Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tree of Pain

`Baluata', the autobiography of Marathi Dalit poet, writer Daya Pawar should be a mandatory reading for every upper-caste 15-year-old before he or she leaves the school and loses/fails to acquire empathy for Dalits because the reservations have made the things tough for him or her.

Daya Pawar was born in 1935 and died in 1996. His autobiography came out in 1980 and became an instant hit. 

I, though a voracious reader of Marathi books as a school-boy, read Baluta only last week, that too in English translation. I now realize that I hadn't read what is perhaps the greatest work in my language all these years. I of course had read about the book -- P L Deshpande famously called it `a tree bursting with pain' -- but didn't dare to read it because I was afraid it would be too painful a read. So the irony: I had read Marathi translation of The Roots in std 9th, but not the Baluta.

Reading Baluta isn't a painful experience. It is an enriching experience. I always have this opinion that honest and articulate non-fiction often surpasses the fiction when it comes to shining light on the real world. (This year's Noble prize for literature, incidentally, has gone to a journalist, not a fiction writer.) In Daya Pawar we have a Dalit man who is essentially a writer: sensitive, introspective, emotional, articulate. He dabbled in Dalit activism and politics, but wasn't really cut out for anything other than writing. (Same could be said of Namdeo Dhasal.) Pawar faced a lot of humiliation during his school years because of his caste. But his book is not a rant. While chronicling his life and times he spares no one: the upper caste people of his village, his own community -- the Mahars, his parents, and himself. 

Two passages in the book show his genius as a chronicler: The first is about an incident which happened after Pawar's father died. Somebody asks the little Dagdu (the name given to him in the cradle), `Boy, tell me, how come your mother is pregnant though your father is dead?' (How can somebody be so cruel, Pawar asks us.)  The boy was devastated. The question haunted him day and night. One day he mustered up courage and asked his mother. "My mother didn't know whether to laugh or cry." Finally she told him: I was already pregnant when your father died.

The second comes when he writes about the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 1950s. White colour then become  fashionable among the Dalit youth. Mahar girls in the cities who had now started working in offices started wearing white saris. And, Pawar tells us, when the  upper caste office-going girls realized that white was now a `neo-Buddhist' colour, they stopped wearing white.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Portrait Of A Court

Statutory warning: Court, India's entry for Oscars, is not for everybody. You may absolutely not like it and feel like demanding your ticket money back.

In the first half-an-hour of this Chaitanya Tamhane-directed film, I, having been a court reporter in Mumbai for five years, kept saying to myself: My God, how right he got every detail of an Indian lower court! The lay-out of the court room which makes zero concession for aesthetics, social profile of the judge and the lady prosecutor (the housewife inside her barely hidden), the human rights lawyer (played by Vivek Gombar, the producer), the other crowd! The film won me over quickly. I felt like advising everybody who is yet to watch it, and also everybody who has watched it: `Please go and sit in a sessions court for a couple of hours at least once. Then you would appreciate the director's achievement in recreating it all so perfectly.'  It's a triumph of realism. Hence the warning at the beginning: if you don't like realism, if you don't appreciate the fact that reality itself is often banal but its recreation, on canvas, in literature, theater or cinema, can be magical, then this film is not for you. I would pity you if that is the case, and I hope that the Oscar jury is not like you.

I would argue that this film is not about the trial of a folk singer who sings revolutionary songs and who is accused of abetting the `suicide' of a sanitation worker who dies inside a manhole. It is obviously absurd that a radical song can be held to have inspired a suicide. In real life nobody would face trial in such circumstances. (Though less amusing and absurd things can happen in our legal system: remember the south Indian actress who was dragged from court to court on the charge of spreading "obscenity" because she said extra-marital relations were alright?) But ignore this implausibility and keep watching the film. You would realize it is simply a peg, on which director-writer Tamhane hangs various portraits, snapshots. Most of them are portraits of our courts. Come to think of if, isn't court an extraordinary place where characters from impossibly varied backgrounds come together and create an understated drama on a daily basis? Consider the cast of characters in this film: the judge and the lady prosecutor who are quintessentially Marathi
 middle-class, Vivek Gombar's lawyer who handles human rights cases and who himself comes from an affluent Gujarati family, the accused singer who represents a section of Marathi underclass which fell in love with the Marxist ideologies decades ago, and which is or was, it can be said, a bit naive about efficacy of Marxism, and finally the dead sanitation worker who comes from a lowest of the castes. The director does a great job of stringing together snapshots of their lives outside the courtroom and brings home to you a cliched fact: what an amazing, confounding, scary the Indian diversity is. 

