The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
It's all over the place. Just google the words “worst refugee crisis.” Don't even put “Syria” or “WWII” in the search bar. What follows is a string of mainstream media articles labeling the current Syrian refugee crisis as the worst since the big deuce. It has become conventional wisdom.
But is the flood of humanity currently vacating Syria really the worst refugee crisis of the last 70 years?
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that about 4,000,000 Syrian refugees have now left their homeland. Millions more are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), people who have abandoned their homes but remain in Syria.
This is a formidable number, marking the Syrian exodus as certainly one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. And it may yet get worse. But is it actually the worst?
My take on the evolving conversation around feminism today. Image courtsey bollywoodlife.com.
The other day, at a gathering of distant relatives, I was introduced to this older lady as a “feminist writer”. After the polite hellos, she said, “So, you're a feminist, huh?” I nodded. “Well, I don't think feminism is necessary nowadays… Look at all walks of life, women are now equal. At the forefront even.”
What is Feminism?
It was the first day of feminism class in our all-girls college in New Delhi. Dr Abraham walked in and asked us whether we were feminists. We all nodded yes. “What is feminism?” Three years before, I'd written an essay on the subject to get into college, and to Dr Abraham I remember answering “freedom” and “equality”. Thus began my journey of understanding this complex subject, but even now, I always reach back to my first answers about what it is. Then, simplistically, I thought it was about women being equal to men, and freedom being the ability to live life without gender constraints like men in India seemed to. Now, I see feminism as a way towards an egalitarian, utopian world for everyone—man, woman, either, neither, irrelevant—by addressing the issues faced by the gender that bears the brunt of gender discrimination.
Now, I'm not unfamiliar with the arguments against feminism. Those who advocate them fall in to two broad categories: those who believe that women are genuinely the weaker sex that deserves to be subjugated for religious or sociocultural reasons, and those who believe, like the lady from the party and many subscribers to the Women Against Feminism movement, that women are already ‘equal'.
The End is Nowhere Near
To the former type, I have nothing to say (not here, idiot). It's the latter reason, especially coming from those living in a country like India, that actually astounds me. As a rookie many years ago, one of my interview questions to British author Helen Cross was whether she was a feminist. And she answered that people don't really ask that in England “because they just sort-of presume that everybody is, because it's kind-of beyond that point”; she said she was asked that a lot here because it was an “active and dynamic” conversation.
I especially don't understand it when the women here say that.
A) How do YOU think you got here, wearing jeans, having careers, taking selfies in your bikinis, living with your boyfriends, eh?
B) Are you really ‘equal' and ‘free' from any sort of gender discrimination—at work, on the street, in your relationships? (Answer ‘no' straightaway if you get a male friend to drop you home at night.)
And C) Is every single woman around you as ‘equal' as you—is there really no family you know where the son roams wild and free while the daughter's expected to obey, or woman who has been harassed for dowry? There, you have your answer.
This is not to say that countries where women are highly emancipated, like the UK or US, have done away with gender discrimination and no longer need feminism. While they, for the most part, may not have to contend with issues as basic ours, women continue to bear the brunt of lookism and media stereotypes, battle the glass ceiling, and deal with sexual violence. In India, we deal with the whole range of gender issues—from child marriage and dowry to ‘First World' concerns like those listed above, judgement-free promiscuity, maiden surnames and independent choice.
Take this week, for instance. A leading movie star has taken a leading newspaper to task for a headline that calls attention to her cleavage with an open letter about choice, reel/real (an quick summary here), spawning much conversation about double standards—the newspaper's, the film industry's and even hers. In another India not so far away, the grave of a toddler girl, suspected to have been buried alive and rumoured to be a ‘goddess', became an impromptu pilgrimage site for hundreds of villagers, who came to offer prayers, fruits, flowers and money.
While I have oftentimes wondered at the futility of writing about ‘evolved' concerns when there's so much work on the basics that is yet to be done (read here), I'll end with this: Feminism is beyond the bra burning and the wild lurch from domesticity to feminazi; it's beyond first wave and second wave; it lives in plurals and pluralities, evolving as society has, addressing a problem here, another there. It is a means to an end. And until genders are equal on all levels, the feminists' fight is far from over.
Last year, I put up this status message on Facebook: “Today, the 15th of February, is the 10th anniversary of my first wedding. It's interesting how far both of us, my ex-husband and I, have come since our divorce in 2006. And how different life—lives—would have been if I had stayed. Oh, thank god!”
