Tag Archives: India

The patriot’s pop

1378895_orig.jpgThe pop culture machinery has always been generating alternative viewpoints that the state has been unable to successfully repress, whether it was Junoon’s banned Ehtisab in the 90s or Beghairat Brigade’s Aloo Anday in 2011. Through the presence of mass acceptance and love for Junoon, Ali Azmat today has modeled himself as a spokesperson for a political youth. Similarly Ali Aftab Saeed of Aloo Anday fame has been writing about media and national politics in national newspapers and has quite a readership.

Power and national/community culture create a symbiotic relationship over time where they both reinforce the status quo. Pop culture is the only element of culture that can resist the status quo, especially in traditional conservative societies were views on religion, social relationship and political power are deeply entrenched. Most of our counters to the status quo come from pop culture.

Examples of resistance to the state narrative are abound. They include Laal, the band formed by two academics with a common interest in Marxist theory. Osman Khalid Butt in his YouTube commentaries constantly critiques dominant social norms. And then we have a massive corpus of Pakistani meme’s hosted on Facebook pages like The Sarrialist Movement and Sarcasmistan, providing us with a daily changing commentary on Pakistani life and culture with humour and wit to boot.

Indian culture and it’s influence in Pakistan cannot be understated… what with Veena Malik marketing herself as the nation’s Malika Sherawat (with added masala), and Amitabh Bachan being a household name. Our parents and grandparents grew up on Kishore Kumar’s music and Rajesh Khanaa’s acting. There is a long history of shared stardom with Muhammad Rafi, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Adnan Sami Khan.

This connection is sometimes lamented as the pollution of a Pakistani-Islamic culture with pagan Indian influence. In conservative discussions, the influence of Hinduism and India is ignored when it comes to our customs and traditions, but this concern is irrelevant to pop culture. It just isn’t something that can be nationally or ideologically controlled.

What it is, is a collection of actions and influences that creates something instantly recognisable. Nadeem and Waheed Murad would always have stiff competition from across the border. Much of our urban youth looked to Shahrukh Khan and Kajol for entertainment in the 90’s and Imran Khan and Katrina Kaif today, rather than Pakistani actors like Moammar Rana or Saima who seem to have graced the silver screen since time immemorial. The neighbourly influence is natural.

Cultures have regional and national characteristics, so for the subcontinent that has a shared history of centuries, it is natural that Pakistani would be part of the cultural influence of a much bigger and louder neighbour. A decade ago, Kyun Ke Saas Bhee Kabhi Bahu Thee had a monopoly over the hearts and minds of housewives everywhere. Only recently did shows like Humsafar take this territory back. But not completely. Within culture’s own struggle for identity, whether through an agenda, or for want to identify with something non-Indian and “Islamic”, the broadcasting and watching of Turkish soaps dubbed in Urdu has become a favourite national pastime.

Across the border, Prime Minster Modi has made Smriti Irani, aka Tulsi, the actress of Kyun-Ke-Saas-Bhee-Kabhi-Bahu-Thee fame, his Human Resource Minister— a move that would fit well in an Indian soap. The influence that popularity has on political power cannot be understated. There is no other way to explain why the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger could have such political success as to become the Governor of California. Or the mass appeal Imran Khan has and his success in Pakistani politics. His status as a national cricket icon has reaped him great dividends in his political ambition. What is familiar is easier to trust, and the nostalgia his cricketing days produce in our hearts and minds help us feel better about him as a leader.

There is huge support in political and cultural theory for popular culture as an untapped source for mass empowerment. Traditions from Gramsci (the Italian Marxist philosopher) see pop culture as a space of struggle between subordinated groups and the forces of ‘incorporation’ operating in the interests of dominant groups in society. Post-modern theory even goes so far as to reject the distinction between dominant or ‘high’ culture (fine art, architecture etc.) and pop culture, giving as much importance to the phenomenon of crass Punjabi films as one would to high brow films like Ramchand Pakistani.

