Monday, December 04, 2006

Chronicle of a Sati Foretold: Sunny Singh’s With Krishna’s Eyes and Indian Gothic –

Christopher Rollason reviews my new novel, With Krishna's Eyes (New Delhi: Rupa Publications 2006)

Sunny Singh’s new English-language novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, is a disturbing and eloquent exploration of the dark side of “Shining India”, in which the modern and globalised coexists cheek-by-jowl with the archaic and traditional, in a contradiction seemingly without issue and yet lived to the marrowbone by its intensely engaged characters. It confronts the vexed question of Indian modernity head-on, by boldly centring its plot on so controversial an issue as sati. In the process, it draws on the resources of Indian English and the Indian and non-Indian literary heritage to offer the reader an exploration of fear, in a specifically subcontinental context, that may justify its being taken as a highly original piece of what might be called “Indian Gothic”. The author, born in Varanasi, now lives in London: the global reach of her work may be deduced from the fact that With Krishna’s Eyes came out in Spanish translation (Sunny Singh was resident in Barcelona at the time) before it was published in English, while her earlier novel, Nani’s Book of Suicides (published in 2000 and also translated into Spanish) was awarded the Mar de Letras literary prize in Spain in 2003.

The title might already raise eyebrows, for the reader may legitimately ask whose are Krishna’s eyes. Krishna is in fact the novel’s female protagonist: women named Krishna are fairly rare, but they do exist. If a gender barrier is being crossed through this naming of the character, we discover that Sunny Singh’s Krishna, in many ways a warrior woman, is not without her resemblances to the Krishna the combatant sage of the Bhagavad Gita (though rather less so to the playful blue-skinned Krishna of the Puranas). The female Krishna of this novel is a warrior in the world of film-making, a US-educated member of a proud Rajput clan who is suddenly called on to make a documentary, all too non-fictional, about a willed and voluntary sati, the conscious choice of an educated woman at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Forced as a matter of family honour and obligation to live this intense contradiction, Krishna finds herself accepting a major part in a drama which she does not approve of but tries her level hardest to understand. She herself is a globalised Indian who has recently emerged from an intimate relationship with Natchek, an NRI and financial consultant even more globalised than herself. Now, back home in her ancestral village east of Delhi, she comes face to face with Damayanti, a friend of her family’s: an educated, apparently modern woman, a graduate of Miranda House, Delhi, a Supreme Court lawyer who had in her time chosen a love marriage, a gadget-happy mobile phone owner, who nonetheless actively and obdurately campaigns for “her right to be sati” (145) as soon as her ailing husband leaves the world: “I have petitioned the court for permission to be sati, when my husband dies” (100).

The inevitability of Damayanti’s sati is etched into the reader’s consciousness from the very beginning – it is as certain to come to pass as the honour killing in Gabriel García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), a book to which Sunny Singh’s tale bears some resemblance. Krishna is impressed again and again with its necessity, by the familial pressure that descends on her from her grandfather, her sanyasi uncle, and, from beyond the grave, the voice of her late grandmother. It is a lesson of dharma, of unquestioned and unquestionable duty, of loyalty to family and clan. It is also the manifestation of a harsh and literal reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the homilies of Krishna’s divine namesake. Between this novel’s lines, one may hear the reverberation of the sacred text’s slokas, but we are talking about no benign or liberal interpretation of the concept of dharma. The voice of Krishna which we hear through and around the other Krishna is that which, in the Gita, declares sternly: “Through fixed devotion to Me, it is possible to know Me thus, O Arjuna, and seeing Me truly, to enter into Me, O vanquisher of foes” (Bhagavad Gita, 11-54). For Krishna’s relatives and for Damayanti herself, living in such a world of “fixed devotion”, the sati is as necessary as the elimination of the Kauravas. It is her grandmother who declares: “See Krishna, first we must do our duty. Follow dharma, and most times, it hurts. But to love something doesn’t mean to give up dharma” (91). Her uncle sings to the same tune: “Do what you have to do. That is the dharma of a warrior, right?” (283). Under such pressure, the young and modern woman comes to a large extent to internalise the ancestral belief-system herself.

It is as if Krishna the film-maker had to go through the ultimate anguish of living someone else’s sati under her own skin; and indeed, fear is a major element in the novel, signified as it happens through certain trappings of the Western Gothic transposed into the Indian context. Krishna has already lived through the trauma of 9-11, the quite literal explosion of American Gothic in all its darkness. Used to a New York where “two tall towers rose to the sky like the crowning jewels” (36), she suddenly comes to see the city as “a sinister killing place, full of smoke and death and suspicion” (41). Now, in India, Krishna is confronted with atavistic fears – “dark shadows that crowded my mind”, “long tongues of flame that flickered at the edges of my vision” (226). When first she enters Damayanti’s house, she finds herself in a darkly oppressive Gothic space that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, as first experienced by its fear-struck narrator: “I was led discreetly through gloomy carpet covered halls, where the ancient, heavy furniture lay carelessly scattered through the rooms”. Damayanti, “on a low couch, leaning against the many cushions that were piled up behind her”, greets Krishna like a second Roderick Usher, to induct her into a world of ancestral oppression (98). Poe meets Rajput tradition, to generate an atmosphere of Indian Gothic that culminates in the scream that rises to the skies at the moment of the sati – a shriek that is not Damayanti’s but Krishna’s, “my scream that went on and on, forever in my head” (289).

Sunny Singh’s novel does not neglect the sociological and ideological aspects of the sati issue – the saffron militants who demonstrate for Damayanti, the leftists and secularists who oppose her, the local peasants and functionaries who end up worshipping her as a sati-mata. However, the experience of reading this book is that we are dealing not with a tract one way or the other, but with a textually mediated perception of an Indian reality, communicated through specifically literary effects and emotively charged creative language. Seeing the sati with Krishna’s eyes (those of the character and those of the god), reliving the dark tale through the Indian Gothic of Damayanti’s House of Usher, the reader of this novel, Indian or foreign, will sense something of globalised India’s attempt to come to terms with itself, its ancestral fears and still-alive past anxieties, its painful efforts to live through them once again in order, it may be, finally to exorcise them.

**
NB: the quotation from the Bhagavad Gita is from the version translated, edited and introduced by Vrinda Nabar and Shanta Tumkur (Ware, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1997).

Links to Christopher Rollason's own archives:
http://www.geocities.com/christopherrollason/index.html
http://www.geocities.com/christopherrollason/SunnySinghreview.pdf

Christopher Rollason Reviews With Krishna's Eyes




Back in June, I took a trip out to Cordoba, Spain, for a day long event on Indian Writing in English. The conference was organised by the India-fanatic and literary critic, Antonia Navarro Tejero who has written extensively and passionately on Gita Hariharan and Arundhati Roy. She was also responsible for warmly and lavishly hosting us, with flamenco shows and impromptu guitar concerts.

The Delhi-based Indian author Manju Kapoor was there along with Christopher Rollason, an astute critic with impeccable catholicity of views.

My own work was discussed by Eva Gonzales de Lucas, a dear friend and colleague from my years at School of Languages at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I must confess that I am always discomfitted by any academically inclined discussion of my book. And yet, Eva's critique of my novels was interesting and illuminating.

I have always considered Cordoba a fascinating, magical place. On my first visit, back in the 1990s, I wandered through the city in grueling heat trying to find the source of a plaintive flute that rose above its white walls. The streets had been empty and it took me nearly an hour of wandering in circles before stumbling upon a man playing the flute. A donkey stood morosely next to him and couple of dogs lay at his feet. In his floppy trousers and esparadilles, his melancholy eyes drooping under heavy brows, the flute-player was an odd anachronistic yet deeply romantic image of Spain. I took a phote - aah, we tourists! - and then we spoke for some time. He was a "gitano" - a gypsy and curious about my "Indianness." We parted good friends, but that was the only social exchange I experience on what was necessarily a solitary adventure.

This time around Cordoba was full of social activity - dinners, drinks, lunches, and of course the lively conference discussions.



Christopher and I got talking at the flamenco show on the first evening - finding many shared interests. His lovely wife Ileana shares her name with a very dear friend who has been long lost to me, because of our many travels and adventures. And yet, just her name evoked nostalgia for another time, another place. And indeed an instant affection.

After the conference, Christopher and I stayed in touch, exchanging emails, photographs and discussions about books. He passed through London one afternoon and we caught up over lunch that extended far into the afternoon (A shared passion for Indian food was not the least of the cements).

Christopher didn't know my writing but was keen to read my work. He began - perhaps with trepidation - my new novel, With Krishna's Eyes (Rupa Publications, 2006). And then he suggested that he would review it for one of the many literary journals he writes for and/or edits as well as for his blog. Aware of Christopher's earlier work, I was of course excited and nervous about the review - if only because it would be tremendously insightful and far-ranging.

Yet before the review could be written - a stranger event linked us. I went to a gathering of book lovers one afternoon at the Kenwood House one afternoon. I had been invited by a new acquaintance and being new to London, looked forward to meeting new people. Midway through the afternoon, a man introduced himself to me - he was Christopher's brother, John!

The universe is indeed a small place!

I was tremendously in demand after that discovery. Apparently I was the only person in the gathering who had met John's "fabled" brother and sister-in-law! Others - all of whom have known John for many years - had heard much about Christopher and Ileana, but had never met them.

Now we are tied together with fragile threads of memory, family, shared love for the written word and fascination for India. And all of it reminds me that London - more than any other city in the world - is not so different from Delhi!

In his review of my novel, Christopher talks of Poe and the idea of the "Indian Gothic." It is an intriguing and surprising idea for me. But perhaps, given the strange twists of our tale thus far, I should have expected it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dhoom 2 - Hrithik's Grown into a Man. And HOW!



