28.11.06

The Mohammed Afzal saga continues: Big brother joins in

I felt I was watching a Manmohan Desai film, you know about lost-and-found brothers. Only this time there was a Ramgopal Verma twist to it together with a Hollywoodish touch.

Now hold your breath. CNN-IBN, our local friendly neighbourhood TV channel, has woken up to the Mohammed Afzal saga by bringing in a new character.

After having so many panel discussions about capital punishment and blah, they now ask the question: Was he a surrendered militant?

Afzal has said he was tortured by the Kashmir Special Task Force (STF). This happens, as we all know. But who are we to know? The authoritative TV channel says, “But investigations conducted by CNN-IBN’s Special Investigation Team, revealed that Afzal may have never surrendered.”

First, who has given them the right to have this special investigative team to try and act as a jury? They are free to opine, not judge.

Second, do we then have to disregard all their earlier reports and discussions?

Third, where did they find this brother of Afzal, and how are we to accept that what he says is true? Is this anywhere close to investigation? Look at this comment: “On the question of his past, Afzal does say that he is a surrendered militant. So does the Delhi Police and the Supreme Court. But his elder brother says he never surrendered.”

Oh my gawd, aren’t we getting into this big bro thing too seriously, or upholding some Karan Johar fantasy of family values?

Aijaz bhai is a character. I watched him in action. This was his moment and he moved several parts of his body to make sure he was seen adequately from some angle. Anyone could see the man was playing to the gallery and faking it. But CNN-IBN’s investigating team got a super quote: “I will talk straight. I swear to Khuda that Afzal was a Jaish-e-Mohammad operative. Through Jaish he had helped in terror attacks in India.”

I say, arrest him. Why did he keep quiet? Where was his Khuda all this while? If Afzal was being forced into making a confession, then someone is getting Aijaz to speak up too. Who is it? Does a respected channel have to act as his courier boy? Or is he acting as someone’s courier boy with the channel?

His warm-the-cockles-of-every-Indian-heart comment is this: “Whatever the country has decided for him is the right decision.”

Huh? Has the country decided anything? Does the bloke not know that this is not some SMS poll about “Maar diya jaye ya chhod diya jaye…”?

What are his credentials to talk about right and wrong?

And this is breaking news…wake up and smell the copy.

26.11.06

Saddam in Kerala

Read this...an interesting story in today's TOI.
- - -
GREAT DICTATOR
Saddam’s Palakkad connection

The Sunday Times, Nov 26
When the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture in a dark hole exploded towards the end of 2003, and humiliating images of his bearded deranged face, and of his jaws opening for medical inspection, were beamed on television, another old man far away felt something turn inside his stomach. Seventy-one-year-old P Sivasankaran Nair, for long in the peace of Palakkad in Kerala, rubbed his chest to console himself.

Nair was the chief cook at the Basra International Airport between 1982 and 1987, once a heady place where Saddam Hussein used to come for elaborate dinners. During that tenure, Nair’s path had crossed the dictator’s when he made a Tamil snack called bonda, a type of batata vada. Nair remembers that Saddam was so enamoured with the bonda that he asked animated questions about it.

Long before that meeting, Nair had considered Saddam a profitable god. “I educated my children, married off my daughter and constructed a house with his money. To be honest, I’m indebted to him for all the comforts that I enjoy today,” Nair says. He lives in a traditional house, that has a cosy purposeful austerity about it, in Kalpati, a Tamil Brahmin village.

His gratitude is so immense that when he opened a provisions store in 1989, upon his return from Iraq, he named it Saddam Stores. He sent some pictures of the shop to Saddam Hussein along with a letter in English —

Dear Supreme Leader,
I’d worked in your country for five years. I came back to Kerala some two years back. To keep myself busy, today, I opened a small shop at my village. It’s my honour to name the shop after your Supreme Name. Whatever I’m today, it’s because of the salary you paid me. By your blessings, my family is leading a comfortable life. Welfare be with you always.
With profound love and regards,
P S Nair

The letter not only reached Saddam, it also impressed him so much that he released the pictures of Nair’s shop and the flattering epistle to the local media with a statement in Arabic —
“So many people come and work in Iraq. But it took one Nair from a distant land to express his gratitude. It’s not religion that matters. But the bond of human love. I’m touched by Nair’s gesture. This is what I call loyalty. This is what I expect from every Iraqi. Insha Allah.”

Nair’s friends in Iraq sent him the clippings. The story didn’t end there. Saddam Hussein sent a personal emissary, Muther Ali, to India who met Nair. And the message was conveyed to Nair that Saddam wanted him to return to Iraq. But, when Nair cited age-related problems which forced him to remain at home, Saddam welcomed his children to join him at his palace. Unfortunately, none of them were of employable age then. Eldest son Suresh was studying in the tenth standard, second son Murali was in the eighth and Pusha, the youngest child, was in the fifth.

“Saddam conveyed that I was the most loyal citizen of Iraq and the country’s doors would always remain open to me. Ali presented a gold watch and Rs 16,000 in cash,” Nair says, producing the watch from his cupboard’s locker. The timepiece carries Saddam’s picture on the dial.

Nair has removed the watch’s battery to save it from the tedium of being in a working condition. “I’m praying for his welfare. Daily, I do archana in his name at the Shiva temple here. I’m certain he will come out unscathed,” Nair says, throwing his hands towards the heavens.

