& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hunkered down by the past

After some tenuous moves to bring about normalcy between India and Pakistan, relations have gone back to where they usually are – in a quagmire of suspicion and mistrust.

The hawks in the establishment, and political parties in both countries, usually ensure that no real gain is ever made in improving ties. And that for every step forward, there are several steps backwards.

The most recent setback is India’s decision to cancel the foreign secretaries meeting in retaliation to Pakistan High Commission’s invitation to the Kashmiri separatists for a meeting.

India-Pakistan relations follow a familiar, cyclical trajectory: a slow build up towards normalcy, encouraged by a genuine interest amongst some sections of the society in both countries to expedite the process, and then the inevitable swift decline following some innocuous incident.

There are many organizations that are working for normalcy in relations, such as Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, but there is little evidence of mass support in both countries for improving relations.

One of the reasons for this is that the subcontinent continues to live in the past. There is little effort to move into the 21st century. It’s important to analyse the past, but it becomes an exercise in futility when it turns into an obsession, as is seemingly the case in the subcontinent.

The intelligentsia in both the countries and in the West continues to engage in analyzing the Partition and the post-partition period, and comfortably predict that normalization is virtually impossible.

Last year, Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution, predicted in his book Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum that the relations between the neighbours will not see any substantial change even a century after the Partition.

While in Bombay (mid-July to mid-August), I attended a scintillating discussion on the book organized by the American Centre Library and the University of Bombay, and moderated by Sudheendra Kulkarni, the chair of Observer Research Foundation, and aide to the former Prime Minister of India, AB Vajpayee. 

One of the participants in the discussion pithily observed that Muslims in India have changed their perceptions about Pakistan periodically. 

1947: dream
1965: disappointment
1971: disillusionment
2008: derision.

Kulkarni also organized another panel discussion on SAARC (the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) – India and Pakistan Why they should – and how they can – make the SAARC vision come true.

The panelists included RD Pradhan, former home secretary, and the author of the My Years with Rajiv and Sonia; Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States and now Senior Fellow and Director, South & Central Asia at the Hudson Institute; Manjeet Kriplani, Executive Director of the Indian-American think tank The Gateway House; Chaitanya Pande, founder and president of Polymath Financial Advisor; and Kulkarni himself.

These discussions explored the many possibilities and the options that are (and may become) available to both the countries for speedier resolutions of their differences. The latter discussion touch upon trade and the possible role of Indians and Pakistanis settled outside the subcontinent in improving relations.

A great example of good neighbourly relations is offered by the United States and Canada. The two countries trade over $1.8b worth of merchandise every day (approximately $1.2m every minute). 

Trade can be the pivot for improving and enhancing India-Pakistan relations.

The implementation of the policy of non-discriminatory market access (as opposed to the Most Favoured Nation) by Pakistan to India will pave the way for enhanced trade, bulk of which today is routed through Dubai.

A heartening aspect of the panel discussion was the participants of young people, and Haqqani emphasized that they don't need to carry the burden of the past into the future. 

Watch a brief video of Haqqani's intervention during the panel discussion:

In this context, I want to quote a passage from Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer The Secret History of The End of An Empire (and I apologize for forgetting my own complaint that we focus too much on the past) that describes Jinnah's last moment, and his regret.

The circumstances changed quickly for, on 11 September 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah finally succumbed to his illness. He had been on his way to Karachi, Fatima (his sister) remembered him speaking in delirium: 'Kashmir...Give them...the right...to decide...Constitution...I will complete it...soon...Refugees...give them...all assistance...Pakistan. According to his doctor, Jinnah saw Liquat and told him that Pakistan was 'the biggest blunder of my life'. Further yet, he declared: 'If now I get an opportunity I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again.' It is impossible to prove whether Jinnah actually said these words or not; either way he was to have no further opportunity for a rapprochement. He was taken from the airport to the Governor General's house in an ambulance, which broke down after four miles on a main road in the middle of a refugee settlement with traffic honking by. The heat sizzled, flies buzzing around the Quaid-e-Azam's ashen face as Fatima attempted to fan them away. It was an hour before another ambulance could be found. Jinnah was taken back to Government House, where Fatima watched him sleep for about two hours. 'Oh, Jin,' she remembered thinking, 'if they could pump out all my blood, and put it in you, so that you may live.' He woke one final time and whispered to her 'Fati, khuda hafiz...la ilaha il Allah...Mohammad...rasul...Allah.' His head slumped to the right. He had died with the confession of faith just past his lips.

Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer
At a time when secularism is being sought to be redefined in India, in the wake of Narendra Modi’s unprecedented electoral victory, it’s perhaps pertinent to recall the life and struggle of someone like Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013).

Dr. Engineer dedicated his life to ensuring minority human rights are acknowledged, respected and ensured in a state that while it pledged secularism publicly was not always fully committed to its implementation.

A social reformer who waged a war on theocracy within his Dawoodi Bohra community, Dr. Engineer’s work encompasses diverse areas and includes, among other subjects, the understanding religious violence in India, the role of religion in democratic societies, the role and place of women in Islam, the study of Indian history from a secular, non-sectarian perspective.

