Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Writer of Varanasi: Writing of Saints and Warriors

As a child, I lived in Varanasi – that ancient city in India that seems older than all of human memory. Those were special days – idyllic summers spent in the shade of the guava tree in my grandmother’s house; the cold winters spent basking in the sun with a book in the backyard. All the while, the brass pennant of the old Shiva temple – of Barhajkothi – fluttered high above our heads, gleaming in the sun. It was a constant reminder, along with the periodic sound of the conch-shells ringing out in prayer - that we were fortunate to inhabit the city of Shiva.

I made up stories even as a child. The earliest stories I remember creating featured a brown bear that didn’t really do much except spend time happily living in a comfortable cave and occasionally charging some unwarranted intruder. I am sure psychologists would make more sense of that particular leitmotif of my childhood than I can. However my favourite memory is of sitting on a peedha – a low wooden stool – in the kitchen. My grandmother would be preparing the food while I ate my dinner. We always ate in these traditional thalis – huge metallic platters that gleamed dull pink-gold – and with matching bowls. As children, we got the big bowls, fluted like wide lotus flowers. For dinner, we would get a thali with a big bowl full of hot milk – from our own cows – with crushed up chapattis. And in a smaller bowl would be the vegetable portion of the meal – generally something combined with potatoes, because I was finicky consumer of greens.

While I sat and ate my dinner, my grandmother and aunts would cook dinner for the rest of us. There were stories about my aunts’ day at the university, and my grandmother’s memories of times past. And of course, my brown bear! My grandmother always patiently heard out the complicated incoherent epic sagas that must – in retrospect – have been terribly boring. And she always feigned an interest that seemed sincere. But then, our house was always full of stories. Everyone seemed to tell stories – of the past, the present, and in case of my favourite uncle, of distant lands.

As I grew in that house, I realised that all I wanted to do was to make up stories. Of course, I didn’t know precisely what I could make up stories about. So I asked my grandmother, the source of all wisdom in my childhood. She had a simple solution, one that I wondered hadn’t occurred to me earlier. She said “write stories about saints and warriors.” I think she wanted me to write about warriors because that was our genetic legacy. And she wanted me to write about saints in desperate hope that I would somehow be inspired to follow their example and behave well.

The problem was that saints are not a very clear concept in Hindu thought. So my grandmother would tell me about Meera-bai, the fifteenth century poet-queen who gave up everything to follow her dreams. Or she would tell me tales from the Mahabharata, where no one is particularly saintly. Every so often, if I had behaved particularly poorly, my grandmother would tell me about Sita – the ultimate in saintly behaviour. I personally thought she was a weepy dishrag, and I have a sneaky feeling that my grandmother wasn’t terrifically fond of Sita either. But the story had to be told – after all, Sita is the model of womanhood held up by traditionalists in society. Besides, we apparently traced our blood lineage back to Rama and Sita, so in a sense it was family history.

Of course, we would end each session with a flaming row: I would refuse to accept that such saps could ever be our ancestors. My grandmother would feel honour-bound to take offence and attempt to explain how the lineage extended back to them, all noted down in a miniscule letters on the early pages of our family Ramayana. I would challenge her on Rama – who I considered a particularly poor example of a man – and Sita – who I felt spent far too much time passively lamenting her fate. She would argue feebly until finally accepting that “yes, yes, but that is the way it is written in the books.” Then we would happily revert to snuggling up together for a tale that contained more blood, gore, adventure, valour, and somehow, less morality. I suppose even back then, we were renegades – my grandmother and I.

However, none of the above solved my problems regarding saints that I was supposed to write about. There was the “aghori” ashram across the street of course. The ascetics who lived there, I suppose, would qualify in some way as religious. Except the aghoris were wild-eyes men with matted hair, bloodshot eyes and unpredictable tempers. They were also not particularly pleasant, as I fully understood, even as a child. The aghori ashram also had a running feud with their next door neighbour, one of the leading entrepreneurs of the region.

The aghoris aren’t particularly the most desireable neighbours in any case, even by moderate Hindu mainstream standards. Simplistically, they are a tantric Shaivite sect of Hinduism. They take the idea of interconnectedness of death and life as their basic precept. As a symbol of this understanding, the gate-posts of the ashram were topped by human skulls. On the other hand, they consume liquor and dhatura, eat flesh, speak obscenities, dress scantily. There were always rumours of sex – of all forms – although they may have simply been rumblings of adults. We weren’t allowed to approach the ashram or enter its gates. In fact, my grandmother had an injunction against any of the girls in the house even giving alms to the aghoris.

Our entrepreneurial neighbour – of course – wasn’t too thrilled with seeing skulls from his own garden. So for a period of nearly three years, a tacit war was carried out between the aghoris and the capitalist. The businessman would periodically raise the common wall between his house and the ashram to block out the ghastly view of the skulls. The aghoris would wait patiently until the wall would be built up, cemented, painted freshly white. And then the next day they would raise the gate-posts of the ashram higher so that the skulls would tower again over the neighbouring wall.

The ongoing war between the aghoris and the capitalist of course provided much amusement to the rest of the neighbourhood. But the sight of human skulls was also a special lesson that Varanasi teaches its denizens. While they are children! Death is a fact of life, for most Banarasis. And it is neither to be feared nor dreaded. Instead it is a something to be mocked, laughed at, accepted as a pesky but familiar neighbour, and finally, embraced with love and affection. This is why the city is the cosmic cremation ground as well as the Anandvana, the forest of joy.

Perhaps that is why we all were so mocking of the funeral processions we constantly crossed. As you may know, Varanasi has a special place in Hindu philosophy. The city is believed to rest on top of Shiva’s trident, and thus Varanasi alone is not destroyed when Shiva dances the tandava. It also has special powers because of its unique mythico-geographical position. Simply living three nights and three days in the city is believed to grant a soul moksha upon death – liberation from the cycle of rebirths and the goal of all Hindus. Simply dying or being cremated in Varanasi is a great karmic act and can secure a better birth or a cosmic holiday in the Hindu paradise-spa. This is a reward for souls between death and birth and is by no means permanent; one is simply granted a short holiday from the cycle of rebirth by spending some time in paradise.

Of course this means that lots of people bring the dead to be cremated in Varanasi, and often the city seems to live a constant stream of funeral procession. Every few minutes one can spot grieving relatives, all clad in white, grim and exhausted, walking two abreast along the road. The corpse is generally carried on a make-shift stretcher of bamboo and wrapped in orange/yellow cloth, and covered with flowers. As the funeral proceeds, the pall-bearers and mourners chant out loud: “Ram naam satya hai” – “The name of God is true.”

As children growing up in Varanasi, we had our own version. So on our way back and forth from school, all crammed up in big school-buses, we would crane our necks out to check for funeral processions. “Ram naam satya hai” – the mourners would chant.

Murda saala mast hai,” (“The bloody corpse is happy”), we would gaily chortle back. Nearly seventy grimy-faced cheerful urchins would stick out of bus windows to mock the demonstrations of grief in our city streets.

As an adult, I have often wondered if I ought to feel mortified at mocking the grief of those poor people carrying their dead to the cremation grounds. Yet, always, the Banarasi in me wins out: death must be mocked at and diminished. Otherwise its shadows grow so long and dark that it can snuff out all that is joyous and ridiculous in the world. Besides, I always remember the manic grins we got from the aghoris for the act. For that alone, our mocking defiance of death and grief was commendable. Unfortunately, all this means that the idea of writings about saints was quickly complicated by the masti (joy/madness) that Banarasis value above all else.

The second part of my grandmother’s injunction meant writing about warriors. We knew lots of those, of course. There was an ample supply in the family tree, without needing recourse to the history books. Of course, it helped that we lived in restless times, so we never needed to look too far for warriors. My father was an officer in the army. My great-uncle would always show up in the city wearing his cartridge belt across the waist-band of his dhoti, his rifle slung across his shoulder. Then there were sundry relatives, and constant feudal conflicts involving various family members, politicians, dacoits seeking amnesty, police chasing rebellious student leaders…In all, death, and violent death, never seemed too far away.

Besides, there are only two possible ends to war: victory or death. And all victories are similar, ephemeral, paving way only for another battle. An endless litany of battle victories makes for poor stories. So the only stories that can be told of warriors are of how they embraced death, gloriously, joyously, laughing into the bright sun even as the swords clanged, and ground grew warm and fertile with the spilled blood.

Yet mine was not a frightened childhood by any means. Or a traumatised one. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways where love and affection abounded and loyalty and laughter filled our lives. The only difference was that we were never protected from the reality of death – and its constant presence.

Not surprisingly then, a lot of my writing is about death and the joy of life. It is about people making sense of life in the face of death, or even re-affirming life even as they die.

Perhaps, in a strange way – and in strangely arcane ways – I am a Banarasi writer after all. Some part of me is constantly aware of the fragility of life, and its unbearable beauty, much like the fleeting sun-rises on the Ganges. Yet another part of me is simultaneously aware that the sunrises on the Ganges are never-ending, and are repeated unfailingly every day; that life and death go hand-in-hand, and are valuable, terrible, magnificent, for that conjunction.

