Wednesday, February 28, 2018

America - A Failed State

When seventeen children were gunned down in a school in Florida this month, for many around the world, it was least bit startling. It was just another day in America. Much like women and children are routinely killed in Syria, girls in Nigeria are abducted by Boko Haram and the young in other impoverished lands succumb to deadly diseases and malnutrition, it was much too familiar and predictable a sight. This is what has become emblematic of this rich nation of many wonders. With all its military might, unsurpassed security apparatus and unchallenged power, America is proving to be powerless again and again in protecting its most vulnerable from terror and murder. When a nation cannot protect its children from bullets, it is but a "failed state".

The aftermath of a school shooting, is always followed by a vigorous debate. And the center of it is a farcical argument - are guns the problem or is it people with guns the issue. For those who have seen their loved ones brutally murdered in school hallways and classrooms by a powerful weapon the answer is a "no brainier". For the politicians who have taken money from the NRA (National Rifle Association) and those who hold the 2nd Amendment supreme in all its anachronistic absurdity, the answer is the opposite. It is "bad guys" with "mental health" problems that kill people and not guns.

This debate has gone on for much too long and every side of it has been parsed to its logical conclusion. What does not change is that the killing of children continues unabated. School shootings keep occuring like clockwork and there is very little political will to do anything concrete about it, even as a stop gap measure. A symptom of a "failed state".

When America was attacked from outside, the response was swift, immediate and overwhelming. A whole new agency called the TSA (Transportation Safety Authority) was created to keep our airplanes safe. Wars were initiated and life as we knew it was altered forever, under the guise of keeping America safe.

But in the case of an internal threat and terror, that breeds without any constraints, nothing has been done. 30,000 people on average die from gun related violence in America every year. There is no concerted effort from the government even to launch a study to find out why that is so.

Observing the current administration's actions, there is a resounding affirmation that nothing will change in the near future. As we heard a president who was shockingly incapable of exuding an iota of empathy for the survivors and traumatized families of the victims, there is little hope that he will act against the will of gun lobbies who prop him. Initially he sighted "mental health" being a primary cause for school shootings. Then he soon reversed his position and signed a bill that killed an Obama era regulalaton that made it harder for mentally ill people to procure guns.

Making absurd claims that he as an outstanding citizen would have run into the building to stop the Florida shooter and arming teachers with guns as the answer to mass shootings, Donald Trump showed his true colors. Consistent with his support for the NRA, on whose platform he campaigned successfully garnering the support of their five million members - a delectable voting block for any Republican candidate - Donald Trump made his intentions unambiguous.

From the cursory "listening session" held with the survivors of this recent shooting spree, it was glaringly evident that the establishment would do nothing to address this scourge. So the next best option was to see if the corporations would take a stand in good conscience against the NRA. Many companies did step up to the plate by cancelling some discounts that they had offered unbeknownst to many, but it seemed like it was only a token gesture. Not enough to make any significant dent in the clout that they wield over politicians who do their bidding.

The NRA and those who strongly believe that any kind of infringement on a person's right to bear arms, goes against the constitution, freedom and the "American Way", are delusional at best. They conveniently negate the fact that the 2nd Amendment was drafted at a time when people carried muskets and the law was meant to help slave owners exert fear over uprisings, with superior fire power. The prevailing belief that it was drafted to provide the ability for its citizenry to form a "well regulated militia" in case a revolution was needed against a tyrannical government, is not only illogical and ludicrous, but misplaced. The government has always been and always will be more powerful than its citizenry, well regulated or not. Since the passing of the 2nd Amendment the government has only become more powerful and militarized under the pretext of protecting its citizenry. One could not possibly expect to win with an army of AR15s against a drone arsenal, if the government were to unleash its tyranny over its people.

So there is no sane argument that can hold water for the ownership of any guns of any sort, especially a weapon of war such as the AR15, which is a firearm of choice for most mass killers.

The three main reasons I have found, why gun owners are passionate and feel it is legitimate for them to own weapons are as follows.

1. Hunting and Sport - If the idea behind hunting is to be in touch with nature and feel one with the wild, then killing an animal from a distance with a bullet is not just barbaric, but defeats the purpose of being equal.

2. Self Defense - This notion that there are too many bad people out there who are waiting to invade your home to rob you of your wealth and family, is a myth largely peddled by the media and movie industry, creating a paranoid society on edge. "Bad Guys" are out there and we need our guns to protect ourselves from them, is a scenario widely sold and bought by many Americans, while it fuels a multi-billion dollar industry of alarm systems, security firms and guns, whose marketing campaigns feed on fear. There is no doubt there is crime in America, but statistics show that it is not citizens with guns who stem it. Crime subsides when there is a better spread of wealth and trust among people and in the police. Globally, nations with less guns have less crime.

3. Empowerment - People feel empowered when they possess guns. I once had a conversation with a gun owner from Las Vegas on an airplane, who proposed I should buy guns for my daughters and take them to a shooting range as it would make them stronger and make them feel more empowered. I asked in dismay, what about the danger in that? What if my daughter accidentally shot herself or someone else? To that his response was, "well you need to teach them how to use firearms safely and responsibly". I was perturbed by this response, as I know statistically once you own a gun the chances of you or a loved one getting shot by it exponentially increases. The machismo that is associated with gun ownership is not only a big draw for many but is also a family tradition in many parts of this country, that is as firm as one's belief in god and religion.

As Donald Trump acknowledged, it is true there is a serious mental health problem surrounding gun ownership and use in America. It begins with denial, delusion and outright absurdity in relation to the present world we live in, and ends with someone shooting innocent people out of hatred, self loathing, bad parenting and a state of psychotic monstrosity fueled by the consumption of copious amounts of media violence and psychotropic pharmaceuticals.

