Flanagan's Wake

I like Richard Flanagan already. He has won this year’s Booker Prize for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ that I have not read. I have read nothing by him, but following the award the search has yielded some wonderful insights.

Of course, I like him for saying that he is “ashamed to be Australian” because of the environmental policies of the government. But, what is more interesting is how he gets into the mind of another real person. A good writer does not only create characers out of thin air. S/he can make the most simple reality appear profound or mystical or mythical.

Flanagan has done it with David Walsh that I now know so much about Walsh and so little about Flanagan. This he manages to do without any self-effacing sophistry. In fact, he pushes the boundaries of language to create something out of somebody. In the essay for The New Yorker, he wrote:

Attempting to describe Boltanski’s devil is like trying to pick up mercury with a pair of pliers. At fifty-one, Walsh has the manner of a boy pharaoh and the accent of a working-class Tasmanian who grew up in Glenorchy, one of the poorest suburbs of the poorest state in the Australian federation. His silver hair is sometimes rocker-length long, sometimes short. Walsh talks in torrents or not at all. He jerks, he scratches, and his pigeon-toed gait is so pronounced that he bobs as he walks. He is alternately charming, bullying, or silent. As he looks away, he laughs.

This comes somewhere in the beginning, so it has to be tantalising. Flanagan certainly knows about a good way to grab attention. From his subject as arriviste, to his perversities, his enterpreneurship of the arts and his inner demons, it is a sheer treat.

Walsh’s favorite novel is “Crime and Punishment,” and conversations with him can sometimes feel like talking to the deranged narrator of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground”: possessed, but rarely less than compelling. His obsessive desire to explain makes his thoughts sometimes seem to proceed algorithmically. Though the condition has never been diagnosed, Walsh and those around him believe that he has Asperger’s. It would explain his extraordinary gift with numbers, but it is hard to know where the condition ends and bad manners start. Walsh’s rudeness is legendary. “Let’s face it,” a close friend told me. “David can be a complete cunt. But he is also the kindest and most generous man you will meet.” Walsh funds a major tennis tournament, the Moorilla Hobart International, as well as Hobart’s MOFO music festival. There are also many and ongoing private kindnesses: kids he sponsors at Hobart’s Quaker school, support of several families, and friends he constantly helps. Pointing out that Walsh has always spent more than he has earned, Ranogajec said, “David was never motivated by money.”

I doubt if the idea behind the Booker Prize is to make you fall in love with a person the writer writes about, but here you have it. I am in love with David Walsh and I couldn’t be bothered about finding out anything more than I know about him through Richard Flanagan.

Love, Jihad and Political Lust: Colonising India’s Muslims

Published in CounterPunch

Chanting hymns and spraying holy Ganga water, a group of religious leaders and students from the rightwing conducted the purification ritual of a 26-year-old woman inside a police station in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh. Her crime was that she married a Muslim and was allegedly forced to convert to Islam. Her saviours felt that bringing her back home and into the fold was not enough; she needed to be cleansed of any traces of Muslimness to be acceptable again.

This took place inside a police station with the cops around. It should tell us how political perceptions are brainwashing social attitudes in India.
False propaganda on love jihad

We may laud the “U-turn” of an alleged victim denying she was a victim, but will such extempore anger have any effect? In Meerut a 22-year-old managed to get nine people arrested on the basis of a false charge of kidnapping, gangrape, and conversion. For many, the conversion seemed to be the real crime that made the state BJP ring alarm bells about Muslim men going around with a seduction to conversion blueprint.

After two months, it turns out that she was forced to make these serious allegations. In her statement to the police she wrote: “I was staying with my parents, but I ran away from home because I feel a threat to my life from my parents and relatives. I went with the boy belonging to a different community out of my own will.” Her parents were against her affair with Kaleem. Some members of Hindutva groups got wind of it and offered to help. Help for them meant milking it for political gain. ‘Love jihad’ had found one more victim, according to them, and Hinduism was therefore under threat from Islam.

