Monday, December 31, 2018

As the Mud Ball turns

As humanity commemorates the completion of another earth's cycle around the sun, it dawned on me that I would be marking half a century of my own existence on this mud ball. So I revisited something I wrote ten years ago and found that not much had changed mother-ship's trajectory. I realized, while I had largely led a rather comfortable life, taking on the challenges of domesticity and a career, the existential questions facing us all still hung in the balance.

A decade ago the human population had not surpassed seven billion. But the nature of its survival was less dismal than it is today. We have burnt carbon and discarded plastic like an alcoholic and now earth's veins are clogging and a cardiac arrest is imminent. But there is one thing that keeps the human spirit alive, the indomitable trust in the idea of "hope".

Hope that it can change the orbit of things to come with ingenious technology and innovation. No matter the odds, the confidence that it can win back time by challenging nature itself. And then there is the arrogance that not much has changed and life will go on as it has for centuries and we shall adapt. The planet is resilient and infinite and there is enough room for it to swallow all our refuse no matter what, is still a popular myth bought and peddled by many in power and their "blind leading the blind" entourage.

Humanity is no monolith. It is but a sum of diverse flawed individuals. A smorgasbord of folly, fortitude and formidable tenacity. And so 2018 was not that much different from years past. Natural and man made calamities, war, terrorism and other earth shattering phenomena made their mark like clockwork. Hunger, poverty, migration, rape and mass murder reminded us yet again of humanity's capacity for evil.

An argument is often made that writers, thinkers, scientists and artists often focus disproportionately on what's wrong with the world. The cynic trumps the pragmatist and the optimist.

Especially at years end, one should focus on the strides humanity has made in tackling some of the colossal challenges that it faces and not just on the devastation its actions cause.

Yes, humanity has conquered many diseases, the Internet is changing the very fabric of society in many positive ways, space exploration is advancing science, rich people are pledging more of their money to do good on a global scale, some nations are taking climate change seriously, some rain forests are being conserved and some endangered species are returning from the brink. And despite all that the media tends to magnify, more people are living in relative peace and security around the planet in a century. Probably this is why the human population rapidly grows, forecasted to reach 9 billion in the next few decades.

While there is relative peace, authoritarianism, fascism and right-wing politics are on the march once again. Democracy which seemed like a system that would readily take hold around the globe, especially after the end of the cold war and a collapse of communism, is again under threat. Identity politics, populism and religious tribalism are dividing people. Social media and the immediacy of the internet are helping disseminate these divisions with scathing effect.

The desire to believe in mythology with resolve and less in evidence, continues to grow. Society is created and crafted when people share stories. The fantastical ones and not the factual ones, continue to be the glue that bind. Hollowed by consumerism, in search of spiritual solace, many are adrift finding meaning in archaic practices, decrepit soothsayers and dubious leaders.

Humanity's penchant for greed and corruption always looms large, and gets larger as some nations experience an uneven and artificial phenomenon known as an "economic boom". The seduction of affluence can blind even the most informed. Consumption and the aspiration to live like the west, is reaching new highs, hoodwinking nations and peoples to gamble their future.

For nations that have always taken tomorrow's sunrise for granted, things seem uncertain. The less fortunate amassing at their borders, suck compassion out of even the most generous of them all.
Governments looking to get reelected pass policies and spend their way to the hilt, offering and deluding their citizens that the glory days will return or are yet to come .

But what they do not seem to understand is that resources are finite, and capitalism in its present form is unsustainable. If economic growth is the only benchmark for success, the roller coaster fluctuations of the stock market will be the new normal. Even the knee jerk experiment of capitalism inside communism, is fundamentally flawed and impractical in the long run. Every year is a litmus test, making certain that the fountain of endless affluence and growth is but an illusion.

So when, where and how do we begin to appreciate the future from the present and reverse course? When do we begin to look at ourselves beyond the trappings of power, politics, greed, religion, dogma and division and think of ourselves as the one ocean rising. When do we begin to accept that our progress and problems are interconnected and that nations and people are all essentially the same, sharing the same destiny. When do we recognize that no nation is immune to the ebb and flow of economic and social upheaval, despite their historical make up. And when do we wake up to the realization that walls do not work.

And so heading into another year of unknowns, instead of making new resolutions, if we as a species can acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past, that would be a huge step in the right direction.

It is what it is.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Looming Crisis

A decaying dead sperm whale washed ashore at a national park in Indonesia this month. Inside its belly were found, 19 pieces of hard plastic, 4 plastic bottles, 24 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops, 3.26 kilograms of string and 115 plastic cups.

145 long finned pilot whales were found stranded on a remote beach in New Zealand. By the time rescuers reached the struggling whales, nearly half were already dead. The other half were in such pain that they needed to be euthanized. The hiker who spotted them and alerted the authorities said, their screams were unbearable.

