Saturday, June 13, 2009

Happy b'day Raj

We are a culture of excess. I'm the 'n'th cultural commentator to say so; and for the 'n'th time I adduce the following observations to support the statement:

1) When our temple walls are carved, we see no wall, just carvings
2) When our brides dress, we see no bride, just costumes and ornaments
3) When politicians are garlanded, we see no politician, just garlands
4) When wedding cars are decorated, the driver sees no road, just an extravagant floral burst on the bonnet.

In keeping with the above, Raj Thackeray's supporters started putting up hoardings greeting their leader on his birthday 6 days before the great event, which is tomorrow. Tomorrow, he will grow up by a whole year. That's 365 days. Amazing! One can understand his supporters' hurry to get there first. It's like a Parsi wedding. You scramble for your place, put one end of your bottom on one end of a chair, then look triumphantly at others left walking dejectedly back to their frilled tables.

So the vantage points around the Thackeray residence have filled up fast--the mouth to his lane, the traffic island down the road, and of course Shivaji Park. By tomorrow, we shall see no road, park or traffic island, just hoards and hoards of hoardings.

The early birds got the best places of course--the ones at the mouth of his gully. They will greet him first as he drives out. Then, if he turns right, he will see six separate effusions (at present count), ranged jauntily around the traffic island, waiting excitedly to catch his eye. One of them rhymes: "A newly-created Maharashtra is what Shree (God) desires/ An almighty Raj is what Maharashtra desires." If Raj turns left instead of right as he very well might if he wants to walk his dogs in the park, he will see a line of jubilant greetings that go right round the circumference of the park.

Though one picture is said to be equal to a thousand words, the pictures on the hoardings reveal nothing of Thackeray's plans for the navanirmiti of this State. The tale they tell is mixed. He laughs his head off in one. In another his reflecting shades carry the image of dozens of tiny people all looking up at him. In a third, he has a threatening "we-will-not-tolerate-outsiders" look. But in a fourth he wears an "aggabai" expression with matching gesture. In this gesture typical of Marathi women caught by surprise, the fingers of one hand are laid lightly against the cheek, the eyes are opened wide and a coyish smile hides an incipient "Oh?"

If I were a Raj Thackeray supporter, I would find the greatest reassurance in the picture where the fingers of both his hands are entwined and held against the chin in vacant or in pensive mood. Those of us who have read their Wordsworth, know that such a mood occurs when poets have just returned from seeing a host of golden daffodils. The said daffodils will later flash upon the poet's inward eye, bringing him bliss. Raj Thackeray is not a poet but a visionary. When he falls into a vacant or a pensive mood, surely it is because his inward eye shows him expanding fields of daffodils reaching all the way to the horizon and covering every inch of ground in Maharashtra? After all, that is Shree's desire.

Speaking of god's desire for man's political advancement, I come to the most recent example of excess. The brothers Reddy of Bellary, Karnataka, have donated a 42 crore rupee crown of gold and diamonds to Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupathi. At present they own mines; but what they ardently desire is to occupy the throne of Karnataka. A television channel invited one of the temple priests from Tirupathi to explain the Reddys' action. Rather unfair of the channel, but the priest answered gamely, it's dharma. When the anchors appeared unconvinced, he offered another answer. It's faith he said. The anchors then pressed him with the loaded question, "Such excess in the time of recession," they asked. The priest said yes, it is faith.

Those of lesser faith than the Reddys, be warned. With 42 crore rupees of dharma sitting on his head, Lord Venkateshwara is not going to turn his head, or even his eyes in our direction. We might as well save our diamonds till the assembly elections are over. Once one of the Reddys becomes Chief Minister of Karnataka, we will be free to apply for our minor boons.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The sacred thread and the pav

I'm on my morning walk. A man in his mid-forties is walking with his son. The son's around eight years old. His head bears testimony to his thread ceremony having been performed a couple of weeks ago. Right now his hair's like a crew around a circular oasis of longer hair.

Most boys these days refuse to have their heads shaved in what we used to call the puri-chamcha cut. (The chamcha was the long tuft hanging out of the circle of hair.) They don't mind the ceremony itself because it makes them heroes for a day, brings them gifts and is denied to their sisters. I'm not sure they know that it is also denied to a whole caste of people called shudras as well. The sacred thread makes my young co-walker my social superior. His thread is a mark of his exclusivity. It makes him dwija, twice born, while I, my sisters and my shudra brothers remain once born. Those who have transgressed against this law have been punished. See what happened to Shambuka in the Ramayan when he dared to recite the vedas. But the British came and spoiled it all. Ignoring the laws of the land, they threw education open to everybody, thread or no thread. And see where it has brought us. As a dalit and a woman, Mayawati is twice once-born; and she is aspiring to be our Prime Minister!

To come back to my young co-walker, here's this boy adorned with marks of exclusivity, and there's his father who's just received a call on his mobile. "What?" he shouts, sounding irritated. "Pav? You want me to pick up pav? How many?"

Oops! Does the man know he is about to do spectacular religious splits in footing it to an Irani's for pav with a son who has just been anointed dwija? In the bad old times of the British, the pav was the Hindu's most feared pollutant. Missionaries were supposed to have garnered their easiest souls back then. All they had to do was fling a pav into the village well and out went the entire village from the Hindu fold. The moment the villagers drank from the well, they became instant Christians. The Marathi verb for such automatic conversions was "batane", which means, "to be polluted, rendered unfit for social intercourse."

How things have changed! By an expedient turn of events, while the thread ceremony is still going strong, the pav has lost its powers of pollution. Today it stands as a proud emblem of the Hindu Hriday Samrat's economic agenda. It is the wrapping that goes around the hallowed Shiv Vada, filling the stomachs and pockets of the Marathi (Hindu) manus. So who's afraid of changing times?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bank clerk to hero with a little help from Shivaji

I finally saw "Mee Shivaji Raje Bhosale boltoy". I had to find out what the buzz was all about. A 3.5 crore budget, three times the norm for Marathi films, people whistling, flinging money at the screen, booked out shows.

Lovely. But on what premise is this success based? On the premise that Marathis have been, and are being, wronged in their own State, particularly in its capital, Mumbai. The representative victim is one totally unbelievable character called Dinkar Bhosale. He is a bank clerk. Not the type we know who doesn't look up while you're standing before his window for a quarter of an hour and when he does, it's like you're a worm deserving to be crushed but he's saddled with this unreasonable job of being at your service.

This bank clerk gets shouted at, abused, ridiculed and pushed around by everybody from the Kolin in the fish market and Gujarati shirt shop owner to his South Indian boss and Marathi wife. He's also taken for a ride by other Marathis--BMC engineers, bureaucrats, politicians, and of course, the police because they are all in the pay of one Gujarati builder-cum-goonda, Ghosalia

Bhosale has a daughter who's 'n' times smarter than him. But when she auditions for a film she gets rejected because she's a Marathi. The director is of the opinion that a Marathi name in Hindi films is very down-market! If at that moment names like Nalini Jaywant, Shobhana, Nutan and Tanuja Samarth, Smita Patil, Urmila Matondkar and Madhuri Dixit whiz through your mind, let them whiz on. Forty years of political rhetoric have made the wronged man image of the Marathi manus a deeply cherished one.

The point of creating an unbelievable loser like Bhosale (till now I'd thought Devdas was the bench mark) is to show that Marathis are to blame for their plight. And the point of showing they are to blame for their plight is to show how they can recover their rights by giving it back as good as they get and putting the corrupt to shame. The point of burdening the totally inept, inadequate, unprepared Bhosale with the job of taking on the world is to bring Shivaji into the picture. It is his power alone that can put iron into Bhosale's (an by implication, other Marathis') jelly spine. All pepped up, Bhosale sallies forth. The corrupt cringe in the light of his moral fire. He delivers thundering speeches (clever dialogue by Sanjay Pawar); and when push comes to shove, he uses Shivaji's Bhavani sword (alleged to be in England) to wound the last bastion of the corrupt--Ghosalia. All the Marathis who've been bribed by him have already returned his petis and khokas in abject shame, and thumped their chests, echoing Bhosale's slogan "I'm proud to be a Maharashtrian". Bhosale is a public hero.

