A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism

India has announced a seven-day mourning for its former president APJ Abdul Kalam. As TV channels paid rich tributes to the “People’s President”, they all but blacked out news of a militant attack in Gurdaspur, Punjab, where four policemen, three civilians, and three terrorists, all ‘people’, were killed a few hours earlier.

On the evening of July 27, as Dr. Kalam was giving a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, he slumped to the floor. He died as he lived, a teacher always. At 84, he remained alert and disarming. His charms left no room for criticism, at least not overtly. De-politicising him has been modern India’s trickery.

Missile Politics

He has been described as a reluctant politician, although there is no record of him refusing to accept the post of President of the Republic of India, for which he was nominated by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2002.

As a scientist and chief of the Defence Research & Development Organisation he did come in touch with politicians, but his elevation to the highest office was a different political move. While this is the norm, despite the chariness in admitting it, the post of the president is not without its bells and whistles. A ruling party will not nominate a person, however accomplished he might otherwise be, unless he fits into its broad ideological stand. The Congress-nominated presidents were notorious for being rubber-stamps, the worst being Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency declaration.

As father of the indigenous missile and planner of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, in Kalam the BJP got a man who was seemingly above politics, a benefit they are reaping till date when they want to flash their version of secularism and pugnacious nationalism, especially to the enemy across the border.

He put across his own belief thus: “Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength.” While to his political audience this seemed like a good excuse to justify their opportunism, his young admirers would have subliminally inculcated the message that India could be a world power only on the strength of nuclear capability.

He did use the opportunity to reach out and inculcate the scientific spirit in the young, who he related to so well. However, his position and what the media showcased usually showed him among the relatively elite urban students. On the occasion when a village Muslim orphanage school in Kerala sent 1000 cards to him on the eve of Independence Day, it was to inculcate the spirit of patriotism.

This story would not hold much traction in the effulgent episodes we witness now. Dr. Kalam has became a figure of fables and a Dale Carnegie type wisdom giver. His optimism, necessary and utterly sweet, however seemed to create a hothouse idea of the march towards progress. How could he reconcile his ideas of dreams and peace with the adult toys he created breathing fire and earth with Agni, Prithvi and Brahmos, also part of a godly pantheon?

The Minority Appeased

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor paid tribute by tweeting, “Abdul Kalam ignited minds, inspired young people, and embodied the potential in every Indian. A Muslim steeped in Hindu culture, a complete Indian.”

This statement embodies what the Indian nation expects of a Muslim in a position of power; to be a complete Indian a member of the minority community should be steeped in Hindu culture. No other president had such a burden to bear to effectively prove that he is above reproach. This was insidiously managed by using the apolitical argument, the implication being that a person from a minority community is not supposed to have any opinions about the society in which he was born and towards which he contributes.

To an extent, despite his utterances about spiritualism as opposed to religion, he too projected the image of someone who had made peace with the belong-to-the-mainstream idea by the mainstream, which translates into majoritarian hegemony. He had said once how impressed he was by sadhus “seated around in a trance”.

At Akshardham, 2006

"In him we found a perfect harmony between science and spirituality," said BJP leader L K Advani, the man who took out a procession in a Toyota mimicking an ancient chariot to pave the way for a Hindutva renaissance in a secular country. Dr. Kalam was to preside over a state run by this party.

In the initial stages, he was naïve. He went to the riot-affected areas in Gujarat soon after the 2002 pogrom. The then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had famously stated that he stood by the chief minister who is now PM, wasn’t amused. Kalam, as quoted in his memoirs ‘Turning Points – A Journey Through Challenges’, told him, “I consider it an important duty so that I can be of some use to remove the pain, and also accelerate the relief activities, and bring about a unity of minds, which is my mission.”

Kalam had, in fact, unwittingly witnessed the early days of political skulduggery. The home ministry cautioned him. But when he landed there, he was welcomed. “Narendra Modi, the chief minister, was with me throughout the visit. In one way, this helped me, as wherever I went, I received petitions and complaints and as he was with me I was able to suggest to him that action be taken as quickly as possible.”

Neither unity nor relief appeared magically. In fact, 13 years later, activists are being hounded for fighting for the victims of those riots.

When there was a delay in awarding the demanded capital punishment to Afzal Guru for the Parliament attack of 2001, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had sniggered, “His hair is falling over his eyes and blinding him, or perhaps he is seeing stars or the moon before his eyes” referring to Kalam’s long hair. Today, the party condoled his death by stating that he will be remembered as Mahatma Gandhi is.

Dr. Kalam fit into the idea of the yogi for which he was lauded – a bachelor, a vegetarian, and one who read the Hindu scriptures. He was not celebrated for offering the namaaz, or reading the Quran. Those who made him into the brand for secularism have always been selective. They would find any questions about their motive communal, because they wish to hold Dr. Kalam up as an example even if their varnished polite language might choose to call it ‘role model’, which he indeed was to those not in positions of power and pelf.

