Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Close encounter

A loss not that significant

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 26 May 2009

Many of them lost their families, property, nationality, identity and dreams. Simply put everything they had or aspired for. I only lost a few photos. Not my life, passport, money or not even my camera. The person only took off the memory chip but returned my camera. I lost a few pictures took earlier in the day. What I lost can be replaced with a few euros.

But what was my crime? I took some picture of the Sri Lankan Tamils who were protesting in lush green lawn in front the headquarters of Air France along the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris.

As I was walking from the Home des Invalides a group of protestors caught my attention. When I got closer, I recognised that about hundred Tamils were protesting against the Sri Lankan government. Through their slogans in French, they were drawing the attention of the international community. There were a number of horrific pictures that reminded the passers-by of the brutality of the conflict back home. Only the previous day the Lankan government had announced that LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran has been killed. Were the protesters mourning his death or they were merely protesting the atrocities? No clue.

I took a few snaps. Then I noticed a poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the lamppost. The Mahatma was not holding his usual long walking stick but rather an inverse AK-47. I could not ignore the irony of the poster and wanted to take a picture. The black flag that was also tied to the same lamppost was fluttering and blocked the view. I wanted both Mahatma and AK-47 in one frame. This took a little more time and caught the attention of the protestors.

As I was moving away, a few young men came towards me and asked something in French. When I expressed in inability, they switched to English: “Which newspapers?” asked one. “Where are you from” another followed. The third one came to the point, “Why were you taking photos. “Others joined in the chorus. I said it is a public place and hence. Then one of them asked me to show the pictures. When I did, he snatched the camera. “I will delete the pictures, if you want” I struggled. Meanwhile someone was saying, ‘Passport, passport, Take it.” The shorter one who snatched my camera was more daring. In a fraction of second took he off the memory card and returned the camera and said: “Now, you can go.”

All this happened in under a minute and right in the heart of Paris and in the middle of the day. Scores of people were walking all over the place. Since others surrounded me, none could have noticed what was happening there. I was not the only one who was taking pictures of the protestors. The protest was held only to highlight the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and hence taking pictures should not be an offence, let alone a violation of privacy.

The LTTE flag in the lawn clearly indicated that the protestors were sympathisers of the Tigers. Why were young men afraid of me taking photos of a public demonstration in a western capital? Maybe not all the protesters were refugees. Perhaps there were some cadre or potential cadre among them and that they would not like to be captured in camera. I have no idea.

But what happened to scores of others, mostly white tourists who were guilty of the same crime. I was the only tourist with sub-continent features in the area and so it was easier for them to bounce me and take away the photos. Wish those young men had the same courage towards white tourists who were clicking at the protest, both before and after I was intimidated. Perhaps skin colour sets limits to bravado.

Unable to decide the next move, I walked ahead and sat on a bench on the other side of the river and looked back at had happened. Not a pleasant thing but I could have lost much more. I decided to walk back along the same route. To avoid further unpleasantness I opted for the other side of the broad road. As I was passing-by, the few men who took away my picture moments ago were staring at me from the other side. I looked back at them.

A lone police car was nearby and I passed on quietly.

But for my own sake and inner peace, I needed to go there. So the next I was there and took pictures that I could not do the previous day. The day was bright and sunny, and the scene was much better and the golden statures atop the pillars across the Seine River were glittering under the sun.

That day also there was a demonstration but on a smaller scale. Maybe I went a little earlier. From afar I noticed many tourists who were taking pictures of the protest. But this time I decided to keep a safe distance and walked a street parallel to the main road. Of course no photos also. Why the same mistake twice?

Photos I took the previous day were for my personal use. Except for one or two close friends. Who has the interest let alone patience to look at amateurish pictures of exotic Paris? They would have remained in my hard disc only to be forgotten soon. Thanks to the lost memory card, the missing pictures are carved in stone. I gained more than I lost. I don’t have the photo but what I saw will go with me to my grave: Mahatma Gandhi holding an AK-47 in the heat of Paris.

