Sunday, December 30, 2007

Another Bhutto rises

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the new chairman of Pakistan People’s Party. He is 19. Bilawal is studying political science at Christ Church College in Oxford and was named the head of Pakistan’s largest political party after the shocking assasination of his mom, Benazir Bhutto three days ago.

Although Bilawal is still tender and has a long way to go before earning political stripes, he appeared dignified in his first interaction with media today. For starters he already holds the record of being the youngest head of a major political entity anywhere in the world. In reality, it is the magic of dynasty that works in the subcontinent. Like the surname Gandhi in India, Bhutto is a phenomenon in Pakistan. PPP always needed the Bhutto glue to hold the party together.

Bilawal said today in a press-con that he intends to complete his studies in the west, where both his mom and grandad were ferociously tutored, before he comes back to carry on the prestigious legacy that has been bequeathed to him. While democracy remains an underlying desire, it is the family, the surname, the Bhutto cognomen that matters, Bilawal knows.

While technically Bilawal, a shy teenager, is Zardari but his dad Asif Zardari made it clear today in the same press-con that Bilawal is now officially Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Call it exigency or irony. Immediately people present -- in the press conference -- started shouting, Bilawal Bhutto Zindabad [Long live Bilawal Bhutto]. Zardari was forgotten in a second. I think that was the plan.

However the king’s crown is not always easy to wear. Bhutto’s may have been charismatic but they are jinxed also. They have all died young. Every tragic end has made the Bhutto name more heroic and the Bhutto sacrifice folklore continues. It is daunting for Bilawal, who I am sure, does not even know Urdu, the language of people he may rule some day. The young Turk has a great legacy to carry forward. I hope he makes none of the mistakes of his illustrious ancestors.

Politics in Pakistan is messy. I wish he makes it safe.


Her father's daughter

Miss Bhutto was still a giant in a land of political pygmies and military stooges.
~Daily Telegraph, One of the world’s most respected and highest selling British newspapers

Yeh Baazi khoon ki baazi he
Yeh baazi tum hi haaro ge
Hur ghar se bhutto nikle ga,
Tum kitne bhutto maaro ge.

This is a game of gore
You’ll loose this game
Every home’ll beget a Bhutto
How many Bhutto’s will you slay?

~Slogan at Benazir’s funeral

Benazir Bhutto's last moments were spent, like much of her life, as a lone woman among men. A sea of male hands bore her from her country home in Naudero inside a simple wooden coffin decked with green, as millions of flower petals rained on it like fragrant confetti. At Miss Bhutto’s funeral, grief-stricken supporters thronged the ambulance carrying her remains as it crawled through a haze of dust from her family home in Garhi Khuda Bux, in southern Sindh, to an imposing white marble mausoleum three miles away. I think it was the deep reverence of the people she loved the most – and who loved her back -- that everyone jostled to touch the coffin.

Born into wealth, splendor and perhaps the most important political dynasty of the subcontinent, educated at the Ivy League and daughter to the iconic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir was immediately catapulted to limelight. Her election as president of the Oxford Union, the first Asian woman and first non-British to hold the post, attracted worldwide media attention. She reportedly held some of the best parties in the university and drove a yellow MG sports car. Prior to that she had joined anti-Vietnam demos at Harvard. That is when the spotlight began. Destined for bigger things in life, the lionizing was already in the making. Many would contend that she always remained in the public eye and was one of the most adored stateswoman in the world.

However, her journey from Oxford to Pakistan was fraught with her father’s fight with the all-powerful Pakistan military. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was renowned for his quick temper and mercurial brilliance. As Pakistan's foreign minister, Bhutto Sr met President John F. Kennedy for the first time at the White House in October 1963, Kennedy was so impressed with Bhutto Sr that he said to Zulfikar, "Too bad you are not American, because if you were, I would have appointed you to my cabinet." Zulfikar Bhutto responded with his humorous wit: "President Kennedy, that is very kind of you, but if I was American, I would not be in your cabinet but would be president of the United States". Benazir was to carry forward the legacy of her great dad.

On a much personal level, she managed to create this aura about her that was almost unreal. Always elegantly attired, her dresses came from Saks Fifth Avenue. The prestigious People’s magazine put her on the ‘50 most beautiful people on earth’ list. With or without her designer glasses, Benazir always contrived to look fabulous. She had a great love for English chocolates. Bendicks Bittermints were a favorite, as her Oxford friends reminisce. Everyone who met her would vouchsafe that she carried herself with immense grace and laughed easily.

Adulations apart, Benazir was imprisoned on her return to Pakistan and she spent almost five years in prison. Like her father, Benazir was to live short. Miss Bhutto died just two miles from where her father, the former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by Gen Zia in 1979. Infact days after he announced that elections would be held in a couple of months in 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was asked by western journalists about how many terms he expected to win. That was a time when there was no political threat on the horizon, and Bhutto Sr reigned supreme. “I am not looking beyond the next term,” he replied. “The Bhutto’s do not live very long.”

On Friday Dec 28, 2007, Bilawal, a tall, solemn-faced man who followed in his mom’s footsteps this year by starting his studies at Oxford, kneeled and threw fistfuls of sandy soil into the cavity of Benazir’s freshly dug grave. Only a day after Eid [December 21], she had confided in her confidants her irrepressible urge to visit the family graveyard in Garhi. She arrived there on December 22, and sat next to her father's grave for two hours, reciting verses from the Quran and later strewing red rose petals on the graves of her father and two slain brothers. She had buried all three. Six days later, she joined them, leaving behind a bed-ridden mother – Nusrat Bhutto -- in Dubai, too sick of Alzheimer's to even have a last glimpse of her daughter's face.

Guardian sums it up: She was insistent that Islam awarded equal rights to men and women, despite evidence [cultural if not theological] to the contrary. At the end of one of her interviews – way back in late 80’s -- she was asked if the popular supposition was correct: that if and when she supplanted General Zia-ul-Haq, she would become the first woman to rule a Muslim country. "Quite true," she said and then remembered that a Queen Raziyya [Raziyya Sultan] had ruled the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century.

I checked the reference. According to history, the queen had been "wise, just and generous" and endowed with all the qualities befitting a king. "But she was not born of the right sex, and so, in the estimation of men, all these virtues were worthless."

Eventually men had murdered her.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Mingled in Dust

Sab kahan kuch laala-o-gul mein numaaya ho gayii
khaak mein, kya suratein hongi jo pinhaa ho gayii
~Assadulla Khan Ghalib

Not everything recurs as colorful buds and flowers
Many beautiful faces lie mingled in dust

Benazir Bhutto has been interred. She was buried right next to [right hand side of her dad] Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s grave. News anchors commenting live on TV -- as her coffin, draped in green, was being led to the Bhutto tomb -- say it is the exact spot where Benazir used to recite from the Holy Qu’ran, whenever she visited her father’s eternal space. In an ironical twist of fate, she now rests there, forever.

No words can express the extent of outrage this despicable political murder has spawn. Hours after she was buried and the cameras turned off, reports say, thousands of ordinary people [who had come from far-flung villages on foot] stood still and somber. They say death ends a life, not a relationship.

People, seen wailing, lined the roads to Ghadi Khuda Bux, Bhutto’s ancestral graveyard since the wee hours of morning. BBC says there was a sea of humanity, all eyes moist, mourning their favorite leader. An outrage marked the occasion. Tempers ran high, as Benazir’s funeral began.

The high priestess of fashion, always clad in Guy Laroche petty coats and designer attire, lay wrapped in a simple rag of white cloth, as per Islamic traditions. Voice of America says that the Imam [priest] leading the Jinaza [funeral prayers] choked with emotion as he read aloud that supreme rallying cry: Allah-u-Akbar [God is Great]. Those in the first row were slowly sobbing and then row after row of people let out a deep, collective sigh. Everyone broke down. It was an adieu none wanted to say.

As I blog, it is around evening time in Pakistan. Al-Jazeera’s coverage, as usual has been outstanding. TV images show an eerie quiet has descended over major Pakistan cities. People, it appears, are coming out in droves on the huge boulevards of Islamabad to offer ‘Gaaiebana Jinaza’ [funeral prayers in absentia]. It is said that the real character of a nation is often tested in times of adversity. Leaders cutting across party lines are paying homage. Political adversaries like Nawaz Sharif offered rich tributes while Qazi Hussain has called for a nation-wide strike as a mark of respect. Yet something seems amiss. There is an odd sense of dejection, like that of losing something precious.

Sometimes, when one person is missing, the whole world seems depopulated. Pakistan soul is badly bruised. Her most darling daughter has been slaughtered at the cross-roads of history.

