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Custard Creams and Childhood Dreams

Rajasthani Chaiwallah

Rajasthani Chaiwallah

Far from home and family, the wandering life of the restless nomad almost inevitably becomes vulnerable on those days that she gets ill. Sick as a street dog from strange and distant viruses, Downwards Dog takes on a whole new yogic meaning and it is easy to wonder about the choices that constantly ensure you are frequently far from home’s creature comforts.

I was reflecting on this conundrum earlier this week in Delhi when, fresh from 24 hours of precisely that street dog syndrome, my body was rather weakened by attack and in need precisely of the home comforts that usually make all resistance to planning an early return futile. The dishevelled, immunity-bashed traveller will begin to rose-tint the London bed, cushions and daytime television associated with sick days, but it’s the regression to childhood comfort foods that usually pre-empts the call to British Airways (who, in a pricey reversal of UK call centre etiquette, I now need to call directly in London instead of Bangalore). And it was in precisely those wistful moments when I might have begun to crave homebound imaginary wellness-aids that I realised here in Delhi, they were here all around me instead.

The most basic recovery tool in any Indian mother’s kitchen will be a simple, steaming bowl of lentils and rice, dal-chawal, whether in Punjab, Bradford or Melbourne. Here in Delhi, even far away from my own mother’s inevitably perfect dish, someone in the kitchen willingly rustled me up a bowl of their own motion, reasoning with my stubborn lack of appetite that “nothing will revive your health like a decent bowl of dal-chawal, replete with a chilled bowl of homemade yoghurt. Tick.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of replacing all kinds of salts and sugars. Forget the price of Whole Foods, I can have fresh coconut water to rehydrate the system more easily than buying a can of Coke (actually, I prefer Maaza, a viscous artifical mango juice that makes Fanta orange seem natural). Or giant bowls of glistening pomegranate seeds, peeled and ready to poke spoons into at any time of day or night for a superboost of antioxidants. None of that suspect pre-packaged prawn-pink-looking supermarket pomegranate that tastes mildly plastic (or is that also horse?).  Nope, you know what you are getting when you bash the fruits with a rolling pin.Ruby red and bursting with vitality is the Delhi way out of doubt. The next box ticked too.

Once the appetite returns, it’s the cravings for junk food that start to kick in. Crisps, biscuits, the works. Walkers crisps dress themselves identically in Lays packaging here, substituting Gary Linkerer for a cricketing God or three and cheese and onion for Magic Masala; Haldirams gave me packaged bowlfuls of khatta meetha chewda, a sweet and salty Bombay mix. Tea, of course, is Taj Mahal or Tetley, take your pick, and just when I am beginning to think my recovery can’t be complete without Custard Creams, the local marketwallah produces them, in green cardamom flavour. Madam, Elaichi Special. Nothing quite competes with elaichi to make me feel calm and grounded. Blame that on a lifetime of my father, uncles and grandfather demanding ‘half a cup’ of hot cardamom tea.P1080256


It’s true that there is no place like home, but sometimes other places can force their way in without you even realising that memories were interchangeable. Borders have been crossed and traditions have been swapping. Desi childhood nostalgia, it turns out, can be delighted in Delhi. Never mind being sick as a dog, it turns out that a few days after being wiped out, I am now back to being stuffed like a tiger. I won’t be needing that early flight back to London after all. Home’s pleasures, in fact, can be created where a whole hot cup of tea and a cardamom-flavoured custard cream can be found. Home itself is the place where only a half cup will do.

Good Earth's beautiful china mugs

Nizammudin EastDelhi,

February 23rd 2013.

Changing a collective consciousness: Why the Indian Police Force needs systemic change.

Changing a collective consciousness can never be underestimated, especially when consciousness belongs to a national force designated to maintain law and order, which considers itself to be above the authority imposed by law and order. Such may be the prevailing ethos of any army, police or public office anywhere in the world.

 The role of tragedy and public outcry

Usually, a general sense of public disgruntlement is not enough to force change upon such institutions, used to throwing around their weight and moulding a system to suit its own uses or ends. It takes a tragedy which brings about the public outcry that demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institution. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, in which five white suspects were arrested but not convicted in circumstances leading the police to be highly criticised on racial grounds. The systemic failures within the police force led to the so-called MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic change to boot such gnarled and rancid prejudice out of the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair is seen as responsible for widespread changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment In India, it has taken a brutal gang rape in the  wealthy heart of the country’s capital to force politicians to stand up and take notice.

Verma Commission

Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Commission, led by two retired justices and a senior advocate, to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within the astonishingly short period of thirty days, no doubt to assuage the public demand that ‘something must be done’. The Commission, to its considerable credit, broadened out the terms of reference and did a remarkably good job of considering the legal framework in which sexual offences legislative policy lies. It recommended, for example, that marital rape become a criminal offence, and sought to accommodate a wider, more modern legal framework considering the problems posed in modern day society rather than those left by the British on the old penal statute books.

 Why the law is just not enough

But societal change, institutional change cannot be led by legislative measure alone. Whilst the power of anti-discrimination law on both social dialogue and acceptability ought not to be underestimated, the law means nothing without effective implementation. And whilst the Verma Commission sought to address implementation in terms of efficiency and due process, it failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution that allows sexual assault crimes against women in India to go effectively unheard and unpunished.

