Saturday, October 30, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Coming of the Barbarians

On the same day, in different parts of the world, Angela Merkel and Aravinda Adiga unburdened themselves of a similar world-view. In Potsdam, the German Chancellor claimed that the multi-culturalism “concept has failed, failed utterly”. What she really meant was that the Turkish immigrants, having spent one generation in rebuilding post-war Germany, had now outstayed their welcome.

In Karnataka, Adiga bemoaned the filthy lucre coming in from the North (he meant Andhra) that has eroded Karnataka’s culture. He said, “Our sense of who we are has unraveled. There is money, but there is no pride in Karnataka any longer.” Pride, for Adiga, expresses itself by replying in Kannada when people address him in any other language.

‘Seldom differ,” I muttered and allowed my mind to fill in the blanks. (Self-censorship is alive and well even in places that are not Thackeray Territory). To my credit, I also had the grace to blush quietly to myself. This is why:

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbour let her house for a film shoot. It was clearly a large production with big stars, and early one morning, the area buzzed with unusual activity. First, the generator van staked its claim on a large part of the road. Then, an empty plot of land next door became the parking lot (and public urinal). The air-conditioned van for the star of the production had a dish antenna placed outside, though I have no idea what the reception was like. A tailor set up his machine on the pavement and began to make alterations in costumes. Someone else ironed clothes frantically. A prop van disgorged sand bags and the police van further up the road was there purely for decoration.

For the next week, all kinds of people bustled and worked. And I was dismayed. “Why can’t they find some other place to shoot?” I thought. It was clear to me that their arrival signalled the ruin of the neighbourhood. I bristled when I walked past the spot boys, and glared at the pile of paper cups outside my gate.

This is especially ironic considering that not long ago, I was a part of this world where people made temporary homes everywhere and pulled them up when the time came to leave – a nomadic world that accommodated any kind of person from anywhere and in which people from all professions had a place: tailors, carpenters, painters, electricians, accountants and cooks in addition to all the headline-hogging glamour components.

Having left that world, though, I felt resentful and threatened by the cheerful confidence with which the people of the film industry made themselves at home on my street. Somewhere, in some reptilian part of my brain, I wanted to dispense permission and demonstrate tolerance; in exchange, I wanted gratitude or at least some mouse-like behaviour which was not forthcoming.

At the end of a week, when the unit left, I felt enormous relief and welcomed the pristine, original silence as I would a prodigal daughter.

So I ought to sympathise with Merkel and Adiga, right? I ought to find merit in their argument that ‘their’ culture’ is under threat and needs to be reinforced or protected; that this is to be achieved either by compelling ‘integration’ – whatever that means – or ejecting those who do not align themselves with certain cultural identifiers.

But of course I don’t, because, as I said, I have the grace to be ashamed by my temporary knee-jerk reaction to having my little pond stirred.

As countries in the West attempt to put up barriers against immigration, and as areas within India make their case for redrawing state boundaries citing reasons that include cultural ones, we’re going to see much more of this nostalgic yearning for a time when things were better before the coming of the barbarians, whoever they may currently be.

I wonder what Merkel, Adiga, Thackeray and others of their stripe will do if everyone went back to where they once belonged, and if all cultures and languages were stable and border-bound. Will they think to ask, as the speaker does in the closing lines of C.P.Cavafy’s poem, Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/ Those people were a kind of solution?


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

(I won't be putting up a link to the column in the epaper because I've noticed that it's no longer active after a week.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Daayen Ya Baayen Show Timings for Bombay and Delhi

Update on the earlier post on Bela Negi's first indie film, Daayen Ya Baayen: I did say the distribution was unorthodox, so here are specific show timings for different theatres across Bombay and the one show timing in Delhi.

If you're in either of these cities, do, do go and watch the film. Not just because it's an indie effort that everyone in and out of the unit fought tooth and nail to bring out into the theatres; not just because there's no publicity budget, no promotion for it beyond what everyone is doing on blogs and on Facebook; but because it's a good film and because you can make me jealous by going and watching it.

