Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Welcome to 'Prison Earth'!

Perhaps this is my last post of 2008. Here's wishing you Happy Holidays!

I end the year with a little chilling piece that I wrote for my 'official' blog. I leave it with you:

Welcome to 'Prison Earth'!

Recently, I read a story in The New York Times about a brothel in Prague. It is called the Big Sister (perhaps an allusion to the Orwellian Big Brother) which touts itself as the world’s biggest Internet brothel.

Big Sister marries the virtual with the real, leading to an unusual business model. Customers can have free sex at Big Sister. In return, they will allow the brothel to capture their exploits on film. The resulting porn is streamed live onto Big Sister’s website.

But the newspaper report was not about the innovativeness of Big Sister’s business model. Through the brothel’s example, the report highlighted how the ongoing global financial crisis was affecting the brothel’s business as the number of sex tourists coming to Prague had diminished.

The reason I cite this example is not because I want to talk about pornography or the economic crisis. My intention is to illustrate how people willfully submit their privacy (a human right) to profit-seekers.

In Big Sister’s case, the momentary carnal pleasure comes as freebie but the ultimate price that is extracted from the revellers is priceless—human privacy. Moments of compromised privacy is broadcast to those who find value in it on Sky Italia and Britain’s Television X, or sold as a DVD, like ‘World Cup Love Truck’.

What’s scary here? One’s privacy is gone for ever but it has not been taken at a gun point. One has willingly signed it off for a (Faustian?) bargain.

What’s the connection, you might ask. Replace sex with search, and you will get the point.


And if you have time, watch this interesting video:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arundhati Roy on the Mumbai tragedy

The Mumbai terror attacks shocked the entire world. Many people did many things in response to the tragedy, from shouting against the government's lack of security preparations to Pakistan bashing to lighting candles in the memory of the innocent dead.

A host of major Indian/Pakistani writers (save for Professor Amitava Kumar, who published excellent excerpts of other writers' reactions on his blog) reacted through their specially penned pieces on the tragedy: Amitava Ghosh, Arvind Adiga, Suketu Mehta, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Shashi Tharoor, and Amit Chaudhari, among others. I was kind of waiting for Arundhati Roy to write on this horror. She was perhaps the last to record her reactions but finally she did it. Here: 9 is not 11. In her piece, she makes several good points, as she always does.

In today's world, trying to pin down the provenance of a terrorist strike and isolate it within the borders of a single nation-state is very much like trying to pin down the provenance of corporate money. It's almost impossible.

In circumstances like these, air strikes to 'take out' terrorist camps may take out the camps, but certainly will not 'take out' the terrorists. And neither will war. (Also, in our bid for the moral high ground, let's try not to forget that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE of neighbouring Sri Lanka, one of the world's most deadly terrorist groups, were trained by the Indian army.)

Elephants in the room

She further notes, reacting on the typical Indian (media and experts) reaction:

Through the endless hours of analysis and the endless op-ed essays, in India at least there has been very little mention of the elephants in the room: Kashmir, Gujarat and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Instead, we had retired diplomats and strategic experts debate the pros and cons of a war against Pakistan.

And her indictment grows stronger:

Tragically, this regression into intellectual infancy comes at a time when people in India were beginning to see that the business of terrorism is a hall of mirrors in which victims and perpetrators sometimes exchange roles. It's an understanding that the people of Kashmir, given their dreadful experiences of the last 20 years, have honed to an exquisite art. On the mainland we're still learning. (If Kashmir won't willingly integrate into India, it's beginning to look as though India will integrate/disintegrate into Kashmir.)

It was after the 2001 Parliament attack that the first serious questions began to be raised. A campaign by a group of lawyers and activists exposed how innocent people had been framed by the police and the press, how evidence was fabricated, how witnesses lied, how due process had been criminally violated at every stage of the investigation. Eventually the courts acquitted two out of the four accused, including S.A.R. Geelani, the man whom the police claimed was the mastermind of the operation. A third, Shaukat Guru, was acquitted of all the charges brought against him but was then convicted for a fresh, comparatively minor offence. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of another of the accused, Mohammad Afzal. In its judgement, the court acknowledged that there was no proof that Mohammad Afzal belonged to any terrorist group, but went on to say, quite shockingly, "The collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender. " Even today we don't really know who the terrorists that attacked Indian Parliament were and who they worked for.

But her conclusion is most chilling; it's a warning and an exhortation:

The only way to contain (it would be naive to say end) terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We're standing at a fork in the road. One sign says 'Justice', the other 'Civil War'. There's no third sign and there's no going back. Choose.

No one should miss the point.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cat City Chronicles

Five minutes. That’s all I had to decide about making a trip to the big B. Of course, I am not talking about Amitabh Bachchan here (And as far as I know, he has not bought an island and named it after himself, at least not yet). The big B stands for Borneo Island for the uninitiated. That’s where Sarawak (and Sabah) is—Malaysia’s largest state.

When I break the news in my office, one of my colleagues quips, “What’s there in Sarawak to see? Pineapples?” Well, not his fault—that’s the general perception about the place but you know what, I’m ready to be surprised.

Next thing I know is that I am on board Malaysian Airlines with a group of travelers from Singapore. The flight time from Singapore to Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, is a little over one hour but you hardly feel the passage of time. By the time you have unclasped your seat belt after take off and enjoyed a hot and delicious meal, you are almost there.

The plane descends through layers of sodden clouds. I look out the window and now and then, get a glimpse of the ground: impenetrable dark jungles and serpentine mud-copper rivers coursing through. Man, what are those trees—a carpet of rainforest! The mere sight of green vegetation makes my city-jaded spirits soar.

At the Kuching airport (which looks quite clean and presentable), we are welcomed by our travel guide, Cik Selina of Masama JS Adventure Tours. We pile into a bus, off to the main city of Kuching—the Cat City—noted for its multi-ethnicity, history, architecture and cuisine.

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak. Despite the rapid economic developments in the last decade, the city still retains quaint touches of the past. Sarawak boasts of a multi ethnic population—more than 30% are Ibans, followed by Chinese (30%), Malays (20%), Melanau (6%) and Bidayuh (8%), among others.

Coming from the lion city, I already feel an affinity for the cat city. Both belong to the same family, right? And even their histories match—the White Rajahs of Kuching had started off inspired by Raffle’s Singapore. They wanted to recreate Raffles success in Sarawak. A part of kingdom of Brunei from early 14th century, the state saw signs of discontent from Malays by the 28th century. In 1839 English adventurer James Brooke sailed into this volatile situation and got a title for himself, the Rajah of Sarawak, for crushing the Malay rebellion. The Brooks ruled over the region until 1941 when the Japanese attacked them and later it fell under British rule. In 1963 the state became part of the Malaysian federation.

When I see the Sarawak river and the boats plying on it, standing from the balcony of a restaurant where I have a late lunch, I feel a keen sense of history. What role this river would have played in shaping the fate of this state?

I spend the night at the beautiful Damai Beach Resort, a 40 minute drive from the Kuching city. The resort is situated at the northwest coast of Borneo, on Teluk Bandung’s sandy beach facing the South China Sea and residing on 90 acres of sea frontage within the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. The property even boasts of an Arnold Palmer designed golf course, the first in Malaysia.

I have been given a single room in a chalet on the sea front. The whole night, like a lullaby, I hear the sea licking the beach. In the morning, when I draw the curtains of the glass wall, I see the picture-postcard beauty of the sea and the sandy beach. Is it some kind of dream, I pinch myself.

Day 2

At 7.30 am, after having a hearty breakfast, I set off for the Semonggoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. The wildlife park is an hour’s drive from the resort. It has a thriving population of semi-wild orang utans, surviving in their natural rainforest habitat.

Coming from Singapore, orang utans are not a novelty for me but what is different here is the experience of seeing orang utangs in their most natural habitat, seeing them having their breakfast at the feeding stations and jumping from tree to tree.

Be careful, we are told. We are constantly reminded that these docile looking creatures may also turn aggressive if exposed to wrong stimuli. Take pictures but make sure you don’t use the flash—it distracts them. Keep quiet—they don’t like noise, etcetera etcetera.

