On Blue Whales, The Internet and Hysteria

Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? After a while, a masterfully crafted Christopher Nolan movie, maybe. But first, elephants. Don’t think about blue whales. No, seriously. Don’t.

I really don’t know where to begin with this. Structuring these sorts of texts is something I usually enjoy doing but here, it’s a little difficult. Factors alarmingly bleed into each other. Subtopics avoid me. It’s all a little terrifying.

So let’s begin with where I chose to begin. Don’t think about blue whales. Sensationalism and Indian media is a long and complex story which deals with stylistic and, more importantly, commercial factors far beyond the scope of this article. The Indian news channel is aesthetically garish and choked for space, headlines pared down to sometimes two-word phrases hitting your flatscreens and iPhones in big, bold, capital letters. The people behind the desks are more showmen than newsreaders. We criticize Arnab all we want. Who else is significantly better? Here we are now. Entertain us. Okay, so long as you pay us. Or at least watch this Ujala advertisement.

This becomes pertinent when we look at the way news articles on the Blue Whale challenge are written and captioned and the images used to present them. ”

Blue Whale challenge: A journey into dark side of internet”

Or so The Indian Express tells us. Sounds more like pulp horror than a news article. The pictures used are no better. A pale arm jutting out of a folded hoodie sleeve. A blue whale painted on it in chocolate syrup. Or blood, who knows? All that matters is that it does what any image so cryptic, so violent and yet so controlled, so very intriguing does to you. Which just happens to be exactly what that headline does to you. And I think the media can’t help doing this. How can one change the way they’ve been writing for most of this century just for one story? I don’t think journalists hunker down into their cubicles with their hipster-glasses on and Macbooks at the ready saying “how do we capitalize off the suicides of very vulnerable adolescents across our country?”. It’s a matter of practice. Of vocabulary.

It is unfair to accuse all media establishments uniformly of crimes so heinous. There are a number of very careful, very measured, very logical analyses of this matter in reputed newspapers. But those newspapers are printed on dead trees and slipped through people’s doors early in the morning. They are read by old people. The sensational stuff is all on the internet. Which leads to our second problem.

The Blue Whale Challenge is not the dark side of the internet. The internet goes much deeper. And much much darker. The internet is a scary place. This isn’t shocking stuff. Go to any debating/speaking society in any school, wait for the inevitable “Is the internet evil?” topic to come up and listen to smartly dressed little boys and girls tell you about how the information superhighway, despite being an instant repository for all information you will ever need about anything, is not the safest territory for young explorers to roam unsupervised. The very old bitch and moan about this and their cries go unheeded. Nine year olds play Farmville and their fingers hover uncertainly over strange new friend-requests and message-requests. The motor skills required to play Subway Surfers often overtake those required to walk. Kids are curious about kooky stuff. But in a world where Peppa Pig episodes come at you in a rapid clip with ad-breaks you can skip after a mere five seconds, The Hardy Boys, weird encyclopedias and true-crime TV shows don’t quite cut it.

We’ve talked about the very old and the very young. Those in the middle are the ones we need to talk about. But to cast blame here is to be callous. Raising a child in this environment is not an easy thing to do. To deny access to to this wonderland of education is to amputate your athlete before the race. To restrict just the right amount is a complex thing to manage, entailing a familiarity with the technology involved that is superior to the child’s (like that’s ever going to happen except in the rarest of cases) and a lot of time. Which nobody quite has now, let’s be very honest. To relent is the only possible solution. He’s scoring okay, not hurting his eyes and not getting into any trouble. Watch the news, eat dinner, go to bed.

Let’s talk about those very logical articles that academics write in those newspapers that old people read. The statistics angle is usually brought up. And rightly so. 17% of all global suicides come from India. 34% of suicides in India occur in the 15-29 age bracket. This is scary stuff and people have been doing a lot of interesting research about this and trying to sound the alarm for a long time. The nation wants to know only just now.

Why are these children killing themselves? Because of facebook messages asking them to wake up at night to watch scary movies or to climb on to the roof? No. If that triggers one to take her own life, there had to have been a problem before that. There have been problems before that for years, though and we’re perfectly happy pretending they don’t exist. Because mental illness isn’t like regular illness. Paracetamol doesn’t really fix it. It doesn’t make your forehead warm and your eyes bleary. It’s hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. So you’re just feeling sad. That’s okay. That’s normal. Everyone feels sad. Go watch some Peppa Pig. Play some Farmville. Make friends. Read the news. Online? Sure, read it online.

So now, perhaps you can understand my predicament when it comes to structuring this. There is no beginning, middle and end. It is not a cycle or a wheel. It is not linear. It doesn’t progress. It is muck, mixing and coagulating. There is news on the internet, written to make you read more. There are children reading up on this news and then beyond the news. Some of these children aren’t okay but they aren’t running temperatures and they aren’t coughing up phlegm so they must be fine.

But that isn’t what’s sad about this whole thing. What’s sad is that it’s something as ridiculous as the Blue Whale Challenge which finally made us sit up and take notice. A story which makes for interesting Whatsapp forwards. Because who wants to read about stress and hostile home environments? Let’s read about chocolate syrup whale patterns on pale hands instead. Let’s go on loving our hysteria.

