Wednesday, July 30, 2014

That sixties feeling

By V Ramnarayan
‘Alas the Jam Sahib is fat!” wrote AG Gardiner when Ranji turned forty. Those of us walking wounded of the 1960s who had recently gathered to catch a glimpse of the handsome, fiery young student leader of our generation at Mylapore, Chennai, were relieved to see Tariq Ali had not grown fat, though not any more the dashing, slim figure of the decade of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The sparkle in his eyes had given way to a thoughtful gaze beneath glasses, a frown made him look almost magisterial, and he fitted in perfectly amidst the collection of grey eminences on stage.
The air of near-anonymity ends the moment Tariq Ali stands before the microphone, his weapon of destruction all those decades ago, when he spewed fire on the capitalists of the world, when he led the occupation of the Sorbonne by over 30,000 students, protesting against the Vietnam War among a host of burning issues of the day. He may not be fiery any more but he does make every word count and grips the listener’s attention from start to finish.
Today, as he addresses students of the Asian College of Journalism and other guests, he speaks in the measured tones of an elder statesman, with every word, every turn of phrase pregnant with meaning and purpose, witty, precise, quietly impassioned. “At Oxford in the 1960s, a distinguished Indian was a couple of years my junior. I haven’t changed since then, nor has Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He remains as deeply conservative as ever,” he took a sly barb at the economist, instantly winning over the young audience.
In a lecture titled ‘The State of Journalism in the 21st Century: Celebrities, Trivia and Whistleblowers,’ Tariq Ali deplored the assault of the mainstream media by celebrity trivia—which he described as a phenomenon that began at the end of the Cold War—and the rapid subsequent decline in journalistic standards. He had predicted—rightly—at the time of the intense hyperbole over Princess Diana’s death, that in ten years’ time there would be no memorials for Diana, that she would disappear from the memory of the media. In contrast, there had been intrepid, principled correspondents and commentators, he said, who dared to criticise the double standards of the West whenever it went to war against nations like Korea and Vietnam, in total contrast to the capitulation of the western media to their governments at the time of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Describing India’s attitude in the matter of asylum seeker Edward Snowden as supine, he described the likes of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Snowden as freedom fighters, and not fugitives as the western press has shown great haste to call them.
It is evident from his writings and utterances that Tariq held and continues to hold the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in the greatest esteem. In his death, he believes the world has lost one of the political giants of the post-communist era. His bluntness and courage drew Tariq Ali to him, as did his thoughtful observations that could at times seem impulsive and “depending on the response, enlarged by spontaneous eruptions on his part.” 

According to him, Chávez lit up the political landscape, at a time when young voters cannot tell the ideological difference between one party and another, with all politicians obsessed with making money. Tariq Ali remembers Chavez “speaking for hours to his people in a warm, sonorous voice, a fiery eloquence” and stunning resonance, his speeches littered with homilies, history, quotes from the 19th-century revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, pronouncements on the state of the world--and songs, that he sang with great enthusiasm and persuaded his audiences to join in.
A playwright and filmmaker in addition to being a prolific writer of essays, articles and books of non-fiction today, the passionate rebel and intellectual has never been far from the arts, music in particular. Disappointingly for this writer, he prefers the Rolling Stones to the Beatles (“more exciting, more sensual, better to dance to”). The women of his youth, according to him, might have worshipped the Beatles, but the “real men”  followed the Stones. He recalls with something akin to glee how sitar maestro Ravi Shankar dismissed the media hype that his music had any impact on that of the Fab Four.

The first play Tariq Ali saw in England was Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War, “a moving homage to music hall culture and Brecht.” London was the most exciting place for the theatre enthusiast in the 1960s,with Beckett and Ionescu, Pinter and Peter Brook, all doing or preparing to do monumental work at the Royal Theatre and elsewhere.

His despair of Pakistani politicians—plunderers with no concern for the welfare of the people—is no different from his contempt for its military dictators, just as corrupt and greedy.  Expressing great sadness in an article in The Guardian, soon after Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt were caught cheating in a sting operation, he wrote: “Yes, WG Grace was a cheat on and off the field. Yes, captains of other teams – India and South Africa – have engaged in similar practices. Yes, the betting syndicates are a major part of the problem. So what? Since when has one crime justified another? How many times have I heard apologists for corrupt Pakistani politicians justifying their pillage by arguing that Europe and America also have corrupt politicians. The problem is that in Pakistan that's all we have, with few exceptions – one of whom is Imran Khan, who was also Pakistan's finest and most incorruptible captain.”
The all-round social degeneration has not made Tariq Ali a cynic, or lessened his resolve to try to change the world. At the recent Chennai lecture, he encouraged his young audience to stick to their principles: “It is important for you not to forget the history of journalism and its development.”

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