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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Political Post

"Had young leader Rajiv Gandhi been alive today, that noble man would have definitely come forward to save the lives of Santhan, Perarivalan and Murugan" - Karunanidhi

We hear, three of the accused in the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination case' are to be hanged. There are protests - by some extreme Tamil organizations, one of them calling itself 'Save Three Tamils Campaign' and some not so extreme ones (as is evidenced by the above Karunanidhi statement, made this very day). Some intellectuals have used this occasion to discuss basic questions on death penalty itself.

I have heard impassioned pleas against capital punishment from people ranging from Prince Myshkin to Albert Camus. I have neither the superior intellect to refute their arguments nor the supreme moral conviction to support them. And I don't know the rationale behind the present Indian practice of equating 'life imprisonment' with 14 years in jail. Whatever, I do have something to say on certain basic aspects of the present case.

First of all, this 'Rajiv Gandhi Assassination' of 1991 was not the clinical taking out of one man by his enemies. Most online sources I could consult say at least 15 people were blown up with Rajiv and over 40 injured, many of them crippled for life. The way the dead are listed by our media is very typically Indian - Rajiv Gandhi, the suicide bomber Dhanu, the mysterious photographer Haribabu, congress worker Latha and her daughter Kokila and then ... who else? The hoi polloi are there only to make up the numbers!

Here is one of the very very few pages which has cared to list the names of victims:

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. 17 others also lost their lives, including Dhanu (the alleged woman assassin) and Hari Babu (the freelance photographer). The names of other 15 are as follows: P.K.Gupta (personal security officer to Rajiv Gandhi), Latha Kannan, Kokilavani, Iqbal (superintendent of police), Rajakuru (inspector of police), Edward Joseph (inspector of police), Ethiraj (sub-inspector of police), Sundaraju Pillai (police constable), Ravi (commando police constable), Dharman (police constable), Chandra (woman police constable), Santhani Begum, Darryl Peter, Kumari Saroja Devi and Munuswamy

There are many who interpret the blast in racist terms - as an outburst of Tamil fanaticism or as Tamil retaliation against North Indian thuggery (just see the comments that have piled up on our newspaper websites(*)). But any such interpretation is utterly beside the point - Rajiv Gandhi apart, almost everyone who was killed was Tamil.

And - this is my main point - hardly anyone has cared to see whatever happened at Sriperumbudur on May 21st, 1991 as a MASSACRE AND MUTILATION of Indians, indeed, human beings - and IMHO, it ought to be seen as just that and nothing else. 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination' may well be a convenient name for the case but it should not make us forget or deem less important, for even an instant, the deaths of Iqbal, Chandra and all those who were killed in the line of duty or the loss suffered by the family of Latha and Kokila, a loss that is (even if one goes by perverse arithmetic) exactly twice that suffered by the Gandhis or the suffering inflicted on those who were cruelly crippled. I beg to add, for all the nobility attributed to her gesture, Sonia Gandhi's public 'pardoning' of those responsible for the crime and intervening in the case on behalf of some of the convicts seriously devalues those unsung lives snuffed out or otherwise ruined by her husband's 'assassins'.

I am not qualified to say what punishment the surviving murderers deserve; that depends on their degree of involvement and much else (**). But the above linked page clearly says most of the conspirators did meet very violent ends (That includes the Seven who were cornered in Bangalore and consumed cyanide. 20 years back, our media had shown far greater alacrity in naming them than their victims so let me leave the 7 as just a bloody number). So, even if one is all for death penalty, Fate has ensured that justice has indeed substantially been done.

Note added 10 days after: A few years back, Priyanka Gandhi visited Nalini, one of the assassins now lodged in jail and remarked to the media: "I discovered Nalini has suffered more in life than us!" Today, I saw this gesture of 'forgiveness' highlighted in a Malayalam weekly. As always, everybody is silent about the kith and kin of the cops who died protecting Priyanka's father.

(*) - and it is about time reader comments on all our online news pages are seriously monitored. I am all for strict censorship in this particular domain.

(**) in Indian law, life = 14 years and the trio have been behind bars for 20 years, so someone could argue that they have already been more than hanged.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kerala is Different

I spent a month in Kerala recently and this post summarizes some impressions.

"The long bone-rattling drive afterward to Allahabad on potholed roads flooded at places with calf-deep rainwater, past the tin-roofed shacks and rain-battered villages of mud and thatch — the cowering huts, so picturesque from the plane, now appearing frail, in danger of collapsing onto the sodden earth, low-caste women paving tiny courtyards with cow dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and gray over the flat fields and tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools—the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as fixedly as it would have two centuries ago was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of a globalized economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India."

That was just the beginning of an article by Pankaj Mishra titled 'The Other India' written for the New York Review of Books. A lengthy, detailed, searing, brutally honest portrait of the cow-belt, the real 'India Shining', ... I could maybe string together some more such cliches to describe his article but that is not the intent here. I just want to assert that I won't and can't accuse Mishra of belaboring an old point. His story is indeed a very old one but the immense misery of day-to-day life in a huge part of Northern India is a reality that could do at the very least with some relentless belaboring.

