Looking Back, Moving On: Final Thoughts from Amardeep

[An earlier version of this post appeared on my personal blog.]

I remember when I first noticed this blog called Sepia Mutiny back in August 2004. Manish had linked to a blog post I had written on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake on August 9; it was one of the site’s earliest posts.

The link was notable to me for two reasons. First, I was amused that Manish would write, “I normally wouldn’t point at a piece referencing Gayatri Spivak and other jargon-filled lit academics…” Ouch, is he talking about me? (Happily, eight years later we have Himanshu Suri and Das Racist, rapping about Arundhati Roy [rhymed with, of all things, “batty boy”!], “Gaya Spivak,” and the Slovenian philosopher Zizek. Jargon is in again, if these dudes have anything to say about it.)

Second, I was a little shocked at exactly how many people seemed to be clicking through. From the beginning, Sepia Mutiny was strikingly popular, so much so that for at least a few years it was routinely rated the most popular blog in India itself. Its success was certainly due to the mix of writers, which was a very talented and energetic pool (Manish alone was routinely putting up 5 or more posts a day).  But I think the site was also clearly filling a need online for discussion of Desi themed subjects, whether political (see Abhi’s early post about Dalip Singh Saund and the Democratic party), or more entertainment oriented (Kal Penn and Harold and Kumar were mentioned in the first week as well).

Even when it wasn’t always smooth-sailing within the circle of bloggers, and even when things were difficult for me in my real life outside of the blog, what always drew me to this site was its ‘sandbox’ quality — the idea that this mix of topics and themes ought to be linked. So when Abhi writes that it may be the blog has fulfilled its purpose in part I don’t agree: many of the difficult issues regarding identity, community, and culture South Asians were dealing with in 2004 remain unresolved. But I do agree that in a way the sandbox qualilty of this kind of group blog has for me at least come to seem a little less essential and exciting than it was at the beginning.

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On Amitava’s “Nobody Does the Right Thing.” (and bye for now from Amardeep)

“Write what you know” is one of those creative writing class truisms that actually happens to be true, if our goal is to tell a realistic story about a society at a given moment in time. Writers want people to believe that the kinds of fictional lives they’re asking them to live with and care about for a few hours, as they read, are actually plausible. Chances are, what makes a story seem plausible is the fact that it is based, even if only partially, on the truth.

But “write what you know” is also much, much harder than it might seem. At times, it can even feel like a chain around your neck — though that doesn’t mean you can just walk away from it. In his new novel, Nobody Does the Right Thing, Amitava Kumar acknowledges the problem directly in what might be my favorite line of the book: “If you could tell just any story you wanted, no demands ever needed to be made on your honesty.” [Another favorite line: “Bihari society was conservative; it was also corrupt, hollow to its core; you put a finger on its thin, distended skin and it split under your touch, revealing white worms”]

For Amitava Kumar, who was born and raised in Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar, it’s Bihar that encapsulates the memories and history that are what the author “knows,” and what he returns to (always slightly differently), in book after book. “Honesty” and “Bihar” live in the same site for Amitava, and yet the content of that Honesty — the Truth one seeks to represent — remains stubbornly elusive. Kumar’s recently-published novel Nobody Does the Right Thing, which was first published as Home Products in India in 2007, continues to develop this theme. It’s a terrific novel, which I think will be challenging to many readers in the Indian subcontinent as well as the West, but many of the elements that make it challenging are also what make it great. Continue reading

#Untrendy Topics: Modern Hindi Poetry

I’ve been doing some research on Indian writers from the 1930s-1960s for a long-term scholarly project, and in the process I’ve been learning a bit about Hindi and Urdu writers I didn’t know about earlier. In Hindi in particular, I’ve been interested in the “New Poetry” (Nayi Kavita) Movement, with a small group of experimental writers adapting the western, free verse style to Hindi. (I may talk about some other topics later in the summer if there is interest.)

