Undrawing the Line: R.K.Laxman

He was the only public intellectual in India who could make sense of the nonsense. The good thing is that he would baulk at being referred to as an intellectual. R.K. Laxman is dead.

Those who think a cartoonist cannot be an intellectual just need to trace his work. He could pare down the tonnes of bibliography and tomes to one box. He distilled them and came up with a trenchant take.

While some of it made us smile, he was certainly not a comic. His work was political and social commentary at its best. And he exposed it without moral pretensions. You instinctively knew that he was not scoring any points or patting himself on the back, something that latter-day cartoonists in India seem to revel in.

He did not appear to be friends with politicians, but he was no enemy either. That imbued him with a practicality and it reached the reader as an objective and concerned voice.

His caricatures were precise, taking one sharp feature to delineate the personality. You knew Indira Gandhi would follow the moment you saw the nose line. I thought he captured her hauteur perfectly. There are many more of other leaders and I would urge you to look for them.

However, his creation of the common man surpassed everything else, so much so that the dhoti-clad, checked raggedy jacket, half bald caricature has become to represent the aam aadmi. No political caps claiming the common man will ever be able to take the place of the Laxman one, because it came from a penetrating eye and a deep sense of anguish that did not disappear to get political mileage.

His common man is an observer occasionally forced to be a participant. But he does not lose himself. And when the need arises he even contributes with his commonness to become rather special. This gesture is not covered with tinsel as a celebration, but rather subtly it gives us a peek into what equality really means.

R.K.Laxman does not need a photograph to be recognised. His lines are intimations of, pardon the hyperbole, immortality.


Obama, Modi and Chemistry

India's Republic Day has given an opportunity to leaders of two of the biggest democracies to showcase themselves.

The media, and the public that views TV, reads newspapers and is connected to social media, are all agog by the display of camaraderie. Does this in any manner indicate change in Indo-US ties? How good is it really for India?

That does not seem to be of any immediate interest. We are all lapping up trivia. It began the moment an invitation was sent and accepted. To the run-up we were told how roads would be cordoned off, how the four-layered security would work (including 12 dog officers arriving ahead of the visit to sniff out danger).

Obama's office sent out the message that there should be no terror attacks during his trip or there "would be consequences". There was no statesman-like no terror at any time before or after. This sort of arrogant and insensitive statement set the tone for what is clearly modern-day slavery where bonhomie buys acquiescence.

Narendra Modi broke protocol and went to receive Barack Obama. Images of him with the President and the First Lady after they alighted have sent the BJP supporters in a frenzy. Had this been the President of Nepal or Fiji Island would they feel as elevated?

Personally, I do not like over-familiarity between political leaders in the public space. It is less about warmth and more a public relations exercise. Both are conveying a message to their international constituencies.

Their lunch menu became news. Planting a sapling became a huge moment. And tea became "chai pe charcha", which Modi had used during his election campaign. He is apparently still campaigning.

At the joint press conference, Modi referred to the US president as "Barack". He spoke about chemistry between them. One is surprised he did not quote from Linda Goodman's sun signs to establish just how compatible they are.

The BJP had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal during Manmohan Singh's tenure. Today, Modi and Obama have taken this even further. Modi informed us that the US would be an ally in defence. He parroted the terror line. If the US is so confident about its defense, it would not bulldoze other countries.

The so-called largest democracies are really about both wanting to play Big Brother. Sometimes it is good. Mostly it is not and proves to be a nuisance to others.

As I write this, the droning sounds continue on TV. The breathless, "Oh my god!" tone of the anchors seems to convey they've never seen an American President with an Indian Prime Minister feeling so jolly good before. For them, I have a few images from Barack Obama's previous visit.

And Obama cancelled his proposed visit to the Taj Mahal to visit Saudi Arabia to condolence the death of the king. Joe Biden was already attending to that. Here, the Hindutva bhakts we already speaking about how the Taj was a temple once. Should they not, then, see it as a rejection to their claims, if not of this ancient heritage in preference for a dead Arab King?


The monk, misogyny and more

It is surprising that people are surprised only because a Buddhist monk got abusive. As with any other religious community, Buddhism would have its share of disgusting men of faith. 

Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu called human rights envoy Yangee Lee names:

"We have explained about the race protection law, but the b**** criticised the laws without studying them properly."

"Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn't make you an honorable woman. In our country, you are just a whore...You can offer your arse to the kalars (derogatory term for South Asians) if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State."