 Macpherson and institutional racism in Britain

British policing remains far from perfect, particularly in relation to both stop and search procedures and in its retention and recruitment of ethnic minority police officers, critical to restoring and maintaining confidence within all sections of the British public. But, some fourteen years aftet the publication of the Macpherson report, the national dialogue has changed. Seventy major recommendations of the Report aimed critically (although not wholly) at police accountability, including measures to monitor and assess police forces nationally, including crucially new powers of appointment of police chief officers. Fundamental changes have been brought by the applicability of the “full force” of race relations legislation at police officers through a process of vicarious liability directed  at their superior officers. Codes of practice were developed to properly report and record all racist incidents including the training  of local liaison officers to underpin an anti-discriminatory culture within the police.

Change on the inside brings change on the outside

Neither the British nor the Los Angeles police are likely to stand up and say they have eliminated prejudice and discrimination within their forces. But the changes forced upon them by tragic circumstances have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist. India faces similar hurdles. The prejudice against women or families claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. Only once the dialogue begins to change against women and police officers are held routinely accountable for their actions, or omissions as is often the case, will there be major change in India. The Verma Commission has rightly started to modernise the debate, even notwithstanding the failures in the government’s response in its recent Ordnance, but change in Indian society and attitudes will only come when the enforcement mechanisms are forced to become accountable themselves.

New Delhi

20th February 2013

Of Gods and Men: Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 Day One

Hari Kunzru’s new book, Of Gods and Men, played second fiddle to the excitement caused by his stirring reading, late in the day, of an excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, still banned in India and still causing controversy by the arrogance of clerics who are unlikely even to have read the text. Gods and Men, however, clearly became the theme of the first day of the festival.  As Kunzru pointed out, those who doubt are never the ones who line up the unbelievers in their cause against a wall to shoot them, doubt being a pivotal theme of Rushdie’s works. The organisers felt compelled to try to stop the readings, both Kunzru’s and those which inevitably followed, arguing that arrest and imprisonment were unlikely but possible consequences as well as the potential closure of the Festival itself by those who have no doubt.  Instead, a Gandhian spirit prevailed and as a slightly nervous Amitava Kumar declared, the salt must be plucked from the marshes. Draconian laws can seldom be undone without the courage of actions ‘to defy bigots’, and so Kunzru defied them, having to flee India early the next morning to avoid the legal wrath that may have followed.

Politics, thus, hovered right across the first day of these engaging literary debates. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, raised eyebrows amongst a packed audience as he strayed surprisingly far from the theme appointed to his conversation, ‘The Disappointment of Obama’. Remnick, whilst clearly outlining his policy disagreement with many of Obama’s obvious failings on Guantanamo, Palestine and the environment, stressed that he did not feel let down by Obama, when compared with all the Presidents of his time.  Obama, he said, had won the Nobel Prize just for not being George Bush. Predictable cheers from an audience draped across lime green seats below a blue and white block-printed Mughal tent.

But the all-knowing gods were hanging around these literary men and women all day, starting with a stirring rendition of the Sikh Gurbani from Madan Gopal Singh in a scholarly line up designed to exam the poetic vision of the Sikh Gurus. That spirituality also took on a political edge. Singh radically interprets the term ‘Bhav Khandana’ (Teri Aarti huye) as having a gendered identity, a female spirit or God, an idea derived from the Sanskrit roots of the term, which he says he regrets sardonically that no one else buys.  Controversy was hanging around the fringes of Diggi Palace all day, it seems.

And so, to Mohammed Hanif, whose afternoon session felt like a soothing afternoon cup of tea, deflecting with humour  some rather bizarre questions about his symbol as sex god in Pakistan, a country where one’s choice of God lets the law discriminate, often with violent repercussions, around you. Perhaps little wonder then that Hanif chose to write about the country’s beleaguered Christian community in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a human and amusing take on what he describes as a “humble little love story”.

 Of Gods and Men, then. Jaipur, Day One.

20th January 2012.

Un-ban the Book: Rushdie and the challenge facing India

The Jaipur Literature Festival is set to start tomorrow in the glittering light of winter sunshine and high expectations. But, as they say in India, there is something black floating in the lentils.  In the heart of this kaleidoscopic celebration of the written word and ideas shared from across the planet, with the presence of authors such as Ben Okri, Tom Stoppard, AC Grayling and Fatima Bhutto, a familiar Indian figure of silence is trying to close in and steal the show.

The controversy over whether Salman Rushdie will or won’t attend the Festival has been causing a mild stir across front pages in India all week, since the Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic seminary pressured organizers into trying to withdraw their invitation to Rushdie. Although India’s intelligentsia is up in arms, the country’s media and politicians are silent, or worse, pandering to the myopia which threatens the plutocracy. This is old hat in a country that for decades has allowed a conspiracy of silence to cover up any serious debate about freedom of expression.