(Dawoodi Bohras are Shia Muslims, spread across India. Read about the community here: Dawoodi Bohra)

A prolific writer, Dr. Engineer has authored over 70 books, and has been the recipient of the alternate Nobel Prize in 2004. He started the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, which has emerged as a premier institution for spreading awareness on secular issues. After his demise last year, the centre is run by Dr. Ram Punyani and Advocate Irfan Engineer.

Last year, the centre published a tribute volume – Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer. It contains short tributes by Dr. Engineer’s many associates, friends and admirers. 

The volume is edited by Ram Puniyani and Irfan Engineer. Pickering, Ontario, based artist Farida Ali has done the cover portrait of the book (see image).  

The contributors to the volume include: Ram Puniyani, Irfan Engineer, Vinod Mubayi, Harsh Mander, Hilal Ahmed, Uday Mehta, Shaukat Ajmeri, Javed Anand, Dr. Ranu Jain, Prof. M Hasan, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, Zakia Soman, LS Herdenia, Anand Patwardhan, Sumanto Al Qurtuby, Jyoti Punwani, Swami Agnivesh, Mazher Hussain, Meena Menon, Qutub Jahan, Syed Ali Mujtaba, Pritam K. Rohila, Zahir Janmohammed, Maqbool Ahmed Siraj, Seema Chisti, Zarina Patel, Asad Bin Saif, Farzane Versey, Ramu Ramanathan and Neha Dabhade.

Here’s an extract from the book – a piece by veteran journalist and activist Jyoti Punwani, which encapsulates the sentiments of many who knew the man.

There will never be another Asghar Ali

The political establishment, all the way up to Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee, stood solidly behind the Syedna. Yet, Engineer remained a Reformist throughout, and not just in his personal life. Under his guidance, the Reformists became a force to reckon with, with women at the forefront of the movement. He showed the same courage in openly organizing support for the Shahbano judgement when the Muslim establishment mounted a campaign against it.

For me, Ashgar Ali Engineer was many things – a fount of knowledge and a guru, yet one so devoid of arrogance that I was able to, over the past 20 years, interact with him as a friend. I first met him as a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, of which he was both founder and vice-president. In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, CPDR members used to demonstrate holding placards in a narrow lane across the road from Badri Mahal, Fort – that was as close to the Bohra headquarters as the police would allow us to get, Yes this insignificant bunch of youngsters, led by Engineer and a few other Reformists, would be considered enough of a threat to be stoned by orthodox Bohras. I used to be terrified, but not the much older Engineer.

As a novice in journalism, I turned to Engineer for everything concerning Muslims – be it history, the freedom movement, communal politics. Always ready to share his immense knowledge, he never grew impatient at my endless questions. I would interview others too, but no one had his rounded, secular, yet scholarly perspective.

In 1984, after seeing the partisan conduct of the police towards the Shiv Sena, during the riots that broke out in Bhiwandi, Thane and Mumbai, I told him I supported those young Muslims who felt revenge was the only solution. “No, never,” was his immediate response. “Revenge will only set off an endless cycle of violence, which will help no one, Muslims least of all.”

His way was to change minds. But that will take forever, I replied. Yes that’s what he never stopped trying to do through his writings and interactions with youngsters, policemen and IAS trainees. Every communal riot was investigated by him personally, or by his team, to trace the root causes, for as he said, religion was not the cause of conflict, its political use was.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

'Our Musical Scene in Two Tones'

I’m on vacation in Bombay. It’s raining though not incessantly. It’s tolerably hot and humid, and I’m surrounded by a few hundred books belonging to my grandfather and my father – truly the only inheritance that is of any value to me – that I dip into to discover nuggets that at once inspire, dazzle, amuse.

One such nugget is a copy of 1940 magazine Twice a Year “a book of Literature, the Arts and Civil Liberties” (Editor: Dorothy Norman Assistant Editor: Mary Lescaze). It comprises essays that re-evaluate Dostoevsky, Miller, Gide, Mann, Kafka; essays by Einstein, Saroyan; fresh translations of poems by Lorca, Rilke, reports on the religious controversy generated over Russell’s appointment as a professor at College of the City of New York; the history of birth control, and many other scintillating pieces.

Reproduced below are verses from Roy Harris’s essay ‘Our Musical Scene in Two Tones’ on the revolutionary technological changes (such as radio, public broadcasting, the vinyl record) transforming the consumption of music by the American public.   


If you want to see America’s World of Tomorrow
                Go to The Fair,
For Beautiful planned Cities of Homes –
Sunlight and air
Landscape Countryside
And music with it –
Third rate Broadway Nickelodeon
                Our eyes, palates, nostrils, stomachs,
Lungs, skins, must feast on the
Fresh harvests of the earth –
Our ears –
Broadway Nickelodeon
                Or maybe just the warmed over
                Enthusiasms of Europe’s Yesterdays.
                Give ‘em a phoney fa├žade
                And a new coat o’ bright paint.
                Don’t yuh luv “modernistic?”
                I think it is so “int’resting.”