More than his statements, one must note that the crowd cheered. That is something we tend to miss, and therefore target the tree when the woods are alive with similar sounds. 

The condemnation by Thawbita, of the progressive Saffron Revolution Buddhist Monks Network, was rather revealing:

"The words used that day are very sad and disappointing. It is an act that could hurt Buddhism very badly."

How would such abuse tarnish the faith, and is that the only concern? 

Honestly, though, in drawing attention to the abusive man as a person of religion there appears to be implicit belief that he has morally wavered rather than pointing out the patriarchal notions embedded in religion. 

Name-calling invariably takes away from what is really abused. Wirathu has served time in prison; he is openly anti-Islam and anti-minority. Ms. Lee was speaking about the discrimination against them. After the monk's comments, she said:

"During my visit I was personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues."

However, all we get to read is that the monk called her a bitch and a whore. We don't seem to even want to address the issue of the abuse not being for who she is but for what she says. Indeed, women in such positions or with a political stand are sought to be reduced with such slurs. 

The idea is to keep women away from public space, again mainly because women tend to have a more humane perception of the world. Gender here is also about how it impacts social positions and therefore ought not to be relegated to a victim of misogyny narrative. 

Had the human rights envoy been a man, Wirathu would have had the same problem with the findings. But, he might not have called him names because he would assume they were equals, in that it would be gender reflection. Calling him a dick would resonate with his own, for example. 

Some monks have said there would be no action against him. Even if there was it would soon be forgotten. In the end, Yangee Lee's report seems to have lost to the more potent insults she was subjected to. In that, everybody has become a conspirator. 


Sunday ka Funda

I've been reading about how tomorrow, Januray 19, is going to be the pits. It has been marked as the "blue Monday" of 2015, although nobody will enlighten us as to who decides on our happiness and unhappiness in such a fashion and how this will be the only blue Monday to qualify as the one for the year.

There are experts too on the subject who say the weather, debts, Christmas hangover and low motivational levels will make us all morose. And, yes, they also add failed New Year resolutions, and it is only 19 days since some of us might have made them. Why the hurry to damn us?

Indian papers and news magazines have picked up this 'news', even though our weather does not swing all that much and Christmas, although celebrated with much joy, is not the same as it is in many western countries.

If these are the yardsticks for unhappiness, would the opposite hold true for happiness? Are we all alike in the way in which we respond to the weather, for example? Grey clouds are elevating for me, and for a gambler a few debts are part of the game. Anyway, how much can happen to one individual in a day? Will we all go back to smoking and ditching healthy eating habits together?

In that case, such social congruity ought to be reason to celebrate and be happy.

For those of us with less ambition, there is Berke Breathed who said, "It’s never too late to have a happy childhood."


What they won't tell you about pigs

Who would have imagined that a publishing house would ban the use of common words that are part of the daily routine of so many across the world?

Oxford University Press (OUP) has asked its textbook writers to keep out all references to pigs, pork, sausages and other pork-related items to avoid offending Jews and Muslims.

Refusing to comment beyond the official statement, OUP said, "...Our materials are sold in nearly 200 countries, and as such, and without compromising our commitment in any way, we encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities."

Was OUP hit by a bolt of lightning that it woke up to the fact that pigs don't fly with Muslims and Jews? It seems quite obvious that the publishers are latching on to the Charles Hebdo controversy to garner attention, and more control over the authorial voice. Although these are educational texts, and not academic or creative writing, the stringency is even more worrying.

Besides the obvious fallacy in disregarding that pigs, and pig products, are in the public domain, this amounts to essentially ghettoising societies and thereby demonising them. Did Muslims and Jews raise any objections collectively? Such second-guessing only builds up the reputation of intolerance of communities.

What is naturally available cannot possibly affect "cultural differences and sensitivities". One sees pigs and one sees pork, sausage and bacon on food counters, in restaurant menus and buffet tables.

 Even though pig is 'haraam' in Islam and not kosher for Jews, it cannot be wiped out from existence. And must not. 

For many of us, not eating pork is subconscious conditioning; there is no dramatic assertion of it being haraam or that casting an eye upon it would ensure purgatory. Muslim countries too stock pork in varied forms to cater to their expat population, pretty much the way they do for alcohol.

Does OUP want to censor the words associated with alcohol? No. Pigs, the publishing house knows, could trigger all kinds of subliminal messages. It is a good time for these.

