Wednesday, 22 December 2010

So much hoo-ha about a drink?

Outlook has a long article on drinking and bars in India, and how the drinks culture has spread and changed in India over the past two liberalized decades. It made me think about differences in Indian and Italian attitudes towards alcoholic drinks.

I have a feeling that the attitudes towards social drinking in India are very much influenced by British-American attitudes towards alcohol. In the article in Outlook, Anvar Alikhan gives a list of characteristics of a good drinking place:
.. what exactly makes a good bar? It’s a complex, personal issue: what a 22-year-old girl would look for would naturally be different from what a 44-year-old male would want. However, certain basic, universal requirements generally apply, such as:

- First, a good drinks menu, with a sufficiently wide selection of good drinks, poured generously.
- There should be a great bartender. He doesn’t have to be a circus juggler, but he must be good at his job, able to mix interesting, innovative cocktails.
- Probably the single most important factor is that the crowd should belong to your “tribe”. Not necessarily people you know, but the kind of people you’d like to know. That’s what gives you a sense of belonging, and makes you want to come back here next time.
- The place must be 60 per cent full. Less than that and it’s uninvitingly empty; more than that and it’s too crowded.
- The service must be efficient, anticipative and unobtrusive. You shouldn’t have to keep waving out for a waiter.
- The music must be interesting, with a mix of familiarity and slight surprise. And the volume must be just right: not so loud that you can’t figure out what your companions are trying to say.
- Great lighting can make a huge difference to any bar.
- Comfortable chairs. Un-ergonomic furniture soon becomes a pain.
- The prices can be premium, but they should never leave you with a feeling of being ripped off.
- A distinctive character, a sense of history, or even a slight eccentricity always adds something special to a bar.
- Ultimately, no bar ever attains perfection. And if it did, it probably wouldn’t be any good anymore. Some small imperfection is always interesting.
My attitudes towards bars and social drinking are obviously influenced by my living in Italy, the original bar country, where there are bars at every corner and where in some areas, small kids, especially in rural areas, get to taste few spoons of wine from a very tender age, and where there are often discussions on nutritional values of wines and local liquers.

In Italy, when people want to go to a bar, they usually go to the one closer to their homes or their work places, or on the way from the home to the work-place, especially where it is easy to find a parking. Here, people go to the bar throughout the day - in the morning for a cup of coffee and a cornetto for breakfast, for another cup of coffee around mid-morning, for a sandwich for lunch or dinner. In all these occasions, some people will also ask for wine or other drink. Some times, usually in winter, some will ask for a drop of Grappa, the Italian grape liquer, in their coffee. So I feel that the relationships with the bars are very different from the ones described above by Alikhan, it is much more familiar.

Thus even attitudes towards drinking are quite matter of fact, and I have never heard of persons talking of good bars and bad bars. May be they talk of clean or dirty bars, or, they talk of friendly and unfriendly barmen/women.

The main differences between Italian attitudes and Indian (and British) attitudes towards drinking seem to be that in Italy, most persons drink wines every day with dinner, and on weekends and holidays, also during lunch. If you are invited by friends to lunch/dinner, you will get offered invariably some light appettizer drinks, then have some good wine with food and then finally have a selection of liquers for after-dinner drinks, that will usually end with a "digestive", that is a bitter tasting liquer with some herbs in it.

In a bar, in the evening, if you are with friends, you can try some exotic looking cocktail, for some social drinking. I think that women go more for this kind of drinking.

Beer drinking is not so common in Italy. Younger people drink it more. Some times, especially on hot days, people will offer you a bottle or can of beer, or you will order beer for drinking with your pizza. But most drinking is done with food or after-food and focuses on wines. I have also not seen persons drinking umpteen bottles of beer to get drunk, like it happens in Africa.

You hardly ever mix water or or soda or even ice in the hard liquers in Italy. I have yet to meet someone here who starts his drinks every evening, before dinner, with two or three pegs of hard liquer, usually whiskey, mixed with water/soda, accompanied by some snacks, that is so ubiquitous in India.

Most important difference in the attitudes towards alcoholic drinks between Italy and India, seems to be the aura of something bad or prohibited that surrounds drinking in India, in spite of the liberalization and changing attitudes in the recent years. The peripheries of cities like Bangalore, are full of seedy looking, dirty and ill-lit drinking joints, where you "hide" to drink. While in Italy, it is more of a common pleasure of life, taken for granted, sips offered to children and to growing up adolescents much like tea in India, and at the same time, that avoids hard drinking.

I have been fortunate with drinks, because invariably the first glass of anything remotely alcoholic is enough to make me sleepy, so usually I tend to avoid drinks. Having half a glass of red wine is usually enough for me! Drnking also makes me more melancholic and introverted. For me, a good bar will be where it is not too crowded, that has no loud music so that people can talk and that does not allow smoking.

Every country has its drink-culture and probably our colonial pasts mixing up with our specific cultural backgrounds, do influence those drinking-cultures. The Mongolian way of seriouly drinking vodka on every occasion or the Caribbean way of having rum or the German love for beer, are very different from the drinking cultures in India and Italy.

However, I think that I need to remember the Indian habits towards drinking when we have guests from India. This means that I must make sure to have whiskey, soda, ice, snacks, etc. and offer it for pre-dinner drinks. I usually forget it and I don't think that our Indian guests appreciate the Italian way of having some light appettizer, wine with food and an offer of post-dinner drinks or digestives!

Usually for an evening with friends, I would prefer to be with at home. We have a good selection of liquers from different countries. This way, no body tries to insist and force me to drink anything and at the end, I usually drink some wine and may be some digestive. And, best of all, after the evening is over I can go straight to sleep!

To conclude this discussion on drinks and bars, here are some of my pictures of pubs, bars, bar-restaurants from different countries of Europe:

Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sonali and Roberto story - more details

More than two years ago, in May 2008, I had written an article about the love story of Sonali and Roberto Rossellini. Following the first article, I received many emails from different parts of the world, some of which were from persons who knew other details about the story and shared those details with me. Thus, an updated version of the article was prepared in July 2008.

Over the past two years, my interest in the events linked to Sonali and Roberto story in India during 1956-57 has remained constant and I wish I could write a book on this story from Sonali's point of view. Some months ago, I did write to her daughter to ask if Sonali would agree to meet me, but I have not received any answer.

However, recently I did receive some more information about the days when Sonali and Roberto had come back from India and this post is about that new information.


A few months ago, a person shared some letters and other documents of Roberto Rossellini with me and gave me the permission to write about these.

The letters were written in November 1957, around the time when Roberto and Sonali had left India and were living in Paris. It was the time when their daughter Raffaella was born. The handwritten letters written in Italian are addressed to "Aldo and Giuliana", persons probably living in India at that time, who seem to be confidantes and friends with Roberto.

In one letter dated 17 November, Roberto excuses himself for not having written earlier "because he was being followed by journalists and photographers". He also says that he is preparing a return to India in the beginning of December. He mentions some financial problems. At the same time, he is "excited about restarting my life at 51 years".

He awaits anxiously for the arrival of documentary films from India for completing the work. He asks, "what does Jennifer say? .. What does Blitz say? He asks his friends to telephone (Rambir) Haksar to present his (Roberto's) apologies.

In another letter dated 7 December, it seems that Roberto's financial problems are continuing and he writes of selling his car. He seems to worry about gossip, "the truth is that people love to gossip and make things seem more drammatic, even when there is nothing to drammatize..". He mentions lack of news from "our lawyer in Bomaby" and he continues to wait for those "damned documentaries".

He also seems upset about reactions of certain persons "because I have separated from my wife? How does that concern him? ... I believe that people become easily hysterical, without understanding ... I don't think he understood what I had to go through to resolve the questions here."

