Friday, August 18, 2006

Varanasi Snapshots

September 2005: When you are a graduate student struggling with dissertation deadlines, any stories of a mysterious water reservoir granting the knowledge of this world (and translated in english as a ‘well of knowledge’) is very welcome. I read about  the Gyan Kapur well situated in the compound of the Vishwaneth Temple in Varanasi at a particularly difficult time during dissertation year. As I would write and rewrite the same three lines every morning, I wished for anything that would make my task easier. So it was ironic to hear that there was a well out there somewhere, and by drinking its water I would have the ‘knowledge of the world’. It was sadly half a world away from where I slaved on my trusty laptop. So all I could do was make a mock promise to the deities that ruled the city that I would definitely visit their well if all went well with my academic tasks. Varanasi was also the site of Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant The Romantics a much loved book during the same period of my life. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with the city from Mishra’s portrayal of it.

To arrange a trip to the city wasn’t that difficult, however to negotiate a chaperon to accompany me for the day trip was the tough bit. This was North India now, and everyone I knew was getting nervous on hearing I was taking the trip on my own. However, Varanasi doesn’t figure high on the list for a quick weekend retreat for most Indian families or at least the families I knew. Finally I had to bully and cajole Ronny into taking the trip with me. As he sullenly stared through the early morning train I nastily congratulated him on being the first person in his family to see the city while not converted to ash. Other devout Hindus would hope to be in the city when they approach their last days. To die in this holy city would free them from the cycles of rebirth and they can merge with the divine being.

Our first glimpse of Varanasi were the spires of the city emerging from the early morning mist. Mishra’s apt description of the sea of humanity rising up from the platforms, the chaos of the chai wallah boys, the crowds of rickshaw drivers trying to reel you in, the squalor and filth amongst the beauty of the railway station held true. On exiting the railway station, our rickety cycle rickshaw negotiated the early morning traffic and the pot holes in the road. Groups of mosque goers had returned from their early morning prayers and were congregating in front of the shops. The rubbish of the previous day remained unpicked at their feet. As the white capped young men picked their teeth and ogled at the tourists rattling around in wobbly rickshaws on run down roads, I prayed for a world religion that would concentrate on better infrastructure and  urban management.

However, like countless tourists before me the first glimpse of the Ganges through the pink and brown stoned brick ghats that line the river make you forget and forgive the city's denizens for everything. Though over the past year I had pored through various accounts narrating the beauty of the river and the holy city-- in many cases descriptions more eloquent than mine, nothing in the world prepares you for your first encounter with the landscape. It being the shradh period, when most devout families avoid any religious visits or celebrations, I miraculously had the busy Dashawamedh Ghat to myself. The river my playground, nothing disturbed my first boat ride across the river. The boat also carried a young man balancing water bottles, he will set up a stall for the visitors who have start emerging on the sandy beach across as the sun comes up. I met  a Bengali couple from North America who were in the city with their father’s ashes. They looked uncomfortable sitting cross legged listening to the priest as he guided them through the unfamiliar rite of faith .The man's newly shorn head nodded animatedly even as he struggled to follow the priest’s droning intonations. Later they joined other early morning visitors as they took the dip in the waters. The personal becoming the spectacle, I felt like an eavesdropper at this moment as they mediated the divine with the every day. Nearby a little girl cajoled people into buying small boats made of dry leaves; each carrying the precious cargo of a tiny flower, a lit candle, and a wish that will be set to the river waters. She is wise to the tourists and shifted efficiently between the dollars and the yens.

The boat ride continues, it has been nearly half an hour since we have started our trip and there has been no encounter yet with the odd dead body floating in the river that the guide-books warn you about. The boatman points out the various sites, a funeral party is underway at one. A straggly blonde man with dreadlocks tries to meditate nearby. The boatman repeated what fellow passengers on the train had told me about Varanasi, the beauty of the city is that you encounter the maya (the worldly) and the spiritual in the same space. A funeral procession and a musician perfecting his shehnai will share the same space even as a group of friends chew on their pan and gossip along the riverside. Perhaps facing death every day makes you more grounded in enjoying the banality of every day life. As a flock of pigeons cross in a white arc across the red stoned buildings, a whirr of Japanese cameras try to capture this post card moment.

I spend the next two hours enjoying the changing colors of the river from the Mansingh Observatory. This particular royal had indulged in his passion for astronomy and even now visitors can enjoy the sun dials and other mechanisms to calculate the trajectories of the heavenly bodies on the palace’s roof. The afternoon I was there the observatory was a sanctuary for shy college students escaping from the conservative city to grab a furtive moment or two.

By late afternoon the sun blazes strongly, the house favorite vegetable burger I had ordered for my mid day meal turns out to be a burger dipped and fried in ghee. As the mercury rises it sits uncomfortably in my stomach. Ronny has returned in mortification after inquiring of the manager for the use of washroom facilities, these are only for women. Men have to use the streets.

The spiritual done with we have to decide how to while the three hours till we can catch our evening train back to Delhi. I vote we watch a Bhojpuri film, after all "regional" Indian cinema should not be confined to West Bengal or South India . However, as I later discover in Delhi, Bhojpuri is the newest craze. When I inquire for film tickets, they have all been bought up by the UP ‘bhaiya population’. Our only option is  James, one of the sorrier offerings from Ram Gopal Varma’s Factory. However, from the yelling crowds of the student population in the theatre I can deduce that the film is a hit in Varanasi. One and a half hour and the glowering hero has not said much but the body count is increasing. A group of Japanese boys are clearly bowled over and stamp their feet every time the male protagonist appears The willful Nisha Kothari pouts and preens. I might not warm to her but the crowds scream their approval. I decide not to wait any longer to find out  how the movie ends and return to the railway station. The train is delayed, a little while later the group of Japanese boys from the cinema enter our train. They are clearly still enamored of the movie and animatedly try to copy James who had made his entry in the frame as a passenger on  a train too.

Mumbai Rhapsody

September 2005:I am in Pondicherry for the day enroute to Mumbai. The drive to Pondicherry has been beautiful as the highway curves along the seashore. One is hypnotized by the undulating coastline stretching endlessly in the horizon only to be brought back rudely to earth by the bus driver and his fondness for the pressure horn. He has been relentless in his approach ever since we set out early morning, eagerly blasting aside any vehicle coming in his way. In the past fifteen minutes he has successfully overtaken two police vans, I am impressed with his egalitarian approach towards any opposition to his progress along the highway. Doing a Rajnikanth, he flicks a cigarette mid air and lights it even as he swivels animatedly in his seat arguing with the bus conductor and the occupants of the bus over the most expedient route to my destination. Pondicherry is taking a languid siesta when we drive into the town. The red pill box hats on the police men on the street are a reminder of the French presence in the area in the last century. We debate for a while what South Asia would have been like if the French had beaten the British in colonizing the region intensively. Better food definitely, however one shudders at the model of governance that would have been followed. Today Pondicherry is famous for the neighboring model community of Auroville and the non existent taxes on liquor. I walk through the local sights namely a light house, the one-room town museum and police uniforms on display at the local police station on rues (streets) that still carry their French names. Even during the brief time I am in the town, I miss the gritty ‘edge’ that signifies the rest of the country. As locals doze in the afternoon sun, a swarm of European tourists sip their cocktails on balconies overlooking the sun bleached beach. People start drinking early in the afternoon. Pot bellied visiting business men partake of the cheap rum in numerous pubs bordering the bus station as they watch European league football on the TV screens. The town’s young plaintively cry about ‘nothing being here for us’ and share their dreams of making it to France one day.

The contrast to Pondicherry is obvious as I enter maddening Mumbai, a virtual sea of humanity envelops you the moment one steps into the city. I am amazed at ‘what the body remembers’ as I successfully allow the early morning commuter traffic to carry me into the local train at Dadar. Think of yourself as part of a wave, I tell myself. Eight years ago I had watched apprehensively from the sidelines, taking some time before I figured out how successfully to throw oneself into the throngs boarding and descending the local trains. Suketu Mehta in Maximum City had seen the local trains as the one ray of hope in the increasingly polarized city of Mumbai. Every day the hands reaching out to help haul in the commuter rushing to meet the train extend regardless of what caste or religion the other belongs to. They stretch out with the mutual understanding that the other is a harried worker apprehensive of missing his train and not making it in time to earn a day’s living. As I edge closer to the door an elderly gentleman sporting a fiery tilak gestures me towards a vantage point from where I can approach the platform with ease.

The skyline of the city has been taken over by the Times of India’s larger than life hoardings for the Ganesh Chatruthi celebrations. The media company has successfully exploited the Maharashtan’s in general and the Mumbaiker’s in particular great love affair with Ganesha and media celebrities. A doe eyed Ganesha peers down at pedestrians from above with the wacky slogan of Kaun Bangega Indian Idol scrawled across his tusks. Apparently the Times of India is running a competition for the most popular Ganesha pandal and readers can vote in their favorites. The pink-stoned Shiddhi Vinayak temple devoted to Ganesha is the site of the Ganesh Chathruthi celebration hosted by Times of India one evening. Full page ads in the newspaper target the city’s young and stylish with many a talented artist like Shankar Mahadevan being featured as performing. The Shiddhi Vinayak temple, the richest temple in the city, has been popular with cine and TV stars for a while. A Jaya Bachan two decades ago had walked barefoot to pray for her husband Amitabh when he was injured in a freak accident on a film set. Today Ekta Kapoor, creator of the saas bahu serials on satellite TV walks diligently every Tuesday from her home to the Prabhadevi suburb hosting the temple. She will be conducting the aarti for the Times of India festivities. Pooja who is accompanying me for the day gossips about how she saw Aishwarya Rai lining up outside the temple, early one morning, during the Salman Khan tapes controversy. The mix of celebrity culture and religion is alive and kicking here. The opulent temple lives under a constant security threat; somber police officers frisk devotees even as the mile long queue passes through metal detectors. As we peer from behind the check posts, workers are setting up the stage and audio equipment for the evening celebrations. Later as an ornate wooden carriage bearing the idol inches through the crowd of devotees, DJ Suketu is ready to perform. He belts out Atif’s Woh Lamhe even as the horde prepares to tearfully immerse the Ganesha in the seawater. The confluence of the sublime and the surreal is bizarre.