I spend a few hours in the forest—I see a baby orang utan swinging from ropes, eating bananas and posing for photos, as if it were the most natural thing to do (perhaps it was for him). The fellow acted like a film star, considering his jubilant fan base from a good perch. Soon, the crowd of spectators hears branches crushing, leaves rustling violently, all creating a sort of commotion. What’s the deal, mate? Turns out that Ritchie is arriving—the father of junior, the bulkiest of the ornag uans here. In a while, so does Suduku, the oldest of the lot. Ritchie comes down to the ground where we stand. He walks in front of us, leading us to a feeding station, giving us ample photo opportunities.

The park has in all nearly two dozen orang utans, and all have fancy names—George (not Bush), Edwin, Melina and Selinah, et al. There’s even Annuar—he was named after the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim; the day he was born was the day Anwar was put in jail, our guide fills us in with details like these with glee.

After Semonggoh, we go for a city tour in Kuching. The first stop is at a pottery workshop. We see artists at work making beautiful designs on vases big and small. For the adventurous, there is even a potter’s wheel to get your hands dirty with clay. Some of my fellow travelers get down and dirty, trying to shape a piece of clay into something recognizable. Most of them fail in their attempt but it seems to be fun. I stay away from it, mostly shooting artists in action with my camera. In the shop, I get some good bargains and buy some souvenirs for my family and friends.

The next stop is at a well-known bird’s nest factory. The nutritious bird’s nests are a rage among the Chinese Singaporeans for their nutrition value. For the first time, I get to see what the fuss is all about. In the factory, we see the workers clean up a bird’s nest—which is quite a tedious and meticulous process. I do some more shopping here—hats, traditional ladies bags, clothes, sago biscuits, local snacks.

Next we head to the Civic Centre tower. From its third floor (which seems like the 10th floor of a Singapore building), one can get a bird’s eye view of the city. You can see the Sarawak River and the beautiful houses on its banks, set amidst lush greenery. It is a relief not to see skyscrapers in this city. This should be the first stop for anyone visiting Kuching, comments Mr. Singh, one of my fellow travelers. I nod in agreement.

After the Civic Centre, we make a stop at the city museum, educating ourselves about the past of the tribes that lived in Sarawak. There have been over 30 (or 220) indigenous tribes in Sarawak and Sabah, depending on whom you ask. One can spend a full day here but we are short of time, so we leave after an hour or so. We have lunch at a restaurant on the way back to the Damai Beach. We pass by China town and India Street (yes, there’s one there too). Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to explore those streets.

We have a brief spell of rest before we are back again on the road to the city stadium, to witness and take part in the Gawai Dayak festival. But before that, I must mention the dinner. This dinner, held at the serene Treez at Damai Beach Resort, is one of the most memorable dinners of the entire trip. Along with Sup Ekor Lembu and rice served in basket, the menu comprises Ekor Lembu Asam Pedas, Midin Belacan, Ikan Bakar Bersambal, Ayam Masak Hitam, Udang Masak Lemak, Beef Ginger, and topped with a sweet dish, Sago Gula Melaka. Every morsel was so yummy—I still remember the taste of it. For RM 60 per person, this kind of a dinner is a steal.

When we finally reach the stadium around 8 pm, we see it full of people assembled to celebrate the Gawai Dayak festival—the most popular festival among the Dayaks in Sarawak—a kind of a thanksgiving festival, thanking the spirit of rice for giving the peasants a good harvest. The festival is celebrated throughout the state on the 1st and 2nd of June every year. “Gawai” means “a ritual or religious festival” whereas “Dayak” is a collective name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak comprising the Iban, Bidayuh, and the Orang Ulu group (the last group consists of 24 sub-groups). For the next few hours, young boys and girls in colourful costumes from various tribes treat the gathering with traditional dances and opera-like presentations. The event is so important that Malaysia’s PM has also flown in to enjoy the festivities.

By the time the festivities end and we reach the resort, it is past midnight. I go straight to my bed.

Day 3

Today is supposed to be the most adventurous day of the entire trip. We are to travel some 300 kilometers to the deeper end of the Borneo island, close to the Kalimantan region of Indonesia.

We leave Damai Beach Resort around quarter to nine in the morning. On the way, we make a stop over at a pepper garden—pepper being one of the top cash crops of the region. The green ears of pepper look charming in a small plantation area, next to a factory that harvests, dries and packages pepper for commercial distribution. We learn how black pepper is different from white pepper (not much actually—white pepper is the same black pepper sans its skin). We are demonstrated how good black pepper corns are separated from the chaff using a multi-layered machine. Fun stuff!

Throughout the bus ride, I either read from a novel or look out the window. The road is superbly smooth but there is very little traffic—all I see is the occasional truck or a few cars zipping by. Flanking the road are miles and miles of jungles and now and then, the pattern gets interrupted by pepper gardens and small villages—some seemingly abandoned, other populated.

Two hours later, we make another stop over at a Bidayu native market called Serai. It’s a small own with a wet market and a few shops (I see a KFC too). The wet market is packed with vegetables—along with all the usual tropical veggies, I also spot the wild ferns (that we had eaten the night before at Damai) and a kind of twisted beans. Someone is even selling live maggots.

It’s quite hot but the market swarms with Bidayuh people—they all seem to be so personable and relaxed. Breaking away from the group, I stand facing the open air workshop of a cobbler. All his stuff is by the side of a wall and I see the picture of a sexy girl adorning the wall as a backdrop—the picture must have been torn out of a newspaper or a magazine, I guess. Such a scene would be quite common for roadside eateries in Indian small towns but sexy picture for a cobbler’s wall in Sarawak—that seemed a little unusual. A bevy of local girls in tops and pants pass by me, all giggling at the tourist.

We grab our lunch at a local eatery and the bus moves on. On the way, the bus stops for a few minutes and we are led into a field of wild bushes. Selina shows us the pitcher plants (that eats flies and even small mammals) and wild orchids. Everybody takes out his camera and clicks at these wonders of nature.

After nearly two hours, we stop by another small town. I buy a coke and a pack of smokes—the prices are as good as in Kuching. I have been wondering about the bus ride. It seems longer than promised.

I look far into the horizon. It has now started to drizzle a little bit and the sky is getting overcast with menacing clouds. Some of us buy cheap rain coats—paying RM 5 for a rain pouch. Might come handy for the boat ride to the longhouse, Selina tells us.

By the time we reach the ferry terminal to go to the Iban longhouse, it is nearly four in the afternoon. The longboats are ready. We put on the life jackets and start for the hour long journey in the Batang Ai River to reach the Iban longhouse.

And what a journey it is! The long boats are very low, made of wooden planks, running on fuel. A long boat can seat 4-5 passengers only. Our captains are teenage girls and boys from the Iban community. All of us sit in 4 boats.

The river is deep, wide and meandering, flanked by islets of dense forests. The boats run on full speeds. Sitting on it, I can touch the water on both sides. One sudden jerk, one mistake, and it could all end here. It is dangerous yet liberating, and sometimes the view is so beautiful, it becomes difficult to describe. There is a certain kind of mystery to such experiences. The slow drizzle falls on my face. I can feel the chill of fresh air getting into the pores of my facial skin. In such moments, you feel like surrendering to nature. Come what may but this is one of the most unforgettable moments of my life—that’s the thought that runs through my brain.

After an hour long boat ride, we finally reach the Iban long house, which houses nearly 30 families. Most of the ladies, children and men are sitting in the corridor (Ruai), passing a lazy afternoon. We are welcomed by the chief of the house.

There are not many signs of modern life here—but I see a satellite phone, some posters of Caucasian women, along with those of Jesus and Mary, and a poster from an election campaign. Inside the chief’s house, I see a sofa set, a television set, a DVD player, and a freezer. In the kitchen area, there is a proper wash basin. The guide tells me that only the chief, an ex-Malaysian army man, has such modern amenities, sent by their children who live and work in cities.

Outside the house, we are shown a traditional cock fight and some of us get a chance to handle the blow pipe—the Iban’s weapon of warfare. These blow pipes were used to throw poisoned needles at the enemies.

Meanwhile, the community has prepared rice wine for us. We sit in a semi circle and rice wine is served. If you don’t want to drink, no problem, we are told by our guide, but the tradition is to just dip one of your fingers in the wine glass. Soon follows a musical session and we are entertained by the traditional Iban dance. Some of the travelers join in the revelry. On our way to the longhouse, Selina had bought some gifts for all these families. Those gifts are evenly distributed. Then we take our leave for Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse where we will stay for a night.

