My Father and Soumitra: Mourning and Memory

Soumitra Chatterjee, the

What a year this has been. After the loss of my father to covid 19, I watched a lot of early Bengali films that I had seen first with him. Although I started watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, I could not continue.
I remembered being a small Bengali girl in a white provincial Canadian suburb, harassed by passengers and bus drivers, as we went, in our “traditional garb” to distant movie theatres, dodging furious glances, and sometimes, spit.
In went the adults, looking forward to mother tongue, as a kitten does to it’s mother tongue. The corners and crevices of vowels, the cushions of soft consonants, were hiding places and barricades against this crazy colonial world of exclusion.
We were here in Canada, especial thanks due to the Commonwealth, the British Empire’s basket of plundered goods and destroyed worlds. We too, crossed the “kala pani” as adults sought their fortunes, safety, education.
But the film’s amazing cinematography and script, the tenderness of the camera, the unsentimental tragedy of Apu’s life, the unbelievable acting– all led to a tidal wave of empathy.
As a child, watching Apu’s life, Durga’s death, the ethos of a black and white nostalgia and memory–it was all too much. I was led by my poor father, sobbing and hiccuping to a dirty cinema lobby where popcorn and fountain soda had been temporarily replaced by tea and the even- then ubiquitous samosa.
There he soothed and comforted me, telling me that it was all a story. Apu was fine and grown up, Durga was alive, their mother too, and that they were acting. It was perhaps my first lesson in the power of story telling and the breaking down of the fourth wall.
Without my Baba’s intervention, holding my hand and smoking his cigarette, the perfect circles of smoke coming out of his mouth, I would have been disconsolate and lost in the story. For me, Satyajit Ray, Subir Banerjee, and Soumitra Chatterjee, are always intertwined in a pre-analytic moment of pure feeling.
Being only a few years away from India, nostalgia, sadness, half-memories, swirl with racism, and the always present sense of being unwanted and othered that haunted my child’s life in Canada’s public school system of the 1970s. Perhaps, since then, belonging has been tinged with both joy and sorrow. Rest in power, Soumitra.

Soundtrack from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali

The Rest of the Trilogy
Great Kids’ Mystery Starring Soumitra Chatterjee, among others

Of Pipelines and Pogroms

The two countries that I have lived in most of my life, are undergoing upheaval. In Canada, the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, travelling through We’tsuwe’ten territory, and exploiting and polluting the water and land, has been met with fierce opposition by the First Nations. Although the fight has been going on for quite some time in opposition to the pipeline route, both on the streets and in the courts, recent events where the RCMP ’s military tactics menaced the land defenders, resulted in a call-out for solidarity. It was heeded across the land, by First Nations, Metis and allies, who engaged in peaceful protests on the streets and on the rail-lines “from sea to shining sea.” 

Christi Belcourt, Canada

Bandied about during the last three weeks, we’ve heard a great deal of the ‘rule of law’.  But the bourgeois media discourse propping up corporations and kleptocracies has obscured the impetus for this law, the origins of statist impulses to control and manage  class -based consciousness and uprisings. In another century, in law school, we were explained the concept of rule of law in the following manner.

The law punishes both the rich and the poor man (sic) for vagrancy. This is the ideology that liberal legal constitutionalism seeks to promote. The problem with this, of course, is that the rich man has somewhere to go; a home — the poor man may have nowhere to go. Yet the law is enforced “impartially”, affecting the poor more frequently and adversely, because of their social location, than the rich. This sleight of hand for which the law is justly notorious, deploys a facade of universal equality, while hiding the uneven and biased practice of law. 

To take the “rule of law” seriously, one would have to uphold this as an aspirational, not actually present, reality. First Nations people know, as do working class people of all backgrounds, that the law is enforced differently for the rich and poor, the indigenous and the white settler, for the union and the boss, the land protector and the land violator, the Muslim and the non-Muslim, the survivor/victim and the rapist. They know this, because a cursory look at their own history vis a vis mercantile and later industrial capitalism, has left them with a bitter taste of all the blood spilled to destroy and silence them. They know this because even pre-capitalist ways of belonging to the land are threatening to profits before people, not only anti-capitalism rooted in class development and analysis.