All's well that ends well. Bhosale's daughter opts out of the Hindi film world and does the safe thing-- she signs three Marathi films. With the signing amount she gets, her father fulfills his son's long-cherished dream of owning a bike. Fairy tale over.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Who are we when we are Indians?

A couple of people we know have made the strangest critical comment on Sooni Taraporewala's "Little Zizou". They're not saying it didn't amuse them or the script leaked or the cameraman didn't know which way to point his camera or the performances were like something from the annual school concert. If they'd said any of those things, we could have written them off as idiotic/prejudiced/mentally challenged etc. But they are saying something much more fundamental. "We've had too many Parsi films. Why make another?"

It worries me that two otherwise sensible people feel this way about films made at intervals of roughly ten years. We saw "Khatta Meetha" in 1978 and "Pestonjee" in 1988. "Being Cyrus" came 16 years later in 2005. "Percy" was made a year after "Pestonjee" but never released. None of these films was documenting "the Parsi way of life", which might have gotten a little tedious by film number five. They all told stories which is what feature films are supposed to do. "Khatta Meetha", was a delightful comedy centred around an elderly man and woman looking for companionship with each other but finding the going tough with hostile offspring. "Being Cyrus" was a dark film that ended in murder. How could they be lumped together as "Parsi" films? Have we been so taken in by the suggestion that Hindi films with their concocted tales of men and women located in nowhere land, are "national", making any film revolving around a specifically located Indian regional or even ethnographic?

Who or what is Indian is not a new problem. It dates back to Raja Ravi Varma, a strong influence on Hindi films. He addressed the problem of Indianness head on when he submitted a batch of ten paintings to the International Exhibition of the World Columbian Order in Chicago in 1893. One of them, "Galaxy of musicians", shows eleven women dressed in regional costumes playing a variety of instruments. While their costumes are regional, their faces are "Indian", which means their skin is fair, noses straight and narrow, foreheads high, chins pointed, hair straight and postures modest. This was probably the first visual representation of what we mean by "variety in diversity".

The national/regional divide in films is best illustrated by Nishikant Kamat's "Mumbai Meri Jaan". Though Mumbai is its location, Kamat's characters do not belong specifically to any of the communities that inhabit the metropolis. The Soha Ali Khan character is Rupika or Ruchika Joshi. Joshi is a Marathi surname but it can also be Gujarat, or UPian. We don't know which community Kay Kay Menon the Muslim hater belongs to. He is plain Suresh. But Madhavan is Nikhil Agarwal. Agarwals come from the north, so they are "Indian". In short, when a Marathi film maker makes a film in Hindi, he is persuaded that his characters will be acceptable as "Indians" only if they are not seen as belonging to any other place but the north. "Indian" audiences may not relate to characters called Chavan or Screwala or Subramaniam. It's like upwardly mobile PIOs in America. They call themselves things lime "Bobby" to enable their names to slip easily off American tongues. When they have children they call them Neel if it's a boy and Maya if it's a girl.

So there you have it. Unity in diversity is all about assimilation.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Toughening juniors by killing

They say ragging is just a bit of fun. They say it helps seniors to know juniors. They say it toughens juniors. They say post-ragging the ragger and the ragged enter into a benign friendship that can last a lifetime. So they say. Then we hear of suicides and deaths which are not called murders because the seniors were only brutally beating up a junior and it was ridiculous of the junior to go and die. S/he should have known it was just a bit of fun.

Typically, fathers and mothers to whom youngsters like Aman Kachroo, the latest fatality of ragging, complain, later say, "We never thought that it was so serious." Young brides tortured for dowry by their in-laws, also complain. But they are sent back after "patch-ups" to die by fire or hanging. Why do parents not take their children's life-and-death problems seriously? I suspect it is because of the huge amounts of money they have spent on getting them admitted to college or married. Unable to bring themselves to write off those costs, they end up writing off their children.

The point to take note of here is that dowry is part of our culture. Ragging isn't. It is part of our colonial legacy. Yet ragging is tolerated when other colonial legacies are aggressively questioned because it fits in with our feudalism. Those who have social/economic/political power are expected to use it to torture/exploit/kill the weak. Ragging follows the same principle.

I remember an incident from decades ago that has stuck in my memory to this day. The daughter of a family friend came home from her first term of college in Baroda full of happiness at how she and her gang had tortured a new girl in their dormitory so consistently every night that she had left the college. They hadn't liked the girl for the amount of oil she put in her hair.

Here's an account that I wrote home of my first day in a Hall of Residence at Bristol University. Having described how freshers get invited by turn to high table so that the staff get to know them and then to the junior high table so that the seniors get to know them, I go on to describe the post-dinner meet freshers were invited to in a senior student's room. All the seniors in our annexe came for coffee and biscuits. Amidst much joking, laughter and horseplay, "the seniors told us exactly how to manipulate things if we were in trouble. We are expected to be in by 10.30 p m on weekdays and 11 at weekends. In case we were late, we were told which window was always open to get in through. If it happened to be closed, we were told which balcony was the easiest to climb!"

In feudal terms, I was the weakest of the freshers. I was the wrong skin colour and race. I was also thinner than the others. I was perfect material for raggers to pick on. But I felt instantly included and went on to make many friends amongst the seniors.

Monday, March 9, 2009

That repressive thing called family name

A mother whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen, recently sent me stuff that he had written about his experiences in life and in mental health institutions. She wanted my opinion on the quality of the writing and its publishability. I found the writing fascinating and advised her to show it to a couple of publishers who specialise in first person accounts of this kind.

A few days ago I heard back from her. One of the two publishers she had approached, had shown an interest in publishing the book. I said I was happy to hear that. She said she would call me again to discuss something else.

She called me yesterday. After some hesitation she revealed that the family was against the book being published in the son's name. The furthest they were willing to go was to allow him to use his first name only. She asked me what I thought they should do.
I asked her what she thought they should do. She said they could publish it under his first name. I asked her what he thought of this idea. She said he was keen to have his full name on it.

Then she went into a monologue. Why should the family object to that? It is his name, the only one he has and he has a complete right over it. The monologue stopped on a longish pause. Then she said quietly, "I suppose I'll have to fight this one out with my family. It is nobody's fault that he turned out the way he is. Not ours, but certainly not his."

Her voice was strong as she said this. But it broke when she told me that even her doctor daughter, settled in the US, did not support her on this. Not too many years ago the mother had fought bitterly with the family for this daughter's right to marry the man of her choice. And all she could say now to her mother was, "I'm against his using the family name. But do as you like. I'm not concerned. I carry another family's name now."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

When Pamuk speaks

I went to hear Orhan Pamuk at the British Council on the 5th. I expected it to be a stimulating evening. It was that and more. The "more" came during the brief Q and A session, which revealed us to ourselves.

I have read Pamuk's "Snow". It isn't a book you can zip through. It tells a difficult tale. It isn't trying to amuse its readers. There's no attempt to touch the emotions. No psychological insights into characters that will help you to understand and thus empathise with them. It attempts to engage you not with the problems of the individual, but with a religio-political situation that stretches across two continents, impinging on and influencing every action of the citizens of Turkey from choice of dress to choice of friends, coffee bars, plays.

In conversation with Sunil Sethi, Pamuk spoke about the sources and methods of his writing, described his brief encounter with architectural studies, his early wish to paint and his ultimate decision to write. At one point Sethi offered an encapsulated analysis of Pamuk's major preoccupations and approach and asked him to comment. Interlocutors do this to establish their credentials. They are saying I have made a long and deep study of your work and since I have a sharp mind, I have arrived at this very clever interpretation of all your novels put together. Such a person's credentials are only partly established if the writer acquiesces with his analysis. What puts the cherry on the cake is if the writer looks at him with admiration for his perspicacity, nods vigorously and says, "That's it. Nobody has put it so well before."

