Diwali, Dance And The Indian Diaspora.

It is that time of the year when the local councils in New Zealand and Asia:NZ have ‘official’ celebrations of Diwali in Auckland and Wellington. White folksy interpretation of a Hindu festival with Fiji-Indian conceptualisation and a sprinkle of Hindu fundamentalism disguised as Bollywood. It is a great way to carry on the Free Trade Deal (FTA) dialogue with India, apparently. But definitely a sneaky way for the fundamentalists to hoodwink PC, dumb white folk to think that Hindu=India, all at once homogenous, exotic, hard to understand and where everyone eats samosas. Whoever said cultural integration of diasporic peoples cannot be simplified so as to tick all the boxes? Then we all live happily ever after.

It took me three years to complete this documentary. I went into the homes of my people here, engaged with bright, enthusiastic school kids who have no platform for expression and listened to the ‘elders’ lecture me on the meaning of ‘being Indian’ (or how important they really are).  I also got an amazing story from a old, old man, now deceased, about how he went back to India and participated in the struggle for freedom. There were many of his generation, who,  inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, travelled by sea to India to resist British rule. That unfortunately is not part of the video inserted below but I hope to tell the story some day.

Filmmaking is hard work and without money the only things that sustain you are passion and a burning desire to tell a story.  If I had any funding for this film it might have been a different product. However, the journey so far has made me determined to continue telling stories that don’t fit trends or showcase the exotic peoples of the East and Africa, even as case studies in neo-liberalism.  Middle class Indians across the world are a force to reckon with economically but most of the time (I assume, from my experiences in New Zealand), really not interested in political movements or resistance or protest unless things affect them. Equality and solidarity within humanity is not worth the same as Indians being equal to white people. So we continue to perpetuate stereotypes of a model minority imitating culture from back home and compare ourselves to imperial masters, even aspire to be them. There is a little sliver, a gap somewhere in there though where the stories stay invisible, unheard, un-articulated.  Emotions that overlap, experiences that are shared with all humanity. That’s where I attempt to work. This film is the first of many more to come, as many as I can possibly make in this life. Enjoy!

Paresis Of Mythical Past.

The 34 Asterix comic books feature 704 traumatic head injuries. Thus have academics analysed and published in a paper in the European Journal Of Neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica. The researchers, lead by Marcel A Kamp, examined the signs (periorbital ecchymosis, hypoglossal paresis etc) and rated the seriousness of each injury according to the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). Over 50% of the traumata were classified as severe (GCS between 3-8) and in 696 cases the cause was blunt force while 8 were caused by strangulation. Of course most of the victims were Romans (63.9%) and the rest included Vikings, Britons, Normans, Goths and even extraterrestrials; most of the injuries were caused by Asterix and Obelix (57.6%). Those who consumed Getafix’s Magic Potion suffered from more severe traumata. So goes on an article reporting the same. The analysis has the world of science excited and impressed. Okay. So that might be one big joke and not so robust, apparently, but someone tried.

I wonder. Can Indian pop kitsch mythology withstand even the slightest scientific or academic analysis? It is not an (pseudo)intellectual question. Could the gods, goddesses and demons (asuras) undergo tests classifying actions and reactions, using the Amar Chitra Katha comics as reference? Yeah, Asterix and Obelix cannot be compared to the 330 million Hindu gods because they are created by humans for comic books, as cartoon characters. That is one argument. Hindu mythology has developed over millenia and is largely an allegory for the mysteries of the world and questions about existence. But aren’t the pictures in the ACK comics derived from some reference? Don’t we make our gods in the images we want to see and admire? Or does the aura of mythology and the holiness attached to it preclude enquiry and analysis?

One Sunday morning some years ago, a friend and I went to the Avondale Market. There was a stall selling pooja paraphernalia. The usual kitsch and glitter that our Hindu gods and we love. And fair, rotund, rosy-cheeked, beautiful goddesses. ‘Nice goddesses,’ I told the Indian man from Fiji. ‘These images are inspired by Raja Ravi Varma you know.’ The man was aghast. ‘These goddesses are thousands of years old, sacred. Our holy texts describe them.’ ‘Really, who told you?’ I wanted to have a few laughs. My friend rolled her do-you-have-to eyes. 🙂 Pardon me for talking down from my pedestal but how on earth do we move ahead if we don’t know where we come from? And I don’t mean in sociological terms or as a migrant living in the Western world.  If religious priests had it their way we would all live and die blind in a world created by their gods. So we need to know these gods came about in the first place. No?

I swing between being atheistic to agnostic and somewhere in-between I acknowledge the presence of a higher power, the laws of this universe that are equal and unrelenting. The rest is all man made. So are our stories and myths. I’ve always enjoyed the many stories from Hindu mythology. My grandfather was an amazing storyteller and he could narrate stories at the drop of a hat. Not just from the Hindu epics but tales of local saints and miracles, unkown-to-Brahmanism.  He was an avid reader and taught us to be the same. Then to seek the real meaning beneath. That is what Hindu mythology is about. Representing the ever flowing universe and all within. Everything alive,  everything divine, everything in flux. Nothing is pure good or pure evil, one balances the other and even the Gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) are not infallible.

Even if, at this moment, the universe cannot be comprehensively broken down within the realms of physics and biochemistry, why not try to analyse where the imagery comes from? My ancestral family deity is represented by a stone.  Never mind the statue in-between. And the village goddess is as black as sin.

