Divided, and ruling

Kamal Haasan recently played martyr. It is fairly common for the arrogant and liars to play martyr. It is the prime ticket to a clean slate when you have moved on and reached closure, whatever the terms mean, for true closure should not result in constant bickering about that particular part of the past.

Kamal Haasan is an accomplished actor and filmmaker. He also has interesting insights into cinema, and social issues. Irrespective of how one views the choices he makes and has made, he has struck out. But that is not the issue here.

In a joint interview with his daughter Shruti, he chose to discuss his personal life and that is where he came across as arrogant and wanting. He rants about his first marriage:

"Just around the time she (Shruti) was born, I had lost all my money due to the various alimony settlements with Vani that I had to pay and had to restart with a zero bank balance...I was living suddenly in a rented house, which I was not used to, but fortunately my career was in great shape. Life was suddenly a wake-up call for me, but at that time to make a decision in my career to not be enamoured by money was a strange thing that happened to me."

I do not know the details of their arrangement, but I do know that his ex-wife Vani Ganapathy was and is an accomplished classical dancer. I also know that around the same time he was living in with Sarika, the woman he married after their two daughters were born. These are personal decisions, but there is no need to use any of them to score.

The feisty Vani has not kept quiet. She called up the newspaper and this is what she said and I reproduce in full:

“I was very hurt after I read a recent interview of Kamal's. He has said that because of our divorce, he went bankrupt due to the alimony that was paid to me. I would really like to know, firstly, which divorce in India has led to bankruptcy of any kind. And if he claims he went bankrupt, then I ought to have been living in comfort. Instead, why would I have had to buy a home on an LIC loan on the outskirts of Bengaluru 28 years back? All that I have today is because of my dance and my own hard work. Kamal also says that he moved into a rented house because of this bankruptcy. How can he say that when we only stayed in rented houses during the time we were married. The only house that Kamal bought during that time was used as his office. So where is the question of having to move into a rented house because of him running into bankruptcy due to our divorce?“

What has happened is not uncommon. Patriarchal societies believe that the male is the provider and assume that the woman he once promised to take care of will always be under his guardianship or at least supported by him. This may not be true at all, but people will buy the lies or anything that fits into their own narrow perceptions.

Relationships are anyway fragile, so why point out the pieces when they break? Why the tall claims? Was Kamal Haasan trying to appeal to his daughter, now a grownup woman who may have many unanswered questions?

Again, he strikes me as presumptuous. Talking about how he tackled the revelations of his breakup with her mother Sarika to her, he said:

"Also she wasn't sure as the facts were not given to her fully by either (he and Sarika). I didn't explain too much as explaining myself would have tilted her balance, which I didn't want to do. If I was a villain in her piece at that time, it's okay as I knew it's not a permanent piece as it wasn't going to be etched on rock. And it's good that I waited."

Was this necessary? Why would it have tilted the balance — the girls lived with their mother. Such emotional machismo is no different from the physical variant. The villain turned into a hero is so enchanting, especially when it comes to later explaining more digressions:

Let me talk in a very male tone. If you are talking about scores, mine is the lowest amongst my peers. Numbers don't matter to me, it's always about commitment for me. I have never had one-night stands ever. It can't work for me and that way I am like a woman as they too are troubled with that.

This is so problematic. Comparing his score with that of his peers he seems to suggest that they might lack commitment because of a higher 'score'. And one-night stands would bother those who are bothered, irrespective of gender. To imply that women are "troubled" only invokes that they better be while ostensibly conveying a sensibility that cares.

Even while talking about losing it all for his alimony, he is trying to show his concern for his other family. In the presence of his daughter, he is expressing to her the sacrifices he made for them. Such one-upmanship may work for the self-esteem of the insecure and to an extent to keep a superficial peace, but it only eclipses the halo.


The corpse carriers: Parsi untouchability

A news story on untouchability among the Parsis may seem like an anachronism, but this is how the pallbearers in the community are treated.

