Freedom of Speech – Maya indeed.

Akhila PR replies to Devdutt Patnaik’s Op-Ed article – In maya, the killer and the killed – which appeared in The Hindu, 14th January 2015

Mr. Devdutt Patnaik has written in The Hindu that – in essence – if you mock anything, especially a religion, you should be prepared to pay the cost for that decision on any terms suitable to the offended; e.g. being mowed down by Kalakshnikovs. This differs a bit from the usual expectation of someone being responsible for what they produce in a legal or even moral sense. Dialogue and views on the motivation of the creator is out the window and the offended person’s feelings (valid or not) reign supreme, blotting out all else.

Mr. Patnaik, begins by citing an extract from one incident in the Mahabharat which is rather out of context . This is Krishna cutting off Sishupala’s head after Sishupala insults him a 100 times, with the explanation “The limit of forgiveness was up”, implying that ‘God’ as he was, even Krishna had to retaliate after such a barrage of insults. However, the context of the Krishna-Sishupala story is:

It was fore-ordained that Sishupala would die at Krishna’s hands. Sishupala’s mother, Krishna’s aunt, then begged Krishna to spare her son. Krishna promised that he would forgive Sishupala 100 times but would then kill him.

This introduction, then, is particularly poorly chosen, unless the author wishes to imply that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is part of a larger Cosmic plan where the killers and writers had made a pact in a previous birth to kill and be killed in this life and was not only significant of the inability to not be offended.

The Amar Chitra Katha Version

He then goes on to postulate the interesting, but slightly obfuscating point, that it is Neo-Brahminical to expect everyone to employ language in the way the elite writers do, and that to term ‘barbarians’ those who resort to bullets rather than prose is a priggish, ivory-tower world-view.

To state right off the very obvious counter to this: would Mr. Patnaik be as implacable in his demand for the right to ‘equitable rather than  equal response´ if I were to barge into his place of work toting a gun –  or to be culturally sensitive – a pistol, a kukri, an aruvalu or a flaming torch, because words failed me and I saw no other means of response to his writing?

Let’s put Charlie Hebdo in a bit of cultural perspective: I was rather surprised at Charlie’s hard-line mockery of religion and the State. But I realized how much my thinking was conditioned by my growing up in India, a country where religion and state are as hard to separate as several balls of twine knotted together –not impossible, but requiring aeons of work, burnt fingers and perhaps, ultimately, resorting to snipping off bits that just wouldn’t untangle. From my perspective, Charlie really was playing with fire.

But in France, the separation of State and Church is not only a constitutional guarantee, but one that many publications ensure is kept up through the use of free speech to talk out against all institutions that wield power (religion and state prime among them).  Charlie came up in a time of political censorship and vigilance. It was initially shut down for joking about Charles de Gaulle’s death. The paper re-opened as Charlie Hebdo, determined to speak out against the forces that had muzzled it. While much of the humour is, perhaps, in bad taste (that is to say, not to mine), it is a lively instrument for gauging how committed the State remained regarding the freedom of expression.

1969 cover of Hara-Kiri Hebdo making fun of Charles De Gaulle

To reiterate, Charlie was meant for France – a country where this freedom was welcomed and response in letters was traditional. It is not really Charlie’s doing that in the decade following its rebirth, the world changed dramatically through the wider adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the creation and installation of the godhead of the Web. When Charlie went beyond the borders of France as easily accessible material, it was seen as an attack on their religion(s) by those outside France. And people who had and have no conception of the cultural context in which Charlie was created and read, made it their business to shut it down, a desire which then permeated the country of its creation.

While Charlie is a conundrum that many in religion-bound countries like India will find hard to square with their conscience, there is another example of physical coercion triumphing over the written word much, much closer home: Perumal Murugan.

Mr. Murugan is a Tamil writer with several books behind him. Then came the English translation ‘One Part Woman’, which has been burned and bullied out of existence by a group of religious enthusiasts (to be charitable).  The book, whose Tamil version came out four years ago with no protests surrounding it, is about a childless couple and their attempts to have a child. One of these attempts is a consensual sex-rite at the Ardhanareeswarar temple, a rite where a woman has sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband, in order to get impregnated.

Yes, a consensual sex-rite in a temple, in a country where temple-architecture regularly depicts orgies and, as that beaten-to-death drum gasps out, whose Kamasutra remains an important, perhaps unparalleled, contribution to the world of sexual relations.

