Shatranj Ke KhilaRi (The Chess Players)

I just happened to catch Shatranj Ke KhilaRi on youtube (you can see the whole movie on youtube, though I am not sure if there is a free subtitled version.. for that you may have to pay). I saw this movie in the 1980s and I remember watching it as:

  1. A Satyajit Ray movie. Hence serious, arty. Deep.
  2. A movie that (brilliantly, obviously since it was by Satyajit Ray, see above) captured the (unequal) chess match between the perfidious English and the decadent Indian nobility. . i.e. a “history movie” that tells us something profound about the British conquest of India.
  3. A movie with a message.

Now I saw it after 35 years and it seems to me that these are exactly the worst things about the movie. It is in fact a VERY funny, beautifully directed, brilliantly acted period piece that anyone can enjoy without thinking “art movie”.  But it is NOT a good depiction of how and why the British conquered India. The annexation of Oudh was just that, the annexation of Oudh. Wajid Ali Shah was a very unique personality, a gentleman and a patron of the arts, but hardly a real ruler. His deposition did not require any great chess move. The Oudh nobility had decayed long before this event and the conversion of Oudh from indirect rule (with British officers manning the Oudh army and supervising tax collection, etc) to direct EIC rule was typical of many similarly decayed nawab-doms, but NOT typical of the British conquest of India. It may be that the decaying hulk of the Mughal empire was just as depicted in that movie, but the Mughals did not rule most of India by that time. The stylized story of perfidious albion conquering the decaying Mughals was true enough of Bengal, Bihar and Oudh, but India is much more than that…The conquest of most of it was a much more serious affair, fought against harder men than Wajid Ali Shah (Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, the Sikh Empire, etc). It was an unequal contest in the sense that Europeans in general were far more advanced in science, state organization and military arts, but some of the rulers who held real power in their domains (Marathas, Sikhs, Mysore, Nizam of Haiderabad, even Nepal) did make efforts to modernize their military and many of them did put up a fight. They did not lose because they were composing music, organizing kathak dance or playing chess, they lost because they were disunited, and the British proved better than them at most things that matter in statecraft. To take this movie as a metaphor for that struggle or as a good depiction of it is a disservice to history. This may be a good enough description of the annexation of Oudh, but every reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes seems to take it as a great depiction of the British conquest of India, which seems wrong to me.

That said, it is still a good movie. Ignore the politics, enjoy the acting, the comedy, the dialog. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffery are both great as the aristocats playing chess while their wives have affairs or get sexually frustrated, Victor Bannerjee as the prime minister, Shabana Azmi as the wife, all do a great job, though the best performance is by Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah.  Tom Alter (the late American-Indian actor.. I assume that would be the term; if an Indian born in America is Indian-American, then an American born in India would be American-Indian?) is also good as the Urdu speaking English officer advising General Outram.

My favorite dialog: Wajid Ali Shah asking his prime minister why he is crying? Did Outram recite some poetry or sing a song to him? because only music and poetry can bring a real man to tears!

The hilarious cuckolding scene:

Complete Movie:

Postscript: A few links to reviews from the time

New York Times. 

BBC

Washington Post (enriched by the comprehension of an exceptional film artist, who perceives clearly what this historical parable signifies for his country and his compatriots.)

0

The Art of Ta’arof

Some years ago in Tehran a 90 something gentleman got up to greet someone half his age since he said those are the manners he was taught as a young lad. I instagrammed it as “amazing ta’arof” and my Persian friends immediately corrected me that was not ta’arof but genuine.

So Ta’arof is not always a positive force since it’s mixed in with traces of deception. This article below was a very old post in my blog and thought I would share it since it’s so well-written.

by 

One of the most complicated aspects of Persian culture — and language — is the untranslatable ta’arof. Depending on the circumstance, it can mean any number of things: To offer, to compliment and/or exchange pleasantries. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I doubt if any study can lead to a full understanding of Ta’arof. A born and raised Persian, even I find myself losing my grasp on it from time to time.

Continue reading “The Art of Ta’arof”

0

Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)

Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words,
” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”

The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )

Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.

I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.

For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.

Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.

“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”

Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism.  As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.

What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).

Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.

ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.

 

4+

Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)

I have a special interest in Aasia Bibi’s case because it was the assassination of Salmaan Taseer that shook most of my worldview and lead me to a completely different path in life. It coincided with my political awakening. I was a 4th-year medical student at the time (January 2011) when the incident took place and I started my new journey. I grew up in a conservative, Salafi family in small town Punjab. I had always been a bookworm, interested in reading the news and reading all kinds of books (more in Urdu than English, mostly because books in Urdu were much more accessible to me). When my classmates in high school were busy memorizing textbooks for history, I was reading books in the school library that had not been read for ages (including both English and Urdu books). I was more interested in biographies and didn’t read (or had access to) books on politics and social sciences written in English. I was curious but didn’t have enough material to understand my own curiosity.

I was aware of the Aasia Bibi case and considered it a bigoted attempt by the village folk as a way to settle scores (not an uncommon occurrence in Punjab, my homeland). I was heartened to see Governor Taseer’s photos in the news when he visited Aasia. I had actually written a letter to Governor Taseer about some issue with our university exam (Governor of Punjab is the de facto Chancellor of all public universities in the province) a week before he was assassinated. From a political standpoint, I did not like him because he had been used by Zardari (President of Pakistan at the time and belonging to Pakistan Peoples Party-PPP) as a pawn to keep the PML(N) government in the bay. It was during this period that photos from some private events attended by the Taseer family were ‘leaked’ on social media. They showed the Taseer family in swimming pools and the ladies in swimsuits (which was considered too much skin). Those photos were circulated on Facebook and then on news channels by both PML(N) folks and later by the religious right which had started calling for Salmaan Taseer’s head after he visited Aasia in jail.

At the beginning of January 2011, I had taken part in an inter-collegiate competition taking place in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and was still living in the slightly less-bigoted mindset that was present in LUMS. The assassination on January 4th, 2011 took place a day after I came back from LUMS. A few short years before that, Lawyers movement (2007-08) had swept urban parts of Pakistan in a frenzy and it felt like a new era for raising your voice, to demand greater freedoms. Some of my friends from high school had played an active role in the movement and LUMS had been a citadel of resistance during those days. The band, Laal (meaning Red) had sung some of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poems and made a wonderful video talking about protest. After 8 years of Musharraf’s ‘hung democracy’, the politico were back in action. (Side Note: for admission to 11th grade in a military-run boarding school, I had to write an essay on demoracy in pakistan (in 2004) and I used the words ‘hung democracy’ in my essay. I got admitted. Omar Ali of BP went to the same school.) There used to be a ‘study circle’ oraganised by some LUMS students (current and former), who had taken active part in the Lawyers movement, at a place on Jail Road, Lahore near my hostel which I had attended twice. During one of the sessions, Ashar Rehman (Taimoor Rehman-of Laal’s uncle and brother of Rashid Rehman, editor of Daily Times) talked about his days fighting alongside the Baloch against the Pakistan army and how he learned tactics of guerrila war from Che Guevara’s books. At the other session, a lady who used to be active in leftist circles in the 1940s (I believe it was Tahira Mazhar Ali, Tariq Ali’s mother) talked about the freedom she enjoyed in those times, roaming Lahore in her tonga. Continue reading “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)”

2+