Dunkin' Donuts and Oprah

Do we sometimes overstate racism? Emphasis on colour in politically-correct terms only consolidates stereotypes. Finger-pointing bad taste draws attention to it. Racism is way more than the buying and selling of products and the imagery associated with them.

What is wrong with the Dunkin’ Donuts ad campaign by the Thailand franchise? That a female model is covered in dark chocolate, has hair done up in a certain way that makes it appear as though she is black? There have been the usual noises about insensitivity. We are not discussing Trayvon Martin here or people of colour being denied access to space and opportunity. The product is clearly using a particular palette, just as people might paint their faces in shades of, say, the national flag during sports or cultural events.

It took me a few seconds to find this other image by merely searching for white chocolate. If we have a problem with a dark product sold by a ‘black’ model, why don’t we have issues with a white product marketed by a white model? Godiva’s white Kit-Kat has chosen a stereotype, too.

Some reports have pointed out that the pink lipstick stands out and looks bizarre. Advertisements are about drawing attention. It seems like a simple aesthetic placement if we look at the logo. Pink is also about candy, so this is a form of association. A shocking shade would stand out on anyone. What about Naomi Campbell in the ‘drink milk’ promos where she sported a white moustache? What about her posing in those starkly contrasting pictures with Kate Moss?

Dunkin’ Donuts has apologised for this ad, but the owner of the Thai franchise has called it “paranoid American thinking”. It would appear that there is some guilt and discomfort by others regarding portrayal of blacks and racism. On the one hand, campaigns flaunt black is beautiful —another pigeonhole, as I analysed here – and then there is this chariness.

Recently, Oprah Winfrey ‘outed’ a racist salesperson she had encountered in a Zurich mall who told her that the bag she wanted to buy was too expensive. Oprah does not live in a ghetto; her riches are well-earned. She is recognised almost everywhere. Perhaps if she went
to Harlem incognito and tried to purchase a costly thing a black salesperson might draw attention to the price tag. Would that qualify as racism? If not, then what could be the reason? What sort of stereotypes are manifested here?

It is more a matter of hierarchy, or perception of it. I can give a few examples.

• Several years ago, I went into a store in London to pick up some brandy. The woman at the counter snapped, “Not that, it is too much money.” She was of Indian origin and from her deportment and manner looked like a recent immigrant. Between anger and amusement, I figured out that this was something that she could not afford. It was projection. I was a visitor whose cart was filled with goodies. In some ways, she felt slighted and the only manner in which she could to respond was to see that emotion mirrored in someone else.

• In India, one sees even backpackers – white first, then black – given preferential treatment while one is shopping. Although it is more likely that as tourists they are “just looking” and I am the real customer they will earn from, the hierarchy revolts against it. I have walked away quite often after waiting for the shopkeeper to attend to me. However, if there is another Indian who is perceived as less ‘valuable’, then the focus is on me.

• When I took out a $100 bill to pay for a snack at Universal Studios, LA (I didn’t have enough change), the Hispanic cashier almost sniggered, “You got lotsa money, eh?” If that wasn’t bad enough, the black gentleman who was part of the tour group said, “For this much I’d get a full meal at McDonald’s.” Would these be considered racist comments? I did not think so then and I don’t believe so now in hindsight. It is about where we are and who we are dealing with. Cultural baggage is relative.

Covered with dark chocolate or whipped cream, or lips painted a shocking pink, one’s identity is a stereotype too. Unless maliciously used to segregate, it makes better sense to not be numbed by how others perceive us.

© Farzana Versey


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The ad copy says:

Address: America

"I saw a white man purchasing Vicco Vajradanti in a shop here.

I felt immensely proud.

Whether it is a grip on the world as a superpower or on the teeth by gum power...Americans have got it!"


Realism vs. Affectation: The problem with Madras Cafe

If you like your cappuccino flat, then head to 'Madras Cafe'. No one is looking for a typical Bollywood film — and thanks, but I have been exposed to and do have the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate good independent films from anywhere in the world, so cut out the lecture about 'intelligent' cinema.

To begin with, the film does not have a spine. Again, you can go against linearity only when there is a strong starting point from where you take off and return to, and not this jumble of an excuse that tries to pass as realism.

The backdrop is the Sri Lankan civil war and the plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. The main characters are not named, which is fine, but this is most certainly not the film that will stand out as one to trace contemporary history. The purported 'espionage thriller' would fit into a couple of sequences in any mainstream film. With digitisation, it isn't too difficult to get the war scenes right. And we have seen the decoys, the smuggling of arms in jetties, the sneaky meetings with contacts in foreign countries in several films.

That 'Madras Cafe' is being touted as a pathbreaker is more a matter of prestige, where a few critics who are forced to review masala try and reclaim their intellectual space by 'understanding nuances'. Fact is, this film lacks a text, forget a subtext.

It opens with a self-conscious protagonist, Major Vikram Singh, who is drunk and morose. He lands up at a church where the helpful priest listens to his Confession, which turns out to be the film. This is a most tacky device for a flashback. It takes us to what could easily be stock images from award-winning war photography, all shot in black and white to ostensibly project the historical moorings. That this was the 90s makes it just planned stark imagery. It does not convey the immensity of loss.

At the offices of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), a few men in suits and the token woman have a farcical conversation about trying to conduct a peaceful election, with the LTF (obviously based on the LTTE), the main organisation representing the minority Tamils.

The LTTE did have a turbulent relationship with New Delhi, which had sent a peace-keeping force. The BJP and other Tamil organisations want the film banned because the LTF and other leaders have been referred to as terrorists. In fact, when the makers — that is, actor-producer John Abraham and director Shoojit Sircar — have been at pains to say they are not taking sides. They aren't, except for the cheesy insistence on referring to "our ex-PM" constantly, like some mantra. The controversy certainly has grabbed attention.

Director Sircar said in an interview, "I didn’t want to make glitzy thriller like Ek Tha Tiger or Agent Vinod, which seem inspired by the James Bond template. I want to show that intelligence officers are ordinary people who live amongst us. It is only that they have to solve issues where national security is at stake.”


