The Best Ad in the World: One-Stop Shopping for Life’s Myriad Problems

Here, then, is the best ad in the world, this one from Delhi.   Ever had any problems with your sex life, with the management of money, or with disobedient or wayward children?  Is your husband too domineering and demanding, or does your wife nag you?  Do you suspect that your wife is trying to poison you, or that your husband is bedding another woman?  Or are you starved for love, or simply feeling low?  Did you dream of a modeling career and do you instead find yourself serving as a cashier, flipping burgers, or getting bored silly at some clerical job?

A visit with Miyan Kamruddin Samrat, who makes his home near Aggrawal Sweets in Kalkaji, in south Delhi, is guaranteed to resolve your problems in life, however small or “majestic”.  Kalkaji, where our Miyan lives, is home to many temples, among them the famous Bahai temple and a new Hare Krishna Mandir, but where is the need for such grandiosity when Miyan’s blessings will suffice.  Kalkaji’s great claim to fame is that it has, in the hands of Miyan Kamruddin Samrat, become the one stop shopping center for life’s problems.  Miyan Kamruddin has issued an “All India Open Challenge” that he will find the resolution to your problems within seven hours.  Why seven I cannot say, as I am not aware of the significance of seven in Indian numerology. Or perhaps Miyan just happened to watch a pirated copy of the “Seven Year Itch” before he issued his challenge?  Heck, seven’s as good a number as any.

I marvel at Miyan’s ingenuity and his sparkling imagination.  For someone who sits near one of the dozens of humdrum “Aggrawal Sweets” sprinkled generously through the thoroughfares and neighborhoods of Delhi, he’s aiming to beat the Deepak Chopras of the world at their game.  No seven steps to success are required, only a stop by the great mall of solutions.  Krishna in the Gita was unequivocal:  come to me, surrender to me, he said, and you shall have bliss.  “Whatever you want, you get it”, says Miyan:  “My promiss.” Truly is Miyan a Samrat, ruler of the world.  Miyan is even familiar with the wicked stepmother syndrome, so those like Cinderella trapped as a consequence of their father’s second or third marriage need not despair.  The return to the mother’s bosom may not be possible, but Miyan is there to give succor to wounded ones.  Miyan is evidently also familiar with the charms mentioned in the Atharva Veda, as much as in medieval European manuals, to trick one’s enemies.

Miyan, most of all, is an equal opportunity employer.  He doesn’t only cater to men who believe that sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS.  Quite to the contrary, it’s time to recognize the world for what it is:  we ditch some, we get ditched some.  Thus this admixture of realism and optimism:  “Meet Once Lover, Who Are Ditched by Each Other.”

One-Stop Shopping for Life's Myriad Problems

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, Almost: George Bush in India, Again

One would not know from reading American newspapers that George Bush —  who has become, we are (not altogether convincingly) told, something of a pariah in many parts of the world — had a second triumphal visit to India last week.  It would certainly be safe to say that Bush has been keeping a rather low profile since he left the White House in January.  Many of those who voted for Obama did so from the conviction that America had seldom had so poor a President as Bush.   Whatever the limitations of every other candidate, many people were altogether clear in their mind that Bush and the doctrines that he embraced had to be jettisoned.  Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize conferred so strangely upon Obama has also been understood as a repudiation of Bush even more so than as an affirmation of anything that Obama might have done, other than bringing some degree of intelligence and honesty, as well as reasonable command over the English language, to the most powerful office in the world, that of the Presidency of the United States of America.

In the ten months since Bush relinquished the Presidency, he has made only two overseas trips, to South Korea and India.  He is not likely to receive a warm welcome in most European capitals.  His presence is everywhere a liability to the political leadership, except in India.  His state visit to India in 2006, though predictably and for good reasons opposed by many intelligent people, was nevertheless viewed in India and among Republicans as a considerable success.  On the present trip, Bush not only met with a slate of government officials, business executives, and policy types, but he also addressed the annual “Leadership Summit” hosted by the Hindustan Times.  No one, apparently, found it incongruous that Bush should have been pontificating on, of all things, leadership:  of course Bush would say that he knows a thing or two about leadership, among them how to bring a country to ruins, or how to push a reluctant world into a tumultuous war.  If Indian newspapers accounts are to be believed, Bush received a standing ovation both as he came striding into the hall and as he emerged from it after sharing his wisdom with a fawning crowd.

