अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

December 31, 2011

A Challenge for RTI Activists in India

There is a major issue that most people, including activists in India have not given as much attention as it merits. That issue is of surveillance of ordinary people, especially within offices, gated societies, campuses and in some cases even independent houses. The use of electronic devices for surveillance is far more widespread than the occasionally reported phone tapping cases. Potentially, and I think in reality too, this is hampering all kind of normal activities that people can indulge in, including acts of dissidence and protest, which I think are the special target of such practices. It has come to the point where any kind of protest activity in India is being ‘nipped in the bud’, at least in urban areas. This is making all the talk about there being democracy in India a joke.

Whether or not I am wrong in saying the above, there is sufficient evidence about the potential and real misuse of surveillance devices. This is part of a worldwide trend that has intensified in the last ten years and many such cases have been reported in various countries, including by the mainstream media, which usually avoids such topics these days. One concrete, practical action that can be taken in this regard is to demand information about this under the Right to Information Act. Since I am not competent enough to do this on my own and I have no contacts of any sort whose help I can take, I challenge (or appeal, whichever way you like to see it) the RTI activists to demand this information from the government as well as corporations.

I list below some specific points which I think should form the basis for such a demand. I only write them down here as rough indicators.

  1. Has the government sanctioned the use of electronic surveillance devices against ordinary people? It yes, who gives authorisation in specific cases and on what basis? What guidelines are followed? Who verifies that these guidelines are followed? Is there any mechanism through which the targeted person can ask for justification for any such surveillance?
  2. Are these devices being used in hotels, hostels, campuses and offices? What safeguards are there against their misuse? Who looks after this? On what basis are these places identified? Are they also being used in independent houses? If yes, what are the details?
  3. Are local administrators or managers or private security agencies allowed to make their own policies regarding this, ignoring any consideration for privacy of individuals? What is the mechanism through which information can be obtained about this and how can any redressal be sought?
  4. Are there any constraints about sharing the information collected through these means? Who decides about such things? Has it become a complete free for all where any administrator or manager or private security company can collect and disseminate such information?
  5. What is the role of IT companies in this, especially outsourcing companies such as TCS, Wipro, Infoys, who have huge numbers of employees, many of whom at any given time are not engaged in productive work? Are these employees being involved in unauthorised and illegal surveillance on ordinary people? What are the details about this, how can they be obtained? If this is happening, does the government know about it and was this officially sanctioned by the government?
  6. Is the information (or any falsified/distorted version of it) collected through surveillance (by whichever agency) being used for punitive purposes against people who are seen to be (rightly or wrongly, with justification or without justification) indulging in some kind of dissidence activity such as opposing the policies of privatisation and corporatisation of everything? If yes, what is the legal basis for this?
  7. Is such information being used to disrupt services such as Internet access and electricity supply for people who are being targeted by the surveillance policies?
  8. Is such information being used to launch smear campaigns against people seen as opposed to the official or corporate policies?
  9. Is such information being used to generally “make life impossible” (as one think tank writer proudly mentioned in one of his articles: on a dissident media website, no less) for the targeted people?
  10. Is such information being given to shopkeepers, hair dressers etc., with the instructions to not provide proper services (or deny providing services) to the targeted people?
  11. Is such information being used to ensure that the targeted people are denied jobs that they apply for? Is it being used to form a kind of (formal or informal) blacklist for employment and related purposes? Is it also being used to create hindrances in the work of these people, if they do get a job.
  12. What is extent of the use of surveillance of any kind in academics? What is the purpose of such surveillance? Are students being involved in such activities as developers, system administrator and informers in general? What are the details of surveillance related projects sanctioned by the government specifically for academic institutions?
  13. To what extent are the communications service providers being used for surveillance, whether for the government or for corporations or for any other organisations?
  14. Does the government know about the use of surveillance devices by the large right-wing organisations and corporations/institutions sympathetic to them? If yes, have any steps being taken to stop this? Has there been any investigation into this?
  15. In case the answer to most of the questions above is negative, is there any mechanism to take action in case evidence is made available that would indicate that the answer to at least a few of these questions may be affirmative?

I have written the above only as initial notes. These can be refined and improved and extended. I would welcome any suggestions.

