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ODOUR OF SANCTITY

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The air that we breathe is axiomatic for something taken for granted. But smells are potent and important, affecting us more than we realise. Scholars such as Constance Classen, Roy Porter and Jim Drobnick illuminate the often overlooked power of smell. This column explores how Nadeem Aslam and Monica Ali, two Muslim-identified writers, pour odours into their novels.
First, let’s consider the most well-known odoriferous fiction. In his novel Perfume, German author Patrick Süskind conjures up the stinky 18th century in France. Süskind suggests that writers have been too preoccupied by sight. As such, this novel is full of “sensate impressions” relating to aromas. One of the text’s intriguing points is that aesthetics are insufficient to explain sex appeal. Often people fail to notice that smell can be one’s crowning beauty and that the chemicals involved in sexual attraction cannot be so easily ascribed to looks.
That smell is crucial to Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, about Pakistani Muslims in northern England, is established early on. As a boy, the younger son of married protagonists Shamas and Kaukub tried to attract carp to his fishing line by using flowers as bait. This youth found that only lilac would do, for “perfume was the key” to attracting the finny prey. And in a way, perfume and flowers are the key to this poetic novel, saturated as it is with heady fragrances.
Beautiful scents waft over even the most difficult subjects. For example, Shamas’s young family used to lay down geraniums so that a warning scent would be released if racist trespassers entered the house. Aslam describes the racism of 1970s Britain with a terrible beauty, wherein the enchanting and the annihilating co-exist. The geraniums unite the syrupy scent of rosehips with sharp citrus base notes, just as this lovely image of flowers is undercut by racism’s ugly realities. Aslam might be accused of ‘deodorising’ ugly prejudice through this delicate leitmotif, for the smells more commonly associated with 1970s racism are fetid or faecal: of the spit gobbed in migrants’ faces or the excrement lobbed through their letterboxes.
The migrants Aslam depicts transform their area olfactorily. One recurring image, of incense drifting above the snowy land or across centrally heated interiors, evokes the creation of hybrid new smellscapes. In many traditions and faiths, incense plays a vital role in religious and social practice. Muslims do not burn agarbattis in mosques as Hindus do at their temples. However, graves and shrines are fair game and, when saints die, rumours abound about an odour of sanctity rising from their bodies.
Despite incense’s sweet sillage, many Pakistanis living in Britain have internalised ideas about their bad odour. For instance, every time Kaukub sees her elder son’s white girlfriend, she worries about her “stale” breath or poorly brushed teeth. Aware of stereotypes around South Asians’ smell of spices, Kaukub feels paranoid about her own bodily hygiene. She ensures no coats are near her cooking, having been influenced by some white people’s hateful assumption that Asians are ‘“smelly” and “stinky.” Perhaps more than any other sense, smell acts as a sign of otherness and as justification for discriminatory or cruel treatment.
Aromas of jasmine and rose hang over Aslam’s novel. Puritanical Kaukub always wears a jasmine cologne, perhaps because, as Shelina Janmohamed reminds us, “Muslims are advised always to smell good.” And the fact that Kaukub tends a rose garden is significant, since in Sufi verse this stands for the cultivation of one’s soul in preparation for meeting God. Aslam has stated of this novel’s portrayal of Pakistani migrants translating Britain into South Asian images: “I wanted the reader to feel … frustration. I wanted England to shout … ‘Look at me!’” In my reading, England might also yell ‘Smell me!’, for the scents in this novel are of dal, marigolds, mothballs and hair oil rather than fish and chips, rising damp or stale ale.
In Ali’s Brick Lane, a campaign by the extremist group Bengal Tigers is bound up with smell diction. Protagonist Nazneen’s husband is troubled when he comes across their propaganda leaflet eulogising a devout fighter who was shot dead in Chechnya. When the Russians returned his body three months after his death, it allegedly “smell[ed] of musk.”
Brick Lane had a rapturous critical reception and was praised for its compassion and well-rounded characters. An exception is the greedy moneylender Mrs Islam, who is oflactorily othered. Her glacial mint smell stiflingly intermingles with the cough mixture and Ralgex Heat Spray she always carries. This lends her “an aura of the sickbed”, bespeaking the usurer’s assiduous self-care and hypochondria. Nazneen is overpowered by the stench of the handbag into which the woman has ordered her to put a loan repayment. Her “essence of ill health” plays into stereotypes about Islam and Muslims as having a ‘sick’ worldview.
In contrast with Mrs Islam’s medicinal fragrance comes a cool and refreshing scent of citrus fruit. Nazneen first encounters this “smell … of limes” in a daydream she has of dancing on ice, inspired by ice skating she watched on television when she arrived in Britain. Later, after Nazneen has begun working as a pieceworker and has met Karim, a dishy young middleman, she sniffs his shirt and finds it smells of limes like the ice of her daydreams. Thus Karim, who stutters over his Bengali words, holds out the cool promise of Britain and neoliberal self-realisation.
Nazneen’s fantasy of becoming an ice skater is an unsubtle celebration of the capitalist and sexual freedom that Ali believes exists for the woman migrant in Britain. At the book’s end, Nazneen’s best friend Razia takes her on a surprise first trip to the ice skating rink. Blindfolded, Nazneen relies on the odour of lime-scented polish to help her discover where they are. Stepping on to the rink, Razia voices the novel’s tritely optimistic last line: “This is England … You can do whatever you like.”
I hope to have ‘made scents’ of these two Muslim-identified British novels from the early 2000s. The sense of smell is not to be sniffed at.


