Halloween’s Masquerade: Slice of the Untold

The souls have converged upon the living to party on Halloween- the “official” carnival of the spooks  on the festival roster – tracing its roots to ancient Celtic ceremonial rites to recall and appease the dead. In a majority-Hindu nation like India, where one person departs the world of the living every minute, as rough estimates cite, souls jostle cheek by jowl for place at the doorstep or at the ghouls’ masquerades to revel in “mortal warmth” and goodies. Too many to make room for in too confined a space. But snatches of “unexplained” knocks by old souls – from the mists of history, often unknown – is the haunting of Halloween.
They live, often too near for comfort, whipping up disquiet in some unchecked crannie in the head, not always warm to reason. In the past few weeks since leaving my work-desk – under a set of co-incidences (which are often known to have another-worldly connection) – to scout for new and fresher pastures, the staple of reminiscences among colleagues has been of “spooks” and “spirits”- withering recollections of souls long departed  – who inhabited the spaces between the present and past in my last (erstwhile) organization, nearly 275 years old – a publishing house that marked the beginning of English print journalism in Hindustan (India). Some are friendly while others cold – a whiff of chill that rustles the tips of the nose, trailing in a swish of old skirts, swirling bits of smokes, dissipating vapours and footsteps in the arching stairways amid the rubble -heaps of dismantled built spaces and concrete blocks- in odd hours of the night  .
A posse of old English “lairds” and ladies, who set the lathe grindstone in motion at the turn of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century till after Independence (on August 15, 1947) – 10 years or less – continue to vie for space in the memory with their tales of grisly rivalry, near starvation, wastings, Calcutta floods, famines, chills, wars riots, murders (fable like legends of the 1930s and 1940s Calcutta) and their eventual demise – and sometime somnolent retreat into twilights in day care homes far away in England- the land both cherished, hated and coveted by the natives and the lords of Raj then- for more than one reason.
Some were banished from the crown, others sought exile driven by disgrace or under pressure to serve in the dominions, some fled penalties and while others were barred access (mostly the desi stock of dubious antecedents).
The lone refuge – for the illustrious babu-turned sahibs of the colony, the renegade Englishman with money and a fetish for the fine print but no carpet walk on the Queen’s roll of honour and eager wannabes – was the “English” bulletin that covered the city and the world to the honest possible extent- culling, lifting, coaxing, contributing, observing and pasting on the type set. The tales were falling off the closet like pennies – old but tingling, replete with the “hoos-hahs”, “m’ gawd”, “I don’t believe this” and “scary, yeah! Boy)- the stock of the nippy Halloween night. Till someone complained of “spooks” literally in the closet!
After three days of relentless October rain, the walls and floors of the old Calcutta homes had begun to gather “damp”- patches of moisture that seeped in through cracks in the ceilings and the loose reinforcement on the walls. The floor felt clammy. In the scuffle that the deluge brought to the riverine lowlands – inundation of the conclaves along the Ganges – the closets at home began to show signs of a strange wetness. I spied – along with several others who were still part of the organization and common friends – wetness in eerie patches on the wood of the cupboards, on clothes , in edibles stashed in the pantry and on the pages of books in closed shelves. The fluids were sticky and musty in smell tempered with brown at the edges, not exactly colourless like water. The vine was abuzz with possibilities and wistfulness.
It reeked of “old blood”- ooze from old wounds that had been cut open afresh and were still alive. The stains were real – contained in small patches – not the seeping spread of the monsoon moisture, but little “botches of rain-washed blood”.
The stains are yet to dry on the wood and the clothes – faint – but we have allowed them to linger on our mortal skins and memory like a bridge between this and the other world. Some suggested they were -checks against “recurring patterns” from history, recalling lores (or may be true stories) of a “lady of bearing” being mauled on the premises of the organization by a tiger owned by a whimsy “babu” that roamed the lawns like a pet cat, a young English lady being tortured to death on the job and yet another dying of chill in a city hospice – they were apparently the early crop of English lady editors, as the legend goes down the generations – meshed in a bitter battle of pride between a section of the “desi trading class” (a community of moneyed businessmen who wanted to secure a social toehold in the hallowed corridors of English journalism) and the English owners, who refused to cede inches.  It was another mutiny played out in the elite corridors of the intellectual heart of the city- silent, ruthless and aggressive between the early masters and their novices. It was not on the official log. The women, it was rumoured, paid the price behind the Gothic colonnades of the concrete hulk – that remains a crumbling testimony to two hundred years of Kolkata’s and India’s colonial history and discord. And to the city’s forgotten tragedies.
A few unmarked gravestones in the city and in England were swamped by rain almost simultaneously in a waking call to Halloween- they were all makers of the history of modern Hindustan and “women” from the pulse of the British Raj.
The souls called – rather knocked in blood on their “official resurrection” in the Gregorian Christian calendar. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor & Foreign Affairs Analyst

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In the crosshairs: Human cost & people’s polity in the Middle Eastern and West Asian conflicts

One of the worst wars in the history of human civilization puts the great Nazi-Allied conflicts of the 1930s-1940s to shame. The scope of the atrocities played out in the reigning West Asian war – the protracted and ongoing clash of diverging political, social and religious interests in Syria and Iraq is nothing less than cleansing of a quarter of the human race that helped draw the demographic parameters of the Asian landmass over the centuries. In the crosshairs is the citizen on the street jammed between the army and the militias – more than 475,000 dead and over 100,000 missing in Syria alone in the last five years and more than 65,000 in Iraq since 2014 when the civil war tore apart the fragile socio-economic machinery rebuilt after the 2003 war that felled more than 500,000 in the Levant region (including civilians and the armed forces).

The numbers cutting across the swathe of the Asian conflict zone – from Iraq to Afghanistan in the last decades – address the scope of the human tragedy that refuses to ebb despite interventions by the big powers that be. According to the Cost of the War Project- a stock-taking platform of 35 scholars and legal experts working since 2011 – in the last 15 years, US involvement in the region have cost more than 600,000 military and civilian lives – ousting over 700,000 people from their homelands – at tabs running up to nearly $ 13 trillion in financial costs and still counting. The coordinator of the project Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University  says “on an average for every person killed in fighting, four other people have died because of the indirect consequences that can be felt for months and years later”.

In Iraq alone, more than 215,000 deaths were documented between 2003 and 2017, says Statistica, a portal that disseminates war deaths across conflict zones. The period  between August 1 to August 11, 2017 witnessed more than 11,000 documented deaths in Iraq resulting from stray assaults and suicide blasts on civilians by “jihadis” and those caught in the crosshairs of army operation.  The number of undocumented deaths is almost as high as those registered in the government and army logs. Analysts say civilian deaths in the wars raging in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan can be slotted into categories – those caused by direct confrontation between the army and the marauders (in this case the radical Islamic militias) and the regime forces in which civilians bear the burden of the bullets and loss. The second and the more protracted kind is rooted in vendetta- ensuing guerrilla raids after full-scope conflicts. The maximum collateral damage unleashed by the 2003 conflict and the ongoing war in Iraq since 2011 has been wrought by the stray explosions and the suicide attacks by “jihadi” cells in busy public spaces – except for areas like Mosul where the government forces are locked in a two-edged battle with the radicals and “indirectly the civilians” in the populous areas of the urban habitats where the militants are holed up among civilians – using them as human shields against the firing squads.

Rough estimates say more than 200,000 people are still trapped in Mosul despite the official victory of the government forces in July – and the United Nation warns that civilians are still paying the price of carpet air strikes on the Islamic State posts. The city is a virtual crematorium- gutted, dismantled and buried under mounds of rubble. Sporadic airstrikes continue to haunt civilian enclaves as the battle moves beyond the borders of Mosul.

