soniasarkar26

In the past three weeks, a lot of people have asked me, what happened, why are you touring so many countries together? What is this trip all about? Work or holiday? Are you really travelling solo or you have friends with you? Then there are people who have not asked direct questions but have given me enough indications that they really find it strange that I am travelling and having fun in a year when I have suffered a major personal loss, isn’t this supposed to be a year of mourning?

Well, this post is not any clarification but only a way of expressing myself. First, I have been travelling solo for close to 9 years now, locations may not always be exotic but I have realised, traveling solo is a learning experience. Like many trips before, this too has exposed me to some harsh realities of life and I have embraced them.

But it is not that I have been really planning for this trip for the longest time. I have stopped planning things because foreseeing future is not in my to-do list anymore, I have failed in it badly. I thought of Istanbul because I heard a lot about it; going to another neighbouring country was only a “paisa vasool” strategy for this poor scribe, so it was Greece. And Almaty just happened because of some major visa issue.

Why did I travel now — the whole idea was to get confused about time zones on my birthday! I made the plan in a way that I don’t get the real sense of time — whether I am ahead or behind India time — and by how many hours— when is the midnight for me on the 26th — because I knew, for the first time in my life, the person who loved me the most would not wish me on my birthday! I was not sure how would I handle this pain of not being wished by him.

But on the 25th night before going off to bed, when I sat down in silence and closed my eyes, I actually heard Baba’s voice — he did wish me just the way he wished me before— stressing on “r” and “a” while saying, “Happy Birrthdaaay, ” in a certain familiar rhythm. I can hear it even now while writing this.

Running away from realities don’t help. We need to know, people who love us don’t go away. They are with us, always around.

On the 26th, when I came back to my hotel around 9:30 pm after an all-day walking tour, a hotel staffer came to my room with this beautiful cake. He insisted I cut it.

I would remember this pleasant surprise, always. It was very touching!

 

P.C — Staffer at Byzantine Suites, Istanbul.

Advertisements

For the first time, there was no hurry to reach AIIMS today. For the first time, I reached dot on time, at 11 am. Or I would say, the second time.The first time when we got Baba to this senior cardiologist on January 1, 2014, we reached dot on time.

In all these years, his cardiologist had been extremely patient with me, answering all my weird questions starting with “what if.” In my earlier days, I used to go with long questionnaire and he would answer them, one by one. He never disappointed us. It was he who taught us, don’t be worried as long as you are doing things in good faith. Perhaps, it was Baba and his cardiologist who were never worried about Baba’s health post stroke. Baba would always give a wide smile whenever he visited him. In fact, he gave that smile to all his doctors, sometimes, I think, the doctors would have thought, if all’s well with the patient, why the hell was this hyper-active daughter worried unnecessarily!

Anyway, as I said, today there was no hurry and there was no worry either. I went to give away Baba’s pacemaker (CRT-D) to his cardiologist so that he could donate it to someone needy. I would say, it’s been eight months since Baba left but it took me near about five months to inform him that he is not there. And it was only earlier this week we could talk and I expressed our family’s desire to give away the pacemaker.

Yesterday, for the first time, I looked at the tiny oval thing. I felt it was a part of Baba which I was giving away. This pacemaker did give him a new lease of life, it reduced the chance of another stroke as it could control the irregular heartbeat. If Baba ever fell down, the first thing we checked was if the pacemaker was running okay, but every time, we saw Baba protecting it with his hand.

Today, when I was giving it away, I feel indebted to it for being there even when I couldn’t be there. It didn’t fail him even when his organs started failing, one by one. His heart was running perfect, we were told, on that night.

As I was meeting his specialist, I broke down. I broke down because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that today, I have nothing to discuss about Baba’s health with his doc, no reports to show, no advice to take, no consultation on which medicine should stop and no informing him about my father’s next visit to Delhi so that I can bring him for a check-up. I broke down as I was feeling guilty that there were days when I got irritated because I had to go to AIIMS, had to wait there for hours, eventually got late for work. It wasn’t easy sometimes. But today, there was nothing to do. Today, even the wait wasn’t long. Today, when I was walking down to the OPD from the parking area, I recalled the last time I visited AIIMS in May, with Baba. Even that day, I got a bit hassled because it took more than three hours with his check-up and tests etc.