When he is confronted with the question why he worships a man who is believed to have killed thousands, Nair flashes an angry look. “Who says…?” he thunders. “It’s the US which is harping on this. I don’t believe a bit of it. Kuwait deserved to be invaded because it didn’t pay what was due to Iraq. Then the killing of Kurds...you should understand Iraq was a military regime. It had its own laws. People who violated the laws also knew the punishment they faced.”

Nair ends his political observations with the conclusion, “It’s Bush who should be hanged.” TNN

21.11.06

Why is the media making Rahul Mahajan into a star?

The media is going to town with reports about how Rahul Mahajan, son of Pramod Mahajan, who was murdered by his brother, is an abusive husband. He married Shweta Singh, his friend of 12 years, in August and we were bombarded with titbits and pictures of the couple together with interviews about the smallest detail.

Few made a mention of the timing – it had not even been a year since the senior Mahajan’s death and Rahul’s own stint in prison. No one said this seemed like a political move for Rahul’s entry into politics. What the couple wore, how the ceremony was conducted, how many people attended, what they ate, where the two would go for their honeymoon was dutifully reported.

Now a tabloid has shown pictures of Shweta with a bruise on her arm and a quote saying she was beaten up by her husband. Immediately there are denials, as they are wont to be.

I’d like to know what the heck is going on. Is this responsible journalism or a case of a kangaroo court? There are serious discussions taking place, including the fact that Shweta, her father and Rahul have all given different versions about the bruises. At last we have investigative journalism from the sleeping giants!

As someone who does not care much about Rahul and whatever he stands for, I still feel that the incident is being take advantage of. If it is false, then it is being used by political rivals, within and outside the party or by someone who does not like the couple being together or even by Shweta, who may have other issues and has used the bruise.

If it is true, then it is being used by friends who want to show up the sham for what it is, or by political rivals again.

In both cases, newspapers and TV are utilising it to the fullest. They have a peg on which to start discussing the Act Against Domestic Violence that has got into some controversy.

Personally, I find it sickening that the media is allowing itself to be used and as a result exploiting the situation. Domestic violence is a serious issue and we do not need celebrities, that too those with little credence, to bring home the point. It negates all that women go through from all strata of society.

Besides, the physical abuse, the emotional and mental abuse can completely make a woman lose all confidence and belief in herself.

And men find ways to make that happen, sometimes subtly. The more sophisticated the method, the greater the internal wound.

I would suggest that the media stay away. This isn’t a case of vigilantism on their part, but opportunism. In the process Rahul Mahajan will get back in the public eye, the other case against him will be pushed to the background. Notoriety has great value in contemporary society. Let us not make stars out of bad boys.

Perhaps then we may have a world where they grow up to become men.

19.11.06

President Kalam goes flat hunting!

1987: P. A. Nathan, a private secretary at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) buys a flat.

Soon after he rents it out to a couple. They forge papers and press false charges against him and refuse to part with the flat.


June 2006: Nathan writes to the President of India.

November 2006: The office of President A P J Abdul Kalam is instructed to contact the crime branch to take proper action in the matter.

After 14 years, Nathan has his flat back.

Happy?

It is a nice feel-good story. What I want to know is what the President is doing in these real estate quarrels. I think we have had our fill of humanising him. It is enough that he makes school children repeat poems and homilies after him and tries his hand at playing percussion instruments. But there are departments to deal with issues such as Nathan’s; there are courts; there are citizen’s groups.

The fact that the case was expedited after his involvement only proves that you need clout. The Prez may not know Nathan, but this is a different version of nepotism.

He should concentrate on seeing to it that the political wheels of the country function smoothly.

One can only hope incidents such as these do not set a precedent. I am perfectly happy to see our Kalam saab go take a walk… in the Mughal Gardens.

Brad Pitt defends his bodyguards

God came down to earth. That is, Brad Pitt gave an interview to NDTV, which was publicised as “Brad Pitt’s first ever interview in India”.

Did it not strike people as unusual that for someone who has been avoiding any media interviews, this came at an opportune time? Angelina Jolie and the crew were shooting at the Anjuman Islam High School in Mumbai when their bodyguards got into a scuffle with the parents who had come to fetch their children. Apparently, there was a lot of pushing and shoving and one of the bodyguards is supposed to have used the term “you bloody Indians”.

In the NDTV interview, Brad Pitt was not only given the benefit of doubt but also the benefit of integrity only because he and Angelina have an “inter-racial family”, meaning children adopted from Ethiopia and Cambodia.

The interviewer, Barkha Dutt (who is usually not star-struck and is among our better media persons) kept repeating herself – the same line of questioning prevailed about paparazzi and concern. This was clearly giving Pitt the opportunity to merely have his say. He stated with complete conviction that had his bodyguards been what they are accused of they would not have been working for him. “They are fathers too…”

This isn’t the first occasion when they have behaved rashly.

To make matters worse, Irfan Khan, the Indian actor who is playing a fairly crucial role in the film, said that he wouldn’t have been sitting in the studio with Brad Pitt if he believed that racist comment was made! Funny. Irfan Khan was inside the school and not aware of what transpired outside. But he too spoke about the integrity of the couple.

No one is questioning their integrity and their commitment, especially to the film. Yet, to assume that the bodyguards would not behave the way they did only because of this makes no sense.

Then it was time to question him about other things. We Indians have this disgusting habit and TV anchors are no exception, so Barkha asked him what he liked about India, would he come back after all this? This is not just puerile, it is offensive. The whole interview came across as an ‘oh those poor guys come all the way and look what we do to them’.

