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The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III

Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC.  I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out.   But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”?  Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.”  Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.

I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s.  The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal.  Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.

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Dick Gregory at Ohio University, Feb 1968.

It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts.  Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing.  This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say:  “There seemed few causes he would not embrace.  He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”

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Dick Gregory with Muhammad Ali.

Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so.  There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.

Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance.  Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing.  But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon.  One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.

Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting.  His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition.  One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.

Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family.  The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene.  This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed.  But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive.  On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this:  “Segregation is not all bad.  Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”  Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer.  Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked:  “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months.  When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

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Dick and Lillian Gregory; they married in 1959.  She survives him.

So rich a life, so much to write about.  He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories.  One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them.  And yet Gregory was magnificently funny.  One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’.  A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this.  “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?”  Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’.  One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”  But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown:  “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”

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For something like two minutes, the town of Madras, Oregon, which fell on what scientists call “the path of totality”, descended into complete darkness on the morning of August 21 before being blanketed by the sun’s rays.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

This composite image shows the progression of a total solar eclipse over Madras, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.  The total eclipse started at 10:19 AM and lasted 2 minutes 2 seconds.  Source of image:  NASA.

It was surreal enough watching a solar eclipse unfold on one’s television screen; those who were present, whether in Madras or at places on “the path of totality”, have described themselves on social media sites as feeling thrilled, awe-struck, and privileged.  The usual words and phrases—“historic” or “once in a lifetime’s opportunity”—have been trumpeted by hundreds of thousands, but it will take some more reflection and the imagination of a poet to describe just what it is that generated such elation.  Meanwhile, there were some comic moments:  on one of the main American network channels, where viewers were constantly being reminded that looking at the eclipse with one’s naked eyes could lead to blindness, one anchor, speaking in great earnestness, assured his television viewers that watching the phenomenon on the screen was perfectly safe.  We need not run for the fire extinguisher in our home next time we see a blazing fire on the television screen.

It is said that those brief all too brief moments when the sun is completely blanked out before daylight again resumes throw animals into confusion.  “Giraffes and zebras at the Nashville Zoo were freaked out by Monday’s solar eclipse”, according to an article in the New York Post, “and went running wildly around their enclosures after the sky went dark.”  Shrieking crowds may have contributed to the animals’ erratic behavior, the article acknowledges, but during previous eclipses stories have been reported about spiders dismantling their webs and birds falling silent.

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Flamingoes During the Eclipse, at the Nashville Zoo.  Source:  https://en.mogaznews.com/World-News/634491

What came to my mind, however, on watching the solar eclipse was one of the most engaging if morally troubling stories from the Mahabharata, a story that remarkably invokes a false sunset and tells of another sort of confusion in the minds of men.  On the thirteenth day of the war, the young Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, is commanded by Yudhisthira to break the lotus formation into which the army of the composing camp, led by Duryodhana, has been formed.  Abhimanyu complies, if hesitatingly:  though ably instructed by his father on how to enter the formation, he has not been taught adequately about how to exit the maze.  And it is in this maze that the young warrior, more splendrous than the sun itself, meets his death.  Jayadratha—the ruler of Sindhu, son-in-law of Dhritarashtra, and a close ally of Duryodhana—moves his forces and seals the breaches, preventing reinforcements from helping Abhimanyu.  There are no pure victors or losers in the epic, as its readers know, and the Pandavas are scarcely without their blemishes; nevertheless, the greater cowardice is on the side of Duryodhana and his friends.  Thus their greatest and most seasoned warriors—Drona, Kripa, Aswathama, Karna, and others—all pounce on the young Abhimanyu and partake in his death.

Returning to camp that evening, Arjuna is apprised of the circumstances under which his son was killed. He at once takes a vow (and I quote here from R. K. Narayana’s Mahabharata, Chapter 15), “I swear that I shall kill Jayadratha, who trapped him [Abhimanyu], before the sun sets tomorrow.”  The following day, Jayadratha does what any man in his position would do:  knowing that he is no match for Arjuna, and considering too—what cannot be discussed at this juncture—the imperative to abide by one’s vow, Jayadratha wisely absents himself from the battlefield and “shelters behind a fortress of chariots, elephants, horsemen, and soldiers until late evening.”  What transpires next is best relayed in the simple if elegant rendering of the story by Narayana:

Arjuna battled his way through and reached Jayadratha, who was anxiously watching the western sky for the sun to set. The sky darkened and Jayadratha, feeling certain that he had passed Arjuna’s time limit, emerged from his shelter, whereupon Arjuna felled him with a single arrow.  Now the skies brightened again. It was still daylight; a false sunset had been created by Krishna, holding up his discus against the sun. He had adopted this strategy as it seemed to him the only way to bring Jayadratha out of hiding, and end that terrible day’s events.

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Krishna holds up his discus agains the sun; a false sunset lures Jayadratha from hiding and leads to his death.

We know, of course, that the Hindu nationalist brigade, led by the Prime Minister himself, will immediately summon the story as an insurmountable piece of evidence in support of the argument that every modern scientific advance is already anticipated in the Vedas and the capacious corpus of Sanskrit scientific knowledge.  Aryabhatta certainly knew a thing or two about eclipses and his computations of lunar eclipses were not far off the mark.