Today, there was no hurry, there was no delay. But there was a void, there was an emptiness. No doctor, no medicine can fill it.

[Not disclosing the name of the doctor because I didn’t ask for his permission].

Singapore has been organizing a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Stamford Raffles on the island. But not everyone is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

The white polymarble statue of the British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (main picture) stands tall on the banks of the Singapore river. Raffles landed here on January 28, 1819. 200 years later, Singapore is fondly remembering his arrival with an extravagant bicentennial.

Exhibitions, heritage tours, light art installations and musical shows have been lined up throughout the year to “commemorate” his arrival because he changed Singapore’s destiny “from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” But not everyone in this island city-state is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

25-year-old Singaporean Mysara Aljaru sees the bicentennial events as a celebration of colonizers and colonialism. “Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,” said Aljaru, a first-year postgraduate student of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Raffles stayed in Singapore for only 10 months over three visits between 1819 and 1923. But eventually under the colonial rule, Singapore became key to British trade in Asia.

Mysara Aljaru

‘Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,’ said Aljaru

‘Inappropriately salutary’

There wasn’t much reason for the natives to cheer about though. There is historical evidence that colonialism marked poverty for the communities who were living in Singapore before the British arrived.

Various races were segregated in enclaves where they were forced to live in inhumane conditions. Cholera, malnutrition, smallpox and opium addiction took a toll on the working class. Prostitution was common and the life of a prostitute in colonial Singapore was “horrendous,” as per records at Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB).

“The motivation of the colonizers was profit, control and the projection of power, nothing else. There was no fairness or altruism in mind,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore. Former British colonies in the region like India and Sri Lanka have always criticized the colonizers for subjugating and exploiting natives, but Singapore never did that.

Since a section of local elites, who were beneficiaries of colonial rule or their descendants, remained at the helm in the post-independence period and the independent Singapore state maintained a cordial relationship with Britain, motivation to criticize colonial rule in public was limited, explained Chong. “As a result, some of the depictions of colonial rule ended up being inappropriately salutary,” Chong pointed out.

Sense of indebtedness

The statue of Raffles, erected in 1972, is an indication of the sense of indebtedness Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has toward the British. PAP has governed the city-state since it gained its independence.

Singapur ASEAN Gipfel Premierminister Lee Hsien Loong

‘Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,’ said PM Loong

The narrative that British rule brought prosperity, peace and stability, is also being promoted in school textbooks. “The history textbooks in schools barely looked into anything else beyond the British. It didn’t mention about life of the Malays, Chinese and Indians, who had immense contribution in the making of the modern Singapore,” says Aljaru.

Indeed, Singapore’s history goes beyond the colonial era and Singaporeans also have ancestors to look back to. Various communities such as Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and the Chinese had been part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived.

Cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of the Singapore University of Technology and Design said, “Marking the start of modern Singapore as 1819 downplays indigenous contribution, especially that of the Malays, in modernizing Singapore. For the longest time, Singapore was described as a ‘sleepy Malay village’ before the coming of Raffles, which feeds into the longstanding stereotype of the ‘lazy native.'”

“The pre-colonial Singapore, however, was quite busy and modern. In the 17th century, the island became the site of Johor Sultanate’s naval base and a functional trading port,” the expert added.

Singapur Skyline mit Hafen

Singapore is now one of the world’s most prosperous nations

A deeper understanding?

But Tan Tai Yong, a member of the government’s bicentennial advisory panel, argued that the bicentennial is an opportunity “to generate deeper understandings of how communities, society, the Singapore state and our current orientation as a country have evolved out of that past.”

While inaugurating the bicentennial, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also provoked a sense of national identity by saying, “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.”

Historian Pingtjin Thum says that only a select few are allowed to participate in the making of “nationhood” and “national identity,” while the rest of Singapore are only expected to swallow it.

But the current debate, on social media and otherwise, over bicentennial has forced the government to do some course correction, even if it’s cosmetic. The official Facebook page of Singapore bicentennial now has information on the Bugis, Javanese and on Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name) in 1299.

Recently, Utama’s statue has been erected along with that of three community leaders from the pages of history, next to where Raffles stands.

Now the government also wants people to celebrate the 700-year-old history of Singapore and engage in a conversation on the past, but it has to revolve in and around 1819. “1819 is being recognized as a crucial turning point (in a 700-year-old history) that set Singapore on a different trajectory towards modernity. By looking at the developments in Singapore’s history, before and after 1819, the significance of 1819 can be situated in a larger perspective,” said Tan Tai Yong.

