Monday, April 28, 2008

Salman, the Salmon

Fact: Salman Rushdie is immensely overrated.

I find Salman Rushdie nothing more than a literary playboy. That he is a fine writer, I have not a dram of doubt about but I hate the way he is feted about in academic circles. The western fixation of hailing him as a fearless author par excellence is more political than scholarly. I understand why Indian news editors fall for him. One, because of Rushdie’s loathe-hate relationship with Islam [highly fashionable in post cold-war], he gives them great news-bites. Two, he has been in many ways the first of the major league home-born authors to catapult India to the International literary scene, with his highly readable Midnight’s children. Alas, apart from that one brilliant tome, Salman has written nothing extraordinary.

Needlessly, among all postwar writers, nobody has been more over praised than Rushdie. I, for once, have read most of his works. Massive portions of Salman are either uninspiring or inescapably boring. I however would be compelled to echo the opinion that the subjects of Rushdie's books are almost always fascinating, but his narrative has no real depth. John Updike perhaps sums him the best in the New Yorker: Rushdie as a literary performer suffers, I think, from being not just an author but a cause célèbre and a free-speech martyr, thanks to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. [What they will never tell you is that soon after the fatwa 44 out of the 45 countries of the Islamic congress called the fatwa illegal]

In essence Salman Rushdie is a product of his times. He was lucky after the publication of his stunning second novel ‘Midnight’s children’ and rode the waves of literary fashion. That fetched him a Booker. His first novel Grimus was largely ignored by critics and public alike. Shame, a book on Pakistan followed in 1983. It was mostly average. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987) was plain bad. The Satanic Verses generated a lot of heat in 1988. Death threats followed but the book had very poor literary merit. The Moor's Last Sigh came in 1995. The South African literature Nobel laureate JM Coetzee called it both palimpsesting [read confusing] and unoptimistic in a New York Times review.

Salman wrote The Ground beneath Her Feet in 1999. Pankaj Mishra, one of India’s most promising contemporary writers had this to say on The Ground beneath Her Feet: With its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudo-characters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground Beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world. Rushdie continued to dip his pen in the inkhorn and produce another unreadable in 2001. Fury. Subjective and thankfully slim. Next came Shalimar the Clown in 2005. A mix-bag of cliché. A poor half-hearted effort. Salman’s freshest produce is The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Olivia Cole dissects it in the UK’s independent. The prose, Olivia writes, is lackluster. Period. So while Midnight was a gem the rest of his oeuvre oscillates between mediocre to unreadable.

In between, because our ink-guzzler produced parchments of tolerable -- and intolerable --prose, the British government decided to knight him. I have no doubt in my head that the entire knighthood drama was a political event. Rushdie is a smooth operator. He possesses a mind matter that is part political, part literary. He supported [unlike most intellectuals] the US-UK illegal war on Iraq. No wonder Elizabeth II put her scepter on Rushdie’s bald head and uttered those magical words in her queenly voice: Rise Sir Salmon. [That is how they pronounce him: Salmon, which means a fish not his real name Salman, which is Arabic and means secure]. The flicker of the wand on the head was humbling, Salman said. The brilliant Tariq Ali correctly calls the likes of Rushdie belligerati. [Belligerent and literati]

Salman is still riding on the reputation of Midnight's Children, and the infamy afforded him by the fatwa. Most of his more controversial and mediocre books are not stocked in great numbers because there is no demand. Rushdie has been a has-been for two decades. To his credit, Salman Rushdie is a fairish Postmodernist writer because of the constant themes of coexistence on display in his many works. He aptly emphasizes the independence of local societies and human existence. That’s it. He is no genius.

The truth be said, I like his interplay of words, his tales, his magical realism. I abhor the shallowness, hypothticality and pretence of his canvas. I maintain he is Salman and not Salmon.

