Interpreting Maladies

 

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The Constitutional Idea of India is under Threat

The last week has been yet another bloody reminder of all the maladies that threaten our future. A DSP was lynched to death in front of a mosque in Srinagar in Kashmir without any immediate cause. On the other hand a row over seats in a local train running from Delhi to Mathura escalated into a communal assault which claimed the life of one Muslim youth, returning home for Eid, while seriously injuring his brother and their two friends.

Given the propensity for crime and violence in India, such events are themselves insignificant from a statistical perspective. But they hint at deeper, corrosive fissures which would engulf us all.

The young men returning home for Eid were accosted by fellow passengers who demanded spaces to sit. Now, everyone who travels by local trains in India is familiar with traditional problems regarding lack of punctuality, overcrowding and various forms of associated discomfort which in this sweltering heat, often leads to bouts of anger, name calling and even occasional pushing and shoving. But what happened here was rather different. The seated youths had even offered a seat to an old man of the outraged group in an effort to smooth things over. But such courtesy proved ineffectual. Soon they began to be heckled by the aggressive newly boarded passengers who started making provocative comments regarding the fez caps on their heads, the beards on their faces, whether or not they ate beef and why they were at all residing in India. The external symbols of their religious identity had made them targets of fanatical hatred in the same way that people are generally identified and assaulted during riots. But things did not stop at words. Eventually the young men, Junaid, Mohsin, Hashim and Moeen were attacked by the mob and Junaid was stabbed to death while the others received serious injuries.

Such an event exposes the intense currents of communal hatred coursing through the Indian body politic, especially in various parts of North India. What it also foregrounds is a changing perception of normalcy. A mere discord over seats in a local train culminating in a communal hate crime is not something that one associates with civic life in India. Generally, communal violence in India has been the result of systematic political strategy or mobilisation based on inflammatory issues of one kind or another. And we have generally deluded ourselves by thinking that such violence is a kind of aberration that occurs outside the general stream of history. But the history of the present is a history of a different order. We now have digitally connected vigilante groups who are ready to kill at the mere suspicion of possession of beef, irrespective of whether eating beef is legal or not. We have international theocratic conferences from which are launched venomous declarations regarding the establishment of Hindurashtra and the eradication of the religious minorities. We have an administration that remains silent and indifferent in the face of communal violence and contributes to the covert consolidation of violent fanatics in the name of religion and patriotism. And such is the level of our apathy and moral bankruptcy that even though the body of 16 year old Junaid lay on the platform of Asaoti station, no eye witness can be found to aid the police investigation. In the process, the secular fabric of India is becoming more and more a constitutional fiction being crushed by the murderous weight of a sordid reality. But when merchants of death are democratically placed on the thrones of power, should we expect anything different?

Unfortunately something similarly grim and inhuman happened a day before in Srinagar where DSP  Mohammad Ayub Pandith was lynched to death in front of the Jama Masjid in Nowhatta, Srinagar by an angry mob that attacked him without any apparent provocation. Only a few weeks ago Feroz Dar of the Indian army had been attacked and killed in Achabal while he was returning home from duty. In both cases, there was no apparent cause of conflict, no immediate provocation. Yet the men were gruesomely assaulted and murdered by angry mobs who perhaps only saw them as representatives of an administration that they intensely hate, of a state they wish to disown. While Hindu religious fanatics reduce all Muslims to potential terrorists or hostile Pakistanis, for a section of the Kashmiri population, anyone associated with the state or the administration has simply become a creature deprived of humanity who might be remorselessly assassinated. However, given the protracted conflict in Kashmir and the kind of torture and losses many Kashmiris have had to endure, this too seems inevitable. Cycles of hatred have a tendency to harden one’s heart and flood the normal world with unprecedented abominations.

Such abominations seem particularly damaging to ordinary Indian Muslims. On the one hand they are constantly being targeted and victimized by Hindu fanatics who are ready to spill blood without any provocation at all, and on the other hand, they are being targeted by Jihadi mobs or terrorists if they become associated with the state in any form. They are becoming the nowhere-men in their own motherland.

One would have thought that, seventy years after achieving a bloody independence marked by catastrophic partition riots, we as a nation would strive to ensure that such blunders are never repeated. Instead, we continue to sow the seeds of hatred, through political organisations, the education system, electronic media and of course the fanatical trolls in social networking sites.

