Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Might as well enjoy India’s very last general elections.

The writing is already on the wall. The portents are there for those who want to see them. It is a wonder how our crack political analysts continue to ignore their message, why they refuse to take the final leap of imagination. (That’s not strictly accurate: on Saturday, 29 March 2014, Kanti Bajpai in his Times of India article on Page 16, “Journey Towards Soft Fascism” did hint at the shape of things to come. There may be more such comments I have not read.)

NaMo, pronounced the proper way (“Na” as in “Narendra”, “Mo” as in “Modi”) is a command in Sanskrit to bow down, to worship. Make no mistake. You are being told in no uncertain terms to change your behaviour, to perform an act of supplication. Ignore the message at your own peril, boys and girls.

Modi brooks no opposition to his relentless march to 7 Racecourse Road in Lutyens’ Delhi. He has already put all his potential rivals in BJP (Big Guns one and all, mind you) in their place – in the shade – out of reckoning – so demoralized that it will take them quite a while to recover, let alone even think of retaliating. In this respect, he reminds me of Indira Gandhi versus The Syndicate, c. 1969, a modern reenactment of the legendary David versus Goliath encounter. And, all this notwithstanding all his talk about being a strict follower of party discipline and so forth.

In a smart move to lend legitimacy and glamour to NaMo, they have even commissioned his “authorized” political biography launched close to the date of the general elections. The 310-page tome is written by a little-known British (our former masters, remember? Clever, clever!) author and filmmaker, Andy Marino. Marino’s provenance seems at best somewhat sketchy (PhD in Eng. Lit.). (Are there such creatures in the world as literary mercenaries?) His “literary” output consists of obscure non-fiction (A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry and Hershel: The Boy Who Started World War Two). If one were to take him at his word, though, he has had “a long relationship with India” and has been “interested in its politics and history as far back as I can recall.”

Be that as it may, in his Hindustan Times interview Marino certified Modi’s straightforwardness adding that he was “complex” and “a better administrator or anybody so completely possessed with enthusiasm for what he does. His brain runs non-stop thinking about ways to improve everything, and there’s an incredible energy.”  As far as Modi’s honesty is concerned, Marino says that he checked and cross-checked his answers and found them above reproach. (For the convenience of the dyslexic as well as book-hating readers, Rannade Prakashan and Blue Snail Animation have published a 45-page NaMo comic book, Bal Narendra, apparently in the Bal Hanuman vein. So, no efforts have been spared in nurturing the NaMo mythology.)

The BJP campaign slogan is “Agli baar Modi Sarkar” (Coming next: Modi Government). This has the same shade of the recent abject capitulation by Penguin and Aleph about Wendy Doniger’s books on Hinduism. Of course, the reason for not promising a BJP Sarkar may be twofold: (1) The earlier BJP rule was not entirely free from taints of corruption and scams. (2) If Modi comes to power, it will be most likely as the leader of a coalition. Like Manmohan Singh, he too will have to face the vagaries of running a coalition government. Eventually, given his popular support and, more important, his forceful and aggressive personality, he may be able to drive a tougher bargain with his partners. As time passes, NaMo will begin to better appreciate the systemic impediments in his path. Once again his inherent nature will not allow him to accept defeat meekly. His only option then will be to take matters in his own two capable hands.

As liberal conventional wisdom would have it, NaMo’s final ascension to absolute no-holds power, if it ever comes to pass, may seem a disaster. The other way to see it is as a happening belonging to the class of what Robert and Elizabeth Bjork of UCLA Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab have called “desirable difficulties”. It will allow the decisive Shri NaMo to dismantle the wasteful democratic superstructure of elections at both central and state levels thereby saving the country enormous amounts of resources and removing in a single stroke one of the biggest causes of corruption. Decision making and implementation can be speeded up. Work ethics and discipline will improve by leaps and bounds as in the days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Business and “development” will get the priority that Middle India is hankering after. India will be able to compete with China on a level playing field. All this would not happen overnight but during the course of the next five years.      