The only ‘media star’ that overshadows other sites on the religious tourist directory is the shrine of Haji Ali. A significant feature of Mumbai’s landscape, it has been a devotional site for the city’s inhabitants long before a generation of seventies film mothers miraculously regained sight or speech as they cried copiously at the shrine. Haji Ali had forsaken his riches to undertake a pilgrimage he dreamt of one night, many say his coffin had come up floating in the seawater one day. Family members buried him on a narrow land corridor mid-sea meeting his last wishes. As the tide switches from low to full, the shrine becomes a virtual island at particular times of the day. The walkway to the shrine is a mini carnival as stalls sell the ridiculous and essential. Devotional prayer books, plaques with religious verses, fake gold jewelry, plastic toys, incense sticks. A man in polyester trousers pompously escorts his plump paramour, she is one of the (now disbanded) bar dancers the crowd whispers. Her long hair flying loose in the hair, she has overloaded herself with the fake gold jewelry. Families picnic on the boundary wall behind the shrine, some gingerly climb down to face the waves pounding the rocks, an old man laughs out as the surf hits his hennaed beard. The silver ceiling inside and some of the structure outside have seen better days. The city administration has finally given the go ahead to the department of environment to go ahead with renovating depilated portions. Pooja points out landmarks on the Mumbai skyline rising behind the shrine. The high-rise gym where the city’s rich work out as they look intently at the sea, heritage properties owned by rich Gujratis, a blue domed mosque built by the infamous Haji Mustan. It remains a remnant of earlier times, easier times, when a Mumbai don was more of the friendly neighborhood Robin Hood than the terror that plagues the city now.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Post Op/Ed (June 5, 2006)/Gifting our health away

This week’s revelations that the Federal Minister for Population Welfare Chaudhry Shahbaz Hussain has consumed 100 percent of the “secret fund at his disposal and money meant for gifts and entertainment” and that “amounts meant for purchase of gifts and entertainment has been spent hundred percent even by the four provincial departments of Population Welfare and their attached departments with even the local outlets spreading all over Pakistan not even leaving a single penny unspent (of the amount given to them) to buy gifts”, amazed even those who had grown immune to the actions of our parliamentarians. That many departments had also expressed their intention that they would spend the so far unspent money on gifts and entertainment within the period of May to June 2006 instead of surrendering it to the Finance Ministry did perplex some of us. Had not Pakistani women been reminded in so many forums that it were they and their spending foolishly that had led many a household and the country’s economy to ruin? The media every day bombards us with images of ‘penny wise pound foolish’ Pakistani housewives who are blamed as the chief perpetrators of consumerism in Pakistani society.Didn’t most of the 19th century Muslim reform movements in South Asia focus on rescuing Muslim women from wasteful habits stemming from ‘ignorance and superstition’? The reformers were of the view that the solution to the Muslim community’s decline (amongst a range of other moves) lay in reforming and guiding women. This was because women were viewed — paradoxically — as both the principal executors of wasteful and ‘impossible’ customs and as the chief victims of such customs (Barbara D Metcalf: Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, 1982). Reformers like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi in Beheshti Zevar (The Heavenly Ornaments — which to date remains an essential bedside reading for most of our ulema, trying to jot down thinking points for their next lecture, and which, until the Moltyfoam advertisement came along, was the best gift to give to the daughter leaving for her husband’s house) do elaborate with great detail on wicked women who demand more and more money from husbands with “not even thinking for a minute of the difficulties he may face in far away places and the comforts he has to give up”. My copy of The Heavenly Ornaments (translated into English by Dar-ul-Ishaat, Karachi) has a whole section devoted to ungrateful wives who amongst other nasty habits will never use the “plenty of money the husband sends to run the house in a beautiful manner, saving the extra money and handing it over to the husband the moment he returns home”! Oh well, maybe the good Maulana had yet to meet the compulsive shoppers in the Government of Pakistan’s Hall of Fame!But I believe the Federal Minister for Population has something to say in his defence. His ministry has very kindly returned an amount of Rs. 1 billion to the Finance Ministry, which had been given to the ministry to fund Pakistani women’s empowerment and their reproductive health concerns. The programme source for funds returned remains the same for all associated institutions and organizations. Across the board, it is the amounts allocated to fund projects for women’s reproductive health that the affiliate organizations claim to have not utilized! This with the appalling figures for infant mortality, maternal deaths, and women’s access to health providers in Pakistan, which still call for our policy makers’ attention. Was the good Minister trying to hint that his job had been accomplished? That the next big disaster, as our spiraling population growth continues to tax our dwindling natural resources and an infrastructure that just doesn’t manage to cope with these alarming figures, been averted?It is heartening that Ms. Gul-e-Farkhanda, a member of the National Assembly and who currently chairs the National Assembly body on population welfare has taken the Minister to task. She has listed the following concerns that still need to be addressed. They include: “Comprehensive family planning services to males and females; maternal health care including safe motherhood, pre- and post-abortion care in complication; infant healthcare; management of reproductive health; problems in adolescents; management of reproductive health related problems of women and men; prevention and management of reproductive tract infection; sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS; detection of breast and cervical cancer; management of reproductive health related issues of men; management of infancy; gender equality and empowerment of women; programme management; and human resource development.”That this news coincides with the US’s announcements that it has agreed to sell Pakistan $ 375 million worth of military equipment (as reward for good behaviour for being a valuable ally in the war of terror) is worrying. So, while Pakistani women continue to die in childbirth and to date have the highest rate of breast cancer for any Asian population, our government has chosen to spend their savings on 50 Harpoon missiles to be launched from submarines and surface ships! My government’s spending priorities continue to amaze me.While Minister Shahbaz quickly retraces his steps and decides to spend Rs. 540 million in the next two months on bringing some “revolution in the field of population welfare”, his critics express their fears about the quality of the work commissioned in such a short period. In the midst of these revelations, we have also found out that the government officials and the ministry concerned continues to ignore the health concerns of women living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as they fear upsetting the ‘Islamic’ sensitivities of the region. This brings me back to the concerns I had raised last week; our political and military officials are ready to barter the lives of women living in the region, their access to basic rights, education, health providers and expression of opinion, in order to get a ‘negotiated’ peace on the government’s terms in the area.Minister Shahbaz has announced that the ministry has hired female scholars to spread the good word, but what Pakistan should be looking towards (and a source in the population ministry tells me that this movement has already started in some circles), are male motivators. Most Pakistani women are already aware of the risks our current attitudes towards reproductive health pose to our nation. It is only by driving the message home to our male population that we can see some changes. We have tried media campaigns, including the clergy, but to what end? The media campaign of chota khandaan zindagi asaan (small families, trouble-free lives) set in action a spate of bumper stickers of barra khandaan, jihad asaan (large families, trouble-free war). Unless and until the nation’s men are reminded of their responsibilities, and the government agrees to a comprehensive maternal health programme as suggested post-Cairo to be instituted in the country, I don’t think we can have any “revolution in the field of population welfare”.And in the meantime, could someone take the good minister’s and his cronies’ credit cards away?

