Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why I wrote The Singapore Decalogue?

My first collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent (Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2012) was released in November this year at the Singapore Writers Festival. The book was supported by the National Arts Council Singapore under the Arts Creation Fund grant.
In this collection of short stories, I have tried to create vignettes of life in Singapore. This is my tribute to this city state, which has built its social capital with great wisdom, civic sense, and quotidian practicality.
Like many modern metros, the Lion City is compact, with people of various ethnicity and nationalities living side by side. Though they live mostly secluded, private lives, there are times when their paths cross. This civic commingling of people can be harmonious or chaotic, depending on the circumstances.
In these stories, I have tried to portray the hopes and frustrations of a few interconnected characters (that was truer for the earlier draft when the characters were varied). The bustling metropolis attracts all kinds of people who want to make a life here. What happens to their dreams? What kind of struggles do they go through? Do they feel alienated? What do they love about the city? And so on.
Through the panoply of characters, mainly built around a main character, Asif Basheer, an aspiring poet from India, I have woven together a web of stories that throw light on various contemporary themes. The initial aspiration, following in the footsteps of Tolstoy and the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (especially his film cycle, The Decalogue), was to explore themes based on the Ten Commandments, but I finally transformed the idea. I was anxious, even afraid, that the stories might come across as too moralistic or formulaic if I went down that route. Nevertheless, my moral concerns about making choices in life still shaped and informed the stories in The Singapore Decalogue.
As I have said elsewhere, more than a writer I am an inspired reader. In terms of actual inspiration behind the stories in this collection, there were many influences—both from life that I have seen from close quarters and from books that I have read over the years. So, in these stories, besides expressing my appreciation of the city and its people, I have also tried to pay my debt to many of my favourite writers and their works that I have benefitted from. The first story, that introduces the main character, is my homage to Fyodor Dostoevsky. In fact, the story begins in the same way as the master’s novel, Crime and Punishment. His protagonist, Raskolnikov, a conflicted and aspiring intellectual, finds a modern day reflection in my main character, Asif Basheer. As the stories unfold, we become privy to Asif’s trials and tribulations and see life in Singapore through his life’s prism. We meet characters who interact with Asif or come into his life. In the earlier version, Asif’s story culminates in a bizarre incident in Boat Quay—Singapore’s commercial heart but that has changed in the final version.
In the original version, the last story summed up the aspects of Asif’s life in epistolary form and it was meant to be my tribute to Gustave Flaubert who wrote some of the most beautiful and passionate letters that I have ever read. In my view, this completed an arch—the first story and the last—as both Dostoevsky and Flaubert were contemporaries in 19th century Europe, and died one year apart (1880 and 1881 respectively). This was how I had tried to connect the past with the present. No matter how times change, people and their hopes and sufferings remain the same. Besides these two great writers, there are stories in the collection that are inspired by the styles of my other favourite writers—James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Hanif Kureishi. Initially, my model was Joyce’s Dubliners in which he tried a naturalistic depiction of the Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. A lot changed from the initial idea but that was what I had in my first draft.
A note of explanation here: by dropping big names (Joyce, Hemingway, et al.) I don’t claim any greatness for myself (how could I?). That would be preposterous and arrogant of me (some have already charged me of being a snob because I don’t like most of the books that are being published today, especially fiction—so I don’t want to aggravate matters here). I am doing that because I want to acknowledge my debt and put on record that I drew inspiration from their works, and that I feel a sense of kinship with them (as many reader would feel towards their favorite writers).
The first draft of The Singapore Decalogue was ready in 2011 and as I started working on the book with my publisher and my editor, the contours of the collection began to change. The publishers had liked the opening story, Crime and Punishment, so much that they wanted to have Asif Basheer, the main protagonist, as the lead in each story. That was not my plan.  This meant that I had to drop almost half the stories from the collection and write new ones. I needed some time to do that. By that time, I was also working on my non-fiction book, The Resurgence of Satyam, and had started work on a screenplay. So, there was a hiatus between the first batch of stories that I wrote in 2010-2011 and the later stories that went into the collection. They were written after July 2012.
I still like some of the stories that were dropped from the first draft. Who knows? They might go into The Singapore Decalogue 2.
Copies of The Singapore Decalogue are available at Kinokuniya, Singapore for purchasing and at all branches of National Library Singapore (NLB) for borrowing. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tokyo Not Cancelled

We (I was accompanied by my wife) reached Tokyo in the afternoon of November 24. We were very tired as we had to leave house around 3am to catch the 6am Delta flight. Not only we were tired, we were very hungry too. We had a quick sandwich at Starbucks before we boarded the flight. I could hardly sleep on the plane as I am always tempted to watch movies on a flight and I always have a backlog of movies that I wish to watch.

Just two days before the flight to Tokyo I had watched almost an hour of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel en route to Bangkok and had loved it completely (especially the humour in the film). So, during the flight to Tokyo, I first watched that movie (from where I had left it off) and I don't regret it. Perhaps it was the best film of this year for me. Many Indians, including myself, dislike India for its crowd, squalor and poverty, and the film sort of showed me how to see the same situation in a different light ("In India, life is not a right," says one character. "It's a privilege."). That is the beauty of the film.If you haven't watched it, you must. There is a lot of good humour in the film. I thought it was a well-written movie.

Coming from Singapore, almost any airport in the world will disappoint me--in terms of ease of movement, layout and sheer opulence. Narita was no different. Anyway, the immigration process was very smooth and after collecting our bags, we boarded the Narita Express (NEX) to our hotel in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is one of those little districts in Tokyo where high life and low life come together in a confluence. Our hotel was a short walk away from the station (the world's busiest railway junction, says the guide book). After checking into our hotel, we rested for a while in the room--even for a four-star hotel, the room was very small: a double bed, a desk, and one chair. There wasn't any cupboard in the room. And there was a narrow space between the bed and the wall, narrow enough to put a suitcase down. Freshly pressed robes waited for us. There was TV which had only Japanese channels on it: I found one channel where a man was furiously talking about some products. The shower room was even smaller but the snazzy toilet seat more than compensated for it. It had some amazing functions and I wonder why hasn’t the world (or, at least Singapore) adopted technologically advanced Japanese toilets? Think of it: today we carry so much advanced smartphones but when it comes to toilets, we have not evolved much. It is a shame.

