more important than saving some cultural symbol.”

FV: Would that qualify then as some sort of intellectual slavery?

AE: “No, I am clear that the demolition was a violation of law and of a religious community. But if I cannot save it physically, it does not mean I have intellectually surrendered. We can assert that it was a condemnable act, but cannot come out on the roads and throw stones.”

FV: How can we expect one community to be wise in the face of an emotional onslaught from the other side?

AE: “It is very difficult. But somebody has to be restrained, that is also important. There should be someone to warn them of the perils of their behaviour. On Dec 7, 1993, it became a leaderless mob, no leader to provoke or restrain them…so the young people took to the streets, and had to suffer.”

FV: Have there been attempts to co-opt you by other religious forces?

AE: “Many people asked me to convert. I said my religious convictions remain. I am fighting the wrongs within my own community. And if I decide to convert I will lose the right to fight.”

On one of my visits to his house, his wife had seen me to the door. She said, “It is not easy,” referring to the isolation from the community. That one sentence uttered with a fading smile conveyed all the hidden battle scars of a man who fought silently.

© Farzana Versey


PS: These are quotes exclusive to the interviews I conducted over a few years. Please do not use them without attribution.  

Published in Counterpunch and Countercurrents

Is Rahul Gandhi worth 1000 bucks?

Would we have heard about Kaushal Shakya had Rahul Gandhi not handed him a Rs 1000 note?

If this is a PR exercise, then why is the media falling for it? Websites like Firstpost come out with supposedly weighty analysis, but fall in their own trap. It writes, beginning with the quote of the 11-year-old, who happens to be a news hawker:

“Akbar leejye. Aap hi ki khabar hai (Please buy the paper. It’s news about you in it)."

Now, if the PR was so good, it would not find a boy trying to sell a paper with news about Rahul Gandhi. This would be a dead giveaway. But, we are not done yet:

“It happened when Rahul’s motorcade was stopped at a traffic light in Bhopal (Really? The Rahul motorcade stops for lights? And a newspaper vendor is allowed to get that close to the crown prince?)"

Usually, it does not. Unless, the intention is to be 'one with the people', and since Firstpost has decided that this is “empty symbolism", anything can happen. So why are they surprised? Besides, this whole “crown prince" is getting to be a bit lame, just as referring to him as Rahul baba in op-ed pieces is. It reveals more about those writing than about him. And just a reminder: his father Rajiv Gandhi got killed when the junta was allowed to get close to him.

One may call this populism, but which leader does not resort to it?

Now let us return to the boy:

“Rahul asked him instead why he was not in school. Moved by the boy’s story about wanting to be a doctor but having to help out his family of five, Rahul offered him a 1000-rupee note."

Often, young kids who are peddling stuff insist you buy, and if you say you don't what or need it, they say, "Kuchch paisa de do, bhookh lagi hai (give me some money then, I am hungry)". This is the sad reality. And I know many people who do hand out money. This is not all. At the fancier hotels, the real babalog give big money to the durbans and the valets for parking their wheels.

The holier-than-thou attitude transposes another Congressman who said “If Rahulji could give the boy Rs 1000 from his wallet, I would be delighted to fund his education.”

For the news purveyors, it is just a story with the protagonist as “the master of the meaningless gesture".

Rahul Gandhi has money, and he knows that this amount won't take the boy far, but there are ridiculous suggestions elsewhere that he should have not assumed the kid would have change, or that others with him could have offered the money.

Does it matter? One boy went away with some cash that made him happy. "Now he has been offered a monthly stipend of Rs 1000 and a seat in a private medical college after he finishes school."

If you give Rahul publicity for it, then it is your problem. You want to discuss macro issues, then do so. Don't use a crutch for it. Kaushal did not grab the note, as much as some in the media grab opportunities, and in fact “demurred". That is when Rahul told him, “Please keep it. Become a doctor. Never let your dreams die.”

Even Rahul Gandhi would know that this amount won't take him far. What kind of asinine thinking is it to question someone who tells someone to dream?

I once gave a young beggar some money, a little more than the usual loose change, and asked him to buy a few things that he could sell. I did not know about his dreams, but I was hoping it would at least be a first step towards earning rather than begging. So, heck, yes. It was a gesture.

The barrage against Rahul continued:

“It’s an odd statement from a man whose own dreams seem so fuzzily and obstinately opaque even to the party that’s hitched its wagon to him. He is the posterchild for the man who is living someone else’s dream."