The Great Barrier Reef is rapidly losing its coral glory. Rising ocean temperatures are said to be the cause. Scientists are desperately trying to artificially fertilize and regenerate new life on the reef. But if temperatures keep rising, even a fraction change will spell death to one of the great wonders of the planet.

The white marble on Taj Mahal's dome is cracking and its sheen is being dulled beyond repair. Sustained industrial pollution over decades is said to be the cause. The river Yamuna that hugs its banks is a cesspool of filth and disease.

2018 has seen the worst forest fires ravage California on record. 1,667,855 acres have burned, the largest amount recorded in any any given year. A fire this month claimed 88 people and almost 25  are still unaccounted for. It destroyed more than 18,000 structures, becoming both California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record.

This month, the US government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment report. 13 federal agencies presented the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States. The report predicted that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, The year 2018 is on course to be the fourth warmest on record. It says that the global average temperature for the first 10 months of the year was nearly 1C above the levels between 1850-1900. The State of the Climate report says that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the 2015-2018 making up the top four. If the trend continues, the WMO says temperatures may rise by 3-5C by 2100.

Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on November 22nd. At the stroke of midnight stores across the nation and online, opened their doors to hordes of shoppers. The Black Friday sale as its called, has become as much a symbol of Thanksgiving as the oversized shiny dead Turkey on the dinner table. As Americans indulged in this excess, buying things they do not need, and as a consequence producing more trash, the state of the environment was farthest from their minds.

And the president of the United States, blatantly ignored his own government's climate report, and refused to act, thus neglecting his prime directive: to protect all Americans from harm.

Alarm bells are ringing all around the planet. The looming crisis is real. Irrefutable scientific data shows over and over again that humans are causing catastrophic harm to the fragile ecosystem. And yet people in power refuse to act decisively, too afraid and corrupted by oil and big business. In their pigheadedness they choose to defy overwhelming consensus, and deliberately endanger the planet and its inhabitants by continuing to resist change. Economic growth and a hunger for more and more material conveniences seems to be the only benchmark to achieve. Most of the nations who signed on to the Paris Accords, are behind in meeting their targets. America is the only nation that is no longer a signatory.

So what does one do when a problem is of planetary proportion?

Mahatma Gandhi, famously said "Be the change you want to see in the world". I think it is too late for that. There is little time to educate the young about what this exactly means. Transformative people who can embody change and influence people en-mass are few. In an era of glamor worship, movie stars and pop stars are more influential, and a use and throw culture of conspicuous consumption is a driving force. Respect for the environment is only an after thought. The toxic nature of humanity is so far reaching, it feels impossible to pull back from the brink. Even the last remaining havens harboring tribes untouched by the toxicity of modernity, are being tested by overzealous encroachment.

This month, another NASA rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars, sending back images of a barren planet, covered in rock and dust. While the images of Mars are breathtaking and the human effort to be able to capture them commendable, the stark contrast is inescapable. The blue spec humanity calls home is infinitely more beautiful and fascinating. And yet it seems we are willing to squander it all away blinded by our contemptible shortsightedness.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Human Hubris

In the new documentary film on climate change "Living in the Future's Past", the actor Jeff Bridges narrates, "Although we are part of the web of life, because we see it, we think we stand above it". This singular distinguishing factor defines our species, and has made us all powerful and dominating. And as we begin to realize, it may also become the reason for our demise. 
But on the other hand, it may also save us.
When Homo sapiens began their evolutionary journey on this planet as foragers, they were very much a part of the web of life. As they grew in numbers and transitioned to hunter-gatherers and  discovered the art of agriculture they began to separate from that web. 
Agriculture started the process of domestication and civilization as we know it began in earnest. Then came ideas of god and religion placing humans at the apex of the living order. 
Tribalism began to take root, leading to conflict and war. Land became the most valuable of all currency and so began the formation of tribal enclaves, which  lead to the creation of borders and the nation state.
Domestication brought about the enslavement of animals on a mammoth scale. Chickens, pigs, goats and cows became the beasts of burden and their abuse became emblematic of the human race.
As the human population grew, so started the rapid decline of biodiversity on the planet. Forests began to shrink as the need for arable land grew. As soon as the balance of nature began to shift, probably the first measurable impact of human existence on the planet began to be felt. 