Has it really gone away from the mainstream?

The reasons mentioned:

• The characters don't sing songs.

So? Army men and rebels do sing in real life. The music of revolution is a separate genre. Besides, there are background songs, probably one of the two saving graces of the film, the other being cinematography.

• The main characters are like ordinary people.

We have a hero who is some sort of Superman, who flies in and out of cities, even taking on a bunch of dreaded fighters alone. At the RAW meetings they ask for their 'best man'. The officers are caricatures; the guys initiating backroom deals are just what you expect; Anna, the LTF chief, could have been playing poker; even the female lead, a war correspondent with a foreign agency, seems to be on a lone mission to tell the truth and not be biased. Have you never seen all this before?

Major Singh's wife plays the pining woman who does not do anything else but wait. On one of his return home trips, they manage to get into bed. It ought to have been a letting go, a release of passion. It need not have been shown, but implied. Nothing. This was as robotic as much else. Even when she is killed, his remorse is barely discernible.

• There is nothing over-the-top.

If we can have just one man who can save "our national interest", then we better get some emotion out of him. This tomtoming about reined-in performance just does not work. The film has taken 'staying in character' to new levels. Once introduced, the characters do not alter their expression at all. John Abraham could have been a poster on a wall.

It is immensely amusing that the lack of any romantic involvement between the Major and the reporter Jaya is seen as an important factor. Seriously, this is how most interactions are in real life. Since she is the only one who has access, has contacts, has a purpose, she manages to announce that standing for the truth does not make her anti-national. Why she does not smile is a matter that ought to make us deeply concerned about such expat patriotism.


The last 15 minutes do pick up momentum, never mind that although there was intimation of an assassination plot, the ex-PM was not kept in the loop. The RAW officer calls him up directly at the airport lounge asking him to cancel his visit, but does not even hint about the suicide bombers waiting for him.

In the end, the so-called national interest looks pathetic in 'Madras Cafe' because the police, the intel agencies, mainly RAW, the army, the secretariat all come out as effete and ineffectual, depending totally on one man they pulled out to conduct a major operation. Ek Tha Tiger should have been his code name.

{I hear the filmmakers are wrangling for a tax-free certificate. Perhaps, they should try one from the Sri Lankan government too.}

There is no need for realistic cinema to resort to affectation. Some critics are glad that this film was made at all. Have they never watched the movies of the 80s, of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, not to speak of regional cinema? Have they not been exposed to the subtle performances of Balraj Sahni, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amitabh Bachchan too in a few films.

Each genre requires different skills, but at the centre of any film is the ability to connect. 'Madras Cafe' does not. It ends where it began: the drunken Vikram Singh has revealed all, and is guilty about his wife's murder and that he could not save "our ex-PM". His beard grown long, was there some mirroring of Christ in his slightly hunched form? Creating this aura around him makes him worse than mainstream; it takes him straight into mythology.

Finally, he brings out a crumpled sheet from his pocket — given by his father-in-law when he got married — and reads out from it: "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free..." What has this Tagore poem got to do with his predicament? He has been sozzled for a few years. He has been visiting the church, the priest has seen him all this time.

Why now? Because there has to be a denouement. A flat cappuccino.

© Farzana Versey


Images in collage clockwise from top left - Anna; the ex-PM; Major Vikram on his way somewhere; with Jaya, the news reporter.


Sunday ka Funda

"Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know."

— Pema Chodron

There are some words with religious connotations that go way beyond a particular faith. They become exclamations, pauses; they hold a meaning specific only to an individual. "Good heavens", "Hey Bhagwan", "Ya Allah", "Jesus" can hardly be confined to theology, especially if you hear them ever so often in casual conversation.

I was at a store the other day and the salesperson, upon being ticked off, immediately, and it appeared unthinkingly, let out a "Hai Allah". I did not know her faith, but I am aware of a couple of Hindu friends who use the term, just as Bhagwan, Jesus are used to pepper conversation. They have become like punctuation marks.

The resonance of "Om" is real. It might seem like autosuggestion, but when you meditate the hum in the pit of the stomach that finally reaches the temples can be heady.

My relationship with "Bismillah" is different. I don't use it often, and when I do it indicates a beginning. From the religious perspective it is uttered before every surah. The letters 786 denote the numeric value. I recall how, nervous before an exam way back in school, a relative told me to scrawl the letters on the answer sheet before starting. I tsk-tskd. On reaching the hall and faced with the ominous blank paper, I used my finger to draw out the letters. I do not remember what subject it was and the outcome, but this small act has stayed in memory. Because it became mine. A personal take. And a secret.

These days songs use such words, and they neither glorify nor demean them. They merely link the chain of events, from one to another. That's what life is about. The new. Afresh. Bismillah:


Re-examining sexual violation: Asaram Bapu and five men

A few days ago, the news was about Asaram Bapu, one of those ubiquitous spiritual gurus, raping a minor girl in Jodhpur.

Today, the attention has transferred to the gang-rape of an intern at a lifestyle magazine in a deserted mill at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai.

The standard noises are about how India is not safe for women. Why can we not deal with rape as we would a murder? There would most certainly be emotional trauma, but unless we first look upon it as a crime, rape will be a taboo subject that gives vicarious thrill. This is the unfortunate reality, as is evident from how the word itself is increasingly used as an adjective by even the most sophisticated, especially against women.

The media has started on its 'brave woman' line and yet the headlines scream that her life has been ruined.

Worse, details about the woman's privates are trotted out, ostensibly to draw attention to the nature of the assault. It is unnecessary. After the Delhi gang-rape, it has become mandatory to measure the extent of rape, which is disgusting. Any violation is criminal. Is the media suggesting that if there is not enough blood, the attack is lesser in some way?

