Saturday, April 25, 2009

rising shining emerging

A girl dies of asthma in Delhi and it hits the national headlines. A child is born dead every 4 minutes in Madhya Pradesh and...what?

Monday, April 13, 2009

India Votes (and I vote virtually)

With 3 days to go before round 1, I have utterly failed in my promise to follow election coverage, so this is a late attempt to make up for that and to cast my virtual vote. It's too bad that we don't have a postal voting system (I have never been in my constituency at the appropriate time). But with 714 million voters, Indian elections are enough of a logistical nightmare without us expats demanding that the ECI cater to the sprawling diaspora.

Given that there are 1055 parties on the ballot nationwide, it's something of a relief that they have coalesced into 3 major blocs. I can't imagine any set of circumstances in which I would ever vote for the BJP, given that I am not a fascist. That's not a polemical statement - or not just a polemical statement. In an earlier post, I think I passed too superficially over the Varun Gandhi episode, but having read Siddharth Varadarajan and others on this issue, I'm glad this was taken as seriously as it was by the ECI and the Mayawati government (politically motivated or not). NDTV did an interview with Advani today (on whose isolation, see this good Tehelka piece), in which he did his best to present his kind, gentle face (gone are the days when Vajpayee was moderate and Advani extreme - now Advani looks moderate in comparison with some of the rabid hate mongers in his party). Speaking of whom, Narendra Modi showed a deep lack of historical sense in calling the Congress a 'gudiya' after his earlier lame attempt ('budiya') was shot down by Priyanka. The last person in Indian politics who was called a 'gudiya' (goongi gudiya, to be precise) was Indira. She was given that label by the Congress syndicate (how I love that word - it's almost as fearsome as Politburo) who thought she would be a pushover. Instead, she morphed into something quite different. Hopefully this is a bad omen for the BJP, although no sane person would want a Durga-like figure in the Congress or anywhere else. I'd much rather have weak non-entities than strong zealots at the helm of things.

The Third Front is difficult to talk about because it means different things in different places. In Bangalore South it means the Janata Dal (Secular) led by former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda, whose otherwise undistinguished career as PM is perhaps best remembered for the many occasions on which he fell asleep. As leader of the JD(S), Deve Gowda has been bewilderingly disastrous, presiding over many splits in the party, at least one of which was precipitated by the action of his son allying with the BJP to bring down a Congress-led. government. Our 'mannina maga' has gone back and forth over the issue of working with the BJP, so his protestations about being both anti-BJP and anti-Congress are hard to take seriously. Basically, I can think of nothing good to say about him.

One could assume that the CPI(M) will play a primary role in shaping the programme of a potential Third Front government. And looking at their manifesto, I have to say I agree with quite a lot - particularly the sections on foreign affairs, secularism, minorities and employment and some items under 'economy'. A lot of the best things that the UPA government did (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, for example) came under pressure from social movements (MKSS) and the organised Left. And although I like to think that I do not have knee-jerk anti-US reactions - as I suspect some people in the CPI(M) do - I shared their revulsion at the spectre of India cosying up to the most egregiously rightwing and morally bankrupt US government in postwar history. Now things are different, although I am still concerned about the implications of the Indo-US Defence Framework Agreement, under which it looks like the low-end aspects of US hegemony in the Indian Ocean region have been outsourced to India. Given my professional preoccupation with foreign affairs, sometimes I do think that my political home is in the CPI(M).

But the party confuses me. Nandigram was a moment of terrific disillusionment. I think the CPI(M) sees its primary constituency as the industrial proletariat (workers inside the capitalist machine) and forgets that there is another struggle out there by people who are not yet in the machine and are trying to resist their incorporation in it. The old left is often suspicious of that kind of struggle, reading Marx in a rigidly teleological fashion. In its view (I am guessing) primitive accumulation is something that happened long ago at the beginning of the capitalist encounter (rather than a process that is continually unfolding in different places at different times through the many ways in which the commons are privatised - including under the aegis of the CPI(M) government itself). Capitalism is something everyone has to go through on the road to socialism, it thinks, and anyone who resists this is a backward looking feudal nostalgic who must be browbeaten into accepting the one true path to socialist salvation. Undoubtedly, not everyone who resists industrialisation is progressive (there are lots of backward looking feudal nostalgics in the anti-globalisation movement) which means that there is no getting around the difficult political work of separating the feudals from the progressives. But by the same token, not everyone who resists the enclosure of the commons is regressive. Basically, the CPI(M) has not found a way to connect up the struggles of the industrial proletariat with those resisting primitive accumulation, and till it does, for many of us, it looks like a Stalinist party writ small, yanking people off the land and dragging them into the machine.

