Friday, December 23, 2011

Why We Should Listen to Lalu

Lalu Prasad Yadav made a speech in the Lok Sabha yesterday denouncing the Lokpal and calling it the "end of democracy". He accused the BJP of tying a noose around its own neck by supporting the civil society movement against corruption.

This is why we should listen to this old epitome of high corruption:

Lalu represents everything that is wrong with the country. He is the most visible face of flagrant political corruption in the country. He has established, over the length of his career as one of the most dishonest of public figures in the history of the country, new heights, new lengths and breadths, and new depths of public loot and depredation. He represents the deterioration and decay of the Indian political mind. He represents the bases of signature Indian politics: apathy, exploitation and selfishness. He is everything that every politician in this country aspires to be: a self-serving behemoth, a thief and a criminal.

We should listen to Lalu because he represents all of these. Yesterday, when he made his speech - pointless, full of gas, unintelligent and reeking of an utter lack of intelligence as usual - parliamentarians hollered and cheered him on. He said that democracy cannot be "run" from the "footpath" and that parliament is supreme. "We are the lawmakers," he said. We should listen to him because he represents the peculiar hatred of the people exemplified par excellence by Indian politicians, by Indian politics as anti-people per se.

We should listen to him because he is the scourge that the Lokpal seeks to be rid of. And those who applaud him - hypocrites like Gurudas Dasgupta and Sonia Gandhi.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Untouchability

The latest edition of Outlook has an incredibly horrifying article about caste-hierarchies in Karnataka ('The Leftover God'). It describes the three-day Champa Shasti festival at the Kukke Subramanya temple in Dakshina Kannada district, where the Shivalli Brahmins are served meals at the temple. After their meal, they are expected to leave their leftover food on the ground - so that the local Dalits can literally roll over the remnants. In this disgusting spectacle of caste-discrimination, the Brahmin priests actually encourage the 4,000-strong band of Dalits and local tribesmen to buy into the pernicious belief that the leftovers ("jhoota") of the Brahmins have a curative power. They are taught to believe that their wishes and prayers will be answered upon completing this demeaning ritual. Social workers who, over the years, have fought for ending the ritual have surprisingly met with a lot of resistance from within the Dalit community, who believe that a ritual conceived for their "benefit" is under threat. One official on deputation from the government was actually physically assaulted by the Dalit "devotees".

Reading such an article in urban India today is a surreal experience, which indicates how cut off we are from the magnitude of injustice and the lack of dignity in many parts of the country.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Karachi, 14.12.11

Yesterday, the front pages of newspapers declared that more than fifty children had been rescued from forced captivity in an allegedly Taliban-controlled madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan. Some of them were found wearing chains around their necks and ankles, literally tied to the ground. The police acted on a tip-off that some children there were being beaten and abused. Upon their release, most of the children said that they had been enrolled there by their parents for drug addiction, physical and mental problems (fits and seizures) construed by "healers" as curses, and spiritual training. The parents paid a monthly fee of three thousand rupees. One of the boys was beaten around 200 times and threatened with being forced into joining the militant jehad.

In the recently held Bonn conference, countries debated and discussed the "fate" of Afghanistan. Post-911, human rights and religious extremism became a prominent part of political discussions about Afghanistan. Today, there is a shift in perspective and such conferences do not discuss human rights so much as "political solutions". A lot of uncertainty surrounds the "fate" of women and children. Politically correct journalists and policy-makers are wary of becoming involved in the socio-religious fabric of "Af-Pak" society. For many of the poor who are thus figuratively and sometimes literally held in captivity, there is seldom any political solution.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

About The Wasteland

Eliot's The Wasteland is a complex poem, obviously. It has a difficult time in the master's literature classroom. It comes from an era of war and turmoil, which is hard for the reader to imagine vividly today.

At that time, the old European order seemed on the verge of a drastic change, perhaps dissolution, to be replaced by a new politics of military warfare. The aristocracy was putrefying and war was propagated by "Democracy", "Imperialism" and "International Wrong" (Auden). Never had so many lives been sacrificed to war before the beginning of the twentieth century. WWI was the first time that aeroplanes were deployed for combat; it was the first war in which the convention of no-fighting-after-sunset was disbanded; the world had never seen such weaponry before. Everything changed in the inter-war period and human life was uncertain like never before. The Wasteland comes from this uncertainty, this lack of solid ground. No reader today can trace that terminal feeling in the inter-war years.

What I dislike about The Wasteland is its obscurity and its allusiveness. What I like about The Wasteland is the subtle morbidity with which it brings alive the spectre of certain death. Death is so ghostly, so intangible in the poem, and yet so certain. Death is not an idea, it is people. Marie, Stetson, Lil, Albert, Ferdinand, Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, all embody death in their own ways. What I also like about the poem is its treatment of the frustration of desire. Desire, in an age of mortality and war, is impotent. Tiresias, the old visionary with wrinkled female dugs, the futile meeting of lovers - Eliot's images of desire in the time of war are overshadowed by the threat of failure.

I thought The Wasteland was complex when taught in class, because of the focus on annotations, but looked at otherwise, in the privacy of your reading time, as a poem emerging from the anxiety of living in a time of unprecedented violence, it is a very emotive poem.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Boy Dog

At home,
he is bound by
the rules and regulations
of obeisance
at five in the morning
and five in the evening;
he eats purified fare
true to custom
and execrates the
pathologies of the present day.

He is a son,
and he speaks in
the tongue of
his parents,
who do not relate
to him at all, really.
In secret,
he wastes away at home -
wallowing in
alternations of
self-pity and contempt,
hiding behind the mask of
a second-handed intellect.

Here,
he is a libertine,
a parader, stomping
through the carnival
of lust and boredom
sold cheap
on the internet -
he has too many boys.
He lingers in the corners
of foreign eyes and ears
so that they may
catch a glimpse of his
self-pity and take him home.

Here,
he is a single man
parading through
the rush of modernity
in a language he has borrowed
from white lies
and lurid tunes.
Too bad, Mr. Giovanni...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Back to Tahrir

The people of Cairo are back in Tahrir Square. This is proof of the inexhaustible spirit of the Egyptians and their unrelenting, unstinting determination to see the revolution to its logical conclusion. A lot of what they have witnessed and experienced in the past year could have contributed to a growing fear, cynicism and civic depression in the country, but the protests have persisted despite many losses, setbacks and many changing forms of repression. After the Mabarak ouster, the military regime became tighter and more repressive, trying several civilians in military courts and detaining several others. Now, the military has presented certain "guidelines" before the beginning of the election process in the country, determining the kind of constitution it ought to adopt. The guidelines prove that the Egyptian military is what every opportunistic power-broker is in the event of a regime-change - highly cynical and potentially more repressive than the erstwhile regime. The guidelines exempt the military from the civilian government's control and also take the military budget out of the reach of the government and hence the people. The military, through its cynicism, has betrayed its own people. It grew very powerful during the Mubarak decades, and now it seems to want to wrench whatever power it can from the political changes in the country. The Egyptian people are undeniably braver and stronger than these political opportunists and are fighting even today.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rockstar

Film criticism in the Indian media is more or less dead. It has become an extension of the publicity machinery hired by big production houses. That's why they never or hardly ever produce any honest and reliable film reviews. I cannot believe for a moment that film reviewers are utterly mindless and genuinely mean what they write. If they do, then that spells the end of intelligence. They write their false criticism because they are paid to write faux reviews by the film's PR agents. Here are two such "favourable" reviews for the recently-released film, Rockstar: http://www.rediff.com/movies/review/review-rockstar-is-more-devdas-than-jim-morrison/20111111.htm, http://www.rediff.com/movies/review/review-rockstar-is-flawed-but-fabulous/20111111.htm. Instead of their false fawning comments, these reviewers should have had the gumption to honestly tell their readers to stay away from the movie, and should have put the film in perspective by using a smattering of the following descriptions: stupid, mindless, nightmarishly bad, delusional, fluffy, irritating, nonsensical, embarrassing, wasteful, wasteful, wasteful.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Petition Demanding the Removal of Keeping Up With the Kardashians

There is a petition online that's gone viral, garnering more than a 100K signatures over two weeks. Amongst the many important things that share media attention in the US right now, of which the Occupy Wall Street Movement is foremost, this petition opposing a seemingly stupid show too, I believe, has something important to say. The reality show itself, whatever your take on it, is entertainment fluff, and having watched a few episodes of it, I know that nothing could be more unimportant. However, what I believe this petition and its corresponding website do is focus on the basics of media value. At a time when 99% of Americans share the growing frustrations of income inequality (the highest in the world), unemployment, under-employment, inflation, real estate crises and overwhelming loans, the puerile and ostentatious dramatization of the spectacle of relentless, non-stop, mindless spending is wrong. The word "wrong" encourages too many moral connotations. But morality doesn't exist in a vacuum. Morality is determined and shaped by the economic hardships of a society. However, as much as I agree with the anti-mindless consumption argument of the petitioners, I also hope that the argument in favour of content-removal is not taken to an extreme.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Memory

Memory is the artist's curse as well as his gift. Memory serves to retrieve everything that has been lived and experienced so far, to recollect and revive the past, in seemingly beautiful ways that belie the pain and self-examination inherent in the act of remembering. Memory is the curse of those who rely on the past to demonstrate through art the follies and triumphs of the living man, the sunken depths and the soaring heights of his soul, the depravity and the transcendence of his mind. Memory makes the past a part of who you are.