Now think of a pictorial representation in terms of popular culture. In order to humanise and hence relate to mankind. Is that an ever evolving process or set in stone? If we let the religious priests have their way, then yes, pictorial representations would be set in stone. Unless there is money to be made. Then I suppose it is fine for Vaishnodevi to look like a light skinned version of Pocahontas as imagined by Disney? The fairness cream being sanctioned by the holy texts. Until then. Paresis of mythical past. Just saying. Now I’m off to re-read Asterix’s adventures. Along with my surgery chapter on head injuries.


My eyes are watering and my nose is watering. I have an allergic reaction to the dust in Varanasi. 🙂

On my way from the airport to the city I asked the taxi driver if Mayawati (Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh. a.k.a. Behenji, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party-BSP) had made any positive changes to Varanasi. Abhi to bahut gandagi nikali hai, he said. She has cleaned up a lot of the garbage. Mayawati is an interesting character. Autoctratic, despotic, crass or an effective politician? Depends upon your p-o-v. From mine I could see a lot of rubbish on the streets. If that is called ‘cleaned-up’ then it must have been worse before. That was my first impression of Varanasi. This is a historic, heritage city. A major tourist town, an important army base during the British Raj and generally the centre of the universe for all Hindus. Governments have come and gone, parties with varying ideologies have ruled Uttar Pradesh, why then has no one bothered to make Varanasi a better place? As an Indian I was livid at the chaos, the dust and the dirt. There was a shopping mall and SUVs but a complete lack of civic sense. And if the governments have not bothered to clear the mess then what are the people doing?

Varanasi is an intensely political place. All Indians have an opinion on everything. The citizens of Varanasi seemed even more opinionated and passionate. Ask the boatmen that navigate the Ganga every day. A bunch of them were repairing a 100 year old boat. Very skillfully hammering in nails and measuring with some ancient looking (or makeshift?) instruments. They looked like they were one with the ghats and the atmosphere of Kashi. They knew their Mother (Ganga) was dirty and they tried their best to look after her but it was not enough.

I asked my taxi driver about the riots. To those of us who live away from Uttar Pradesh Varanasi is the epicentre for Hindu-Muslim riots. Yet the last riot in Varanasi happened after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992. There was the bomb blast at the Shankar Mochan temple but no riot. Why? Because the people of the city rallied together to prevent politicians from exploiting the situation. Then why not the cleaning of the Ganga or paving the streets with tar? Or is it that way for Western tourists to feel spiritual within the s$%^t?

Yet I will go back again and again. I pray for the day Kashi is clean and beautiful. I pray for the day the Ganga is restored her divine water; for her devotees to realise that she is not to be abused. This lifestream that flows from the Himalayas. My first view of the Ganga left me breathless. Calm, serene and majestic. She flowed on and on as far as my eye could see. From the balcony of my guest house on Meer Ghat. As I walked that evening from Meer towards Assi Ghat I could feel her vibes. The patience of a loving mother indulging in her silly children who only take and don’t give. No wonder she shows her wrath in the monsoons. The politicians don’t feel it though. They are safe in their bungalows preaching ‘Hinduism’.

There are many things I could have done that first night in Varanasi. But the main thing for me was to pay homage to the presiding deity of Kashi. I went to the Vishwanath Mandir and stayed back for the last aarti of the night. When Lord Shiva is put to bed. The temple shares space with the Gyaanvyapi Masjid that Aurangzeb built. So of course it is a controversial place. No electronics, no nothing. You have to pass through very tight security with the female guards groping every body part. Just like entering Parliament House but then that is the Government of India this is GOD. 😉 I am not a temple person. It is hard for me to go in and ‘pray’ in any particular place when the entire universe is a sacred to me. Human behaviour intrigues me though. Especially frenzied devotees. So I went in with the usual paraphernalia of flowers and milk etc. I stood in a line to see God and I bowed to him. I am grateful for all that I have. As I came out of the sanctum sanctorum the priest put a tilak (dot) on my forehead. Whisper your name and iccha (wish) in Nandi’s (Lord Shiva’s vehicle) ear he said. I replied that I had nothing to ask of God. He has given me everything. So, he said, can I have my dakshina (donation) then? Kaheka dakshina, I asked. Dakshina for what? For the tilak, he said. Temples are commerce, a business. Money grabbing brahmins fooling innocent devotees and making moolah. Does a person really need an ‘agent’ to communicate with God? What is it that Nandi will do that a direct application to Lord Shiva won’t? No wonder religion is so important to maintain power equations across the world. I have decided that I shall declare myself enlightened in a couple of years, shave my head, don saffron and dole out pearls of wisdom to the world. At least I shall make a lot money and travel in comfort! And think of the perks!

Varanasi is a place that evokes many emotions. Love it, get angry about the infrastructure, curse the politicians and then take walk along the ghats. The mad human activity will calm you and fascinate you. The temples, the mosques, aartis and azaans, co-existence, inter- dependence, Banarasi silks, the classical Hindustani music that floats through the air, spaced-out Western toursits in search of moksha, academics from Banares Hindu University looking for tomes at Harmony Books, Lebanese restaurant owners, louts, young kids coming up and saying ‘Hello Maydum’, the heritage structures, the business of death and many more things happening at one place all together is like a microcosm of existence. Varanasi is highly recommended and I am ever so grateful to Rebecca for pushing me to visit.

I took a ride on a cycle rickshaw from Assi to Dashashwamedh Ghat at night through the traffic and potholes. It was as exciting as the yak ride I once took on Chhangu lake in Sikkim. I latched on to the closest ‘holdable’ thing for fear of slipping. These are my little delights in life.

There are more to come in this trip. Tomorrow I take the Konkan Railway to my ancestral village. A long overdue visit to the Konkan along with my parents. I don’t know if there is access to the internet from the region. So I don’t know when I will write my next blog.

(I have lots of photos but will put them out only when I have figured out a way to give them an order.)