This time the boat ride is little shorter but still dangerous as we sail in semi-darkness under the moon light. The Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse resort is nested in the jungles of Sarawak, spread in nearly 20 acres. This 15 year old property with 100 rooms, managed by Hilton, is smack in the heart of the land of Ibans, the brave headhunters of Borneo. There are only two ways to come here: river and air—that is you either take a boat or a ferry or fly by a chopper. Heck, the place comes with a real helipad.

As I speak to the manager of the resort, he gives me a background of the area. When the “White Rajahs” attempted to put an end to head-hunting, fierce battles resulted. In the hearts of the native Iban folks, this area is regarded as the heart of Iban territory because this was where their ancestors fought for their beliefs. This area is also in close proximity to the traditional Iban longhouses and the Batang Ai National Park which is home to the Orang utan of Borneo.

The resort is built like a traditional longhouse, with a long vacant gallery between the balcony and bedrooms. In a traditional longhouse, this area is called Ruai—the place for a hive of activities for men and women—a place to make hats, mats, baskets and farming apparatus, and also to tell stories and perform songs and dances.

The Ruai area of longhouses provide a commanding view of the river. Rivers are the highways and lifeblood of the country—and it was through a river that we had only a while ago reached the longhouse of the Ibans.

The resort provides many adventure activities such as fishing, sunset cruises, trips to a traditional longhouse, and trips to waterfalls, among others. They also provide guided nature walks and blow pipe demos. There is also a mini theatre (Panggau Libau Lounge) for video presentations and nature movies. If you are looking for inhouse activities, there are plenty of games to choose from—board games, mahjong, darts, table tennis, volley ball, pool volleyball and water polo—all for prices ranging from RM 25 to 200.

Day 4

My mobile phone alarm wakes me up at 6 am. A good night’s sleep in the Batang Ai Longhouse resort has taken care of the fatigue accumulated over the last few days. My body feels relaxed, my mind is calm as I know that I have enough time to complete my morning rituals—a stroll in the green, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, you know the stuff. Then breakfast and then a massage, that’s the plan.

Another fifteen minutes are gone by the time I get out of the bed. I draw the curtains open. It is still semi-dark outside but it’s tranquil—nature’s peace, with the muted notes from insects and birds singing nature’s songs. With a cup of tea in my hand, I get out of the room. The Ruai (long gallery between the balcony and the bedrooms) is vacant and partially lit, the light coming from some of the open windows in the balcony, overlooking the lake. Some of my travel mates are either still sleeping or getting ready for breakfast. I venture out to the balcony. The day is opening its eyelids but I cannot see the sun yet. The sky is partially clouded. All I can see are green trees (Rose wood, mango, lemon, meranti, many more varieties) and shrubbery, and the meandering lake and mountains beyond them. A soft breeze blows but it is not chilling—just light and pleasant.

A little later, I reach the restaurant for breakfast. Some of my travel mates are already there, eating freshly made omelets and sipping black coffee. I join the group. I too have an omelet that the young chef prepares in a small frying pan right in front of me. Sizzling hot, he transfers the egg to my plate. I also savour the beef bacon and vegetable samosas. I gulp down two cups of coffee and gossip with Calvin and Mr Singh, both travel agents. I ask Mr Singh about the kind of tourism that is being promoted here. Is it adventure tourism? It can be called eco-tourism, says the experienced travel agent. Calvin wants to visit Ladakh in India in a year or two. That sounds great, I tell him. Someone is distributing mosquito patches to others in preparation for the visit to the waterfall. Outside I see some couples and families, all Ang Mohs, taking their breakfast.

I have decided I’m not going to the waterfall. I wanted the experience of a Borneo massage to take home with me. After breakfast and some more photography, I walk to the facility’s wellness centre. Constance, the in-charge of the centre welcomes me. I ask her about the massage: how different it is from other therapies? Unlike other massage systems, she says, the Borneo massage techniques are based on the five elements of nature: earth, wind, fire, water and metal. What the heck does it mean? She gives me Tommy, a boy seemingly just out of his teens. Over the next one hour, Tommy does a good job with his expert hands, leaving my body supple and relaxed.

After the massage and a simple but appropriate lunch, we go for a tree canopy walk for about half an hour and then back on the boats. The bus journey resumes to Kuching. By the time we reach Kuching, night has fallen. We have excellent sea food as dinner and then we check into Holiday Inn to rest for the night. Tomorrow morning, we fly back to Singapore to tell my friends how Sarawak is vastly much more than just pineapples.

All photo credits: Zul Photographer/Zafar Anjum

A short version of this piece appeared in India Se, Singapore (December 2008).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

They hate us...

Here is an excellent article by Patrick French in yesterday's NYT on the Mumbai terror acts and their aftermath. French, however, stops at the security measures to thwart terrorism, and does not advise that the root of terrorism, problems like the Palestine issue and the Kashmir dispute, should also be tackled:

The terrorists themselves offered little explanation, and made no clear demands. Yet even as the siege continued, commentators were making chilling deductions on their behalf: their actions were because of American foreign policy, or Afghanistan, or the harassment of Indian Muslims. Personal moral responsibility was removed from the players in the atrocity. When officials said that the killers came from the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, it was taken as proof that India’s misdeeds in the Kashmir Valley were the cause.

These misdeeds are real, as are India’s other social and political failings (I recently met a Kashmiri man whose father and sister had died at the hands of the Indian security forces). But there is no sane reason to think Lashkar-e-Taiba would shut down if the situation in Kashmir improved. Its literature is much concerned with establishing a caliphate in Central Asia, and murdering those who insult the Prophet. Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, who lives on a large estate outside Lahore bought with Saudi Money, goes about his business with minimal interference from the Pakistani government.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is part of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (the Qaeda franchise). Mr. Saeed’s hatreds are catholic — his bugbears include Hindus, Shiites and women who wear bikinis. He regards democracy as “a Jewish and Christian import from Europe,” and considers suicide attacks to be in accordance with Islam. He has a wider strategy: “At this time our contest is Kashmir. Let’s see when the time comes. Our struggle with the Jews is always there.” As he told his followers in Karachi at a rally in 2000: “There can’t be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them — cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy.” In short, he has an explicit political desire to create a state of war between the religious communities in India and beyond, and bring on the endgame.


And here, Tehelka's Tarun Tejpal lashes out at the nation's elites, and asks them to get their hands dirty with politics:

The first thing we need to do is to square up to the truth. Acknow ledge the fact that we have made a fair shambles of the project of nation-building. Fifty million Indians doing well does not for a great India make, given that 500 million are grovelling to survive. Sixty years after independence, it can safely be said that India’s political leadership — and the nation’s elite — have badly let down the country’s dispossessed and wretched. If you care to look, India today is heartbreak hotel, where infants die like flies, and equal opportunity is a cruel mirage.

Let’s be clear we are not in a crisis because the Taj hotel was gutted. We are in a crisis because six years after 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Gujarat there is still no sign of justice. This is the second thing the elite need to understand — after the obscenity of gross inequality. The plinth of every society — since the beginning of Man — has been set on the notion of justice. You cannot light candles for just those of your class and creed. You have to strike a blow for every wronged citizen.

And let no one tell us we need more laws. We need men to implement those that we have. Today all our institutions and processes are failing us. We have compromised each of them on their values, their robustness, their vision and their sense of fairplay. Now, at every crucial juncture we depend on random acts of individual excellence and courage to save the day. Great systems, triumphant societies, are veined with ladders of inspiration. Electrified by those above them, men strive to do their very best. Look around. How many constables, head constables, sub-inspectors would risk their lives for the dishonest, weak men they serve, who in turn serve even more compromised masters?


Monday, December 08, 2008

Indian media: Probe deeper

Why can't the Indian media probe deeper into the claims made by Pakistani defence experts such as Hamid Zaid? Why should the media take everything coming from the Indian police sources and authorities as the only truth? We know how the police are capable of bending facts to fit to their narrative? We have seen it so many times. If Zaid is wrong, prove him wrong. Why can't the media explore the 7 points raised by Neelabh Mishra in Outlook?

Let me add one more point: Even before the boat that brought the terrorists to Mumbai was captured, Modi came out in front of the media and started telling the stories of Gujarat's boats being stolen/captured by Pakistani navy and being used for terror acts against India? Did he have prior information or was it the case of "chor ki dadhi me tinka?"