The challenge that allies and land defenders face, is how to make this equality of social bargaining power a reality, so that the “rule of law” will finally be a descriptive, rather than prescriptive term.  Within this overarching challenge, are others. Overcoming the divide and rule legacy of the Indian Act, the racist fabric of Canadian society which underlies the entire development of this economy and polity, and the coming together of racial justice and environmental justice movements with the white and “othered” working classes. 

Anti-CAA Protests, India, 2020

Because it is going to be when when labour and native struggles can come together, that we can create a vision of Canada, where we equally benefit from a law which centers the land and its inhabitants as legal subjects worthy of remedy; that we can even begin to talk of the rule of law.

In another country, far, far away,  the pretense of the rule of law, has been stripped totally bare in the most brutal way conceivable: state-sponsored mob violence. For Muslims, India’s largest minority, the last few weeks have culminated in murder and mayhem in ordinary neighbourhoods across north east Delhi during the official visit of American tycoon, Donald Trump. 

The murderous rampage committed by Hindu mobs supporting the Narendra Modi’s BJP government’s CAA/NCR legislation in February of 2020, has resulted in 48 dead and hundreds injured as well as untold property damage to homes and business belonging to Muslim Indians. 

These laws would deny citizenship and refuge to Muslims who apply to reside in India from neighbouring countries, as well as strip Indian Muslims of citizenship without documents proving the claim to nationality— in a part of the world where documentation is precarious at best, and corrupt and biased, at worst.  And as an observer, I find the issues of these conflicts so similar. Central to the We’etsuwe’ten claim on territory in the 1990s, was precisely the issue of “documentation. Central to their legal case, was the holding that oral testimonies should and could provide title to land and proof of possession by Indigenous communities. That case is Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1997] 3 SCR 1010.

While the Delhi police stood by, or even participated, in the days of violence sweeping the nation’s capital, journalists were attacked and removed from scenes of terror, threatened on religious and political grounds, and attacked for live reporting. This can be seen in a milder form with the treatment of journalists by the RCMP in their coverage of the We’tsuwe’ten protest. The fact that independent and live reporting has been brutally and so publicly censored, shows us the power of accurate reportage in a time of instant visuals and soundbytes. The news is not neutral. 

Press Trust of India, February 26, 2020

The recent violence has reminded observers of the 1984 anti-Sikh attacks in Delhi, the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002, and the  violence of the Partition of India into Pakistan and India in 1947.

The Delhi massacre has  been described as a pogrom; the use of violence to eradicate and terrorize a particular ethnic or religious community. It was practiced against the Jews at the end of the nineteenth century in particular in Eastern Europe, which account for the Russian origins of the word. In Germany, one of the most famous was known as “Kristalnacht” or night of broken glass, which took place against the Jews under the rule of Adolf Hitler in 1938. And it is a mode of violence which has popped up in conflict in Sri Lanka, on the African continent and in contemporary and recent eastern Europe (Bosnia).

Over the last few months, the world has been observing these  two modes of fascism,  the creeping Canadian and the blatant Indian, approach, and seeing the ways in which the rule of law grows further and further out of our reach, unless we put justice and equality first!

Opponents of the CAA and its related laws draw strongly on the secular nature of Indian Constitution, but here again, India cannot rest on its laurels of inclusivity. Equality before the law has been increasingly out of reach of Muslims, Dalits, and women and children who are the victims of an ethos of dog eat dog survival. It is impossible for any country to honour a constitutional document without honouring those whose flesh and blood make material its social order.

