Are you Dabholkar?

This art installation is all wrong. ‘I am Dabholkar’ by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti was unveiled in Pune on August 20 to commemorate rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. The mirror in place of his face is supposed to mirror those who look at it and implies that there is a Dabholar in everyone.

There isn’t. That is the reason the cops have not been able to trace his killers a year later. He was on his morning walk when he was attacked by people who opposed his views. He had several enemies because he fought what to many is a faith superior to any faith – superstition.

I can understand the sentiments behind such an artwork, but it only serves to preach to the choir. The mirror image should ideally have been distorted to show us how skewed perceptions can be and how others might view us. The process of identification is often a temporary placebo. Take the Shiv Sena president Udhhav Thackeray. He expressed anger that Dabholkar’s killers have not been traced and in the next breath he was endorsing the view that India is a Hindu nation.

One might not find any contradiction in the two statements, and I do believe that a person of religion might be rational in non faith-induced stupor moments. But those who kill a rationalist obviously believe he is a threat to a faith as it is marketed today. In almost every part of the world, superstitions come as a package deal with religion and they are sold as rituals.

There is also the ‘religion’ of the wannabe makers of destiny. The “I am X” is reminiscent of the not too distant street tamasha of ‘I am Anna’ and later of ‘I am the aam aadmi’, where the common man had to carry the burden of the hubris of his saviours.

The tragedy of the other common man, and Narendra Dabholkar typified him in many ways, is that few will find their reflection in a mirror that questions.

~Farzana Versey


James Foley, the ISIS and Vultures

How many of us, whether in the media or human rights organisations or as aware citizens, had bothered to highlight the case of James Foley? He had disappeared on November 22, 2012 in northwest Syria, where he was reporting from. Now, that the ISIS has posted a video of a beheading, purportedly of Foley, and confirmed by intelligence sources, some are expressing their concern by circulating links to the brutal killing.

I read that this was not the first time he had disappeared. He was in captivity in Libya for 44 days. It is a measure of his tenacity to bring the news out. It is this that is reflected in the statement of his mother barely hours after news of his killing was out. What gave her the strength to say, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people”?

Contrast this with those who have been saying that Foley was on ‘our side’, that is the side that did not follow the western template on the Middle East. Such comments, instead of crushing the ISIS narrative only build the organisation up as a bunch of misguided guys who don’t seem to understand who is with whom. Would these people stand by and not be as moved if somebody who was hostage to western thought were killed?

It is not only vagrant hotheads on public platforms who have gone on a ‘killing spree’, but also people we might know. For them it is only an occasion to express their bigotry: “Did I hear you say peace be upon you?” was one such. I am not interested in what anybody’s views on Islam and the Prophet are, but does this in any manner express even a tinge of genuine concern for the dead person, or anger towards the monsters that killed him?

There can be no two opinions about the barbarity of the ISIS, but there can be several views to analyse it. What has made the west forego their distaste for al Qaeda and pronounce this group “worse”? Is the west only looking for another demon to replace an old enemy?

I read that the Pope has also spoken about dealing with the ISIS firmly, which there is no dispute over. But the last thing the world needs is a delusional Caliphate versus the Pontiff situation because it will only give the religious dimension a legitimacy it does not deserve, and could set a very bad precedent. These attempts at ‘soothing balm’ can come later, not in an ongoing strife.

But we live in times where salves are as quick as salvos. The social media is empowering those who have nothing to say, but want to be heard. The ISIS has chosen these forms of communication knowing well that their message will be dutifully reported and go viral, something they would not be able to do if they were, say, in a cave. These are guys who were discussing Robin Williams, and their words became the end notes in many a report on the actor’s death.

The tendency to create a myth overtakes its reality for the simple reason that reality is not the business of those watching from the sidelines.

