29.6.10

The expatriate's angst

“I’d rather be called a terrorist than an Indian.” This comment was made a while ago following reports of some Pakistanis pretending to be Indians to avoid being targeted by intelligence agencies. Nothing bothers young Pakistanis more than being identified as Indian. Yet there is barely any social isolation between them overseas. However, militancy has resulted in an awareness of differences. While it is true that many more Indians are in prominent positions and have greater political clout, the fact is that despite all the profiling no American establishment will alienate Pakistan for tactical reasons. The ordinary expat’s level of distancing from the homeland is evident in the overarching need to assert fealty. The prototype Pakistani goes into apoplectic fits of apologia the moment one of them transgresses from the path. More than anything else, it is seen as a betrayal of the land of pure opportunity.

Therefore, while there is often some level of intellectual empathy with the McCabbie and McSilicon Valley wallahs and given that according to a private survey 96 per cent of Pakistanis have a low opinion of America, it would be natural that expats would not feel differently. It is not the four per cent who take a flight into Disneyland and stay back for the rollercoaster ride. And the one who strays does not suddenly appear in the US on a Waziristan-sanctioned visa. He has been there, digging into Shalimar biryani, downloading Coke Studio episodes.

The general anger towards Islam has affected the Pakistani diaspora. But has it affected the Americans? Mark Steyn wrote recently in the National Review: “Were America even mildly ‘Islamophobic’, it would have curtailed Muslim immigration, or at least subjected immigrants from Pakistan, Yemen, and a handful of other hotbeds to an additional level of screening. Instead, Muslim immigration to the west has accelerated in the last nine years … An ‘Islamophobic’ America might have pondered whether the more extreme elements of self-segregation were compatible with participation in a pluralist society. Instead, President Obama makes fawning speeches boasting that he supports the rights of women to be ‘covered’ — rather than the rights of the ever lengthening numbers of European and North American Muslim women beaten, brutalised and murdered for not wanting to be covered.”

Is one to assume that the US is masochistic or perhaps using a strategy to invite a little doom to feel morally sanctioned to conduct greater devastating strikes? President Obama’s opinion on the hijab is a patronising gesture. Does the US constitution not have provisions to protect women who have been brutalised for not wearing the veil?

The problem is that this is being posited against the educated professional who turns wayward. It is a disingenuous comparison. It could, in certain instances, be a genuine feeling of disgust with the system. Hispanics feel it, blacks feel it and it would be unusual if immigrants from Pakistan did not. When a South Korean student went on a shooting rampage at the Virginia Tech campus, did all Koreans fear getting profiled? Were they condemned to contrition?

If we set aside an act and its ostensible motive, this could be a potent analogy for frustration, the need to draw attention to oneself where the cause becomes a mere medium. Unfortunately, no one is willing to discuss why crimes are not seen as crimes anymore and are all branded terrorist acts. The Pakistani expat with no such history is forced to identify with branches that are tagged as roots.

It also raises the question about how by seeking a greater plan we, and the American establishment in particular, are losing all respect for and anger towards individualism. The militancy of the mainstream can swallow one whole.

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Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2010.

26.6.10

A model's death


Is a model’s suicide any different from other suicides? Until Page 3 became a standard feature, one recognised models only by their faces and bodies; many remained fairly unknown unless they were interviewed in women’s magazines.

There is a romanticisation of the stress levels. Today’s papers reported the suicide of model Viveka Babajee. She hanged herself from a ceiling fan; the reason was depression, partly due to a failed relationship. She came to India from Mauritius and was immediately engulfed in the world of glamour. Together with her professional skills, she, like several others, became an asset at society parties.

The film Fashion, despite its stereotypes, has depicted the life of the industry rather well. The clamour to be a part of it is huge. There was the case of Gitanjali who was found in the streets of Delhi, drugged, disheveled and in urgent need of medical and mental care. The media took to her – it was a great story. Madhur Bhandarkar used bits of her life in the film, but what is most striking is the hierarchy. It exists in every profession, but especially in one where vanity is the selling point.

They all seem to have an ‘attitude’. Attitude is arrogance teamed with a readiness to do anything. It is a generalisation, but happens to be the unfortunate truth. The stepping stones are designers, photographers, agents and business houses. The latter stay behind the scenes but are probably the most exploitative.

There is the sequence in the movie where some new girls are asked to attend a party because it helps grab eyeballs. This is what we see on Page 3, where unknown faces become names. It isn’t that they lack merit in their field. Someone has to model those products. They get instant fame and very few fall apart. Doing drugs is not considered a major problem.

Viveka was smart enough to realise she could not model forever, so she became an event manager and in fact had returned to Mauritius. Why did she come back to Mumbai? Because, in all likelihood, the country where she was from has no such culture of celebrity. It does not splash pictures only because you are dressed in certain clothes or you are invited to a party. The real high is fame on a pair of legs.

I found it curious that someone she met a week ago said she looked composed and not depressed. That is what they are paid for. Viveka must have had other problems and probably hid them from the world because the same celebrity that brings you in the forefront for baring forces you to not expose yourself.

She chose to die.

22.6.10

Activist fascism

Activist Fascism
by Farzana Versey

Arundhati Roy Incorporated is a YouTubed fable. Our liberalism is suspect if we are not on this side of the fabulist line. Her myth machinery sets the stage with emails sent by People With Conscience acting like the thought police. They tutor us about the correct news perspective.

She then makes a splash on the front page of a Pakistani newspaper to counteract the malicious “concocted account” by an Indian news agency of a lecture delivered in Mumbai. Part of her gripe is “a ridiculous dumbing down of the (Maoist) debate”.

Is there a difference between what she speaks at meetings and what she writes? The videos reveal that she omitted several aspects that would show up the ‘maliciousness’ as mere peripheral reporting. But, pray, what did she mean by, “I do not support the killing…it is not my brief”? Does she only represent herself or work on someone else’s brief?

Roy stated that half the activist industry is bought; the media is bought. This is often true and obvious. Now, will the self-righteous other half also come clean about their agendas and who sponsors those?

Regarding dumbing down, she mentioned a call from an uncle. He wanted to help in her fight against injustice. She responded: “I said don’t say this on the phone…they will call you a Maoist”!

To create a romantic image of ‘her’ movement – “There are just a handful of us shouting from the rooftops” – she wondered aloud, “And after this they want you to come on the side of the government…after you see those people in loin cloth with bows and arrows. I cannot, I simply cannot.” Loin cloth? Bows and arrows? We have seen her picture, head draped in a bandana, with armed comrades. Was she referring to the tribals? Then, who were they fighting with bows and arrows?

The PR note stated, “She did NOT call upon the government to put her in jail for supporting Maoists, nor did she offer support to the Maoists.” Why was she there giving a sermon from the dais if she did not support them? She did say she did not care if she was “put in jail, pick me up”. The important thing was to “turn around and ask your comrades the question for the sake of pushing things forward”. Protest groups must force the government to take action, but not as latter-day intellectual Robin Hoods.

