31 May 2019

In the name of Gau Mata

My Mirror column:

A stark new film by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham documents the normalisation of Hindu vigilantism.

Gyandev Ahuja, ex-BJP MLA (best known for his remarks about condoms in JNU), appears in the documentary at the head of a troupe of gau rakshaks. 
“When the public lynches in daylight, they make videos of it,” says the man. “It happened at night. Had it happened in daylight, there would have been a video of him.”

The man speaking is a family member of Rakbar Khan, a 28-year-old cattle farmer from Nuh, in the Mewat region of Rajasthan, who was murdered while bringing home two cows one night in July 2018. He is speaking of the circumstances of Rakbar's death, as part of a new documentary called The Hour of Lynching, directed by independent filmmakers Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham, which was released for public view on The Guardian website yesterday.

We live in surreal times, and the more surreal things get around us, the less we seem able to see them for what they are. An increasingly thick ideological smokescreen seems to stand between us and the violence of post-2014 India: violence against solitary or small groups of Dalits and Muslims, invariably committed by larger groups of upper caste Hindu men.

But perhaps if you pause and simply listen again to that line I quoted, you might hear the madness echo, even through the blur of allegations and counter-allegations that is our new soundscape. Here is what I heard in it: that in the India in which we now live, so many incidents of “mob lynching” have taken place that there is now an accepted public understanding of the practice, and that public understanding includes, first and foremost, the fact that lynchings are public events, mostly conducted in broad daylight. They are recorded, sometimes by bystanders but quite often by the lynchers themselves. (The most well-known instance of such self-recording was in Una, Gujarat, in 2016, when four members of a Dalit family were stripped, paraded and thrashed by upper caste men who had come upon them skinning a dead cow.)

Rakbar Khan is one of the 47 people killed in cow-related hate crimes since 2014. The government does not keep records of cow-related violence, but the website https://lynch.factchecker.in/ documents 127 incidents of violence centred around the transportation of cattle and/or meat that is rumoured to be beef. Almost all of them have been against Muslims and Dalits, with the frequency of attacks rising steeply since 2014, across both BJP- and non-BJP-ruled states.

A still from Amit Madheshiya & Shirley Abraham's The Hour Of Lynching (2019) 

The cow has been seen as sacred in India for centuries, but it was only under conditions of colonial modernity, in the late 19th century, that it became a symbolic rallying point for the organisation of Hindu identity. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, set up the first sanctuary for cattle in 1879, and also began the first gaurakshini sabha in 1881 in Agra. 

The banner of cow protection slowly grew into a countrywide campaign against cow slaughter. Akshaya Mukul’s exemplary work on the Gita Press documents the history of the movement, which was preoccupied enough with the cow to be organising an anti-cow slaughter day on August 10, 1947 – five days before independence. Over the next three decades, the banner of cow protection united various non-political Hindu organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with orthodox elements within the Congress. Such Congress figures as Seth Govind Das, Purushottam Das Tandon and Thakur Das Bhargava opposed Nehru's position on the matter, even defying the Congress party whip on occasion.

In September 1966, various cow protection groups came together to form the Sarvadaliya Goraksha Maha Abhiyan Samiti (SGMS), whose supreme council had members from the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS, the Arya Samaj and various religious groups alongside the Congress and the Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP. In November 1966, a massive gathering assembled in Delhi before a stage that included MS Golwalkar, Gita Press's Hanuman Poddar and the Jana Sangh's Atal Bihari Vajpayee, turned violent. At the end of a police lathi-charge, as Akshaya Mukul writes, “The movement for non-violence against the cow had led to widespread violence in the heart of New Delhi with eight dead and several more injured.”

I offer this distilled and necessarily incomplete history of cow protection to draw attention to something that will certainly strike you if you watch The Hour of Lynching: the bitter irony of violence committed in the name of non-violence. 

“Look closely at Mother Cow,” says Gyan Dev Ahuja, a BJP ex-MLA (who had hit national headlines for saying “thousands of condoms were found on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi daily”.) “You will see that she is deserving of compassion [“daya ka paatra”]”. He goes on to speak of “cow smugglers” as people of “rakhshas vritti”, and painting the battle between this imaginary enemy and his army of gau rakshaks as that between Ravan and Ram.

