Ambedkar and the savarna classroom

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Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

[Note: This post is a result of several discussions with friends and acquaintances on the recent publication of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘Annhiliation of Caste’, by the publisher Navayana, with an introduction titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ by Arundhati Roy. Since then, based on the criticism of Brahminical hegemony it has evoked from Dalit sources, several academics, journalists and commentators have criticized the objections as being ‘essentialist’ and ‘reductive’. Read Dalit Camera’s ‘Open Letter to Arundhati Roy’ and ‘Arundhati Roy replies to Dalit Camera’, for some context, and below those posts on Round Table India, do read every single post by critics contributing to the debate around the introduction and what it represents.

This post is my own attempt to sort through the issues with my experience in academia, and to explain why I agree with those in Roundtable India on the appropriation of Ambedkar’s work and legacy.]

… I cursed another good hot curse.
The university buildings shuddered and sank waist-deep.
All at once, scholars began doing research
into what makes people angry.

- Keshav Meshram, ‘One day I cursed that mother-fucker God’, (trans. by Jayant Karve, Eleanor Zelliot with Pam Espeland)

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Of Octavio Paz and being Kamli

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‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai

The beloved does not know defeat. She labours until her lover’s stone will is pliable, or will reduce all veils in between them to ash and smoke.

When I left that sea, a wave moved ahead of the others. She was tall and light. In spite of the shouts of the others who grabbed her by her floating clothes, she clutched my arm and went off with me leaping.

Is there any sleep for the beloved, for she whose love remains alive like the night? Black skies are cruel to she, who needs sunlight but is instead condemned to the dark,

Certain nights her skin was covered with phosphorescence and to embrace her was to embrace a piece of night tattooed with fire.

The beloved is ephemeral, forever changing form. She is hard to define, to describe. She is flippant and frivolous, escaping the touch of reality. She is the embodiment of madness.

At unexpected hours she roared, moaned, twisted. Her groans woke the neighbors. Upon hearing her, the sea wind would scratch at the door of the house or rave in a loud voice on the roof. Cloudy days irritated her; she broke furniture, said bad words, covered me with insults and green and gray foam. She spit, cried, swore, prophesied. Subject to the moon, to the stars, to the influence of the light of other worlds, she changed her moods and appearance in a way that I thought fantastic, but it was as fatal as the tide.

Such is what the lover can do, the beloved in her madness went from still lake to flowing river. In the lanes and localities her eyes trace, the evening is the lover’s world. No wonder she is awake when the world sleeps.

Stretched out side by side, we exchanged confidences, whispers, smiles. Curled up, she fell on my chest and there unfolded like a vegetation of murmurs. She sang in my ear, a little snail. She became humble and transparent, clutching my feet like a small animal, calm water. She was so clear I could read all of her thoughts.

The beloved will become an ascetic, a mystic whose kohl-rimmed eyes will make the lover forget his own ascetism. She will become him to overcome him.

Her sensibility, like that of women, spread in ripples, only they weren’t concentric ripples, but rather eccentric, spreading each time farther, until they touched other galaxies. To love her was to extend to remote contacts, to vibrate with far-off stars we never suspected. But her center … no, she had no center, just an emptiness as in a whirlwind, that sucked me in and smothered me.

The beloved can be the morning dew that steals the fragrance of flowers, but in a blink can become the flood that erodes mountains. Then the night becomes her enemy.

She had nightmares, deliriums of the sun, of warm beaches. She dreamt of the pole and of changing into a great block of ice, sailing beneath black skies in nights long as months. She insulted me. She cursed and laughed; filled the house with guffaws and phantoms. She called up the monsters of the depths, blind ones, quick ones, blunt. Charged with electricity, she carbonized all she touched; full of acid, she dissolved whatever she brushed against. Her sweet embraces became knotty cords that strangled me. And her body, greenish and elastic. was an implacable whip that lashed, lashed, lashed.

In a state of losing herself, the lover becomes the means to recover the self. The beloved is after all, like a garland of stars around the neck of the lover-moon.