Full Disclosure: I am writing this as a person who believes that he has been a target of such practices for the last many years, although I don’t even claim to have indulged in much protest of any major significance. I am writing this almost as a last resort, having tried to ignore this issue for a long time, hoping that it would cease in due course. I don’t know what else I can do about this. Please note that being part of the ‘IT community’ in India, I am both more prone to it and also more likely to notice it.

I know how some people are going to react to it, but unless I thought it absolutely necessary (a matter of life and death), I wouldn’t have written it. I am generally not given to stick my head out easily, though I do try to call a spade a spade. I am no Bradley Manning. But I guess my head is already out.

September 5, 2011

The Missing Clause

There is a legal agreement written in very legal language that I had to read today. It’s called Mutual Confidentiality Agreement and is required to be signed by two parties who plan to collaborate on some commercial product or service.

After having plodded through the legalese and having understood most of it (I have an advantage in this regard), I found that there was one clause that was glaringly missing from it.

The document lists all the conditions that apply when the Disclosing Party discloses something to the Recipient. It has a section euphemistically titled ‘Injunctive Relief’ that might send the shivers down the Recipient’s spine, depending on the power balance. It also lists all the exceptions under which these conditions may not apply. Such conditions include “court order” and “as required by law”.

What is missing is something that should be included in all such documents post-9/11, in all countries that went for the security Gold Rush, which practically means all countries, (almost) period.

That missing clause should go something like this:

An (unintended) disclosure by the Recipient to any number of third parties of any of the Disclosing Party’s Confidential Information will not be considered a breach of the agreement if it happens under any of the following conditions:

  1. As part of surveillance operations carried out by the State and any of its agencies, the institution in which the Recipient works or any part thereof, the Local Version of the Truman Show, the Connectivity Service Providers, the Private Security Companies, the Local Quasi-authorised Vigilante Organisations or any other such agencies added to the list till the eve of the day the breach is considered for scrutiny.
  2. [Talking of eve] As a result of eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1.
  3. As a result of disclosure by the people involved in (a) surveillance and (b) eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1 to any of their superiors, colleagues, sub-ordinates, business associates, friends, relatives, family members or strangers.

The clause sounds very reasonable in the post-9/11 world and makes perfect legal sense. After all, any disclosure made (unintentionally) under conditions listed in this clause would not be the fault of the Recipient and it would only be for The Good of The Country and The World and The Humanity (as everyone knows and agrees to).

I have one doubt, however. Won’t the addition of this clause almost nullify everything else in this agreement to mutual confidentiality?

But the clause is required. Isn’t it?

And what about that poor thing, The Market?

Is it already being forgotten in favour of other things?

June 17, 2011

From Abbottabad … With?

On the other hand, the website (of a software) that is operational, there is map that shows the places (as dots) from which people have visited that website. Adding it to the site was an extension of an idea given by someone who once worked with me, who had suggested that we might add such a map to another website meant for a research workshop.

In the beginning I used to eagerly see the map (the details that you get when you click on it) to check how many people have been visiting. Since the number was not very encouraging, now I only sometimes see this map.

Today I happened to see it and noticed that now they have an extra feature which more specifically lists (apart from showing on the map) the places from which the most recent visits have originated. One day, one IP address, one dot. Same day, another IP address, another dot. And so on.

And what is that? One of the dots is from … Abbottabad. Now given the things as they are at present (in India and elsewhere), and have been for some time, that is something to make you jump out of your chair. As I nearly did.

I wonder which of the three great parties is using my software. Or is there a fourth* party? Should I swell with pride, shrink with shame or just faint from fear?

* Dotters or Dot Busters?

Or should I just say: one more and in a new place. And go back to my work. Or sleep.

I wonder and wonder. Because it’s a wonderful world.

Perhaps I should just curse someone (unknown) somewhere (unknown) in the Night of the Living Geeks.

(With apologies to the good people of Abbottabad.)

(As an afterthought.)

(There are some, aren’t there? … There must be.)