So, for those multitudes who feel defeated, exasperated, resigned and frustrated by the status quo, all is not lost. Change is always incremental and comes with consistent and uncompromising struggle and perseverance. Through out history many ills in society did not eradicate themselves overnight in a referendum. Half of America wanted slavery and segregation to continue into posterity, no matter how heinous and immoral it was. We again stand on the cusp of change in relation to this barbarism that plagues America. It is for us to decide which side of history we want to be on, when it all comes crashing down.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Salam Mumbai

As I walked thorough the doorway into the open, a black stone slab overlooked the Arabian Sea. Large engraved letters read - In Memory of our Guests and Our staff - 26th November 2008. They were the thirty who were murdered here in a three day siege. Observing the shiny marble floors, the sparkling brass banisters and the friendly staff in unform smiling with a Namaste, I could barely begin to fathom what those harrowing days would have have been like. Much like I would like to forget a similar day in Brooklyn all those years ago, as the towers swallowed jet fuel and human flesh while I walked my child to school, I could tell people here would rather not be reminded of what happened that day. But then, how could one forget?

A group of men set sail from Karachi, Pakistan with carnage on their mind. By the time they were done, they had murdered a hundred and sixty four, caused significant damage to Mumbai's major landmarks and shaken the world, as everyone watched it all unfold on live television. The killers belonged to the terrorist group Lashkar-E-Taiba. The investigation and the intercepted phone calls revealed that their enablers and handlers were prominent members of that terrorist group. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was named the mastermind of the attack, and was briefly arrested in Pakistan and then let go. David Headley an American citizen who scouted the locations for the attacks was sentenced to 35 years in prison in a US court. Kasab the only surviving member of the murderous band was convicted in an Indian court and hanged. The leader of Lashkar-E-Taiba, Hafeez Saeed, was briefly placed under house arrest and let go. After the attacks and the investigations, relations between the two nuclear armed nations, which were always precarious, fell to a new low. A decade later relations are as tense as ever.

I am in Mumbai to attend the Mumbai International Film Festival where my new film Salam has been selected to screen. The film is about the Nobel Laureate physicist Abdus Salam, who was born in 1926 in pre-partition India and was laid to rest in Pakistan in 1996. The film is also about the political trajectory Pakistan took, from its birth to where it is today, riddled with sectarian violence and terrorism. The film is a passion project of two Pakistani science buffs Zakir and Omar, who always were irked since their youth, by the fact that Abdus Salam did not receive the prestige he deserved in his nation due to intolerance and bigotry. I was impressed by their commitment to bring this story to light and was drawn by the layered magnificent life of this remarkable man.

This festival organized by the Indian government, is a premier festival for documentaries in this part of world. So the selection of our film was encouraging and exciting in every possible way. Invitations were sent out, and as the director I was flown to Mumbai and am being graciously hosted at this plush hotel, afforded only by the elite of India and the travelers and businessmen with dollars, euros or pounds in their pockets.

My producer Zakir was also graciously invited to the festival by the organizing committee using their official letterhead that bore the government seal. But the Indian High Commission at Islamabad did not give him a visa to take the hour long journey from Karachi to Mumbai. Despite trying our level best and making calls to people in power, a letter was mailed to him after the film festival had started stating that his visa had been denied but he "may choose to apply again and his application would be considered without prejudice". Another filmmaker who was also invited to this festival from Pakistan, was denied entry.

The conflict between the two nations, which was born out of an amputation that took place almost seventy years ago has shown little sign of healing. With armies amassed at borders, nuclear weapons on launch vehicles, terrorists wreaking havoc and suspicions of each other only deepening, the prospects of any real peace seems more distant than ever. As people are brainwashed on either side to hate each other via their screens, there is a sizable population on both sides that exactly wishes the opposite.

Everyone recognizes that we are one people divided. We speak the same language, are entertained by the same food, music and films and love cricket with all our being. To restrict interaction in these spaces of creativity and sport is damaging to the collective soul. Civil societies on both sides of the border need to interact so there can be some dialog to prevent war. Many free thinkers and writers in Pakistan are under attack by those who fear a shift in status-quo and believe in a divisive and bigoted vision for their nation. Many journalists and bloggers languish in jail for speaking their mind and being critical of what they see. Some have disappeared and others have been killed.

At this Mumbai Film Festival, which is organized by the government, I was pleasantly surprised to view films that were critical of the state. Some filmmakers from Kashmir were allowed to show and express what they felt about the destruction and rape of their land and people. But there was one film from Kashmir titled In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar which was pulled from the schedule for reasons never clearly explained. A protest was launched by many of the filmmakers there with a letter expressing outrage.

I was at a panel discussion where myself and other filmmakers openly expressed our views on the need for absolute free speech in a healthy democracy without the need for any censorship or intimidation by the state or any group.

While India in no means is perfect, and freedom of expression has come under attack off late, with the killing of some prominent journalists and writers, it was heartwarming to see that there is a space for almost free expression with out fear of persecution. While the controversy around the release of a mainstream Bollywood film titled Padmavat dominated the newspapers, as people rioted and terrorized children in city streets, I was heartened by the fact that there was a space, albeit small and less influential, where filmmakers could speak their mind and shine a light in the dark.

While revealing the tragic life of Abdus Salam in my film, we draw attention to this point, that when any kind of intolerance suffocates creativity and brilliance, young people and nations end up paying a heavy price whose adverse effects are felt across generations. I was deeply disheartened that my Pakistani friends and colleagues, had become a casualty of the level of blanket mistrust and intolerance that has come to dominate the relationship between the two nations.

As I look down at the Arabian Sea from my fourteenth floor window I recognize that this body of water seamlessly connects Mumbai to Karachi. It is my wish and hope that this distance in never impeded at least in the creative and intellectual space, where we can relate to each other's humanity without malice or prejudice.