Pune Diary

We drive into Pune on a sugar high after indulging in a chikki invoked binge in the neighbouring city of Lonavala. Shops selling this sweet list more than two-dozen varieties and it is a difficult but definitely pleasurable activity to make your choice amongst those on display. The sweet fudge can keep the small town on India’s map long after its green hills have been taken over by the concrete townships and resorts that threaten to obliterate the beautiful countryside. As it is still the rainy season in the mossy green Western Ghats, the highway from Mumbai is a green-gray mist with the spray of the waterfalls that we cross fogging up our car’s windscreen.
Pune is a flurry of energy and it is hard not to warm up to the town. It is the academic hub for educational institutions old and new. The solemn brick-stoned university buildings set up by colonial India look over the new campuses of the IT and business study institutes mushrooming in the small town. The Indian Film and Television Institute is based in this city and has been the alma mater of leading lights like Jaya Bachan, Subash Ghai and Mani Kaul. At the same time Pune forms an important cyber hub for the country with many of the call center business being trafficked by this town. It is also home to the country’s military academies with a bustling military cantonment. The worlds of the academia, the computer motivated, and the cantonment mold in together, and I believe this is what makes Pune unique. In the many lively café’s that dot the town’s landscape, budding film directors try to rope in gawky college students to feature in their final year thesis projects. The cyber yuppies work for corporate America during the day and fight over passes to the military galas and cantonment New Year balls in the evening. Glimpses of British India during these celebrations, be it in the military band, the ceremonial uniforms, or the formal dances enthrall them. This is sophistication they whisper in awe struck tones as they absorb the chandeliers overhead and the ornate history of the buildings.
A study in contradictions, even though Pune is the heart land of Maratha nationalism, it is home to a large expatriate population. Be it the short term New Age visitors curious about enrolling in the commune at the Osho Meditation Resort, the exchange students in the city’s colleges and the prestigious United World College in the suburbs or the employees of the vibrant NGO industry, they all make Pune an extremely cosmopolitan city. A group of Somalian and Thai residents gossip in the parking lot as I enter my apartment, in the city’s restaurant an Iraqi mother patiently feeds her small daughter bun pakoras, students from Papua New Guinea elbow around jokingly in the markets. There is also a steady population trickling in from Mumbai. Pune has emerged as a booming property market for Mumbai’s rich who have set up their summer homes in the city. Other former Mumbai residents have preferred to make it home and commute to Mumbai for work when need be, the new highway between the two cities has just made their job easier. Old time Pune citizens fear this deluge from Mumbai and many have protested the rapid urbanization that this new population has introduced. The quaint Irani snack bar tries to fight off the Barista coffee chain, the Parsi general store the shopping malls and multiplexes. The narrow roads clog up quickly with the increased vehicular traffic. Women driving scooters wrap scarves around their face to avoid the pollution.
However, just as you start mourning the loss of all things unique to the city, it surprises you with a glimpse of its deep soul. In neighbouring Mumbai the spiritual has become a commercial extravaganza, in Pune there is still a reverence for Maharashta’s religious spirit. Though our group had escaped to the Matheran hill station during Ganesh Chatruthi, (the festival that has followed me through my Indian trip—the elephant headed god manages to reincarnate himself in every town till I am quite sure that I have seen all his regional manifestations) I could still witness some of the religious carnival as we drove back to Pune the next day. It is the morning after the holiday, groups of glum men sit on the various floats being wheeled away from the city centre. Their faces streaked pink and blue from the colored powder that forms part of their celebrations, they nurse their heads after an all night revelry inspired by bhang and loud music. Though the Pune city administration like Mumbai’s had been strict to enforce a ‘noise pollution’ ban after 10pm, it is only in Pune that it is flouted by residents who want to keep their celebrations ‘traditional’. Some of the floats moving slowly in the morning traffic carry life sized Ganesha idols with the deity blind-folded with scarves. These are the more important idols on loan from the city’s temples. Though they have formed an integral part of the various street installations, displays and performances during the fortnight, at the time of the immersion another idol has taken a proxy plunge (quite literally) for them. The deity’s image is blind folded on return to the return to the temple avoid being traumatized by the irreligious on the city’s street.
However, Pune is changing. The changing dynamic of the Indian family is what is more obvious. In the apartment building I am living in, most of the flats on my floor have women listed as apartment owners. A ruse by the wily husband to get out of paying property taxes? No, more and more women, and single women at that now own or rent property in the city. The IT business in the city has been good for them. It has obviously introduced a change in their lifestyle but also challenged as mentioned earlier the power equation in the new Indian family. In more and more families the younger members have increasing buying power and are taking decisions. Sandeep and his young wife earnestly tell me about their new life over dinner in ZK, a restaurant owned by the Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan. The hours are tough, they rarely see each other as its difficult to co-ordinate their free time, usually when one is returning after a grueling shift, the other partner’s day is just starting. However, they now own their own apartment and like many of their friends plan to retire by their mid thirties. They lead a good life; they assure themselves and wonder why they have to follow the life path trajectory that their parent’s generation did. They would rather suffer the paranoid supervisors, the erratic hours and unusual working style today for a very comfortable future. The call centers and the working environment have many critics, with even a report sponsored by the national labor ministry commenting harshly on the working environment. Overseas, the move of local business to Indian call centers has angered many. Globalization does have its critics and it is amazing where this opposition crops up. In Australia angry housewives decide to boycott a telecom provider for providing phone numbers to call centers mostly based in India.
On the last day of my visit I get another reminder of where I am. An early morning visit to the city’s Ferguson College brings me eye to eye with a billboard outside the college’s walls bearing Sarabjit Singh’s image and a plea for his release. The campaign to free him has reached this city with many supporters struggling to make the Free Sarabjit cause a more ‘national’ one rather than a cause localized to the states of Haryana and Punjab. The organizers want to win over the heart and minds of the average Maharashtan on the city’s streets, often the most nationalistic of the country’s citizens.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

White Mughals Revisited-Post Op/Ed

August 2005

White Mughals Revisited

William Darymple’s White Mughals (Darymple, 2003) ends with the lines ‘[that] the East and West are not irreconcilable and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drove them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past and they will do so again.’

White Mughals is a work of narrative history telling the tale of a British Resident in Hyderabad, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, who in the eighteenth century fell in love with and allegedly married the beautiful Khair-un-nissa, grand daughter to a rich and powerful nobleman of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court. The two face conspiracies, blackmail and public outrage. The livid Governor General institutes an inquiry into Kirkpatrick’s indiscretion of ‘turning native’, eventually true love triumphs, albeit briefly. In a few years Khair-un-nissa sees her children sent off to England by their father, so they can be groomed to be the proper English ‘gentlefolk’ which would aid their progress in colonial India. Kirkpatrick dies soon after, and Khair-un-nissa left a widow and exiled from Hyderabad never hears from her children again.

August 2005 has seen the tragic love story that Darymple narrated of Hyderabad’s former British Resident re-created in Pakistan. The outrage over the Brigadier Durcan affair and how the incident has been articulated in the print and electronic media employs a similar discourse that earlier reflected British India’s disdain towards Anglo-Indian relations. Being the dominant power, the British were able to erect barriers to distinguish and defend an untarnished image of self as culturally pristine (Brumann, 1999). As Darymple explains the promiscuous mingling of races and ideas, modes of dress and ways of living, was something that was on no one’s agenda and suited nobody’s version of events (Darymple, 2003). That the inquiry report into Brigadier Durcan’s affair is quick to emphasize and subsequent accounts conscientious to repeat that there was no ‘sexual relationship’ between the British Defence Attache’ and his annonymous paramour, reminds us of the earlier years of the British Raj when all sides seemed, for different reasons, to be slightly embarrassed by particular ‘moments of crossover’. These were episodes most preferred to ignore a having never happened. As most have concluded when it is easier to see things in black and white, there is a great discomfort while designating such gray encounters—against one’s own self-identification of morality –as part of our respective histories.

In South Asia in particular the purity of race/nation/society/religion had to be maintained by disallowing intermarriages. Any marriages across race, religion, culture or nation were a violation of strict boundaries. The ‘zenana’ had remained the ‘essential space of Indian femininity’. Instances when the ‘zenana’ was violated in colonial times and the veil removed were therefore akin to the impregnation of the woman and had strong sexual connotations, for ‘…only after such a sanctum had been penetrated that the Anglo-Indian can claim to ‘know’ the Indian’ (Suleri: 1992:93). While the link between empire and sexuality continues to engage students of colonialism, what needs to be appreciated is that these relationships, whether formal or informal, consensual or exploitative, conversion or non-conversion resulted in the birth of children, and in the emergence of a hybrid or metis population (Caplan, 2001). There has been from earlier times an aversion by the ‘good Muslims’ of South Asia towards what they perceive as hybrids in their midst. As Treacher points out:

Social myths operate powerfully against mixed-race relationships and tend to focus on the mixing of blood. What we all know is that for a mix of blood to occur there has to be a mix of other fluids as well. The socially grounded myths are pervasive, they may be false but the operate in such a way that these myths structure our relationships with one another, and our relationships to ourselves. These myths have a social message and the strong injunction is not to mix up categories, that ‘pure’ blood should not be mixed with ‘tainted’ blood of the Other (Treacher, 2000: 100).

Brigadier Andrew Durcan like his predecessor in Darymple’s ill fated Kirkpatrick has been accused of behaviour ‘inappropriate with his status and position’. Like Kirkpatrick before him he faced an inquiry once he ‘lost the confidence’ of the (British) powers that be. ‘Tricked into’ what The Sun reports as ‘a close friendship by the attractive woman…
believed to be an undercover agent’, the hapless Brigadier is a pawn in the hands of ‘rogue elements within Pakistan’s intelligence services’ who plot their nefarious plans. Much like Sharaf un-Nissa and Durdana Begum, (Khair un-Nissa's mother and grandmother who were accused of scheming and encouraging the affair between Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-nissa) Pakistani intelligence agencies are held responsible of playing a remarkable role in forging the relationship and conspiring that the Brigadier and his beloved meet! What is interesting is that though in Pakistan the Inter Services Public Relations, Interior Ministry as well as the Information Ministey play a pass-the- buck game of who best would be able to comment on the issue, at no time do any of the offices deny the news reports that intelligence agencies might enlist the help of Pakistani women to enter into relationships to solicit information. Which of course is a complete change in morality by the custodians of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan who have been very concerned till now about how Pakistani women express their sexuality.

Islamabad however has turned into a cesspool of secrets over the past fortnight. The mystery woman in spite of tantalizing hints regarding her identity remains elusive. Every day she becomes more of the Salome of the seven veils in Islamabad’s popular imagination. The city’s opinion makers have busied themselves in spinning tales, playing guessing games around her personality and motives or trivializing her agency by giving her a moniker of a Weapon of Man’s Distraction. Others liken her to an alluring Mata Hari bringing in a whiff of intrigue, blackmail, and scandal to the tale. However what lies at the heart of the matter is the fundamental uneasiness of the British press (which reflects the anxieties of the British High Commission) to this episode of ‘togetherness in difference’. As Ien Ang has written elsewhere for those living in between (or as in this case choosing to bridge) Asia and the West.

We have still not escaped the clutches of thinking of the world around us in terms of identity, ethnic, national and otherwise. As a result, mixture is still often inevitably thought of and felt as a contamination, a breach of purity, an infringement of ‘identity’ (Ang, 2001:200).