The ear and eye
Are in pitched battle for the attention of the public
Supporting the eye –
Architecture, sculpture, painting, photography,
Sports, theatre, dancing, beauty culture,
Supporting the ear –
Radio –
Oceans of Sounds –
Waves of vocal inflections
Gay, sad, turgid, muddy, bright,
Swift, slow, loud, soft, old, new,
Mostly old.
Dressed up in new garbs,
Collaborating new word ideas,
Doctrines – causes,
Mostly old supporting the Ear,
Records –
There for ears that hear and hear not,

And television promises much
for America’s hungry eyes.


Will the ear survive to live
In Peace with the eye?

Will the ear challenge Industrial Barons?
Will we ever pause to listen?
In our day of glory will there be
A moment of contemplation?

Will our ears hear
The proud, fierce, searching, sad,
Fearful, soul hungry, groping,
Triumphant, whispering, clamorous,
Abstract articulations of
Our innermost selves –
Will we sing our songs
And will we hear?


Don’t take it so hard, Brother
The people like it
Or they wouldn’t pay for it.
“William James was no musician.”
New melodies, new harmonies,
New melodies, new harmonies,
Counterpoint – Form –
What does it all mean,
It’s just music to my ears.

What’s wrong with this tune, anyway?

All right boys – Polish it up!!
Seven minute Crescendo –
How-do-yuh like it – eh!

You’re not telling me anything –
The longhairs can’t fill Carnegie
With a hundred piece band.
It’s just a Park Avenue Party to me.
“William James was no musician.”


Sunday, July 13, 2014


I’ve been fortunate to see more Satyajit Ray films in Toronto in the last six years than I could in more than a decade when I was in India. In India I saw most of Ray’s oeuvre on TV. Here in Toronto I’ve seen all the films on the big screen – either at Ray or Tagore festivals. It makes a world of difference to see these films on the big screen.

This summer TIFF Bell Lightbox has organized a comprehensive festival of Ray’s films from July 3 to August 17. The Sun and the Moon – The Films of Satyajit Ray will screen all of Ray’s important classics.

Surprisingly, the screenings have been well-attended. In fact, had it not been for the generosity of my friend Mariellen Ward, a friend of India and an intrepid travel blogger, who gave me a free ticket, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Kathleen O’Donnell’s lecture on and the subsequent screening of Charulata (The Lonely Wife – 1964).  

Kathleen O’Donnell is a professor at the University of Toronto teaching Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Ray turned Tagore’s Nastanirh – the broken nest – into Charulata.

Kathleen O’Donnell’s introduction to Ray delineated all the important facets of the filmmaker, including Tagore’s influence, the basic grounding in the ideas of the Bengali renaissance, the confluence of western and oriental thought as exemplified by the Brahmo Samaj,  his career as a commercial artist, his interest in calligraphy and the creation of the Ray Roman font, Ray’s abiding debt to the French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and his almost-maniacal attention to details to all aspects of film making – from directing to script, music, set-design, costumes, cinematography and editing. Unfortunately, as she was warming up to the subject, it was time for the screening.

Charulata is one of Ray’s best.  It is a period film (1879) – depicting the height of the Bengali renaissance, when the issues that had been raised nearly a century ago in public fora were now being hotly debated in homes. Of special significance was the role of women in the family and the society. The film depicts the cloistered lives of women in feudal households, with nothing much to do except knit, make paan, play cards, and supervise the household help; the few who could read and occasionally wrote.

Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) is one such housewife, and falls in love with her husband’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee).  The woolly-headed husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) runs his own newspaper, and is forever obsessed with British political happenings and English thought, and how these would affect Indians.  He doesn’t have time for Charu, or for the books she reads. Amal, on the other hand, is young and has all the time to feed Charu’s fantasies. She falls in love with him, but he is not willing to betray his brother and beats a hasty retreat. When Bhupati discovers Charu’s love for Amal, he is shattered and attempts to leave, but returns to what is now a broken nest.

In The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, film critic and Ray’s contemporary Chidananda Das Gupta (1921-2011) says, “The secret of their identification with an otherwise uncomfortable theme lay in the state of innocence of the characters caught in the web of forces greater than themselves. Their lack of conscious knowledge of what is happening inside them gives them a certain nobility; it is in their awakening that their tragedy lies. Amal, the younger man, is the first to realize the truth; for Charu it is an imperceptible movement from the unconscious to the conscious; for the husband, it is a sudden, stark, unbelievable revelation of truth. All three wake up, as it were, into the twentieth century, the age of self-consciousness. The rhythm of the unfolding is so gentle, impeccable and true that there is no sense of shock even for the conservative Indian, although Ray’s film was as daring for the wider audience as Tagore’s story had been in its day.”

Incidentally, it is believed that Tagore’s story may have been based on the relationship between Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi, the wife of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath. Kadambaridevi committed suicide soon after Rabindranath’s marriage. Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi wrote and read poetry together.

I also saw Mahanagar the next day. But I’ll write about that some other time. The post has become too long.