Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Breaking through the class ceiling

Indian society is made of hierarchies of class. We keep on judging persons and mentally classifying them if they are above us, at our same level or are below us. It happens inside our families, in our work places, when we go out, when we meet someone. This classification decides how we behave with them.

I am arguing that this class-based mindset is a barrier to development of India.

Graphic class hierarchy - S. Deepak, 2012

For the past few days, since the 23 year old girl was brutally raped and dumped from a moving bus in Delhi, I have been reading about the growing public outrage and protests, as well as, the reflections of persons about it.

For example, Shoma Chaudhury from Tahelka has written in her opinion piece:
THE SURGING outrage at the gangrape of a paramedic in New Delhi this week is welcome and cathartic. But it is also terrifying. There’s a fear that this too shall fade without correctives. But there is also a question we must all face: why did it need an incident so unspeakably brutal to trigger our outrage? What does that say about our collective threshold as a society? Why did hundreds of other stories of rape not suffice to prick our conscience?
The harsh truth is, rape is not deviant in India: it is rampant. The attitude that enables it sits embedded in our brain. Rape is almost culturally sanctioned in India, made possible by crude, unthinking conversations in every strata of society. Conversations that look at crime against women through the prism of women’s responsibility: were they adequately dressed, were they accompanied by a male protector, were they of sterling ‘character’, were they cautious enough.
Something about these discussions in the newspapers and magazines has intrigued me – while talking about the victim of the rape, they always add that she is “a paramedic”. Initial newspaper reports had talked about her being “a medical student”. Later on, reporters must have discovered other information and had become more specific – the girl is not a medical student but a paramedical course student.

How does it matter if the girl who is raped is a medical student or is studying to be a lab technician or a nursing assistant? And, why do newspaper or magazine have to specify it every time they write about it? Isn’t it enough to say “a young girl”? or a university student?

I can understand that when the news broke out, newspaper had to provide some information about the girl and her background. But why do they need to keep on specifying it, or rather, defining the girl in terms of her studies?

I feel that one of the reasons why we keep on specifying the study course of that girl is because we are very class-conscious. After visiting a number of countries in different continents, I think that Indian society is one of the most class-conscious societies in the world.

Perhaps the most defining criteria of this class consciousness is persons’ socio-economic background, their professions, incomes, etc. We behave differently with people who work as waiters, drivers, security guards, domestic helpers, cleaners etc. compared to how we behave with people higher up in hierarchy.

However, there are many other criteria to classify people and to calculate their relative place in the world around us. Gender is one such criteria, women are lower in hierarchy. If women claim higher hierarchical space, because of their socio-economic status, as soon as there is an opportunity, men placed lower down on their hierarchy, feel justified to “put them in their place”. Groping, violence and rape are some ways of putting women in their place.

Caste is another criteria for defining your place in the hierarchy of the Indian society. Comparatively, some attention has been given to issues related to caste discrimination. For those placed in the lowest margins of the caste system, parts of Indian society have asked for the removal of untouchability and affirmative action for their inclusion in areas of education and livelihood. However, we do not seem to have any problems with caste system if these "extremes" can be corrected. I wonder if only overcoming the stark discriminations against Dalits, would make the remaining caste-based hierarchies acceptable?

The language we speak, and the clothes we wear are other markers of our place in the social hierarchy. In “English Vinglish”, Shashi (Sridevi) says with a wry smile, “Important things are discussed only in English.” If you can’t speak English properly, you lose your place in the social hierarchy in India. Just a look at the smug publicity of “English medium” schools and the demand for “convent school educated” brides in the matrimonial columns is enough to state the obvious superiority of English. Even the poor and the uneducated persons know this and are willing to make sacrifices so that their children can repeat English nursery rhymes.

Every now and then I receive congratulatory messages from friends and acquaintances for “writing in Hindi”. I don’t know if there is another country in the world, where people are congratulated for their skills in writing or talking in their mother tongue, and where not being able to speak properly in the mother tongue is seen as sign of higher social status.

If Hindi is much lower compared to English in our social hierarchy, Hindiwallas look disdainfully at those who speak Maithili or Bhojpuri. Speaking sanskritized Hindi or refined Urdu is higher social status marker compared to those speak ordinary Hindustani.

Being from a big city, compared to being from a hinterland city or worse, being from a village, the colour of your skin, etc. are also markers of social status. This list of criteria for defining your place in social hierarchy goes on and on.

Unfortunately, these differences are not about human diversity, but they affect every aspect of our lives. For example, they determine, the kind of jobs you can have, the kind of news-worthiness you will have, and how the Indian system will treat you in your daily life.

There have been many social reformers in India who have spoken about the negative role of untouchability and caste exclusion, but there has been much less debate about the our rigid class-hierarchies and the impact these have on our lives and on our nation. One exception to this was Swami Vivekanand. Mr. Pranav Mukherjee, president of India, recently wrote in an article in the Week about the 150 birth anniversary of Swami Vivekanand:
Before he went to America in 1893, Swamiji spent a few years travelling all over India as a wandering monk. During these travels he was deeply moved by the destitution and backwardness of millions of ordinary Indians. However, he also saw that, in spite of poverty, the ancient spiritual culture was a powerful force in their lives. Swamiji concluded that the real cause of India's backwardness was the neglect and exploitation of the masses who produced the wealth of the land…Swamiji was intensely pained at the caste discrimination prevalent in India and full of sympathy for the poor and suffering of all nations, castes and creeds. He held the neglect of the masses and the subjugation of women to be the two causes of India's downfall.
Living in India, often it is difficult to become aware of these class hierarchies that permeate our lives. They are so pervasive and ingrained in our minds that they look like “natural phenomenon”, something god-given and thus, impossible to change.

Everyone in this system has some one else who is lower in some kind of hierarchy from them. While we chafe at the highhandedness and callousness of those above us, we are equally brutal in our behaviour towards those who we perceive as lower than us.

How can we break these barriers? Can India truly develop without breaking down these barriers?


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Colonization of minds

Book cover India a sacred geography
These days, I am reading Diana Eke's book "India - a sacred geography". Last night I was reading the part about the ideas of world-geography in the Indian sacred books. These books describe beliefs about the creation of the world and its geography. Different world civilizations have their own myths about the creation of the world and their own place in it.

Thus I discovered some Indian myths and stories that I had not heard about before. For example, ancient Indians believed that a mountain called Meru was the centre of the world. This Meru or golden mountain has eternal light and is connected to the polar star. It is un upside down mountain, narrow at the base and wide at the top. At its top are homes of the gods, especially the homes of Brahma and Shiva. The celestial Ganga river falls from the heavens on top of Meru and then divides into four rivers and goes in four directions, including Alaknanda going towards India. All the four Ganga rivers are equally holy. There are 4 continents, shaped are like four petals of a lotus flower around the Meru mountain and the southern petal is Jambudwip or Bharatavarsha (India).

Diana Eke explains in great detail these ancient beliefs and describes how this conception of the world was completely different from the world conception of other ancient civilizations:
Since Meru is king of the mountains in a confluence of mountain ranges that is the most awesome on earth, it is all the more arresting that Hindus do not derive their symbolic image of Meru from the great granite and ice peaks of Himalayas. Rather it comes from the living, organic world of flowers. Meru is the "seed cup" (Karnika) of the lotus of the world." ...
Bharata is the southernmost land of this lotus world. India's imaginative world map does not place India directly in the centre of the world as did Anaximander when he drew the first world map with Greece in the centre, or the medieval cartographers when they placed Jerusalem and the holy Land in the centre, with continents spreading forth like petals. Rather Bharata is but one of of the petal continents. In many ways it is the least glorious. Far from the usual ethnocentrism in which one's own world is described as civilized, while the surrounding lands, vaguely known, are thought to be less so, even barbarian, the Indian visionaries who described the world actually idealized the other petals of the world ...
Why don't the Indian school books say anything about ancient Indian traditions?

While I was reading this part, I was thinking that I am close to sixty years and this is the first time that I am reading about the worldview of the ancient Indians and about India's place in its geography. I felt a little cheated that our schools or colleges did not talk of these myths of ancient Indians and how these could have shaped our present world views and our ways of thinking?

I am not saying that we have to teach to school children that this is the geography of the world or that we should not teach them about modern geography. Conservative Christian groups in USA or conservative Islamists in different parts of the world or even Hindutva groups in India have those kind of ideas where they want that school children be taught what is written in ancient religious books, and not what the modern science has taught us. I do not agree with those ideas.

Rather, I am thinking that while we learn the modern geography and science, we should also learn about the ancient Indians myths and stories. Not as blind beliefs, but we should learn to look at them critically. This is needed to understand how these beliefs were different or similar from the beliefs of other ancient cultures, and how these could have shaped the development of Indian society.

