Monday, December 8, 2008

Boundries of forbidden Love

I was chatting with an Italian friend. Somehow those discussions had lead to some talk about our first crushes. I suddenly remembered about the time in India when I had just started to go to university and how I had adored my cousin brother’s fiancee.

“I used to think that she was the most beautiful girl in the world and even now, after almost forty years, I still feel that she is very beautiful”, I had said.

Perhaps it was something in my voice or my expression. My friend had laughed and asked, “So you were in love with her! And did you ever get intimate with her or was it just loving her from a distance and fantasising about getting into bed with her?”

Suddenly I was very angry and offended at her question. I had not said anything to her, suddenly deciding that it was late and I had to go.

“How dare she insinuate that my adoration was not pure and that there was any element of lust in my feelings for Bhabhi”, I had thought after saying goodbye to my friend, “these Europeans they can’t have any pure relationships, they need to dirty everything, nothing is sacred for them.”

I remembered this episode when yesterday I saw “Sorry Bhai”, the new film by Onir.

There were some scenes in the film, especially the love making scene between Sharman Joshi and Chitrangada Singh in the changing room of a clothes shop, which really disturbed me and I was squiriming on my seat, trying to not to look at the film during those scenes.

There are many shades of devar-bhabhi relationship that can vary from playfulness, and naughty banter to respect due to a mother. All the Ramleelas seen as a child probably contributed, so the strongest image of a bhabhi for me is defined by Sita-Lakshman relationship as described in Tulsi’s Ramayan.

Apart from Ramayan, I think that a number of old Hindi films also helped in defining these ideas of devar-bhabhi relationships in my mind. An archetypical film in that sense can be “Bhabhi ki Chudiyan”.

“Sorry Bhai” is not the first film to explore the taboo areas of attraction and sex between devars (brother in laws) and bhabhis (sister in laws). Two brothers or close friends falling in love with same woman like in Sajaan or younger brother falling in love with the ex-girl friend of his elder brother as in the recent Mehbooba, also touched on it. What kind of relationship exists between the brother who did not get the woman and his brother’s wife is usually left out from such films. In Mehbooba, the awkwardness is avoided by killing one of the brothers.

Other films that touched on this theme from another angle, have the younger brother marrying his widowed Bhabhi like in Silsale, where Amitabh is forced to marry Jaya, pregnant girlfriend of his elder brother Shashi Kapoor. Another film that brought out this dilemma of a boy forced to marry marry a woman he has always looked as a surrogate mother was Rajinder Singh Bedi’s "Ek Chadar Maili Si", where Rishi Kappor, asked to marry his widowed Bhabhi (Hema Malini) is horrified when elders of the village ask him. “You get married to your mothers”, he replies angrily.

It is true that in Sorry Bhai, the couple are not yet married but they are supposed to be getting married in a week and the family has come especially from India for the marriage. Plus, it seems that the couple has been together for five years. So even if they are not married, in a family, the woman would be seen as a de-facto wife of the man she is going to marry. In spite of this area of unease, I liked Sorry Bhai. I like films that provoke me, that make me think about forbidden areas of my own deepest thoughts. Often we tend to keep such forbidden areas buried deep down the conscious mind.

Actually there are also a number of Hindi films where brothers do lust after their Bhabhis and try to force themselves on them like the scene from Nagesh Kuknoor’s Dor, where the young brother tries to take advantage of recently widowed Ayasha Takia, but these are somehow more acceptable to us because in such films we tend to accept that men are beasts, they can’t control their sexual urges, while the women remain pure and resist such advances.

It is Sharman Joshi who makes the character of Sidharth Mathur, a younger brother falling for his future sister in law and trying to resist it, believable. I like Joshi, he is not a conventional Bollywood hero but very likeable and good actor.

However, Sorry Bhai suffers from some weak characterizations in my opinion.

The elder brother, Harshwardhan’s character is the most superficially drawn and you never really understand his motivations and his way of thinking. He also does not seem very convincing in the pub scene as drunk, but otherwise Sanjay Suri is good, especially in the last emotional scenes. Sanjay Suri must be a nice serious guy and this trait seems to come out in all his roles.

Chitrangada is wonderfully ravishing but a bit wooden in her interpretation of Aaliya. You never really understand how did she end up in Mauritius, it is not a country known for its higher education. However she makes up for such details by looking wonderful.

Perhaps they were all retired and didn’t need to go back to work? After Harsh postpones his marriage, they all decide to stay on in Mauritius without any explanation. Or perhaps it was the period of summer holidays? The same can be said for the last part of the film where it seems that they are all still living in Mauritius or perhaps it was a Mauritius-looking Mumbai?

And why doesn’t Sidharth call his brother’s fiancee Bhabhi when he first meets her, as you would expect normal Indian younger devars to do? It may be true that rich and the high class Indians are more westernized and they call each other by names rather than as Bhabhis or Bhaiyas but he does call his brother Bhai and never by his name, and he also seems a conventional boy willing to let his mother decide about his future wife!

So there are bits and pieces of the films that are not very logical but it is made up by wonderful looking Mauritius and great performances from the ever reliable Shabana Azmi and Boman Irani, and of course by Sharman Joshi. The music is good, especially Jalte Hain and Mere Khuda.

Onir is taking on all kinds of different subjects. I had liked My Brother Nikhil, though at that time I had thought that it had taken the idea and style from a Hollywood film Jia, but had changed it by making it a man’s story in an intelligent way. I didn’t watch all of “Bas ek pal”, I had seen bits and pieces of it during my stay in Guyana where it had seemed to be a favourite of the cable walla. But I had liked those bits and pieces.

And now Sorry Bhai, that could have been inspired by Love according to Dan, but that is not so important since he does take only inspirations of the basic idea, does intelligent work on it and makes the subject his own. Most important, he does not go whole hog in copying something and then claiming creative ownership over it.