“We feel that civilians are in an increasingly dangerous situation as the air strikes and the ground conflicts intensify, possibly resulting in many more casualties as well as retaliatory assaults by the IS in densely populated civilian areas,” UN high commissioner for refugees Prince Zeid Bin Rand said.  A report in the Iraqi News says the Iraqi government plans “to swivel its firepower to other Islamic State havens in Anbar, Kirkuk and Salauddin  – and last IS outpost in Iraq, Nineveh, which can be invaded any time”. The Iraqi Defence ministry said the army was waiting for orders to enter Nineveh, a historical city. Operations by the pro-government militias, the Popular Mobilisation , isolated the town from Mosul and from the Syrian  borders. The militia has already taken over several border villages, holding the residents at gunpoint

Iraq is a victim of a protracted civil war like Syria  and Palestine – unlike many other west Asian and Gulf nations, where conflicts have been short-lived following in the cue of intense civil wars or internecine strife. One example of this is Yemen, where a war between the regime, coalition forces and the Shia rebels or the Houthis – allegedly backed by Iran- has wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in a span of two years. The war which began in March 2015 is now being waged across multiple spaces –  drawing in the Islamic State and the al-Qaida militant organizations which are fighting for space against the Shi’ite Houthis – and a hostile regime  – harvesting the milieu of political breakdown (with a president in exile) and control vacuums.  The consequences have been devastating.  As the civic infrastructure crumbled with continuous aerial strikes by the Riyadh-led coalition forces – deployed to bring the government back to the helm  –  and dwindling flow of aid, citizens have been put to the mat by outbreaks of epidemics. The foremost among them are cholera and malnutrition.

The first outbreak of cholera was reported in October 2016- a bout that could be contained. The scourge witnessed a resurgence in April 2017 – and by June, the UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the total number of cases had exceeded 200,000 with 1,300 deaths and 5.000 new cases each day- with a quarter of the deaths among children who are still dying for want of medical care.

Iraq has been in the crosshairs twice – in 2003 and in 2011 – and onwards till this day. One of the reasons for the ongoing war is that it is being waged on the native terrain of the IS – the Levant region – where it began as a backlash against the regime and western occupation forces in the early years of the decade of 2000 when Abu Musab al- Zarqawi began to train extremist militants under the banner if Jama’at al- Tawhid wa’al. After swearing allegiance to the al-Qaida, it shifted focus to Syria besieged by retaliatory strikes by the regime armies. The group remained muted till 2013 – involved in covert operations through various front organizations till in 2013, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The “jihad” that the soldiers of the “caliphate”- as the Islamic State  describes its rank and file– is fighting to establish a Islamic hegemony (historical caliphate) has long ceased to keep its spotlight on the government and the forces of establishment. The war in the name of religion and political power grab has spread across as tools of mass terrorism intimidating and killing innocent civilians – to whip up psychosis of fear in the society as a ploy to bend political wills and turn international attention to the civilian excesses in an organized publicity initiatives by owning up to “mayhems” in formal official communiqués. In the past three years – since 2014 – civilian pogroms have been accorded official legitimacy in the conflict zones of west Asia (and in the middle-east).

The American military acknowledges in private  – as insiders in the defence point out – what non-government monitors have been trying to highlight for years. The United States coalition and the government (Iraqi, Syrian, and Saudi axis) fighting the Islamic State and other rebel forces like the Houthis and al-Qaida since 2014 has been killing “civilians at an astonishing rate – more so in the months since President Donald Trump assumed office” and pulling powerful players like Russia, a pro-regime ally in Syria – into the middle-eastern conflict. It has drawn a contiguous geopolitical map of conflict from Afghanistan, where new alignments are making the pitch difficult for the Taliban with the presence of Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Haqqani forces aided reportedly by Pakistan and by proxy China, locked in a conflict with India and on hostile engagement with the US because of Trump’s aggressive stand on North Korea and the South China Sea conflict. The result has been a staggering loss of civilian life, says the United Nations Independent Commissions of Inquiry into the civil war in Syria.

The civilian toll has shot up because the battle has moved deeper into the populated areas of rebel towns like Raqqa- the centre-stage on the current war between the Syrian regime forces, the coalition forces, the US-aided Kurdish militias, the Russians and the Islamic State- and earlier in Mosul.

Over the decades, the wars in the middle-east have changed dynamics – beginning with faith as in the Israel-Palestine conflict between the Arabs and the Jewish people – to terrorism and proxy wars by the big powers to dislodge tyrannical regimes detrimental to bilateral defence engagements, manoeuverings and commerce between the west Asian & middle eastern nations and the global power blocs led by the US, Russia, the European Union with its trade interests, the NATO with its agenda to maintain an armed status quo in the Atlantic, Suez and the Baltic regions and the recent entrants – China and an east Asian caucus. The change in the nature of regional conflict that has raised alarm in the fraternity of international rights monitors, political observers and the corridors of the power capitals across the east and the west is the human cost of the middle-eastern and west Asian conflicts.

Armed conflicts with conventional warheads – ground assaults – have been pushed to the fringe with the high incidence of carpet air raids which have often gone haywire as in the recent bombings by the US-led coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, use of killer chemical agents, strategic cutback and destruction of essential infrastructure like food and medical aid necessary to keep the civilian population out of the war lines – alive – to the maximum extent possible- in a throwback to the World War eras.

The war on radical Islamic terror – the chief driver of the West Asian and the middle eastern conflicts  since 2011 and even before – (since 2003 after the overthrow of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain and the ensuing birth of ISIL in the aftermath of the Iraq war)  – has metamorphosed the strike patterns from planned assaults by terrorists on stragetic targets of vital importance – like on world leaders, key military establishments, business hubs like the 9/11 carnage of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre by the al-Qaida, public venues and commercial utility capacities – to guerrilla hit-and-run raids on civilians to enhance the scope of civilian damage, triggering public outrage and fear among the softer targets of insurgency. The car bombings of Iraq, serial bombings in market places and crowded urban hubs, the stray assaults on civilians, beheadings and mass killings in Syria – and even in Israel where the assailants have picked up smaller weapons like knives and pocket firearms to kill in public spaces in an attempt to rivet maximum eye shares – and elsewhere across the world in Europe (auto-attacks on civilians), suicide attacks in Africa, the market bombings of Turkey,  and even in US (like the mass shootings of civilians in utility and entertainment facilities) point to a concerted change in the tactics of “jihad” emanating from the middle east and West Asia. The ‘jihadi’ warriors are moving away from macro to micro-level conflicts –precision, small and serial – to kill the man on the streets- unwitting, unprepared and unprovoked victims of a war fought among a complex praxis of forces – operating beyond the portals of everyday haunts, access and concerns (like faith) removed from the struggle of livelihoods.

On a sweeping estimate, a quarter of the civilian infrastructure in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan (where the Taliban is fighting The establishment and the spillage of Islamic State militancy desperate to acquire greater footprint in the Muslim bloc and South and East Asian turfs to form greater linkages with west Asia and middle eastern jihad) has been wiped out in the last two decades. A report in the media says 11.5 per cent of Syrian population (according to Syrian Centre for Policy Research) have been exterminated since the beginning of the conflict in 2011). Nearly 13.8 million Syrians have lost their source of livelihood.

A World Bank estimate (for 2016) says the cost of rebuilding war-ton Syria may touch $ 180 billion – a figure that is likely to notch northward by several billions in the years to come. Analysts say it could cost “anything between $ 84 billion to nearly $ 500 billion to rebuild Iraq- ravaged by two decades of conflicts.

Aid, say observers, is hard to come by despite entreaties by the United Nations fending off cuts in fundings by hostile nations like the US and Israel and an internal power tussle among the “big five” – and the governments concerned. All civilian advocacy measures to propagate de-escalation of conflict in civilian zones and ensure safety of the citizens have foundered in west Asia and middle-east with players – the coalition, regime and the enemy “jihadi” forces intent on holding out till the fall of the bastions to either side like in conventional warfare. Citizens in Mosul and Raqqa have been used as human shields by terrorists – in the old quarters of the city – either to ward off regime forces or as hostage walls to flee the strongholds.