And he is hugely over-rated.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The importance of being Azad

I am not surprised at the recent outbursts of chief minister of J&K. He is perhaps only stating the obvious. Ghulam Nabi Azad has called Kashmiris corrupt. He says they feign fasting during Ramadan, a charge carried by Economic Times [Apr 20, 2008], a much respected newspaper published from New Delhi but subsequently denied by the CM’s office. Another salvo italicizes that a lot of people have amassed an awful lot of wealth, which is mostly ill-gotten and illegal. Azad adds that were he were to open these files [which are apparently lying on his table], most people would find themselves behind bars.

Truth be told, the chief minister has stated nothing utterly shocking. The Transparency International (TI), one of world’s leading Corruption Perception Indexes (CPI) -- in its 2007 report -- ranked JK, at number two, amongst Indian states, in terms of petty corruption. It is there for all to see. For many years now corruption has systematically ruined the state and pervaded onto its very moral fiber. Despite the Islamic faith, which everyone in the valley seems to carry on his/her sleeve, faithlessness hangs around their no-so-fair necks. From Taxi-drivers at Srinagar airport to the corpulent babu in the city civil secretariat, everyone is out to fleece you. So Azad is not entirely wrong to suggest what he is suggesting.

My problem emanates at another level. Rather than threatening to drop names and open some clandestine file, Azad should lead from the front and go ahead and open the damn files. Stem the rot. Book the offenders. Let those charged prove their innocence in the court of law. If found guilty their properties should be swiftly sealed off and auctioned. Rather than going on and on about the fabulous wealth that all Kashmiris have allegedly made during the militancy years, he should get cracking on bribery and graft. May be he can start from his own office in civil secretariat where everyone and is dog is thoroughly corrupt.

Rather than looking at the solution, which I am sure is not entirely unachievable, Azad is trying to be pontific. Does it not highlight Azad’s cynicism rather than his competence? Is he a local pope or an elected administrator? Or plain cynical. In hindsight all the King's men [read Delhi's cronies] become haughty, aloof and preacy once they reach Srinagar. They behave like satraps of Delhi's northern-most outpost.

Azad should just zip his mouth and stop scoring petty political brownies. He is mostly considered a rank outsider. Originally from a far-flung village Soti, in Kishtawar [that falls in Doda district of Jammu], he is nephew to the ex-director of education [Kashmir] G. R. Bhat. The old educationist -- because he disliked his surname or may be he was a poet of some stripe -- dropped Bhat and took the last name Azad. Ghulam Nabi followed suit. Azad has been outside the valley for more than three full decades. That explains the extend of his disconnect.

In reality most people in Kashmir struggle hard to make a living, just like any other Indian state. And not everyone is corrupt. You'll find honest, kind people like everywhere else. The malaise of corruption began in the violence years. An immediate side effect of the armed struggle was a systematic breakdown of the official machinery. The fear of law was simply gone. Vanished into thin air. In Kashmir – even in 2008 – people are really not too scared of cops. They are often referred to as Poonda – in a rather derogatory sense.

With their traditional avenues of income – tourism, farming, handicrafts -- dried up, and limited alternatives available, the ambitious kinds resorted to making a quick buck. The demographics had clearly changed by now. A majority of pro-India politicians and their lackeys and kin began the plunder. They stashed away large parts of the money that came from the government of India. The separatists – most of Hurriyet and ex-militant commanders and their stooges made hay with the easy money that Pakistan smuggled into Kashmir. Ordinary people spoliated each other.

Morality is herd instinct in the individual, Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker-philosopher averred in the 19th century. May be it holds true in the 21st century Kashmir. Indeed someone needs to step forward and tell the truth. Rip open the can of worms. But only words won’t help. Deeds are needed. Azad could be sincere but his efforts belie him. He comes from a party that is often called the fountainhead of corruption. It is full of sycophants and me-too’s. He has never talked about corruption in his own party. Isn’t he part of the appeasement polity? Isn’t he part of the same corrupt cliché’, notwithstanding his personal integrity? Why does he want the security forces in Kashmir to carry on with special powers till the year-end elections? [There is consensus emerging in the centre, calling for stripping some of the military’s more harsh powers in the state]. What will fundamentally change at the end of this year? Does he want a rigged election again? Isn’t then he too morally shallow?

