Fly like an Egyptian...
and how not to cover a hijack

“He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot” does not sound particularly reassuring. Yet, this was an official statement from Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs after an Egypt Air plane on the Alexandria-Cairo route was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. After hours, it is over. All passengers have been released and the hijacker arrested. His motives remain unclear, though. Homer Mavrommatis from the Cypriot foreign ministry crisis center said: "He kept on changing his mind and asking for different things.”

The way this episode unfolded is immature. Firstly, where did the idiot bit come from and how apt is it for someone who held a plane full of people and two governments to ransom?

Weird. Passenger Ben Innes took a selfie wth the hijacker

The idiocy, according to one theory, was that he wanted to deliver a letter to his Cypriot ex-wife. This is naturally humour territory, accustomed as we have become to more dangerous reasons for such acts. It is funny, but only for those of us sitting afar. I cannot imagine what the passengers – and their families upon reading bits and pieces of trivia – must have gone through – their fears, their concerns, their fervent prayers.

After most of them had been released, negotiations continued as there were still seven people on board, three of them passengers whose nationalities were not being revealed.

Egypt’s Civil Aviation minister said:

"Negotiations are underway and we cannot disclose any specific demands. We cannot determine the duration of the negotiation; our priority is the safety of all onboard. I request you not to listen to any reports, only to information released by me. Certain information cannot be disclosed, we cannot be overwhelmed by journalistic instincts. Let us do our duties and then we can release all the pieces of information at a later stage. Any reports on names or nationalities is not in the best interest."

It was Egypt Air that started the humour mongering. At that time nobody knew that the hijacker did not have explosives on him or a suicide belt as he said. If anything, the airline should have been talking about security lapses.

Social media getting into LOL mode is one thing, but did it behoove of the Cyprus president Nikos Anastasiades to say, “It’s all to do with a woman”?

Worse, after all the wooing wife jokes, it turned out that the initial information released was a case of mistaken identity:

An Egyptian woman has said she is the wife of Ibrahim Samaha — the name given earlier by Egyptian officials as the hijacker. She says her husband, with the same name, is not the hijacker and that he was on his way to Cairo en route to the United States to attend a conference.

How terrible. His identity and purported motivations and madness have been tagged online already. The real hijacker is Seif Eldin Mustafa as per some reports wants the release of female prisoners in Egypt. Does this sound like an idiot? It is possible that these demands were also false. Maybe he just wanted to land on Cypriot soil, or did it for a lark. But, how normal would this be?

News has become a mere fix for most, a device to flash. And please let us not use dark humour as an excuse. Dark humour is after a tragedy when all is lost, not when something is happening and could be lost.


Mother India, Papa Patriots and Black Sheep

“Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India)” sounds like a war cry. In the past few days it has indeed become one. For me, the slogan is associated with Eastman colour films and rising fascism in the political landscape. The phrase also sounds treacly and a bit of a burden on the nation’s maternal bosom to nurse 1.26 billion people, many of whom are sucking her dry.

There is no reason for nationalism to mimic a soap opera where a bunch of stooges of patriarchy prop up the mama country on a pile of shaky bricks, bricks that are being marked to build a temple. National pride in this scheme comes not from welfare schemes but by sanctifying spiritual symbols. Rightwing groups now want the cow to be declared the mother of the nation; six people attempted suicide for this demand.

India is getting transformed into a place of worship. On his first day in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched his forehead on the steps of Parliament and referred to the Constitution as his holy book. Every attempt is made to convey that the country has a certain religion. When a country has a religion – and nationalism is seen as a religion – many a charlatan will claim to save it.

The head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that has no locus standi and yet dictates the policies of the government, declares: “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth.”

When fascists speak of spontaneity it is assumed that they will ensure it is done. MP and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief Asaduddin Owaisi categorically stated that he would not chant the slogan even if a knife was put to his throat. The response of senior leaders has been to shame the ‘anti-nationals’, making them out to be separatists who should be shunted from the country. The Shiv Sena wants to revoke citizenship and voting rights of those who do not repeat the mother mantra.