True, they do not owe the media and the public anything if they are working, but their work should not be a nuisance to others.
- - -
Another incident that comes to mind is how the Australian cricket team pushed Sharad Pawar aside when they wanted to get a group photograph taken. An Indian columnist went to the extent of saying that, hey, this was their culture, they would do that with their prime minister too…so why don’t we just chill instead of getting so uptight about how our leaders are treated?

Now listen, this isn’t about how they treat their PM. Here, they themselves expect to be treated like big guns. If we want to show our political leaders their place, then we should exercise that right our way by making them accountable for wrongs. Not by shoving them aside. This is bad manners under any circumstances.

I would like to see what happens if an Indian cricketer did something similar with a Western leader. I know that these same commentators would say that our men in blue are spoilt brats and bad ambassadors of the country.

We are our own enemies...

17.11.06

Turbans, monkeys and culture

She wiggled her finger, tapped the desk authoritatively as she spoke in a fake American accent. The object of her ire was the receptionist at the medical centre; even the person attending to me stopped punching in the details I had given her to listen with rapt, and almost sickeningly servile, attention to this ‘lady’.

There was nothing remarkable about her looks, clothes or deportment to make her stand out. What she did possess was a feeling of superiority based not on ability, which was anyway not required to be showcased here, but attitude.

That short encounter taught me a lesson: we still suffer from a colonial hangover. The British left, so we have new mimic men and women; they appear to be essential accoutrements for our society to keep the mai-baap status quo in place.

Isn’t this a form of racism?
- - -
A group of white youth attacked a Sikh teenager and clipped his hair in a public park in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“This was an extremely distressing attack on a young member of our community, who has been left traumatised by this incident,” a spokesman said.

What was the fault of the 15-year-old? That he had a visible identity different from those around him? Do we realise that our worldview is becoming increasingly microcosmic even as we claim that we are world citizens?

What kind of a world is this where you cannot be yourself – and I add that this self is harmless to others?
- - -
As though these fissures are not bad enough an American professor of psychiatry, Dr Leonard A. Rosenblum, has been studying simians in our country and concluded, “South Indian monkeys are more ‘civilised’ and ‘cultured’ than their North Indian cousins”.

Most people do not understand the concept of civilised behaviour forget about following it. The lady I mentioned in the beginning is, according to me, uncivilised. People on websites who make personal attacks on others outside of the realm of the issue being discussed are uncivilised. When you judge people without knowing them, when you gossip, when you make bizarre accusations, when you stoop to conquer, then you are uncivilised.

Education has got nothing to do with it. Money has got nothing to do with it. Those who have loads of money can be cheap, and those who do not have money but spend an inordinate amount of time discussing other people’s wealth are even more cheap.

Table manners, telephone manners, toilet manners are all about etiquette and do indeed constitute culture as practised. You may know what fork and knife to use, how to fold the napkin and keep your elbows off the table, but are you capable of carrying on this ‘properness’ beyond your image projection?

A few years ago some of us had gone to a coffee shop late at night after a function. While filling the glass of one of the women, the steward was nudged (unintentionally) by one of the diners trying to get to his table. As a result some of the liquid fell on our friend’s dress. She did not merely squirm or excuse herself to go clean up. Instead, she screamed at the person serving her, “Do you know how expensive these clothes are? It is a Tarun Tahiliani outfit!”

It was indeed a designer churidar-kurta. She called the manager, removed her soiled dupatta and asked him to get it dry-cleaned. I am all for asking for your rights, but was this cultured behaviour? Did the steward do it on purpose? Even if he had to be pulled up, there was no need to announce the label of the clothes. Why would someone who assumes she is superior want to impress a person she deems inferior? Was it for our ears? Did she for a moment imagine that any of us would be swept off our feet with this information?


This same person had once commented on a small piece of jewellery I was wearing. “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that. I would stick to X”, and she named a certain brand. I shrugged and smiled to myself. For, what I was wearing was indeed the brand she mentioned. Should I have told her that? What would it prove? Why would I need to embarrass her when she had not succeeded in embarrassing me?

The moment we let labels start dictating us, we cease to be people and become puppets of brands.

16.11.06

Is Naipaul an authority on India?

Sir Vidia's Shadow-Boxing
By Farzana Versey

Countercurrents, 15 November, 2006


Sir Vidia has done it again. Speaking in Brussels at the Belgian Festival of India, he took on an almost Huntington-like language when he said about a country he has never lived in, that there “could be a very radical kind of revolution — village against city”.

At a very real level this is a potent premise, except that V. S. Naipaul does not see it as the dumbing down of urban culture and the upward mobility of rural ethos. He skirts the issue of romanticising the village idyll, which would have at least been an honest Bollywoodesque take, and instead lambasts the urban dweller: “People in cities are turning their backs to Indian civilisation. They want green cards. They want to migrate. They want to go to England. They want to go to the US” and this he deems is “parasitic and awful”.

This is a man who is sitting in England, cashing in on his Indian origins and West Indian breeding. He does not have the basic decency to acknowledge the place he was born and brought up in. For him, Trinidad is, “A billion people and a little island, which has done almost nothing for me.” Talk about being parasitic.

We know what his idea of Indian civilisation is, given his political views. Even if one were to accept that, where does he get the idea that such civilisation rests in stasis?

He is even more alarmist when he states, “Caste is a great internal series of friendly societies and in bad times it kept the country going. But people don't understand this. It has to be rethought and a new way of looking at it. In India it is having trouble at the moment because it rules politics. Foolish people think that the upper castes are oppressing the lower castes. It is the other way.”

