Salman Khan vs. Milkha Singh...
and the league of ranters

“Imagine if the American contingent for the Olympics had George Clooney as goodwill ambassador!” stated the TV anchor, shock in his voice. He, and some of his panelists, were essentially foaming over the fact that actor Salman Khan has been chosen as goodwill ambassador of India for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. All hell broke loose. Why Salman? What has Bollywood got to do with sports? Is this not insulting to our sporting heroes?

While some sportspersons like boxer Mary Kom and shooter Abhinav Bindra seemed to welcome the move, former athlete Milkha Singh – the legendary Flying Sikh – did not. He said:

"I am of the view that our sportspersons, be those from shooting, athletics, volleyball or other sports, they are the real ambassadors of India who would represent the country in the Olympics. Still, if we had to pick an ambassador, it could have been from the sporting arena.”

Salman Khan is not representing any particular sport (and we do know about the sort of one-upmanship that exists among the different sports), so he is a neutral figure. Our players work under great stress not only on their skills, but in dealing with bureaucracy, harassment and pathetic facilities. We do not see many people raising their voices against these, not even the tall players who are now commenting about this selection and how wrong it is.

Here are some of the reasons dished out:

We cannot see beyond Bollywood.

If you spend a little time on social media or television, you will mostly see films being discussed. Yes, there is cricket and the World Cup football games, but since most are watching it on a screen, this too qualifies as, in a sense, a portrayal of the game. We see the players as characters with quirks, with different style statements. How often do you get deep analysis of a game completely devoid of these aspects?

Salman Khan had a simple thing to say after the announcement:

“It is a matter of great national pride that our athletes are performing better and better at the Olympic Games and I think we should all join hands in giving them every support and cheer for them so that Rio 2016 becomes our best Olympic tally.”

He is not replacing a sportsperson but an official.

He is promoting his film Sultan in which he enacts the role of a wrestler.

He has not said anything that might indicate it, but there could be soft marketing. Now, soft marketing takes place all the time if we consider the very ‘being’ of a celebrity as a public relations exercise. Sachin Tendulkar owns a restaurant; he could be promoting that. Mahesh Bhupathi has an agency to promote sportspersons; he could very well land a few deals. We can go on with this.

Human being are usually glamour-struck. That is the reason you get these angry comments. You think they would have bothered if a fairly unknown sports star was appointed goodwill ambassador and somebody had an objection to it? Does anybody even remember who the earlier goodwill people were?

Salman has a criminal and bad boy image.

He does. [Just a thought: Would Americans cry foul if Tiger Woods – bad boy and sportsman – was chosen to represent the US?]

Salman has been to jail for shooting black bucks and when his car killed a pedestrian and injured three others. In the latter, the courts have let him off. There is no excuse for either of the crimes, to whatever extent his direct involvement may be. But, in all these years he has acted in and produced films that went on to become huge hits. Do all those who are raising his criminal image now not watch his movies?

If we ask how can such a man represent India, then we should also ask how can we permit so many MLAs and MPs from sitting in Parliament. Who is voting for them? Do we raise our voices enough? No. We aim at the softer targets. Salman Khan has clout, and he must surely be using it. But in comparison to the political leaders, he is fair game.

And to think some people in the media take a high ground on this. These people whose newspapers and TV channels promote politicians and their photoshopped lies, real crimes too, should be the last people to object.

Celebrities are arrogant.

When was the last time people mentioned Milkha Singh, whose honour they are so frenziedly protecting now? It is ironical that it took a Bollywood ‘insult’ for them to wake up to the legend.

Salman’s father Salim Khan responded to Singh’s statement with these tweets:

  • “Milkhaji it is not Bollywood it is the Indian Film Industry and that too the largest in the world.”
  • “The same industry which resurrected you from fading away in oblivion.”

Here, let us break this down. In the first he is just expressing distaste for the term ‘Bollywood’ that is often used pejoratively. As an award-winning screen writer, he is permitted to be protective of his industry.

It is the second statement that has caused problems. They say he is being arrogant, and how dare he suggest that a figure like Milkha Singh needs Bollywood.

If we are a little honest with ourselves, the truth is, yes, Milkha Singh as many of this generation know him, did come alive in the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. There can be no doubt that it resurrected him, unless we want to bury our heads in the sand or just pretend we can barf nonsense as long as it sounds ‘moral’.