There should be more people challenging this. The need to hail the country arises when there is a war or a calamity. This tugging at the mater’s apron strings during normal times, that too in the Assembly, is a kneejerk attempt at scoring points. Owaisi’s legalistic justification that “Nowhere in the Constitution it says that one should say: Bharat Mata ki Jai”, is not a strong enough rejoinder. Fidelity is an emotion; it is not a leash to fetter the dog with.

Gestures of obeisance may be antithetical to an individual’s personality, ideology or faith.  But even before a Muslim in India might try and explain such concerns, those who flaunt their “Hindu nationalism”, as though they own the country by virtue of their birth, will scream sedition.  

The use of the term ‘Bharat Mata’ is far from innocent. The concept of Mother Earth for the majoritarian narrative is linked not to the soil that the farmers till but a hydra-limbed goddess who will destroy any opposition, even if it is an apparition in the form of ‘others’.  Kitschy posters of Mother India superimposed on the map follow this prototype. However, when artist M.F.Husain painted Mother India as a nude woman in the shape of a map with state names he was chastised for “hurting Hindu sentiments”. Deference to deities seen as patriotism seems to be the norm.  


Umar Khalid shaved off his beard, a beard more like a salute to Che than to any mullah. “For the first time I discovered my Muslim identity,” he said. “He is playing the Muslim card,” they said. They who have been playing the Hindu card, they who want education to follow ancient scriptures, they who believe that what today’s science is doing is all there in the Vedas, they who have held the country to ransom on the basis of a temple. For many of us discovery of our religious identity came through such pummeling. Mine happened after the Bombay riots of 1992-93 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid; Umar Khalid’s happened now. It is painful, always.

Umar has been arrested for sedition in the JNU case of February 9 where he has been charged with organising a rally on campus in support of Afzal Guru, who was hanged to death for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001. [This has been described as a judicial killing by activists and lawyers.] Guru is considered a martyr in Kashmir. At the rally, there were slogans: We will destroy India. We will fight India. We will break India into bits. Such slogans are common in the valley.

Initially, when Umar had gone underground, his father told the media, “My son is a communist, he does not even practise his religion.” Had he been a Hindu it might have been a different story. Had he been an upper caste Hindu, he could even write a column stating that he is an “anti-national” but a proud Hindu, as TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai indeed dramatically did.

The only opinions a Muslim in India is expected to express are on jihad (obviously that you are against it) or the ghettos (where you might not live). You are expected to be a part of the mainstream but you dare not question that mainstream. If you ever do, then be sure that only the voice of the privileged majority can save you. You can fly only under the wings of Hindu samaritans.

In the mock courtroom TV show, the host made it clear to Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan that he should not be complaining about intolerance because he had acted in PK, a film that “insulted Hindu gods”. [Truth is that it called out frauds of all faiths.] He then emphasised how despite this the large-hearted majority community had made the film a hit. The nation is dressed up as an idol and 80 per cent of the population acts as priest offering the minorities an opportunity for retribution.

Aamir Khan capitulated. He listed out his essential goodness by mentioning his Hindu wife, and ex wife, and his family tree dotted with Hindus. He then folded his hands and apologised. It was a searing moment. It made me angry. It reminded me of the picture of another man pleading with folded hands to be spared during the Gujarat riots. The actor probably did it to ensure his space as a public figure; the anonymous man did it to survive, invisibly. 


What happens to the angst of the initial bold statements? The rebels, whether they are actors or MPs or students or writers, are using a faulty blueprint that reads: we do not want freedom from India, but freedom within India. The student leaders and teachers explain away their concept of ‘azaadi’ as “freedom from hunger” and “freedom from WTO”. This is the sort of obfuscation that institutions revel in. It is especially unfortunate as this was done as a response to the anti-nationalism charge for supporting Kashmir; soon the martyrs of a university, who were being sacrificed due to ‘those masked men’ who do terrible things like raising anti-India slogans, replaced the martyrs of Kashmir.

