27.12.15

Crap for Christmas

There is something about traditions that reaffirm human frailties. While Santa Claus is all about joy and gifts, the custom is about feeding a fairytale. That it has stood the test of time speaks for our innate need to suspend disbelief.


Would we then be able to nurse customs that are real, perhaps too close to reality? Since the beginning of the 19th century in the Spanish regions and parts of France they have been doing just that.

This Christmas custom dates back to the 1800s and is meant to remind us of the humanity we all share with the Christ child. The defecating figurines are also said to represent fertilization and bring good luck for the new year. Traditionally, the caganer was depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap (called a "barretina") and with his trousers down, revealing a bare backside and a pile of feces below.

Statuettes of pop icons, royals, politicians, religious figures are gifted and placed near the nativity scenes..

I find it interesting that while in the social space we are ready to talk about sex (albeit by either intellectualising it or flaunting it as edgy freedom), discussing defecation isn't something we might deem polite. Such jokes too are referred to as toilet humour. However, nobody has objected to the depiction of the famous with their pants down, but there might have been some outrage had there been depiction of more intimate activity.

Fertility is meaningless unless there is cohabitation. Perhaps faeces represent the soil, but the fount from where they've sprung does not engage in reproduction. As for bringing good luck, would it depend upon factors of the contents? Is digestion itself a mark of glad tidings or even a karmic statement — as you sow, so shall you reap?


For one not acquainted with this tradition, seeing the statuettes conveys only the vulnerability and human qualities of the celebrity. Of course, in the case of pop stars from different fields, this won't be necessary for they are quite prone to other open gestures. It is another matter that these do not quite humanise them; rather, they transform a human behaviour into a socio-political message.

The caganers seem to all have similar turd. It is such uniformity in traditions that apparently joins people, but only superficially. I also wonder whether these societies would be accepting of statuettes of themselves crapping. It is unlikely. Humanising symbolism that uses icons ultimately dehumanises them, and makes a normal everyday routine a matter of alienated custom. 

13.12.15

Hello...hellow


I finally say hello to Hello. Stray wisps had come flying suggesting that I try and follow the trail where music gets drowned in the deluge of drama.

I like drama.

Hello leaves me unmoved. Can you hear me? Yes, I say it leaves me unmoved, and words of loss usually move me immensely. In fact, words move me as much as silences do when both seek to communicate.

So here I am, with Adele on my stomach. My breathing synchronised with her whispers and whimpers. I am lying down in bed. A Sunday afternoon in December feeling the late winter upon me.

I like the sound of hello, any hello. It is the beginning, even of the end.

Why does this Hello not work, then? Why is this Hello like the stretching of elastic, and not the thread that links? Why does it seem that the mundane is overwrought with the weight of ennui — to say that I've tried, I've tried, I've tried...

Running out of time? Hello! We do not know how much time is there to be able to measure its running out.

What does "hello from the outside" mean when it is the heart that breaks or is broken? There is no outside then. Not even when we break our own heart. It happens. Can you hear me? No? That's the outside. When you can't hear the sound of another's self-destruction.

"Did you ever make it out of that town where nothing ever happened..."

Is she hoping he has or delighting that he hasn't? Is it that nothing ever happened or something never did? Does another's stillness bother us when we are escaping from the noise or when we remember noises fondly?

Hello...could have been a deep sigh. Instead, it is a phone connection with too much static. Or, is she speaking from a phone that's dead, crying to herself about herself?

Is the hello just a question mark hanging in the air?

6.12.15

The colours of a black day


Why do I not forget, they ask year after year, revealing that they do not forget either. They know, though, that my remembrance is bloody — tangible and plausible. Theirs is salt on wounds.

People need homes; gods do not. People killed bothers me; a place of worship does not. Not unless it is meant to trample on others. Then it becomes about people. That worries me.

It worries me that to become popular they live in denial or choose to forget. Intolerance, the buzzword, is not about today. It was there yesterday too, and unless you weren't born then or old enough for it to register, you lie each time you talk about how it was never that bad.

Hate is not of degree. Hate is real, whether it kills or not. Hate comes in subtle forms too. Perhaps it is not hate. I hope it is not.

One day

Was at dinner with an acquaintance. A warm relationship we've shared. She used to be in the service sector and I her client. We continued to keep in touch. So, as the starters were served, she asked about the person who replaced her and whether he kept me updated regularly. I said he did and was prompt with feedback.

"I guess it's because you are also a Muslim..." she said.

Surprised, I told her, "We got along better, so how does this matter?"

"No, I just thought this Muslim-Muslim thing makes it easier." And then she intoned his full name aloud, something I do not know and there was no need for, a full name that probably made his yuppie modern name less secular and fit into her idea of what he should be.

This was a month ago. I still cannot believe this conversation took place.

Another day

Met a woman through a friend. Her clothes were bohemian, and from what I gathered she lived on her own terms. We were having an interesting conversation and I do not know when the Muslim word came in. I don't do Muslim things, not because not doing them makes a point, but because that is the way I am.

But this person, who I had met minutes ago, who knew nothing about me, said, "Oh, so you don't believe in this Shia-Sunni nonsense?"

"I don't, and many don't," I just about managed.

My friend said nothing. She watched and smiled.

It was awkward. If I had offered a rebuttal, I would be accused of being touchy or, heaven knows, even A Muslim After All.

Would it not look ridiculous if I had responded with, "So, do you believe in this Brahmin-Shudra thing? Untouchability? Dalits?"

I did not say it not only because it would look stupid, if not vicious, but because it does not matter. I do not recall ever asking anybody anything about their beliefs or lack of it, in a social or personal setting. I say this with confidence because I think it would be a cheap and vulgar thing to do.

Does that stop many people from doing so? They look perfectly normal at parties, clubs, restaurants, cinema halls, shopping malls. Yet, they carry set images that they use as flashcards when they meet you. "Oh, hello. What do you think about jihad?"