He mentions a visit to Rome "for the separation from my wife".

Among the other documents that I have received, there are some telegrams from Roberto (in Rome) to hotel Suisse in Delhi. The telegrams mention Rambir Haksar and arrival of Mrs. Selznick (Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones who was married to director David Selznick at that time), who is arriving in India. Roberto asks  in the telegram to make arrangements for her stay in Maidens (hotel in Delhi), avoid publicity and inform Menon so that Jones gets all assitance on her arrival in Bombay airport.

Among the papers, there is also a list of expenses for reimbursement for a total of 910 Indian Rupees, that includes the following items:
7 Rs for taxi on 29th October to film division
6 Rs for taxi for Indira Gandhi on 26 October
20 Rs for taxi to Palam for taking the monkey on 4 November (probably the monkey used in one of the documentaries)

Comments: I think that the expenses for reimbursement covering the period from 22 October to 22 January, relate to the period after Roberto's arrival in India in October 1956, when his love story with Sonali had not yet started or was just starting.

I am not sure about the telegrams concerning Jennifer Jones. Did she play a role in the documentaries made by Roberto in India? Was he planning to make a film with her in India, after completing the documentaries? If so, probably he was underestimating the strength of public scandal in India and didn't imagine that he would have to run away to Euorpe with Sonali? From the letter dated 17 November 1957, it seems that he was still hoping to go back to India in December.

Rambir Haksar, who was assisting Rossellini in India, mentioned in these messages, could be related (?) to P. N. Haksar, who was in foreign service in that period, and later became personal assistant to Ms. Indira Gandhi (?).

Pandit Nehru's daughter Indira, who had married Firoz Gandhi in 1942, had separated from her husband and was living with her father in Teen Murthy during 1956-57. That Prime Minister's daughter travelled in a taxi, is a reflection of those times, when security was not an issue and leaders were closer to the people. Her personal involvement in the supporting Roberto's visit, also reflects on the importance given by the Nehru family to Rossellini visit in India.

The letters do not mention Sonali nor the birth of his daughter in Paris in November 1957. This could be an indication of his relationship with Aldo and Giuliana, who were probably more informed about his business issues than personal issues. His mention of gossip in Blitz, shows that he was concerned about the Indian press. Blitz was among the most active Bombay newspapers of that time, protesting loudly about Roberto and Sonali love story, describing it as an attack on India's morality and asking for Roberto's expulsion from India.


When I had found that the famous Bengali actor and director Aparna Sen was coming to River to River film festival in Florence, I had immediately thought that she would know details about the Sonali and Roberto story. She is daughter of Chidanand Dasgupta, who was close friend of Satyajit Ray, and since Sonali's ex-husband, Harisadhan Dasgupta was also colleague and friend of Satyajit Ray, my conclusion was they all must have known each other. In 1956-57 when it had all happened, Aparna must have been 11-12 years old, so I had thought she will remember things from that period.

Aparna did confirm that her father and Harisadhan knew each other. She said that as a child, Raja, Sonali and Harisadhan's elder son, used to come to their house. But she didn't know much else. There hadn't been much discussion about this subject in her family in that period, and Harisadhan's family had been very discreet about the whole issue, so she couldn't say much about it.

You can imagine my disappointment!


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Reliving teenage dreams in Florence

Even after decades, can we ever forget those first giddy confused times, when our bodies changed, hormones were raging and suddenly we thought that we were in love with some one, and the world seemed stronger, sharper, more colourful?

And then, how does it feel when many years later, suddenly you find yourself sitting in front of one of your old dreams? It happened to me yesterday and I felt confused, stuttering and giddy, as if I had gone back to being sixteen once again.

But let me start from the other things, before telling you about my meeting with my teenage crush.

Yesterday, 8 December was the day of Rahul Bose and Onir's new film, "I am" in River to River film festival in Florence, Italy. River to River is the most important festival of Indian films in Italy since 2001 and is directed by Ms Selvaggia Velo. This year it has an important retrospective of Satyajit Ray's films.

Rahul Bose has five of his films in the festival this time - Split wide open, Every body says I'm fine, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, I am and The Japanese Wife. I had already seen Every body says I'm fine and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer but still it was good to see them again.

I had not seen Dev Benegal's "Split wide open" and I loved it. It has plenty of scenes that usually create great scandals in Indian media including, plenty of Hindi cuss words, two integral nude scenes of Bose, a steamy sex scene and even a scene where the mumbai mafia don takes out his dick hanging it in Bose's face. So they must have talked a lot about this film when it had come out in 1999. However, I hardly knew anything about it and so had started watching it without too many expectations. If you have not seen it, get hold of a DVD and watch it.

River to River festival 2010, Rahul Bose, Selvaggia Velo

In the picture above, Bose is answering questions by the audience after the film. Next to him are Selvaggia Velo, festival's director and the English/Italian translator (sorry for not asking her name).

I had a conversation with Bose, that focused mainly on his involvement in the NGO called The Foundation, and touched superficially about his films.

Coming out of hall, I ran into Rizwan Siddiqui and Vijay Singh. I had seen Rizwan's short film "Kharboozey" on 7th. Vijay introduced himself and told about his works including a film called Jai Ganga. I need to look for his works and see them. Rizwan lives in Lucknow and Vijay is based in Paris.

River to River festival 2010, Rizwan Siddiqui and Vijay Singh

Then it was the time for the Italian premier of Onir's film, "I am". Here are film's director Onir and one of the actors, Rahul Bose.

River to River festival 2010, Rahul Bose, Onir

The film is beautiful and as usual for Onir's films, has beautiful music. Made of four inter-related stories, characters from each story spill off into others, the film touches on some of the sensitive issues including child abuse, homosexuality, artificial insemination and conflict-religion issues. The stories are based on real life incidents. Onir was telling that it will probably release in India in February 2011. Don't miss it.

The cinema hall where they are holding the main festival, Odeon, is one of the historical old-style theater of Florence. Yesterday, for "I am" it was full.

River to River festival 2010, cinema Odeon Florence

Now about my coming accross one of my teenage dreams, Ms. Aparna Sen. Her "Iti Mrinalini" opened the festival and her "The Japanese wife" is going to close the festival today evening (9 Dec.).

I had read lot of her interviews and had thought of asking her a lot of questions. But in front of her, I felt confused and forgot half of my prepared questions. I don't remember what she answered and probably I was a very distracted interviewer, asking something, then interrupting her, and all the time sneaking looks at her! Hopefully she is used to men like me and didn't take me for being exceptionally stupid or clumsy.

The evening after talking to her, passed in a daze. Couldn't have asked for more! Thanks Ms. Sen.

River to River festival 2010, Aparna Sen

If you wish, you can see Aparna Sen's Question-answer sessions after Mr. and Mrs Iyer at the festival on Youtube. On the same page, you can also find links to videos of Rahul Bose answering questions.


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Circle of history

A few days ago, there was an editorial in the French newspaper, Le Monde, that talked about exodus of christians from different countries dominated by Muslims. This editorial started from the news of an attack on a church in Baghdad, during which 50 people had died, most of them women and children, and it lamented the flight of christians from the very places where christianity had started.

About 50% of Iraqi christians have left the country in the last 20 years. According to Samir Khalil Samir, a gesuit priest from Egypt, in the last century, christians in Turkey have gone down from 20% of the population to 0.2% of the population, and globally in middle east, they have reduced from 15% to 6%.

Apart from the on-going conflicts in many countries of this region, the spread of more intolerant forms of Islam have contributed to this decline.

Religion, especially a conservative version of Islam, has become a key factor of conflicts in countries like Sudan and Nigeria. In most of these countries, the conservatives have occupied the centre-stage and speak more loudly, while the space occupied by moderates and liberals seems to have diminished.

