Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

I now pronounce You.

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One of the trailers for Shuddh Desi Romance begins with, of all things, a statistic: “77% women feel it is wrong to kiss on the first date” (or something to that effect). This is followed by a shot of Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) going at it, presumably on their first date; after which comes yet another ticker: “If you disagree, come watch our movie” (or something to that effect, again).

This, of course, is complimented by a week full of afternoon news on TV channels with headlines like: “27 KISSES!!! IS Sushant Singh Rajput the new Emraan Hashmi?!” Forget food security, riots in UP, Wawrinka’s almost there genius, Syria and the rest of the world, because this, really, is quite the crucial question that all our lives depend upon. But, umm, I can’t overdo the sarcasm bit at this point because I, after all, did go watch this film, intrigued as I was by the prospect of seeing that beautiful man locking lips and acting skills with not one, but two, women! (voyeur much?)

So, ladies and gentlemen, imagine my disappointment when, by the time the intermission (or bathroom break, as they call it in the film) has arrived, I realise that he’s done nothing but kiss so far, and that his acting skills seem to be some kind of a mirage, an illusion that emerged thanks to those glistening bronzed six-pack abs that took our collective breath away in Kai Po Che, his debut film. As Raghuram Sitaram, he plays the tour guide + local loafer + baarati available on hire, who falls in love (at first sight) with a random girl he meets on a bus, en route his own wedding. What should’ve been an awkward but adorable guy comes across as horny and not a little retarded with his repetitive ‘kya hai’s.

Now this girl he’s fallen in love with is your average Indian cutesy thing, who talks about her previous boyfriends, and smokes, incessantly. And this girl (Vaani Kapoor) he’s about to leave at the altar (at the pretext of taking a leak, no less) is a beauty of epic proportions and seems to be the well-behaved, demure kind that is the stuff of Indian guys (and their mothers’) wet dreams. But the heart wants what it wants, so run away we must, safe in the knowledge that we shall find her.

After a rushed, incoherent proposal, Gayatri and Raghu end up in a live-in relationship (which lasts for 15 mins screen time, but I hope is supposed to mean at least a month?). After a few ups and downs, and a lot of dancing at the camera to a song that goes “ab chali meri love life” (along with smoking, drinking and shaving together), they decide to get married one drunk night.

To cut a long story short (and to avoid spoilers, and because the plot is not what I want to talk about), let’s just say that there’s a love triangle brewing. All three have commitment issues, get cold feet easily and are in the bad habit of leaving without saying goodbye. There usual excuse is that they must visit the loo right this very moment. Rishi Kapoor and his royal moustache are a pleasant break from the monotony of secret looks and winks and nudges that this film relies on. And the choice of Jaipur and Jodhpur as backdrops make sure the aesthete in you is satiated. And the stylistic moorings of the film are fresh and deserve praise.

But, finally getting around to what I actually wanted to talk about: This film attempts to put the spotlight on live-in relationships. Jaideep Sahni, the man who’s given us gems like Khosla ka Ghosla and Chak De India! in the past, experiments with the modern-day idea of a relationship — speedy, raunchy, naughty and with an exit always in view. For this, he looks at the concept of a live-in relationship and, it seems to me, approaches the subject like a star-eyed little child: there’s presumption aplenty and a thought not well-executed.

Since I belong to the generation of people he’s put his lens on (and seems quite sympathetic towards), I feel that his characters are just caricatures. These semi-etched people then fall in and out of love in the wink of an eye, think themselves street-smart but are actually blind to the motions of cupid and dear old Goel saab, and are also quite scarred by the travesty that is life. Towards the end, while analysing (or rationalising?) his behaviour, Raghu finds blame in all these fake weddings that he sees day in and day out. “How can I bring myself to commit to someone when I bear witness to the sham that Indian weddings are?” he asks of his companion (as promised, no spoilers).

This is where things get problematic.

