Troubled times ahead, either way?

May 16, 2018 at 9:15 PMMay (Activism, Media, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

With the eyes of the entire nation on it, Karnataka went for elections on May 12. The much awaited results of the state’s Assembly elections are being widely held as an indicator of what lies in store in the 2019 general elections. This worked in bringing more light and focus on Karnataka. And hence, we were all made to witness a high voltage election campaign both, by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and the Indian National Congress.

While the Congress, specially incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, seemed quite positive about the results from the beginning, the methods of BJP and the body language of its leaders revealed a lack of confidence. The ruling party at the Centre with majority of states under it and its allies couldn’t hide the frustration of not being able to crack it in Karnataka easily. The diminished confidence of the BJP was not only because of its inability to recreate its magic in the state but also a result of the much apparent dwindling hope, masses all across the country had pinned on the party and the Prime Ministers.

Let us park aside the pan India phenomenon and the predictions for the result for a while and come to coastal Karnataka.

The door to door campaign of the BJP, in coastal Karnataka, where this writer comes from, was extremely communal in colour, this time. BJP’s campaign was centred on creating in Hindus the fear against members of the Muslim community rather than educating voters about their proposed plan of action for the wellbeing of the people.

It is also important to take note that the BJP asked the people of coastal Karnataka to vote not for their local candidate but for the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. One of the messages that was being circulated on social media by the BJP read, “There is no need to spend time wondering who the BJP candidates are in Karnataka, who is the CM candidate of BJP in Karnataka because whoever the local candidates are and whoever becomes the CM, the total control of things will be in the hands of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.” The message even goes further saying, “We know that some of the BJP candidates are not the right ones but what we need is Modi ji’s administration. In case the local candidates do not perform their duty you can contact Modi ji directly and he will set things right,” and then requests the people to, “Vote for BJP without much thought and bring Modi ji’s administration in Karnataka.” This message and this tactics is a clear indicator of the desperation in the saffron party.

RSS exporting hate to the nation via Coastal Karnataka

In the last two and a half decades, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), the ideological parent of BJP had made Karnataka, especially coastal Karnataka, a laboratory for its politics of hate. No matter which party ran the government in Karnataka, RSS has had its own parallel administration in coastal Karnataka and has been slowly expanding its influence to other parts of the state as well.

The tragic communal history of coastal Karnataka is important at this point to understand the deep seated fear in the people about the results of the elections. Before spelling out fear, we should have a slightly closer look at the last few years.

Nine years before India got ‘Modi-fied’, and ten years before the inhumane lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, which went on capture the national imagination with its agenda of ‘protecting the gau mata’ the coastal town of Udupi had already had its highly condemnable Dadri moment.

On March 13, 2005 father and son, Hajabba and Hasanabba, were stopped by the Hindu Yuva Sena (HYV) members while transporting livestock. They were dragged to a nearby helipad and stripped completely before being paraded naked and assaulted. This happened hours before the sun went down and darkness settled on this part of earth. This was witnessed by hundreds of citizens in Udupi, who neither intervened nor uttered a word of disapproval. The livestock traders were also made to pose for a photograph by the HYV. This was done in order to send across a message to the Muslim community about what would happen if they were not to listen to Hindus.

It took immense efforts by activists to make police take cognizance of the offence. “Jurisdictional dispute” became the reason for the delay even after the Police took note of the crime. Huge protests by activists made the state handover the case to Corps of Detectives (CoD) . Preliminary reports held key members of Hindu Yuva Sena responsible for the stripping and assault of Hajabba and Hasanabba. One among the key members was Yashpal Suvarna who was later awarded nomination for town council by the BJP.

In the year 2009, couple of weeks after the infamous pub attack in the coastal town Mangalore, a girl, barely 15 years old, from a nearby town Moodbidri hung herself in her residence after she was taken to the police station by the self-styled vigilante groups which hailed Hindutva ideology. Her crime was that she interacted with a man who belonged to the “other” community. The boy was thrashed black and blue before the girl was taken to the Police Station where the police also summoned her father. She was then “counselled” by the police and the vigilante group. Feeling humiliated the girl ended her life the very same evening.

This was one of the many incidents of ‘immoral policing’ that have been taking place in coastal Karnataka from over a decade now. It is amidst such incidents that the concept of the non-existing ‘Love Jihad’ was first brought into circulation by the Hindutva vigilante groups, alleging Muslim boys of luring Hindu girls and getting them converted. The idea of Love Jihad slowly gained currency and travelled across India making it an urgent matter to attend to, all over.

The two incidents have been recollected here specifically to spell out how big the laboratory of Hindutva hate politics is coastal Karnataka. Issues , used to divide the people and create an anti-Hindu image of Muslims, namely “love jihad”, “cow protection” were exported to the entire nation only after having been tried and tested in coastal Karnataka first.

Troubled times ahead, either way?

With these memories still afresh, how is one to look at the vicious campaigning the BJP undertook during the Karnataka elections where they were once again seen trying to divide and create tension between Hindus and Muslims? Given that the BJP is frustrated about its fading magic all over India with their weapons of development; war on illegal money, etc becoming ineffective, it is quite evident that as a run up for the 2019 elections they will go back to their basics, communal politics. Dividing communities and inciting violence is likely to be the game plan of BJP for the 2019 election. A glimpse of this was seen in Karnataka once again.

People in Karnataka fear both, BJP winning and BJP losing the Karnataka elections. In case they win, they have all the control in the world to sharpen their weapons and get ready for 2019. If they lose, they have an entire year to do what they are good at, in order to ensure 2019 is not a repeat of 2018.

Either way, it is going to be a year of communal tension and violence, fear many people in Karnataka and the rest of India.

[Originally published in Hind Kisan on 13 May 2018]

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Missing The Point

April 18, 2018 at 9:15 AMApr (Activism, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

The rape of a minor in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, followed by her brutal murder as gained the attention of India, even if it is after three months. In these three months the civil (?) societies, the lawyers, the politicians belonging to the right wing in Jammu have without any hesitation come out in public to shield the perpetrators. These facts when brought to light, the liberals of India rightly got enraged as much as they got outraged on hearing about the rape of the minor girl belonging to the Bakarwal community, a nomadic tribe.

While nothing better than supporting perpetrators could be expected from the right wing, my disappointment is with the liberals, though I believe that the protest being registered is a necessary gesture. Here I would just like to list my disappointments…

Illustration by Mir Suhail

Firstly, the case of Kathua and Unnao, though barbaric and unacceptable, are being mentioned in one breath as if they are similar. No, they aren’t, even when both of them are inhumane. The question how will be answered through my elaboration of the other disappointments.

The case of Kathua rape is not being communalized and politicized by the ones underlining the religious and political identity of the girl. The rape happened because of her religious and political identity. So if anyone brought religion and politics into this, it is not those who are highlighting the identity markers but those who perpetrated violence. The cry of some liberals requesting to not make the incident “about religion and politics,” marks their ignorance of the details in this case.