There have been similar changes in Pakistan and Bangladesh. I remember reading a discussion among bloggers from Bangladesh, who recognized that Durga Puja celebrations in their countries have become rarer and more problematic as their societies are increasingly dominated by conservatives.

It also made me think of the on-going conflict in Kashmir, and the recent controversy surrounding the speech of Arundhati Roy.

I admire Arundhati Roy and I think that it is important that persons have the freedom to talk about uncomfortable truths, that we would rather forget or not see. In this sense, I share her anguish about the continuing lack of civil liberties in Kashmir, about the military rule that does not need to give any explanation or justify its brutality.

I think that power, that does not need to justify itself against people who have no way to raise up their voices or protest, invariably leads to abuse, repression and brutality. The examples of abuses by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan recently exposed on Wikileaks confirm this. Not just military, even children growing up in institutions in different cultures and religions know this very well, that pious and apparently kind persons governing them can also abuse their power. So it is easy to understand that the more violent components of military get an opportunity to express worst parts of themselves, protected by laws and their power.

However, I am not sure about the idea of "azaadi" in Kashmir if it means that the area will be ruled by more conservative and fundamentalist forces. How do you reconcile the contradiction between two ideals - the ideal of living with liberty and the right to self-determination on one hand; and the right to live in a country where people are free to wear what they want, for women to go to school and work, the issue of human rights as enshrined in universal declaration and that seem impossible in societies dominated by fundamentalists?

I raised this doubt to Dilip D'Souza, who answered that:
The point about freedom yearned for is that you can't second guess what might happen there afterwards. After all, Churchill believed that Britain would turn India over to half-men if they gave us Independence. White South Africa believed Mandela was a terrorist and there'd be widespread black revenge on the whites if they ended apartheid.
I agree with the examples given by Dilip, but it doesn't answer all my doubts. I think that he ignores the issue of religious conservatives holding power. As I understand it, Kashmir valley that is asking for azaadi, is a small place. I don't know if it is bigger or smaller than Bhutan.

I also agree that Kashmir valley needs freedom from the special laws that guarantee impunity to military, Kashmiris need azaadi from the omnipresent "occupying forces", but how do you make sure that they are not taken over by jehaadis and conservatives? How do you make sure that it does not become another Afghanistan or Baluchistan? Or we say, it doesn't matter to us, they asked for it, let them get out of it?

I think sooner or later, history will turn a full circle and more moderate and illuminated ideals of Islam will come back. The middle ages were dominated by fundamentalist christians who launched crusades, conquest of americas and inquisitions, but eventually rennaisance did win and in todays' world, conservative christians do not have that kind of influence or power. Similarly, one day this domination of fundamentalist islam will give way to liberal islam like the ones that continue to flourish in countries like India and Indonesia.

But till the circle of history completes this passage, how do you deal with regimes that restrict their people's lives? Do you just wait and watch? I am quite sure that the Western answers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the right answers, also because they are tainted with self-interest of power, control and resources.

But is there another way, and should others intervene and how?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The cost of silence

Certain areas of our history have become taboo. For different reasons we prefer to not to talk about them. Instead, only certain conservative groups and political parties can speak about those parts of our histories. But are there other costs to the society because of this silence?

Amitabh Bacchan and the Somnath ad

The angry reactions about it on facebook and blogs alerted me about the Somnath advertisement video of Gujarat Tourism. They also made me curious about the ad. So I watched it on Youtube and was wondering about the reasons that had provoked the angry reactions. I think that the reactions were not about what is said or not said in this ad, they were mainly about the motives behind it.

At one level, this ad can be compared to Obama talking about loss of American jobs due to outsourcing to India or China. Or it can be compared to the Italian northern league party that uses rhetoric and demagogy about “emigrants” to create fear about criminality and national identity. It reminds people about the threats faced by the Somnath temple some centuries ago.

At another level, the ad is a subtle threat, hidden behind nice words and glossy images. That threat is serious, if we look at the history of using such arguments and how such ideas have been used to justify events like the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

I can imagine the marketing managers and ad agency of Gujarat tourism, all very pleased with themselves. Their message is being spread by persons who like it and also by those who hate it. They must be hoping that in the end people will forget the controversy and remember some of those wonderful images of Somnath temple and more tourists will visit the state. Or they have done it on purpose to stir passions and make electoral gains.

Wider issues of discussion on history: However, I think that this episode points to wider issues of different links between history, politics and religion in India, that are not being debated very often.

Can we talk, discuss and argue about historical events including religious conflicts and understand their significance in India, without making it an accusation against one group of our people?

Language in pre-independent and post independent India

In the pre-independence era and even up to 1950s and 1960s, it was still possible to talk about historical events, without worrying if that was going to offend certain groups of population. Perhaps, it was because that people were clear in their minds that they were talking about historical events, things that had happened hundreds of years ago and these were not judgements about persons of specific religious groups today?

For example Jawaharlal Nehru in his "Discovery of India", first published in 1946 wrote:

About 1000 AC Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in Afghanistan, a Turk who had risen to power in central Asia, began his raids into India. There were many such raids and they were bloody and ruthless, and on every occasion Mahmud carried with him a vast quantity of treasure. A scholar contemporary, Alberuni, of Khiva, describes these raids: "The Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions and like a tale of old in the mouths of people. Their scattered remains cherish of course the most inveterate aversion towards all Moslems." ... He met with a severe defeat also in the Rajputana desert regions on his way back from Somnath in Kathiawar.

Socialist leader, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia in his article "Hindu and Muslim" (Hindu aur Musalman, 3 October 1963 published by Ram Manohar Lohia Samta Nyas, 1993) had written (my translation from Hindi):

A common misunderstanding in the minds of both Hindus and Muslims is that Hindus think that for the last 700-800 years Muslims have ruled us, they have been cruel and despotic, and Muslims think that, even if those who may be poorest of the poor, for 700-800 years we had ruled and now our bad days have come. .. the truth is Muslims have killed Muslims. Killed, not in spiritual terms but in physical sense. When Tamur came and killed 4-5 lakh persons, among them 3 lakh were Muslims, Pathan Muslims who were killed. The killer was a Mughal Muslim. ... I want that everyone, Hindus and Muslims, we should learn to say that Ghazni, Gauri and Babar were bandits, who attacked us.

Not just about past history, even for more recent events like India's partition, and Kashmir issue, till seventies, there are countless examples of leaders, writers, thinkers from different sides of political spectrum, who expressed themselves in words that, if used today, would immediately provoke unease and sometimes even accusations of being a part of "fundamentalists" or "saffron brigade", because now those areas of our history have become "sensitive" or even "taboo".

Changing context and changing language

I don’t think that anyone would tell the Jews not to talk about holocaust or to the persons of African descent in the Americas, not to talk about slavery.

The medieval period has been an era of Christian fundamentalism. Think of crusades. Think of genocide of natives in Americas, think of Aztec and Inca empires completely demolished and destroyed. Think of “holy” inquisition in southern Europe, where Muslims and Jews were persecuted, tortured and killed, converted by force, their books and knowledge burnt, their temples and mosques razed to ground.

While it all happened in Europe and middle east, it was more or less the same time when Ghazni or other Turkish/Afghani invaders were raiding India, burning, looting, killing people and also destroying Indian temples.

On one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about what happened in crusades, what happened to natives in Americas and about the tortures of inquisition in Europe. There are countless recent books and articles about it and if you talk about it, no one would dare say that you are anti-Christian or a Muslim/Jew bigot. But if you talk of what happened to temples, you could be looked at with suspicion. Why is that?

When and why this change?

All languages change with time and our way of talking about things changes. The fights for civil rights by the blacks in America and South Africa, the continuing fights for dignity by groups such as women and homosexuals and transgender persons, have all focused on words used to talk about them. The "illuminism" of concepts and ideas of human rights following the second world war, have all impacted on what we talk about and in which terms.