Don’t think about blue whales. Think about the little one. Think about how he’s doing. How he’s really doing. Think about the news you love watching so much. Think about how it shapes the way you think without you even knowing. Think about statistics. Think about depression. Don’t think about blue whales. Don’t think about elephants.

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Sunflower Epoch: Definitions of Dalit Before and After Ambedkar

This was meant to be submitted as a writing assignment at a place I attended for a while. That submission never happened but I rather like this, warts and all. 

0

The time is the 1970s. The fresh-faced idealism that came up with the Republican Party of India has now dissipated into a fizz of factionalism and insularity. The hope of coexistence, recognition and perhaps most important of all, the idea that it is possible for all sides to put the past behind them that was stirred in the hearts of all harijans or shudras or outcastes as the firecrackers of 1947 turned our newly free sky into a Christmas tree of light is now behind them. What settles in those hearts now is jaded pessimism. And sorrow. And rage.

Little has changed for the broken man. The precious few who could break free from the tight clutches of tradition look back to their broken brothers and sisters and write tear stained songs and poems. Namdheo Dhasal is a poet. And even though he recognizes that the future of the broken lies in the hands of the broken themselves, he cannot help but look back once more to the sunflower giving fakir and all he represented. “After a thousand years, we were blessed with sunflower giving fakir. Now, now we must like sunflowers turn our faces to the sun.1

That fakir represented an epoch in the dark history of these broken men and women. That history traces a sequence of ugly blots along the greater history of India itself. It coexists with the varnas, the Buddha, the Mughals, the British, The Indian National Congress and the state of affairs we are in today. Their story is the marginalia to India’s legacy. And it is far from over.

1

We do not know when this story really begins. Early Indian society was patriarchal in structure with inheritance not only restricted to property but, in most cases, occupation. So, the son would learn his father’s trade and teach it to his son and so on ad infinitum. It is also known that at some point after 500BCE the religious elite began to codify social norms and regulations into Sanskrit texts called Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.

These texts were responsible for the classification of people into four distinct categories or varnas: The Brahmanas, The Kshatriyas, The Vaishyas and The Shudras. And then, of course, there were the untouchables. They were the scavengers, ‘savages’ and those who could not be easily classified into the existing orders. This concept emerged from the idea that the lower castes could pollute the upper ones through touch because the work done by the Brahmanas was pure and that by the Shudras or Chandalas was polluting or impure.

While we do know for a fact that this piece of dogma existed within the Shastras, it is not known how prevalent these ideas were, or whether they were universally accepted. Evidence, in fact, points to the contrary. Brahmanical mandates regarding gotras, the rules of marriage, descent, succession of the throne and even occupation were often ignored by some groups and sometimes did not reach all sections of society.

In addition, there were religious groups who reacted very openly against these classifications. The Bhakti movement in South India, the Buddhist Sanghas, the Jainas and the Lingayats are among them.

Despite this, this system of social stratification persisted through the years to come. The Deccan Sultans came and went. The Mughals arrived. Caste distinctions in the Indian village remained ever constant.

Even though agricultural land was abundant, sections of society were denigrated to performing menial labour, pushed into poverty only because of their caste. With the coming of the British, their morbid curiosity about the ways of the Orient and their extensive surveys, the caste identities of the population became all the more stark. The colonial government helped matters along by allotting administrative work to the Brahmanas and upper castes and menial labour to the lower castes.

2

The arrival of Gandhian Nationalism in the early nineteen-hundreds would mark the next major change in the popular perception and, rather more importantly, the self-perception of the Untouchables.

The Mahatma’s relationship with the untouchables was always a complicated one. In his dual role as a political leader and social reformer, the eradication of untouchability was always one of his prime concerns. During the ‘first’ Independence Day in 1930, Gandhi had explicit instructions on how to celebrate it, allotting some amount of time to the service of untouchables. His encouragement of performing menial tasks usually relegated to castes added to his appeal among them. He even went so far as to state that he wished to be reborn as an untouchable. “if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition. I, therefore, prayed that, if I should be born again, I should do so not as a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, but as an Atishudra.”2

Given Gandhi’s status as a messianic saviour of the colonised population, his opinion on the integration of these untouchables into mainstream society should have gone unopposed like all his other opinions. But it didn’t. And that opposition came from a very unexpected place.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an exceptional figure in 20th century British India. The son of an untouchable sepoy of the Mhow cantonment, his early education was spent segregated from the rest of the school. He recounts his experience of being unable to drink water from the common vessel unless it were to be poured down from above by an upper class peon. He sat on a dry old gunny sack he had to carry home himself after each day’s classes. Eventually, he became the only untouchable student at Bombay’s prestigious Elphinstone high school and the first untouchable to be admitted to Elphinstone College. Through a scholarship, he was able to pursue his postgraduate education at Columbia University in New York and then at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics. The fruit of nine years of dedicated higher education for Ambedkar was proficiency in Political Science, Economics and Law.

