Saturday, June 22, 2019

Never Before Has the Country Been Divided Like This!

It's actually true that post 2014, there has been polarization. The people of the country are divided like never before. The divide between Hindu nationalists and leftist-liberals is clear, complete, absolute and deeper than before.
Earlier I had a few of them liberals in my circle and we used to hang out together, have coffee, lunch and debate and discuss this and that. People had a few things to say about every subject and that at times happened to include history, politics and religion. But most were apolitical. We could leave aside those subjects and endlessly discuss how plastic Aishwarya Rai was, whether Chetan Bhagat's books had any substance and so on.

2014 changed all that.
The atmosphere was charged with politics. No one could be apolitical anymore. Everyone had to take a stand and be on one or the other side of the fence. Fence sitters had no choice but to become part of the national discourse.
In fact the fence had been shifted to the right so that even those who had been masquerading as neutral all these years by saying meaningless things like 'I am not judgmental’, ‘I don't want to hate’, ‘all are children of God' now found themselves to the left of the fence, and left of centre!
You get the point, if you are not with us, you are against us.

So weeks and months after Modi won, my liberal connections left my FB wall one by one - unable to stand my strong pro BJP views and Islamic exposé, or else, I blocked them off.
One of them left bang on May 14 when BJP won. When the whole country was euphoric over the end of ten years of UPA and Manmohan, this Malayali’s was worried that Modi may ban beef. Seeing that on my wall, I told him not to worry, he could use Kerala Muslims who had connections with Pakistan's ISI and import his beef from there. And that was the end of ten years of our friendship. Now you understand what kind of a divide 2014 created!

What contributed to the divide most, was the leftist-liberal's sense of entitlement. The years before 2014, they were allowed to have their views - against Babri demolition, against post Godhra, against RSS and we right wingers dared not breathe a word or a whisper opposing those views or we would be dismissed as fanatics and fundamentalists. After 2014, when right wingers found their leader and their voice and started to express their views, the leftists would have none of that! They cried intolerance, saffronization, division and polarization and what not! That's when we saw how entitled the leftists were and that the politeness, courtesies, tolerance, accommodation and adjustment we had been extending to them all our lives, they were not ready to extend to us. Not an inch, not a needle tip!
And that made us angry and indignant!

Now when I bump into some liberal here or there, I don't bring up the subject of politics, in fact I don't talk to them at all, and if they happen to be discussing their beef (pun intended) in a group, I leave the place. Because they are not worth my time. I dismiss them as pseudo seculars; as low IQ cowards who piggy back on political correctness and don't have the courage for the truth, nor the intelligence to have an opinion of their own other than the media manufactured ones kept on the shelves, and hence not worth talking to. And I'm sure they dismiss me too.
As they raise the pitch and oppose even national anthem and Vande Mataram, I am offended by their very existence, and they are perhaps offended by mine. So we are divided. To the extent we don't even want to have coffee or lunch together, because we just don't see the point of it all.

But then when doodh ka doodh and pani ka pani happens, when the unmixable oil and water are separated, then you don't call that division, do you???
You call that clarity you call that disillusionment. You call that the moment of truth. Awareness. End of confusion. You call that focus. Direction and purpose. You call it the end of pretence and meandering. End of fence sitting. End of leftist hegemony over viewpoints and opinions.
And that's what Modi has done. He has mobilized even the most existentialist apolitical commoner and made him part of the national discourse, part of history writing. Even the most bovine and asinine materialist who had been content all his life with eating sleeping drinking shopping and saving money, has now awakened and become passionate about the nation and its leaders, for the first time in his life.
The right wingers who had been sidelined and even oppressed by Nehru and his likes are now confident about their views and unapologetically voicing the same.
So like I have said before, most of the good and bad aren't unconditional. Division an polarization too, can be a good thing when they divide what must never be mixed up in the first place.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Snakeling of Andhra

This character Jaganmohan Reddy with a benign name and a smarmy saintly smile gives me the scare.
'God has done justice, I read the Bible everyday', he says to Rajdeep Sardesai, as he proceeds to explain how Chandrababu Naidu, who poached 23 MLAs and 3 MPs from his party is now left with exactly the same number of MLAs and MPs after the recent elections.
Does he realize that the same God crashed his father's chopper and dispatched him to his specially reserved place in hell for all those Christians he sent into Tirupati temple and all those churches he built on the Seven Hills that make Tirupati sacred? Historically, those who meddle with Tirupati Balaji's affairs or take even one rupee from his coffers meet with doom.