In any case, as people say about Mahabharat that all stories are already told there and all playwrites must copy or get inspiration from some where. What matters is how one deals with those ideas and Onir seems to do it quite well. I am sorry that the film got sidelined due to the Mumbai terror attacks. It must have been hard on all those persons who had worked on the film.

***

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bollywood in Italy

Lazy, hot summer days of August. Olympics are on. I wish I could watch some badminton and table tennis matches at the Olympics but I don't think that I will get to, since both games are not a priority for Italy and so they are focusing on games that are more popular here and games where Italian teams are playing.

Last night, on the Italian national TV channel, they showed "Cheeni Kum" at prime time, dubbed into Italian. It was an absolute first for Bollywood here. One arty channel had shown films like "Kagaz ke phool" and "Pather Pachali", in late night slots. Another private TV channel had shown "Lagaan", starting it around midnight and finishing it around five in the morning. So I don't know how many people had actually watched those films.

Thus "Cheeni Kum" was a pleasant surprise. The film, quite urbane and witty most of the time, without any naach-gaana, was quite European (except for the scene of loud crying at Qutub Minaar by Amitabh Bacchan and his melodramatic running between the pillar and his mother, near the end of the film), so probably they thought that this one Bollywood film could be shown to normal Italian audience or does it mean that Italian TV is going to give more space to Bollywood in the future, remains to be seen. (BTW, Chinese films have been on prime time TV for many years now).

However there are lot of Bollywood fans here and there is a market for Indian DVDs that is not being tapped now. Actually it is partially being tapped by friendly neighbourhood pirated Asian DVD shops, but since even they do not have Indian films with Italian subtitles, so I am sure that there is scope for doing much more.

Every month I get two three enquires about how to buy Indian DVDs with Italian subtitles. Since I have been writing articles on Bollywood cinema and doing film reviews in Italian (on the Italian part of my website), people often come to me to ask "expert" advice. "Taare Zameen Par" got so many enquiries including persistent enquiries from an association of Dyslexic children, who want to use this film to create awareness about Dyslexia in Italy (if Aamir Khan is reading this please do something about it!). It would be easy to take the film and do Italian subtitles and distribute a few copies, but that would be illegal and I personally don't want to get into that. Last year, we did do Italian subtitles for small parts of different Indian films (Chameli, Umrao Jaan, Veer Zara, Bombay, etc.) for a women's festival but we didn't make any DVDs out of that experience.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Defining Human Sexualities

On Shunya’s Notes, there is an interesting post about Sudhir and Katherine Kakkar’s recent book "The Indians: Portrait of a people" (2007), focusing on issues related to homosexuality in India.

I briefly met Kakkar earlier this year during a literary event organised by Grinzane Cavour Awards in north of Italy and I remember him as very likeable and soft spoken person. ‘The Indians’ sounds very interesting and I hope that it will be soon available in Italian as well and I will have an opportunity to read it.

To come back to the blog post on Shunya’s Notes, it mentions various differences between the Western and Indian attitudes and practices towards homosexuality, such as the following:
  • Christian West, homosexual acts were persecuted as a sin against God (and less often, seen as a disease). Indians, on the other hand, denied the idea of homosexuality, while tolerating homosexual acts.
  • Notion of a homosexual liaison as a proud and equal alternate to a heterosexual one doesn't exist outside a small set of urban Indians;
  • (In India) Vast majority of even those who continue having sex with other men do not see themselves as homosexual
I agree that in India, persons deciding to live as overt gay or lesbian couples would have a difficult time, even if their public display of affection such as holding hands, putting arms around each others' necks, etc. would probably be seen as less problematic, since that is accepted behaviour for both men and women in Indian culture (but their kissing in public would be very problematic, but then even heterosexual kissing in public would also be equally problematic in India). And I also agree that for young homosexual Indian men and women, there would be tremendous family pressure for a “normal” marriage.

However, in my experience, there are infinite variations in the way people perceive, exercise and express their sexualities and I find a bit problematic this way of classifying persons in groups such as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transgender, etc. If we look at life stories of persons spanning different decades, the variety of sexual behaviours and desires that usually comes out, are difficult to put neatly into a few boxes.

To restrict sexuality to sexual intercourse is another problematic area for me. During a research that I did almost a decade ago , the definitions of sexuality that had come up during discussions in a group of Italians, also included terms like intimacy, affection, feelings, closeness, etc. If we consider sexuality in these broader terms, then in my opinion, ideas of homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, etc. become even more problematic.

I think that part of the problem lies in what I call “western dichotomous way” or “psuedo-scientific way” of thinking, that is based on the assumption that every thing can be defined and classified, and if something is one then it can’t be another at the same time.

I believe classifying and putting everything in to neat boxes is fine if it serves as an exercise for understanding the key issues, the barriers, the oppressions, the violations, and finding solutions to these through laws and practices that respect dignities and rights of people. In that sense, I understand the usefulness and importance of categories like homosexual, heterosexual, etc. However, I have some difficulties when we start confusing the categories and boxes with people and how they are suppose to behave in their every day lives.

I think that like everything else, even human sexuality is a spectrum that varies from exclusively gay or lesbian to exclusively heterosexual in terms of sexual intercourse, but also in terms of psychological affinities and affective relationships, at different times & ages in our lives. In between these two extremes there are infinite variations. And if people do not wish to be put into a box or under a category, I think that it is absolutely fine for them to choose to do so.

In the post on Shunya’s Notes, the author writes, “While the Indian response reduces open conflict, the flip side is a muffled suffering: countless men and women lead double lives, hiding from their true natures and denying themselves the most precious of intimacies and self-knowledge”. While I agree that there are many homosexual men and women in India who are forced into marriages that create needless suffering for them and for their spouses, I also find such views problematic in terms of denying that there can be persons whose sexuality encompasses both sexes and can be forced into a corner because someone believes that “they are not aware of their true natures”.

Thus, I also think that overcoming barriers and finding solutions does not mean that all persons who enjoy homosexual relationships are all supposed to "come out" and be either gay or lesbian in the way the two distinct gay and lesbian cultures have developed in the west.

