Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fifty years of the Goa annexation

Fifty years ago, five centuries of Portuguese dominion in Goa was brought to an end by an Indian invasion, at the cost of less than sixty lives, divided more or less equally between Indian and Portuguese forces. My uncle (father's elder brother) was a young air force pilot at the time, and, years later, he told me of his role in the operation.
He had flown a transport to Goa to evacuate Indian soldiers after the battle. News from the war zone was sketchy; there were reports the airport had been shelled. From the sky, the airstrip looked badly cratered, except for the first third of it, which appeared normal. My uncle aimed for the verge of the airstrip and hit the emergency brakes as soon as the aircraft's wheels touched the ground. He managed to get the machine to stop before the battle-scarred zone.
My memory isn't perfect at this point, but if I recall right, my uncle said there was a problem getting the plane to restart because of the emergency procedure he'd employed. It took him nearly as long to get to the building where armymen were waiting, as it had to fly from Bombay to Panjim. The victorious Indian soldiers appeared to have emptied Goa's liquor stores. Each soldier was carrying crates of rum, whiskey and feni. Once the men and booze were on board, the plane took off from a state that was now part of India.
The emergency brakes had been unnecessary. What had appeared to be damage from artillery shells was just asphalt patch-ups on a concrete runway.
When I land in Goa these days, I notice they still use asphalt to repair the runway, and the strip still looks battle-scarred when viewed from the air.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The army's special powers and Lord Curzon

Yesterday, on the eve of Human Rights Day, Clark House (an arts initiative run by Zasha Colah and Thakur Sumesh Sharma), Tushar Joag and Sharmila Samant put together a programme of screenings and discussions titled Against AFSPA at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Apart from a demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, it was an act of solidarity with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast for over a decade in protest again the repression of Manipuri citizens by the Indian army and paramilitaries. She has been held captive for attempted suicide and force-fed for all these years.
I was pleasantly surprised that an event so harshly critical of Indian state policy was taking place inside a government-run institution. Maybe the NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan's bureaucratic exterior conceals a radical, subversive agenda.
The proceedings were chaotic, bearing only a passing resemblance to the schedule provided on the invite. But they did a good job of demonstrating how insanely cruel the Indian government has been and continues to be to the people of Manipur. For over fifty years, an emergency law has been in place permitting soldiers to arrest, rape and kill with impunity. Mihir Desai, a participant in a panel discussion about AFSPA, and the only person on stage who spoke cogently, pointed out that any prosecution of soldiers needed central government sanction; and that, from over 500 cases forwarded to Delhi for consideration (I forget the exact number Desai mentioned, I think it was 581), not a single trial has been green-lighted.

I thought of Lord Curzon who, at the end of the nineteenth century, had a series of run-ins with the British army. Soon after he arrived in India as Viceroy, he heard that soldiers from the West Kent Regiment had gang-raped a Burmese woman. The perpetrators had gone unpunished after witnesses were threatened, and the matter covered up. Curzon had the culprits dismissed from the army and the entire regiment transferred to Aden (a punishment posting in those days) and denied leave or benefits for two whole years.
In 1900, after a private in the Royal Scots Fusiliers battered to death a 'punkah-coolie' (a man who operated cloth fans), Curzon wrote: "That such outrages should occur in the first place in a country under British rule; and then that everybody, commanding officers, officials, juries, departments should conspire to screen the guilty is, in my judgment, a black and permanent blot on the British name. I mean, so far as one man can do it, to efface the stain while I am here.”
In 1902, three troopers of the 9th Lancers Regiment (a cavalry outfit packed with members of the British upper class), just arrived in Sialkot, beat a cook named Atu so badly that he died after nine days of agony. Curzon lashed out at the biased investigation which, he wrote, "Consists of two Captains and a subaltern, not one of whom so far as I can make out, understands a word of Hindustani. Their idea of taking evidence and holding an inquiry consists in examining four witnesses, all natives. They never think of sending for the doctor or for a non-commissioned soldier or for the inspector of police. In fact they make not the slightest effort to arrive at the truth... I will not be a party to any of the scandalous hushing up of bad cases of which there is too much in this country, or to the theory that a white man may kick or batter a black man to death with impunity because he is only a 'd- d nigger'.”

Some day we might get a leader in Delhi who has the courage and moral conviction to hold soldiers responsible for a few of the innumerable atrocities perpetrated in Kashmir and the North-East over the past decades. Right now, we can't even provide the millions of citizens living under AFSPA as much protection from the army's cruel excesses as the British colonial system did.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ashura musings

In categorising the world's major civilisations, Samuel Huntington divided Christian Europe into Western Civilisation and the Orthodox World, but took the every nation from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Tunisia-Morocco to be part of a single entity called the Muslim World. Yet, the clash between Shias and Sunnis is the longest continuously running conflict in the world. It simmers here, boils over there, but there have been no successful moves towards ecumenism in the region, and The Arab Spring has now exposed, on a geopolitical scale, this fault line running through the Middle East. Those living in West Asia have recognised the amplified threat, but the rest of the world has failed to do so, partly because we tend to classify the region exactly as Samuel Huntington did.
The two countries at the fore of crisis are Bahrain and Syria. Bahrain is a Shia majority country ruled by Sunnis, and Syria a Sunni majority country ruled primarily by Shias (Alawis to be exact, members of a heterodox sect who have drawn closer to conventional Shia beliefs in recent decades).
Let's stick with Syria, because it is turning dangerously unstable. Syria's ruling political group is the Ba'ath Party, which espouses a secular, pan-Arabist ideology. The other nation to have been ruled by a faction of the Ba'ath Party was Iraq. Iraq was the mirror image of Syria: a Shia majority nation controlled by a Sunni Arab dictatorship. Since they espoused the same beliefs, it is hardly surprising that Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad hated each others' guts.
Seen from today's foreshortened perspective, pan-Arabism seems to have been a convenient way to paper over the Shia-Sunni dispute. When Saddam Hussein successfully rallied Iraqi Shias to his cause in the war against Iran, it suggested that ethnic identity was stronger than denominational identity in the Middle East. Pan-Arabism, though, ended up being a flash in the historical pan, while the Shia-Sunni divide is as strong as ever after 1300 years, and extends well beyond the Middle East into Afghanistan and Pakistan, as recent bombings have tragically demonstrated.
The vote against Syria by the Arab League showed that political alignments now mirror sectarian ones. Iraq and Lebanon, the only two Arab nations with substantial Shia populations as well as some form of electoral democracy, refused to join 18 Sunni-ruled Arab states in condemning the violence unleashed by Bashar al Assad. Should Syria collapse into anarchy, there's a good chance it will lead to a pogrom against Alawis, and that might draw Iran, and perhaps even Iraq and Lebanon, into intervening. In such a case, Israel and Saudi Arabia would not just stand by, and if those two nations were to get involved in the conflict, the entire world would be affected.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The myth of creating consensus

Every time a row erupts in Parliament, there are MPs and medipersons who accuse the government of 'failing to evolve a consensus on the issue'. Chetan Bhagat's take in today's Times of India on foreign investment in retail is typical. Titled Shopping for Consensus, the argument advanced in the article has three facets. First, that FDI in retail is a smokescreen to occlude more important issues like the Lokpal bill. Second, allowing Tesco and Walmart to open supermarkets in India is a good thing in itself. Third, that "the government, with humility, should involve everyone in Parliament to get a general policy consensus on FDI, not just for retail, but all sectors, across all industries."

In other words, talk sweetly to Prakash Karat and he will hit the Like button of WalMart's Facebook page. Bhagat ignores the simple truth that there exist in every parliament ideological divisions which cannot be bridged. Electoral democracy would be pretty useless if that wasn't the case, since we'd have a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Moreover, even when two parties have economic policies that are as similar as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which has been the case with the Congress and BJP over the last two decades, the party in opposition will fight policies tooth and nail that it would support as head of a ruling coalition. And it will not budge despite all the discussion and consensus building in the world. This happened with the civil nuclear deal and is happening again in the present dispute. What has changed is that Parliament is growing dysfunctional, with increasingly frequent disruptions and forced adjournments.

