More light, less heat
An anthology of diverse essays that ably tackles obscenity and moral policing
By Ajmal Kamal
Uryani, Fohsh-nigari aur Akhlaqi Ehtesab
Edited by Ali Iqbal
Publisher: Royal Book Company, 2011
Price: Rs 1250
By putting the following couplet by Allama Iqbal, taken from his his book Baal-e Jibreel, at the beginning of the anthology under review, the editor, Ali Iqbal, has pointed towards the process of change in social values that was initiated some 150 years ago, when our society began its long and tortuous journey towards modernity, usually condemned by the conservative sections as Westernization:
Any process of change in a society, in fact, signifies the pressures that society’s accepted values are undergoing due to changed circumstances. The subject of this thorough study, in the form of a rich selection of pieces from an impressive number of Urdu and English sources — i.e. nudity, obscenity and moral policing — constitutes something which is considered highly sensitive by the custodians of public morals. This sensitivity is much more pronounced in our society, because the political course that we have opted for as a nation is anti-change and our "collective conscience" seems to call for the revival of social values that have been discarded long ago by progressing times.
Denial of reality can be taken as the defining feature of our "national" mindset, and it is true for our public reactions to what is usually lumped together, condemned and campaigned against as uryani aur fahashi. In his preface, Ali Iqbal hints at the inadequacy of this all-encompassing and outrageous phrase. He says that whereas nudity could be defined as an aesthetic concept, what constitutes obscenity is related to sociology and, as such, all complicated societies develop their own concepts of na-shaistagi and adaab-shikani. Needless to say, such social mores and etiquettes are far from absolute or permanent; they keep changing with the change in society.
The pieces that make up this neatly laid out selection include essays exploring the aesthetic, socio-political and moral issues involved (those from English have been adequately translated by Ali Iqbal himself); passages from social and literary criticism; excerpts from journalistic and religious writings; and historical documents such as statements submitted to courts of law as well as texts of court verdicts. All these pieces present a whole spectrum of opinions expressed around these issues at different stages of this ongoing debate.
However, the most intriguing part of the book constitutes nine detailed lists, painstakingly put together by Iqbal, at the end of the volume. These lists of names —famous, infamous and relatively unknown— have been made on the basis of solid evidence with proper references and excerpts, and are very revealing. For instance, Iqbal presents two passages from the writings of Khushwant Singh and Shaukat Thanvi which bring out that Allama Iqbal, of all people, also indulged in what used to be safely tucked away in the box labelled "obscene poetry" which, according to the so-called Eastern values, remained confined to his close friends and never made it to the print.
And, the Allama’s poetry is not the only example of this kind. Our traditional social values did provide space for the off-the-view aspirations — of both literary and physical varieties — of the rich and the powerful. The poetry meant to be enjoyed within a closed circle of friends belonging to the same background was one such space; the sustenance of an entire community of sex workers —condemned and forced to carry on the humiliating, ancestral occupation — was another. This, and not the words or images accused of instigating sexual desire in the reader or the viewer was obscenity in the true sense of the word. This is what Dr. Manzoor Ahmad points to in his foreword to the book when he says that convergence of wealth into the hands of a few and the life at a sub-human level forced on a large majority of citizens is what should be considered as obscene, no matter if it may not be looked at as such by many people.
Those from our society — artists, writers, teachers and social activists —who got access to and imbibed the values cherished by modern education and ideas of humanism and justice challenged the basic injustice and inhumanity of the values that were inherent in our traditional social system. Saadat Hasan Manto is one glowing example of such perceptive and courageous voices. He was the one who saw and felt the ugliness and obscenity of the social set-up which privileges hypocrisy and duplicity and forces a vast majority of people to lead meaningless, slavish lives, so that those who wield power and privilege can have a hell of a time. No wonder he faced court cases for several of his hard-hitting and provocative writings on the pretext of being injurious to public morals, although, as Muzaffar Ali Syed once pointed out, the real reason for these cases was provided by Manto’s clear-cut political stance.
The matter of obscenity in literature, art or media, seen in the background of our stagnant anti-change politics, is therefore a political matter. The book features a rare critical essay by Mohammad Hasan Askari, which belongs to the time before he surrendered to the forces of obscurantism in society and which presents a strong and effective defence of the representatives of new poetry (of the 1930s and 1940s) in Urdu — Faiz, Rashid, Miraji, Firaq, Jazbi, Makhmoor and Akhtar-ul-Iman — against accusations of hedonism and obscenity. In his lucid moments, Askari was capable of producing such gems as could be seen in this essay. "Morality for you," he challenges the accusers, "means nothing except which woman you can sleep with and which one you cannot." Criticising the impulse of the custodians of morals for suffocating the society, he says, "To be concerned about young women’s morals too is a commendable sentiment; however, as long as you do not arrange for their sexual education, anything could prove provocative for them. Going by my observation, our girls take the first lesson in sexual pleasure from Bahishti Zewar."