After a while, we hit the streets. It was evening and it was very cold, and we admired our cleverness that we had packed enough winter clothing to brave the Tokyo weather. The streets around Shinjuku had a quaintness to them—small, narrow streets, with small, little shops and lots of neon signs and locals, mostly youngsters, pounding them in groups. My wife thought we were back in the 70s. Despite the cold, it seemed there was enough cheerfulness in the atmosphere and it didn't seem like a country that had been stuck in economic stagnation for decades now.  The traffic was slow and there didn't seem to be a mad rush for anything (or was it because it was a Saturday?), and many people rode bicycles on the streets. Even the taxis looked of an old vintage but they were all in good condition. The whole atmosphere reminded me of a Dev Anand film shot in the 1970s or 80s. My wife was right about the feel of the district.

Next to our hotel and across the street there were plenty of vending machines. That's where I first saw vending machines that dispensed cigarettes. Also, every now and then, one would find a Family Mart or a Seven Eleven store to buy items of daily and frequent use, including food items, water and fat, comic magazines that were sealed to prevent thumbing by browsing-happy readers.

The streets were packed with noodle bars and restaurants (the signs were sometimes vertically displayed, implying different restaurants at different levels of a building) and global fast food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC were easy to find. We also spotted a Yoshinoya outlet but it looked so different from what I had seen in Singapore that I decided not to enter it. There didn't even seem to be a menu at the counter.

Across the Shinjuku station, there was Takashimaya, the shopping complex of the same-name that we have on Orchard Road in Singapore. That's where we planned to spend the evening. On the way to the mall, we came across beautiful Christmas decorations. We saw people taking pictures around the decorations.

Even though the mall was sprawling, the layout of the stores seemed to be a bit confusing or maybe it needed many more trips to get used to it and find our way around with ease. We had spent nearly half an hour inside the mall and as we entered an elevator to go to the fifth floor, we had a taste of the famous Japanese earthquake. The elevator shook, the lights sputtered off and the doors forestalled. Luckily, we were not between two floors so all of us rushed out of the lift.

The mall's staff sprung into action: all elevators and escalators were jammed up, and they showed the shoppers the exits. I wanted to see Kinokuniya the bookstore but my wife didn't want to hang around anymore so we followed a bunch of locals who took the staircase down. Somehow we managed to get out of the building. Outside, people were milling round on the streets as if nothing had happened. We went to a Starbucks which was very crowded, (and it seems young people in Tokyo love hanging out in Starbucks) and ordered a cappuccino. We collected our drink and sat outside and as we began to sip it, we realized we had been given the wrong drink. But the cinnamon-flavoured tea tasted nice in the cold and we carried on, dropping any idea to complain to the café’s staff.

We had our dinner at McDonald's--we got some burgers and we had to ask for ketchup. It was really self-service in there as we had to clear the table after we had eaten--everyone was doing that in the restaurant. Japanese shops seemed to get along fine with minimal staff and we saw it everywhere. They could hardly speak English but communication was not a problem. Gestures and pictures supplemented pidgin English.

I slept at night wishing for our safety. There weren’t any more tremors that night.

The next morning we set for Odaiba, a reclaimed island next to the Tokyo Bay. The train ride across the Rainbow Bridge offered amazing vistas. We had to change three lines but the train rides were comfortable and the trains ran on time, exactly as I was told. Tokyo has one of the best metro systems in the world. They have about 16 lines in operation.

We entered one of the shopping malls in Odaiba and by the time we were done with our shopping it was dark outside. We had our lunch inside the mall--we ate the delicious beef bowls at Yoshinoya, and I put a check on my list. 

After coming back to our hotel room, we went out again. I had to see the original Kinokuniya in Tokyo and finally after asking a couple of helpful Japanese staff at Takashimaya, I was able to step inside the 6 story building that housed Kinokuniya. The annex (building) was old and the elevator didn't work. It was ten minutes before closing time and we had to use the escalators. I finally managed to reach the English language section of the bookstore which was on the 6th storey. Just for fun I asked them if they my books. They didn't have them. I bought a novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, for the sake of memory, and they kindly draped my copy with a cover. Nice gesture!

That night we had our dinner at KFC and the portions (true for both the pieces of chicken and fries) were really small. But the taste was fine.

The next morning we left Tokyo for the United States. The journey from the hotel to the Narita airport turned into our biggest adventure in Japan, and what was meant to be a 90 minutes journey turned into a 3 hour long rush. That is something I have to tell you when we meet (remember to ask me), and not write about it here. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I bankrupted myself while writing Maximum City: Suketu Mehta

New York-based writer Suketu Mehta is one of my favourite writers. I became a fan of his writing (he also loves Hemingway and Naipaul like I do) when I read his autobiographical account of his experiences in Mumbai (where he was born and partly raised before his diamond trading merchant family moved to New York), Maximum City. The book was published in 2004 and I read it shortly after I moved to Singapore. I loved the book because it was not a chore to read; it was like watching a Bombay film. Why was it an easy read? Mehta explains in an interview:

"... the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences."

Unlike many contemporary writers who are in a hurry to churn book after book, Suketu is a patient writer. He took seven years to research and write Maximum City. What I did not know though is that he had bankrupted himself while doing this book. This happened to him even though he had an advance from the publishers. In this interview with NDTV (Power of One), he reveals that he incurred a considerable amount of debt by the time he was done with the book. "When I finished my book, I was 40,000 dollars in debt," he tells NDTV's Srinivasan Jain.

How many writers will take this kind of risk?

In an interview with Karan Mahajan, Mehta revealed his method of working in Mumbai: he would hang out with his book's characters until 3 am and would write down everything between 3am and 6am:
"I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed"

In the same interview, Mehta says he also loves to cook his own meals and loves to take an afternoon nap--very much my kind of guy (but I can't have naps; I am in office in the afternoons).

Suketu currently lives in a Manhattan apartment and teaches journalsim (narrative nonfiction) at New York University. In the NDTV interview, he says that he has been working on a book about the New York City immigrant experience. The current reality is that every two in three New Yorkers are immigrants, he says, and he wants to tell the story of the city from that point of view.

India books a big mistake

Mehta is skeptical about the recent crop of India books--big books that try to define the phenomenon of a changing India within a few hundred pages. "All big books that have recently come out about India are a big mistake," he says. Why? Because it is insane to try to capture such a vast country within a book. However, he says Aakash Kapur has done a relatively better job in India Becoming where he follows a set of characters.