These were skills which put him in a position very few untouchables could even dare to achieve then. They helped him fight the broken man’s corner with the white man’s language.

And he did fight their corner, sometimes going toe to toe with the revered father of the nation. In the first Round-Table conference in 1930, he represented the Depressed Classes (or untouchables). The most iconic altercation between these two national leaders took place during the Second Round Table Conference when Gandhi vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes.

This changed things, not just for Ambedkar and Gandhi but also for the untouchables, whose reaction to Gandhi’s protest and subsequent hunger strike was less than entirely supportive. As N.S. Gehlot writes: “The intense feelings of the Dalits against Gandhi were manifested by black flag demonstrations against him on his return to Bombay.3

Eventually, Ambedkar was forced to relent to Gandhi’s plea for the safety of untouchables throughout the country.  “If Gandhi died, in villages throughout India there would be pogroms against the Dalits. They would be massacred.”4 But this acrimony between the Mahatma and Baba Saheb continued for a very long time. Ambedkar would later go on to claim that Gandhi, while maintaining a façade of being in support of abolishing untouchability in front of the English-language press, actually wrote against it in a Gujarati newspaper.

Gandhi, for his part, claimed that it would not be possible for the system of untouchability to be abolished if separate electorates and policies of reservations were put into place. He also spoke in favour of the caste system as a religious concept, claiming that untouchability was a mutation of something that was once good and that caste differences should not be done away with wholesale. Ambedkar was dead against that and encouraged the burning of copies of The Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text in which the varna system was codified. Eventually he even espoused that untouchables should abandon Hinduism altogether and embrace Buddhism.

Regarding the inclusion of those of the Depressed Classes into Parliament, a compromise was arrived at between the Mahatma and Ambedkar with the Poona Pact of 1932. The concept of separate electorates was done away with but a percentage of seats were to be reserved in both houses for untouchables. But this never stretched to anything beyond a compromise. Some claimed it was too little. Others claimed that it was too much.

 

4

It is in the midst of this conflict about reservations, social justice and the blotting away of past evils that issues of identity and nomenclature come to play.

Even during the early history of the fourfold varna system, the specific names and identities of the lower castes were blurry at best. While the roles of the shudras and athisudhras were relatively well defined, there were a variety of other social categories (each distinctly named) that an individual could belong to with nebulous systems of power relations connecting them to each other and to the upper castes. There were the chandalas, scavenger outcastes who Chinese Buddhist historians claim were forced to live separate from the general public, there were the nishadas, hunter-gatherers who lived in the forest and mlechchas, ‘barbarians’ from foreign lands.

There was also the complex system of jatis or sub-castes in which those practicing the same occupation would be classified into the same group. In essence, it is possible to infer that a whole host of ‘types’ of people who did not fit into the four varnas were placed into lower castes or other derogatory categories by the Brahmanas. This malign mess of categorization based on hazy family history and random theories had its impact far into the future. It became a matter of identity. And in the case of the caste-system in India, identity bleeds into language in very disturbing ways.

Gandhiji’s preferred term for the Depressed Classes was harijan, which means ‘God’s people’. This term had a mixed response among the untouchable community. Gandhiji’s own caste lay between him and the people of God he cared so much about, a schism neither side could quite manage to bridge. This, to some extent, contextualizes Gandhi’s repeated impassioned cries that he would, if he could, turn shudra.. But for a lot of the shudras he was trying to appeal to, the fact that he refused to support getting rid of the system as a whole made his status as the saviour of the untouchables questionable.

Nomenclature morphed into different forms even in the official spheres of jurisprudence and government. Depressed Classes transformed into Scheduled Castes, implying castes that were on the schedule (or list) of untouchable communities.

The new names did little to transform the situation for individual untouchables in towns, cities and most especially villages, the terminal end of India’s federal administrative system. They were still denied access to common property like pools and wells. They were ghettoized, oppressed and violated. The untouchable woman was a particularly easy target for upper caste men.

From this oppression came a new name, a name chosen not by a political scientist or a benevolent Mahatma but by the broken themselves. Dalit became a new name and a new identity: disillusioned, anguished and militant.

5

A definition of Dalit has been a contested issue among social scientists, anthropologists and lawmakers. Sunita Reddy Bharati says: “Dalit is not a caste, it is a constructed identity, which is a reality that cannot be denied.”4 This lack of specificity when it comes to the boundaries and extents of Dalit stems from the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization of Dalit students, poets and thinkers drawing inspiration from the Black Panthers of America.

The Panthers emerged from among the slum-dwelling educated class of Dalit youth in Mumbai and gave rise to an entire new genre of Marathi literature. The movement grew to encompass a variety of broken people under its umbrella but the origin of Dalit always came back to the untouchables. The mahars or shudras.

The violence of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry represents a paradigm in the self-identity of the Dalits. That paradigm stems from an epochal moment in their history, distinct from the peace and non violence of the Mahatma. The Panthers were violent, not just in their methods but also in their poetry. Dhasal invokes not a reworking of existing upper-caste society but a destruction.