Indeed, the party has hitched its wagon to him. Let us recall other parties and their 'hopes' and their posterboys. And whose dream is he living? If he was, he would have already been the prime minister. These supposedly smart statements do not convey anything.

Pick on Rahul Gandhi for his political naïveté, and even his dinner with Dalits. But, getting personal is 'symbolic' of a lack of argument. As empty as that which is being critiqued.

© Farzana Versey


Image: Faking News


Of Garbages and Kings: LBT

I called up the provision store to check if they will renew their strike tomorrow against the Local Body Tax. “We'll know by this evening." I decided to order a few things. Last week, many of us were caught unawares. There was some talk about LBT, but as it was restricted to Maharashtra and was not about FDI or any global issue, it did not make major news.

The traders were willing to take the losses to fight one more burden of tax. As one of them told DNA, “Everyone is aware that the more the number of tax-collecting government departments, the more the corruption. So now, with the introduction of LBT, most traders will end up giving indirect bribe to one more babu."

Who benefitted from the strike? The big players - malls. Reports mentioned the surge of footfalls in the supermarkets. Even those who are not regular supermarket shoppers might now be enticed into 'everything under one roof', where the trolley is an empowering force, and the sight of other shoppers with goods laden atop one another creates a subconscious demand.

The independent stores had understood this even before the strike. For example, I have several choices within just five minutes from where I live. My regular store walla knows it. His clientele is eclectic - from some famous names to the clerk in an office, and everyone in-between. He is a call away, and if the bags are heavy, one can trust the delivery guy to enter the house and deposit the goods.

What is his USP? Customer service. He has not yet tarted up his shop, for most people rely on home delivery. The daughter of an expat friend who visited recently was shocked when she discovered that some of her friends here could also get toilet paper at their doorstep. This is truly Mumbai where the consumer is king.

If the shop does not have something, he knows I'll call up someone else. So, he says, "I'll get it." It could be ice-cream, talcum powder, or fruits. He has never added a markup or service charge for any of these.

There was a bit of romanticisation of 'kirana' stores when the FDI discussion came up. That was just a reaction, for no one calls them kiranas anymore. The owners are mostly third generation slick guys, and in some cases women, who are computer savvy, and don't sit behind a cash counter all day. They are on the go, interested in trying to procure new goods, figuring out the new tastes that people are experimenting with.

One does not have to go to a speciality bakery to get multigrain bread or a variety of cheeses. The fancy organic outlets charge you for walking on granite tiles, but I can get my Indian diet bhel and homemade soya sticks instead of some Polish cracker that has the details of the packaging in Arabic! I can even return open packets, unlike some posh nature shops.

And the guy remembers exactly what our orders are like. So, if I say tissues, he knows which brand.

Last week, in an ironical twist, I ran out of garbage bags. According to the rules in my part of the city, the municipal truck comes every morning and all the waste should be in black bags. The person who regularly cleans the stairways and compound of the building collects it. This has made life infinitely easier for those who earlier had to take the waste bins and topple the contents into a huge drum-like container. Some people would not even care to put a lid on their garbage and it would spill over, only for the 'safai karmacharis' to have to manually pick it all up. The bags are infinitely more humane.

This digression is to highlight garbage. A strike will not stop people from generating waste — we eat, throw out old packages, bottles. Also, think about the wastage in the stores. What we read in the newspapers are huge numbers of so many crores lost in business (it also means loss to the government in prevalent taxes). But food grains and perishable dairy products and the like would need to be discarded.

Maharashtra is going through a drought and this seems like travesty. What about the poor who depend on rationed grains, oil, kerosene, sugar?

The government thinks that traders don't show their true sales figures. Traders say the government wants just more under-the-table money. It is likely that since traders operate on a cash basis, there could be some hidden assets, but most packaged goods anyway are sold at MRP rates. The traders have got their benefits, much like doctors/chemists get from pharmaceutical companies, prior to selling.

Some might think this is an elitist attitude. I am conscious of it, but that does not negate genuine concern. In fact, it made me aware that there is something called a handkerchief, which I had forgotten about due to my dependence on tissues. And for all the noise against plastic bags (quite legitimate given how people dispose them carelessly) the big one was cut at the top and fit in quite nicely into the garbage bin.