The Nation,  July 9 2014.

Sita’s Story- Sita Sings The Blues

I recently wrote and article on a very interesting film called Sita Sings the Blues. The basic issues I have tackled are culture and culture sharing –Can revered old traditions be reinterpreted? The film is a modern retelling of the Hindu Ramayana and is also a free release. And can a culture become the exclusive right of a specific group? Sita Sings the Blues is a quirky new film retells one of India’s best-loved epics and raises some serious questions.

The discussion in the comments is however highly polarised. Read more here.

After you have read the article, and if your curiosity is sufficiently piqued, you can watch the film here. Or download it. 

The media and the manhunt

The media buzz around the death of OBL on May 2, 2011. Published in The Friday Times, 6 May, 2011.

With the first five months of the year, a plethora of changes have happened making world politics unrecognizable from one year before.  One of the biggest was the on May 2 when news of the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Abottabad exploded on TV screens and in newspapers. The facts that Western media has focused on have been that the US led operation focused on one of Bin Ladens trusted couriers and a protégé of one of the architects of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (New York Times, ABC News, US Government). The compound where Bin Laden was hiding was valued at $1 million and had 12 to 18 foot walls with barbed wire. And was 8 to 10 times larger than surrounding houses.

Senior US officials initially told news agencies that Bin Laden’s body would be disposed of in accordance with Islamic tradition, which involves ritual washing, shrouding and burial within 24 hours, and Bin Laden was buried at sea (LA Times, Washington Post). The Guardian was of the view that US concern over Bin Laden’s burial place turning into a shrine were probably unfounded, since the Wahhabi/Salafi tradition rejects such things. “Burial at sea is rare in Islam, though several Muslim websites say it is permitted in certain circumstances. One is on a long voyage where the body may decay… The other is if there is a risk of enemies digging up a land grave and exhuming or mutilating the body – a rule that could plausibly be applied in Bin Laden’s case,” reported the paper.

The news was celebrated in many foreign capitals with crowds gathering outside the White House to celebrate and spontaneous celebration all over the US. French Foreign Minster Alain Juppe called it a “victory for all democracies fighting the abominable scourge of terrorism”. British Prime Minister David Cameron said it would “bring great relief to people across the world” (Express Tribune). The US had warned of possible threats of retaliation (CNN). In UK Heathrow airport has stepped up security and many other countries fear protests. In Pakistan US and UK embassies have put their citizen on high alert.

Headlines across America and Europe on May 2 were ‘The most wanted face of terrorism’ (New York Times), ‘A day for justice’ (Chicago Tribune), ‘An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth’ (Der Spiegel) and ‘Born to privilege, he dies a pariah (Wall Street Journal). Local newspapers however have been skeptical of the facts (Dawn News), and the Television media will undoubtedly resort to more fact digging and speculation.

The Taliban in Afghanistan had no immediate official reaction, though a local commander in Paktia said the killing “will affect their morale and will trigger the violence” and a commander in Baghlan promised revenge (NYT, Guardian). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirmed bin Laden’s death and called it a catastrophe (AFP).

Reports say that officials in the Middle East did not have immediate reactions, and responses were “mixed” on the Arab street (CNN, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times). However Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned the killing and described bin Laden as a “holy warrior” (CNN).

The coming weeks will of course clarify more facts about the operation as well as create more controversies. Dawn News for example said on May 2 that Bin Laden might not have been killed by US forces but his own guard. The paper quotes a Pakistani official who visited the site after the US assault team left, “From the scene of the gun battle it doesn’t look like he could have been killed at point blank range from such a close angle, while offering resistance.”

The western media sees the proximity of a military academy to Bin Laden compounds as an obvious proof of Pakistani military and intelligence being involved in hiding him and other leaders of the Al-Qaeda (BBC, CNN). This reaction is not just isolated to the media but world leaders as well. Israel has called this the “liquidation” of Bin Laden. India lashed out at Pakistan, saying that terrorists find sanctuary in Pakistan (Express Tribune, AFP).

