& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Fifteen Dogs - Andre Alexi

At a particularly poignant moment in Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, Majnoun, one of the 15 canines who has developed humanlike faculties of thought and speech, thanks to a wager between Hermes and Apollo, describes to Nira, his female human friend, what to a male canine is a perfect dilemma: to choose between two compelling desires of sex and hunger.

-           Do dogs have stories? Nira asked him one day.
-          Of course, said Majnoun.
-          Oh, Maj! said Nira. Please tell me one.

Majnoun agreed and began.

-          There is the smell of bitch, but I am before a wall. The smell is strong and I am going mad. I can’t eat. I can’t drink. The wall is too thick to knock down and it goes for miles in this direction and for miles in that direction. I dig under and I dig and I dig. The master cannot see my digging so I dig until there is air beneath the wall and the smell of the bitch is stronger than it was before. I call to the bitch but there is no answer. But there is air beneath the wall. Should I go on digging? I don’t know, but I dig even though I can smell the master’s food from his house. The smell of bitch is stronger and stronger. I call out, but now I am hungry.

Here Majnoun stopped.

-          Is that it? Asked Nira.
-          -    Yes, said Majnoun. Do you not like it?-          Well, it’s…different, said Nira. But it doesn’t really have an ending.-          It has a very moving ending, said Majnoun. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?

To the Gods Hermes and Apollo, the dogs are, to quote Shakespeare, “as flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Apollo wagers a year’s servitude to Hermes that animals with humanlike intelligence would be as unhappy if not more as humans. They take a group of 15 dogs in a shelter and bestow them with humanlike intelligence.

The canines take to their changed fate differently. They get divided into two distinct categories – those who are clearly not keen to explore the possibilities with their newfound ability to communicate through their new language and the other category who want to gallop away with the new language.

The former category is convinced that canines should be like canines, communicate in the manner in which they have always done. The other group believes that the gift of humanlike speech and cognition has to be explored, experimented with and savoured. One of them, Prince, turns into a poet.

This obviously leads to a wide schism between the two groups. The novel focuses on three dogs – Majnoun, Atticus and Prince – as they journey through the world that has suddenly turned unfamiliar because of their transformation.

The humans are portrayed as generally mean, indifferent, condescending when they are unfamiliar with the pets, and once they get to know the animals, they become friendly but continue to treat the animals condescendingly, irritating the canines.

The novelist’s genius is in the novel’s simplicity. Fifteen Dogs is a simple parable. It explores the depths of emotions that are human but are being felt but canines. The novel portrays the canines as intelligent beings, capable of understanding and manipulating humans, their masters. However, having become like humans doesn’t lessen their animal instinct, and even the most peaceful (and humanlike) of them all – Majnoun – is prone to merciless violence against other dogs when guarding their own turf.

An endearing aspect of the novel is Prince’s poetry. In the endnote, the author explains that poems were written “in a genre invented by Francois Caradac for the OULIPO. It was invented after Francois Le Lionnais, a founder of the group, wondered if it were possible to write poetry that has meaning for both humans and animals. In Fifteen Dogs each poem is what Caradec called a ‘Poem for a dog’. That is, in each poem the name of a dog will be audible – to the listener or to the dog – if the poem is said aloud, though the name is not legible.”

The novel deals with universal themes, except that these universal themes are woven around the lives of dogs, many of whom meet with a brutish end, and even the ones who survive longer are necessarily happy.  Apollo wins, but before he does, the gods, too, act like humans, displaying envy, and worse, bending the rules of the game, to score brownie points.

The novel won the Giller Prize in 2015.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Castro-NAM-Delhi-Nellie massacre

Indira Gandhi & Fidel Castro
Too many obituaries will be written about Fidel Castro. So, I won't use this space for another obit. Let me just recount a vignette about the great revolutionary's India visit, more than 35 years ago.

Castro visited India to participate in the 1983 Non-Aligned Movement summit in New Delhi. Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her imperial (and impervious) reign of India. Following her triumphant return to power in 1980, after the post-Emergency debacle of 1977, Mrs. Gandhi was eager to acquire a global image. 

To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, and later that year (1983), after the NAM Summit, India would host the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.

Indira Gandhi was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had, and was not going to settle for anything less.

However, the Indian print media, experiencing a grand resurgence and an awakening after its censorship during the Emergency (1975-1977), had different ideas. 

Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game for a media. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (Indira Gandhi as Commerce) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.

The NAM Summit in Delhi was telecast live, and for the first time, one saw world leaders from the movement, led by the charismatic trio of the movement – Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Mrs. Gandhi.

NAM was happening live on TV. It was a moment for all Indians to be proud. Arun Shourie had different ideas. Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre in Assam. 

India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today's cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. Globally, the media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.

One wonders whether the Nellie massacre was discussed at the NAM Summit (it’d have been unlikely). I remember the Summit for the bear hug Castro gave to his “sister” Indira, and for his long speech (six hours or thereabouts).

I’m reproducing a paragraph from a piece by K Natwar Singh, a foreign service veteran, an Indira lackey, and India’s foreign minister a decade ago, wrote in the Hindu remembering Castro (The one and only Fidel).

