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.

 

 

An Ode to Manchester: Inscriptions of an Inconsequential Indian

I visited Manchester for a 3 day halt in-between two conferences in Leicester and London back in 2013. And just outside the Central Library was a sign that read: “Manchester means the world to me”.

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You could be forgiven for considering that sign as an exercise in exaggeration. You could well think that it was merely the sentiments of people who have been born and brought up there. You could even think that this was the exclamation of a football fan captivated by the romance of the Busby Babes, the trio of Charlton, Law and Best, the Class of 92, Sir Alex Ferguson or modern-day superstars like Ronaldo, Rooney or Pogba. But even a cursory sojourn in the city will convince you that the sign actually touches a deeper chord.

After exiting the railway station, as I bunglingly looked for directions to my hotel, I came across a couple of typically robust, gregarious and smiling Sikh cabbies who gave me very clear and helpful directions to the hotel. They had all been living in Manchester for decades and did not seem to suffer from any anxiety of belongingness. This was the first clue to the multicultural plurality of the city. Such plurality was also evident from the sprawling China Town of Manchester, the Gay Village with its proud rainbow flags, Indian restaurants and a cosy Bombay Street and most importantly, a whole host of warm, welcoming friendly people who enjoyed all the colours of life (not just red and blue, that is).

This plurality would attract the eyes of a traveller in other ways as well. Alongside tall, glass-covered glitzy modern buildings, including the Manchester Hilton, he would be awed by the spires and arches of structures that bear the intricate knottings of history. And just as Manchester occupies a pivotal place in the history of the Industrial revolution in England, something which it celebrates through its Museum of Science and Industry or a statue of Alan Turing, it is also the place where the famous Chopin played his last concert and where inveterate comedians like Norman Evans or Sir Harry Secombe regaled the audiences.

For a student of English literature like me, it was also quite remarkable to see a plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which happened at the erstwhile St. Peter’s Fields that now falls within the modern City of Manchester where 15 people were killed during a peaceful demonstration and more than 600 injured after a cavalry charge. The plaque bears testimony to the heritage of Manchester as a working class city, a city of resilient people who have fought adversities and stood strong and have inspired others in turn – including someone like Percy Bysshe Shelley whose ‘Masque of Anarchy’ was written in response to this horrible consequence of governmental crackdown.

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All of these memories came flooding back in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester in which a suicide bomber managed to kill 22 people in the Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert attended by hundreds of young people. The attack stung me into that same kind of pain and grief that I experience when my fellow Indian regularly fall victim to networks of terror.

It is rather pointless to talk about the deplorable nature of these terrorist organisations, the inhuman motivations that drive them and the destructive fantasies that are nurtured by those who work for these organisations. They are immune to criticism and deserve whatever punitive measures a state can muster.

But more importantly, the only way one can effectively fight terror is by not succumbing to terror at all and by upholding those values of plurality, courage and togetherness which Manchester has embodied again and again. From Thatcherite blight to IRA attacks – Manchester has survived and prospered. It is particularly interesting to note that in 1996, when the IRA detonated a 1500 kilogram bomb on 15th June at Corporation Street, in the heart of Manchester, England was hosting the Euro’ 96 and despite all the horror and destruction, the match between Germany and Russia went ahead as scheduled on the very next day at Old Trafford. More than fifty thousand people watched the game. Manchester had responded: “we will not give in”, they said.

It is one of those strange eccentricities of history that once again juxtaposed terror and football as only two days after the attack, Manchester United, a club almost synonymous with the city, played the final of the Europa League and won, dedicating its victory to the whole of Manchester. Of course, overcoming adversities and horror is in the DNA of Manchester United as well. This is a club that overcame the horrors of the Munich crash to become the best in the country and the best in Europe, this is a club that under Sir Alex Ferguson, for more than two decades, showed the world that it’s not over until the final whistle and conjured almost magical, miraculous victories in the dying minutes from the jaws of certain defeat. And Manchester United is also a testimony to that spirit of diversity and togetherness which the city as a whole embodies – footballers from all across the world come and play at The Theatre of Dreams and become one of Manchester, irrespective of their race, religion or language as they become part of the collective experience of football with its truly universal language; and this is equally true for the Manchester City Football Club as well which has now become a major force in the English Premier League with a similar stellar cast of global superstars. So the victory of Manchester United, symbolically, was also a victory of the Mancunian spirit, a typically working class spirit, a spirit of invincible resilience founded on togetherness. As an impassioned Steve Bertram wrote in Manutd.com: “Marcus Rashford may have been the only Mancunian on the field by birthright, but every single player was an adopted Manc; each one buzzing about the field with bottomless energy and purpose. Ander, Matteo and Anthony from Bilbao, Legnano and Massy became Andy, Matt and Tony from Blackley, Longsight and Moston. All of them, one of us.”

