Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Moonwalking all our lives

As I had some writing to meet a deadline, I went to bed at around 3.30 am on Friday June 26. By then news channels were breaking the news that Michael Jackson was rushed to a UCLA hospital. I didn’t think much of it for two reasons. One MJ has been having a hard time keeping himself fit, especially for the concerts lined up in London. The second was that the media frenzy for everything has been so overdone that ‘breaking news’ is no more breaking enough.
I dozed off with the television on. I woke up around seven (IST) and got to know the bad news. I managed to break my spectacles by sleeping over them. I felt strange. Not because my specks were broken but because it was not the first time I was sleeping over them. The sinister omen was right. After putting together my specks I gazed at the TV and Anderson Cooper broke the news. ‘King of Pop Michael Jackson passes away’ (1958- 2009). I surfed other channels and all were ‘breaking’ the news. An Indian news channel had even sniffed a conspiracy angle to it by then.
For someone who missed the Beatlemania, Elvis and many more, MJ was what filled the gaps in aspiration. MJ was a child star (by the early 80s he had attained cult status), was coloured and had a charming innocence that prompted every parent to wish their child was a MJ.
Growing up in the Arab world, in Kuwait among other places, it would seem strange to say that in the concoction of friends I had, Michael Jackson was a rage. Yes from dishdasha flaunting Arabs to Spaniards who popularised the Berumda shorts breakdancing was the coolest thing to do – on Friday evenings, after football matches and even near souks. Moonwalking was a good way of connecting with the local boys. Though we could not figure out a word they said, and for them what we said, the only common thread we had was music and in the 80s music was Michael Jackson. MJ pushed us to moonwalk near the subways, sneak to school with our walkmans playing Thriller blasting our eardrums. Adding to this, girls liked MJ; they like boys who either played MJ, looked like him or who could dance like him. Where Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, Bobby McFerrin and George Michael failed, Bad worked.
MJ raised a phenomenal craze for black jackets and white gloves. I always made it a point to wear white socks and pointed toe shoes. How could I forget the black shades. Finding a pair for kids was hard and we resorted to the big ones that rested on our cheekbones. But who was complaining. With our shades, shoes and jacket we were also MJ!
My first MJ video, as far as I recollect, was a collection that had video songs of Thriller, Bad, Dirty Diana and many more. A Pakistani friend who had cousins in the US managed to get hold of an assortment of MJ video songs and Moonwalker. All friends huddled up in Jude’s house. Those days we didn’t have compact discs and VHS’ was the best. As Jude pushed the VHS in (it always took an awful lot of time to start) all of us were staring at the dictionary-type VHS cover. We played, replayed and replayed the songs forever. Music, dance and style were never the same again. All of us friends hugged Jude. Never did I feel so much love for a Pakistani.
Being on the healthy side, as a kid there were people always taunting me to reduce the flab. If at all I felt the need to trim down it was because I wanted to shake my leg like the King of Pop. There was also another reason for aspiring to follow MJ. My brother, five years elder to me, was a lookalike of MJ. His lean built, coloured complexion, big sparkling white eyes and natural curls helped him earn the status of a neighbourhood MJ. To top this he was a singer and knew that he could pull a moonwalk with equal grace (something that I still can’t do).
Maybe it was this deep bounding that later down the years I found it hard to believe his fall from grace. During all the scandals and innumerable eccentricities there was always a voice in me saying that he was paying the price for being popular. I kept telling myself and the world that sneered at him: ‘Wait, he’s gonna come out clean and put to rest all these scandals. His next album is gonna make history’.
The whole world was looking forward to the concerts in July. I hope he is remembered for the music he gave and not his personal life; that he would be shown justice denied to him while he was alive.
Michael Joe Jackson went away before he could sing his last song and receive his last standing ovation.
MJ - thank you for the culture, thank you for the revolution and thank you for the music. Thank you Michael Jackson.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Reforms at the cost of education

Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, probably is all pepped about warming a Cabinet seat and wants to have an impressive progress report at the end of 100 days while Manmohan Singh examines it. Heeding the suggestions from ‘a group of experts’ the minister has proposed for a unified system of evaluation for the Board examinations. The minister might have been referring to the Yashpal report titled The Committee to Advice on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education which was submitted to the government in March earlier this year. The Left has seen red over Sibal’s remarks and it is not without reason. While the report has taken objection to the unaccounted growth of private educational institutions and deemed universities and suggested a halt in further allotment of such institutions until proper guidelines are set, its suggestion for private sector involvement in primary education is a step if not taken cautiously would lead to irreversible damage.