For a certain huddled section, idealism means titillating with false images and false hopes. The moment a cause goes down in the ratings, the industry moves on to the next one. The background helps to embellish speaking assignments: “when I walked there”, “when the tribals said this”, “in Kashmir”, “in Gujarat”, never mind that “the war in Goa, which is mainly Christian” is wrong. 26 per cent is a majority?

The corporate behemoth got a naive jab: “In 1989 when capitalism won its jihad against communism, the whole world did a somersault”. Roy callously used the term jihad, that too out of context. Forget political correctness, this is stereotyping.

Her sights are elsewhere: “We can make history,” she said, because the Maoist movement is not only about justice; it is questioning civilisation. “I don’t even care about the human race… but also all those birds off the Gulf of Mexico with oil slick on their feathers…these people are fighting a war that is questioning all of that. That is the beauty of this resistance.”

A legitimate Maoist will one day tell us how greased feathers figure in the beauty of their resistance.


“If it had grown up, it would have made a dreadfully ugly child; but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think” – Alice in Wonderland

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This appeared in Express Tribune, June 22

20.6.10

Sunday ka Funda

"For when they see the people swarm into the streets, and daily wet to the skin with rain, and yet cannot persuade them to go out of the rain, they do keep themselves within their houses, seeing they cannot remedy the folly of the people."

- Thomas More



Image: A Japanese invention

19.6.10

Sunset of the Don

Sunset of the Don
by Farzana Versey


Militancy has killed the underworld. When Dawood Ibrahim figured third in the Forbes list of most wanted fugitives, his resume hovered over nefarious activities. He had already been sucked into the blanket term ‘global terrorist’.

After Bollywood it is the underworld that made Mumbai a dream city, dreams that started with rolled joints under railway bridges, the first spurt of virgin gun blood followed by initiation into the hierarchy of henchmen, the inner circle. The chosen ones became dons. Dons have sponsored films and dons have made for some of the most interesting characters in cinema.

There was a time you could go to the mohalla and visit Karim Lala sitting in an easy chair, the power emanating more from his reported activities rather than his persona. Haji Mastan spoke in such a polished manner it was difficult to connect his words with his face, a leathery brown that often broke into a gold-cap toothed smile. It was endearing rather than menacing.

Mastan’s drawing room was completely white with large solo portraits of himself that greeted you as soon as you entered. Poor people waited for him looking at his laminated pictures; he made them wait till he had a large enough audience that would not leave his words echoing in an empty chamber. Crime was a punctuation mark. The weapons were used against rival gangsters, a few times in the court itself in the presence of the judge. As he told me in his autumn days, “If I am beaten on the head you don’t expect me to keep quiet, do you?” It was such insouciance that made these older dons messiahs for the destitute who identified with them because they were underdogs who had realised dreams. For all the smuggling of gold and narcotics, they did not lead particularly ostentatious lives. Many were teetotalers.

Dawood Ibrahim was an exception. He liked glamour; he got film stars as cheerleaders at Sharjah cricket matches, probably the first instance of privatising of the game without anyone saying it aloud. He has a lot of property, but it is overseen by a separate conclave. There is an upturning of poetic justice here for, while his men force slum-dwellers out of their tenements to make way for building complexes, it is the displaced who become willing slaves.

The Dawood legend has deliberately erased a rags-to-riches story, although his father was a head constable. Unlike the earlier dons, he did not have patience with durbars and fast-track private courts to sort out issues. The D-company worked as a corporation and was one of the most secular institutions.

Then came the bomb blasts following the riots and fall of the Babri Masjid. Dawood was said to be behind them. In an opportunist move, his trusted aide Chhota Rajan left him because his religious sentiments were hurt. Middle-class suckers fell for such fake fealty. He was labelled a Hindu hero; Dawood, a terrorist. Gone was that peculiar aura of the underworld. The Italian Mafioso that he successfully mimicked is now seen as an Osama clone.

Everybody knew who his daughter married, when and where. The intelligence guys had a nice picnic in Dubai as did the TV channels that shot the ‘scoop’ from behind trees. News is that his daughter’s Facebook profile mentions missing “Dad and mom and Junaid” from Karachi.

If he is in Clifton and remains in Pakistan, it might be the most longstanding instance of détente with India. His being a fugitive seems like an inside joke when he is just a phone call away. The lines are kept deliberately static. The moment Dawood opens his mouth powerful edifices will come tumbling down.


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This was published in Express Tribune, June 15

18.6.10

Dangerous Liaisons

War and Sex

Dangerous Liaisons
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, June 18-20


Anri Suzuki wants to use her body to cure historical wrongs. She is not a card-holding pacifist but a history teacher and porn artiste who has offered to have sex with Chinese students at her college in Tokyo to make amends for the shameful Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

Is it time to get cynical and brand her an attention-seeker, part of the fake empathy industry that has sprouted everywhere? We might also see it as a way of furthering her career, both her careers. However, the body as war booty has been an accepted norm. Instances of women raped or otherwise humiliated dot the backdrop of battlegrounds. Objectifying women has always been part of any war-like scenario, and victories and defeats are measured partly by such abuse of the female as property of man. The colonisation of lands has to do with the subjugation of the nurturing earth as mother or mother figure. It works as marking of territory.

Suzuki appears to be employing the invasion metaphor, but as a woman. She, at 24, and the students are far removed from the Sino-Japanese War. She said: “We have to respect the lessons of history and although we cannot obliterate it we can try and make recompense. I want to cure the wounds of China with my body, and I offer to do this by having sex with Chinese students in Japan.”

It is a manner of using the conquest paradigm to turn the tables. Had she gone about her job without mentioning “symbolic compensation”, it would merely be about sexuality, perhaps with an additional title of “Madonna of St. Clitoris” that was used for Anais Nin in quite a different context. This is beyond the sexual; it is aggression.

Prisoners in detention camps, abuse of civilians by security forces or civilians by militants, exploitation within the armed forces are symbolic too, for they express supremacy. After the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her security guards, war widows were sometimes forced by their families to marry their brothers-in-law or cousins even if they were several years younger. The reason was to make certain that the compensation money remained within the family.

The comfort women of World War II were nothing but sex slaves and most were recruited from Korea, although there were several Chinese. It is probably the worst instance of such criminal brutalisation of women, for once they had passed their prime they were discarded. The slavery was partly dominance and partly a defence mechanism. There was a fear of spies being planted, a known strategy.

During the American Civil War prostitutes were used to spread diseases among opposing troops. One might question such assertions beyond the obvious connotation of male self-defence. The prostitutes had no control over their finances, their emotions, their sense of belonging and also their diseased bodies.

The female form is a landscape and even Draupadi in the epic Mahabharata was lost in a game of dice.

