Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lay thy finger thus

Lay thy finger thus, and let thy soul be instructed
—Othello, Act 2, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

The die has been cast. Inked fingers are fashionable in Kashmir now. Another matter it feels like we are fingering our own memories, which unfortunately are short-lived.

So the high priestess of Indian TV, Madame Barkha Dutt, has declared the elections a success. In the television mumbo-jumbo that TV anchors are usually good at, she called it ‘a thaw in the winter chill’ or some related smart crack. Squatting on a dastar-khawan with a few copper tramis laden with wazwan, there was a celebratory ring to her show. It had an artsy feel, complete with vapours rising from the food. Nazir Masoodi's self-control on such occasions must be appreciated.

The participants included Karan Singh’s son, with all the silk in his family heirloom, bound around his neck, and stuffed in his pockets and a KP film-maker (God knows what he has made) in an ill-fitting jacket and huge shirt collars. There was an elegant professor also. PDP’s spokesperson, draped in a black shawl, looked like a wise sage, who knows that success is near. Ofcourse the NC spokesperson, an old pal of mine, tried to sound intuitive but came across as a sailor who knows the storm is fierce and his ship is doomed.

In another space, another channel (I watch them in clutches on Youtube when I have a moment) the rabid Arnoub had assembled (as usual) a dozen people, none of whom he allowed to speak. Going a step further than Barkha, he announced the total rejection of separatism, now that Bandipora has voted 75% and the dawn of a new era in Kashmir. God knows where he wriggled the old fogey Hashim Qureshi from. Since the host has institutionalized the idea of being seriously a joke and a farce at the same time, he easily wasted another 60 minutes of the nation. In an ideal world they would put him in a rehab.

As the season of absurd continues, the vote frenzy has climaxed. Kashmir is very cold around this time and usually boring. Elections, the spectacle that it is, infuse some life into these drab settings. With the BJP rocking the show in the centre, Madison Square Garden and elsewhere, it appears that Modi’s star is on the ascendency. Flush with victory after another victory, he has already announced that India is where stem cell gyaan originated. Taking a clue, his minions are now saying Vedic India (1750–1000 BCE) had helicopters. Obviously by that logic Kashmir straight away belongs to Mohan Bhagwat’s RSS.

I reckon Kashmiris, being politically sharp if somewhat humbug, decided to spoil the party for the BJP. The generic political wisdom is that Jammu and its sphere of influence is under a spell of Modi and his jinn, the crazy as fox, Amit Shah, so lets join ranks and make sure that the saffron ghouls don’t come here in their Vedic drones. The overwhelming sentiment after Round 1, journalist friends inform, is that this indiscretion in the winter chill is not seen as disrespect to old boy Geelani. No way! If he wrote a book of calligraphy, tomorrow, and called it The Delicate Art of Defiance, by God, it will sell like hot cakes. But today people are simply in a mood to vote.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Mehboob Ki Mehndi

Last night Mehboob Beg abandoned the ship. Perhaps hindsight is a good thing but Mirza Afzal Beg’s son didn’t wait for hindsight to dawn on him. Instead he dumped Omar. Like he had dumped Dr Farooq in the past to put Gul Shah on the throne. Then mysteriously he made up with doctor sahib and was politically rehabilitated.

His father, the legendary Mirza Afzal Beg, was Shiekh Abdullah’s lieutenant for decades, and was often hailed as Fakhr-e-Kashmir. He presided over the Plebiscite Front (Ah, how many times have we flirted with this darned Azadi business!) and was the legal brain behind the famous Indira-Sheikh accord.

Beg senior was sent to jail along with Sher-i-Kashmir in the infamous Kashmir conspiracy case. When the Sheikh was allowed to perform Hajj in 1965, he took two people along -- his wife, Begum Abdullah and Afzal Beg. Well all that is history now. In a hurriedly-called press conference yesterday, the NC called Beg junior a chameleon. Politics, they say, is colorful business. People change affiliations like a baby’s diapers.

