Ink of an Eye

We're on the brink of another world war, feels Fayes T Kantawala

Ink of an Eye
Last week there was a picture in the newspapers of our former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri attending his book launch in Bombay. Titled ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove’ (it would be rude to ponder which birds remain…), I’d seen it reviewed here and there. There has actually been a spurt of political memoirs from ex-powerhouses recently, and I’m rather fond of the trend, if truth be told. It’s always nice to know what their version of the truth is.

The picture in the paper of the launch itself caught my attention immediately. It shows two people, Kasuri on the right looking rather stern and morose, and another man on the left covered in what looks like black paint. No, I thought, it must be a fake, the product of some new kind of novelty app that makes people look like seals emerging from an oil spill. Perhaps it’s some kind of photoshopped/wildly racist reinvention of “blackface”. But study the image closely and you’ll realize it’s real. So very, very real.

The man in black is Sudheendra Kulkarni, a member of the ruling BJP who had black ink thrown at him by members of the Shiv Sena as he left to compare the event. (I first assumed it was William Dalrymple — ink is such a racial equalizer). The attack was to protest the fact that a Pakistani was having an event in the Sena’s hood, so to speak.

Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni after being assaulted as he left his home in Mumbai by activists from Shiv Sena - Courtesy AFP
Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni after being assaulted as he left his home in Mumbai by activists from Shiv Sena - Courtesy AFP

The pictures are hilarious. Kulkarni, perhaps in an act of protest himself, insisted on sitting through the entire event looking like a pelican in a tar pit. There he is with his inky hands on his blackened chin in contemplative thought; there he is holding the book with Kasuri, acting as though everything is normal and he is not shining noir under the flash of the camera lights (if ever there was a reason to use Fair and Lovely…). I’m not surprised that the Shiv Sena did this, or indeed that Kulkarni sat there, though I do feel for Kasuri who looked a bit like Taylor Swift after Kanye West totally stole her thunder at an awards show.

As anyone who has been following events in India can attest, this is a growing trend. This week the Shiv Sena demanded that a Pakistani umpire not adjudicate a cricket match involving India, and a few rightwingers even stormed the Indian Cricket headquarters telling Shehryar Khan, the head of Pakistan’s Cricket Board, to go home. These events have unleashed a number of articles bemoaning the rise of the Hindu right in India, which to anyone who has been there in the last two years is not news since it’s already risen, like a toxic soufflé. Pakistani op-ed’s are calling Modi India’s Zia-ul-Haq (haha), a man systematically dismantling any secular vision of his country in favor of a national identity firmly footed in religion. When I was in Bombay during the Modi election, I remember asking practically everyone I met whether this was something they were worried about, the rebranding of India as a Hindu country rather than a secular one. No, they told me for the most part, he’s good for business and will bring in trade.
I thought it must be a fake, the product of some new kind of novelty app that makes people look like seals emerging from an oil spill

Girls, I thought while licking my thaalis, you in danger.

I sincerely hope that the rebranding of Incredible India as Incredible Hindutva doesn’t last long, not because we are so much better on this side of the border but precisely because we are not. We know, all of us, the price you pay for pandering to one social group over another (religious or ethinc).

But isn’t the rise of the far right, when you really look at it in context, a global phenomenon? A worldwide reaction to the “glocal” idealism of the late 90s has been an increased xenophobia (reminiscent of the late 1930s/early40s, which is just crazy). You see it in the racist diatribes of women on English buses; in the brazenly anti-Muslim rhetoric of Canada’s outgoing PM’s election campaign; in the fear-mongering embedded in American Republican jargon; in the disturbingly neo-Nazi-ish protests against refugees in Germany (it’s never a good thing when shaved German youths gather to chant against anything really); and you see it in the increasingly xenophobic national policies of Europe in general (to say nothing of the Gulf states).

The world has become decidedly anti-Muslim, if we are to believe the news channels. And certain Muslim extremist groups are gleeful about that, since they’ve always been anti-world and news channels both, and have been working hard to achieve this state of affairs.

I’ve been thinking about all this for two reasons. One is that it is Muharram, a time when we reflect on the idea that one of worst tragedies in Islam was committed not by those outside the religion’s fold but from those within it. The second, and more pressing, reason is that I am moving away from Pakistan for what could be some time and in due course will be on the receiving end of this new kind of vitriol.

Next week I’m flying to the United States, where I will stay for several months, both for work and for sanity. This promises to be a long-term thing, but don’t give me nazar just yet since nothing is final. Stepping out of the cocoon of my hometown again, something I haven’t really done since I left for college, is both a massive relief and a terrible shock. The America I am returning to is vastly different to the one I left. Muslims have become, through dialogue and careful manipulation, the main frenemy of contemporary America. They – we — are the boogeymen, and are perceived as such by the world. While in Pakistan I feel besieged and marginalized because of my opinions and beliefs, there I may be expected to speak on behalf of a billion people for no other reason than my passport.

I’m not complaining, I know am fortunate to be able to travel. I’m just wary. I feel more confident this time round mainly because I’ve been running my house by myself in Lahore for years, have dealt with its power outages, water crises, gas explosions, intelligence officer visits, police patrols, neighborly wars and so on. If you’ve done the same you know there is nothing the First World can throw at you that you won’t be able to handle.

Except for maybe a bottle of black ink.

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