Women in dominating positions have not been spared and their masculinisation is an induced process to increase the male army and the male ideology. Suzuki is operating alone – for now. There is a semblance of covert similarity with the Indian dacoit Phoolan Devi, made famous in the film ‘Bandit Queen’. Her post-banditry legitimisation was announced with a good deal of fanfare by the establishment that had triumphed over her with her surrender.

There was a process of osmosis here. We were being sucked into her transformation as a theatrical taming of the shrew unfolded before us. She played the role to the hilt, losing her freedom to the next scoop that would tell her exactly what she was and where she belonged. Was she exorcising the demons from her system or merely pampering her vanity? The cocktail authenticity of her life helped create a vacuum to accommodate enough hype.

It was almost pornographic when in the manner of her sexual abuse in the ravines she expected a media lust to follow her every move. She was trapped between caricature and schizophrenia.

For one so tormented by men, she had been completely appropriated by them, usurped by their fantasies. Whether it was to become uninhibited or a caged animal for knights-turned-tormentors, her independence was being effectively whittled down.

Suzuki’s stance may appear proactive, with her as initiator. If we read it in the context of underlying sexual invasion in the garb of healing, then it works only at the level, and to the extent, of an orgasm.

On the flip side, her ‘humanisation’ has an almost cartoon-strip like quality. She is a finished product available to men. There are titters about her concern, and it is not unusual to expect them. The scars she wishes to heal have been forgotten. By sexualising history, she is in fact reasserting that both warfare and wounds are part of the sado-masochistic credo.

17.6.10

The swami moves from sex to kerosene



This seems like such a convenient way to purge yourself. Swami Nithyananda involved in a sex scandal was released on bail. He decided to indulge in a purification ritual, the pancha tapasya near fire. His spokesperson said he would also pray for world peace. That is generous. But, how did the courts allow such public purification? He has not been exonerated and if the cases are proved against him he would be sentenced to prison. The manner in which he has been going about his penance, it would seem that he is above the law and still has a following.

Just when his purification was happening, it was found that there is another fiery scandal:

Self-styled godman Swami Nithyananda has courted fresh trouble for allegedly using kerosene meant for poor families during his meditation for ‘penance’ and may face a seven year jail term if convicted. Nithyananda, out on bail after staying in jail for 53 days on rape charge, resorted to the ‘pancha tapasya’ in his Bidadi ashram. Over180 litres of kerosene was seized from there.

Had it not been about poor families, this would have been comical. He has his fans who could have sponsored his purification. I am not sure how sitting before a fire will alter things. If he is seeking to purify himself, does this not amount to some sort of acceptance of culpability? Will he gain sympathy from the public? Will his devotees feel better? Does it help him?

There is a place for rituals for those who indulge in them with true intent and as a private act.

From the looks of it, he appears pretty cocky about the way the case has gone and his current situation. There aren’t too many precedents of such people serving their full terms. We are a nation that believes in what we cannot easily understand. Mumbo-jumbo is a panacea and people like Nityananda work along these lines.

I hope he at least realises that kerosene is a rationed item and many people in this country do not have unlimited access to it.

Obviously, the guy has moved on from being swinger to swindler.

50,000 troops for Naxals?

I understand the Indian state is trying to tackle the Naxal problem. But the latest case of anti-insurgency, where eight (some say 12) Maoists were killed reveals that they were between 16 and 23 years of age. Has anyone tried to figure this out?

The government is readying 50,000 troops. I have a few questions.

In contrast to the highrisk jungle warfare that paramilitary forces resort to against the Naxals, the army plans, if and when called in, to create a security grid which would isolate the civilian population from the insurgents.


What if the insurgents are the civilian population? Can insurgents not infiltrate civilian areas?

The anti-Naxal training module focuses on acquiring intimate knowledge of the topography and the tactics used by Maoists. All this would require the soldiers to unlearn many of the lessons imparted to them for conventional warfare, and use tactics different from those in vogue in J&K and northeast.


The emphasis on tactics may not work. Killing does not require much effort.

The army, which has identified four senior officers for appointment as security advisors to the worst Naxal-affected states, plans to keep the specially-trained divisions in “ready-to-deploy’’ condition.


While there are Naxal areas, there is no reason why these forces will not use other locations to make a point.



And while the army needs good public relations, it is making things worse for itself by sending out such pictures. It is against human dignity. Many may riposte that the insurgents have done far worse. That is not the point. Here we are talking about protectors. They represent the State, an institution that is answerable to the public in a democracy; militants are not.

If they plan to show off their machismo, this is absolutely not the right way to do so. It comes across as a spurious form of warfare where the dead will be seen as victims.

This does not send out a message to the Naxals, who are ready to die for their cause. And it does not send out any message to civil society. The last thing people need to believe they are safe from militants is to see armed soldiers enacting a theatre of the absurd.

16.6.10

Reclaiming Tagore


It’s happened again. After the get back Gandhi’s stuff that I discussed here, we are crying about Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings being auctioned by Sotheby’s. The 12 works fetched £1.6 million (about Rs 11 crore). They were owned by the Dartington Hall Trust in England.

I do not understand how activists who have been urging the government to intervene kept quiet all this while. Besides, how did those paintings get to be with the Trust?

In 1939, Tagore presented the paintings to a close friend, Leonard Elmhirst, who had worked as his private secretary both at Santiniketan and overseas, whose Dartington Hall Trust has been the proud owner of them since.


They plan to expand their artistic endeavours to charity work in the field and it will help many new artists.

The buyers do not belong to a consortium we are told and have made individual purchases. A report states:

An Indian diplomat familiar with the matter expressed fears of the set being “cannibalised’’.


We have scant respect for art and many of our museums are in terrible condition. Some years ago Tagore’s Santiniketan was no better and his books were not even available there. Is the big deal about heritage value or about the big money and how we rate our greats according to it?

Individual connoisseurs have often shown more respect and if the work is displayed for snob value then so be it. What do you think these precious art galleries are upto? They sell art as investment, anyway.

This business about reclaiming what is ours - a contemporary form of swadeshi - is getting to be a pain. If it could be ours in England with a Trust for over 70 years, then it can be ours for however long it exists. An expat Indian who has purchased one painting is being looked upon as a shining white hope who will bring it back to India. Art is not property. You can bring it back to India and pickle it for all you want but if you do not appreciate art, then it is worthless. If you do not know how to encourage people with creative talent, it is worthless. If art belongs to a coterie, then it is worthless.

Tagore will be rather happy that his works went for six times the estimated price. He was high maintenance and rather liked the regality of status.

Wayward thoughts - Change

Change bedsheets. Pillow covers. Sleep. Dreams. Change colour of leaves. Fragrance of flowers. Taste of fruits. Uprooting of roots. Change mind. Swivel ideas. Chew thoughts. Chop emotions. Choppy. Change course. Tide. Ebb. Flow.

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And then I changed the way this blog looked. I felt like white print scrawling over red. But this is also reaching out so I'd love feedback if you have any. The last time I had changed it was wonderful how I could prune and make myself scarce!