This is a dangerous trend, for it will devalue many other kinds of sexual attack by known persons who may employ tact to get their way. Fifteen years ago I had interviewed a gang-rape victim, so I find this media blitz quite out of place. That lady, a slum dweller, was brave too. She went to the cops. Justice, as happens so often, took its time. For all those who believe that the more people protest the quicker the action will be have only to consider the status of the Delhi case. No one has been sentenced as yet. In fact, one of the rapists will be tried by the juvenile court despite all arguments against it.

It has ceased to be only about justice, but how you position yourself in the public domain with your concern. A lot of people lived off that unfortunate 'event', and it has spawned an industry of how to save 'women under attack', with ready reckoners too on 'sensitising men'.

The Mumbai police arrested one suspect, and have leads to the other four. They will be tried for the specific crime. There is no need for newspapers and television channels to get the human interest angle, and psychoanalyse these men. It does not matter if one of them was shy. And it really makes no sense to talk to his mother, who will quite naturally not be aware of what he has done.

The intern has been keeping track of the news, and although it is indeed good that she is dealing with it head-on there are chances that the very bravery she has displayed will make her dependent on those who want to protect her by intruding into her space.


I would like to take this discussion further. The young woman and the minor both lodged police complaints. There has been no talk about the 16-year-old's bravery. Some headlines said, 'Minor accuses Asaram Bapu', implying that it is only an accusation, unlike how they report other such cases.

That is the reason I brought up the subject about how one news replaces another — it is a manifestation of how indifferent we are despite all the outrage. While there has been no dilly-dallying in the Mumbai case, Asaram Bapu is being given the benefit of doubt. A few hours ago, some online reports have mentioned that the accused may be questioned.

A report states:

According to police the incident took place on August 15 at guru’s ashram in Jodhpur. The girl’s parents, who are staunch followers of Asaram Bapu, came to know about it on August 17 when girl told them about the ordeal. They approached police on August 19. After the medical examination, police lodged an FIR on August 20. “We have sent all case related documents to Jodhpur police and now the case will be handled by them,” added the officer.

Although the girl and her mother filed an FIR, and a case was registered against him under sections 376, 342, 509, 354 of IPC, Juvenile Justice Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, after a medical examination, there are cries about conspiracy.

BJP leader Uma Bharti did not have the good sense to wait for the police to do their job. She called a press conference where she said:

"Asaram used to criticise in a bold manner Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, and in both Rajasthan and Delhi, Congress is in power. I have a feeling that there might be some political motive behind the issue."

She later retracted her 'support'. But, what does it tell us?

Who is this Asaram Bapu and why is his meddling in political matters of any consequence? This is not the first instance of godmen being caught exploiting women, and sometimes men. I needn't have to point out that gurus of every faith run an empire based on power and they use it to their advantage because gullible devotees are always in search of cures.

Clearly, this man is too huge for even the media to take on. In recent times, we have had a few cases and the fact that they have political patronage ought to be questioned.

We also need to address the issue of these charlatans using their clout to mislead the public about their healing powers. A day later, another report gave a different version, again by the police:

Bjiu Joseph, Commissioner of Police Jodhpur, told India Today that her (the victim's) allegation amounted to molestation and not rape. However, police were examining if it could include attempt to rape too. Another police officer said her medical examination did not prove rape and the girl's hymen is also intact. "The alleged assault was apparently confined to the upper part of the body as per her statement," said another senior officer investigating the case.

On what basis was the FIR filed then, following a medical examination? The details in this case are important because the likes of Asaram Bapu must be getting away with a lot by performing vile acts in other ways. He is 74, and this must be factored in to understand how he could have violated the girl.

It is time we stopped concentrating only on the victim, and examined the criminal physically too. If there are doubts, put him through a narco test. The problem is that the big guys get away because if there could be political motives behind the accusations against them, then there are as many to save them.

There have been protests in this case, but not for the girl. It is Asaram's supporters who took to the streets. The man himself has said:

"Lord Buddha, too, had faced such kind of allegations and I am also facing the same. But the truth will come out. I am appealing my followers to keep calm, have patience and to ensure no harm is done to the family of this girl...even if they put me behind the bars, I am willing to go to jail with a smiling face. And I think I want to spend some time in Tihar jail. I consider jail as my Vaikunth (heaven)."

This is the same man who had said that had the Delhi gang-rape victim addressed her assaulters as brother and pleaded for mercy, she might have been saved.

Dishing out pacifist nonsense is part of the paraphernalia of such people. If, as he says, he knows the conspirators then he should be put in the witness box and asked for details. Pin him down. And, in the process, the truth will come out, and not because he thinks he is like the Buddha. Nobody cares about his heavenly ambitions, and he most certainly cannot choose which prison will house him. There is something called the courts, and they decide.

Until justice ceases to be a farce of such verbal passive-aggressive public stances, rape will remain just another four-letter word.

© Farzana Versey


Camera vérité

Of all forms of photography, I am drawn most to portraits. Faces. Forms. Expressions. The result is less about technique and more about what that fraction of a second captures. Is it the essence or the superficial? Does it convey more about the photographer than the subject?

Today is World Photography Day and each of us with a smartphone camera can claim to be quite adept at instant access to what may be loosely termed history in motion. We see it when pictures about catastrophes and revolutions are uploaded. Then, there is the history of ordinary people, which is another story for a sequel.

Now that Princess Diana is back in the news with reports of another twist to her death, one cannot but recall her name without the mention of the paparazzi. Those men — there are few women giving the chase — who will risk life and limb only to snoop on a celebrity getting drunk, or involved in a brawl, or caught in an intensely private moment. They and the celebs feed each other.

However, some famous people do not quite get posterity on glossy finish prints. They are the characters that a camera waits to unravel.

It would be so predictable to mention the portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and I have decided to be predictable. There is a reason: he photographs minds.


It was not easy for him, it would seem, for he had said, “The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”

We are so accustomed to seeing Che Guevara in the iconic posters, the pose of angst, of a rebel on his way to rebel, that this smiling man enjoying his spirits — two glasses at that...was there a companion, a comrade, a visitor? — comes as a surprise. It also makes us question our stereotypes. The revolution is indeed on as is evident, but surely a person is not merely one thing?