But the real wakeup call comes from the masked dissidents because they have to protect a tangible territory and not belief systems with different levels of opiate. Kashmir does not consider itself Indian. Kashmiris show up on polling day to vote for the least despicable candidate, one who might not get coopted by the Indian state. The exaggerated sentiments come from having had their state torn to bits in a land of unmarked graves and half widows. This is not the reality of Mumbai or Delhi or the cities where we live. We seek other freedoms.

The India in which states refuse to speak the national language, and have even broken up into two, has still not grasped the concept of dissent, which is why the rebels begin to sing paeans to the nation the moment they are caught with fists in the air. This negates the basis of dissent. Challenging nationalism is not only valid, but essential. In a free society, it is imperative to be free of any blind and stifling allegiance. The nation is an idea, an abstraction; our response is personal. No government or political party can define it for us.

The question of freedom is complex because issues outside the realm of social and armed conflict have become politicised too. Patriotism, therefore, often means suffering from the xenophobia of the political leaders and/or their supremacist ideals.

A nation cannot be free if its people are poodles chained to an acceptable idea of freedom.


Published in CounterPunch


The King of Good, Bad, Ugly Times - Vijay Mallya

You rarely heard about Vijay Mallya doing business. It was always his hobbies and indulgences that got coverage. So much so that even Kingfisher Airlines that took wings in 2005 was seen as his pastime as though he was up in the air in a balloon.

It was a jolly good ride with the “king of good times”, as he was often addressed. Towards the end of 2012, the airline was grounded; four months after that he lost his license. And now, three years later, 13 banks are demanding their money back. Serious money. Rs. 9000 crore or $1.5 billion. 3000 employees have to be paid salaries amounting to Rs. 300 crore.

He is absolutely answerable to the government, the ministry of aviation, shareholders, the staff. However, beyond the legal and contractual issues, I find the recent moralistic coverage of the defaulter farcical because there was media silence until the banks decided to freeze his assets and he escaped to his country home in the UK, which he has been doing all along. Part whim, part strategy and part business.

He himself has tweeted:
“I am an international businessman. I travel to and from India frequently. I did not flee from India and neither am I an absconder. Rubbish.”

He has always revelled in his NRI status, wanting to belong here yet be part of the global landscape. He is a big man in India whereas he does not have the visibility of the Hindujas and Mittals overseas. Here, his every move has been manna for the media, and he does not disappoint. He is like a collage of cartoon-strip characters -- Richie Rich, Archie, and Mandrake the magician. He provides entertainment value even when he is sitting cross-legged contemplating god.

Popularity does not come cheap, so he willingly goes overboard. He splurges on a limited edition Kingfisher calendar that showcases the best bikini bodies in sun-kissed resorts, despite being aware that the flight staff he personally selected have not even been paid their dues. He may have been surrounded by women, but they were only mannequins hovering around to sell his product – himself.

It is therefore surprising that even Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan used the moral prism to judge him:

"If you flaunt your birthday bashes even while owing the system a lot of money, it does seem to suggest to the public that you don't care. I think that is the wrong message to send. If you are in trouble, you should be cutting down your expenses."

This is ethical, but how many among the "public" are aware or even care? Indians are used to rajahs in the garb of politicians and the filthy rich. A month or so ago there was an item in the papers that pointed out how the media that chased him took its time even noticing him at the racecourse. By doing so, it reiterated its own penchant for the superficial.

When some in the media paint him out to be a failure it appears churlish and ignorant. Interestingly, it adds heft to his bankruptcy claims. His other businesses span engineering, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals,paints, the media, horse-racing and liquor, which is the sixth largest brand reaching 40 countries. Had the reportage been about his defaulting instead of what he wore to the race course, things might not have come to such a pass. Not only does this attitude not give any credit to his business empire and acumen, it helps deflect attention from them.

