Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Soumya Bhattacharya

Though it was published last year in December, I recently spotted this Soumya Bhattacharya (writer and editor of HT, Mumbai) interview in Granta (thanks AA). This is the part I liked most:

In India, the cultural discourse about books is dominated by news of prizes and advances. A lot of people here tend to think that writing is a get-rich-quick policy. While that is puerile and shameful, it does inspire more and more people to write. Most of the people who write because they want to get rich are unlikely to produce anything of any worth. But at least it’s become okay to say that one is working on a book, that one wants to do one. This is relatively new. Ten years ago, if you were writing something, it was a furtive exercise, a sort of sinful, closet endeavour. That has changed, and I think that is good.


Here is a beautiful story by Soumya, If I Could Tell You.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The education of Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga on his growing up years in Mangalore (The Independent):

... my grandfather, an Indian nationalist, disdained to speak English, except to correct another man's.

He was a prominent local lawyer who dressed in hand-spun cloth (as Gandhi had), spoke only the local language, Kannada, and scorned anything "Western". Except for the one occasion when he had come out of his law office to chide me, in precise English ("You cannot 'put a gate'"), I had never heard him speak the language. My other grandfather, a surgeon in Madras, belonged to the opposite school of thought, once refusing to attend an official dinner in honor of the president of India, Zail Singh, on the grounds that the president's English was inadequate.

Such debates were dead for my generation. What my grandparents called the King's English, I call Nehru's English. The prime minister's great speeches in English – the "tryst with destiny" oration delivered on India's independence in 1947, or "the light has gone out of our lives," to announce Gandhi's death to the nation the next year – were taught in school, quoted on radio, and their fragments were found, like DNA strands, in all newspapers and magazines.

Nehru could only have made these speeches in English, because had he spoken in Hindi, we – in the south of India, where Hindi is not spoken, and is often abhorred – would not have understood him. Every foundational document of India was known to me only in English: the Constitution, for instance, and even Gandhi's autobiography, written in his native Gujarati, but taught in school in an English translation.

How could we function without our only common language? Doing away with English seemed to me tantamount to doing away with India: We were the language's, before the language was ours.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Nury Bilge Ceylan

My daughter is not well and I am holed up at home—taking care of her. She is recuperating and I have put her on medicine and on strong dosage of 101 Dalmations and some Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Sad to note in today’s newspaper that Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad (of Sepet) has died. Too young to die.

Just wanted to write down a few lines on the movies that I have seen in the past two weeks: Shortkut (Hindi) was a disaster. Enjoyed watching Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (had seen it before) and Nayak—the latter was very well-made (one of Uttam Kumar’s best performances; such nuanced acting) and provided an insightful look at acting (theatre vs film acting; and the price and privileges of fame, etc.). I just loved the concept of train journey that becomes a metaphor in the film.

Also watched the first few chapters from Antonioni’s The Red Dessert. Despite its apparent beauty and comment on industrial decadence, I could not connect with the characters.

The real discovery was the Turkish film director, Nury Bilge Ceylan. He was a photographer and that shows in his film Kasba—but he seems overwhelmed by his love for photography and the story gets neglected. It was his other film, The Clouds of May, that I absolutely loved (and ready to forgive the indulgences that he makes to capture light and darkness, silhouettes, shadows and landscapes). More than a film it looked like a creative non-fiction piece to me (complete with non-professional actors). If Naipaul was not a writer and if he were to be filmmaker, perhaps he would have made films like this (of course, they would have become more political).

Also watched Tarufautt’s Soft Skin which was delightful—can David Dhawan adapt it without being crude and over the top and with no songs?

And after a long wait, finally watched Werner Herzog’s Aguirre—The Wrath of God. I saw it as an allegory of pursuit of power and fame. It shows how one can lose his mind and everything else in such a pursuit. One needs madness to achieve something of great importance but that can well be an illusion that can demand all kind of sacrifices.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Birth of a new voice

Gouri Dange (Outlook) on Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee The Dwarf:

From the first page, this is a triumph of storytelling in what Chandrahas Choudhury chooses to reveal, and at what precise pace. More importantly, given the protagonist’s evident handicap—physical and consequently emotional—Chandrahas manages to steer firmly clear from portraying any of the over-obvious indignities and humiliations that could well have found their way into the story of a poorish dwarf in a run-down cinema hall. Chandrahas also uses his great felicity with imagery and language with restraint and discernment.