There are some films that we watch to gratify the soul. Others because they fulfil some deep emotional, psychological or creative need. And then, there are films that are pure eye candy. Dhoom 2 is of that last category.

The film brings back Abhishek Bachchan as the tough cop – Jai Dixit and Uday Chopra as his goofy sidekick Ali from the original motorcycle-lovers flick, Dhoom (2004). This time though, they are chasing the cool international thief and master of disguises, Aryan, played by a yummy Hrithik Roshan.

Once again, there are great bikes, spectacular location, skimpy clothes and buff bodies. And there are enough explosions and bike chases and action sequences to keep little boys happily glued to their seats.

Chopra flexes his muscles and walks off with the best lines. His Austin Powers blue velvet-suit was enough to get the audience cracking up immediately. Ali’s buffoonery got the most laughs, as did his “tapori” commentary on the action.

Bipasha’s double turn as the deadly cop and the beach bum twin-sister will keep men in the audience happy. Her spectacular walk down the Rio beach, carrying a surf-board and clad in the skimpiest bikini seen on Bollywood screen since Zeenat Aman is the stuff of the greatest wet dreams.



Abhishek Bachchan as the tough cop gets to brood and pout and never crack a smile. He has little to do in the film and seems disinterested in much of the film with the unfortunate result of being completely overshadowed by the boisterous Chopra and the intense Hrithik. Moreover, Abhishek needs to start working out though if he is to hold his own against the newer breed of Bollywood men. His under-built frame is painfully apparent along with his reluctance to showcase his physique. In a film as low on fabric as Dhoom 2, his loose shirts made him look positively overdressed.

Aishwarya disappoints as the Lara Croft-clone thief who may or may not be working for the cops. Her pout is nearly as obvious as Angelina Jolie’s but she lacks the attitude to make the part work. She is visibly uncomfortable in some of the skimpier clothes and her attempts to demonstrate her martial abilities left the audience sniggering. The home-girl “like”-sprayed talk and the basketball routine also just fell flat. Being so completely upstaged by the sultry Bipasha Basu can’t bode well for her comeback attempts.

Fortunately, Bollywood is now taking into account that women want eye candy too. So Dhoom 2 offers up the ultimate eye candy: Hrithik Roshan, with pecs rippling, abs taut, and possibly the most aesthetic pelvic bone on this side of paradise, all beautifully showcased in low slung jeans and billowy open shirts. It helps that he can also act. In fact, let us cut straight to the point – this is Hrithik’s show all the way. He sizzles in each scene. The Russian roulette sequence with Aishwarya works primarily for the conviction that he brings to it.

Hrithik’s acting abilities have never been in doubt for those of us who have seen him tackle roles as diverse as Mission Kashmir, Koi Mil Gaya and Lakshya. Neither have any of us entertained doubts about his looks – chiselled and classic as they are. But here he moves consciously and convincingly into sex-bomb territory and even doubters like me were left salivating after this particular turn.

Hrithik’s debut film – Kaho Na Pyaar Hai – had apparently developed a loyal fan following in Latin America. Dhoom 2 builds on that – complete with Rio de Janeiro as the setting for the second half of the film. The costumes, the Portuguese refrain, the Spanish lyrics interjected into the songs, the Latin beats of the sound-track, and the dance steps are all bear the trade-marks of a major marketing push in to Latin America for the industry.



Don’t get me wrong – this film will never be a classic. It is no more than a fluffy, brainless entertainer. The action sequences could have been edited differently for slicker, faster, more breath-taking results. The characters are not terribly coherent – except of course Hrithik’s and that is more a result of the actor’s own conviction than of any directorial input.

On the other hand, it is great fun. Besides, if the dazed expressions on the faces of the women in the audience at the end of the film are anything to go by, Hrithik alone is worth your ticket money.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Questions? (Part 1)

This article was written soon after the 7/7 London bombings and published first at www.sawf.org, a website that still hosts a bank of my writings. I have long wondered about the growing phenomenon of Islamist terror and perhaps the essay reflects some of those doubts. It also holds the anger I felt at the bombings in London, same as the rage I felt at the Sankatmochan bombing in Varanasi, my home town, and the ones in Mumbai and Delhi. Its time we stopped making liberal excuses and started asking some tough questions. Yes a community should not be held responsible for the acts of a few. But at the end, it is the community's responsibility to control its young. Just as we cannot and do not use "history" or "poverty" or "perceptions of victimhood" to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid, we should not use those excuses for jihadi violence!

The past few weeks have raised some of the usual questions about Islamic fundamentalism and, more importantly, Islamist terrorism. After two rounds of London bombings, (not to mention the Egypt bombs and the recent Imrana case and the Ayodhya temple attack in India), one is left with more questions than answers. Some questions I haven't found answers to despite reading dozens of commentaries, analyses and essays from around the world are as follows:

1. Why would European-born young men choose to blow themselves and innocent people up?
2. If they are truly a minority within the British-Muslim society, why did no one know about their plans or inform the authorities about their increasing radicalisation?
3. And worse still, how many more such young men are out there biding their time until the next attack?

Questions two and three have perhaps simpler answers. Various newspapers in the UK have already carried accounts from Pakistani relatives of the bomber Shahzad Tanweer about how they had warned his parents that he was fraternizing with members of jihadi groups during his visits to Pakistan. They have provided revealing details of how the young man carried a picture of Osama bin Laden in his wallet. A cousin simply commented that "if he has done what they say he has done, he has done the right thing." No guilt, no remorse, no condemnation to be found then in Pakistan's villages where the 7/7 bombers were mourned as heroes by thousands who gathered in the mosques.

At the same time, a neighbour in Beeston explained that the baby-faced picture carried by international media of Hasib Hussain was misleading, because by the time of the London bombings, he was a hulking frightening man with a thick beard and a propensity for getting into street brawls.

All this unfortunataly means one simple thing that so much of the media has been refusing to put in words: People knew! There are people - family, friends, colleagues and neighbours in Beeston, Dewbury and Pakistan - who knew that these young men were on their way to becoming suicide bombers. And they chose to let them go ahead with their heinous plans. How come we have absolved them of all responsibility? Simply in the name of general civic harmony? Or community relations?

The third question is related and perhaps even easier to answer: obviously there are many more young men in Britain and other countries who are willing to die and kill in the name of Islam. A recent Guardian survey of the British Muslim community showed that 5% of those polled believed that the London bombings were justified. Moreover, another survey showed that nearly 10% of the British-born Muslims polled felt no loyalty towards Britain, but felt they owed their allegiance to Islam. While this figure forms only a small percentage of the population, it could still mean that numerically thousands of British Muslims support the London bombings. We are in for troubled times, indeed!

The first question, however, is possibly the most difficult to answer. Left-leaning analysts in the UK have argued that economic deprivation and cultural isolation led these young British-Pakistanis to radical Islam. A large percentage of the local population has blamed British involvement in the ill-advised and unpopular occupation war in Iraq. Yet all these claims require some refuting, and not only of the neo-con variety that promptly announces that "9/11 happened before Iraq war" or that some how centuries of Western imperialism are to bla me for the rise in fundamentalism Islam today, basically because it has created conditions of economic deprivation, social alienation and political powerlessness.

None of the above arguments hold up to closer scrutiny. While it is true that Arab/Muslim sense of grievances goes much further back than the war on Iraq, as the neo-cons have pointed out, there is a clear line to be drawn when we get to history.
We in India are constantly told to let the past lie for the sake of "communal harmony" and not grudge the widespread destruction of temples all through north India and the subsequent construction of mosques on the same sites. We are told that is history, and with surprisingly little resistance, most of us agree with that view and move forward. So why do we permit a double standard for the Arab/Muslim sense of grievance? Much has been made by British-Muslim commentrators about the West's hypocrisy, yet they hardly pause to consider their own.

Furthermore, just how far these grievances are based on facts is open to debate. Various fundamentalist organisations, ironically based in or linked to Pakistan, and apparently fighting a world-wide jihad, use Palestine or Kashmir as their raison d'etre. However, we also know that neither the Hizbollah or the Hamas, two of the best known "fundamentalist" Islamist organizations in the Middle East, have shown any interest in any action beyond their localized freedom struggles. Both have made necessary adjustments with other religious and political groupings to continue their fight, with the Hizbollah initiating and forming alliances with not only Lebanese Christian groupings, but also with the extremely secular Lebanese Communists. Same is true for the Hamas.

A closer scrutiny also shows that the Palestinians, as a people and as political organisations, have little sympathy for the apparently "international" Islamist groups. Most Palestinians feel that their legitimate freedom struggle is hampered and harmed by the fundamentalist hijacking of that fight for purposes of an "international jihad."

Similarly, the use of "Kashmir" issue as a justifiable grievance for Muslims world-wide is equally suspect. The Kashmiri population - both Muslim and otherwise - enjoys far greater civil and political freedom than that enjoyed by populations in most self-proclaimed Islamic countries. If there is a section of the Kashmiri population that has been systematically harassed, terrrorised, killed and hounded out of the region, it is that of the minority community - the ill-fated Kashmiri Pandits. So how does ethnic cleansing of the non-Muslim minority population provide grounds for grievance to wage jihad?

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Some Questions? Part 2

The issue of economic deprivation is equally suspect, given that most of the best known terrorist attacks have been carried out by middle-class and well-educated men, such as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. Looking at British-born Muslims, the argument takes a further beating: the murderer of Daniel Pearl was a British-born Pakistani with a privileged background of public schools and university education at the famed London School of Economics, hardly the prototype of the downtrodden poor. Even the 7/7 bombings in London were carried out by men who were hardly starving in the streets. Instead, one of them had been recently given a red Mercedes, that ultimate Asian status symbol of having arrived, as a gift by his father.