I have long stopped believing in the righteousness of the silent majority who would eventually rise against the forces of division and carnage. The political masterminds who preside over the murders of Junaid or Akhlaq or others have come to the conclusion that incremental violence, as opposed to protracted genocides, will not result in electoral backlash. And they are being ably aided by those who are responsible for the murders of Feroz Dar and DSP Pandith as communalisms tend to feed off each other.

What then? I don’t know. The Idea of India is under threat. The Death Eaters are gaining momentum. Can we raise a Dumbledore’s Army potent enough to take on the Dark Lords? The Midnight’s Children are in desperate need of some magic.

P. S. 3 more persons have been killed today by cow-vigilantes.

It is also the 20 year anniversary of the first publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

 

 

A Death in the Gunj – A striking debut

Directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, 2017

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Konkona Sen Sharma’s A rated debut film is a chamber drama, unfolding dreamily in the mystic light of a forestry Anglo-Indian settlement in Jharkhand of the 70-s. It starts off with two men (Nandu and Brian) peering down a car’s trunk, thinking aloud of how best to tuck in a “body”. A summer-sky blue car of the yesteryears then travels along the wintry paths to a holiday retreat- the mansion of the Bakshis in McCluskiegunj. The narrative by then has jumped a week backwards and plays out like a journalistic account with numbered days.

Right from the party’s arrival at Anupama and O.P.’s household, the exchanges in English with a few Bengali greetings and phrases thrown in, acquaint us with a mélange of characters suffering the cultural superiority of a colonial hangover.  The dominant mood is that of banter and the inner tensions of all vacationing members seem to concentrate on Shutu- a withdrawn 23 year old.  In fact the film could have been all about Shutu, the eternally hurt and abused ‘softie’ in the family whose meekness equally entertains and irritates others. His elder brother tries to ‘man’ him up the tough way, flicking him on the head and insisting he drive a car even when he clearly refuses. Reeking of machismo- Vikram bruises him during a game of kabaddi; Anupama disapproves of the mean-mindedness in the clichéd one-liner- “boys will be boys” at the dinner table. But we soon see that the women are no less when it comes to bullying, Mimi (played by the vivacious Kalki) calls him “pretty”, has drunk intercourse with him- riding him on a rocking chair in a very intelligently detailed scene that builds up your anticipation through suggestive tropes, and then leaves him.

Irresponsibility runs through the film like the haunting background scores that mix Indian folk songs with Tagore’s ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’ and Burn’s “Auld Lang Syne”. Shutu is absconding from his home; he has turned up at his maternal aunt’s house for retreat, keeping his guilt at bay from his mother’s weary voice that makes its way into the film through letters and a terribly one-sided telephone conversation. He has failed his post-graduation exams and is hung up on his father’s death. Tilottoma and Nandu, while clearly dismissing Shutu as an “imbecile”, still leave their daughter- the eight year old Tani under his care. So that when she goes missing, the blame is clearly on his imbecility. Tani, in turn, is super excited to adopt a puppy whom she names Fluffy but soon loses the will to care and it ends up straying around.

In a tenderly amusing moment, the film shows Fluffy sharing an idyllic family dinner with the servants; the housemaid hand-feeds him a plate of rice as her husband has his meal by their side.  In the family’s visit to Ms. Mckenzie’s place for lunch, we hear her dishes being highly praised as the camera covers them in detail but, immediately we are offered a glimpse of her in the kitchen- licking the ladle with which she stirs and serves the food. We are nudged awake to her lack of hygiene. Equally tickling is the servant’s lack of concern when he discovers Shutu in a ditch- very matter-of-factly he exclaims that it is strange of him to slouch in a ditch when the whole family is looking for him. The film is replete with these wry flashes of humour.

Also, the servant’s discovery of Shutu in the ditch comes after minutes of agitation over the lost child. The narrative drops red herrings like Miss Curney stealthily visiting the grave of her daughter who died an infant and Tani reciting a poem where she wishes to be six forever, making you flinch for the worst when Tani goes missing. In an exceptional stroke, Sharma returns the child unceremoniously home while having moved on to Shutu’s trepidations in the ditch he falls into on his search for Tani in the woods at night.