It has been heartening to see the groundswell of support in both countries for the defense of land and peoples who are under attack by the same forces of “buy cheap and sell dear” capitalism that characterizes neo-liberal resource extraction and approach to labour power. Jumble the word “roti” and you get “riot”. Scramble the word “oil” and you get “loi”, the French word for law. 

Who benefits when the rule of law cannot be implemented because there is no equality for social actors?

City for Sale, 1984, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, India

World Social Justice Day

The United Nations has declared February 20th as World Social Justice day. In this era, social justice is like a carrot dangling before humanity while the vast majority of us are being beaten with sticks. So, social justice is an aspirational desire, a desire to remediate the wrongs of past times and current ways of ruling. I hope every single day, to see signs of positive and crucial social change.

 In the area of women’s rights, even as we expand our notions of “femininity” and “masculinity” to include non-biologically sexed people, there is so much to do. Women and trans-women who are the victims of violence all over the world, are really at the bottom of the barrel. Our lives are de facto worthless, if we are Indigenous, South Asian, of African descent, East Asian, even more so. 

This is so evident when we examine murder statistics (flawed and manipulated, though statistical data may be) from Mexico ( 2,795 in 2017), India (between 8000-5000 dowry deaths per year), South Africa (2930 in 2017-18 ), Spain ( over one thousand women killed in 8 years), Australia ( approximately 52 women per year) and the United States (approximately 1600 in 2018 ) and Canada (118 in 11 months in 2018, or 1 murder every 2.5 days ).  In Cuba, pressure from local women’s organizations and activists is pushing for statistics on violence against women and a new integrated law of  gender violence that will allow the state and the social services sector to keep track of violence aginst women. 2016 saw about 50 women murdered by male partners and intimates.

Rape statistics and/ or lack of, are also horrifying. In India, over 300, 000 are reported to police, leaving another 3 million unreported annually, as experts have pointed out, due to social and familial stigma, rape and sexual assault are the most under-reported crimes. In Mexico, thousands of women are violated daily with a reported rape rate of 12.6 per 100, 000 and about 3 million reported rapes in the 2010-2015 period. 

As we are well aware, rape and sexually motivated violence is the least reported, with official figures representing approximately 10% of actual cases globally. Biased and misogynist legal systems and law enforcement in every country in the world, makes sure that it will remain that way. In Canada, one in three women experiences some kind of partner assault in her lifetime. The violence against women of Indigenous descent has reached horrific proportions, a genocidal violence that is rooted in the making invisible of native cultures and nations. 

Discussing women’s wages, social and economic opportunities and acquisitive power, we see that the gender gap prevails here as well throughout the world. I have seen how the gap in wages translates in housing vulnerability for women at even higher rates than for men, in one example. Disproportionately, women also shoulder child rearing and housing costs as well as actual child-care. 

In terms of other social justice issues, and there are so many— racism and imperialism rank among the highest impactful issues on the planet. In North America and Europe, racism saves employers, corporations and states trillions of dollars in historical and current under/unemployment, substandard housing and education. Racism makes huge profits for war industries, law enforcement related industries and municipal developers, furnishing companies that supply concentration camps and public and private prisons, and has fostered generations of white supremacist involvement in armed foreces and armed law enforcement.

It is almost incomprehensible the ways in which “othering” and inferiorizing the lives of billions of people for the profit of a few white men and their families— global oligarchs— shapes our world view through the media and social networks. As many have argued the intersection of oppressions by race and gender as well as social class, account for the ways our very lives are shaped and the type of opportunities that may be afforded to us. 

If we add disability to the mix, poverty is an almost constant factor in the lives of people with serious and or chronic health conditions, as employment seems the last place in our lives where we might expect accomodation, though we live in capitalist societies that measure  all our worth in terms of what we “do” (read, earn) occupationally. 

Even the left plays into this bourgeois meritocracy. That is why, we so rarely see images of disabled people speaking about the complexity of their lives or political belliefs. They ( by which I mean, we), are relegated to speaking only about “disability”. Having an affiliation to paid, and well-paid employment at that, certainly gives “privilege” to those who are able-bodied but within our own social class.