Pamuk disagreed with where Sethi had put the empahsis on analysing his preoccupations and then went on to say that he himself did not know what he had written till a few years after the event. By then he would have heard and read varied takes on his novel and through them he began to see what he had actually written. "And then," he chortled, "then I teach my novel to my students".

Then came the Q and A.

Question one (not verbatim--I wasn't taking notes): "What do you think of the problems Indian writers in English face in writing about Indian themes?"
(Gloss: our overweening self-importance in thinking that any writer who visits our country needs to have given careful thought to our writers' problems. One also suspects that the gentleman who asked was prompted by Pamuk's white skin to forget that he didn't write in English himself, and would not feel any natural sympathy for those who did)

Pamuk answered succinctly. There is a language we speak with our grandmothers and grocers and that is the language we write in. So I write in Turkish. But there is also a language of communication. English is that language across cultures. So I am happy to be translated into English. As for the problems of Indian writers, I really have no opinion because yours is a very complex country with complex problems.

Question two (again not verbatim): You value your solitude greatly Mr Pamuk. But today writers are forced to be out in the market. How then do you hold on to your solitude?
(Gloss: We writers live in a rarefied, ethereal space. Ever since dirty lucre stepped onto the scene, we're being hauled kicking and screaming into the bazaar)

Mr Pamuk: Oh I enjoy being at events like this as much as I want my solitude. I wouldn't want to be at such events everyday, and I wouldn't want to have solitude everyday. When some of my colleagues complain about the world intruding on their work I tell them not to access their email and to unplug their telephones.

Now, my question to myself is this: Why was I so astonished at his candour? Why was I so taken up by the fact that he had laughed at himself? Why was I so relieved that he had de-romanticised, de-mystified his writing?

Short answer: Because we ourselves practice several forms of hypocrisy of which the common element is, not to tell it as it is. Because where I particularly come from, the Marathi cultural space, to laugh at yourself or at somebody else whose achievements are many and of a high order, is to demean her/him/yourself. It is to lose social/historical height. It is to declare your own lack of cultural gravitas.

Example: Paresh Mokashi's film "Harishchandrachi factory", a fictionalised account of how Dadasaheb Phalke made the first Indian silent film, was not as much as considered for a nomination in any category of the recently declared Zee Gaurav Awards, because it had dared make the audience laugh at the whimsicalities of a man who was one of the tallest idols enshrined in the Marathi mind. The jury who judged the film didn't notice that the very form in which the film was made itself constituted the finest tribute that a contemporary film-maker could offer Phalke. Nor did it notice the poignancy that underlay every scene that made us laugh. Such subtleties are beyond us. We go by rules of thumb. Laughter equals mockery. Tears equal fine sentiment.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The brown man's burden

I want to pick holes. It's a task right after my heart. I hold Tarun Tejpal in some respect. He is brave, writes acerbically though sometimes too self-consciously about important issues, and always has a well-defined viewpoint, which he puts out there without mincing words. But this time I'm going to pick holes.

In his essay, "The Missionary Position" in Tehelka dated Saturday 7 March 2009, Tejpal makes "Slumdog Millionaire" and its cheerleaders his target. But every time he thinks he's scored a hit, he misses. Here are a few statements I have problems with in the very first two paragraphs.

1) "Slumdog Millionaire is one more representation of India as the white man sees it, not as we do."

Is the film a 'representation of India'? Does it even set out to be that? Can anybody presume to "represent" such a vast and complex country in a single two-hour film?

I haven't seen the film, but from what I've read, it appears to be no more than a sentimental story (originally written by a brown man, not white) set in Mumbai, with Mumbai characters and Mumbai locations. To my mind that does not, cannot, amount to a 'representation' of India.

Who are these "we" Mr Tejpal refers to? Do "we" have a single view of India? Some "we's" thought Satyajit Ray misrepresented India in "Pather Panchali". Some thought Vijay Tendulkar misrepresented India in "Ghashiram Kotwal". Those "we's" tried their best not to let either film or play out of the country. Yet both Satyajit Ray and Vijay Tendulkar were brown men.

Several "we's" think an entire tribe of Hindi film makers have misrepresented India scandalously and with impunity for years. In Jakarta, a young giggling couple asked me if all the young boys and girls in India dance and sing in parks, on mountain slopes and in the streets. Jakarta was then in love with "Kuch kuch hota hai". I told them it happens in films only. In real life young people are not even allowed to fall in love with each other, leave alone sing and dance together in public.

2) "It's worthwhile to remember we did not tell an Indian story and force the world to recognise it. They told us an Indian story and forced us to applaud it."

Here "we" has changed identity. Now "we" are presumably Indian fiction writers and film-makers. 'They' are presumably western fiction writers and film-makers. Tejpal himself has written fiction. Did he do so to force particular responses? Story-tellers don't do that, do they? Their hope is mostly to entertain their readers/viewers with a good old yarn and occasionally to engage their attention with a perspective they think they have gained on the material or philosophical problems of our world. If they can stimulate thought and feeling in their readers/viewers, they are happy.

But that is not what Mr. Tejpal means, though I wish he'd say plainly what he means. What he seems to be implying here is that, by giving Slumdog so many Oscars, the west forced our hands together in applause. He sniffs a conspiracy there. A huddle of men and women across two continents sat together and, with malicious glints in their eyes said, we shall give all awards, BAFTA, Oscars, Globe, the lot, to "Slumdog Millionaire" to put India down. How neurotic can you get?

3) (This one is long and colourful) "A bit like Thomas Babington Macaulay, who declared from behind the musketry of the colonial conqueror that a 'single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia'. Looking up a long barrel with gunpowder at its end, we quietly acquiesced. Quietly turned our backs on hundreds of classical and medieval texts [a long list follows]. And having acquiesced in our classification by another--ill-informed at that--proceeded to spend the next nearly 200 years hunting for approval."

When Macaulay said what he said, more than ninety per cent of "us" didn't even have a choice between acquiescing and turning our backs on our own great writers and thinkers because we were barred from reading and writing. Sanskrit was the tongue of brahmins. When our bhakti saints dared write commentaries on some of our epics in prakrit, the brahmins tormented them, ostracised them, flung their songs into rivers. But even then, we passed our epics down orally from generation to generation and sang the bhakti saints' songs while we tilled our land, skinned carcasses, pressed oil, worked at our bellows and looms and struggled to survive. We were lucky that people like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, influenced by the white man, opened schools for us. Even then, the upper castes threw cowdung at us and our teachers because the 'great thinkers of the past' like Manu, had created categories of human beings in which we and our mothers were placed alongside cattle. Those who couldn't do the jobs we did, learned Macaulay's English to survive. They went to democratic institutions called universities which the white man set up. There they were given the opportunity to study both Shakespeare and Kalidas.

Tarun Tejpal hasn't liked "Slumdog Millionnaire". He thinks it is implausible. Fine. He thinks it's a specious story. That too is fine. But by locating it in Macaulay's cultural-political space, he has produced a ridiculously specious post-colonial argument that stinks of academic populism.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bling is the thing

My paper tells me that a certain British gentleman by the name of Geoff Chapman is appalled that the beggar mafia in Mumbai might be maiming children to increase their begging power. He found that piece of information in an article in a British tabloid whose headline went: "The real Slumdog Millionaires: Behind the cinema fantasy, mafia gangs are deliberately crippling children for profit."

One of the nightmares of mothers whose children go missing is this--if it's a girl she's going to be sold into prostitution; if it's a boy he's going to be maimed for begging. It's almost a relief then to get that call for ransom which may eventually mean getting back the child's battered body but which might miraculously mean, the child's safe return.

Mr Chapman is associated with charities that campaign against child abuse. In our case, he must have seen how useless such a campaign would be. So he's taken the route our harassed, exploited, cheated rustics take. He has written to our PM asking him if it is indeed true that children are crippled for begging.

We must assume that this is the first our PM has ever heard of such a thing. For his office has passed Mr Chapman's query down through the usual chain to the Maharashtra Government for follow-up action. It'll be a while before Mr Chapman hears back from the PM, because what the Maharashtra government intends doing is probe his "allegations".