This is not a great photograph, but it is a revelation.


Robert Kennedy lounging on a deck chair is expected. It is the contrast that is brilliant. Machismo against innocence. Or perhaps the innocence of machismo, if we look at Kennedy's almost meditative expression and even the hairy overgrowth that harks back to another age, less sophisticated than his lifestyle. His son seems to want to know what is in the balled fist. There is also a sense of detachment. He is not looking at the boy, who too has his face turned away, although his head rests on the edge of the father's thigh.

The connection established here is of give-and-take role-play.


Cartier-Bresson believed, "Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation."

Carl Jung's portrait is nothing less than a fine piece of meditation. It is not candid and he might well have been sitting for an artist.

His own words somehow coalesce into this photograph: "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being."

The use of light and shadow is always interesting and here it adds dimension because of Jung's own conflict theory about the conscious and unconscious. The trickle of light in the background, the ever-so-slight swirl of smoke that stops short of being cocky, the deep furrows on the brow and the compact manner of sitting are at once disturbing as well as almost holy.

For Jungians, this would make a whole lot of sense. And for others, it would still be about a man with several tales to tell.


Henri Matisse loved colours, the more lurid the better. Cartier-Bresson used monochrome and even then managed to capture the shades.

This photograph is a bit of a tease. The main subject is not even in the foreground, but he grabs our attention. Matisse loved his still-life, and the birds do look like one of his works. That the cage is empty and they are poised atop it could be seen as the artist's own freedom from using standard templates for his art.

It looks like a scene from a film. This is not Matisse in a typical studio setting with painting equipment. He is surrounded by life, almost bare and rundown. Like a blank canvas in an attic.


These are all famous names and we would have seen them in numerous pictures. It takes someone like Cartier-Bresson to not just transform them into subjects, but real people with more than the single dimension they became known for.

I'll have to answer my own question posed in the beginning and say that in complexity the superficial is also the essence.

© Farzana Versey


Images: Magnum Photos, Washington Post Magazine


Of Navroz and Nostalgia

I love new years. It does not matter who is celebrating it. There is a sense of renewal. As I opened my first box of sweets today, a gift of Navroz, the Parsi New Year, I could not help but rewind.

Since my memories are the same, do indulge me as I reproduce this piece I had written long ago...

Image 1

Jimmy was driving me to his house; he would park his car in the building and then we’d take a train from Grant Road station to Vasai for a case we were following up on. On the way up to his flat, he warned me, “Look, I live with three aunts and I rarely invite any woman over because they start imagining I have been hooked. So, just don’t mind them.”

Three ladies in different stages of moisturised wrinkles appeared together to greet me. Jimmy went in. Ebony-coloured furniture was displayed discreetly. Lace-trimmed napkins came with the tea. The house smelled of talcum powder. The three of them sat across in stiff organza sarees and kept smiling.

Jimmy returned and was immediately given a special look. He rolled his eyes and suggested I hurry, but it would be better if I freshened up as it might be a few hours before we returned. I got up hesitantly and was directed towards a room. All three aunts followed. It was the bathroom attached to their bedroom. One of them brought out starched towels from a locked cupboard. I tiptoed in and was afraid to even let the water in the washbasin run lest the sound break this amazing silence.

As I stepped out all of them were sitting at the edge of their bed facing the bathroom door. I thanked them and they asked me to join them for lunch another day. “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” they chorused as we left. Jimmy breathed out, “I live with them!” Three spinsters and a bachelor, all past what is deemed by society to be the marriageable age.

Image 2

“Feedosssssssss!” That is my earliest memory of Parsis. There would be a scream in our house on spotting a perfectly harmless lizard on the wall and our neighbour, Mani Aunty, would solicitously rush to enquire, “Soo thaiyyu?” (What happened?) We would point out the slimy creature…she would go to the passageway that divided our houses and call out, “Feeedossssss…” Firdaus, her son, would arrive half-asleep, and be handed a broom. He would wield it like a baton and with remarkable precision hit the lizard; it would fall to the floor struggling; someone would ask him to fling it outside the window from where it would find its way. But this was a manly challenge and until it had been decimated, there was no reprieve. I am amused now that while the whole contingent of ‘junooni’ Mussalmans would be cowering with their feeble “shoo-shoo”, the peaceful Parsi had blood on his hands.

My childhood was full of these little neighbourly observations – sutarpheni (a sweet that looks like dry white grass and sometimes even tastes like it, except for the sugar and pistachios) being sent to us on Parsi New Year; the daily chokh, a pattern made from rice powder, outside the door; Behram uncle, a soft-spoken man, standing in the balcony tying his Kusti (sacred thread) three times round his waist to signify good words, good thoughts, good deeds over his sudreh (a muslin vest) and muttering a prayer. This is his heritage from the moment he was initiated into the faith, not at birth but after his Navjote ceremony at the age of eight.

The family would always be dressed appropriately for the occasion. You wouldn’t find them shoddy. If they were going for a stroll on the Bandstand promenade, they’d tie scarves round their heads to protect their hair and ears.

This Irani household taught me about simple things and a language that was delectable. If Uncle as much as voiced his opinion about someone, then his wife would admonish him, “Marey-re, javaa de Bei-aam. Te taddan gadherro chhe.” (Damn it, let it be…that man is a complete donkey.) It took me a while to learn to pronounce Behram the Parsi way. I would mimic Aunty and after ‘Bei’ there would be a long inhalation before the soft whimper of an ‘aam’ was exhaled, almost like a meditative ‘Om’.

