Friday, May 19, 2017

Chaar Rahein - K A Abbas at the junction between tradition and progress

[Did this for Mint Lounge. A Khwaja Ahmad Abbas retrospective is part of the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this month, starting from May 21. Schedule here]
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In an early scene in the 1959 film Char Dil Char Rahein, a man named Govinda stands at a crossroads, under a four-pronged sign, wondering which route the woman he loves has taken. Govinda is played by one of the era’s biggest stars, Raj Kapoor, and the high-angle shot is framed so that we can see all the place names on the signpost. One of its “arms” points toward Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination. Another toward Sultanabad, which we will soon learn is a colonial-era kingdom about to lose its princely status to the government of independent India. There is also Hotel Parbat, described later in the story as a “Holiday Home for the Elite”.


And the fourth sign – the one facing us, the film’s audience – simply says “Nav Bharat”. New India. It is a pointer to the heavy symbolism of this narrative (near the end, all the characters in the story will come together to help build this road), but also a reminder that the film was made by a man whose production company was called Naya Sansar, and who stood for forward-looking ideals throughout his writing and filmmaking career.

Char Dil Char Rahein is one of the films being shown at the K A Abbas retrospective in New Delhi from May 21. Despite the presence of such stars as the Kapoor brothers Raj and Shammi, Meena Kumari and Nimmi, it didn’t do well commercially and it’s hard to find a good print today (which is also the case for much of Abbas’s other work). But it is one of the most structurally interesting Hindi films of its time, with separate stories coming together through the device of the crossroads and the personal journeys of the characters passing it. Two years earlier, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut film Musafir had used a house and its landlord to link three discrete narratives. If the “makaan” in that film represents a society made up of many types of people, Char Dil Char Rahein is about the tradition-modernity conflict facing a nation; it is, literally and otherwise, set at the intersection between old roads and a new one.

Thus, in one story, an upper-caste boy shakes up his village by trying to marry a dark-complexioned, “achut”, or untouchable, girl. (“Bhayankar Naye Vichar!” – “Terrifying new notions!” – exclaims the temple priest, half-genially; meanwhile the boy’s father berates him for having forgotten about their customs after having picked up new-fangled ideas during his stay in the big bad city.) In another, a courtesan is torn between her love for a driver, her responsibilities to her mother, and the patronage of an insomniac Nawab who is depressed about his fall in status. And at Hotel Parbat, we are reminded that while Nawabs might be disappearing in the new India, there are other varieties of “saab log” being served by minions, and the class divide is very much here to stay.


Flipping through Abbas’s writings, including the recently published compendium Bread Beauty Revolution, one repeatedly encounters the loaded word “progressive”. It often occurs in the discourse of the Left-leaning artists involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s – people who had a strong, egalitarian vision for independent India and brought their sensibilities into the literature, theatre and cinema of the period. One possible definition of the word comes from Abbas’s recollection of meeting Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time and being told that to bring about great change, it was imperative to keep asking questions. “Never believe anything – whether it comes from your father, grandfather, from your professor, from a leader, a Pandit…”

For a creative person, progress can mean other things. It can mean not having the time to dawdle; you work swiftly, move from one project to another. (Abbas wrote 74 books, in addition to his journalism and film scripts.) It can mean being distrustful of anything that is established or popular or seemingly approving of the social status quo: Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema and the star system, even as he worked as a writer on glamorous, larger-than-life films such as Mera Naam Joker and Bobby (both of which he also subsequently novelized, with very mixed results). In the films he directed and had greater control over, he opted for atypical subjects, cast newcomers and made very
interesting decisions. For instance, in Saat Hindustani (1969), the titular characters were written and cast to avoid the usual stereotypes about people from different parts of the country: the Malayalam actor Madhu would play a Bengali, while the sophisticated Jalal Agha would be cast as a Maharashtrian powada singer.

Of course, any life that tries to grapple with grand concepts like progress and equality must also deal with the many thorny complications of the real world, and this friction often comes through in Abbas’s work – both his films and his writings. “My complaint against the youth is not that they are disobedient to their parents,” he said in a 1982 interview to Suresh Kohli, “but that they are not disobedient enough.” He was speaking in the context of young people being too respectful, not doing enough to move away from the hoary ideas of their progenitors – an echo, perhaps, of Nehru’s words about the need to question everything.

But as a counterpoint to this, consider another little anecdote related by Abbas in his memoir I am Not an Island. Casting for Saat Hindustani, he interviewed an intense youngster who introduced himself only as Amitabh and seemed just right for the role of Anwar the Muslim (partly because, in keeping with Abbas’s vision of “scrambled casting”, this actor was not a Muslim himself). The deal was almost done when the long-limbed young man revealed that he was the son of the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, one of Abbas’s acquaintances. Whereupon the director said that the contract could only be signed once he had the father’s written permission, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him”.