"More Heat than Light" is the title of a famous essay by Maurice Girodias, the founder of Olympia Press and publisher of erotic fiction by Henry Miller and others, taken from the book To deprave and corrupt: Original studies in the nature and definition of obscenity. Ali Iqbal has translated this important and illuminating essay for his own anthology, which, to my mind, produces more light than heat. I congratulate him for this work of great social and academic significance.
A memoir, travelogue and historical document rolled into one
By Altaf Hussain Asad
Yadon Kay Saye
By Atiq Siddiqui
Publisher: Takhleeqat Publishers
Price: Rs 240
"This is war and nobody is following any sort of principles. You know that even war must follow some sort of principles. So, this is not even a war as human beings have turned into barbarians. Last week, people butchered each other in Calcutta and nearly six thousands people lost their lives. This is a battle of wolves and they are trying to kill each other", states Maharaj Singh ruefully.
He was in Cairo when Atiq Siddiqui spotted him and they started chatting on the latest political situation of the Indian subcontinent. He was referring to the Direct Action Day observed by the Muslim League which turned into a killing spree in Calcutta in August 1946. His evaluation of the political scenario sends shivers down one's spine. He belonged to UP and also served as the member of the assembly. He further claims that if Congress and Muslim League didn't arrive at any understanding, a deluge of blood will redden the subcontinent in the coming years.
We all know how his prophecy became a reality when millions of Hindus and Muslims butchered each other on the eve of partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Atiq Siddiqui, the author of Yadon Kay Saye, recounts his years spent wandering in Egypt, Iran and Iraq. A nationalist by heart and a Congress sympathiser, Siddiqui started his career as a lower cadre in the Air Force, but his restless heart kept him always on the move.
On the recommendation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, he joined the Indian Army Public Relations where his job was to produce entertainment programmes for Indian soldiers during World War II. Siddiqui travelled to Iraq, Iran and Egypt in connection with his duties.
Siddiqui chanced to work under Noon Meem Rashed in Tehran but he mentions it in passing. On the other hand, when he happens to meet any damsel, he exerts all his writing skill to prove himself a Casanova. But one must compliment him as the narrative is interspersed with his candid observations on the culture of the country where he spent some time. Egypt was the country which became so close to his heart that he decided to stay there. It was also the time when he started working for the Arab League. Cairo used to be the centre of the political activities as all the flights from India used to stop there en route to England.
Siddiqui became an active member of the Indian Union - an association of the Indian people who were living in Cairo. With his political expertise and deep understanding of the intricacies of the scenario of that time, he became the general secretary of the Indian Union. Thus, he happened to meet many political stalwarts of the Indian politics in that capacity. A crestfallen Sir Agha Khan met him several times in Cairo and the author notes that he was a completely disillusioned man.
It was December 1946 when the author heard that top Indian political leadership would stay in Cairo while on their way to London to attend a conference. He welcomed the luminaries at the airport and thus got a chance to have a word with them. Meeting with Jinnah turns out to be a pleasant surprise for Siddiqui as Jinnah showed him utmost warmth, dispelling the impression that he wasn't very warm. Jinnah told him to set up an Indian Muslims Union instead of working in an Indian Union. Jinnah declined the offer of Siddiqui when he invited him to attend the proceedings of the Indian Union. Jinnah. Jinnah's polite demeanour also prompted Siddiqui to take a dig at the main leaders of the Muslim League like Liaqat Ali Khan, Fazlul Haq, Feroz Khan Noon etc. The author frankly tells Jinnah that he can't trust any other leader of Muslim League except him. At the end of the chat, Jinnah invited him to join Muslim League which the author declined.
Yadon Kay Saye is a memoir, travelogue and a historical document rolled into one. Atiq Siddiqui is no novice to the world of letters as he has translated and written a few books before.
It is always interesting to be in the United States when old and new politicians rise to their full heights to enter the presidential contest. Obama, the current President, will be the candidate for the Democrats; the serious wrangling is between those who want to gain the Republican Party’s nomination.
The two politicians who have already locked their horns are Messrs Romney and Perry. They are both die-hard conservative but while Rick Perry, the Texas governor, is a no-nonsense Christian, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is a Mormon. The supporters of Perry have declared that Mormons are not Christians and the issue will be a major factor among evangelical voters. The debates that they have had so far have been full of rhetorical excess.