April 28, 2011

हक़

कोई मेरे पास आए
साथ चलने के लिए
और मैं उसे भगा दूँ
दुत्कार कर
फटकार कर
सबके सामने
बेइज्जत कर के

तब भी अगर वो ना जाए
तो मैं उसके होने को ही
नज़रअंदाज़ कर के दिखा दूँ

वो बार-बार आता रहे
और मैं बार-बार यही करूँ
तो क्या मुझे हक़ बनता है
उसे दोष देने का
इसलिए कि उसने साथ नहीं दिया
इसलिए कि वो अब साथ नहीं चल रहा
जबकि मेरी खुद की सांठ-गांठ उन्हीं से है
जिनकी यातना और दुत्कार से बचते हुए
वो मेरे पास आया था

साथ चलने के लिए
इसलिए कि किसी और को
यातना और दुत्कार दिए जाने से रोका जा सके

जबकि मुझे यही नहीं पता
कि वो क्या कर रहा है
और क्यों कर रहा है

किसी के सारे रास्ते बंद करके
(दुनिया से ही टिकट कटा लेने को छोड़ कर)
क्या कोई किसी को पाठ पढ़ा सकता है
कि जीवन कैसे जिया जाए
कि नैतिकता के मानदंड क्या हैं?

March 21, 2011

इंकलाब के पहले

अन्याय हर तरफ फैला है
पूंजी का बोलबाला है
सच का सर्वत्र मुँह काला है

ये हालात तो बदलने ही होंगे
बदलाव के हालात बनाने होंगे

तभी तो इंकलाब आएगा
हर जन अपना हक पाएगा

पर उसके पहले बहुत से काम
जो अभी तक पूरे नहीं हुए
वो सब के सब निपटाने होंगे

वो कोने में जिसे अधमरा करके
बड़े दिनों से डाल रखा है
वो अब भी, हद है आखिर,
कभी-कभार बड़-बड़ किए रहता है

उसे सबक सिखाना होगा
उसके भौंकने को बंद कराना होगा
पहला बड़ा काम तो यही है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर आपस के झगड़े भी तो हैं
तगड़े हैं, एक से एक बढ़ के हैं
एक-दूसरे को सबक सिखाना होगा
एक-दूसरे का भौंकना बंद कराना होगा

दूसरा बड़ा काम यह भी तो है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर कुछ डरे सहमे
असुरक्षित लोगों ने
अपनी बुद्धि का
अपने ज्ञान का
और तो और
अपनी प्रतिभा का!
(हद है!, हद है!
कितनी अकड़ है!)
आतंक फैला रखा है
यहीं, इंकलाबियों के बीच!

उनका मटियामेट कर के ही
सच्चे इंकलाबी दम ले सकते हैं
उन्हें अपने साथ लाकर नहीं

एक तीसरा बड़ा काम यह जो है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

ऐसे कितने ही काम और हैं
जिन्हें निपटाना है
इंकलाब के पहले

इसी से याद आया
एक काम तो यही है
कि इन कामों में
जो अड़चन पहुँचाए
उसे हड़का-हड़का के
आपसी झगड़े
ज़रा देर को भुला के
मिल-जुल कर
ऊपर पहुँचाया जाए

इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

February 13, 2011

The Moral Laws of Comedy and a Paradox

The Moral Laws of Comedy

According to Eklavya, the three moral laws of comedy can be stated as follows:

  1. The First Law: If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at others.
  2. The Second Law:If you can’t laugh at more powerful people, then you have no right to laugh at less powerful people, irrespective of where you are on the power spectrum.
  3. The Third Law:If you can’t laugh at the society (or the institution or the group) you live in or belong to, then you have no right to laugh at the individuals in that society (or the institution or the group), including yourself.

An extension to the first law is:

If you can’t laugh at your own society (or institution or group), you have no right to laugh at other societies (or institutions or groups).

The revised (and recommended) statement of the same laws will have the word ‘can’t’ substituted by ‘don’t have the courage to’.

The zeroth moral law of comedy defines ‘laugh’ as a specific kind of laugh that is meant to be a negative comment or critical judgement, such as the laugh associated with ridicule, sarcasm etc. It also defines ‘comedy’ to include humour and satire.

A corollary of these laws is that if you violate any of these laws, then you are not creating comedy (or humour or satire). You are just being mean spirited, petty minded, spiteful, nasty, hateful, bitchy etc.

Simply put, you are being immoral.

A generalization of the laws can also be derived. Such a generalization would apply to criticism and punishment too. Thus, the Moral Laws of Criticism (Punishment) can be given as:

  1. The First Law: If you can’t criticize (punish) yourself, you have no right to criticize (punish) others.
  2. The Second Law:If you can’t criticize (punish) more powerful people, then you have no right to criticize (punish) less powerful people, irrespective of where you are on the power spectrum.
  3. The Third Law:If you can’t criticize (punish) the society (or the institution or the group) you live in or belong to, then you have no right to criticize (punish) the individuals in that society (or the institution or the group), including yourself.

