It takes a death...Nido and the North East

It takes a death to bring us alive to what we are, but choose to ignore. The question is: How long will this wake-up call last? Are we not ready with our hands already on the snooze button?

Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh died on Thursday, Jan 30, after being beaten up the previous day by a shopkeeper and a few others when he asked for directions at Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, where he was a student. One version says that he broke a window glass in the altercation.

Why did a quarrel ensue? Some say that the assaulters started abusing him, making fun of his hair colour. This gives commentators like Madhu Kishwar the licence to suggest that it is not about racism, but a fight between two sides that can be attributed to lumpenisation.

Even if we agree that Nido did not stay quiet — why do we expect that victims should not fight back? — how can we ignore that there are elements of racism here? Many young people wear their hair in different ways. Delhi is a metro where people from all over come to work.

Will a person from Chandigarh or Mumbai with similar hair invite stares and more? The discriminatory attitude towards those from the North East regions has resulted in death and other crimes before.

Lok Sabha member from Arunachal Pradesh Takam Sanjoy said:

“This is not a new incident.... Several such incidents have been reported earlier where students of NE are victimised and we have taken adequate steps to sensitize the people...Even after 48-hours of the incident the police failed to arrest the culprits involved in the crime, which exposed the discriminatory attitude of the people from mainland India towards the people of North East."

It is sad that one part of the country is referred to as "mainland" that has to be "sensitized".

Madhu Kishwar has the gall to equate this with Brahmin, Sikh, bania jokes. Murder is not a joke. Would she say the same were somebody assaulted for his choti, or tilak, or turban? Indeed, there is an escape route in those cases to make them about religion, caste, communalism, and therefore more worthy of our empathy. The NE does not have that leeway. I do understand that we are overly sensitive to slurs, even when said in humour. But let us not reduce a brutal attack to this.

If Nido did indeed react aggressively, why did the police insist on a compromise? Why did those who suffered damages because of him not file a case? This is as usual becoming about the victim made answerable.

It is also taking a political turn. His father is a Congress politician. Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party got an opportunity to hit back at the Delhi cops, against whom he had started the dharna. Now, even Mr. Sanjoy says:

"If the government, police and administration thinks that the Indian Constitution is for a section of India, we will have to go out like Arvind Kejriwal to the streets for our rights."

People from the North East have taken out protest rallies often enough, so I wish he had desisted from mentioning the CM who has only recently been anointed.

The Congress will do its own "we are looking into it", and the BJP supporters are playing with semantics.

It would be better if we just accept that Indians are racist. We do discriminate based on how others look, what they eat and wear, how they speak. The problem for those from the North East is exacerbated because although they speak quite fluently in English and Hindi, they have Mongoloid features. So while we may treat the Chinese and Japanese with deference reserved for foreigners, those from the hills in our own country are given the "stray" treatment.

Partly, it is ignorance. Partly, it is isolation of the people from those areas, some of it self-chosen. The 'seven sisters' of the region do not make for the most amicable siblings, and have their own differences and cultural uniqueness. The same can be said about South India, but then the "mainland" has a blanket term "Madrasi" for all those from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka.

The point is how much can people be sensitised, and why is it even necessary? This sort of racist attitude is dumber than mere prejudice, for it lives in a dark hole from where nothing is visible except a fraction of light. There is no possibility of peripheral vision.

I do not like to talk about acceptance, as it is patronising, but should we not understand other looks, languages, cultures? Will these not enhance us?

© Farzana Versey


The flying MPs: Should they get special treatment?

Okay. Get angry. How dare our ‘public servants’ behave like feudals. Why should the taxpayer’s money be wasted on giving them the red carpet treatment? Get more angry.

Here is what is to happen:

Being treated like a Maharaja by Air India alone is not enough for our status-conscious members of Parliament. The aviation ministry now wants all private airlines to also accord royal treatment to nearly 800 members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha...The red carpet they are expected to roll out will include a designated protocol officer meeting MPs when they reach the airport and escort them to lounge. Check-in will be done by staff when the netas are resting there and having free refreshments. After that, they will be zipped through immigration and/or security checks to an aircraft waiting for them to board so that it can take off! Similar courtesy will have to be accorded on arrival too.

Flashback to not too long ago when Shashi Tharoor had talked about how he would have to travel “cattle class” when the government was pruning expenses. The reaction was that this was insulting to poor people, and perhaps to cattle as well.

