Sunday, June 14, 2015

Write in "times of dread", says Toni Morrison

My dear family, friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers,

One year into the reign of the "Modi Sarkar", I am reminded of a piece "No Place for Self-Pity, No Place for Fear" that Toni Morrison wrote for the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation. She recounts:

"Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush. I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless.

"Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine—and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed."


Here she notes:

"Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.

"This is the first step of a despot whose instinctive acts of malevolence are not simply mindless or evil; they are also perceptive. Such despots know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.

"Their plan is simple:

1. Select a useful enemy—an “Other”—to convert rage into conflict, even war.

2. Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists.

3. Distract with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion or defiant national pride that enshrine past hurts and humiliations."


During these "times of dread", what I have called "the dark days ahead", we can each make our own list of how each of these steps were executed by the "Modi Sarkar" during their first year in power.

And "This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

Your support is my strength.

Peace and love - Joe.
Pune, India; 14 June 2015.

Friday, June 5, 2015

"Who am I?" By Gia Claudette Fernandes

My dear family, friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers,

One year has passed since 16 May 2014, when I wrote three stark words -- "dark days ahead" -- to describe the darkness that had descended in to our lives with the election of the Modi Sarkar.

After the news-paper article "I feel I am on a hit list" by Julio Ribeiro (Indian Express, 17 March 2015),  I came across another free, frank, fearless -- and fair -- blog-post, "Who am I?" (The Cloudcutter Chroncicles, 15 April 2015) by one of my favourite bloggers Cloudcutter (Gia Claudette Fernandes).

Here she describes the beef ban in Maharashtra as "another nail in the coffin of our culture and freedom. This is cultural genocide". She adds, "And it has been slowly gaining momentum as far back as I can remember."

Here is her say in full:


Who Am I?

By Gia Claudette Fernandes (Cloudcutter)
Why don’t we realize what this beef ban really means? It’s not just about banning the killing of and eating the flesh of cows, the cows that are considered sacred by the majority and food by the minority.

This is just another nail in the coffin of our culture and freedom. This is cultural genocide and it has been slowly gaining momentum as far back as I can remember.

I belong to a Catholic family. I was baptized a month after I was born, I received my First Holy Communion at age 8 and my Confirmation when I was 13. When I got married at 27, it was in a church in accordance to Catholic laws. I was even educated at Catholic institutions – beginning with Auxilium Convent in Bombay, then St. Joseph’s Convent boarding school in Panchgani, and later St. Xavier’s College in Bombay. But throughout these phases and even now, I have known of and understood other religions and cultures in India. I have been wished “Happy Good Friday” and asked why non-Catholics are not offered “prasad” in our churches (this is in reference to the Holy Communion host handed out during mass. While majority of my friends and acquaintances are Hindu and extremely lovely people, I have always felt marginalized by society in general.

Why do I feel marginalized? Hindus go abroad and settle in Western countries and take their culture with them. They build huge temples and organize festivals and enjoy complete religious freedom. I am 100% Indian and so were my ancestors. I was born here, I have always lived here, and will die here. I have never travelled abroad, except to Bangkok some years ago and that was for a week maybe or even less.

But every time I do something ‘Catholic’ I am made to feel guilty. If I want to attend midnight mass, I have to go to church at 9:30 pm. If I want to attend a Catholic wedding reception, I have to stop dancing at 10:30 pm. If I want to pray, I have to do it within the confines of my home or church. All this while Muslims in Dharavi block one half of the road during Friday namaaz, and Hindus celebrate each and every festival with loudspeakers day and night. They block roads and traffic, throw colour and water on me if I venture out on Holi, and when they organize apartment building get-togethers, apartments inhabited by people of different religions, they do it by conducting Satyanarayan pooja and serving vegetarian food, cooked in my parking space without my permission, and force me to attend.

And I have to suffer through all of this in silence because I am a ‘minority’. I hate that word. Why should we be divided into minorities and majorities based on religion? Minority is just another excuse to marginalize. If I am an Indian, I should have full right to practice my faith and honour my cultural traditions just like everyone else.

If I eat beef and pork, I have to hide it from my Hindu and Muslim neighbours. I even have to hide it from Hindu and Muslim maids because they will refuse to work for me. Some years ago, when I lived in Madras, I worked in an office where the majority was Hindu. Once while having lunch in the cafeteria someone asked me what I was eating and why I wasn’t offering it to her. I said you can’t have it because it’s beef. “Beef!!!” “You’re eating beef!!!” she shrieked, and all the other Tam-Bram women in their leather shoes and clutching their leather bags looked at me with such contempt that I wished I would disappear into thin air.

