Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The highly popular programme on the idiot box, Sach Ka Samna (lit. Face the Truth, modelled on Moment of Truth, an American show)  has raised complex questions that cannot be answered with a simple True or False polygraph tests. The Delhi High Court recent ruling on the issue throws this complexity back at its citizens by declaring that “In this land of Gandhi, it appears that nobody follows Gandhi…Follow the Gandhi principle of ‘see no evil’. Why do you not simply switch off the TV?”

So here we are, back in front of the TV wondering what is that we like and dislike about the programme. Is it the indignation that the questions arouse, the voyeurism or the pot of gold that attracts the participants and the viewers alike?

In his highly engaging book, On Identity, Lebanese writer and thinker Amin Maalouf, takes the moral dilemma that we experience head on, “Each one of us,” he writes “has two heritages, a ‘vertical’ one that comes to us from our ancestors, our religious community and our popular traditions, and a ‘horizontal’ one transmitted to us by our contemporaries and by the age we live in.”

Seen from this perspective, the objections cited by the Samajwadi Party MP Kamal Akhtar and Ms Najma Heptullah fall into the vertical heritage, and hence deserve our attention. When Mr Akhtar refers to the programme as ‘ashleel’ (debasing or obscene) he’s only voicing what many others also feel.

Take for instance, the episodes that featured the 60-year-old actor, Yusuf Hussain, telecast on 16 and 17 July 2009. Mr Hussain arrived on the sets with his wife (Kanchan), girlfriend (Jezebel), daughter (Safina), son-in-law (Hansal Mehta) and brother (Habib Hussain). Here is a highlight of some of the questions that were posed to the actor:

Have you stolen bed sheets from hotels?

Did you try to save any of your three marriages?

Do you have a child out of wedlock?

If Jezebel threatens to leave you unless you marry her, will you marry her?

Have you had sex with a woman younger than your daughter, Safina?

Have you had sex with a prostitute?

Do you believe you can be loyal to one woman?

Taking cue from the complex social fabric prevalent in the country, the producers of the programme it would appear thought it ‘exciting’ to feature a Muslim man, thrice married and living with his girlfriend. A similar approach was adopted by the makers of Rakhi ka Swayamwar, when they knowingly included a married Muslim man with three children as one of the contestants/suitors. He was rejected by Rakhi Sawant, who on screen, true to Bollywood siren adaa, expressed shock and disgust at his overtures. The participant, Arther Pervez, ousted since then, has gone on record to say that the producers of ‘Swayamwar’ were well aware of his marital status before inviting him to participate in the show.

While we may adopt many things, via the ‘horizontal heritage’ from the West including its culture seeped in Christian Puritanism — almost all questions in SKS revolve around the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) and the Ten Commandments (such as honour thy mother and father, thou shall not kill, thou shall not commit adultery, thou shall not steel, thy shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour, thou shall not covet your neighbours wife and thou shall not covet thy neighbours goods)  — other cultural norms are rarely borrowed.

For example, in the United States, where Moment of Truth ran successfully, thumb rule is that every citizen, especially every member of a minority, should encounter recognizable names and faces when he watches television, and should see himself/ herself presented positively to prevent him from feeling excluded from the national community. There is no doubt in this instance that neither, Arther Pervez nor Yusuf Hussain, nor the minority community watching the show, felt positive about depiction of its community.

The cry against SKS, however, goes beyond ridiculing a community. More importantly, it touches upon our shared ‘cultural values’.  When Ms Heptullah questions the purpose of the programme, by asking if a girl decides to become pregnant as a minor, it is her problem, “Why should that be said in public?” she’s voicing the prevalent social mores that advise ‘dishonourable’ acts to be swept under the carpet. The Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Ambika Soni, is no different when she claims that “A ‘Lakshman Rekha’ is required. We are copying Western culture and a line needs to be drawn somewhere.”

As in the rest of Asia, India is yet to come to grips with its new self. While on one hand, age old social norms of patriarchy and feaudalism (including honour killings) continue to underpin our society, the push of globalization have made us less different from each other. As Maalouf, aptly says, “If we assert our differences so fiercely it is precisely because we are less and less different from one another. Because despite our conflicts and our age-old enmities, each day that goes by reduces our differences and increases our likeness a little bit more.”

This of course, raises a far more important question and that is, are we headed for an insipid world where increasingly everyone will speak only one language, share the same bunch of minimal beliefs, and watch the same American TV programmes (Moment of Truth has run successfully in 42 countries), munching the same burgers?

It is likely that Gandhi’s answer to this question would not be a simple don’t see evil, hear no evil or say no evil.

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Remembering Kamala Das

When a poet dies an emptiness takes over. Kamala Das was not only a very brave woman but also very unique.  She once said in an interview that “what one misses about love is the yielding”. And that’s just a tip of the things she had to say about love, life and the art of surviving. If you ever read her, you’ll discover more. For the time being, I leave my readers, with this introduction she penned about herself.

An Introduction

“I don’t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of the week, or names of months, beginning with
Nehru. I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Everyone of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair. When
I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door. He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me. I shrank
Pitifully. Then…I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl,
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.”

“Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love…I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him…the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me…ocean’s tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself
I; in this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys which are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

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The screening of the first Pakistan film on Indian screens since Partition, is proving to be a momentous experience for a generation of Indians both young and old, that have been silently flocking cinema halls and multiplexes. The film released in the first week of April may not be drawing people in large crowds, but it has been a continuous trickle that has kept the film in the running for nearly two months now. Through this period, I have sat next to a middle-aged Punjabi family muttering and taking deep sighs, “this should not happen…its wrong,” and I have sat next to an Indian Muslim that sobbed on my shoulder, imploring, “why?” and I have sat with two “Tashan” loving teenagers who claimed that it was the most “meaningful” film they saw in 2008.