 Grounded in censorship laws that stemmed from the British Empire, India’s artists and writers often have experienced a democracy more concerned with insult than ideas. Insult to right wing Hindu sentiment, created politically in the early 1990s, led to the retreat and eventual death in exile of MF Hussain, the great Indian artist who dared to paint images that inspired him. It mattered that he was Muslim, and that he sometimes chose to depict Hindu goddesses, never mind that it is precisely that cultural interchange of Islam and Hinduism that has created modern India. Nobody please mention the Kama Sutra. There should have been a national uproar that an artist of his standing was forced to seek refuge away from its democratic borders. Instead, there was mostly an embarrassed silence. Likewise, there should have been incredulity when charges of sedition were first postulated against author-activist Arundhati Roy for her comments on Kashmir that were allegedly anti-Indian. She was a national heroine when she won the Booker, but when she broke the conspiracy of silence on uncomfortable matters, she was moulded into a national pariah. The Indian author Siddhartha Deb also found himself in court last year when an injunction was slapped on a chapter of his book, The Beautiful and the Damned, without warning. Two weeks ago Balbir Krishnan, an artist from Uttar Pradesh, was attacked in Delhi, ostensibly because his artistic themes of homosexuality offended and ‘provoked’ religious sentiment.  The attempts to lock Rushdie out of his motherland are just another illustration of what happens when the State allows the language of insult to dictate its law and policy. It is a dangerous basis for the ban which inevitably seems to follow these calls, and a serious blunt edge to the vibrancy with which democracy can flourish.

The consequences of this attempt to silence authors and artists goes far beyond whether an Islamic seminary doesn’t like The Satanic Verses, although it is doubtful anybody agitating against Rushdie has even read it, not least because it remains banned in India. If insult is the permission for provocation and violence, silence is the tool by which impunity prospers. The failures to bring justice against the perpetrators of mass violence in Gujarat, Punjab, Assam and Kashmir are the flipside of a democracy which likes to snuff out difficult questions before they are voiced. A failure to protect freedom of expression can in the end lead to a failure to protect the most basic human rights of all.

 In a country that is so tolerant of eccentricity and diversity, intolerance should be tossed carelessly away, pushed back behind the shoulder of the law. It is high time for the nonsense of the fatwa to be decried. State silence in the face of alleged religious insult is a greater threat to democracy that the Satanic Verses could ever become. Come on India. Un-ban the book.

January 19th 2012, India

A pint-sized sketch of Pintxo-ville

If the Basque city of Bilbao is a voluptuous art gallery, then its little neighbour San Sebastian is surely the sophisticated muse.

 In this elegant seaside ville, where blazer-clad gentlemen sip beer from sherry glasses and their coiffured women-folk gulp local the local wine,Txakoli,  from morning to night without so much as a hiccup, some of the greatest artistic splendours of the region can be found. Whilst it is true that Bilbao houses some of the world’s finest modern art at the Guggenheim (Richard Serra’s formidable, if nausea-inducing installation ’The Matter of Time’  at this sitting) and at its own impressive Museum of Fine Arts, the Basques are out to impress with their original creativity on the groaning counters of the tiny pinxto bars  that surprise tourists at every corner.

Groaning counters

Brits, for all the nineteenth century Gothic architecture across the city’s sandy beach that oddly reminisces Bournemouth, beware. This is not Ready Salted Crisps and Pint of Ale territory. Cross the fusion of Barcelona with the rich aesthetic of the French Riviera, and you might begin to tingle with the sensory overload which the Basque brain and mighty appetite have conspired to craft. A tourist is a mere victim to the inspired modern splendour of the pint-sized treats. We soon realised it would be insulting to resist Spain’s north-westerly temptation.

Take Zeruko(Calle Pescadería 10), just as an example. Sea urchins lie intriguingly sliced across a plate by the gilded gold artichokes, stuffed generously with foie. Baby elver eels fill a tequila glass like elfin strands of spaghetti, pierced with a yolk gelled with tapioca on a stick.

Piles of Serrano ham are draped across crusty, oiled bread and the wild mushrooms of the season are splashed artistically across a perfectly round fried quail’s egg. Mushrooms on toast will never taste the same again. Tiny splatters of morcilla (blood pudding) are coated with pistachios and jam, like an Arabic treat. Hot, griddled scallops are lined over fluffy bread rounds, and a steak sandwich arrives, freshly seared across caramelised mushroom, launched towards the burning anticipation of the worker from across the street who is grabbing a quick lunch. Dessert, the Bob Limon, is a Heston Blumenthal-esque creation of an air sponge, surrounded by a lemon mousse that resembled a fluffy egg, the yolk being fashioned by the orange skin of an apricot injected with a sweet jus that seeps out as you crack it. A homemade blackberry licorice rounds off the treat, and we walk onto the road, giddy with the excitement brewed in this den of culinary magic.