The story of an almost love lost that has grabbed public imagination pays no attention to the “eight others” who are behind bars. The cleric Mohammad Sanaullah was said to be the main accused in the gangrape and conversion. Why is his innocence not highlighted? By concentrating only on the love angle, the 'jihad' against Muslims is allowed to continue to regain what is thought to be a lost colonial supremacy.

Forced conversions can be tried in court, but that would need evidence, which is not available simply because this does not take place, except for stray instances. Another reason to keep the paranoia alive is to feed the fear.


He talks about converting people to Hinduism and then says, “If they take one Hindu girl away, there will be at least 100 that we will...” and he pauses, as the crowd cheers and completes his sentence to gloat, “take away”. He does not stop there and goes on to say, “If they kill one Hindu, there will be 100 that we” and pauses, as the gathered crowd shouts: “will kill”.

This is not mere rustic appeal. As a member of parliament from Gorakhpur Yogi Adityanath has used the floor of the house to declare that Hindus would need to organise themselves. “They (the pseudo-secular forces) split the country on communal lines in 1947 and there is a conspiracy to split the country again on Pakistan's agenda. There is a conspiracy against the Hindu way of life and the people are uniting against this. Hindutva is a symbol of Indian nationalism. The Hindu religion does not allow the superiority of any one religion. Even Muslims who go for Haj are known as Hindus.”

Our US-return PM Narendra Modi has been silent; the BJP cadre has been silent. Adityanath continues to be MP.  He even appeared on a TV show where he transformed the mock witness box into a speaker’s corner. The real story of bigotry is not what he said but how the young studio audience rooted for him. This was not an anonymous forum. They would be recognised and seemed to take pride in that, unconcerned about how their peers would view them. Prejudice has become the new identity.

Fringe outfits are on national television speaking in a quasi-government tone. Its members distribute pamphlets against Muslims and nobody is arrested for it. Even if it is a political move prior to polls it reveals how society thinks or how they expect society to start thinking.


The love jihad incident is deviously linked with madrassas, which will be the big target eventually. Sakshi Maharaj, another one of those godmen-ministers that are part of the righting government, said, “Education of terrorism is being given in madrassas. They (the madrassas)... are making them terrorists and jihadis...It is not in national interest.”

If madrassas are teaching terrorism, it makes no logical or tactical sense for them to be counteracted with ancient Hindu texts. India is a nuclear power, has a space mission, an information technology hub. None of this has been possible because of the Vedas or any religious text. Yet, the human resources development minister spoke to officials about the introduction of Hindu texts and epics in the curriculum and the contribution of ancients to topics like science and philosophy.


Politicising Satyarthi and Malala: The Nobel Peace Prize

The folks in Norway think thought this would be one uncontroversial award this year when the fact is it had enough matchsticks to light a fire.

Not only did the Nobel Peace Prize committee choose two disparate individuals from two countries at loggerheads, it also emphasised the differences,  although the politics lie deeper:

The committee said it was important that a Muslim and a Hindu, a Pakistani and an Indian, had joined in what it called a common struggle for education and against extremism.

Does an ongoing war have scope for 'peace'?

The struggle is not common. Kailash Satyarthi works in the field to save children from labour, trafficking, exploitation and ultimately to the basic right to life and dignity. It is a social problem with no political or religious connotation. Malala Yousafzai's struggle is specific and personal in what is a Muslim nation that has to deal with 'Islamist terrorists' politically.

It does not behoove an international body, that too one which honours people from diverse backgrounds, to use terms that are non secular when one of the recipients is certainly not expected to flaunt religion either in his work or as a representative of India.