At 27, he inherited the McDowell Group from his father Vitthal Mallya and appointed himself chairman for life of the UB Group. In the 80’s he started a pizza chain that bombed; it now seems it was ahead of its time. Chutzpah has been his hallmark.

The first time Mallya was ready to enter the Rajya Sabha, he was already prepared to play the game. He said he wanted to give back to Karnataka what he got from the State. You do not need to sit in the Upper House to contribute to society, but for one who had charmingly stated that “words” are his budget, he knew exactly when and how money could talk.

In 2013 he brought back Tipu Sultan’s sword for Rs. 1.5 crore from his “personal funds”. In 2009, he bid for the Mahatma’s personal items and got them back for Rs. 9 crore. Promptly the moralists started talking about how Mallya was so different from the Mahatma and what would Gandhi think about it! Others spoke about how there were worthies better suited to bail out the Mahatma’s stuff, like the Birlas, the Narayan Murthys or the Azim Premjis.

While it is true that Mallya is no conservative industrialist and he wouldn’t be caught dead even acting simple, he played to the gallery and the media slaked its thirst with his lager and larger-than-life image.

One fine day, we found him in silk kurtas lighting incense sticks and organising religious soirees and promoting the Art of Living, when one thought he had mastered it. Was this a new spiritual awakening, or can we dare to insinuate that it was mere flamboyance, which he once admitted was “part of the brand building”?

What the media wants him to do is penance, and that he won’t do. Call it arrogance, call it attitude, but he is not giving in, yet:
“As an Indian MP I fully respect and will comply with the law of the land. Our judicial system is sound and respected. But no trial by media.”
“Let media bosses not forget help, favours, accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP?”

If he indeed acts by his threat, a lot will be exposed. Mallya will not go down alone, and it will be interesting to see how the news will be covered from now on. Passive-aggressivness has its own dynamics.

Years ago he appeared in a TV promo where he asked us not to drink and drive. What a neat little trick. The man of fast cars and fine booze telling the world to refrain from indulgences that he was selling them.

Perhaps he has all along been just a man with a fishing rod playing the role of angler while his eyes are set on the skies watching the kingfisher swoop down and do his work for him.


The Revenant and Heroes

Hugh Glass gobbles up a raw fish; he bites into a piece of still warm raw bison liver and vomits right into it; a grizzly bear rips his flesh, leaving his bones visible; he pulls out the entrails of a dead horse and then snuggles into the carcass to keep himself warm. There are steep falls; animals and men torn to the barest. 

Here are a few random thoughts on The Revenant, in no way a review or even an analysis.

I usually wince when there is any violence, overt or covert. I shut my eyes for a few minutes. While watching The Revenant, I did not. There could be two explanations, both worrying: Either I have become immune to such scenes or the violence in the film is gratuitous, a sort of play-acting between big hunters and hunted with their positions alternating. 

The former reason may be ruled out, for I subsequently noticed that I continue to be squeamish even while watching National Geographic. But I am also not quite ready to dismiss the film’s bludgeoning aggression to gratuitousness simply because of Jim Bridger. 

Bridger and his demons

Jim Bridger and his face. A face registering pain, anger, loyalty, pusillanimity, and guilt. A face held together by wisps of gossamer that seem to have been jaded in the weather to give it a certain ruggedness. A face that can break. A face that deserves to be punched one minute and caressed the very next.

I did not know who the actor was. (Will Poulter, it turns out.) I have the advantage of distance — distance from Hollywood, even as trivia. In fact, it is only after watching the film that I got to know it is loosely based on a real story. Therefore, for all the difficulties a film crew faced, we realise that the reality must have been far worse. Yet, my appreciation of the film increased with this knowledge, for it could then be seen as a tribute to a period of hardship, of struggle, and of man and beast fighting for the same space and becoming like each other. 

Even in the much talked about skirmish with the bear scene, and despite the fact that after a couple of minutes of relentless assault it becomes a pantomime, the questions stand out: Was Glass pushing his animalistic limits or was the bear fighting for her humane space in protecting her cubs? 