Take this photograph of a 14-year-old Yazidi girl, purportedly holding a gun to protect her family. She might be doing so, but is there a need to glorify it when the fact is that her people are killed not for being without protection but for who they are? Besides, this image exploits the idea of the young and the woman as war ‘booty’ in the eyes of the viewer.

A most unnerving campaign is now trending: #ISISmediaBlackout. What ought to be normal is put on a pedestal because people crave halos. They cannot just go about the business of being decent and sensible without a comfortable herd where each will pat the other’s back for not letting the ISIS get any more mileage.

The point here is also about them getting mileage – either for their stand now or when they post those videos, sometimes adding ‘Graphic’ to warn-lure others to partake of their newfound cause.

Will they apply the same standards by not posting any and everything they come across on Gaza? Killed Gazans also need to be given dignity.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

What could the camel be thinking — that he is protected or that he is a threat? And do camels come in the way of camels?


In Conversation: India and Pakistan

Often, the most meaningful things are said in the simplest manner. One must, therefore, appreciate this effort to get Indians and Pakistanis to talk. The premise is basic – we have phones, they have phones, so telephone. I warmed to it immediately.

But, will this bring people on both sides (we are not even speaking about the two nations) closer together? This was a ‘controlled’ atmosphere, and even if comments were not censored it was understood that the conversation was to be light. What we see is one reality – the coffee shop or corner store one. The young even on campuses are politically aware and most certainly come with a bagful of stereotypes about the other. It does not negate the awareness about Bollywood, cricket, or food. Yet, all of these can be politicised on the day there is a clash of films, a match or a culinary competition.

Take that delightful moment when the Indian girl asks her ‘friend’ in Pakistan, “Do you like Salman Khan?” and the latter replies, “No. Why?”, the Indian says, “Then we can talk!” It is humorous, but in the subtlety is embedded conditionality. Or, the fact that the Pakistani is portrayed as thinking he holds on to a deep, dark secret for being a fan of Sharukh Khan.

The makers have also matched the profiles of the people they partnered, dude with dude, accent with accent; in a way it helps to bring out the commonalities but it also conveys that communication is limited to ‘people like us’.

It was cute when the Indian girl speaking to a Pakistani who wants to visit Jaipur tells her, “Main bol deti hoon inse (I’ll tell them to do something)”. Or, when the Pakistani young man asks the Indian when he will visit Pakistan and he says, “Sir, aap mereko visa bhejo tau main nikal jaoon abhi kal ka kal (if you send me a visa I am ready to leave rightaway).”

This is all tongue-in-cheek swagger, which makes it an astonishing little outing. In fact, after having written these couple of paras, I am feeling guilty for nitpicking. This is what charm offensives do!

Love it…just don’t take it as the whole truth:


Another August 15

"To all Indians celebrating our Independence Day, greetings from the Pradhan Sewak. I stand before you not as Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) but Pradhan Sevak (prime servant)."

— Narendra Modi

Today's Independence Day speech by the Prime Minister was all about playing to the gallery. It was like an election rally. From the word go he was marketing himself — whether it was to talk about how a poor man had made it to the Red Fort (quite fittingly a Mughal monument that makes his supporters froth at the mouth at other times), or how an outsider made it to Delhi, in a way negating the idea of a cohesive India especially when there is increasing resentment against immigrants from other villages, towns and cities.

Even the quote above is wrong on so many counts. The whole concept of a sevak is feudalistic, and to be a prime servant does not upset the status quo but works as a taunt to its own to suggest he is not one among them too.

"We have seen instances of communal violence for too long. Till when will this go on? Be it caste or communal violence, they stall the growth of the nation."

He went to the extent of calling for a ten-year moratorium on violence. And what exactly does he mean by "we have seen"? Is everything to be brushed under the carpet? The growth of the nation also means inclusiveness of all communities and castes, and ensuring that political lightweights do not incite them or, worse, ignite the situation by lighting the matchstick. The state and the police have a huge role.

It is convenient when you are the 'supreme leader' to want peace, but do little to check those who whip up such frenzy, including right inside Parliament.

