5.7.15

The wheelchair man



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

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

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

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

I smiled, "I guess so."

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

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

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

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

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

How does one respond verbally 

"Are you Christian?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

3.7.15

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

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

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

Bobby Brown

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel’s Alter Ego

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


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

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

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

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

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

Masks and Skin

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

--
Published in CounterPunch

30.6.15

Divided, and ruling



Kamal Haasan recently played martyr. It is fairly common for the arrogant and liars to play martyr. It is the prime ticket to a clean slate when you have moved on and reached closure, whatever the terms mean, for true closure should not result in constant bickering about that particular part of the past.

Kamal Haasan is an accomplished actor and filmmaker. He also has interesting insights into cinema, and social issues. Irrespective of how one views the choices he makes and has made, he has struck out. But that is not the issue here.

In a joint interview with his daughter Shruti, he chose to discuss his personal life and that is where he came across as arrogant and wanting. He rants about his first marriage:


"Just around the time she (Shruti) was born, I had lost all my money due to the various alimony settlements with Vani that I had to pay and had to restart with a zero bank balance...I was living suddenly in a rented house, which I was not used to, but fortunately my career was in great shape. Life was suddenly a wake-up call for me, but at that time to make a decision in my career to not be enamoured by money was a strange thing that happened to me."


I do not know the details of their arrangement, but I do know that his ex-wife Vani Ganapathy was and is an accomplished classical dancer. I also know that around the same time he was living in with Sarika, the woman he married after their two daughters were born. These are personal decisions, but there is no need to use any of them to score.

The feisty Vani has not kept quiet. She called up the newspaper and this is what she said and I reproduce in full:


“I was very hurt after I read a recent interview of Kamal's. He has said that because of our divorce, he went bankrupt due to the alimony that was paid to me. I would really like to know, firstly, which divorce in India has led to bankruptcy of any kind. And if he claims he went bankrupt, then I ought to have been living in comfort. Instead, why would I have had to buy a home on an LIC loan on the outskirts of Bengaluru 28 years back? All that I have today is because of my dance and my own hard work. Kamal also says that he moved into a rented house because of this bankruptcy. How can he say that when we only stayed in rented houses during the time we were married. The only house that Kamal bought during that time was used as his office. So where is the question of having to move into a rented house because of him running into bankruptcy due to our divorce?“


What has happened is not uncommon. Patriarchal societies believe that the male is the provider and assume that the woman he once promised to take care of will always be under his guardianship or at least supported by him. This may not be true at all, but people will buy the lies or anything that fits into their own narrow perceptions.

Relationships are anyway fragile, so why point out the pieces when they break? Why the tall claims? Was Kamal Haasan trying to appeal to his daughter, now a grownup woman who may have many unanswered questions?

Again, he strikes me as presumptuous. Talking about how he tackled the revelations of his breakup with her mother Sarika to her, he said:


"Also she wasn't sure as the facts were not given to her fully by either (he and Sarika). I didn't explain too much as explaining myself would have tilted her balance, which I didn't want to do. If I was a villain in her piece at that time, it's okay as I knew it's not a permanent piece as it wasn't going to be etched on rock. And it's good that I waited."


Was this necessary? Why would it have tilted the balance — the girls lived with their mother. Such emotional machismo is no different from the physical variant. The villain turned into a hero is so enchanting, especially when it comes to later explaining more digressions:


Let me talk in a very male tone. If you are talking about scores, mine is the lowest amongst my peers. Numbers don't matter to me, it's always about commitment for me. I have never had one-night stands ever. It can't work for me and that way I am like a woman as they too are troubled with that.


This is so problematic. Comparing his score with that of his peers he seems to suggest that they might lack commitment because of a higher 'score'. And one-night stands would bother those who are bothered, irrespective of gender. To imply that women are "troubled" only invokes that they better be while ostensibly conveying a sensibility that cares.

Even while talking about losing it all for his alimony, he is trying to show his concern for his other family. In the presence of his daughter, he is expressing to her the sacrifices he made for them. Such one-upmanship may work for the self-esteem of the insecure and to an extent to keep a superficial peace, but it only eclipses the halo.

29.6.15

The corpse carriers: Parsi untouchability


A news story on untouchability among the Parsis may seem like an anachronism, but this is how the pallbearers in the community are treated.

They are now protesting, not against the untouchability but their pay scales. These khandias have to work at odd hours, live amongst corpses till they decompose completely, and it takes a long time for there are no birds of prey these days at the Doongerwadi Tower of Silence at Malabar Hill. The solar panels leave the bodies "soggy". As one khandia was quoted as saying, “When we go to drag the body, a hand or a leg comes off."

These men are treated with contempt, as the report conveys so well. They can't live in the Parsi baugs, there is separate drinking water, they need to purify themselves before entering a fire temple, and when they are given money they have to open a pouch so that the donors do not get contaminated.

The contamination bit bothers me, and it is not restricted to Parsis and is rampant in all communities. The pallbearers are carrying and cleaning people who were once loved and lived amongst us. How does this defile them? Is it only considerations of infections that might pass? I think not. If that were the case, then long after they have washed and aired themselves, they would not still be ostracised for being who they are.