Milkha Singh was fully involved with the movie on his life. It was fascinating to see Farhan Akhtar transform into him. The athlete did not charge anything for the rights. He asked for a token mount of one rupee. The filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra arranged for a currency note issued in 1958, the year in which he won the gold medal, a first for India, at the Commonwealth Games.

I do not understand the argument against the film earning crores “on his life”. This was not some sneaky production; he was a part of it. Indeed, the film had to make money because the producer spent on it. Milkha Singh had a choice to demand money. It is said that he was upset because he was expecting 10 percent of the profits. Since it was in the papers, how come none of his now-vocal supporters took this up on his behalf?

There are other sports biopics. We had one on Mary Kom, and there is one on Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Dhoni was paid Rs. 80 crore and Mary Kom Rs. 25 lakh. It is obviously all skewed, but it has a lot to do with economics. Incidentally, both of them do enjoy being as glamorous as film stars. It was surprising to see Ashwini Nachappa questioning Salman’s choice; she herself had tried her hand at acting in films, as have a few others.

Many would not remember, or might not have been born then, but some decades ago when P.T. Usha was riding high a news magazine, India Today, had got her all dolled up for a feature. They too needed to grab eyeballs using glamour.

It is possible that under pressure, the Olympics Association of India decides to withdraw Salman Khan or the actor might do so himself. It would be interesting to see what happens next. If one goes by the general slovenliness of our new sports lovers, they will go back to their organised lives, smirking at the ‘fans’ when they are the ones really obsessed with celebrity.


Saving Kate MIddleton's skirt from flying

The summer breeze lifted Kate Middleton’s dress as she stood with Prince William paying their respects at the Amar Jawan Jyoti. The photographers who might have been clicking away also captured that. It made it on the front page of the Times of India, as well as to the international press.

One can pull up the TOI for many things, but as far as I am concerned this was not it.

Why does a candid moment cause so much consternation? I’ve read social media anthropologists and feminists huff and puff over this. Culling a few points I shall respond.

The newspaper was being asked, “Do you want to be Playboy?” Ridiculous. Is this pornography? Unless somebody gets excited it is not, in which case they have no business to get moralistic.

They complain that this was a sombre moment, and I suspect there was more outrage because it was at a memorial. Was she wearing a dress that was inappropriate? Not really, although I see the point of the advice Vanity Fair offered:

With pins like Kate’s who wouldn’t want to show them off? But at such an important and somber moment during the tour, flashing so much royal flesh wasn’t ideal. The Queen has small weights stitched into her hemlines to avoid such wardrobe malfunctions. Kate’s stylist might want to take note!

This was no a wardrobe malfunction; it was, if anything, Nature getting frisky. However, this is not about how she conducted herself, but how others did.

Not only were many of them reproducing the ‘offensive’ picture but also adding their own fantastical thoughts to it. Like, “If it had the opportunity, Times of India wudn't have hesitated from publishing an upskirt pic of Mother Teresa.”

Before the criminal newspaper even gets there, the male gaze has imagined the female form, and a revered one at that. Why not, say, South superstar Rajanikanth, who wears a lungi that is susceptible to the wind?

I am amazed at how easily people call out sexism by themselves being voyeuristic by reproducing it. It is justified as using it as ‘evidence’ to shame. There is too much naming and shaming, which only results in throwing darts during a local fair. 

Buzzfeed, social media’s favourite historian on dope, had reproduced the front page and even encircled the picture to emphasise that this was sexual harassment. Stunning.

Online feminists, men and women, too use the term sexual harassment so loosely that it reduces harassment to some kitty party game. They complained that this was not a Marilyn Monroe moment because there was no choice involved here. Of course, there was not. Just as the photographers did not lie down on the floor or peep up (many concerned people in fact used stok photographs of children peeping up skirts to draw an analogy with bad boy TOI, forgetting they were misusing kids to suit their agenda). The Times photographers are not forecasters that they’d know when the wind would blow and the dress would fly.

Buzzfeed again carried a photograph of William’s coat from the back riding up to reveal his shirt. They care a lot about equality so they wondered why that did not make it to the front page. Probably because it was the back? Probably because Kate looks willowy when she is billowy? Had the media flashed Will, would they be discussing sexual harassment? What would have been their argument? And if not – which is the probability – then why?