For a little background on Hindi literature in the 20th century, you might start with Wikipedia; it’s not bad. The New Poetry movement came out of a general flowering of Hindi poetry from the early 20th century, a style of poetry known as Chhayavad (Shadowism). Mahadevi Verma is one of the best known writers in this style; another notable figure is Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan’s father (and actually quite a good poet).

For me, the Chhayavad poetry sounds a little too pretty (“precious,” as they say in Creative Writing class), though I must admit that part of the problem is that I simply don’t have the Hindi vocabulary to be able to keep up with the language the Chhayavad poets tend to use. I prefer what came after, especially the New Poetry movement. The “New Poetry” style roughly resembles the modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hilda Doolittle in English literature. The language is stripped down and conversational, rather than lyrical. Some poets, like Kedarnath Singh, focus intently on conveying, with a kind of crystalline minimalism, pure images. Others are somewhat more conventional.

Below the fold, I’ll give some examples of a few favorite poems from the “New Poetry” movement, with several poems in both transliterated Hindi and English. [UPDATE: Look in the comments for three poems directly in Devanagari] Continue reading

Monsoon Song Showdown: Do Bigha Zameen (1953) vs. Lagaan (2001)

I was recently chastised by a colleague for not ever having seen Bimal Roy’s classic Hindi film, “Do Bigha Zameen” (Two Acres of Land). The chastising was sufficiently harsh (“what’s wrong with you?! it’s on frikking YouTube, you have no excuse!!!”) that I felt compelled to actually watch some of the film. (Beautiful, even on YouTube.)

Watching the film, one thing that struck me was the similarity of one of the key monsoon songs to “Ghanan Ghanan” from Lagaan. Here is Hariyala Sawan Dhol Bjata Aya:

And here is Ghanan Ghanan:

There are similarities both in the structure of the songs and in the way the songs are filmed. Did A.R. Rahman or Ashutosh Gowariker acknowledge the debt to Bimal Roy after Lagaan came out? (They might have — I might not have been paying attention.)

The blog Dusted Off has a great list of “Top Ten Monsoon Songs”: here.

And one of the commenters on that post links to his own “105 Baarish Songs”: here. Continue reading

“I didn’t like all of the junk [they] were saying about the lady”

nikki haley june 9 2010.jpg

As many people may have heard, Nikki Haley came out with a commanding lead in the South Carolina governor’s primary last night (49% to 22% for the second place finisher), though she was just shy of enough votes to avoid a runoff. I thought some of the quotes in the New York Times’ article about it speak to some of the issues that Ennis raised last week:

If she wins the general election in November, Ms. Haley would be the first woman and first racial minority elected governor of South Carolina. In a speech to supporters on Tuesday night, Ms. Haley said she has challenged the status quo — but less through her age, race or gender, and more through her political views. (link)

At first that might not be so surprising, but consider this: South Carolina is 30% African American.

But in terms of her personal upbringing, Ms. Haley is without precedent for South Carolina. The state has the lowest percentage of women elected to office of any state in America. And Ms. Haley is the only Indian-American elected official in the state. (link)

While the “raghead” comment was disgusting, the fact that she’s a woman has also been a huge factor in the campaign, with two men, both political operatives, claiming to have had affairs with her.

Sometimes American politics is maddening. But sometimes a certain passion for fair play asserts itself:

“It has become a referendum on whether you think she was treated fairly,” said Danielle Vinson, the chairwoman of the political science department at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Indeed, Sonny Hulon, 74, a retired grocery store employee who was voting at a senior citizen center in Columbia, said he had changed his support to Ms. Haley. “I voted for the lady,” he said, referring to Ms. Haley. “I was going to vote for McMaster but I didn’t like all of the junk that the other campaigns were saying about the lady.”

Allen Cuthrell, 52, an electrical engineer from Greenville, said he thinks the attacks benefitted Ms. Haley, whom he supports. “It exposed the good old boy machine,” he said. “People didn’t realize how bad it was until they saw Nikki getting attacked.” (link)

I like that: “I voted for the lady.” It’s interesting that he doesn’t say her name. And there are similar kinds of quotes in the Washington Post’s coverage.

