Friday, October 10, 2014

The Convenient Nobel Laureate

This morning I woke up to news about the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yusufzai and a certain Satyarthi had won the prize. The fact that I knew Pakistani Malala's full name and story while I knew nothing about Indian Satyarthi is perhaps most telling. About the... I am thinking travesty, ridiculousness, meaninglessness, but the use of any such term will perhaps make me the center of severe criticism. But you get the gist.

So here is why I hold my opinion. Malala's father owns a bunch of schools in the Swat valley. He is an activist, who has been very active in the politics and social activism in the area. Years ago, BBC Urdu wanted to profile the life of a school kid in the area via a blog. They picked a student, whose parents, fearing the Taliban dissuaded her from participating. Malala therefore, was the only other option. No doubt, she did a good job with the writings, and the soon blossoming poster child of Western media got center stage. The Taliban were devils, no doubt and they were suppressing female education. Everyone knew that, thanks to Khaled Hosseini, and a whole host of other artists, journalists and common sense. What better way to add color to the whole war on terror, than support a politically inclined family into projecting their living room conversations into the world stage? A BBC documentary followed.

The Taliban did what they do best, threatened, and followed through on their threat, in a very typical and expected act of idiocy. They shot at her, she survived and shot to fame. She began to speak about the known plight of girl children in Pakistan, who couldn't go to school. Again, everyone knew that. But the idea of a sixteen year old who survived a Taliban shooting was too fairytale-ish to not promote. The story was doing wonders to BBC. People who might not have bothered to see news about the Middle East stopped to admire the story of the girl who was shot at, speak to people about what everyone knew. For that's what she did. Speak. A sixteen year old addressed audiences in her coached oratory skills and spoke about what everyone already knew. Book deals, documentaries, international appearances and a Nobel Peace Prize. Every news website had her name as the headline this morning. She did what the BBC told her to do, she blogged, she persevered.

Kailash Satyarthi has been a champion against child labor for decades. In a country where children born do not mean more mouths to feed, but rather are more hands to earn. He left a promising career of his own free will and dedicated his life to working for the well-being of children. He established a system called the 'Rugmark', which can be carried by rugs that are not made by the innocent hands of little children. He has worked to protect the lives of 80,000 children. He has founded NGOs that work for children, worked with the UN to develop plans and goals that work towards the eradication of child labor. Yet his Wikipedia page is one third the size of Malala's.

I absolutely do not decry what Malala has been through. For a child, she has shown courage. But growing up in an activist household, with the BBC and international media as her Fairy Godmother instills a certain sense of courage as well. But does that require a recognition of the highest order? She now harbors political ambitions, sits in the UK and delivers well-rehearsed speeches and she is a household name. Her fellow-awardee, with a life of work, who left a promising career to follow a calling has been working and is still working and making a difference. Not just by talks, but by tangible action. To be feted at once, perhaps decries his achievements and stops painfully short of Malala's potential.

The only saving grace though, is the fact that this is the Nobel Peace Prize that has in the past been given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (in the year when they were used in Syria), the EU for not having repeated a nightmare called the Holocaust (no, seriously the reason they were awarded the prize was, the EU's over 6 decades of contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe), Obama (for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples; seriously? a year into his presidency?) and Yasser Arafat. I don't even want to go into talking about the last person.

So Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa and Mr. Satyarthi - better served not thinking too much about fellow awardees. Their true award is only in their body of work.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Kashmir and kid gloves

10 months since I wrote anything here. And I guess it takes a true work of art to inspire the creation of something else that in my opinion masquerades as art. Anyway, this weekend, after having read a dozen dependable favorable reviews, we trooped over to go see Haider. Yes, I am extremely apprehensive, given the travesties that pass off as Hindi movies these days - old man romancing a terrible tam accent pyt, or a refuse-to-accept-I-am-old actor choosing to act in a ridiculous rip off of The Prestige, the list is endless. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw a truly good movie and I am glad I broke that jinx with Haider. Before you conclude that this is yet another, albeit late review of the movie, NO, it isn't.