For all these reasons and more: “Manchester means the world to me” too.

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Figure 1: Picture courtesy Reuters and The Independent

-Abin Chakraborty

Rang De Tu Mohe Gerua?: Reflections on the UP Verdict

In the wake of BJP’s landslide victory, there are shockwaves being felt across the country and outside among those who remain steadfastly opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s fascist vision of a Hindu rashtra and cling on to the constitutional illusion of a secular India.

The knee-jerk response has been that of blaming it all on the EVMs. After Mayavati and Lalu Prasad others are joining in as well and erudite scholars are searching and sharing articles that focus on the vulnerability of the EVMs and how they may be hacked and how the victory could well have been a product of a massive technological fraud. Now, political leaders often find it difficult to stomach losses and they are therefore prone to explanations verging on the absurd. But what makes secular intellectuals run for the same caves? I remember left leaders in Bengal scurrying in the same direction after the debacle of 2011. But such explanations are rather improbable because EVM machines are manually checked in the booth by the Presiding Officer in the presence of all polling agents by conducting a mock poll just before the actual polling begins and upon the discovery of any anomaly, the machine in question is immediately changed. The possibility of rigging an election through technological manipulation of the EVM is therefore a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory which can only be uttered by those who are in desperate denial of the reality. Had it been so easy, we would neither have a functioning multi-party democracy nor hung-assemblies. Perhaps this also stems from our hubristic inability to accept that the majority of the voters did not share our beliefs. That is why we either try to reject their agency by hatching stories of a conspiracy or claim like Akhilesh Yadav that the poor do not always know what they really want. When a former CM begins to distrust the same people who had once voted him to the power one begins to get a sense of the distance between those who have lost and the voters. So it is better if we get ourselves out of the ostrich manoeuvre and look at things more objectively.

If seen in the light of the results of the Parliamentary elections of 2014, the results in UP are not really a surprise. BJP had won 71 of 80 seats from UP with 42.6% of the total votes. Even the votes of Samajwadi Party and Congress combined could not come anywhere near the BJP vote share. So why this shock? In West Bengal, the trend of the electoral results in the Loksabha election of 2009 had spelt the doom of the Left Front government which became a reality 2 years later in 2011. Why did people think that the same logic would not apply in case of Uttar Pradesh? Was this simply a case of wishful thinking or did some people get swayed by the novelty of a SP-Congress alliance which failed almost as miserably as the equally egregious Left-Front-Congress alliance in West Bengal? This in fact is one of the problems with elite liberals around the world: we live in our cocooned world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Netflix and suppose that the rest of the society would follow our footsteps and sink into despair when reality comes crashing down on us. This is all the more true in case of Indian elections which often hinge on cunning caste and community based electoral arithmetic combined with strong organisational mobilisation of voters to the polling booth. This is not a dust-proof, air-conditioned world of logical debates and informed discussions.

But the pitfalls of secular elites on social-networking sites are far less important than what these results portend for the country as a whole. UP has often been called the heart of India. Although the tourism department of Madhya Pradesh disagrees. Be that as it may, as the largest state in India, UP does decide, to a certain extent, the political future of India which right now, seems to be smeared in saffron. Theoretically speaking, we are witnessing the gradual re-assertion of a hegemonic bloc which is trying to utilise the ideology of Hindutva and the alluring rhetoric of development to create an inclusive alliance of different social groups who are no longer satisfied by the tokenism and empty rhetoric of identity politics of one kind or another. As the Sachar committee report had shown, Muslims in various Indian states, even states where BJP or its allies were not in power, were terribly excluded from developmental projects. Perhaps it is that disillusionment that turns them to the BJP despite its avowedly communal Hindu-nationalist identity. Perhaps that is also why backward communities other than Yadavs (traditional SP base) and Dalits other than Jatavs (traditional BSP base) also voted for the BJP. And when one organisational behemoth, with potent auxiliary units like RSS, VHP, Durga Vahini, Bajrang Dal, comes up against a divided opposition scarred by relentless infighting, the result is more than obvious.