Thus, it is perfectly understandable that today anyone talking about groups of persons like women/blacks/gypsies/asians in an inappropriate language is seen with suspicion or distaste. It is perfectly understandable that persons using terms like niggers or cripples are told off clearly to mind their language. Thus, ways of expression that sounded perfectly reasonable thirty/fifty years ago, may be seen as problematic today.

But the change in India in not talking about certain parts of historical events, does not seem to be an issue of language. It is something else.

Thinking back of the events of the past thirty forty years, I think that part of the change may have come from the Khalistan movement in Punjab. It underlined the fact that India could fragment and get divided.

In his "Idea of India", Sunil Khilnani had written of the apparent conviction of the British and many other parts of the world that post-independence, India would break up in different states. However, till the Khalistan issue came up, while there were wars with Pakistan on Kashmir issue, and there were religious riots every now and then in different parts of India, I think that till that time, there were no real fears among Indians about a break-up of India, and it was the Khalistan movement that brought out this fear in to open.

The demotion of Babri masjid in 1992 and the subsequent bomb blasts in Mumbai, followed by more religious riots probably affected the nation's psyche more fundamentally. The Gujarat killings of 2002 with its state sponsored violence, were the final shock that told India that it was moving towards its doom. In this changed scenario, anything that puts into danger the unity of India has gradually become a taboo area, to be avoided at all costs. Thus, all violent traumas of our recent history are to be swept under the carpet, to be hidden away.

Religions and Indian thinkers

I have a feeling that the thinkers and philosophers in today's India would prefer not to talk about religions at all. For them religion and faith is a non issue, or at the most a private issue. Their distaste towards the more conservative religious believers of different religions is clear, though they are more controlled in denouncing the conservative groups among the minorities and much more vocal in expressing their indignation at Hindu conservatives. I remember an article of Ram Nath Guha in Outlook some years ago in this sense, asking us to be more aware and careful of fears of the minorities.

At the same time, past decades have seen increasing violence of certain conservative groups and the state seems unable to do anything to stop them. Thus persons burn libraries because someone has dared to write something about Shivaji or hound persons like Hussein for having dared to paint a naked Saraswati or in the name of Islam, MLAs threaten to kill Taslima on TV. Try to discuss multiple versions of Ramayana and people pounce on you for denigerating their religious feelings. Try to make a film about conditions of widows in early twentieth century and mobs will chase you away. Pose a question about a person called Mohammed in a question paper and they will cut off your hand and university will suspend you for hurting people's religious feelings. Have a negative Sikh character in a film and sikhs will protest. Talk about illicit relationships of a priest and church will protest.

The end result of both things is silence. You can't discuss anything that touches on religions. From the thinkers and philosophers, because they fear it will hurt the sentiments of minorities. From the conservatives, who have their versions of their religions and they dare anyone else to challenge those views.

Impact of this situation

Political incorrectness issue is especially serious in terms of Hindus and Muslims. Today it is politically incorrect to talk about Muslim invaders from Ghazni to Mughals. We can talk about persons like Akbar, if it is about Hindu Muslim unity, but it is better to avoid talking of Aurangzeb, and if you do it, it should be preferably in terms of “he was really not so fundamentalist as he is painted out to be, he was actually helping some temples”. And if we show Muslims killing Hindus and Sikhs in a film or a play, you should balance it by showing that Hindus and Sikhs were also killing Muslims at the same time.

To a lesser extent, similar problem applies to relations with other religions - especially Christians.

Thus, certain aspects of history have become personal property of Saffron brigade or radical Islamic groups – only VHP, RSS, some Maulanas/clerics or others of their side can speak about it and if you talk about it, you are naturally part of some fundamentalists.

Why is that? Why can’t we differentiate between the past and present? Talking about what had happened 400 years ago, doesn’t mean that as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian communities of today we are responsible of that past. In the history, terrible wars have been fought, terrible things have been done in the name of religion, but as human beings we are capable of changing, and today we can dialogue and reflect about such things without it necessarily reflecting on who we are today and what our religions are?

I also think that it is unfair to lot of persons, who are religious, but are not conservatives or fundamentalist in their thinking, who believe in multi-cultural India and have respect for all religions. Why should they be seen only as part of saffron brigade or Islamic conservatives?

I do believe that majority of people in India, be they Hindus, or Muslims or Christians or whatever religion, are sane persons, who believe in their faiths, but they also respect others, they also bow their head when they pass in front of another’s prayer place. It is a pity that they only have political parties to represent them who are either representing extremists of their religions or those who call themselves seculars but who do not understand or acknowledge anything related to their faiths.

At the same time, I think that cordoning off certain parts of our history, whether it is arrival or Aryans in ancient India or Muslim invasions of medieval India or partition of India in 1947 or killings of Sikhs in 1984 or killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 or killings of Christians in Kandhamal a couple of years ago, does not help us. Silence does not help us.

Reality is never black or white. Reality is not made of one simple story of one killer and one oppressed. It has multiple stories, where religion is just one part but there are many other parts. If we can't talk about them, we are closing off our possibility to understand what happened and why it happened and how can we make sure that it does not happen again.


Monday, 1 November 2010

For what?

A friend has sent this message about a consideration made by the Brazilian nobel prize winner Dr. Drauzio Varella:

"En el mundo actual, se está invirtiendo cinco veces mÃis en medicamentos para la virilidad masculina y silicona para mujeres, que en la cura del Alzheimer.
De aquí a algunos anos, tendremos viejas de tetas grandes y viejos con pene duro, pero ninguno de ellos se acordará para que sirven".

It means:

"In today's world, they spend five times more for virility medicines for men and silicone for women, than for curing Alzheimer. In a few years, there will be women with big tits and men with hard dicks, but they won't remember, these are for doing what!"


Friday, 22 October 2010

Nigerian email hackers have souls

Tomorrow morning I am leaving for Nigeria. I was wondering if I should take my laptop with me or if it was better to leave it at home? In my mind, Nigeria is full of hackers who can steal things effortlessly from your computers just by looking at it! Then I received an email and it changed the way I look at Nigeria and Nigerians.

Yesterday I received a "different" spam message from alicesary2(at) It made me aware about the tough jobs poor email hackers in Nigeria have to do. Sending countless emails to people who don't believe in their crying stories, about being stranded in foreign lands needing emergency money or widows of millionnaires wishing your help in getting at their millions, must be tough and job-satisfaction must be low, apart from pangs of guilty-consciousness for duping poor sods who believe in fairy tales.

OK guys, next time I put your message in the dump-box, I won't curse you, I will smile and think about your tough lives! Here is the message:

Hello Dear,
Since you aren't falling for my African romance scam, let me be up front with you. Because I am actually a Nigerian man, you owe me something.  I am entitled to reparations from the rest of the world, including you, due to the misdeeds of my forefathers who sold their family members and neighbors into slavery.
I am also entitled to handouts since my nation is rife with corruption and graft and has no hope of ever creating a decent civilization for itself.  Since you have not sufficiently helped us, that is your fault, not ours.
Most of all, you owe me for all of your unfounded prejudice against us.So start paying up now, by Western Union.  I will accept $12,000 USD from you over a one year period in monthly installments of $1000 USD.
Otherwise I will emigrate to your country and never cease to be a social problem for you.  A word to the wise is sufficient.
"Alice Sary", as good a name as any

Friday, 1 October 2010

God of Goldilocks

This week's Astrophysics journal has the story of a planet going around a red dwarf star, 20 light-years away from the earth.The planet has been given the name "Gliese 581g", and someone with lot of imagination, has converted the final and unimaginative "g" of the name into "Goldilocks".