And you want to shout out loud, but that would only be an answer for them. Yes, you shout, so you must believe in jihad.

Ironically, both of them work in a Muslim country, a country where they party, wear what they want, eat what they want, drink what they want. The least that place ought to have taught them would be to dust the cobwebs gathered in their minds.

There's dust everywhere. Today, the one-day wonders of social concern a commemorating it as December 6 Black Day. The darkness is in souls, but it isn't black.

It wasn't black in 1992.

It was orange. Flames. Burnt homes, bodies singed.

It was blue. Tarpaulin sheets. Lost homes in twilight.

It was white. Smoke from fires. Cloth over bodies. The tears were white too.

22.11.15

Books and Butterflies



Yesterday I was cleaning the bookshelf. Much dust has gathered. Many pages have aged; some came off as flakes that look like butterflies with no energy left to fly.

I feel like that sometimes. However, it is not because I lack energy or drive, but I seem to have tied my own wings. I say "seem to" because I am not quite sure. Come to think about it, leaves too fly in the wind and they have no wings.

Why am I talking about wings? Books. Yes, to return to the subject. This picture is perhaps from one rack, and I plopped them on the floor on sheets of newspaper because I did not want them to get dusty. The books already have dust on them. So, what was I protecting — the books or the floor? Who protects what and from whom can be a big circular argument.

I began to riffle through the pages of some; strangely, I had inscribed a book on Kali with a Bob Dylan verse:

"She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl..."

And it wasn't to be gifted to anybody.

There is not too much fiction. I like stories and am truly riveted by a well-told one. However, whoever says that non-fiction is not about stories? We live through the big and small events, and are no less than characters playing our parts — the parts need not be grand; in fact, they might be as props or bystanders. Bystanders are not to be sniffed at. Just as spectators make a performer, bystanders give an event meaning.

I pretend to be a bystander as I clear the shelf. The books become events — did Jesus live in India? And can that be somehow tied to the history of the Arab peoples. I noticed it then and I note it again. It is 'Arab peoples'. The plural of the plural.

Pluralism is a word much in currency these days. Pluralism, as these books reveal in their wondrous variety, is eclecticism...In this lot, i realised there was one book I had not placed there. My own.

Why we behave the way we do, says another book. I as bystander will never know because the 'we' here is iffy. Cultures can only be about mores, but behaviour is more driven by how we think individually.

Or how we break cages.

"My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms." (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot)

As I return to the shelf, now clean, I find no butterfly flakes. No wings to untie. I shall just walk, instead.

9.11.15

Laloo is the mouse that's licked all the cream: Bihar elections


Like many others, I too have been riveted by the Bihar elections. Or, rather, its coverage. And the feeble response to and recognition of the man whose party has got the maximum number of seats. RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav is being treated as a side dish when he is the main course.

The media influence has resulted in drawing room opinion that he will pose to be an impediment to Nitish Kumar, leader of the JDU, an ally in the Grand Alliance, and Chief Minister of the state. "Laloo will try and halt development," they say, when the whole country is wondering how development has in fact been about benefiting only a few. If anything, Laloo should most asseetively work as an opposition within to keep Nitish Kumar on his toes to ensure development for everyone and not just the chosen ones.

Bihar, even its cities, does not really qualify as urban in the metro sense of the term. However sleek the new roads and development the new anthem, the ethos of the state is grounded in a more basic sense of roots. Denial of this beneath the blanket term progress, or even secularism, would mean denying the majority of its population an identity.

The slur of "backward" for Lalu is essentially an insult to those deemed "backward caste" for centuries. But, as he himself had stated with some arrogance long ago, "Jab tak samosey mein aalu, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu." It was, and is, as basic as that.


Here is my column from Rediff (April 21, 1997) when he was CM:

When the chief minister of Bihar, one of India's worst-ruled states, organises a mother or father of all rallies, there are sniggers. Laloo Prasad Yadav has become a joke but, let us be fair, he is not quite our Dan Quayle.

In fact, he is good for our culture. He is the living example of the virtues of being oneself. Whether elections are rigged or the coal mafia rules, Laloo remains Laloo.

The Yadav who has made it big suffers from the pride of the lowly for their humble background and the insecurity his new position has thrust upon him. That is the reason he is slightly brash. He is up against everything -- hypocrisy, stereotypes and our congenital pigeonholing of men in power and how they should behave.

Yadav behaves in no particular manner. He has no set agenda for his politics or his life and, in a world that is getting increasingly ideological (never mind that the ideology is to blow up someone's brains), this might seem like a classic case of spinelessness.

Instead, he comes out trumps. He has made this an anti-establishment stand, though riding on the back of the establishment is his unique selling point.

I don't care what his motives are. When he appointed Harijan priests in temples and Harijans as Shankaracharyas, the media response was typical: it was a political gimmick rather than a reform measure, they said. This is only partially true, unless you insist on wearing blinkers of doubt. Here, Yadav was "testing the Hindu religion."

It would have been far more dramatic and gimmicky had he put a brahmin on a donkey and paraded him through the streets.

To suddenly upturn what, for centuries, has been the status quo requires guts. This is not mere symbolism. He has put those who were considered the scum of the earth into the most sanctified position; he has legitimised their place in society. He may look like a country bumpkin but it is no more passé to be so. Because there is a certain confidence instilled in the people who have been at the receiving end of atrocities.

In a country where 180 million people belong to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, we still have a situation where action for crimes committed against them is slack, despite untouchability being forbidden by law by the Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Caste and Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Yadav is not the panacea; he is merely the looking glass; he has shown that it is possible to hold your head high wherever it is you come from.

How, then, can anyone dismiss Laloo Prasad's efforts only because, as a lot of academics are fond of saying, they come naturally to him? We have the amazing ability to transfer our tunnel vision into overviews - they sound so much more authoritative. Hence, Yadav's looking after the interests of the lower castes is considered a one-dimensional approach.