In any case no state, like no home, is completely perfect. There are always problems areas. In our culture, as head of the family, a father would rather try to fix the problem because he has got the authority. He can criticize his folks, rap them, throw them out. But he won’t go about town saying my family is evil. My boys are bad and my wife is a compulsive liar.

And he cannot afford to say that he is immune because he has been away all the while.

Azad at 59 can’t afford to be insensitive to his compatriots.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cheers Carter

[Jimmy Carter at Arafat's tomb]

It may be purely symbolic but someone has got to make a beginning. Somewhere. I reckon Jimmy Carter’s meeting with Hamas will go a long way to break the proverbial ice in the often acrimonious history of hostility between Israel and Palestine. The journey of a thousand leagues, as they rightly say, begins with a single step. We must never neglect any work of peace within our reach, however small.

To work towards peace, it is important that all parties find a saddle. Sadly the violence in the middle-east has spawned intense heat and hate. Western perception of the war – and sympathies -- often lie with Israel. Among other things it could be the European holocaust guilt compounded with the current Jewish stranglehold on American foreign policy and public opinion. However there are good Samaritans who don’t feel compelled to side with a bully just because it can dragoon. President Carter is one of those guys.

It is always a blame-game in the middle-east and no one side is the winner. Israel may not like the Palestinians but it is destined to live with them, forever. Palestinians on their part know that Jews can’t be thrown into the red sea and Israel won’t be wiped off, notwithstanding the clumsy remark of the Iranian Prez Ahmedinejad. Eventually all sides – after all the bloodletting and positioning – have to come to the negotiating table.

Americans find themselves in a funny situation in the world’s most difficult, blankety-blank and continuous conflict. Israel is a valued ally. It is a hot-potato that kills the poor Palestinians at will, expropriates their land, practices apartheid and has a clandestine nuke program. Israel has a terribly appalling human rights record, among the worst in the world. Yet the US seconds Israeli positions.

The Zionist state has a policy of not talking to Hamas. US, naturally supports it. Reasons offered: It is a terrorist party with an unreasonable manifesto. It calls for Israel’s destruction and does not recognise Israel. Mad-caps. But wait a second. In Israel, most streets, parks and squares are named after a dude called Jabotinsky. The Jabotinsky Medal is awarded for distinguished service to the State of Israel. The guy is a Zionist ideologue who coined the infamous term: Two banks has the Jordan [River], this one is ours and so is the other. He founded the notorious Jewish terrorist organisation Irgun. Jabotinsky is rational. Convenient.

That brings us back to the point. Is Hamas untouchable? The answer is no rocket science. Although Hamas is not exactly mellow like Fatah but it is a genuine stake holder and has every right to any future negotiations on a Palestinian state. Hamas is democratically elected and the world has a right to hear Hamas’ vision regarding the situation. Having Hamas completely excluded even from conversations or consultations is counterproductive, as Carter correctly avers.

Indeed there is no way to peace, peace is the way. Israel is no hermit territory. Despite their attempts to marginalize Hamas, they have only ended up strengthening it. Prez Bush’s latest endeavor, the lame duck attempt to get Israel and the powerless Mahmud Abbas along with friendly Arab countries to flock to Annapolis in November 2007 ended up in another joint statement. The highly readable Uri Avnery perhaps sums it the best: They meet, embrace, smile, pose for photographs, convene joint teams, hold press conferences, make declarations - and nothing, absolutely nothing, really happens.

Time we have some real confabulations. Time to stop taking sides. Time we stop calling names. Time we get serious without bringing any past baggage. Time all parties involved --- Fatah, Israel and Hamas -- sit and discuss to smoothen out the rough edges.

In a quarrel, we ought to leave room for reconciliation, always.

Cheers Carter


PS: Prof Kevin Sanders of the prestigious War and Peace foundation has this to say about Carter and his peace efforts:

Allow the video to buffer [Takes 3-4 minutes for slow connections]

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Egypt's modern Pharaoh

The Americans say hypocrisy is nothing but prejudice with a halo. Hosni Mubarak is one such hypocrite. President of Egypt for 27 long and often brutal years, Mubarak is a present day monarch cum dictator, wrapped into one. He is America’s favorite despot in the Muslim world.