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My net connection has been playing truant. A little shower can change so much.

15.6.10

Comedy of 'menners'


Every once in a while we are introduced to a new species of male. It gives us women something to look forward to, at least theoretically. In practical terms it is the same old caveman in different togs.

So, when I read about how the Alpha male is turning into the Omega man, it sounded Greek to me. But it crosses cultures. This character sleeps in late, lives with his parents, does not bring home the moolah every month, but is happy. Happiness means:

On a typical day, he wears tatty clothes, plays computer games and “works on his music”. He does his washing and cooks his meals, and is usually single.

Why this obsession with types of men? Earlier we had the metrosexual guy who shaved every part of his body that had hair; for some weird reason that also made him sensitive. I guess it’s because of the razor.

Then we have nice guys who are not rakes; they help with cooking, cleaning and occasionally even making love. Nice.

Between the Bad and the Good, there is a wide range and women are left wondering at the amazing array that is on offer. Sometimes, we get so lucky that we can even take one ‘on approval’ basis, test a sampling and then return to the shelf.

Why am I pissed off, then? Because it is all about men. I am an Omega woman – I lounge in tatty clothes, I don’t play computer games, but I potter around trying to create designs, I sing into the microphone and have been ‘working on music’ by creating tunes for my cell phone, I don’t even cook, but for the occasional tossing and turning of things in the pan; I do a bit of cleaning; I am single.

I am mostly happy – with myself. That is darn Omega. Here comes a small problem. I also am focused about what comes after the doodle; the times I write I am committed to deadlines that I love meeting; I have an opinion and it comes on strong; I have a keen sense of dress that I put to use when I want to; I like to get the best for myself. That makes me Alpha.

There must be many women who have qualities of both but no one discusses us. No one is interested in whether we shave or not, whether we are working on music or creating noise, and if we are not dressed up it is assumed to be because we are supposed to be wearing aprons, even if nothing else to go with it.

I am not getting into a gender war simply because there is a bunch of guys out there trying so hard to give us a choice when we know already that beneath the ho-hum of variety all we hope to find is a man who can light a fire and watch candle-wax melt. And he can do it in Greek if he wants to.

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I have no problem with football. Men need something to kick around. However, this silly obsession of the Indian media and therefore the public is unfathomable. We are not playing in the World Cup. Do you hear me?

No! I know that football is played in this country but, except for Kolkatans and their Mohan Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, no one gives a damn about these teams. Yet, when some Messi starts messing and Ronaldo goes rolling, you hear the same old screams. The build-up started early and everyone from Bollywood actors to other sports stars to industrialists was asked about their favourites.

It is quite amusing to see some of them plan parties or decide to gather at a bar or coffee shop at a fancy hotel where large screens show the men in action. It has become a huge business. I once had the horrible experience of going out with some people visiting from overseas; we got a table quite close to this mammoth television. No conversation was possible and even worse we had to watch the idiotic women in the ‘fan’ groups letting out little screeches of delight holding their glasses of strawberry daiquiris. They were not there for the sport; they were there to hang on to the men they accompanied or who happened to be around.

All of these men come dressed in Friday clothes, and that becomes occasion for the Page 3 photographers to capture them at their casual best, never mind that they are very carefully casual.

I am rooting for the little boys who will be kicking a large rubber ball in the puddles of my city now that monsoon is here.

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End note:

Did this blog not talk about ads using bushmen? So, today on the Ideas page in a slot called Snap Judgement, we had this picture and writeup:


In Poor Taste

It is disgraceful that some TV commercials with racist undertones have recently surfaced. The advertisements in question poke fun at African people, who are depicted as backward. Humour cannot be a defence for racism. Our ad-makers would do well to steer clear of such politically incorrect commentary and give vent to their creativity in a more responsible manner.

Yes, of course. But the Times of India did not take names. Because if it did, then how will their Response Departments go soliciting ads, how will their TV channel air those ads and how will stories connected to such ads be woven around the consumer ideal?

This is not restricted to one media group, I might add.

13.6.10

Feet in a trance

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” – W.B.Yeats

There are some marvelous moments when even the dance cannot be separated from the viewers. It isn’t merely about watching but partaking.

This one is from one of my favourite Satyajit Ray films where you demarcate debauchery and good taste at your own peril. This is what life is about – chandeliers that light up the room or crash as glass shards to pierce souls.

Roshan Kumari in 'Jalsaghar'

10.6.10

Another Blockade

Another Blockade: Manipur’s Fate and the North East States
by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, June 10

I was sitting at a restaurant for lunch with a friend. The guy serving us was new and trying hard to please. After he had told us about his recommendations, I casually asked, “Which part of the North East are you from?”

“Manipur. Have you been there?”

“No, but have been to other parts.” As happens often, I started discussing politics. “Isn’t Nagaland the most sensitive? Manipur is...”

“Manipur is in trouble,” he said.

It was the sort of trouble he understood, not the kind you read in print or watch on videos. He had returned home, hoping to work there and be close to the family. He came back two weeks ago. “It is very bad, nothing available.”

My plate was arranged with tidbits, fashionably minimalist cuisine.

His people are subsisting on the minimal. 60 days without essential supplies, the closure of the largest hospital due to lack of medicines and oxygen. Routine surgeries cannot be performed. People are going hungry. An LPG cylinder can be bought in Imphal for Rs. 1500 and petrol is available in the grey market for Rs 150 a litre. Transportation of essentials would make it not only difficult but hugely expensive and unaffordable.

This is Manipur today. It isn’t making big news in the international press; within India too it is a sidelight. No one seems to care that it is one state against another in the North East that is at war.

What is the blockade about? Naga protestors shut down National Highway 39 that links to Manipur. As one report stated, “On April 12, the All-Naga Students’ Association of Manipur (Ansam) had begun the blockade to oppose Manipur’s decision to hold Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in tribal dominated hill districts. It claimed that the ADC Act ‘suppresses tribal rights’.” Worse, the general secretary was not allowed to visit his native village in Manipur.

The Centre has airlifted some essentials with the help of the Assam Rifles, BSF and CRPF. But, has it tried to bring the real issue to the table? "The government's patience is running out. We have to come down with a hard hand on those who are doing this blockade," said the Union Home Secretary G K Pillai.

Has the North East ever been considered Indian enough? The only times there are government jitters is when outside forces try and assert themselves or the Centre suffers from one more bout of paranoia regarding illegal immigrants.

The problem is not new and goes back to post-Partition. The fringe states with sensitive borders were not an immediate concern, since India was at the time more interested in the new enemy outside. Besides, it took them two decades at the very least to become a part of India. However, in the 60s the Indian state woke up to the region of the seven sisters, each similar and yet different.

Manipur even in 1947 remained a sovereign state with the maharajah as the executive head, later joining the republic. It was a union territory until 1972 when it became part of India. The demand for a separate state of Manipur accelerated. It is one place where you need special permission to visit.

