Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

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It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: "Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance"

Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.

Defining "Bollywood"

Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti's thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more 'marginal' sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansen’s work on this subject; also see Hansen's translation of Somnath Gupt's book).

Still, here is the definition of "Bollywood" with which Gopal and Moorti begin:

Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines – perhaps unfairly but invariably – the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)

One could object that it's not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn't just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s – or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday.

Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of "Bollywood." I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood "in theory" is quite widespread.

But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively "defined" anymore? That is to say, can’t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?

Variations of "Censorship"

Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are "censored," while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored -- but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry "NC-17" rated films.

But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great “Kaanta Laga” Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)

One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really don’t care that Bollywood doesn’t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.

Is “Bollywood” an Insult?

Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term "Bollywood," just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term "spaghetti Westerns." Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who don’t like the term.

But of course if you don’t use the term, you also lose something; it’s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor -- not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:

We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)

For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.

Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as 'the only truly original moments in a Hindi film... I mean you couldn’t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.' It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)

At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that's an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:

In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song "Chup Chup Ke" from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead characters’ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the sky’s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the couple’s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)

71 Songs, in a single film. Really.

I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but I’m not saying song-dance isn’t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest "talkies," many of which were actually in operatic form – that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)

The Absence of Government Support

One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed "luxury" taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasn’t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)

But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:

Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industry’s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films' dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, 'I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.' Another member lamented, 'these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.' (107)

There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radio’s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is India’s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:

The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)

And here is Sen’s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskar’s direction:

Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand ‘approved’ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIR’s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate ‘popular music and light entertainment.’ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nation’s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylon’s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)

(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)

In Biswarup Sen's account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with "Roop tera mastana" and "Mere sapno ki rani." Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:

It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical education—of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his 'competitors,' Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directors—songwriter Kalyanji's comment that his skills lay more in 'mimicry than in technique' was typical of the musical establishment's reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore's strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be 'modern.' (96)

Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.

Globalizing It

In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as “indoprepis”), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: “Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue”.

Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It's a cover of the Hindi film song ‘Samay Hai Bahar Ka’)

A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:

Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. 'Hindi' in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means 'an Indian film,' but it is also synonymous with 'a silly thing.' Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of 'strange' or 'stupid' came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)

Armbrust's essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.

It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind...) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I'm interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.

But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical reference points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from specific cultural contexts, as well as the literature itself. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion than Bhabha's essays have in my own experiences teaching this material.


Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a black person. Applied in reverse, a term that is sometimes used is “wigger.” [See more on "reverse mimicry" below.]) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.

Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.

Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative,” mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee, his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.

There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering –- when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.

Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.

As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish solidier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.

For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.

* * *


By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between eastern and western cultural attributes. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders,” he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).

However, the term hybridity, which relies on a metaphor from biology, is commonly used in much broader ways, to refer to any kind of cultural mixing or mingling between East and West. As it is commonly used, this more general sense of hybridity has many limitations. Hybridity defined as cultural mixing in general does not help us explicitly account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.

For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.

1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)

In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”

Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the afore-mentioned reasons.

2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.

As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:

For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)

Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.

There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, and it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi w’a Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.

Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.

3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.

Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.

Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:

--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three examples (and there are might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.

Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.

4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given -– something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.

However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:

Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!

For Kipling, the sight of a “brown legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mis-match that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education.) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.

By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.

As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.

Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.

5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.

The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."

Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Peace That Almost Was In Kashmir

In this week's print issue of the New Yorker, there's a long, satisfying piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll on India and Pakistan's attempts to resolve the status of Kashmir over the past few years. The big surprise is just how close the two countries were to permanently resolving the seemingly insoluble problem. The agreement, which was in its final stages in the spring of 2007, was never put into effect or publicly revealed because it was being finalized just when Pervez Musharraf's government began to unravel. Musharraf had hoped to simply postpone the public summit where the deal would have been announced, but instead the whole thing had to be shelved.

The article isn't online at the New Yorker's web site, but you can read it here, at the New America Foundation:

By early 2007, the back-channel talks on Kashmir had become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons,” Kasuri recalled. A senior Indian official who was involved agreed. “It was huge--I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” he told me. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.” Aziz and Lambah were negotiating the details for a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister during which, they hoped, the principles underlying the Kashmir agreement would be announced and talks aimed at implementation would be inaugurated. One quarrel, over a waterway known as Sir Creek, would be formally settled.

Neither government, however, had done much to prepare its public for a breakthrough. In the spring of 2007, a military aide in Musharraf’s office contacted a senior civilian official to ask how politicians, the media, and the public might react. “We think we’re close to a deal,” Musharraf ’s aide said, as this official recalled it. “Do you think we can sell it?”

Regrettably, the time did not look ripe, this official recalled answering. In early March, Musharraf had invoked his near-dictatorial powers to fire the chief justice of the country’s highest court. That decision set off rock-tossing protests by lawyers and political activists. (link)

And from there that it just went downhill for General Musharraf. Now, with weak and unstable new leadership in Asif Zardari, and a possible change in leadership coming in India as well this spring, it's unclear whether anything can be done anytime soon.

The actual details of the almost-agreement aren't spelled out entirely in the article, but we do get some promising inklings:

To outsiders, it has long seemed obvious that the Line of Control should be declared the international border between India and Pakistan--it’s been in place for almost forty years, and each country has built its own institutions behind it. Musharraf, however, made it clear from the start that this would be unacceptable; India was equally firm that it would never renegotiate its borders or the Line of Control. The way out of this impasse, Singh has said, was to “make borders irrelevant,” by allowing for the free movement of people and goods within an autonomous Kashmir region. For Pakistan, this formula might work if it included provisions for the protection--and potential enrichment, through free trade--of the people of Kashmir, in whose name Pakistan had carried on the conflict.

The most recent version of the nonpaper, drafted in early 2007, laid out several principles for a settlement, according to people who have seen the draft or have participated in the discussions about it. Kashmiris would be given special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of the Line of Control. Each of the former princely state’s distinct regions would receive a measure of autonomy-- details would be negotiated later. Providing that violence declined, each side would gradually withdraw its troops from the region. At some point, the Line of Control might be acknowledged by both governments as an international border. It is not clear how firm a commitment on a final border the negotiators were prepared to make, or how long it would all take; one person involved suggested a time line of about ten to fifteen years.

One of the most difficult issues involved a plan to establish a joint body, made up of local Kashmiri leaders, Indians, and Pakistanis, to oversee issues that affected populations on both sides of the Line of Control, such as water rights. Pakistan sought something close to shared governance, with the Kashmiris taking a leading role; India, fearing a loss of sovereignty, wanted much less power-sharing. The envoys wrestled intensively over what language to use to describe the scope of this new body; the last draft termed it a “joint mechanism.” (link)

Though fragile, this seems to me to be potentially workable, as it gives most parties a little bit of what they had hoped to get from a final resolution. Indeed, this story makes me feel somewhat optimistic, for once, about Kashmir. (If they did this once, they could do it again if and when political conditions are right in both Delhi and Islamabad.)

There's a great deal of other interesting material in Coll's article, including material related to the 11/26 attackers (definitely Pakistan backed, no surprises there) as well as India's troubling history of "disappearing" Kashmiri separatists. Overall, he has a very balanced and informed perspective (neither pro-India nor pro-Pakistan); it's well worth a read.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK in India: His Address on All India Radio

Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India in 1959, an event which is described in detail at the King Encyclopedia. King, as is well known, modeled his approach to civil rights in the United States on Gandhi's successful mass non-violence/civil disobedience campaign for Indian independence.

On NPR last week, there was a story about how All India Radio has recently discovered in its archives the recorded version of the address given by Dr. King at the end of his visit to India.

Through a little bit of digging on Google, I found the actual recording posted on the internet, at the website of the Indian Consulate of Chicago.

For me the highlight of the address is the closing, which I'll take the liberty of including here:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “now, he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: “now, he belongs to the ages.”

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and non-violence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence, or non-existence. (link)

Perhaps the meanings of King and Gandhi's respective messages have changed as times have changed. India is no longer a country with a colonial chip on its shoulder, and minorities in the U.S. have a shining example of success in President Barack Obama (among many other signs of progress). It is probably a bit too easy and nostalgic to simply savor those past struggles without continually seeking to apply them to our messy current situations; with too much familiarity and Big Talk, these two icons of struggle risk becoming bloated relics. (For example, by the 1970s, Gandhianism in India had become an easy symbol, devoid of substance -- one thinks of the overweight Congress politicians in homespun, happily siphoning off crores of Rupees for Swiss bank accounts.)

Concomitantly, it may be that rigorous non-violence cannot mean the same thing for us today as it did for African Americans who demanded a seat at the American table, or Indians who demanded sovereignty -- a seat at the table of nations. Perhaps King and Gandhi's shared dream of a total, worldwide movement away from a social order based on violence, active or potential, is one we'll have to put away for the foreseeable future, as simply not in keeping with human nature. Satyagraha is a brilliant strategy for mobilizing the Indian masses to defeat the most powerful, thoroughly armed Empire the world has ever known, without bloodshed. But in my view it is neither effective nor appropriate as a response to Jihadists on the streets of Mumbai, or Maoist rebels in eastern India, to name just two examples. (I am not a pacifist myself for this reason.)

And yet, is it not still chastening to hear these words, even in these times? (Listen to the speech.) As I say, some of the diacritics may have changed, but I think King's warning still stands: "they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword." Gaza*. Sri Lanka. Iraq. India-Pakistan. Isn't that still the truth we need to hear?

[* Update: Just to be clear, I'm using the name "Gaza" here as a short-hand for the current Israel-Palestinian conflict, not as a way of suggesting that the Palestinians need to hear this message more than the Israelis. Both sides might benefit from hearing this message.]

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dabbling in Regional Indian Cinema on an Air India Flight

BakulaNamdevGhotale_acass_246x250.jpg People talk trash about Air India, but it has one distinct advantage -- if you're lucky enough to fly to and from India on one of their newer 747s, which are equipped with personal video screens, you have a wealth of Indian TV, movies, and music to entertain yourself with, while eating Chiwda (instead of peanuts) and not-too-bad shrimp curry. (You still have to sit in a cramped little chair for 16-24 hours without losing your mind, but that would be the case on Lufthansa too.)

Our son wasn't too much trouble on this flight (he slept through much of it), so I was able to sample a range of subtitled Indian movies in different languages that I otherwise might not see. In some cases, I didn't watch whole films -- sometimes just an hour or so -- but it was an interesting experiment to compare a group of films that normally are only seen by members of specific linguistic communities. People sometimes talk about Indian cinema as if the only films worth watching are made in Hindi and produced in Mumbai, but perhaps the folks who are saying that only watch those films?

The most entertaining, and highest production value film I watched was the Tamil film, Sivaji, The Boss, starring Rajnikanth (star of several YouTube "superhits," including "Little Superman"). I initially enjoyed the sense of Tamil ethno-linguistic pride in the film (Rajnikant's love interest is named "Tamizhselvi"), though it did start to get old after a little while (I did not see such an obsession with regional identity in the Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, or Punjabi films I sampled on this flight. Is the Tamil-centricness of Sivaji, The Boss unique to this film?).

Rajnikanth's manic physical comedy and dancing, and the film's over-the-top sets and situations, are really why someone who is not a long-term Rajnikanth fan watches a film like this. I couldn't say that the anti-corruption plot made any narrative sense, though there were some powerful "crowd" moments here and there; there's just a whiff of the rough edges of actual Indian politics. More than anything else, it seemed like Rajnikanth's mission in this film is to entertain the audience as fast as possible, and continue doing so until every last bit of amusement is squeezed out of every damn frame of the film. (I wish I knew where he gets the energy.)

Incidentally, Sivaji, The Boss was the most expensive Indian film ever made, in any language, as of 2007. It was a super-hit in the South, and successful even dubbed into Hindi.

After Sivaji, The Boss, I sampled two Malayalam films. I watched most of a wonderful family comedy called Madhu Chandralekha, starring Jayaram and Urvasi. I have to say I definitely enjoyed the story about how the ordinary, unglamorous wife of a successful singer and composer becomes jealous of a glamorous young woman who comes into their lives. It felt very real and honest, and Urvashi (a regional actress who came out of "retirement" for this film) is convincingly unglamorous, if that expression can be permitted. (We have all seen movies television programs where an obviously incredibly beautiful woman tries to "frump" it as someone bookish and unpopular, but the audience knows it is only a matter of time before the Grand Makeover occurs, and Beauty Emerges Triumphant. Not so here.) Incidentally, here is a song from the film.

Also worth checking out is a Malyalam film called Smart City. Set in Cochi, a quick Google search revealed that this "honest man vs. the corrupt business establishment and gangster cronies" film seems to be based on a real, 2004 proposal in Cochi to build an "Internet City," where a multinational corporation based in Dubai would develop a whole region of the city as a kind of high-end Internet/IT/Multinational hub. Though it is by no means an art film or a work of political propaganda, Smart City is quite serious in its opposition to this kind of "think big/get a piece of the action" approach to development, and touches on a sensitive and important issue that is much broader than just Kerala (i.e., the controversies over "Special Economic Zones").

One small observation: both the Tamil film Sivaji and the Malayalam film Madhu Chandralekha had physical comedy about what happens when one eats absurdly spicy food. In Sivaji, Rajnikant coolly eats a plate of hot peppers to impress his love interest and her family, before allowing himself to spazz out in the bathroom. In Madhu Chandralekha, the jealous wife makes wildly spicy food for her husband to try and alienate him, because she doesn't feel worthy of his love. Comedy of course ensues when the wrong person eats some of the food. Just coincidence, or is there a tradition of comedy over spicy food either in South Indian movies, or even Indian movies in general?

The Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale was much smaller in terms of production values or professionalism than either of the Malayalam films or the Tamil film I watched, but it was still entertaining, if not exactly Cannes Film Festival material. First, Bakula Namdeo Ghotale features actors in starring roles who look convincingly rural (i.e., the male stars all have "bad" teeth, and are not conventionally good-looking; see what I mean in this song from the film). The plot is nothing too exciting (a conniving Sarpanch falls in love with the wife of the village idiot; the wife fends off his advances and protects her witless husband), but, again, the actors held my attention because they seemed "real" to me.

I watched a little of the Punjabi film Ek Jind Ek Jaan, but quickly got bored and quit. What struck me here, by comparison to the Malayalam and Tamil films in particular, was just how low-budget and uninspired the film looked, even with an "over the hill" Bollywood star as the leading man (Raj Babbar). I should point out that there are some higher-end and more ambitious Punjabi films out there, so this is not a comment on the Punjabi film industry in general, so much as Air India's particular selection. (That said, I have never seen a film that had Raj Babbar in a major role that I found watchable. Shaheed Uddham Singh, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and LOC Kargil were all nauseatingly bad.)

I also watched a few minutes of a Gujarati film, but neglected to write down the title, and so can't say anything about it. Like the Punjabi films Air India was showing, it looked rather cheap and conventional.