Industrialization which was fueled by the discovery and use of oil, made the ramifications of the human race on the environment even more pronounced.
Today, 90% of all large animals (weighing more than a few pounds) on the planet are either human or domesticated. Since the appearance of life on the planet, some 4 billion years ago, never has a single species changed the ecology of the planet all by itself in such an indelible way. The complete and utter domination of the human species is so absolute, to say that we are not having an impact on the planet and its climate, is akin to believing the earth is flat. Which to my surprise many do, as they fear what faces humanity.
One thing is certain, with the world living in relative peace, devoid of any major war and famine, and with medicine halting almost all premature death, the human population is only guaranteed to spread and grow even more. Today it stands at about 7 billion. By 2050 it is predicted to reach 9 billion. Humans with ingenuity can figure out ways to feed themselves. With innovative methods of farming enough food can be generated with less arable land. But the enslavement and slaughter of livestock will have to increase as human addiction to meat and dairy will not stem easily. And therefore the chances of preventing greenhouse gasses from reaching the atmosphere seems less tenable.
Early this month, I visited Paris to screen my film Salam at the Pariscience Film Festival. Many films shown at this festival dealt with the subject of climate change and global warming. One particular film, Bill Nye: Science Guy, focused on the anti-science atmosphere that has gripped America, causing people to denounce evolution and adopt creationism with fervor. In America today, we have a president and an administration that openly believes climate change is a hoax. We have a TV channel dedicated and determined to discredit any scientific data, that proves humans are altering the climate. Their listeners and believers are large in number and are determined to take America on a regressive path. America does not stand alone in this matter. Many nations around the world are doing little to rise to the challenge. China and India, the world's two most populous nations continue to choke breathing poisonous air unable, incapable and refusing to take drastic measures. All not willing to hurt the bottom line of their industrial class, to whom growth and accumulation of wealth trumps survival.
A recent report from the IPCC  has revealed that the world's oceans have absorbed more heat than previously thought. This means the oceans are warming more rapidly than predicted. Warmer oceans translate to more severe weather patterns. Warmer air leads to rapid glacial ice melt leading to sea level rise.
At present the alarms being raised are dire. We are heading towards a catastrophe and there is no unified attempt to confront the approaching storm in any meaningful and urgent way. Humans from their limited earthbound view, still believe there are real borders on the ground. Even though images of the blue marble from space show there are none.
We who stand apart and above the web of nature are in a unique position to save ourselves or watch our growth bring it all to an end. As the saying goes, everything that has a beginning must also have an end.
Two things that separates humans from the other species that inhabit the earth are Hubris and Greed. Two characteristics that lead us down the path of self destruction. But on the other hand hubris has also helped humanity achieve the impossible. So maybe we will dig our self out of this hole we are so rapidly digging. 

In the words of the comedic genius philosopher George Carlin "The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Its been here four and half billion years. The planet isn't going anywhere. We are. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas."

It is what it is.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Lurid Discourse

It all started when Donald Trump entered the national consciousness. All notions of etiquette and decency were discarded and a new era in American political discourse was ushered in. When we heard the now jarring infamous phrase, "Grab'em by the pussy" uttered by the would be president of the United States, the rapid corrosion of American politics had begun. And that which once was unacceptable had now begun to be brushed aside as "locker room" banter, something men have always engaged in, and not to be seen as a blemish on their character. As character was no longer consequential.

The ascent of Donald Trump, unabashedly brought to the fore the grotesque patterns of male sexual behavior. Nineteen women accused Donald Trump of inappropriate sexual behavior. They were all ignored and Donald Trump was voted in as the president of the United States and still enjoys significant support. He certainly was not the first candidate with a checkered past to rise to power. But his rise was a stark reflection of the moral and cultural decline that had taken place within America, which would begin to dictate the course of events of come.

For a nation addicted to social media and individuals defining their self worth more and more by their digital interactions, facts have become secondary. People choose to believe what they hear in their echo chambers, which are strewn with conspiracy theories and lies.

As a response to a toxic culture in flux, was born the #metoo movement which sought to destroy the long standing careers of powerful men across all spheres. Men finally began to be held accountable for sexual impropriety. Men with power, wealth and stature were eviscerated by the gathering storm, as evidence and allegations began to pile up from decades ago. It seemed the time when improper sexual behavior was considered entitled and passable, had come to a grinding halt.

So when Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a man whose conservative views on issues affecting women were deeply divisive and controversial, it was inevitable that he would become a lightning rod for the #metoo movement sweeping the nation. Even though he took extraordinary measures to present himself as a model father to his daughters, a caring husband and god fearing compassionate constitutional judge, many did not find him worthy of a life time position on the highest court.

On the other side the Republicans saw him as their chance in a generation to turn the Supreme Court decidedly conservative for decades to come. Knowing they had the votes to accomplish this, they wanted to hurry through the formalities and send him on to the vacant bench as soon as possible. The previous Donald Trump nominee, Niel Gorsuch, was confirmed strictly along party lines without a hitch. With the mid-term elections around the corner, the need for a hurried confirmation seemed even more urgent.