I have been often told that my writing is violent. I have been told that my writing is disturbing often for glorifying that violence. But perhaps that is a lesson only understood by those who have lived in Varanasi: by those who have seen the sublime beauty of a red-gold dawn spreading like so much fine silk over the Ganges at Dashashwamedh ghat even as blue-grey smoke rises from the pyres at the Marnakarnika ghat nearby. No image of Varanasi would be complete without the intermingling of the two aspects, like Shiva himself, of life and death. Similarly, my writing would be incomplete without that image of death-life – an unbearably beautiful but wild-eyed Shiva smeared with the ashes of the funeral pyres, with snakes twirling around his neck and limbs, accompanied by a band of ghouls and demons – terrible and wondrous at the same time.

My writing – I suppose - is simply the same as that of writers of Varanasi for so many millennia – an invocation of Shiva in all his glory.

NB: From a talk presented at the University of Cordoba in 2006. PEN International Magazine's most recent issue carries a Spanish translation of this essay.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Lesson of 2009: The Year of Overcoming Fear (Part 1)

This is first of a series of posts looking back at 2009, and also the past decade.

There is one thing 2009 taught me: that nothing is more frightening than fear itself. Does that sound like something Tolkein would write? Or Gandalf would say? Actually, as I learned over the past year, its absolutely true.

The lesson was especially odd as I have never thought of myself as a particularly fearful person. Actually most of my friends and family worry about the exact opposite: I get an idea in my head and then proceed to implement it, often without any regard to my own safety and sanity.

That was what happened many years ago when I decided that I refused to suffer from vertigo. Actually, I am not even sure that I was ever afraid of heights. I just worried because I wanted to leap of the edge, which kind of meant that I was afraid of going to edges of balconies, mountain ledges, even tall windows.

When we lived in Manhattan, I would not stand at our gorgeous high windows for long, in case the urge to fling myself in to the endless space before me grew too strong. Which is why I took up skydiving - I figured if I threw myself out of a aeroplane enough times, eventually the urge would pass. Funnily enough, eventually it did! I still feel that tug of the void on mountaintops and skyscrapers, but having thrown myself into it, it is no longer overwhelming.

On the other hand, I have always been afraid of water, partly because of the immense power and mystery large bodies of water seem to hold. For me, the sea, lakes, rivers embody some uncontrollable fount of energy barely held in check. To take it on seems a bit foolhardy. But that is why earlier this year, I decided that if I could learn to swim well, I would be fine taking on this immense secret power.

Weirdly enough, having taken on the challenge, I have realised that I love every minute of it. I love pushing my limits - even in daily life - and swimming has just become one more arena to test myself. There have been days this past year when I have been unable to lift my arms after a session. And there have been far too many occasions where the instructor has assigned "bonus" laps when I am completely exhausted (although he does that with sly grin). He knows I will stay and battle fatigue regardless.

With each passing week, the fear of water, of the loss of control, of taking on a power far greater than myself recedes a little. In its place has developed a greater knowlege: I understand now that I need not fight the water head-on; that going along the flow yields better results. Oddly enough that is a pretty profound lesson for the rest of my life as well.

But psychological fears are harder to face and beat than physical ones, in part
because it is often so hard to identify them. 2009 opened with my past whooshing straight back into my life, bringing with it all the reminders of pain, loss and grief that I thought I had put behind me. And yes, the rational choice would have been to walk away as fast as I could, away from the those terrible memories.

But then rationality has never been my strong point. So I stayed: facing up to everything I didn't even know I was afraid of. For much of 2009, this has meant wrenching, horrible soul-searching, often accompanied by floods of memories that would often left me gasping, hyperventilating, teary-eyed. Yet somewhere in that process of facing up to the past, the fear I didn't even know I had faded, and a strength that I had never foreseen emerged in its place.

Some years ago, my mother had told me that I needed to "learn how to protect myself." I think she had probably sensed this deeply internalised fear that I had carried buried deep within. I told her then that I could not possibly do that.

For me, my over-sensitivity has always been an essential part of my ability to write. I notice everything, think of everything, feel every last bit of it. To "protect myself" meant the potential loss of this hypersensitivity. How else could I write? Wouldn't protecting myself mean shutting myself off emotionally?

But 2009 has taught me otherwise. I wasn't really being hypersensitive at all for all those years (or not at least fully and honestly). Instead, I was afraid of the emotions I had felt in the past and had found painful. Somehow, without realising, and even though I told myself that I was open and vulnerable, I had built myself a massive, inpenetrable, fortress to hide myself and my fears.

Facing the fears brought on by my past has been a very painful process in 2009. Slowly, steadily, consciously, I have lowered that internal drawbridge; ripped down the ramparts and emptied the moats. Then with even greater deliberation, I forced myself to shatter the shield, remove the armour, put away every weapon I had accumulated. And at each step, I have fought the internal panic that I was exposing myself to pain and hurt and loss all over again, and all of which I remembered all too well.

Eventually, as the autumn has grown into winter, I have learned an unforeseen lesson: that I had been afraid for so long that I had forgotten the weight of my fear. To shed my internal defences has meant letting go of the fear, of letting drop a weight that I didn't even know I carried.

More importantly, shattering my defences has not meant that I am vulnerable. Instead, for the first time, I understand what the ancient Indian texts mean by the perfect warrior: I am the weapon, the warrior, the fort! To lose fear is also to lose all interest in consequences: it is the perfect form of karmayoga: of action without desire. If fear is rooted in our desire for gain, in our need to avoid loss, then once there is no interest in either gain or loss, there is also no fear.

The past year has not been the easiest, but definitely, looking back shall count as the most memorable and rewarding. For me, 2009 shall always be the year when I let go of fear and surprisingly enough, without intent, finally learned to be me!

In contrast to 2009, I am looking forward to the new year: to what a life without fear will mean for me; how the loss of fear will change my sensitivity to the life around me; and most importantly, how that will impact my writing. Bring on 2010 - finally, after all these years of reciting it, I begin to understand my favourite verse from the Bhagwad Gita (II:27).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Watching the Universe Shed Its Skin

Way back in time, as a university student, I (like many others before me) discovered Joseph Campbell's writings. It was like a light had been turned on inside my mind - all my strange ideas about stories, world, life suddenly made sense. It was akin to falling madly, deeply, desperately, in love.

Then, like all loves, over time, a sense of scepticism set in. I questioned the theoretically Eurocentric paradigm that Campbell used despite his "universality." I began to question some of the links he made, and critiqued his use of non-western texts and the meanings he drew from them.

Despite this - and as I have learned about love too - I didn't walk away from Campbell. He still stays in the back of my mind, still worthy of respect and affection, still comforting and intriguing, despite all these years. And like all great relationships, Campbell also introduced me to a whole new world of his own, to other friends, teachers, minds, who have also become part of my life. Including of course Karl Jung (although like one's partner's best mate, we have a slightly testy relationship, me and Karl).

One thing I learned around the same time as I discovered Campbell was to keep a tab of my dreams. Not for great psycho-analytical purposes but because I realised quickly that super ideas, images, sentences ripped around my mind while I slept. I didn't want to lose them on waking up and so began keeping a notebook with all my most lucid dreams. While I have used these images in novels and stories before, most of these don't merit being anywhere else other than my much scribbled upon notebook.

However, today, I want to make an exception. The past year has been a bit of a roller-coaster. And its just gotten weirder in the past few weeks. Perhaps this is why I have been thinking back so often to a dream I had two weeks ago:

In my dream, I was in a big house. Like all dream-houses, it seemed to be composed of bits and pieces of all different houses I have lived in and loved: the garden was from Doon, the large living room from our house in Windhoek, the pool from the holiday villa in Barcelona. It was full of light, and music, and laughter.

And in this house were gathered my siblings and many of my closest friends. We were all excited and preparing to go watch a show or a rock concert...something really spectacular and huge. We were cracking open wine bottles, calling on mobile phones, ordering taxis, running around madly getting dressed and made up.

I do not believe I have been this excited about any concert or show I have seen in reality. And that includes Madonna and the Rolling Stones!

Yet nowhere in my dream was it clear exactly what we were preparing to go watch. For an interminable time, the excitement built. There was laughter and jokes and hugs. All the usual preliminaries of a big day.

And then someone (was it me?) who was on a mobile to someone finally explained what we were going to go see: "Yes, we're leaving now. We have the tickets. We are going to go SEE THE UNIVERSE SHED ITS SKIN!"

Thats when I woke up! Baffled, awed, amused. If any psycho-analysts have any ideas about how to interpret this one, please do.

From my perspective, its the biggest neon sign message I have ever had from the universe. And that is pretty damn cool!!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Good in the World: A Big Thank You

Earlier this week I met a friend to catch up on the past few weeks at a local pub. While there, I suddenly realised my handbag had been stolen. Not the nicest thing to happen. But this is not a post about the awful experience of having your possessions stolen!