The political role model is created as an armour against an imagined dystopia. The role model is picked from the imagined avenging group. Innocent of their wily ways perhaps, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam became the message rather than the messenger.

(Published in CounterPunch) & Countercurrents)


Breastfeeding in Parliament

A woman breastfeeding her child can be a rather sublime sight, that is if she is not stared at. But does sublimity or subtlety even matter when the mother in the act ends up as an "internet hero"? 

Victoria Donda Pérez is an Argentinian MP. She decided to breastfeed her 8-month-old daughter in Parliament, when the session was on. 

Working women have praised her; her critics say it falsely conveys that women can have it all when that is not true.

Was she aware that her pictures were taken and would be in the media?  Assuming she is okay with it, I am not one bit impressed by Ms. Pérez's act on grounds of prudence as well as feminism. 

Breastfeeding is a natural activity as are many others, some of which we might not even have much control over. We control them in a public space anyway. I am not comparing sneezing, breaking wind or picking the nose to nursing, but surely there could not have been such urgency to feed the baby. If anything, this comes across as terribly unprofessional. 

This is not an issue about women's rights over their bodies; it is just that such rights as exercised in this manner convey that the woman has no choice. Even if we excuse the politician for elitism, the larger question is: is the woman a mother on the job? This just sends out the message about the feminised woman as the only one who can have any power, or acceptance.

Why are women applauding the "balancing act"? It isn't news that only a woman can bear a child and nurse babies. But such validation of 'balance' also unburdens the father of responsibility, and he will be the first one to call her superwoman.

Such a public act in a work place (as opposed to a park or even the office canteen) only consolidates the stereotyped role of a mother that deny her the option to make a studied choice — which could be fixed feeding hours at the office creche or collecting the milk for use at intervals. 

Suppose this was not in Parliament, but a regular office conference. Would the response be the same? Unlikely. It only means that in some ways this is sought to be made into a political statement. 

And it is no surprise at all that she has been nicknamed "Dipusex" (sexy MP). It takes a simple, natural activity to make a woman into a fantasy object. Women object to such labels on other occasions when they want to be recognised for their work or talent alone. How is it different this time? Is Ms. Pérez not being reduced to a pair of breasts, even if they are of a mother's? 

The Oedipal implications are too obvious. 

PS: In India, women from the labour class do breastfeed at the workplace on construction sites or in small industries. That is because the child is with them all the time. 

Sunday ka Funda

I don't like this tree, a hybrid tree that bears forty different kinds of fruit and flowers in varied colours.

This "sculpture by grafting", the brainchild of art professor Sam Van Aken of Syracuse University, might be a great scientific experiment and good as curiosity or art installation that it initially was, but a workable green option?

There is something about orchards with trees bearing one sort of fruit; it feels like communion, familiarity, and also to an extent hierarchy when one picks the good ones. The birds too know where to come for what they seek.

A huge tree with different varieties appears to compress nature. It is also demeaning in a way for spoiled for choice, one may either make the wrong move or the one not intended, or just walk away awestruck.

Trees are designed to be resilient, not to multitask. And some of us like our trees and people to just do one thing at a time.

As the Zen teacher told his pupil, “When drinking tea, just drink tea.”


Who is communalising the hanging? Owaisi vs Sakshi Maharaj

There are many people who speak out against capital punishment; there are a good number of Indians who believe that Yakub Memon should not be given the death sentence. He has already spent 20 years in jail and is medically certified as a schizophrenic. The court has rejected his curative petition. He is scheduled to be hanged to death on July 30.

I have already written about the case here, but it is disturbing to watch how the public is being swayed in the name of nationalism. Even those who do not want him to be hanged seem to have a problem with any Muslim "communalising" the issue.

Let us stop fooling others and ourselves. Muslims have not communalised other crimes. This was and is a communal issue. Why is it that only the blasts are seen as communal? Because the culprits were Muslim, and it was said that this was their vengeance for the 1992 riots? Muslims suffered in the blasts too, their businesses were destroyed. Hindus too suffered during the riots, but the main targets were Muslims.

It is a communal issue because the rath yatra of L.K.Advani and the kar sevaks was to reclaim a place of worship. It is communal because a mosque was destroyed (yes, if you like history so much, then we will say that Babar was communal, hope it helps) with hammers and trishuls, a Hindu symbol. It is communal because soon after Muslims were threatened and there was a blood bath in cities far from Ayodhya. It is communal because leaders could use filthy language against a community, could provoke crowds; these leaders got elected. It is communal because there was pressure on the Srikrishna Committee probing into the riots; no one was convicted.

Therefore, when Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) asks questions about the hanging of Yakub Memon how does he become communal whereas others can say the same thing and be 'Indians'?