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The mathematician-astronomer, Aryabhatta (475-550 CE).

But, leaving aside such excursions into “Vedic science”, the story of the false sunset that killed Jayadratha attracts for many more compelling reasons.  Krishna’s machinations have long been the subject of discussions in Indian homes, among scholars and students of the Mahabharata, and in Indian folklore. Jayadratha, Karna, Duryodhana: Krishna plays a questionable role in advancing the death of each of these Kaurava heroes.  The story of Jayadratha suggests amply why the Mahabharata remains the supreme vehicle for discussing the contours and slippery nature of dharma.  Was Jayadratha simply deceived into death?  Was his life to be undone so that others could live? Might dharma require an ignoble deed if only to seed something nobler?  Why do we frequently mistake something for what it is not?

At least a few commentators have commented on the appositeness of the United States being witness to a complete solar eclipse after several decades at a moment in the country’s history when moral values that are alleged to have guided the country thus far seem to have greatly eroded.  Many people are thinking of the “darkness” that has enveloped the country.  But perhaps this metaphor is too easily available and should be resisted.  Perhaps those who are all too certain that what is presently transpiring in the US does not reflect the “real America” know too little about the history of their country.  I think that we would be better served, when reflecting upon the solar eclipse, in asking why it is that stories about the confusion in the minds of animals proliferate when it is the confusion in the minds of men that is far more striking.  Is the solar eclipse, the false sunset, yet another allegory about the twisted play of the real and the apparent in human lives?

 

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The New York Times in an editorial piece published on July 1, under the title “Mr. Trump, Melting Under Criticism,” has weighed in on Mr. Trump’s Twitter War, most recently on the MSNBC co-hosts Joe Scarborough and (especially) Mika Brzezinski, with the observation that the President of the United States “does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself” (emphasis added).  This is in reference, of course, to his tweet about “low I.Q. crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe”, and his characterization of Ms. Brzezinski as “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” TrumpMorningJoeTweet

The ‘venerable’ Times laments, as do many other media outlets and perhaps considerable segments of the American population, the “creepy misogyny”, cyberbullying, and the pathetic boasts of sexual prowess that have informed the conduct of Mr. Trump since before he assumed office and which have shown no signs of diminishing since he was installed in the White House.  However, the New York Times ends the piece with a wholly predictable piece of humbug, which is an illustration if nothing else of the limits of this newspaper’s imagination.  Inquiring if the “etiquette of professional wrestling and reality television truly pass as acceptable for the Oval Office”, the paper’s editors affirms that “the breadth and depth of bipartisan repugnance for this president’s insults suggests, thankfully, that the answer may prove to be no.”

 

The phrase “bipartisan repugnance” is itself a species of charlatanism, assuming as it does that “bipartisanship” is the gold standard from which the present generation of American politicians have regrettably departed.  The democrats have deviated so far over the last several decades from any kind of politics where social equality is at all meaningful that to speak of “bipartisanship” in this vein is to show not an iota of awareness of the fact that the masquerade of a single political party posturing as two is the critical problem in American politics.  But let us leave aside this weighty matter for another one which may suggest why a man charged with sexual harassment and worse by at least fifteen women did not only not have to pay any price for his reprehensible conduct but rather was rewarded by being elected to the highest office in the country.  The import of this may perhaps be understood when we reflect on the fact that the recently exonerated Bill Cosby, whose own sordid saga of gross sexual misconduct has been played out in the press in vivid detail, felt emboldened enough to state that he would go on tour and conduct “town halls” where he would instruct young men on how to avoid accusations of sexual conduct.  Mr. Cosby is nowadays described as a “disgraced comedian”, but evidently he was not disgraced enough, not if he had the temerity to counsel young men on how they might take advantage of women and avoid the risk of accusation.  This last act of the “comedian” would be comic if it were not so repulsive.

 

Let us return, then, to the sentence on which so much pivots: “He [Trump] does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself.”  Feminists are not alone in pointing out that Mr. Trump appears to take special delight in demeaning women, and many will point to the apparent tolerance for such conduct as an indication of the deeply misogynist strands in much of American society.  Women, on this argument, are far from being considered as equal, and it is widely understood that, at least in certain sectors of American society, the denigration of women has no adverse consequences for sexists or misogynists.  All of this may well be true, and the argument of American feminism about the distance that women have yet to travel is all but unimpeachable.  But Mr. Trump is nothing if not an equal opportunity employer:  he has held forth, after all, on Mexicans as rapists, on Muslims as terrorists, on the Chinese as (currency) manipulators, and so on.  Mr. Trump’s contempt for a good portion of humankind does not even remotely rescue him from the charge of misogyny, but his political demeanor suggests that something more is at stake than his contempt for women, ‘losers’, and others whom he so clearly disdains.