Remember, though, that all medicines would be placebos except for the patient’s belief in their healing power.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mr MK Gandhi, Esquire: Hyde side showing. Oops-a-daisy!

Believe it or not, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started his adult life − with his own willing consent − as a “Man Friday” of the British Empire. You  remember the British colonizer-hero’s “savage” companion from Daniel DeFoe’s  Robinson Crusoe whom he taught English, converted to Christianity and “civilized”, don’t you?

Jog your memory a tad bit more and you’ll recall two distinguishing features of Crusoe’s colonial rule explicitly laid down by him: (1) “the whole country was my property … [with] an undoubted right of dominion” and (2) “my people were perfectly subjected – I was absolutely lord and lawgiver…” (Daniel DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Barnes & Noble Classics, p.236).

His Majesty’s Most Obedient Servant. In the very next paragraph, Crusoe dubbed Friday “my interpreter” between himself and his subjects (Friday’s father and the Spaniard both of whom he had rescued from the cannibals). Curiously, Macaulay too used the very same word in his famous Minutes on Indian Education (02 February 1833) in which he proposed “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Unwittingly, he was suggesting the unleashing of a powerful tool to create in perpetuity a legion of “colonial mimics” or VS Naipaul’s “mimic men” intended to serve the British Empire.

Homi K Bhabha, the renowned cultural and postcolonial theorist of Indian origin currently heading the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, called the outcome of this process “hybridization”. Because the colonial mimic could only be an imperfect clone: “almost there but not quite” as he quaintly phrased it. In the context of what happened later to Gandhi, this observation of Bhabha is undoubtedly noteworthy.

The burden a colonial mimic carries. Gandhi was – surprise, surprise! − a product of Maculay’s far-sighted and astute education policy. “... at the start, Gandhi was an excellent colonial mimic. He took his degree from the Inns of Court in London, and when he arrived in South Africa in 1893 to practice law, he looked every inch an Englishman,” writes Richard Schechner in Performance Studies: An Introduction (Routledge, 2012). Remember what Frantz Fanon, the French psychiatrist and Marxist of Creole origin, wrote in Black skin, White Masks? “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” (p.38, Grove Press, 1967)

I’m okay. You’re a Kaffir. During his political stint in South Africa, while Gandhi fought to get a better treatment for his fellow-Indians, he also organized “medical orderlies and other noncombatant contributors for a punitive war against the Zulus” and hardly paid heed to “the treatment of black Africans in South Africa, alluding to them in print as ‘kaffirs’”. In its original Arabic sense, “kaffir” means “infidel”. At the time of Gandhi’s South African sojourn, it was the standard handle used by the Whites to address the Black South Africans. By adopting the established usage of the ruling class, Gandhi displayed what V S Naipaul considers an exclusively Hindu trait: a total unconcern for others who are not like oneself, their viewpoint, their situation.

Still ensconced in his colonial mimic mode, Gandhi supported the British Empire in World War I enthusiastically − perhaps a bit more so than he had during the Boer and Zulu Wars. (Gandhi had won the British Empire’s War Medal for meritorious service as the second-in-command of the Indian Volunteer Corps in the Zulu War.)

Right reason. Wrong cause. The end of the Great War came on 11 November 1918. Germany, Austria and Turkey were vanquished. The British and their allies imprisoned the Ottoman Sultan, Turkey’s ruler, successor to the Prophet and the leader of the Muslim world known as “Caliph”/”Khalif”. Indian Muslims were incensed by his incarceration. Their brethren in Arabia and Turkey were quite pleased by the turn of events. As was his wont, Gandhi – and the Congress Party − backed the Khilafat agitation in order to win over the Indian Muslims, paying no heed whatsoever to the Arabian and Turkish Muslims’ viewpoint. The Holy Mule had blundered again!
As we saw earlier, till the end of the Great War, Gandhi had been a loyal fan and follower of the British Empire. However, he found the Crown Emperor offering him and His Majesty’s Indian subjects nothing in return, not even “the rights of Englishmen” − Gandhi was even at that time a colonial mimic − let alone swaraj or home rule within the Commonwealth. The colonial mask then gradually started crumbling. Barely two years down the line, his inner voice prompted him to declaim: “The British empire today represents Satanism, and they who love God can afford to have no love for Satan.” By the time World War II arrived, Gandhi had become an enemy of the Empire, demanding complete independence for his country.