There will again be a reevaluation of the US-Pakistan relationship not only but the respective governments but also by the media. Shuja Nawaz writes for Foreign Policy saying that the Pakistani military’s official reaction to the death of Bin Laden will be telling. If the operation was carried out in close cooperation then the trajectory of this declining relationship may be reversed. Even though Obama has acknowledged the role of Pakistan in the war against terrorism, it is not clear what that role has been with regards to the capture. Foreign media has generally reviewed Pakistan unfavourably and credit for the capture has solely been awarded to the US.

The general consideration of the western media is that only one of head of the Al-Qaeda hydra has been cut off. Der Spiegel is of the view that Bin Laden has left behind one of the most resilient and effective terrorist networks the world has ever seen. The death will weaken Al-Qaeda but for some time now others have been in charge of planning global terrorism. “I suspect the al-Qaeda senior leadership will splinter… this will create a vacuum,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA analyst as when Al-Qaeda leaders became consumed with mere survival, other groups will try to pick up the slack.

The future of terrorism may still be secure. The Taliban is entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorist groups in Yemen, Algeria and Iraq have adopted the Al-Qaeda brand and in Somalia, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are growing. Ayman al-Zawahiri is expected to be number one on the FBI’s most wanted list (ABC News). Reports say that the power balance will shift to Yemen (Der Spiegel). John Brennan, US Chief of Counterterrorism may have spoken too soon when he said that that “Al-Qaeda is something in the past.”

Wallowing in sadomasochism- Book Review ‘History of Hate’

History of Hate, Kaniska Gupta. Rupa & Co, 2010. 198 pages.

There is merit to be found in the vivid imagining of such a problem and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes

In Review, Pakistan Today, 6th February, 2011.

Greed for money or power has been what traditionally has led to human nature showing its nasty side, but there are other sides to pain like anger, revenge and then pain for pleasure. Causing suffering just for ‘viewing pleasure’ is a very different aspect of human relations and there is no denying that it exists. Kanishka Gupta’s ‘History of Hate’ is rightly about ‘hate’ expressed through cold calculated harm that two individuals inflict on the people of their Delhi neighbourhood.

This odd couple, Sonny a middle-aged housewife, and Ash a would-be writer in his twenties with suicidal tendencies, have something in common that brings them together. Both being unhappy with life hate the happiness of others and love to watch people suffer by their brutal acts. Their victims keep adding up to include Sonny’s paralysed mother-in-law, a seven-year-old mute maid, a pregnant mother, couples in parks, Sonny’s own sons, and even ultimately Ash by Sonny’s hands. Sonny and Ash have no remorse about the lives they destroy. The victims are punished in strange ways, there is no rage involved, plans and traps are laid out for an almost voyeuristic thrill.

Before you try to pick up this book, beware that you may not be able to understand the motivations of the lead characters or relate to them, unless you have had irrational urges to hurt or humiliate people.

You keep reading till the end, waiting for the realisation that these two characters might have redeeming quality; that the book would give some satisfactory emotional, physical, spiritual justification for the sick crimes of its antagonists/protagonist, but the only explanation one can reach is that Sonny and Ash are sadistic and disturbed. Gupta frames Sonny’s excuse for her mental state as her middle class poverty and jealousy of the success of other people, while Ash’s excuse is that he is a homosexual.

These are not unique problems; there are people in the world who suffer more without it leading to such troubled behaviour. Yet the book touches on the issue of sadism, though not a valid diagnostic category, yet an accepted personality disorder and an important issue in social life to explore.

Kaniska Gupta has tapped into a niche market, where such a dark subject piques the curiosity of people. The content being good or bad is a matter of opinion, of course, but it is definitely a unique piece of work. Of course, there have been other books that have explored disturbances of the human mind like ‘Lolita’, ‘Perfume’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, all of which have achieved a cult status. In comparison ‘History of Hate’, though a flawed piece, and maybe not as stellar, may well have the same fate in India.