The Indian legal system isn't evil. It's not like those south African dictatorships where a dissident could be "disappeared" by dumping in the sea from a plane. The system is overburdened, it lacks quality personnel (the best and the brightest in our society rarely opt to become judges, prosecutors or the police inspectors), but it has something called "due process" enshrined in its DNA, which in fact makes it so infuriatingly slow. Tamhane's film doesn't indict the system, to do that would have lowered its brilliance. It just paints a portrait. 

Flaws? The acting is sub-par at times. Especially the actors who play the judge and the police inspector disappoint with their dialogue delivery. It's easy to deliver a theatrical line, it's extremely hard to speak the way people speak in real life. But one piece of acting in this film is so brilliant that I would give the Oscar for best supporting actor for that performance (not possible, of course, in foreign film category). It's by the lady who plays the dead sanitation worker's wife who takes the witness stand. She is nervous, she only half-understand what's going on, she is dis-interested, and answers in mono-syllables, which frustrates the prosecutor. Her entire face and posture speaks. She seems so real; take a bow, whoever cast her. It can be compared to that very, very old lady's performance in Satyajit  Ray's Pather Panchali. 

She opens up a bit when the defense lawyer asks if her late husband took any precaution before climbing down into manholes. No, she says. Then how did he know if it is safe to go in? Cockroaches, she says. Cockroaches? Yes, if there are cockroaches inside, it means it would be safe. It cockroaches can survive the toxic fumes inside the manhole, humans can, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Appointment of a Worker

Gajendra Chouhan's appointment as FTII chairman is indefensible because he lacks the stature. Not because he's a BJP member. If the government were to appoint Paresh Rawal or the late Satyadev Dubey instead, nobody could have protested. Rawal is a newly minted BJP MP from Gujarat. Dubey wrote films like Bhoomika, Nishant and Junoon. He also wrote the play 'Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak'. And, hold your breath, he was once an RSS member. For the uninitiated,  he is the dock worker in 'Deewar' who says 'I won't pay hafta' before Amitabh does. But I digress. 

The question is, why no newspaper has targeted the I&B minister over the issue the way Smriti Irani was targeted over certain appointments by her ministry? Is it because of Mr Jaitley's famously cozy relationship with the Delhi media?

I partially agree with the libertarian argument that government has no business to run an FTII or an NSD. But that's a debate for another day.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Right to Secularism

The liberals in this country would (once again) discredit themselves if they do not endorse Maharashtra government's announcement that the Madrassas which do not offer formal curriculum (English, maths, science, etc.) would not be considered as schools and their wards would be treated as `out-of-school' students.

In fact the liberals should urge the governments -- in Maharashtra and elsewhere -- to go even further, and ban all the institutions, may it be Muslim Madrassas or so-called Vedic Pathshalas -- which do not offer modern education.

It should be noted that the government's decision is also applicable to Pathshalas.

The issue is more fundamental than the freedom of religion. Does every child has a right to education? According to the Right to Education Act, yes. Is this right a fundamental right? In my view it is, because without education there would be very few employment opportunities and much less dignity. If right to livelihood and dignity are fundamental rights -- they are, according to our courts -- then it follows that the right to education, too, is.

This leads to the next questions: how do we define education? Does a school which only offers religious instruction can claim that it is imparting education? Shouldn't education have standardization? If not, what stops someone from placing his/her child in a hotel as an apprentice at the age of six, and claiming that he or she is being `educated' to become a waiter or a dishwasher? 

 The decision of Maharashtra government would be suspect because it is a BJP-Shiv Sena government. It has also made an ass of itself recently by banning the beef eating. But we mustn't treat every decision of the state government, or for that matter that of the NDA government, as tainted by possible bias against minorities. That is a trap; if the liberals fall into it, they would be doing harm the to liberal/secular cause. As some of them did during the Shah Bano controversy.

Owaisi and brigade is, as expected, up in the arms. Ordinarily these people do not deserve to be engaged in debate, but a simple question should puncture their rhetoric: why did your parents send you two -- brothers Owaisi --  to Hyderabad Public School and not a Madrassa? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lets Eat Grandma

An unfortunate part of the debate surrounding the ban on beef was it didn't lead to a wider debate about morality of eating animals. I am a vegetarian, but I felt like expressing opposition to the ban because it takes away a secular freedom.

