Sunday, July 28, 2013

‘A South Asian Ninja’: Burqua-Clad, and Armed With Books and Pens

The story about the launch of an animation TV series for children in Pakistan titled Burka Avenger has already caught the imagination of media. Both NDTV and The Times of India have covered it, closely following the coverage in The Guardian, London. What is so special about the series that its trailer and preview have generated so much of interest? I, for one, found the event appropriate for my blog because it covers two of my basic concerns: women empowerment; and the pride of place that books and learning should have in our scheme of things.

The focal point of the first such animation series to be launched in Pakistan in early August on GEO TV is its lead protagonist, a young female school teacher called Jiya, who turns herself into a burka-clad superhero to take on her enemies using a martial art called Takht Kabaddi with books and pens as her major ‘weapons’. The storyline has been interpreted by The Guardian with the headline “The Pakistani cartoon challenging the Taliban on girls' education”, while stating thatThe series is intended to provide a positive role model for girls in the face of the Taliban's opposition to female education.’

On the other hand, the fact that the Jiya becomes burqua-clad to take on the enemies of the society has been seen regressive and ironical. One of the readers of this animation story published on commented thus, “The idea of this is to get young impressionable girls to want to wear the Burka.” Another reader wrote, “Propaganda to persuade more girls to cover up and hide themselves, why? Females were given pretty faces by nature, why hide them? It is not a religious thing; it is a way for men to control women.” It appears both the readers are UK-based. On the other hand articles like the one written by Ms. Ema Anis for The Express Tribune, Pakistan (‘What’s so wrong with a burka anyway?’- has tried to put forward the angle of  ‘freedom of choice’ for those who want to wear ‘burka’. This particular article has also drawn numerous comments, which are mixed.

However, to begin with, I would like to go by the rationale given by the maker of the animation series, Aaron Haroon Rashid, popularly known as Haroon, one of the biggest pop-stars of Pakistan, who has been quoted by Daily Mail as “'It's not a sign of oppression. She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes... Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn't have worked in Pakistan.” This rationale seems acceptable because after all it is a commercial venture and it would unfair to expect them to do something at the cost of their commercial interests, set as the story is in a place called ‘Halwapur’, which stands for any typical city of Pakistan. Moreover, Jiya dons 'normal' attire while she is off-duty as a superhero, and gets into burqua-mode only when she is action. To further quote Daily Mail: "The version (of burqua) worn by the Burka Avenger shows only her eyes and fingers - though it has a sleeker, more ninjalike look than the bulky robes of an actual burka."
A ninja, as we know, traces its ancestry from ancient Japan, and is a symbol of a covert agent who specialize in unorthodox warfare.

In India, day in and day out we get exposed to advertisements and Television serials, where many stereotypical notions of women are (mis) utilised to make the ventures commercially successful and socially palatable. Some of the television screen firebrand ‘reformist and rebel’ female protagonists—from Rajani to Tulsi to Anandi—could never get rid of the traditional male-induced identities of women like ‘managalsutras’, ‘bindis’, ‘bangles’, ‘sindoors’ etc.

I only hope that the form of the costumes of the characters of the animation series remains only a form to deflect unnecessary and obvious criticism, and the makers will give enough emphasis to meaningful and entertaining content. I find their website absolutely professionals with all kind of downloadable apps and games woven around the animation series. I do hope that just like many of the legendary writers, like, for example, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who wrote a revolutionary renaissance play Doctor Faustus, within the form of the orthodox religious theatre conventions called Morality plays, the present series will be able to achieve its apparently  reformist objectives intelligently and without giving in too much to the pressures of the society and the ‘market’. What is commendable is that the animation series has been made in Urdu and not in English.

I will leave you with the descriptions of the main characters, and the opening lines of the trailer of the animation series:

In the quiet land of Halwapur...
Lived three kids and a goat
Separated from her parents at a young age, Jiya was adopted by a wise old Kabbadi Master, Kabaddi Jan. He took her under his wing and taught her the art of Takht Kabaddi, a new kind of fighting style where books and pens are primarily used as weapons in conjunction with a variety of karate moves. To the locals, she is known simply as the demure school teacher but whenever evil is afoot, she takes on her alter identity, Burka Avenger and uses the Takht Kabaddi to defeat her enemies. As the Burka Avenger, she uses the Burka to hide her true identity, which no one knows except for her father, Kabaddi Jan.

Ashu's twin brother and also best friends with Mooli and Golu, Immu is very protective of his sister. He is always calm and composed but tends to be a bit aloof. He is also somewhat fearless and relies mostly on his instincts to get him and his friends out of tough situations.

Vadero Pajero
The Mayor of Halwapur, Vadeo Pajero is the typical corrupt politician seeking to gain power and money for himself. He rules with an iron fist and often partners with Baba Bandook to accomplish his evil projects. He is cunning and crafty and can be quite persuasive when he wants to be.

Cute and goofy, Mooli is best friends with Ashu and Imran and accompanies them in all their adventures. He gets scared easily yet has a knack for getting into trouble and Ashu and Imran often have to rescue him. He loves eating mooli and is rarely seen without his pet goat Golu.