Nagaland was a part of Assam soon after Indian Independence. There was bound to be discord. Instead of quelling the violence, the government gave primacy to one group over the other and immediately started a counter-insurgency operation by the early 70s. The Naga National Council accepted the Constitution of India unconditionally in 1975, but not everyone agreed and it split. This splintered group got further divided over tribal differences.

When two groups want one thing, the dynamics can get reasonably difficult to negotiate. Both wanted to establish Nagalim that would include Naga territories of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even Myanmar. While the Nagas do inhabit mainly the hilly regions of these places, the formation of a state – in a region that has already been divided – would cause tremendous territorial and social problems.

Ceasefire operations work sporadically. The situation is complex because granting autonomy to one state would mean the crumbling of an anyway precarious pack of cards. Even in the more accessible areas, one is acutely made aware of one’s Indian-ness as opposed to the regional loyalties of those living there.

A few years ago at the hotel in Shillong we decided to visit the bar. It was crowded and we were told there was no room. We thought we’d try after a while. Several minutes later, youngsters, all a little high, began trooping out. We found a nice little corner. All eyes were on us. These were smart young things, trendily dressed. They whispered something to the barman; he came and told us they were closed.

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the people of the North East are exceedingly polite as long as we go there are tourists. The moment we wish to partake of their culture or intrude into their private space, they become apprehensive.

Due to their international boundaries with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh they face a double-edged sword. They have to deal with infiltrators and are expected to display their loyalty. It is to their credit that besides the local language they speak English as well as Hindi. However, the rest of India still considers them to be a hilly tribe; they are still asked if they are head hunters.

A Naga social scientist, M.Horam, had written, “Fabricated and callous talk of this kind becomes a veritable crime when the person indulging in it are those very people who are supposed to be ‘caring for’ and governing this region, be they civil or defence personnel or their wives or relations. The contempt and sneer of many sophisticated ladies for the ‘uncouth’ tribals was not a secret in the 60s and early 70s and this has certainly helped Calcutta and Rajasthan and labourers from Bihar, Orissa, Punjab and virtually every other state.”

One perceptive tourist observed, “It is obvious they do not feel a part of this country. They feel that India is being imposed on them. They don’t feel integrated which is why they appear so chauvinistic regarding even each other’s language.” There is resentment against what has come to be known as ‘internal colonialism’, yet there is a belief that outsiders were encouraged by the ruling elite to swell vote banks. Every society has a way of reacting to this: you can seethe or you can fight back. Every community appears to have a political organisation.

Those really involved in the movements are sent out in the fields to get killed while the top brass, the so-called leaders, check into fancy five-star hotels and blow up money. These activities have also given rise to the extortion racket, sometimes by these people themselves or by those who want to make a fast buck.

A young Khasi I met reasoned, “To keep up with the changing times youngsters went out to get an education, during which time the outside business communities were busy consolidating their position here.”

The young people became acutely aware of their plight here. They wanted to run things by themselves but they could no longer use the infrastructure. Everything seemed foreign. They became revolutionaries to uphold their culture.

Culture is a fuzzy concept. So how do they know what they are upholding? Isn’t it true that Assam was split into three states on the language issue? And are there not distinctions made between the hill people and the plains people? Is it not said that the powerful amongst the Jaintias are called the “orthodox sudras”? They talk about being a classless group, but are they really cohesive?

If they were, then Manipur’s fate would not be resting on a blockade by one of its own. Siblings grow up and rebel. The Centre can quite contentedly work on these disparities to suit its own agenda. Divide and rule is a legacy we cling on to.

- - -

Also published in Counterpunch, June 11-13

Hummus and Helen Thomas

As though Israel isn’t already in enough trouble, it is now acting like a Mom & Pop store doing charity work. Afraid that anything that looks remotely hard might work as weapons for Hamas – quite forgetting that the Palestinians in the days gone by had fought the might of Israel with barely any weapons and a few stones – the embargo will be relaxed and include junk food. Potato crisps, biscuits, canned fruit, packaged humus, soft drinks and juice will be let into the Gaza Strip.

Since they want to make sure no arms enter, I think they underestimate the power of junk food. Western societies are considered developed because their biggest food chains sell this stuff. McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC are paradise for the hungry, giving big bites for not too big bucks and filling people with carbs.

Palestinians who were waiting for cement to rebuild their homes have responded in a deadpan manner:

“We have three factories that make carbonated drinks. They say they want to allow potato chips, but we have factories that produce enough to meet Gaza’s needs,” said Ziyad al-Zaza, economic and trade minister in Hamas’s government.


That is not the point. Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas was to meet President Barack Obama a few hours after this announcement. Israel is making these offerings in keeping with the most visible signs of US consumerism.

Prez Obama will ask Mohammed Abbas: "Hummus?"

The latter will reply, “No, no, no Hamas.”

Israel will move its tanks and the junk food will be taken off too. After all, it’s the Palestinian chief’s idea.

- - -


I know Helen Thomas is in the news and she said something to anger the Israeli lobby. What I cannot understand is why Rabbi David Nesenoff asked her, outside a White House Jewish heritage event, if she had any comments on Israel.

Thomas, from what I now read, has made statements against US occupation in Iraq and generally took a pacifist stand. Was she an expert on the Middle East? What do heritage events have to do with politics? She gave a message for the Israelis:

"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine... Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land."

She was then asked where the Israelis should go, to which she replied: "they should go home" to "Poland, Germany,... America and everywhere else."


This is a simple reaction. No analysis was given, none expected. And why did she relent and apologise when at 90 she can afford to risk ire and more?

"I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon."


I am afraid, wanting to be on the side of what we think is right does not mean applauding every statement that fits in.

What she said was very Speaker’s Corner stuff.

8.6.10

Bhopal: A 25-year crime; a 2-year bailable sentence


There is no comparison but if you take the BP oil spill and the Union Carbide gas leak you will see how shamelessly we let big corporations get away with murder.

This is not justice from any angle you look at it. The verdict in the Bhopal Gas Murders – for a long we all have been calling it a tragedy – has been pronounced by a local court in Bhopal. This is a case that has dragged on for 25 years, claimed 15,134 lives and affected 5.74 lakh people. Let us remember that ‘affected’ is not a term to be used loosely – people are still suffering from the effects of the gas leak, unborn children will not be normal, it has debilitated thousands who have lost all hope of employment and a right to live with some semblance of dignity.

Union Carbide, the multinational giant that caused the world’s worst disaster 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate gas had leaked from a tank in the Union Carbide plant located in a thickly populated area of Bhopal, exposing more than 5 lakh people to its deadly effects. As part of the compensation deal with Union Carbide, the Centre decided to drop all criminal charges in 1989. The case was revived in 1991 on the plea of the victims.

Despite this, Dow Jones was allowed to purchase the plant; obviously, it cannot be held culpable. However, the fact that an outside group was permitted to buy it and that it even wanted to after a calamity of this magnitude speaks volumes about how careless and unconcerned we are about what happens to those who will get affected.

