Delhi Belly: Diagnosing the ‘Shit’ in the Movie

30 07 2011

Like Krrish marked the arrival, into Bollywood, of characters with superhuman power and Jism was the bellwether in expanding the set boundaries of graphic sexuality, Delhi Belly in a movie critique’s diary will go down as the one that ruptured the unwritten censorship of ‘shit’.

This might seem a bit too obvious to state; what are obscure, however, are: why now? – why were belching and farting hitherto not subjects for Indian humour like it has been in Anglo-American cinema – and is this potty flavour of humour something that appeals to all sections of the society?

After our national economic trajectory chartered a new course in the 90s, the cultural discourse too has switched class allegiance and imbibed the new found aspirations of Gen Next. Hence, an ever increasing number of Bollywood scripts are being shot abroad. Even when it is uncorrelated to the script, directors feel compelled to have at least a few songs shot in foreign destinations –  presenting a rosy, utopian, all-is-well picture of these places – assimilating the new found aspirations today’s youth harbour in building castles abroad. This contrasts with the patriotic music and scripts of a by-gone era. Bare-chested and muscular images of the playboy hero, who kills for love, has displaced the angry, gun-yielding policeman protagonist who vanquished the evil enemies of the nation.

And now, Delhi Belly with its dense use of western swear words, liberal portrayals of excrement, and bodily noises has blindly aped modern Western comedies that generously use toilet scenes and (mis)handling of faeces to tickle the audience into brain-dead laughter.

This answers our first question of ‘why now?’. The movie is an other step forward in a ‘blind’ synchronisation of India’s biggest movie industry with Anglo-American cinema, in an age when all other aspects of culture, too, are being homogenised. It must be emphatically stated that this aping is blind.

As the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has pointed out, there is no parallel in India for the western scatological fixations in speech. Equivalents of the common western expressions of frustration – Shit, Merde (French), Scheisse (German) are not seen in any Indian language. Nor is there any counterpart to ‘Asshole’ or Arschlock (German) as abusive terms. Western cuss words are, almost always, related to excrement, the excretory organs or dirt (‘dirty nigger’, ’dirty Jew’, filthy pig). Freudian thinkers have pointed to the responsibility of toilet training in the nature of swear words that reflect “the long postponed vengeance of a child forced to control his bowel movements” (Quote from ‘The Indians: Portrait of a people’ by Sudhir Kakar and Kathrina Kakar). In contrast, notice all Indian swear words revolve around the genitals or incest. Hence, it is not excrement that provokes the Indian psyche but various incestuous and other sexual possibilities.

Denying the allegation that he abused Australian bowler Andrew Symonds by calling him ‘Monkey’ during a 2008 one-dayer, Harbhajan Singh said he had actually cursed ‘Maa Ki’ and he was misheard. As though it’s okay to abuse an opponent’s mother but not make a racist remark! The idea was perhaps that an abuse against the maternal figure will not provoke a westerner – ‘I am a good looking son of a bitch’ is an oft heard pomposity among western youngsters. Indians, irrespective of our native tongue, never abuse each other, only one another’s parents and relations, a fallout of our strong familial relations.

Hence the use of excrement and English swear words will be of little cultural context to a large number of Indians and the stomaching of Western speech – hook, line and sinker – is nothing but a blind aping of the west in accordance with the trend of our times.

This brings us to our second question. Does this potty humour appeal to all mindsets?  Or, what class of Indians recoil with disgust at the sight of excrement or a room infested with garbage and pests like the one Tashi, Nitin and Arup share in the movie?

There is relative unconcern in India with public hawking or belching. The Indian habit of bringing the left hand into contact with faeces and water while cleaning oneself after defecation is something that would fill a Westerner with visceral disgust. The latter’s toilet habits are, likewise, repugnant to Indians – using just paper to wash the anus or soaking oneself in a tub and splashing the dirt onto oneself and calling it a bath.

It can therefore be safely assumed that the kind of comedy depicted in Delhi Belly will go well with those Indians who lead a western-style, opulent way of life.

But then, Bollywood has- over the years- increasingly been catering to this affluent section. Growing up in Kerala I am used to going for movies with nothing more than Rs 50 in my pocket, the ticket cost ranging from Rs 16 for the front-row to Rs 35 for the balcony in an A-class theatre. Here, in the sanitised opulence of metro-Mumbai’s elite halls, one has to part with – on an average Rs 200 for the movie-pass alone. There is relative unconcern for the cultural needs of the poorer sections.

The class filtering is evident, nobody howls in Mumbai’s multiplexes; while elsewhere, among the audience are those who arrive in their Benz’s as also the liquor-stinking, sweat spongy working class people with folded lungis. I doubt if the latter class will find anything at all funny about shit, dirt or dilapidated, pest-infested buildings which is just a way of life for the vast majority of working peoples.