Here is a clutch of Gupkar conversation from last night that we managed to pick up from our palace sources. It had to be brief because some BSF walla, stationed outside Omar’s villa, went mad this morning and started shooting at ducks in the compound.

A big black rotary dial telephone, without lettering on the finger wheel, comes alive. Sheikh Abdullah used it once to make calls to Nehru. It has become fashionable to abuse Nehru in Delhi these days. Sheikh’s grave needs to be protected in Srinagar by men in uniform with carbines.

The phone rings. Omar, a cross between looking glum and tickled, takes the call.

OA: Yes, dad, it is true. What do you mean how true?

Doc: Faan ha karov atey saersi.

OA: Talk in English or Urdu, dad. What is Faan?

Doc: Kihi na. It is the Muftis, I know.

OA: Why blame them? It is our deadwood.

Doc: Haya potra if we lose men at this rate, soon it will be you and Nasir alone left in the party.

OA: Mehboob wanted to be a hero.

Doc: Hero, my foot! What is happening in Beeroh (Beerwah). Put a pheran on and visit Beeroh daily, booztha.

OA: I tweet daily, dad.

Doc: Haya only journalists read your tweets.

OA: Mehboob was bad-mouthing them till Saturday.

Doc: Beg calls Mufti a ‘visionary’. Jigar ha dodum. It was like a dagger in the bosom.

OA: We are the only and the oldest nationalistic party. They can’t possibly take us on.

Doc: Haya Sheikh Ghulam Rasool tya nivok. Kuni na rood na kah.

OA: You know dad I was joking with Devender last night that they have Ashiq and Mehboob both.

Doc: You think it is funny! That Devender’s brother is BJP’s CM aspirant.

OA: You trusted Karan Singh’s son Ajatshatru. He is also supping with the devil.

Doc: Hay kus tavan.

OA: Electoral politics, dad. PDP's time perhaps.

Doc: It should be Al-bain always.

OA: Let Mufti yield the broom.

Doc: Kursi is important.

OA: Now what?

Doc: Make sure no one takes the leader of the opposition kursi from you.


Friday, October 03, 2014

Haider: Shakespeare in Srinagar

Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s play (written between 1599-1602) is about ‘revenge’ while Kashmir, any dispassionate observer will tell you, is essentially about ‘aspiration’. Whilst it is sincere, even daring, of Vishal Bhardwaj to make a very different film, I reckon he may have ended up confounding it. Hamlet is a revenge saga. Haider has revenge as a recurring theme running for most parts. Kashmiris seek no retribution. Ask any random Kashmiri. It was and always has been about aspirations.

I had a lump in my throat when they showed naked men being brutally tortured in Srinagar’s infamous incarceration centers. Waves of young men have been through that torment; those godawful times when spelling out the word ‘Freedom’ meant you had to undergo third-degree. Democracy has its moods, you see. Times have changed. Kashmiris are now writing furious books. The problem is that audiences in India do not consume much literature. They consume movies. That is why Haider becomes important. It rewinds us back to the dark 90s and the political intrigue at play during those days.

Given that Bollywood usually ends up making trashy films around Kashmir, Haider indeed sets the bar a notch higher. It has its strong points and a number of weaknesses. The story drags at times but captivates you in equal parts. Dreary skies and a silent snowfall, captured almost poetically, transports you smack to countryside Kashmir. Watch it for lovely cinematography; watch it for the Kashmiri accented Urdu and English words (deliberate, beautifully delivered) and some powerful acting.

Kashmiri peculiarities, like our accents and the way a majority of us speak English and even Hindi/Urdu has been nicely outlined. Vishal has captured the oddity that a lot of non-Kashmiris may not notice – our emphasis on Vs and Ds for instance -- when talking in the Queen’s language. Shraddha Kapoor, playing Shahid’s love interest, effectively conveys this when she says lo-V-ed (with an emphasis on V), much to the delight of her lover and the Kashmiri audiences. This requires a keen ear. Her unearthly crooning of a Kashmiri folk song in the snow, towards the end, is equally poignant.