The demarcation between man and beast is often blurred, and the moral queries are as much the animal’s as the human’s. Hugh Glass finding shelter in the carcass of a horse has a Pieta-like resonance; it is more familial than his relationship with his son, Hawk. For, the latter comes with the strings of fealty. Glass is concerned about co-traveller and opponent John Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy] killing Hawk, “because he was all I had”. Whereas the horse, belonging to another camp, helps him escape, proving to be useful even in death. 

Hugh Glass carries his son Hawk

Digression: I can imagine how in a Bollywood film, the hero would have named the horse Raja or Shera and the steed would have even shed a tear in the last moments! Perhaps I am replaying all this in my mind without the melodrama, although The Revenant has many moments of melodrama and of stylised pauses.

Leonard DiCaprio said in an interview:

They’re [Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] very specific about their shots and what they want to achieve, and that — compounded with the fact that we were in an all-natural environment, succumbing to whatever nature gave us — was something that became more of a profoundly intense chapter of our lives than we ever thought it was going to be. It’s epic poetry, an existential journey through nature, and this man finding a will to live against all odds. Yet he changes, nature changes him and I think those elements changed him while we were doing the movie.

Glass’s pursuit of living is more than about survival for exacting revenge. He wants to live to be heroic. Part of the reason may have nothing to do with being left to the elements. It could be Hollywood. I do not keep count of awards. I have not watched enough DiCaprio films to be a fan. Exultations like, “Leo owned the Oscars” do not impress me. But, the first thought that came to my mind as The Revenant opened was indeed, “So Leo owned the Oscars?” 

The Revenant has several layers that will be visible only after the Hollywood star mask is scraped off. I am not an actor or one who even understands the intricacies of the craft. What I do know is that one should see the character, and not the actor, much less the star. 

Some critics have pointed out that Fitzgerald stands against Glass because he is a racist and cannot imagine why a white man would have married a Pawnee woman and then felt so protective about his half-Native son. But, while he does sound racist (explained as his own experience of being partially scalped by one), Fitzgerald is as much a fighter as Glass in the survival sense. He has plans for the future — despite the tortuous journey ahead, he wants to carry a heavy burden of pelts that they worked to get and that would be profitable. He agrees to stay back with a badly wounded and almost dead Glass who he’d prefer dead only because he is promised $300; it will buy him a home. He is the Ordinary Guy who makes an immobile and directionless Glass seem extraordinary. 

Fizgerald and Glass confront each other

Towards the end, when Fitzgerald is finally dying, Glass pushes him upstream to meet his fate. Heroic Glass does not take the responsibility to kill him for killing his son; he leaves it to god,  a lesson we are told he learned from the Native American who had nursed him for a bit, which again shows he has not learned too many lessons himself. His version of god seems to be the Arikara on the other side of the river who are certainly not going to spare Fitzgerald. Makes one wonder about Glass and his moral prism. 

Glass has no motive except to mourn for the fact that he has nothing to live for anymore, instead of finding a reason to live. Even the young Bridger, perhaps the youngest in the team, takes the risk to stay behind with someone who might die any minute. Bridger is a hero because he sees duty as beyond doing a job, and when he does leave Glass, he not only leaves behind his canteen but also an image of a caring person who is not so much saving his own life as preferring to stay away from witnessing one who he admires give up on life.

In the end, does Glass give up? He looks blankly ahead and then straight at the audience. His Native wife* floats in and out of his dreams with aphoristic fervour telling him that in a storm if you look at the branches you will see them bend but the trunk will not. Glass has internalised this, but then so does everyone else who is not yet dead. 


* Grace Dove who played the role of his wife tweeted: "Not gonna lie... Pretty bummed I didn't get an invite to the #Oscars."



Still life with four sunflowers:Van Gogh
still unawake.
we zombie walk over coals as we would on grass
drinking moonbeams
it would seem
like skin soaking sweat
the wet set
leaves scatter
dispersed pollen
flowers bloom
in the undergrowth