But there still remains the question of ethics. Where is the voters’ sense of justice when the instigators of the Muzaffarpur riots are provided with electoral victories? What happens to the security of the family members of Mohammad Ikhlaq of Dadri (a seat that BJP has also won) who had been lynched to death on suspicion of eating beef, even though that was his constitutional right and even though he did not actually have beef at his home anyway? Where is the ethics of returning to power the same political force which was responsible for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent massacres? Perhaps 20 years is too much for public memory and perhaps people have either found reasons for trust or that they just don’t care. Perhaps anti-incumbency rides roughshod over all other considerations. Perhaps. At least this much is certain: one should not hope that electoral results should reflect ethical judgments. The art of the possible necessarily excludes the realm of oughtness. But even this is not a surprise: the people of Gujarat had overwhelmingly voted in favour of BJP even after the inhuman massacres of 2002.

In his discussion of the ‘Southern Question’ Gramsci had argued that “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilise the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois state” (Selections from Political Writings 1921-26, 443). In India, we desperately lack a vanguard that can ensure such leadership of the proletariat with necessary alliances. Instead the proletariat remains fractured along the lines of religion, caste and communities, allowing the vacuum to be occupied by the united hegemonic bloc led by the Sangh Parivar which papers over its fascist violence and asphyxiation of dissent with illusions of moral strength, integrity, discipline, charity, masculinist machismo and nationalist pride which a sacrificial Indian people enthusiastically accepts. Unless the rest of India can create possibilities of resistant solidarities, the coming days will seem darker and bleaker for secular Indians who might even find their faith in democracy, shaken. What is required therefore is the attempt to effect moral-intellectual transformation at the grassroots which can neither happen in English nor within air-conditioned television studios. Does secular India have such leaders who are willing to do the literal groundwork? I wonder.

-Abin Chakraborty

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 Lot Can Happen Over Coffee: Cafes and the Fetishized Subject in 21st Century Kolkata

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Image source: chaiwallahsofindia.com

  “….Wires are cut very often, fuses go off

              But the lights are always on:

              This is Kolkata, Kolkata!

             Whatever happens, it is always alive!” (Gulzar 83)

 

There has always been something ‘romantic’ about the city formerly known as Calcutta: once the capital of the British Raj, it has always fuelled an artist’s imagination by evoking ever-changing ways of grasping this hustling and bustling city-space. If Kipling spoke about it as having “Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—/side by side” (Gupta 4), then Dominique Lapierre’s novel made the moniker ‘city of joy’ famous. It is a space where the past and the present mingle seamlessly; the ghosts of an ever alive colonial history and Naxalite movement sit side by side with the burgeoning I.T sector and share a cup of tea.

The influx of foreign brands and coffee chains seems to threaten the mythic quality of the city. As Ipshita Chanda puts it succinctly, “Going to the College Street Coffee House where political and aesthetic revolutions are rumoured to have begun, is an attempt to live a myth, to synecdochally participate in the living history of Calcutta as it happens…” (Gupta 241). This mythic quality has its roots in a typically Bengali cultural phenomenon, that of the ‘adda.’ Historically born out of the gathering of unemployed youths over a cup of tea at the temporary, dingy tea stalls in one’s neighbourhood, this coming together has been a fertile space for intellectual/ artistic/ political debates and arguments as the years have rolled on. Not only has it provided intellectual stimulus to, borrowing a term from Amartya Sen, the ‘argumentative’ Bengali, it has also become a cultural signifier. In recent years this trend has, however, been replaced by sights of Gen- Y (or is it Z now?) thronging the various coffee outlets that have opened in Kolkata, whereby we have become passive consumers and victims to a typically western consumer culture.

One of the reasons why these retail brands have managed a foray in a somewhat conservative Bengali culture has its roots in the changing economic dynamics of the earning youth. Madhumita Roy, in her essay Cha- er Thek: Teastalls argues that “With the declining number of educated unemployed youth who were addicted to a pastime called idling, these addas are a vanishing culture in Calcutta. The young of Calcutta today seem to prefer the growing Café Coffee Days, Baristas, Adda Bites and Indthalias to the street culture of yore.” (Gupta 170). And yet, it seems that there is a sharp division in this trend. North Kolkata has emerged as a difficult fortress for the tentacles of a globalised market to creep in; this part of the city has held on to its pastness with greater fondness and force than her rapidly urbanizing southern counterpart. With its now crumbling and dilapidating colonial buildings and narrow by- lanes, it provides a sharp contrast to South Kolkata, a hub of the city’s emerging mall culture and home to some of the most upscale eateries in town. In a way, there are two cities in one, one structurally/architecturally belonging to colonized India and the other, the face of a country rapidly developing, working hard and partying even harder.

