Thursday, 23 September 2010

26 Minutes of Hell...for a South Asian in Britain...

10.00 pm. Wednesday, 22nd September 2010. It wasn’t a good time to be South Asian in Britain. Huw Edwards – along with his dynamic upper lip – has been replaced on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news by the normally unflappable George Alagiah, son of persecuted Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka. How ironic. And what bad timing, particularly given the people around my table, the Daily Mail-reading, white, middle-England parents of a (consequently Socialist) friend; here to enjoy my attempt at fusion cooking; Lamb Ghosht with er...mashed potatoes and some horribly deflated Yorkshire pudding.

The bulletin begins with the New Delhi Commonwealth Games fiasco. The reporter gleefully pointing out a newly built water fountain in the Games Village spewing a liquid that has a suspicious yellow tinge to it. The camera cuts across the gleaming facade of newly built apartment blocks and rests on an adjacent body of water that looks utterly foul; its putrescence seems to crawl out through the TV screen and envelope my carefully cooked Lamb. Then follows video of the Commonwealth Games Moron...sorry Commissioner...stating with not a hint of insincerity that “Hygiene Standards are different from country to country. Athletes shouldn’t be worried. Arey baba, that’s not excrement on the tiles, that’s called ‘shit-effect tiles’; the latest rage na!”

As the icing on the cake (or should that be excrement on the tile?), the report cuts to an Indian news channel discussion involving an anchor with tremendously hirsute pectorals, a sports writer and a morbidly obese, barely awake, government servant with a 1000 Rupee note hanging out of his left nostril. They’re having an animated discussion about how one construction worker at the Games Village, having unsuccessfully looked for a place to empty his bowels, reportedly did the business underneath a newly installed mattress, which the Steeple Chase champion from New Zealand will sleep on for the coming two weeks.

Thankfully, the reporter spares us details about the kids working as rubble-movers and being paid in plastic bottles; workers dying of heat exhaustion and any worker who gets out alive dying a few years later as a result of inhaling some sort of chemical on site; and dozens of people pocketing the money that should have gone towards installing portable loos. ‘Bring on the games’ I say excitedly (and hopefully) as my guests do a double take of the Lamb.

Alagiah’s eyebrows are now on an inexorable march towards each other. He then moves on to Afghanistan. The story is about a dispute between Barack Obama and his generals. The highlight of the piece though is Hamid Karzai – the puppet...sorry, president...installed by the CIA...sorry, the Afghan chief collector...sorry, leader of Afghanistan – is reportedly (and unsurprisingly) a manic depressive who refuses to take his medication. This, I surmise, is perhaps because medication usually brings clarity, which would enable him to reconsider purchasing his 78th luxury apartment block on the Palm Deira, Dubai, which will in turn provide affordable housing for his expanding harem of astonishingly beautiful students...who only accept Apple iPads as payment.

My head swirls with images of Karzai’s physician bringing in a little tablet on an oversized, gold-plated tray only to find Karzai pacing furiously around his palatial room, muttering to himself and wearing nothing but his Karacul hat – incidentally made of the uterus of a woman recently stoned to death. The Lamb’s not going as fast as I’d have liked.

The news promptly moves on to Kashmir where more than 200 people have been killed this summer alone; mostly bored young boys armed with nothing fiercer than plastic bottle tops, shot up by equally bored but petrified young soldiers, wondering when the next silly bugger will come walking up to them wearing C4 instead of a pair of boxers. The report then proceeds to show streets emptied by curfew, a grieving widow repeatedly bashing her own head and a 12-year-old boy with a couple of entry wounds on his stomach. How pleasant.

By now, Alagiah’s forehead shines bright, like a school boy who’s overdone the saliva-hair gel and has walked out in the mid-day sun. He tries to force a smile through gritted teeth and introduces the sport.

Now, in spite of all that’s gone on this summer, I wanted Pakistan to win the final ODI on Wednesday and try to go out on a high. And, despite being favourites going into the match, they made a complete hash of it, unable to provide some cheer after a dark and distressing summer. Worse still, Shoaib Akhtar makes an utter mess of trying to conceal the fact that he repeatedly tries to open up the seam to gain a bit more reverse swing on the ball, which had accounted for a third of the English batting line up, which was eventually saved by Irishman. “Dodgy to the end” is how one of my guests described the Pakistanis.

The horror however, didn’t end there. After the news, I switch over to BBC 2 to see who Paxman will impale on Newsnight, only to find the lead report is titled “Why is Pakistan so messed up?” or something along those lines. The report starts with a clip from a Pakistani TV show where a government minister states that corruption is a way of life in Pakistan and those who refuse to join the bandwagon, man!