I am not interested in judging anybody but why can't the truth of explored further?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Defeat the tyranny of terror

We became the vicarious victims of terror for 60 hours while terror was let loose in Mumbai. The city was not virginal--hundreds had died there in various terrorist acts before. But the moment was—it became India’s 911.

After three days of fierce battling, the Indian commandos succeeded in ending the siege. Not just India, the whole world took a sigh of relief.

Shocked and grief stricken, people could begin to think of food and sleep. Some wiped the tears off their faces and decided to move on with life. Others seethed with anger—at the impotence of the system—a system that failed to protect citizens from repeated carnage of terror.

There was intelligence that warned the authorities of the impending attack. How could the system let such warning pass? Why did they not act in time?

Enough is enough, said angry citizens. We don’t want words, we want action, they demanded of the country’s leaders. Heads rolled, politicians at the state and union’s level resigned.

Meanwhile, after the 60 hours of live reporting, the media moved on the act II. There began the parade of armchair terror experts and page 3 personalities. Politicos were added to the combo to balance the debate on terror. The whole system was found guilty. And the attack’s culpability was thrown into the backyard of Pakistan where it always belongs.

While all this debate and shouting made good television, one thing was completely lost-- the message that the terrorists had brought with their bullets.

Global terror comes to India

Whatever group the Mumbai terrorists belonged to—Lashkar-e Toeba, Jaish-e Mohammad or Al Qaeda—the message was clear: global terror had come to India, as it had come to the UK and Pakistan, the allies of the global super power America.

This time it were not homegrown terrorists—Muslims or Hindus trapped in the cycle of communal vengeance—who had come, planted the bombs and melted away in the crowds. These were Al Qaeda style fidayeens (suicidal terrorists) who were there to create a spectacle, sure to get carried away on radio and television waves to the far corners of the world. They could not create another 911 in New York or Sydney or Shanghai because of the tight security in those cities, so they chose Mumbai—a soft target.

In other words, it was not national terror—it was global. Any country, any citizen was the target. That’s why they targeted the Americans, the British and the Israelis. That’s why a Singaporean became the first victim of global terror. Indians who were killed at the railway stations or other places were perhaps fodder to divert the attention of the police. This allowed the terrorists to take hostages at the tourist rich places—The Taj, Oberoi and the Nariman House.

And what did the terrorists rant about? The persecution of Muslims in India and the festering Kashmir problem. Stop persecuting Muslims in India, they told TV stations. They had no other demands.

It is not just about Kashmir or Pakistan

It were these demands, these assertions by the terrorists that got relatively suppressed in the media chatter about intelligence failure and government irresponsibility and body counts.

We all know that Kashmir, Afghanistan and Palestine conflicts are festering wounds that have bedeviled life and politics in South Asia and the Middle East. But why would the Muslims in India want ‘global terrorists’ to bring home the message of their persecution to the Indian government’s attention?

No matter what, Indian Muslims will never want any terrorist—domestic or international—to articulate their woes and tribulations. They can and they are fighting within the democratic system of India to right the perceived ‘wrongs’ done to them. And they are doing it along with millions of liberal Hindus who empathize with their problems.

That’s why, perhaps in a show of pop patriotism, Muslims of Mumbai refused to open the doors of their cemetery when the police sought to bury the bodies of the nine dead terrorists. These terrorists who killed innocent people cannot be Muslims, they argued.

The terrorists who came to fight in the name of Indian Muslims or Islam were not friends of Muslims or Islam. That’s why it is important to delink terror with Islam. Terrorism is terrorism. Period.

Islam as the only competing vision?

Why then the terrorists are playing this game? The Palestinians fight for Palestine, the Chechens for Chechnya, and the Kashmiris for Kashmir?

Then why are the ‘global terrorists’ bringing the ‘Jihadi’ fight to the country with the second largest population of Muslims in the world?

This is very important to understand as its implications will be grasped only in the next few decades.

As I have said before, this ‘global terrorism’ is not just about Kashmir or Palestine. It probably started from these grouses but I think the game plan has changed. Despite the efforts of Al Qaeda and its acolytes (whoever envisions the world domination of Islam and the end of the international system that we have now), majority of Muslims in the world have by and large remained peaceful. They have denounced the Jehadi elements, the misguided suicidal sickos that wage war with terror in the name of Islam.

The lack of Muslim response to their cause has made the ‘global terrorists’ desperate. In desperation, they have gone for a far more sinister plan—if you can’t alienate the Muslims for global Jihad, make everyone else hate the Muslims, then they themselves will get alienated. Make things so worse that everywhere people will begin to equate Islam with terror (a small example). Then Muslims will be cornered. Muslims then will have no choice but to get radicalized and that’s when the clash of civilizations will take place. Radical Islam against the capitalist-globalised-liberal democratic world—the world of pure Islam against the ‘consumption and fornication’ (Tariq Ali's formulation) fuelled world of the West and its satellite states. After all, other than Islam, which other world religion provides a banking, financial, moral and system of jurisprudence of its own?

This is the game plan now. And they are achieving this bit by bit, with every terror attack. The charge of terror is ionizing the populations—the poison is slowly spreading without people barely noticing the phenomenon.

The only way to defeat this ‘global Jehad’ is for ‘frightened’ people and governments to understand this game plan and take corrective measures.

As global terror expert Brian Michael Jenkins says, frightened populations are intolerant. They worry incessantly about subversion from within. In the case of India, it could mean the subversion by 150 million Muslims from within. In the case of USA, subversion by 5 million and in Europe’s case, subversion by 53 million Muslims, and so on. To make things worse, there already are active elements everywhere that demonize the Muslims as a community or are Islamophobic. They will act as the nature allies of the terrorists.

Security not an anti-dote to terror

To borrow another line from Jenkins, security is necessary but security alone is not an antidote to terror. It is imperative for governments to step up security and beef up intelligence gathering but more needs to be done.

There are already reports that the next 911 might be nuclear. Will terrorists go nuclear? Will they use biological or chemical weapons? Who knows but fear mongering always works. Even for terrorists, it is easier said than done. Kitchen table nuclear bombs are myths, as Jenkins says.

The bottom-line is that no amount of security or preparation can completely stop mad terrorists unleashing terror somewhere in the world. What we can and should do is to make our minds free of fear and prejudice and force our politicians to solve the festering wounds of the world, starting from our own country, to build a just world order. If we do that, ‘global terror’ of this nature will die its own death.

Let me finish my rant by quoting Jenkins from the last chapter of his book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus Books, 2008):

“We can behave like frightened sheep, content to fill our stomachs while we are herded about by terrorists and cynical politicians who chip away at our liberty. Or we can behave as citizens whose first mission is to defeat the tyranny of terror. If we value democracy, our choice is clear.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

India's 911

From my tech blog:

Yesterday morning, once again I realised the futility of reading newspapers for getting news. Mumbai was under siege and my print paper gave me no idea of it.

I reached office and checked my e-mails—that’s when I saw a message from Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and co-founder of South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) in the US. His message was about a radio blog discussion on the breaking story of the terror attacks in Mumbai.

What! Another terrorist strike in Mumbai?

I was both angry and sad. What were the security and intelligence forces doing that allowed another terror attack on India’s financial nerve centre? I was sad at the loss of innocent lives.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Wounder and wounded

My man, The New Yorker's James Wood has written the most insightful review (Wounder and wounded) of V S Naipaul's biography by Patrick French. It is just brilliant. A must read.

The Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy writes of the two voices in Kipling, which have been called the saxophone and the oboe. The first is the hard, militaristic, imperialist writer, and the second is the Kipling infused with Indianness, with admiration for the subcontinent’s cultures. Naipaul has a saxophone and an oboe, too, a hard sound and a softer one. These two sides could be called the Wounder and the Wounded. The Wounder is by now well known—the source of fascinated hatred in the literary world and postcolonial academic studies. He disdains the country he came from: “I was born there, yes. I thought it was a mistake.” When he won the Nobel Prize, in 2001, he said it was “a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors.” Asked why he had omitted Trinidad, he said that he feared it would “encumber the tribute.” He has written of the “barbarism” and “primitivism” of African societies, and has fixated, when writing about India, on public defecation. (“They defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks; they defecate on the streets.”) When asked for his favorite writers, he replies, “My father.” He is socially successful but deliberately friendless, an empire of one: “At school I had only admirers; I had no friends.”