The manner in which the whole episode has been sordidly worded and how a probable list of names (to identify the female protagonist of Brigadier Durcan’s love story) is exchanged by the Pakistani and British print media emphasizes that not much has changed over the years for Anglo-South Asia relationships. The catalog of ‘likely suspects’ in our local press shows how Pakistani women’s sexuality has been structured through the concept of ‘reputation’. This particular incident is only a hypothetical hook on which lies suspended the academic debate of the historical and societal encounter between Pakistan and Britain.

On Jirga-Post Op/Ed

Whither Justice?

Two years ago to this month, Ardeshir Cowasjee opened his column in The Dawn with the statement ‘In this fair land of the pure, we have the military, the judiciary, the executive, the administration, the police, and the paan wallahs all at odds with each other, all pulling in opposite directions, none able or willing to work in tandem.’ In May 2004 as he wrote his column titled ‘The evil of the jirga system’ Pakistan (and the rest of the world courtesy the BBC report) was shocked with the news that a local jirga in Multan district had ordered the public raping of two sisters as compensation for their brother’s alleged affair with the daughter of an influential landlord in the area. Memories of the Mukhtaran Mai verdict (in the same district) were still fresh, but it was only after the initial furor in the media that the local administration sprung into action. Though as Cowasjee wrote that in late April Justice Rehmat Husain Jaffery of the Sindh High Court had banned ‘throughout the province of Sindh the homemade DIY justice system presided over by a jirga’ the evil continued as the local administration and political elite chose to ignore the continual constitution and exercise of formal jirgas in the province. As others reported subsequently a jirga was held inside the Sindh chief minister's house over a marriage dispute in 2004. Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim has repeatedly justified the jirga system, saying ‘there should be no objection to giving legal cover to jirga judgments’.

Two years later to this column on May 9 2006, an 11 year-old boy is strangled in Karachi. Why? A local jirga had ordered him to marry a woman of a family that had kidnapped his sister. Some time before, his sister had been kidnapped and their father had approached a jirga for justice. The elders ordered the family accused of kidnapping the girl to marry off one of their daughters to the boy to ‘compensate’ for any loss of honor. They chose not to agree to this verdict and strangled and later burnt the little boy.

On May 13, 2006 a local jirga in Aliabad, Sindh convicts a 10-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl of adultery. The girl has to marry someone else within six months, the boy has to pay a Rs.150, 000 fine and remain exiled from the village for six months. The boy’s father insists that these charges have no basis and have been raised as part of a family feud.

During the 2000/1 local body elections Zubaida Bibi, a courageous widow and mother of three submitted her nomination papers for a reserved seat in a local union council in upper Dir. By doing this she challenged the local jirga’s ruling that ‘no woman be allowed to vote, leave alone contest the polls’. During her tenure she took up essential civic programs and instituted social services in her area. Come the 2005 local body elections her many supporters (including men) in her village suggested that she now contest for a general seat or even for a district council seat. Angry jirga members had once again issued their dire warnings against women voting (in NWFP most of our political parties were also accomplices to the agreement that any man whose wife voted would be fined Rs 5 lakhs). The jirga member retaliated to Zubaida Bibi’s continual defiance and slight to their honour by gunning down her and her nineteen year old daughter in their house. What kind of ‘ghairat’ or honour do the perpetrators plan to recover? As they vow to maintain the standards of their elders one should remind them of their valiant elders who during skirmishes with the British during the Second Afghan war of 1878, had stood up and shouted at the British officers to adjust their weapon’s sights as for a while the British had shot off target. They did so for they wanted to fight a fair and honorable fight with an adversary who had an equal advantage. Ghairat for them was not to kill someone unarmed and in the sanctity of their own home.

In the past month we have had this alternative judicial system refuting the Pakistani government (slow and half hearted at best) legal and administrative attempts to curb honor killings in the region through the much publicized edict of the jirga of Nehag Dara of Upper Dir which decided that anybody reporting so-called 'honour' killings or filing a police complaint must also be put to death. Meanwhile a couple who’s marriage had the legal support of the Lahore High Court hides from the panchayat that has ordered them to be ‘shot at sight’. The panchayat has also asked of the families comprising the aggrieved community to contribute five thousand rupees each towards a group pool to fund the desired goal.

The Pakistani populace misplaced romanticism of community justice is costing the country’s women dearly. As Beena Sarwar has written elsewhere regarding this misperception of ‘speedy and efficient justice’ that though the jirga system is justified by some of us ‘as being necessary given the common man’s lack of access to the formal judicial system, which is expensive and long drawn out’, but the jirga system can be no less so draining the parties involved of their time and resources. Besides reinforcing swara (where female members of the family are handed over in compensation), the jirgas instituted have imposed huge fines on those pronounced as guilty - Rs 80,00,000 in one case, liable to be paid over six months by a poor family - while a Jatoi-Maher dispute that started in 1990, has claimed 200 lives despite the sitting of as many as eight jirgas. Proving that the common man’s justice is no more efficient than the formal!

And while Pakistan’s federal government has rushed to request the NWFP government to start an inquiry into the Dir jirga edict, it is all set to institute a ‘grand jirga’ to resolve the Wazirstan issue. As I write fourteen ‘tribal elders, Ulema and spiritual figures from North Waziristan have been short-listed to become members of the jirga, no final names but short listed names are under consideration’. What kind of conflicting signals does our government want to give? Denouncing jirgas and banning them in one forum and then turning to them at another? Can we expect this meeting to come up with any kind of long- term resolution to the conflict without reforming the composition of these jirgas? Are the jirga members selected representative of the political, class and gender concerns of the region? In the 1930s during the Khitmatgar movement the jirgas were reformed to become 'problem-solving bodies at local and village levels' rather than the clumsy traditional grand tribal council which sadly is back with us again with it’s archaic rulings. How can an institution which has become the source of most of the injustice in the region now become a solution to the conflict without first going through certain transformations itself? Women are facing the impact of the military action in the area, whether it is as civilian casualties or the conflicted demands on them as wives of foreign fighters in the region. Will their concerns be redressed in the jirga? The meager rights that the Pakistani government was allowing to bestow them—would we seem them being bartered off in the jirga by the political and military officials representing us in order to get ‘negotiated’ peace on the governments terms? Will the Pakistani government’s grand pronouncements of allowing women in the region to access educational and health reforms would, as our political pundits are fond of saying, be held back until a time when the situation is more conducive?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Post: Op-Ed May 22, 2006

Our tryst with democracy

The grand love affair developing in the cool climes of London continues to raise temperatures and political eyebrows in Islamabad. The mercury has been steadily rising in the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi as it is, and the release of the recent Charter of Democracy might not have helped matters.

Though nothing pleases us more than the signs that our political elite, or two in this case, have finally evolved to develop a backbone — cavemen had taken less time to progress (if we are studying the Darwin school of evolution) to learn to stand upright, fashion the odd tool and prepare for the ice cap that was threatening to develop on the horizon. However, we are happy that the two ‘great white hopes’ for democracy have learnt to smile the ‘ab khul kay muskaraye’ cheesy grin for each other and prefer to direct their angry snarling and baring of teeth at the livid general.

The Charter of Democracy (in an opinion piece elsewhere someone has rushed to label it our Magna Carta) seems an earnest declaration on the part of our leading political lights. However, before we become all effusive about how the two have penned the magnum opus, party poopers like me would like to raise certain issues that we feel the charter ignores or glosses over at best. I for one would have liked a brief statement in the preamble — lest we forget our Georgian past it could have been along the lines of “Forgive us (Oh Lord) for we have sinned — and I now know the error of my ways.” If the future sovereign couple of England could only start their new marriage after apologizing for their wicked ways and begging forgiveness for their sins in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury, their family members, best friends, and TV audiences around the world, why should we Pakistanis demand anything less? So yes, I would have liked them to express their sincere apologies for rushing to hold the General’s hand when things got tough earlier. And that they have learnt the bitter lesson that you cannot blame the military for all that goes wrong and then expect the same military to resolve the mess when the natives start getting restless. One of them could have declared in all honesty something along the lines of “ridding me of the other father that spawned me (i.e. my political entity) has not been easy, but guess what I have found where to direct that Oedipus complex.” So Mr. Sharif, would you like adding something to that declaration?

While we see a lot of ‘toner’ spilt on spelling out the protagonist’s distaste of the vilification campaign against their political colleagues, and the two seem passionate about establishing their credentials to fulfil the conceptions of the ‘democrat par excellence’, the Father of the Nation, why don’t we see the two executors of the Quaid’s dream spelling exactly how they want to tackle the intolerance in Pakistani society?While there is some mention of increasing seats in the Upper House to secure more (I assume nominated) seats for (compliant) minorities (preferably those who are eager to prove their loyalty to the establishment along the lines of members of the minority communities who rallied in support of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Idara-i-Khidmat-e-Khalq in Sindh recently) we don’t see any specific mention of how the two will tackle the draconian legislation that continues to plague minorities in the land of Quaid’s secular dream. Madam Bhutto should have spared some thought for her Sindhi sisters — those who for Pakistan’s legislative machinery are ‘children of a lesser god’ and who to date continue to be kidnapped, raped and forcibly converted. I can only read the same hackneyed phrase of “Women, minorities, and the underprivileged will be provided equal opportunities in all walks of life”, but what would have been welcome would be some ‘teeth’ in the document by expressing their political will to do away with the specific legislation that impedes their social progress.