For updates on the book, visit Chandrahas Choudhury's blog, Middle Stage

Friday, July 17, 2009

Being Gay, Indian And Muslim

The Delhi high court ruling against the IPC 377 sent a wave of jubilation in India 's homosexual community. Suddenly the criminal stigma of being a gay in India is gone. But the society still has miles to go in accepting gays for what they are. Here's my piece on this topic published at the Outlook Magazine website:

On June 2 this year, an American website Edge (Boston , MA) published a news story. Its headline was "Life Only Gets Worse for LGBT Iraqis"

The story was about two young gay men who were found dead in Baghdad ’s Sadr City slum. They were found wearing diapers and women’s lingerie. The bodies of four other men, beaten to death, were discovered by Iraqi police, each bearing signs reading "pervert" in Arabic on their chests, the report noted.

It was an email from a stranger, a fellow Indian, that drew my attention to this news item.

It was a just few days before the much celebrated Delhi High Court judgment in favour of gays and lesbians in India.

"I am writing to you from India ," Zahid, a young Indian doctor, wrote to me in his email. "I am born with Muslim parents, Al-Hamdu-lillah (praise be to Allah). And I have accepted myself for being the person I am -- gay in orientation."

Zahid was born and raised in Saudi Arabia as his dad had moved there for work. He finally moved back to India in 2003.

Being a fellow Muslim and artist (his words!), Zahid wanted me to condemn the killing of gays in Iraq . "Please just speak of the evil behind any kind of discrimination and human torture," he wrote. "It is not very happy to feel threatened. You see how all this affects life of gay people and again it shows how mob reaction rules over rational thinking and respect for others in Iraq ."

I assured him that I would condemn the act of murdering the Iraqi homosexuals (that’s what I’m doing by writing this article). Sexual orientation is a personal matter and no one has any right to kill a fellow human being on account of his or her sexual orientation. What happened in Iraq was clearly wrong, extra-judicial and illegitimate.

Read the full story here

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A response to Roy's Rage

My friend Nishant, a Delhi-based journalist and social worker, has sent me a strong, well-argued rejoinder to my post on Arundhati Roy (Roy's Rage). In his response, Nishant makes some nuanced observations (like the cast angle in Kashmir issue) which can only come from a person who has seen things on the ground. I am reproducing his letter here, with his permission:

Hi, Zafarbhai. Interesting posts you send me. They are thought provoking, and sometimes provocative too, like this one. I thought I would write my views on your views on Arundhati Roy. I decided to write, because I think there is one very obvious school of thought you have omitted, among many others, in the hate-Roy-love-Roy binary. There are people who are on the side of the issues that Roy raises but do not agree with her approaches to them. I am one such person. In fact, I think she needs to do some theoretical thinking to bind all the struggles through a coherent thread.

I have watched Roy closely ever since her first essays during the NDA regime started coming out. I mostly agreed with her in those days. But, with time she has shown the biases that rooted NGO-wallahs show in India, rather north India. Or, should I say in the Indo-Aryan India.

I will keep my criticism short, for I want to make it a bigger intellectual exercise some day.

Since you have talked about Kashmir in the post below and because this is Roy's favourite milch cow these days, let us begin with it. For a very long time, the security forces are involved in gross human rights violations in the Kashmir valley. And, for the equally long time the activists in Kashmir, the rest of India and other parts of the world have been trying to highlight the travails of the Kashmiri people. But, what Roy has started doing is using these violations to make a political point. She calls Kashmir India's colony. It will be great to know Roy's definitions of both 'colony' as well as the 'imperial centre'. But, no definitions ever emerge from her writing, for she is forever creating 'a maze of words'. If Kashmir is a colony, then is Punjab a colony as well? What about the Northeast then? And, the Red Corridor? And, the small Dalit ghettos that we find everywhere in the country? Is the net flow of money from the Kashmir valley to New Delhi? If we start defining the term colony in such a way, soon we will be left only with a Hindu India, which I think is an RSS project.