That violence originates from an intellectual violence; from a sunflower giving fakir who set fire to copies of the Manusmriti, who forced the Father of the Nation to threaten to fast to death before eventually relenting and who never for once advocated anything less than burning the entire enterprise of caste relations down.

Before the Ambedkar Epoch, there was, as there always has been and continues to be for the broken men, misery and sorrow. But Ambedkar brought a unified identity and an equally unified rage against the mechanisms that had arbitrarily forced the Dalits down for centuries.

6

The real test for India’s untouchability problem post-Ambedkar lies not only in the position of untouchables today but also in the popular perceptions of the other castes towards them.

Issues of caste based violence (especially against women) continue to happen but their frequency and social acceptability are very different from the time of the Panthers. Untouchables are gaining significant access to mainstream society and the present generation shows signs that there is hope for an abandonment of all caste distinctions in the foreseeable future.

But, sentiments towards policies of reservations, equity and special treatment get icier by the year. One side argues that continuing these measures only increases the gulf between Dalits and the rest of India. The other side argues that it is not fair to promote the employment and education of an ironically ‘arbitrary’ category of people at the cost of the employment and education of ‘hard-working’ members of the general category.

With India subtly riding the coattails of a worldwide trend of populism and nationalism, we may eventually have to deal with the Dalit being in a similar position to a black man in Trump’s America. And with fears like that baying at our doors, just how less broken is a broken man in 2017 than one in 1947? The situation is not one which either Gandhi or Ambedkar would be proud of. And we aren’t any closer to a solution than those men were.

A new generation of sunflowers try to turn their face to the sun and the rest of us watch, as uncertain as ever.

things I’ve been doing, things I’ve been reading and things I haven’t been writing

Hello again, everyone.

I rather loathe doing these life-based interludes to the reviews and all the other fun this humble little page has been offering you over the past few months. But, It’s been a couple of months and three location changes since the previous post and I don’t really have anything to talk about. But I have to post something today for some odd reason.

What have I been doing? Not very much.

What I have been reading? A lot of things. Three Jhumpa Lahiri books (some sort of opinion piece forthcoming), my first Bukowski, Eco, Nabokov and Beckett. I’ve also been watching an awful lot of Rick and Morty (yet another opinion piece forthcoming).

What haven’t I been writing? I haven’t been writing anything. Things will very slowly grind back into some sort of routine or so I desperately hope.

 

The Real Baahubali: Legend Through The Lens of History

#SpoilerAlert for Baahubali 1 & 2. Don’t read if you haven’t watched. 

When we talk about Baahubali and we talk about history, it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that this duology of historical-fantasy/action/drama/romance movies has become the first in the history of Indian cinema to gross a 1000 crores rupees worldwide. It also just happens to be the most expensive Indian film ever made which goes to show that huge investments lead to equally huge payoffs if everyone’s heart’s in it (Peter Jackson wink wink nudge nudge). It also happens to not be a Bollywood film and not star any of the Khans.

The film also fundamentally presents itself as a history. Or does it? That’s what this post is going to explore.

Broadly, Baahubali is the story of a particular phase in the history of the fictional empire of Mahishmati (not to be confused with the real 13th century city of Mahishmati which was the principal city of the Avanti Mahajanapadha). It follows the lives of two members of the royal family, Bhallaldeva and Amarendra Baahubali who are raised together by the Queen Mother, Shivagami under the promise that the one who is wiser, stronger, more just and more fit to rule will eventually become king. Bhallaldeva is very evil because he has a scary scar and a nasty mean look and his father looks like the Grinch.

The Grinch Who Stole Navratri

Baahubali is awesome because he’s got a very friendly looking mustache, fighting skills second to none, abs, unparalleled strategic skills, more abs, the love and respect of the entire kingdom, yet more abs, the ability to charm anything sentient and did I mention the mustache?

Basically, things go south for the good guy. He wins the test, mommy says he’s going to be King, stays awesome for a bit, goes on a tour, falls in love, gets schemed against (by the grinch, no less), loses the throne, gets married, creates a fetus, loses admission to the palace, lives with the proles, stays awesome, gets schemed against by the grinch again, gets killed by his uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor.

The aforementioned fetus grows up in the bottom of a waterfall, gets raised by an old Malayalam movie actress, moves a Shiva lingam with this bare hands to the bottom of a waterfall, sees a butterfly woman in a bikini, chases after her up the mountain, finds out she’s real but not in a bikini, proceeds to get her into a bikini, goes sledding with her, takes up bikini-girl’s mission of saving the old woman tied up in the middle of Mahishmati, gets chased by Bhallaldeva’s son (in other words, the grandson of the Grinch who is still very much alive by the way) and the uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor, kills the prince, gets told the whole story by the slave, goes into battle with evil meany king, burns him and becomes king.

3743184-safeimage

The real reason people climb mountains

That’s about it.