This is also because, I feel that people from different cultures fighting oppression and exploitation, can find and negotiate emancipation and self-expression in different ways. The gay and lesbian cultures developed in the west are legitimate and can be empowering, but this does not mean that they are the only path to sexual emancipation. Here I would like to draw parallels from works of Indian feminism activists like Madhu Kishwar, who have looked at the way women in India have negotiated spaces for their own emancipation and empowerment, in ways that are different from the way western feminists look at this.

The Indian (or perhaps I should say eastern) way of inclusive thinking, that looks for harmony among apparent contradictions is a different approach to life compared to the rational and scientific approach. While looking at issues of human sexuality, I would be cautious in throwing away the specific cultural solutions towards homosexuality that have been found over a period of centuries in the Indian societies . I would rather prefer to look at them critically, without the using western eyeglasses, but analysing them on their own terms and merits.

Such a critical appraisal of Indian responses to the issue of sexual diversity in India can’t be done by outsiders, but requires persons who face these challenges in India. Perhaps persons linked to GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender) organisations in India would take up this challenge (or perhaps they already have done such analysis, but I am not aware about it and such views are not well known internationally?)

Monday, July 28, 2008

One summer afternoon

I had woken up at nine. I am on holidays so there is nothing strange about waking up at nine. And it was a Saturday morning. But I have always insisted that I am incapable of sleeping till late and that I must go to bed at ten and wake up at five in the morning. This is my natural rhythm of life, I say.

Perhaps, over the past few years, my sleeping and waking hours depend upon my computer and internet? Early morning is the time for reading emails, writing blogs, reading on internet. And, here in Bibione I have no internet, so I don’t have any incentive to wake up earlier.

After a lazy coffee and cereals, I put on my swimming costume and a t-shirt, Nadia was wearing her two piece swim suit and off we went to the coast. It takes about ten minutes to reach the seaside and every day we follow the same routine - a walk towards the light house of Bibione and back to the beach for a swim, before coming back home for lunch and afternoon siesta.


Yesterday was no different. It is liberating to wear swim suits and walk in the city centre where other persons are more or less in the same state of undress. The sky was bright blue and there was not even a tiniest bit of cloud floating up there. But it was not hot, there was a nice cool breeze.

It was almost 10.30 when we had started from home and by the time we reached the light house it was almost mid day. I asked Nadia to climb on some rocks in the beginning of the sea, so that I could take her pictures. While I was clicking her pictures, I remember thinking that those pictures were like love letters. Probably all marriages go through this process that starts from love, goes trough a process of friction, discussions, fights and mutual adjustments and then finally finds its groove, where you understand each other and in spite of all the differences, love each other’s company.

In front of the light house, we asked someone to take our picture. Every year, in front of the light house, we ask someone to take our picture. Looking at these pictures from the past 26 years, I can see how age has been changing us.


1988
1991
2005
2008

As we walked back, I remember that we looked at a family with a dog that was walking towards us and we talked about the absolutely cuddly dog. And it was almost as an afterthought, when I realised that the lady in the group was topless. How quickly you get used to the human bodies, and why do fundamentalists of different religions make such a hoo ha about female bodies, I had thought.

Back at the beach, it was time to go for the swim. The water was slightly cold and absolutely transparent. Putting the head under the water, I felt that I was floating in the beautiful green coloured world. I could see Nadia swimming close by but there were not many other persons swimming at that time. Probably people were going back for lunch since it must have been around 1 PM. Then I started to do rotations, I love rotating in the water, going round and round like a seal. The only problem is that nowadays my head starts to spin so after some rotations I must lie still waiting for them to pass.

I was floating in the water, when I heard Nadia call me. “Don’t go near the boulders, they are sharp and cut you”, she called. During my rotations and floating, I had drifted close to the boulders placed inside the sea like a finger going inside the water from the beach. I dived in and swam away from the boulders. As I came up for air, I saw that I had not moved away but rather I was a little closer to the boulders. I tried to feel the ground with my feet but it was too deep and I couldn’t touch the ground. I could feel the strong current pushing me towards the boulders, so I tried again, making big powerful strokes to move away. Again, as I raised up my head from water, I saw that I had made little headway. Suddenly I panicked. I could feel the sea as something living, surrounding me from all sides and pulling me inside.

Nadia was swimming towards me and I told her to stay away and not to come closer in that strong current. “Go towards the boulders, let the current take you, go the other side of the boulders”, she cried, sensing my panic. I followed her advice, going towards the boulders and slowly got up on a boulder just underneath the water surface. The surface of the boulder was full of sharp cutting edges but I did manage to get up and sit down. Nadia on the other hand, had gone beyond the tip of the boulders and passed to the other side. “This means it can be done and the current is not that bad”, I thought and slowly the panic passed.

After five minutes, when I had got back my breath, I moved gingerly over the boulders underneath the water surface and then dived in, swimming away from them without any problems.

Perhaps I had not been in mortal danger and it was all panic and if I had shouted, life guard would have heard me or other persons swimming not so far would have heard me and would have saved me. But for me, that sensation of being pulled inside the sea, feeling the sea as a living being surrounding me and laughing at me and tempting me to go and loose myself in its wonderful green world, were very real and if Nadia had not been there, perhaps that panic could have ended differently.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Defeating fundamentalism

The new issue of Outlook magazine from India has a wonderful essay by the historian and writer Ramachandra Guha about the chances of India to become a superpower. Guha argues that there are a number of factors including the threat from the violence of extreme left maoist groups known as naxalites, the threat of religious fundamentalism especially from Hindu conservatives, lack of a principled party from centre especially in congress party, the large and increasing gap among the rich and the poor, that will not allow India to become a superpower. He also argues that perhaps India need not aim for becoming a superpower but try to be a country that makes sure that all of its citizens can live with dignity.

