Friday, July 25, 2008

so much to do, so little time

no guts, no glory -
52 locations, 52 days.
what problem? no problem.

- Mira Nair's mantra, while making the amazing Salaam Bombay

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Indo-US Nuclear deal

22/07: This is not a time for blogging. Only live TV can show you what Vinod Mehta calls the 'cattle market out there'. Far from being depressed, I am taking a a sort of nihlistic pleasure in watching how low our elected representatives can sink. No words are being minced, euphemisms have been thrown out of the window. 25 crores is the going rate for an MP's vote, and while we are used to hearing these things, now MPs are rushing to the well of the house with wads of cash as evidence that they have been bribed.

Shekhar Gupta: if someone high up in the JMM scandal (remember? we have been here before. so many times.) if someone high up in the JMM scandal had gone to jail, this would not have happened.

When I was a kid and read news reports of Parliamentary proceedings (I did not do this often) or heard that 'MPs rushed to the well of the House', I used to think that there was a well on the grounds of Parliament and that the MPs were threatening to commit suicide by jumping into it if their demands were not met. This seemed entirely plausible to me and in the highest traditions of Gandhian self-sacrifice. Alas, I thought too highly of them.

14:15 - feeling slightly better. Watching MPs trying to make themselves heard over the din of chanting, protesting fellow members is actually quite a moving and riveting sight (when they talk sense). Mehbooba Mufti gave up in frustration, but Omar Abdullah was actually pretty good (even though I think I disagree with his position on the deal) - supports the deal and distances himself from both the Left (who arrogate to themselves the position of being the only defenders of Muslims/secularism, he says) and the BJP (regrets that he did not resign after Gujarat, when he was a minister in the NDA govt. I should have listened to my conscience, he says.). He will be one to watch.

14:27 - Salman Khursheed says some things are legitimate inducements for votes (projects for constituencies, cabinet positions), and other things are not (cash).

What is becoming very clear is that the debate in Parliament today is not about the deal. It's too much of a coincidence that everybody who is against the deal just happens to be in favour of early elections. This is already about the next elections and all positions are being taken with that larger(?) aim in mind.

14:34 - Manmohan Singh looks like a sphinx.

14:41 - overwhelming mood of cynicism in the NDTV studio. All the panelists are laughing wryly at the amounts of money involved. This is all stage managed by the opposition to make the vote look tainted, Jayanti Natarajan insists. Why have the alleged bribe amounts dropped?someone asks. Maybe because once the opposition realised that the UPA was winning, the asking amounts for support reduced. So they decided to stage manage with 1 crore instead of 25. Nice.


15:02 - 253 in favour, 230-something against, 50-something slips have to be counted for the final tally. Manmohan manages a flat smile, but it's not over till the fat lady (poor Somnath) sings.

15:12 - It looks like the UPA has won; but something intangible has been lost today in that image of wads of cash being waved around in the Lok Sabha. Signing out for today.


21/07: The trust vote in Parliament is today. *Massive* horse trading not-s0-behind the scenes. Fali Nariman says no one cares about the merits of the issue at hand. Watch Indian politics get as ugly as it is possible to get.


14/07: India's ability to take 'corrective measures' in the event of a fuel supply cutoff is guaranteed by the IAEA agreement, but this possibility is mentioned only in the preamble. Preambles are not legally binding (if they were, the wonderful preamble to the NPT would have ensured global nuclear disarmament long ago). The action is all in Article 32.


11/07: interview with Advani in which he clarifies that the BJP welcomes the strategic relationship with the US, but is concerned more narrowly with the implications of the Hyde Act.


9/07: apologies for the fragmented blogging. I am trying to piece together some understanding of this earth shatteringly important issue that I have come to rather belatedly. This is the text of the Left Front's letter to the GoI. As I understand it, at the heart of the nuclear deal is the promise of fuel in return for acceptance of inspections (IAEA safeguards). The Left seems to be worried that although fuel supplies can be withdrawn for a number of reasons (under the US's Hyde Act), under the terms of the agreement, India is obliged to accept IAEA oversight in perpetuity - thereby opening up the possibility of a situation in which it is under 'safeguards' but has no fuel. This seems to be the thrust of the 5 questions it has put to GoI. One procedural issue is that the government has refused to release the text of the IAEA agreement even to its partners providing support in Parliament. It claims that its hands are bound by the IAEA, which prohibits release of the statement till it has been circulated to all of its board members. But how can Parliaments check their executives, if they have no idea what they are doing? (11/07: Today's Hindu editorial says that the government's claim about IAEA procedure is false and that GoI has been showing 'paranoic non-transparency' over this issue since March 2005.)