This is what has kept Harijans in a bind for years. In Bombay, there is a small colony where sweepers live. On my visit there once, they were celebrating Dussera. For the first time, I realised how important these festivities are for them -- while the ghettoisation is complete, this is the one time when it does not become circumscribed.

I know that talking about Harijan values may seem like a very patronising thing to do, but there it is -- a nice little hierarchy wherein one scheduled caste person is superior to another.

These are the lessons history has taught them. That equality is a myth. That someone has to pip someone else to the post. That tomorrow is not another day, but a continuation of today as today was of yesterday. That you are stuck for life.

And in this marshland appears Laloo Prasad Yadav. Not to tell us about the lotus in the gutter or the phoenix rising from the ashes. But about how cheese balls sometimes fail to become rat-traps. He is the mouse that's licked all the cream.

6.11.15

"Because it is 2015" and other lame reasons



Fifty-five days from today the phrase "because it is 2015" will become stale, its heft redundant. So, why has it gained the currency of an aphorism? In fact, its transformation into an aphorism itself exposes the levity.

Justin Trudeau, all Hollywood good looks and geek-certified, flashed his cabinet as the new prime minister of Canada. "Why is half of your cabinet made up of women?" somebody asked. He replied, "Because it is 2015." The world went into a tizzy. This is what a cabinet should look like, they chorused, this is a modern man, moving with the times.

There is a small technicality here. 50 percent of the ministers, who happen to be women, will now be seen as harbingers of a period in time. That these are competent women who have been chosen for their ability to work in government gets lost in the exclamatory nature of their initiation/welcome.

Why is half your cabinet made up of women?

Because they were the best and most suited.

This would have sounded better and apt. Instead, Mr. Trudeau's statement sounds like he is following a reservations template: give the women 50 per cent seats because it is 2015, and to hell with other things.

Women aren't the only beneficiaries of the PM's 'goodness'. He has included people from different provinces, minorities, an aborigine, even a refugee. There are three Sikhs, and the one who is Defence Minister also "took on the Taliban". (Yo, turban versus turban.) We are told that somebody is a paraplegic and somebody else is recovering from cancer.

To make matters worse, all this variety will lead to profiling the ministers on the basis of whether they can be mainstream enough. Already TIME magazine has carried a photospread of the women in his cabinet, as though they are bunnies at the Playboy mansion.

Trudeau calls the mix of his cabinet "like Canada". Diversity of people in government is always a good thing, but here it does seem like it was about ticking the right boxes.

Governments the world over, including India, make it a point to pick members from certain groups. These are often sops, however inclusive they might appear to be. Indeed, cynicism should not prevent such choices. However, the celebration should wait, for It makes him into a benefactor, when it should be about the talent pool he could benefit from.

No wonder the reactions have been breathless whistles of how "cool" and "sexy" Trudeau is for being open. People have ended up lauding not the cause but the one they now consider the new messiah.

22.9.15

Ahmed Mohamed as curiosity


Ahmed Mohamed is being infantilised by big name Santa Clauses.

We know that Ahmed got into trouble for bringing a clock to class.

Mohamed, whose parents are from Sudan, was arrested, handcuffed and questioned by five police officers at MacArthur high school in Irvine on Monday. He was then suspended for three days. He told MSNBC he was not allowed to call his parents and was accused of carrying a hoax bomb. He said: “I felt like I was a criminal, I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called.”

Soon after the news spread, it became a movement. #IStandWithAhmed was everywhere. Support came from corporate biggies and leaders who send their drones that kill little children.

Ahmed is 14; he loves science, he says. So NASA and MIT join in, the latter even sounding over-the-top about how they'd love to have him as a student. Everyone is thrilled. Clearly, people believe in Santa Claus.

Barack Obama tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

What does "more kids like you mean"? The White House press secretary said, “This episode is a good illustration of how pernicious stereotypes can prevent even good-hearted people who have dedicated their lives to educating young people from doing the good work that they set out to do."

Even good-hearted people?

This is the problem. Ahmed is treated like a rarity, an exception to the rule. The Muslim who can be trusted to make America great. He is being coddled as a migrant who is not carrying a rucksack and is, therefore, not a threat.

Photographs of his father carrying boxes of pizza for waiting media persons just added to the non-threatening picture being projected. In all this ho-hum, Richard Dawkins, atheist evangelist, spoke about how the clock was not an invention, but just dissembled parts. He also implied that perhaps Ahmed did so to invite arrest.

This is a conspiracy theory, from somebody who hates conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks, for example. Dawkins justifies it as being "passionate about the truth". Good. Why is he not passionate about finding out the truth about why five cops took him away, why the teachers assumed the clock looked like a bomb — how much do they know about bombs?

Yet, at least this one time he does not sound as offensive as he often does. Quite unlike Taslima Nasreen who said, “If I could see Ahmed Mohamed’s home-made clock, I would hv mistaken his things for a bomb. Why ppl think Muslims can bring bombs? Cause they do." (sic)

Cheap shots are Taslima territory. She claims to be a rationalist, but does not seem to realise that innuendo is irrational.

Dawkins has made at least some attempt at asking other queries, about checks at airports where carrying liquids too is not permitted.

As police spokesperson James McLellan said, “It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

These may be valid concerns, but are they uniformly applied? No. Besides, in schools there are science projects where things could be mistaken for 'devices'. The police do come with preconceived notions. Race, colour, country all are factored in when they reach the scene of a crime or conduct investigations, and even on suspicion.

Between Obama and Sarah Palin's responses, an Ahmed Mohamed becomes a curiosity. The reality is not about an incident nor about special treatment. The reality is to treat all people equally — whether it is to laud or to question.

When asked in a video interview with Mehdi Hasan as why this happened to him, Ahmed said unflinchingly, "Because I am Muslim." I find this disturbing too. I do know what it means, I have seen it in many forms, especially while interviewing and writing about the riot-affected. But the certitude of such a statement won't do much to alter things. It only consolidates the stereotype, this time of self-perception.