Here's where:

In Bombay:

PVR Lower Parel 1:30, 8:25 pm

Juhu 1:15, 8:35 pm

Goregaon (E) 10:50 pm

BIG CINEMAS IMax-Wadala 3:45 pm

Mulund 3:15 pm

R City Mall Ghatkopar 12:30 pm

Vashi 2:15 pm

INOX Nariman Point 1:00 pm

CINEMAX Versova 1:45 pm

FAME Malad 1:00, 5:00 pm

MOVIETIME Goregaon 12:00, 8:15 pm

BROADWAY Bhandup 3:00 pm

In Delhi:

PVR Select Citywalk (Saket): 4.55 pm. (Yes, this is not good news but if the first-day-only-show is full up, it might encourage the theatre to keep it running through the week.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

vanilla and honey

Khadi's Vanilla and Honey Hair Conditioner. Avoid.

Once, I begged and borrowed a Mills & Boon* from an acquaintance. When I brought it back home to read, I noticed its pages were wavy, as they sometimes get when they've been read in the bath. I opened the book and at the time it smelled like what we used to call 'scent rubbers' (it's not what you think): strong, sickly sweet and stale with having been all over the pages for god knows how long.

The conditioner I used this morning smells like that book. I am feeling ill. Feel free to say 'there there'.  Just so long as you don't pour sympathy like honey or vanilla, I'm good.


*The book was by Charlotte Lamb, about some painter dude and some dewy-eyed free spirit, whose heart the man breaks, and who proceeds to fall in love with his son somewhere in the big bad city, and it's all very incestuous and complicated.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Please go watch Daayen Ya Baayen!

My batch-mate (well, a year my junior) and friend, Bela Negi's debut feature film, Daayen Ya Baayen is releasing on the 29th in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata and a new other places (but not *sob* Hyderabad. Not yet, at least).

I haven't seen the film , but not for trying, I promise you. When I was in Bombay, there was only one impossible chance to see it and I couldn't make it.

But you can read all about it in the posts of all these other friends of mine: Batul, Paromita and Charu.

When friends make good, when they work their butts off to make their films or write their books, it gives me immense joy.

Congratulations, Bela, Shubho, Amlan, Vivek, Gissy and everyone else now who's helping to publicise this film I wish more than anything to watch when it releases.

Watch this space for where it's being screened and when. It's being distributed in a rather unorthodox fashion, I think, so details as I learn of them.

Oh, and here's a vid:

Three poems in InterLitQ

Issue 12 of InterLitQ is up. I have three poems in it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aditya Sinha on India Today's plagiarism

As far as I know, Aditya Sinha, editor-in-chief, The New Indian Express, is the only editor of a major publication to write about Aroon Purie's plagiarism in India Today recently.

An embarrassing silence has recently enveloped the Indian media regarding an act of plagiarism, probably because it’s not been committed by another journalist but by one of our most powerful media moguls, Aroon Purie. In his letter that opens the magazine India Today (but only for the Southern editions), he wrote about Rajnikanth a fortnight ago. One of the memorable lines went: “If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth (sic)”. Unfortunately, this line had already been written by Grady Hendrix and published on the American website Slate. Going by the blogs, what has irritated readers more was his “apology” in the subsequent issue which seemed more like a slap in the face, and in which he blamed the plagiarism on jet-lag. Friends who have worked for Purie say he is one of the sharpest media proprietors in India; if he forsakes humility in his attempt to put the matter behind him, then that’s his business. The real issue is that of rampant plagiarism in India and how it continues to erode the already low credibility of Indian journalism in the public eye.

I think Sinha is wrong to exonerate Purie somewhat, on the grounds that someone else committed the actual plagiarism. If Purie signed under the 'letter', he is responsible.

At any rate, other bloggers, including Niranjana - whose work has also been plagiarised by IT - have blogged about this, and in this case they've been noticed by India Today's Corporate Communications, whose generic comment has been reproduced on every website that noticed the plagiarism.

Grady Hendrix, whose article was plagiarised, has been pretty gracious about Purie's 'apology'. Some people's comments, on the other hand, have mostly taken exception to his understanding of Indian English. As if that was the point. Bah.