For web link click here

Friday, May 22, 2009

Paris Diary

Diary Paris

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 22 May 2009
Not a single white hawker

Sunday morning. Weather was a bit cold and occasionally drizzling. Many locals and foreigners already queued up below the Eiffel Tower. As with any other tourist sites, scores of vendors were selling or trying to sell souvenirs. With most costing just a euro, how many they will sell or make at the end of the day? One thing was striking. There were Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Europeans or anyone one can possibly think of. In two hours of wandering there I did not find a single white hawker at the Tower.

Why be different
Jay walking. Both French and tourists are in perfect harmony in jay walking. Right in the heart of the city hordes of people are crisscrossing the busy streets while traffic signals warn them not to. They have stretched pedestrians first to new heights. After waiting at a couple of crossings, I quietly decided to join the main stream. Who likes to declare oneself to be an outsider?

Clouds of smoke
The Parisians are fond of smoking and most restaurants have no restrictions on smoking. Like many other western capitals that have tough anti-smoking laws, front gates of multi-story buildings are occupied by people hanging for a quick dose of nicotine. But the departure lounge at the Charles de Gaulle airport takes the cake. Denied of smoking inside, both those who arrived and cab drivers who were there to pick up passengers converted the open area into a smoking zone. With heavy clouds hanging over the airport, passive smoking was unavoidable.

Cafés aplenty
Eating out is of the Parisian culture, leisure or even lifestyle. Cafés at the street corners spread out dozens of rattan chairs and entice customers. Sipping a drink and watching the moving crowd is not just relaxing but gives you a peep into daily Parisian life. Unfortunately the weather decided to conspire against me and I had to settle for sit down service at enclosed cafés.

Graffiti landscape
Perhaps they are the signs of the riots that rocked Paris in late 2005. Or the new landscape in western capitals. Paris also has its share of graffiti. They are not confined to underground or rundown downtowns. A few pickup vans were painted in graffiti not just in French but also English, Russian and even Arabic. A beautiful glass door of designer apparel was not spared either. Another Rolex showroom reflected this. It had price tags of over two-dozen latest watches but not one was on display. Another graffiti along the scenic Seine River claimed: Israel criminel. As I was taking a picture a bus passed by. A travel company was aggressively selling package tours to Tel Aviv at €299.

Well-fed pigeons
If the healthy, well-fed and big pigeons at the Norte Dame Church are an indication, recession has not touched Paris. Cafés are full; long queues in the two nearby movie multiplexes; malls are open, though not many customers; major designers have not shut shops, at least not in the heart of Paris. Tourist sites are full of people. They speak all languages one can possibly recognise. Thanks to Nicholas Sarkozy and his charm offensive, Americans appeared to have stormed Paris and you see, hear them and smile at them all over. There are no empty buildings at the heart of Paris. Compare this with Washington. There are many ‘Available for Rent’ displays just a few blocks from the White House. But everything in Paris is not rosy. There are a few immigrants scavenging for leftover food in dustbins. An odd family, with their entire wealth, one unwieldy torn suitcase and a couple of large polythene bags, was resting on a bench; just a few yards from the Eiffel. The most breathtaking scene next to harsh realities of life.

The Indian connection
Paris without politics? Those clamouring for the Indo-Pakistan friendship would be delighted to find many Restaurant Indien Pakistanis. I was happy that at last somewhere people were less bothered about politics. This was until my French friend let out the business secret. All are run by Pakistanis but they needed to add India to attract customers. There were a few Tamil shops along the way, selling the DVDs of the latest blockbuster Ayan. My friend informed me that Tamil community in Paris is largely from Lanka and not to be confused with Indian Tamils. As I passed through a dozen of Tamils were holding a protest vigil at one of the crossing. This was a couple of days before the Sri Lankan government announced the death of LTTE chief Prabhakaran and none could have missed the prominent LTTE flag.