People have always asked me why I talk about my divorce, including this article featured in Mirrors across India a few weeks after I got remarried two years ago. I have several reasons.
I got married to Shiv when I was 19 and he was 30, back in 2003, when the world was different, I was different. After one failed attempt in July/August, we got separated in December 2005, when I moved to Mumbai, and divorced 10 months later.
First, a caveat. I spoke casually about being divorced much before I got remarried, much before I found love with Sahil. I spoke about it when I was down, devastated and broke; when I was single; to friends and strangers; and at job interviews. I even spoke about considering one the very first time I met a woman who is now a friend—a young divorcee herself, she said (and I remember this vividly), “Are you sure, Tara*? I find now that I am perpetually ‘ the Divorcee'.” I put that in right upfront, as I realise it could seem convenient to talk about it now, when all has turned out okay. For instance, though there were many years in between, my grandparents didn't tell anyone in Dehradun, the small town in North India in which they live that I was divorced until I got remarried (the veritable ‘happy ending').
[I realised this when I had gone for my granddad's 80th birthday celebrations a few years ago, only to be startled by questions of “Shiv kahan hain, beta?” “Aapke husband Indonesia se nahi aa paye?” (“Where is Shiv?” “Your husband wasn't able to come from Indonesia?”) That's when I pieced together the story they had been telling, or letting brew, partly grounded in the truth—my ex-husband is, indeed, currently in Indonesia, just with a different wife.]
Because of this, I've been asked this over and over, from the curious as well as the concerned ‘what is the need to wash dirty linen is public', I'll tell you why I speak about it.
Legend has it that Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the medieval Bahmani sultan of Bijapur, styled as jagadguru badshah (master of the world) and author of the famed treatise on classical music in Dakhani, kitab-i-nauras, advised Hindu litigants to go to Paithan in the Marathwada area of upper Maharashtra to have their disputes settled. The ancient imperial capital of the Satavahana kings, also known as Pratishtana in antiquity, was a seat of Sanskritic learning and justice was dispensed there through eminent courts or nyayalayas. The mid-May heat is scorching as we enter the historic inland town on the banks of the river Godavari, which featured prominently as an important town on the trade routes of the past. Ashoka is said to have sent emissaries (or missionaries?) to Petenikas and epigraphic material from the Pitalkhora caves also refer to the town, said to be one of the oldest urban centres in the Deccan. Aside from mentions in Jaina, Buddhist and Brahminical accounts, there are several references to it in outside sources. In Periplus Maris Erytharaei it is known as Paethana and described as a twenty day march from Barygaza (Baruch). Ptolemy also refers to Paithan as the capital of the Andhra king Pulumayi II (138 – 170 CE) and apart from Tagara (Ter), the ancient city was the other important inland market in Dakkhinapatha, or the Deccan. It was known for its textiles and even to this day, Paithani saris are highly regarded.
The curvy narrow streets that wind up through the town bear no indication of its ancient glory. Our destination is the temple of the medieval Maratha bhakti saint Eknath (d 1599). This is Sant Eknath's devghar, his home temple where he worshipped, says Pushkar Gosavi, a builder by profession who lives across the street. Gosavi is also the saint's fourteenth generation descendant—he conducts the affairs of the samasthan, the temple trust, looks after the devghar, and performs several of the religious functions. “It's been 415 years since Nath Maharaj has left” Gosavi tells us, “and we are merely following the ‘route' that he has laid out.” The greatest work of his hallowed ancestor, Gosavi informs us, was to bring together all kinds of folk. Hundreds of people used to gather here for a meal everyday, “typical Marathi style jevan (food), with puranpoli” Gosavi says, distracting me momentarily as my mind wanders off with inwards prayers of an opportune and delicious lunch ahead—such stray thoughts assume great meaning while travelling. He spoke to all people, Gosavi continues, reminding them in more ways than one, through various tales, songs and discourses, abhangs and bharuds (devotional songs), that there was just the one God, and all quarrels on that front are in vain.
Despite the criticisms in the Indian context, I explain why I'm a huge fan of the day of love. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.
Call me a romantic fool, but I love Valentine's Day. In college in New Delhi, I'd laugh and say, “Why not? It's just another excuse to celebrate and get presents!” Now, 10 years, awareness and much consumer fatigue since, it isn't about the gift economy at all. For days before, love is literally in the air (and on the airwaves, TV and everywhere). Consciously ignoring advertising suggestions of what we should be giving-receiving, where we should be going, what we should be doing, Sahil and I celebrate without spending. Last year, we just cooked for each other over music and laughter; this year, we're planning a party. I also wish my mother, family and friends.
