Films on South Asian Muslims and Islamophobia in the Diaspora

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Written by Randeep Singh

In much of post-9/11 cinema, a Muslim is a person whose identity is defined fundamentally in terms of religion rather than nationality, culture, class or ethnicity. Indeed, South Asian Muslims in post-9/11 American cinema are usually portrayed either as religious radicals or terror suspects in films like The War Within (2005) or as exhibiting a bipolar Muslim disorder in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).

Thankfully, there have been attempts to understand the more nuanced shades of South Asian Muslim diaspora identity. In The Muslims I Know (2008)Mara Ahmed speaks with Pakistani Muslims in upstate New York on questions of cultural identity and being American while also interviewing others on what they think of Muslims.

Films from the U.K. have also tried to portray the experiences of South Asian Muslims humanistically. One such film is Yasmin (2004). The story of a spunky, young British girl from a Pakistani family in West Yorkshire, Yasmin (played by Archie Punjabi) is forced to choose her identity after the Twin Towers come crashing down.

Another film is Bradford Riots (2005), a film about Karim (Sacha Dhawan), a young university student also from northern England. When Bradford burns in riots during the summer of 2001, Karim finds himself on the wrong side of the mob and the law.

The third film, Brick Lane, is the story of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young woman who moves from Bangladesh to East London. The film looks mostly at her life against the backdrop of her family and the British Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, before and after 9-11.

With respect to identity, Yasmin and Karim are the British-born children of working class immigrants. At most, they are “Muslim” in an ethnic sense only, having little to do with religion. Like many from working class backgrounds, they are tough, proud and street smart. Yasmin wears a hijab when she has to but otherwise lets her hair down. Karim has his white mates at college and dosses around with his boys back in the pool halls of Bradford.

In contrast, Nazneen is a first-generation immigrant who came to England to get married. She spends much of the film picturing the paddy fields back home. What’s most crucial for Yasmin is her Bengali culture, her adjustment to life in England and her raising a family.

There’s a difference in how these characters experience racism and Islamophobia. In fact, Nazneen does seem to experience these at all directly. Yasmin and Karim, on the other hand, are labelled Muslim by a society and system. Karim is sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the Bradford riots, raising the question of whether he received a fair trial at a time of such heightened racial tension and the public call for retribution.

Yasmin meanwhile is detained on suspicion of harbouring a terrorist in her husband. Not having gone to the mosque in five years, she is given a copy of the Quran in prison and told which direction Mecca is in. Having suffered taunts at work, she is subjected to the condescending gaze and tone of a police constable who threatens to charge her for withholding information which she doesn’t have.

In Brick Lane, Nazneen’s lover, Karim experiences racism and Islamophobia more directly. After facing harassment from racist gangs, Karim and starts holding meetings on how the local Bangladeshi community can defend itself after 9/11.

For Yasmin, Karim and Nazneen, being Muslim is only part of their larger identities which are defined in terms of culture or nationality. However, the Bradford riots and 9/11 complicate that question for Karim and Yasmin. Are they different? Nazneen’s identity unfolds differently learning as she is to live in a new world. For Karim and Yasmin though, the Muslim part of their identity is something they’d be at peace with if not for the world around them.

Previews:

The Muslims I Know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PPBbIzq_0E

Yasmin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjzg1PC0QjM

Bradford Riots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJYBX64PdV8

Brick Lane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hbd7m00oW6c

The Literatures of India

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Written by Randeep Singh

Unlike England or China, India has no national language or literature. One cannot speak of a golden age in literature in India as one can speak of the Elizabethan Age or the Tang Dynasty. Instead, there have been different periods of flourishing across India’s many literatures. Here are just five of those periods summarized.

Tamil: The Sangam Age (c. 1st and 2nd century CE)

The Sangam Age was characterized by a secular poetry composed at academies (‘sangam’). The age saw the composition of the five Tamil epics (including the Silappadikaram), eighteen major anthologies of poetry and the Tolkaapiyyam, a treatise on poetics, grammar and rhetoric.

The Sangam poets wrote on love, war and kingship while the aesthetics underlying their poetry tied emotions to particular landscapes, mood and imagery.