Now, how many poor people travel by airplane? So, how would they feel insulted? For that matter, the economy class – why is it blatantly called Economy as opposed to Business or Club Class – also delineates the hierarchy. There is no chance in hell that ministers and VIPs are not treated better irrespective of how they travel.

I find it horribly treacly when I read about how Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji travel coach class. Do let me know when they are squeezed between two Amazons reading newspapers spread out, elbows tugging at them with the bloke in front reclining his seat into their laps.

Besides, many high-powered businessmen do have their staff check in for them, as well as ensure that upon arrival they sail through immigration and customs. You might say these are private individuals. But they are using the system, and therefore become it. Many do become political figures once they decide to get vocal about their positions, and contribute to different parties. When I see people like Suhel Seth, Alyque Padamsee, Sunil Alagh, and lately Capt. Gopinath holding forth on issues of the common man and pampered ministers, I really wonder how much in touch with reality they are. I would also like to know where they seat the ministers at their own sit-down dinners. Knock me down with a feather if the mantriji or mantri saheba is not at the main table.

Regarding special treatment meted out to ministers, one does not need any instruction from the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) for it. Private enterprise is largely indebted to, and uses the weaknesses of, those in power. It will bend, if not crawl, as long as it gets its own special benefits, some out of turn. Even if it has to use ‘common’ parlance, like say “people’s car”, which again makes it seem like ‘people’ here are those blokes who manage to scrape together Rs. 1 lakh and ride that little dinky vehicle and wave out to the non-people, the supra people, in their sedans. Even if it has meant dislocating villagers and tribals with political connivance to set up factories, and rob them of natural resources.

All this happens because ministers are the feudal lords, not of the ordinary taxpayer, but of the corporates.

A few years ago, I was quite surprised to see this activist-actress-Rajya Sabha member have a woman employee of a private airline on a domestic flight carry her hand baggage from the lounge to the van to right inside the aircraft. Was there a diktat then? No.

The problem is that we are slaves to VIP culture, which amounts to us wanting the powerful to appear powerful. In a sense, this is a hark-back to the days of rajas. The junta did not wish for them to jump off caparisoned elephants and mingle with the locals. They wanted them to throw pearls and coins. Court patronage was not looked down upon and in fact helped artistes flourish. Today, it is more of a barter system.

Is it a good thing to give such special treatment to ministers?

Good-bad are binaries. I certainly do not like the idea that DGCA would send out instructions for that would make it, in effect, a word of law. But to imagine that ministers and other favoured guests will not be given preferential treatment is rather naïve.

In some ways having an airline staff accompany them is better for security than a PA carrying the minister’s little briefcase, putting it in the overhead locker, even arranging the seat for him and then wishing him a greasy-smile bon voyage, while the flight attendants hover with their hot towels. The first row 1-A or 1-D are always reserved for people like them. Why? Who has asked for this?

The problem is we make a noise over surface issues. How many of us have brought forth the problems of bad landing systems, bird hits, flight delays, airport cleanliness, lounge and plane facilities, erratic fares, and what goes on inside the cockpit before the DGCA? Don’t these affect us more than what a minister gets on a frayed red carpet?

It is like that silly move to call all elected politicians ‘sevaks’. Many of them would be only too happy to please, much in the manner of zamindars who invite you to their 'ghareeb khaana'. Humility is a luxury only the arrogant can afford.

© Farzana Versey


How He Turned The Tables: The Rahul Gandhi Interview

If you are looking for a parody or, more appropriately, a lame attempt at humour, then please skip this.

Rahul Gandhi may not be a great subject for a television interview, he may not even turn out to be a good political leader, but on the much-touted first-ever interview in 10 years (he clarified on camera that this was not the first, but the first formal one!) he did exactly what he set out to do. Say his piece. What seemed like repetition, if not ducking, was a strategy he adopted to bludgeon the inquisitor softly, if not tire him out.

Some in the media have dubbed this a Rahul vs. Arnab fight. I am amazed at the ignorance. No one, I repeat no one, in the higher echelons of power will give such a big interview without vetting the queries. Therefore, Rahul Gandhi must certainly have been aware of what Arnab Goswami (AG) would ask. If AG added specific queries later, then isn’t it funny that at the beginning of the interview he makes it clear and RG says “You can draw me back as much as you want” but would he be okay if he took a broader look? Think about it. Besides, it does not take rocket science (ahem, those Bharat Nirman ads) to figure out what the nation as filtered by the media would want to know. As he said:

"I have done a little media interaction, prior to this. I have done press conferences & spoken to the media. But mainly bulk of my focus has been on internal party work and that's where I have been concentrating, that is where most of my energy was going."

