Monday, March 22, 2010

For Citizenship in an Obsolete Monarchy

(Published on 20th March, 2010, in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express)

Having spent five years begging anyone who visits London to bring him Madras Filter Coffee powder, sneaking free rides between the Kenton and Wembley Central tube stations (where the ticket machines are broken) and moonlighting at half a dozen places outside his day job, a friend of mine is now ready to take the British citizenship test. Speaking to him after his “permanent residence”, or the more official but less welcoming “indefinite leave to remain” was granted, I told him he really needn’t have gone to all the trouble – all he had to do was offend religious sentiments back home.

“Really, how difficult is it to paint a couple of nude Goddesses? Or bestiality in unlikely positions?” I asked.

“But see, I don’t want citizenship in Qatar. I’d have to offend minority religious sentiments to get British citizenship, and then I’d have a fatwa on my head!” he protested, “God knows I don’t want Salman Rushdie’s life!”

“Hmm…or Taslima Nasrin’s,” I had to concede he had a point. “But is Qatar out of the question? You know, you could cheat on tax in India for years and they probably won’t be able to try you at all!”

“Maybe I should visit and see how I like life in the Emirates,” he said, thoughtfully, “and, of course, the media would be speaking up for me and defending secularism and all…”

“Tempting, isn’t it?”

After I hung up, I conjured up visions of people asking me to comment on my friend’s self-imposed exile, were he to turn out a semi-Cubist work that was offensive enough for him to win citizenship in an absolute monarchy, if not in an obsolete one. I’ve always wanted to know someone who got away with criminal cases by coolly renouncing his Indian citizenship.

I could cite the “Picasso of India”, Mr. Husain, as a precedent for my friend, and wax poetic about how we should hang our heads in shame for having lost such a great talent – I’m reasonably sure my friend can make good cartoons of nudity and bestiality. But, of course, in his secular drive, he must make sure he doesn’t offend religions that don’t have a Pantheon. I wouldn’t want his works to get banned/ semi-banned like those of Dan Brown, Rushdie and Nasrin.

It’s a pity the other Polytheistic religions – the Greek, Roman and Egyptian ones – have been wiped out, or he could have been more innovative and chosen to target those. I wonder if desecration of the Aboriginal, Maori or Native American religions would evoke the same call for a defence of the poor, dear, innocent artist. Do the big, bad Hindu Fundamentalists have counterparts in those cultures? Unfortunately, I don’t think so – I’ve read too many reports on ‘ethnic’ families being separated and the pieces assimilated into the dominant culture for me to hope there are baddie organisations there. So it looks like my friend will have to stick to drawing Goddesses mating with their vahanas, or cheating on their husbands with asuras, and of freedom fighters at nudist parties with Nazi dictators. Of course, he will have to check on plagiarism laws in Qatar.

It’s only natural, then, that the freethinking individuals of our country will pen or emote vehement defences of my friend’s right to freedom of expression. There might be the minor inconvenience of having his bachelor pad vandalised, but his mother will be a relieved woman if someone were to get rid of his junk for him.

I do hope the idea of hurting Hindu sentiments for the greater good strikes Mr. Rushdie (of whom I’m a big fan), so the ‘secularists’ can ensure a safe passage for him throughout the world. But our writers seem rather slow on the uptake – the brainwave hasn’t yet hit Mr. Tharoor (though he came close, with ‘holy cows’). He’s only offended linguistic sentiments so far – what say, oh interlocutor?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of Love, Sin, Innocence and Memories


One could gather up anything and everything, with wit and acumen, out of a positive need to collect all objects connecting us to our most beloved, every aspect of their being, and even in the absense of a house, a proper museum, the poetry of our collection would be home enough for its objects.

