A Bitter City

My cousin Faizy, who lives in Kanpur’s infamous Chamanganj neighbourhood describes the city’s residents as “kadwe log” (bitter people). By this he is not referring to the cynical and nihilistic bitterness that is supposed to set in with age and misfortune, rather using local slang for a mixture of hardiness, street smartness and chicanery. Bitter as opposed to the sweet people who live in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

When we came to Delhi after a very hectic two months production schedule in Kanpur last month, there was a sense of relief. Our time in Kanpur was intense; with the crew working feverishly to turn a shoot that was in jeopardy on day zero into a success. We are far from the end still; but at the end of the two months, we felt like the groaning old mills of the city: present but barely functioning.

We were shooting with the-katiyabaaz- electricity thieves in Kanpur, the bitterest of bitter Kanpur stock. They put their lives at risk everyday climbing up electricity poles to attach naked wires in order to provide electricity to households and factories in their areas. Their work is fraught with risk, hearing of a katiyabaaz who got ‘stuck’, due to the strong magnetic pull of high volatage lines is not rare.

The most interesting amongst them was Loha Singh. Loha has been ripping at electricity lines ever since he was 14: cutting electricity carrying cables with his teeth, attaching katiyas to high voltage cables with his bare hands. And he has got the marks to prove it: a number of deep gashes on each of his fingers, and on his back, are reminders of the times that he had got ‘stuck’ to a wire or a transformer.

Hides and Roses

I have been India for the past month researching a planned film on the energy crisis in India (more on that later). While visiting Kanpur, India’s most polluted city, as well as the center of it’s leather export trade, I came across the story of a village on the outskirts of the city that I think reflects the complexity of resolving pressing environmental challenges in India.

Pyondi village is located barely a few kilometers east of Jajmau. Most of it’s residents were farmers who cultivated flowers, which they eventually sold outside temples, or at festivals or weddings. Their income came chiefly from the cultivation of roses, which are in high demand in North India, especially in weddings.

Over the past four  years, however, not a single rose has bloomed in their fields. This is largely because of the 400 odd leather tanneries that are located a few kilometers from the village, in Jajmau. The tanneries, many of which supply to international luxury brands, use a particular tanning technique called chrome tanning. While chrome tanning makes the leather supple and flexible, ideal for handbags and as furniture upholstery, both of which are produced and exported from here, it produces an effluence that on reaching the water, makes it unfit for use for any living organism, least of all for growing roses.

Now, the rose farmers look for work in these tanneries. Lalla Singh, who showed me his failed rose crops tells me that many have left the village to live in the squalor of Jajmau. Lalla Singh himself has taken to cultivating much less profitable marigolds. The wheat grown in this area produces flour dark grey in colour.

On the way from the village to the city, the smell of marigolds and open fields gives way to the stench of hides and smoke from a hundred coal fires.

The government does run a water treatment plant nearby. All tanneries are also required to treat their waste before releasing it. Many comply with the regulations, however many others simply grease some palms and get away with inspections. Eventually this rewards defaulters and penalizes the tanneries that comply.

Added to this is the states apathy towards villages like Pyondi. The village has never had 24 hour electricity. Recent incentives by the government have reduced the power cuts in villages to ‘only’ eight hours a day. Many in the village are not able to install pumps required to pump clean groundwater that could be found deep in the earth.

A project to separate sewage and drinking water has been running for a number of months. As a result the road to Pyondi is dug up and barely drivable.

As I see it the chief problem here is really the lack of any political will to solve the energy and environmental problems affecting the area. A drive to ‘save the Ganga’, the river that flows through the area, has taken on shades of religious identity politics which has strong influence in this region. The tanneries are largely Muslim owned, while the group that runs the campaign is a Hindu charity organization. This keeps the discourse around the issue to grandstanding, rather than really look for solutions to the problem.

It almost seems that corruption, apathy and lack of robust implementation of law have doomed the Kanpur area to environmental disaster, a feeling shared by many residents. The resulting malaise has now spread beyond the city to have wither Pyondi’s roses.

PS: My browser is acting all weird. Pics will be coming soon.