Temporarily at least, the idealist who advocated youthful disobedience and the forging of one’s own path in the world had become an avuncular, stick-wielding figure who needed to ensure that the youngster sitting in front of him hadn’t run away from home. Among the things that make Abbas’s work so interesting is this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience.

38 comments:

  1. "..... this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience." Excellent summation, and a very important point for all to bear in mind in general.

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  2. "an upper-caste boy shakes up his village by trying to marry a dark-complexioned, “achut”, or untouchable, girl"

    It's an interesting stereotype. Given the very wide prevalence of dark skinned upper castes and light skinned dalits / shudras in North India.

    Kayasths on an average are a tad darker than Jats. The former are upper caste. The latter a low caste (often Dalit). Brahmins of UP/Bihar are a tad darker than many Punjabi middle/low castes. Baniyas are often darker than many Yadavs. Definitely darker than Punjabi SCs. Bengali brahmins/kayasths definitely several shades darker than low-caste Pathans and Muslims of north west India.

    South Indian brahmins (often stereotyped for their superiority complex) significantly darker than baniyas/jats/khatris/brahmins of the north, though fairer than other south indians.

    Maybe the inconvenient truth is that the relationship between caste and color is very tenuous? Perhaps it was strong 3000 years ago. Very very tenuous today. Why so? Because of a lot of intermingling. Oh..but my teacher said - but there is no intermingling in India due to "caste system". Well, your teacher is dumb.

    By the way I have never attended an Indian wedding (often predominated by one caste - that of the couple), where I don't get to see the complete spectrum of color from Siberian-fair to Ethiopian-dark :) We all have uncles who are very fair. Aunts who are very dark. Jai - Check out your extended family. Am sure it is true.

    I never get to see this in ANY western wedding by the way. This remarkable diversity of color. Yet, it is Indians who are supposed to be color conscious. I contend that we are the most color blind people on earth.

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  3. "He was speaking in the context of young people being too respectful, not doing enough to move away from the hoary ideas of their progenitors – an echo, perhaps, of Nehru’s words about the need to question everything"

    Yes, the need to question everything, except question the nehruvian consensus. Never question the dynasty. Never question the ridiculousness of a Prime minister awarding himself Bharat Ratna. Never question the the 5 year plans. Never question the strangling of businesses. Never question the persistent bias of the state against the religion of the majority. Never question the state indoctrination of deleterious ideas like socialism through school textbooks.

    Question your elders. Sure. But don't question the state.

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  4. "Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema and the star system"

    And I am disdainful of his disdain for commercial cinema.

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  5. On color of people, yes, I totally agree with Shrikanth. The variety in India is crazy. The question is why doesn't the larger narrative, that of clan, of parents, of society, of films, of books, of media accept it and talk about it? I was discussing with a friend and we finally came out with a very general conclusion that may be we are a very very dishonest society. Look at Americans. They wouldn't deny so much where their features are coming from. The problem can also be immense weight of the past 2,000 years as more or less one civilisation. But on dishonesty, take this example. Often, I have discussed with my corporate friends that they aren't the first Indian generation to live abroad, work abroad, travel abroad, as look at S'pore, Mauritius, many countries of Africa, Indians have been moving. But, they just don't want to admit it. We don't look into the mirror as much as what I would expect.

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  6. "The question is why doesn't the larger narrative, that of clan, of parents, of society, of films, of books, of media accept it and talk about it? I was discussing with a friend and we finally came out with a very general conclusion that may be we are a very very dishonest society"

    People don't talk about it as they don't care for it. Indians care less for color than any other race on planet. You should be proud of this. Yet you think Indians are dishonest! India hatred and Hindu hatred runs very deep indeed.

    What I am saying doesn't even require any kind of academic corroboration. It hits you so easily. It's so in-your-face.

    Simple question - Are Indians more likely to marry someone unlike them in physical features than say Brits or Americans or Germans?

    Answer : A resounding yes.

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    1. /Indians care less for color than any other race on planet/. Yet, fairness creams sell like anything. This is sweeping.

      /Are Indians more likely to marry someone unlike them in physical features than say Brits or Americans or Germans?/

      The answer to this is not resounding yes. Given that most marriages happen in caste, how is it relevant that physical features are not being matched? They all want fair daughter-in-law, doctor daughter in law for a doctor son, bureaucrat girl's father for a diplomat boy's father. You are really reaching wrong conclusions basis people not caring as much for physical features.