When I speak of my love for Valentine's, it tends to spark debate with a whole range of people. I've had the religious and cultural traditionalists play the ‘Against Hinduism/Islam' (India's two major religions) and/or ‘Against Indian Culture' Card, say it is a cultural contamination from the West. Friends who are nonconformists and anti consumerism are, well, anti its consumerism, the nauseating marketing blitz and the pigeonholing.
And the many arguments of those coming from a postcolonial perspective are best summed up on Wiki: “The holiday is regarded as a front for ‘Western imperialism', ‘neocolonialism' and ‘the exploitation of working classes through commercialism by multinational corporations' (Satya Sharma in ‘The Cultural Costs of a Globalized Economy for India', Dialectical Anthropology). Studies have shown that Valentine's Day promotes and exacerbates income inequality in India, and aids in the creation of a pseudo-Westernized middle class. As a result, the working classes and rural poor become more disconnected socially, politically and geographically from the hegemonic capitalist power structure. They also criticize mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day as a form of demonization that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda.”
And, surprisingly, I agree with most of these criticisms.
I write to you of folding, tucking, burying side by side. The silk you worried the centuries into being, has arrived; bolts of it. But when we opened the trunks, all we saw was a smooth tongue: Urdu's cascade, a shimmer in ruins. We had to snap shut and lock your decorous viscera, counting only what sells in the market.
Most days, it is over fifty degrees; memories steal away easily. Guards in their fat stupor don't notice them your side of the border.
Pakistan— land of the thirsty, land of skipped beats: half an oscillation, an unfinished verse. India throbs behind us: Its many drums, torn kites and squalor. To both, dust returns again and again, the powdered ghost of goodbye the British viceroy's last plane.
I write to you of a crazed goat leaping across the stretch of No Man's land— no larger than a cricket pitch. A cawing here, a rustling there; the air weighed down by cannons. Another goat, its ears shaking as it grazes under a dwarf tree, will be the first to hear warplanes.
Miles and miles of rice paddies on both sides of the border, roofed by rancor; Hindu gods bathed in milk on one side, on the other, terraces where we wait for the green-domed country carved for us. I write to you of the armor you forgot to pack, the missing tools. Your silk, dear dead, is a rheumatic sleep fingering a new tangle of history.
The migratory Pied-Crested Cuckoo is believed by some to ride the seasonal winds of the South West Monsoon to arrive in the sub-continent in late May to early June. It makes the journey from sub-Saharan Africa, traversing the Arabian Peninsula, across the ocean, visiting the Seychelles and Lakshadweep, only to arrive in Kerala at first, as the overheated land solicitously lures the ardent monsoon winds in. They breed during the rainy season, and leave the subcontinent in September. Clamator Jacobinus, the Rain Bird, or the chatak of Indian antiquity, is believed to be the ‘harbinger of monsoons’, proclaiming, as ornithologist Hugh Whistler has said, the imminent rains “with its unmistakably loud metallic calls”. There are several who keep a keen eye out for its mantic presence, but its parasitic proclivities cause much distress to the resident avian populace. I am yet to read of any sightings, far less encounter one, and its typical song is not one of the several songbird tunes that I hear everyday. However, it is raining as I write. Although a steady drizzle now, it was far more animated early this Sunday morning. Lest I am fooled into thinking that the monsoon has arrived, the first “impressions of a chaotic sky”, the teasing, ‘towering cumulus clouds’, are merely bold heralders of the much anticipated annual visitation, at once cooling down the region and giving the city a thorough wash.
As Alexander Frater writes in Chasing The Monsoon, he too gets caught up in the collective febrile anxiety leading up to the first rain, and then:
At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started … At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog… At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf.
The monsoons, “a creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything”, in the words of MS Rajagopalan of the Trivandrum Meteorological Department who Frater meets early on, are meant to officially arrive in Bombay on the 10th of June. This year they have been announced in Kerala on the 5th of June, which is five days late, according to a press release (and weekly update) by the local Meteorological Department of Mumbai, and the cumulative seasonal rainfall in the first week for the entire country is 32% below the LPA (Long Period Average). The department however predicts that the monsoon will be a normal one this year. (See here).