Mehta is also an admirer of Katherine Boo's book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. "I was filled with envy when I read Kat Boo's book," he says. "She has done exactly the right thing with the book ... and I am amazed that she could do it without (understanding) the language".

Mehta then talks about Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, an American journalist who writes on the marginalized members of society (adolescents living in poverty, prostitutes, women in prison) and mentions her seminal book, Random Family (2003). "Her book was inspiration for our books," he says, "mine and Kate Boo's."

When Jain asks him if he likes any nonfiction books done in India, he mentions Following Fish by Samant Subramaniam.

How 9/11 changed writing

At one point of the interview, Mehta says that "more students now want to do narrative nonfiction than fiction" in the context of his journalism classes."9/11 had a lot to do with it," he says. "After 9/11 we realised what kind of fictional image could be created that could compete with this image of two giant airliners
slamming into two giant towers and the whole world changing as a result." Fact had become stranger than fiction and fiction could not compete with it--or was confused to deal with it for a while.

However, he says that now, some American novels are dealing with the 9/11 tragedy. He mentions Netherland by Joseph O'Neil as a good example.

On Social Media

Mehta is on Twitter but he rarely tweets. "I have only tweeted 7 times," he claims. Even though there are very few writers on twitter (Salman Rushdie is there), some have made good use of it. "Teju Cole has taken the form and made it literary," says Mehta about the writer of Open City. He likens the twitter form to the form of Haiku.

Mehta is not worried about the future of books or writing. "Storytelling is a basic human need," he says. "It will always be there, only the forms of delivery will change." How reassuring!

Fellow New Yorker Salman Rushdie is a friend and Mehta says he likes his memoir, Joseph Anton, and he is aware that some have not liked it and some complain of his artistic decline after the fatwa was imposed on him. Mehta has a very simple explanation for all the Salman-bashing: "People hate Salman because he gets a lot of chicks around him."

Apart from the New York book, Mehta is also working on a new translation of Gandhi's autobiography. This is what he told Karan Mahajan in an earlier interview:

"Once, I was telling my father how I think The Story of My Experiments with Truth is really not well written, how it’s long-winded, even if the material is certainly fascinating. My father said, “But it’s really beautifully written. It’s really elegant and concise.” I said, “We’re not talking about the same book.” He said, “Which one are you talking about? I’m talking about the original, in Gujarati.” Then we compared the Aatmakatha with the English version. This book was written in the salad days of the century and it was translated by two of his political secretaries—Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal—who were very good political secretaries but not necessarily good writers in English. Gandhiji did look over the translation and corrected it, but, you know, he had a few other things on his mind, like leading a country to independence!"
More power to your pen Mr. Mehta and may you get to take a lot of afternoon naps!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

V S Naipaul and Indian Muslims

V S Naipaul and controversy go hand in hand.The master was recently speaking at Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai where he was being honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award. Naipaul had said something like "Muslims destroyed India" during his talk and it ruffled many feathers. In reaction, playwright Girish Karnad, speaking at the festival on Friday, "took the audience aback with his unexpected criticism of V.S. Naipaul for his “rabid antipathy towards Indian Muslims”, and asked for an explanation from the festival’s organizers on why they had honoured the author with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award."

When I saw these headlines in the media and read Karnard's arguments (Girish Karnad takes on V.S. Naipaul), I was reminded of my own essay "A Convert's Complaint: Analyzing Naipaul’s Views on Islam" that I had written probably ten years ago when Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I am pasting it here for reference in case some people want to take a look at it. It was first published in Akhbar, a Delhi journal. 

A Convert’s Complaint

Analyzing Naipaul’s Views on Islam

By Zafar H Anjum

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s views on Islam have come into sharp focus after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. In the context of the September 11 (Black Tuesday) attacks and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan by America, his much-quoted and debated views on Islam and the Islamic world have gained immediate significance. However, his views on Islam have been very much in the circulation (in the media) ever since he wrote Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998). In this essay, I am not denying Sir Vidia what is his rightful due: the Nobel belonged to Naipaul as much as he belonged to the Nobel. There is no doubt about that. Naipaul is one of the greatest living writers in English today. In this essay, I intend to analyze Sir Naipaul’s famous remarks on Islam.

Naipaul claims that Islam asks its followers to abandon their past histories, culture, and identities. His quotes on Islam, among others, have appeared in different magazines after he won the grand prize, and here I quote him from different sources. Naipaul has been quoted to be saying, “Islam has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it does not matter’….”

Elsewhere, Naipaul is known to have said, “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own: he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.”

Reading such views on Islam, two basic questions arise in my mind. What’s new about these Naipaulian claims? Before Naipaul, there have been many commentators who have expressed their unfavorable views on Islam. And secondly, are his accusations true for Islam only?

It seems Naipaul has been making sweeping generalizations apropos his views on Islam. He is used to doing that (As we know, he has also “arisen much controversy because of his politically incorrect views of the ‘half-made societies’”). One may well ask how can one say something like this about Sir Vidia. For this, and, before we go into analyzing the merits of his views, we must know how Naipaul formulates his opinions. I think knowing that is important as the act (of forming an opinion) is the result of a process (of accumulating details, of gathering information from various sources). No one takes the credit from Naipaul that he is a meticulous observer (his self-admitted role as a writer "to look and to look again, to re-look and rethink."); however, he has his own ways of making observations, which may not be agreeable to everybody. Let’s see an example.

Charudatta Deshpande who used to work with The Indian Post had the chance to spend a week in close contact with Naipaul in Bombay when he came to collect material for his book, India: A Million Mutinies, in the 80s. He writes in Gentleman (May 1989) recollecting the experience (after Naipaul has spent three hours interviewing Namdeo Dhasal):

After the interview, Naipaul thanked both Namdeo and Mallika profusely.

“On our way back to the hotel, I was surprised to hear him comment: “Very superficial people, without depth. Don’t you think so?

“I don’t agree with you. We met only thrice and that too, formally. I don’t want to refute your observation but I feel because of the language and cultural differences, they may not have expressed themselves fully in the interview.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think they had much more to offer than what they have already given us,” said Naipaul.