What is the point of funeral rites and memorials if we cannot respect those who ensure that the deceased have a dignified last image?

There are always exceptions to the rule, but that only emphasises how entrenched these non-scripture, non-legal rules are and also how social norms and prejudices have a greater say than them. It is appalling that we continue to be trapped in fears of contamination.

Some years ago, there was a demand for some purification ritual because actor Arjun Rampal (who is married to a Parsi) had said he had sneaked into a fire temple — as a kid. I had written Parsi Controversies then.

We do pull up Hindus for their practice of untouchability, and rightly so. But Muslims, Christians, and Parsis are offenders too. Muslims have a higher caste of Syeds, and many sects look down on others — including not having water in the house of one or treating another's rituals with contempt. Even if a religion talks about the differences, should we not move with the times? Ages ago, there were probably reasons of survival of the fittest and assertion of territory to be factored in. Today, social mobility makes these redundant.

The hypocrisy makes things worse when there is talk of dignity of labour in public and scant consideration privately for those performing such tasks. Why is it that a person with a degree doing a menial job is seen as honourable but one 'born' into it not so? These prejudices are not ingrained but learned. And such learning is also about some form of intellectual superiority, and therefore slavery.

If we must shun, then shunning these double-faced consciences should be considered good untouchability. 

28.6.15

Sunday ka Funda

Time flies, we say, as another dawn, another dusk arrive and leave. There is birth. And rebirth. Yes, rebirth. The soil is fertile. It creates.

Then, there are needs, wishes, desires. Each one takes away something from us even before it has given us anything. Indeed:

"Hazaaaron khwaahishein aisi ke har khwaahish pe dum nikle..."

20.6.15

Whose yoga is it, anyway?


After this Yoga Day is over, nobody will give a damn about it, neither those promoting it nor those opposing it.

As we celebrate the occasion on June 21, it becomes evident that unlike the rest of the world, for Indians it is not only about physical wellbeing. It takes a very simplistic mind to suggest that the sudden interest in yoga is about health. If that were the priority, then our health infrastructure would be revamped and several other cures propagated.

Perhaps those who perform their asanas and deep breathing might have gone about it as they always do but for the added burden of being made the keepers of a cultural heritage. This becomes more potent when you have to deal with what appear to be enemies of yoga. Supporting yoga today is also about patriotism.

"Yoga is the best soft power of India," said external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Inherent in the statement is the belief that we can colonise others with it, and indeed with so many other countries adopting it it is possible to indulge in such delusion, especially where the West is concerned.

The same goes for the prime minister. When Narendra Modi suggested to the UN to institute a day celebrating yoga, he was claiming heritage, capitalising on the foreign interest, and appealing to the NRI community by taking care not to use Hindutva evangelism and spoil their case in their adopted lands.

More than culture, it is an assertion of patent rights. Our foreign obsession often takes us to our own cultural moorings only after they've been accepted overseas, largely by the whites. Do we hear about blacks and yoga? There is no way that the foreigners enamoured of yoga are doing so solely due to its physical benefits. They like the exotica that accompanies it — the incense, the spiritual poses, the history and the mythography of finding the self from the navel to the seat of all desire at the base of the lower back, as the kundalini rises.

Added to this is the guilt that they are taking over yoga. There has been much debate for years about the appropriation. This is not quite true for Indian gurus from Maharishi Mahesh yogi to Deepak Chopra made money overseas and gained currency in the land of their origin because of their famous clientele overseas. There might be a few mom & pop type yoga stores, but it is more likely that it is preferred to be first experienced in its 'natural' environment.

The truth is that yoga has been chosen for special attention simply because it is a thriving industry, and not because India wants to culturally invade the world or the minorities. However, the 'yoga is anti-Islam, anti-Christianity' lobbies come in handy because the majority of middle-class Indians, avaricious as they are, like a moral core to justify their greed.

With the subtle implication that this is an ancient art form that needs to be protected and propagated, they feel assuaged. They carry history in their aspiring to be nimble forms.


It was bad enough that certain Muslim groups and individuals started talking about how yoga is anti-Islam, but it is even worse to see the ridiculous attempts to co-opt other Muslims. Photographs of maulvis and people wearing burqas and skull caps holding their noses and contorting their bodies just make it appear like the farce it is turning out to be.

It started with this nonsense about how Muslims can't do the surya namaskar because in Islam you are not supposed to worship any form. Not everybody who does yoga worships the sun or the moon or anything. Why even bring this up? This gave Yogi Adityanath just the kind of opportunity he waits for:

"Sun is the source of life giving energy. Whoever thinks Sun is communal, I would like to humbly request them to drown themselves in the sea or they should stay in a dark cell."

These Muslims deserve his idiocy that misinterprets their intent and even communalises the sun. At the other end is Sakshi Maharaj who called himself a true Muslim and Prophet Mohammed a great yogi. Some others said namaaz is like yoga.

Some Muslims asserted that they are not supposed to say 'Om' while doing deep meditation, and somebody suggested they could replace it with 'Ameen'. You really do not need either, and if yoga is all about health then just get on with it. By creating a controversy, bigoted Muslims have just played into the hands of the other bigots, and made themselves into a laughing stock to be 'saved' by the likes of Baba Ramdev.