Grief is palpable in such an unspeakable tragedy. Everyone I spoke with in Delhi, including my well-to-do dentist early this morning, expressed anguish and shock. Inherently people are good at heart and Miss Bhutto was immensely popular.

Much has been said on Benazir’s style of politics and her personality. Every newspaper, magazine and news channel is inundated with obituaries. Even in death the exegesis is perhaps going to continue. However Mohtarma has left behind a huge void, which I reckon, will be difficult to fill. The subcontinent may have to wait for a very long time to have another charismatic, controversial and captivating leader like Benazir.

Ghalib, the old man, perhaps got it right. The beautiful face lies mingled in dust.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto is assassinated

It broke my heart. My first reaction was Holy Shit, I hope it is not true.

By the time I reached home, CNN was confirming that Benazir Bhutto, that charming lady, affectionately called ‘Daughter of the East’ by the world at large, was no more. The raspy, domineering voice had been silenced forever. Like her iconic dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and her two brothers, Benazir’s life was cut short. Cut young. Cut too mercilessly. Immediately people began to draw parallels between the Gandhi family in India and Kennedy’s in US. The jinxed Bhutto surname. One of the most elegant stateswoman in the world has been assassinated by some nutcase anarchist.

The shock is not surprising. There was a pizzazz about Benazir that can best be described as extra-ordinary. The first Muslim female head of a state, she had an amazing connect with both the grassroots and the powers that be. Benazir would amble across the corridors of White House and fields of Larkana with equal poise. She hobnobbed with the rich and reached out to the poor. The liberal lobby cheered for her, so did the Western capitals. The media considered the Oxford-Harvard educated Benazir honeybunch. She could outdo any informed journalist with her repartees and savvy. I especially read her interviews.

Wedded into criticism, Bhutto had a very polarizing persona. Her critics harangued her for being incompetent and on the pad. I used harsh language in some of my posts about alleged embezzlement charges against her. In hindsight, nothing was ever proved against her in any court. The charges may keep flying but that doesn’t make them true, always. A woman of grand aspirations with a taste for complex political maneuvering, Benazir was indeed ambitious and sought power. She died doing what she enjoyed the most, as my buddy Salah puts it: politics. Many have already started called her a martyr.

Criticized, cut-up and censured for her high profile image, modern outlook and bold policies, Benazir held firm. Flustered, her foes – and she had lots of them – attacked her first in Karachi on Oct 18, 2007 upon her arrival from exile. Remarkably it didn’t deter her. Benazir showed immense character and courage. On December 27, 2007 as evening prayers culminated in Pakistan, the blood-thirsty ultraists finally got to her. Ironically the last thing she said at the Rawalpindi rally -- held in Liyaqat Park -- moments before her death, is now going to make it to history books:

I am ready for any sacrifice.
[Less than 12 minutes before an assassin's bullet pierced her neck]

Less than twelve days later, on January 8, she could have been Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time. Instead she will be laid to rest, wrapped in Pakistani national flag, by her father’s grave tomorrow [Friday] in the mango orchards of Larkana.

Confrontational, flamboyant, moderniser, winsome, stylish and extremely likeable. With that famous head-scarf on her head, always. That is how Mohtarma would be remembered. I hope she rests in eternal peace amidst the mango fragrance of the beautiful Pakistan countryside.

The brave, they say, die never, though they sleep in dust. Their courage nerves a thousand living men.

Ms Bhutto will be dearly missed!

Benazir Bhutto
Daughter of the East
[1953-2007] RIP

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Has winter cometh?

O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
~Percy Bysshe Shelley

It is winters again. Small nuggets of early December chill have started to tease people randomly. These days one often sees the hoi polloi compressing their necks on the roadside, involuntarily, many times during the day. That perhaps keeps the cold out. Many people wear very unfashionable but supremely warm – so I am told – monkey caps. It is a cap that covers everything from neck upwards, a la mask. Thankfully there is a slit for eyes. You only need a lantern-in-hand to look like one of those 70s movie-style chowkidars, guarding some abandoned circuit house, where a lovelorn damsel walks barefoot on moonless nights. There are many amusing ways to fend the cold off and I find Delhiites pretty ingenuous in this respect.

I reckon the chill factor strictly obeys the law of relative income levels. Everyone well-to-do I bump into [and I bump into lots of them these days] is exfoliated. They wear not too many clothes. A fashionista whispered to me, as I broached the clothing topic, "Sam, these days minimal is in! A shirt or a tee, a multi-color muffler [to be worn more like a tie, you see] and you can compliment it with a feather-light jacket. No undershirts, no heavy-duty attire. Period." I don’t know the winter code for chicks but I assume it must be a tad more minimal than guys.

Meantime those who form longish queues for busses continue to don hand-knitted sweaters, mufflers and warm clothes. Bus cleaners and some employees in the government sector are often found in good old woolens, mostly in a garish colors. The common janta for sure has a penchant for numerous layers of the winter ensemble to keep themselves cosy which makes sense also. I don't understand why I must wear fewer clothes, just to look the party type.

So winter mornings in Delhi appear dreary as death and evenings start exactly as the clock strikes six. Peanuts and popcorn sell like hot cakes at roadside vendors. I have peanut allergy so I can't really help myself but I love the way people consume peanuts in the capital. There are little hills of peanut pods around folks who consume the seed but rarely trash the pods.

I really can’t say that I love the chill [I do have a thing for rains] but I prefer it over the horrid Indian summers. Winter, they say, is the season in which people try to keep the house as warm as it was in the summer, when they complained about the heat.

Delhi, Winter 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

To Tee or not to Tee

NIE comes out with a fresh report:
Iran does not have a WMD program

Bush and his war gang are in a moral dilemma. Their immediate war plans are scuttled. 'Damn those spies - John Bolton, the mustachioed neo-con seethes in Washington post'. The war scads are frantically looking for newer excuses.

It is a screwy world we inhabit. Some bizarre rules apply. Nations are classrooms. America is the headmaster. A beautiful, windswept nation [Everyone is aware]. And the only country in the world to be condemned by the International Court of Justice for perpetuating terrorism [Nicaragua 1984; No one cares]. And it is quick to label other countries terror-sponsors but mum is the word on its own diabolical archives. You can’t be sagely matter-of-the-fact in a skewed world. You can’t put things right but you can try and put the record straight. Here is a little tale which might surprise you a tad. You may read the contents, think about it a bit. And then smirk a second – at the grotesquely absurd arithmetic’s of the modern civilized world.

A treaty called the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons or NPT was introduced by the headmaster in 1968. It was put forth for a very kind and peaceful purpose. All those who would sign up were supposed to abide by three main parameters:

1) No more nukes
2) Eventually reduce whatever nukes exist
3) Right to peacefully use nuclear technology

That’s not all. A nuclear weapon state (NWS), who is signatory to the NPT, was not expected to transfer "nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" and not in any way to share, assist, encourage or induce other country [Article One, NPT].

Very noble. The world should have been a happy place but why is it glum. The sad part is that is the treaty didn’t take off as expected. Here is the reason why:

Most countries lined up to sign. Like Schoolchildren [After all the headmaster told them] 189 countries are signatories to the NPT, five of which are nuclear weapon countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Explained it means if you are not the B-5 [Big 5] you can’t have a nuke. So far, so good.

But there is a leeway: You can decide not to sign the NPT or sign up and then walk out of NPT and go bang-bang. So India, Pakistan and Israel are not part of NPT and have developed nuclear weapons. North Korea walked out and detonated a nuke.

Since Iran has signed up, it can’t have a nuke as per the NPT statutes. Iran has however decided to have a civilian nuclear program [under the NPT, a country has the right to enrich its own fuel for civil nuclear power, under inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency]. But since US doesn’t like Iran [that’s another bully story of the headmaster], it allows sanction after sanction against the country.

Now the funny part. [Article One, mockery]

The U.S. had nuclear warheads targeted at North Korea, a non-NWS state, from 1959 until 1991 in contravention of NPT. Ex UK Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, explicitly invoked the possibility of the use of the country's nuclear weapons in response to a non-conventional attack [Against the treaty rules]. In January 2006, President Chirac of France indicated that an incident of state-sponsored terrorism on France could trigger a small-scale nuclear retaliation aimed at destroying the power centers [Violating the NPT]. Critics argue that the US and UK have broken the treaty by transferring nuclear technology from one to another.

The funnier it gets [NIE report]

Dec 2007 first week, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) [A group of 16 top U.S. intelligence agencies, NIE prepares classified documents for US policymakers] comes out with a report stating that Iran -- probably -- did once have a plan to develop a nuclear weapon but has stopped all its bomb programs since 2003. The country presently has no nuke plan.

