Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who let the trolls in?

Welcome to the New Virtual World Order!

(Visual courtesy:

The first time I encountered the word ‘troll’ was in high school. That year, we had to read JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit, as part of our course for English literature. It was in the pages of that fascinating book that we discovered amazing creatures, including hobbits and trolls.
Trolls, we were told by way of introduction to these supernatural beings, traced their origin to Norse mythology. They were not particularly handsome in their appearance, lived in mountain caves and had their own social code. Human beings steered clear of them as they did of human beings.
I read The Hobbit at the turn of the last quarter of the last century. Although it’s a memorable book, hugely entertaining at one level and profoundly meaningful at another, I had forgotten about trolls and their strange ways. And I didn’t hear or read about trolls till my foray into social media via Twitter.
I must admit that I was clueless about the terms of engagement in Twitterdom. I learned the rules, such as they are, as I went along, often through mistakes that I wouldn’t ever commit again. Those were days of well-meaning innocence. I wish I had been cynical.
Two terms I would hear often is ‘troll’ and ‘trolling’. The Urban Dictionary, which too I discovered via social media, defines a troll as someone who is deliberately provocative, disruptive and abusive.
A ‘troll’ is someone who “continually harangues and harasses others, has nothing worthwhile to add to a conversation, thinks everybody is talking about him/her, and has multiples monikers to circumvent getting banned”. Trolls also use anonymity as a shield. And their online activity is what is known as ‘trolling’.
Meeting a troll in the misty mountains of Hobbitland would have been a thrilling, if not delightful, experience. Meeting a ‘troll’ on an online forum, especially an open forum like Twitter, can prove to be neither thrilling nor delightful.
Yet, not everybody who is impolite to you, or does not shares your views, or has a bone to pick with you because of real or imaginary grievances, or simply has had a bad hair day and is nursing a foul mood, is a ‘troll’. Nor does someone who pitilessly demolishes your argument, or calls you out for being less than truthful with facts, or tells you on your face that you are a charlatan and/or a philanderer (because you indeed are one), qualifies to be labelled as ‘troll’.
I have no issues with such people even if they are labelled as ‘trolls’ by those who feel unsettled by them. On more than one occasion I have defended them because I see them as subaltern sepoys who have at last found a means of having their say and calling the bluff of those given to bluster.
Also I quite enjoy watching worms squirm. Those mortified by ‘trolls’ like these have had a free run till now. No longer shall they go unquestioned; no more can they peddle their bunk without a quality check. That’s social media’s biggest contribution.
A ‘troll’ is someone who intentionally harasses and abuses. A ‘troll’ is someone who deliberately defames and slanders you.
A ‘troll’ is someone who slyly stalks you, twists your words, and seeks to denigrate your views by imputing slanderous motives.
A ‘troll’ is someone who can be confronted and charged with criminal offence. At least that’s my interpretation of who or what is a ‘troll’ and his/her ‘trolling’.
The presence of ‘trolls’ as I see them is undesirable on an open media platform where freedom of expression is often misconstrued as freedom to abuse, to defame and to slander.
Individuals taking shelter in anonymity do so. Bots using monikers also do so, perhaps with a degree of sophistry.
I would also add a third category of ‘trolls’: Individuals who use their real names and are either brazenly shameless or secure in the knowledge that prosecution for libel is not an easy option in our country.
They spit and scoot. They squat and stalk. They are possibly sickos with twisted minds and darkened souls.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. In real life there are ‘trolls’ all around. Colleagues bitch about you behind your back at office. Relatives say nasty things about you after dining at your home. Examples abound.
Hence, it makes sense to ignore ‘trolls’ who abuse, defame and slander others, taking recourse to bazar language. It also makes sense to ignore the posh ‘trolls’ who pretend to be socially, culturally and intellectually superior and believe everybody else is a ‘moron’.
Some of these posh ‘trolls’ also happen to media stars, courtesy their real and sugar daddies. We contemptuously ignore insufferable fools, so should we ignore insufferable ‘trolls’ like these.
But that’s easier said than done. Often individuals take offence, very serious offence, to ‘trolling’ by ‘trolls’. What invariably follows is ‘I feel outraged’ or ‘I feel violated’. That’s silly.
In the virtual world of social media, it’s absurd to feel angry or violated, not the least because the millions out there give a damn about your feelings. Tough luck. Get real. Deal with it.
There’s a problem though. The easily offended, the perpetually violated, find it difficult to get real and deal with the fact that not everybody is a fawning admirer and an unquestioning toady.
News telly stars, who have till now talked down to their audience from the safe confines of their studios, are alarmed at being confronted on social media platforms, say, Twitter, for their glaring biases and for running motivated stories.
Writers who have pontificated from their ivory towers, brooking neither criticism nor correction, are horrified for being told on their face that what they produce is bilge. That’s not what they are accustomed to hearing.
The Bold and the Beautiful, the pretty people who blow kisses, call each other ‘dahling’, and pretend to know all about wines and single malts although anything but rum, the good old sailor’s drink, gives them indigestion, at Dior-drenched Page 3 parties, are left speechless by the audacity of the unwashed masses on social media platforms. Who let the dogs in?
The new digital order did. Social media isn’t the Gymkhana and Twitter isn’t the IIC. By the way, Bharat speaks English too. And guess what? Bharat has this terrible habit of questioning hypocrisy, exposing duplicity and lampooning gasbags masquerading as intellectuals.
So what will you do? Write a pompous piece denouncing Bharat? That will fetch much mirth and laughter – before you know, Bharat will be rolling on the floor laughing his ass off.
Horrible ‘troll’ this, Bharat. But that’s what you get for removing the digital divide. Welcome to the New Virtual World Order.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Meanwhile, in the White House...

