Books and Butterflies

Yesterday I was cleaning the bookshelf. Much dust has gathered. Many pages have aged; some came off as flakes that look like butterflies with no energy left to fly.

I feel like that sometimes. However, it is not because I lack energy or drive, but I seem to have tied my own wings. I say "seem to" because I am not quite sure. Come to think about it, leaves too fly in the wind and they have no wings.

Why am I talking about wings? Books. Yes, to return to the subject. This picture is perhaps from one rack, and I plopped them on the floor on sheets of newspaper because I did not want them to get dusty. The books already have dust on them. So, what was I protecting — the books or the floor? Who protects what and from whom can be a big circular argument.

I began to riffle through the pages of some; strangely, I had inscribed a book on Kali with a Bob Dylan verse:

"She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl..."

And it wasn't to be gifted to anybody.

There is not too much fiction. I like stories and am truly riveted by a well-told one. However, whoever says that non-fiction is not about stories? We live through the big and small events, and are no less than characters playing our parts — the parts need not be grand; in fact, they might be as props or bystanders. Bystanders are not to be sniffed at. Just as spectators make a performer, bystanders give an event meaning.

I pretend to be a bystander as I clear the shelf. The books become events — did Jesus live in India? And can that be somehow tied to the history of the Arab peoples. I noticed it then and I note it again. It is 'Arab peoples'. The plural of the plural.

Pluralism is a word much in currency these days. Pluralism, as these books reveal in their wondrous variety, is eclecticism...In this lot, i realised there was one book I had not placed there. My own.

Why we behave the way we do, says another book. I as bystander will never know because the 'we' here is iffy. Cultures can only be about mores, but behaviour is more driven by how we think individually.

Or how we break cages.

"My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms." (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot)

As I return to the shelf, now clean, I find no butterfly flakes. No wings to untie. I shall just walk, instead.


Laloo is the mouse that's licked all the cream: Bihar elections

Like many others, I too have been riveted by the Bihar elections. Or, rather, its coverage. And the feeble response to and recognition of the man whose party has got the maximum number of seats. RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav is being treated as a side dish when he is the main course.

The media influence has resulted in drawing room opinion that he will pose to be an impediment to Nitish Kumar, leader of the JDU, an ally in the Grand Alliance, and Chief Minister of the state. "Laloo will try and halt development," they say, when the whole country is wondering how development has in fact been about benefiting only a few. If anything, Laloo should most asseetively work as an opposition within to keep Nitish Kumar on his toes to ensure development for everyone and not just the chosen ones.

Bihar, even its cities, does not really qualify as urban in the metro sense of the term. However sleek the new roads and development the new anthem, the ethos of the state is grounded in a more basic sense of roots. Denial of this beneath the blanket term progress, or even secularism, would mean denying the majority of its population an identity.

The slur of "backward" for Lalu is essentially an insult to those deemed "backward caste" for centuries. But, as he himself had stated with some arrogance long ago, "Jab tak samosey mein aalu, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu." It was, and is, as basic as that.

Here is my column from Rediff (April 21, 1997) when he was CM:

When the chief minister of Bihar, one of India's worst-ruled states, organises a mother or father of all rallies, there are sniggers. Laloo Prasad Yadav has become a joke but, let us be fair, he is not quite our Dan Quayle.

In fact, he is good for our culture. He is the living example of the virtues of being oneself. Whether elections are rigged or the coal mafia rules, Laloo remains Laloo.

The Yadav who has made it big suffers from the pride of the lowly for their humble background and the insecurity his new position has thrust upon him. That is the reason he is slightly brash. He is up against everything -- hypocrisy, stereotypes and our congenital pigeonholing of men in power and how they should behave.

Yadav behaves in no particular manner. He has no set agenda for his politics or his life and, in a world that is getting increasingly ideological (never mind that the ideology is to blow up someone's brains), this might seem like a classic case of spinelessness.

Instead, he comes out trumps. He has made this an anti-establishment stand, though riding on the back of the establishment is his unique selling point.