Two Shootings

Two random acts of violence against public figures in two corners of the globe took place withing four days of each other. Jared Loughner shot and critically injured Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri killed Salman Taseer, whom he was assigned to protect.  Both killers  acted on their own, both have become public figures of fascination, and both raised concerns about the nature of divisive public debate in their countries.

Here I would like to share a couple of reactions to the shootings that came my way this morning.

First is this excellently written post, which transcends the polarising debate that ensued the Tucson shootings, and which I recommend reading entirely.

Jared Loughner came from one of those northwestern houses. His high school is in a part of Tucson that, when I was growing up, was nothing but empty gullies and creosote. Jared Loughner is frightened like Arizona is frightened, and so we ask: what radio stations did he listen do, what websites did he visit, who got him started on his syllogisms about the gold standard. These are questions about causality, and we are in a realm where causality founders. I would suggest that instead we talk homology, or metaphor—admitting frankly that we are doing this—because it is already the fate of Jared Loughner to have become a metaphor and a symptom.

And here is an angry reaction from Taseer’s estranged son:

Even before his body was cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals. I should say too that on Friday last every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the Punjab CM, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.And so, though I believe that my father joins that sad procession of martyrs standing between him and his country’s descent into fear and nihilism, I also know that unless Pakistan finds a way to turn its back on Islam in the public sphere, the memory of the late governor of Punjab will fade. And where one day there might have been a street named after him, there will be one named after Malik Mumtaz Qadir, my father’s boy-assassin.

While the debate has centered around the role of political vitriol preceding these shootings,  the reactions that came after the shootings  that are perhaps more shocking.  The US media and political establishment went into a surprising and crazy spree of finger pointing and name calling.  In Pakistan, while the crowds celebrated the shooter, the ‘sanctity of prophethood’  seemed to dominate public thought.

In this context, I found both these texts refreshing. Aatish Taseer, the deceased Pakistani leader’s son, angrily grieves his father, laying the blame on Islam, yet not losing sight of what his father, a Muslim politician, would have thought. The Tucson blogger evocatively describes American paranoia in a manner that journalism would not be able to match. Both are personal, cutting through, and prompting a re-examination of politics in the wake of the shootings .

“Certainly Not The Ballet We Learned In School”

A few very interesting videos  of ‘belly dancing’ from the turn of the 19th-20th century have recently turned up on YouTube.

Belly dancing was, according to most reports, first seen in Europe during the Paris Exposition Universale in 1889 (the same where the Eiffel Tower was presented).

See this very interesting dramatized video of the Paris Exposition.

Although it is not clearly state, the women in these videos look western. The ‘Princess Rajah’ video is apparently from the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.

They set up an intriguing case of spread of cultural practices in that era. This was the same period when the exotic Orient was presented by Gerome to the European public in his paintings about nautsch girls and bazaars.

Surely there is an interesting history of eastern dance in Europe out there, or waiting to be written. How did these dance form gain popularity in a European and American public life? What was the role of the expositions and world fairs in spreading cultural forms? Does anyone have more information about this?

Ghosts of the Year Past

I don’t want to be cynical about the new year, but there is too much from last year that 2011 needs to live down. Over the past week, when I was nursing a fever and recovering from year end events, I looked back at the news and realized that Globalistanis had little to cheer about in 2010.

The last year saw two rather ugly specters gaining ground in public life: xenophobia and protectionism. Browsing through year end lists, this became even more clear.

European governments banned the burqa and minarets, and public individuals speculated about the ‘intellect’ of the immigrants. ‘Tea Parties’ put people in Congress on the back of a xenophobic campaign. Asian powers stuck to antagonistic behaviour, willing to pull their new-found weight around.  Populist politics milked the fear of the foreigner. Worryingly, this seems to be becoming a staple of politics around the globe.

The upheaval and chaos that the world has been seeing since the beginning of the recession seem to reinforce this trend. Governments, already stressed by high unemployment rates, have shown protectionist impulses that would easily scupper away the hard won mutual gains of the past decade. China, the worlds largest, most important economy hinted that it might not care, devaluing its currency, triggering  further panic.

Both these specters are persistent and can easily take root in public life. They dramatically came fore in 2010, and stand out in contrast to relatively more optimistic developments in 2009. Put together they pose a serious challenge to globalization processes.

2010 was also the year when the realignment of global power became most evident. It becomes difficult to look at the two dominant political trends of last year as separate from this context.