So, while I consider the movie a true work of art, and one of the best possible takes on Hamlet, the subsequent cries of foul, hashtags asking for a ban on the movie, serve the role of a comedic element on a grander stage. Hamlet remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, for sake of the sheer fallibility of the hero. Again, if I were to start penning the various virtues of the story of Hamlet, I would go ranting, a little like Polonius, so, no Oh! Hamlet is soooo good, over here. But in a nutshell, Hamlet is about a betrayed young man, fighting a crisis of ethics. He cannot understand how the mother he holds in high esteem could so hastily marry his uncle, who he has always had scant regard for. He is unable to decide whether the ghost of his father claiming betrayal is true, or just an object meant to lead him astray and cause his own downfall. He is unable to decide whether vengeance is the end to all problems, or whether it is but a start to a new cycle of problems. And it is this conflict that adds beauty to the story.

Being very true to Hamlet's premise, the story of Haider has all these elements - betrayal, death of innocence/ trust, questioning the very meaning of existence, despairing helplessness at the turn of events, quest for the high ground, while questioning the virtues of this high ground. A million sources would extol the performances of the protagonists and settings and so on. But the beauty lies in the audacity of the plot. For years in India, or in the minds of any Indian, Kashmir is a taboo topic. Article 370 of the Indian constitution, or the granting of special status to the state gives it that whole 'handle with kid gloves' caveat. Which suits everyone, the neighbors, the higher powers, and also the internal politicos of the state, their allegiances notwithstanding. And today, after all these years, the issue is out in the open. Again.

Only this time, the open secret is out. That excesses have happened in the past. Power exists to be misused at some time or the other, as has been proven right from the time of the Mahabharata. So why the whole brouhaha? Excesses did happen, people were frisked, checked, ID cards were required at all time, and for good reason. Till just a few years ago, people were expected to take off their shoes only at a temple. Not at every airport security checkpoint. But security guys did not just suddenly wake up to decide on a weird procedure. Some devious mind thought this through. Just like how Hamas decided to send its terrorists to civilian populated areas to perpetrate attacks. So people with their own agendas in J&K or even entities desirous of fomenting unrest in the region would throw in the odd wolf in the sheep's clothing! But that does not in any way detract from the pains and perils of everyday life in J&K. And that is beautifully brought out here. What I don't get, is why the apprehension towards calling a spade a spade? Yes there were terrorists. Yes, to some extent, some entities were seeking vengeance against what was taken to be the face of power. Personal rivalries piggybacked on larger inter-country disputes. But one terrorist in the midst of civilians does not make the whole state a terrorist state. Likewise, the acts of some people in the armed forces, does not make the entire force evil.

Crimes had been committed against Muslim Kashmiris. Crimes had been committed against Kashmiri Pandits. Even today, for no apparent reason, armed forces going in to help flood victims are pelted with stones. Why? Everyone screwed up some time in the past! This is like the old fable of a lion going to hunt a deer going to drink at a stream. When asked why it was being killed, the lion replied that the water downstream was being polluted by the deer. The deer replied that it had no hand in it, to which the lion said that if not this deer, some ancestor would have done so, and so this deer would have to pay the price.

Which is exactly the apparent case in Kashmir today. But the call for a ban on a movie that artistically tries to depict what might have been the case, is a regressive step towards the whole treading on eggshells that has happened thus far. The first step towards fixing an ill is recognizing the existence of an ill. While there has been a movie depicting one man's personal fight in the backdrop of excesses - Polonius heartlessly murders 3 people and brands them as terrorists to fetch himself some money, or one officer's car horn deciding the fate of a man and his family - maybe it is time to reconcile, agree and decide to move on. Maybe we stop dealing with Kashmir as the Indian outcast and treat it as the crown of India as it once was! Ban the movie, because you lack the guts to see what might have been true, not because it hurts some non-existent sentiments.