Saturday, March 26, 2011

Love thy nemesis.

MK Gandhi did what no other Indian leader had done before him. He turned India’s struggle for freedom from the British Raj into a mass movement in a relatively short time. But, with his emphasis on religion and non-violence, he also managed to acquire a gamut of enemies. His most relentless enemy was, perhaps, the erudite Dalit leader, Dr BR Ambedkar. The good Doctor never forgave Gandhi for his chosen nomenclature for the Dalits (literally, “down-trodden” or “crushed”), viz., Harijan (“children of God”). He saw it as a devious and hypocritical ploy to keep the Dalits captive within the confines of the Hindu religion. After India became free, Ambedkar even led a mass exodus of the Dalits to Buddhism. He also never forgave Gandhi for opposing, in the early 1930s, the grant by the British of a separate electorate for the Dalits by embarking on a fast unto death. Gandhi was also hated by the orthodox Hindus for “favouring” the Muslims; by the fanatic Muslims for insisting on Hindu-Muslim unity (they saw it as a way of perpetuating Hindu dominance); and by the revolutionary radicals who thought of him as a reactionary and a coward for shunning violence. Contrast this with what happened in Lancashire which Gandhi visited during his voyage to Great Britain to attend the Round Table Conference in 1931. The boycott of British textiles that he had called for in India had been partly instrumental for triggering the unemployment of the British textile workers. Nonetheless, when he confronted them, while some of the out-of-work hecklers booed him and threatened to tear his eyes out, many others somehow sensed his innate goodness and cheered him as “Good old Gandhi”. Amazing, considering this was their first and only sighting of Gandhi.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Men in White (Khaddar). A KK Covert Op.

The WikiLeaks about the Congress Party MP Satish Sharma spilling the beans and his assistant Nachiketa Kapur taking a US Embassy staff member on a guided tour to view the chests of cash for buying votes to ensure Parliamentary approval of the Indo-Us nuclear pact in July 2008 remind me of the antics of Mack Sennett’s totally incompetent Keystone Kops. The best way to keep a secret is to let as few as possible be privy to it. Simple? Apparently not. S&K made it absolutely sure that there would be every chance of a leak or two by doing a show-and tell for their American friends. The latter made it even doubly certain by promptly sending a jubilant cable to Washington D.C. If the Corps of The Queen’s Couriers operating since the 15th century had not fallen under the axe of the jittery HM Government’s fiscal axe, cloak-and-dagger communications delivered personally by a “silver greyhound” would stay under wraps. Likewise, if Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces had emulated their cousins across the big pond by instituting The President’s Courier service modeled on the successful UK prototype, there would have been no need to worry. Well, well. These days there’s no dodging the Keystone Kops lurking in the corridors of power and diplomacy the world over, I guess.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And so it goes. But whither?

Admit it or not, like it or not, India is still in a loosely federated semi-feudal flux. At the centre rules a royal family anointed by history. Currently, there’s a much maligned puppet regent. The various states (erstwhile “provinces” and “princely states”) are now fiefdoms – some of them supporting and others hostile in varying degrees to the central rule. There are pockets of armed revolts notably in the North East, Kashmir and the Naxal corridor. Frankly, things haven’t changed much since the days of the British Raj. There has only been a transfer of power from the departing British to their chosen Indian successors: the English- speaking middle class and crony capitalists. Some of these worthies insist that India is a successful working democracy despite evidence to the contrary. Fortunes are being made by hook or crook and the guilty seldom get punished. Juggad (innovative resourcefulness, improvisation, ingenuously devised jerry-rigged solution finding), resilience and survival tactics are much valued in a situation of perpetual shortage of wherewithal particularly among the less affluent. The recent WikiLeaks about the Congress Party buying votes to get the Parliament’s nod for the Indo-US nuclear pact on 22 July 2008 give a surreal tinge to what goes on in this country. Is the tsunami of corruption, abuse of political and economic power the tsunami of corruption of frightening proportions, ongoing abuse of political and economic power, unbridled private expropriation of public wealth with government collusion, lack of access – particularly for the poor – to public services and, last but not the least, ever-present terrorism and militancy as a reaction to the unbearable injustice of it all turning India into a full-fledged banana republic? Is the “India Shining” hubris of Middle India also a major contributing factor? Take a guess.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Aberrant exit.

The literarily inclined may well have noticed the startling proximity of locations that the two novels dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust caused by World War III have. Both of them – Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957) and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) – are set in neighbouring Australia and New Zealand respectively. In the former, human life has become so unbearable and unsustainable that the government is nudging citizens to suicide by cyanide. (No public interest litigation to stem the tide of suicides, thank you.) In the latter, life limps along somehow. Obviously, in both these fictional scenarios, the end comes with a nuclear bang. But, maybe, TS Elliot describing Guy Fawke’s demise on the gallows in the aftermath of the failed Gunpowder Plot in his epic poem The Hollow Men (1925) strikes closer to the truth if one were to judge the end-of-the-world predictions in the light of the recent events in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The course of events also suggests that at work is the deft hand of a wily Indian soap writer team adept in the craft of dragging the tale by its tail much like Scheherazade.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

God of gall.