Factors such as the number of deaths of lower caste people, the continual disparities that exist due to this “friendly societies” theory that essentially means people should stick to their lowly status, the complex issue of what constitutes caste politics all seem to have been lost to this intellectual giant.

Everyone and everything is Lilliputian in his scheme of things. I insist on repeating the phrase I have used for his ideas: ‘Naipaul’s Malgudi – an imagined town’. The reason being there are real people in it, but he places them where he wants to. It is his conformist plan, and conformist he is.

He wants to be an establishment totem, and it suits the knight to ride a shining ‘White’ steed, taking his Englishness rather seriously. No wonder he protests against a larger world-view. As he once said, “Multiculturalism is a very much left-wing idea that gained currency about 20 years ago. It’s very destructive about the people it is meant to defend.”

Why would one want homogeneity? Even in non-global villages, the uniformity is superficial, as in a geographical identity. Culture, by its very nature, revolts against being boxed in. That is the reason it is reinvented and updated, unlike tradition that tends to be static.

The global village is really utopian. So, we must look at it through an idealistic prism. How many dis-similarities can it accept and encourage? How much dynamism is possible without causing chaos? Is tolerance a patronising term or does it encourage dissent? Is dissent welcome or a nuisance?

V. S. Naipaul wouldn’t know that even if it hit him on the head. According to his self-proclaimed Dr Watson Farrukh Dhondy’s recollections of the recent meeting, Naipaul believes, “India is undergoing a cultural revolution. There is the vast mass of the population whom he will call the ‘temple-goers’ and then there are the elite who look outward from India towards America and get their fashions, fads, wastefulness and aspirations from there. He chooses to call them the ‘green-card-wallahs’. They may not possess such a card but they form a category. The clash he predicts, while not venturing to spell out what form it will take, will be a clash of these cultures rather than the predicted battles between the rich and the poor.”

Trust Sir Vidia to reduce the vast mass of people to ‘temple-goers’, such is his completely closed mindset. While one does agree a bit with his stereotype of the green-card-wallahs, how would he explain the possible clash? Isn’t this elite the one that builds temples? And is his disgust ideological or merely an echoing of the racist anti-immigration voices?

He does not say it aloud, but when he talks about meeting a culture half-way, he is propping up an ideal nationalism. It fits in perfectly with his crusade. Contemporary nationalism has indeed become a renewal of a religious or quasi religious identity. It may be obvious in states where they happily call themselves, say, the Islamic Republic or a Buddhist state, but the West is using religious terminology all the time for electoral/emotional purposes.

Therefore, the belongingness and shallow shared values would be based on a limited ‘need’.

Naipaul takes the thesis of historical value to further abuse Indians. “There is no tradition of reading in India. There is no tradition of contemporary literature. It was only in Bengal that there was a kind of renaissance and a literary culture. But in the rest of India until quite recently people had no idea what books were for,” he said.

Such arrogance belies ignorance. He has been miffed with the reception his books have received, essentially his discourses ‘An Area of Darkness’ and ‘A Wounded Civilisation’ as well as his journeys through the Islamic world. Naipaul as novelist is quite different from Naipaul the social observer. The moment he ceases to be a litterateur, he will be judged by norms one would use for a social analyst or a critic.

There is some worth in writings from the diaspora. Nirad Chaudhari did a good job of playing the ‘insider’ outside by almost caricaturing himself; Solzhenitsyn’s exile was more real in that he was silenced intellectually. Naipaul prefers to play the maverick Brown Sahib.
This proves that he lacks conviction as a commentator. It has been said that most Indians objected to Naipaul’s books on India because they were uncomfortable truths. That is not true. The problem is he saw only what he wanted to see. He was censoring the truth to fit in with his bird’s eye-view and calling it the caged reality.

One can understand the need to politicise certain aspects of that vision, but to give it the stamp of verisimilitude is dishonesty. At one level, even a Kipling does not make us uncomfortable because he made no claims over us. Sir Vidia tends to get proprietorial, much in the manner a gypsy would with a tent. It is time he realised that the landscape is a bit more than the ground beneath his feet.

15.11.06

Agar main fillum star hoti...

There is this column called Bibliophile in the Sunday supplement of The Asian Age. People from varied fields are asked about their book-reading habits. They all sound deathly serious, and a few authors are invariably 'marked' – somehow Paulo Coelho and Deepak Chopra are great hits with film stars!

Since it is unlikely I will be featured there, I decided to answer the questions here as a film star would. In parenthesis is what they really mean.

Which was the last book that you read?
The Alchemist. (Saala, film magazine tha, usme woh animal print waala chakaas shirt pehnela apun ne…)

Which is your favourite place to read?
The bed. (Yedaa! Bed par koi padhta hai, kya?)

Who is your favourite novelist?
Paulo Coelho. (Yaar, yeh aadmi tau mast hai, apun ko bachayela aakha time. Naam leneka aur impression achcha fit hota hai.)

Who is your favourite literary character?
Devdas. (Sabko maalum yeh Sanjay Bhansali ne script bachaane ka waaste saala purana book se uthaaya. Book mein tau character hoyega ich na…)

Which poem can you recite by heart?
Some by Shakespeare. (Abey, Jack and Jill chalega nahin kya?)


Which is your favourite children’s book?
Amar Chitra Katha. (Tereko yaad hai kya?)

Which book should you have read?
All epics. (Should ka matlab? Jabardasti hai? Aur epics ke liye itna time khotee kaiku karega?)