While most of the other regional films being shown by Air India have been released in the past two years, their two Bengali selections were both "classics," from the 1970s and 80s. The one I watched on this flight was Aparna Sen's 1984 art film, Parama, about a housewife who has a flirtation with a young, avant-garde photographer. It was very well done; with the photography theme, it reminded me a little of Antonioni's Blow-Up, but with a nostalgic, Bengali high culture sensibility. The young actor Mukul Sharma, who played the photographer in the film, opposite Rakhee Gulzar, reminded me a little of Dustin Hoffmann in the 1970s.

Needless to say, making even half-assed comparisons between different regional cinemas would have been easier if Air India had been showing films comparable in scale and status. There would really be no point in comparing Aparna Sen's Parama to something like Sivaji, The Boss.

Still, here are some sketchy thoughts: though it makes a big fuss out of adhering to Traditional Tamil Culture, Sivaji, The Boss is as over-the-top and glossy as any big, loud, Bollywood movie. This is not terribly surprising; there is a regular exchange of ideas and talent between the Hindi and Tamil movie industries, and watching this film I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood film that happened to be in the Tamil language. The only major difference might be the presence of Rajnikanth himself, who has an utterly unique style and an iconic status that has no equivalent anywhere else.

The Malayalam films I sampled were smaller and less ambitious, but the trade-off is that they both had an honesty to them that I liked, even with dramatically different themes (married life/relationships on the one hand, and corruption/multi-national development on the other).

The other regional films I sampled were less compelling, though between the Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi films on offer, the only one I found watchable was the spirited Marathi film Bakula Namdeo Ghotale. I do not know if the naturalistic appearance of the actors or village settings is common in Marathi films; if so, it would have to be a reaction against the artificial sleekness and hyper-cosmopolitanism of Bollywood cinema -- and ironic, given that Mumbai is actually in the state of Maharashtra. And because not much is written about Marathi films in English (most of the links that turn up in Google are simply various options for illegal downloading), I have no idea whether this film is typical or not.

Are there other recent films in regional languages that readers would recommend? Also, any recommendations for off-beat, "multiplex" oriented Hindi films? (I have had my fill of Bachchans and Khans for now.)

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Swinging Sounds of Goa

One of the most famous Konkani pop songs from the 1960s is Lorna's "Bebdo". Here it is, with lyrics and translation:

Pretty swinging, huh? The sassy tone and subject matter reminds me a little of Trinidadian Calypso from around the same period. It's true that there is a dark side to these types of songs (alcoholism, and the hint of domestic violence), but there is also a buoyancy and power in her voice that I really enjoy. (Are there other 60s Goan/Konkani tracks available on sites like YouTube that readers would recommend?)

When this was first recorded in 1966, the effect on the local music scene was electrifying:

From a kiosk on the beach, a pretty lady named Bertinha played records on the speaker system provided by the Panjim Municipality. She had a weakness for Cliff Richard tunes, Remo says. But that evening, she spun out a song called Bebdo (Drunkard). Miramar Beach was hypnotised. "The Panjim citizenry stopped in its tracks, the sunken sun popped up for another peep, the waves
froze in mid-air," Remo has written. "What manner of music was this, as hep as hep can be, hitting you with the kick of a mule on steroids? What manner of voice was this, pouncing at you with the feline power of a jungle lioness? And hold it no, it couldn't be yes, it was no was it really? Was this amazing song in Konkani?"

Bebdo had been recorded a few months earlier by Chris Perry and Lorna in a Bombay studio and released by HMV. The jacket bore the flirty image that would later hang outside the Venice nightclub. The 45 rpm record had four tracks, opening with the rock-and-rolling Bebdo and ending on the flip side with the dreamy ballad, Sopon. "Sophisticated, westernised urban Goa underwent a slow-motion surge of inexplicable emotions: the disbelief, the wonder, the appreciation, and then finally a rising, soaring and bubbling feeling of pride," Remo says. "The pride of being Goan. The pride of having a son of the soil produce such music. Of having a daughter of the soil sing it thus. And, most of all, of hearing the language of the soil take its rightful place in popular music after a period of drought. Chris and Lorna had come to stay." (link)

The article from which that story is taken is by Naresh Fernandes, and he goes on to give a really interesting (if digressive) account of the links between Goa and the mainstream Hindi film music world.

First, even from what little I've heard, it's pretty evident that Goan pop music (which is deeply influenced by big band, bebop, and 1960s R&B) overlaps strongly with the "modern," R.D. Burman sound that emerged in Bollywood in the late 1960s and 70s (think "Ina Mina Dika"). The reason for that is simple: the majority of the musicians employed by the film studios were Goans:

But the Sound of India actually was created by Goan musicians, men whose names flickered by in small type under the designation "arranger". It's clear. The Hindi film classics that resound across the subcontinent and in Indian homes around the world wouldn't have been made without Goans. Their dominance of the Hindi film world is partly a function of the structural differences between Indian and Western music. Indian classical music is melodic. The ragas that form the basis of Indian music are unilinear, each instrument or vocalist exploring an independent line. To move an audience, film scores must be performed by orchestras, with massed instruments playing in harmony. Only Goans, with their training in Western music, knew how to produce what was required.

Frank Fernand was among the first Goans in Bollywood and assisted such worthies as Anil Biswas, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar. As he describes it, the men who composed the scores for Hindi films couldn't write music and had no idea of the potential of the orchestras they employed. They would come to the studio and sing a melody to their Goan amanuensis, or pick out the line on a harmonium. The Goan assistant would write it out on sheet paper, then add parts for the banks of strings, the horn sections, the piano and the percussion. But the assistant wasn't merely taking dictation: It was his job to craft the introductions and bridges between verse and chorus.

Drawing from their bicultural heritage and their experience in the
jazz bands, the Goans gave Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Then they would rehearse the orchestras, which were staffed almost entirely by Goans. After all, hardly anyone else knew how to play these Western instruments. To Frank Fernand, the music directors were mere subcontractors, men whose main job was liaising with the financiers. "We arrangers did all the real work. They'd show off to the directors and producers and try to show that they were indispensable. But to be a music director, salesmanship was more important than musicianship." (link)

I don't have independent confirmation of Fernandes' account of the influence of Goan orchestral arrangers and musicians on the emergence of the "modern" (as opposed to Raga-based) Bollywood sound. But his account certainly seems quite plausible. (One way to check would be to look for the small print names in the credits on old Hindi films from the period to see if there are Goan/Portuguese names.)

I would also recommend another article in this series by Naresh Fernandes, here. Among other things, he talks about the influence of expatriate African-American jazz musicians in Goa (adding a further wrinkle to this rich story of musical hybridity).

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India's most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the "Taj Exotica"), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But Goa is not becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we've visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It's also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a "regional plan" that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular "Save Goa" protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa's distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, "Piece of the action is ...driving Goa to the edge," and writes movingly about tears at his friend's funeral marking "a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise."

It's a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa's burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people's doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required
to et up shop in Goa. (link)

I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek's article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider's sense is that the feeling of "crisis" Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost "old Goa," but in a region with history as rich as this one, it's not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s ("Dum Maro Dum"; western hippies), the 1920s... or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I've been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa's earlier history. More about that below.

First, William Dalrymple has a great essay in the collection called "At Donna Georgina's," which was originally published in his book The Age of Kali. Here are two paragraphs that give an account of the rise and fall of Goa as a center-piece of the Portuguese commercial empire in the east:

In its earliest incarnation Old Goa was a grim fortress city, the headquarters of a string of fifty heavily armed artillery bastions stretching the length of the Indian littoral. But by 1600 the process that would transform the conquistdors into dandies had turned Old Goa from a fortified barracks into a thriving metropolis of seventy-five thousand people, the swaggering capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East. It was larger than contemporary Madrid, and virtually as populous as Lisbon, whose civic privileges it shared. The mangrove swamps were cleared, and in their place roses the walls and towers of Viceregal palaces, elegant townhouses, austere monasteries and elaborate baroque cathedrals.

With easy wealth cam a softening of the hard eges. The fops and dandies had no interest in war, and concentrated instead on their seraglios. Old Goa became more famous for its whores than for its cannons or cathedrals. According to the records of the Goan Royal Hopital, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century at least five hundred Portuguese a year were dying from syphilis and 'the effects of profligacy.' Althoug the ecclesiastical authorities issued edicts condmening the sexual 'laxity' of the marrie women who 'drugged their husbands the better toenjoy their lovers,' this did not stop the clerics themselves keeping whole harems of black slave-girls for their pleasure. In the 1590s the first Dutch galleons had begun defying the Portuguese monopoly: by 1638 Goa was being blockaded by Dutch warships. Sixty years later, in 1700, according to a Scottishsea captain, the city was a 'place of small Trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride.

So it was to remain. The jungle crept back, leaving only a litter of superb baroque churches -- none of which would look out of place on the streets of Lisbon, Madrid or Rome--half strangled by the mangrove swamps.

I'm a little skeptical of this account, in part because there might be material factors leading to the decline of the Portuguese empire that outweigh the culture of extravagance and profligacy Dalrymple is describing here. (Admittedly, I haven't studied this in depth.)

Dalrymple goes on to give an account of an interview he had with a contemporary 'old Goan' -- a woman named Donna Georgina, who 30+ years after Goa's annexation by India, remained nostalgic for the time when Goa was still a Portuguese colony. In fact, there has traditionally been a small group of diehard Portuguese loyalists who agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been Goan writers and intellectuals with a strong pride in Goa's unique cultural identity and heritage, who also comfortably identify as Indians.

One example of the latter was Armando Menezes, who happens to be Vivek Menezes' grandfather. After Goa was liberated in 1961, there was a movement to absorb the state into Maharashtra; the state does contain a fair number of Marathi speakers alongside those who speak Konkani and Kannada. (There are also a significant number of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra.) In the same collection where I read Dalrymple's essay there is the text of a speech given by Menezes in 1965, just as the debate over the future status of Goa was underway. Menezes puts a great deal of weight on the Konkani language as a feature distinguishing Goa from Maharashtra, but also manages to offer a more general vision of Goa's cultural identity:

All that the Goans want is the freedom to choose. Ther are a few things which he cannot choose, but which have rather chosen him. This soil, this Goa, has chosen him; and wherever he lives and toils and dies, there is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Goa. His tongue has chosen him; it is metaphysical impossibility to chose another. One can choose one's wife; one cannot choose one's mother: that is why it is called the mother tongue. We must be the merest renegades, the merest waifs and strays blown about the streets, if we fil to recognize that. And one cannot choose one's history. Untold centuries, even long before the arrival of the Portuguese on Indian shores, have chiselled our souls to what we are; we have known the confluence of many cultures, the impact of many destinies. The Goan soul is woven of many strands and is, at bottom, a coat without seams--even in spite of the recent attempts to tear it to tatters.

I like this formulation because 1) it doesn't lean exclusively on the history of Portuguese colonialism (which would be merely another species of Raj nostalgia), and 2) it manages to be proud without being exclusivist. Goan culture has long been a composite formation, and needs to continue being such, if it is to continue to grow and develop.

British author Graham Greene also referred to the conundrum of Goan identity when he visited Goa at just around the time Armando Menezes gave the speech quoted above. Much of what he wrote in 1965, describing the style of living here, still seems somewhat salient:

There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese (for the Portuguese lived only in the towns), often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has a loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere. It seemed the fiurst thing one Goan asked another--not in what city he worked but from what village he came, and in distant Bombay every Goan village has its club of exiles--350 clubs.

In the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch which are almost a sign of affluence compared with the horrible little cabins made out of palm fronds and bits of canvas and any piece of old metal on the outskirts of Bombay. These are dwellings to escape from; how can their inhabitants feel loyalty to Mahrashtra--the huge amorphous member-State of the Indian Union neighbouring Goa, into which Goa must almost certainly be sooner or later submerged?

Without agreeing with Graham Greene's assessment of poverty in Maharashtra, one can be pleased that his prediction of Goa's inevitable cultural and political absorption has turned out not to be true.

(That's all for now; I might have more Goa posts as I continue to see and read more things. Happy New Year, everyone!)

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hello from Delhi (and Dehra Dun, and Chandigarh)

We'll be returning to Goa in a day or two, but meanwhile there was some family visiting to attend to in the north.

First up, Delhi. My dominant impression of Delhi this time around is of seeing construction everywhere for new Delhi Metro stations. In a couple of years (when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games), I'm sure it will all be wonderful, but right now it adds to the traffic headache. That said, I was impressed by the new domestic airport terminal (the old one was hopelessly insufficient), and by what I took to be preliminary attempts at revamping the central train station.

We were happy to get to meet Jai Arjun Singh at a Crossword book store (Jai, thanks for waiting for us) in Saket, south
Delhi. The bookstore was in a massive, opulent new mall called "Citywalk Select," which has designer boutiques everywhere (Indian, European, and American), and the general feel of the massive King of Prussia mall near our house in suburban Philadelphia. It was certainly surreal, after seeing continuing signs of poverty elsewhere in the city, and Samian wondered how there could be enough Delhi-ites who can afford to pay $500 for Kate Spade purses to support these stores. Also surreal in such a place was the presence of the writer Ruskin Bond, who I think of as an R.K. Narayan-type writer (simple, elegant, and compelling storytelling), not someone you would ever expect to see in this kind of place. In this case, he was doing a book-signing at the bookstore, which was surprisingly packed.

When you're traveling with a two-year old, you don't get to read quite as much as when you're either alone or with other grown-ups. Still, I've been reading bits and pieces of Carlo Levi's Essays on Delhi here and there, and I thought some passages from his essay "The Invisible Capital" (1957) might be of interest:

The city of New Delhi appears, as you drop suddenly down towards it out of the sky, as something unreal and abstract, an immense placeless space, a utopian place. It doesn't really seem like a city; there is no centre, no cluster of houses, only a vast expanse crisscrossed by immensely broad boulevards that seem to stretch out endlessly into the distance, and dotted here and there by monumental buildings, isolated in the greenery. Much as in the shapeless, amoeboid city of Los Angeles, the distances are so vast that you can only move around by car (this modern conveyance that ensures medieval isolation). It is also reminiscent of Washington, with its plan of an administrative capital, silent and reserved; to an even greater degree, it is reminiscent of London, in the attempt to blend a sense of power with a yearning for the earthly paradise prior to the original sin.

I think the comparison to Washington is probably the most apt (I don't see the comparisons to London or Los Angeles at all). More from Carlo Levi on Delhi below:

Construction began here in 1911, in the last few years of a wold that promised eternal progress and security, and New Delhi remains -- as if it were somehow separate from living reality -- as a perfect document of that time and that empire, of its rationale and the principles upon which it was founded. It is, first and foremost, a magnificent monument to an immense empire, the embodiment of an act of detached, prideful will, a will that celebrated and affirmed itself as eternal by projecting itself into the future. But this power chose not to touch, or roil, or modify nature: rather, it seemed to prefer to identify itself with a nature that existed before time itself, a paradisiacal nature, with an absolute naturalistic utopia . . . In this paradise of the viceroys, the detachment is absolute: remote from the real inhabitants, from life itself, and from all of life's muddled heat, pain, and movement. Everything matches a rigorous hierarchy of reason, a precise, age-old, meticulous ceremony.