Tabu is a class apart. She reprises the role of Gertrude powerfully. The turbulent relationship with her son Haider, who resents her for falling for his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay in a career best performance) after he conspired to have his Tehreek- loving brother ‘disappear’ has been beautifully handled. There is an undertone of Oedipus complex and a subtle erotic tension between the mother and son, which surely is part of Hamlet, but could have been easily done away while dealing with a sensitive topic like half-widows.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of imagination but a sincere effort. Never before has a film of such intensity been attempted on Kashmir by Bollywood, so this is definitely a first. As long as the medium of movies – in this case Haider -- initiates a dialogue about the dark secrets of democracy – custodial killings, disappearances, half-widows – I am all for it. There indeed is a danger of compartmentalizing the tragedy of Kashmir into neat boxes of human rights abuse and harsh laws like AFSPA. In some scenes the film adds nothing new with its standard Bollywood-style pontification to the gumrah natives.

There are several compelling moments in the film though. Haider’s thoughtful conversation in a single-shot frame with his mother leaves you shifty; there is a hauntingly surreal scene at the clock tower in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s focal point. A power-packed dialogue – at once philosophical and abstract -- in which Haider weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying is insanely real. Comparing death to sleep, he talks about the end to suffering and uncertainty it might bring, paraphrasing the iconic Shakespearean adage: To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Curiously the protagonist uses the word chutzpah at key points in Haider. Vishal – or Basharat may be – has smartly inserted the Hebrew word to reflect a double entendre – or a double-edged sword – depending upon how you see it. Chutzpah rhymes with both AFSPA and a common Hindi profanity. Since Kashmir is often likened to a paradox, wedged dangerously between two nuclear-armed nations, the film-maker appears to draw attention to the tomfoolery of it all. Ironically they get it wrong. Chutzpah is pronounced Khutz-pah with K.

The confusion prevails. No pièce de résistance this. A very good film.


PS: You can safely ignore the cynics and morally f*** up Twitter nationalists.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Four boys on a beach

A sea has no roof
whither warning bombs knock

Just fisherfolk digging happiness
upon sands of time

Beaches of Gaza
with no Iron Domes

Only shore-fulls of sea shell
with sea secrets in them

Merging point of waves
and four little boys

Running on spindly legs
after a soft white ball

Upon small smooth pebbles
carried by the tide

Near a stubborn sea
where fishing is a crime

Leaning against sky
toes deep in sand

Whisper whisping
chasing a tattered ball

Birds, like bumble bees
chirruping on their breath

Suddenly a sea storm
and drumfire from hell

Like sea burnt wood
legs bent at odd angles

Pirates drawn by laughter
horridly asphyxiating happiness

The ball and the beach exist
only the boys don't


Tribute to Mohammed 9, Ahed 10, Zakaria 10, and Mohammed Bakr 11, the four boys killed on the beach in Gaza on July 16, 2014.

The art work is by Jerusalem-based Amir Schiby who has generously allowed me to use the image.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It's Zionists, not Jews

Rude words do not hurt the rulers of Israel, Tariq Ali, one of Britain’s foremost thinkers and public intellectuals, famously remarked many years back. Nothing much has changed in the summer of 2014. No matter how sharp the amount of critique and damnation, the Zionist gangsters would still go about doing what they are best at: Propaganda, provocation and the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. Only the other day Israel’s PM was quoted by the press as saying that full Palestinian sovereignty was impossible, meaning Israel intends to continue its grotesque occupation. Yes they will quickly accept an Egypt-brokered ceasefire (and use it as a PR exercise against Hamas), but they will retain the right to go deranged again.