 Those who find the move ludicrous are however not doing any good. The general observation is that according to Jewish law and Islam only the eating of pork is proscribed, not the mention of it. It need not be reiterated in this context. For, if the mention were proscribed in  scriptures of major faiths, it would not be common parlance at all.

It might help to remember that words too grow over a period of time to include tangential references that may not have been in the realm of understanding at a time far removed from the one we live in. 


The howl...

Nights seem more evanescent than days, even though the night passes without much occurrence. I cannot see the moon today. Possibly, there is no moon.

I am deeply fascinated by the idea of howling at the moon. Today, I felt like doing so. But I can't spot the moon. Such howling, where the wolf is said to invoke spiritual guidance, perhaps occurs in a state of cloudiness.

Spiritual guidance is often less mysticism and more a communion with oneself. We wish not to be guided so much as we want to be unknotted. The howl is more deeply-felt than any invocation conveys.

Censoring Gods and Aliens: The Neo Prophets

Published in CounterPunch, Jan 13

Why were religious sentiments not hurt when the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said at a conference, “We worship Lord Ganesha…There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery”? Is a new mythopoeia acceptable only when it is not in opposition to another?

A BJP campaign poster depicting Modi as Krishna

Contrast this with Hindu extremists burning posters and vandalising movie halls screening a film that they assert insults their gods. Now, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, those protesting against the film PK find themselves on the same side as the Islamists, who also believe they are ‘protesting’ against caricatured depictions of their faith.

The sudden volte-face by the Hindu rightwing for freedom of expression is typically self-righteous. Its adherents use what they believe to be a trump card: Islamists murder; we don't. This is not quite true, for they have even killed a rationalist for being a rationalist. Their enthusiastic liberalism regarding the caricatured portrayal of the Prophet of Islam while seeking to protect their own deities, who they themselves caricature, does not allow for an equitable empathy in the hurt stakes.

Us vs. Super Us

One of the cartoons that came up in the “Je suis Charlie” period had a plane flying into two pencils mimicking the Twin Towers. It uses the one act in contemporary history that has resulted in the peace-making colonisation of several countries. The drawing seems to suggest that the USA and all of the West as mighty upholders of free speech are threatened into silence. Such a theory will not brook a valid poser as to why a recent event like 9/11 needs to ‘barbarise’ the enemy, evident from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as well as the American audacity in assuming the role of lion tamer in an imagined circus.

Rupert Murdoch posted two tweets: “Maybe most Moslems (are) peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” and “Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy”.  His contention is less consequential than his belief that political correctness whitewashes what is inherently a serious problem.

J.K. Rowling responded with, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.” She is implying that any sensible person who has to accept responsibility for people they do not like should auto ex-communicate themselves, which sounds a lot like the self-annihilation by martyrs. In that, she turns out to be a Murdoch clone. She later writes, “The Spanish Inquisition was my fault, as is all Christian fundamentalist violence.  Oh, and Jim Bakker.” Don’t rub it in. Televangelists do contest presidential polls in the West.

Political correctness when combined with a sense of entitlement is deeply problematic for it constantly seeks affirmation of narrow versions of good. The Muslim who saves the Jew, the Christian, and the Hindu is the only one who can be trusted. Such acceptance that expects this sort of saving as penance for what bad Muslims do is not too different from evangelism.

FoE vs. FoE

A creative work that uses extremism as inspiration cannot exist in a vacuum. However, nobody can claim their creation to be a definitive statement on any religion, simply because there are just so many ways of interpreting. Yet, how many are willing to accept that their art (and poetic license) is, in the words of Roger Fry, “significant deformity”?

In the past, Charlie Hebdo used a guest editorial titled “halal aperitif”, where ‘Mahomet’ says, “Ennahda promises (Tunisians) that their personal freedoms will remain and it will not introduce Sharia law. Ha, ha, no kidding? Why should a religious party take power except to impose its ideas.” There were protests. In a 2011 CounterPunch piece, I had written:

The real editor Charb was, of course, shocked at the pre-release hostility: “Why do people only get angry when we attack religion? We are just commenting on a news story. We are not presenting Mohammed as an extremist.” An attack on anything, including religion, should be clean and sharp, not with a blunted knife. This is not a news story because Tunisians died fighting.
When his film Viswaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu for its portrayal of Islamist terror, Kamal Haasan had said

"I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in...If I can't find it within India, I will hopefully find another country, which is secular that might take me in. M F Husain had to do it, and now Hassan will do it.”