“The opening day of the summit produced a crisis. S.K. Lambah, the Deputy-Secretary General, came to me during the lunch break. “Sir, we have a hell of a problem on our hands. Mr. Yasser Arafat is most upset — he says he felt insulted by being asked to address the opening plenary session after the leader of the Jordanian delegation. Mr. Arafat has already alerted the crew of his aircraft and will leave New Delhi this evening.” I immediately informed Indira Gandhi. I also told her that President Castro, till the afternoon session, was still the Chairman and that she should take him into confidence. She acted promptly. She arrived at Vigyan Bhavan in a few minutes. She had also spoken to President Castro. 

The great man arrived in no time. I narrated the melancholy tale to him. He asked Mr. Arafat to come to Vigyan Bhawan to confer with the outgoing and incoming Chairmen. To watch the Cuban leader handle the temperamental PLO leader was an education. Mr. Arafat reached Vigyan Bhavan in record time. Mr. Castro asked him if he was a friend of Indira Gandhi. The response was something on these lines: “Friend, friend, she is my elder sister and I will do anything for her.”

Mr. Castro: “Then behave like a younger brother and attend the afternoon session.” It was over in two minutes. Mr. Arafat did as he was told.”

In 1983, I was just out of college. I had graduated in commerce, just because those days the conventional wisdom was that a college degree in commerce would get one a clerical job. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Journalism was developing into a keen interest, and I avidly followed MJ Akbar’s Sunday magazine every week. It became a vocation soon after I abandoned my futile attempts at becoming a chartered accountant. My father Meghnad’s trade union activism, and my home in Teli Gali, had made me by then into a committed secularist, if not a leftist.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Interactive session on Belief on TAG TV

Interactive Session on Belief at TAG TV anchored jointly by Haleema Sadia and Tahir Aslam Gora. Several participants in the discussion also spoke about the novel and the issues that it deals with, especially immigration, multiculturalism, youth alienation and radicalization

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sairat - A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where will they build a home?

Bitargaon is like any other village in Maharashtra, the western-India province that has a long coastline along the Arabian Sea. Insular, hierarchical, and segregated along caste and class divide. The economy is agrarian, and has been for centuries.

What has changed in the last century is the rise of sugarcane. The cash crop has given rise to an omniscient sugar lobby that controls every aspect of people’s lives. Sugar economics is the lifeblood of Maharashtra’s hinterland, integrating it upwardly with the powerful political centres of the state. The population is a mix of all castes, no different than any other village in India.

It is a society where an accident of birth into a specific caste determines (even in the 21st century) one’s status. The Maratha caste – a middle caste – is predominant in these villages and also in the state, wielding unmatched political power. This is true for other provinces of India, too, where middle castes have seized political power through democratic means.  

Grassroots democracy has transformed these villages in a small but important ways. While hierarchies are enforced rigidly, there is enhanced social interaction between different castes. Cricket, popular cinema and satellite television bring everyone together albeit temporarily and help forge an identity that is pan-Indian in its outlook, even as it stays firmly local in its behaviour, habits and attitudes.

Even today, it is inconceivable in such a milieu that a girl and a boy from different caste would fall in love. It is impossible that if perchance they did, they would be allowed to live a life together. A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where will they build a home? 

In such a social setup, Nagraj Manjule's Sairat's Prashant (Parshya, Ajay Thosar), a young man from the Pardhi community, falls in love with the haughty daughter Archana (Archie, Rinku Rajguru) of the village’s Patil. The Patil, a Maratha chieftain, is directly linked to the sugar lobby, and is the richest man in the village. He has deep political links and strong political aspirations.

Such a love story will naturally be fraught with uncertainty and perennial tensions. Sairat (meaning: wild, passionate, frenzy; take your pick) is an unlikely love story set in a rigid caste structure that doesn’t have the patience for young lovers who are willing to risk everything just to be with each other forever.  

It is narrated in a simple and straightforward manner. The lower caste boy knows he has no hope in hell to do anything about his infatuation for the girl. Fortunately for him, the girl, raised to be independent by her family, more than reciprocates, and love blossoms.

Parshya is a regular guy who is good at his studies and great at cricket (known as the Dhoni of the village). He whiles away his time like any regular teenager with his friends Langadya (meaning: cripple) and Salya (Salim). Archie is an arrogant, self-confident young woman who has little qualms being assertive, thanks to the intangible power her caste status gives her; but she is innately earthy and a rustic trying hard to appear sophisticated.

The film narrates with charm and innocence the growing love between Parshya and Archie, but then they are discovered and have to face the wrath of Archie’s father. The Patil knows only two ways to deal with the situation – beat the boy and get his daughter married. 

The boy’s family, dismayed and unable to comprehend their son’s wanton transgression of the caste divide, just can’t take the pressure and leave the village. The boy and the girl don’t give in and elope – not to Pune or Mumbai, which are larger cities, but to Hyderabad, a city that is culturally better connected to southern Maharashtra and the Marathwada region.

Post-interval, the story picks up with the boy and the girl now living together in a sprawling Hyderabad slum, slowly but determinedly moving ahead with their life together, more assuredly after they overcome their initial discomfort of their new situation. 

After all the buildup, the audience’s expectation is belied unexpectedly and shockingly in a horrific dénouement.

Sairat is to date the highest grossing Marathi language film (having earned the Indian benchmark of US$15m at the box office). Released in April 2016 in India, it became a sensation for its songs (music Ajay-Atul) and the lead pair of first-time actors. 

The song Zingat has captured India’s soul (just as Why This Kolaveri Di had a few years ago). The frenzied lezim beat is mesmerising 

Sairat was screened at the 20th Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto earlier this week to a near-full house comprising mostly non-South Asian audience.