David Ben Gurion said that for every two Jews there are three opinions. This is equally true of Indians. Doesn't it describe all communities? To a degree, yes, but I suspect that in the case of our largest neighbour, "Two Chinese, one opinion" is likelier. Evolving consensus in India is an impossible task. Nehru fought for years to get the Hindu Code Bill passed; and he couldn't manage anything close to unanimity even within his own party in that time. In recent months, the BJP has been uncooperative in introducing non-controversial, non-ideological changes, such as a nation-wide Goods and Services Tax. What's the likelihood, then, that the main opposition party will accept government policy in a matter where there are votes to gain by the bushelful?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Foreign investment, trade, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy

Amitav Ghosh's blog entry for November 5 was a review of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari. The book makes out a case against foreign investment which Ghosh accepts, with a few caveats:

"I don’t for a moment doubt that Aseem and Ashish are broadly correct in their diagnoses and prognostications – yet I do think that they paint a picture that is, in some respects, too monochrome in its darkness. Take the Information Technology sector of the Indian economy for example: this is a non-polluting, knowledge-based industry; the compensation is usually fair and the working conditions are generally safe. This sector has been a godsend for hundreds of thousands of young people and it has served to decentralize economic power in India, moving it away from its traditional locations to other towns and cities. It is also a fact that the people who run this industry are on the whole much more thoughtful and socially conscious than other industrialists. I see nothing to bemoan in the success of this sector, limited though it may be: on the contrary I think it offers much cause for celebration."

It's common knowledge that the IT sector derives its revenues almost exclusively from exports, the bulk of them coming from the United States. There's been a lot of grumbling in the US about American jobs being offshored, and many politicians on the Left favour a more protectionist system. Most Congressmen and Senators, though, feel the US must remain a broadly open market if it is to be an evangelist for lower trade barriers around the globe. There will, however, be a breaking point at some stage. It is naive to believe our IT exports will be allowed to grow indefinitely even as we retain strict barriers to imports and investment. The future of Indian information technology is dependent on a continuous process of lifting trade and investment barriers within India.

This is a connection that opponents of foreign investment in retail fail to make. Aside from the benefits and impairments that follow as a direct result of Tesco and Walmart opening supermarkets in India (and there will doubtless be impairments; those who claim kirana stores will be totally unharmed should study the battle between Tesco and small retailers in Thailand), the move is a logical step in a process that offers India gains in areas unrelated to retail.

While Amitav Ghosh sees some positives in India's experience of liberalisation, Arundhati Roy is a far more strident critic of the process, and more closely allied to Shrivastava and Kothari's monochrome black palette. Back in 2006, in a talk titled Bombay in the Age of Globalisation that was part of a conference at the Tate Modern in London, the recording of which you can listen to here, I took on a passage from Roy's book The Algebra of Infinite Justice :

"In the early days of Indian liberalisation, I was convinced that it was a sell-out to neo-imperialists. Though I do not retain that belief, there are many who do. Arundhati Roy, one of the most eloquent speakers against the twin processes of liberalisation and globalisation, has written it has resulted in 'a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in world history.' She follows this up in the same essay with the statement: 'Across the world as the free market brazenly protects western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer.' Here are the statistics for the balance of trade between India and the US [PowerPoint Slide].
Trade Surplus in favour of India:
2001: 5.98 billion dollars
2002: 7.71 billion dollars
2003: 8.07 billion dollars
2004: 9.46 billion dollars
2005: 10.81 billion dollars
As you can see, India has been running a surplus, and this has grown from 5.98 billion dollars in the year 2001 to 10.81 billion dollars in 2005. A strange outcome if western markets are as protected and third world markets as open as Roy contends. But I suppose one should never let mere facts come in the way of a good theory. The book of hers I quote from was, by the way, published by Viking Penguin, which is owned by Pearson PLC, an 8 billion dollar multinational conglomerate."

Is there any country where the phrase 'do as I say, not as I do' is applicable more frequently than in India?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vodafone: it gets worse

I call Vodafone's Bombay Nodal Office about my recharge problem. A five minute wait, while a recorded message assures me my call is important. Then, a gentleman named Sushil comes on.
Me: Hello, I recharged for 1000 rupees and got only 7 rupees talktime plus a 3G data plan I don’t want.
Sushil: We have not received payment from you.
Me: But I got a message from Vodafone confirming the recharge.
Sushil: Could you check your bank account to see if any money has been deducted?
Me: OK, hold on. (I quickly sign on to my Netbanking account) Yes, 1000 rupees was deducted yesterday.
Sushil: I request you to send us a scan of the bank statement.
Me: I’ll do no such thing. I’m confirming that the money’s been deducted and I have a message saying you have received the money. I can forward that text if you want.
Sushil: It’s OK. Somebody will get in touch with you within 24 hours to solve your problem.

A few hours later I get a call from a Vodafone customer care executive. I explain the issue.
Executive: Sir, the 1000 rupee recharge comes with the 3G dataplan.
Me: But there was no information about that on the ATM screen when I recharged. I don’t want 3G and I don’t want any dataplan. I just want my talktime.
Executive: Sorry sir, but the 1000 rupee recharge comes with the data plan.
Me: I’ve recharged for years from the ATM, occasionally 1000 rupees at a time. If there was a change you should have informed customers about it. You send so many text messages otherwise, why not for this.
Executive: I’ll get back to you, sir.

He doesn’t get back. The next morning, I call the Nodal Officer’s number again. This time there’s a fifteen minute wait, after which Sushil comes on line. We have a long back and forth during which he keeps telling me I have no option but to accept the data plan. Frustrated, I ask for his senior.
Me: What’s your full name Sushil.
Sushil: Sushil Dhuriya.
Me: Put me through to your boss, Sushil Dhuriya.
Sushil: I can’t do that.
Me: The Vodafone website says there’s a Nodal Officer to whom complaints can be addressed. Her name is Zillah Vaz.
Sushil: The Nodal Officer does not deal with individual complaints.
Me: So if I want to complain that you have failed to solve my problem, there’s nobody I can talk to?
Sushil: No.

Apparently, Vodafone India plans to make money from 3G by forcing data plans down the throats of customers without their consent. I’m ready to jump to a different service provider, but I need to get my grand’s worth of talk first.

Meanwhile, some guys at the company have read my blog and are posting messages saying they want to help. I filled in the form as requested, now they want an alternative number because mine wasn't on when they called. Well, I switched it off because I attended a lecture yesterday afternoon. They obviously just tried at one time and then gave up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Keenan-Reuben silliness

Last month, two Bombay boys, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, were killed by a group of youths. It began when girls with Keenan and Reuben were sexually harassed by strangers outside a pub in Amboli. After Santos and Fernandes roughed up the abusers, the men got together a large group to exact revenge.
What seemed to me peculiar about the coverage of the sad incident was the focus on supposedly heartless bystanders. The friends of the slain boys harped on this on every interview they gave. A Mumbai Mirror article, headlined 'People watched quietly as our friends were dying', was typical of the general media response. The Times of India carried this quote from Reuben's brother Benjamin: "On the night of the attack, the street was crowded, but no one came forward to help us. People have become numb. They do not want to get involved . Perhaps they are afraid of the visits they will have to make to court and the police station; perhaps they don't care enough."
Barkha Dutt anchored a predictably obtuse discussion on NDTV, and wrote in the Hindustan Times, "Within minutes the assaulters had knives and swords out and soon the boys were lying collapsed in pools of blood, their insides ripped out as 40 bystanders stared on passively, ignoring all pleas for help. It would not be unfair to say that more than the mob it was urban apathy that killed Keenan and Reuben... the basics have broken down — the sense of community, kinship and humaneness appears to have evaporated. More brutal than the murder is the image of the onlookers who refused to help."
These statements all strike me as foolish, because only idiots would get involved in a fight involving a dozen people with knives and hockey sticks. A mob like that doesn't listen to reason. It is out to maim and kill, and will harm whoever stands in the way. Castigating urban apathy is warranted when someone's left to die at the streetside after an accident, but no such moral lesson should be drawn from the Amboli tragedy.
Why am I writing this weeks after the incident? It's because a news item in today's papers indicates what would probably have happened to anybody getting in the way of the thugs who murdered Keenan and Reuben. In this case, two teenagers fought over a girl. One of them brought in brawlers to beat up, maybe kill, his adversary. A young fruit seller named Sarfaraz Sheikh tried to stop the mob.

Sarfaraz (mugshot above) was stabbed to death. Two youths named Munish Patil and Mayur Patil, who had come out of a nearby cybercafe, also intervened, and were also stabbed and critically wounded. Maybe they had viewed a programme where panelists went on about how terrible public apathy was, and how citizens ought to intervene promptly in such matters.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Vodafone India: how bad can customer service get?