Moreover, if economic deprivation is the key to turning young men and women into suicide bombers, why don't we see more of those coming out of West Bengal and Bihar, where much of the population still lives in desperate conditions. Oddly enough, even in Europe, the Bangladeshi Muslims have shown less interest in joining their jihadi cousins, although that may well change in the future.

So we finally get to the "cultural identity" issue, where the standard argument trotted out by Western commentrators is that somehow "Western" decadence offends and alienates Western-born Muslims. Alcohol, sexual freedom and "football" yob-ism of the majority European "white" community has been cited with immense self-hating relish as the reason why European-born Muslims are turning to radical Islam. It must be Western decadence that pushes these young men to jihad is the logic behind this argument.

Apart from the simple response this raises of "if they don't like the culture, why don't they move to Saudi Arabia," the cultural argument is so ridiculous that - if it were applied to a less serious issue - one would be tempted to laugh it off. If it is "decadent" Western values that the bombers didn't like, what about India?
Most Indians are frightfully straitlaced about sex. In most places beyond elite urban enclaves, alcohol consumption is frowned upon. For much of the country, the most "daring" outfit for a woman is still a pair of jeans worn - in most cases - with a baggy t-shirt or a full-sleeved shirt. So can someone explain which part of the decadent "culture" is pushing Indian Muslims to radical Islam? Which part of the "decadent" culture in India justifies the Muslim "fatwah" against a lone brave Muslim woman who admitted to being raped by her father-in-law? A fatwah, by the way, that has been defended not only by opportunist politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav but also by the so-called "educated" and “moderate” Muslim elite including Salman Khursheed.

So what drives relatively well-educated, fairly privileged young men to kill themselves and others? Once again, unfortunately, the common link between mercenaries in Iraq, Kashmir, and now Europe is Islam. Whether it is some verse of the Koran or its fundamentalist interpretation by semi-literate mullahs is for those who are better educated in Islam to decide. For me, the proverbial infidel and kafir, the answer must come from those who follow Islam.

However, from my position as infidel, and an Indian one at that, I do have a suggestion for the Islamic leaders and community: Stop playing victim!

Somehow, all Islamist terrorism is explained away as someone else's fault: the West doesn't allow political freedom or economic growth in the Middle East. The Indian government doesn't allow Kashmir to be brought under military dictatorship of an Islamic republic with long-standing sympathies with the Taliban-brand of human rights. Western democracies allow "too much" political and social freedom to young men in Britain who prefer to live on social security dole-outs while planning and executing terrorist attacks instead of finding jobs that would let them participate in the greater society.

For the sake of all of us, I think it is time that Muslim leaders and communities stopped whining about persecution and gave up finding excuses for why their young men prefer to kill themselves and others instead of fighting for better lives. A good starting point would be to answer some very simple questions, not at global, international political levels, but at the level of parents and community leaders of Muslim communities around the world:

1. How about taking responsibility for what your young men and women do? Not only when they blow themselves and others up, but also when they refuse to work, or to go to any school except madrassas where they learn no skill but to recite the Koran, and thus willingly, even knowingly, isolate and alienate themselves.

2. How about expecting your children to become a Shahrukh Khan, APJ Abdul Kalam or Azim Premji? Or a poet like Mourid Barghouti? None of them were born to privilege and yet grew to become true heroes in vastly different fields. Doesn't the responsibility of teaching children to dream lie with the parents?

3. More importantly, what about teaching the young that to struggle to better oneself and one's own lot is truly the "greater jihad," far more difficult but definitely higher than blowing oneself up? That true change requires unstinting hard work and doesn't come easy, but that it is possible.

4. And finally, how about pointing out to these silly young men that blowing oneself up in the London metro or a Kashmiri marketplace or an Iraqi mosque is the act of a coward? And no God allows a space for a coward in heaven!

Perhaps this is the infidel's way, of taking responsibility for oneself instead of the “Islamic” way of continually complaining of being victims. If that is so, there is much to learn from it.

FINAL NOTE: The lack of sincere remorse in Beeston became increasingly apparent when alleged "colleagues" and neighbours of the 7/7 bombers chose the names of Bollywood heroes as aliases in their comments to the unsuspecting Western media. Shahrukh Khan, Sunil Shetty and Sanjay Dutt were the top choices. For those of us who have learnt just how often Brit-Asians will evoke Bollywood references as a secret linguistic and cultural code unknown to this country's majority community, the trend was saddening, worrying, frightening, but beyond all, disgusting.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hagiography of Heroism: Introduction

The Hagiography of Heroism: Desire as Motivation of Performative Identity for Non-State Actors
Presented at ISA 2006, March 24, 2006, San Diego CA (USA)
Work in Progress. Comments Welcome.

“You desire what you see,” is the cryptic clue handed by Dr. Hannibal Lecter to Agent Clarice Starling in the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs. The psychologically astute serial killer’s statement encapsulates the underlying premise of the creation, perpetuation and satisfaction of human desire. Given the information-rich contemporary culture that constantly and consistently bombards us with images, sounds and ideas, we often overlook the ways that our desires are constantly being formed and transformed, often to reflect, refract and repeat millennial traditions – of love, jealousy, envy, hate. In a world with a surfeit of mass media, we ignore Lecter’s warning at our own peril – if we desire what we see, we desire what we see most often – commodities, heroes and ideals. We need not rely on Dr. Lecter’s word for it – much of mimetic theory covers similar ground. Other theoretician have debated the merits and functioning of this mechanism (Girard 1965. See also Auerbach, 1953, Bauml, 1984, Gerard, 1989)

Of more importance, for the purpose of this presentation is the question – given that we desire what we see, what precisely do we see in the new millennium? This question forms the crux of understanding how popular media constructs new ideological and idealist edifices of desires, often building on past structures, but always finding new material to re-enforce the foundations.

Let me first place some qualifiers to the answer however: Beyond the confines of the world of the Sopranos and Desperate Housewives, or even the sanitized polygamous world of Big Love, the world still turns to millennial stories – from the Bible, Koran, Ramayana for a start, but also from other treasure troves of tales that define and explain our lives and worlds. And this world is not necessarily reflected, re-created or re-presented in technologically archaic forms of oral or even print storytelling. From Gaza to northern Nigeria, or the banks of the Amazon to Bombay, storytelling in the 21st millennium is done with the moving image – celluloid, television, digital camera are all required. And they throw up interesting possibilities – to enjoy, admire, desire and imitate. Even in markets that Hollywood dominates, the images refer to and build upon earlier archetypes, endlessly recreating, distorting and transforming earlier ideals in a constant mimesis of the past, contemporary realities and possible futures. However, let us work with primarily Western examples for this section – not for the lack of material from non-Western audiovisual industries, but for the assumption that most material referred to would less familiar to a primarily Western audience. Please note, however, that the paper shall refer to historical and contemporary non-Western cultural products when necessary, either for comparison or for elaborating a point.

For the new millennium, one well known product is the Peter – trilogy based the eponymous novel by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings. This paper uses the novel to delineate some ideas, without necessarily separate reference to the film-trilogy. The reason for this conflation is not to avoid discussions on the merits of the Oscar-winning film or its filmic pleasures and discontent. Indeed, a discussion of the film trilogy would open a can of worms, not only on the issues of (mis)representations and imperialist agendas implicit and far more pronounced and complex in the film adaptation than the original literary text, but also on the possible meanings of director’s recent oeuvre which shows a marked tendency toward reviving some of the more noxious works of colonialist and racialist discourse.

The attempt to discuss Tolkein’s novel and simply referring to the films as necessary and only as apparently faithful re-presentations of the events described in the novel is intended to retain focus on the idealist and ideological content of the same. Moreover, the novel written in mid-20th century presents us with a neatly fragmented tryptich of heroic archetypes. These archetypes occur in older works of course, often embodied in the same hero. In Tolkein’s own fragmented contentious modernity, they no longer overlap and bleed into each other, fortuitously for us, allowing us to draw three clear models.

Tolkein’s novel provides an interesting case for mimesis, referring to, reflecting and recreating ideas long embodied by a range of texts, including the Old and New Testaments, Norse mythology and Greco-Roman legends. This paper considers mimetic theory in its adapted, transformed contemporary state, and refers to Girard’s idea as a base but not a doctrine. “Mimesis is a complex, multifaceted process of re-presentation and re-creation, in the course of which new works come into being via the misconstruction and transformation of models.” (Gebauer and Wulf, 1995). Since the early writings by Girard, mimetic theory has itself been misconstructed and transformed to include the phenomenon of constant inter-reference between art and society that mutually re-enforce, contradict and subvert each other. This plurality of referentialities reminds us that “To restrict mimesis to the mere reproduction of existing model thus falls far short of a satisfactory conception. We shall get farther in our efforts by attempting to conceive this process of re-presentation as a process of recreative transformation.” (Gebauer and Wulf, 1995).

This is why we are left considering how images shape society and vice versa. The much celebrated Lord of the Rings trilogy – regardless of its unthinking ethnocentricity – threw up earlier and highly resonant archetypes which deserve more than a cursory look. The trilogy recreates the ideal heroes, referring back to Tolkein’s pseudo-epic, written in a simpler age when despite the ravages of the WW2, the ideals of the benign empire could be cherished. The book draws on a plethora of archetypes – using both pre-Christian and Biblical strands to create its heroic narrative. From the Biblical standpoint, where “the meek shall inherit the earth,” Frodo Baggins is given a burden greater than he can bear – to carry the ring to the fiery mountains and destroy it. The apparently weak, disadvantages race of the Hobbits take on distinctly Biblical tints of the “chosen people,” in somehow selflessly saving the world. It is the Hobbits – specifically Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, along with their companions – who are capable of “great deeds” regardless of their abilities, strengths or talents. Any similarity to heroes of the Old Testament was entirely understandable – I suppose - from the standpoint of the author.