On a related note, there was much praise for Kate Middleton wearing India-inspired prints, but an Indian actor would be expected to be an ambassador for the country even at sponsored events where they might go to market a product or a film, such as at Cannes.

Since there was talk about how the royal couple was so humble, could not this moment in the breeze be seen as part of them being human and fallible? But, no, these are largely supremacists whose high-mindedness will protect Kate Middleton's 'honour'. Had it been our own Mallika Sherawat or Rakhi Sawant's skirt flying they would be busy enjoying the memes.

And mind you, we are talking about people who use their mobile phone cameras to click sundry strangers at restaurants and other public places to make a point, to post on Instagram, to tell the world that they find others so funny, so disgusting, or to name and shame, never mind that they do not even know the name of the person nor will they care about the ‘issue’ once the picture gets its retweets and likes and they are honoured for the day as people with a conscience.  


Languages, Islands and Loretta

What happens when you hold on to a language? Is language to be found in unfeeling books or in deeply-felt living, the daily transactions of the marketplace where not just products but warmth is exchanged too?

The play 'Loretta' examines these questions using an island as metaphor. Now, I love islands and I love languages just as the protagonist here does. Not language as an entity, but those wisps of strung words, laughter tinkling as they sway in the breeze. My young self, like Loretta, often used them – to remove barriers. What was done for a lark would end up connecting. Language was emotion. If silence is a rock, then language is the water that flows around it, sometimes gently, sometimes with the force of a tidal wave.

It was fitting that I watched the play at St. Andrew’s Auditorium on Friday. There was music in the foyer that became the stage for foot-tapping and dancing. There were nuns and it would seem the whole of Bandra. There were nods of recognition, our faces now only party masks that announced we all belonged to the same language space – a suburb where pao sellers and fisherwomen, and Konkani are neighbours.

They were selling vada-pao (and pork too!) and coconut water in its shell. A man, not young, wearing low-slung jeans and tight T-shirt that hugged his belly was stuffing the bread in his mouth while he continued to shimmy. I smiled, but truth be told I was moist-eyed. This was an island and the tongue we all spoke was not the delightful patois of “what men”, “dat damn bleddy fool didntevendeliver da tikats” but of “our ladies are nice, gents are full of spice”.

Everybody was a character. It is this meshing of fiction and the real that has prompted me to pen this. 'Loretta' is set in the Goa of the 1970s. Landlord Antonio Piedade Moraes, Konkani fanatic, is more upset with son Raphael for choosing English than his leaving the St. Bartholomew Island. Raphael returns with his Anglo-Indian girlfriend so that he can get a Portuguese passport (Portugal accepted Goa’s annexation in 1975); he baulks at this closed existence. Loretta warms up to it. Why?

That she is seeking roots does not really wash, for these are not her roots. Why does she feel she belongs here and why does she want to learn the language? Why do we feel we belong anywhere? Think about the places you have felt the same. I’ve experienced this – in spots from Dubai to London to a village in Maharashtra, a noisy stretch in Nepal. None of these is about finding a comfort zone; it might well be strewn with difficulty. Loretta may seem to romanticise the quiet and the sound of insects, but she knows it is not like Bombay that even in the 70s was no cocoon.

A sense of belonging is complex. We belong without reason. Her wanting to learn Konkani is not so that she can communicate with the people on the island but to reach out to Antonio. Antonio whose memory of his wife she awakens. He is connecting to nostalgia and she too of a time when she had family close to her. The family constitutes all who submerge their individual identities into this pool. 

Pedro the pao-seller whose “bread tastes better after it falls in the water” or Audu the fisherwoman who you can bargain with not with words but decibel level or Miguel the toddy tapper who sings atop the tree a song both plaintive and welcoming – they are all conveying some sort of language.

There was a moment of brilliance when Caitu brings in these three as scholars testing Loretta on her Konkani. They are masked like aliens, conveying just how distant learning is from lived expression. [I've been told that they were dressed like Spanish Inquisitors during the Crusades. As parody.] Among her tests is sniffing some things and recognising them. Think of the many olfactory language connections we make - coconut oil takes us to Kerala, mustard to Bengal, tea to Assam.