Despite the Democratic party senators unanimous disapproval of him, he was close to being confirmed, when allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. As a teenager and a Yale law student, it seemed Brett Kavanaugh was not your model citizen, he would otherwise like you to believe. According to his accusers, he seemed to have had a drinking problem and a pattern of behaving badly with women. Growing up in the 80s in an all boys and probably all white prep school, Kavanaugh was being the teenager we saw portrayed in the movies of the time, such as Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. 

While he claimed he spent most of his time studying and lifting weights at the gym, the calendar he presented as evidence seemed to reveal an active social life. Should what he did as a teenager and young student be a deciding factor in his nomination? Some say "yes", as it fundamentally says something about his character. Others felt his behavior as a young man had no baring, as he had done enough to compensate and be held in high regard as a judge.

But in the era of Donald Trump and in the shadow of the #metoo movement, it clearly was not enough. A seat at the United States Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, therefore the stakes are high and therefore there is a valuable argument to be made that the person who fills this position, not just have a stellar judicial record but also be of immaculate personal character.

As Brett Kavanaugh mounted an angry and belligerent defense at the senate hearing, accusing the Democrats and the media of launching a smear campaign hell bent on destroying his family and his reputation, he was off kilter, and vociferously used his personal pain to proclaim himself innocent. As a result he showed a temperament that was deeply unsettling, revealing his own biases and stark political leanings, which did not bode well for someone wanting to become - at least in appearance - a nonpartisan judge-in-chief of the land.

While he was successful in coming across as convincing and credible to the people on his side, he ended up alienating his detractors even more than before. While he was sympathetic to his accuser, as she came across as credible to everyone who watched her, he categorically proclaimed she suffered from a case of "mistaken identity".

In the end the disgusting, deplorable but riveting drama that unfolded, was a sad display of where America has arrived as a nation. Reality-TV had now reached the Senate, under the watchful eye of a Reality-TV president. The shocking and unsettling nature of the details that emerged and how nonchalantly they were spoken about in the media and in the Senate was appalling. All filters were off, supposedly in an attempt to get to the sordid truth, as dirty laundry was aired to an unfazed glued nation.

In the end the Republicans had to relent as one of their own would not play along. The FBI investigation that was being asked for all along by the Democrats was granted under duress. The nomination was put on hold for a week for the FBI to investigate the allegations. The scope of the FBI investigation will be narrow as the Republicans are still committed to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed as soon as possible. If it is determined that he lied under oath, only then will his nomination be suspended, otherwise the Republicans are on track to achieving their goal with a minor hiccup.

The lurid discourse around Brett Kavanaugh and his accusers, once again exposed how divided America has become. Some say it has not been this divided since the civil war. From late night talk show hosts to blaring news media pundits and talk-radio, there is a complete contrast in how the discourse is reported and presented and how people perceive what is transpiring.

Alternate realities that disregard all facts, and the constant barrage of harsh words only make people more hardened about how they view the political landscape. As the salaciousness intensifies and all the filters are discarded, it is unnerving to fathom the impact this lurid discourse is having on the younger generation. A cancer is slowly metastasizing as a result of normalizing the abnormal.

It is what it is.

Friday, August 31, 2018

60 Years of a Revolution

“We don’t have much, but we have security here” said my taxi driver Julio, as we sped down the Malecon, with the brilliant blue Atlantic on one side and the ornate imposing dilapidated buildings on the other. Even in an authoritarian nation there is something to be said about this sentiment. Coming from a land where violence has been and has become a way of life, where the murder of children in schools is shrugged off as just another dreadful day, it was a jarring and refreshing pronouncement to hear.

Walking through its narrow lanes at all hours of the night, I felt safe in La Habana. People congregating on corners and rickshaw pullers accosting you in polite Spanish seemed least bit threatening.

While people took respite from the heat in their quaint balconies and doorways, men without shirts and women fanning themselves in spare clothing, everyone seemed curious and eager to help. They would endearingly start an inquisitive conversation, which would often end with a smile and a welcome. When I bought a Cuban Fedora from a souvenir shop and later realized from the tag it was made in China, she took it back, no questions asked.

Like any big city, I was told there are neighborhoods you would not want to venture into at night. But poverty for some reason had not driven people to begging and crime at the level you would expect. For the largest city in Cuba, at two million strong, crime is said to be a rarity in Havana.

Next July, it will be 60 years since Fidel Castro Ruz along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos over threw the corrupt US supported Fulgencio Batista government. Every where you travel across this land, banners, stencils on walls and murals remind you of that day and the anniversary coming up.

The communist regime that was setup after Fidel Castro assumed power is still intact and in control. The faces of Fidel, Che and Camilo are ubiquitous, reminding you at every turn, of their heroism and sacrifice. Not a day goes by on state sanctioned television where the accomplishments of the revolution are not eulogized. There are bookshops in every corner of the country dedicated to the revolution; where one can find the charismatic cigar puffing iconic images of Che and Fidel in all sizes. In the 60s the black and white images of the young valiant revolutionaries captivated the world. It was a master PR campaign, staged and planned by Fidel and his photographer Alberto Korda.