Nikki Haley’s political views are not my own. But it is impressive that she has withstood these attacks, and even — improbably — benefited from them. Continue reading

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Attacks in Lahore at Ahmadi Mosques: an Eyewitness Account

As many readers may be aware, today there has been a terrible pair of attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, by gunman armed with grenades and automatic weapons. As of now about 70 people have been killed. In some ways the style of the attacks — heavily armed gunmen on foot, mowing down people at random in crowded places — reminds one of the attacks by a group of militants on Mumbai, in 2008. Within Pakistan itself, there is also the recent memory of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. The BBC has an eyewitness account by an unsigned observer:

I saw one of the attackers as he was entering the sermon hall, then I ran away. He very much reminded me of the people who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team, he was wearing similar clothes – the traditional Pakistani dress shalwar kameez and he looked like someone from a tribal area.

I went upstairs and I found a room with a bed, I hid under the bed. I was too scared to leave, even after the firing had stopped. I saw from the window security personnel, rescue people, fire brigade. The bodies had already been taken away.

This is a big old building, it’s 50 years old. I was on my own. I didn’t know what was happening. I could hear the firing going on for quite some time.

I am not surprised by this attack. We were expecting it for three or four weeks – a threat was published in a local newspaper that there would be attacks and the authorities were informed.

That’s why we have our own security guards in front of our mosques. They are not professional, they are volunteers. They were the first to have been killed. (link)

That last detail is distressing: there were specific warnings published in a local newspaper? And the authorities still didn’t see fit to send in police to guard the mosques? Granted, if these guys were anything like the militants in the Mumbai attacks, even armed police may not have posed a significant deterrant. But still: it seems like a malicious kind of negligence to have left these folks to fend for themselves.

This tragedy is part of a long history for the Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, who form a minority community of about 4 million (many Ahmadiyyas have left Pakistan since the 1970s). Wikipedia describes how the sect was declared to be non-Muslim, and effectively disenfranchised through a series of ordinances, starting in the 1970s. More details about the history of Ahmadi political agitation in Pakistan can be found here (Musharraf initially aimed to counter some of the discriminatory laws targeting Ahmadis, and effectively ended the ban on Ahmadis voting in elections in 2002). Finally, UNHCR has a limited timeline concerning political agitation involving the Ahmadis here.

It should also be noted that there was a serious Maoist attack in West Bengal, India today as well — leaving more than 70 dead as a derailed passenger train was struck by an oncoming cargo train. See a BBC account by Soutik Biswas here. The sense I’m getting is that the sabotage that caused the derailment itself was relatively minor, and might have led to minimal casualties; the event that has caused the high body count was the secondary collision. Continue reading

M.I.A. in the N.Y.T.

I’m wondering what readers think of the long profile of M.I.A. in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The author of the piece, Lynn Hirschberg, seems to have gotten pretty much unprecedented access to the Sri Lankan/British/American star, who recently had a child.

For Hirschberg, the high point in terms of subversive M.I.A. performances was the Grammys in 2009, when M.I.A. appeared on stage with four male rap stars, nine months pregnant. Apparently her contractions started while on stage! But Hirschberg also has some pointed comments on some of M.I.A.’s recent work, including the strange (I thought, awful) video to “Born Free.” Here is Hirschberg’s account of it:

Unlike, say, her performance at the Grammys, which was a perfect fusion of spectacle (a nine-months-pregnant woman rapping in a see-through dress) with content (Maya’s fervor was linked to the music), the video for “Born Free” feels exploitative and hollow. Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While “Born Free” is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve. (link)

I’m not so much interested in M.I.A’s particular politics, which I’ve disagreed with in the past. Yes, she has a very emotional, oversimplified account of recent events in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers in particular — let’s not have that fight again.

I’m more wondering what kind of image of the artist and performer we get from this article. Does M.I.A. really know what she’s doing? She’s had an album that was a big Indie hit (“Arular”), and one major commercial success, with “Paper Planes,” (off “Kala”); and there were several other solid, highly creative tracks off that second album. Given how important her producers are in her creative process, is it even fair to say that she’s at the helm of her own ship? Do you think she’s due for another success with her upcoming third album, or is her current direction a musical misfire, born of too much self-indulgence?