His new support system ensures that he can leave his school and afford other options. There are many who have no choice. They have to swallow the hate directed at them. Will the 'voices of reason' ensure that no one becomes a victim of prejudice?

Ahmed is already talking about his "Internet family" and his "fans". He believes that because of a hashtag things will change. He says he discovered that people do care. It is sad that such an incident is necessary to experience caring.

Such caring is not much different from making an example of him in a virtual bubble.

17.9.15

The Prophet and a Fatwa


Wonder why AR Rahman even bothered to clarify. An institution has problems with him giving the music for 'Muhammad: The Messenger of God', a film on the Prophet of Islam by Iranian director Majid Majidi.

The Raza Academy did what comes to their mind first — issued a fatwa. It is the usual rant that such a portrayal would make a mockery of Islam, of how the religion forbids physical representation that include, according to a report, "shots of the prophet’s back, via a low-angle shot of a teenage Muhammad against the sky, and his hands and legs as a baby".

Technically speaking, none of these are images of the Prophet as a prophet. At worst, the shots of the back might be akin to talking behind somebody's back. Prophets attain stature partly due to the slurs cast upon them and the manner in which they respond to them.

As regards the baby, this was way before Muhammad became the Prophet. It represents innocence and purity; children are not images but reflections.

The words against idolatry in Islam were a response to paganism, and if we are to extend it, then to narcissism too. However, Muslims do worship at tombs, and they bow before symbols. Different cultures follow different rituals, but they remain rituals and, therefore, pagan. Worse, many worship leaders, whether of governments or religious institutions, and even deify them with images. Is this not idolatry?

A problem with the prevalent conservative narrative is that its austerity denies the humanism the Prophet stood for. Is an expensive project the best way to capture the simplicity? It is possibly a redundant question. The director has his own reasons:

“We’ve been guilty of shortcomings in introducing the world to the real and true face of the prophet. There have been 200 movies about Jesus Christ, 100 featuring Moses directly or indirectly, 42 about Buddha, but only two on Muhammad. It’s a natural act of introduction to our culture.”

This is fair, and essential. Each time you turn, there is some debate or the other going on about Islam and Muslims, mostly by slander. And as a monotheistic faith, there is little else that can be blamed for what believers, or those who are Muslim by birth, do. "Did those terrorists not shout 'Allah-hu-Akbar'?" go the accusations.

Depictions of Islam or the Prophet in pop culture tend to be innuendo. I have watched some of Majidi's films, films that have nothing to do with religion. He is clearly a humanist. I'd trust him to make a film on any historical figure over an Islamic scholar.

Having said this, I do not believe there is a need to explain anything to the world. The world, the Islamophobic world, is prejudiced against people of certain beliefs, irrespective of how much they believe in or practise their faith, or whether they do so at all. It is unlikely that a film will alter their perception of Muslims.

I have not watched the film so cannot comment on the depiction of the Prophet, but from the trailer it seems as though Majidi is paying a poignant tribute.



Those issuing fatwas have no concept of such poignancy or symbolism. That is the reason I feel Rahman should not have responded.

The cleric said he was speaking out because one day he will have to face Allah. To this Rahman said:

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah and He were to ask me on Judgment Day: I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health... why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

The first part is a fitting reply. I do have a problem with the bit about "clearing misconceptions". To whom — the inherently prejudiced, the fringe outragers? Why does every Muslim feel the need to distance her/himself from those who kill? Isn't it obvious, shouldn't it be? What does this say about those who accuse, and why then the need to clear misconceptions to such retarded brains?

For some, even among those objecting to the film, the attitude is similar. A spokesperson of Egypt's al-Azhar university said: “The actor who plays this role may later play a criminal, and viewers may associate these characters with criminality."

It is unlikely, but should that happen it will speak about the naïveté of the viewer and little else. Besides, might there not be viewers who would carry this image and see in any subsequent criminal character shades of his past goodness?

Let perceptions, not caricatures, thrive — they add to the persona.


8.9.15

Aylan Kurdi and the Swarm of Tears

Published in CounterPunch

Galip Kurdi lay dead a few feet away from his brother. There are no dirges for the five-year-old, as innocent as Aylan, as much a refugee seeking a life, without knowing the meaning of it. Their mother drowned too. Nine other people lost their lives trying to escape from a home to a mirage or, if they were fortunate, an oasis.

They are just numbers, and if we have good pictures around then they become scattered belongings on shores, their bodies swallowed by waves.

Symbolism

It is Aylan Kurdi’s fate to be killed twice. Once by the waters that pushed his limp form ashore and then to be drowned in the swarms of tears. Swarms. A word made notorious by David Cameron to suggest that refugees are a marauding horde or insect-like nuisances taking over. Swarms of tears also take over. The debate today is centered on self-deprecation, a luxury that a few can indeed afford. The arrogance of such publicly sanctified humility belittles the humbled and the bereft.


Abdullah, the father of the two kids, has lost his world. No country would matter to him. But have any of the lachrymose-ridden Op-eds offered him a home? What does the grandstanding self-introspection amount to? Let me give a few examples.

“What does Aylan Kurdi’s death say about us?”

It is fairly obvious it tells us that we cannot fathom a tragedy unless we have a visual representation of it and can feed off it. We create symbols not to symbolise a social problem but to use as a hat rack.

“Look at the photograph, and feel the pain.”

Only so that the writer of this piece can go into a detailed description of a child’s corpse, details that are evident? “His tiny shoes baring their sodden soles to the sky.” This has been the chorus: “Don’t shut your eyes. Look. This is what we have done.” Then sit back and watch as our sensitivity is clicked and shared. Do we even care that we transform a short life into a précis?

Piers Morgan then goes on to state, “I believe that if Americans had been allowed to see images from inside Sandy Hook school after the massacre of 20 young children in 2012, then new draconian gun laws would have been implemented within months.”