Clearly, Naipaul is not known to entertain views other than his own. From the above quoted interaction, one could imagine the personal liberties taken by Sir Vidia while formulating his opinions about people and culture. I find his style dangerous and unbalanced. [Excuse me for digressing here: I have similar feelings about his views on E. M. Forster. How does it matter if Forster was a homosexual? If a writer’s moral uprightness is so central to his standards of judgment, then why is Naipaul so oblivious to his own shortcomings? Paul Theroux has a lot to say about him on this score.]

Naipaul posits that Islam asks the converts to deny their ancestral culture. How can it happen? To any educated Muslim, there is no doubt about the historical veracity that he has studied in the textbooks. In that sense, say for an Indian Muslim, Asoka and Budhha and Shivaji and Babar are part of his heritage. If you ask an educated Indian Muslim, he would not be dismissive about his heritage. He would find, as I found out, his heritage—Islamic or un-Islamic—rather ennobling—a source of mixed baggage to learn from, to make this life worth living.

Naipaul says, “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.” It is true that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was revealed in Arab. The seed of this faith, like any other faith, traveled to different parts of the world from that epicentre. However, it is a misnomer to label it as an Arab religion. This term gives the impression that it (Islam) was meant only for the Arabs. A Priori, it may also imply that those non-Arabs who converted to this faith were somehow illegitimate or inferior in doing so. However, it was Islam, which preached the message that no one—Arab, non-Arab, white, black, tall, short—is superior or inferior to any one else, except in terms of piety. Naipaul’s second assertion is historically unsound. The fact is, even the first generation Muslims who became Muslims on the call of prophet Mohammad were converts—converts from their pagan faiths. Not even the prophet was a born Muslim. After he got enlightenment, only then did he become the messenger of God. Taking the logic further, can we ask if we can call the Europeans converted Christians or the American Jews as converts?

Naipaul says, “a convert’s worldview alters.” Really? I don’t think so. If I’m a convert, how does it affect my worldview for it is as good or as bad as any of my non-convert (read Hindu!!) fellow Indian? Therefore, I fail to understand how my worldview is going to be affected by the fact that I am a convert or not. However, my logic says that one’s education (plus the quality of education) can definitely affect one’s worldview. Then what is Naipaul hinting here? Is he identifying Islam as a faith with an automatic and in-built ignorance (towards the outside world) that it infuses in is followers?

Naipaul says that his (a convert’s) holy places are in Arab lands.

True (and what’s wrong with that?). But also sacred are the local neighborhood mosques, the dargahs, and the famous mausoleums of the innumerable saints. For example, for the Indian Muslims, the dargah of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz is so sacred. Similarly, if one can ask Naipaul what’s wrong if the Jews and the Christians have their holy places in the Arab land?

Naipaul says that his (a convert’s) sacred language is Arabic.

True. But what’s wrong with that? It does not take away, for example, the convert’s love for one’s mother tongue (Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.)! Now for decades in India and Pakistan, we have been reading the Holy Quran in Urdu and English to understand its meaning. Mustafa Kemal Pasha allowed prayers be said in Turkish instead of Arabic. Things change and people adapt things to their convenience. (Must I add here that the Jewish language is sacred to the Jews and I see no problems with that? Does Naipaul need to be reminded that once the Bible was supposed to be sacrosanct in Greek only? Has he forgotten what commotion it created when it was first translated into German?)

Naipaul says, “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.”

True. But also true is that fact that this is the case with almost all the religions. The only thing or distinction about Islam is that it is the most recent religion, and hence the most strident. It came to the world through Prophet Mohammad only some 1400 years ago, and hence it is the Islamic countries/societies in the world, which are experiencing tumultuous conditions of historical change. Some of the Islamic countries are as new as 30 years (Bangladesh). Societies take time to settle down peacefully with their past in the face of a changed present.

Naipaul asks why this tumult only in the Islamic societies? It is because of Islam’s historical recency that we come across tumultuous situations in the Islamic societies.

Let’s go a little deeper.

The fact is very simple. Any new idea or religion, which enters a society, seeks rejection of the old. Rather, the acceptance of this new idea is based on the premise that the old is not reasonable any more, and hence it’s abandonment, and the embracing of the new faith. What’s discarded in the process is what had become old, trite, and useless—a part of the process of cultural/ideological evolution. What is left behind is what is historically moribund. History is witness to this process. For instance, when Christianity came to Europe, did it not replace the pagan faiths in the continent? People accepted Christianity because they found it more acceptable than what they previously believed in. So, what was wrong with Christianity? Similarly when the Aryans came to India with a new faith and lifestyle, did they not change or affect the cultural and ideological space of those who had been living here. That is the process of historical evolution. It is irrational to think that this will not happen in societies.

We all know that the communal divide that we see in India is the construct of the British colonials. First they captured power in different Indian states with the help of Muslims. After the 1857 revolt, they lost their trust in their Muslim collaborators. Then they thought of promoting the Hindus as their new allies. This is how the policy of divide and rule started in India. We all know this. The British sowed the seeds of this “Hindu Muslim divide” canard not only to strengthen their hold on India but also to justify their imperialistic policies to their own people. Let me quote from a conversation between two working class British citizens, Tom and Jim, in London from Sajjad Zaheer’s novel London Ki Ek Raat (1938) [Like Naipaul, Zaheer studied in England]. The setting is a pub where both of them are having drinks:

“Tom!” Jim said slowly. “If we leave India what’ll happen to that country? We read in the newspapers that there the Hindus and Muslims are the followers of two different religions and they always fight with each other. They are each other’s sworn enemies. If we don’t maintain peace in India and get out of that country, there is the danger of a bloody civil strife there.”

This dialogue clearly shows how the British systematically developed and disseminated this “Hind-Muslim divide” lie that the common man in England believed it to be an original characteristic of India (and not a British construct of power which it actually was).

If we look into Naipaul’s writings, we find that he first dug up his Hindu past. Then he declared that the Muslim invaders were responsible for destroying all that was good and great in India. I admire Naipaul’s sincerity of exploration and investigation, but where he fails, which he himself does not realize, is his falling into the trap of political history as Hindu history and Muslim history. This was how the colonial historiographers had started to give a communal interpretation to history. The fact is history is not about the religions of the historical cast. It is about the victors (stronger people or ideas) and the vanquished (weaker people or ideas). Seen from this viewpoint, one finds Naipaul a victim of the colonial mindset. No wonder he studied in England, and he still wears a hat.