In the thicket
Of fresh lotuses rising from the ponds
Caressed by splendid paddy fields
And sugarcane are heard, as on a battlefield
Where two kings fight for victory
Various kinds of clamorous sounds
Made by waterfowls, screaming cranes,
Red-footed swans, green-footed herons,
Wild fowls, cormorants, snipes,
The ural water birds, large herons
And other birds. Buffaloes enter and immerse
Themselves in the soft, unploughed mire
With the hair on their bodies unwashed, eyes
Red, they come and rub
Their itching backs against the unspoilt, straw bins
Thus loosening the twisted strands that hold them
The bins come apart spilling the rich grain
Stored inside with sheaves of excellent paddy
That resemble cowries.
One heard the noise of the loud talk of labourers
With strong arms and farmers standing
In knots. One heard the sound
Of songs in new styles by low born women
Who turned on by strong wine worked in the fields.
Eyes wide like red minnows,
They bandied indecent words and looked
Singularly charming in their clothes splashed
With mud that also glazed their breasts and shoulders
Clasped by armlets. From their hair they picked
The fragrant flowers and thrust seedlings instead.
One heard the ploughmens’ song of praise
As they stood by their ploughs and worshipped
With folded hands. They appeared to break open
The earth radiant with wreaths bound
With shining ears of rice, plaited
With blue lotuses and the thick, vine-like hariali grass

(from Shilappadigaram, tr. R. Parthasarathy).

Sanskrit: The Gupta Dynasty (4th-5th century)

The Gupta Dynasty is the classical age of Sanskrit literature. The plays and poems of Kalidasa blend romance, fairy tale and visions of nature. The epic poems Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana were reworked into their final form during this era. Sanskrit fiction also saw the composition of Pancatantra, a collection of animal tales and fables which influenced world storytelling.

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me and I was you
What has now happened to us two
That you are you and I am me
(Bhartrhari, Trans. John Brough)

Blow, wind, to where my loved one is
Touch her, and come and touch me soon
I’ll feel her gentle touch through you
And meet her beauty in the moon.
These things are much for one who loves –
A man can live by them alone
That she and I breathe the same air
And that the earth we tread is one
(Ramayana, Trans. John Brough)

May her path be safe and gracious
As gentle breezes blow,
Pleasant be her way dotted by lakes
Where green lotus-creepers grow;
May the burning rays of the sun
Filter mellowed through thick shade-trees;
Let the pollen of water lillies drift
To lie as softest dust beneath her feet
(Kalidasa, Abhijnanasakuntalam, Trans. Chandra Rajan)

Kannada: The Rashtrakuta and Chalukya Dynasties (9th and 10th century)

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Above: Kannada Inscription (983 CE)

Kannada literature of this period integrated local literary traditions with Sanskritic models and Jain themes. The Vaddaradhane (9th century) is a collection of Jain morality tales and fables and is the earliest prose work in Kannada. The poets Adikavi Pampa and Sri Ponna (c. 950) wrote Jain epics in Adipurana (941) and Santipurana (950) respectively while the court poet Ranna is best remembered for his elegy Sahasa Bhima Vijaya on the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata.

Urdu: The Late-Mughal Period (18th and 19th century)

Urdu poetry flourished in the courts and assemblies of Delhi and Lucknow during this time. Its greatest masters were the plaintive Mir (1722-1810) and the philosophical Ghalib (1797-1869). The marsiya (a Shia elegy) flourished in Lucknow under Anis and Dabeer, while Delhi produced poetry at once mystical (Khwaja Mir Dard), satirical (Mirza Sauda) and tragic (Bahadur Shah Zafar).

How long is the life of the rose?
The bud just smiles (Mir Taqi Mir)

The free are not trammeled by any ties
The flower’s fragrance emits itself a thousand ways (Zauq)

I feel as if you are with me
When no one else is around (Momin)

Desire in thousands – each so strong it takes my breath anew
And many longings were fulfilled – many, but even so, too few (Ghalib)

The world goes on changing, Zafar, with the changing times
What sights it then displayed, what now it now provides (Zafar)

Bengali: Colonial and Modern Period (19th and 20th century)

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Above: Fort William College. The Bengali Renaissance witnessed a flowering in arts, culture and science, with its literary branch starting at Fort William College.