It is what it is.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Audacity of Sexual Equality

I was recently impressed by a little known Indian film titled Anarkali of Aarah made in the Hindi language (now available on Netflix). "Sexual Assault" and "Sexual Harassment" are the central themes of the film and the story follows the trials of a powerless woman as she seeks justice in response to a wrong done to her. Set in a small village in a backward part of north east India, in the state of Bihar, the film tells the story of a dancer who entertains a largely male audience with her sexually provocative dancing and singing, a Cabaret of sorts. A socially sanctioned activity, the dance is popular entertainment in the village, but the performers are outcasts for that very reason.

On one such occasion, an intoxicated leader of the community, to everyone's disgust and dismay, climbs on to the stage in the middle of a performance and tries to grope her. As she fights him off, the scene is recorded by the many cameras pointing at the stage. As her male colleagues ask her not to retaliate fearing reprisals, she kicks him to the ground when he tries to disrobe her, and walks away.

The next morning the drunk rises from his stupor without a memory of what happened and the coverup begins. Instead of apologizing and asking for forgiveness he goes after her with a vengeance. Threatening her, maligning her, seizing all the video recordings and finally framing her to be a prostitute and running her out of the village. With no one in her corner, she escapes to the big city, returning only later to seek revenge. Much like the many women across America who have risen up lately, some decades later, against all those men who have used their positions of power to violate them.

Early this year, when the New York Times published its extensive investigative report on the serial sexual abuse and debauchery of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, few envisioned it would become a lightening rod that would bring the careers of many rich, famous and powerful men to a grinding halt. Even though during the election of Donald Trump, the revelations of his vile behavior brought sexual abuse to the center of the national debate, it was the Weinstein story that caught fire. As the discussion intensified, more and more women felt empowered to reveal their experiences in lurid detail. Deviant male behavior that has always existed in the shadows, and will probably continue once things die down, came center stage.

"Men behaving badly" probably has existed since the time of the caveman. Some of that behavior, was probably driven by an uncontrollable biological urge to procreate and at other times just exerting and exercising physical power over someone weaker. Some of those instincts have not evolved even though society has tried to tame it via conventions, traditions and laws.

Driven by natural programming men have sexual fantasies and think about sex significantly more than women. Some fantasies are deviant and others delusional. The only thing that stops men from acting on them, is reality itself. But power and other forms of intoxication can blur the line between fantasy and reality. And that is when you see men behaving inappropriately as we have seen in recent disclosures from women. Especially those who have been around powerful men and accepted sexual abuse as a necessary price to pay for success in a man's world.

Women have always been subjected to some kind of unwarranted behavior in their lives from men. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who has escaped the lecher that lies dormant inside men.
From cat calling and offensive banter, to groping and rape, the spectrum of man's depravity is wide. In most cases women deal with it by either ignoring or handling it with a smile and out of fear and caution to not escalate and unleash the worst. In other cases they retaliate with courage, often facing deadly consequences as a result. Those who get physically abused, groped and raped are scarred for ever. Some internalize it and are psychologically damaged for life. Others find the strength to fight back and seek justice. But a large majority feel victimized and mask it to hold on to their careers, ambitions, sanity and social status.

Many of the stories we have heard lately, coming from the entertainment business, have all been about women feeling powerless, for their future was in the hands of someone who had complete control over their destiny. At least this is what they felt while being subjected to unspeakable violence. Some could find the strength and tact to escape, others unwillingly succumbed seeing it as an uncompromising and helpless path to success. Then there were the few who became enablers for the beast.

Society has always been defined by the unevenness that has existed between the sexes. The traditional role of women has been that of a homemaker, caregiver and nurturer. Religion and custom always set this as the primary purpose of the female gender. Then there were rules put in place by men for men to be adhered to by women to fulfill that purpose. Women are to behave, look and conduct themselves a certain way, was the central guiding principle of the rule book. The rule book was long for women and extremely short for men. When at the turn of the twentieth century women began to demand a significant rewrite of the rule book, society began to convulse. Feminism in the west started with women asking for voting rights and continues to this day asking for equal pay. In the east, while feminism existed in different forms at the grass roots and in matriarchal subcultures, the demand was similar, but in most instances it was much more basic. To be considered human was the struggle. Today in many Muslim nations and other traditional societies, and even in outwardly westernized nations like Japan, women strive to have their voices heard.

For many feminism is not about the right to be equal to men in every way. But it is about unequivocally having the same choices as men and to have the indisputable right to chart one's own destiny without constraints. For most women around the globe this is the basic challenge and the audacity of equality is a distant cry for freedom. Even if women are able to chart their own course they face a stiff current of sexism and misogyny. In some parts of the world women are routinely killed or imprisoned in unwanted marriages for exercising free will. In many other instances they are battered down and emotionally bruised beyond having an identity they can call their own. They are raped, abused, victimized and discarded in a man's world that feels threatened by their rise.

Women may not have been given the right to choose through the ages, but they certainly have been elevated and sanctified in many cultures, probably with the goal to protect them from predators. For they were the birthers of life and life is sacrosanct, and should be protected for self preservation of the tribe visa vie the race. In India, women still struggle to find some semblance of equality in social life and don't feel safe in many parts of the country after dark, but in mythology and popular culture they are elevated to the status of goddesses and immortalized as mother figures in movies and popular culture. In the west, respect given to women by taking your hat off and treating them like a "lady" with delicate and appropriate respect, was something that was always taught and projected. The code for modern intermingling of the sexes based on free will, was written in the west which is still emulated around the world. This notion that true love can only be achieved through mutual respect, was ingrained through movies, books and is still peddled as the ideal. But reality does not reflect the ideal. Domestic abuse and sexual assault is rampant in the west. While women are asked to be nurtured, they still do not have rights to their own body. Abortion is still an anathema in a man's world.