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Opinion

Indian elections, South Asian concerns

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Kanak Mani Dixit

The staggering scale of the election that is under way in India with just under a billion voters is hard for the mind to grapple with, even in this densely populated neighbourhood that includes Bangladesh and Pakistan. The level of worry is also at a pitch, for India should be the bulwark against weakening democracy in a world of Bolsonaro (Brazil), Duterte (the Philippines), Erdogan (Turkey), Putin (Russia) and Trump (the U.S.) not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

Modern India, created by M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and their cohort, should be raising the standard for social justice and grass-roots democracy, and against destructive right-wing populism. This has not quite been Prime Minister NarendraModi’s record, and hence the concern that another five years would redefine the very idea of India.

 

Already, the term ‘world’s largest democracy’ is achieving banality as India gains majoritarian momentum. Centralised control of society would never be possible in such a vast and variegated society of sub-nationalities, we were told, but look at what is happening.

The high principle and probity of India’s political class, bureaucracy, academia and civil society are now exceptions rather than the rule. India’s Ambassadors are no longer the self-confident professionals we knew for decades, they act today like timid note-takers. Higher education is directed by those who insist that the achievements of Vedic era science included flying machines and organ transplants. Meanwhile, the adventurism that marked economic management, including immiseration through demonetisation, has been ‘managed’ through loyal social and corporate media.

Intellectual toadyism and crony capitalism have overtaken New Delhi on a subcontinental scale, but sooner than later this drift towards regimented society and whispered dissent must be reversed. Too much is at stake for too many citizens — India must revert to the true, messy and contested democracy we have known and appreciated.

Parliamentary democracy is the governance procedure adopted by each and every country of South Asia, and the Indian practice has always been held up as the example.

The precedents set by India’s courts are studied elsewhere, the professionalism of the civil service is regarded as the benchmark, and everyone else seeks the aspirational welfare state set in motion in India in the middle of the 20th century. This is why we watch worried as Indian democracy weakens in step with its economy, as inter-community relationships within India descend to one-sided animus, and as New Delhi’s global clout decreases in inverse proportion to Beijing’s.

To cover weaknesses in governance and promises undelivered, Mr.Modi as the solo electoral face of the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) has whipped up a tornado of militarised nationalism that projects Pakistan as the exclusive enemy. No one dares remind the Indian voters that Pakistan is the far weaker power; its people are battling fanatical demons more than are Indian citizens; Pakistan is a large potential market for India’s goods and services; and the future of Kashmir must be based on Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Meanwhile, Lahore intellectuals watch with apprehension as India copies the excesses of Pakistan’s theocratic state. Dhaka observers are numbed into silence with New Delhi’s vigorous backing of Prime Minister Sheikh HasinaWajed as she constructs an intolerant one-party regime. Colombo rides a geopolitical see-saw as New Delhi shadow-boxes Beijing. And Kathmandu wonders whether New Delhi has it in itself to concede that the amplified Chinese involvement in Nepal is the result of the Great Blockade of 2015-16.

India has been reduced to a giant nervously finger-counting friends made or lost to China. The media triumphalism that greets even modest shifts in India’s favour — be it in Male or Thimphu — marks unnecessarily low self-esteem. New Delhi seems preoccupied with ‘managing’ South Asian countries when it should be commanding the global platforms on climate alteration, protection of pluralism and correcting imbalances in global wealth.

