The Year of the Monkey

I am not a believer in astrology. But when I saw that this year was supposed to be the year of the monkey, according to Chinese zodiac, I couldn’t help but ponder on the astute accuracy of the prediction. The idiotic events that have shaped the course of world history this year are quite staggering and there is no denying that monkey business has been the name of the game.

At first there was the shock that was Brexit. Spoiling the predictions of most political commentators and experts, the British people chose to dissociate themselves from the rest of Europe and chose to opt out of the European union. Never since the Napoleonic continental blockade has England endured such isolation and to do that voluntarily speaks volumes about the incredible depths to which stupidity can plunge a people who choose to ignore their own ignorance, buoyed by fantasies of a long-lost past and irrational fears about immigration generated by deluded oldies who have lost their grip on things in rapidly changing world. This is a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade and no Tennysonian elegy will actually bring consolation to those who will bear the economic brunt of this self-engineered meltdown. What is even more alarming is the surge of racist hatred that had gone into this victory for Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their other droids which has led to an exponential growth in racist crimes and abuse in various parts of England where a large amount of people had been caught up in the propaganda that all the problems faced by a country can actually be blamed on immigrants without ever realising that there were entrenched problems which required a political and economic re-ordering and not the enactment of an ostrich manoeuvre.

Unfortunately and ironically enough this trend was not really an insular one. Instead it travelled across the Atlantic, gaining in both mass and putrescence and ended up in the bewildering and disgusting victory of Donald Trump. That so many millions of Americans, many suffering from severe economic crisis for years, could believe that a real estate tycoon who lives in a world of dangerous delusions and considers molesting women as his right, would emerge as their saviour is something that not only staggers belief but raises serious questions about the nature of democracy itself. If the majority of people in your country are despicables and dullards, what hope is there that they are going to deliver? Even now, when Trump appears to have assembled a multi-billion dollar cabinet with oil honchos in top spots, when the collusion between big money and governments is blatantly obvious, the same people who had voted for him remain callously hopeful. Sure, this is the same America that gave such iconic and sinister characters as Nixon, Regan and the great ‘Dubya’. But even they seem like gentlemen, compared to the highlight reel of sewage that oozes out of Trump’s mouth. Incidentally, and quite predictably, in America too the victory of Trump has not only been celebrated by the inbred bigots of Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, but has given rise to a whole wave of hatred and crimes against people with black and brown skins who had hoped to fulfil the much-vaunted but utterly baseless American dream through honest hard work in a number of different fields across the country. Lost are the hopes of a syncretic future where colour, creed, sexuality, gender and such other determinants would not play detrimental role in the fulfilment of one’s aspirations. Instead you are invited to enjoy a world marked by walls, lewd locker room banter and groping, greater environmental maladies, inevitable violence, civil and international, and governance by tweets. Let the apprenticeship of dumb and dumber begin!

But let me not stray too far from our shores as that too might render me rather anti-national in my inclinations. And why bother, since there are such public demonstrations of idiocy in these historic regions of ours, almost everyday? The greatest example of such a claim is the public response regarding the recent demonetisation drive. Despite all the suffering that the people across the country are facing, despite the severe economic crisis that is haunting the Indian countryside, the majority remains in support of the governmental decisions and happily stands in the queues outside banks, even though there are no tangible evidences of any possibility of economic improvement, especially since EPF rates have once again been slashed and winter harvest is in shambles. In a land reared on tales of renunciation the government has once again provided the masses an opportunity of attaining mythical glory through self-sacrifice for utterly non-empirical rewards which remain confined to rhetorical tropes. But the spectres of unemployment, starvation or absence of emergency medical assistance due to cash- shortage pale into insignificance in comparison to the virtually orgasmic bliss provided by the sacrificial sweat generated by standing in stagnant and serpentine lines outside ATMs. Just as Yayati had passed on his senility to his son Puru who willingly accepted the curse on behalf of his father, the modern descendants of the great Bharat family have also lapped up the curse of demonetisation as their promised route to heaven. I can almost picture Rakhi in Karan Arjun tearfully mouthing – “Mere Karan-Arjun (read achchhe din) ayenge”.

All such reflections further intensify the scepticism regarding the fate of democracy where there exists such pervasive disconnect between those who know and those who do not. But since those who do not can cast as many votes as those who do, and sometimes much more, what hopes can at all be placed on electoral results? It seems we are back again in the world of the Roman mob and whoever plays Antony wins. But it was also a world where the dogs of war cried havoc and Tiber raged with blood. Are we heading for that too? Isn’t there a Fool who might make a prophecy in his gnomic verse to pierce the stupidity of our dire straits? Perhaps there are – unless they have been jailed or deported that is. The question is, will we heed such prophecies or will the prophet be faced with the fate of Cinna the Poet?