Hence this blogger is a little unsure of 2011. The two dominant political trends of 2010 shall no doubt cast a shadow over this year. The question is if there is enough political will to push it back. In times of crisis and chaos, 2010 has demonstrated, we tend to retrench and reassert boundaries.

On that happy note, I bid you a happy new year. Perhaps my judgment of the last years dominant trends is clouded a little too much by sickness and inactivity, and perhaps you saw 2010 in a more positive light. If so do let me know if I am missing something, or am overly anxious. I have a healthy appetite for my words.

FC Chechnya- how it happened


Last week we called wraps on a film project, after six grueling months of production. Aside from all the things mentioned in the previous post, this film occupied my life in the last few months, and it gives me immense satisfaction to say that we are at the end.

‘ FC Chechnya’ began as a short video profile of a couple of Chechen refugees whom I met in Vienna while writing this story for an Indian periodical.  I talked about this to my friend Maria Trieb, and we thought it would be a good idea to film some of these interviews, maybe for online broadcast.  What began out of that conversation was a 15 minute series of interviews on the asylum procedure in Europe, and the impact of it on one of the biggest refugee communities here, and is now a 70 minute feature-documentary.

Within a few weeks of shooting, it became clear to us that it would simply not be possible to explore the range of issues that bedevil asylum in Europe. This was not least because our interview partners were very reluctant to share details about their life and struggle for asylum in front of the camera, something which they had been very candid about earlier during conversations. This was understandable: any information that would not corroborate with the version that they had told the asylum authorities could jeopardize their asylum bid.

However, their greatest fear was that members of their family still living in Chechnya would be targeted if these interviews were seen by the Chechen government. Many also feared the impact such interviews would have on their lives here. The Chechen diaspora in Vienna is quite divided, and terrified after Umar Israilov, a Chechen dissident, was shot dead in Vienna a couple of years ago, allegedly by agents of the Chechen government.

It is at this stage that we heard about a group of young asylum seekers who had set up a football club in Carinthia. This immediately caught our attention since Carinthia is not known for its openness to immigrants and refugees. The late Joerg Haider, a former governor of Carinthia, had in his tenure initiated a  campaign for a Chechen free Carinthia and in 2008 deported three families, without a clear legal basis.

So we drove down to Klagenfurt to find out more. On our many trips down their we were able to connect with youngsters who had incredible stories, and incredible positivity in the face of dire circumstances. They played their football with a passion, it seemed almost to reclaim some sense of self-hood that the war in Chechnya and the overdrawn, emotionally exhausting asylum procedure had denied them. Their families were hospitable, and seemed to open up their lives in front of us almost immediately. Football provided a ready peg to their life-stories, although they were still reluctant to speak in front of the camera.

This time the bigger problem was luck. The first three times the shoot in Klagenfurt  ended in disaster. Malfunctioning equipment, absent interviewees and crew breakdowns meant doom for our moneyless production and crew.

Other problems were more basic. Most of our interview partners spoke Russian and German, both languages that I am not fluent in (I am barely comfortable in German, and have no idea about Russian).  Here the production owes a big thanks to Xenia Penko, who made this problem seem irrelevant. Xenia told us when to laugh, and when to eat and when to remain silent in the awkward social situations that we often found ourselves in.

And then there was life. I had to give up a job offer in Delhi, where I had been wanting to move for the past year. Others in the crew juggled jobs, and some gave up other (better paying) projects to work on this film.

But somehow, the right people came together at the right time. My friend Poldi Koegler was able to find us some funding to (literally) keep us alive. The indefatigable Maria Trieb was always on top of the situation when it came to equipment and making sure that we had a post-production schedule that allowed us some flexibility. And Deepti Kakkar, who was so instrumental in organization during our Vienna shoots, came back from India last month to support us in the last stages of post production.

So here we are, to announce the screening of our film at the This Human World Human Rights Film Festival in Vienna. The film premieres on World Human Rights Day, 10th December, and the screening at the TopKino in Vienna would be followed by a panel discussion with top UN and EU asylum experts, as well the members of team FC Chechnya.

So if you are in Vienna, we would be very happy to have you at the premiere of the film. We would try and bring the film to as many screens as possible, although we would still need to figure out how.