There is but little question that the United States remains the middle class Indian’s idea of the good life.   Many commentators in India are inclined to argue that Bush, moreover, is the best American friend that India has ever had, certainly the American President most receptive to India’s aspirations.   Whatever his hostility to the countries that to him represented ‘evil’, Indians are aware that Bush never doubted that India fell on the good side of the divide.  It is commonly supposed that Bush endeared himself to India’s politicians and elite with his energetic support for the civil nuclear cooperation agreement that was finally pushed through months before he left office.  Bush respected the integrity of India’s ambitions in this and other domains and, as Manmohan Singh gratefully acknowledged, was instrumental in putting an “end [to] India’s nuclear apartheid.”

There is, however, much more to the embrace of Bush found in India’s business and political circles than the hand of friendship offered by him to India.  In a cliché-ridden world, Bush found much truth in the idea that the world’s two largest democracies should be friends rather than adversaries.  In his address last week, he unabashedly pronounced India “a force for stability and peace in one of the most strategically important regions in the world.”  Bush’s simple-mindedness, many Indians are inclined to think, makes him capable of seeing things that Obama, brewing over the decisions that have to be made, overlooks.  In a strange way, Obama is more versed in realpolitik than Bush.  Both Bush and Obama, in their own ways, have taken the high moral ground, but Obama is, from the Indian standpoint, worrisome.  Obama is seen as a proponent of a nuclear hierarchy, though of course his positions are couched in the language of respect for international law (including the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which India is not a signatory), and the intelligence he brings to his job conjoined to his notions of moral probity makes him unusually dangerous.

That Bush should have been so warmly welcomed on the eve of Manmohan Singh’s state visit to the United States tells yet another story, a story of the strands of individualism and resistance that luckily have never disappeared from the Indian landscape. I should like to say as well that Obama has been amply warned that a way with words will not earn him much mileage in a verbose culture.  When diplomacy perhaps demanded that Bush should have been kept at arm’s length, and certainly not been given access to political leaders, Indians did the very opposite. This, perhaps, is the saving grace of Bush’s visit to India.

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For the text of Bush’s speech at the State Dinner in his honor at Rashtrapati Bhavan (The Presidential Palace) in 2006, see the companion post on this blog entitled ‘My Man Mohan:  Dons of Democracies at Dinner Together’, 10 November 2009).

*My Man Mohan: Dons of Democracies at Dinner Together

Here is the text of President Bush’s Speech at the State Dinner in his honor at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, 3 March 2006 (reprinted with slight modifications from OUTLOOK, Web edition, 28 February-6 March 2006 issue, where it appeared as ‘I Believe in Big Dreams’):
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Your Excellency, the President of the Republic of Pakistan; Mr. Man Mohan Singh, Prime Minister; and all other Indians

(Whispers from an aide:   Republic of India, Mr. President, not Pakistan.)

I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, I did mean to say the Islamic Republic of India.  I just couldn’t remember where Air Force One was first supposed to land.  I am mighty pleased to be in this great country of yours and I thank My Man Mohan for his kind invitation from the bottom of my heart.   That great state of Texas where I come from is really heart county, we’ve got very big hearts, and I believe that some of your country’s great politicians have come down there to get their hearts fixed.  Would you believe it, but surgery may also be linking our great countries together.