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 2

And just as Abraham, Isaac, Moses and the rest of the heroes of ancient Israel were led by the divinity himself (the Biblical god is very clearly male and part of the action), so are the Hobbits guided and assisted by Gandalf, the bearded patriarchal wizard who is immortal, from over the sea” and not from Middle Earth. His magical powers, affinity with the “lesser” deities of Rivendell and Lothlorien and finally the ownership of a “ring of power” confirm this godlike status. Gandalf job is also biblically godlike – to cryptically lead the heroes into difficulties, into increasingly dangerous tests and then midway – when things appear most grim, to disappear. His appearance at the moment of even graver crisis is intended to replicate the “saved by providence” or the “last minute rescue” of older, greater stories. Of course, the reader (or viewer) responds to his heroic re-entry with responses trained over centuries. Unfortunately, a closer or repeat reading/viewing leaves us wondering whether the Hobbits, or indeed, the “big people” wouldn’t have muddled along just as well without Gandalf’s aid. Perhaps that is a similar question that readers are left asking when reading the Bible – where divine intervention is often arbitrary, capricious, if not entirely disadvantageous (as in case of long suffering miserable Job). Yet, Tolkein’s epic doesn’t just exhort the weak to greatness – a theme that is most likely linked to the author’s own position as an English subject during the two world wars, it explores two other strands of desirable heroics. In both cases, Tolkein draws upon and refers to the non-Biblical cultures and traditions that shape European/neo-European thought.

Tolkein’s novel is replete with verses, perhaps to confirm its own attempt at epic storytelling or simply to recreate and reflect older traditions. In addition to its well known verse about the ring, there is another, once again referring to and echoing the New Testament and other Mediterannean, Greco-Roman, myths this time:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
(Tolkein, 1954, in seven volumes 2001, 224)

The verse applies to the “other” hero of the novel, Aragorn, or the “man who would be king,” once balance is restored to Middle Earth. The lines could as easily be applied to Odysseus, that old hero from Homer’s poem who wandered for twenty years but still wasn’t lost. Just as Homer’s hero shall be revealed as the only great survivor of the war at the opportune moment, so is Aragorn destined to labour in the shadows. And just as Christ is the true “King of the Jews,” unrecognised by most of his subjects except a small core of believers, Aragorn too must submit to derision and humiliation until he can finally be anointed king – after all Christus does mean the “anointed one.” Like Christ, he is destined to wander in the wilds, and only towards the culmination of the action does he begin to gain momentum, acquiring believers, supporters and followers in his battle against the “darkness.”

Drawing on a second strand- one that combines Romano-Semitic heroic principles that forms millennial European/Western cultural identity, Tolkein constructs his second “hero-in-disguise” as the archetypal leader, sharing special and close affinity with the divinity, much like Odysseus is aided by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who aids Odysseus unstintingly. And Christ-like, Aragorn too has a familial, if not directly blood-linked relationship, with the “divine” creatures in the novel – he marries Arwen, the last of her line who in an echo of Christ chooses mortality to become human. Aragorn’s own bloodline is linked to the Elves, suggesting that he too had the option of “crossing the sea” with the elves, yet it is his “destiny” to remain mortal and eventually die in order to restore order to Middle Earth.

Not surprisingly, the relationship that Aragorn shares with godlike Gandalf is also quite different from that of the Hobbits. Aragorn seems to play the role of protégé and enforcer, a position that allows him to at some hypothetical point in time claim a position of equality with Gandalf. Not only does Gandalf seek Aragorn’s advice, but also accepts the future king’s ability to challenge and defy his own authority. So unlike the Hobbits, who are only protected by some magical quality that preserves their childlike innocence, Aragorn’s strength is innate and sufficient. So Aragorn may wrestle with the Dark Lord, and Gandalf can merely frown. Not surprisingly, it is Gandalf who finally crowns Aragorn as the “true” king, at the latter’s own request, in a scene that is strikingly reminiscent of accounts of Charlemagne’s ascension to the throne. Thus, in a curiously monarchist conservative sleight of hand, king and god are conflated in the novel.

The paper thus approaches the third heroic archetype: tragically embodied by Theoden, the aging king of Rohan. He is also imitated, although with a contrived, and tacked on “happy” ending, by his niece, Eowyn. It is an archetype that draws equally on the pre-Christian European traditions, from the Saxons, the Vikings or the Greco-Roman as well as from the more subtly referred to Biblical ones: that of the heroic suicide. The idea for most traditions is one that we know well – and is encapsulated in the Greek root for the word “tragedy” – τραγωs or “goat,” referring to the ritual where a goat or another creature could be sacrificed to restore health to the entire community.

Not surprisingly, the tragic hero has to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the community. Heroism of this sort has unrelentingly a single end – a glorious death fighting the enemy for the safety of the community. From Achilles to Samson, the heroic suicides intend to cause as much damage to the enemy while destroying themselves. The aging disgraced king of Rohan rides again in the novel to do precisely the same. Like Samson, whose atones for his moment of weakness, by perishing while pulling down the hall of the Philistines, --- atones for his weakness in resisting Saruman by riding to his “glorious” death. Outnumbered, weakened, facing an enemy many times larger than his own, Theoden’s glorious charge is celebrated with near-Homeric war-ecstasy by Tolkein.

Tolkein’s self-confessed enterprise was to “create a mythology” for England, a country that the writer knew first through the embedded nostalgia of the colonials in South Africa. Not surprisingly, the kingdom is not only threatened in the novel, but the order restored is of the most archaic and conservative kind – sexually, politically and socially. The heroes are not only all male – they are also racially white and practically Anglican in their moral outlook. Interestingly enough, what appear in the novel as hints about the rebellious colonies selfishly refusing “civilized rule” was inflated to Sauron’s army dressed in “oriental” turbans, dark eyeliner and veiled faces by director Peter Jackson in the film trilogy.

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 3

However, returning to the idea of the desireable heroic ideals – we are left with three primary types: the weak but “chosen” hero who shall succeed in biblical fashion over the greatest odds; the exiled king whose return shall restore the kingdom, and by extension, humanity to harmony, and to some Edenic realm; and finally, the heroic suicide whose apparent willingness to scapegoat status facilitates the survival of a grateful community. All three forms of heroism are of course supported by a host of minor braves, much like the martial champions are backed by apparently ubiquitous but mostly irrelevant army in innumerable old and new works. What makes these three forms of heroism interesting is that they build on previously known, recognized and admired ideals. As construction of heroic ideals, they reinforce certain ideal behaviours and performances. If we consider the inevitably mimetic nature of human action, then the mimetic structure of consciousness acts as a blind mechanism that constrains people to behaviour constructed by prior models (Girard, 1977).

Furthermore the context of heroic action in Tolkein’s novel also reconstructs, re-presents and re-enforces previous models. Tolkein’s heroes are beyond the confines of state-ist hegemonist boundaries of behaviour and desire. Instead, the novel privileges individual desire, motivation and judgement, culminating in delinquent action articulated in violence against the corrupt, decadent and evil “state.” So the Hobbits must journey to the heart of darkness to achieve their final act of destruction, against the very foundations of the “state.” In an oddly Biblical symmetry, Frodo’s act of destroying the ring at the very foundation of Sauron’s empire echoes other acts of bringing down the “very foundations” of an apparently “unjust” state – by Joshua, by Samson, and in constant flow of violence by the biblical tribes of Israel against primarily peaceful – but non-Jewish – communities in Jerusalem.

Similarly, Aragorn – the king in exile – takes on the empire with a ragtag army of the marginalized. Even when cloaked in terminology of righteousness, his actions are hardly more than a quest for power, for the overthrow of a current state structure and its replacement by his own. His quest for power leads him to providing constant provocation, intrusion, attack and ambush of state forces. In each instance of apparent “ambush” of the heroic party, we need only shift our focus to realise that it is Aragorn and his companions who insert them into primarily stable territories and force a destabilization through their acts of violent delinquency.

Even in the third instance, the final ride of Rohan requires Theoden to break a longstanding treaty of peace with his neighbour Saruman. His decision to go to war is once again constructed in terms that privilege his recovery of personal power against the apparently debilitating controls of an encroaching domineering state.

The justification for violence by the “forces of light” – Hobbits, Elves, Wizards and People - throughout the book – that war approaches – sounds eerily like older threats of the same. If there was ever a case built for “pre-emptive strike”, Tolkein makes it, privileging the view from the criminal margins against the hegemonistic discourse of the trans-national state systems arguing for the maintenance of peace. As such the novel places the clash of good vs. evil in mythic terms where the legitimacy of the “state” is questioned and posited as evil, controlling and repressive. In contrast, individual desire, performatively demonstrated by violent acts of delinquency is constructed as an appropriate, even desirable, goal for mimetic behaviour.

Such an idealization of delinquent violent destabilization of course raises the question: why do cultures idealize such desires and behaviours as heroic through representations in traditional lore, religion and mythology as well as mass media? Moreover, this question in turn requires us to question the role of delinquency in society. The work of Emile Durkheim, writing in early twentieth century, probes precisely this link, and provides an important starting point to begin to contextualize the heroic delinquency discussed earlier. Durkheim argues that since all societies have crime, then crime, deviance and rule breaking are socially universal, so deviance may indeed be “normal,” and in fact serve some social purpose or function. Durkheim of course argues that deviance can be punished (in case of marginalized crime) and thus re-affirm social hegemony by reminding the members of the rules of acceptable behaviour. Punishing deviance can also bring members together binding the community together against internal and external “enemies” of the order. On the other hand, when deviance challenges the existing rules and is widespread, it can serve as a useful tool for societal change (Durkheim, 1938).