As I write this, I have not yet checked whether the strike will not begin again tomorrow. Why did they take a break? Because of Akshaya Trithi - an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. There were ads in the papers enticing people to buy precious jewellery without any down payment.

If only the clerk and the domestic help could buy essentials in this manner.

© Farzana Versey


Naya vs Purana Pakistan?

Beep-beep. Early morning. Text message from a friend in Karachi. So, bleary-eyed, I read that “My party has won. It is 5 am here and I am going to sleep!" Big smile. But before that there was a swipe about the fate of Musharraf — he knows I do not dislike the former president, which is of course putting it subtly.

Since Pakistan broke my sleep, I jotted down a few quick thoughts on the election results:

1. For all talk of democracy, it boiled down to the Punjabi, Sindhi, Mohajir, Pathan votes, and Balochi, Ahmadi non-votes.

2. There is always talk about a sympathy wave. If that were the case then the ANP that lost quite a few members to murderous devils would not have been routed.

3. Imran Khan is now a leader, so it's time he behaved like one. And not a tribal chief, even though Khyber Pakhtunkwa gave his party the votes.

4. I can already see the gleam in a certain Indian anchor's eyes as his voice quivers while screaming, "The nation wants to know if Nawaz Sharif will take action against Pervez Musharraf for crossing over to Kargil during the war"!

5. Nawaz Sharif has inherited a huge problem - his brother, Shahbaz.

6. Asif Ali Zardari has too many opponents within the PPP, including his son Bilawal. One of them will grow up.

7. Pakistan will continue to be important to the United States, China, Afghanistan and India for the same reasons as it has been for many years.

8. Imran Khan's slogan of 'Naya Pakistan' was the most potent one. Good varnish job, as happens in almost every country.

Let me end with an appropriate couplet by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

"har chaaraagar ko chaaraagari se gurez tha
varna humein jo dukh the bahut laa-davaa na the"

(The healer avoided healing, but my troubles were incurable anyway)

© Farzana Versey


Forrest Mum and Miracles

“Mama always said there's an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes. Where they're going, where they've been. I've worn lots of shoes. I bet if I think about it real hard, I could remember my first pair of shoes. Mama said they'd take me anywhere. She said they was my magic shoes."

This was Forrest Gump in the film. It was one of the most moving, intelligent, and profound experiences. Today I remember it from the point of view of how mothers, while protecting their children, can set them free. I know, and I have had such conversations with her.

I was not different in the sense Forrest was, but I spent a great deal of time by myself, thinking. I thought even while I read, and I did read a lot. Watched movies, too. No restrictions, except for adult content. And music. It was mainly old Hindi film songs, ghazals, bhajans, qawwalis, but in my teens I was also exposed to what was broadly termed 'western music'. She took a liking for Abba, and I was more than happy to sing. “Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk...she says I begin to sing long before I could talk...so I say thank you for the music..."

I transpose my experiences with the Forrest quote and I realise I figured out early in life about the magical properties of ordinary things. Forrest was probably being made to feel that his 'specialness' was special in a normal way. But, how normal are we the normal? As Mrs. Gump tells her son, "Don't ever let anybody tell you they're better than you, Forrest. If God intended everybody to be the same, he'd have given us all braces on our legs."

The premium placed on being like everyone else made me cringe, without even knowing that I was cringing. My magical world made me open the cage of the lovebirds that my uncle received as his wedding gift to let the birds free.

I did not think about shoes then, but I know I was told I could do anything I wanted, but not to hide it. Secrets were okay, but nothing that would deceive or get others worried. Was this freedom? Yes, freedom with responsibility. Freedom do make mistakes and then having someone to understand them, and not running away.

And I can tell a bit about people after seeing their shoes, and their bare feet.

It is delightful to recollect Forrest's words: “Now when I was a baby, Mama named me after the great Civil War hero General Nathan Bedford Forrest. She said we was related to him in some way. What he did was he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They'd all dress up in their robes and their bed sheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something'. They'd even put bed sheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that's how I got my name, Forrest Gump. Mama said the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense."

I missed out on this fantasy! But it did not stop me from imagining all sorts of ancestry. However, the point here is the last sentence. Why do we have to make sense? What is sense - the sensory, the perception, or merely of the senses? It makes perfect sense to me when I don't make sense. It does not mean nonsensical; it is more like an impulse, a spontaneous act without cogitation or concern about the consequences.

Like, “My mama always said, 'Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get'."