First, weddings do not a marriage make. I mean, of course, you can’t have a marriage without some sort of ceremony to put you in binding contract, forever and for always. But there’s so much more to making a marriage work than simply the rituals. Yes, we do go crazy, bordering on intense insanity, during weddings. Yes, there’s ample posturing. But beyond that, what you make of your relationship is entirely based on your mutual capability and will to adjust.

Second, our main characters here seem to choose a live-in relationship as an alternative to, quite in rebellion of, marriage. All the people I know who prefer to do live-ins are actually opposed to marriage as an institution, not tired of weddings (or out of money to buy a good pair of Nikes). In Shuddh Desi Romance, the raison de etre for a live-in relationship just seems to be an aversion to being “forced” to be in a relationship.

Third, this “being forced” comes from the assumption that marriages are forever. For characters as independent and strong-minded as these, divorce or separation can’t be out of the realm of possibility, logically speaking. So, for Raghu to say “this getting married business doesn’t suit me” because it feels like imprisonment, is a little out of character too.

Sahni’s intention is clear — he wants to normalise the idea of a live-in relationship by placing his film and the characters in a tier II city, a little away from the melting pots that metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai are becoming. He also wants to show what factors could lead up to a couple choosing to keep in informal. But, the reasons he finds along the way are confused, and end up portraying an entire generation of people as thoughtless, naive and childish. Can’t see this going down too well around here.

From Bhojpur to Bambai, in song & spirit

(You can also read this here)

Kalpana Patowary and Ramanujan Pathak (Below) in stills from the film

On a sultry Mumbai evening, Vijaylal Yadav is on stage, singing songs of home, love, loss and belonging. “The wife wants a pair of jeans, but her husband refuses. ‘I can give you a mobile phone, but not pants’, he tells her over the phone,” Yadav explains in Hindi, before he starts singing in Bhojpuri. The ‘wife’ is now pining for her husband, calling him back, demanding to know where he’s gone, leaving her all alone. The audience cheers.

Another evening, another dais. A young girl and boy, flanked by dancers dressed in sequin-laden lehengas and garish makeup, are singing love songs, flirting in rhyme for the benefit of a rather massive, excited audience. “I poke my beak in your cup of nectar,” is the (translated) refrain that the boy directs at his duet-partner, who simply giggles in return and eggs him on. Meanwhile, the audience, largely comprised of young, seemingly hormonal men, are more interested in watching the dancers with mouths wide open. Some are even taking pictures or shooting videos on their mobile phones, seduced by the song, the dance and the warm Mumbai night.

Shooting these ‘scenes’ as they play out in real life, with an unobtrusive camera, is filmmaker Surabhi Sharma. Bidesia in Bambai, her latest documentary on migrant music, covers a musical culture that is now transforming itself into an industry in the suburbs of Mumbai. As she walks through the alleys of Adarsh Nagar and Nalasopara, both residential spaces far away from the main city, and questionable in terms of legality, she finds yet another example of how music becomes the reason for and means of survival for an entire community.

“In 2008, I completed a film called Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean, which was about a different manifestation of Bhojpuri migrant music. Chutney, with elements of both Bhojpuri folk and Bollywood, gave me my first experience of making a film on music. It made me wonder about the kinds of histories that musical cultures can hold within them,” says Sharma.

In the film, we see several examples of these histories that Sharma set out in search of — the Bhojpuri appears as a migrant, a poor man, a taxi/auto driver or rickshaw-puller, a man proud of his language and assertive of his space in this city constantly at war with ‘outsiders’. We also witness the processes of a bustling metropolis viewed through the eyes of this man, and of how he attempts to negotiate with it.

The music, too, as any contemporary form, has the power to re-invent itself and assimilate foreign influences. Apart from folk songs of departure and arrival that Ramanujan Pathak specialises in, there are also the raunchy ditties, the bhajans, the Bollywood style beats in Kalpana Patowary’s studio sessions and songs devoted to their identity. “Unlike Bollywood, this is a brand of music that is not even attempting to reach out to a pan-Indian audience,” points out Sharma. In other words, it might be welcoming of foreign influences, but it is also proud of its own legacy, and caters to an identity.