Here is an audio interview with Woods on his New Yorker piece.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The World Is What It Is

Sorry, have been away, writing my blog at Have been reading Naipaul's Guerrillas, along with a few other books.

Found yet another interesting review of Naipaul's biography at the IHT:

After he had become an internationally famous writer, Naipaul liked to claim that he was a man without commitments or entanglements, free to observe and tell the truth as other, more sentimental souls were not. But at the darkest moment of his life, he attached himself to a quiet, intelligent, self-effacing young Englishwoman from an unhappy lower-middle-class family named Patricia Hale; and she kept him from drowning. Excerpts from their letters reveal how desperately Naipaul clung to her: "You saved me once, and it is from that rescue that I have been able to keep going - from Feb. 9 to today. I love you, and I need you. Please don't let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know."

"The relationship began with Pat in the position of strength. Once they married and Naipaul began to publish his early books, the balance of power shifted decisively to him. Pat became his indispensable literary helper, his maid and cook, his mother, the object of his irritations, the traveling companion who never appears in any of his nonfiction. They had met as two highly repressed and untutored virgins, and a true sexual connection never formed. French places Naipaul's tormented sexuality at the center of his creative efforts, revealed in detail through various sources, above all Naipaul himself, without ever sinking into voyeurism or what Joyce Carol Oates called "pathography."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'A sadist and a smell-smock and a coxcomb'

Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, on Naipaul's authorized biography:

Perhaps there's some master plan behind it all, some half-baked notion in which Naipaul imagines that future generations will see him as a heroic refuser of hypocrisy. He's always been a sadist and a smell-smock and a coxcomb, and he's always enjoyed it. So why should he act the man of prissy virtues after he's gained all the rewards that a successful highbrow writing life can possibly bring? He has the Nobel Prize, after all, together with a knighthood and more money than he can spend. His interests now lie only in making sure that readers a hundred years from now will find him interesting. And thus he places a bet that prurience will never go out of fashion and that all the tabloid titillation will keep his name alive.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Interview with Balli Jaswal, 2007 David T.K. Wong Fellow

I met Balli Jaswal (T K Wong Fellow 2007) at the Arts House, Singapore for an interview. Balli, who is still at work on her first novel, tentatively titled, When Amrit Returns, is the youngest winner of the David T.K. Wong Fellowship.

For introduction's sake, Balli was born in Singapore and grew up in Japan, Russia and the Phillipines. She studied creative writing at Hollins University (where Kiran Desai also went) and George Mason University. She is currently based in Singapore and works as a journalist.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

If I were an Indian Hindu

by Zafar Anjum

A Singapore journalist says both major parties in India must abandon increasing communalism

"Some countries are united by a common language; India has around fifteen major languages and numberless minor ones. Nor are its people united by race, religion or culture…Does India exist? If it doesn't, the explanation is to be found in a single word: communalism. The politics of religious hatred."

—Salman Rushdie in "The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947" in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would not find it difficult to believe that the country today is threatened by the forces of Islamic terrorism— no matter what the Muslims say in their defense.

Further, I would add that the terrorizing Muslims and the evangelizing Christian missionaries are creating grave threats to India's progress, a country that is rediscovering its destiny as a superpower in the world stage.

I'm saying this because the recent terrorist bombings in many Indian cities have changed our lives. We live in fear of being blown away while shopping or traveling. How can we not blame the Muslims when members of their community have created this atmosphere of terror in the nation of peace-loving Hindus?

I know what I am talking about. I read newspapers. I watch TV. Lest you should believe that I am a dehati, I am not. I could be a government official, an IT professional, an employee of an MNC, a businessman or even a member of the diaspora. I could be anyone.

I am using the term 'regular Indian Hindu' as a classification for those Hindus in India who are not liberal (or communists or atheists or pseudo-secularists) or have not acquired liberal education in India or abroad and who are conscious of their Hindu identity. Our liberal brethren, the so called 'pseudo-secularists' (whoever invented this term must be a Indian Hindu and I want to give him shabashi for this innovative coinage) might even object to the phrase "Indian Hindu" as a contradictory duality—an Indian is an Indian, end of the matter, they'd say—but I wouldn’t have thought the worst of it.

For me it wouldn't have been difficult to bask in the glory of a resurgent India as a member of 'Hindu India' —an India that is waking up from its thousand year old slumber of inertia and slavery— first by the murderous Muslim invaders, followed by the wily British, who between them, ruled us for nearly a millennium.

But there are many who want to prick my balloon of pride. For instance, take the recent terror attacks in various Indian cities and the Muslim response to it. Let us keep our discussion confined to this topic and not get side-tracked by the issue of conversion of dalits and adivasis by the Christian missionaries, an issue that equally infuriates me.

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would feel the police action justified in the Batla House, Jamia Nagar police-terrorist encounter cases, no matter what people like Arundhati Roy have to say on this matter. When scores of innocents died in terrorist-planted bomb blasts in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi, what is the big deal if the Delhi police killed two Muslim terrorists in an encounter?

Some Muslims are finding holes in the manner the police conducted the encounter and arrested the terror suspects. I give two hoots about it! I have my own problems to solve, my own life to live. But if I did care about the issue, being a newspaper reader and TV news watcher type, I would have felt the demands of inquiry into the whole episode by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group or Delhi Union of Journalists unnecessary, nothing more than an act of minority appeasement.

Why demoralize our police force, I would have asked them? After all, we lost one of our own brave policemen in the encounter, didn’t we? I would have damned the conspiracy theories circulated by these doubters and gossip mongers. They do nothing or just shed crocodile tears when bombs go off in crowded bazaars and kill scores of innocent Indians. But when one of them is killed, they ask for enquiry and provide legal aid to those terrorists? How unpatriotic!

But they are not alone in what they do. To make matters worse, (I would have thought it a matter of shame) some of our own, the pseudo-secularists, are party to the game being played by the Muslim intelligentsia and some publicity-hungry liberal minded media persons. The same way that they did after the Gujarat riots—they could not appreciate the fact that what had happened was a natural reaction to the dastardly act of burning our holy men alive on the Sabarmati Express. What did they get after doing all those exposes and investigations? All they could achieve was that they kept Narendra Modi bhai from visiting the US. That’s it. Was it worth all that muck-racking?

Therefore, clearly, if I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing that Hinduism is under threat from Islamic terrorism. I would, in that position, seem reasonable if I believed that Indian Muslims, even after the country’s partition in 1947, have wasted all opportunities given to them. They are always looking for special treatment. They have hundreds of apologists of all kinds to make excuses on their behalf. As such, my message to fellow Hindus would be this: We have done enough for these guys, and they have performed dismally, so let us stop bothering about them.

Because of our peaceful nature, others have dominated us for centuries. They could do it because we were weak. Now we must strike back by showing that we are more aggressive even than the ones that dominated us. We have shown it in Gujarat, and elsewhere in the country. But these Muslims don’t seem to be getting the message.

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing in all that that I have just said. But, as it happens, I am not.

I happen to be an Indian born in a Muslim family. And as such, the tentacles of my consciousness were trained in a different manner—different from those belonging to other communities.

Despite the difference, I find it difficult to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for the way he thinks. It is not his fault—it’s my way of looking at him that makes him appear faulty. But he may not be at fault at all. Perhaps he was brought up in a certain manner and while I believed in “unity in diversity,” he believed in some other philosophy—an idea of India that was different from that conceived by Gandhi and Nehru—and as old as them, shared by those who distributed sweets on the streets hearing the news of Gandhiji’s assassination.

Perhaps he does not even hold Gandhi and Nehru in high regard. He has been fed a certain version of India’s struggle for freedom and he believes in that version, as I do in mine. Right from his childhood, he has been exposed to a certain kind of thinking: all through shishu mandirs, shakhas, ekal vidyalayas, sant samagams, television serials, the rath yatras, leaflets, videos, CDs (I have borrowed this impressive list from Shabnam Hashmi, Communalism, Centrestage in Tehelka).