 

Why, to rephrase the question, does Mr. Trump not experience any sense of shame?  If a person is consistently thought, by a good portion of the media and the public, to be a habitual liar, misogynist, bully, sexual assaulter, brutally vindictive, and authoritarian to boot, one might think that at some point such a person could be shamed into doing better or displaying some of those qualities, such as contrition, which round out a person as human.  Seven decades ago, when Japan came under American occupation and American anthropologists were called upon to provide some insights into Japanese character to ease the task of ruling over a defeated but proud ‘alien’ race, Ruth Benedict answered the call with a study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), where she distinguished the modern West with its supposed ‘culture of guilt’ from Japan with its ‘culture of shame’.  The precise problems with Benedict’s understanding of Japanese culture are many, among them the presupposition that what may be called the guilt regime of Christianity stands opposed to the notion of social order and civility that characterizes a Confucian-driven society.  Nevertheless, her notion of a ‘culture of shame’ is not without use.  Thus, to take a singularly spectacular example, when the Japanese company Akagi Nyugyo raised the price of its immensely popular ice cream bar from 60 Yen to 70 Yen, or by less than the equivalent of ten cents, the first such raise in 25 years, the chief executives and other employees of the company appeared together in public in a collective display of remorse.  This was an expression of the shame they experienced in, as it were, having to betray the trust the public had reposed in them.  Stories of Japanese executives committing suicide when they have been caught in mismanagement of a company, or profiting from their own mistakes, are legion.

 

Mr. Trump stands at the very opposite end of this spectrum:  he is a specimen of a man who does not experience any shame at all.  However, what is alarming about American society is that he does not even remotely stand in singular and sinister isolation in this respect, even if the tendency is to cast him as something of an aberration.  The problem runs much deeper:  indeed, I would hazard the thought that the idea of shame is no longer a part of the vocabulary of American public life.  The idea of shame has virtually disappeared from the American lexicon; it is a relic of a pre-modern era.  That is precisely why jail sentences, nominal or otherwise, have no bearing on the future political or public conduct of public figures and celebrities.  After her conviction in 2004 of financial fraud, Martha Stewart did not sink into oblivion; she merely went through a hiatus and by 2012 had assumed the Chairmanship of her namesake company.  The sexting scandals of Anthony Weiner which led to his conviction in 2011 did not preclude him from making a run for the New York mayor’s office in 2013.  It is precisely this utter lack of shame which Donald Trump and Bill Cosby find enabling in their crusading attempts to cast themselves as victims of aggressive and lying women.

 

Political party affiliations are of no consequence in this state of affairs:  if there is any “bipartisanship” in American public life, it resides in the fact that Democrats and Republicans are equally shameless.  Thus, in the present dispute between Mr. Trump and the “Morning Joe” show co-hosts, it is not each party’s opposition to the other but rather the sheer complementariness of their positions that is strikingly palpable.  The relationship of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to Mr. Trump has been nothing if not, in the words of the New York Times, a “roller-coaster” ride.  Scarborough was at one time rather close to Mr. Trump, even a political confidante, and he was briefly even under consideration for the position of Mr. Trump’s running mate.  Mr. Trump’s pointed objection to Joe and Mika as fundamentally hypocritical, considering they spent three evenings at his exclusive private resort, Mar-a-Lago, around New Year’s Eve has received less attention than it deserves.

Joe&MikaAtMar-a-Lago

The original caption runs thus:  Journalists have criticized Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host, Mika Brzezinski, for attending President-Elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve party on his Mar-a-Lago estate.  Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4083068/Morning-Joe-host-s-hit-claims-cosy-relationship-Trump-attending-president-elect-s-New-Year-s-Eve-party-Mar-Lago-estate.html#ixzz4libsN9tf 

It is not that Mr. Trump stands exonerated, contrary to what he believes; rather, we have to question whether it was merely lack of judgement on their part, or, as I am suggesting, that Mika & Joe inhabit fundamentally the same amoral universe which has defined Mr. Trump, which made them consort with Mr. Trump months after repeated allegations of egregious sexual misconduct on his part had become part of the record.  It is not that Mr. Trump has changed in the six months since they wined and dined with him; Mr. Trump has not transformed from a gracious and unassuming host to a raging lunatic.  We may, if we wish, put down the strained relationship of this recently-engaged couple to Mr. Trump as something akin to the estrangement of lovers; or we may characterize their relationship as illustrative of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.  Beyond all this, I submit, the supposed dispute between these two parties is illustrative of the fact that concepts such as shame have now disappeared from American public life.

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A few months ago, Harsh Mander, who is one of India’s most committed activists, a staunch anti-communalist, a fearless advocate of human rights, and—if I may add a personal note—an old and trusted friend, wrote an opinion piece for the Indian Express which gave me pause for some thought. I have since had other moments to think about Mander’s piece, which is entitled “Unlike America”; its sub-heading more than adequately suggests the tenor of his argument: “In India, voices of public protest against hate-mongering targeting Muslims have been far too muted and infrequent.”  Mander is among the millions who throughout the world was filled with a “dark foreboding” after Donald J. Trump’s electoral triumph, and Trump’s reckless actions and pronouncements since his inauguration on January 20 would have done little to alleviate the deep misgivings about the American President that Mander like many others (myself included) have experienced.