In the latter half I will reproduce some salient points, with quick notes.

First, the minutiae: This was not a live interview; it was conducted at Jawahar Bhavan; it lasted for a little under 90 minutes. According to The Telegraph:

But sources said the Congress leadership wanted to ensure that Rahul’s “outing” should be with a journalist who has a reputation for being unsparing. An off-the-record session between Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Goswami, over pakoras and tea, also helped pave the ground for the interview, the sources said.

It just so happens that those who are building up this “unsparing” interviewer have rather short or selective memories. Some of us do recall his almost obsequious questioning of Bal Thackeray; even Raj Thackeray has managed to stand firm. So, let us not create heroes only because we need to look down on certain people.

Let us talk about some problem areas.

Why was RG not being specific?

Why should he? He will do so in his speeches when he addresses the nation, not for revenue-run TRP-driven media. Has Times Now donated to the Congress Party’s election campaign? Is there a quid pro quo? No.

Arnab did his business of mentioning names – as the tagline of his show states – and Rahul spoke about the issue. Yes, the issues are more important. It is the system that deals with individual offenders. If he took the names, or repeated them after AG, he would be a bloody stupid politician and VP of his party.

Why did he not take the Modi bait?

This was by far the best thing Rahul could have done. He treated Narendra Modi as just another guy. The persistent questioning about whether he would agree to a debate with the Gujarat CM elicited what I thought was a perfect clincher: “The debate is already going on.” This effectively took the battle to where it belongs – outside the TV studios.

Why did he not apologise for the anti-Sikh riots of 1984?

What would he achieve by doing so? Get brownie points from the viewers and a pat on the back from the media, with Times going berserk by claiming that it was their channel that brought about this major penance? The PM and Sonia Gandhi have both apologised, and if RG has to do so it needs to be done to the people who are waiting for justice.

Why did he not come clean about his degrees?

Here you have an anchor who has netted a huge catch, and he is quoting a shark lapping in the shallows. Arnab brought in Subramanian Swamy to put RG on the mat regarding his educational qualifications. With all his Ivy League credentials, Swamy comes across as an uncouth man. Besides, how is it important? This Oxford-Cambridge showing off might appeal to the urban upper middle class, not the majority of the population.

Has anybody bothered to check for how long exactly Modi ran a tea stall that he is using as his new USP? Is there any evidence of it?

Why did he not commit on the Aam Aadmi Party?

Simple. The AAP is not one that sticks to its own word, so how can anybody else? Here is one bit from the interview

Arnab: Are you using the AAP to split the Anti Congress vote bank, to keep Mr. Modi out of power
Rahul: You are implying that we have brought the AAP...

This was really giving it to those ones in the politest of tones.

Why did he keep repeating about RTI, empowerment of women, the system?

Because these are crucial subjects, though they don’t sound terribly sexy. Indeed, he used these terms to also answer unrelated queries, but as I said at the beginning, he was here to say his piece.

We have got so accustomed in the past few months to war cry rallies and dharnas that someone who comes across as vulnerable, yet refusing to fall prey, is not easy to accept. Calling Rahul Gandhi a fool might prove to be our biggest fallacy.

Here is how he answered some of the questions, from Modi to being attacked, and why moving off-track sometimes seemed to be just the right move:

RTI: Blindly transparent?

The Right to Information Act is in the news again because Rahul Gandhi spoke about it. This is what I had written earlier:

The RTI Act might become stronger only for a handful. Some of these celebrities could use this Act to have their way and use it as one more calling card. It is bad enough that much of the security machinery leaks out information to the media. This added empowerment of the pampered citizen will demote the right of the common person. Do you think anyone will want to know about kickbacks on tube-wells or how hooch tragedies take place? How many farmers are going to file PILs?

The important thing is not just getting information but whether anyone can act upon it. Who will be made answerable and to whom? Isn’t there a possibility that to snuff out corruption there could be more corruption with some big names smuggling out information using their good offices and a tacit barter?

If the idea is empowerment, then the signature campaigns should include those whose rights are being fought for and not merely unsolicited spokespersons. Today, we have a situation where landmark structures are being given special security while badly constructed buildings crash every other day. Does anyone want information about that?

Such talk only works as a style statement and sheds no light on the right to know. And knowledge does not stop with information.