The issue of Kathua cannot be seen in isolation, distancing it from the history of rape used as a weapon by the Indian state in Kashmir and on Kahsmiri people. Had the girl been raped for being a girl alone, we could have spoken only about humanity and patriarchy. But since she was raped for being a Muslim and a Kahsmiri, let’s talk primarily about the state of minorities and the way Indian state has conducted itself in Kahsmir, especially with relation to women.

Amidst all this, I fail to understand the tweets of people like Javed Akhtar who wants to remind people of the ways in which Bakarwal people showed their loyalty to India and asking us to be in solidarity with the victim. The question to be asked is, what if Bakarwal people were anti-India? In that case would Javed sahab be okay with the rape? Are does he want us to be okay with rape?

The issue of Kathua rape and murder, for many liberals, has become a scoring point against the Bharateeya Janatha Party. I have no doubts about the BJP being a disgrace to democracy, which one needs to get rid of. But I find it morally disturbing when the issue of Kathua rape is being used to churn anti-BJP public opinion alone. If at all the Kathua incident has troubled the Indian liberals then it should enable them to see the connection between the Indian occupation of Kashmir and the rape and murder of Kathua. To see it as a symbol of the maliciousness of BJP alone is to not understand the context of the Kathua rape and murder. Restricting the discussion to the role of BJP alone is parking the vehicle mid-way and aborting the truth before one has arrived at it completely. More importantly it will be dilution of the matter. The interconnections between occupation of Kashmir and the Kathua incident exists beneath the surface and one more round of scratching is enough to reach there. Very hesitantly I make this statement: If intelligence is a slave to convenience, then it is not just a moral corruption but also a sign of opportunism.

The liberal discourse around Kathua has been reeking of poverty of understanding, knowledge, sensitivity and imagination too. In extreme conditions of history, such as this, to be a liberal centrist is to let down the victims and let violence continue on the socially, politically vulnerable.

If the Indian liberals are actually horrified, as they claim to be, then the question is if the Indian liberals will at least now acknowledge Kunan Poshpora and innumerable such rapes in Kashmir (Handwara, Shopian, Islamabad, Trehgam, Doda etc) orchestrated and conducted by the Indian army? Will they stop seeing the Kathua incident out of context? If not then the liberals need to reimagine their politics.

[Originally written for Coastal Digest web portal. Published on 16 April 2018]

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Madhu’s Murder and Questions Unanswered

March 1, 2018 at 9:15 PMMar (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Soliloquy)

(On February 22, the locals of Agali town in Attapadi region of Kerala beat up an Adivasi Madhu,for stealing rice. He had succumbed to death in the police jeep on the way to the hospital. The police said that he was suffering from a mental illness. The post-mortem concluded that Madhu died of head injuries. Sixteen persons have been arrested in connection to Madhu’s death so far. The tragic event had evoked outrage across the country. The author imagines different reactions had Madhu’s life not taken the turn it did before he was nabbed by the mob.)

An Adivasi youth named Madhu was beaten to death in Attapadi, Kerala by the public, for having stolen food items.

Following the death of Madhu, there has been an outrage against the murder and the murderers, who were not just inhumane to beat Madhu to death but also rejoiced the entire act which has been reflected in their acts of taking selfie during the incident.

While this outrage is justified, let us see what could have been an alternate script…

Madhu subscribes to the middle class values and believes stealing is bad, unethical, immoral and also criminal. But since he is hungry and as a result, dies of hunger.

The fact is before us. In Attapadi there have been several incidences of death among the Adivasis because of malnutrition and starvation. Madhu would have added himself to the statistics, had he not attempted, in desperation, to steal food items.

Facts tell us that Attapadi, heartland of Adivasis in Kerala, is where the Adivasi land was encroached in the last few decades. It is ironic that the settlers who deprived Madhu and his community of their way of life and way to living have now murdered Madhu, for stealing food.

Yes, the ones who beat Madhu to death needs to be condemned and be punished for their crime. But in the midst of this outrage against the murderers let us also be brutal on ourselves a bit and scratch the matter below the surface.

If this alternate script was to play out, who would have been responsible for his death/ silent murder? If this alternate script was to play out and had Madhu died of starvation, to begin with his death would have gone unnoticed and even if it came to our notice, we the middle class would have questioned Madhu why he wouldn’t work (hard like us), why he wouldn’t take up a job, and similar questions.

We are, secretly, thankful to the murderers because they have saved us of some guilt. But we are such hypocrites and worse, deceptive, that we are using this as an opportunity to play holier than thou with all our statements about the murderers.

Let us not forget that we are a part of the system which led to a moment which handed over Madhu to the murderers.

The question of identity is not something that can be ignored in the case of Madhu’s murder. It is not just the middle class morality around stealing which has led, as I see, to the murder of Madhu.

What we also have to ask ourselves is; whose ‘unacceptable’ (the question ‘to whom?’ remains) acts irritates, angers and outrages us to the point of murdering them? Of course, not every act unacceptable to us awakens the murderer in us. Some people’s actions anger us more than that of others. Who are these people, who are lesser humans to the society at large? More than often, people who are weak, economically, socially and politically. In other words, it is the poor, the women, the Dalit-Bahujans, the LGBT community and also the Adivasis.

By reducing the death of Madhu to a matter caused by poverty we are trying to hide the issue of identity, in such a hierarchical society, because we have not been able to liberate ourselves from this prejudice even while we fancy ourselves as just, caring and sensitive lot.

Madhu being mentally unstable gives the society more courage to be violent because the mentally ill have no social, economic, legal and political power and representation in this country.
Let us now be positive (a great fancy of the middle class, aspirational India) and imagine another alternative script of Madhu…

Madhu went to school and later got a seat in some prestigious university.

We the middle class would start complaining about how reservation is eating up our seats in educational spaces and at jobs. We the middle class would laugh at Madhu for his English pronunciation, for his ‘not-so-civilized’ mannerisms and then ask whether the subaltern can adjust themselves to the mainstream way of living.

Madhu’s murder is not the first murder caused by the insensitivity of the greater commons of this country. And every murder leaves behind several questions, which we do not even acknowledge, forget coming face to face with it. Of these questions two seem significant, to me, at least at this point; how many murders does it take to be called a massacre? How many murders does it take for us to become humans?

(Originally published in Hind Kisan on 27 Feb 2018)

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The Being and Becoming of Gauri Lankesh

January 28, 2018 at 9:15 PMJan (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

It was in the year 2003 that I first met Gauri Lankesh. I was studying at the St. Aloysius College, Mangalore then and Gauri Lankesh had come as the chief guest for a seminar held by our department. Though I hadn’t read much of her writings back then, I was moved by the affectionate way in which she spoke to all of us and impressed with the clarity of thought when she spoke about justice. Our brief interaction that day ended when she wrote on my note book her postal address saying, “Keep in touch.”

Till sometime in 2005 I used to write to Gauri once in a while responding to something that was published in the weekly of which she was the Editor. Gauri responded to some of those letters too. But after 2005 monsoon I got absorbed in my own world and also lost touch with Gauri’s weekly and also Gauri.