I wasn’t a big fan the first time I watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The whole thing was very unrealistic. The Baahubalis, father and son, were both morally perfect beings of mustachioed physical and mental puissance par excellence. Nothing could ever kill either of them (other than betrayal by daddy’s closest ally, of course). Because one sword can kill a man when fifty arrows can’t. The villains were irredeemably bad, grinchy looking, brutal, uncivilised, lacking in strategic capability and cartoonishly sadistic.

On a rewatch, I got it. I understood what all of it meant.

Baahubali isn’t a history. It’s a legend. What’s the difference, you may be asking? Well, for the purposes of this discussion, think about it like this: it’s the story of this phase in Mahishmati’s history written by a dude hired Baahubali. Who happens to be the emperor of a very powerful empire with a lot of soldiers and pointy things that kill so you really don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. So obviously, he’s handsome and upright and perfect and loved by everyone and can be killed by no one. Also obviously, his rivals are evil and mean and grinchy looking.

The movies don’t really try to hide this fact. Literally half the overall story is narrated by a very guilty man who killed the main character of his story to the son of the man he killed. And the other half is so over-the-top it’s obviously trying to be mythic or legendary.

One of the  ways the director Rajamouli pushes this theme through is with the use of divine symbols. This was very common with the myriad of rulers who established themselves through ancient and medieval India. Many of them would try to associate themselves with a particular god. Many would, without trying to outright suggest it, say that they were gods themselves. The way they would spread these messages would be through paintings, carvings and, of course, legends passed on from generation to generations.

The movie uses divine symbols not directly but not subtly either. Baahubali the Younger is named Shivu by the Malayalam actress who adopts him. The Elder uses the same sobriquet when he’s trying to charm the princess he falls in love with (so that she can see his true character instead his riches or whatevs). The musical theme that plays when Baahubali does something awesome translates to “Hail Shiva!”. There’s an extended song sequence in the second part where the princess sings a lullaby for the god Krishna as part of a festival. The song cuts between Baahubali and the idol of Krishna, some of the offerings being made to the latter reflecting to the former.

This changes the way you look at the entire story of Baahubali because you can sort of assume most of it is skewed in the favour of Baahubali & Son. But, the broad strokes of the story probably did happen, just not in the way the legend describes it.

So how do we uncover the real story? The usual approach is to find other sources. No historian in her good senses would consider a mythic or legendary story as being anywhere near authoritative. The historian would dig around for material remains (like Indiana Jones with less swag), find sculptures, reconstruct ordinary patterns of life and collate all that information together to find something that approximates to the closest extent what actually happened.

But with Baahubali, we don’t have any of that because the story didn’t actually happen. Instead we have a multi-crore budget cinematic exaggerated legend of a story that was in reality probably very different, if it would have actually happened.

So the next idea is to de-exaggerate the legend and try to come up with a more plausible version of the events that could have happened. To do this, we use the metrics of other examples from history and a fair bit of common sense.

The Baahubalis were not perfect. We know that because we know from common sense that literally no one is perfect, especially not rulers of vast empires. On a less abstract basis, we know Amarendra wasn’t perfect for the apparent reason that he died. In fact, if you trace his political history, devoid of its mythic backstory, you’ll find the story of a classic failure rather than the wounded martyr figure the legend presents to us.

Things started out pretty good for Amarendra Baahubali. We can assume that he was probably better loved by the general public than his more politically minded half brother. He was probably not loved unanimously by every living human soul in Mahishmati as the legend would have you believe but he was probably the more popular among the two. That was probably what would have swayed the Queen Mother to initially crown him King, not a moral lesson after a very cinematic battle sequence.

From there, the legend says that he falls in love with Devasena, the princess of the Kuntala Kingdom south of Mahishmati. Romance makes for delightful storytelling (and equally delightful dance sequences on lotus boats in the sky) but from what we know from the political history of India, love had little to do with marriages among royal families. We can assume a more plausible turn of events. Amarendra attempts to enter into some sort of alliance with the southern kingdom. The Queen Mother is not pleased (probably because she warned against it by the Grinch) and demands that he either break the alliance or give up his throne. He goes for the latter option for what could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps he favoured the more absolute control over the smaller kingdom rather than puppet authority over the empire. Perhaps he really was a little in love with the beautiful princess. Perhaps it was a fit of youthful rage that was not very strategically thought out.

So then, he accedes his throne to Meany McMeanypants Bhallaldeva and becomes the Commander of the Army. Then, he loses that position as well. Why? Was it because of a passionate outburst by his fiery bride like the legend says it is? Not likely, given the social position of women (especially the wives of powerful men) in early Indian history. Influential? Certainly but rarely directly. Which is why the character of Shivagami is a bit implausible as well but it makes sense as an exceptional circumstance. Things like that have happened.

573394-baahuba

No, he’s not a Power Ranger.

So why was Baahubali exiled? A conflict of interests is the most likely answer. His dethronement was because of what was most likely an alliance with a subsidiary state. If a political figure became closely linked with both the ruling hierarchy of one kingdom and the military of another empire, the rulers of that empire would obviously get a little testy.

So, Amarendra’s response was to live among the people. Again, possible but not entirely likely. What is more likely would be that he established base in his wife’s kingdom. A downgrade, for sure given the prestige he previously enjoyed.

