Tag Archives: Americas

Bostonian accent and coconuts / Urban vision blind to the poor and their languages

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Apr 2014 ; The Independent (Bangladesh), 16 Apr 2014 ; Millenium Post, Apr 23 2014 ]

The greater Boston area of the United States of America has a very good public transportation system. This comprises of buses, local trains, boats and the metro rail. The Red line is one of the metro routes, stopping at Harvard and MIT, the two institutions where I have spent all of my academic-professional life outside Bengal. This means that I have taken the Red Line metro many, many times. One of the stations on the route is called Porter Square. Soon after the metro leaves a stop, there is a recorded voice which lets the passengers know what the next station is. The way that voice said ‘Porter Square’ was in what can be called a Bostonian accent. That is apt since the metro is in Boston, most users of the metro are from Boston and that is the accent they are most comfortable with.

The Unites States of America exists much beyond its territorial limits. Specks of California and Manhattan are scattered in urban centres of the southern world, including our subcontinent. Here, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and beyond, those specks of Amerikana exist with a lot of vigour thanks to the brown-outside-white-inside coconut desis whose rootlessness attracts them to these ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. The subcontinent lives with such offsprings, proudly alienated, consciously ‘liberated’ and hip. With sentences peppered with ‘like’ and liberally spreading their ‘sh*t’,‘cr*p’ and other four-letter jewels among the rest of us, they constantly want to signify their ‘cosmopolitan’ awareness, maturity and liberation. Picking up the expressions of their own life’s many moments not from their living environment but from but from American/western popular media styles is the principal marker of these types. The problem is, it does not end there.

Given their numbers, they wouldn’t have mattered unless wielded inordinate power over policy and public life, given ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy’, as Hartosh Bal astutely puts it. They speak English in ‘cafes’ and restaurants, Hindi to their domestic helps. They prefer to live within self-created bubbles where they perform predictable ‘firangi duniya’-philia rituals with a commitment that often amuses the West. This is like the amusement of a father who has just come to know that the rape he had committed actually resulted in a child who loves him more than its mother.

Coming back to public transport. The coconuts constantly lament that brown cities are not ‘outsider’ and tourist friendly. This is rich coming from those who are voluntary outsiders in their birth-lands. They lament that the buses often have things written in ‘local’ language. The same goes for street signs, shop names and so much more. This constant reminder of brown-ness is an eyesore that they have successfully removed from their bubbles. Their all-English restaurant menus, their all English working spaces, get-togethers, poetry-readings, book-launches, debates, discussions, malls and supermarkets help them, at least in certain hours during their daily life, forget the horrid brown land whose imprint they carry, whether they like it or not. And so they complain of their spaces being ‘too vernacular’, harbor ideas of transforming the subcontinent’s urban areas into ‘world class’ – which is a code for a place where a firang would not feel lost. The fact is that in the last couple of decades, in the language of street names, public signage, private spaces and much more, the staggering majority of the people have been progressively told to ‘get lost’.

The poor and their language have been excluded for long. Now even the middle-class is under attack. In the brown subcontinent, even a telecaller now starts in default in English or Hindi, irrespective of whether it is Chennai or Mumbai. We are staring at an increasingly exclusionary urban vision which is undemocratic and downright insensitive which consciously overcounts the few and ignores the majority. At the root of this is an elite idea of citizenship, what constitutes a human being, who is counted as a person of value.

Yet, our languages live among the people on whose back breaking work everything is made, while angrejiwalas have their sausage, wine, banter and sophistication, building tapestries and ‘narratives’. If there is good in this universe or there are gods and goddesses who care about human dignity, something must give.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Culture, Education, Elite, Knowledge, Language, Sahib, The perfumed ones

Eight tight slaps from Niyamgiri tribals / On giving up other ways of being human / Slippery slopes of development

[ Daily News and Analysis, 6 Aug 2013 ;  Shillong Times, 9 Aug 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 20 Aug 2013 ]

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

And pour it on our shameless heads.