In Malala's case, her existence as cult figure is linked with Islam. The West would not give her the time of day had it not been so. This also applies to non-Pakistani approbation for her, which is based on how to treat the Muslim who speaks out against 'Islam'. Fact is, she has not. They imagine she might, and she very well could. Just as she said at the Marxist's conference in Pakistan, “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”

This made her socialism’s spokesperson, and reveals the opportunistic nature of almost everybody across the ideological spectrum and speaks very little for the phenomenon who is universally available. She has just won another place – among the most influential teenagers; she shares the spot with Barack Obama’s daughters who are in the news for their style statement. But, then, model Naomi Campbell congratulating a “malaria” instead of Malala becomes news enough for her to issue a clarification. It is a funny world.

Satyarthi has been immediately put in the company of Mahatma Gandhi for his "peaceful protests". Fighting for the rights of children is not a war, although it is a battle against odds. The emphasis on peaceful protests makes it appear as though it is unusual and violence would have been the first choice when that is not the case most of the time.

Like quite a few people I did not know about India’s latest hero who had founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). It is great work. But, will a Nobel alter the prospects of him achieving many more goals? Does the Nobel work like, say, the Oscars that help a film or a Booker that gets more readers to buy a book? I doubt it. It may benefit the winner to be more visible, but only for a while.

Does being a photo on schoolbags
bring about change?

Unless it is Malala, who is now a feminist, an activist, an education, a social reformer, and also a PM-in-waiting. If you are going to give out cute reports about how she insisted on attending class, then at least do not refer to her as an educationist. It is a good thing that her Prize has awakened a section of Pakistanis to the problem of children, but they said it also when she was shot at by the Taliban, when she spoke at the UN, and whenever she gets many of those awards they want to give someone from the Af-Pak region. What happens in the interim time between these ceremonies?

If children going to school is to be attributed to a girl being shot then it does not say much about the government or the society, and it is really unfair to the latter that has produced some remarkable people in different fields of endeavour. The west is unlikely to even look at an organisation like Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) for whom human rights, education and betterment of women is an ongoing struggle.

If this is a peace award, are we to take it that peace is now not defined as active participation towards the absence of war? How did Obama merit it? Can a Satyarthi, despite his genuine efforts, ensure that his fight will be to the finish to end trafficking? Can a Malala ‘reform’ Pakistan and help a transition from almost daily issues towards peace from Birmingham?

Nobody expects any individual to bring about major changes. The point is – are the minor changes really there, or is it all in the mind of observers as protectors of phenomena?


Do read A Mirage Called Malala and the comments there.


Sunday ka Funda

Sometimes, soundtracks make you cry. Sometimes, simple words do. Sometimes, your thoughts find mirror images. From one of my favourite movies.

Yu Shu Lien: The Green Destiny Sword. You're giving it to Sir Te.
Li Mu Bai: I am. He has always been our greatest protector.
Yu Shu Lien: I don't understand. How can you part with it? It's been with you a long time.
Li Mu Bai: Too many men have died at its edge. It may look pure..., but only because blood washes so easily from its blade.


Ben Affleck, White Knights and Islamophobia

Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Reza Aslan, and Sam Harris go into a bar. And they all raise a toast to Malala Yousafzai. This should tell us just how they would ‘do’ Islam.  Those who have been laid up with the viral video of Bill and Ben might be surprised to find these opponents put on the same side.

Bill Maher says he is a liberal. Ben Affleck says he is a liberal. Both have taken conservatively safe and sorry positions. This is how liberalism pans out, especially when faced with uncomfortable ideas about Islam. What appears to be a true-blue battle against stereotypes is in fact a reiteration of them, with a self-pat as bonus.

It makes for a good story. With a moral. In this excruciating episode of everybody and their rubbed Islam genies the essence is about the nice guys winning. Maher wants to save the world from the “mafia”. Affleck wants to save the world from bad Muslims by quoting without quotes the good Muslims. It looks like a duel when Ben is actually akin to the matador in a china shop who reaches there after the bull. Get the picture? His red rag contribution has been enshrined in the two words “gross” and “racist” as his boots crunch the fragile porcelain underfoot.