Therefore, I don’t want to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for he is the creation of someone’s hard work. Like I am the creation of another group’s hard work. He is as legitimate an Indian as I am, albeit with a different idea of India. What matters though and what will determine our future is where we stand today: which ‘idea of India’ has moved from the center to the periphery and vice versa and which idea of India will eventually prevail. This is something that, everyone—Indians as well as Asians—need to watch out for as it relates to the Asia’s America (a nod to Daniel Lak, India Express), Asia’s liberal superpower.


My India has always been based on ideas of multiplicity, pluralism, hybridity: ideas to which the ideologies of the communalists are diametrically opposed. To my mind, the defining image of India is the crowd, and a crowd is by its very nature superabundant, heterogeneous, many things at once. But the India of the communalists is none of these things — Salman Rushdie in “The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91

As a child, I was sold on the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru. In school, I grew up on the ideals of a secular India, built on the foundations of syncretic ethos, an India where all citizens are equal before the law and where all religions are equally respected. While we wrote essays on the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru, Indira Gandhi ruled the country with an iron first. Those were the post-Emergency Congress days and everything looked normal in our small town of pre-television era.

Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aaaps me sab bhai bhai — we were to repeat this phrase. I believed in it and continue to believe in it.

Growing up, I knew that I was living in a country where the majority of the population consisted of Hindus. But I had no problems with that. Rather I enjoyed the diversity of India. My father’s best friends were Hindus. As much as I looked forward to Eid, I looked forward to Durga Pooja and Chhat—the two major festivals in Bengal and Bihar. My village came under the cross section of these two dominant cultures. During Durga Pooja, it was a common practice for us to roam around the town, be a part of the crowd and admire the pandals. On Chhat, we all waited to taste the delicious thakwa, a kind of snack prepared on that day—equivalent of Eid’s sewaiyan. Every December, I used to wait for Christmas to see the beautifully decorated churches, and if fortunate enough, get a chance to nibble at the cakes and pastries in the homes of my Christian acquaintances.

Then came 1984. Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own guards and all hell broke loose. Thousands of Sikhs were mercilessly massacred in Delhi. The slogan-- Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai—began to sound shaky and fake.

I passed out of school and went to Aligarh Muslim University for further education. Aligarh is a communally sensitive town. While still a student there, I saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed. The country’s atmosphere had completely changed.

The end of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb

But a slow change had started years even before the Babri demolition. At that point of time, I could not grasp the importance of those changes but in hindsight they seem to be damaging to the country’s secular ethos, the Ganja-Jamuni tehzeeb of India. What was happening was that slowly but surely, Muslim cultural elements, however small in significance but were taken as a given by Muslims, began to disappear from public life.

For example, take the “unity and diversity” ads taken out by the government. Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai. I used to see these national integration ads regularly in the media, in Urdu magazines and on the back of buses and on walls. Gradually these ads began to disappear. They were replaced by other slogans on the wall. One slogan that I can remember vividly is this—Bharat desh me rehna hai to vande matram kehna hoga. While some Muslims began to paste stickers like Fakhr se kaho hum Musalman hain, I also began to notice some Hindu establishments prominently displaying stickers with slogans—Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.

Mughlai food: A vanishing act?

Along with the slogan baazi, I noticed two more things: Airbrushing of India’s Muslim, specifically Mughal, heritage and the undisputed dominance of Hindi in the common cultural space. Consequently, as the chandrabindu (dot, a sort of a diacritical mark) vanished from devnagri (Hindi), Mughlai food too disappeared from the great Indian menu.

While the Mughal and pre-Mughal Islamic architecture such as the Red Fort and Qutub Minar in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra remained untouched (except for the mad claim that the Taj was built by a Hindu ruler), Mughlai food was airbrushed from the menu. Everything became tandoori or Punjabi—this is not to deny that there is no specific Punjabi cuisine but I find the case of the missing Mughlai cuisine intriguing. Also, I don’t think somebody sat down and deliberately performed the act of erasure (like somebody in the ministries forgot to commission the ‘useless’ unity in diversity ads). However, it has happened and consequently, today, if you go to any Indian restaurant, you will see typically two broad categories of cuisine: North Indian and South Indian. And the vast part of the North Indian menu would be Punjabi food, which is not totally illegitimate. But I can’t help asking: where has the Mughlai food vanished?

The vanishing act of the Mughlai food (Superstar Shahrukh Khan once said that he loved Mughlia food, perhaps he meant Mughlai—he does not see the terminology so often so even an articulate person like him got it all mixed up) is not that big a deal but it can assume a greater significance if seen in the light of the communalization of Indian historiography. Let me give you an example from one of Rushdie’s writings again.

Muslims as ‘Mughals’?

In the introduction to his book of essays, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91, Rushdie talks of a seminar in London in which eminent writers and historians from India were invited to speak at the festival of India in 1982. He writes: “…an eminent Indian academic delivered a paper on Indian culture that utterly ignored all minority communities. When questioned about this from the floor, the professor smiled benignly and allowed that of course India contained many diverse traditions—including Buddhists, Christians and ‘Mughals’. This characterization of Muslim culture was more than merely peculiar. It was a technique of alienation. For if Muslims were ‘Mughals’, then they were foreign invaders, and Indian Muslim culture was both imperialist and inauthentic. At the time, we made light of the gibe, but it stayed with me, pricking at me like a thorn.”

In the light of this experience, it would not seem impossible if Muslims took the airbrushing of the Mughlai food items from the Indian menu as an act of alienation.

Ghazal becomes Gajal

The same way the chandrabindu (the dot below a devnagri letter to signify pronunciation) seems to have been airbrushed from common devnagri lipi. It was meant to be a meeting ground of Urdu and Hindi, if you will—the two sister languages that also fell victim to communalization in India. The result is disastrous. The chef on TV has no compunction in pronouncing zeera (cumin seeds) as jeera. And the literature student has no problem asking: Yeh kya Galib (Ghalib) ki gajal (ghazal) hai. It grates my ears through. The interesting thing is that even no-Urdu knowing Muslims today pronounce words in this fashion.

Et tu, Bollywood?

And finally, the technique of alienation seems to have invaded the most secular of India’s cultural spaces—television and Bollywood. These are not just virtual cultural spaces but powerful engines of culture-generation. After the 1990s, as Bollywood moved from producing the cinema for the front benchers to the cinema for the yuppie, multiplex-going crowd, its stars and filmmakers began to define and set the cultural agenda of the country. Their impact on Hindus and Muslims, both off screen and on screen, are alike. As noted American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, it’s also interesting that Bollywood is the one place where Hindus and Muslims intermingle and intermarry and there is not any great sense of the gulf between them.

After the death of the Muslim socials in Bollywood (a natural corollary of the death of the Muslim elite), its filmmakers turned their back on Muslim characters. How many principal Muslim characters have you seen in Bollywood movies in the post Manmohan Desia era? Don’t even try to count on your fingers.

The situation is worse in TV’s case, especially the popular daily soaps on satellite TV channels. With the exception of the low-budget fantasies like Alif-Laila, in the world of Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi (which is supposed to be popular even in far and away Afghanistan) and Kahani ghar ghar ki, there are hardly any mainstream Muslim characters. It seems they are not part of the glamorous and prosperous social fabric of India which is more or less true.

These are big-ticket questions for the entertainment world. But I am asking a minor question. Like the national integration slogans, Mughlai food and the chandrabindu, one more thing has disappeared from Hindi movie, well almost: the Urdu language titles, along with Hindi and English, in the opening credits. In the last 10-15 years, I think I have seen most movies have done away with it.

I was glad to see that not all filmmakers have forgotten this tradition. Shyam Benegal prominently displayed the Urdu titles in his latest film, Welcome to Sajjanpur, in the feature’s opening credits.

I agree that these are not big issues—where do they stand in front of typically cited larger issues such as fundamentalism and terrorism?

My “regular Indian Hindu” friend might ask me how do these minor, inconsequential things matter to the Indian Muslim mind? My answer is: a lot. These are minor issues but they act as psychological symbols—symbols of our existence, participation and inclusion with the nation at large.

How these symbolic things, tokenisms, if you will, have tiptoed their way out of the public consciousness remains a mystery to me. But I would rather not have had them disappear from our public lives.