He did raise questions of discrimination. He also said:

"The killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh have the backing of political parties in Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Which political party is backing Yakub Memon? Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab has gone to the extent of pardoning Balwant Singh Rajoana."

Owaisi is speaking as an Indian; he is referring to law and the Constitution. It is not a law of the high born or the Hindu. It is a law for everybody.

He has every right to speak about Muslims, not because he is a Muslim but this is a human rights issue. In any civilised society capital punishment leads to introspection. It is not about dancing on the rooftop claiming to be more patriotic that the next person.

I watched a TV discussion last night where the above-mentioned incidents were dismissed as individual efforts that were not as much a threat as Pakistan and ISI. When Owaisi pointed out that the LTTE and Khalistani elements could be a threat too, the anchor, good Mr. Arnab Goswami, started screaming about how he was SHOCKED that Owaisi was taking up for the ISI.

So this is not about India. It is about Pakistan. The Indian government is frustrated that it cannot bring back Dawood Ibrahim, and will use any means to get back at that country. Prime time divas thrive on warmongering.

BJP's Sakshi Maharaj responding to Owaisi said:

"People who can't respect Indian system and judiciary can go to Pakistan, door is open."

Sakshi Maharaj is a career sadhu; he has got into Parliament for this reason and not because of any other qualification. Such people have the gumption to abuse others for communalism when their very existence and calling card is communal; he speaks about how Hindu women should produce more children so that Muslims do not overtake them. His commitment to the Indian judiciary is selective, and if the party leadership were strong he would have been shown the door using the same judiciary.

I usually don't like to grant any legitimacy to such utterances, except that this one once again uses the fake nationalism card to discriminate.

While upholding his death sentence, the Supreme Court described Yakub Memon as the "driving spirit" of the blasts. This is clearly a way to wash hands off finding others. And it also makes me wonder about all those "driving spirits" that have inspired riots in different parts of the country as well as the "driving spirits" who continue to occupy positions of power to divide the nation with their bigotry by feeding them with false notions of nationalism.

Waiting for a man to go to the gallows does not prove your patriotism one bit.

End note

"Much is being made of former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief late B. Raman's 2007 piece that has been published now. As an insider, he had explained why Yakub Memon should not be hanged."

He had come to Kathmandu secretly from Karachi to consult a relative and a lawyer on the advisability of some members of the Memon family, including himself, who felt uncomfortable with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, returning to India and surrendering to the Mumbai police. The relative and the lawyer advised him against surrender due to a fear that justice might not be done to them. They advised Yakub to go back to Karachi.

None of this is new and its publication now adds nothing. In fact, it only leads to conspiracy theories about how it is timed to influence the mercy plea.

What will influence the mercy plea is more direct and unethical — the Maharashtra state home department has asked the governor to reject the mercy plea. What is the basis for such intervention?


Received an email from somebody who knows the law better than I do. Regarding my last bit about ethics of state intervention, it is legal:

"The state/centre's Home Ministry is duty bound to give its opinion on a mercy plea. However, it is still being debated- whether the governor is bound by such opinion."


No prayers for terrorists?

The Eid namaaz had just been offered. The maulvis at the Dargah Ala Hazrat in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh issued a fatwa: say no burial prayers for terrorists and their sympathisers.

Mufti Mohammed Salim Noori, general secretary of the Tahreek-e-Tahaffuz Sunniat, said:

"On the pious occasion of Eid, the Sunni Barelvi Markaz send a strong message that no maulana, mufti or other religious leader will read the 'namaz-e-janaza' for anyone associated with terrorism in any form. By this, we want to lodge a strong protest against terrorism."

It is not surprising that this will be hailed among some sections of the intelligentsia, because this segment loves varnish. Also, it cares not for details.

Clerics are not germane to Islam; they are middlemen that have capitalised on the vulnerabilities of the devout. A Muslim does not need a religious leader to recite any prayers; it can be done by anybody — relatives, friends or wayfarers. The maulvis are pushing their own agenda, as they have always done to keep themselves relevant.

If they are so concerned about all that is good, why don't they issue fatwas against those who do not use medical assistance due to superstition? Because this will hit their business of exorcism and other trickery. Will a Sunni or a Shia maulvi issue a fatwa to the faithful not to discriminate on the basis of sect?

While terrorism is a huge problem, it also helps empty rhetoric to sideline more urgent terrors of daily living. The Times of India report spoke about other good fatwas by the seminary quite forgetting its own
report of April this year when this same cleric had objected to a survey finding in which Muslim women wanted equal property rights.

Those who laud 'progressive' edicts should be protesting against the dragging of religion in what is a political matter. They too put the onus on Muslims to deal with terrorism, and ironically the pulpit that is often blamed for provoking violence is the one that gets away for ostensibly sending a message of peace.