The above seems like the point of view of someone who came to Delhi and spent a lot of time in government buildings. From the other point of view, one could say that it's those massive government structures that are detached; the rest of the city, even caked by dust and choked by suspended particulate matter, is very much alive.

One more paragraph from Carlo Levi:

In this gigantic hidey-hole, it is possible to avoid being seen, like gods, and to see nothing. Even today a foreigner who lives in a large hotel or a government building can entirely ignore the country in which he or she lives. Soviet writers, who scrupulously attend, with their interpreters, the sessions of the pan-Asiatic congress (the reason for my journey here), with the paternal grandeur and quasi-British detachment (though instead of whiskey they brought with them Armenian cognac), have waited a full week for the sessions to end before taking their first glances at India. It is possible to stay in New Delhi and see nothing, understand nothing: but it is not easy, because the other reality (to which the sole concessions are stylistic: the Mughal architecture of the viceroy's house and other buildings) filters through everywhere unstoppably, just as the tendrils of plant life work their way into the cracks in an old abandoned wall. The vast English lawns have become, through some unknown alchemy, though still bright green and perfectly trimmed, part of an Indian countryside. All that is needed is a woman washing her sari in front of the India Gate, or a begggar lying careless on the grass: all it takes is the trees, and the orange light of sunset.

Though it's now somewhat dated, and certainly bound up with Levi's particular experience of Delhi as an "official" visitor, much of what he says here seems to me to still apply.

A few more travel notes...

We went to attend a wedding in Dehra Dun, and were staying at a guest
house near the Doon School, the English-medium private school that has educated a shocking number of contemporary Indian writers. On a free afternoon, we walked over to the front gate, and tried negotiating with the rather imposing security team about seeing the campus, but no dice. (Samian made up some story about how we have a friend in America who went there, but it didn't fly.) We were left admiring the lush campus from outside the eight-foot walls, and walked back to our guest house, past local women carrying gigantic loads of felled tree branches on their heads. (Perhaps we saw enough.)

Meanwhile, the town of Dehra Dun is choked with traffic, and the streams that run through are heavily littered with trash and heaps of used plastic bags. (The government knows it's a problem. In several states we've passed through, we've seen state propaganda against the use of plastic bags: "We, the citizens of Uttarakhand, pledge not to use Plastic Bags." I don't know if it's working.)

The drive from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh was particularly scenic, though the views were marred by the fog (smog) that hangs heavily over much of northern India at this time of year. Our driver had some colorful stories, one about a place called Kala Amb (black mango), where, legend has it, there was a special tree that had a branch that only grew black mangoes. For years, the Panchayat of that town conducted its business near the tree, and whenever someone was to be hanged, they were hanged on the black mango branch.

Another intriguing story our driver told us was about the road from Dehra Dun to Rishikesh, where, according to him, wild elephants sometimes like to come out and sleep on the roads at night. You have to go around them, and not trouble them too much, lest they decide to uproot a tree, and smash your car with it. He said there was one particular case of a deranged elephant, who had been exiled from his herd, who went on a rampage and killed quite a number of people in this way (I have no idea if this is even remotely plausible, but it's an intriguing idea: the alienated, sociopathic elephant.)

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Art: Nandalal Bose at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

nandalal bose Sati.jpg

The New York Times is essentially perfect in its review of a current major exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the painter Nandalal Bose. The exhibit was put together by the San Diego Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi (which is also, incidentally, very much worth a visit). We went there a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed it (though it certainly helps that the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a play area for children in the basement; otherwise, 2 year olds and art museums are usually not compatible.)

The key question the exhibit addresses is: what did it really mean to make "modern" art in an Indian idiom in the latter years of the British Raj? From the dominant colonial point of view, there was no such thing as "modern Indian art": by and large, the British were mainly interested in ancient Indian art, including traditional Indian art produced in the modern era. (One prominent exception was Ernest Binfield Havell, who actively supported Bengali artists who aimed to invent a modern style in Indian painting.)

Probably the best known Indian artist in the era just before modernism took hold was Raja Ravi Varma, who painted in the academic realist mode of 19th century western art. He made some very accomplished paintings, like this one, for example, but critics found his direct emulation of European painting styles unsatisfactory.

The modernist school that emerged at Santiniketan, with Rabindranath Tagore as a kind of god-father, and Rabindranath's nephew, Abanindranath Tagore as the most talented early painter, aimed to move away from academic realism, and towards a style of painting that was at once distinctly modern and formally and thematically Indian.

Sometimes, the path wasn't entirely clear -- several of the major figures in the Bengali school, after rejecting European realism, embraced Japanese minimalism instead. Indeed, a number of Nandalal Bose's own paintings do this. Perhaps they found the Japanese style less foreign; it wasn't until the 1930s that it became apparent that Japan could be every bit as "Imperialist" as western nations. In any case, for the most part Indian artists moved away from the influence of Japanese art as well in the 1920s and 30s. (The artist who did this most brilliantly might be Nandalal Bose's student, Benodebehari Mukherjee, who probably deserves his own show.)

The weak part of the current exhibit from an aesthetic point of view is probably the series of paintings and linocuts from Bose's "nationalist" period, in the 1930s and 40s. Some of Bose's work from that era became quite famous, including this linocut of Mahatma Gandhi, from 1940. But the paintings Bose did for the meetings of the Indian National Congress (the Haripura Congress of 1938) seem overly simplistic -- works of propaganda, not personal inspiration.

I did find some of Bose's paintings of tribal life in Bengal (of the Santhal community) quite powerful: see New Clouds, for instance. These are paintings Bose was doing around the same time as he was painting large religious murals on commission, and nationalist posters for the Congress Party. But they are quite different from those other works. Bose's paintings of tribals aim to quietly capture a local reality, not a magnified, iconic myth of Indian nationhood.

The last room of the exhibit has paintings by recent Indian artists who have been clearly influenced by Nandalal Bose and the Santiniketan school. I was particularly impressed by Atul Dodiya and K.G. Subramanyam, both of whom are painters I'd like to see more of.

If you're going to be in Philadelphia in the next couple of weeks, I would definitely recommend you check out this exhibit. Otherwise, you might catch it in India (where the show is headed next).

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shivaji: Beyond the Legend

The following post was inspired by the news last week that the government of Maharasthra is planning to build a huge statue of Shivaji off the coast of Bombay (that's right, I said Bombay), on the scale of the American statue of liberty. The statue will be built off-shore, on an artificial island constructed especially for the purpose.

I'm not actually opposed to the idea of the statue -- as far as I'm concerned, it's all part of the great, entertaining tamasha of modern Bombay -- though obviously I think there could be some other figures from Indian culture and history who might also be worth considering (how about a 300 foot bust of a glowering Amitabh Bachchan, for instance?). But reading the news did make me curious to know some things about the historical Shivaji that go beyond the hagiographical myths and legends one sees on Wikipedia, so I went to the library and looked at a book I had been meaning to look at for a couple of years, James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

+ * +

In 2004, James Laine became a target of the Hindu right after the publication of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but as is often the case the people burning down libraries, and destroying priceless works of India's cultural heritage, clearly did not read the book. If one actually reads Laine's work, one finds that Laine is quite careful not to frontally challenge the myth of Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior. Indeed, there is much there that actually supports the pride that many Maharasthrians feel about Shivaji.

The conclusions Laine comes to after surveying the evidence on Shivaji were surprising to me. Though I obviously came to the book looking for objectivity as an antidote to the bloated mythology loudly propagated by the Shiv Sena, I presumed that "objectivity" and "secularism" would be more or less synonymous. The reality may be somewhat more complex in Shivaji’s case. Though he’s clearly not quite what his partisans believe he was, Shivaji’s story remains inspiring and heroic even after some scholarly scrutiny. And though he was more secular than many Hindu chauvinists will admit, Shivaji certainly did pointedly assert his identity as a Hindu and promote symbolic elements of Hindu religion and culture against the increasingly intolerant imposition of Islam during the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb and the final years of the Bijapur Sultanate (see Adil Shah).

Here is how Laine describes his project near the beginning of the book:

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge. . . . In the modern popular imagination, many of [the different strands of the Shivaji story] are woven together and reproduced in both bland textbooks and dramatic popular accounts as though the simple facts can be taken for granted. In other words, the dominance of a certain grand narrative of Shivaji’s life is so powerful that the particular concerns of its many authors have been largely erased. (8)

The scholarly debunker is sometimes a powerful ally in ascertaining the often complex and nuanced truth behind historical legends, but in this book Laine doesn’t see confrontational debunking as his primary task. Rather, he wants to get back to the fundamentals of the Shivaji story (i.e., what can be objectively known based on primary historical sources), before following the path of the revisionist, nationalist, patriotic remaking of that story through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laine starts by looking directly at the 17th century sources (in Sanskrit and Marathi) written by those who were close to Shivaji himself.

The primary texts he works with were written in Marathi and Sanskrit, both of which are languages in which Laine is proficient. Afzal Khan Vadh (“The Killing of Afzal Khan”) is a series of Marathi heroic ballads, authored by a poet alternately known as Agrindas or Ajnandas in 1659 (while Shivaji was still alive). Two other primary sources cited by Laine are written in Sanskrit, by Brahmin authors who were commissioned directly by Shivaji himself: the Sivabharata (or Shivabharata), an epic poem written by Kavindra Paramananda in 1674 (at the time of Shivaji’s coronation as "Chatrapati" – Lord of the Umbrella/Umbralla-Lord), and the Srisivaprabhuce, a historical chronicle written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad, in 1697.

The first surprise is that there’s little reason to doubt the best-known aspects of the Shivaji legend: the three works are surprisingly consistent with one another, especially regarding Shivaji’s childhood and upbringing, his emergence as a warrior with the killing of Afzal Khan, the punishment of Shaista Khan, the escape from Aurangzeb’s court at Agra, and the conquest of Simhagad in 1670. The most significant “humanizing” point Laine makes (and this is also one of the major sources of controversy) is his suggestion, late in his book, that Shivaji’s parents seem to have been estranged from one another –- Shivaji was brought up by his mother in one principality, while his father was a soldier for another, rival kingdom, who left before Shivaji was born. (Later hagiography would smooth over this aspect of the history, suggesting that Shivaji’s father sent him and his mother to Pune as part of a great plan.) The point of raising this is not to "take Shivaji down a notch" or find shame or scandal in the story. Rather, from my point of view at least, humanizing Shivaji in this way gives us a certain (modern) psychological explanation for why Shivaji was so driven as an adult: he had something to prove.

The second surprise for me is Laine’s acknowledgment that all the evidence supports the idea that Shivaji was assertive about Hindu religion and culture. It’s still wrong to use him symbolically as some kind of nationalist Hindu "freedom-fighter," who devoted his life to killing mleccha invaders (for Laine, it’s more correct to say that Shivaji was a kingdom-builder). But it’s also not accurate to say that religion is somehow completely irrelevant to his story. This comes out first with reference to Shivaji’s coronation in 1674:

One important moment for the construction of an official biography was surely the grand event of Shivaji’s coronation. For the last decade of his life, he was relatively free of Mughal pressure, and in 1674, was enthroned chatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom in an orthodox lustration ceremony (abhisheka). The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions. In other words, there is clear evidence that at the end of his career Shivaji began to think in new ways about his exercise of military and political power, ways that drew upon ancient symbols of Hindu kingship. He called upon a prominent pundit from Benares, Gaga Bhatta, to establish his genealogy and claim of true kshatriya status before investing him with the sacred thread, performing an orthodox wedding, and then a royal lustration ceremony of enthronement. At this time, Shivaji lavished great wealth on all the Brahmins who were gathered to confer legitimacy, and he employed two poets to write laudatory epic poems about him. On was Paramananda, whom we have mentioned as the author of the Sanskrit Sivabharata, a text that is clearly composed for the coronation though never finished . . . The second was Kavi Bhusan, who wrote the Sivarajabhusan in the Braj dialect of Hindi. (30)

And Laine expands upon the implications of his interpretation of the coronation a few pages later:

Shivaji himself, growing up in Pune, at that time a remote and insignifican town far away from the Bijapuri court, was unlike his father and grandfather in being not only less content to be in vassalage to a Muslim sultan but also concerned to extend the scope of Hindu culture. Moreover, he dealt with sultans who adopted a more rigorous religious policy than their predecessors. I would argue that his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically. These may have been gestures of legitimation, but he could very well have chosen better-known Persianate ways of achieving the same end.

In other words, Shivaji was raised at some distance from what Laine is describing as the "Islamicate" culture dominant in north and central India in the 17th century. He also clearly went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time.

Laine continues:

This is to say that Shivaji was not only discontended with the idea of being Islamic, he was discontented with even being Islamicate, that is, he read his religion not as a strict constructionist or in purely theological or essentialist ways, but saw religion as broadly diffuse throughout culture. We might say that he saw ‘religion’ as dharma. Thus, although Richard Eaton has emphasized the new Islamic rigorism in the Adil Shahi regime after 1656, a rigorism that parallels the later policies of Aurangzeb (Eaton 1978), I would say that Shivaji was similarly disposed to see Hindu and Muslim subcultures —- not just theologies -- as distinct. There would be constraints on Shivaji’s religious agenda, as there were for Aurangzeb of course, and there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy. For example, he wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously, as well s being qt times quite willing to accept vassalage to the Adil Shah or Mughal emperor. But I would have to disagree with Stewart Gordon, who has written: ‘Shivaji was not attempting to construct a universal Hindu rule. Over and over, he espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu believes and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with Muslim states which surrounded him… even against Hindu powers" (Gordon 1993). I do not think I am disputing the evidence Gordon adduces, but my interpretation depends on how one uses the word ‘Hindu.’ (39)

This is a more complicated set of academic arguments, relating to how one interprets the idea of "religion" in an earlier historic moment, outside of Abrahamic norms. Putting it quite simply: to see Hindu religion as "diffuse throughout culture" doesn’t necessarily weaken it; rather, it was one of the ways Shivaji could find a new way of asserting it against the dominant powers of the time.

Secondly, Laine is arguing that though it’s wrong to read Shivaji as a kind of proto-communalist, it’s also a mistake to see him as someone who primarily espoused "tolerance and syncretism." He was actually somewhere in between.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Desis Vote (And, Tooting My Own Horn)

SAMAR Magazine has a new issue up on its website on elections -- both within South Asia and here in the U.S. They have essays on the recent election in Gujarat, the Parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the upcoming elections in Nepal, a piece by an SAFO member, and a piece on the Desi vote in New York. There's also a short essay by myself, on "Skinny Candidates With Funny Names," which brings together points made in several of blog posts on Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal. In the piece I make reference to some Sepia Mutiny comment threads, and I actually quote directly from commenter Neal.

