The attack on a tribal woman Soni Sori

On February 20, Soni Sori was attacked. A substance was thrown at her, her face and eyes still burn, skin scarred. It does not matter whether it was acid or grease. It could have been mud or coffee, for all I care. Let us remember that this was not some ink-throwing protest; her attackers wanted to hurt her because they oppose her very existence. 

The police say this cannot be termed an attack. Somebody stopping their bike, holding a knife at the neck of a co-worker late at night and throwing stuff on her is not an attack? But this is how the pugnacity has been explained for decades. Adivasis are meant to be crushed, they believe. 

Soni Sori is a tribal. Like many tribals, she was dismissed as a Naxalite and imprisoned and tortured. She lives with tribals, works with and for tribals, and has faced many attacks even outside prison for being a tribal, including horrific rape where stones were pushed into her vagina. It did not happen in Delhi so most people did not know. Chances are, even if we did, it would not matter much. 

Think of Soni Sori as a representative of the many victims from those parts. Such abuse is common. Few can channelise their anger.

During the general elections, she was Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s candidate from Bastar. She had said, ”I felt if I have to change things in Bastar, politics is the only way. I realised that it was only through politics that I can empower myself, and when I am empowered, I would be able to empower people in Bastar as well. The freedom of my people has been curtailed. I want to give their freedom back to them.”

Politics does empower, but only the powerful. She continues being the activist she was, with a new label. Arvind Kejriwal rarely mentions her, for Bastar is not the centre of action. Until she is attacked. 

Soni Sori was flown to Delhi for treatment. This, I believe, was a wrong move. She should not have agreed. The tribals she has stood by do not have such access to facilities. She certainly deserves good medical treatment, but from the little I’ve gathered she is out of danger. Her fears for the safety of her family are cause for concern. The state government has to address this. She is the representative of the people of Bastar; her security translates into their security. 

The last thing we want is for this brave woman to be put under ‘house arrest’ by her own party. Not only would she become a totem for AAP looking for something beyond its middle class stupor, but it would also help the folks who want her out of Chhattisgarh. This is how the political system works. True voices are silenced by fake noises. 


How to travel with Umberto Eco

I go a long way with Umberto Eco.

To that flight to New Delhi. A cramped aircraft with no space in the overhead bin. I still remember my red suitcase that just wouldn't fit. Sliding it in towards my window seat, my feet then propped up on it, I saw that the guy in the aisle seat was livid. “Waith,” I heard someone say right then. A largish man with a brown beard and a genial face flashed his boarding pass. He was to sit in the middle. Once settled in, he beckoned the flight stewardess and asked her to make space at the rear. Reluctantly, and given his insistence, she let him drag out my bag as well as his portfolio folder, and deposited them there. “Ah,” he said, as one would upon being too pleased about a task accomplished.

The flight was delayed and we were sweating in the April heat. When we did take off, it turned out to be a rough flight. Snacks were brought; I clearly recollect the aloo tikki wrapped in aluminium foil, for as the trolley passed later to serve the passengers behind, he put up his hand and asked for a couple of more of those. It was utterly childlike and charming.

I had a magazine on my lap. He asked if he could take a look. There was something on pornography. He seemed surprised. “Indian magazine?” Yes, I said. I asked him if Ilona Staller was really a big thing in Italy. (By then this is one thing we had shared — our nationalities.) Staller was a porn star and an MP of some prominence. We spoke a bit about politics and women in it.

He was in the corporate sector of a huge firm. “We have these social meetings with our Indian counterparts and their wives. They do not discuss these things. It is all money, money, money.”

The two hours passed soon. We landed with a big thud. He fetched my bag and we deplaned. It turned out that his transport had been delayed. I offered to drop him off. It then struck us that on air nameless as we both remained, earthly contact might require some nomenclature. I told him my name. He did not tell me his. Instead, he took out his passport and showed it to me. “See?”



“Like Umberto Eco!”

“You know Umberto Eco?”

“Yes, of course! OF COURSE1” Delhi’s dry heat seemed to be melting the bones.

“Guth…you read him?”

Yes…and then we left.

Here was Umberto, but not Umberto Eco.

Dear readers, this was not meant to be a tease. The reason the memory came out so powerfully was because I saw the numerous photographs of Eco accompanying the obit pieces soon after the great writer, philosopher, thinker died at 84. The Umberto I met on the flight bears a striking resemblance to a younger Eco. Eco had said that in a play the players are mere presentation and have no bearing on the play or the direction it might take. Like it happens in life.