“Khuda Ke Liye” (In the Name of God) essayed by a first time Pakistan film director, Shoaib Mansoor (the writer of the Pakistan’s first rock band Vital Signs’ highly popular songs whose founding members include Salman Ahmad, the lead guitarist of the now nearly defunct rock group, Junoon), has received gracious applause in the Indian cinema houses, guarded criticism from the Indian film critics and graceless comments from the political commentators.

The film is by no means a cinematic tour de force. Cinematographically it’s tacky and the acting apart from the wonderful performance by Rasheed Naz as Maulana Tahiri and Naseeruddin Shah as Maulana Wali, is largely devoid of depth. In fact, as the well-known Pakistani commentator, Tariq Ali, acerbically points out, it comes across as even crude, “I went to a matinee performance in Lahore and the cinema was packed with young people,” he wrote in October 4, 2007 issue of the London Times Book Review. “The film is well intentioned, also long-winded and crude. It has, however, had an impact. At least it tries out a few ideas, which is unheard of in a country where the film industry produces nothing but Bollywood-style dross, even if the ideas are limited to the good Muslim, bad Muslim stereotype. Jihadi violence is bad. Music is good and not anti-Islamic. Violence and rape in the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghan frontier are intercut with scenes in a post-9/11 United States, where an innocent Pakistani musician is lifted by intelligence operatives and tortured…The implication is that each side feeds on the other.”

You don’t need to be a history buff to understand the reasons behind Shoaib Mansoor’s right to reclaim cultural space, hijacked by political exigencies that by force, suppression and devious intent created the divide and two nation states: India and Pakistan and the nature of the subsequent political structures that took root in the two countries.

The film is, as Ali points out a “crude” exploration of Islam in Pakistan’s conscience. Or to expand the territory a bit, the exploration of Islam in subcontinent’s conscience. But, it is also something more than that. It’s about cultural conflict between the West and the East. Imagine the film maker, for whom Lahore is just 507 km from Delhi and another mere 203km from Agra where the Taj Mahal, the symbol of love is situated. Further, think about the man who asserts that Arabic is alien to him (as it is to an Indian, we understand Urdu not Persian) or the fact that he never thought of slicing his tabeez, an amulet, to discover its content. And when he does see it, he’s as surprised as his interrogator. Listen too to the film’s music track that while acknowledging tribute to the late Punjabi quawwal, Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan, sings the rustic Punjabi Sufi saint, Bulleh Shah’s searing stanzas of devotion to absolute truth in “Bandiya Ho”. These are admissions of a soul that is connected to the idea of India before the British colonized it and as such it is a tremendous act of bravery.

Sadly, venerable columnist of the Indian Express, the self appointed provocateur of the Newspaper of Courage, Tavleen Singh, takes on the narrow “us versus them” view and takes a rabid bite by suggesting India reclaim Harrapa and Mohenjodaro. On April 13, 2008 edition of the newspaper she writes, “In Khuda Ke Liye, the prejudices against India come through as well. The hero, when he lands in Chicago, finds that his future wife does not know that Pakistan is a country. When he tries to explain where it is geographically, he mentions Iran, Afghanistan and China before coming to India. It happens that India is the only country she knows and Taj Mahal the only Indian monument she has heard of. ‘We built it,’ says our hero, ‘we ruled India for a thousand years and Spain for 800.’ As an Indian, my question is: who is we? Those who left for Pakistan or the 180 million Muslims who still live in India? If we pursue this ‘we’ nonsense, we must urge the Indian Government to bring back Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and Taxila. And that is only the short list.”

The filmmaker’s statement that “we ruled India for a thousand years….” is not about seeking the placement of Islam in power. It’s about placing the context of history in fact. Both Spain and pre-Partition India are examples of cultural synthesis that occurred on account of rulers adopting and adapting to the countries they conquered. It was not about looting, but building, and sustaining and creating new language of discourse whether it was through Jallaludin Akbar’s Din-e-illahi, the Indo-Saracenic architecture or Sufiana tradition that defines our inherited intellectual and physical landscape.

For Masroor it is making a statement about one of the most powerful nations, in the heart of Asia, having lost its crown and the right to contribute to the world as an equal, free of the Western imperialism and the accompanying mambo-jambo paraded as legitimate West-East discourse. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but how come all terrorists are Muslim?” asks the interrogator of the hero in the film. Now where did we hear this argument first?

It came from people like Ann Coulter, a George Bush supporter and a syndicated columnist with a number of conservative websites in the United States. Coulter barely a few days after 9/11, on 28 September 2001 in a column syndicated to Human Events Online, WorldNetDaily, Townhall.com, FrontPageMag and Jewish World Review, asserted that only Muslims could have been behind the attacks:

“As the entire country has been repeatedly lectured, most Muslims are amazingly peaceful, deeply religious, wouldn’t hurt a fly. Indeed, endless invocations of the pacific nature of most Muslims is the only free speech it is safe to engage in these days.

This is a preposterous irrelevancy. Fine, we get it. The New York Times can rest assured that every last American has now heard the news that not all Muslims are terrorists. That’s not the point. Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims — at least all terrorists capable of assembling a murderous plot against America that leaves 7,000 people dead in under two hours.”

Years before Partition, in a book titled, “Nationalism” (written in 1917) Rabindranath Tagore advanced that India’s resistance to imperialism must rest on ability to provide not competing nationalisms, but a creative solution to the divisiveness produced by racial consciousness. What stops us from agreeing then with Shoaib Mansoor that violence is bad, music is good and racial profiling and conflict is about who-holds-the-gun-to-your temple? And what stops us from accepting Mansoor as one of us?

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