My own piece aside, I would recommend people start with the piece by Ali Najmi on the Desi vote in New York. It's informative, for one thing, and Najmi makes reference to a new organization called Desis Vote, which aims to mobilize participation in the South Asian community.

I would also recommend the piece by Luna Ranjit on the upcoming elections in Nepal. Ranjit explains why the planned elections last year were postponed, and explains why the upcoming elections will be historic for Nepal. In addition to addressing the Maoist question, she talks about some of Nepal's ethnic/tribal problems, with groups such as the Terai.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Public (Government) School in Bihar

From a recent New York Times article on India's public education system, is a public school in Lahtora, which I believe is in the state of Bihar:


Ouch. (Click on the photo to see the original, larger version at the Times.)

Interestingly, the article (again by Somini Sengupta), shows that the problems in the system aren't necessarily simply created by a lack of funds. Quite a bit of money is being spent by the central and state governments to improve government schools -- this particular village had been allotted $15,000 to build a new school. The problem is that the funds often remain unspent, sometimes because of the famously thick and impenetrable Indian government bureaucracy, and sometimes simply because of corruption and nepotism at the local level.

Sengupta does sound some positive notes along the way. The sheer scale of the effort to improve the schools is mind-boggling:

India has lately begun investing in education. Public spending on schools has steadily increased over the last few years, and the government now proposes to triple its financial commitment over the next five years. At present, education spending is about 4 percent of the gross domestic product. Every village with more than 1,000 residents has a primary school. There is money for free lunch every day.

Even in a state like Bihar, which had an estimated population of 83 million in 2001 and where schools are in particularly bad shape, the scale of the effort is staggering. In the last year or so, 100,000 new teachers have been hired. Unemployed villagers are paid to recruit children who have never been to school. A village education committee has been created, in theory to keep the school and its principal accountable to the community. And buckets of money have been thrown at education, to buy swings and benches, to paint classrooms, even to put up fences around the campus to keep children from running away. (link)

It doesn't always help. The free lunch program in this village, for instance, doesn't work because the principal says the rice he's been sent (lying in stacks in the classroom) isn't "officially reflected in his books." But the recently released Pratham study finds that free lunch is working in 90% of schools, which is pretty good -- again if you consider the scale of the project.

Incidentally, some Indian newspapers have also covered the findings of this year's Pratham survey, in somewhat rosier terms -- and, needless to say, no reporters or photographers going out to see actual village schools. The Economic Times, for instance, is impressed that teacher attendance has improved from 38% in 2005, to 53% in 2007. Improvement is great, but it's still hard to imagine children learning very much when their teachers only show up every other day!

Finally, the full 2007 Pratham Survey is here (PDF); I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. Overall, Pratham looks like an important NGO; I'm considering donating something to them to support their efforts.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

"Our Vanity Is Matched Only By Our Persectuion Complex"

Meera Nanda has a detailed summary and analysis of the most recent Pew Global Attitudes report from the Indian point of view:

The Pew poll asked people in 47 countries if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Indians topped the list, with a whopping 93 per cent agreeing that our culture was superior to others, with 64 per cent agreeing completely, without any reservations.

Now all people have a soft spot for their own culture. But to see how off-the-charts our vanity is, let us compare ourselves with the other “ancient civilisations” in our neighbourhood. Compared to our 64 per cent, only 18 per cent of the Japanese and only 20 per cent Chinese had no doubt at all that their culture was the best. Indeed, close to one quarter of Japanese and Chinese — as compared to our meagre 5 per cent — disagreed that their ways were the best.

The U.S. — a country universally condemned for its cultural imperialism — comes across as suffering from a severe case of inferiority complex when compared with us. Only 18 per cent Americans had no doubts about the superiority of their culture, compared with our 64 per cent. Nearly a quarter of Americans expressed self-doubts, and 16 per cent completely denied their own superiority. The corresponding numbers from India are five and one per cent. (link)

The obvious question to speculate on (and please, speculate away) is where this discrepancy comes from. I personally don't know...

A bit more:

The strange thing is that for a people who think so highly of our own culture, we are terribly insecure. A startling 92 per cent of Indians — almost exactly the same proportion who think we are the best — think that “our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences.” Here, too, we beat the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Americans by about 25-30 percentage points. When it comes to feeling embattled and needing protection, we are closer to our Islamic neighbours, Pakistan (82 per cent) and Bangladesh (81 per cent). Indeed, we feel so embattled that 84 per cent of us want to restrict entry of people into the country, compared with only 75 per cent of those asked in the U.S., a country where legal and illegal immigration is of a magnitude higher than anywhere in the world.

So, paradoxically, our vanity is matched only by our persecution complex. (link)

It is kind of surprising that more Indians want immigration controls than Americans, especially considering how hot the immigration issue is in the U.S. right now. (Perhaps India is like Iowa; the fewer immigrants you actually have, the more you worry bout immigration?)

Nanda also summarizes the report's findings on Indians' attitudes to the role of government on helping the poor, and the proper role of religion in government (Indians are personally religious, but they also strongly support separation of church and state). The entire report can be found here (PDF) and the Pew Center's brief summary is here.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen (about whom I've written before) has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident follows a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I've also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen's Indian visa be canceled (she's applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, "for her own protection." (She's now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, "pandering" again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

The writer Mahashweta Devi's statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)

Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)

I was unaware of some of those, in fact.

In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin and feminism, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, "Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism", by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "To my mind, more important than Nasrin's stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam," he says.

"The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so." (link)

Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima's being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn't get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP -- a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the 'freedom of choice' school of India's Muslim intelligentsia by writing that "covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work". She's always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman's sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called 'Let's Burn the Burqa', Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)

Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the "Fall & Fall of Buddha" -- which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party of West Bengal in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi's overturning of the Supreme Court's decision on Shah Bano. But no more:

The role reversal didn't come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen's novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief." What's worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city 'intellectuals' close to him. This was the first assault on a writer's freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain's paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay's autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee - now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death - went to Taslima's Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week's violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to
Taslima's place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government's high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government's capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)

And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)

It's a fair request -- unfortunately, it's already too late. Politics, one might say, has "been done."

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language-Based States (Guha Chapter 9)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week, we will look at Chapter 10, "The Conquest of Nature," on India's approach to development and the modernization of agriculture.]

Guha's Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Map," is about the early phase in the movement to establish language-based states, with particular emphasis on the south (the creation of Andhra Pradesh out of what was formerly the state of Madras), the status of Bombay vis a vis Maharashtra, and the delineation of Punjab.

As Guha points out, though reorganizing states according to language was part of the Congress plank from the 1930s, after Independence/Partition, both Nehru and Sardar Patel were strongly opposed to rushing into any reorganization of states, especially if there was a danger that such reorganizations could lead to the destabilization of the union. The logic behind this hesitation was understandable and quite sound: if the idea of "India" could be broken along the lines of religion, why not also language?

The first new state to be created along the lines of language was Andhra Pradesh, and this was largely due to the hunger strike of Gandhian activist and Telugu leader Potti Sriramulu, who is another one of those great, largely forgotten (well, forgotten outside of Andhra Pradesh at least) "characters" from post-independence Indian history who probably should be better known than he is:

Sriramulu was born in Madras in 1901, and studied sanitary engineering before taking a job with the railroads. In 1928 he suffered a double tragedy, when his wife died along with their newborn child. Two years later he resigned his position to join the Salt Satyagraha. Later, he spent some time at Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram. Later still, he spent eighteen months in jail as part of the individual Satyagraha campaign of 1940-41. . . .

Gandhi did regard Sriramulu with affection but also, it must be said, with a certain exasperation. On 25 November 1946 the disciple had beugn a fast unto death to demand the opening of all temples in Madras province to untouchables. Other congressmen, their minds more focused on the impending freedom of India, urged him to desist. . . .

Potti Sriramulu had called off that fast of 1946 at Gandhi's insistence. But in 1952 he Mahatma was dead; and in any case, Andhra meant more to Sriramulu than the untouchables once had. This fast he would carry out till the end, or until the government of India relented.

Potti Sriramulu died of his hunger strike on December 15, 1952. Three days later, Nehru announced that the formation of the state of Andhra out of the eleven Telugu-speaking districts of Madras.

Of course, with Andhra the reorganization was just beginning. Three years later, the national States Reorganization Committee announced a number of other changes. In the south, the job was easy, as there were four clear language regions (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam) that could be allocated their own states.

In Bombay, the situation was more complicated, as the Marathi-speakers in Bombay comprised a plurality (43%) but not a majority of the city's residents as of 1955. Moreover, the economically dominant ethnic communities of Bombay -- especially Gujaratis -- strongly resisted the idea of making Bombay part of a Marathi-speaking state. However, following growing unrest and a series of "language riots" (memorably described in Rushdie's Midnight's Children), this merger eventually did happen in 1960, as Bombay was declared the capital of the new state of Maharashtra. (Suketu Mehta's book, Maximum City, has a lot more on how language and ethnicity politics have evolved in Bombay over the years -- warts and all.)

This Guha chapter doesn't detail how things would play out later in Punjab, where the Sikhs' early demand for a Punjabi-language state was denied by the States Reorganization Committee in 1955. (Sikhs have always anecdotally blamed this failure on the census of 1951, where Punjabi-speaking Hindus by and large described their primary language as "Hindi," confusing matters greatly.) When reorganization eventually did occur in Punjab in 1966, it caused lots of other problems, some of which would lead to a resurgent Akali movement, and eventually to the rise of Sikh separatism in the 1970s.

Partly as a result of what happened in Punjab (and we'll get to that in a few chapters), Guha's rather easy acceptance the language reorganization movements seems a bit glib to me:

When it began, the movement for linguistic states generated deep apprehensions among the nationalist elite. They feared it would lead to the balkanization of India, to the creation of many more Pakistans. 'Any attempt at redrawing the map of India on the linguistic basis,' wrote the Times of India in February 1952, 'would only give the long awaited opportunity to the reactionary forces to come into the open and assert themselves. That will lay an axe to the very root of India's integrity.'

In retrospect, however, linguistic reorganization seems rather to have consolidated the unity of India. True, the artifacts that have resulted, such as Bangalore's Vidhan Souda, are not to everybody's taste. And there have been some serious conflicts between states over the sharing of river waters. However, on the whole the creation of linguistic states has acted as a largely constructive channel for provincial pride. It has proved quite feasible to be peaceably Kannadiga, or Tamil, or Oriya--as well as contentedly Indian. (207-208)

Guha's premise that language-based politics works somewhat differently from the politics of religious communalism seems right to me. The latter seems inevitably divisive (and almost always destructive), while the former seems to have had several positive benefits (especially as it has led to support for regional literatures and the arts). And it's also clear that the reorganization along linguistic lines didn't lead to what was feared, "the creation of many more Pakistans."

But isn't it still true that the language-based politics that led to the creation of new states starting in the 1950s has also led state governments to certain excesses along linguistic/ethnic lines? Two such excesses might include the renaming of Bombay as 'Mumbai', and the recent renaming of Bangalore as 'Bengluru'. I'm also concerned about the language-based "reservations" that exist in some states, favoring the dominant ethno-linguistic community over other ethnic groups (though I admit I am not a specialist on this latter issue). Now that the states have been permanently established, is the perpetuation of language-based politics really that benign?

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Non-Aligned Nehru (Guha Chapter 8)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will look at Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Boundaries," on the Language Movements of the 1950s]

With 20-20 hindsight, many people criticize Nehru today for pursuing a foreign policy oriented to "nonalignment" -- that is, independence from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Here is one of Nehru's most famous statements articulating that policy, from a speech given at Columbia University:

"The main objectives of that policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue, the liberation of subject peoples, the maintenance of freedom, both national and individual, the elimination of racial discrimination and the elimination of want, disease and ignorance, which afflict the greater part of the world's population."

The idealism in that statement is admirable, and still worth thinking about, even if the world order has changed dramatically since Nehru first uttered these words. The idea of taking an "independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue" is one I personally strive for as a writer, and may be something that would in my view serve as a helpful corrective to many partisan ideologues -- on both the left and the right -- who tend to only see the world through one particular ideological filter or the other.

Ideals aside, Nehru's government did make some serious mistakes in foreign policy in the first few years. One of the significant failures Guha mentions in this chapter involved an inconsistency in the response to two international crises: 1) Anglo-French military action in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (the Suez Crisis), and 2) the Soviet invasion of Hungary following an anti-Communist uprising, also in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution). India publicly condemned the first act of aggression by western powers, but not the second, which today seems like a clear indication that India was leaning towards the Soviets more than it let on.

Guha suggests there were some internal differences between Nehru and the famous leftist Krishna Menon, who represented India at the U.N., over the Hungary question. Nehru publicly defended Menon's abstention at the U.N. on the resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but privately he was deeply upset about the invasion. Part of the problem here might have been Nehru's lack of clarity over the correct course to take, but certainly Krishna Menon's independent streak must have been a factor as well.

A similar kind of diplomatic confusion was present in India's relationship with China starting in 1950. Here, the Indian ambassador to China, K.N. Panikkar (who is also very well-known as a historian), seems to have fatally misread Mao Zedong and the personality of Chinese communism:

In May 1950 Panikkar was granted an interview with Mao Zedong, and came away greatly impressed. Mao's face, he recalled later, was 'pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly.' There 'is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy but absolutely sure of itself.' The Chinese leader had 'experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings,' yet 'his face showed no signs of bitterness, cruelty, or sorrow.' Mao reminded Panikkar of his own boss, Nehru, for 'both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments,' and both 'may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term.' (176)

And here is Guha's explanation of the failure:

This would be laughable if it were not so serious. Intellectuals have always been strangely fascinated by powerful men; George Bernard Shaw wrote about Lenin in much the same terms. Yet Shaw was an unaffiliated writer, responsible only to himself. Panikkar was the official representative of his government. What he said and believed would carry considerable weight. And here he was representing one of history's most ruthless dictators as dreamy, soft, and poetic. (176)

I think Guha has it right on here -- and as a side note, this observation about intellectuals who misread charismatic leaders is intriguing. (Are there other examples you can think of?)

Within the Indian administration, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at least did see the danger posed by the Chinese, and in November 1950 -- just after the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet -- he wrote Nehru a strongly-worded letter to that effect. In hindsight, Sardar Patel's letter seems incredibly prescient, as it anticipates in some sense the Sino-Indian war of 1962, as well as some of the secessionist movements that continue to plague India along its northeastern border to this very day. The letter is posted in its entirety here, and it is well worth reading. Following are some long extracts:

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. (link)

One of the really tragic consequences of the Indian failure to read Chinese intentions correctly at this point is the impact it would have on Tibet and its ancient culture -- which would later be marked by the Chinese for forcible merger into the mainstream of China. It's not India's fault, of course -- it is China's fault -- but one does wonder if things might have played out differently had Nehru played his cards differently, or if someone other than K.N. Panikkar had been ambassador at the time.

