Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Perils of a Hasty Mission to Win Immunity


Letitita Wright, who rose to fame with her star making turn in Black Panther, posted a link to a YouTube video which raised questions about the Covid – 19 vaccine. Needless to say, Wright was savaged on social media, accused of endorsing unscientific viewpoints and supporting anti – vaccine propaganda. For her part, the actor remained unapologetic and defended her post saying that that there was no intention to hurt anyone and all she had done was air concerns about what the vaccine contained and about what we are being asked to inject into our bodies. Ultimately though, when the tsunami of criticism proved unrelenting she deleted her social media accounts.

I can’t say my understanding of the scientific details pertaining to vaccinations are sound and must confess to an abhorrence of needles although I am not against vaccination itself and think Edward Jenner’s contribution is invaluable. Even so, I have serious doubts about a vaccine for which the trials, tests, research and analysis have taken place at breakneck pace. Pfizer/BioNTech, whose product is being administered to people around the world have emphasized that none of the steps have been skipped, necessary approvals from regulatory bodies have been obtained, the vaccine uses bits of genetic code (mRNA) to build immunity against Covid, and has largely proved to be effective and safe.

So far, so good. But if like me, you have read John Le Carre’s excellent The Constant Gardener, you will be seriously worried about the dark side of Big Pharma. It is well known that pharmaceutical giants have a track record of offering fat incentives to doctors, health care providers and pharma sales reps to promote their iffy drugs. Aggressive, multi – million-dollar marketing by drug makers has led to a proven pattern of over – diagnosis, prescription and drug abuse.

Let us also take a moment to remember the lawsuits lodged against pharmaceuticals, shedding light on fraudulent, illegal conduct that has endangered public health. Global pharma has a long history of shelling out big bucks to settle allegations of criminal wrongdoing, falsifying data and wrongfully promoting drugs beyond a licensed condition. In 2009 and 2012, Pfizer paid billions to settle criminal and civil liabilities for illegally promoting drugs, submitting false claims, bypassing insurance agencies, bribing government officials, hospital administrators, doctors as well as members of regulatory and purchasing committees in countries across the world.

Yet we are keen to place our trust in these pharmaceutical companies because we have had it with 2020 which has been the suckiest year in recent memory and can’t wait for 2021 where armed with immunization from a miracle vaccine we can stride forth boldly into a mask – free existence without worrying endlessly about infection and death. Even if it means being hasty and endangering ourselves further.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.


A Treasure Trove Glittering with Brilliance


The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Poonam Saxena definitively makes good on its boast. This collection is a labor of love from Saxena who confesses herself to be a devourer of Hindi Literature. Regional writers, barring a few who have enjoyed universal acclaim, have long been denied their fair share of appreciation, admiration and popularity. It is a crying shame, because there is a treasure trove of blinding talent, lurking in the nooks and crannies of the artistic world, waiting to be discovered. Translators who work hard to amend this sad situation deserve to be commended for doing their part to give deserving stories the love and exposure they so richly deserve in addition to enhancing their reach in pop culture.

The stories themselves, lovingly gathered and narrated are a treat for readers who are unfamiliar with the bountiful treasures of Hindi Literature. Saxena has selected 25 stories featuring the best work from an earlier time as well as modern talents. The stories from the Nayi Kahani movement which occurred in post – independent India and mirrored a variety of social ills are particularly harrowing and thought – provoking.

Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s ‘She Had Said So’ written over a hundred years ago is a timeless tale of selflessness and sacrifice set during World War I were Indian Soldiers were carted off to die, yearning for home, hearth and delicious mangoes while fighting a war on the bidding of their white conquerors. Stories set in the aftermath of the Partition, communal riots, and War chronicling dark and bloody chapters in the history of India and Pakistan such as ‘The Times Have Changed’ by Krishna Sobti, ‘Lord of the Rubble’ by Mohan Rakesh, which made me bawl uncontrollably when old Ghani mian  returns to the home he built which has been reduced to ashes along with the rest of his family and ‘War’ by Shaani capture the horror and pathos of those terrifying times and fill the reader with remorse for the hatred and tolerance that was and is reflective of the sundered bonds between children of what was once the same land.

Poverty and caste discrimination is a recurrent theme in some of the stories which seek to highlight the widening chasms between the privileged and unfortunates which leaves one with a bitter taste in the mouth and a stricken conscience. Premchand’s ‘The Thakur’s Well’ is a hard – hitting tale of poor Gangi who is willing to risk life and limb to slake her husband’s thirst but will have nothing to show for her bravery simply because society will never let her rise above her status as a low caste member

Women’s exploitation as well as the untold hardships they are forced to endure are beautifully portrayed in stories like the chilling, ‘Where Lakshmi is Held Captive’ by Rajendra Yadav. It is one of those stories that you will not forget or forgive in a hurry, given the scale of injustice wreaked by a miserly old man on his own daughter and Agyeya’s ‘Gangrene’, a tale about the tortuous monotony of domestic chores that drain a woman of her vitality. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s ‘Escape’, Yashpal’s ‘Phoolo’s Kurta’ and ‘The Human Measure’ explore the same trope with a touch of macabre humor.

The social evil that is ageism is also highlighted in gripping yarns like Bhisham Sahni, ‘A Feast for the Boss’ where a son wonders what to do with his decrepit old mum when his white boss visits and Usha Priyamvada’s ‘The Homecoming’ where Gajadhar Babu realizes that his family has little use for him on retirement.