Legitimizing policies

British rule in Singapore ended in 1963, and Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya and former British colonies North Borneo and Sarawak to form Malaysia. The union, however, proved unstable and Singapore was expelled two years later, in 1965.

Bicentennial, perhaps, is also an occasion for the PAP government to justify the separation, as PM Lee said, “…this history since 1819 explains why after separation, Singapore not only survived but thrived.”

By saying this, critics point out that Lee wants to legitimize PAP’s policies, institutions, and mechanisms which have reflected those of the colonial period. “The use of colonial-era laws of repression such as the Internal Security Act, projection of Singapore’s status as a capitalist client state, its dependence on foreign investment and reliance on low-wage laborers working and living in quasi-slavery conditions, reflect how its policies are fundamentally a continuation of colonial rule,” Thum argued.

Back on the banks of Singapore river, Raffles stands tall, hands folded, as if signaling a sense of self-pride to see his legacy living on.

Borders fascinate me. Borders entice me. Borders push me to take myself to the unknown world, meet the unknown people. Every time I have crossed state and national borders, I have written about those who are invisible, those who live on the fringes, those who haven’t been able to make it to the mainstream, those whose voices have not been heard.

It is never about mere wandering, it is all about satisfying this urge to know people, society, culture, subcultures, food habits and people’s perceptions about their tiny world and the vast unknown one outside. Travel-writing is about connecting what I see with what I imagine. It is about marriage of my instincts with the knowledge I acquire on the go. In the process of knowing others, it is also about knowing myself. It is about evolving with each experience. It is about listening to the inner voice. It’s about redefining my identity as a woman, as a solo traveler.

Travelling has introduced me to people who are now inseparable part of me, my life’s experiences, and my writing. Travel-writing is about drawing similarities between lives of two strangers I met while travelling in completely two different parts of the world. Travel-writing is about the unexpectedly perilous journeys which start with apprehensions but end by learning big lessons of life. Travel-writing is about connecting people’s present with my past experiences.

I travel to realise, while I may have the luxury of holidaying at a certain destination, others go there in desperation. I travel to realise while you admire the blue seas sitting in a cruise, others die while crossing it for survival. It’s about the realisations in life which can never come unless I travel.

Top of Form

 

A tiny four-folded pouch carrying red and orange thread, which my friend Nilanju gifted me from Ajmer Sharif Dargah way back in 2004 lies in my brown handbag even now. I kept it because it was a form of blessing. And since then I have wanted to visit the tomb of Khwaja Garib Nawaz.

I often go to Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi; and a visit to Haji Ali is a must whenever I go to Mumbai. I feel, a certain sense of connection with these two places, and the serenity at the latter is unbeatable. My introduction to Haji Ali was through the Hrithik Roshan starrer Bollywood flop, ‘Fiza,’ where I heard A.R. Rahman’s soulful rendition of “Piya Haji Ali…”Every time, I had gone there, the song played out in my mind. I had prayed, tied the sacred thread while making a wish, sat long hours looking at the sea from the shrine. And I hummed, “Piya Haji Ali, Piya Haji Ali, Piya Haji Ali, Piya ho…” Sorry, didn’t I tell you, I am Bollywood-obsessed?

Nevertheless, there isn’t any Bollywood number to recall for Ajmer Sharif but I, must say, I expected the same serenity there as I felt at Haji Ali. It was a Sunday morning and the entrance to the dargah was packed. My mother and I, took off our shoes and went to a shop inside the campus. The lean man with a long beard exhorted, “You must buy a ‘chadar’ worth Rs 3000” to bequeath at the shrine.”  My mother and I looked at each other, we didn’t speak but our eyes did the needful. I asked for the cheapest one, he handed over a green ‘chadar’ worth Rs 300. Our purpose was not pilgrimage, also there was nothing to ask for. It was touristy visit, more like marking the to-do list.

 

With the ‘chadar’ and a ‘tokri’ of red rose petals, we moved towards the most revered chamber. There were all kinds of people around us — anxious newlyweds, people holding cellphones to take selfies with the sanctum sanctorum for backdrop and men wearing white kurta pyajamas and skull cap, speed walking to the rescue of people like us who looked lost. We got hold of one such man who acted as our guide.