How is the general public to recognise a terrorist when the police seem to have difficulty identifying them? Is that not why there are so many undertrial prisoners rounded up on mere suspicion because of their names or what they look like? What if a good Samaritan follows the good cleric's orders and implicates somebody as a terrorist supporter only because of a personal grudge?

Occasionally, the cleric is also a terrorist. If not for real, then by the sheer tactics he uses to promote himself. As for political terrorists, they aren't exactly roaming around in the cities and towns to recruit people who might offer the namaaz upon their death.


Sunday ka Funda

This Eid, in India, belonged to two films that essentially celebrate Hindu mythology.

At a late night show of 'Baahubali' on the day that celebrates the conclusion of Ramzan, we watched a celebration of Lord Shiva. In the audience were quite a few Muslims in identifiable clothes — caps, hijabs, even burqa.

Despite its obvious mythology it does not alienate those who might not follow its precepts. In that sense, it is a truly secular movie, and I say this despite my aversion for standardised norms of secularism, or of the fads surrounding it as well as the slurs it invites by way of spelling. No, it is not sickular! (A review will follow later.)


I have not yet watched 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan', but from what I've read and heard it is also simplistic and guileless. Here, a Hanuman bhakt takes it upon himself to unite a little girl who is Muslim and Pakistani with her family.

This qawwali here is something I've heard from better artistes, but just that moment when the protagonist breaks down as the music soars conveys that faith — religious or otherwise — is essentially about flowing.

Eid Mubarak!


Hanging Yakub Memon

Yakub Memon is to hang. Barely had the announcement been made, and the media started with its, “This will send out a wrong signal to Indian Muslims”. How pathetic and dangerous such analysis is. It assumed that by default all Muslims in India are the products and respondents to the Yakub Memon school of thought, and that is the worst thing to happen to this fair country of ours. The other usage of Indian Muslims is as pop analysis, which is again so limited. That is the reason I felt Black Friday was such a disgusting film.

Even as his curative petition is pending in the Supreme Court, a TADA court in Mumbai has issued a death warrant against 1993 Mumbai serial blast accused Yakub Memon. According to the warrant, Memon is likely to be hanged at the Nagpur Central Jail on July 30 at 7 am.

It seems more like diverting attention and once again some political parties will gain mileage.

The verdict to hang was made first 20 years after the 1993 blasts. The CBI had picked on arrangers and got nowhere near the real culprits. The riots preceding the blasts have never been fully understood.  I had written the following then:

Those were the days of TADA, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the horrific provision that transformed every suspect into a terrorist. It made the prevalent context of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ redundant. It gave more powers to the police, without any responsibility.

And today as the courts pronounced the verdict, a man who in fact assisted in nailing the real culprits is to be hanged to death. If Yakub Memon had not mentioned Pakistan, our intelligence agencies would be going on their regular spins to Dubai.

Advocate Ujjwal Nikam said that the death sentence for Yakub Memon would send a strong message to Pakistan about the consequences of hiding Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon. He is either an optimistic or a deluded man. He said something similar when Ajmal Kasab was hanged. And things have got no better. Worse, seven years ago he had stated that if Sanjay Dutt had informed the police then the blasts would not have taken place because he “knew that the three AK56 rifles he received from Samir Hingora, Ibrahim Mussa and Abu Salem on Jan 16, 1993, were part of a consignment meant for terrorist acts.”

Three guns were going to cause blasts across the city? And what was the huge consignment in Shiv Sena MLA the late Madhukar Sarpotdar’s house for during the riots that preceded the blasts?

In what is an extremely ironic situation, Sanjay Dutt played the role of a tragic gangster in Vaastav, a film produced by Chhota Rajan. Rajan was the second most important man in D-Company, helmed by Dawood Ibrahim, who was responsible for the 1993 Mumbai blasts. This film was made later. By then, Rajan had split from Dawood because he discovered his patriotism for India, a country he does not live in. He continues to conduct his underworld operations mainly from Bangkok, quite conveniently managing illegal activities in his home country.

Dark comedy aside, the verdict is abuse of law. While Yakub Memon and Sanjay Dutt will be seen as the pivots, we need to take a look at how the process of justice in this case took place.

We have had a long incubation period on the riots report by Justice Liberhan. Where are the accused in that and what is the status of their arrests? There is rarely any talk about the riots; there is no loss of property “worth Rs 27 crore” and therefore useless to an economically-varnished India.

If we want fairplay, then play fair. During the riots cops were assisting in the process and shooting at random, shooting innocents only because they knew who stayed there. And what about the goon ministers who possessed arms? What about recruiting kar sevaks? How do you think people died during the riots – out of fear or did they commit suicide?

The problem is that we have two sets of justices operating always, whether it is on grounds of religion, caste, class, or fame.



Pluto over the moon

Pluto and Earth

Sometimes, the process of scientific discoveries takes on such a spiritual dimension. It raises metaphysical questions about one’s own being.