Now my predecessor Bill Clinton — God bless him, his family and ours are getting cosier and cosier by the day, though I do wonder if I’ll ever be able to hold Hilary to my bosom — so my predecessor, on coming to your great country some years ago, said that it had always been his childhood dream to visit India.  Now I have to admit that I never had any such childhood dream.  It’s not that I didn’t have a childhood, indeed I know that some people think I never ceased being a child.   And I do dream — that great American, King’s his name, said you should dream from the mountain-top.  And like King, I believe in big dreams.  I never had the kind of dream that Bill Clinton did because, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I never heard of India when I was a child.  You know they say that old habits die hard, and I never did leave behind the habit of not reading books.   You all know that I don’t read much of newspapers or reports, my advisers do that.  That’s why I’m President, you see, I don’t get to read anything.  But let me again thank Man Mohan Singh.  I knew about the political dynasties you’ve had, the father-daughter, daughter-son, husband-wife, father-grandson, great great grandfather-boy teams, the Gandhis, Nehrus, and even people I’d never heard of before, the Lallus and Yadavs, but I had hadn’t heard of the Mohan dynasty.  I guess I should have thought of it, given that both Mohan Das Gandhi and Man Mohan Singh had some kind of turban on their head.   I might not like to read much, but I sure do like picture books, and I’ve seen pictures of Gandhi when he wore a turban.

Condi told me all about the great country of India on the long journey on board.  I mean, there’s only so much sleeping that even a President can do.  We in America, and especially in Texas, know a thing or two about Indians.  Condi did tell me that that I shouldn’t be talking of teepees, face paint, feathers, squaws, bows and arrows, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull.  Some of that Indian culture has definitely left its mark on the youth of America today:  I do know that the paint is no longer applied to the face, but to the hands.  So I guess that’s why Condi didn’t want me to talk about face paint.  You in India have a great civilization, but it all really began in America.  Somewhere in the history book that was read to me it says that the Indians crossed over some body of water, I think it’s called the Berring Curve, and that was some 10,000 years ago.  That was a long time ago, and I really don’t know why many people continue to say that we in America have a very short history.  I now, and yes its’s true, and I have to admit, that there aren’t many Indians left in America, but most of them, you all know, died of diseases.  I guess it must be genetics, since I hear that you Indians are still dying of many diseases. But, truth be told, it’s not at all a bad thing that there aren’t many Indians in America.  There are over a billion of you in India, and my population experts told me that every sixth person in the world is an Indian.  That’s awesome.  Now if nature hadn’t done her work in America — God bless nature, always giving us global warmth and comfort — the Indians in America would have multiplied as fast as you have, and every fourth person in the world would be an Indian.  If you all believe in multiculturalism and diversity as much as I do, you have to agree that it’s a good thing that we don’t have so many Indians in America.  And the ones that are here, well they are in places that we call reservations where they can’t be seen.  It took me some time to understand why the Indians were called an invisible minority and why they seemed kinda upset.  So you see you just reserve special spots for minorities, but we being an older and more experienced democracy, we actually have a special place for them that we call reservations.  Isn’t that something?

As I said, it’s a great honor for me to be in India, another great home of multiculturalism.  This beautiful lady to my right — well, not quite, since no one is really to my right, except perhaps Pat Robertson, Tom De Lay (and he’s not part of my delegation, being on a delayed schedule) and that other Bill, Frist —  well, this elegant lady who’s from Italy and I’m told is something like an invisible hand running this country (why, it seems whenever we speak of India, we run into invisible people and invisible hands) – well, she’s Roman Catholic.  Man Mohan Singh is Sikh, which I’m told is said the same way we say sick, though why they call him that I sure don’t know, since he seems to be in really good shape, even without going biking, fishing, golfing, clearing the brush, and hunting.  What a life one has as President!  There’s no end of outdoor activity, I tell you.  And the President of your Republic, well, I was sort of shocked to know that he’s a Muslim, though Runny and Condi told me he’s a Hindu kind of Muslim, which really does sound so wonderful.  He reads a sacred text called the Bhagavad Gita, does yoga, doesn’t eat meat, and doesn’t like violence very much.  I mean, either you’re a Hindu, or a Muslim; either you’re with the Hindus, or with the Muslims.  Since we’re on the subject of Muslims, let me say what is one of the main things that brings me to this great country of yours.  Somehow, you’ll pardon me for saying so, when we get to talk about Muslims, we can’t seem to get away from killings, and passion, and violence, and all that stuff.   Now let me be very clear.  I know, though I don’t have any close Moslem friends, that Islam is a religion of peace, and most Moslems, like all Americans, are peace-loving people.  Now I might not read, but I sure do look at the funnies every morning.  Some days ago I heard about this huge fuss — people call it a ruckus, but I believe in plain language — over these Danish cartoons.  These Danish cartoons of Muhammad have got them Muslims stirring again.  In the war room at the White House, we have a large wall map of the world and all those strategic places that are of great interest to us from the standpoint of American national security are clearly marked.  I don’t know much about Denmark, but the White House geographer showed me this country and I couldn’t really figure out how Muhammad got to Denmark.  Now our Librarian of Congress who was present said something about not all being well in the state of Denmark, and when I asked him what he meant, he said it was a literary allusion to some play about a King of Denmark by that great Brit, Shakespeare.  He sure did shake up the world, and that too without a spear.  He only used a pen.  I finally realize, while I’m talking to you, why we always got this question in school, whether the pen was mightier than the sword.  I thought it was a rather daft thing to think that the pen could be mightier than the sword, but both Shakespeare and this Danish cartoons mess makes me think that I should rethink my position.  I hope you do realize what this means:  some people allege that thinking is not my strong suit, but I’m actually a man of very firm opinions.  I’d rather think than re-think.  We Americans are greater inventors, always coming up with new stuff.  Why rehash what’s around?  I’m not known for re-thinking anything, but God’s ways are mysterious.