Does it matter when it is chocolates we want? If we cared, then we'd make a choice and know exactly what was in that box.

Sometimes, I do like the familiar, often I don't. Surprises make us believe in new things. And this has stayed with me as it has with her.

Or, as Forrest introspects, “My Mama always told me that miracles happen every day. Some people don't think so, but they do."

The best miracles are those that we are not even aware of. They happen and we may or may not discover about them later. In the soles of our shoes?

© Farzana Versey


Is a goat worth the news? The Bansal case

News stories often dumb down the very issues they are exposing. What goes 'viral' is not the news anymore, but every trivia associated with it. Does it act as some sort of cathartic nervous laughter at the end of a tragic tale, scam or mishap?

This would be fine if the main subject was kept in mind or the 'frills' were handled with some perspective.

Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Railways Minister, resigned after the CBI found that his kin ran a “cash-for-postings” racket. A day prior to this, a goat was spotted at his residence. This is what followed, according to a TOI report:

“Pretty soon, channels had astrologers and pundits analyzing the significance of feeding or sacrificing a goat in Hindu mythology, even though it was hardly clear that the goat was being fattened in order to be an offering to the God. There were panel discussions on the many TV channels about the significance of worshiping white goat and black goat in Hindu mythology. Many were of the view that the apparent appeasement of a white goat on an Amawasya day could change the fate of Bansal who was under fire..."

It does not take long before a joke becomes reason for sanctimonious offerings to propitiate our superiority. Every resignation is treated as drama, when it ought to be the done and proper thing, although neither stepping down nor a jail term has dissuaded politicians from resurfacing in a different garb, by their own party or the opponents. There are always loopholes in the morality scheme.

Bansal was not a visible neta, so news has to be exciting enough. The 'nephew' joke could only get this far and no further, for nepotism isn't new to our society in any field. That's where the goat came in and a newspaper report said that even after the sacrifice he could not be saved.

Animal sacrifice is fairly common, but are we really concerned about superstition? Every leader visits places of worship to appease the gods. What about the havans? Mannats at dargahs where so many flowers are 'slaughtered'? The temples where devotees shave off their hair as offering, which results in a business running into lakhs in export of the tresses for wigs and extensions? Does corruption dare to discuss the bribing of gods?

Not only will the bakra droppings take away the meat of the issue, we don't notice something even more vile just around the corner.

In Ranchi, two girls - aged six and four - were taken away for sacrifice.

Munnlal Ram is a constable with the Railway Protection Force (RPF); he is also a tantric.

The report states:

“The girls were found with their hands tied up. Ram was on the verge of sacrificing them on the altar. Dhanbad police station inspector Akhileshwar Chaubey said, 'Police found nine human skulls in Ram’s house'."

This practice continues in our country. But girls are not goats and don't offer scope for mirth. And that is what news looks for.

© Farzana Versey

Sex can be 'unnatural'

In August last year Geetika Sharma ended her life. In her suicide note, she blamed former Haryana minister Gopal Goyal Kanda and his aide and employee in his MDLR company, Aruna Chaddha for “harassment".

Later, Geetika's mother too committed suicide and left behind a note blaming the two. It reveals the tragedy of even a progressive society where women work but can't open up about the crime, and most certainly not when a powerful person is involved. The cops did not mention the real crime in the chargesheet.

The Delhi court has finally charged Kanda, and Chaddha for abetment:

"Relying on Geetika’s autopsy report, the court concluded that there is prima facie evidence that Kanda raped her and had unnatural sex with her."

Unnatural sex sounds like something from another era to those of us who are exposed to various forms of infotainment, and are 'modern' in outlook. It also reminds us of the earlier legal criminalisation of homosexuality due to this very proviso.

However - and I emphasise this - in many cases it is important to mention 'unnatural sex' because rape, as we understand it, may not have taken place. The girl or woman might instead be forced to perform acts that are perfectly natural between consenting adults, but not under duress.

I am not interested if the Bench has moral issues and uses what we may publicly call antiquated terms. (I refuse to believe that most Indians are comfortable even in private with sexual experimentation, although some would like to appear cool about it as a sound bite.) It is way more important that 'unnatural sex' is factored in to protect the victims who might not get justice if it is proved that there had been no penetration or bodily harm.