One day in 2009 when I was working for The Hindu in Mangalore I got a call while I was filing a story. “Hello Samvartha, this is Gauri Lankesh,” the voice from the other side said. She had called to give me a pat on the back for a story I did after the attack on minorities in Kaup following the Hindu Samajotsava. She wanted to honour those who had saved the lives at an event that was to be held in memory of her father and she asked me for their contact details. The story I did which carried the headline ‘Hindutva People Attacked Us, Hindus Saved Us’ was translated by Gauri and carried as a part of her editorial the following week.

During that noon’s talk there was so much warmth in her voice that I believed she remembered me from my teenage days when I first met her and also wrote to her. But it wasn’t so. It was only in 2014 she realized that I was the same boy who had met her a decade ago and written to her saying the translation of Gulzar and Javed Akthar in the special issue of her weekly was bad. We both had met in Mysore for a seminar on Sufism then. We spent the evening together roaming the streets of Mysore and talking about our movements, literature, journalism, common friends and our own personal lives. When I recollected a letter she had written in response to mine Gauri, that evening, gulped down the sip of whisky in a hurry to say, “Are you the same boy?” When I smiled to answer in the positive Gauri said, “I was not very much home those days with writing in Kannada though I could speak and read quite well in Kannada. So I used to find it slightly difficult to respond to letters after the task of writing an editorial,” and followed it up with anecdotes of her struggle during the early days of Kannada journalism, which made us have good laugh.

Gauri who was working in Delhi with an English media returned to Bangalore when her father, giant of a writer and journalist, P. Lankesh passed away. Those were the early days of 21st century and soon Gauri took over as the editor of the weekly her father used to edit. Until she took charge of Lankesh Patrike as its Editor she did not share a bond with the people’s lives of Karnataka. Moreover she hardly could speak and write in Kannada fluently. The huge fan following that Lankesh and Lankesh Patrike had by then looked at Gauri and her ability to carry forward the legacy of Lankesh and Lankesh Patrike very sceptically. But over the years Gauri surprised all and probably herself too, to become a prominent ‘Activist-Journalist’ (as she liked to refer herself) from Karnataka.

The last 17 years of Gauri’s life spent in Karnataka, Kannada journalism and lives of Kannada people and the transformation Gauri went through in the last 17 years is not just phenomenal and defining of Gauri but also holds the message of her life. Those were the years of becoming of Gauri.

In the year 2000, as said earlier, Gauri could hardly write and speak Kannada fluently. Her editorials of those days and the letters she wrote those days stand as witness to this. She was just a broad liberal humanist, values she imbibed through the living of her father, when she returned to Karnataka. But soon when she became more and more familiar with the lives and issues of Karnataka her politics became sharper and sharper. If her learning Kannada marked the first move of her becoming, after her return to the native, the second major move in her transmogrification came with her being one of the founding member of Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony (Karnataka Komu Sauharda Vedike) which was started as a response to the communal violence of Gujarat 2002 and the oath taken by the right wingers in Karnataka to make Karnataka another Gujarat. This politics of the right wing escalated with their attempt to make the syncretic Bababudangiri the Ayodhya of the south. This was met with strong resistance by the Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony where many, including Gauri, were jailed. This movement to preserve the syncretic culture of Bababudangiri shifted gears of the activist life of Gauri and brought her closer to the activist circles in Karnataka and tuned her politics.

Around the same time armed struggles was finding ground in Karnataka and that had disturbed Gauri to a large extent. In 2004 she was one of the journalists who were invited by the Naxalites for a press meet in the western ghat forest. It is during this visit that she met her college senior Saketh Rajan alias Prem alias Saki who was leading the Naxalite movement in Karnataka and also saw the lives of the Naxalites closely. She developed great respect for people who had left all comforts and luxuries of life and come to the forest where they lived under difficult circumstances. Their commitment they had for the values they believed in and the dream they had for the world humbled her. But that did not eclipse her mind and she did see the possible violence that could unfold. She started her work of becoming a mediator between the Naxalites and the Government to arrange for a meeting between the two and resolve the issues. Both the parties agreed but the Government acted prematurely and hunted Saketh in the early days of 2005. Angered by this, Gauri got on to the streets to condemn the Government’s act. This earned her the title Naxalite sympathiser when all she desired was for peace and resolving of issue without arms!

As a continuation of this she along with freedom fighter like HS Doraiswamy started the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace which mediated between the Naxalites and the Government and brought back many a Naxalites to the mainstream. Noor Sridhar being one of the Naxalites who came to the mainstream in an article on Gauri written after her assassination says that the Naxalites have been fonder of Gauri than Gauri being fond of them, as the mass seem to believe or has been made to believe. In the very same article Noor Shridhar says though Gauri associated with the Communists was never a communist, though had sympathies for the Naxalites never endorsed their method and though had immense respect for the Dalits and the Dalit movement was never an Ambedkarite. Continuing his observation he said, in the same article, that Gauri’s solidarity was with values she believed in and she always saw the limitations of the organizations. Probably that is why she was never a member of any organization. Her participation was purely value based and agenda based.

Very recently K. Phaniraj was recollecting how Gauri was not familiar with the divisions within the communists and the several parties that burst out of the Communist Party of India. On learning about over 64 organizations in existence, Phaniraj remembered, Gauri reacted with a, “Whatever.” That, “Whatever,” was not of a dismissive nature but an “I cannot be bothered” in nature.

This ‘not being bothered’ did not mean she did not care. It only meant she did not want to focus on it. Instead focusing on the possibilities of a united force to make the world stand on its legs was important for her. Her solidarity with every movement for justice spoke this nature of her. It was very well reflected in her efforts to bring together the ‘red’ and the ‘blue’. This effort was not a strategic position or move for her but something she believed with all her heart.

During the Chalo Udupi in October 2016, which was the last time I met her face to face, it was decided that only blue flags would be taken during the event. But on the day of the event many organizations which showed solidarity had brought their own flags and I was witness to Gauri politely requesting those organizations with other flags to fold their flags and keep it inside. That showed how in movements Gauri participated not like a leader but like a cadre. It also showed how she had slowly started to absorb Ambedkarite thoughts and was preferring ‘blue’ over ‘red’ though she wanted both these colours to come together as a united force.

Gauri had not read Ambedkar till some years ago. But when she read Ambedkar she let Ambedkarite thoughts to seep into her and she also expressed her regret for not having read Ambedkar for long. Not to say that she was not sensitive to the cause of Dalits prior to this. But her Dalit consciousness had not formed in a strict Ambedkarite sense and was still within the large framework of human rights and civil rights. That started to change around 2013-14 with she starting to read Ambedkar. The birthday gift I received last year from her was the biography of Periyar and that kind of hints the path she was progressing in.

