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.