Asghar Wajahat’s ‘The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp’ and Uday Prakash’s ‘Tirich’ deserve special mention too, though both are going to haunt my nightmares, simply for being undeniably brilliant. In fact, every single story in this lovely collection is replete with merit, making for some very enjoyable reading and truly delicious experiences.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Setting aside Positivity to Fight Injustice


I have a sneaking admiration for WhatsApp warriors who devote much of their energy towards proliferating positivity via posts that usually feature photos of cuddly kittens, yoga practitioners showing off their flexibility and rousing quotes that are meant to motivate in a bid to counter the constant barrage of depressing news. The forced cheer and fixation with positivity is not the worst thing in the world. However, the pressure to stay positive and put a cheery spin on everything may not necessarily yield results that are conducive to collective wellbeing.

Take the recent decision announced by the Indian government to regulate digital media and oversee online news coverage, social media and streaming platforms, for instance. In an infamously horrendous year, the content offered by Amazon, Netflix, Hotstar, and the like has been a source of comfort. Of course, there is an abundance of nudity, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ content that run the risk of ‘corrupting the morals’ of the citizens of a moralistic society but that was part of the fun. Indians finally had the freedom to use their discretion to decide for themselves the kind of material they wished to consume. Now that a heavy handed government has stepped in with the ostensible view to promote ‘healthy and wholesome entertainment’ and of course to prevent the viewing of anything that may impugn the integrity of the ruling party, it is impossible not to have serious misgivings.

After all, this is the country where it is okay for folks to piss but not kiss in public. Smoking and drinking advisories are mandatory in films and TV shows not that it has hindered tobacco sales in the least or stopped the government from pocketing profits generated by liquor lovers. Shooting with live animals is discouraged but cruelty to animals in real life is mostly ignored. Depictions of anything explicitly sexual is frowned upon but trying to secure convictions for proven rapists and other sex offenders is close to impossible. In addition to the random cuts demanded by an opaque bureaucracy which may include anything from bleeping ‘breasts’ and blurring an offending undergarment, there is the censorship enforced by the mob. Violent political groups have tried to prevent the screening of films like Padmaavat and caused Tanishq to take down an ad depicting an interfaith union. The latest move to criminalize ‘love jihad’ and its onscreen portrayal is grave cause for concern.

No amount of cute pics and sweet messages should be allowed to convince us that all will be just dandy with the world merely by thinking it will be so. We need to roll up our sleeves and raise our voices when confronted with the looming specter of gross injustice and any attempt to curtail our freedom and personal choices.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

Dark Themes and a Droll Touch


A London – based banker, Anil Singh, finds himself in the boondocks when he finds out that he is the sole heir of an uncle who was murdered in distant Palanpur. Thanks to a girlfriend who is an Indophile, he is persuaded to return to the village and try to make sense of a world that is far removed from his own. Not blessed with the skills of a Sherlock or a Poirot, he nevertheless figures out that the poor Dalit woman who has been arrested for the crime had nothing at all to do with it. While he is concerned about the fate of his uncle, investigating his murder takes a backseat as he takes a stab at photography in order to put together a coffee book, makes an even more half – hearted attempt to farm the land he has inherited, and tries to lend a helping hand in a little village ravaged by poverty and hopelessly oppressed by the caste system. There is a whiff of romance as Anil divides his time between his many tasks and the affections of his white girlfriend and a native beauty, he is drawn too but who can never be a part of his world.

The author of Rumble in a Village, Luc Leruth has based his narrative on economist Jean Dreze’s detailed notes from his sojourn in Palanpur, during 1983 – 84 as part of a research project. Like the author, the protagonist Anil, frequently dips into his father’s notes about his own family’s colorful past and less than honorable role in the history of Palanpur, made for the ostensible purpose of writing a novel, so that he can get a better handle on a way of life that is alien to the Londoner and truth be told, to the vast majority of urban India. In this way, the novel hops between Anil’s exploration of his roots and his father’s account of the seamier side of dreary Palanpur and its sordid secrets harkening back to a time when the British were hard at work raping and looting India, ably assisted by crooked and corrupt Indians who thought nothing of enriching themselves on the misery of those they screwed over from among the poor and lower castes without losing a moment’s sleep over it.

A light – hearted approach is favored by the author which is an odd fit for the dark themes being explored. There is gruesome murder, caste – based discrimination, grinding poverty, ceaseless exploitation, senseless deaths of children and the weak, torture, rape attempts and more, yet the horror of it, fails to land like a punch to the gut owing to the breezy approach and an imprudent reliance on narrative contrivances that fail to cohere in an organic manner. This is particularly apparent in the epilogue, which is supposed to be a touching epistle penned by a grateful student but reads more like a clumsy afterthought on the part of the author.

Opening with murder, Rumble in a Village becomes a leisurely ramble with a steady procession of assorted characters who are gone long before the reader can engage with them in a meaningful manner or fully appreciate their arcs which were instrumental in shaping the evils that continue to plague not just Palanpur but India today. Perhaps, the problem is that folks like Anil and his girlfriend who wants to come to India to see Devi, the Goddess and Shiva’s consort, wash her blouse in some Indian river, cannot hope to truly integrate themselves into the fabric of rural India, despite their best intentions given their unwillingness to distance themselves from their own backgrounds of privilege and plenty.

Which is not to say that the material itself is not intriguing because it is. What it lacks is emotional resonance and one cannot help but think that it could have been so much more, based on the promise offered by its premise.