Punishing the society needs some explanation. You can’t obviously punish the society in the way you can punish individuals. And one of the axioms of morality says that collective punishment is immoral, so punishing the society in the above sense can’t mean collective punishment (something whose innumerable manifestations we see in all ages and from all kinds of people, institutions, societies etc.). For the purpose of stating the above laws, punishment of society means changing it in some way. And only that way will be moral which changes it for the better. This sense of punishment, therefore, is nearer to treatment or curing in the medical sense.

The zeroth moral law of criticism (punishment) defines ‘criticism’ in a way that would include the ‘comedy’ mentioned above, thus the generalization.

That extension of the first law also applies here:

If you can’t criticize (punish) your own society, you have no right to criticize (punish) other societies.

The Sin-Song Paradox

Any application of the Moral Laws of Comedy (among other things) is associated with and complicated by a Paradox known as the Sin-Song Paradox.

This moral paradox can be stated (according to Eklavya) as follows:

In most societies, we are taught from our childhood (at least in schools, or perhaps only in schools) that we should hate the sin, not the sinner, i.e., it is wrong to hate the sinner (an individual) and right to hate the sin (an act). However, in practice, the norm in all societies is to hate the sinner, not necessarily the sin (if at all). That is why we have all the systems of punishment, whether legal or social or otherwise.

Similarly, we have another such inversion with regard to systems of belief. Ignoring the cases where a system of belief is respected only because of the power it wields (that being covered by a different moral paradox), we are supposed to (or we pretend to) respect those systems of belief which are shown (or proven) to be rationally and/or morally correct, but in practice, we respect those systems which are advocated by people who are, as individuals, rational and/or moral in their lives and their conduct. In other words, we are supposed to like a song because the song is good (musically and/or lyrically), but in fact we like that song (a system of belief) because the singer is good. The converse is also true.

Thus, in the first case, we focus on the individual, when we should, in fact, be focussing on the act. And in the second case, we focus again on the individual, when we should be focussing on what the individual is saying or advocating. This moral inversion is closely related to violation of the third moral law of comedy, which involves focusing on the individual, when we should actually be focussing on the society.

It is a paradox, and not simply a contradiction between theory and practice because the norm that is followed in practice is assumed to be a moral norm too.

In fact, the violation of the three laws as well the above paradox, all involve wrong focus on the individual, when the focus should be on something else.

From the moral view of the world, it can be derived from the above laws of comedy and the Sin-Song paradox that a lot of our (i.e., the world’s or the society’s) problems stem simply from this wrong focus on the individual.

November 17, 2010

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)

 

One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

October 16, 2010

Indifferent Rebellion – I

Growing up with Hindi books and, to a lesser extent, Hindi movies, I was constantly (but silently) enraged at the way certain characters in many of these books and movies behaved. These characters were usually women: unmarried, married or widowed. They lived with extended families or ‘joint families’. The behaviour that enraged me involved silently tolerating all the wrong that was continuously done to them by family members, by neighbours and acquaintances and even by strangers. The reasons why they were singled out (though ‘singled out’ is not a very accurate phrase as we will see) for tormenting ranged from their being dependent on others, say, because the parents had died, to simply because they were women. You can still see these characters (in some form or the other) in the soap operas of 21st century T.V. and even in occasional Hindi movies, though these movies now avoid such things: they now focus more on the brighter side of life, which their target multiplex audience is more accustomed to as well as more comfortable with.

To take a typical case, you would have this joint family where there were at least two brothers with their parents and at least one sister. Both brothers are married, one from the beginning of the story and the other usually during the course of the story, possibly after a courtship. The courtship would serve the purpose of providing a happy prologue (which could be quite long) before the sad, tragic body of the story. The end might be happy too, but I won’t go into that. Instead of a courtship, you could have a happy growing up of the younger brother’s would be wife in her loving parents’ home, followed by an arranged marriage.

So this new member of the extended family would join with as great expectations as an Indian woman of her time could. See a few old Indian family dramas if you want to know what that means as I won’t go into that either. Soon she would realize that her expectation were ill founded. All the other members of the family (except usually her husband) would start going after her like proper sadists. It would be very misleading here if I don’t mention that ‘all others’ is not the right way to put it as the members who would really do most of the tormenting would be the other female members of the family: the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law. I might note here that the Hindi words for the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law of a woman evoke the image of most likely to be unpleasant relationships. Hindi has a different word for sister-in-law for men, which doesn’t evoke such an unpleasant image. In fact, the word evokes quite a naughtily pleasant image.