A man from the Pakistan High Commission is sitting opposite Paxman, trying to look confident, but you can tell he’s never watched that John Howard interview or seen Newsnight in his entire life. It is a given that Paxman is going to make meatballs out of the man and send them to Ikea restaurants around Southern England to be served with chips and strawberry jam. The man flips his left leg over the right, and begins with “Well...” Oh god.

Unable to watch and having already downed half a bottle of cheap, supermarket brand ‘French’ brandy (conveniently placed in one of those crystal-effect decanter things) I look around; my eyes trying to focus through the haze, as my guests sing “Shame...shame...puppy shame...your Lamb Ghosht is truly lame!”

Silly buggers.

- Vijitha Alles

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

South Asian cinema in all its splendour at London Film Festival 2010

South Asian cinema and its’ stars will take centre stage in London this October, with several eagerly-anticipated films to be screened at the 54th BFI London Film Festival, which takes place 13th to 28th October. Organizers have chosen a slew of outstanding features that have already caused considerable buzz in film circles, and which showcase compelling stories and characters from a region with increasing social, political and cultural influence.

Similarly, the brightest South Asian film talent will be out in force as well. Slumdog Millionaire beauty Frieda Pinto sheds the L’Oreal foundation and returns to the big screen with ‘Miral’; Oscar-winning director Julian Schnabel’s incendiary epic about the Middle Eastern conflict from its’ birth in the late 1940’s to the start of the first Intifada in the 1980’s. Whilst the film itself has had mixed reviews, Pinto has received universal approval for her portrayal of a Palestinian orphan growing up in an environment of violence and ethnic hatred.

Irfan Khan – Hollywood‘s most sought after Indian actor and by far the most accomplished thespian in Bollywood – appears in ‘Paan Singh Tomar’. The film tells the real-life story of Tomar, an impoverished young man who joins the army where he excels as an athlete, successfully representing India in the Asian Games for a number of years in the 1950’s. After retiring from the army, Tomar returns home to rural Madhya Pradesh only to run into trouble with wealthy landowners who confiscate his land and murder his mother. The decorated but now disillusioned soldier takes up arms and turns into a Robin Hood style bandit terrorizing villagers in the infamous jungles of Central India. The film’s director Tigmanshu Dhulia was the casting director on ‘Bandit Queen’ and early previews suggest the film is a gripping crowd-pleaser.

Another acting Khan – Amir – makes a return to London in ‘Dhobi Ghat’, about the social disparities that continue to defile the gleaming facade of modern India. It’s a topic that has obsessed artists, writers and filmmakers in recent times – from Booker winner Arvind Adiga to filmmaker Dibhaker Bannerjee. With ‘Dhobi Ghat’, the subject truly comes into the mainstream and with the support of Bollywood royalty. Aside from taking on the lead role, Khan is an executive producer on the film which is written and directed by his wife Kiran Rao. Dhobi Ghat follows Shai (played by Monica Dogra), an NRI banker based in the US who returns to Mumbai for a sabbatical and falls for Arun (Amir Khan), a reclusive artist. After being spurned by Arun however, Shai falls for the charms of a young laundryman or ‘Dhobi’. As with many films based in Mumbai, that megalopolis that is at once flamboyant and muted, is as much a star as the A-list film talent. As the icing on the cake, the soundtrack is by Gustavo Santaolalla, who also composed music for Brokeback Mountain and Babel, among others.

While Rao delves into issues of social inequity in India, Director Kaushik Ganguly attempts to provide an insight into homosexuality in the country with ‘Just Another Love Story’. In the film, a gay filmmaker from New Delhi films the life story of an elderly Bengali transsexual dancer and discovers some truths about himself and the society he lives in.

The contemporary issues theme continues at the LFF with ‘The Taqwacores’ – Eyad Zahra’s adaptation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores: The Birth of Punk Islam. In the novel, Knight – a Michigan native who converted to Islam after travelling to Pakistan as a teenager – imagined a musical movement that married the two seemingly contradictory movements of Islam and Punk Rock. The movement that Knight imagined struck a chord with a slew of young punk rockers across America who also happened to be Muslim, leading to the birth of an entirely new genre of music. The birth of that movement was depicted in a critically acclaimed documentary screened at the London East End Film Festival earlier this year and Zahra’s dramatisation of the book will be closely watched.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated screening at the London Film Festival will be West is West, the sequel to the funny and poignant East is East, writer Ayub Khan-Din’s semi-autobiographical tale of a mixed race family in 1970’s Salford. The story of a conservative Pakistani father, George Khan (Om Puri), his English wife Ella (Linda Bassett) and their children was acclaimed for its compelling portrayal of the clash of cultures. West is West takes up the story 8 years on when most of the older children have left home and the only one remaining is Sajid, the youngest, and the apple of his father’s eye. Sajid is playing truant and George decides that a trip back home to Pakistan is the best cure. The chilly reception they find in Pakistan is further pickled by the arrival of Ella, who jets out after her husband and youngest son. The ensuing tug of war between Ella and George’s first wife is touching and distressing all at once and provides the dramatic as well as comedic heart of the film.