First, I was surprised at how calm I was - no panic, not even anger. This equanamity is something relatively new, as for most of my life I have been a bundle of nerves concealed under a calm facade maintained only with iron discipline. In fact, most of my loved ones recognise the signs when the facade cracks under proverbial "the straw that broke the camel's back" and either fury or desperate sorrow comes pouring forth. In fact, my family and friends are really great at comforting me in those moments of absolute distress, but increasingly, I realise that they are also really good at identifying the moment when my iron control will snap.

Yet this time, there was nothing. I felt calm as my friend and I reported the crime, cancelled bank cards, organised the locks in my home to be replaced, called my family, and made my way home. Strangely enough, even though I had strange and unsettling dreams, I even slept that night.

This equanimity first reared its head some six weeks ago, in the midst of an emotional crisis. I fully expected to fall apart even then, yet after the initial release of tears, there was a strange peace. My brother called it "sthirta" - a Hindi word that translates as a combination of balance, groundedness, lack of movement, serenity even. I am not sure where or how I have acquired this but frankly, after a lifetime of being hyper-sensitive combined with keeping myself under rigid self-control, it feels strangely liberating and easy. For that alone, I am thankful.

But more importantly, the stolen handbag has made me remember something more important: that there are far more wonderful people in the world than awful ones (even though you won't notice that if you read the news or even fiction).

So for the one loser who stole my handbag, here is a list of super people who helped me cope:

1. My friend who gave me his phone to make the calls, walked me around the area to see if we could find a trace (often these are quick thefts only for money), found an internet cafe so I could find my family's phone numbers, and then accompanied me home and kept me company till I got most things sorted. He also gave me running cash while my bank stuff got sorted out, and went for another seach trip the next day to see if something would turn up. 2009 has definitely been the year of realising just how super my friends are!

2. The waitress in the pub who was more upset than me about the theft and really kind and gentle.

3. The street cleaner who promised to keep an eye out for anything odd and offered kind words.

4. The policewoman who took the initial report on the phone and then the various people who man the Metropolitan Police's telephone lines who have since taken bits and pieces of information I keep remembering since then.

5. My neighbour who not only reassured me that he would let me in the front door, but also organised the locksmith, so I got home and could actually enter my flat without a second's delay, or indeed having to watch the locksmith at work.

6. The locksmith who was not only efficient but also extremely kind and comforting. He told me stories of his own car (someone took off all the wheels and left it on milk crates), and made me laugh with strange tales of his life as a locksmith.

7. The policewoman who called the next morning having gone through the papers to find my home number (I couldn't remember it initially and obviously my mobile had also been stolen) so she could follow up on the initial report, showing a diligence that doesn't often make it to the newspapers. She also spent a lot of time taking down details and was one of the nicest people I have ever dealt with in any "service" capacity.

8. The kind soul who found my staff ID and keys on the street the next morning and turned it in to my office reception.

9. The really kind man who found my wallet thrown on the street, found my business card, and emailed me so I could collect it. The wallet has sentimental value: its a near replica by the same brand of the first "designer" one I bought for myself. That first wallet was purchased in Mexico, in 1991, after six months of saving up, as proof that I was a self-sufficient adult. I used it till it fell apart a couple of years ago. This year my brother found a nearly identical version of it and gave it to me for my birthday. So a lot of emotional investment had gone into it and it was the first thing I was sad about.

Antony, thank you so much for finding it and making sure I got it back.

10. The tall man with tattoos and ponytail near Highbury Place who helped me look through hedges and bushes the next day, as I thought I would take a chance and try finding more stuff, given that bits and pieces had turned up in the area.

11. The many, many people who took a few minutes of their own lives to help me look over hedges, in bins, and along the streets.

12. The security staff at work who not only promptly informed me that my keys and ID had been returned but also were kind and generous with their sympathy.

13. My swim coach who reminded me that thiefs are professionals and there was little I could have done to stop it. Also that swimming would clear my head and stop me worrying. And thank you for not killing me by recognising that I was too frazzled to maintain balance, but with enough pent up energy to do laps.

14. The cop on Upper Street who reminded me to be glad because noone had been hurt and that things/documents can be replaced.

I realise that in normal scheme of things, many of these people were simply doing their jobs. But they could have been grumpy or abrupt or unkind and gotten their job done. For example, so the locksmith could have just replaced the locks without trying to make me feel better; the police could have been just as effective without the unfailing patience and kindness. But they made that extra effort.

Even more people acted out of the kindness of their hearts to help a stranger recover her belongings, or to try to comfort and aid someone.

Thats over a dozen wonderful human beings for that one lousy thief! I could be angry and upset, but I think it makes more sense to be grateful for all that is good in humanity, and for the fact that it obviously supersedes the bad in sheer numbers.

Thank you - universe - for this timely reminder!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Deception: Some Thoughts

I have been thinking about deception quite a bit recently.

As children, we grew up in the smoke-and-mirrors world of international espionage thanks to my father’s career in the government. In that world, deception was the norm: people were never who they said they were; information was always suspect, to be double and treble checked with multiple sources before it could be believed; potential friends were treated with suspicion until they proved their loyalty.

And yet, perhaps because of the lies that constantly surrounded us, as a family we grew up with absolute honesty. Perhaps because, as my parents have since pointed out, dishonesty even in small matters like taking a detour on the way home from school to grab an ice-cream could place our lives in danger. The worst trouble we ever got into with our parents was never for the wild, crazy things we did as teenagers (generally those just made my father laugh, or worse still, worry that we were “geeks” because we weren’t raising enough hell). The worst reprimands and consequences were for those little white lies that most kids take for granted.

There was just one rule: Information had its own restrictions and so not everything could be shared by everyone at all times, but deception stopped at the main door to our home.

Over the past few months, I have thought about deception repeatedly. Why people choose to deceive each other, especially when there is no greater tactical or strategic motive? Worse, why they choose to deceive the people they are apparently closest to: family, partners, children? And worst of all, why do they choose to deceive themselves?

I can understand – and perhaps take for granted – that humans deceive each other. But perhaps like Chanakya, and thanks to my upbringing, I believe that lies told in service of a greater good have their role in society. An intelligence officer deceives the enemy, lies and cheats and betrays for the good of his/her own people and nation. Despite all talk of the global village, and nebulous ideals of brotherhood of all humanity, there is virtue in such deception, as it is carried out at great personal risk (and cost) and for very little personal gain.

In contrast, there is little virtue in lying and cheating people that one loves. And yet as statistics repeatedly tell us, people deceive and betray their spouses and partners with a regularity that is distressing. There is a special horror to this, beyond the banal but significant risks of sexual transmission of disease, and other physical ramifications.

There is the material and emotional fall out when the deception comes to light: changes in marital status with all its economic and social corollaries, the anguish of the betrayed partner, the sorrow inflicted on other members of the family. How ironic that all of these are results of ending deception rather than its continuation.

But then there is a strange added phenomenon: there is also the shattering of the self-deception that often people impose on themselves. The cheating partner must confront his/her own idiocy in believing that any deception can be maintained indefinitely and the deceived party must question their own collusion with the deception. Children of such homes learn not the honesty within relationships but rather the hypocrisy that their parents demonstrate in their domestic lives. How different from my childhood world of smoke-and-mirrors!

Deception in espionage is a game, with various parties aware of the rules and consequences. One reason for the need for utter honesty within our family was an early recognition that governments use its officials (and citizens) as pawns, to be sacrificed with ease and relative nonchalance. Perhaps, because of this, in espionage, there is also a sense of respect for the enemy: its just a game, nothing personal!

But deception in “normal” life is personal. And perhaps that is why its greatest casualty is the sense of self. The deceived must not only recognise that they have been lied to and cheated, but also question why they were not trustworthy enough to be let into the secret: Why having loved a person were they left out of their partner or parent's unhappiness? And then there are the awful doubts over what else they have been deceived about!

But perhaps because of the shattering of self-worth, self-deception is the worst of them all. Long ago, I volunteered at a hotline for women in distress. Some of the women who called were being physically abused, but many others were facing what was euphemistically categorized as “relationship issues”: partners who had grown distant and remote, who were unfaithful, or in some way had stopped making the callers happy.

I remember being shocked initially at how deeply the callers deceived themselves. No matter how unhappy they were, they would rationalise their situation with the most clich├ęd of statements: “he is a good provider,” “he is a good father,” “he really does care,” "he will never do it again," and so on.

In an early training session, one of the senior counsellors explained that our job was to just listen, not to offer solutions or advice. And over coffee, she told me that she had come to accept that most of the callers would never leave their miserable situations, preferring the safety and security of the unhappiness they knew to the uncertainty of finding something new.

I was reminded of that comment recently, while thinking of this topic. And of the time I watched animals being brought into a nature reserve in Africa. These animals were from zoos and circuses, and had lived most of their lives in cages. And yet when that door was opened, and they could see the veldt beyond, they did not leap for that freedom. Instead they cowered at the very end of the cage where they had suffered their imprisonment and possible mistreatment. Even the fear of fire or sound of gunshots would not change their instinct to remain in their cages.

