Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of Komagata Maru

KomagataMaruSurrounded

Written by Randeep Singh

Surrey Art Gallery is hosting “Ruptures in Arrival,” an exhibition marking the Komagata Maru centenary.

What’s refreshing about this exhibition becomes apparent from its introduction. The Komagata Maru is not just the story of one religious or cultural group. It is the story of all peoples who have migrated to Canada, only to be deemed illegal, or unfit for entry and sent away.

The exhibition contextualizes the Komagata Maru in time through Ali Kazimi’s short-film presenting vignettes on the lives of South Asians in B.C. in 1914. The journey of the Komagata Maru is also represented in space by Avantika Bawa who traces the routes taken by the ship on a cascading fabric.

There is a video presentation of “Mass Arrival,” a live enactment by five Toronto artists of the expulsion of a cargo ship of Tamil refugees featuring (white) residents of Toronto. The video presentation is surrounded by walls of tabloid print-outs; headlines illustrate Canada’s phobia towards refugees and migrants, including acrid political cartoons on the never-ending Yellow Peril. The introduction to the exhibit reminds us not only of the Chinese refugees from Fujian who were turned away in 1999 but of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany whom Canada turned away in 1939.

I end with “Four Boats Stranded,” a model exhibition of Ken Lam’s work. In 2001, Lam constructed and had positioned four ships facing four directions atop the Vancouver Art Gallery of which one was the Komagata Maru. Looking at those ships, with all the exhibits in the gallery, one remembers the journeys that made Canada and the continuous journey of defining oneself in an ever migrating world.

http://komagatamaru100.com/event/rupture-in-arrival-art-in-the-wake-of-the-komagata-maru/

An Evening with Arundhati

arundhati

Written by Randeep Singh

She came. She spoke. She conquered. Arundhati Roy filled the pews of St. Andrew’s Wesley Church on April 1 as part of the Indian Summer Festival 2014.

Roy began by criticizing “representative democracy” as too much representation, not enough democracy. Democracy has plenty of institutions, Roy remarked, but those institutions have turned into conduits for a short-term, extractive, economic philosophy. “Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans,” she reads, “precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly – our nearsightedness?”

Capitalism controls culture too. Roy spoke of how corporations engage in “perception management,” deliberately not funding artistic projects which question the system. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy says, drew a connection between capitalism, imperialism and the Vietnam War; but American multinationals did not highlight this aspect of his legacy when they sponsored the Martin Luther King Junior Centre for Non-Violent Social Change, an organization which works with the US Department of Defence. The Indian mining group, Vedanta, Roy points out, recently sponsored the “Creating Happiness” film competition for film students to make films on sustainable development (in communities affected by the mining) with the tagline “Mining Happiness.”

Roy also questioned Gandhi as the mahatma or “great soul.” Roy recounted how the anti-imperialist, anti-racist Gandhi fought alongside Great Britain in the Boer Wars, refused to ride in the same railway carriages as Africans and wrote in prison that Indians deserved separate prisons from vile and immoral blacks and Chinese.

When asked whether she was an activist, Roy replied she was a writer telling the world’s stories. Her readings and discussion with The Tyee’s David Beers, brought to life the politics of development, resistance movements and the management of culture by corporations just as the arts have reenacted the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement or the experience of Canadian aboriginals in Residential Schools. As Roy puts it, “why wouldn’t we write about the critical issues our society is facing?”

Welcome Radical Desi in Surrey this Sunday March 23/14

Uddari welcomes the launch of Radical Desi, a new monthly magazine, and congratulates Gurpreet Singh and his team for initiating it. Below is the cover page of the first issue, an introduction and some information about its launching ceremony tommorrow.

radicaldesi1

Radical Desi
Monthly magazine on alternative politics
Official Launch
Sunday, March 23, 2014
2-5 pm
Dr. Ambedkar Room (418)
City Centre Library
10350 University Drive, Surrey

The launching ceremony will be held during Dialogue on Bhagat Singh’s Atheism. Those on the panel will include the author of Naastik Basni and a known atheist Sadhu Binning, the Centre for Inquiry leader Pat O’ Brien and the leader of the Canadian Taraksheel Sabha, Avtar Gill.

Get free copies of the first edition of Radical Desi at the event. Those who are unable to attend will have an option to grab free copies at the parade being organized by the Guru Ravidas Sikh Temple in Burnaby on Saturday, March 22, 2014 and also at the annual community march against racism in Vancouver near Cambie and Hastings the same day.

We encourage everyone to be there at 1:30 pm as we plan to start the event at 2 pm sharp. Each panelist will be given 20 minutes to speak. The panel discussion will be followed by Q&A session.

Bhagat Singh was a towering Indian revolutionary- who was hanged by the British Indian government alongside Sukhdev and Rajguru on March 23, 1931. Bhagat Singh died as an atheist, yet there are attempts to appropriate his struggle by the religious fundamentalists within the South Asian community. The discussion on atheism and free thinking on his martyrdom day will be a fitting tribute to him. Please join us and feel free to ask questions to continue the dialogue that is necessary for the progress of humanity.

For more information on both events:
Gurpreet Singh, Director
Radical Desi Publications Ltd.
Phone: 778-862-2454
.
.

White Canada Forever

chinese head tax

This year marks the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident. The celebration of that centenary has been marked by some as a historic episode in the story of Indians and Punjabi Sikhs in Canada.

The Komagata Maru however is not the history of any one ethnic or religious group: it is the history of Canada. It is a page in a chapter of Canada’s history whereby English-speaking Canadians sought to create a Canada of English values, traditions, language, law and institutions from sea to sea, a “White Canada Forever.”

There had been earlier attempts to exclude, marginalize or assimilate the aboriginal communities and the French in Canada. The Indian, like the Chinese and Japanese however, was considered an alien and unassimilable breed. His arrival on the west coast moreover threatened to bring hordes of Orientals to the shores of British Columbia.

What followed was the advent of exclusion towards Asian immigrants in British Columbia: the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 and the Chinese Head Tax; the Komagata Maru incident; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 which completely banned Chinese migration to Canada until 1947, and the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage in 1942 to name a few. The exclusion of undesirables was not limited to Asians. It included denying entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the internment of Italian-Canadians during the second world war.