The magnitude of shock at what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is huge. People are outraged at what is going on in Gaza in broad day light with the indirect – and some would say direct – complicity of the US, bastion of the free world. Many are aghast at the quiescence of the Muslim world, perhaps expecting dramatic statements from Islamic countries. There is anger and disgust. Admittedly it looks bleak. Like a monster out there, Israel is trampling lives, caring nothing about ethics and international conventions. And no one seems to be in a position to help. Even as an occupying power, Israel, by global statutes and law, is supposed to protect the life and property of the areas it occupies. Instead it has put on display brute force to pummel Gaza, a 360 sq km area, surrounded from all sides by the occupation. Whatever Israel is aiming to achieve in the open-prison is truly abominable.

It is therefore natural for people with conscience to feel flustered at what’s going on. Not surprisingly a beautiful sense of solidarity has developed -- from Paris to Perth -- where random people are stepping out to express support for Gaza. Peaceful vigils are being held across world capitals. Angry poetry has appeared and impassioned songs are being sung. Social media – the powerful aphrodisiac of our times – is ablaze. There are heated agreements and disagreements and brilliant commentary taking place. Efforts at raising the awareness about Palestine is peaking. But in this spirited atmosphere there is also indiscretion. And it is sad.

Many aberrations have come on the scene. Because social media has the power to amplify things in real quick time, a lot of folk have come up with messages glorifying neo-Nazi themes and Adolf Hitler-style nutty stuff. This, many in the puerile crowds feel, is justified. But that is a problem area. Lionizing anti-Semitic figures and imagery is both stupid and insensitive. Hitler, history would inform you, was the culmination of a thought so virulent and horrible that millions of innocents had to pay for their lives for just being themselves. Likewise Holocaust was an ugly blot on mankind, the accounts of which should be a lesson for everyone.

Please resist linking Zionism (the terrible ideology practiced by the state of Israel) with Judaism. What Israel is doing in Palestine is a direct outcome of its occupational policies because of Zionism, a despicable colonialist and racist idea that denies rights to Palestinians and advocates their dispossession and expulsion. It is from the pot of Zionist hubble-bubble, filled with the blood of innocents, that Israel draws its strength from. We must criticise and denounce this fascist thought. And yes, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

There would be Jews (as there are people of other faiths and people with no faith) who support Israel’s Zionist policies but to generalize it and make this an Islam versus Judaism conflagration is both incorrect and irrational. It speaks a lot about our lack of knowledge and understanding of issues. How rational do you think it is to link all Muslims with terrorism, even if a fraction may support extreme rightwing baloney? Those who blame the entire Jewry for the crimes committed by the state of Israel are falling into the same trap.

Let’s not forget that some of the biggest proponents of Palestinian rights in the whole wide world are people of Jewish origin. The likes of Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappé, Uri Avnery, Howard Zinn, Albert Einstein and a whole host of intellectuals and opinion makers have denounced Zionism for what it is: A violent, racist, rabid and discriminatory dogma.

A world of people – Jews and gentiles alike – decries this dangerous phenomenon. Let’s not provide ammunition to the Zionist state of Israel by likening it to Judaism. By eulogizing Nazism (an agenda not too dissimilar to Zionism) you are doing a huge disservice to the memory of millions who perished due to this ideology. You are doing disservice to the gallant people of Palestine at the same time.

The quest for justice is never expressed in the language of hate. Else it ceases to be legitimate. There must be a difference in the way our solidarity -- that incredible attitude of resistance -- is framed and the way Israel conducts itself.

The arc of the moral universe is long, Martin Luther King Jr once said. But it bends towards justice.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

For Gaza

It breaks my heart. Images of a toddler burnt to death by an Israeli hell-fire missile, being held aloft by her father, is the worst thing that can happen to you on a weekend. The spectacle of ugliness that Israel has let loose in Gaza this week proves one thing: That no matter how much we progress as individuals and societies, no matter how advanced we grow in science, technology and arts, no matter how much we evolve culturally -- at a fundamental level humans have a tendency to be merciless, evil and wicked.

I do not wish to get into a blame game. It is not for me to decide who provoked whom in this latest orgy of violence although it is there for everyone to see. Taking lessons from history is passé. Talking about agreements and accords and reconciliation is what losers do. In a real world the mighty smack the weak real hard and then slowly look up to see whether the onlookers – the civilized and the democratic world – meet their gaze or look the other way. As we have seen in the last few days, the moral sense, that still small voice in us is dead. We simply look away.