Which school/college texts did you enjoy the most?
Shakesepare. (Ha, ha, college gaya kaun? Aur school bhi tau…)


Which book according to you is under-rated?
All by Deepak Chopra. (Under-rated bole tau? Itna paisa kamaaya usne sab ko maamu banaake. Mila tha apun ko Goa mein, iska waaste naam yaad hai…)

Which book changed your life?
The Bhagwad Gita/Bible/Quran. (Oh, god, mera baap, iss balaa se bachao, ab tau naam bhi le liya hai aapka!)

Which book would you make compulsory reading?
The above. (Bachao!! Agar reading compulsory hoga tau apna tau vaat lag jaayega bhidoo…)

Which book did you never want to end?
The Alchemist. (End kaise hoyega jab shuroo ich nahin kiyela?)

Imran Khan overdose

I am getting a bit tired of Imran Khan. Do our cricketers get the same mileage when they visit Pakistan? Is it because he is also a politician? But what currency does he have in that capacity? Each time he visits India, newspapers, glossies and TV channels “manage to get him”. He dishes out the same old lines about democracy, democracy, democracy.

The so-called democrats in Pakistan are those who have conveniently used religion to become acceptable. Benazir Bhutto, westernised to the core with her sing-song elocution competition style speeches; Nawaz Sharif, with his earthy feudalism and even Imran with his Frontier chieftain projection are sell-out cases.

He may have his heart in the right place, as I am told often, but last year at a fund-raiser in San Jose, this is an excerpt of what happened (that I wrote about elsewhere):


Then Imran Khan spoke. He started with, “I was the first politician to go to the affected areas…” He talked about false official figures in the initial stages. Had he done away with these bits, the politicisation would not have been so evident. For, he had his facts; he had the desire to do something. As winter sets in the hilly terrain, and people are burning the donated clothes to keep them warm, his organisation has come up with shelters that cost just $ 350 and 85 per cent of the material is reusable for later.

The floor was thrown open to questions. “How are these tents made?”

WTF. Someone sitting in the Bay Area wants to know how these tents are made? Will he be building them? Does he want to run through his calculator to get a breakup of cost-efficiency? Is this some techno-savvy mela? Why were questions entertained at all? There are several websites for information, and hundreds of thousands of donors.

The ones that need to be commended are those who took part in the silent auction.

The stage auction was a farce. A signed bat by Imran started with a bid of just $500. A blue-chip celebrity, a blue-chip audience and a genuine cause were all reduced in that one moment of indiscretion. “Oh, okay, since it is a signed by Imran, let us make it $1000!” It was closed at $4000 with a ticket to the World Cup in the West Indies thrown in. Everyone was in a hurry to get it over with. The target for the evening was $1 million; they collected $300,000.

It prompted Imran to comment that this did not seem like an audience that was interested in cricket. He did praise the efforts of the Pakistanis at home who had taken their cars and trucks with essentials.

The Pakistanis in the US have garnered a lot of funds, anyway. Money does go a long way, but how many in that gathering would volunteer? He appealed for that kind of help.

Just as suddenly, the announcer declared, “Now you can all go home.”

As we trudged out, Imran stood in the foyer posing for pictures. He is Pakistan’s greatest celebrity. I was not overwhelmed by the sight. What made an impact on me was the space Indians and Pakistanis shared and the admiration the latter expressed for some of the big Indian names present there.

I wanted to voice the question that had been playing on my mind: “Could an Indian volunteer?”

“Of course, many Indians are doing so,” said Imran.

“What about visas?”

“That should not be a problem. You just go to the American Embassy.”

“I am a visitor to the US, I don’t live here. I am from India.”

“Oh, a lot of Kashmiris are there…Yaseen Malik and his group are helping out a lot…”

“Kashmiris are different. I am…”

“Oh, so where are you from?”

“Bombay.”

“Uh…” Pause. “I am sure you can try.”

“Hmm…”

Indians are not allowed in the Northern areas just as Pakistanis are prohibited from visiting some parts of India.

He knows that. I know that.

13.11.06

Too many Muslims?

Let me tell you about the events that became part of the house hunting. I was to meet the estate agent near a bank where I had some work. He showed up with a colleague. I probed him further about this communal angle. I admit I was aware of it, but surely this could not happen to me? His colleague, a Sindhi, confirmed it.

We drove to one site. The colleague had left and the agent and a relative of his were with me. The relative, who was driving, switched on the music. It was playing some naats (religious verses) followed by sermons in Arabic. He asked his cousin if it was ok. “No problem, she is Muslim.”

So there I was house-hunting with Arabic prayers droning on. But I did not like this whole thing. It was getting uncomfortable, as though suddenly a part of me was being expunged to make more room for another..

Would I have responded similarly if bhajans were playing? Was I getting too defensive, was I trying too hard in my own mind to be a cosmo woman? From all accounts, no. I was seriously ill at ease, mainly because of what I had been told. It seems that even if one went directly to the builders, the other residents usually objected to Muslims in their midst. Therefore, builders have pre-empted the problems.

I ask the agent if I could pose as a Hindu to start with. “You will be wasting time,” he said. “After the down payment, they can still return the money giving some reason or the other. We have seen this happen many times.”

“And no one has objected?”

“The problem now is that since Catholics are starting their own societies, the builders have a valid argument.”

(I got evidence of this directly from the office of a very popular builder just two days ago.)

Back to my adventure…I did not like the couple of places he showed. Then he took me to a resale apartment. It had been unoccupied in a fairly new building. The owner arrived. She was wearing a burqa, though her face was uncovered. Before she could say any salaams, I said, “Hello.” She extended her hand. I felt stupid. As we got talking, she said it was important to vibe with the person. Apparently she was vibing with me. I wondered why. I was wearing a pair of jeans (a deliberate move on my part that day). Was it my name, my religion?