H.G. Wells once said that history more and more becomes a race between education and catastrophe. Our history demonstrates that we have never been a multicultural utopia. We have our tragedies, follies and regrets like any country. Let’s open our eyes to the Komagata Maru, the Chinese Head Tax, the Indian Residential Schools, so we don’t close them again. Let’s remember them as the history of Canada, our reminder as how to best move forward.

Further Reading: Peter Ward, White Canada Forever (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

Call For Submissions: Dhahan International Punjabi Literature Prize – March 15/14

For months, i have watched with apprehension and excitement the development of Dhahan International Punjabi Literature Prize, and now after its launch(es) i am happy to report that it is indeed a giant(!) leap(!) forward for Punjabi literature. Not just because the prize money is substantial at $25,000 (all scripts, and with two runner-ups of $5,000, one each for Gurumukhi and Shahmukhi), but also because it is one of the few initiatives that recognizes Punjabi in it’s totality and so claims the history and development of its literature across scripts, national/ethnic boundaries, and religious divides.

Submission Guidelines
Date January 15 – March 1 (online), with hard-copies due by March 15.
Format PDF version and a Printed Copy
Genre Fiction – novels, novellas, short story collections
Edition Original first editions only. Reprints or translations are not eligible.
Publishing Date During 2013
Books Published by ‘recognized’ and ‘independent’ publishers only. No self-published books.

Download Call for Submissions
English
Gurumukhi
Shahmukhi
(Note revised date: Jan 15 – March 1 (online), with hard-copies due by March 15)

Uddari fully supports this wonderful initiative as it is one of the fruits of our labour. Dhahan Prize is so valuable because it recognizes:
. Punjabi writers anywhere in the World. In South Asia and outside.
. Punjabi literature in both its major scripts, Gurumukhi and Shahmukhi.
. Importance of fiction, long and short, in the development of a literature.
. Rights of Punjabi writers by offering them the first yearly living wage.

The Prize will for sure get some serious attention from Punjabi writers around the world where only a few can or have depended on their creative writing for a living. I am talking about those stubborn people who insisted on writing in Punjabi when their world was pushing it aside and saying that there’s no future in writing in Punjabi; the people who were told by non-royalties-paying Punjabi publishers that their work is not good enough for money; and, that not many wanted to read them anyway.

Dhahan Prize will create a surge in the readership of Punjabi books because writers are the very first readers of books.

At Uddari Weblog, we are in a celebratory mode because Dhahan Prize strengthens many of our goals and objectives.

Fauzia Rafique
gandholi.wordpress.com
..

Related posts on Uddari
Dhahan International Punjabi Literature Prize – Launch Vancouver Oct 8/13
.
.

Art and Obscenity: The Case of Manto

images

Written by Randeep Singh

The Urdu short-story writer Manto was charged with obscenity six times for his short-stories, three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan,’ ‘Bu,’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do,’ ‘Thanda Gosht,’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’). He was fined only in one case. The charges of obscenity haunted him nevertheless until his death: “I am not a pornographer but a story writer,” he would defend himself.

Under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years, a book or writing would be considered obscene if “it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect … if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

The book or writing would not be found obscene however if it was “justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, … writing… is in the interest of … literature, art … or other objects of general concern.”

Manto wrote about his experiences at the trial and appeal hearing of “Thanda Gosht” between 1949 and 1952. A witness at trial for Manto, Syed Abid Ali Abid, the Principal of Dayal Singh College, testified: “from Wali to Ghalib, everyone at some time, has written what is generally labeled as obscene. Literature can never be obscene. And, what Manto writes is literature.”

One witness, Dr. Saeedullah, gave Manto the title of “musavvar-e-hayaat,” the painter of life. Soofi Tabassum, a professor of Government College, deposed that “immoral writing is where the sole object of the writer is to undermine morality” and that “Thanda Gosht” did not affect public morality.

In Manto’s testimony, “Thanda Gosht” was a story “telling human beings that they are not separated from humanity even with they become animal like.” Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which had also been charged with obscenity, “Thanda Gosht” was a serious story filled with melancholy. As for the potentially corrupting influence of his stories on the public, Manto remarked, “my stories are for healthy people, normal beings, not for minds who dig  up carnal meanings in innocent and pure things.”

The case of Manto is relevant to the question of what is art and what is obscenity. The following questions are worth considering:

  1. What is the artists’ intention in writing the story (to arouse sexual excitement etc.)?
  2. Is the sexual element of the story the primary or dominant value of the story or is it subordinated to the writer’s aesthetic goals?
  3. How does the reader experience the story? Does it appeal more to his or her aesthetic judgement or mostly to his or her senses and carnality?
  4. Does the aesthetic experience of reading the story do away with the reader’s “practical, operational” ways of viewing its characters and situations as if they were real people or situations?

If the story’s primary or overriding goal is to sexually arouse the reader, then the work can be considered obscene. If the story’s primary or overriding goal though is to use sexual or erotic scenes for some larger artistic purpose related to theme, setting etc., the story can be considered literature. A story moreover may have sexual situations or scenes which by themselves may be considered obscene but which have some meaning in the story’s overall context.

In “Thanda Gosht,” Manto tells the story of Isher Singh, a Sikh, who tried to rape an already dead Muslim girl, a heap of “cold flesh.” In “Khol Do,” a brutalized, unconscious  girl on the verge of death, Sakeena, opens her shalwaar qameez after the doctor examining her utters the words “khol do” (‘open’) to a nurse to open a window. The suggestion of raping a corpse or a girl opening her shalwaar on hearing the words “open (it)” by themselves may have been obscene; in their proper context, they illustrate the extent to which women were brutalized in the Punjab in 1947.

Manto was not only holding up a mirror to the dirt, hypocrisy and puritanism in Indian and Pakistani society; he was showing a way out of it. Ismat Chughtai wrote in her memoir “Kaghazi Hai Pairahan” that Manto’s “flinging it (dirt) about makes it visible and one’s attention can be called to the need of cleaning it.”  His stories unsettle us because they take us to the darker corners of our psyche, to desires repressed and to the ugliness that results. South Asia still struggles with the brutalization of women, sexual repression, sexual abuse, a growing AIDS menace and with discussing sex or sexuality openly.

Manto is still holding up the mirror to ourselves.