Bidesia in Bambai is the latest example of a growing trend — that of looking at music as more than just a cultural artefact. It is now viewed as a carrier and capsule of that very culture from which it emerges. Sharma says that Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade, a documentary that put the spotlight on protest music by dalits in Mumbai and brought the Kabir Kala Manch to fore, reassured her that it wasn’t necessary to explain the music to create a narrative about contemporary politics, society and culture. “Now, there seems to be a conscious acknowledgement that music can be the site where socio-political tensions are released,” she observes.

Defence, Disarmament and Global Wars in the age of mecha

(Also read this here)

jaeger kaiju

The high point, quite literally, of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim, is the moment when our hero Jaeger (outdated but strong yet, thanks to its drivers) slashes off the evolved, ever more dangerous Kaiju’s wing in mid-flight. The Kaiju, a futuristic dinosaur, is now flying as it zooms in on the Jaeger for its final kill, but like the proverbial trump card, out comes a sword (please note the irony) from the Jaeger’s right hand, just in time to pierce through the monster. Dismembered, the Kaiju returns to the ocean with a resounding splash; and the narrative is back to being a rather humdrum, predictable one.

Released worldwide on the July 12-13 weekend, Pacific Rim has, on an average, garnered lukewarm critical response. This lumbering spectacle of an apocalyptic war against aliens is a delight to watch for its expertly crafted action scenes. After all, what’s not to like about humungous robots and monsters fighting each other to death?

Disappointment is inevitable — lead characters Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) are all given back-stories that are rushed through; and the plot, like the Jaegers of seven years later, needs a severe upgrade. But then, this movie isn’t as much a psychodrama as it is the latest offering in the mecha genre of Hollywood cinema — with a history of movies like Star Wars, the Godzilla series,Transformers, and Sucker Punch — and revives the giant robots vs. monster trope, possibly the oldest idea in Japanese anime.

Pacific Rim does inspire some thoughts on the evolving nature of weaponry and the state of warfare. The Jaegers (German for hunter) are run by two fighters, located in the head of the machine. They must meld their brains, hearts and memories with each other as well as the machine, in the process becoming a ‘maschinemensch’ or machine-human — a trope explored often enough, and first seen in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis.

Although this ploy isn’t quite the same thing as drone warfare (since the fighters are very much a part of the action, ‘remote’ only in the sense that there is minimal bloodshed), which in itself is more in vogue today, it does endorse the idea of ‘sanitised’ battles. In the aftermath of a fight, you as a viewer don’t see maimed and tainted bodies, blood or gore — which one can easily presume to be part of the scene — but, instead, witness broken machines, shattered buildings and, poignantly, Mori’s lost red shoe. Whatever ‘blood’ you can see on screen is glowing blue acid dripping from mutilated Kaijus, which is not nearly as disgusting or dread-inspiring. In that sense, Del Toro panders to a notion that is by now the staple of sci-fi and even action cinema — war doesn’t have to end in visible human casualty.

Man and machine have come together on various instances in cinema previously. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Lock Martin played the alien robot Gort, controlled by Klaatu, with a message for earthlings; Star Wars had Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker play ‘droids’; Bladerunner and Robocop simply assimilated man and machine to form human-like androids; and most recently, Avatar dwelled on the notion of man controlling a morphed, mechanised version of himself. Through them all runs common theme of bettering the human condition, perfecting his survival skill and instinct through ‘mechanical enhancements’.

In our real, brutal world, however, man does not inhabit the machine (yet); he is far, far away, working on his surveillance or targeted bombing from safe, often undisclosed, locations. The ‘enemy’, for the last decade, has been hiding among his ‘own’, and has had to be ferreted out and hunted down like pesky rats. In this clash of civilisations, identity marked the ‘other’ and ‘ours’, and has been the crucial factor in deciding what is worth fighting for. Pacific Rim, like other sci-fi movies in its league, locates its enemy in the predator whose roots are alien, outside the realm of this planet in this space and time. These may be like all the other unknown threats from ‘out there’ threatening our world, but the movie departs from tradition in pulling upon all of humanity’s strength to fight this war.

