Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mukul Deva: A surgical strike

Indian thriller-writer Mukul Deva analyses global terrorism in his no holds barred, hard-hitting tetralogy with unflinching precision

A former Major in the Indian army, Mukul Deva was in Delhi when a deadly bomb ripped apart the Sarojini Nagar Market in the capital city. Many innocent lives were lost. This incident enraged Mukul so much that he decided to do something about it.

After serving the army for 15 years, Mukul had taken premature retirement to follow his passion: writing. Mukul had already set up a private consultancy firm and had written a few books on corporate training. But his dream of becoming an accomplished author of hard-hitting and gut-wrenching novels was yet to come true.

Only it became far bigger than he had imagined.

Mukul’s response to the Sarojini Nagar Market blasts found expression in his debut novel, Lashkar. From Lashkar to Salim Must Die to Blowback (releasing worldwide this January), Mukul set out on a quest to explore the dynamics of global terrorism that has become the bane of our time. The fourth title (Tanzim), completing this tetralogy on terrorism, is scheduled to come out next year.

Lashkar was released in 2008 and it became an instant bestseller in India. Salim Must Die was released last year and it also struck a chord with the readers. In a recent book launch in Singapore, Mukul pointed out, with the pride of prescience, that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008 charted the same route (Karachi to Mumbai) that Mukul had mapped out in his novel. Also, Mukul had pre-empted the Indian government by creating a National Intelligence Command (NIC) in his novel’s pages before the Manmohan Singh government actually created one to deal with terror threats.

The seeds of terror

salimLashkar begins with the blast in Delhi’s SN market and traces the origin of the blasts from the terror camps in Pakistan. Through his characters, Mukul shows that terrorism that comes from Pakistan is a proxy war between the two neighbors who have never trusted each other completely.

India and Pakistan were created in 1947, and from day one, the blood brothers turned on each other. Pakistan complained of being given a moth-eaten state, its eastern (now Bangladesh) and western parts separated by the monstrously huge terrain of India. Pakistan considers the state of Kashmir (J&K) as an occupied territory, a territory that rightfully belongs to the Muslim-majority country. At the UN, Nehru had promised a plebiscite for Kashmiris to decide whether they wanted union with India or Pakistan. That never happened. The two countries went to war on this issue—thrice. According to human rights activist and author Arundhati Roy, Kashmir is the most densely militarized zone in the world.

Last year, she wrote in an essay in Outlook magazine (“Azadi”):“For the past sixty days or so, since about the end of June, the people of Kashmir have been free. Free in the most profound sense. They have shrugged off the terror of living their lives in the gun-sights of half-a-million heavily-armed soldiers in the most densely militarised zone in the world.”

But that is not all. In the 1960s and early 70s, according to the Pakistani narrative, India helped Mukti Vahini, the group that finally made East Pakistan secede from Pakistan. A moth eaten Pakistan, whose heart (Kashmir) and limbs (East Pakistan) were chopped off by a ‘treacherous’ India wounded the young nation’s ego and psyche for good. Pakistan has used this Indian perfidy and perceived monstrosity (of India) as a justification to wage a constant war—a holy war—against India. India needs to be taught a lesson—that is what seems to be driving the terror machines across the border.

That’s also why, after the Afghan Mujahidins defeated the USSR in Afghanistan with USA’s help (money, training, and moral support), Pakistan diverted the zealots to the next holy cause of Islam—extricating Kashmir from the grip of a ‘Kafir’ Hindustan. The result was that Kashmir bled for decades and though much of the militancy is under control now, the human and military cost of India-Pakistan rivalry is egregiously expensive.

However, this cost means nothing to the Pakistani terror merchants—as long as the Americans keep sending their dollars to them. Mukul says at one point: “Almost every nation was aware that the Pakistani General’s claim that he had curbed all terrorist activity in his country was a blatant lie. The whole world knew about it yet refused to acknowledge it. The Americans went about applauding the General and praising him for his help in hunting down the Al Qaida.” A certain Pakistani General comes to mind while reading this.