Further reading:

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Aziz Akhmad, “Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial”:  http://pakistaniat.com/2009/09/29/saadat-manto-trial/

The Homosexual Desi in “Dedh Ishqiya”

Dedh-Ishqiya-Movie

Written by Randeep Singh

Dedh Ishqiya is no “Brokeback Mountain” in Hindi cinema. The story of its two gay characters – Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her lady-in-waiting Muniya (Huma Qureshi – is just one ingredient in the masala. The scene where the Begum remembers how she became estranged from her husband, a homosexual Nawaab, could have made for a more complete, compelling film. Instead, it’s a thirty second narration while elsewhere we’re treated to a Tarantino-style shootout to Begum Akhtar’s ghazal “Woh Jo Ham Mein Tum Mein.”

As a film on (homosexual) love however, Dedh Ishqiya is commendable. First, it shows desi gays as human beings. Prick them and they’ll bleed, tickle them and they’ll laugh. The Begum says that her husband the Nawaab, was not into women and that after his death, the Begum herself found comfort in the arms of her lady-in-waiting Muniya. It’s not clear whether the Begum was in fact homosexual – it’s almost implied that she became one – but that ambiguity aside, the Begum and Muniya, are gay and human.

Second, Dedh Ishqiya does not resort to stereotypes or sensationalism respecting the homosexual desi. Girlfriend (2004) had to have its “hot” lesbian love scene and Dostana (2008) elicited laughs from straight guys “playing gay.” In Dedh Ishqiya, the Begum and Muniya love one another even if that love is confined to the four walls of their mansion. When speaking of Muniya in one scene, the Begum recounts, “woh hamaari saathi, hamaaari hamdard aur ab hamaari jaan bhi hain” (‘she’s my companion, my sympathizer and now my darling, my life too’). The desire between the two is subtle but palpable whether it’s in Muniya’s intense gaze at the Begum or Muniya’s massaging the Begum’s arms.

Third, Dedh Ishqiya shows its homosexual characters making a new life for themselves. In a Thelma and Louise style sendoff, Muniya and the Begum drive off into the sunset, pawn off an essentially priceless necklace and use the money to set up their own dance school (the Begum was once an accomplished dancer). It’s an ideal situation in an otherwise than less ideal society and culture for homosexuals. I could not help but feel though, when listening to the closing song, “ Hamri Atariya Pe Aa Jaa Re Saawariya” (‘Come on to my rooftop darling’), the song was an invitation to gay desis to come out and sing.

 

 

What Makes a Song So Catchy?

music-notes

A melody that’s simple, familiar and repeated over and over can make a song catchy. What makes a song catchy though raises more questions than we have the answers to, for now.

My friend’s son who is pursuing his bachelors’ degree in music points out that a (catchy) pop song moves easily from one chord to the next and then back to the “root” chord. The notes in the melody fall closely to one another on the musical scale.

A study at the University of London suggests that a chorus which combines a hook over three different pitches was found to be catchy.  Just listening to the chorus of some of the catchy songs I grew up with – Madonna’s “Into the Groove,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven on Earth” – suggests it’s one of the things that makes a song so catchy.

Read more: http://www.zmescience.com/research/studies/what-makes-a-song-catchy-science-explains/

Published in: on January 18, 2014 at 6:52 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,

A Gay Guy in a Turban

enhanced-buzz-18640-1387318381-15(1)

Written by Randeep Singh

On December 15, 2013, Kanwar Anit Singh Saini attended the Global Day of Rage in Toronto to protest the Supreme Court of India’s upholding of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes homosexual sex.  He kisses another gay man at the protest. Another protester holds a poster above them with two men and the word “pyaar” written in Urdu. The photo was posted on his Facebook page with the caption “proud to be illegal.”

It’s interesting that while many in the diaspora have condemned what has happened in India, fewer have bothered to reflect on homophobic prejudice and intolerance within their local communities. The photo of Saini kissing another man generated hateful comments on Facebook from within the diaspora. Saini recalls on his Facebook page how his uncle once said the family would’ve killed Saini as a boy had they known he was gay.

South Asian GLBT persons like Saini continue to fight hate and intolerance within (and outside) their ancestral communities, including from “progressive” Indians, Pakistanis etc. Recently, I received a statement issued by a local South Asian group to the Indian Law Commission condemning the Supreme Court ruling. I was surprised to see the statement being lauded by people whom I have experienced homophobia from personally. I asked the group’s President that while I welcomed the statement, we’d do well to challenge prejudices in our backyard.

The openly gay former Indian prince Manvendra Singh Gohil said recently in an interview on CBC Radio that challenging Section 377 in India’s courts is one thing, but challenging Indians to open their hearts and minds is the greater struggle. That too is true here in Vancouver, as well as in Toronto, London, California and Queens. Saini has helped us all in that struggle by reminding us that GLBT South Asians are here and will keep up the fight.

The Union of India vs. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Indians

_71674407_137836897

Written by Randeep Singh

The Supreme Court of India has upheld section 377 of the Penal Code of India, which characterized homosexual sex as “against the order of nature.” The decision reversed a 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court which had ruled that the law violated constitutional rights to equality and personal liberty.

To clarify, Section 377 was never abolished by the Delhi High Court: it has remained the law in India, including New Delhi. The Delhi High Court decision was only binding in that Union Territory and no where else in India. The law can only be abolished by Parliament, not by any court, including the Supreme Court of India.

As for the problems with the decision.

First, the Supreme Court’s otherwise correct statement that only Parliament can amend the law, overlooks the historical importance of the Supreme Court of India in upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of Indians despite the state. The Supreme Court has interpreted rights and freedoms expansively to include the right to education, the right to work with dignity and on behalf of socially disadvantaged including the poor, women and backward castes. It has historically been the Supreme Court of India which has persuaded Parliament to enact socially inclusive laws, not vice-versa.

Second, the Supreme Court held that “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or trans-genders.” How did the court come to this determination? How many Indians are in the closet? Is not one person enough to challenge a law as unconstitutional? Moreover, the Supreme Court of India has historically upheld the rights of a vulnerable social group from the excesses of more dominant social groups, as it has done in the case of backward classes, the poor and women. Why has it failed to do so now?

Third, the Supreme Court holds that Section 377 criminalizes certain acts and not sexual orientation. Under this logic, Indian homosexuals are not breaking the law so long as they do not engage in sexual intercourse. There is no separation between the act of sex and one’s sexual orientation. Legally prohibited from having sex, India’s homosexuals will have to either think twice before getting intimate with their partners or they will have to go further underground. It is a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 when it refused the appeal of Afzal Guru (who was convicted of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Houses of Parliament). The court ruled that the “collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied” if Afzal received the death sentence. In this case too, the Indian Supreme Court has sought to appease the collective “moral” conscience of society, represented in this case by conservative religious bodies, supported in the recent past by senior leaders of the BJP like the late B.P. Singhal who argued homosexuality was against the ethos of Indian culture.