In espionage, the deceiver and the deceived are like two beasts of prey, hunting, stalking, evading. But the many people who deceive themselves, not only in relationships, but also jobs, lifestyles, entire lives, are like those animals, cowering in their misery rather than taking the risk of finding happiness. Like those animals, the deceiver and the deceived cower in their cages, but unlike those animals, they can't ever be drawn out: as humans, they carry their cages with them.

Perhaps that is why I am struck by Chanakya’s idea of anvikshaki knowledge: self-knowledge. Not in an easy new-agey way but one acquired by remorselessly facing up to oneself in all our darkness and brutality. Without it, we can not only never find happiness, but shall never stop being deceived in the worst possible way: by ourselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On beauty: mothers and daughters

This past week was my mother’s birthday. I called to wish her in the morning and then headed to work.

On the way to the tube stop, a strange thing happened: I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window and was startled enough to stop and stare at the reflection. Somehow, for the first time in my life, I reminded myself of my mother. Not resembled her, but somehow echoed her. And that was bizarre enough.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by my mother: she was beautiful and glamorous in that old-style movie star way. People would stare at her but rarely approached her, not only because we lived in a conservative society where she was a scion of a well-known family in the region, but also because there was something intimidating about her beauty. Even in kindergarten, friends would sigh every time she appeared at the school gates – all silks and chiffons and warm perfumed cuddles. “Your mother is soooooooo beautiful,” they would whisper in awe.

Early in my childhood, I realised that my mother’s kind of beauty was not only extraordinarily rare but also beyond my reach. In any case, everyone said that I resembled my father, and while he is handsome, it isn’t much help being a little girl and being told that one looks like a man!

So early on I rebelled: not in any overt way, but by simply refusing to take on the trappings of femininity and beauty. And quite early on, and thanks to my mother who was unfailingly proud of me, I realised that I had something extraordinary too: a brain that worked in ways that were unusual and powerful. As early as elementary school, I had decided that instead of the beauty of the family, I would be the brains. At least that I could achieve on my own steam.

At sixteen, someone took a photograph of me at a party and my mother was genuinely thrilled: “I have a beautiful daughter,” she exclaimed over and over again, putting that photograph in a frame. I didn’t believe her then. Tomboyish and bookish by turns, beauty was just as unattainable in my teens as when I was a child.

Then in my early twenties, I fell in love a man who I believed was a connoisseur of feminine beauty. Perhaps he was poor at communication or just deeply insecure, but during one alcohol-laced conversation, he told me that while I was “extremely attractive,” I would never count as “beautiful.” It was an affirmation of what I had always believed, and yet it hurt. Nothing he ever said afterwards to explain or make up, could undo that initial hurt.

In the years that followed, I single-mindedly pursued the goal of becoming the “brain,” eventually with a degree of success. And then, increasingly, I found that people were intimidated by the knowledge I had steadily and painstakingly acquired, by my ability to out-reason them.

And after the first flush of power that ability to intimidate gave me, I started to question it. I remembered the remote glamour that accompanies beauty and didn’t want the same reaction for my brain. Instead I began to search ways to inspire not intimidate. Over time, it is a skill I have acquired to some proficiency, and in the past few years, I have slowly gotten better at it: I can see that in my daily life.

Over the same period, my hankering for beauty has also fallen by the wayside. Perhaps that is only a natural corollary of deliberately trying to shed an ego that prides itself on intelligence and knowledge and on deliberate and consistent attempts at superiority, and instead focussing on excellence.

This is why I was stunned to see the reflection in the shop window. The woman who looked back at me was frighteningly good looking. Perhaps she was not glamorous in that movie star way like my mother, but still shockingly arresting, perhaps even intimidating, in her looks. Since then I have started noticing the way people “check” me out on the street, in cafes and pubs, in shops. They often wear the same arrested expression that I remember from my childhood, the one that my mother evoked. And sometimes, they approach me (no protective social barriers for me!) with curiosity and yet hesitation, as if expecting to be rebuffed.

My women friends (including my sister) laugh at me when I tell them of this strange new phenomenon. “You’re the only one who doesn’t notice she is beautiful,” my sister tells. “You’re crazy,” one of my oldest and closest friends exclaimed the other day, telling me (for the first time) that even that hyper-critical lover from my twenties couldn’t keep his eyes off me when I entered a room; this time I believe her.

My mother would also laugh when she reads this. She will call me to point out all the beautiful women in the family and wonder why I should expect to be different (she has done that before). For the first time, I remember that I also look like my paternal grandmother, and she was an accredited beauty of her times.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t doubted myself for so long. But then perhaps that is good: convinced for years that I could not be beautiful, I have nurtured my brain; wracked by insecurity since my childhood, I have learned to identify with the underdog and have (hopefully) escaped the horrors of hubris. Those are not mean achievements for half a human life!

I also think I understand why I begin to look like my mother: some how, without trying, I have found the same confidence that my mother has always radiated, full of warmth and happiness, and a bubbling enthusiasm for life.

And that is a gift from her that is impossible to match, no matter how hard I try. Even for the rest of my life.

Happy birthday, mum!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On Pity: Thoughts on the Past Week

For the first time in my life, this past week I felt pity. It may sound strange as the word is so commonplace and yet it was profound experience.

As a writer, I am fascinated by the near impossible challenge of capturing human experience in words. It is the ultimate paradox: to attempt to capture the subtleties, complexities and vastness of human experience with materials and tools that are inherently inadequate and ill-suited to the job.

This means that I am always astounded when I grasp the meaning of a particular word. That is always an exhilarating moment of epiphany, when a commonly used word or phrase takes on new and powerful emotional resonance and understanding. It is a flash of insight into a word’s original use. Those moments are like an instant journey through human history into the very dawn of time, to that first moment when that emotion was felt and expressed by some anonymous human ancestor.

It is also a strangely mystical experience: as if for that instant I am connected to the entire unfathomable spectrum of humanity, from its very origins to my own. In that instant there is magic: of sudden understanding of how extraordinary the human mind is, and how extraordinary our journey through time and space has been as a species.

And while mysticism and evolution are not two words that normally go together, these moments provide a strangely personal glimpse into evolution: of how we humans are different from other sentient beings; of how extraordinary that very first moment of feeling a particular emotion must have been for that original ancestor; of the power of human emotions and the extraordinary hubris of attempting to articulate it in language.

For the first time in my life, I felt an emotion that I could identify only as pity.More importantly, for the very first time, I had a new understanding of that commonly used term (even more so in modern Britain, where it seems everything from a spilled cup of tea to a car accident is carelessly lumped together as “pity.”)

Yet what I experienced was something quite exceptional: first, of what the word means, rooted as it is in Latin, in pietas, as in duty. That is not duty as in a burden, or insistence on doing something right or anything at all under duress, but rather as duty when something unfortunate must still be done.

On looking up the word I found further explanation in the dictionary: “a feeling of sorrow that inclines one to help or show mercy.”

See what I mean when words are inadequate? To help is quite different from showing mercy. And yet, in its Latin sense, performance of duty would require a sense of mercy rather than helpfulness.

As I pondered the meaning of pity, I was struck by the following image: compassion or sympathy is when upon seeing a wounded, suffering being, one feels compelled to assist and ease its suffering.

Pity is what one feels when that wounded being is beyond all aid and we can do no more but feel a strange mixture of sadness and repulsion at its suffering.

Of course this begs the question: who excites our pity? Why do I not feel pity for those suffering in Gaza or the Congo or Darfur? Why do those weak, suffering, wounded people evoke my sympathy, compassion, sorrow and yet a grudging admiration and solidarity? Perhaps it is because of the sense of resistance and dignity that they bring to their calamitous lives; a sense of self that is asserted by their very determined efforts to survive the quotidian horrors that surround them.

No, they do not deserve pity, because they require no mercy. All by themselves, they exercise a powerful personal and collective agency despite the odds that face them.

Which then brings me back to the object of my pity: Pity diminishes the dignity of the one who receives it. The object of pity requires mercy from the strong because like that wounded animal that is beyond our aid, its pain is its only sense of self; its weakness is its only expression of identity. Even worse, the object of pity can not be saved or helped; the only mercy one can offer is to step gingerly, carefully, to avoid contagion, around and beyond it.

For the first time in my life, I have felt pity and understood the word. It is neither an emotion nor a word that I would ever like to repeat again.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Skeletons in the Closet: How Many More? Update

As if this morning's news were not nauseating enough, apparently Nico Sarkozy - yes, him of the model wife and high heeled shoes fame - found Mitterrand's tell all "autobiographical novel" with lurid details of paying Thai boys for sex and orgasmic descriptions of being turned on by the "slave market" (Mitterrand's terms) not only acceptable but also: "courageous and talented."

Amongst the genius literary gems spouting from Mr. Mitterand's overheated, exploitative, twisted pen is this one:  "All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market excited me enormously ... the abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire."

So Mr. Mitterand was turned on by a slave market of nubile adolescent Asians presented for his consumption! What precisely is Mr. Sarkozy's personal turn on? Shall that be genocide in Rwanda which he was too late to conduct with his usual over-hyped enthusiasm? Or is it merely hosing down by police of Algerian and Moroccan origin youths?