Terrorism and its discontents

In Lashkar, through a character called Iqbal, Mukul shows how innocent and impressionistic young Muslims are recruited for the cause of the so called Holy Jihad. Iqbal comes from a lower middle class Muslim household in Lucknow and is recruited in a Pakistani terror network. Through Iqbal’s eyes, Mukul authentically shows us the terror camps in Pakistan and how the trainers, the merchants of terror, brainwash the young minds with the gibberish of holy war.

Through Iqbal’s character, Mukul uncovers the real agenda of the Pakistani terror establishment. From being a perpetrator of terror, Iqbal becomes a force of redemption. The turning point comes when Iqbal’s eyes open up to what terror can do to innocent lives. “I am sure that even a fool like you knows that jihad means to strive…to strive for purity within oneself and goodness in society,” a changed Iqbal says to a fellow terrorist at one point in the novel.

Iqbal's metamorphosis occurs because he learns many unsavory truths about the Jihad: “You think they are doing it for us?...They just don’t have the balls for a fair fight. They have lost every damn war with India, that is why they have inflicted this endless, aimless Jihad on India. They are trying to bleed India by forcing it to fight this constant low-intensity war.”

Mukul has kept the plot simple with a handful of main characters. On the one hand is Iqbal’s story that brings in the perspective of a reformed terrorist. On the other, there is Pakistani ISI’s Ex-Brigadier Murad Salim who devises terror plans on a global level. To counter the Pak attack is the Force 22 of India, helmed by the sharp and capable Colonel Rajan Anbu and his team. These characters move the plot which is meticulously and precisely woven with frenetic action in India, Pakistan and beyond.

The Indo-Pak conflict, seen in terms of Pak-exported terrorism and India’s counter-attacks, segues into a broader international Islamic jihad in the second volume, Salim Must Die. The action spreads from China to America and Europe and terrorism takes myriad shapes: from chemical weapons attacks to the use of mini-nuclear bombs (funnily called Chhote Miyan). The details are fascinating.

Mukul’s two volumes are so blisteringly fast paced that one forgets how well-researched the narrative is. He takes the reader on a thrilling ride and shares frank insights with him on terrorism. Not just Pakistan, this realistic writer also takes the USA and the Anglo-American oil conglomerates to task. Mukul proves that the so called war on terror is not about terror but oil: America consumes about 24 percent of the global oil production but it posses less than 2.8 percent of the reserves. Nearly 70 percent of world’s oil and natural gas reserves are in the Middle East-Central Asia region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran are the top 3 oil-rich countries). “It is primarily because of this that in mid-1995, the US administration released a National Security document stating that the objective of the war on Iraq was to protect the United States’ uninterrupted and secure access to oil,” says the head of NIC in Salim Must Die. The book is full of such insights.

For those who follow the current affairs would love this series of military thrillers—the first of its kind in Indian English fiction—and would ask for more. It is only appropriate if his readers describe Mukul as the Tom Clancy of India. This reader can't wait to read the next volume in the series.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Firebombing of churches in Malaysia amid ‘Allah dispute’

Anu Garg of A.Word.A.Day writes a very relevant note today: The word religion derives from Latin ligare (to tie or to bind, as in 'ligament'), but it best serves as a tool to divide people. My religion is better than yours. My god true, yours false. What, we have the same religion? No problem, my sect is better than yours.

This reminds me of what is currently happening in Malaysia—a country where the so called “Islamic terrorism” is yet to take root. But first a little detour.

Today, my daughter missed her school bus. Perhaps we were late by a minute or so and the bus driver assumed that my daughter was not going to school today. He left without informing us. Usually he calls us if we are late for the bus—a practice that he follows. We trusted him on this practice. We waited for the bus to come. For what seemed like a long time, it didn’t come. When I called the driver, I understood what had happened. We had missed it.

I took a cab and dropped my daughter at the school. Then I started for my office. The cabbie started talking about the ‘Malaysia problem’.

What Malaysian problem, I asked him. I knew what he was hinting (the firebombing of some churches in Malaysia and the controversy on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims) at but religious bigotry is the last thing that I want to talk about. That too first thing in the morning.