However, dirt, filth and the notion of being polluted do find expression in one pivotal element of Indian life – caste. The need to disavow the ‘universal dirt fantasy’ ( to borrow a term from Lawrence Kubie) is achieved in India by a Brahminical, highly exaggerrated sense of cleanliness. Central to the caste system is the notion of ‘pollution’. By creating the image of the Dalit as one who; seams in filth and dirt, eats ‘impure’ meat, practices ‘impure’ professions  like that of the cobbler and tanner, the Brahminical mind finds gratification in his ‘purity’ ( Citations made from ‘The Indians: Portrait of a people’). The darkness of excrement also prompts the Brahminical subconscious to equate body waste with the Dalit, providing a psychological base to untouchability inculcated in most of us from infancy. It will not be surprising, therefore, that to those in whom Brahminical values have been inculcated – consciously or otherwise – scenes such as those in Delhi Belly will generate revulsion and hysterical laughter.

 All the same, it cannot be said that in the Indian context no art can depict faeces and defecation. OV Vijayan’s The Saga of Dharmapuri (Malayalam Dharmapuranam) is one such novel. Written during the notorious years of the Emergency, the book is an exposition of Indian political machinations. The plot opens with the King farting loudly while courtiers, who ritually collect the defecation, look on. Dharmapuri is the seat of the government and is populated with corrupt officials, pimps and sycophants of the ruling order. The King’s defecation is routinely televised. The courtiers who collect the King’s excrement distribute it to his subjects that await for it with their platters. The depiction of shit-eating in The Saga of Dharmapuri is grotesque and symbolises the rigid cultism that Indira Gandhi and son Sanjay postulated in, what can be called, the darkest days of our post-independent history.

I write this aboard the Kochuveli-Mumbai Garib Rath express. I had to wait eight hours in the railway station for the delayed train to arrive. Among the various experiences The Indian Railways provide, today I observed (though I have ‘seen’ the same scene many a times) a modestly-dressed, elderly woman washing with bottled mineral water her grandson’s  anus after he had defecated onto the railway track. After the cleaning ritual, I noticed the woman wash her hands on her black dhoti. As I write this, its been 24 hours since I left home, the train is behind schedule and I cannot hold back nature’s call. Once again, we confront the reality that even the state-run Railways finds it appropriate for excrement to fall on the track beneath, along with all the other garbage, leftovers and plastic that has become the identity element of railway premises. The sign in the toilet comically reads “Keep lavatory clean and Dry“.

Then, I think of the sort of crowd that watched Delhi Belhi along with me at the multiplex in Mumbai;  routine flight goers, I presume. Surely, most will find the lives of ‘People like Us’ comical.

Until a large section of Indians are lifted from their state of having to shit on railway tracks, live in pest-infested slums, eat cheap, road-side eatery food handled by hands that have scratched wherever it itched, movies such as this will have no meaning save for a microcosm of India’s westernised elite.





The Hazare Euphoria: An Infantile Disorder

12 04 2011

Let no one think that the victors of this comic puppet play — called the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill Agitation’ — are the masses; nor let anyone presume the high-heeled, elitist proponents of this well-scripted drama are representative of the nation.

This was a play scripted in the corridors of power, sanctified by the ruling class and financed by big business, of which the media, particularly the electronic media, has become an integral part. The true winners are the script writers — the very elements this corporate ‘revolution’ claims to wipe out under the premise of cleaning the Augean stable this nation has become.

The pivotal theme the craft Pied Piper chose, to rally a naïve, politically-ignorant crowd was flavoured with clandestine intentions. The Pied Pipers music of anti-corruption was a sure bet – who would oppose it? One only has to prove that he or she is more committed to it than the ‘other’.

By conceding, almost unconditionally, to Hazare’s school-boyish demands the ruling elite has achieved an image of generosity, much sought after on election eve, the NGOs and corporates who rallied behind the cause have emerged consecrated from their den of graft by asserting their commitment to an issue on which there cannot be two opinions anyway.

Clandestine was the star cast – Anna Hazare, a man tailor-made and perfectly acceptable to the ruling party with his history of friction with the BJP- Shiv Sena combine during their rule in Maharashtra. This was the checkmate moment; given the animosity between the two, how could the BJP-led opposition rally behind him anyway? A clear win-win outcome in the game theory model of the situation.  And what of the fact that Anna himself was indicted of corruption by the PB Sawant committee? That should not be a cause for hindrance, public memory is too short-lived; 2005 is a long time ago, in this age of newsflashes by the second.

The media that propagated this euphoria is the same medium that has shoved under the carpet Irom Sharmila’s years of fast. We are talking about the same opinion-manufacturing factories that conveniently ignored the mass trade union protest, barely a month ago, in the national capital where large sections of the working class, across political spectrum, united under a common banner to protest against spiralling price rises. Similar, was the fate of the European workers’ agitation, against the doing away of state austerity measures under the garb of fiscal prudence. Those bootlickers of capitalism in the media have emerged ordained from the Radia tapes revelations; re-anointing themselves as the conscience keepers of the nation.

Having learned from the radical upsurges of the last two centuries, capitalism’s new age solution to quell the discordant note is not to suppress it but to create parallel platforms for criticism. ‘Why the need for trade unions or collective bargaining when we have provided ample space for you to air your dissent?’ the capitalists ask. This is a very ergonomic design of the power structure, where the bearers of power themselves design, decide and control the platitudes of criticism against itself. An obvious consequence of this design is, the one who crafts the dissent will inevitably possess a readymade cosmetic solution that can masquerade as ‘populist’.