Perhaps, creative writers don't waste their time defining what can be called a colony and what cannot be. Perhaps, they are there only to create creative works out of popular struggles, without giving much thought to the discontents of these struggles. Or, perhaps, it's much easier to declare a bigger entity your enemy, rather than the negative forces contained in popular struggles.

It doesn't matter much to Roy and people like her -- I can count on my fingertips how many of them work closely to come out with a coherent line of thought on Kashmir and similar issues -- that the struggle in Kashmir is spearheaded by upper-caste Muslims, the likes of Gilani, that Brahmin among Muslims, with the sole exception of Yasin Malik. It does not matter to her that almost all lower caste Muslims of the valley are against the Hurriyat politics. It does not matter to her that no upper-caste Muslim is ever interested in getting Hindus back in the valley. It does not matter to her that the upper-caste leadership of the Kashmiri struggle is not only religious in nature, it is opposed to Left-wing politics as well. The second target of the Kashmiri militants in the early 1990s were left-wing activists of the valley, the first being Kashmiri Pandits.

It also does not matter to her that lower-caste Bihari Muslims and Hindus who go there every year for work work under abysmal conditions and suffer abuses from the elite of the valley. Gilani is a Bal Thackeray-like figure of the valley. He abuses all outsiders and particularly hates Biharis. He makes fun of Hindus and believes the Islamic culture is the most superior form of culture available. If he was borne into a differnt religion, Roy would have been writing articles against him.

Perhaps, it is more profitable to be left-wing in Delhi and quiet about ideology in Kashmir.

In 2004 summer when I was in Kashmir, I read hatred-driven articles in a religiously coloured newspaper called Greater Kashmir (Roy loves this paper; she keeps quoting from it). That was the time of the annual Amarnath yatra. We were yet to see the communal protests in the valley against it that we saw last year. But, in retrospect I can say that the unrest was building up. The Muslim elite of the valley has always been against the popularity of the Amarnath yatra, though their official stand is that it shows the syncretic spirit of the valley. In once such article, I read how the writer had described in graphic detail the scene of the base camp or the route of the yatra. It was full thinly-veiled caste remarks about the kind of people who had come to the valley from outside and spoiling its environment. The writer wrote about the shit gathered on the banks of the Lidder. A friend of mine did a performance at Khoj Studios called The Shit of the Other. I connected the two stories when I heard about his performance much later.

Much later when the Amarnath row broke out, another of such activists Gautam Navlakha reproduced that argument of the beautiful Lidder and the shit of the other. Needless to say, you have to be Brahiminical to hate shit so much.

Roy herself wasn't very far behind when she quoted from a placard that one protester was carrying during that mammoth march in Srinagar during the Amarnath row, which she described in her first major essay on Kashmir. The placard said something like 'Bhookha nanga Hindustaan, jaan se pyara Pakistan'. Being rooted in the Indo-Aryan ways of anti-establishment protests in north India, Roy gave a twist to the slogan. She thought the people of Kashmir were questioning the globalisation policies that India has pursued in the last few decades and which have increased poverty in India. Great interpretation. Even if that protest had taken place three decades back, the protesters would have carried similar banners. She missed the caste abuse implicit in the slogan. She forgot that Pakistan was an upper-caste Muslim's upper-caste dream. She forgot that when the Muslim elite of the Kashmir valley see kinship in Pakistan, it's nothing but a caste kinship. She obviously has read no literature of the partition time, in which both upper-caste Hindus and upper-caste Muslims hurled caste abuses at each other when they counted the underbelly of both religions.

My friend Sanjay Kak made a film on Kashmir. He is Roy's friend as well. I remember one scene in which he is trying to show the strategies used by the security forces to win over a local villager. A uniformed officer is seen to be felicitating the villager with a radio set. The context of the film makes it look like an Indian nationalist trick. But, Kak too belongs to the same caste group that so much dominates India, both in its oppression and its opposition to its oppression. He forgot to seek the opinion of the villager who accepted the 'gift'. I guess the villager was a Gujjar. The caste of the villager makes him that sort of character that you see in the paintings of the colonial times, where among sahebs, both white as well as brown, you see a lower-caste dhobi, maali, malishwala or one such professional almost tripping out of the painting at the edge. I like to believe that Kak muffled a voice. Perhaps, he missed out on an Ambedkar. He had the golden chance of following a lower-caste voice in a film otherwise full of upper-caste characters.