According to the BBC world, the assessment is genuine, based on a wide range of intelligence sources. These include interceptions of high value communications, technical information from the International Atomic Energy Agency [the UN body inspecting Iran's declared nuclear facilities] and even detailed analysis of TV footage from Iran's enrichment plant.

US now says that the mere knowledge of how to make a bomb makes Iran a threat. This is like saying, as Monk puts it, "Well, we know that the Chinese have a very sizable military. Even though they haven't mobilized it in any way, they could one day spontaneously decide to do it, and furthermore, against us. Therefore, they are dangerous heartless people bent on killing our women and children, and we should start a war with them."

Bush may have to temporarily put his World War III plans on hold until he finds the next excuse to get Iran's oil fields. By the way -- on Oct 17, 2007 -- President George Bush warned the world that a nuclear-armed Iran "would be intolerable and could very well plunge humanity into a third world war." [How embarrassing is that?]

The funniest part [Bush remarks]

You know the NIE report, just proves how bad Iran has been?

School headmaster: “You once had plans to fill your bags with rocks huh! My spies tell me’.

Student: But Sir, “I dropped the idea long back.” Am now carrying only schoolbooks in my bag’. And, Sir, how about your kind selectively abusing the NPT and your pals Israel-India-Pakistan already having those dreaded bombs?

Headmaster: Enough, you naughty lad, you were, you are and you will be dangerous.
[Iran was, is and will be dangerous: Bush, Post-NIE report] Source: Radio Holland

Matter dismissed.


Friday, November 30, 2007

Old man and the sea

Why do we run into cul-de-sacs in life? Why do we change course suddenly only to go into maelstroms? Why do we run smooth and then tumble as we walk? Eventually we realize our mistake but it’s often too late. We sob as we look back on life, perhaps, because we know that deep down all of us are inherently human. Flawed. Animated. Shaky. Emotional.

Plato, the ancient Greek thinker, one of the world’s most influential philosophers, who walked on God’s green earth between 428-348 BC, waxes eloquent, “All learning has an emotional base.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to me that Musharraf choked with emotion and shed a tear, betraying his usual bravado, two times in as many days: First, as he bid farewell to his army and second time when he took oath as the civilian President of Pakistan. [The first military Gen to do so]

Often enough when there is an intense bout of wits between two warring factions and the more powerful one is made to eat humble pie, a sense of dreariness follows. Methinks Musharraf must be contemplating – and lamenting may be -- the enormous goodwill he earned when he took control of the rudderless ship -- called IRO [Islamic Republic of] Pakistan. Like an able captain, he put together a smart crew to navigate through some very rough waters. Everything looked right on.

Then something extraordinary happened. Another mighty ship [big, opulent, powerful like the Titanic] called America was attacked. 9-11. The day changed the world. NYC’s twin towers – iconic symbols of America’s corporate might were brought crumbling down in a matter of minutes. Pentagon – the military jugular of US power was set ablaze in broad daylight. It looked surreal but it was happening – across the Atlantic – on live TV. America got dandered up like that proverbial Spanish bull that is shown a rag. Bush’s war team decided to go rampaging. Their target was clear: Afghanistan.

The good old captain – Mushy -- was contacted mid-night and given a now-famous ultimatum. ‘You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists’. Period. Swiftly and prudently, a wooly-eyed Mushy got the message. He understood, as army commanders are expected to, rather quickly, that something major has happened. That geo-strategic alignments have altered overnight. Briskly, like a keen sailor, he decided to go with the favorable winds. With the west.

The war on terror was won, partly thanks to Mushy’s intelligence folks. They yanked the baddies out of their sleeping beds and turned them over to the US. Once more in history Pakistan rose to the occasion -- providing top level intel, bases, support and backup against the war on terror. Major terror networks and finances were frozen. This greatly angered the Islamists, who hate US for its double standards vis-à-vis Palestine. Also a war on fellow Muslims, however irrational, was not done. OBL had a new foe.

The pragmatic captain’s ship had again meandered into rough waters. Between devil and the deep-sea. US, flush with a victory in Afghanistan, went onto mission Iraq, briefly forgetting about Pakistan [like post-soviet-Mujahidin times]. The attention ebbed. And the Islamist tribe in Pakistan grew. Their writ ran large. Suicide bombing became fashionable. They attacked Prez Mush a couple of times, even getting close to him. He survived each storm. The ship wobbled a little but sailed on.

Suddenly a judge from Baluchistan, who used to dye his hair and moustaches black every morning, decided to play tough. He wanted the names of tribals and other blokes who went missing during the war on terror. Now some of these guys had already been handed over to the US, some imprisoned in Afghanistan and some very high value detainees lodged in Guantanamo bay. I am sure some guys must have been eliminated by the military intelligence – either during the round up or in gun-battles. Judge Ifty was summoned to Army House, Rawalpindi and as is the norm in military, told to put in his papers. When he refused [and the army is not programmed to hear Nays] he was suspended.

The decision was to prove shellacking. Around this time, the captain of the ship alienated some of his passengers. Most of the people traveling aboard the ship had been a secular majority but they thought of the captain as being too tough, too pro-west, too dictatorial and hence planned to thrown him into the sea. The tide turned. I wonder what went through Mushy’s head as he shed the first tear this Wednesday. Was he recounting those ill fated hours when he decided to kick out the corny judge. Soon after the lawyers rebelled. Nawaz came back from exile and was promptly dispatched back. Another mistake. Another tear.

And then the beauty – Benazir -- sashayed down the aisle of the ship. The ramp didn’t burn. Instead 150 people were incinerated. It was a clear message of how far the extremists could go. The court, with the dyed hair judge in control once more, was playing truant again. The captain decided to change direction of the ship and instead made the judge with a grudge, annoying journalists, several lawyers and other trouble makers walk the plank. Another fluke. More Tears.

The rest, as they say, is history. As the countdown to the D-day [Parl elections -- Jan 2008] begins, the crew on the ship has changed and the captain, like Archibald Haddock, is more sober now. Big bro, US is pleased again [often a good sign]. In the next 40 days, we will see a mixture of good, bad and the ugly happening on the ship. Fisticuffs may break out. The beauty [West backed], the old warhorse [Saudi blessing], two brothers from Punjab called the Chowdarys [Mushy favor] and other motley crowd. The captain stays albeit his guns have been taken away from him. We have a new first mate -- Kiyani -- on the ship. He, they tell us, will control the direction now. The captain will only guide. No more flukes.

The ship sails on.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gen to Jinab

Passing the baton

The transition has happened, finally. Gen Pervez Musharraf abdicated his military post after serving the army for 46 prolix years. For a brief while, as he handed over the baton [called command stick; it is more like a symbolic scepter] of army chief to his mate and chosen successor Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, he appeared to be choking but held his nerve, like a solider. Musharraf, a highly decorated army Gen, will be sworn in as the civilian President of Pakistan later today. His legacy, I reckon, will remain that of a competent commander, who led from the front, a PR extraordinaire, someone who wooed the media with his effortlessness, wrote a compelling book while in office and more importantly safe-guarded Pakistan’s interests after the 9/11 US blitzkrieg. He, however, miserably flunked to understand the cesspool of domestic politics in Pakistan and did nothing to allow a new political class to emerge. At some point Musharraf perhaps overstepped his authority but still fared better than most of the previous military rulers.

Even if Mush can no more count on the famed army allegiance but like a smart lad he has played it safe. He has appointed his most trusted men at the top. The ISI boss -- Gen Nadeem Taj -- is a camp Mush man [was his military secretary and accompanied Mush on that eventful flight from Colombo], so is the chief of military intelligence (MI). Gen Tariq Majid, Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, another key guy remains faithful. The corps commanders, who form the backbone of Pak army and constitute its real strength, were seen cheering for Musharraf, as he bade a final aideu to his 'beloved' army, which remained loyal to him till the end. As long as the army is seen to be backing their old boss -- and new Prez -- Musharraf has no worries.

And despite his resignation from the army, Musharraf [now Sadar-Sahib] will continue to keep his current military staff and his security too will be responsibility of the army. The present constitution of Pakistan gives the president reserve powers, subject to a Supreme Court approval or veto [likely to be approved in a retooled SC] to dissolve the National Assembly of Pakistan and trigger new elections. In effect he would have the powers to dismiss the elected PM. The president also chairs the National Security Council and appoints the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Mush, I reckon, is going to stay both relevant and major league.

In hindsight, Musharraf was quite a charmer. I liked his sartorial ways. Always elegantly turned out, thinking out of the box, running his fingers in the hair, well-read and witty, Mush was a great relief from our dour politicians. Usually politicians in the sub-continent are colorless, bromidic kinds. As the military Prez, he would go to the US on his book tour and sweep his TV hosts off their feet. On his India visits, the media would go euphoric trailing his every move. A liberal guy, who kept pet puppies at home, Mush made enemies with conservatives in Pakistan. The West, aware of the Pan-Islamic wave never left him off-hook. Mush’s outstanding help in fighting the war on terror is however not lost to many in the White House.