It seems that Goldilocks can be a planet suitable for life similar to our earth, "the right size and location for life". May be all those scientists can take a break and need not worry about finding proofs of life on Goldilocks, I can already confirm it. There is life and there is God on Goldilocks, I know it.

Let me try to explain my view.

Scientists have already found that all matter is made of sub-atomic particles, that are in constant motion. Between our world as we see it and the sub-atomic world, there is such an immense distance that human imagination is not enough to understand it. In CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, scientists are trying to break down the sub-atomic particles to find out their compositions. I believe that sub-atmoic particles are made of ultra-sub-atomic particles, and distance of proportions between two groups of particles is as big or may be bigger than the distances between our world and that of sub-atomic particles.

In the same way, I believe that we are the sub-atomic particles of the universe, and may be our universe is sub-atomic particle for other bigger universes. For me, life is the constant motion of the sub-atomic particles, that is such that according to quantum physics it can be in more than one place at the same time. This life force joins all of us, humans, animals, plants, mountains, rivers, oceans, space, planets, galaxies into one. This super-consciousness is God.

It is for this reason that I like the ancient human's ideas of gods like mythical creatures, humans and demons and animals all combined like the mythical creatures on the Buddhist temples in Vietnam, like Ganesh in India, because these give an idea of unity of life beyond the apparent differences in our forms.

Scientists say that all our cells change, some die and others are born every minute, every day. Every time we breath, new atomic particles enter our bodies, mix with particles that make our body and some go out with our breath. We are being renewed all the time. Think of a being on Goldilocks, millions of years ago - its atomic particles mixed and travelled in space and have arrived on earth and have entered your breath. Goldilocks is here, inside you, inside us.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The hero and the villain

I like mystery stories in books and films. When you start with them, you already know that the author/director is going to plant red herrings along the way, and you have to constantly second guess them, and not to get distracted. Finally when you are able to guess the plot and the mystery near the end, or when the author/director manage to surprise you in the end, it can be very satisfying.

In Ravan, director Mani Ratnam behaves in the same way. He makes you think that you are going to watch a certain kind of movie, while showing you a completely different one.

Yes, finally I saw Mani Ratnam’s Ravan. And I loved second guessing his motives while making this movie, and I loved that he managed to surprise me in the end.

The reviews of the film were so harsh, especially about Abhishekh Bacchan. They said things like “he has single handedly destroyed this film”. Some people have even watched both the versions of the film (Tamil and Hindi) and are all praises for Vikram in the Tamil version, and thus, the condemnation for Abhishekh Bacchan seems even harsher.

I am not very fond of the Junior Bacchan. But after reading all those reviews I was left wondering if Abhishekh was so clearly bad in that film, how come the director and the different technicians couldn’t make it out while they were shooting the film or editing it? After watching the film, I feel that Abhishekh was good in the film, not exceptionally great, but good enough for Mani to plant his red herrings and create confusion.

Mani Ratnam's Ravan

For the last few years, I find difficult to sit through most bollywood films. So, after reading all the reviews and comments about Ravan, I had first thought that I will not watch Ravan. Then after some time, I thought about Mani's other film, Yuva. I had loved it and I had loved Abhishekh in it, so I decided that I had to find out for myself, how could both Mani and Abhishekh get it so completely wrong like the reviews seemed to suggest?

I didn’t like the beginning of Ravan. A collage of shots mixing up Beera (Abhishekh) standing on the top of the cliff, the policeman (Vikram) giving the speech in some military academy kind of place and the porcelain beauty (Aishwarya) on the boat getting kidnapped, looked pretentious and tiring. Perhaps Mani sir is too high on pretentious camera angles and confusing techniques, and that is why ordinary viewers have been put off by this film, I had thought.

Yet, within ten minutes I was hooked by the film, and watched it till the end without feeling bored for a moment. I think that it is a clever film with Mani Ratnam playing with the human biases and using them to cheat & confuse the viewers. Very thought provoking. However, may be I can understand, why it may seem off-putting and tiring to most viewers.

The archetypal revenge stories of Bollywood: The basic story of the film is nothing new and has been shown many times on Indian screens in many variations.

The revenge story involving cops has two main versions:

(1) Poor ordinary man and the corrupt cop story: The poor good guy is the hero and corrupt power-mad cop is the villain. The villain kidnaps and rapes the good guy’s sister/wife and the good guy takes up arms for revenge. At the end of the film, the villain is thrashed, jailed or killed.

(2) The honest cop and cruel ganglord story: An honest cop is the good guy. Somehow he manages to irritate the hoodlum. For revenge the hoodlum decides to teach the policeman a lesson and kills his family or kidnaps his wife/sister and rapes her. The honest police officer, goes after the hoodlum and in the end, kills him.

Mani takes these two versions of the story and mixes them up. The film starts as the type 2 story, that is “honest cop versus cruel ganglord” story, with kidnapping of honest cop’s (Vikram) wife (Aishwarya) by the cruel ganglord (Abhishekh). Almost halfway through the film, you realise that perhaps it is type 1 story, a “poor ordinary man and the corrupt power-hungry cop” story. However, Mani continues to create confusion by planting his red herrings.

Mani Ratnam’s question to the viewers seems to be: are you sure that you are supporting the right and the just side or you are letting your inherent human biases guide your feelings for the wrong side? I think that this question is very topical if you think of some issue of contemporary India like big dams, exploitation of tribals, beneficiaries of economic development, etc. It seems that if you have nice names like Vedanta or if you can use nice words like development and "India the new super-power", you can get away with exploitation, destroying the homelands of rural poor and triabls and worse. Mani uses similar techniques – mythology, looks, names to create a hero and a villain, who are not what they seem to be.

Story: On one hand there is a local tribal hoodlum, a kind of Robin hood helping poor oppressed tribal villagers. Other tribals, poor and uneducated people say good things about him (“He is like water, transparent”). He is secure in his world, not worrying about the new police officer appointed to his district and is busy in his siter’s wedding, whom he loves because “she is the independent kind, the kind who stands up to him”. He is probably a small time local crook, as there are no armed guards protecting him.

On the other hand, you have an ambitious police officer, appointed to a district, who decides to shot at the unarmed local hoodlum-Robinhood, while he is busy with kanyadaan of his sister. It is a little strange that hoodlum is loved by locals, yet police can come to his village, to his sisters' marriage and yet he and his men are completely unaware about it. This also points to his being a small local fish. Police officer's brother and other policemen, take the bride to the police station and rape her. The smart police officer, must have been aware of that? He has a nice looking wife, and when she is kidnapped by the men of the hoodlum, he goes after the tribal gang, refusing any comprise, killing as many as he can.

Treatment: Mani Ratnam takes the ordinary man versus corrupt power-hungry cop story except that he doesn't explain much about the motives of the cop and uses all the tricks to confound the viewers, so that cop is treated like a hero and the poor man like a villain.

Tribals in the film are not the cute bum-shaking, singing villagers of Bollywood, they have mud, ash or yellow paste of haldi streaked on their faces. Their clothes have black streaks, their eyes are circled with black, to make you think of devil or Shiva’s Yam-doots. Beera is made to look repulsive. He even mentions that he has ten heads like the demon king Ravan. He also has a habit of changing his expressions, and usually ends up with a crazy glint in his eyes. Just in case you didn’t get it, his hands move on his head like wings of a fluttering bird, making you feel that he is mentally unstable.

The other guy (Vikram) is macho, good looking, educated, apparently in love with his beautiful wife, a regular city guy, a hero material. His wife is cute, does lovely dances, surrounded by small children. His name is Dev, and there are different indications that he is like Ram from Ramayana. His relationship with his younger brother (Nikhil Diwedi) reminds you of Ram-Lakshman relationship. If you still had any doubts, there is Sanjeevani (Govinda), the forest guard who makes you think of Hanuman from the way he climbs on the top of roof-tops and swings from one tree to another.