If you have to know the topic of the day, ask a cab driver. So, it was there like an elephant in the car and a discussion was unavoidable.

Coming from India, religious bigotry and violence is not new to me. There is a minority of people in every religion that despises people of other faiths and other sects and these people are used by politicians to incite violence for political gains. I suspected it is the same group behind the anti-church violence in Malaysia (I was reminded of the burning of churches and church workers in India by the lunatic fringe of the Hindu right). The British tactic of divide and rule is a tried and tested formula and it seldom fails.

The driver agreed with me. No religion teaches violence against people of other faith and their places of worship. It is the narrow-minded tiny minority that uses religion to divide people.

As far as the use of word ‘Allah’ is concerned, following is the stand of Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqui, a Nadwa, Madina, Birmingham, and Harvard educated scholar and Chairman of the Fiqh Council of America (courtesy Saba Bhai): “There is nothing wrong if Christians or Jews want to use ‘Allah’ for God. In the Qur’an Jews and Christians are mentioned using the name Allah. Arab Christians always used Allah for God. The Arabic Bible has Allah written on almost every page.”

Now, how unreasonable is that?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Lone Fighter

One of my short stories (The Lone Fighter) has appeared in the Dhaka-based The Daily Star's Weekend magazine:

"That's all trash, brother. Why are you wasting your time?” a voice accosted me, catching me midway between a sentence and the next on a page in The Rachel Papers.

On that evening I was at Kinokuniya. After browsing through a number of classics, I was standing in front of a shelf full of contemporary works. Amid scores of novels dealing with adult themes by writers I didn't recognize, two titles, one by Martin Amis and another by Ian MacEwan, grabbed my attention. I was especially interested in Amis's work. It was his first novel, The Rachel Papers that I was looking at. It was at that point of time that Asato's voice reached my ears: “That's all trash, brother. Why are you wasting your time?”

The intrusive voice offended me. I turned back and saw this little bald man in dishevelled clothes standing right behind me. He had a bespectacled oriental face resting on a slender neck. I couldn't remember seeing him before.

In a hectoring tone, he started a volley of unsolicited commentary, “and the shelf next to this, and even the one next to it…it is all trash, brother” the stranger said, pointing his small fingers to the neighbouring shelves in the bookstore.

What rubbish, I thought. I had just seen a Dr. Zhivago on one of those shelves.

“This is not literature brother. This is all sex and trash,” he remarked.

I felt my raised heckles calming down. In a moment, the man's sincerity had me enthralled.

Read the full text here.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Avatar (2009)

Like many of his admirers, I have been waiting for James Cameron’s Avatar for the last 10 years. I was not aware of any of Cameron’s films before I watched Titanic (1997)—the international smash-hit that became miraculously popular even in countries such as India and China. The only exception was the 1994 terrorism drama—True Lies, that precociously confirmed my fear that after the fall of communism, it was global terrorism that was going to be the American empire’s next bogeyman.

Remember, this was way before 9/11. But I knew that the global managers of perception and culture will replace the red terror with green terror. Every state, as the political theory goes, whose soul is locked in the monster of military-industrial complex, needs an enemy to keep its artificial unity intact. So, one or another kind of terror has to be perennially invented (before you create a hero, you have to create a monster—that is one of the rules of script writing).

So, when a precocious and visionary filmmaker like Cameron announces a venture like Avatar, one’s ears are pricked. I was hungry for any information on this sci-fi film’s progress: Cameron is working on the design of a new camera that can capture the kind of motion he wants to film, he is scouting locations in New Zealand, he is working with Peter Jackson’s special effects team, and so on. The news kept rolling in, whetting my appetite. Meanwhile, I watched some of the earlier ‘alien-themed’ films by Cameron.

When finally Cameron’s labour of love hit the screens and created another big bang box office history, I had to watch it.

Watching Avatar, I have the feeling that the spectre of global terrorism will be over in the next few years. By the end of this phase, the world will be completely globalised and integrated (and in need of a new form of energy). Then the global empire (not just American, mind you) will need a new enemy—it has to come from outer space. The last few decades of Hollywood films (Star Wars, E.T., Aliens) by the trinity of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron have prepared us to face the next phase of terror.