From what I can read, Bhutto and Sharif’s ire is directed towards the military (and very rightly so, none of us have any problems with trimming the fat off some holy cows), but they keep mum about the other ‘sacred bovine’ that refuses to budge from our political landscape. The two declare that they want to reinstate the 1973 Constitution as it was on October 12, 1999? Forgive me for not keeping awake in my Pakistan Constitution 101 class, but does that mean that our much-loved Shariah Ordinance lives for another day? That ‘cat of nine lives’, the Hudood Ordinances the other general entrusted us with, whom Nawaz Sharif reverently kissed with both eyes shut, and promised to take with him wherever he goes, can still be part of our democratic future? The two have also kept their silence on whether they think honour killing is part of our cultural heritage as assured by our Senate, whether it is compatible with the spirit of the Charter of Democracy or whether there was so much that Nawaz Sharif could unlearn without the ghost of Abba Ji and generals past and present pestering his conscience.

Kashmir gets specifically mentioned in a charter that was about Pakistan’s tryst with democracy and the population of Balochistan, which as you read reels under a full-fledged military action, remains forgotten. Perhaps, the other democrat did not want any reminders of the sins of her father when he unleashed the military to quell democratic expression in the province.

There is talk of the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and their possible inclusion with NWFP, but it is a coy reference at best. I am sure we would have welcomed mention of developmental projects in the region, inclusion with NWFP notwithstanding. What about initiating a dialogue with people of that area? As others before me have said, one cannot resolve the crisis that has developed in the region by violent means alone. The killing of innocent civilians as collateral damage in the fight against militants (indigenous or otherwise) will always escalate into a bloodier situation. Even the most hardened hearts towards our Pukhtoon brothers and sisters cringe at images of the human toll that rises with the military action. And the PML (N) and PPP remain mute about the harsh conditions that have prevailed in the region for so long. For decades, they and the religio-military nexus that rules us have been comfortable with using the population as mercenaries in their foreign interventions and denied the region any tolerant thinking. There were the odd crumbs off the table, but all very strategic and allowing the status quo to prevail — sorry “these people are from the tribal areas and please let them retain their traditions”. And now that the situation has become problematic for them, they want to bomb all who don’t suit their world vision.

Our political and military elite have together robbed a significant section of our populace of any democratic future by their constant intervention and whitewashing of our history. As Mark Tully wrote in another forum, “How can it be when their women, whose writ Ghaffar Khan said should ‘run alongside their husbands’, are back in the burqa? How can it be when the politicians elected to govern Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province follow harsh, intolerant Islam while Ghaffar Khan, though a devout Muslim, believed ‘prayer in whatever language or form was addressed to the same God?’” Messrs. Bhutto, Sharif, and Musharraf, the people of NWFP had their writ on democracy and liberalism. Allow them to act on it and if you have to intervene it should be to rid them of your political stooges.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hyderabad Blues

I am finally in Hyderabad, to discover for myself a city I initially fell in love with through the pages of William Dalrymple’s Age of Kali and later White Mughals. The city is all that I imagined from his descriptions and more. I am in the city using my bedside Bible White Mughals as a guide to ‘meet’ all the characters that had enthralled me in the Khairunissa-Kirkpatrick story.The auto driver I employ for the day is curious about my elaborate and what seems to him disjointed list of sites to visit in the city. But he is familiar with some of them. The British Residency where Kirkpatrick lived is now a women’s college in Koti. A swarm of burkhas follows me with interest as I try to explore for myself whether a model of the residency still survives. Kirkpatrick had built a scaled down model in the grounds of the women’s section of the Residency for his purdah-conscious wife, who would never have been able to access the actual building. It is difficult to make out from my vantage point of a broken wall as I try to peer across the overrun creepers and long grass. The Residency is beautiful with its yellowing walls, slatted windows and more pigeons than students from where I can see. A pair of stone lions stares sternly at the entrance. Across, a shiny new building copying the original Residency hosts the senior postgraduate students.

I am luckier in my second mission. The driver is guided by the men tending the graveyard in Musa Bagh to the tomb of the mercenary French commander Michel Joachim Raymond (also known as Musa Ram/Rahim) in Malakpet. The wily commander of the French Battalion in the city had for a long time kept British influence away from the Nizam’s court. Raymond’s tomb at the top of a small hill is now a site protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and a plaque on the side gives us a brief of this French general, much beloved of the Nizam’s family. The Nizam of the time nicknamed him Musa, and on Raymond’s death his soldiers ‘baptised’ him Musa Ram and/or Rahim to bring him into the fold of their respective faiths! The graveyard custodian whom I had met in Musa Bagh tells me that as a teenager he used to accompany his elders to the hilltop tomb of Raymond on his death anniversary. The quaint ceremony of lighting a lamp and leaving flowers and sweetmeats still continues with many old-time Hindu and Muslim families. Local residents tell me that Raymond’s wife and even his horse are buried in the area.

My last stop for the day is the shrine of Maula Ali at the summit of Koh-e-Sharif, a hill on the outskirts of the city. This is where two hundred years ago, Yaqut, a eunuch in the Qutub Shahi Court, had a vision of Hazrat Ali resting his hand on a rock and woke up the next day to find the rock in his dream scorched by the mark of a hand. The anniversary of Yaqut’s vision became a popular urs and even now the shrine is popular with people of all faiths. As I huff and puff my way over the hill, I wonder why dreaming dervishes don’t have their visions in more accessible places. The day I visit, the custodians are perhaps less generous towards people of other faiths, and guardedly ask me my name twice. Mine is a popular name among Punjabi Indians and they don’t know where to place me. However, the whole exchange is all very polite. At no stage am I asked directly to proclaim my faith. Though I am not a great follower of shrines, after twenty minutes of climbing the narrow steps I am really keen to take a look. I want to demonstrate that I know the ‘secret code’ and rack my brain for what friends who are well versed in "religious passwords" would do in my situation. I ask for a book of verses popular with Shias and pick up a copy of Surah Yasin. Trying to look less like the religious tourist that I am, I proceed towards the curtained enclosure for women in the corner of the main hall. The spirit of Yaqut watching from above probably must be upset by my heathenish presence as I stumble badly across the entrance. The custodian holds his breath and doesn’t comment. I sit alone in the carpeted enclosure and scan the prayers framed on the walls. Outside, I pay my respects at the main shrine and wait as the custodian morosely gives me the standard two thwacks with a swatter and ties a thread around my wrist. As I collect my packet of sacred ash and sweet rice I see two walls of the complex covered with some three dozen wall clocks. I am curious and am informed that they are gifts from grateful devotees for wishes granted.

The way back to the city takes me through the tent villages of the Lodhis, an artisan community famous for crafting religious idols. At the moment it is the end of Ganesh Chatruthi, a festival to felicitate the elephant god. The roadside has turned into fields of forlorn Ganeshas and I feel sad as they stand abandoned, unpicked for the fortnight party. The driver is more practical and says in a couple of days they will be melted down to become Durgas for the Durga Puja that is to follow in a month. The image of one deity practically morphing into another charms me and stays with me on the ride home.

The next day, I decide to be a conventional tourist and tag along on a city tour. The guide drones through her set speech as we ooh and aah over the city’s museums, palaces, and the Golconda Fort. By late afternoon, Aurangzeb must be the most reviled person in the tourist coach. It is a familiar theme: the Golconda royal residents relax, decide to extend the fort by a floor or so, and just as the queens relax and lounge in their rosewater pools, Aurangzeb is all set to ravage the city again. The story is repeated everywhere — the Qutub Shahi tombs where some remain incomplete or scrimped upon once Aurangzeb arrives in town, the Mecca Masjid where Aurangzeb decides to ‘compromise aesthetics for economics’ and scales down minarets meant to be much higher and awe inspiring — the litany of Aurangzeb’s austerity goes on.

Late evening finds me in the Char Minar and Lad Bazar area. The bottom of the Minar pillars have turned into small shrines to patron saints — Hindu and Muslim. I am nervous with  being surrounded by the blind beggars, little boys selling what they promise are genuine Hyderabadi pearls and rows upon rows of shops selling Hyderabadi bangles. For a minute it seems very Alif Laila-ish, the tinsel and sequins, fairy lights and ittar stalls, if it were not for the odd Sania Mirza poster peeking out from around the corner. This is Sania Mirza’s home town, so obviously hers is a face that is most common on posters sold. A close second is Salman Khan in a skull cap, his hand curved into a salutation. The women refuse to comment on the recent controversy that has some of the country’s mullahs fuming over Sania’s sports apparel, and titter behind their hands in reply. I cannot see any shops selling the Hyderabadi fez, but the cap makers must be busy as there are scores selling baseball caps. A persistent boy tugs at my sleeves: ‘Duas, Pakistani Qurani duas’. It is ironic that he has to find the one person in the crowd who will not be impressed if the book is published in Pakistan, but I am left wondering about this new status symbol for discerning buyers of religious material.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Op-Ed: Pet Peeves

To list my pet peeves

My first Sunday home I curl up with the Sunday paper. The magazine sections are reviewing a book-reading cum mime performance in Karachi. The reviews are mixed with some criticizing the very feature that was remarkable about the evening and surprisingly acclaiming all that was offensive. Mamun Adil, the reviewer from Dawn was alone in deploring the fact that during the evening even the audience present was more animated during the bawdy skits and was rather indifferent to what was ‘refreshingly different from the usual buffoonery’. Adil, like many of us questioned whether (after such a reaction from critics and audiences alike) imaginative minds in Pakistan would take the easy, read mediocre, way out rather than going the extra mile.

That recently certain creative artists in Pakistan have been meting out material, which is rather uninspired, has not escaped anyone’s attention. For instance a number of times while watching Pakistani dramas overseas, friends sitting next to me would recite the approaching story line or worse the next three lines for the central character’s forthcoming dialogues. “Have we watched this play before?” I would inquire reaching out for the next DVD. “No, but we have watched a lot of Pakistani dramas now and it is much the same.” When did we grow so tired that we just stopped making the effort? But what is sadder is that we as the audience have stopped caring and are rather unmoved about what is appearing on our screens.