Guha is a wonderful writer, very easy to read, and logical. He also adds that special point of view of historians that is usually missing from such debates - these debates are usually dominated by economists and financial experts. I also liked that Guha has quoted his teacher Dharma Kumar in his essay.

However, there is a part of the essay that provoked some reflections from me. Here is that part:

There is, indeed, a reassertion of religious orthodoxy in all faiths in modern India—among Muslims and Christians as well as Sikhs and Hindus (and even, as it happens, among Jains). It is the illiberal tendencies in all these religions that, at the present juncture, are in the ascendant. The mullahs who abuse Sania Mirza or Taslima Nasreen, and the Sikh hardliners who terrorise the Dera Sacha Sauda, are also wholly opposed to the spirit of the Indian Constitution. But simply by virtue of numbers—Hindus are, after all, more than 80 per cent of India’s population—and their much wider political influence, Hindu bigotry is indisputably the most dangerous of them all.

....... For the middle class, the threat from the left is wholly hidden. They do not see or confront it in their daily lives. They can go to work or college or shop or play without ever seeing a single Naxalite, or a single adivasi either. On the other hand, they do know of the threat from the right. Yet, they tend to disregard it. Some middle-class Indians are converted Hindutvawadis anyway. Many others naively hope that the mask will in time become the real face, and that with economic modernisation the BJP will be able to successfully distance itself from the RSS.
I feel that religious fundamentalism is one crucial area in which we see a marked deterioration in India over the past couple of decades. Increasingly all religions take rigid stand against any debate and dissent against the views of its more conservative members, make shrill threats and often attack property and persons to beat them into fearful obedience.

With Globalisation, perhaps it is inevitable that the narrow conservatism of montheistic religions that insist on only their view of world as dictated by their prophet in their sacred book being the correct way, also infects the Indian way of thinking, that has over millenniums evolved into acceptance of contradictions and different world views, religious views and social norms. Thus today conservative persons from different religions in India are increasingly trying to browbeat everyone into their view of sacred and just.

There must be many reasons for this change, including the economic implications of ideas of equality and human rights. Groups who had been marginalised for centuries such as dalits, adivasis and women now demand this equality. With globalisation, new technologies, spread of media and increasing awareness, such groups are increasingly aware of their rights and their collective power, threatening social structures of traditional societies. Thus, rising religious fundamentalism may be strategy of the powerful to conserve their power and religion is used as a means to this end.

Attracting bigger numbers of followers is equally imporatant for the power of the religious leaders, while in today's world, new technologies and social changes can make religious affinities weaker and decrease that power. Promoting conservative views to attract specific groups of followers can thus be a deliberate strategy by religious leaders and political parties.

However, perhaps we also need to reflect more on the reasons behind "Some middle-class Indians are converted Hindutvawadis anyway." During my journeys in India, I have been surprised more than once to find persons I knew as reasonable and open minded persons, are increasingly pessimistic about a dialogue with Muslims and expressing at least some support or understanding about Hindu conservatives. They may not condone the violence of Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad but they perceive that State has given into obscurantists from Islam and other religions and that rights of Hindus are being eroded or are being treated unjustly.

Could this be partly be because of the thinking that considers "But simply by virtue of numbers—Hindus are, after all, more than 80 per cent of India’s population—and their much wider political influence, Hindu bigotry is indisputably the most dangerous of them all"?

Everytime you try to say anything about Hindu fundamentalists, there are persons who attack you, abuse you and send threats. Why are you not talking about fundamentalists of other religions, they are doing worse things but no one talks about that, they say. I am not talking about these persons. But there are saner educated, thinking persons who feel that there is a large part of Indian accademics, activists, opinionists, writers, who have double standards, "they are very vocal in denouncing the evils of Hindu bigotry but are silent about bigots from other religions".

Perhaps it is correct that by sheer numbers Hindu bigotry is indeed more dangerous but the strategey of condemning only Hindu fundamentalists, may not be the best way to go about it!

I personally feel that all fundmentamentalists and bigots are same, they have same narrow and fearful way of thinking, fighting against all changes perceived as attacks on traditions, and it does not matter that they are Hindu, Muslims or Christians or Sikhs, or whatever. But every time the State gives into or plays silent spectator, not raising a single finger to stop the attacks on legality and human rights enshrined in the Indian constitution, it creates a vicious circle, where some more persons from that religion get converted to the cause of fundamentalism, as they see that fundamentalism pays. At the same time, persons from other religions feel offended and some of them move towards their own fundamentalisms, while moderate voices of all sides become more fearful and silent.

Every time the State allows a Taslima to be made a prisoner and exiled while her attackers roam free and make death threats in TV and State Assembly, every time the State allows goons to ransack libraries and destroy manuscripts, or threaten a person like M. F. Hussein, India becomes weaker, fundamentalists become more confident and reasonable persons are forced to withdraw in their shells.

Guha sounds very pessimistic that in the near future any Government will have the courage to take a stand on this. With coalition governments, and polarising vote banks, perhaps the wish to have principled politicians is an empty dream.
He suggests that we all should do our part, push for small but consistent change by making a stand. But how can individuals act for stopping fundamentalism when Government seems passive and unwilling to make any stand? A judge can make the decision on M. F. Hussein case, but would that be enough to reverse this tide of increasing fundamentalism? And all those other instances that do not come to a tribunal, how can individuals make a difference about it?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

National GLBT Pride 2008 in Bologna

I am back from Mongolia. I still need to sort out hundreds of pictures that I took during this trip. But back to Bologna, I was right in time for the annual national Gay-Lesbian_Bisexual_Transsexual (GLBT) pride march that was held here today.

It was huge and people had come from all over Italy with floats blaring music and showing dances or other body assets. It was lot of fun and I marched with the parade for the last part, starting from Salara where the Arcigay and Arci lesbica of Bologna have their office, right to Piazza 8 Agosto, where the parade concluded. I had asked Nadia to come with me, it is a question of human rights I had told her, but she thought that it was too hot and probably it was going to be too noisy, so finally I went alone.