Colonisation as the perennial human quest

In Avatar, Cameron has turned the focus of this terror inwards: he shows us a mirror in which we, the humans, are the terror for the lives of other planets. If human history is the history of finding and conquering the next frontier, the progress of civilisation as a process of perennial colonisation, then, as in the myth, we are doomed like Sisyphus to bear the stone of colonisation and conquest without an end. Since our greed is boundless, so our fate is to meet a violent end.

After colonising our own, humans move out to colonise the creatures of Pandora in this 21st century myth by Cameron. Some see it as a left wing propaganda, taking it as an allegory for the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan: US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (for their oil and poppy fields respectively), destroyed its cities and killed people in these countries. Daisy cutters, education, English—the gifts of the colonisers—have been mentioned in the film. The allusions are unmistakable.

But what is unsettling for me is this: a leftist film attacking greedy businessmen and the government army doing their businessmen masters’ bidding (government armies fighting as if they were mercenaries) coming from an ultra-right Hollywood’s studio (Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox in this case). I don’t think Murdoch’s studio is behind this film for any ideological reasons but this being a James Cameron film, it means huge profits on the box office.

Despite its performance on the box office, the context of heroism shown in this movie troubles me—that one has to turn against one’s own people (the greedy human race here) to protect innocent people (Navis of Pandora, a moon of the planet of Polyphemus, some 4.3 light years from Earth) only under extraordinary circumstances. The Navis become the target of the greedy humans because they happen to sit atop a rich source of highly sought-after fuel source, unobtanium. The massive military build up, the huge piles of explosives and bombs, a trigger happy Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the intentions of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi)—don’t they all signal to the scientific team (Dr. Grace Augustine, Norm Spellman, Dr. Max Patel and Jake Sully) that they are not on a morally noble mission?

What is disturbing in this film’s moral setup is the implication that rising against injustice is a superhuman task, something only for the consideration of extraordinary heroes and messiahs—this may not be Cameron’s intention but I am afraid lazy interpretations are far too common now among dumbed-down audiences. What about the sense of shame and anger against injustice and the everyday heroism that is required of us to qualify as humans? It is one of the tragedies of our civilisation that we have lost our moral compass—and for our material needs (a fresh pair of legs for the protagonist, the paraplegic ex-marine Jack Sully, played by Sam Worthington), we lose sight of universal values of truth and justice. Jack, using an artificially developed body of a Navi, made from a Navi and his own DNAs, is deployed for a mission to learn about the dwellers of Pandora. It is only when he falls in love with a Navi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) that his moral compass is reversed.

They have destroyed their mother (Earth) and now these sky people have come to destroy you, tells Jack to Neytiri. Cameron establishes our human greed beyond doubt in the film.

But to the credit of the geeks in the film, when the push comes to a shove, they are the guys who try to save Pandora from the destructive earthlings. Jack and the scientific team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) comes to the rescue of the Navi’s, the team includes a retired marine pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) who changes side during a violent engagement, giving us a different view of the military term, friendly fire. I didn’t sign up for this, she says when she cuts her allegiance from the marauding gang of sky fighters.

How it feels to betray your own race, asks Colonel Miles Quaritch before meeting his end. Jack does not respond to him but he knows that in a moral dilemma, one has to oppose the aggressor.

A world of rich imaginations

While Pandora’s creatures show the rich imagination of Cameron and his team, one is only temporarily surprised. The creatures are not breathtaking (3D effect might be dazzling though) as we movie-goers have seen so many of those moments that we are reminded of other films while watching the sequences of this film: there are Alice in Wonderland moments (plants growing small at a touch), Jurassic Park moments, Lord of the Rings moments, Apocalypto moments, and so on. I was also reminded of a story from the Quran when a bunch of birds (Mountain Banshees) destroy dozens of fighter planes.