Jekyll & Hyde. In February 1944, Kasturba contacted bronchial pneumonia in Aga Khan Palace where she had been imprisoned along with her husband. When she failed to respond to Ayurvedic medicines, British doctors suggested penicillin injections as the last resort. But Gandhi, the perennial Nature Cure faddist, refused to allow them to administer the antibiotic and she breathed her last on 19 February. Six weeks later, though, when he got an attack of malaria, he did not refuse the quinine prescribed by the doctor. Earlier, in 1924, he had also allowed an emergency appendectomy to be performed on himself.

Girl friends galore. Gandhi’s detractors also point to the long list of his intimate associates of the opposite sex to question his brahmacharya claims. Mille Polak, a colleague’s spouse in South Africa, smitten by him as she was, opposed his outlandish dietary notions and his insistence on chastity of his coworkers. Millie’s sister-in-law, Maude, working as his personal secretary, also fell under Gandhi’s spell. Esther Faering, a Danish missionary, was his next serious involvement. The next in the queue was Sarla Choudhuri, his “spiritual wife” after “an intellectual wedding” who did not bow down to his authority despite her feelings for him. Among his brahmacharya bedmates at various junctures in his life were Rajkumari Amrita Kaur, Sushila Nayar, Lilavati Asar, Sharada Parnekar,  Prabhavat Narayan (Jayaprakash Narayan’s wife), Sucheta Kriplani, Abha Gandhi, Kanchan Shah and last though not the least, Manu Gandhi who was his great grand-niece and who considered him “her mother”. His female care givers had in their numbers Prema Kantak, Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade), Sushila Nayar in her capacity as his personal physician and masseur, Lilavati Asar qua his personal masseur, Sharada Parnekar, Rajkumari Amrita Kaur, Prabhavat Narayan, Sucheta Kriplani and Abha Gandhi.

The last straw. Apropos of his brahmacharya experiments with female subjects (later grandiosely rechristened mahayagna by him), his long-time associate, Dr Sushila Nayar, told Ved Mehta that "… long before Manu came into the picture, I used to sleep with him just as I would with my mother. . . . In the early days there was no question of calling this a brahmacharya experiment. It was just part of a nature cure. Later on, when people started asking questions about his physical contact with women, the idea of brahmacharya experiments was developed." Even Gandhi himself had doubts about his own motives: “I feel my action was impelled by vanity and jealousy. If my experiment was dangerous, I should not have undertaken it. And if it was worth trying, I should have encouraged my co-workers to undertake it on my conditions. My experiment was a violation of the establishment norms of brahmacharya. Such a right can be enjoyed only by a saint like Shukadevji who can remain pure in thought, word and deed at all times of day.” Gandhi was surprisingly insensitive to Manu whom he used as a subject in his “experiment”. Once during his epic peace march in Naukhali, he compelled her to trudge a long way through riot-infested territory merely to retrieve a pumice stone that she had forgotten at their previous campsite. Also, when Manu requested the discontinuance of the nightly practice, he brazenly blamed the abrupt stoppage on her inexperience thereby absolving himself of responsibility. Girja Kumar (Brahmacharya: Gandhi and His Women Associates, Vitasta, p. 331) writes: "Just five days before Gandhiji was assassinated, he charged her with failing to realize the potential of mahayajna.” She was the culprit – not he. He was the Mahatma, all said and done, was he not? 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Pop Goes the Slop: How Mother Goose sneaked into my childhood.

Pop Goes the Slop: How Mother Goose sneaked into my childhood.: Once upon a time, nearly three score years ago, there used to be a magical shop at the junction of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street. The...

How Mother Goose sneaked into my childhood.