Rick McKee is the staff cartoonist at The Augusta Chronicle

 Nate Beeler is the award-winning editorial cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch.

Shadow of nuclear Iran

Israel has never been free of threats to its very existence. But never before has the Jewish state been so worried about the future.

Rare, if any, has been the occasion when Israel has not been burdened with the onerous task of seeking answers to tough existential questions. Ever since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, it has had to relentlessly struggle on several fronts at the same time. There were wars, launched by Israel’s Arab neighbours, that had to be fought and won; there were challenges to the fledgling Israeli economy, including sourcing oil and gas, which had to be overcome; there were problems, associated with institutionalising a democratic order, that had to be resolved.

Nearly six-and-a-half decades later, Israel is an oasis of peace and prosperity, surrounded by the sterile sands of Arabia. A robust democracy with a healthy economy — which is in stark contrast to the global financial turbulence — Israel, where democracy flourishes in its truest sense, should have had little to worry about. Yet, beneath the apparent calm that prevails in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (and the rest of the tiny country which in reality is a mighty nation), there is mounting disquiet bordering on alarm.

All of a sudden, Israel finds itself confronting a rapidly changing situation in West Asia where yesterday’s certitudes have turned out to be untrue and unreliable. Israel can no longer take for granted its three-decade-long peace with Egypt which, even if frosty at best of times, had allowed it to focus on nation-building without being distracted by threats of war. The entirely unexpected collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime and the menacing rise of Islamists have not been without consequences that indicate a return to the past.

There is much talk in Cairo of disowning the 1979 Peace Treaty that followed the 1978 Camp David Accords, signed by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Muslim Brotherhood had never accepted that peace agreement: Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The assassin, Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, was executed, but that did not in any manner lessen the opposition to peace with Israel.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood wields power in Egypt and, for all practical purposes, the 1979 Peace Treaty lies in tatters. The supply of Egyptian gas to Israel has been stopped; Sinai is now controlled by marauding mobs of Islamists; the demilitarised buffer zone between Egypt and Israel neither offers protection nor assures peace. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are at an all time low.

The situation in Jordan, the other Arab country with which Israel had signed a peace agreement, remains unstable. For the moment, the progressive and pragmatic King Abdullah of Jordan has the upper hand, but it is anybody’s guess as to how long he can hold out against the Islamist surge following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which has turned out to be a torrid summer of political instability and social upheaval.

In Syria, President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist loyalists are fighting a rearguard battle against Ikhwani forces hugely emboldened by the turn of events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The fallout of the raging civil war in Syria is being felt in Lebanon where the Hizbullah continues to expand its hold over the state and its agencies. From Tel Aviv (or, for that matter, from anywhere else) the view of the rest of West Asia, which the West refers to as the ‘extended’ Middle East, that is, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia up to Iran, gets progressively bleaker. Ironically, much hope is now vested with Saudi Arabia to hold the Islamist tide; yesterday’s sponsor of militant political Islam is today’s defender of moderation of faith in politics at home and abroad.