These horrific underlying social inequalities shape every aspect of our lives. Women, not safe in their homes, or on the streets, live in a state of permanent alert that starts when we are little children. People of colour, indigenous people, colonized communities and nations, are constantly prevented from lifting the yoke of subjugation that presses down on our human capacity and potential. 

Social Justice Day is a day to take stock of all the work we have done in our countries and globally, while confronting the fact that we have barely begun to tackle the enormous overarching issues that literally, shape, and delimit our lives. 

I’ll leave you with a poem from a writer whose words echoed in my head and got me through the cult-like environment of law school so many years ago. Chrystos is a Menominee lesbian poet whose work addresses our real lives. Instead of growing up on the reservation, she was reared in the city around Black, Latino, Asian, and White people, and identifies herself as an Urban Indian.



How can you miss our brown & golden

a thin red scream

in this sea of pink

But we’re here

meeting & didn’t contact the Black Lesbians or G.A.L.A. or Gay American Indians or the Disabled Women’s Coalition or Gay Asians or anyone I know

You’re the ones who don’t print your signs in Spanish or Chinese or any way but how you talk 

You’re the ones standing three feet away from a Black woman saying

There are no Third World women here

Do you think we are Martians

All those workshops on racism won’t help you open your eyes & see how you don’t even see us

How can we come to your meetings ifwe are invisible

Don’t look at me with guilt Don’t apologize Don’t struggle with the problem of racism like algebra

Don’t write a paper on it for me to read or hold a meeting in

which you discuss what to do to get us to come to your

time & your place

We’re not your problems to understand & trivialize

We don’t line up in your filing cabinets under “R” for rights

Don t make the racist assumption that the issue of racism

between us

is yours at me

Bitter boiling I can’t see you

Stop the Crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Sarah Whalen Lund

My Dida’s House

Reading the stories of so many Indian women, I am reminded of this, my only heirloom. I want to tell too, of my hidden memories. My Dida’s house, the noise, the open sewers, the eternal mangy cat with her multi-hued descendants. The ceaseless summer war between cat and human, mosquito and human. The long afternoons after the lovingly prepared meal, the smell of the bus station, the market’s discarded rotting food and always the flies buzzing, as if to remind us there is something else, another species more desperate  and persistent than ouselves.

Since infanthood these noises and smells. The afternoon heat bringing our blood to a boil, the power-cuts, the grafitti, the red sickle like an unfinished question mark amid so much poverty.

Here, the distance of empire and geography, my own unchosen but present desires seperate me far more than oceans from my land. A land which I was made ashamed of by others, and which today, in a sad irony, might be ashamed of me. And thus, we make our own circle of desire and fear.

My Dida’s house saw so many dreams deferrred, so many roads not taken, so many wombs and hearts burning with unclaimed victories. In those early days, I explored like a fearful, cunning Columbus— every dust ball, every crack in the gray concrete veranda. I still remember the bathroom, the barred window like a small sadistic ornament  through which the drivers of the 8B bus could be seen, drinking strong tea and spitting paan juice like macabre avant-garde painters.

I saw men wilt and shrivel like sad dried flowers, betrayed by a politics they did not choose, by a patriarchy which hung loosely like an ill fitting dhoti. In the women’s faces, I saw a thousand resentments (like the faces of prisoners in solitary confinement, who envy the crowded regimentation of those still locked up, but yet more free).

And after the slow afternoon tea, the sweets bought specially, the women’s talk (so often described as gossip) soared into the sudden, coming dusk. My world was always one of communicative women, harsh-voiced or sweet, and silent men appearing like fullstops at the end of hurried sentences.

Dida = Grandmother, colloquial.

Paan = preparation with betel leaf and nut, delicious and addictive! produces a red spit.

Dhoti = men’s lower garment in traditional Bengal. More formal than a Lungi.