But it's good to see a mainstream newspaper take on the issue and contextualise it. Aditya Sinha FTW!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Book, its Writer, the Goon and Our Response

Everyone knows by now about the ban on Rohinton Mistry's book, Such A Long Journey and its removal from the syllabus of the second year course in Bombay University. Below is the PEN's Statement, in full, and a link to The Hindu's report this morning, of Mistry's own statement.

1.The PEN All-India Centre's statement:

Theosophy Hall
40 New Marine Lines
Mumbai 400 020

20 October 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or regional sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination.

There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. ‘Fascist’ is too gentle a description. The exact name is ‘Nazi’. It is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate -- or whether we shall resist it.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
For The Executive Committee

“The Shiv Sena's student wing complains to the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University that it is offended by the novel ‘Such a Long Journey.' Copies are burnt at the University gates. Needless to say, no one has actually read the book. The mob leader, speaking in Hindi to a television camera, says: The author is lucky he lives in Canada — if he were here, we would burn him as well. The mob demands the book's removal, within twenty-four hours, from the syllabus. The good Vice-Chancellor obliges the mob. 


“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.
“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.
“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake'.”

Yes. Well. 

Depressingly familiar, certainly. No question there. But I want to ask if civil society's response - that Mistry so touchingly appreciates and puts faith in to change something - isn't equally depressing in its familiarity.

It should be clear by now that organisations like the Sena burn and ban not because they're really outraged by the representations of artists; they behave the way they do because it pushes our buttons and polarises people.They do it because they can.Offense has very little to do with any of this.

It helps very little to appeal to their better conscience, because they have none. It helps even less to compare them to the Nazis, or Germany before WWII, because presumably civil society reacted with precisely this mixture of futile outrage and fear, with equally abysmal results.

Which is not to say that civil society must not respond. The question is, to what part of the phenomenon is one to respond to? Here is a 20 year old pimply youth in his final year at college. There is the middle generation of the Sena, divided, with no one very clear what the difference is in their agendas, but perfectly certain that it's a question of inheritance. What is the young man - absurdly called the scion of the Thackeray clan - to do to establish his credentials as a goon worthy of inheriting the mantle of his grandfather? 

Why, find some poor sod whose book or painting to ban, of course. 

So should we be outraged that this Aditya person has not read Mistry's book or should we figure out why it's so easy these days to cynically manipulate people and events so that such a thing is even possible?

For instance, how did a rule unused for a 150 years get invoked without any oversight from any other person in the University? What routine action is taken against those who are entrusted to uphold whatever law there is, when they fail to do so?

I'm sure there'll be reams written about how outrageous this whole thing is. And don't get me wrong, it is outrageous. But let's also acknowledge that we being jerked around quite deliberately.

I don't know what the answer is, of course, or how to respond adequately but I want to know what the misdirection is concealing. I only know that to respond by buying more copies of Mistry's book, or recommending that Aditya Thackeray read it, or some such is to offer a band-aid to someone having a stroke.

Oh, and previously on bans. (I was so much older then...).

Update: I've just read Supriya Nair's excellent piece, 'Protesting the Protesters', in Mint. She says:

Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”

Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimizes nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. This is not the time to keel over rasping “The horror, the horror”.
 To the Batfax, comrades!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

poetry has direct designs on us

Don Paterson, talking about Shakespeare's sonnets and the commentaries he's recently written on them:

In the end, putting together a guide to the sonnets, I decided I'd write it in the form of a diary. That's to say I read the sonnets as you would any other book, fitting them round my work routine and domestic obligations. So rather than lock myself in the library for six months, I wrote my commentaries on the poems while awake, bored, half-asleep, full of cold, drunk, exhausted, serene, smart, befuddled and stupid. I wrote on the train, in bed, in the bath and in my lunch-break; I wrote them while I was fed up marking papers, or stuck on Bioshock on the Playstation, while I was watching the bairns, Family Guy or the view out of the window.