How much more idyllic seems the life of the man who forgets easily, how much more beautiful appears his pragmatism, compared to the lethargy of forgetting. Take memory away and you are new again, everyday, fresh and alive to the incidents of today that will be forgotten tomorrow.

And yet, to me, forgetting the love, compassion, kindness and adventure I have today seems unimaginable. I could never forget. Not this time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

8.11.11

Woke up at 6 AM this morning with a vague recollection of a dream; walked out to the balcony and found the college completely dark. A light pink touched the sky behind the silhouettes of dark trees. I couldn't see the sun. I could hear the soft murmur of trains chugging in the distance. Somehow, looking at everything around me, combined with the effect of the dream, I sensed something like (and I shudder at this word) an epiphany - I had the feeling that I was now onwards going to be a part of the New World (this phrase literally came to me) and I had finished with the Old World, had finished with everything in the Past. After that, I slept again, but I felt acutely aware of some kind of New World dawning on me.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Chaos of War

It's been so long since the start of the uprising in Syria and yet the repression continues. War is so chaotic, people lose track of numbers and casualties midway into the conflict. The military repression becomes a fact of life for those living in the conflict zone, and they are forced to acclimatize themselves to the new state of disorder surrounding them. Since the intervention in Libya, seen in the international community as yet another oil war, public opinion has moved away from the call for such interventions. The oil underpinnings of the Libyan war have cast a shadow of doubt over the possibility of an internationally-mandated intervention in the conflict zone in Syria. And yet, if you read reports of atrocities in Syria, you cannot rationally take the position that any intervention there would be worse than/ more illegitimate than the military repression of the Syrian government. The position adopted by China and Russia, of blocking decisions at the UN on the grounds of "sovereignty", is the least tenable of all. The hypocrisy of political discourse at the level of governments lies in the use of such terms as "sovereignty" and "domestic affairs" - the whys and wherefores of the Assad regime's usurpation of sovereignty never enter the debate. The fact that "government" and "sovereignty" are used interchangeably indicates a deep loss of political wisdom.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Frederick Douglass


The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is an immensely powerful read and you cannot escape from the oppression described in the text; it overpowers you with its physicality and its brutal recollection of every physical, mental and social indignity inherent in the history of slavery. It is a powerful indictment of the role of the individual white man and woman in the perpetuation of slavery, and of their absolute complicity in the barbaric practices and torments institutionalized in that sub-human system.

It is, however, interesting to me that historical characters are so complex and multidimensional, and this complexity is often subsumed by their progressive historical personae. Douglass, for example, had a very estranged and, to my eyes, highly problematic relationship with his wife.

Having helped him establish himself after his escape from slavery, putting her life and livelihood on the line, Anna Murray, a poor laundress, found herself distanced from Douglass, who, it is said, found her lack of education incommensurate with his newly-found intellectual, abolitionist circles. It is said he had affairs with an English abolitionist and a German-Jewish journalist, the latter of whom he invited to live in his own house. The elitist German treated his wife, who obviously lived and worked under the same roof, with the utmost contempt. She revered Douglass, loving him and expecting him to forsake his marriage for her; and she dehumanized Anna, refusing to acknowledge her position as a fellow human being and as a woman. The illiterate Anna's blackness served as a source of disdain, whereas Douglass' was celebrated as the harbinger of a new racial equality. Douglass allowed and actively participated in the dehumanization of his wife at the alter of high Emancipation intellectualism.

It is not for us to judge historical characters for their lives and decisions anachronistically. However, let us not forget that they led very human lives with very human flaws and weaknesses, and no narrative is as self-sufficient as it claims to be.

Friday, November 4, 2011

End of Term

There is no time of the academic term quite so bad as the end approaching semester exams. Life comes to a standstill and you suddenly realize how much time you've already wasted. You involuntarily become disconnected from the rest of the informational world (no time to read newspapers), and you feel like a frog in a well, caught up in your own problems and your own discontent. Work piles up and you contemplate doing it more than you actually execute any plan of action. If you spend time outside college, you get that strange guilty feeling. And, then, of course, there are the hundred other extraneous factors that you cannot control/ predict/ ignore. If you're something of an oddball with a few irritating quirks and eccentricities of your own (OCD, facebook false-consciousness, desperate need to eat), you will waste even more time than otherwise by the end.

There is no time quite so bad. And yet, how much does it really take to say - "That's it. No more distractions. This is me and my work, nothing else really matters. No temptation to eat. No gallivanting around town. No anxiety about future plans. My room, my work, my deadline."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Customs in Delhi

A friend of mine recently ordered a consignment from abroad and found, on its arrival, that it had been torn and that two of the three products were missing. The letter accompanying the parcel enumerated the three products that were ordered, but only one item remained inside. The postal worker who brought the parcel to him said that it was a case of theft and he could not be held accountable, and complaints ought to be lodged at the customs headquarters.

So, as you can see, in our eminently civilized country, you should not make the mistake of putting anything through the customs service. Do not ever make the mistake of ordering anything online that requires international shipment. The corrupt officers who hold customs jobs in our country cannot restrain themselves from tearing into the property of other people and pouncing on whatever they can get their grubby paws on like a pack of dogs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

NC Worker Death

The custodial death of the National Conference party worker in Srinagar, purportedly at CM Omar Abdullah's residence, has led to very desperate denials of involvement from the Abdullahs and their party. The fact of the matter is that eyewitness accounts state explicitly that Abdullah was present at home and that Syed Yousuf was demanding cash payments for a seat in the legislative council at his behest when he was taken away by policemen and beaten to death. The NC government is rotten to the core. How else would Omar be in a position to claim that the autopsy report specifies a heart attack as the cause of death three days before the autopsy itself, and in spite of eyewitnesses who saw Yousuf bruised and beaten?

Also disturbing is the unprofessional and incompetent anchoring of a CNN IBN news anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, who made a mockery of his interview with the son of the deceased. His stupid questions and his trivialization of the issue were really poor.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Drugs and FDI

The other day, whilst buying Zincovit multi-vitamin tablets from the university pharmacist, I noticed that the packaging had changed and the price had gone up - the difference was around fifteen rupees, if I'm not mistaken. I wondered at it. It was only a month or so earlier that the Supreme Court had deferred judgment in a case involving multinationals and anti-retroviral drugs, challenging the sale of cheaper alternatives in the Indian market, and the African market via the Indian market.

However, a report in the current issue of Outlook is instructive in this case. 100% FDI permissibility in the pharmaceutical sector has been the policy in the drugs market since 2001. Over the years, seven top Indian companies have been taken over by multinationals. The current debate revolves around whether this investment policy has led to an increase in the prices of Indian generic drugs. (Generic drugs are drugs that are produced and sold cheaply and locally in the event of the expiry of the copyright of the original formula.) Evidently, it has. Prices have gone up 5%-23% in 2008-11. Both the Indian pharma lobby and the multinationals' lobby are interested in current policy debates in this sector. Some sections of the government (health ministry, commerce ministry, etc.) want discretionary powers and a case-by-case review of investments to ensure the prices of drugs do not put them out of the reach of the Indian consumer, especially the poor, but fear government intervention would lead to greater corruption and bad competition. Other sections of the government (finance ministry) want the sector to be "freely competitive". The debate continues.

The Indian pharmaceutical sector, from the end-user's point of view, has been largely conducive to large-scale availability and affordability. It would be undesirable to manipulate the price mechanism in place in this sector. Therefore, it would be desirable for the Indian pharma lobby to secure investment caps and protection? I would think so.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Until My Freedom Has Come

Currently reading Until My Freedom Has Come, a collection of essays and personal accounts of the summer of 2010 in Kashmir, edited by Sanjay Kak. Most of the writers either grew up there and currently live elsewhere, or still continue to live and work there. However, there is an acute sense that most of the writing emerges from a distance engendered in the writers' minds because of their dislocation from the epicentre of violence and dissonance that is their original homeland. Last summer was a particularly volatile period in the history of the valley, which has, for the last three decades, been overpowered by a helpless civic and political breakdown. The discovery of the bodies of three civilians shot in a false "encounter" killing in Machil - purportedly buried in an unmarked grave by paramilitary soldiers, who sought to win some monetary reward by passing their bodies off as the bodies of militants - sparked off large-scale protests, where further violence and the shooting of unarmed protesters led to protests, strikes, more violence and the use of greater military force against the restive populace. The book is written by a generation of writers who have grown up against the backdrop of a militarily "occupied" Kashmir, and their stories are brutal. There is so much hope in their writing, it makes one not wonder but shudder at the status quo.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I am confused sometimes by the clash of the trivial and inane, and the profound in our daily existence. I wish we could separate them, so that we have one set of rules to deal with one and another set of rules to deal with the other. As it happens, they occur simultaneously and confuse us with their variety and disparity. The profound is never overshadowed by the inane. The magnitude of the first cannot be affected much by the smallness, the insignificance of the latter. Yet, they affect us at the same time, and we sometimes brood over their untimely clashing, their coincidence.