But for those women who chose to live life on their own terms, the path is fraught with danger, unless supported and accepted by men.

One cannot ignore the fact that at our core, humans are sexual beings. And sexuality plays a big part in the way we perceive the world. Mindful of this, the popular culture is in a constant state of frenzy, feeding off of and feeding people's insatiable sexual desires. In large part the entertainment business, from Hollywood to Bollywood to the porn industry, feeds this beast with titillating fantasies and subliminally programming standards of what "sexy" and "beautiful" is and should be. In a world where explicit sexual material is just a mouse click away, to teach the younger generation the etiquette of social and sexual behavior is proving to be challenging to any parent. This could be a place where the early seeds of deviant behavior are planted as young people try to navigate the hormonal chaos that grips their brains.

In the recent scandals that have erupted in America, descriptions of men's alleged and some acknowledged behavior have been harrowing. From men openly masturbating in front of women, to taking showers and parading naked unannounced in front of young assistants, giving dildos as gifts, to openly soliciting sex for reward and groping and raping, appalling behavior was on full display. This behavior always existed in the shadows among "respectable" powerful men and was buried with threats and financial settlements as we have seen in the case of executives at Fox News. There is also no doubt that a large percentage of men would not engage in such behavior, some out of fear and others out of just good upbringing. Also there are many out there, who will lose their guard with little or no provocation as well.

In an over-sexualized world of today, that celebrates the libido of youth to the hilt, the signal to noise ratio is very high and confusing. To be promiscuous is considered a badge of honor. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is "no big deal", is the motto to live by. And it cuts across genders causing upheaval and leading to unsavory behavior, as we have noticed lately. The sexual abuse recently brought to the surface has run across all age groups, from the oldest to the youngest as reported in the recent investigations carried out at the well known media establishment VICE entertainment.

The Weinstein ripple effect shattered the careers of many extremely talented people in an instant. Some with good cause and others with little. It launched a witch hunt accusing men of abhorrent behavior and they paid with their long careers terminated without an investigation, trial or jury. The prevailing wave of public opinion seemed to deem and conflate all inappropriate behavior the same and served out one punishment to fit all. While on one side it is commendable to put the images of abused women on the cover of Time Magazine, and celebrate the victim's courage, the current debate also sends a signal that there is no place for reformation, perspective, penance and second chances. The age old question of, does a Picasso lose its luster when the world acknowledges that he was a serial abuser of women, remains as ambivalent as ever.

At the end of the film Anarkali of Aarah, the protagonist gets her revenge by publicly shaming the man who abused her so publicly, by releasing the one video recording of the incident she manages to get hold of. Then she approaches her abuser and says "I maybe your wife, a whore, or a dancer for your pleasure. But before you touch a woman, you need to ask" and walks away. As a father of two daughters, it is my hope that they are asked before they are touched, and the men who get permission are a product of good upbringing.

It is what it is.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

They poisoned my friends for Ivanka

I was born in an alleyway under a hot Indian sun. My mother left me young, and ever since I have roamed the streets of Hyderabad and scavenged to stay alive. In the nights, I sleep under streetlights. When it rains I take shelter in open garages behind cardboard boxes. I live free and easy, but get kicked and beaten, shooed and shouted at often. As a stray dog I am a public nuisance, but I have some rights. I can be captured and neutered, but cannot be killed.

I am not alone. I have a posse of friends who roam with me. I also have human colleagues who live like me, begging at traffic lights and temples for a cup of tea and a slice.

Two days ago my human counterparts were rounded up and asked to stay out of sight. About the same time, some in my posse went missing. There were rumors that many were vanishing across the city. There was fear spreading. Then I saw the streets being spruced up, trash being cleared and potholes repaired. Men in uniform were in places I had never seen before. And then I saw a friend in a garbage dump discarded like rotten meat. Someone said we were being poisoned around the city because Ivanka Trump would be visiting soon. The local government decided the image of beggars and stray dogs is too harsh for her soft eyes, so we have to be made invisible so her visit can be as painless as possible.

Unlike myself, Ivanka Trump was born into luxury. Daughter of a real estate bigwig, she had only seen gilded ceilings and gold everywhere she turned. At a young age she began walking the catwalks and joined the glitterati of Manhattan. Later she was absorbed into her father's real estate business and sat next to him on TV as he fired people on his make believe reality show. With all that money she launched her own line of fashion items for the rich, which included clothes, handbags, shoes, and accessories. She then married another real estate bigwig named Jared Kushner, converted to Judaism and became a mother of three children. Ivanka Trump became the elite among elites, and carefully manicured her image with good looks and championing some worthy causes adding the word "philanthropist" to her vitae.

So why is this princess coming to my city I wondered. Is it to taste the world famous Biryani? Well, when her father became president, she being the favorite of his five children, was automatically bound for the White House. Being a woman, the hope was that she would soften the brash and boorish man that had become president with good looks and charm. She would be the voice of reason and champion causes that would maybe bring some of his detractors, mainly women, into the tent. But that hope died fast for many.

So her father gave her and her husband a close seat at the table. People cried nepotism, but that did not shake the steadfast president. Since he could not give them official positions, he made them both "Advisors to the President". Which basically means, if you want favors from the President of the United States of America visa vie the government, all you have to do is get on the good side of Ivanka or Jared and maybe they will put in a word for you and your agenda.

And so when my Prime Minister visited the United States, he invited Ivanka Trump to co-host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and it is said she obliged with delight as it would be her first official high level outing. She saw this as an opportunity to highlight women entrepreneurs, as she considered herself to be one. And also take a trip to a part of the world she claimed she had visited only once before. Many took this opportunity to point out that many of the products sold on her fashion website were probably manufactured in this part of the world and not America, which is where her father would have liked them to be. At least this is what he keeps bellowing in his speeches "America First"!! Make America Great Again !!