The idea was to find a way of giving the sonnets more of a direct and personal reading than they usually receive. This requires making a firm distinction between two kinds of reading. Most literary criticism, whether academic or journalistic, is ideally geared up for "secondary reading" – by which I mean all that stuff that requires us to generate some kind of secondary text – a commentary, an exegesis, a review and so on. By contrast, a primary reading doesn't have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse – which doesn't sound too revolutionary, but the truth is that many readers don't feel like that about poetry any more, and often start with: "But what does it all mean?" on the assumption that "that's how you read poetry".

But that isn't the kind of the first reading most poems hoped they were going to get. The poem has much more direct designs on us. Its plan was to make us weep or change our opinion of something forever. The sonnets are no different, but currently give the appearance of being approachable only via a scholarly commentary. 

I've long been fascinated by Paterson's inclination toward the idea of the poem as mystical and sentient, with its own subjective designs on the reader, and the poet as shaman or medium. I'm fairly certain I don't agree with that view, but I acknowledge its attraction. [See his TS Eliot Lecture that I've linked to in this post.]

Two Minutes Older: Stranger Friends

Some fifteen years ago, my mother called me at my hostel to give me some news. “I met a young German on the train. He didn’t have a place to stay, so I brought him home.” I was shocked. Who was this young German man? Apparently my mum and he were travelling on the same train and my mother got talking to him. She found out that he was visiting India for a while before returning home to begin his PhD.

I tried to tell her that she couldn’t just bring some stranger home, but I knew from experience that she could (and did). She’s been known to strike up conversations with people at cricket matches, bring them home for lunch and send them off with gifts.

Once, in 1989, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, when all Eastern Europe had caught the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, a Polish family left their home in Warsaw for Australia. In Chennai, our respective flights – their connecting one and ours back home – were delayed and we happened to sit at adjacent tables at the cafeteria. Naturally, my mother struck up a conversation that lasted a full five hours. At the end of it, my mother gave that family the address of another friend of hers in Australia upon whom they could impose when they landed. We’ve never met them again, but that was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.

It still amazes me that in the era before Facebook (BFE) and Google – because of which tools we have recently reconnected to these old friends – it was possible to seek and find friendships without thought of introductions or references.

In the last two decades, the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ has become common currency, based not only on the play and the film of the play, but also on the germ of a theory of social networks first mentioned in the work of Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy.

A passage in Karinthy’s short story, ‘Chains’, published in 1929, goes thus: “One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.” [from wikipedia].

Mark Zuckerberg has reduced the odds somewhat, but I don’t know about the six degrees. I can think back to the Polish family and the German and say with certainty that there was no way to find a connection between us, even up to a dozen steps away. We were strangers until we became friends.

It seems less possible now, not just because we really are more connected globally but also because we have a trust deficit when it comes to true strangers. Even in the virtual world, it’s more likely that one’s friends are people already familiar from commonly occupied territories such as blogs or other forums.

What this seems to suggest is, that in the Facebook Era (FE) one is somehow always-already connected to everybody else. Put another way, you can only be friends with someone you already know and a stranger is someone in whose presence you will very likely take out your phone and pretend to check messages.

I can’t help thinking of my reckless mother on that train. I wonder what my father thought when she returned from the station with a travelling student, and what the student thought when my mother conveyed to him my misgivings about her bringing unknown people home.

Actually, that part I do know. She told him what I’d said and he apparently agreed, saying I was right to be worried. She said later that she’d spent a sleepless night then.

I have to admit, I’m strangely proud of her. It takes some courage and faith to meet another human being on equal ground, with no preconceptions or expectations and no references or social rewards. My mother has that kind of courage. I know, to my eternal regret, that I don’t.

An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

today's light

Lost an earring that belonged to my father.
Dreamt of a creature that vomited pale worms while moaning, "my heart, my heart". The worms are films that the creature distributes on request.
Yelled at the kid for spilling milk all over a new tablecloth.
Discussed Tarr with a friend.*
Read passages from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Scared five lizards off.
Learnt about orthopedic socks.
The rest of the day will go in the study of my now two month old unbitten fingers.
I have so much Potential.

