Vartanama, May '18 (long read)
The summers just got that much more intense with some gripping cinema!
For instance, was it true that the Communist Party of India did not quite condemn the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 – as I remember my late school principal saying in geography class? But then expounding on history or the clash between ideology and nationalism is not my intention here. The film triggered off several memories and thoughts that I would like to share.
I was around three and living in Hind Motors Colony when Saroj Dutta is said to have gone ‘missing’ as per Kolkata Police’s version, or brutally executed by the police according to other narratives (which could well be the same thing). It’s not as if I have any vivid memories from those times. But as part of family lore, my mother would often joke that even as a toddler I had a temper that I must have imbibed from the Naxalbari movement. I was reputed to have slapped one of her friends who had taken liberties with tweaking my cheeks.
If the subject comes up, my mother still talks about the “extremely difficult time that the Naxalites put people through in the early 1970s”. But it was not as if this seemingly middle class perspective was entirely bereft of any consideration for the injustice that the Naxalbari movement was fighting against. It couldn’t have been, given my late father’s work as a labour welfare officer and mechanical engineer in two factories in West Bengal through most of the 1960s and 1970s. He felt strongly about the interests of labourers and acted on them too, often acting as a bridge between them and the management (and owners).
The stand my father took didn’t quite make him popular with the managements, which affected his career prospects as well as health. He felt extremely let down with the favouritism in the company he worked for in Hind Motors, and he was at least once denied a rightful promotion. To this date I remember the day he returned home dejected from office and burst into uncontrollable sobs, with my mother consoling him. She didn’t allow me into their room as she saw the shock on my face and shut the door. Not many years later (in 1976), my father quit the job and we shifted to Kolkata.
About a decade or so later, I became friends with someone in college whose father had worked as a labourer in the same company as my father in Hind Motors. My friend conveyed to me that his father remembered mine rather fondly for his work and commitment. As our friendship grew, I found myself trying to protect my new friend from barbs from classmates aimed at his inability to speak in English (he was the only student in class who had earlier studied in Hindi medium). In return, his company helped me overcome my sense of isolation in class as a gay person, though I didn’t come out to him until much later.
My mother as far as I can remember was always supportive and respectful of my father’s stand. She, in her own right, was no less thoughtful in how to treat the domestic workers employed in our home and till date makes sure to first allocate their share of daily meals. In the early 1980s, she raised funds for food and education for the poor in the neighbourhood of our first home in Kolkata. She learnt the hard way not to rely on some of the biggest charities in town to reach out to people who would never be on the programmatic radar of any NGO.
However, none of these instances takes away from the fact that my parents or I are all part of the problem that we were or are trying to acknowledge and address – in terms of class and several other privileges. For the Naxalbari movement the starting point itself was a complete absence of social hierarchy. Another comment from my father during our post-dinner family walks comes to mind. I was likely in high school then. In response to a remark from one of us that our family believed in social justice, he said that if the downtrodden were to raise their voice, the wave of protest would not necessarily spare us because we would still be seen as part of the privileged. Not his exact words perhaps, but this was the essence.
The scenes from S.D. and these meanderings keep taking me back to a few thoughts and questions. Even if absolute equality in society is an unattainable dream, shouldn’t mechanisms to check runaway inequality exist necessarily and be strengthened? Isn’t democracy supposed to be such a mechanism, and if yes, is its current form in India (or the form envisaged when the Constitution was drafted) effective?
[Aside: The irony of watching S.D. even as the Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections drama was unfolding in Bangalore couldn’t have been stronger!]
One may be critical of the extreme violence and futility of the armed revolt of the Naxalbari peasant uprising. But do people from my generation or even the one before ours really understand what it was or still is like to be a peasant in independent India? And so what do we know or feel about the social circumstances that instigated the revolt (beyond what we see or don’t see in the largely simplistic Bollywood projections of rural distress)? Even a landmark film like Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (based on Mahasweta Devi’s Bengali novel Hajar Churashir Maa) didn’t quite throw light on the agrarian origins of the movement.
It is Arshad Khan’s personal story of migration from Pakistan to Canada, multiple self-realizations, and the narration of tension and reconciliation with his parents that will stay with me a long time. The narrative of how a new social environment makes him realize his ‘differences’ was piquant to say the least – differences around sexual orientation, masculinity (or femininity), religion, skin colour and more.
Arshad Khan’s experience of child sexual abuse by a male relative, its entanglement with realization about his sexual orientation, and eventual separation of the two – something many queer people would relate to closely – was well delineated.
At a personal level, what I could relate most closely to was the filmmaker’s relationship with his father. The constant struggle – almost over a lifetime – of wanting his father’s approval, then not caring about it, and in the end wondering if he had been unjust to his father through his self-assertion took me to memories of my father and my disagreements with him.
It took my father nearly 20 years since I came out to him (and my mother) as gay to come to terms with my sexual orientation. He demonstrated it by agreeing to be interviewed for an article in a queer journal and then also for a documentary film on queer people coming out to their families (albeit with his face not shown). Like Arshad Khan’s father, he too had to struggle with personal work-related successes and failures while also coping with the social challenge of his child not fitting into the norms. And in another parallel, my father too found some answers and solace in spirituality in trying to accept his child’s sexual orientation.
Arshad Khan’s mother plays an equally important role in the trajectory of his life as a queer person. Interestingly, her journey seems to have been a reversal from a position of relative acceptance to disapproval influenced by a turn towards religiosity in the aftermath of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on USA. The film also points at some of her personal struggles with self-esteem. Her story within a story could be worth a separate film that I would be eager to watch!
Main poster courtesy: Facebook page of S.D. Saroj Dutta and His Times.