At one level, I am glad that the Euro-American hypocrisy at various levels is being exposed by the sordid Polanski saga. It is a reminder of that old colonial maxim that far too many of us "empire is long over" types forget: yes the white man teaches morality to all and sundry while making sure the genocides are carried out by the weapons he sells; that modern slave trade continues with his valuable euros/dollars/pounds; that there are two sets of rules - one for the powerful and the other for the exploited.  And all through, there is the usual imperial conceit of being "civilized" - oh the travails of the white man's burden!

Only problem: all trappings of the empire won't change the simple fact: the emperor has no clothes. And regardless of what Carla Bruni fancies, that isn't a pretty sight!

Skeletons in the Closet: How Many More?

When the Roman Polanski story broke, I pretty much ignored it: A paedophile, albeit a very successful and famous one, was finally brought to book and about time. Then the media circus started, led by Polanski's equally or more successful and famous friends who insisted that "genius" was beyond mortal reaches of the law; that he had "suffered" already by losing his wife to a grisly murder and his mother to the Holocaust; that sex with a child was consensual because she hadn't fought; that he had paid for his mistakes; that too much time had passed (why didn't that apply to Nazi war criminals?). There are many aspects to this case that are ethically disturbing and politically dubious, and although I can't possibly consider all aspects, I am upset enough by the case to pitch in my two bits:

One of Polanski's passionate defenders is Bernard-Henri Levy.  That in itself should indicate some of the historico-political context of this case, not in the least the historical European unease and religious-racial ideological postures surrounding the Polanski saga:  Levy has been also one of the cheerleaders for indiscriminate bombing of Gaza and Lebanon. It does appear that for Levy, the Holocaust provides a perpetual "get out of jail, free" card for all moral and ethical misconduct, as long as the perpetrator can invoke some personal suffering at the hands of the Nazis.

Of course, much of Europe bears the guilt for the Holocaust like its own perpetual cross, obsessing on that single event in history and ignoring/erasing its guilt regarding all other genocides: never mind the killings Europeans did in Africa, Asia and Latin America; it is the fact the Nazis killed fellow Europeans that really feeds this racist morally-devoid cross-bearing.  And just as the Holocaust provides the over-arching narrative on Israel-Palestine, privileging the destruction of the European Jewry (who "suffered") over the nameless Palestinians who were expelled, raped, incarcerated, killed, and still continue to "suffer" their torment,  Polanski's individual experience of the Holocaust privileges his suffering over that of the children he has molested, abused, raped. And yes, lets not forget that this appears not to be an isolated case, as the "genius" director has had little compulsion in flaunting (possibly) legal but ethically disturbing sex with other underage individuals: Natassja Kinski, for example, was 15 to Polanski's 45-plus at the time of their liason but his defenders argue that in France, Kinski was over the age of consent, never mind the fact that a 45 year old man chasing adolescents qualifies as a predator and paedophile in all functional moral and ethical universes.

But there is another disturbing aspect to the rich and famous coming to Polanski's defense.  Levy - not surprisingly - was quick off the mark, starting a petition for Polanski's release and co-signed by many of his literary and artistic luminati mates. The list reads like a veritable who's-who of a certain generation: Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Isabelle Adjani, Diane von Fustenberg. Many on the list are my childhood heroes: people I admired in magazine photos as a child, read as an adolescent, desperately imitated in my early experiments with writing.

In case of Rushdie and Kundera, they are still my all-time favourite writers, whose incisive minds and luminous prose (to quote Rushdie himself) I admire and to which I aspire.  In case of von Fustenberg, I adored her dresses as a little kid in the 70s and seem to have acquired a wardrobe full as an adult - even today, a DvF is my ultimate confidence-booster, personal armour, capable of putting a smile on my face even on the worst of days. These aren't just dresses: they are childish dreams spun out of multicolour silk.

Another parallel petition unites cinema and art stars ranging from Martin Scorcese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Paul Auster, Jeremy Irons, Harrison Ford,Debra Winger, and of course that other glowing example of sexual predation: Woody Allen. Can I ever watch those well loved films of my childhood again without thinking of the potential depravity of its creator?

Of course, take away the tag of being petitions in defense of Polanski, and signatories row also reads like a guest list: if you were to throw an authentic retro Studio 54 bash, pretty much all of the people on those petitions would need to be invited. Including of course Polanski himself!

And that's the giveaway: this is a bunch of friends protecting each other. Regardless of the money they make, the fame they have, the literary and artistics "genius" they possess, the influence they wield - these petition co-signers are no more than a bunch of frat boys protecting one of their own. Unfortunately, they are standing up not for a mate who got terribly drunk and trashed someone's garden on a rowdy Saturday night. These shining examples of nearly a half-century of art are closing ranks to protect a child-rapist!

As if all this were not stomach churning enough, the French polity has dug up dirt on Frederic Mitterand, the country's culture minister, who has been - along with Levy - one of Polanski's most impassioned defenders. Apparently monsieur minister has a taste for little boys! He not only has indulged his twisted desires by paying for sex with children in Thailand, but in a "literary-artistic" twist perhaps inspired by the great genius Polanski himself has also written about it in his 2005 memoirs.

I wonder if Mitterand also qualifies for the Polanski defense: that he is a "genius" and valuable to the arts; that he too has "suffered"; that if it wasn't violent - and it couldn't have been since he paid for it - the act must have been consensual;  that little Thai children seduced the poor old man; that he is too important to France to be brought to book?   Perhaps my own prejudices are showing but I find it quite revealing of a culture and its ethos that Mitterand's memoirs, published in 2005, raised no eyebrows. That an entire nation just accepted his self-confessed abuse of children as logical droit de seigneur of a privileged, wealthy, powerful white man over the poor, starving children of the third world!  Or perhaps it is another take on that old Holocaust/Empire/race card again: after all he was raping/paying for children "over there" and not abusing perfect little white French kids from nice families!

Having read through Mitterand's case, I am left wondering: how many more of Polanski's passionate defenders have indulged their paedophilic urges and gotten away with it?  Suddenly, the signatories on that petition list seem a lot more sinister. Are they just frat boys protecting one of their own, or are they also guilty of similar crimes?  How many more have raped children in their own lands or - with even greater impunity - in the third world?  How many more closets shall be spewing skeletons in the next few weeks?

Finally I am saddened - although perhaps not surprised - that so many of my childhood idols not only have feet of clay, but were perhaps never worthy of my admiration.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

White, Middle-Class Male Seeks "Reality"

First of all a confession: of all columnists spouting their views in British mainstream media, I believe Johann Hari to be one of the best. His arguments are well researched and well made. Plus, his liberal (as opposed to left-of-centre) views are refreshing in a world where opinions of everything from the colour of Michelle Obama's clothes to piracy off the coast of Somalia are tainted by ideological petrification and intellectual sloppiness.

Which is why I was disappointed to read his piece on reality and the contemporary novelist this morning. Suddenly I realised that Hari's views are not much different from the British mainstream.

First of all there is the ridiculous assumuptions that "reality" is some how "over there" - in lands far away like India and Africa but not in the middle-class havens of London, Manchester, Glasgow. More problematic is the implicitly classist conceit that this over-there-reality must be about war/poverty/violence.

Then there is a more troubling aspect: Hari blithely describes the location of Arvind Adiga's new novel as "typical Indian city." While, this might sound like nitpicking to some but most Britons take great pride in explaining the uniqueness and difference of the various parts of their tin-pot island. Thus London is automatically assumed to be world apart from Manchester. And god forbid if you ever describe Glasgow or Edinburgh as "a typical British city" to either a Scot or an Englishman! Yet a country of over a billion people, seventeen official languages, every major religion can somehow be reduced to "typical". I would LOVE to know what qualifies as a "typical Indian city" - Mumbai? New Delhi? Guwahati? Hyderabad? Patna? But hey, the white man will establish the "uniqueness" of his location but "over there" is just all a "typical" massive (w)hole.

An aside here: If Adiga's first book's superficiality (most likely a result of an over-arching ambition to write the "Indian" novel rather than just a brilliant one) is any indication, it is precisely his short-hand rendering of the Said-ian "typical" Indian characteristics that make him such an "exhilirating" writer for the likes of Hari. After all, why complicate your life - and reading - with ideas, views, insights into the "non-typical" India or any other "over-there" that you would acquire from the likes of a Mahashweta Devi or an Amitav Ghosh? After all their litarary "reality" gets a little too uncomfortably confrontational for white British middle-class men with pretensions of liberality.

(Mind you - for those of you ready to jump down my throat - I am not saying that Hari is racist! Unfortunately all of us have racist assumptions, most of which we deny or are unaware of. And to paraphrase Ella Shohat, its the "unthinking" racism that is the most insidous and dangerous).

Then there is the glowing recommendation of Adiga's Boyle-like attempt to write like a "journalist" about what he doesn't know. Without even going into the merits of Adiga's research and its literary rendering, Hari's statement itself is problematic.