A cultural understanding of societies

I think that societies have a cultural understanding of who they are and how to came to be the way they are. These cultural understandings are different for different cultures. In my view, ignoring or forgetting these cultural understandings is ignoring an important aspect of ourselves. We need to look at these cultural understandings in a critical way, to appreciate them, to value them, to recognise how they have contributed to the development of our societies.

This does not mean that we have to take them as the absolute truth, but it also means that they should not be devalued and forgotten. I am arguing for a middle way between the extremes of strident Hindutva and the denying-the-religions kind of secularism?

I agree that these ancient beliefs are Brahmanic beliefs. For centuries these beliefs have excluded large sections of Indian society, especially those who are considered "low castes" and tribal groups. Thus I am not saying that these are the "only" beliefs of ancient Indians. Yet given their pervasiveness in significant parts of Indians, these can not be wished away.

I also believe that parts of these ancient beliefs need to be changed. For example, Hindu scriptures propose a particular role for women and girls and they espouse a particular role for those they call as "low castes" and ask for their exclusion and exploitation. I don't think that respecting our myths and ancient stories means accepting these aspects of our culture as right. Rather, I believe that we need to change with times and look critically at how we deal with issues like dignity of individuals and dignity of labour and change our societies. But to criticise aspects of scriptures or to ask for change, does not mean that we hide or ignore parts of our history and traditions.

In a way, I feel that persons asking for Hindutva are actually blind to Hinduism's pluralistic traditions and tend to look at religion and culture through linear-rational way of thinking where they dream of homogenizing Hinduism, like a parody of monotheistic religions. Thus while they talk of saving Hinduism, in reality they work for destroying it.

Western "linear-rational" and Indian "non-linear, apparently contradictory" ways of thinking

The past few centuries have seen the rise and domination of western way of thinking that is linear-rational way of thinking. It has brought great progress in the world including science, technology and even the modern ideas of human rights and equality of human beings. This western way of linear-rational thinking is important for all of us as part of our education, science, industry, etc.

On the other hand, traditional Indian way of thinking is non-linear, multi-directional and apparently contradictory. In his book "Nine Lives - In search of the sacred in modern India", William Dalrymple has described an interview with a sculptor from Tamil Nadu, where he brings out this non-linear and apparently contradictory way of reasoning:
It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: via the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradictions; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.
Sometimes, this non-linear and contradictory way of thinking confuses western students of Hinduism and Indian culture. Such confusion is also apparent in relation to philosophies of other oriental religions including Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc.

For example, I remember some discussions with friends of other religions where they felt that because of multitude of gods and goddesses and because of idol worshiping, Hinduism is in some way inferior to their ideas of one god, or at best, it is is an illogical way of thinking. I think that they look at Hinduism in a linear-rational way of thinking and can not appreciate the Indian non-linear way of understanding the world that feels that "this and its opposite, both can be true".

Should this non-linear and contradictory way of thinking be considered inferior or should be ignored and forgotten?

I also believe that the Indian ways of thinking has its own value. For example in the way we traditionally deal with nature. From ants and mice to owls and peacocks, ancient Indian beliefs look at insects, birds, plants and animals as sacred. This can be seen as superstitious or illogical by the western thought. However, looking at birds or plants as sacred, can also be seen as respecting the world and creating a harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

Breaking out of cultural colonization of minds

I feel that we have a kind of cultural colonization of our minds, where we pretend that only western linear-rational way of thinking exists, and world needs to be understood exclusively according to this logic. The non-linear and apparently contradictory thinking pervades our cultures, but we pretend that it does not merit acknowledgement or understanding.

We need to break free of this cultural colonization and learn to look at our ancient myths, stories and traditions as living paradigms that influence and shape us even today.

For example, I would like to learn about how the ancient Hindu myths were translated in Jain and Buddhist traditions? Did they influence early Christianity when it came to Kerala with St Thomas, two thousand years ago? Did they have an influence on Muslim-Sufi and Sikh philosophies? Did they shape the way Indians look at the world today?


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Waiting for Bachchan ji

"We are going to have a big Bollywood star", Selvaggia Velo had announced almost one month ago and a guessing game had started.

From Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan to Rishi Kapoor, so many different names were proposed by the Italian and Indian Bollywood fans, all trying to guess the name of the "big Bollywood star" coming to Florence (Italy) in December 2012.

The idea of having a big shot actor or actress coming to the River to River film festival in Florence was enticing and at the same time, a little daunting for me.

I thought that with someone like Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh, there will be hordes of screaming Bollywood fans every where they will go, and that would take away the attention from the film makers presenting their documentary films in the festival.

In 2010, I had intereviewed Rahul Bose, Onir and Aparna sen in the festival. I had talked to Onir and Aparna in a coffee bar and Rahul in a small office. But I can't imagine myself sitting down in a coffee bar and chatting with Aamir or Shah Rukh, surrounded by delirious fans.

Finally on 11th, Selvaggia Velo, director of the River to River film festival, held a press conference and announced that the guest of honour this year is going to be Amitabh Bachchan. Three of his films - Sholay, Deewar and Black will be shown in the festival.

I am a little relieved by the announcement. I am sure that the serious Italian Bollywood fans will be there in Florence to look for Bachchan, and more Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi people will come to the festival to see him in person, but hopefully we won't have many of the delirious young fans milling around, looking for him to mob him and making it a big security issue. At least I hope so!

So I am looking forward to seeing Bachchan ji, though there was a period when I didn't like some of his films, like the period when he was doing films like Mard and Coolie.

I had loved his Hrikesh Mukherjee films - from Anand to Chupke Chupke, Mili, Abhiman, Namakharam and Aalap. I had also liked his initial films such as Zanzeer and Deewar, that had made him more popular among the masses. Then his popularity had grown too big, imprisoning him in certain kinds of roles, and I had stopped watching his films. I like his second innings as the elderly actor much more, that started in late nineties and that allows him to experiment much more as an actor. Films like Cheeni kum, Black and Paa.

I am not sure if I will get the chance to interview him, but I am keeping my fingers crossed.

The introduction to Amitabh Bachchan in the Italian press kit presents him as an icon of Indian cinema and also as the father-in-law of Aishwarya Rai. Though a couple of Amitabh's films (Cheeni kum and Kabhi Alvida na kehna) have been shown on national TV in Italy some years ago, he is virtually unknown among Italian public. On the other hand, Aishwarya Rai with a couple of mainstream Hollywood and British films is slightly better known in Italy.

I feet that his introduction should have also mentioned Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan, one of the best Indian actresses of that generation. I have been told that Jaya will be accompanying her husband for the festival. This news is much more exciting for me. I have always been her fan and I think that I have seen all her films, from Guddi, Uphaar, Koshish and Piya ka Ghar, right down to Hazaar chourasi ki maa.

Her films deserve a festival on their own right. So I am glad that among the films selected for the festival, there is Sholay, that is also Jaya's film. Italian public has also seen her in "Laga chunri mein daag", when it was shown on national TV a couple of years ago during the summer Bollywood festival called "Amore con .. turbante". I hope that I can interview her as well, and I am keeping all my fingers and toes crossed for this!

I am also looking forward to watching documentaries in the River to River festival, the only festival in the world dedicated entirely to Indian films (though over past few years, an occasional film from other Asian countries also made it in the programme). It is held in a beautiful, old and historical cinema hall in the centre of Florence, Odeon cinema.

This year the festival is going to be from 7 to 13th December. So if you are around in Italy in that period, write down the dates in your agenda. A special treat this time will be the screening of the first Indian film ever made, Raja Harishchandra made in 1913, whose print has been restored recently.

Suppose you have to choose one favourite film in which Amitabh and Jaya were together, which film would you choose?

They did many films together, including - Ek nazar, Bansi aur Birju, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Mili, Sholay, Zanzeer, Silsila and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (have I forgotten any? - I remember that in 1970s they were doing "Ek tha Chander, ek thi Sudha" based on Dharamveer Bharti's famous book Gunahon ka Devtaa, but I don't think that it was ever completed and released).

From all these films, my personal favourite would be Abhimaan, followed by Chupke Chupke. Abhimaan was emotional and intense, while Chupke Chupke was light and frothy, so the two films were very different from each other and were equally lovable. Both films had marvellous music by S. D. Burman. However, for this classification, personally I would prefer Abhimaan, because in Chupke Chupke, the emphasis was on Dharmendra-Sharmila Tagore pair and Amitabh-Jaya had a more limited role.

If you have to choose one favourite Amitabh-Jaya film, which one would you choose?


Sunday, 10 June 2012

Making of a Play - A tyrst with destiny

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi ji were sitting and discussing on a mattress in the living room. Gandhi was spinning on his charkha, the spinning wheel.