Nadia was right, it was very noisy with loud music and lot of young persons drinking and dancing. There were gay couples. There were lesbian couples. Some even had their children with them. There were transsexuals and transgender persons. There were prostitutes with red parasoles. And there were lot of hetero couples as well. There were some wheel chairs as well.

In Piazza 8 Agosto there were speeches by presidents of different organisations. I liked the speech by the president of association of transsexuals and transgender persons. Even among the different alternate sexuality identities, we are forgotten and discriminated, she said. I also liked her reference to human right to orgasm.

There were other human rights organisations as well. Talking of emigrants and gypsy (Rom) children. There were some south asian looking men but I don't know if they were there to express their right to sexuality or only for curiosity. I didn't see any south asian looking women there.

Here are some pictures from the evening.

































Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dr Binayak Sen in the Jail

I am deeply anguished that even after more than a year, a person like Dr Bianayak Sen continues to languish in a jail. Is is unbelievable that a person like him, who has spent his life working with the most marginalised rural groups in Chattisgarh through community health programmes has been labelled a "naxalite courier" and put into jail.

It was in May 2007 that Dr Mira Shiva had told me about it and I thought it was a mistake and that soon, courts will realise that this is only some kind of frame-work by persons irritated by Dr Binayak Sen's insistence on truth and human rights for every one including for persons killed in "encounters" and jailed as naxalites.


I personally do not belive or accept the naxalite ideology and I completely reject their violence, yet I thought that what Binayak was doing is the only option for a doctor and should be conduct of all persons who live by their conscience - you have to ask for respect of law and respect of human rights for everyone.

Yet, inspite of knowing that this is a blatant lie, the state continues to insist that Binayak was not really a doctor, he was a naxalite courier and treats him like a criminal. I hope that the highest authorities in India will take immediate action and free Binayak and ensure that he is given justice.

There is an article about Dr Binayak Sen in recent issue of Outlook. I hope all newspapers and journals will write about him and what he symbolises. If a person like him can be framed, jailed and denied justice, I shudder to think of what happens to common persons in India. The poor and marginalised tribals in India, what hope can they have for justice in India?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

After the sunset: Roberto & Sonali story

I had heard in the past about the famous Italian film director Roberto Rossellini and his Indian wife, Sonali. But I hadn’t really thought about it in any way. It had all happened when I was a baby and I hadn’t even realised that at that time there was a big scandal about their affair.

I rediscovered their story a few days ago when I read an article about the new book of Dileep Padgaonkar (Under her spell: Roberto Rossellini in India, Viking, 2008) at the Jabberwock blog, and read about the Roberto-Sonali love story. Jabberwock writes, “It was a relationship that caused an uproar in the Indian press at the time, Baburao Patel’s invective being only the most florid example of the many reports that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Eventually, Rossellini had to leave the country under duress... Perhaps Under her Spell is just a little too dry and restrained though, given that at the centre of this story is a tempestuous affair that complicated the lives of many people. We don't really learn that much about the Roberto-Sonali relationship, what drew them to each other and how the bond gradually deepened, and Padgaonkar is also reticent about their later years together.”

That stimulated my curiosity so I looked around on internet for more information about this story. It had all happened in 1957. Roberto Rossellini had come to India in December 1956.


Cover, Dilip Padgaonkar's book

At that time, Roberto was 51 years old and Sonali was 27 years old. She was married to Harisadhan Dasgupta, a respected documentary film director, 34 years old at that time, a close friend and associate of Satyajit Roy. She had two children when this happened, her younger son was not yet one year old.

The reports say Sonali had arrived late one night at Taj Mahal hotel with her younger son in her arms. It seems Pandit Nehru, India’s prime minister at that time, who had invited Roberto to India for making a film, helped the three of them to leave India for Rome, where they had got married and Roberto had legally adopted Sonali’s younger son. In India, Harisadhan Dasgupta had reacted by registering a police FIR for his missing wife. Later Roberto & Sonali had a daughter, Raffaella. Roberto died 20 years later, in 1977.

The more information I found, the more intrigued I was. Sonali, Roberto, Harisadhan and their children, had all been part of deep emotional cyclone but I was most curious about Sonali. She had two sons, but she could take only one son with her. That must have been terrible for her as a mother. It must have been equally terrible for the son who was left with his father. Kind of Sophie’s choice, except that this was no fiction.

How did Harisadhan feel about his wife not just leaving him for another man, older man at that, taking their son with her? How did they settle it, since Sonali couldn’t have married Roberto without a proper divorce from Harisadan? And how could Roberto legally adopt Sonali’s younger son, without her ex-husband’s consent? So this means that after their escape from India, Sonali and Roberto must have been in contact with Harisadhan in some way.

I remember my first journey to Italy in late nineteen seventies. There were very few foreigners living in Italy, there were no Asian shops, no Bengali communities, few who spoke English. How did Sonali fit in there?
Usually when lovers meet, they stand against the setting sun and it is supposed to end with “and they lived happy and content ever after...”, yet that is where marriages begin. So after the sunset, once the flash bulbs stopped, once the level of ho-ha lowered, how did Sonali feel? How did the young boy feel, once he grew up and realised he had a father and elder brother in India?

All these questions were going around in my head as I searched for answers. I could piece together many things because I could search in English and Italian, as well as some minor sources in Spanish and French that gave crucial information. This search was exclusively through internet. I didn’t find much about the emotional part of this story and perhaps it is better that way since I can imagine that even after all these years, many of these memories must be still very painful for all those who are still alive. Roberto died in 1977. Harisadhan Dasgupta probably died in 1986 or around that. It is not clear if Sonali Rossellini is still alive. Yet their children are around and probably they carry the scars of this event.

Journey to India: In 1956, Ingrid Bergam had restarted work in Hollywood with films like Anastasia, for which she received an Oscar and probably her relationship with Roberto was in crisis.