For the first time ever in the history of independent India, the GoI is threatened with collapse on an issue of foreign policy as the Left withdraws the support of its 59 MPs. The Samajwadi Party has offered to vote with the government, but even its 39 MPs will leave the government 8 short of a majority. Other parties have offered support, potentially staving off collapse - but this is far from certain. For one thing, not all SP members seem to be on board. Intriguingly, there is talk of its Muslim MPs being against the nuclear deal (something Mulayam has strenuously denied): (i) is this true? or are the usual suspects drumming up charges of 'anti-patriotism'? (ii) even if it were, what is the basis of this opposition? (probably that an Indo-US agreement places India firmly in some sort of global anti-Muslim camp) Not much comment about this in the press. Yet. For more on what happens next go here.

Some shred of democracy preserved in virtue of the fact that GoI will not go to the IAEA before it wins a confidence motion in Parliament. Pranab Mukherjee's voice tightens at the end of this statement, but he concludes in remarkably good temper, thanking the Left for having extended its support for the last 4 years against 'the communal forces'.

Brinda Karat is 'puzzled and perplexed'. The nuclear deal is a key opening up India to US hegemonic designs, she says. Is the Left staring at political isolation? We are not isolated from our principles and the working people of this country, she says.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

who is Manthara?

Looking forward to the move to the city, but also slightly intimidated by it. Reading Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts Into Air has provided an odd sort of comfort:

To be to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one's own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows.

Entranced by his dialectical exploration of the relationship between modernisation and modernism in the work of Faust, Marx, Baudelaire, and a slew of great Russians whom I have now vowed to read, I could not pass up the chance to hear him deliver the Southbank Centre Lecture entitled 'Comedy in New York After 9/11: Immigration and Gentrification'. In comparison with the book, which is breathtakingly fertile and wonderfully readable even if you haven't read the texts he is working with (he makes you want to read them), the lecture was rather more casual, impressionistic, almost off the cuff. As a speaker, Berman manages to be both erudite and endearing, establishing an almost instant rapport with the audience and providing much amusement with his slightly distracted and absent minded asides. The talk focused on comedies of the city: 'Sex and the City' as a comedy of gentrification and 'You Don't Mess with the Zohan' as a comedy of immigration. As ever, Berman exuded a kind of liberal, humane Marxism - one that embraces the entire range of human experience and inclination, including those that sometimes prove inconvenient for theory. In one revealing aside, he dwelt at length on the relationship between shopping and happiness, departing from orthodox Marxist critiques of commodification and consumerism and suggesting that shopping and commerce created public spaces in which people encountered one another, that the satisfaction of needs and desires did in fact bring happiness, and that even if most of the commodities on offer were trash, the very process of sifting the worthy from the forgettable was in itself a form of bildung. In keeping with the title of his lecture, I wanted to ask him what, if anything, the ongoing furore over the most recent cover of the New Yorker revealed about the possibilities for satire as well as for humour across race lines in post-9/11 New York. But alas, I didn't get the chance.


Went to the British Library's free exhibition on the Ramayana. This is an exhibition of illustrated manuscripts, commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-52) in Rajasthan. The carefully selected and arranged manuscripts provide as complete an account of this 2000+ year old epic as one could possibly get in a couple of hours. Some things about this story, which was first told to me by my great-grandmother and which I first encountered in print in the pages of Kamala Subramaniam's telling of it, struck me for the first time. The two pivotal events of the narrative are Rama's banishment to the forest and Sita's abduction by Ravana. Both are triggered by the actions of women, and in both cases women from the very margins of society. When the old king Dasaratha is all set to name his eldest son Rama as his heir, one of the younger of his three senior queens - Kaikeyi - overcome by jealousy, prevails upon him to banish Rama to the forest for 14 years and to name her son Bharata to succeed him. I'm not entirely clear what sort of hold Kaikeyi has on Dasaratha, but she in turn is influenced by her maid Manthara, who poisons her mind with the suggestion that Bharata's life would be in danger if Rama became king. Bharata is disgusted by these machinations on his behalf and bitterly reproaches and repudiates his mother; Kaikeyi in turn blames Manthara, and in a rage, Bharata's younger brother Shatrughna tramples on Manthara and drags her around the palace by her hair until he is dissuaded by Bharata with the reminder that Rama would have condemned such vengeful behaviour. So who is Manthara and why does she push Kaikeyi to do something she might never have done? Is she simply looking out for the best interests of her perhaps not-very-worldly-wise mistress? Does she have an agenda of her own? What could it be? If Bharata had become king, Manthara, as PA to the queen mother would have held a position of great power and influence. But what did she hope to do with it? Was she just greedy, seduced by how tantalisingly close a woman of low stature could get to the very heart of power? Was she in it for herself? Or were her ambitions more political? Or, as is usually the case, both?

