জাহান্নাম 

1. জাহান্নাম
মাটির নীচে দু’হাত বিকেল। কৃষ্ণচূড়ায় লেপ্টে ঘাম।
পা রেখেছি পাতালরেলে। তোমার বাড়ি জাহান্নাম।
হয়ত যেত অন্য মানুষ। হয়ত হত অন্য শেষ।
সন্ধ্যে নিত অন্য জীবন। রাত্রি হত অন্য দেশ..
কীংবা তুমি মৃত্যুমুখী। তোমার কফিন অন্ধকার।
কী বোঝাবে সন্ধ্যে তাকে মৃত্যুযোগে জন্ম যার..
কিন্তু খসে পলেস্তারা। ফাটল ধরায় বিধির বাম।
সন্ধ্যে নামে পাতালরেলে। তোমার বাড়ি জাহান্নাম।
জলপ্রপাত থাকলে হতো। শ্যাওলা পাথর, অন্য ভয়..
জলের হদিস থাকলে কী আর উৎস থেকে ফিরতে হয়?
প্রশ্ন শুনে চমকে উঠি। কোথায় গেল পুতুলনাচ?
ঘরের মানুষ ফিরছে ঘরে। আয়না একই। অন্য কাচ..
পায়ের নীচে খেলছে তড়িৎ। বাদবাকি সব মর্ষকাম।
রাত্রি ফেরে পাতালরেলে। তোমার বাড়ি জাহান্নাম।
2. অশ্বমেধ
ভীষণ মাতাল সিঁড়ি, ষোলোর পায়ে পা, ক্লাউড নাইনে ঢিল, শূন্যে চোট
নেহাত অবাধ্যই, কে কাকে টানছে, কার কাঁটায় কার ঠাসবুনোট
তুমুল তর্ক শেষে আবার লাইনে পা, ক্লান্ত চৌকাঠে অন্য মত
দরজা দেওয়ার আগে এক ঝলক ফের, জুতোর মনে থাক কক্ষপথ
খোলস নামিয়ে রেখে শরীর স্নানের ঘরে, তৃতীয় সন্ধ্যার সূর্য ম্লান
আগুন জ্বালতে চেয়ে জেহাদী দেশলাই, তবুও ভিজে যাক অগ্নিবাণ
জমানা বসে যাক প্রবল বর্ষণে, বাষ্পে জমা থাক লক্ষ্যভেদ
একুশ জন্ম নিক ষোলোর মরশুমে, দেওয়াল চিনে নিক অশ্বমেধ!
3. আরামদিন
চিবোও কাকা শহর চিবোও
তিতকুটে এক চিউয়িংগাম
ভাল্লাগে না সন্ধ্ব্যবেলা
আঁতেলপনার সংঘারাম
নাগরদোলায় ঊর্ধ্বে চলো
পায়ের তলায় মুব্ধ ভিড়
বৃন্দাবনের পাহারাদার
ধরণধারণ বিপ্লবীর
বৃষ্টি-কাঁটায় শরীর ভেজাও
গলায় নরম উষ্ণতা
আদর দিয়েই হিসেব হতো
জুতোর মালা অন্যথা
রং লেগে যায় চোখ-মণিতে
হাতের আঙুল নপুংসক
তেমন হলে জলকেলিতে
ভিজিয়ে নিও গোপন ত্বক
খামখেয়ালি জীবনযাপন
মন্দ তো নয় কি চার্মিং
শহর চিবোও কফির সাথে
আজকে তোমার আরামদিন
আমার হাতে ধোঁয়ার কাঠি
জাগলে নাকি? চুমুক চাই?
যে যাই বলুক, আমরা জানি
শ্যামের বুকে ক’জন রাই!

Teachers’ Metamorphosis: Instrumental Rationality and Academic Clerkship

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Umbridge’s mayhem isn’t as alien as we would like