He goes on to admit that he prayed very hard to his God that BJP or any other party may not get more than 250 seats in the Lok Sabha elections so that they may need his support to form a government at the center and then he may make them dance to his tunes and get his Andhra state that special status they have been clamouring for.
He admitted that on national television! What a wretched diabolical fellow! I mean, he prayed hard for a hung Parliament!
His God obviously did not listen to him.

Looks like he will continue the good work of his father who converted people in the state to Christianity on war footing and doubled their numbers in ten years when Sonia barmaid was lording them all.
My colleague K who was from Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, told me in 2009 that her maid was from a slum nearby. Missionaries converted people routinely in that place. As part of the conversion ceremony, the slumdwellers were made to walk on photos of Hindu Gods so they would never be able to go back to those Gods after using up the rice or money that the church had given them, as incentives to convert.

When YSR's chopper crashed, K's sister S who also was my colleague in the same firm had jumped up with excitement saying 'Yeaaaay, hamara CM mar gaya'!

After the father died, Jagan was rumoured to have reembraced Hinduism, performed rituals and all, but only yesterday he told Rajdeep Sardesai in his interview that he reads the Bible everyday. So just like Rahul Gandhi had become Janeu Dhaari for some time, he too had put up a show, a publicity stunt. Now that elections are over, he no longer needs the pretence and boldly declares his loyalty to the church!

We need a regulation to criminalize faking Hinduism - we are a tolerant religion, the only one in fact, but that doesn’t mean you can abuse Hinduism, exploit it, and make slight of it.

This Jagan snake-ling is one fellow you want to watch out for.
If he spreads his missionary poison, I hope the God of Tirupati will send him to the mouth of tigers that roam the forests into which his father dropped from the skies!

If BJP decides to grant him special status, they must do it on the condition that he will arrange for the Ghar Wapsi of all those thousands of people who his father hijacked from Hinduism and threw at Sonia Gandhi's Vatican feet. Otherwise he can go fuck himself. We don't need his support.

Saap ke pet se sapola hi bahar nikalta hai.

If BJP looks the other way as he goes on converting more people, just because he is their ally, BJP will let down those of us who voted it to power solely to protect Hindu Dharma from the erosive Abrahamic cults. They must watch his interview in which he says he would support anyone who gave him ‘benefits’.
They must realize he is ideologically promiscuous, the kind who could be your ‘friends with benefits’, but never a devoted lover.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Modi 2.0. Let's Not Forget to Thank These People...

Meanwhile, my sincere and heartfelt thanks to all these joker villains for their cheap stunts. Each of your stunt dented your own credibility; the support you got exposed all the maggots and termites of our rotten system, as they came crawling out of the woodworks. In your desperation to bring down Modi, you strengthened him and drove the people of India to him…

1.Kanhaiya Kumar for Bharat Tere Tukde Honge; you proved what we have been saying for years, that our universities are besieged by leftists

2.Shehla Rashid for Azadi Tak Jung Rahegi; we saw what Kashmiri Muslims will do after Indian army has rescued them from flash floods

3.Hardik Patel for swine-mouthing Modi and demanding caste reservations – you were the worm that heckled an elephant and we learnt not to underestimate the worm

4.Jignesh Mevani for asking Modi to retire to the Himalayas – people were convinced that geriatric politicians were better than B Grade low class scoundrel youth leaders

5.Gauri Lankesh for asking people to send their used sanitary napkins to Modi - people could tell a rogue journalist when they saw one, and a very useful word ‘Presstitute’ was coined!

6.Girish Karnad for eating beef at town hall in Bangalore – self-proclaimed intellectuals are mostly perverts and loose cannons, you showed us

7.The Award Wapsi gang for being selective in your outrage – you committed hara-kiri and spared us the trouble of having to bury you. What more, an anti-award-wapsi gang was born, bringing together in unity, one sleeping Hindu after another!

8.Mani Shankar Iyer for going to Pakistan and asking them to remove Modi from power

9.Arvind Kejriwal for... oh, everything he did. Is this fellow Pappu’s brother from another father?