Unlike his predecessors, Del Toro is more inclusive — his concern is not the US Pacific coastline alone, nor are his rangers strictly American. His heroine is Japanese; Beckett’s comrades are Russian, Chinese, British and Australian. Of course, in the end, it is Beckett, the American who saves the day. But in an industry where directors are used to casting at least one race/religion/nationality in the underdog/villain/sidekick role, this movie does give the idea of a global war a different twist.

Will Pacific Rim live long in pop-culture memory? Most probably not, thanks to its forgettable, repetitive story. But as a moment in the history of mecha, overwhelming sci-fi cinema, it could still make a lasting mark, for its representation of a world in flux.

Reel Rumination: Who is the Indian Woman?

(So, there are some advantages of not emptying your inbox regularly, even though Google keeps threatening to brim over and drop dead. I found this old piece I’d written as a measly assignment in ACJ back in 2008, and I find myself quite surprised! Mostly because I don’t even remember the plotlines of Meghe Dhake Tara and Charulata, but even otherwise, this seems like I’ve put in some decent effort. A bit long, but do read and comment!)

Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities talks of a nation that largely exists in the collective psyche of the members of that nation state. Indian nationalism, in the absence of pervading literacy, depended on the more popular forms of art and cinema to grow. And since visualization is essential to the imagined community, India began to be identified with the icon of the mother. So, as India strove to become independent and, later, was endorsed as the land of opportunities, India became Bharat Mata for the masses. In such a scenario, Indian cinema produced its own interpretations of the Indian woman, an identity highly contested.

Indian cinema emerged as a popular art form, as well as one of mass entertainment, at the same time that the idea of the independent Indian nation was being given serious thought and substance. As the democracy’s roots grew deeper, newer identities emerged. The colonial, and his sidekick, the Zamindar, were being pushed backstage by the new-found educated sophisticate and the Indian woman, who again was probably the most conflicted identity of all- existing or arising. While on the one hand she had to live up to the strength and valor she had been endowed with in the process of attaining an iconic status, on the other, she was also the site on which Nehruvian idealists were cultivating India’s image as a fast developing one.

Questions about who the Indian woman was in the emerging context had many answers. There came up a number of interpretations and representations in the cinema of the time. The greatest Indian auteurs of all time had something to contribute to this debate. This paper intends to look at three films in particular- Mother India (1957) by Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1960) and Meghe Dhake Tara (1960) by Ritwik Ghatak, all of which were stories about women of the time, but in different frames.

MeImagehboob Khan’s magnum opus, Mother India, was a colored rendition of his earlier movie, Aurat, which came out in 1941. Possibly in a bid to promote the story in front of a larger, more diversified audience, he retold the story, produced it in Eastman-colour format, and made it revolve around the Radha, the protagonist, played by Nargis. The movie tells the tale about this woman, who marries Raj Kapoor, and comes into a household which is completely under the financial grip of the landlord, Sukhilala. As she deals with more failure and abandonment by her husband, the viewer is witness to the transformation of this good homely bejeweled wife into a hard, driven survivor covering herself in the mitti of her land, because she loves and identifies deeply with it. Her two sons, Ram and Birju, are the two diametrically opposite strands of moderation and extremism that characterised  the Indian national movement. When, finally, she shoots her younger son in a bid to save society from imminent danger, she acquires the iconisation of Mother India, in both a religious and a nationalist sense.

The toil and sweat that goes into cultivation and growing a crop is in itself a character in the film, painted in the red and brown hues of earthiness. Mehboob uses the form of melodrama to acquaint the viewer with the exaggerated extent of suffering of this woman. He uses the archetypes of the evil landlord, the unrelenting mother-in-law, the sly uncle in addition to the lead characters in a bid to characterize the typical setting of rural India. “At its deepest level, Mother India is a study of culture in conflict with itself. Birju and mother represent headlong, near-suicidal rush to change an impossible situation, and the inner force of the system fighting back, trying to alter the system ‘peacefully’,” says Iqbal Masud. Finally, Mehboob endorses Nehruism in his reference to the Community Block Development Movement, which brings to the film a sense of resolution and opportunism.