This is to give perspective before I launch on the speech! Here it is: How he turned the tables: The Rahul Gandhi Interview

Why display Tipu's Sword?

Should culture be a denial of history? And what history ought to be remembered?

When Karnataka decided to celebrate Tipu Sultan in their Republic Day tableau, the opposition did not really think about this. For them it was ‘murderer of Hindus, temple destroyer”, and the Congress government was chided for fake secularism. Some even called Tipu, “the Tiger of Mysore”, a Mughal king. This is par for the course for the Hindutva agenda. To be noted is that we never seem to have an issue with the British. Has there been any move to demolish the Gateway of India?

Having said this, the opponents of the opponents are using Tipu’s bravery against the Raj colonial rule, and his death in battle as an example. All very well, but the Indian National Congress cannot take credit for that.

I do indeed have an issue with Tipu Sultan in the January 26 float for the simple reason that India was already an independent nation when it chose to become a republic. We do not need to commemorate kings. And what is this obsession with his sword? Can we forget that it was brought back to India by business tycoon Vijay Mallya in 2003 by paying from his "personal funds" of Rs. 1.5 crore? (The second sword was auctioned in London in 2013.)

At the time it was seen as a political move, and like many political moves it was explained as "rightful legacy" by "a proud Kannadiga". If anything, this is parochialism. Which is also what the tableaux are about.

For us culture seems to be a mish-mash of song and dance from various regions. This is static. It does not convey the growth of a nation. It is as much of an anomaly as display of weapons. Who are these shown off to? What does it convey? That we are prepared to deal with any enemy attack.

It is not too different from Tipu's sword that Karnataka owes to a corporate house, which represents in some ways how we view the enemy of dislocated people today. What about other enemies within? Is it not the duty of the Republic to address these issues?

And if we want an exhibition of culture, then this is one area where we could do with fusion. Why not bring two or three regions to create something together?

History is killed by crude and ostentatious statues of dead heroes used opportunistically. Tipu Sultan is now included in the pantheon. There will be dissonant voices. Why play into them? Why not celebrate what can be instead of what was?

© Farzana Versey


Image: India Today


Sunday ka Funda

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

― Plato, Plato's Republic

Power and the divine right of kings also happens to be a philosophy. And, Plato contradicted himself when he wrote in the section The Theatre of the Mind:

“In practice people who study philosophy too long become very odd birds, not to say thoroughly vicious; while even those who are the best of them are reduced by...[philosophy] to complete uselessness as members of society.”

Today's Republic Day speech by the President, besides the usual homilies, had at least a couple of interesting observations:

"Some cynics may scoff at our commitment to democracy but our democracy has never been betrayed by the people; its fault-lines, where they exist, are the handiwork of those who have made power a gateway to greed. We do feel angry, and rightly so, when we see democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence. If we hear sometimes an anthem of despair from the street, it is because people feel that a sacred trust is being violated."

"Equally dangerous is the rise of hypocrisy in public life. Elections do not give any person the licence to flirt with illusions. Those who seek the trust of voters must promise only what is possible. Government is not a charity shop. Populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance. False promises lead to disillusionment, which gives birth to rage, and that rage has one legitimate target: those in power."

No. Often, the target are the citizens. Indirectly, even the fallout of the rage affects only them. For, whether in power or out of power, the leader can shrug off promises, unlike the people for whom the promised could well be a matter of survival, if not hope.


Is this 'honour rape'?

This should be treated on par with 'honour killing', that execrable term that props up the worst form of patriarchy.

A 20-year old tribal woman from West Bengal was in love with a man from another community. The panchayat, "salishi sabha", decided to punish her for it by asking the villagers to rape her.

Under a thatched roof — and according to later reports this was on a platform so that people could watch — she was brutalised by a gang of teenagers and men old enough to be her father.

This is not about one incident at Labhpur in Birbhum district. It is not even about the male mindset alone. These men volunteered to be part of a quasi legal verdict. It is easy to dismiss it as khap panchayat backwardness. But who gives them such power that they can empower the locals to assault one of their own?

Conquering armies have abused women to score points against an enemy. Who is the enemy here? A woman from their tribe. Besides the obvious heinousness of the crime, her family being ostracised for speaking to the police is extremely disturbing. People who watched the crime have come to believe in their stand. They think it was right, and the real crime is of moving out of the community-laid rules.

The cops arrested 13 of the rapists. They ought to arrest the members of the panchayat as well as the onlookers. There would probably be no evidence of the latter, but given that the village is against the family each one of them is a suspect as witness to a crime committed.