I thought I was hallucinating. I was sitting in the corner of the living room of a person that I had never met before. More precisely, at that time, I didn't know whose house was it. It was evening when I had arrived in Washington DC and the actors were already rehearsing.

I knew that it was only a play. Yet, for some moments, I had been transported to a room in India, where Gandhi and Jawaharlal must have sat together more than eighty years ago.

That morning, I had left home in Bologna (Italy), more than 15 hours earlier. From the Dulles international airport, we had come straight to the rehearsal. The play is called "A tryst with destiny". It is about the people involved in events leading to independence and partition of India. It is written and directed by my younger sister, and I had gone to US especially to watch it.


I was intrigued by Jinnah. The suave, impassioned man played with raw intensity by Subhojit during the rehearsal. Why had he joined the All India Muslim League, when he was a member of congress party? At that time, in 1913, his views were nationalist and about Hindu-Muslim unity? Few years later he had even married a Parsi girl.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

Suddenly I remembered the time when Altaf Tyrewala had come to a literary meeting in Turin, a couple of years ago. Altaf, a writer from Mumbai, didn't see himself in religious terms, but during the meeting he was presented as the "Muslim writer" by the organisers. Often others decide to underline our religious identities, for whatever reasons. When it happens again and again, perhaps it changes the way we look at ourselves?

Had something like that happened to Jinnah? Or, was it a quest for power, an understanding that "minority politics" could give him greater role? Or a combination of both?

I don't know much about Jinnah. He was not a welcome figure in our family discussions, because of the friends, lands and homes they had been forced to leave in Pakistan during partition.

"Subodh, how does it feel to play Jinnah?" I had asked Subhojit.

Everybody calls him Subodh. He is a research scientist, a Bengali from Mumbai, with music as his passion.

"Actually Amita wanted someone older to play Jinnah", Subhojit smiled, "but she couldn't find someone who was old and slim, and I got lucky that way. Initially it was a big challenge. I knew about Gandhi and Nehru, but I had no clue about Jinnah. In India, we learned that Jinnah was president of Muslim League and that he wanted Pakistan, but we didn't really study about him as a person. So to prepare for this role, I read a lot about him."

"By that time, we had started doing the play but I was not really feeling the role. Then I talked with my Pakistani friends to understand how they saw him. That changed how I saw him! When I could put myself in their shoes and see him from their eyes, it changed my understanding. After that, when I spoke my dialogues and I spoke about Muslims, I changed 'the Muslims' to 'us Muslims'. It became 'us', 'we' and 'I', then I felt the character", he continued.

Manoj Singh, a shy and gentle looking person, has a triple role in the play - he plays Motilal, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Jinnah's Hindu servant. It was his scene as Ambedkar, where he asks Gandhi ji to break the fast, that spiked my interest.

Dalit leaders did not like the word "harijan" that Gandhi ji had proposed for them. How did Ambedkar feel about the word "harijan", I suddenly wondered.

Gandhi ji was sitting on the mattress in the centre of the room, spinning his charkha while Ambedkar was pacing around. I could understand Gandhi's view when he said "Hinduism has a remedy for this evil of untouchability. Hinduism can reform itself, caste system is not about that, Hinduism is an open religion and can transform....". That is the way we often think.

However, Ambedkar was impatient and scathing, "Please don’t lecture me on the glory of Hinduism . You were not born an untouchable in this country. You don’t understand what it is to live life as an untouchable."

Natwar Gandhi, who played Gandhi, imbued him with an air of vulnerability and disarming innocence, "That is why I pray that I am born as an untouchable in my next life."

"No Gandhi ji, we don’t want this problem going into our next lives. We need to end it in our present life times. I am here to discuss the issue of separate electorates for untouchables as agreed by the British", Manoj's Ambedkar was resigned and a little resentful, "I want you to end the fast. This is emotional and political blackmail on your part. If you die, caste Hindus will kill every untouchable in this country, the very people you consider so dear, your harijans."

What word did Baba Saheb use in his head when he thought about his fellow persons from the "low" castes? Harijan? Untouchables in English or Acchuts in Hindi or did he use a Marathi term?

During my time in the school, our history books in India talked about kings and queens of England but they didn't explain the different roles and positions of persons involved in our freedom struggle. Today it is much worse in India. Today talking about our history is treated like some dangerous perversion that must struggle continuously with political and popular censorships!

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak


Two hours before the show was supposed to start, all preparations were done and the actors went to the green rooms to get ready.

Looking at persons putting on their costumes and getting their make up done was equally fascinating. Deepti Rattan, the production in charge, ran around doing hundred things.

"During my growing up years, I had no knowledge about plays and theater", Deepti explained, "but when I was in college, I met Sushil during a play competition. He was very involved in theater. We started going out together and I became interested in plays." After coming to USA, for many years, Sushil had become busy in his work as a gastroentrologist, and they were not very active in theater. Then one year ago, they had shifted home from Philadelphia and theater had come back into their lives.

Rita was doing the make-up. Putting the foundation and the eyeliners. Accentuating features so that actors' expressions were easier to make out for the audience. Even if Natwar is not thin like Gandhi ji was, still he did look very much like Gandhi ji. Next to him, Subhojit traced dark lines on his neck and face. It did make his face look thinner and more like Jinnah's.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

Deepti, Reshma and Sangeeta struggled with Malviya's turban, wrapping and unwrapping it, many times before finding the turn that satisfied him.

Manoj has his hairs dusted with white and a white moustache, transformed into Motilal Nehru. But it was Krish who really surprised me. He looked so much like Jawaharlal Nehru!

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak


Then it was the time for me to take my seat among the spectators. The theater quickly filled up. The theater staff was amazed. They had not had a houseful like this for some time. Among the audience there was the mayor of DC, who had come especially for Natwar, playing Gandhi.

Scenes of the play are mostly short pieces, presenting a collage of events, passing from one event to another, from one set of persons to others, with three central characters - Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. In the play, the historical video clips connect the scenes and the point where a video clip stops, is the starting point of the next scene.

During the interval, people were a little cautious and guarded with their comments. There had been some good moments in the play, with occasional exchanges eliciting laughter. However, I think that, the first half of the play had not touched any deep emotions in the audience.

The second half of the play had much more life and passion. Almost from the first scene I could sense the excitement and engagement of the audience around me. The concluding moments of the play with the anger and frustration of Jinnah asking for a separate homeland for the Muslims, the shouting and crying Nehru justifying his decision to accept the partition of India and passionate plea of Azad for not dividing India, were truly magical.

During the rehearsal the evening before, this part had not been very convincing. During the play, Sushil as Azad, brought a lump to my throat with his helpless anger, "And what is the hurry for freedom, this divided freedom? Who decided we should be free on 15th August 1947 anyway? Mr. Radcliffe, Mountbatten? And who agreed? You? Sardar Patel on behalf of Congress? Gandhi ji?"

It was a crescendo. The last scene with parts of independence speeches made by Jinnah and Nehru, and with the wonderful voice of Sajeev singing "Vaishnav Jan to", had the audience give a rousing applause for the play.

The evening had concluded with a discussion that saw two South Asia experts, Teresita C. Schaffer and Walter Anderson, sharing their views about the play and that period of history. Both of them agreed that the play had caught the spirit of those troubled times and presented the events and persons in their complexity, rather than simplifying them to give facile answers about the partition of India and Pakistan.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak


Even after more than 60 years, the events around the end of the British India are able to provoke heated debates and anguished discussions. Today, often these discussions take place without a real knowledge of pre-independence era and its events. Rather, these discussions are shaped by deformed versions of our histories taught in the school books and by the events of the past decades such as the wars between India and Pakistan along with nationalistic jingoism.

During the discussions after the play, Altaf Kabeer, had raised up the issue of representations of the partition events by Indians exclusively in tragic terms with use of words like holocaust while for persons like him, it is an event linked to the birth of his country, Pakistan.

I think that Kabeer is right. It does not matter, how objective and neutral we try to be in these discussions. In the end, for most Indians, this part of our history is about death and suffering of so many, coupled with mutilation of our country. On the other hand, across the border, the stories of death and suffering are a means to a noble end, they are linked to birth of their country. This basic difference in the perspectives cannot be erased.

The morning after the play, I and Amita were walking back from a visit to the Potomac falls, when we were stopped by a young woman. She was Shabnam and she had been at the play with her father. They were from Pakistan. "When we had gone to the play, we didn't know what to expect but actually the play presented the different sides in a balanced way. I had not much idea about the events that had led to the birth of Pakistan, so it was learning for me. My father also appreciated the play", she had said.