 

We had been warned by a good Samaritan that we should be careful of all valuables, “they take away expensive things”, he had said. Wondering, who he referred to as “they”, we held our bags close to our chest and entered the Dargah. Inside, we jostled, elbowed and were elbowed, and gasped for breath. The clerics standing inside reminded me of priests in temples — the sort who demand cash at every point and should you resist or deny outright curse you unhesitatingly.

 

Three stainless steel railings divided the clerics standing next to the sanctum sanctorum from the visitors. When I handed over the ‘chadar’ and the’ tokri’ to the first man, he asked for money. I told him, “This itself is an offering, why do you need cash?” He looked thunderous.

 

I decided to leave. I looked for my mother and saw she had been grabbed firmly by the arm by one of the clerics and although I immediately freed her, it appeared that he was trying to bang her head against the steel railing. After my initial indignation I realised that he was trying to get her to bow before the sanctum sanctorum — every time one bowed before it, it was customary to pay these men.

 

And then the inevitable happened, he asked me for cash. I screamed, “Aap ne toh dargah ko mandir bana dala hai; paise maangte rahte hai…You have turned this dargah into a temple; asking for money at every point.” This irked the man. I saw the rage in his eyes. He shouted back saying, “Niklo, niklo…Get out, get out.” But it was actually easier said than done. The chamber was chock-a-block. It was claustrophobic. But my previous visits to temples have taught me the art of maneuvering through crowds. And we managed to breath some fresh air, finally.

As I stepped out, I wondered, Garib Nawaz, must be turning in his grave to see such man-made chaos. What about message of love that he had spread through his teachings? Who stands for it today? Not even those who claim to be the “custodians” of the shrine.

 Soon after this visit, I coincidentally met the head of the Chisty Foundation, Syed Salman Chisty, at a conference in Delhi where he talked about Sufism and Ajmer Sharif. “It is a celebration of of love, joy, and happiness in our Ajmer Sharif,” he said. I had to tell him, thanks to the man-made chaos, Ajmer Sharif isn’t a place of love and celebration anymore. As I shared my experience of encountering the greedy and desperate clerics asking for money, he clearly denied, the men asking for money could not have been clerics, he said. He told me, “So many people visit the place, I don’t know who asked money from you.”

Of course, I must have been mistaken, I told myself. How could the honourable custodian of the shrine who travels across the world carrying the message of love, kindness, truth and selfless service, be wrong!

A version of the story has been published in The Telegraph: https://epaper.telegraphindia.com/imageview_259173_135714930_4_71_17-03-2019_16_i_1_sf.html

 

 Because he doubted Supreme Court’s ability to resolve the issue

 

 

 

By Sonia Sarkar

 

At last, the self-proclaimed “negotiator,” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, seems to have got what he has been asking for all these years. The Indian Supreme Court, on Friday,had put him on the three-member panel to mediate and solve the 60-year-old Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjiddispute, along with former Supreme Court judge F.M.I. Kalifulla as chairman and senior advocate, SriramPanchu as another member. Ironically though, Ravi Shankar had always doubted the apex court’s ability to resolve the issue. 

 

At least, his past comments had indicated it. For example, in this NDTV interview, last year, Ravi Shankar said, “If we go through the court, there will be a loss for both Hindus and Muslims.” He also said, “It is not easy to implement every order.” 

 

In the same interview, he said, “If court rules against temple, there will be bloodshed. It will be a bitter pill for the majority community to feel defeated after 500 years of conflict.”

 

Again, last year, in another interview to India Today,he said, “Can any government remove Ram Lala from where he is now, even if the SC says so? Implementation is not an easy task.”

 

In 2017, images of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar coming out of Lucknow’s Idgah Masjid, went viral on social media. During the same visit, he had told the media, Court cannot cement the hearts…sau saal baad, Adalat ke faisleAdalat ke aisle hi rahenge…” (Even after 100 years, the court orders will just remain court orders). Unfortunately, his formula of mediation didn’t have many takers. He claimed he met Imam Khalid Rashid Firangimahli, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), to “connect hearts”, which “a court could never do” but the Imam was seen to be distancing himself from Ravi Shankar’s claimsthat the two agreed upon an out-of-court settlement. The AIMPLB and most Muslim organisations are opposed to any out-of-court settlement. 