In the Quranic tale, tiny birds (Ababeel) destroy the great armies of Sultan Abraha. According to the Quranic surat Surah Al-Feel (The Elephant), Sultan Abraha’s armies, mounted on huge elephants, came to attack the K’aba (the cube-shaped structure revered by Muslims, considered to be Allah’s house, facing which Muslims all over the world pray). With baked clay stones, the little birds defeat the army of elephants.

The resemblance is striking: Just like the Tree of Souls, where the Navi’s God Eyra resides, is situated upon a great store of unobtanium, Kaba too is supposed to be sitting atop a huge energy field. The Navis pray by chanting mantras, which sound like a mixture of ayats, shlokas and African voodoo incantations.

Then there are colourful and bright trees and vegetation that remind me of the descriptions in one of Urdu’s earliest novels, Firdaus-e-Bareen by Abdul Haleen Sharar.

Pandora as a network

Technologically, what is most interesting in Avatar is Cameron’s imagination of the Pandora world. In Pandora’s ecology, all plants and creatures are interlinked like a network. The Navis can connect with their ancestors through the Tree of Souls, and upload and download their memories—we are told by Dr. Augustine.

The Navis and Pandora’s creatures, like the Mountain Banshee, Toruk, and Direhourse, all need to be connected to work with each other. For example, one has to connect his neural queue to the animal’s antennae to mount it.

Also interesting is the Navi’s concept of energy: whatever you take from the planet, you borrow it. One day you have to give it back to the planet, says Neytiri.

For me, it is this multi-layered narrative of the film, and not just its visual effects, that make it a post-modern epic. As many commentators have noted, the film can prove to be a pioneer of a new era of ‘spectacle cinema’ as opposed to the human scale drama suitable for home and portable screen watching.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Interview with Ahmede Hussain (Bangladesh)

Ahmede Hussain is a Dhaka-based journalist and writer. He was in Singapore late last year to give a talk on compiling and editing anthologies in the Singapore Writers Festival 2009. That was when I met Hussain.

Hussain has recently edited The New Anthem, an anthology of South Asian fiction (Tranquebar, 2009) with contributions from well-known and relatively new writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Amitava Kumar, Kamila Shamshie, Raj Kamal Jha, Tabish Khair, and Monideepa Sahu, among others.

Currently, Hussain is working on his first novel.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Hussain in which he discusses his fascinating journey working on The New Anthem.

When did the idea of ‘The New Anthem’ come to you? What did you want to achieve through this anthology?

I was working on my novel and I came across this huge problem, without solving which I couldn’t move forward: to write novels in a certain language one needs to have a history of writing in that particular language. In India and Pakistan, as both the countries are linguistically divided, English has been the lingua franca, a lot of novels have been written in English, transplanting Indian or Pakistani reality into it is not difficult; you have Sarojini Naidu and RK Narayan. But there is no Narayan or Kamila Shamsie in Bangladesh. I started to read works of Indian and Pakistani writers and, as a reader, I thought it would be wonderful to get them together under one cover. Most of the writers are friends, I talked to them and The New Anthem was born.

I don’t want to achieve anything through the anthology. I wanted to celebrate the diversity of the writing from the sub-continent and the book does exactly that.

Most editors often love to write lengthy editorials or prefaces when they publish an anthology? Why did you keep your editor’s note so brief?

I am glad that you asked this question. I have been criticised by an Indian newsmagazine for writing such a short preface. I wanted to introduce the readers to the book, what binds the writers together and all. I didn’t want to ‘explain’ the pieces, I was scared of doing it.

Was it difficult to approach the more established writers and ask them to contribute to the collection?

Not at all. As I have said, all of them are friends. They were helpful with suggestions.

How did you go about finding the new voices from the sub-continent?

I read and whenever I got anything interesting I took note of it.

How did you choose the stories that you have included in the anthology? Did you look for stories that have a political slant?

I wanted stories that dealt with an individual’s place in history; I think every writer tries to do that. I was for works that handled the theme of ‘writing back’, which is ‘political’. Then again, writing is a by-product of politics.

Was it a struggle to find a publisher for the anthology?