The ‘big bang’ theory, of the rains arriving in one dramatic burst is disputed, and some researchers claim that there will be “less rainfall if it sets in suddenly”.
Pakistan is in the throes of an existential crisis. Pakistan has always been in the throes of an existential crisis. Pakistan’s interminable existential crisis is, in fact, getting to be a bore. But while faraway peoples can indeed get away from this topic and on to something more interesting, Pakistanis have little choice in this matter; and it may be that neither do Indians.
Well, OK. We don’t actually all admit any of those things, but all those are things I have written in the past. Today I hope to shed my inhibitions and go further.
First, the crisis. Some friends think I am being unnecessarily alarmist and the only crisis is the presence of American infidels/imperialists in the region. Let America leave and all will be well. Others believe that if the army had a “free hand”, they would have things under control within days. Let us dispense with both theories. The crisis is not primarily American generated (though they have a long and glorious history of feeding dollars to the crisis) and no one is in complete control. The existing corruption-ridden state is a British colonial creation struggling to get by alongside an unstable mix of Islamist ideology and a very shallow and self-contradictory foundational myth. Even though the karma of the Raj is potent stuff, it will not last forever against these forces. When it goes, the next step will not be the dawn of Chomskyan enlightened anarchy or democratic socialism; it will either be Salafist Islam or the dissolution of the state. Dissolution being physically and diplomatically difficult (who will handle the scramble over borders that would follow?), Salafist Islam administered by the army (perhaps with a charismatic cricketer as its public face) is the likely option.
On January 7th news publications ran reports of a young Muslim cattle trader being harassed by members of the Hindu right-wing Bajrang Dal in Madhya Pradesh. A group stopped 25-year-old Anish Aslam Kureishi, son of a cattle trader of Chhindwara district, on December 31st, who was ferrying cattle. The men demanded money from him and on his refusal, they damaged his pick-up truck, dragged him to a village close by, beat him up, shaved part of his head off, as well as one eyebrow and half his moustache, and left him there tied to a pole. While the group claimed that the cattle were headed to an illegal slaughterhouse, the father of the waylaid man stated that they were meant for sale at a nearby market, and his younger brother said that they often paid off the Bajrang Dal to escape harassment. There have been subsequent reports quoting the police and administration that the entire family has been involved in illegal cattle transport.
This incident followed a widely reported amendment to the state’s cow protection laws that received presidential sanction on December 22nd. The amendment, as several commentators have pointed out, extends the scope of the already stringent anti-cow slaughter laws, which expressly prohibits the killing of cows, by increasing the jail term for those caught killing cows, transporting or selling beef, to up to 7 years. In addition, the BJP led government, by way of this amendment, also invests public officials with extraordinary powers to enter, search premises on suspicion of cow slaughter and beef storage, as well as to make arrests. The burden of proof is also transferred to the accused, making this law not only dangerously harsh, but also of dubious constitutional character. The Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s ‘dream’ has come true, according to the state’s Culture & PR Minister, who further added that the administration was keen to enforce the provisions of the Act ‘in letter and spirit’.
Several commentators have been quick to attack the draconian provisions of this already pernicious Act, pointing out that they mimic those of anti-terror laws. The BJP led central government has in the past also attempted ‘more robust application’ (read here and here) by attempting to amend law to bring detention under the ambit of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was repealed by the Congress led UPA government in 2004.
The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.
He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.
A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.
A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.
One day, I came home from school to a big commotion in the living room. My dad was working with an electrician and a mason, and they were together struggling to figure out how this enormous apparatus was going to work. What is it, I asked? A split-unit air-conditioner, my dad said! The thing was a deep and dark gray, with fierce frowning fins all around. It sat in our living room that day like a fine objet, detached slightly from the wall into which its cables would soon run, locking firmly into the masonry and coming out the other side, into the sunless side yard we then had, where I also parked my bicycle. The thing was powerful alright, having been designed for industrial use, and it hummed quietly to itself, rather than roaring and groaning in the way air-conditioners usually did back then. No one in our friends or family circle had ever seen or heard of a split-unit AC, and it was quite the source of living-room family pride.