The last time I met Gauri was during Chalo Udupi , as I remembered earlier, in 2016 October. I had then just returned from my visit to Jammu & Kashmir post Burhan Wani assassination for a book project. Gauri was keen on knowing what I had seen and heard. She insisted I take her for a good fish meal and as we drove and later had lunch in a small hotel in Udupi she heard with utmost curiosity the story of my travel. In the end she asked me if I would be ready to go to Kashmir with Shivasunder, a comrade of concern, to do a series of reports for the weekly, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. I immediately agreed. After some weeks when I reminded her about the plan Gauri said, “Shivasunder seems to have other commitments. We both can go together.”

Couple of months later Gauri called me very late in the night. She had just completed reading Basharat Peer’s book Curfewed Nights and had called to thank me for having suggested the book to her. That night I suggested some more books on Kashmir and she made note of them. Her excitement showed how Kashmir issue was not a preoccupation for her until then and slowly was becoming one. That is exactly why she was planning a trip to Kashmir with this young boy.

But by then I had heard from a common friend and a senior activist that demonetization had hit the circulation of Gauri’s weekly and she was in a financial crunch. That information made me realize why the Kashmir plan was not materializing soon and I stopped asking Gauri about it. The financial crunch made he write columns for Bangalore Mirror so that she can earn some money to sustain her tabloid. Eventually her column was stopped. The space for liberal radical was closing down swiftly. Gauri herself spoke of the financial crunch when in August she called to say how a particular article by someone in J&K thrilled her and how badly she wanted to meet the writer. “We can meet when we go there,” I told her. In response, she explained the financial matters saying, “Let me recover a bit and then we can go.”

A month later Gauri was assassinated and the dream of our Kashmir visit also died.

Soon I heard that she had made many a plans earlier which could not materialize soon because of her financial crunch. Ramesh Aroli had translated Gudipati Venkatachalam’s novel ‘maidaanam’ which she was to publish, a new book by Revathi, whose autobiography ‘The Truth About Me- The Story of A Hijra’ was also published in Kannada by Gauri, and a translation of Curfewed Nights which I was to do- all had got delayed because of the way in which demonetization hit Gauri.

When a person like Gauri dies several dreams die and though movements don’t die they feel a jolt and lose some energy. The day following her assassination a protest was held in Udupi, like in many places across the country, where a Dalit activist held me tightly and weeping uncontrollably said, “Now who will care for us? Now who will give space to our issues in media?” Gauri did not believe in becoming the voice of someone else but always made sure she listens to the voice of the people and within her means whatever was possible to amplify that voice, through her tabloid, through her publication etc, she did. Her life coming to an abrupt end shook many, spaces shrunk for many and many felt orphaned.

A week after Gauri’s assassination a huge protest event was held in Bangalore. Revathi whose autobiography Gauri had published and whose next book Gauri was to publish was on the stage representing the community of sexual minorities. Akkai was seen in tears and embracing Gauri’s mother and sister who too were in tears. It was learnt that the community of sexual minorities from Bangalore had actually collected money for the protest event through begging. This showed Gauri’s close association with the sexual minorities which hardly made news.

An interesting article by a Kannada website revealed the backstory of Gauri’s association with the sexual minorities. Sometime during the early days of Gauri’s editorship at Lankesh Patrike a reporter had filed a story on the sexual minorities which was slightly derogatory in nature. A case was filed against the tabloid for the published report. The case was being fought by one B.T. Venkatesh who once took Gauri to meet members of the sexual minority community which became the beginning of her association with the community and becoming a part of their struggles; social and political. Gauri became “akka” (elder sister) to the community. This says that Gauri’s relationship with the sexual minorities was not just as a reporter grounded on a certain kind of political correctness but extended to a personal relationship with them. That is why in Bangalore on 12 Sep the stigmatized, excluded and abandoned community cried loudly, “I am Gauri.”

In the last seventeen years of her life Gauri became a lady of movements, as a journalist, through her active participation in different movements for rights and justice. This was a long journey from where she began in 2000 as a person of broad liberal humanistic values. She herself, for sure, was aware of the change she had undergone- of becoming an activist, learning Kannada, internalizing Ambedkarite thoughts, developing sensitivity towards with sexual minorities, coming to understand the Naxalite struggle, arriving at a solution for the Naxalite problem, working towards understanding the Kashmir struggle etc. Probably her own life taught her the possibility of the change human heart and intellect can go when it faces reality and truth. May be that was the reason for her immense faith in dialogue. Even when she was trolled on social media by people half her age and younger than that, she engaged with them, dialogued with them. In all possibilities it is her own becoming of what she became in her 17 years of life that she could invest faith in the possibility of those ‘misguided children’ of hers (as she called those trolls who wished her death) becoming a better, socially sensitive and politically conscious human. At the same time through her becoming she gave us the message of her life i.e. the possibility of change in humans and in society through humans.

It must also be said that Gauri is what the times in which she lived made out of her. The pressure of history was such that Gauri became Gauri. But it is not the call of the times which alone makes a historic figure like Gauri but also the way in which they respond to the times. As much as Gauri was shaped by the times, the times she lived also got shaped by Gauri.

Gauri emotionally adopted Kanhaiyya, Jignesh Mevani and Umair as her sons. To think about it one is a boy with communist influence, the other an Ambedkaraite and one with naxalite influence. When Gauri passed away Sheila Rasheed, a Kashmiri girl, on record referred to her as ‘Amma’ (mother). That kind of symbolizes the various streams of thoughts that capped within her.

When Gauri would refer to all these young ones of my generation as sons, at times I (later I learnt many did the same) would playfully ask her why wouldn’t she adopt as her son and notoriously ask for T-Shirts when she bought one for one of the three. Gauri would know that we were pulling her leg and would respond saying, “You have been adopted by me long ago. These are new ones.” It was not an intelligent answer to our notorious remarks but an honest answer. She actually had always treated me and many like her own children.

I can never forget how once she called me to ask how I was doing after she discovered (through my couplets posted on social media) that I had parted ways with someone I love and was saddened by it. She consoled me like a friend and like a friend asked me to not spend much time over lost love because that would eat up the time I can dedicate to find new love. The concern was genuine and each word spoken was honest. Few months before her assassination I had messaged her about the fellowship I had received to make a film on mental health and that night, late night, she had called me to discuss what her thoughts around mental health, depression to be specific, were and to suggest what possibilities can be explored.

I am recollecting some of these very personal matters just to say that Gauri saw me and many like me not just as comrades of concern but as fellow humans, as friends, who meant a lot to her beyond social political movements, thoughts and idea that we shared etc. She cared for all humans she was associated with. There was immense truth in her concern for her fellow beings.

Gauri was like a mother, friend and guide all at the same time.

Gauri would publish some of the poems I used to translate in her weekly and tell me after the week’s edition would be out. Once when I told her she had to take permission in advance before publishing them she laughed loud asking me to repeat myself. I felt so embarrassed that I shut my mouth first and then opened it only to join her in laughing. She would publish my translations without my permission because she believed that among friends it is okay to take such liberties.