There has been a huge interest in the work. It was smooth sailing for my agent.

Now that you have collected these new voices in the collection, what does it tell you of the future of story-telling in the sub-continent?

I have never thought of this. What an interesting question, Zafar!

What are you working on next?

I am working on my first novel. Set in an imaginary country called the People’s Republic of Bogland, it deals with the relationship between sex and violence.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Simon of the Desert (1965)

This is the time of the year when God and the glamour of technology come together in a bright, dazzling way. Think of the illuminated streets and shopping malls, the festive spirit, the exchange of gifts and the celebration through various symbols of a great spiritual figure’s birth, a figure who changed the destiny of mankind.

I cannot think of a film more appropriate for this time than Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965). Bunuel (1900-1983), a Spanish-born filmmaker who acquired Mexican citizenship, is considered one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. He worked in Mexico, France, Spain and the United States and made a number of remarkable surreal and philosophical films including Belle de Jour, That Curious Object of Desire, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, among others.

Simon of the Desert is the last film that Bunuel made in Mexico, using Mexican actors. The film, at its 45 minutes length, is incomplete because the producer ran out of money after five reels.

The film is about the main character, Simon, a stylite, played by Claudio Brook. Simon is an ascetic who spends his life on top of a pillar, atoning for his sins, and dedicating his life to the prayer of God.

In the early part of the film, Simon is about a smaller pillar to a taller pillar, a gift from a rich benefactor—the whole episode suggesting “opportunities for professional advancement” even in the realm of renunciation.

When the film begins, Simon has spent six year, six months and six days—666 being the mark of the beast—on his old pillar. His quest for holiness attracts the devil’s attention to him. The devil appears to him in several forms—a beautiful woman carrying a water pitcher, a seductress dressed in a school girlish sailor suit, a young male shepherd with fake curls, a worldly woman with a fancy hairdo and finally a miniskirted dancer in a New York nightclub.

Each time the devil appears to tempt or distract Simon, he recognises him and does not fall prey to his mischief. Until the final scene when this rupture occurs: the worldly woman tries to tempt him and an airplane flying overhead—the only symbol of modern technology in the film so far—seals the deal. In the next and last scene of the film, we see Simon as a suited and booted young New Yorker in a nightclub throbbing with lusty, dancing bodies. There is a live instrumental rock band on stage and the devil tells Simón that the hipsters are dancing a dance called “Radioactive Flesh”. The film ends there.

Since the film remains incomplete, we are not sure what Bunuel intended to convey but in his interviews he has pointed out certain things. To the question that “the devil takes Simon to the twentieth century and brings him to a noisy discotheque”, he replied: “I don’t know. You must remember that the film is not finished…Simon should have ended up on an even taller column, some twenty meters high, next to the sea, where the hierarchy of the church would come to see him. I filmed for only eighteen days. Since the storyline breaks, I had to look for an ending that didn’t have Simon praying atop his column…I was interested in seeing Simon’s reaction when he returns to the world. But the end result was dubious.”

Bunuel was not known for his spirituality and he often invited unfavourable comments from the Vatican on his films. On his belief system, Buñuel, in a 1977 article in The New Yorker, wrote: “I'm not a Christian, but I'm not an atheist, either…I'm weary of hearing that accidental old aphorism of mine, 'I'm an atheist, thank God.' It's outworn. Dead leaves. In 1951, I made a small film called Mexican Bus Ride, about a village too poor to support a church and a priest. The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It's guilt we must escape from, not God.”

Therefore, showing the airplane, standing in for technology, as a world transformative phenomenon, even a vehicle of the devil, and the crazy, radioactive flesh dance (allusion to nuclear technology and its inherent menaces) do not necessarily mean that Bunuel was preaching against technology. At best he is ambiguous. “I’m always ambiguous,” he has said. “Ambiguity is a part of my nature because it breaks with immutable preconceived ideas. Where is truth? Truth is a myth…”

Yet Bunuel was aware of the loss of the power of spirituality in humans in the modern civilization. “In fact, holiness counts for very little now,” he said. “But though we are not believers, we can feel that as a loss.”