10.Sonia Gandhi for implicating Colonel Purohit in Malegaon blasts

11.Siddhu for hugging Pak Army Chief Bajwa

12.Rahul Gandhi for Rafale rumours and Chowkidar chor hai

13.Mamta Banerjee for simply being the mangy bitch and the ugly shrew that she is

14.B Grade Bollywood item girls for saying they were ashamed of being Hindu after the Kathua rape

15.Presstitutes for denying love jihad

16.Salman Khurshid for eating Biryani with Pakistanis

17.Swara Bhaskar for saying she felt like a vagina after watching Padmavati

18.Sonia Gandhi for harassing Sadhvi Prajna

19.Lutyen’s media for not reporting a word about the daily murder and rape of Hindus by Muslims – our threat perception became a confirmed reality

20.NGO’s for working against India’s development in cahoots with the Church and the West

21.Lowlifes of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh who gave power to Congress and scared the hell out of complacent Hindus and propelled them to get off their ass and go vote in 2019

22.Nitish Kumar for walking out of BJP haughtily and then doing a Ghar Wapsi – you made an example of yourself; those who oppose the BJP, politicians or commoners, have only Lallu Yadav’s stinking arms to run into

23.Joseph Vijay, Kamala Haasan, Prakash Rai - the jetsam and flotsam of the cinema world – you wasted national time and drew some like feathers from the dirty-smelly chicken pen, but most of us steered clear of your nuisance

24.Rahul Gandhi, for the twine thread he called Janeu. It was entertaining but we were warned of the wolf that was trying to be sheep

25.Robert Vadra for the impunity with which you turned your rags into riches. Even a rabid leftist or liberal cannot take your side now

26.Burqa Dutt, Sagarika Ghost, Shekhar Gupta and other faces of the enemy inside that made our blood boil

27.Renuka Chaudhary for laughing like Shoorpanakha in the parliament

28.Amee Yajnik and Priyanka Chaturvedi for being the belligerent and shameless spokespersons of the Congress party on TV debates; you have no idea how many people you repelled…

29.Presstitutes for blowing out of proportion one stray Akhlaq and slighting the matter of cow slaughter

30.Pakistan for their heinous crimes that gave us opportunities for surgical strike and Balakot

31.Muslim appeasing parties who brought Rohingyas in hordes and showed us glimpses of Break India agenda

32.Owaisi brothers who reminded us of Aurangzeb

33.Kapil Sibal for asking Supreme Court to postpone Ram Mandir hearing, revealing the Congress party's true inclinations

34.Mahathugbandhan – all sound and fury, no significance, but that was a useful alert

35.Jayalalitha, simply for dying, and hence paving the way for DMK that would misrule TN and drive it's people to the feet of BJP

36.John Dayal, for being on the TV panels and reminding us of the clout of the poisonous missionaries

37.Sonia Gandhi for proclaiming in some media conclave ‘We will not let Modi return’; you sent a shiver down my spine and I’m sure many of us ran from pillar to post and got their Voter ID done.

38.Rajni Kamal Stalin and all Madrasis, for supporting the shutdown of Sterlite factory in TN, after the Kudankulam nuclear reactor. How toxic, local politics controlled by the Christian church could get, you showed us!

39.Mehbooba Mufti for taking the side of Burhan Wani

40.Supreme Court for the ban on Diwali fireworks; those of us who had given up crackers out of boredom, exploded a few this year! What more, we got chance to clamour for bloodless Eid

41.Supreme Court for forcing women into Shabarimala, while allowing mosques to keep women out; Hindu renaissance began in Kerala

42.Supreme Court, for all your anti-Hindu judgments that convinced us that even you cannot be trusted, BJP is our only resort

43.The Gandhi family for dynasty politics – as long as Pappu remains president of Congress, the party will lose election after election and we will realize a Congress Mukt Bharat sooner than you imagined possible

44.Mayawati for blaming the EVM – Dalit or no, you are truly backward

45.Stone pelters of Kashmir. AFSPA will stay there forever

46.Leftists and liberals for coming out of their closet and showing us who our children would become if they were fed secularism for breakfast

47.Muslims, Christians and Communists, for being united in your hatred for BJP – we learnt a thing or two about unity

48.The Congress party for Hafiz Saeed Ji and Masood Azhar Ji – the political discourse was no longer about development or religion, it was now about national security!