I am filled with resentment toward those that unnecessarily intrude in our lives, albeit briefly, to touch us with their negativity, futility and insecurity. You are not needed here. You don't belong here. When you hear the voice of love and concern at night, the last voice you hear before you sleep, you want it to overflow into your thoughts and dreams, to flood your consciousness. You don't want the brittle voice of malice you encounter in insignificant persons to interfere with that.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Protest by MC Kash

MC Kash is a 21-year-old rapper who lives in Srinagar, Kashmir.

I Protest (Remembrance)

(excerpt)

They say when you run from darkness
All you seek is light
But when the blood spills over
You'll stand and fight

Threads of deceit
Woven around a word of plebiscite
By treacherous puppet politicians
Who have no soul inside

My paradise is burning
With troops left loose with ammo
Who murder and rape
Then hide behind a political shadow

Like a casino
Human life is thrown like dice
I'll summarize atrocities
Till the resurrection of Christ

Can you hear the screams
Now see the revolution
Their bullets, our stones

Don't talk restitution
'Cuz the only solution
Is the resolution of freedom

Even Khusrow will go back
And doubt his untimely wisdom
These killings ain't random
It's an organized genocide
Sponsored media
Who hide this homicide

No more injustice
We won't go down
When we bleed
Alive in the struggle
Even the graves will speak

I protest
Against the things you've done
I protest
For a mother who lost her son
I protest
I'll throw stones and never run
I protest
Until my freedom has come
I protest
For my brother who's dead
I protest
Against the bullet in his head
I protest
I'll throw stones and never run
I protest
Until my freedom has come

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Salinger's For Esme - With Love and Squalour




Just finished Salinger's collection of short stories. I don't have much to say about it, except that it is frighteningly brilliant and exquisite. At the cost of being hyperbolic, I would say, for once, that if I did write, I'd want to be able to write stories like him. Or see humanity through his peculiarly jaundiced and beautifully sharp and unforgiving eyes.

Such an experience.

To think that I will now have to read Brecht's The Life of Galileo within the next two hours for tomorrow's tutorial.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Seismic Zones

In Italy, seismologists are being prosecuted on charges of manslaughter for their failure to predict an earthquake. The victims' families are suing for compensation to the tune of USD 68 million. While it is not ethically and legally tenable to suggest that the failure of a scientific prediction is equivalent to 'crime', the matter of seismic investigation and its translation into policy needs a closer look.

In India, there are identified seismic zones with stipulated building regulations, but as anyone who lives in any of these areas would know, and Assam is certainly a tectonic zone, building regulations are esoteric notions and information on general enforcement is scarce. In addition to this, some, and at least two, of the biggest earthquakes in the last decade took place in unidentified areas (in Maharashtra). Now, as I read in today's paper, the Bureau of Indian Standards has constituted a new expert committee to study and identify seismic zones all over again, at the same time as the National Disaster Management Authority's formation of a similar committee with the same brief. According to reports, their assessments seem to diverge to a great extent.

The moot question is whether the country is ready for disasters of a large magnitude. Something as devastating as the 2005 Kashmir earthquake will cripple life and infrastructure for a decade at least.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?



Reading Albee is a very moving experience. It involves feeling charged, being pulled in different directions, being pushed into a quicksand of emotions and being thrust out into the cold. As it is, this play is really a brilliant reading experience and there is nothing quite like it. Its biting and brutal humour is charged with a vengeful energy so strong, it moves through the characters like electricity. One cannot really comment on the manner in which the play operates because it escapes critical scrutiny - it's essentially very electric and animal-like. It is, however, a play about the morbidity that inheres in our human relations and our susceptibility to violence, internalized very often but just as often unleashed on those we are forced to encounter life with. The vortex of mutual, blind violence into which the characters descend is ultimately so strong, you are left feeling very hollow when you finish the play. The climax of the play, at that moment when the underlying, unspoken "game" on which their lives are built comes undone and understanding dawns on the reader, is a moment of revelation - and you marvel at the simplicity with which the author mocks the suffering of his characters.

Albee is a good writer.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Poetry

Poetry has been afflicting me. All of a sudden, here I am, writing god-knows-what-kind of poetry, most of it hidden. The truth of the matter is, I can't write poetry. The bunches of words that assume the shape and size of a poem are feelings waiting to burst out of the straight lines of my otherwise very monotonous prose. Here is a poem that captures what I feel:

My mind is
a jumble of prose
but when I think of
you, I think
in poetry.

The irony is
that you're the most
unpoetic of everyone
I know.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lady Demagogue

There is a lady who stands outside Arts Faculty these days and speaks continuously for an hour or two in the area around the statue. Her long monologues in Hindi are usually diatribes against the state of the world. The first time I heard her, she was speaking on the topic of corruption - this was around the time of the Ramlila protests. On other occasions, I have heard her speak on the television ("idiot box"), on family values and the youth. She doesn't use a microphone, or any other gadgets for that matter - she brings along with her a huge poster, which is placed right next to where she's standing, and starts speaking extempore to an imagined audience. More often than not, she attracts a small crowd of students, one or two at most. She dresses in a simple, dull sari and doesn't wear any jewellery.

Her voice carries far and her gestures and facial expressions are dramatic. She seems unfazed by the people around her, or lack thereof, and her eyes are always wide and fiery, alight with her forceful words and brisk and harsh hand movements. The first time I heard her speak, she concluded with the words, "Let me fight this battle alone, but fight I will!" ("Mein is jung mein akeli hi sahi, par mein ladte hi rahoogi!")

She is an anomaly. People are bewildered by her and stare as they slowly walk past the gate. As she speaks, she looks into the eyes of those passing by but without pausing, without being affected by the indifference or curiosity she may find there.

I find her very brave. I find her ability to come and speak at a place like this, day after day, with nothing but her dramatic will, quite amazing. Why is she here? Why does she do it? She is a relic from the past. She appears to me to have stepped out of my mind's picture of the colonial period, delivering loud and unembarrassed harangues in the middle of the street, fiery speeches against racist oppression.

HIV

Recently in Junagarh Civil Hospital near Ahmedabad, 23 thalassemic children receiving regular blood transfusions tested positive for HIV. Patients suffering from thalassemia receive free treatment at government-run hospitals and usually require transfusions once or twice a week. The recent case in this particular hospital has brought to the fore the outdated screening methods for the blood used, and the threatening possibility of the negligence being far more widespread than ostensible. There is an inquiry underway at the hospital which should submit a report to the hospital authorities within a stipulated time-frame.

But the truth of the matter goes so much deeper than the negligence at stake here. 23 lives have been unalterably changed forever, with no recourse to 'justice' of any sort. What can one expect? Even if the departmental inquiries yield some result, the lives of these individuals will never be the same again. They are necessarily now compromised forever. To know that your life is predicated hereafter on a vulnerability you cannot help and cannot control is something beyond one's imagination. The finality of this disease, this vulnerability will weigh on their lives, and it will weigh on them heavily because they will remember it as something that came upon them without their agency, as a fait accompli. 'Fate' is such an amorphous concept, but how deadly, how inclement, how merciless it can be in imposing conditions of death on lives that are yet to be lived.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Delhi HC

Yesterday was a Wednesday, the day for public interest litigation at the Delhi High Court. On Wednesdays, a lot of people aggregate around the reception area for court passes. PILs are filed and deliberated.

What does it mean to be the victim of a blast? A story in the paper described the journey of a woman from the outskirts of the city who had come to the high court yesterday, accompanied by her father and younger son, to follow up on the bail application of her elder son, who is lodged in Tihar Jail. He has been accused of murder and has been in Tihar for the past two years now - without trial.

In those two years, her eighty-year-old father fought alongside her to secure her son's bail, but could not make any headway. They received a date for their bail plea at the high court. They arrived at the court yesterday and waited in the reception area for their court pass, but an explosion ripped through the area around 10.15 in the morning. Her father died later in the hospital of heavy injuries.

She will return home now. Her son will continue to remain incarcerated in Tihar Jail without trial.

On the day that was supposed to have been the culmination of their efforts for the past two years, she lost another member of her family.

In the meantime, life will go on. The metro did not halt its services yesterday. The roads were as full of traffic as on any other day. Life in the city will not, or cannot, come to a standstill. And if our vulnerability were to play on our conscience, we will forget it in a day or two. No one can live in a state of siege, even those who have been denied justice for two years and more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sleep

If I talk
in my sleep,
you listen for a while
and wake me up
with a jolt;
there's laughter in your eyes,
stupefaction in mine;
you muffle
my embarrassment
with your rough embrace
and ask me about my dream.

If you lie
awake at night, your eyes
flickering open,
irritated by the bright light
as I work on my computer,
I feel compelled to
turn around and
assuage you
ever so often,
with a nervous promise
of finishing soon.

If I wake
up in the morning
to a mugginess
rolling in the air above,
resisting my efforts at
squinting through shut eyes,
you toss around
and draw me back
into our entanglement,
and I give in.