None of our political parties has yet made a worthwhile contribution towards turning things around in the Gangetic heartland - and that includes those which fight elections on behalf of the 'aam aadmi'. Indeed, the Congress (yes, Nehru and all) had had a free run of the region for three decades and some before the more obviously 'bad' BJP, SP and BSP came on the scene. Equally shockingly, our mainstream media, the TV news channels in particular, have let things drift for too long(*).

Kerala presents a very different picture. There are a dozen or so news channels vying for viewership and each goes to amazing lengths to cover issues of governance - infrastructure, human rights, education, gender issues, environment, the whole spectrum. No issue of any significance gets left out - dispossessed tribals, victims of chemical pollution, bad roads, real estate mafias, 'quotation' groups, exploited women, illegal quarrying,... nothing. Channels even invite freelancers to compile reports which, while rough-cut, often hit very hard.

But the cardinal sin of glut has begun to undo all gains. Channels have got locked in a paparazzi-like rat-race for the next sensational scoop so the space of 'news consciousness' has got horribly overcrowded - each issue goes 'stale' in days if not hours, too fast for it to have grown in minds for any serious corrective action to be even contemplated. To give an example: a couple of years back, a smart young lady won a contest for 'Best Citizen Journalist' with a feature on the horrible public toilets in Sarkari offices. Many still remember her work as a hard punch in the gut but the toilets remain horrible as ever.


Like most other Indian languages, literature in Malayalam is on the decline. A month back, I asked an eminent writer "Who are the best writers in Malayalam, I mean those in their thirties and forties?" And he said: "There aren't any good ones! The oldies will write till they die and then there won't be any literature!" From my outsider's perch, I can't contest that; all I can say is: Cinema is a good barometer to measure the vitality of a literature and Malayalam cinema is certainly not what it once was.

But Kerala springs another surprise! Go to any bookshop and one sees brand new editions of all the classics - stacks of copies each. Obviously, they are bought - and I am not cynical enough to say they are only bought (I did see an intriguing newspaper headline: "Book sales zoom, Reading declines in Kerala"). And it is not only outstanding works in Malayalam. In my many years in Chennai, I never so much as saw an edition of 'Tirukkural' in any of its many decent bookshops. During my last spell in Kerala, I saw piles of copies of two different Malayalam translations of the Tamil classic in each of the nearly half dozen bookshops I visited!


I saw 'Arjunan Sakshi'. a film with a catchy name and nothing else. Well, not quite nothing. The foreign returned hero is being driven to his apartment after a drunken night out; he asks, very feebly: "Are we on the Mahatma Gandhi road?" and his friend who is on the wheel asks back: "What, want to pay your respects with a ceremonial puke?!" (the original is untranslatable: "enthaa, ninakku vaaluvechu thozhano?")


(*) - The cow belt has suffered from serious and chronic neglect of the visual media. Bollywood, the most powerful among them, is all about Bombay, very occasionally, Delhi, a bit of Punjab (only the Golden Temple and mustard fields) or the Himalayas. But UP/Bihar never ever appears - not even the Taj. The very silly con-caper 'Bunty aur Babli' got a tax exemption from the then UP government only because it was filmed in and around Lucknow and Agra!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Anna Phenomenon

The following words are not mine; I merely record the take of someone who I know and whose judgement I have grown to trust in a broad sense.

If you do read on, you won't find any 'Bharat Mata' slogans and jingoism; neither will you have to endure the screams of rabble-rousing dissidents.


I visited Ralegan Siddhi with some collegemates in 1989 and spent a couple of days with Anna. Then, he had no Padma Award. I found him a strict idealist. I could see his work for his village. He was almost god to folks there; but his lifestyle was very frugal. He was quite an inspirational figure to the young crowd. Thereafter, I have not seen him but I have kept hearing about him every now and then, like everyone else.

Over the last couple of years, I have had to deal extensively with the Co-operative society Registrar and Fire Service officers - it is very true that without Right to Information act, it would have been impossible to get any serious co-operation from the Babus. Frankly speaking, I know of no other mechanism to make these government officers to work on a normal person's plea, except the fear of RTI or Court order. Going to court can be painful but RTI does make a difference.

About the current movement lead by Anna, I think it is a good reminder to ministers, political parties and govt officers that people have a voice and it can't be ignored all the time.

The present movement has elements of blackmail, challenge to the constitution or the beginning of anarchy. Some people have absurdly high expectations of Anna and after some time they would surely come out of this delusion that he is some kind of Messiah. But, it is very true that although the masses who support Anna hazare may not know technicalities of the Jan Lokpal bill, their non-violent upsurge speaks volumes of our rotten system; and there are real issues being raised - issues which had better be addressed one or other way.