Her house had large airy rooms, but her living room was a mess. There were large aluminium jars and steel tiffin boxes; in a corner on one of those boxes was a copy of the Quran. I found it strange.

Well, I did not like this house, though she was good at marketing the slum across as a “plot for a garden”.

I decided after a few more rounds that enough was enough. There was a feeling of queasiness, as though something was being wrenched from me.


Next day I took my mother on a tour of the area, which we have known for years and had friends from all communities living there. Barely had we entered this particular lane and she said, “Yeh kahaan par le ja rahee ho? Kitne Mussalman bhare padey hai, main yahaan nahin reh saktee, no way.” (Where have you brought me? Too many Muslims here, I don’t think I could live here.)

This is the problem. Those of us who want to and are more comfortable sharing our space with others are being held to ransom because of our 'identities'; and those who have strong identities are being forced to shed theirs. Both kinds of us are called jihadis and Islamists for different reasons - we: because we call the bluff of the Establishment; they: because they fit a stereotype in superficial ways.

Some of you might think an attitude such as ours is snotty. The fact is I cannot imagine such a place for myself. I do not judge those who choose such habitats and think they have a valid reason for doing so, but I don’t want to be pushed into a corner by others.

The piece that I reproduced here has got interesting responses and one gentleman from the US wrote to me,

“Hi Farzana,


Liked your article a lot. I do think however that getting into the mainstream is going to require some help. A policy such as Affirmative Action does not mean selecting a less qualified candidate for a job. But if two candidates are equally qualified, then the employer's commitment to affirmative action (i.e. a goal to have some minority employees), should come into play.

I also think Muslims should use their buying power to help the community. They should boycott the goods and services of businesses thatdo not have affirmative action policies and do not employ Muslims. This tactic was used effectively by Blacks in the Chicago area some years ago.

Best wishes,
G

Hi G:

Honestly, I get irritated with this mainstream thing...just as much as thali food puts me off!

The problem with the affirmative action you talk about is that it requires effort. The Blacks are at least a cohesive whole; here we have different kinds of Muslims and affinities are forged along sectarian lines.

Besides, a part of me says these are such sad times when one cannot revel in cosmopolitanism. And, to be honest, I would not want a Muslim in a Chinese restaurant....kheema with hakka noodles???!!

Regards,
F
- - -
My response may seem facile, but I do believe that you cannot force a standardised mainstream down people’s throats BUT you cannot stop those who want to experience the vast oceans from doing so.

9.11.06

Ghettoes Reserved For Muslims?

I admit I was hesitant mentioning my personal experience with apartment-hunting in Mumbai...but it was time to come clean, even if not with the full impact of what it means; this is only one aspect I have put forth in the article. Perhaps some day I will express it in greater detail and with more force.

Ghettoes Reserved For Muslims?
By Farzana Versey
09 November, 2006, Countercurrents

As an Indian Muslim I might like to state that there ought not to be reservations, because Muslims have traditionally been a convenient vote-bank (and not just for politicians, but for anyone wanting to make a ‘liberal’ point). The result is that they are accused of purportedly suffering from a victim syndrome only because others are weeping over their freshly-dug graves.

Watch how everyone is flinging figures in our faces from the Sachar Committee Report on the current status of social, economic and educational condition of Indian Muslims. This has only led to further stereotyping.

Television tends to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. It was therefore a bit disconcerting to watch Madhu Kishwar talk about how Muslims are not backward because most weavers and craftsmen come from the community. What really does this mean? That they should remain in those jobs? What value is placed on such professions?

They are crassly exploited, as anyone in such work is. The kaarigars barely get any money, and all the zardozi that you see on designer wear gives them a pittance in return.

The apathy towards their plight and destiny was revealed during the riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 when most of them had left, that is if they weren’t affected physically. A small tour of the areas would show that many of the migrants to the city had lost their sustenance. So, how does their talent really help them?

Instead of salivating over the statistics that say there are more illiterates among the Muslims than even the scheduled castes and tribes, it might be prudent to ask whether reservations can solve the social problem. Would it not result in further alienating the community into a ‘super-appeased’ slot?

The fact is that the point about ghettoisation is brought in time and again. “The problem is Muslims are ghettoised,” is the refrain.

It is time to take a reality check on this. A ghetto is a group of people that gets together due to some common identity, be it religion, occupation, social affiliation. The Communists formed their communes and it was considered perfectly legitimate. The elite form theirs and again no one raises an eyebrow.

Let me give you a personal example and it is a fairly recent one. We had been looking for an apartment due to some renovation work that was to be undertaken at our present residence. This is in what is a cosmopolitan and elite neighbourhood. I called up an estate agency. It had a business-like sounding name.

The gentleman who I was giving the specifications to stopped me mid-way. “Ma’am, don’t mind, but what community are you from?” I had given my first name.

“How is that important?” I asked.

“See, are you Muslim? I am Muslim too,” he said by way of reassurance.

“Does that make a difference?”

“I am sorry to say this but there are problems. The apartment you want to see is not possible. I can show you some others.”

As it turned out, the choices, even for the so-called elite in a city like Mumbai, are limited. The deal was Muslim will sell to Muslim. Some builders may not directly tell you, but there are sudden retractions. Therefore, a Muslim builder who sells his property to everyone has become the only hope for Muslims.

It suddenly struck me: would it also not be easy to target such habitats far more easily?