 

The credibility of a man to be in a Supreme Court panel who, time and again, doubted the apex court’s decision-making power is certainly questionable.Interestingly, Ravi Shankar has been predicting the Supreme Court verdicts too. In 2018, he wrote an open letter to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board where he listed four possible verdicts from the Supreme Court on the issue and its implications in the society.  In one of the hypothetical verdicts, where he assumed Hindus would get the land and build a temple, he predicted, this could lead to “Muslim youth taking to violence as one of the many repercussions.” In another assumption, he said, if Muslims are given the land to reconstruct Babri Masjid, there could be “communal disturbances” all over the country but doesn’t specify if Hindu groups would create trouble. This clearly gives an impression of his anti-Muslim mindset.

Even in the past, he had said enough to prove his bigotry. In the same interview with India Today in 2018, he said, “Muslims should give up their claim on Ayodhya as a goodwill gesture. Ayodhya is not place of faith for Muslims. We cannot make Lord Ram to be born in another place.”

While speaking to the reporters during the same 2017 visit to Ayodha, he said,if the issue has to be resolved forever, the only solution is that a grand temple if constructed with co-operation of both communities.”

Reacting to the appointment of Ravi Shankar as the panelist in the Ayodha mediation process, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief Asaduddin Owaisi on Ayodhya case: “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who’s been appointed a mediator had earlier made a statement ‘if Muslims don’t give up their claim on #Ayodhya, India will become Syria’. It would’ve been better if top court had appointed a neutral person”

On Saturday, Owaisi told NDTV,  “His (RaviShankar’s) statements are in the public domain, and there is no way he can be called a neutral mediator. He has threatened violence, and clearly stated that this is a matter of faith for him.”

His comments on Muslims during Gujarat riots also cast a shadow on his credibility to be in a Supreme Court-appointed panel. In an article in Quint, a journalist recalled, during Gujarat Riots, he told a group of reporters, Those people (referring to Muslims) are quite fanatical. It is said in the Quran that if they kill a hundred or so people, a Muslim attains the title of Ghazi aka a warrior general).

 

The statement by this self-proclaimed Godman who caters to the wealthy and the middle class very well fits into narrative of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that Muslims are villains. His words do get a huge support from a section of people who believe in the politics of othering and polarisation in India. 

 

All Godmen, including Ravi Shankar love proximity to power, and therefore speaking the language of those in power would help them run their shop. His proximity to the ruling BJP is pretty well-known. In 2016, when his Art of Living Foundation, a UN non-profit known for stress-relief courses, organised a cultural festival on Delhi’s ecosensitive Yamuna floodplain, the Union ministry of culture donated Rs 2.5 crore to it.  The National Green Tribunal, a body enacted by Parliament, had imposed a fine of Rs 5 crore on his organisation for damaging the fragile ecosystem, and had raised objection to holding the event at Yamuna floodplain for environmental issues but this event was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Clearly, his political ties with BJP are strong.

 

BJP leaders haven’t made any comment on Supreme Court’s decision to appoint Ravi Shankar on the panel but for the party, whose tagline in 2014 elections was “mandir wohi banayenge (will build the temple there),” it’s certainly great news to have “one of its own” in the panel on the Ayodha conflict. The “on camera” mediation would start in a week.  The court has given eight weeks to the mediation panel to do its work. By then, the dates for the upcoming Parliamentary election will be announced. The panel’s verdict will definitely be a huge factor in the elections for the ruling BJP. The question is, will Ravi Shankar be able to remain neutral?

 

Dressed in a white kurta and pajama with a red-and-black scarf, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma looks energetic. Rolling up his sleeves, in high-pitched Hindi, he tells the crowd: “Today, the king will speak straight from the heart.” At this gathering of more than 15,000 indigenous community members in the town of Khumulwng, outside the capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, Debbarma takes on the state government of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that also rules at the center under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The youth have lost faith in leaders they elected. They came to power on certain promises that they will protect our indigenous rights, customs and cause. Today, within less than a year, people can see the leaders compromise on basic fundamental issues,” says Debbarma, the 40-year-old royal scion of Tripura.