But all this is really quite irrelevant. Mr. Murugan has access to a large and rich world of fact and fiction – the world he creates in his head. This world is answerable to no one and as long as he is not shoving his writing down the throats of everyone in this country (which would constitute several violations of Rights) there is no force, moral or legal, that should stop him penning his thoughts down whether we are known for the Kamasutra or the re-installation of Section 377 of the IPC.

Forces have, nonetheless, succeeded in doing this by burning the books and convincing Mr. Murugan that the safest path was complete retreat. He has recalled all the books from his publishers (the English version published by the much-harassed Penguin), promising to compensate them for any copies unsold and, further, has taken on a vow of silence. ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’, he announced.

When writers are silenced for fear that anything they write will be offensive to someone out there and when the saying ‘the Pen is mightier than the Sword’ is taken as justification for picking up the sword, there lies the death of the author, free speech and human interaction.

Mr. Patnaik states that in today’s world the right to words is being privileged over the right to military action. The self-serving blindness of this statement, penned in a time when there are daily military engagements (state-sponsored and privately-funded) around the world and increasing demands for censorship, should be an indicator of how laughable his basic premise is. Indeed, even the examples he puts forth, citing mental violence, are ridiculous:

So, one has sanction to mock Hinduism intellectually on film (PK by Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan) and in books (The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger), but those who demand the film be banned and the books be pulped are brutes, barbarians, enemies of civic discourse, who resort to violence.”

Laughable though they are, his contentions, which will be taken up by many, are dangerous. His argument that the ‘offended’ can only respond with violence is in itself an offensive polarization of thought and action. Surely somewhere a contradictory point of view can find middle ground between writing and murder? In India itself we have a reasonably vast variety including, of course, burning things (posters, books, effigies – not actual land-property like houses and places of worship). These acts can be seen as a legitimate expression of protest. However, that is where freedom of expression STOPS.

You can protest.  But no legal force on earth should ensure that your choice to be offended trumps someone else’s thoughts’ right to exist.

And this is where his argument about PK and Wendy Doniger runs into a brick wall. Protesting isn’t barbaric. But to demand that your protests be heeded “or else..” is to become an enemy of civic discourse.

And while it is an undeniable fact that language-based hegemonies exist the world-around, stemming from several complex causes, it is fatuous to suggest that because someone cannot write like a Charlie Hebdo or a Murugan, they should promptly take physically coercive measures to silence them.

Writers and ‘artists’ in general tend to stand out because  of the something different they bring to any field of human existence. The sad little fact is that not everyone is a Voltaire or Kalki or Tagore. My inability to respond in Tamil prose is not reason enough for me to ban Kalki being read if something in his writing offends me.

And, interestingly, many of these doers who are so bereft of words that they must needs resort to violence, belong to groups that are led and inspired by immensely articulate individuals who know and milk the power of the Word: Bal and Raj Thackeray, Laden, even Hitler, Gandhi, Obama, Jayalalitha… So the ‘hegemonic power of the Word’, it would seem, is only railed against when it goes counter to one’s beliefs.

Finally, from talking about taking offence and how it can be measured, the author brings up the closing conceit of this article: everything is Maya.  Maya, commonly interpreted as relating to the transient and ephemeral world, which is only a part of the larger, unfathomable universe,  is interpreted here as the world of the measurable and tangible.

Mr. Patnaik’s claim is that physical violence is condemned because it is measurable and emotional abuse (read: offence) is dismissed because it is not measurable; a farcical argument in this case: in a work of art, your engagement with it is your responsibility and your choice.  If something offends you, you do have (among several others) the option of moving away and not engaging further**. Neither of these conditions holds true for the majority of abusive one-on-one relationships in personal life.

Maya is also a leveling concept. One cannot posit that everything is Maya (‘Killer and Killed’, the title states) but go on to imply that some things are more or less worthy of being ‘Maya’ than others, as with the approving tone when talking about the ‘offended’ and the opprobrious tone when talking of the ‘offender’ laughing to the bank.

Everything is subjective, including our experience of the world of Maya, we are told. But if everything is subjective, should everyone remain ensconced in their cozy little construct without engaging outside it for fear of offending someone whose construct might be different? Mr. Patnaik’s article seems to imply that we hold back from ever expressing views which may differ from another’s, since these views fall outside the purview of the other’s person’s experience of reality. An extreme extension of this article would ban education itself as an Other being imposed on my native understanding of the world.

Yet, contradictory schools of thoughts clashed and then became entangled over centuries to create new thoughts and new beings. As seen in Mr. Patnaik’s own popular writings on myth and interpretation, religion itself is in constant recreation and reinterpretation. In the sense of a transient, illusory phenomenon, religion itself is Maya. So if you want to go down that path, what is offence? What is belief? What is sacred?