I have a booking for Mars. Wire me the answer when you can.

-Abin Chakraborty

A Brief and Deeply personal Timeline of being a Brown Female International Student in Trump’s America

I woke up on the 9th of November with the same realization that millions of people in America woke up to: in choosing the president they chose, this country has just told me that everything I am – a woman, a person of color, an immigrant – is unwelcome here. The sense of loss was palpable in the air of the university as we all struggled to find words to make sense of what has happened. I am still struggling, which is perhaps why it took me as long as write this down.

 The idea of a Sanctuary Campus perhaps was born out of this struggle of people like me to find the words – and the actions – that can help in times like this. Amidst a sea of hate crimes around the country, the #SanctuaryCampus movement emerged as one in which students, faculty, and staff at educational institutions come together to make their universities a safe space for resistance and for protection of the populations that are the most vulnerable in Trump’s America: undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of color, queer folks, women[1]. I am proud to report that Rutgers was one of the first universities, along with Stanford and St. Mary’s, whose students called themselves a “sanctuary campus”[2] before the movement took the nation by storm.

Exactly a week from the day of the election results, a rally was organized at Rutgers University that brought together students, faculty, and staff, to declare themselves against the divisive politics that won the president-elect this election, and to demand that Rutgers President Robert Barchi declare the campus a sanctuary for all its students. Led my Movimiento Cosecha’s Rutgers chapter, which is a non-violent movement that works to win “permanent protection, dignity and respect for the 11 million undocumented people”[3] in the United States, the rally started off by criticizing Trump’s proposed revisions to immigration policies, including making Muslims register, deporting millions,  and building a wall to keep them out. More than a 1000 students[4] (by a conservative estimate) gathered at the university before marching down the main street of New Brunswick, slogan-ing proudly.

 I arrived in front of Voorhees Hall with a friend – another brown female international student with whom I already shared an alma mater with its own history of student protests[5]. The first thing that struck us was the substantially smaller group of Pro-Trump students gathered in the area. Since the elections, my friend (she is in the Political Science department no less) and I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about how, in light of the election results, it was now impossible for us to distinguish Trump supporters from those who are not. We would look around in class, in restaurants, in buses, in cafes, and wonder – who here voted Trump, who here thinks we don’t belong here, who here wants to put a wall between us and them. But seeing a group of students holding banners that say “Deportation, not Immigration” in one of the most diverse universities in the United States[6] is a disconcerting recognition of this truth that had till then, somehow, still been abstract to us. I was, however, thankful for the Trump Supporters’ presence, for it reminded all of us why we were there. We were there because it was important for us to resist what their presence suggested: that certain people wanted to establish regressive hierarchies in this country in the name of race, gender, religion, and sexual preferences.

 We were there because this was not our definition of greatness, and because we would never stop striving for the now-revolutionary vision of equality we proposed in its stead.

Since the day of the election results, there have been protests happening all around the United States because, after Donald Trump winning the electoral college with a lower number in terms of voter turnout than that which got Romney got in losing, Americans have perhaps recognized that voting is no longer an adequate way to participate or facilitate political change. This national condition is perhaps demonstrated by the now-famous meme of Jim Crocamo, the 39 year old librarian from Queens, NY, who walked in the New York Anti-Trump rally carrying a sign that says “NOT USUALLY A SIGN GUY BUT GEEZ”[7]. The speed and vehemence with which many of these rallies have come together speak about how, in the face of a seemingly unbelievable victory for a man whose entire campaign is a discourse on hateful rhetoric, Americans have chosen civil disruption as a means to have their voices come to fore. Protests are, as they have been in historical moments like this, become the space from which and within which citizens can take part in the democratic process.

The slogans that we gave that day included “We reject/ the president-elect”, “No hate, no fear/ immigrants are welcome here”, “Education/ not deportation”, “This is what democracy looks like!”, “Pussy fights back”, and the succinct but proud declaration: “Not my president” among others. A personal favorite was the rhythmic “Hey hey/ ho ho/ Donald Trump has gotta go”, which is a repurposing of the half a century old “Hey hey/ ho ho/ LBJ has got to go”[8]. In choosing that slogan, my fellow students at Rutgers and I located ourselves in a much longer tradition of revolution that has raised its head whenever the times have demanded its presence, and that has always, through sustained effort, found a way to make progress towards the change it envisions.