The modern Indian academia is haunted by apocalyptic acronyms like CAS, NAAC, RUSA and not to mention that progenitor of endless eccentricities: UGC. What generates the spectral power of these acronyms is the nexus between money and paperwork to which are subjected young academics full of hope and promise and intellectual acuity who realise soon enough that the system only demands imitation, repetition and boundless vacuity. A college or university needs adequate infrastructure for a teacher to impart education properly to students. To that end it needs adequate financial grants. Hence the inevitability of NAAC and RUSA. But the teachers also need to lead a reasonably worry-free life to dedicate themselves to the project of learning and teaching. And s/he may have committed the blunder of having a family. So s/he needs money, and given the inflation in this country and the rising cost of medical assistance, food and accommodation, quite a lot of money. So s/he needs (and deserves) upward movement along the academic ladder popularly known as the promotion. Hence the relevance of CAS (Career Advancement Scheme). What binds these acronyms together is the demand for production of endless papers with different formats, immense data and repetitive hollow rhetoric of many kinds, all of which is supposed to justify either the distribution of money to institutions or to individuals. For example, anyone who has had to endure the pathetic farce that unfolds in the name of a NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) visit will know how the whole college is forced into a collective enterprise of fabrication, manipulation and concoction of data that covers almost everything from what percentage of SC/ST students were there in the college 5 years ago to what is being done by students who passed out from the college, some of whom did not even bother to attend the classes while they were there. And much of this conjuration happens through a process of duplication where one canny colleague smuggles in the SSR (another pesky bugger) of a college that has recently suffered NAAC and the current victim-to-be simply changes the name and the relevant data with what the former-victim has painstakingly (maybe not, may have been re-appropriated from the similar document from yet another co-suffering institution) fudged for months. As stated before all these translate into imitation, repetition and boundless vacuity. Something similar happens for CAS. One’s ability, dutifulness and accountability is measured through reams of paper congealed into an apparently fat file whose weight alone should impress prospective experts among whom one may even find associate professors or professors who have never qualified NET (National Eligibility Test) and have climbed the ladders of academic hierarchy with somnambulist stupefaction. None of these processes have anything to do with the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge which is supposed to be the essence of academia, or which should have been the guiding principle of academic life. Instead, teachers are forced more and more into immersing themselves in exhausting paper work.  And they also have to sit idle for hours while waiting for students to arrive with proper papers during admission season. And they have to draft stale and perfunctory letters to different offices and departments for assistance during examinations.  And they even serve as presiding officers during elections. None of this has anything to do with pursuit and dissemination of knowledge which alone should be the task of teachers. Academic institutions are supposed to be endowed with non-academic staff who should be able to take care of the other stuff as they are not professionally bound to pursue and disseminate knowledge – a task that requires single-minded devotion. While there is no denying that a group of people involved in teaching presently are incapable of such devotion and undermine the profession by dabbling in ten thousand other things, there has also been a systemic devaluation of the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, mainly by clubbing it with other professions and by introducing alien mensurational methods based on quantification which are utterly incompatible with the academic vocation. The thrill that one feels when one learns something new or the ecstasy that courses through one’s veins when s/he is able to impassionately teach something and see the glint of recognition in the eyes of the audience – these are immeasurably precious experiences which cannot be identified through quantifiable data and attendant analysis. Teaching and the alchemic communication that takes place at times through teaching is a matter of affect, a visceral tripartite bond between the teacher, the student and the text which arouses wonder, stirs the intellect and motivates the heart to soar like the skylark into a Rushdie-esque sea of stories where multi-coloured strands of stories are merging and splitting into innumerable other strands of inexplicable hues. Teaching is supposed to be a plunge into such oceans where the teacher first guides and then allows the student to swim in his/her own style, with his/her chosen currents towards whatever shore he/she envisions. None of this is a matter of quantifiable data and mechanical procedures culminating in points/numbers/grades. But there is no daring prince in this land of cards who might shake things up with his defiant tunes and gestures.

Such absence is evidence of the total domination of instrumental rationality over the lifeworld of our societies. Since capital only moves through the abstract hyperspace of data, numbers, figures and performance models of one kind or another, the growing commercialization of the education sphere has meant a pervasive integration of the teachers with the rationality of capitalist domination and as an obvious outcome we have become shackled in a world of spectral mechanisms of control heralded by the notorious acronyms with which I began.  The result of such control is the gradual transformation of teachers into a hybridised clerk whose greater qualifications only breed frustration and discontent as he/she remains chained to various forms of bureaucratic drudgery that clinically oppose that realm of freedom, innovation, experiment and affective bond which the academic world deserves and yearns for. Even the grand old Shantiniketan of Rabindranath is no exception to this process. Mercuse’s nightmare is coming true, the one-dimensional man is proliferating through the flatlands of Indian academia.

“Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? 

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 

I do not think that they will sing to me”.

 

Will these lines be our chorus then? Or will we dare to “bombard the headquarters” (figuratively, of course)?