A little later in the film, we watch as another BJP politician is cheered resoundingly for exhorting the crowd to heed the call of Gau Mata, take out their swords and behead the heathens (“dussahasi vidharmiyon ka [sar] kalamkar do”). “You mere 200 million Muslims, we are 1 billion Hindus. If we lose our minds, we will sacrifice you 200 million – and the country will be cleansed.”
On May 23, the country gave Narendra Modi’s government another resounding electoral mandate. We can only hope that this #Tsunamo will not involve such cleansing.

Not a straight line

My Mirror column:

Rima Das’s lovely film Bulbul Can Sing offers an empathetic portrait of a queer Indian teenager: a figure who has finally begun to make an appearance on our screens.

I recently wrote about a Netflix show called Sex Education, a raunchy dramedy about British teenagers. The show's most endearing turn is by Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, black and gay best friend of the white and straight protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield). Apart from the ups and downs of that central friendship, Gatwa's animated performance brings to life Eric's gradual path to self-discovery: his changing relationship to his father, his conflicted connection with his large, deeply religious family, the fact that his queerness makes him a constant target for bullies at school and in the world beyond, and the complex interplay between fear and defiance with which he responds to that threat of violence.

Through the many wonderful scenes in which Eric starts to come into his own – when he confesses he's gay to a girl who really wants to sleep with him, when he and Otis dress up in long-haired wigs and glorious eyeshadow for Eric's birthday outing, when he admires the “fierce” nailpolish on an older man who stops to ask him for directions – I wondered when and if we might see an Indian character making the journey into queerness.

Watching Rima Das's lyrical, perceptive Bulbul Can Sing at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi on Saturday, I was glad to find the beginnings of an answer. Das's previous film, Village Rockstars, was about a ten-year-old girl in an Assamese village who longs for a guitar. This film's eponymous Bulbul is also a young girl in rural Assam with musical ambitions, but this time Das is interested in a deeper portrait of teenage friendship and the slow dawning of sexual discovery.

Fifteen-year-old Bulbul lives with her father, mother and little brother in a village home that feels very basic, the lack of televisions and phones, even electricity, making for several lovely lamplit scenes, including a particularly beautiful Diwali sequence. Bulbul doesn’t spend much time at home, though, because most of her day is spent at school or wandering around the fields and rivers with her two close friends and classmates, Bonnie and Suman. 

Bonnie is a girl her own age, but Suman is a boy. For an instant, we feel a jolt of surprise at this fact: a close, unstilted friendship between two adolescent girls and an adolescent boy being allowed to exist, unsupervised, in the sexually restrictive milieu that is the norm in India. Our surprise evaporates quickly, as we realise what everyone in the film already knows, that Suman isn’t a threat: because Suman isn’t interested in girls, not like that.

But he is utterly comfortable with Bonnie and Bulbul, and they with him. Das successfully shows rather than tells us this, through the physical closeness the three share. They can lie about on a mat side by side, one elbowing the other out of the way, or go swimming in the river together, with Bulbul letting Suman scrub her back just as casually as she scrubs Bonnie’s. The lack of sexual tension is part of what makes these scenes so intimate. Its unforced, giggly quality contrasts rather beautifully with the sort of intimacy we get a glimpse of later: the hesitant, hushed moments Das crafts when both the girls meet boys that they are attracted to.

Outside of his easy, loving camaraderie with Bulbul and Bonnie, though, Suman finds it difficult to live comfortably in his own skin. He is mocked nonstop for his effeminate manner, and often harassed with the appellation “Ladies”, even by boys younger than himself. “Ladies, ladies, the ladies toilet is over there,” yells one, while another tries to assemble a group by saying, “Hey, pull his pants down!” “Will you be a bride or a groom?” sniggers yet another.

The one moment when Suman shows any sign of moving towards the self-actualisation of an Eric is when he responds to Bulbul's affectionate teasing with a quiet “Can't I have someone?” The rest of the time, he tries his hardest to ignore the jeering, except when he breaks down.

The figure of the queer child mocked at school appears in another recent Indian film, one that could not be more unlike Bulbul Can Sing in aesthetic terms. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga begins as a standard-issue Bollywood Punjabi family wedding scenario, but a quarter of the way through to be a plea for letting queer love live. Sonam Kapur's Sweety is an adult, but the film draws its emotional appeal from recreating her adolescence: the loneliness of the lesbian teenager who realises she's not like her straight classmates, made worse by the invasion of her privacy when they read her diary. Where Suman befriends two straight girls, and Eric finds a friend in the nerdy Otis, Bollywood's penchant for obviousness is revealed in Sweety's only school friend being an effeminate boy who is mocked even more than her.