Eco did not suffer from the self-righteousness of academic rigidity. “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else,” he wrote. It was such open-ended thoughts that allow for debate. Here I’d interject: the false hero’s valour is then obviously dishonest. But is cowardice always honest and upfront? Often, people pretend to be doing something when they are in fact sneaking away.

The pretence too has a reason. In Eco’s words, “Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another's fear.” This is probably something we already know, but the stunning simplicity of the statement stands out. It encapsulates the psychology of insecurity.

Similarly, he does not have much sympathy for ‘cause’ proponents: “Fear prophets, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them.”
Indeed, it is foot soldiers who die first, not the chiefs; it is civilians being ‘protected’ from dictators and terrorists who get killed in the ‘true’ fight by drone-happy saviours.

He does not have very kind words for the new online saviours too. “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”

He also moaned the fact that such people as well as journalists assumed the public was only ready for and seeking simple answers. Take a look around and you will notice that this is only an excuse for lack of nuance in the purveyors of news and opinion.

How do we learn then? I’ve been pottering around with my books for a couple of months now — I've discarded quite a few thinking that it was a waste if I were not to read them. If only I had discovered why Nassim Taleb explains Eco’s collection as an ‘antilibrary’:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

We all have books, and things, we need to return to. While Umberto Eco did want to turn the pages, perhaps as many as he could, he wasn't so keen on remembering a great deal about life: “The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick.”

It is because we do not know what has been thrown away by memory that we don’t get sick. It is memory hiding from us our own memory that keeps us in fine fettle. If we knew, we’d be rummaging through the waste. I’m not sure whether it’s such a bad thing. The Umberto of my Delhi flight had probably been thrown away, but not entirely. For Umberto Eco resurrected him. In such renewal, both now live with a new dimension in my mind.


Of Beyoncé, Trudeau and Culture Predators

Around the time Beyoncé was being criticised for cultural appropriation of India with her portrayal of a Bollywood star in a music video, Justin Trudeau’s portrait on Pakistani truck art was getting approbation. Although the Canadian prime minister’s role in the ‘take-over’ was passive, few seemed to realise or even care that this was essentially a tribute to the good white man as samaritan.  

No culture can live on an island, or off it. However, as we get exposed to outside influences, we tend to become proprietorial over what is ours, although we do not own it or even desire it. Those who believe in retaining the purity of a culture — which is not the same as the purity of a genre of music or art or cuisine — seem to propagate its superiority, and in some instances its ‘untouchability'. 

In the reaction to Coldplay’s Hymn For the Weekend there is perhaps a belief that Beyoncé and Chris Martin should not be tarnished with the kitsch of Bollywood and loud Indian colours. Is that not how the West often views Asian smells and sounds in the green-card ghettos it nurtures to showcase its immigrant-friendly sanitised face? 

There is also the aspect of white people calling out a woman of colour. Much of the censuring is over Beyoncé ‘trying to be Indian’ as opposed to Chris Martin ‘doing India’. That she is also portrayed as an angel to a white man could be a discomfiting factor too: 

“Oh, Angel sent from up above
I feel it coursing through my blood
Life is a drink, your love's about
To make the stars come out”

Western appraisal very likely sees such deification as more dubious than the sponging on a loaned fantasy. 

* * *

Justin Trudeau is a borrowed fantasy. His portrait on Pakistani truck art makes him into a true hero (yet again). Little is discussed about the art, and how clear it is that everyday art, as much as 'statement' art, is alive to politics. Truck art has been used to convey everything from local issues to cross-border peace. 

Trudeau’s heroism has much to do with the perception of multiculturalism that he stands for. His “because it is 2015” liberal inclusiveness of women and immigrants in the cabinet, however, was also about profiling. It being “like Canada” was the bottomline. The diversity was held together in a clasp, as it were. Although there is nothing bad about it, he has been doing stereotypes as well. Of the three Sikhs in his cabinet, the defence minister is a guy who did the mandatory “taking on the Taliban”.

However, the celebrations made him into a benefactor, when it should have been about the talent pool he would benefit from. The messiah has a better shelf life, though. His welcoming of Syrian refugees, even if Canadian children singing a welcome song in Arabic happened a week before their arrival, is his passport to the Muslim heart. But it is their heart that he has captured. There is indebtedness in the art that takes a man on a roadshow miles away from where he is.