Here is sleep,
crawling back to us,
always at the ready
to swallow us whole
until the next time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Excerpt - Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

The Father. ...believe me I feel what I think; and I seem to be philosophizing only for those who do not think what they feel, because they blind themselves with their own sentiment. I know that for many people this self-blinding seems much more "human"; but the contrary is really true. For man never reasons so much and becomes so introspective as when he suffers; since he is anxious to get at the cause of his sufferings, to learn who has produced them, and whether it is just or unjust that he should have to bear them. On the other hand, when he is happy, he takes his happiness as it comes and doesn't analyze it, just as if happiness were his right. The animals suffer without reasoning about their sufferings. But take the case of a man who suffers and begins to reason about it. Oh no! it can't be allowed! Let him suffer like an animal, and then -- ah yet, he is "human"!

The Manager. Look here! Look here! You're off again, philosophizing worse than ever.

The Father. Because I suffer, sir! I'm not philosophizing: I'm crying aloud the reason of my sufferings.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Political Vendetta

The aftermath of a successful mass protest is the political vendetta that follows immediately after. Politicians are essentially not only vindictive, but also extremely short-sighted. After alienating the electorate by a show of inefficiency and non-commitment to facing the problem of corruption head-on, the government is now trying to victimize some of the key organizers of the recent movement. Two of them are glaring instances of vendetta widely reported in the media. There appears to be a breach of privilege motion against Kiran Bedi in parliament, and an income tax department penalty against Arvind Kejriwal. In the latter's case, he resigned from the civil services several years back after an extended leave, but the department to which he belonged refused to accept his resignation. To me, this appears to be a case of blackmail. The department intends to use this method of extortion to demand that he return his salary from that period and pay an interest on it as well. Kejriwal's case is one of executive malfeasance on the part of his department and should not stand in court. The political class is ignorant enough to believe that this form of petty victimization will not be held against them by the larger public.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Heat

The heat in Delhi
is a round-up
of queasy mornings -
eyes torn asunder
by a bulbous sun;
of snarling traffic
on roads
choc-a-block -
where your feet wouldn't fit
the gaps between them;

of a sea of dark, stringent heads
floating down the
university promenade;

of lying after lunch
on a bare-stripped bed,
sun shining on the skin of your back,
wasps playing overhead;

of evenings
smothered by pungent
sweat-laden air;

and floating memories
of the night before,
arms entangled,
forehead lodged in the hollow
of your neck.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Naysayers

1. A mass movement meets with so much resistance. Why? It has safely passed from the realm of theory to the realm of praxis. People are uncomfortable with praxis because they are compelled to take a definite stand. In the realm of theory, they can equivocate.

2. The idea that a movement is not a "grassroots" movement because it is characterized predominantly by the presence of the so-called "middle classes" is a specious idea. I think that Arundhati Roy deludes herself into believing that what is or is not a grassroots movement is determined by what she is convinced is the critical and decisive spectre of her presence. Random white guys/ expat "experts" who report to foreign agencies and for publications, like Patrick French, on the other hand, should just shut the fuck up.

3. No attempt at iconoclastic populism is perfect. Far from it. That does not, however, diminish the importance of an issue.

4. The idea that a movement can be discredited because it is supported by this or that political party is, at best, naive. Political dissent is fomented by many factors, none of which can claim to be more legitimate than the other.

5. Nationalism and emotional appeal are concomitants of any mass movement. Whether in excess or not, one cannot expect everyone to deliberately repress the spirit of collectivity that emerges in large gatherings.

6. It is opportunistic and incorrect to extol the supremacy of parliament in this case - any basic foundational course in democratic politics will teach you that a parliament is set up to fulfill a representative function. When those represented demand certain rights, parliament cannot claim to function like a dictatorship and exercise its whimsies.

7. Not all drama is bad. Some dramatic gestures drive home a point effectively.

8. To assume that all those who have come out in support of this movement are ignorant of the details of the two bills is, in turn, highly ignorant and presumptuous. In fact, I strongly believe that those who claim that others are not aware of the sophisticated details of the matter at hand are, in fact, completely unaware of the same themselves. If they were, they would know that excluding the lower rung of any bureaucratic framework, those who interact most directly with the people, from accountability is unacceptable.

9. People who comment on the inability of anti-graft bodies to handle corruption do not live in states with such bodies, and hence do not know of cases of improved citizens' charters. In addition to this, most people are ignorant of the presence of such bodies in their domiciles. For example, few people know that there is a Lokayukta in Assam, and that it has expedited the process of clearing pensions and other matters in many cases. All you have to do is lodge a complaint.

10. The government has run out of excuses.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A House That We Once Lived In: A Tribute



My earliest memories of Bivar Road go so far back, they now belong to another world. I was there even before I was born. I've been told the story of the earthquake that shook Shillong at the time of my mom's pregnancy innumerable times. The house shook with trepidation then, and I vicariously shared that moment with its inhabitants. From our earliest days, Arnav, Pilty and I spent every summer in the house. The long, tortuous and then painstaking drive from Guwahati (the roads weren't any good those days) involved hours of suffering through a miasma of diesel fumes and exhaust from factories (our cars didn't have air-conditioning then), but once the car drove past Mawlai, fresh, pine-filled bursts of Shillong air washed over our faces. Somewhere around the cantonment as you entered, a weeping willow hung sorrowfully on the side of the road, and mom usually pointed it out, 'See that tree? It's called a Weeping Willow.'

Nana moved to Bivar Road after his retirement from the police. The DGP bungalow, his erstwhile home, was just around the corner from this new, smaller bungalow, and both were a stone's throw away from Ward's Lake.

The driveway into the garage sloped down at a steep inclination, which never failed to induce thoughts of peril in the kids as our fathers maneuvered their cars gingerly past the gate. On either side of it, flowers grew in neat, punctuated lines, and on the outer left a small, terraced bed of corn grew wild and in profusion. The garage housed the large blue van that Nana owned (apparently one of the first cars to be purchased in Assam), and was spacious enough to hold the other cars when we arrived. Coming into Nani's home was a ritual sanctified by time. On the table in the dining room, which overlooked a large descending panoply of cottages and houses and trees, a plate of cutlets and a freshly baked vanilla cake would await us, and we would clasp Nani quickly and make straight for the table. My father and uncles would share whisky with Nana, and everyone had soup with crumbs before dinner.

At a very early age, I remember I was admitted to a nursery school in Shillong, where I didn't stay very long. My grandfather had great faith in its principal, and I would have endorsed his view of her had it not been for the stern and rather unimaginative kongs that ran the school, who punished you severely for the smallest indiscretion by making you stand on your desk till break.

At that time, my youngest aunt lived in Turkey and hadn't emigrated to England yet. Very soon, Isar was born and we welcomed yet another boy into the family. As an infant, he bewildered us no end. When we spread our collection of curious-looking coins and currency notes and stamps from Istanbul out on the dining table in the afternoon, Isar would stealthily crawl underneath and bite our toes as hard as he could. He was probably teething then. Loud, complaining shrieks would waft over the house and carry over to the adults as they read or talked. The days were spent in a flurry of activity, as we ran madly up and down a stone staircase to the backyard, which led unfenced to several levels of smaller houses further down the slope. A stone slab stood at the start of the stairs and sitting on it was, for some inexplicable reason, a favourite pastime. Smaller slabs lined the side of the house along which we practiced jumping. The backyard bore an overall look of gloom and despondency. For all practical purposes, it was haunted and we never lingered too long. But a huge pear tree stood right in the middle of it, and it bore fruit aplenty, overpowering whatever ghost we imagined lived there.

In the morning, us kids would crowd into Nana's van and pretend to be in the middle of a high-speed chase, simulating cops and robbers and car-racing and anything else that took our fancy, with Patao patiently but almost disdainfully watching over us to make sure that we didn't accidentally turn the ignition key. Patao spoke very little, but we had heard that he presided over a large family in the nearby hills, who I didn't get a chance to meet until much later at the age of sixteen or seventeen, when seven of his kids came along on a drive to Shillong Peak when I made a trip there alone.

Nana would silently peruse his newspaper in the morning and then promptly disappear into his room for a bath and leave for the club thereafter.

Nani, on the other hand, got up very early in the morning and inspected all the rows of flowers in the garden in front and along the driveway. She then prepared for her morning genuflection in the prayer room. (The kids, appropriately, called it God's House, as we were told never to enter it without permission and to be absolutely silent whilst in there.) The prayer room was partitioned off from the reception area in the front of the house as you entered, and contained the Guru Granth Sahib, draped in a beautiful purple velvet cloth and set on a wooden pedestal in the centre against a backdrop of framed pictures of the Gurus. As Nani sat in prayer, we silently watched her murmur the words from the pages of the book and they formed a soft, rhythmic hum that reverberated around us. After prayer, it would be left open on the last page read and be covered in its consecrated fabric. I never learned the alphabet in which our holy book was written but I sometimes asked for translations. A little sugar lump was placed in each of our outstretched palms at the conclusion of the prayer, and our prizes won, we'd dash out immediately and leave Nani to light the incense on her own.

In the evening, Nana would go on long, brisk walks with Bahadur, his trusted major domo, marching alongside him, keeping apace. Dusk would descend on us and those who had gone out earlier in the day, to visit family friends like the Gills, the Singhs, or the Thangkiews, or for walks in the lake or to the bustling market, would slowly return home.