A section of the regimes – like in Syria, Iraq and proxy superpowers like Russia, US and even Britain – believe that terrorists (jihadis) have spilled over into the civilian mosaic  in a manner making the dividing line very thin and blurred. Any crackdown on the radicals – who have sought shelters in crowded residential neighbourhoods to dodge precision raids on hideaways- takes its toll on the civilian population despite intents to the opposite. The terrorists melt into the throng with strategic meticulousness to divert counter-insurgency drives that put civilians in the crosshairs. The “grand” magnitude of the human tragedy in west Asia and the middle east – and the growth of the culture of jihad – has transformed the geopolitics and polarized the demography of the region – early hinging on clash of faith (conflict of civilizations) to a sectarian and internecine pockets of discords with the wars diminishing in ideology to target Shia-Sunni and ethnic animosities (like between the Turks, Iraqis and Kurds) with the superpowers arming one against the other.

The prospect of contiguities appear to recede to the misty margins – as the desecration of cultures and history of the ancient lands rage on in a construed attempt to wipe out the lineages that crafted the geo-boundaries of the middle-eastern nations and its living cultures to put in place polity blocs and commercial swathes engaged along the alignments of the new cold wars being fought over economy, oil and territories to push trade agendas. Religion – the preserve of the common man as an emotional and cultural pivot – is a tool of subversion by the “jihadi” (soldier of the caliphate) and their world coalition alike to deepen the fissures in a multi-polar world – where each order or rather dispensation jostles for space. In an irony, the dispensations of the smaller power blocs are directly or indirectly aligned in trade or bilateral cooperation with the “big five” – or the handful of rogues (like Iran or north Korea – which too have proxy alignments) as the media observes that vetoes in global comities of trade, commerce, and geopolitics. In the crosshair- is the dishevelled Muslim, the Semite or the odd Christian – the conflict zones of Asia – for whom the search for food and medicines transcend the greater implications of the politics of the conflict and the “jihad”. The warring regimes are mute to this simple code of existential dilemma – who is the enemy, the protector and the target segments. The common man. A middle east or west Asia without adequate number of people – an estimated 11 million people have fled Syria alone since the outbreak of the war – and urban infrastructure is a dead-end; wastelands on the global map useless in its geopolitical relevance to the superpowers.

Madhusree Chatterjee
(Former Editorial Consultant
The Statesman, Kolkata)
chatterjeemadhusree@gmail.com

 

A narrative of exile and reconciliation: Nkosi Sikelele Africa

REVIEW 

“The sun comes down and fries us – ndopatigere pano
The rains come down and we have no shelter- ndopatigere pano
The wind tosses us about like dry leaves – ndopatigere pano
The cold is in us and we are numb- ndopatigere pano- this is our home now…”

The stray refrain – ndopatigere pano- in the Shona language of central and south Africa is from a song by Jordan Chitaika that speaks of forced relocation, exile,  nostalgia, collective memories and long-haul migration which churned the socio-political fabric of the contemporary Africa of the 1970s- during the swell of the apartheid movement when the colour crusaders had begun to hammer at the walls of quarantine.

It is also the essence of Marion Molteno’s lyrical tale of a young woman’s journey from the battleground of Bloemfontein and Johannesburg in South Africa to the immigrants’ London of the early 1970s – when the city became a melting pot of cultures, colours, tongues and lives of a plethora of “relegated” nations clubbed as the “third world”. London was the “rainbow” that the young surge sought as the shelter at the end of long crossings across oceans, deserts, mountains and bordered air spaces.

The book which trails Jeannie de Villiers odyssey across a swathe of 14,000 km from South Africa to London as an “anti-apartheid” fugitive and political migrant of white origin from the old Scottish stock of settlers in the sharply polarized “black-vs–white” Africa probes a gamut of historical realities drawn on the canvas of the faraway strains of the continent’s folk music and its fusion with the west – that bailed legions of young battle hounds out of a catastrophe of loss to spread the gospel of freedom.

Molteno’s association with “Save the Children” as a caregiver and her exposure to Orientalism in India and Pakistan – through the study of Urdu and her extensive travels across Asia and Africa – sustain the scaffolding of the story that actually begins in Bloemfontein, where her protagonist Jeannie spends her childhood in a home bustling with brothers, a devoted dad and a dedicated mum. Music weaves its way in with older brother Richard’s flute that harks to the exotica of Okavango swamp, Nyika plateau and the Zimbabwe ruins – landscapes that etch the impressionistic contours of Jeannie’s childscape in colours of these landmarks that her older brother treks to for soul succour.

The music opens the road to revolution on the campus in Cape Town – where the white and black students alike run afoul of the authority cracking down on the coloured stock, standing up for their rights. Jeannie is caught in the melee of anti-apartheid – in which the colours blur to spill into the melodies of Africa. She is forced to flee with war-fellow Kevin after Jonas – the black guy – is whisked away by the police in yet another unaccounted for “disappearance”. Jonas is the shadow mascot in Jeannie’s life – “You can’t get away from it, Jeannie”. The anguished prophecy becomes the denouement of the narrative bringing Jeannie’s life to a full circle – from South Africa to London and back to Africa across Kenya, Malawi and Zambia again to organize the kids- all of them from the villages of Nyika to the shanties of Sweto in the outskirts of Jo’burg- to give them a voice in their incarceration and then freedom in their adopted home-turfs that is as a unwieldy as the black thunderclouds and spurts of rain that swamp the land.

The story of an individual war on colour is tempered to softness by love – an unlikely romance between Jeannie who marries Kevin Cartwrigth for a passport to England fearing jail in a students’ movement trial and Neil, a composer of structured sounds who holds his “personal retreats” from long-term entanglements with women and “freedom to create music for those who assimilate sounds to break challenging grounds” between paid concerts- like a flag. Jeannie is a migrant in the teeming alleys of 1971 London cloistered in a tenement of rainbow women – who have drifted in search of new livelihoods from across European cities in political ferment, Asia of shrinking opportunities and Africa hunger, civil war and apartheid.  Kevin flows on in his British birth tide unable to meet Jeannie in bed with his detached ardour and loud ways.

The two, legally husband and wife, meet for occasional meals to keep the foreign office procedures in fettle. The passport arrives two years later in 1973 – at a time when Jeannie has found solace in the viola at Neil’s home, at the local arts council organizing children with cognitive itches and at the School of African Studies understanding “the inheritance” of her homeland- in musical notations and ethnic languages.

Jeannie is a revolutionary – a rebel who refuses the confines of conventional grammar in life and music. She epitomizes an anachronistic antithesis of the apartheid movement – a legion of veterans who jumped the colour bar to pitch for the persecuted “black” multitudes. In the De’ Villiers clan, the compassion and empathy for the black communities of South Africa are rooted in the secular cultural mosaic of the old settlers from Europe with their genteel breeding and affinity to finer sensitivities of th music, arts – and education – which brought on an universalism of consciousness and homogeneity of intellect among the old “coloured natives” and white settlers alike – distinct from the Boer (Afrikaners of Dutch origin) aggression at the turn of the last century.

A gentleness that binds the kinships of the clans like reinforced concrete – and human warmth- are the underlying threads of the journey beginning at home and smoothening the twisted paths of the narrative beyond – spanning disparate topographies such as those of the village Mbabane on the South Africa-Swaziland border, where Jeannie expends her soul to teach Charity and her African friends English as the kind “Mlungu” (white-skinned foreigner in the local ki-swati dialect)   -to the Victorian shanty sprawl of a townhouse in London where Jeannie finds sleeping room in an attic, led by the Portuguese immigrant rebel and poet Maria from the lunch-bar. In the warren of inhabited spaces, Jeannie meets Jaswinder from a Asian (Punjabi) home. Jas is runaway who trawls the downside to find toe-hold as an individual – a Londoner of Indian descent replete with Mumbai film music and elaborate cuisines – and Paula, a lesbian who can transcreate the blues and music in Jeannie’s soul like the crystal gazer.