I didn’t create that image, so don’t go after me on moral grounds. Or nationalistic grounds.

The expectations were ill founded and instead what would happen is that the new member would be required to do all the dishes, to wash all the cloths and to cook all the food and more. Then she would be viciously targeted for all her mistakes in everything that she did. The mistakes, in most cases, won’t even be her mistakes. She would framed repeatedly.

The husband, the younger brother (or younger son, if you like), might not participate in the tormenting, but he would either not come to her defence or would be very unwilling and ineffective to do anything. More usually, he might not even notice what is happening. And here comes the starting point of the behaviour that enraged me: the victim would not even tell him about the ways she is being tormented.

She would not tell and she would not protest. She would quietly tolerate (possibly with some meek protest initially) everything that is done to her. And I would be shouting to myself (silently) why the hell is she not saying anything. Why is she not protesting. Why is she not hitting back.

And so on it went for a very long time. Then I understood something and it made sense. At least it made some sense, even if making some sense is not the same as being completely justified or being the right thing to do. But then who am I to definitely say what would have been the right thing. I was not that woman.

Let me remind you here that this particular woman is just an example of the characters I am talking about. And let me also clearly state that they are not just (at least not completely) the product of pulpy and bad writers or writers of the Sadist school. These characters were found very commonly in the Indian life and they still are (I hope to a lesser extent).

These characters, dear reader, were some among your ancestors, whoever you might be, in whichever country. That is, if you yourself are not one of them.

I have been aching to write about this, but (to borrow a phrase from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) many things between the heaven and the earth came in the way. Till a few hours earlier when I read the story The Road by Vasily Grossman.

Let me also clarify that these characters are not of the slave-girl category of the Fassbinder film-play. They are not of the ascetic-hermit variety either. Nor are they Gandhian satyagrahis.

Nothing like Mel Gibson’s Passion, so don’t accuse me of blasphemy. Passion is being used here just as an English word (in its older sense), not a religious concept.

Vasily Grossman was called the Tolstoy of the USSR by Martin Amis. The Road is about (and from the point of view of) a mule being driven on the way to the Battle of Stalingrad. Robert Chandler, who has translated Grossman novels, mentions ‘evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love’ all appearing in this universal story. But as the introduction to the story (not written by Grossman) says, it is about a ‘mule wrestling with Hamlet’s dilemma on the long road to Stalingrad’. This is the part that concerns us here because the dilemma is not just the mule’s (or even Hamlet’s). It is the dilemma of the characters I have introduced above.

And just like the mule in the Grossman story, these characters of real life and pulpy Indian stories resolve the dilemma by becoming indifferent:

It was impossible now to tell him apart from the old mule walking beside him, and the indifference each felt towards the other was equalled only by the indifference each felt towards himself.

This indifference towards himself was his last rebellion.

To be or not to be – to Giu this was a matter of indifference. The mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemma.

Having become submissively indifferent to both existence and non-existence, he lost the sensation of time. Day and night no longer meant anything; frosty sunlight and moonless dark were all the same to him.

Indifferent not just to others but also to oneself. Indifferent to being or not being. But this indifference was not the result of conscious thought and analysis. It was spontaneous and instinctive. And, arguably, it was almost the only way to survive the life one had landed in. Survival by being indifferent to survival. It was not stoicism, just as it was not masochism. It wasn’t even necessarily the lack of courage or of any other abilities. But with some lexical license, we could call it The Passion. Think of Tarkovski’s Andrei Rublev or Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. So what if it has nothing literal to do with Christianity. So what if they are not painters or warriors but just ordinary mediocre people. As the hunchbacked sexton Algot says in Bergman’s Winter Light, he too in his own humble way has suffered a lot. And so what if they have been portrayed a lot in pulpy Indian stories without even Grossman’s (or, to be impudent, my) insight.

Let’s call it The Passion of the Mule. Or, to be a bit discreet, let’s call it The Passion of Giu. Does it ring a bell? Let it ring. No harm is intended and none is being done.

There is another candidate. We could call it The Passion of Balthazar. How could we forget Bresson in such a context?