For one accustomed to living with people of all communities, I was completely disoriented by the thought that suddenly one would be surrounded by people one had nothing in common with except a flimsy religious identity.

This may be seen as the luxury of multiculturalism that some of us can afford, but what about the ostentatiousness of pennant-waving that has become a part of posh communities in equal measure?

One has heard of instances about how the Malabar Hill-Napeansea road belt (the most prized and pricey areas of Mumbai) are being take over by the Jain-Marwari business families. Old Parsi bungalows are being bought just to ensure that the particular part of the city is left pure for a group of people.

Christians too have begun to form their own buildings, so do Parsis and Gujaratis and Sikhs. But these are not called ghettoes.

Why, then, must Muslim-populated areas be deemed ghettoes?


What is wrong with madrassas? Some commentators are declaiming that Muslims must be taken out of madrassas and be given ‘mainstream education’, whatever that means. It is completely forgotten that madrassas are merely religious-run educational outfits, not religious-indoctrinating institutions. Religious education is imparted in educational institutions run by all communities. And wasn’t it the BJP government that wanted astrology as a part of the curriculum?

Where jobs are concerned, all Muslims need is equal opportunities; perhaps co-operative movements at the grassroots level could ensure that.

The more educated will have to stand together with the rest; there is no doubt a sense of alienation and discrimination. It reveals the malaise that besets our society.

Names, like rabbits from magicians’ hats, are taken out from the world of cricket, cinema, and business to showcase how Muslims are ‘accepted’. That is not the idea. There is no question about anyone accepting another who is accomplished. But not everyone has a head start.

It would be foolish to remove religious leaders at this juncture from the process of upward mobility. The reason being that they need to be co-opted as they too are a part of the community; besides, where are the liberal Muslim voices that have been talking about the veil and Islamic terrorism?

It is disturbing to find that even on a subject that concerns Muslims, the commentators are either the more rabid Islamic faces or intellectuals from the majority community, which once again reaffirms a stereotype: WE are tolerant lot; We have no problems if Muslims are given a bit of the share of the pie.

Reservations are far less patronising than this sort of colonisation of the Muslim mind. Be it sops or sympathy, the message is the same. Muslims need to become a part of the mainstream. The idea that they ‘need to’, emphasises what ought to be disabused: That they aren’t.

The mainstream in contemporary India is not a stagnant pool of historical rights and wrongs. Therefore, no one community can define it or circumscribe it for others. It is time for everyone to get out of the ghettoes of their minds.

8.11.06

Jocks Apart: Why can't men want to be men?

I am very happy with AussiBum. It has brought out a range of undies for men wanting to look bigger. “It basically lifts, separates and extends,” said aussieBum founder Sean Ashby. “This design uses all of the natural assets of the person, whether they be big, small or indifferent.”

Most people are saying, oh, how silly, who cares about such things…liars! If it is being marketed as the equivalent of the Wonderbra, then one should respect men’s need to appear physically not lacking. Besides, it isn’t padding up and faking, as many women’s beauty and intimate products do. Let us cut the guys some slack.

For the past few days I have been watching TV ads for a multinational bank. It features actor Rahul Bose playing golf, being chilled out in the boardroom and generally in charge of his life, his money and perhaps a lot else. It just doesn’t work. The problem is that like in the rest of the world, the urban Indian too is now into this “sex symbol for the intelligent woman/man” rubbish.

A sex symbol is a sex symbol. Period. Just as I do not want some mobile phone company to sell me stupid pink handsets “for ladies”, I don’t want anyone to tell me who/what type ought to be my sex symbol, if I need any.

It is entirely possible that I lack intelligence, but Rahul Bose is not a sex symbol. He is a fine actor and an interesting director; his Everybody Says I’m Fine was so wonderfully pretentious and I mean it without sarcasm for it went superbly with the non-linear narrative. But everytime I see him giving sound bytes, I get completely put off. There is so much hot air, so much effort at being The Man of The Moment that you realise the sort isn't going to last long.

And most women work equally hard to tell us that they aren’t interested in superficials and what is “down there”; they want to know what is “up there”. Big deal. For starters, truly intelligent and engaging women would attract men with some special qualities. If they think it is perfectly fine to languish in some prison where they get turned on by a male voice discussing binary positions, then suit yourself, honey.

It is getting tiresome to listen to them parrot the same old crap about how sex appeal lies between the ears. Oh, yawnnn…No wonder men get put off by women who eff their minds. They are probably hypocrites who in the privacy of the bedroom taunt the guy about performance or get cantankerous and complain about other things.

The problem is that these women believe they are upholding the ‘anti-body’ values that lead to debauched, regressive minds, yadda, yadda. Bull. When they fall for that ‘sex symbol for the intelligent woman’ bait, they too are little puppets being pulled by the strings of some utopian idea of a laggard posing as the ultimate dream. This is as disgusting as the smelly slobs being thrust in our faces as the retro male whose sweat is supposed to send you in a frenzy.

I wish we could make life simple. Men look at women, women’s assets. There may be a difference of degrees, but the bottomline is assets. Women too look for, if not at, assets. The reaction may not be as basic as that of men, but it has immense…erm…aesthetic worth.

Trust me. Lips don’t lie!

7.11.06

Damn Saddam?

On Saddam’s hanging my views are, as many here would have predicted, not too different from those of the Leftists. I might add that I do not believe that the US has any right to decide what constitutes democracy; it is a society where many democratic norms were late in the coming and are not altogether practised…that Saddam was denied access to what may be deemed a fair trial…that “crimes against humanity” is a wide term and would apply to many of the Western societies, except that it spares it own people. My only fear is that even if some Muslims protest against this judgement – as many others are doing – it should not be seen as one more instance of Islamic intolerance.