 

Bridging the ‘Great Hiatus’: The Oriental Afterlife of Sherlock Holmes

One wonders if any other fictional character has enjoyed as numerous and diverse afterlives as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. While a rapid proliferation of Neo-Victorian literature post 1950 has witnessed the rebirth of marginal Victorian characters [such as Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason as Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Dicken’s Magwitch as the eponymous hero in Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to name a few], they are written in the vein of the Empire writing back, and provide an alternative version to the imperial parent texts by turning the peripheral figures into protagonists. However, the huge repertoire of parodies and pastiches that Sherlock Holmes enjoys, is singular and astounding.1 Even before the demise of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, the world of literature witnessed the birth of quite a few parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. J. M Barrie’s My Evening with Sherlock Holmes (1891) is the first parody followed by the pastiche The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet (1920) by Vincent Starrett. Conan Doyle’s relation with such reproductions of Sherlock Holmes was ambiguous. While Barrie earned his praise, he maintained his silence on the other parodies and pastiches, but refrained from granting his permission to the latter, if sought before publication.

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After the death of Conan Doyle, the door was opened to writers from around the globe to rewrite and redefine Sherlock Holmes in new colours. Nicholas Meyer in The Seven Percent Solution (1974) pushes to periphery the detection skills of Holmes and instead focuses on his cocaine addiction, and blurs the boundary between fiction and fact by showing Holmes being treated by the historical figure of Sigmund Freud. Four years later was published Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, which exposes the darker side of the detective by showing him to be a perpetrator of the crimes that he solves, and the antagonist Moriarty as a fictitious invention of his insanity. To make a record of the numerous other pastiches is beyond the scope and aim of this article. However, what is relevant is the difference between two broad (and loosely arranged) categories of Sherlock Holmes pastiches: the first comprises those narratives that reveal different unspoken, or newly constructed, aspects of Holmes’s life, such as his weakness for drugs, his homosexual relation with Dr. Watson, or his wife who surpasses him as a more efficient (female) detective; the second category consists of narratives that try to fill up the gap of the years between his apparent ‘death’ at the Reichenbach Falls following a confrontation with his arch-enemy Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’ and his subsequent reappearance in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’. In ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, Holmes tells Watson that following his apparent ‘death’, he “travelled for two years in Tibet . . . amused [himself] by visiting Lhassa” under the name Sigerson and thereafter “passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum”.2  This little piece of information, left unexplored by Conan Doyle, is extremely interesting against his treatment of the Orient in the adventures of the detective. True to the imperialistic fervour of his age, he portrays the Orient, especially India, as a hotbed of crime, cold-blooded criminals, and a savage race in dire need of a colonial education of civilisation.3 Having had the East thus depicted, the question arises as to how did the sleuth negotiate with the topography, culture, custom and people of the Oriental spaces when he traverses them in person. That such a negotiation is contingent upon the writers of the Oriental pastiches, is evident from the widely differing treatment of the issue in Ted Riccardi’s The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (2003) and Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999). Riccardi’s collection of tales is based on the assumption that the British empire was losing its grip over the colonies, giving way to an outburst of murders and mayhem uncontrollable by the local authorities and the occidental figure of Sherlock Holmes was required to solve the crimes and establish order. Hence travels Holmes from Lhassa to Kathmandu, from Calcutta to the deserts of Rajasthan, all the while caught up in the diplomatic machinations of British imperialism that Rudyard Kipling dubbed “the Great Game”. Though Riccardi takes care to include local colours and customs in his tales, his rhetoric fails to break out of the colonial register. Hence, what is described of Calcutta, for instance, is its “native squalor”, the “humid pungency” of its climate, and the “unusual possibilities for crime and evil” that the city boasts of.4 The Indian Brahman is described as “swarthy”, or dark-complexioned, which explicitly reveals that Riccardi is complicit in the colonial discourse of race and colour. Also, while Riccardi’s Holmes has to take indigenous help, such as the aid of an Indian servant, or a knowledge of the Devnagri script, or an understanding of the deities of the Hindu pantheon (the Goddess Kali and the architecture of a Kali temple, for example, in ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’), he nonetheless, remains largely distant from being absorbed in the Oriental atmosphere. Most of the crimes are traced back to England, and a number of them are solved in entirety only after Holmes’s return to London. Contrary to Riccardi, whose bridging of the ‘Great Hiatus’ is in line with the original imperial plots, that of Norbu is an unveiling of an Orient unseen by the Victorian British readers of Sherlock Holmes.