Every school has a little alcove at the entrance where some of these iconic photographs are displayed with slogans of national pride and the flag. School children in Cuba begin their day with the pledge “We will be like Che”.

Che’s face is emblazoned on T-shirts, buttons, bandanas, wallets, restaurant signs and on the walls of the remotest pueblos (villages) of this land. The commodification of his image and myth is so pervasive, that Fidel upon his death insisted, that he should not be immortalized and sold in this way. It is rare to find his likeness anywhere close to Che, but he does show up on TV and in museums as a larger than life figure.

Cuba’s defiance of America, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion the continuing embargo and the numerous plots to overthrow the regime are celebrated as the greatest accomplishment of the revolution. There is a whole museum in Havana dedicated to the revolution called the Museo De La Revolucion. It tells the story of the struggle in massive displays of faded photographs and artifacts. It also spins a narrative of how the CIA plotted to subjugate its people by poisoning their livestock, infecting their tobacco fields, murdering Che, downing one of their airplanes in 1976 and plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro 600 times.

There is no doubt that successive American governments since Castro took power have tried to dislodge him and failed time after time. Therefore the Cuban people do feel a sense of pride in standing tall, even though deep down many know, that the reason for some of their misery is not America alone.

As you would expect, the museum conveniently omits that which does not serve the myth that bolsters the regime.

It is quite otherworldly to imagine that a three-hour flight from New York can land you in a place so alien. Florida is just 103 miles of the coast of Cuba, but the only thing you will find American here are some TV shows and the cars from the 1950s, which have become emblematic of this city and country. They are the Gondolas of Havana and are used as taxis for the public and pleasure rides for the tourists. Some have Russian Lada and Toyota engines in them and others original parts, gushing clouds of black smoke as they cruise down the boulevard. You also see newer Chinese and Russian cars and buses, capitalizing on the absence of American made.

Cubans love their old cars. It is common to see them tinkering with them for hours with their heads under the hood and shining their beautiful curves. It is quite an anachronistic sight to see them in large numbers all spruced up and driving around even in remote parts of the country on empty highways.

While Cubans have resigned to a meager existence with grace, humility and a smile, there is a beaten down sadness you cannot touch but see from a distance. With a determination on their face and music in their soul, Cubans go around their business of living with little protest. Waiting for hours at bus stops, getting in line early morning outside banks, going to a public park to access internet, shopping at scarce markets, unreliable cellphone networks and trying to find cover from the afternoon sun and thundershowers when umbrellas are a thing of luxury, are just a few discomforts Cubans contend with.

La Habana has rich history, restaurants, art-galleries, museums, music, plazas, architecture everything a great tourist city needs to be successful. As mammoth cruise ships dock and luxurious hotels are built, increasing tourism will no doubt offer employment to scores and improve the lives of many, if the regime allows. But at what cost, is anyone’s guess. Already bottled water is a reality and the transportation infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade and repair. While the public beaches here are exquisite, they are littered with plastic and soda cans, a symptom of progress and a lack of services, resources and education. It is hard not to compare old Havana to Venice as they both have a similar vibe of being architecturally unique. While tourists are overrunning Venice, and there is an outcry to control their flow, Havana is just opening up to welcome the hoards to boost its economy.

For all its beauty and vitality, Cuba is not a free society in any stretch of the imagination. People are free spirited here no doubt. They smile, dance and play drums like nowhere else in the world; their culture is an exquisite amalgamation of European and African influences and their history is older than that of North America as Columbus landed here first.

At the nightclubs people party late into the night, but Cubans are not free to speak their mind. Politics is something they are not allowed to engage in and therefore is a subject that is taboo. Dissidents are jailed and there are limits to what you can and cannot say. There is no free press. The state controls every aspect of one’s life. While some private ownership has been allowed in the recent past, the regime’s hold on everything is as firm as ever. The Internet is regulated by the state by allowing access an hour at a time via scratch cards that allow Wifi access only at hotspots in public parks, upscale hotels and some houses. The eight channels of commercial free TV, only show what the regime wants you to see. As to be expected, the extreme state control has spawned a black market for everything.

Centro Habana, is where the poor live and where the homes are crumbling. Here I visited Demaris, a musician I got to know through a friend in New York. She invited us to her home with warmth and grace. Her posture and perfume was immaculate, as she welcomed my family with a hug and a kiss.

As I stepped inside, I could not tell if this was her house or a ruin left behind by a bombing raid. There were Yoruba shrines in the verandah and congas, bongos and other instruments dominated the front rooms. The back room had a plain bed and a small gangway to the side was her kitchen and bathroom. A pedestal fan with naked blades whirled providing some relief from the heat.