Summers in Shillong soon became longer and lazier. Tara was born, and everyone was so overjoyed to finally have a girl in the family. By that time, my uncle and aunt were already living in London, and as Tara grew older, we came to associate her with our version of the proper English Young Lady, displeased by every cousinly misdemeanor. However, she fought us tooth and nail, and in no time at all, everything we said was countered with a loud, admonishing, 'Look at my face! Does it look like I care?!'

Years went by, summers turned to winters and we sometimes made the trip in smaller groups and as individual families. Armed with a suitcase of woolens, we stayed indoors in the rattling Shillong cold, and sometimes lit the fireplace in the main sitting room. I remember it was in these environs that I first grasped and gave vent to my fascination for horror. Terrible campy horror movies on Star Movies or HBO would hold me enthralled for hours, as would the deplorable but unmissable Zee Horror Show where ghosts invariably had light pearly eyes and bad teeth. The uncles and aunts would tell us ghost stories from the Old Days when spurned and jilted lovers jumped into Ward's Lake and returned as phantoms to seek their unrequited loves. The guest rooms that we shared had an eerie feel, and the old, derelict cupboards sometimes creaked inopportunely while we hid under blankets, apprehensive of the glowing dark. The one that the parents used had another fireplace in it, although that was hardly ever used, and a bookshelf full of books from long ago, by writers I had never heard of but who were immensely popular in their time. The paintings on the walls were by friends of the family or by my aunts, and they lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the house.

Living on Bivar Road was so essential a part of our holidays. We never missed a summer there, and if we did, we missed it no end. It was where Bahadur Singh Baber and Indera Baber presided over their large, scattered, and now multicultural and polyglot family when they congregated there annually. We all had our own respective languages, and a range of accents and intonations flooded the house when we lived there. The predominant language in terms of volume, however, was undoubtedly Nani's mixture of English, Hindi and Punjabi, interspersed with bursts of laughter and shouted instructions.

By the time Nana had had his stroke, we were already in our senior years in school, excepting Tara of course. We were scattered all over; some were in Delhi, two of us in boarding school in the tea gardens in Assam, the rest in England. Nana and Nani knew that it was time for them to move out of the house and move closer to their daughters. They bought some property in Guwahati and moved soon after. My parents were doctors, Aneeta mahi was back in Guwahati, and Nana needed constant supervision. It became clear to us that our drives to Shillong would never be the same again. We gradually stopped going altogether, or sometimes only for a day or two.

A few days back, my parents, Arnav and I booked into a guest-house fortuitously located bang next to our old home! All of us peered through the gate and into the large construction sprawl there. The house had been torn down and the foundation for a new structure was being built. We were told an apartment complex is to come up there in a few years' time. State building laws were recently altered to permit the construction of buildings up to five storeys high, or at least in the prime real estate area of the European Ward (a local name for Bivar Road). Iron rods jutted out of the ground and overturned mud covered the compound.

This is a tribute to that old structure that was our home for so many years, that prompted me every so often to diffidently reply, when asked in school where I was from, that I lived both in Guwahati and in Shillong - just as I diffidently corrected people by saying that I was both Assamese and Punjabi, and not one or the other.

It has been a great, wonderful journey!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code

Section 144 of the CrPC empowers a magistrate to issue a notified or ex-parte prohibitory order to individuals or groups of individuals in an area, usually in emergency situations, to prevent any bodily and mental harm, disruption of public peace and tranquility. According to my searches on the history of this particular section, it is mostly used against specific individuals on petitions filed by aggrieved parties who apprehend some danger to their persons or property. The order, for example, has in the past been issued by magistrates to prevent certain persons from encroaching on disputed property when approached by certain aggrieved parties; in such cases, the magistrates have also been known to pass similar orders against the original petitioners when demanded in turn by the prohibited parties. It is, in some form, a 'restraining order'. Orders under this section can be challenged in the high court of the state.

But in the past few months, the Indian government has gone nuts on this section. Section 144 of the CrPC has been invoked innumerable times to suppress public protests. The government uses this section now immediately when a major protest rally or demonstration attracts large numbers. The Congress Party is the most vicious abuser of this particular law. It used it recently in Delhi to disrupt the protests led by Baba Ramdev, and the state government in Assam used it as well to violently disrupt the KMSS-led anti-eviction rally. The law has become a handy tool to subvert the processes of democratic protest. The vague and arbitrary notion of 'public peace and tranquility' makes it possible for the authorities to clamp down on public interest movements when they become critical of state iniquities, corruption and acts of violence. When this section is imposed on a particular area, it is not possible to gather in large numbers to even protest peacefully, and the police are liable to round you up. This draconian colonial left-over law is clearly being put to its most opportunistic uses by current Congress governments at a time of growing public awareness and civic rights.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Precious

Precious is a short and brilliant movie (based on the novel Push by Sapphire) about a young, obese girl in high school, a victim of sexual and physical abuse at home, who rises out of her personal hell to take control of the circumstances of her life - her repeated pregnancies from rape, her inability to learn in school, her choking life with an unrepentant and violent mother, her diminished self-hood and her repressed dreams of 'being a somebody'. The setting of the home is a powerful visual in the movie - her mother is someone who hasn't left the house for years and spends all her time in front of the television and its interminable programmes. The repeated scenes of Precious cooking for her mother and her mother suddenly turning uncontrollably violent without reason, hurling vases and pots at her, are stirring. Also disturbing are the early scenes from the alternative school that she joins, where most of the attendees are almost functionally illiterate despite being eighteen or nineteen and, as in some cases, being teenage mothers. But it lifts from there, as Precious' circle of friends in this classroom, including the stunningly receptive teacher, become her mainstay - a wildly witty and irreverent group of girls. Sad, indeterminate ending. Great movie.

Lots of reviewers complained about it portraying 'black people in a poor light'. I don't understand this need for political correctness. The racism expressed in the movie, for example, by the black mother in her attitude to white people, or the poverty, or the incest and violence, or the high incidence of HIV (black women constitute the largest section of positive people in America), are all depictions of somebody's truth (Sapphire's, the director's, etc.). I had much rather know the inherent violence in the system than gloss it over in affirmative action movies.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tales From Another Democracy - Malaysia

A friend of mine linked me to an article on Malaysia: http://www.malaysiandigest.com/opinion/26307-what-is-this-country-coming-to.html.

It felt like the article was an expostulation against the current realities and dynamics of Indian democracy. It was about Malaysia, but the progression of events bore such strong semblance to the imbroglio of democratic politics here that it induced, besides great empathy, a great sense of disbelief.

In Malaysia recently, a coalition of political and non-governmental organizations suffered the ill-effects of great political vendetta in the form of arrests, intimidation and persecution under the ruling government.

The Bersih movement, aimed at electoral reform, comprises a vast cross-section of civil society groups and opposition political parties that have coalesced to express discontent against the electoral malpractices in the country - double-counting, manipulation of votes and restriction of access to media during campaigns. The government in 2007 extended the tenure of the incumbent chief election commissioner by a constitutional amendment. In 2007, Bersih organized large-scale demonstrations. They were not sanctioned by the government and the rallies were forcibly disrupted by the riot police.

More recently, this year, a small group of Socialist Party members were arrested whilst on their way to a Bersih meeting, and were later tried for attempting to "resurrect Communism". A poet, who is a national laureate, was interrogated by the police and told he was being investigated for sedition - based on his reading of what is clearly a wonderfully powerful and evocative poem exhorting the people to defend a fledgling democracy (see linked article). The police also illegally trespassed into Bersih office premises and detained some of its members. They arrested people on the streets wearing the printed yellow tee-shirt associated with the movement. They even unwittingly arrested a sitting member of parliament for simply wearing a yellow tee-shirt at all, one definitely without the Bersih symbol. All of the arrested civilians were told they were being charged with "unlawful assembly". (The government refused to grant the organization rally clearances.)

The overzealous repression of the Malaysian government is not unlike the authoritarian mismanagement of Indian state governments and the central government, who intermittently try to intimidate organizations that rise for the people's causes, with a groundswell of support, breaking the spine of political complacency and corruption.

The KMSS in Assam or the anti-corruption groups in Delhi are suddenly denied their clearances to hold demonstrations and rallies, and their members are threatened with police action. Today, we are forced to ask ourselves why, in the first place, it should be within the power of a ragtag clutch of discreditable politicians to grant permission to the people to assemble and meet for their democratic rights.

Ultimately, unlawful arrests and illegitimate acts of coercion fall by the wayside as the people continue to wrench their rights and freedoms away from the clenched fists of the state. The crucial fact about India and Malaysia is that we are both established democracies, and cannot be held to ransom for long.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No matter who you are, where you are, when you come into contact with other people, you're going to affect them in some way. Over the years, you realize that you don't want to let the hurt and disappointment of the past affect you anymore, and you want to avoid experiences like that in the future. You try and try and shield yourself as ably as you can. After all, you've learnt from your mistakes. You've moved beyond the self-doubt engendered by those mistakes. Now, faced with the prospect of an endless horizon, you look into the face of the present and you find, when you look beyond the hopeful shadows shrouding it, the spectre of those same experiences, presumed buried in the past. Life appears to be a pattern of the same mishaps over and over again, flung against the advent of constantly changing faces, fates and surroundings. I suppose the only assurance you have is the fact that you can simply thrust against the tide of repetition and grasp new encounters by the reins. You will be weighed down by the seeming mindlessness of going through the same motions over and over again, but you will also be surprised by your resilience, by your tirelessness, by your ability to say, 'I'll try it again.'

