Apr 222014

My column, in last week’s DNA

In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.

A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.

The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.

There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.

If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.

Apr 032014

While, hell hath no fury as a woman spurned, research shows men to be more spiteful

researchers determined that men were generally more spiteful than women and young adults more spiteful than older ones, and that spitefulness generally cohabited with traits like callousness, Machiavellianism and poor self-esteem — but not with agreeableness, conscientiousness or a tendency to feel guilt.

Mar 302014

10000990_839527919396846_1964364948_o (1)

And here are some of my top stories/story arcs featuring the Bat

Batman Year 1 - Frank Miller – a no brainer really. It took Batman out of the daylight and placed him firmly back into the night.


Written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli – the comic series is set in an almost dystopian world. It is into this world that Bruce Wayne returns, from his travels, to start his mission against crime. The treatment – both in terms of writing and in terms of illustrations and inking is Noir. It is almost as though Phillip Marlowe stepped out of Chandler’s world into the DC universe.

gordon 1The story is told from two points of view – Bruce Wayne in his battle against crime as a vigilante – later to become Batman, and Jim Gordon as he tries to impose order in the city of Gotham – against all odds. The relentless voice over – both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon –  the world with no heroes, a world with shades of grey – tending to black not white, where the somewhat heroes compromise with their values to achieve their goals – it is amazing the dimensions Miller and Mazzuccheli achieved in print.The scene where Gordon waits for the corrupt cop,  Flass and then proceeds to take the law into his own hands to send out a message – that he can cross the line to keep his family safe – is quite poignant. Surprisingly, the year one animated adaptation made recently, is stripped of all these nuances. 


The comic is as much about Jim  Gordon’s year one as it is Batman’s year one. And as both men learn to cope with Gotham, crime and the cops – most of whom are bent beyond belief – they build a relationship that is as much of mutual convenience as it is of mutual respect. Christopher’s Nolan Batman Trilogy – especially Batman Begins –  borrows a lot from the story line as well as the characterization – of not just Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, but the city of Gotham – warts and all. In fact, the scene where the Batman breaks through the glass roof to throw down the gauntlet – so as to speak – is right from the comic book.

The story telling is tight- the entire story is 4 30 page comics, the art outstanding – the coloring especially giving that sense of a world without light, a world that holds more shadows than brightness, and that brings out the moral ambiguity of the city. It is a world of thugs, pimps and whores – where the rich are rich because they are bent, and in turn the buy off everyone to keep quiet.

If you are a comic fan, this is a must buy for your collection. Avoid the video. 


bat god

Grant Morrison had a great run on Batman in JLA – his Batman was less angst filled, less driven by survivor’s guilt and more driven by
the fact that he was better than most (especially those with super powers) and therefore it was his duty to keep the world safe from idiots (especially those with super powers). This version of batman seems to be having more fun while being batman than other versions of him. Bat God rather than Batman. The Batman in this version is so brilliant, so ahead of the curve, that he can – and he does – take on God like entities and win.  Do check out the entire run


gothicBefore Grant Morrison wrote about BatGod, he had Batman encounter the Devil. Possibly the scariest, spookiest, scariest  comic book that i have ever read (no I don’t read horror) – and didnt’ know what this was about when i got it. Gothic - lives up to its name in more ways than one. The story is about a deal with the Devil from ages ago, the man who makes the deal with the devil, and the Batman. There is one particular scene when the young Bruce Wayne confronts the villain “whisper”, in the teacher’s study. Enough to keep you awake at night.

Once again, exceedingly tight story telling and a sense of menace that is pervasive. Do not read this on a dark and stormy night when you are alone at home.

nmlOne of my all time favorite arcs was No Mans Land – that ran across the best part of a year across all the Bat titles. At the core of the series was a Gotham condemned by the US Government, and the people who are left behind. Bruce Wayne, leaves Gotham in light of the US Government decision, and the city is left to a beleaguered militia (there is no police force anymore) and various criminals who slug it out. In this scenario, someone picks up the bat symbol and begins bringing back hope to the people of Gotham. Some fantastic writing by different authors – some beautiful scenes and an ending that will stay with you for ever. like Year One, this is as much Gordon’s story as it is Batman’s. This is a must read series.

There are a whole bunch of others that are brilliant -

  • The Man who Laughs by Ed Brubacker and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore  both look at the Batman’s (very complex) relationship with the Joker.
  • The Loeb and Sale Trilogy – Long Haloween, Dark Victory and Haunted Knight- explore the facet of Batman that is often ignored – that of the Detective. These three, like year one, are firmly in the noir space. The stories also explore the Batman’s growing attraction to Catwoman, and Bruce Waynes fascination with Selina Kyle.