This also explains why the new king would want to kill him. Given the guy’s general awesomeness and popularity with common folk, an uprising of the Kuntala kingdom under Baahubali’s command would be very very possible. Was he killed of by his uncle-slave-buddy? Again, great storytelling but unlikely. It could very well have been just a random assassin.

So the end result is that this person was first the most powerful person alive in a very powerful empire and eventually ended up dethroned, weakened, exiled and finally killed. Doesn’t sound very perfect to me.

Machiavelli would have called him a bad prince.

So Baahubali the legend is flawless. Baahubali the man is quite obviously flawed. What are those flaws?

We know for sure that he wasn’t the real son of the Queen Mother. Perfectly plausible there. People get adopted all the time, even into royal families. That fact was most likely a psychological complex, clouding Amarendra’s political judgement with this strong sense of loyalty and adoration to the woman who elevated someone who wasn’t even the fruit of her womb to the highest position in the empire. The Queen Mother had Baahubali wrapped around her finger. Any order that came from her would be followed without question. That is quite a strong weakness in a man with the hopes of ruling over the empire.

Added to that is this naivete about the people around him whom he expected would all follow the dharma or righteous law his mother had so earnestly taught him.

He probably never saw it coming. The literally-on-fire sequence where he gets stabbed in the back probably never happened. It is much more likely that he was lying on a hammock in the Kuntala backyard, combing his mustache and thinking he wasn’t a threat to anyone in the world out here when he was shot by a poisoned dart or something. Idk.

So Baahubali isn’t perfect. By extension, Mahishmati probably isn’t perfect either. This is openly alluded to by Baahuballi’s waifu in a fiery, impassioned speech which is just the kind of thing that would get you exiled. The empire was operating on the basis of an extrapolated edition of the dharma that left plenty of loopholes for characters like the grinch to manipulate to achieve their own ends. Bureaucracy outweighed righteousness. Protocol trumped justice. The popular choice was chilling out with waifu while Evil McEvilpants was allowed to rule.

Speaking of Mister Evil, the reality is that nobody could really ever be that evil. In brief chinks in  the fabric of the legend, Rajamouli gives us a glimpse of the real Bhallaldeva behind the grey highlights and abs. A political man, perhaps. A lot more ambitious than his adopted sibling and a lot more aware of the people’s love for said sibling than the sibling himself. A little insecure. A little too much of a daddy’s boy just as Baahubali’s a little too much of a mommy’s boy.

And what of daddy himself, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He was probably just very resentful. Resentful that the throne went to a woman instead of him. Resentful of his disability. Maybe he suffered from the same ailment most Indian parents suffer from: the need to vicariously live out their fantasies through their children. My beta will be an engineer/King because I couldn’t be.

And that leaves us with Baahubali the Son. He suffers from essentially the same character flaws as his dad (probably because he is the same character as his dad). His obsession with what his mother(s) want him to do and truckloads of naivete. We can envision a similar future for the real Mahishmati, backseat ruled by Devasena instead of Shivagami.

Which is why the ending of the movie is rather curious. The movie is expected to end when the S.S. Rajamouli seal is stamped right next to Baahubali II’s face at the end of his speech. But it doesn’t. It’s followed by this sequence where the golden head of the statue of Bhallaldeva rolls down the same path that Shivu followed up the mountain to chase his destiny. The statue eventually comes to a stop in front of the Shiva lingam that Shivu moved with his bare hands so long ago in Movie 1. Plaintive, sad music plays throughout this sequence and you’re left a little confused. What does that mean? That good triumphs over evil? That the will of God prevailed over human greed and ambition? Or is it trying to draw attention to the fact that this is the legend of a god among men? But who decides who god is? The person who tells the story, of course. But like I said, the story is obviously skewed in Baahubali’s favour.

Baahubali is a treasure trove for the amateur historian. It is the work of a confident film-maker who operates on multiple levels. The legend of Baahubali is a stirring story of good triumphing over evil. The history of Baahubali is a more complicated affair concerned with the politics of managing a large empire, the ambitions of two aristocrats and the women behind them and human flaws in human beings on both sides. And both stories and in there. It’s just that one of them takes a little digging.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. : Wickedness & Weakness, Hopelessness & Damnation

Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? 

As Kendrick Lamar albums go, this one is his most subtle one ever, at least as far as large-scale album spanning concepts go. All of his work so far just has to be enjoyed as a total album experience rather than as individual songs that just happened to be released at the same time. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City tells a very obvious story of the titular good kid in a city which acts as a machine operating against him, whatever he does to rail against that. That sort of desperate totality of gang-life and the nothing-elseness of it is laid out in front of you plainly but with a lot of grace and subtlety. To Pimp A Butterfly could be one of the most important musical projects of our generation, using song after song, each one adding a couple of verses to a desolate but ultimately hopeful poem he had been reciting to Tupac all along.