Large parts of the Mahabharata offend my perhaps Westernized sensibilities and my internalized Indian concept of Guru-sishya reverence. Drona’s warcraft ensured the Kauravas didn’t lose the battle of Kurukshetra, so the Pandava Yudhishtira  (revered as Dharmaraja) lied to his Guru about the death of his son to get him to ‘off himself’. And this was done on the advice and with the able abetting of the ever-present Krishna, whose act of silencing Sishupala is the opening piece of this article. Even in its out-of-context form, isn’t this story, like all stories in all mythologies pertaining to god, just a means of showing that Krishna, an avatar of a God, is not perfection himself? If Krishna were perfection, why the Vishwaroopam++ on the battlefield? Is his conduct (especially as seen in the Mahabharat!) really something to aspire to, especially in this instance?

As if the author himself squirms over this quandary, the closing paragraph of the article goes out of its way to explain Krishna’s act within the framework of the Jay-Vijay myth. But if words are so psychologically damaging and if only actions are allowed to speak, Sishupala’s taunting Krishna is surely more than enough justification for Krishna to lose his head (and ensure Sishupala loses his too)? Why tie yourself into knots to show that Krishna was, really, only part of a larger game? Because, somewhere, Maya or not, there is in inherent recognition of the crude brutality of Krishna’s act and the need to explain it beyond and better than just the desire to avenge offence.


++On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna begins to agonise over the pointless bloodshed, Krishna reveals himself in the ‘divine’ form, of which he is just a physical manifestation, to reassure Arjuna that it is all for some greater good that Arjuna’s conception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ cannot contain.

Experimenting with Gandhi

the thousand children gandhis

Gandhi is a popular symbol and brand like Rajnikanth. It is quite hard to look at such a brand as a human being who breathes, sweats, defecates, ponders, falls in and out love, explores his own body and so on. We almost want to deny him that. As a public collective we expect each other to limit criticism or investigation, and instead encourage ourselves to build a delusional patriotic awe for a diluted version of Gandhi’s value system and historical doings.

Luckily, some people think it is necessary to talk about him in all ways possible. Whether it is Hitler, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Rajnikanth, Modi or Jayalalitha it is counterproductive and dangerous for our own understanding to flatten such public symbols to just a bunch of iconic events and actions remembered in strange costume parties as above.

In a ‘series of dialogues on belief’ LILA Inter-actions, which is like our local Edge, invited Pritham K Chakravarthy and Amitabh Mitra to experiment with Gandhi – the icon, the man, the philosophy and anything else they pleased to understand. Pritham leaves this man in the books and goes in search of Kasturba, whose role is usually limited to wife or a facet of his story – the woman behind his greatness. How much do we know or remember of Kasturba? Amitabh Mitra, on the other hand, finds himself quite confused about Gandhi’s relevance in contemporary South Africa, especially among the Indians and blacks. His article makes us look at the political necessity for violence and trauma in par with Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence in South Africa and India.

Read this dialogue here and participate in the comments section.

samyuktha pc. 

Games for Actors and Non-Actors excerpt – The Nuclear Power Station

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a dance piece where the dancers dance in the first act, and in the second showed the audience how to dance? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a musical where in the first act the actors sang and in the second we all sang together?

What would also be wonderful would be a theatre show where we, the artists, would present our world-view in the first act and where in the second act, they, the audience, could create a newworld.

Let them create it first in the theatre, in fiction, to be better prepared to create it outside afterwards, for real.” (p.29)

Forum Theatre is a technique, or a compendium of methodologies, developed in the 1970s by a Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal. It creates a theatre where the audience is encouraged to be participants (spect-actors) in identifying and dramatizing the connections between socio-cultural problems, economic and political repression, and also internal and personal oppressions. First, a group of actors devise, rehearse and enact a play presenting a certain view of the world, with at least one political or social problem, which can be analysed during the forum session. Then, the spect-actors are asked if they agree with the solutions given by the protagonist. The actors then perform the play one more time, but this time the audience members can yell stop and take the space of the protagonist and change actions. Forum theatre plays can be surreal, linear, or in any style or genre that organically grows from the rehearsals, but the objective must be to discuss concrete situations. Games for Actors and Non-Actors is a collection of games and exercises that can be used in any space that needs discussion, dialogue, theatre, and action. Boal has written experiential notes along with the games, to give you the context of where it was developed, and how it played out. Here is an excerpt from the book, an example of a forum theatre play in Sweden, discussing many themes we have spoken about in Chai Kadai –

“In Sweden, the controversy over nuclear energy and the construction of power stations was very much a live issue. Some even said that the main reason for the gunning down of Prime Minister Olof Palme was his having affirmed that he would pursue a policy of nuclear gearing-up. His opponents said the opposite – and afterwards, they did it anyway…

1st action

Eva is in her office, at work. The scene shows friends, the Boss, day-to-day problems, the process of finding new projects to work on, the daily grind of a hard life.