Durkheim’s propositions open an interesting window into how heroic delinquency is constructed, received and interpreted by a community. The idealisation of such delinquency allows a society to draw its national/ethnic boundary, desire specific communal goals for itself - often through the triangulation of mimetic desire through imagining an “Other” as a rival. Such idealization powers not only internal social change but also imperial exercises abroad.

Thus far the paper has established some heroic archetypes and attempted to contextualize the delinquent violence that emerges as a logical course of action for achieving such heroic status. Moreover, a theoretical context for the performance of the underlying desires has also been proposed. However, an extra step is now required – from the world of storytelling to the real one.

This leap is often pre-empted by many apparently “scientific” disciplines where many assume that what happens in fact and in fiction are mutually exclusive and contradictory. While the relationship between fact and fiction may not necessarily be an obvious one, there is a fundamental purpose for the human practice of storytelling. “Firstly, it provides a uniquely revealing mirror to the inner dynamics of human nature. But secondly, by laying bare the unconscious foundations which underlie so much of the way we view the world, this can in turn cast an extraordinarily revealing light on history, politics, religion, philosophy and almost every aspect of human thought and behaviour.” (Booker, 2004, 571). Indeed, all of the fields listed above are in themselves exercises in storytelling, which is why the paper now takes the three primary heroic archetypes from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and finds their peers in contemporary reality, thus linking what appears to be a highly successful pseudo-epic to specific desires and performative actions based on those desires.

Yet, these real world heroics are merely mimetic performances of the great stories. In their trajectories, they are merely the unfolding of action powered by determined striving to achieve the heroic ideal. In many cases, the stories are incomplete, due to the continuity provided by time and reality, and can only be fully narrated within the construct of the archetype upon their conclusion. To assume a clean fit with the archetype when the stories are unfinished would be impossible. However, some shared elements at the initial stages of these real-life sagas do point to the archetypes, and the desire to mimic the same. A word of warning: stories turn on points of view – making one man’s hero into another’s villain. The same applies to these examples discussed below. Neither a moral nor political value judgement is intended as the paper attempts to delineate the role of the archetypes in real life delinquent heroics.

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 4

The first archetype before us is that of the Hobbits: bearing a burden greater than their capacities, somehow the archetypes of the meek who shall inherit the earth, or in their particular case, Middle Earth. However, it is the specific heroics of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins that most reflect the inherent qualities and paradoxes of the archetype. Bilbo finds the ring under the earth and “wins” it primarily by deceit. He then guards it and preserves it till it can be “passed” on to his successor Frodo. Even though Tolkein wishes us to consider Frodo in a heroic light, we are still left with the clear knowledge that were it not for Gollum – the classic scapegoat of the epic – Frodo would not destroy the precious artefact that can in turn collapse the foundations of the empire. Yet the Baggins are not the humble poor of the Bible but the comfortable bourgeoisie of twentieth century Europe. The ring can bring them greater wealth and status, but its loss will not damage their socio-economic standing.

A parallel is not hard to find for the Baggins in the real world. But instead of looking at the likes of Bruce Rappaport, the infamous financier of the past few decades who would provide us with the easiest example, or even the middle-class, well-educated 9/11 hijackers, the paper considers other characters who exemplify Baggins-like qualities.

Tolkein describes the Hobbits as an “unobstrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well ordered and well farmed countryside was their favourite haunt.” (Tolkein, 1954, from seven volume edition 2001, 1). However, the story that follows contradicts all the above claims. Instead, Hobbits are also adept at machinery and warfare, and are neither peace-loving nor particularly retiring from the affairs unfolding around them.

A more Hobbit like figure then is hard to encounter than Maurice Sarfati, an Israeli gun runner, drug money launderer, financial pirate, and “melon-farmer.” While Sarfati’s exploits are dealt with in greater detail elsewhere (Block and Weaver, 2004), the paper merely looks at his actions countering the apparent multinational consortium against drug and weapons trade. Sarfati retains his citizenship from Israel, a precarious state described by its founders in terms that re-affirm their link to the land, as well as its peacable nature, much like that of the Hobbits. And like Hobbits, its some of the country’s scions – who have achieved international fame in the field of financial piracy, drug and weapon trades - bely the nation’s avowed law-abiding nature.

Amongst these, Sarfati has been one of the prime movers for covertly supplying surplus Israeli Defence Force stocks – including assault rifles and ammunition – to Gonzalo Rodrigues Gacha, leader of one of the Medellin cartels in the early 1990s. Sarfati self-avowedly owned a “melon” farm in Antigua which was his cover for financial operations, including embezzlement of US bank loans and immense bribes for Antiguan authorities to carry out a range of financial frauds. Sarfati’s deal with Gacha not only included the sale of Israeli weaponry but also the provision of military and weapons training to Colombian cartel members. One of the trainees from these courses was arrested in 1989 for assassinating judges and court personnel. Other trainees of the Israeli courses went on to memberships of death-squads. One of whom was most notoriously responsible for the massacre of banana-plantation workers in the Uraba province.

Sarfati is a fascinating personality, having embezzled millions in US aid funding and other private investment funds. Like the Baggins, he holds his connections to land and agriculture closely. His rather unsuccessful melon farm – at least on the financial books – is closely matched by the flower business owned by his cohort Arik Afek and the racehorse stable owned by Passant Ben-Or. The drug and weapons running operations have reached the heart of the “stable” empire of the US as Israeli-trained gunmen battle the DEA, and sophisticated weapons are delivered to the very heart of “evil.” However, Sarfati is aided by no scapegoat Gollum to ensure the destruction of the weapons that can rock the foundations of the transnational state structures. Instead, when he – Frodo like – determined to keep the ring for himself, there has been little to prevent his delinquency. Driven Frodo-like to strive for riches and power beyond imagining and caught by yearning to retain any and all possible means of achieving the same, Sarfati is constrained by neither fortuitous chance, nor by other players. Instead, he follows Frodo’s choice of holding the ring to its natural conclusion – a never-ending quest for the ever greater amassment of material success which leaves death and destruction in its wake.

Sarfati’s fit of the archetype is uneasy, in part because of the disjunct between the national self-image and Frodo’s choice. National self-image for Sarfati’s home country places him in the “weak” category, his own choice of profession and activity place him as one held in thrall of an evil power – much like the ring-bearer. The end result is paradoxical where desire for power leads him in one direction while other, external, considerations insist on the need to “appear” righteously weak.

The second category of heroic delinquent is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous in contemporary reality – that of the hero-in-disguise or the king-in-exile. Contemporary media ranging from Batman and other superhero sagas all rely on our instinctive sympathy and interest for a hero who must live in the shadows, performing their heroic identity in face of ridicule, anonymity and opposition. Once again, the king-in-exile is fundamentally a violent delinquent apparently fighting for the restoration of a “just” realm, or just a change in the existing state apparatus which is perceived as unjust. The contemporary media doesn’t just present the hero in disguise in numerous comic-linked products but also places him/her as the just avenger or representative in most films of the action/war genres. Sylvester Stallone’s first outing as Rambo in First Blood relies on the same mechanism. The hero knows better than the oppressive brutal state! And at the right time, his truth and glory shall be revealed, while the state is undermined and humiliated in turn. Arnold Schwarznegger’s career has been built on a series of films starring him as the lone saviour fighting all odds to bring out peace and justice. Not surprisingly, given its popularity in media, this is one archetype that forms a popular motivation in real life heroic delinquency.

The Iranian president Ahmadinijad’s repeated reference to the Mahdi is linked to this archetype – of the return of a hidden king that shall restore power and glory to an apparently oppressed people. In the past decade of US imperial adventures, the archetype seems to have gain strength, finding expression amongst militants around the world. However one of the most interesting case in point has been that of the recent election of the Hamas in Palestine. The organisation has consistently moved from the fringes of Palestinian society and politics to the centre-stage in the past few years. Some comparisons with Tolkein’s elaboration of the king-in-exile would provide some pointers. One characteristic, as Tolkein explains, of the true king is his ability to heal. Not surprisingly, Aragorn’s healing skills are demonstrated early in the novel after the fight with Sauron’s emissaries on Weathertop. Not only are “black riders”, former kings themselves vanquished by the “true” king Aragorn, he also shows his knowledge and talent for life-saving. As Frodo is wounded by a “cursed” blade, it is Aragorn’s lot to find the special herb that can heal. Of course, keeping with the mythic proportions of the novel, the herb attains its magical healing powers only in the hand of a king.

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 5

Not inexplicably then, for all the years, that West (cast here in the role of Sauron) has eyed the Hamas as terrible opponents, the Palestinians have been receiving proof of the group’s ability to heal. The Hamas runs hospitals, schools and civic services form the bulk of the organization’s activities, even though Western media reports primarily on their “martyrdom” operations. Working from the position of the hero-in-disguise, the Hamas have been working at convincing and recruiting followers over the years of their existence. Relying on earlier archetypes means that they recruit not only soldiers and activists, but also cheerleaders and silent supporters, a strategy that served them well in the recent elections. The organisation has also constructed its military image, based once again on the warrior-hero characteristics displayed by Aragorn (and indeed other heroes of the same mold): stoicism, courage and determination in face of all odds have marked the Hamas’s move from the shadows to its current position as the “justly anointed king.”