Today Islam is the only religion, which is as big as the Christian faith. It is the only challenger to Christianity. What the West fears is the takeover of Christianity by Islam. In the Western world, the number of Non-Muslims converting to Islam is hopping. The West was smug when it converted people in the poor countries in Asia and Africa. Now it is alarmed when the East is taking away their own people (Americans, Europeans) into their folds.

What the British construct of “divide and rule” did to India in the colonial times, Samuel Huntington has done it to the world in the post cold war scenario. (More examples: The Nazis vs. the Non-Aryans; the Communists vs. the people with a God!). After September the 11th the Huntington era (The West vs. Islam) has begun. And in such times, perhaps no author is more relevant than Naipaul, and perhaps that’s why he has been bestowed with the Nobel Prize.

Summing up, I’d like to sign off with the comments from my friend, Yousuf Saeed, a Delhi-based filmmaker and journalist, who had the following to share on this subject. It is an Indian Muslim’s complaint to the legend we know as V. S. Naipaul:

“Naipaul claims that people who accepted Islam wrote off their pre-Islamic past. This must be true for countries like Egypt, Turkey, Tunis, Malaysia, and Iran, which Naipaul traveled in, and wrote about. But unfortunately, the country he forgot to travel to is his own India. He grossly underestimates the past and present of Muslims in India, which has the world’s second largest Muslim population, and would, in many ways, present an antithesis to his theories. Notwithstanding the current trends of the ‘Wahabization’ of Islam here, a large number of Indian Muslims, especially in small towns and villages, still carry a lot of their pre-Islamic cultural past. To begin with, one could simply visit either the local dargah (mausoleum) of a Muslim saint, or the observance of Muharram by typical Shia communities, and see for oneself the traditions, rituals, and iconography that has been carried over from the Hindu past. It is possible (and there are historical evidences of it) that similar multicultural scenarios may have existed in other Muslim countries prior to the recent trend of purification of Islam. And one needs to investigate this issue entirely before coming up with such generalization.”

What do you say Mr. Naipaul?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In memory of Jaspal Bhatti Saheb

This morning when I reached my office and checked the news, I was shocked to learn that comedian Jaspal Bhatti had died in a car accident. He was in Punjab promoting his forthcoming film, Power Cut!

Imagine promoting a movie called 'Power Cut' and suddenly your lifeline is cut by the almighty. What can one do? R.I.P Mr. Bhatti!

Bhatti Saheb showed his talent in Flop Show, a TV series that used to be broadcast on Doordarshan decades ago (actually, 1989). As a school-going kid, I used to love the show--comedy used to be in short supply in those days (there was no YouTube then).

To remember this great comic talent, who did not get his due in Bollywood, I am sharing with you this little comic piece that I wrote a few days ago on a whim. This is my tribute to Bhatti Saheb, my way of remembering him as he wanted us to laugh at ourselves.

This is the chapter 1 of I Break The Leg of Inglis, a book that I began to write a few days ago. The idea came to me on the bus on my way home. Let me know if it tickles your funny bones.

I Break the Leg of Englis

Hello! So please to meet you. I take the honour of shaking your hand. My name is Parvesh Sharma. I am a Bihari and I am here to break the leg of Englis.

Breaking the leg of Englis has been my lifelong dream. When I was a little boy in a little village called Angsola, I broke my own leg climbing a stool. I was reaching out to steal the rasgullas from the peak of the almirah. I was doing something wrong. God punish me badly. I become a little langda, but I become god-fearing from that time. Every mishappen has a lesson on it and that is why it is called a sting in the tale.

If you don’t fully understand me, I bend my behind in forgiveness and fully seek your support. We starting a new bank branch of Englis called Binglis. If there can be Hinglis, why not Binglis? If you don’t allow this facility, where is justice, haan?

Any way, when my father see my broken leg, he scold me black and blue. ‘If you have to break anything, break the leg of Englis,’ he shout. At that time I think Englis is name of some mild animal. So I remember what my father tell me that day and I tie it in the fold of my antenna.

Before I tell you more of me, I tell you the behind of my family. I belong to a long tradition of family history full of writers. My grandfather write letters for other people in deep trouble of not able to write a word. He write their happiness, he write their sadness, and he make money like that. He make money but my grandmother still not happy with him because he give lot of money to Congress and Gandhiji.

My father also a writer; he write big big words on walls and on big tin signs—the village people call him PhD master. He no PhD from some big university. He not even high school pass. But people call him that surname because he can talk Englis like a convent pass Angrej. My village very proud of my father.

When I born, my father tell the whole village: ‘My boy when grow up, he become even better than me. He break the leg of Englis in his own surf.’

What he mean is I talk and walk like an Angrej from England. And become a writer.

So, every time I do mistake my father remind me of his promise to his village people. ‘Don’t make keema of my ijjat,’ he tell me. ‘Break the leg of Englis.’

So, that became my possession—breaking the leg of Englis.

When I in primary school, my father give me Father Kamil Bilke dictionary. Every day I remember ten words. He become very happy and give me round round sweets to eat.

After primary, he send me for tuition to an Englis teacher for grammar. He very strict man. He talk with a ruler and hit your head if you make a wrong mistake. But he a man of bad habit. When he talk, he take out his tongue too outside his mouth like a snake. The spit from his mouth also fly out of his mouth and make us dirty. In few days I loss my appetite for grammar.

I never recover the loss till today. My guru Ketan Bagat says never mind. ‘You think all writers write books with perfect grammar?’ he tell me one day. ‘Beta, you can become a writer even with bad grammar.’ ‘How? I ask. ‘There are people in publishing house, mostly ladies, called editors,’ he say. ‘They clean copy like you clean a tea pot or a gwala cleans his cowshed.’

I turant understood what he mean. ‘You mean the press house like white house,’ I say. ‘Writers come, take shit and go out. The editors clean the shit and get money for their job.’

‘Correct,’ say my guru.