Angula baby eels

Bob Limon

The path to walk off the feast was lined with fat anchovies buried under papaya at Bar Txepetxa,  pumpkin-stuffed ravioli soaked in a rosemary foam and a creamy chanterelle risotto spoonful at Astoria 7, a cinema-fuelled hit of a hotel which also offered the most originally presented patatas bravas we have enjoyed, and groaning counters of gratinated scallops, roasted pepper and anchovy tarts and other bread-based treats at Bergara in the trendy, residential neighbourhood of Gros.Anchovies Basque-style

 We still had no way of knowing, however, that A Fuego Negro (31 de Agosto 31) would reduce us to tears with their mini-Kobe beef burgers, their txitxarro sashimi and their mini-doner kebabs that brought shame to vans everywhere across Europe. We could not know that the bakaloo enkarboo would be roasted cod set across smoky pepper seeds, and that the friendliest service would ensue if we could say thank you in Basque, rather than Spanish (ezkarrikasko, if you are wondering) and we could not know that the off-season faded Belle Epoque glamour of a town that feels more French than Spanish could leave us longing for still more.

 Luckily, then, Bilbao has the tuna and lamb skewers, and langostines wrapped in finely shredded potato curls at Panko (Marqués del Puerto 4), all chewed over in the packed company of a local crowd. Fortunately, for Bilbao, Las Cepas (a wine bar so recently opened on Juan De Ajuruaguerra that the paint was still wet) offered us the creamiest arroz negro (squid-ink risotto rice topped with the crunchy,crispy squid tentacles) and all the melt-in-the-mouth albondigas (meatballs) that its artistic visitors could flick a paintbrush at.

Dali, Goya and Picasso would be punch-drink proud.

Jeff Koons' Poppies outside the Guggenheim

November 25th 2011

Palestine, the Poppy and the Mask

Over the last week or so, three things have taken place which, when bounced into the same basket of news, might cause an impartial observer to feel that he was trapped in an international web of shallow deceit.

Revealed in no particular order of importance, much as this week’s X factor results, the Palestinian bid for statehood appears to have collapsed, just days after its UNESCO success, owing in no small part to the failure of France and the United Kingdom to stand by their soliloquies on democracy and human rights; Obama and Sarkozy have been caught expressing their true feelings for the “lying” Israeli leader off-camera, and the British Prime Minister and the heir to the royal throne have intervened internationally in support of their footballers’ right to wear the poppy (those same footballers themselves caught in a frenzy of hyped allegations about racism) in a friendly match against Spain.

What is the connection, you may ask, wearing a puzzled face? In the theatre of international relations, the answer is, of course, “the mask”.

Let’s start with the poppy, the wearing of which now appears to have become a default act of patriotism, even ignoring the fact that the majority of the population probably could not answer the Trivial Pursuit question of ‘which act is said to have precipitated the First World War?’ It does not matter whether those thousands of innocent deaths – the deaths of the young soldiers sent to the frontlines in the face of certain slaughter – brought any discernable benefit to the country, or whether John Terry and Frank Lampard could name those benefits today. What matters is the position, internationally, that we support our troops, unquestionably. The same position that the British media adopted towards the Iraq war eight years ago, without questioning whether it was more patriotic to bring back young men and women from a war that was entirely unnecessary and unjustifiable, not to mention unlawful, for reasons that were never truthfully spelled out. The poppy has become the mask behind which we can believe that the wars fought in our name have been honest and earnest, pursuing democracy and human rights, whilst studiously ignoring what either of those notions actually entail.

One thing that both democracy and human rights ought to bring, for example, is a legal and social culture of non-discrimination, a fundamental duty that States must promote within their borders in order to be worthy of any democratic label. A failure to acknowledge universal support of the right not to be discriminated against in the provision of goods and services, in the distribution of assets and wealth by the State, as well as the non-segregation of citizens, are amongst the most fundamental rights of them all. Indeed, it was the converse position on discrimination, namely ethnocide and genocide in the Second World War, that led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, speaks the Preamble of the Declaration that arose as a direct consequence of the Holocaust.

Yet today, the Israeli state discriminates against its Arab and Muslim citizens in so brazen a fashion, putting up a mask of democracy so thoroughly, that few outside its  borders fully appreciate the scale of its discriminatory practices. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has slammed Israel for these practices which prevent Palestinians from exercising their most basic civil rights, including the right to freedom of movement within its borders, rights to access and security of land, rights to education and employment as well as public privileges, as well as the right to return. Israel’s official, and illegitimate position, is that the Convention does not apply to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet the policies of segregation are so deeply embedded in Israel’s legal landscape that nothing short of a blanket equality provision, such as those created in post-apartheid South Africa, would begin to redress the balance created. The effective requirements of discrimination law might enable the beginnings of a single, fair and equitable state for both Jewish and Palestinian peoples, but there is no political appetite for this. The only remaining answer for a people de-humanized within their own borders is to seek political independence. Yet the international community, for all their talk of human rights and democracy, is unwilling to support their bid for independence either.

The only remaining hope, then, for the Palestinians, is for the international community to speak out with passion against a legal regime that segregates the communities in a way that America ought to be ashamed to support, given its own recent history. The sad, terrible truth for Palestinians is that nobody dares speak up for them in a forum that really matters. Amongst the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the fear of upsetting the United States is so great that Britain and France dare not engender its wrath by voting in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Obama and Sarkozy are right to say that Netanyahu has lied and bullied his way into a position where nobody dare criticize Israel publicly. They are wrong, though, to be so afraid to need to make their own criticisms behind a mask of secrecy. In order to force change for the Palestinian people, the world’s leaders need to have the formidable belief and purpose that David Cameron and Prince William have shown the global community this week in pursuit of the fundamental right to wear the poppy.  Palestinians are, perhaps, slightly more fed up than Obama. They, too, have to deal with Netanyahu every single day. If only the Palestinians had the patriotic fortunes of pinning everything on the petals of a poppy.