The first time I wrote about him, I had not anticipated what happened. The interest was more on power-play. But I had ended by saying it would give America a decade to make the most of it, so to speak. Someone did comment that I had taken the dangerous precedent “of actually making a written prediction. Let us see if America speaks from scalded lips or not”.


Damn Saddam?
by Farzana Versey

I do not know whether Saddam Hussein knows anything about Valentine’s Day, but soon after it is celebrated, he will discover what love means. It is the American way of cleansing Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction. This grand passion, worth $200 billion, will be displayed by dropping bombs on civilians.

Would the Saddam of 2003 be any different from the man of 1991? How many clones will he have on the ready? And how many bunkers in his palace? And will he be lucky with the women? What?

Yes, the last time round the Italian member of parliament, Ilona Sthaler, a former porn star, had offered to sleep with him to effect the release of the hostages held by his army. She was appealing to the macho man and sadist in Saddam but, without realising it, she was also ‘humanising’ him.

Saddam has often talked about not wanting war. But he is said to accumulate arms for war, any war. Now let us see Eric Berne’s analysis of sado-masochism in a sexual context. The thinking is that abstinence would lead to serious consequences, so there is the appeal, to quote Berne, ‘‘What do you expect from someone as strongly sexed as I am?’’

Now to return to Saddam’s anti-war statements. This is the antithesis where, as Dr Berne explains, ‘‘Real satisfaction is derived from the humiliating foreplay’’ rather than ‘‘more conventional forms of coitus’’. As the person is not ready to admit it, he is likely to complain, ‘‘After all this work, I have to have intercourse yet!’’

Saddam had the last time returned tired from work (Iran). It would have become incumbent on him not to fall for influences. But sexuality and power play are interlinked. And the chain that does it is insecurity. Saddam is caught in a situation where he has to acknowledge both Berne's thesis as well as antithesis. He can be a powerful leader only if he makes war. He also makes war because he needs justification for being tired! I wonder why people wonder how he can be a hero. It is perfectly logical. He does not take chances. 12 years ago, Saddam had tempted Adam (USA) with the apple; Bush Sr fell for the bait. Today Bush Jr has to wipe out traces of both Dad and Bill. Only problem is that he seems to have learned to whip up emotions from the Orientals!

Just as Operation Desert Storm (sanctified as the Gulf War) remained essentially one in a tea-cup, after this one too Saddam Hussein will survive to tell the tale and give America one more decade to mouth clichés through scalded lips.


(First published in The New Indian Express)

6.11.06

Stayin' alive...

It was one of those Victorian damsel moments in my life. The sudden blush, a feverish spell, alternating with a cold sweat and a shiver down my spine…well, my whole body. Ironically this happened after I had visited the doc for some shots I am supposed to take to bring my blood level up.

I got home and the above-mentioned moment occurred. I had to bring out blankets in this heat (and it is sultry in Mumbai). It might be the ‘in’ thing – malaria, dengue or chikungunya, I was told. It took some time for me to accept that I was falling prey to a trend and that some mosquitoes, unbeknownst to me, had been getting too close for comfort.

The reports came in the evening. Negative. I had triumphed over those bloody insects. However, I could not perform a victory dance because my system was weak; all I could do was lie down and read or watch TV. I only managed to go through the newspapers as the books I want to finish are too heavy; I tried picking out one of those slim volumes and it was a book of quotations on love and marriage. Pooh…then there was a feel-good book on How to make the most of a horizontal position. I guess I was imagining it, but damn, I know I can write a book on that. Now.

So, if those tests were negative, then why was this other heavy-duty doc called?

“To find out what exactly is wrong, why is your body throwing out essential things…” said my GP. My body was picky, I wanted to tell her...my body is just like me.

This other doc made me do some deep breathing, I felt like such a bitch…say ahhhh…huff-huff…woof…

The doc wrote out a few new tests that had to be done. “You just relax and be cool,” she said. Yeah, sure, so I moved my head this way and that, like Saif in Kal Ho Na Ho following Shahrukh’s instructions…yeah, yeah, yeah…

My GP called to ask whether it was good for me. It is not what you think. I told her the prognosis (which is really diagnosis that is programmed). Now both of them are deciding as to what the right course of action should be. One says, wait, don’t rush. The other says, do it quick so we know. I like to wait. I am the long foreplay type.


Today, I decided that in the interest of humanity I must get online. I don’t know what the heck is wrong with my body and everyone else seems to know what is wrong with my mind…that leaves me free of bearing the onus of having anything to do with me.

Instead I fantasise about the place I will go for the tests. They play music and if you are seated in one of the rooms inside you can watch a large flat screen with Himesh Reshammiya singing, “Jhalak dikhla ja, ek baar aaja, aaja, aajaa…”

Please translate this into English and tell me: is this the stuff you have to listen to when you are ill and incapable of moving a damn finger?

Why do you find all this funny? No, no, not you…I am asked this question.

I find most things funny. It is important to learn the value of self-deprecating humour. The past few days have given me a lot – long hours of sleep, hours of delirious rambling, the joy of sucking on lozenges to take the taste away of the bitter effects of antibiotics, watching mosquitoes and wanting to let out a whoopee, not feeling guilty about leaving books unread, food uneaten…and people telling you they remember your smile.

Isn't that reason enough to smile?