Hence, as Zalvoj Zizek correctly theorised, in the present age, the greatest enemy of the radical working class movement is not capitalism or fascism but socialism.  Socialism provides the steam valve wherein mass pressure against the system can be released without altering, or even questioning, the basic structure. It is the quintessential cosmetic solution where the dilapidating, peripheral plastering on the wall can be redone to give a polished look without bothering too much about the rusting columns and beams within.

If Narayana Murthy — a self-anointed socialist who shed crocodile tears worried that corruption was denting India’s image as an emerging world power — is sincere about rooting graft, he should first put his own house in order – his vested financial interests in a micro-finance institution that for long arm-twisted the voiceless poor in Andhra’s villages, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Infosys’ top guns and the high incidence of suicides among the corporate’s trainees.

If Arindham Chaudhary, who recently wrote ‘Anna Hazare my Prime Minister’, had even an iota of concern for the Aam Aadmi he should first reveal how many from that genre make it to his elite institutes. IITians and IIMites, and other B-school goers with their long history of political apathy, had no second thoughts when it came to supporting this ‘lil ol man with a topi’. These are the same sycophants that for years resisted attempts to increase intake or even implement affirmative action in these institutes, established with public money, to ensure they are more inclusive in their composition. For years, they were content to teach the flab-talking, English-speaking, well-to-do elites; and when finally forced to swallow the bitter pill, the ‘Youth for Equality’ stage show, with its foreign franchises, was launched — a sure sign of the corporate money behind it. Yes, the corporates too can design dissent and masquerade it as public opinion.

And need I even mention here of Lalit Modi or the Page-3 beauties and cuties that lent their support to this brain-dead pseudo agitation? Surely, the naïve and immature innocents who have flocked to Jantar Mantar, capitalism’s latest metro laboratory, should not excuse themselves saying the movement was hijacked. The pertinent question is, what made this agitation acceptable to these corporate dons? Not that there have been no other agitations before.

Around 1.5 lakh workers from various trade unions marched to Parliament on Feb 24, protesting high food prices, unemployment and demanding a social security fund for unorganised workers. It went largely unreported.

HOW DO WE REASON?

A friend of mine asked, ‘how does one filter out the shams from the genuine agitations?’ To discern the true nature of a movement requires thought that probes beyond the surface spectacle. EMS Nampoothiripad once remarked: ‘If a decision or opinion of mine is acceptable to the bourgeois classes, then I have perhaps erred in my reasoning; on the other hand, if they oppose it tooth-and-nail, it means I have made the right choice for the toiling masses.’

Such is the nature of the class struggle; so contradictory are the interests of the two warring classes that they can be resolved only through confrontation and not compromise. What is unacceptable to the big bourgeoisie can only be in the interest of workers and peasants as is the case with the private sector’s opposition to reservation.  However, what is acceptable to the capital-owning class can, albeit very rarely, converge with the interests of the proletariat. The former is easy to discern while the latter is a complex situation where one must surgically dissect and examine what the interests of the bourgeoisie, in supporting an agitation, are.

The Indian freedom movement, or for that matter anti-imperialist struggles across the world, is an example of bourgeoisie interests being in unison with the interests of the working people. In the nationalist struggle, we see a rare congruence of the interests of the native bourgeoisie (but not the imperialist bourgeoisie) and the native peasants and workers, albeit for different reasons. While the workers’ and peasants’ movements fought the imperialist coloniser to absolve an exploitative world order and create an egalitarian society, the native bourgeois was more interested in defending its home turf against international finance capital (or in other words, to ensure the imperialist bourgeoisie does not partake in his profit). Thus, in the freedom movement one also sees a dichotomy of interests, or a certain cannibal trait, of the bourgeoisie class wherein it fights its own creed to protect its home ground like stray dogs that defend their territories. Proletarian interests are in contrast international.

The Anna Hazare euphoria is a pseudo struggle the bourgeoisie class has found perfectly acceptable (provided of course they have not designed it themselves), like the freedom struggle, for their own selfish reasons. This complicates the matter, and makes the vested interests oblivious to untrained eyes – the hundreds who rallied without caring to meditate on the issue.

 If we were to conclude that the national bourgeoisie — because of its opposition to graft — has a progressive nature and brook with this euphoria, it would be the surest recipe to not achieve ‘revolution’. By definition, a revolution is a fundamental change. Only a rudimentary, first harmonic change can ensure the cleansing of this Augean stable.

The Lok Pal Bill is a decorative solution  perfectly acceptable to the ruling classes as it diverts attention from the deep systemic rot and hives off fundamental questions  — on liberalisation and privatisation being responsible for this endemic graft — from the national discourse. For the working people to support this movement is to dig one’s own grave.

 
 
 

Irom Sharmila whose fast unto death against the draconian AFSPA has entered its 10th year

The Middle-class Psyche

In recent times, we have noticed the urban intelligentsia being extremely liberal in lending moral support to the cause of the deprived and exploited (as in the case of the Maoist movement and the support to Binayak Sen) — a perfectly understandable and peculiarly middle-class phenomenon. To comprehend this pattern one has to first identify the distinctive feature of this segment.