There has to be en masse justice in such cases, for the ones who raped followed orders. In this disgusting display, the villagers might end up considering them heroes who saved their honour.

What worries me is we will have one more reason to call out such panchayats and yet continue to watch the televised shows where each detail is painfully read out to the public, as happened recently in a sexual molestation case. The anchor khaps are a mimicked version. This really is not too different to what happens in areas not removed from the social mainstream.

As you can see, this protest group has talked about being "ashamed". Why convey obtuse messages of shame? It isn't we, but they. They should be ashamed that an adult woman cannot choose who to love. They should be ashamed that caste, tribal and communal affiliations still divide us to an extent that these transform people into unthinking criminals. They should be ashamed to be brainwashed into believing in false notions of honour. They should be ashamed that some among them will stand and watch a crime because they are told it is just.

What we should be ashamed of is that we will forget about it until the next case.

© Farzana Versey


Fuzz and Feminism

Why can't they just leave women's body hair alone? From Cameron Diaz to American Apparel, they are being intrusive.

To think that the Hollywood star has discovered feminism via down under is a bit much. She is selling her book, and just like propping up the smooth skin is a big ticket there is a market for fuzz when these views come pregnant with adjectives. It is almost always "shocking images", and about being raw.

If Lower East Side Manhattan is going to curl up with embarrassment over a clothing store that shows mannequins in transparent lingerie showing off pubic hair, then it has little to do with reluctance to accept the natural.

If natural is what we want, then why restrict it to hair on the privates? Where is the fuzz on legs, arms, face? Where is the pigmentation, the natural contours of the belly, the hip? You can't create a woman, or a mannequin, to look like a stereotype and then talk about how liberating it is not to depilitate.

American Apparel's statement is:

"We are a company that celebrates natural beauty...We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is 'sexy' and consider their comfort with the natural female form."

For all the liberating talk, they are telling women that it is okay, that this is sexy, and they ought to just lie down and be comfy. It is such a magnanimous gesture that girl power will rush to buy the stuff. It happens to be the Valentine's Day window display, much in advance. Those women who have made the horrible decision to get themselves into a pre-pubescent stage have enough time to redeem themselves and grow it all back, so that when their boyfriends or spouses get these itsy-bitsies gift-wrapped for them, they can 'fit into' the role that the show window wants them to. All this, including celebrity endorsement, amounts to talking down to women.

The New Age man is always ready to experiment, therefore he would probably walk into American Apparels and imagine a fresh from mother earth sensation.

Also, do notice that the hair is dark, very dark. Why are there no red heads, blondes? Does 'nature' and its connotations imply only a shade that is perceived as belonging to the untamed? Is this not racism?

Somebody has called the display retro. We might have a pop version, a blues version, a nirvana version.

Cameron Diaz has a chapter in her book titled 'In Praise of Pubes' where she asks, "Do you really want a hairless vagina for the rest of your life?" Had this been a serious question, one might have attempted an answer. There is some merit in bringing it out in the open, but she refers to pubic hair as "pretty draping" and "mysterious". She obviously knows what evolutionists or creationists, depending on how she swings, intended it to be, if not god her/himself. What if some do not find it pretty?

She says such hair is like having a nose. The comparison ought to have been with nose hair. Will the big studios like to see poky little hairs sticking out from every part of the body? More importantly, where does one stop at grooming or start?

The idea behind grooming anyway amounts to interfering with what is available material. From head to toe, we meddle in the affairs of the body. It could be to please others, but to a large extent it is also what we are comfortable with. One is not contesting how social brainwashing might affect us, but will those using such images to get us back to basics show us a complete picture where nothing at all is groomed, and not just the sexual organs?

Whichever way you look at it, the obsession is with the female form. Clean-shaven men are seen as metrosexual. Clean-shaven women are now deemed unnatural. From grooming too much to now not grooming, we are sought to be objectified.

This is a private matter between us and our bodies. Do not tell us what to do behind the fig leaf.

© Farzana Versey


An unnecessary death

It has been shocking from the word go.

Sunanda Pushkar, wife of minister Shashi Tharoor, was found dead this evening in a Delhi hotel room. It seemed messy the moment I first switched channels yesterday and saw the “twitter catfight” about an affair all over. Today, it has resulted in a death.