Caitu understands smells. He is, among other things, the “going here and there” man. He breaks the protocol of the island. He acts as a transposition; in traditional Indian theatre he might have worked as a sutradhar connecting the dots. It is not about rising above his station but breaking barriers for there to be no status consciousness. Caitu is both Man Friday and boss of all he surveys; he is lover of Konkani and lover of English; he is devotee and messenger; he is bridge and he is water.

Towards the end, Loretta almost drowns in the river. It is the denouement for the building of a bridge. It is also a comment on how the beauty of language can only be enhanced by openness. That nothing is static.


A short review seems fitting. It was only after the first interlude that the play got into its groove. The music with a live band was authentic and rather lovely. The actors did their parts well enough. Kailash Waghmare as the toddy tapper had the body language of one; he so became the guy that I cannot imagine him doing anything else. Then there was Danish Husain as Caitu. He walked, talked and ate the parts up (parts because of the play-acting within). His Caitu could be Shakespeare’s Touchstone, but with the wisdom never in doubt.

Talking about the interludes, I have a couple of quibbles, shared by a few. The director Sunil Shanbag should have clarified at the beginning the nature of the tiatra genre of using unconnected-with-the-theme songs and commentary. These were contemporary pieces of political and social satire. They might seem to interfere with the flow. Although I enjoyed them, especially the one on outsiders making a mess of Goa, it would have been better if the connection of each piece that took off from the scene that ended was more sharply delineated. It would then have been like a montage of both the past and the present.

The screen too had newspaper clippings that were topical. A mix with the 70s headlines would have made a trenchant comment and also acted as a bridge.

These are minor points, for in the end the crowd of 800 was enthralled. The language spoke to them.


"Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow."  - Oliver Wendell Holmes


Christians, Kafirs and Islamists

How many Christians? Soon after the March 27 bombing in Lahore, that seemed to be the most important question.  Families were out celebrating, some Easter, some a holiday. A suicide bomber stood near the rides, watching the little children swing high, screech with delight, their parents hovering nearby. He had a plan. He blew himself up and them. 72 dead, more than 300 injured.

For those interested in a head count, 14 were Christian. Does it matter? The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban breakaway group, claiming responsibility for the attack stated that their target was Christians.

A manhunt is on. While it is only natural to blame the Taliban, why is there not a loud enough noise against the blasphemy law in Pakistan that validates such brutalities against the minorities?

Indeed, many more Muslims are killed in terror attacks, either by terrorists or governments. That does not make the targeted hate against minorities any less important.

People of the Book

The day those children were killed in Lahore, over a thousand protestors in Islamabad were demanding the immediate execution of Asiya Masih, a Christian woman on death row charged with blasphemy. “Long live Ghazi!” was their chant. Ghazi for them is Mumtaz Qadri, sentenced to death for killing the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for his support for Asiya bibi. Following Qadri’s execution, they want him to be officially named a shaheed (martyr) and his jail cell to be declared a heritage site.

They can afford such gumption because there is a law which states that the crime of criticising Allah, the Prophet or his teachings would be punishable by death. Conversions from Islam to any other religion carry the death penalty for men and life imprisonment for women.

Not only did the government that is organising a manhunt permit them to hold the rallies, it has even agreed to two of their demands that are linked to blasphemy: no amendment in Section 295-C of the PPC (blasphemy law) and no concession to anyone convicted of blasphemy.

Is the Pakistani government giving in to such blood-thirsty men or does it subscribe to these views? Qadri was not a terrorist; he belonged to the police force and was Taseer’s bodyguard. He was an insider, and there could well be many more.

The fact that Asiya has been given the death sentence points to government complicity in such beliefs. The liberal stance too did not speak about abusing the law, but pardoning the convicted. Taseer’s boss at the time, Asif Ali Zardari, was to act as god’s emissary and grant pardon to Asiya. The ruling elite and their echo chambers in society would have been spared the post-mortem.

The blasphemy law helps the political establishment to target anyone. More than half of those prosecuted have been Muslims so it is a clear indication that this is more an extreme form of censorship and dicatorship.

The Taliban's Jundullah wing had said after the twin blasts at the All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2012: “All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country.”

The Christians targeted then and now are Pakistani in thought, language, dress, and there is little to tell them apart from the rest. They have nothing to do with American drones or the United Sates. If anything, it is the rich Muslims who are more Americanised.