In The Mandala, Sherlock Holmes arrives in India as the Norwegian Sigerson following the conflict with Dr. Moriarty and immediately connects with a cast of characters borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s fictions. Among these, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the Bengali spy from Kim (1901), becomes a central figure, enacting the role of an (Indian) Dr Watson. In giving Hurree a physical agility that matches Dr. Watson’s and making him perform crucial acts, especially in the climax of the novel, Norbu subverts Kipling’s caricature of the obese colonised Babu. Norbu’s Holmes, in a series of adventures, dodges attempts on his life, solves an exotic murder, and journeys to Tibet, where he saves the young Dalai Lama from an assassination attempt masterminded by the still living Moriarty, now an agent for the Chinese. Norbu positions Holmes as having his Western rational certainties destabilised by encounters with Eastern mystical thoughts. In his narrative, the arch defender of rational observation accepts that in the enigmatic lands of the East, not everything could be analysed or understood by exercising the faculties of reason. Holmes and Moriarty are portrayed as enemies in two different but interconnected lives. Eighteen years ago, “The Dark One” and Gangsar of Tibet were two of the greatest adepts of the century at The College of Occult Sciences in Lhassa. The Dark One tried to kill the Grand Lama but ended up killing Gangsar who had rushed to save the Lama’s life. The Dark One was temporarily robbed of all his powers by the Grand Master of the College. It is later revealed that he has returned as the evil Moriarty to face Holmes into whose physical body was transferred the life forces of Gangsar by the yoga of “Pho-wa”.5 Working within a framework of Tibetan religion, history, and philosophy, Norbu’s Holmes becomes a part of the Orient. His meditative composure, celibate life, and keen observational powers can, therefore, be attributed to the life-force of an Oriental monk that he carries within him, making him an amalgamation of the East and the West. Unlike Riccardi, for whom the East merely serves as a backdrop where Holmes had spent his underground years, Tibet springs to life in Norbu’s tale. The Sherlock Holmes of 221 B Baker Street, is enmeshed in the history of Tibet, and at the close of the narrative is “attired in wine-red monastic robes, tall and imposing . . . accompanied by his disciples” standing at the monastery gate.6

 

 

Notes:   

  1. This article is limiting itself to a selection from among the printed parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. Apart from them, there are loads of rewritings of Holmes on web as well as on celluloid.
  2. ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ in The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), p.488.
  3. See for example, The Sign of Four.
  4. ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’ in The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (New York: Pegasus Books). Ebook.
  5. Pho-wa is “the yoga of transferring the principle of consciousness from one incarnation to the next without suffering any break in the continuity of consciousness” (Norbu, 242).
  6. Jamyang Norbu. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (Noida: Harper Collins, 2008). p.259.

 

-Deblina Hazra

Love in the time of Darj’healing’

As I type this on a lazy Sunday morning, the hills that were supposed to be smiling, are actually burning and smack of gunpowder. Reports of fresh violence have trickled in and if some of my friends and acquaintances living in North Bengal and the Darjeeling district are to be believed, there has been a clampdown on Internet services. With a period of relative normalcy and peace in the last few years, the clamour for a separate state of Gorkhaland has found voice again. And this is not just a murmer or a whimper, it is slowly developing into a war cry.

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Since the formation of the independent India, various states/ tribes have demanded autonomy. Some struggles have found success, like the creation of a new state in Telengana, some have seen bloodshed like the demand for Khalistan and some like the Gorkhaland movement have hung in a limbo for almost two decades. The Gorkhaland agitation seems to have been the culmination of decades of exploitation and a particular ethnic group being labelled, stereotyped and marginalised.It is independence from the state that this ethnic group sought and not from the country. The complaint was of years of neglect and domination by the Bengali population and intelligentsia, in matters of jobs and opportunities in the government and the private sectors.

In today’s Darjeeling however, the term Gorkha tends to be applied to all Nepali-speaking people. What unites them all is probably their common aversion to the Bengali majority. Despite their immense contribution to the country and society, the majority of the Gorkhas are still second rate citizens and live without any solid base of livelihood and adequate educational and developemental facilities.  In the main industries of the Darjeeling district, Nepalis constitute the vast majority of the workforce, but are almost wholly absent from the ownership or management positions wich invariably have gone to the plainspeople.