The new, ‘modern’ cafes, catering to a particular economic class raises uncomfortable questions about the manner of consumption and the way in which we negotiate with the globalised market making its presence felt. Do these cafes, armed with Wi-fi, a delectable seating arena, with music and jukebox contribute to a sense of a false ego- massage, by privileging a kind of ‘commodity fetishism’?

As Marx would argue, every object or commodity carries within it something greater than its economic or market value. These become a marker of a social statement, a signifier of social belonging, a way of distinguishing oneself from the rest of the population, by assuming that certain choices underline an intellectual/ aesthetic and social refinement. This fetish for well packaged and advertised commodities is what seems to be behind the emergence of the coffee chains like Barista, Café Coffee Day and the ilk which end up making a customer believe that one is a person of ‘Culture’, having access to a particular circle, internalizing a sense of difference and alienation from the tea-stalls and coffee shops that are part of the city’s history and culture. This manifests a kind of internalizing and naturalizing of the western cultural hegemony which leads to an erasure of native/ local traditions with the blind imitation and acceptance of things/customs perpetuated and popularized by/ in the west through a surrender to the allure of consumer capitalism. Blunden sums up, “Appreciation of culture is thus reduced, with little or no residue, to pretension—people acquire and express a taste which expresses their pretension to be recognized in a given class fraction, refusing the vulgar or the common, the difficult or the fancy, according to the need for distinction.” (Blunden 3).

What it does is to give the fetishised subject an aura of exclusiveness, a desire of setting oneself apart by inhabiting a space which “looks” expensive, open to only those who can afford it. The desire to set oneself apart from a particular habitus is also paradoxically a desire to belong to another, with the West as the marker of standards and acceptance. One realises that “People make their consumption choices based not only on a product’s utility value, but from the personal symbolic meanings they invest in objects.” (Zepf). Sitting in dingy tea shops, without the fancy brand names is something that today’s commodity driven subjects cannot identify with, for it in no way lives up to the images of the cafes and pubs popularized in American sit-coms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. It is that image that has been played over and over again and which serves as a marker of social belonging and acceptance. Coffee bars today capture the spirit of the age, not only because of the customer profile, but also in terms of the entrepreneurial flair that is demonstrably on show. For the youth in Kolkata, shunning the traditional “cabins” that have been enmeshed in the political and cultural history of the state and accepting the coffee pubs above named is more of a status symbol or a lifestyle thing. If history suggests that coffee houses were fertile spaces for the germinating of political and intellectual ideas, the new age coffee pubs are sometimes tools for the fashioning of a particular identity for the “self”. The old world of Kolkata is a rapidly disintegrating one. In the face of globalization and the opening of the Indian market, there are remnants which are still holding on and celebrating their “pastness”: a sort of celebration of nostalgia by which these tea/coffee joints try to preserve a slice of what had been. And yet, one cannot be too hopeful. The words of Marx echo in our ears when he says, “value does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic” (Knafo 160). But rather than decoding such hieroglyphs we would prefer the figurative forgetful snow and press our muddy feet to shiny coffee pubs that repeat the masquerades of time — eyes assured of certain certainties.

WORKS CITED

Blunden, Andy: “ Bourdieu on Status, Class and Culture.” http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/bourdieu-review.htm, 25th March, 2015.

Chanda, Ipshita. “ Selfing the City: the Myth of Calcutta and the Culture of Everyday Life”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Cultural Studies. New Delhi: Worldview, 2004.

Gulzar. Neglected Poems. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012.

Knafo, Samuel. “The Fetishiszing Subject in Marx’s Capital.” https://www.academia.edu/4038785/The_Fetishizing_Subject_of_Marxs_Capital, Accessed on 25th March, 2015.

Roy, Madhumita. “ Cha-Er Thek: Teastalls”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Strangely Beloved: Writings on Calcutta. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014.

Zepf, Siegfried. “Consermerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytical Considerations. In International Forum of Psychoanalysis. Consumerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytic Considerations, Vol. 19, pp1-5.