But the probe, at the end of which the government will in all likelihood find the shining truth that no beggar mafia operates in this heartless way in the State, might itself take a little longer than expected because it will have to take its place in a growing line of probes. The Bombay High Court has demanded to know from the government why so many minor girls in the State's ashramshalas are returning home pregnant. There's a long-pending probe into severe malnutrition among children below five which needs to be put on a war footing. Then there are probes due into why schools in our villages have no teachers, blackboards, drinking water and toilets and into who eats the nutritious food meant for schoolchildren under the government's free meals programme. There's another probe pending into why public health centres in villages have no medicines, or doctors for that matter.

In time the government will give itself that quaint thing called a "clean chit". In its answer to Mr Chapman, it will mention that there's a remand home in Mumbai in a place called Dongri where little beggars without arms are incarcerated along with delinquents of various descriptions for counseling. One might wonder what they get told --that it was wrong to have allowed themselves to be kidnapped and maimed?

Such counseling must also have come the way of those two wretched youngsters who were picked up by our efficient police despite their piteous wails that they weren't beggars or vagrants but schoolboys from families who paid their fees. You will remember how long it took for the parents to tear through red tape to get back their sons. The way into Dongri is quick. The way out is not.

But hush. We will not tell Mr Chapman these things. Not only because we are patriots and would never do such a thing; but because it would not be fair to burden him with the responsibility of such knowledge.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hollywoodification of Bertolt Brecht

A few days ago I saw Fritz Lang's 1943 film "Hangmen also die". Bertolt Brecht is credited with scripting it. He is called 'Bert' Brecht in the titles. The great American gobbling trick. Gobble up identities. Gobble up cultures. Turn names from trousers into briefs.
The film keeps you riveted to your seat. The script is wound up tight. You don't notice the holes because you're catapulted over them. You are kept in suspense because you want to be in suspense--the delicious pleasure of not knowing when you are certain you'll soon know.
The acting is abominable. Brian Donlevy, as the assassin of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich protector of German-occupied Prague is a non-starter. Heydrich was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters who parachuted down from a British plane. Keeping to its formula, Hollywood has replaced those proud and passionate fighters with a single hero. Fair enough. But why cast someone who walks and talks like a sleepwalker and is about as expressive as a smooth slate on which no word was every written? Aiding and abetting him is another blank slate, Anna Lee, who plays the daughter of a hostage. Her single expression for all emotions from fear to love is an open mouth and popping eyes.
But let's return to the script. Mr Brecht, was that really your doing? How could you have turned a people's fight into the heroics of a single individual? How could you have allowed his worth to outweigh the lives of the 400 hostages, all members of the resistance, who went to their deaths to keep him alive?
I turned to Brecht himself for an answer and found it on page 259 of his "Journals 1934-1955". Below is one of his many entries on writing for the film.
16 OCT 42
Not a bad week, that: Stalingrad held out, Wilkie in Chunking demanded a second front. US planes joined the attack on Germany--and Wexley and I are working 'to the best of our talents and ability' on the script of TRUST THE PEOPLE (our title). Just now, right before the shooting, Lang hauled poor Wexley into his office and screamed at him behind closed doors that he wants to make a 'Hollywood picture' and shits on scenes that show the people etc. The change in the man, once $700,000 is in the offing, is remarkable. He sits with all the airs of a dictator and old movie hand behind his boss-desk, collecting 'surprises', little bits of suspense, tawdry sentimental touches and falsehoods and takes 'licenses' for the box-office. For an hour or two--I am naturally condensing this--as I sit in my treacherously pretty garden and force myself to read a detective story, I feel the disappointment and terror of the intellectual worker who sees the product of his labours snatched away and mutilated."
Poor Mr Brecht. You should have known this would happen when they called you Bert. Anyway, the good news was that the money you earned from "Hangmen also die", enabled you to write "The Visions of Simone Machard", "Schweik in the Second World War" and your adaptation of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi". Not your best plays perhaps, but all yours, nevertheless.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Swimming pool tales

Shivaji Park was being swept inside out today by a posse of some dozen fluorescent orange jacketed sweepers. The dust flew from the south end of the Park to settle in the west and from the west to settle in the north. Once the sweepers had got the dust to migrate and settle, Shivaji Park was able to breathe without a kerchief to its nose.

The occasion for such meticulous cleanliness was major. Mananiya Uddhavsahebji Balasahebji Thackerayji is scheduled to open the renovated Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool today. The pool has been closed for at least four years. Just as everybody thought BMC, which runs the pool, was making secret plans to sell off the land to yet another mall-maker, here was a hoarding with father Thackeray and son Thackeray, announcing its re-opening.

The MGMO was said to be the first olympic size swimming pool in Asia or something equally impressive. At least four generations of Shivaji Parkites and their neighbours have swum in its chlorine-scented blue-tiled depths. Being eminently affordable, its surface was always a knobbly carpet of bobbing heads.

My own relationship with water has never been cosy. Father once took us on a month-long learn-to-swim holiday in Pune. I saw intrepid Pune matrons leap into the Tilak talav clad in nine-yard saris. I saw toddlers splash around happily in the Law College swimming pool where Father took us for morning lessons. But nothing convinced me that water didn't pull you down and keep you under till there was no reason to come up. So while my athletic younger sister took to the water like a fish, I stood on the edge every day, muttering one-two-three and doing nothing about it.

One day two hefty arms picked me up from behind and threw me in. I came up gasping and stared incredulously at grandfather Mandke, a neighbour, who'd done the deed. He laughed and told my father that's the way to do it. I never spoke to him again but I was in the water. Too late. By the time I had dared to lift my feet off the swimming pool floor while holding on to the bar for dear life, the holiday was over.

Back home, I was enrolled in the evening ladies' batch at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool. We were taught to the accompaniment of hit songs. "Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahan" etc. Talat Mehmood sounding like the ripples on the water.

My coach was a gentleman (?) called Mr Bathena. He put me through a rudimentary breast stroke and then decided to teach me the butterfly stroke. He told my parents that I was made for this complex stroke. I realised soon enough what I was made for. I was made for touching in three different places. The breast stroke and freestyle offered touch opportunities in only one place-- the stomach.

Fear of water had disappeared. Fear of man took over. I don't remember what excuse I gave my parents for wanting to quit. Whatever it was, it was not the truth.

If I'm pushed into water now (only pools; seas pull you down and keep you under etc) I'm sure I'll get by with the crude breast stroke Mr Bathena was kind enough to teach me before progressing to more ambitious plans. But I don't think I want to be tested.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Adiga's tiger: more brown than white

I finished reading "The White Tiger" yesterday. It took me a long time to get through. I should thank Adiga for that. His book didn't keep me away from my responsibilities. I dread books that take me into such deep waters that I don't want to surface unless forced out--The Sea of Poppies. I also dread books that are written in such compelling prose, with such blinding wit and blazing anger that you are ignited--The Case of Exploding Mangoes. In both cases I lose all sense of time, commitments, assignments, eating, drinking. I spend every minute I can spare and cannot spare, reading, and that's not good for me.

"The White Tiger"? It was like dipping your toes at the edge of a brown pond, looking at a flat surface with no streaks of darting life within. I would read a few pages during breaks in the 9 o'clock news and that seemed enough for any given day. There were days when I didn't even do that, upset by some infelicity in the writing, lack of rhythm in a line, absence of feeling for people, places, words.

I don't care a rotten fig about the subject of the novel. People are frothing at the mouth about showing India "in a bad light". They didn't want "Pather Panchali" to go to Cannes for the same treacherous crime. That was, what--50 years ago. And the "bad light" of reality still hasn't turned brighter. Whose fault is that? Anyway, every culture has a dark underside. Ours just happens to be of such impressive proportions that it comes up over the sides to look in over the topside. What I do care about is my time. Why did I feel obliged to spend so much of it with a man called Balram Halwai who puts himself in such an unconvincing nutshell right at the start that it should have acted as a warning? "In terms of formal education, I maybe somewhere lacking. I never finished school, to put it bluntly. Who cares! I haven't read many books, but I've read all the ones that count. I know by heart the works of the four greatest poets of all time--Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib and a fourth fellow whose name I forget. I am a self-taught entrepreneur."