It is a fact that the present system of evaluation with focus on two board exams, one in tenth and the other in twelfth standard, is a burden on students for the shear amount of pressure it exerts on them, not to mention the family.

The tremendous pressure, an alibi used by naysayers criticising the education pattern, is not a product of the system, but our creation. It is the taunting and torture primarily from parents, teachers and peer groups, and secondarily from the society and media that push students to extremes.
A unified system of evaluation is not the answer to rectify the existing malice in a system that has been applauded by many developed countries. Ask any child who has had part of his/her education in India before moving to the US, UK or Australia, and they would sing paeans of the system back home.

The proposal for a grading system is a road that leads to nowhere. An example for this could be Kerala which has only recently shifted to it. This year the state has recorded a phenomenal pass percentage of 91.2 or for every 100 students who gave the exam, only nine failed. Even is we were to momentarily blink at this ‘great feat’ and attribute no political undercurrent to the ‘achievement’, do we have the required higher education infrastructure to meet the demand? And in cases where they are present, does it meet the required criterion?

It is a fact that primary and secondary education is on a strong footing when compared to the quality, and availability, of higher education in India. It is only good sense to disturb the strong foot once the other is firmly placed. Change, on the other hand, is always welcome, unless it is for the sake of it.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Malady of state defining religion

On Monday, June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy created history in at least two ways. With his address to lawmakers at the historic Chateau at Versailles, he became the first president in 136 years to address a gathering at the venue. The Greens and communist kept away from the address stating that the selection of the venue smacked of Sarkozy’s thirst for power.

The other was his denouncement of the burqa worn by Muslim women as a sign of ‘subservience and debasement’. France has a substantial population of Muslims and at around five million it is the largest in Western Europe, the ‘developed’ side of the continent. French authorities have agreed to set up a commission to study the spread of burqa wearing after 60 MPs signed a petition to this effect demanding an inquiry.

In 2004, France imposed a ban on wearing apparel that had a religious insignia to schools. This included the hijab, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and crucifixes. This created a stir but was later eased. Sarkozy’s is not a lone voice but one of the many across Europe who think that the burqa, hijab and niqab are a hindrance to personal freedom. Voices of dissent have risen in other parts of Europe and the world. In 2003 the schools in Sweden were allowed to ban burqa’s while the Dutch stopped short of banning it in 2008. Not to forget the Sikh protest in Vancouver, among other places, against a ban on turbans in Canada.

As all debates have two sides and so does this. While Sarkozy, and the European community, which gives paramount importance to individual freedom, might have a point in terming the burqa as a means of subjugating women and treating them as ‘mobile prisons’, Sarkozy overstepped by saying that it was ‘not a religious symbol’. Religion, at best, should not be a subject of national debate and its practices should not be defined by the secular democracy.

That Sarkozy has said this at a time when France is going through a crisis also indicates that its principle of ethnic assimilation is failing – a fact he observed in his speech while stating that the present immigration model was not working. Sarkozy’s reaction can also be attributed to France’s near xenophobic adherence to guarding its or secularism which is its religion. But what the authorities fail to realise is that if they manage laicite to pass a resolution banning the burqa in public places, it would be a great injustice towards women who enjoy a certain level of freedom because it would further lead to the cloistering of womenfolk.

The irony in the whole episode is that after pronouncing the burqa’s as not , Sarkozy and Carla Bruni were playing good hosts at the Elysee Palace to the Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani who was joined by one of his wives Sheika Mozah, whose head was covered in an elegant turban.
(Edited version of this can be found for six days from day of post at http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?Title=Intention+unveiled&artid=NxWzmhVMuEA%3d&SectionID=RRQemgLywPI%3d&MainSectionID=RRQemgLywPI%3d&SectionName=XQcp6iFoWTvPHj2dDBzTNA%3d%3d)