 -Sayan A. Bhowmik

Swooping from Right: Chris Nolan’s Dubious Superhero

The Dark Knight trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2005-2008-2012

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A recent broadcast of the Chris Nolan directed Dark Knight Trilogy got me thinking once again about one of my most favourite things: the imbrication of cultural artefacts within structures of ideology and paradigms of power. While such entanglements exist for most American superheroes, Batman aka Bruce Wayne (perhaps along with Tony Stark) remains one of the most conservative ones around and the last film of Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, actively nurtures a deeply right-wing agenda that vilifies popular social movements, castigates the history of revolutionary struggles and even indulges in standard Hollywood Orientalism.

The entire plot-line of The Dark Knight Rises is premised on Bane and his gang capitalizing on the seething discontent of the people against the prevalent elite of Gotham City, of which Bruce Wayne is unabashedly a member, as indicated early in the film by Selena Kyle, the Catwoman. She categorically warns Bruce Wayne that “There’s a storm coming” and further adds “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, cause when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” Released in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and several such other anti-capitalist protests across the world, it is impossible not to relate the events in the film to the events that were unfolding then. The connections become all the more obvious when Bane and his henchmen literally attack Wall Street and then rouse the rabble by urging them to take back from the oppressors what is rightfully theirs. However, what follows in the wake of this apparent revolution in Gotham City, is a reign of terror, murder and destruction, which seems to suggest that popular discontent and attendant rebellious movements can only intensify disorder and any attempted redistribution of property will only invite unrestrained mayhem.

Incidentally, as pointed out by Jonathan Nolan, Chris’s brother and co-writer for the screenplay, the mayhem in Gotham was modeled on the turbulence during the French Revolution as depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, so closely does the film reference the French Revolution that there are even scenes of revolutionary justice in front of a people’s tribunal, presided over by the Scarecrow, which offers nothing other than protracted or swift executions. Popular discontent based on class-antagonism thus becomes conflated with criminality and rebellious leaders get equated with psychopaths and the glorious legacy of the French Revolution is consigned to the annals of anarchy without any recognition of the radical re-ordering of society that the French Revolution sought to bring about and the kind of injustice it attempted to abolish. Furthermore, unlike the French Revolution, the revolution in Gotham is less a product of popular action and more a mobilization of the people by a typical ‘evil’ mastermind, Bane, behind whom, of course is the figure of Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul, a member of the Gotham elite. It appears that the ordinary citizens of Gotham cannot even plunder the elite without their own consent.

While many of these insights have already been pointed out by several other commentators, what remains missing is an acknowledgment of the typically Orientalist slant that Nolan’s film also retains. Alfred informs Bruce Wayne that Bane hails from a prison in a “more ancient part of the world”, and the costume of the inhabitants, with turbans and overalls, the chants of the prisoners (apparently in Moroccan) as well as the desert-like landscape of the prison immediately hints at the imaginary resemblance between Bane’s origin and the Arab world. The orient is thus re-deployed not just as a space of backwardness and savagery but also as a potential threat to the civilization of the West, perfectly in keeping with the rhetoric of Samuel Huntington. The Orientalist paradigm becomes even more blatant through the figure of Ra’s al Ghul whom we encounter in the first film of the trilogy. Despite the Arab name, Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows are seen operating out of some secret hideout in the Himalayas, possibly in Bhutan which again emphasizes the typical Orientalist strategy of homogenizing the differences within Orient. No other explanation exists for equating the country of Gross National Happiness with an international organization of crime and catastrophe, apparently operating for centuries. The fact that Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul is also significant as it plays upon the entrenched racist fears of miscegenation and the perceived threat of westerners being indoctrinated by extrinsic forces that threaten national security in U.S.A., England or such other countries. In fact, Talia’s possession and attempted use of a nuclear bomb may even be said to allegorically represent persistent American fears regarding the nuclear arsenal of Iran, North Korea and such other states.

The entire Batman franchise of Christopher Nolan thus operates as an ideological validation of the entrenched myths and prejudices of an orthodox establishment beneath the veneer of wondrous gadgets, an amorous subplot and a spurious rhetoric of justice and philanthropy. In the process, the films collectively embody the crisis of imagination in the new millennia where even a back-handed acknowledgment of crisis in capitalism only yields further manifestations of the status-quo’s repetition-complex.

– Abin Chakraborty

Verses, in solidarity of the teachers and students of JNU

Sayan Aich pens verses in solidarity of the teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Students protest at JNU
New Delhi: JNU students agitating for the release of the Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh(PTI2_16_2016_000176B)

There is a tri- syllabic wind that blows,

And cries out,

Kash- Mi- Ri

Ve- Mu- La

Je- En-Yu

Ma- Ni-Pur

Mi-Zo-Ram

Se-Di-Tion

Pe-Ti-Tion

Ja-Dav-Pur.