I have heard cabbies from the Darkness. They speak at great length as they drive, and they all have sweet, poetic tongues. Every fourth sentence they speak is a muhawara that brings wafting into the musty insides of their cabs a direct whiff of their soil. And look at Balram Halwai's self-introduction--clunky and graceless. Not a sign of that grand manner prompted by a self-image that rises high above cabbying.

I felt obliged to read about this man because his creator was awarded the GREAT BOOKER PRIZE. AWE!!!!

Anyway I'm done with him now. I doubt if a single word, line, scene or character of this badly constructed, superficially observed novel is going to stay with me. Aravind Adiga, you need to pull up your socks for the next one, mate. Underside or Overside, try to look beneath surfaces. That's where you'll find life.

PS: It's such a relief to be writing a blog. If I were reviewing "The White Tiger", I would have gone looking with a magnifying glass for "good things to say" about it. I am obsessed with being balanced, with the need to be kind. I am pathologically incapable of stripping writers, playwrights, directors, actors down to their chaddis for the grave sins they commit against their art. We are all of us fallible aren't we?

Dirty old man

A prestigious school in our vicinity is headed by a principal who touches girls. I'd heard about this a couple of years ago from one of the teachers. I had asked her then, is this a known thing? Do other teachers know about it? She'd said yes, they all knew. I'd said, and he is still the principal of the school? She said yes he is. I said how? Why? She said you know how it is. Some teachers are his bootlickers. Those who aren't, still don't want to rock the boat. And finally these things happen behind closed doors. It'll be his word against ours. His word against the word of girls who've been touched, I asked. She widened her eyes and said oh the girls won't speak. They'd be too scared. He's the principal after all and their future is in his hands.

It was a conversation that had lodged in my mind like a little worm. Last week the mother of a girl who goes to the school was having lunch with me. I asked her, is it true that the school principal touches girls? She said yes he does. I said you know about this. Yes, she said. So what have you done to protect your daughter, I asked. Have you complained? She said a mother of a girl who had been touched had called her and a dozen other mothers about the problem. They had decided to get together and decide on a plan. On the day of the meeting only my lunch guest was present. What could just the two of us do, she asked. What indeed!

This morning I was talking to the grandmother of a girl who attends the school. I asked her if she knew about the principal. She said of course I've known about it for years. I said so what have you done? She said I mentioned it to my son. He told her if she's every called to the principal's room to take a friend along. Oh, I said. And suppose he puts his hands on both girls? She shuddered at the idea and said that's why I'm so worried. Someone should send an anonymous letter to the Trustees. Or someone should tell this man's wife. But why can parents not get together and complain, I said. I don't think it's always a good idea to be confrontationist, she said. A roundabout way is often more effective. So has "someone" taken a roundabout route, I asked. I should talk to my son again, she said.

I am appalled. The principal of this elite school has got away for years with his illicit pleasures and those who should care most for their children's welfare, the parents, sit like scared mice in their dark little holes. The shocking thing is that these parents are some of the most influential people in our society--CEOs and suchlikes. If they chose to speak out, the media and all its uncles would be on the principal's tail. So what kind of fear is it that clams them up?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Muthalik's mother

I don't think the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury, understands the majority of women in our country. This is obvious from her latest utterance on the matter of Pramod Muthalik and his values. "I wonder how his mother raised him," Ms Chowdhury sniffed the other day. "We'll have to ask her where he gets this attitude."

We can imagine what Muthalik's mother will say to Ms Chowdhury in answer to that one. It could be any of the following: "Raised him? He raised himself. You think I had the time for it?" Or "He takes after his father. His father used to beat me even if I peeped out of the back door". Or "Women should be women. They shouldn't behave like men." Or, "My mother always said, teach a girl books and one day she'll cut your nose." Or "Such girls can do what they like in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Dilli. Not in Mangalore. We are good, clean, decent people here. We respect our elders. Pramod would have beaten up his younger sisters if they had stepped inside a pub, wouldn't he? These girls were like his sisters. He taught them a lesson for their own good and I'm very proud of him."

Where would that leave Ms Chowdhury?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The March of the Backwards

For all those who want to know in what proportion of religion, caste and community we the people of Maharashtra are divided, here are the numbers from the mouth of the horse-- Mr Chhagan Bhujbal, our back again deputy chief minister. The figures appeared on the front page of "Loksatta", in a report about a non-Maratha delegation's visit to Bhujbal to protest against the Maratha demand for reservation. (Yes, the Marathas are demanding reservations in education, jobs and politics, based on the claim that they are as Backward as your oil-presser, your weaver and your gardener. The trouble of course is that in India you have to be born Backward, the way you have to be born brahmin, adivasi or dalit. You can't claim Backwardness just by being backward.)

So here are the figures that came as a non-sequitur to a delegation member's whimper, "If some other people (read Marathas) are asking for 25 per cent of the 27 per cent OBC quota, are the OBCs, who count for 54 per cent of the population, to remain satisfied with only 2 per cent of the reservations?" Bhujbal's reply, "Basically it is wrong to suppose that OBCs form only 54 per cent of the population. OBCs form 54 per cent (sic), scheduled castes and tribes 20 per cent, Muslims 14 per cent. That makes 85 per cent (sic). The remaining 15 per cent are poor brahmins, Christians and others."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but those numbers add up to 103. So either Maharashtra has an XL pie or somebody's going to be diddled out of 3 per cent reservations. Anyway, this is how the demand progressed.

As a start, Vinayak Mete set his boys on Kumar Ketkar, the editor of Loksatta, because he'd had had the temerity to suggest in a front page article, that a statue of Shivaji in the middle of the Arabian Sea, should not be of prime concern to a State that was full of suicidal farmers and malnourished children. To Ketkar, the fact that this statue was going to be taller even than the Statue of Liberty, appeared to have counted for nothing.

Vinayak Mete got his pictures in the papers all right. This gave him the confidence to ride out into the countryside astride Shivaji's horse, awakening a sense of grievance amongst the Marathas. At the end of the road show, he appeared on huge arches spanning three entrances to Shivaji Park. He stood tall, in immaculate white, on the left hand panel of every arch, nicely balancing Shivaji Maharaj on the other side. His call to fellow Marathas was straight from the heart: "If you are indeed Shivaji's heirs, then this is the time to forget all differences, political, social and economic. Give up one day, just this one day for the future, welfare and asmita of the Marathas, by coming to Shivaji Park in your lakhs." Mercifully for the much abused Shivaji Park, they only came in their thousands.Unfazed, Mete delivered his ultimatum to the government. Concede that we are Backward, give us the reservations we demand, or be damned.

Today was the deadline Mete gave the government. I have scanned all the papers. Do we see pictures of the gathering of stones, the unsheathing of swords? Not a sign. All the newsprint has been swallowed up by that rank outsider Pramod Muthalik of Mangalore. But we must beware. A voice once raised is not so easily silenced. Vinayak Mete's sword now joins other swords that already hang over our heads--the MNS's newly sharpened one and the Shiv Sena's antique Bhavani being the most active. You never know when any one of these will fall and behead the peace we are struggling so constantly to maintain.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sermons as assault

Yesterday was the first Monday on which I switched on the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa programme on Zee Marathi and became gradually depressed. In fact I was so depressed that I turned off the sound for a very long time and then only turned it on when the children were singing. I could not bear this ultimate adult aggression on the five young children whose only fault is that they are wonderful singers.

The Sa Re Ga Ma Pa programme in all its avatars has been a milch cow for Zee. Marathis love music. And everybody loves children. So this edition of the programme in particular has garnered viewers from every corner of the country and the world. Monday and Tuesday nights have become very special. You can see that on the mornings that follow, when walkers round Shivaji Park animatedly discuss the previous night's performances.