*I find it's enough to state the desire/intention of watching a film to be considered well-informed and/or worth talking to on important matters. Why bother watching any films? Apropos of which, plans to watch Enthiran have been consistently postponed, the latest attempt and its dismissal being right now. Last Tamil show on at 3.10 this afternoon. Alas, Rajni.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hemant Mohapatra wins the 2010 Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize

Hemant Mohapatra has won the 2nd Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize. Congratulations, Hemant!

I've registered the anxiety to know the results for the last several days; many folks turn up on this blog searching for 'winner srinivas rayaprol prize'. You search ends here now, people.

Here's the announcement via mail from Aparna Rayaprol:

Twenty-nine year old Hemant Mohapatra has been chosen the winner of the second Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize.  An engineer by profession, Hemant Mohapatra studied at IIT-Bombay and University of Cincinnati.  With a childhood surrounded by the Himalayan and Shivalik ranges, he started writing poetry at the age of 18. 

A winner of the Harper Collins (India) Poetry Prize for 2008-2009, Mohapatra was also on the shortlist for the TFA Creative Writing Awards, 2010.  He has published his poetry in various literary journals of repute. 

The Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize was instituted by the Hyderabad-based Srinivas Rayaprol Literary Trust to recognize excellence in poetry written in English and is jointly administered by the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.  This year a distinguished jury, consisting of the poet Jeet Thayil, Prof. Sailaja Pingali and Prof. Sachidananda Mohanty of the University of Hyderabad, selected Hemant Mohapatra among 150 entries received from poets in the age group of 20-40 years all over the country.  Others shortlisted by the jury include: Krishnakumar Sankaran, Arka Mukhopadhyay, and Deepika Arwind.

The Srinivas Rayaprol Literary Trust was started in the year 2000 to perpetuate the memory of the poet, Srinivas Rayaprol (a.k.a. R.S. Marthandam, 1925-1998), who was one of the significant personalities of the early Indian English Poetry in India.  The inaugural prize was awarded last year to young Aditi Machado, who is currently in the United States for a creative writing course.

The award, consisting of a citation and Rs.10,000 cash prize, will be presented to the winner by well-known poet Keki Daruwalla in January at a literary event in Hyderabad.

Some of Hemant's poems can be found here and here.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Moldy Moldy 70

Did you know there was a poem to ole Winston Ono who might have turned 70 today? I didn't. (It's a terrible one, actually).

        [Image from here.]

Instead, in celebration, in his own write:

The Moldy Moldy Man

I'm a moldy moldy man
I'm moldy thru and thru
I'm a moldy moldy man
You would not think it true.
I'm moldy till my eyeballs
I'm moldy till my toe
I will not dance I shyballs
I'm such a humble Joe.
                        -- John Lennon, In His Own Write.

Also check Google today.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

nano poems

Monica Mody reviews SS Prasad's nano poems here, and has this to say:

All this is whimsical and delightful and diverting, and yet. Too neat too thing-in-itself too circumspect. Will Prasad’s poetry participate in radical projects of the kind its avant-garde fathers and mothers have? Will it, can it, tap into the shadowiness of code: the ubiquitous “hidden presence” in our world? According to lit. theorist N. Katherine Hayles, “the unconscious of language”? Will it party with its own technological context (isn’t a silicon chip integrated with a poem a hybrid of chip and poem—of reality and dream—of present and future? And how does the chip help the poem become more poem? And how does the poem help the chip become more chip?)?

I wish they would hallucinate more. I wish they would tell me something disturbing about the world. Especially because Prasad brings Zurita into the picture by citing his sky poems, I wish these nanotexts would destroy their nano-faces while looking at the mirror. In 1982 in New York, Chilean poet Raul Zurita was trying to realize a “utopia of the limit-less” (Nelly Richard’s description of CADA’s art actions), a space that went beyond every rule. His ‘page’ exceeded the Chilean dictatorship, his text was additionally an event, and was in no case classifiable as one genre or the other, or frame-able by the dictatorship’s cultural system. His audience was the (viewing/flying) public, and his art was open to his audience.
Prasad's poems sound intriguing in themselves, but this post is really to store the links to Zurita's works. Thanks, Monica*!