Baba Bandook aka Jaali Jadoogar (fake magician) is the main villain of the story. He thirsts for power and wealth and is always planning new ways to spread terror and take over control of Halwapur city. Any
progress of the people of Halwapur threatens him as content and aware people will have no use for a Jadoogar. He is a mercenary for hire and often teams up with Vadero Pajero in his evil schemes. Most of his time is spent in planning the destruction of the Burka Aveneger. He is supported by 3 henchmen and a crow whom he uses to spy on others.

Images of the animation series and the descriptions of the main characters above are courtesy: copyrighted and promoted by Unicorn Black and have been used for the purpose of illustrations.

Friday, July 19, 2013

‘My writings will tell you where I am’ : Thoughts on Dom Moraes on his 75th Birth Anniversary


‘Almost I can recall where I was born:
The hot verandas where the chauffeurs drowse,
Backyard dominion of the ragged thorn,
And nameless servants in my father’s house,
Whispering together in the backyard dirt
Until their talk came true for me one day:
My father hugging me so hard it hurt,
My mother mad, and time we went away.’
Dom Moraes
 ‘A Letter’ from POEMS (1960),

‘My mother’s parents were both doctors...and Roman Catholics. My paternal grandfather was an engineer, and a Roman Catholic too, but the Hindu caste system of their forefathers had worked on Indian Catholics over the years, splitting them into communities: and my parents’ families came from different Catholic communities. A great deal of fuss ensued, but in 1937 my parents married, and on July 19th, 1938, I was born.’
Dom Moraes
My Son’s Father, p. 7

I have been thinking of posting something on Dom Moraes (19 July 1938-2 June 2004) and the perhaps the idea that egged me on was to write a piece on the poetic nature and elements of his prose writings. I have been sort of fascinated by his poetic prose for a long time, something which I find in equal measure in the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma (1929-2005). In fact, the idea struck me to do some kind of comparative analysis of their writings—both being contemporaries, though Verma was a bit senior, and both sort of ‘outsiders’ to the Indian socio-literary and cultural ethos in their own way.

I tried to probe, I got a feeling that the tag of being an ‘outsider’, has been used quite indiscriminately for Dom Moraes. Some blame Dom himself would have to take for he seems to have used it to create an aura of mysteriousness around him as reflected in his verse and the titles of his books like Gone Away, Never At Home, Absences etc. However, what disturbs me more—and this needs to be evaluated further—is the claim of certain critics that Dom actually hated India. Khushwant Singh, one of the most over-estimated commentators of our times and the perfect practitioner of the art of employing superlative degrees and exaggerations without any qualms, went on to say in his Tribune article (Saturday, October 13, 2007, Requiem to Dom Moraes), “He (Dom) disliked everything about India, particularly Indians”, adding in good measure, “The only exceptions he made were good-looking women he took to bed.” I deliberately quote the second line from that para of Singh, because even in an article written by Geeta Doctor in The Hindu as recently as on July 14, 2013 under the title ‘The Poet Who Remained a Boy’, the focal point states, “The greatest asset of Dom Moraes, whose 75th birth anniversary falls on July 19, was his closeness to women and beauty.”  

My concerns are two-fold: One, this is the way how journalists approach the literary figures and do greatest disservice to the personality as well as to the readers, and secondly, which is more important, is how new generation of readers and critics should make their own assessment of writers or for that matter of any public figure of the times gone by for better understanding of their relevance.

The first concern I am not going to dwell on here because journalistic simplification of literary dilemmas is a deep-rooted disease, and hence I am only leaving it to the judgment of the readers.

For the second, I wish to look at the cosmopolitan, almost alien figure of Dom Moraes as it has been handed down to us from the standpoint of the sort of cue that he gives in his masterly crafted poem titled ‘Babur’—the last poem of his Collected Poems 1957-1987, published by Penguin Books in 1987:

            If you look for me, I am not here.
            My writings will tell you where I am.  

For this kind of close reading, I would rely upon his autobiographies My Son’s Father  and Never at Home, and his Collected Poems 1957-1987, while touching briefly on his travelogue The Open Eyes: A Journey Through Karnataka and some other relevant writings.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Poet Manglesh Dabral And Exploration of the ‘Other’

This write-up was written in May 2008 for a brochure published by Sahitya Akademi on the occasion of its programme 'Meet The Author' organised for the eminent Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral at India International Centre. I thought of sharing it among the readers of this blog without making any revision or updation. With this, I hope to bring out such short critical pieces on contemporary poets of India and abroad, whom I admire personally. -KV

Among the post-Raghuvir Sahay generation of poets, Manglesh Dabral (b. 1946) stands tall as a poet who has consistently been exploring the idea of ‘the other’ in Indian socio-political discourse as a tool to understand as well as reflect change in his surroundings. It is perhaps the most integral aspect of his poetic journey in which the cross currents of different worlds find a disturbing echo. In fact, for Dabral, coming to terms with the reality of the other is almost akin to coming to terms with himself, with his inner world and his poetic journey seems to be unconsciously working its way onward towards a kind of reconciliation between the two. It is certainly not an easy journey to take, and what separates Dabral from many of his contemporaries, is his ability to reach out to ever-changing distressing realities that lie beyond the boundaries of his daily ambience.