Having worked as a journalist in Latin America and Asia, I have despaired of far too many of these well-meaning journalists who "research" places they write about without ever bothering to learn the language, understanding the culture, or indeed caring about the context of the stories they email back to the publications back home. Worse still, all these purportedly objective journalistic accounts are not only deeply judgemental and flawed, they actively construct views, opinions of the "over-there" by elision and omission, and thus aid and abet trade, diplomatic and military policies that countries implement.

So journalists are hardly the benchmark of those who go out to learn and write about "reality." And while it has become fashionable to complain about the deterioration in journalistic standards in the past decade, Western "journalistic" standards were always deeply flawed when it came to covering "reality" in over-there-lands! In fact, novelists would be better served if they focussed on particular subjective realities, providing depth, context, integrity and compassion to their stories, rather than imitating the falsely objective, exploitative, limited viewpoints that journalism requires!

Finally, Hari's paean to the apparent resuscitation of the "realist" novel by Adiga (and I assume others of his ilk) is particularly grating. The "realist" novel was a product of a particular time, place and culture, all of which are part and parcel of Hari's cultural inheritance. However the realist novel was also an aspect of the intellectual imperialism that wreaked - and continues to wreak - as yet unacknowledged havoc on colonized cultures across the globe.

Realism may have served a particular purpose in Europe and America, but it represents a form of intellectual and creative colonisation beyond these geographical/political and cultural boundaries. For far too long, writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America were told to write in "realist" forms and forced to eschew non-realist, non-linear narrative traditions that their own cultures had developed in the centuries prior to colonization. "Realism" was enlightened, modern, intellectually superior to the non-linear, non-realist narrative traditions of Africa, Asia, Latin America, we were told constantly and consistently. Colonised writers took up the form, to prove they were as good as their colonial masters, to attain intellectual credibility and readership, to show the masters that they too "could"!! This is why Marquez, Borges, Rushdie had such an impact on their home cultures - they unshackled the novel from its colonial-realist shackles, demonstrating that "reality" could be narrated in myriad ways and not only the one foisted upon us by our former colonial masters.

For writers from postcolonial nations who are still struggling to overcome the far-longer lasting legacies of intellectual and creative colonisation, Hari's views are not deeply familiar but also depressingly common. Its just horribly disappointing to read Hari espouse them.

As I said at the beginning, Hari is one of my favourite British columnists and I look forward to reading his work. And yet this morning, I was forcefully reminded that just as electing a bi-racial president has not made America post-racial, overt professions of liberalism has not removed the "unthinking Euro-centrism" or the long standing cultural, intellectual, creative imperialism implicit in British public discourse.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On writing, literature, politics: An Interview

The July 2009 issue of the ArtCiencia carries the text of an email interview that Dr. Nilanshu Agarwal conducted with me last year. The interview covers a host of topics including postcoloniality, literature, and writing.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The East, The West And Sex: Same Schpiel, Different Day

As an "eastern" woman who has lived nearly half her life in the "west," I can admit to a personal interests in debates that tackle issues of gender, race, colonialist history and sex. After all it is an immensely rich vein to mine for political, social, emotional narratives. So I was obviously intrigued by a book review emailed to me about Richard Bernstein's The East, The West, And Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters. After all, the book had been described as "provocative and intriguing," (NYTimes), and "wide-ranging and astute" (NY Review of Books).

Funnily enough, although the review got over 350 responses within 24 hours – much of them virulently racist and misogynist – the voice of the “Eastern woman” is missing - perhaps because the book (and the review) says little we haven’t heard from lovers, acquaintances, strangers.

I remember that I decided within three months of living in NYC as a teenager that I would never date two categories of men: one, those who professed an interest in India; and two, those who had travelled to India. The first, I had discovered, very quickly were looking for their personal fantasy of the "Kamasutra girl," an impossible female caricature who was at once intellectually inferior, psychologically submissive and sexually voracious. The second category of men, I admit, seems to be a vast generalisation at first glance. Yet I realised that those who had refused to sample the local flavours at an Indian brothel during trip - due to an innate sense of decency, social or moral qualms, or plain good old upbringing - still nursed the same fantasy: the afore-mentioned Kamasutra girl. They want the final souvenir of their travels East, sex with the Oriental fantasy!

Unfortunately, the first dozen pages of the book made me realise something worse: Bernstein is far worse than the two categories mentioned above. In addition to travelling and living in the “East” (primarily China) and holding his personal Oriental fantasy, he is also of the long line of apologists who attempt to explain their own deeply held beliefs about race, sex and power in apparently “rational” terms. While a quick re-read of Said/Fanon/Shohat would be enough to rebut pretty much every single word of this book, let me just point out a few of the not so “provocative” and long-held notions that Bernstein holds forth on:

1) Bernstein’s “East” – and his pathetic little diatribe against Said notwithstanding – is blithely explained as anything ranging from Morocco to Japan. (Note to white, male writers trying that old “I know better” argument against Said: they not only make you look idiotic, irrational, unlearned but also don’t work in the post-colonial era).

2) He conveniently constructs a dichotomy between so-called "Christian" culture and the "culture of the harem." Nice! Except not all of the “East” had harems! Moreover, and with classic sleight of hand, he implicitly includes "Jewish" cultures in the same "western" rubric, conveniently forgetting the far larger “eastern” Jewish populations. But to acknowledge that minor historical detail would not quite hold with the idealised, and politically expedient, notions of the “Judeo-Christian West” against the Eastern “culture of the harem.”

3) In his grand Orientalist sweep of the “East,” Bernstein must – and does – overlook some basic cultural facts that don’t quite support his personal fantasist agenda. While I will not speak for the grand “East” and focus only on India, his false dichotomy of Eastern “harem” vs Western “monogamy” requires him to skip not only the many monogamous cultures that developed in the "East" prior to the white man's “discovery” of the region(s), but he also pointedly refuses to acknowledge the various polyandrous cultures (such as that of the Himalayas). Guess the eastern woman with a harem of men does not quite fit the Orientalist fantasy of the submissive!

4) Another overt exclusion is that of relationships between “eastern” women and “western” men that do not fit his over-arching colonialist paradigm. Not surprisingly then, there are no “anecdotes” of the likes of Begum Samroo – the famed Witch of Sardhana – who rose thanks to her political acumen from a courtesan to the ruler of her own principality. After all, as the transformation of the courtesan to the nautch girl in India shows, and contrary to all pretensions of 20th century Euro-American feminism, the “west” could not until recently conceive of public roles for women that did not include sex-for-sale. And this is why Begum Samroo – with her series of European mercenary/lover-employees, and finally a French hired-gun-turned-husband – does not make it in Bernstein’s fantasy.

5) Perhaps the saddest and yet the most offensively Orientalist aspect of Bernstein’s argument revolves around the apparent lack of guilt regarding sex in “Eastern” cultures. Again, he conflates everything from Islam to Hinduism to Confucianism in one large monolith, betraying not only his firmly Orientalist agenda but also an incredible lack of knowledge and understanding. This is particularly sad because there is a grain of truth in Bernstein’s thinking: most non-Biblical traditions do not centre on notions of a fall from grace. Unfortunately, this argument is buried – quite properly – under Bernstein’s slipshod reasoning and sweeping generalisations, especially as he chooses to use this lack of sexual guilt as a handy excuse for the sexual exploitation of “eastern” women by “western” men: after all goes the unspoken rationale, why shouldn't a woman be exploited when she lacks the moral compass of her western female (Judeo-Christianic) counterparts!

If we consider solely the three pre-Islamic Indian traditions, Bernstein’s reasoning is demonstrated as half-baked and less than half-informed. Yes, the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain traditions attach no guilt to sex. Indeed, the Hindu goal of the four purusharthas includes kama (material and physical pleasure). Unfortunately this is not automatically a call to non-monogamous relations or indeed grounds for the “harem” cultures. What Bernstein conveniently ignores are the philosophical/moral rules that require the pursuit of kama to be about quality not quantity: the “East” may lack the Bible, but it has no trouble privileging the gourmet over the gourmand.

Finally, there is a far more troublesome aspect of Bernstein’s apologia: the ghost of Haditha haunts these pages, reminding the discerning reader (and more importantly, the Asian woman reader) that this same rationale has long led to, and justified, the rape, torture and murder of “Eastern” women. While Bernstein chooses to focus contemporary East-West sexual encounters on prostitution in Far East Asia, he conveniently ignores that the same thinking – non-western women as objects of fantasy and thus less than fully human – also continues to drive “western” men, especially Bernstein’s idealised virile, colonialist types, to the excesses we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that makes Bernstein’s book neither “enlightening” nor “provocative” but simply another in a long line of Orientalist apologia, based on half-truths and prejudices.

Friday, June 12, 2009

New Story Out Now

The summer issue of The Drawbridge is now out. Available online as well at major bookstores, the issue carries writing by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago and the Latin American great Mario Vargas Llosa. It also has a new translation of a short story by Sadat Hasan Manto, as well as contemporary writers: Vicenzo Ruggiero, Etgar Keret.

It also carries a short story that I wrote last year.