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    2. "They all want fair daughter-in-law, doctor daughter in law for a doctor son, bureaucrat girl's father for a diplomat boy's father". And we all want to be rich and educated. Does that prove we have a bias against poor and uneducated people ? Do not confuse individual preferences with values of a society.irrespective of what individuals / families may wish for (Even that is at a gut feel level, no data really), The hard fact is that a large no. of marriages between people with different colors happen and neither society nor law has anything against such alliances and fair, wheatish, dark all kinds of people interact with each other without any issues. On the other hand in "progressive" societies of Europe and US,marriages between people of different colors are still very rare despite the moral superiority they might claim on this issue.

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    3. In the worst case the preference for fairness is a weak (greater than or equal to dark ) rather than strict (always greater than dark ) preference.

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    4. "You are really reaching wrong conclusions basis people not caring as much for physical features. "

      I never said they don't care. And I believe they SHOULD care. Would you like to marry someone without having seen her? What you are saying defies both my sense and sensibility. How on earth can you not care for the physical features of the person you'll have kids with?

      What I am saying is - Even villagers in UP are less particular about complexion while picking spouses than say Hyde Park Londoners or Upper West Side Manhattan dwellers. Fact. Look around old chap. What I am saying is too obvious to be missed.

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  7. And there is no Indian text (religious or secular) that discourages marriage with dark-skinned people.

    Our gods are dark skinned! Both Krishna and Rama. The very word Krishna means dark. We have never had a problem with that.

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    1. //And there is no Indian text (religious or secular) that discourages marriage with dark-skinned people.//

      Is there such texts in any other country or religion, which clearly says one shouldnt marry dark skinned people? I am a Punjabi. In my family, I was the most dark-skinned. How often I heard from people that he is not fair. I have known so many people, whose self-esteem takes a huge hit, as wheatish complexioned neighbours and family members call them 'kallu'. I am not 100% disagreeing with you, Shrikanth on any point you mentioned, but you make it sound, as if having a dark-complexion does not "fundamentally" change lives. It does fundamentally change lives in India. Although I get your point that bias is not as system driven in India as in other countries, but the system is weak itself in this country.

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    2. Well talking of texts, American law forbade marriage of a white woman and a black man (and vice versa) in half of its states even as late as 1950

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    3. Hmm. Didn't know of it. Terrible thing.

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    4. it was in 1967 in "Loving vs Virginia" case that the US Supreme court invalidated laws against inter racial marriages. The story of Richard Loving ( White man ) & Mildred Loving ( Black woman )has been turned into Hollywood movie 3 times.

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  8. The West has started on the rhetoric of multi-culturalism and multi-racial coexistence in the past 50 years or so.

    In India it has been a reality for 3000 years if not more! Every village in India is multiracial. Every family combines in it disparate racial elements. Be it north, south, east, west, upper caste, low caste.

    It's remarkable that this remarkable people are chided by the liberal intelligentsia for being "narrow minded".

    Caste formation in this country was never ever based on color or handsomeness. Never. It is a function of geography and occupation for the most part, plus religious differences. It's never a racial thing. Sometimes it is based on the degree of adherence to "dharma" (or social codes). But not race.

    Despite the remarkable diversity in this country, the more powerful groups never resorted to ethnic cleansing to get rid of diversity. We never hear of large-scale pogroms in Indian history. Instead people were allowed to live and retain their diversity. Hence the caste system. The dominant culture (whatever it may have been at different points in our history) never demanded assimilation! Never.

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    1. //The West has started on the rhetoric of multi-culturalism and multi-racial coexistence in the past 50 years or so.// It's not merely a rhetoric. Even the worst critics of liberal left will agree that liberal left did change a lot of things for good, the point is their rhetoric is irrelevant today. But, I agree that the west has marched ahead a lot in the last 70 years or so, since world war 2.
      //the more powerful groups never resorted to ethnic cleansing to get rid of diversity// - cleansing has happened a lot basis caste. Caste is the problem in India.

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    2. Caste is evidence of absence of ethnic cleansing. Even the most tribal adivasis have not turned extinct in India but allowed to live on in their primitive ways.

      Coutries without caste are either homogenous to begin with or rendered homogenous through either forced assimilation or ethnic cleansing. Read European history for this

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    3. //Even the most tribal adivasis have not turned extinct in India but allowed to live on in their primitive ways.//
      Again, I don't 100% disagree with you, but you are too lenient on Indian reality. Adivasis are allowed to live in many cases because perhaps they are not worth the trouble. What exactly is happening in mineral belt of India? Indian society never had the kind of industrial revolution the West and many parts of Asia had. They didn't have resources or just a drive to annihilate Adivasis like the West has. I agree that Hindu society and faith has allowed more various kinds of people to assimilate, but then I disagree with the way you put it

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    4. Industrial revolution is a complex topic. Unrelated to what we are discussing.