Less than two weeks into his administration, Trump issued what became known as the “Muslim Ban”.  It is at this point, Mander suggests, that many Americans woke up to the unpleasant reality that they would have to live for at least four years with a Commander-in-Chief and President who is boorish, narcissistic, and habitually prone to lying.  Though Mander does not say so, Trump is fundamentally not merely uninterested in issues of social justice and equality but, to the contrary, a blatant example of the absolutely vacuous Ayn Rand school of thought which believes that man is born to self-aggrandizement.  (To my mind, the notion of Trump as a disciple, howsoever much he may detest the very idea considering his proclivity to think of himself only as a ‘winner’ and ‘leader’, of Ayn Rand has barely been noticed in the prolific public commentary.)  The “Muslim Ban” had just been issued before a court put a stay order on it; the revised version of the ban, issued days later, similarly did not survive judicial review.

But none of this is the subject matter of Mander’s article, which is rather on how, in the wake of the “Muslim Ban”, Americans rose to the occasion in a vivid demonstration of what has made America ‘great’ and a beacon of light to other countries.  Mander speaks approvingly and many would say justly of the “luminous, spontaneous public display of solidarity and empathy with the targeted Muslims by millions of ordinary Americans”, which to his mind is an affirmation of the fact that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  Moving towards the last third of his opinion piece, Mander thoughtfully asks whether in India good-natured and well-intentioned people have done enough to resist “the fear and animosity that has been systematically fostered against the Indian Muslim minority in the Modi era.”  Many Muslims in India view themselves as second-class citizens, and Mander poignantly inquires whether “Indian people have reached out to defend and reassure their Muslim neighbours in ways that many Americans have”.

It is doubtless true that within hours of the issue of the “Muslim Ban”, protestors came out on the streets of America to lodge their opposition against the xenophobic turn in the new administration and attempts to ‘secure’ America against supposed enemies of the state.  The country’s airports, especially, became sites of concerted resistance, and hundreds of immigrant attorneys offered their services pro bono to immigrants and refugees.  Elsewhere in the country, as Mander writes, what are called ‘faith leaders’ representing Christianity and Judaism also made it known that they would not abide by any executive orders or regulations that clearly target Muslims.  One cannot but agree with Mander that this apparent display of solidarity with Muslims has been admirable.

However, I am slightly discomforted by certain assumptions that underlie Mander’s claim, and would like to conjoin some general queries with the specifics of the politics of protest in the US and India by way of opening up a space for discussion.  First, there is the question that in the Indian liberal imagination, the US becomes the benchmark by which other countries are judged.  The US scarcely has any monopoly on what we might call the architecture of popular protest:  if anything, American streets see much less protest than do the streets in most other countries.  Of course, one can anticipate the rejoinder, namely that the street protests in, for example, Russia and Venezuela have been waged not on behalf of the rights of various other religious, racial, ethnic, or gendered others, but rather by ordinary citizens who feel their rights have been trampled upon or who seek to create a space for political dialogue.  By the same token, however, it is indubitably the fact that the United States is essentially and in its core an immigrant society.  The “Muslim Ban”, in other words, is not merely an issue with implications for Muslims, or even those, like Sikhs or brown-skinned people in general, who might be mistaken for Muslims.  If the Muslim is a metaphor for the immigrant, then effectively most Americans are Muslims. 

Thus, in this respect, the “Muslim Ban” can be described as something that is experienced viscerally as a ban upon every immigrant, or even ancestors of immigrants, which is the preponderant portion of the American population—as a rebuke, in other words, to every American.  Mander could have perhaps made a stronger case if he had advanced the view that the Muslim in India is similarly a part of the Indian self, a part of every Hindu, just as every Hindu is a part of every Muslim self, even if the gravitational pull of South Asian politics, particularly in Pakistan, over the last course of the last century has been to try to demarcate the Muslim as an altogether separate entity from the Hindu.

Secondly, as a corollary to the above argument, it is thus easier to understand why the politics of agitation in the US has not, generally speaking, extended to a great many other issues.  Trump’s “divisive politics”, as it is often termed, is unpleasant and even deeply offensive to many, but very few of the other equally odious measures that his administration has passed have given rise to mass demonstrations.  To take one illustration, the various pushbacks in the Trump administration against measures designed to safeguard the environment, and even his rejection of the Paris climate accord, have not led to anything like the kind of demonstrations that we have seen over the “Muslim Ban”, though the implications of his administration’s repudiation of the scientific consensus over climate change are far-reaching and in some respects dwarf many other pertinent social issues.  It may be that organization of resistance around climate change, which may seem something like an abstraction to some people, particularly in an affluent country such as the US, is no easy task.  But this only goes to suggest that there is, in some ways, a singularity of concern that the “Muslim Ban” is able to evoke.  Empathy, that is to say, is also selective. 

Thirdly, then, there is something anodyne in the observation that Mander has put forward when he writes, to quote him again, that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  My point here is not merely that “a politics of hate” does triumph all too often:  if this were not the case, mass murders, genocide, and the carefully managed orchestration of hatred would not be routine facts of history.  There may be, indeed there is, an ethical imperative to affirm, and affirm repeatedly, our capacity to overcome the politics of hate, bigotry, and fear.  But there is also the need to reckon with the fact that the “politics of hate” is not an isomorphic phenomenon but rather is inextricably intertwined with the brute facts of nationalism, class hierarchies, and ideologies of exclusion.