November 13th 2011.

Alice in the Looking Glass: No, We Can’t.

Ten years on, America and Britain could do with a shiny, big mirror above their collective warming hearths, for they need to look deeply into their national souls.

The transatlantic relationship is forged as much by a grand messiah complex as by their devastated market policies.  A common propaganda of ethical integrity, bringing civilised values to the wider world in the battle of good versus evil has been hardly dampened by three wars, none of them successful. The war in Afghanistan sits like an ugly blister on the side of their national nose, swollen with a cancerous pus just out of their immediate vision. The war in Iraq has been reduced to a “lesson” in what to be done the next time, casting away any shadows from the Bradley Mannings and David Kellys of a collective conscience. WMD is a national joke with no fallout. There is impunity for  their decision makers, for the people who are directly responsible for the deaths and damage caused to thousands, if not millions. The stains on their armies, even as human rights lawyers talk of maybe hundreds more ‘Baha Moussas’ are dismissed as a few bad apples. In the US, body bags are buried from cameras and in the UK, the average man still believes the British army are a force for good in the world. Civil liberties and human rights laws won and built over centuries are flicked away as an unnecessary entrapment  created by hungry lawyers. And their big business profits whilst they pander to a distorted vision that they saved the Middle East from itself, even as their spooks laze by the marble-lined pool of other dictators.

All this collective destruction in the name of an enemy that barely exists, and barely existed. As Barack Obama exhorts the wane of Al Qaeda in his 9/11 memorial, the ghost of Osama Bin Laden must be dancing with his girls in paradise.  His greatest accomplishment was surely not the killing of 3000 innocent people on that day but the planting of the great new fiction that Al Qaeda was a global army that could pull the West away from itself. The fiction frog-spawned. For ten years, the governments of the US and UK have relied on that fiction to pummel wars and promote an agenda that has left domestic policies, and populations, in tatters.

Today, the US and UK need to look long and hard in that tenth anniversary mirror, and reflect on who is better off today. It would be gracious for one of their leaders to remember and record that the crashing of those planes into the Twin Towers led to the deaths of countless thousands more. Iraq Body Count puts estimated deaths there alone now at over 1 million. The vanity of Britain and the US must end. Alice stared into the Looking Glass and announced: Yes, We Can.

If the leaders of Britain and America dare look into the fabled mirror, they ought finally to understand that they did not save the world.

No, Messrs Obama and Cameron, We Can’t.

September 11th 2011.


London Burning through a Syrian Telescope

As Syria’s teenagers fight on the streets for their basic freedoms, Britain’ s teenagers are spilling onto the streets to fight for their right to trainers, Playstations and, even, baby clothes.

As Egyptian youth have crowded onto their national squares to protest as peacefully as possible that their repressive government steps down, English youth seek to burn and destroy their own communities, without even being able to express why.

Free stuff versus Freedom. Politics versus Playstations. One society demands an end to tanks on the streets whilst the other is almost begging for tanks to fill the streets.

What’s wrong with them, everyone is asking? When did our society all break down?

A few, eager to push their own political causes, respond that their rights are not met, their needs are ignored. Perhaps this is true. Young men and women of job-seeking age in the inner cities unquestionably feel the despair of no prospects, no hope, no future, and the immediate pain of government cuts. But many of the kids last night were mere children, too young to seriously question their futures, interested only in what they could grab and run, without a thought for the damage done to life or livelihood.

Do the youth of Cairo and Damascus, with even less prospects, hope or future, seek to destroy rather than build?

Arab, Greek and Spanish recent riots have been entirely political, focused on a goal, people determined to ensure that they were heard. Riots are made by the unheard of society, said Martin Luther King. But away from the specific events of Saturday night in Tottenham which were at least in part triggered by the death of Michael Duggan, it would be a surprise if any or many of the kids rampaging through the streets last night, or tonight in Manchester, have even heard of Michael Duggan. What are the politics of these riots? True it may be that these rioters represent an unheard section of society, but last night was not about being heard. It was more about mentality of the herd, spread by BBM as they claimed streets and bicycles and flatscreen televisions.

It was not about shaping society, like in Tunis or Cairo, but puncturing it.

These balaclava-covered youngsters might hate the police, but they cant articulate why they prevented fire brigades reaching burning buildings. Perhaps we didn’t give them the tools to articulate why. Or the schools didn’t. Or their parents didn’t. Or the social worker didn’t. But, they knew that people might die if the fire brigades were blocked. And still they blocked. Are they the sharp-edge-symptom of a society that finds it easy to blame, and less easy to accept blame?  Is British society to blame for the scenes more reminiscent of war-time Beirut, Baghdad, Bosnia or Benghazi than the leafy suburbia of Ealing or Clapham?