“Jesus,” he cries in frustration when Sam Harris says, “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas”.  Sure, it is an exclamation, but imagine the delicious possibility of it being an evocation. In fact, Affleck’s new role as messiah is essentially about getting rid of the collective fear of xenophobia.

Maher is easy to deal with (“They will f*cking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”); we know what he is saying even if we may not agree. He is not cherry picking. Affleck is, and it is a disingenuous position if not vile. 

Nothing screams out white privilege with as much force as two white men fighting for ideological rights over those not white. Here white is not just colour; it is the varnished vantage of the chosen ones.  A Hollywood actor is called a “Caliphate crusader” because he chooses a random eraser to wipe out anything negative about Islam. Vacant spaces have a tendency to get filled with perception and perfidy.

* * *

Lisa Carol Roche knows what works. She was stealing sunglasses and other such trinkety stuff from the cars parked outside her children's school in Mississippi when the police caught her in the act. Thieves are known to use imaginative excuses. Lisa did use her imagination, but it was based on the fantasy pragmatism that America is famous for. She told the cops she was searching for ISIS terrorists.

The Independent that picked up the story from a local news outlet ended its report by stating that the ISIS has “threatened retribution on the US for conducting airstrikes”. This makes it appear as though Ms. Roche could possibly have a valid reason for the excuse. Because, you see, she is a mother of young kids, a regular white mom who occasionally gets into a scrap with the legal authorities, but she is civic minded, perhaps even feels threatened.

This is not the stuff that either Maher or Affleck is interested in. Her government has told her that the ISIS is on its way.  If we are to use the theft analogy, then isn’t that what many western powers are doing by employing the ruse of terror threats? Why don’t these caregivers of Islam deal with the source of Islamophobia rather than fitting a halo on their heads while sparring with a comedian?

* * *

When Affleck tells Maher, “You guys are saying, if you want to be liberal, believe in liberal principles. Like, we are endowed by our forefathers with inalienable rights, all men are created equal”, he forgets he is there because of this inalienable right and because there is no Muslim who will be considered a saviour for merely spitting out “gross”.

It segues into a challenge

“Hold on – are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam? It’s gross and racist. It’s like saying, ‘Oh, you shifty Jew!’ Your argument is, ‘You know, black people, they shoot each other.’…How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.”

In the negation lies the confirmation. Affleck has fanatical fans, so Islam may have them too. Do you mind, eh? These over billion people who do not punish women, would they include the actor’s chums in their starry chambers? Some people pray five times a day and that includes extremists. The going to school and having sandwiches as Muslims is too sophomoric even for a McDonalised madrassa.

And how smart is it to bring in the “shifty Jew” reference, when it is clear that shiftiness is nowhere near barbarian, which is the word often used to describe Muslims. The false equivalence – for shifty is no threat – establishes a huge chasm in the badness yardstick.

Bill O'Reilly too joined in

“Mr. Maher is correct on the overall effect Islam is having on the world right now. The truth is many Muslim nations have not confronted Islamic terrorism, have not attacked violence in the name of Allah, and have not even condemned the jihad. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are few.” 

His major peeve is that 3000 people were killed in 9/11 but “Muslim nations” did not ‘call out’ the Al Qaeda. This is churlish more than stupid. Let us see Americans call out the US government, or other countries in the west do so, for the millions who are killed to help usher in democracy.

* * *

This debate has given mainstream media one more opportunity to colonise a faith with some voodoo tricks. The dumb homogeneity inflicted by the pan-Islamist accusers is revived by the neo-liberals with their trick-or-treat manifesto quoting the same Pew Research survey from 2013 about how the “Muslim world” (as opposed to Disneyworld, I suppose) wants Sharia to rule their lives. Pew too pays lib service when it adds how “most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion”.