I think that was great praise for "A tryst with destiny", that a play could give us a greater understanding about a moment of our history.

In the introductory booklet prepared for the play, Amita had explained, "As a psychiatrist, I help people make sense of their history and how it impacts their present. I deeply believe that we as humans carry not only our individual history but also our social, political and cultural histories, the history of our communities and nationalities in us."

The play was a way to look back with sympathy and understanding. Without our minds and eyes clouded by mists of anger. If we can understand our past, may be we can build a better future for us.

A more extended version of this article is available on


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Issai - Inter-religious Bollywood

Artists don't believe in conventions, everyone knows it. Ordinary mortals are expected to follow the social rules, but for artists we are usually ready to make exceptions. Look at Bollywood. It is common enough to find marriages and relationships that go accross religious lines in Bollywood.

But if film artists can go beyond social conventions in their private lives, they also need to sell the tickets of their films. Do people go to watch films that defy social conventions?

In this three parts article, I will look at - (1) inter-religious families in reel-life Bollywood; (2) inter-religious love in reel-life Bollywood; and, (3) inter-religious stories from real life Bollywood. This first part of the article is about inter-religious families in Bollywood films.

Bollywood and mixed religious relationships

Multi-religious societies & Cinema

I think that among all the different films made in different parts of the world, Bollywood and Indian cinema have touched on the issue of inter-religious issues many more times, compared to all other countries. May be it has something to do with the way Indians perceive themselves?

Almost all the countries of the world today are multi-religious. However, most of them do not think of themselves as multi-religious. Or rather did not think of themselves as multi-religous till recently. On the other hand in India, we think of ourselves as being part of a multi-religious country for a long time. May be it is because of our history. It may be also because many religions started in India.

In India 80% of the population is Hindu, though Hinduism can be interpreted very differently among different groups of people in different parts of India, and remaining 20% is composed of different religions. In US, about 75% of population is Christian (protestants and Catholics), while the remaining 25% belong to different religions, including those who do not believe in any religion. In UK about 70% of the population considers themselves as Christians. In Italy, 80% of the population identifies itself as Catholic. So more or less, all these countries have similar percentages of majority groups and minority groups.

Yet, in my opinion, the awareness about different religions and their beliefs, is much higher in India than any where else. Could that be the reason why Bollywood has been extra-sensitive to the issue of inter-religious relationships?

If I think of films from any other country - USA, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, China ... I can't remember even one film on the subject of inter-religious relationships. Even when their films have characters from other countries/religions, usually they are shown in a way where religious differences are not an issue. However, I have seen some American documentary films on this subject, specially on the issue of inter-religious marriages between Christians and Jews.

If you know of some examples of mainstream films from any country touching on inter-religious relationships, please do let me know.

Persons of different religions in Bollyworld

Bollyworld is the make believe world of Bollywood that exists only inside the cinema halls and DVDs. In Bollyworld, the idea of including persons of different religions is so pervasive that it hardly makes news. For reaching out to people of different religions, often Indian films include persons of different religions, most common being Muslims but also Christians and Sikhs, shown usually as "almost family" like friends.

Films where Muslims, Christians or Sikhs or Parsi are the main protagonists are less common, but there are some examples of these. Muslim socials was distinct category of Bollywood films till 1980s with films like Nikaah, Mere Huzoor and Mere Mehboob. However, this genre of films is less common today. Sikh culture has found greater expression in Punjabi cinema, though there are some examples from mainstream Bollywood such as Singh is King and Jo Bole So Nihaal.

More commonly, Bollywood places its main stories in Hindu famlies, while persons of other religions are shown as friends, or less commonly as villains. There was a time when this practice allowed film makers to introduce specific things like ghazals and shairo-shayari in the narrative. It is hard to think of films which did not have such characters from 1960s and 1970s. From Hrikesh Mukherjee, to Ramanand Sagar, Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai and Tarachand Barjatya, all their films had such characters.

Even more recently, some of the big box-office successes of Karan Johar, such as "Kuch kuch hota hai" and "Kabhi Khushi kabhi gham", have continued with this idea of close family-friends kind of relationships with persons of different religions.

I think that the basic idea behind it is to make sure that persons of all religions can relate to the film (and make it a commercial success). At the same time, it does reflect the real-life reality of India, where it would be impossible to find any person who has not interacted with persons of other religions in the neighbourhoods, friends and workplaces.

Mixed Religion families in Bollywood

While the more popular Bollywood films used characters of different religions in close family and friendship relationships, they also maintain clear boundaries between them. Thus, in most of these films, Muslims are always married to Muslims, Christians to Christians and Hindus to Hindus.

However, the idea of mixing up of religions in the Bollyworld families has been touched upon many times. When I think of significant Bollywood films that have touched on theme of inter-religious families I think of four films - Dharamputra, Amar Akbar Anthony, Zakhm and Bombay.

There are other significant films like the recent Kurbaan, but I see them more about inter-religious love stories rather than about inter-religious families. However, I do concede that this division into inter-religious love and inter-religious families is arbitrary and subjective.

Dharamputra (1961): This Yash Chopra film was my introduction to a world united and yet divided because of religions. It was about a Muslim girl (Mala Sinha) who has to give away her son, born before her marriage, to a Hindu couple who are her family friends (Manmohan Krishen and Nirupa Roy). Years later, that son (Shashi Kapoor) grows up into a Hindu fanatic and during the partition riots goes to burn the house of his Muslim mother.

Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977): This Manmohan Desai film is another old favourite about three brothers who get separated when they are young, and grow up in three different families beloning to three different religions - Amar (Vinod Khanna) grows up as Hindu, Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) grows up as a Muslim and Anthony (Amitabh Bacchan) grows up as Christian. One of its most celebrated scene had blood transfusion tubes running from the arms of the three brothers and going into the arm of a blind woman (Nirupa Roy) who is actually their mother, but they don't know it.

The film looked at religious differences as being important for the individuals and yet almost unimportant for the relationships among people. The three brothers growing up with different religions, are shown to be in love with girls from their own religions. They are shown living in the worlds made of persons of their own religions. The film never discusses the impact of religious differences but rather seems to take it for granted that the persons from different religions would love each other "because they are brothers".

There are no religious fanatics or any speeches about religions in this film. Thus, I see this film as an allegory for the ideal multi-religious India, where each religion can maintain its distinctiveness, its own costumes, and yet be like a family.

Zakhm (1998): This is one of the my favourite films of all times. Directed by Mahesh Bhatt, this was an autobiographical film. Against the backdrop of religious riots in Bombay, the film tells the story of an old woman (Pooja Bhatt), who has been burned alive by a Muslim guy. As she struggles for her life in the intensive care unit of a hospital, her younger son, with the help of Hindu hardliners would like to take a revenge on the Muslims. Her elder son (Ajay Devgan) tells the story of their family to his younger borther.

It is the story of a Muslim woman in love with a Hindu film director, who dies in an accident leaving her with two sons. She hides her own faith and brings up her two sons as Hindus, even though she is rejected by her husband's family.

The film had a powerful performance by child actor Kunal Khemu as the elder son, during the parts in flash back, where Ajay tells about his childhood.

In South Asia, the boundaries between religions can often be hazy. Many families carry hidden histories of inter-mixing of different religions. I felt that this film brought out the issue of those hidden histories in a powerful way. It was also a strong voice against the fanatics and the hate-mongers of different hues.

Bombay: This 1995 film by Mani Ratnam is one of those rare films that touched on a vital question in all inter-religious marriages - the question of the religion of their children. The Hindu-Muslim couple in the film opt for a civil marriage and ignore the religions.

However, their two fathers would like that their grandchildren follow the family religion. The couple has twins and thus, the two grandfathers decide that one grandchild can receive Muslim religious knowledge and the other can be Hindu. Only when there are Hindu-Muslim riots that threaten the lives of the two children, it makes them understand the futility of religious fights.

Many mixed-religions couples today are like the couple of this story, who do not feel very religious and who feel that they can continue to follow different faiths. However, the issue of their children's religions is a thorny one, especially when there are family expectations and pressures from the two sides.

The different ways in which families deal with this issue, I think that it needs to be tackled in more films.


Bollyworld often shows persons of different religions, living together as close family friends or relating to each other in positive ways.

In a way it is a reflection of the Indian society and at the same time, I believe that it strengthens knowledge and relationships between people of different religions in India.

The past few decades have been marked by shifting of religions towards more exclusionist and radical positions, not just in India but all over the world. In such a situation, I think that Bollywood's role in promoting a multi-religious society is important.

There are many examples of mixed-religions families in Bollywood cinema. Personally, I believe that in this direction, Bollywood (and Indian cinema in other languages) has been much ahead of all other cinematic traditions in the world.