Not that the Congress is any better, but this brings me to a much more prosaic reason for not voting Third Front. Which is that no matter how much I agree with the CPI(M) manifesto (and assuming I can suppress my discomfort about Nandigram), it's by no means clear how influential it will be in the Third Front. It's really quite impossible to guess what a Third Front government would do, given that this will probably be the outcome of much bargaining and negotiation amongst its many constituents. Nor can one be optimistic about how long it would last. The record (Moraji Desai, Charan Singh, V. P. Singh, Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral) - the record is not good.

Which leaves the goongi gudiya, the dynastic dinosaur. A process of elimination. Hardly a ringing endorsement. So ideologically baggy they are all things to all people. But they are secular (except for the right fringes that flirt with soft Hindutva) and there is a left fringe that's quite social democratic. And they'll probably last, unless they have some really unreliable allies who pull the plug on them. And the dude in Bangalore South - Krishna Byre Gowda - looks decent (actually he feels frighteningly like me - he has a master's degree in international relations - gah, I am every bit as identity-focused as the caste-captive voter). I'm a bit suspicious that he doesn't actually promise anything. I did look at the independent candidate - Captain Gopinath (this will surely go down as the election of the sexy websites) - but I'm really quite sceptical of whether he can get elected without a party machine behind him. Maybe that's defeatist. So, um...ARGH!...dynasty notwithstanding (I am so crushing on Priyanka these days)...Congress it is.

Regional parties I would like to do well: RJD, SP, BSP (despite M), DMK, NCP (Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule is pretty impressive), BJD (now that he's ditched the BJP), National Conference

Regional parties I would not like to do well: Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, AIADMK, and of course the JD(S)

God this is exhausting - I give up. There are lots of parties I have no damn opinion on.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

23rd London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Happily abbreviated as LLGFF. I like the way the letters line up. OK so I'm not thinking about the Indian elections 24/7, but more on that in a bit. There's a great 5 for 4 deal at the LLGFF and I lied my way into a student discount (spare me your moral outrage; or bring my rent down).

The great attraction of I Can't Think Straight was the opportunity to see two gorgeous desi women play queer roles on screen (sleaze disclaimer: I am not a straight man with pervy lesbian fantasies; in fact I have no lesbian fantasies whatsoever). Lisa Ray is usually too ethereally beautiful for the roles she plays (remember Water?). This can be a real problem, particularly if you're meant to be playing a woman brutalised by life in a widow's hostel in Varanasi. Fortunately in this film, she plays a spoilt brat (Tala) from a wealthy Palestinian family based in London, who has broken off engagements to eligible young men four times. A chance encounter with Leyla, a British Indian woman (played by Sheetal Sheth), sends her into a tizzy. Will she go through with the wedding, or will she finally follow her heart? If you're thinking serious movie about arranged marriages and clashing civilisations, you're quite wrong. This is a light hearted romantic comedy, fun to watch, but not - I think - destined to become a classic. The humour is slapstick and a bit too predictable (the mothers in both families are neurotic ogres, in the style of Hindi movie mothers-in-law; the fathers gentle and indulgent). I thought film maker Shamim Sarif was much more of a hit than her movie - something about her hilariously OTT responses to every question in the Q&A that followed the screening, delivered in deadpan style reminded me of what I liked about British humour. I suppose the humour in the film was more...South Asian. Speaking of which, although she'd tried hard to find an Arab woman to play the role of Tala, this proved to be a tough ask. No one wanted to play a lesbian role for fear of family izzat and sharaafat bullshit. The best she could come up with was a British-Arab woman who agreed to do 'light kissing in a body suit'. This was far kinkier than she'd bargained for, Sarif noted sardonically, so she eventually went with Ray and Sheth, in large part because there was no discussion about what they would and wouldn't do - indeed, no discussion about this being a 'lesbian' film at all. In response to a question about why the film was set in a very upper class milieu, she said that she wanted to undermine the notion that posh people were more progressive about this sort of thing. Right on.

Before Stonewall is a masterpiece of gay history film-making. 25 years after it premiered at the 1984 Toronto Film Festival, this is a film that still feels new and urgent. As its title suggests, it tells the stories of people who lived and loved and came out and fought before the Stonewall riots of 1969 that are usually taken to mark the birth of an explicit movement for LGBT rights. Before Stonewall is about the necessary prehistory of that moment. A lot of the film is about people's experiences of coming out in a time when they had no notion of what they were coming out as ('we didn't call it, we just did it' said one interviewee, sounding a bit like a Nike ad). The film makes some interesting arguments about the role of the world wars in opening up space for queer life mostly via the creation of homosocial spaces, given the very gendered division of war labour. There's a great interview with a woman who served in one of the women's corps. The commanding officer - one Dwight Eisenhower - had gotten word that there were more than a few lesbians in this corps and ordered its leader (for someone who teaches security studies, I have an appalling grasp of military rank names) - this interviewee - to identify said lesbians so that they could be dismissed. She replied that she would do so if the general pleased, but that she'd have to be the first to go. Ike's secretary, standing next to him, said 'If it would please the General, sir, she may be second but I would be the first.' I would like to have seen the expression on his face, but Eisenhower rescinded the order immediately. Almost no one in the film is famous, except for Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde. Director Greta Schiller (who was also around for a Q&A) had some interesting things to say about the process of making the film. Trawling through film archives, she found nothing under 'gay and lesbian', but tonnes of material under 'perversion', 'prostitution', 'deviance', 'transvestism'. The subaltern leaves traces in the master's archive, but never on her own terms.