This unapologetically unpleasant narrative has been well received by many readers and since others have enjoyed this book there needs to be a serious effort to understand why. With its cringe worthy content, it is not a book for everyone to stomach and was rejected by many publishers in India until Rupa publications gave it a chance.

‘History of Hate’ was long listed for the yearly Man Asian Prize that is reserved for literature from 27 Asian countries (including Pakistan); a great achievement for a young writer.

There must be a serious attempt by critics to understand its appeal. With the ambitious title, the book should have explored the dimension of self-hate, and maybe given Sonny and Ash some semblance of normality so that a reader could accept them as multidimensional humans. If our antagonizing pair are ‘in so much hate’ with the world, are they happy with who they are as people and what is their relationship with their self?

Sonny’s character though more despicable is easier to grasp. Ash seems more complex and less threatening than Sonny and remains a bit of a mystery. The power dynamic between the two could have been formulated better. Do they actually love each other or hate each other? It is unclear whether, in their very brief “history”, their hate for other people’s unhappiness could have extended to their relationship with each other.

The author has said elsewhere that: “The novel… is a strong critique of the sadomasochistic, voyeuristic nature of all social interactions.” The book seems not so much a critique as a narrow documentation of the issue. And this is fine as well; there is merit to be found the vivid imagining of such a problem (maybe for the first time by a South Asian writer) and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes.

–Saadia Gardezi is a political economist based in Lahore

The Af-Pak saga continues: Af-Pak Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA)

Published in The Friday Times, 30 July 2010 to sort out what the hullabaloo is about. This is the what the agreement is all about in a nutshell.

The 1965 Transit Trade Agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been revised this year with regards to Afghan goods’ transit to the Arabian Sea, as well as terms for Pakistan to secure routes to the Central Asian republics through Afghanistan. Pakistan is the largest trading partner of Afghanistan and the two countries’ trade has grown from $170 million in 2000-01 to $1.49 billion in 2008-09.

During the meeting between President Hamid Karzai and President Zardari in Washington in May 2009, a memorandum of understanding was signed to begin talks. The draft for an agreement was finalized on 19 July 2010. The decision to discuss APTTA coincided with the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has irked many in Pakistan as it reinforces the perception that the government is making the decision under US pressure.

On 22 July, clarifying the ambiguities regarding the trade agreement, the Chairman Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) Sohail Ahmed said the agreement had not been signed yet, only the minutes of the meeting had been endorsed by authorities on either side.

The new agreement will allow Afghan trucks to carry export goods to the Wagah border for delivery to India. In order to check unauthorised trade the cargo will be allowed to be transported in accordance with internationally acceptable and verifiable standards of sealable trucks for a period of three years. Pakistan will be allowed to use Afghan territory for its exports to Central Asia.

India, which has transit trade agreements with Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, seeks the shorter Wagah-Khyber transit route to Afghanistan for access to Central Asian markets. This access has been denied by Pakistan but India will be able to carry its goods to Afghanistan using Pakistan’s airspace despite the fact that India has not extended Pakistan transit rights to landlocked Nepal.

The drivers and cleaners will be allowed to enter and exit the two countries on short-term work permits readable by biometric devices installed at entry points. If goods do not exit the country within the specified time, the guarantees will be encashed by customs authorities.

An Arbitration Tribunal will also be set up bilaterally in case of a dispute. Failure to agree on a common name of a third arbitrator, two names of non-nationals and non-residents will be proposed by each side and the third arbitrator will be selected by drawing lots from the four proposed names.

To tackle the issue of smuggling, the two sides agreed to install tracking devices on transport units and a mechanism for customs to customs information sharing (IT data and others) will be established. Financial guarantees, equal to the amount of import levies of Pakistan, have to be deposited by authorised brokers or customs clearing agents to check the unauthorised trade and these deposits will be released after the goods exit the country.