The tri- colour lies scattered

In Black and White,

A case of simple mathematics.


Slap me with a charge my people,

Slap me with a ban,

If I don’t speak or love like you,

This is all you can.

The fingers point and the slogans ring,

The rivers cry out too,

I carry your flag like a shroud,

And wear your bullets too.

Come and teach me what it means,

To be loyal and be free,

The sun has set, the moon in shards,

My being cleft in three.

One for Kashmir, One for Manipur,

And the other thrown down south,

Your nation has stifled mine,

Forcing words in my mouth.

You teach me what I should say,

Tell me what I should do,

I wear sedition like a scarf,

And anti- national bullets too.


The Country to which i will return,

Will have saffron fields all over

The morning Azaan will be muted

The Fridays will be those,

Four days of the month

When blood will flow

To purge the country,

To which I’ll return.

The country to which I’ll return

Will have a single God,

One religion,

And one definition of love.

Rakesh and Prakash Can’t hold hands

Amina won’t love another Anand,

December 6th celebrated in over 330 towns,

The country to which I’ll return.


A wind is blowing and the spring showers kiss my soil,

And today many questions lie interred in my soil.

The night air is haunted with songs sung in Kashmir,

No more roses, but bullets grow in my soil.

Weave around me a shawl laden with twinkling stars,

Angels that have fallen, must find their graves in my soil.

The chains adorn my being, like jewels on a bride,

My feet stuck in mud, refuse to walk with my soil.

Some words don’t heal, like some tears never dry,

Your tears weep at night, the words buried in my soil.

History is a selfish child, all its toys and ploys,

Oh Zafar, you might know, it has hidden in your soil.

– Sayan Aich

 

Apius Bengalis Indiae: Mimicry, Man and a Colonized Imaginary

 

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It was with great foresight that Lord Macaulay had decided to introduce English education in India with the express purpose of creating an intermediary class of people who would be Indian in blood but British “in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. The foundations of an imperishable empire of the mind that were laid then, continue to remain solidly functional in the existing culture-scape of India where we continue to display our indelible association with ancestral primates through irresistible exhibitions of aping.

Consider for example the nomenclature and self-projection of two ongoing real estate projects near Kolkata at present. One of them is called London City, a luxury residential hub coming up in Newtown, Rajarhat and the other one, Elita Garden Vista, proudly advertises itself as “New York in New Town” and invites consumers to “Own a home with a 6.8 acre Central Park”. The website of the latter categorically claims: “Come and stay in 6.8 acre elevated central park and experience the magic of living in New York at New Town.” As opposed to the postcolonial need to provincialize the West, the West continues to function as a fetishistic superobject in our imaginary and operates as a transcendental signifier of luxury and opulence that the comprador bourgeoisie of the so-called Third World has embraced as its summum bonum. No wonder then that the latest monument to adorn the Kolkata skyscape is a clock tower built in imitation of the Big Ben in London, with further plans of building a Kolkata Eye, in accordance with the famous London Eye. For a city that still prides itself on the magnificence of two architectural hallmarks from the days of the Raj – the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial – such additions are hardly out of place. And any attempt to suggest that equally magnificent towers and edifices can be located in various parts of Asia (Hongkong, Tokyo, Manila, Bukittinggi to name a few) or that a new structure, if it is to be built, may well be an original one rather than an imitation, might well prove to be an exercise in futility as we Indians in general, and Bengalis in particular, have a remarkable fascination for imitation, especially if the object of adoration has its origin in the West. Therefore, we think of modernization by way of London, improved hill-tourism by way of Switzerland and international film festival in Goa by way of Cannes. Despite the vaunted claims of nationalism, the West thus continues lord over our imaginary and consciousness and Macaulay’s vision of an imperishable empire remains all too strong as the aspirations of the upwardly mobile Indian insistently mirror the West, whatever the extent of distortion.