I touch his feet and say, ‘They are noble people. They clean dirt of others. God bless them.’
 (Copyright: Zafar Anjum, 2012)


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Innocence of Muslims: Rage and Image

Muslims suffer from the problem of “image deficit.” They must do something about it before it is too late.
By Zafar Anjum

George Orwell once said that all art is propaganda. Today, in the age of ‘images’, every image is propaganda, a tent pole holding up the canvas of a larger image that favours one group over another, pits one party against another, in a binary of competition for survival, resources and dominance.
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11 nine years ago, I was sitting inside an American multinational company in Delhi. While I felt the pain and horror of this monstrous attack on innocent citizens, I had another kind of lump in my throat.
If I were the head of a Muslim state, that day my first call would have been to the White House. My second call would have been to the world’s biggest public relations company. Why? I will explain it soon.
But first a few thoughts on 911 and why it was a watershed event.
As far as the official story goes, the act of terror on 911 was committed by a bunch of Al Qaeda nutcases who happened to be Muslims. The terrorists carried out the attack in the name of Islam. They used the cover of religion to incite war and hatred against their own people—thus proving that the act was not only against America, it was also against the Muslims at large. Among the 3,000 dead were Muslims too; amid the destruction was also a Muslim prayer room in the World Trade Centre.
So the other lump in my throat was this—as millions of people watched the burning towers on their TV screens, a ‘particular’ image of Islam was being burnished in their memories. As most people judge a book by its cover, so do they judge a religion by its followers. On that unfortunate day, the terrorists achieved what thousands of books and articles could not have achieved: equating Islam with terror. A religion which was by and large considered ‘peaceful’ for 1400 years suddenly came to be ‘perceived’ as violent. That’s what makes 911 a watershed event for the world.
But this ‘perception’ building does not stop there. Over the years, Islam’s projection as a hardcore faith has got reinforced by more images and subliminal suggestions that those images imply: Osama Bin Laden’s videos that kept coming from somewhere (even Pentagon didn’t know from where), the assassination of Danish filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, the Danish cartoons controversy, the Swiss ban on minarets, and the French ban on burqa and the Cordoba House project (Park51) near the Ground Zero in New York. The latest event in this series is the worldwide protests against the trailer of an American film, The Innocence of Muslims.
Freakish news sells and such news travels fast these days—not just by TV but by Twitter and Facebook. A woman’s death by stoning in Afghanistan or Iran or Saudi Arabia becomes international news. For most people who use social media, this is the sort of medievalism that they associate with Islam. Differentiating between Islam and a society’s feudal practices would tax the brains of Lady Gaga lovers—that is the assumption.
These images, often presented as freakish stories, have a cumulative impact, leading to the formation of a narrative, a stereotypical public image of Islam, like a creature with two horns—violence and medievalism—that befittingly begs the intervention of NATO forces and American foreign policy to cure it of its barbarity and backwardness.
Add to this image the public ignorance that is prevalent about Islam simply because there is no supply of stories from the Muslim world in the mainstream discourse—in the form of comic books, animation and feature films and television shows that comprise today’s mainstream media. On the other hand, you have Hollywood films and TV shows such as True Lies and 24that keep reinforcing the ‘negative’ image of Muslims. Since supply creates its own demand, so you have a situation which regularly stokes ‘Islamophobia’.
Though both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have written books and magazine articles dissociating Islam from terrorism, it does not make much of a difference except in the academic circles. The message seldom reaches the common man. The man on the street does not have the time to read Noam Chomsky or do research in the library. He watches movies and eats his dinner before the television or spends time with friends in bars and gets his information from gossip that emanates from one or the other mainstream media outlet.
The challenge before Muslims, therefore, is to‘re-engineer’ their image in the mind of the man who likes to eat TV dinners. For that they need to get hold of the microphone.
Understanding the manufacturing of reality
The problem is that Muslims don’t understand the deep effect of this game of images and perception-building. And even if some of them do, they don’t become actors. They remain sad spectators.
Perception is more real than reality—that is a cliché as well as the truth since the 1950s. The visual media not only transforms our sense of reality but finally reality itself. In this day and age of quick sound bites, videos and social networks, images spur the fabrication of reality. As a Latin American writer says, the idolatry of images makes us blind to the miracles of reality.
If Muslims had understood this reality, they would still not react in old fashioned ways to events that hurt their religious sentiments, that is through protests, demonstrations, and by violent methods such as killing the person who committed the act of insult against the religion or through suicide bombings. This kind of reaction betrays their lack of understanding of the age of image, and in turn, reinforces their siege mentality, steels their sense of persecution. Since they can’t negotiate with the images, they turn away from them, feeling more alienated. This further complicates the problem.
Muslims today complain of their religion’s demonization and the growing Islamophobia. But writing articles about it or whining about the problem in email groups and forums is not going to help in any big way.
There are a couple of things Muslims need to do on an urgent basis.
First, Muslims need to grasp this deficit of image management. They have to explore and locate the centre of the contemporary anxiety that surrounds them: You can walk into any bookstore and find graphic stories and novels on the life of Buddha, Jesus, Rama and so on. Where is the graphic book on Islam’s messenger and his life (except for Moustapha Akkad’sThe Message—that too is not readily available in all bookstores all over the world)? Where are the stories from the Quran? Can you find DVDs on them? If they are not there, Muslims need to supply them.
I understand the Muslim hesitation of entering the sphere of image-making. All Abrahamanic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—forbid the making and glorification of images. But this has not stopped Christians or Jews from participating in the media. Muslims too have to find a creative solution to address the asymmetry. Television channel Al Jazeera, and publishing house Goodword Books were a good start.
Two, learn to manage the community’s reactions when controversies break out. A seasoned, peaceful and reasonable response should be offered. If newspaper editors and television studios tell you that there is no market for positive stories about Muslims, then convince them otherwise. Act and move out of the shadows and become part of the panorama. Media is oligopolistic—so if you can’t own the microphone, at least rent it.
Three, Muslims need to be more pro-active and media savvy. Defuse a crisis before it is too late. Intransigence is not the way. Compromise, aimed at harmony, should be the motto. The insistence on Project51 in the United States and Babri Masjid in India are examples of the community’s shortsightedness. Harmony is a game of give and take, of compromises and concessions. Demanding a constitutional right against strong public opinion is akin to missing the woods for the tree.
Four, Muslims need to tell the world time and again that terrorists don’t represent them. They are the freaks. Also, stop being alarmed over the ban on veils and minarets. These are local issues and treat them as such. These are more about rejecting diversity than accepting Islam.
But these attitudes are part of a larger challenge—the economic forces—and here is why.
Muslims need to understand the economic forces that are operational today, forces that underpin everything—from politics to culture. The age of globalisation demands homogeneity in every sphere of life, material as well as cultural, and if a community professes its own value system against the tide, it is bound to look odd—in all images that dominate our lives (that’s why miniskirts are fine, but veils are not). As long as the Muslims stick to their own value system and culture, they will be seen as ‘savage medievalists’. The homogenization and westernization of Muslims—in image and ethos—is the last battle of globalization. Once this is achieved, that will be the true end of history.
However, merely trying to‘re-engineer’ the Muslim image is not enough. There is no smoke without fire. Muslims have to address the ugly reality of medievalism that exists in some of their feudal societies. Those have to be tackled. They have to stop seeing the persecution of Muslims as divine will, and instead, go to the roots of Islam and re-discover and live its essence, which is peace and harmony. Can Muslims show to the world a single contemporary leader who is not corrupt or tainted? That’s one big challenge of leadership that needs addressing.
Islam, as it was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, and Muslims have existed for over 1400 years now. Majority of Muslims have accepted the concept of nation states, rule of law, constitutions—all these would have been anathema during the age of caliphate. Many Muslim societies have modernized their personal laws. Muslim minorities, in most countries in the East and the West, have adjusted themselves to their new lands. If they feel alienated, it is the result of little integration which in turn arises out of their refusal to homogenize in the age of globalization. The downside is the loss of identity but that is inevitable unless history takes an imaginative turn.
When no editor agreed to publish this piece online (I did send it to many websites and publications in India and abroad), I put it up on Aljazeera's tumbler page. I am glad to see that many people have liked the piece. I would love to hear your views on this. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Resurgence of Satyam: The book is here

