Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Sanjay Subrahmanyam on Naipaul

Sanjay Subrahmanyam has some very interesting insights into Naipaul and his views in his review of Naipaul's latest book of essays in the London Review of Books here.

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

An interesting review of Jean Pfaelzer's book at the NYT.

“Driven Out” cites records of more than 100 roundups, pogroms, expulsions and ethnic cleansings (to use Pfaelzer’s various terms for these actions) in which white Westerners united to drive the Chinese out of their communities from 1850 to 1906. They used warnings, arson, boycotts and violence to achieve their goal. In many circumstances, labor organizations led the campaigns, casting the Chinese as competitors for jobs and depressors of wages. But middle-class civic leaders often acted in alliance with workers.


Friday, 20 July 2007

Tintin's Problematic Past

I loved the Tintin comics when I was a young lad, and they still hold a place of affection in my heart. Recently controversy seems to be swirling around the publication of 'Tintin in the Congo', one of the two early Tintin works that had never been previously printed in English (along with 'Tintin in the Land of the Soviets'). The author/illustrator of the comics, Herge himself had distanced himself from these early works before his death in 1983.

The works were problematic firstly because they were written as propaganda pieces - the one meant to educate Belgian youth about the evils of communism; the other meant to illustrate the benefits of Belgian colonialism. It is the second that has drawn opprobrium, with the Commission for Racial Equality in England insisting that it is not suitable for sale to children due to its use of offensive racial stereotypes. The other reason they are problematic, was because they were created as a comic strip for a far right Belgian newspaper that became the mouthpiece of the Belgian fascist party in the 1930s, and whose leading lights were collaborators with the Nazi occupation in World War 2. (For an interesting discussion of Herge, Tintin and his changing relationship with fascism, check out this informative article in the Guardian.)

For a taste of Tintin in the Congo, check out this excerpt. Interestingly enough, this is from the revised version from which Herge removed even more objectionable sequences such as when Tintin educates the natives about their motherland - Belgium. (This brings to mind the Algerian-French movie Indigienes (Days of Glory) in which North African troops sign up to fight to liberate the 'fatherland' from the Germans in World War 2). Despite these changes, Herge was happy for the titles to drop into obscurity, calling them "sins of my youth".

Herge often revised many of his works. The Land of Black Gold originally had a storyline set in Mandate Palestine with a three way war between the Zionist Irgun, Arabs and the British. The story was dropped, incomplete, because Herge considered it impolitic to continue the story under Nazi rule. After the end of WW2 he went back and rewrote the story, setting it in a fictional Arab country and leaving out the Irgun. In Tintin and the Shooting Star, anti-semitic scenes of Jews celebrating the impending end of the world because they will not have to repay their debts were cut, and the evil New York Jewish millionaire Blumenstein was changed to a banker named Bohlwinkel from fictional Sao Rico.

The condemnation of Tintin in Congo and the move by some bookshops to remove it from the children's section and stock it in the adult graphic novels section has been condemned with histrionic cries of censorship and 'political correctness gone insane' as well as 'left Nazism' etc.

But personally I think its the right thing to do. While the gentler racism of some of the later Tintin works can grate, there is much in the books to recommend them for kids, particularly Tintin's insistence on support for the underdogs and the oppressed, and a growing awareness of some of the issues of race in some of the books (attributed to Herge's friendship with the real life Chang Chong-Chen). As the Guardian article puts it:

It was a meeting, a friendship, which was to change HergĂ©’s life. All of a sudden, Tintin appeared to grow up. In China, in the story called Blue Lotus, he begins by defending a rickshaw driver who has had an accident with a westerner, who beats him, shouting, "Dirty little Chinaman! To barge into a white man!" Later, the white man complains to his friends, "What’s the world coming to? Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!"

But Tintin in Congo is a different kettle of fish - an outright propaganda piece written to promote the civilising mission of Belgian rule in Congo. Anyone who has read Adam Hochschild's book, 'King Leopold's Ghost' about the horrors of Belgian rule in the Congo would be as disgusted with Tintin in Congo as they would by a comic that promoted Nazi rule and its mission to promote 'racial purity'. The genocides perpetuated by both regimes were, after all, similar in scale. (6 million by the Nazis, 8 million by the Belgians.)

Personally I think its right to keep it in the adult comic books section rather than the kiddie section of the bookstore. Parents are free to buy it for their children, but at least they will be aware that there is problematic content in it of which they should be aware.

What's interesting is reading all the angry posts online railing against PC-ness. Many go on to say things like there is nothing racist about the book, or assert that colonialism was such a wonderful thing and look what a mess the Africans are in without our benevolent hands guiding their lives etc.


Here's an excellent blog article on the affair.


Monday, 16 July 2007

William Dalrymple [and Tipu Sultan]

I came across William Dalrymple's website while browsing. Dalrymple is of course the author of the excellent travel/history books 'City of Djinns' and 'From the Holy Mountain', as well as the author of a collection of articles about South Asia 'The Age of Kali' and the excellent history book 'White Mughals' (about Europeans who married Indians and joined the courts of Indian princes in the eighteenth century).