This is a disproportionate fight. A war takes place between two equals. Hell fire missiles and cluster bombs dropped from an Israeli F-16 Fighting Falcon or a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle on a crowded alley in Gaza is not an act of war against Hamas. It is a crime against humanity. You can’t hoodwink the world into believing that we knock on the roof of a building by a warning bomb and then pierce the daylights out of the petrified inhabitants in less than a minute. This is no war. This simply is the basest form of barbarity on display.

What shocks you is not the mass murder of children, women and the elderly that Israel gets away with. For that matter there are the world's nutcases and non-state actors like ISIL, TTP and other such monstrosities who have slayed people without mercy. Here it is the sheer audacity with which a state that is recognized by the UN and 160 countries goes onto a territory and systematically kills whoever they want to, blowing little children into smithereens, as if they were target mannequins, in full view of world media, and then behaves as if it were the victim. The sanctimoniousness of Israel shocks you.

It is like that Aesop’s fable where the lamb is drinking water downstream while the wolf stands upstream. In a mood to finish off the poor thing, the wolf walks upto the lamb and accuses it of making the water unclean. “But sir, I am drinking downstream”, the lamb respectfully suggests. At this the wolf loses patience and hollers that the lamb’s offences must have been committed by someone in his relation and that it does not propose to delay its meal by enquiring any further. It promptly lunges at the lamb and eats it. The unjust, raconteurs say, never listen to innocents.

In an ideal world, the degree of apartheid, blockades and blatant racism that Israel practices against the people of Palestine should have earned it a place in infamy. Like the apartheid-era South Africa, all nations of the world should have boycotted Israel unless it would stop treating fellow human beings like sub-humans and give up their racial ideology. But in a real world you have the Zionist state's spin doctors making you believe that this is a Hamas-Israel war with the big daddy -- United States -- ready with a veto at the UN.

In reality everyone has failed the poor Palestinians. They just have raw courage and their catapults and scarves. And a universal solidarity against some of the planet’s meanest, cruelest and the most abominable war-machinery.

It is Ramadhan. This is usually the time for piety, contemplation and mercy. It is so very infelicitous that while the rest of the world celebrates the goodness of this holy month, the people of Gaza have to endure missiles and death at Suhoor and Iftar.

Our prayers and thoughts with the brave men and women of Palestine. Your suffering invokes a very private pain in Kashmiris and other subjugated peoples.

May your valor outlast the injustice.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Twelve hours in Bombay: A photo feature

                                                       (Click on the picture to enlarge)

Café Moshe’s

With its mauve sunshade, Café Moshe’s in Juhu has a snuggled down feel to it. Founded by Moshe Shek, a Bombay-based Jew, in 2004, the café has a distinct European feel to it. With big glass windows, dark furniture, wooden flooring, patio and a high ceiling, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have hopped into a little Parisian coffee shop. The whole bakery smells scrumptious but the thing to die for is Moshe's baked Philadelphia cheesecake. Yes, it is a million calories. It is decadent too but your taste buds will enjoy this sweet orgy. No Jewish conspiracy here.

Menu of the day:
Egg to order
Beverages (Hot & Cold)


 St Joseph’s connection

Aamir Khan and Rahul Gandhi vie for billboard space in South Bombay. While the latter has got nothing but his dimples to fight Modi, the former is weeping copious tears these days on his hit-on-social-conscience show Satyamev Jayate. If you perchance missed the inconspicuous St. Jospeh’s High School sign in the billboard litter, that is the oldest school in Juhu. Founded in 1905, the institution shares its origins with St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, Baramulla (founded 1905). Both schools have their own churches and graveyards. Faith takes death seriously.


Hole in the wall

Bombay has a million hole-in-the wall mini shops. This one sells everything from beedi to cigarettes and betel leaves (Paan) in a tony part of the city. If you wish to make a phone call and do not have a phone, look no further than the quintessential next door cubby hole. You will also get a free tip on how to do a quick jugaad to balance your rickety plastic chair.


