Feb 25, 2010

A Twisted Tale: Prof Siras Controversy

The Aligarh Muslim University is one of the nation’s premier educational institutions. In keeping with its repute as an institution par excellence, I’m sure lecturers and professors employed by the university are recruited only after a rigorous selection process. My meager knowledge and some amount of personal experience in college-level teaching revealed that even after the selection, one is usually required to spend several arduous years presenting papers at international symposiums, organizing mind-numbing departmental seminars, advising n number of research scholars, only after which they are eligible for tenure or professorship.

There is little doubt then that scholars who finally make it to the teaching ranks of such institutions, are some of the brightest and most gifted minds in their particular disciplines. Whether they choose to eat meat or not bath on Sundays or nurture a foot fetish or believe in abortion or choose to live with people of the same sex should in no way be our concern, no? No. That’s not what the VC of this prestigious university would have us believe.

The university has suspended a professor SR Siras after the university received a video of the professor indulging in same sexual activity with another man. While it is still unclear who taped the entire saga (a bunch of righteous students or some news channel desperate for breaking news), what is astonishing is the university’s stance where it blatantly flouts ones right to privacy by condemning Siras instead of the mischief makers. According to the VC, “Homosexuality is not good for them and so such act(s) could not be allowed on campus.” There are a couple of questions one wants to ask:

Is homosexuality akin to sugar for a diabetic that he offers his easy diagnosis of ‘not good’? In what ways is it bad? Has it been established beyond irrefutable doubt that it leads to criminal tendencies or religious intolerance or lower life expectancy?

Second, are people, even university students who are open or closet homosexuals, looking for permission to the VC? Isn’t his authority relegated to matters of administration and curriculum?

A peculiar paradox embedded in this entire sordid saga is the role of Islam and the way it views homosexuality. While the AMU continues to accept funds from NRI muslim donors, it has no choice but to sack people like Sarai even if many of the same donors are guilty of polygamy. The AMU would certainly not sack a professor if he was married to 2 or more women simultaneously, citing the muslim personal law as a defense. One wonders – it is ok to practice polygamy but not homosexuality, it is ok to bomb innocent civilians but not touch alcohol. Strange world indeed.

Feb 22, 2010

A Tooth Story

D is down with the allergic cough yet again. We were buried deep in steam inhalations, inhaler puffs and homeopathic doses all weekend. Not that it was as bad as it sounds. When I thought that the worse was over, I was hit by a sudden and rather rude discovery this morning. She has been complaining of ‘another teeth’ for a while now and poking away inside her mouth with her grubby fingers. But as any mom of an imaginative 5-yr old will tell, there is a good reason why the good Lord gifted us 2 ears. I think no differently. Bu this morning as the poor lil thing sat eating her cereals at breakfast, she implored me so movingly that I gave in and asked her to open her mouth to check the presence of the phantom tooth.

And there it was.

With great cunning, concealing itself behind the primary ranks of able bodied front teeth, I could make out the jagged edges of the white monstrosity. Upon further examination I learnt that one of my baby’s lower row tooth was shaking and all ripe for sacrifice. I cannot tell you the acute sadness and despair that washed over me. The entire milk teeth shedding exercise is one I abhorred in my childhood. I was such a sissy that I’d not even let my dad come near me (he had some pretty macabre paraphernalia of thread, dettol and cotton). As a result what happened was that like the last leaf in O Henry’s famous story, the poor shaking tooth would be forced to hang on till its last dying breath, fighting valiantly for a cause whose conclusion was long foregone. In the meantime, the new age upstarts, the impatient replacements of permanent teeth would start crowding from behind. “oh c’mon you slow coaches, make way!” they’d say and come piling in. What all this translated to is a row of hideously crooked front teeth that leer back at me every morning. Grrr…

And now I see history repeating itself. Why can’t these teeth wait awhile before they start these rituals of adulthood? Why is she growing up so bloody fast? Earlier there were a host of words she’d mispronounce and now it’s only the odd ‘amimals or commutity helper’ that makes me smile like a loony. I can’t be called an indulgent mom by any degree of imagination and yet as she’s growing up, I find myself spending more time clicking her pics, recording her voice than before. It is as if that’s the only way I can squeeze her childhood in an airtight bottle and sip from it after she has gone away to become a doctor or fashion model or bring up a brood of horrid children or whatever. Or become a ‘musketeer’ as she says. 

Feb 20, 2010

Notes on 'The Assasin's Song'

The 'Assassin’s Song' is the story of Karsan Dargawalla, heir to the famous shrine of the medieval sufi mystic Nur Fazal at Haripir in Gujarat. Karsan’s family are custodians of the shrine in a single unbroken line and Karsan is the designated gaadi-varas after his father. Even though he has been primed to take on the mantle of responsibility from a young age, Karsan is no different from any adolescent boy. He loves cricket and is heartbroken when his father refuses to send him for cricket coaching, lusts after and his miserable at the dirty thoughts that assault him every time he sees the young widow Shilpa, and is curious to know everything about the world outside the gates of the shrine. His enthusiasm and curiosity about the larger world outside Haripir and impatience with the blind faith evinced by the villagers in his father – the saheb – are the cornerstone of his friendship with Raja Singh, the sikh truck driver who returns from his journeys with armloads of magazines and newspapers which the young boy devours. Even as early as a young boy who has never been exposed to the outside world, Karsan is aware of forces, impulses and circumstances before whom the neutral spirituality of Pir Baba’s shrine must bow. That eventually this is proved right is not important; it’s merely an ominous sign of the complications that involve life.