Her home was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma a year ago and the high roof seemed like it could give in any minute. The wooden beams were sagging, shredded and barely holding at the edges. She had inherited this derelict from her father, who was awarded the property for his contribution to the revolution.

Demaris’ home was a ruin, but clean and welcoming. While she had a phone and an old TV, her existence was clearly meager. She had no means of repairing her home. She barely made enough to feed and clothe herself. Building materials and labor are prohibitively expensive in Cuba. The government has no subsidies or assistance to offer. I later found out that her situation was not unique. Many in Centro Habana, had gotten used to living in dilapidated homes.

Watching Venezuela, a close economic and political ally of Cuba descend into chaos and mass social upheaval, I wondered if that could happen here some day. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was in free fall, as it was completely reliant on Russia for its entire economy. Fidel Castro declared that Cuba was entering a “Special period in the time of peace” or known as Periodo Especial. Drastic austerity measures were put into place. It is said people lost a third of their body weight during this time, which lasted four years. Julio did not want to be reminded of this time. Cuba prevailed.

Soon after the Periodo Especial to stem a parallel economy in US dollars and inflation the Cuban government introduced a currency called the CUC or Cuban Convertibles. This currency pegged to the dollar has a one to one exchange rate to the US dollar, but a 10% penalty is imposed if you were to convert within the country, a surcharge for the embargo. Euros, Pounds and Canadian dollars are not subject to this penalty.

The locals use a currency called CUP or Cuban Pesos, which converts to 25CUP to 1CUC. This causes a huge confusion while transacting business within the country.

The government employees are paid in CUP and almost all employees are severely underpaid. Julio, my taxi driver, used to be a radiologist in a cancer hospital. He was paid 30CUC a month. Despite having no rent or mortgage to pay, a subsidized ration of food supplies provided by the government via under stocked outlets, free health care and education for his children, he could not make ends meet. A round trip from my apartment to downtown Havana costed about 30CUC. He said he missed working at the hospital.

On the last day of my trip, Julio drove us to Plaza De La Revolucion (Revolution Plaza). An imposing grand tower stood on one side of an open paved field. On the other side were two buildings with the giant faces of Che and Comilo sculpted on to the façades This is where Fidel made his annual animated speeches glorifying the revolution while thousands cheered.

When I asked Julio what people make of the daily dose of nationalist propaganda, especially the younger generation, he replied, “No one cares. Everyone just survives here. We live under the boot of the regime. They decide when to press hard or when to release”. When I asked what his young adult boys felt, he responded, “Given a chance they would leave Cuba”. He followed that sentiment by saying that “but things are going to change very soon. They have to. And the young people will have many opportunities, if only they could see it coming, rather than give up.”

As a tourist most places seem more romantic than they are. As the struggle of daily life is not your concern, you only focus on that which is quaint and beautiful. Meeting people, you barely scratch the surface of what daily life is truly like. But you do get a sense of the possibilities and an understanding of that which is alive and that which has been lost. Being in Havana at a time when it is beginning to open up to the world, it is possible to forecast where it will be and what it can become.

Much like his many friends Julio probably had a chance to leave Cuba, but decided to stay. I could not tell if he regretted that decision, but he never expressed any deep resentment, just a resignation that is all too familiar here.

It is what it is.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Cricketer Candidate

Cricket dominated my sphere in my teens. Growing up in India in the 1980s, watching, playing and fantasizing about cricket was a major occupation. I wanted to be a wicket keeper. Lunging into the air to catch the red glazed ball as it bounced off the pitch and sped past the batsman straight into my oversized leather gloves, was always an adrenaline rush. Syed Kirmani, the Indian team's wicket keeper was my hero. Sunil Gavaskar and Vivian Richards were my favorite batsmen. Malcolm Marshall and Micheal Holding, the fast bowlers from the West Indies, were the most dreaded.

And then came Imran Khan, the dashing bowler from Pakistan. He captivated everyone with his charm, good looks, polished Oxford English and style. Watching him come down the long runway to pitch the ball in perfect action, was like watching Micheal Jordan dunk in all his elegance, grace and glory. I remember posters of Imran Khan on friends' walls, next to John Travolta and Amitabh Bachchan. Even though he was a Pakistani, his popularity across the border was quite substantial and remarkable. In 1992 Imran Khan captained the Pakistani team to world cup glory. That singular feat catapulted him into the stratosphere among many of his fans and countrymen, which eventually paved his way into politics in 1996.

Imran Khan of my youth is not the Imran Khan we see today, splashed across newspapers and magazines around the world. Poised to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a few weeks, this next big achievement of his has been a long time in the making. When Imran formed his political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), he misjudged his own popularity. He lost his first election in 1997. It was only in 2013 that his party gained traction when PTI won the second highest number of seats in the general election.

After running an effective anti-corruption campaign to disrupt the two dominant dynasties of Pakistani politics, Imran Khan was successful this month in his goal of becoming the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. The imprisonment of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, and his absence on the campaign trail, gave Imran a significant advantage. He will be sworn in on August 11th, after forming a coalition with smaller parties and independents.

As he joins the growing ranks of populist leaders around the world, Imran Khan is being compared to Donald Trump in the media. While to some extent this comparison rings true, as he is an outsider of sorts and has pandered to the extremists to win the vote, there is nothing common between the two. Even though like Donald Trump, Imran Khan was known for his playboy image and his sordid divorces played out in the tabloid press, he is a seasoned politician who has been grinding away for decades launching severe vitriolic attacks against his opponents and endorsing extremists all to secure the top job, which he will at age 65.

Pakistan's political trajectory has always been murky and mired in assassinations and military coups since its formation in 1947. This will be only the second time in its seventy year history that one civilian government will pass on the baton to the next one. And like all the elections before this one, the plebiscite was soaked in controversy and violence.

The army as always cast its shadow even before campaigning began. Imran Khan was unofficially declared as the chosen one. Opposition party "electables" were poached to guarantee victory. Journalists were intimidated, disappeared and silenced where needed. Reports of voter fraud and rigging were wide spread. European Union monitors declared that it was not a level playing field for all parties. Delays in election results reporting cast further suspicion on the process and the losing parties cried foul.

In the end Imran Khan's strategy of flirting with religious extremists paid off. With only about 50% of the eligible voters casting their ballot, he was able to galvanize the large young demographic, who had only seen him be a cricketer on youtube. The lack of post election violence showed that many had resigned to him becoming their next leader. The impromptu speech he gave under the portrait of Jinnah flanked by the national flags, before being officially anointed, seemed to have calmed some nerves. His populist and altruist message of working for the poor and the down trodden and uprooting corruption seemed to have gone down well with many listeners. Even India, where the media had given him a bad image, seem to have warmed up to him when he mentioned his hope for better relations and said he would go the extra mile if India reciprocated. His inclusive message of uniting all minority groups under the constitution and respecting human rights was taken for face value. Many of his cricketing colleagues from India, were quick to congratulate him on his performance. The Indian prime minister congratulated him and there is even talk that he might attend his inauguration.

When Donald Trump became president of the United States, many hoped that the weight of the office would probably make him change his ways. The hope was he would become a unifying leader and move to the center to bring more people into the tent. Exactly the opposite happened.

Imran Khan has openly endorsed the Blasphemy Laws. These Pakistan's version of Jim Crow laws were enshrined in the constitution by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s to appease the religious extremists. Since then they have been steadily used to oppress minority groups in a draconian manner infringing on people's basic freedoms. The one singular group that has been effected disproportionally, are the half a million or so Ahmadis who live in Pakistan. Using the blasphemy laws as a pretext they are oppressed, ostracized and considered non-Muslim for their religious beliefs. In my recent film Salam, the tragedy of the Ahmadis is highlighted as their victimization continues unabated. As Tariq Ali quotes in the film "what they did to the Ahmadis was a fatal scratch which has now turned into gangrene and is infecting all of Pakistani society and many people still don't understand that".

Imran Khan has flirted with the Taliban with consistency. His party has provided funding to some Madarsas run by their associates. His rhetoric has often been conciliatory of the Taliban while being overtly Anti-American.

In 2006 he voted against the women's protection bill, which would have prevented women from being jailed for the crime of pre-marital sex or adultery. As a result, allegations of rape are nearly impossible to prove.

Imran Khan is at the start of his runaway down to the wicket. He has a lot to think about before he begins his run to the crease to deliver the ball. Whether it is going to be an in-swinger, out-swinger, full-toss, wide or a no-ball only he knows. Many are rooting for the candidate cricketer of my youth.

It is what it is.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Democracy in Decline

The Weimer Republic forms the backdrop to the rewarding television series Babylon Berlin. Based on the novels by Volker Kutcher and brilliantly imagined for the screen by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, the Netflix series takes place in 1929 Berlin. As we journey with its protagonists, a male inspector and a female aspiring detective, the show weaves an epic tapestry of what life was like at this moment in history with immaculate attention to detail. What drew me in and got me hooked, were the eerie parallels between then and the present times we live in.

The period in Germany soon after the First World War, from 1919 through 1933, is broadly referred to as the Weimer Republic. It is during this time, conditions were created for the Nazi party to rise to power with Hitler at its helm. It was a renaissance period of sorts, where Germany experienced a sexual and social revolution that saw prosperity for some and abject poverty for a vast majority. It was also a time of great political upheaval.