In another tale of suffering, Ritwik Ghatak shows us the flip side of the coin- Meghe DhakeImage Tara is the story of Sita, a young working woman who is the sole bread earner in her family, her father having retired, one brother aspiring to become a musician and the other still in the process of completing his studies. But instead of being independent, which is the logical consequence for most of us in such a situation, Sita is oppressed nevertheless. Her mother does not want her to get married, lest their only source of survival be taken away, her younger brother intends to run away from the household as soon as possible, her older brother lives for dreams at the cost of pragmatism and her sister is disinterested in everything except finding a suitable boy to marry.

Sita ends up making the biggest sacrifices for the happiness of her family- first of love, then of her own mental health. Towards the end, when she has realized that her lover is now no longer hers, but is in love with her sister, and is walking away, the close up of her face as she feels trapped in her situation, and the crack of whiplash in the background, makes an effective visual depiction of her hopelessness. In the exaggerated portrayal of the lower classes, Ghatak is determined to alienate his audience, ensure that there is no sense of identification or empathy towards his pitiful protagonist, which was thought to be very important for the spectator to be able to criticize and participate.

ImageFinally, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, based on Tagore’s novel, Nashta Neer, and set in 1859, tells a different tale of womanly woe- Charulata is a housewife in a rich Bengali household. Her husband is too involved in his newspaper and the politics of the time to pay her much attention. She is left to her own devices and is too intelligent to be content with playing cards and enjoying ice cream, like her sister-in-law. A fan of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work, she also represented Nabina or the ‘new woman’, in contrast to her sister-in-law, who was Prabina or the ‘old woman’. Charulata comes close to emotional betrayal when she grows an attachment for Amal, the cousin, and this the husband realizes only towards the end.

Satyajit Ray was a Realist artist- he believed in the deep focus technique and subtle initiation, and abhorred close ups or low angle shots, which meant iconisation. The movie is a pleasant concoction of music, scenery, emotions and characterization which is far from typical. Charulata’s situation is not a common one, especially in an India that was under British rule, or even after independence, when the largely rural landscape did not allow such financial and temporal liberty to women. But she did represent a small class of them, who were the unfortunate fortunates. As she attempts to while away time by looking out the windows through an opera glass, since she was restricted within the four walls of her house, the orchestrated on-screen and off-screen sounds allow the viewer to feel her loneliness, and when her husband walks away, absorbed in a book without paying her any attention, the authoritarian sound of his boots on the floor impress upon the audience her utter and complete desolation.

In all three films, we see the dilemmas that the Indian woman faced at the time, and we also see the problematisation that Indian society had in defining this Indian woman, and her boundaries of existence. While Ray explored the psyche of the Indian woman moving towards self- realization, Ghatak sought to unearth the loopholes in the grand Nehruvian plan. Mehboob manages to identify and place the Indian woman in the context of the nation, which in itself was visualized as a newly acquired bride, who had the powers of sustenance. Through both melodrama and realism, Indian cinema of the 50s and 60s, also known as humanist cinema, persevered in depicting the sorry state of the Indian woman.

Used to pain, Unaccustomed to life

Jhumpa Lahiri’s narratives have always been about life, love and loss, in equal measures. All her books, The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth, deal with one common overarching theme : adjustment. In the most recent of her books, Unaccustomed Earth, a compilation of short stories, she traces the lives of first or second generation migrant Bengalis in the USA. The stories deal with death, displacement, compromise and all that accompanies these themes in real life.