I write this today, a day after Rutgers President Robert Barchi has promised that Rutgers would be a safe haven for all undocumented students after a student takeover of a Board of Governors meeting[9], and students in universities across the country have either declared themselves a ‘sanctuary campus’ or are working their way towards it. Sure, President Barchi has not officially adopted the moniker, and neither have a number of universities – but like the presence of the Trump supporters at the Rutgers Anti-Trump Rally, they only embolden us to work harder. During the rally on November 16th, Carlos Decena, an associate professor and chair of the Latino Studies program at Rutgers, had said that “We need to find ways to disagree, to vigorously engage, without holding our nose up and being obnoxious”[10]. I suppose we will have to do that every day till our message against the hateful turn in America’s politics is heard loud and clear.

– Anonymous

It is nearly a month after after the day of the election results. I am still a liberal brown female student with an F1 visa in Trump’s America. But I now have hope*.

*But am realistic enough to not feel safe enough to use my name. Ask me again in another year.

[1] Definition from Movimiento Cosecha’s Website: http://www.lahuelga.com/sanctuarycampus/

[2] From the Wikipedia page on Sanctuary Campus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary_campus

The Wikipedia page, interestingly, carries a photo of the Anti-Trump Protest March at Rutgers on the November 16th.

[3] From Movimiento Cosecha’s official website: http://www.lahuelga.com

[4] http://www.app.com/story/news/local/communitychange/2016/11/16/rutgers-students-peacefully-join-nationwide-protest-trump/94000728/

[5] Look up #HokKolorob if you are not sure what I am speaking of

[6] http://www.fox5ny.com/news/32842925-story

[7] A report on and a conversation with him can be found in this NY Magazine article: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/11/not-usually-a-sign-guy-but-geez-protester-becomes-meme.html

[8] Used half a century ago, in student protests against President Lyndon B. Johnson.

[9] http://www.nj.com/education/2016/12/protesters_disrupt_rutgers_meeting_with_demands_fo.html

[10] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/nov/16/rutgers-students-protest-against-trump-deportation/

The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1953-1994: A Book Review

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The poems spin off from a weave in frenzy, each uncontainable, each with its own magic turbulent origins. His eyes look out into the light without mercy or compassion. A word aquiver on his lips…The sagacity of his gaze, still locked in on the world and its ravished body…

The publisher, John Martin’s tactful inclusion of hitherto uncollected poems jolts us into discoveries. Myriad facets of the iconoclast’s sensibility and personality parade along the pages, each offering its own bitter, prophetic, and sometimes, cleansing truth. The bard’s cautions for the post-apocalyptic future are one, and many, as in the following excerpt from “advice for some young man in the year 2064 A.D.”:

          dismiss perfection as an ache of the

          greedy

          but do not give in to the mass modesty of

          easy imperfection.

          and remember

          the belly of the whale is laden with

          great men.

Each of these motley poems meditates in and around a fundamental truth—a deduction, morale, often perceived, often stumbled upon. No pretensions, no promises of safety or surprise in the end. This is as much a shrapnel of artistry, sharpened to intensify insight and sensibility, as much a contemporary reality for him, or the brink of it. The skin is stripped off the bone. Allegories and metaphors have almost been eschewed. One of the reasons for Bukowski’s trans-generational popularity has been that his poems are never compromising in their sincerity, that they are almost “art”less in their anecdotality. This transparency has not, however, been achieved without a loss.

“People are not good to each other”, he laments. The damned are exiled by each other. The walls have furthered. Hospitals, asylums and jailhouses have spewed out personal sins onto the streets. The observer picks them up. Not giving way to the euphoric haze of many of his early Beat contemporaries, not subordinating his conscience to anything but what he feels is the truth, he absorbs what he sees, while maintaining a cool, objective distance, and sometimes avenges life. But, the drudgery of a tireless, emaciating life, with its heartbreaks, its sordid confessions, remains:

          there is a loneliness in the world so great

          that you can see it in the slow movement of

          the hands of a clock.

                                                          (“the crunch”)

There is an intrepidity to this anthology, (reminiscent of the poet himself), in that it takes the quintessential Bukowski, and without prying open the spaces of controversy, misogyny and mere sensationalism, exposes the man as he saw himself in the mirror. The man, who had manipulated the actualities of the lives of his girlfriends to produce scandalous and defamatory works, is also the same man desperately looking for a woman’s love. The genius of the crowd, he reminds us, lies in its hate and not in its love. Bodies of mutilated people rotting away in the quiet conspiracy of their houses (“safe”), of wives who cheat, in turn, on their adulterous husbands, fleet across the pages in perilous succession. They have all succumbed. The calumnious and calamitous desire of the human heart is betrayed, time-and-time-again.