Interacting with MTNL always makes my blood pressure rise. But Vodafone has proved that a privately held MNC can do a worse job of customer service than a public sector undertaking. So bad is Vodafone's service, in fact, that it has shaken me out of my slumber and got me blogging again.
First stage: I travel to Thailand. The international roaming function does not work, so I can neither make nor receive calls during my stay. I don't mind that overmuch, since it's not a work trip. A while after I return, a message arrives saying 99 rupees have been deducted from my account for International Roaming. In other words, IR gets switched on automatically when I travel abroad, though it does not work. Then I keep getting charged each month unless I deactivate a function I have no idea was ever activated. The news about the IR-related deduction arrives, as do all Vodafone messages, at 4.30 am. Maybe the company believes disturbing customers' sleep helps keep them loyal.
Last evening, I recharge my Prepaid account for a thousand rupees at the ATM. I get a message telling me my recharge has given me talk time of 7.04 rupees. A second message says my Data Pack is active. I have not applied for any Data Pack, but I presume that's what has gobbled up most of the recharge money.
This morning's 4.30 am SMS says International Roaming has been stopped because of insufficient funds in my account. Had the proper amount from my recharge been credited, I'd have lost a chunk of it because I'd forgotten to deactivate IR. Small mercies.
Once I'm fully awake, I try getting to the bottom of the Data Pack mess. Vodafone provides three Customer Care numbers: 198 and 111 can only be called from a Vodafone Mobile phone, while +91 9820098200 works from any mobile or landline. 111 is a chargeable call, and 198 is toll free. The two serve exactly the same purpose, but most customers are used to 111 from the old days, and have that number saved on their phones. Nice trick.
I call the three numbers in turn and, in each case, am provided a series of options by an electronic voice. None of the options relates to my problem. Not only is there no way to lodge a complaint, but there's also no way to get past the electronic messages to speak to an actual human being.
Here's where MTNL does better than Vodafone. 198 on MTNL is a number dedicated to complaints, and one which gives you a docket number at the end of your call. Vodafone's website states, "You can contact our Nodal Officer with the complaint docket number (the unique complaint number you get when you register your complaint at Vodafone Care) anytime from Monday to Friday, between 9:30 am and 6:00 pm." The problem is, you will never get a docket number, because Vodafone Care does not allow you to actually complain about anything.

When Vodafone was Orange / Hutch, if one didn't choose any of the nine options offered by the recorded message on the customer service number, the call would be transferred to a customer service executive. That no longer happens. India might be the call center capital of the world, but, after Vodafone bought a stake in what used to be Orange / Hutch, they've downgraded customer service functionality. And it was never very good anyway. In fact, one of my Time Out columns focused on its shortcomings. Naresh, Time Out's editor at the time, printed the piece even though the magazine was (and is) published by the Ruias, who owned Orange / Hutch and hold a large stake in Vodafone. I wrote, in that column, "I’ve concluded that customer service in India is a simulacrum. It does everything it is supposed to do except serve customers. It’s a bird which looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, but is not a duck."
Vodafone's Customer Care has refined the simulacrum further, taking it to a new level of sophistication.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Match fixing: Playing the race card

Yesterday, two Pakistani cricketers, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, were found guilty by a London court of conspiracy to cheat, and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. Another cricketer, Mohammad Amir, had already pleaded guilty to the charges.
Discussing the issue last night on NDTV's Left, Right & Centre, the veteran commentator Kishore Bhimani played the race card. He said (starts at 16.18 of the discussion), "Both Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, two great cricketers, they were involved in fixing a match on the 9th of September 1994. This was the Singer Cup in Colombo, you don’t have to take my word for it, this is recorded... But they were mollycoddled so much that it wasn’t even told to the ICC. There seem to be different rules for the English and Australian players, and different rules for the continental players." Earlier in the programme he named Tim May along with Warne and Waugh as one of those guilty of match-fixing. Needless to say, he did not mention a single Indian cricketer among the guilty. Bhimani was media manager during the World Cup, and, like all Indian cricket commentators, knows the side on which his bread is buttered.
What he said about Warne and Waugh, though, is slanderously inaccurate. What the two did was deplorable, but could in no way be described as 'match-fixing'. They took money from a punter and in return for opinions about fairly innocuous stuff like pitch conditions. When asked to alter their play for money, however, both immediately refused. Pakistani cricketers, in contrast, were in the fixing game wholesale. Testimony heard by the Justice Qayyum is utterly damning of Salim Malik (the person accused most frequently in sworn statements of directly offering players money). Wasim Akram and Ejaz Ahmed come off pretty badly too. Inzamam, Saqlain, Waqar, and Mushtaq Ahmed appear involved in shady stuff at least some of the time. A finger is pointed at Saeed Anwar, too, but he appears to have struggled with temptation and gone over to the clean side (represented by Aamir Sohail, Rameez Raja, Rashid Latif and Aaquib Javed).
The Indian team was as embroiled in this jiggery-pokery as the Pakistanis. One of the prime accused in our own match-fixing scandal, Ajay Jadeja, is now contracted by, wait for it, NDTV. Wonder why they didn't ask him to comment on the London verdict?
Jadeja's interview with the CBI back when we had an inquiry of our own makes for interesting reading. Evidence was presented to him that he was in regular contact with bookmakers. He brushed it off, saying he met many people and couldn't remember them all. Some of these people, though, called him dozens, even hundreds of times during matches. The CBI had cellphone records to prove it. One bookie, Uttam Chand, called Jadeja ove 150 times in the course of a single Test Match in 1999. Here's Jadeja's explanation for his frequent chats with this guy: On being asked whether he knew Uttam Chand, a bookie/ punter of Chennai, he stated that he did not know him. On being confronted with Uttam Chand's cell phone printout, which disclosed very frequent telephonic contact between both of them just before or during cricket matches, he stated that he recognised Uttam Chand's cell phone number but knew him as 'Gupta'. He did not know how Uttam Chand got his telephone number. Jadeja stated that Uttam Chand used to ring him up often and tell him that if he did not talk to him, he would run into bad luck and because of superstition, he used to return his call. On being asked whether he knew that Uttam Chand was a bookie, he stated that he had an inkling to that effect due to the nature of conversation Uttam Chand used to have with him. On being asked why he did not discontinue his association with Uttam Chand after that, he said that he could not explain this.

So Jadeja's defence is that he took hundreds of calls from a bookie (and, on rare occasions, made calls to the man himself) out of fear he might face a run of bad luck if he didn't. If you believe him, I'd like to introduce you to a friend of mine, a Nigerian businessman with a Swiss bank account.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Did you check the dictionary?

I just discovered there's a gallery in Gurgaon named Art Farrago. The gallery seems to focus a fair amount on selling through its website. Images of the gallery's stock on the site suggest the name's pretty appropriate.

I wonder if they serve Miazma wine at their openings.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Mumbai Film Festival

Long queues before each screening the the Mumbai Film Festival were taken as evidence of the event’s success. The daily publication brought out by MFF boasted about those queues. It just goes to show how warped our idea of success is. A truly successful (by which I mean, among other things, well organised) festival would have large audiences but not long queues. That would indicate the organisers had arranged screenings of individual films based on a good estimate of their popularity. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would get four screenings at the main venue, being played simultaneously on two screens twice over.

Instead the film got just two screenings. Both were originally scheduled to start at around 8pm, but one was pushed back to 9.45pm. This meant that the 8 pm screening had two halls worth of delegates waiting in line. One view of this would be: Wow, how eager the Bombay film crowd is, queuing up for hours before Melancholia’s screening, the festival’s a true film buff’s paradise. My view was: What a shambles, preventing people from seeing movies they’re keen to catch because they have to wait in line for hours to have a chance of getting a seat for films they’re even more eager to view.

Actually, less than 10% of screenings were actually full. But even one show where people are turned away creates a ripple effect, the equivalent of hoarding during food shortages which lead to massive price spikes. So, there were people in line two hours before Nani Moretti’s Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope), although the hall was half empty in the end.

The audience for Habemus Papam skewed distinctly to the over thirty-five crowd; I suspect most had, like myself, discovered Moretti when Dear Diary was screened at an IFFI many, many years ago. The youngsters preferred a South Korean gangster movie being screened at the same time.

Unfortunately, Habemus Papam is no Dear Diary. The idea of a Pope with stage fright is a good one, but one-trick feature films tend to get tedious beyond a point. Habemus Papam doesn’t lead anywhere interesting, though it keeps the audience amused.

Another old-timer, Chantal Akerman, was in even worse form than Moretti. Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly is a dreadful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel of the same name. Why the director thought a nineteenth century tale of Europeans seeking gold in the jungles of Borneo could be adapted to a contemporary context is beyond me. I mean, are modern gold mines found by individuals trekking through tropical rain forest with maps as their only guide? To make matters worse, the main character Almayer is a pathetic loser, his daughter is cold and unfriendly, and their relationship, which is supposed to hold the film together, never comes alive in any form. The only good thing about Akerman’s Folly is its visual quality: elaborate takes in urban spaces, jungles and the seashore that one can stare at for two hours without getting bored.