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Arresting An Activist

The arrest of Akhil Gogoi has given rise to a large number of protests and demonstrations across the state in Assam. On Saturday and Sunday, a state-wide bandh and a railways-blockade respectively were supported by the people, despite the obstructionist attempts by Congress workers to undermine the momentum of the struggle. Yesterday, at least a thousand activists courted arrest at various police stations, demanding the release of the KMSS leader. This movement is the outcome of the land agitations precipitated by the government's displacement and demolition policies. All those involved in the land agitation find themselves in the struggle to release Akhil from judicial custody.

The government's stand is absolutely illegal. The displacement of forest dwellers in the hills surrounding the city is illegal under the Forest Rights Act, as those who have come into possession of land in these forest areas before 2005 cannot be displaced and those who have taken up land there after that year require rehabilitation. The government has violated the law by indiscriminately attempting to mow down the houses of all occupants without regard for the legality of their status. Moreover, several observers claim that the violence that erupted during the demonstrations led by the KMSS was the handiwork of government agents planted there to disrupt the peaceful protests and allow a large-scale police assault on protesters. The arrest of Akhil Gogoi thereafter was plain political vendetta.

The government continues to violate forest laws by handing over tracts of forest land to various business entities in Tezpur and Jorabat, for example, and yet it is determined to take away land from the poor residents of the hills surrounding Guwahati.

The imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code here is yet another autocratic and anti-democratic move by the government. This government's mandate is seriously compromised.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Syria

In recent days it has emerged that the Syrian protests are being repressed by violent military crackdowns, from the towns to the country. The activists and Muslim Brotherhood factions continue to coalesce in the streets despite the prohibitory injunctions of the incumbent government and despite the military assault operations conducted in key rebel areas. In its assessment of the crisis so far, humanitarian groups say that the armed forces have marched through towns and villages, razing buildings, shooting indiscriminately and burning down fields. In a recent report, Syrian refugees in a camp on the Turkish border were attacked as they made their way through a forest to an adjoining village to get provisions. The local owner of the shop providing the daily necessities to the refugees was shot dead by the forces and the forest separating the camp from the village was burned down to prevent any further exchanges. The burning of farms, fields and forests has become the modus operandi of the Syrian military, who firmly stand behind Assad, the president for decades under emergency laws, whose father, also president, was responsible for the massacre of ten thousand people in a town that saw active pro-democracy protests in his time.

Assad this week offered to lift the emergency laws governing the country for decades and offered to allow opposition groups to function openly. Yet, the protests continue unabated. The people realize that his concessions aimed at a faux democracy are grossly inadequate.

On the other hand, Israeli, a long-standing hostile neighbour, has expressed its desire to see the current regime off. It remains uncertain on the issue of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, as does the United States. Russia and China, which have strong military associations with the regime, are firmly opposed to the pro-democracy movement and have threatened to protect Assad's interests if the matter comes to the UN Security Council.

In the same climate of repression, Bahrain yesterday indicted several pro-democracy Shia opposition members and sentenced a number of them to life-terms in prison for their "attempted coup" against the Sunni ruling family. Human rights activists must move the international community against the medieval injustice of the Bahraini regime. Its startling that the US and Saudi Arabia, so active on the Libyan front, have actually been party to the injustice and repression in Bahrain.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations in DU

As the admission season this year in Delhi University unfolds, it has become increasingly clear that the cut-off expectations are now completely unrealistic. This year, the cut-offs have not been based on the applications of students but have been speculatively decided. The new admissions process requires that students only submit their names to the colleges once they have cleared the cut-off percentage. In such a situation, one is led to wonder what these cut-offs are based on in the first place, if not the putative marks of applicants.

It may be assumed that these percentages are based on a "general perception" of the number of students who have scored high percentage marks in the board examinations. There is no methodical process in place to derive these scores.

Surely there are bound to be inconsistencies. Students from most state boards, with the exception of certain boards in the south, generally score far lower than their counterparts from the national boards, and this is because of stricter marking regimes. However, when seeking admission to a university like DU, they are subject to the same cut-off percentages as the rest.

A television news show two days back dedicated to the issue demonstrated the lack of circumspection in the university. First of all, a sizeable part of it was spent gushing over a girl who was brought to the show because she scored a hundred percent in three subjects. Then, the questions directed to the principal of a certain commerce college, in the middle of a controversial set of extremely high cut-off percentages, went mostly unanswered. When he did answer, his answers were utterly lacking in logical reasoning. He also spoke so poorly and shoddily, one could easily be forgiven for firmly disbelieving that he could be a lecturer at a college, let alone its principal.

He did not address the questions of those who would be at a disadvantage because of their state board marks; he did not address the question of the lack of flexibility in the process, which deliberately barricades students of other streams from applying to commerce courses. In the dialogue, it appeared that there was little or no empathy for the fact that students at the age of 16 cannot be expected to know with absolute certainty and finality the course they will apply for an undergraduate degree in. There was little or no empathy for the fact that all colleges admit students purely on their marks, which makes our university system perhaps one of the most rigid in the world. There was little or no empathy for the fact that the first set of cut-off marks, unrealistically set, create a harrowing time for students in the following couple of weeks who ultimately get admitted anyway on subsequent lists.

It little aided the reputation of this commerce college when its principal replied with a smug childishness, on being told that it's easier for students to get into Oxford or Cambridge on their marks than the said college, that his college was superior in that its students never "broke any rules". He probably thought we would assess the college's standards by the same ones we apply to kindergartens?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Absent Muses by Sampurna Chattarji


Sampurna Chattarji's Absent Muses covers a wide width of experience and sentiment. Reading her collection is a journey through the poetic consciousness as it encounters, contends with and finally captures the many different experiences of the writing subject. The resulting narrative lays bare the large montage of images that crowd her thoughts. It is, as it were, a collection of collections, a collage of the different images we read into the world.

Her credo, if we must determine one, is probably most quaintly asserted in the eponymous poem 'Absent Muses', where she says that her muses are of the flesh. The recognizable characters that crowd her everyday reality are the muses that become the sites of poetry in their respective absences. Their conversations are like "alms" clutched tightly in the hand. She says she must read them later in open palms, even as sometimes they are swept clean by time, memory and, as it becomes acutely evident, geography.

If I had to name one of the strongest facets of her poetry, I would say it's the reading of her interactions with people. Her poems are strongly embedded in the dynamics of human friendships and relationships. Some of her poems directly speak to or of the subjects in mind, but most carry an ephemeral allusive essence instead, contending with the spectre of their absence, or the shadow of their overwhelming presence. In 'Translations', for example, we find a record of her relationship with the translated poet, whose presence forces the despondent admission, "his words are escaping me" - she is not him, and yet it is his "letters on the page that are leaping into flame". The complexity of this relationship goes deep. The act of construing someone else's reality taps deep into the recesses of the translator's energy. She must reconstruct, but her world is pre-determined.

Being the generous and prolific correspondent that she is, the poet records in 'Migration and the Mystery of Letters' something of the experience of sharing letters and conversations, snippets of our lives that travel with gathering momentum through the world of our friends and acquaintances. In another of her poems, 'The Assassin, the Arsonist and the Babykiller', Sampurna finds a beautiful set of images to reminisce on the three conversationalists of the title, whose putative characteristics are so recognizably familiar, so acutely memorable, you could see them as prototypes for the assassins, arsonists and babykillers in your own life. The assassin speaks infrequently, and always to deadly effect; the garrulous arsonist is explosive, "resorting to flamethrowers and detonators"; and the sullen babykiller has "written off the possibility of redemption".

In the collection, we also find an attempt to understand the abstractions surrounding our lives, some of them universal, and some of them politically rooted in our urban reality. In 'Strategies of Silence', silence appears as pity, sorrow, rage, shame; 'Ciphers' speaks of the arbitrariness of daily portents, the anticipation of predictions; likewise, 'Auspicious Enough' captures that stifling need to wait for the propitious moment, when every moment is fraught with the reluctance to move. 'Who Calls That Strange?' is still more rooted in the politics of the country. The goddess of the poem chooses, almost nonchalantly, the bodies of the dismembered, from among those determinedly seeking "moksha". And 'No Shape Is More Constant' treads the site of the poisoned breast, the site of vulnerability.

'Hoping To Land' is a section that captures the exigencies of travel, and all its constitutive experiences. I find in this section poems written with a recognizable sense of longing, a strong reminder of the happiness of travel. The traveler confronts her own almost immediate sense of belonging ("map in our bones"), and her sense of shared camaraderie, but she must also intermittently confront her understanding of home. In 'August in Edinburgh', home is a fleeting figment - "We are dreaming of confined spaces/ walls that will comfort us". And yet, the traveler encounters home everywhere, in kitchen chatter, in absent hosts and familiar food. In the same section, the poems on Japan have a distinctly dreamy and quaint quality.