(Written by Gopal Gandhi on 6th December, 1992 – the day of Babri demolition)

In the United States of America, Thanksgiving Day is an example of a rather successful attempt in creating a popular and false impression of a harmonious past of North America – one of peaceful coexistence between White Christian colonizers and the colonized indigenous people. With decades of state endorsement, school indoctrination and mass-market celebration, genocide has been whitewashed into a love-in of sorts. But the descendants of the survivors still live and there is no forgetting. Certain truths cannot be buried by concrete and asbestos.

On one such day, some years ago, strolling in the Harvard campus, I saw a small group of native American youth standing in a semi-circle around a temporary structure that whispered –‘ this is a special space’. Someone elder led the invocations that exuded an unmistakable aura of sacredness to me. Before the genocide, this used to be a community celebration. Now, to the onlooker, it is a bunch of weirdos in strange gear doing their own thing in a campus that celebrates ‘diversity’ – adding to that vaunted cosmopolitan urbanscape that so many hold up as a model of all human futures, that pinnacle of rootless aspirations. Before the genocide, this was public culture. Today it is a curious performance, an act in the corner. How does it feel? I do not know. But I do know that less than 3 months from now the debi-paksha (the lunar fortnight of goddess Durga) will start and my clan-home in a village called Patuligram in Hooghly district of West Bengal will come alive to welcome the mother goddess, like every year. What if we had to do this invocation on the sly, and looked upon curiously? Could I then feel how those young people at Harvard were feeling that day? Probably not. I would not be accounting for the loss of language, community, clan-people, independence. And still they survive. For it is not that easy for everyone to give up other ways of being human.

It is partly an appreciation of this stubbornness that drew some activists, students and ragamuffins to a protest last week in front of the Orissa Bhavan at New Delhi. Niyamgiri, the holy hill, produced the valiant Dongria Kondh who have not only challenged the collective might of some of the most powerful money-gatherers and fixers of the world, but have also tripped up the trajectory of ‘progress’. What obscene cost-benefit calculation can put a price on a god and his abode? To us Bengali Shaktos (worshipper of goddess Shakti), what would be the ‘right price’ to dig up the Kali temple at Kalighat if bauxite were to be found underneath? The Dongria Kondh people have stuck to their main man, their principal deity Niyamraja for Niyamraja (the giver of law) has been sticking to them forever. Ijurupa, Phuldumer, Batudi, Palberi, Kunakadu, Tadijhola, Kesarpadi and Serkapadi are eight villages whose gram-sabhas have rejected a proposed bauxite-mining plan in Niyamgiri. In effect, these are eight tight slaps to an entire industry of consensus building that includes corporate houses, lobbyists, politicians, columnists, economists, ad-agencies, ‘development’-wallahs. CSR-wallahs, FabIndia-DSLR-NGOwallahs and probably your and my dad. Such has been the force of these slaps that the forces-that-be have pushed into action their spin-machine to concoct some ‘depth of Indian democracy’ type of bed-time story out of it. The force of the eight slaps (and there may be more) come precisely from forms of socio-political legitimacy and communitarian rights which are the bane of the forces-that-be. For all their love of swadeshi gods, like others, the saffron-party too has been exposed – that their love for alumina can easily make them sell gods on the sly.

In February, in Lakutia, near Barisal in East Bengal, I saw the ruins of a series of shiv-mandirs – corpses of places of worship. I remember muttering under by breath,  ‘never again’. Many have surrendered to those words, so simple yet so decisive – “it is too late now.” The Dongria Kondh seem to have different ideas about time and action. Far away, in southern Orissa, an explosive experiment in grassroots democracy is shaking the world. If it has not shaken your world, it better did.

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Filed under A million Gods, Americas, Bahishkrit Samaj, Community, Democracy, Displacement, Faith, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Religion

Chavez – a subcontinental remembrance

[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Mar 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 11 Mar 2013]

I never met the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in person. However, living in this subcontinent, somewhat fortuitously, I have seen him in various forms. What does his death mean to the subcontinent? Did he mean anything to us when he was alive? I have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.