Once upon a time, nearly three score years ago, there used to be a magical shop at the junction of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street. The name board in all probability read either “Valabhdas Lakhmidas & Co.” or “The Talking Machine & Indian Record Co.”. Maybe, both. This shop, a favourite haunt of musicians and music lovers,  used to sell all manner of musical instruments, phonographs, vinyl records and related paraphernalia. Among the plethora of things on sale was a wind-up toy gramophone with a dark almond-hued leather body and a detachable golden-tinted tone arm made of aluminum. The turntable of this contraption was wobbly. In turn, the sound emanating from the sound box was a tad scratchy and cartoonish-sounding. This did not matter, though. The stack of 7-inch vinyl discs accompanying the wee little phonograph was a bunch of Mother Goose’s handiwork. A nursery rhyme bonanza was my sixth-birthday gift received scant 14 days after His Majesty’s Government received the Quit India ultimatum from Gandhi & Co. delivered at Gowalia Tank. This historic venue, later christened August Kranti Maidan, is, as the crow flies, a kilometer or so away from my childhood residence at 233 Khetwadi Main Road and a couple of kilometers away from that musical corner of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street. That, boys and girls, is how and when I first heard of Jack and Jill, Little Jack Horner, Hickory Dickory Dock, Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, Ol’ King Cole, the Quite Contrary Mary, the other Mary with her Little Lamb, Old Mother Hubbard, Wee Willie Winkie, Little Boy Blue, Three Wise Men of Gotham, Solomon Grundy, The Old Woman in a Shoe, Baby Bunting, Georgie Porgie, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Jack Sprat, Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue among others. I became aware of their celebrated eccentricities by and by. Only much, much later did I read the various Freudian and post-modern reinterpretations of Mother Goose’s handiwork that completely strips them of every shred of childlike innocence.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Adilshahi in Everest.

Does History repeat itself? I guess it does sometimes in strange (read “outrageous”) ways. When I joined Everest Advertising in October 1976, I was hired by the 20th century reincarnation of either the 4th or the 6th Adilshah of Bijapur, judging solely by the coincidence of their first name being identical with the Everest despot's surname. I did not realize it then and there, of course. The scales fell from my eyes only later when I recalled how the place had been run like a Sultanate with an iron fist in a faux ambience of camaraderie and shared authority. The short-statured Sultan was a triumph of sartorial artistry par excellence, always impeccably attired in pin-striped suits and well groomed to the hilt. His smoke was Dunhill in the maroon and gold twin pack. The everyday facial expression he wore when he strutted about among us minions was a regally supercilious scowl. It did a disappearing act, though, when he was in the presence of a client. In his durbar, there was a pecking order among his courtiers, some being more equal than others. The Sultanate had been subdivided among jagirs. These had been handed over to various courtiers who enjoyed privileges commensurate with the extent of loyalty they showed to the Sultan. Queer sort of a fellow was our Sultan, both figuratively and literally. Those were the days when, for a person in his socio-economic situation, the whole world was his closet. He had a lot of fellow travelers in the advertising business. When he was interviewing me for the job of a creative chief, he had, I remember, stoutly taken umbrage over a press ad series for room air conditioners in my portfolio that I happened to be rather proud of. He found them objectionable, he said, because the headlines addressed to the family head used sexist phrases like “Lord and master”. I tried to explain that it was tongue-in-cheek as could be judged from the tone of the rest of the text. He disdainfully brushed aside my argument. Ironically, as the Sultan himself revealed in a weaker moment during one of his daily walking tours of the Sultanate, he thought the secretaries of his courtiers-in-chief were “office wives” and expected them to display the same degree of fealty as their real-life wives. It was rumoured that, in at least two cases, his word was literally taken as God’s own truth by the minions concerned. At the time of my joining, Everest was in a creative trough. People thought their ads were so-so. Or, to call a spade a spade, mediocre. When I started writing for the agency, my work especially for Swissair suddenly caught the eye of the market. Clients started ringing the doorbell. The Sultan was happy but excessively frugal in his praise and rewards. He had learned his statecraft well from the British. Divide and rule. He decided in his infinite wisdom to divide the creative jagir down the middle making me the copy head and leaving the art honchodom in somebody else’s hands. To put me in my place so to speak, he invited the Court Jester to the Swissair plans board. But, do what he might, the fact remained that his annual all-expenses-paid junket to Zurich needed my best efforts. Fortunately, for an unusually long stretch of 13 years, the success run of Swissair creative continued. A few years after my adieu to Everest, the Sultan met his Waterloo at the hands of a bizarre Nelson: the daughter of Everest’s founder.  His own trusted courtiers-in-chief including the Court Jester too betrayed him. The bells tolled tumultuously no more for the strutting tyrant. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lamb among wolves.