Few note the incongruity of a New Delhi loudly daring Islamabad while acting coy on Beijing, which one would have thought was the real adversary or competitor. Meanwhile India’s celebrated soft power wilts even as the Chinese work to wipe out their English deficit, and Beijing places Confucius Institutes in far corners. Chinese goods flood the Indian market, Chinese research and development gallops ahead of India’s, and Beijing convincingly moves to tackle environmental degradation.

India seems drowsy and lethargic in contrast. South Asia as a whole — much of it the historical ‘India’ — roots for Indian democracy even while welcoming Chinese investment, infrastructure loans and tourists. Also because it has the largest population in the Subcontinent, India is expected to lead South Asia on myriad issues including the death-dealing Indo-Gangetic smog, fertilizer and pesticide use, cross-border vectors, arsenic poisoning, regional commerce and economic rationalisation, social inclusion and the Human Development Index and so on. But leadership requires humility, to study, for example, how adjacent societies have successfully tackled great challenges — look at Bangladesh surging towards middle income country status.

Nepal has long been regarded by exasperated New Delhi policy-makers as the South Asian basket case sending out migrant labour to India. This much is true, but it also emerges that the Nepal economy is the seventh largest sender of remittance to India after the UAE, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Bangladesh and Canada. Unlike these others, Nepal’s remittances go to India’s poorest parts, in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

We switch on India’s news channels and find an abysmal common denominator in terms of civility and rationality. The national intelligentsia seems intimidated, unable to challenge the rigid, dangerously populist narrative of the BJP/RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS). We watch as the National Register of Citizens propels statelessness, as the refoulement of Rohingyarefugees points to a reckless disregard for fundamental humanitarian principles, and as majoritarianism weakens the pillar of representative democracy that is the protection of minorities.

India is indeed large and important, but the chest size of a country does not translate into equity, social justice or international standing. Because nearly 20% of humanity lives within its boundaries, when India falters, the pit of despair and the potential for violence open up wide and deep.

The South Asia that New Delhi’s policy and opinion-makers should consider is not the centralised Jambudvipa mega-state of the RSS imagination. Instead, the ideal South Asian regionalism is all about limiting the power of the national capitals, devolving power to federal units and strengthening local democracy.

Modi’s own idea of regionalism is one where he calls the shots. The start of his current term was marked by an attempt to dictate to the neighbours, after which the pendulum swung to the other extreme. The freeze put by India on the inter-governmental South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is only a cynical means to keep Pakistan out of the club.

The sabotaging of SAARC can hardly be considered a victory, for that feather-light geopolitical stratagem fails to consider that regionalism is a potent means to bring economic growth and social justice to India’s own poverty-stricken ‘peripheral regions’ from Assam to Purvanchal to Rajasthan. For its own security and prosperity as well as that of the rest of us, India must re-connect with South Asia.

Sub continental regionalism is also important to achieve New Delhi’s ambitions on the world stage, including that coveted seat at the UN Security Council. India’s global comeback will start the day New Delhi think tanks begin questioning South and North Block rather than serving as purveyors of spin. On South Asian matters, they should pull out a copy of the Gujral Doctrine from the archives, to be dusted and re-examined.

We seek an India that is prosperous and advancing at double digit growth, not only because what this would mean for its 1.35 billion citizens, but to the other 500 million South Asians. For its own selfish interests, the rest of South Asia wants India to succeed in the world.

(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is the founding editor of the Colombo-based magazine, ‘HimalSouthasian’. Source: The Hindu)

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Witnessing the political tamasha in Kashmir

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By Meer Abass

At the onset of election fever, political parties belonging to exploiting ruling class use all kinds of tricks to lure voters on their side and grab power. Politicians resort to anything under the sky to woo voters and counter their rival parties. It’s obvious that in this cut-throat scheme of promises, hardly any political party has a programme or policy that genuinely aims well-being of the people of the state.

Every party claims that their leader is the ‘lion’ of the political jungle as tamashaof the hectic assembly poll campaign in Jammu and Kashmir reaches its culmination.
Getting elected should be very easy. If for five years you work for your voters without fear or favour then getting elected should not cost a dime. So why getting elected costs so much and takes so much effort?