All of 5-foot-7, Debbarma, fondly called “Bubaghra” (“king” in tribal Kokborok language) by locals, is the emerging voice of the disgruntled tribal youth of Tripura, a state of 3.6 million people bordering Bangladesh. He’s come a long way from his playboy past. The pampered brother of four older sisters was labeled as the “party prince” for his love for Jack Daniel’s and Coke, music and soccer. A guitarist, he is close to American singer Axl Rose, of Guns N’ Roses, whom he met in Los Angeles via singer Sebastian Bach, formerly of Skid Row. Rose and Bach even performed at Debbarma’s 30th birthday party. “But I have changed; I am more evolved now,” asserts Debbarma in an interview, sipping a cup of masala chai.

WHEN A POLITICAL SYSTEM FAILS, ESPECIALLY IN A BORDER STATE, YOU GIVE OPPORTUNITY TO RADICALS TO COME UP.

PRADYOT BIKRAM MANIKYA DEBBARMA

The evolved prince is the president of the Tripura wing of the Congress, India’s grand old party, now in opposition in the state and at the center. That an aristocrat is the Congress face challenging Modi in Tripura could, to some, underscore what the prime minister frequently alleges: that he’s a man who has risen from poverty, fighting against a party led by the privileged. But Debbarma has a stern message for the BJP: Indigenous people won’t tolerate any more neglect. They want roads, health care facilities, clean drinking water, jobs and, above all, a separate state. For decades, they complain, Bengali settlers have received better treatment.

Debbarma at a rally

Debbarma at a rally.

Barring the capital city of Agartala, largely inhabited by Bengalis, there’s hasn’t been development anywhere else. The districts, home to more than 19 tribes including the Jamatia, Lepcha, Chakma and Reang, are backward. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) helped put the BJP in power here last year, but the tribes still feel neglected. Modi faced angry Debbarma-led protesters — including some who burned Modi effigies and released black balloons — during a February visit to inaugurate the statue of Debbarma’s grandfather Maharaja Bir Bikram at the Agartala airport.

Tripura was its own kingdom until 1949, when it merged into India. Debbarma’s grandfather was its last king, and his political ascent has a regal air. Slogans such as Ayuklothung Bubaghra (The King Is Coming) and Kiphilwi Thangdi, Modi (Go Back, Modi) fill the air in Debbarma’s rallies. Last year, before the elections, BJP promised to give free education to every girl child, one job to every family, housing to all and smartphones to the youth. None has been fulfilled. In addition, the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the BJP-majority parliament, recently passed a bill to grant Indian citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — which Tripura tribal youth fear will cause a flood of migrants from Bangladesh. The Rajya Sabha, the upper house where the BJP doesn’t have the numbers, didn’t pass the bill before parliament closed mid-February, so the proposed law will need to be taken up by the next government.

Sitting at a Delhi hotel a fortnight before the rallies kicked off, dressed more casually in a black tee and a pair of black jeans, the suave “Maharaja” warns that anger could lead to a resurgent violent insurgency. “When a political system fails, especially in a border state, you give opportunity to radicals to come up,” says Debbarma, who also runs an online magazine, northeasttoday.com.

In the 1980s and ’90s, tribals picked up arms demanding separate “Twipraland” for the 1 million indigenous people. The insurgency ended a few years ago, but the demand for statehood remained. The BJP promised to look into it if voted into power — a big reason Communists were ejected after 25 years in power. But “there is no talk of statehood now,” Debbarma complains.

Debbarma, who read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, calls himself a centrist. He has coined a new slogan in Kokborok — poila jaati ulo party, or “Choose people over party” — which reverberated in his rallies. Recently, Tripura police termed this and another slogan allegedly chanted at the Khumulwng rally — “Bye Bye India, Hello China” — as “objectionable.” Police also charged two tribal leaders and one tribal human rights activist who attended the rally for being involved in a “criminal conspiracy to promote sedition and hatred between racial groups.”

As the news of the sedition charges spread like wildfire on social media, more and more tribals came out in support of Debbarma, who has more than 119,000 followers on Facebook. His friend and colleague in the Congress party Taposh Dey says people appreciate that Debbarma has no air of a Maharaja. “He does whatever is good for the people; he never misleads them,” Dey adds.

But this youngest child of former Congress parliamentarians, the late Maharaja Kirit Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur and Maharani Bibhu Kumari Devi, is called a “reluctant” politician by political thinkers because he never took a plunge into electoral politics. Nandakumar Debbarma (no relation), an adjunct faculty member of Kokborok language at Tripura University, says: “He has never shown his commitment as a full-time politician who can sustain. He is certainly not a strong force against Modi.”