Artist M.F. Husain — who accepted Qatar citizenship – did not have a work banned. His museum was burned down; he was threatened. These were not fringe elements, but members of a political party. As regards leaving the state for a secular haven, that is what the fringe elements credo is. It questions secularism.

The onus on some as opposed to others in the free speech battle is against freedom.  On Husain’s death his peer S.H. Raza, who had chosen to live abroad for 60 years, stated:

“If I had been in his place where some of my ideas or paintings offended the Hindu community I would have apologized, explained myself and talked it over. I don’t know if that was done…one has to be very careful in these things.”

Raza left of his own accord; no one shunted him out. The peculiar problem with Husain was that his support group too accepted him because he was mainstream enough for using Hindu mythology.  His liberty was conditional to their theist-political appeasement.

Verity vs. Veritable

In India members of parliament who wear saffron robes and are referred to by their religious titles of ‘swami’ and ‘sanyasi’, ironically, object to religious interference in matters of state in the form of political Islam. Almost anything in the public sphere can be seen as a threat to bolster this image. In the case of anti-PK protests, we must not see them in isolation, for the subplots expose intent. 

They accused the male lead Aamir Khan, who happens to be Muslim, of a jihadi agenda and being sponsored by Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI. As ridiculous as these accusations are, it becomes clear that nobody is protecting the gods. What bothers them is that the female lead is in love with a Pakistani. That this story has appeared against the repulsive anti love jihad backdrop makes their position most laughable, endorsed as the Pakistani is by an alien, the main character, a non-sectarian, non-denominational and therefore a balanced and presumably secular entity.

Curiously, even those applauding the movie are not commending it for cross-border love, revealing some amount of discomfort. The approbation is for exposing charlatans and questioning blind belief, a charade carried out almost every evening in the news programmes with their own charlatans sitting in outraged judgment.

Much of the debate has concentrated on "hurt Hindu sentiments". This is shaky territory, for Hindus revel in the display of images of gods and goddesses, whose idiosyncrasies devotees worship according to their specific needs. For the ritualistic, it is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship. They have watched many performances of the Ramlila. Watching the human enactment of godly powers by actors wearing cardboard crowns and fighting with cardboard swords does not shake their faith; if anything, these depictions democratise the gods.

In many ways the alien in PK too is a quasi-mythical figure — unreal, from another planet but human in sentiment. He picks up clothes, language, and mannerisms on earth. This is akin to how deities are bedecked and acquire qualities to make them accessible, even believable, to the believers. But the alien and the deities both need to be from another world for them to be the moral voice.

Senior leader of the rightwing L.K. Advani, who had in 1992 taken out a rally riding a Toyota rath (a religious symbolic wagon) to protest against the Babri Masjid, and subsequently its demolition, endorsed the film. The cart-before-horse liberals lauded him for saying, “...all patriots (have) a duty to ensure that nothing weakens the unity of the country – neither caste nor community nor language nor region, and certainly not religion”. The emphasis on religion and the responsibility of patriots is precisely what Hindu extremists talk about.

As the film is about to reach a denouement when the alien would finally trace the lost key to his kingdom, there is a bomb blast at the train station. His messenger of glad tidings gets killed. Without any investigation, it is inferred that an Islamist group committed the act. Deviously, it does so without blaming anybody but speaking the “not all Muslims are like that" language.

Muslims did not object to this depiction. It only proves that social stereotypes are taken for granted and not considered offensive although they affect everybody much more than any mythology or religion ever can. 


Sunday ka Funda

A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth.— Joseph Conrad

Who defines truth is now in the realm of debate once again. And cartoons and caricatures are being heralded as the new truth.

How truthful is racism and sexism if it is only seen as a sharp comment without any supporting analysis or explanation?

If the pen is in opposition to the sword, why does it not take on more than one kind of sword?

Should we exercise freedom of expression without fear or favour? Or be selective? Here is a selection — some are Charlie Hebdo covers; a couple are responses to the recent terror attack:

The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.—George Santayana


Charlie Hebdo and the Rightwing

Twelve people were killed when terrorists attacked the office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Normally, society should react by sympathising with the families and mourning the deaths. There should be anger against those who indulge in such barbarous acts.

In India, the reaction is to pounce on Indian Muslims. In fact, it appears as though the rightwing lies in wait for just such ghastly incidents so that they can whitewash their ridiculous attempts at fascism, that is assuming they understand it at all. The media has used this opportunity to suck up to the powers that be. A TV anchor who is called "paid media" by the rightwing is now glorified by them for her 'bravery' in putting up the Prophet cartoons on her show. Perhaps one should ask them how much they paid her then.