More from Sardar Patel's letter:

In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. . . . China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist. (link)

And finally, Patel assesses the potential impact on the various border regions, all of whom are in some sense in a gray area ethnically and nationally with regards to China and India:

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. (link)

From earlier posts on Guha's book, I know there are many readers who feel frustrated with Nehru's foreign policy errors from the 1950s and 60s. To some extent I'm inclined to be forgiving; things were happening very fast, and there really was no historical precedent for what Mao did with Communist China. Some of Nehru's close associates from the Nationalist movement (i.e., Krishna Menon) were oriented to Marxism/Communism as part of their anti-Imperialist intellectual orientation.

Sardar Patel, on the other hand, was able to reverse the prevalent orthodoxy, and see -- clearly and, as we now know, correctly -- that Communism could potentially be as ruthlessly "Imperial" an ideology as European colonialism itself. In effect, he was one of the few politicians of his era who was actually able to perform in practice ("an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue") the values that Nehru preached in his speeches.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Diversity in the Indian Constitution (Guha Chapter 6)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will skip a chapter, and go directly to Chapter 8, "Home and the World," which explains how India evolved its "non-aligned" status.]

I've actually written a longish post on the idea of "secularism" in the Indian constitution in the past, but of course there's more to say. The entire proceedings (more than 1000 pages of text!) of the Constituent Assembly have been posted online by the Indian Parliament here. Guha's account comes out of reading through those proceedings, and is also deeply influenced by Granville Austin's classic book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, which is still, as I understand it, the definitive book on the subject.

As many readers may be aware, the Indian Constitution was worked out over the course of three years (1946-1949), by a Constituent Assembly that contained 300 members, including representation by religious minorities, members of marginal groups (i.e., Adivasis), as well as a small but vocal group of women.

Three of the profound disagreements that the members of the Assembly had to resolve included: 1) the proper role of Gandhian philosophy in defining the new nation, 2) the question of "reservations" for Dalits and Tribals (Scheduled Castes and Tribes), and 3) the status of Indian languages, and the idea of an "official" language.

1. Panchayats.

Let's start with the question of the Gandhian idea of village panchayats, which was essentially rejected by the Constituent Assembly in favor of a strong, modern, centralized government. The lead voice in rejecting the Panchayat system was of course the Dalit lawyer and political figure B.R. Ambedkar. Here is Guha:

Some people advocated a 'Gandian constitution,' based on a revived panchayat raj system, with the village as the basic unit of politics and governance. This was sharply attacked by B.R. Ambedkar, who held that 'these village republics have been the ruination of India.' Ambedkar was 'surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?'

These remarks provoked outrage in some quarters. The socialist H.V. Kamath dismissed Ambedkar's attitude as 'typical of the urban highbrow.' The peasant leader N.G. Ranga said that Ambedkar's comments showed his ignorance of Indian history. 'All the democratic traditions of our country [have] been lost on him. If he had only known the achievements of the village panchayats in Southern India over a period of a millenium, he would not have said those things.' However, the feisty female member of the United Provinces, Begum Aizaz Rasul, 'entirely agreed' with Amdedkar. As she saw it, the 'modern tendency is towards the rights of the citizen as against any corporate body and village panchayats can be very autocratic.' (119)

(Incidentally, the entire text of Ambedkar's speech is at the Parliament of India website, here. Go check it out -- it's a fascinating document.)

I know that there are still neo-Gandhian thinkers out there who value highly decentralized government as a way of preventing tyranny. And it has to be admitted since independence, the Indian "Centre" has often overstepped its bounds, culminating perhaps in Indira Gandhi's 1975 "Emergency" (many other instances could be mentioned).

But the fact that the most prominent Dalit representative and one of the most prominent women in the Assembly saw the "village" as a site of backwardness and repression, not liberation, cannot simply be ignored. They saw the move to centralization -- and a focus on individual, rather than group or "corporate" rights -- as a necessary step towards nudging Indian society towards caste and gender equality.

In my view, it's a remarkable thing that the Indian Constitution essentially rejected Gandhian thinking, especially given how powerful Gandhi's ideas and political methods had been in achieving the state of independence that led to the writing of this Constitution to begin with. But it may be that Gandhi had too much faith that people were going to be good to one another, and even in 1948 itself some members of the Assembly were aware that something stronger than mere idealism would be required to guarantee the rights of the disenfranchised.

2. Reservations.

Reservations is a huge topic, one that I can't possibly deal with in a very substantive way right now (see this Wikipedia page for a brief tutorial). Suffice it to say that when the Constitution was ratified in 1950, it contained reservations for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Tribe (ST) groups in Parliament and State Assemblies, but not for what were known as "Other Backward Castes" (OBCs), though reservations for those groups would be recommended later. (And this latter question became a hot issue yet again in 2006, though as far as I know the recommendation for national OBC reservations in Indian higher education has not yet been implemented.)

Guha's brief account of the debate over this question focuses on an Adivasi (tribal) political figure I hadn't heard of, Jaipal Singh from Chotanagpur in the southern part of Bihar. Jaipal Singh had been sent by missionaries to study at Oxford, where he became a star at field hockey, and indeed, won a gold medal in the sport in 1928. In the Constituent Assembly, he made the following remarkable speech:

As a jungli, as an Adibasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6000 years. The history of the Indus Velley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers--most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned--it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness. . . . The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter in of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.

You can see the anger and the pain -- but also the impressive willingnes to turn a new page, and cooperate fully in an "independent India where there is equality of opportunity."

3. "Hindi imperialism."

Finally, one of the most divisive questions of all was the status of English vis a vis Indian languages. At the moment of independence, it's not surprising that a large number of participants in the Constituent Assembly found it galling that the proceedings were occurring largely in English, and some were insistent that the Indian constitution be "primarily" written in Hindi. There was also a strong movement to make Hindi India's national language, which was of course rejected.

The simple truth is that there is no one, universal Indian language, and the people who were insisting that Hindi should be become that language had to give way, or risk provoking separatist sentiments from South Indians. Guha quotes one particular figure, T.T. Krishnamachari of Madras, along those line:

We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. . . . [I]f we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi . . . I would perhaps not be able to do it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. . . . This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation. . . , and my honorable friends in U.P. do not help us in any way by flogging their idea [of] 'Hindi Imperialism' to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in U.P. to have a whole India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs. (131)

What's interesting about this for me is the way it already shows the contradictions in the desire to have a strongly centralized government -- it can't be done easily in a country with such strong regional language traditions.

For more on how "official language" questions in India have evolved since the writing of the Constitution, see this Wikipedia entry.

People have lots of complaints about the Indian Constitution -- it's ridiculously long, for one thing, and punted on several highly controversial questions (one of them being language, the other being the "Uniform Civil Code"). People who dislike caste reservations also often cite the Constituent Assembly as in effect the starting point for a system they feel has spiraled out of control.

But what I think is impressive about this process is the strong attempt made to include as many of India's diverse voices as possible, without sacrificing a vision of effective centralized government. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution may be clearer and simpler, but it was written exclusively by property-holding white men who all spoke a single language (early America was actually much more linguistically diverse than people think). Native Americans were not invited, though in fact this was their land before the colonists came. Women were not invited, nor were African Americans. Despite its flaws, India's Constitution did a much better job at defining the new nation inclusively than America's did.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Displaced People, Especially Women (Guha Chapter 5)

(Part four in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's post can be found here. Next week we will look at chapter six, on the Constituent Assembly and the writing of India's constitution. )

There are lots of interesting bits in Guha's fifth chapter, on the resettlement of refugees scattered across India after Partition. The part I will focus on in particular is the status of women who were abducted, forcibly married, and then forcibly returned to their families. But to begin with, here are some general facts on the displaced people who ended up in India:

  • Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees in Punjab were temporarily housed in camps. The largest of these was at Kurukshetra, where there were some 300,000 refugees. Over time, a major land redistribution effort was initiated, so that farmers who had been displaced from land in Pakistan were granted land in India. More than 500,000 claims were processed through this effort. (According to Guha, the effort worked, by and large; withing a few years, many displaced Punjabis from farming villages were back at work on new lands.)

  • Nearly 500,000 refugees ended up in Delhi, fundamentally changing the character of the city. Some settled in outer districts like Faridabad, while others were given land immediately to the south and west of New Delhi. Many of Delhi's new residents thrived in trade, and came to hold a "commanding influence" over the economic life of the city.

  • About 500,000 refugees also ended up in Bombay, including a large number of Sindhis. Here resettlement did not go as well, and Guha states that 1 million people were sleeping in the streets (even in the early 1950s).

  • 400,000 refugees came into West Bengal during and immediately after the Partition, but another 1.7 million Hindus left East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) following communal riots there in 1949-50. At least 200,000 ended up in desperate straits in "squatter colonies" in Calcutta, where the refugees effectively overwhelmed the city. Conditions here were much worse than they were in Delhi or in the resettlement camps in the Punjab. The government may have been slow to respond because it presumed that many of the refugees would be returning -- and that communal feelings in Bengal were not quite as bad as they were in Punjab. (A mistaken presumption, Guha suggests.)

Those are some of the general facts Guha gives us. What stands out to me is how effective the new Indian government was, on the whole, in responding to the mass influx of people. There were failures -- and again, Guha singles out West Bengal as the worst -- but if you think about the numbers involved, it's astonishing that the process was as orderly as it was. Hundreds of thousands of displaced families were allotted land through a rationalized, transparent process oriented to ensuring their survival. And food relief and temporary shelter was provided to thousands more (not without international help).

However, one area where the state really did fail -- astoundingly -- is with women who had been abducted, converted, and forcibly married in the Partition. Guha's account here is quite thin, so I'm supplementing what he says with material from Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition.

The abductions happened on both sides, and both India and Pakistan agreed to cooperate in the effort to restore abducted women to their families. Here are some of the numbers, from Menon and Bhasin's book:

The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. Although Gopalaswami Ayyangar (minister of Transport in charge of Recovery) called this figures 'rather wild,' Mridula Sarabhai believed that the number of abducted women in Pakistan was ten times the 1948 official figure of 12,500. Till December 1949, the number of recoveries in both countries was 12,552 for India and 6,272 for Pakistan. The maximum number of recoveries wre made from Punjab, followed by Jammu and Kashmir and Patiala. (from Menon and Bhasin)

In 1949, Indian Parliament passed a rather bizarre law called the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill, which gave the government virtually unlimited power to remove abducted women in India from their new homes, and transport them to Pakistan. The government could use force against abducting families, and it could also hold abducted women in camps if needed.

The problem with this process is that nothing in the law, or the major humanitarian effort that followed, was oriented to ascertaining the will of the women themselves. While some were in fact eager to rejoin their families, quite a number (no one knows exactly how many) were not at all eager to return. The biggest reason is of course the sense of anxiety and shame about being marked as "fallen women" -- they weren't at all convinced that they would be accepted by their families. Other times, the women had had children by their new husbands, and were at least resigned (if not happy) with their new lives. (Nothing in the law passed by Parliament dealt with the situation of women who had had children, nor was the final status of children born of these marriages determined by the Bill.)

But there were other reasons not to return as well. Menon and Bhasin have a fascinating account from Kamlaben Patel, a social worker working with abducted women for the Indian government. She was stationed in Lahore between 1947 and 1952, and worked on a number of cases. She became personally involved with one particular young woman, and Menon and Bhasin give us the story in her own words:

I have written about a case where the parents thought it was alright to sacrifice the life of a young girl in order to save a whole family. And when we were arguing about her recovery then the father said, this is our girl, and the girl denied it because she was terribly hurt by their behaviour. She said, 'I don't want to go back. I have married of my own free will, I don't want anything from my parents.' When she refused to return, it became very awkward. She was in the home of a police inspector. We felt that if we have found an abducted woman in the house of a police inspector, then how can we expect the police to do any recovering? That is why we had to bring her back.

After interviewing the woman, Kamlaben found out why she was so adamant:

That girl kept saying that she didn't want to go to her parents, she wouldn't budge an inch. After two or three days she broke down, she told us that her parents had been told by the police inspector, 'If you leave your daughter, gold and land with me, I will escort you all to the cantonment in India.' That man was already married, had children. He had told her father, you give me this girl in exchange for escorting you all to an Indian cantonment. Then her father gave him his daughter, 30 tolas of gold and his house. One night I called the girl to my bedside and said, if you want to go back (to the inspector) then I will send you. If you don't want to go back to your parents, don't go, but please tell me why.'

What happened in the end: the young woman said she didn't want to go back to the police inspector (in Pakistan), but she also refused to go back to her parents. Acting beyond the call of duty (and beyond the mandate given her by Mridula Sarabhai), Kamlaben was able to arrange a marriage for the woman to a displaced young man living in Amritsar. She later had a child, and came to thank Kamlaben personally for her efforts. (At the same time, Kamlaben was castigated by Mridula Sarabhai for getting too personally involved.)

For me this story illustrates some of the basic problems in the government's "recovery" effort, though it also suggests how individuals can sometimes intervene to try and respond to the particularities of individual cases, and more importantly, the will of individual women affected by the Partition.

Menon and Bhasin don't suggest that the recovery effort that was undertaken shouldn't have happened. Rather, they point out that the way it was done was flawed -- it was, in effect, an arrangement between the men ruling the two new countries, carried out to protect national (and familial) "honor," rather than to ensure the best possible result for the affected women. Though the goal was to rectify a wrong, one could argue that it in some ways continued the patriarchal mentality that led to the atrocities against women in the Partition in the first place.

I should point out that most of the stories about women abducted in the Partition do not end as happily as the one above. Many "recovered" women committed suicide, while others ended up as prostitutes. But there are many, many stories, which you'll find recounted in books like Borders and Boundaries as well as Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence. Amrita Pritam also wrote about this in her novella Pinjar, which was made into what I thought was a decent Hindi film a few years ago.

What comes up again and again in these stories is the failure of the government's blanket policy to address the particular experiences of women who had been abducted. On the other hand, it might not be the government's problem entirely: in the late 1940s neither Indian nor Pakistani society was really set up to accommodate women who had been so brutally alienated from their families and communities. What these women really needed, perhaps more than anything, was the ability to determine their own fates, to be enabled to become independent, both socially and financially. But it appears that that, which is to say, freedom, simply wasn't an imaginable conclusion in the vast majority of the cases.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir 1947-8 (Guha Chapter 4)

(Part 3 in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi; see last week's post here. This week's post is dedicated to Chapter 4, "A Valley Bloody and Beautiful"; next week we will look at Chapter 5, "Refugees and the Republic," which looks at the problem of integrating millions of refugees into the new Indian republic.)