The academic accuses the Maharaja of speaking “selectively” — criticizing the citizenship bill, but not advocating for better education or more power for tribal autonomous district councils. “Plus, he is hardly rooted to the state. He has been mostly in Delhi or Shillong; he can’t even speak Kokborok fluently.”

After attending St. Edmund’s in Shillong, Debbarma studied history at St. Anthony’s College in the northeastern hill town; he could never learn Kokborok there. The Maharaja, who is still single, claims he now spends most of his time at his Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala, meeting tribal people and listening to their grievances. Sometimes, he even visits tribal hamlets where he eats his favorite wahan mosdeng(sticky rice and pork).

Is this all a political stunt?

“No,” comes his reply. “I do it for creating beautiful memories.”

OZY’S 5 QUESTIONS FOR PRADYOT BIKRAM MANIKYA DEBBARMA

  • What’s the last book you finished? Newsman: Tracking India in the Modi Era by Rajdeep Sardesai and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.
  • What do you worry about? That the Communists will come back because of the mismanagement of the BJP.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Love.
  • Who’s your hero? Changes from time to time. Right now, nobody.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to be in a forest alone.

 

By Sonia Sarkar

 

In a 10-minute video titled Dream II, multimedia artist Pham Hong, dressed in a white wedding gown, chews betel leaves, an essential part of every Vietnamese wedding. Slowly, red juice from the leaves starts flowing down her chin, and her white dress turns red. “Betel leaves signify tradition,” says the 34-year-old, as she fiddles with her copper and jute bracelets, before delivering the punch line: “Eating the betel leaves to the point of self-pain is symbolic of how marriage can become a cause of suffering.”

It’s a bold statement in a country where public discussions on women’s identity, empowerment and sexual rights are rare. But Hong’s work isn’t a one-off. She’s among a growing band of independent female artists in Vietnam using art in all of its forms — performance, sculpture, painting, installation and multimedia — to reshape conversations long seen as taboo in this communist-ruled country where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un notably are meeting today.

Multidisciplinary artist Himiko Nguyen’s ongoing photography installation Come Out II in Ho Chi Minh City consists of independent boxes containing nude portraits of herself and other women, and is aimed at challenging mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. In her interactive performance titled Encroaching Space, 35-year-old Anh-Thuy Nguyen invites audiences to walk through a room, where she acts as an obstacle and observes how others look at her body. Ly Hoang Ly’s installation artwork and performances deal with menstruation and breastfeeding. And at a Hanoi cafe last year, curators Dinh Thi Nhung and Duong Manh Hung ran a two-week exhibition titled Lip Xinh, which focused on the vagina and people’s relationship with it.

 

come out poster

A poster of Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out IIexhibition.

SOURCE HIMIKO NGUYEN

For decades, Vietnam’s art galleries held only commercial exhibitions of silk, oil and lacquer paintings showcasing women in traditional attire, working in the fields or in Viet Cong uniforms fighting American soldiers. Now, as the country slowly opens up, that’s changing too, helping these female artists. Five years ago, only foreign-funded art spaces such as the Goethe-Institut and L’Institut Francais de Hanoi, and a handful of private art spaces including the Nha San Collective, Six Space and Salon Natasha, exhibited offbeat art. But since 2014, at least 15 contemporary art galleries and cafes, such as the Factory Contemporary Arts Center, Salon Saigon, MOT +++ and the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, have come up in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to offer space for experimental work.

Both the artists and these new public spaces have faced censorship. But they’re pursuing the push for change they’ve started, and their work, experts say, could transform broader gender equations in Vietnamese society.

“The work of these artists is crucial to shift discourses of gender and power in a political setup where gender equality is strongly guaranteed by law but feminist questioning of social power structures is not encouraged,” says Shweta Kishore, an art curator who teaches media and communications at Ho Chi Minh City–based RMIT University and is exploring the work of contemporary female artists in Vietnam for a project titled In Art as in Life.