What laws have been implemented in spite of these Americans looking at pictures of racist attacks?

Abdullah Kurdi is pained. “…now the whole world is going to watch my story, where was the whole world before when my kids were hungry, when I didn’t have a job?”

Why did nobody ask us to identity with such a plight? Using the photograph as prompter, Nicholas Kristof tried to pass off his moral high ground as the world’s guilt: “If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.”

Empathy is germane, not generic. Kristof had a background story, not everybody does. What the world feels today – or was it yesterday? – is collective sympathy. Social media has made it possible to buy empathy/sympathy across the counter although it is touted as a prescription drug.

Art and artifice

“The Post appears to be asking its critics to hand out artworks as antidepressants.” The writer of the piece was referring to the Washington Post’s Style section asking art critics to “meditate on the role of the arts in coping with grief” after the Sandy Hooks incident. Not chuffed with the idea, Phil Kennicott’s message was clear and might apply to the Aylan story as well: “I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem.”

Why is there a tearing hurry to make a ‘telling statement’ on an ongoing crisis? “Thank you for the tragedy. I need it for my art,” said Kurt Cobain. It is unlikely that the artists who are now paying tribute to Aylan would be as upfront. Some great art owes its inspiration to tragic events, but was it created merely as a reaction?


There is one image of a child lying face down in bed, the moon and stars chiming as twilight streams in through the curtains. “This is how it should have ended”, was the tag line. Is this how a child sleeps, a child who is escaping? Such artistic license implies that refugees are good life-seeking migrants when all they want, need, is a piece of earth and a piece of sky.

While it is important to taunt world leadership, placing a young child’s cold body at the centre surrounded by men in suits or keffiyeh in conference rooms with high ceilings makes it appears like he is something on their plate to be feasted upon.

Another artwork with the now-familiar image of the boy on the beach shows a plastic sand bucket and shovel in the forefront. Does this not convey that seeking refuge is a picnic, an outing?

Last year when four boys, sons of a fisherman, were killed in aerial strikes on a Gaza beach, some Israelis were posting ‘Bomb Shelter Selfies’. Art and social consciousness today seem as cocooned and vicarious.

Politics of benevolence

Alongside the news of the Pope appealing to parishes and monasteries to house one refugee family each and the Vatican making the move by sponsoring two families come reports of conversions.

The West uses the start-stop method often during social crises, the passive-aggressive strategy coming in handy. It would be foolish to assume that overnight some countries have had a change of heart. Governments often use foot soldiers as ‘fringe elements’ to do what political correctness prevents them from doing. Will the neo-Nazi groups that target immigrants be any kinder to refugees?

The same ugly face of ISIS is repeated to whitewash the saviours. Reports of a covert operation by ISIS gunmen entering the European Union among refugees seems to consolidate the phobia instead of assuaging it. Not surprisingly, conservative lobbies have their backup plan ready for explaining their reservations. I got this note from a Hindu rightwing person: “Migrants stream into Austria, swept west by overwhelmed Hungary - Arabs succeeded in exporting Pisslam to Europe without any Missionary work. Wait for an Islamic country to be carved out of European union. Just like India with huge chunk of muslim population, Europe will suffer.”


The criminalization of refugees is a real issue. The police in Prague were branding new entrants just the other day. Said activist Hana Frankova, “The Czech authorities are presenting them as criminals, and it resonates well with the public when they are detained.”

We may blame governments, but there are citizens who would not wish it any other way. A gush of online hashtag concern hubris will not alter that. The objectification of Aylan is the tragedy that has superseded the tragedy of thousands fleeing. The emphasis on this child, this shore, this event seems like event management to divert attention from what is happening everyday when dinghies do not capsize.

As one Palestinian posted, if it is dead babies that bring about change, we have many to show. I’ve seen pictures of other babies from Sudan to Kashmir, some from decades ago. This should bring tears to our eyes, the continual insensitivity, the building of houses of cards over the rubble of history.

6.9.15

Maharajahs and commoners




“Not many people know about my royal background and I am grooming myself as a commoner."

These were the words of a 16-year-old.

How does one train to be a commoner? And does such training work? Padmanabh Singh happens to have been born into a royal family, a redundancy today. However, Mumbai Mirror carried a full-page interview with “the youngest Maharaja”. Apparently, for this reason:

Maharaja Padmanabh Singh is unlike any other teenager. For instance, polo, and not Instagram, is uppermost on his mind. The youngest Maharaja at 16, Singh presides over royal properties of the erstwhile Jaipur state and the majestic City Palace, where staff members call him 'Darbar' or 'His Highness'. But the young Maharaja remains unaffected by the reverence and is focussed on excelling in polo and grooming himself at Millfield School in the UK.

That’s a lot of grooming, and surely in this case it is not on how to be a commoner.

It is amazing that we continue to be feudal, and this is evident most sharply when we attempt to shun royal frippery. How does this even qualify as an attempt at understanding the common man, forgetting grooming to be one? 








In the beginning of the year there were reports about a change in the Air India Maharajah logo:

Air India’s Maharajah, an iconic portly figure in regal garb and hands folded in namaskar, is being offloaded. Passengers are now being welcomed by a new and younger version of the mascot, sans turban with spiky hair, wearing jeans and sneakers. Even the trademark twirling moustache has been cut down to size. In his first meeting with aviation ministry heads on June 21, 2014 PM Narendra Modi had said that the ‘aam aadmi’ must replace the Maharajah as the mascot of Indian aviation. It came on the back of his emphasis that the ministry is formulating policies to make flying within the reach of the common man and not only limited to the rich.

Where was the need to retain the term Maharajah then, although to “live like a king”, or king-size, as another product ad states, would be about luxury, and that would be legitimate if people should have the means. It would not be a fake attempt. In the old logo, the maharajah looked more like a hotel durban; in the new one, he looks like a tout at the railway station.