We are left, moreover, with other questions which hover in the background of Mander’s piece.  It was a mass movement of resistance, waged over three decades, which brought to an end colonial rule in India.  In the mid-1970s, again, a popular movement, which saw meetings and demonstrations in north India, put an end to the authoritarianism that had guided Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  In recent years, the issue of corruption has riled the middle class.  It is unnecessary, at this juncture, to probe the politics of protest over “corruption”.  Mander seeks to inquire:  why is it that the ill-treatment of Muslims does not similarly evoke the anger or an anxiety over injustice and bring the people of the streets to India?  It is not that the people of India will not take to the streets:  but why do they fail to do so in the case of palpable forms of injustice and discrimination against Muslims?  Mander has described the symptom, but not the disease.  Is the disease Hindu nationalism?  Is it a new-found adherence to the ideology of ‘each man to himself’?  Is it the collapse of some notion of a social commons?  Is it the decline of the ‘moral economy’?  Has some kind of zero-sum politics become the norm?  Even if Mander has not posed these questions, his piece should certainly be read as a necessary provocation to ponder over the profound malaise that has afflicted India.

 

 

 

 

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(Second of two parts)

 

The story of the anti-apartheid struggle is not only one, or even mainly, of ‘great figures’.  Kally’s probing and incisive camera is sensitive to the transgressive moments that periodically signified that the enclosures that apartheid sought would be broken by those animated by the quest for equality and social justice or otherwise willing to take risks.  One of Kally’s most stunning photographs, which he has described as a “scoop at the time”, shows a dazzling Rose Bloom hand-in-hand with Syrub Singh as they leave the court after a bail hearing.  I am tempted to say that true love is almost always “forbidden”, but in South Africa the anti-miscegenation laws were particularly severe; moreover, the idea that a white woman, the holiest of the holies, might desire to marry a coloured man was absolute anathema to white society.  Ms. Bloom’s offense is compounded:  she wears a sari and has thus gone native or rather ‘Indian’.  Mr. Singh looks pleased as punch, though some might say that he is clearly smitten.

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Syrub Singh and Rose Bloom emerging from the magistrate’s court after a bail hearing.  Photograph and Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

 

Others, of greater fame, too committed the sins of sexual transgression.  Those who know something of Miriam Makeba remember her marriages to trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the African-American activist Stokey Carmichael.  But the first of Miriam Makeba’s several marriages was to the balladeer Sonny Pillay—and Kally was there to capture those short-lived moments of tenderness even as the Indian community fumed. In his flat, where he had asked them over one evening, Kally recorded their “wonderful chemistry”:  Sonny looks over Miriam’s shoulder at a magazine or LP record sleeve, and the two are a picture of youthful love and exuberant joy.  Kally evidently spent many an evening at The Himalaya Hotel in Durban’s Casbah area, one of the few places in Natal where segregation was not rigidly enforced and blacks, whites, and coloured people mingled.  But Kally’s roving eye camera found the transgressive in other milieus, often far more dangerous. One of the resistance movement’s most iconic images must surely be the photograph that Kally took of Florence Mkhize, later to be known as “Mama Flo”, as she burnt her passbook during the Defiance Campaign.  Acts of resistance to the prescribed social and political order rarely led to anything but an unhappy ending.

 

What is remarkable about Kally is that he remained attuned to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the political over the course of several decades culminating in the end of apartheid.  What is just as striking in his large and still largely unknown body of work is his attentiveness to the quotidian or the everyday life of Indians in and around Durban.  But let it first be said that he was not alone in documenting their lives, as Riason Naidoo’s 2008 book, The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s, unequivocally demonstrates.  Close to half a decade after the end of the indentured system, the greater majority of Indians still lived below the bread line.  The Drum photographer and Kally’s estimable contemporary, G. R. Naidoo, spent one afternoon in 1952 at the one-room shack of the Pillay family in Clairwood South to bring home some bare facts of life at the margins.  Pillay had many mouths to feed, apart from himself:  his wife, his mother, and his five daughters shared a grim existence where the next meal was remote from certainty.  In one photograph, Mr. Pillay is seen emerging from a storefront where a large sign reads, “No Vacancies.” The caption below the photograph states, “In spite of the sign outside Mr. Pillay tried for work.  They told him:  ‘Go away. Can’t you read?’”  The hard-working persistence of the Indian under-class would, in India, South Africa, and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora ironically earn them the epithet, “The Lazy Native”.

 

The question, then, is whether Kally’s lucid camera gaze inflects the quotidian with a different sensibility.  In one photograph, an Indian woman scrubs dishes outside a group of shacks; a very young girl, clutching a toddler, stands by her side.  In another picture, a woman and two young women scrub clothes in an open field.  These are pictures of poverty and they may be construed as ethnographic studies.  There is sometimes despair in his representations of Indian life yet it seldom overwhelms the viewer.  His 1957 photograph, “Children gotta work”, is illustrative of not only Kally’s approach to the grittiness of Indian life in Natal but of the self-reflexivity in much of his work.  Four Indian children, some unmistakably teenagers, are on their way to work in the fields.  Shovels are flung across their shoulders; two of them firmly grasp lunch boxes in their hands.  They walk barefooted in the morning light.  The photograph seems familiar, and why not?  It resonates with pictures of the Indian partition, where the columns of refugees were monstrously large, but there are also shades of the historic march of Indian miners from Natal to the Transvaal in 1913.  Workers on the move, the daily walk, the look of determination:  all this is part of the ensemble.