“Let us consider dispassionately the consequences which will follow if we give effect to the Pakistan scheme. India will be divided into two states, one with a majority of Muslims, and the other of Hindus. In the Hindustan State there will remain three and half crores of Muslims scattered in small minorities all over the land…they will be weaker than they are today in the Hindu majority provinces. They have had their homelands in these regions for almost a thousand years and built up well-known centres of Muslim culture and civilization there. They will awaken overnight and discover that they have become alien and foreigners. Backward industrially, educationally and economically, they will be left to the mercies to what would become an unadulterated Hindu raj.” —Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in a statement issued on 15 April 1946, responding to Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution

The prescient maulana had seen it coming more than half a century ago. After India’s independence, developments such as vote bank politics, Hindu Muslim communalism and saffronization of the Indian middle class have made the maulana’s worse fears come true. Muslims today lag behind all other communities in India. Their condition is worse than that of the dalits.

But blaming the state for all the ills of the Muslim community for the last 50 years has not got the community any further. As the Vice President of India Shri Hamid Ansari said in the recently concluded World Summit of the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni: “While Shikwa (complaint) about our condition was valid, there was no need to carry it to the point of incapacity for autonomous action. We failed to take note of, emulate and adapt, the initiatives taken by other communities in creative ventures in the field of education independent of government agencies.”

It would be a cliché to repeat that Muslim communalism has been feeding Hindu communalism. It’s good that by and large Muslims have disowned their communal leadership but have not been helped by the secular leadership—they continue to remain a rudderless community, a mere pawn in the chess board of the great Indian ‘vote-bank’ politics.

But things can’t be left where they are. The status quo must change.

One thing that Muslims must do, in order not to alienate themselves from the Hindus, is to respect Hindu sentiments, respect their religious books and culture and emphasize the syncretic values of Islam and Hinduism. A siege mentality of staying aloof will not work any longer, as it has not worked in the past. Similarly, my religion is better than yours mentality will also not work. The members of two communities have to mingle together on equal terms.

Terrorism: Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?

Apart from the efforts that need to be put in to ameliorate the conditions of the community, Indian Muslims also need to the face the charge of terrorism squarely, as columnist Vir Sanghvi recently asked: Are Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?

“This terrorism must not be allowed to drive on even bigger wedge between India’s Hindus and Muslims,” he says. “Some of this is up to the Muslim community. From what I remember of the 1980s, Muslims are reacting as many Sikhs did then: arguing that the stories of terrorism are made up and that it is all a conspiracy against their community.”

“India’s Muslims must be wary of falling into the trap of denial,” he suggests. “I am prepared to concede that some of those arrested for terrorist attacks could be innocent. I am prepared also to admit that the police do concoct cases. But can every arrested person be innocent? Can every e-mail from the Indian Mujahedeen be a fake?”

There is a lot of truth in Sanghvi’s questions. No one is arguing that the black sheep in Muslim community should be treated differently from the black sheep of other communities. However, can the entire community be held hostage for the wrong doing of misguided few? Must we profile people because of their faith? Must we incarcerate people without evidence and torture them to extract spurious proof? If not checked, will this not hasten India’s sliding into a fascist state?

Where is the moral leadership?

These are the questions that liberal Indians like Harsh Mandar and Arundhati Roy are asking today and these are the questions that both Hindus and Muslims need to ask of the police and the state. And our politicians should provide the moral leadership that is required of them at such times, not the usual vote bank politics that they are used to. After communal riots erupted in Delhi in the wake of a bloody partition of India, Gandhi went on a fast to stop people from cutting each others’ throat. No one expects today’s leaders to take such a self-sacrificial stand but some semblance of moral leadership has to be shown.

To their credit, a large number of Indian Hindus have been accommodative of the minorities. Indian Muslims, whether in India or abroad, must realize that Hindus are their best friends. Both share the same culture and are heirs to a rich 5000-year old civilization. Both have to work together to defeat the communal forces. Our sane minded leaders have tried to do so for the last hundred years or so but not with much success. It is time we took the matter in our own hands and gave communal hatred a silent burial.

Will that be easy? I have my doubts but let us make a beginning. Opening our circle of friendship to people of all faiths can be a good starting point. Everyone, all Indians, need to embrace a rational approach to civil life—don’t believe in unverified information, stop spreading rumors, and try to understand each other better.

At this juncture, India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to play a special role. “What I’m really discouraged by is the growing dominance of a technocratic middle class that is anti-political and for whom the suffering of excluded people doesn’t mean a lot,” said Martha Nussbaum. “This IIT mentality — become technically competent engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India.”

India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to pay heed. If they really want India to become the America of Asia, they can no longer afford to be silent and apolitical.

Published in Asian Sentinel, Hong Kong, Oct 29, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

Agent Vinod

Don't know about you but like millions of others in the Hindi belt, I too grew up with Hindi and Urdu pulp fiction. Works of James Hadley Chase in Hindi (still remember one of the titles, Drum of Coco), Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma, and even Gulshan Nanda, among others, became part of my daily literary (?) fodder. But it was Ibn-e Safi's Imran Series that was my favourite: not just for its plots but also for its wit and humour. I didn't read any English novel until I was in college, and I am not saying this with pride--such was the environment in the small town that I came from. Even though your Jackie Collinses and Harold Robbinses (English pulp) were available at the AHW bookstalls, their prices were out of my reach.

We never saw interviews of these well-known pulp writers, even though their books sold 500,000-600,000 copies easily without any pre- or post-launch publicity. They were household names in the Hindi belt.

Sadly, the once might Hindi pulp is dying in India, says columnist Mrinal Pande. This is happening, she argues, thanks to the cable television:

Cable television, the new sassy kid on the block, picked up ideas from pulp and began to jazz up romance, crime and soft porn to create soaps and programmes that bore names straight out of the Meerut novels : Sansani, Jurm, Shhhh…Koi Hai. Then came the T-Rex, the reality shows actually featuring those that have rubbed shoulders with the mysterious underworld of crime and sleaze: the Shilpa Shettys, Rahul Mahajans and Monica Bedis. After such entertainment, who needs pulp?


But looks like Bollywood too would join the fray. Sriram Raghavan who made the rocking Johnny Gaddar, is making Agent Vinod with Saif Khan. Sounds good. I hope someone will take up Ibne Safi too.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tandoori chai, anyone?

Pot Pourri--that's where I was last Sunday. Well, as you might have guessed from the name itself or if the pictures revealed the story to you even before you began reading this post--Pot Pourri is a restaurant, tucked in a nice pre-War building on the Waterloo Street (right behind SAM).

Here's what I have to say for a short introduction: The restaurant's ambiance is beautiful, the food is simply amazing--basically Indian food with a global twist!

I have rarely written about food or restaurants on this blog, but today I am doing that.

Not because I know the restaurant's owners--Suhail (on the phone in the pic) and Naseem. Suhail has been in the food business for a number of years, so all the experience has been put to good use at this new establishment which is now more than a month old.

I am writing this post because Pot Pourri--owning to its location, setting and services--has an easy charm about it that is hard to describe. The building itself gives it a character that sets it apart from many garishly done Indian restaurants. The interiors, the furniture, the alfresco bar, the stage area for parties and functions--all give it a classy chic appearance. The result is that even on your first visit, you feel at home. By the way, according to Suhail, this is the same place from where Indochine, the famous chain of restaurants, started. So, good luck Suhail and Naseem!

Now, the best thing about a restaurant has to be about its food. As I said earlier, the food is Indian but not that spicy and has a global flavour about it--you will know what I mean when you actually dine there. The presentation is first class at prices that are hard to believe (meaning, almost there with your Anjappars and Copper Chimneys). And you know what, you get bheja masala and nalla nihari there too, anytime! Can you find that anywhere else in Singapore! Suhail told me that he gets his meat supplies from Delhi. Everyday the meat is airflown from the Indian capital on Jet Airways. That I guess is as fresh as you can get here.

During the course of the sumptuous meal, I happened to meet one of the chefs from Delhi--Chef Chandan who proudly described to me that he had worked with the legendary chef Ghulam Rasool in Delhi. He shared many anecdotes with me about his training as a chef. But there is one thing about Chandan that I must share with you.

Tandoori chai. Now, have you ever heard of it?