At this point, if you are familiar with the Hindi-Urdu literature, you might mention Krishan Chander’s talking donkey (Ek Gadhe Ki Aatmakatha: The Autobiography of a Donkey). But I don’t think that is an appropriate comparison and bringing it in is probably an unacceptable and irrelevant digression. Premchand’s Hira Moti, the oxen, are only a little more closer, but not quite.

There is, of course, the difference (though not always) of degree between real life and fiction. The scale of suffering could be smaller in real life and its manifestation might be different too. I would give you a very common scenario: a frequent motif in real life. There is a woman who is either living with or is visiting her extended family. She has a child. Something happens that is not very unusual in her or the family’s life. She feels that she has been unfairly treated. The matter might involve her child, perhaps vis-a-vis other children in the family. What does she do? She roughly goes to her child and starts beating her or him. Sometimes right where the row took place and sometimes after first taking the child to her room (if she has a separate room). She might or might not shout while she does that. And, more likely than not, she would cry while she does the beating.

This reaction to (quite often justifiably) perceived injustice seems on the surface to be not the indifference of that mule or of the more archetypal characters. But it is just an emphatic display of that same indifference. I have mentioned this particular behaviour just to prove that this instinctive indifference is actually a kind of rebellion, even if she herself is not explicitly aware of this. The only thing this woman cares about more than herself (and may be her husband) is her child. By unjustly punishing that child (and thus punishing herself: more than she could have done by directly punishing herself) she is only showing that she has been treated unjustly. The child too seems to understand this.

How do I know all this? I could tell you, but I won’t. At least not now.

If you want, you can go ahead and laugh at these characters, real or fictional. I don’t feel the inclination to join in. I would like to better spend my time laughing at some other characters.

Before continuing, I would just add a confession (to avoid misunderstanding and silly allegations) that I have only read this one story by Vasily Grossman, though I have read (in translation) other, mostly pre-Soviet, Russian writers.

(To bo contd.)

September 2, 2010

Two Azads and the Crown

Once there was an Azad whose stories we are taught. He was declared by the government of the day to be a wanted terrorist, but was considered a freedom fighter by the people. He was ultimately hunted down with the help of treacherous informers (so we are told by books sponsored by today’s government). He was killed in an encounter with the security forces in a park. That was a real encounter in a real park, even if some details might be contested.

Then there was another Azad who was also declared by the government of the day to be a wanted terrorist. A lot of people of the country considered him to be fighting for them. He too was killed in an encounter by the security forces, except that the encounter this time was a fake encounter, something which we Indians have come to take pride in, so much so that we have films made in honour of (Fake) Encounter Specialists, sometimes by directors belonging to the minority community whose members are much more likely to be the targets of such encounter deaths.

We are, after all, a secular democracy where the Rule of Law is respected.

Another thing common to both the Azads was that they were revolutionary socialists (krantikaris: क्रांतिकारी).

And another difference was that whereas the first Azad was hunted down as part of the declared policy of the government, the second Azad was one of the revolutionaries with whom the government claimed to be planning to conduct a dialog. He was shot to death from point-blank range in cold blood (in the honorable national tradition of fake encounters), apparently after picking him up from a place where he was traveling in connection with the preliminaries of dialogs which were supposed to be held. In other words, unlike with the foreign colonial government, with our own democratic government he was most probably enticed for a dialog and then got murdered in cold blood. The purpose, it seems, was just to show what we can do to people who dare to oppose us. And no one can touch us. So don’t mess with us. Such a thing is also known by another name: assassination.

The stories carried in the colonial media were biased to the extent that they called the first Azad a terrorist, while the stories in the vibrant free media of the our great democracy were almost total fabrications fed by the security forces.

Security? Really? For whom? From whom?

Along with him, another person was killed. He, a freelance journalist, was summarily and secretly executed for being sympathetic to the Maoists, or perhaps just for being found with the second Azad.

Is any strategist talking about the blowback?

What about the things going on in the region that is (as we were taught) India’s crown? Or should we say the Jewel in the Crown?

I apologize for writing this unoriginal and boring piece. I know hardly anyone will be surprised by anything contained in it.

July 27, 2010

पनहद

मैंने सोचा था
कमीनेपन की
कोई तो हद
होती होगी

इसका उल्टा जानने की
मेरी कोई इच्छा नहीं थी

पर कोई मेरे घर
आकर और खाकर
ज़बरदस्ती बता गया
कि नहीं होती
एकदम नहीं होती

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