Guha's first chapter dealing with Kashmir, I must admit, left me with more questions than answers, but it may be that the subject of Kashmir (even restricted to two years at a time) is simply too complex to deal with in a thirty page overview chapter. Guha's goal is to provide a balanced account of what happened in 1947-8 with the Accession of Kashmir to the Indian union (October 26, 1947), and the war between India and Pakistan that followed (which is actually well-summarized at Wikipedia). Guha goes with the line that the Pathans who marched on Srinagar in the autumn of 1947 were surely armed by Pakistan, and were not exactly a "liberation" army (they were only too happy to loot Kashmiri Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs in the towns they entered). He also stresses the close ties between Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, and derides Hari Singh as just another useless Maharaja. He also acknowledges that the role of the UN in 1948 was not particularly helpful, and that effectively the whole issue was going to be punted (1965), and then punted yet again (1999).

We could go back and forth on Kashmir forever. The two major positions in the debate, I think, are the following:

  • (1) The Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh, legally joined the Indian union in 1947, and therefore the territory belongs to the Indian union, irrespective of whether Hari Singh's action represented the desires of the majority of Kashmiris. A popularly elected Constituent Assembly, led by Sheikh Abdullah, did unanimously ratify the Accession in 1951.
  • (1a) As a practical matter, the Line of Control should now be formalized.
  • (2) The people of Kashmir have the right to self-determination. When it signed the ceasefire in 1948, India promised to offer Kashmiris a plebiscite, where they could decide whether to join India or Pakistan, or remain independent. This it has never done. Moreover,
  • (2a) Sheikh Adbullah always asked for more autonomy for Kashmir, and was eventually imprisoned for it. Even if a plebiscite is not granted, the demand for autonomy should be taken seriously.

(Is that a fair characterization of the two major positions, and the ancillary points that follow from them?)

My goal here is not to reaffirm my own position, but rather to find out something I didn't know before, and explore new ways of thinking about the subject. From Guha's account, the figure I've become most interested in is Sheikh Abdullah, a secular Muslim who saw himself as the natural leader of all Kashmiris. He sided with India in the conflict with Pakistan, but was later imprisoned by the Indian government for continuing to demand autonomy for the region. His complexities are perhaps emblematic of the extraordinarily complex political problem that is Kashmir.

To begin with, here is what Guha has to say about Sheikh Abdullah:

Whether or not Abdullah was India's man, he certainly was not Pakistan's. In April 1948 he described taht country as 'an unscrupulous and savage enemy.' He dismissed Pakistan as a theocratic state and the Muslim League as 'pro-prince' rather than 'pro-people.' In his view, 'Indian and not Pakistani leaders. . . had all along stood for the rights of the States' people.' When a diplomat in Delhi asked Abdullah what he thought of the option of independence, he answered that it would never work, as Kashmir was too small and too poor. Besides, said Abdullah, 'Pakistan would swallow us up. They have tried it once. The would do it again.' (91-92)

And here is what Abdullah did, as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (a post he held starting in 1948):

Within Kashmir, Abdullah gave top priority to the redistribution of land. Under the maharaja's regime, a few Hindus and fewer Muslims had very large holdings, with the bulk of the rural populations serving as labourers or as tenants at will. In his first year in power, Abdullah transferred 40,000 acres of surplus land to the landless. He also outlawed absentee ownership, increased the tenant's share from 25% to 75% of the crop, and placed a moratorium on debt. His socialistic policies alarmed some elements in the government of India, especially as he did not pay compensation to the dispossessed landlords. But Abdullah saw this as crucial to progress in Kashmir. As he told a press conference in Delhi, if he was not allowed to implement agrarian reforms, he would not continue as prime minister of Jammu and Kahsmir. (92)

I quote that second paragraph because it's important to remember that this Kashmiri politics in 1948 was not merely a Hindu-Muslim problem. And Abdullah's ideology was not only "Kashmiri autonomy within India." He was also fiercely invested in democratization (and opposed to any vestiges of monarchy or feudalism) and land redistribution.

But here's the crucial thing. Though Abdullah accepted what he saw as "Kashmir's constitutional ties with India," he never really accepted the idea that Jammu and Kashmir was merely a state like other states, integrated within the Indian union. For him, Kashmir was always a nation, even if it ceded all military and some legal/executive controls to India. You can see this in the speech he gave at the J&K Constituent Assembly meeting in 1951, the text of which is online here:

One great task before this Assembly will be to devise a Constitution for the future governance of the country. Constitution-making is a difficult and detailed matter. I shall only refer to some of the broad aspects of the Constitution, which should be the product of the labors of this Assembly.

Another issue of vital import to the nation involves the future of the Royal Dynasty. Our decision will have to be taken both with urgency and wisdom, for on that decision rests the future form and character of the State.

The Third major issue awaiting your deliberations arises out of the Land Reforms which the Government carried out with vigor and determination. Our "Land to the tiller" policy brought light into the dark homes of the peasantry; but, side by side, it has given rise to the problem of the landowners demand for compensation. The nation being the ultimate custodian of all wealth and resources, the representatives of the nation are truly the best jury for giving a just and final verdict on such claims. So in your hands lies the power of this decision.

Finally, this Assembly will after full consideration of the three alternatives that I shall state later, declare its reasoned conclusion regarding accession. This will help us to canalize our energies resolutely and with greater zeal in directions in which we have already started moving for the social and economic advancement of our country. (link)

(I would recommend reading the whole speech, if you have a chance.) Keep in mind -- when Sheikh Abdullah says "nation" or "country," he is not talking about India, but Kashmir.

And here is what he says about Accession and the 1947-8 war:

Finally we come to the issue which has made Kashmir an object of world interest, and has brought her before the forum of the United Nations. This simple issue has become so involved that people have begun to ask themselves after three and a half years of tense expectancy. "Is there any solution ?" Our answer is in the affirmative. Everything hinges round the genuineness of the will to find a solution. If we face the issue straight, the solution is simple.

The problem may be posed in this way. Firstly, was Pakistan's action in invading Kashmir in 1947 morally and legally correct, judged by any norm of international behavior ? Sir Owen Dixon's verdict on this issue is perfectly plain. In unambiguous terms he declared Pakistan an aggressor. Secondly, was the Maharajah's accession to India legally valid or not ? The legality of the accession has not been seriously questioned by any responsible or independent person or authority.

These two answers are obviously correct. Then where is the justification of treating India and Pakistan at par in matters pertaining to Kashmir ? In fact, the force of logic dictates the conclusion that the aggressor should withdraw his armed forces, and the United Nations should see that Pakistan gets out of the State.

In that event, India herself, anxious to give the people of the State a chance to express their will freely, would willingly cooperate with any sound plan of demilitarization. They would withdraw their forces, only garrisoning enough posts to ensure against any repetition of that earlier treacherous attack from Pakistan.

These two steps would have gone a long way to bring about a new atmosphere in the State. The rehabilitation of displaced people, and the restoration of stable civic conditions would have allowed people to express their will and take the ultimate decision.

We as a Government are keen to let our people decide the future of our land in accordance with their own wishes. If these three preliminary processes were accomplished, we should be happy to have the assistance of international observes to ensure fair play and the requisite conditions for a free choice by the people. (link)

It's clear that even in 1951, Abdullah's position is not going to make the Nehru or the Indian government happy. He wants Pakistan out of the picture, but he also never wavers on the demand for a plebiscite -- which fits squarely with his obvious ideological passion for pure democracy in Kashmir, does it not?

I think Sheikh Abdullah fatally failed to realize that without political and military sovereignty, the idea of "nationhood" is meaningless. Autonomy within the Indian union is not really a meaningful solution; it could never work as a practical matter as long as Pakistani and Chinese troops are massed on the borders. My hunch is that Abdullah was so invested in maintaining his own centrality to Kashmiri politics that he couldn't see that the compromised position he was taking was destined to fail.

I do not have very deep knowledge about what happened to Sheikh Abdullah after 1953. As I understand it, he was imprisoned for eleven years, and on his release was briefly reconciled with Nehru (before the latter's death in 1964). Abdullah was in and out of detention through the 1960s, and finally in 1975 signed the controversial "Kashmir Accord," a legalistic document which gives somehow everything to the government and pays lip service to Kashmiri autonomy at the same time.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hyderabad and the Princely States (Guha Part 2)

Part 2 in an ongoing series. Last week we talked about Chapter 2 of Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. This week's topic is Chapter 3, which deals with the accession of the Princely States. Next week is Chapter 4, on the turmoil surrounding Kashmir in 1947-8

When they think about 1947, most people naturally think about the tragedy of Partition, which left millions of people dead and displaced. Partition resulted in the creation of two states, but what is left out of this story is an alternative history where instead of two new nations, independence might have seen the formation of three, or five, or five hundred independent nations.

For there were more than five hundred Princely States in existence in 1947. Each of these had its own ruler and court, and many had the trappings of fully independent states (such as railroads, currency, and stamps). All the same, they had to pay significant taxes to the British crown, and none were allowed to maintain their own armies. The Princely States were also, one might add, the most backward in India when it came to the situation of ordinary people. While British India had begun to build schools and universities, and develop the foundations of republican governance, the various Maharajahs were perfectly comfortable keeping their subjects in total, feudal subjection.

Very quickly, between the fall of 1946 and the summer of 1947, the vast majority of Princely States signed "Instruments of Accession," whereby they agreed to hand over their sovereignty to India. The chief architects of this development were Vallabhbhai Patel and his agent, V.P. Menon. While Patel and Mountbatten did much of the formal negotiation from Delhi, it was Menon who went to hundreds of different Maharajahs all over India, and worked out agreements. According to Guha, because of his indefatigability and his remarkable competence, Menon is one of the unsung heroes of this story.

After Kashmir (which we'll talk about next week), the state that gave the most difficulty in agreeing to Accession was Hyderabad, which was governed by a Muslim Nizam, but with a Hindu majority.

At 80,000 square miles, Hyderabad was a huge state, bigger geographically than Great Britain. The Nizam of Hyderabad was one of the wealthiest men in the world, and it's not hard to see why he resisted turning over his position of power and eminence to what would surely be a diminished role in a united India. Faced with the request that he integrate Hyderabad with India, he preferred independence, but at various points he suggested he might throw in his lot with Pakistan.

There were pro-Congress/Democracy groups in the state under the Nizam, as well as a significant Communist movement. But the most important group was the Nizam's own Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, a kind of proto-Islamist movement, led by a radical (fanatic?) named Kasim Razvi (sometimes spelled Qasim Razvi). With the Nizam's support Kasim Razvi organized thousands of armed "Razakars" to protect the Nizam's interests and harrass his opponents.

This Kasim Razvi turns out to be quite an interesting character. Guha describes him as follows:

In April 1948, a correspondent of The Times of London visited Hyderabad. He interviewd Kasim Razvi and found him to be a 'fanatical demagogue with great gifts of organization. As a 'rabble-rouser' he is formidable, and even in a tete-a-tete he is compelling.' Razvi saw himself as a prospective leader of a Muslim state, a sort of Jinnah for the Hyderabadis, albeit a more militant one. He had a portrait of the Pakistani leader prominently displayed in his room. Razvi told an Indian journalist that he greatly admired Jinnah, adding that 'whenever I am in doubt I go to him for counsel which he never grudges giving me.'

Pictures of Razvi show him with a luxuriant beard. He looked 'rather like an oriental Mephistopheles.' His most striking feature was his flashing eyes, 'from which the fire of fanaticism exudes.' He had contempt for the Congress, saying, 'we do not want Brahmin or Bania rule here.' Asked which side the Razakars would take if Pakistan and India clashed, Razvi answered that Pakistan could take care of itself, but added: 'Wherever Muslim interests are affected, our interest and sympathy will go out. This applies of course to Palestine as well. Even if Muslim interests are affected in hell, our heart will go out in sympathy.' (68-69)

I quote this passage about Kasim Razvi because I think it hints at how much worse things could have gone in Hyderabad. By 1948, Razvi's Razakars were known to be harrassing Hindus in some of Hyderabad's larger cities (Aurangabad, Bidar, and the city of Hyderabad); some Hindus were beginning to flee to surrounding regions, causing refugee problems in neighboring Madras. There were also rumors that arms were being smuggled into Hyderabad from Pakistan as well as eastern Europe, which was just recovering from the mother of all wars. While the Nizam resisted acceding to India out of self-interest, Kasim Razvi and his Razakars were resisting out of ideology, and they had the numbers -- and would eventually have the arms -- to pose a threat to a new Indian government with lots of other problems to deal with.

After Mountbatten's departure in June 1948, the Indian union's patience with Hyderabad ran out, and in September 1948, a military force moved in. Within a few days the Razakars were out of business, and the Nizam publicly agreed to accede to India.

Today, I think, few people could seriously imagine a different outcome. But if the Indian government had been less focused on its objective, or if it had decided that military force wasn't necessary, or even if it had delayed further in using force, I think it's a distinct possibility that Hyderabad might have remained free for at least a few years longer, and the story of accession could have been much bloodier.

As to whether Hyderabad could have remained independent forever, it seems like a rather remote possibility -- though it is interesting to contemplate. (Perhaps someone should write a fictional, "bizarro world" version of modern South Asian history, with a massive, independent Hyderabad smack in the middle of the Deccan peninsula...)

[Cross posted at Sepia Mutiny]

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Chapter a Week: Ram Guha's "India After Gandhi"

I've had Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi on my shelf for a couple of months, waiting to be seriously cracked. Why not read it together? It's not a book club that I'm suggesting, or at least, not exactly -- since anyone who proposed an 850 page historical tome as a book club selection would have to be out of his mind.

What I propose is this: we'll look at a chapter or so a week, and go in sequence. In each case, I'll try and present some of the main ideas in each chapter in a blog post, so readers can participate in the discussion even if they haven't read that chapter of the book. The idea is to do a survey of post-independence Indian history with emphasis on the conflicts that have occurred in various states. Guha tends to be much more pro-Nehru than is fashionable these days (since liberalization, many people blame Nehru for keeping India behind; I think this is mistaken). He is also scrupulous in looking at "marginal" communities such as the tribals, who are often left out of major histories. From the chapters I've read, Guha seems to be quite fair in his approach, and his style of writing is accessible without being 'dumbed down' in the least.

Next week's topic will be chapter 3, "Apples in the Basket," where Guha looks at how the Princely States were incorporated into the union -- sort of a neglected topic. For now, however, I wanted to look at a controversy that has come up around one of the earlier chapters (Chapter 2), where Guha talks about the events leading up to Partition.

* * *

Reihan Salam has given his opinion, on the "Partition" chapters, and on the book as a whole, which he disliked. The following is from a blog post Salam did at the blog The American Scene shortly after Tyler Cowen announced he would be discussing the book at his own blog:

Because I hold Tyler Cowen in the highest esteem, so much so that I will buy almost anything he recommends, I purchased Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi.

And it's bad. Really, really bad.