UC paid $470 m (then Rs 705 cr) in compensation to the Indian government in 1989.

The Indian government gave false figures and after striking a deal with Union Carbide the case was shut. UC cannot be held accountable. US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert Blake, has made that very clear:

"We hope that this verdict today helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families. But I don't expect this verdict to reopen any new inquiries or anything like that. On the contrary, we hope that this is going to help to bring closure.”


Sure. Some closure.

The accused have been sentenced to two years in prison, fined Rs 1 lakh and granted bail immediately. This is pathetic. Our Union law minister Veerappa Moily, said, “This is one case where justice is delayed and practically denied. I would say justice is buried... There is a need for fast-track courts.”

25 years later they want fast-track courts. What will those courts do? I’ll tell you. The accused, in this case a few biggies, Keshub Mahindra, will be exonerated even if the case goes to the high court. And that is not the point. We do not know where to stop. There is haphazard industrialisation under the guise of globalisation.

The last time the media spoke about it was during the anniversary and at least one paper was worried that we would be called a banana republic.

It is all about how good we look to the world, when it is this rampant encouraging of outside forces or our own imitation of them – without taking into consideration whether our environment is fit enough to deal with it – that makes us turn into the demon destroying its own tail.

- - -

An earlier piece of mine here

7.6.10

Wah-wah, Ramji, Modi kya banaye


Ram Jethmalani certainly deserves the Rajya Sabha seat. The BJP is happy to acquiesce, at least one section that counts.

He is also making the right noises. About Ajmal Kasab’s death penalty, he disagrees, though:

"Let him rot in solitary consignment in Indian jail till his death so that he realises that what Mullas told him was wrong. This man was ill doctrinated by some Mullas that if he kills some innocent people in the neighbouring country, he will go to Paradise and he will also get the company of beautiful women there.”


This is sheer buffoonery. These are not your everyday mullahs; they hold training camps to kill and they use ideological bait. Women they can get anytime they want because they are powerful. A man of Mr. Jethmalani’s intellect should know that there is no need to mix religious issues here.

He is also exposing his ignorance. Nowhere does it state that you will go to Paradise by killing innocent people.

Reminds me of his quote way back in December 2000 in Rediff:

People who used Hindutva to get into positions of power are quite willing to abandon it when it suits their interests. Some shut it in a closet. Some use it depending on the audience. Some flaunt it when required.

He is showing those same signs. He contested against Vajpayee as an independent with Congress support. Now he is returning home but only if he gets that hot little seat in the RS.

Kasab comes in handy and a pat on the back from Narendra Modi helps.

Modi is a real number. Is it November 14? No. Is there anything happening on the children’s front? No. Was he attending a summer camp for underprivileged kids, you know the ones whose parents his boys did in? No.

Out of nowhere and with reference to nothing he asked:

“Has anyone shed a tear for these children who struggle to get a square meal a day when Children’s Day is celebrated? Nehru was said to be very fond of kids and his birthday has been christened as children’s day. Kids called him ‘chacha Nehru’ and it brought images of a benevolent Nehru flooding our minds. But what good has it done to the kids?”



What is his point? If he wants to rant against Nehru, then there are several other things he could have picked on, especially since he is into the development agenda. Why did he bring in kids? I do not know if Nehru really loved kids; he must have been fond enough of his daughter to ensure that she retained power within the family.

Now Modi may not wish to sire kids, but he can adopt a few at the refugee camps and come out smelling of roses.

6.6.10

The Swami and the Strays










Imagine a situation where a tragedy is imminent. The heart aches. Tears just about line the rims of eyes. The devotees begin the mournful pre-emptive dirge, the inner circle cries foul, the victim indicates he was the target but he smiles. He has to. He teaches everyone to do so in the face of all odds, ends and tails.

The investigators arrive. Big man, big audience. They move swiftly and the trail takes them to a farm from where a bullet travelled 2,500 feet to reach the ashram and grazed one member of the meditating congregation. Who was it aimed at?

Four stray dogs that had mauled a sheep at the farm-owner’s property. With his licensed .32 revolver, Mahavira Prasad fired three bullets; one bullet decided to travel farther out.

The Swami has said, “It is a closed chapter and will be forgotten.”

I am thinking about all those high-powered devotees who rushed to claim fealty and wondered in sorrowful tones about how anyone would want to target a good man like the swami. He himself had insisted that the intention was to hit him. He still believes that there is prejudice against swamis: “I suggest Karan Johar make a movie titled ‘I Am Swamy, But I Am Innocent’, which could show that all religious leaders are not like that.”

Those dogs could be innocent, too. Did the farm-owner know exactly which strays had mauled the sheep? Did the sheep stray into stray territory? Since it is a poultry and sheep farm, weren’t the fowl and the animal meant for consumption?

Why did Prasad first fire two rounds and the third near the gate of the ashram where another dog was? That dog could have been a devotee or planning to join the satsang. Have the police considered this angle?

There is in this incident a sense of a weird deus ex machina…a powerful man’s potential martyrdom snicked by a dog.

Also, imagine this one stray, perhaps human in an earlier birth, quite besotted by the swami yearns for a glimpse. Several frustrated attempts lead her astray and she goes berserk as the Swami’s car whooshes past, the dust rising and stinging her eyes. Day after day. On that fateful day, she scampers to the farm stomping on the grass and then as she watches the sheep quietly munching away she lunges, gnawing at the flesh. How she aches!

Her anger subsiding, she decides she can only pine. And so she waits at the gate. For a glimpse and dust in eyes:

A song from Sati Savitri yelps in her mind:

Tum gagan ke chandrama
Main dhara ki dhool hoon
Tum pralay ke devta ho
Main samarpit phool hoon

- - -

For those interested in the report, here’s a brief summary:

The mystery bullet that Art of Living guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar claimed was intended for him and cops insisted was merely a stray slug was actually aimed at scaring stray dogs at a farm near the guru’s ashram.

Karnataka police chief Ajai Kumar Singh said Mahadeva Prasad, chairman of Dr B R Ambedkar Medical and Dental College was on his poultry and sheep farm last Sunday around the same time the guru was addressing his congregation. Prasad was taking aim at four stray dogs near his farm since they had recently mauled a sheep. He fired three shots, missed the dogs completely and one bullet travelled over 2,500 feet in the air before grazing Vinay, a devotee at the ashram. “Taking the ballistic expert report, gradient of landscape and time of firing, it was confirmed the same bullet had travelled to the ashram,’’ Singh said.

Sunday ka Funda

E t c.

A sign to make others believe that you know more than you actually do.

5.6.10

Murder, she said

She is distasteful. She is dramatic. She comes on strong. Then why do people expect Lady Gaga to play Little Bo Beep?



In a performance in Manchester she recreated murder with scenes of her being eaten by a psychotic killer, fake blood on her body. It just so happened that there was a shooting spree in Cumbria hours before the show.