A woman and her father move on with life once the only thing that connects them, the wife and mother, has died of cancer. Another woman watches her mother fall in love with another man, sees her heart shattered, and tries to understand her values, the only thing that bind her mother to her father. The second half of the book is a novella of sorts, tracing the lives of a Bengali girl and boy, who grow up together, yet apart, through the trying circumstances of their separate lives. Falling in love eventually, only to lose it finally, the tragedy of their shared life is the reckless timing, even of nature.

All the stories reflect a despondency we are all familiar with, acquired through the harsh blows life doles out to us every now and then. But through the mild sense of the blues this book might envelop the you in, you sense the maturity of her characters and of their responses to everyday tragedies and the less commonplace dilemmas that accompany starting new lives in newer surroundings. The book is a good read for a languid winter afternoon, when you want to contemplate on the true meanings of everything that goes on around us.

Burrrrp!

First off, to the maybe five readers of this blog (i’m being optimistic), apologies for the last post. Rambles aside, it was general frustration and an empty mind that cooked up such burnt broth.

Now, to the point of this one. All those who remotely identify themselves with the young urban Indian who is slightly frustrated, slightly scruffy, because he has no time left after work, play and dealing with affairs of the heart, must watch Delhi Belly. Not only because it is about people like us, but because it is a relief to see what is not. The hyperbole that the lives of Tashi, Nitin and Arup go into in the space of 24 hours is out of the ordinary, but peppered with all the gutter language and the sentiment of being ’21st century men’, it strikes the right chords – you know you’re a Delhiite (or almost there) if you are stricken with mirth everytime they say the C word.

And then again, every time one of them is hanging off a noose or is rampaging around Delhi-6 in a burqa or has a gun pointed at their crotch, you think, “not in a zillion years can that happen to me!” But you love every bit of it, every bit of the madness, and you laugh your guts out because this comedy of errors is the most hilarious Bollywood has come up with in the longest time. Honestly, i thought not even Hangover was this funny.

Nitin’s grotesque diarrhoea-cal dilemma is only topped by Arup’s hysterical imagined rage at being so cruelly dumped. The misgivings after the no-trailer warning in the beginning are soon drowned in gales of laughter as you rock back and forth in your seat, delighted at the unapologetic incorrectness of it all. Yes, shit does happen, but retrospect is very important because it turns the coin onto the hilarity of it all.

But, on second thoughts, i do remember a few constipated looking faces, belonging to those unfortunate who thought of this as a weekend family venture. Mummy-Deddy, Bahu-Beta and Chunnu Munnu this movie is not for, at least not all together.

Such is the fire this one’s created: My aunt calls my mother from Calcutta and muses, “…but they can’t all really be talking like that? our children? our GIRLS??” So, i guess POP! go a few hearts (neon, bulb-suit or just glittery red) and then…wait…our secret’s out! Does that mean i don’t have to wince and immediately apologise everytime i yell ‘FUCK!’ at some wayward idiot while driving with my mother anymore? Far-out that seems, but one can always hope!

And if Aamir Khan does come out with Return of the Disco Fighter, I’m booked and hooked already. Waiting for it!

Oh Kabul Kabul!

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( The following is an essay on the lessons learnt in peacemaking in Afghanistan during the visit to Kabul earlier this year. In the space of one week, we were given lectures, visited the city an neighbouring areas to see ground realities, and had long soulful discussions on the unique conundrum that South Asia faces in terms of development, coming to terms with a colonial history and building peace. This work is a product of analysis and summarisation of all that I learnt from the experience. )

Mr Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, had begun his talk to us in Kabul with the following quote by Saadi: “If you have no sympathy for another’s pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” For peacemakers, and for any individual, these words are heavy with the wisdom of man’s experience in the world, not as a political being, but a social, emotional one. For us students, the student exchange programme was enlightening in that it showed to us the three sides of the subcontinent: it was an exercise in understanding this very ‘other’.