Everyone knows me as a very focused person, but I’ve been really distracted today.  It must have something to do with being in India.  Our Librarian of Congress, and we have a mighty fine library in Congress, not that I’ve ever been to it, had been speaking of literary allusions.  Now I mean most of us have illusions, and in that special briefing I got on India they said that Hindus believe that the whole word is an illusion, that nothing’s real.  They even have a special word for it, they call it MAYA, although I always thought that was a Russian woman’s name.  Let me reassure Laura that I never knew any Maya.  We in America, and that must be our Indian heritage, know a thing or two about illusions too.  We never did find those weapons of mass destruction, but believe me, they’re not an illusion.  They’re there.  I’d compare these weapons of mass destruction with an onion.  You notice how many layers there are to an Indian?  I meant an onion.  You keep on peeling off layer after layer, but as you get closer to the truth, to the onion’s center, your eyes start to water.  I haven’t peeled an onion in years, but I know that for  a fact.  Yes, Sir, there are ugly facts in this world, and it’s a fact that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but our inspectors’ eyes started to water when they got close to discovering the truth.  We never found the weapons because we threw out the baby with the bath water.

So let me return to the subject of Muslims and say some words about why I’m here today.  I was told by Condi that some Muhammad fellow came to India some 1000 years ago, tore apart a Som-nose temple, and that you’ve been smarting ever since.  Your neighboring country, the one you all don’t get along with too well, even named one of its missiles after that place from where he came, Gas-ni or something.  Mean thing to do, I’d say.  You can see how Eye-raq and Afghanistan are both linked:  weapons of mass destruction and gas-ni (which must be really another way of saying gas-nose) are part of their common history.  So whether Mohamed is on cartoons or on missiles, I guess the trouble never ends.  I know that your leaders were telling us that you had plenty of experience with Moslems, but we weren’t inclined to listen to you.  We’ve got to continue to cooperate to hunt down those terrorists of al-Qaeda.  Many of them, I hear, are holed up in Pakistan.  That worst snake of all — he’s a coward, won’t come out in the open, bin Laden, well he just disappeared on us and has become invisible.  There we go again, I hope you all now understand what I meant when I said that there’s something about India and the word invisible that makes them go together.  The whole point of my trip is to change that, to put India on the map.  Wasn’t India where they had the disappearing rope trick?  I seem to remember something of that sort from the magic show I saw at the White House the day the Twin Towers slowly disappeared from the TV screen.  I am convinced that the power of illusion is truly great.   The War on Terror must go on, and I know that the partnership of our two great countries will be a model for the rest of the world.  Think of all the ways in which we complement each other:  you greet us with folded hands, we stretch out our hands in a firm (well, mostly firm, except for the kind of guys you see in “Heartbreak Mountain”) handshake; you venerate the cow, we love to eat it; your guys are up while we’re asleep; you think with your brain, we think with our bodies.