- from The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk

Maybe the words struck me because for the last three months, I have been trying to sort out cartons of memorabilia, stored in the corners of thirty-five rooms, and fit them into three cupboards and three trunks I've been given. Newspapers that carried reports on my favourite sports teams, stories scribbled in my schoolbooks when I was working on math problems simultaneously, a baby bed my little brother had once fit into, sun hats my middle brother and I had picked up when I was six, bills, posters, letters, fanmail, newspaper articles I had written, my degree certificates and marksheets, birthday cards, photographs, bookmarks I had made, brazen letters I had penned, doodlings I had worked on, supervised by my favourite aunt, gifts she had given me as a child, clothes my mother had stitched for me, the first pair of running shoes I had bought with my own money, my favourite fountain pen, toothbrushes and chess coins I'd played with as a child...all, alarmingly mixed up. Most, unearthed when I was looking for the clown my aunt gave me, the pen stand my brother bought me, some photographs I suspect have been stolen by a kleptomaniac former-friend and a notebook containing Salman Rushdie's autograph.

As I look at each of these pieces of my life, recalling the moments when they were the present and not memories, and arrange the diaries I've kept for the last twelve years, fitting in the slices of the compartments of time that have made me who I am, I wonder why I'm keeping these things. We are all Collectors of Memories, Curators of the Mueums that are Our Lives. In his book, Orhan Pamuk draws a distinction between the Proud Collectors and the Bashful Collectors. I suppose I'm the second. My diaries are tell-all conversations between me and my conscience, and I have no intention of letting anyone into them. Why, then, do we collect our own memories, drawing no distinction between what is important and what is not, filling in sporadic dots of an incomplete thread through our lives? Why do I have yearbooks from college, which I resented and blocked out from memory?

Are these souvenirs of an innocence we long to go back to? Do they remain in our lives to remind us of emotions long left behind - pleasure, happiness, indifference, distaste? Does some part of us not want to let go of the bad times, as much as it wants to cling on to the good? A lot of these physical manifestations of my memories were eaten away in termite attacks. Strangely, a bag full of handouts, pamphlets, posters, tickets and other trinkets from my days with a theatre group that I fell out with over money, was eaten away. Does something in nature want us to let go of the unpleasant? In throwing out the memories of the fragments we have dismissed from our lives, do we parallelly, in Sherlock Holmesian style, recover some important museum piece?

When I couldn't find something despite "looking everywhere", I decided to do this. Out went a grammatically incorrect declaration of love, presented to me on Elliot's Beach, to my abject horror, a few years ago. Out went a tacky diary with hearts all over it, that I couldn't bring myself to look at since it had been given to me, as my only Valentine's Day gift in history. Out went a painfully boring letter my mother and I had laughed over, detailing a (hopefully former) stalker's adventures at a relative's house in Australia. Out went pieces of chart paper, asking me to vote for three girls who were standing for Student's Union posts in my forgettable undergrad college. Out went a misspelt note from a classmate who was something the convent girls called "Chrisma" in a Christmas game.

Having finished the book a few hours ago, days after I began my cleaning-out operations, I think I know what spurred on the admittedly illogical belief that an unimportant memory cast out implies an important memory brought back. The fear that, like the Istanbullus Pamuk speaks of, my house could become a rubbish den of memories, stacked one on top of the other, in which nothing can be found. And so, to my mother's relief, I will continue weeding out the unnecessary in my personal Museum.


The subtext of The Museum of Innocence echoes the undertones of Pamuk's writing in general. The Sick Man of Europe vs. the Prince of Asia - a Turkey stuck between the Republic and the Ottoman, between the Sorbonne-educated and the pashas, between the intellectual, European aspirations of the populace and the personal, moral values they strive to shed. How important is virginity? What are people's pretences about it? How much does society matter? The nouveau riche, the old families who have lost their fortune, the poor cousins who want to be inducted into society and the bindings of class are themes that are familiar to everyone in a developing country, eager to lose all its traditional hang-ups in its aspiration to modernity, only to recreate cheap imitations of heritage in a bid to preserve the old.


If you have patience, and put yourself in God's hands, there is no heart you cannot win, no fortress you cannot capture - isn't that so?

- from The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk

In interviews in 2007, Orhan Pamuk said the book would explore the question "What is love?" How does it feel to suddenly meet The One when one has decided to settle down to an exemplary life, a convenient one? In the book, Kemal Bey describes every shade of emotion  he goes through in trying to balance his love and life, in trying to understand his attachment to the two women he is cheating on, in choosing one path only to regret it, ruining lives in the process, and because he let go of one crucial moment, revisiting it over the next eight years, trying to scramble back on a path he realised he wanted only when the other turned out to be a dead end.