Here is the trailer:

And We’re Back!

Globalistan Party@Palmenhaus, Burggarten. More pics soon.

A long hiatus, forced by circumstances, comes to an end and Globalistan looks to start another turn at the crease.

The past few months have been ridiculously complicated and frustrating for me, leaving no time for Globalistan. To cut a long story short, I was denied travel documents by the Canadian Embassy in Vienna to visit my parents in Edmonton. I was finishing an internship here, and was holding a Canadian permanent resident card. My parents have been living in Canada since 2008, and I have visited them frequently while pursuing a masters degree here in Vienna. On the expiry of my card, I was told that I could not have travel documents of any sort (including tourist visas) to visit my parents. The reason was that I had not spent an obligatory two out of five years in Canada, which apparently leads to automatic loss of residence. This despite communications to the office that I was studying  here during the period that my parents moved to Canada.  At that time my Austrian visa, as well as my money, was running out, and my plan was to stay in Edmonton while looking for work.

However, since then things have been working out for the better. I could still not visit my parents, meaning that I am in Vienna at the moment, and am appealing the decision of the Embassy in an immigration court in Canada. In the meantime, a film project that I started here is working out well, more information about which shall be up soon.

Like other things in life, Globalistan too had to be put on a hold. However, with all that we are now looking to restore Globalistan as a platform for conversations on the theme of global living. We held a Globalistan party in Vienna this weekend, partially to restore interest in the website, taking over the Palmenhaus in the Burggarten for the event.

There are a number of foreseeable changes, which we shall elaborate upon as things progress. There is a need to do some more fund-raising for maintainance. However, our focus right now is, as it has been always, is to encourage submissions that elaborate on the basic theme of the website. So please keep writing in with your thoughts and ideas, as it is central to our aim to build a conversation that explores various aspects of life in the globalized world.


Visa issues have once again thrown this blogger into a deep mess. Dealing with bureaucracy everyday for the past few weeks has led to a sort of mind-paralysis that makes any writing impossible. That’s the reason for this hiatus, and it looks like it shall continue for another week or so. Big ranting post on visas and embassies coming up soon..

“It’s all about death in India these days…”

Life is a little complicated right now, and this means that blogging has been slow. This shall continue to be the case for the next few days. However, I will try and find sometime in between crisis to come back here and talk about a lot of things that I have been wanting to put out there.

First amongst these is my friend Shivam Vij’s take-down of the Indian media’s coverage of the killings in Kashmir of demonstrators when police and paramilitary forces opened fire on them. The dead were mostly Kahmiri youth between 9 and 22 years. Shivam points out how despite these extrajudicial executions, Kashmiri protesters  garnered a largely unsympathetic reaction from the Indian press:


And how does the press respond? The killing of a nine year old boy by the CRPF was frontpage in all the Delhi papers. Have a look at two copies of the same day’s Hindustan Times, Delhi edition, and spot the difference:

The early city edition’s headline read, “J&K burns, protests kill two more.” I couldn’t take my eyes off that headline for a while. It was, I thought, like saying ‘Protests Kill Hundreds in Jallianwala Bagh.’ Protest does not kill. Bullets do.

They must have realised how darn wicked that is, and changed it on the late city edition to, “J&K burns, 2 more killed”. While making the change, they didn’t say CRPF killed them. They just got killed.

That is not all. The day’s lead story was also about death – it’s all about death in India these days – death by accident. Death by accident on the Moolchand underpass, not far from where I live. The headline had a question: “5 dead in 5 days. Who’s to blame?” The stroy strongly attacked the Public Works Department of the Delhi state government for faulty road construction and for not putting a warning sign. In the late city edition they even got photographic evidence. In the Kashmir story, however, there were no questions, no blaming, no tone of outrage. Reporting the Sopre firing from Srinagar, the copy went:

The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday.

A day after the Jammu and Kashmir government called the CRPF “an uncontrolled force”, Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hasan Rather (9) died in firing by the force in Sopore and Baramulla, both 55 km north of Srinagar.

This brings the number of civilian deaths at the hands of troops to eight in 15 days, three of them in the past 24 hours.

Rather was part of a march to Sopore called by the separatist Hurriyat Conference to protest the deaths.