It is sad that certain recent cases of brutal rape have numbed us to the many others that are committed using other forms of force. Even in Geetika's case, it was an autopsy report that revealed the details. Think about the hundreds who are just silenced. Think about the children, infants too, who have no voice to begin with. Think about the 'bad touch' and the many other ways in which kids and adults are exploited, in familiar surroundings, in places where they are supposed to be protected, like remand homes, in the street and at posh parties too where a woman with a glass of tipple gives men the licence to grope. These are violations and a crime, and the people committing them get away because they did not manage or even want to 'go all the way'.

We forget that rape itself is unnatural sex. And anything remotely sexual that is not agreed to or has been got by force or deceit is.

© Farzana Versey


Vande Mataram can survive without our singing it...

This has become news. A BSP MP walked out of Parliament when Vande Mataram was being played at the end of the dud budget session. No one seems interested in what came out of the proceedings, but the fact that Shafiqur Rahman Barq insulted the national song.

He was even interviewed for it. He told CNN-IBN: "I won't apologise to anyone. I respect the National Anthem, not the national song Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god."

We'll get to him in a bit, but the speaker of the house Meira Kumar responded rather quickly: "One honourable member walked out when Vande Mataram was being played. I take very serious view of this. I would want to know why this was done. This should never happen again."

Has it happened before? How often?

The BJP had a nice token Muslim Shahnawaz Hussain to speak up: "Members have no right to insult the National Song especially when they have taken oath. The Speaker has taken the right move by naming the MP. He has insulted Parliament."

Say he has insulted the national song, not Parliament, for the oath does not specify what you will sing. Does the oath specify whether watching pornographic clips in the assembly is an insult to the House, and the oath taken by members?

Unfortunately, this has turned into a communal debate. I do take exception to those who take up the Muslim cause and say most Muslims are nice folks, unlike Burq. This is not about terrorism or some crime, and the community can do without this granting of certificates for good behaviour. And for those who are concerned about Muslims and ready with their “Go to Pakistan" 'anthem', let me remind them that the song that registers most even for them is “Saare jahaan se achhaa" written by Sir Mohammed Iqbal, one of the main architects of the idea of Pakistan. Enjoy!

I reproduce here some views expressed in 2006 - read it as past tense:

How many Indians know the Vande Mataram song? Are they aware it was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee as a cry against British oppression? Does knowing it make them better patriots?

On September 7 (2006) school children in Uttar Pradesh will have to compulsorily sing the ‘national song’ to commemorate its centenary; government papers have been passed to that effect. Forget the communal colour of the controversy for a moment. What should really bother us is the dictatorial nature of such a directive.

We are making children into pawns of our divisive mindsets.

The Muslims are cribbing that bowing before anyone but Allah is un-Islamic. These clerics ought to know that people regularly bow at tombstones in dargahs. Don’t many Muslim organisations carry around pictures of religious leaders and even rebel political figures in a crass mockery of obeisance? Where is their Islam, then?

On the other hand, we have the BJP’s token symbol Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi saying, “Those who oppose our national song should better leave the country. Their opposition is a reflection of their separatist mindset.”

At a sensitive time when almost every Muslim is a target of some suspicion, the last thing anyone ought to be talking about is separatist mindsets, especially if it hinges on the singing of a song. If people of the North East refuse to sing or do not know the Vande Mataram, will they be asked to leave the country? Would you tell this to some Christian or Parsi or even a Hindu?

Our motherland has survived this last century without off-key singing. If you wish to pay tribute to a national song, then do it with dignity. Play it in the background and everyone will stand silently and respect it. Those who wish to hum along could do so. But do not force false ideas of patriotism on the minds of vulnerable children.

By doing so you are ironically conveying that we are not even a democracy.

© Farzana Versey


1. Rabindranath Tagore rejected Vande Mataram as the national song:

"The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as 'Swadesh' [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating."


2. Besides the Muslim 'problem', the song has had objections from other communities:



The Sarabjit Singh Dilemma: An Indo-Pak Pawn Story?

He is dead now. India was pleading for the life of a man dying in a government hospital in Pakistan. A prisoner on death row, Sarabjit Singh was arrested in 1991 and imprisoned in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. On April 26, he was assaulted by other inmates. Some reports mentioned blunt rudimentary objects; others talked of sharp objects. Whatever the mode of attack, he was severely injured and slipped into deep coma, surviving on a ventilator. In the early hours of May 2, the support too could not keep him alive.