49.Leftists, liberals and the entire opposition for opposing the National Anthem and Vande Mataram. You rekindled the spirit of nationalism in us

50.The Khans of Bollywood who raved that India was intolerant and showed us that our tolerance was being wasted on the undeserving

51.The Kapoor-Khan Jodi for naming their child Taimur and proving Vivekananda’s words –‘Every Hindu converted is not just a Hindu less but an enemy more’!

52.All those pseudo secular connections who left my life and my wall – throwing out all that clutter and political correctness made room for bold nationalists and patriots in life!

Wah, kya kulhadi maara apne paon par! Vinash Kale Vipreet Buddhi indeed!
Thank you so much!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dangerous Beauty (1999)

Watched ‘Dangerous Beauty’ (1999) on Primevideo.

This is going to be one of my favorite movies of all times.

A biographical drama film about Courtesans of 16th century Venice in general, and Veronica Franco, in particular. It shows the position they held in society, the methodical way in which they prepared for the pleasure they were expected to offer, the reading and learning they dedicated themselves to, to offer counsel that the nobility looked up to them for, the role they played in the affairs of the State, the Church’s growing resentment towards the city’s moral degradation, the society’s changing outlook towards Courtesans influenced by the men of God and at last, the Inquisition.

This is one of the finest movies I have seen. Many movies have been made on Prostitution with the prostitute as a protagonist but no other movie pays better tribute to Prostitution than this.
Unlike most other movies that attempt to draw sympathy/empathy for the prostitute by painting her woes, compulsions, her poverty, her helplessness, and some, by showing her human side, this one celebrates her, for just who she is, and it celebrates her profession for just what it offers. Pleasure.
And expresses gratitude to her.
There is the odd man who calls her a slut and a whore but he is shown losing a duel to her in a sword fight, as the crowds fear and cheer for her.

Venice, 1583. The richest, most decadent city in Europe. (Venice may as well be deemed one large floating brothel)
It's women were treated like property - few even knew how to read.
‘Young ladies have better things to do than poison their minds with books’
‘Such as?’
‘Minding their manners’.
But there were some who enjoyed a different fate.

Veronica(Catherine McCormack) and Marco(Rufus Sewell) are in love with each other.
Says Marco To Veronica, on his return from Rome, ‘Oh,Roman women, they can't hold a candle to the Venetian. Nor French, nor Florentine, nor any woman from Europe to the Levant’
‘You've sampled them all’
‘All but idle amusement until you blossomed…’
But Marco, who will be a senator like his father, is way above her station. Veronica’s mother, Paola, consoles her daughter saying she could still have him, not as a wife but as a courtesan.
The mother, who was once a great courtesan herself, had hoped to buy her daughter a good marriage but the father drank away all the dowry so to keep the family going, she urges her daughter to become a courtesan, there being ‘no other option’.
Veronica says she could go to the convent - so the mother takes her to one. Whether it is the devil or the deep sea she chooses, she must first get a glimpse of it.
There inside the high walls of the gray and grim convent, Veronica is terrified by what she sees. A nun cutting off a girl's tresses, as the girl sobs away.

So her mother begins the training.

‘The first secret of all great courtesans - you must know pleasure to give pleasure’
She arranges for a naked man and demonstrates how to touch his genitals as the daughter stands by and learns.
‘Use your fingers lightly first, keep him wanting more. It's wanting that keeps us alive’
She is taught to walk on very thick wedges.
‘Height gives advantage to men as well to women. Carriage creates the first impression’
She is taken to a library.
‘Ladies can't go in there, courtesans can. The emperor Pericles relied more for policy on his mistress than he ever did on his Lieutenants. Courtesans are the most educated women in the world’
And then she is taught the subtle finer aspects of her art, beyond the learning of books and accessories.
‘Courtesan is a force of nature in a civilized cloak. Any chambermaid can flop down, take off her shirt and men will come…Your true power comes from something much deeper than beauty…She could seduce a man in 20 paces. Without revealing an inch of flesh…How?…With her mind. Desire begins in the mind’
And finally, the ultimate word of caution.
‘Remember Veronica, love love, but do not love the man, or you'll be in his power’

The morning after her first client, the mother gives her a potion, saying, ‘children are a deficit….the potion is not infallible but more comfortable than a turtle shell’

Soon, she becomes famous and loved by men of high rank.
‘Every Thursday?’, asks a nobleman once, who is in love with her.
‘I should count the hours in between’ says she (such fine talking)
The gold and the gifts start pouring in. The family’s fortune changes.

