Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Eternal wounds - Partition

I just began reading Yasmin Khan's "The great Partition: The making of India and Pakistan". Economist had reviewed the book a year back and commended it as good read. In her introduction Yasmin emphasises that the partition had affected regions of the subcontinent far beyond the eastern (Bengal) and western (Punjab) borders. She cites various hot spots that too saw riots or some form of religious tension. The list includes Meerut, Lucknow, Mumbai, Godhra, Secunderabad (the only southern city) etc. Looking at the list I sadly realised that each one of them remain a communal hot spot till today, more than 60 years later. Each had seen so many more riots decades later, each riot was bloody and cost hundreds of lives.

Often we hear of loud harsh criticism of Iraq's civil war and how Bush was responsible for uncorking it by removing a tyrant who had kept the country...well...corked up. While he does deserve criticism for the hodge-podge post invasion planning much of what happens is entirely the country's own making. Again what is happening in Iraq, though very tragic, pales into comparision before the horrors of what India and Pakistan endured. The 24 hour news cycle with its penchant to give wisdom in a hurry has no patience for deeper historical knowledge.

Science and Americans : A love hate relationship

This past weekend I took my daughter to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was a Sunday and temperature was 45F, sunny, a respite from bone chilling cold. The museum was practically besieged by parents, children, mostly toddlers swarmed every corner. It will not be an exaggeration to say if one felt as if lost in the midst of a school tour.

Natalie Angier in her book "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" quotes a friend who suggested that Science museums are for kids. Natalie wonders why adults think so and is perplexed as to why a visit for a Science museum is never an outing for a child beyond high school.

Economist, recently published a poll that 60% of americans do not believe in Evolution, the most in a developed nation. A sweet irony for a country that boasts of NASA, Ivy League colleges, billions in science research, space shuttles, space race etc etc. Americans love Science in a limited way as long as it does not disturb their fairy tale puerile biblical beliefs. When such a clash comes its religion that always wins. Decades after the Scopes trial, when a teacher was punished for teaching Evolutions, even today cases are brought in courts to teach religion in the garb of pseudo-science.

I can bet my farm that 90% of the visitors to the AMNH are religious enough to believe that the world was created in 7 days despite taking a walk along the "cosmic way" that illustrates how the earth took shape across 13 billion years.

Sometime back NYT published an article about two disparate groups visiting Grand Canyon. One group marveled at the rocks, evidence of earth evolving in billions of years. Another group caressed the same rocks and saw the "design" of the good Lord.

I could see only a handful Indians. I guess a visit to AMNH is not as enticing as indulging in cultural associations or bhajans over pot luck dinners that reinforce caste identities. I've seen Indians reading prayerfully Ramayan, replete with casteist references to Shudras. Ah ! Well thats a different subject alltogether.

I need to write a seperate blog on the museum itself. It was a truly wonderful visit. We learned that the moon was formed in a month and much more.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Art or Sell out?

V.S.Naipaul's first book on India, "An area of darkness" was a withering criticism of the country, practically scalding to a country that was barely 20 years old since it became free. Naipaul followed it with an even more scathing "India: A wounded civilization", he blamed everything that gets labeled "Indian ethos" as root of its rot, his last book, in 1990, "India a million mutinies now" retained the carping but went easy on the bile. By now he had a reputation of selling India's poverty. He joined the ranks of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen et al. Ray, especially, was accused of selling India's poverty in the guise of art. Katherine Mayo's book "Mother India" published in the early 30's evoked an angry response from none less than the Mahatma who decried it as "a drain inspector's report". That we had a drain was of no consequence.

Gandhi's indignence could be excused as one who was defending the honor of a country held in slavery for 300 years by the very race of the author. Breaking its chains until recent times India and its citizenry, while not ashamed of the ill's of the society, would be very hurt to see such portrayals, especially on screen, it gets further amplified when such portrayals get awards. The reactions were always "well we are a huge country, who does not have it, is America any better, why show only these,...."

Since America is often dragged into such comparisons lets look at Hollywood. Yes we have our own bromides of super heroes, comic capers, kid movies, chick flicks etc but come Oscar season a steady stream of serious cinema hits the halls. Movies like "crash" that unflinchingly look at race relations in suburbian L.A., movies like "Monster's Ball" that open old racial wounds, all hit our collective conscious. Note that in these movies the issues are not sugar coated but presented in raw reality, all racially offensive words find mention to bring reality to face.

Reading Aravind Adiga's "White Tiger" I too thought is that all there is to India. But who am I to deny that that too is a part of India. What a creator chooses to portray is his/her own freedom. Whether that freedom has been used with intellectual integrity is all that we can judge.

In this new found "irrational exuberance" the marginalised sections of the society have all but vanished from mainstream discourse. We are now obsessed with Ambani's rank shifting on Forbes list of billionaires, elections are "too close to call", markets are falling on "global cues", "profit taking", many times I wonder how Indian journalese (thats what it is) has comfortably adopted American-speak. In my 26 years in India I've never heard an election prediction phrased as "too close to call", a characteristic CNN phrase.

When a movie like "Slumdog" rubs it in many react with indignation but with absolutely no qualms of conscience about the issue of inequality itself. Yes America had its Katrina, but hurricane Ike was a non-event. Yes America had 9-11 but nothing since. Yes America had a Rodney King case of race brutality, we just elected an Afro American president. Are we ashamed that India's dirty linen was washed in public, was the washing the sin or that our linen was dirty in the first place.

Time magazine did a wonderful story on the picture and hit home on who dislikes it and why:

"You can't live in Mumbai without seeing children begging at traffic lights and passing by slums on your way to work," says Shikha Goyal, a public relations executive who left halfway through the film. "But I don't want to be reminded of that on a Saturday evening." There's also a sense of injured national pride, especially for a lot of well-heeled metro dwellers, who say the film peddles "poverty porn" and "slum voyeurism."........
........This message of hope is something many among India's lower middle class seem to have taken to heart. "The film only shows what is real," says Rakesh Nair, a driver in New Delhi. "It's those who are making lots of money who are cribbing about the film showing the dark side of India. Those left behind are loving it because they can empathize with the film's hero."