So if you think of Bollywood films dealing with inter-religious families, are there any films that have impressed you? Are there any such films from other countries, that you know of?

In the next part of this article, I will touch on inter-religious love stories in Bollywood films.

This article is part of my reflections for an email based research on mixed religious couples and families. This research is called "Mixed Doubles: You, I and our Gods".

If you are or were a part of a mixed religious relationship or if you grew up in a mixed religious family, please consider joining this research by sending me an email at: sunil.deepak(at)

You can find more information about this research at the Mixed Doubles Blog.


Monday, 2 April 2012

Firoze Manji: The Voice of Africa

Firoze Manji is founder and editor of Pambazuka News, a newsletter with articles, news and links about different countries, people, civil society organisations and movements of Africa. Pambazuka News provides weekly information and links to articles on new developments in Africa in English, French and Portuguese by email. You can also read Pambazuka News along with its archive of hundreds of articles on its website.
Firoze Manji, Pambazuka News

Recently I interviewed Firoze through email for an article in the AIFO magazine. So this interview will appear in Italian in the issue of June 2012.

I think that for all persons interested in development issues in Africa and in reading and listening to the more important voices of African thinkers and civil society leaders, Pambazuka News is one of the most important gateways. I join Firoze in asking you to become friends of Pambazuka and help in maintaining it independent.

Here is the interview

Sunil: How did the idea of Pambazuka came and how was the idea turned into reality?

Firoze: Pambazuka News was the serendipitous offspring of a programme established to harness ICTs for strengthening the human rights movement in Africa. Its birth was intimately intertwined with an attempt to develop distance learning materials for civil society organisations in Africa. In 1997, Fahamu (ndr: an African network of civil society organisations with offices in Kenya, South Africa and Senegal) set out to examine how developments in information and communications technologies can be harnessed to support the growth of human rights and civil society organisations in Africa. Like many others, we saw the potentials opening up with the growth in access to the internet. One of the outcomes was that we began receiving requests from human rights and other civil society organisations for assistance in finding information on the web, and with disseminating information about their own work.

Initially, we responded on a case-by-case basis, sending off the results of searches or disseminating by email information we had received from others to those on our modest contacts list. But soon the demand became overwhelming. We simply could not respond to all the requests we received.

We decided to establish Pambazuka News as a means of sharing information relevant to the this constituency, but rather than just send out information, we decided also to include op-eds that would provoke reflections about the potentials for freedom and justice in Africa. From a small base of subscribers in December 2000, Pambazuka News has grown rapidly with 28,000 subscribers, and an estimated readership approaching one million. Today we publish some 20-30 articles every week, with contributions from more than 3200 authors across the continent and the African diaspora.

We have published some 580 issues of the English edition of Pambazuka News over the 11 years of our existence. And four years ago, we started publishing a French language edition, and two years ago a Portuguese language edition.

Pambazuka News is used widely by activists, commentators, social movements, alliances and networks to foster debate, disseminate analyses and share information. We monitor some 250 websites related to Africa, and publish summaries every week of some 100 sites.

Sunil: What are the biggest challenges Pambazuka has faced since its inception

Firoze: Perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced has been to keep up with the demand from the growing constituencies that depend on Pambazuka News as an advocacy tool as well as to get an African progressive perspective on Africa and world affairs. To respond to these demands means that we need the necessary resources, and those are hard to find.

There are very few funders who fully understand the importance of what we do, despite the fact that most of them depend on Pambazuka News as a source of analysis and information. And with the growing African awakening that we have written about in our recent book "African Awakening: the emerging revolutions", there is a critical need for Pambazuka News to grow and provide support for the struggles for freedom and justice taking place across the continent.

Which is why we have decided to turn to our readership: we have asked our readers to join the Friends of Pambazuka and to donate to keep Pambazuka free and independent.

Sunil: In which ways Pambazuka has changed and evolved since the beginning?

Firoze: Pambazuka News has grown substantially in terms of the amount of coverage provided as well as the quality of the articles. We have attracted some of the leading thinkers across the continent to write commentary and analyses, while a the same time providing a platform for social movements such as Abahlali base Mjondolo in South Africa and the Bunge la Mwaninchi in Kenya.

We have produced radio programmes as well as podcasts and multimedia materials such as the 'Burden of Peace", a documentary on violence against women during the post-election violence in Kenya. In 2008 we expanded our operations to including a book publishing enterprise - Pambazuka Press. Today, Pambazuka News is produced by staff in Senegal, Kenyam South Africa and UK.

Sunil: Who are the most popular writers or star writers at Pambazuka?

Firoze: There are many 'star writers' such as Mahmood Mamdani, Sokari Ekine, Samir Amin, Horace Campbell, Issa Shivji and many others who are well known - but we are proud that there are many regular contributors from social movements and the activist community who also write and who enrich the dialogue, debates and analyses that appear in Pambazuka News.

Sunil: Any information campaigns launched by Pambazuka that resulted in change on the ground?

Firoze: Perhaps the best known campaigns was the support we provided to the campaign for the ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, coalition of some 30 regional organisations, producing special issues profiling important aspects of the protocol as well as publishing a 6-part radio soap opera in English, French, Portuguese and Kiswahili.

We also developed and hosted a petition on the Pambazuka News website in support of women’s rights that involved the development of an SMS function that enabled people to sign the petition by SMS and receive SMS updates about the campaign. This campaign led to the fastest ratification of any international instrument in the history of Africa - today more than 30 countries in Africa have ratified the protocol.

Sunil: How does Pambazuka reach out to French and Portuguese speaking Africa?

Firoze: We publish a French and Portuguese language edition of Pambazuka News. Originally we thought that these editions would be merely translations of the English edition, but in practice these are distinct editions, with articles originated in those languages. As a result, the three editions of Pambazuka News contain articles that have been cross translated from each other.

Sunil: Is there going to be a Kiswahili Pambazuka?

Firoze: I would hope so. There are certainly demands for a Kiswahili edition, but this will require raising resources to make that possible. We also want to develop an Arabic language edition of Pambazuka News, and are trying to raise the necessary resources for that.


Monday, 26 March 2012

Jasoos: remembering our desi spy

These last few days everyone was talking about Agent Vinod. That's the way how it is these days whenever a new big Bollywood movie arrives. Producers, directors and actors give hundred thousand interviews, repeating the same things to everyone. However, all these discussions made me remember Ankhen, another desi spy film of many decades ago.

The review of Agent Vinod seem to be very mixed. I don't know how good is Agent Vinod, but the name sure brought with it memories of the innocent days of reading Indian jasoosi novels. When I was a teenager, inspector Vinod and detective Sunil were so much closer to my own fantasies than Mr. Bond or Mr. Bourne could ever be. They had to discover the nefarious plans of villains, similar to those who are exemplified in the Bollywood world by the dumbass Robert or Mr. Deng and their molls in the clinging gowns, Mona or Lily, made iconic by actors like Ajit and Premnath, and starlets like Faryal and Jayshree T.

The jasoosi stories written by authors like Surendra Mohan Pathak are well alive and kicking, selling more copies in the railway stations, bus stands and mufassil towns of India, than all the more famous Hindi literature writers combined together. Among Pathak's characters, some like detective Sunil, detective Sudhir Kumar Kohli and undercover agent Vimal, are well known to millions of his fans, who eagerly wait for his new books to come out.

I don't know if Pathak's books are translated into English. If they are, may be, they would have a limited appeal for the people who read authors like Chetan Bhagat, but I think that their special charm is to be read in Hindi. They have dialogues like "Ki haal hai sohniyon?" They won't have the same charm if translated into "How are you baby?" But may be they can be translated into Hinglish, "How are you, sohniyon?" that keeps a bit of their original charm!

My own favourite Hindi jasoosi movie was "Ankhen" (1968) by Ramanand Sagar. Dharmendra as the undercover agent Sunil was a real hero to my teenage eyes.

Story outline of Ankhen: The film had Nazir Hussein as the Major Saab (Nazir Hussein), an old military man from Azaad Hind Fauz of Subhash Chandra Bose, who runs a private spy group against the "desh ke dushman", in support of Indian Government. His son Sunil (Dharmendra) is part of his group. Apparently, they don't need to work or to have a job, as they seem to be rich persons. Sunil's sister (Kumkum) stays along with her young son Babloo in her father's home, as her husband works in merchant navy and is away for work.

In a spy mission in Japan, Sunil meets Meenakshi (Mala Sinha) a half-Indian, half Japanese girl, whose father was also in Azaad Hind Fauz. She falls in love with Indian jasoos. However Sunil says that his life is for his country and he cannot accept her love.