There are questions being asked. Most people are shocked. Shocked about what? This was part of the Monster Ball tour. Get it? The name conveys something. So, why was one mommy so agitated when she took her 14-year-old for the show? She said, “I was absolutely sickened at what I saw. We know Lady Gaga is not exactly mainstream performance for all the family but she really crossed the line this time.”

If they were worried about the 12 people who were shot dead or the three prostitutes a few days earlier in Bradford, then they might have chosen their entertainment more carefully. Were they not riveted by the news in the tabloids or on television channels? How does that imbue them with a sense of superiority? Lady G had planned this performance. They say she could have toned down the act? How would that have helped? It would have only drawn attention to what had happened and then there would be accusations that she was using the tragedy. Besides, if it is understood that she is not mainstream, then why apply those standards for her?

Here are a few comments that I completely disagree with:

"We're always saying, people who are icons to young people need to be aware of their behavior and they need to think about how their behavior influences young people.”

It is the job of the parents to ensure that young people are not besotted by glamorous images. These same young people read about stars and socialites in skimpy clothes getting drunk at parties and even stripping. Only because they have not paid for the show, does the responsibility factor decrease?

"Would she have sold less tickets without that scene in her show?”


Did she advertise that scene? If she did, then why were all these people there with their impressionable children?

“Murder is disturbing image to impose on young people. When young stars mention they've got a collection of knives and enjoy flicking their knives they're endorsing it. They're not thinking about what they're portraying to their fans. It's all for shock value.”




It is indeed shock value and they may be endorsing it. But there is a gun culture that exists. There are murders. There is incest. There are cases of monster dads and moms who have sex with their eight-year-old kids. They are not watching these shows. Often news stories and most certainly documentaries recreate such scenes. Do parents have problems with that?

Art, music, cinema and literature portray social evils or use them as metaphor. What if these people had decided to stay at home and watch one of those horror movies?

Waiting for rains

Dark clouds herald pre-monsoon dawn. Wait and wait…a pining for both rain and the hidden sun.

I have listened to Kumar Gandharva at different times, but mainly with my best friend when I became an adult. The much older worldly-wise corporate guy would turn into a blind devotee. Our conversations were silences then as I soaked in the rain pouring from the singer’s voice.

Aisan kaisan barsaat barkha – Kumar Gandharva

3.6.10

Arundhati's Ennui

Is Arundhati Roy the spokesperson of the Maoists? She can express her opinions as a commentator, but is she a Maoist? What exactly does a statement like, “Maoists have revolutionary fighting methods but not a revolutionary vision,” mean, especially when it is transposed with “We need an imagination outside of capitalism, as also communism”?

How does the vision become non-revolutionary only because, “Their mining policy is not very different from that of the state. They too would mine the bauxite instead of leaving it in the hills, which is what the people they are fighting for want”?

I think there is too much talking at cross-purposes here, conveying absolutely nothing. It would be fine if she is speaking as a writer. (She was addressing the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh where the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights had organised a meeting on ‘War on the people’.) But the tendency in the media to imbue anyone who has “spent time” with tribals and Maoists as their legitimate voices can be counterproductive. When there are killings, she obfuscates.

Their methods are not revolutionary – they are like any extremist movement; their vision was. A little reading up on the Naxalism in the 70s will reveal that. (No, watching ‘Hazaroun Khwaaishein Aisi’ will only reveal the tip of the adrenaline!) Better still, talk to Naxalites of the time. I have met a few and it was vision that sustained them.

I will be simplistic here but the fight for tribal lands is one part of the Maoist ideology. Tribal lands do not as a matter of course translate into tribal issues, for not all tribals own the land. Their displacement depends to a great degree on who is taking advantage of them.

Roy argued that Naxalite violence must be viewed in the context of the battle between tribals and corporate houses to gain control over natural resources like minerals, water and forests. "While 99 percent of Maoists are tribals, 99 percent of tribals are not Maoists."

Corporate houses have to work in tandem with the state. Tribals have to work with landlords.

A movement that works at the grassroots level cannot be dependent on imagination. And who is the ‘we’ that needs to imagine? The government? The Maoists? The activists? The tribals who are not Maoists, but who will benefit? Or those that may not because there could well be a pecking order? Capitalism and Communism are mere labels in this context.

Lauding the Maoists for the determination with which they are fighting the unjust policies of the state, Roy said a little bit of dissent would only make them strong. “We can’t betray the causes we are fighting for.’’


A little bit of dissent? It has been a long struggle and there is no doubt that the state has suppressed the movement at various times.

Clarifying that she was “not here to defend killing by any side’’, Roy said the government was vilifying the Maoists so that they could brand all struggles against injustice as Maoist activities.

“There is a whole bandwidth of resistance movement and at the heart of the problem is land. But the complex situation is being simplified by the government into a law and order issue.”

Much as I support dissent, I do not agree that the government is simplifying the issue. It is a law and order problem too. All such movements are, but the state is forced to speak to the leaders of these movements, which is itself evidence that it has to be taken seriously. It is ridiculous to assume that all struggles will be branded as Maoist activities. Have the insurgents in any other part of the country been branded so?

My question is: even if they are, what is the problem? Is Ms. Roy trying to say that other movements are not necessary and only those that get sanctioned from a group of the right kind of activists are worthy of being considered of any consequence?

Later, when asked what she felt as a writer about the UPA government’s attempts to ban a book on Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Roy said, “Of course, I am against any kind of censorship but here we’re are talking about the silencing of a genocide.”

Of course. But if the state is interfering in any aspect of a person’s or group’s right to freedom of living/expression then we are speaking about the same root of the problem. If someone chooses to see a branch with more succulent fruit, then it is all about pickings. Incidentally, there has been a blockade of essential supplies to Manipur for over 50 days.

It isn’t a sexy enough issue.

Regarding Maoists, Roy said:

“I am bored of posing questions to the state. It is more interesting to question the people in the resistance movement.”


True. Except that the resistance movement is fighting the state and the state has to be made answerable and to provide alternatives/solutions. The idea of a resistance movement is to resist; it does not exist in a vacuum or thrive in one. It is posited against the state and that is bloody damn interesting. Nice word. Now if only she weren’t bored. Which she is not when making dramatic assertions:

"I am on this side of line. I do not care...pick me up put me in jail."

This is mockery. Binayak Sen? Hundreds of undertrials for 'suspicious activities'? She does not care. Right.

1.6.10

Spiked!

I am tired of the pretense that passes for freedom of expression in the media. It has happened to me in my country, India, in the past. At the time, I did raise the issue with the people concerned directly, which is where it got buried. That was real low. Now, comes this…

My article, Half Muslims and non-Muslims (posted on my blog) was pulled out from Express Tribune where I write a weekly Op-ed column. I was not informed about it. I sent a note early this morning wanting to confirm whether it was only missed out in the internet issue (as I don't have access to the print edition) or something else. I got a reply in the afternoon saying that “it was too sensitive given the current situation”. The subject was the attack on Ahmadis and a comparison with Ismailis.