The mandatory and civil RIP has become a mockery because it is insulted by these so-called concerned people whose real agenda is to taunt imagined Islamists who they can claim to be threatened by. It, therefore, follows that they can empower themselves to threaten others as "self defence". All this happens in the virtual world where anonymity ensures that straw warriors are actually heard despite their tacit terror tactics.

Amazingly, one is accused of being an apologist by the very people who are apologising for the rightwing. By flaunting "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) they flout the very principles of freedom.

Here are the series of tweets I posted this morning:

• Why #JeSuisCharlie ? Why can't we be ourselves & express our views on FoE instead of such temporary, superficial and selective solidarity?

• If you hadn't heard about #CharlieHebdo before and now use it to bash up people who have nothing to do with the killings, your FoE is suspect.

• I won't use 'other' examples of squashing FoE not because of false equivalence but it would make me like the bigots 'using' #CharlieHebdo

• Why glorify an 'Ahmed' killed in #CharlieHebdo attack? Do we feel better if a Muslim is also killed by terrorists who claim to be Muslim?

• Such tragic events show up selective FoS. Rushdie will remind you. He is such a 'champion' of FoE that he apologised for some of his views.

• Rushdie is once again reminding you about the fatwa. Does nobody want to remind him too about false equivalence with #CharlieHebdo?

• For me, #CharlieHebdo and other cartoons are incapable of insulting the Prophet. They reveal a mindset that thrives on Islamophobia, though.

• Somebody tears the Quran, another flushes it down the toilet. It tells us about the people doing it rather than the Quran.

• So what terrorists do should tell us about terrorism. 'Islamic terror' isn't about Islam, but terrorists who claim Islam. Their problem.

• You accuse me of hypocrisy and secularism because I ask some questions? What do you want? That I dance to your tune? Where is FoS now?

• Friends from the Hindu RW, I applaud your commitment to FoS. Instead of baiting me, show your love by posting cartoons about your deities.

• I agree. The Prophet is not hurt. Neither will Lord Rama/Lord Ganesha be with such cartoons. So those asking me, return the favour. Thx.

• Hand on my heart, my Hindutva friends, I shall stand/ride with you should there be a backlash against you for art/cartoons you post. Will you?

• #Notinmyname

Kiran Bedi is a retired police officer with political ambitions

• Before we sing praises of France and its record of FoE, perhaps we'd like to consider that it has banned the use of veils. A clothing choice.

• "All I want is to live in peace" France, FoE champion would not let this Muslim woman do so. theguardian.com/world/2014/jul…

• And to Muslims bending over backwards to please political masters, I have only one question: Yeh kaunse khuda ke dar pe sajda kar rahe ho?

• Indian papers/TV channels carrying the #CharlieHebdo cartoons are not about #FOE, but sales, TRPs, political scrounging. No free lunch for FoE.

• You accuse me of selectivity? Have you shown yours yet that you voyeurs want to see mine? Again and again?

• Peace be upon us.


FoE/S = freedom of expression, speech


My earlier piece on Charlie Hebdo's role in Middle East politics: Arab Sting — The West is bitten and sly


Now this radio host says it could be a false flag operation. Think he is jumping the gun.


The North East, Racial Abuse and a Prison Term

Is the Indian government serious about dealing with racism or is this merely a move to ensure a vote bank? The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has sent out an edict to the states that racial abuse of a citizen from the North-East will result in a jail term of five years under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

When the North Easterners were fleeing Bangalore

MHA joint secretary (centre-state) S. Suresh Kumar stated:

"A sizeable number of persons belonging to the North-Eastern states are residing in metropolitan cities and …are facing discrimination as they are addressed with derogatory adjectives or face discrimination in the form of targeted attacks, assault, molestation and other atrocities. This has caused considerable anguish and distress in the minds of people from the North-East.”

He adds that such a legal provision will be seen as a “proactive response”. We are a law-heavy nation with excessive crime. Such laws are unlikely to have much effect, but a civilized society must have them. The main problem would be of implementation.  How many victims would come forth? Would the police be helpful?

In the Nido Taniam case in Delhi last year where the young Arunachal Pradesh student was killed, during the skirmish that took place between him and a shopkeeper the cops had insisted on a compromise. The initial fight was over verbal abuse. Soon enough, commentators like Madhu Kishwar offered that this was not about racism but lumpen behaviour and equated it to Sikh and bania jokes. Murder is not a joke, and as I later asked, “Would she say the same were somebody assaulted for his choti, or tilak, or turban?”