I have been hearing great things about Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, but i simply haven’t had the time over the last two years to read (let alone read comics) – one of the things i hope to make time for in the year(s) to come. Maybe stuff i can read post retirement..  :D

Incidentally, i was introduced to the character of Batman by my maternal grandmother – when i was sub 10. she would tell me stories with batman as hero (authored by her) and which had a very desi context. This was before i ever read a comic or saw a batman film. :D



Mar 202014

My column in today’s DNA

It is election season and, therefore, it must be the time for rhetoric, more rhetoric and even more rhetoric. Each party and its supporters are trying to pitch themselves to us, the voters, and each trying to get us to vote for them. While political leaders and party workers are traversing the length and breadth of India, trying to woo the masses in the blistering heat, their more privileged keyboard warriors are using their fingers to good effect, drumming up support on social media. And, it is social media, especially Twitter, with its concentration of journalists, editors, film stars, politicians, would-be politicians, policy makers, industrialists, media magnates, bankrupt tycoons, cricketers and the rest, that makes for the most entertainment. Because there is nothing as funny as serious, sanctimonious rhetoric in 140 characters, especially when you sneak some time to yourself to look at the phone on a tough working day. It is the sheer chutzpah in the pronouncements, the dauntless confidence with which people mouth inanities, the gumption with which inaccuracies and factual errors are put forward as ‘truth’ and the sheer pizzazz of the entire thing that makes you wonder if Twitter has taken its place in the sun as the provider of multiple streams of live commentary for what promises to be the greatest show on earth — the Indian elections. If only one could charge entertainment tax on the proceedings, the current account deficit would probably be wiped out.
So what are they fighting for? Politicians and political parties are fighting for power. They — especially the BJP and Congress — would prefer absolute power — 272 seats all to themselves, without their allies spoiling their party. Will they get it is anyone’s guess, but that doesn’t prevent them from projecting the confidence of being able to make that figure. But, to keep their options open, you do occasionally hear murmurs of a ‘larger NDA’ or “UPA III”.
While it is easy to figure what the politicians want, the role of their supporters on social media is slightly more complex. Their aim seems to be less about converting neutrals or voters who have not made up their mind into votes, and more on keeping the faithful gathered and motivated in the days leading up to the elections. It is a vital role that they play — the social media warriors — in terms of fact-checking, repudiating, muddying the waters, creating a ‘what if’ scenario in the mind of the public. While BJP supporters had the lead in the utilisation of social media for rallying and attacking, more recently the Congress and the AAP have joined in. As a result social media, in general, and Twitter, in particular, have become a battleground of ideas, allegations, innuendos and camaraderie. In my mind, the role of the partisans on social media is interesting because of the space that they occupy between the media and the party. They take corridor-level gossip from the party and drawing room chatter and blast them into a somewhat public space dominated by the traditional media, and when traditional media picks up this gossip, it gets carried back into social media for further conversations. Recently in a media conference, a point was made about mainstream media watching its audience (us), monitoring them via social media posts on shows and news, and using this instant feedback and chatter to fine tune content offerings But, a far more interesting phenomenon that we are observing in these elections is that a part of this audience, realising that it is being watched, are indulging in a sort of behaviour that feeds content to the media only to promote the former’s agenda. For a media professional, it’s a fairly fascinating phenomenon.

The other thing very clear in these elections is this: The mask of media neutrality has finally fallen off and is being left for dead. Journalists do not even pretend to have a lack of bias. When leading anchors don the political mantle, and prominent journalists push the agendas of political parties without joining them, then you cannot help but wonder, how much of the content that they put out is biased and how long ago did this begin? This is not about voting preferences. You can still vote for who you believe in and try and be balanced in content. It is about pushing political agendas in the name of journalism. In an ideal world the bias should impact ratings. But, as recent studies in the United States show, it is the ratings of those seemingly unbiased platforms that are falling when compared to those who take partisan views. Research also reveals that audiences are more and more looking for views that dovetail with their own. They don’t want the bland neutrality of Doordarshan. They much prefer the fire and brimstone of the evening news anchor who demands answers on behalf of the nation.

Way back in 1964, Barry Goldwater, the American Republican Party candidate for President, in a speech declared: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”. It seems that our media — mainstream and social — have taken this speech to heart. Except that liberty and justice are no longer absolutes but relative to whom they support. For example, outrage on suggested curbs of freedom of speech is not universal but defended by party supporters and opposed by detractors.

We are in for fun ride where truth is falsity, and falsity is truth. So who do we, the people, trust? The answer, surprisingly, is each other. According to a recent Zee Media Taleem Poll on the state of the nation, while 54% said that they relied on electronic media for their views and opinions, 30% still rely on friends and peer groups for ‘truth’. In a world where truth becomes an elusive commodity, it is little surprise that we are getting back to a more traditional way of making up our mind: our own personal social networks.