Air India, as India itself, wanted to capitalise all these years on its regal traditions, pomp and grandeur, and its past. But we are not what the past India was, and the younger generations are even more removed from it. Is there any need to use the superficial aspects to make them understand history? Why do children and grandchildren of the former royals promote their status? If they stopped being called princes and kings, the media would learn to stay away. Actor Saif Ali Khan continues to be referred to as “Nawab”, and his wife Kareena Kapoor Khan seems to have no problem being addressed as “Begum”.

There are young politicians too from former royal families, and while they do not wish to be addressed as royalty the fact is that for many this is their only link with their constituencies.

Worse than their sense of entitlement is the need to make a production of wanting to be like others. This suggests that they are making an effort to downgrade themselves. It is interesting that while one young man will groom himself to be a commoner and an airline tries to reach out to the common man, both choose a limited idea of such commonness. 


Will there be any takers for this common man who is far more common than any other?






PS: The Air India site has the old logo, so it appears that they prefer the obsequious as exotica to the tout. 

31.8.15

Murder, she said -- Sheena Bora vs. Indrani Mukherjea


When a murder case is described as a circus, an edge-of-seat drama, you know that nobody is interested in the dead. It is the killing that counts, especially if it takes us through a maze.

India is riveted by the daily assault of media stories on Indrani Mukherjea, the woman who killed her daughter (who she publicly referred to as a sister) back in 2012. It has been brought to light three years later; the reason for it is confined to footnotes when it ought to be the real news.

DNA

Briefly: Indrani married Peter Mukherjea, whose son Rahul from a previous marriage was in a live-in relationship with Sheena, daughter of Indrani, who also has a son Mikhail (introduced publicly as her brother).

An informant told the police that Sheena had been murdered. This led to the driver, who confessed and accused his boss Indrani and her ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna of the murder. Sanjeev and Indrani have a daughter Vidhie, who Peter legally adopted. The father of Sheena and Mikhail is a Siddharth Das whose mother says she can only vouch for one grandchild, i.e. Sheena, and not Mikhail. (Who named him Mikhail? Clearly somebody must like Gorbachev.)

There is bound to be confusion, what with all the players contradicting one another and themselves.

However, due to the sensational nature of the disclosures and the surge of pop psychology doing the rounds, the fact that the police in the forested area where the remains were buried did not pursue it should be alarming. Nobody seemed to know or care about her disappearance in all this time, including her fiancé, her brother and her grandparents.

But, it is also about how society does not care. The manner in which people are reacting too reveals little concern for the victim. And if there is, it is to judge the non-existence of moral values.

I have a vague recollection of Indrani as a Page 3 denizen. She and Peter, who was the CEO of Star India, were obviously party animals. Later, they started another channel. Now Vir Sanghvi, senior journalist, has given an interview about his ex-bosses. I don't understand this. If he does not have any clues about the murder, why should he be allowed to barf about what are essentially his peeves against them?

In the initial stages, I watched a high-society punk on two TV channels. It was amazing how he altered his tone to suit each channel's story, and the channels are playing favourites here too.

I fail to understand how these ‘friends’ who say they can't believe such a thing could happen are called upon to judge precisely that. Far more important than the motive, it is for the police to establish that a murder did indeed take place, and the identity of the victim. Right now, they have exhumed the grave and collected a bagful of bones and a skull.

We read this and write about it as though these are things we encounter regularly. The reason we are becoming desensitised is because of the inhumane nature of reportage. The emphasis is on the uber lifestyle. For the middle class, it is a story close enough but certainly not about them. They can, therefore, judge, be it the money angle, the lust angle or the power angle.

Let us pause here. We do judge all crimes and criminals, so why not a woman who has from all evidence produced thus far killed her daughter, a planned murder, wiped out all visible clues, and lived with this and other lies?

The feminist trope has become mandatory when discussing any public event or cases these days. So, some commentators tell us that it is wrong to diss Indrani by referring to her as ambitious or a femme fatale. There is nothing wrong in being either. I do see that such slotting might convey that a woman with drive is bound to clear whatever comes in the way through any means. It so happens that Indrani did indeed do all of these. Her gender is immaterial.

I read a piece where the writer was angry about this and went on to list quotes not only about this case, but two other publicly visible women, thereby drawing attention to what she was herself dismissive about. While it is a fact that a woman with more than one husband draws attention and sniggers, here these gentlemen were very much a part of the crime, either directly or as evidence.

Some part of her lifestyle will be highlighted for the same reason as some are now talking about how the dynamics might change after the revelation about her being abused by her father as a teenager. Are we going to justify her crime because of it? If we think he is a beast, then should we trust him to shed light on the case?

The driver was an important part of the crime; there is little attention being paid to him. Why? Because we do not have pictures of him holding a cocktail glass? I am curious as to why he had preserved Sheena’s photograph (supposedly to identity her just in case the killing was outsourced) years after the murder? Wouldn’t he have wanted to get rid of it?


What prompted the informer, who woke up after three years?

What intrigues me most is Peter, who appears to be given the benefit of amnesia. He does not seem to know about anything and has portrayed himself as a lovelorn man who only trusted his wife, and did not seem to know about anything, including her being the mother of these two children she called her siblings. He says he has never met her parents, either.

Since we do not know how well she knew his family, is it possible that they functioned as a supra nuclear family? They weren’t very young, and had experienced previous marriages. The term “delusions of grandeur” has been used for Indrani. It is possible that this was a delusional compact world they chose to lead, where ‘others’ were not admitted as more than passersby. He probably believed her because he couldn’t care less about another version, just as she probably trusted him for other things.

I am surprised that people are shocked not so much by the murder as by the relationship. These are the same people who are quite okay with discussing minutiae of their own ‘happy lives’ in private messages to strangers on the internet. Therefore, nobody is in a position to discuss the dysfunctional.

As regards the crime, usually we say there should be justice for the family. Isn't that redundant here?