For the web link click here

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pope visit

Pope's visit upsets more than it pleases

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 May 2009

A missed opportunity. That was how the otherwise sober Left-leaning Israeli daily Ha’aretz depicted Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It found fault with the pontiff for not uttering sorry for what had happened in Europe six decades ago. For centuries the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people were tense at best. The role played by the Vatican during the World War II continues to cloud the relations between the two. Many have accused Pope Pius XII of turning a blind eye towards the Holocaust.

There is also some personal grudge against Pope Benedict. His alleged membership in Hitler Youth was raised even before Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy in April 2005. His recent decision to reinstate a Holocaust denier as bishop only made matters worse. Indeed some media commentators in Israel were fond of referring to the pope by his previous name than as Pope Benedict. Thus many were expecting that the pope would express a formal remorse, both officially and personally.

For its part, Israel was keen that recent tensions in the region would not impede the pontiff from visiting the region. Against the background of international criticisms and condemnation over the recent Gaza war, Israel needed this visit and positive media coverage. The unchartered waters with the new Obama administration in the US meant that Israel needed some positive equation with the pope.

However as the Israeli daily editorially lamented: ‘The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality, evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word — sorry’.

Many Palestinian Christians were angry over the exclusion of Gaza from the itinerary of the pope. Such a visit would have shown Vatican’s sympathy and support for the people who underwent one of the traumatic periods in their history. With much of the Gaza Strip still in ruins, the papal visit would have sent a powerful political message to the international community and reminded them of the plight of the Palestinians.

Precisely for the same reasons, the pope avoided not only the Gaza Strip but also Ramallah. Going there without laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would have been politically untenable. But doing so would be equally controversial. Hence, the Pope’s meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas was fixed at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem. Likewise, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not in Jerusalem but in the Franciscan convent of Nazareth.

Since both parties claim Jerusalem to be their capitals, the pope avoided meeting both the prime ministers in the City of Peace. The Vatican is perhaps sending a subtle message to both the contenders: Don’t count us out.

Politics however is inevitable. The more the pope tried to make his trip a ‘Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’ the more it becomes political. The inter-faith dialogue at the Notre Dame Centre is a classic example. Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Sharia Court used the occasion to list out ‘the crimes of the Jewish State’ and of ‘slaughtering’ women, children and the elderly. Only a moment earlier, the pontiff pleaded the followers of the three religions: “Can we then make spaces — oases of peace and profound reflection — where god’s voice can be heard anew, where his truth can be discovered within the universality of reason, where every individual, regardless of dwelling, or ethnic group, or political hue, or religious belief, can be respected as a person, as a fellow human being?” However, al-Tamimi’s remarks resulted in the pope walking out of the meeting.

The prolonged Jordanian-Palestinian tussle took a religious turn during the pontiff’s visit to the Kingdom before he arrived in Jerusalem. The pope blessed the foundation laying ceremony for Latin and Greek Melkite Churches at Bethany, beyond River Jordan. According to Christian theology, this is where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ and preached.

The pope’s visit to Bethany is seen by many as recognition of Jordanian claims to the true site of baptism and thereby undermining long-held Palestinian claim that baptism took place at Qasr al Yahud in the West Bank. Indeed during his visit to the region in 2000 the previous pope addressed a mass in Bethany but settled for a brief stopover at the Palestinian site. This time around, al-Yahud did not figure in the pope’s itinerary.

Even the Jordanian leg was not without problems. Some Muslim leaders were unhappy over the pope’s earlier remarks in 2006 when he quoted a medieval text that depicted some of Prophet Mohammed’s teachings as ‘evil and inhuman’ especially, the Prophet’s ‘command to spread by the sword the faith.’

