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.”

A Pathan in Guwahati

Guwahati is characteristic of small town India, caught in the struggle of coping with rapid globalisation and still not able to successfully shrug off the time warp it has been living in for the past few decades. For years, it has existed as the ‘gateway to India’s North East’ and tried to live down its reputation of being a violent little dot on India’s map suffering from insurgency in the 1980s and the all too famous Assam bandhs. However, today it exhibits what Pankaj Mishra in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India discovered of similar former ‘unremarkable places’. These small towns ‘have shed their sleepy, half apologetic air’ and ‘modest’ is not an adjective that one can use for their inhabitants as they pursue their ambitions, appropriate brand names and ‘create a whole new pan-Indian culture’ (Mishra, 1995). So the city is caught in the chaos of gawking men from nearby villages trying to make sense of the Van Heusens and Tag Heuers on display in the shiny new malls, a constant influx of brand new cars jostling for space on dusty broken down roads, and the traffic police bewildered by motorists who leave their cars parked on flyovers. The expansive wetlands near the airport will soon give way to the concrete jungle the city is turning into.
My second day in Guwahati finds me in the midst of the notorious Assam bandh. My host family is not sure the evening before whether it will be a ‘complete’ bandh or not, and a flurry of telephone calls are exchanged across the apartment building. The barometer of a ‘complete’, read successful, bandh is if the buses don’t ply early morning or the maid doesn’t turn up for work. The residents of the city are reconciled to bandh culture and take it in their stride. Though the city loses millions of rupees in revenue every month, no one seems overly concerned. It has long been a feature of their relaxed existence and it is only the burgeoning business class that is making polite noises now. The day goes by peacefully and, in the late afternoon, I decide to visit a local monument that gives a birds-eye view of the surrounding valley. Billed as Gandhi Mandap, though everyone is unsure whether Gandhi ever visited the city, it is a research centre set up by a Congress government trying to build a profile in Assam’s heartland. The state had earlier been cool towards the Congress party post a rueful Nehru, who apologized that mainland India could not do much to protect the region. This was as China threatened to march through during the 1962 Indo-China war. An Amitabh Bachchan who came garnering votes for his best friend Rajiv Gandhi was sent away garlanded with shoes by an incensed city that was still harbouring its hurt. However, today the Congress sits comfortably in power. The Gandhi Mandap has a surly Gandhi with his back to the city as he gruffly views the city’s young who find it a convenient place to escape the moral police in the valley.
I am eager to explore the city’s Pathan population. They are the grand children of former money-lenders and fruit sellers who travelled frequently to the region. Many of them still carry on their ancestral profession of lending money and what is politely called ‘debt collection’ (truant children are still cautioned of the Pathan who will carry them off). Guwahati Pathans form a fascinating microcosm of an immigrant population that has kept its ways in a city that is so different from their earlier homes. Saleem Khan, who welcomes me to his home, is in his late twenties and he says his family moved here from Ghazni. Saleem is one of the ‘settled’ families of the city; there is also a sub-class of transient single men who travel through the region. His living room seems out of a baithak in Quetta, though he says he was born here and has never been home. Afghanistan is a mysterious land which he tries to fathom through B-grade films and his parents’ tales.
As I settle down on the floor cushions, he takes a mock interview of the intermediary who has introduced us. He explains it is ‘close to election season’ so these times make it necessary to be sure of who I am. His concerns allayed, he is quite an eager host, calling up assorted uncles and aunts on his mobile to make them speak to the visiting Pathan. One uncle is quite sure that he has visited relatives of mine in my village. Saleem attempts to brief me about his life here. Where we are sitting now are rooms attached to his ‘public life’; it is here that he conducts his work and entertains guests. His family lives in a separate Afghan colony some two hours away. He jokes that people in Guwahati claim that their community is very ‘cruel’ towards their women. Though women in his generation remain uneducated and live in seclusion, he assures me that the younger generation of women has started going to school. His parents’ generation stay in touch with family back home in Afghanistan through exchanging audiocassettes. I picture his mother recording our conversation today in an audio-letter home. Saleem speaks in the classic Pushto; unlike me he doesn’t speak a hybrid dialect. Perhaps, over years, it will be only the ‘first generation’ of Pathan diaspora like his that will speak the uncontaminated Pushto of earlier years.
I am curious about Saleem’s money lending business and whether it has been affected by the budding finance companies in the region. Saleem says that he works with the low end of the market, with those who cannot afford the collateral that the organized financial sector requires. However, his services come with a hefty interest. Don’t borrowers default? He says he has a ‘scientific assessment’ process; the ‘applicant’s’ home is first surveyed for items of equivalent value which can be easily hauled away if anyone defaults on payments. And he says he can judge people in a manner the anonymous financial companies can’t. I inquire whether he gets into trouble with the police due to his high-handed tactics. It’s the first time in the afternoon that I witness him playing the Cultural Arrogance Card . “They know me, and no one messes with us. Everyone knows who we are.” Our interview done, Saleem struggles with being a good Pathan host. I have come on short notice and he fears that he has not accorded me the welcome that my ethnic CV demands. There must be something that I would like to take with me. A mobile?  Could he arrange a loan for me, he inquires after he has exhausted ideas.
Outside, the Assamese Muslim families that neighbour his house are eager to invite me for a cup of tea. Like others in the city, they ask me to make a list of ‘Pathan’ (read Muslim) sounding names for their children. Similar to diligent city officials and their love to ‘rename’ roads, schools and buildings, I take a perverse pleasure on meeting the Wahdanas, Palwashas and Zaraks of the city ten years on.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Living Room

I am a research scholar based in Melbourne developing a post-doc application on the diffusion of Gandhian philosophies beyond India through exploring the Khudai Khitmatgar and public memory in Pakistan.

I have to start sending a call out soon for any archival material in this area.