Turkey, with which Israel enjoyed (and to an extent still does) excellent relations, has its eyes set on emerging as the main power in the region and seizing the leadership that was till now jointly held by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Here, too, the irony can’t be missed: The Turks have little in common with the Arabs, civilisationally and culturally. Locked in this battle for leadership after the tectonic shift of power from the Arab Palace to the Arab Street are Saudi Arabia and Iran — the first desperate to retain its primacy over Sunni Arabia; the latter seeking to establish Shia hegemony over Sunni states either in turmoil or with tottering regimes.

All this constitutes bad news for Israel. There is understandable concern over Iran’s proxies — Hamas in Gaza, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Shia dissidents in Arab states — gaining strength. The possibility of Sunni Ikhwanis, eager to demonstrate their anti-Israel credentials and thereafter take their anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion, making common cause with Shia Iran cannot be ruled out. The lifting of the embargo on allowing Iranian ships to pass through the Suez Canal does not portend well for the future — many in Israel see it as a sign of emerging threat on a front considered secure till now.

Topping the list of these concerns is Iran’s military nuclear programme which, unless dismantled soon, will inevitably result in Tehran acquiring weapons of mass destruction. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Iran is racing towards producing weapons grade uranium; that it is simultaneously working on delivery systems by way of acquiring missiles and related technology; and, that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the Baghdad talks, on which much hope has been pinned by the global community, will yield the desired results. If Iran were to get its own Bomb, others in the region would want it too. And this is where Pakistani proliferation comes in: Having provided technology and hardware to Iran, it will not hesitate to hawk both, if not readymade Bombs, to the Arabs. There’s a lot of money to be made.

That’s the doomsday scenario. Israel hopes (against hope) that this won’t come about, that sanctions and international pressure will yet make Iran wilt. But it’s also aware that sanctions have not always had their desired results or else the world would not have been saddled with rogue regimes straddling unruly states. Hence, it’s working on its own strategy to deal with a nuclear armed Iran.

Tiny David defeated mighty Goliath. That lesson of history should not be lost on those who dream of wiping Israel from the map of the world.

Baboos, bibis and the Bangals of Kolkata

Kolkata may have been Calcutta before it was renamed Kolkata, but that did not mean the Empire's Second City had a homogenous society. There was, and still is (well, to an extent), north Calcutta/Kolkata with Ghotis; south Calcutta/Kolkata with its predominant Bangal residents; and somewhere between the two existed a cosmopolitan, English-speaking Calcutta (no, it was never Kolkata and shall remain Calcutta) that finds reflection in Satyajit Ray's film Company Limited.
Dhritiman Chatterjee in Ray's Calcutta classic Pratidwandi.

There’s a north-south divide in Kolkata that runs deep beneath any apparent bonhomie between residents of Jorasanko and Jadavpur. The Bengalis of north Kolkata see themselves as culturally superior to those who live in the southern quarters of the city who, in turn, disdainfully scoff: Culture? Hah! There used to be a popular perception south of Ballygunge, not entirely ungrounded in facts which now belong to the realm of history, that the north was all about dissolute baboos and their lonely bibis, sort of a real life version of Bimal Mitra’s Saheb Bibi Golam. “Oraa paayra oraai, baaiji naachaye…” went a line in a popular Bengali film song, luridly suggesting that the baboos spent their days racing pigeons and their nights frolicking with nautch girls.

The north was where the zamindars set up home, absentee landlords who became Bengal’s compradour bourgeoisie and acquired enormous wealth between mid-19th and early-20th centuries. Ships laden with salt would reach Kolkata where they would be handled by Bengal Docking Co, the salt would be traded by Bengal Salt Co, and a share of the profits would go to Carr Tagore & Co which promoted and managed various joint stock companies. There were hints of scandals involving illicit trade in opium; many of the baboos were cheated out of their home and hearth by their conniving British business partners. Amitav Ghosh documents the tragic story of one such zamindar, Raja Neel Rattan Halder, in Sea of Poppies, the first volume of his trilogy on the opium trade. Others made a pile of money and built gorgeous neo-Victorian houses; their sons squandered their inherited wealth on, as the cliché goes, wine, women and music. Rabindranath Tagore was a rare exception.