The second pivotal event is that Sita is abducted from forest exile by the demon king Ravana. But this in turn is provoked by an incident in which Ravana's sister, the rakshasi Surpanakha, propositions Rama, who, instead of brushing her off like a gentleman, cuts off her nose. Surpanakha appeals to her brother Ravana to avenge this insult. And then all hell breaks loose. On trying to find out more about Surpanakha, it turns out that there are multiple accounts of what she was trying to do. In one, she actually desires revenge on Ravana for having killed their grandmother and uncle, and sets up the encounter with Rama, knowing full well that Rama is the only true match for Ravana. And see also this entry on Manthara, which though frustratingly brief, suggests that she may have been set up by Indra.

In the epic war that follows, there is much that is recognisable - good old balance of power politics (Rama makes an alliance with the monkey king Sugriva, agreeing to help him recover his throne from his usurper brother Bali in return for help against Ravana; Ravana's better brother Vibhishana joins the good side - so the axes of confrontation aren't entirely or even largely familial or tribal or ethnic), guerrilla warfare (particularly in the scenes depicting monkeys attacking the enormous Kumbhakarna - good guerrillas v. bad despotic centralised power), interference and sovereign acts of recognition and de-recognition (Rama's declaration of Vibhishana as the true king of Lanka), etc.

And finally running through the story like a stuck record, there is Rama's uniquely annoying personality - a mixture of piety and moralism and self-mortification, matched only perhaps by the equally insufferable Yudhishtira in the Mahabharata - which if you ever encountered in real life would in all probability make you want to scream. There are many stages at which wrongs can be righted, bad things can be undone, Bharata says forget about my mother, come back home and rule the kingdom, etc. But Rama refuses, citing the absolute imperative of a parent's command (a command, it should be noted, that the parent himself regrets almost immediately and seeks to rescind), demonstrating an obstinacy and inflexibility that makes me want to smack him. On greater reflection, I realise that this annoying personality trait is written into the character to illustrate an important philosophical tendency - that of the rigid deontologist, unleavened by the logic of consequences, prudence or anything else. Kant may have been equally annoying in real life, much as I like him in text. (But why like Kant and dislike Rama? Maybe because Rama shows you what Kant might require in a determinate situation, suggesting in turn that something that looks great in ideal theory might end up looking deeply unattractive in the non-ideal world. disclaimer: obviously there is no one-to-one correspondence between Rama and Kant; many aspects of their thought and behaviour are simply incommensurable; but in my hazy philosophical mental map, they're vaguely kindred souls.)


Why do we believe what we believe? This was the underlying theme of Gautam Raja's The Invisible River, which premiered in the UK at the Theatrescience India in London festival this week. A government doctor in Allahabad is waging a host of losing battles - against villages and industries upstream who dump their waste in the mighty Ganga, generating the cholera epidemics that he must fight against in his professional capacity; against his fervently religious mother who sees the river as holy and purifying and whose dying wish is to be cremated on a sandalwood pyre by its banks and to have her ashes scattered in the sangam. A scientist from Bangalore is in Allahabad to collect water samples from the river to study the behaviour of the mysterious bacteriophages that appear to break down organic matter, thereby potentially providing scientific vindication for the popular belief in the river's purity. An intrepid pujari plies his trade by the banks of the river, tending the faithful and bantering good naturedly with the sceptics. A politician (brilliantly played by Sukhi Aiyar in a marvellous conflation of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati) shrewdly exploits every idea on offer to mobilise her political base. As they rub up against each other along the banks of the Ganga, the characters challenge but also reinforce each others' beliefs in intriguing ways. I was particularly struck by the way the religious characters seemed oddly pleased by the newfound scientific vindication for beliefs that they had long held; but I wondered if the rationalist characters also developed a new appreciation for irrational or non-rational belief systems. It's something I've wondered about in the context of the interest that pharmaceutical companies have evinced in indigenous knowledge as a shortcut to product development - that knowledge has still to be put through the meatgrinder of scientific verification before it is considered reliable and marketable, but do those technicians in white labcoats look at indigenous witch doctors any differently once their practices have been appropriated? Or are they still seen as essentially irrational and superstitious, trapped in age-old structures of unreflective blind belief? As a story, I thought GR accomplished a much more skillful bringing together of this microcosm of modern India - much better than, say, the bus in Mr. & Mrs. Iyer which, serendipitously and pretty incredibly, just happened to bring together every shade of religious belief in India in the context of a communal riot. I thought this was a thought-provoking script because it got beyond the usual cliched juxtapositions of software engineers and bullock carts to think about the ways in which those different worlds relate to each other.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Apu Trilogy