Once Gauri called me an hour before the weekly was to go for print asking me to translate a poem “asap.” It was the poem by Hussain Haidry which had gone viral. I was at an ice cream parlour with a friend at that point of time. I ended up translating the poem on a tissue paper. After half an hour when I called her she typed down the translation as I read it out. Immediately then she said, “now listen” and read out her translation of Abul Kalam Azad’s poem which he had written as a response to Hussain Haidry’s poem. She was to carry both the poems in her coming issue which was to go for print in the next few minutes. Though Abul’s poem appeared to counter the poem of Hussain at one level, to Gauri they were complementing poems. More over even if it was countering she would still carry it because Gauri always had space for dissent.

Once when I had argued with Gauri saying the abandonment of a fellow activist from the organization for a wrong he did was not acceptable to me because I believe excommunication is a very brahminical idea. Guess she hadn’t given much thought about it and when I uttered my feelings she immediately said, “Yes, you are right. I will see what can be done,” and told me she would speak to the ex-communicated activist since she also felt that all he needed was some talking and making him realize his mistake. There was no space for abandoning and excommunicating in her world. My former colleague and friend Sudipto in a piece had remembered how he once opposed Gauri on ideological grounds and thought that would end his ties with her but was only surprised when she spoke to him with the same affection next time and introduced him to a friend as, “son.”

Gauri believed in and lived what Makhdoom wrote as, “hayaat leke chalo kaayenaat leke chalo, chalo toh saarey zamaaney ko saath leke chalo.”

That night in Mysore when Gauri and I had the longest conversation ever, she had asked me if I had read her mother’s autobiography. I had answered in the negative and Gauri promised to send me the book so that I could read it. But Gauri forgot to send the book. I later read the book as a jury member for the annual book award given by the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi, since it was one of the book contesting for the award. I was thrilled reading the book by Indira Lankesh. After reading it, I called Gauri and she asked me what I thought it. The outstanding book chronicles the coming of age of both Lankesh and Indira. In my reading of the book I saw how the coming of age of a man is more than often individualistic and personal success/ achievement oriented while the coming of age of a woman is more than often a collective growth and the success is measured through the contribution made to others lives. Gauri had liked my reading of the book. In this conversation around her mother’s book I had told Gauri that she should write her autobiography because that would give us a third dimension to the life of her father. She had dismissed the idea. Had she written would it give us a third dimension to the life of Lankesh, I don’t know. But I am sure it would still be a story of coming of age where growth is collective and life cooperative.

Gauri would have turned 56 today had she been alive. I weep in silence as I remember her and write this.

Rest in power, Gauri!

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Is there an Indian way of reporting?

September 25, 2017 at 9:15 PMSep (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life)

Indian media seems quite thrilled and joyful on spotting the mistake of Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.

Speaking at the UNGA after the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech where she referred to Pakistan as Terroristan, Ms. Lodhi showed a photo of a war victim saying it was of a Kashmiri injured by pellets shot by the Indian Army. With the photo in her hand she said, “This is the face of Indian democracy.” But the photo that she held in her hand was not from Kashmir but from Gaza. A photo of Rawia Abu Joma clicked in the year 2014 by Heidi Levine.

While the lack of homework on the part of Ms. Lodhi is quite embarrassing for Pakistan and also a matter of irresponsibility though not as shameful and irresponsible as the atrocity of the Indian army in Kashmir about which Ms. Lodhi mentioned and of which the UN is already aware of.

The focus of Indian media on a goof up by the Pakistan’s Ambassador while ignoring the fact mentioned in a way shows the Indian way of reporting when it comes to the issue of Kashmir, where the violence on the people of Kashmir is never reported or highlighted. Even if the matter comes at the UNGA the media choosing to highlight a goof up shows its way of reporting the issue of Kashmir.

On the 24th of June, 2017 a prestigious national newspaper The Indian Express on its front page carried two disturbing news coming from India and India occupied Kashmir on two ends. But the way the two news were worded and presented was quite disturbing and revealed a certain kind of bias.

On the left end was the report on 15 year old Junaid being beaten to death in Haryana while he was travelling back home by train from Delhi after a heated debate on train turned violent where Junaid and his brothers were called “beef-eaters.” On the right end was the news from the summer capital of India occupied Kashmir of Mohammad Ayoub Pandith (DySP) was beaten to death by a mod outside Jamia Masjid, Srinagar after he loitered around the Masjid while thousands were observing Shab and was apprehended for his suspicious presence by people which lead him to fire at the mob which left three injured and the mob angered.

The earlier incident was reported under the headline, ’15 year old killed, brother says were called beef eaters’ and the latter under the headline, ‘J&K police officer lynched in Srinagar, body dumped in drain.’

While the latter headline was published in bold letters the earlier wasn’t, drawing the attention to the earlier with urgency and also making it appear more significant through highlighting it with bold letters. If the earlier incident became an act of ‘killing’ the latter was an incident of ‘lynching’, making the latter incident sound more gory, barbaric, inhumane and cruel.

A year ago following the assassination of Burhan Wani, I visited J&K. It was already two months since the valley had turned violent when I started from home and more than 50 Kashmiri civilians had died in the hands of Indian army and hundreds injured and blinded because of pellets. Everyday, during my JK visit, my mother would call me to ask how I am, how my work is progressing and if I am eating properly and eating at time.

But the day after the Uri attack took place I started receiving several calls from friends and extended family asking me if I was safe and fine!

That night I wondered why all those friends and relatives felt I was in an unsafe zone only when 18 soldiers were killed and not when over 50 Kashmiri people were killed and hundreds of them injured with pellets! The answer was clear, the media which all my friends and relatives consume, had not reported the deaths of Kashmiri people in the hands of Indian army but had reported the attack of Uri in an amplified manner depicting a war situation and created an atmosphere of panic!

The day after the Uri attack the national newspapers carried the Uri attack in bold letters on the front page with the image of the children of the dead soldiers now orphaned. And the local newspapers though carried news of the Uri attack on the front page their main news was of a teenager dying because of cardiac arrest caused by teargas hurled by the Indian army. If the editorials of the national media spoke of terrorism and Pakistan the editorials of the local newspapers while speaking of Uri attack invoked the memory of Chattisinghpura.

So if the Indian media chooses to see and highlight only a goof up ignoring what was said by Ms. Lodhi, a fact which has not even covered properly by the media, then it isn’t surprising because that is the Indian way of reporting Kashmir, like it has done always.

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Gauri Lankesh’s unfulfilled Kashmir dream

September 19, 2017 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Friends, Literature, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

One night in April 2017, my phone rang. It was the middle of the night and my heart skipped a beat when the phone rang at that ungodly hour but on seeing Gauri Lankesh’s name flashed across the screen, I settled down. Gauri was the one who always burned the midnight oil and I knew it wasn’t odd for her to call me at this hour.

“Thank you so much,” Captain blurted out when I answered the call. Her voice was filled with immense gratitude. I wondered why she was thanking me while she continued, “I just finished reading Curfewed Night. Thanks for recommending it,” she said and added, “It is so sad that I hadn’t read this book for so long.”