Section 377 remains law, but change will come eventually. Just before posting this piece, I read that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have criticized the ruling and that India’s Law Minister has stated the government has not abandoned efforts to make homosexuality legal. The law has changed for other socially disadvantaged groups in the past and the composition of the Supreme Court and Parliament is changing. Legal reasoning is dynamic and new precedents can be set. More than anything, the GLBT community in India, and its supporters locally, nationally and internationally will keep moving forward. The moment hasn’t come yet but the destination beckons.

Thanks Giving for Books

This November, we are motivated to remember the books that made a difference in our lives, and to offer thanks to the authors for writing them. Giving thanks below are Mariam, Sonja, Sana, Randeep and Fauzia.
..

My ‘loved’ books

Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castenada
Affirmed personal metaphysical philosophy

Native Son, Richard Wright
Increased sociopolitical awareness about north america.

Primitive Offense, Dionne Brande
Influenced poetic work.

Sula, Toni Morrison
Touched by sula and toni.

Skeena, Fauzia Rafique
Healing; reincarnation of my ancestors and homeland.

Incognito, David Eagleman
Affirmed and empowered my personal metaphysical philosophy.

The Biology of Belief, Bruce H. Lipton
Affirmed and empowered my personal metaphysical philosophy.

A Woman’s Herbalist, Kitty Campion
Gave knowledge of herbs and techniques and concoctions.

Mariam Zohra Durrani
..

Books I am thankful for

Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions, Diana Johnstone
Academically rigorous exploration of the role of the West and NATO in the breakdown of Yugoslavia, and one that exposes many of the propagandist depictions of Serbia that were promoted by western mainstream media during that time.

Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
Artful and heartbreaking account of the effects of holocaust on those who have survived it, and on those of Jewish identity in general.

Anna Karenina , Leo Tolstoy
Complex and beautifully philosophical portrait of 19th century Russia and stifling social norms that drive its heroine to her demise.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Stunningly eloquent and touching portrayal of the immigrant experience in America, and the complexities of composite cultural identities.

The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman
A much needed and rare critical look at the often blindly celebrated cyber world we live in.

Geographies of a Lover, Sarah de Leeuw
An incredibly skillful book of erotic poetry that uses the raw imagery of BC landscape as a metaphor for the vigour and fullness of female sexuality

Skeena, Fauzia Rafique
A raw and brave account of a Pakistani woman’s life back home and in Canada, unflinching in its critical portrayal of patriarchy and chauvinism in both societies, yet laced with a warm, yet never sentimental, homage to the lead protagonist’s homeland

Sonja Grgar
..

I love these books

In the Skin of Lion, Micheal Ondaatje

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth

The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon, the God

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Black, George Elliot Clarke

The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

The Little Match Girl, Hans Christian Anderson

Blindness, Jose Saramago

Native Son, Richard Wright

Sana Janjua
..

Thankful for the following books

A Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith
It’s hilarious, a delightful and touching “light” read. I come back to it time and time again, probably because of its main character, Charles Pooter who is one of the great figures in English comic literature.

Dream of a a Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin
Reading this book was an experience. I almost felt like I was living the life of its characters, set in 19th century China. And the supernatural Buddhist/Daoist themes lend it a “timeless,” mysterious feel.

Deewan-i-Ghalib, Ghalib
I am still reading and learning Ghalib’s verses. His poetry is complex, challenging and captivating. His verses can be philosophical, melancholic and irreverant, telling us not only much about Ghalib’s life but of the twilight of the Mughal era.

Skeena, Fauzia Rafique
This was my first Punjabi novel (which I actually read in its English edition). It was a novel that not only made an old literature sound contemporary but one that did so poignantly without being sentimental. The scenes in the novel are etched in my memory and I enjoyed how it dealt with “political” themes like class, poverty and patriarchy, without ever once sounding political.

Randeep Purewall
..

Thankful for every book read (to the end), but for some, more so.

Kafian, Madholal Hussain
Shah Hussain’s (Punjabi) poems emerged as songs in my childhood. Later, i realized, Kafian speaks to my totality in some way as it gives me a perspective to view and experience life. From then to now, if planning to travel for over a week, Kafian comes with me because it’s home.

Diwan-e-Ghalib, Assadullah Khan Ghalib
Mirza Ghalib’s collection of (Urdu) poems came upon me a little later than Kafian but in similar ways, and though a very different flavour, it also is a continuous source of pleasure and profundity.

Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
Though i love Sartre’s trilogy The Roads to Freedom, thanks must be given for Nausea that I read in early youth and there it made me understand why i was feeling nauseous all the time.

After, i found two incredible books that helped me to make sense of the world that was unfolding in the ’70s, Notes on Alienation by Karl Marx and The Second Sex by Simone de Bouvois. Much gratefulness for both.

Power, Linda Hogan
Thanks to Linda Hogan for all her novels, they allowed me to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the lived lives of her characters. As well, because in Toronto in the ’90s, i was having this recurring image of an upside down tree with roots as branches, and it was disturbing me to the point where i began to mention it to friends including poet Connie Fife, who later brought me three novels by Linda Hogan. And unbelievable though it was, i found the exact scene of an upside down tree in one. There also was a reason for it: a storm, and there were people who were able to deal with it. I did not understand why i was having it, i still don’t, but the stress went away.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Special thanks to Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses (with Midnight’s Children and Shame since they come out from and flow into each other), the work that launched a strong and permanent literary assault on religious bigotry and its contexts of oppression; the telling of a story that showed us what literature can do. In its aftermath, the Author’s insistence on our right to freedom of expression, to discuss and to confront extremism, continues to strengthen the secular movement. The usage and expression is as revolutionary as the content. The Satanic Verses also is my most valued Banned Book.

The Beloved, Toni Morrison
Thanks to Toni Morrison for The Beloved, an unbelievable story of courage and endurance, of heroic survival and resistance, that claimed from me all the buried emotions of women’s system-sanctioned stoning-lynching-gangraping deaths, confinement and torture. I’m in awe of Toni Morrison for telling this story the way she has though i may not dare read it again.