Of course, the moment of revelation of the true self of the hero-in-disguise is critical in a story, generally placed at the moment of climax, when victory is nearly won and only credit need be gained. Unlike stories which can be constructed artificially to fit archetypes, human histories can merely attempt to achieve the same goals. While the desire to performatively claim the identity of the hidden-king is a powerful motivator, human actions do not necessarily have as well delineated or predictable consequences. This means that unlike Aragorn who announced himself as king at the final stages of the decisive battle, Hamas is faced with governing a realm in disarray and with little resources to restore peace or harmony. With Hamas moving from the shadows to the centre-stage of Palestinian politics, a question needs to be asked: has the king revealed himself too soon?

The third and final archetype is yet another familiar one: that of the heroic suicide. Despite much of the current discursive attempts emanating from Western academic that posits the heroic suicide as a non-Western phenomenon, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Not only do the military stories from the two world wars of the twentieth century show Western adherence to heroic suicide (the battle of Gallipolli being a prime example), but mass media also glorifies the ideal as a desirable one. Hollywood alone has produced heroic suicides (ending in death or success) in blockbusters as varied as the Fourth of July, Mission Impossible II and of course the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Heroic suicide is a complex category, relying as it does on self-destruction as a performative assertion of an empowered self. The paradox also makes this archetype most powerfully resonant with populations who benefit from such a hero. The heroic suicide allows the perpetrator to deal a psychologically (and possibly militarily) crippling blow to the enemy – at times an oppressive state, or at times to a rival Other population or state. The key to this archetype is not the necessary destruction of the hero, but the desire for self-destruction that motivates him/her. In most narratives of the heroic suicides, the archetype is explores by twin strands – one that ends in death and destruction, and another – generally as the representative of a younger renewing generation – that ends in military success and life. Tolkein explores this archetype in the twin warrior-figures of Rohan – Theoden king who leads the ride of the Rohan to the killing-fields of Gondor against a far greater army and dies in battle, and his niece Eowyn who rides to battle seeking death but lives, having faced the leader of the Ringwraiths. The twin strands allow the narrative to retain an element of hope, although it is inevitably the narrative of suicide – cloaked as self-sacrifice – that resonates more strongly.

This self-sacrifice may be linked to the Girardian scapegoat mechanism, this time chosen freely based on prior constructions of its desireability. Unlike Girard’s scapegoat, the heroic scapegoat is not the repository of collective guilt but of the collective innocence. The heroic suicide is “sacrificed” by violence towards and from the “other”, often constructed as the outsider as a means of confronting a moment of social crisis. In death, the heroic suicide is exalted as an ideal to be strived for and desired by the population. This may be one major factor in why the heroic suicide is most ubiquitous as a desirable ideal in societies in crisis.

Theoden thus becomes the symbol of collective innocence of Rohan, despite his own moment of weakness as well as his decision to break the peace treaty with Saruman. His decision to lead the battle at Helm’s Deep is crucial in the war with Sauron, as it marks the change in alliances amongst the players. His final death in battle, against an enemy too strong to fight is a fitting tribute to his abilities as a king and warrior. Moreover, his death provides the injection of blood-lust for Rohan’s younger warriors who return to battle “grim and fey.”

The paper’s third example explores how this archetype of heroic suicide resonates powerfully among societies in crisis and at war as a desirable performative identity. The paper turns here to Loula Abboud, a Lebanese young woman who took up arms against Israel and finally died by exploding her own body in a battle against Israeli soldiers in her hometown of Aoun. The paper chooses Loula’s case in contrast to better known cases of “suicide bombers” for a variety of reasons. First, Loula was Christian not Muslim. She died in battle rather than in a “martyrdom” operation, and she died in her hometown battling an occupying force. Like Theoden king, Loula’s arrival in battle was the result of a long internal conflict and the end of a period of indecision that began with the exile of her family to Beirut. Moreover, the known facts of her death are those of linked to battle – she returned to occupied Aoun in 1985 at the head of an armed resistance party. She provided covering fire to her retreating comrades and then patiently waited for the enemy soldiers to approach her before setting off the explosives. Interestingly enough, Western commentators have expressed an inability to understand Loula’s actions or indeed her elevation to heroic status by the Lebanese, qualifying her as misinformed, and even more specifically “either insane or desperate.” (Davis, 2003, 71).

Yet Loula’s actions place her squarely as the archetypal heroic suicide. Like Theoden, she chose to go to battle of her own volition. Like Theoden, the enemy faced was superior in number and firepower. Finally, she chose her death, like Theoden, knowing it would inspire others of the community. This final factor is crucial to understanding the desirability of heroic suicide, as the act immediately elevates the actor to exalted status. Like Theoden who becomes the inspiration for the younger warriors of Rohan, who can look back at his “glorious death” with pride, Loula’s decision to die in battle also ensures her status as a martyr for the nation. The act of heroic suicide, in both cases, instantly binds the community in opposition to the enemy while also providing a collective repository of pride and glory – a commodity that is scarce in societies in crisis.

The Hagiography of Heroism: Conclusion

The paper has thus far linked heroic archetypes explored in Tolkein’s novel – constructed itself as a pseudo-epic and drawing on mythical archetypes – and their reflections in contemporary reality. The paper does not intend to suggest that any of the three examples were conscious acts of mimesis or for that matter required any knowledge of the novel. Instead, just as Tolkein’s novel drew upon, re-created, re-presented and transformed earlier archetypes, so do the three mentioned examples desire to perform the archetypes in real life. They are neither alone, nor far from common, in reality, as human will always refer to archetypes as reference models of idealised behaviours and identities.

There reason to explore these narrative archetypes is one that bears further study from within the disciplines of political science and IR. Much of the recent discussion from disciplines studying non-state actors have focussed on narrow boundaries of religious or political ideology, or to personal greed (falling in line with false greed-grievance dichotomies). Thus, the motivations and activities of these delinquent actors are linked to psychological distress and trauma and consequently causes are sought in areas as far ranging as political emasculation of the Third World male, culturally ingrained oppressive social practices, gender prejudice, and finally, the new catch-allcategory of religious (especially Islamic) fundamentalism

Instead, as the paper has suggested, while economic, political and military gains may form the overtly expressed motivations for these non-state actors, many are also driven by the underlying desires to perform identities constructed from archetypes of long historical and cultural standing. Another motivation for at least a section of the active participants in international arenas linked to or dubbed as crime or terrorism: that of individuals seeking personal gratification of living up to, and indeed being transformed into heroic and desirable figures.

Prior to concluding, one last point must be made. The archetypes embodied by The Lord of the Rings are by no means limited to cultural production of Hollywood and its other mass media subsidiaries in the “First World.” In passing and very briefly, reference must be made to cultural icons such as Che Guevara, whose marginality, willingness to battle and final “heroic” death allows a similar desirable archetype to be created and emulated in much of Latin America. The positioning of narrative allows contemporary political figures and stories to be interpreted in archetypal forms, often in mutual contradiction by rival societies: so while Fidel Castro may well be Saruman locked in his unassailable tower for US, he is conceived more as an aging just king like a Theoden in his weakened besieged state.

Similarly, other cultural industries, ranging from Indian commercial cinema to Nigerian Hausa videos interpret and position the archetypes quite differently and in contradiction to the hegemonistic discourse emanating from Hollywood, thus reaching audiences that can encounter similarities and therefore re-position, re-present and re-affirm themselves through and in the narratives. In this context, a final mention must be made of the recent Turkish film, The Valley of Wolves, which narrates the current US war in Iraq from an anti-US perspective. With directorial and spectatorial sympathies firmly entrenched on the Arab/Iraqi side, the film neatly overturns the Hollywood stereotypes to create a narrative similar to innumerable Schwarznegger/Stallone films. However, the film still recreates and reflects the heroic archetypes the paper has discussed, providing an interesting insight into how archetypes can and do travel cross-culturally.

In conclusion, the archetypes subconsciously posit a desirable identity for emulation by the community in a moment of collective crisis. Not surprisingly, the performance of this desirable identity also includes a hagiographic, and self-hagiographic function that insists on its re-membrance and re-counting, thus emphasizing and recreating its desirability for the future generation. That the desirability is guarded, transformed, and transmitted in the shadows of our collective subconscious makes its call all the more seductive, hard to explain and irresistible.

Perhaps then it is not a ring after all, but these archetypes that are referred to in Tolkein’s opening verse, that can “rule them all…and find them…bring them all…and in the darkness bind them.”

The Hagiography of Heroism: Bibliography

Bibliography for paper on the Hagiography of Heroism

Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in WesternLiterature.
Tran. Wilard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. Tran. Richard Miller. New York:
Hill and Wang.
Block, Alan A., and Weaver, Constance A. 2004. All is clouded by desire. Westport,
Connecticut: Praeger. pp 63 – 69.
Booker, Christopher. 2004. The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. London:
Continuum. pp 571-643.
Davis, Joyce M. 2003. Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle
East. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. pp 67-84.
Dyer, Richard. 1979. Stars. London: BFI Publishing.
Gaggi,Silvio. 1997. From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film,
the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media. Philadephia: University of
Pennsylvania Press.
Gebauer, Gunter and Wulf, Christopher. 1995. Mimesis: Culture-Art-Society.
Berkeley: University of California Press. pp 89 – 103.
Girard, Rene. 1965. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary
Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
_________. 1986. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: John Hopkins
University Press.
_________. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: John
Hopkins University Press.
Nagel, Joanne. 2003. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections,
Forbidden Frontiers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert. 1994. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and
the Media. London: Routledge.
Tolkein, J.R.R. 2001 . The Lord of the Rings. (first published 1954). London: Harper
Collins Publishers Ltd.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Its DON, not Vijay!

Full disclosure: This review was published first by www.club-masala.com in English and Spanish. It is one of the many projects I am associated with, and in many ways, gets first shot at carrying my film reviews.