What distinguishes the middle class from other sections of the population is the vulnerability of their financial situation. The middle-class earns and saves only enough for a single generation and this is the basic tenet that defines it. Every action and reaction of this social division is governed by this feature. Thus, middle-class parents shoulder every burden to educate their children and are adamant they pursue only lucrative careers (education is a mere status symbol for the upper class, but a vital investment to ensure financial sustainability for the middle segment). The middle class is miserly as savings are pivotal to their survival, politically apathetic as it cannot afford to challenge authority (pleasing those in power alone guarantees they don’t join the ‘reserve army of labour’); a thousand other hallmarks can thus be explained.

However, the pertinent feature we are discussing here is the recent display, by the middle class, of a rare affection for the displaced landless and tribal people of rural India and their leaders. The volatility of the middle-class’s financial position explains this curious phenomenon. Middle-class individuals, in the age of unabashed capitalism, are the ones above whom the constant threat of financial ruin looms. We lead comfortable lives, yet the possibility that our children may not, is a constant distress. How much easier can it get, to identifying with the financial ruin of forest dwellers?

It is effortless for the middle class to identify with the cause of tribals and forest dwellers who have lost their sole means of survival from the forests in the ‘development’ juggernaut. And again, Binayak Sen is the quintessential middle-class icon — a doctor by training, he speaks English and talks no politics.

This existence of these middle-class symbols also explains why we insist Bhart Ratna awardees and Nobel laureates should be part of the draft committee of the Lok Pal Bill – these are the typical middle-class heroes. One wonders, how many of those who propound this argument have read the works of VS Naipaul and failed to see the stark racism in his works.

It is essential that middle-class icons must not dwell into deep political theory or confront authority directly – ‘single-day, peaceful (read safe & secure) candle-lit protests will do, we cannot afford to risk being hunted down by the state, what will become of our dependants?’

A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries” – Lenin

Can any serious observer escape noticing this very frenzy in the urban middle class as they identify with left adventurist movements. Capitalism has indeed bred many bastard children!

The middle-class finds comfort in ignorance and, consequently, slavery. This, like with 20th century fascism, explains new age leaders like Anna Hazare who with the slightest gesture can command the silence or the (re)actions of his instant followers. As Erich Fromm wrote, “Man, just as he desires freedom, also longs for bondage.”

Again, like many Freudian thinkers have theorised, the masses are ignorant because they prefer ignorance. The contempt for deep political thought, has been the distinguishing feature of the Hazare maniacs.

The middle class’ financial insecurity also gives birth to a sense of jealousy for the more well-off and a secret desire to ape the rich. Hence corruption, wherein riches are amassed without having to toil like they do infuriates the middle-class. No different is the ‘anti-reservation rhetoric’— giving away a coveted seat in prestigious institutes to the ‘less deserving’, ‘less hardworking’ aggravates middle class morality. The architects of this struggle are clever; they have chosen the corruption symbol with great dexterity.

Of all the recommendations of the Bill, what has irked me most is its apolitical character. With a misguided sense of justice, we swallow the axiom that a true democracy is one in which every man on the street gets to decide on every question that we, as a society, face. There cannot be any greater assault on common sense.

Imagine a cricket match; will it be any more ‘democratic’ if the verdict on an appeal for review is taken not by an experienced third umpire — familiar with the rules of the game — but by the ten-thousand or so odd spectators? If that were so, the visitors need not play.

Democracy is about choosing the leaders who can take decisions for society and not, giving the right to decide on strategic questions to every Tom, Dick and Harry – that is more of a mobocracy, an institutional nightmare, anarchy.

Let no one misread me here, I am not moralising or condemning the rights and wrongs of middle-class attitudes; our natures are governed by our material conditions and we have little dominance over it. I only wish to expose the foxiness of certain elements with mischievous intent, who have manipulated with extreme dexterity our most inherent weaknesses.





Manufacturing mass mentality

27 03 2011

I spent the last two weekends almost entirely at the cinemas, selectively choosing the Oscar-nominated movies of this season. The big screen, the dolby sound and the uninterrupted visual charm omnipresent in the halls, that even smell of drama, needs no introduction to those lovers of the arts; something for which, downloaded files played on the laptop is no substitute.

I could not watch most movies of the last Oscars and hence did not want to be reticent towards the 83rd Academy Awards season. Movie going for me is, after all, a habit that was painfully cultivated – bunking classes, and even exams, so as not to lose that one opportunity to see a great picture on the big screen – with the sole conviction that the arts make us cultured, while the classroom does little to elevate the human element.

I thought I would revive my presence in the blogosphere by reviewing each movie I saw. But that became impossible given the homogeneity in the underlying theme of most Oscar-nominated movies of this season. If the serious observer were to critique each movie, one review would not be very different from the other. Much like cosmetics cannot alter the character, but only the looks. Each movie, as far as the ism is concerned, was a futile repetitive addition to the bibliography of individualism.