 

The answer lies in the party system and the political illiteracy that our state suffers from.

Our political illiteracy levels are near 95% or more. Even the educated among us are politically illiterate. They stopped getting any education after they clear the class 10 during which they had Civics as a subject (of course this does not include people who did their BA and MA in Political Science).

Our political party system ensures that no representative of the people is able to do anything for the people that elect him/her. He has to follow the diktat of the party. And the party is driven by lobbies that want to get laws and rules made that benefit them. Thus even if there is a lawmaker who wants to work for his constituents, he can’t. Thus at the end of the tenure, if his party has something to show (which they usually don’t have), he can expect to get elected again otherwise he has to depend on the bluff of the party and its ability to convince the people that it has done well for them. Or fake them with the bluster of a fake leader.

And if the representative has been doing good work then his constituents will not even want to see him or hear him during election time. They would have been in touch with him all through the five years and would know what he/she has done and delivered. Thus the cost of getting elected would be very negligible.

Now that is the kind of politics that we should all aspire and work for.

And for a politician that is connected to the people, his/her formal education would not matter as much as his/her understanding of the pain points of his voters and his/her ability to solve their problems.

Therefore, there are two things you can do, one is to get a political education and second is to choose a representative that does work for you and not blindly toe the party line. Best would be to have a representative that represents you and not a political party.

“Walayvasie, aslisherhayy, aaaway (come, my friend. The original lion has come),” sing Kashmiri women folk in traditional ‘rauf’ dance at political rallies.

“Naklishera vatu daira, aslisheraaagaya (it’s time for fake lions to pack bags as the original lion has arrived at the scene,” is a common slogan witnessed in the campaigns right now in the Kashmir valley.

While every party has its own share of slogans but it is the “Sher” which is the common thread in their campaigns in the politically charged atmosphere in the Valley. Kashmir wildlife does not include lions.

The name of ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’ has been prefixed with a prestigious medical institute in the Valley, an agriculture university, gallantry medals for police, employment scheme and the only cricket ground in the Valley.

PDP also invoked ‘sher’ besides its slogans like “SabzukAlam chum aathskyath, aasiydeetaarParvardighar (The green flag is in my hand and God will help me crossing all hurdles)” besides the ‘Sher’ slogan. The flag of PDP party is green.

National Conference has some more to offer their voters like “aapkimushkilkabaaetbarhul, sirfhalhalhal (the only way for a honourable solution to your problems is plough). Plough is the symbol of National Conference.

There are multiple dimensions to how Kashmiris interpret elections. Some call it political maturity and see it as a befitting strategy to avoid having a party in power that has no sensibilities about Kashmir. Those who vote believe that if Kashmiris don’t vote, then the elected representatives will go down the same way as the previous ones have. Many see it as political leverage in negotiating for issues such as an immediate and urgent repeal of draconian laws in force in Kashmir and the release of youth who have been booked under these laws. Some consider it important for a long-term political solution to the conflict, which they think is only possible through consistent dialogue and negotiation with New Delhi, Islamabad and Kashmir.

BJP, besides its “abkibaarModisarkar” slogans, has banners hanging at various traffic cross sections “aaobadle Jammu Kashmir kehaalat, aaochaleModikesaath (let’s change Jammu and Kashmir’s destiny, let’s walk with Modi).”

It is said that in Kashmir nothing is straight except poplar trees, and it reflects the general persona of the biotic of Kashmir. Do we actually qualify to be humans, well what’s happening on the ground and has happened in the past, are contesting this prerogative. So the question arises, who is a common Kashmiri? And what are the aspirations, responsibilities and expectations out of common Kashmiri?

(Author is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Govt Degree College Handwara. Feedback at meerabas32@gmail.com)

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Opinion

Running on fear in 2019

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Barkha Dutt

NarendraModi, India’s powerful prime minister, is seeking a second term. But in 2019, he is sounding less like the man who campaigned in 2014 and much more like his previous avatar — the abrasive, vitriolic and inflammatory chief minister of Gujarat.

His first national election five years ago was built on aspiration. Then he used to proclaim that the country’s constitution was his only holy book; he promised “achhe din” (good days) and “vikas” (development).

 

This campaign, by contrast, has been built on fear and on the othering of his political opposition as anti-national, anti-Hindu and, in antithesis to Modi’s own projected machismo, wimpish.