When the film starts and you feel that it is story number two, the honest Ram like policeman fighting for his honour, fighting the cruel uneducated tribal bad man to save his beloved wife. As the film moves, the lines between good and bad are constantly blurred and only when the Jamuna (Priyamani) story comes out, some doubt creeps in and you start thinking that perhaps the cops are not the good side in this film.

Even then Mani Ratnam does not make it easy for you. Events unfold in such a way that every time you can feel a twinge of sympathy for the poor Beera, the director makes sure that you feel a little repulsed about him, by playing with the prejudices of urban film goers about rural unkempt, mentally ill, black and ugly uneducated persons. He plays dirty by highlighting everything that can look bad for Beera.

It is only at the end that you understand the way the policeman manipulates everything cold bloodedly, uses even his wife and her emotions, to get his own way. He does not hesitate from trapping and killing Beera, even while he knows that Beera has been good to his wife and has even spared/saved his own life. May be in the background you have some mining company or some other big company, who want the tribal boy out of the way, but Mani does not tell you about it.

I think that Abhishekh is brilliant and courageous for accepting to come out so strongly in being repulsive and crazy. Actually I liked everyone in the film, except may be for Aishwarya Rai. She does try hard enough, but she does not create electricty with Abhishekh, their vibes are not hot. I would have preferred someone more earthy and intense like Rani Mukherjee, the way she had portrayed Sashi in Yuva. Or Nandita Das or Konkana Sen. Aishwarya looks beautiful, but she vibes better with Vikram, like in the dancing song, “Khili re”. And she doesn’t fit with the wild jungle and thumping waterfall (photographed beautifully).

The week points about characterization of Beera (Abhishekh) are his hands, his legs, his teeth. His fingers seem too well kept, clean and manicured, and his teeth too white for being the tribal ganglord. I also felt that Mani went a little overboard in asking for his repulsive makeup. Like, in the dance “Thok de killi” with blacks streaking his clothes and around his eyes, looked too theatrical and obvious.

Some parts of the film, like the whole sequence at the end, with Ragini (Aishwarya) getting down from the train, coming to look for Beera, their meeting at the cliff top and their getting surrounded by police, seem very implausible. What kind of villain is this? He comes without a gun, does not even know that hundreds of policemen are following the woman in his jungle? But looking for that kind of logic does not help to appreciate the film. In any case, I think that the film was not about logic or believability of the story, but about archetypes of good and bad in Indian unconsciousness, and using them to raise questions about our inner prejudices.

I feel that with this film, Mani Ratnam throws a challenge at the viewers, that he will turn upside down your ideas about the hero and villain, he won’t let you identify with the hero, and then he seems to ask, tell me does it make you uneasy? Going by the general response to the film, it seems film goers have taken him on his words.

Think of Yuva, by no stretch of imagination, you can call Lallan a good person, yet in Yuva you can understand his compulsions and even identify with him. In Ravan, Beera is a much better character compared to Lallan, yet Mani does not let you feel any empathy for him. That required courage or may be it was foolishness? In my opinion, he does merit an accolade for making such a thought provoking film about how we make assumptions on superficial grounds about people and classify them as good or bad.

I don’t think that the Ram or Ravan of the film are in any way about Ram or Ravan of Ramayana. But rather, film uses ideas about Ram and Ravan to create confusion in our minds, to make it more difficult for us to decide who is good and who is bad. Yet, if I think of the scene where Nikhil Diwedi pulls at Priyamani’s nose at the wedding mandap and then she is gang raped by the policemen, it creats some unease in my mind. Is Ramayan also talking about something more sinister when it says Lakshman cut Surpanakha’s nose, I ask myself. Or may be I am reading too much in what Mani Ratnam wanted to say and provoke with Ravan?

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Changing worlds, changing identities

I was reading about the dramma caused by Joel Stein's column in The Times, the complaints of Indian American community and the subsequent apologies tendered by Stein and Times, and also the opinions of some Indian opinionists about the issue.

The editorial of Sagarika Ghose in Hindustan Times was clear in its advice for the Indian emigrants - if you are going to be in the global marketplace, learn to laugh at yourself and also learn to live with the communities that host you. It criticised the ghetto mentalities of Indian communities and advised them to stay at home in India, if they do not want to adapt to the culture of their adopted homelands.

Another editorial in HT by an Indian-American, Anika Gupta, complained that being an emigrant kid growing up in US, she was forced to learn to laugh at herself since the majority is incapable of understanding diversity. Thus they have had enough and can't be expected to take such irresponsible comments from a person like Stein in 2010.

I agree with some parts of both the views and yet have some problems with both of them. Sagarika Ghose's views are expressed in a superficial and insensitive way. Anika Gupta's view is perhaps too close to her own experience and thus lacks the necessary detachment.

I think that people have a right to express their feelings. If this debate was not about cultures and identities, perhaps we could accept others' feeling without much problems.

If I grew up in a calm area surrounded by green farms and clear skies and today I find that place covered with concrete houses, busy highways, speeding cars and increasing pollution, no one is going to get upset if I decide to write about my feelings, and about how I miss the old days. There will be people who are happy at the change, who look at the change as being "development" and appreciate the comfort of having shopping malls and cinema halls, but even they can appreciate that you are remembering something else, and don't argue about your right to remember the old times with nostalgia.

But the place where you grew up, if it has changed because many emigrants speaking different languages, eating different food, wearing different clothes are living in that place, it is not polite to say that you miss the old times when things were different. If you say that, it is automatically taken to mean that you are a racist or an ignorant conservative.

I don't think that is the best way to look at it - I think that we human beings can appreciate the good things about the changes, and yet miss parts of the past, before the change happened.

On the other hand, being emigrants is complex business. Understanding your own diversity and negotiating how you can live with the culture that surrounds you, can be painful and difficult, at least for some. So you have the right to express your difficulties and ask for respect.

Thus, in my opinion, both the view points are legitimate and should be expressed, without worrying if someone is going to get offended. I agree that emigrants need to express their own issues and difficulties, but we can't ask others to shut up and not say what they feel.

So for me Joel Stein also has equal right to remember the old days before their neighbourhood changed. I can understand it and empathise with it. Even I feel a bit like that, every time I go back to Delhi and look at the way city has changed in the past thirty years. It doesn't mean that I am negating that emigrants don't have difficulties in defining their own cultural identities and negotiating with majority cultures.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Heartless cities

I was reading about the report of Smita Jacob and Asghar Sharif about the homeless persons dying everyday in the streets of Delhi and their conclusion that up to 10 homeless persons die every day and that most of them could be starvation deaths among men of working age. I am a little sceptical about these conclusions, even though I do believe that our cities can be terribly heartless places for the poor.

I remember reading about Delhi Government's decision to "send back" the beggars in Delhi to their original places to prepare for the Commonwealth Games. And I was trying to think, in what way this was different from the witch hunt against Bihari bhaiyyas living in Mumbai by the goons of Nav Nirman Sena? Beggars are not persons who have come to earn their living? Isn't Delhi their capital too and don't they have the constitutional right of all Indians to live where they wish? People who were indignant about Mumbai antics of the Thakre family and their followers, didn't seem much bothered by Delhi Government's decision about the beggars.

I am definately not looking at beggars from rose-tinted glasses. However, I do believe that if they are part of an organised racket, those who earn most from it must be respectable citizens who can afford to move around in big cars and who definitely do not need to be afraid of being sent away from Delhi. That racket must be paying hefty fees to the whole series of paymasters, starting from the police to the politicians.