Love was a game, a perpetual creation. All was beach, sand, a bed of sheets that were always fresh. If I embraced her, she swelled with pride, incredibly tall, like the liquid stalk of a poplar; and soon that thinness flowered into a fountain of white feathers, into a plume of smiles that fell over my head and back and covered me with whiteness.

Yes, the beloved is utterly mad, utterly crazy for the lover.

Note: I’ve been dwelling on the meaning of the popular Bollywood hit ‘Kamli’ from Dhoom-3 for a few days now, and its striking resemblance to a short story by Octavio Paz titled ‘My Life With the Wave’. This post is my attempt to express the marvellousness of the parallel by translating the lyrics of ‘Kamli’ into my own prose (loosely adapted from the translation on this site: http://www.bollymeaning.com/2013/12/ni-main-kamli-kamli-lyrics-translation.html), accompanied by Paz’s wonderful prose (translated without a source and available for download here: http://www.cabrillo.edu/~ewagner/WOK%20Eng%202/Paz%20-%20The%20Wave.pdf). All block quotes are from the original English translation. 

On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 3) — GoW2 and why masala endures

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http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2012/7/gangs-of-wasseypur-2-poster.jpgFirst, Part 1 and Part 2, for some reference. And major spoilers will be discussed ahead, do be warned. I’ve had a long month of work, work and more work, so I’m aware this critique is very late.

I’m also under quite a bit of pressure. My previous posts on Shanghai and GoW1 have attracted far more readers than I’d dreamed of, publicised by heaps of people, and Anurag Kashyap has himself admitted he read it. Many times. So now I have performance anxiety. :|

Plus, I’ve been avoiding all the mainstream reviews of GoW2 because I’m convinced they’d jinx the film for me. No, I wanted to keep Sardar Khan’s gleaming head in my mind when I start watching this film, because if anyone could top that first part, it would be Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a pair of Ray-Bans.

A friend on Facebook said this after watching GoW2: “I used to be ashamed of all those afternoons I spent at home watching ridiculously, bizarrely, brain-fryingly random Hindi movies on Set Max. Now I know that Anurag Kashyap — someone the world considers an artist — also watched them. I feel validated.” This was my exact reaction to the film.

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On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1

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First, I highly recommend you read my initial post on subversion as a storytelling technique in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai.

Previous Disclaimer applies: This is not a review, but a detailed critique like I did with ‘Shanghai’. I will analyse several aspects of the films which will include spoilers so please do not read if you haven’t watched GoW1 yet.

Also, this was meant to be about both GoW films, but after I finished drafting the post for the first part, it was already over 3000 words long and I thought, screw it. There can never be too much of a good thing. So expect a Part 3 to follow up when GoW2 releases. :)

When I think of bald Bollywood actors, the first name that comes to mind is Shetty, whose gleaming head and meancing glare often made Dharmendra flex extra muscle in numerous 70s flicks. The second name that comes to mind is Shakal of Shaan, whose eccentricities extended to owning an island, having a shark for a pet, and wearing ridiculous costumes.

So it’s an obvious conclusion to look at Bajpai’s fully shaved head through most of the film and wonder whether he is protagonist or antagonist. You realise early enough that protagonist and antagonist are really just matters of perspective, and that Kashyap has already subverted our very idea of what a Bollywood hero is.

Of course, anti-heroes in Bollywood have been a factor since the 70s, but never has there been such an anti-hero who is very clearly a villain — someone who enjoys killing but for the sake of poetic justice, who shamelessly lusts but with such seduction and who loves but with such selfishness.

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On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 1) — the case for ‘Shanghai’

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I don’t get cinema. I don’t say this as some sort of grand  sweeping statement, but as a disclaimer. Though I should actually say, “I don’t always get cinema”, because I think the times are a-changing. My film education has been almost entirely Indian cinema, and mostly Hindi films (thanks to meri Ma, appropriately), but even so, I find it very hard to articulate a theory of Bollywood aesthetics. There was a time when I lived abroad that I used to explain Bollywood to my firangi friends as entertainment, not art, and ‘art cinema’ in India as being very different. But over the last few years, I have started seeing film, and even music as a text of sorts with its own narrative, character and textual aesthetic. To put it simply, I have realised that ‘literary’ can extend beyond just text. And films with their visual narrative open up wide levels of understanding about literariness and what makes for art (not exactly an original Eureka moment, is it? :) ).