Of course, as one’s world expanded, I found it hard to believe that Parsis were an endangered species; they were everywhere. Haggling with hawkers, at the theatre to watch English plays (in which most of them were acting, anyway), when choir groups or Western orchestras performed in the city, in parks, at the David Sassoon library, usually snoozing on one of the wooden armchairs, in clubs eating ‘akuri’ (an eggy mish-mash) on toast, sitting in their now-dwindling eateries where they put up signs that read, “No smoking, no combing hair, no discussing politics”, driving at a snail’s pace, usually in the Fiat. A “Parsi-maintained car”, although used, is still considered as precious as a virgin in the automobile market.

And then you have the colonies. It is an entirely different world where you suddenly hear the same sounds, encounter people wearing similar clothes and even looking somewhat alike. But the status is not always the same. You may enter Cusrow Baug, but if one flat has the Grand Piano playing Schubert, and another has a famous ballerina or a film-maker, there are smaller houses with little furniture and a lonely man sitting and gazing vacantly at the wall clock that chimes every half hour. I know how hard it is because as a stranger when I had knocked on such a door for an assignment, I was welcomed in and offered porridge at 4 pm.

I hate porridge at any hour, but when you have it with pent-up tears the taste changes.

© Farzana Versey


Image: Tribune India


Highly recommend Pestonjee, a slightly dark film, quite unlike the standard jolly bunch of characters that are portrayed in films.

Sunday ka Funda

A few thousand people have signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars in 2022. It could mean they have nothing to lose. Or, they are adventurous enough to forfeit life, for it is venturing into the unknown where even death is a mystery. Or, perhaps it is all about looking for something better.

This is what puzzles me. If we want something better, why don't we attempt it here? Why do we turn our faces away from where we belong?

“Did you ever stop to notice
This crying Earth, these weeping shores?...

I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don't know where we are
Although I know we've drifted far"


How independent is independence?

Emotions can be infectious. When one listens to the sound of music, however loud, however remixed, from street corners and shanties, it is difficult not to at least hum along and somehow join in.

Today, it was relatively quiet. There is one 'celebration' spot across the end of the lane, which would be a few meters from my gate. That is where almost every occasion calls for songs. I waited to be awoken. It was only after breakfast that I heard the first strains:

"Ae mere watan ke logoun
Zaraa aankh mein bhar lo paani
Jo shaheed hue hai unki
Zaraa yaad karo qurbani

What do we remember most about this song? Ask around. They will tell you that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had tears in his eyes when he heard Lata Mangeshkar singing Pradeep's lyrics.

India got independence from British rule; this song was penned after the war with China. The China that ambles across our borders.

This song is a paean to the sacrifices of soldiers. In the past few years soldiers have been killed along the LoC, even when there is no war; they have also been killed by their colleagues or by a gunshot aimed by themselves.

"Jab ghayal hua Himalaya..."? The mountains are not wounded. The wars are between pundits in studios, politicians hawking their wares.

I am dry-eyed.


I don't watch the speeches from the Red Fort on August 15th. However, it is interesting to see the reactions. The prime minister is not going there to clear the air or solve the country's problems. There are 364 days in the year. He is, or ought to be, speaking on behalf of the country, not the political party he represents. Unfortunately, that does not happen.

It is no surprise, then, that the wannabe candidate of la-la-land, Narendra Modi, chose to hit out at the Red Fort speech even before it was delivered. He said that at the Red Fort there would be only promises whereas here — in Bhuj where he was addressing the youth of his state — there would be talk about the work that has been done.

We have seen how his devotees (and he is a god whose clay feet they refuse to notice) have the gumption of passing off sleek buses in China as a model of ones in Ahmedabad to show 'development'. So blinded are they that they forget that India does not have left-hand drive vehicles and it is easy to catch the lie. Or perhaps it is audacity. They do not care.

Just as Modi himself does not. Minutes after the PM address, he sniggered, "Media channels said this is PM Manmohan Singh's last speech from Red Fort but he said he has miles to go, which rocket will he take?"

It is not important whether this man understands Robert Frost's poetry. It is a sophomoric dig, and that should tell us a lot more about him than industry-sponsored speeches.

I have just read the transcript of the PM's speech. It is mostly homilies. In a country where people are now battling with disease, illiteracy, and the rupee being worth one-sixtieth of a dollar and onions at Rs. 60 a kilo — we are even gearing to import it from Pakistan (tears without any skirmish!) — Dr. Singh offered chicken soup, not medicine. What we need is not just medicine, but inoculation. If we don't, anyone with ambitions will pose as a healer. We don't recognise quacks easily.


Yesterday afternoon, there were cops near a shopping mall. Lounging on uncomfortable chairs, looking tiredly as cars broke signals and pedestrians skirted cars.

I read in the papers there were 721 sensitive spots. 721 spots in Mumbai alone. 721 spots where terrorists could strike, whereas right under the nose of the cops anyone could have been killed by a passing vehicle with a cocky driver behind the wheel.


So many free things available — electronics, clothes, cosmetics, edibles, travel, even ads for losing kilos "free".

How many people earning an honest living would be beguiled by all this and bought things they might not need. Did they think about the freedom struggle? Did those corporates and retailers?


What we get free makes us indebted and enslaved. We are all still colonised in some way or the other by commercialism, bigotry, prejudice, casteism, communalism, elitism. So how independent are we really?

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?"

- Michelangelo

Where is Dawood Ibrahim?

It is the sort of truth-or-dare query that is good for a game. I have been watching promos and there are special 'Shoaib' moments to market the film. What is interesting about it is that the character is based, not so loosely, on Dawood Ibrahim. This is not the first such film, but it has one of the mainstream actors essaying the role. So, does 'Once Upon A Time In Mumbai — Dobaara' have anything to do with the recent spurt of reports on the underworld don?

Perhaps. You switch on the television and on surfing channels you realise how reality and fiction meet. It begs the question: Is it okay to glorify a character, ride on his notorious fame, and find that the news stories are just adding to the hype rather conveniently?

We are all lapping up the stories — news and fiction. The lines are blurred.