I don't care what his motives are. When he appointed Harijan priests in temples and Harijans as Shankaracharyas, the media response was typical: it was a political gimmick rather than a reform measure, they said. This is only partially true, unless you insist on wearing blinkers of doubt. Here, Yadav was "testing the Hindu religion."

It would have been far more dramatic and gimmicky had he put a brahmin on a donkey and paraded him through the streets.

To suddenly upturn what, for centuries, has been the status quo requires guts. This is not mere symbolism. He has put those who were considered the scum of the earth into the most sanctified position; he has legitimised their place in society. He may look like a country bumpkin but it is no more passé to be so. Because there is a certain confidence instilled in the people who have been at the receiving end of atrocities.

In a country where 180 million people belong to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, we still have a situation where action for crimes committed against them is slack, despite untouchability being forbidden by law by the Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Caste and Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Yadav is not the panacea; he is merely the looking glass; he has shown that it is possible to hold your head high wherever it is you come from.

How, then, can anyone dismiss Laloo Prasad's efforts only because, as a lot of academics are fond of saying, they come naturally to him? We have the amazing ability to transfer our tunnel vision into overviews - they sound so much more authoritative. Hence, Yadav's looking after the interests of the lower castes is considered a one-dimensional approach.

This is what has kept Harijans in a bind for years. In Bombay, there is a small colony where sweepers live. On my visit there once, they were celebrating Dussera. For the first time, I realised how important these festivities are for them -- while the ghettoisation is complete, this is the one time when it does not become circumscribed.

I know that talking about Harijan values may seem like a very patronising thing to do, but there it is -- a nice little hierarchy wherein one scheduled caste person is superior to another.

These are the lessons history has taught them. That equality is a myth. That someone has to pip someone else to the post. That tomorrow is not another day, but a continuation of today as today was of yesterday. That you are stuck for life.

And in this marshland appears Laloo Prasad Yadav. Not to tell us about the lotus in the gutter or the phoenix rising from the ashes. But about how cheese balls sometimes fail to become rat-traps. He is the mouse that's licked all the cream.


"Because it is 2015" and other lame reasons

Fifty-five days from today the phrase "because it is 2015" will become stale, its heft redundant. So, why has it gained the currency of an aphorism? In fact, its transformation into an aphorism itself exposes the levity.

Justin Trudeau, all Hollywood good looks and geek-certified, flashed his cabinet as the new prime minister of Canada. "Why is half of your cabinet made up of women?" somebody asked. He replied, "Because it is 2015." The world went into a tizzy. This is what a cabinet should look like, they chorused, this is a modern man, moving with the times.

There is a small technicality here. 50 percent of the ministers, who happen to be women, will now be seen as harbingers of a period in time. That these are competent women who have been chosen for their ability to work in government gets lost in the exclamatory nature of their initiation/welcome.

Why is half your cabinet made up of women?

Because they were the best and most suited.

This would have sounded better and apt. Instead, Mr. Trudeau's statement sounds like he is following a reservations template: give the women 50 per cent seats because it is 2015, and to hell with other things.

Women aren't the only beneficiaries of the PM's 'goodness'. He has included people from different provinces, minorities, an aborigine, even a refugee. There are three Sikhs, and the one who is Defence Minister also "took on the Taliban". (Yo, turban versus turban.) We are told that somebody is a paraplegic and somebody else is recovering from cancer.

To make matters worse, all this variety will lead to profiling the ministers on the basis of whether they can be mainstream enough. Already TIME magazine has carried a photospread of the women in his cabinet, as though they are bunnies at the Playboy mansion.

Trudeau calls the mix of his cabinet "like Canada". Diversity of people in government is always a good thing, but here it does seem like it was about ticking the right boxes.

Governments the world over, including India, make it a point to pick members from certain groups. These are often sops, however inclusive they might appear to be. Indeed, cynicism should not prevent such choices. However, the celebration should wait, for It makes him into a benefactor, when it should be about the talent pool he could benefit from.