One of the most interesting aspects of the American Presidential election is the almost daily report of the amount of money that each candidate has been able to raise for his electoral campaign. Romney has raised 15 million dollars so far; Perry, 18 million, (or is it the other way round?) and these are early days. The other day I heard the ex President Carter say on television that Obama will probably be able to raise a billion dollars. By the spring of 2012 a contender for the Presidency should have about three to four hundred million dollars before they can have any hopes of winning the contest. Why do we blame our parliamentarians for spending a few crores on their election campaign?
* * * * *
America has been in the grip of financial ailments for some years. A large number of people now live in poverty, their incomes having dropped substantially. The decline is, naturally, at the bottom of the economic ladder. This doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is a well-researched report that the United States is several rungs below other developed countries in the ability of people to better their lot in life.
The protest movement that began last month with the "Occupy Wall Street" sit-in at a New York City park has spread to more than 150 cities across the United States. Protesters in Washington have been strong enough to extend their occupation of a square near the White House by another four months. They claim they have a permit. Protesters in other parts of Washington D.C. are determined to stay put in their respective locations with or without a permit. They carry signs with slogans such as "Get money out of Politics" and "We don’t have a government that represents us." The sad joke these days is "If you want to live the American Dream, move to Finland."
The October 2011, "Stop the Machine" event in Washington’s Freedom Plaza drew a few thousand people. It was intended to protest against the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it soon encompassed a multigroup demonstration that decried Wall Street manoeuvring and corporate greed. When hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, their spokesmen went on television to say that the authorities should arrest the Wall Street bosses who were responsible for the country’s bankruptcy and not those who are making a protest.
"Occupy Wall Street" which is now an "Occupy Boston" and "Occupy D.C." slogan has proliferated into a "Stop the Machine" movement. It is drawing slowly growing numbers everyday. The protesters, who claim to have no leader, take decisions by consensus at daily open air meetings. What I saw in New York, during a city march, were large placards, saying "Where is the change we voted for?" Other signs showed how much less the wealthy will pay when the "millionaire’s tax" expires in December.
The Boston Globe, by no means a radical newspaper, reported that riot police surrounded a Boston square shortly after midnight and ordered protesters to disperse. When they refused, police moved in, shoved them to the ground, handcuffed them and dragged them off. The protestors went on chanting "The people united will never be defeated." The newspaper also reported that it was a peaceful protest. The "Boston police could not immediately be reached for comment" said the Boston Globe.
The protests, whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, are now focused against corporate greed and corrupt politics. The Supreme Court decision that the First Amendment protects corporate funding of political parties and political advertising is cementing anger. Many people, not necessarily the downtrodden, feel that the first step towards solving the country’s problems is campaign-finance reform. "Corporations have bought our government" is another slogan frequently seen during demonstrations.
The year 2011 has seen an unprecedented rise in both peaceful and violent unrest and dissent. The popular revolutions that have shaken up the Middle East have left their marks in Britain, Spain, Greece and now the United States. In London recently, thousands of protesters blocked the Westminster Bridge in anger at upcoming changes to Britain’s National Health Service. They took on slogans from the US protesters who describe themselves as "We’re the 99 percent" paying the price for mistakes by a tiny minority.
"Something deep may be happening to the social psychology of a generation" says Mr. Shirky, a professor at New York University. "If you look at what’s happened everywhere, there is some kind of psychological synchronisation."
New York’s "Occupy Wall Street" could be a promising development. It may be the latest sign of a global popular backlash against elites who govern in the name of democracy and whose rhetoric ‘We serve the people’ is now sounding hollower than ever.
With the economic outlook darkening, disparate groups around the world are knitting together a universal narrative of anger. It would not surprise anyone if an extended period of practically no economic growth galvanizes the emerging movements into a political force.
During the Bush years America was in the hands of an administration less interested than any previous government in sharing the truth with the citizenry. Related to this and of even greater concern was the administration’s lack of interest in the process by which the truth was ascertained. This much I gleaned from Al Gore’ incisive book The Assault on Reason that I have just gone through. Gore may have been the ‘most badly defeated Vice President’ in recent years, but he is a profound observer of American politics. It is worth quoting him:
"Even years after President Bush first made his case for an invasion of Iraq, it is now clear that virtually all the arguments he made were based on falsehoods."
Has Obama learned any lesson from this? So far he has been sympathetic to the protesters but if the protest turns into a real movement, which entails violent eruptions, will he dare to penalize the tycoons who caused the unrest? And if he does what would his chances of re election be?