When I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. At that point, I was in Medical College, Kolkata and a member of an independent students association, which was regularly threatened and sometimes physically beaten by members of the ‘Party’s’ student wing. Rakesh, a class-mate of mine and now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I saw the posters in the city that the ‘Party’ was organizing a mass rally at the Lake Stadium and Chavez would speak. At that time, the coup that had briefly deposed him and his valiant and popular return had gained wide currency in our minds. We did not have too much access to the Internet and online videos never smoothly streamed anyways. But what we had seen and heard, from here and there, had made us realize that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. A ‘red’ leader whose action, mannerism and style was in such contrast to the Dodos that walked about in Kolkata neighbourhoods back then – this was reason enough for us to go to his rally that evening.

I must confess that we were rather scared. Rakesh had been repeatedly threatened and assaulted by the ‘Party’ and I was a known face too. And here we were, among thousands of the Party faithful. We hoped nobody recognized us – realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 (or more) versus 2 scenario, we could be vanished without trace.

The event was nominally organized the government. But the ‘Party’s top brass was in full attendance – some on stage and some very near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that only Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city was also treated to an event where Che Guevara’s daughter had come visiting. Around the time of these events, the public posturing of the ‘Party’ and the tone of the columns in the ‘Party’ daily used to be such as if the dhoti-clad were very uncomfortable in their air-conditioned offices, and were itching to hit the trenches. The last installment of this periodic farce was when Maradona came to Kolkata.

And then Chavez spoke. There was an interpreter who translated his Spanish to Bangla realtime. That poor soul drew angry jeers from the ‘Party’ faithful when he said ‘Karlos Markos’ – a name Hugo Chavez had just mentioned in that form. And I perked my ears up. Over the cacophony of the mujahideen disgusted at the Holy Name being taken in a non-divine Spanish ( and not divine English, but not German, mind you), a different Hugo emerged to us. The person on stage had been engaging with Karl Marx, on his own terms, with a confidence that comes from being deeply embedded in one’s cultural ethos. Rakesh and I were won.

There were layers upon layers of irony that evening. In the Panchayat Elections held less than two years earlier, as many as 5030 Gram Panchayat seats were won ‘unopposed’ by the same party that was hosting the character who had unleashed the most democratic regime that part of the world had seen in recent times – even facing a recall election. At some point in his speech, Chavez mentioned Gandhi (I don’t remember whether it was the Father or the Mother). The crowd fell silent – evidently, Hugo had not been briefed about the time and place. Rakesh and I, dirty-minded as we were, deliberately chose to clap hard at that moment, amongst angry looks of people around us. Looking back, I feel, that bit of bravado was not worth the potential risk.

When he left the stadium, he stuck out his torso the car-window, waving spiritedly. For a moment, he waved directly at us, or so I thought. A day later, there was a picture of him in the ‘Party’ daily from one of the ‘agricultural progress’ tours they must have organized. He smilingly held a giant-sized pumpkin on top of his head – with the dhoti-wallas around him not sure how to react. That moment, from the unlikely vantage of a still-photo in a Party daily, he spoke directly to irreverents like us. Such was Hugo.

And then, 8 years later, I saw ‘Hugo’ again, in Shahbag, Dhaka. He was about 25, wore a similar beret cap, and was leading the sloganeering. I saw a few others in Shahbag, sporting the ‘Hugo’ look. Surely Hugo was more alive in the East, beyond the clutches of the dodos of the West.

On Hugo’s death, my friend Aiyan Bhutta of Lahore, improvised an old Pakistan People’s Party slogan that had originally been coined after the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. ( From every home a Hugo will emerge, how many Hugo’s will you kill?). I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai. Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga.

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Filed under Americas, Bengal, Democracy, Kolkata, Obituary, Power