Modern Bengali literature adapted the Victorian novel and the English sonnet and epic to Indian themes and realities. Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s (1824-1873) retold the battles of the Ramayana in the style of Paradise Lost in his epic Meghnad Badh Kabya. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote socially realist novels like Ghaire Bhaire and poems like those in Gitanjali exploring love, nature and the divine. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) too wrote realist novels on revolution in Pather Dabi and the experience of women in Srikanta.

The Poems of Bedil

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Written by Randeep Singh

Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) is one of the leading poets of the Indian school of Persian poetry.

Born in Azimabad (Patna) into a family of Uzbek descent, Bedil lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his uncle. He received a classical education, but also mastered poetry and philosophy through self-study. Bedil served in the Mughal army, but returned to Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb. It was there that he devoted himself to writing poetry.

Bedil composed over 16 books of poetry including ghazals, rubais and masnavis. His poetry deals with philosophical and metaphysical themes and his verses are complex, challenging if also captivating. He was not well received in Iran which generally disdained the “Indian School” of Persian. He remains, however, an iconic poet in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal cited Bedil as an important influence on their poetry.

The selected verses below were translated from Persian into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and from Urdu into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (unless otherwise noted).

For too long the heart’s desire bound me
With a drop of blood I was painted whole
Ulfat dil umr haashad dast o paaim basta ast
Qatra-e khoon az sar taa paa hunaaim basta ast

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint
Mara ma’aena shad az khat-e shakasta mauj
Ki naqsh-e paa-e hava sarnoshat-e aeen darya’st

What heart’s shop is not adorned by desire?
The mirror’s realm of clarity reflects a bazaar
Ko dil-e kaz havas aaraaesh-e dakaanash neest
Dar safaa khaana har aaena baazaare hast

Behold the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never grasped the spring reveals
Chasm va kun rang-e asraar-edagar daard bahaar
Aan cha dar vahamat naganjad jalwa gar daard bahaar

In the desert of fancy there are no fixed points
To find our bearings no need have we
Dar dasht-e tauham jahate neest ma’een
Maa raa chi zaroor ast badaaanem kujaayem

In contentment’s land seek not the sun and moon
If a bread and lamp in night rations has been provided to you
Dar mulk-e qanaat ba ma o mahar mapardaaz
Gar naan-e shabe heest o chiraagh-sar-e shaame

For ages we’ve been amused at expressing worthlessness
We are the opener of the pages of stories of nothingness
You could expect nothing from us, but name
we are the messengers of the world of nothingness

’aumrîst kî sargarm-e bayân-e heechîm
tumâr gushâyee dâstân-e heechim
bâ nâmi az ân mîyân, zi mâ qane’a bâsh
mâ qâsed-e paighâm-e jahân-e heechîm
(Translated by Nasim Fekrat)

Sources:

Annual of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/27/20BedilPoems.pdf

Encyclopaedia Iranica: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bidel-bedil-mirza-abd-al-qader-b

A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

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Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

Om Puri: Four Performances

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Written by Randeep Singh

On January 6, 2017, Om Puri passed away at the age of 66. One of India’s finest actors, he also won acclaim for his performances in British, American and Pakistani films. Here’s a review of just four of his performances.

Aakrosh (1980)

In this searing indictment of India’s justice system, Puri plays a poor tribesman (Lanya) wrongly accused of murdering his wife. Traumatized into silence by his landlords, Puri as Lanya gives a masterful performance balancing intensity and restraint in a tortured figure of silence whose cry of anguish pierces India decades on.

Ardh Satya (1983)

In Ardh Satya, Puri plays a cop (Anant) battling for his sanity and conscience in a force bedeviled by corruption. Whether in dealing with gang bosses, his superiors, or his domineering father, Puri as Anant humanizes one’s struggle in the search for dignity in a circle of deceit.

My Son The Fanatic (1997)

As Parvez, Puri is a whiskey-loving Pakistani immigrant who falls for a local prostitute while his British-born son turns into a religious fundamentalist. Puri deftly plays the role of father, lover and working-class immigrant in one full comic-romantic-dramatic sweep.