Have only seen the first two parts so far. In Pather Panchali, the scene of Durga, Apu and the dog running behind the mithaiwala, all four figures reflected in the stream, has got to be one of the most excrutiatingly perfect cinematic moments ever, one that would simply not have looked half as good in colour. The pivotal scene in Aparajito is one in which Apu decides he wants to go to school. Having impressed a burly mustachioed schools inspector with his vocabulary and ability to read, he is soon taken under the wing of the headmaster, who encourages his voracious appetite for learning. In a spiel that is reminiscent of Tagore (although the films are based on novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay), he says

I have many books here. If you don't read such books, you cannot broaden your mind. We may live in a remote corner of Bengal...but that does not mean that our outlook should be narrow. This book is about the North Pole. From this book anyone can learn about the aurora borealis or the Eskimos. This is about Livingstone's travels. You can learn about Africa. This is the story of inventions. Here are biographies of scientists: Galileo, Archimedes, Newton, Faraday...

In the next scene, Apu is eagerly explaining to his long-suffering mother that the moon goes around the earth and the earth around the sun, and shortly thereafter he startles her by running around the courtyard yelling 'Africa! Africa!', in face paint and a grass skirt and carrying a makeshift spear and shield (this is Africa in the eyes of Bengal, via Livingstone). But exposure to the world also means rebellion at home. By the end of his secondary school career, Apu wants to go to college in Calcutta, much against the wishes of his mother, and their confrontation over this issue concludes with the camera panning towards a lamp left on the verandah of their hut and the globe that Apu's headmaster has given him, standing in the circle cast by its light - both symbols of Enlightenment that tear Apu, tragically, away from his responsibilities at home.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

the lure of the east... a yummy exhibition of British Orientalist painting currently on at the Tate. The exhibition brings together some of the best of (mostly) 19th century British art portraying the Middle East. It is arranged thematically into six rooms: portraits, genre & gender, the holy city (not just Jerusalem), harem & home, the Orient in perspective and a room of maps that traces electronically on a gigantic tracking screen, the journeys of 4 itinerants (of whom I can only remember Byron) against a larger macro-historical picture of the waxing and waning fortunes of the Ottoman empire.

Each of the rooms contains some stunning pieces, but I will only mention those that particularly did it for me. Portraits is full of Europeans (sometimes the artist himself) dressed as Orientals. Evidently this was done for many reasons - to soften up interlocutors in political and commercial transactions by trying to impress them with efforts to fit in, to signify allegiance to the peoples of the East, to imply authority as representer of the Orient, etc. TE Lawrence (who looks extremely worried in the single portrait there is of him) apparently did so on orders from Feisel, to demonstrate his respect for the Arabs. He also did this at Versailles to signify his continuing solidarity. And there is of course the famous one of Byron in Albanian clothes, his ruby lips looking as pouty as ever.