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An Indian woman scrubbing dishes, in a village on the outskirts of Durban.  Photograph copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

 

I didn’t know Kally well enough to aver that he was a man of sunny optimism, but his photographs nevertheless suggest an eye for the whimsical and a zest for life.  The whimsical touch is nowhere better captured than in his photograph of a boy with a large tortoise on his head.  The wide grin on the boy’s face reveals the unmistakable fun he is having in ferrying his slow-moving companion. I wonder if Kally–and the boy–knew that in Indian mythology, the tortoise carries the weight of the world on its back.  Tortoises can live well past 200 years: in a piece I wrote some years earlier, I looked back, whimsically, on the death 250 years later of the pet tortoise of Robert Clive, the conqueror of India.  Long after the sun set had set on the British empire, Adwaitya the tortoise was still there to help us reflect on the transience of what are touted as the great achievements of history.

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Boy with a Tortoise.  Copyright and Photograph:  Ranjith Kally.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, the emergence of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1950s was becoming a subject of much discussion.  Kally’s snapshot of “Miss Durban 1960”, which is very much done in the vein of the pin-up girl poster that was the mainstay of the soldier’s barracks or the bachelor’s pad, points to the total ease with which Rita Lazarus embraced a bathing suit and her comfort with her own body.  The photograph is inviting without being salacious.  But perhaps the boldest expression of this element of joie de vivre, conjoined with the whimsical, in Kally’s work is his photograph, from the late 1950s, which he called “The Big Bump”.  ‘Pumpy’ Naidoo, owner of Durban’s Goodwill Lounge, bounced into Springbok Radio announcer McKay one evening at the Durban City Hall:  the two men, both amply endowed at the waist, rubbed against each other.  Each seems to be saying, ‘My tummy is larger than yours, and all the better for it.’  Ranjith Kally, I am certain, would have wanted to be remembered as much for this photograph as for any other in his capacious body of work.

 

(Concluded)

 

[This second part was originally published in a slightly different version as “Kally’s captured works” on 19 June 2017 in The Mercury South Africa (p. 7).]

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(First of two parts)

 

With the passing of Ranjith Kally in Johannesburg on June 6, apartheid-era photography has lost one of its stalwarts. From his appointment in 1956 as a photographer to Drum, a magazine which Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey launched in 1951 as a vehicle for the expression of black urban life, until his retirement in the mid-1980s, Ranjith Kally worked assiduously and yet creatively to furnish a record that is nearly without equal of the racial element in South African life and, just as importantly, of both the heroic and everyday transgressions of the insidious racial boundaries that make South Africa’s struggle against apartheid one of the most arresting chapters in the modern history of the triumph over oppressive adversity.  His sprawling oeuvre is a veritable library of what are now recognized as iconic snapshots of the principal political and artistic figures who brought the struggle in South Africa to the world’s attention.  But Kally was equally a chronicler of Indian life in and around Durban, working-class culture, the politics of the street, and the quotidian element in the social lives of South Africa’s black, colored, and Indian communities.  His camera was to become an object lesson in how one might begin to understand the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

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Ranjith Kally

Kally was born in 1925 in Isipingo, which lies just south of Durban and had been a ‘whites only’ area before it was reclassified as Indian.  His grandfather had been among those who had worked on the sugar plantations; his father, Kallicharan, was similarly born into this work, leaving for the fields at 3:30 am where he executed his duties as an overseer.  One of Kally’s earliest and most moving photographs is of his father poring over a Sanskrit text:  reproduced in Kally’s Memory Against Forgetting (2014), it conveys an impression of his father as a learned man rather than as a farm worker.  His father is foregrounded against a black sheet, which accentuates the early morning light; as Kally was to write, “I had wanted to use an old book which he would read often and this is the pose by which I’ve come to remember him.”

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Ranjith Kally’s father, Kallicharan, poring over a Sanskrit text.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Kally walked the three kilometres along a dirt road to school every day.  Schooling among Indian and black school-children seldom extended beyond adolescence in his days, and Kally took a position in a shoe factory after finishing standard six.  Meanwhile, a Kodak Postcard camera, which Kally had picked up at a jumble sale, had spurred his interest in photography, and after a part-time stint at the Durban-based newspaper The Leader, Kally assumed a paid position with Drum and the Golden City Post.  Sometime, perhaps in the early 1950s, a photograph by Kally was selected in a competition sponsored by the Japanese firm Pentax for third prize among 150,000 entries.  (However, in an interview that Kally gave to my friend, the historian Goolam Vahed, on 9 February 2016, he placed this event in 1957; however, in the introduction to Memory against Forgetting, as well as in The Indian in Drum, by Riason Naidoo, the competition is described as having taken place in 1964.)