Kiyani, as the new army chief, is not just a military commander; he is responsible for the institutional reputation and extensive financial interests of the country's top officers, who consider themselves a class apart. Pakistan’s army top echelons – along with their top political class – come from an elite social stratum. [Rest of the country – 85% and spill over – remain the toiling masses] Since Kiyani 55, is younger than Musharraf, he is expected to have a greater connect with his officers. A Kashmiri by ancestry, Gen Kiyani is a Musharraf loyalist, Punjabi by birth, stammerer, chain smoker, moderate, former Spy boss, palsy but tough. A professional, strict guy, he has an attitude that may best be described as: listen [rather than Mush’s Mantra: Talk], army-back-to-barracks [rather than meddle in petty politics]. However, expect a tougher line against ultraists, since Kiyani will try his best to establish the supremacy of the army and streamline its combat efficiency. In doing so, the US trained Gen may not think twice to smoke the bad guys out with surgical precision.

Next Blog: The Cesspool[Dec 2008]


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Water Wars

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. The rhyme of the ancient mariner sprang to my mind as I hopscotched through Kashmir during my last visit. Vale of my childhood, where water was the last thing people would possibly bother about. We used to throw water on each other at school and the fun was fondly called ‘Aab Jung’ [water war]. But those were innocent years, with only a few residential areas and a lot of farm land. The rivers were overflowing and filled with fish. The Lakes, I remember, meandered around hills and the golden kingfisher would dive in to catch a little trout in its beak. In the years to come, that innocence was gradually lost. It was molested by indifferent times. The fish drowned in the waters. Then there was scarcity.

I think the water problem does not come as a surprise. To make things worse everyone wants a separate home, complete with gardens and flowers and fencing in Kashmir. And a place for keeping that sparkling car. This has lead to a steady shrinkage of agricultural land and a dip in the ground water table. Natural resources are -- naturally -- stretched thin. Private construction is at an all time high – homes in all kinds of concrete shapes are coming up. But everyone complains that winters are too cold now and you want to tell them: Look here, when you use too much concrete and glass – trying to replicate Delhi architecture -- you can’t expect the cosy warmth of a Kashmiri home.

And it results in Water wars of a different kind. I first noticed the desperation when we drove to the Manasbal Lake. There are tiny picaresque villages on the way. The narrow pot-holed road is lined with beautiful orchards full of red, juicy fruit, ready to be plucked. At a bend in the road, near a hamlet called Poshwari [meaning flower meadow – no flowers though], we met with villagers, who were blocking the road. They told us that we cannot go further up because they are protesting the acute water shortage in their area. No mini-bus, car or scooter was allowed to pass. Only the occasional security vehicle whizzed past, because nobody dares stop the ‘military’. The villagers were pretty animated and no excuses worked. So we parked our car to one side and waited.

I knew all my media accreditations – that usually allow me an entry to the Prime ministers’ garden in Delhi -- won’t work with these folks. So I warmed upto a few protesting guys. Why are you troubling people like this? I asked. “Jinab, they shot back [That native naïve way of addressing anyone dressed in city garb] we have resorted to this extreme step because we don’t have a drop of water to drink”. Our women walk five miles to fetch a pail of water and all we can do is sit and watch helplessly. “We couldn’t even take a bath on the Eid day,” a young man added for effect. I noticed dandruff on his shoulder; I guess he was not exaggerating. Do you think anyone will take notice of your peaceful sit-in? I questioned an old man who was snorting his tobacco. “We don’t know – Jinab – but what else can we do. We have tried everything possible,” he said with an exasperated expression.

We finally made our way through the melee but I felt bad for the poor guys. It is hard life for them. We live in a world of contrasts, I often tell myself. Bottled mineral water and 24 hour water supply for some – me included – and nary a drop to drink for others.

[My pals in the US drink Evian water. Direct from Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lake Geneva, a close friend remarked last month].

I broached the issue with a top tourism officer – incharge of Manasbal waterways. Though the guy was smart and knew quite a bit about water sports, he gave me that amused look as I raised the topic. You know Sam, he went on in an avuncular fashion, you are a financial journalist, how can you can’t understand this local, petty stuff. These villagers are illiterate, uncouth and they don’t understand the water schemes the government launches for them from time to time. I couldn’t buy his government-like argument. It was a typical passing-the-buck and blaming-the-aggrieved answer. I looked on.

Two days before I took a flight to Delhi, I went to see Tanseer’s [best buddy] folks. I hired a Tonga [horse carriage, good old way] and we rode off. About half a kilometer from my destination, we were signalled to stop. People were furiously pelting stones at vehicles and the Tonga-Walla [Carriage driver] thought the horse might bolt. I got down and walked the remaining distance. I thought it was a usual demonstration against the security forces but it turned out to be a water protest. This time in the heart of a major township. I am sure the crowd was dispersed some time soon because the gathering was not around when I returned. I am sure no one heard them, let alone the authorities.

Back in Delhi, as I sat covering an international event in a five star hotel days later, I asked for some water. As I waited for the maitre d'hotel to bring me water, I casually asked a second attendant for water. Two bottles of Himmelsberger arrived in the next one minute. German water. The extravagance of our lives. I thought about the peasants in that lovely flower meadow. I know no one ever took care of their necessity.

Villagers blocking the road at Poshwari, Kashmir [Mobile Pic]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Le Théâtre de l'Absurde

Events in Pakistan are flickering at an amazing speed. Every single day we have new developments from the theater of the absurd. Thursday saw ‘tight’ buddy Bush calling Prez Musharraf -- finally after more than 100 hours of the declaration of emergency. On Friday it became clear that Benazir -- the great elocutionist -- has effectively taken over the mantle on behalf of her democracy-starved countrymen and women [Those at CNN and Fox can’t stop praising her]. To start with, she has begun to tie her head scarf more securely now. She addressed her nation [a la Mush style] on Pakistan TV, because diabolical Mush didn’t let her step out of her Islamabad home. Actually the national TV showed a still picture of her, while her audio played in the background. In reality Ms Bhutto was addressing a handful of supporters outside her barricaded, barbed home – after the government thwarted all efforts for a march to Rawalpindi – the Military base of Pakistan – to lead a public rally.

In the evening the white house spokesperson was asking Pakistan to allow Ms Bhutto to travel freely. How it reeks of an ancient theatre? Allow Miss Bhutto to criss-cross the country! How about those mad-caps on prowl for her? They want to get her, we all know that. Right? US, it seems, has finally decided that Mush alone can’t pull it off for them. So they would need to back Benazir. I don’t think any other reason why a political figure -- under martial law -- would be allowed to say all kinds of nasty things against the Prez on PTV. Live! Time, my fave political magazine, puts it rather subtly, ‘The local-language press — generally cynical and conspiracy-minded — grumble about the theatrics of the whole event, pointing out the lack of visible grass roots support for Bhutto in both Islamabad and Rawalpindi’. Something is cooking, for sure.

The belated phone call from Bush actually seems to be working. Prez Musharraf said day before that elections will be held before Feb 15, as per the original plan. The cornered fox also admitted that he will ask his designer to stop making his military uniforms [which he doesn’t wear anymore] after the friendly supreme court validates [invalidation isn’t an option with them, now] his second term win. Automatically the constitution will be restored. That assurance seems to be placating Bush and his deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who – in turn -- called Mush ‘indispensable’ last night. Miss Bhutto, since she is a highly qualified lady, understands that ‘indispensable’ means vital. Yet she would continue to make more noise. That is a little game of politics they teach you at Oxford. Miss Bhutto has been its alumnus. It is about her own relevance.

As for other players, Judge Iftikar Chowdary has been cooped, like Napoleon -- protector of the confederation of the Rhine at Saint Helena. His daughter was yesterday not let out to even sit for her exams. The ultraists are detonating themselves in the hills these days, outside government facilities and the queue to paradise is swelling, as reports suggest. Some of them are on prowl in the military town of Rawalpindi, if the police boss is to be believed [waiting for that pro-west female to come out in the open]. The media is reporting fine. At least the online media looks free. I get my daily dose of happenings in that country from the Pakistani online English press, which is largely accurate and not heavily censored, as one would imagine. Despite all western papers, in story upon story, reminding us that US bankrolled [$10 billion] Pakistan in the last 7 years -- to fight their war, to stitch their flawed policy tatters and to send Pakistani army in the restive tribal belts, for the first time in history to kill their own folks [They don’t tell you that, silly].