When NASA’s New Horizons whooshed past Pluto, it was not only about finding something new, but how the findings would answer queries about Earth, and the solar system; about evolution and destruction.

Being a non-science person, what struck me was the sheer difference in size. If earth is a watermelon, then Pluto is a tiny blueberry; if earth is the ocean, then Pluto is a pond; if earth is a tree, Pluto is but a flower or a leaf; if earth is a refrigerator, then Pluto is a piece of ice. These are mere analogies for the reality is straightforward: Pluto is a mere 2,302 kilometers in diameter and is about 1/6th the size of Earth.

Does size matter? Traditionally, it is the big fish that eats the small fry, and the big countries that colonise the smaller nations. Would earth conquer the "dwarf planet" Pluto or play Big Brother? Unlikely. And this is what makes the discovery of the planets different from the discovery of the apes. There is no emotional and psychological motive to use as precedent to display pugnacity. We don’t see any hierarchy and therefore cannot use that as a yardstick.

What Earth is doing now is almost fanboy mode of discovering, say, a new genre of music, or writing. It is comforting to know that there are places in the universe where the ills of society are alien. Does NASA even care whether Pluto has politicians, water shortage, ozone layer, the greenhouse effect? I do not see it as indifference, but a sign that we assume the innocence of those not touched by the wily ways of earthlings.

Each time, a new planet is found or a new aspect of it revealed, it should make us think about how we are not the world and never can be.


How J.K.Rowling demoted Serena Williams

What should have been the brilliant Serena Williams' moment has transformed into a J.K.Rowling defending Serena one. The tennis star has enough calibre and celebrity to withstand stray comments, if she pays heed to them at all.

Instead, by rushing to her rescue Ms Rowling has reduced that victory to victimisation.

It started with Rowling posting her praise for Serena on Twitter: "I love her. What an athlete, what a role model, what a woman!"

A fellow called Rob responded with, "Ironic then that main reason for her success is that she is built like a man."

That's when Rowling did what she is now all over the place for. She posted two pictures of Serena in a slinky, clingy gown, her contours emphasised, and captioned it, "'she is built like a man'. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You're an idiot."

For doing this, Rowling is now celebrated for having "decimated", "destroyed" a troll. Seriously? Can't even imagine the search words she must have used to find these photographs. Was it "Serena looking like a woman" or "Serena's hips"?

Rob has an opinion about women's bodies, and he does not think twice about commenting on a tennis player's despite the fact that she has won due to stroke play and not what she looks like. But, is J.K.Rowling any different from the guy who is denounced as a "body shamer"? One may accuse him of being wrong, or of misogyny, but has he shamed Serena?

Why would being built like a man qualify as shame? If a graceful male dancer is said to be built like a woman, would that be an insult? It ought not to.

I am surprised that the media has gone all pulp prose to commend Rowling, who should in fact be ticked off. She posts a picture of Serena looking 'feminine' and goes on to highlight it. What if she did not have those curves, would she then be less of a person of the female gender?

Not all women are built in the mould that a Rowling fancies as representative, just as not all men are uniform in build that Rob implies.

Worse, Serena is objectified not by the unknown man, but by this celebrity author. It's almost like a put-on display to justify to that Rob guy that she is all woman, all flesh. This is body shaming because it feels the need to prove that it is the desirably accepted female body and not what a guy from somewhere suggests it is.

Serena has won a title at Wimbledon. Her body has not. So, J.K. Rowling and her cheerleaders in the media and social media, bereft of nuance, can just shut up. And perhaps grow up.


Walk like an Egyptian

Much more than his face, I liked his voice, including the lilt. A bit woozy and timorous, it had the steadying quality of a sage. There was no choice left but to like Omar Sharif.

I watched him a few years ago in 3D at the Trocadero Centre. It was in a documentary on Egypt. He had become a bit stocky, and his face had spread out; the gap-tooth smile remained. As he stood amongst the mummified remains and history, it became evident that Hollywood might have embraced him but he continued to walk like an Egyptian.

In fact, part of his charm was his difference. Would the West have been as excited about him if he was called Michel Chelhoub, which was his real name? It was not the filmmakers that renamed him though. The actor himself wanted something that his fellow countrymen could pronounce, it seems. Why would they not, if it was a naturally Middle Eastern name? Was this a little trick he was given to play — not sure about himself so making things easier for others as a preemptive exercise?

I did not start to write this with pop analysis. Like most, I found him attractive. However, what simmered was more beguiling than what was obvious. His much-feted 'Lawrence of Arabia' outing struck me as exotica overload. Dr. Zhivago did better, but morphing into a Russian for the Americans was exotic too.

Omar Sharif could have been Clark Gable in 'Gone with the Wind', and it is not surprising that the memorable line the character utters is, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Sharif's casual charm certainly did not.