Basically, this is a work of hagiography (of Nehru, specifically, who deserves better by dint of having been an actual human being, and a quite shrewd one at that) that reflects an intensely partisan outlook: Guha is a partisan of the India's bien-pensant upper-middle left. You'd be far better served by reading anything by Ayesha Jalal or the Marxist intellectual Aijaz Ahmad. Amazingly, given that Guha is a serious scholar and (supposed) left intellectual who has considerable spent time outside India, he offers a Attenborough-esque portrait of a dastardly Jinnah and he demonizes Pakistan. (link)

I couldn't disagree with Reihan more. First of all, I'm not sure how Ramachandra Guha is "intensely partisan," and I'm not sure exactly what is mean by "India's bien-pensant upper-middle left." If he is referring to Indian leftists who come from privileged backgrounds, I think all leftists who are academics would probably be described that way, including, without question, Aijaz Ahmad. Having been a reader of Ram Guha's essays in magazines like Outlook for the past few years, I'm not even really sure it's accurate to say that Guha is a "leftist" at all -- if anything, his recent opinions have seemed to me to be more centrist than anything else. (We could discuss this.)

I also think Salam is wrong on substance. I don't think Guha demonizes Jinnah or Pakistan, certainly not in the early chapters. In chapter 2, Guha allocates blame for the disaster of the Partition three ways: 1) the Congress Party, especially Nehru, who early on disregarded the demands of Jinnah and the Muslim League, 2) Jinnah and the Muslim League, and 3) the British, who to some extent fanned the flames of communal hatred to protect their own interests.

Here are two paragraphs where Guha gives a brief account of the political break-down between Congress and the Muslim League that led the Muslim League to seek Partition:

It is true that Nehru and Gandhi made major errors of judgment in their dealings with the Muslim League. In the 1920s, Gandhi ignored Jinnah and tried to make common cause with the mullahs. In the 1930s, Nehru arrogantly and, as it turned out, falsely, claimed the Muslim masses would rather follow his socialist credo than a party based on faith. Meanwhile, the Muslims steadily moved over from teh Congress to the League. In the 1930s, when Jinnah was willing to make a deal, he was ignored; in the 1940s, with the Muslims solidly behind him, he had no reason to make a deal at all.

It is also true that some of Jinnah's political turns defy any explanation other than personal ambition. He was once known as an 'ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity' and a practitioner of constitutional politics. Even as he remade himself as a defender of Islam and Muslims, in his personal life he ignored the claims of faith. . . . However, from the late 1930s on he began to stoke religious passions. The process was to culminate in his calling for Direct Action Day, the day that set off the bloody violence and counter-violence that finally made partition inevitable. (41-42)

Jinnah is certainly being criticized here for stoking the fires of communalism to his own advantage. But I think Guha is being fair when he refers to Nehru as "arrogant" earlier on in the process.

Guha argues that partition was inevitable by 1946, and nearly inevitable as early as the 1940s. The Muslim League, which in 1927 was quite small, had expanded rapidly in the 1930s, running largely on a platform of "Muslim Unity," and by 1940 started calling for a separate state. The communal platform worked: Guha points out that by 1944 the party had 500,000 members in Bengal and 200,000 members in Punjab. It was not just Jinnah's ambition -- the Muslim League was a genuine mass-movement.

Guha also looks at the Provincial Assembly elections of 1946, which pretty much sealed the deal for Partition. Again, the Muslim League ran on a Muslim Unity/Pakistan platform, and was highly successful. Of the 492 "reserved" seats for Muslims in 1946, the League won 429 seats. The Congress still had an overall majority (927 seats), but the anti-Pakistan Muslim representatives were effectively swept out of power, leaving the Congress with no negotiating power whatsoever.

As for whether Jinnah was right or wrong, it's now hardly worth arguing over. All but the most extreme religious partisans now accept the division of India as a fact, not likely to ever be reversed.

However, it is interesting to compare Jinnah's account of why he desired Partition with that of a pro-Congress Muslim intellectual, Maulana Azad. Both of these quotes are epigraphs to Guha's Chapter 2, and I find them quite telling:

M.A. Jinnah: the problem in India is not of an intercommunal but manifestly of an international character, and must be treated as such. . . . It is a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits, and is the cause of most of our troubles, and will lead India to destruction, if we fail to revise our actions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on and of life are different. (from Jinnah's Presidential Address, 1940)

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: It was India's historic destiny that many human races and cultures should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here. . . . Eleven hundred years of common history [of Islam and Hinduism] have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. . . . These thousand years of our joint life [have] moulded us into a common nationality. . . .Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity. (from Azad's Congress Presidential Address, 1940)

Again, it probably isn't fair to ask Jinnah to play by today's standards, but I find myself much more in agreement with Maulana Azad's view of history and of the shared, hybrid Indian culture he espouses.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sameness, what Sameness?

Mukul Kesavan has a column in the Calcutta Telegraph. It is, I think, the first full-frontal attack on the desi blogosphere that I've seen published in an Indian newspaper.

And it's so, so wrong. Let's start at the beginning:

Every English-speaking Indian man between 25 and 60 has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to and the curse of communalism. You mightn’t have read them all (there are a lot of them and some don’t make it to print) but their manuscripts exist and in this age of the internet, these masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog. A cultural historian from the remote future (investigating, perhaps, the death of English in India) might use up a sub-section of a chapter to explore the sameness of their concerns. Why did a bunch of grown men, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, write about the same movies, novels, journeys and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television? (link)

First, my biggest complaint with Kesavan's piece is his refusal to name names. The "Republic of Blog" is for him guilty of a mind-numbing sameness, but if he doesn't tell us what blogs he's reading, it's impossible to verify what he says.

Second, why only men? Aren't there lots of Indian women bloggers? Indeed, there are too many to list, so let's just name one good one: Rashmi Bansal's Youth Curry.

Third, why not acknowledge that people are blogging in various Indian languages? In addition to its English "main page," Desipundit links to blogs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, and Marathi. (Sadly, no Punjabi...)

Then the substantive question -- amongst Indian male bloggers writing in English, is there in fact a deadening sameness? Do people really only talk about, as Kesavan suggests 1) Hindi films, 2) English novels, 3) various and sundry travels, and 4) Communalism? And do the comments on communalism all take a left-center approach (commonly derided as "pseudo-secular")?

Two of the four topics named by Kesavan, English-language novels and communalism, are a little strange coming from him; Kesavan is himself the author of an English-language novel (quite a good one, actually), as well as a book called Secular Common-Sense. (More recently, he published a book about Cricket, Men in White, which I haven't seen.)

I think a quick look at some of the links at the (now dated) Top 100 Indian blogs at suggests a great deal more diversity than Kesavan allows. He doesn't mention all the tech blogs (there are LOTS of those, and they get many more readers than even popular general interest blogs like India Uncut), cooking blogs, defense policy blogs, or, for that matter, cricket blogs.

It's true that a lot of what people post on their blogs often isn't that exciting; it's intellectual chit-chat, quick links, and regurgitated news. But I think that chit-chat is, in an indirect way, actually a really important sign of a society's well being. And when the discussions turn to politics, the to-and-fro of conversations (and yes, arguments) that take place on blogs as well as in the mainstream media can be a really important way by which democracy sustains itself. Blogging can be one measure of the health of civil society.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Will the U.S. India Nuclear Deal Get Nuked?

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing the threat of a mutiny from the left parties in his coalition government over the recently-finalized -- but still not finally approved -- U.S.-India nuclear deal, also known as the "123 Agreement."

As he addressed Parliament today, some members of Left parties staged a walk-out, while others made so much noise that MPs who actually wanted to hear what was said had to use their translation headphones. On the right, the BJP has also been critical of the deal, though I tend to think it's more because of political opportunism than anything else: one gets the feeling they wish they'd pulled this off.

Thus far, the Congress Party hasn't seemed seriously concerned about a collapse of the government; no one is yet talking about votes of no-confidence, mid-term polls, or rejiggering the deal to make critics happy.

Are the Communists and others on the left bluffing when they say they will walk away from the Coalition government over this? I tend to think so, though I could be wrong. Indian politics -- with the combination of regional and caste parties in addition to the left/right axis -- is often so complicated, it makes the U.S. system seem laughably simple. Still the Times has a certain wry tone in its summary of where the opposition is coming from:

At one point in Mr, Singh’s speech, the Left parties, which provide crucial support to his Congress-led coalition government, walked out of the house. The Left has opposed the nuclear accord with the United States since it was announced, less over the specific provisions of the accord than over the general principle of closer ties to America.

“We do not share the optimism that India can become a great power with the help of the United States,” Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said on Saturday. (link)

(This is where I sniff in Prakash Karat's general direction.)

For those who have kind of let the whole U.S.-India nuclear deal slip past them in recent months, Siddharth Varadarajan has a good point-by-point summary of the agreement here. And the full text of the agreement, released by the U.S. State Department, is here.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Martha Nussbaum on India's "Clash Within"

Pankaj Mishra recently reviewed Martha Nussbaum's new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future in the New York Review of Books. The review gives some tantalizing hints as to Nussbaum's arguments, but Mishra also spends a considerable amount of time rehashing his own views (rather than Nussbaum's) on the subjects of communalism and India's evolution as a free market economy.

A better introduction to Nussbaum's ideas about India can be found in a good-sized extract from the new book that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month. (Also check out Ramachandra Guha's review here. And finally, there's an MP3 Podcast of Nussbaum's lecture at the University of Chicago you can download here; listen especially to Nussbaum's prefatory comments on what led her to this project.) For those who are unfamiliar with Nussbaum's interest in India, she has collaborated closely with Amartya Sen in the past, and also published a book called Women and Human Development that dealt with gender issues in India.

* * *

Nussbaum is clear from the start that the main goal of her book is to help American readers see India's communalism problems in a global context. She wants to debunk Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, and suggest Gandhi as an alternative:

The case of Gujarat is a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the "clash of civilizations," made famous by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. His picture of the world as riven between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith does nothing to help us understand today's India, where, I shall argue, the violent values of the Hindu right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s, and where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination. Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Sir Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts. (link)

What's interesting about this is the way Nussbaum -- by training a philosopher -- keeps a philosophical (rather than a political) idea at the center of her argument. She is not talking about competing political systems or the ideologies of individual political parties so much as she is trying to suggest competing ways of understanding the "self" in a world full "others."

That said, Nussbaum does get into some specific details, and outlines a version of the rise of the Hindu right starting with the arguments of Savarkar and Golwalkar, and ending in Gujarat 2002. (Some readers will agree with her version of events, some may disagree. I think she is substantially correct.)

For Nussbaum, the rhetoric of Hindutva is to a great extent a rhetoric of masculinity under threat:

The creation of a liberal public culture: How did fascism take such hold in India? Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism, and daily life tends to emphasize the ferment and vigor of difference, as people from so many ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds encounter one another. But as I've noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

At the same time, the RSS filled a void, organizing at the grass-roots level with great discipline and selflessness. The RSS is not just about fascist ideology; it also provides needed social services, and it provides fun, luring boys in with the promise of a group life that has both more solidarity and more imagination than the tedious world of government schools.

So what is needed is some counterforce, which would supply a public culture of pluralism with equally efficient grass-roots organization, and a public culture of masculinity that would contend against the appeal of the warlike and rapacious masculinity purveyed by the Hindu right. The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.

Gandhi understood that. He taught his followers that life's real struggle was a struggle within the self, against one's own need to dominate and one's fear of being vulnerable. He deliberately focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect, and he deliberately cultivated an androgynous maternal persona. More significantly still, he showed his followers that being a "real man" is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one's own instincts to aggression and standing up to provocation with only one's human dignity to defend oneself. I think that in some respects, he went off the tracks, in his suggestion that sexual relations are inherently scenes of domination and in his recommendation of asceticism as the only route to nondomination. Nonetheless, he saw the problem at its root, and he proposed a public culture that, while he lived, was sufficient to address it. (link)

I think the threatened-masculinity point is interesting, as is Nussbaum's proposed alternative. For her, the way to combat the hyper-virility of communal groups is not anti-masculinity, but an alternative conception of what it might mean to assert oneself as a man. I'm not sure the Gandhian idea of masculinity -- which has always struck me as a little weird, frankly -- is the best way to go, but this is still a provocative point.

* * *

The one point of disagreement I have with Nussbaum -- at least from the extract I linked to -- relates to whether the "clash within" is primarily a matter of Hindus/Muslim tension. As I've been watching Indian politics over the past few years, I've been struck, first, by the degree to which regional and state political considerations have come to dominate over grand ideology and national politics. Secondly, I've been struck by the continuing electoral fragmentation by caste -- the Indian political system is not simply divided on a left/right diagram, but cut into a much more fragmentary array of caste-based political parties that can form (and break) alliances with the national parties at the will their respective leaders. Nussbaum may in fact be right about the principal problem in Indian politics (i.e., her philosophy of "the clash within"), but perhaps she needs to move beyond her current exclusive focus on Hindu/Muslim conflicts.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

A brief quote from me -- in the Times of India

An old blog post by me was quoted in a recent Times of India article on the outgoing Indian President, APJ Abdul Kalam.

The TOI didn't email me to ask if I had any recent comment, nor did it notify me it was using a quote. It also doesn't specify that the quote in question is actually from a blog post, not from a live source.

Still, the Times of India does have a lot of readers!

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Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs of Punjab

A major conflict has broken out in Punjab, between the orthodox Sikh community and a sect (which may or may not be understood as a 'Sikh' sect) called Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS). It's a strange and complex issue, involving caste issues (DSS members are predominantly from what are called 'backward' castes), politics (DSS supporters are overwhelmingly Congress party supporters, while Punjab has for many years been dominated by the BJP-allied Akali Dal), as well fundamental questions of who gets to determine how a religion is defined.

The BBC has the basic details here:

Cities and towns across the northern Indian state of Punjab are shut in response to a general strike called by the Sikh community.

Security forces have been deployed and businesses and schools are closed for the day amid fears of violence.

Sikhs are demanding an apology from the leader of a religious sect who appeared in an advert dressed like one of the Sikh religion's most important figures.

Sikh community leaders say it is an insult to their religion. (link)

The DSS leader's name is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and there was controversy surrounding his leadership of the DSS before the current conflagration began. The DSS has grown quite rapidly in recent years, but its is also being investigated by the CBI on charges of sexual molestation, according to the Times of India:

The era also saw the sect embroiled in a number of contentious issues, especially those involving the dera chief. In 2003, an anonymous letter alleged sexual exploitation of young girls at the dera. Later, murder of a senior member of the dera and a Sirsa-based journalist set the rumour mills working overtime. Family members of the slain scribe moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, demanding a CBI probe into the role of dera in the murder. The case was handed over to the CBI. However, the CBI probe moved at a slow pace despite the HC pulling up the investigating agency. Also, political pressure and protests by dera followers did not help.

More recently, the dera courted trouble just before the Punjab assembly elections this year. Though it enjoyed the patronage of both the Akali and Congress leaders, the president issued an edict asking his followers to support Congress candidates. According to sources, this favour was extended after the party (Punjab Congress) promised relief in the CBI case. Post elections, there have been complaints of Akalis harassing dera men. (link)

That last point in the TOI above suggests how much might be at stake in this conflict; it also shows how intimately religion and politics are intertwined in India. This is at once a religious and a political conflict, and suggestions that the state remain neutral on a matter of religious doctrine, while correct in principle, do not really seem to apply. (It's yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to comprehend India's "secularism")

As a final comment, I should note that while I myself don't have very much first-hand knowledge of the various Dera sects (there are dozens) that are currently active all over Punjab and its neighboring states, a blogger named SidhuSaaheb (via Neha Vishwanathan at Global Voices Online) does have a fair bit to say about the DSS:

As I keep track of the coverage, in newspapers and on television, of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy, there are a few things that strike me as strange.