Not all veterans came up short like Moretti and Akerman. Wim Wenders’ Pina, a 3-D documentary about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch (who died soon after filming began) is a pathbreaking piece of movie-making.

For the first time in history, performance does not die in the course of being transferred to screen. The technology needs refinement, of course: characters still appear a bit like marionettes on occasion, and buildings like doll’s houses. But 3-D allows us to experience dance in ways that are impossible for an audience in a theatre to do, while retaining the crucial feeling of liveliness and presence.

Another film I liked was Julia Murat’s Historias Que So Existem Quando Lembradas (which means, ‘Stories that only exist when remembered’).

It’s about a Brazilian ghost town populated by old people, who go through a daily routine that is so set it takes on the appearance of ritual. The main character, a woman named Madalena, starts each day by baking bread. She then takes it over to a shop, shares a coffee with the shop-owner, attends church, lunches with the priest and congregation, sits by her husband’s grave, and writes a letter to him after returning home. This set of actions plays out four or five times in the film, but Murat’s exceptional framing is varied enough to forestall any monotony. The ghost town is disturbed by the appearance of a young photographer, who asks to stay with Madalena, and begins questioning the dogmas on which Madalena and the townspeople base their lives. Though the ending of Historias is unsatisfying, the film is beautifully shot and paced, and enlivened by fine performances.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Universe is Expanding

The Nobel Prize for Physics this year has been awarded to three researchers who showed that the universe is expanding at an increasing pace. Physicists don't yet know how this could be happening; they've had to dream up a massive amount of hypothetical invisible matter to get their equations right.
As a boy, I was pretty interested in astronomy. I remember reading about quasars that were 10 billion light years away and thinking, "Well, why should quasars only be found at the fringes of the universe? What's so special about the edge, except that the light reaching us from there is coming from the farthest back in time? If a chap stood on one of those quasars and looked toward us right this second, maybe he'd see a quasar too. Maybe, the universe was full of quasars ten billion years ago."
Well, apparently it was, more or less.
Before I got to the quasars bit, I learned the universe was expanding. I wasn't a morose type as a kid. The knowledge that the universe was expanding, and the stars and planets would probably keep drifting farther apart and grow ever colder till all communication and all life ceased, was about the only thing that depressed me around the age of ten. When I saw Annie Hall years later, I realised Alvy Singer had felt the same way back during World War II.

Unlike Alvy, though, I stopped doing homework a while before I read about the Big Bang theory.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Koh Samui: Making the Connection

I've travelled a fair amount over the years, but that evidently hasn't stopped me from planning dumb itineraries. After Jabeen and I decided to vacation in Koh Samui, I booked the tickets on Bangkok Airways, which now flies daily to the Thai capital from Bombay, and has the most flights to Samui (I read somewhere that the airline owns Samui airport). The cheapest available flight from Bangkok to Samui was scheduled just an hour after the arrival time of our Bombay-Bangkok flight. I thought to myself, "It's a squeeze, but Samui airport offers visas on arrival, so we just need to transfer directly to our connecting flight without any intervening visa hassles".
An elementary mistake, as I was informed at the check-in counter in Bombay. Since the Bangkok-Samui leg was a domestic flight, we'd need to get visas before boarding it. Recalling how long the visa process had taken on my last visit to Thailand, I recognised there was little hope of making our connecting flight.
But Bangkok Airways and Thai immigration outdid themselves in helping us out. Our plane landed just ahead of time and, as we entered the terminal, I spotted a Bangkok Airways staffer holding up a placard with our names on it. This was 6 am, IST. He rushed us to the counter where visa forms were handed out. By 6.10, we had filled the forms and changed money to pay for the visas. He then led us to a fast track counter, where our visas were stamped in under five minutes (the other counter was thronged with applicants, mostly Indian). In another five minutes we went through passport control. At 6.25 we passed security. At exactly 6.30, we were at the gate from which the Samui flight was to take off. It began boarding seven minutes later, and we touched down on the island by 8 am, Indian time.
I said to myself, "Here's a country that takes tourism seriously".
Despite all their efforts on our behalf, we almost managed to mess things up in another way. We'd completely forgotten that our photographs would have to be attached to the the visa form, whether we filled it in Bangkok or Samui. Luckily both of us happened to be carrying mugshots of ourselves in our cabin baggage. Jabeen said, "There's always so much stuff in my handbag that I don't need but leave inside 'just in case'. Well, now all the junk I've carried all these years has proven its worth".

Friday, September 23, 2011

Home Spun and The Skoda Prize

I'm in the middle (or, hopefully, near the end) of a longish period of blogger's block. I have nothing to say about current events that I feel is worth saying, but I don't want to leave this ground fallow any longer. Which is why I'm posting about two events in my professional life, a show I've curated and an art prize I've helped conceive.
The exhibition I've curated, called Home Spun, opened a couple of weeks ago at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, which displays work from the Lekha and Anupam Poddar collection. The press has been kind thus far. Here are previews / reviews from Anindita Ghose in Mint; Karanjeet Kaur in Time Out; Manjula Narayan in Friday Gurgaon; and Chitra Narayanan in the Hindu Business Line.
The show runs till 27 December and, if you're in Gurgaon before then, on a day which is not a Monday or public holiday, please consider dropping in to take a look.
I'm an advisor to the Skoda Prize for Contemporary Art, an annual award for Indian artists under forty-five which is now in its second year. We had the first jurors' meet for the current year in Delhi last week, and cut the 128 entries down to a longlist of twenty. These shows will feature in a catalogue, to be released at the opening of the Skoda Prize Show at the Lalit Kala Akademi on January 23, 2012. On October 24, 2011, the four member jury will be joined by Heike Munder, curator of Zurich's Migros Museum, to narrow the selection down to a three-person shortlist. The final selection will happen after viewing the Skoda Prize Show, and the award of Rs 10 lakh will be presented on January 28, 2012. The two runners' up receive a four-week residency in Switzerland courtesy Pro Helvetia.
Take a look at the list and let me know if you have any favourites, and if you think somebody was unfairly excluded or included. And here's a look back at the inaugural award ceremony, where Anish Kapoor presented the trophy to Mithu Sen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Atul Dodiya

In advance of his new show opening at Chemould Art gallery, I've written this piece on Atul Dodiya in Time Out.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Anna the Fanatic

Anna Hazare rules the village of Ralegan Siddhi with unquestioned authority. He forces meat eaters to turn vegetarian; has men who drink liquor tied to a tree and beaten; prohibits cable TV; disallows political campaigning and elections.
There's a word for this sort of person: it is 'fanatic'. Everything about Hazare's behaviour, his posture in negotiating, his threats and fasts, points to a fanatical and authoritarian personality, a modern Savonarola. But the word fanatic has never cropped up in the media in relation to Hazare. Maybe it is because the man doesn't give fiery speeches.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Anna Hazare and individual mobilisation

The first time I attended a demonstration, I was struck by an odd fact. Most of the audience was poor, composed of party members trucked in from different parts of Bombay and, perhaps, out of town. The speakers were all middle class graduates. Those attending didn't seem deeply involved in the cause being discussed, they were just there to make up the numbers.
The same pattern played out repeatedly in succeeding years. I did attend a few demonstrations composed of motivated individuals, but these were inevitably small. For example, I was part of a group that would march on August 6 demanding an end to all nuclear weapons. I don't think we ever had more than a hundred people at any public meeting.
It was different in England, where I noticed a greater homogeneity between protestors and those who addressed them. Though the demonstrations I attended in England were fairly small, far larger ones, such as marches against the Iraq war, drew thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of individuals in Europe and the US based on shared beliefs rather than party membership. Labour unions and political parties were often part of such marches, but a substantial portion of the demonstrators seemed to be independents who had just turned up because they believed in the cause.
The anti-corruption crusade is perhaps the first large-scale demonstration in India that has not involved political parties drumming up support and trucking in the public. The middle-classness of the movement has come in for criticism, but I can't imagine poor people spending valuable hours to protest in favour of something as abstract as the Jan Lokpal bill.
In the latter stages of Anna Hazare's fast, various unions showed support by striking work, and they probably had a party-political background; but the crowds at Ramlila Maidan appeared to be composed of individuals and small groups of friends and family members without strong party affiliations. In that sense, the Lokpal movement has something in common with the Arab Spring. It's probably the first time a nation like Egypt saw such individualised demonstrations. As in Egypt, all established parties in India seem to have been taken unawares by the intensity and persistence of the demos; politicians are used to being able to label crowds, and they were left playing catch-up in this instance.