Zafar, if there is one dominant struggle in India that is upper-caste in character, this is it. And, I am not surprised that an activist community that is characterised by their annual candle-lighting exercise at the Wagah border -- that another symbol of caste solidarity and hatred at the same time -- feels so close to the struggle in Kashmir.

You have quoted Roy as saying, 'No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialized out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley.' I guess you know that some of these candidates were from the Bahujan Samaj Party. Mayawati is expanding. Hers is the only national party that has found support in every corner of the country. She put up candidates in all assembly segments in the elections last year. I think the BSP managed around 5 per cent votes. It will be great to do a caste analysis of Mayawati's candidates and the ones who issue election boycott calls in the valley. Roy will get her answer then.

Some day Roy should also tell us where she has got the figure of 'one armed soldier for every 20 civilians' from. Whatever number of soldiers we have in Kashmir is a huge and horrible number, but Roy's number borders on propaganda and it keeps changing. According to the 2001 census, the population of the valley was approximately 56 lakh. Is she using this figure to make her point? If yes, then total number of armed soldiers will be 56 lakh/20 = 2 lakh 80 thousand soldiers. But, she has quoted a much higher number on different occasions. In this interview given in Feb. 2009, she says this number is between five lakh and seven lakh. Other activists and my friends in Kashmir have quoted a figure of 10 lakh soldiers as well. Pakistan also quotes a figure of one million soldiers. I guess you get the point here.

This is not to say that I don't agree with her that Kashmir is a heavily militarized zone, but perhaps one should not get carried away in creating a scary picture that can bring personal benefits.

Let's come to her ideas on the nuclear bomb. She wrote a lengthy article on the issue of India and Pakistan going nuclear. The BJP government was in power in those days, and the tests were done by a BJP prime ministers. When a right-wing government is in power, it's much easier and simpler to hate the state. Then one does not get into the ideological complexities that she got into on the Kashmir issue. But, Roy has no original argument ever. She picks them from here and there, most notably from the popular struggles which already have developed arguments. This is what she did in the case of her anti-nuke arguments.

If you notice, Zafar, these days our rhetoric against nuclear bombs is based on the same principles on which our nationalism is based. Many dominant groups in India see the nuclear bomb as a signifier of an assertive India. And, these groups include both pro-bomb guys as well as anti-bomb buys. The idea of India that both these groups have in mind are the same upper-caste elite of India who sometimes hate Pakistan and on other occasions want to love it, both on the ground of race solidarity.

But, I object to viewing a nuke only through this lens. I feel a nuke is a signifier in a pure sense. When a right-wing government uses it, it acquires a right-wing character. And, if a left-wing government wants to use it, it can use it international negotiations. Is it important to tie the Indian nuclear bomb to Pakistan? Isn't this a 90s phenomenon? When Indira Gandhi ordered first nuclear tests, she was willing to be on the side of the global left than on the side of the Indian right. But, half-baked arguments of people like Roy and Anand Patwardhan do is make all other interest group retreat from the nuclear debate. They project the bomb as a Hindu bomb to be deployed against a Muslim neighbour. So, other groups that may have believed in the theory that either everybody can have this bomb or nobody should have it are forced to retreat.

Both Patwardhan and Roy ignore the fact India has and is developing missile capabilities that can deliver a nuke up to and beyond 2,000 kilometres. If we were to have only Hindu nukes, then there is no need to waste money on developing more missiles. Pakistan is already covered in the existing range. But, such details usually escape creative writers. They are more interested in creating impact through their works than argue their case. This is not to say that India's nuclear programme is not directed against Pakistan, but it is not exclusively tied to it.

And, of course, the anti-nuke lobby has never heard of using the bomb to press for disarmament.

I have an observation on Roy's stand on the Narmada issue as well. I quite liked her article on the Narmada dam. That, I think, is her best argued work. Even if all arguements are borrowed, we need such articles. And, I don't support Ramachandra Guha's critique of Roy's stand on the Narmada dam. But, I do agree with him that she is more interested in her popularity than the fate of the cause.