Now see the changed late city version:

The vicious cycle of death-protest-death continued unabated in Kashmir on Monday, with two more youths — one of them a nine year old — being killed in protest demonstrations, taking the total number of civilians killed this month to eight.

Tajamul Bashir (17) and Ashif Hassan Rather (9) died in firing by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Sopore and Baramulla, respectively, both towns north of Srinagar.

Bashir was part of a procession in Sopore that had gathered to mourn the death of Bilal Ahmed Wani (22), shot dead by the CRPF on Sunday.

The CRPF, however, claimed it had to fire because the procession turned violent.

It said the fracas began after a group of unarmed state policemen rushed into the CRPF camp to protect themselves from the protesters. “The mob attacked the CRPF post and forcibly tried to enter,“ said CRPF spokesman Ajay Chaturvedi in Delhi.

“The sentry had no option but to fire,“ he said.Similarly, nine-year-old Rather had joined a march called by the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference, from Srinagar to Sopore, to protest Wani’s killing. Though all top Hurriyat leaders were arrested following the call, a large crowd assembled and the march began.

Their numbers swelled fur- ther at Baramulla, breaking down barricades placed by the police and attacking police vehicles, following which they were fired upon.

The current round of escalating violence began after a Sopore youth Tufail Ahmed Matoo (17), during a routine protest on June 11, was hit by a tear gas shell on the head and succumbed to his injuries. Violent protests and fierce repression have been a regular feature since then.

With inputs from New Delhi

The early city report gave the impression that 9-year-old Rather’s participation in the protest march called by separatists – yes, separatists! – justified his killing. That is toned down in the second version. The tone of outrage used in the Delhi accident story is completely missing. The CRPF spokesperson is quoted by the dead boys’ parents, or eyewitnesses, are not to be bothered with.

What is most interesting is the phrase “vicious cycle” – it’s a phrase that explains away the spate of “violence”. Protest, stone-pelting, fake encounters, militant clashes, strikes and the quelling of protests by killing unarmed or stone-pelting protestors – this is reported in the Delhi media not just with a lot of obfuscation and dishonesty, but also with a deliberate sense of confusion. A lay reader gets a general, vague image of “violence” – it’s just a lot of random violence taking place in Kashmir. Then, in op-eds and special reports, TV debates and Arnab Goswami’s yelling all get together to assure the Indian middle class that it’s all about Pakistan-Geelani-militancy-Islamism. And so, kill we must.


Read the complete story on Kafila, where Shivam also writes about his impressions of Kashmir on traveling there for a month.

Arroz con Arroz

Visa troubles are (hopefully) safely out of the way, and that means I am able to finally update you on the Globalistan CD launch in Berlin the week before.

Johannes Heretsch, Berlin based DJ, got in touch with Globalistan in April to co-operate on a ‘world-music’ CD. Being huge fans of independent releases, we were only too happy to co-operate. ‘Sounds from Globalistan’ had its CD release in Berlin’s Admiralspalast, with live performances from artists like Cherif Hamiche, Nomad Soundsysem, Meriem Hassan Group and Mil Santos. All of these guys are featured on the CD, and are awesome performers.

Nomad Soundsystem- these guys were awesome. just check out the number of instruments they were improvising with
Nomad Soundsystem- these guys were awesome. just check out the number of instruments they were improvising with

Globalistan also had access to backstage artists lounge where we mooched with producers and artists, and got a short lecture on the merits and merging of tabla and djembe acoustics with ace percussionist Cherif Hamiche.

thats Cherif there, in the blue
thats Cherif there, in the blue

Our absolute favourite performance though was the Meriem Hassan Group. Meriem Hassan brought with her the flair of Western Sahara, and a hearty engaging personality that combined in a great performance.

...and what a performance it was; thats Meriem there on the drums.
...and what a performance it was; thats Meriem there on the drums.

And finally, there were Mil Santos whose ‘Arroz con Arroz’ we found ourselves humming through the next day…

Arroz con Arroz
Arroz con Arroz

Needless to say, Globalistanis had quite a party, and were pretty elated until visa problems hit home the next evening. But all that is sorted now. And the ‘Sounds from Globalistan’ music CD should soon be coming out. Shall keep you all posted…