Going by the steady flow, the next few weeks are going to be more eventful. We can envisage more hair-raising acts in this ongoing drama. Nawaz – never to be left behind – may attempt something exciting. Benazir will continue to amuse. The Judge with a grudge is expected to say something sensational. Imran Khan, the born-again Muslim [biggety and no mass appeal] might send more emails from his hide-out to his estranged wife. The mad-gang would continue to blow their heads and capture more police posts in the mountains. Fazlullah [Radio-mullah] broadcasts from his private FM, calling for Sharia, could be available to more households. And the US will publicly make all the correct sermons, while privately continue to shape events in their outpost – Pakistan.

Updates to continue.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Little world of ours

The wafer cover was prominent by its duskish color from under the crystal clear waters. Kashmir looks Delphic in fall and the potato chip bag thrown into the Manasbal Lake -- perhaps by a pack of tourists -- portends the extend to which forces of globalization have permeated us. Our surroundings. No shade of God’s green earth is sheltered from its ugly left-over. And our attitute to it has been rather sloppy. We seem to be in some sort of a neurotic love affair with its incessant, grabby pull.

Everything is nicely packaged. In little covers. Small boxes, cones and smart cans. Frankly, I don’t wish to throw some of these peel-offs, at times. The consumer fare is made available to us from the biggest metros to the smallest hamlets in Kashmir, where ordinary folks often think that a certain surname will make them superior to everyone else. And then they happily gulp more of the tangy juice and toss the wrappers on roadside. Carelessly.

Christened ‘New India Aeroplane’ the boat that I took, with my pals, had its termite-eaten roof, nicely covered in an Airtel [that’s Worldtel’s India version] canvas. The boatman’s cell phone kept on ringing and the little boat had to be stopped two times, while he took his calls. In reality everyone seems busy on his/her lucky possession [a sleek, high-end cell phone] in Kashmir. They even touch it from time to time -- in their pocket -- to ensure if it is still there. What is your cell phone model, eh?… is a very standard query. I’d to know mine to be ready with a standard response. Long live Nokia!

The mania has gripped all. You have cell phones suddenly clanking in mosques, in the middle of a prayer, in funerals and most irritatingly, in the middle of a conversation [what is buzzer mode]. Etiquettes, if there are any, are melting away, much like good old socializing. You seem to be chatting away with someone and suddenly he pulls the magic brick from his pocket and punches in something. And puts it back. You are completely irrelevant but you are supposed to take that in your stride. For the sake of Globalization. At the altar of manners.

All along the scenic road to hills, you find beautiful humps of golden crop with a buttery sun in the backdrop. The streak is broken only by Shahrukh Khan [selling airtime to the natives] slumped on a king-size chair, a number of times, with a mischievous grin on his 42 year old face. The beautiful fields with hard working peasants in them toiling away appear diametrically contrasting to the billboard. While the villagers thrash the autumn crop, SRK doltishly looks like one of those old world zamindars [landlord], overlooking his tenants.

People appear a lot rich to me in Kashmir. I don’t squeak much as long as they are prosperous and can afford great gadgets. I must admit that I mostly know people from my own social strata and they look blest. They talk about cars, master plans, local politics, plasma TVs and of course religion. However, I feel that most people living on the fringes and in the countryside are miserable. They are left behind while the grabby train has moved on.

I think the potato wafer is still there, under the clear waters of countryside Kashmir. The Lays chips company, Frito-Lay, was founded in1932 by Herman Lay in Nashville, Tennessee, US. The city is located on the banks of Cumberland river. Gliding in Manasbal, this fall and chancing across the Lays wafer in its depths made me think about Cumberland. I tried to connect the dots. Small world, alright. We live in a global village, full of consumerist stuff, I wondered.

The boatman’s cell rang just in time to break my drift.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Update: General cracks the whip

The squeeze has begun. Pakistan is under de-facto martial law. A string of harsh laws, as expected, have been enforced. A new bunch of friendlier justices have already taken oath. Most of the misbehaving crowd [lawyers like Aitzaz Ahsan, politicians like the ex- playboy Imran Khan, Nawaz’s top man Javaid Hashmi, Human rights activist Asma Jehangir et al] have been silenced. Phone lines cut and outer doors locked. With an elite flock of Pakistani army regulars on guard, not even the milkman’s bicycle can make it to these blokes.

It is now dawning upon the Pakistan media that they have been asked by a tough school headmaster to shut their traps up or else....! The Press can no longer go about saying the unspeakable. It is gagged. Officially. Sample this:

As per the new law “No printer, publisher or editor shall print or publish” any material that consist of photographs of suicide bombers, terrorists, bodies of victims of terrorist activities, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and any other thing, which may, in any way, promote aid or abet terrorist activities or terrorism, or their graphic and printed representation based on sectarianism and ethnicity or racialism.

Non-compliance of the new curbs is subject to discontinuation of newspaper publication for up to 30 days, and in case of television channels up to three years of jail and 10 million fine or both will be imposed on the broadcast media licensee or its representative and their equipment and premises will be seized.

The media has also been restrained from publishing any material that is likely to jeopardize or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.

And didn't we alreday foresee something! Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell [expectedly] said the emergency declaration "does not impact our military support of Pakistan" or its efforts in the war on terror.



The excitement is over. Pakistan is finally under a state of emergency. It had been on cards for quite some time but mid-morning calls from Condy Rice -- in the past -- procrastinated the announcement. I reckon, Mush could hold it no more. Permission from DC came in the end. A public statement by White House [official] can safely be ignored. The military has completely taken over now, as I post [18:30 IST], while the constitution has been put under an animated suspension.

Fundamental rights may go out of the window. That is often the first causality in such a scenario. The judiciary will now be effectively muzzled and the freshly active political parties will go back to their cocoon. Media would be put on a tight leash. The all-powerful Pakistan army is now expected to flex its muscles and a heavy crack down on the gun-totting bad-guys is imminent.

Mush is shortly expected to address the nation explaining reasons for imposition of emergency. I think a new temporary constitution called provisional constitutional order (PCO) will come into effect. It would replace the original constitution of Pakistan. Under Pakistani law, emergency can be imposed only when the security of the country is under threat. The PCO gives sweeping powers to the Prez.

Looks like Mush took the extreme step because Pakistan was fast slipping into anarchy. Extremists were on the prowl. Everywhere. They first attacked Benazir’s convoy, killing 150. Then they struck near the Prez house, another daring suicide attack. Emboldened, a few days later they ripped apart an air force bus, killing a dozen officers. An antiquated radical culture was taking root. Balochistan is on boil. The insurgency in the volatile NWPF is spearheaded by the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), a banned Islamic organization. In Swat, armed tribals have been parading captured Pakistani troops like prized trophies. This was clearly sending a wrong signal in the command and control.

As if it was not enough, an increasingly active judiciary, which has been looking into the petitions filed against Mush’s re-run for presidency was making more trouble for him. The Supreme Court was expected to deliver a verdict validating/invalidating his second term as Prez in the next couple of days. Also the much talked about American backed deal with Ms Bhutto, it now appears, was not working out.

As we wait for a word from Mush, Democracy in Pakistan has been put on the backburner. The activist CJ of Pakistan’s Supreme Court can now water his manicured lawns. A new CJ may be sworn in any moment. Nawaz can stay put in the Jeddah palace. The radical blokes in the NWFP should now gear up for a tough, long, bloody fight including aerial attacks [complete with laser guided precision bombs] with the Pakistan military.

Reports are coming in that Benazir is on her way back to Pakistan from Dubai where she had gone to see her family. The tribals, calling for imposition of Sharia [Religious rule] in the sensitive Swat, have a visceral hatred for both Bhutto and Mush, whom they see as America's gophers.

Can Mush tame the ultraists? Does the deal with Bhutto still hold? Pakistani politics, as ever, remains ever so unpredictable. Bizzare.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't Tase me, bro

Just two days after it was yelled out in a University of Florida lecture hall, "Don't Tase Me, Bro!" has become the newest cultural touchstone of our pop-cultural lexicon.

So what did you think. The police [those fat, corpulent, dull-looking chaps] manhandle in India only. They do it all over. For no great rhyme or reason. Including the US.

For those of you who've been on vacation on a Greek Island, or are just logging onto your computer from a remote location in China, the incident sparking the worldwide uproar is the Monday arrest and tasering of Andrew Meyer, a University of Florida student.

Meyer barged in line to harangue Massachusetts senator John Kerry during a campus talk that day. The student refused to pipe down after being asked to by the forum's organizers, and after he carried on pressing Kerry for answers, police hauled him off. They forced him to the ground, and tasered him. [Sourced: WB Network]

In the whole ruckus, the student yelled, rather haplessly: Don't tase me, bro.