Once upon a time, there was a classic role – made immortal by the Shahenshah of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan back in the late 1970s. Cut to 2006, a daring young director decides to recast the current King of Bollywood – Shahrukh Khan – for a remake of the same film. Some may call that foolhardy. It is most certainly, definitely, risky.

Don – The Chase Begins Again has been raising hackles ever since it was announced. Old fans have complained how no-one could recreate Don. Critics have sneered that Shahrukh’s clean image would never do justice such a role, perhaps forgetting that the actor got a start playing negative parts.

So what’s the new Don like? Well, a lot slicker, trendier and bigger – the action, the car chases and fight sequences are all superb. There are lots of gadgets and well choreographed action sequences. The women all look glamorous, with one exception of a hideous dress choice by Isha Koppikar (A word of advice – NO-ONE looks good in flounced baby doll dresses!). Kareena is polished and glamorous in her bit part as Kamini, a role essayed originally by the classic Bollywood queen of oomph – Helen. Priyanka Chopra never quite manages to slink around in a bikini a la Zeenat Aman, but her Roma remains dangerous and sexy.

Arjun Rampal is a gorgeous update on the original role played by Pran – as a man looking for his missing son and vengeance. The original featured a rather feeble high-wire scene with Pran. It has been replaced by a vertigo-inducing sequence on top of the Petronas tower in Malaysia – still scary, perhaps even more so, because it is so believable.

And so, we come to Shahrukh. He hasn’t had this much fun in a while. For once he is gets to be an all out bad boy. And boy, does he love it. You can practically see him grin with pleasure as he struts and snarls and sneers. He keeps a lot of the old iconic dialogues, but brings enough of his own to update them. His Don is a lot darker, more dangerous and coldblooded. Shahrukh works in shades of Al Pacino’s Scarface in his rolling walk and a subtle coke-head’s sniff and swipe of the nose that almost seems a nervous tic. It’s a master touch for a Don who is now an international drug smuggler. What is also interesting is the new Don’s appetite for women – Amitabh’s version seemed more interested in getting business done than in Helen’s charms. Even as the bumbling Vijay, he stayed true to Roma once he fell for her. Not so in 2006 – this Don eyes up the babes with a sexual hunger that borders on sleazy. His parties are barely a shade up from upscale orgies.

And then we get to Akhtar’s changes to the script. Smartly he doesn’t try to recreate the moral universe of the original film. Nor does he try to reconstruct the hinterland bumpkin persona of Vijay. Neither would have worked in 2006, when the old moralities have been inevitably blurred, and even the small town lads are clued in to the latest MTV hits thanks to satellite television. Instead, he revives some of Shahrukh’s early star persona – of Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam – with the dark, psychotic shades. And then he packs in lots of twists and turns of the plots, including the surprise package at the end. What you get is not a remake of Don, but a Don version 2.2, updated and packaged for the new millennium.

My verdict: Akhtar is evolving into a director comparable to Gulzar, or Manmohan Desai or even early Subhash Ghai. Just his name on the film credits is a guarantee for a well constructed, well shot and beautifully edited film. Go see it – not because you want to compare it to the old Don, but because this is a great cinematic experience – fun, furious and fabulous. And of course, then there is Shahrukh!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prabha Tonk: A fabulous actress, superb wit

Somewhere back in 1998, I wrote a play – Birthing Athena. It eventually was performed at the Sri Ram Centre in New Delhi but this post is not about that production. This post is about someone I met thanks to that play – Prabha Tonk.

Some Dilliwalas, especially the theatre-types would know Prabha as a director or casting agent, or in some of the many roles she plays in her life. Strange then that not many of us have had the privilege of watching her act. In the past few years she has rarely stepped on the stage - and that is a tragedy for all those who love theatre!

I was warned that she was picky about her roles and didn’t take on anything that didn’t match her standards or expectations. But of course, absolutely heedless and completely convinced of my own play, I marched into her house one afternoon, script in hand, hoping she would say yes. I must also confess that I was desperate – my lead actress had been forced to drop out and the opening night was less than ten days away. I hadn’t even met Prabha before, or seen her act. But most of the actors I respected and liked thought she was great – and that was sufficient for me in my despair.

Prabha offered me tea, in that husky amazing voice of hers and that precise accent. And I was sold! This was my lead character just brought to life, with equal parts of maternal affection and no-nonsense individuality. She said she would have to look through the script before she accepted. I left her house with my fingers tightly crossed.

She called later in the afternoon and informed me rather perfunctorily that she would be happy to be part of my play and would be happy to know the rehearsal schedule. Phew….if she only knew the relief I felt.

To cut a long story short – Prabha was brilliant in the play. She grew and grew to fill up the entire stage whenever she strode across it. Even my frayed nerves – that kept me away from the auditorium for long stretches – could not refuse to recognise the power in her portrayal of the loving yet fiercely ambitious mother of my play.

Prabha and I have stayed in touch long after that play. I know that she must be in any play I put together again. And she has grown to like my writing enough to be a part of public readings for both my novels. Beyond her ability to act, there is one more thing I admire about Prabha – its her pithy, ironic, cutting sense of humour.

So when she sent me a piece about mothers and learning lessons of life from them, I of course laughed out loud. There was much in the piece I recognised from my own mother. And there was a clear recognition of Prabha’s own mothering experience. The piece made me laugh when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. And that is the best reason to share it with everyone else. So this is from Prabha Tonk:

Things I learned from my mother

1. My mother taught me to Appreciate A Job Well Done.
"If you're going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning."

2. My mother taught me about Religion.
"You better pray that will come out of the carpet."

3. My mother taught me about Time Travel.
"If you don't straighten up, I'm going to knock you into the middle of next week!"

4. My mother taught me about Logic.
"Because I said so, that's why."

5. My mother taught me about Foresight.
"Make sure you wear clean underwear, in case you're in an accident."

6. My mother taught me about Irony.
"Keep crying, and I'll give you something to cry about."

7. My mother taught me about Stamina.
"You'll sit there until all that spinach is gone."

8. My mother taught me about Weather.
"This room of yours looks like a tornado went through it."

9. My mother taught me about Hypocrisy.
"If I told you once, I've told you a million times. Don't exaggerate!"

10. My mother taught me about the Circle Of Life.
"I brought you into this world, and I can take you out."

11. My mother taught me about Behaviour Modification.
"Stop acting like your father!"

12. My mother taught me about Envy.
"There are millions of children in this world who don't have wonderful parents like you do."

13. My mother taught me about ANTICIPATION.
"Just wait until we get home."

14. My mother taught me about RECEIVING.
"You are going to get it when you get home!"

15. My mother taught me about MEDICAL SCIENCE.
"If you don't stop crossing your eyes, they are going to freeze that way."

16. My mother taught me about ESP.
"Put your sweater on; don't you think I know when you'll be cold?"

17. My mother taught me about HUMOR.
"When that lawnmower cuts off your toes, don't come running to me."

18. My mother taught me HOW TO BECOME AN ADULT.
"If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll never grow up."

19. My mother taught me about GENETICS.
"You're just like your father."

20. My mother taught me about WISDOM.
"When you get to be my age, you'll understand.

21. My mother taught me about SHARING.
"I am going to give you a piece of my mind!"

22. My mother taught me about FEAR.
"One day you'll have a child who'll do the same things to you."

My mother was the BEST!!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Number Nine Bungalow - For Ruskin

So after the Festschrift in Mussourie, I wrote the story for Ruskin. And here it goes, titled Number Nine Bungalow - because in that hill town overlooking the Doon valley, all houses were numbered rather than named...

Number Nine Bungalow

Death came silently, frequently, to the little town in the mountains. And it always chose the men. They would go away on mysterious journeys, on “operations”, carrying olive-green rucksacks, and holding rifles black and glistening with oil like a school-girl´s plaits. Fingers caressed prayer beads, lips moved soundlessly over the sacred words, and eyes looked steadily forward, as the trucks carried them away.

Left behind, the women would watch the soldiers disappear into the distance. And a little later, the hum of a plane would rise from the distant airstrip. The women would pause in their conversations, their prayers, their cooking, to listen to the drone grow softer as the aeroplane flew far, far away.

Theirs was a small community, spread over a mountainside, dotted with bungalows that the British had built nearly a century ago. Lower down the slopes were the barracks, and still lower and closest to the plains, the tiny market. Beyond the tall deodar tops, the mountainside dipped into a wide valley, the Doon valley with its soil rich with fragrant basmati scents, the many lights of the Dehra twinkling at night.

On clear nights, the lights twinkled right across the valley and on to the mountains at its other end, just like a sparkling necklace flung carelessly across the darkness. The necklace stretched right across the valley and up the mountains on the other end, its end shimmering in the night. That end, where the sirens never called for black-outs, was Mussourie, a tourist town. A happy, social town, full of parties and happiness and laughter. Even as a seven-year old, Ruchi knew, when she watched the Mussourie lights, that Death went infrequently to that far town.

Because Death stayed right here in the cantonment, stalking through the misty mountain top high above the bungalows amongst the multi-coloured prayer flags. It sneaked past the offices where the “operations” were planned; crept past the cheerful barracks that smelt of butter tea, thukpa, momos and human determination. Death climbed silently on to the olive-green trucks that carried the men away on operations. It stowed away secretly on the aeroplanes that flew the men even farther than the Doon valley below.

Ruchi knew this, because when the men returned, grim and weary, there would be faces missing their ranks. “Death marched again with us,” her father, unshaven and bone-tired, would inform her mother as he collapsed on the soft bed, too weary even to remove his mud-spattered jungle boots. Mother would look grave, sometimes even weep a little, as she removed Father´s boots and then tucked him safe under the vast green down-quilt.