Burning effigies of Pakistan

The emotive nature of the case has made a closer examination seem redundant to many. The government has announced a compensation of Rs. 25 lakh for Sarabjit’s family. There is a demand for a state funeral. His family wants him to be declared a martyr. This is strange, for they had insisted he strayed into Pakistani territory by mistake. Therefore, he has not laid down his life for any cause. Or, is there a cause the public is not privy to? Due to the charged atmosphere between the two countries people are willing to blindly accept any tale of heroism.  

While the Pakistani authorities immediately granted his family visas to visit him, human rights activist Ansar Burney resurfaced with a theory: “There appears to be a deep-rooted conspiracy to attack Sarabjit ahead of polls which should be investigated.  I see some foul play in it. Pakistan government was not releasing Sarabjit and it couldn’t hang him due to international pressure. So an attack on him could serve the purpose to gain support from fundamental elements during polls.”

The international pressure is, in fact, the very same India-Pakistan peace initiatives that the human rights lobby assists in adding a cosmetic glow to. In the past two decades this is not the first time that Pakistan is going to vote, nor is the fundamentalist pressure new.


There have been instances of fishermen who have been released, just as many have been forced to remain in prison. However, if we look at the espionage cases, it makes one wonder whether in Sarabjit’s case there was more at stake for India than for Pakistan that even his family was unaware of.

Why did the highest authorities in the country come out to support an ordinary farmer who ambled across in drunken stupor to the other side of the border?

Sarabjit Singh was convicted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for terrorist activities.  Did it not strike a discordant note that an Indian sentenced to death for detonating bombs five times, resulting in deaths and injuries, and who confessed to being a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent, managed to bring the External Affairs Ministry into the picture to rescue him? More alarming was the fact that top Pakistani officials engaged in a dialogue on the subject.

Was this a confidence-building measure it was touted as? Or was there some behind-the-scenes hush-hush going on? At the time of the first major initiative in 2005, the Nanavati Report on the 1984 riots was out. It had enraged the Sikhs, so it suited the Indian government to help a peasant from Bhikhiwind in Amritsar to act as a temporary salve and also to dilute the domestic issue. Pakistan perhaps reciprocated for its own ulterior motives.

A Kashmiri separatist organisation too joined in and had appealed for Sarabjit’s clemency in return for the release of one of their men held in an Indian prison. Despite the prime minister’s office earlier issuing a statement saying, “If Sarabjit is really a spy, then we get into a tricky business of handing back and forth spies”, the then External affairs minister Natwar Singh discussed the matter with the Pakistani high commissioner in India. The reason given out was the strong public sentiment in India.

The sister and his daughters appealing for Sarabjit

This was whetted by Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur. “Both Delhi and Islamabad should know that Sarabjit will not be the only one who will be hanged. We have prepared five nooses at home, and we will commit mass suicide.” Were two countries held to ransom or was there more to it?

On Friday, the day he was attacked, she said, “I have been told that Sarabjit’s fellow prisoners said, ‘Hamara Afzal maar diya hai aur tum aaram se reh rahe ho (Our Afzal has been killed and you are living in leisure here).” It is easy to use a prominent case. One might have understood had the prisoners mentioned Ajmal Kasab who was hanged to death in India for his role in the Mumbai 2008 attacks. Afzal Guru is not a Pakistani and while certain fundamentalist organisations and politicians did protest against his hanging there, it is unlikely that inmates, who are themselves being held by their state, would express fealty for him. Besides, Sarabjit was not the only Indian prisoner. Why was there no outrage when Chamel Singh died just a few weeks ago in a Pakistani prison?


There are too many missing pieces and two instances of mistaken identity involving Sarabjit.

A farmer crosses the border in a drunken stupor. He repeats it 17 times. He is arrested on charges of spying as well as killing 14 people. Even if he was forced to confess, we are still left with the confusion over whether espionage work entails terrorist activities as well.

A year after he went missing from his farm, he wrote to his family that he was in a Pakistani jail. Did the Indian government have knowledge about any police complaints filed by them, which would have been the natural course they should have taken? If the government was in possession of that letter in 1991, why did it remain silent?

The mistaken identity theory mentioned that the real culprit was a ‘Manjeet Singh’. Where was/is he? Did Pakistan do away with him? In that event, the Indian government should have tried to locate Manjeet Singh’s family and appealed on his behalf. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time when the mercy plea was sent, was clear that there was no mistake. He had also stated, “The death sentence awarded by the courts can only be changed by the President on a mercy petition.”