There is little or no conversation about the performance of his government, the economy or jobs. A leaked report from the National Statistical Commission (which the government contested) placed unemployment numbers at a four-decade high; a certain amount of deflection and changing the subject is political compulsion.

But the Modi-led BharatiyaJanata Party campaign has descended from spin to brazen coarseness, fear-mongering and Islamophobia.

In the 2019 production, Modi has cast himself as the “chowkidar,” or watchman — the guardian at the gate who will defend the country against predators and terrorists. The decision to order an airstrike inside Pakistan as retaliation for the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed 40 paramilitary police officers has become a major element in his narrative.

Modi even delivered a speech with photographs of the men who were killed in the Kashmir strike forming the stage backdrop; he also asked young voters to dedicate their ballot to the military personnel who led the assault inside Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state, added insult to injury by describing the military as Modi’s “sena” — or Modi’s army, comments for which he has been censured by the Election Commission.

The BJP has defended this by arguing that because the prime minister took a great risk by sanctioning the Pakistan strike — in contrast to the Congress, which took no military action even after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 — the party has every right to politically own the decision. But given the flamboyant nationalism the party claims as its defining characteristic, this debasement of India’s armed forces is, frankly, impossible to justify.

The young daughter of a soldier killed in the Pulwama terrorist attack called out the bluff. “My father did not die for NarendraModi or Rahul Gandhi. He died for India,” ApoorvaRawat, 20, told me. “Can’t you run a campaign without using our families to win votes?”

Using soldiers as political fodder is bad enough. But even worse is the Modi campaign’s message to India’s 172 million Muslims. In the past few years, Muslim cattle traders have been repeatedly targeted by right-wing mobs on fabricated charges of trading in beef. During this campaign, the men charged with the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri, were given front-row seats at a BJP election rally.

A prominent government minister has warned Muslims to vote for her or face the consequences. And in one of the worst election speeches of the season, the prime minister taunted Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, for running away from Hindu voters to a constituency in the south where “the majority is a minority.” His comments were about Gandhi’s decision to fight from two seats, Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in addition to his long-standing parliamentary seat in the north. Attacking the Congress is fair but implicit in this particular attack was the suggestion that a parliamentary seat dominated by Muslims is something to be embarrassed of.

Every single day, the marginalization and humiliation of India’s Muslim citizens are being reinforced.

The final blow came from the BJP president, Amit Shah, Modi’s second in command and said to be the only person the prime minister trusts. Shah has vowed to create a national citizens’ registry that will “remove every single infiltrator from the country” unless they happen to be Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. The official sanction of crude religious majoritarianism did not even bother to disguise its anti-Muslim bigotry. It was tweeted out by the party handle with the hashtag #NaMoForNewIndia — a model of “New India” eroding the very basis of old India: constitutionally protected pluralism.

So far, despite the virulence of the campaign he is steering, Modi seems to be comfortably ahead. There is no visible backlash to even his most divisive words. His persona as a spartan, non-corrupt bachelor, who is “not in politics for himself” — this I’ve heard repeatedly from voters — and his reputation as a decisive leader seem to offset the flaws voters now concede he has.

Admittedly, there is no euphoria of the kind that India witnessed in 2014. But nor is there any widespread anger. And when it comes down to it, voters often add “who else is there” to their criticism of Modi’s first term. It’s like the post-romance phase of a personal relationship — you’re no longer smitten, the sheen has worn off, but until a better option comes along, in your mind he or she is as good as it gets, with all of the flaws. You tell yourself that the relationship is better than being single.

For this, India’s opposition must take the blame. Crude and sexist language by leaders from within their own ranks — such as Azam Khan, the regional leader who commented on the underpants of his female adversary — have somewhat blunted the moral force of their attack on the BJP.

The opposition also remains fragmented and divided. It has been too slow to produce a counter-narrative, and this has only bolstered Modi’s chances. It suits Modi to make himself the central issue of this election and ask, Modi vs. who?

The answer to that would be Modi vs. math.

In the absence of any other national persona to take on the tough-as-nails, ruthless and charismatic Modi, the opposition’s best bet is to bury its differences and work on a series of local alliances. Modi wants a presidential-style election. The opposition can only counter that with regional coalitions of varied caste groups and communities.

For the moment, in one of India’s ugliest election campaigns, the advantage is with Modi.

Chances are that he will be prime minister again. But there has been absolutely nothing prime ministerial about his campaign.

(washingtonpost.com)

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