Eventually, though, it is the admission of a certain degree of self-perseverance, of an indefatigable dignity (and not his “machismo”) that clears the shroud, as it were. Love is the desired painkiller in a world where relationships have collapsed. He recuperates the word from the brink of disrupted communication. The reality of the American dream has proved an illusion. Corrupt governments in debt, prisons overflowing with prisoners are components of this real “dystopia”. The self, untethered to any larger principles, of patriotism, God, or likewise, can only wait for an absolution, or for the next “fix’, and then wait some more, as “monkey feet/small and blue/walk toward” him (“ha ha ha”)…

His engagement with his surroundings was less a matter of politicization, and mostly entailed the distillation of other’s realities into poetry, albeit his reproductions of the lives of fellow acquaintances, co-workers, barmaids and friends are amalgams of fact and fiction. Bukowski toyed with the possibilities of the “most pleasurable” life with reckless abandon. Though he vehemently denied any affiliation to the therapeutic abilities of art, his empathizing with his mother, who was the victim of prolonged domestic abuse, deploys the language of a serene violence to echo the reality of many other households. He remembers his childhood days not merely through the lens of the Great Depression, or immigration blues, but also vis-à-vis his memory of the torrential outpour or the chicness of the streets. His touch is personal, tenuous in its fright, idiosyncratic in its staunchness. Such a conflation of the personal and the political accentuates the dramatic undertones in “Van Gogh”, where the speaker laments not for the painter’s untimely, posthumous recognition, but for his having led a life wherein “the other kind of love” never arrived. His views on Lorca, Eliot and others are sensationalist at the very best, and underpin a certain historical reductivism that can be easy to overlook.

The Pleasures of the Damned reads like the confessions of an entire age, for an entire age. Each word is sacrosanct, an entity of immediate purpose, and what they collectively evoke is the truth of the underclass, the outsiders, and most significantly, the individual self in situ—all crusading against the adversities of life, and asserting their will to live. The subversive potential shared by the poems is borne by the “I”, which insists that the self must be defended from the psychiatrists and the philosophers, from the clutches of all authority or from the bewilderment of illusions and conformity. The degeneration of humanity, with its frenzied appetite for self-destruction was hardly a unique obsessive concern for any modernist poet. But, as the anthology evinces, and, in contrast with the popular view of his poems being “nihilistic”, I think that the poems of Charles Bukowski inhabit the space where wounds are negotiated, conscience is proffered to the Gods. The air is seething with resentment, but also looming with resignation to a relentless, exacting cycle of life and death:

         born like this

          into this

          as the chalk faces smile

          as Mrs. Death laughs

          as the elevators break

          as political landscapes dissolve

          as the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree

          as the oily fish spit out their oily prey…

                                                          (“Dinosauria, we”)

Hugh Fox has referred to the Bukowski who “is all 300 pound whores,… rundown bars, rundown bars, rundown apartments, beer, the D. T.’s, jail, slugging it out, screwing”[1] as “The Great American Myth Bukowski that the young poet studs have hooked on to.”[2] It is not difficult to imagine why the man whose gravestone epitaph reads “Don’t Try” has reached out to the disenchanted hordes. The poems in the collection, while not diluting the experiential nature of the man, compellingly allows for the poems to speak sans the glamorized cult figure of the man. These are the subversive lullabies for the next generation. They make us rethink, revaluate, and dare I say, relate. Bukowski’s poetic art is incontestably direct, mimetic. The volume of poems described by Martin as “the best of the best of Bukowski” could have only been the product of a world which had exhausted itself of all possibilities of sustaining itself with a singular, overarching mode of philosophy, much less in poetry. It is the last night of the earth. The old man puts the bluebird back in his heart.

-Pritam Bhaumik

[1] Hugh Fox, “The Living Underground: Charles Bukowski.” The North American Review, Vol. 254, No. 3 (Fall, 1969), pp. 57-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25117001. Accessed: 16/08/2015.

[2][2] Ibid.

 

“Embracing Life”: The Quest for Self-Fulfillment of a Woman in Dear Zindagi

 

Directed by Gauri Shinde, 2016.