Probably no religion, except Jainism, preaches compassion for animals. Hinduism protects only cows. Islam and Judaism spare pigs out of disgust, but ordain that other animals, if to be eaten,
can not be made unconscious in a humane way (to lessen the suffering) before the slaughter. They must die fully conscious. Bible says you may eat all the animals that chew the cud and have two separate hooves. So the mercy be upon camels and cats.

What prompted me to write this was a passage from V S Naipaul's `Masque of Africa'.
`The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear. From the desert countries to the north long horned cattle are sent for slaughter here in big ramshackle trucks, cargoes of misery...to Abidjan (capital of Ivory Coast), to the extensive abattoir area near the docks. And there in the trampled and vile black earth these noble creatures, still with dignity, await their destiny in the smell of death, with sometimes a calf, all alone, without a mother, finding comfort of a sort in sleep, a little brown circle on the dirty ground, together with beautiful goats and sheep...When sights like this meet the eyes of simple people every day, there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.
.....only on the last morning of my stay...I found out what was the best way in the Ivory Coast of killing a kitten.You put them in a sack and then you dropped it in a pot of boiling water. The thought of this everyday cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast unimportant.' (END)

My own resolve to be a vegetarian was firmed up some ten years ago when I read J M Coetzee's novel, `Elizabet Coestello'. It's about an old, famous lady writer who is also a champion of vegetarianism. She earns the wrath of her daughter-in-law, who objects to the old cow preaching her food fads to her grandchildren at the dining table. At this point I stopped reading, because the novel seemed to be nothing but a series of sermons. However Ms Coestello's argument was enough to affirm my resolve not to eat animals. Perhaps they gave Coetzee a Nobel in a wrong category: it should have been for Peace, not Literature.

 I am curious as to how the novel ends. Perhaps the grandchildren say, at the dining table, without a comma, "Let's eat grandma."

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Alpha Male and the Old Grumpy

Bhalchandra Nemade must thank Salman Rushdie. Nemade won Jnanpeeth, the hightest literary award of the land, two days back. On the web, nobody picked up the story. No English channel `broke' it. PTI put it out only in the evening. Next day's English papers only took note.

On the same day the award was announced, Nemade, in a speech, trashed the Indian writers who write in English, specifically Rushdie and Naipaul. He also reiterated his opinion that English, as a medium of instruction, should be banned in India.

Now, when someone trashes Rushdie, he becomes a story. But for Rushdie, the old man Khomeini -- peace be upon him -- would have the same recall value as Gulzarilal Nanda. So the news websites picked it up, and Rushdie promptly reacted with a tweet, where he called Nemade an `Old Grumpy Bastard'. Result: Nemade, perhaps the finest Marathi novelist ever (in my ill-informed opinion), got more print footage. (But not on TV, sadly.) The English journalism and its readers are now fully aware of Nemade's existence. Let's hope he continues the name-calling thread by lashing back.

I wouldn't comment on Nemade's views on Naipaul and Rushdie, but in essence he has a point: English medium education is killing the Desi languages. This is not to say that it should be banned, because there really is no alternative if Indians are going to move from one state to another, and Hindi is unacceptable down south. But it doesn't make the truth in Nemade's reactionary statement go away. English is slowly destroying the other languages. (Once it had nourished them, by introducing them to the modern world and it literary forms.) 

Languages are like Alpha Males. They can not coexist in a single territory on equal terms; one of them has to retreat and live on the margins. As India shrinks, English the UK-born gorilla is driving others out. European languages have survived it only because they each have a nation to themselves. But even within the European Union, English is the de facto official language. The question now is not whether to ban English medium or not; it is how to provide sanctuary to the other apes in the Indian jungle.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Dr Tatyarao Lahane, Padma Shri recipient, who has performed over one lakh eye surgeries so far, came from a poor rural family. He writes in Lok Satta:

...I topped my exam centre in std 10th. Took admission for 11th...The college was going to select a batch of 20 bright students who were to get special coaching for the std 12th board exam. I went for selection.

They asked me to read from a zoology textbook. I read the word `stomach' as st-mu-ch (last syllable as `much' instead of `m-k'). That's how my school teacher used to say the word. Everyone laughed; I was denied seat in the special batch. For the next two years, my classmates ragged on me; they would call me `st-much'. But I did not lose heart. I was determined to prove that brilliance doesn't come from diction. I supported my education by working part-time....made it to the medical school. Later I learnt that only one student from that special batch had made it to the medical school....