Despite his father’s authority in Haripir, young Karsan witnesses his father compromise and not really stand up and tackle the pro-hindutva bullshit doled out by local leaders like Pradhan Shastri - the Babu Bajrangi- like folks who we are all too familiar with thanks to the newspapers. He realizes that the world is not a neutral place and riots and killings in the name of the Almighty, and an eternal struggle to establish the supremacy of one’s god over the other’s, one’s people over the other’s, seems to be the only fate we are doomed to. When charges of homosexuality are levied against his favourite teacher Mr Arnold this divide between good and bad, black and white, traditional and new, the unusual and the depraved, is further blurred. He likes Mr Arnold: the latter is the only person who has ever treated the boys like confidantes, who has cracked jokes about masturbation and wet dreams and trained them in sports, but the idea of homosexuality is too alien for Karsan to comprehend and accept and he is only left with a deep sense of confusion. It is only as we grow that we gradually reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that it is ok to disagree with those we love, and that the world is made up of much more than stark polarities.

The novel can be clearly divided into 3 sections – one dealing with Karsan’s childhood in & eventual return to Haripir, the other with his stay in the U.S., and the third with the life of the original saint Nur Fazal. The Nur Fazal part is told in part magic realism, part mythological narrative and isn’t wholly relevant to Karsan’s story except to provide us with a reference point later in Karsan’s story. In the 13th century, a wandering sufi named Nur Fazal came to the court of the hindu king Vishal Dev and so charmed the king and his people that he was given a place in court amongst the other learned scholars. He married the king’s daughter Rupali and settled in Haripir where his mausoleum stands as the shrine that Karsan’s family looks after.

Vassanji takes pains to explain that Nur Fazal or Pir Baba as he was fondly known as, though originally a muslim from Persia, practiced a branch of religion where “There is but one Truth, one Universal Soul, of which we are all manifestations and whose mystery can be approached in diverse ways.” His modern day followers are both hindus and muslims for Pir Baba advocated a path that was neither of Allah nor of Ram, but included both. The religious and cultural harmony, or netherworld that the inhabitants of the shrine follow, is quite similar to the world Vassanji himself, the Kenya-born Indian who finally migrated to Canada, must have found familiar. It is neither here nor there and straddles multiples roles, desires and expectations. Is it any wonder then that there is eventual crash and devastating collision in the face of such dichotomy?

One of the intriguing things about the novel seems to be that we are never sure of the infallibility of one path versus the other, of one state over another. Is an indecisive and tormented Karsan a happier person than the one who later severs all ties with his family, turns his back on his duty and embraces the suburban life of American freedom and intellectual fulfillment? We don’t know as there aren’t any easy answers. Karsan does everything he can to break away from his father’s legacy and yet happiness as he finally learns, remains an elusive concept that is as much to be found in surrendering one’s independence as in its fierce pursuit.
Despite his father’s wishes he goes to study at Harvard, refuses to return when his father send him a summons regarding his mother’s illness, marries the half Indian Marge, changes his name to Krishna Fazal, becomes a teacher in British Columbia and fathers his son Julian. Even in America, his only wish is to be considered and accepted for what he really is and not as the ‘god-designate from some Indian village’. He beseeches Marge, “I am not a complicated person. I am ordinary. Give me a chance to be ordinary. Please be my friend.”

His ‘I was determined to be happy’ is as much the grin determination of a man doomed as an ominous foreshadow of the tragedy that eventually mars his life. Probably my only problem with the novel stems from this part where it seems Vassanji strives too obviously to link Karsan’s defection with an omnipresent feeling of guilt which somehow conveniently ties in with his son’s death and his separation from Marge and his eventual return to Haripir. It is all just a tad too convenient. It would have been interesting to see Karsan’s return as being motivated more out of a gradual acceptance of his heritage and legacy than as a direct result of his family’s destruction.

On his return he realizes that the random events that devastated his life in America haven’t left Haripir untouched - the shrine has been devastated by the Godhra rioters, his father the saheb killed and his brother Mansoor now a fugitive on the run from the police on suspicions of harbouring terrorist links.
Vassanji’s novel is beautiful in the ways it tackles the question of guilt and redemption – never as absolutes that can help make life more fulfilling in the aftermath of betrayal. In fact, we do not know that the Karsan we see at the novel’s close, who finally remembers the secret ‘bol’ which is handed down to every gaadi varas by his father, is any happier than he was as a boy or as a family man in British Columbia. Perhaps, there is really no hope for redemption in a world that embraces strict polarities and where the joy of embracing the new, must always be tarnished by the guilt of betraying the old.