- Vijitha Alles

Monday, 20 September 2010

Settling in for the long haul...

Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse’s dynastic ambitions coagulated this month when parliament – where he enjoys a largely coerced majority – approved the 18th amendment to the constitution which abolishes presidential term limits. Incidentally, the president also oversees the workings of a staggering 90 different government bodies and departments.

President Rajapakse – once a vocal opponent of the country’s all-powerful executive presidency – returned to power in early 2010 on the back of a surge of popularity following his military’s demolition of the LTTE. The ‘Tigers’ – as the LTTE billed itself – were once considered the world’s most ruthless and sophisticated terrorist outfit, and had pillaged its way through 30 years of war in a bid to carve out an independent state in the north and east of the picturesque Island.

The Rajapakse government was uninhibited about such things as collateral damage in its quest to rid the North of the ‘Tigers’. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed – by both sides. Human rights and aid agencies were barred from the battle zone; journalists were kept even further away.

The military victory was achieved with the support of such agreeable regimes as China, Pakistan and Iran (which has since agreed to supply Sri Lanka with copious amounts of oil and natural gas at 20 pence a barrel). Soon after, keenly aware of his popularity (The Shock Doctrine), the president called for a general election. His main opponent however turned out to be the head of the army which had routed the LTTE, General Sarath Fonseka, who also enjoyed tremendous public support. Fonseka decried the fact the president and his younger, defense secretary brother had hogged all the limelight in the aftermath of the military victory and of course Rajapakse’s autocratic ambitions. After Fonseka lost the election by a ridiculously small margin, he was promptly arrested for having the gall to challenge the president, instead of retiring to a plum diplomatic post in an exotic Far Eastern state. Fonseka remains locked up to this date.

Anyone silly enough to speak out against such blatant abuses of power has either been killed (in the case of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga) or transferred to locales with no plumbing and to subsist on Rabbit food. And now…the 18th amendment.

The fear is that President Rajapakse, a deceptively charming and agreeable man when he’s er…not being agreeable and charming, is laying the groundwork for several generations of Rajapakse’s to remain in power. One of his sons – who, as a student in London, had a penchant for turning up at Black Tie events in ripped jeans and tight t-shirts – is already an MP.

I think the below piece by a journalist named Tisaranee Gunasekara captures brilliantly the president’s unconcealed craving for power. More significantly, it also encapsulates the indifference of a populace still in shock after the end of a brutal and soul destroying 30-year conflict and consequently bemused by the political shenanigans taking place in Colombo. Whilst she has an annoying habit of putting a famous quote before every article, and uses words like “unctuous”, there is a fire in her writing that appeals.

- Vijitha Alles


Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” — William Pitt the Younger (Speech in the House of Commons – 18.11.1783).

So the Emperor is finally divested of his dazzling patriotic mantle, his vulturous greed for power and grandiose dynastic ambitions bared. The proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution is quintessentially Rajapaksian: anti-democratic and deceptive, megalomanic and supercilious, rapacious and unctuous. The confluence of its two main components – presidential term-limit removal and negation of the 17th Amendment — would produce a supra-presidency which Mahinda Rajapaksa can hold for life and bequeath to his chosen successor. A virtual monarchy with a reassuringly democratic title – this was the predestined destination of the Rajapaksa project.

The road to tyranny is often paved with indifference on the part of unexceptionable, law-abiding citizens. No perilous turning point happens in a vacuum but is preceded by innumerable official misdeeds, to which society should have reacted with outrage but did not, deeming them unimportant, irrelevant or kosher. The Rajapaksas have come within striking distance of transforming Sri Lanka from a flawed democracy into a dynastic oligarchy because their crimes and abuses have gone largely unchallenged by Lankan society, especially that intellectual-ethical obscenity, the zero-civilian casualty myth (and the incarceration of more than 300,000 Tamils in ‘welfare villages’).

The case of Sarath Fonseka was a dry run for the 18th Amendment. The regime demonised and persecuted Gen. Fonseka and yet, no societal opprobrium ensued. The opposition launched a few desultory protests, but failed to comprehend the gravity of the common threat or to unite to defeat it. Emboldened by this indifference and ineptitude, the rulers imposed a pernicious sentence on Gen. Fonseka, depriving him of his rank, honours and even pension.

It was news for a couple of days while the normally voluble Buddhist monks, business and artistic communities and academia acted deaf-mute. For the Rajapaksas this would have been proof-positive that Lankan society will not react, even in its own defence or enlightened self-interest.