The very important syndrome

Last summer when I was in London I saw the British PM David Cameroon arrive at the Westminster on a silver and black Scott bicycle. A few days back while driving to work I instantly noticed the G63 AMG Mercedes-Benz in front of me had a unique license plate number: 1. Over here everyone knows that’s the ruler of Dubai. Out of curiosity I changed track and sped up to see who was in the driver’s seat. Indeed it was His Highness, driving all alone. No paraphernalia. The electronic reminder to the hoi polloi in Bombay however said it all: VVIP Visit Today, Traffic Regulated. Inspite of its Kejriwals India’s boorish VIP culture in public governance refuses to go away.


Back rubs, anyone

One quick gimmick that marketers have correctly learnt in recent years is that modern life is quite stressful. Working on this knowledge, a plethora of massage centers have sprung up all over Bombay. Like mushrooms. You come across signposts on run-down buses, disfigured walls, tree-trunks and corrugated tin-fences offering relaxing, natural, authentic, Thai, Tantric and a motley other massages. There is a phone number provided. Note: It has a shady ring to it, if you know what I mean.


The Don’s den

Amitabh Bachchan is the single biggest cultural export of India. Singlehandedly he epitomises the country’s soft power status. Naturally his home is a shrine to millions. If you are new to Bombay and the cabbie detects that, he will most likely point out the magnificent Bachchan villa on the Juhu Tara Road to you. Called ‘Jalsa’ (roughly meeting/gathering in Urdu but I was told it means fun and pleasure also), the 10,000 sq ft property has attained the status of a Bombay icon. Every Sunday, the guards told me, hundreds of people stand outside the gate to catch a glimpse of their superstar, who makes it a point to step out for a while to wave at the gathering. Now it begins to make sense, Jalsa: gathering. Only Bachchan knows the meaning but one dare not ask him on Twitter. His tweets often come laced with strange numbers and humdrum.


Boot polish

There was a time when films with protagonists working as shoe-shiners  were big hits. Raj Kapoor-produced Boot-polish in 1954 won acclaim at Cannes and the Filmfare Awards but the era of 'lived-happily-ever-after'  is over. Frankly the existence of shoe-shiners had lapsed in my mind (blame it on my overseas years) until I stumbled across one. Clad in a loose-fitting collar-less shirt, the shoe-shiner went about his job in the most diligent manner possible, unruffled by the din around him. I thought of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (ex President of Brazil), Alejandro Toledo (former Peruvian President) and Malcolm X (famed human rights activist). All of them had been shoe-shine boys.


Pomfret by the beach

You risk the chance of being branded a bummer if you go on the sea shore and come back without having seafood. Perched on the Juhu beach, Mahesh Lunch Home is the most authentic Manglorean seafood eatery in Mumbai. It serves the most delicious crabs, prawn gassi and black promfret curries in town. The USP is home-style food. However if you are into star-gazing (which I am not), you might bump into one of the film-stars. The Kapoors and Bachchans (who live nearby) are regulars. Brightly lit, Mahesh Lunch Home has a relaxed feel and attentive staff. They have something called Clams Kashmir also. I reckon, clams are non-Kosher/non-Halal, though I am not entirely sure.


Filmi connection

The Maximum city has a very strong connect with the film industry. Although Mumbai’s train of thought criss-crosses through planet Bollywood, there is little comparison between the teeming masses and the industry's perfumed gaggle. Bollywood is essentially ruled by a gang of two dozen or more people. They are super-rich and comprise of the A-list of actors, producers, musicians, directors et al. Rest are the sub-cast, the also-rans. As a journalist I often get to go and meet up the best film folk. Yes, they smell fragrant and look beautiful and talk in a cultured, clipped manner but you don’t have to even look hard to detect that there is no soul in this enchanted world. Glamour, I daresay, is spurious.
Never meet your heroes, guys.