That was it. The word spread. It is a rage. It is all over. Sample this:

  • The term hovered between 9th and 11th place as the most searched for term on Google for Wednesday, according to Google Trends.
  • The above video has been the number 1 Viral Video for the past 24 hours, according to Unruly Media, an online marketing firm in London that tracks viral video activity on the Web. The Meyer arrest video has received 2.6 million views and almost 40,000 new comments since Monday.
  • In contrast, the much-talked about John Edwards' rebuttal to President Bush's progress report on the Iraq war received 114 thousand views and 43 new posts.
  • Many of the leading opinion shapers on both the left and the right, as well as newspaper blogs, offered their thoughts and insights on the incident.
  • Television pundits across the dial offered their opinions, and those opinions were archived for posterity on YouTube.
  • Several enterprising individuals have even snapped up variations of the spelling of the phrase as Web addresses. One of them points to a Wikipedia entry for the University of Florida.
  • Mashups are proliferating on the Web.
  • A couple of t-shirt designs, and bumper stickers have emerged.
  • Dozens of people have felt compelled to record their own video responses in a YouTube forum discussion on the matter.

A fast digital world, bro.


Monday, October 29, 2007

A Mighty Heart

Genre: Non-Fiction Ratings 5/5
If International affairs give you a kick, then go catch ‘A Mighty Heart’.

It is a powerful movie based on naked truth. The film documents the events revolving round the kidnapping and subsequent killing of the Wall Street Journal, South Asia Bureau chief Daniel Pearl while reporting for a story in Pakistan. This was the time when the US was just beginning to flex its muscle in response to the daring attacks of 9/11.

The best part about the narrative is that it is factually and truthfully told. I think that is going to be the film’s USP and will eventually work for it. Angelina Jolie as a heavily pregnant Mariane, Daniel’s wife is at her career best. Expect an academy nomination for her stellar, real-life performance.

Michael Winterbottom’s casting crew makes a fascinating line-up. Indian actors like Irrfan Khan are first-rate. And although we already know Daniel’s fate -- he was beheaded, with the gruesome execution documented on tape -- the narrative still grips us with its frantic editing patterns and a restless, quasi-documentary approach. The hand-held, digital-video camerawork lends a certain heat-of-the moment immediacy to the proceedings, as a broadsheet puts it.

Though many people in conservative circles still believe that Daniel Pearl was CIA, I never trust such clap-trap. I know everything does not necessarily have to be spooky and this spy-thing is largely cliché. It is the easiest and most stupid label people stick on each other, in hostile places. Indian spies, ISI, Mossad, KGB. There is a something mischievously oddball about it.

The film is based on Mariane Pearl's first-hand published account of the dramatic events following her husband's disappearance. I especially liked the film-maker's focus on the Pearl maid's kid as the undersong. Although no ways connected to the main motif, the infant is constantly flickering across the screen, walking in between the labyrinth of wires that the FBI and Pakistani intelligence guys set around the Pearl home in Karachi. The innocent moments offer visual interludes in an otherwise intense movie.

The film is an eye-opener in many ways. It talks about the dangers of modern extremism, the cunning of it. A mighty heart underlines the pressures under which investigating agencies operate and how international relations can go askew in a matter of minutes.

We also learn about the perils of new age journalism, not withstanding its sheer romanticism. AMH subtly tells all of it, very originally, very candidly. Reminds me of Aldous Huxley, 'Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad'.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Autumn Mosaic

Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all. ~ Stanley Horowitz

Kashmir looks stunning in fall. I pity that Delhi knows nothing of Autumn. I noticed everything looked russet from the tiny window of my plane as we neared the solider-infested Srinagar airport. The fields appeared like large chocolates with little dried apricots thrown in from crease to crease. Only later did I learn that the apricots were actually rice crop artistically thatched away in small chalet like formations. It was so Kashmir. So beautiful.

Two days to Eid [That is what Diwali means in Delhi and Christmas in London]. Everything was sepia toned with faith clearly up on everyone’s right sleeve. Since my chums traveled with me, I had to stop over at a Srinagar mosque for mandatory Friday prayers. The mosque was stunning. It had wooden panels, intricate patterns on its roof and a very repetitive Imam [preacher], whom was extolling upon believers to believe more and warning the fickle-minded with hellfire. I was more interested in the masjid patterning than his hybrid Kashmiri-Urdu sermon. Wonder why people feel this compelling need to be bi-lingual in a place where people perfectly understand Kashmiri.

Everyone wanted the Eid on Saturday. The mood was overwhelmingly festive. Alas the crescent didn’t show up. That is a pre-condition to every major Islamic festival. So it was postponed to Sunday. Most were dandered up. My kid sis was a shade dejected, I thought. Earlier that day the repetitive Imam had actually congratulated people for the Saturday Eid. I was impishly contemplating his distemper at this divine delay.

On the D-day I walked to the Eid-mass with my gang. Must have been about 7000 people for the open air Namaz. Clad in crisp Pathani dresses, good-looking people with sharp features, lined up in endless rows. It had a certain religious discipline to it that is often not prevalent in Kashmir. Post-Namaz [which takes all of five minutes], people greet each other with their broadest smiles. They don’t hug canonically three times like their co-religionists in other parts of India. Kashmiris don't even don skull-caps frequently, which are so common elsewhere in India. I forgot to add that most of them actually consider themselves quite distinct from Indian Muslims.

A small group of boys [7-8 of them] shouted slogans atop a moving mini-bus on the way home. Not many people agree on the distinction betwixt church and polity. Azadi [Freedom]. A lone cop looked away. The ubiquitous war-cry. Inspiring but inane. Empty of any purpose. The minibus guys were carefully bending over at places where the electricity cables hung low. Lest their irrational exuberance electrocutes them instantly and cuts short the march to freedom.

The mornings and evenings remained dreary and cold throughout my stay. The chill confuses you. It is warm in the afternoons though. I lunched with folks. It was not only delectable but satiating. Peaceful.

More posts to follow. Watch this space.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gore's day

Je suis retourné.

And before I begin scrawling about all my far-out and freakish adventures in Kashmir, I can’t help but briefly comment on the vicissitudes of our little planet. Many things transpired in the interim period – which has been a little over 10 days. Let's quickly catch up with it. Glad tidings first. Al-Gore, my fav US politician bagged the Nobel Peace Prize. I exulted for one whole hour, as I heard my Dad’s old transistor broadcasting the slice of news. Naturally I couldn’t share my joy with anyone. Not many know about the Harvard-tutored Al-Gore and his climate change stance in Kashmir. Most people think Gore means a tasty water-nut, you find in the Dal Lake. An inconvenient truth yeah. That’s the Oscar winning documentary Al-Gore made and went screening around the world, like an intense film-maker. It won him laurels and earned him his stripes.

I watched the docu along with pals, as soon as it came. It was as unnerving as it was fascinating. Not only does it shake you to the horrors of global climate shift patterns, it makes you reflect deeply why it is so topical to do more about its nasty outcome. The big corporates may appear seething – because they are the biggest polluters – and Bush might further sulk – because of his administration’s non-serious approach to the climate crisis – but Al-Gore appears to have finally made it. [Gore was declared the original Prez elect in US in 2000 before a controversial Supreme Court ruling went in W’s favor. Alas that judgment led to anointing an ignorant farmer from Texas, whose sole claim to fame was his Dad’s riches. We all know what the twerp did in the years to come].

In deciding to award the prestigious Nobel Prize to a widely respected Al-Gore, the Norwegian committee has clearly made its point. The world needs guys who care and protect. Not, of course, people who are bent on destroying everything worthy.

Nobel Prize committee: [Al-Gore gets the prize for his] efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.



Friday, October 12, 2007

Happy Eid

This October,
That love weighs more than gold!

I am taking a sabbatical. For a little over one week. It is the season of perpetual hope. With the festive season around the corner, I hope merriment is not too far. It is Eid. I'm expecting some shindig.

I shall see you all, soon.

Sameer :)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

As the rain set in

For what is it to die,
But to stand in the sun and melt into the wind?
~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

She was barely 32. Youthful, vivacious, inartificial. We would fondly call her baby. I remember when she was married into my neighbors; we would all kid around with her. ‘My dad got this for me from Nepal’, she said, stressing Nepal. That was ammunition for us – Me, Suhail, Salah (who had spent a large part of life in Europe and US). ‘Yeah, Nepal, must be pretty expensive’ Salah remarked rather mischievously. She nodded, unmindful of our naughty ways. I still recall the glint in her eye. It was pure innocence.

Her dad was a colonel. Uncle died last year. Baby was a military kid in many ways. Upright, honest and impeccable. She was always perky. However I mostly admired her for her naivety. ‘You bring my lil sonny lovely toys from Delhi, I am truly indebted,’ she would say in her characteristic humility. Now where do you find people, who reciprocate and value love? Baby was really one-of-a-kind.