Firstly, the Dera has been described as a 'Sikh sect' in certain sections of the news media, whereas it has nothing to do with Sikhism (or any other religious faith, as for that matter).

Secondly, something that has been part of conversations in urban drawing-rooms and rural baithhaks in Punjab i.e. the Dera head issued an edict to his followers to vote for Congress (I) in the recent state assembly elections, only because that party offered to help 'dispose off' the criminal cases filed against the Baba and his followers (the charges include murder and sexual abuse), in case it was able to form the government, does not appear to have been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television channel.

Thirdly, most media reports seem to imply that the Sikhs have been outraged merely by the fact that the Baba appeared dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, whereas, the truth is that he not only dressed like the Guru, but also attempted to replicate, to a large extent, what the Guru did on the day of the foundation of the Khalsa (in spite of the counter-claims made in the latest press statement put out by the Dera). He tried to do a 'role play', in which he put himself in the place of the Tenth Master. (link)

He goes on to make some direct allegations about the murder of a family member by DSS members.

The note of outrage in SidhuSaaheb's account of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's actions is one I've also heard from every other Sikh I've talked to in recent weeks, as this has been unfolding. The sense of outrage is also very much present in this Outlook article by Chander Suta Dogra.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

"Matrubhoomi" -- Brilliant, Flawed

It took us a long time to get around to seeing the film Matrubhoomi -- it didn't screen in many theaters in the U.S. when it first came out in the U.S. in 2005, and it just generally looked a bit depressing. For those who haven't heard of it, Matrubhoomi takes the severe gender imbalance in certain Indian states (including Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP, and MP), caused by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, and takes it to an extreme level. The result is a dystopian future village environment -- where there are no women at all.

Jai has a smart review of the film at Jabberwock, where he admires the brilliant concept and accurately notes the film's flaws. Jai finds that the film's actual plot ends up failing despite a provocative concept, because it's dominated by "cardboard cutout stereotypes" of rapacious men. One woman, played by Tulip Joshi, is "bought" by a wealthy Seth with five unmarried sons. She ends up being handed off from one son to the other each night, with the father sleeping with her on the other two nights of the week.

I did want to register a minor defense of an admittedly flawed film, precisely over the way in which Tulip Joshi's character is treated in the family after her marriage. Instead of treating her as a valued member of the family, the men in the household only intensify her suffering and subjugation, which is consistent with the misogynist logic that has produced the gender imbalance to begin with. The fact that she is purchased by her husbands (bride-price) rather than subsidized by her family (dowry) doesn't improve her status, since the patriarchal structure in which the "traffic in women" is conducted is controlled by men purely out of a twisted concept of self-interest. It isn't important whether a woman in this system is understood as an "asset" (bride price) or "liability" (dowry); as long as they are traded (like farm animals, the film repeatedly suggests), there can be little respite.

In real life, one has to wonder whether the current cultural norms preferring sons to daughters present in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana will start to shift as the gender imbalance becomes an entrenched fact of life -- and the number of men living lives without women continues to grow.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Mohsin Hamid Media Coverage; Pankaj Mishra on Matar, Lailami

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is getting quite a lot of publicity this week. I've been an admirer of his first novel, Moth Smoke, which I think of as giving a fresh, entertaining image of the changes occurring in urban Pakistan in the globalization era. It also has an irreverent, off-beat style, somewhat reminiscent of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. When I've taught it in courses on South Asian literature, I've found that students really tend to latch onto it -- often more than writers like Ghosh, Rushdie, or Mistry.

Initially, I've been less than enthused about picking up Hamid's new novel, along the lines of: do I really need to read another book about the tension between fundamentalism and modernity? This ground has been covered so many times already -- starting with The Satanic Verses -- that one doesn't expect to be surprised. But the more I hear about the novel, the more interested I've become.

A good place to start might be the 20 minute interview Hamid did this week with Terry Gross, where (among other things) they spent a fair amount of time discussing how having or not having a beard affects how you're perceived, in both Pakistan and the UK/US. Apparently this is a major theme in the novel as well; as a dariwalla (bearded person), I approve.

And there's been other prominent coverage of the book, including an interview where Hamid discusses his allusions to Camus' 1957 novel The Fall:

The Fall is very clearly a model for this novel – both in the first sentence, and throughout the book I try to acknowledge Jean-Baptiste (who is present in the Chilean publisher who Changez meets later in the book), it’s something I did very consciously. In 1957 this idea of trying to break down the individual, and debunk the notion of us being good – something literature and the world has done very successfully – was quite radical. Now no one goes around thinking the individual is good; we're all tarnished. If you look behind anyone you find all sorts of stuff. What’s surprising given that, is that notions of larger collectives haven’t been debunked as thoroughly. We indulge ourselves in larger narratives that remain fundamentally good. Somehow, there is an emotional tribal feeling that remains. And that tribal feeling is actually particularly encouraged in America, as the only victor of the Second World War still standing. And in the Muslim world, it’s a sense of decadence and decline and impotence, which causes people to reach out for a similar type of

More in the political vein, I've been impressed to see Hamid directly challenging Pervez Musharraf's recent actions against Pakistan's judiciary in the Daily Times:

Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanised protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday. (link)

And the interview with Hamid in Tehelka from August 2006 was pretty striking -- actually quite confrontational in tone. Hamid feels the Indian media (even Tehelka!) has a somewhat hysterical attitude about Pakistan, which is perhaps borne out by the interviewer's own rather bizarre choice of questions ("What about Pakistan makes you blanch?" ?!?). In general, I think Hamid makes some good points, especially on the Indian media's tendency to immediately point at Pakistan whenever there is a bombing -- irrespective of whether the evidence warrants it:

I think India is terrified of looking inside itself because if a homegrown Indian Muslim group has done this in Bombay, you’d have massacres. India is a tinderbox so it’s forced to look outside. Who’s backing the Naxalites? People out of Nepal? Who’s backing the Muslim groups? Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are a billion Indians, many of whom are very upset with the government and could certainly be involved. In Pakistan, we have sectarian bombings all the time. Certainly one could say these are the work of Indian intelligence agencies. Perhaps they are. But I think it’s a mistake to look at these problems in this way and ignore what is often a very strong domestic component. I think Pakistan is right now desperate for a peace deal on Kashmir. Musharraf — like him or not — is bending over to find some compromise. But India is completely uncompromising. It prefers the status quo so any time there’s a bomb in India, it can be blamed on Pakistan. (link)

Well, I'm not sure whether what Musharraf has put on the table regarding Kashmir is really a workable compromise. And overall, I think I'm more anti-Musharraf than Mohsin Hamid is; I'm a little surprised, for instance, that he's not saying anything here about Mukhtar Mai or the status of women under Pakistani law as he considers Musharraf's legacy. That said, his perspective is a helpful corrective to some jingoistic/paranoid images of Pakistan that are often circulated.

* * *

I was also interested in Pankaj Mishra's recent review of Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Matar is a Libyan novelist, writing about life under the shadow of Qaddafi. Like Hamid, his book has been getting prominently displayed in the Barnes & Noble stores near my house -- it clearly seems to be doing quite well. Are publishers trying to make it into the "next" Kite Runner?

What's striking from Mishra's review is how personal, even intimate, the novel appears to be, despite the backdrop of state repression, disappearances, and torture. One quote Mishra pulls from the novel struck me as being particularly memorable:

Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. (from In The Country of Men; link)

Mishra also favorably reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which is another book that I've had on my "to read" list for quite awhile.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Samjhauta" Thwarted: Another Senseless, Horrible Bombing

It's difficult to know what to say sometimes after terrorist attacks like the recent bombing of the Samjhauta Express. 68 innocent people lost their lives -- and for what? If it turns out to be an attack planned by Kashmiri militants or other Islamists, this kind of attack seems particularly bizarre, as it appears that the majority of the people who died were in fact Pakistanis. (If another motive or ideological agenda was behind the attack, it's not as if it would be any better.) And needless to say, if this follows the pattern of some other recent terrorist attacks in India, it's entirely possible -- likely, even -- that weeks will go by without any satisfactory answers appearing. (I'm perfectly happy to be proven wrong if this turns out not to be true.)

Here are some of the issues I've seen people discussing with regards to this attack:

  • At Outlook, there is an interesting article that describes in depth the general lack of security on the Samjhauta Express train. Hopefully, both governments are going to seriously revamp this.

  • A big question that people are asking is, were the doors locked from the inside, preventing people who survived the original explosions from escaping the two burning cars? Some witnesses have claimed they were, but India has denied it. At Bharat-Rakshak, however, I came across a commenter who has a good explanation for why this might have been done:

    In north India, when travelling overight, train compartments are usually locked from inside to prevent entry of people who do not have reservations in that compartment. The TT opens them at stations to allow entry only the passengers that belong to that compartment.

    With intense heat, the locked door latches must have jammed. It is difficult to open these latches even otherwise. Women and kids have to ask other passengers to help then open the door.

    The windows in trains are barred to prevent 'chain snatching' and other types of burglaries. (link)

    Those sound like good reasons, but I hope after this tragedy officials are thinking about possible failsafe mechanisms, so nothing like this happens again.

  • Sketches have been released of the suspects. They were apparently speaking the "local Hindi language." That doesn't tell us much, however.

  • What was the explosive used? The bombs are being described as IEDs with kerosene and other "low intensity" fuels -- in other words, not RDX or other material obtained through transnational networks. These sound like materials that are very easily available, but still incredibly deadly for people in a confined space. A witness at the BBC mentions that the explosions did not force the conductor to stop the train right away -- indeed, he may not have known about them until several minutes after the fires started.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Begum Nawazish Ali Running For Parliament in Pakistan

So, there was a big article in the New York Times recently (thanks, TechnophobicGeek) about how Indian TV is supposedly entering this golden age of innovative programming. Some of the shows mentioned have actually been talked about before at Sepia Mutiny, including "Galli Galli Sim Sim." There's also an interesting segment on a new reality show oriented to teenagers, called "Dhoom Machao Dhoom," about four girls who want to start a band. One of them is a "returned" ABCD from New York, which makes for interesting drama when she says they should write their own songs instead of just doing Bollywood numbers (the other girls refuse, saying "Only Bollywood works here").

Anyway, it's a decent read, but it strikes me that Indian TV remains a narrow-minded backwater as long as Pakistan has Begum Nawazish Ali. Via 3 Quarks Daily, I came across a new profile at MSNBC of Pakistan's famous celebrity drag queen and talk show host. Among other things, the Begum freely admits her "bisexuality," though I'm not sure she means it the way we might think she means it. (Venial Sin, as you may remember, wasn't thrilled about her performance: "I mean, kudos to Begum Nawazish Ali for getting to pull a tranny routine on TV, but how necessary is it to reiterate the stereotypes of a gay man as an effeminate 'woman stuck in a male body' or as a hijra?")

But now comes the news that she plans to run for Pakistani Parliament:

Then Saleem dropped a bombshell. "You are the first person I am announcing this to, but I have decided to file my papers for the upcoming general elections," he exclaimed. "I am going to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent from all over Pakistan and I am going to campaign as Begum Nawazish Ali!" The note of triumph and excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

"I want to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan," he continued. "The idea was always to break barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to bring people closer. In any case, I think Begum Nawazish Ali is the strongest woman in Pakistan!"

Whether Pakistanis agree or not, the elections at the end of the year are likely to be one of the most uproarious in recent times. (link)

Interesting -- we'll see if her political career (is she really serious?) is going to be as groundbreaking as her showbiz career has been.

There are many theories about how it is the Begum can get away with it in conservative Pakistan. She's been careful not to be crude in the Dame Edma vein, but still -- there are some serious social taboos being transgressed here. What do you think?

In case you're wondering what the fuss is about, I might recommend this 10 minute Youtube clip of the Begum doing her thing. The jokes are corny, but the sari and make-up are exquisite.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Aishwarya Marries Tree(s)--A Setback for Feminism?

Aishwarya Rai, who has been in the news lately because of her engagement to Abhishek Bachchan, has apparently been ritually married to not one but two trees before her real marriage (thanks, Antahkarana). The aim is to counter the astrological effects of being born a Manglik:

But Ash is reportedly blighted with what in astrological terms is described as “manglik dosh,” which means that the planet Mars (mangla) and possibly even the planet Saturn are in the seventh house. People with manglik dosh are prone to multiple marriages, according to San Francisco Bay Area Vedic astrologer Pandit Parashar. That means Ash’s marriage to Abhishek could either end in divorce or his death.

In Hindu tradition, in order to offset the evil influence of manglik dosh, a woman should marry a peepal or banana tree before she ties the knot with her fiancé. Or she could even marry a clay urn, which should be broken soon after the nuptial ceremonies, signifying that the bride has become a widow, and the manglik dosh problem has been solved.

It’s not known if Ash has married, or plans to marry, an urn, but she reportedly has married a peepal tree in the holy city of Varanasi, and a banana tree in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. (link)

The Indian media is reporting that a case has been filed against the Bachchan family by lawyer Shruti Singh to the effect that these types of practices promote untouchability. She has also suggested that it's offensive to women.

There has been some discussion of this event on the blog Feministing, and one commenter there points out that the practice of marrying a tree can also be recommended for men, though I haven't been able to confirm that. (If true, that would definitely weaken the case that this is a misogynistic ritual.) Other commenters have suggested that this is probably pretty harmless in the big scheme of things -- especially since honor killings, dowry killings, child marriages, and forced marriages are still problems in Indian society.

What do you think? Is this "backward" practice part of a slippery slope (only one step away from things that are much more problematic), or something basically harmless? What do you think of Shruti Singh's claim that this practice promotes untouchability? I must admit I don't know very much about Hindu astrology, and so can't say what role caste plays in these practices in general.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Travelers: Ryszard Kapuscinski in The New Yorker

Last week's New Yorker had an intriguing travel narrative by a Polish journalist named Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski went to India for the first time in 1955, knowing no Hindi and little English. Arriving, he felt a little like he'd landed on the moon.

The most interesting part of the story, perhaps not surprisingly, has to do with Kapuscinski's attempt to learn both English while in India:

I walked around the city, copying down signs, the names of goods in stores, words overheard at bus stops. In movie theatres, I scribbled blindly, in darkness, the words on the screen; I noted the slogans on banners carried by demonstrators in the streets. I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells but through words; and not the words of the indigenous Hindi but those of a foreign, imposed tongue, which by then had so fully taken root there that it was for me an indispensable key to the country.

It's also intriguing that the book he was using as an entry point to the English language was Heminway's magnificently convoluted novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls.

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