Our two great countries are on the verge of a special relationship.  Thanks to the Brits, we speak the same language.  Funny thing, that special report I got on your country had a little history lesson, and it said that a general called Cornwallis from Cornwall who was defeated soundly by our General Washington then went on to India.  They wanted a man of experience to spread democracy around the world.  Well, we’re both democracies now.  You have a President, and so do we — that’s me.  People who’ve been studying this kind of thing, you know democracies around the world — and they’re increasing, just look at Iraq, look at those turbaned Afghan women so eager to vote, and freedom’s on the march — say that the big difference is that your President is actually a figurehead.  Many of my critics have said that I’m a figurehead as well and for once my critics are right.  They were wrong about WMD, they were wrong about whether those Arabs would take to democracy like fish to oil, and they’ve been wrong about doggone everything else, except for one thing.  It really is Dickhead Cheney who’s running my government, and he did a very good job of it largely cause we kept him in hiding, just like Bill Laden.  My Dick is really good at nearly everything — he gets the contracts to the right people, wears a pacemaker — you know, I’m a great believer in going at the pace that our Maker set for me, in bed by nine o’clock sharp — and even knows how to fire a gun.  I’m sure you’ve all heard of this expression, Lame Duck President, but it goes to show that our reporters do not always adhere to the high standards that we expect of them.   Dick’s always had a preference for quail, not ducks.  And he’s too manly to shoot at lame ones.  I never did think of it before, but I wonder what happened to that other Quail, you know the guy who was Dick’s earlier incarnation under Ronnie?

Well, your excellencies and friends, I think I’ve gone on long enough.   We’ve got lot of important issues to talk about over the next two days of my visit, and that’s why I brought along my entire team.  God bless you all.

*Skin-deep in South Africa: Some Reflections on Anthony Fabian’s ‘Skin’

For a film on skin color and the politics of race in apartheid South Africa, Anthony Fabian’s newly released “Skin” goes, it seems, only skin-deep into what could have been a most arresting set of questions.  Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing, a girl of colored appearance born to white parents in the South Africa of the 1960s, when apartheid reigned supreme.  Though classified at birth as white, Sandra’s “colored” looks incline the white community to treat her as a colored person rather than as one of their own.  At the onset of the film, we see Sandra and her brother Leonore being driven to a boarding school for white children.  Before too long, the headmaster summons Sandra’s parents and insists that she be taken back home:  she is too much of a distraction.  Her father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill), is wholly resistant to the idea:  as she has been classified white, she must, in his view, be admitted to all the privileges of white people.  But, as the movie progresses, it becomes all too apparent that he is driven not merely by a sense of securing justice or privileges for his daughter.  Could it be, he wonders, whether his wife Sannie (Alice Krige) was unfaithful to him?  The rumors flying around furiously must be quelled.   The headmaster succeeds in having Sandra re-classified as ‘colored’, whereupon Abraham becomes resolutely dedicated to having her classification restored to ‘white’.

In a moving scene, Sandra and her parents are summoned before a racial classification board.  The race expert, if we may call him that, calculates the ratio of her hips to her waits, and with a ruler takes the measurement of the width of her forehead; putting a pencil through her hair, he asks Sandra to shake her head to determine whether the curls can restrain the pencil and prevent it from falling out.  All this passed for ‘science’, a holdover from the days when colonial regimes routinely deployed anthropometry and craniology to establish racial and social hierarchies.  Desperate to establish the white credentials of his family, Abraham Laing has the matter taken to South Africa’s Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that Sandra’s appearance can be explained through her ‘polygenetic inheritance’.  Indeed, says the geneticist to gasps from the white audience, nearly all Afrikaners have some black genes – nor should this be surprising, considering how, much as in the United States, where white slave-owners routinely bedded their black women slaves, white men readily took black women to bed while otherwise declaring that complete segregation between the races was the law of nature.  Abraham’s hopes are crushed when the re-classification of colored for Sandra is nevertheless reaffirmed; but the passage of Parliamentary legislation decreeing that children born of white parents must be classified as white eventually makes him declare victory.