I have had this conversation before with colleagues that doing away with most of the restrictions on the electronic media and allowing a relatively freethinking print media to emerge in Pakistan has just exposed how ‘mediocre’ our society has become. Twenty years of a media revolution and all this time what people were really waiting for was Shekhar Suman dancing on local TV screens.

We all welcomed the promise of the great Pakistani political debate courtesy a fresh line- up of television discussion programmes. Alas, none of the politicians appearing in these talk shows had much to say. Yes we were all exposed to the Pakistani political creature, warts and all. But most of these talk shows have ended up as a vulgar free for all; a crude struggle over who can deliver the coarsest sound bytes before the other rudely cuts him off. When the participants are allowed to speak they disappoint us as none of them can coherently phrase a logical string of arguments. Do any of them actually prepare for their on-screen debates? Do they really care for the audience who would really like to be informed about their political plan of action? Pakistani audiences, I heard quickly lost interest and tuned off. It might have been entertaining initially to see our political representatives scuffling with their political opponents on our television screens, but after some time even this loses its initial ‘voyeuristic’ appeal.

It is much the same on political talk shows every night. It is worrying that there is only one ‘moderate mind’ present on the panel for three right wing panelists. What is repeated every evening is the hapless representative of the relatively liberal section of civil society squirms in a corner as the right wing panelists and even the programme host puts him/her through the mill. The programme host of a weekly political talk show from Islamabad rather than being a moderator behaves more like a raucous fifth panelist as he constantly holds up the debate and through his rants and raves reveals his political agenda.

However, what is number one on my list of weekly grouses is the content of the recently introduced Voice of America. For half an hour I experienced an eerie feeling of de ja vu, didn’t we all outgrow all that was USIS only some years ago? I do know that at some stage I would be condemned to repeat the past but this seems all too soon. I think it is too early to cozy up to images of kindly Pakistani American families being poster children for the great American experience. The past two evenings we have been subjected to watching men with considerable facial hair making a case for Thanksgiving ‘hamein do do turkey dinner kee invitations hain’. Pakistani women in satin shalwar kamiz busying themselves in American kitchens mouthing inane dialogues on the merits of Thanksgiving. Once again there is an effort to recreate a feel good policy towards Washington by watching candy floss images dubbed in Urdu. I realise that I have to caution myself in my critique by not sounding horribly right wing. It is a challenge in recent times to criticize the mediocrity of television programme content, the paucity of political debate, and the prevalent apathy towards the reinstitution of the grand brain-washing project. How do we frame our disapproval of the dumbing down of Pakistani civil society without sounding at best as Qazi’s mouth piece?

It is maddening to watch the constant recycling of media images on my television screen, the same media clip being used for three news reports; to read clichéd ‘reprocessed’ news stories. Are their any rights for the reader as the consumer? I have been asking people whether there have been any efforts towards instituting a ‘Media Watch’ on the lines of a consumer watch group. Colleagues have told me about the efforts of the Green Press and certain non-governmental groups in Islamabad but their initial enthusiasm dwindled away after the initial few reports. Friday Times does print a weekly selection of the absurd and ridiculous from the Urdu media, but that just reminds how sad the Urdu press can be at times. What we really need at the moment is a weekly eye on the local media. To have some respected senior member of the Pakistani media possibly going on a sabbatical from his/her regular place of employment to ensure impartiality in their media critique. To have this person hopefully organising a television programme on this theme. Oh to have every week one soul on our TV screens reviewing objectively what is presented by our print and electronic media. That we can look forward every week to a critical political comment on our times. I can dream, can’t I?

On Nepal

Envisioning a new Nepal

Can anyone define Nepal? Over the past two decades the country has shown me a myriad of faces. It has been the ‘Shangrila’ retreat to a generation of gawky tourists haggling over cheap jewelry in the Thamel area. Fascinating me as a teenager, for this indeed seemed for all purposes, ‘The ‘Lost Kingdom’, the clichéd ‘tourist paradise’ that the travel brochures promised. Then in early 2000 working in the field with the Tamang community I was exposed to the first rumblings of the ‘People’s War’, the Maoist uprising which at that time promised to be the voice of those previously disenfranchised in Nepal. My local hosts would caution me every time my colleague and I slung our back packs on our shoulders: “People will think you are a Maoist, all these blue jeans, this is the uniform of their guerillas,” they would say. Later, in the summer of 2001, like the rest of the world I was glued to my TV set. Transfixed by images of the gruesome murders in the Royal Palace, I shared my own take on the conspiracy theories circulating regarding these events. Over the years I have been confidante to friends in the Nepalese diaspora as they scrutinized and deliberated over news coverage of social and political affairs in their country. Whether they expressed their pleasure at King Gyanendra doing a ‘Musharraf’ (as they explain his action of clamping down on ‘sham democracy’), or their dissatisfaction at his highhandedness, they were disappointed and shared their dismay over the state of affairs in their country.

As the Nepali capital sees another day of ‘shoot-on-sight’ orders in the wake of the recent round of political protests, even those who have been previously jaded with the country’s experience with inept politicians and the endless merry-go-round of ‘nominated’ prime ministers, look towards King Gyanendra to patch up with his ‘antagonists’. They hope that the King does comprehend the enormity of the crisis on the streets and restores the people’s democratic rights. Though the Nepalese king is intent on giving the impression that he has all intentions of riding out the storm, it appears that perhaps this time around the Royal Palace is nervous. For instance, for the first time journalists and media persons have not been given ‘curfew permits’ to allow coverage of the street protests. Even though Nepal forms a significant feature of news reports filed from South Asia in the past year, for most of the time the situation in Nepal has bewildered many. It has been difficult to comprehend the current situation in Kathmandu’s streets, to understand the defiance on display, for few have tried to decipher the political turmoil in the country.

My bedside companion in recent days has been a very insightful book by Manjushree Thapa. Thapa’s Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, as the book jacket describes, is “a skilful mix of history, reportage, memoir and travel writing”, which has been very useful in comprehending the situation today. As Thapa explains, “It isn’t easy for a Nepali to trace what has gone wrong, because so much has. And those who live in the thick of events more easily experience than understand them…yet if we in Nepal have been unable to understand our present, so too has the rest of the world that have paid us any attention.”

Thapa, like many of us who have known and loved Nepal, criticizes the ‘breathless orientalist coverage’ of the country and its people. No more so as how the funeral and accompanying death ceremonies for the Nepalese royal family were portrayed and archived in public memory for my generation. For many watching the news coverage, the Nepalese appeared as superstition-ridden, as people caught up in pageantry and ceremonies rather than a people who at that time were analyzing the political implications of events. No one paid any attention to the angst on the streets as the people of Kathmandu negotiated the ploys of the Maoists and the government and their version of events. Thapa deplores how “we looked, suddenly, like the medieval kingdom that the outside world saw us as…people didn’t want Hindu rituals; they wanted scientific evidence for the truth about the massacre.”

Thapa’s discourse is familiar because of what many colleagues have explained of their growing-up years in Nepal. As they explain, they have veered between fears of India’s growing influence in their political and economic affairs (and the recent visit of Karan Singh, India’s envoy to caution the Nepalese king, hasn’t dispelled their fears of India’s intervention) and of the only other option that the system throws up — that of the Maoists and their reputation of violence. As we have seen in Pakistan the options, other than that of our ‘known enemies’, grow less and less every day.

The People’s War had a fascination for observers like me as we saw how it influenced the articulation of gender identity and roles in a traditionally patriarchal society. Though in most families in rural Nepal it were women who were running the household as men searched for employment in the cities or overseas, they were in their own words, just holding the fort. But with the Maoists asking for women to join their cadres, many wanted to know how that would translate for women. Shobha Gautam, Amrita Banskota, and Rita Manchanda analyzed just that, in their contribution to the Manchanda-edited volume on women’s empowerment in crisis situations (‘Where There Are No Men: Women in the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal’ in Manchanda, editor, Women, War and Peace: Beyond Victimhood to Agency, SAGE Publications, 2001). The group catalogued as they explain, “women’s transformative experiences”, especially when very capable women initially figured in the top echelons of Nepal’s Maoist movement. They quote Hisila Yami (the head of the Women’s Front): “…women have more to gain than men from the People’s War...that is why the women, especially the Tibeto-Burman and non-Aryan women constitute such an important part of the movement.” However, over time they were joined by their sisters from relatively upper caste groups who were tired of the rigid roles defined by their community and for whom the People’s War emerged as liberating. But over time, as Gautam, Banskota and Manchanda suggest, as the struggle grew more militarized, women disappeared from policy-making positions in the central leadership. The Nepalese security forces also lashed back with a wave of physical and sexual violence against the female cadre.

Though there had been a time amongst the Nepali middle class when there was a closet admiration of the Maoist agenda and many in the Nepalese intelligentsia felt that the movement was echoing their concerns, this support dwindled away due to the Maoists’ highhandedness. The people of Kathmandu feared threats to their way to life: for instance they did not look kindly towards the Maoist agenda of doing away with private and English medium schools. The Nepalese rural population in turn felt that they were being terrorized (strains of what the Kashmiri population goes through) by both Maoists and the security forces. And when the Maoists in a senseless round of tit-for-tat violence killed government and police officials, loyalties were divided. For many of the city residents, it is the government and the security forces that provide their families with employment. The politicians, on their part, did not fare kindly with the Nepalese as well, due to incessant political infighting, nepotism, and the spiralling rate of corruption. So perhaps the King had some sympathizers in the capital when he dismissed the political high command a year ago.