Captain then went on to tell me how the work of her weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike, her activism and the cases against her – a strategy of her opponents to exhaust and harass her – leave her with very less time to read good books. She told me that she had taken an oath to read at least three books a month. When I heard about her oath, I suggested she read Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? in the month of May. By the end of May, she had read the book.

It all began on the 9th of October when Captain was in Udupi, close to my home town Manipal, for the historical Chalo Udupi rally. I had just returned home after a brief but intense visit to Kashmir. So when Captain and I met at the rally she insisted I be with her and share with her my Kashmir experience.

That noon, when we were finishing lunch, Captain asked me if I would be ready to go to Kashmir with Shivasunder (another comrade of ours) to do a series of reports for her weekly. I immediately agreed.

That noon Captain told me how she has been trying to argue from over a decade about Jagmohan being the orchestrator of the Pandit exodus but nobody cares to listen. She also told me about her one interview with Syed Ali Geelani. When I told her about the people displaced from the other side of Kashmir living in Jammu she honestly said, “I did not know about this,” and added, “Actually, neither the state nor the media wants us to know.”

Gauri was willing to listen to what the state and the media did not want us to listen and she was willing to speak that which the state and the media did not want us to speak.

Since that day in October 2016 the conversation between me and Captain was majorly about Kashmir.

After some weeks when I reminded her about the plan Captain said, “Shivasunder seems to have other commitments. We both can go together.”

I did not hear from Captain about our Kashmir visit plan for the next few months and I started doubting if it was ever going to happen. Though I never doubted her concern about Kashmir and her longing to give her readers a true picture of Kashmir, I was becoming quite impatient because of the delay.

Later when Captain called me in April 2017 saying she had read Basharat Peer’s book and followed it up with reading the spine chilling book on Kunan Poshpora, I knew the plan was still on. By then I had learnt from a common friend and a senior activist that demonetization had hit the circulation of Captain’s weekly and she was in a financial crunch. The information made me realize why the Kashmir plan was not materializing and I stopped asking her about it.

Captain herself spoke of the financial crunch when in August 2017 she called me to say how a particular article by someone in Kashmir thrilled her and how badly she wanted to meet the writer. When I said, “We can meet the author when we go there,” Captain, who by then had taken loans to run her weekly, explained the economic crunch and said, “Let me recover a bit and then we can go.”

Now Captain is no more with us and I fear with her unfortunate killing – the weekly also will breathe its last. After this calamity, I am afraid that neither the visit to Kashmir nor reporting on Kashmir for the readers of weekly will ever happen.

On that April night when Captain called to tell me she had read Curfewed Night she had asked me if I could translate the book and assured me that she will publish it. I told her that during my interaction with the author Basharat Peer I had asked him if I could do the translation and he had verbally permitted me to do so. She took his email address from me saying, “Then let me write to him as a publisher and avail rights for publishing the translation.” I don’t know if she ever wrote to Basharat Peer. But this too, like our Kashmir visit and writing about Kashmir for the readers of her weekly, remains unfulfilled.

I recollect these interactions, our jointly made but unfulfilled plans while writing this because I believe I am bound by responsibility for letting the friends from Kashmir know that Captain, who stood in solidarity with every struggle across the globe, of the right against the might, understood the struggle of occupied Kashmiris and also longed to meet them and hear their stories and chronicle them for Kannada readers.

I am writing this story of Captain and our plan of Kashmir also because it speaks of how a person is perpetually chained at various levels by the order of things from fighting the system and yet how some determined people like Captain were continuously making efforts to make the world stand on its legs and change this order of things.

(Originally published in Wande Magazine on 11 Sep 2017)

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Clips of the Same Chain

September 18, 2017 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Cinema, Friends, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

The board outside the Main Theater (MT) at my Alma mater Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) serves the purpose of announcing the daily screening at MT and National Film Archives of India, which is associated to the Institute. On happy occasions like some alumni winning a prestigious award or on sad occasion of some alumni’s demise the board speaks of it.

Few days ago the board carried the name of Gauri Lankesh. The announcement said a condolence meeting was being held at the Wisdom Tree that evening.

Under that very tree around 4 years ago we had gathered to pay tribute to Narendra Dabholkar, who was murdered just a couple of kilometers away from the campus.

A day after Dabholkar’s murder when some members of the Akhila Bharateeya Vidyarthi Parishad attacked Kabir Kala Manch members and students of FTII, I had got a call from Gauri, who I fondly called Captain, asking for details. She had expressed her solidarity with all her heart.

Later when FTII went on strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan by the new Government at the center, Captain had spoken to me a couple of times regarding the same with great concern.

It was during the same time that M.M. Kalburgi was murdered in Dharwad and Captain was one of the leading voices to protest against this and demand justice. She drew connection between all these incidents.

Now I see in photographs  Captain’s name in that very campus and on that board.

I recollect all these because all these incidents scattered over time and spaces are all, as I see, clips of the same chain.

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All Has Turned Red: Remembering Gauri Lankesh

September 12, 2017 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

It was the monsoon of 2004. Handful of journalists had entered the ‘naxal infested forest’ in Karnataka to meet the Naxalites and do ground reporting after being invited for a meeting as such by the then leader. Gauri Lankesh was one among the few journalists from different media houses.

In the following issue of Lankesh Patrike (she had not yet started her own weekly then) in her editorial and report Gauri spoke of Comrade Prem, who was spearheading the naxalite movement in Karnataka, being her senior in college years before he moved into armed rebellion. Gauri had interviewed him and in her editorial (kempaadavo ella kempaadavo | All has turned red ) quoted a poem by Comrade Prem. A poem penned in 1995, where Prem is responding to the judicial murder of the human rights activist of Nigeria- Ken Saro Viwa saying, “It was a lesson you learned too late. Your pen playwright should have been backed by the gun alright?”

Ken who was fighting for the Ogoni tribe and against the multi-national Shell oil company was hanged to death by the the then Nigerian regime.

The lines of Comrade Prem sounded so convincing to me back then when I was a naive teenager.

But then in 2005 when Comrade Prem was hunted and gunned by the star machinery I was shocked to learn that Comrade Prem was Saket Rajan, an author of two volumes of Karnataka History titled Making History and also a gold medalist from IIMC, Delhi.

Those days when the Naxalite movement of Karnataka and especially Saket Rajan was being discussed by the media and public, I kept recollecting his poem fondly and juxtaposed it with what I read in newspapers: Saket Rajan being killed in an encounter and how next to his body was a gun that he was carrying. I told myself that Saket Rajan was proven wrong by history.

So when Gauri initiated and toiled to bring naxalites to mainstream years later in Karnataka, I was not just proud of her I also did express my solidarity with her.

Now in 2017 after seeing Gauri being killed I wonder what is Saket going to tell her if at all there is an afterlife and if the two good old friends are to meet in a world beyond this world? Will he say what he had told Ken Saro Viwa: “it was a lesson you learned too late. Your pen should have been backed by the gun alright!”?? To be honest, I dont know what he would say, what Gauri would respond to it and to begin with I dont even know if there is an afterlife or not. But I know for sure that those who sweat and toil to make the world stand on its legs will be crushed and smashed by the state by the system and it doesn’t matter if they are backed by the gun or not!