This might also tell us something about the changing nature of Delhi. I've argued the city is taking on the aura of an imperial capital, but, contrarily, it is also becoming less dominated by politics. In past decades, a substantial portion of the middle class population of the capital was directly connected to the government. I haven't seen statistics, but I'm certain the percentage has fallen dramatically.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Amitav Ghosh on Anna Hazare and the deep State

Some of India's best thinkers have written about the Anna Hazare movement, and now Amitav Ghosh joins the group with this article in the Hindustan Times. While agreeing with Ghosh's analysis of the malaise within the Congress Party, where position has been divorced from true power, I find myself wishing he'd gone further and spoken of the same thing happening among opposition parties.
During the Shiv Sena-BJP government of the 1990s in Maharashtra, real power vested in Bal Thackeray who, unlike Sonia Gandhi, didn't even fight elections. To this day, no Thackeray has ever bothered to fight state or national elections. It was to Bal Thackeray's home and not the Chief Minister's office that Rebecca Mark of Enron went, straight from the airport, when attempting to get the Dabhol project restarted. The result was a U-turn by the ruling coalition and a financial disaster for the state.
The BJP boasts, with a lot of justice, of not harbouring dynasties, and of changing party heads democratically. However, it faces its own 'deep State' crisis in its relationship with the RSS, whose unelected leaders have have veto power over decisions taken by BJP ministers.
Another feature of 'deep State' politics, as Ghosh points out, is the refusal to reveal details of illnesses suffered by top leaders. The secrecy surrounding Sonia Gandhi's surgery is very similar to that surrounding Hugo Chavez's treatment in Cuba; and of Fidel Castro's illness. Here, again, the BJP was no different, having drawn a veil over Atal Behari Vajpayee's health problems while he was Prime Minister.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Delhi in the Time of Anna

On the flight I chat with a woman who works with ONGC, in finance. She's deeply sympathetic to the Lokpal campaign. She cites problems ONGC faces because it's a government organisation. Like, it has been headless for months, despite being one of the nation's most valuable companies.
"The stay on appointing a Chairman is coming straight from the PMO, so don't tell me Manmohan Singh is not corrupt. People say he could not control Raja because of coalition politics; but why can't he control this kind of thing in his own office?"
She tells me ONGC hired expensive rigs from Reliance, because Reliance had hired them and had no use for them. ONGC has no use for them either, but is now picking up the tab instead of Reliance.
This is all, of course, hearsay.
In the Delhi metro, on the streets, in cars, I see people carrying the tricolour and wearing Gandhi topis inscribed with Anna Hazare's name. Drivers can talk of little else, since they've faced Anna-related traffic jams for days.
Yesterday, I took the Metro to Chandni Chowk, and then back to Gurgaon. I was in a hurry and very tired when I got off at HUDA City Centre, and in no mood to haggle with rickshaws, so I agreed to pay the driver a ridiculous sum for the short drive to my destination. He said, "Our union forced us to strike today in support of Anna. I've only plied this auto from 6pm, so I have to overcharge today."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hakkasan Bandra

I dined at the Mayfair Hakkasan two years ago courtesy of Dinesh and Minal Vazirani of Saffronart. It was after a discussion on 'Junctures and Departures: Locating Modern and Contemporary Indian Art' at Saffronart's Bond Street gallery. I recall the food being good though not exceptional. What struck me most about the space was how crowded it was. Also, the waiters going around asking each diner about food allergies.
I've also dined at the restaurant which used to occupy the space where Hakkasan, Bombay, is now located. It was called Seijo and the Soul Grill, and its main dining area was demolished the day after we ate there. I believe that was a coincidence.
Apparently, Hakkasan has fulfilled license requirements by building a completely retractable roof, so it's unlikely to face the same fate as Seijo. It looks sturdy enough to make a believable indoor space; ripples of light pass over the slanted wooden ceiling as if there were a swimming pool somewhere; it's just the work of some fancy projectors.
The service, we found, is faster than McDonald's, if you count the queueing up time at McDonald's on a Saturday night. We walked into Hakkasan at 8.30, and our mains were in front of us at 8.40pm. We were done eating by nine, having consumed delectable, melt-in-the-mouth pork belly, and some chicken that came in an intriguing pickle-flavoured gravy. There was just a hint of that gravy, of course, nothing like those bits of reconstituted flesh swimming in sauce that one is used to in Sino-Chinese fusion cuisine.
For dessert we moved down the street to San Churro, which serves the best Espresso Mocha and the best thick hot chocolate in the city.
Hakkasan claims to have a dress code, and I suppose they turn away guys in shorts. Even Olive does that. But already, Bombay's famously casual attitude to clothing, one of the things I like best about the city, is having an impact. There were plenty of people in T-shirts, jeans and shirtsleeves. Which fits the place really, because, though Hakkasan's pretty expensive, it doesn't seem opulent.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Aarakshan, Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi

Aarakshan (spoiler warning) is two films in one. The first half is about quotas in education, caste rivalry, and the debate about what constitutes merit. The title suggests the entire film is about these things, but the title is misleading. By the interval, Saif Ali Khan is estranged from his girlfriend Deepika Padukone, their buddy Prateik Babbar has fought with both of them; Amitabh Bachchan has quarreled with his closest colleague, been removed from his job, and debated his wife to a stalemate; all because of the issue of caste-based reservations. There's even an attempt, a spectacularly unsuccessful one, to use affirmative action metaphors in a romantic song (Prasoon Joshi's words in Mauka outdo the most atrocious of Javed Akhtar's youth-brigade lyrics, the sort Akhtar wrote for the girl-band Viva). One wonders where Aarakshan could possibly go from here.
Prakash Jha's answer is to leave the reservation issue behind, and move on to the problem of mercenary tuition classes, capitation fees, and the collusion between educators and politicians. This shift rearranges loyalties, leaving all the good guys on one side of the divide and all the bad guys conspiring against them. The Amitabh character's response to the rise of high-fee coaching classes is to set up free special classes in a cattle-shed. His solution to the education sector's ills is obviously unworkable, resting as it does on the generosity of individual teachers and the munificence of charitable institutions. I suspect that paying teachers decent wages is more likely to promote quality education than asking them to teach for free. Despite the naive idealism of this answer, Aarakshan succeeds in tapping into the common feeling that something is rotten in the state of India's higher education, and the film can therefore present itself as offering an alternative to the evil status quo.
Anna Hazare's movement, it seems to me, works on the same basis. It eschews those things which fundamentally divide civil society, and instead taps into popular outrage against corruption in politics and daily life. Everybody is against corruption, just as everybody is for peace and harmony. The solution Hazare's movement offers in the form of the Jan Lokpal bill is as naive as Amitabh Bachchan's classroom-in-a-tabela. There have been a number of critiques of the proposed bill, but I'll link to just one, an article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta which contests both the methods and substance of the Lokpal agitation. The establishment of the Lokpal as envisaged by Hazare, Bedi, Kejriwal and the Bhushans, will do almost nothing to curb corruption; if set up in the form the activists want, it will only add a layer to India's bureaucracy, a layer which will soon turn as corrupt as all the other layers.

I recall another naive solution which united civil society a while ago. Shocked at images of hundreds of tonnes of foodgrains rotting while food prices soared, the Supreme Court asked the government to provide the grain free to the poor, not appreciating that the government could only do so through the public distribution system, and that it was precisely because of the shortcomings of the public procurement, storage and distribution system that so much food was rotting in the first place.

Aarakshan arrives at a happy ending through a deus ex machina (or a diva ex machina). Just when Amitabh's school-in-a-tabela faces being bulldozed, Hema Malini, chairperson of the trust that employed Bachchan as College Principal, returns from her decades' long spiritual retreat, and makes a call to the state's Chief Minister, who promptly orders the police and municipal employees to cease and desist. In other words, the good guys win because they can make a phone call to a higher authority than the bad guys; their most powerful person has more pull than the most powerful person among the villains. A quintessentially Indian conclusion.
Nobody in the audience blinks at the idea of police officers doing Ministers' bidding. That's just the way our system works. If the Home Minister says 'arrest', they will arrest, if the Chief Minister then says 'release', they will release.