And so Ivanka Trump landed in my city with no significant official title, other than that of an "advisor" and was treated like royalty. My Prime Minister breaking all protocol, welcomed her like a head of state. Her 350-member delegation is hosted at the taxpayers' expense. Photo-ops with the Prime Minister are all over the media as men in white bow and shake hands with this Trump princess.

With her $3500 dress she turned on her charm offensive and gave a speech to loud applause. Incorporating pseudo feminism in her talk, to fit the theme of the summit "Women First, Prosperity for all" she charmed everyone with her propensity to form complete sentences and coherent ideas, which her father so severely lacks. My Prime Minister then went on his usual rant, quoting from Hindu mythology and touting his wonderful achievements in order of preference. Unlike her father, Princess Trump did not offend anyone with her remarks and everyone was swooned by the Ivanka glow and it was palpable even on TV.

Then the roads were all cleared for her motorcade to pass through a city which is fraught with traffic on a daily basis. Making it worse for the denizens of Hyderabad she breezed through streets with no beggars or us stray dogs in sight. Falaknuma Palace, the palace of the Nizam, was on lock down to wine and dine her. My city for all practical purposes was shut down for just an advisor to the president of America.

As I mourn the death of my compatriots, I am aware that in a land where the price of humans is cheap, I cannot expect much for "man's best friend". I am always aware that being allowed to live is a daily miracle. While the coming of Ivanka put a dent in my population, she left a much bigger dent on my states' coffers. It is what it is.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Toxic India

Unseasonal rains were wreaking havoc down below as my plane descended into Hyderabad, India. As I exited the airport, the heat and humidity for October was insufferable. For a moment I thought I had landed in the wrong city. I had grown up here and had never felt this way, especially in the month of October when the heat normally leaves and the cool air settles in. As I got into my taxi and made my way home, my driver was relaying how difficult commuting had become as cloudbursts would flood city streets with little notice, making them impassable. As we got off the overpass, and joined the river of choking traffic, what he was saying became apparent. The roads were in atrocious condition as a result of incessant rain, and as the traffic crawled, the plight of urban living in India was on full display. In a place where rain is normally a blessing as it cleanses the air and brings relief to parched land, people were praying for it to go away.

As I arrived home to be greeted by my parents who I had not seen for over an year, the discussion quickly turned to the rains. Our fifty year old house standing on three foot wide limestone walls was soaking in water from the wet onslaught. Next morning I visited my neighbor who was disinfecting her home after a foot of water mixed with sewage and storm run off had inundated every room. Was this climate change showing itself or just an anomaly, one could not tell. But my neighbor was exhausted complaining that this was the fourth time she had had her home flooded this month and she was at her wit’s end.

October is festival month in India. Dushera and Diwali are the two major Hindu festivals that are celebrated with much pomp and flare in much of the country. Being home for Diwali is always special. As a child I would look forward to this festival all year as you would get new clothes, and the house would come alive with oil lamps, marigolds, colorful floor patterns, mango leaves and the aromas of delicious home cooked savories. But what would excite me most, was the burning of firecrackers, which was the highlight for any child. Some sparklers, flowerpots, loud bombs and red cracker garlands and an assorted cornucopia of toxic smoke releasing delights would do the trick. I even suffered third degree burns on my thumb as a ten year old, but that did not deter my passion for this activity around this time.

Fireworks were never cheap, and in some ways letting them off in a poor nation was tantamount to burning currency. I began to come to this realization later in my youth as the act of burning fireworks during Diwali seemed to be getting a little out of hand. With India's economic boom came a rise in disposable income. And Diwali soon became a time to show of your status by burning more fireworks than needed. This time around it seemed like things had reached a tipping point. Last year New Delhi had to be shut down for three days after Diwali, as the air had become so toxic that it was considered unsafe for children to go to school.

So this year the Indian Supreme Court banned fireworks in New Delhi in an attempt to avoid the dire conditions that had brought the city to a halt last year. New Delhi's air is already ranked one of the worst in the world and they hoped this would make a difference. While many were supportive of this action, there were others who saw this as an attack on their Hindu pride and their ability to exercise their religious freedom. There were ministers and intellectuals on the right who were opposing the ban vehemently with absurd logic. Neighboring states were inviting the Delhi residents to come over to their land to exercise their birth right of burning fireworks to their heart's content. On Diwali day, the ban had little effect. It was barely enforced and New Delhi was engulfed in a smog of toxic air.

Down in Hyderabad, my house was invaded by smoke as my neighbors exercised their right to burn fireworks for probably our whole neighborhood. From my terrace I could see the sulfur rise like a ghostly cloud obscuring the view of the grand marble temple on the hill. And the next day I had the worst headache I can remember that lasted the whole day, which I could only attribute to the air that surrounded me. While being home for Diwali was joyous, somethings in my city had steadily and irrevocably changed. I had little hope that things would reset even though many in the media were shouting hoarse about the deteriorating state of affairs.