Several years have elapsed as the film moves into the next sequence of events.  Sandra has matured into a young woman and is now back home, awaiting the appearance of a suitable suitor.  Abraham Laing’s repeated attempts to match Sandra to a white man are the desperate gestures of a man whose attachment to whiteness is assumed by the filmmaker, but never probed.   What is there to be probed, one might ask:  is it not evident that ‘whiteness’ confers privileges, and in a profoundly hierarchical society is the principal passport to security, sustenance, and comforts?  Sandra, however, has set her eyes on a black man, a mere vendor of vegetables and busboy.  One senses that the immense struggles to claim whiteness have taken their toll of Sandra.  She has certainly been transformed to the point where her father can no longer recognize her.  Returning from a sexual rendezvous with her lover, she is discovered in the act and confined to her room.  Throughout, her mother has been the emotional bulwark of her life; but now, facing the fury of the law of the father, even Sandra’s mother reprimands her for her unconscionable behavior.  Many a film has gone that way:  the father represents the harsh customs of patriarchy, the mother strives valiantly to soften the blows inflicted by the father and cushion her children from the corrosive effects of the relentless display of a domineering masculinity.  Sandra elopes; the lovers are hunted down; thrown into jail, Sandra is released into the custody of her parents but rejects them – when her father pleads with her to return to them, she asks if they will accept the baby she has had with her black lover, Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge).  Her father moves away dejectedly, and she leaves with her lover.  Their baby is born, but Petrus soon shows all the marks of the possessive husband.  There is no Iago scheming fatally to alienate Othello against Desdemona:  no such histrionics are required, since Petrus is little more than a small-minded lazy native.  A second baby comes along, but by this time Petrus is well on the way to spending much of his time with the booze bottle.  Years later, Sandra will walk away from her abusive husband, as she walked away from home:  as she climbs up the hill, her two adolescent children in tow, dawn breaks upon Johannesburg.

Just what is the heart of whiteness?  Where is the heart of the whiteness that has no heart?  And, yet, sunk in its darkness, whiteness is still inescapably desirable to others.  We all have heard of creams to lighten the skin color, and there are innumerable ‘home remedies’ to scrub away the darkness.  One such remedy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals and cleansers, makes Sandra’s skin erupt into boils.  This is the nearly ineradicable poison wrought by apartheid and racial ideology.   One of the many pillars of whiteness in South Africa was the Byzantine system of classification, enforced through a maze of written and unwritten laws.   Though white and classified as such, Sandra is reclassified as colored at the instance of the school headmaster, and her father wages what purports to be a heroic struggle to reclassify her yet again as colored.  His success is short-lived:  seeking acceptance among black people, Sandra seeks — shockingly, valiantly, inexplicably — to undo her privileges and seeks reclassification as colored.  A visit to the government office charged with such matters reveals that Sandra cannot will herself into extinction as a white person.  That the state should find objectionable the efforts of colored people to prove themselves white comes as no surprise, but perhaps even more objectionable, in principle, is the apostasy of those who disown the ancestral privileges of race.  Perhaps there is enough in the film’s scenes to point to the filmmaker’s recognition of the oppressive ostentatiousness of classificatory schemes, but nevertheless I had the feeling that the politics of classification is insufficiently probed in “Skin”.

In the aftermath of the end of the apartheid, the film moves to a closure by reuniting Sandra with her mother.  Her father has long since been dead; for some twenty odd years, Sandra has been separated from her mother.   Women are the only strong characters in “Skin”:  the men are morally crippled by patriarchy, energized only by authority, and confined in their actions by a maze of laws and the force of custom.   Everyone’s focus will perhaps be riveted upon Sandra’s father, but there is no more pathetic creature than her older brother.  Protective of his sister, he turns, suddenly and ferociously, against her when their father tries to hunt her down after her elopement.   Abraham and Leonore make a huge bonfire of everything that might remind them that Sandra is part of the family.  Fire is cleansing and redemptive, and men are incapable of moral reflection. The film makes the attempt, but only inconsequentially so, in putting forth the idea that the authority of the state and the paternalism of the father are born of the same seed to dominate.  No new ground is being tread here, and even the idea of the quiet but strong and determined woman, whose inner strength prevails against all odds, who knows no end of oppression, has now been encountered often enough to constitute a predictable trope of what might be called movies in the ‘inspirational’ mode.  Sandra has weathered many a storm, and the viewer feels relieved at what is evidently her quiet triumph.  One wishes only that the story of the new South Africa were more congruent with this flash of inspiration.