No wonder the reactions have been breathless whistles of how "cool" and "sexy" Trudeau is for being open. People have ended up lauding not the cause but the one they now consider the new messiah.


Ahmed Mohamed as curiosity

Ahmed Mohamed is being infantilised by big name Santa Clauses.

We know that Ahmed got into trouble for bringing a clock to class.

Mohamed, whose parents are from Sudan, was arrested, handcuffed and questioned by five police officers at MacArthur high school in Irvine on Monday. He was then suspended for three days. He told MSNBC he was not allowed to call his parents and was accused of carrying a hoax bomb. He said: “I felt like I was a criminal, I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called.”

Soon after the news spread, it became a movement. #IStandWithAhmed was everywhere. Support came from corporate biggies and leaders who send their drones that kill little children.

Ahmed is 14; he loves science, he says. So NASA and MIT join in, the latter even sounding over-the-top about how they'd love to have him as a student. Everyone is thrilled. Clearly, people believe in Santa Claus.

Barack Obama tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

What does "more kids like you mean"? The White House press secretary said, “This episode is a good illustration of how pernicious stereotypes can prevent even good-hearted people who have dedicated their lives to educating young people from doing the good work that they set out to do."

Even good-hearted people?

This is the problem. Ahmed is treated like a rarity, an exception to the rule. The Muslim who can be trusted to make America great. He is being coddled as a migrant who is not carrying a rucksack and is, therefore, not a threat.

Photographs of his father carrying boxes of pizza for waiting media persons just added to the non-threatening picture being projected. In all this ho-hum, Richard Dawkins, atheist evangelist, spoke about how the clock was not an invention, but just dissembled parts. He also implied that perhaps Ahmed did so to invite arrest.

This is a conspiracy theory, from somebody who hates conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks, for example. Dawkins justifies it as being "passionate about the truth". Good. Why is he not passionate about finding out the truth about why five cops took him away, why the teachers assumed the clock looked like a bomb — how much do they know about bombs?

Yet, at least this one time he does not sound as offensive as he often does. Quite unlike Taslima Nasreen who said, “If I could see Ahmed Mohamed’s home-made clock, I would hv mistaken his things for a bomb. Why ppl think Muslims can bring bombs? Cause they do." (sic)

Cheap shots are Taslima territory. She claims to be a rationalist, but does not seem to realise that innuendo is irrational.

Dawkins has made at least some attempt at asking other queries, about checks at airports where carrying liquids too is not permitted.

As police spokesperson James McLellan said, “It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

These may be valid concerns, but are they uniformly applied? No. Besides, in schools there are science projects where things could be mistaken for 'devices'. The police do come with preconceived notions. Race, colour, country all are factored in when they reach the scene of a crime or conduct investigations, and even on suspicion.

Between Obama and Sarah Palin's responses, an Ahmed Mohamed becomes a curiosity. The reality is not about an incident nor about special treatment. The reality is to treat all people equally — whether it is to laud or to question.

When asked in a video interview with Mehdi Hasan as why this happened to him, Ahmed said unflinchingly, "Because I am Muslim." I find this disturbing too. I do know what it means, I have seen it in many forms, especially while interviewing and writing about the riot-affected. But the certitude of such a statement won't do much to alter things. It only consolidates the stereotype, this time of self-perception.

His new support system ensures that he can leave his school and afford other options. There are many who have no choice. They have to swallow the hate directed at them. Will the 'voices of reason' ensure that no one becomes a victim of prejudice?

Ahmed is already talking about his "Internet family" and his "fans". He believes that because of a hashtag things will change. He says he discovered that people do care. It is sad that such an incident is necessary to experience caring.

Such caring is not much different from making an example of him in a virtual bubble.


The Prophet and a Fatwa

Wonder why AR Rahman even bothered to clarify. An institution has problems with him giving the music for 'Muhammad: The Messenger of God', a film on the Prophet of Islam by Iranian director Majid Majidi.