The MHA statement is certainly a balm, but it is also ‘exclusive’. It is bound to raise questions about the needs of others to be addressed. What happens to the dark being called “kallus”, including African students, who are also addressed as monkeys? There is the North Indian-South Indian divide with racist overtones. And there is the “jihadi” slur that is increasingly used. Often the abuser might not be aware of racism, but then racism is often the result of such evil that arises from ignorance of the other.

However, given the legal provision now there will have to be some propriety over how racism is not only enacted but also understood, especially in verbal abuse. How should the police react if an abused person does not find the term abusive? What happens if the abused returns another racist abuse?

An incident in Bangalore last month could pose some interesting questions about racial slurs.

Former city police commissioner H T Sangliana's daughter, Rachel, was out grocery shopping at a well-known supermarket when she said she was attacked by a burqa-clad woman when she objected to her cutting the queue.

This is how the report goes:

When Rachel politely asked the couple to join the queue at the back because she had to get home to attend to her ailing child, the woman reportedly began spewing curses and abuses in Urdu about Rachel to her husband. "I could understand what the woman was saying from the dirty looks she kept giving me, and because Urdu is similar to Hindi. She emphasised that we 'outsiders' were ruining the country and that we 'deserved to be taught a lesson', recalled a shocked Rachel, speaking to Bangalore Mirror. She then asked the woman if she had a problem with her. "Her response was to scream 'yes' and proceed to hit me in the chest. She then began yelling that I should 'go back to China' and that I didn't belong in India."
 Even as Rachel defended herself saying she was an Indian who was born and raised in Bengaluru, a heated altercation is said to have ensued. When the woman began pushing Rachel, the latter hit her back in self-defence.

More seemed to have happened. Another burqa-clad woman was said to have joined in and Rachel recounted:

“They grabbed my hair and pulled out clumps of it, injuring my scalp. By then, I had dialled 100 and informed the police, but it was three girls from Nagaland and two other shoppers who came to my rescue and broke up the catfight.”

It was disturbing. We all know how those from the North East are treated – whether it is in Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. They are pointed out and called “chinki” or worse, as in Bangalore two years ago when they had to flee due to rumours, allegedly politically motivated.  

The problem I had with the report even then was the emphasis on another kind of racial slur that had to do with specifying the clothes and language as stereotypes to typify recognisable forms of aggression. Besides that, the fact that three of those supporting her were from Nagaland served to emphasise more than isolation a feeling of security about it.

Reacting to the incident, Rachel's sister, Rebecca, posting on a social networking site, "Some day people will realise that we all bleed the same colour, our hearts beat in the same rhythm…She (Rachel) surely messed with the wrong person!" Messed with the wrong person is as ‘unrhythmic as one can get, and is as much evidence of racism as anything else.

In Hyderabad. Image for representation only

What was shocking, though, was that four days later, the reports said that the CCTV footage showed that Rachel Sangliana was in fact the aggressor:

When TOI visited the store, the employees reconstructed the sequence of events thus: "She (Rachel) was standing near the cash counter. The trolley pushed by one woman dashed her leg, to which she responded sharply. The woman apologized for the minor accident, but warned Rachel against the language she used. Rachel then started shouting, saying, 'I need not learn lessons from you; go back either to Pakistan or Afghanistan'." It was at this point that the burqa-clad women retaliated by telling Rachel, "We are Indians, you go to China", said supermarket sources. "CCTV footage clearly shows the entire episode, including Rachel raising her hand and slapping one woman," sources added.

Her father, the supercop had not wanted to file a police case because it was “a small incident”. His daughter had ensured this small incident “went viral”.

This sort of ‘newsiness’ that the media encourages would be counterproductive to any law, and such goof-ups could be quoted even in genuine cases. The reports also emphasised on the “if this can happen to her” being a cop’s daughter.

This points out to privilege, and anybody can use it to their advantage. The burqa-clad women too might have had they been in her shoes. We need to talk about different kinds of racism.

How are we to define these varied aspects? How would this incident play itself out legally? If “chinki” is racist, would “go back to China” also qualify? Then, if the “chinki” slur got the burqa-blad women five years, the response (although the “aggressor” roles changed) of “go to Pakistan” should qualify as racist too. But, the argument against it could well be that Pakistan was once India, so people told to go there are really not being racially set apart. In the latter, false nationalism assumes the enemy within due to the communal notion of Partition.