Christians too have objected because yoga is "not compatible with Christianity". An event organized by drug rehab NGO Kripa is in trouble because many from the community believe that Fr. Joe Pereira is more like a Hindu yoga guru. A parishioner said, "...yoga is not Biblical. If a priest wants to organise something, he should do it within the framework of the Christian world."

Everyone seems to want to score points.

Mr Modi, despite all the criticism the event has generated, has used what has always been there to garner more attention for himself. He wants to ensure that this occasion gets into the Guinness Book. Large contingents will be out, including police personnel and bureaucrats.

A yoga instructor at the class for public servants was quoted as saying:

“They heard it on TV, and they are running toward the yoga. The prime minister is the king. If the king does something, that is very effective. And this time, our king is doing yoga.”


School students who anyway are expected to participated in Physical Training (PT) classes are being brainwashed. Is this about general wellbeing? One politician, whatever be his motives, seems to have got it mostly right. Karnataka Social Welfare Minister Anjanaiah said:

"Yoga is for lazy people, especially people belonging to well to do families. They do not have time for exercise in the open including taking a walk...People should ask their children to indulge themselves in playing outdoor sports including running and long walks instead of yoga."

Have you seen a poor person practise, much less discuss, yoga? Yoga is essentially for the angst-ridden elite looking for reprieve or the neo-enlightened who think it is a non-invasive body cleanser. Very few use it as an alternative to medicine. And now with the supposed renaissance, it has become a symbol of political opportunism camouflaging as culture. Forget yoga, we need a new culture.


--

The Taliban has now objected to Pakistanis celebrating the occasion, so many events have been cancelled. An earlier piece I wrote on Pakistan on an Indian spiritual trip

15.6.15

The house of mirrors, not horror



The discovery of skeletons in the house of a living man is disturbing. Partha De is now in custody and his life is being prised open by the police, psychiatrists and curious onlookers. The story from Kolkata that has been in the news for the past few days invariably refers to it as the “House of Horrors”. This is most unfortunate. None of the inhabitants tried to spook out others; in fact, there was barely any contact with outsiders. How does it become a horror house then? The linked report has a picture of a skeleton "for representation purposes". What is it supposed to represent? 

According to the doctors, De is suffering from complex psychological problems and an extreme form of depression due to which he refused to accept the death of his sister Debjani and two pet dogs and continued to communicate with them, despite the bodies decomposing before his eyes. As of now, he is not convicted for any crime, although he witnessed his father Arabindo De’s suicide where he set himself aflame. Partha did not – perhaps could not – help.

There has been much debate about depression recently, and people seem to show some understanding, even though I am chary of such public empathy for prominent cases. In some ways, the cynicism gets validated when we read about the “horror” instead of an attempt to reach out to such minds. Depression is not only about pretty people losing the will to do anything and where ‘coming out’ becomes the denouement. (I will not judge them, for each one suffers and it is lonely in that space, but this is not the full picture of depression.) What happened in Kolkata might seem extreme, but inmates in mental asylums are often like that.

De was at home and could give vent to his delusions. These are not fantasies, but false beliefs. However, was he the only ill person in that house? His father and sister all apparently wrote letters to each other from one room to another. Is this a sign of something wrong? In the outside world people aren’t doing it too differently – the messaging, calls, and social media thumbs up to one another all reveal a lack of normal communication.

Here it would seem was a well-established family, its members educated. Partha was an engineer; his sister taught music. Their bungalow is worth a few crores. The psychiatric opinions talk about incest and necrophilia, both plausible given the evidence.

But what if it is three people still living with the memory of the mother? In the notes Partha seems to suggest that she was jealous of her daughter, making her strip in the bathroom during a family vacation. Or being unusually curious about her son’s potency (“My mother thinks I am impotent. She wanted to see me develop a relationship. This is why she used to send a maid servant to my room...”) instead of finding out if he might wish to get married or live in with a partner.

The reports refer to his “bizarre descriptions” of sex. This should not automatically imply any illness. Novelists might write about bizarre acts, and fantasies can be bizarre.

It appears that the mother was overprotective and infantilising the siblings, and their growing old was a threat to her position despite her being a strong person:

"The enemy tried to take my mother but failed. It lost - the biggest loser. The devil got (f*****) royally. My mother had a very powerful will. She fought with all her weight."

In some ways, Partha began looking at his sister as a mother figure he could relate to in a more than Oedipal way.

There are child-like drawings. Some dolls have been found, indicating the use of black magic. Except for the property battle with the senior’s brother, there does not appear to be any tangible enemy to cast a spell on. More than any black magic device, the dolls probably filled a gap, as maternal symbols or children. The father seems to have been a helpless witness to all the tragedies mirrored in one another.

Nobody knows yet how Debjani or the dogs died. The neighbours were unaware. A big city where a family living in a prominent house goes undetected and their lives seem to be of no consequence reveals the horror of what we have become as a society.

If this is about living with the dead, then that is how we all live everyday.