They are now protesting, not against the untouchability but their pay scales. These khandias have to work at odd hours, live amongst corpses till they decompose completely, and it takes a long time for there are no birds of prey these days at the Doongerwadi Tower of Silence at Malabar Hill. The solar panels leave the bodies "soggy". As one khandia was quoted as saying, “When we go to drag the body, a hand or a leg comes off."

These men are treated with contempt, as the report conveys so well. They can't live in the Parsi baugs, there is separate drinking water, they need to purify themselves before entering a fire temple, and when they are given money they have to open a pouch so that the donors do not get contaminated.

The contamination bit bothers me, and it is not restricted to Parsis and is rampant in all communities. The pallbearers are carrying and cleaning people who were once loved and lived amongst us. How does this defile them? Is it only considerations of infections that might pass? I think not. If that were the case, then long after they have washed and aired themselves, they would not still be ostracised for being who they are.

What is the point of funeral rites and memorials if we cannot respect those who ensure that the deceased have a dignified last image?

There are always exceptions to the rule, but that only emphasises how entrenched these non-scripture, non-legal rules are and also how social norms and prejudices have a greater say than them. It is appalling that we continue to be trapped in fears of contamination.

Some years ago, there was a demand for some purification ritual because actor Arjun Rampal (who is married to a Parsi) had said he had sneaked into a fire temple — as a kid. I had written Parsi Controversies then.

We do pull up Hindus for their practice of untouchability, and rightly so. But Muslims, Christians, and Parsis are offenders too. Muslims have a higher caste of Syeds, and many sects look down on others — including not having water in the house of one or treating another's rituals with contempt. Even if a religion talks about the differences, should we not move with the times? Ages ago, there were probably reasons of survival of the fittest and assertion of territory to be factored in. Today, social mobility makes these redundant.

The hypocrisy makes things worse when there is talk of dignity of labour in public and scant consideration privately for those performing such tasks. Why is it that a person with a degree doing a menial job is seen as honourable but one 'born' into it not so? These prejudices are not ingrained but learned. And such learning is also about some form of intellectual superiority, and therefore slavery.

If we must shun, then shunning these double-faced consciences should be considered good untouchability. 


Sunday ka Funda

Time flies, we say, as another dawn, another dusk arrive and leave. There is birth. And rebirth. Yes, rebirth. The soil is fertile. It creates.

Then, there are needs, wishes, desires. Each one takes away something from us even before it has given us anything. Indeed:

"Hazaaaron khwaahishein aisi ke har khwaahish pe dum nikle..."


Whose yoga is it, anyway?

After this Yoga Day is over, nobody will give a damn about it, neither those promoting it nor those opposing it.

As we celebrate the occasion on June 21, it becomes evident that unlike the rest of the world, for Indians it is not only about physical wellbeing. It takes a very simplistic mind to suggest that the sudden interest in yoga is about health. If that were the priority, then our health infrastructure would be revamped and several other cures propagated.

Perhaps those who perform their asanas and deep breathing might have gone about it as they always do but for the added burden of being made the keepers of a cultural heritage. This becomes more potent when you have to deal with what appear to be enemies of yoga. Supporting yoga today is also about patriotism.

"Yoga is the best soft power of India," said external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Inherent in the statement is the belief that we can colonise others with it, and indeed with so many other countries adopting it it is possible to indulge in such delusion, especially where the West is concerned.

The same goes for the prime minister. When Narendra Modi suggested to the UN to institute a day celebrating yoga, he was claiming heritage, capitalising on the foreign interest, and appealing to the NRI community by taking care not to use Hindutva evangelism and spoil their case in their adopted lands.