Sonam Kapur as Sweety in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), now on Netflix.
Perhaps the most devastating such recent Indian portrayal, though, came as a crucial flashback in the Prime series Made in Heaven, where the teenaged version of Arjun Mathur's Karan chooses to keep his 'straight cred' intact by joining in the public savaging of the boy he is himself secretly having an affair with. The series also has Vinay Pathak as the nosy landlord, who owes something to the homophobic neighbour of American Beauty (1999). 

When it's clear you can't beat them, it seems easier to join them. But that only turns the violence upon the self.

7 May 2019

The sense of an ending

My Mirror column:

In honour of Satyajit Ray's 98
th birthday last week, here's a look back at one of his least-watched but loveliest films: Kanchenjungha (1962).

Born on May 2, 1921, Satyajit Ray burst upon the scene with Pather Panchali in 1955. But his first original screenplay was for Kanchenjungha (1962). Apparently written by Ray in ten days at Darjeeling's Windamere Hotel, Kanchenjungha is a glancing, elliptical sort of film. I remember first watching it as a pre-teen and coming away unsure of what had just unfolded. Like the elusive snow-capped Himalayan peak for which it is named, Kanchenjungha does not reveal itself at first glance.

What action there is in it is hedged around with conversation. Quite often, conversation is the action. And yet this is simultaneously a film full of moments of quiet, of letting the visual speak.

A lot of that visuality comes from the setting: the still-colonial hill station of Darjeeling, where a well-off Bengali family is on the last day of their vacation. We learn from the suited, cigar-smoking patriarch Indranath that they have been there seventeen days — a time that speaks both of the length of holidays in the 1960s, and of the leisure this family enjoys. 

But the mood is not leisurely. What there is instead is a sense of expectation, of things preparing to come to a head. The ornithologist uncle is searching for an as-yet-unseen bird; a suitor has hunted down a particular flower; the patriarch is eager for an unobstructed glimpse of the peak to round off the holiday properly. The sole grandchild, too, wants to wrench what she can from her last day in the hills. “I'm going to take many, many rounds [on the pony],” she announces. Even the little girl, otherwise oblivious of adult business, senses that time is running out. A highly eligible bachelor called Mr Banerjee is expected that day to propose to the family's younger daughter, Monisha. (It is part of Ray's brilliant detailing that no-one ever refers to Banerjee by his first name. N Viswanathan's character remains, despite all his sophistication, a hazy, distant outline – while his intended bride is so identified with her nickname, Moni, that another character in the film has to imagine her full name.)

Nineteen-year-old Moni is still at university, but her father Indranath has approved Banerjee, and since no one ever challenges Indranath, everyone assumes that the marriage will be fixed by day's end. Ray uses this prospect of wedding bells to cast into relief the lives of the other two couples: Monisha's parents Indranath and Labonyo, and her elder sister and brother-in-law Anima and Sankar. The older couple's relationship is a case of male obliviousness, even in the face of clear disquiet. Indranath asks his wife for her opinion, but it is clear that her only possible role is to support his decision. Labonyo (played by Karuna Banerjee, famously cast by Ray as Apu and Durga's mother Sarbajaya) has lived long enough with her husband to know when silence is the only option. With a man who is used to getting even smiles on demand, perhaps her best one. She sings her heart out, but cannot speak it.

At one level, this is a film about the hidden costs of arranged marriages – most often paid by women, but often also by men. Sankar is the example that the film offers of this: a man who feels that fate has dealt him an unlucky hand, a wife who doesn't love him. One of the earliest lines spoken in the film is Sankar's unsolicited advice to Moni: to not marry without love, and the film keeps us, till the end, on that path of possibility.
And yet, this is still Ray: he will not reject the social contract wholesale, even as he holds it up for us to peruse, gently suggesting that there might be some holes in the fabric. “Are you suggesting that all marital partnerships must be based on an exact match of qualities and interests between a man and a woman?” asks Banerjee pedantically. “No, that would be absurd,” snaps Moni, using the English word.