However, according to Islamic law, only the heirs of the victims can grant the pardon. The human rights organisations, as well as Pakistan’s détente-trip leadership, played along with the ignorance. It suited both governments, for technically India would have to convince the Pakistani government to appeal to the kin of the 14 dead people to pardon Sarabjit. What would have happened to the argument of mistaken identity and the fact that he was not the person who committed the act? The relatives of the victims could not possibly grant pardon to an innocent man.

The second instance of mistaken identity arose during the purported repatriation of Sarabjit. Hours after the Pakistani media made the announcement, the government clarified that it was Surjeet Singh who was being released. The media blamed the government; the government blamed the media that called it an “international embarrassment”. This was insensitive, considering that a prisoner was being released. Humanitarian concerns seem to be restricted to a few.

On June 28, 2012, the 69-year-old Surjeet Singh was bombarded with questions about the high-profile prisoner. To which he replied, “Indian prisoners are treated well in Pakistan jails. Sarabjit Singh is also doing well there. He has sent no message with me. Leave it to me, I will get him released... Please don’t ask anything more.” He also admitted to being a spy and spoke about the Indian government disowning him: “No one crosses the border just like that. Someone sends them that's why they go… I was sent by the Army.”

Pakistan has in the past released prisoners, especially if they’ve served a long term. They return only to be disappointed by the Indian government. Gurbax Lal was lured with an offer to work for five years as a spy, following which he would get a permanent job with the Central Bureau of Investigation. “Being jobless and a keen reader of spy mysteries, I accepted the offer,” he said.  He remained imprisoned for 17 years. The homecoming wasn’t pleasant.  “I was treated like a napkin, used and thrown…Is this the reward of sacrificing one’s youth in enemy jails in service of our nation?”

The story was not too different for Kashmir Singh, except for the longer stay of 35 years. “I know and God knows that I went there to serve my country and that I did my duty even at grave peril to my life.” The training includes getting circumcised, learning Urdu and the cultural nuances (so much for ‘we are the same’ sloganeers). Like other spies, he changed his name and became Ibrahim. “And while I was there I ate beef and religiously fasted for the full month of Ramzan.”

He did not elaborate on his Indian military handlers. “I did not open my mouth for 35 years in Pakistan. I cannot do so now and I probably never will tell. All I can say is that I was a regular recruit and received a salary of Rs 480 per month till the time of my arrest. After that no one came forward to help my wife and family.”

Upon his return on March 3, 2008, he was hailed as a true patriot and was given a hero’s welcome, largely due to the marketing strategy of the peaceniks, like former Pakistan Minister for Human Rights Ansar Burney, who said, “There was no bargain. This is a bargain of love. In love there are no conditions.  Never have we seen before an Indian prisoner being escorted in a flag car of a minister. This has shown the world that Pakistan is a humane nation.”

Contrast this with his comments following the attack on Sarabjit. Where has the love gone? Or are the occasional placebos designed to obfuscate the open secret of RAW and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) by using an undercover subculture that the governments would not have to concern themselves with?


This leaves room for the flag wavers to run a parallel system that appears to be independent, but may not be. There are hundreds of cases of abuse in police stations, of innocent people being arrested, cases that are pending for more than 20 years without even being heard in our own courts. 
Indian POWS, 1965, in Pakistan

It is disappointing that the service of the nation argument does not work where it should. I had posed this query earlier too. Why is there not as much concern about our prisoners of war when the families of all 54 who disappeared during the 13-day Bangladesh War have produced tangible evidence to suggest that they were in jail? If a spy can be released after 35 years, surely there is a possibility of some of our POWs being alive 42 years later? The governments have permitted visits by their families, but they were taken to civilian prisons or misled. Nobody bothered to look through the list of spies, or those under assumed names. 

The thriving ‘humanitarian’ business cannot hawk this. So, it strives to create martyrs. Instead of independent enquiries into such arrests, they make the public into unwitting toys in the hands of governments that want to sneakily transform such whimsical acts into false peace measures. The body will be handed over. Giver’s and receiver’s hands are clean.

Sarabjit Singh is dead. There are many in Pakistani and Indian prisons who have no memory of their life. We will never know what really happened because no one is willing to tell and, worse, no one wants to know. Truth is the first casualty of heroism. 

Published in CounterPunch, May 3-5