Just about then the Lancet Study made headlines. India accounted for about 28 per cent of an estimated 9 million pollution-linked deaths worldwide in 2015. It also topped the list of deaths linked to polluted air (1.81 million) and water (0.64 million). Most of the pollution-related deaths were reported in low and middle income countries, and in rapidly industrializing nations such as India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Madagascar and Kenya. Most of these deaths were due to non-communicable diseases caused by pollution, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

While stuck in a perilous traffic jam in my non-air conditioned minuscule Maruti 800 (a tin can of a car from the 1980s), I saw large Jaguars, Mercedes Benzes and BMWs pass by. Then there were buses packed with passengers exploding out in steaming humid air. Families on two-wheelers with helmets and handkerchiefs on their faces, clamored to get ahead. Three-wheelers, called Auto-rickshaws, tried to squeeze through, all while the traffic crawled in a state of utter chaos and frenzy as people honked their horns with the hope that some noise would have an impact. Having grown up here I was used to this daily din as people trudged to their destinations like this, with little or no choice. But I had not seen it this bad before and as more and more cars entered the streets, the clamor was predicted to only get worse. As a solution the city had initiated the construction of an overhead metro system with the hope of relieving some of the congestion below. With ten years and counting, the delayed project was not only causing the traffic mayhem, but the prospect of it addressing this urban calamity seemed suspect.

I was in India this time, also to screen a film I was part of, titled Holy (un)Holy River. The film tells the story of the mighty Ganges and its current predicament. Highlighting the over damming of the water and the industrial and religious pollution the river faces on a daily basis, the film makes the argument that this holiest of holy rivers, can one day cease to exist if things continue the way they have been for the last fifty years. The river has reached its limit and by all scientific measure is a polluted waterway. By shining a light on the state of affairs the film reveals the urgency that is at hand, and calls for urgent action or suffer the consequences of a physical sacred river becoming a mythological one, much like its counterpart, Saraswati. During a question and answer session after a screening in Bangalore, an audience member said the film shows all that is wrong with the river, but offers no solutions? To which I answered, as a filmmaker my job is to shine a light. Solutions have always been there and there are many proposed that people in power are aware of. But I am beginning to become pessimistic as I see little or no action at the governmental level. The problem is now beyond individual action that placates one’s conscience.

While India is turning toxic due to rapid urbanization and industrialization, this scenario is not unique to this nation alone. It is only more "in your face" here. The west polluted itself, got rich in the process and then cleaned itself up to a large extent. Poor nations like India do not have that luxury or the time. Rich nations like America still continue to pollute the environment with emissions and excessive use of chemicals. The current administration in America has chosen a path of regression. By pulling out of the Paris accord and succumbing to lobbyists and reversing all the progress made by the previous administration, they are assuring that big chemical companies like Dow Chemicals continue to profit by putting American lives at risk.

While there is great pristine beauty left on this planet, there is little doubt that humanity by its very existence is turning it toxic. While living in urban India is injurious to health, one only has to travel a few miles outside the ever-expanding city limits to touch and feel what fresh air tastes like. But even there on close observation one will find human toxicity in the form of pesticides and other pollutants that are used to grow food to feed the teeming masses.

So where do we go from here? The climate is changing, humans are set in their ways, and governments are in a state of denial and in the business of creating growth and jobs to win elections. And still we are asked to be optimistic and have faith in technology, and that there will be "big solutions" to these gigantic existential problems. But do we really have the time?

James Baldwin, the great author, thinker and conscience of his time was once asked, if he felt optimistic about the plight of his people (with regards to racism and segregation) in America. He responded, "I am alive, therefore I have to be optimistic".

It is what it is.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Freedom to Speak

"Make America Great Again" was the slogan/war-cry Donald Trump effectively bellowed to rise to power. On a recent broadcast of the talk show "Real Time with Bill Mahar", the well known author Salman Rushdie posed a poignant question in response to that slogan. He asked, "When was that period in time when America was truly Great?. Was it during the time of slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War... it will be good to know when was America really great?" to which Bill Mahar responded and I paraphrase "1945, when we liberated Europe from the clutches of fascism".

There is little doubt in anyone's mind that the American blood spilled to rid the world of fascism was an enormous sacrifice. The American soldiers and their allies were truly exceptional and selfless in their fight against evil and prevailed due to their perseverance and courage. But then again, it was that very war that led to the creation of the Atomic Bomb which was then dropped on innocent civilians in Japan, bringing the whole horrific ordeal to a sordid end. But that war of all wars did not stop America's long tradition of spilling blood. There have been very few days since the end of that war, when this nation's soldiers have rested in their barracks while their leaders contemplated the next one.

But there is one thing, that makes America truly great. It is the First Amendment to the constitution that gives every citizen the freedom to speak his/her mind, without fear of persecution. It is this very freedom that allowed Donald Trump to spew divisive lies and hatred and rise to the highest echelons of power. It is this very freedom that allowed social media and the internet to spawn "fake news" and sway public opinion like never before. And it is this freedom that allows one to dissent and critique America, in an act of love for country. And it is this freedom that allows me to express my opinion here on this screen, without fear of reprisals or threat from anyone known or unknown. And I am keenly aware that this is a luxury I am granted as a citizen of this nation. There are many around the world who are dead or are in prison for having expressed their mind. This very fact does not go unacknowledged lightly and it is one of the few reasons I chose to live here in this "great nation".   

This week Donald Trump questioned this cherished right by casting aspersions on some athletes who chose to dissent on the field, knowing they were being watched by millions, only to draw attention to some injustices that persist in this nation, despite great progress. By kneeling instead of standing while the national anthem played, they wanted to send a message about how they felt about this moment in time in America. To which the president responded in his usual brash and vulgar language, that they should be fired for being "unpatriotic". Another said they should protest on their own time and off the field. Others drew attention to the NFL rule book which elaborately explains a player's conduct during this ceremony and anyone who is in violation does not deserve to hold their position and so on and so forth. This discussion in response to another of Donald Trump's un-presidential behavior,  began to dominate the media sphere while other matters of greater importance were brushed aside.