 

Kally’s first photographs of anti-apartheid figures would be taken in the late 1950s.  At a break during the Treason Trial in Pretoria in 1958, the young photojournalist saw his opportunity.  Among those on trial were Monty Naicker, a doctor who turned to trade union activism before assuming leadership of the Natal Indian Congress and offering the NIC’s cooperation in the Defiance Campaign.  Monty played a key role in making possible the close cooperation between Africans and Indians that would signal the solidarity that would mark the distinctiveness of the anti-apartheid movement.  In his photograph, Monty commands the center; a young Nelson Mandela and the communist leader Yusuf Dadoo are in the background.

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Monty Naicker at the Treason Trial, Pretoria, 1958; in the background, Nelson Nandela and Yusuf Dadoo.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Monty remained among Kally’s favorite subjects, and he was one of the Indian political leaders who was featured regularly in Drum; but Kally’s proximity to the Indian community, and his own awareness of the political moment, led him to other Indians who were staunch advocates of racial solidarity.  A photograph from the 1970s shows the attorney Phyllis Naidoo who engineered the escape of many prominent anti-apartheid activists:  taken at her offices in Maseru after she had herself gone into exile, a pensive Naidoo reflects on her narrow escape from an assassination attempt.

Kally would capture, in a series of striking photographs, the travails of the Meer family.  In the early 1960s, Ismail Meer, then in detention, sought a portrait of his wife, Fatima, and their three young children to keep him company in his prison cell.  In Durban’s Botanical Gardens, Kally seated Shamin, Shehnaaz, and Rashid around their buoyant-looking mother.  There is no hint here of anxiety, fear, or the oppressiveness of racial terror.  Less than twenty years later, Kally would snap a photograph of Fatima Meer, a gigantic figure in the struggle in her own right, emerging from a courtroom with steely determination flanked by three lawyers who represented her as she sought to fight the repressive apparatus of the state.  Taken together, the two photographs do not only point to the passage of time:  writ large there is the tale, inter alia, of women assuming a place in the public sphere, the many guises of the political, and the little-discussed role of Indian Muslims in shaping secular narratives of freedom.

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However, for reasons that likely tell us something about Kally’s own political disposition, it is above all the figure of Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, to which he was likely most drawn.  Kally was despatched to Groutville in 1961 when the news of the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Luthuli, who was under a banning order, was made public.  Kally photographed Luthuli against a rustic window frame, looking out at what is perhaps an uncertain future.  He is dressed in a workman’s overalls—rather apt, if we consider that he was a man of the people.  The frame tells its own story, of a man who had been framed by the state.  We may say that the framing device surfaces elsewhere in a different register, as in Kally’s photograph of a peace rally where a handful of men are holding aloft a huge photograph of Luthuli—a photograph also taken by Kally.  It is perhaps fitting that Kally concludes Memory Against Forgetting with a facial portrait of a smiling Luthuli who never stooped to the level of his opponent while reminding his readers that “as we celebrate freedom, we would do well to equally remember the legacy of the other great man of peace, Inkosi Albert John Luthuli.  While Madiba taught us how to forgive, Chief Luthuli first taught us how to love.”

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Chief Albert Luthuli:  photograph taken of him in Groutville after he had been informed of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally was 91 years old when he passed away.

 

Note:  I met Ranjith Kally thrice on my second trip to South African in November 2015.  I was keen on doing an exhibition of some of his works and arranging for him to visit UCLA.  But, alas, I was too slow in moving things along. Kally was kind enough to share with me high resolution images of some of his work; the photographs here are all under copyright with him and his heirs.  This part first of my tribute was published in The Mercury South Africa as “Photographer’s oeuvre a vision of urban black life” (14 June 2017, p. 7).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between Tibet and India, rarely obtrudes upon one’s consciousness.  It is commonly described in the West as ‘fiercely protective of its traditions’, which is another way of saying that it has, thankfully, been resistant to the idea that it should, as the neo-liberals are fond of saying, “open up” to the West if it wishes to be more than just a footnote to history.  Over the last decade, Bhutan has nonetheless splashed its way into the Western media every now and then for a very different reason, as the progenitor of the idea that Gross National Happiness should replace GNP (Gross National Product) as a more reliable indicator of a country’s well-doing. The young king of Bhutan has been one of the idea’s most enthusiastic advocates and it has not been without its takers, most particularly among those who have worked on ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ issues and are cognizant of the fact that the well-being of a nation and its people cannot be reduced to something called the GNP and a few other economic (or allied) determinants.   Whatever the difficulties of ‘Gross National Happiness’, and they are considerable, the idea should perhaps be embraced for no other reason that it might put a few economists, the vastly overrated and frequently insolent practitioners of the dismal science, out of work.  Happy is the country that has little or no need for economists.

It may be too much to say that Bhutan, for all its remoteness, has a film industry; nevertheless, a few films have come out of Bhutan over the last several years.  A few days ago, by happenstance, I came upon the first feature film out of Bhutan, and was struck, as surely every viewer would have been, by the charm, depth, and relative sophistication of Travelers and Magicians, “Chang Hup The Gi Tril Nung”, especially in the absence of a filmmaking tradition.  Made in 2003 by Khyentse Norbu, the film is remarkable for more than its unhurried pace:  much like Bhutan itself, the film steers refreshingly clear of the loud and mindless chatter of much of nearby Bollywood and Hollywood.  Its central character, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young official working in a village somewhere in central Bhutan, is in a hurry to get to Thimpu, the country’s capital:  he has received a summons to a visa interview at the American Embassy.  But why should anyone be in a hurry in Bhutan?  If a young man in Bhutan is in a hurry, something is askance.  When “the land of dreams” beckons, what else remains?