“ku le zo nta a ba
bo-li-BA- mba linga sho-o-ni
On those distant hills, catch the sun before it sets
You who are mourned
I am now just a song that everyone sings
I loved a young man but they took him
Gone to seek work in the mines…

The nostalgia of Swazi hill melodies meld seamlessly into the free lunch hour concerts- where the string quartets of Corelli and Albinoni lift the chords of her existence to find resonance in the humble “mbira”- an African string instrument which Jeannie works on diligently in her attic. The warmth is the winds of her destiny – that propel her to Neil’s apartment to encounter the viola and to child -mind Michael, slow on the uptake. The strings bear portends of shifts- transformation in Jeannie’s life. A short brush with the archived academy of African music at the School of African Studies in London – bears her to a non-profit job in Nairobe and further on to the official de rigueur of the United Nations – the feeding duct of a striving Africa and shelter for the black kids on the rebound from Cape Town and Johannesburg. A short commission to engage with those fleeing in the camps and rehabilitation teaches her the stresses of bureaucracy – liaisoning and currying room to accommodate the itinerants.

The music brings Neil – a die-hard Scotsman – to the high velds and hills of Kenya and Zimbabwe to explore the music of the Nyika plateau. The beats of Africa unfurl in all its pagan riots (of colours and sounds) to unleash passion – dredging up the primal ambiguities of adult relationships in Jeannie’s doubts, insecurities, temporal qualities of love and dire need of free space between two thinking minds to manoeuvre.

Molteno laces strange dichotomies of politics, oppression, romance, officialese, migration, living on the edge of sustenance, engagement across cultures, landscapes and continental divides into a riveting narrative  of personal redemption that begins at home in the imagination of a South African girl child – free to explore the niches of the undefined – and ends with the timeless bonding between the mother and the daughter – the girl as a young woman tending to an old widowed mum at home. It is a story of exile, repatriation and homecoming – played out in million ways in the lives of the South African apartheid warriors in the two decades between 1970s and the 1990s when the African National Congress helmed by Nelson Mandela came to power.

Molteno  employs the lilt of African folk to convey her narrative through the language of music, a literary device that draws and flags off in unfinished endings- deflating at times. The exchanges are tiresome in snatches – rambling monotones which sags under the weight of words. But then it is a deeply psychological investigation of cross-cultural assimilation, growing up and acceptance – of freedom and realizations within the self. The writer can therefore be acquitted with honour.

BOOK- If You Can Walk, You Can Dance
Author – Marion Molteno
Publisher – Niyogi Books

Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman. Kolkata
In-charge of international affairs)
India Coordinator, Asia News Network)

chatterjeemadhusree@gmail.com
madhusree@thestatesman.net

(Article for The Statesman)

 

 

New Bengali cinema: A contemporary genre to anchor the vernacular

 