Since when did the workplace become a space where one could not express one's opinion if one was doing it peacefully and without disruption? Through out history people have protested at their workplace by tying a black or red arm band expressing their displeasure. Athletes have raised their clenched fist on the medal stand to protest discrimination. The "greatest" of them all, Muhammad Ali threw away his Olympic gold medal in the river and defied the military draft to express his disgust of the America he was living in. These actions brought about steady but incremental change to a point where all people can demand their right to be treated with respect, dignity, justice and decency. It seems like those who disparage others for using free speech by exercising their own right to free speech, either do not know their history or have blatantly chosen to ignore it.

Free speech is absolute. There are no gradations to free speech. Anyone who expresses his/her views through words or non-violent action, can only be retorted by words and non-violence. Anyone who chooses violence to counter free speech is weak and impotent.

Salman Rushdie, probably is the only living intellectual, who was persecuted relentlessly for his words, when he published "The Satanic Verses" in 1989. For many writers and journalists he became a poster-child for free speech. His first condemnation began inside the largest democracy of the world, when India decided to ban his book on behest of a member of parliament's opinion that it would offend Muslims. Who at that time were a large voting block for the ruling government, and their appeasement was seen as vital to their re-election. Without much introspection, debate or for that mater reading of the book, he was accused of "blasphemy". This action caught wind and within a short period a death sentence for Salman Rushdie was proclaimed by a despot in Iran. The "Fatwa" made it incumbent upon every well meaning Muslim anywhere on the planet, to murder the author, to reclaim the religion from insult and denigration,

Salman Rushdie was not the first public intellectual to be persecuted for his/her ideas, but his predicament became a seminal moment which cast a chilling effect, whose impact is felt even today. When asked recently whether he would have considered writing the book in the present time, Salman Rushdie acknowledged, he would doubt it.

Freedom of speech in many societies around the world is under threat. Not just in dictatorships but in most democracies, voices are being thwarted by either authoritative governments or by a rise of populism, nationalism and fascism. According to the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) 24 journalists have been killed in 2017 around the world. On September 5th, a well known journalist, Gauri Shankar was assassinated in her house in Bangalore, India. Her death brought a vile polarized discourse to the surface which had been brewing in India for a while. Some openly felt "she had it coming" for her leftist/communist writings and investigations of the present establishment and its overlords. The shocking silence from some intellectual circles and the lack of outrage was a reflection of the state of affairs in a democracy that is faltering. In Bangladesh and Pakistan bloggers have been hacked to death or have been beaten into silence. In Russia anyone who speaks out against Vladimir Putin and his oligarchy is in the cross hairs of the security apparatus and other shadowy groups. In China the internet is severely censored and dissidents imprisoned with impunity. In Philippines, journalists critical of the government have come under attack and some have been murdered. In Egypt many languish in prison with no end in sight.

In America, the pendulum has swung in many directions. While journalists don't feel threatened for their lives yet, they have been demeaned, vilified and branded biased by the establishment. But unlike other nations, the media establishment in America is still strong, powerful, relentless and influential. When the mainstream media falters, which has been too often for comfort, satirists, comedians, talk-show hosts and in some instances Hollywood pick up the slack. But their reach has steadily waned since the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the like. By condemning the media that do not do his bidding and applauding, Donald Trump has launched a smoke and mirror dance that emboldens his base and divides the public like never before. This might serve him well if there is any criminality that is unearthed by the many ongoing investigations of him, his associates and his family. He can always dismiss it as liberal bias or a media take down of his presidency. But he refuses to take any concrete action against the real "fake news" that has proliferated the internet like a cancer, devouring the foundations of democracy, not just here in America, but around the globe.

People globally have become purveyors on social media and therefore have become prisoners of their echo chambers. A society that measures its worth by the number of "likes", "hits" and "dislikes" is down a slippery slope and its consequences are just being felt on the margins. While free speech is the oxygen that cannot be constricted, the internet has spawned a platform, where that oxygen can quickly turn to poison. Racism, bigotry, religious fanaticism and all the awful qualities human tribalism spawns, surface in the name of free speech. On the internet there is ample room for people to vomit and not get noticed, or explode for a short while and then burn out like a falling meteor.

Silicon Valley the bastion of liberalism created the internet to spread democracy and free speech without boundaries. They created a true egalitarian space in virtual reality, for people to feel empowered no matter who they are and where they live. In the process Google, Facebook and others have become more powerful than long established media companies and governments who were the traditional gatekeepers of opinion. By providing a platform for people to express their impressions of the world as they see it, they opened the door to lies, deceit and fabrication. In the recent investigations of the hijacking and hacking of the American election, it is becoming clear the role Silicon Valley may have inadvertently played in the election of Donald Trump. What we are seeing is that an unregulated internet can be a dangerous force, but to regulate it means going against the very essence of its creation. There in lies the dilemma in taming the insatiable beast.

Patriotism in most instances around the world, is defined and symbolized by flag draping, standing up for the anthem and pledge, supporting the troops and cheering your nation's sports teams or in the case of America, your favorite NFL or NBA team as air-force jets fly by in formation. In today's climate more than ever, if you criticize your government and its leaders, find fault in the justice system, speak out against war, racism, bigotry and religious fervor or expose the double standards and corruption openly practiced by politicians and CEOs, you are branded anti-national and or unpatriotic. If draping yourself or your profile picture on Facebook in a flag was all you had to do to be counted as a loyal citizen, then we might as well flush the idea of democracy and relegate ourselves to being a brainwashed society drugged by consumerism and mass consumption.

James Baldwin once said, "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually". Probably the most patriotic thing to say and do, in an imperfect and flawed world.

This week US Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech at Georgetown University's Law School. The topic was free speech on college campuses. He defended the president's right to free speech for expressing his views on kneeling athletes and also commented on how college campuses around America were stifling free speech by shouting down speakers like Milo Yiannaopoulos and Charles Murray, they did not agree with. Then he went on to offer advise to the young students, some of who were protesting his presence with black tape on their mouths and kneeling. He said "As you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare and how fragile they are. In most societies throughout history" he added "openly criticizing the government or expressing unorthodox opinions could land you in jail or worse". From a cursory read it was unclear whether these ominous words were meant to be a cautionary tale or a foreshadowing of whats to come.

