Sunday ka Funda

Symbols are not ritualistic. They often have deeper connotations. Ganesh Chaturthi is being celebrated now, but not many would ponder over what the elephant god means. One need not even be a believer to comprehend these symbols that seem more like a manual for ethical living. Rituals and deification, and marketing, alter the very nature of spiritualism and faith.

Spiritualism does not need the crutch of blind belief.

Somebody has filed a FIR against film director Ram Gopal Verma for these tweets:

• “The guy who couldn't save his own head from being cut , how he will save others heads is my question? But Happy Ganpathi day to morons!” • “Can someone explain how someone can cut off a child's head who was just trying to protect his mother's modesty? Am sure devotees know better”.
• “Can someone tell me if today is the day Ganesha was originally born or is it the day his dad cut his head off?”
• “Does Lord Ganesha eat with his hands or his trunk?”
• “I would really love to know from Lord Ganesha's devotees a list of what obstacles he removed in all the years they prayed to him.”
• “Happy Ganesh chaturdhi. .may this day 29th aug bring prosperity and happiness to everybody so that there will be no problems from 30th aug.”
• “I think my films are flopping only becos of my attitude towards Gods. ..I wish I can become a devotee.”

Although some might seem insulting, the general tone is childlike. Children often pose valid, if uncomfortable, queries. All religious fables have one given meaning, and the rest are open to interpretation.

For that, one needs to have an open mind that can read between the lines.


Of human bondage and Times of India

This appears to be censorship of the worst kind. The Times of India Group now plans to own the social media presence of its employees.

But BCCL, as the company is known, is telling journalists that they must start a company-authorised account on various social media platforms. They also have the option of converting existing personal social media accounts to company accounts. On these, they are free to discuss news and related material. The company will possess log-in credentials to such accounts and will be free to post any material to the account without journalists’ knowledge. It is now also mandatory to disclose all personal social-media accounts held by the journalist to the company.

Earlier, The Hindu had asked its staffers not to share news links from rival publications. But the TOI move is vastly different.

Many companies will not permit employees to promote other products, and this is borne out by the fact that people often state that their views are personal and not a reflection of their professional roles. There is a reasonable argument to this: Would someone working for the Tatas promote an Ambani product of the same kind? Fidelity is an unstated requirement of employment.

Should the same standards apply to abstract products like news, especially when the media itself uses breaking news stories from other outlets to follow up on? The issue here is not merely the open source nature of news, but who disseminates it. A senior employee of a media house (MH) linking to a story from a rival sends out the message that her/his own MH has not managed to get ahead. This is a competitive field, like any other. The stakes, including the commercial, are high. In an ideal world this ought not to be a consideration, but this is not an ideal world.

Journalists are today on the market and will not sell their skills to less than the highest bidder. How many of them are willing to forego the benefits derived from the Response Department? How many senior hacks will give up their cushy jobs to fight against what is obviously a form of bondage? This would be the true test for many of those who have ridden on the wave of freedom of expression to join another form of oppressive media.

Why has the Times decided on owning its staff in the public sphere? There are a few reasons, besides the obvious one of wanting to be a control freak:

• TOI wants to ensure uniformity of ideas, because allowing different streams of thought dissipates its brand value.
• It cannot be seen as promoting others who its ads announce are way behind in readership, viewership and whatever other ship there is. (TOI notoriously, and unethically, does not give credit to rivals even when it uses their reports, choosing instead the vague "said to a TV channel/newspaper".)
• It knows that the social media presence of its stars gets a lot of mileage due to their association with the brand, whatever be its quality. TOI hates giving freebies.
• Some journalists tend to believe that having a social media account makes them into ideological troupers who need to be covered in glory or martyrdom. Both are win-win positions. TOI is quick on giving the latter by getting them to relinquish the former in its name!

The Quartz report further states:

According to two journalists at the group’s English-language newspapers, protests about the clauses in the contract have not yielded much result. Reporters who have raised concerns with their editors say they have mostly been told that those will be addressed in due course.

While this story might not be comprehensive, it is striking that reporters are protesting. As always, the scapegoats come from the ground. Where are the veterans, the inhouse columnists, or even the assistant editors — TOI has a slew of them, because in the pecking order of things this is already a fairly common practice to keep people quiet. Give them an AE post; it looks good and means precious little.

What will the columnists who speak about freedom of speech do now that their adoptive home is shackling its children? Will they speak out against it elsewhere?