In the winter of 2014 Shama and Shehzad, a Christian couple, were bludgeoned, then set on fire in the brick kilns where they worked, and left to die. They had reportedly desecrated the Quran. The cops who tried to intervene were overwhelmed by the crowd, probably illiterate, who had probably memorised bits and pieces of the holy book. Later, some posed for photographs at the site of the murders. Seeing victims as trophy is one thing. Far worse is the lesson they learned as spectators: That there is a law that states such acts as desecration are a crime and killing for it might be the duty of a law-abiding citizen, rather than of a religion’s devotee.

As Tariq Ali rightly pointed out after the Lahore blast:

“…purely on the theological front, it is utterly grotesque of any group claiming to be Muslim to suggest that there is Qur’anic or institutional hostility to Christianity within Islamic writings. Jesus is one of the most revered of prophets in the Muslim pantheon. The only woman mentioned and praised and regarded as honorable in the Qur’an is Maryam, Mary, Jesus’s mother. There are more references to her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament, to show that these religions are linked to each other; they grew out of each other; they believe in the same book, the Old Testament; and they are all monotheistic. So, theologically, there is absolutely nothing to justify this.”

Christians are also considered ‘ahl-e-kitaab’ (people of the book) and therefore completely outside the range of whatever Islamists would deem to be authentic ‘kafir’.

The Idol Worshippers

Hindus seem to fit into the non-believer mould for fundamentalists. Yet, unlike Christians, they get more social support. This has a lot to do with status. While Hindus run small establishments and are professionally visible, from a chief justice to a cricketer, Christians, often employed in menial jobs, are to Pakistan what Dalits are to India – outcasts.  

On the recent Holi festival, a group of students formed a chain outside a temple as the Hindus enjoyed the celebrations. There had been no threat and they did it only to show solidarity. These gestures, however, do not translate into a concerted agenda to bring about change.

In 2012 during the protests across Pakistan against the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’, mobs decided to show their love for the Prophet on Ishq-e-Rasool Day by vandalising a Hindu temple in Karachi. They looted the ornaments on the deities, broke idols, tore pages of the Gita. The police registered a case against them for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. As reported: “In an extraordinary turn of events, Section 295-A was used to register a blasphemy case against Muslim men for damaging a Hindu temple during riots on. Section 295-A is the lesser known, non Islam-specific clause of the country’s notorious blasphemy law.”

This was hailed as a positive move, but it reeked of a politically-motivated whitewash job that only consolidated the blasphemy law.

Heretics and Apostates

“Kill them all,” shouted the gunman. They were 60 Ismailis in the bus. The shooters aimed at the head and killed 43; the rest were injured. Later, the Jundullah group celebrated by posting this on Twitter: “Thanks to God 43 apostates were killed and close to 30 others were wounded in an attack by the soldiers of Islamic State on a bus carrying people of the Shi'ite Ismaili sect ... in Karachi.”

As one born in an Ismaili family, the ‘good Muslim’ tag we got by default acted as a buffer. So, this came as a bit of a shock. However, it appeared to be a part of the larger assault on all Shia Muslims, many of them mohajir, the refugees from India.

Yet, the Aga Khans, past and present, have found favour with the Pakistani establishment. Despite having a distinct place of worship and prayers, Ismailis have been accepted. Unlike Ahmedis. Such is the resistance to the latter that when I compared the two sects, my column was spiked because the Pakistani newspaper found the subject “too sensitive”.

In their list of demands, Qadri’s supporters stated that the Ahmedi community should be expelled from the country and the services of all Ahmedis working in government departments should be terminated. They have the country’s Second Amendment to back them. It was introduced 27 years after independence to declare Ahmedis non-Muslim for they believe in a new messiah.

Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, has been disowned. Ironically, Pakistan owes its nuclear programme to him but at home the concerns are more basic. The epitaph on his grave reads, “First ------ Nobel Laureate”. That blank space is where the word Muslim was. Terrorists did not do it. This was done on the instructions of a court order.

If Ahmedis wish to perform the Haj they have to provide a written declaration stating that Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the founder of the sect, is a “cunning person and an imposter”. They are not permitted to call their place of worship a mosque and the architecture cannot have anything that looks like a minaret. The police once even scratched out Quranic verses from an Ahmedi mosque.

This was no Taliban. It was an arm of the government messing around in a religious place. It emboldens the Islamists. Why would they need to refer to any holy book when they have the blessings of the courts, politicians and the Constitution?  


Published in CounterPunch