It is what it is

Friday, September 1, 2017

Winter is Coming!

The globally popular television show "Game of Thrones", is a sordid and violent tale of palace intrigue, revenge and brutal power struggle between kingdoms, kings, queens and their associates.
"Winter is coming" is an ominous phrase often used in the show, foreshadowing a dooms day coming. The phrase has become common usage among fans of the show, to signify something sinister to come, mostly in good humor.

For those who may have not seen the series, here is a primer. The lush television mega production is based on the vividly imagined fantastic tales by R.R.Martin in a series of books titled "A Song of Fire and Ice". Loosely borrowed from European fiefdoms of medieval times, R.R. Martin concocted a rich and layered fantasy universe filled with ornate palaces, lavish landscapes, flying banners, warring horseback armies, magic, dragons and zombies. The central thread runs around a power struggle between royal families, vying to claim their rightful place on the "Iron Throne", which would allow them to rule over the seven kingdoms which constitutes the whole universe of the story. While the kings and queens war, plot, deceive, murder and squabble among each other, to the north there is an army of the dead that is amassing which is all powerful and dominating and threatens to render all that is living obsolete. The series that just completed its seventh season, has been building to a moment, when the army of the dead would arrive at the giant ice wall, the only obstacle standing between the living and the dead.

So the wise John Snow, one of the main characters, tries to convince the warring kingdoms, that it is pointless fighting among each other as the real threat does not care who sits on the Iron Throne. If they do not put their differences aside and face the real enemy, life as they know it would cease to exist. And so he convenes a meeting of all parties and presents evidence that the army of the dead is real, by capturing one of the zombies. While he manages to convince that the threat is real, not all agree to cooperate. One of the factions chooses to find an island and seclude themselves from the danger and another sees an opportunity in the face of impending catastrophe. The final episode of the season ends with the army of the dead breaching the ice wall as winter begins to descend.

As we watch the fourth largest city in America, succumb to trillions of gallons of water unleashed upon it by a hurricane, and scientists and weather forecasters call it a "once in a 500 year flood" one wonders if this is just a freak of nature or is this a new normal. Is "the winter", climatologists have been predicting as the planet warms is already here.

Houston and its surrounding counties have seen their fair share of floods through the years. Partly because of their geographical location in the gulf of Mexico. In 1994 Montgomery county received 20 to 30 inches of rain and was inundated. This time this suburb of Houston received over 50 inches in a couple of days. A survivor of that 1994 deluge, responded to New York Times about this present calamity saying "this is the most catastrophic thing I've seen in my life".

Scientists have predicted for sometime now, that warming oceans can create intense storms which can pack immense amount of moisture and deliver it to land with devastating fury. One of the most significant and telling effects of global warming are abnormal weather patterns that can wreak havoc on population centers that are ill prepared to handle the increasing scale of the impact. While Huston was flooding and the media was focused on Hurricane Harvey, a third of Bangladesh was under water and Nepal, Mumbai and Karachi were dealing with unseasonal cloudbursts leading to hundreds of deaths. Approximately 16 million people in the region were estimated to have been affected by the floods.

Since the industrial revolution, nations have heated the planet by burning coal and other fossil fuels without refrain. Deforestation and other forms of pollution have rendered vast stretches of the planet lifeless. When science began to conclude with strong evidence the impact human activity was having on the globe, the first response was to doubt it. The worst polluting western nations did not want to stifle their economic growth and the developing nations felt it was their turn to pollute as they had to catch up to the west. After much squabbling over decades like the warring families of "Game of Thrones", 198 nations agreed to the non-binding Paris Climate Accord, acknowledging at least in principle, like the "army of the dead", climate change was real and an existential threat to all things living.

In all their wisdom, respecting the knowledge of almost 99% of the scientists of the world, in 2015, leaders signed onto the Paris Climate Accord. Nations agreed to take action to mitigate rising temperatures by enacting sensible regulations in their native countries. Then in 2017, Donald Trump ascended to the office of the American presidency and decided to go against the accord wowing to pull out. His decision was largely governed by his distrust of the scientific data and belief in climate change deniers. He often called climate change a "hoax" during his campaign rallies. The reason he gave though, was that he thought enacting any policies to curtail global warming would come at a great cost to the American economy and its workers.

As Texans clean up after the storm, an estimated 300,000 people have been directly affected by the storm. Many have lost homes and probably their livelihoods as a result. Petrochemical factories, that employ a large number in the area have been flooded and will take weeks if not months to reopen. As people rebuild, many employers will have to let go of people, not knowing when they would return. The economic impact of such a storm will be hard to gauge and will take its toll for years to come. Donald Trump's lopsided economic theory that acting on climate change might stifle economic growth and cost American jobs, is proven wrong with this catastrophic example. Whether it will be acknowledged, is another matter.

Climate change deniers defy logic. As they propose, if actually the climate is not changing as a result of human activity but is only going through a natural cycle, and that cycle will return back to its normal state in the future, then great, we will all be saved. But if that is not the case, and if humans are in fact contributing to an accelerated change in climate and rising ocean temperatures, then does it not make sense to stop being selfish and opportunistic and actively do something about it?

Climate change is a real security threat. Many sensible governments around the world and the US Military have adopted a serious posture in preparing for it. Just like the army of the dead in "Game of Thrones", it is real and it is not selective and it does not see borders. If the human race as a whole does not join hands in stemming its onslaught, life as we know it will cease to exist in the very near future. Hurricane Harvey is again sounding the alarm. It is for us to decide whether we want to unite or perish. It is what it is.