Friday, September 28, 2018

Manto Speaks Post Partition Truth With Relentless Fury

Manto Speaks Post Partition Truth With Relentless Fury
                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Nandita Das’ film on the subcontinent’s greatest short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, brought alive memories of days when it was fashionable to be on the left. That is where all the progressive writers were – Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chugtai, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishen Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, the lot. The Pied Piper who lured them to Bombay (Mumbai) was the innovative Secretary General of the CPI, P.C. Joshi. As part of the trend, actors like Balraj Sahni gave a boost to the Indian Peoples’ Theatre. Socialism even in Raj Kapoor films was influenced by the ambience that this lot had generated. They determined the character of Bollywood by their lyrics, dialogue and sheer presence. Subsequently, the influence disappeared, but not totally. Witness Nandita Das.

At one level, Manto’s uncompromising realism sustains the tension throughout the film because it clashes with the dogmatic idealism of his colleagues. Das assembles many of them and their friends in cinema, Ashok Kumar, Shyam (Chaddha) in the first Independence Day party where the legendary Jaddan Bai regales the gathering. The teenage girl behind her mother Jaddan Bai is unmistakably Nargis. It is superb casting. The way Manto protects Ashok Kumar through a mob of Muslim rioters is unbelievably realistic. His parting with his closest friend the handsome actor Shyam because of Partition is rich in poignancy.

The Partition of India is replete with many tragic ironies but tragedies pale before the incident that Manto picks on as a metaphor for the mayhem: Toba Tek Singh.

When the newly formed governments of the two countries complete the identification of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan’s mental asylum and Muslims left in such institutions in India, the governments decided to transfer them to the countries they were now deemed to be citizens of.

When Bishan Singh, a Sikh in a Pakistan asylum is being transferred to India under police escort he learns that his hometown, Toba Tek Singh has been left in Pakistan. Bishan Singh begins to walk in the opposite direction. The last scene shows him lying in no-man’s land. Let Manto end the story in his own words: “There, behind the barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between on a bit of earth, which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh. This is just one of the Manto stories Nandita Das weaves effortlessly into her film.

“Thanda Gosht” or “Cold Meat”, a controversial masterpiece, becomes one of the film’s supporting columns. It provides occasion for a court drama where Manto defends himself against charges of obscenity. Faiz Ahmad Faiz as a witness in the case exposes the earliest fissures in the Progressive Writers Movement. In his testimony, Faiz describes “Thanda Gosht” as not the “highest form of literature” but clearly not obscene either.

The backdrop, once again, are the riots following Partition, the cataclysm Manto could never wrench himself away from. A well built Sikh, Ishwar Singh, has returned after joining the looters. In fact he has even murdered five men with his kirpan (sword). But when he is unable to make love to the passionate Kalwant Kaur, she, in a moment of suspicion and jealousy, slits his throat with the very same kripan, demanding that he tell her who he has slept with.

The story’s final climax is – it has many – when a dying Ishwar Singh confesses: yes, he lifted a “very beautiful girl” from a house, but when he laid her down, he realized to his horror………………….she was dead, “Thanda Gosht”.

An effort to critique Nandita Das’s film has involuntarily, meandered past the brilliant short stories which many readers must already be familiar with. There is a simple reason for my diversion. The succinct, vivid, picturization of so many of the stories have made them more intimately accessible. Those who have read Manto will be enriched. The selection of stories is uncanny. When a doctor asks his helper to “open” (kholdo), the window to allow some light, Sakina (recovered from a riot affected area) gropes for the string of her shalwar in a daze and loosens it. She has developed a pavlovian response to the sound “Kholdo”, so repeatedly has she been raped in captivity. There is a disturbing, Mantovian irony attending the end. On this occasion the instruction “kholdo” is for the window to be opened so that Sakina’s distraught father, who has spent days searching for her, can see her face. I can go on and on.

The extraordinary directorial success lies in what Nandita Das has avoided. Despite the world’s finest short stories at her disposal, she has refrained from creating a catalogue of Manto masterpieces, however seductive the idea may have been. The stories are in the service of the director’s primary purpose: to bring out the multilayered life of a genius, struggling to keep the wolf from door, a difficult proposition when tight fisted publishers buy a short story only for rupees 20 against Manto’s demand for rupees 50. He accepts the humiliation because he is in desperate need for money for his child’s medical treatment.

To be proud, sensitive and constantly in need is a lethal combination. Initially, when Manto copes with the humiliation, he reminds me of Majaz Lucknowi.
“Banyeen sael e gham o sael e hawadis
Mera sar hai ki ab bhi khum naheen hai.”
(A gathering storm of tragedy and pain approaches
But I have not bowed my head – the struggle continues)

Eventually, on a cold December night, Majaz was found in a coma on the terrace of a Lucknow country liquor shop. He died the next morning in Balrampur hospital, surrounded by comrades who happened to be in Lucknow for a Conference of Progressive Writers – Ismat Chugtai, Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi. Manto also dies of alcoholism but his is a slow end, by attrition. Both died in their 40’s.