The Times has a big presence on television, too. Its News Hour and hyperventilating anchor-editor have made it their business to represent the nation without the nation's permission. Every evening at 9 pm they also convey in no uncertain terms that they believe in free speech by muting, outshouting panelists. Will they discuss the importance of owning Facebook and Twitter accounts of staff to fight censorship or some such vacuous idea they are perfectly capable of?

More importantly, will those ensconced as experts on their panels, who had left their previous jobs because their employers had a problem with their exposés/views raise their voices against this move by TOI?

We are not going to see much action on this score.

There is something a bit more sinister, though smart. The BJP government had issued a diktat that all ministers should have social media accounts. There is a well-oiled machinery that keeps them up-to-date and makes it appear that they are reaching out. They keep tabs on media persons.

The Times of India could well want to control that because its commercial and political interests are tied up with this. Should it wish to support the BJP it wouldn't want any dissenting posts/tweets from its employees. And if it opposes the ruling party, it would certainly not want 'friends' there. Besides, not many want another Arun Shourie even though it is unlikely there can be one without a Ramnath Goenka (the two creating a controlled rebellion — controlled by the Indian Express boss, that is — rather successfully).

The Times of India can afford such arrogance because it is relying on the amnesia on social media. After a few tut-tuts, no one will care about who is saying what on whose behalf. It is this attitude that makes it possible for most news trends to be forgotten. If we cannot remember what happened, would we recall who told us about it?

© Farzana Versey


On Four Legs

It is tempting to say that isolation is almost complete when one starts ordering furniture online. It began with a casual click, and soon I was adding stuff to my wish list that I had never wished for. This was perturbing because I have not done any shopping online. It was almost like I was building a virtual home; I even found sheets and curtains to go with what I had selected.

Within minutes I realised I had no space to set up a home in what is already a home. All this would have to wait till I was ready to discard the old. There was, however, one item I did need. A table. A work table. I barely use the one I have because the chair is broken. The normal response would be to buy a chair to go with what is already there. But, the chair was always with that table, so I cannot use one without the other. I had dragged the dining chair a few times, and it did not go well with the table.

What I required was something that wouldn't claim too much space. There were several that claimed to be happy in little nooks and would not bother me. A whole lot of self-effacing tables were jostling for my attention. I chose a black beauty about whom it was said that it could be moved anywhere and could fold. Such humility was rather becoming. I immediately placed an order.

To digress a bit, I like a work table to swell voluptuously, its girth overwhelming in its protectiveness. If it is quirky, so much the better. I really like this one above because there seems to be nothing else. It is like a whole world in the space to roll arms, run fingers, pat, lay down head, dream, awaken.

Then, I also like a table to have clean lines and leg space. Being a bit of a collector of junk, there should be no place for me to stuff things or I'll have to elbow my way in to type or doodle. This one is nice except for the motherboard and printer.

But, my moveable feast did not look like even a facsimile copy of either. I awaited it as one does glad tidings. You know it is good news, but there is still some trepidation. The trepidation was not unfounded. A heavy package arrived where I expected a quiet visitor swaying on legs that were meant to move.

After cutting through paper and bubble wrap, what I found were several screws, a flat board and stilts. There was a manual with images of how to get this thing to be of any use. I thought I was making life easy for myself — ordering this to reach home, to be able to use as soon as it arrived. As it turned out, I had to 'make' it.

Placing all the parts before me, I tried to figure out what went where. The screwdriver wouldn't fit into the screws, my hand kept slipping, one leg that I managed to position ended up looking like a barrel of a gun facing me. My back and hands were aching. And to think the table was to help me get rid of these aches.

After an hour or so, I decided that I did not have a way with the screwdriver. The manual too was quite half-hearted. Instruction manuals usually are. I put all the parts away in a bag, telling myself that I'd go online to check how to fix self-effacing tables that move. What I found instead were other tables, lovelier than mine, more reasonably priced, easier to fix, if at all.

What had made me select the first one I set my eyes on? It is an old habit. And having made a choice, I begin to believe that the object's and my destiny are intertwined. The object ceases to be just an object.

As I look at the desultory bag with the table, I wonder whether I am giving it short shrift by not creating it. Whose fault is it that some things are not meant to come whole and it is up to us to give them the shape they were ordained to be? And I think about that wrongly-positioned leg that pointed at me — that was not ordained, it would have been my recreation of it.

It is better that I wait awhile. One day, soon, I might find the light or a screwdriver that does not slip from my hand. One day, I will put the pieces together because they are now mine.

© Farzana Versey


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: