Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Tale of Tusks

This past weekend I was fortunate to be in a front row seat, to experience the new play by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Mlima's Tale is a sordid story of human corruption set against the backdrop of the horrid poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks.

The story begins in the forests of Kenya as a grand old tusker named Mlima, the nation's pride, is mercilessly killed by a poacher. Mlima's twenty two feet long tusks are a rare find and become the prize possession of a corrupt high ranking police officer who secretly funds poachers. The killing of Mlima sets off a firestorm, much like the killing of Cecil the Lion did in reality, a few years ago. The play then tracks the journey of the tusks from the safe-house of the poachers in Kenya to the living room of a wealthy Chinese businessman.

The play is striking in its visualization and stage craft. Its minimalism forces you to focus on the narrative as it meanders from one scenario to another. With four actors (one being the elephant) playing almost a dozen characters, seamlessly transforming accents and wardrobe, with only a chair and a table for props, the play creates atmosphere through sound effects, lighting and the projection of words on a screen.

All the characters are tainted as they facilitate the transport of the tusks driven by greed and the inexplicable nature of humanity. Lynn Nottage through the power of word, carefully and meticulously exposes the avarice and hypocrisy that has come to define our very existence on this earth.

Each scene is punctuated by a phrase, which I am assuming are Kenyan proverbs translated into English.

The final proverb that ties it all together and leaves a profound impact is -

"Human greed is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant"

A snake may never attempt to swallow an elephant. But humans are on course to swallowing the very planet they call home.

It is what it is.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Mayflower Mentality

I recently concluded watching the much talked about documentary series Wild Wild Country on Netflix. The six episodes take you on a journey through the sordid machinations of two principle characters, the Indian spiritual guru Rajneesh and his lieutenant Maa Anand Sheela and their loyal followers called "sanyasins". The story centers around their efforts to establish a commune called Rajneeshpuram in the 1980s, in a remote part of Oregon over a large swathe of largely wild country. There they encounter stiff opposition from the neighboring city of Antelope who see them as invaders. A battle ensues between the town's fifty odd residents and the nearly seven thousand maroon clad Rajneeshis as they both scheme to out do one another. For a brief period the commune prevails, only later to be ejected by the federal government with their guru being deported. In the heat of the conflict, Maa Anand Sheela makes a statement to the media, where she frames the people hell bent on stopping them from setting up their commune as bigots suffering from a "religious prejudice as well as a Mayflower mentality. I came here before you therefore you can't be here".

The Mayflower was the original English ship that transported the first Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth England to the "New World" in 1620. They landed in New England, with 102 passengers and 30 crew members. These were the original "illegal aliens" to arrive on the continent of North America. Not long after, the indigenous occupants of this land were decimated, and in little more than a century, the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted and the Caucasians laid claim to this land by their own decree. With slaves at their disposal, they profited and carved a nation unlike any other, whose riches and promises are still being enjoyed by most of their descendents.

Once the union was formed, legal immigration was more or less restricted to people coming from Western Europe. Even though the Chinese came at the turn of the 19th century mostly as laborers to build the transatlantic railroad, they were discriminated and used as mostly indentured servants. So hostile was the opposition to the Chinese immigrants, that in 1882 the US congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only US law ever to openly prevent immigration based on race.

Immigration from Ireland and Italy through New York and Boston, defined the early surges. From 1820 through 1860 close to two million Irish arrived as a result of the Great Irish Famine. Between 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone - majority of them fleeing poverty. Exclusion laws enacted in 1880s prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia which was then extended to Eastern Europe in the 1920s.

I just started work on a film that tells the story of a young Indian man who stowed away onto a British colonial steam ship and made the perilous journey to New York in the 1920s. To his surprise he found an enclave of Bengali Muslims in Harlem, that helped him cope with this strange land. In the extensively researched book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald (also the director of the film) brilliantly unearths the lost stories of a group who did their part in building America from the shadows. As "illegal aliens" many of them lived in hiding, working as dishwashers and menial laborers. Disconnected from their families back home, they started new lives marrying into Puerto Rican and African American communities, while trying to hold on to their roots. The Bengalis of Harlem were the earliest trailblazers from a part of the world that later went on to build Silicon Valley and form the affluent South Asian American community that we know of today.

Prior to 1965, policies such as the National Origins Formula limited immigration opportunities from areas outside Western Europe. The goal was to prevent immigration from changing the ethnic distribution of the population. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished that formula,  replacing the system with quotas for the Western and Eastern hemispheres. This dramatically altered the ethnic make up of the country bringing us to the present character of America, where diversity for the most part is seen as an asset and not an anathema.

Immigration has always been and always will be a controversial topic of discussion in this nation, around which positions are taken and the future of elections and leaders are decided. Some who have been here for long, see it as a threat. Those who have come recently want more of their tribe to join the party. Then there are those who acknowledge the history of its foundation and celebrate the inevitability of it. Some out of guilt and others out of compassion and pride.

The ascent of Barack Obama to the presidency was a rare moment in American history when people thought a rung had been climbed in this regard. Even though deportation of illegal immigrants was the highest in decades under his presidency, the general sense was that he was pro-immigration and humane in his approach towards groups who in the past were considered pariah.

But when Donald Trump rose to power in a backlash to the eight years of a fairly liberal approach, a hard line was adopted quickly, attempting to take us right back to the 1960s. The vision of a towering concrete wall along the southern border became popular with many. A complete ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations was seen as a solution to terrorism. The children of illegal immigrants who were sheltered by the previous administration were now told that their protections would be taken away. And the spouses of guest workers mostly servicing Silicon Valley, who had gained the privilege of being able to work and contribute to the economy under President Obama, were now told to stay home.

This week the Trump administration is ending protection status for Hondurans who were allowed to live in the United States on humanitarian grounds since a Hurricane ravaged their country two decades ago. Two weeks ago 9000 Nepalis with similar protection were asked to leave. In January 200,000 El Salvadorans were asked to depart by September 2019. Last year 45,000 Haitians and 2500 Nicaraguans were asked to leave by next year. Raids by ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) in search of undocumented workers, especially in the agriculture and restaurant sectors has increased rapidly.

In essence immigration from non-European nations is being tightened like never before and groups that could gain a place in American society are being told they don't belong here anymore.

According to current trends, by 2050 the demographics in this nation will be irreversibly altered. The Hispanic population will be the majority. For the first time in the history of this nation, the census will clearly show, that the race that landed on the Mayflower will no longer be in predominance. For most people around the world, by default the word "American" conjures up an image of a white person. That will have to change in the future by design. And it is this fear that drives the rhetoric that you hear coming from the current president's mind and mouth, that galvanizes a significant population bringing their inherent racism to the surface.

The demographic shift might bring some diversity to congress and its leadership, as this is inevitable. But in reality the change is only going to be along the margins. The current congress and senate is far from an accurate representation of the demographic make up of America and this is not going to shift anytime soon. In a capitalistic system those who wield economic power always define who governs who does not.

But what will have to change, is the Mayflower mentality people harbor. The notion that I came before you therefore I have more sway over this land has no credibility as it defies logic. This is stolen, pillaged, conquered land. Unlike other parts of the world, this happened not very long ago and the memory is still fresh. The history of this nation forces those who rule over it to open its doors and welcome those who want to come here to make a better life for themselves. The day a wall can stop someone from coming here, will be the day the notion of America will cease to exist.

That notion is presently being put to the test as a caravan of asylum seekers, fleeing violence in central America, amass at a border fence in Tijuana, Mexico.

A mere 556 people from the entire human race since the dawn of human time, have had the singular opportunity to travel to space to watch the sun rise and set over a curved horizon. Just 24 have seen the earth shrink in the distance until it was no bigger than a coin. And only 6 have seen it completely disappear on the far side of the moon. For many who have seen the blue marble from above, it is the majesty of all the life it harbors that has left them in reverence and wonder. The next thing that has struck them, is the absence of any discernible borders.

It is what it is.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

March for our Lives

Driving down a highway in Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday the 24th of March, I passed a giant billboard advertising a gun show. This being the south, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Gun shows and expos are common here and many like to buy weapons as an expression of their freedom. An $8 entry fee can get you into a giant warehouse, where you can choose a gun of your liking from a smorgasbord of weapons, and with a brief background check, probably walkout with an AR15 or much worse. When I googled the words "gun show" and "North Carolina" a whole list of venues surfaced. There were six scheduled just for April.

On this day my intention was to be walking with the 800 thousand in Washington, D.C. in a rally against gun violence called "March for our Lives". But a showing of my new film brought me to North Carolina instead.

When it comes to gun ownership, North Carolina is the 26th most liberal state in the nation. It is considered a permissive state for firearms owners, with no state-imposed restrictions on "assault weapons", no magazine capacity restrictions, no caliber restrictions, and few restrictions on the open carrying of firearms. As expected a march was also planned in Charlotte and a sizable number showed up downtown to make their voices heard. But they were a minority in a largely Republican state.

The marches and rallies large and small across America and the world were unprecedented. About 800 cities around the globe showed solidarity with the marchers in Washington, D.C. The gathering in the nation's capital was the largest civic engagement since the Vietnam War protests and most of the participants were teenage school children. They walked hand in hand with their parents asking for something very fundamental, something that should never have been a cause for a rallying cry in a wealthy civil society. Their demand was for an expectation of safety, so they could go to school without the threat of being murdered in cold blood. This is what America in all its wealth and wisdom had brought its most vulnerable to do. While there was hope in the air, it was also probably one of the darkest days in the trajectory of this nation.

Even in a deeply divided nation such as the present one, a majority of Americans were on the side of the children. But there were some who were dead inside to even acknowledge that there was a problem that needed urgent attention. As it happens so often these days, conspiracy theories began to spread. The students who started this movement after surviving a horrific carnage in their school, were called into question. Some called them "crisis actors", being paid to play a role for the liberal left to undermine the freedoms of those they disagree with. Some said they were too young to understand the politics around gun control and should stay in their classrooms. An ex-senator said taking CPR lessons was a much better use of their time. A self proclaimed journalist on Fox News disparaged one of the prominent student spokesman as being a "whiner" and had been rejected from colleges for being sub par. She later apologized for her remarks in the spirit of the "holy week", but not until advertisers began to pull out of her show in a rebuke of her heartless comments. It was clear the right wing supporters of the 2nd Amendment were being rattled by the out pouring of support for those who had had enough.

In many of my previous commentaries I have argued for the elimination of the 2nd Amendment from the US constitution as it is based on an obsolete, anachronistic and absurd idea, that has no relevance in the times we live in. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens argued for its expungement as well. He wrote "concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century".

Justice Stevens a life long Republican was appointed to the court by President Ford in 1975. He retired from the bench in 2010, and during his tenure was involved in many gun control debates at the court. In 2008 he dissented on one particular ruling, losing 5 to 4, giving the NRA an undue advantage to push its agenda and become the powerful lobby that it is today.

Watching droves filling the streets was heartening. Hearing the courageous, traumatized children articulate their position was moving and heart breaking. When Samantha Fuentes, a wounded survivor from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, vomited on stage and needed to be consoled to continue her speech, I was in tears. Watching all this on television from my hotel room in Charlotte, I felt hope. For the first time I felt change was possible via people power. Even though in the back of my mind I knew there was a long struggle ahead with many disappointments in store, it felt the momentum was on the right side of history. Everyone perceived a shift, much like they did when Dr. King marched to end segregation and masses thronged the streets to end the Vietnam War.

The tenacity and resolve of those who want to hold on to their guns without any restrictions is strong. The gun shows are big business. There is no question a change in economics can bring it all to a grinding halt, even if the government refuses to act. Remington, a 200 year old gun manufacturing company filed for Bankruptcy this month. Which on the surface seemed like an encouraging sign, but they were also able to secure a $75 million loan to continue through their Chapter 11 restructuring process.

Saturday the 24th of March, could go down in American history as a pivotal moment. But there is much work to be done and many battles to be fought, before we can permanently rid America and its constitution from a decrepit disease.

It is what it is.

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.
 
Pingates