While my exposure to his cinema was limited, I assumed he had some political inclination, if not history. One reason was that his works were banned in Egypt after he was shown making love to a Jewish woman in 'Funny Girl'. That he and Barbra Streisand were also a couple made it worse. An Arab and a Jew? His response was a throwaway, “When I kiss a woman, I never ask her nationality or her religion.”

The Jewish question seemed to be of some humanist consideration for he went on to produce and act in the French film 'M Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran' (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran); in English it was just 'Monsieur Ibrahim'. It is about a Jewish teenager who befriends a Turkish shopkeeper. I've watched it and its message stands out simply because it is not shouted out.

Sharif certainly had views on the region he came from, and he did not think much of America. In a land of upstarts, his old world refinement, and to an extend bacchanalian tendencies, were bound to feel adrift.

He lost money in casinos where he went because he was lonely, and it was one place where he could eat without being stared at.

I revisited this video after a long while and was once again struck by gems like, "Arab society is extremely tribalistic", "democracy is not the panacea", "I have none (religious beliefs) that I can prove"...and on his deathbed he said he would call out to his mother to take him...


The Argumentative Amartya

It is obvious that the government at the Centre is interfering in academic and cultural matters, be it the choice of the Censor Board chief, the Film and Television Institute (FTII) head, or even the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research director. Books are being rewritten to project a Hindutva version of India, and the inclusion of yoga and other culturally indigenous ideas are seen as a further push in this direction.

"I was certainly ousted from Nalanda. Some members of the Board, especially the foreign members were keen on carrying on the battle for me but I stepped aside as I did not want to be an ineffective leader. The government may have held up finances or statues had I continued.  Nalanda not a one off incident. Nothing in this scale of interference has happened before. Every institution where the government has a formal role is being converted into where the government has a substantive role."

Internet-logged Indians have got divided into two camps. If there is a third, I’ll go there. For, one need not agree with the government to be able to disagree with what the professor stands for. The habit of making these remarks every once in a while is a bit opportunistic. Not everybody can claim support as he said he has from the board. Why did he not fight it out? Because, he is a safe player. 

I had written the following for a website way back in October 2005:

The tragedy of Amartya Sen is of being a non-hero, a Buddha without renunciation.

There was a great deal of flurry over his book, ‘The Argumentative Indian’, a collection of essays discussing how democracy is linked to the country’s argumentative tradition. He has a propensity for creating imaginary allegories.

A few years ago he had come up with the facile belief that famines existed where there was no democracy. He had written, “… famines have never afflicted any country that is independent, that goes to elections, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms, that permits newspapers to report freely and to question government policies without extensive censorship.”

Simply speaking, we would be talking about rich societies, socially or economically. Why bring democracy in? Forget famines. What about the other problems that beset a country like India? We have democracy, which Sen finds so delectable. Then why does he subscribe to state intervention? He had concurred that the role of the state even in matters like nutrition, health, education, social insurance was connected with the outcome of economic processes, which must empower people to become economic agents in their own right.

Here was a clear case of making both sides happy without giving a thought to the fact that state intervention can never empower people; it only results in dependency if not degradation. Perhaps, he does not mind that at all. As he once stated, “Buddha was asking himself what kind of life is that (of illness, old age, mortality)? These are problems we all face. For many of us it is also the impetus for our work.”

Whenever our filmmakers, artists, photographers, writers portray the Indian reality abroad, they have been accused of exploiting our poverty. Why is Professor Sen exempted from such blame?

The main reason, as I see it, is that we have a politically-correct individual here. Can a politically correct individual ever be brilliant? Would he not be shackled by his own need to work within the circumference of logic and rationality and miss out on many original thoughts? In fact, Prof. Sen has often been credited with linking an abstract subject with real people, but even if his theories are relevant does the outcome reach these real people?

He may have rejected “voodoo economics”, but he paid his taxes to America. Cambridge glorified his work because it did not have to live with the reality he spoke and continues to speak about. So, what do we preen about? That he held on to his Indian passport? According to the good professor, “A single citizenship is important to me because there is no loyalty conflict. I don’t feel British, I don’t feel American. I feel Indian.”

These are very convenient sentiments when you are a green-card holder in Uncle Sam’s land, teach at tony universities, and make annual trips to your roots to check how much further down the poverty line has slipped and return to your ‘naturalised home’ with these inspirations.

Prof. Sen should have got the Nobel Peace Prize and not the economics one -- for making peace with himself and his environment. After all, hadn’t he so conveniently washed himself of all responsibility when he said that if he were the finance minister of India he would have quit?

Brilliant people take risks. As John Nash did. He got a Nobel in Economics for his games theory in 1994. By then he had spent two decades in psychiatric treatment and was living in obscurity. There must have been some extra spark to his work that allowed for his resurrection.