A beautiful girl, who was also god-fearing. And full of life until death caught up with her. She got some medical problem, which -- as my doctor buddy in the US tells me -- has no real chance of leading to a premature death in the modern times. However, Kashmir is a godforsaken land, notwithstanding its glorified beauty, where doctors – with inadequate contraptions -- routinely fail to establish such symptoms.

On Oct 9, the day preceding the holiest Islamic night – Shab-e-Qadr – [that means beatification, going by the native logic], Baby breathed her last in her new home. Still beautiful, still young, not at all deserving to die. No one knows whether death is really a blessing or curse, but it reminds you that we can’t take life for granted.



Monday, October 08, 2007

Pakistan Scene I, Act II

Play: Waltz of the warriors
Primary Players
Musharraf: King and the kingmaker
Be-Nazir: A beautiful but ambitious damsel
Kiyani: A knight errant
Bush : Big brother is watching

Supreme Court: To divvy out a key verdict
Godmen: Howling and sneering but no one is listening
Gunmen: Running mad and fuming
Press: Effectively gagged; occassional jeers

Freedom is a saddled mustang -- beautiful, powerful but reined in. ~ SSB

The stage is all set. Curtains are being re-tailored. Pakistan, our ineluctable naughty neighbor is on the verge of creating a new order, which may shape its destiny in the times to come. Musharraf, the wily General has won the Prez poll. Oh, and it was very democratic. He went to the same senate and assemblies [unlawfully] – which were elected under him in 2002 – and no brownies for guessing how many votes his closest opponent got. Two [Poor, old boy Justice Wajihuddin]. Mush lapped an impresive 671. The Islamic parties along with Nawaz’s PML boycotted the polls. They anyways stood no great chance. Alsorans. Now the supreme court of Pakistan will decide on Oct 17, whether the poll was valid.

There is a rider though: If it okays the win, the SC will live to adjudicate more cases. In case they decide otherwise, [which is unlikely] expect a US backed military takeover [Applying the principle: Obeying dictators stay; the non-assenting hang]. The white house spokesperson Scott Stanzel would have a one-liner ready: Internal matter of Pakistan. So simple. Fundamental rights will go out of the window. Honorable Justices can then take a long walk, with no work. No messenger of the Armageddon, I hope democracy prevails in Pakistan. Diminished-deficient-democracy.

Politics is no rocket science but it could involve complex practicals. Last week, Musharraf signed a national reconciliation ordinance [they are good at coining these terms….Chief executive, accountability bureau et al] thereby absolving Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and other favorable politicians, of all corruption charges — a move that has been criticized by many. Bhutto, a one-time rival, termed as a security risk, previously by Musharraf, is now seen as a major partner in the future government to be formed under the newly declared but yet-uncrowned king. Exigencies of real politic, as they say. Nothing is perpetually fixed. There are no permanent friends or foes.

While we saw Nawaz being bundled back to -- where he belonged [using the Mush expression], we now have Madame eminence busy packing her designer bags to Pakistan. Mohtarma Bhutto returns Oct 18. She might have a slightly shady past but the lady oozes charm. Those at CNN and BBC fall for her. The mango orchards of Larkana turn crimson, as the 'Daughter of the East' descends. No Pakistani politician worth his salt – for instance -- can match her pizzazz. Oxford-Harvard educated, armed with twin degrees in political science and economics, Bhutto is suave, polished and blessed with an amazing pedigree. [Dad: Prez/PM/Martyr/Oxford-Univ of Berkeley product; Grand-dad knighted by the Queen of England/Dewan of Junagarh; Ms Bhutto has just sent her sonny Bilawar to Oxford....and the legacy continues]

Supremely conscious of her image, you can expect Benazir to turn up -- in Pakistan -- in great style. Versace sandals, a Dior bag in hand, a Guy Laroche pettycoat firmly buttoned up, she looks geared up to lord over 150 million believers. A female! Difficult to stomach for many. The mullahs are riled, heads filled with nothing but rage. Taliban has started issuing threats but that won’t deter Pakistan’s first family in absentia from returning. Bhutto’s are to Pakistan what Gandhi’s are to India and Kennedy’s to the US. Flawed but tragic and regal, thus heroic.

While Pervez may soon doff his uniform and slip into those smart Shervani’s, he has taken utmost care to choose his successor in the army. That is called cherry-picking. Another Pervez replaces him. Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. Musharraf loyalist, Punjabi, stammerer, chain smoker, moderate, close to Miss Bhutto [military advisor during her PM days], palsy but tough. Kiyani, as is the case with Bhutto, was finalized after an official stamp from the US of A. Only liberal, accommodating guys make the cut. The new spy boss at the powerful and deadly ISI is another Mush bloke, Gen Tariq Majeed. That completes the equation for you.

Wait for the third week of October. The drama is expected to play out as per the agreed script. Unless the judiciary decides to add a flaky line or two. We know what happens next.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hostile Hearts

In Gaza, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the town of Beit Hanoun on Wednesday. A shell was fired toward a group of people between two houses, killing four, hospital doctors said. The total death toll in two days is 11, mostly civilians.
~ Agence France-Presse (AFP) September 27, 2007.

There is no letting up in the world’s most intense, passionate, well-entrenched, supported, hated, divisive, gruesome continuous conflict. By all accounts it is only exacerbating. Israel, the grizzled bully pounding the poor Gazans – once again -- after declaring the territory ‘Hostile’. Conspicuously every time there is a corruption charge against an Israeli leader [Ehud Olmert, the PM faces fraud charges currently] or a new thuggish defense minister wants to prove he is tough [Ex-PM and strongman Barak is Israel’s new Defense minister], the Palestinians end up paying the high price. Recently when Moshe Katsav [former Israel President] left office in disgrace after facing rape charges; for once there was no threat of a diabolical Israeli jet ravaging a few dozen Palestinian villages. The President’s post is thankfully symbolic in Israel.

One is forced to let out a gasp. Is it the same set of people, whose supporters swooped upon the visiting Iranian Prez in US, only two days back, grilling him for questioning Holocaust? My buddy – whom I spoke to last night in New York – interpreted it thus: Sam, “This community [Jewish] has suffered a lot during the run up to WW-II. One cannot afford to say that we need to revise Holocaust. It has been genocide.” Period.

My friend was perhaps being only geo-politically realistic. In the US they call it political realism. But should this realism provide a smokescreen to Israel to perpetuate wanton bloodshed in Palestine. The neoclassical realists of the world perhaps need to explain: Why does it not amount to genocide when the same touch-me-nots trample upon other people’s dignity, in full world attention and kill at will? May be we could dub it petite genocide, so that the Europeans may also understand.

A week back the Zionist state decided to declare Gaza hostile [Transliterated it means we are gonna go in and kill these folks and since we know no one can object, we just thought we should inform, lest the sudden increase of body count comes as a surprise]. Almost immediately Ms Rice [plastic smile always intact] said that US will not abandon the innocent Palestinians. [Source: CBS] Madame knew what was coming and added that albeit Hamas is an enemy to US also, the poor Gazans won’t be forsaken. In less than a week, Israel has cut electricity, water, communication and fuel supplies to the coastal strip. Close to a dozen people have already lost their lives. Palestinians have been forsaken, yet again. After all it is the holy land, where Jesus of Nazareth was also forsaken on the cross, more than 2000 years ago. No surprises here.

The current Israeli onslaught, we are told, is the result of firing of home made Qasam rockets into Israel from Gaza. Brazenly provocative. The Institute for Middle East Understanding says that the culmination of five months of killing by Israeli soldiers saw the number of dead so far at 382 Palestinians with 1,229 injured. In the same period, Palestinian rocket fire killed one Israeli. In the flawed arithmetic’s of the modern, civilized world, firing homemade rockets [which create a psychological scare to Israeli’s living near the Palestinian border], is terrorism. Severely punishing the Gazan population by completely cutting it off from the outside world [for electing a democratic government in 2006, which Israel doesn't like] and forcing it into extreme poverty, making it humiliatingly dependent on international aid, is state policy.
Terrorism/State policy. Tomato Ketch-up/Guillotine.

As a young Palestinian told a foreign news agency recently, “We are helpless, tossing these rockets -- which we know won’t really harm them -- is our way of telling them: May you also lose sleep in some imaginary alarm”. That is like a werewolf lording around a field, pouncing on leverets, which knowing they can’t fight the carnivore, throw carrots at it, tied to rocks. Almost 1.5 million Palestinians have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.



Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The great Ivy debate

It is not everyday that the son of a poor cobbler wows the prestigious Ivy League. For starters the illustrious Columbia University – part of an elite panel of eight premier American universities where an admission makes you are the luckiest/snobbiest person on earth – decided to invite the polemic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmad-e-Nijad. It was in the spirit of the famed American tradition of free speech.

No sooner did Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger announce his decision, all hell broke loose. Yeah, you guessed it right. The right wing media. The neo-cons. Hard line hacks. Those shrill Jewish organizations. The world attention shifted base – from the annual UN general body meeting to the Columbia campus. That is not much of a distance – Both UN HQs and Columbia are in NY -- but suddenly no one was interested in what those boring heads of states cared to say. A new stage was already set.

It was a game of brinkmanship. The atmosphere was clearly charged. Ahmadenijad came. The Columbia president was harsh in his introductory remarks. The protesters hollered. A frenzied media scanned every single pause and rune of the Iranian leader. Bollinger bollixed it up in the very beginning. He called Ahmadenijad intellectually bereft, faffing the fact that the Prez was a topper in academics and holds a doctorate in transportation engineering. In the next 40 minutes Ahmadenijad held Columbia -- and rest of the world -- captive and proved he ain't no simpleton. Ahmadenijad spoke candidly from the pulpit of America's highest academic atelier, much to the chagrin of White House, Israel Lobby and the distempered neo-con gang. And he made the Ivy dons look like complete fools.

If it was a battle of PR, the Iranians won Round-I. You can make that out from a quick gleaning of the US media. The rightwingers are clearly on backfoot, going to the extend of using swear words. [They often do that -- harass at the consecrated alter of big media, don't they] Bollinger, who is under much fire for giving the platform to Ahmadenijad began by saying, “Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." He continued on with a litany of many of the most hot-button talking points used most often by neocon hacks but not at all proven and accepted as gospel throughout academia, or the world at large. Reading from a carefully prepared text, Lee looked like a petty, rude host and nothing more than a sidekick of the loud zionist mill.

Should Ahmadenijad have been invited to and allowed to speak at Columbia? Well, the guy is not without baggage. He has made loony, wild statements in the past but that doesn't make him an outcast. After all Bush Jr lied to his country about going to war with Iraq. Of course Mr Denijad should have been invited. The jeers come in because of Lee Bollinger's performance in berating the invited speaker. Iranian President Ahmadenijad was invited to speak. The whole affair looked in the end, and believe me this is the way it will play out in the Arab media and the Middle East as a whole, like Ahmadenijad played the Americans like fools. Ahmadenijad will be able to show how he manipulated the vaunted American Press and he will be quite correct.

Mildly chafing the Columbia dean, before begining his speech, the Prez said that 'Lee insulted the audience's intelligence because he tried to innoculate them without even listening to what I have to say'. "In universities we let people make their own opinions," he said to an applause [from a mostly hostile gathering].

Asked about Holocaust, he remarked, "Granted this happened, [but] what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?" Why should you deprive them of what is rigtfully theirs. When pressed on about why he wanted its revision, Ahmadenijad was categorical," Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is finished, forever done? Can we close the books for good on a historical event? There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done. Why should we stop research at all? Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge? You shouldn't ask me why I'm asking questions. You should ask yourselves why you think that that's questionable? Why do you want to stop the progress of science and research? Do you ever take what's known as absolute in physics? We had principles in mathematics that were granted to be absolute for over 800 years. But new science has gotten rid of those absolutisms. There has been more research on physics than it has on the Holocaust, but we still continue to do research on physics. There is nothing wrong with doing it.

Not exactly the best of ideas but clearly worth a thought. Ahmadenijad was challenged by another audience member that Amnesty International figures showed that people were executed in Iran this year. "Don't you have capital punishment in the United States? You do too. You inject poison, we hang those on the death row, he remarked. Simple. The student quickly slunk back in his chair. What happens is that when countries [read US] disagree with other countries [read Iran], they spread these lies, [which are nothing but lies] Ahmadenijad added for a good measure. Mostly the Iranian Prez was impressive. Only once in response to a question about gays in Iran, he appeared weak. “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who told you that we have it.” All one can say to Ahmadenijad is "Sir, of course there are gay people in your country" - but according to every known measure, you want to hide them. Please stop giving such holier-than-thou answers.

In hindsight, Columbia University was right in inviting Ahmadenijad; we need to see these people – first hand -- because clearly, we cannot hope to ever get real information about them from the folks currently in power in the US. But Columbia suffered a black eye in this face off because of the broadside issued by Bollinger prior to Ahmadenijad’s speech. Bollinger had the entire United States reputation in his hands. He elected to make the Americans look like school children trying to score quick points to stay in the game.

As a parting shot, Ahmadenijad quipped "From this platform, I invite Columbia faculty members and students to come and visit Iran, to speak with our university students. You're officially invited and welcome. There are over 400 universities in our country. And you can choose whichever you want to go and visit. We'll give you the platform. We will have our students sit there and listen to you, speak with you, hear what you have to say. We'll respect you 100 percent. It is our culture." Columbia was rent with cheers. An ovation followed. It was the final mortification of Bollinger, albeit in a more dignified, cultured way.

And instead the despot that America loves to hate, because the big media told them so, Ahmadenijad looked more the gentleman.

Pic: Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Prez Iran

Ivy Debate -- Update

Expectedly the praise for the Iranian Prez is fulsome. Time, one of the world's most respected news magazines, writes in its latest issue:

Despite the harsh words of his host, Bollinger, Ahmadinejad stayed on message, appearing relaxed, reasonable, open, even charismatic.

[Though Bollinger called him] astonishingly uneducated....the event was a resounding victory for the Iranian president.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Art of Sitting

Every single time I cross over to Kashmir, the first thing I always espy is the natives' Art of Sitting. I don’t know if it is a purely cultural thing but it is unique. No other place have I bumped into people hunkering down on floor to rest. Or eat. Or watch TV. Or fight. Or laze. Or prattle. I’ve figured out that there are many things exclusive only to Kashmir. Outside of the dell, it is usual for people to sit on chairs (in government offices and lower middle class homes), on ergonomic furniture (in corporate offices and media cabins), on benches (in schools, they can also make you stand up), on davenports (in British style cottages), on sofas (in well to do urban Indian homes), upon couches (in Indian film industry and fashion houses), on beanbags (every call centre executive at home), on charpoys (rural Indian homes) and so on and so forth.

The regular rule only deviates in Kashmir, like so many other things. From civil service guys (there is no corporate or private counterpart – only Sarkari Naukri matters) to your neighborhood sweeper, everyone hunkers down on haunches (Sits on his/her lion) upon the floor. That is standard. It is romance wrapped in novel nostalgia. It’s also the first feel you get that I’m home.

I reckon the ‘Sitting thing’ came from nowhere in particular. Since world over -- I beg your pardon, I know that is an exaggeration but that’s what the locals believe -- Kashmir is the best mother Nature has to proffer, Kashmiris consider being closer to nature is a blessing. Squatting on floor makes you feel nearer to ground, hence closer to the elements. Water. Fire. Earth. The heaven is like a playground with nice homes, castles, trees laden with fruits but no chairs. How do you think the chair addicts can adjust? Someone suggested after a deep thought. Instantly I was tongue tied. You don’t reason innocence, daftness, romance.

Kashmiri homes have the most exquisite flooring you will come across anywhere in India. Beautiful carpets, woven with an old world expertise over many wintry days and endless cups of pink salty tea, adorn most houses. The flooring is complimented with similar pillows. These throw pillows have pillow slips usually matching the room sheeting. The floor plan in most homes is aesthetic. The area rugs often go well with the drapes, which are tradionally crewel. The crewel is another key import into Kashmir from central Asia – like Islam -- but in their characteristic bravado, the natives will make you believe that it is authentically Kashmiri. Crewel is at least a thousand years old. It was first used in the Bayeux Tapestry in Europe but don’t even attempt to explain it to the folks.

Sitting is folk magic. Legend has it that sitting is a magical act that connects the person who sits, with other persons, states or places where he sat. So every major event in Kashmir is celebrated while sitting. Births. Marriages. The groom sits on the floor, so does the bride. Children will mostly pore over their books at home while sitting. Vegetables are cut whilst sitting. Sweaters are knitted in the same fashion. Many elders never get up from the floor, as if fastened. You eat while sitting. Naturally you pee like that. Everyone and his neighbor sit cross-legged. Tailor-style. Since all matters are discussed – threadbare – sitting, most policy decisions are taken from the soil. While sitting.

I was browsing through an online Kashmiri daily today. A visiting European Union delegation calling on the separatist leader Malik Yasin was hunkered down on the floor along with him in a picture.

True to its reputation, I smirked.



A Kashmiri offers Namaz by the Dal lake, in Ramadhan