More than culture, it is an assertion of patent rights. Our foreign obsession often takes us to our own cultural moorings only after they've been accepted overseas, largely by the whites. Do we hear about blacks and yoga? There is no way that the foreigners enamoured of yoga are doing so solely due to its physical benefits. They like the exotica that accompanies it — the incense, the spiritual poses, the history and the mythography of finding the self from the navel to the seat of all desire at the base of the lower back, as the kundalini rises.

Added to this is the guilt that they are taking over yoga. There has been much debate for years about the appropriation. This is not quite true for Indian gurus from Maharishi Mahesh yogi to Deepak Chopra made money overseas and gained currency in the land of their origin because of their famous clientele overseas. There might be a few mom & pop type yoga stores, but it is more likely that it is preferred to be first experienced in its 'natural' environment.

The truth is that yoga has been chosen for special attention simply because it is a thriving industry, and not because India wants to culturally invade the world or the minorities. However, the 'yoga is anti-Islam, anti-Christianity' lobbies come in handy because the majority of middle-class Indians, avaricious as they are, like a moral core to justify their greed.

With the subtle implication that this is an ancient art form that needs to be protected and propagated, they feel assuaged. They carry history in their aspiring to be nimble forms.

It was bad enough that certain Muslim groups and individuals started talking about how yoga is anti-Islam, but it is even worse to see the ridiculous attempts to co-opt other Muslims. Photographs of maulvis and people wearing burqas and skull caps holding their noses and contorting their bodies just make it appear like the farce it is turning out to be.

It started with this nonsense about how Muslims can't do the surya namaskar because in Islam you are not supposed to worship any form. Not everybody who does yoga worships the sun or the moon or anything. Why even bring this up? This gave Yogi Adityanath just the kind of opportunity he waits for:

"Sun is the source of life giving energy. Whoever thinks Sun is communal, I would like to humbly request them to drown themselves in the sea or they should stay in a dark cell."

These Muslims deserve his idiocy that misinterprets their intent and even communalises the sun. At the other end is Sakshi Maharaj who called himself a true Muslim and Prophet Mohammed a great yogi. Some others said namaaz is like yoga.

Some Muslims asserted that they are not supposed to say 'Om' while doing deep meditation, and somebody suggested they could replace it with 'Ameen'. You really do not need either, and if yoga is all about health then just get on with it. By creating a controversy, bigoted Muslims have just played into the hands of the other bigots, and made themselves into a laughing stock to be 'saved' by the likes of Baba Ramdev.

Christians too have objected because yoga is "not compatible with Christianity". An event organized by drug rehab NGO Kripa is in trouble because many from the community believe that Fr. Joe Pereira is more like a Hindu yoga guru. A parishioner said, "...yoga is not Biblical. If a priest wants to organise something, he should do it within the framework of the Christian world."

Everyone seems to want to score points.

Mr Modi, despite all the criticism the event has generated, has used what has always been there to garner more attention for himself. He wants to ensure that this occasion gets into the Guinness Book. Large contingents will be out, including police personnel and bureaucrats.

A yoga instructor at the class for public servants was quoted as saying:

“They heard it on TV, and they are running toward the yoga. The prime minister is the king. If the king does something, that is very effective. And this time, our king is doing yoga.”

School students who anyway are expected to participated in Physical Training (PT) classes are being brainwashed. Is this about general wellbeing? One politician, whatever be his motives, seems to have got it mostly right. Karnataka Social Welfare Minister Anjanaiah said:

"Yoga is for lazy people, especially people belonging to well to do families. They do not have time for exercise in the open including taking a walk...People should ask their children to indulge themselves in playing outdoor sports including running and long walks instead of yoga."

Have you seen a poor person practise, much less discuss, yoga? Yoga is essentially for the angst-ridden elite looking for reprieve or the neo-enlightened who think it is a non-invasive body cleanser. Very few use it as an alternative to medicine. And now with the supposed renaissance, it has become a symbol of political opportunism camouflaging as culture. Forget yoga, we need a new culture.