Am I saying that you have to be a little ’mad’ to be brilliant? No. However, I am convinced that those who have experienced an unusual life - whether it is through an illness or any intense experience -- would be more inclined towards original thinking. For, they have nothing to lose but their equilibrium, which has supposedly been lost anyway. Just go through the roster -- Dostoyevsky was an epileptic, Maupassant was deemed crazy, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression, Ayn Rand went mad, and Ghalib, on the basis of an analysis of his work, has been diagnosed as a manic depressive.

Some people do well because of their sanity. Whereas insane people -- and I use the term to include those with idiosyncrasies -- succeed because they do not care whether they do or don’t. It must be taxing to spend a large part of your life wondering whether you will be rewarded or not for something that the prize-giving world will not even be aware of.

Amartya Sen comes across as one of those terribly normal human beings who want to be on the right side of everything, even as they supposedly speak their minds.

In the meanwhile we may as well celebrate Amartya’s hamartia.


The wheelchair man

"It's so hot," he said, wiping his face.

I had found a place two seats away from him directly opposite the doctor's cabin. Heat was an icebreaker. 

"Yes," I said, fanning myself with a hand even though the aircondioning was on at full blast. 

"You are waiting for the doctor?" he asked. 

I smiled, "I guess so."

"My legs were crushed under the train," he said. 

I was taken aback. There was a walking stick near him, and I noticed a wheelchair. How does one commiserate with a stranger, a stranger whose condition you have not even paid much attention to? 

He brought out an album and showed me photographs of himself. "I was a big shot once. I was a regular on TV. My name is R."

The name and his face did not register, but I don't watch everything. 

"The accident taught me a lot about life and people." I don't know why he was telling me all this, and it was only five minutes since I was here.  He continued, "My wife ditched me because of what happened to my legs, because I was in coma. I've seen the worst." 

How does one respond verbally 

"Are you Christian?" he asked.

"No," and uncharacteristically I responded with, "Are you?"

"No. I am Maharashtrian. Hindu...You?" 

He was waiting for my reply. Just then, the receptionist called out to me. 

As I got up, I heard him say, "So, you are Muslim."

And I realised that perhaps we are all supposed to carry invisible crutches.  


Is Brown the new Black? - When Bobby Jindal and Rachel Dolezal Meet

The Republican governor of Louisiana plays white. An academic activist plays black. They are suspect, although in some ways both have overturned stratified notions of race.

Vastly different as their motives are, they are essentially raising questions about their identity and what it means when one is not comfortable in one's own skin and, often, other perceptions of it. Bobby Jindal is catering to his target audience of conservative Republicans. He is doing a job, even if that job is to be despicable. Rachel Dolezal has intellectual reasons. Her lie is, therefore, less ‘indigenous’ but more potent.

Bobby Brown

The broad-brush use of racism is not only simplistic, but also diversionary. Those taunting Jindal with "Piyush", the name he was given at birth, forget that in the state of his parents' origin every child is called a Sunny or a Pinku. More importantly, North Indians use the colour card against those from the South, who are darker. In fact, Jindal's skin shade would be an anachronism even in the city his family hails from.

Professional liberals assume their liberalism will be validated when they applaud statements about him trying to be white. Every racist attitude deserves a counter-racist attack, it would seem. But when a Michael Jackson was accused of it, after his skin peeling, it came primarily from the black community that felt let down. The same applied to Colin Powell and even Barack Obama, who were seen as being co-opted by the mainstream. In the public sphere white is assumed to be mainstream. Yet, ironically, aspiring for it is looked down upon because it is a hands-off region reserved for the highborn.

Whiteness is, therefore, also about exclusive power.  Black power, when asserted, is relegated to essentially black roles – the rapper, the underground artist, the nihilist. In the gallery of rulers, forget Obama, even Nelson Mandela was not about black power. He had to share the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W de Klerk, who in a sense legitimised his blackness then.

In Jindal’s case, though, ethnicity is confused with racism. Therefore, when he talks like an American, anti-immigrant emotions somehow surface, evident in lines like, “There’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal.” Indian expats are called coconuts. The term refers to their brown colour and whiteness of being or rather becoming. They are in a hurry to acquire an accent, altar their demeanor and mode of dress, and get culturally attuned to their new lives even as they create nostalgia ghettos like Chaat House where they can regurgitate memories. Jindal’s rejection of it is natural to him, simply because he is not about India at all. You cannot remind somebody who was not uprooted about roots.

Earlier this year, a supposedly liberal sounding article had this:

“‘Our God wins!’ Who do you think made this statement on Saturday in the hopes of rallying a group of religious fundamentalists? A. The leader of ISIS; B. A Yemeni militant commander; C. A radical Islamic cleric; or D. Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. The correct answer is Jindal. He made the "our God wins" statement as the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by the conservative Christian organization, the American Family Association. (AFA.) Now, Jindal’s “our God wins” is a more impressive boast than you might first realize. Jindal, who is now a Christian, was raised a Hindu, a faith that features literally millions of Gods. So for Jindal’s new God to win, he is surely fully aware that it has to beat throngs of Hindu Gods.”