The Raza Academy did what comes to their mind first — issued a fatwa. It is the usual rant that such a portrayal would make a mockery of Islam, of how the religion forbids physical representation that include, according to a report, "shots of the prophet’s back, via a low-angle shot of a teenage Muhammad against the sky, and his hands and legs as a baby".

Technically speaking, none of these are images of the Prophet as a prophet. At worst, the shots of the back might be akin to talking behind somebody's back. Prophets attain stature partly due to the slurs cast upon them and the manner in which they respond to them.

As regards the baby, this was way before Muhammad became the Prophet. It represents innocence and purity; children are not images but reflections.

The words against idolatry in Islam were a response to paganism, and if we are to extend it, then to narcissism too. However, Muslims do worship at tombs, and they bow before symbols. Different cultures follow different rituals, but they remain rituals and, therefore, pagan. Worse, many worship leaders, whether of governments or religious institutions, and even deify them with images. Is this not idolatry?

A problem with the prevalent conservative narrative is that its austerity denies the humanism the Prophet stood for. Is an expensive project the best way to capture the simplicity? It is possibly a redundant question. The director has his own reasons:

“We’ve been guilty of shortcomings in introducing the world to the real and true face of the prophet. There have been 200 movies about Jesus Christ, 100 featuring Moses directly or indirectly, 42 about Buddha, but only two on Muhammad. It’s a natural act of introduction to our culture.”

This is fair, and essential. Each time you turn, there is some debate or the other going on about Islam and Muslims, mostly by slander. And as a monotheistic faith, there is little else that can be blamed for what believers, or those who are Muslim by birth, do. "Did those terrorists not shout 'Allah-hu-Akbar'?" go the accusations.

Depictions of Islam or the Prophet in pop culture tend to be innuendo. I have watched some of Majidi's films, films that have nothing to do with religion. He is clearly a humanist. I'd trust him to make a film on any historical figure over an Islamic scholar.

Having said this, I do not believe there is a need to explain anything to the world. The world, the Islamophobic world, is prejudiced against people of certain beliefs, irrespective of how much they believe in or practise their faith, or whether they do so at all. It is unlikely that a film will alter their perception of Muslims.

I have not watched the film so cannot comment on the depiction of the Prophet, but from the trailer it seems as though Majidi is paying a poignant tribute.

Those issuing fatwas have no concept of such poignancy or symbolism. That is the reason I feel Rahman should not have responded.

The cleric said he was speaking out because one day he will have to face Allah. To this Rahman said:

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah and He were to ask me on Judgment Day: I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health... why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

The first part is a fitting reply. I do have a problem with the bit about "clearing misconceptions". To whom — the inherently prejudiced, the fringe outragers? Why does every Muslim feel the need to distance her/himself from those who kill? Isn't it obvious, shouldn't it be? What does this say about those who accuse, and why then the need to clear misconceptions to such retarded brains?

For some, even among those objecting to the film, the attitude is similar. A spokesperson of Egypt's al-Azhar university said: “The actor who plays this role may later play a criminal, and viewers may associate these characters with criminality."

It is unlikely, but should that happen it will speak about the naïveté of the viewer and little else. Besides, might there not be viewers who would carry this image and see in any subsequent criminal character shades of his past goodness?

Let perceptions, not caricatures, thrive — they add to the persona.


Aylan Kurdi and the Swarm of Tears

Published in CounterPunch

Galip Kurdi lay dead a few feet away from his brother. There are no dirges for the five-year-old, as innocent as Aylan, as much a refugee seeking a life, without knowing the meaning of it. Their mother drowned too. Nine other people lost their lives trying to escape from a home to a mirage or, if they were fortunate, an oasis.

They are just numbers, and if we have good pictures around then they become scattered belongings on shores, their bodies swallowed by waves.


It is Aylan Kurdi’s fate to be killed twice. Once by the waters that pushed his limp form ashore and then to be drowned in the swarms of tears. Swarms. A word made notorious by David Cameron to suggest that refugees are a marauding horde or insect-like nuisances taking over. Swarms of tears also take over. The debate today is centered on self-deprecation, a luxury that a few can indeed afford. The arrogance of such publicly sanctified humility belittles the humbled and the bereft.