According to Palmira, Roberto’s gardener’s wife, Ingrid was supposed to go to India, to join Roberto in 1957. Instead, she decided to do a film with Lars Schmidt, who later bacame Ingrid’s third husband, and Roberto came back from India with Sonali.

Roberto was in India for almost 9 months, refusing to look at famous monuments and rather preferring to take a non-exotic view of India, by looking at lives of common persons. The Indian stay of Roberto led to two works, a documentary film “India – Matri Bhumi” (1959) and a TV mini-series “India vista da Rossellini” (India seen by Rossellini, 1959) broadcasted on RAI channel. The mini-series "India seen by Rossellini" broadcast in 10 episodes was produced jointly by India, Italy and France.


The episodes were: India without myths, Bombay Gateway to India, Architecture & costumes of Bombay, Varsova, Towards the south, Lagoons of Malabar, Kerala, Hirakud dam on river Mahadi, Pandit Nehru & Animals in India.

“India – Matri Bhumi” was a film in 4 parts. The first part took a lyrical look at the daily life of a mahout (elephant handler). Part two was about an East Bengal refugee who is working on a dam and after the work is finished, he is relocated to another construction site. Part three was about an elderly person contemplating nature in a jungle and finally, part four is about a monkey owner dying from heat and the monkey looking for another owner.

Sonali Rossellini: Today she would be around 78 years old. Palmira, Roberto’s gardener’s wife says, “Sonali was more solitary compared to Ingrid. However friendship between Ingrid and Roberto remained and even afterwards, Ingrid came with Lars to the villa. At that time, Roberto’s financial situation was not good and the villa belonged to the people who had given credit to Roberto. Ingrid even asked Lars to buy that villa to help Roberto.” Sonali was an aspiring actress when she got married to Harisadhan Dasgupta. She had studied at Shanti Niketan and Bimal Roy’s wife was her aunt.

It was a love story with a happy ending, or so it would seem. Yet, that happy ending was inextricably linked with pain and suffering for many of the protagonists. It would make for a wonderful novel, one of those melodramatic tomes that we feel are so unbelievable.

This post is an extract of a larger article, that includes some information about Gil and Raffaella Rossellini, Roberto and Sonali's two children, that you can read on Kalpana.it



Friday, May 2, 2008

Raiders of the lost Poppies

Mariangela lives in Rimini. A couple of weeks ago she was travelling to Asti and passed thorugh Bologna. "There are poppies in Bologna", she sent me an email. I was in a conference in Genova. Shit, this year I had forgotten all about poppies! There used to be this old field near our house that would get full of red poppy flowers in April-May. I had been there with Mariangela. They mowed that field down two years ago and since then I hadn't ever seen large expanses of poppy flowers.

Poppy or the Pappaverum Somniferum is supposed to be that plant that can be used to make opium. For getting opium you you need the milk of the ripe dry fruit. That is the reason, why you need a special permission to grow poppy plants in Italy. Some people say that to get opium you need another variety of poppy and perhaps you also need the hotter sun of equator. I am not sure about that but you can usually see the bright red poppy flowers along railway tracks and highways, where it grows as a weed.

The black poppy seeds are used commonly as decoration on bread and give off a lovely aroma. I am going to look for poppy flowers one of these days, I had told myself. Today was the the day of operation poppy.

I decided to go out towards the countryside for the morning walk of our dog, Brando. He is getting old, our Brando, and likes to go over his usual walking routes and usually if I try to pull him in some new directions, he usually does his Angad ji show, pointing his feet and refusing to move. However, today I was in no mood to give him and kept on pulling him till he gave in.
And no Ipod, no music to distract today, I decided. Nature demands proper attention or so, I thought. And so off we were.
Seedy guy


Just out of the house, and I got distracted by the maple seeds. There were so many of them hanging from the tree like plastic butterflies. So I started looking around clicked the pictures of different looking seeds. Here are some examples.
The maple seeds had wings like butterflies flying with acute angles.

Later I saw another variety of Maple, where the seed wings were in straight lines, at 180° angles.


In the next picture is what they call "albero falso di Giuda" or the false Jude's tree, with dried beans like seeds. In autumn, these trees without any green leaves and only these dark brown seeds look slightly sinister, and make me think of Dracula myths. I also don't know why they call them false Jude and if there is a real Jude's tree as well?

I like the seeds of Lime trees with the strange wing that is pierced by the flowers. I have read of the subtle perfume of Lime but to me the flowers seem scentless.

Then I saw the Elm tree with round penny like wings holding a small seed in the middle, in the next picture. Though on the tree the seeds are bunched together like piles of pennies and it is not easy to make out the form of individual seed.

And Finally these rounded beans like seeds that look like jhumkas, women's ear-rings. I don't know the name of this tree.

Rosy cheeks
Then it was the turn of the roses. There were so many of them in the garden that we passed. Some of the housewives, going about their daily business of dusting and beating the carpets with sticks, looked at me with a suspicion as I tried to get a good angle to click their roses, but they were quickly mollified by the sight of Brando, who can look nice, cuddly and angelic when he is not busy barking at any rival dogs. So here are some of the roses I saw this morning.


















Flowery charms
However there were some other flowers as well that asked to be clicked, even if I didn't know their names, except for the tulips.









Tulip flowers have such zigzaggy edges? To me they had always seemed smooth so I am not sure if this tulip is some special variety or do all tulips have these kind of edges?



Finally the poppy

I did find the poppy flowers finally just a little outside, on the road that goes along the wheat fields. There were not too many of them but enough for taking some pictures.






Disgusted dog
It was a lovely morning and our morning walk lasted almost one and half hour. Unfortunately Brando didn't appreciate it and seemed a bit annoyed at loosing his rhythm as I forced him to hold still while I clicked pictures of plants and flowers from different angles.