Fauzia Rafique
..

Inspired by
PEN American Centre‘s Facebook post ‘Giving Thanks for Books’
.
.

Film Review – 12 Years a Slave

images

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Sarah Paulson (Mary Epps), Brad Pitt (Samuel Bass). Directed by Steve McQueen.

Reviewed by Randeep Purewall

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a black American free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and transported to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. McQueen’s adaptation of Northrup’s autobiography is a brutal yet necessary reminder of the cruelty of institution of slavery.

A black man born to West-Indian parents in the United Kingdom, McQueen tells the story of one man’s life as slave in the south without any of the sentimentality surrounding the “peculiar institution” as in Gone With the Wind or the fantasy of Django Unchained. “12 Years” is the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, violin player with a wife and two children. One day he is approached by two men who offer him the lucrative prospect of playing in a touring gig. He dines with them one night and is drugged. The next day, he finds himself shackled to the floor of a cell.

Solomon is then transported down the Mississipi where he is sold at a slave house in New Orleans to a plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford later sells Solomon to another planation owner, the sadistic Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender) where he spends out his days until he is rescued in 1853 by a local sheriff.

The film deserves praise as one of the few films in recent history to tackle the question of slavery with the candour it deserves. McQueen shows how slavery works through the injustice meted out by the slave owner and his overseers and the acceptance of injustice by the slave. In one searing Platt (Solomon’s slave name) is left hanging by a noose from a bough, after an attempt to hang him by the plantation overseer John Tibbets (Dano) fails. The image is of Platt hanging from the noose, his feet barely touching the ground beneath him, while the rest of the plantation slaves carry on with their work.

The crowning achievement of the film is the masterful direction of McQueen and the superb performances he elicits from his actors. Ejiofor captures the suffering and dignity of Solomon, as a man who does not sink into despair, with his hope for freedom still alive even as he is whipped from a tree and hung by a noose. Fassbender is effective as Epps, the cruel slaveowner, who reads scripture as justifying slavery as the will of God and who blames crop failure on the scorn of his slaves. Nyong’o who plays Patsey shows poignantly the predicament many black women slaves were the object of their master’s lust and of abuse by their mistresses. The film’s climax is the horrifying scene where Epps forces Platt to whip Patsey for visiting the plantation of another slave owner. When Epps is convinced Platt is going soft on the girl, he himself lashes her until the skin on her back is reduced to strips.

“12 Years” accomplishes all this through a fast-moving narrative, without preaching or condescending to the viewer but showing uncompromisingly what slavery was and how it was so brutal. Perhaps the most shocking and affecting scene in the film is where Platt wakes up in the cell and realizes he is no longer Solomon, the cultured violinist who sat at a table with the white man, but who, shackled like a creature, writhes in vain to recapture the freedom that has been stolen from him. That there was the indignity of slavery: to reduce humans to property, freedom to ownership and to forsake brotherhood for cruelty, all caught by McQueen’s heart-rending and unforgettable adaptation.

9/10

‘An insurgency…’ Shikha Kenneth on Holier Than Life by Fauzia Rafique

Book Review by Shikha Kenneth
Holier Than Life
E-Book by Fauzia Rafique
Purple Poppy Press, Vancouver, 2013
Pages 85

South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013

South Asian Canadian writer Fauzia Rafique’s new literary offering is a digitalized anthology of poems. The poems are interspersed with Rafique’s views on varied matter such as love, violence, happiness, melancholy, feminism, current events, socio-cultural politics, etc. The poet displays her flair for effectively capturing the painfully personal, the brutally cultural, and the deceitfully socio-political experiences of the South Asian populace. Each poem presents Rafique in her various moods – optimistic, sarcastic, bitter, bemused, aggressive, etc.

The opening chant ‘Let It Pass’ is portent of her diverse reflections on violence which creates, interweaves, and subsumes the human body, its ‘self’, and society. Rafique creates vivid imagery in ‘Waiting’ by comparing the intricacies of her pessimism to the multi-hued cacti spanning the sandy expanse of her heart (8). And she reiterates her gloom by comparing it to a bird that re-emerges – carrying a “restive little fish” in its beak – from within the poet’s “ocean of joy” (45). But she contradicts the above mentioned metaphoric sentiments by stating her knack for sifting, finding, and focussing on the “bright shades of…undying green” within “each gray day” (8). It is reflected in ‘Breeze’ where Rafique romanticizes the “ice breeze” of February capering around her neighbourhood (13). Or in ‘Outcome’ where the poet attains happiness from the simple act of putting a yellow tape at the edges of a blue chart for it reminds her of the burnished rays of sun adorning the sky (33).

Rafique’s poetry is mottled with her vision of love. In ‘Sparrow of Love’, she innovatively highlights the universal predicament of coping with the contradictions of love. The poem points to an individual’s multiple approaches to love – nurture it gratis, or embellish it to flaunt, or guiltlessly devour it for one’s gratification (11). Rafique echoes the Sartrean ideology of love in ‘Guilt’ for it turns an individual into a beggar who shuns the act of self-examination and gives in to one’s need for the gaze of the ‘other’ (28). Yet in ‘Possibilities’ she favours the masochism of love as displayed in the act of carving out a “single bud of rose” from her heart than protecting it (23). In her translation of Shah Madhulal Hussain’s poem ‘Kafi’, Rafique resonates Hussain’s ideology that love is a “wild elephant,” and, when teased awake shall trample all the other existing violent ideologies (14). In ‘The Extreme Labour of Love’, she opines that human beings are often incapable of deriving pleasure from the fruition of their love, in any form, because they are haunted by the promise of tomorrow (25).

Rafique also focusses on the profundity of the connection between the human body, violence, and pain. She creates cryptic images showing the dying body writhing in pain, being drained out of life, meanness coagulating its blood from within. Moreover, she seems to be preoccupied with the desecration of the female body. For instance, ‘Shariah Compliant Bra’ highlights the transformation of the female body into a hegemonic construct, redefinition of its identity, and forcible sanction as the conventional image of femininity. Rafique continually refers to the breasts and “anonymous body parts” of a Muslim woman as “bits, blits, kits, lits”. She shows language to be a patriarchal construct that exercises control over a woman by shaping her identity according to the dominant ideology. And if a Muslim woman refuses to be the recipient of such discursive violence, her body is forced to undergo the physical trauma of being violently “cut and clip” by the representatives of prevailing oppressive belief system, that is, patriarchy (51-3).