But then when Ken’s murder did not stop or silence Saket and Saket’s murder did not stop or silence Gauri, we shouldn’t be stopped or silenced by the murder of Gauri. Because with or without the gun what all these three fighters, rebels forming a diverse yet connected and continuous history are propagating through their lives is to keep fighting and keep speaking to make the world stand on its legs.

Numbed by the murder of a comrade of concern and an understanding friend, trying to digest the fact that she is no more physically, I recollect a line of Pablo Neruda: “True life is without silence. Only death remains dumb” from his poem titled Communication from the collection Isla Negra. I also recollect a graffiti that I used to cross every day during my days at JNU. The graffiti read: “Let life be dead, but death must not be allowed to live,” a quote attributed to Karl Marx.

People like Gauri are not silent even in their death and even in death they fight death and ensure death will not be allowed to live.

(Originally published in Kashmir Times dated 12 September 2017)

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Creative Coincidental Kinship~ 5

August 3, 2017 at 9:15 PMAug (Activism, Friends, Literature, Media, Music, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

“When you come here you should meet this new friend I have made,” said my friend Diti when I called her to ask how the film appreciation course was going in Pune. Later once while talking to Sakshi, with whom Diti was staying, I was told by Sakshi that I would enjoy the company of her friend who is also on campus for FA with Diti. So I was quite intrigued by this person who I knew only by name- Jasdeep.

“He has great taste for poetry and is also a translator,” Diti had told me and Sakshi had told me that he was the language consultant for Gurvinder’s films. Both had certified him as an intelligent nice human being and me as someone having full faith in both believed their words and was looking forward to meet Jasdeep during my visit to Pune.

When I finally landed in Pune I dint get to meet Jasdeep immediately though Diti, Sakshi and I met in no time. Finally when that evening when I met this man who I was looking forward to meet, there was silence between the two of us. We both had heard about each other through Diti and Sakshi and kind of knew what the other person is like yet there was not much conversation between us other than the casual hi hello and some basics.

Few days passed without much conversation though we had breakfast, lunch, tea, drinks, and dinner together. One night while heading back to our respective rooms Jasdeep said, “We should have a proper conversation,” I agreed but dint know why there was such a silence between us even when we felt so comfortable in each other’s presence.

One afternoon it was decided that we would go to Asha Dining Hall for lunch and there while waiting for our plates to arrive Diti made a mention of my book and that got Jasdeep interested. He asked me what book it is and I told him it is a book of translated poems. “Which poet have you translated?” he asked curiously and I told him that it is a collection of 74 poems and the connection between them is the translator alone. The 74 poems, I told him, are by various poets writing in different languages. Since Jasdeep is also a translator, writer and a sensitive reader I mentioned to him that the collection includes some Punjabi poets too. “Who Pash?” asked Jasdeep. “Pash also. And Lal Singh Dil…” I said and struggled to remember a name who I absolutely loved reading and translating. I held my forehead, banged the table once lightly in order to remember the name but couldn’t.

When even a few seconds of silent thinking dint help me remember the name, which I knew was inside me but was refusing to surface on my lips; I decided to tell Jasdeep the lines of the poem. “To go back home is now difficult…” I recollected the opening line of the poem and Jasdeep immediately took the baton from me and in the same pace and same rhythm that I recited the line went on to recite the poem, even though not completely, in its original Punjabi form. I was thrilled to listen to the poem in original after having read it in English, translated it into Kannada and having lived with it for over 6 years. I was hearing something I am familiar with in a language that I am not familiar with and the unknown was becoming known and the known was becoming unknown at the same time.

That weekend when we were cooking Jasdeep made me listen to an audio recording of the poem, “To go back home is now difficult…” in Punjabi. This time it was the entire poem. As he explained few lines in English I recollected from my memory my Kannada translation and recited them to Jasdeep. Punjabi, again, though unknown became known to me and Kannada though unknown to him became known to him.

That day Jasdeep was playing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan songs for us while we all joined hands to cook. At some point he played the song, “maaye ni maaye,” penned by Shiv Kumar Batalvi and I said, “Forgot to tell you, I translated this gazal of Batalvi too.”

Next day or the day after Jasdeep sent me the link to his blog and when I clicked on it I found the photo of Rohit Vemula. I scrolled down and realized Jasdeep had translated the poem originally written in English by Rohit to Punjabi. Incidentally I am the one who translated it to Kannada.

I scrolled down further and saw that Jasdeep also is an admirer of Eduardo Galeano who I adore immensely. Also saw our shared love for Meena Kandasamy, MF Hussain which made me realize beyond literature, cinema we also are comrades of concern.

Seeing these few posts I realized that Jasdeep and I have been connected to each other from a long time, through our engagements with literature, world and negotiating with both through language through translation, though we met only recently. That in a way also explained why we felt quite comfortable with each other though we hardly spoke to each other. We somehow knew each other beyond language.

Even after that day our conversations did not increase much.

In some days Jasdeep left for Chanddigarh and I stayed back in Pune for some weeks. When I got back home after a month’s stay in Pune I finally got copies of my book of translated poems. I messaged about the arrival of the book, with a photo of it, to some friends and Jasdeep was one of them. I received a congratulatory message from Jasdeep with a request. He wanted a copy of my book. I replied saying it is in Kannada. I had a smile on my face when Jasdeep responded saying, “Still. I will keep it. I have got Urdu books since long. I can manage to read them now,” which showed not just his affection for a comrade of concern in me but also his absolute love for poetry beyond language and also language itself beyond meaning, purpose, comprehension.

I took Jasdeep’s address and sent him a copy of my book with a small note where I recollected the meeting of Pablo Neruda and Faiz Ahmed Faiz where they spoke and shared their poems in their language even when they did not know the language of the other. I was very thrilled when I had first read about that magical moment and have always wondered how hearts met, lives intersected beyond time, space and language. I was happy and secretly proud that I somehow lived a moment which remotely rhymed the incident of Neruda and Faiz exchanging pages of their life and poetry and thus form yet another creative coincidental kinship.

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Creative Coincidental Kinship~ 3

April 29, 2017 at 9:15 AMApr (Activism, Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life, Theater, Uncategorized)

It was 13th November 2016. I was sitting in the hostel and trying to work when Dharmakeerthi called to ask if I would be interested in watching an experimental play in Marathi. My first response was in the negative because I wouldn’t follow Marathi. But I changed my mind in no time when Dharma told me the play is titled White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a play about which Shrunga had spoken to me, while in Bangalore, couple of months ago.

Atul PetheThe play white Rabbit Red Rabbit written by Nassim Soleimanpour , I was told earlier by Shrunga and by Dharma that evening, is a unique experiment in theater where the play if handed over to the actor for the first time in a sealed cover on the stage in the presence of the audience and s/he is expected to perform while s/he discovers the play while reading it aloud on the stage and performing as per the instruction given by the writer. The play is played only once by a performer and each time a new performer does the play. The prerequisite for the performance is that the performer, before the play, should not know anything about the pay before the performance. The performer is sent a mail 48 hours before the performance where they are told to bring a bottle of water with them and come prepared with an animal impression.