In this picture Brando is with Marco during holidays at the seaside some years ago
The return back to home after the poppy flowers was quick as Brando almost ran, understanding that I had completed my mission, pulling me along! If you think that he is too sweet or cute or small to pull people, you don't know him yet!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Altaf Tyrewala

It was January 2008. We were in the north Italian city of Turin for an event organised by an Italian literary foundation, Grinzane. I had asked Altaf Tyrewala for an interview and finally we got around doing it during a bus journey as we were going out for some lunch. Lavanya Shankaran, who was sitting behind us didn’t realise that it was an interview and I was recording it and she also joined in the conversation. I was so happy since the discussion was very stimulating and I was imagining that my recorder is recording her voice as well. Unfortunately that was not the case I can only hear some of her words. I vaguely remember what she said but that is not enough to re-construct her part of dialogue and I regret that immensely.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript of that discussion. The symbols are AT for Altaf Tyrewala, LS for Lavanya Shankaran and SD for me, Sunil Deepak.

AT: I like reading something that has been stripped to the bare essentials. I am almost incapable of enduring descriptions, etc. Anything that assumes that I don’t know ... I read the internet, I try to remain clued in to the world. What I like to read is something that I can not access as an information.

SD: Have you read anything by Agota Kristof like her trilogy of city of K? When I read your book (No God in Sight), after the first chapter I had thought of Agota Kristof. She is Hungerian and lives in Switzerland. She is old now. She writes short books and her chapters are like your’s. Few lines, just bare essential. And yet, she can evoke strong feelings with her few words.

AT: Considering that we are living in a wired world, half of my readings happen on internet so brevity is of extreme importance. Even in my day to day life, when I read books and magazines, I like things to be as concise and as essential as possible. Of course I understand that there is certain advantage in longivity as well, when some thing is dealt with in great depth, I am open to that also.
SD: When we were getting in the bus, you said something about your wife. Did she know you as a writer or as a person before you became ...?

AT: I was a poor graduate student in America when we met. We were studying together. She thinks that I completely misrepresented myself (laughs) because I turned out to be a writer. But because she has seen me before I was a writer, she is an immensely grounding presence in my life. It would have been so easy to float up in this writerly universe ..but she keeps on reminding me that don’t forget ...

LS: That is very wise thing you are saying... sensible, to keep your feet on the ground ..it is important that the spouse is not a writer otherwise ... writers are whackoos (laughs)... very difficult to have another writer in the house...
You can read the full interview on Kalpana by clicking on this link.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A lazy spring sunday

Soon it will be two years since Atam came to Bologna. She has finally found the job she likes. They have also bought their first car, about a month ago. It is a pale yellow Ypsilon. And days pass so quickly. I was thinking all this yesterday morning. We should celebrate, I proposed. May be we can go to eat out in a place I have found, Marco said, they make unbelievably huge pizzas.

While taking out Brando for his morning walk I discovered that our social centre was holding a cyclist meet. They do it by turns. A group of cyclists, mostly men in their seventies, hosting the meeting organise groups of volunteers offering drinks, cakes and other refreshments. Other groups of cyclists from near and far converge, enjoy refreshments and then all go out the explore the surrounding areas. Yesterday it was our local cyclists who were playing hosts and people came from as far as 150 km, around 1800 persons in all. Making cakes and refreshments for all of them must have been a huge affair, but I didn't hear anyone complaining.

Each group of cyclists wearing their group colours and logos looked great. One fellow who came to rest near me, told me that he had a hip transplant last year and this was his first cycle trip after the surgery. I think that it is wonderful way to keep friends and spend time together.














Back from the walk I cooked some afghani chole and then made "panch phoren aloo". I discovered the receipe on a food blog. Panch phoren is a mix of five spices used commonly in Bengal. I love some of these food blogs, they are really good at explaining recipes. Both chole and aloo turned out to be quite good. Then it was time to relax and watch "U, Me aur Hum", the first film of Ajay Devgan as a director.

I think that Devgan can be great director of serious films. His handling of serious scenes is good and some of the scenes are like tear-gas, with a wonderful Kajol. I didn't like the first half and though I like the song "maine to maanga tha.." and Kajol in it, I think that it was placed very badly in the film. Their young son has just risked dying and Devgan has probably come back from hospital, to see Kajol dancing in that scene was kind of cruel.

The afternoon was our picnic time. We went to the park for a family walk. There the group of elderly persons had organised their food festival, so we couldn't stop ourselves from eating some nice greasy local piadina-bread with ham, salami, etc. The park is so lovely with all kind of flowers, so I took lot of pictures.

As we came back home, we are both tired and full. The idea of going out to eat Pizza was no longer apealing. May be another day, we consoled Marco. I am reading a book by Alexander McCall Smith about a scottish philosopher. Going back to sofa and reading the book was a perfect way to end the beautiful sunday.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Age and desirability

I was with a friend and we were talking about the most beautiful Italians. I told him about a blog post I had written some time ago about my favourite Italian sex symbols and that I had put Alba Parietti and Sabrina Ferrilli in my top list.

"What?" he said horrified, "but they are old!!!"

"OK, I also had Monica Bellucci in that list", I added.
"She is also too old for this kind of thing now. You have to look for some one younger!" He insisted.
"There are really hot east European babes", the bar man added helpfully, providing details about the contortions they can do in some porn videos.

"They are not women, they are just meat. And anyway they are not Italian and we exclude porn stars from this classification", my friend clarified.

So there I was trying all kinds of combinations on Google to find out the top young models that Italians love today. Unsurprisingly, there is no unanimity.

Actually quite a lot of them seem to root for Martina Colombari, born in 1975, she was Miss Italy in 1991 and is still considered as one of the best models here. In 2006, in a pool on the best Miss Italy of all times, she was number one.

She does look great but I don't think that she is that young, like my friend was insisting.

Many others think that Carla Bruni is the best Italian top model of all times. Born in 1967 and now married to the French president Sarkozy, even Ms. Bruni is also not very young.

