Zac Goldsmith: Unprepared Even to Pander

Zac Goldsmith

There’s a video of Zac Goldsmith doing the rounds, where he claims to be ‘a Bollywood fan’ and then fails to name a single Bollywood film or actor that he likes.  As I remarked on Twitter yesterday, his floundering interview was evocative of the Sarah Palin calamity in 2008 when she could not think of a single newspaper or magazine that she read regularly.  Thanks to Sunny Hundal for providing this illustration. Continue reading “Zac Goldsmith: Unprepared Even to Pander”

Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power

I really shouldn’t let the weekend start without jotting a few notes about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, provoked by the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” and fuelled by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The protests have sparked another round of analysis of the the Muslim faith, with the predictable indictment of Islam as uniquely intolerant. The Onion published a very funny NSFW cartoon, blasphemous to all religions except Islam, with the headline ‘No-one Murdered Because of This Image’. Funny, yes, but not actually accurate as satire. The fundamentalist Hindus of India are not above threats and riots when their sacred images are appropriated. The internationally acclaimed artist MF Hussain spent his twilight years in exile because of threats made by his own countrymen, such was their dislike of his Mother India paintings. And Richard Gere’s effigy was burned by an angry mob after he kissed Shilpa Shetty.

The fact that Hindus riot too is instructive. When they do, it is at the encouragement of nationalists groups like Shiv Sena, who seek political power through demonisation and division. When Muslims riot, it is similarly due to local leaders seeking to win political support. Even the Salman Rushdie fatwā (also in the news this week due to the publication of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton) was raised by Ayatollah Khomeini as part of a power-play. The old Ayatollah had been losing political support in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day 1989, when the infamous decree was issued. Continue reading “Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power”

Sign the Petition Against Dow at the Olympics

I know that politicians and people in power can be notoriously out of touch with reality, and we’ve seem some spectacularly tone deaf policies from the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently… but the Dow Chemicals sponsorship of the London Olympics really takes the biscuit.

Bhopal is a town in Madhya Pradesh, India.  In 1984, a gas plant run by Union Carbide malfunctioned and poisoned at 3,787 to death.  Almost thirty years on, the total number of gas-related deaths to date may be closer to 15,000 with the Indian Government saying that up to half a million people had suffered health problems as a result of the disaster.

Union Carbide, the company responsible for the disaster, is now owned by the Dow Chemical company. Dow deny that they are culpable, despite the numerous convictions of Union Carbide employees in Indian Courts.

The IOC says that because Dow only bought Union Carbide in 2001, that they were not responsible for the accident and the deaths.  However, that’s not how things work.  When one company buys another, they buy the brand and the liabilities of that company as well as their assets.  Wehn Dow bought Union Carbide, Dow legally became Union Carbide – their histories and destinies become intertwined.

Even if the Dow/Union Carbide version of events is true (something that the people of Madhya Pradesh and successive India Governments consider complete baloney), the fact is that a gas leak at their plant ruined the lives of many lakhs of people.  While litigation continues, this company should not be allowed to sanitise their reputation through the sponsorship of London 2012.  It is deeply inappropriate for the International Olympic Committee (hardly a paragon of virtue itself) to take Dow’s money.

Censorship in India

Arundhati Roy. Photo by jeanbaptisteparis on Flickr
Arundhati Roy. Photo by jeanbaptisteparis on Flickr

It is interesting how authors are elevated to positions of moral authority in society.  This is the reason they become particular targets for censorship when they stray from the socially conservative orthodoxy.

Two stories of writers being censored in India have crossed my desk (a metaphor for ‘appeared in my inbox) today.  First, we hear that Rohinton Mistry’s book Such A Long Journey has been cut by Mumbai University’s reading list, adter complaint from Shiv Sena, the unpleasant nationalists who seem to be at the heart of most of the stories of intolerance that emerge from India.  From the Guardian report comes this Tea Party-style rhetoric:

It is our culture that anything with insulting language should be deleted. Writers can’t just write anything. They can’t write wrong things,” said Rawale, who admitted not having read the book.

While Mistry’s right to free expression is clearly under threat here, he is not in the same position as Arundhati Roy, who may be deprived of her liberty in the near future.  Reports from India suggest that Roy (who is the author of Booker winner The God of Small Things) will be charged under ‘sedition’ laws, for comments made about the conduct of the Indian government in Kashmir.  In an English PEN press release I make the point that “laws of sedition are a sinster part of Britain’s colonial legacy – India should not be using such laws to silence debate.”

Continue reading “Censorship in India”

Ebenezer and the Salvation of Debbie Draupati

My election day story about a blogger and some supernatural goings on received mixed reviews.  Some saw it as failed satire, while others enjoyed the ambiguity.  It features a character I had previously put at the centre of a couple of unpublished stories.  One (about an explosion in Jerusalem) is growing rapidly out-of-date, as the technology it describes becomes obsolete and the zeitgeist it tries to describe disappears into history.