Those who have been in touch with me know that I have been working on several projects for the last two, three years--a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of non-fiction, and a screenplay. Besides holding on to a day job, these projects were one big reason why I wasn't blogging that frequently. However, I have been actively micro-blogging on Twitter and Facebook and those who follow me in those spaces would vouch for it.

I published my first book in 2000 and did a volume of poetry (translation) in 2001, and after that there has been a long period of silence in terms of books. But actually, this more than a decade long absence is well-accounted for: first I moved from Delhi to Singapore, and then I did a lot of journalism and blogging, and wrote and published quite a respectable number of short stories in some respectable places. And I read as much as I could. Meanwhile, I struggled with a novel and did several drafts.

Now, one by one, hopefully, all these projects will come to life.

This morning, I came to office and I was drowsy under the influence of a cough mixture that the doctor had given me yesterday. I was fixing myself a cup of green tea when the courier guy arrived in the office lobby. "Zafar, there's a courier for you," my colleague Madura said.

I came to the front office and received the big box from Random House. I immediately knew what it contained: the author copies of my non-fiction book, The Resurgence of Satyam: The Global IT Giant. You can read more about the book here. If you want to read excerpts of the book, go here.

The book's journey had started in 2011 and it was written in the latter half of that year and the first half 2012. Writing it entailed a lot of research. I read, I traveled, and I met and interviewed a lot of people. Almost a year of intense work. Now, the book is out and it will soon reach the bookstores.

"So, finally, the book is here," I told myself, holding a copy in my hand. "We are delighted at the way it looks," my editor wrote in an accompanying note. Yes, it does, it has turned out well. I hope it reads well too, and dear friends, only you can tell me if I have succeeded in that.

I would like to hear from you soon.

Buy your copy and let me know what you think of it.



Friday, September 14, 2012

Govinda: Myth retold or revisionist fiction?

The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: GOVINDA, by Krishna Udayasankar, New Delhi: Hachette India, 472 pp, paperback. $25.

I remember reading an interview of the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano in which he said that in the third world countries, blooming of literary fiction precedes mushrooming of genre fiction. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing in itself, I won’t go into that (perhaps one needs both?) but this is how the literary scene has evolved in India.

First, there were the R K Narayans and the Raja Raos, then there were the Naipauls, the Anita Desais, and Kamala Markandayas and then came the generation of new diaspora writers such as Rushdie, Vikram Seth and others. At home, the Stephanians ruled the roost for a time but with the liberalization of the Indian economy and the rise of a new Indian middle class, slowly and steadily Indian writing in English, largely an upper middle class phenomenon, went down a slippery slope.

Then came along Chetan Bhagat, the writer-prophet of this newly minted middle class. His novels found a bridge with India’s youth. Since his arrival on the scene, there has been a deluge of fiction from all kinds of hacks. Suddenly, Indian writing in English has become accessible to anyone who knows how to read a sentence in English. Today, home-grown Indian writers are writing sci-fi novels and thrillers and there are writers who specialize in chick lit and teen lit (I’m sure Clitlit will follow soon after the success of Fifty Shades of Grey). The number of books sold by these authors has jumped through the roof and publishers, both desi and foreign, are only too happy to encash this trend.

One of the genres that have bloomed during this revolution is that of mythology or the retelling of stories from India’s past. Today, there are many leading names in this genre. Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of Meluha has become such a runaway hit that a famous Bollywood film director has bought its film rights. I am tempted to place Krishna Udayasankar’s debut novel’s Govinda (The Aryavarta Chronicles, #1) in this category but perhaps I should not.

This is not a junk-food-novel. A few pages into the novel and you know you are reading a well-researched work, a work of mytho-history.

Blast from the past
What is the challenge and thrill of writing a story that is already known? Why is the past more interesting than the contemporary? Why would a writer choose to go back to the past and wrest her material from there? These are questions only the writer can answer. I guess, and I am only speculating here, that this is something to do with the motivations of the writer.

What could those motivations be? Is it a story that Krishna has grown up with, thinking it through her mind, raveling and unraveling its myriad secrets and twists, fascinated by its characters? Or is she trying to give a voice to the voiceless (most importantly, to the female characters of the Mahabharata, especially Panchali), that is, is she rewriting their well-known stories with feminist undertones? The female characters in the novel are very self-conscious of their status, the rights that have been denied to them and the social injustice that happens to them in the name of tradition and law. Is there any historical proof of this (that, this was how their minds worked)? Or is this was how the writer needed to balance out the world of the Mahabharata, bythrusting today’s moral positions onto characters who lived several thousand years ago?

You may agree or disagree with the author’s decision to mix up the worldviews, but one thing you must admire is the language that she has employed in her novel: lush, vivid and evocative. It is a welcome relief, given the state of immaturity of commercial Indian writing in English. The danger was that she could have fallen into pushing the language of her narrative into theatricality. She has thankfully avoided that.

This is the story of Govinda, the cowherd prince and the commander-in-chief of Dwarka but most other characters have also been so well-etched out that you get lost with them in the thicket of the story. Also, some readers can get overwhelmed by dealing with so many characters in the novel.