Looking for Dawood has an absurdist quality. This time, it started with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's "special envoy for improving relations with India" (a bizarre portfolio, to begin with) Shahryar Khan. He said:

"Dawood (Ibrahim) was in Pakistan, but I believe he was chased out of Pakistan. If he is in Pakistan, he should be hounded and arrested. We cannot allow such gangsters to operate from the country."

Mr. Khan, for whatever it is worth besides obviously covering up, seems to be concerned about his country. He is not interested in anything beyond that, and most certainly not to help India.

On what did he base his statement? As I've said and what has been reported quite often, Dawood Ibrahim's Karachi residence was revealed in the Pakistani media. The Indian media has all too shamelessly carried interviews with him for years from his "unknown" locations. A scoop seems more important than any other consideration.

The same applies to some politicians and cops. The fact that D-Company, as well as a few other underworld groups, operate with such impunity should be a clear indicator that the intent to get hold of Dawood is just not strong enough, despite all talk. It does not speak too well of our Intel agencies, given that India has fairly good relations with the UAE, where he was a public figure appearing on Indian TV channels.

The argument is that he was not dangerous enough then. Now the situation is different.

How different it is is borne out by the reaction of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Its spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, told the media:

“Like you, I too have seen these reports which have been attributed to a senior official of the Pakistan Government. As you are aware, the 1993 Mumbai Bomb Blasts dossier has never been closed by us. Therefore, now that we have received more information about it, we will not rest till those responsible for the 1993 attacks against our citizens in Mumbai are brought to justice, wherever they are. We will continue to pursue this quest.”

What is wrong about this statement?

• The Indian Ministry depends on the Pakistani envoy's offhand comment calls it "more information".

• Is the March 1993 attacks dossier not closed, although several people were arrested and sentenced, only to get Dawood? This does not quite sound plausible, for Dawood's family resides in Mumbai and he continues to operate his businesses that we get to know about from intelligence sources.

• This is not under the purview of the MEA, but I'd like to emphasise here that those who were targeted and killed in the riots of 1992-93 are also citizens of India. Is there even a dossier on that?

• The MEA is supposed to act in concert with our sources and not what Pakistan chooses to dish out.

It is not surprising that the Pakistani diplomat did not stand by his initial words. As a report said:

However, he later did a complete U-turn on his statement by telling an Indian television channel that he had never known where Dawood lived and his earlier statement was just reflecting what the Pakistani media has been reporting in the past.

The BJP did not want to be left out, so Shahnawaz Hussain declared:

“Thus, the Government of India should pressurize Pakistan. The whole world should put pressure on Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim should be handed over to India. Only after that there is any point of any dialogue. Till they don’t get a strong message from India, Pakistan’s morale will not be down. The time has come now that Pakistan’s politician has admitted that Dawood Ibrahim is in Pakistan, why isn’t the Government of India putting pressure?”

Whenever a Pakistani official says anything, please wait. He has denied it, so our responses look foolish. For all we know, the statement could have been a red-herring that exposes how we respond. Across party lines, it appears that we are completely dependent on the Pakistani version.

Why would they hand over Dawood to India? Even Portugal has made it clear that India has to follow the terms of extradition with regard to Abu Salem, another gangster. Dawood would not leave any trace of his involvement. 'Masterminds' don't. So, except for his illegal activities, not much action can be taken.

The BJP should think before talking. It has been 20 years since those bomb blasts. They were in power. What did they do to pressurise Pakistan? Was it not Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister who initiated bus services and other measures to mend ways with Pakistan despite 1993?

These hot-air responses have no basis in pragmatism. It is only to add noise to the standard 'war-like situation', each time there is a border incursion or killing of soldiers. Instead of discussing the whole process of covert actions at the border, and how the huge deployment of forces does not seem to inhibit infiltration, we just end up with ridiculous dramatics. (The Chinese manage to cross the border, but it does not get us as agitated.)

The worst was probably a TV channel asking viewers to vote via SMS on whether they thought there should be a war against Pakistan. This keeps the media running and is an advertisement for itself rather than consideration for dead soldiers, the country, or the citizens. There is money involved. Just as there is money involved in keeping the search for Dawood Ibrahim in the news.

While it helps in marketing, it also sanitises the obvious commercial interests and political wishy-washiness.

© Farzana Versey



Waiting for Dawood
Mumbai blasts and selective justice


Playing Parvez Rasool: Politics and Pawns

I am glad they left Parvez Rasool out. I am glad because by the act of not sending him — the "first Kashmiri" to represent India — on the field, we are witness to varied kinds of politicking.

On Saturday, Aug 3, India was playing the 5th ODI against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. We were already in the lead. Of the 15-man squad, Rasool was the only one who was not given a game.

The result was outrage. Why treat a Kashmiri as different when you want him to be India's hope?

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah expressed his anger with his usual dramatic flourish: "Did you really have to take him all the way to Zimbabwe to demoralise him? Wouldn't it have been cheaper to just do it at home?"

The CM is insulting the Indian team, the state he rules and Rasool, especially the latter when he pleaded on the eve of the last match to "give him a chance". Had there been allegations of malpractice or matchfixing, would he have been as quick to ask the team to treat a player from J&K without any favour?

One does not have to think too hard about the machinations and Mr. Abdullah is not the only one.

Kashmiri Pandits who hardly ever referred to Vivek Razdan and Suresh Raina are now emphasising their Kashmiri roots. Clearly, it is one of those 'use the populist sentiment' moments. It is not the same though, for Parvez Rasool lives in Kashmir and, unlike the other two, he has to 'earn' the India cap for reasons beyond cricket.

Does everything in J&K have to do with militancy? Rasool, a resident of Anantnag, has experienced it first-hand. When there were militant attacks in Bangalore in 2009. As India TV reported:

Police along with a few other people detained Rasool, who was a member of his state’s junior cricket team, as they had been staying within the premises of the Chinnaswamy Stadium which became the target of the militants.The youngster was later cleared of all charges and continued with his cricketing career to achieve greater heights.

“I dont want to talk much about that incident...Whatever happened back then is something I have left behind me and followed cricket. Now that I have worked so hard, I have got such good results,” said Rasool.