But I think what’s also come out of it, is that I’ve stopped seeing this divide between high-art and low-art, a Bollywood vs ‘art cinema’ polarity in films, and that has been a sensational epiphany. It feels like I can come out of my closet and express some Bollywood-love and defend it without sounding anti-intellectual.

And I think this perspective is strengthened when you read Rasa theory and realise that aesthetics in India used to specifically involve depicting the eight/nine rasas (emotional states) and evoking emotions from the audience. Performance arts like classical dance still utilise rasas heavily through practiced expressions and movement. But in film, and through some other traditions of Urdu theatre, the framing of sequences and shots, the narrative structure and dialogue also thoroughly imbibed elements of the rasas. Actors in Indian cinema are not expected to be ‘method’ actors who live and breathe their roles to become the character, but are instead mainly expected to portray emotions in a way that resonate with the audience. In that sense, in Indian films, the power lies with the audience — in whether the audience was able to empathise with the character’s emotions, and not in whether the character was believably portrayed. That is at the core of the realist aesthetics of Indian cinema, in my opinion, and where it differs wildly from the Western aesthetic.  For instance, if you were to  look at the rasa of ‘shoka’ (grief/sorrow), where Hollywood may choose to show sorrow through a character’s body language and behaviour in a natural set of circumstances (the classic show-don’t-tell), Indian cinema usually depends heavily on facial expressions and stylised body language – think Nargis in Mother India, the classic pose of carrying the plough, the head tilt and the expression on her face. Mother India (1957) in many ways represents a very classical Indian style of filmmaking, one that influenced Hindi cinema for generations, and that still exists in much of regional cinema.

However, modern cinema has changed that aesthetic significantly. Western elements have invariably seeped in, and there is now an interesting aesthetic shift that commingles disparate aspects of both. I think Shanghai and Gangs of Wasseypur are mature realisations of this aesthetic shift and offer a very interesting mix of both styles, using a very specific technique in storytelling – subversion. I’ll come to this a little later.

A second disclaimer: this is not going to be a review. In fact, it’s going to be a review of reviews that these films have received, in particular Shanghai, which seems to be facing the brunt of claims of misrepresentation, unrealistic characters and stereotyping.  So if you haven’t watched  these films, then be warned, most of what I’m going to discuss involves spoilers, big spoilers and endings and climaxes and whatnot, so this post is best read after having watched the films and read the reviews.

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Litstuff: Links for May 2012

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Will Self at Kafka’s Wound

Or is it only that every generation manufactures the Kafka they want, and while in the middle of the last century, the Kafka whose minatory tales foreshadowed the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism was, in contemporary governmental-business jargon, fit for purpose, now we require another kind of Kafka altogether? The constant here, surely, is irony.

25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English

 Litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery

Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire

Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods

Yoko meshi (Japanese): literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language

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Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire by Ambarish Satwik

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On one of those nights when you usually look for something on TV to watch along with your dinner, I came across  a news channel’s panel discussion – a rare well-moderated session on pornography. Certain members of a state  government had been caught watching porn mid-assembly, and there were heated discussions across channels. There were only 2-3 people on this particular panel whose opinions were intelligent and nuanced, and one of them was Delhi-based vascular surgeon Dr. Ambarish Satwik. But I was more than intrigued when I heard he was also an author of pornographic fiction. Naturally, I had to check him out, and Google scrolled up the tantalisingly titled Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire. I knew I had to get it.

Also, the guy is hot. Yeah, I’m shallow like that.

Apart from this Tehelka review, and an interview in The Hindu, nothing much of either Ambarish or the book is on the internet. Several online booksellers offer customer reviews at most, but nothing really detailed enough to give you an idea of where this book could  sit on your bookshelf.  Is it literary? Is it historical fiction? Is it light reading / popular fiction? None of those questions were answered for me when I decided to purchase it.