Thus the play opens as a mystery not just to the audience but also the performer.

What grounds this experimental world on earth is the primary reason that led this play to be designed in this fashion. Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian, refused to enroll for national service and was forbidden to leave his native Iran for the same. So when restricted from moving outside Iran this theater artist decided to make his words his play travel without him yet with him and wrote the play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which as he himself says could, “find a way around the Iranian structure of supervising the performing arts.”

Dharma came to pick me up slightly over an hour before the time scheduled for the play to begin. Demonetization had just crashed on all our lives and neither Dharma nor I had money in hand to buy tickets. Dharma requested the organizers to let us pay the next day or on one of the days following and permit us to watch the play that evening. The organizers agreed gracefully.

That evening the play was to be performed by the celebrated Marathi theater and screen artist Atul Pethe. As we waited for the play to begin Dharma told me that Alok Rajwade had earlier performed the same play. Alok was with us waiting for the performance to begin.

Unlike all other plays the performance of White Rabbit Red Rabbit encourages the audience to keep their mobile phones switched on because one “might need to use it,” and begins by uniting all, the audience and also the performer, in a shared experience of nervous excitement.

This feeling of nervous excitement which is quite paradoxical, kind of captures the nature of White Rabbit Red Rabbit which is paradoxical and through the paradox quite profound.

The play handed over in a sealed packet stands as a metaphor for the closed worlds and secrecy of the state and authority which through such secrecy not just secludes people but also controls them. While the uncertainty of what is going to happen reflects the uncertainty of life in a repressed society the overwhelming presence of the voice of the author dictating terms not just to the performer but also the audience speaks of how unknown voices, given the stature of authority/ author controls our movement or non-movement through its demand of obedience. At the same time when the actor speaks for the author introducing himself/ herself as Nassim Soleimanpour we see, in a strange way, how censorship works i.e. someone starts to speak through the individual stripping them of their voice.

The structure of the play certainly echoes these ideas, also because of the circumstances under which it was written, though the author says the play which is ‘meeting of social experiment and theater experiment’ only his exploration of the ideas of obedience and collective behavior.

On the flip side of this dark reality told in a gripping way through secrecy and mystery, the play speaks of possibilities within such a restricted, repressive and restrained given reality.

The sealed packet reaching the hand of the performer, to begin with, gives the first hope about words still being able to be transported to the performer even when the author is not allowed to move out of his native. When the performer begins to read the script, s/he, “I am Nassim Soleimanpour,” it shows the transformative power art holds within itself, where the performer becomes the author and author performs through the performer. This, in a way, also hints that the author, the performer, the audience all could be the same kind of individuals in similar situation of life/ world.

The author at one point says, “I can’t see you or hear you, but I consider you somewhere in my imagined world and I write to you.” This while shows the power of imagination it also shows the transgression made possible through word through art. When the author says he had written the play on 25 April 2010 and says he doesn’t know when and where the performance is taking place, the author and the play starts to hint about words being able to travel in time thus sculpting story and history in time and making it travel across space and time.

When Nassim, the author, says through the performer, “I have not seen you but have met you,” he challenges the authority and its power by making his play, a piece of art, turn into a creation of human bond across space and time. He further extends this bond when he invites the audience to write to him and send him photographs of the play. He also promises to respond to the mails “if alive.” This uncertainty of his life, while chokes the audience it also shows the immortality of words and art, which continues to survive beyond the author and tell the story of a particular phase of history in a given land.

While it looks like experimental play it is also an experiential play because the anxiety, authority and uncertainty of a condition of living is made to experience, though in a diluted way, by the audience and the performer and are also made to experience the possibility of breaking such structures through art and words.

The play, through author’s personal anecdotes and through a fable of animals, speaks of freedom, censorship, life and death, obedience, passivity, compliance and the power of communication. By blurring the lines between fact and fiction, performance and actuality and primarily between him and us the author breaks walls and unites the divided word at the level of experience and makes the performer and the audience realize that he, in his closed atmosphere, and we in our closed theater are still connected and a collective.

The play unites the author and the audience not only through the performer but also by making the audience a part of the performance. In a beautiful way of breaking the fourth wall the author prompts the performer to make the audience to count numbers in succession and then making the performer invite audience of some designated numbers to come on stage and perform tasks, take notes, keep time etc. Thus a strange bond takes place between the author, the performer and the audience where the gap between time, country and on-stage and off-stage breaks, uniting everyone in a single thread.

While watching the play with rapt attention because of my inability to understand Marathi I was put into a strange situation when the author Nassim Soleimanpour instructed the performer Athul Pethe to invite number 15 on stage, which was me! I politely told Atul Pethe that I don’t follow Marathi and hence it is better if he invites someone else. While for everyone else only the content was not known, for me even the language in which the content was being expressed was unknown, causing extra nervous excitement. My refusal to get on to the stage was not accepted by Atul Pethe who insisted I come on stage. He said he would translate the instructions to English for me. “Have faith in me, I will help you,” said Athul Pethe, reminding of a performer in US who when interviewed before the performance of White Rabbit Red Rabbit had said, “I am trusting them to not humiliate me.” My fear was not just of being humiliated but also unwillingly, because of my language limitation, diluting the seriousness of the play. But then Athul Pethe was inviting me to invest trust in him who had invested trust in Nassim Soleimanpour to help him navigate through this unique experience of performance. I was confused. I looked at Dharma who was sitting next to me who through mild gesture said I should get on to the stage.

after the performance with the performer Atul Pethe

I went on stage and had to become a bear, on stage, and act with a few other audiences who were also invited on stage, along with Atul Pethe. While everyone else on the stage was following Marathi the instructions for me had to be translated. A play which was originally written in English and translated to Marathi for a Marathi audience was being partially translated back to English! Thankfully it was that part of the play which was meant to be funny. My not knowing Marathi and standing still with no reaction when the instruction was first being read, which the audience understood, added to the humor. The spontaneous translation of Atul Pethe for me and my response which was a delayed response for the audience made the audience involved enactment of a rabbit going to a film without play and a bear checking tickets in the hall, appear more funny.

When the play got over that night Dharma took me to Atul Pethe and introduced me to him. Atul Pethe said, “It was fun to have you on stage.” I smiled and shook hands with him for I dint have anything much to say for I did not understand some of the nuances of the play spoken in Marathi. But I was overwhelmed the fact that a Nassim Soleimanpour who wrote a play in English in Iran had instructed Atul Pethe, who he has never met, in Marathi to invite me, a Marathi illiterate, to come on stage and instructed, in Marathi, to perform some actions, which I had performed after the words were translated to English.

Nassim Soleimanpour’s play which creates anxiety, nervousness and excitement in everyone who watches it and performs it had managed to do the same to me in more than one level, not just through its form and content but also through language. In that I felt more close to the play, the performer and the author!

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