There’s no word for “feminism” in Vietnamese, and these artists don’t overtly call their work feminist. Historically, Vietnamese literature has had feminist themes, such as in folklore that mentions the heroism of two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who, riding on elephants, drove away an invading Chinese army. The 18th-century poet Ho Xuan Huong spoke up for women’s rights. During French rule in the 1930s, women advocated for gender equality in newspaper columns. Later, the Vietnam People’s Army allowed female soldiers to fight against the U.S. In 1986, when the Communist Party of Vietnam launched “Doi Moi” (economic reforms), it gave women the chance to be financially independent, but there were also government campaigns to re-domesticate them. Curators say Vietnam’s artwork reflected this feudal thinking. And while in the 1990s, some female artists like Dinh Y Nhi, Nguyen Thi Chinh Le and Dinh Thi Tham Poong did challenge the norm, they remained only a handful of individuals, and the country’s art landscape wasn’t supportive.

For sure, the female artists trying to drive controversial conversations through their work face challenges even today. In Vietnam, there is still almost no commercial market for them. Some of them exhibit their work in the U.S., Thailand and Hong Kong, where they are paid when their work is on display at major museums. Occasionally private collectors purchase their work. But many need second jobs to sustain their art. Hong works as a designer. Anh-Thuy Nguyen teaches in the department of visual arts and photography at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. 

Then there’s censorship. Exhibitions that don’t comply with the government’s set parameters of promoting “good cultural and moral values” are not allowed. In 2016, San Art, a Ho Chi Minh City alternative art space, had to discontinue a residency program because of increasing government scrutiny. Himiko Nguyen’s Closer, a nude photography exhibition, was shut down by authorities in 2006. Publishers self-censor too. The cover of an upcoming book by visual artist and writer Nguyen Thuy Hang had to be changed because the image she wanted to use, of two naked women holding each other passionately — a painting titled She by Hanoi-based artist Ly Tran Quynh Giang — was considered “too sexual” by the publisher. “This painting was banned by the government even 10 years ago,” says Hang. “It’s funny that the government’s approach toward art has not changed in one decade.”

To get around censorship, Nhung didn’t seek government permission for her exhibition on the vagina. Many artists simply call their exhibitions “private events” to avoid government scrutiny.

But unlike the previous generation of female artists who tested boundaries, the current set is finding support from public spaces willing to host their work. “Alternative art spaces play an important role because conventional art galleries and museums would be either commercial or state-funded, which are still limited to propagandist art,” says art curator Do Tuong Linh, who co-runs Hanoi’s Six Space gallery. These art spaces finance themselves by hosting the work of other mainstream, renowned artists too, for which they charge a fee. Vincom Center is funded by its parent company, Vingroup, founded by property developer and entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong.

These women have also benefited from international exposure those before them didn’t have. The alternative art galleries invite international artists, and some Vietnamese artists have won international residency programs at the Art Institute of Chicago or Singapore’s NTU Center for Contemporary Art.

Slowly, Vietnamese society is accepting them too. More Vietnamese women have come forward to pose for Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out II project as compared to Come Out I in 2011, she says. “On one hand, these women inside the boxes are in a closet; on the other hand, they have liberated themselves by posing nude,” says the 42-year-old. At Nhung and Hung’s exhibition on the vagina in 2018, ordinary people turned up to share their stories and experiences — unimaginable a few years ago.

The work of these artists is helping “provoke new questions about women’s role in society, outside their identity within family relations or as economic units,” says Kishore. Anh-Thuy Nguyen, for instance, uses her body as her device to test her audience. “A woman’s body is often being claimed by others,” says the artist, who splits her time between the U.S. and Vietnam. “So I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it and to examine how others view our body.”

The artists know these conversations are tricky. But that’s precisely why they must not be avoided, says Hong, the multimedia artist. “Conversations must go on, even if these are uncomfortable conversations,” she says.
Himiko Nguyen at his studio. Pic by Sonia Sarkar

Pham Hong in front of Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi –Source: 
Sonia Sarkar 

Painting by Ly Tran Quyn Giang — Source: Nguyen Thuy Hang

23380281 1989247304622060 1088762229137864794 n

Artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen’s Thuy & Sand project. The lone figure travels across the landscape, filling holes that were left behind. As she fixes them, more holes are created. A constant endless effort she pursues represents the inevitable cycle of life: creation and destruction.

SOURCE ANH-THUY NGUYEN

Poster of Come Out, project by Himiko Nguyen. Source: Himiko Nguyen

This story was published in Ozy on February 27, 2019 — Link : https://t.co/wplb9fUFgn?amp=1

Advertisements