No, my scepticism to the conclusions of Jacob-Asghar report comes from other considerations. I don't think that if people are dying of hunger, the majority of it them will be working age men. It does not seem logical. I think that the city does offer opportunities for working age men to find some work, at least enough for eating, and if homeless persons in Delhi are dying, I would expect them to be mainly elderly persons, women, children or sick persons.

I think that the Supreme Court and we all need more answers and they should not be too difficult to get. Delhi has four medical colleges. Ask them to organise autopsies for all unidentified dead persons in Delhi for ten days, as a pilot study. It is not so much extra work, just 2-3 extra autopsies per day each medical college for just ten days. Perhaps the medical colleges already have this information and somebody just needs to involve them in the discussions?

If there are an average of ten homeless persons dying every day, in ten days of pilot study, the medical colleges can do 90-110 autopsies and it will give us hard data about the ages, gender, other diseases and nutritional status of the people who are dying on the streets of Delhi. Then Supreme Court can take a better decision.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Children of mixed gods

Yesterday, I was at the presentation of Fatima Ahmad's new book "Aukui". Fatima's mother was half Indian and half Vietnamese, her father was Somali. Fatima was born in Cambodia, where she lived for the first 21 years of her life, till the war broke out and they were forced to migrate to Somalia.

In Somalia, Fatima faced the more orthodox side of her religion. She was not supposed to go out, not to talk to men. It was different to grow up as a Msulim in Cambodia, a predominently Buddhist country than in Somalia. After three years in Somalia, Fatima moved to Italy. (In the picture below, during a reading from her book - Fatima is in the middle)

Fatima Ahmad, Roberta Sangiorgi from Eks&Tra & Stefano at Casa Khoula library Bologna

"Aukui" means "black devil" in Cambodian and refers to the difficulties she faced in Cambodia because of her skin colour. She also had to overcome barriers created around her disability. She said that she has written this book to tell her story to her younger brothers and sisters, who were born later and do not know about their roots. About her religious beliefs, Fatima said that she takes what she likes from Islam, Buddhism and Catholicism.

Discussions about mixing of faiths and religions immediately resonate in me. In my family, we have three religions - Hinduism, Catholicism and Sikhism.

I think that with globalisation, with people moving from one country to another, there will be even more opportunities for people of different religions to meet, fall in love and make families. I also think that today, with greater awareness about ideas of human rights and religious liberalism, there are greater opportunities for people in mixed families like ours to maintain our distinct religious identities and yet be all together in harmony.

A couple of months ago, I was in Vietnam and one evening, I had a discussion with a friend, who is Buddhist and has married to a Catholic. They are planning to shift to Italy in a couple of years. "I continue to be Buddhist", she had said. I had thought that in her words, there was an unexpressed anxiety about shifting to a predominently Catholic country and yet, continuing to be a Buddhist.

"And the children of such mixed families, what about their religion?", sometimes people ask me. I don't know how did others deal with this, I can only share how we dealt with it. For us, all children have a right to their family traditions from both the sides, mothers' and fathers' sides. This means that children should be able to feel at home in all their family religions, should participate in all their religious traditions and rites. We had had a church wedding and a hindu wedding, our son had his baptism and his mundan.

It is true that sometimes religions have prayers that talk about supremacy of their god and being the only true religion, but I think that if children can understand that their parents are in peace with each other, they grow up with their own understanding of their religions.

I feel that these children growing with shared understanding and beliefs of different religions, will be the new citizens of the world. I also feel this understanding is precious and should be valued and nurtured.

In India, because we grow up with different religions around us, over the centuries we have developed so many examples of mixing up of religions and traditions. Between Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity, etc.

Once I had read about one of the first Indian censuses done during British times and how people had difficulty in telling their religions, they were not sure if they should call themselves sikhs or hindus, and were forced to decide. Over the past decades, growing ideas of religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism among all the different relgions, seem to strengthen the differences, the divisions and the boundaries between religions and beliefs.

We, the children of mixed gods need to counter this and ask for respect of our religions, our mixed religions.

I have been reading debates about Indian census and if we it should ask questions about the castes or not. I wish that Indian census would also ask about religions of persons and give them the possibility of giving multiple answers - we can also be Hindus and Muslims at the same time, Sikhs and Jains at the same time, Hindus and Sikhs and Parsi at the same time. I wish there is a question that asks, how many believe that there is just one god for all human beings not withstanding their different religions? and how many of us also pray in religious places of other religions?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Alternate world histories

Tamim Ansary has written an alternate world history. Born in Afghanistan and settled in America, Ansary was asked to edit a school book on history and his job was to identify the significant world events, divided into ten units, each unit with three chapters. Thus, the world history had to be broken down into thirty chapters.

In the introduction to his new book, Ansary explains his experience of dealing with members of his school editorial committee, negotiating with them about what events can be significant enough to go into those chapters, and how those persons didn't see Islam as important enough to have a chapter.

Ansary says, from the view point of the academics in the West, the world history can be sub-divided more or less into the following significant areas - birth of civilization (Egypt and Mesopotamia); the classical age (Greece and Rome); upper rennaisance (spread of Christianity); Rennaisance and riforms; Illuminism (sicence and exploration); the revolutions (democratic, industrial and technological); the coming up of nation states and the fight for the empires; first and the second world wars; the cold war; and the triumph of democratic capitalism.

However, Ansary proposes to look at the world from the point of view of Islam and to identify their significant events for the world history, and he comes up with the following list - The antiquity (Mesopotamia and Persia); birth of Islam; the Caliphate and the search for universal unity; the fragmentation - the era of Sultanates; the catastrophe - the crusades and the mongols; the rennaisance and the era of three empires; the permeation of the Orient by the West; the reform movements; the triumph of modernist lays; and the Islamic reaction.

Thus, Ansary has written a book called, "Destiny disrupted. A history of world through Islamic eyes".

I like the idea of the book and I think that it will be interesting to read about the world and the events through an alternate point of view. The Western worldview is so dominating that we end up thinking that this is the only way there is to look at the world.

I think that it will be equally interesting to read about the world histories as seen by other points of views. For example, from India, what events we see as significant, that shaped the world? Probably it will start around Mohanjodaro and Harappa, go on to spread of agricutlure in the Ganges valley? What role will play Ashoka and Buddha in shaping the history of the whole Asian continent?

And the Chinese world history, how it will it differ from others? And the worldview of an African or a south Amerindian?

Perhaps, some book publisher will bring together persons from all over the world to write an alternate world history, that brings together the significant events from all our pasts! I would like to read that.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The old pictures

It was an old black and white photograph. There was nothing particular about it. Yet, it caught my attention. And I must have glanced at it only for a moment. With my sister, we were going through old papers of my mother, trying to think of things to keep and those that could be given away or may be thrown away.

Margaret Loiuse Skinner, Fullbright professor, 1921-1992

There were too many things to be looked at, so we were just trying to look for really important things, and to keep them separately. At the rest, we could take a look later.

"Margo", I told my sister, showing her the picture. The name of the person in the picture had come to me in a flash. There were two of her pictures there and a postcard. I had put them in the bag of things that I wanted to look first.

My mother's diary was the most important thing among those papers, and it was the first thing I did - transcribed it on computer. Day after tomorrow, it will be three months since she died. Going through her papers, her diaries, her pictures, is perhaps my way of trying to hold on to her memories.

So yesterday, while going through some of my mother's papers, I again saw that black and white picture of Margo. It has her signature on it, with her full name, Margaret Louise Skinner. But she liked being called Margo, I remembered it.

I had met her in Hyderabad in June 1960, when I and my other sister, had gone there to spend the summer holidays with our father, who was working in that city at the office of Socialist party. I have a vague memory of going some where with Margo and my mother on a rickshaw. At that time, I had no idea of who she was and what she was doing in Hyderabad. She was obviously angrez, a foreigner and a friend of my father. I also thought that she was somehow related to Socialist party, perhaps someone admiring Dr Lohia, the socialist leader - I don't think that anyone had said it to me, I must have assumed it.