All I can say right now is that the media should exercise some restraint. They did not do so a day ago, and they are not doing so now. The 'concern' too is nosey. ‘Friends’ are telling us different versions about her health. Reporters are giving contradictory accounts. It would seem that half of Delhi’s media was onto something. And I hear people are going to politicise this? Lay off.

It is asking for too much, especially since the people involved started this. But catharsis and personal anger, however ill-advised, is one thing. Voyeurism by the rest of the world is another. I read some nonsensical bytes in the newspaper where a TV anchor whose channel ran a big story was asking the two ladies to “stay totally civil in public”.

The social media has been used to settle scores, to slander, and that is worrying. It has resulted in an extreme step, but many of us have had to put up with absolute muck in public spaces that has little to do with our public positions.

Not only is it difficult to judge people’s personal lives, it is intrusive and distressing. 


Of kite-flyers, jeep-jumpers and junta darbars - The Modi, Rahul, Kejriwal bonanza

This makes news. Actor Salman Khan meets Narendra Modi and says he is a good man, a great man, flies kites, has lunch, shares a few laughs. This is news.

The BJP prime ministerial candidate could not contain his enthusiasm:

Earlier, Modi tweeted his picture with Salman saying he was having lunch with the actor on the occasion of Uttarayan.

"Having Undhiyu for lunch with Salman Khan. Undhiyu is a Gujarati delicacy and is a must-have during Uttarayan!"

The actor who was promoting his film said:

"See the good man is standing before me. I have come here after four years, have seen so much development. You tell me, I don't belong to Gujarat. It doesn't matter what I perceive...I got to meet Mr Modi I really feel nice. I believe Modi sahib should get whatever is in his fate and he will certainly achieve it."

BJP supporters who would otherwise have made a huge noise about the actor had he 'appeased' any other politician are now behaving like slobbering fans.

A few points:

• It is a sign of desperation that the endorsement from a Bollywood star carries so much weight.

• In one day, how much development was Salman Khan exposed to?

• Salman Khan has been taken to task for participating in the Saifai festival on the invitation of Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP spokespersons have been criticising the Samajwadi Party, making Modi sound like an angel in comparison regarding the Muzaffarnagar riots. So, did the Gujarat CM take time out between the 'maanja lapet' (releasing the kite string, also colloquially used for lying) to ponder upon the film star's lack of sensitivity?

• Does anybody imagine that despite Salman's huge following he could help swing the 'Muslim vote'? In fact, why is it necessary at all? Besides, the Khan family does regular 'secular' outings, which often entails participating in several festivals, something that almost every Indian does with less ostentatiouness and without much ado.

• While promoting his film, did Salman Khan think for a moment about how his friend Aamir Khan's film (among others) was banned by the Gujarat government? Or, is looking for opportunity and freebies enough?

In that case, Jai ho-ho-ho.


Rahul Gandhi on a visit to Kerala jumps on the roof of a jeep. This makes news.

CPI(M) state leader Pinarayi Vijayan said:

"His candidature as the Congress's PM candidate is more or less finalised and yesterday (Monday) travelling on a police jeep on his state visit he behaved like a joker...He behaved like a person of unsound mind and the action should be taken against him for travelling on top of a police jeep."

What do the news channels do? They say he is doing an 'Aam Aadmi' thing. Every politician has mastered the art of jumping — whether it is the line, the gun, or over puddles. They carry babies, dance with tribals. Check out the pictures of all the current aspirants and you will see them in action.

We know why they do it. The more loyal than the king types could be their undoing. Take P C George who gushed:

"He belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi clan and I never thought he could just walk into the hearts of the average common man, like what he did yesterday. He has proved that his heart is there and he was able to connect with the man on the street."

Here he is affirming that the dynasty is removed from reality and whatever it does is out of magnanimity. Enough of connecting with the man on the street. A jeep rooftop view is not quite it. Just leave it as a charming gesture that makes for a good photograph.


An Aadmi Party leader who is planning to "challenge" Rahul Gandhi in Amethi has now hinged his hopes on the Dalit woman Rahul had stayed with in 2008. Kumar Vishwas "was shocked to see that the family was still leading a miserable life in a kachcha house with no roof in the bitter cold. He assured her that AAP workers would at least arrange a roof for the house".

It is back to making one person into a totem.

The manner in which Arvind Kejriwal and AAP are being portrayed one would imagine that the media is ignorant and juvenile. It is sickening to watch debates where other political parties are accused of "copying" AAP. I am surprised that the new party has not been credited with discovering the very existence of the common man.