Mumbai/Kolkata

Bengal is the new regional Hollywood in the making – and the hives can’t just stop buzzing about it. A wave is sweeping through the consciousness of contemporary Bengali cinema – powered by multiplexes, higher entry tariff, younger audiences, Internet, deeper penetration of arts awareness, proactive engagement with story-telling – and finally literature that is reaching out to the masses in non-formal ways moving beyond the confines of fine print.
A couple of years into the eastern metropolis of Kolkata – the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema – have changed the Bombay and Hollywood-centric cinematic awareness among several of our generation of returnees, who have reconnected to this bastion of Bengali culture that thrives and progresses amid the rubble of stagnant economics and a dusty political milieu. I have not been spared of the dawn of the new fathoming.
Cinema that has mirrored the social transformation of the Bengali ethos of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties  – well past the millennial decades into 2016 – has acquired a global hue which is cosmopolitan and universal in its interpretation of realities and literature- two primary sources of narratives in the Bengali cinema down the decades.
The contemporary cinema in Bengal – the current  platter of releases in the last two years or so – points to two trends. A fusion of parallel and commercial mainstream of ideas and a more refined treatment of narratives  – accompanied by crisp and meaningful scripting of dialogues, editing and deployment of hi-tech special effects on screen. Consequently, it has acquired an edgy pace that has set it apart from Marathi and southern regional cinema – two other vernacular oeuvres that vie of spotlight in terms of powerful storytelling and theatrics on the screen.  Popular literature is also being adapted more intelligently to suit the sync of the audiences – who are bred on action thrillers and slick content of Hollywood and Mumbai – with considerably less attention spans rejecting meandering and oversized dramas.
The notion of contemporary universalism paints Bengali cinema at this juncture with the greater cultural contiguity of the west – the stories have to be sharper and easily told with greater movement of characters and narrative structures that should not deviate widely from the linear pattern that characterizes modern mass fiction books.
Bengali cinema has a traditional advantage in this sphere – the Calcutta realism wave which gave to India the pioneering parallel hits of the 1940s the 1950s- enshrined by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Gautam Ghose (later in the decades),  has helped the mainstream industry evolve a distinct identity of its own.
If Pather Panchali captured the social dilemma of an angst riven Bengali middle class dialectics that dictated the discourse of the cultural consciousness of a Bengal in the cusp of a sociological change in the 1950s  – then movies like Praktan, a 2016 release by Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Ray starring Prasenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta probes the disintegration of the contemporary social mosaic with the narrative of a broken marriage  – played in a journey on train. A decade ago, marriages were sanctified on the Bengali screen as the denouement of climatic storytelling in the commercial mainstream. Melodrama, romance and happy endings followed a Mumbai stereotype – harking to the lifestyle gamut of an economically resurgent Bengal under a Left rule where the average cine-goer – the “Bengali” from the city and the suburbs – would relive their own experiential odysseys of love, sorrows, bitterness, prosperity, social churnings and happy endings on the screen.
But life on the fast lane has forced the cinematic narrative to take contemporary detours.
Last week, a chance visit to a neighbourhood theatre on an idyllic afternoon threw up a revelation – the Bengali conservatism and insularity of the 1970s-1980s have made way for the universal western language of the hip and the reckless manifest in the social rot that gnaws at the metropolis – in its purple mists and blues. “Devi”- a Devdas-meets-Streetcar Named Desire remake (rather crude though) of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay classic in which the leading light dons a female avatar of a spurned blog journalist turned junkie in Thailand- who dies of heartache, urban angst and cultural alienation.
The movie, directed by Rick Basu, is an exercise in aberration and confusion but strangely ground-breaking at the same time with its audacious reference to debilitating social fads like drug-addiction, disconnected relationships, clash between old and new sensitivities, rural-urban social dislocations brought on rampant urbanization, migration, aspirational living and changing politica; power equations. The contemporaneity aside, the movie mirrors the cross-cultural assimilations that are transforming the root perceptions of the Bengali society and its arts consciousness – hued by opening up of the economy and geographical boundaries, English-oriented education, younger audiences and multi-linguistic and cultural crews & casts on screens.
An award-winning movie, Shankachil –  an Indo-Bangladesh production by noted director Goutam Ghose is a case study of the cross-cultural osmosis that has set regional Bengali on a new trajectory travelling the sub-continent to a greater audience and social connecting threads.
Intelligent story-telling in an universal language to engage with the global audience – and the formidable Bengali diaspora population – began in the 1950s – post Independence when the modern educated “Bengali” migrated abroad  sporting an indigent culture instead of the “legacies” of British colonialism – combining the modernism of the west with the progressive traditions of a free India. A new culture revolution was raging across the capitals of the country with the progressive arts movements.
The trend was enshrined in the iconic classics of 1950s-1970s created by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Rittwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha who translated the urban deconstruction on screen to address issues like the corporatization of a political Bengal, Left awakening and progressive cultures in the art-house movement. But the cinema post-2000 in Bengal is a watershed in the growing trade and aesthetics of regional filmmaking – standing on its own with brazen narratives and empathy for young realities of a well-heeled class that came of age in the 1970s-1980s with Ivy League grooming.
If the 1980s- 1990s were an era of decadence  and pedestrianism in mainstream Bengali cinema – characterized by slump in trade statistics, closure of standalone movie theatres, insipid film-making and degeneration in consciousness, the decades around the millennium and those ensuing witnessed a surge – shot of life into the cinematic morass with multiplex theatres, steeper tariffs, production budgeting, intelligent movie-making and projecting cinema as holistic entertainment complemented with shopping sprees and lifestyle accoutrements in the age of retail revolution at mega consumer arcades to  draw new segments of cine-goers into the tinsel loop- with sharper consumer focus. Consequently, Kolkata and the adjoining cities have seen a spurt in the number of one-stop entertainment and lifestyle facilities- malls as they are monikered – kitted out with PVRs, the ruling movie multiplex brand across the nation.  Observers point out the evolving experience of cinema as a lifestyle add-on in tandem with “direct” consumption of consumer goods have brought the studios back from the precipice in Tollywood- Tollygunge- the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema. Bollywood or Mumbai has also contributed to the process of recuperation of Tollywood – with migration of names, resource and know-how to and fro between Kolkata and Mumbai.
In sync, Bengal has stepped out of box  to combine art-house with the mainstream commercial to develop a language of its own championed by new-age directors like Anjan Dutt, Rituparno Ghosh, Srijit Mukherjee, actor-turned filmmaker Aparna Sen, Shiboprasad Mukherjee, Sujoy Ghosh to name a few.  The string of engaging narrative-driven movies – like Dark Chocolate, Baastu Shap, Cinemawala, Angaar, Gansgter to name a few –  addresses a new audience which is well informed, jet-setting, affluent, young and discerning.
Literature – a powerful narrative fountainhead for cinematic story-telling – has lent itself ingenuously to Bengali cinema over the decades to convey the march of the socio-cultural politik of the terrain – rich in the lores of people, history and change. Instances of adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s, Manik Bandopadhhay’s and Bibhuti Bandopadhyay’s short stories  are galore  on the Bengali screen post-Independence.  The transcreation of popular literature into the cinematic oeuvre is a continuum- though the nature of translating literary content for the mass audience has tailored itself to address the demands of the racier and younger segments of cine-goers. Literature embellishes in the movie script with colourful dollops of thrills, frills and tweaks in the tale to context in the modern times.
A 2016 release from Tollygunge, Zulfikar, directed by Srijit Mukherje, was  an adaptation of two of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, Julius Ceaser  and  Anthony and Cleopatra. The movie set in the milieu of a contemporary Bengal wove its narrative around a prodigal, Zulfikar Ahmed, a ganglord of a powerful crime syndicate, throwing his journey across the maze of the underworld into the spotlight against his inter-personal relationships. The movie did not smash the box office – but its score and innovative adaptation were both critiqued and appreciated unlike Hemanta, a transcreation of Hamlet, by director Anjan Dutta, which earned lukewarm reviews.
Monchora directed by Sandip Ray, released in January 2016, was an adaptation of Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s  story of the same name. Set in the Bengal of the 1950-1960s, when light romances, mild mysteries and family soaps were reflecting the languid socio-political state of a pre-radical West Bengal, the movie revolves around the life of a thief, who comes across as a pleasant anti-hero.
The drudgery of romance – drama – and laughter have in the last decade made room for darker tales with edgy thrills in Tollywood spurred by the pervasive influence of Hollywood and the television action movie spectrums that beam western potboilers to young adults and the upwardly segments of movei-goers, as the old timers.
One of the most enduring spin-offs has been resurgence of thrillers as a cinematic genre on the Bengali screen. Five releases between 2015-2016 have taken Tollywood on a hunt for hitherto untold stories from the vast repository of “mass mystery fiction”- that has carved a premium slot for itself in contemporary Bengali literature over the last 100 years. Critics and literary reviewers concur on the ingenuity of filmmakers like Aniket Chattopadhyay, Anjan Dutt, Arindam Sil, Anindya Bikash Dutta, Sandip Ray and Pratim Gupta, who have harked back to the archives of fiction writers like Nihar Ranjan Gupta, Saradindhu Bandopadhyay and Satyajit Ray to exhume gripping thrills – adapted into tight narratives and slick film-making for the growing segment of younger audience.
Titles like “Kiriti O Kalo Bhramor”, “Kiriti Roy”, “Byomkesh O Chiriyakhana”, “Byomkesh Parbo”, “Double Feluda”,  “Chorabali”, “Gwenda Shabor: Eagaler Chokh”and “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam” drew serious audience bred on fiction- but with a affinity to the esoteric and the racy to the multiplexes and the theatres across the state – to keep the thrills spilling on to the fantasy space of the average movie-goer.  The genre of thriller as a cinematic movement has rendered commercial Bengali film-making fresh life fluids – with the PVRs eyeing possibilities of revival in business that had witnessed a slump in the last few years because of the paucity of funds in the movie industry as a whole- despite the outbound experiments across cultures, language and physical turfs.
The intelligent handling of the Bengali mystery classics trace their refined treatment to the television where snoop masterpieces like “Byomkesh” have been serialized – the small screen setting the template for the bigger screen to improvise on and stretch the mosaic of the narrative and visuals. Television has established  a  seamlessness with the big Tollywood screen – like in the rest of the country – with its glut of commercial soaps and tele-cinema that follow the blueprint of the Mumbai television.
The serialized dramas known as “serials”  meld into the bigger format of commercial cinema without much deviations – at times it is difficult to distinguish between the original screenplay for the television and its broader manifest on the cinema screen. This explosion of creative television in Bengal has imbued Tollygunge with resources – both in terms of spice, human resources and faculties to juggle bigger frames on tighter tele-budgets.
In many ways, the Bengali cinema reflects the trends – though on a micro-canvas – in Bollywood (Mumbai movies) where the multiplexes and changing movie-goers’ curriculum vitae are dictating the rules of commercial filmmaking on smaller budgets for an educated overseas markets. It also resonates with Hollywood – though on a much subdued scale – in its near epic scope of narratives, adaptations of classic literary theatres (the holistic genre of modern literature and drama) and creative thought-spacing of expression.
Bengal is a regional genre that will hold the parallel industry of vernacular cinema aloft in the years to come when the linguistic languor and the fatigue with Hindi as the “linear primary” of communication seeps into the viewer.

 Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman)
The Statesman/ANN Coordinator
madhusree@thestatesman.net