Reading an excerpt of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Man Booker nominated The Lowland the other day, I remembered a long-lost old friend. His name was Shyam Guha. He was an Art Director in the Calcutta office of Clarion-McCann. I got to know him rather well in the late sixties and early seventies. We became friends working together on ad assignments on most of his fairly frequent visits to the Bombay office.

Shyam was a gem of a human being. He was probably the only innocent and guileless Bengali I came across in Clarion’s Bhadralok mafia during the eleven years, seven months and four days I worked for the agency. He was loved – nay, revered – by all the studio guys although none of us could quite fathom the reasons for him being invited once too often to Bombay because we had a surfeit of Art Directors and Visualizers of our own.

Rumour had it that the guys sent by the head office suits were spooks trained to keep an eye on the locals and report back. None of us believed it of Shyam, though. In fact, we used to look forward to his visits eagerly. I used to rib him about the spooks business and he would take it sportingly. There was definitely some truth in the 007 rumour, though. There definitely were spies from the Bong skies among us. One of them was a suit who chewed the bones as well as the meat of a chicken dish served to him. I can vouch for this trait confidently as he used to come home to dinner at 233 Khetwadi Main Road at times. The other was a creative guy who would visit us occasionally and spend the whole working day strolling around the office presumably trying to catch snatches of conversation in the corridors and at the water fountain.

As for Shyam and I, sometimes, we would taxi down to the Strand Book Stall during the lunch break for a quick browse. I remember Shyam gifting me a copy of the Marguerite Duras screenplay of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Calder & Boyars paperback with the signature black and white cover. Shyam also regaled me with his tales of almost daily after-work tippling at the legendary Calcutta landmark, Olympia Bar in the company of his like-minded colleagues.

His other repertoire of stories included those about the Naxalites who then were a recent addition to the Calcutta scenario. Both of us were sympathetic to the cause these urban guerillas were battling for. Shyam did not seem to know any of the Naxals or their families personally. He also had not witnessed any of the street battles. What he was passing on to us was chiefly hearsay although his narratives were always compelling and riveting. Whenever he came home to dinner, this was one topic of conversation Ujwal and I used to look forward to listening.

During his Bombay sojourn, Shyam usually lodged with the Bombay Resident Director, Subrato Sen Gupta, now deceased. The Sen Guptas apparently did not have a spare latch key for the front door of their palatial Neapean Sea Road flat. So Shyam had a curfew to observe whenever he planned an evening out. He had to be back and in bed by 11:00 p.m., the family retiring hour, exactly one hour before the witching hour. This deadline was the theme of our favourite parting shot every time he took our leave hurriedly and distractedly after dinner.

By the time I decided to quit Clarion in 1976, Shyam’s visits to the Bombay office had petered out. We lost touch with each other because both of us were bad letter writers. The “out of sight, out of mind” bug was also probably at work.

I picked up the threads of the Shyam Guha episode once again much, much later. In the late nineties, to be exact. I got acquainted with a Calcuttan on-line because of my column on the Hindustan Times website at that time. Well educated and cultured, she was married to a widely-connected advertising guy. She happened to mention Prasanto Sanyal and other denizens of the Clarion Bhadralok in one of her emails. I promptly asked her if she could get her husband to trace the whereabouts of Shyam. Much to my chagrin, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, her spouse hit a dead end in his pursuit of my will-o’-the-wisp. There was no Shyam to be found. It seemed he had retired from Clarion long ago and moved bag and baggage out of the metropolis for terra incognita.     


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The wearisome burden of superheroism.