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When we look at the representation of women protagonists in mainstream Hindi cinema we note an abundance of stereotypical characters: the coy beloved, the helpless damsel in distress, the evil femme fatale, the conservative mother-in-law, etc. Very few commercial Bollywood directors have managed to subvert or challenge these stereotypical representations of women characters. However, in recent years representations of women protagonists are changing with women directors making films which feature strong female characters. Gauri Shinde is one such director. She made her debut four years earlier with English Vinglish (2012) which depicted a middle-class housewife’s struggle for self-esteem. Shinde returns to the screens with the story of another woman’s search for self-fulfillment in Dear Zindagi.

Dear Zindagi revolves round the character of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) who is a cinematographer with the ambition of wanting to shoot an entire feature film of her own. Kaira is talented as a cinematographer, is very good at her job, and refuses to conform to the traditional norms governing a woman’s life in India. She chooses to live a bohemian life, moving from relationship to relationship, letting life take its course. However, as the film progresses we learn of Kaira’s difficulties. As a professional photographer she wants to be valued for her talent but in the chauvinistic patriarchal domain of the cinematic world her looks tend to become more valuable than her work. Kaira is rendered vulnerable in her anxieties over the reasons for the work opportunities she gets; often wondering whether her professional skills matter to her male bosses. Furthermore her landlord asks her to vacate the house as “she is single” and in her confused and, turbulent emotional state, she decides to shift to her hometown, Goa, where she meets the maverick psychiatrist, Jehangir Khan, affectionately called Jug by all (Shah Rukh Khan).

The film continues its story through the unusual medium of the therapy sessions between Jug and Kaira, where we see Kaira sharing her problems and resurrecting her fractured self esteem through the cathartic sharing of her experiences. By revolving a large part of the film around Kaira’s sessions with her therapist, Shinde challenges stereotypical cinematic narration in Bollywood. By delving into the emotional turmoil of her protagonist Shinde subverts the traditional depiction of the coy, beautiful heroine who remains a mere prop in a male-centric story. Kaira emerges as a humane female character with her fears over her professional and personal life. More importantly, she is a bold woman who does not shy away from confessing to cheating on her boyfriend or walking out on her prospective lover. In the final climatic scene, Kaira confronts her parents about abandoning her as a child.

Through her meetings and chats with Jug, Kaira starts to emerge from her shackled prison of fears. Jug makes her see that fear of abandonment leads her to fear her present relationships as well as professional successes. Alia Bhatt renders a brilliant performance as Kaira, portraying naturally the evolution of the insecure, fearful woman into a confident, assured cinematographer who produces her first short film. By the final scenes of the film we see a gradual transformation in the character of Kaira: she evntually grows into a self assured person, making efforts to have reconciling talks with her parents as well as finishing her film project. The film ends with the shot of a viewing of Kaira’s short film, where she meets a furniture dealer who may or may not be a prospective lover.

Kaira eventually finds fulfillment through acceptance. What is most positive is that she reaches this self assuredness through her own efforts, helped by a professional psychologist, not, as is the usual norm in commercial cinema, through the assistance of a masochistic lover. The end of the film is open ended, with Kaira able to look forward to a fresh relationship but not in compulsive need of one. Shinde challenges the ‘happily ever after’ endings of conventional Bollywood where the heroine has to wed her ‘knight in shining armor’. Shinde takes the trope of the slice of life tale and uses the ‘lessons’ to reveal the pragmatic challenges faced by present day professional women in India. Shah Rukh Khan gives a memorable performance as Jug: his rendering of the therapist is elegantly charming, and his witty wisdoms often generate poignantly ironic humor.

What the film lacks, perhaps, is subtlety of execution. The need for constant articulation of every message spoils the smooth development of the plot, with many of Jug’s and Kaira’s exchanges seeming enforced. English Vinglish never preached to us; Dear Zindagi sometimes does lapse into preaching mode. However, Kaira is a character to root for, and her final triumph is a joy not just for her but for every woman who has confronted questions of self esteem, professional doubts, and personal relationship turbulences. Kaira reaches self fulfillment through living life, by playing with the waves on the beach, by taking long bicycle rides, by “embracing life” to the fullest. Dear Zindagi as a film celebrates life; it traces the journey of self hood of a young woman and concludes with the woman able to view herself with calm confidence and assurance. In a cinematic culture that glorifies and reinforces melodramatic machismo and patriarchal hegemony, a simple tale of a troubled woman’s quest for selfhood is indeed a pleasant departure.

-Somrita Misra