I'm often flummoxed by how people cunningly and adroitly make hay while the sun shines. Yesterday, I was off-colour with a touch of flu and took total bed rest after visiting the family doctor. After gulping down the first dose of tablets and capsules (5 in all), I picked up a book that Ujwal had got from her cousin, Vibha. The latter’s husband is a Trustee of an ancient Ram temple in Ramwadi, Kalbadevi. The book is purportedly written – or, shall we say haphazardly compiled? − not only for commemorating the more than 200 years of the temple's existence but also for establishing beyond a shadow of doubt its place in the history of India’s independence struggle. The Chaphekar Brothers assassinated Rand and Ayerst in Pune on 22 June 1897 when the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s imperial reign was being celebrated all over India. The provocation apparently was the high-handed misbehaviour of the British troops in the exercise of the emergency powers vested in them for controlling the Bubonic Plague epidemic raging in Pune. The Brothers used to be the musical back-up for the daily kirtan performed by their kirtankar father in Ramwadi. They quietly vanished for a couple of days to do their appointed task in Pune and then returned to resume their daily routine in the Ramwadi temple as if it was business as usual. Later they were betrayed by a desi Judas called Dravid, arrested and sentenced to death. By the way, one of the Chaphekar Brothers had earlier tried to enlist, was rejected on account of his caste (Chitpavan Brahmin) and held a grudge against the gorra admi. A plaque honouring the Brothers was installed in Ramwadi in early 1987. All that is splendid but does it call for a disjointedly compiled, shabbily produced volume full of factual errors and quite a bit of atrocious writing to drive home the point ? The needle of suspicion veers towards vested interests. The principal compiler and contributor, a State Award-winning historian, who also happens to be the chief honcho of the Trust that owns and runs the Ramwadi temple seems to have seized the opportunity to guide the flow and components of the narrative for his own ends. The volume reads like a self- and sire- hagiography vanity-published at the cost of the hapless Pathare Pradhu temple Trust. He misses no opportunity to show how kind, considerate, humane, virtuous and far-seeing he and his dearly beloved father who is no more happen(ed) to be. If you take the drivel he shovels at you at face value, they are/were manna from heaven. Good grief, Charlie Brown. Remember Lucy’s immortal words: “I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A steady diet of kitsch and later.

Today, I suddenly realised that I had been on a steady diet of kitschy books for quite a while. A recent break was Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss. The one huge benefit I got from my erstwhile diet was that my enjoyment of Desai’s novel was that much more heightened. On second thoughts, though, there was no way I could not have enjoyed the book immensely in any event. The main reason for it is personal. I am more than familiar with the historical background against which the story unfolds and find Desai’s even-handed portrayals of the Indian (for that matter, Third-World) “losers” – those who stay back as well as those who break away – something I can empathize with. Of late I also happened to be thumbing through Alfie Thompsons’s Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lover's Guide to Writing a Novel (Running Press, 2006). Thompson is clear about who her guide is meant for: only those wanting to author “popular, an-editor-will-be-interested-in-buying-it, written-for-readers stories”. What she has in mind is the product of what the Marxist art theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “culture industry”. This happens to be the culture mass-manufactured to satisfy “false” needs created by Capitalism, pandering to what Virginia Woolf designated as middlebrow tastes. Here readers buy books that are on bestseller lists rather than for their intrinsic literary value. According to her view, art, beauty, form, integrity and value don’t matter. What moves the merchandise is the so-called experts’ nod: The Book-of-the-Month Club, the NY Times Top 10 list, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and so forth. If memory serves, Russell Lynes, the erstwhile editor of Harper’s Magazine, made fun of the Woolf hypothesis but nonetheless subdivided her middlebrow category into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. According to him, the former were art patrons as well as owners and administrators of museums, operas, art galleries, orchestras and publishing houses – in short, all that comprises the fountainhead of consumable culture created by the highbrow set. A member of the lower-middlebrow set would use art to improve her minds as well as her lot in life. Today’s Middle India seems to have a surfeit of these worthies.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Fake will do.

Simply amazing! I'm referring to the perspicacity of whoever chose the Kishore Kumar number “Pal bhar ke liye koi hame pyar kar le, jootha hi sahi” from Johny Mera Naam (1970) as the finale of the “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” episode of The Simpsons. This episode, by the way, happened to be the 17th of the 17th season. It was first aired in the US on 9 April 2006 and recently telecast in India. The song of which the punch line gives a grudging nod to momentary love of the fake kind is an apt and telling footnote to the American attitude toward exotic mysterious India (cf. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Temple of Doom) as well as the Middle Indian propensity to accept anything Western (especially American) as manna from heaven without bothering to determine its provenance and authenticity. In India, fakery even when tinged with mediocrity gets celebrated mainly by default. This was proved decisively once again by the gushing obit outburst after the recent death of the so-called pioneer of Indian comics. This worthy had the gall to unleash, in the late 1960s, on his unsuspecting compatriots a spate of badly written, shoddily produced, garishly and unimaginatively illustrated and tinted comic books based on simplistic and cliché-ridden depiction of Indian folklore, mythology, religion and history. This may well have done untold harm by conditioning an entire generation of Middle India particularly to think of Indian historical and mythological narratives and characters in two-dimensional (good/evil, hero/villain, virtue/vice) terms of reference insidiously implanted in their minds by years of reading these contemporary, seemingly canonical word-and-picture spin-offs.