*I hope some day soon to post about Monica's chapbook, Travel & Risk.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Vampire Loves and other distractions

I got Joann Sfar's Vampire Loves for myself, but the kid has annexed it. In the first few pages, there's an old-fashioned vampire, a girl he's broken up with, a cheese-loving cat, a redhead vampire who's decided to follow him everywhere and a block party at a graveyard. I wonder what he makes of it?

In other sneaky kiddie news, I am sick of him reading Enid Blytons. So recent strategy to get him to read other stuff includes giving him dictation (his handwriting is terrible and he spells as if he's taken dictation from someone who's had their teeth pulled out; so this is necessary) from new! exciting! books!

Of course, it's useless to dictate from Arun Kolatkar's The Policeman because it's only drawings, but they're lovely and we giggled through it, esp. at the beehive that forms under the pleeceman's armpit.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Ayodhya and Savanur

As I’m writing this, the Babri Masjid verdict is yet to be delivered. By the time you read this, we will already know what its effect was on the country. The aftershocks of the 6 December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid are still being felt.

The Sangh Parivar has always held that the issue cannot be decided by the courts because it is a question of religious sentiment and faith. If enough people feel that Ram was born right on that particular spot (though no one can as accurately say when he was born), their ‘feelings’ ought to be respected and the land handed over for the construction of a temple.

Most civil movements that began after the widespread riots in 1992 talked about a return to the values of secularism, of which Indians have a pretty wide and inclusive definition. Unlike other countries (such as France), in India secularism means the freedom that all religions have to live by their religious creeds and the neutrality of the state in relation to these practices. It is what Mukul Kesavan calls, in his book Secular Common Sense, an ‘all-are-welcome secularism’ that was born of the need to bring every kind of Indian on board the anti-colonial, national movement.

One position taken by a politician after the demolition of Babri Masjid had nothing to do with rights or religions. It ought to have counted as a valid and very secular reaction. Yet, not even the secular civil movements that wanted to heal the wounds of ’92 took Kanshi Ram’s statement as anything more than a badly-timed piece of irreverence.

I’d like to examine Kanshi Ram’s suggestion that “the best solution for the Ayodhya dispute is to build a public toilet on the disputed site”.

If this horrifies people, as I’m sure it did and will continue to, let’s consider what constitutes the sacred for any religion. With most religions, sanctity resides in several locations: in the word of god, in an idol, a book, a place of worship or diverse symbols. But the sacred never includes gross physical processes, because somehow, the body (being mortal, I suppose) always has to be mortified or transcended to reach the divine.

Toilets are never, ever, sacred spots, even though all kinds of other places – such as beauty parlours – are now described as temples to the body. If anything, in our country, the presence of gods is supposed to repel bodily functions – consider the tiles depicting deities that are meant to discourage people from spitting and peeing in the corners of stairwells and other public places not designated as bathrooms or spittoons.

Why are toilets so unmentionable? Why are they so outside the pale of sacred discourse? Why are the necessary functions of the body supposed to be disrespectful of the divine?

What the exclusion of the functions of the body from the sacred hides is something Kanshi Ram brought up but which never entered the debate around secularism post-1992: that to allow the sacred to exist one has to cast out from public notice the large numbers of people who help us keep our bodies and sacred spaces ‘pure’.

Manual scavengers are not supposed to exist according to our laws. But they do – every time the drains overflow, it is these manual scavengers who are found waist deep in manholes, clearing up blocked sewage systems. The rest of us could not be ‘clean’ if we didn’t have someone whom we could consider ‘filthy’.

It says something (not very flattering) about us as a country that we’re more easily shocked and traumatised by the demolition of a place of worship than about the existence of manual scavengers. Recently, in Savanur in Karnataka, a Bhangi community that was facing eviction from their homes protested by pouring excreta on themselves. It didn’t impinge on our national consciousness in any way, did it?

That protest was as potent a political comment as Kanshi Ram’s statement that a toilet ought to be built on the site of the demolished mosque. But it will probably never have the impact it ought to until we take our toilets as seriously as we do our places of worship. Or until we find a god of toilets.

An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.

And thanks to Paro for inputs.