On the one hand, there is the real issue of the alienation of those from the state, and then there is a hint that even a sop would do. The word sop is not used though; it is called symbolism. That does not change anything. The Times of India said that not giving him a single game defied "both cricketing and symbolic logic". The first being "to test its bench strength in conditions quite different from home against a weak opposition".

This does not sound like an opportunity, but an insult. Experts might differ, but a weak opposition would be like playing at the nets. Besides, the tokenism would fall flat:

It would also have given a player from Jammu & Kashmir an unprecedented India cap, the symbolic value of which could have been huge. Sadly, the men on the spot didn't seem to understand this and nobody higher up nudged them either.

How different would this be from bookies placing calls to swing a match? The BCCI does not, and must not, decide what happens on the ground. And the BCCI is not the government of India. It is the GOI that will ultimately have to work with the state for real decisions, and not mere symbolism. As the report further states:

The first cricketer from J&K team to be selected for the national cricket team, Rasool is also a beacon of hope for players from a region which felt marginalized from Indian cricket's mainstream. By playing Rasool, who is by all accounts competent enough to hold his own against Zimbabwe, the Indian team could have brought joy to Kashmir and given the player confidence to get into the big league.

This is just patronising. Is a Kashmiri only competent enough to play Zimbabwe? If that is a weak team, then how will he gain confidence against bigger players? I read somewhere that his selection was fast-tracked after a good haul against Australia in India.

Kashmiris feel and are marginalised in several areas. And, it may not sound right to say it, but not everyone in the state is looking to represent India in cricket. And not everyone would be crestfallen over this 'picnic to Zimbabwe' because people continue to be killed and have to battle everyday issues.

If only there were sops and symbolic gestures to assuage those.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

These days, everybody seems to be friends with everybody else. And they all find how alike they are even as they merely click on 'likes'.

The friends I have shared the best moments, and understanding, with are very different from me. There could be shared values, even preferences for food, films, books, music, art. What is different, then? It is the way we look at these. It is the ability to complete each other's sentences not because of agreement, but the warmth of serendipity.

Years ago, I had written a few words here and I shall repeat some..

A friend who comes and goes is as much a stranger...a friend who takes another for granted is behaving in a strange fashion...a friend who has to keep several considerations in mind to keep up the friendship is a stranger...a friend who you are close to physically but cannot share things with is a stranger...a friend who inhabits your mind but not your heart is a stranger...a friend you feel for but can do nothing about is a stranger...


Sometimes we don't realise what nostalgia means to others, especially when nostalgia is all they have. I continue to question expat experts, but today I will share this little film. I won't call it a commercial, for it is the story that matters. Also, I am sure there are many reading this who think of their mother as their best friend. I do.

Call me soppy, but I had to blink away the tears. Maybe, it happens when you chop okra...


Image: Rediff, courtesy a link sent by a rather unfriendly friend!


Is the CIA on a leash regarding Benghazi?

One would probably do a double-take thinking of the Barack Obama administration intimidating the CIA operatives who were in Benghazi, when the consulate was attacked.

From this report — welcome, CNN, to the world of tough questions instead of the toeing-the-establishment-line — it seems there is a huge secret and all the agents who were there that night are subjected to polygraph tests, to ensure they do not leak out any information to the media.

You will watch this clip, but the threat is not small. They are worried about their families, they know they cannot get away.

And they are not even Edward Snowden, who had access to so much more.


In September, 2012, I had written this:

»Can you imagine Libyan pro-democracy group overtaking the headquarters of an extremist organisation, that too to protest against the killings at the American Consulate? This is what happened in Benghazi against the Ansar al-Sharia:

"Thousands of protesters took to the street earlier on Friday, declaring loudly that they represent the real sentiments of the Libyan people, not those who were behind the deadly attack 10 days ago, reports CNN. One man stated: 'I am sorry America. This is the real Libya'.”

At first I was baffled and elated by turns. It sounds nice. In many ways, it is. But, is this the real Libya? Can we forget that the anti-Gaddafi rebels were looting property and striking poses in his and his family’s homes, making a mockery of the democracy they were claiming as their own?

This is probably to gain international attention. The signs read: “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.” Christopher Stevens was known to be a good person. However, the United States at one time was quite comfortable with Col. Gaddafi. They, too, were friends, although he was friendlier with others.«


Given what's happening with the CIA, one wonders whether it is not just a civil war in Libya after all.

The Veil Threat:
Burka Avenger, Catwoman and Other Masks

Published in CounterPunch, Aug 2-4

Is Amina Wadud, an American convert to Islam, an avenger? When she was not permitted to address the students in Chennai recently, there were loud cries against the muzzling of freedom of expression of this “Islamic feminist”.

The Burka Avenger, a character in an animation series that made its debut on July 28, had begun to attract negative feedback even before it was aired because its protagonist wears a veil.

Within a week, we witnessed the double standards of the pedestal progressives. Dr. Wadud wears a hijab and her main preoccupation is religion; she leads the prayers at a mosque and it is seen as akin to breaking the glass ceiling. This, by the same people who question the patriarchal quotient embedded in religion. Therefore, in effect, would she not be leading the brigade to reaffirm the validity of a notion perceived by many? Why is she then hailed as an important symbol whereas the fictitious character Jiya is seen as a threat even though she is a qualified professional who fights against fundamentalist forces?

The series should be applauded for being indigenous – it is in Urdu and deals with the concerns of Pakistan; apart from female literacy, it will tackle problems of child labour, the energy crisis, and the environment faced by the country and that do not figure high among those banking on the terrorism card.  Jiya has been described as a “gentle, compassionate schoolteacher” who transforms at night into this crusader. “Don’t mess with the lady in black when she’s on the attack!” goes the theme song.

The maker, Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid believes, “This is such an interesting way to reinforce positive social messages for kids. The Burka Avenger is a great role model. We lack those in Pakistan.”