I will write more about the issue and my story soon. But for the moment, believe me, its got some really great writing - I am still thinking about the Vargas Llosa piece that is a cross between a book review and a rumination on the erotic, repression and life itself. Actually have to confess that I read the piece and got kind of stuck at it. Its made me think and set off a whole range of questions and ideas - which I suppose what great writing should do.

So till I post my take on the new issue, I suggest you do some exploration and reading of your own at at the magazine's website.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture American Style: A Short Story

Full disclosure: This piece was written immediately after the Abu Ghraib story broke. It was meant for an anthology on America and torture but never published: the publishers decided - I guess - it was a bit too controversial. Think its a good moment to share it what with the new torture memos being released:

Pentagon says response to controversial ad overwhelming

By: Jeffrey Dahmer

WASHINGTON, April 1: Pentagon officials announced today that the response to a controversial recruitment advertisement for women interrogators has been overwhelming.

Maj. Chuck Tarrington, spokesman for the Pentagon announced that the advertisement recruiting “all-American” female interrogators to assist in the nation’s war against terrorism had met with unprecedented success. “We have received over ten thousand applications in less than six weeks,” Tarrington said.

The advertisement formed part of the military´s recently expanded programme for highly aggressive interrogation techniques. The advertisement specifically asked for “all-American” women between the ages of 18 and 25, “of sound moral standing,” to work as civilian contractors on interrogation sites “in U.S. bases around the world.” The advertisement promised “special uniforms,” “trips to foreign countries,” and “position of power” as job perks to women who would ultimately be hired.

In recent months, under fire for using physical torture, the military has chosen to expand its use of women as part of its increasingly aggressive psychological interrogation tactics against terrorism suspects. United States prison camps in Guantanamo, Sudan and Phillipines have widely reported the use of sexual references including touching and wearing erotic clothing by female interrogators to break Muslim detainees, who consider it taboo to have close contact with women who aren’t their wives.

“Thongs, miniskirts and high heels are the standard uniform for women interrogators,” Terrence Haliburt, former Army colonel who commanded the Guantanamo detention camp for over two year explains. “And they are extremely effective.”

The advertisement has come under fire from equal opportunity groups. Willa Reese, president for Association for Equal Rights in the Military for Women of Colour (ERMWC) protests the “racial and sectarian discrimination practised by the programme.” “We understand that all-American is simply a code for white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant women. We feel that the conditions deny black and Hispanic women the right to serve the nation as well as to those who may be aligned with the Catholic church or other Christian movements,” she said.

Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a senior Pentagon official pointed out white, blonde women consistently produced better results in the detainee interrogation programme. “There is a certain image that these people have of America, and it makes better tactical sense to push forward on that front.”

One of the key backers for the Pentagon’s new interrogation programme is Senator Tim Wright, also president of the National Coalition of Christian Organizations, who justified the programme on moral and strategic grounds. “We are living the clash of civilizations, which is why we must use all available resources. And who better to defend our way of life than young women with strong moral convictions,” he said.

Human rights groups have also criticized the new programme. “The new tactics appropriately reject the use of torture. But they do nothing about cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which is also prohibited by the Convention Against Torture,” says Jeremy Foster, legal advisor for the Human Rights Watch.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly defended the use of psychological interrogation tactics as more humane than those using physical force or torture. “U.S. forces treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur, humanely and consistent with legal obligations prohibiting torture,” Tarrington said.

Until recently, female interrogators played little or no part in the U.S.’s increasingly aggressive war on terrorism. However, the new programme will expand their role significantly. Tarrington said, “the new recruitment drive intends to ensure that female interrogators form at least 40 percent of the total corps.” He refused to explain what that would mean in sheer numbers. “The number of interrogators needed at any given time is determined by strategic and tactical considerations. There is no magic figure, unless of course its 34-28-36,” he said amidst peals of laughter from the audience.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Writing: Assumptions, Ethics, Boredom

Last couple of weeks have been all about writing: On a personal level, I have a minor writers' block - not the kind that goes on forever, but the sort where ideas and sentences flicker in and out of consciousness, too vague, too fast, too out of reach to make sense. Having been in this state before, I am just getting on with things until the block dissipates: watching interminable hours of cinema, surfing the web for news through the night, reading whatever I can find including the nutritional information on food packaging. And then people wonder why so many writers are well-informed; what else can you do through these long hours of tedium while waiting for your mind to click into an articulate state?

On a social level, a stranger drama is unfolding. I keep running into people who find the idea of being a writer fascinating! So last week, on a date, the man kept asking me questions about what "inspired" me! Then I met some people for drinks, one of whom was an American woman who insisted on telling me how she admired writers because we were "so creative." And then, just to cap it all, the Guardian carried an entire article about Writers and Writing. Why anybody would care to know whether writing is joy or chore is beyond my comprehension. How many times do we ask cardiac surgeons whether their profession is a "joy or a chore"? Or a fireman? Or less dramatically but none the less logically, the postman?

None of this is new, of course. I have grown used to people assuming that being a writer means that I am any or all of the following:

1. An alcoholic/drug addict
2. Bohemian with unpaid bills and incapacity to manage personal finance
3. Social liberal (read: easily convinced to have indiscriminate sex with strangers)
4. Living the Vida Loca, with late soirees with free flowing intellectual conversation and copious amounts of alcohol (see #1) interspersed with writing in a freezing Parisian garret; how I am supposed pay for this is of course left unexplained.
5. Neurotic, psychotic, manic-depressive, purposefully seeking pain in my personal life (or may be thats just a male excuse for bad behaviour?) in order to find "inspiration." In this particular state, I am supposed to alternate between slashing my wrists and presumably writing with the seeping blood!

I always am met with disbelieving looks when I explain that writing is a job, albeit my dream one. As a child, I loved making up stories, and never could have imagined that I could do it as a career. For me, its like being paid for playing street cricket, or drawing on your mum's kitchen wall. There isn't much pain involved! Although it is hard work, just as playing street-cricket used to be; and the consequences aren't always fabulous. But at the end, that's all! (I think thats why that date last week didn't go well - I think he wanted a neurotic, bohemian, nympho!).

Which is why when a friend asked me about the Julie Myerson story, I was a bit shocked (full disclosure: I have never read her; and given my general lack of interest in contemporary British writing, hadn't heard of her either). Once I got the basic outline of the unfolding pathetic tale, however, I realised what my friend wanted to know wasn't what I thought of Myerson; she was trying to establish the outlines of my personal value system, and thus the limits of our friendship.

In writing a tell-all account of her son's encounter with drugs, Myerson had opened a can of worms for all writers. What my friend really wanted to know was if I would cannibalise our friendship; whether I would "betray" her in writing; in short, did I have a moral compass that could tell the difference between betrayal of a loved one and an addiction to writing.

I was a bit insulted at first. And saddened too. But then I think, she deserved (and so do others in my life) an answer. Writers are cannibals, no doubts. Or at least consumers of psychological carrion. But most of us are not immoral, unethical or automatically addicted to betrayal. Nor are most works of fiction - at least not the good ones - mere jazzed up memoirs and autobiographies. In fact, I find the constant questions on my writing being "autobiographical" quite insulting because they suggest that I have no imagination!

Most writers do not hurt those they love, or betray them in writing. Or perhaps it is better if I speak only for myself: I have in the past inadvertently hurt people close to me by writing on topics that leads the press or general public to question me or my lifestyle. When my first play was produced, my mother was asked invasively personal and stupid questions by the press. My father, like most fathers, hates when I write anything sexually graphic. But for most part, those closest to me have been aware that what I write is not intended to hurt, nor even about them. Even when particularly well constructed sentences - most often from my brother - are cannibalized into my writing, they are in completely different, fictional, contexts.

Most of my family and friends have long read my writing not to feel betrayal, but rather, to quote one of them, "to see how the reality they live with me is metamorphosed into something completely different."

Over the years I have grown better at protecting those I love. After my first novel, I started sealing away journals and diaries so I wouldn't be tempted to go find particular sentences that I felt were well constructed. For my second book, I refused to give the press access to my boyfriend at the time; a decision that led to particularly nasty insinuations by some journalists (pick from the assumptions list above). And with my last boyfriend, I took - at least for me - an extreme stance: I gave him the diaries I had written while we were together and told him to do what he wished with them. I felt that our privacy was the best and possibly only parting gift I could give him. I have yet to regret that decision!

Which is why the Myerson saga bothers me so much: she has betrayed her son by publishing what was a family matter. She has the right to write it of course - that is how writers come to grips with their thoughts, emotions, lives. But to publish it has been a betrayal of the son - and the family - she should have protected. And that is a betrayal she will have to live with - and pay for - for the rest of her days.

But she has also betrayed what she considers her profession/vocation/addiction. She has betrayed writing, which in its greatest form is about truth, not merely a subjective viewpoint. And it is about compassion and understanding of humans, both in our strength and frailty. By placing personal gain - of telling her story as the "right" one, of exerting a narrative control over her contentious relationship with her young son - she has betrayed that essential requirement for truth and compassion. And in doing so, she has also betrayed the rest of the writing community.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thank You Yet Again, Mr Rushdie

Last year, well before the now-ubiquitously adored Slumdog Millionaire was released, I promised myself that I would not add to the general hysteria. There were two reasons for it: the film promised to push every ideological and political button I have (for the record, it does!); and second, having followed similar mass marketing exercises about India before, I knew that all dissenting voices would be shouted down.