We see glimpses of suppressed rage in Shutu all along (as he is wronged time and again) but pass over just like the film’s cast does till all goes berserk in the final moments. The death happens as announced right in the title (which thankfully was not a red herring!) but there again, the director makes visual poetry out of the gore. In an arresting shot, the blood splatters all over the bark of the family tree where their names are etched (Tani and Shutu trace the names on the first day of the trip) and trickles down in slow motion. A couple of minutes later, we see Shutu- wafer-like and haunting in the backseat of the car (which also carries the corpse) as he is driven back to the city.

Needless to say, Sen Sharma’s debut which has been critically acclaimed for its “assuredness” deals with human psyche in a charming way. Even while Shutu runs the risk of being reduced to a trope (for campaigning) precisely because the narrative never wanders far from his basic predicament, the story balances it out. The other full-bodied characters, the games and gaiety, the suspense and humour come together to give you a comprehensive experience of watching cinema. For me, one of the most warm takeaways is the friendship between Shutu and Tani (Shutu’s only true bond), and the hurt when the former acts forgetful about it.

– Barnamala Roy

The search is all that matters: A note on Ashish Avikunthak’s ‘Kalkimanthankatha’

For a young research student, working on the works of Samuel Beckett, Ashish Avikunthak’s Kalkimanthankatha is an important lesson on reading methodology. I wonder, when I first read Waiting For Godot almost seven years back around the time I was graduating from high school, what did I find so pertinently interesting about the text. Is it the obscurity or the abstraction? Is it poetic sensibility expressed through prosaic precision? These questions have lost their relevance over the years as I re-read the text and realized that they not matter. The text has borne its own relevance every time I have gone back to read it and it continues to change. What could have been the intention of the author is not as important to me any more as the various problems and possibilities the text poses to the reader.

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In Avikunthak’s film I find the same spirit of a growing distance from the author that eventually brought the film closer and closer to the Beckettian spirit. Contrary to the Beckett text: the setting continuously changes, even though the location remains the same; the clothing of the characters also keep altering and in the end serve as an important symbol in the film when finally abandoned; and instead of four, the film has only two characters waiting for the arrival of ‘Kalki’— the last avatar of Vishnu. In fact the characters do not wait, rather they use the word ‘search’ that perhaps justifies their movement across the space instead of staggering around a confined spot.

In the film, Beckett’s text is read into Mao’s statements. The confusion over language and philosophy that is one of the thematic facets of the text is thus interwoven into the film as the characters read out from the little Red Book in mundane monotonous module. One wonders if it is a Beckettian reading of Mao or Maoist reading of Beckett, but in the end it is neither since the film tries to fall  back upon the political via an act of abandonment of textual language carried out by the characters as their bodies turn to absolute bareness much like the setting in the Beckett text itself — ‘A country road. A tree. Evening’.

The bareness of the bodies stands in between continuous attempts at looking backward to an ideology that has largely failed, and is heading toward a future of indifference. And it is at the face of such crises of memory and hope, past and future, that the characters live out their present in search of someone who has made a promise. If the political is imbued within the act of search itself, the bodies in their absolute bareness, become the space and means of politics. Instead of being read as metaphorical exposure of the political confusions and indifference of our times, they should be recognized as materialization of the anguish that politics proclaims, and constitutive of the materiality of politics. Hence, the identity of Kalki, like the identity of Godot, is no longer relevant here — the search being undertaken by these characters is all that matters while being together, like comrades like lovers, two shadows walking bare in the allegorical mist.

The element of the absurd propounded by Beckett’s text lies in the method in which the film is executed. The dialogues are composed in an unexpectedly refined and lyrical Bengali delivered by the characters that wear very ordinary contemporary outfits; or the sudden shift in colour and tone of the screen are various instances contributing to the sense of absurdity which is if not always Beckettian, very cinematic. Beckett had often expressed his discontent with the cinematic medium when it came to the adaptation of his dramatic works meant for the stage. He was not sure if the screen space was suitable to explore the architecture of his plays. Therefore, the filmmaker has to distance himself from Beckett while abiding by the Beckettian spirit nonetheless, only to rethink the plot in cinematic terms. Perhaps Avikunthak’s reading of Beckett into film would be a fitting tribute to the master and his opinion — but what one takes back from the experience is that reading itself, at once political and cinematic, sustained through the potent performances of Joyraj Bhattacharjee and Sagnik Mukherjee.

– Samudranil Gupta