It makes me wonder whether, when one gets what one wanted all one's life, the pain of waiting for it is sweetened in memory. Is love like a job application or a creative skills contest, when the anxiety of waiting for the results morphs, in our minds, into the anticipation of joy when news of victory comes through? Does one tire of waiting, to the point where s/he doesn't want the person s/he has been waiting for, when the person is finally ready? Is love all about telling oneself to be patient, while waiting? Can the mistakes of a few moments, the separation of a few months, cause eight years of pain, of working towards a way to be together even after reunion?

Maybe Orhan Pamuk's skill lies in that, even while speaking from one point of view, he manages to make one pity and resent everyone in the story. One sees where Kemal, his fiancee Sibel, his lover Fusun, her mother Nesibe and his mother Vecihe Hanim, are coming from. Things they do seem fair and unfair. You sympathise with them, while empathising with the other side.


Would the book, excruciatingly slow as it is in parts, inducing disbelief in the Pamuk-lover that it was indeed Orhan Bey who wrote this, prompting him or her to perhaps blame the translator, have been finishable had it been written by a less-renowned writer? Or maybe it is Orhan Bey's inimitable style, which finds fluidity even in translation, and even in the specificity of the first person singular, reminds Everyman and Everywoman of his or her own story, that makes it enjoyable in retrospective, if not in reading itself.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zeus and Hera to Real People

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 13th March, 2010)

“This was my sweet, inconsolable, grief-stricken, beautiful sister! For a moment – and perhaps because I knew we were related, however slightly – her body, with its long limbs, fine bones and fragile shoulders, reminded me of my own.”

- The Museum of Innocence’, Orhan Pamuk

It’s the forbidden i-word. Maybe this is why Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love’ ends with a standing ovation irrespective of individual performances… because the emotions outlined in the play form shadows in the minds of the audience. It is a story of tormented love, of a couple that can’t stay apart and can’t be together. They were first drawn to each other because they were alike – feisty, strong-willed, impulsive and passionate. But then they discovered why – they shared a father. Maybe their story fascinates us because it takes something to pursue a relationship with someone once you’ve discovered s/he is your half-sibling.

While folklore is rich with tragic stories of accidental incest – from Oedipus to Kullervo, from Electra to the 6th century Danish ruler Helga – hearing about two people aware of their blood ties indulging in incest shocks and horrifies all of us. We know the verdict if it involves sexual abuse, but what about two people willingly entering a forbidden relationship?

Mythology is not short of instances of this either – the Greek pantheon was the product of a union between the siblings Zeus and Hera, their son Hermes seduced his jealous brother Apollo, and the Egyptian Gods Osiris and Isis, and the Norse Gods Freyr and Freyja, were sibling-spouses. But then, there are real people, people we know, who are attracted to their own blood relatives. A former schoolmate of mine had a ten-year-long affair with his cousin, which ended at the family’s insistence. A friend’s uncle was ostracised for marrying his mother’s sister’s daughter. They chose not to have children for fear of birth defects, but decided societal norms would not get in the way of their relationship.

Is it only societal norms that tell us which relationships are allowed? Is a blood tie just another factor like caste, religion and gender? Do we unconsciously control whom we are attracted to? Does knowing someone is a relative ensure your feelings are platonic? Do some people stifle the physical chemistry they share for this reason? Or are the people involved in incest rebels, choosing to break barriers simply because they exist? Anita, a woman in her mid-forties, believes “harmless” crushes within the family are common, and says she and her sister fancied one of their cousins until he got married. “We would never have acted on it,” she says, “it was just timepass. There’s something wrong with people who act on it.”

Roland Littlewood, a Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry at University College London, identifies “eroticisation of the young” as a cause for incest, saying “the notion of ‘adolescence’ [marks] a recognition of sexually mature but socially immature adults.” (Littlewood, 'Pathologies of the West: an Anthropology of Mental Illness in Europe and America'). A resident of Chennai, Janaki, who is now in her sixties, agrees and says boys and girls in the 10 – 18 age group shouldn’t be allowed to mingle at weddings. “The occasion stirs feelings you can’t control,” she says, “and easy access is a catalyst. When we were kids, our mothers would keep an eye on everyone in that age group, especially the older ones.”