Kolkata moves step closer to Arts Biennale with arts festival

The history of Kolkata’s cultural soul is evolving with its political maturity – capturing the imagination of growing segments of young practitioners and lovers of art with its contemporary sensitivities and its manifests on the canvas.  Art as a medium of the mass dialogue and propagation of social awareness has acquired wider connotations to include the continuum of living cultures and the political ethos of the geography in which it flourishes. Festivals are the best showcases to collate the diverse strains – and oeuvres – of artistic movements for the viewer to appreciate, understand and engage with the practitioner.
In India – the concept of art showcases like festivals of literature – has seen a spurt in the last decade with the explosion of the Internet, penetration of education, heightened aesthetic awareness and rising disposable incomes in cities for the common man to take time out for the arts – thus bringing complex practices out of the schoolrooms in the process to involve a gamut of stakeholders. The Kolkata Art Festival which began 5 February – 4 March like the Kolkata Book Fair is one such endeavour to integrate the arts into the mainstream of the greater cultural and social-scape of the metropolis with multi-disciplinary expositions.
An initiative of the Art Heritage Foundation, the festival has been woven around the promotion of young artists from across the country with the CIMA Awards on 4 February to help the arts and their practitioners sustain – with a head start. The buzz is yet to gather around the festival – unlike the India Art Fair in the national capital, but as the director of CIMA pointed out non-commercial activity in the arts require time to take off in the popular cultural consciousness.  She described the initiative as the countdown to a full-scale Kolkata Art Biennale.
“The  purpose of the award (and the festival as well) was that while we were working for CIMA for the last 24 years, we were not being able to get to the backwaters of India and know what was happening outside the bigger cities unless we did something that would bring out new talent. We have a hierarchy of artists and a whole system over there … it creates a back. How do we evaluate artists who are young,” director of the CIMA Rakhi Sarkar told The Statesman.
The awards were up in 2015 is across seven categories carrying a prize purse of Rs 500,000 for the winner –a solo show and participation in an international residency. The first runner-up trophy carries a bourse of Rs 300,000 followed by Rs 200,000 for the second runner-up, two jury awards of Rs 100,000 each, two special mentors’ prizes of Rs 50,000 each, four merit awards Rs 25,000 and a director’s booty of Rs 25,000.
“The shortlist of 15 finalists are selected by a two-tier jury – one early set and a final line-up . This year, out of the 1,500 entries for the awards, works of 196 artists are displayed across five sites,” Sarkar said. The age group caters to the burgeoning tribe of the young Indian contemporary artists –  between 25 and 45 – most of them art school graduates and relatively unheard of – “but talented”.
The artist has to be an Indian resident. “We prefer Indian curators and artists to do the screening for us,” Sarkar pointed out.
This year, the preliminary jury comprised artists Shreyasi Chatterjee, Partha Pratim Deb, Sushen Ghosh, Sanat Kar, Paresh Maity, Pankaj Panwar, Ajit Seal, cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay and Rakhi Sarkar. The final jury was made of author Kunal Basu, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, MA Palaniappan, Prabhakar Nolte, Anju Chaudhuri, NN Rimzon and Shreyasi Chatterjee.
The entries were diverse spanning a range in acrylic, graphic, pencil, ink, lightboxes, paper and thread – including odd solid works. The exhibits, according to Sarkar, threw up few startling trends. Artists were using “less of colours” on their canvas – choosing monochromes, unicolours and muted colour palettes instead of “brightly coloured compositions”. Artists are using less of oil paints now. “We have no oil paintings this year – because oil takes a longer while. Life has become fast and we don’t want to give so much. Artists look for easy mediums, excitement, bigger counters…” she said.
The mediums speak of the evolution and transformation in the art of Bengal –the crucible of modern Indian art dating back to 200 years – and the larger aesthetic psyche of India developing a global language and homogenous practices, embodying similar concerns. Bulk of the winning works on display is in acrylic, collages and mixed eclectic mediums on bigger and bolder formats – expanding in size and scope than on glitz. The works were more profound, Sarkar said. “More and More artists are refraining from using colours. Is colour fading out of our lives- the jury was discussing this. Lot of works are very dark,” she said.
The CIMA 2017 winner, Kolkata-based Harendra Kumar Kushwaha lives to the spirit of the jury’s observation in his stark and simple installation fashioned out of Nepali paper and thread – a swathe of rattan spread woven like  cane thatch and threaded in white tendrils of asymmetrical lines. The ends hang loose – and shed is propped by bamboo batons, whose surface and knobby hinges are left untouched by the artists. “The awards have given young creativity and innovation a huge fillip. The winning entry is a fantastic installation work – it needs a lot of imagination to show something like that – what’s this all about… It is very sensitively done, a very profound piece. It could be a part of a shelter, an ambivalence or the insecurity inherent in so inherent in society, the rough edges of our lives. It is very spontaneous, fragile,” Sarkar explained.
Convention and quality are the underlining threads in the choice of award-winning exhibits- dominated by installations and innovative use of mediums. “We are not going to promote a kind of art – but all that we consider of merit and excellence. If it is a bad piece of work, it is a bad piece of work,” she said.
Two of the highlights of the expositions of the shortlisted artworks are “experimental use of space” and an “education module” designed to help students and lovers of art understand the movements and linkages of the arts – on local, national and global scales for more discerning appreciation. The once derelict Gem cinema in Entally – a popular relic of our childhood- which called the curtains down in the slump in cinema business over the two decades along with a crop of nostalgic cinematic landmarks like Tiger, Globe, Jamuna, Lighthouse, Minerva (Chaplin), Orient and New Cinema – has been resurrected to a new incarnation by the CIMA initiative.
“We are using it as a wonderful space to showcase contemporary art,” Sarkar said. The theatre has been remodelled on the lines of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York – though on a makeshift scale to fit the festival’s time table. Sarkar hailed Studio Gem as a “precursor to a movement in promoting alternative art space”- a concept that is yet to catch on in the metropolis and in the country as a whole where “spaces” abound. The movement rolled out in its nascent concept on the night of the award on 4 February at the Oberoi Grand, where CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation felicitated Alana Heiss, the creative motif force behind the P.S.1 Centre of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – whose journey across the alternative space was narrated in a brief-capsule. The spatial experts’ panel was graced by Chris Dercon, former director, Tate Modern, intendant of Volksbuhne in Berlin. Heiss paid her tribute to the spatial opulence of the metropolis by suggesting that “she should move to Kolkata” in her pursuit of her calling – developing alternative display sites.
Initiation into art corollaries such as these – and emerging concepts – have found platforms in staggered education module of seminars that will connect world art histories, spaces, movements, designs, aesthetic storytelling, systems, pedagogies, technicalities and semantics by panels of experts- both national and international, institutions  like the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), CREDI, the Architecture Association of India and 18 city schools spread across the Oberoi Grand, 3 Dover Park, the Studio Gem, Academy of Fine Arts, Studio 21, the Bengal Club and CIMA gallery.  The showcases and “symposium” will be complemented by performance arts capsule, television broadcasts and cinema- a core component of the contemporary arts movement worldwide.
“We have not conducted too many art education programmes,” Sarkar said. Consequently, it is watershed for CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation with the involvement of several collateral organisations to spread awareness about arts – and educate new segments of viewers, collectors, aspiring practitioners and students.
Sarkar said the festival will push ahead as a two yearly affair similar to the Kochi Biennale in Kerala – in contiguity with the India Art Fair and the Kerala government initiative to bring West Bengal and the country on the bigger arts canvas globally and project the metropolis as a cultural destination. “I want to develop it more as a festival – theatre, music, food… Next time, we are planning to approach the state government for a street food festival in different parts of Kolkata so that the fringe sections of the metropolis get activated in a positive and efficacious manner. The state has plenty of hasta shilpa – handicrafts tradition – we wanted to have it this time (both food and crafts) but the municipality controls the hawkers. We need permission from the municipality. They (government) can help do it – an east-west north-south Kolkata Arts Festival. It will be good for the economy, good for tourism – Kolkata has everything to do it. We are testing the format this year,” Sarkar said.
The festival, the director of CIMA pointed out, has been built on a unique model apart from Kochi – a non-profit venture – and the India Art Fair, a commercial showcase with awareness programmes. The Kolkata Arts Festival is planned around an award, Sarkar said.
“You have to have balance between non-commercial activity and commerce in arts. You cannot do the big projects without non-commercial activity. Our’s is an award centric programme which does not exist anywhere in India. We want to bring out the evaluation system – support the arts with non-commercial projects,” she said.
The stakeholders are diverse from the (ProHelvetia) Swiss Arts Council, Alliance Francaise to the Japan Art Foundation and Star Television – among the few. And the festival promises integration – of the city, sensitivities, global-local and national cultural codes. “We have to hold each other’s hand,” Sarkar said.
It is a bustling beginning to the spring tide in the city of the golden renaissance.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant
Foreign Affairs (inc-charge)
The Statesman, Kolkata
Asia News Network (The Statesman/ANN) Coordinator
madhusree@thestatesman.net
chatterjeemadhusree@gmail.com