Abdullah, the father of the two kids, has lost his world. No country would matter to him. But have any of the lachrymose-ridden Op-eds offered him a home? What does the grandstanding self-introspection amount to? Let me give a few examples.

“What does Aylan Kurdi’s death say about us?”

It is fairly obvious it tells us that we cannot fathom a tragedy unless we have a visual representation of it and can feed off it. We create symbols not to symbolise a social problem but to use as a hat rack.

“Look at the photograph, and feel the pain.”

Only so that the writer of this piece can go into a detailed description of a child’s corpse, details that are evident? “His tiny shoes baring their sodden soles to the sky.” This has been the chorus: “Don’t shut your eyes. Look. This is what we have done.” Then sit back and watch as our sensitivity is clicked and shared. Do we even care that we transform a short life into a précis?

Piers Morgan then goes on to state, “I believe that if Americans had been allowed to see images from inside Sandy Hook school after the massacre of 20 young children in 2012, then new draconian gun laws would have been implemented within months.”

What laws have been implemented in spite of these Americans looking at pictures of racist attacks?

Abdullah Kurdi is pained. “…now the whole world is going to watch my story, where was the whole world before when my kids were hungry, when I didn’t have a job?”

Why did nobody ask us to identity with such a plight? Using the photograph as prompter, Nicholas Kristof tried to pass off his moral high ground as the world’s guilt: “If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.”

Empathy is germane, not generic. Kristof had a background story, not everybody does. What the world feels today – or was it yesterday? – is collective sympathy. Social media has made it possible to buy empathy/sympathy across the counter although it is touted as a prescription drug.

Art and artifice

“The Post appears to be asking its critics to hand out artworks as antidepressants.” The writer of the piece was referring to the Washington Post’s Style section asking art critics to “meditate on the role of the arts in coping with grief” after the Sandy Hooks incident. Not chuffed with the idea, Phil Kennicott’s message was clear and might apply to the Aylan story as well: “I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem.”

Why is there a tearing hurry to make a ‘telling statement’ on an ongoing crisis? “Thank you for the tragedy. I need it for my art,” said Kurt Cobain. It is unlikely that the artists who are now paying tribute to Aylan would be as upfront. Some great art owes its inspiration to tragic events, but was it created merely as a reaction?

There is one image of a child lying face down in bed, the moon and stars chiming as twilight streams in through the curtains. “This is how it should have ended”, was the tag line. Is this how a child sleeps, a child who is escaping? Such artistic license implies that refugees are good life-seeking migrants when all they want, need, is a piece of earth and a piece of sky.

While it is important to taunt world leadership, placing a young child’s cold body at the centre surrounded by men in suits or keffiyeh in conference rooms with high ceilings makes it appears like he is something on their plate to be feasted upon.

Another artwork with the now-familiar image of the boy on the beach shows a plastic sand bucket and shovel in the forefront. Does this not convey that seeking refuge is a picnic, an outing?

Last year when four boys, sons of a fisherman, were killed in aerial strikes on a Gaza beach, some Israelis were posting ‘Bomb Shelter Selfies’. Art and social consciousness today seem as cocooned and vicarious.

Politics of benevolence

Alongside the news of the Pope appealing to parishes and monasteries to house one refugee family each and the Vatican making the move by sponsoring two families come reports of conversions.

The West uses the start-stop method often during social crises, the passive-aggressive strategy coming in handy. It would be foolish to assume that overnight some countries have had a change of heart. Governments often use foot soldiers as ‘fringe elements’ to do what political correctness prevents them from doing. Will the neo-Nazi groups that target immigrants be any kinder to refugees?