Over the last couple of months, the children's popularity has zoomed so high that they have become something of an "item". They are invited as a group to all kinds of dos to sing and be blessed. Zee must be very happy with the publicity it gets. The organisers must be happy because, if the li'l champs are singing, crowds will automatically come. And the parents? It's difficult to say. Some might have reservations; but they go along. We aren't used to standing up to money power even on behalf of our children. However, there must be some parents at least who believe that their children are fortunate to be getting all this "exposure". Zee is repeatedly thanked by them for running the programme, forgetting that Zee is living off their children! Two shows ago I noticed that all five children looked under the weather. For the first time ever, they sang below par.

All along, the judges have admonished the children against letting their success go to their heads. "You are terrific singers and all that but we would like to tell you and your parents that this should not be allowed to interfere with your childhood. You must guard that." Oh yes? Then why was an assault launched on their childhood last night?

It was Republic Day. Time to celebrate what India means and can be made to mean. Time to admire our Constitution which has given us rights which many the world over do not have. But that was not what the children were allowed to celebrate. They were not given the right to sing their own favourites to celebrate the day. They sang songs about Shivaji and soldiers who die fighting for the country. They were taught these songs by Pandit Hridaynath Mangeshkar who sat between the judges and gave a lengthy exegesis on every song that was sung. Mothers of army and air force men were special invitees to the show. They were called upon to speak about why their sons had chosen to join the armed forces and how they had dealt with their death when it occurred. The little singers stood beside the anchor for the entire length of every speech that was delivered. Our children are trained for adult preaching. They are also trained in self-preservation devices. But all the same, I'd like to pass on one that I used pretty effectively during such crises in my childhood. I'd recite the last stanza of Jabberwocky to myself, making "it" stand for the tormentor of the moment:
One, two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went gallumphing back.

Monday, January 26, 2009

red fruit tree

In October 2007, I caught a red blur out of the corner of my right eye that made me stop and look. My exact location at the time was the north face of Shivaji Park a few hundred metres from Scouts Pavilion on the left and Barista on the right. I stopped on the very first round of my two-round daily morning walk around Shivaji Park. Stopping in the middle of your walk, if it's a health habit rather than a pastime, is a bad idea. But I stopped, and looked, and found that the red blur came from a tree that was hung with fruit the colour of a parrot's beak.

As I stood staring, other walkers stopped to stare. None of us had noticed the tree before though it looked many years old and must have been around for years. It was tall and handsome and didn't look like the sort that shed its leaves any time of the year. But it wasn't the kind that would catch your attention in a line of trees either. But that red fruit was something else.

Eager to know what it was called, I called up my botanist major (40 years ago, First Class, University of Bombay) niece. It's a tall, well-built tree with of long, deep green leaves hanging in clusters of six and fat fruit as large as tennis balls hanging behind the clusters, I told her and waited for her to throw a Latin name at me. My niece hummed and hawed and then said, "Oh?"

I drew a similar blank on Google. Perhaps I didn't know the key words that would get me the information I was looking for--namely the name of the tree, its origins, it's...Anyway what I was looking forward to now was future developments. I watched the red fruit grow black, then split, while still hanging on the tree. At some point the fruit must have fallen off; because one morning it wasn't there.

A new year dawned and now I waited to see the flowers. A rough calculation based on the mango suggested that there would be roughly three months between flowering and fruiting. So if I had seen the fruit in October, the early buds must have appeared in March or April. They didn't, not in March or April 2008, nor any of the months that followed. Then suddenly in September 2008, I spotted small green fruit hanging on the tree. I reported this to my niece. She observed, cryptically, "The fruit must be the flower." It was my turn to say "Oh"?

So okay, that's Nature's way, I told myself; but why chase a miracle for information? The idea was to wait for the magic of that red to happen again. I waited and looked and waited and looked. People asked me what I was looking at. I told them, "You see the green fruit on that tree? It'll soon turn as red as a parrot's beak."

I'm not sure if they were impressed by the prospect. But through October, November and December they kept inquiring kindly after the colour of the fruit. It had remained obdurately green. It is green even now as January ends. I'm not going to ask my niece why. I now believe the fruit will stay green for 12 years and burst suddenly into colour one fine morning. October 2007 was the last time it happened. October 2017 will be the next. I will wait.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Second thoughts on "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe"

In 1967 when Tendulkar's "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe" was first staged, critics instantly saw in it a lift from Friedrich Durrenmatt's novella "The Dangerous Game". While admitting that he had indeed been influenced by the novella, Tendulkar subtly demolished the idea of his play being a straight lift by mentioning, in the preface to the published script, a few other sources that had influenced him--a real life incident for instance, when he had shown a theatre group the way to a community hall where they were scheduled to present a mock trial, just as Samant does in his play. He also cited a poem by Shirish Pai which gave him the character of his protagonist Leela Benare along with the film "We're no angels", Acharya Atre's play "Dr Lagoo" and the time plays of J. B. Priestley. This said, he went on to aver that "the core of this play and the life that is reflected in it, belong one hundred per cent to our society".
I couldn't agree with him more. "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe" could not have been conceived and performed on any other soil but this, and by nobody else but Tendulkar, who has consistently let down his female protagonists as he lets down Leela Benare here..
The climax of "Shantata ..." presents the moral world-view of the Indian male, expressed in the overheated speeches of Sukhatme and Kashikar who are playing the counsel for the prosecution and the judge respectively in Benare's mock trial. The speeches are all about the sanctity of motherhood and the danger that free (and therefore easy) women like Benare spell for society.
When I first saw the play forty years ago, I remember thinking vaguely that Tendulkar understood the plight of women in our society. But now I think otherwise. Tendulkar had no real understanding of women. In putting women in situations where their vulnerability was maximally on display, he claimed he was only reflecting reality. Which reality? Reality is not some kind of objective phenomenon out there that remains unaltered, whoever the observer. Like a photographer, a writer too frames just that slice of reality out of the whole that interests him or serves his purpose. What a writer excludes from that slice tells us as much about his purpose as what he includes.
I propose that what Tendulkar includes and excludes in "Shantata Court Chalu Ahe", suggests that he is not really interested in Benare's reality. He is more interested in the reality of middle-class society vis-a-vis socially constructed gender roles. As a progressive writer, he is filled with revulsion by the moral power they put into the hands of narrow little men and women. The mock trial is thus a re-enactment of the village or caste panchayat meetings we read of everyday which sentence women to brutal, humiliating punishments for contravening community and caste rules.
The mock trial is a reflection of that. But Tendulkar does grave injustice to Leela Benare by not allowing her to speak out against the rabid shredding of her character by the court. If this is indeed a "mock" trial, and she is "the accused", she would have to make a statement. If the mock has become real, and everybody is giving vent to their actual feelings, then she too should have the opportunity to do so. But neither of these things happens. What happens is an internal monologue, one of the best-known in Marathi dramatic literature, but external silence. Her silence confirms her "guilt". The predators shrug the whole thing off as "just a game" while Leela Benare sobs uncontrollably, her spirit broken.
In her introduction to "Vijay Tendulkar: Five Plays", an Oxford University Press publication, Arundhati Banerjee makes a significant comparison between Nora's last speech and Benare's monologue. She points out that Benare's monologue "lacks the note of protest that characterises the speech of Ibsen's heroine. It is more a self-justification than an attack on society's hypocrisies. It is poignant, sensitive and highlights the vulnerability of women in our society."
Nora admits to her crime, but while doing so, she also puts her finger on the social forces that drove her to it. This new awareness of what she is vis-a-vis the world, gives her something precious that she has never had before, that she hadn't even dreamt she had a right to -- self-esteem. Benare on the other hand, whose self-esteem is already shaky when the play starts, loses it completely when she allows the court to corner her into admitting that she has "sinned". All she can say in that famous internal monologue is that her private life is her own business. Others have nothing to do with it.
But they do, don't they? Our society has everything to do with the lives of women, particularly single women. Indira Sant's devastatingly funny/angry poem "Ekti" (Woman Alone) tells us how much the world concerns itself with who the single woman is, where she comes from, where she goes, with whom she goes, why she laughs and why she cries.
Sant's abstraction of the single woman continues to live in the face of the world's interference. Tendulkar's heroine attempts suicide. That is the reality he has chosen to reflect.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

the hungry world

The interdependencies of global life boggle the mind. Last year, climate change and extreme weather led to poor harvests in major grain growing countries like Australia. Concern for the environment combined with complex political issues drove America to turn millions of acres of wheat, maize and other crops to produce bio-fuel for cars. Shortage of food gave traders in sub-Saharan Africa the chance to intensify the shortage by hoarding grain. Food riots broke out elsewhere in the developing world, leading to political instability. FAO reports that 2008 saw the biggest rise in malnutrition. Then recession stepped in and the World Food Programme was forced to take severe cuts. So the world's hungry will now be hungrier.