Two other names were mentioned on some websites - Marta Cecchetto and Federica Ridolfi. Ms. Ridolfi was in some recent list of top 100 most desirable women of the world compiled by Askmendotcom. Yet, born in 1974, Ms. Ridolfi is 34.

Marta Cecchetto, the other person often mentioned was born in 1978.

Finally a group of Italian journalists asked to identify the woman they would like to see nude on a calendar, gave the maximum votes to Ilaria d'Amico, a TV presenter but their choice had not so much to do with age, as with the fact that Ms. Ilaria refuses to have top less or nude pictures.

So in the end does it matter what year persons are born? Anyway, I feel that desiring a person has much more to do with the perceived personality of the person than just measurements of breasts or hips, etc. My wife keeps on saying that she finds Sean Connery, who must be seventy now, sexy. So there is hope for all of us, over the hill, but still somehow sexy and desirable, to the people who matter most to us! And I will stick with my Ferrilli and Parietti, thankyou.

***

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Vote for Zappatero

It is election time in Italy. If I only could, I would vote for Zappatero. The way his government has gone towards reforms is stuff for day-dreams in other countries where frustrated voters are sick of their governments that can't decide on anything. Like the law on people living together rather than getting married, including the same-sex couples that Zappatero could get through. In Italy they started with Dicos, then tried Pacos and in the end, gave up the idea because the centre parties that have strong catholic public image, felt that it would discriminate against regular heterosexual families.

The way last Prodi government had been functioning was so frustrating with its thin majority. Every member of the coalition with a handful of parliament seats threatened to quit if they didn't like something. Mastella with his 3-4 parliament seats and Dini with two seats, did it so often. Mastella finally brought the government down and it came out that he had received assurances from the opposition leader Berlusconi about getting a minister seat in the new government. It was disgusting and the public disapporval against Mastella is so strong that he has finally decided to "retire".

So you can understand my fondness for Zappatero. The only problem is that he is too handsome. I am a little distrustful of the handsome public leaders. Just think of what Blair did, turning into wagging tail of Bush. Or what Bill Levinsky Clinton did. Thus if Zappatero first was good, Zappatero bis may be too much. And then there is Nicholas Sarkozy, a post-modernist nightmare of a prime minister.

Anyway back to the Italian elections. Suddenly people seem distrustful of small parties and small leaders, each of whom gets a few seats and then tries to influence the government. At least I hope so, and that everyone would vote for a main party that can govern the country.

Where I live is a red area of Bologna. Actually the whole city of Bologna has the reputation of being red, in the sense that it has been a stronghold of left parties, for a long time with communitists and later on with centre-left coalitions. Now it is the new left, democratic party of Veltroni, that is the flavour of the season. Last year in October they held the primaries to choose their boss and this was a first in Italy, since usually parties choose their own leaders and don't ask people to vote and elect their leaders. More than 3 million persons voted for Veltroni. Since it is a red area, strong hold of left parties, all election posters of northern league, christian democrats and right parties are missing from the billboards. Probably enthusiastic supporters go out in the night to take down all such posters.

Still some of the posters are really funny. Like this one from northern league, that is the nationalist party of the north of Italy, that does not want emigrants. There poster has a red Indian on it.



"They didn't have rules to control emigration and now they are forced to live in reserves, think about it" it says. But they were all European emigrants, I wanted to tell the northern league leader, Africans, Asian emigrants, they didn't kill civlizations and put people in reserve areas! But I don't think that he wants to listen. The poster is both funny and communicating and in the end, that is what matters.

Sex is another theme of elections that continues to surprise me. Not the puritanical Clinton-Levinsky kind of sex, it is more open and ribald. Like the northern league famous for its "Lega c'è l'ha duro", meaning, "League has it hard" and is just going screw you.

Ms. Santanché, prime ministerial candidate of extreme right, snubbed by Berlusconi, reacted by saying "He wants me to give it to him but I am not, he can dream and die for it." Mr. Berlusconi himself, famous for putting his foot in his mouth every so often, has been trying to keep a check on himself this time. Last time he had announced that for the elections, for one month he was going to give up sex, implying that nearing seventy, he was still having it regularly and thus not too old to be a prime minister.

But it is the pornostars who catch attention every time during elections. Ilona Staller & Moana Pozzi, both pornostars were parliament members for the radical parties almost a decade ago. Both had scandalised for refusing to give up their wayward ways even after entering the parliament by continuing their work in hardcore porn, saying that it was their job and they had every rtight to go on with it. At least Moana was intelligent and able to speak articulately! Now we have Ms. Milly D'Abbraccio, another porn star standing for the socialist party. Her poster in Rome created some more scandal.


"Basta con queste facce da c...", the poster uses a common Italian proverb, "facce da culo" that means "ass-faces" and so in a poster showing her well rounded ass, Ms. D'Abbraccio says, "enough of ass faced" parliamentarians, vote for a more beautiful face. Embarrassed, the socialist leaders vain about their 114 year old history were stuttering their explanations about the poster.

Veltroni and Prodi were in Bologna the other day. Veltroni has choosen the slogan of Barack Obama, "Si può fare", it can be done. Initially all surveys showed the predictions that Berlusconi was ahead by ten points. Now Veltroni is going around saying that he is the new thing in Italian politics, he is running alone, no arrangements with any party and he has been elected by the people and he is young, only 54. Berlusconi is dismissive.







Personally I liked the speech of Anna Finocchiaro, wearing the red cross-checked coat in this picture, along with Prodi and Veltroni. She is simple and effective and to have a woman prime minister won't be bad. But she is not in the race for the prime minister. Bersani, the other minister of Prodi government who was there for the meeting is admired for the series of liberalisation measures he was able to push through in spite of the protests by the different unions.

And this time PD, democratic party is proposing industrials and professionals as candidates, not just union leaders and mechanics. So what will happen in the elections? We are all waiting to discover.

PS: Maybe Mayawati can ask for a ban on Zappatero? It means "shoe-maker" or a mochi.
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