Which is why officers who have provided investigating commissions with data that implicates Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues in the horrific massacres of 2002 are being suspended and chargesheeted, while those who helped in the cover up have been consistently promoted. The subversion of the system is happening before our eyes. Yet, there is little outrage about it, certainly nothing to match the fervour generated by Anna Hazare's agitation. That's partly because so much time has elapsed since the Gujarat riots, and so much has been written about them, that people are sick and tired of the issue. But it's also because the 2002 riots, like the Mandal Commission report and the issue of reservation in general, divide society. Narendra Modi has been elected and re-elected despite his apparent complicity in mass murder. His supporters, in a Pavlovian response to criticism of their hero, parrot the 'What about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots' line whenever the 2002 massacres are brought up. In 1984, our systems were so crude and compromised that no proof could be found that X or Y led rioting mobs. The fact that the justice system failed then is hardly an excuse to allow it to fail again, as if each side is entitled to one pogrom free of charge. This time round, we possess call records, minutes of Cabinet meetings, videographed witness testimonies, and a wealth of other evidence aided by the introduction of new technology between 1984 and 2002. We have high ranking IPS officers willing to testify under oath that there was a government backed effort to generate anti-Muslim hysteria in Gujarat; government-sponsored demonstrations that were meant to turn violent; and government-mandated inaction on the part of the Gujarat police.

There are tough questions facing us: Can we bring a Bal Thackeray to justice? Can we bring a Narendra Modi to justice? What does it say about our commitment to the rule of law if we cannot? Though the questions are tough, they can be resolved through relatively simple procedures in place already. However, there is little pressure from the public to get those procedures right. I see few Facebook petitions relating to police officers victimised for telling the truth about horrific crimes. Like the issue of reservations in Aarakshan, the murders of 2002 seem best forgotten after an interval.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shammi Kapoor 1931 - 2011

Shammi Kapoor had fun in front of the camera. He endowed films with a lightness and joy that even Dev Anand couldn't match. Dev Anand was always striking a pose, whereas Shammi Kapoor added something unpredictable to each frame that the director had clearly not imagined. Which director could conceive such twisting and writhing, such contorted gestures, anyway? Kapoor put his heroines to shame, and every Bollywood actress before and since. Often graceful, sometimes ungainly, his unselfconsciousness about his body was rare, if not unique, in Indian cinema; and the craziness of his imagination was surpassed only by that of Kishore Kumar.
Shammi Kapoor did not fear appearing ridiculous, and was criticised in his time for being ridiculous. The intelligentsia looked down on his movies, till the vogue for popular culture studies forced the sons and daughters of Shammi Kapoor-castigators to take a second look at his films. What they found was something so weird and inimitable, it could not date in the manner of the acting style of his contemporaries.
It's instructive that English news channels are today giving his death significantly more space than are Hindi broadcasters. It's not like the Hindi channels don't go for pop culture; quite the contrary. But they are interested more in contemporary scandal of the kind the Rakhi Sawants of the world provide than in retro-nostalgia with a touch of fond irony.
All the Kapoors have a tendency to get fat, and Shammi Kapoor's career was effectively ended by obesity. He appeared in films through the 1970s and 1980s, but his roles were uniformly forgettable, for he had relatively little talent as a dramatic actor. It was what he did with his body in his heyday that was captivating.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stray thoughts on the London riots

The British government has spent over half a billion pounds on street cameras, and London has perhaps more CCTV cams than any other city on earth. A couple of years ago, there were complaints that the crime-solving assistance provided by these cameras did not justify the expense involved in installing and maintaining them and the invasion of privacy that resulted from citizens being watched all the time.

Now, CCTV cam footage is going to lead to hundreds of convictions. I don't understand why people would loot shops in London. Surely they knew they'd be caught on a CCTV feed?

Many of the rioters certainly knew, which is why they wore masks and hoodies. So will there be calls for hoodie bans, like there have been calls for burqa bans?

If the Arab Spring was a Facebook and Twitter revolution, were these Facebook and Twitter riots? How does the Social Media shoe feel on the other foot?

The rioters (I'm differentiating these from opportunistic looters) appear mostly Afro-Caribbean, with a substantial infusion of White working-class / underclass youth. The vigilantes seem to be Asian (Turkish, Indian, Pakistani), East European and English. Strange coalitions, very distant from the world of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

I've always felt the partnership between activist Blacks and Asians formed in 1960s and 1970s Britain was flimsy. Maybe it was appropriate to that era, but it's broken down substantially since then, and is surely dead now. I don't see much common cause between the two ethnic groups anymore.

South Asians have serious problems to overcome: a conservative culture that does not respect free speech; a fealty to arranged marriage that can lead to forced marriages; extremism among Muslims that becomes terrorism at its most extreme. Afro-Caribbean Brits have a completely different set of issues to deal with: the breakdown of the family; drug use linked to violent crime; and low educational and economic attainment.

I can't understand why Britain has both a debt problem as well as an investment deficit after twelve years of Labour-led economic growth accompanied by high tax rates. Where did all that money go? I know we've been through a meltdown, but Gordon Brown's economy should've been better prepared for it. After all, there was no Blair tax cut to compare with the Bush tax cut.

One of the golden rules of party politics is that riots help the Right. They helped Nixon, Thatcher, Thackeray, Modi and Sarkozy, and will now help David Cameron, who appears really angry that his Tuscan holiday was interrupted.

It's good to see London cleaning up the mess. When citizens there come together to clean up, they do it in their thousands. It's different in India. Here, a few dozen meet, spend most of their time posing for cameras and leave the tough stuff to those meant for that kind of thing, if you get my drift. All acts in India are symbolic, even our recent 'Slut Walk', which consisted of about a hundred women dressed in standard Delhi college-girl clothes; a bunch of LGBT activists, mostly men; and about three hundred mediapersons fruitlessly seeking somebody slutty-looking to film.

India must be wishing the Edgbaston Test had been cancelled. I don't believe any World No.1 Test team has been at the receiving end of such a hammering in the past.

A few people have commented on the irony of an Indian tour of England been threatened by mob violence. It's supposed to be the other way round. The great example of playing cricket in troubled times must be England's 1984-85 tour of India.

This is a picture taken at Heathrow airport, on October 30, 1984, of David Gower and Allan Lamb boarding a flight to India at the start of that tour. They landed in New Delhi the next morning, just hours before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards. The killing was followed by the worst sectarian bloodbath since Partition. The English cricketers stayed in their hotel before moving out to Sri Lanka, which had barely recovered from an even worse killing campaign. They flew to Colombo on Sri Lankan President Junius Jaywardene's private plane; he was returning from Indira Gandhi's funeral.
After playing warm-up games in Sri Lanka, the cricketers headed to Bombay for the first Test on November 28. On November 26, they attended a party thrown in their honour by Percy Norris, the British Deputy High Commissioner. The next morning, Percy Norris was shot dead not far from his Nariman Point office while being driven to work. The murder has never been solved, but it appears to have been an act of international terrorism, possibly masterminded by Abu Nidal, whose faction was demanding the release of three colleagues held in Britain.
It wasn't surprising that England lost that first Test at the Wankhede stadium.

Just as the match was winding down, Bhopal was struck by the worst industrial disaster in history. 1984 was definitely not a good year for India.

The tour went on, though, and the second Test was played in Delhi, which had returned to calm. England recovered to win that test, and went on to grab the series 2-1.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Calcutta blues

I was in Calcutta earlier this week, and landed needing to use an ATM machine to recharge my phone, and pay my credit card dues, which I invariably leave to the last minute. Public sector bank employees happened to be on strike that day, demanding whatever it is that bank workers demand when they go on strike. Now, a stoppage in Bombay or Delhi or most places wouldn't be an inconvenience unless someone wanted to make a large withdrawal. Most transactions are done at ATM machines these days. Besides, my account's with HDFC, not a public sector firm. In Calcutta, however, a strike by public sector bank employees means private banks are also closed, presumably in solidarity. Bizzarely, it means all ATM machine booths are shut too. At night, on my way back to the hotel, I saw one Axis Bank ATM working, and a couple of others with semi-open shutters, lights on inside, and the legs of the guard visible beyond glass doors. Unfortunately, HDFC ATMs offered no such tantalising views.

Any Time Money? Obviously not in Calcutta.

Yes, I know that's not what ATM stands for.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Xinjiang: Who's your mummy?