A couple of points:

1. There have been several reports, several columns on the subject. Many have picked on the establishment. So, how does my piece become too sensitive? Is it because I have made a reference to Ismailis, a community to which I belong? Or is it because I am an Indian, that too an Indian Muslim?

2. There is the issue of professional courtesy. My piece was sent on Sunday night, almost midnight. On one occasion when they did not receive it they had called; I expect that when they do not use a piece by a columnist who they had approached to write for them months before the launch, then they jolly well let her know. A simple email might have at least made me aware of what was going on; in fact, a timely note would have made it possible for me to send a replacement and then argued.

What I am writing here is not anything that I have not spoken about to the person in charge of the section there; he knows exactly how I operate with regard to deadlines and scheduled day of the column. Also, except for standardisation, I am not ready for crass editing of my columns.

Since January, it has been a supposedly corporate style set-up where regular emails were exchanged by varied staff members. So where were they all when they had to inform their first-day-first-show columnist who is expected to meet deadlines but is not shown similar courtesy on time?

Whoever made this decision obviously knew that s/he considered it “too sensitive” on receiving it or after a few hours. You do not wake up at the last minute and get the heebie-jeebies; if you do, then I am not sure about how sensible the policies are.

I have been writing since 1990 and know what I am talking about. If a voice is to be shut up, whether in India or in Pakistan or in Timbucktoo, then the media has no business to rubbish censorship of anything else.

Look in the mirror and shatter a few delusions.
- - -
Updated on June 3, 8 PM IST:
I have received several emails; many discussing Islam, some wanting to start signature campaigns. This is beyond Islam.
And for those who believe I should not be dissing Pakistan, I cannot keep repeating that it does not matter who/what it is. I have had a far worse experience in India. Those who came in late, do take a look at The Media and I.

Half Muslims and non-Muslims

Half Muslims and non-Muslims
by Farzana Versey

Born in the Ismaili faith, I have been quite accustomed to the ‘aadha Mussalman’ (half Muslim) tag. Members of the community are none the worse for it. However, I cannot understand the attitude towards Ahmadis in Pakistan. Ismailis have a living Imam, yet they are not considered a minority.

Why is this so? Is it because the Aga Khan Foundations help many people in developing countries? So does the Red Cross. Is it because the Ismailis are more interested in trade than the Taliban? This could be said of most people in any society.

If anything, the believers of the Aga Khan can be deemed more esoteric and are considerably distinct in the many countries they have chosen to make their homes in, mainly because allegiance to the nation is emphasised as part of the religious doctrine. Talk of mixing religion and politics!

Politics uses religion as much as religion is being politicised. What happened in Lahore were extremist attacks. Don’t blame the Taliban. They do not discriminate. They get no special points for killing Ahmadis; discrimination against them is built in the Constitution. How many people have made the government answerable for this? How difficult is it to change laws?

Ahmadis have been declared heretics. If they wish to perform the Haj they have to provide a written declaration stating that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of their sect, is a “cunning person and an imposter”. How will this make Islam better? It is true that the leader declared himself to be the promised messiah and this would be seen as blasphemy in a monotheistic belief system that will not accept such a major departure even if no one disputes the oneness of god.

Ismailis often have to traverse two completely contradictory viewpoints – that of being the ‘nicer Muslim’ and of being ‘half Muslim’. The first honorific is given by people from other faiths who have a stereotyped image and are surprised to find the unveiled, clean-shaven ones; the other comes from true-blue Muslims who find it difficult to not only accept that Ismailis believe in a continual line of Imams but that they have their own secular rules.

When there was some semantic jugglery regarding how the media cannot refer to the Ahmadi place of worship as a mosque, it struck me that the Ismailis call their place of worship a jamaat khana. They have a separate set of duas and namaaz is not offered on a regular basis. Men cannot have more than one wife at a time or they will be ex-communicated. There have been people who have left the fold to join the ‘pure’ Muslims and written books about the ‘half ones’, and they ought to be thankful for the education they received as Ismailis which taught them about the possibility of dissent.

It is ironical, then, for them to brand some offshoots of Islam as cults. What about dargahs where you pay obeisance to dead saints? Muslims do not consider it heresy to place flowers on tombstones, light incense sticks and let the caretaker run a peacock feather over their heads as blessing; no one baulks at the fact that donation boxes rake in money to keep these places rich. Is this Islam?

The Ahmadis were promised a return to the pristine form of Islam. Who can have a problem with that? Not the religious fundamentalists if they think about the ‘essence’. Acts of violence should be condemned for their own sake. Let people remember that the Taliban is not making rules. Pull up those who are. Minorities are supposed to be protected. If nothing else, such tragedies should at least lead to introspection and proactive action from concerned citizens instead of ruing it as one more bad haywire day.

- - -
(c) Farzana Versey
- - -

This column that was pulled out by Express Tribune was later published by Countercurrents

Mars and Venus – ecstasy or Ecstasy?

If you did not look at the fruit, you would think it was all about love. Now David Bellingham, a programme director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, says the fruit was overlooked and so was the subversive message in Botticelli’s painting:

“This fruit is being offered to the viewer, so it is meant to be significant. Botticelli does use plants symbolically. Datura is known in America as poor man’s acid, and the symptoms of it seem to be there in the male figure. It makes you feel disinhibited and hot, so it makes you want to take your clothes off. It also makes you swoon.”

Is there another way of reading it? Mars is lost but Venus is in her senses and fully clothed. Why would the man decide to get high and feel uninhibited if there is nothing to gain? If it is for him to be put into a stupor, then again Venus gets nothing out of it.

Take one operative phrase – removal of clothes. This is also a giving up of a part of oneself, baring oneself to the other. Exposure is not without its fallout.

The National Gallery description of the painting notes: “The scene is of an adulterous liaison, as Venus was the wife of Vulcan, the God of Fire, but it contains a moral message: the conquering and civilizing power of love.”

Is this also a message of guilt? Is the seduction incomplete? Did Venus seduce him or did they get intimate and this painting is the post-coital depiction, where she is sitting dressed up and unsure?

Though many paintings do show her in splendid naked glory - was she high on drugs then? Was it loneliness and not love that drove her to it?

Can Mars pretend that he was under the influence and therefore he is unclothed? If the fruit is capable of making people go mad, then the madness could be a metaphor for losing one’s senses as sublimation.

The fruit is being offered to the viewer. Is it to tempt us? Is the precursor none other than the Garden of Eden?

The idea of drawing the viewer in is also part of the voyeuristic exercise where art itself needs an audience; the painting has other characters in the sublime love story. The satyr’s apparent insignificance – or invisibility – conveys a delightful tension that exists in relationships, among artists and interpreters as well as the person and the Self.

Of course, we can settle for a most pragmatic analysis and imagine that this was supposed to be an aphrodisiac that ended up working as a sedative. I believe it happens.