Patriarchy is a pervasive and power-based structure that manifests itself through all social institutions. Patriarchy is inherent in discourse; it is an intrinsic element of the prevailing ideology. It enforces the biological and cultural suppositions that are responsible for the subjugation of women. The anti-patriarchal theme is, in fact, predominant in Rafique’s verse. Her poem entitled ‘Hadd: Limit’ connotes the Derridian premise of différance emphasizing the acts of estrangement from and murder of the woman as being crucial for preservation of the symbolic order (23). ‘Vulnerability’ alludes to the financial capitalization of a woman’s worth before she begins to “swim across the moonlight glint of death…to a brand new exotic destination of life”, that is, marriage (36). ‘Familial Promises’ outlines an honour killer’s code which operates through the violent methods of control, discipline, and punishment meted to a woman as described through the use of words like “smack”, “bash”, “rap” “smash” and “whack” (54). Here, the woman becomes the embodiment of virtue that defines a code of patriarchal honour. And this honour gets violated when a woman decides to exercise her personal, social, and constitutional rights.

Rafique’s poetry can, in fact, be viewed as an insurgency against the legitimate sanctioning of horrific acts of violence against Muslim and South-Asian women. Through her poems she accounts the legally authorized dehumanization of women thereby highlighting the interminable bond between law and anomie. ‘Porn Creation’ relates the incident of a thirteen year old girl named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow who was labelled as “adulterous” after being gang raped by three law-enforcers and stoned to death for lodging a complaint against perpetrators of the crime (55). Rafique describes the day of Bibi Aisha’s execution where fifty impotent men surrounding her become the embodiment of the “Žižekian pervert” (The Plague 135). Their limp erections suddenly bloom into life as they witness the girl being punished for raising her voice against the heinous crime of rape. It shows that the conventional notion of the phallus as the siege of aggressive, penetrative, essentially masculine, potency/power is, in fact, contingent upon the terror that is evoked in the gaze of the woman. Patriarchy is, in fact, the fight of an “ignorant chauvinist man” using such tactics as “extreme violence, disfigurement, irreparable damage to body and spirit” in order to “restrict, control, contain, possess, subdue” the woman in his life (Rafique 63). In other words, the existence of the patriarchal male relies on inflicting violence on the body of woman to maintain his illusion of power. Similarly, ‘Mirwah’s Unnamed Girl’ depicts Rafique’s angst over the killings of several unidentified Mirwah women who, according to the fanatical oppressors, had the audacity to seek the right to choose their own bridegrooms. She declares the legal and political system of such nations to be emasculated and fit to wear all the adornment attributed to femininity (46-9).

Rafique is infuriated by the manner in which social organizations such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Amnesty International have usurped the struggles of several South-Asian natives who have lost their lives to their passion for fighting for women’s rights. In ‘The Jolly Trinity’ she castigates the way in which the Western celebrities and politicians – leading a rich and pampered existence – exploit the plight of the violated South-Asian women for photo-opportunities and news bytes. These organizations are, in fact, multi-million dollar enterprises seeking to spread their web of power, control and violence over the world under the guise of defense and security against the human rights violation. Such socio-political corporations indulge in the cunning use of public relations policy to camouflage their “drone fire aggression into noble democracy”, transform “war-lording action into exodus of decency” and convert “dirty dollar into charitable currency” (70). In ‘Drone-Dead Lover’, Rafique assails the Obama administration which authorized the continuation of drone attacks being made on Pakistan for the past several years. These attacks were meant to eradicate terrorism but have deprived thousands of Pakistani civilians off their lives (62).

The poet interprets religion – hailed by many as the bedrock of ethics – to be a patriarchy-infested institution that operates on the underside of law. In ‘The Clowns of Blasphemy’, religious extremism is shown to play out like a Senecan tragedy where divinities are manufactured in order to satisfy the zealot’s craving for slaughter and deliberate spillage of blood. She illustrates a fascist regime where innocent men, women, and children are labelled as “Kafirs, women and witches, bombers and terrorists” (78). Such a regime operates on the “excesses of torture” in order to stun and subdue both its victims and the audience (Discipline and Punish 35). These violent excesses include “bullying…skinning…hanging…burning” which are meant to stoke the “self-righteous leaders” hunger for power, violence, and “brand-new riches” (Rafique 79). ‘Holier than Life’ is Rafique’s insurrection against the bigoted ideology transmitted by all patriarchal institutions – social, cultural, religious, educational, political, and economical – and its representatives. She considers all these agencies of power to be the breeding-ground of violence, and, she wants to engrave the moniker of “MURDERER” on them (82). She condemns the “violent expositions” of all species of fanatics whose contrived creations like religion turn individuals into eternal victims in their quest for social, material, and existential transcendence (83).

In this anthology, Rafique displays an unapologetic and intractable stance against the aggressive jingoistic fervour that has been adopted by patriarchy. It manifests by inscribing itself on the bodies of women in multifarious ways. The poet believes that patriarchy can be rendered powerless if the violated woman refuses to cover her scarred and mutilated body. In ‘Shame’, She informs the guardians of both social & feminine propriety to stop being concerned about her disgrace and forcing her to shroud it in silence. Rafique declares that she is going to display her shame with as much aplomb as she would her achievement. In ‘Nangi Naked’, she cites the example of a Kashmiri poet named Lilla Arifa who ventured out of her house without the protection of clothes (58). This single act of defiance became more effective than Arifa’s entire body of literature. In other words, woman needs to disassociate herself from the norms for respectability and modesty mapped out by the patriarchal custodians, for it is the only way to weaken the enemy and gain freedom from the clutches of patriarchy.

In ‘Need for Social Self’, Rafique states that the need for cultivating a social self is imposed on every individual. It requires existing as a “zombie”, that is, the state of being “perfectly natural, alert, loquacious, vivacious behaviour but is in fact not conscious at all, but rather some sort of automaton” (Dennett 73). The poet recalls an event when she donned the attire of her social self and experienced the sensation of being choked into silence. Subsequently, she has never been able to accept the falsity underlying one’s social self and openly shuns it. Holier Than Life thus can be viewed as Rafique’s fearless and candid attempt to assail, hemorrhage, and rupture the normalization and legitimization of patriarchy. The poet realizes that such an act requires her to immerse body and soul in “the flow of pain” (7). Rafique’s poetry is a blend of three languages namely English, Punjabi and Urdu. It highlights both the universality and specificity of the multi-faceted forms of violence experienced by women especially in Third-World nations. Her poems are sprinkled with metaphors; the language is potent and descriptive; the verse seems staccato at times but seems to be styled to correspond with the requirements of digitalized literature. In Holier Than Life, Rafique successfully manages to expose and critique those dynamics of oppression and resistance that are generally problematized through gross and calculated misrepresentation.

