'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Religious Identities And 'Communal Violations'

'Gurusagaram' ('An Infinity of Grace' in English translation) is a novel by O V Vijayan. Let me quote an episode from distant memory.

The protagonist Kunhunni is a journalist covering the Bangladesh Uprising and the aftermath of its successful conclusion (helped by Indian military intervention). While walking the streets of a war-ravaged city in the newly liberated country, a desperately poor woman tries to seduce Kunhunni. "Take me, I am Salma, I promise you...". Kunhunni gives her a tight slap, grabs her by the throat and asks: "No, you are not Salma, tell me your real name!".

"I am Kamala" she stammers. "Then why...?" before he could finish the question, she says: "You are Indian, so you must be Hindu; I thought if I had promised you an opportunity to violate a Muslim woman, that would have been an extra incentive.. get me some food!"


N S Madhavan is a well-known Malayalam author. His famous short story 'Higuita' is an episode from the life of Geevarghese, a Mallu soccer player turned Christian priest.

Father Geevarghese runs an orphanage in Delhi. Jabbar, a local pimp/hoodlum, has designs on one of his wards, a Christian Tribal girl named Lucy. In the climax of the story, the Father confronts Jabbar in a violent showdown.

A certain old acquaintance of mine once remarked: "Did the villain need to have such an emphatically Muslim name? The place being Delhi, it makes better 'statistical sense' to for him to have a Hindu name like 'Kishan'. At least the name could have been a religion-neutral name like Roshan or Aman!"

Note: Here are some 'corrections' to the above recollections from 'Higuita' from a reader's comment (see below for the full comment): "Fr. Geevarghese is not running an orphanage. He is a parish priest and Lucy, the tribal girl is a parishioner, from Bihar. Jabbar, her tormentor, is a pathan from Bihar. In tribal areas of bihar (Jharkhand) moneylenders are mostly Kabulis".


The Hindi movie 'Bombay' deals with the Hindu-Muslim riots which rocked Bombay in 1992-3 and their impact on an inter-religious marriage. Bollywood had earlier hardly dared to show Hindu-Muslim marriages; boys and girls of the 'opposite' religions were always brother and sister (let me note here that 'Malluwood', on the other hand has been exploring Hindu-Muslim dynamics and tensions (and marriages too) for several decades; that of course DOES NOT mean that the inter-faith relations in Kerala are more harmonious or enlightened than in the North).

I myself never saw 'Bombay'. But an acquaintance of mine, who saw it in a theatre, made this observation: "Although the movie tries - superficially - to be 'balanced', it seems to actually deepen the communal divide and connect with certain deep, 'tribal' instincts. For example, the *heroine* being a Muslim was strangely enjoyed by many in the audience. There is one scene where the girl runs frantically towards her beloved and her purdah gets caught in a thorny bush; and she throws off the veil and rushes on. The crowd roard in approval seeing her come out of the purdah - they almost seemed to take a certain vicarious pleasure in 'violating' a woman from the 'other' side!"

Note: This acquaintance does have a point. Indeed, conquering women from the 'other' side - and jealously guarding those of one's - is an obsession with Desi religious zealots of all persuasions. And I know several hyper-educated gentlemen who tend to be quite promiscuous with girls from faiths other than theirs and who also turn very protective - and territorial - about those who belong (even if only 'officially') to their own.


About 'Chandni Bar', a critically successful movie made a few years ago on the life of a bar dancer, there were questions: "Why is the bar dancer a Muslim?", "Why does the gangster who ultimately saves her from her evil (Muslim) 'guardian' and marries her have a Hindu name?" and so forth. I don't think these questions became major public issues; and I also don't think that is any indication our society is becoming any less hung-up about religious identities than it used to be.


That brings me to 'Slumdog'. The hero of the original story 'Q and A' had a Bollywood-style, pseudo-interfaith name 'Ram-Muhammad-Thomas' but the diector Danny Boyle rechristened him with the Muslim 'Jamal'. And his love-interest has a Hindu name Latika. Although he and his brother Salim witness, as children, their mother being cut down by a frenzied Hindu mob (during the '92 riots), religion and religious identity sit lightly on Jamal throughout the story. The 'darker' - and far more interesting - Salim gradually veers to crime and, even as he builds an impressive list of gangland murders and other 'achievements', rapes Latika and keeps her as his concubine.

The movie does not show Salim's subjection of Latika as an act with clear communal overtones; but subsequent events in the story make things rather ambiguous. Indeed, towards the climax, Salim experiences a change of heart, kills his gangster-boss and sets Latika free (to join her true love, Jamal). Just before he prepares to carry out his fateful decision, Salim dons the white cap and performs Namaaz; and having taken out his evil boss - in a hopelessly unequal battle - he dies with the Muslim declaration of the Almighty's Greatness (with 'Allah' suitably translated to the more secular 'God'). Such scenes, which emphasize a qualitative change in a acharacter with a strong affirmation of his religion (a heroically uplifting interpretation thereof), appear to insert a communal subtext into Salim's characterization and further, by 'hindsight' into his relations with Latika; and I tend to believe that this insertion was a conscious decision on the part of the director.

Note: 'Mallu' movies with much more explicit across-the-faith 'violations' (and various types of violations, apart from sexual) have been made. A shocker of a movie on the Malabar Rebellion, titled '1921', comes to mind; mercifully, it did not stir up a storm when it hit the screens (quie successfully) in the mid-eighties, no cable channel seems comfortable with the idea of re-telecasting it in our more deeply divided times. One could also note that in Malluwood, showing violations between Hindus and Christians is considered less offensive, irrespective of the 'direction' of the violation; still more 'favored' are violations between Muslims and Christians. For example, in the novie 'Dadasahib', the cop who abuses the Muslim hero as a 'Pakistani agent' is very conveniently shown as a Christian!

One may also remark that the depictions of cross-faith violations could also be masochistic, with the author's own community graphically shown at the 'receiving end'. The most telling example I could quote is a gruesome communal gang-rape described in the award-winning the Malayalam novel 'Kayar'.

In my opinion, Boyle's Firangi-ness seems to have helped in the making of 'Slumdog'- it would have been much harder for a Desi director to have made the 'unbalanced' sort of movie it is.

Update (June 2012): Divisions in Kerala society are exposed in the media with alarming regularity. There are violations and attempted violations (and counter violations and anti-violations) galore taking place. Some of these acts have been given quite interesting and spanking new labels: 'love jihad', 'moral police'... but the conclusion is the same and old one: ours is a deeply fissured and wounded society.


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