The film’s other attraction is the portrayal of an era along a distinct track – post Partition, mayhem, breakdown of friendships, relationships, Manto’s parting from Bombay deliberately preserving a one rupee debt to a cigarette seller as a “precious” link with the city he loved.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Air Bombardment Or “Chemical Attack”: Suspense Surround Idlib Endgame

Air Bombardment Or “Chemical Attack”: Suspense Surround Idlib Endgame
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The Byzantine and Roman sites of Ebla and Idlib, in North West Syria, may well be reduced to dust if an explosion occurs on a scale many expect. Sadly these archaeological losses will not even be noticed. They will be submerged in the looming human catastrophe.

Ever since the manufactured civil war was launched in 2011 to turn the tables on the Arab Spring, the Syrian theatre has seen many climaxes: Homs, Hama, Deraa, Raqqa, Aleppo, 50 kms, North East of Idlib. But there is unanimity that Idlib will shake the region like nothing else has so far. This hyperbole is not based on personal observational, though I have visited Syria in the midst of the civil war.

White House National Security Adviser, John Bolton has been warning repeatedly that the Syrian government was about to use chemical weapons in Idlib. Even before Bolton’s warning, Hassan Nasrallah, much the shrewdest leader in the region, had raised an alarm: we have information that a plot was being hatched to foist on Damascus the allegation that it had used chemical weapons. The alert eye being kept on Idlib by the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US exposes a population of three million to all manner of unpredictabilities.

It is an irony of our times that great and medium powers are riveted on Idlib not because its ancient monuments or the civilian population but because of the 60 to 80 thousand of militants scattered through the governorate. These militants are from half a dozen different groups. There are quarrels galore between these groups claiming proximity to major powers with stakes in the Syrian pie. Among the bewildering range of groups are the Al Nusra Front, Haya Tehrir e Shaam, Turkestan Islamic Front with links to Uigur groups in Xinxian. There are off shoots of the PKK, keeping Turkey on sixes and sevens. Not to be forgotten are the Chechens focused on the Caucasus. Then there is the Free Syrian Front.

For Damascus a militant is a militant and should be eliminated. Turkey, on the other hand, may see some groups – Tehrir e Shaam, for instance – as assets in Ankara’s conflict with Kurdish groups. The US would like most of the militant groups to be protected because they will always come in handy whenever it becomes necessary to mount extra pressure on Bashar al Assad. Washington may be inclined to negotiate the future of some of the assets if Assad allowed them more bases in Syria.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, even far off Kosovo, everywhere, Americans a super power by habit, if not in substance any longer, develop multiple interests. After the 72 day bombing of Serbia, removing Slobodan Milosevic, creating an independent enclave of Kosovo, the US moved on only after they had created Bond Steel, abutting Macedonia, the largest military base since Vietnam. Likewise, they entered Afghanistan ostensibly to remove Osama bin Laden but have, over the past 17 years, developed multiple interests – minerals, UNOCAL pipeline, Helmand Poppy fields, keeping an eye on the world’s only Muslim nuclear bomb in Pakistan, keeping Iran, Central Asian Republics, Xinxian, the Caucasus under surveillance – and within range.

In Idlib too US interests are varied. Notice I have not mentioned Syria because that involvement is of epic proportions. Idlib in Syria is the enclave where all the regional and global stakeholders, have nudged and pushed their respective “militants”, “terrorists” and “moderate groups”. For Syria, Russia and Iran they are all the same and need to be exterminated.

This remedy is anathema to Turkey. The country is already host to 3.5 million refugees. Bombing of Idlib will cause another 2.5 million civilian to cross the Turkish border.

Further, there are among the motley crowd of militants those who will checkmate a “Kurdish enclave” contiguous with the territory the PKK claims. The enclave would be the thin end of the wedge for an expansive Kurdish idea.

The US would like to create just such an enclave. Not only would it like to have bases, an American habit as I have indicated earlier, but it would have another potential state under its control. It would be the second home away from home in West Asia just as Israel is – on a much smaller scale though.

The other, bigger idea is to divide Syria to the satisfaction of Israel and those with a steady gaze on the gas pipelines. The idea of dividing Syria into four is as old as the hills. But all the other powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, for instance – will not allow this to happen. When the three powers met in Tehran last week there was unanimity on one issue: the territorial integrity of Syria.

The presence of 1000 European Jihadis in the brew adds further pungency to the vapours of confusion. The great European nations, their noses up, do not wish these “tainted” citizens to return. Should they be put away then? No, say European Intelligence agencies. There are so many “militants”, “terrorists”, “moderate rebels” in Idlib. Let the Europeans gestate among them.

How long will this uneasy status quo last? Already, Russians have detected activity on the “chemical weapons” Front. There are reports that cameramen have already shot little boys being bathed to remove the “chemicals they have been exposed to”. White Helmets, the miracle men who save people by appearing in the epicentre of the attack without being burnt have been seen here and there.

Remember, the eight year old Syrian boy with burnt skin in October 2016, in the midst of the US election campaign. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour flourished a photograph of the boy before Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov in the course of an interview in Moscow.

“Is this not a crime against humanity?” shouted Amanpour.