Works Cited
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay, 1991. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison. Trans. Allen Lane. London: Peregrine, 1979. Print.
Rafique, Fauzia. Holier Than Life. Vancouver: Purple Poppy Press, 2013. Web.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

From South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013, Vol 5, 3 & 4
Editors Rajesh Sharma & Gurdev Chauhan
sharajesh@gmail.com
http://kriticulture.blogspot.com
www.southasianensemble.com: )

More by Shikha on Uddari
‘Capturing the Essence of Patriarchy in Skeena’ by Shikha Kenneth
.
.

Pakistan’s Gay Community Quietly Breaking Barriers

Written by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai

Actor Assad Khan is part of a generation of young men breaking barriers for gays in conservative Pakistan, where homosexuality is punished by prison or worse.

Assad Khan knew he was different from a very young age. As a child at home he preferred playing with his two sisters rather than his two brothers. At school, too, he gravitated toward playing with girls. “In school I was more secure and happy playing with girls than with boys,” says the 23-year-old, boyishly handsome Khan. As a result of his behavior, he says, his family largely ignored him. “I got a terrible complex as my family favored, and gave more attention to, my brothers,” he recalls.

1383126327128.cached

As he grew up in Islamabad, reached puberty and realized he was gay, he suffered even more. “Being a gay in a society like Pakistan is not easy,” Khan says. “For a long time, I was frightened of who I was, so I hid my gay status…I acted 24 hours a day.”

Even so, he was constantly teased and harassed for his appearance and mannerisms, even ostracized. His parents and cousins made fun of him. His parents were ashamed to introduce him as part of the family. “At the mosque during Friday prayers I was teased and stared at,” he recalls. “At school and in college other students shunned me and my small circle of friends.”

Now a successful actor and fashion designer, Khan has lived and worked in the conservative and bomb-terrorized northwestern city of Peshawar for the past three years. “I felt that society was telling me I was not one of them, that I was not a proper person,” he says. “But soon I realized that it’s not my fault that God made me gay. So as a young man I came to accept who I was and to be proud of myself.”

He has flourished ever since he made that realization—succeeding against all the odds in homophobic Pakistan, where the powerful Muslim clergy preaches that homosexuality is prohibited under Islam, and where sodomy is illegal under the civil code and punishable by a long jail term (though the harsh sentence is rarely handed down). In the Taliban-controlled territory of the northwestern tribal agencies, the penalty is worse: death by firing squad or stoning. Even the man on the street seems to have no time for gays. A Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries published in early June found that only two percent of Pakistanis believed that “society should accept homosexuality,” second only to Nigeria, which registered a rock-bottom one percent acceptance rating of gays. (By way of comparison, 80 percent of Canadians said they accepted gays.)

While the Pakistani government doesn’t target LGBT citizens, neither does it have much tolerance for the gay community or its issues. Late last month and without comment, Islamabad shut down the country’s first and only gay website, queerpk.com, which was first launched last July. The website’s founder, who goes by the pseudonym Fakhir, says the ban is “unconstitutional and opposes freedom of speech.” But he does not want to pursue legal action as he doesn’t want a confrontation with the government, which could unmask those behind the website whose subtitle is “Know us, Don’t Hate Us.” Fakhir says the site is not “blasphemous or pornographic” but is aimed at educating gays on health issues such as preventing the spread of HIV, and on how to deal with social and family pressures and with depression.

Bucking discrimination, Khan, an ethnic Pashtun who goes by the nickname of Danny, studied fashion design at a college in Islamabad and quickly fell into the growing businesses of fashion, modeling and acting. His acting career got a big boost in 2009 when he was cast in a British film, called Kandahar Break: Fortress of War, which was being shot in Baluchistan, the wild-and-woolly home of his ultra-traditional Safi tribe in western Pakistan. He played a Taliban interpreter with gay tendencies who worked for a British explosive ordinance disposal team that Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime had hired to clear mine fields in 1999.

In 2010, Khan moved to heavily Taliban-influenced Peshawar to further his acting and fashion careers, but chiefly to be closer to his partner. At first he was terrified, afraid of the Taliban and the frequent terror bombings. Every day he cautiously emerged from his hotel filled with trepidation. But he was soon pleasantly surprised by what he found: gays were not as unwelcome and under the gun as he had imagined. On the contrary, he quickly received a vibe that many young men in the ostensibly macho, largely Islamist city were gay or gay-friendly. “In Peshawar I feel like almost every second guy is gay by the way they look and talk,” he says. “On the streets and in the markets I think most people look at cute boys more than at girls.” But, he adds: “Unfortunately gays feel they have to hide their feelings and their true selves,”

Khan and other Pakistani gays say that being gay in Pakistan is not all that unusual despite the ostensibly strong prejudice against homosexuals. “I’ve found that male-to-male sex is more common than you’d imagine in our society,” says Shehzad, a smart, fashionable and educated 25-year-old gay man from Lahore. A June article in Mother Jones magazine confirmed Shehzad’s feeling, reporting that Pakistanis lead the world in Google searches for the terms “shemale sex,” “teen anal sex” and “man f—king man.”

Pakistani gays like Khan and Shehzad say the country is rife with hypocrisy. “I know that some Pakistani policy makers practice gay love in private, then go out and make laws against gays,” says Shehzad. Khan agrees: “I know that some Pakistani politicians of all parties, including those from religious parties, are interested in gay men,” he says. “Even some men who teased me for being gay suddenly come on to me when we are in a quiet spot.” “If you heard the names of the prominent members of Pakistani society who are gay, you wouldn’t believe your ears,” adds Chaudhry Javid, a 28-year-old gay man who works for a foreign aid agency and lives in a luxury apartment in Islamabad.