East is East (1999)

In another culture clash comedy, Puri plays George Khan, a Pakistani fish and chip shop owner living in northern England in the early seventies. Struggling to establish his sway over his rapscallion Anglo-Pakistani children and his English wife, Puri’s performance elicits laughs, fear and even a little sympathy.

The Beef with British Bank Notes

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Written by Randeep Singh

Hindus in the United Kingdom recently grew outraged over the Bank of England’s decision to issue a new £5 bank note. The note apparently contains traces of beef fat.

The Hindu Forum of Britain called the note “totally and utterly unacceptable.” Locally incensed Hindus have since been joined by Sikhs, vegetarians and vegans in petitioning to have the chemical content of the notes changed.

The Hindu Forum opposes the note on the grounds of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion protects one from interference from or coercion by the state in religious belief or practice. It does not require a government, however, to change its otherwise secular policies to accommodate religion.[1]

What would happen to Hindus if they came into contact with the bill? Would they be violating their religion? Haven’t they come into contact with beef-fat chemicals before in plastic shopping bags or in the leather soles in their shoes? Haven’t they sat next to someone eating beef in a school canteen or at a pub?

I don’t believe that the Hindu abstention from beef is a religious practice. It is a caste-based practice. Millions of Hindus in India eat beef. [2]  The Rig Veda and the later Vedic literature provide evidence that ancient Hindus did so too. [3]  When Hindus later abstained from eating beef centuries later, it was largely because it was deemed a “polluting” food eaten only by outcastes.[4]

In law, British Hindus are citizens who enjoy the same rights to freedom of religion as any other citizen. To ban the note does not promote equality or religious freedom: it promotes a sense of exceptionalism to the rules, encourages others to follow suit, and sanctions all sorts of practices in the name of “religion.”

Notes

[1] This happens where religious beliefs or practices compromise other freedoms like freedom of expression (e.g. the blasphemy row over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). It also happens where accommodating a particular religious belief or practice amounts to preferential treatment of that community.

[2] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/%E2%80%98More-Indians-eating-beef-buffalo-meat%E2%80%99/article16085248.ece.

It is often said the cow is sacred to Hindus because it provides milk, manure etc. Shouldn’t the cow then be sacred in all societies where it provides those goods?

[3] http://www.countercurrents.org/ambedkar050315.htm

[4] Hinduism borrowed the practice of vegetarianism from Jainism and Buddhism which were the dominant religions in India at the time.,

 

Film Review: Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

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Directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney

There was a time when Muslims and Hindus lived together in Muzaffarnagar. Their children played cricket. They celebrated Eid, Holi and Diwali. They worked the fields and sat on farmers’ collectives like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The town was referred to as “Mohabbatnagar,” the city of love.

In September 2013, however, the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh suffered one of the worst pogroms in modern India’s history. Over 100 people (mostly Muslim) were massacred while more than 80,000 were displaced. Homes were wrecked, mosques were vandalized and dreams turned to dust.

In Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai, Sahwney probes the underlying causes of the pogrom. He shows how the BJP (and its agents) instigated the pogrom to win the general election of 2014 which brought Narendra Modi to power. The BJP was assisted in Muzaffarnagar by local Hindu Jats who used the pogrom to seize Muslim property, women and wealth.

Sawhney also unravels the BJP’s strategy in stirring up violence for votes. First, they turn Islamist terrorism into the new bête noire deeming Muslim youths as members of ISIS. Second, they revive the idea that Hindus have been “cheated” with election banners and posters speaking about “struggling” for Hindus. Third, they play on old anxieties of Hindu men about Muslim men stealing Hindu girls through the new “Love Jihad” conspiracy.

Those who survived the pogrom were put into camps. As Sawhney shows, however, the refugees failed to receive adequate provision for food or medical care. When it was discovered that over one hundred children died in the camps due to disease, the government has the camps bulldozed to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a difficult film to watch. Sawhney could have reined in the many threads in the documentary (such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union) for a tighter narrative and unity of theme. Still, in giving voice to the unheard and letting us enter their world, Muzaffarnagar triumphs.