One of Chandan's specialties is Tandoori chai --tea made with tea leaves, sugar and milk in a polyethylene packet--yes, that's right, any polyethylene packet--boiled and prepared in a hot tandoor. Though I did not get to sample it, he claimed that the tea is delicious and the packet never bursts. Unbelievable, isn't it? Chandan even got an award for performing this unusual feat. Bravo! Next time I go there, I am going to shoot this tandoori chai making for you):

But obviously, you won't visit Pot Pourri for that chai alone. They have some of the best kebabs (from Nawabi to Gilawati) that I have tasted in Singapore, the softest butter naans and the most delicious daal, Daal Bukhara--one of chef Chandan's (picture, below, on the left) specialties. And many many more things. Check out the menu on their website.

If you can't wait for a bite there, here are the details:

Office: 68847742
Location: 42 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187951
Singapore City, Singapore

If you are on Facebook, join the Pot Pourri group here:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Between the Assassinations

Outlook reveals that The White Tiger is not, in fact, Adiga's debut novel:

Much of the hype and hoopla over Aravind Adiga's winning the Booker is about the fact that he has won it with his very first book. But The White Tiger is not, in fact, his debut novel. His first book, Between the Assassinations, had been languishing with its Indian publisher, Picador India, for over two years. They bought it from the then unknown Adiga for a modest sum, and despite it being championed by Pankaj Mishra and the literary agent, Peter Strauss, it didn't attract a single UK or US publisher. Predictably, after Adiga's Booker win, a bidding war has begun for it.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Arundhati Roy on the Jamia encounter

Bol ke lab azaad hain tere...bol zabaan ab tak teri hai:

Friday, October 17, 2008

What does the Booker win mean for Arvind Adiga?

Some Indians are upset at Arvind Adiga's Booker win because they think it was wrong of him to have exposed the dark side of India (Read: The dark horse and Roars of anger).

The truth is that the dark side of India has always been out there, provided that one was living and breathing with one's eyes open in the first place--in news reports, blogs, and non-fiction writing--it has been there all along (Forgot Pankaj Mishra's and Arundhati Roy's writings, to say the least? And they don't read Tehelka there, do they?). This could also be seen as one of the side effects (on the British consciousness) of Salman Rushdie's move to New York. The man used to keep the British up to date with the goings on of the sub-continent.

I don't know about The Guardian and other UK dailies but as far as I know, the NYT and the IHT have been regularly publishing reports on the dark side of India--communal violence, widening socio-economic divide, corruption, negligence of states like Bihar, etc. Looks like the Booker judges were not exposed to such reports--that's why it took Adiga's novel for them to get informed about this aspect of the country--one of the world's rising powers. "This book changed me," Booker judge Michael Portillo said. "It changed my view of certain things, like what is the real India and what is the nature of poverty." Good for him! At least now the learned man knows something that he ought to know.

As for India, you need not worry. Criticism is part of life and it is the job of writers and journalists to point out the social ills. As citizens, we can work to build a better India.

But to come back to the complaint, after the success stories from a rising India, it is the dark side of India that is attracting the attention of the Western junta. What's it? A feeling of “schadenfreude” against a resurgent India? Look how Jala's film (Children of the Pyre) won the best documentary film prize at the Montreal film festival. Adapting another Indian novel by Vikas Swarup, filmmaker Danny Boyle has made a film on a man from the Mumbai slums doing well but being questioned for his doing well precisely because of his origin. That film is Slum Dog Millionaire which is said to be well-received in film festivals.

I am not saying all this to take away credit from anyone involved. My message to the upset people is simply this: Expect more negative stories from India making it to the Western press and book stores. Being upset at it won't change anything.

But honestly, I don't think one can blame Arvind for writing this kind of an angry book--for going where he went for his literary material. As a writer, he wrote what caught his fancy. However, I also agree with what Nilanjan S Roy has said: "The idea that what Adiga has done is path-breaking is ridiculous. No doubt, he has written a great book and given us a character, Balram Halwai, that will stay with us. But as anyone in India who reads widely enough knows, he's not 'the first to go where no other Indian author has gone before' as reviews in the west have proclaimed."

I haven't read the book so I can't comment on its merit. But among what I have read recently, The Peacock Throne dealt with the similar class of people. And, anyway, I don't need to read a novel to know about such people as I have literally grown up with characters like Balram Halwai minus the ascribed villainy as a class trait--if that's how readers choose to read the work of fiction and work out the equation.

As a caveat, for the benefit of Portillo and others, to get the impression from this novel that all of India's poor are likely villains and throat cutters would be to get it all wrong. And to assume that India's poor have only two ways--politics and crime --to come up in life would be to believe in the naivety of the partial truth. I have seen poor Indians becoming successful businessmen and skilled workers by the dint of their hard work and smartness. I have read about the sons of rickshaw-pullers making it to the civil services. There are many stories. Arvind chose one of them to tell through his novel that he found the most compelling.

However, many critics, including Professor Amitava Kumar, have questioned the authenticity of his portrayal of a character like Balram (from the darkness, that is Bihar) in a seminal essay (Bad News: Authenticity and the South Asian political novel):
I also loved what I’d heard of Adiga’s cheeky use of the epistolary form, that the whole book was a letter from the Indian servant to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Certainly, the narrator’s voice is bold and funny...But when I started reading the book, my enthusiasm evaporated. I did not know until I began reading the novel that the protagonist, Balram Halwai, is from the state of Bihar, where I was born and grew up, and which Halwai in the course of the entire book calls by the name Darkness. But more than the name was unsettling. In the book’s opening pages, Halwai begins to tell the Chinese Premier the story of his life. We are introduced to the poverty of rural Bihar, and the evil of the feudal landlords. Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist. I find Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive...As I continued, I found on nearly every page a familiar observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounds false. I stopped reading on page thirty-five.

No matter what, I am happy for Arvind to have won the prestigious award. The man worked hard--he left his job after a successful stint at the Time. He had the best education available to him--he too could have become an investment banker or a doctor. But he decided to become a journalist and a writer. How many people take that path?

With his Booker win, he has raised the bar so high for all young Indian writers--and especially for those geniuses who have gone to places like Oxford and Columbia. Their friends might be asking them: dude, when are you going to chuck your job and whip out that Booker winning novel? (The banking and finance sector is anyway doing poorly so the timing is right, isn't it? Ha ha, just kidding).

Here is an interesting account from Arvind's friend at the Time magazine who was there at the Guildhall when the Mangalore boy's name was announced as a winner:
For Ravi Mirchandani, who edited Adiga's book and was sitting beside him at the table, the win was especially sweet. The White Tiger was the first book he bought for Atlantic, which hired him in 2006 after he was fired from a job at Random House. The novel was shown to him by Adiga's agent, who insisted that he read it that night and make an almost instant decision about whether to bid for it. "I sat down with the manuscript and after the first six pages I was just so excited," Mirchandani said. "When you're reading a first novel, you're often thinking: 'This is fantastic, keep it up, keep it up' " — only to find the writer stumbles and falls. In Adiga's case, Mirchandani said, "The voice is fantastic and it never falters."


Amid all this hullabaloo, I have been wondering about one thing: whatever happened to the Naipaulian advice to novelists: stop bringing the news! Dickens used to do that when journalism was yet to uncover the dark side of industrialization in Britain. And imagine, Adiga's novel has actually been called Dickensian! Does it mean journalism has failed?

If yes, then this could be good news for Tehelka. Tehelka sales team, please take note. Send a sample subscription copy to Portillo and company, and thank Mr Adiga for opening a new corner of the market to you and your ilk of truth-tellers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Arvind Adiga grabs the Booker

Arvind Adiga has done it. He has won this year's Man Booker Prize for his novel, The White Tiger.

Adiga has got this honour with his first book--that's amazing. I had no doubt about his talent ever since I had read some of his book reviews in the Time magazine. Perhaps at that time not many had noticed him but I had been impressed.

Here is the Guardian on his win:

After an "emotionally draining" and closely fought final judging session, Aravind Adiga, one of the two debut novelists on the Man Booker shortlist, was last night awarded the £50,000 prize for The White Tiger, a bracingly modern novel about the dark side of the new India.

Adiga, 33, is a surprise winner: at long odds he batted aside the claims of veteran writers on the shortlist such as Sebastian Barry and Amitav Ghosh.

He is only the fourth first-time novelist to win the Man Booker - after Keri Hulme in 1985, Arundhati Roy in 1997 and DBC Pierre in 2003 - and he is the second youngest after Ben Okri, who won in 1991 aged 32.