The acceptance of such art is because it is almost court painter-like. A pop band taking to the streets is naively seen as more rugged and infringing. 

The damning of living stereotypes is elitist. Over-reacting to street scenes of celebration, of poor children expressing joy, of yogis and peacocks is denial of a culture too. Every single moment portrayed in the video is visible to Indians on any given day, depending on where we are. I’ve traveled through much of the country and I have preferred to look for a reconstructed mud hut or preening birds or caves and palaces, posing with locals, sometimes dressed like one, even though these are alien to me, rather than visiting factories and schools to figure out India’s progress. 

If being Indian absolves me of appropriation, then it is not culture we are concerned about but borders and the fear that we will be colonised and our indigenous markets used for moneymaking schemes, much like what the East India Company did. (Coldplay being a British band does not help.) However, the protectors of culture do not use the same yardstick for big companies like McDonald’s when it goes local. The fact is that McDonald’s has a far more deleterious effect on societies that it has sneaked into than any pop version precisely because the latter’s projection of another culture is inauthentic and can be recognised as such. 

We do not hear about Asian societies claiming the West. Urban Indian cinema often zooms into the streets of Manhattan and London, its characters’ angst drowning in the Thames or finding its feet in Brooklyn. That this is not considered cultural appropriation is a nativist position where the West is seen as beyond reach, therefore not vulnerable to hijacking.

Interestingly, by questioning the use of outmoded stereotypes by the ‘occupiers’, the critiques seem to suggest that skeletons are being appropriated. Given the revivalist spirit in some societies, including an India that wants to include Vedic education, such exhumation might then denote a renaissance of the culture.

* * *

Such sequestering of ideas and mores is almost rightwing where, for example, immigrants are given guidebooks on how they should behave in the host country. 

When Madonna sings Sanskrit shlokas, or a Hollywood star gets a tattoo in Hindi or a model wears a dress with Arabic calligraphy, there are two kinds of reaction. Either they are seen as a nod to these cultures or an insult to them. 

Coldplay’s video is most certainly not a Slumdog Millionaire clone. At no point does Chris Martin flash a dollar bill. And he does not watch the Beyoncé film in a run-down movie hall with foreigners like him. The audience is Indian, and he is very clearly the outsider gawping at a removed-from-mere-mortals star. 

If the video is in bad taste for showing India’s poverty, then this is what we market. From NGO brochures to fashion designers ‘wanting to help artisans’, we display poverty mannequins. The bestsellers on the ‘real India’ are written by those who do time in India or Indian expats who get nostalgic about what they had shut their eyes to when they were here.  Some years ago, a five-star hotel in Chennai had introduced “authentic Nair tea” for “those who are rich and famous and can't be seen sipping tea from a glass tumbler at a roadside stall”. 

* * *

In one shot of the Coldplay video, there are fleeting glimpses of the Indian actor Sonam Kapoor. Why did they not use her in place of Beyoncé, has been one reasoning. This is not the first time that liberal discourse has pushed people into pigeonholes. Coldplay using an Indian for a western fantasy could be equally exploitative. The point is: Should art be so confined? 

When Mary Kom, a film based on the life of a boxer from the North East, was released there was some opposition to Priyanka Chopra, a Bollywood star, portraying her. The contention was that someone from the region would have been more appropriate because by using prosthetics to slant her eyes, Chopra was shaming the region. It is rather obvious that this argument is stuck on eyes and the superficial. It discounts the fact that the boxer herself enjoys her occasional outings as a diva. The response to this would be that she has been co-opted, which exposes the arrogance of intellectual rabidity that seeks to claim property rights over what it claims to protect.

There was a similar response when there was a film based in Kashmir. Haider was an adaptation of Hamlet with the Valley as the backdrop. None of the major characters was played by a Kashmiri. The fact is that not many of them are actors or a part of Bollywood. And why should the accusation of ‘using’ the state stick only to the creative person and not to the avaricious public intellectuals? 

Besides, reducing authenticity to geography sentences it; it is not free to evolve. We would not have had Star Trek or all those alien movies where humans appropriate outer space if all we wanted to know was the genesis of something. Genesis? What’s that?

Published in CounterPunch