16.8.15

The lion and the vultures


How different are the two pictures really? In one the man poses with his kill; in the other the industry caters to consumerist bloodthirst that feasts on the same kill.


I'll be honest. I found the moral high ground on the Cecil the lion story hyperbolic, and in many ways a pretence. And it had nothing to do with it overturning the fairytale where the ogre is the beast. There was just too much of reductionism going on — of race, of bestiality, of the hunter as sinner.

The American man who killed a lion in Zimbabwe became a villain everywhere; to boot, a white with a whiter smile. One news report even spoke about how it was discovered that the killer of Cecil "turned out to be" an American dentist. How was this a discovery or of any consequence?

Hollywood's avande garde voice and general conscience-keeper was so riled that she even posted the address of Dr. Walter Palmer's clinic. It became just another, what we Indians call, jungle raj.

It is important to question such trophy killing. We need to forget one ism to favour another in some cases, so not all animals are equal and indeed we would need to understand that animals in the wild play a different role. However, if we are going to talk about sensitivity, then why is it that we don't ever evince any such sensitivity when we see stray dogs rounded up in municipal trucks?

Now, there are Cecil memorabilia. It is not an environmental consciousness initiative but a commercial enterprise. Is Cecil the first one one to be ever killed? How did the "local favourite" become the pop favourite globally? Can people really tell one lion apart from another?

Instead of buying mugs and other paraphernalia with a lion face, perhaps we should all just stop visiting zoos, which is where the animals are slowly reduced in stature and where we learn how to recognise that what's behind a cage should be naturally game outside of it. 

15.8.15

We, the little people



I can understand the usual speeches of politicians, but what makes us repeat the same old songs again and again as evidence of our patriotism? When will we get out of our gramophone existences and understand that a democracy thrives, in fact exists, because we need to question everything that appears to be free.

Our so-called nationalistic safety nets protect us from much of reality.

***
Let me post something I had written elsewhere back in 2009 about just such a reality:


Last year I was involved in a slum project in Delhi. It was late evening by the time I finished the rounds. The group of hutment dwellers took me to what was supposedly the best little house in their midst.

They pulled out the only chair there was for me and this is what I saw on the wall:

The man of the house had no legs. He slid in on a make-shift 'cart'; his wife stood proudly next to him. I asked about the pictures, "What do all these have in common?"

He laughed and spoke in halting Hindi, "Kuchch nahin, lekin sab ko respect karna hai (Nothing, but one respects everyone)."

A whole lot of people had gathered in that little room, some spilling on the doorstep. Someone bought a cola for me. I was asked not to leave without having dinner with them. It was a touching gesture. I said, “Next time” and just so that they did not feel bad I started discussing the nuances of various uthhappams.

It was a South Indian family. I tried my little Tamil with them to much guffaws all round.

And then of course as I was leaving I said, with complete idiocy, "Vanakkam". It means welcome.

I may never meet them again, or I may. But even in that faux pas I think I had welcomed them into my little world as they had welcomed me.

They were fighting to preserve their homes that were going to be bulldozed. I have found out that they have won the case. I smile at the memory of that wall. I can only hope that walls too have memories.

***
Politically speaking, only walls seem to have memories.

As all the usual groups get celebrated on Independence Day, let me just sing for them the songs they won't hear:

"Ai mere watan ke logoun zara aankh mein bhar lo paani, yeh shaheed hue hai unki zara yaad karo qurbani..."

"Saare jahan se achcha Hindostan hamara, hum bulbulein hai iski yeh gulsitan hamara..."

13.8.15

Ferguson, deflection and Malcolm X

Deflection is the worst thing that can happen to socio-political movements. As Americans took to protest a year after Ferguson, for it and the others that have happened and keep happening, Lexi Kozhedsky was catapulted to meme heroism.

At a protest rally, she stood as a shield protecting the police. Of course, one person doing so won't do much, but its symbolism is huge. Here is a young student who acknowledges there is racism, but still believes in the system:

“I’m supporting our police because not all cops are bad, and that needs to be realized. I think we need to show our support for them. They’re the people who protect us. I think a lot of people have the same opinion as I do but are too scared to voice it themselves, so when I did, people caught attention, whether it be negative or positive."

This might well be true, and due to that very reason it is most disturbing. The rally was to protest the wrongs done, not to pick out the goodness. There is always time for that on occasions like Fourth of July or something. Here it was imperative to listen to the voices of the affected, of voices that are stilled due to no fault but the colour they were born with and as.

If this is how the new generation plans to figure out contemporary history, then it will only repeat itself as the tragedy it is.

And it was Malcolm X who knew all about it before Ferguson because, well, it is just the same old thing. Alas.


12.8.15

Pornography, Freedom and Bondage




The other day we were watching a fine contemplative film on humiliation, death and renewal against the backdrop of a crematorium. It was an afternoon show and as soon as the young woman on screen placed her lover’s hand on her breast, the man next to us started grunting. The lovers got into bed and he shouted, “Oye, aage badho! (hey, get on with it)”. Why would a lone man want to protest aloud about fictitious characters to strangers in the dark? Was he objecting to what he saw or was he merely moralising to scotch what might turn out to be his own natural response?

Two days ago, the Mumbai police knocked on doors, dragged out young couples, slapped some, made them call up their parents, asked them to pay a fine, and all this for checking into beach shacks and small hotel rooms consensually. They were charged with "indecent behaviour in public" when the space is private and they had paid to use it.

These two incidents show up the probity sham for what it is, for in both one can see the need for some sort of release.

Last week, the Indian government banned 857 adult websites. A couple of days later, the ban was reversed with only child porn coming under the lens. The government is suffering from the same syndrome as that man in the movie hall. It feels the need to assert its morality when it is afraid of being caught with its pants down.

Culture

Websites, films and books are easy targets to acquire a seraphic halo. Would they ban temples where the frescoes are in poses that celebrate sexuality?