When Indian reporters question visiting Pakistani politicians about the Kashmir issue, they usually assume the Indian establishment's point of view. I've always felt these chaps didn't ask questions that would really put Pakistani leaders in a spot. I have not, for instance, come across any reference to China's Xinjiang province in interviews with the likes of Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf.
Xinjiang is a mainly Muslim, ethnically majority Uighur province in China with a separatist movement that Beijing tries hard to suppress. Since China is one of Pakistan's closest and most important allies, Pakistani leaders will never say a word in favour of separatists in Xinjiang.
So, when a Pakistani President or Prime Minister or Foreign Minister says, "We believe in the right of self-determination for Kashmiris", it might be worthwhile asking, "Do you also favour the right of self-determination for Uighurs in Xinjiang?". It'll be fun watching the interviewee trying to wriggle out of that spot.
Xinjiang and the Uighurs are likely to force themselves into the lexicon of Indian reporters following a news item yesterday that China has blamed separatists trained in Pakistan for a terrorist attack within Xinjiang. Pakistan, of course, immediately condemned the attack, but will have to do more than condemn it to placate the Chinese.

As an unrelated aside, Xinjiang, like many of the earth's driest places, has revealed an old tradition of mummification, dating back four thousand years. The Xinjiang mummies, or Tarim Basin Mummies are unusual because the oldest dessicated bodies show distinctly Caucasoid features. It seems like the first inhabitants of Xinjiang rode in from Europe, and were gradually joined by East Asians. The Uighurs only migrated to the area in the 9th century, which, if I recall correctly, is also around the time Turks first got to Turkey.

Monday, August 1, 2011

John Berger and the Israel Boycott

Of the intellectuals and artists who have signed on to the cultural boycott of Israel, the one I respect most is John Berger. His name is also used extensively by PACBI because he's recognised across the world, unlike all but one or two of the other signatories. Arundhati 'all multinationals are evil except those that publish my books' Roy is the other big name, but then, has anybody come across a boycott that Arundhati Roy doesn't support?
I wanted to know more about John Berger's position on the issue, and found the letter he wrote in favour of ostracising the Zionist Entity. Here it is:

"Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.
How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).
How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer - a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.
For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example."

This is a nuanced position and one that I have no problem with. It was obviously motivated by a particular event, which gave it urgency: Israel's indiscriminate bombing of southern Lebanon in 2006. That's why Berger wrote, "Speed it of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month".
Unfortunately, John Berger hasn't always kept to his principle that the boycott's "application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment." Earlier this year, after Ian McEwan explained why he would accept the Jerusalem Prize, Berger signed a letter urging him to reconsider, and calling the Prize a "corrupt and cynical honour", "a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state".

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Israel Boycott II

Lisa Taraki was kind enough to continue the dialogue with me after our first exchange. Here is an update:

I will comment on two points that concern facts about the BDS movement rather than assessments of its efficacy or rationale:
1. The Palestinian BDS movement targets complicit institutions and not individuals, whether they are artists or academics. This is clearly spelled out in all the statements issued by PACBI ( or the Palestinian BDS National Committee (
2. BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) covers a range of actions, including cultural and academic boycott. More can be learned by consulting the BDS website.

Hi Lisa,
I've been reading up on PACBI and discovered an astonishing piece of information. Your colleague and co-founder of PACBI, Omar Barghouti, is apparently a student of Tel Aviv University (I don't know if he's been expelled or left in recent days, but he was a student long after PACBI was formed).
Please answer this question: why is it OK for founder-members of your organisation to take advantage of facilities offered by the Israeli state, when you expect Indian artists to boycott similar Israeli institutions? It seems like hypocrisy on a grand scale to me.

Me, again:
Sorry to keep writing, but I just discovered an article on the PACBI site about Tel Aviv University, headlined, Study: Tel Aviv University Part and Parcel of the Israeli Occupation:
Is this is the same Tel Aviv University attended by your colleague and co-founder of PACBI Omar Barghouti?
I've also read a statement about how it's unfair to criticise Barghouti since Palestinians don't have any choice in educational matters. However, from what I read, Barghouti was born in Qatar, and has a degree from Columbia. He certainly has access to a world of learning, yet he chooses to stay enrolled in an institution that his own organisation calls "Part and Parcel of the Israeli Occupation"!
I've read some articles about you, and I greatly respect what you have done in your career and the many initiatives you have led to enable greater educational access for Palestinians. However, PACBI's policies appear to me not just misguided in themselves, but also fatally compromised by the Barghouti situation, unless there is more to it than Wikipedia and other sources put forward.

You probably haven't come across the PACBI response to the campaign against Omar Barghouti. Here it is:

Hi Lisa,
I did read that statement, and this paragraph in it:
"PACBI has never called upon Palestinian citizens of Israel and those who are compelled to carry Israeli identification documents, like Palestinian residents of occupied Jerusalem, to refrain from studying or teaching at those Israeli institutions. That would have been an absurd position, given the complete lack of alternatives available"
Omar Barghouti, I've read, was born in Qatar and educated at Columbia University, New York. In which case, he certainly did, and does, have many alternatives available.
The PACBI statement also says:
"leaders of the anti-colonial resistance movement in India and Egypt, among many other countries, received their education at British universities at the height of the colonial era."
They did; but they didn't then turn around and ask everybody else to boycott those institutions like Omar Barghouti has done.
I should also point out that the fact that Omar Barghouti was admitted to Tel Aviv University, and continued to be a student even after his anti-Israel activism became well known, is an excellent example of why the parallel with apartheid, which is the basis of PACBI's argument, collapses under close scrutiny. It is inconceivable that a Black African would have been admitted to the University of Cape Town when apartheid laws were in force. A black or coloured ANC activist would have been in jail rather than studying in a prestigious South African institution. The Israeli state allows a remarkable amount of dissent from citizens, and much of that dissent comes from intellectuals employed in state-funded bodies such as universities. That was simply not the case in apartheid South Africa.

I will update this post if Lisa responds.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Israel Boycott

My friend the artist N Pushpamala, has issued a call for artists to boycott a forthcoming show of Indian art, called Deconstructing India, to be mounted at the Tel Aviv Museum next April. Pushpamala's central point is that the exhibition, and the museum that will host it, serves to legitimise the 'racist and apartheid' policies of Israel.
I don't care overmuch if the show happens or not. It sounds like a replica of a dozen other exhibitions of contemporary Indian art with names like Chalo India, Indian Highway, Indian Summer, India-this, and Indian-that, none of which got rave notices or created any genuine excitement among foreign spectators.
As anybody who reads this blog regularly will know, I'm not a big fan of Israel. I am, however, even less a fan of blanket cultural boycotts. When another friend, the artist Tushar Joag, circulated Pushpamala's mail to a wide group, I responded with the letter quoted below (I've removed a few specific examples I gave):

I don't understand this, frankly. If we start boycotting museum shows because of bad things governments are doing, where will it end?

Why should Indian artists exhibit in China, when the regime there has been responsible for horrendous massacres and continues to deny basic freedom of expression to its citizens?

Why should people exhibit in museums and universities in the United States (almost all of which receive state funding), when the country is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Iraqi civilians in the past decade and many more in the decade before that?

Why should galleries exhibit at the state-backed Sharjah Biennale and Dubai art fair, when the UAE denies the most basic rights to migrant labour, much of which is sourced from the sub-continent (if you want to speak about apartheid, the UAE is a great example of apartheid written into law)?

Why should we collaborate with artists and curators from Iran and Pakistan despite the terrible record of the governments of those countries in protecting minority rights? Denying minorities equality under the law is very akin to apartheid, isn't it?

Why, in the end, should artists and curators exhibit at the Lalit Kala Akademi and the National Gallery of Modern Art when we know the many kinds of repression unleashed by the Indian state, many of which have been explored and interrogated by artists and activists on this email? Does showing at the Lalit Kala legitimise all the dreadful policies of the Indian governments in Kashmir, the North East, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc.?

Israel has done terribly by the Palestinians, but associating art institutions and centres of learning, even state funded ones, so closely with state policy is a silly mistake in my opinion, and tokenism of the worst kind as well.