Finally, what did readers think of the second single off the as-yet unreleased new album, XXXO? Continue reading

Sri Lanka: A Year After War’s End

We had some very vigorous discussions at Sepia Mutiny last year as the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, with the LTTE defeat, the death of Prabhakaran, and the placement of some 200,000 Tamils in temporary refugee camps.

I haven’t followed the week-to-week developments since then terribly closely, but several recent developments were mentioned in a thought-provoking Op-Ed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Guardian yesterday. There is some good news overall, as the peace has held, but Tutu and Brahimi also acknowledge that progress towards rebuilding the affected parts of northern Sri Lanka, and the broader project of healing and reintegration, has been painfully slow. Here are the specific things Tutu and Brahimi want to see the government do:

Respect for minorities, human rights and the rule of law must be centre stage in Sri Lanka’s future. The worsening conflict saw limitations imposed on civil liberties and democratic institutions. The recent relaxation of emergency laws and the promised presidential pardon for Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam are welcome, but they are only a start. Real change must begin with repealing the state of emergency and re-establishing the constitutional council.

All displaced civilians should be helped to return home. Those suspected of being fighters must be treated humanely with full regard to international law.

[…] There is a growing body of evidence that there were repeated and intentional violations of international humanitarian law by both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) in the last months of the war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision earlier this month to appoint a commission on lessons learnt and reconciliation is a step in the right direction but not nearly enough. There is no indication, as yet, that the commission intends to hold anyone to account for any violations of domestic or international law. (link)

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“Outsourced”: Hot or Not?

Lizzie sent us a link to some trailers for NBC’s forthcoming comedy, “Outsourced,” with the comment: “Looks super-[crappy].” Here is a clip:

I’m leaning towards “not,” though I could still be persuaded, if they get past the “Man-meat” jokes… I think their idea is to make fun of kitschy Americana and get traction on the culture-clash (which means a certain amount of stereotype humor). What do readers think? Continue reading

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In Support of Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood

Nilanjana Roy, at Akhond of Swat, has done a pretty thorough round-up of the recent controversy surrounding Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood’s decision to accept a prestigious Israeli literary prize, and I won’t rehash it all here. Ghosh and Atwood were offered the Dan David Prize this spring, and were urged to refuse to accept it by pro-Palestinian groups, including a significant number of academics from the Indian left (based both in India and in western universities).

I just wanted to put in my own two-cents’ worth: I support the decision made by Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to accept the prize. In contrast to many of my colleagues who signed the recent open letter to Ghosh, I do not think there was anything to be gained by boycotting a cultural prize given by an institution outside of the Israeli government. Far better to stay, to continue to engage, and to dissent where necessary.

A viable argument against “cultural” boycotts is that they simply don’t do anything, though defenders of the practice might say that the symbolic value and media coverage is worth it. (Note that I’m not talking about economic boycotts, which may be more effective.) Ghosh himself points out that in writing In an Antique Land, he worked with Israeli as well as Arab academics to learn the written language (Judeo-Arabic) used by Abraham Ben-Yiju; a boycott would have made that project impossible. Similarly, this kind of cultural boycott would also lead us to be unable to engage with dissenting Israeli cultural expression, such as the recent film Waltz With Bashir.

But for me the most compelling argument against this way of reacting to Israeli cultural institutions is that, as bad as things are for the Palestinians, what the U.S. itself has engaged in over the past decade — especially the debacle of an unjustifiable and badly executed war in Iraq — is far worse. By any reasonable standard, if we’re boycotting Israel, we should be boycotting ourselves! (And similar kind of accusations could be made against India or Pakistan, for any number of reasons.) In short, this kind of thing doesn’t get us anywhere. Structurally, if we pay taxes and receive benefits from a government, we are all “complicit” in what that government does. Continue reading