The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front originally led the movement, which disrupted the district with massive violence between 1986 and 1988. The issue was resolved, at least temporarily, in 1988 with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal. The Gorkhaland movement distinguished Darjeeling Gorkhas from nationals of Nepal legally resident in India, from Nepali-speaking Indian citizens from other parts of the country, and even from the majority in neighboring Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language. The movement was emphatic that it had no desire to separate from India, only from the state of West Bengal. Gorkhaland supporters therefore preferred to call the Gorkhas’ language Gorkhali rather than Nepali, although they did not attempt to claim there is any linguistic difference from what other people call Nepali. The 1981 census of India, whether in deference to this sentiment or for some other reason, called the language Gorkhali/Nepali. However, when the Eighth Schedule of the constitution was amended in 1992 to make it a Scheduled Language, the term Nepali alone was used. It is to be remembered that in the past SubhasGhising had argued that Nepali was a foreign language and was terribly unhappy with its inclusion in the 8th schedule. This can be primarily traced back to the concern of the Indian Nepalese regarding their sense of belonging, for their long time concern has been to search for an appropriate term which would correctly situate them in the nation’s chronicles and distinguish them from the Nepalese born and originating from Nepal. Such was the vehemence that in 1991, the GNLF activists desecrated statues of BhanubhaktaAcharya, who was the author of the first major work of modern Nepali Literature, claiming that the statues honoured a foreign poet.

It’s the denial of basic amenities and the right to self identity and self-determination that has brought them to a point where many term them secessionist and it is the lack of inclusiveness, dialogue and underdevelopment that has ensured the stubbornness with which Gorkhas seek identity.As members of a sovereign secular country, it is a matter of great shame and concernthat its citizens have to demand for their rights with the national flag in their hands, lest they be construed anti- nationals. This blanket of fear has enveloped most parts of the country, and if the West Bengal government looks to continue to stave off fundamentalist divisive forces, which it has successfully done over the years, it has to ensure that there exists a platform for discussion and debate, without the fear of fear eyeing us all.

With other parts of the country still reeling under violence, seeking a separatist identity, with protests and marches and vigils being organised to voice support to particular communities under the threat of physical and psychological violence being inflicted upon them, it is a matter of concern that the greater section of the Bengali community/ Intelligentsia has chosen to remain silent about the unrest that has been growing in the hills. There has not been support, neither there has been condemnation. Part of the problem might be, that throughout the years, it has become embedded in our psyche to look at this particular community in the hills through a definite filter. I would also add that popular culture has been majorly responsible for the perpetuation of the stereotyped Nepali/Gorkha identity by visualising them as nothing more than soldiers in the army or watchmen/gatekeepers in the cities.To have these people suddenly clamouring for self-determination,is almost an affront to the Bengali sensibility. Moreover, Darjeeling and its neighbouring districts have been a favourite tourist spot for Bengalis over the years. The landscape and its beauty have been up there to be consumed, to be enjoyed, to be photographed, almost a passive docile terrain made by the gods for the plains-people to relax in. To have the majority of the population of that region up in arms against the hegemony of a dominant culture, whose bearers have little idea about the lives of the people in the hills, is a blister in the foot.  What complicates matters further is that multidirectional political interests in the hills are leading several people to fish in muddy waters, especially with baits of evocative rhetoric which are often devoid of concrete plans for inclusive welfare.

So where do we go now? The fire has been stoked, people are dying. As it happens in most cases, in chess and in politics, the pawns (read the commoners) are sacrificed in calculated gambits and manoeuvres. If mutual restraint is the order of the day, what should also be on the table is a willingness to solve the impasse before more innocents are killed. Let there be a debate, a healthy one. Let people be aware not only of the geo-political landscape, but also of the convoluted and complex history of an ethnic group. Let there be more people writing about the situation, both for and against autonomy, let more people talk so that Darj might soon be ‘Healing’ from the wounds and scars of unrest and bloodshed. The Argumentative Indian and the Opinionated Bengali can surely make room for a contented Gorkha.

 

“Where There is Light There is Shadow”: The Blend of Fantasy and Magic With Bigotry, Racism, and Prejudice in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directed by David Yates, 2016.

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In 2007 the last novel in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published. Yet ‘Pottermania’ refused to subside. The novels continued to be read and reread; the films were telecast on film channels, and before long the world had started clamoring for a fresh Potter story. It was, in many ways, inevitable that Rowling would revive the wizarding world, both in theatre and cinema. In August 2015 arrived a new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, breaking profit records in the world of theatre in both London and New York. In November 2016 Rowling further delighted her admirers with a new film, based on the Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Based on an original story by Rowling, the film is set in 1920s New York and follows the adventures of a Magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).