I'd hoped a debate would begin about the issue, but received only personal mails from people supporting my position. I presume other mails went out to those proposing the boycott, supporting their position. Today, Pushpamala forwarded a response to my letter from Lisa Taraki of PACBI (The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel).
Lisa wrote:
This is a very familiar argument, and this is our usual response:
There are indeed plenty of repressive regimes, and some of them are already subject to sanctions. There are also many other regimes that trample on their citizens' rights while enjoying support from world powers such as the USA, the EU, and other centers of power.
However, when there is a people's movement, such as the Palestinian BDS movement, that explicitly calls upon conscientious citizens of the world to boycott their oppressor in order to bear pressure to achieve its rights, it is the obligation of those conscientious people, whether in India or in France, to heed the call. If there were a boycott movement in China, Iran, or Pakistan urging conscientious artists and academics, etc. to boycott the major cultural and academic institutions in those countries, then it would be the duty of conscientious artists and academics to respond to the call.
The vast majority of Palestinian civil society has adopted the Palestinian BDS Call (
Just consider what the reaction of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa would have been if artists, academics, and sportsmen and sportswomen around the world had refused to support the boycott of the South African state because there were other oppressive regimes the world over. Either boycott all such regimes, or no support for your struggle, they would have said! That would have rightly been considered an abrogation of responsibility, a diversionary tactic. Why is Israel being treated differently? Why the special allowances for Israel?
Palestinian civil society is asking artists, academics, and other conscientious people the world over to support its call for BDS. Do we listen to the voice of the oppressed? That is the basic issue.
The cultural and academic boycott, targeting the mainstream institutions of the Israeli state (and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is certainly part of the establishment, as is clear from a review of its website), aims to isolate Israel until Palestinian rights guaranteed by international law are achieved. Pressure on the Israeli state is the only avenue left, in view of the failure of all other measures, from diplomacy to "constructive engagement" to persuasion.

And this is my reply to Lisa:
Hi Lisa,

If this is a familiar argument, I'm surprised you have not come up with better answers. But that might be because there ARE no better answers.

You write:
"...when there is a people's movement, such as the Palestinian BDS movement, that explicitly calls upon conscientious citizens of the world to boycott their oppressor in order to bear pressure to achieve its rights, it is the obligation of those conscientious people, whether in India or in France, to heed the call."

There is absolutely no obligation on conscientious citizens anywhere in the world to heed anybody else's call. There are a thousand people's movements across the globe, and many of them issue such boycott calls. The validity of every call has to be determined by individuals rather than result from the sort of obligatory Groupthink you recommend. Just because I consider your boycott call absurd does not make me any less conscientious a citizen than those who choose to obey it.

You write:
"Just consider what the reaction of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa would have been if artists, academics, and sportsmen and sportswomen around the world had refused to support the boycott of the South African state because there were other oppressive regimes the world over. Either boycott all such regimes, or no support for your struggle, they would have said! That would have rightly been considered an abrogation of responsibility, a diversionary tactic. Why is Israel being treated differently? Why the special allowances for Israel?"

Artists academics and sportsmen joined the boycott of South Africa as part of a worldwide political and economic boycott. The cultural contribution was significant, but nowhere near as significant as political isolation and economic strangulation; without those two components, and the worldwide political consensus that engenders them, cultural boycotts are of little use. You will not be able to give me a single example of a cultural boycott of the kind you propose having produced significant political change anywhere in the world.
Besides, even at the height of the apartheid ban, people all over the world read and admired novels by the likes of Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Their being South African, and continuing to live in South Africa, did not lead to us boycotting their publications. Your movement, on the other hand, insists on boycotting all individuals with Israeli citizenship. How can you decide, on the basis of a website, what the affiliations of curators in Tel Aviv's Museum of Art are? Do you know any of them? Or have you studied their writing and concluded that they support the excesses of the Israeli State? I'm willing to wager you do not and have not.

You write:
"The cultural and academic boycott, targeting the mainstream institutions of the Israeli state (and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is certainly part of the establishment, as is clear from a review of its website), aims to isolate Israel until Palestinian rights guaranteed by international law are achieved. Pressure on the Israeli state is the only avenue left, in view of the failure of all other measures, from diplomacy to "constructive engagement" to persuasion."

If the Palestinians had adopted a primarily non-violent form of resistance like India did in its struggle against imperialism, or like the American Civil Rights movement did, I have no doubt there would have been a viable Palestinian state in existence by now. Decades of Islamist terrorism failed to shake the Mubarak regime, but a few weeks of widespread non-violent protest brought it down. The Palestinians have kept the option of resorting to violence open even when they have entered negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian public continues to support the targetting of Israeli civilians, and a martyr cult has been fostered in the Occupied Territories. Perhaps Palestinians should look more closely at their own failures down the decades, before speaking of what is "the only avenue left" and of the "failure of all other measures".



Saturday, July 23, 2011

Nathalie Djurberg at Mumbai Art Room

Susan Hapgood, an American curator who moved to Bombay a couple of years ago, has opened a small not-for-profit space in Colaba called the Mumbai Art Room. The gallery's first show features a single ten-minute video by the Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg, who specialises in painstakingly crafted claymation.
I Found Myself Alone puts a spindly black ballerina on a table set for afternoon tea. She dances awkwardly between creamy confections and baroque crockery before being doused by wax from a candle. She cleans herself of the goop after a struggle, but soon faces a second attack. Eventually, she seeks revenge on whiteness by using coffee from the pot to stain the linen and porcelain. The battle between black and white gestures to histories of colonialism and immigration, but any moral drawn from the narrative is as discomfiting as the work itself becomes beyond its cutesy opening moments. Djurberg's use of the tactility of plasticine and her partner Hans Berg's eerie musical score make I Found Myself Alone fascinating to watch.

The Mumbai Art Room is situated bravely on the ground floor of a large residential building, and news has got round about the entertainment on offer inside. Students of the Navy Children School next door are regular visitors. In the short time I spent in the gallery, four girls and then five boys walked up to the glass doors, peered inside for a minute, before entering, sitting themselves on the floor, giggling and whispering loudly, and being shushed by the gallery manager. It's good to see this connection with the neighbourhood, which is obviously something Susan Hapgood wants to take further. It does, of course, restrict the kind of art she can show. I can't imagine, for instance, that Nathalie Djurberg's more graphic stuff would be welcomed in this location.
Here's a portion of a video by Djurberg screened at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where she won the Promising Young Artist award. It's reminiscent of Salvador Dali's canvases Premonitions of Civil War and Autumnal Cannibalism, which must have been as disturbing in their time as Djurberg's work is in ours.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower

My review of Aravind Adiga's novel Last Man in Tower has been published by CNN Go. Read it here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the bomb blasts

I watched a bit of the Swedish adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night. It was better than watching ranting anchors and ranting politicians and ranting analysts, but even so I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes. Adaptations usually employ actors who look better than their literary counterparts. It's a sensible policy, because it's easier to read about ugly people than to watch ugly people on screen for extended periods. For some reason, the Swedes decided that they would make all the Dragon Tattoo characters plainer than they are in the book. There's Larsson's hero Mikael Blomkvist, for example, a middle-aged journalist who has a mysterious power over women. For those who have not read Stieg Larsson's trilogy, it's worth knowing that the male characters are, almost all of them, rapists and murderers; Blomkvist is the very opposite. He's good with women, and quite indiscriminate in his tastes. He sleeps with every woman he meets and, unlike James Bond, doesn't even have to seduce them. Without exception, they make the first move. Reading the books, you wonder why so many women would fall for him; and watching the actor playing him makes suspension of disbelief even tougher. Maybe the actor is famous in Sweden, in which case his fame might have compensated for his lack of charm. But the director has decided to film everybody in the most unflattering light possible, so they all look corpse-grey and unsexy in the extreme.
For the English adaptation, they've apparently got James Bond playing Mikael Blomkvist. Daniel Craig will probably be pleased to ditch the seduction routines.
I guess I should say something about the explosions. One was about a kilometer from my home as the crow flies, and another about a kilometer from where I was last evening. I was leaving a Kemp's Corner bookshop when I got a message about the first blast; within a minute all phone lines were jammed. I decided to eat a sandwich in the bookshop's cafe, giving any other bombs that might have been planted time to explode. Afterward I got a cab home. The streets were calm and not very crowded.
Bombs are something we have to live with now. Obviously, like other nasty things we have to live with, such as murder and robbery, it's important to minimise the number of incidents. We haven't had any attacks for two years and a half, which I think is good going. I'll happily take one attack every two years that kills about twenty of us, and accept the risk of being one of those twenty next time round.
For those who don't know Bombay well, more than ten people die on the city's rail tracks every day. Over twenty thousand have died in the past five years hit by trains while trying to cross the tracks. Many of those could've been saved if we had a good rescue service organised. But we don't. We depend on guys living by the tracks who haul bloodied and broken bodies to hospitals, and then wait for tips from relatives of the wounded or dead.
Deaths on rail tracks are very different from deaths from terrorism, of course. The individuals took a risk by crossing the tracks, and broke the law as well. I don't want to suggest an equivalence between the two modes of dying. I'm just pointing to how atrocious our systems and infrastructure are. Considering that, and considering it isn't all that difficult to make a bomb, I'm surprised we have not had more attacks since November 2008. Also that other cities have not had more attacks. We need only look at Pakistan's current condition to understand how bad things could get.