What would happen if someone were to tell you to “go to America”, for example, if you spoke with a twang or had your hair coloured blond? This would be cultural stereotyping and mostly benign, for the victims would be rather pleased. Not so the China/Pakistan destined because it puts them outside the boundaries, and alienates them. 

The fear of five years in prison might not result in sensitization, but it should certainly result in a debate about how we perceive and discriminate against one another as citizens of a country. 


Shuffled off this mortal coil

"It was my duty to make a film on Kashmir. More than a duty, it was my job to reflect the reality, as I saw it." — Vishal Bharadwaj

It was a picture that had more shadows than light. I was framed beneath a tree sitting as I would in a chair, my legs crossed. There is a slight frown and a sense of dislocation in the expression. Behind the black and white print, my classmate and friend had scrawled, "For Hamlet..."

The main reason I was Hamlet was my indecisiveness, apparent in the monologue, "To be or not to be". However, it was a play that I lived with beyond the literature lectures. 'Hamlet' had opened the world for me, had mirrored life in analogies. That picture is, therefore, me and yet not quite me.

A couple of months ago when I took the leap from my picture to the big picture, I realised that analogies work best with the real. Although I tried to avoid reading critiques of 'Haider' because I wanted to go to it blank, blankness is near impossible considering it is located physically, politically and emotionally in Jammu and Kashmir.

I made a few notes after watching the film and then, perhaps one of the rare times it has happened, I did not post anything. Today, I am revisiting because its director Vishal Bharadwaj has written about the problems he faced due to unofficial censorship. There was a good deal of talk about official censorship. Truth is this:

| Applied running time: 162:18 MM:SS
| Final running time of the film: 161:50 MM:SS (of which most were voluntary deletions)

In his personal account, Bharadwaj recounts how he felt bogged down by the protection he got:

"People called Haider a brave film but you know what was the price I had to pay? Because of the threats, I had to move around with a personal security guard. No matter where I was - whether in the car or playing tennis - the guard would guard me all the time, impinging on my personal space. Forget about freedom of expression, my own body's freedom was at stake now."

In 'Haider' he used the Hamletian ideas as set pieces rather than as the kernel running through. It worked well in this case; in fact, it would not have worked in any other manner. Haider's reality had to stand out against his bouts of madness and helplessness. Life had to stand out against death and decay.

The title of my post is a phrase from the monologue in Hamlet that follows "perchance to dream". In 'Haider', the cusp between the mortal and the dream is lit by the brilliance with which 'To be or not to be' transmogrifies into 'Hum hai ke hum nahin', that can be seen as 'Am I or am I not', but also 'Are we or are we not':

"Whose side are you on," Ghazala asks her husband, Dr. Hilal Meer.
"Zindagi (life),” he says. It is a professional duty statement of a doctor. More importantly, it politically establishes whose side the director is on, despite his claims of being "an objective observer". Opinions cannot and must not be objective to be alive. Life in 'Haider' is not the opposite of death, but the affirmation of it even in the face of death. And the state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen too much death – death in custody, death in the streets, death in homes.

The political azaadi is also about emotional freedom, more pertinent today than ever (what with the regional parties willing to ally with the rightwing BJP that is using J&K to score). There was some criticism about how it was a cop-out to reiterate in the film that one has to be free of vengeance. It was seen as a critique of Kashmiris and their fight for autonomy. Far from it. This is a life-giving thought, a need to purge the soul for a people who have been forced into numbness rather than aggressiveness. That man who cannot enter his own house because he is so habituated to being frisked and pushed before he can move conveys just such a sense of stasis.

Haider is not the, or a, hero; he is the sutradhar — the chain connecting events and places. His relationships define the state.

All he shares with his 'disappeared' father are memories. The doctor who treats a militant is taken away during a parade, and it establishes without any obfuscation how the army operates in J&K. There are no checks on the manner in which authority is asserted and abused. Even had there been no torture scenes, this one sequence would have been sufficient to damn the role of the armed forces and the rightly-maligned and questioned AFSPA. Sloganeering does not always convey much. At least not in cinema.

More pertinently, the ghost of the army looms throughout. Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon.

What Haider shares with his mother Ghazala is less obsession and more desperation. Ghazala as mother(land) is poisoned beauty ("zeher ki khubsoorat", he says, as he sniffs the fragrance she applies on her neck). The sensuality and hint of incest (taken from the original) is a metaphor for the strong sense of identity that has to slake its thirst with such passing moments. Kashmiris believe with such finality in their Kashmiriyat and yet they feel displaced in the land.