Mubarak’s reign is the third longest ever. In the entire Egyptian history only two kings have ruled for more years: Ramses II [1279–1213 BCE – rule 66 years] Yeah the same chap who was drowned in the Red Sea when he tried to chase the biblical Prophet Moses] and Muhammad 'Alī Pasha Aga [1769-1849 CE – rule 43 years] Founder of modern Egypt.

An ex-airforce guy who quickly rose in the ranks to become president of Egypt after Sadaat’s assassination, Mubarak has effectively kept Egypt under a state of perpetual emergency for the last twenty seven years [since 1981]. Under that state of emergency, the government can imprison individuals for any period of time, and for virtually no reason, thus keeping them in prisons without trials for any period

Mubarak went on to be ruthlessly brutal, crushing all dissent [with American blessings]. The largest and the most important opposition force in Egypt – Muslim Brotherhood – has been severely gagged. Its members are regularly picked up by government agents, tortured, jailed and even liquidated. It cannot for all practical purposes run for elections since the party is officially banned. Interestingly last week the Brotherhood boycotted the municipal elections after hundreds of members were arrested. Mubarak does not care two hoots. [US chose to look away: selective application of the democracy doctrine]

While Hosni was busy stacking away his ill-gotten millions, his 77 million people suffered badly. Despite subsidies that keep bread and fuel at a fraction of world levels, the cost of other essentials, such as cooking oil, fresh food and building materials, has risen faster than meagre wages. The official annual inflation rate touched 12% in February 2008, the Economist in its latest issue underlines.

US -- which wastes absolutely no time to rap other elected totalitarians like Robert Mugabe or Hugo Chavez -- continues to shower aid on their man in the middle-east. Egypt and Israel respectively remain the highest aided countries with an annual US grant, upwards of $ 2 billion and $ 3 billion. America knows that there is zero semblance of democracy in Egypt and elections are a pure sham. It also knows that Egyptians can never be empowered under a megalomaniac.

Interestingly Mubarak’s track record and corrupt image is well-chronicled. That he is likely to anoint his son Gamal as the next in line to rule Egypt, like the ancient Pharaohs, is not lost to many in the current US establishment. Yet there is a deep, dark mum. We understand the silence now, don’t we?

Mubarak wormed upto US during the first Gulf war and continues to do so. That has resulted in continued Bush assistance/help despite the despot's horrible human rights record. Anyone speaking up against Mubarak like the feisty Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a sociology professor at American University of Cairo and a critic of Mubarak’s human rights and democracy record is immediately punished. Falsely implicated, Mr Ibrahim was sentenced to jail for seven years in 2001. The charge was ridiculous and motivated on Mubarak’s orders: Failure to file a stupid form to inform the corrupt regime that his educational agency has received a foreign donation from the European Union for a voter education project. On March 18, 2003, Egypt’s Court of Cassation found Mr Ibrahim innocent of the charges.

Yet nothing will ever move Mubarak. According to ‘Reporters without Borders’, Egypt media ranks 133 out of 168 globally in terms of freedom of the press. The ranking is indicative of direct attacks on journalists and the media as well as other indirect sources of pressure against the free press. No issues. No bad press. Mubarak continues unfazed. He backs his second son Ala, who was recently accused of being favored in government tenders and privatization.

1956 was a heady time and Colonel Nasser ruled Egypt. Mubarak, still in his late 20’s acted in a movie named ‘Wadaa fel fagr’. It was a very forgettable brief role. Only a few moments. Fifty two years later the man could never grow.

Hosni Mubarak continues to be a piddly character who could never evolve.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

What's in a name?

[Image: Tulip garden, Srinagar]

What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
~William Shakespeare (1564-1616), greatest of the English dramatists

More than three hundred thousand tulips. Hundreds of exotic varieties in endless sequined rows. A proposed 90-acre golden meadow caressing the foothills of Zabarwan mountains. A riot of colors on the banks of Dal Lake.