I am the truth… as well as you…

Anti CAA protests, December 2019, India

While I was visiting India recently, I had the chance to see the BJP in action as the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed and made into an Act, the CAA. Many have argued that the Hindu Rashtra or State characterizing the government of Narendra Modi/Amit Shah is  neo-liberal in its economic ideologies, alliances, and practices while increasingly baring its Hindu nationalist and Islamophobic agenda through measures of nation building that rival those of Hitler himself.

Privileging a hierarchical religion such as Hinduism with its attendant spiritual division of labour and classed practices, the Modi regime has already been associated with an upper-class/caste alliance spoken of as “savarna” by a new activist generation of those who claim to follow Babasaheb Ambedkar, author of the Indian Constitution and a spokesperson on behalf of the Dalit (or “out caste” /untouchable ) communities. 

This group has raised critiques about the ways in which the Hindu caste system is oppressive towards those from lower and untouchable castes, as well as the ways that current political parties and the Indian goverment itself is trying to manipulate and foster Islamophobic sentiment through its  constitutional actions on the CAA and in the occupation of Kashmir.

 Their critque of Hinduism as oppressive structurally and spiritually has most clearly been displayed in the new demographic juggling of this neo-fascist regime through the imposition of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) on one hand, making it mandatory to be inscribed for citizenship, in contexts where documents are non-existent or next to impossible to obtain, and “proof” of citizenship must be submitted — and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which will consider the migration and refugee rights of non-Muslims coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as valid while singling out Muslims for rejection.

These two elements of the Modi government’s internal policy dovetail nicely with its hegemonic plans for Kashmir, which is a pawn and hostage of a cold-war like enmity between nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.

Reading these politcal and ideological moves  with  an eye to the BJP’s closeness to Donald Trump of the United States and with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the spectre of Hindu Fascism as government seems to be upon India. 

Opponents of the Act and the NRC, come from a vast range of occupations, social classes,  regions, language groups, and religions— while they may not see eye to eye on all issues, the coherency of a secular response to religious totalitarianism is hearteningly diverse. 

Anti-CAA protests, India, 2019

Luckily, Indians still feel some connection with their Constitution and see themselves as heirs of a secular polity in which equality is an aspirational, if not presently practiced, value.

That is why you won’t see “only” Muslims protesting the CAA, but Indians of all faiths, whether nominal or followed. 

Here, Jadavpur University Students adapt the Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao” to the current circumstances.

Here, the poem, “Hum Dekhenge” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which bears witness to the military government of Pakistan is sung to bear witness to the Modi regime. The song was sung at IIT Kanpur to show solidarity with the students attacked at Delhi’s Jamia Miliia Islamia University in December of 2019. 

We shall Witness

It is certain that we too, shall witness

the day that has been promised

of which has been written on the slate of eternity

When the enormous mountains of tyranny

blow away like cotton.

Under our feet- the feet of the oppressed-

when the earth will pulsate deafeningly

and on the heads of our rulers

when lightning will strike.

From the abode of God

When icons of falsehood will be taken out,

When we- the faithful- who have been barred out of sacred places

will be seated on high cushions

When the crowns will be tossed,

When the thrones will be brought down.

Only The name will survive

Who cannot be seen but is also present

Who is the spectacle and the beholder, both

I am the Truth- the cry will rise,

Which is I, as well as you

And then God’s creation will rule

Which is I, as well as you

We shall Witness

It is certain that we too, shall witness

Translation courtesy –

Shaheen Bagh, January 2020, Kaushalya Bannerji

And that is why, in spite of police violence and attempts to stir up riots by the Hindu right, in spite of the sulpherous whiff that reminds one of Germany in the 1930s, residents of India both there and abroad are raising their voices, taking to the streets, and stopping work on January 8th’s General Strike, called by the Indian trade union movements and an alliance of left-wing parties.

If you’ve been moved by this activism for a more inclusive, secular and democratic India, please add your name to the petition below!