It is interesting to note that even men of God consorted with these women.
‘Bishop de la Torre…It's said his collection of paintings is surpassed only by his collection of women’

Marco who cannot get over his love for Veronica, woos her.
One day, a peacock flies up into her bedchamber. 'All the best courtesans have one', reads the note tied to the neck of the peacock. She runs to the balcony and there in a boat, is Marco, wooing her.
She turns him down, still smarting from the insult of having been turned down by him.

Marco receives a proposal. His father shows him a small portrait that he holds in his hand. Marco agrees.
‘You had the feigned indifference of a man in love’ says a bystander friend.
Marco marries the noblewoman. ‘What God and greed have joined together, let no love put asunder’ says he (speaking of arranged marriage of convenience)

‘Tell me a desire’, he asks his wife on their wedding night. ‘I hope to give you many strong sons’, says she. Marco sees that she is nothing like the witty, spirited Veronica.

In between all this, there are the men from the church beseeching people on the streets to shun desires, and lament that the city is full of depravity and filth and persuade people to save themselves.

When Maffio (Oliver Platt) makes disparaging remarks about her, Veronica invites him to a sword fight.
The sword fight that grows more and more fierce, but Veronica defeats Maffio. After the incident, Marco rekindles his love with Veronica.
He cannot share her with anyone, he asks her not to see any body else, but she has mouths to feed. He is ready to support her, but ‘no money between us’ says he. At last, she consents to his proposal much to the resentment of her mother.

In the meantime, the fourth Ottoman-Venetian war breaks out.
‘The Sultan(Turk) has attacked’
Venice is ready to fight but needs France’s ships to fight the Turks. When the king visits Venice must indulge him. He must be appeased no matter what it takes.

When King Henry visits, the men of God urge him to ‘fight the infidels at home before fighting them abroad’
‘France has them too. I prefer a heretic to a zealot’ says he.

The King asks to see the courtesans that Venice is so famous for. Veronica tries to stand behind, unnoticed but he chooses her.
After their togetherness, he descends down to the waterfront.
The entire nobility and the people of Venice are standing outside, holding their breath to hear his utterance. ‘You can have the ships’, he says as he sails away.
People cheer and there s jubilation. Veronica is hailed as ‘a national asset, more than a hundred French ships, by them all’

Marco is bitter. Veronica pleads before him, saying she endures his intimacy with the wife every night, while she consented to one intimate moment with the King, just once out of duty towards the nation, ‘look, who does not forgive?’
But he walks away unable to take it…

During the war,
The ladies of the nobility and royalty summon her to hear the latest news about the war. To know if their husbands are alive. She happens to be more educated and informed than them all.
Marco’s wife insults her, wondering aloud ‘what makes their husbands go to these women, night after night, like pigs to a trough’.
In answer, Veronica peels a banana and swallows it whole, mentioning the name of the plantain tree and the banana fruit in Latin.
Marco’s wife, cringing from what Veronica had just done, says, ‘Just because you say it in Latin, it doesn’t make it less obscene’.
‘And just because you took a vow, it doesn't mean you know how to love’, retorts Veronica, adding that education is the only thing that will adorn a woman, or something to that effect. (I had become tired of taking notes by then!)

Beatrice, Marco’s sister and Veronica’s friend, asks Veronica to make her daughter a courtesan when she grows up.
‘No biblical hell could ever be worse than a state of perpetual inconsequence’ says she, speaking of the fate of married women, like herself.

The war is over and Marco returns home. Horrified and saddened by the sights that greet him. Plague has devastated the city. Courtesans are tied up in public squares and flogged by the Inquisition. ‘The inquisition? In Venice?…. Yes, 56000 dead’. Venice is the ghost of the beautiful city that it once was.

He returns to Veronica, now in plain garment, divested of all her adornments and apologizes to her for his harshness at the time of their parting.