I also think there is some substance to allegations that Anna has dictatorial tendencies: indeed, way back in '89, I heard of Anna lashing with a belt someone who tried to sell liquor in Ralegaon; there was a certain fear for Anna among the villagers. And there are videos on Youtube where former associates have raised similar issues. Be that as it may, now the country as a whole should look not at the man but at the issues.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fabrics and Peacocks

I report from Amdavad again - having reached here three weeks back. The weather was sultry to begin with and then has turned drizzly and windy. The many vacant plots in the newer neighborhoods look lush and richly carpeted. Little muddy patches abound and sometimes, one sees flocks of black ibises (these are biggish black birds with long, curved beaks) inspecting them with a studious, professorial air. The malls are, as usual, full of horribly expensive (to me) merchandise. And I notice that among the present young adult crowd, nearly a third of the males (and a sprinkling of the females) stand over six feet tall.

On the advice of a Calcutta-based anthropologist, I visited the Calico Museum.

The museum comprises two distinct galleries, one exclusively on textiles and one on textiles and religious paraphernalia; both wind thru a vast mansion which stands in a large compound in the Shahi Baug area of the old city. The overall layout of the building is hard to make out from any point in our conducted tour path - except that it is several floors high and has perhaps a hundred rooms (maybe well above that) but few large halls. Parts of the complex feature haveli-like decorative work (some actual 'pols' and haveli facades with densely delicate wood-carvings have been brought and reassembled here; the mansion also incorporates some superb specimens of intricate lacquer-work on ceilings and capitals of wooden pillars). The compound is very green with tall neem and other trees, several overgrown with epiphytes, a few small ponds and a large population of "kaeey-oh"-ing peacocks; and the management has wisely refrained from kitschy landscaping.

Almost everything I saw in the galleries was new to me. I had never heard of the Patola sarees of Patan (and of the only surviving Master-weaver there, Chhota Lal Salvi) although I had been to Patan; same was the case with the 'tie-dye' technique and its various manifestations across India. And for the first time, I saw the Pichwais of Rajasthan - cloth curtains several meters across, painted with Krishna either worshipped in his Srinathji form (quite similar to the idol of the Dwaraka temple) or engaged in various amorous adventures. Some Pichwais show a group of gopis worshipping a flowering tree as Krishna and one of these had the uncanny feel of Boticelli's 'Primavera!

Then, there were the Madhubani sarees and tribal art from Bihar, the Phulkari fabrics of Punjab, a Mughal Royal tent with lavish textile work, elaborately recreated, Tanjavur-painting style fabric designs from Tamil Nadu ...

Our guide had plenty to tell us and spoke with a lot of vigor. She showed us several indivdual printing blocks and the marvelous patterns they create on cloth on sequential application. She adds: "The famous paseley design, much favored as a fabric print by the British, was actually, a South Asian innovation." Then she describes a weaving technique: each single thread is colored according to the pattern already decided and then the fabric is woven, warp and weft and the picture gets automatically revealed. The sheer effort involved in all that must have been mind-numbing - no wonder such art-forms are gradually dying out.

And there apparently was a style of painting where a very large piece of cloth is decorated from the middle outwards by a group of faithful and highly skilled artisans guided by a single designer - each artisan just does his portion of the work and as for the designer, he never handles paint but guides them all in parallel, having conceived the full picture in his head!

I leave this remarkable place with a wistful feeling that I didn't see anything from Kerala. But for the name 'Calico' that is - probably concocted from 'Calicut' by the Portuguese as a generic name for all Indian cotton textiles (and was there somewhere in there a copy on cloth of an erotic mural painting in the Mattancheri palace - Krishna dallying with his girls?). And I don't remember seeing any Dacca Muslin - I heard while at primary school, sarees made of this weave of cotton were so sheer that one could see thru sixteen layers of them (a fabric for emperors that, not merely kings!).

Shahibaug ("Royal Garden") gets its name from a small Mughal palace, said to have been built by emperor Jahangir on the banks of the Sabarmati. Among the people who have stayed in it are Shah Jahan and a young Rabindranath Tagore, visiting his brother who was a Government official in these parts. The building now houses a very modest museum dedicated to Sardar Patel - the paucity of exhibits is very much in keeping with the Sardar who was not one for material possessions. A surprising item was a photo of Patel with the then Maharaja of Cochin (the latter, who appears sporting a Turkish-style cap, is famous in local legend for telling Patel: "I shall cede my state to Indian Union only on one condition: you must ensure that every new year, I get a copy of the astral almanac"). There was also a little porcelain statue of the popular Kerala deity Ayyappa.

Near the western edge of the city is the Sardar Patel Institute of Social Sciences. A kilometer-long and convoluted walkers' path runs thru its campus. The terrain is surprisingly uneven (most of Ahmedabad is utterly flat) and the vegetation is a mix of dense stands of (primarily) neem trees and grassy slopes. The resident fauna includes packs of dogs (they seem perpetually locked in some sort of turf war but don't mess with bipeds), and a few proud and pushy bulls; troops of dark-faced monkeys occasionally pass thru (when one-on-one with homo sapiens, they don't make way and instead bear their fangs in a dirty snarl). But the ones who really lord over the place are the very vocal peacocks. Numbering in dozens, they are usually unfazed by the walkers but step away away in a hurry if any photographic equipment is pointed at them. The males often dance and the females (who seem less in number) usually pretend to be totally unimpressed with the show.