Manglesh Dabral

In his first collection of poems Pahar Par Lalten (A Lantern on the Mountains, 1981), he has some vague notions of the other in the form of  ‘his shadow’ that automatically becomes ‘another person’s shadow’ in the Section 4 of Train Me Saat Kavitayen (Seven Poems in Train,1977). This vague notion is further concretized when he gets aware of his ‘other hand’ that is ‘almost in disuse’, oblivious of the bad world that the main hand encounters day in and day out. It is only when things are stretched a bit far that ‘the other hand sometimes registers its protest’. However, this awareness of the other still carries a tone of patronage as the poet believes it ‘remains hidden somewhere like a hare in the bush’ or ‘between ball and the wooden horse of his childhood’, perhaps not ready or not meant to engage with the dark realities of life.

This awareness of the silent identity of Doosra Haath (The Other Hand), written in 1983 and collected in Ghar Ka Raasta (Path to Home, 1988), takes a great leap and in Sangatkaar (The Accompanist, 1995), included in Awaaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (Voice is also a Space, 2000), it gets transformed into a symbol of something of a historical relationship between the dominant and the minor with the experiences of the minor in the focus: Since long ago/ The resonance of his voice has echoed/The sonority of his master's.

But the restlessness of Dadral’s poetic journey does not allow him to be complacent. The recognition of the silhouetted identity of the other inevitably leads him to a painful understanding of the reasons behind his own backwardness as an individual as well as a social being as he finds he has ‘two lives’ to handle in a manner in which the success of the one is not dependent on the failure of the other: Had I only one life I would have reached immediately/Would have arrived somewhere successfully/-----/But I have two lives to contend with at the same time. In his latest and perhaps the most mature poem ‘Two Lives’ (Kathadesh, May 2008), we find that the other walks with him on equal footing

My one hand often pushes some mountain
With my other hand I hold on to a piece of sky

even though the agonizing dramatization of the poet’s situation in these lines makes it a reflection of the forked times that we are living in.

What may appear to be Dabral’s temporal and apparently simplistic movement towards the proper understanding of the other is actually a reflection of the revolutionary socio-political changes that have been sweeping the Indian landscape for the last two decades, especially in the North India. A significant poet like Manglesh Dabral, trained under the parameters of the left-liberal poetic dialogue, responds by criticizing the mindless globalization taking place in the society where one day, when humanity loses all its humanness, it will be ‘awarded’ with ‘the key to a big car and a fat cheque’ (Bhoomandlikaran, Globalization, Kathadesh, May, 2008). He goes further and directly attacks the divisionary tactics of the reactionary forces and leads the secular poetry of protest of our times.

Raghuvir Sahay (above) and Muktibodh below)
dealt with a less complex world than the one
faced by poets of Dabral's generation

But the problem for Dabral’s generation of poets comes when it has to deal with the historical analysis that is brought in by the post-colonial writers in the form of Dalit writings and writings by women. This makes it all too complex, a complexity that was denied to a Muktibodh 1917-1964) or a Raghuvir Sahay (1929-1990)--the pioneers of 'modern' Hindi poetry. It certainly arises out of the clash of ‘alternatives’ brought about by the economic liberalisation of, by and for the upper middle class on the one hand, and the rise of the subaltern consciousness forcefully altering the agenda of the socio-political discourse as well as power structure, on the other. The communal agenda is brought in to create confusion about the terms of these discourses and changes.

In the face of this onslaught, when the majority of the poets of Dabral’s generation appear to take the short cuts of uncritical admiration, patronage, or turn inward and start regretting the loss of the so-called tranquil past, Dabral pulls up his socks and makes genuine engagement with the sociology and the psychology of, what many believe, the ‘real’ poetry of protest. Not only in ‘Two Lives’, but also in a masterly crafted poem Chhhuo (Touch, Naya Gyanoday, 2007), we find him reaching out to values and systems, that have been considered ‘untouchable’: Do not believe in instructions like ‘Please Do Not Touch’ or ‘Touching Not Allowed’/It is a conspiracy in vogue since time immemorial’

The muted, almost sensuous tone of the poem also gets linked up with a range of poems about personal relationships that Dabral has written in abundance but has remained under the shadow of poems that have pronounced social relevance. It is a reflection of Dabral’s poetic range that his personal memory, regret, sense of loss and failure allow him to identify with wider human suffering. Such poems abound in his collection Hum Jo Dekhte Hain (That Which We See), in particular, where he engages himself with his childhood, the mountains where he grew up, and the pictures of his ancestors that he tries to relate with. Similarly, in his collection Awaaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (Voice is also a Space), which was noticed for its range of poems on music and musicians, we find that he is capable of relating with the other in some unknown, unseen moments of spontaneous love: while walking, some one else is found walking along side/and in darkness too an arm appears with love (Drishya, Scenes).