Everything I do as a Catholic is offensive to others. If I voice my opinion, I am asked to go to the West because I follow a ‘Western’ religion. Christianity has been in India for hundreds of years but I’m still not Indian enough for you? Buddhism originated in India and then spread to Japan and other places. Do you hear practicing Buddhists in those countries being accused of not being ethnic enough? 
Again, I repeat, count the number of huge and not to mention, cash rich Hindu temples abroad. But we can’t build churches in our own home country. Existing churches are being attacked and burnt. Christians are being accused of conversions. But when Julia Roberts is in the news for embracing Hinduism and renaming her kids Mahalaxmi and Ganapati, it’s applauded. Please understand that I am completely against forced conversions of any kind. 
But my point is while Hindus take pride in spreading their culture all over the world, they feel threatened by me here at home.

How insecure does the majority feel that they have to constantly try to clamp us down? What lies ahead for us now? Personally for me, this is a huge blow because I love beef. It’s my favourite meat. Not only that, I need it as part of my diet. I cannot eat carbohydrates and need more protein and fat and beef is a more affordable and not to mention, delicious source for me. Last year, I found out that my vitamin B12 level was dangerously low – only 96 while the normal range should be within 400 to 800! So I started eating beef more regularly, along with eggs and chicken and fish. I also had to take shots and am still on a high-dose of B12 supplements. I know there are other dietary sources of B12 but I love it dammit! 

And before you point out that I’ve been eating buffalo meat anyway, please understand that I know my meat very well. I know how to buy it, cook it and eat it very well. And I can certainly tell the difference between cow and buffalo meat. I may have eaten buffalo meat at certain restaurants and places but I’ve eaten a lot of cow meat as well. It’s superior and it’s fabulous and if you tell me there’s no difference between cow and buffalo meat, then please go bury your taste buds. I will send flowers.

The other day while discussing the beef ban in Maharashtra my mother said, “This is why I’ve always been telling you to settle down abroad. Catholics will never be comfortable in India.” Is that my only choice now? Is that a solution? I can’t live and breathe freely because of the ridiculous and cruel diktats of others? And before you point out the religious extremism in places like Ireland and Saudi Arabia, let me tell you that I do not support that either.

Besides, I’m talking about my country, India. Last time I checked, this was a democracy, a secular country. A place where people of all faiths and cultures are treated as equal.

Finally, for those who don’t know me well personally. Here are some facts:
  1. I am not a practicing Catholic. I only attend church with my parents on occasions such as Christmas and Easter. I do not say the rosary or offer novenas at St. Michael’s Church in Mahim.
  2. I love the philosophy of Hinduism. I am fascinated by the beauty of age-old traditions and beliefs that have a base in science and practicality. One of my favourite things to do is visit ancient Hindu temples. I love the architecture and intricate details. I’ve travelled to Khajuraho, Kanchipuram, Tiruvanalamai and Mahabalipuram just to see the temples. I plan to visit as many temple towns as I can before I die. I love spending time in ancient temples, walking on the same surface that was once touched by people who lived thousands of years before me. Ganesha and Shiva are my favourite Hindu gods. I love collecting Ganeshas and shivlings in various materials – glass, marble, sandstone, granite etc.
  3. Every morning, I practice pranayama, say the Gayatri mantra, and chant Aum in sync with my breathing. This is how I begin my day. Bet you’re shocked now, aren’t you? I do this because it makes me feel good, de-stresses me and fills me with peace and calm. When I’m disciplined enough, I do the Surya Namaskar (sun salutations). One of my desires is to someday dress up as a Hindu bride and have my hands and feet covered in intricate designs of henna. 
So what am I then? Am I a Hindu or a Catholic? And why do I care so much about Catholics if I don’t even go to church regularly? The answer is that I am both and I am neither. I am an Indian and I should have the freedom to follow what I like. I am not religious at all, not even spiritual.

But I do certain things because I like them and they make me feel good. As much as I love Hindu temples, I also love churches and chapels. I can sit inside them for hours lost in a trance of peace and calm. I’m always drifting off during mass, mostly because I’ve forgotten my prayers, but sometimes, I find my eyes welling up and feel the urge to cry. Sitting there, surrounded by the devout and faithful, all my hurt and pain and unfulfilled dreams come to the fore. And I feel like crying. And I feel good because it puts me in touch with my inner self.

I feel the same when I chant Aum or say the Gayatri mantra. But I love beef and pork and fish and chicken and mutton and eggs and alcohol and sex.

What does that make me? You decide.


Like Gia, I was born a Roman Catholic, but left the religion when I in the mid-1970s.

However, I have been passionate in my defence of what I call "minority" identities -- whether religious, sex/gender (LGBT), language (like my own mother-tongue Konkani) or tribal and indigneous peoples (like the tribes "jailed" in reservations in USA; or the aboriginals of Australia and New Zealand).

Thank U, my dear Gia, for so freely, frankly, fearlessly -- and fairly -- putting it down.

Your support is my strength.

Peace and love - Joe Pinto, Pune, India, 5 June 2015.