Around the time these reports came in, I happened to be reading "Aydaan", the memoirs of dalit writer and activist Urmila Pawar. Though she grew up barefoot and occasionally unwashed, her parents somehow always managed to put two square meals in her and her siblings' stomachs. But hunger was a permanent condition of her community. ("Will hunger-fires forge a poem? Will music die in the fire of hunger?" asks the poet Namdeo Dhasal.) Mothers, ever resourceful, found a way to satisfy the hunger of their wailing children. Pawar tells us how it was done. The mother gave the child a scrap of coarse grain bread, difficult to chew, and asked her/him to "dip" bits of it in an empty cooking pot as accompaniment. Magically the child's hunger was satisfied.

Another technique that one of Pawar's readers told her about was to feed a bawling child in the usual way but with an empty hand. The child opens its mouth and closes it with every "mouthful". After a while the child stops crying. I have no explanation for the effectiveness of the "empty hand" technique except to hazard the guess that no child, however hungry, has the lung power to cry for ever. But I have found an explanation for the effectiveness of the "empty pot" technique, thanks to Dr Yash Paul of PGI Chandigarh. We must remember here that a piece of coarse grain bhakri is a very slow thing to eat.

Dr Yash Paul, whose patients are well-fed, advises them to spend 15 to 20 minutes eating one chapati, and 50 minutes over a whole meal of cereals, veggies, dal and salad. Slow eating gives the satiety centre in the brain time to suppress the hunger centre, producing a feeling of fullness before you reach out for a second helping. The result is loss of weight and decreased risk of heart disease.

That's not all. There's an added bonus to the "Yash India Technique" which should fetch Dr Paul a Padma Shri at least. He has discovered that slow eating controls "the Alpha Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone and Malonyl COA expression, thus reducing the stress hormone in the body, which in turn leads to lesser darkening or decreased melanin deposition in the body". In plain words, this means our national dream is realised. We come up with "a clearer and fairer complexion in two to three months". Dr Paul now awaits an international patent for the technique.

If our poor had time to spare from foraging for food, they too could get a patent on their centuries-old techniques for beating hunger. This would be at least as useful in today's world as the "Yash India Technique" for the over-fed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The shit fields of Raigad

There's a particular kind of madness in our public life that allows carts to be put before horses. The latest example is the recently scrapped "Liberate Raigad from the hagandari" campaign.

"Hagandari" may be translated as "shit valley", though Moleswoth's Marathi-English dictionary puts it in a more roundabout way as "A place of general resort for the disburdening of nature".

Those who have some acquaintance with village life in Maharashtra, know that there are places on the outskirts of villages marked for the disburdening of nature. In recent times, we have seen two village-based Marathi films, "Valu" and "Dhudgus" in which villagers go singly or in groups to disburden nature, carrying what are known as "tumbrel-s". These are empty provision canisters to which wire handles have been attached for convenient carrying of water. There is no water on tap in hagandaris.

Middle-class urban people are squeamish about this part of village life. It falls outside our poetic imagination of rusticity. An aunt of mine hated "Valu" because it showed the village priest bound off to the hagandari after every meal because he couldn't resist having helping upon helping of his wife's spicy chutney. My aunt didn't think that was funny. Nor did the priest's wife, as it happens.

To return to Raigad, one fine day a bunch of government officials (or maybe there was just one powerful one) decided to liberate their district from this shameful practice. On this particularly creative day in their lives they even thought of an effective way to do so. It doesn't matter that the idea was lifted from "Lage raho Munnabhai". What mattered was that they weren't planning to beat the shit out of people as government officials tend to do--you know, simply send havaldars to people's homes with lathis and people shit their pants within four walls leaving hagandaris spic and span. No. Their plan was to use the womanpower at their command to do it with flowers. Anganwadi workers from villages selected for the pilot project were to be the angels of cleanliness.

This was how the plan was executed. Anganwadi workers got up at four in the morning, trudged to the hagandari approach road with flowers and a loaded camera. They said "Good morning" to all prospective disburdeners of nature, handed over a flower to each and took a snap, politely requesting her/him to look out for their mugs in the papers the following day. The same routine was repeated after working hours. By the time the women returned home, they had no time left for their housewifely duties. This caused much domestic rage, proving that working women are like dholkis, to be beaten at both ends.

It was the domestic crisis in the selected villages that stirred the local branch of a trade union to lodge a protest. The campaign was cut short. The cart has been stored away. Long live the hagandari. But two questions remain. Are these creative officials looking at the possibility of providing the village with some horses? Like are they planning to build public toilets for the villagers' convenience? Or are we to assume that toilets exist but villagers still insist on disburdening nature in the open in order to keep the toilets clean?

Question number two. What did the villagers do while the campaign was on? Did they find that flowers were an effective way of stopping up the passages of nature? I see some horticultural entrepreneurship possibilities there.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Narayan Rane plays the game

For a little while back then, in those terrible days post 26th November, we, the people, held centre stage. Politicians, their hearing deadened by years of accumulated ear-wax, had to call in professional ear-wax removers--there are still some left in the working class areas of this shining city--to 'do the needful'. Ears clear, they heard us calling for their heads. Those heads did not fall instantly. They were screwed on too tight. It is a well-known practice amongst politicians to have mechanics attend to their nuts and bolts every morning and tanners to give them a special treatment that makes their skins look human on the outside while they acquire rhinocerotic qualities on the inside.

So we had our moment back then when we were centre stage, shouting "Enough is enough. We want to be safe. We want change." We got change. The Chief Minister resigned with bad grace. The Home Minister resigned without ever understanding why people found his reaction about small ills befalling big cities so shocking. He thought the statement had a nice balance about it--bade bade sheher in the first half, balanced by chhote chhote hadse in the second.

What we got in exchange for Vilasrao and R R were Ashok Chavan, of the supposedly clean image, and Chhagan Bhujbal of the supposedly unclean one. Ashok Chavan's image has since been questioned while Bhujbal's image has remained stable.

We the people have now been pushed to where they the politicians think we belong--off-stage, looking on. And what we see on the political stage is the old national game of Changing Hands (with its sub-games such as hand-in-glove, hand-in-hand, hand-in-pocket etc). This is how the game is played. The players stand in pairs holding hands. When the whistle goes each one quickly lets go of the hand he is holding and snatches one that looks stronger. But the man with the stronger hand had earlier held this one's hand and wishes to have a different hand experience so he snatches his hand out of player 1s to attach himself to player 3. This upsets player 4 who had not only hoped to hold player 3's hand but also to sneak his spare hand into player 1's hand without the referee noticing and thus emerge winner. Left without any hand to hold, the player who thought he would be the winner is out. Yes. He's out.

Narayan Rane is out. And he is sulking. I recall an old children's rhyme that was meant to put sulkers in a good mood. It went (translation from Marathi mine with certain liberties taken to overcome problems that are too complex to go into here) "Pussy cat is sulking, sitting in a nook. There comes her husband, she giggles khukhukkhuk." Versions of this rhyme are now being chanted to Narayanrao but he has still not gone beyond the first "khuk" which he hopes will be interpreted by the media as a contemptuous cough rather than the beginning of a giggle.