*“Hosay” in Trinidad: Political Unrest and Solidarity in a Plantation Society

On 30 October 1884, two police firings in San Fernando, Trinidad, wounded over one hundred Indians and took the lives of perhaps as many as 20 people.  As the 125th anniversary of the infamous ‘Muharram Massacre’ is upon us, it is perhaps well to consider the circumstances that led to the killings and what they might suggest about racial and working-class politics down to the present day.

The circumstances under which Indians began to arrive in Trinidad in 1845 are now widely known.  The price of black labor had risen after the emancipation of slaves in 1838, and indentured labor from India, a British colony, was viewed by plantation owners and government officials in Trinidad (and the Caribbean) as the most expeditious way of undermining free black labor and keeping the sugar plantations running at a profit.  As the Port of Spain Gazette noted with optimism in its issue of 30 May 1845, “when the labourers (Negroes) are informed that there are countless thousands of these people inured to tropical labour, and the heat of a tropical climate, starving in their own country, and most willing to immigrate to this, it may be the means of opening their eyes a little to the necessity of working more steadily and giving greater satisfaction to their employers.”

The story of the Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Trinidadian divide is, happily, not the subject of my present ruminations.  As a number of scholars have argued, Muharram [or Hosay, from Hussein or Husayn, as it came to be known in the British Caribbean] was well established in Trinidad from the outset of Indian indentured immigration as a religious and cultural festival that bridged what might otherwise have been marked differences within the growing Indian community.  Though Muharram is a re-enactment of the events that led to the death of Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandsons, during the struggles over the succession to the Prophet, Hindu participation in the Muharram rites has been widely documented.  If in India Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh, had no compunction in having the raslila, the eternal play of Krishna, performed at his court, it should not be surprising that Hindus should have thought nothing of their involvement in the Muharram rites.

In Trinidad, however, matters had gone much further, as black people were also reasonably well invested in Muharram celebrations.  Kelvin Singh, author of Bloodstained TombsThe Muharram Massacre 1884 (1988), argues that “Negro involvement in the celebrations” has been well documented from the 1850s onwards.  To some European observers, black people were inclined to gravitate towards a ‘fete’, whenever and wherever it might be held; others took the view that the ancestral drumming of Negroes drew them to the tassa drumming that is so characteristic a feature of the Muharram celebrations.

In 1884, the colonial government took the decision to ban Muharram processions from the principal urban areas.  Kelvin Singh is among those scholars who has argued that the ban had little to do with Muharram celebrations themselves, and was rather impelled by other considerations, for instance by concern over industrial unrest.  Such unrest had been prominent in the previous year, and the falling price of sugar had heightened the misery of workers.  Displays of solidarity among workers were never welcome.  One cannot doubt, however, that colonial authorities also feared that the Negro, typecast as a lazy and undisciplined person, might come to exercise a nefarious influence over the “effeminate Hindu” and “fanatic Muslim”; moreover, in standing together in a common cause, Hindus and Muslims threatened to overturn another article of faith ever present in colonial thought, namely the idea that adherents of these two religions were bound together in a struggle to death that only a transcendent and rational force such as represented by the Englishman could avert, diverting that volatile energy into less hostile channels.

Sookhooo and 31 others petitioned the governor when the ban was put into effect.  The Government response, in part, was to argue that non-Indians had no place in an Indian festival; and that Hindus, similarly, could claim no entitlements with respect to a Muslim religious rite.  At Cipero Street, Mr. Child, the Magistrate, read the Riot Act in English to a large crowd comprised largely of illiterate people.  Even Major Bowles, who headed a contingent of soldiers, could not hear the Act being read out; but the volleys unleashed at the orders of Mr. Child mowed down many of the men gathered in defiance of the ban.  At the Mon Repos junction, the ‘Riot Act’ was again ‘read out’, whatever that might mean, and amidst the chanting and the tassa drumming the firing commenced and took its deadly toll.  The British could congratulate themselves that ‘law and order’ had been restored:  as the Port of Spain Gazette cheerfully editorialized about the firings on 8 November 1884, “this lesson may have a salutary effect not only on coolies but also on the heterogeneous collections of loafers, prostitutes, roughs, rogues and vagabonds which infest our two towns.”