The Taliban has now objected to Pakistanis celebrating the occasion, so many events have been cancelled. An earlier piece I wrote on Pakistan on an Indian spiritual trip


The house of mirrors, not horror

The discovery of skeletons in the house of a living man is disturbing. Partha De is now in custody and his life is being prised open by the police, psychiatrists and curious onlookers. The story from Kolkata that has been in the news for the past few days invariably refers to it as the “House of Horrors”. This is most unfortunate. None of the inhabitants tried to spook out others; in fact, there was barely any contact with outsiders. How does it become a horror house then? The linked report has a picture of a skeleton "for representation purposes". What is it supposed to represent? 

According to the doctors, De is suffering from complex psychological problems and an extreme form of depression due to which he refused to accept the death of his sister Debjani and two pet dogs and continued to communicate with them, despite the bodies decomposing before his eyes. As of now, he is not convicted for any crime, although he witnessed his father Arabindo De’s suicide where he set himself aflame. Partha did not – perhaps could not – help.

There has been much debate about depression recently, and people seem to show some understanding, even though I am chary of such public empathy for prominent cases. In some ways, the cynicism gets validated when we read about the “horror” instead of an attempt to reach out to such minds. Depression is not only about pretty people losing the will to do anything and where ‘coming out’ becomes the denouement. (I will not judge them, for each one suffers and it is lonely in that space, but this is not the full picture of depression.) What happened in Kolkata might seem extreme, but inmates in mental asylums are often like that.

De was at home and could give vent to his delusions. These are not fantasies, but false beliefs. However, was he the only ill person in that house? His father and sister all apparently wrote letters to each other from one room to another. Is this a sign of something wrong? In the outside world people aren’t doing it too differently – the messaging, calls, and social media thumbs up to one another all reveal a lack of normal communication.

Here it would seem was a well-established family, its members educated. Partha was an engineer; his sister taught music. Their bungalow is worth a few crores. The psychiatric opinions talk about incest and necrophilia, both plausible given the evidence.

But what if it is three people still living with the memory of the mother? In the notes Partha seems to suggest that she was jealous of her daughter, making her strip in the bathroom during a family vacation. Or being unusually curious about her son’s potency (“My mother thinks I am impotent. She wanted to see me develop a relationship. This is why she used to send a maid servant to my room...”) instead of finding out if he might wish to get married or live in with a partner.

The reports refer to his “bizarre descriptions” of sex. This should not automatically imply any illness. Novelists might write about bizarre acts, and fantasies can be bizarre.

It appears that the mother was overprotective and infantilising the siblings, and their growing old was a threat to her position despite her being a strong person:

"The enemy tried to take my mother but failed. It lost - the biggest loser. The devil got (f*****) royally. My mother had a very powerful will. She fought with all her weight."

In some ways, Partha began looking at his sister as a mother figure he could relate to in a more than Oedipal way.

There are child-like drawings. Some dolls have been found, indicating the use of black magic. Except for the property battle with the senior’s brother, there does not appear to be any tangible enemy to cast a spell on. More than any black magic device, the dolls probably filled a gap, as maternal symbols or children. The father seems to have been a helpless witness to all the tragedies mirrored in one another.

Nobody knows yet how Debjani or the dogs died. The neighbours were unaware. A big city where a family living in a prominent house goes undetected and their lives seem to be of no consequence reveals the horror of what we have become as a society.

If this is about living with the dead, then that is how we all live everyday. 


The Invisible News

There is no outrage over the journalist who was set on fire. None.

But, there is a lot of outrage when Pakistan says, "We are not Myanmar".

The former is, in the public imagination, a solitary death; the latter is life, a reason to live in fact. We have our priorities all wrong, and this manifests itself in what we read and watch as news. Now that citizens have some say in what constitutes news, the media can use them as much as they use the media. This demand-supply caters to the worst instincts in both.

Why is Pakistan so nervous? This line was repeated, and at first it seemed unnecessarily vociferous. Soon enough, it became a cackle, the anchor not even realisisng that it sounded more like canned laughter than a strong message that we were supposedly sending out to our neighbour.