Also, book blurbs – overburdened and vague at best – label Satwik’s writing as “feverish fictions lit by Kafka, stage-managed by Manto” (by Mukul Kesavan). Another description inside says he concocts a “Borgesian fictional labyrinth” that just made me scoff in disbelief.

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On voyeurs and exhibitionists, love and the Gaze in India

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 “I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze”

-- Jacques Lacan

Sometimes, songs seem to find me when I’m looking for them the hardest. Superstitious crap, perhaps? I’m not sure. There are times when I hear a random song playing in a mall and need to find out who it is, suddenly something will lead me to the artist. For instance at a restaurant called Marche in Singapore once, I heard a clip of what seemed like soulful jazz, sung in something that sounded like French. I immediately asked one of the servers who it was singing, and she had no clue. Five minutes later she popped up, with an iPhone, no less, and told me, “It must be this woman – her name is Cesaria Evora, and the song is apparently ‘Petit Pays. It’s in the Cape Verdean language that has French roots!”

She had an iPhone app to detect songs from recording just a clip.

Things like this have happened time and time again. Just this week, I was humming a folksy tune that I remembered from a few years ago. But I couldn’t remember the words or the artist. I remembered that the music video was shot in an Indian village with lots of TV-like illusions popping up in frames, and that the singer was an Indian female. I googled and tried to YouTube this video for days with every combination of keywords I could imagine, but to no avail, and I just gave up. Then this week, I was being made to watch Satyamev Jayate – an Indian talk show with a bit of a do-gooder host (who I quite dislike) by my mother – and in suffering through it, I sat up when a singer began performing as the end credits began to roll. Her name was Sona Mohapatra and I knew instantly the song I’d been searching for was hers and sure enough, this popped up on YouTube:

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The futility of formally studying literature today (Rant Rant Rant)

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Some disclaimers:

- My focus is only on cultural theory in literary studies and mainly, postcolonialism. I don’t know enough to have a problem with cultural studies  itself, though indications are that I may just rant about that too someday.

- I am not trying to debunk the work of any theorists. Instead, I will be focusing on the consequences of embedding cultural studies in literature courses and the damage I think has been done, as a result.

- My point of interest is Indian literature, and in some cases more specifically, Indian Writing in English. This is obviously because I’m Indian, but also because I’m familiar with the context of cultural studies in India. I have some knowledge of how it works in Australia/New Zealand, but I’m limiting my rant to just India. For now. 

- I use a capitalised ‘West’  to refer to the Western hemisphere and Australia/NZ (though no specific reference is made to Aus/NZ, the school of theory they use is the same as their western hemisphere counterparts).  

- Of course, it shouldn’t need to be said that everything on this blog is my opinion and is expressed as such, so people are welcome to respectfully disagree. 

WARNING: Loooooong post. I hope you have the time.

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Of a certain Kuzhali Manickavel and other insectoid thoughts

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So, I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but somewhere online I stumbled across the gold nugget that is Kuzhali Manickavel’s blog. I suspect it is through the Café Irreal website where she is published, or perhaps through the network of hyperlinked blogrolls that exists across WordPress and Blogspot, but it no longer matters, because I suspect there has been an inner Kuzhali in me all along, just waiting to be discovered.

Kuzhali is what is known as an emerging writer; she hasn’t written a full-length novel or book yet. But she has flash fiction and short fiction published across the Internet and the wonderful Blaft Publications found her and published most of those stories as a collection, Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Blaft also tweeted twice about my Charu Nivedita review, so I am gratefully (and shamelessly) plugging another worthy book of theirs.

I have long maintained that writing humour is one of the hardest genres to write, satire even more so. I have also secretly harboured a dream of writing the modern Indian version of A Modest Proposal. Well, I was SO wrong; clearly, Kuzhali should be the one to write it. Not only has she got the incision skills of a surgeon with her words, she has that sense of tragicomedy, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes satire tick. Read the rest of this entry