Sharia as rule of law is different from Sharia as article of faith. Placed in tandem, they appear to be on the same plain and negate the “not every Muslim woman cannot drive a car” trope. It also prompts intriguing reactions, such as Dr Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy who thinks that “Imam Ben Affleck” is “defending the theocrats, the status quo”. Although theocracy is the status quo, theocrats are not the only status quo. Take the #Notinmyname insecure reaction to ISIS that merely created a parallel stereotype of the Muslim penitent on behalf of the sinner. The iterant moderate module is saved for a rainy day, and what should be on Buzzfeed gets on primetime.

Reza Aslan’s appearance on CNN is sold as a slamming of Maher. Last year, he had spent much time trying to explain to Fox TV that he is a scholar, which was bound to leave him exhausted. It is with this feeling of ennui that he lands up on CNN wearing intellectual coat tails to tell Maher that his views are “unsophisticated”. The main thrust of his argument is that the problem with Saudi Arabia is Saudi Arabia’s problem and not Islam’s. This looks rather nice as a calligraphy scrawl on a Hallmark card. While ostensibly clearing the decks of religion as state, he does not address the religion of the state issue that is worrying the blimps. Nations and their dynamics are too complex for those who are brainwashed to fear, so they deal the religion card.

Aslan has a morning after moment when he writes in the New York Times, “Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights.” He adds: 

“First, simplistic knee-jerk response among people of faith to dismiss radicals in their midst as “not us” must end. Members of the Islamic State are Muslims for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be so. Dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world. But considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion.”

There are too many ifs and buts that do not convey any serious engagement with reality. When his book ‘Zealot’ was out and Aslan was asked how he, a Muslim, could write about Jesus, he had felt the need to declare, “I'm in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife.” In effect, he seeks legitimacy for being and is essentially saying what the West wants to hear by way of fake neutrality.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof who was also there during the Maher Moment writes in NYT, keeping the boys club pennant flying, “I sided with Affleck.” He mentions reformers, among them Malala. This is the stuff you pull out of a hat when you know the audience is expecting a scarf. Malala is just what fits in snugly to take on Islam according to Gap.

Prevaricators are touted as the voice of reason because their assembly line echoes work like a dream for the paranoid parvenu.

© Farzana Versey


Line of Uncontrol

The shells that came in. Pic: Reuters

There is tension on the border again. For the past one week. India will not talk with Pakistan. Everybody knows this standoff won’t last. Cannot.

What is shocking, however, is the tone. Civilians have been killed, and nobody seems concerned about that. It is all about flexing muscles. The PM woke up from his slumber – and these days it includes giving automaton high-maintenance speeches at election rallies (his terrain) for assembly polls in Maharashtra – to get into I’m ok, you’re ok mode. “We have responded with courage to ceasefire violations,” he said, “Everything will be fine soon.”

How soon is soon, how fine is fine? Who is he talking to – the general junta, his party members, the armed forces, the opposition, Pakistan? This is what he should be telling those who are vulnerable.

I watched one TV debate and all I could hear was the anchor blabber about pulverizing Pakistan, as though the all of Pakistan and its government were sitting at the Line of Control.

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said:

“India is a responsible state. It is never an aggressor. But at the same time, it has a paramount duty to defend its people and its territory. Our Armed Forces particularly the Army and the BSF in this case have only one option – that is to respond adequately and defend our territory and our people.”

It begs the question: Why did they not do so when the first incursion and shelling took place? How did it reach those civilian areas? We have not shied away from aggression, so we don’t need this halo effect now. The minister further added:

“If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable.”

What is the measure of affordability? We do know that Pakistan is a nuclear power and it has got aid and the ability to generate money. If it is about making it unaffordable in socio-political terms, then we are dealing with a nation that has suffered defeat a few times.

Some views suggest that Nawaz Sharif wants to divert attention from local issues; others suggest that Modi is using this to gain points for the polls.

Across the border, the Pakistan People’s Party has a court jester in the form of its patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto.