Notice the choices. The Daily Beast has only Islamists pitted against a Bobby even though it is questioning his allegiance to a conservative Christian organisation. Why not call him a Christian supremacist?

You may disagree with his views on guns, gays and question his bigotry, but why can a person born in the US not express allegiance to it? He has said, “We came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans…if we wanted to be Indians we would have stayed in India.” It might not be the best way to put it but in a country where patriotism is a T-shirt away he is merely echoing what he has been brainwashed about for years as an American.

Assume that Bobby is whitening himself for political reasons. It is obvious he is not catering to the diaspora as he has alienated it by rejecting the hyphenated identity. So, if everybody knows it and can scrape his skin and see the dermis, then why would they vote for him?

Has Hotelier Sant Chatwal been accused of whitening himself for decades with his donations to and lobbying for the Clintons? When Preet Bharara prosecuted Rajat Gupta, it became a story about good Indian versus bad Indian in that perfect land. As I mentioned in an earlier CounterPunch piece:

It became less about what Gupta did wrong and more about what the judge did right… Had Bharara’s verdict been different would he be seen as less American? Would his fealty be questioned?

Jindal’s loyalty is not being questioned. It is lampooned, because he is using up reserved territory.

Rachel’s Alter Ego

Google captioned a photograph of a black couple as “gorilla”. They have apologised for the error in their intelligence design. The software can recognise bikes, cars, even an abstract concept like graduation, but not people of colour.

I wonder how it would caption a photograph of Rachel Dolezal, who was in the news for having faked a black identity, going to the extent of altering her looks. If colour were one of the aspects of recognition, then where would she fit in the spectrum? Would not being stamped with a lesser identity be a badge of acceptability to the Caucasian of her origin? Or would she feel insulted that she was spared from what is seen as a slur?

When her parents exposed her, their reason for it might not have been altruistic or ethical. She had betrayed her, and their, whiteness although the “traces of Native American ancestry” could be viewed as assertion of the origin of the origin, with a dash of German and Czech adding to the pluralism they seem to object to. 

The African American civil rights organisation where she was president clarified that racial identity was irrelevant to the post. On juries, even one black member is seen as a necessity so as not to tilt the courtroom balance. Therefore, would racial parity not demand that a white person be a part of what are black concerns? Why is tokenism a burden only the black must wear?

Unlike an Angelina Jolie who might be seen as doing the white thing, Dolezal’s adoption of a black sibling is more inclusive and symbiotic. Responding to critics, she said:

“I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visual representation…I identify as black.”

Masks and Skin

If one can choose professional, social, and even religious identities, why is race off-limits? Is the birth stamp the one that should be the identifier for all one’s life?

It is considered okay for a Rihanna to go straight-hair blonde, but becomes deceit when Rachel gets her hair braided. This again appears to be about the acceptability of the white look as the model.  Similarly, Bobby Jindal who might only be an upwardly mobile Ivy Leaguer inadvertently causes a tectonic shift when he takes away the right of the westerner to call him a ‘Paki’. It is another matter that his politics would expect him to use the term for others.

The problem with identifying Jindal, as opposed to Jindal’s identity, is that he is brown. The brown diaspora is essentially a masquerade, a between-two-stools, one that is about being Indian and the other of becoming Wall Street/Silicon Valley/levitating punk. They do not have a history of oppression or of civil rights. If anything, they are about liberty and choice.

Rachel’s too was choice when she says she was “drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon”. At that age, it was probably a superficial attraction. Later, it is possible that having studied and understood black history she internalised it. There is something to be said about guilt, and although it is more likely to be collective such individual acts of contrition may occur.

She continued with the charade after she was first identified as trans-racial. She might have exaggerated that as a youngster she had to hunt for food with bow and arrow when they lived in a teepee (which her parents say was before her birth). This sounds a bit like those memoirs where writers have even faked Holocaust stories, except that it seems to be about empathetic pain: “My life has been one of survival and the decisions I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive.”

There are different ways in which we view survival, and a position in an African American organisation may not be the only option for an educated and accomplished white woman. It could well be about emotional and intellectual survival.

This would apply to Bobby Jindal too. He does not want to merely live the American dream; he sees himself as one. In that he is fighting not only his opponents but also compatriots who think he can’t speak as one to the manner born. It is his mask against their masks.

Dolezal and Jindal must think they have earned new identities with no trace of  their origins. The personal need reveals a larger truth about how the racial alteration question needs to be addressed when xenophobes threaten the very concept of multiculturalism.

Published in CounterPunch