Home, therefore, is the last predominant, and perhaps the most intricate, theme in the book. Home is treated differently in the different poems, and the emerging notions of home as a dissipated entity emanate from the various locales that are identified as home. There is Calcutta, there is Darjeeling, and perhaps equally significantly, there is home as that ephemeral quality transmitted through literature - the home that we know intimately and yet never wholly possess. 'Where Do I Put This Love' tries to locate the different corners and crevices in the embodied home that could possibly hold and contain the bottled love for Calcutta, compressed into boxes hidden in dark places, struggling to escape to the open flower petals and paddy fields of its provenance. 'One or Two Things About Home' cites travel in space, literature, food, cups of tea and wine. "Every new/ Place is an open invitation to/ Disappointment..." It concludes with an allusion to "the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling" and its consequent realization - "And the more I'd like to stay with Hangary, the more Darjeeling comes back - / the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung..."

Sampurna is a poet immersed in literature and her reading of the world is a distinctly literary one. It would definitely be interesting to read more critical material from her, her take on literary works, because she has a wide range of references and it reflects in her work. Absent Muses is, in part, an offering to the many influences that have shaped her work.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Doctors on Trial in Bahrain

In the recent crackdown on medical practitioners in Bahrain, the autocratic regime and its kangaroo courts have contravened some of the fundamental principles of conduct in a humanitarian crisis.

First, the Khalifa regime earlier this year brutally repressed the pro-democracy protests with Saudi militia support, and then they actively prosecuted the scores of people that survived the violent repression and detained them indefinitely in prisons.

Now, they are in the process of prosecuting several doctors and medical staff (mainly from a specific hospital) that attended to the streams of injured, mutilated and murdered protesters that arrived at their hospital as a consequence of the indiscriminate shooting and sabotage. The doctors performed their medical responsibilities without fear. Now, the charges against them state that they aided and abetted a violent coup d'etat, helping those who sought to topple the legitimate regime. This is unconscionable. The violence was directed at the protesters by the regime, and not the other way round. The fact that they could victimize the doctors that helped their own citizens overcome their fatal injuries shows an extent of brutality and disregard for life that outstrips its own record so far.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ramdev

Ramdev's eviction from the protest grounds in Delhi is mindless. It is an expression of the government's lack of circumspection. They have lost it. Not only have they impinged on a peaceful protest, but they have used the flimsiest pretext to do it. Ramdev apparently signed a letter saying he would discontinue the protest after negotiations. He continued to protest. The letter was used as a basis to violently stop the hunger-strike. Such disregard for citizens' fundamental rights cannot go unpunished. On television, panels of commentators have drawn attention to the 'religious' or 'political' colour of the protest, referring especially to RSS members who shared the stage with him, but one has to make a distinction between the credentials of those involved in the protest and the principle of protesting. The principle is compromised by its forceful prevention.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Zinn and The Father

In A People's History of the United States, one of the most poignant chapters is on the 'Indian Relocation' period. Zinn renders the history of the period powerfully. The Indians, after the widespread and relentless initial decades of Spanish and English extermination, continued to suffer greatly under the founding fathers of the newly 'revolutionized' and independent American colonies. Adrew Jackson was perhaps the most ruthless oppressor of the Indian peoples in America. In Zinn's history of the period of relocation, when Indians were forced off their lands, forced into the hinterland of the unchartered territories to the west, were massacred and executed when they resisted, a leitmotif is the constant betrayal suffered by the Indian tribes. The American colonists struck treaty after treaty with Indian chieftains, providing false pretexts to get tribes off their lands, and they betrayed every single treaty signed with murderous consistency. Every promise, every treaty, every negotiation ended in American betrayal of the indigenous peoples of America. In these treaties and negotiations, the president of the United States was constantly referred to as the 'Father' of the country, the 'Father' of the land and its inhabitants, the 'Father' of both indigenous peoples and immigrants. The word father is such a powerful word. Its biblical meaning has connotations of benevolence and love, but also omnipotence, omniscience, and complete jurisdiction. The American president thus became, in the collective colonial imagination, the omnipotent overlord of the country he had conquered by force and the territories he continued to conquer by dint of murder and betrayal through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In most of the interactions recorded between Jackson, a militia general in the early period of his career, and tribal chiefs, the Indians were called the 'children' of the country, their 'Father's' children. In treaties and legislative addresses, they were called the 'children'. The language of oppression was so deeply injurious that they too began to refer to themselves as the 'children' of the American rulers. The patronizing attitude of the 'Father' towards his 'children' never escaped them, but they had internalized the biblical vocabulary of conquest.

One Indian chief, revolted by the use of the term 'Father', laughed at his interlocutor and told him that the sun was his father, and the earth his mother. He resisted the language of oppression.

The use of this biblical trope continued well into the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. The period was a highly complex matrix of historical events, but one broad characteristic of the century was the total ascension of capitalism and private property. Corporations and rich 'barons' owned townships and huge tracts of land. The businessmen who owned these lands opened factories and manufacturing units which served as the heart of the towns' existence. He became the biblical 'Father' of the towns' hands, the 'children', the highly impoverished, starved and benumbed workforce he controlled. African slaves working on plantations, when instructed in religion, were taught to visualize their masters as the 'Father' that owned not only their labour but their hearts and souls.

The belittling of the oppressed and the denial of their personhood were effectively captured and propagated by the oppressor consciousness in American history through the Father-child dichotomy.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Yemen

As street protests and police violence continue unabated in Syria and Yemen, the situation in Yemen becomes clearer through recent reports of the constitution of opposition forces. The opposition is mainly led by tribal formations and groupings, each of whom have a factional following. The most prominent tribal formation is led by a family that are already very powerful, with brothers in key government and military positions. One of them is a general, another a speaker of parliament, yet another the richest businessman in the country. The opposition, strongly supported by the masses, is led by the elite, as is inevitable in the current climate. The important concern here relates directly to the question of mass participation if the elite assume leadership positions immediately after an ouster. Once Saleh is out, do the new centres of power become autocratic right away?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Language

Just done with Pa's birthday dinner. Three of his friends brought their kids along.

One of them was eight, another six, both boys, and the third was around ten, a girl. Got them to watch an animated series I knew zilch about but which they knew quite well. Before long, I was struck by our very special linguistic situation. I marveled at the conversation in the room. The eight-year-old could speak three languages - English, Hindi and Assamese - and he spoke them fluently and spontaneously. He picked one individual each for the three languages respectively - he spoke to me in English, he addressed the girl in Hindi (her native language) and the little boy in Assamese (his native language). The girl used the same set of permutations. The little boy could only speak Assamese, so whenever anyone addressed him it was in that language. The girl and the older boy could both clearly speak English and Assamese, but when they spoke to each other it was in Hindi. I could clearly speak all three languages and responded in any one of them as the evening wore on, but they continued to put their questions and thoughts to me in English. They had already conceived of a level of comfort for each of us in each of the three languages.

The older boy was garrulous and he spoke constantly. He skipped from one language to another without the slightest hesitation or pause. It often depended on the person he inadvertently turned to in the middle of watching the episode.

It struck me so suddenly and I made a mental note ("See!") to some of my friends who don't share this experience. I felt like I had chanced upon a special discovery and brought it to the attention of my Linguistics class in one of our discussions on "native" and "non-native" languages. But, really, to those in the room, this was utterly commonplace and quotidian. I realized how very different I had become, in thinking of the most natural situational reality as some sort of 'phenomenon', to be lauded ad nauseum in the company of expatriate friends.

Of course, foolishly, I had forgotten that the eight-year-old version of me was no different from its counterpart at dinner - I skipped then from language to language at home and elsewhere without the slightest self-consciousness.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lokpal

The contention between the civil society representatives and the ministers seems to be the inclusion of the prime minister within the purview of the Lokpal bill. However, in the questionnaire that has been forwarded to the states, the questions comprehensively cover all other government functionaries - members of parliament, members of the judiciary, civil servants above the rank of joint secretary, etc. - asking for favourable or negative responses to their inclusion. One would have assumed that a stronger anti-corruption bill would automatically include these sections of the political machinery. In the media, the debate is exclusively over the inclusion of the prime minister. So are we to assume that the other categories mentioned are implicitly covered by the jurisdiction of the bill and that the questionnaire is only a formality?

The PM made some statements yesterday in support of Baba Ramdev's hunger strike. It's interesting to read how much attention the Baba inadvertently gets. There is clearly an attempt to make a distinction between him and the rest of the civil society groups in the campaign. What is slightly disconcerting is the responsiveness of the government to his specific involvement, as if to show that he alone in the campaign merits special treatment. Some sections from a report:

Central Board of Direct Taxes chairman Sudhir Chandra, who had briefed Ramdev on the steps being taken by the government to unearth black money, said the yoga guru’s suggestions were “constructive” and constructive ideas “should be considered by the government”.

Asked about his meeting with the yoga guru, Chandra said: “I think Ramdevji was satisfied.”