      My point is - caste is a consequence of Indian non violence. Violent societies like the abrahamic ones of Europe, middle-east and even China don't have caste. Because they impose homogeneity by hook or crook.

      Tolerant societies are the ones which have caste. Because they rightly or wrongly let people retain their distinctive identity rather than demand assimilation.

      Caste is linked to the Indian aversion for confrontation and bloody violence.

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    5. "cleansing has happened a lot basis caste. Caste is the problem in India." Really ? When did this happen ? Which caste *cleansed* which other caste ?

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  9. "One of its “arms” points toward Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination"

    It's interesting. Ram Kund by its name sounds like a north indian village. And in my experience North Indian villages are the most deracinated unorthodox, unmoored villages in the country!

    Even the brahmins of the north hardly do the Sandhya-vandana, can barely recite even a handful of shlokas well. Their knowledge of theology and religion is very very poor. THe most orthodox people in north indian villages are the muslims! Period.

    Yet these villages get characterized as "orthodox"??

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  10. I don't agree that Nehru's legacy is reducible to economic policies which were supposedly a complete failure, dynastic politics, or the unwillingness on the State to fully embrace majoritarian politics. All said and done India is a democracy, and with all its problems that is massive achievement. That a country as desperately poor, and culturally, linguistically and religiously heterogeneous as India embarked on this course in 1947 is pretty amazing. More than a little credit is owed to Nehru for that. Near Independence, many learned International observers thought Pakistan had been much smarter about these things; religiously homogenous, undemocratic, and certainly not socialist (none of the massive and much needed land-reform which took place in India under Nehru's tenure, happened there).

    If Nehru felt that a course of unbridled capitalism would be grossly irresponsible and an abrogation of the State’s duty towards its citizens, than that’s totally understandable. India’s impoverished millions needed (and still need) some kind of safeguard, and could not be left at the mercy of the market.
    With regards to textbooks being filled with ‘deleterious ideas’ such as socialism, I underwent something of a conversion on this subject, after having read Ha-Joon Chang’s fascinating book “Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism”. In this text, Chang makes a strong case in questioning what now floats around as economic orthodoxy; the understanding that free market capitalism and the embrace of the open market is what led to the rapid economic growth and increased prosperity of Japan and the ‘Tiger Economies’ of South East Asia. The industries of these countries actually relied on heavy protectionism and sustained state backing at their nascent stages (firms such as ‘Toyota’ were an abject failure at their inception, and required several decades of State finance, and a closure of car imports, in order to become established and actually serve the national economy.

    In reading the book, I found myself drawing a lot of parallels with India, especially in light of Chang’s statement that ’incentive is only one half of it, capacity is another half’. In the Indian context, it’s arguable that a substantial amount of the waste and inefficiency of the early post-Independence years could be attributed not so much to fundamental irresolvable problems with the socialist model, but the need for more flexible, responsive and adaptive management. Also, while Nehru was never personally corrupt, his willingness to countenance financial impropriety amongst his colleagues set a poor precedent, and was partially responsible for the rampant corruption which was to come within the ranks of government in later years.

    He made mistakes, but Nehru’s chosen path (self-sufficiency, heavy protectionism and extensive State intervention) was certainly not as flawed as it is sometimes argued to be. I guess the key was to not become economically straight-jacketed in approach.

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    1. "Near Independence, many learned International observers thought Pakistan had been much smarter about these things; religiously homogenous, undemocratic, and certainly not socialist (none of the massive and much needed land-reform which took place in India under Nehru's tenure, happened there"

      For your information, Pakistan was a bigger economic success story than India right uptil the early 90s. Even as late as the 80s, Pakistan per-capita income was higher than that of India.

      So Nehruvian policies did not result in better economic performance (definitely not, if Pakistan is your benchmark).

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  11. Also if it wasn't already clear I don't think engaging in purely majoritarian politics is healthy or wise or good. It's about striking the right balance. Nehru himself was no extreme leftist. He was very much middle of the road.

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    1. I don't think it is very healthy either to institute a culture that looks down at the majority and its ways with contempt and derision

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    2. " don't think engaging in purely majoritarian politics is healthy or wise or good"

      Japan appears to have ignored this liberal dictum. It remains 99% Japanese. A highly homogenous country with no minorities. Highly resistant to immigration. Highly conscious of its history and its traditions.