Does the difference lie between feeling and acting, or acceptance and denial of the feeling, or feeling and not feeling at all? Another dimension comes into play in the case of what Littlewood identifies as ‘post-adoption incest’ or ‘genetic sexual attraction’. Some people raised by foster families were found to be uncontrollably attracted to their biological relatives when a reunion was arranged. While some experts attribute GSA to a need to identify with someone who resembles oneself physically or in personality, others see it as a manifestation of a need to ‘connect’ in some way. They say proximity to one’s biological family in early age resolves this into attachment rather than erotic interest, whereas it causes confusion and misinterpretation if the reunion happens in adulthood.

While intellectual debates ponder over the blurry line between sexual attraction and emotional bonding, Western countries have witnessed many cases asking for the abolition of incest laws. A German sibling couple (who met as adults) have had four children in a bid to have a family of their own, as each child was given into foster care. In India, where such subjects are considered too uncomfortable to discuss, chances are that there are more people suffering in silence, torn between guilt and inclination. Counselling centres abroad report that many cases of incest can morph into more conventional relationships after therapy. But will we see similar aid in India, where talk of incest is brushed under the carpet as taboo?

* Some names have been changed

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Not Quite Cricket

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 6th March, 2010)

“So, you very nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory…,” Ravi Shastri looks down at Dhoni.

“Oh, it’s all thanks to the boys. They really came together for this,” Dhoni grins.

“And this, you think, is representative of the country,” I smirk to my brother.

Half an hour earlier, I had been all excited about finally watching a good game of cricket, and laughing as the South African tail enders took the Indian bowlers and fielders to task, while one of my brothers was fretting about the country’s reputation going for a toss, and another was cursing himself for choosing cricket over Liverpool vs. Manchester City. At some point, both of them had found a common enemy in me, for my purported lack of patriotism.

What I don’t get is why, while most of the country can’t name more than five freedom fighters or three Olympic medallists or two Nobel laureates or one Oscar winner from India, these eleven men are considered representative of the country’s goals, dreams and global standing. More so, when they go around slapping each other, getting away with swearing at the opposition, refusing to wear numbers on their shirts because of superstitions, calling Sachin back from personal emergencies to rescue the team, stripping at Lord’s and likely spending more time endorsing brands than at fielding practice.

You’re allowed to remain neutral and want to watch ‘a good game’ as long as it’s football, tennis or basketball. But cricket – oh no, it’s practically the national sport, and you’re supposed to make a show of your patriotism. To hear Indians speak of the 1983 Prudential World Cup, a tourist might well be forgiven for thinking it is the country’s sole achievement in team sport. I wonder how many people know the Indian hockey team remained unbeaten in the Olympics for twenty-eight years, and has won more gold medals than any other national team. And yet, the Hockey World Cup being held in India is endorsed by a model-turned-actress rather than its team members.

At what point of time and why, did a game that nine (or is it eleven now?) countries officially play, become the focal point of national sentiment? Why was the IPL auction such a diplomatic disaster? Would three Pakistani players being auctioned off successfully have resulted in an exchange of bouquets between New Delhi and Islamabad, and the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue? When Indians are being attacked in Australia and diplomats from that country are urging us not to see it as a race-related issue, should our biggest concern be whether Australian cricketers want to play in India?

If the Indian cricket team’s performance is to be considered the parameter of the country’s capabilities, maybe our taxes should be diverted entirely to their salaries, ground maintenance and the other key areas of Indian cricket. This would leave the corporates free to sponsor road-building, flyover construction, natural-disaster-related rehabilitation programmes across the world, and most importantly, diplomatic dialogue.

Think of the enormous potential this holds! If the foreign secretaries of India, and the enemy countries we are surrounded by, were under contract to, say Sahara or Pepsi, and could expect bonuses for a definite result, had rankings to fight for and had trophies to win for not making faux pas, would we have to waste so much newsprint reporting ineffective talks? Most importantly, the politicians taking part in the austerity drive wouldn’t have to fight with airline employees for free upgrades. They could sigh, shrug and say, “what to do? An austerity drive is in direct contention with LG’s motto, and it would be flouting our contract norms…”
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