The extent of such mimicry becomes visible again when we take into account the establishment of schools such as the New York Public School. Why should a school set up in Saltlake, a satellite township adjacent to Kolkata in West Bengal, invoke New York? In fact names such as New York, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Boston or Washington, for many Indians, have a kind of totemic significance which is capable of uplifting anything from a school to a toilet tissue to celestial heights. No wonder then that if you google “oxford school in India”, thousands of links would throng your screen, directing you to schools from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi, all bearing the magical name of ‘Oxford’ and the attendant glories of English/European epistemology we Indians have been salivating after for centuries. And all this in the land of Nalanda, Somapura, Vikramsila and such other outstanding centres of learning in ancient India which attracted students and travellers and scholars from all of Asia. Nowadays, Sameer becomes Sam, Parminder becomes Pam and Janardan becomes Jonny as the country continues to spawn call-centre driven Yankee wannabes who embody a gender neutral fusion of Tulsi Virani and the Kardashian sisters.

Unfortunately, in the middle of such a mindless melange we fail to notice that our billionaires have learnt nothing from the philanthropical examples of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, we have not been able to ensure mass literacy and pervasive public access to education as in the West, our scholars are more interested in API scores and departmental politics than innovation, unlike their western counterparts, our companies do not fund research institutes as they do in the West, our corporates are very rarely concerned about social responsibility, which is more extensive in the west, we are indifferent to both hygiene and sanitation, unlike what happens in the west……and the list goes on. Nationalist movements had sought to secure the agency of modernization from the colonial rulers while retaining cultural difference. What we have achieved is rather a retention of differences that discredit us while engaging in superficial imitations that bear the legacy of colonial hangover and cumulatively contribute to the growth of a manikin generation which wants to flaunt the latest western superbrands, swoons over Justin Bieber or Hannah Montana, speaks vernaculars with a fake accent and cocks its nose at Abol Tabol and Thakurmar Jhuli.

Sukumar Roy’s ‘Tanshgoru’ and whatever gods and sacred structures it held in awe are preparing to swamp us with a vengeance. Get your supply of Miracurall if you can! SOTYI SOTYI KAMRE DEBE VACCINE TA NA PELE…

– Abin Chakraborty

The Download List: Our Private Longings

swartz-quote

There was a time when self-respecting Bengalis—and from what I read this was a pretty universally prevalent hobby—religiously collected stamps. My friends collected stamps in large leather bound black catalogues. But they were all inconsequential, stamps printed by the millions and sent by the thousands, knived off of letters from relatives abroad. I tried for a while myself, but forgot my catalogue in a taxi one evening and that was that.

There is direct correlation between the rarity of the object collected and the prestige of the collector. Aristocrats collected books for generations over centuries. What came of this hobby are the impressive hordes of printed marvel. Some of these have ended up in university and government libraries, some have been dismantled and dispelled with such carelessness that they have ended up with me. Such objects of desire are also circulated through theft, from robbing galleries off their Goyas to robbing school libraries off their John Updikes (like Charlie Mortdecai from Mortdecai or Dean Corso from Ninth Gate). I have bought a few books from roadside bookstalls—a hardbound biography of Yeats among them—that formerly belonged to the St Xavier’s library, and I have no intention of returning them.

Private collections had long been the milieu of the financially upward. For most, archiving is an elitist act, coupled with an academic rigor, imbued in personal or secondhand nostalgia. It is also in many ways ‘preservatist’, historicist, and ‘sanctuarist’. Sometimes the impersonal translates into the personal in the process of archiving, through the time and effort invested in the collection of objects (or thoughts, or words… Arcades Project, anyone?). Photographs, documents, letters, relics, curios, virtually anything. Tattoos are archival too, in that sense. They are our mobile archives of memories, our archives of vernacular history.

But as regimented, institutionalized disciplines fragment and break loose of their professional bondages, things start to become more interesting, heartening, deep (if risking vagueness, paradoxically), and beautifully diverse. Let’s draw a parallel between what I just said about collecting and the Internet today. Once, only institutions and the ultra-rich had video or audio libraries. Today, when all content is uncoupled from their makers and are floating freely, digitally reproduced and innumerable, waiting to be grabbed out of thin air and materialized in a very Djinn-Rushdie fashion, we are all collectors and archivists. We download terabytes of information from the Internet, sometimes legally, sometimes not so. They in turn circulate, and multiply. I do not have one friend who does not have all the ten seasons of F.R.I.E.N.D.S somewhere in their hard drive, or HIMYM, or Game of Thrones, or all the albums of Pink Floyd or Nirvana. A hoarding disorder coupled with external hard drives. Susan Sontag has said about her library that it is her “archive of longings”; for the verbally-apathetic, it is the download list and the hard drive. Also, digital content, infallible though they are not, aren’t generally given to alteration or variation. Like a print of cinema of the same cut is always the same across the globe, so is all other digital content, resting in a cyber reservoir or in a personal computer.