The 81st academy awards was, in contrast, a miscellanea – Slumdog millionaire that painted a stark picture of the poverty residing in India’s slums; Vicky, Chiristina, Barcelona that dwelled into unconventional sexual themes; The Reader that wove a complex web of the horrors of the holocaust apart from investigating the psychological roots of the individual’s complacency towards genocide; Milk, which was a daring portrayal of same-sex love, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that took the viewer into a world of fantasy and fiction and Dark Knight, the comic adaptation in which Heath Ledger’s performance was legendary.

At least five movies of the latest Oscar edition – Black Swan, The Kings Speech, The Social Network, True Grit and Fighter - were sycophantic praises upon the altar of cultism and individualism. Inception has traces of it.

If viewed in isolation then, perhaps, each movie is a chef-d’oeuvre in itself but taken as a whole it seems to reflect the glorification of individual pursuits and the legitimisation of capitalist society’s unwavering philosophy that the individual can, by virtue of her isolated pursuits and hard work, overcome the circumstances, however humble, into which she is born.

Black Swan, which was my favourite, is the tale of a ballet dancer; who, having received the role of the lead dancer (The Swan Queen), succumbs to the pressure of having to scale heights worthy of her role and becomes demented. A lonely girl, played by Natalie Portman, who has been pampered by her overbearing mother – a single parent and a failed dancer herself – to the extent that the latter even undresses and grooms her, Nina easily fits into the role of the fragile and innocent White Swan. But she is unable to do justice to her twin role as the deceitful and cunning Black Swan. The character Nina Sayers is excessively hard working and by her sheer will power overcomes every hurdle including the jealousy of her teammates, the criticisms of her director, her dependence on her mother and hallucinations. Even as she enters into her final act, in the dressing room, she hallucinates that Lily, her standby, wants to grab her much sought-after role and perceives a physical fight with her. In the imbroglio, Nina stabs herself thinking she has attacked Lily. She confronts her delirium long before her act is over, hides her wound and gives a picture perfect performance on stage, received by a thunderous applause.

Substitute ‘Dancer’ with ‘Boxer’ and you have, the story of The Fighter. The similarity is striking. This is the story of the boxer Micky who rises to attain the glory of the world lightweight champion, having overcome the burden of an overbearing family – his mother and brother-cum-trainer Dicky.

The Kings Speech is, likewise, the quintessential story of an individual’s fight against his handicap. Prince Albert who ascends the throne, after his brother David was forced to abdicate the position due to his affair with a divorcee, struggles with his disability of stammering at a time when the advent of the radio ensured that the King’s words reached every household. The movie is about how Prince Albert (later King George VI) overcame his dread for public broadcasts and learned, with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, to overcome his stammer. This is the story of a man who, because of his speech handicap, was ridiculed and considered unworthy of the throne. He went on to move the masses and the soldiers with his radio broadcasts during World War II. His speech that begins, “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history …for the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war…” to foretell the declaration of war on Nazi Germany is the most dramatic part of the film. It marks the culmination of Prince Albert’s agonising fight against his disability. The gravity of his handicap is depicted by juxtapositions with world leaders who were his contemporaries, Hitler and Churchill – who stirred the masses with their mastery over the power of speech.

The Social Network, that tells the story of a Harvard undergraduate as he struggles against his mentors and friends’ opposition to his business and goes on to become a successful entrepreneur is, likewise, a tale wrought to fit the contours of individualism.

Ditto for True Grit where the teenage girl with a small-town upbringing hunts down the murderer of her father.

 The flurry of serious movies that glorify the cult of individualism comes at a time when everything that was considered to be the ‘American way of life’ is brought into question following the economic crisis of 2008. The crisis challenged, not just the rationale of their modes of production and manufacturing principles but also, the very legitimacy of the socio-cultural philosophy of individualism. It appeared to me, that this avalanche of movies portraying the might of individual prowess was carefully designed to relegitimise the American way of life. It revitalises the myth of a sanguine age and poisons us with the falsehood of the idea that poverty, mediocrity and failure are not the culminations of oppressive economic regimes – where some have the means to realise the full potential of their talents – but the natural outcomes of sloth and lack of intelligence. In fact, the condition of our economic status at birth is pivotal to what we turn out to be in the current world order.

Moreover, the worth of an individual, in an ideal society, will be judged not for what she achieves for herself but for her ability to contribute to the collective. Those societies are great where collectivism reigns supreme and each one bestows liberally his talent to the pool of knowledge to enhance productive levels of society and to ensure a better life, not for herself but, for the collective.

Each movie viewed in isolation was a treat in itself, but as a whole it reflected the irrational and the absurd. It mirrors the strangle hold of capital over culture, opinion and the formulation of mass psyche, it spreads the myth that social inequality is the outcome of lack of self-will and legitimises poverty and teaches us that one can overcome any handicap by sheer will power. It proclaims, like capitalists have through out history, that this world order, with all its inequalities and injustices, is the natural order of things. These movies, viewed as a whole, are an assault on the commonsense notion that man is a social animal.