2nd action

Eva is at home; her husband is out of work, their daughters are spendthrifts, they need money. A Female Friend drops round, they go out. They go straight to a demonstration against the construction of atomic power plants.

3rd action

Back at the office. The Boss comes in whooping with joy: a new project has been accepted! Everyone celebrate the news! Champagne is consumed! Joy unbounded…. till the Boss explains what this new project is about – the development of a refrigeration system for a nuclear power station. Eva is torn; she needs work, she wants to support her fellow workers, but this situation poses a moral problem for her. She gives all the reason she can for not accepting this new project, and her colleagues give their opposing reasons. Finally Eva gives in and accepts the job!

The forum

In this piece it was clear that the protagonist was going to have to commit an error and not be heroic. The audience almost cried when Eva gave in. And the effect of this was an extraordinary intensification of the fight – the game of actors/oppressors against spect-actors/oppressed – when it came to finding reasons for Eva to say no. Each time a spect-actor gave in and saw that she was beaten, the piece rapidly retraced its path towards Eva’s ‘Yes’. Passions in the audience ran high again till someone shouted ‘Stop!’; then the scene stopped a new spect-actor tried a new solution starting from the first action, or the second, or even the third. Everythin was analysed: the husband’s unemployment, the daughters’ mania for consumption, Eva’s indecision. Sometimes the analysis was purely ‘psychological’, then another actor would come in and try to show the political side of the problem.

Should we be for or against nuclear power stations? Can one be against scientific progress? Can the word ‘progress’ be applied to science when it leads us to the discovery of nuclear weapons?

And on the question of the disposal of ‘nuclear waste’: surely it could be satisfactorily disposed of in a social system whose central value was the human being rather than the profit motive.

I have already twice had the opportunity to take part in pieces of this kind. The first time was in the USA, where an analogous piece had been written about the inhabitants of a town which was producing the napalm used in Vietnam. In the end, in the American example, the inhabitants accepted the factory, reaching the conclusion that it would be economically ruinous to close it….. Ruinous for whom? The second time was in Lisbon, again with a similar model: there is a refinery there which is causing a noticeable increase in the occurrence for lung cancer…. but it is important for the economy. Here again, the residents give way and resigned themselves to living with pollution, rather than living without jobs.” (p. 26, 27, 28.)

Read more on the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation’s website: www.theatreoftheoppressed.org

shared by samyuktha pc

Anugundu – The Atom Bomb | Documentary

Anugundu – The Atom Bomb ( Tamil with English subtitles) – YouTube. 48 minutes.

A film by Manila Mohan, a journalist with a Malayalam literary magazine, who visits the protesters in Koodankulam. The documentary details many pitfalls in the building and commissioning of the nuclear power plant in Idinthakarai, Koodankulam. It interviews many of the villagers, including women and children, who express concerns about their safety, the stupidity of such an unsafe technology, and question for whom is this development and electricity that the States promise.

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People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy – Press Release September 12, 2012

People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy
Idinthakarai 627 104

PRESS RELEASE
September 12, 2012

Let us Do Some Soul-search and Talk Again!

Just like a hapless wife brutally assaulted by her male chauvinistic and drunken husband, like an innocent little child beaten up by his abusive parent, our honest, hardworking, and pious people have been violated, their possessions vandalized, their 400-day long nonviolent movement vilified. By our own government! By our own Chief Minister who we brought back to power to rescue us from corruption, power abuse, nepotism, dynastic rule and double speak! An overwhelming majority of the Tamil voters including almost all the coastal communities voted for the Chief Minister’s party.

When the biggest nuclear power plants in the country or the largest nuclear power park is being set up on our seas that will have deleterious effect on our sea and seafood, land and crops, water bodies and ground water, on our livelihood and on our progeny, we have opposed peacefully, democratically and nonviolently. Don’t we have at least that much freedom in our country?

In fact, the Chief Minister sympathized with our cause in the beginning. She had objected to the Chennai visit of the nuclear-armed ship, the USS Nimitz; and she had opposed the India-US nuclear deal with so much conviction. Our team met with the Chief Minister twice and the Prime Minister once at her own personal initiative. The Chief Minister kept talking about solar power and other renewable sources of energy, kept demanding more electricity from the central pool and more finance for electricity projects in Tamil Nadu. She even said that she would be one among us in our struggle.