My dad had bought the thing at an auction at the American embassy, which was upgrading from these four-year-old split-units to central air-conditioning. He must have paid, maybe forty thousand rupees for the thing, almost two thousand bucks in 1980s US dollars. But even this second-hand industrial unit must have seemed a good investment, as compared with the kinds of ACs that were available in the market then — old technologies that were made even more expensive by heavy import duties. And when I think back on it, I realize that many of the appliances and consumer goods we enjoyed in our home came from these sales at diplomatic compounds, or else imported by someone else and then sold locally. Our enormous six-burner stove-oven, our banana-yellow Isuzu car, our small upstairs stereo system, our several VCRs, even my silver ten-speed bike, all of these appurtenances came into lives second-hand, through foreign contacts. Nothing like them was then available in India's local markets.
Eventually our stove-burner was rusting out, so we had to send it to the welder to get a new sheeting on the back, the better to keep the rats out of the kitchen. The Isuzu was in and out of the shop a lot, and we once considered switching out its engine with a new local one. And when the woofer on the small stereo tore, I took the two speakers to Lajpat Rai Market to have them replaced with a spare ripped out of another speaker. To participate in consumer culture in India back then was like living in a Mad Max movie — the fragments of a more advanced technological and material culture surrounded us, and we made tactical use of whatever we could find. But we seemed doomed never to be able to inhabit that technological horizon. The technology of everyday life seemed to come to us from far away, and always without proper distribution, support, service.
Pakistan and India are celebrating the 64th anniversary of “Freedom at midnight” with their usual mix of nationalism and jingoism (Bangladesh seems to ignore this nightmarish dream anniversary and will be mostly ignored in this article). The fashionable opinion about India (within and without, though perhapsless on the Indian left) seems fairly positive; about Pakistan, decidedly muddled if not outright negative. Is this asymmetry another manifestation of the unfair assessments of an Islamophobic world? Or does this difference in perception have a basis in fact?
I am going to make twin arguments: that the difference in everyday life, everyday oppressions and everyday successes is LESS than commonly stated (though a gap may finally be opening up), but at the same time, the asymmetry in their ideals and foundational myths is much greater than outsiders tend to see. Outsiders in general tend to see other nations as generic “nations”; they assume (usually unconsciously) that the default “national interests” are likely to be reflections of the same set of assumptions everywhere. My argument here is that this is frequently true and is true enough of India and Pakistan in many cases (e.g. in negotiations over river waters), but there are some unique elements in the Pakistan story that slowly but steadily push in a less desirable direction, even as the normal evolution of society brings in modernization and economic growth; and unless these are damped down, these “unique elements” have the potential to sink Pakistan. On the other hand, if these can be ignored or painted over, then Pakistan too can become just another “normal” South Asian country, faced with similar problems (some worse, some much less than its neighbors), to which similar solutions can be proposed.
On a recent television panel discussion show, the BJP leader and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, in response to how the nation should respond to periodic terrorist attacks, said, unsurprisingly: “why can't we be like America?”. He also said that India should “stop comparing ourselves to Pakistan” in terms of terror attacks, for Pakistan, “is a failed state”. Again, this too is unsurprising. His comments followed those of film actor/activist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi, who, pointing to the fact that ‘not a single’ terror attack has taken place on American soil since 9-11, said “America dikha diya ke nahin?” or “hasn’t America shown the way?” Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes, also on the panel, in response to Mahesh Jethmalani, was quick to point out the obvious – America was “deeply embedded in two wars”, had perpetrated countless violations of civil rights, infringed/abridged speech unlawfully, tortured innocents, espoused dangerously divisive rhetoric, flagrantly contravened international law, amongst many other profoundly problematic transgressions in their response to 9-11.
While it is clear that both Azmi and Jethmalani were referring to securing India’s safety and escalating vigilance, the pointed invocation of America presents an opportunity to discursively examine how the desire to ‘be like America’ is imagined and expressed. It is mostly a desire for parity, which is increasingly evident in many aspects of public life and discourse, and runs alongside a disregard of regional aspirations of neighbouring nations, particularly Pakistan’s. Beleaguered as Pakistan may be in several ways, competitive nationalism comes into play, on both sides, and India to many, has the upper hand presently. While we have ‘arrived’ and are ‘poised’ for greater things, they, the popular narrative runs, have ‘failed’. The disregard is not exclusively reserved for our neighbours, but is also generously cast inward upon our own laws, the common people at large, and in specific on minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. Consumerist desires aside, what seem further entrenched are disturbing predatory practices in many aspects of socio-economic activity, particularly in areas where government regulation is critical. Be it rural/tribal land acquisition, health, education, food production, housing, water resources, we see today not just highly questionable activities, but downright criminal ones as well.