When Death took the officers, their passing would be marked with a quick, sombre toast in the mess, and by the hasty removal of the dead man´s family down to the plains. In the barracks, the passing was even quieter. A face would vanish, only to be replaced by another, impassive, slant-eyed one, even as the other soldiers continued their chanting: “Om mani padme om.”

***

On days that Father was not away on operations, he took Ruchi for walks on the mountain-side. They would stroll through the deodars, the rhododendrons, and the pines on the higher reaches. Ruchi´s favourite stretch was a solitary walk lined with towering pine trees where the ground was carpeted by tangy-smelling needles that sank under her feet. In the dim twilight that always lived under the tall trees, Father taught her to walk silently, testing the twigs and needles under her soft-soled shoes. “Not a crack,” he would instruct, solemnly demonstrating his own stealth. Later, kneeling on the pine-needles in companionable silence, they would watch the clouds swirl through the narrow gaps in the mountains and observe the furry creatures of the forest go about their own business.

Once, while walking on that soft pine carpet, Ruchi found a small furry body the colour of dry dirt. A faint, acrid smell rose from it. “Death marched with it,” Father murmured, running his fingers through her hair and pulling her head against himself. They moved away, Father carrying her home in his arms. From the edge of their garden overlooking the pine walk, Ruchi heard him instruct one of the soldiers. “Bury the body, pinjala, I don´t want her upset again,” he said, holding Ruchi tight in his arms.

Later, when Father had gone up to the offices near the top of the hill, Ruchi ran down to the pine walk to see the animal again. The body was gone, the patch covered with a fresh layer of sharp, green needles. But the odour – of the non-living – still lingered on the spot, blending with the tangy new scent of the needles.

****

When she grew older, Ruchi could never remember how she came to identify Nine-number bungalow as Death´s house. Perhaps, Gompo-la, the sweet tempered soldier-monk who watched over her as she played, had informed her. Or perhaps Father told her about the abandoned old house that stood not a half-kilometre from their own, a faded number nine painted in black on its rickety wooden gate.

Its red roof was of the same corrugated metal as the other bungalows. Its wide veranda had the same dark wood floorboards. The front of the house had a large picture window, with even square glass panes set in an ornate rosewood frame. But unlike the other bungalows, the paint was peeling off the yellowed walls, the red on the roof was faded. Even the rosewood window-frames didn´t shine with fresh polish. The pebbled path leading up to the front door was overgrown with weeds. The garden was overgrown and wild. The rosebushes were gnarled and twisted with age, and the wild irises flashed a startlingly bright blue in the tall grass.

She did, however, remember the first time she walked up to the Nine-number bungalow. With father. They had gone to the house for cloud-catching.

The clouds on the mountains never came low enough to enter their home. Instead, they swirled and twisted and blanketed the mountain-top with foamy pearl grey. “We are too low, Ruchi,” Father would explain patiently. On such days, when the mountain-top was hidden by the clouds, Father would take her up to let her run through the prayer flags. She would race through the pennants, tasting the moisture on her tongue, trailing cloud-phantoms at the tips of her fingers.

She would run through the clouds, letting the damp, wispy, yet opaque streams hide her. And then, she would wait for Father to find her. “Ruchi,” Father would call her, striding through the translucence, cutting through the mists. “Ruchi,” he would call again, laughter audible in his voice. And then, suddenly, he would appear through the clouds, large and solid amidst the vapours, like a hero, or a god. His hair would be slicked and shiny with the moisture, his cheeks cold with the mountain air. Laughing, he would swoop down to gather Ruchi in his arms, his clothes damp and cold. But his arms would be warm and strong. He would carry her home, marching steadily through the clouds.

to be continued....

Number Nine Bungalow - Part 2

Number Nine Bungalow, Part 2...

But she had wanted to trap the clouds. To catch them inside the house, and keep them forever. She wanted to open the windows to let the clouds come into the rooms. And then quickly, very quickly, just when they had filled up the rooms, she would close the windows. And the clouds would have to stay in the house for her to play with, whenever she wanted.

When Ruchi explained her plan to Father, he laughed. But once he stopped laughing, he patted her head. “A good plan, a very good plan. Just like a guerrilla´s. You are learning fast.”

“So I can go on operations with you soon?” Ruchi immediately asked. That was the whole point of showing Father that clouds could be caught; that her tactics were as good as any officer´s; that she was ready to be a guerrilla like the pinja-las.

“Hmmm, soon! Let me see. I think you have to be a little taller to be a guerrilla,” Father solemnly informed her, examining her closely, holding his palm a little above her head, the height he explained was necessary to be a guerrilla. “But we should test your plan for trapping the clouds,” he told her, noting the disappointment on her face. “It is a very good plan. We won´t hold them forever, but just as a test. For a little while only. Yes?”

The only hitch of course was that their own home was too low for the clouds to reach. The only house in town high enough to lure the clouds was Number-nine bungalow. Death´s bungalow.

Father said that he would find a good time to take her up to the bungalow. Ruchi knew he was watching for a time when Death had gone walking elsewhere. Then they would sneak into the empty house and work at cloud-catching.

It was many days later that Father decided the time was right. The sky was dark and when he walked with Ruchi through the deodars, the wind blew fierce and cold, sucking away her breath and stinging her cheeks.

Hand in hand, they approached the gaping, blind windows. The glass panes were dirty and dim, but no curtains hid the empty insides. As she placed her foot on the first wooden step to the veranda, the board creaked, moaning softly under her feet. She froze immediately, holding her breath. Father smiled at her, pointing to his own feet that stepped cunningly, silently on the same boards. She nodded, shifting her weight carefully so as not to make a sound with her next step.

The front door was bolted but not locked. When Father tugged at the bolt, it squealed loudly. Ruchi´s heart gave a lurch. What if the sound had warned Death? But Father just smiled at her, and that reassured her.

Once inside, Father and Ruchi sped through the rooms, flinging the windows open. Latches protested, frames creaked, but they continued opening the windows to the winds. “Look, they are on their way down,” Father pointed out the picture window. Ruchi turned her head to see the clouds roll down from the top of the mountain. Like spreading rolls of silk, or a flood, the clouds made their way down, covering the tall pines and deodars. Steadily, almost imperceptibly, the first translucent fingers would reach to caress a tree, then slowly wrap themselves around the green heights. And moments later, the tree would be invisible, hidden in the voluminous grey blanket.
Watching the clouds make their way inexorably through the forest, down the mountains, Ruchi felt a sudden flash of terror. A cold, wet finger ran fleetingly down her spine, raising the soft hair on the back of her neck. Her stomach churned, and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly the clouds seemed sinister, portending evil in a way they never had on the mountain-tops.

Beside her, Father laughed, throwing back his head. “We´ll catch them alright.” Ruchi had a sudden vision of the mysterious operations he went away for. The enemy approached, much like the clouds, vast and strong and sinister. And in the trees, hidden with the pinja-las, the gleaming rifles loaded and ready, her father laughed in anticipation.

That cold wet finger on her spine, Ruchi realised in a sudden flash of frighteningly adult clarity, was her fear for her father. Her stomach had churned with that terrifying intuition that all those who love a soldier must learn to bear. Death marched with her father too, and at any moment, at any place, could swoop down to claim him. She felt tears prick her eyes, even as the clouds reached the house, swirling gently against the peeling yellowed walls.

“Stay here,” Father commanded, laughter still in his voice. “I´ll go close the windows.” Ruchi could only make a soft sound, a clutching sob that ripped at her throat as Father moved away. She reached out after him but caught only a damp wisp. The clouds had already started crowding Death´s bungalow, pushing through the picture window like unruly children at recess.

Blinded by the billowing opacity, she could hear Father closing the windows, bolting each one carefully. She strained to hear his footsteps, but he walked as always on soundless feet. Time seemed to have halted, and nothing moved in the clouds that had filled the bungalow. She held out her hands before her and could only vaguely make out their outline.

Ruchi stared at the damp blindness around her and felt terror clutch at her heart. Tears poured now, running freely down her cheeks. Her hands were cold and clammy with the moisture from the clouds. She rested her head against the rosewood window frame, finding solace in its solidity, and sobbed uncontrollably.

She didn´t hear Father return. She was staring blindly before her when a figure loomed silently over her. The shoulders were massive, the head dark. It leaned out to pull one of the panels of the picture window shut. Ruchi held her breath, hoping it wouldn´t notice her. Then the figure seemed to search for something; dark, slim-fingered hands running over the rosewood. She hid in her corner, shrinking within herself in fear. Oh, if only Father would return!

As the hands moved closer, she shut her eyes, squeezing them tightly. She screamed when she felt the hand touch her shoulder. “No!”

Then suddenly, she was in Father´s arms, cradled against his chest. “What frightened you, baby? It´s alright, everything is alright,” he murmurred against her hair. His lips felt her cheeks, passing over the tears and the moisture the clouds had left. “Shhh, it´s alright.”

He carried her home just like that, holding her head nestled under his chin, her body pressed tight against his chest. She could feel his pulse throbbing in his throat against her face and pressed her cheek tight against the rhythm. He is alive, he is still alive, she exulted, breathing in his scent – musky and tangy like the forest. She knew she was echoing the words in her mind that she had heard her mother whisper each time Father came home. They were a chant, a sacred chant, like Om mani padme om. Suddenly, she knew what the words meant, why the pinja-la chanted them as they went on operations. “He is alive, he is still alive.”

And the first inklings of a plan began to form in her head, as she pressed herself closer still to Father. She would imprison Death; leave him locked in his Number-nine bungalow before Father left again on operations. She would make sure that Death would never march again with the soldiers.

****

to be continued...