South China Sea- a trigger for changing Asian geopolitik

 The turbulent lanes of the South China Sea are simmering on the global geopolitical map – throwing Asia into the centre-stage of littoral diplomacy and power mongering for a larger slice of the sea and the trade that passes through it. The pristine waters that were once on the margins of the protracted wars being fought on land – like those in West Asia, the Cold Wars pitting Russia against the United States and the World Wars– have surged back into consciousness with an ascending Sino sweep of the greater Asian sensitivity that is tilting to China’s growing commercial and diplomatic heft across the hemispheres.
The South China Sea is the theatre of this new power game. The dispute had been building for the last decade over the occupation of a motley  crop of atolls, reefs and shoals- teeming with marine life – and demarcation of territories that China tried to clamp down with its “nine-dash line”, virtually bringing the whole of the watery swathe into its pale. It has broken the demographically contiguous south-east Asian nationalities and a large tract of East Asia into polarized entities – which are battling to keep their maritime rights on a tight leash. China is on a zealous overdrive to reclaim the reefs and atolls for building new bases – most of it aimed at military purposes to dare the might of America much to the disquiet of the allied nations set out against China.
The shadow war on the South China Sea, extending well into the East China Sea, is a hark-back to the Cold War with the two big power blocs – the United States of America and its allies – and China, the new muscle hub on the maritime and Asian commercial map – clawing at each other to keep their business lanes untouched by geographical claims. “Freedom of navigation” is the cornerstone of the allied powers while China claims traditional rights of ownership as US tries to breach manoeuvering . The conflict between the US and China is military in nature – the right of American military vessels to operate in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone believed to be belonging to China, a concession that China is reluctant to cede.
The historic slivers of contention on the South China East – a spillover of the Pacific Ocean- encompassing approximately 3,500,000 square kilometers of water – are however the picturesque little islets and rocky outcrops rich in Piscean variety. The wars pivoted around the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Patras Islands, the Maccesfield Bank and the Scarborough shoal.
The claims over the territories are conflicting – muddied by myriad international litigations, tribunals, arbitration, rejections of legal mandates, ‘unlawful’ occupation and even skirmishes. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, known as Taiwan, stake claim to the entire sea – overlapping with the territorial rights espoused by Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.  Indonesia, China and Taiwan simultaneously claim the waters northeast of the Natuna Islands while the Phillipines, China and Taiwan bicker over the Scarborough shoal. Vietnam, China and the Taiwan compete for rights over the waters west of the Spratly Islands – while the land-masses are claimed by Vietnam, China, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines who eye the waters as well. The Paracel Islands are grounded in disputes between China, Taiwan and Vietnam – as Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam squabble over stretches along the Gulf of Thailand. Singapore and Malaysia are locked in a dispute in the Strait of Singapore and Strait of Johore. The ongoing tussles have several new spurs – and morphing ramifications because of the change of guard in the United States, which calls powerful shots on the trade routes along the disputed waters. China, which rejected a claim by the Philippines questioning the “efficacy of the nine-dash line” and the territorial ownership of the Spratly Islands  – defied a verdict of an international arbitration tribunal set up under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea which backed Philippines in 2016. The Republic refused to comply with the mandate of the European tribunal –saying “historically the seas belonged to China”.
The escalation of animosity between the littoral nations at war has put business on the hiving block, drastically reducing the volume that passes through the lanes. According to rough math, nearly $ 5.3 trillion of trade charts the waters of which US accounts for nearly $ 1.2 trillion. Consequently, the United States keeps its spotlight fixed on the territorial rights to navigate – a freedom that has been considerably constrained by China’s aggression to ration the scale of American intervention and movement in the region.
A resurgent China is carving new power equations in the South China sea. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said China has placed anti-aircraft and “close-in” weapons systems to guard against missile attacks on the all the seven artificial “islands”.
The Associated Press says “the outposts have been built in recent years by piling sand on top of coral reefs followed by the construction of airstrips, barracks, lighthouses and radar stations and other infrastructure.” China contends that the islands have been resurrected from the sea-bed to ramp up maritime defence safety in the region as bastions – “and they also mark the country’s claim to ownership of practically the entire South China Sea.”
Analysts point out that China foresees more opportunities in an increasingly fractured Asia – where the ASEAN has not been able to cut deep swathes into the commercial potential of its member nations. One of its Chinese initiatives – the Maritime Silk Road that will connect all the Asian trade capitals along one umbrella route controlled by China – is well on its way with Pakistan flagging off the first Chinese ship recently from its new deep water port as a new economic corridor.
The maritime trade-fare necessitates armed scaffolding that has spurred the nation into a massive military build-up on the reclaimed islands and atolls – along the nine -dash line. These lands are all subject to counter-territorial claims creating new fissures along the global power fault-lines.
The over-sell of the maritime road – and the random military activity on the islands – have put the US on the edge whose commercial interests on the waters are in peril.  America is known to fuse commerce with military might around the world – and the lanes on the South China Sea and further Orient (the East China and the Japan Seas) have not been spared of US muscle-flexing. The country – through its network of post-World War and cold war allies – maintains several shadow bases in the region where it wields joint military batons.
The latest trigger in the conflict has the potential to turn the sea into a battlefield. The Republican US President-elect Donald Trump has trained his guns on China with a telephone call to the President of Taiwan – two warring parties on the disputed islands of the South China Sea. The call, described as a breach of diplomatic protocol,  questioned the One-China policy that the US had endorsed in 1972 – and formalized in 1979. Trump who in as many words shot down the “one-China policy” – under which a foreign power, especially US, cannot reach out to Taiwan with diplomatic overtures – has sharpened the flashpoints of the dispute. The “brash” President hit out at China saying “China could not devalue the interests of the US along the trade lanes and in the Oriental money market”  – and the build up of the massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea was a mockery of littoral camaraderie that the US sought to establish with China on the Asian trade routes. China responded by flying a nuclear bomber over the disputed islands along the nine-dash line.
Analysts say Trump has been trying to play the Russia card against in a reversal of what Nixon had attempted in the early Sixties  – but Putin may not find it comfortable to jeopardize Russian ties with China which had reached an even keel in the last decade after years of traditional rivalry between the red citadels.
Trump’s hard-line on China’s aggression in the Asian waters sends mixed signals about the changing power math on the world map. Initially China friendly, Trump has suddenly decided to pit his brawns against it by warming up to Taiwan – which sources hint- may have been motivated by his business interest in the country, a bustling commercial hub. China may not yield much in terms of business – as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
If the US decides to flaunt its firepower on the South China to counter China’s hard rhetoric on the waters – then he has to take into account the interests and confidence of the ASEAN nations, a bloc which is not averse to forging closer ties with a Republican United States. The US cannot fight China alone on the South China Sea – for it would entail a cataclysmic geopolitical upheaval in the regions flanking the waters which are at war with China. The dispute on the South China Sea is creating new allies on land – further westward in the continent.
The economic corridor that China has opened with Pakistan spans a wide maritime stretch which falls within the purview of the greater South China sea conflict – integrating disputing claims over water, air and land simultaneously. It has brought Pakistan into an unusual bilateral cooperation with China – where the role of US is mired in ambivalence because of its outpourings of “diplomatic warmth” for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. An unpredictable Donald Trump could later wean away Pakistan from China or may cave in to growing pressure to scale down tirade against China- over the military build-up in the South China Sea and overlapping business interests. Under such circumstance, the trade space created by ASEAN – as an umbrella of contiguous regional and commercial national  entities along the water and the land routes in south east and east Asia – will lie in tatters in the hurricane of an American and Chinese confrontation or a deepening engagement. The smaller Asian nations – with territorial claims to the South China Sea  (and even East China sea) will be cease to be relevant.
India does figure much on the map – observers suggest – unless the dispute spills and sputters in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where US has a sizeable say in Indian trade and defence affairs under a 10-year-pact. China is a major player in the region. But for the time- the buffer nation (India) which has been advocating peaceful resolution to the South China Sea conflict under the UN Sea Protocol has to fend off one niggling fear- of growing political and economic isolation in the Asian trade and power canvas which is hefting imperceptibly in favour of China in the south Asian region.
Blame it on the fire escalating the mercury on the South China Sea and its ramifications across the continent.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant
ANN Coordinator
The Statesman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tug of the Bengali soul- journey and jalbhara