Chennai: Gateway to the South

27 06 2010

It was the city that not just gave wings to my dreams but also taught me how to fly. It was the first city I resided in, away from the sleepiness of the hamlet I still call ‘home’. Its been two months since my departure and enough time has elapsed, to reflect on it.

One must give it to Chennai for her courage to hold on to her identity. She was the dischordant note that refused to join the choir, when her Dravidian cousins recited unfamiliar Hindi tunes. She hosted the anti-Hindi agitations and puked the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan pill shoved down her throat. To those who cited the rule of higher numbers her son MGR replied, “if numerical majority is your logic (to fix Hindi as the national language),  then not the pea-cock but the crow should be our national bird.”

Since Aryan Sanskrit was the language of the Gods, and Hindi its derivative, she turned her back on the Gods too, “Raman kadavool alle alla (Rama is not God),” she cried.
When bollywood mocked the “Madrasi” she stirred the Tamil pride, “Tamizhanennu solleda, thalai nivarnnu nilleda ( say you are a tamilian, hold your head upright).”

She has a fetish for the camera, chennaiites are never too busy to pose for a photograph and harbour the hope that they will one day make it to the front page.

Her loyalty is notorious. She cannot contain her childish anger when Rajnikant dies even if its just on the screen, much like the emotional out-pour when news of MGR’s death broke out. She has built colossal monuments in memory of Annadurai that even the tsunami could not bring down.

She is the tolerant one in a nation of animosity; the muezzins call at day break, the Basillica at Santhome, her thousand temples and as many deities strewn across her length and breath, from street corners to railway platforms, speak much of her welcoming arms. Muslim households share borders with Hindu shrines as I have seen at Canal road, Indiranagar, where I was put up.

Once a child who indulged in lavishes, her mass agricultural produce funded her temples, the devadasi culture and her dances. Modernity has stripped her of feudal excesses, yet Tamils never hesitate to ask, “Saptengala“.

She has fostered the Kannadigan Periyar and the Malayalee MGR as her own children. Her generosity is as capacious as the sea by her side. This extends to her movie industry, India’s second largest, as Chennai has welcomed a host of artists and directors who migrated from neighbouring Kerala. Among them, Yesudas whose live concert I had the honour to witness.

She is the city of academics; Loyola, MCC, MSSRF, Roja Muthiah, MIDS and Presidency satisfy many a knowledge-thirsty as does the IIT that preceded her IT parks and manufacturing hubs.

Though she has giant intellectuals to her credit- in art, literature, mathematics and science- the Tamil fetish is for fair-skinned cine stars. For Khushboo, her children built temples and accorded divine status. Yet Chennai showed that even the Gods could not alter her moral codes.

More than a city or a metro, she is an over-grown village that retains much of her conservative past. Her women cycle with turmeric-smeared faces and sarees or scooter in purdahs, their piety being defined by their men. Her rural past explains her obsession with chastity.

Her wine shops are abundant and fuel much of the music in dappankuthu. She celeberates even funerals with the synchronised beating of the drum and crackers.

Many worlds rub shoulders here; the Brahminical who spent their nights in awe of margazhi and Carnatic in contrast to the Dalits’ drunken dappankuthu dancing, the rich who while away at Cafe Coffee Days or Spencers against the teeming millions who throng the markets at T Nagar, her migrants who gulp beneath wineshop-shelters and the elite who sip and dance to a different tune at her ‘night’ clubs, Landmark that sells hologramed books in air-conditioned stores at city center and pondi bazaar that pirates even Windows 7.

Unlike Bombay that never sleeps, Chennai’s stamina wears out fast in the scorching heat of day. She does not complain to the south-west monsoon that bypasses her. The sea-breeze at Besant nagar and Marina are balms for her toiling masses.

Her slums have densities that put to shame black-holes. Her rivers, among them Cooum, are their life-lines. Her trains, oblivous to the floods of November, ‘fly’ above her head and halts even before it starts. Her autowalas severely tax the rich.

‘The Hindu’,the grandma of Chennai, watches over her every move. Even the legislations are made under its nose.

Chennai is the city of contrasts; the city of sunshine and sudden showers, the city that mourns and drums, the city of chastity and cine-stars, a city that beacons and makes you want to cry as you bid farewell. The city that leaves the chant of “Vazhga Tamizh (Long live Tamil) ” ringing in your ears long after it is heard no more.





A Birthday story

18 06 2010

( All characters in this story are purely fictional. Resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely co-incidential. )

A few hours from now, I would have completed my 25th revolution around the sun. The earth will once again position itself, exactly at that point on the ellipse, where it was at my birth- in metaphysical symbolism of life.  I approach, the conclusion of my silver jubilee lap. A few hours, a little while, a moment of rest, I shall set off on my 26th revolution.
I may never complete it, for my fragile self is beginning to give away. It’s been weakened with the afflictions of 25 seasons. Expanding in the summers and collapsing in the winters…it could be ripped apart soon.

This is not a story about birth. But it is a story of how events at birth govern the trajectory of our lives. And because life, like birth, is a painful experience we chose to shove beneath the carpet, memories of our arrival- the reasons as to why our lives are the way it is. If one cares to meditate, I assure you, it can all be unearthed. As I have recovered lost memories of that fateful day. Having done that, it becomes quite evident that events at birth are responsible for what happens later.