When a society is afflicted with indifference, resistance becomes a non-option. In such bleak psychological landscapes would-be tyrants thrive. Today the Rajapaksas are making a blatant power-grab, motivated by nothing other than greed and ambition, and, yet, where is the outrage? Why aren’t we opposing, to the full democratic measure, this most anti-democratic deed? Is our psychological degradation so complete, we see nothing wrong in Mahinda Rajapaksa being president for life or Namal (or Basil or Gotabaya) Rajapaksa succeeding him? Or have we been deceived by that beguiling lie assiduously spread by Rajapaksa apologists – that the 18th Amendment would not endanger democracy, because the electorate can vote out Mahinda Rajapaksa or his chosen successor, whenever necessary?

L’ affaire Mervyn and the 18th Amendment

Rajapaksa-justice is an oxymoron, as is evidenced by the scandalous exoneration of Mervyn Silva by the SLFP disciplinary committee. This was despite the existence of innumerable visual records in the public domain of Mr. Silva getting the Samurdhi official tied to a tree. The SLFP disciplinary committee claimed that the incident was a mere piece of theatre; an Orwellian self-incriminatory letter was obtained from the hapless victim, indubitably under duress. The entire charade was so specious as to insult the intelligence of even a small child; it demonstrates the contempt with which the Rajapaksas hold the Lankan people, including fellow SLFP leaders.

The conduct of the SLFP disciplinary committee is a prototype of how the 18th Amendment will work, in reality. The electoral removal of President Rajapaksa presupposes the holding of even marginally free and fair elections. Are free and fair elections possible, once the 18th Amendment empowers President Rajapaksa to hire and fire all key officials, including the Election Commissioner and the IGP? On the contrary, the 18th Amendment is tailor-made to prevent free and fair elections.

The proposed Advisory Council is a toothless entity; its sole task is to offer advice which the President may accept or reject, as he sees fit. The President will be empowered to appoint members to ‘independent’ commissions and remove them, thereby devaluing these entities into presidential appendages. This subversion of the independence of the Independent Commissions would enable the total subjugation of the public service, the judiciary and the media to the will of the omnipotent President. The 18th Amendment will further strengthen the presidency at the expense of the legislature, the judiciary and the citizens, thereby exacerbating the imbalance inherent in the system.

The 18th Amendment will enable the President to make and break careers with total impunity. Would public officials, civil or military, want to antagonise President Rajapaksa by acting justly and independently, when their career prospects and opportunities for post-retirement preferment are completely dependent on him? Particularly when they know how far, fast and hard a man can fall, once he has antagonised the Rajapaksa brothers?

After all, Gen. Fonseka was the third member of the triumvirate which defeated the LTTE, a man whose popularity was second only to the Rajapaksa brothers’, a warrior with a very real following in the Lanka Army, a Sinhala supremacist hero-worshipped by Southern hardliners and the Sangha. Today he is defeated and humiliated, a fallen idol whose fate is of indifference to his erstwhile devotees. The contradictory trajectories and the contrasting fates of Tiger Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) and anti-Tiger Sarath Fonseka indicate how to survive in a Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

The faultline is whether one is with the Rajapaksas or against the Rajapaksas. All other factors, from ethnicity and religion to party affiliations, will avail a citizen nothing if he/she takes that fatal step of opposing the Rajapaksas effectively. For the Rajapaksas, patriotism is ultimately a means to an end, an attractive garb under which their naked power-hunger is concealed. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his years as the leader of opposition, did maintain a near total silence about the Wickremesinghe-Pirapaharan appeasement process and the ensuing Tiger atrocities.

So Sri Lanka is a land polarised between the friends and the enemies of the Ruling Family. In this land, anyone who is willing to play by Rajapaksa rules and submit to Rajapaksa dictates can lead a ‘normal’ life, without experiencing state terror. The North has been bludgeoned into sullen silence; Tamils will be stigmatised and repressed as Tiger supporters if they show signs of democratic dissent. If the 18th Amendment is through and the Rajapaksas entrench themselves, a majority in the South, including most of those who voted against the UPFA, will consent to Dynastic Rule and the loss of basic rights and freedoms, in return for a measure of peace and normalcy. Extreme economic deprivation can shatter this deceptive calm, but a general outburst of discontent may take years to happen.

If the 18th Amendment is through, other constitutional reforms will follow, subverting democratic freedoms in the name of national security. The regime’s political solution to the ethnic problem (if it materialises) will involve less and not more devolution. The Rajapaksas do not want to share power anymore than they want to give it up. Democracy is incompatible with the Rajapaksa project; and in this battle for supremacy, the Rajapaksas seem to be winning.