One of Major's men sends a message from Beirut about a gang that supplies bombs and weapons to anti-Indian groups in India. Major asks Sunil to go to Beirut to discover the gang and also to find out the names and addresses of their Indian partners.

In Beirut, Sunil is supposed to get help from Nadeem (Sujit Kumar) in Beirut but Nadeem seems to be mixed up with anti-Indian arm suppliers' gang.

However, Major has also arranged other persons to help Sunil in Beirut and this group includes Meenakshi (Mala Sinha with Madhumati, Mehmood, Dhumal, etc.). Sunil makes friend with Zenith (Zeb Rehman), who is supposed to an Arab princess, but is a member of the anti-Indian gang. Then with help of Meenakshi he discovers that real Nadeem is a prisoner in an old ruin and helps to liberate him. They kill the false Nadeem and then ask real Nadeem to take his place in the anti-Indian gang.

In India, the anti-Indian gang (Jeevan as Dr X, Madan Puri, Lalita Pawar and Daisy Irani) with the help of Akram, son of a close friend of Major, kidnap Babloo and force Babloo's mother to accept Dr X's right hand Madam (Lalita Pawar) in their home as their "old aunt from Banaras". Madam wires Major's radio receiver and listens to all his secret conversations with his gang.

In Beirut, Sunil and Meenakshi manage to bust the anti-Indian gang and discover that someone is staying in their home and listening to their messages. So they send a false message that Sunil is dead and their mission has failed. Sunil and his team then reach India and attack the dungeon of Dr X. After a fight, they save Babloo and Dr X is caught.

Finally Sunil accepts that he is also in love with Meenakshi, and walk into sunset singing, "Milti hai zindagi mein mohabbat kabhi kabhi".

Comments: The morse code radio hidden in the cupboard, camera hidden in the microphone that Meenakshi uses to take pictures while singing, the parts shot in Beirut with Mala Sinha, Mehmood and Dhumal singing "Allah ke naam pe de de" dressed as beggers, Mala Sinha dressed as the princess, Dharmendra's fight with the tiger in the dungeon, many scenes of this film had great impact on me. I was also very much taken by a shot of paddle boats in a lake in Japan.

Lalita Pawar as the vamp, dressed as the cunning aunt-in-law, with her one eye smaller than the other and her crooked smile, used to give me nightmares.

Those were the years after the Chinese war of 1962 and the Pakistan war of 1966, thus the idea of spies exploding bombs in India sounded quite plausible. Though today the small camera, telescope, micro-films etc. look laughable, at that time, these gadgets had great effect on me.

It was the time when our heroines used to do classical Indian dances and folk dances and there were no east European dancers doing chorus in bikinis. The songs were simple but meaningful, like "Gairon pe karam, apno pe sitam, ae jaane wafa yeh zulm na kar". The background music was loud and melodramatic, like the scene when Major's man called Saleem is killed in the ship. Our spies use code names like Musafir and Taj Mahal. They dress in disguise as fakirs, beggers and princess. And they invariably speak in a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, even in Beirut and everyone seems to understand Hindi, the lingua franca of the world.

Compared to today's standards, technically that film was ages behind. Yet compared to the modern spy and action thrillers, I think that Ankhen was much more like the books of detective Sunil and agent Vinod, more fun and much more rooted in Indian ethos.

Its heroine, Meenakshi, was much more independent and entreprising than today's heorines (Mala Sinha at 32 years, was still a big force in Bollywood those days, infact, in the titles, her name came before that of Dharmendra).

Probably I will enjoy the thrills of new Agent Vinod and I will admire the mujra of Kareena Kapoor, but they won't make me dream like Ankhen had done more than forty years ago.


Sunday, 19 February 2012

Immigrant identities, globalization & Bollywood

I wanted to write about the changing images of NRI women in some of the recent Bollywood films like "Ek main aur ekk tu" and "Anjana anjani". However, once I started, I found myself thinking about some of my travels to different parts of the world over the past 25 years and my encounters with immigrants from Indian sub-continent.

Thus, it has come out as a rather long-winded article, where it is about NRI women in Bollywood, but it is also about so many other things such as changing self-identities of immigrants, new technologies and globalization!

Immigrants in a time warp

Till a couple of decades ago, leaving India and going to live in other parts of the world meant cutting off many of the ties with the homeland. Telephones were less common, and making a call often meant calling an operator and sometimes waiting for a few hours. Getting news from India was difficult. Letters took 10-15 days to reach the destination. It was the same for emigrants of other countries and continents.

In 1992 I went to Guyana for the first time. Guyana is in south America, next to Brazil and Venezuela. Colonial powers had divided that part into three countries - British Guyana with Georgetown as its capital, Dutch Guyana, also known as Surinam and French Guyana with Cayenne as its capital. I had gone to the British Guyana.

During my Guyana visit, I met the persons of Indian origin, whose grandparents or great-grandparents had been brought there from India between 1840 to 1920. I had some strange feelings when I met them. So many of them, especially elderly persons, seemed to be living in a kind of time-warp, anchored to India of old times when their ancestors had sailed off from India. Many of them spoke only in Bhojpuri. I think that they were a reflection of ghettoed lives they were forced to live by their colonial masters.

However, even the younger generations also seemed very much anchored into "Indian culture and traditions". They spoke English, they went out in the community and for work. They interacted with persons of other cultures and religions who compose Guyana - persons of African, European and other Asian countries' descents. Yet, in their private lives, these different cultural-religious groups hardly ever seem to mix with each other. Talking to persons of Indian origin, I had the sensation that for them being "Indian" was as important or may be even more important than being part of the multi-cultural society of Guyana.

One of my Afro-Guyanese friend with whom I was travelling for work, told me once that when we went around chatting and laughing together, people looked at us strangely and with some hostility because mixing up with persons of different races was seen as threatening by both sides.

Guyanese television had Indian channels that showed Bollywood films and songs, as well as programmes of prayers and religious talks by various swamis and gurus who regularly came from India. There were cinema halls showing Bollywood films. In 1994, I had watched Rajshri's "Hum aap ke hain kaun" in a cinema hall of  Georgetown. It had been running there for some months and the hall was full of persons of Indian origin.

I had also been to Mauritius. However, since pesons of Indian descent are the majority on the main island, dominate, so it did not feel like a ghettoed community. Still I could see many similitaries between Mauritius and Guyana, in the way Indian immigrants felt about their old traditions.

In those years, I had also visited some Italian, Japanese and German communities in Brazil. These encounters had many similarities to those with the "Indians" of Guyana and Mauritius - all the immigrants seemed closed in time warps anchored to their pasts in their homelands, isolated in some ways in their ghettoes that they safeguarded jealously.

Over the past three-four decades, there have been many reports of immigrants living in developed countries, who regularly send back money to support the "safeguarding of traditions" in the countries they had left behind. They have been blamed for all kind of religious and cultural fundamentalism, funded with dollars and euros. Sikhs in Canada and US, Muslim groups in UK and Germany, Jews in US and Europe, Hindus in USA and Australia, there are many examples of persons sending money to "defend their religions".

Perhaps this phenomenon of sending money to fund conservatives and orthodox groups in our homelands, has something to do with the same insecurity about traditions and cultures among immigrants, that makes us close inside our ghettoes?

Complex identities

Issues of race, culture and religion among immigrants are a complex area. I remember once meeting an Indian looking woman wearing a sari in London. I needed some information about a street I was looking for and she gave me directions. "Which part of India are you from?" I had asked her and she had responded to me with a bit of irritatation that she was from Kenya and not from India.

In "Imaginary homelands", Salman Rushdie had written of these homelands that we immigrants carry in our hearts. These homelands are no longer real because while we are away, our homelands continue to evolve and change. So when we go back, we find that the place does not match the image we carry in our hearts.

In the lands we have emigrated to, we are always "other", "immigrant", "Indian". And when we go back to our homeland for a visit, we are no longer completely Indian, we are the immigrants who live and belong to some where else.