Last month he had said, “I will take back Kashmir, all of it, and I will not leave behind a single inch of it because it belongs to Pakistan”, provoking titters from Kashmiris. Now he says, “Another attack on LoC. Seems India adopting Israel model vs Pakistan. Modi must realise we can retaliate unlike his victims from Gujarat.”

Not only is this juvenile, it is vicious. This punk is using victims to further the cause of his adrenaline. Those displaced in the Gujarat riots are indeed in no position to respond simply because this is not a movie. Real lives are different. He might like to talk to those in Baluchistan, Waziristan and even Karachi. He is not in power, but if this is the only way forward for him then he has already lost it.

I have not read the Pakistani papers, but it is bound to be a blame game.

This has continued for too long – the rabble-rousing on TV and social media, the verbal duel between politicians, and the inability to protect our borders, which is how civilians get killed. Why don’t we examine that?

No leader or army person has a right to place the lives of innocents at risk to further their macho political machinations and greed. Jammu and Kashmir is barely getting back on its feet after the floods, crops, trees have been flattened and these people are talking about bulldozing. 

It might help a great deal if the media is told to shut up. We do not need opinions of ill-informed news anchors who drool over the possibility of war. The border areas are not your studio nor our living room.   I have been cynical about staged 'aman ki asha' projects, but if I had to choose between peace and war, it will be peace by a long shot. Whether it is with Pakistan or Timbuktu.


Holy cows and cartoons

India loves cows, the temple variety not the ones left with festering wounds to forage in garbage dumps. The new government is serious about cow protection. As I said, we love cows, some worship them.

So, when a cow knocks on the door of an elite space club should it be considered insulting? According to the Indian worldview, the cow should have the right to be there, was in fact born to be there. Why, then, did some demand an apology from the New York Times for this cartoon in response to the Mars Orbiter Mission?

Do we consider the farmer and the beast any less when compared with our space missions? If so, then this is cause for serious concern. India is largely a rural country and agriculture continues to be its mainstay. How does it convey the image of a backward society when this is what feeds us as well as a few importing countries?

The farmer is not being obsequious about entering the elite club; he is assertive. The cow too is rather saucy and sanguine. It is the westerners reading the news who seem to be worried and shocked. They look backward because they have not come out of their cocoons to keep in touch with the world to see how far others have progressed, far enough for India to be the only one to succeed in its Mars Mission at the first attempt.

We anoint a scientific operation with a Sanskritised, almost mythified, name like Mangalyaan, we pretty much treat it as some sort of divine intervention, and then we project our insecurities on others. Strangely, I hear that Malayalis objected to it most on social media because many of ISRO’s scientists are Malayali. What does this tell us about our parochialism? It is natural to feel proud of one’s own, but let us not see a slight where there seems to be none.

The farmer and the cow are as much images of India as the camel and the bedouin are of the Middle East, in fact more so. It does not mean we have nothing else. If anything, this is a paean to the India of the majority – the villager. It is true that the farmer did not send the mission into space but scientists may come from rural backgrounds. Have we forgotten the euphoria upon the success of the mission? The most telling picture was of women scientists with flowers in their hair jubilating.

If we have a problem with the cartoon, then why not with this impression of what is Indian womanhood from a certain perspective? That too is a stereotype, where the lab-coat is seen as elite privilege.

After being pressurised, the newspaper apologised. Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, said:

“The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text - often in a provocative way - to make observations about international affairs. We apologise to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon.” He further added that the cartoonist “was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens”.

India is too vast; the people are too many and disparate. That leaves the government. This mission did not happen overnight after Narendra Modi came to power, so it is not the success of the present government at all. But I see this more as NYT trying to still play host to the PM after his NRI-slavering visit. The Indian authorities might see in this censorship of a kind an opportunity to use as precedent whenever we are faced with some truth even if it is not, or should not be, inconvenient.

We’ve got the apology from NYT (and it is always great to see NYT apologise, for different reasons), but are we going to hide the farmers from us? Will cows be placed on pedestals behind walls? Why can’t we own up to what is ours?