"We have to stress on cleanliness, sanitation. By 2019 we must ensure a Swacch Bharat...Dignity of women is our responsibility. We have to ensure that we provide toilets for all."

He recalled Mahatma Gandhi for this. At that time, toilets also had to do with caste, as they continue to do now. Why did he not talk about how that should stop? What we are likely to have is the urban elite 'doing' cleanliness with much fanfare. Interestingly, there were pictures of ragpickers cleaning up after the speech. This is the real issue, of the poor will have to continue to clean up the mess the not-poor make.

Tying up the "dignity of women" with lack of toilets (after the case of the rape and public hanging of the teenage girls in Kanpur) is a sop. We need toilets, but rape happens even where there a toilets. It happens inside toilets. This will only make society complacent.

Besides, by saying that people might wonder how a PM is discussing such things on an occasion like this he conveyed that he was doing a favour.

I'll leave it at that and quote his own words after last year's August 15 speech by Dr. Manmohan Singh:

"Media channels said this is PM Manmohan Singh's last speech from Red Fort but he said he has miles to go, which rocket will he take?"

Somehow, I am thinking..."mujhe khauf aatish-e-gul se hai ke kaheen chaman ko jalaa na de..."

For now, some pictures:

Painting on the Freedom Struggle by V.N.O"key

The first August 15

Precarious windows

Despite it all


This I wrote last year


Woman in Read: Lauren Bacall

The real reason I know Lauren Bacall is because of her pictures. Not films, but stills. The four-odd films I did watch gave a glimpse, but a moving frame. I've been reading about her "call for jungle mating" voice and 'The Look', which she said was perfected due to nervousness that made her choose a stance where she tilted her chin low and gazed upwards.

These have been captured wonderfully in photographs.

“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” (From 'To have and have not')

The small technical detail of lips together being unable to blow is inconsequential.

The pictures I liked the most are not about all the adjectives used for her. There is something about a woman reading that grabs my attention, not because I don't think women read but because it has a special allure. I immediately begin thinking about what is being read, the way the lips might move or the fingers trace the sentences, the manner in which a teardrop might fall on a page or the words reflect in a smile. There is always a something-might-happen sense when I see such pictures, because a woman reading is also about a woman being read.

This is what Bacall wrote when she was asked to maintain a low tone even in emotional scenes for a film:

“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons? I did.”

In the image above the domesticity, some almost artificial (the dog looks unreal), is sharpened by the newspaper, that link to the outside world. That she is wearing dark lipstick and her jaw is taut captures a certain restlessness.

This is the one I was drawn to right at the beginning. It is obviously not a book. Is it a diary or just a notebook? There is a reason for my interest. I've always had such diaries that I use to make notes — the notes may range from stuff to buy or order to ideas to execute to thoughts regurgitated. One rarely reads them.

I wonder what Bacall is reading. Has she written the notes, and is she reading them to remember or to recount. And where has the pen gone from that pen-hold on the book?

These are film stills, so obviously they have a story. As I am seeing them in isolation, they offer a variety of possibilities.

And possibilities, especially of buttoned-up collars and reined-in feelings, are always tantalising.


Lauren Bacall died at 89


Sunday ka Funda

"There are things known and things unknown and in between are the doors."

This quote is attributed to Jim Morrison, but Aldous Huxley had also said the same, adding "of perception" to doors.

My interest is in the unknown. There are many fears and misgivings that so prevent us from exploring outside our comfort zone that we miss out on what could become a part of us. Sometimes, for me, just posting on my 'Sunday ka Funda' helps me step out of the closed doors, of the world of familiarity, and just soak in the alien. It often does not feel as strange as what I've known does.

This song has been with me for a while now. I do not understand the words. They have ceased to be Arabic; the singers are not Egyptian anymore. It is now only about sounds that produce an ache and a smile, and I don't even know if that is what they are meant to do.