We took to the streets, voiced our concerns to the Central Government and asked them to stop the Koodankulam nuclear power project, change our energy policy and to save our natural resources. The District Collector, Dr. R. Selvaraj, entertained us in his office and served us tea and biscuits. The Superintendent of Police, Mr. Vijayendra Bidari, gave oral ‘go-ahead’ every time we sought permission over phone for our demonstrations, agitations and public meetings. But they kept on filing false cases on us all with serious charges such as sedition, waging war on the state and so forth.

The ‘love scene’ changed to ‘hate scene’ in March 2012! The script changed! The situation, the lighting, and the overall direction changed! The Chief Minister alleges that we are all in a ‘maya valai’ (mystical net). Maybe she is referring to nuclear radiation that is indeed like a ‘maya valai’ you cannot see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

Today we are surrounded by police, beaten up by police, harassed by police, accused of committing all kinds of crimes by police, arrested by police and above all, mentally, emotionally, spiritually assaulted by police. And the Chief Minister is the police minister!

We are all fisherfolks, shopkeepers, agricultural laborers, beedi-rolling women, and to be brief, working class people. We do not steal public money, we do not amass wealth through illegal business deals, and we do not plunder the nation’s natural wealth. But we are treated like criminals; dangerous, seditious, violent, vicious and wicked lawbreakers. Our leaders, who have been invoking the names and wisdom of Thiruvalluvar, Buddha, Mahavir, Ashoka, Guru Nanak, Mahatma Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Mother Teresa, are treated like dreaded terrorists. Our people who worship Sage Vishwamitra, Lord Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohamed are treated with contempt and dislike. The St. Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai has been desecrated by urinating and a holy statue destroyed. Naval boats are patrolling our seas; air force planes are hovering over our villages; the police are blocking our roads; we are short of food, water and other basic essentials; and the state is waging a war on us! But we cannot do a thing!

The global nuclear mafia sees our people as their sworn enemies. The KGB, the CIA and other international intelligence agencies consider us serious threats to their respective ruling cliques. The Delhi Government is infuriated with us as they are worried about their billion dollar nuclear business deals and commissions and kickbacks. The Tamil Nadu Government also tends to treat us like dreaded terrorists and dangerous criminals.

The police have shot down an unarmed civilian Anthony John at Manappadu coastal village. Several people including a small baby are said to be missing. Some 53 nonviolent protesters, men and women, are charged with sedition and waging war on the State cases and are languishing in distant prisons in Tamil Nadu. Thousands and thousands of families are living in fear and despair.

We do not expect or want any awards or accolades for practicing democracy and protesting in a nonviolent manner. But can’t we be treated with a little bit of humanness, civility and dignity? Who should we turn to? Who could we talk to? The Chief Minister may not even see this. Her arrogant upper caste advisors may say everything bad about us and our lower caste people.

We would request the Chief Minister to stop fuelling the KKNPP, remove police from our area, provide compensation for the people who lost their boats, vehicles and household items, and release those who are arrested.

We thank all the leaders and members of various political parties, social movements, lawyer associations, fishermen associations, student groups, labor unions, village committees and other organizations in Tamil Nadu and other states for organizing various demonstrations and agitations in support of our struggle. We would solicit their continued support for our struggle and for the above-mentioned immediate demands as well.

The Struggle Committee
People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy

look at the book

For thirty-six weeks, a sketchbook was sent in random order between four artists: two in Brooklyn, two in Belfast.
Every Wednesday, one participant would receive a book. The following Monday it was sent out, giving each artist five days to complete a spread in response to the one that preceded it.
A small portion of each entry extends on to the following page. Beyond this, there was no communication between the artists concerning the content of the book during its making.
By the time it was completed, the book had travelled over sixty thousand miles.

LOOK AT THE BOOK

capability vs. technology

Today, it is probably assumed that the ipad and its similar brothers are the optimum in interactive technology. Maybe, the Siri app (refined) could be the optimum. A technology that talks back to you. Humors you, once in a while.

But, A Brief Rant on The Future of Interactive Design, was a pleasant read, which with just words and few photos makes you feel and use more of your body, than an ipad could dream of right now. A critique of today’s touch and slide technology, and a probably a call to think differently, this rant actually says something very important:

Any dancer or doctor knows fully well what an incredibly expressive device your body is. 300 joints! 600 muscles! Hundreds of degrees of freedom! …With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?