The metropolis is a big sweetmeat for the odd diabetic — a cottony white rosogulla or the voluptuous jal bhara sandesh perched  comfortably saccharine on the banks of the Ganges. Kolkata, to the intrepid outsider, is identified by its proverbial Bengali sweet-tooth that creeps into the northern palette as well.  A year’s sojourn to the metropolis –Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagari” and chief minister Mamata  Benerjee’s “cauldron of political bonhomie” — bequeathed me a legacy of a lifetime. A blood sugar count of 400.  The doctor smiled – slightly benign  and generally saccharine. “No misti (sweets), madam”.   The stricture exploded in my mindscape with a new perspective — the sweetmeats on which I had been fattening my Bengali fantasies everyday at breakfast acquired a new pedagogy of existence. I began to ponder their anatomical dialectics – their genesis, evolution, the ongoing war of the “rasogulla” between Bengal and neighbouring Orissa – and their intellectual sublimities.
Startling, but the humble “jal-bhara”— a baked jaggery cheesecake – the proud refrain of every halwai in the metropolis — rolled out a story- my own juxtaposed against the large canvas of a changing Bengali pysche. It is a royal sweet that has seen the Bengali societal progression from elitism, Marxism to the current-day egalitarianism in the present-day Bengal, living above the breakages and fissures of political time-scales. ‘Jal-bhara’ has emerged unscathed to become slightly more refined, resplendent and modern with an odd raisin, a green cardamom and a dollop of liquid palm gur (jaggery) that aficionados swear is sweeter than it was at the turn of the century.
The sweetmeat vend near my home – “Mouchak” or the Beehive — a sought-after and thriving address for all the sugar-coated diabetic newbies in the south Kolkata neighbourhoods  says the “jal-bhara” dates back to a time when the erstwhile landlords of the metropolis were scouting for forms in their “feudal consciousness”, nearly 150 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century or at the lag of the 19th century. An ingenious halwai or the cheese artist accidentally stumbled upon the idea of the ripe “plum’ as the clay model for the gastronomy of the sweetmeat somewhere near Jessore  in present day Bangladesh – though some like to differ to Chandannagore- then vital to undivided Bengal as an arterial node on the silk road between Ganges and the Padma. The dates are tangled in factual and spatial discords.
History cites that the rationale for “jal-bhara” was inspired by topography – a desire to transform the desolation of a decadent Bengal into a “syrupy” passage of socio-politico cultural change. Pouring “rose syrup” inside a sandesh was the right spice to steam-cook the imagination of the Bengali misti (sweet) platter that occupied the forefront of the traditional Kolkata hospitality. In 1818, moira (sweetmeat maker) Surjya Kumar Modak drenched the jiggery and cottage cheese dough with rose syrup, moulded it like the plum fruit that hung in wanton and inebriating profusion from the green tongues of the city in the making – dotting roads, riverbanks, private gardens and the country-side.  The “newly-crafted” sandesh  (sweet) was christened the jalbhara or the tal-shansh  sandesh. Modak later went to patent the “motichur sandesh”, aam sandesh (mango sandesh) and the khirpulli sandesh (cheeseball sweet). The discovery of the jal-bhara in chocolate and vanilla flavours came a mild surprise  – the flavours appeared too city-slicking for a delicacy as traditional, prissy and hefty as the “jal-bhara”. The evolution of the jal-bhara into “choco-latte” took the wind out my Bengali soul. It was a sacrilege – the entire vandalism of the Bengali aristocracy associated with its unique gastronomy that progressed simultaneously with the march of the wet terrain from the days of the early Hindu-Bengali dynasties to the “nawabi tehzeeb” of Gaur, the ensuing fiefs, feudal holds and the British Raj to the “bullocks” 21st century- when the intellectual melting pot of the renaissance years became the superficial hunting ground of confused shopping arcades (east meets west facilities in Bengali haste) and messy industrial skeletons under the Left Front and then the Trinamool Congress – rising like a mythical flying creature from the grassroots.
The sight of a “kid” in dungarees – freshly disgorged from its NRI flying machine off the coasts of Atlantic – digging into the chocolaty jal-bhara in an obscure sweetmeat counter not far from my home was an affront to the sensibility. It was a spur. No! It is not the right way to sink teeth into one of Bengal’s enduring legacies- the words died at the tip of my tongue but the outrage took precedence prompting a deeper look at the social gastronomy of the “jal-bhara”.
Children measure the furlongs of societal transformation – in Bengal the process has acquired a curious twist spawning a generation of aliens –severed from the cord blood of their Bengali DNA early at birth.
At the beginning of the new millennium – circa 2000 – or as some of my peers point out — in the cusp of the political melodrama of the mid-1970s when the fire of a Marxist revolution (Naxalism – a home-grown brand of Mao’s doctrine meets the armed insurrectionist of South American Communists fired by the poetic violence of Che Guevara) was making way for a more sane and moderate Left  bloc (derided as a bourgeois government), Bengal witnessed a drain. The outflow was a strange reversal of the 1971 demographic phenomenon when the droves swamped the Gangetic delta from neighbouring Bangladesh in an exodus spurred by the war of Liberation —  a steady surge of bright young minds deserted the state for greener pastures up country – to New Delhi and beyond— moving across the walls of geography to surf foreign shores. United Kingdom and United States of America were their common destination stops – enterprising and thinking Bengali boys and girls – the later in a minuscule in proportion — took up posts in the white collared industry and the services. The elders inferred lack of space citing that the metropolis was bursting at the seams with progression and immigration – mostly illegal through its syrupy riverine borders. They had to find room in the more sparsely-inhabited turfs across the globe.
Forty-years on, the out-bounds of the 70s and the 80s have multiplied into families – two generations of them who fly home twice a year diligently unlike their brethrens elsewhere across the country – to bond. The boys bring in brides – as in my personal recollection and encounters – frail American blondes with lank mousy hair, pallid skins and large blue eyes. “Blonde, that’s what clicked…,”  the guys who trooped to school in unison, gush out of the earshot of yankee consorts . “Jal-bhara” returns to the realms of conversations about politics and the quintessential Bengali gastronomy – the morphs, amorphous subtleties and the universalisation of the Bengali platter. “Misti (sweetmeats) and steak- medium, not overdone….beef. Fata fati combo. Pair it with red wine,” the suggestion is outlandish, perched precariously on insanity. Beef is irreverence. Why not?
But the spirit of “jal-bhara”  means magic. “Ganguram, Sen Mahashyay. KC Das, Balaram Mullick or Mouchak…” the contentions are overloaded. Ganguram spells class, Mouchak is spice. Sen Mahashyay harks back to the heritage of North Kolkata’s “bari” culture. KC Das is pure commerce.  Each has interpreted “jal-bhara”  to suit its trajectories – business, sociological and personal. The “jal-bhara” of Ganguram edges past Mouchak in its sugary wealth— and buttery skein. Mouth-melting, flaky, the jaggery smells like freshly-plucked palm fruit,  the dough is softer and the sugar syrup sweeter.
The brisk trek to Ganguram in a bustling neighbourhood in South Kolkata is a 10-minute exercise in sugar-searching. “We look into our souls for a bit of sweet-nothing every year during the Durga-utsav, away from the manic pace of Manhattan…,” their words carry the wisp of Hudson’s serendipity. Limpid. Far-away. Unknown. It beckons.  “Chole aye (come away). This city stinks,” the card-board loads of “jal-bhara”  pile heavy on their arms. Two boxes are for the festivities and the rest loaded into the cargo-holds to New York.“That choco-latte  derivative looks tacky – pedestrian. Jal-bhara  has to be the right shade of earth – light, mute and drenched in memories,” the description fits the odyssey of my favourite Bengali misti . Like the city. A nostalgia crumbling into the flaky dough of jal-bhara. “I am acutely sugary…”
“ Never mind. Bite a morsel…” the response is shaper than usual. Why waste yourself in the alleyways of what it was; politics has never been this chaotic and quixotic, life has taken a second place on the transparency meter of the city and economics is on the least ebb in the stock-exchanges. The dollar trades beyond the periphery of my professional and algebric imagination- 60 for one.  “Can you beat it. We can raid the stores here. Lark… ekhane eshe khorrcha korbi (spend here) – you can go to the moon…” This year should be my last in the city. Manhattan, next.
But jal-bhara remains resilient in the counter of the obscure sweetmeat vend next to my adopted home in the city. Jaggery, chocolatty, Bengali and slow-changing to the tug of the times.

 

Madhusree Chatterjee
Kolkata, Sept 2016
Asia News Network (India) Coordinator
Editorial/Media consultant
Foreign Affairs Editor (The Statesman)