Even though there are some who still claim that the demonstrators on the streets today have been ‘trucked in’ by the political coalition from the region bordering the capital, and that Kathmandu residents are still preferring to stay non-aligned, even those apathetic to politics cannot ignore that it is time to look for alternatives. For so long has Nepal’s representation been ‘stuck’ in medieval times, perhaps it is time that one starts looking for a fresh equation. Or as Thapa explains, the time is ripe to “re-imagine Nepal.” And today I hear more and more Nepalis re-echoing her sentiments that if the re-imaging solutions show that “neither the monarchy nor our failed political leaders nor any national myths or relic need be kept” – so be it.

The Post Op-Ed (April 17, 2006)

Exceptional men

The past week has seen a rise in sectarian violence in Karachi — if one were to think for a moment that there had ever been a time in the recent past when there had been a de-escalation. As I download the newspaper headlines of recent days, other than details of the horrible deaths, one reads about the war of words between the offices of the high command of the Sunni Tehrik (ST) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Newspapers have carried the challenges issued by leaders of both groups. In the wake of the Nishtar Park killings, the leadership of the ST has given a 48-hour ultimatum to the federal government to arrest the killers and publicly hang them or “be ready for any consequences”. The challenge to take action, says the party, started from Wednesday afternoon.

This challenge has been issued by Shahid Ghouri, Qari Khalil ur Rahman Qadri and Engineer Adbul Rahman, all members of ST’s Rabita Committee, who according to reports have taken over the central leadership. The group organised press conferences to inform the Sindh government of the time and location of the funeral prayers for the deceased ST members. Any disruption or change in arrangements on the part of the provincial government would be ‘at their risk’. So as far as one can see it is the ST that will have ownership of ‘public memory’ regarding the tragic event, it will be they who will oversee the direction of the inquiry into the event and what they see as ‘justice’. At this stage it is the Sindh government that is bearing the brunt of their ire. In the same press conference I read angry words like, “If the investigation into this targeted killing is not carried out, the rulers will not be exonerated by the nation; terrorists had succeeded in their targeted aim but would not be successful in eliminating the party, which was purely based on truth and patriotism.”

I am trying to understand this shift in power — who calls the shots in any inquiry in Pakistan now? I have seen it happening before in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy when a fatwa was issued in Peshawar (I refer here to the million dollars or so bounty for the death of the Danish cartoonist). And Lahore wanted to decide how the ‘investigation’ into Copenhagen is conducted and the appropriate punishment to the offenders to be meted out. How can one explain why what is decided in Lahore tries to counter the power and judicial structures in Copenhagen? How groups in Karachi threaten decisions taken in the corridors of Islamabad? Ghassan Hage, an academic at the Sydney University, reminded me of the parallels when he explained the paradigms operating for migrant Muslims. Being Muslim is now a ‘transnational idea’. The British Pakistani on the streets of London in the late eighties would have announced that he would follow what the Ayatollah in Iran is saying rather than the laws of Britain regarding the freedoms of a certain writer. ‘I am a nation of the ST law and not the Pakistani state’; this is what I believe is being uttered in the streets of Karachi right now.

But maybe I am going too far ahead at this stage. At this moment I am observing how political and religious offices continue to valorize a belligerent rather than a more rational and pacifist attitude towards each other. It has been a pet gripe of mine that members of the religious elite and militant religious groups continue to operate as members of legislative parties at both the national and provincial level in Pakistan. And even those operating outside elected and nominated bodies continue to easily quell any political or ideological opposition by proclaiming eternal damnation for anyone challenging them or what they stand for.

Where the situation in Karachi is concerned, the MQM has been quoted as asking President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to ban the Jamaat-e-Islami and remove the NWFP government for supporting political and religious unrest in Sindh. The MQM legislator Kunwar Khalid Younas has declared that Qazi Hussain Ahmad should be held responsible for “protecting terrorists and suicide attackers.” For him the NWFP government stands accused of totally failing to maintain peace, of protecting the life and property of the people of NWFP (and beyond) and that it does not deserve to continue to rule the province.

I try to make sense of what the NWFP religio-political elite is being depicted as and by default what the (ethnically) Pathan political contribution to Pakistan will be remembered as. As the situation appears at present, the leadership stands accused of propagating a very monotheist definition of what political Islam signifies. I have written elsewhere how in other Muslim societies political Islam and even the term ‘jihad’ must have been translated as doing away with inequities. The term corruption rather than being translated as ‘moral corruption’ would be understood as economic violence. To ‘fight against all evils’, would be the sins outlined in Islam and not just physical violence against those believe in causes other than yours. In recent years the political leadership in the province has believed in their own interpretations and have ignored the rest. They do so in the name of Islam and of course through their own understanding of what stands for ‘Pathan values’. In doing so they have bought into the worst kinds of Orientalist representations of the martial Pathan hero. This when the province has inspired and contributed other movements and heroes, which challenge all the stereotypes of the ideal Pathan hero. It is sad that no one remembers the social structures introduced by the Khudai Khidmatgars. Though I have grown up with stories regarding the life and time of its leadership, it is only in recent weeks that I have revisited them through Mulkulika Banerjee’s tribute to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in The Pathan Unarmed (Mulkulika Banerjee: The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier, Oxford University Press and School of American Research Press). One relearns how Ghaffar Khan negotiated an understanding of non-violent political Islam, of reminding us that ‘while Islam condoned violence, it valued forgiveness more highly’ (Banerjee, 2000:212). I find this useful as Khan infers that the discourse of ‘non-violence’ is not Gandhian alone but has been an Islamic ideal as well. Similarly, he also decodes the model of Pukhtoonwali: ‘A man gains more honour by showing restraint and responsibility, particularly in the context of an enemy who has requested sanctuary’ (Banerjee, 2000:212). The Khudai Khitmatgars managed to execute the ideal of ‘positive masculinity’ through their code of what constitutes the ‘complete man’ from a framework that was local to the region. Sadly, they went unrewarded as happened to their political counterparts elsewhere in South Asia — the prestige, acknowledgement in history books, and a philosophy that is still considered as exalted though sadly not emulated by many. In Pakistan the movement faced the brunt of political violence and repression by successive regimes. Family members involved in the movement and their later generations still continue to suffer in a country where those who have suffered far less are celebrated as national heroes. This is tragic and the loss is not just of their community and the particular province but of the entire country. Every day the violence and aggression on the Pakistani streets never fails to remind us of the alternative that could have been possible if we had acknowledged and fêted these exemplary people.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Op-ed 'The Post' :May 15, 2006

Are we water-savvy?

Come summer and you can expect two things. One, the promise of a formidable looking Finance Minister on our TV screens with the annual budget, asking us to search deep within our pockets and cough up those spare pennies. And two, an equally stern Prime Minister (or the Chief Executive if it is one of the years when Pakistani children were not good enough to get a PM in their stockings) requesting the Pakistani population to buckle up and start praying for rain. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has been true to form, and just last week launched the formal Namaz-e-Istasqa appeal. The media has cooperated on their part by broadcasting the Prime Minister’s appeal along with the by now ubiquitous images of children clenching their little hands, their foreheads furrowed in concentration as they pose to pray for an end to the drought that plagues their country. On Friday, hopefully, the rest of the community would also have complied with their religious — and by now patriotic — duty and prayed for the heavens to comply. Summoning divine intervention to resolve our earthly dilemmas has been popular for some time, with even the Church of England, as a newspaper recently informed me of ‘going into partnership with (UK) estate agents to offer blessing services to people moving home’ (they will be praying for good health, sanitation, a healthy sex life, peace, tranquillity and good service in the kitchen, they will pray over the garage and that the homeowners are blessed with the inspiration to tackle dry rot and that God keeps a watch over their house — but stipulating very firmly that ‘divine protection’ is no guarantee against burglary). However, what concerns me (as it worries others) in the case of Pakistan is that our growing reliance on ‘divine intervention’ as a quick fix to most of our predicaments relieves the Pakistani state machinery of any responsibility of creating or resolving the crisis that faces us. What Pakistanis were gradually coached to believe had caused the October 2005 disaster, how it could have been mitigated, and how those affected can recover from it, is a classic case study. “Well, now that you aren’t praying you little renegade,” as my good friends pose the question, “why doesn’t your bleeding little Pathan heart open up to the possibility of a Kalabagh dam?” Sadly, I continue to believe that this isn’t a viable choice either, and frankly more improbable than our bowing our heads and requesting the cosmos to deliver. This month’s criterion for failed states — ‘demographic pressures on urban centres and the massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people’, should be still fresh in our minds. The Pakistani government should shudder at the thought of their machinations displacing further villagers from their lands or stirring up any more inter-provincial tension and ‘group grievances’ in the country. Our track record of compensating for lands and livelihoods lost due to development projects is not brilliant as it is, so everyone has to think twice before revving up the engine of that earthmover.

While most residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are familiar with the statistics regarding their water sources – Simli Dam (where water levels have dropped down to 2,245 feet with 2,233 feet being the benchmark for ‘dead level’), the Khanpur Dam, and 4.5 million gallons water that residents in Islamabad get daily from the four headworks located in Korang, Saidpur, Nurpur Shahan and Shahdra (though I wonder how these headworks are keeping up with all the water boring being done in the past five years by new residents setting up houses in these areas). The Capital Development Authority (CDA) in Islamabad is said to be installing and repairing tube-wells in the city to meet the demands of an ever-thirsty population. We also know that Islamabad’s actual water need is of 110 million gallons per day, of which CDA is allegedly supplying only 59 million gallons.