Ministers have cut taxes, prices, and held open house on designated days for years. So, why did the party's "janta darbar" become a public spectacle that had to be called off? As a report says:

Police estimated that 50,000 people had gathered in front of the secretariat. The crowd mostly comprised contractual workers from various government departments like DTC, power company BSES, different government hospitals, municipal corporations, among others demanding permanent status.

The chief minister cannot push files. There are people to do these jobs. The very idea of being "human" gets a beating when barricades have to be put up, traffic is obstructed, and you have a raja-type minister listening to people's woes, dispensing justice. (Some have compared it to the Mughal courts.) There is a bureaucracy and a judiciary that has to deal with these issues, and although the criticism by the BJP that it is a parallel government is not entirely accurate, Kejriwal does make it look like a mass panchayati raj.

After the debacle, he said:

"We will have to improve the arrangements. If I had not left the place then there was a possibility of a stampede. Everybody wanted to meet me. We will streamline the system so that a similar situation does not recur."

One does not wish to sound alarmist, but in a politically fractious environment, it is also possible that rivals will try to scuttle such populist measures.

However, it does not mean there is fear. This is about sadism that comes with power — the power of being in a position of authority and of anarchy when out of it.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

"Out with stereotypes, feminism proclaims. But stereotypes are the west's stunning sexual personae, the vehicles of art's assault against nature. The moment there is imagination, there is myth."

— Camille Paglia

"Do not put garbage in our mind." This graffiti on the wall outside Tunis City Hall has been quoted to explain the attitude towards women's dress following the Arab Spring.

As happens with all such studies in a cocoon, it uses a small sample and reaches broad conclusions, that too about what the respondents thought 'might' be appropriate but is not necessarily practised. Worse, it is actually based on the false premise of what constitutes "MidEast countries". Tunisia, Egypt and Pakistan are not in the Middle East.

While the research, and mainstream commentators, assume a superior attitude towards "secularism", they forget that their obsession with what is termed "Muslim dress" is anything but. They are working their way backwards, and become as veiled as the veils they find constricting when their idea of "women's choice" becomes selective.

This is not even the imagination or myth that Paglia speaks about. It is merely a lame excuse to falsely manufacture how free they themselves are.

The above tongue-in-cheek response in the web world to the research chart shows us just how hollow such statistics and stereotypes can be, using mere mode of dress to formulate a point of view. Are you what others wear?

To paraphrase the graffiti, the garbage is in their minds.

© Farzana Versey


There's a Frenchman in the Pakistani Soup

Fine dining, by definition, is exclusive. Can a foreigner bar Pakistanis from his restaurant in Pakistan, their country?

The obvious reaction would be, no. It is racist any way you look at it. However, let us see the other side.

La Maison, run by Frenchman Philippe Lafforgue, in a part of his house at an upscale area of the capital Islamabad, has been forced to shut down after there was an outcry against this discriminatory policy. There was no board outside saying so; it was a discreet decision by the management.

As the owner stated:

“It’s not a discrimination thing. It’s a culturally sensitive thing. How can I serve pork and booze to Pakistanis without getting into trouble? So I have a rule: no locals getting in...I can’t open it up to the Pakistani people because I serve alcohol. If I start serving locals, which is obviously profitable, I will have to bribe the police…which I want to avoid.”

This last bit is important and has been ignored by the commentators. There are many in Pakistan who can afford it, and do patronise fancy restaurants. However, there is much hypocrisy regarding alcohol. Many of the elite like to show off their bars and collection of wines, but do not raise their voice against government policies over their eating and drinking habits. Their laws might discriminate against minorities, but they are quite willing to tap this segment for their quota of booze. Non-Muslims and those in the diplomatic services are their sources for tipple, although they can manage to arrange it through powerful local contacts.

Therefore, the owner is not entirely wrong when he talks about having to bribe the cops.

Is there a cultural issue that he is truly concerned about? Let us just say that the Pakistanis who might enjoy their drink at home or at private parties might put on a publicly moralistic mask. This is not a blanket judgment, but it certainly does apply to a few. Sometimes, it is pragmatism. A friend who has never hidden his lifestyle has had to hear the police knock on his door quite often.

Then, there is the sensitive issue of whether an outsider can prevent citizens of the host country from entering. Most reports have gone back in time to refer to the "Dogs and Indians not allowed" policy of British establishments during colonial rule.