DAMN. doesn’t wear it’s concept on its sleeve. Certain resonances through the fourteen tracks that make up this LP are obvious from first listen. Or even  first look. Similarly themed songs are put next to each other in pairs. BLOOD. and DNA. LUST. and LOVE. GOD. and DUCKWORTH.  And even though the story elements are less pervasive, they are there. The album opens with a parable of sorts that loops back in on itself in very interesting ways.

The real elements that tie this album together, though, are these little leitmotifs: these lyrics or lines that are occasionally shouted, whispered, growled, moaned and screamed in several odd places through this album:

Whatever happens on earth stays on earth.

and

ain’t nobody prayin’ for me

And that cements DAMN.’s place as the successor to To Pimp A Butterfly. TPaB was an album that reflected back to the burden of history on this race of people in America and also looked forward with cautious hope for a brighter future. This hope was very solidly placed in the context of his own faith.

When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright

  • Alright, To Pimp A Butterfly

A few of those lines are heard in DAMN. as well but in an entirely different context. Kendrick samples a voice clip of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera.

This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years

Rivera says after quoting the aforementioned Alright lines. He excludes the part about being alright though.

Kendrick Lamar does the same thing on DAMN. This isn’t an album about being alright. This is an album about week knees and blowing guns, about lust as a vice and love as a crutch, about hardwired ambition and hardwired wickedness struggling for supremacy in very young, very malleable souls, about damnation, about curses, about punishment and about no buts. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no hope for salvation.

There is only this all pervading sense of damnation. This is the forty years in the wilderness album.

Kendrick alludes to that himself in XXX., the most politically charged song of an already politically charged LP.

Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

  • XXX., DAMN.

It’s easy to see how much has changed in the two years since To Pimp A Butterfly. XXX also reveals how conflicting faith has become for Kendrick Lamar since that other record.

Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?
It’s been a fucked up day for me
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”
He was lookin’ for some closure
Hopin’ I could bring him closer
To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch
I’ll wait in front a niggas spot and watch him hit his block
I’ll catch a nigga leavin’ service if that’s all I got
I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial
Let somebody touch my mama
Touch my sister, touch my woman
Touch my daddy, touch my niece
Touch my nephew, touch my brother
You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap

What I always loved about Kendrick was how, unlike other Christian rappers, he addressed the complexity of the world he lived in. But his religion was always  a stable anchor, holding him down while the storms raged around him. Now, even that is up in the air.

And what’s frightening, but also rather beautiful is that there is a totality to this concept. God in this album is the fire and brimstone God of the Old Testament and Kendrick and his kin are the Israelites, sinning, paying for that sin and going eye for an eye for that shit. 

All of this is a tad unnerving, especially for the faithful among us for whom Lacrae just doesn’t cut it and have been listening to Lamar with pride for years now. But, it isn’t very unbiblical. If you think it is, you haven’t been paying attention to your Psalms. In fact, that’s the most obvious vibe you can catch from this album: a man of God grappling with some frame of reference to put suffering into perspective. Job is mentioned once and the comparison is apt, though quite obvious.

Even the ‘blasphemous’ GOD. feels more weary and sarcastic than any real attempt a chest-puff.

But the overall message is what we’re all here for, yes? That’s what Kendrick Lamar does best. Tie fourteen tracks together to tell a story. A prose-poem. A novel in verse.

The leitmotifs reveal what I think he’s trying to say and the message is possibly one of the most complex ideas he’s ever grappled with.

Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me. He has been pushed up as the spiritual figurehead of a fallen, immoral generation. But who prays for the pastor? And what if the pastor doesn’t have any easy answer? What if the pastor himself feels like he can’t quite bring himself to turn the other cheek when his momma, his sister, his nephew, his niece, his cousin, his woman, his daddy or his brother is on the line.

Whatever happens on earth stays on earth. That is the only comfort this wounded, conflicted pastor has to offer. But he doesn’t quite come out and talk about the better place outside this earth. Because this album isn’t about that. This album is about earth and about wickedness and weakness and all of us struggling under the weight of random circumstances and souls and free will.

And he doesn’t give you this message through fuzzy old drums and synths intercut with friendly voice recordings or with comforting jazz and brass. He speaks in the language of 2017. Trap beats, Rihanna features, wickedness and weakness.

You can buy DAMN. here

Oddity or An Exploration of Cosmic Epiphany – Flash Fiction

Chittering. Control and chittering both start with a C and they are both the same now in the cold echo of techno-separation from space. They say that in the first trip outside our atmosphere (the real one the one before Gagarin), there were no windows. There was only this infernal rattle and this deathly soundless sound of cold horror.

Control is saying something to me.

I am worried that it is something terribly important. I am worried it is something I need to hear, lest I die of something natural and I don’t want to die just yet although if I were to, I am sure it will feel just like. I feel like I am on the cusp of a cosmic orgasm. I feel like the Oddity is milking me.

When I was more sentient than I am now, I had put on my suit so that when I am shot out of my rattling tomb, I can prolong my (1) for just slightly longer. I am grateful now, but not for the same reason.

I wonder if the Oddity wants me to feel this. I wonder if the oddity is lulling my to my own death. I wonder if the Oddity cares. I wonder if the Oddity is permitting my thought about thought, my philosophising.