While this is not quite true, for there are role models, the reaction has more to do with appropriation, not unlike what was done with Malala. They seem to believe that they can snigger at women who wear the veil, but react rather sharply when their own position, clothes, and lifestyle are questioned.

If I have any problem with the series it is the apologetic tone of the makers, probably in response to the urbane version of the Taliban that wants to ensure a homogenised culture based on the superficial. Clothes are merely a cover and if this jeopardises their liberal values then it speaks volumes about lack of self-esteem. To judge a society according to what people wear is facile.  Surely, the cape is not turbo-charged to give Jiya power; it is her mind that works. She does not fit into the mindless horde that is exploited and needs a saviour. She is the saviour.

Why does the veil frighten its critics? I am posing this query because it certainly seems to. One reason to demonise the Burka Avenger is not because she is wearing the veil, but because they are not. She is fighting alone with that “moving prison”; she is making the choice to use it as a camouflage, like soldiers do on the war front.

Taha Iqbal, in charge of animations, explains her garb, more a gear, “…she has to kick ass. Tight leather pants are hardly practical for that purpose”.

Rashid says, “She is non-violent because she’s throwing books. Most people throw bombs. Think about it.” Violence is no virtue, but he is merely affirming a stereotype about those with bombs. Besides, let us not forget that in the summer of 2007, it was a bunch of veiled women, given the name ‘danda chicks’ – they used sticks –  who fought against the armed incursion in the Lal Masjid while the ‘cultural Muslims’ were busy spouting sermons about democracy.

It is surprising that the anti-Burka lobby has not come across any woman in a veil who is accomplished. It is even more revealing that they do not wonder why only women raise these queries. Would they question the men they share a professional and social equation with about their silence?

The moral angle

Amina Wadud leading the prayers
When in doubt, raise the issue about choice. Women in burka are supposed to be bundled into these ‘tents’. It is assumed it cannot be a choice because it follows a religious diktat. The Quran does not prescribe the veil. It speaks about modesty, and modesty as an attribute has several dimensions.

A school in Worcestershire wants girls to wear trousers because their short skirts are “unladylike”. A parent is quoted as saying, “You hear so much about the over sexualisation of children these days but to call a nine-year-old girl unladylike is absurd. They aren't ladies, they are young girls. And to stop them from wearing skirts is just going to confuse them. I've always been against skirt bans, but I understand there has to be a limit for teenagers as they are turning into young women. But not for girls as young as nine, that's just crazy.”

There is no absolute yardstick for the regressive or the progressive.

Hissa Hilal, a finalist in a poetry contest in Abu Dhabi in 2010, had become the toast of the liberal Arab world and the western media when she referred to the clerics as “barbaric”, who prey “like wolves” and started receiving death threats for reading out a provocative poem.

When she said, “I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden,” she might have wanted to expand on the idea of her rejecting the permitted since the veil is not mandatory. Or, when she spoke about clerics as “vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt" (the latter being a reference to suicide bombers), she forgot that clerics themselves do not die for any cause. In a society rife with ire and angst, it is the educated person who seeks martyrdom. And Saudi Arabia has not produced many such young men. It is the smaller Arab nations and the satellite countries that fall victim to such brainwashing.

As a self-confessed provocative writer, who won the applause of the judges and the voting audience, her summation was surprising: “I worry how I will be perceived after the show is over, when judgment is passed and people begin to talk about my performance and ideas. I worry the lights of fame will affect my simple and quiet existence.”

She is opinionated and would be judged. She was aware that her views were not the norm and would be discussed. If women need to speak out – as she has done – and challenge the status quo then they have to learn to give up quiet existences. It is not about fame alone, or ought not to be. A microphone in the hand of a poet is not merely a reaction to the bluster of clerics on loudspeakers.

But, she became a woman dressed in black “with only her microphone and her eyes visible”. It would have been far more productive to generate a debate about why she dressed the way she did and yet “blasts” the clerics. We would then enter the arena of choice, of how to perceive religion, of patriarchy, of the literary voice as the awakener of conscience.

Message of play

Catwoman as caricature

An animated series may not be as ambitious. There is the question about how innocent toys can impact young minds. This, we must see in the context of commercial interests. Mattel, the creators of Barbie, introduced several the Arabic versions.  Historian Albert Samuel was deeply agitated about the arrival of the “prayer-mat Barbie” and said, “It is a dangerous game…If children do not resemble each other, at least in their games, if their games separate them, Barbie doll against Muslim doll, society will be divided...”

The local simulators would be as regressive, but this was about propagating Barbie as the ideal. So much so that a woman spent $55,000 for 20 surgeries to make her look like the living doll. Is this vanity, or peer pressure? Many of the trends do create a demand, and those who object to the veil are more than willing to be in the agreeable company of standardised hair bonding.

If a fictional Jiya is backward because of her clothes, what about Catwoman, whose eyes are covered too? How many have thought about the negative impact of a woman who has to not only be a superwoman, but also titillate while at her job? The original character was “partially inspired” by Hollywood diva Jean Harlow specifically to add oomph. Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, is a thief and an appendage to Batman. For us in South Asia this sounds a bit like the good woman pawning her jewellery to help her partner in distress.

Bob Kane, her creator, explained how he thought about Catwoman: 

“I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me—cats are as hard to understand as women are…So there's a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I'm being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I've had better relationships with male friends than women.”

In the series later, Selina gives birth to a baby that she nurtures. The father remains unknown. Perhaps, a mythic significance of the Virgin Mother? She appears to have no real attachment to anything other than what she has created, in that she becomes alienated. The message would be that superwomen must not belong, cannot belong, to mainstream life.

In comparison, the Burka Avenger, surrounded by the children at her school, seems so grounded, more real, and more sensitive to her environment. Even if she wore a veil in her daily life, it would not pose a barrier to giving her full attention to the concerns she – and indeed many women and men – holds dear and fights for. In order to see that, it is necessary to first remove veils that cover eyes and avenge the cobwebs in the mind.  

© Farzana Versey