National identity and role of women in India

Uma Narayan in her book "Dislocating cultures - identities, traditions and third world feminism" has an interesting chapter on "Eating cultures - incorporation, identity and Indian food". In this chapter she talks about the role of women in safeguarding traditional cultures among immigrants:
"Just as nineteenth century English memsahibs in India avoided Indian goods and dishes to maintain their "cultural distinctiveness", twentieth century Indian women in Indian diasporic communities are expected to safeguard the "cultural distinctiveness" of their communities by refraining from dating, from marriages that are self-arranged, and most stringently of all, from same sex relationships."
Uma Narayanan links this role of women to safeguard their traditional cultural values to the similar role of women in the nationalist movement for independence of India and quotes Partha Chatterjee on this theme:
"Indian nationalist project involved "an ideological justification for the selective appropriation of western modernity" that continues to this day. ..the twin moves involved in the nationalist project were "to cultivate the material techniques of modern western civilization" while "retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture". Learning from the colonizers "the modern science and arts of material world" was necessary to match the colonizers in strength to overthrow them. ..In the entire phase of the nationalist struggle, the crucial need was to protect, preserve and strengthen the inner core of national culture, its spiritual essence. No encroachments by the colonizers must be allowed  in that inner sanctum. In the world, imitation of and adaptation to western norms was a necessity; at home, they were tantamount to annihilation of one's very identity. .. the home was the principle site for expressing the spiritual quality of national culture, and women must take the main responsibility of protecting and nurturing this quality."
Immigrants in Europe, North America and Australia, seem to be driven by similar motivations. So, children are expected to study hard and make careers in outside world. Yet, they are expected to not to date or marry outside their communities. This is especially true for women. "My big fat Greek wedding" explored this theme in a Greek community in America.

Similar issues towards arranged marriages to men from their homelands also hound Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant families. As many young women from these communities try to rebel against such marriages and families that resort to violence or even murder to "save family honour", the whole system of arranged marriages has come to be seen as "something barbaric and old fashioned, something against human rights" and other people often feel that "such marriages must be without love and are imposed on young people".

Immigrants in a new world

I went back to Guyana last time, some 4-5 years ago. In this visit, I felt that the younger generations had become much more comfortable with their Guyaneseness and there was a little more openess between races, cultures and religions among them.

For all these groups of immigrants, even more so for their descendents, I feel that the walls that used to surround these ghettoes have many more doors and windows today then there were twenty years ago.

I think that partly this change has come because of increasing possibilities of inter-continental travels and development of new technologies, especially internet. These mean that today we can always be in touch with what is happening in our homelands and we can go back and visit whenever we want. So now we can relax and enjoy being outside our homelands, in our new countries, to meet and experiment with the new cultures that surround us. We don't need to cling to "our" traditions and way of life with the fear of losing them.

NRI women in Bollywood

Bollywood or rather the world of Hindi movies understood these immigrant insecurities very well. Thus in nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties, heroes came back to India for marriage (heroines went out of India for studies rarely but they were also expected to follow this rule). Western culture was equal to villains drinking alcohol and women who were cabret dancers (played with wonderful aplomb by Helen) or vamps. Indians going out to Europe or America were cautioned against the "decadent western values". Manoj Kumar's "Purab aur Paschim" (1970) and a more recent, "Namastey London" (2007) epitomised this world view.

Films about NRI families came in to vogue with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995). From DDLJ to K3G (2001), the boundaries for women in families of Indian origin were laid out, in line with the ideas of "women's role in preserving our Indian culture". So they had arranged marriages and celebrated karvachauth. May be they were not so openly crticial of western values as in "Purab aur Paschim", but very clearly, they were smug about the superiority of "our Indian values".

However in "Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna" (2006), Karan Johar changed tracks. Suddenly the NRI family had to deal with adultery. In "Dostana" (2008), another film produced by Karan Johar, homosexuality came out of closet, even if hidden behind glossy sheen of two guys running after the same girl.

More recently, "Ek main aur ekk tu" from the same production house has a woman lead, who has had six boyfriends, she has had sex with some of them, but it is not a big deal. She is bubbly, full of life and has the Indian hero panting after her.

There have been other NRI films in recent years, from "Neal and Nikki" to "Anjana Anjani", where the women are no longer "guardians of Indian traditions". They are cosmopolitan women, their dress and behaviour can be like any American or European girl except that their surnames are still Khanna-Kapoor-Bedi and they occasionally sing songs in Hindi.

The stories of most of these films are "inspired" by Hollywood films, though most still continue to have some scene about a father or mother trying to fix some sort of arranged marriage for them. You can argue that they are essentially Hollywood films made with some Hindi and some English, dialogues and songs.

I have a sneaking feeling that on a rebound, the women of these films have discarded everything remotely Indian (except that they tend to fall in love with Indian-origin heroes, but that is the compulsion of Bollywood story-telling). They go to Beethovan concerts and wish each other "merry christmas", have no idea about "indigenous" words like deewali or puja. They have overcome all the taboos related to sex, can drink wine or tequila shots. They can even have dads who wink at them and ask if they have slept with their boyfriends (in "Ek mein ekk tu", conveniently a "christian" dad), though they are not discussing their favourite kamasutra positions for having sex, at least not yet.

For the persons who emigrated out of India in the second half of twentieth century, Bollywood films had been one of their main connections to India. In a world where links to the homeland were tenous, it was an essential lifeline for families.

Children growing up in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi emigrant families grew up on the Bollywood diets, with parents ferverently hoping that some of their "cultural values" will rub off from the films onto their impressionable minds.

What does this changing figure of NRI women in Bollywood mean for them? For immigrants families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that feel threatened by their encounter with the liberal and more egalitarean cultures of their new countries, these new cosmopolitan women of Bollywood, who have embraced western values, would be seen as an additional threat? However, for their children, growing up in closer contacts with these liberal values, finally Bollywood can be an ally that supports their desires to be "modern" and to get out of stifling grip of "traditions".

May be with the possibility of being in constant touch with our homeland cultures, families and events, there won't be need for Bollywood to play its earlier role of repsenting and preserving our traditions? At the same time, there are Bollywood fan clubs and dance groups of Italians, Germans and French. People experiment with Indian cuisine, dresses and mehndi. They are not looking for the new liberated and cosmopolitan Indian women in Bollywood, they are interested in traditions.

Will this ease of being connected to our homelands and cultures, also change the way immigrants have been funding orthodox and fundamentalist religious groups in their countries? I would like to believe that.

An interesting 1994 TED talk by Danny Hillis presented a new understanding about evolution. "We are in a transition period. Through new technologies, the multi-cellular forms of life are getting connected in a network, to start a new phase of evolution", he explained in this talk.

In this new world, perhaps the whole meaning of being an immigrant is going to change, when we physically leave a place but remain connected to it and to other people from our lives all the time. In the long run, this always connected world, how is it going to influence us all, NRIs living outside and other persons living in India?


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Hurt Syndrome

The news came from a Japanese friend. She had forwarded a message from a common friend in the US and the message said:

... I am asking that each of you send an email to Nick Park and Aardman Annimations to object to the manner in which persons affected by leprosy are being portrayed in the soon to be released movie titled, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." In the event you have not seen the trailer, the characters board a "pirate leper ship" and a body part falls off one of the sailors. This is a cruel portrait of the millions of persons affected by leprosy and negatively creates a lasting image on the minds of the young viewers from throughout the world who will see this movie ...
For past couple of decades I have been working in the field of leprosy. One of the key issues that continues to trouble the finding of new cases with leprosy and then ensuring their treatment and rehabilitation is the common image of this disease in public perceptions all over the world. Afraid of the social stigma and virtual social banishment that the disease can cause, people with leprosy often try to hide as long as possible.

However, over the past three decades, the actual situation of leprosy has changed drammatically. Today it is possible to get free treatment all over the world and the persons can get cured easily and completely. Therefore, it should no longer be seen as a disease that causes fear and is seen as "curse of the God".

I can understand the anguish of my friends because when we talk of this disease today, it is about thousands of persons who still get it today and have to face the social consequences of having a "dreaded disease" that are unjustified. Though most persons feel that leprosy is a kind of relic of the past, the reality is that every year there are about 250,000 new cases of leprosy every year. India and Brazil are the two most important countries in terms of number of new cases of leprosy today.

However, I do not believe in banning of films or insisting that they cut the scenes that are wrong in our view. This is what all the groups seem to be asking for when they feel that their depiction in the media is inappropriate. They make protests and ask for changes.

Here are a few examples of fights of other "misrepresented" groups from recent past asking for censorship or banning:

(1) In India, such protests are common place with persons of different religious, caste and social groups getting angry is a person of their community is shown in a negative way or in humour. The protestors frequently threaten violence and often end up destroying public property. Most the the time Indian Government gives in easily to such demands refusing to protect the writers, actors, directors and producers, and hides behind the bogey of "law and order situations".

Similar protests in relation to Islamic symbols/ideas in other parts of the world also has had many violent episodes.

(2) Persons with mental illnesses and persons with disabilities in many parts of the world have been fighting for not using their sterotypes in the different media including TV and films all over the world.

(3) Using caricatures of jews as being nasty moneylenders, and of arabs or Muslims as being terrorists are some other common examples from Hollywood.

I believe that if we go on like this, artists, writers and film makers will always be forced to express their ideas in narrower spaces and the world will be a poorer place for all of us.

I do not believe that banning films or censoring them to cut certain scenes is correct, whatever their provocation unless it is explicity asking for violence or expressing hate about some group.