Those opposing the ban too talk about freedom of expression and inevitably bring in the Kama Sutra as evidence of liberalism. This is a fallacious defence, for people do not riffle through the pages of this manual to relieve their sexual urges, although one does notice cigarette burn marks in orifices of temple statues, which is really about social perversion rather than hormones.

Besides, these texts were written in ancient times when tribalism was the only culture. The refinement of material aspects of life has led to a different sensibility. The sculptors of temples were not thinking about metaphors the way contemporary analysts do. Interestingly, the same analysts will see a centrefold differently, perhaps even with disgust over how gauche it is, even though a real woman or man has posed for it.


The need to sex things up in order to make an impact has resulted in the concern industry indulging in its own forms of exhibitionism, whether it is animal rights ads making curvy models wear animal skin or strategically placing vegetable florets around private parts, or even protestors walking around in undergarments to draw attention to their cause – do those gawking feel any empathy or are they only voyeurs?

Fantasy is a bourgeois concept that gains more sophistication with the social status of a person but it does not preclude a going down and dirtying of oneself. Ancient cultures reveled in orgiastic rites and 18th century England had its special editions of “voluptuous reading”.

But can pornography be absolved of its role in social debauchery?

Children

As a supporter of responsible access to and indulgence with pornography, I find my position get shaky when confronted with the abuse of children.

While social media has made young people post pictures of themselves and their friends – and the motives could vary from vicarious thrills, exhibitionism to revenge –it is often the market that abuses children. That market could constitute of people in positions of power.

There have been many cases of Indian children being used in such pornographic material. Tourists who hole up for months and pretend to run shelters lure poor kids with goodies or drugs. Juvenile homes become dens of exploitation.

The recent abuse scandal in Kasur, Pakistan, reveals how entrenched this is. 280 children were enslaved into performing in 400 videos; the CDs sell for less than a dollar each. For six years nobody got wind of it simply because the police and politicians ensured that business went on.

In 2010, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan had shockingly refused to make possession of child pornographic material a criminal offence on grounds of freedom of expression. In a disturbing incident, a mother had taken images of her infant son and sold them on the internet. What was she expressing? What about the infant’s freedom of expression, freedom to privacy? What about every child’s?

Around that time, an Indian army officer was arrested for uploading 157 videos of child porn; all the kids in it were Caucasian. The authorities, therefore, deduced that none of them was shot by him.

These are criminals who are in a manner of speaking killing the children, or at least their childhood. To call this pornography would be wrong.

The Indian government’s retreat using these instances to ban porn, therefore, does not fit in. We are a repressed society because we do not have a liberal porn culture. There is ignorance about the body and the consensuality between objects, as the consumer is one too before images that invoke his helplessness.

Women and Men

Feminism is often put to test when it comes to pornography. The pro-choice proponents who find it reprehensible use the objectification angle against it. When Sunny Leone, an Indian origin adult film actor, joined mainstream films she immediately became the poster girl of the wet dream not only due to her appeal (which is about as much as any other’s) but also because of her history. Taslima Nasreen, writer of frank memoirs who has no problems sharing her picture posing on a giant penile sculpture, was shocked: “Women's half naked dirty dance became normal in Bollywood, the next step is to make a known porn-star enter TV and cinema.”

This is nothing more than entrenched hierarchy that assumes the tone of intellectual morality. For one who claims to have serious issues with objectification, she had once said that being called a “fallen woman” was an achievement, quite forgetting that this is how many societies view a porn star, who would not even have the luxury of political asylum.

It is notions such as these that objectify women and not pornography. Likewise, the accusation of creating a false body image might apply to mainstream advertising and cinema too, as well as the flashing red carpet images with their thigh bombing and safety pin cleavages. In fact, the several niche adult sites cater to many alternatives, including different body types.

It is ridiculous to suggest that such access to adult content alters relationships, for relationships are not only about sex. Just as dildos have not replaced men, it is unlikely that relief through images would make women redundant. Masturbation too relies on fantasy, and surely fantasy cannot be antiseptic.

Musician John Mayer had said in a Playboy interview, “When I watch porn, if it’s not hot enough, I’ll make up back stories in my mind, this is my problem now: Rather than meet somebody new, I would rather go home and replay the amazing experiences I’ve already had.”

This is not skewed priorities, but in some ways it freezes positive pleasure signals and memories like any other nostalgia. There is no escaping it and there is no reason to.

Socio-political titillation exploits, not the harmless pin-up that in fact could help in the seeking and finding of a sexual identity, as well as idealisation outside of the constricting hold of stratified roles.


---

Published in CounterPunch

10.8.15

Organs and ideology




Organ donation is something most of us grapple with although it is so important, and just to make it seem sublime there is also some nobleness associated with it. Most donors’ families do so out of respect for the deceased person’s wishes, their own sense of commitment, and sometimes because this appears to be a continuum.

When Rita Desai died, one of her kidneys was donated to Anita Gharat. One hears about how the recipients show gratitutde, often silently because they are not even aware of their benefactor. What happened here is a different story.

The donor’s brother said:

“We told Anita after the transplant that Rita's soul would be at peace if she could give up non-vegetarian food,“ said Shah. “ Anita's family respected our sentiments. Hence, not only Anita but her entire family turned vegetarian. It was a very moving gesture.”

I am sure it is moving, and for one whose life depended on a kidney this is a small price to pay. But a price it is. It has not come free. There are strings attached. I dread to imagine what other ‘requests’ donors can put forward for the deceased’s soul – conversion of religion, political ideology, literary interests, moral values, way of life itself?

Although it is not as cussed, it really is quite similar to selling parts of the body. Instead of money, something else is marketed. This is not to in any manner reduce the act of donation itself. I can well understand that a receipient might agree to conditions not only as a gesture of thanks but also because who would want to be haunted by an organ inside oneself? I personally find this unethical because nobody knows whether the donor would have wanted it this way.