The other is republished below.  I’ve just read an article that mentioned ‘web-sentience’ and realised that this story, too, may become irrelevant if I do not publish without further delay.  My other fiction you can read here.


When most people over-achieve beyond their wildest imagination, their voice betrays their desire to talk about themselves.  They might be talking about some commonplace thing, but if you listen carefully, you can hear the eagerness to talk about What They Have Done. Eventually, they will find a way to drop their success into the conversation.  It will as easy to them as dropping a lump of sugar into your tea.  In both cases, you find yourself thanking them for their consideration, even if it is the precise opposite of what you desired.

But what was true for most people was not true of my friend Ebenezer, the prolific blogger. Continue reading “Ebenezer and the Salvation of Debbie Draupati”


Kabul artist Aman Mojadidi dressed up in a policeman’s uniform, set-up his own check-point, and began offering bribes to passing motorists.  The stunt was a protest against the high-levels of corruption in the city:

“On behalf of the city of Kabul and the Kabul police, if you have paid a bribe or ‘tip’ to someone in the past, I apologize,” the officer says in Dari to the disbelieving driver. “Please take 100 Afghanis,” or about $2.

Mojadidi wanted to draw attention to the pervasive misuse of power in Afghanistan and to see how Afghan drivers would react when he apologized on behalf of the widely scorned police force.

H/T @RohanJay (whom fans of media freedoms should follow).  The stunt reminded me of the story earlier this year about the Zero Rupee note, an innovation by 5th Pillar designed to combat bribe culture in India.  From the CommGap report:

Fed up with requests for bribes and equipped with a zero rupee note, the old lady handed the note to the official. He was stunned. Remarkably, the official stood up from his seat, offered her a chair, offered her tea and gave her the title she had been seeking for the last year and a half to obtain without success.

The problem of bribe-culture of course begins when public officials are paid too little in the first place.  One hopes that these high-profile, amusing-yet-persuasive interventions inspire the politicians of those countries to address the underlying issues, if they can.  Charter Cities are one way of guaranteeing standards of pay and public standards, though I recoil at the colonialist mindset such projects seem to promote.  Are there more internationalist, left-wing versions of the underlying idea, I wonder?

Zero Rupee Note

Coverage 2.0

News gatherers and citizen journalists in Mumbai, 28th November 2008. Photo by Vinu
News gatherers and citizen journalists in Mumbai, 28th November 2008. Photo by Vinu

The way in which 24 hour news channels have changed the way we learn about, and witness, global events has been well documented and discussed. We saw the twin towers fall, live on TV.  I think its astonishing that the image of one of these young terrorists could be pasted across my copy of the Metro, whilst he was still at large in India.

The latest terror induced crisis, in Mumbai, takes our participation in these events a stage further. These attacks, made with assault-rifles over several locations, was in many ways more confusing than Al-Qaeda’s grand gesture of 9/11. It says something about how technology has developed, that this story was relayed as much by connected individuals – the mass of citizen journalists – as by major news networks. Via Peter Bradwell at Demos, I’ve found a Twitter feed giving information on the attacks. In a mirror of the Election Twitter, which captured the global exhilaration of the Obama victory, this Mumbai twitter conveys something of the confusion caused by these attacks.  As well as learning about the events, and witnessing them, it has come to the stage where we are experiencing them too.  The epicentre of the attacks are in India, but we experience the reaction everywhere.

Meanwhile, high quality images are available via Flickr (including Vinu’s excellent shots, which I’ve used to illustrate this and the previous post).  In this case the static, but high-resolution photos beats low resolution YouTube.  Either way, social media sites have been promising to empower the citizen journalist, and to cut out the middle-man of the mainstream media.  And of course, they also make it harder for government’s to force a certain narrative onto us.  In 2008, with the Obama campaign and the Mumbai attacks, I would say that social media has come of age.


Shuh Rukh MeleeThis is the photo of the back of the head of someone taking a photo of the back of the head of someone taking a photo of the back of the head of someone taking a photo of the back of the head of Shah Rukh Khan.

The Contradictions of Beauty

Pickled Politics has a 100 comment debate on the politics of skin whitening, after Bollywood superstar Shakrukh Khan endorsed a product (h/t Tyra). The paradox is that white people spend money getting a tan to make them look browner, while brown people buy these creams to make themselves whiter. The grass is always greener, yet equally cancerous, on the other side of the fence…

Other beauty paradoxes I have noticed: Hair straighteners for those with curly locks, sold next to hair curlers/rollers for the straight locked.

Oh yes, and of course: Women in the supermarket who put make-up, and make-up remover, into their basket… without so much as a bat of an eyelid to disturb their mascara. I’ve always liked this verse from the London-Brazilian slam-poet Hoberto Afiado:

This is the girl who is under age
So she works at the shop for a minimum wage
Who took the job to earn some cash
So she could buy a makeup stash
Who smears the lipstick on her face
So she can go to the drinking place
And when each night is at an end
She’ll rub the make-up off again

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?