Feb 8, 2010

Ishqiya - some thoughts

In ‘Ishqiya’ arshad warsi’s babban tells naseerudin shah’s khalujan, “sheikh apna dekh”. Apparently this is the wisdom the uncle has imparted to his nephew in their years together traversing the road; this above all sums up with amazing brevity the underlying philosophy that governs the hearts and actions of the amazing melee of characters you’ll come across in abhishek chaubey’s film. Of course, as the film progresses what becomes truly captivating is the way the primary characters will denounce this and act in ways that’s a complete refutation of this simple and fundamental way of life. When the time and opportunity for revenge or plain old haramigiri , if u like, presents itself, neither of the 3 protagonists seem capable of biting the gauntlet. Now, u may well ask, ‘so what’? They are the protagonists & the film couldn’t very well have us come away with feelings of hatred or ambiguity towards them. The brilliant thing abt chaubey’s script is that whatever they do or do not do is always in keeping with our expectations. There is neither a downward spiral into the maudlin nor a stark moment of reformation that you can point towards.

In a sense, all 3 of them are misfits – Khalujan and Babban are clearly the innocents aboard in this madcap adventure canvassing the badlands of eastern UP, vidya balan as Krishna, is the lonely and mysterious widow of vidhyadhar verma who ran an infamous abduction enterprise. Actually, I want to dwell on the balan character. Keats’ ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ was never more true than of the opening shot of the film. We are greeted by the nasal & rustic melody of rekha bharadwaj crooning “ab toh mujhe intezar nahi” amidst complete darkness. Gradually, a light dawns and the camera reveals balan lying in red saree and sindoor, resplendent in all her feminine glory. There is nothing slight about her physicality – from the violent flare of her hips to the soft cushion of her back – she is all woman, completely at ease with her voluptuous sexuality because it is after all just one of the facets of a complex love she offers to her husband vidhyadhar verma. Even the wildest vidya balan fan will not sing odes to her beauty or sensuality & yet is to her credit that she epitomizes every man’s ultimate fantasy – the woman as Mary Magdalene – both chaste and carnal, Eve the tease and Eve the innocent, as Khalujan says, he doesn’t know if she’s “pari ya randi”. I have always loved balan’s voice and delivery and this is the film that seems to do maximum justice to both.

What is amazing about her performance is that while you’re sure to sense the menace as she opens the door to provide sanctuary to these 2 bumbling idiots, she doesn’t go overboard in her black widow spider routine. Her silence and air of mystery are as much made up of cunning as dignity. If she wishes to titillate the uncle and nephew duo, it is uncharacteristically well played off. We can’t help but watch fascinated as she employs the dignified, slightly poignant, lonely widow role with the romantic Khalujan and applies tincture iodine on his injury, and then bares her teeth of steel as she cuts Babban’s finger and then promptly starts sucking on the blood. It’s been a long time since I have seen such potent sexuality unleashed onscreen. Bharadwaj Rangan in his review says that he wished the Krishna character had more menace, could evoke more chill in us. Here’s the reason I don’t think it’d have worked. She is unlike any other temptress you have previously witnessed and certainly not like the femme fatales in James Hadley Chase novels. There is a lofty purpose to her cunning, something that elevates her above the money grubbing vamps of most dime novels. It is only after the denouement that one understands her motives for behaving as she does. Also, it is interesting that chaubey leaves some ambiguity regarding her motives for allowing Babban to sleep with her. Is it just manipulative or is there a hint of loneliness and hunger too? Is she sheer will and nothing more or are there vestiges of a woman still burning at her core?

Another thing that catches your breath about Ishqiya is the set d├ęcor and milieu that the director evokes. Everything from the brass water jug to the money plant in the bottle are in perfect harmony. It is astonishing to realize that the part of India depicted in the film is as much a part of the same country as the one where companies spend millions on brand endorsements and 15-yr old school kids sit and chit chat in CCDs. There is another kid in this film too (his age is 'paanch kam bees' we are told), one wise beyond his years and with a smile as disarming as any you’re likely to come across. Adept in the ways of the crooked world he inhabits and a young recruit in the caste wars between the thakur’s and the yadav’s, even this kid with the tamancha has a code of honour he abides by which is instrumental in shaping the film’s ending.

The peripheral characters are all engrossing and deliciously eccentric in their own way – starting from the 2 love 'cuckoos' to the silent old woman with the burning torch in hand. Finally, what never ceases to amaze me is stalwarts like naseerudin shah. i'd gone to watch the film fully expecting to like arshad warsi's acting more than naseerudin shah's. after all how much more can u expect from the guy who gave us janey bhi do yaron, nishant, bazaar, umrao jaan and mandi. But the magic works yet again. Watch him as 'dil ye baccha hai ji'plays in the background and you will not be able to prevent a tear from falling, nor stop the silly grin from spreading all across your face for his vulnerability and joy are all our own. Arshad Warsi as Babban is the kind of lout who will flash a quick wink or try a quick squeeze in crowded places. But he's harmless and doesnt have the ruthlessness that'd make him an adequate match for the baddies that we meet later. Sexy, charming, devious and hilarious, he's appealing in a strange earthy way.

I think Ishqiya works largely as a result of these brilliant characterizations. Anyone doing anything extra and the whole enterprise would sink.