We all have a right to criticise and if we find depictions in a film to be wrong or derogatory or stereotypes, we have the right to express our opinions, to debate and to discuss, to write about it on our blogs, to organise forums and if we feel very strongly, to promote calls for boycotting. If you don't agree with something don't go to see it, don't watch it, don't read it, and tell all your friends to do the same.

If you feel that it may not be understood by children, ask that it should be only for those above a certain age.

But I believe that no one should be asking for banning of people or their books, art or films or websites just because you feel that it gives a negative view of your religion/caste/community/gods. And no government should give in to such demands.

The only exception  to this, in my opinion, is those expressions that ask for killing, violence and hate against specific group of persons.

PS 6 February 2012: I have heard that producers of the film "Pirates the band of misfits", following the protests, have decided to review and modify the parts related to persons affected with leprosy.

Monday, 23 January 2012

About language

I read an article on Chimurenga Chronicle about "Somali invasion of Nairobi" written by a Kenyan writer called Parselelo Kantai, and I was struck by the wonderful way that he describes the "Nairobi English" of a woman:
"For a people for whom ‘negative ethnicity’, the newspaper euphemism for the prevailing ethnic rancour that had shredded the nation into a farcical edifice of a thousand cuts, ‘othering’ the Somalis restored a sense of collective indignation. Hate and rancour were the only things holding us together…
I was surprised at her vehemence. She had always talked in a language that irritated me – the exultant language of the reaspora bubble in leafy-suburb Nairobi. It was a velvety, arriviste Nairobi English, full of possibilities and faux tourist innocence. It was an insider language that walked on water, saw no evil, advertised its privilege with cocktail kisses, intimate nods, bursts of happy laughter. It was used to suggest non-contamination, that one’s head was above the loud sucking sounds of this place, the descent into naked Nairobi calculations, pettiness, desperation. It was not the other thing: that guarded edge in your voice that revealed a loss of independence and optimism, that now your diaspora dollars were running dangerously low and you had recently turned a page in your contact book, and made the call to a powerful uncle for a job, a contract, a deal.
But Kileleshwa, an old mzungu suburb whose civil servant houses were being transformed into apartments for the yuppy beneficiaries of the Kibaki-era economic boom and the returning Western diaspora, exiled for two decades by Moi repression, was now under siege. There was no velvet to couch this new fear..."
Isn't it beautiful?


Saturday, 7 January 2012

A Scare

It was evening, I was working on my computer at home, and I clicked on the link to one of my blogs - a strange message appeared - "Your blog has been removed".

How strange, I thought, I had checked it 15 minutes earlier and it was working all right. Curious, I tried to open my other blogs, the same strange message appeared. All my blogs were gone.

Then I noticed my Gmail account had disconnected and there was a message that my password was wrong. I tried to connect to the Gmail account and the message said that I had changed my password. So I could not connect to my Gmail account.

I keep a copy of all my gmail posts so that was not a problem, but I was worried that someone could use my email account to send those fraud messages asking for help such as "that I was stranded in London and needed money".

I panicked, I had heard of hacking of gmail accounts.

How is it possible for someone to find out my password of Gmail? It is a real tough password (even I can't remember it) and I use it only for Gmail. At home, I did not even need to enter it, because no one else uses my computer so I am always connected to that Gmail account.

After another ten minutes, on trying to access Gmail again, I found a message that they had noticed some unusual activity on my account and I was asked to give my cell phone number to receive a security code. When I entered their security code, my account was restored.

A short time later, all my blogs were also restored.

After this, I have changed my password again, but I am worried. How did the hackers get my Gmail password and get in?

I have checked my computer for virus and malaware, but it seems clean. The only unusual thing that had happened yesterday was that while searching for something on Google, I had opened a page that had persistent pop-ups that refused to go away. At that time, my Gmail was also open. Whenever I tried to close those pop-ups new ones opend. It was strange because, normally my browser (Chrome) blocks all pop ups. After 3-4 minutes of struggle, through "Ctrl-Alt-Canc" I had managed to close off my browser and those annoying pages.

It had happened 5-6 hours before the Gmail scare episode. Could that be related to the account hacking?

What else can I do to improve my computer security?

And, if you have received an email from me yesterday saying that I am in trouble and need help, cancel it. It is not from me. I am fine.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

Best of People's pics, 2011

The summing of my photography experiences of 2011 continues today with a selection of best of people's pictures from 2011. I love taking candid pictures of people in all countries where I go. It is difficult to click pictures of persons who are complete strangers in a new city of a new country. Fortunately, my work requires me to travel often in small towns and villages where I can spend some time in knowing persons and their lives. This helps in creating a rapport that helps in getting better images. I especially love clicking pictures of children.

So here is a collection of twenty of my best people's pictures from 2011:

(1) Ice-hockey fan from Prague: The day I was visiting Prague city centre, there was final match of ice-hockey between Czech Republic and USA. The match was being shown on a giant screen in the city centre. I met many fans of their team, with their faces coloured in Czech Republic's national flag colours.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(2) Children in the music class in Goias Velho: I like this picture as it shows the diversity of races in Brazil and also because of the lovely blue background of the classroom.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(3) The boy rowing the tiny boat in Abaetetuba, a small city along Amazon coast, with his undervest over his head to save him from harsh sunlight, is one of my big favourites. These small water-hugging rowing boats in the huge never-ending river look fragile and dangerous, but in this area, these seemed to be very popular.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(4) The girl in Goias Velho: I had spent 4 days with these children and their idealist teachers, who dream of building a new Brazil, that is curious, modern and open, and yet is respectful of the African and Amerindian roots of its people.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(5) Dancing for life: My friend Pio teaches dance to in-mates of a house for elderly and mentally ill persons. It is a dance for becoming aware of our own bodies and for creating a relationship with others. The woman in the picture didn't join the dancers, she preferred to sit at a distance, hugging her doll and yet, laughing at the persons dancing with Pio.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(6) Man in the cattle market: I visited a cattle market in the town of Hegri Bomanahalli, about 40 km from Hampi. It was a lovely experience. I like this man's gentle expression, the lines on his face, and his barely perceptible Monalisa-like smile.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(7) Girl in the village: We had just come out of a health centre where I had interviewed a group of village health workers (ASHA workers), when I had seen this girl. Isn't she beautiful?

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(8) Mumtaz and her new born baby girl: That village had some rows of Muslim households and then some rows of Hindu households. Imam Bi, the president of the village women's self-help group, was an energetic and enthusiastic woman, and had taken me around in the village, introducing me to the persons and their families.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(9) The village boy: If I have to choose only one of my pictures from 2011, I think that I will choose this one. I love the expression in the child's face and the specks of light shining like stars in his eyes.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(10) The fish sellers from Tungabhadra dam near Hospet.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(11) The artist in the museum: When I was a student in Europe (long long time ago!), I used to love going around with my sketch book. Watching the art student sketching the statue in Victoria and Albert museum of London had brought back the memories of those forgotten days.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(12) Morning exercise in Manila: People all around the world, especially in hot tropical climates, wake up early morning to do exercises in a some park. I like the slow-motion kind of exercises done in Tai Chi. It looks like a dance.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(13) Chess and dama players of Geneva: Huge chess and dama playing boards drawn on the ground and persons of different countries joining together to play a game, including some persons in ties and suits who seem to have come out of some meeting, is a wonderful sight.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(14) Autumn and remembering the dead: The yellow of autumn leaves and the serious faces of people standing near the graves, it all fits in together so beautifully.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(15) The gondola and the tourists of Venice: T-shirts with red (or blue) stripes and caps with matching ribbons of the gondolieros make for beautiful pictures.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(16) The astronaut: He is Paulo Nespoli, an Italian engineer who has been many times in mission to the space station. He was being interviewed by some TV channel when I had clicked this picture. I like the expression and the light on his face. I makes me think of Star Trek.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(17) The protestor: On her cheeks she had written "Berlusconi Resign".

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(18) The changing world: FIOM, one the workers' unions of the main Fiat factory in Turin, continues to fight for workers' rights, but it is increasingly alone even among workers' unions, in a world dominated by globalization. At a workers' protest meeting in Bologna.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(19) A newly married couple walking out from the marriage registration office of the municipality. The carnation in his jacket's lapel and her beautful dress with the veil, they look so good together. Yet number of marriages (and number of children) continues to go down in the old continent.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

(20) Prayers in St. Petronio cathedral: The rows of candles illuminating the faces of the people makes for a magical ambience.

Best of people's pictures - S. Deepak, 2011

So do let me know which of these 20 pictures you liked most. Today is 1 January and I wish you all a 2012 of joy and peace.


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