Perhaps our society has accepted low level violence as a norm for too long? Boorish British behaviour abroad, teenagers bandying about knives in schools or on buses, wars against other countries bearing the language of the enemy? Is that why these teenagers brought might London to its knees, so that we may have a taste of the civil strife we have inflicted on other nations? Not even the fiercest apologist could seriously suggest that. Given the age and greed-grabbing character of the rioters last night, morality was hardly a concern. So, whose fault is it?

Perhaps we, as a society, strived hard to pretend that the violent and impoverished estates on the back step to our grossly expensive houses did not exist. Perhaps we walked past without ever looking. Perhaps we collectively agreed not to make eye contact with groups of children and teenagers on the street when they passed, in case we “brought trouble on ourselves”, in case they were members of gangs. The gangs that terrorise each other in those violent and impoverished estates that can be found in every borough in the capital. Perhaps we ignored the boredom that faced these children as youth centres and libraries and social welfare programmes were cut, and cut and cut. Perhaps we never saw the irony of what it meant to be “at war”, as we fought wars away from home, not realising that the wealth of our democracy had not reached everyone. Perhaps we thought it was ok to have a society divided into where we could go, and where we dared not go. Perhaps we took our eyes of internal infernos after September 11th and placed them firmly on external ones. And most definitely maybe we forgot to notice the people who could not take part in our consumerist addiction, the consumerism on which our society is now founded.

And we could go on, and on , and on. We could blame ourselves, and we would be right to do so because societies don’t break down without participation from everyone, just as they don’t become cohesive without common glue.

But to blame ourselves without blaming these children, without questioning their parents and guardians, would be irresponsible and stupid. These riots were not about political alienation or what it meant to live on the fringes of society, even if that might form part of the story. The riots were built not just on greed, but on an utter lack of respect and value, for anybody else or anything else. They burned homes and communities, it seems, just because they could. Because they felt no respect or value or link to those communities. A shopkeeper in Ealing described the ravaging hordes as “feral rats”. Bands of boys and girls in balaclavas who actively set out to menace local populations and hold them to ransom whilst they looted for fun, and the thrill of it.

Make no mistake, we need to blame these children. Their stupidity, selfishness and violence have wrought destruction and despair on much of Britain over the last 48 hours. They need to be forced to take responsibility for actions conducted in the spirit of impunity on a lazy summer night. Their actions bear no resemblance to the fortitude and bravery of the youth of the Arab Spring, who have tried to force their leaders face up to the consequences of state brutality, conducted in the spirit of impunity.. We need to blame the parents too, and a culture in which a responsible adult is no longer entitled to question a child who is not their own. Anger, boredom and frustration are no apology for the behaviour of the rioters over these last couple of days, for there is nothing political about wanton destruction.

But then, once the blaming, naming and shaming is done, we need to ask the fundamental questions of our society and our political system.  What does it mean for the fringes of our consumer society when they can’t get in, or climb in, or be allowed into the worship of goods that they cannot afford? Why and how have we built a society in which our teenagers do not need to fight for the right to vote but still feel disenfranchised to the degree that they can hold our cities hostage? And how have we managed to create, or allowed to stagnate, a section of our young population where respect and community mean nothing at all?

Down the other end of that telescope, however, Syrian and Egyptian teenagers must be scratching their heads and asking tonight: why are these people waging wars on their very own people? Why are they burning their neighbours’ houses and cars?


August 9th 2011.

Amritsar: Reflections on the Past

An insightful new exhibition at London’s Brunei Gallery promises to be the most interesting collection of Sikh arts, artefacts and history in the capital since the V&A’s major exhibition on Sikh art in 1999.

Identity shifts

Amongst the familiar assortment of nineteenth century miniature paintings of the Lahore court, and a resplendent set of warrior’s armour from that same nineteenth century court, the exhibition’s unusual touch lies in the emphasis placed on the literary and photographic perspectives of nineteenth century European travellers to this sacred city which lies at the spiritual centre of Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest religions. A world timeline pits Amritsar’s development against global events and is a useful barometer of how the city began to develop and change between the Middle Ages and the Victorian era. The gradual shift in attitudes towards an individual identity, both in an Indian and an international context are demonstrated by well-considered curation that explore external perceptions of a culture that is not well-known beyond its immediate historical context.

“The fascinating Eastern-ness of it all”

Amristar’s mysticism, “the fascinating Eastern-ness of it all”, has long fascinated travellers to India, even up to the modern day. Set in a dusty northern Indian city just before the plains give way to the grace of the Himalayas, the splendour and serenity of the Golden Temple seem always to have come as a distinct surprise to the visitor, “an illustration of an Arabian night fairy scene”, said J.B. Ireland in 1859. “It is called golden because the upper part of it is gilt all over, like the dome of the Isaac’s Church in Petersburg. There is a great deal of mosaic work on the marble of the temple and nothing can be prettier than the gilding of the interior, which is more like what people in England associate with the Alhambra than anything else which occurs to me. It is very small, little more than a chapel. The Capella Palatina at Palermo comes into one’s mind, but the feeling of the Golden Temple is quite different, and much more riant”, wrote Montstuart E. Grant Duff in Notes of an Indian Journey (1876). Amritsar, set in the crossroads of the Greek, Persian and British invasions into India, somehow reflects it all.