At a more profound level, though, Kanchenjungha is about being true to the self even when it seems foolhardy, about courage and independence of spirit pitted against the pragmatic and secure option. And that courage, interestingly, enters the narrative from a most unlikely source: an impoverished young man who has been introduced to Indranath and who almost snags a job offer from him before his self-esteem gets in the way. “Aren't you unemployed?” demands the haughtily insensitive big man. “No,” Ashok finds himself saying. “What do you do?” “I give tuitions.” “How much does that fetch you?” “Fifty rupees a month.” “Don't you need more than that? “I do.” “And how do you propose to get it?” “By my own efforts,” says Ashok, and turns away from the stumped older man.

One of the film’s most memorable moments comes just a little later, when Ashok, having come upon Monisha on a winding hill path, marvels at his refusal of her father’s patronage. Perhaps it is these misty mountains, these amazing tall trees, the grandness of all this, which made me feel like a giant, he muses. “As if I was special. As if I could do anything at all... If it had been in Calcutta, I wouldn’t have had the courage.” 

There could be no greater tribute to the Bengali’s love of the mountains.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5 May 2019.

The life therapeutic

My Mirror column:

A new webseries called 
Sex Education offers a rare mixture of insight, humour and warmth on sex and its many minefields. It’s about British teens, but might work well for a lot of us.

An indie publisher recently spoke at the launch of a book called Why Read? about how her father's exhortation to read and “try everything” led to her borrowing Erica Jong's 1970s novel Fear of Flying from his bookshelf and trying to make sense of its era-defining portrait of angst-ridden female sexuality, at age 12. She had me smiling in recognition. Different book(s), same story.

Reading as a way for young people learn about sex has only amplified in scope in the post-internet era, though massively supplemented and likely often superseded by a visual media explosion that we couldn't have dreamt of growing up in the '90s. While mainstream television (not just in India) remains somewhat coy about sex and sexuality, basing its self-censorship on the somewhat fictive vision of the family audience, the internet now offers wide-open access to just about Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask). If you have a few minutes alone with a data-enabled mobile phone, you can now ask Google.
While this easy, anonymous access to sexual – both information and imagery – is a vast improvement on the secret economy of traded porn mags/videos that once undergirded school life (with very few girls ever seeing any of it), even contemporary young people could do with some curation of what's out there. Because there's plenty, and the democracy of plenty necessarily means contradiction and confusion. Not to mention the fact that most sex-related content is porn, and most of that porn is meant for the bulk of existing consumers, i.e. straight men, and that the set parameters of mainstream straight-man porn seem to limit the possibilities of sex more than open them up.

It is into this eager but utterly confused universe that Netflix dropped, earlier this year, the first season of a series called Sex Education, created by the playwright Laurie Nunn. A comedy about horny teenagers, packed with high school stereotypes – the nerdy boy, the rich clique, the overachieving headboy, the slutty girl – may seem like a predictable sort of place for predictable sort of raunch. But Nunn does several truly sharp, fun things. For one, she gives us American high school stock characters but from very British family backgrounds, including a repressed, disciplinarian headmaster. Second, all the stereotypes are undercut – or perhaps I should say layered by the addition of unexpected details: the girl known for promiscuity likes sex but also likes 19th century feminist writers, the overachieving headboy is on anxiety medication, the girl who's always got a boyfriend doesn't actually have any idea what she likes in bed.
Nunn also scores by making her primary character not just a nerdy boy who's still a virgin, but a nerdy boy whose lack of sexual experience in practice is compensated for by his seemingly instinctive grasp of sex – in theory. The 'therapy business' is orchestrated by 'slutty' smart girl Maeve Wiley, who happens to witness the protagonist Otis give a male schoolmate sex-related advice – and then learns, on the female grapevine, that the advice worked.
Nunn's character arcs and subplots display a markedly rare and genuine ability to see the many things sex can be to different people, or to the same person at different times: clandestine but exciting, boring but display-worthy, a desperate object of desire or a source of terrible anxiety, obligatory or shocking or just overhyped.

Apart from the warmth and humour (and when it chooses that register, sexiness), what I think I really enjoyed about the show was its ability to both take therapy’s insights seriously and simultaneously make fun of it a little, see its blind spots. 
Otis turns himself into the school's secret sex therapist, using a certain kind of formal language that he's absorbed from living with his (actually qualified) sex therapist mother Jean. The show treads a fun line, between showing Jean’s self-consciously verbose therapist persona as funny and her analytic work as actually valuable. And what we see Otis do repeatedly is to run with his instinct – about relationships, selfhood, identity and shame – sometimes goofing up, but revealing his own vulnerabilities and thus, perhaps, coming across as a warmer, nicer, more identifiable therapist than the therapist.