The Great Game

Afghanistan is currently, and historically has been, the prize that the winner of the ‘Great Game’ shall acquire. Although this explicit statement sounds inciting enough, and may sound untrue at first sight, seeing as America’s predominant ‘cause’ in the region is the establishment of democracy and a ‘just government’, this is how people from within the civil society analyze their status even today. Said Mr Rafiee, Afghanistan currently has the highest capability of sweet water in the world: 17 billion cubic metres. The World Bank puts this number at 65 billion cubic metres and the CIA says there’s 170 billion cubic metres of the said resource in the region. There is also said to a hidden trove of natural gas and oil, along with mines of caladium and scandium which are 200 times more expensive than uranium. So while the label of instituting democracy stays put, as it has since the time of the Cold War across the world, it seems to be a covert war in the name of globalization that the US is carrying out in the region to advance the interests of its multi-national corporations. This is a view from within Afghanistan as to their value in the world.

All in the name of Democracy?

The presence of international actors seems to be something that has, for the larger part, been welcomed by the people of Kabul, at least in terms of dealing with the Taliban. However, their continuing presence seems to be irksome to a few within the civil society members we spoke to, who saw them as a hindrance to development of the country as well as peaceful resolution of their political situation. They are seen as pursuing greedy corporate as well as strategic interests. Also, a large number of people do not believe that NATO and US forces shall actually be pulled back by next year. Continuation of presence could be justified through the fact that Afghanistan has no functional economy of its own, and is too dependent on funds coming in from aid from the UN and other international donors. There are not many people dying of hunger or poverty within the country, maintaining this status quo which turns into a vicious cycle. Neo-colonial domination also continues through the fact that the cabinet of Afghanistan is composed of foreign ministers from different countries which means there are already too many stakeholders within the country.

Multiculturalism vs a Fragmented Nation

Apart from the international presence, the question of a cohesive national identity still remains. The region is made up of 36 ethnic and religious constituents, including Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. Of these, the Pashtuns dominate, constituting 36% of the population, according to the last census held in 1979. The second in this turn come to be the Tajiks, who hold the executive administrative rights within the country, while the Pashtuns hold most of the power. Other tribes include the Hazaras, the Balochs, the Turkmen and the Persians, among others. The country is landlocked on all sides by Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and on all fronts, there exist skirmishes along the borders as identities spill over them. Thus, Afghanistan also faces the problem of facing disturbances on almost all fronts with ethnic identities seeking to unite or separate. Thus emerges the problem of no common language, no common national identity to keep the nation together. However, it was also argued that no serious efforts at secession have been made, and this was attributed to the predominance of the Islamic identity, and the characterization of Afghanistan as an Islamic state.

Jihad

Then there is the question of terrorism. According to Liaqat Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is the most important challenge that Pakistan and Afghanistan face today. He stressed on the importance of taking this seriously and not being reductionist about it since it is the main contributor to instability and threat to regional peace. He blamed the phenomenon on the inability of the region to get rid of the colonial legacies, ie the disputed borders along Kashmir as well as the Durand Line. Calling us ‘hostages to history’, he said it was important to go back to the roots of jihad and see where it originated and tackle it from the ground upwards. Jihad, according to him, has very deep sentimental, psychological and social underpinnings, none of which will be easy to tackle, but it is equally important that they are. Finding a political solution would mean encouraging the Taliban to participate within civil society and eventually reaching a political power sharing agreement with them, even though Mr Ali did not see in them the capacity to be able to govern.

Regional Peace?

Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are also a hotbed of disagreements as well as the source of much security for the country. While both characterize themselves as Islamic countries and share that bond, they also share a partitioned Pashtun population between themselves along the Durand Line. Apart from Pashtun cries for national secession, the two countries have till date not come to an agreement on formalizing the border or on Pakistan returning the disputed areas to Afghanistan. Mr Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized Pakistan into four categories: the common people that live there, the progressive civil society of Pakistan, the nation-state of Pakistan and the established one in terms of governance and intelligence. While the first three are not problematic, it is the last that creates a sense of an ideological Pakistan that shoulders Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan has had an increasing desire for influence in the country since the Russian invasion and it also has a different approach to terrorism than Afghanistan. Its approach to the Taliban is one of support and encouragement, especially the Quetta Shura faction, even at the political level, while it sees the Northern Alliance as an opposing political party. In this, the two countries face potential problems which could only be solved through a resolution of the disputed border, an agreement on approach to dealing with terrorism, and possibly through a power-sharing agreement that could be cut between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that could be cut next year.

