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.”