Ramdev, however, refused to call off his fast. “My hunger strike will go ahead. There is no question of calling off the protest plan till my demands are met and till talks reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PDS

The World Bank report (based on a national sample survey) cited in Ashok Desai's article today says that in 2005 83% of households supposedly had ration cards but only 23% used the public distribution system. This discrepancy is attributed to the misappropriation of food grains. Approximately 90% of rice grains procured through the system in Assam, West Bengal, Orissa and Punjab that year never reached card-holders, presumably siphoned off to the open market or smuggled across the borders. The misappropriation is currently the highest in the western and eastern states, closest to Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively. About 80% of grains in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP, Assam, West Bengal are diverted.

Abhijit Sen of the Planning Commission calls this report 'outdated'. The government of India has consistently delayed granting permission to the World Bank to have its report published and it remains unpublished till date. He also calls the new definition of poverty 'most rational'. If the commission would actually use common sense, let alone economic theory, they would find the need to redefine the contours of poverty simply ludicrous and unnecessary and focus instead on the problem of grains diversion.

Monday, May 30, 2011

New Definitions of Poverty

The Planning Commission's new definition of poverty will exclude a large section of the poor. The new definition released yesterday will effectively deny welfare rights to a large portion of those who currently derive sustenance from subsidies. The Tendulkar report does away with the old methodology. The earlier determinant was calorie-intake; now it is apparently primarily expenditure per person. The newly-defined urban limit of 870 and rural limit of 675 rupees per person per month are literally starvation-levels. This exclusionary policy will hit the urban poor the hardest, because despite their relatively higher-level expenditures per person, their dependence on public distribution food is great. In justifying the new parameters, the commission cites the target-groups "better served" - the homeless, the disabled poor, the street-dwellers. The homeless do not possess and have no access to ration cards that give them food entitlements. Most of the dispossessed do not even use the public distribution system. Those who do will be denied their basic entitlements hereafter. The petition in the Supreme Court challenging the commission's new estimates (according to which only 37% of the country can be classified as poor, as opposed to 55% or 70% - estimates made by other independent committees) is a window of opportunity - this is a cruel economic policy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Seminar on Globalization and Tribal Identities in NE India

The recent seminar on globalization and tribal identities in north-east India held at the university conference hall by a Naga-based cultural and research council had the potential to be an interesting seminar on an extremely interesting topic, but it did not deliver. The papers were severely low-quality and they completely skirted the issue of "tribal identities" in favour of a more personalized and anecdotal, or sometimes pseudo-academic/ jargonistic, approach. The collection of speakers included professors and assistant professors from DU who did not live up to their job profiles, and in some cases, completely baffled me with their lack of academic credibility. Some of their papers had no logical train of thought, jumping incoherently from one thought to another without the slightest consideration for standard academic writing quality or for logical connectivity.

One paper on contemporary tribal youth really stood out for its lack of sensibility, argument and its academic pretensions, spending a lot of its already-constrained time-limit on defining "youth" from psychological dictionaries and quoting unnecessary definitions from this or that psychologist. In his argument, he made broad-brush generalizations and relied on stereotypical modes of addressing the issue - "The govt. must spend more on the development of youth, etc., etc." Most of the papers ran in a similar vein. One member of the audience even broke into a self-composed "national anthem" for the north-east, which, besides its obvious problems, embarrassed me greatly by virtue of its severe musical and lyrical demerits. I noticed a lot of the participants who spoke seemed fixated on mentioning their "travel abroad" in some way or the other. This seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to deal with a lack of self-confidence, whether personal or ethnic.

This pertinent topic deserved much better handling.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sec 29 Police Station, Gurgaon - 17.5.11

Addy parked his car outside Galeria Arcade, along the road beside the parking lot. None of us - Addy, Siddharth or I - saw any no-parking sign. Several cars were parked along that road and none of the attendants at the lot approached any of the cars to warn them that they were in a tow-away zone. When we returned to the car, we found that it had been towed away and we were informed that it had to be retrieved from the police station nearby. Two of us waited outside the police station, by a rolling field of fallow land, waste, stray pigs and broken rocks, while Addy went in to get the car back. The policeman at the counter demanded Rs. 300, no questions asked. He did not bother to listen to the arguments of anyone standing there. As he continued to stonewall questions and demand the fine, the people driving the towing machine in and out of the station, carrying other hapless cars into the towed-away zone, looked sinister and irritatingly gleeful. Another observation we made was that all of the cars brought into the station, without exception, were smaller, non-luxury cars. They did not tow away any of the more expensive cars parked with impunity at the market. It seemed quite clear that they made a lot of money by colluding in the victimization of drivers and by misusing the lack of information in the market area.

Ram Ke Naam (1991)




Patwardhan's insightful and contemporary documentary on the Ayodhya riots, shot at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, captures the historic moment acutely. When I watched it two days back, I realized its invaluable worth as a testament to the period and its relevance as a document of the movement that has haunted much of the political imagination of the country for the past two decades. Two things became immediately apparent by the end of the film. First, the people of the area, most of the low-caste Hindus of the surrounding villages, an overwhelming number of priests in Ayodhya itself, most of the Muslims of the adjoining districts were aware of the deleterious effects of the influx of VHP activists (called "outsiders" consistently by the different groups of people throughout the film) and their politics and did not wish to be swamped by the massive wave of communal hatred propagated by the leading politicians of the time. Second, the advent, the propagation and the final enactment of the agenda (of the demolition and the ensuing riots) could be attributed to a single political organization. Watching the speeches of Advani was a strange experience - here you could hear the words directly and witness their consequences; there was no tampering, no editing, no modification whatsoever to counter the exactness of the testament, of statements such as, "We will build the temple, at ANY COST," as he rode through towns, surrounded by growing mobs of people armed with weapons, intoxicated as much with liquor as by the electric hatred sparked off by the yatra.

Against the background of the imminent violence in the film, you hear the vague, calm, incoherent voices of young men who say that they would be prepared to destroy anything that obstructed their path; of law students who proclaim the certitude of Ram's birth and the inalienable right to that patch of land usurped by the tyrannous Babar so many centuries ago; of low-caste Hindu women who scoff at the temple-building project, saying that it would make no difference to their lives as they are prohibited from entering temples anyway; of Muslim elders of nearby villages and their forceful assertions that death is certainly at their doorstep and nothing could mitigate the disaster. In the film, you find the uncertain voices of young men easily swayed by the clarion call to defend the faith. They are incoherent and impressionable. There is so much naivete in their faces, in their words. The eerie calm of their statements ("Yes, people will be hurt, but this is about our religious honour.") hardly betrays the extent of the carnage yet to come.

Some priests of Ayodhya at the time, particular Mahant Lal Das, were vocal critics of the growing movement. He deplored the irrational hatred mongered by the invading VHP activists. He asserted that a delegation of Hindus and Muslims had submitted a memorandum to the president at the time and could settle the matter amicably amongst themselves. He rationalized the question of birth, saying that there was no need to focus particularly on that single patch of land housing the Babri Masjid. Lal Das was later assassinated. Other priests testified to the fact that they were part of the team made responsible for placing the idols in the mosque at the behest of the deputy commissioner in 1949, K. K. Nayar, who defied Nehru's orders to have the idols removed by citing communal tensions and thereafter ensured that the idols remained there. (Nayar later joined the Hindu Mahasabha and actively propagated the cause of the temple-project.)

The Allahabad High Court order last year took on an extra-judicial role and set about attempting to divide the land between the stakeholders. The order was challenged. At the time of the demolition, thousands of people lost their lives, across the country in different states, and not just in Ayodhya. The government of the time (the documentary makes clear) attempted to prevent the escalation of violence, but were thwarted by the momentum of the events.

Babri symbolized at that time the growth of a communal identity in Indian politics. It symbolizes today the uncertainty of our country's secular future.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Assembly Elections - Assam

It is disappointing that one of the most corrupt governments in the last several decades has been voted back to power in Assam. Tarun Gogoi has presided over two consecutive terms of Congress-led corruption and he is now back in government. The NC Hills Scam exposed last year incriminated cabinet ministers and public officials, the most criminal of whom have won their respective constituency elections again. A deadly combination of vote-bank politics and unsteady alternatives plagues useless elections, when they fail to get rid of even the most unacceptable of governments.

Yemen/ Syria

Even as news of the NATO forces bombarding Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli emerged earlier today, reports this morning conspicuously juxtaposed it against how the protests in Yemen and Syria are being simultaneously brutally repressed. In Syria, the demonstrations against Asad are being quelled from town to town, even as demonstrators continue braving the streets despite the escalation of violence. In Yemen yesterday, 16 protesters died and 200 were injured when the police fired at protesters indiscriminately. Students continue to brave the regime's clamp-down and coalesce in the streets. Retributive, military attacks against democratic protests are anathema to politics today, even as they grow fiercer and more frequent, from West Asia to supposedly democratic countries like India.

In Noida, the police intervention in the farmers' protests has been violent and highly punitive. Even as the villages in question are cordoned off and politicians, social workers and citizens are denied access to the hinterland, several men in the villages are still missing from their homes. The UP government's recent executive orders relating to the regulation (or suppression) of protests (or 'law and order situations') are highly autocratic and unconstitutional. The violence that the recent farmers' agitation has seen is going to be a tipping-point.