But pleasantries apart, things are getting more and more serious each day. There is not much to argue about the illegality of downloading video or audio material from pirated sources free of cost (although some things remain to be said about this), but the matter becomes grave when it comes to something as crucial as education. There is much hullabaloo about this, the democratic act of theft, and the Corporates and governments are doing all they can to crack down on this to preserve, safeguard their financial interests. But as they grow more and more strict, so does the public grow more and more skeptical about the ethics of it all. Recently, with the crackdown on online repositories of e-books like Library Genesis, academics have finally raised their voice in spite of their vested interests in the safeguarding of copyright laws and distribution of content (find the article here). Arguments have been made for the sanctity of knowledge, the democratic necessity of access to information, and against the greed of the few against the need of the many. We are forced to consider that, for once, maybe theft is the noble commitment. And after all, what is a criminal act – bombing innocents or downloading books? Are the corporates right to own knowledge? Is ownership their prerogative? Or does the true right to knowledge and information belong to the masses?

The judgment, hypocrite lecteur, must be yours.

– Souraj Dutta

The Innocence Lost called Durga Puja

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Image source: news.cn

The months of October/November have this special thing in them. Autumn is approaching, the leaves are brown and once they are stepped on, they crumble with a munch, like hearts breaking. But despite a sad aria in the air, there is somewhere a euphoria brewing. For Bengalis the world over, this is that time of the year when they establish and express themselves as who they are. For the 4/5 days that the festivities last, there are no social stigmas, no mother telling their children to return early at after dusk sets in, no limitations on the amount of junk food that would be consumed, the city which runs its own slow pace 360 odd days of the year, is suddenly like steeds of mad desire, running, shouting, chaotic, colorful.

And yet, for people like this author who are in the wrong side of their thirties, such euphoria has its own shades of cynicism in tow. Growing up at a time when the mad rush for publicity and Mount Everest hoardings had not yet engulfed the city sky-scape, the Pujas had their own share of charm and enigma. Like an estranged lover on a quickfire visit to your city, the days leading up to the D-Day were spent in expectations and the night of the Dashami, the final night, was one of a searing heartbreak. Time for the beloved to return with the everlasting promise of a return next year. And then, we would slip back into our mundane, clerk like lives again for the next roughly 360 days.

But things have changed so much. Nowadays with the world moving at a breakneck pace, with more and more natives of the state living outside of it, these few days have acquired something that had been unthinkable in the previous decade. Added to the festive spirit, is a competitive edge, with more awards being given away for the best idol, the best “pandal”, the best arrangement of lights, the best of everything. The city comes to a standstill and there is nothing of the old world romance here. There are people on the streets to populate the entire Tibetan grasslands. Earlier, during our formative years, the innocent heart and mind would rank the clothes in order of preference. Which meant, the least preferred dress would be designated for the first day of the Puja and as the days progressed, our most favourite acquisition would be set aside for the climactic night of the “navami.” The same went for friends as well. The ones closest to the heart, or the one we hoped would be close to the heart would invariably be sought after for the “navami” night. The less popular ones, cousins who were lower down the pecking order were granted “Shashti” evening at the most.

Unfortunately, these days we are enamored by the number game. India as a country and society is somewhat obsessed with statistics. Who scores more runs, what is the batting average, what is her age, her salary, marks in school exams, in school leaving exams, in short in our numbered days we bother too much about numbers. We are caught up with the “no” of “likes” our picture gets on facebook, how many comments, and how many shares. Everything we indulge in is for an ego-massage: whether we have visited the so called big pujas in the city, whether we have dined at the most happening of restaurants and most definitely whether we have posted pics of our adventures. Selfies, Groupfies, have entered the parlance and are uttered more often than the “mantras” around and in the “pandals” themselves. The “dhaakis”, the traditional drummers who would bring life and zest to the entire atmosphere are at the risk of losing out on their livelihood, with pre-recorded audio cds of the drum beats doing the rounds and sometimes more preferred over their more human counterparts. We all want the best of everything, the best of the Pujas, the best of comments.Even the pictures where we are caught off guard, where there is too much teeth, or too much light, can be deleted or even better instaedited and uploaded. Such perfection and such longing for the times gone by.  Let’s put up a status update to that…Cheers…

– Sayan Aich Bhowmick