Still, Javid keeps his sexual orientation in the closet, hiding it from his family and friends, and claiming it is too early for him to reveal himself. “If we come out, our families will cut us out like a cancer,” he says. He adds that he’s ashamed that he can’t tell his parents that his best friend is also his sexual partner whom he loves. “I suffer when I lie to my parents describing him as just a good friend,” he says. Shehzad, too, says it’s too early for him to come out. “Society doesn’t accept us,” he says. “I don’t dare to go public.” Faisal Khan, a 28-year-old government bureaucrat in Peshawar, says he would get fired or worse if he came out. (He is not related to Assad Khan.) “I cannot expose myself,” he says. “People in the office would use it against me and I’d lose my job.” Faisal Khan says he doesn’t dare visit his family’s home village just south of Peshawar for fear the Taliban would find out about his gayness and capture him, causing a scandal for his family.  Nor would he dare to confess his sexual persuasion to the mullah at his mosque. “He would probably send me to the Taliban who would make a kebab of me,” he says.

Even so, Faisal Khan and other Pakistani gay men see hope in the future as they sense that public attitudes are slowly changing. For starters, people are beginning to tolerate unmarried young men and women congregating together in public. If the public is beginning to accept men and women dating, they reason, then eventually gay relationships will also be tolerated. Wearing a suit and red tie and sporting long black hair, Faisal Khan points to the numerous heterosexual couples sitting together in a modern University Town café in Peshawar, talking and laughing as they eat western food and listen to rock music. “Look, these boys and girls are here in public without any hesitation or fear of society or the Taliban,” he says. Javid says that a decade ago you would never see young men and women holding hands in public. Now it is almost common in the cities. Ironically, it’s not uncommon, and not viewed as homosexual behavior, for young men to hold hands in public as they walk—it’s a customary sign of friendship.

But there are still strict limits. In rural, traditional Pakistan there is a clear separation of the sexes as boys and girls are forbidden to meet in public. Yet in the tradition-bound confines of the countryside, it is easier for gay Pakistani couples to congregate in public than for mixed-sex couples. “It’s normal for a group of men to hang out together so no one can bother us,” says Javid. “But in some traditional areas, boys and girls going out together is still a sin against society and our religion.”  Javid adds that viewing homosexuality as a sin, as most Pakistanis do, is absurd since there is no victim. “Aren’t the rampant corruption in our society and the killing of innocents by the Taliban greater sins?” Javid asks.

For most gays in Pakistan, society’s views are not changing fast enough. So for now, they are forced to live largely an underground existence. They point to the many and lavish subterranean gay parties as the highlight of their social lives. “These weekly underground parties keep us happy,” says Shehzad. “Here we have a place to enjoy ourselves hidden from the Taliban, the government and the police.” Organizing these extravagant, gay parties in Islamabad and Peshawar has become a good business for Assad Khan. He says that many of the parties he organizes cost $5,000 or more to cover the expense of renting a large, posh house or reception hall, providing private security, live bands, food and drinks and paying off the cops. Partyers pay an admission charge, allowing Khan to make a profit. “Islamabad is a city famous for the biggest number of gay parties,” Assad Khan says. “The number of these parties, and the number of gays attending, is increasing, even in Peshawar.” He also helped organize a summer music festival in the mountain resort of Swat this past summer in the face of Taliban threats, and he plans to bring fashion shows to conservative Peshawar soon.

Although it may be premature, Khan is trying to organize a gay rights movement capable of standing up to the Taliban, the politicians and aggressive Pakistani cops. As a result of his efforts, he has received anonymous, threatening phone calls and has escaped an attempt to kidnap him at a wedding reception not long ago. But he remains unshaken. “We have to defeat the concept of fear and terror,” he says. “Everyone should have the right to live as they please. No one has the right to dictate to us.” He adds: “I want to be a leading voice for gay rights and protection.”

But he quickly emphasizes that his push for gay rights stops short of campaigning for the legalization of gay marriage. “We don’t want to push for gay marriage, only for our human rights,” he says. Most other gays steer clear of any gay rights movement, fearing retaliation. “The Taliban and other extremists will target any gay rights movement,” says Shehzad. “It’s too dangerous to get involved.”

Originally published in The Daily Beast, October 30, 2013: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/30/pakistan-s-gay-community-quietly-breaking-barriers.html

Bollywood has run out of Punjabis

orginal_4c5410a7-394d-1908-f28e-000054d71f7f

One of the odder facts about Bollywood is who runs it. India’s Hindi film industry is located in Bombay (from whose ‘B’ we get Bollywood). But the two largest communities of this city have little to contribute to the movies.Gujaratis and Marathis are together some two-thirds of the city’s population. Gujaratis dominate most of Bombay’s commerce, including the large capital market, while Marathis run the state and administration efficiently. In Bollywood, however, there’s little sign of either community.Yes, we can point to a great Gujarati actor (Sanjeev Kumar) here and a great Marathi singer (Lata Mangeshkar) there. But they are exceptions.

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation’s biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India’s television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood’s Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi’s culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus – Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Now here’s the problem, actually two problems. First: Bollywood’s Punjabis are removed from the land that nourishes them. Punjab’s cultural capital is Lahore, and most Bollywood Punjabis haven’t ever seen it. Gulzar, whose real name is Sampooran Singh, told me that he didn’t want to return to his native Jhelum. He said he had left an idyllic place and had held on to its memories, which he records in his lyrics. But he’s exceptional and carries his world with him. People like Karan Johar, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan are all Bombay yuppies, whose first language is English. The dialogues are all written in Roman because few read Urdu or Hindi.

Second: While Partition sent the Hindu Punjabis to Bollywood, Lahore’s Muslims are lost to it. The Punjabis of Lahore possess something that all India loves, and that is a high culture in Urdu. This is why Bollywood will always be made in a language that both India and Pakistan recognise as their own.

Unfortunately, there is no young Gulzar in Bollywood today, and there has never been another Manto. Our supply of Lahoris has run out.

The Punjabi provided the firepower of Bollywood, but he needed the space to express himself. Manto discovered this after Partition. Sitting in his lovely house, Lakshmi Mansion off the Mall, I thought of how much of a Bombay writer Manto was. He may have been Lahori but he belonged to Bombay. Bombay has always been India’s most liberal city because the dominance of mercantile Gujaratis and efficient Marathis has made it so.

But Bollywood dearly misses its Punjabis, and awaits the day it can get them again.

Written by Aakar Patel. Originally published in the The Friday Times (July 22-28, 2011): http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20110722&page=9