As the Muharram massacre of 1884 in Trinidad suggests, the idea that such supposedly disparate groups as Hindus, Muslims, and Negroes could find common cause was nothing less than anathema to the state.  The Muharram celebrations never recovered ground as the preeminent festival rite of Trinidad, and diminished in importance over the years; nevertheless, the sheer survival of Hosay suggests that, notwithstanding the state’s quest to deploy the discourse of ‘law and order’, the voice of workers can never be entirely suppressed.

*The Trial of Ezra Nawi, Israeli Plumber and Peace Activist

Kafka may have been on to something:  there is something surreal about most political trials.  An Israeli court last week sentenced the Israeli peace activist Ezra Nawi to a month in prison on charges that are widely believed to be fabricated.  Another part of the sentence condemns Nawi to a further six-month term in prison if he is caught in violation of the law in the occupied territories over the course of the next three years.

Though Nawi has been a life-long advocate of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, earlier this year he was convicted by a court that held him guilty of assaulting two police officers.  Thousands of letters – some say as many as 140,000 – in support of Nawi were supposed to have been delivered to Israeli officials at the Ministry of Justice, and sentencing was delayed for two months.  After sentencing was passed on him last week, Nawi again spoke up:  “The court has been permitting the occupation for years, they are trying to stop me at all costs. The judge doesn’t scare me, and neither does the 30-day sentence. This is testimonium paupertatis [testimony to the paucity of evidence; tacit admission of ignorance] to the court, I tried to stop criminal activity, and I ended up having to pay two officers who acted brutally. This is the Israeli reality.”

Nawi has described well the ugly reality of Israel’s brutalization of the occupied territories.  Nawi was protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home in Um El Hir, in the southern part of the West Bank, and the video of the demolition and Nawi’s dignified protest is a haunting reminder of what the peace activist is up against in Palestine.  As the bulldozer comes knocking down a home, Nawi is taken into custody and his hands are tied together.  I too was a soldier in Russia, he tells the young Israeli soldiers, “but I didn’t demolish houses.”  As he is hauled into a truck, Nawi is heard telling the laughing soldiers, “The only thing that will be left here is hatred.”  Why, he asks the young men, should they find the plight of children who are left without a roof over their head funny?

In the last phase of the US presidential race in 2008, ‘Joe the Plumber’ surfaced to redirect attention to John McCain’s supposed affinities with the ‘common man’.  ‘Joe the Plumber’ was never quite the plumber, but the same cannot be said of Nawi:  he makes his living as a plumber and has, one might say, dignified not only his profession but the Israeli peace activist who comes from a Mizrahi Jewish working-class background.  The Mizrahi Jew, from the point of view of the (Ashkenazi) elites of the Israeli state, is not quite an authentic specimen of the Jewish religion.  If the Muslim of the Indian sub-continent is held by the purists to have been contaminated by the close proximity to Hindus over centuries, so the Mizrahi Jew is believed to have been contaminated by his Middle East or Central Asian origins in Muslim-majority lands.  Though Nawi is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Judge Eilata Ziskind ordered a translator to be present at Nawi’s sentencing – as though Nawi could not understand Hebrew.  Humans are wonderfully inventive in inflicting humiliation upon others and insinuating orders of hierarchy.

The trial, conviction, and sentencing of Nawi illustrate the depth of the moral corruption in the state of Israel.  The policemen who accused him of assaulting them are, Nawi states, “lying, [and] lying has become common within the Israeli police force, military and among the Jewish settlers.” One cannot say when the guns will be silenced, the bulldozers put to rest:  but if and when that occurs, Israel will find the rot to have spread far and wide into the veins of its society.  It takes a plumber to say that.