"Have you seen your face?" asked the pugnacious Maroof Raza, an Indian defense analyst, of the Pakistani panelists. This was a new low. On the Pakistani side there was journalist Mosharraf Zaidi, a usually sensible chap, who decided to humour Arnab Goswami. Not amusing, though, given that it became a case of one jester against another and achieved nothing. I also have a bone to pick with Zaidi. He started with a salutation, conveying his salaams specifically to the Muslims in India, and as an afterthought added others too. This is the sort of thing that gives people like Maroof Raza a real kick to play Indian Muslims against Pakistani Muslims, when they know zilch about the problems within the community, which is certainly not the nonsense spewed every day on prime time.

Regarding the Myanmar operation, it is all about how the Indian Army finished its job in 45 minutes flat. There is a numerical value attached to everything, and our patriotism depends on how well we score in our responses to such quickies.

Jagendra Singh in flames should have made the cut, what with our appetite for such burning issues, but he did not. It is certainly not because there are questions regarding veracity — was he killed or did he commit suicide, as the police suggest. Even if it is the latter, the media can probe this angle, as well as follow up on the criminal charges he wrote about exposing some politicians. One is not suggesting that he was right, but surely something was wrong somewhere.

The nature of such almost-invisibility in the social news space is that he was not English-speaking. He brought out Shahjahanpur Times, a local daily in a town of Uttar Pradesh. He was not mainstream, so the press bodies couldn't be bothered nor would the charmed media circles. In this public space reams are written about journalists who quit in a huff, many acquire martyrdom and their resignation letters are quoted if not reproduced verbatim. I suppose with so much moral arrogance going, where would there be any space to discuss the reasons for a small journalist doused in petrol?

Today, or was it yesterday, a man came under the train and was killed. A small item in the newspaper. Same paper had a front page story on a corporate lawyer, whose drunken rash driving killed a taxi driver and a passenger, leaving three other members of his family injured.

These things made it newsy - a woman driver, a divorcee, had Ballantine's whiskey, worked for Reliance Industries. Her photographs are displayed prominently, and the victims when mentioned are given the upscale treatment of being a "SoBo family", of going out on a celebratory dinner, of running a business. It took a family member to add that there was also the taxi driver. (Later news items even headlined it 'Audi Crash'.)

The media will find a way of justifying it as exposing the biggies, when all they are doing is using the same darned 'People Like Us' ruse to grab eyeballs. Who does not want to read about a woman driving an Audi after a few drinks and says she spent two hours on Marine Drive sitting in her car?

And who wants to read about some chap who came under a local train? What was he wearing, what did he drink, or what did the engine driver drink, was he married, single, divorced? Do we even want to know?

We then have the gall to judge others — the police, the courts — for asking such irrelevant, misogynist questions when that is what we feed on.

A teenager molested by an autorickshaw driver in the far suburbs is of no interest, but a young woman complaining about an ill-mannered Uber taxi driver gets us agitated, and makes us add our voice to the protest.

This is a pattern, and let us not fool ourselves that we are concerned. Just frothing at the mouth means little if we are to spend considerable time swallowing what is dished out and repeating the menu. The news ceases to be about others, and becomes about our hunger that cries to be satiated.


• Suddenly the Jagendra Singh story is making news.

"Why did they set me on fire? They could have thrashed me, if they wanted to take out their grudge on me." These were the last lines of the journalist who was burnt to death for his Facebook posts against SP MLA Ram Murti Verma.

The media now has access to a video where he has recorded his dying declaration, his skin peeling before our eyes. This is what gets us interested, not the truth.

• Why are the newspapers carrying album-type photographs of Jahnavi Gadkar, the corporate lawyer in the drunken driving case? It is obvious they are sourcing these from her social media pages. Where is the need to show her in different poses?