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.