Black and white

The exhibition features paintings and photographs only as far as 1959, partly because the temple has not changed greatly in the last fifty years and partly because the advent of colour photography meant that modern coppery images of the temple do not convey the sense of a distinct past that the curators intended viewers to reflect upon. In particular, there was a deliberate decision not to bring the exhibition up to date to reflect major political shifts and disturbances in the late twentieth century, notably the invasion of the temple by Indira Gandhi’s government and subsequent massacres of Sikh communities in Amritsar and north India in 1984. With so much other material focusing on that period, the individuals concerned with the project wanted visitors to reflect on what the past meant to Sikh identity, and how that was viewed by outsiders, rather than the definitions which have been cast upon it by insiders and outsiders today.

Juga Singh, one of the organisers, explains that there is a common tendency by people to cling onto their past, or more accurately, their nostalgic vision of a past. “But the past is not static”, he says, “and if people try to claim it is such, they are warping their own past and history. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, himself was a revolutionary forging change in a time of great disturbance in India, but like all the Gurus of the Sikh religion, they were sages of their particular eras. They saw the need to re-interpret knowledge in a modern way in their time, and now people need to do the same”. The message is not lost as I walk around the exhibition. It forces you to ask why the building was built, why it has such strong Moorish and Muslim architectural features such as the Ramgarhia minarets, why the temple was built where it was, and how its features and tenements changed over time.

Why, I ask Singh, was the pool of immortality which surrounds the central tenet of the Temple so small when there is such a large area of space for buildings? Singh explains that in India, historically there was no sense of congregation. Prayer, he says, was a personal contemplation between the believer and his god. The idea of congregation came from the Islamic and Christian traditions, and thus a space for congregation is created in the faith, through the langar food hall and external bunga buildings which were centres of learning until they were demolished in the reform movements of 1947, post-Partition.


The 1959 break in the exhibition is also an unspoken acknowledgement of the substantial changes that the religion, and its chief city, were undergoing during the first half of the twentieth century. There is early twentieth century film and aural footage, which hauntingly sings out the religious hymns, or kirtan, by Muslim rababis, representing Bhai Mardana, the Sufi Muslim companion to the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak. The Muslim singers were a composite part of the temple’s structure until Partition forced them out. By the late 1950s, the tradition of Muslim singers in the precinct had disappeared along with the thousands of Muslim residents of Amritsar who had crossed over to Lahore and Pakistan when the new borders were determined in 1947. The demolition of the bungas also marked the determinative shift from a more inclusive Sikh identity, which reflected a bygone India, to a more fundamental need to identify who constituted a Sikh.

Davinder Toor, one of the chief lenders to the exhibition, explained to me that even in today’s India, a Sikh may frequently visit a Sikh gurdwara, a Hindu mandir (temple) and the shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint. None of that precludes him from considering himself a Sikh, and the exhibition shows that Amritsar itself defined itself in those terms during the nineteenth century. Photographs show Tibetan people and Hindu Sadhus wandering around the pool. The exhibition focuses on these subtle twists and turns in identity without ever forcing the visitor to resolve the questions posed.

Perspectives from the inside-out?

I asked Davinder Toor why they focused on European perspectives of Amritsar, rather than Indian viewpoints. “It’s appropriate to the theme of British Indians and of the exhibition taking place in London”, he says. “It focuses on the ‘outside looking in’. People who are outside a culture can have a unique viewpoint of it, and that is a valuable asset in itself. We see that the early travellers reflected positively on the inclusiveness of Amritsar, and that is something which today’s generation and community need to consider themselves.”

Set against black and white images of the ancient heart of Amritsar, whose buildings and lanes looks remarkably similar today , the words of Robert Chauvelot, author of Mysterious India (1921) ring in my ears as I leave the gallery:

“This sacred metropolis contains a marvel which the most blasé eye cannot contemplate without profound artistic emotion…There are no other guardians to protect these riches from theft or spoliation other than a few old turbaned fellows who are without arms. One would say that a sort of sacred terror protects their temple against any profane or sacrilegious violence.”

I left the exhibition contemplating whether the spiritual riches of an inclusive faith could survive in a world increasingly dominated by the need to demonstrate an allegiance to a particular God, and a particular way of being. I left wondering whether the serenity instilled by that inclusive approach, and so evidenced by the reflections of the past, brought together here at the Brunei Gallery, would bring food for thought to our multicultural, multi-faith London. Are there lessons in the past for us all, regardless of our religious identities?

July 14th 2011


Pakistan – Running on Empty?

Yesterday’s announcement that Bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad by the US in a covert operation which was not disclosed even to the Pakistani government is another damning indictment for a country that the world continues to ignore at its peril.  As Afghanistan continues to be tormented by internal and external forces, Pakistan has long been a far greater threat to regional and world stability.