The same ugly face of ISIS is repeated to whitewash the saviours. Reports of a covert operation by ISIS gunmen entering the European Union among refugees seems to consolidate the phobia instead of assuaging it. Not surprisingly, conservative lobbies have their backup plan ready for explaining their reservations. I got this note from a Hindu rightwing person: “Migrants stream into Austria, swept west by overwhelmed Hungary - Arabs succeeded in exporting Pisslam to Europe without any Missionary work. Wait for an Islamic country to be carved out of European union. Just like India with huge chunk of muslim population, Europe will suffer.”

The criminalization of refugees is a real issue. The police in Prague were branding new entrants just the other day. Said activist Hana Frankova, “The Czech authorities are presenting them as criminals, and it resonates well with the public when they are detained.”

We may blame governments, but there are citizens who would not wish it any other way. A gush of online hashtag concern hubris will not alter that. The objectification of Aylan is the tragedy that has superseded the tragedy of thousands fleeing. The emphasis on this child, this shore, this event seems like event management to divert attention from what is happening everyday when dinghies do not capsize.

As one Palestinian posted, if it is dead babies that bring about change, we have many to show. I’ve seen pictures of other babies from Sudan to Kashmir, some from decades ago. This should bring tears to our eyes, the continual insensitivity, the building of houses of cards over the rubble of history.


Maharajahs and commoners

“Not many people know about my royal background and I am grooming myself as a commoner."

These were the words of a 16-year-old.

How does one train to be a commoner? And does such training work? Padmanabh Singh happens to have been born into a royal family, a redundancy today. However, Mumbai Mirror carried a full-page interview with “the youngest Maharaja”. Apparently, for this reason:

Maharaja Padmanabh Singh is unlike any other teenager. For instance, polo, and not Instagram, is uppermost on his mind. The youngest Maharaja at 16, Singh presides over royal properties of the erstwhile Jaipur state and the majestic City Palace, where staff members call him 'Darbar' or 'His Highness'. But the young Maharaja remains unaffected by the reverence and is focussed on excelling in polo and grooming himself at Millfield School in the UK.

That’s a lot of grooming, and surely in this case it is not on how to be a commoner.

It is amazing that we continue to be feudal, and this is evident most sharply when we attempt to shun royal frippery. How does this even qualify as an attempt at understanding the common man, forgetting grooming to be one? 

In the beginning of the year there were reports about a change in the Air India Maharajah logo:

Air India’s Maharajah, an iconic portly figure in regal garb and hands folded in namaskar, is being offloaded. Passengers are now being welcomed by a new and younger version of the mascot, sans turban with spiky hair, wearing jeans and sneakers. Even the trademark twirling moustache has been cut down to size. In his first meeting with aviation ministry heads on June 21, 2014 PM Narendra Modi had said that the ‘aam aadmi’ must replace the Maharajah as the mascot of Indian aviation. It came on the back of his emphasis that the ministry is formulating policies to make flying within the reach of the common man and not only limited to the rich.

Where was the need to retain the term Maharajah then, although to “live like a king”, or king-size, as another product ad states, would be about luxury, and that would be legitimate if people should have the means. It would not be a fake attempt. In the old logo, the maharajah looked more like a hotel durban; in the new one, he looks like a tout at the railway station.

Air India, as India itself, wanted to capitalise all these years on its regal traditions, pomp and grandeur, and its past. But we are not what the past India was, and the younger generations are even more removed from it. Is there any need to use the superficial aspects to make them understand history? Why do children and grandchildren of the former royals promote their status? If they stopped being called princes and kings, the media would learn to stay away. Actor Saif Ali Khan continues to be referred to as “Nawab”, and his wife Kareena Kapoor Khan seems to have no problem being addressed as “Begum”.

There are young politicians too from former royal families, and while they do not wish to be addressed as royalty the fact is that for many this is their only link with their constituencies.

Worse than their sense of entitlement is the need to make a production of wanting to be like others. This suggests that they are making an effort to downgrade themselves. It is interesting that while one young man will groom himself to be a commoner and an airline tries to reach out to the common man, both choose a limited idea of such commonness. 

Will there be any takers for this common man who is far more common than any other?

PS: The Air India site has the old logo, so it appears that they prefer the obsequious as exotica to the tout.