The undoubted genius of this exhibition is JF Lewis, whom I had never heard of till yesterday. I am not usually a fan of realistic art, but Lewis's work is almost photographic. No I would go further - sometimes the sense of depth is so fantastic, that bits of the painting leap out at you in 3D (look at the watermelon slices in the bottom right hand corner of 'The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo'). There is another fabulous one called 'The Doubtful Coin', in which a seraff is shown examining a coin closely, while two women lean towards him expectantly, waiting for his verdict. Other onlookers in the bazaar manifest varying degrees of curiosity - some amused, some sceptical, others bored, and there is also a donkey. Meyda Yegenoglu's comment (I am a big fan of her article entitled 'Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism in a Globalising World') alongside the painting said something about the trope of fraud in Western conceptions of the Orient. But after a while , the political marginalia in the exhibition began to annoy me. Looking at another JF Lewis (last one I promise) - 'The Commentator of the Koran: Interior of a Royal Tomb, Bursa, Asia Minor, 1869' (see second last picture on this blog page) - which portrays a scholar transcribing from the Koran in the semi-shade of his perch in a royal tomb, surrounded by rich drapery (oh just look at the damn picture) - there is something about the treatment of this subject that is so empathetic in the sense that the painter seems to endorse what the subject is doing, he seems to acknowledge the scholar's wisdom and the essential worth of his task, that I saw only knowledge and no power. I could not really see how representations of this kind were an exercise in power (unless one reads the entire corpus as saying: this is what 'Oriental' learning looks like - it nearly always takes the form of rote learning from classical sources, nothing new has happened, or ever happens, and however aesthetically beautiful, this is essentially a static culture. One never sees anyone inventing anything, in the way that one might in, say, Italian Renaissance art - ok I'm going out on a limb here, I don't actually know). But so mesmerised was I by the picture itself, that these parenthetical thoughts didn't occur to me at the time. Only knowledge and an appreciation of knowledge, no power.

One final realist masterpiece that I must rhapsodise about (this one in the Holy City section) is Gustav Bauernfeind's 'Entrance to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1886', depicting a tense standoff between Jewish pilgrims being turned away by Muslim gatekeepers (plus ca change?!) - the light in this one is ethereal, stunning, I was looking around to see if there was technological hankypanky, but no - it's in the painting.

The most interesting thing about the Harem and Home section - apart from the Arthur Melville, 'An Arab Interior, 1881', which furnishes the cover image of the exhibition and was also the cover of an edition of Edward Said's Orientalism - is the stark distinction between European male and female artists' representations of Oriental harems. The men almost uniformly depict this as a decadent, sensuous space of captive female sexuality in which the women lie around all day waiting for the master to come and conjugate (verbs?). The single painting by a woman - or maybe there were more that I didn't quite pick up on - (Henriette Brown, 'A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860') could not have been more different. Here the women are fully clothed and appear to be hanging out with each other and there's a child somewhere in the picture. It looks like a normal day in. The explanation for these dramatically contrasting representations is that as more European women travelled to the Orient, they were the ones who actually had access to harems - by virtue of their sex - and could portray them for what they were (ok this is the point at which Foucauldians will shudder, but it has to be said about Said that while he had his moments of excessive indebtedness to Foucault, he does actually uphold the notion that some representations are true and others false (compare pages 272 and 326 of the 1995 Penguin edition of the O book).

Oh, and on the way out, Frank Dicksee's 'Leila, 1892' - plump, ripe, dressed in red. 'This one usually hangs in Jeddah', a well-dressed man sniggered to his friend.

where I am going

The first thing i noticed as soon as i got out of the train station was a signpost to the public library, which is called the CLR James library. This was, in itself, a good sign. The high street is overwhelmingly Turkish. Turkish restaurants every 10 steps serving lamahcun and kebabs, Turkish food stalls, Turkish newsagents, Turkish banks, Turkish travel agents, Turkish hairdressers, Turkish (em/im)migration assistance offices, even a soon-to-open Turkish hamaam. Apparently there are also enough Kurds around for the local cinema (3 minutes' walk) to have a Kurdish film festival, in addition to their Turkish one of course. Most of the people on the street today seemed to be Afro-Caribbean, and the local bookstore (2.5 minutes' walk) specialises in Black writing (there is a tiny section entitled 'Western views'); the cafe is Jamaican. Wikipedia reports that Jews and lesbians are also to be found here in large numbers. This is not a fancy high street. It's a lot like the yet-to-be-gentrified middle section of Cowley Road. There are no fancy coffee shops full of Macbook users. These can be found about 10 minutes away in the sort of Islingtonesque trendy barland called Stoke Newington Church Street. But because I am a latte-sipping fill-in-the-appropriate-noun, I should note that such cappuccino as is available can be had for 1 quid - which is just as well, because the one thing I am not going to have much of in this next phase is money; I am really beginning to identify with those poorly paid clerks in mid-19th century Russian novels. But there are *lots* of food stalls and the famous Ridley Road open-air market serving 'every fruit and vegetable you could possibly want...mangoes' (said my landlord, searching for the fruit I must have looked like I was most in need of), in addition to the obligatory Tesco Expresses, laundromats and dry cleaners, wedding photographers, mobile phone unlockers, cheap gyms in serious competition with one another (one for men over a certain BMI only), really everything one could possibly want. I want my new life now!

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