Look at what happened to the whole issue after the Supreme Court judgment. Both Medha Patkar and Roy have moved on to greener pastures, Patkar to Singur and SEZ-related issues and Roy to Kashmir, after making many other popular stops. I think the Narmada issue is one of the biggest defeats of the social movements in India. And, look at the contrast: while the peole have lost their land and livelihood, its leaders have prospered in their social standing.

The Medha Patkar kind of politics that Roy supported is primarily the cause for this defeat. Because Patkar is Gandhian, she did not allow any violence to take place on the Narmada issue. When the state and the courts went against the people, she simply retreated, or, should I say, moved on. Compare that to the fate of anti-land-acquisition movements. A lot of them, like Singur and Nandigram, are successful, and in many of them Patkar is involved. The deciding factor, however, was that no Gandhian was the supreme leader of these movements. In fact, violence proved to the ultimate deterrent against the capitalist encroachment.

These days Roy is busy lauding Kashmiris for their non-violent struggle. She may end up helping the people she is fighting against, which I won't mind in this case. But, her record is that wherever she goes, that struggle is screwed in a few years. A very dangerous activist to have among your midst.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Anjum on e-books and publishing

My interview @ chillibreeze. I discuss the future of publishing in Asia


The popularity of e-books will increase with the adoption of smart phones or such devices. Today I am reading electronic versions of books that are not easily available or are out of print. Tomorrow I might be reading more contemporary books in their electronic form because they might be cheaper and more convenient to read (or consume in audio form) that way.

In Singapore, I already see young people reading books (or longer texts) on their phones on the bus. Singapore National Library has a website where people can submit their short stories or download a short story to be read on their PDAs or phones. In Japan, people are reading novels on their cell phones. Elsewhere, people are tweeting their novels. In the next two generations, e-books might become the mainstream reality.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Roy’s rage

“We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it's time for the wise to blow the whistle. Sir, not only do I differ with what you say, but I would certainly not fight to the death for your right to say it. Not me. You have to pick your fights.”

- Roger Ebert (I'm a proud Brainiac)

There are two ways to deal with Arundhati Roy: you can dismiss her views as the angry rant of someone who represents a line or a party or a school of thought that you abhor. You abhor it because it shakes your Bollywood hued fairy tale worldview or it does not contribute (or rather threatens) to your secure-in-my-flat-with-a car-and-latest gizmos lifestyle.

Or you take her views seriously—like that of a prophet of conscience, a prophet who has her ears on the ground, and who can listen to the "grasshoppers", who can make us look what we only see. A true writer-prophet who warns us about our silent complicity in the crimes that are done in our name.

People say she is a one book (novel) wonder. I know why. She’s a writer who knows that we are past the age of novels, that the reality of our world is so dangerous that our short attention spans and parochial worldviews need to be upbraided by the regular hammering of reality through non-fiction, and not lulled into slumber by the gossamer navel gazing of immigrant lives in fictional settings.

Needless to say, I find myself in the second category. In fact, sometimes I feel that only she, among the panoply of Indian writers, points out issues and questions the anomalies in the system that enrage me. That too in a language that is her trademark style. To be fair, though writers such as Pankaj Mishra also ask uncomfortable questions, his touch is a tad mellow, more academic than angry.

Some say Roy creates a maze of words. Maybe yes. But is there no meaning in it?

Others say she is agonizingly repetitive. So what? I guess she has to do it to hammer home the point. Those who allege that Roy is repetitive don’t just get the point. I know why. Because they don’t want to. You have to be fair-minded and you have to have a sense of justice (irrespective of caste, creed and colour) to appreciate Roy’s point. You can’t understand her plea if you seal yourself in a wall of self-righteousness. She challenges you to get out of it.

And then face the truth.

In her essay, Democracy's Failing Light (Outlook), she makes many points about the fissures in India’s democracy. The points she makes can be summarized in a couplet by Allama Iqbal:

Jamhooriyat woh tarz-e hukumat hai ke jis men
Voton to gina karte hain, tola nahin karte

(Democracy is such a system of governance in which
votes are counted but not weighed)

Indian democracy has much strength, many merits. But that does not mean that we should not be aware of its shortcomings—how it is being misused by the powers that be (democracy fused with predatory market economy?). Roy shines her critical light on democracy’s fault lines. It could be our blind nationalism—another myopia—that often prevents us from seeing the truth and acknowledging the elephant in the room. Why do we forget what George Orwell, that brilliant journalist and writer, the creator of Animal Farm and 1984, had said about nationalism?