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America’s reach is everywhere; the dream-work of America is happening in the remotest corners of the world.  Dondup is what, borrowing the vocabulary from neighboring India, I would like to describe as the Resident Non-Bhutanese:  though he lives in Bhutan, he might as well be living in America.  Dondup has already been transported to America:  he wears tennis sneakers, and, on more than one occasion, the camera lingers on these would-be Air Jordans, the vehicles of his carriage from one land to another.  The walls of Dondup’s room are plastered with posters of white, sultry-looking girls; a large US army poster, “Uncle Sam Wants You”, with the familiar call to a glorious career in the mightiest military machine of the day, dominates one corner of the wall.  American rock music blares from Dondup’s boom box; even the distinctly un-American Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist, which serves as Bhutan’s mandated national dress for men, is given a Yankee twist as Dondup sports a denim variety.

Dondup’s village is a two-day bus ride from Thimpu.  He just misses the only bus of the day and tries to hitch a ride.   As he waits by the roadside, he is joined by a peasant carrying a large sack of apples; a vehicle pulls up, but the driver assumes the two men are traveling together and says he cannot take them both.  Down the winding mountain road comes, a short while later, a dramyin-strumming Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga); before too long, a rice paper merchant and his pretty daughter, Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), have joined the party.  The journey has long been a metaphor, in world literature and cinema, for self-discovery; but this voyaging into the self entails a twin-pronged movement, both into interiority and away from the crowd into the company of strangers.  Thus, though Dondup starts out as the solitary traveler, the size of the party grows—but only so much, indeed just enough to prod him into some degree of anxiety and discomfort, then a modicum of self-reflection, and finally a recognition that the self seeks the other.  The five pilgrims journeying into Thimpu are eventually picked up by a truck driver; as they clamber into the back, they discover they have a drunk for company.  The drunk may not exemplify a higher consciousness, but he does point to altered states of consciousness.  Much like the Buddhist monk, he remains unruffled:  merry is he who is drunk—drunk on the love of God, or perhaps drunk in the lover’s embrace.  Along a major turn-off, the five step down and the truck moves on.

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Dondup, the young man in a hurry who seeks to leave for America, and the apple seller.

The narrative frame of Travelers and Magicians involves yet another element that has long informed Indian story-telling traditions.  The road ahead is a long one; to pass the time, and prompted by Dondup’s desire to flee the apparently suffocating confines of village life in a hermit kingdom, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to share with Dondup and the others the story of Tashi (Lakhpa Dhorji), a villager who yearned to escape from the drudgery of everyday life.  One might fault the film for occasionally taking recourse to a stock of clichés: thus, Tashi mounts what else but a white horse that he cannot tame.  He is thrown to the ground and injures his leg; wandering around in a daze, Tashi is hopelessly lost in the remote mountains before he comes upon the home of an old woodcutter, Agay, married to a beautiful woman much younger to him.  The old man rules over his young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom), like a tyrant; she longs for a younger man’s touch and company, and Tashi and Deki are soon caught in a web of lust and jealousy.  A plot is hatched; the old man’s chhang (liquor) is poisoned, but he seems to take a very long time to die, writhing and groaning in pain. This adulterous relationship ends as all such escapades do, as Deki falls to her death in the wild rapids as she pursues a fleeing Tashi.

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Tashi and Deki caught in a web of lust and jealousy.

The story of Tashi is told not in one single take, but rather the film alternates between the main narrative frame and the interior frame; the filmmaker cuts seamlessly between the two stories, making effective use of dissolves, match cuts, and other cinematic devices.  The interior story doesn’t exactly mirror the main framework story, which is what makes it all the more enticing; and yet there are enough elements—the desire to escape the constraints of village life, the voyaging forth into the unknown, the journey into the interior of one’s self, the entrapments of desire, the restlessness of the young—to stitch the two stories into a single narrative framework.  The film is self-reflective about the art of story telling:  stories are not to be told only to while away the time, but because stories, more other than forms of discourse, translate more easily from one culture into another.  Was it Thucydides or Heraclitus who said that wherever one goes, one runs into a story?

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The party disperses: the monk and Dondup finally a catch ride to Thimpu.

Travelers and Magicians deploys in many respects elements of a narrative structure with which we are familiar from other films and works of literature.  Just as the party grew incrementally, so it diminishes incrementally.  Some hours short of Thimpu, a bus finally pulls up before the party of five.  Dondup, who had at the outset been in an extraordinary hurry to get to America, now seems rather indifferent to the land of dreams:  the bus has room for only and he puts the apple-seller on it.  And so the party of five has begun to scatter, the monk and Dondup taking a ride together into Thimpu. The destination is no longer of any consequence; the journey is everything.  As Eliot put it hauntingly in “Little Gidding”,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 

 

 

 

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