Arshia — Ophelia redux — is the polity: helpless, supportive, craven, and ultimately tragic. It is the little touch of her brother working for a multinational firm together with the two Salman Khan fans as jesters who convey the role of the mainstream in the state. They all let Haider down.

Roohdar, the ghost, is a secessionist here, carrying the message of the presumed to be dead father. That Haider is by turns suspicious and attracted to him forms the crux of displacement.

Faiz plays in the background, most tellingly in the voice of the uprooted father:

Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale
Chale bhi aao ke gulshan ka karobaar chale

Let there be colours in the flowers,
For the breeze of new spring would come.
Come, so that the garden can continue to bloom


Rainbow Lives

I started writing out a list of events, mostly sad.

I went on to pen something tongue-in-cheek, and it is all so farcical.

Yes, things happened. Sad. Happy. Angry. Disgusting. Depressing. Elevating.

Most emotions they evoked lacked introspection or the ability to inspire any. We live in superficial times, and any attempt to probe deeper seems an overstatement for those who may never grasp understatement.

Instead of skimming over such happenings and the people who mattered, I'll share stories about a couple of recent personal incidents.

* * *

While walking through a tiny lane, a lane I was familiar with long ago, I met somebody who was buying blankets. "This is from my zakat money," she said.

As some of you might remember, I've been a bit cynical about codified charity and days set aside for it. What after that, I would wonder.

This was before I saw the toothless man, his hands wrinkled, grasping one of those blankets offered to him. His need was immediate. It did not matter what time it was or what occasion or what the purpose was. For him, it was a blanket, warmth, a cover.

I am still not quite ready to let corporates off, but if money can get some people education, food, clothes, shelter and the dignity that comes from these, then how should one react? For the beneficiaries, words like exploitation, PR, photo opportunity do not make any sense. What they get is what they desperately need to be able to live.

And why only big business, small businesses use such philanthropy too. Ordinary folks too look for IT exemption; activists also want to exert power. Everybody is an exploiter. Or, perhaps everybody is a giver?

* * *

I was at the salon down the lane. The reason I had chosen the place at all was proximity to home. A few months ago I stopped visiting after they messed up on my appointments and their tardiness of service became inexcusable.

The other day, I went there again after confirming that they had a spare slot. They messed up again, in more damaging ways. As I waited to pay, they asked me to fill the feedback form, a routine they follow.

I ticked most boxes with good, and a couple with fair. After I left, i was very angry with myself. Why did I lie? To be honest, I did not think I was lying. I never tick 'excellent' or 'poor' anywhere. But they needed to be pulled up. With the good feedback I gave, I would not be able to register a legitimate complaint. The previous time, I decided not to visit. But is that a solution? Why did I hold back?

The young woman who was attending to me is one possible reason. She said she was new here. Was her job more important than the mucked up timings, ill-preparedness and in this case an untested product? I think so. She was not directly responsible for any of these.

However, my response led to some examination about my silences. That same afternoon walking down the familiar street of Christmasy cheer, I stopped at a stall selling home-made sweets. I picked up a few packets. The owner quickly did some calculations and quoted what seemed like a big amount. I had no example to go by, but when I raised my eyebrows he gave what looked like a hurt smile and asked, "Sabka hisaab doon kya, bharosa nahin hai (Do I have to give an account of each, don't you trust me)?" I felt chastised and paid up, as I would have anyway.

My query was legitimate because there were no labels. And why should I trust somebody who had set up a temporary stall and would not be there later? But his ruse worked.

In the evening, I brought out the sweets. Except for two, the rest were either inedible due to the strong essence or had gone bad. They could not be consumed or even be given away.

This is not the first time, and it won't be the last. I explain away such overcharging and sometimes cheating as their need to survive. When someone offers a discount saying they don't mind if they get a smaller margin of profit, there have been times I have returned to reimburse that discount. Somewhere along I begin to imagine a family of theirs that might do so much more with that money.

Only because we do not know about people's lives can we make assumptions about their compulsions?

* * *

Can we think about the rainbow in one colour? It is the hues that give it beauty and identity. The world is made of such different shades of people, of thoughts, of behaviour.

As we embark upon a new year, perhaps we can think about the rainbow. And living like one.

* * *

Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali goes up on the sidebar because the new does not have to mean burial of the old, but a reminder of lessons learned and to be understood.


1. Elderly Man on the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent Van Gogh
2. Rainbow Stallion by Deviant Art