His website also links to a number of his articles and book reviews. Of particular interest are this one VS Naipaul and his dodgy understanding of history and this one on Tipu Sultan and the propaganda war launched to justify an invasion of Mysore:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in search of a war is not over-scrupulous with matters of fact. Until recently, the British propaganda offensive against Tipu has determined the way that we - and many Indians - remember him. But, as with more recent dossiers produced to justify pre-emptive military action against mineral-rich Muslim states, the evidence reveals far more about the desires of the attacker than it does about the reality of the attacked.

Recent work by scholars has succeeded in reconstructing a very different Tipu to the one-dimensional fanatic invented by Wellesley. Tipu, it is now clear, was one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the pre-colonial period.

Dalrymple goes on to remind us of why the East India Company felt the war was necessary:

Tipu also tried to import industrial technology through French engineers, and experimented with harnessing water-power to drive his machinery. He sent envoys to southern China to bring back silkworm eggs and established sericulture in Mysore - an innovation that still enriches the region today. More remarkably, he created what amounted to a state trading company with its own ships and factories dotted across the Gulf. British propaganda might portray Tipu as a savage barbarian, but he was something of a connoisseur, with a library of about 2,000 volumes in several languages.

Both are interesting articles and are worth reading.


Saturday, 7 July 2007

The people at 'A Tiny Revolution' came up with this amusing parody of the TV show 'Intervention'. The man undergoing the intervention is none other than a Mr. George W. Bush.


Thursday, 5 July 2007

God is Not Great

A great review of Christopher Hitchens' new book 'God is Not Great' here. This digested "summary" of the book in the Guardian is worth a look in as well.

Its absurd that this man is taken so seriously. Its setting the level of discussion of these issues to caveman standards.


Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Saqia Aur Pila

These days I'm completely caught up listening to the Sabri Brothers. Specifically 'Saqia aur pila' which is available on their album 'Ya Habib'.

The version on the album is the real deal, kicking in at 27 minutes length. A truncated version, with not terribly great sound quality is available on youtube here. And a gentleman has taken up the task of translating the lyrics to English (and providing some commentary here).

The title translates to 'Cupbearer, pour me more.'

Saqi is the word for a cupbearer. Its often translated as 'bartender' in traditional English translations. But a cupbearer was more than just a bartender in Sufi literature. The position was in many ways analogous to a muse in western literature and the wine that the cupbearer was asked to bring symbolised more than just a drink.

The longer length version is split into three parts. In the first part the drunkard is begging for more to drink, and expounds on his thirst, asking not to be put off with excuses and expressing impatience, arguing that he must have more drink now. He fends off arguements that drink is bad for him and forbidden. i particularly like this verse (not in the shortened version):

To Sari dunya ko bhoolnay kay leye
Talkhir mai say pyar kar ta hoon (???)
Log Logon ka khoon peetay hain
Mai to phir bhi Sharab peeta hoon

Not sure about the second line, but from what I can make out, the drunkard justifies his addiction by saying that to forget the world, he loves from the the bottom of his cup, and while he just drinks wine, there are people in the world who drink the blood of their fellow men.

Alas, all too true.

The second part of the poem comes when the cup-bearer has a dialogue with the drunkard, asking him what kind of wine he wants. Does he want the wine that Mansoor drank which led him to mount the cross? Mansoor was a Sufi poet who was crucified in the 9th century after he exclamations of "Truth is me!" and "I am God!" while in an ecstatic trance. Mansoor epitomises the quest for God - something that can only be achieved by shedding of the self, which is what Mansoor did - first by shedding his ego and then his material existence. The drunkard however, replies that this isn't the wine he wants.

The dialogue continues in a similar vein, the cup-bearer giving examples of various key figures in Sufi traditions including Tabriz, Moses, Jesus and Job, each time, asking if the wine the drunkard wants is the one they drank of. The drunkard replies in the negative and in the end asks for the wine drunk by Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet at Karbala.

The third section of the poem then follows with a traditional praise of the Prophet's grandson, and a dialogue between Shimr, who was said to be the general of Yazid at Karbala, and Hussain. Shimr repeatedly boasts of his worldly power - his army, his post, his wealth, his ample supply of water (at Karbala, Hussain and his companions and family had no access to water and were besieged in the desert) etc. In each of his replies, Hussain displays his faith, patience, fortitude and all the other such praiseworthy qualities and refuses to bow to Shimr's tyranny. Finally when Shimr warns Hussain that his body will be given no shroud to rest in, Hussain replies that he will be garbed in a raiment made in Heaven.

Karbala ends with the beheading of Hussain. The Sufi interpretation of these events see this as symbolic of Hussain's final detachment from his ego, removing the final barrier between himself and God. The sequence of events at Karbala and Hussain's rejection of all the trappings of worldly desires one by one mark him coming closer to this final goal.