Even the Catholics have their own problems with the pope though they are rarely aired in public. The Christians are a vanishing tribe in the Middle East. Demographically they are a minority in towns such as Bethlehem and Nazareth. In the past many have lamented that only Christmas brings cheers and Christians to Bethlehem.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has adversely affected the Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian areas. The Christian Arabs in Israel are only marginally better off than their Muslim counterparts. Over the years, Christians have vanished from many small villages in Israel. The classic example is Abu Ghosh, a small Arab town at the outskirts of Jerusalem; is has a historic church dating back to the Crusader period but no Christian community, except the priest and nuns.

Known for his theological background, Pope Benedict is not aware of the problems of the faithful. Like many of his predecessors, he has to navigate rather carefully. Openly exhibiting his concerns over would only cause more problems for the followers.

Thus different religious groups and communities viewed the papal visit differently. In a region accustomed to zero-sum approach to politics, even a religious pilgrimage ends up being a political contest between different faiths. Thus long after the pope returns to Vatican, the parties would continue to argue over their respective gains and losses.

For web link click here

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Elections 2009

The Excitement of Voting for the first time in 47 years,

The New Indian Express, (Chennai), 11 May 2009, Monday

Over the years, one has acquired the indifference that plagues middle class Indians. They are eloquent on the virtues of democracy and its importance as the only political option for an inherently diverse nation

FIRST time voter at 47? Not a pleasant thought, one must confess. Is there an escape from harsh facts? This is despite my political baptism following a cautious warning from my mother.

Only the previous night Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared internal emergency. Don’t talk politics, my mother said and woke up the political animal inside me. Since then commented on many elections and offered unsolicited political advice but never voted in the elections.

So the excitement was real. Was there at the nearby polling booth more than half an hour before voting began.

There were more security personnel than voters. Definitely no queues.

Only one political party had organised their polling agents while members of another party were just arriving when I came out the booth.

For over two decades, on the election day I was at the wrong time or wrong place. If both were right, then my chaotic planning or sheer un-preparedness kept me away. Skipped many elections, Lok Sabha as well as state Assembly elections. Both in Tamil Nadu and later in New Delhi. There was a perennial conflict of interest between the place where I am registered a voter and place of my presence on the election day.

This was in contrast to my experience in Israel. By sheer accident since July 1988 I found myself in Israel on many election days. Eagerly watched many unfolding dramas and was there in Jerusalem just a few days before Ariel Sharon was elected as prime minister in February 2001. The most memorable was the first direct election for prime minister held in May 1996. Peacefully went to bed after exit polls gave a clear edge to Labour leader Shimon Peres. When I woke up in the morning I was greeted by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu on the TV screen. The Oslo process was buried among the ruins of the Labour party.

Over the years, one has acquired the indifference that plagues middle class Indians. They are eloquent on the virtues of democracy and its importance as the only political option for an inherently diverse Indian nation. Their theme song? Larger and more diverse than Europe the Indian survival rests on democracy. This commitment is rarely translated into concrete action. They never voted with their feet. Like many members of my tribe, I am guilty of electing bad people by not voting. Minor foresight and planning could have synchronised the seemingly endless conflict between polling date and residence. If both were right, then systemic problems of India came handy. Not finding one’s name in the voters’ list is not uncommon among many serious people.

How often one hears: My name is in my hometown. That is after living for many years in New Delhi. For them a few minutes of paperwork are a ‘waste’ of time.

With voters’ list just a click away, netizens like me, are the worst offenders.

True the system is inefficient. After searching various lists put out by the chief electoral officer of the capital, I eventually found my name. Not surprisingly it was bifurcated; Kumar Swamy and not Kumaraswamy. But it was there. The joy was boundless.

The excitement of voting was palpable and I checked out a few of friends, colleagues and long acquaintances. None have voted and most could not. Either they are out of town or their names are missing in the voters’ list. In the end my vote might not make any difference. It won’t materially affect the condition of the teeming millions. Or worse, before long I might regret my choice.

As I walked back from the polling booth, the feeling was strange but real.

A sense of lightness. Next time around when I use words such as elections, democracy or accountability, they would be less hallow than yesterday.

At least for myself.

(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)