In Govinda, the heroes are mythic characters and yet they are ordinary. The writer has stripped them of their magical powers. Imposing this kind of realism onto mythical characters is an achievement in itself—it is certainly genre-bending in that sense.

Krishna’s writing style betrays her scholarship (she is a lecturer) and she does not stoop to be over-simple to garner mass market success. However, in an otherwise authentic piece of writing, the soldiers wear ‘boots’, there are ‘roads’ and ‘assassins’, and a prince is ‘bookish’. These objects or actions or strategies might have existed in some form in the remote past but is it appropriate to use these modern day words to signify them? These are minor details but they jumped out at me because everything else seemed to be so perfect, that without these jarring notes, the writer’s spell would have continued unbroken for me (for example, you can translate ‘naan’ as bread but does that feel right?). Yet, this is a useless quarrel to pick up. ‘Why write the novel in English then?’ the writer can argue back. ‘Write in Sanskrit.’ Fair point.

While Krishna’s writing is first-rate and most scenes are beautifully developed, sometimes overwrought descriptions slow down the pace of the novel. This is not your typical airport novel. This is a fine read that needs your languorous attention. And even if you call this novel genre fiction, it re-establishes my faith in young Indian writers who can write without compromising on the quality of the prose.

You have to welcome a book like this at a time when Fifty Shades of Grey is all the rage. If Fifty is a gori courtesan who promises to fulfill your fantasies in bed, then Govinda is a charming, brave and respectable soldier-scholar who has a tale to tell.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shooting the Messenger?

Julian Assange does a Chen Guangcheng in London

By Zafar Anjum

Remember the blind Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest on 22 April and sought sanctuary in the US embassy? Later on, the Chinese government gave him a safe passage to the US where he now lives and studies.

That was one month ago.

I was reminded of this incident when I learned about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange skipping bail en route from a court in London on Tuesday (19 June) and taking asylum in the embassy of Ecuador.

He has reportedly applied for asylum in that country. Interestingly, he had recently interviewed the President of Ecuador on his TV show for Russia TV. “Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted,” the Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa told Assange at the end of the interview.

In the same week that Chen escaped from house arrest in China, Julian Assange lost his court appeal against being extradited to Sweden for questioning about allegations of sexual offences.

Assange’s latest step is quite dramatic. It has caused a stir in diplomatic circles and freedom watchers are keenly following the developments.

Assange’s fear is that once he reaches Sweden, he will be deported to the US where he could face death penalty on charges of espionage. The US government has already issued a statement that they have no role to play in Assange’s case.

Meanwhile, Australia (of which Assange is a citizen) said that the country had made representations to the Swedish government on behalf of Assange. The country’s Foreign Minister Senator Carr said that ‘Australia could not fight his case for him on the sexual assault or anything else in another jurisdiction, nor could it for any other Australian’.

Looming arrest

It has been reported that President Correa has been impressed with Assange’s letter of appeal. AP reported that Julian Assange wants to continue his WikiLeaks work in Ecuador, according to a letter he sent to the country's president.

According to the report, President Rafael Correa said the country would take its time making a decision "because this is a very serious matter". Another report said that a swift decision is expected from his side (maybe within 24 hours).

But legal experts believe that even if Assange gets the asylum, he could be arrested on his way to the airport (to take a plane to Ecuador) for breaching bail.

There are other opinions too. This is what the Sydney Morning Herald (AAP) had to say: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bold bid for asylum in Ecuador may well pay off, an Australian expert believes.

Australian National University international law expert Donald Rothwell says the bid could work, said the report. “He’s made a calculated judgment that on the basis of his interactions with the Ecuadorian government that he's fairly confident he will be granted asylum by this particular country,” Professor Rothwell told AAP.

“But ultimately whether Ecuador grants him asylum is a political judgment based on whatever arguments or evidence Mr Assange is able to put to support his case.”

‘Ecuadorian asylum would put him beyond the reach of Sweden and possibly also the US, Prof Rothwell says. Ecuador has an extradition treaty with the US, but it excludes those wanted on political charges.’

It remains to be seen how the drama will now unfold. Will Ecuador provide asylum to Assange? Even if he gets it, will the UK government give him a safe passage to the airport?

Given Assange’s astuteness and resourcefulness, even that is not far-fetched for him. His story might well be one of the greatest escapes of this century.

Though Assange’s critics say that he should not have jumped bail and should have faced the questioning by the Swedish government, his mother says that her son was left with no option but to seek political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London’.

It would be interesting what Chen would have to say to Assange on this matter as ironically, the same land of freedom that Chen has chosen to escape to, is interested in getting hold of Assange and making him pay for the crime of exposing the greatest power on earth.

First published in MIS

Monday, April 30, 2012

Want to be a Bollywood scriptwriter? Here is your opportunity

I was thrilled when I heard a few days back that Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui (I had loved their first film, Peepli Live) had written a screenplay (Opium) based on Amitav Ghosh's novel, Sea of Poppies and are going to direct the film. I look forward to movies by this talented duo who, I think, are still under-appreciated in India. 

When I read the full story, I found out that they are developing the screenplay with Mumbai Mantra/Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. The lab selected 8 feature films for development and Rizvi's Opium, is one of them.

Now, Mumbai Mantra is looking for new screenwriters for the Lab for 2013. If you have an idea for a screenplay, this is your opportunity. Don't miss it!

Here are the details:

The inaugural Mumbai Mantra | Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab 2012 was an over whelming success. In a uniquely inspired Club Mahindra environment , 9 Indian screenwriters got an opportunity to engage in one-on-one meetings with 11 Creative Advisors from across the globe and get indispensable lessons in craft, a fresh perspective on their work and a platform to fully realize their material !

We are now inviting applications for the Mumbai Mantra | Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab 2013. This is your chance to be one of the 6-8 fellows who shall be selected for a 5-day intensive workshop with Creative Advisors who are acclaimed Global Screenwriters and Directors.

Click for more info on the Lab >>

APPLY NOW for the Mumbai Mantra | Sundance Institute
Screenwriters Lab 2013

All you need is -

>>   A synopsis
>>   First five pages of your screenplay
>>   An artistic statement
>>   A cover letter

Last Date for Open Submission: June 2, 2012
Click here for the application process >>

If you have any more queries related to Mumbai Mantra| Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab 2013, please email us at