India’s presence in Afghanistan, although not seen as definitely benign by either Afghanistan or Pakistan, is certainly not military, which makes it less of threat in that sense. The Afghans seem to embrace the Indian presence, for its effect on their economy, their cultural advancement and social and infrastructural development. Although there have been recent accusations and uprisings against the perceived corruption of the indigenous culture by Indian parties in the state, for the larger part, the Indian presence is seen as harmless and productive.

Representation and the Other

Thus, for Afghanistan, the situation is as tumultuous as ever. According to Mr Rafiee, the lack of trust, disconnected states and state-nations, corrupt governments, territorial conflicts, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, no presence of rule of law are all factors that work well for the ‘actors’ present in the region. As much the speakers stressed on regional cooperation as the way ahead as well as the ultimate goal for lasting peace in the region, a real-time on-the-ground effecting of such a situation seems hard enough, seeing as there exist enough intractable conflicts between the three countries – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, common agendas to work on would and should include dealing with the rampant poverty in the region, terrorism and millennium development goals.

According to Mr Aziz Hakimi of Future Generation, copious investment in education, building tolerance instincts, dispelling myths that might create victims are some of the ways to deal with the exceptional situation in South Asia at the ground level. According to Mr Ali, also important is reviving micro-identities to focus on localism to deal with Western hegemonistic forces and keeping traditional values alive. While such as assertion at a cultural level can go tragically awry in the name of re-gaining ground for the ‘Orient’, it is indeed true that for Afghanistan to take further steps into development and peaceful existence, it needs to move forward on its own feet with a considerable role in handling issues that the region faces together.

This and That

Here’s yet another tiny, commonplace dilemma that might not stand too strongly against the hurricane that is the current atmosphere of this city: Do we fight for our rights as middle class people against cycle-rickshaw pullers and insist on paying them what WE think is apt or do we be a bit reasonable in the name of humanity and give them that Rs 5 extra that they insist on at times? Here’s the two sides of this beaten coin – A friend, JNU-groomed, once said to me (after I’d bargained the price of the pedal down by that crucial Rs 5), “why make an argument out of it when you’re not all that poorer and he’s definitly not richer in Rs 5? I give them what they ask for usually, unless it seems like he’s trying daylight robbery. It feels like weighing scales on my conscience otherwise, later those nights. ” Another friend says to me (when I have learnt to beat my guilt over the months and follow this policy for the larger part), “why should we pay him extra? it isn’t about being richer or poorer, it is about what’s right and wrong. and what’s this – we middle class people always get ground in the middle. we pay the taxes, we pay exorbitant rates to these guys…we don’t go crying for more money to our bosses, do we? it doesn’t become a chain of inflation this way!”

Meanwhile, in the name of humanity, Delhi’s being just that bit short of being shiny enough to catch the roving voyeuristic eye of those white people. God seems to be playing Truman Show, India being Truman in his last scene, pushing him to the limits just to see if it’ll quit HIS world and go looking for a brave new one? WILL IT? I don’t think so…disappointment in the air. not an appetising whiff.

Demonise, Dehumanise.

The power of television, that debilitating, invading, superceding, all-consuming hold it can have on visions, imaginations and the formation of ideas:

You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, stretches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot. At first I couldn’t understand why Bob Zelnick was quite as euphoric as he was after the interviews, or why John Birt felt moved to strip naked and rush into the ocean to celebrate. But that was before I really understood the reductive power of the close-up, because David had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get; Richard Nixon’s face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist.

– James Reston Jr. on the final close-up on Nixon’s face in the David Frost interview after his confession of guilt in Frost Nixon (2008)

This movie is a must-watch for all journalists, politics-lovers, Watergate obsessors. and otherwise.