Actually there was not much of south Kolkata till partition happened in 1947 and Hindu refugees from ‘East Bengal’, which became East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, trooped into Job Charnock’s city, looking for shelter. They set up home (tiled roofs, marsh reed mats held up by bamboos serving as walls, earthen floors — a far cry from the splendid buildings of the north) in Dhakuria, Jadavpur, Bagha Jatin and other such mosquito-infested colonies. They spoke in East Bengal’s dialect, had a fetish for eelish (hilsa) which they cooked in a mustard sauce and rooted for East Bengal Club during football season. Their struggle for survival in the absence of any Government support and amid the gathering gloom of Kolkata’s economic decline became the leitmotif of a city in ferment during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Jana Aranya, written by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, better known by his pen name ‘Shankar’, which was later rendered into an eponymous film by Satyajit Ray, provides an accurate picture of those troubled times when hunger, rage and frustration coalesced to turn vast stretches of south Kolkata into a seething battlefield where the far Left fought it out with the Left.

The ‘Ghotis’ of north Kolkata were disdainful of the ‘Bangals’ of south Kolkata whom they considered as no better than uncouth peasants and country bumpkins. They spoke in Bangla, as opposed to Bangal, insisted nothing could be tastier than chingri (prawns) cooked in a sweetish curry, and went into mourning every time Mohun Bagan Sporting was routed by East Bengal Club, which would be quite often. Enraged by the supercilious attitude of the Ghotis, the Bangals would take vicarious pleasure in pointing out that luchi (puri) was pronounced as nuchi and lebu (lime) as nebu in the fashionable houses north of Chowringhee, which is pronounced as Chowrangi. There were other crudities in the Bangla spoken in north Kolkata which Bangals in south Kolkata described as “chhoto loker bhaasha” (language of the lower classes). Nirad C Chaudhuri would often offer delightful though risqué examples.

The Bangals were dirt poor but valued education; unlike the conservatives in north Kolkata, they were liberal in their social practices and radical in their political views. During the troubled decades they emerged as the urban backbone of the Left movement. While Calcutta University suffered precipitous decline in academic standards, Jadavpur University became the hub of exciting studies (it was the first in India to set up a department of comparative literature; its engineering and science graduates are still a prized catch for Western universities). When Nakshalbari happened, north Kolkata became the battleground between Congress hoodlums and Charu Mazumdar’s guerrillas. In south Kolkata, it was Left versus Left, a fight for domination between Marx and Mao. The disinheritance of West Bengal, first by Jawaharlal Nehru and then by Mrs Indira Gandhi who, between them, ruined the State’s industrial economy through hare-brained schemes like the freight equalisation policy, hit the working class of south Kolkata the most.

All this, of course, now belongs to the past. Over the years there has been migration from the north to the south with families running out of living space. The houses with tiled roofs and marsh reed walls first gave way to pucca dwellings; these have now made way for high-rise buildings. In the early-1980s, Jadavpur was dark and dingy, its narrow roads clogged with traffic and its gutters overflowing with sewage. Over the past two decades or so, it has had an image makeover and is almost unrecognisable now. There are glittering retail showrooms, malls, gyms and restaurants that list ‘continental’ fare on their menu cards. Fervour for Marx has been replaced by fervour for Mamata. Ten years ago we had gone for dinner to a friend’s house at Kalibari Lane near 8B bus stand in Jadavpore. They had served a delightfully mean tel koi and similar fabulous dishes that Bangals alone can cook. On a recent visit I had dinner with them. There was chicken roast (no, not tandoori chicken), grilled ribs and sauteed vegetables on the table.

A strange patois, which Bengalis insist is Hindi but sounds nothing like Hindi, has replaced both Ghoti and Bangal dialects. Aabaar dekha hobey (We will meet again, the standard parting line) is rarely heard. Instead, Bengalis now say, “Pheer milengey”, gratuitously adding, “Theek hai”. Children speak in Cartoon Network English with their parents, and there’s a strange, inexplicable collective rejection of Bangla culture and identity. There is no more any north or south, it’s a new Kolkata which has said goodbye to the city which you either loved or loathed, but could not be indifferent to. There’s a lot of money going around and a dissolute lifestyle is no longer the preserve of north Kolkata.

But memories remain. And the smallest Ghoti slight can leave Bangals incandescent with rage. “These Ghotis will never change,” my Bangal friend said, while helping himself to another portion of chicken roast and reaching out for the jar of Colman’s mustard (no, not the one that is packaged in India). Had I not been a Bangal, I would have retorted, “What you mean is that these Gauls will never change!”