Political bankruptcy: Regression not progression

Pakistan has been running on empty for decades. This political bankruptcy has been fuelled by its ostensible ally, the US in the furtherance of its Cold war policies and latterly in the creation of a so-called AfPak policy, as well as an obsessive hatred of India that has left it lurching dangerously towards the regression of its western neighbours of Afghanistan and Iran, rather than chasing the progression being sought on its Eastern borders in India and China. For a country where the masses are slumming in poverty, illiteracy and political indifference, Pakistan has been on the verge of dangerous bankruptcy for years. As the world starts to pose the questions as to what, who and when Pakistan knew that they were sheltering America’s most wanted target  – and there can be absolutely no doubt that significant numbers of people in Pakistan did know Bin Laden was living in a preposterous mansion in the hill-station like atmosphere of Abbotabad  – it is time to pierce the veneer of an allied relationship and for Pakistanis, and their allies, to force the country’s politicians to come clean. If that will not happen, as the incompetent President and Prime Ministerial team continue to hold their country to ransom, it is time for the world to seriously reconsider relationships with a country whose dysfunctionality has torn apart its own life, and is wrecking lives outside its borders too.

The tangible folly of nuclear 

A decade ago, India and Pakistan came close to their fourth war since Independence. Both countries are armed with nuclear weapons. Both countries were backed in their quest for madness by further support and sales from the US, UK and Israel. Notwithstanding the many legitimate questions to be asked about the nuclear capabilities in both countries, the threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear folly is tangible and terrifying. Governments are routinely toppled in Pakistan, and then controlled by shadowy forces lurking in the army, intelligence and fundamentalist groups that play to popular prejudices spawned by a lack of basic education which is instead provided by madrassas backed by Saudi Arabia and the Taliban. Meanwhile, the governments of the last decade have pandered to US demands to use the country as a base from which to attack Afghanistan, whilst simultaneously allowing it to drone-attack the Pakistani civilian population. Hatred of America and India leaves this suffering population in between rocks of hate, with no tools to get past the self-destruct button which seems to be being slowly pressed over Pakistan across the last decade. That twilight zone has fostered a culture in which the intelligence agencies can and do control the tiniest  fraction. In those circumstances, there can be little doubt today that Pakistan’s ISI not only knows about the ‘terrorists’ it is harbouring, but actively supports them. BL will not have been the only one.

A few questions for the ISI

Here are just a few questions one might be thinking of asking the ISI today:

1)   Who owned the house in which BL was living?

2)   Who built it, on what date and under whose instructions?

3)   Did anyone in that mansion pay taxes? If not, why not?

4)   How many people lived in the house?

5)   Who provided the general security for the house?

6)   Under whose name was electricity, water and other civil provision supplied?

7)   Who were the nearest neighbours?

8)   Couriers no doubt delivered mail and parcels. Who were the courier companies? Who watched them?

9)   Where did the household buy its food from? Did nobody ever notice them, or their staff as they went about the daily business of living?

10)                  If BL was, in fact, in need of dialysis, were there doctors visiting the house? Who were they?

11)                  Did the local military academy, perhaps akin to Sandhurst, perform routine checks to establish who was living down the road from them? In a country that has become victim to bombings and targetings, if no such checks were performed, why not?

12)                  Is it even possible that neighbours in a wealthy suburb chose not to enquire about the new millionaires down the road who perhaps kept themselves to themselves?

A burial at sea

There are many valid questions about the operation this morning, not least why America would choose to bury Bin Laden at sea so rapidly without at least allowing independent press verification of the body. The conspiracy theories are already at work and America has just made its own job much harder for absolutely no reason at all. Another 12 hours even could have ensured such verification, and suppressed decades of rumours about what is already being discussed as a martyrdom amongst some commentators on some of the Arabic news channels.

But the tough questions are for Pakistan..

But the real questions this morning are about how the world intends to react to Pakistan’s incompetence, negligence or wilful support for terrorist activity that is not only corroding its own country from within, but which has spat out that venom to its neighbours, and the world at large. In truth, BL had become an irrelevance over the last years, amidst two massive wars and then the uprisings that have become known as the Arab Spring. But the political, military and intelligence culture in Pakistan that has allowed its own population to become both victims, both physically and intellectually, is now dangerously out of control and with no sign that that an equivalent Arab spring is on the horizon in Pakistan after years of corrupt, vengeful and twisted leadership, the pretence of an allied relationship with Pakistan must be over.  It is neither in Indian, American or British interest to sever ties or diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan completely for it is only the head of an almost irrelevant snake that has been cut off by this killing, and Pakistan will need an intelligent form of support to be pulled through these dark days. The Pakistani Taliban, after years of nurture and influence both from Saudi Arabia and the ISI, appears to be running out of control within Pakistan’s borders and the outside world needs to know what is happening inside. Either the world waits  on tiptoes to see what happens next, or it forces Pakistan to answer the tough questions which it owes to its own people, and to the world. Pakistan has been running on empty for decades, and if it will not or cannot control the lunacy which leaks down from the highest levels of its own government, reliant on a blanket policy of impunity both at home and abroad ,it is time for the external fuel lines to be cut sharply. In a decade where the word “terrorist” has become used as an excuse for a calamity of other atrocities on people, including attacks on civil liberties across the world, it should still be legitimate to require a state which actively deploys hatred as a policy tool to come clean or to be sidelined from the global community. Pakistan’s bankrupt political system should no longer be tolerated or mollycoddled in the interests of somebody else’s ‘big picture’.

May 3rd 2011.