I wasn't wrong. The western media juggernaut has been extraordinary in hyping the film, but also at silencing all alternative opinion about the film. Much of British and American media in any case refuses to let an Indian writer/journalist comment on issues linked to India: our best hope recourse is to get a generally clue-less British-Indian or Indian-American holding forth in a manner that consistently repeats the immigration myth that so many of us from the South Asian subcontinent detest: "West is better, richer, modern; back home is poor, superstitious, backward."

The motives boldly ascribed to such criticism has been simplistic and offensively - albeit cleverly - racially coded: any criticism of the film by Indians must be rooted in nationalist pride and a corollary inferiority complex. And worse still, publications and journalists have declared with complete hubris and ignorance that of course Indians don't make such real movies because they would rather make and watch "escapist Bollywood fare." And to hell with the hundred years of Do Bigha Zameen, Traffic Signal, Chameli, and a hundreds of well made, mainstream, successful Bollywood films about the country's underbelly. Who cares about facts when the white man has spoken!

When the screen legend - and in my mind, one of the few Indians with the credibility and stature - to make the point, mildly took issue with the film, he was pilloried. Western journalists who knew little of Bachchan's trajectory and work, declared that he was "jealous" because he hadn't been included in the film; that he was a has-been; that he was delusional. Under the onslaught, Bachchan withdrew his very valid although poorly formulated remarks.

Which is why I am so grateful for Salman Rushdie's piece today in the Guardian. And once again must thank him for saying what many of us have wished to say but have known that it shall be shouted down, mocked, dismissed:

"What can one say about Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from the novel Q&A by the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, which won eight Oscars, including best picture? A feelgood movie about the dreadful Bombay slums, an opulently photographed movie about extreme poverty, a romantic, Bollywoodised look at the harsh, unromantic underbelly of India - well - it feels good, right? And, just to clinch it, there's a nifty Bollywood dance sequence at the end. (Actually, it's an amazingly second-rate dance sequence even by Bollywood's standards, but never mind.) It's probably pointless to go up against such a popular film, but let me try.

The problems begin with the work being adapted. Swarup's novel is a corny potboiler, with a plot that defies belief: a boy from the slums somehow manages to get on to the hit Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and answers all his questions correctly because the random accidents of his life have, in a series of outrageous coincidences, given him the information he needs, and are conveniently asked in the order that allows his flashbacks to occur in chronological sequence. This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name. It is a plot device faithfully preserved by the film-makers, and lies at the heart of the weirdly renamed Slumdog Millionaire. As a result the film, too, beggars belief.

It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it's still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead. In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away."

Thank you, Sir Salman!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Random, Pointless but Totally Fun on a Lazy Sunday

I should thank The Buddha Smiled for pointing me to the most ridiculously fun idea for a lazy Sunday morning. Its The Hero Factory, a website that allows you to make up your own super-hero alter-ego.

Mine is posted herewith. I wanted something a bit tougher but in the interest of complete honesty went with the first result! The "whipped" bit worries me a bit, but oh well, guess even super-heroines have bad days....

At least it cheered me up!!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Panties, Pubs and Protests

A couple of years ago, a friend was on a business trip from Delhi and we decided to head out to Brighton for the weekend. Not, mind you, because Brighton was particularly attractive but because she had read about the place in all those old English romance novels. Then a couple of other friends - also from Delhi and travelling through the UK - joined us. Finally, there were about half dozen Indian women, all in our thirties and forties, who hit Brighton night-life on a balmy summer Saturday.

Many drinks later, while sitting out on the hotel balcony, my friend turned around and asked, "When we met all those years ago, could you have imagined we would ever do this?"

Her eyes were wide with wonder. And perhaps just a dash of tears. Nostalgia or perhaps just too many gin and tonics.

All of us knew exactly what she meant. We had all grown up in small towns in India in conservative families. Most of us did not count as the colonial elite, separated from that echelon by economy and politics. Perhaps, out of the group, I had the most international upbringing, more thanks to my father's government job rather than any active parental choice. Many of the women on that balcony had been brought up with limited dreams: go to university, get a (respectable!) job, get married and raise a family.

But we had fought hard to find new dreams, and then to make them come true. Every woman on that balcony had forged a brilliant career, often rising to the top against all odds in her chosen field. There were extra-marital and pre-marital sex, divorces, schisms with the family, travails of being a single mother in fairly conservative society that linked us all together. We had rebelled and we had survived.

And through out it all, even ten years ago, we could never have imagined that motley group of friends could ever manage (or even afford to) travel overseas, shop, party, bond, just live on our terms!

We - from the generation born in the 60s and 70s - were lucky to grow up in times of tumultuous change. The choices we had made would have been impossible for our mothers. The country's steadily improving economics through out our lifetimes has meant that we can have careers that could not have been imagined even in our own adolescent years. We are the first fortunate ones.

Just as the ones who have followed are the next generation. They are products of an era that can push the boundaries of change further. My mother's generation had to choose between studying science and arts: "tradition" decreed that "good" girls studied arts, especially since science involved "mingling" with boys. My generation fought to wear jeans and "western" clothes because "good traditional" girls didn't wear those. And now the next generation is fighting to be hold hands publicly with their partners, to travel safely on public transport with their friends of a different gender (instead of curtailing their movements), and for the right to unwind in a public space after a hard day's work. Same war, different battle.

The weapons of this new battle are different too. Our generation struggled mostly alone, enlisting help from friends and family, but rarely a larger like-minded community. Our battles were often fought with cunning, secrecy, never fully and openly challenging the cultural and moral thekedaars of our society. When we made our choices, we knew we would take the consequences and prepared for them: we went home early so as to be "safe," walked the streets armed with a hockey stick, learned martial arts. And somewhere deep inside, we hid the quiet despair of having to fight for what our male counterparts took for granted.

No more. The current battle has been taken to the moral thekedaars: on facebook, by internet, in pubs and across the world. The pink panties protest is an apt response to the attempts at terrorising innocent young women for daring to choose their own lifestyles.

It is particularly effective tactic because for many decades, the foul-mouthed moral thekedaars have used vile language to intimidate and disgust us. Many of us have chosen to ignore their disgusting language and actions. And they have constantly benefitted from the idea of "good" Indian women - who are too "delicate" and "well-bred" to engage with their thuggish tactics. Their formulation of "good Indian women" (the ones who don't take them on) vs the "westernized bad" ones (the ones who will) has long helped them dominate and control the discourse about women in the country.

The Pink Chaddi campaign has only just begun to change that dynamic. Finally Indian women have begun to claim space on the political turf: once the moral police crossed that final line of maryaada, there is nothing wrong with using knickers - pink or otherwise - to shame, horrify and fight them.

One final word: the moral thekedaars have already shown themselves ignorant of history of India and its traditions. Seems that despite their delusions of religiosity, they are also as ignorant of religion, especially Hinduism. Otherwise they would realise that the time of Sita and Draupadi is well over; the time of Durga and Kali begins now!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Paradigm Shift on How History is Written?

There is that old adage that "history is written by the victors." And that has indeed been true for much of human history. Yet something has shifted with the technology that now powers global communication systems.

No longer can a government dictate what gets reported. No longer can a newspaper or television channel be the sole determinant of who and what gets counted as news, and therefore, as "historical reality." The new media, powered by millions of citizen journalists are changing that adage on writing history.

As we have seen repeatedly in India, citizen journalists are faster to get the news out than traditional media. True, many complain, they provide "superficial" or "unsubstantiated" information and thus muddy the waters.

Very often these complaints are from those who form part of the government establishments and/or mainstream media. It is true that most citizen journalists or as Mumbai and Gaza reveal, twitter-nalists only provide quick facts. Some of it is not verified, but simply sent out. Yet that is what many reporters on the ground - file in copy with their immediate experience and let the news desk make sense of it back home. Now with the "over-democratization" of news, all of us can be our own news-desk, filtering through accounts to decide for ourselves to analyse and understand issues and events. For an old-style liberal like me, that is a dream come true.

Of course, there are problems. Like all human inventions, the over-democratised new media is only as good as the people running with it. Yes there are vanity contests, and propaganda wars, and shoddy reporting. But that is no excuse for throwing out the baby with the bathwater, especially when that baby is overturning the old maxim and giving the vanquished a chance to write history too.

My contribution to that paradigm shift are the following links, all providing images and news from inside Gaza:

1. A detailed blog on the conditions in Gaza from a medical angle dating back to July 2008: A must read for all those who believe the Palestinians instigated this particular crisis.

2. A poignant blog by a Palestinian journalist and mother on raising two children in a perpetual war-zone.

3. Sameh Habeeb's blog on the Untold Story of Gaza.

4. And finally, a poignant, heart-warming photo-log from inside Gaza, again by Sameh Habeeb.

Over-democratization of the media? Bring it on!