Expectedly, nobody is chanting any rhymes to us. Our time is over. We ensured that it would be, because we thought changing ministers was the answer to our problems. That change had a cathartic effect. A catharsis brings about temporary relief accompanied by loss of accumulated steam. Had we retained some of that steam, we could have used it to push for a sustained public debate on our electoral system. If that can be changed, much will change. Else everything remains essentially the same.

shiva in the nude

The terrain around writers and artist has become like a minefield. Every time they take a step this way or that in the fond belief that they are free to do so, they risk having that very idea blow up in their face.

The Times of India dated January 6, 2009, carried a report on its front page headlined, "Artist faces heat for depicting 'nude Shiva' ". On January 5, eight activists of an organisation that styles itself Hindu Janajagruti Samiti--they do not go around the country protesting against dowry, child marriage and female foeticide-- barged into Jehangir Art Gallery and "forcefully" removed a painting of a nude Shiva from Delhi-based artist Nitai Das's show. As if that was not enough to satisfy their lust for moral power, they forced him to remove four other paintings of nudes.

Jehangir Art Gallery has a waiting list that is several years long. Artists from all over the country wait patiently for their precious one-week show to happen. They expect connoisseurs to come and appreciate their work, collectors to buy it. They do not expect some sidey organisation that has taken upon itself the mission of 'saving' our culture, to storm in and start disrupting the show.

The frustrating thing about the Times of India report was that the reporter had not felt the need to ask the gallery what its security was doing while Das was being terrorised in this fashion? Was it not the gallery's responsibility to intervene on his behalf and show the intruders off its premises for misbehaviour? Or does its responsibility end with hiring out its space and collecting rent for it?

Instead of asking the gallery the crucial question about its responsibility, the reporter did something that was completely useless. She asked a couple of artists for their quotes on the issue. The 'who, where, why and how' of reporting has been junked by today's journalists. The solid information that these questions once provided has been replaced by these ubiquitous quotes. So Jogen Chowdhury said the following: "What is the nakedness of Shiva whose lingam is worshipped everyday by devotees? People have no understanding. The government should come in to protect artists."

Guess what the Janajagruti people would say to that if they were interested in verbal argument? They would say, of course we worship lingams. But lingams are in temples where everything is sacred. Moreover, they are not attached to Shiva's body. That makes them abstract symbols and therefore inoffensive.

Atul Dodiya's quote on the other hand, lands us in a patch of quick sand. "I'm all for freedom of expression," he is quoted as saying, "as long as the intent of the artist is not to provoke." How do we gauge the intent of the artist? Which authority can be relied upon to tell us exactly what s/he intended at the time of painting? Or do we put the artist, Das for instance, through a narco test to find out if he intended to provoke us, or more specifically the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, when he painted his nude Shiva? The Janajagruti people will say, why bother with all that when we have a simpler and less expensive test? The proof of the artist's intention lies in how we feel. If we feel provoked, the artist must have intended to provoke.

The disturbing thing in this case is that not a single voice was raised in protest against it. It was not too long ago that artists came out in full force against the BJP and VHP for having a fine arts student of M S University, Chandra Mohan, put behind bars for offending them with "derogatory" pictures of Vishnu, Durga and Jesus. Are we too tired now to protest? Have we begun to accept attacks on artists as part of the system, just as we have come to accept corruption as part of the system? If so, the next step might very well be that we will practise self-censorship in order to avoid trouble.

This happened recently in the case of an exhibition of modern art that was taken around Maharashtra with the express purpose of acquainting the general public with the history of modern art. Yet, after some deliberation, one of the most important figures in this history was left out of the show. M. F. Husain. There could not have been a more resounding victory for cultural terrorists than this.

Friday, January 2, 2009

How difficult it is to be faithful!

I've been asked to review a translation of Urmila Pawar's Sahitya Akademi Award winning autobiography, "Aydaan", which I will do; but meanwhile, here is something I'll not have the space for there.

Aydaan is a generic term for all kinds of containers woven out of cane. Practitioners of skills like these belong to particular communities. Urmila Pawar belongs to the Mahar community of Maharashtra, the community from which Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar rose to become a leader of dalits. Pawar grew up in the rugged hills of the Konkan. That is where she begins the story of her life.

I've read the original book in Marathi. It is a powerful narrative that throws the deprivation of Pawar's people in our face in a language that challenges our squeamish sensibilities. The middle-class squirms because it sees its carefully nurtured ideas of what constitutes decency, shredded to bits. Pawar's fellow dalits squirmed when the book was published because a woman had dared to reveal the gender divisions within the community that made women the further exploited amongst the worst exploited of our country. "Untouchable" is not a word or concept that the civilised world finds easy to understand.

It is such a narrative as this that the translator has attempted to present to the non-Marathi reader. The failure of the attempt is what I want to comment on.

Translation is no longer a question of simply doing. It has become a subject of academic study and theorising.I must admit that I have never occupied myself with the study of translation theory. I go by the utterly unacademic principle of trying to convey the voice of the author as well as I possibly can, to a readership that cannot hear it in the original. This is a huge responsibility which takes days and days of struggle with single words, phrases and lines to fulfill. It is not only the dictionary meaning of words that should concern you. You must listen to their sound, comprehend the associations they carry,get a sense of their texture, tone and rhythm. Most importantly, the translator must forget herself. Like an actor does with a character, she must enter the skin of the writer in order to see and feel the way that person sees and feels. That is what keeping faith with the original means.

Constance Garnett who laboured so long and hard over her translations of the Russian greats--we are all indebted to her because it was through her that many of us first discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevski--did them a service which was also a disservice. She sanitised them in order not to offend Victorian sensibilities.

Vladimir Nabokov in his essay "The art of translation", lists three crimes that translators are prone to commit: "The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and is thus excusable. The next step to hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; ...The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion, as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days."

I wouldn't go so far as to recommend such a severe punishement for the translator of "Aydaan" (I consider her translation of the title as "The Weave of my Life", particularly felicitous), but I would say with certainty that she has committed all three crimes Nabakov lists and one more. She has turned a pithy, punchy 271 page book into a 320 page book because she could not find crisp enough equivalents for the Marathi in English.

All of Nabokov's three translation crimes are present in the following sentence, for example, occurring towards the beginning of the book. The line that should have read, "You press on to the top of the Mirjole hill onto the flat plateau where the sky rests, with the tall, massive jambhul tree rising against it", becomes "After climbing atop the hill of Mirjole, we would step onto the plateau, where there was a huge jamun tree, so tall that its top almost touched the sky."

Crime one, inaccuracy. The jambhul tree does not "almost touch the sky". It stands against the sky, indicating, along with the word tall, its impressive height.

Crime two, skipping words, ideas, etc. What happened here to the sky that "rests" on the plateau? That idea has simply disappeared.

Crime three, patting things into a shape that falls in with conventions. The translator replaces the breathless pace of the original with a more sedate pace. Also translating "jambhul" as "jamun" is wrong. There is no equivalent for the Marathi jambhul tree in English. So, in accordance with general practice,the original word should have been retained and, if necessary, explained in a glossary. Why translate the word into another language that is as much Greek and Latin to the intended reader as the original? Does our national language cross international borders when it doesn't even cross those within the country?

As for sanitisation of the text, here is the best example. A line that should read, "Come on you brats. There's one more hill to go. You want to pee or shit, go do it now, or you'll shit your pants climbing." This becomes, "Come on kids, we still have to climb one more hill. If you want to pass water and stuff, do it now. Otherwise you will do it in your knickers while climbing the hill."

"Pass water"? The last time someone did that was probably half a century ago.

The introduction to "The Weave of my life" talks about the empowerment of women. Those who believe in women's empowerment should not themselves deprive women of their language. Language is power. When Urmila Pawar talks of peeing and shitting, she is using the words her people used, knowing full well that they are not seen as "polite" words in "polite" society, particularly when used by women. That she does so, that she shows us her people's lives as they are, without apology, is her power. And she must be allowed to keep it, even in translation.