It is very difficult for the average Islamabad household to translate the ‘actual water’ need of their city that is listed in gallons, into what should be their ‘rational’ water consumption per day. According to the SPHERE project illustrating minimum living standards that have to be maintained in the wake of any disaster, the amount of water an individual needs to fulfil essential requirements of his/her daily life is 15 litres — and this includes the two litres of water a day we should be drinking to lead a healthy life. So 15 litres is the amount any individual requires to do all the cooking, cleaning, washing, and sanitizing in a day when water is scarce. Anything over that is just wasting a precious resource in today’s precarious water situation. Now think it over, 60 glasses of water is all you should need to make it through your day. And I believe this is where the real crunch is, to instill good water saving habits in our nation. The task is daunting of course. Pakistanis are still recovering from when they were last asked to be austere and save rather than spend on wedding banquets.

What this plan needs to succeed is of course public trust, a feeling of community and what is more important, a change in perspective towards Pakistan’s shared natural resources and the country’s sustainable future. It is very difficult to do that when we still believe in the unit as in the char devari, and what lies beyond those four walls as definitely not our problem — let the family next door conserve their water for Pakistan if they want to, we have already paid our water taxes for this year. It is also very difficult to expect the larger public to save those three buckets of water every day when they see other sections of society maintaining their water ‘spendthrift’ lifestyles. So unless GHQ and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat decide to forgo washing their fleet of cars every day, be content with using a cloth to wipe off that dust accumulating on the staff car for now rather than hosing it down daily, one shouldn’t be expecting the average Malik sahib to keep a watchful eye over the water tap for now. Now that is really tricky, the military establishment loves their shiny cars and trucks, and no one messes with them. They didn’t like to trade them in for a Suzuki yesterday, they didn’t want their fuel tanks running low at times of oil tanker strikes, and they will definitely not like them getting dusty today.

So let’s talk gardens then, shall we? And the great Pakistani love of an ornamental garden, of recreating the Lake District in their own little piece of land. All middle class households in the former British colonies have aspirations of recreating some horticultural wonder from that island. Of introducing flora and fauna to the family plot that has some semblance of their summer vacation abroad. Well, in most cases these ‘foreign’ guests complicate the natural balance. In Australia where I currently reside, the individual state governments are guiding all households to grow native plants that do not tax the ecosystem and at best such that thrive best with little water. Water scarcity is a way of life in Australia now and all households have to watch how they consume their water, whether the water levels in the dams are high or low — there is no relaxing that discipline. We have to instill the same regime and water saving has to become a way of life. So recycle that kitchen water into the garden for now, think of ways you can start recycling. Perhaps from 2007 onwards any new kitchen or bathroom appliances installed have to be water efficient (as they are in new constructions in Australia). And well perhaps when you are preparing for that next Namaz-e-Istasqa, perhaps do a dry ablution instead of wudhu? I will leave that to our religious clergy to ponder over — let’s give them something really constructive to expend their energy on!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Calcutta Diary

Calcutta continues to amaze me even this time around.Mr. Bhattacharya’s government has been hard at work and the results, as far as building flyovers and highways is concerned, are obvious. ‘New town kee sarak.. makhan hai makhan’ sings out the radio jockey on the airwaves. The upcoming townships, towering high rises and new cars on the highway that leads out from the airport belie the state’s Marxist leanings. The sprawling Salt Lake City Centre and Forum Mall in the city are chock full of Calcutta’s young, eager to pledge their allegiance to the new goddess of consumerism. The Forum Mall in the city stands ironically right opposite Netaji Bhavan, the ancestral home of Subhas Chandra Bose. Sadly, ‘Give me Red’ is now relegated to advertising a popular brand of batteries.
I am in Calcutta to explore a character I had first met in the pages of William Dalrymple’s White Mughals. Major General Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart had fascinated me as the Irishman who had wholeheartedly adopted Calcutta in the 1780s. Dalrymple’s description of the General who travelled across the country with his Indian bibi beside him, “his buggy followed by a cavalcade of children’s carriages and a palkee-load of little babes…(going) as far as employing a group of Brahmins whose ritual purity he regarded as essential for properly dressing his Hindu family’s food” (Dalrymple, 2003:44) is captivating. The General openly expressed his abhorrence towards consuming beef, thus, I am sure, scandalising his colleagues who, after a couple of years serving in India, would be salivating for their share of a decent Yorkshire steak and kidney pie and a pint of lager. The good general was instead diligent about performing his daily puja and had developed a penchant for daily baths in the Hooghly (which is often called the Ganga by Calcuttans). His plans for participating in the week-long pilgrimage at the Kumb Mela must have created quite a stir with the good Catholics back home in Ireland. Dalrymple labels Stuart as the “first recorded devotee of what the Bollywood film industry knows as the ‘wet saree scene’” subsequent to a magazine article the general wrote extolling the merits of Indian women’s dress for ‘Western women’, printed anonymously in a women’s journal. The article wanted all Western women to adopt Indian clothes for their comfort and versatility (much before Lady Diana, Jemima Khan and Cherie Blair discovered this for themselves) and dwelt at some length on the image of the Indian woman stepping out from a ritual bath in her wet garments. Buried in Calcutta’s South Park Street cemetery, it was claimed that his coffin contained his much beloved idols. The tomb itself had an elaborate edifice with stone carvings of Indian deities.The South Park Street cemetery is also home to the last resting place of Josephine Skinner, granddaughter to the famous Anglo-Indian Colonel James Skinner (the illustrious Nasir-ud-Dowlah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jhung or just plain Sikander sahib as he was known to the good people of Delhi). Colonel Skinner was responsible for raising the valiant ‘Skinner’s Horse’ regiment.
I proceed to visit them on my second day in Calcutta.The cemetery was easily found. The particular gravesites I came searching for, less so. My requests were met with a toothy grin by the guards on duty as they pledged ignorance. I was too late, they claimed, as the gardener who maintained the lawns and who was better acquainted with the graves in his charge, might have already left for the day. I sat in the shade of one of the many infant memorials (“This lovely bud so young and fair, Called hence by early doom, Just came to show, how sweet a flower, In paradise will bloom”) as the guard made a pretence of searching for the elusive gardener. Underneath my feet, a slug morosely inched its way as the minutes ticked away with still no sign of the guard. Freshly washed laundry left to dry on the mausoleums, some dhobi’s ingenious idea to economise free space, was the only splash of colour in the endless grey-green vista of mossy undergrowth and imposing tombs. My companion and I started our own search. The commemorative booklet published by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Cemeteries in India that we had purchased at the Gate House, served as our guide. We came across famous society beauties like Elizabeth Jane Barwell, who had twelve of her besotted admirers turning up in identical pea-green at a ball so they could match what she wore. “She had confidentially advised (sic) each one of them individually beforehand” the booklet informs us.That even then the men in uniform had a desire to stretch the truth is evident in many a twenty year old officer’s grave who, in his short life, had already achieved “an urbanity of manners and benevolence of heart, which made him beloved and admired by all classes and the pride of every circle.” What’s heartbreaking however are the monuments to young women dying in childbirth and the frequent ‘infant memorials’. Smallpox, rabies, cholera, drowning, snake bites or ‘dying of one of the fatal diseases incident to the climate of India’ is the sad litany coming up on gravestones. My search abandoned, I reconciled myself to spending the afternoon reading my book in this oasis of calm. The chaos and clamour of neighbouring Park Street seem far away.
My visits to Calcutta are incomplete until I have made my quasi-religious pilgrimage to Jorasanko Bari (Tagore House), the birthplace and some time residence of Rabindranath Tagore. I devote this trip to catalogue the Anglo influences over this talented Bengali family. My guide, perhaps nervous after the scandalous theft of Tagore’s Nobel medal and jewellery belonging to his wife at Shanti Neketan, hovers anxiously every time I ponder too long over an exhibit.Tagore House seems like a gay little house and I believe the stories of the lively Durga puja celebrations held there. Though Tagore’s father Debenderanath had become a Brahmo and done away with the goddesses and puja room, shunning as he now did idol worship like his fellow reformists, the courtyard and former puja room stayed alive as a site of cultural evenings and theatre performances. On the rooftop, the guide animatedly portrays the scene of Jyotirindhranath, the elder brother wheeling out his piano and treating friends and neighbours to impromptu concerts in the summer evenings.
No shy wallflower she, Tagore’s wife was an impressive woman in her own right. Though belonging to the conservative Raichaudhri family in Khulna, she quickly learned the ways of her illustrious in-laws. I look at the sepia-tinted photographs in her personal chambers that chart her own journey through the years. From the demure Bhabatarini Devi she becomes Mrinalini Devi as her in-laws ‘rename’ her. She is now dressed in the Western-inspired high shouldered and gathered sari blouses which she introduced as a trendsetter in Bengali society. Sari blouses were launched by the puritan British, their Victorian morals shocked by Indian fashions of draping saris. On the following wall, Mrinalini Devi evolves into the Mrs. Rabindranath Tagore of the scribbled post card the poet-laureate sends her from Paris! Tagore in his lines to her is quite enamoured of the Eiffel Tower. A world map superimposed with a chronology of Tagore’s travels is quite impressive. In today’s Calcutta, he would be like many of his recent compatriots queuing up for his frequent flyer’s membership.
Outside, as I gingerly step across sleeping garbage pickers who even all of Australian cricketers’ money has failed to rehabilitate, I am reminded of Tagore’s words which he might have written in foresight for such a visitor, “If you weep for the sun at night you will also miss the stars.”