To compliment the stunning landscape of Kashmir, they make everything beautiful in the vale. So we have a multi-colored garden, giving off fragrances from heaven, bang in Srinagar. The government claims it is Asia’s largest tulip garden, though I’ve my doubts. They are expecting lots and lots of footfalls as the tourist season unfolds. So far so good.

Since the myriad flowers in the garden radiate fluorescence, someone gave it a name: Siraj. That is Arabic for light. I noticed the dailies have started referring to it – in recent news items -- as Indira Gandhi garden. I don’t know how or why they chose to invoke Mrs Gandhi’s name. Azad, under whose watch the garden was inaugurated, is a balding congressman, whose only shot to fame is being in the good books of 10 Janpath. I reckon changing the name from Siraj – which ain’t frankly cool enough – to Indira doesn’t require much explaining.

We could have a more catchy appellation like ‘Million Blushes’ but I understand the associated basket of problems. The name won’t find many takers. Also it won’t resonate very well with the picnicking school teachers or their pupils. Methinks a simple name like ‘Tulip Garden’ was far simple and secular.

Most places in Kashmir still have ethnic names. There must be a couple of areas/roads where Mrs Gandhi’s name has already been used. I've nothing against the slain former PM but I'm not for overusing dead-names to the extend of boredom.

Kashmiris, historically, have not been too innovative in naming places. Everyone and his uncle – for example— calls the romantic stretch from Dal Gate to Centaur hotel, Boulevard road. Translated it means avenue road, which is wrong. It should be Boulevard. One word. The only fashionable places -- to my mind – are the more English sounding: Residency road, Lambert lane and Forest lane.

[Image: Cars going towards Residency road, Srinagar]

Across the Dal, the quick re-christening notwithstanding, the papers report that authorities are now edgy about the lack of expected visitors [local/non-local] to the garden. Any dignitary visiting Kashmir these days is swiftly taken to the garden and school children are encouraged [and charged] to visit the place. Since the life-span of tulips is short, the government wants to make most of it.

I once read of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Victorian poetess:
And tulips, children love to stretch
Their fingers down, to feel in each
Its beauty's sweet nearer.

April 2008
Srinagar Airport

Sunday, April 06, 2008

In the name of God

Khuda Key Liye [In the name of God] is the first Pakistani film to be screened in India in ages. I’m so glad to see the offed cultural exchange betwixt the two countries finally taking place. Pakistani movies, as much as their soulful music, have started to blossom. I understand the fruits of labor from our naughty neighbor may not be as ripened as India’s but they are damn good. In the name of God is at once contemporary, provoking and eye popping.

The film’s USP is its topical, riveting storyline. The movies’ music is timeless. Shoiab Mansoor is a talented film-maker and he has researched his movie very well. No wonder the film has gone on to win many prestigious awards, including the award for best picture at the 31st Cairo International Film Festival, and became the highest grossing film of Pakistan of all time.

There is powerhouse performance by the dashing Pakistani duo of Shaan and Fawad. Iman is dazzlingly beautiful. Though there are occasional technical glitches – which you don’t notice in Indian A-list movies – Khuda Key Liye leaves you gently impressed. The script is multi- pronged but interconnected. It talks about the rise of modern day fanaticism and the role of vicious Mullah’s in abetting it. The film subtly revolves round the place of woman in Islam. In the name of God walks us on a canvas of misreckoning, sour-notes and misunderstandings between cultures. It is a turmoil we all can easily relate to.

We see a youthful Fawad falling under the spell of Islamists [who often confuse between religion and tradition] while his elder bro Shaan finds himself illegally detained in the US, post 9-11, where ignorant, rude authorities mistake him for being Al-Qaeda. Naseer-uddin Shah -- in a special appearance -- proves yet again that he is the finest actor in the subcontinent.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It is as a bold statement from an intrepid film-maker, who comes from a very conservative stock. We need more films like ‘In the name of God’ to clear some of the cobwebs about what’s right and wrong about faith and how things like humanity and music transcend all barriers – religious and otherwise.

In the name of God unites. It entertains. It examines. It questions. It does not, however, pontificate. There was an ovation in the movie hall as the end-titles began to roll.

I – and my band of buddies – added to the chorus.