The rise of the Nazi party was in direct response to the crisis that brew and then spilt over during this period. Hyperinflation and a great depression tore German society at its core. The middle class bore the brunt of it. Unemployment skyrocketed, food became scarce, affording any healthcare became a luxury. Virtually the entire youth was unemployed. Spending hours in soup kitchen lines became the norm.

The Nazi party received only 2.8 percent of the votes in the 1928 federal elections. Tapping into extreme societal discontent, by September 1930, they had won 18.3 percent of the vote. And by July 1932 they had increased it to 37.4 percent. In four years they had increased their support by 13 million votes. Their membership rose from under 100,000 in 1928 to 850,000 in 1933. The Nazi paramilitary wing grew from 60,000 to 400,000.

The crisis in German society and the rise of the Nazis caused more and more capitalists and the elite to take notice of them. The businessmen feared a social revolution and hoped the Nazis would break the labor movement and the communists. They were also interested in starting a war to avenge their defeat and thereby increase their profits. This is where their interests converged with the Nazis. Many Germans perceived their loss in the war a grave humiliation and blamed the Social Democrats for it. The Nazis along with their bourgeois party supporters used this anger and resentment and deflected it towards foreign enemies and groups within the country they despised and wanted to eliminate.

In 1933, an aging President Hindenberg, appointed Adolph Hitler as chancellor with the Nazi party becoming a part of a coalition government. The hope was to quell the mass protests spreading through society with a stern hand. Within months, the Reichstag fire allowed Hitler to pass the Enabling Act which brought about a state of emergency and the suspension of all civil liberties and democratic institutions. These events brought the Weimer Republic to an end. The slow moving coup was complete and Hitler assumed the previously non existent title of Führer, heralding the most diabolical period in human history known as the Third Reich.

It was not just shrewdness, political savvy and socio/economic discontent that aided Hitler's rise. It was also disunity and divisiveness. The two large political parties in the Reichstag, the Social Democrats and Communists were deeply divided to the point of blindness. The judiciary was also compromised and eventually moved to prop up a dictator. The armed forces pledged their allegiance after being cultivated over a long period of time under Joseph Goebbels at the helm. Hitler in essence rose to power with sizable support from all corners of a civil democratic society.

Though the end of the Third Reich and colonialism sparked a resurgence of democracy around the globe, it certainly did not extinguish authoritarianism. Communist China and Russia stayed authoritarian, and other smaller nations under their patronage followed suit. In the 1990s there was another surge in democracy when the Soviet Union collapsed and Apartheid ended in South Africa and China made a shift towards capitalism with the communist party still in control.

Now it seems authoritarianism is back in fashion. From the tiny island nation of Philippines to Turkey, Russia, China, Poland and Venezuela, dictators in suits are ruling with an iron fist. In the meantime, in the United States, a nation popularly known as the beacon of democracy, a leader has risen to power who openly shares authoritarian aspirations. By applauding and flirting with murderous world leaders, he diminishes America's long and hard won democratic values. By calling the press that does not praise him the "enemy of the state" and speaking directly to his supporters via Twitter, he does what most dictators do to sway and control public opinion away from fact. By withdrawing from the UN Human Rights commission and not holding draconian leaders accountable for their crimes, but instead parading with them in photo-ops, he hopes to win twisted glory. Yet, just like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jin Ping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump enjoys support that boosts his confidence to openly say, he wished the people in America were more like the people of North Korea and listened to their leader in complete devotion.

Some might say it is an overblown, misguided, alarmist fantasy to imagine that fascism could one day take root in America. The Weimer Republic showed us that the rise of fascism is a slow moving phenomenon that took more than a decade to bear fruit. The conditions that incubated its rise then, seem to be resurfacing now. The road to fascism runs through nationalism, populism, racism, bigotry, parochialism and tribalism. These elements are very present in Donald Trump's America, coming right from his mind and mouth. They are also on the rise in other parts of the world.

Differences over policy and a vigorous debate on ideas and points of view, liberal and conservative, without fear, are signs of a healthy democracy. But this can only happen, when there is a consensus and agreement on all sides, on what one defines as baseline decent and dignified behavior in a civil society. When that common contract of decency shatters, civilization built over a period of time begins to erode. Those who enable and support leaders who make a mockery of humanity and all that is sacred, stand to lose all moral authority. Those judges, businessmen, congressmen, senators, media pundits and nations who enable any leader with dictatorial aspirations, will find history judging them with utter disdain as it did to those who came before them.

In the sixth episode of Babylon Berlin, two minor supporting characters are having an exchange while standing in a lake on a sunny summer day.
One says to the other
"Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution".
The other responds
"Says who? Hitler?"
The friend says.
The other concludes
"Expropriation too, by the way".

In an ominous way this short conversation foreshadows what is to come for the German people and the world.

This short conversation could might as well been a Donald Trump tweet.

It is what it is.

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.