And just then, ‘summons to appear before the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. From the church’. Veronica is taken away.
She is accused of witchcraft and is asked to name her clients.
She denies. She refuses to repent. Or ask for forgiveness. Marco begs her to lie, just to save her life. But she chooses to be honest.
‘I chose a whore's freedom over a wife's obedience…’
‘I confess I find more ecstasy in passion than in prayer. Such passion is prayer’
When she is about to be sentenced to execution, Marco confesses to be an accomplice in her sin and urges the senators and ministers present there to stand up for her and admit their adulteries.
Bewildered to see almost all the men assembled up on their feet, including a man of God seat beside him as part of the inquisition, the inquisitor drops all charges, leaving it to Venice to decide what to do with her.
(I cant tell you what a relief it was!)

The Age of courtesans had ended. In the years to come, Veronica Franco used her home as a sanctuary for victims of the Inquisition. She and Marco Venier remained lovers for the rest of their lives.

A fine movie. I wished the movie had gone on and on.

One has to be careful not to be swayed too much. The courtesan chosen to be the protagonist in this narrative, is a paragon of virtues - she is kind, loving, she’s innocent in a way, she’s learned, brave, dignified and honest. Although reluctant to share her body with another man because of her pact with her lover, she receives the King of France out of her duty to the nation and secures naval reinforcements from him to help Venice fight the Turkish Sultan.
In our own Sanskrit literature, there was the courtesan Vasantasena, who loved the married man Charudutt, in the play ‘Mrittchakatika’. (Mrit + Shakatika, meaning, mud cart)
She was a kind-hearted woman. When a humble Charudutt’s son playing with a mud cart laments that he doesn’t have a gold cart unlike his playmates, she removes her jewelry and loads his cart with it, just to see the child happy.

It could only be delusional to assume that Veronica was representative of her ilk and that all courtesans were full of virtues like her.
As Paola (Jacqueline Bisset) herself says in the movie, most others were just two-bit ‘chambermaids that would flop down and take off their shirt’ for anyone who threw money at them.

One has also to remember that these courtesans who were respected and well treated happened to be educated, well read and offered counsel to the nobility in matters of the State. Even then there was the odd man who dismissed them as sluts and whores.
Most of the others then, the ‘two bit chambermaids’ who had nothing else to offer other than their flesh, must have received much less or no respect.
This I believe, is as it ought to be, and as it will inevitably be, when humans objectify themselves by turning into flesh alone, by preoccupying themselves and others with their body, with no manifestation of the mind or spirit.
It is because of this. The body is gross, the spirit subtle. A human life is endowed with the mind and the spirit and is meant to be lived in pursuit of the fine, the subtle - call it the soul, the Self, or God. When you divest yourself of these higher faculties that distinguish you from an animal, and reduce yourself to flesh, you reduce yourself to a lower form of life. Or, in other words, a lowlife.
Which is why, the liberal minded, for all their approval of the ‘oldest profession in the world’ upon whom ‘the sun does not refuse to shine and rain does not refuse to fall, so why should I’, will never ever hold their new born and wish, that their little princess may one day grow up to be sex worker. (I rest my case)

Which is why, the ‘models’ and ‘actresses’ of the glam industry, as well as prostitutes of today, who reduce themselves into mere flesh, and also use it for cheap purposes, to advance their material ambitions, no matter which door they use to sneak into the mainstream society, and try to sit next to you and me, and ‘act’ respectable, no matter how kind hearted they pretend to be, by having their pictures taken with starving African kids, there will be the odd man, who will call their bluff, rip off their facade, and reveal them for who they really are. The sluts and whores. Never, the Veronica, never the Vasantasena.

From my notes…

‘Venice. Paradise. Proud and pretty…’

‘Paradise is always frail
Against man's fear will always fail’

‘God made sin that we might know his mercy’

‘He makes my heart, my reason's foe’

‘Save your blushes veronica, they don't sit well with the bluntness of your tongue’

‘Marriage isn't romantic, that's why God invented poetry’

‘Doge - the chief magistrate in the former Republics of Venice and Genoa’

Ermine -
an Old World weasel, Mustela erminea, having in its winter color phase, a white coat with black at the tip of the tail;
any of various weasels having a white winter coat;
the lustrous, white, winter fur of the ermine, often having fur from the animal's black tail tip inserted at intervals for contrast