There are clubs in India where certain people are not permitted even today. Depending on the portfolio of the club, politicians and film stars too have been debarred by the intellectuals and corporate sections. There is also a dress code policy; the famous artist M.F.Husain was prevented from entering the British era Willingdon Sports Club because of his footwear.

I am afraid, but I do believe that private establishments do have the luxury and right to choose their entry policies. Try dressing up scruffily and getting into the Karachi Club, or even a posh eatery in Zamzama. The hierarchy is well in place.

For that matter, at an exclusive do in Karachi, my host said he would not introduce me as an Indian because it was a cadets party. Although uncomfortable about it, I did understand his position, and was in fact grateful that he let me have a glimpse of something I would never have had.

Why would the French restaurant assume that all Pakistanis are uptight? I have been to an Italian restaurant not too far from this place and we were the only 'locals' there, if we don't consider my Indian identity.

What is particularly glaring about how this discrimination thing has worked out is that the main issue has been obfuscated. The assistant superintendent of the Islamabad Police decided to do a personal recce after getting complaints (a social media campaign, naturally). These are his words:

“So I personally called in to make a reservation, and was rejected when I said I was a Pakistani. The next step was obviously to check the place out. We found over 300 bottles of non-licensed alcohol and even a casino table.”

Lafforgue was charged with "unlicensed alcohol," a crime. Where does all talk of racism disappear? As an homily, the cop added:

“How can you live on our soil and treat us like this. No rules allow such behavior. This is not the nineteenth century.”

Part of the problem is the need to look up to foreigners. It is ingrained in the DNA of the subcontinent. The protests do not emanate from the ground, but from niche ideas of access. This too is privilege.

There is a flip side as well. Local Pakistanis, mainly young women, seek out invitations to parties at the diplomatic clubs, even though they are primarily meant for embassy staff and their families. It is another matter that they are often welcomed because they add exotica and are not inhibited.

The police have shut down the restaurant for now. It would have made sense if the registered crime was not illegal bottles of alcohol but discrimination. Unfortunately, that would be a difficult proposition. For, there is a huge mirror and it shows what Pakistanis do not wish to see.


© Farzana Versey


Image: Philippe Lafforgue at his restaurant, NBC


The Pontiff's Closet

What do you think about Pope Francis being chosen Best Dressed Man of 2013 by Esquire? When the magazine says, "Pope Francis's sartorial decisions have subtly signaled a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church", it is jumping the gun. As religious head, he has certainly proven to be immensely likeable. He is discussed for his symbolic gestures, and they might not alter perceptions but do send out signals about a modernistic way of looking at social mores.

However, I believe that a best dressed tag does not quite reward these gestures, much less comprehend the nuances that might get lost and possibly lose track of what is being symbolised.

Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor of menswear design at FIT, has been quoted as saying:

"His mode of dressing really does reflect the mindset behind it. I remember when John Paul II was buried in those opulent bright red shoes. When the current pope was elected and chose not to wear the red shoes I thought that was very reflective of his approach to being a person functioning in a role."

Every position comes with a set role, and the only dissonance possible is in terms of interpretation. That does not alter the inherent nature of the role. For true believers, the red shoes were not an impediment to their faith, just as the discarding of them will not be.

Ann Pellegrini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies & Religious Studies at New York University, goes over-the-top:

"The humility of his garments offers a way to visibly display his theological and material concerns for the poor. This Holy Roman emperor really does have new clothes."

While it is true that the Pope has been "approachable" and "humble" — though such a station is supposed to be about humility and subservience to god, is it not? — a reality check is needed here.

I am not a Catholic, or a practising believer in any organised faith system, but being surrounded by several streams of theological thought it is obvious to me that devotees, especially those unfortunate enough to be poor and homeless, do look up to pomp and splendour. It is their means of escapism. And, dare I say, hope.

Unlike the well-heeled and the educated, they do not marvel at church spires and stained glass windows, nor do they appreciate the fine filigree work of the Islamic architecture in mosques, nor the fine motifs in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples. But, the sheen of the altar, the sanctum, the idols does affect them. The brighter these are, the more dewy-eyed they get. This is not about materialism, but to experience what they do not possess. It is an egalitarian moment for them, for it renews their faith due to its obviousness. They seek no evidence of the power of an aura beyond what is evident, even as some of us might rationalise.

In fact, Esquire is doing just that. Yet, quite ironically, it is performing papal sort of duties by anointing the Pope with a grand gesture that contradicts the purported purpose of rewarding him: austerity.

© Farzana Versey