      It is one of the richest countries on the planet. I don't see a tradition-modernity tradeoff there. Rejection of cosmopolitanism hasn't hurt Japan.

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    3. //Rejection of cosmopolitanism hasn't hurt Japan.//

      Again, can't really agree with it. Holding on to roots have made Japs more chauvinistic than any other developed economy is. On relative basis, women are worse off in Japan. Besides, how are they going to address their population problem? How is sustainable to have an economy with those demographics?

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    4. Well. Demographic problem is also a very real problem even in Western EUropean countries - which are hardly "traditional" or "rooted", in the same sense as Japan is. So one needn't bring that up.

      Maybe women are "worse" off. But perhaps families are better off? Divorce rates are lower than the west? Fewer single mothers? Fewer social stresses. Less of a drug epidemic? How do you weigh the balance?

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  12. How is Japan's ethnic homogeneity relevant? India is not ethnically, linguistically, culturally or religiously homogenous and nor should it aspire to be. Japan's prosperity was more fundamentally an outcome of the economic policies it adopted which were at the level of conception (if not at the level of execution) comparable to India's.

    Pakistan arguably started off better resourced and at a slightly better vantage point than India. It might also interest you to know that in its period of relative prosperity Pakistan also had a series of five year plans. The 90's, which you identify as a period of decline, were marked by rapid privatisation of State Industries and deregulation in Pakistan. More fundamentally the mess it is in now, can be ascribed to deeply ill-liberal social policies, majoritarian religious chauvinism, and the consistent undermining of minorities. It's break with East-Bengal was also partially a product of attempts to homogenise it, through the imposition of an alien language and culture.

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    1. You are arguing with s strawman here.

      I ain't calling for the "undermining" of minorities in any of my comments. My original comments have absolutely nothing to do with minorities! I never ever mentioned them. Why ascribe that to me? Nor am I calling for India to become a Hindu Pakistan.

      I brought up Japan because you made the point (unrelated to my comments) that majoritarian politics hurts countries. I am not either for or against majoritarian politics. I find the term very vague. But that assertion of yours is not borne out by reality. Japan is a very homogeneous, majoritarian country. Not because nature has rendered it so. But because it has chosen to remain homogeneous. It has resisted immigration throughout its history and chosen to retain a racial identity for its nation. Not saying it's good or bad. But it has done OK.

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    2. I am not even saying that we must aspire to be like Japan.

      All I am saying is - these are value judgments. Let's not try to discuss these things in "objective" terms and suggest that there is a grand "tradition-modernity" tradeoff. There is no such tradeoff, if you study history closely enough. If anything one sees that homogeneous countries with a strong sustained tradition and lack of diversity / internal fissures tend to hold up better.

      Does that mean I advocate ethnic cleansing? Ofcourse not. ALl I am saying is - the call for diversity can be a liberal ideal. Which is fine. BUt let's not make it a universal ideal with some objective "benefits".

      It's OK to eat chocolate, without having to justify it by making a case for its health benefits!

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  13. Nice blog !!! Awesome posts & information, i had Liked Your Blog & way Of Writing The Posts In Your website,Please Share More Information in Your Blog,Keep Going On And All The Best

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    1. "i had Liked Your Blog & way Of Writing"

      You had liked Jai's blog, but you no longer like it?

      "Please Share More Information in Your Blog"

      About what? Or going by the capitalized words, do you mean to say jai needs to share something called "More Information"? Is that a proper noun? the name of a movie or something? I did google. Not showing up.

      "Your Blog"

      "your blog" will do. Don't capitalize "Your". Jai is neither a deity nor a royal figure. And from what I know of him, he has strong egalitarian and atheistic impulses and disapproves of both religion and nobility.

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    2. Shrikanth: criticizing Nehru or scoffing at "liberals"? No problem. But this:

      Jai is neither a deity nor a royal figure

      Unacceptable

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    3. Well in a sense, I am a liberal too. A classical liberal (people who are called conservatives today, in the West).

      I am scoffing at leftists like KA Abbas who are anything but liberal. Who got their inspiration from highly illiberal people like Marx and Lenin!

      My heroes are Hume, Smith, Burke. True liberals, each one of them. Not the enemies of liberalism like Marx or Engels.

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    4. By the way, on a separate note, here's a robust defence of monarchy by that arch-conservative Jerry Rao

      https://swarajyamag.com/politics/bastar-proposing-a-radical-solution

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  14. Amar: Thanks!!! Nice and Awesome Comment. Best Comment so far on This Thread.

    ReplyDelete