In his fifth voyage, Sinbad came across a taciturn old man inhabiting the island where the Arabian Nights sailor was marooned. This worthy hopped on to Sinbad’s shoulder with his tacit consent and then refused to let go of his seat. Finally, according to Scheherazade, Sinbad had no alternative except to get his tormentor drunk and stone him to death.
Ever since the US of A usurped the role of World Supremo – did it happen in 1898 when it declared war on Spain and with the Paris treaty wrested virtual suzerainty over South America and the Philippines? – the mantle has rested heavily on its shoulder.
In the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched his Great White Fleet of 16 battleships with assorted escorts on a 14-month global cruise in order to demonstrate his country’s naval capabilities and preparedness. (Remember Nixon and Kissinger sending the US Fifth Fleet post haste to the Bay of Bengal in 1971?)
Once you’re on the superhero/superpower throne, it’s not easy to abdicate. You’ve got to keep on playing the role, like it or not. (Lord Acton’s axiom: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Note: Italics mine.) America did try to keep aloof in the Great War till Germany used U-boats thus forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand in early 1917. America’s entry on the Allied side in World War II too was belated: it only entered the theatre after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. (By the way, by a strange twist of Fate, Captain America had become Marvel Comics’ top selling title at around this time clocking a monthly sale of as many as one million copies. Point to ponder: Why is a majority of comicbook superheroes born in the USA?)
What has always surprised me, though, is how Uncle Sam never got his fingers entangled into the Great Game – the on-going strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Empire (and, after 1918, Soviet Union) – during its heyday. The American intervention in the Afghan Civil War was in fact as late as in 1979 as a Cold-War related retaliation to the Soviet initiative in the region and later directly when the Russian withdrawal left a power vacuum there. After the World War II victory, there have been many more episodes in the overseas adventures of Uncle Sam in his Captain America avatar: Korea, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Gulf War, Iraq, and now maybe Syria – apart from his several covert interventions on the side of Banana Republic chief honchos. When you have the world’s biggest stake in armaments, covet the world’s oil reserves most avidly and have always fancied yourself in the role of World Supremo, you don’t have much of a chance. Or, choice, for that matter. You’ve got to carry your burden, trudge with it and like it or lump it. Unless you decide to emulate Sinbad’s “carved in stone” example… 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The rise and rise of rape in India.

There has been an alarming rise in the incidence of rape of late. This is causing much bewilderment and trepidation in so far as the crime is keeping pace with the measures taken to arrest or lessen its occurrence as well as the widespread publicity generated by the epidemic. 
I discern at least two equally powerful triggers for this intriguing phenomenon.
First among equals is the galloping pace of pro-feminist reforms and the accompanying fanfare they receive in media and word of mouth. This raises the anti-feminist’s heckles. They yearn to strike back. And what better way to do it than to go rape, molest, insult, humiliate “those pesky bitches”? Rape is a crime of power, not passion. In the present instance, it is the rapist’s response to the women’s increasing empowerment.
The second trigger is the nationwide – nay, worldwide – media coverage that each succeeding gang rape in India has been receiving of late. In the rapist’s sick mind, committing this horrendous crime of power in the company of like-thinking comrades seems to be an easy way of getting and basking in his fifteen seconds of fame. Labyrinthine and convoluted though this logic may seem, that’s the way the cookie crumbles in the rapist’s twilight zone, I’m afraid.
If both these triggers are currently at work, what is the way to slow down the occurrence of rape in India? Should the pace of pro-feminist reforms be slowed down? Should the fanfare that is their due be somewhat subdued? My off-the-cuff response is No to the first course of action and Yes to the second. My Yes response may be owing to my antipathy towards the way Indians and Indian media respond to anything: way over the top – so much so that for the potential rapist, rape has virtually become a cult!

Is there a way to nip a potential rapist in the bud? Caution and vigilance on the part of women stepping out of the safety of home and workplace as well as the law and order functionaries seems to be the partial – though not totally satisfactory – solution. Is there a way to identify and tag potential rapists before they crawl out of the crack and go on a rampage? Truth to tell, I don’t know.