     Unlike the Harry Potter novels, the protagonist is an adult and the wizarding world he inhabits is a darker and murkier universe than the familiar and much loved Hogwarts. The film opens with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) landing in New York in search of unusual magical creatures. However, his plans for exploration turn topsy-turvy when his briefcase full of fantastic beasts is exchanged with the case of an ordinary ‘No-Maj’ (non-magic people more familiar to Potterheads as muggles), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Mayhem ensues as Newt’s magical beasts are let loose in New York where they wreck havoc. There are genuine and heartwarmingmoments of humor and entertainment as we see the bewilderment of Jacob, a laborer who dreams of owning his bakery, unable to believe the magical world he has been thrust into and the antics of Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Newt as they race to prevent damage by the magical creatures.

     But interspersed with the humor and wonder of the magical world is violence, prejudice, hatredanddeath. Newt’s astonishingly wonderful magical menagerie is contrasted with the real 1920s New York cityscape. Rowling introduces into her fictional wizarding world a slice of historical fact, with the presence in of the ‘Second Salemers’, an obvious reference to the Salem Witches trial. The conflict between non-magic people and wizards and witches makes the film, in some ways, into a political allegory on the present day problems of intolerance and bigotry as well as the contemporary World War 1 scenario. The American equivalent of the British Ministry of Magic, Macusa, is an authoritarian organization, disallowing marital relationships between ‘No-Majs’ and witches and wizards, and outlawing all ‘dangerous’ magical creatures.

     There are various kinds of surveillance methods used by the Macusa, a strong reminder of the Orwellian universe of the ‘Big Brother’. The film depicts a time of intense superstition and fear of magic, a time of witch hunts and Protestant Christian zealots like Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). Mary Lou captures young witches and wizards and imprisons them in her orphanage where they are subjected to the most brutal of torturous punishments. The cameo of young Modesty is chillingly frightening, with her rant of “Witch number three, gonna watch her burn, Witch number four, flogging take a turn”. Mary Lou’s cruelty leads to the suppression of magic in one of her children, Credence, who transforms into a grotesque ‘Obscurial’, possessed by angry energy to kill and destroy.

     In the course of the film we discover that the recapturing of Newt’s magical creatures will only solve part of the threat to the city; far more dangerous is the threat posed by the ‘Obscurial’ (later revealed to be Credence) who may destroy New York and expose the wizarding world before the unsuspecting ‘No-Majs’.  There enters into this grim setting Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a power hungry Macusa official with an insidious agenda of his own. Added to all of these intrigues is the looming threat of the infamous dark wizard, GellertGrindlewald. The cinematic universe of Yates is spectacularly dazzling, similar to science fiction film sets with its array of fantastical creatures and its imaginary magical zoo, hidden in Newt’s briefcase. The magical creatures are marvelous to behold, from the cute little Niffler who loves shining objects, to the enormous Erumpent and the Thunderbird. The developing friendships and romances between Tina, Newt, Jacob, and Tina’s mind-reading legilimens sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is depicted wonderfully, with little melodrama, in a touching and relatable style.

     But the same world echoes with covert themes of the evils of prejudice and the destructive damage caused by racial preconceptions. The climactic scenes are grim to the point of verging on the gothic: Percival Graves is revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise and Credence is stopped just in time by Newt and Tina. However, Credence himself is destroyed through no fault of his; his anger being a result of the tortures inflicted on him (a stark reminder of the psychological damage suffered by orphans in the hands of social workers in the 1920-30s). In his swirling black coat, shaved head, hooked nose, Graves is disturbingly similar to the Gestapo soldiers. Rowling wisely choose Yates to direct the film as he is familiar with the Potter universe like no other. Rowling’s magical world comes alive at his hands, with the audience traversing an extraordinary imaginary setting, from the period sets of the city to the magical zoo of Scamander to the dark alleyways of New York slums to the Fanatical Churches and orphanages.

     There are stellar performances rendered by the entire cast. Redmayne as Newt is perfect; he comes across with just the right combination of scatter-brained clumsiness, magical genius, and kind-hearted compassion. Fogler does complete justice to the character of Jacob, baffled, enamored, entranced by a world he can scarcely believe is real. The Goldstein sisters are both immensely likeable, the capable and ambitious Tina as well as the flirtatious yet charmingly manipulative Queenie. The first of a proposed five film franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is both entertaining and thought-provoking. The potterheads will certainly look forward to the next installments and the new initiates into the Potter universe may just start on the very thrilling journey of reading Rowling’s magnificent novels.

-Somrita Misra

 

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