I was born on the 169th day of a non-leap year. 169 with 196 left to go.
(1,6,9-1,9,6..1,6,9-1,9,6..1+6+9=1+9+6 parampapaam pa…I like the way it rhymes.)
While I was tumbling down to earth on that monsoon morning, Sally Ride, had launched herself into outer space. (Many women would later leverage on my fortune like Ms Ride who shot to fame. Does she know it was the auspiciousness of my birth that helped the mission succeed? ) President Reagen smiled, the white skins roared, an envious President Andropov in Russia, dropped his wine glass.
THERE FELL VODKA ON THE SACRED KREMLIN FLOORS, as I arrived.

I was born in the wee hours of a monsoon morning, the seasonal rain greeted me with a melancholy tune. Like at life’s outset, the rain has been an eternal companion.
I was born at a quarter to three and clock hands with outstretched arms greeted me on arrival. Time favoured my home-coming.
I had arrived five years after my parents wedding, a late child much sought for and stubbornly reluctant to face the world. Outside, my grandparents bend their knees in prayer and lit candles before their deities. They are no more and I have forsaken the deities from the painful realisation that they had nothing to do with my conception.
My father who had sported a beard, in silent woe of childlessness, shaved for the first time in years that day. The razor pierced his flesh and the scar in monumental memory of my birth, still adorns his chin. I brought bloodshed into the world, thus. And there would be lots more to come.

My mother, who bore the curse of primordial sin in the garden of Eden, conceived in pain. The labour pains may have seemed belittled later, in comparison to the sting of having a prodigal son.

I had finally decided to descend but evidently I was’nt happy about it. I gave everyone a hard time.

The physician must have been relieved after the delivery. He had spent the whole day anticipating my arrival. Yet, I had decided to come at after hours, so that he would have to be called back. A mean practical joke, I must confess. I was earning the curses of society’s ‘respectable men’ already.

The electrician too, must have cursed, as he had a hard time preventing a power failure in the ominous monsoon rain. I was waiting for it to shower before I agreed to emerge. It must have been his curse, which ruined my tryst with electrical engineering many years later. He cursed that electricity which saved my life that day, would forsake me later. A Karna-like life. The equations, the mantra that should have saved me, never came when I tried to recall it in the exam hall. I deserve it, I ruined his sleep.

The nurse too might have cursed, as within an hour I had puked in her arms.
Which I regret, for she was the woman whose warmth I first felt. It was she who aroused my senses for the first time. On many nights, I have warmed my body in the fire of her memories. Because I had lost her soon after birth, I would lose many more.

I was born in a hospital, established by British missionaries at a time when this land was still a jewel-in-the-crown. My birth was thus, partially due to the grace of her imperial majesty, queen Victoria. Hence all my battles against imperialism shall remain unfruitful, for I came to the world chained to colonial history.

Candles, labour pains, blood drops in the basin, a cursing electrician,
the warmth of a woman, Vodka on the Kremlin floor and an American woman in space. All this at the moment of my birth…..
(Incomplete…. )





Sipping Rebellion in ‘Chicago’.

1 05 2010

In a city that the rain-clouds have forsaken, it rained today; on May Day. I had an early start as I was woken by my room-mate looking for an umbrella to pick his friend from Chennai Central. Tea and cigarette in the early morning rain is a far greater temptation than sleep and I decided to take a stroll around the neighbourhood.

Chicago is the early bird among Indiranagar tea-stalls that awakens as the clock hands stretch at 3:45am. The nocturnals among us at ‘The Villa’ are usually the first customers.

Today as I approached the modest eatery, from a distance I could see blood spangled flags with the overlapping sickle and hammer. Despite the drizzle, the red had not bled away. And contrary to the usual idleness of day-break, Chicago was a bee-hive of activity this day. Curiously, my regular cigarette was unavailable yet Sukumaran, the owner and a comrade from Thalassery treated me with free tea and pongal.

He informed me that May Day was the only annual holiday at his tea-stall. On this day the workers get their perks and other incentives. Sukumaran, who sits at the cashier’s table beneath the picture of Che Guevera, had escaped his home town after being intimidated by the police for his activism during the days of the emergency.

He came to Chennai and found work in a tea-stall. The owner there made his employees work from four in the morning till midnight everyday for a meager wage. One day when he beat up a colleague, the employees led by Sukumaran struck work and ensured that the stall remained shut for a week. The police were called in and the strike called-off after each employee was given a compensation for the over-work.

With that money Sukumaran set up his tea-stall 33 years ago and christened it “Chicago” after the city that witnessed the mother of all proletarian agitations in 1889.

Few today would have learned of the May Day strikes which have been shoved under the carpet by the popular media. It was with the blessings of the first congress of the Second International, which convened in Paris, that the factory workers of Chicago boycotted production on this day 111 years ago demanding an eight hour working day. In 1889, Chicago police had fired at a workers demonstration at Haymarket Square; the strike also commemorated the martyrdom of those unknown number of workers.