I wonder what life is post-Oddity. I wonder if the Oddity absorbs my (0) into an ultimate cosmic nothingness or if that (0) is precisely that. A not-(1). A nothingness.

I wonder why I don’t care.

I choose to spend my last moments describing the Oddity. The Oddity is a space-kraken. An aether-spider. Its cool limbs protrude, it’s chitin judders, breathing in vacuum and me. It’s tentacles stroke my cocoon, caressing and uncaressing. Perhaps that is how it tells me what to feel.

The Oddity is the catalyst to my metamorphosis or perhaps my antimorphosis. My transformation to unformation. My becoming an unbeing.

The Oddity is…oh. There. Right there.

I can hear Control now. “Squirrel! Squirrel, we can’t read anything! You’re on your own.”

“Oh, shut up, Houston,” I squirm.

China Mieville’s The City & The City : Crime Cliches and Urban Prose

So this has very rapidly turned into a China Mieville jerk-off fest. I promise you, I honestly did not mean for this blog to turn into that but, during an incredibly busy time of my life (an exam season that’s stretching on for two months), I’m beginning to turn more than ever to literature for comfort. I’m reading two big works of nonfiction right now, both vaguely history related and I’m hoping to touch on both of them when I finish them.

But the main comfort reads for me during this time, the stories I turn to for rest and succour, just happen to be the entire bibliography of China Mieville which I’m working through in no discernible order in the middle of Marginal Utility, JavaScript and the Cold War. So why not blog about it as I go along?

Today’s blog is going to be about The City & The City, one of the later books of China’s career. This could broadly fit into his ‘middle period’ (at least as far as the works he’s published already. according to him, he’s just moving into his middle period now). It’s place just after the Bas Lag trilogy and Looking For Jake is important, I think because it jumps off from a lot of the obsessions the Bas Lag stories revel in.

The idea of obsessions is something that’s always attracted me to Mieville. Some of his obsessions include octopuses, trains, garbage, forbidding landscapes, urbanity and language. The City & The City is Mieville’s penultimate city book (duh) but a lot of the other things he’s interested in, particularly language and squalor play a pretty major role in the novel.

It is set in two cities, Besz  and Ul-Qoma, both of which occupy the same geographic space. Yeah, that sentence means exactly what it says. Both cities are literally in the same location with the inhabitants of one city not interacting with those of the other. But the division is not watertight. There are some areas where both cities crosshatch and the inhabitants of one can see, hear or smell those of the other. Only they’re not allowed to see. So they unsee. And if they don’t unsee, Breach, the mysterious force that polices the division between the city and the city, will prosecute lethally and suddenly.

That is merely the set-up, though. The story is, for the most part, a police-procedural following Tyador Borlu of the Besel Extreme Crime Squad as he tries to investigate the death of a mysterious young woman who was found in Beszel but doesn’t quite belong there.

During my second reading of this story, a few things struck me. The first is the prose. It is almost entirely devoid of the delightful baroqueness that so characterises most of Mieville’s oeuvre.

A lot of it has to do with the first person narration, I imagine. There’s something similar in Embassytown. The prose does occasionally indulge in Mieville’s word games but for the most part, it is sparse, stripped down and very direct. But that just means that his usual ruminations on language are divorced from their direct prose congruities rather than be an additional representation of them. The language is tackled entirely on its own terms.

One of the concepts I’ve mentioned before is unseeing and unhearing. When the residents of Besel see those of Ul-Qoma and vice versa, they are legally, socially and to an extent, prudentially obliged not only to disregard them but to unregard them. To undo the act of ever regarding them in the first place. That is the concept of unseeing. This translates to language as well. Bes and Illitan are distinct languages used by those from Beszel and those from Ul-Qoma respectively and despite the fact that they share the same linguistic roots, both sides are obliged to unhear them. However, people from both sides are commonly versed in both languages. That concept of forbidden or accidentally learned language is something that fascinates me about this book.

And then there’s the crime/police-procedural base to the speculative elements. Within that base, Mieville maintains a lot of fidelity to the genre, playing around with the tropes that genre provides in his weird environment. The story opens as a sort of buddy-cop rookie and pro style narrative. From the second act, it shifts to a different buddy-cop narrative with initial dislike growing to grudging mutual respect. And then finally, it becomes a straight up political conspiracy thriller.

So, very surreptitiously, it does something Mieville absolutely adores but in a very subtle way. It explores as many subgenres within the genre as it can. The thing with Mieville is that the line between cliche and genre is often very hazy. Genre is in itself just a collection of cliches under which people reiterate. Mieville never consciously smashes that axiom but plays around with it, mixing and matching as he sees fit. So with Iron Council you have a strong political thriller about the nature of society juxtaposed with a western with some romance elements in it. You can say the same about most of his books (and if I really stick with this, I’ll probably talk about all those other books in later posts so lucky you).

But the thing with The City & The City is that all those elements are handled so subtly that you’d never really realise they were there till you’ve read it a little more watchfully the second time through. It is Mieville at his most discreet and understated.

You can buy The City & The City here.