Some months or may be a year later, when we were back in Delhi, I remember her parcel from the USA. There were two animal figures like soft and furry gloves in the parcel, where you can put your hand inside the glove, put fingers in the eyes or mouth of those animals and move your fingers to make them move like puppets. It also had some make-up things like lipsticks and eyeliners for my mother. I remember looking at those gloves once, but I never found them them again and slowly I forgot about them. May be my mother had put them away as they must have been very precious because you couldn't have found something similar in India in those days. Or perhaps, she gave them to some body?

Those childhood memories, sharp and vivid once, slowly faded as I don't remember hearing her name again. Some of those things came back, as I looked at her pictures.

The postcard is from Florence, it has a postal stamp of 19 January 1961. The card is addressed to my father and she has signed it as "M". In the card, in small and neat handwriting she talks about her stay in Florence and the things she has seen in the city ("staying in a pension, for 5 dollars a day, including three wonderful meals and wine"). She also wrote that was getting ready to leave for Paris and then to take the boat back to New York.

The second picture gives a little more information. It is the "afternoon tea" offered in the faculty to "the Fullbright professors Miss Skinner and Miss Smith" in 1953. From the faces of the persons in this picture, I think that it must have been taken somewhere in Philippines. So this means, Margo was a university professor and had been a Fullbright professor outside USA! May be she had also come to India as a Fullbright professor in 1960?

Margaret Loiuse Skinner, Fullbright professor, 1921-1992

I did an internet search and discovered somethings more.

One Margaret Louise Skinner was born in San Francisco on 10 April 1921, and she had died in 1992. In 1990, together with a person called Fritz Leiber, she had published a book of poems under the name of "Margo Skinner" titled, "As green as emeraude" (Dawn Heron Press, USA).

There was another Margaret Louise Skinner, born in 1921 in Kentucky, who had also died in 1992. She was married but didn't have children.

I couldn't find any of their images on internet, so I was not sure if poet Margaret was the Margo I had met in Hyderabad or was it the Kentucky one?

I tried to look for more information on the poetry book and found my answer. Among the titles of her poems there are - At an Indian wedding, At Mahabalypuram, Vishnu and ... To Deepak.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Calling names

This reflection about names of places and countries started from the book "Empires of the Indus" written by Alice Albinia.

Indus is the mighty river that starts from high mountains in Kashmir and goes to end in the Indian ocean through a wide delta in Sindh region of Pakistan. All the other important rivers on the western parts of India (Satluj, Ravi & Beas), Pakistan (Jhelum & Chenab) and eastern part of Afghanistan (Kabul), end in Indus. It is this river that gave India its name, though today most of it belongs to Pakistan.

Albinia writes that when India was divided, and Pakistan chose its new name, Jinah was expecting India to take the official name of Bharat and was aghast when it decided to keep India as its name, the name of the undivided country. It meant that India could claim the heritage and history of the past associated with the name "India", while Pakistan had to invent a new history for itself.

However, this reflection about Indus and India took me into another direction of thoughts. The Indian name for Indus river is Sindhu.

Rajesh Kochhar in his book "The Vedic People - their history and geography", makes an interesting point about development of languages in western part of the Indian subcontinent. His story starts with persons from central Asia. They moved into Afghanistan and then some of them migrated towards Sindhu river (Rigvedic people, as they wrote Rigveda) and others went towards Persia/Iran (Avestan people, as they wrote their sacred book Avesta). Later, as iron became available and thick jungles in the gangetic plains could be cut, the Rigvedic people migrated deeper into India.

Kochhar says that Avestans, used "H" more commonly in their language while Rigvedic people used more "S" in their language. Thus, Rigvedic group had names of many places and rivers starting with "S", including Sindhu river, while Avestan group had the same names starting with "H". So that for the Avestan group, Sindhu became Hindu.

Among other things, Kochhar proposes that Rigveda is mainly about three thousand years BC, when these persons were living in what is today called Afghanistan. To support this theory he explains the lack of references to Ganga river (Ganges) in Rigveda. Thus, he says that Sarayu river of Rigveda is not the present Sarayu in Uttar Pradesh, but is actually Haroyu (present name Hari Rud) of Afghanistan; in the same way, he arguments that Rigvedic Sarasawati river was actually the mighty Afghani river, Harahvaiti.

That is how, persons living on banks of Sindhu river were called Hindu and their religion became Hinduism. Come to think of it, Rigveda also does not mention any religion called "Hindu".

And, where did the word Indus came from? I guess, it came from Latin, the language of Roman empire and the lingua franca of the classical Europe, where "H" is silent and rarely used. For example, in Italian, Hinduism is called "Induismo" and Himalaya becomes "Imalaia". Therefore, the name of Indus river and country's name, India, both probably come from Latin.

All these reflections about names of places and country, worry me a little.

Thinking of all the campaigns for reclaiming our roots through name changes (Mumbai, Bengalaru, Chennai, etc.), perhaps one day there will be a campaign to change India's name to Sindhia and Hindus can call themselves Sindhus, and Hindi can become Sindhi?

That obviously raises another question - how are Sindhis going to call themselves?

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Hasn't mother already seen it all?

I was reading a story about a new film called Pankh. It was clearly written to titillate and to shock. At the same time, it raised a few questions in my mind. Here is what it said:
Director Sudipto Chattopadhyaya is extremely miffed at the lurid bent given to Pankh...The nude sequence will qualify as the boldest ever in an Indian film. It comes at a time when the boy-hero must prove to his domineering mother that he is, after all, a man.
Says the director, "I've never spoken about this sequence before because the content is bound to be projected out of context. It's actually the climactic moment when the hero Jerry (Maradona Rebello) can no longer bear with his mother's taunts about his manhood. Jerry takes off his trousers to show his mother that he has a d...k like any man..."
Do you think that such a thing is logical, that a guy has to show his dick to his mother to prove that he is a man? I mean, hasn't his mother given birth to him, wiped his potty when he was a baby, given him bath? Didn't she know already that the baby had the necessary appendage?

If his mother was taunting him about not being a man, perhaps she was talking about his personality or his behaviour?

So there I am, a bit confused, waiting to hear more about it, when the film comes out. I don't know, how does the screen play deal with this sequence, but in real life, I can imagine a today's urban mother, when she sees her teen age son nude like that, is likely to say, "Jerry, didn't I tell you to change your underwear everyday? How long you have been wearing those dirty undies? and don't stand there like that, you are going to catch penumonia!"

What do you say?

PS: I have read another story about the film. It is an interview with the leading actor of the film, Maradona Rebello, and that clarifies the situation. In the film Jerry is traumatised by the experienced of being cross-dressed by his mother in his childhood. Thus, perhaps the scene described above, can be explained.

Actually I am glad that Pankh is attempting to touch on another aspect of human sexuality. Though debates tend to focus on the gay-lesbian-straight issues, in reality, the issues related to human sexual identity are many more, perhaps infinite. Our identities in terms of "to be a man" or "to be a woman", depend very much on the kind of sexual orientation we feel inside us, but also on expectations and attitudes of other persons surrounding us. Expectations and attitudes of key figures like parents and siblings are probably even more important in this sense.

Thus, I can understand that a child to be cross-dressed by his/her parents when he/she is too small to understand or pose resistance, may be equally painful as those children who feel that they belong to the other sex, but are forced not to cross-dress by their parents, fearing ridicule of others.

So kudos to Sudipto Chattopadhyaya for touching on this sensitive theme and best of luck to Rebello for daring to go into uncharted territories in bollywood world, as an actor.
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