So what does it mean for India to ‘be like America’ – semiotically charged as the phrase is? Should we ‘be like America’? Are there positive lessons to be learnt, portents and cautions that need be judiciously considered, institutions, ideas and processes that may be adopted? Or is it to be an unfalteringly foot-stomping ahead on to being a ‘superpower’?
“I dreamed of retribution from the sky. I made plans in the course of my sleepless nights to stop this individual and have him judged by an honest, independent tribunal. I dreamed of a court martial, of justice for the people. I dreamed of a national cleansing; a magic hand would pass over the people, bringing order to this society in which ultimately anything goes. I turned my dreams over in my mind until I was stricken with laughter or a fever”.
– Mourad (in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Corruption)
Earlier this week a noisy gaggle of Facebook invitations started flying about beseeching people to join the fight of the activist-crusader Anna Hazare (once a soldier in the Indian Army) against corruption. Anna Hazare, who went on a fast unto death in New Delhi, wanted the central government to pass a bill in Parliament that constituted an independent watchdog/ombudsman to look into corruption.
Corruption in India is, need one say, widespread. It is endemic. And it is insufficient to say just that because it is much more. There is no section of civil society that remains untouched by corruption.
I did not press the ‘Like’ button on the many Facebook invites.
Around 11 AM yesterday, 9th April 2011, when news channels and online social media triumphantly and raucously declared a ‘victory for India’ and that ‘celebrations will be going on’, ‘people are out on the streets’, it could have been easily mistaken for reruns of the aftermath of India’s recent cricket world cup win. Channels showed clips of people chanting slogans, singing songs, victoriously raising fists and banners as the news poured in that Anna Hazare, the self-styled Gandhian activist and anti-corruption crusader, ended his four day fast after the government acceded to his demand to act expeditiously on the draft Jan Lokpal Bill 1(Citizen’s Ombudsman bill). The proposed legislation calls for an independent body constituted by a collegium of officials and private citizens and which has the power to investigate and prosecute charges of corruption against politicians and public officials, as well as pass remedial judgment against those found guilty. It further seeks to invest this independent body with extraordinary powers.2
Last December, while at a common friend’s house in North London, Steve Savale or Chandrasonic of the British band Asian Dub Foundation played us a video clip of a recent concert of theirs in St Petersburg. Prior to their performance, a local production person had approached the band with a message – there was a man who needed to see them urgently. A Tajik, who had earlier that week been brutally beaten up by Russian police, pleaded with the band to put him on stage for just the one song. In his plea, heartfelt as it was, there appeared to be the promise of the undoing of some wrong, an anodyne correction of injustice and brutality. He went on stage to sing a medley1 of two Bollywood songs, both from the 1982 hit film Disco Dancer – Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki and Jimmy, Jimmy. Keeping rhythm on a aluminum bucket while providing instrumental phrasing, solos and bridges alike, the impassioned singer incorporated a famous desi trick, well known to and enthusiastically advertised in low-brow entertainment of small town India, as well as in filmi shows that travel to perform for diasporic communities across the world: ‘special item – man singing in ladies voice’. The first song, with its popular humanist message, declares that the world belongs neither to whites nor to blacks, but to those with hearts (or lovers to be less literal), while the second one, well known to many South Asians for its kitschy appeal (and the nostalgia it evokes), was covered by M.I.A a few years ago. A version by the Russian pop singer Angel-A has also made its appearance recently.
This collision of different identities sets up the stage for many a discussion – the insidious and wide influence of Bollywood, shared culture amongst the political allies of the Cold War era, the efficacy and appeal of humanist and polemical messages, dynamic appropriations of fringe elements in pop-culture, and issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘false-consciousness’ in fetishism and bricolage. Amidst all the elements that may find themselves in the mix, so to speak, the twin processes of creation and mediation and the actors involved, provide fascinating insights into what seems a duplicitous web of irresolvable complexity.
Having been associated with music, musicians, music television and music production for a significant part of my professional life (and continue to be), I am resigned to many unanswered questions and contentious issues– there are no hit formulae, there only appear to be some at certain times; finding ‘voice’ is unpredictable and imprecise; what people like is highly complex and yet seems, oftentimes, really quite simple; resonance is both a physical and psychological phenomenon. What I can though say with absolute certainty is that I still remain profoundly enamoured by music and its diverse gratifications.