On the right of workers to shorter working hours Marx writes in Capital(1867), “In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigorous life sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day – a movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California,” clearly theorising the solidarity of white and black workers’ class interests’.

Though most intense in Chicago, proletarians across the world struck work on May 1st expressing solidarity to the cause of the 8 hour working day which later became an annual event. Calling attention to the significance of the strike of 1889, Engels (1890) wrote, “As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, under One Bag, and fighting One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment…. The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”

In a metropolis that is politically impotent and where the politics of individual-cultism supersedes that of ideology, this May Day experience was refreshing especially since I will be bidding farewell to Chennai in a few days.

To all working people at home and beyond the sea, to our comrades on strike and protesting exploitation, to proletarians bearing the brunt of the capitalist’s crisis, to those forced to fight the imperialist’s war; greetings, on International Workers’ Day





The Legends of Khasak

16 04 2010

Book Review
The irrationalities of a sanguine age, the horrors of war, pogroms in the name of God, caste, language, region and nation have been the popular themes in the works of Malayalam fiction writer and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan.

Such was the influence of his debut Malayalam novel Khaskinte Ithihaasam (1969) that it divided Malayalam literature into two halves; the pre-Khask era and the post-Khasak one. It has run into 50 reprints and is the most widely sold novel in South Asia.The Legends of Khasak, Vijayan’s 1994 translation of the novel, however, lacks the sensibility of the Malayalam original and is also a reflection of how the writer has, in the course of 25 years, meandered through the ideologies of Marxism and spiritualism in search of a solution to the maniacal injustices of our times.

Ravi, the young protagonist, walks into the sweltering heat of Khasak at the very outset of the novel, to run a single teacher school in the remote village. The character, now a literary legend, was driven to a level of meditative spiritual quest after an illicit affair with his step-mother. He thus forsook a lucrative scholarship in Physics, at Princeton, for a detached life in an aashram.

Ravi’s drift from the academia to a cloister and later to Khasak, from the guilt of a ‘sin’ with a yogini, imbibes the frailty of the human mind that is subdued by guilt and driven to a state of frenzy. This remorse is a universal feature in colossal tragedies such as; the story of Buddha who abandoned his palatial bungalow for the life of an ascetic, Lady Macbeth who lost her sanity, remorseful after her role in the regicide, and even Othello who self-annihilates having discovered the innocence of Desdemona.

Even as he dissolves into the everyday life of the village folk, Ravi is alienated in the hamlet that has yet to be exposed to the winds of modernism. Allah-Pitcha, the moulavi of Khasak, thus becomes his natural foe as the friar considers modern education, which spreads the ‘devil’s’ sciences and Anglican ideas, a bane.

The novel is far beyond a rural narrative as the numerous characters, each of a different genre and rarely appearing in more than one chapter, confers it the status of a classic. There are Nizam Ali, an orphan brought up by Allah-Pitcha, and the tailor Madhavan Nair; both communists who come to Ravi’s support.

The village beauty Maimuna, married to Chukra Rawthar, the retarded Appukkili, brought up by many mothers from different religions (possibly a symbolic representation of Vijayan’s commitment to secularism), the revered temple priest, Kuttanadan; Sivaraman Nair, the hindu fundamentalist and Kuppu Achan, the toddy taper; are all well weaved into an elaborate network that directs the serious reader into a web of magic and myth.

Khasak is a multi-religious community. Along with Hinduism and Islam, Vijayan has not missed the role of communism as an all-pervasive ideology in Kerala’s history. His graphic representation of Nizam Ali’s role in the founding of Koomankavu Beedi Worker’s Union, the first in the town, and the subsequent confrontation with Attar who owned the factory, followed by a strike and workers demonstration; is a caricaturised version of Kerala’s long history of proletarian agitations.

That Nizam Ali, who was arrested and jailed, later gave up the struggle when tortured in custody; is perhaps influenced by Vijayan’s own disillusionment with the left-movement he had abandoned in the mid-1950s.

In the Afterword to the novel (absent in the Malayalam edition), Vijayan confesses that he had intended Ravi to be a “pilgrim-revolutionary” but the course of the work changed track after the killing of Imre Nagy in Italy which blew the young writer’s mind. Reflecting on this; he writes, “I thank providence, because I missed writing the ‘revolutionary novel’ by a hair’s breadth. Had I written it, I would have merely made one more boring entry in Marxism’s futile, repetitive bibliography.”

O.V Vijayan universalises his personal experiences throughout the novel. Like the writer, the protagonist too is an unceasing wanderer. At the climax of the novel, Ravi, keeping his promise to his lover Padma, decides to leave Khasak on a monsoon morning. As he waits at Koomankavu’s bus-stop he sees a blue-black snake approach. The reptile with an outspread hood pierces Ravi’s foot with its fangs. Within minutes, Ravi lay dead in the rain.

The novel, metaphysically, ends where it had commenced: at the bus-stop of Koomankavu. But one really wonders if the central-character deserved such a tragic end at the hands of the novelist. Would it not have been better for the reader to imagine a Ravi who continued to tramp the earth, in search of truth; for the quest of his spiritual liberation?








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