“Very sad” said an amused Lavrov. This was the first time Lavrov publicly expressed the fear that Americans were helping terrorists in Syria.

When the photograph did not make much of an impression on the Russian Foreign Minister, the very same photograph materialized in candidate Hillary Clinton’s hand during the last Presidential debate in Las Vegas. With expert histrionics, Clinton simulated a lump in her throat for maximum effect.

Is Idlib about to yield a crop of pictures of white helmets and little boys with burns?

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Reflections On The Supreme Court Liberating Gays And Lesbians

Reflections On The Supreme Court Liberating Gays And Lesbians
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Those travelling to England for the first time in the sixties were recipients of a tract from the British High Commission listing the dos and don’ts. Among the don’ts was a paragraph in italics:
“A single woman may invite you to her apartment for tea and refreshments. This must not be taken for license.” That the tract did not warn me about the risks of accepting gentlemen’s hospitality was presumably because Victorianism had not quite faded in the sixties.

In those days the androgynous appeal of Twiggy, the modeling sensation was the big draw. The fashion industry had marketed flat chested girls, looking like boys, as the new sex symbols. The trend had been initiated by the haute couture in Paris. Balenciaga and Givenchy were in love and presumably had copious sex too, as did others in that business. You were a square if you were straight.

If men were going to be so unidirectional, women too were beginning to experience things they called freedom. All generalization are hopelessly inadequate. The freedom was in fact a device to protect self esteem, increasingly bruised by the casual indifference of men. Women’s emancipation clashed headlong with the “femininity” which poetry, thumri, folk songs, love letters had burdened our aesthetics with for centuries.
“Motia hiraye gayee, Rama
Kaise dhoon dhoon, (search)
Dhoondat, dhoondat,
baorae gayee, Rama”
(I have lost the pearl, my father’s gift,
O’Rama, how to find it?
I am going mad searching for it.)
The pearl has been lost in a moment of passionate ecstasy.
:Hiraye aanyein kangana
Gaunwaye aanyein jobana
nadia naarey”
“Defiantly, she surrendered her virginity by the riverside. In the sexual ecstasy, she lost her gold bangle.”
This raw ecstasy in the two folk songs is not the stuff of sex today – when urban emancipation conditions sexual behaviour.

Behari Lal Chaube (1595-1663), describes a “devar” husband’s younger brother, a constant in erotic Hindi poetry, throwing a flower playfully on his sister in law.
“Goosebumps of joy appeared on her limbs,
Mistaking them for insect bites
I hastened with a jar of ointment.
But when she smiled I
guessed the truth
and stayed my hand.”

Even Ghalib (1797-1869) puts his urbanity aside in her presence.
“Is nazakat ka bura ho, woh
bhaley hain bhi to kya
Haath aayein to unhein haath
            lagaye na baney”
(Though wonderful she be, I hesitate to touch her, such is the delicacy of her form)

Even Josh Malihabadi (1894-1982), proud of his several love affairs, is mesmerized by her shyness.
(Haya ki shama jal uthi
harim e dil rubai mein
Ghumaya sar jhuka ke
der tak kangan kalai mein.”
(When I asked for her hand, her eyes were like shyness illuminated.
For a long while she played with her bangles.”

Raghupati Sahai Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982), describes:
“Woh hai ghuncha, ghuncha jo dekhiye
Woh hai choomiye to dahan dahan.”
(Look at her, and she is a half open bud.
Kiss her and she is all mouth.)

John Keats in his letters could address Fanny Brawne as “My dear girl”. Try the patronizing tone, however steeped in lyric, on the professional MBA you are trying to date and she will hurl a paperweight at you.

Make allowance for some exaggeration either way, and the truth remains incontrovertible: gender equality has wrenched man-woman equation from romantic traditions which admittedly engendered inequality. When T.S. Elliot’s single woman, after her one night stand,
“paces about her room again, alone
She smoothes her hair with automatic hands,
And puts a record on the gramophone.”
The boredom of it is palpable.
The emancipated, professional woman is light years away from the village belle who lost her pearl during sex. In asserting her gender equality does the contemporary woman cause her partner to feel inadequate and begin to withdraw from women for emotional security? In brief, the belle who lost the pearl is more relaxing; the emancipated woman, more challenging.

Freudian complexities which attend evolving man-woman equation causes some of the youth of both sexes to find greater comfort, relaxation and friendship in seeking out persons of their own sex for all purpose relationships. The withdrawal of men from the market causes women to move in the other direction.

This sociologically conditioned augmentation of the LGBT community is only a fraction of those who are gay or heterosexual for hormonal reasons.

Social reasons for this increase will cause the stream to join the torrent, a function of many streams, which could lead to unsettling demographic changes. That is possibly the most frightening consequence of the issue the Supreme Court addressed in a historic judgement.

The judgement brings out of the purdah that which was hidden. Does a whole body of poetry on that which was behind the curtain become kosher too? It is great poetry from Chaucer and Iqbal to Jaffar Zatalli, Chirkeen, Rafi Ahmad Khan, Mahshar Enayati, Abba Changezi, Uriyan Hyderabadi. Do we have their Lordship’s permission to bring it all out in the open?

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