Then after Before Stonewall ended, an unexpected treat: Tiny and Ruby, a half hour documentary film about two elderly black lesbians in their 70s. And not just any two - Tiny Davis, a legendary jazz trumpeter and drummer-pianist Ruby Lucas, partners of 42 years at the time the film was made. You never see old queer people on film, you never see old black queer people on film, you never ever ever see old black lesbians on film or any-bloody-where. And I have to say this again: in their 70s; one playing the trumpet, the other playing the drums. The centre of their families and communities, the life and soul of the party. This was an utterly gorgeous, moving, hilarious, inspirational portrait of people we never see.

Later in the Southbank centre, I saw a poster for an event entitled 'Foreign Trade: the House of Homosexual Culture'. The event is billed as one about queer people from all over the world who come to live in London ('What draws them here? What do they find when they arrive and what are they leaving behind? We hear from queer Londoners from every continent about their reasons for coming to the city, and about gay culture in the countries that they've come from.') And yet the publicity picture for this event - which is supposed to be about the queer international in London - prominently features the obligatory buff white man. Who are these freaks and why do they colonise every square inch of queer media? Does Naomi Woolf have to write The Beauty Myth again - perhaps with the word 'woman' replaced with 'homosexual', so that these stupid people get it? Bah. Another moment of queer rage.

3/4: Two movies about activist mayors who conduct gay weddings against the odds. The juxtaposition of these films foregrounds a stark difference in the sources of pressure for change in different countries. In the US, the federal government is of course against gay marriage, with the pressure for legalisation coming from the bottom-up. In Spain, the state is in favour, with the opposition coming from conservative mayors - except, remarkably, in the tiny and otherwise traditional town of Campillo (50 inhabitants). Campillo is an endearing documentary, at the centre of which is its sweet and almost child-like gay mayor who has managed to win the affections of its very rustic people. Of the two movies, this one felt less compelling - perhaps because of the lack of representation of any opposition to what the mayor was doing. Conversations with local inhabitants about their mayor and his proactive stance on gay marriage alternate with scenes of life in the town, which make clear that it is a very small and rural place. Everyone seems to be very supportive and if there is social disapproval, the movie only hints at it (when asked what the most difficult aspect of making the film was, the director unhesitatingly replied 'finding a lesbian couple who were willing to be filmed getting married'). 

Social and political battles take centre-stage in One Summer in New Paltz, which is told in the style of a fairy tale. There once was a land with a king who had the most powerful army the world had ever seen, but who never felt safe. Just when he thought the people were going to kick him off the throne, he tried to distract them by promising to change the constitution to make it impossible for gay people to marry. But a revolt was brewing in a small town in the hills. You know the plot. It's a very simple and powerful story, made especially poignant by the scores of queer couples of all shapes, sizes, genders and colours who just want their love for each other to be socially affirmed in the ways that straight people take for granted - and a 26 year old straight kid who happens to be mayor of the town and feels so strongly that they cannot be denied this right that he conducts their weddings at great political and personal risk to himself. When the state puts an end to this with criminal charges and a restraining order, a local priest and a mayor in a neighbouring town (respectively lesbian and gay) eagerly take on the task of solemnizing gay weddings. A grassroots civil disobedience movement had begun. There are a couple of memorable scenes. In one, a group of clergy from different religious denominations conduct weddings on the steps of New York City Hall and also read in unison a kind of protest litany, which is very stirring. I loved in particular the two women rabbis, one of whom joyfully says 'by the authority vested in me by the state of New York to conduct any wedding except this one...' to the sound of much laughter and applause. The other scene that stuck in my mind was of the 'God hates fags' lot protesting outside the church in New Paltz. There's a queer-supportive counter protest on the other side of the road and what's really striking is that both sides are singing patriotic songs and hymns at each other (God Bless America etc.) - it's a great scene because it demonstrates just how versatile and, well, empty our most cherished political concepts are, so amenable to being infused with whatever content we want to give them at any given moment. I got home to an email in my inbox saying that the Iowa Supreme Court legalised gay marriage today. I'm beginning to feel that although we're losing many individual battles, we're winning the war. 

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