To question the ills of the system does not mean you are unpatriotic. Nationalism (be it in any form, religious or secular) makes us blind. Patriotism is different.

The Kashmir Issue

Roy draws our attention to the issue of Kashmir, one of the elephants in the room (among many others). She is right. Why don’t we want to talk about it?

None of India's analysts, journalists and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-at-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy—who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast, exit poll and minor percentile swing in the voteshare—talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment. (An armed soldier for every 20 civilians.) No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialised out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious.

No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls. Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to delink 'azadi' and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues—roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades—where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night—might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.

The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again…

We keep hating Pakistan. Why can’t we accept it as a neighbor? Pakistan has created most of its problems without much external help (abandoning Jinnah’s secularism and going for a stringent form of Islam as a state policy, for example; see two articles by Ali Eteraz: Pakistan is already an Islamic State and State-sponsored Sufism) but has India helped it in growing peacefully either?

Why did we not settle the Kashmir issue with impartial justice when the time was right (now we can't even accept it as an issue, as Roy points out, and merely broaching this topic will make one sound unpatriotic in some circles)? What answer do we have for the Pakistanis when they ask us why did we have to meddle in East Pakistan and help create Bangladesh? What answer do we have for them when they ask that we are working against them in Afghanistan (along with the imperial forces) and supporting anti-Pak groups?

Are our hands really clean before we can ask them about fomenting trouble in Kashmir and launching terror strikes against India?

Granted that Pakistan’s agencies are complicit in waging terror against India. But what about us? Are we paying them in the same coin? If yes, then where is the moral superiority of India?

If this goes on we, India and Pakistan, will one day destroy each other. Roy’s metaphor of the fighting in Siachen and its larger impact on the region, deserves our intense attention. Hindu hubris and Muslim masculinity will not save our future. It is bringing us to the brink of collapse.

Is there still hope for this wish of a poet?

Hum aayen gulshan-e Lahore se chaman bardosh
Tum aao subah-e Banaras ki roshni le kar

I hope novelist Musharraf Ali Farooqi is right when he said: "... I think a lot of politicians were eating Viagra for breakfast in those days. I am glad they have switched it to a more appropriate time. I feel that in the subcontinent we talk about war and carnage so very casually because we have no real regard for the sanctity of human life. I also believe that India and Pak situation will improve drastically within just a decade or two, to the extent that it will become unrecognizable. We'll just have to wait for the generation to die that helped create the divide - both before and after the Partition."

Monday, July 06, 2009

Review: Between the Assassinations

Book Review

Between the Assassinations
by Aravind Adiga
Picador, 2009

When I finished reading the last story from Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations, I was briefly filled with sadness. This was the book I was reading for the past several weeks. I had been dipping in and out of Kittur, sharing the anger and sorrows, hopes and joys of its various inhabitants. Adiga’s imaginary town and its curious inhabitants had kept me enthralled for days on end. I read the book whenever time (and my daughter) allowed me to enter its world: on the way to office, during lunch break, watching over my daughter in the playground or before going to bed.

As I read the last page of the novel (or collection of short stories or does it matter?), I had to say good bye to the people of Kittur, without hoping to know what would happen to them next. In the last story Salt Market Village, Murali the communist and one-time story writer, gets up from the bed with a jerk at the end of the story. What will happen to him? Will he find a bride and happiness, at the end of a wasted life? Will Ratnakar Shetty, the fake sexologist, be able to collect enough dowry to see his daughters married off (The Sultan’s Battery)? Will the mosquito man cum driver George and his sister Maria find shelter in the unfinished cathedral, a symbol of their incomplete, hopeless lives (The Cathedral of our Lady of Valencia)? Will Gururaj, journalist and truth seeker, get back his sanity (Angel Talkies)? There are far too many characters to enlist here. But I cared about most of them. Because they spoke to me.

I spent some time with these characters, on the pages of this wonderful book, and they seemed to me so real that I began to worry about them.

Honestly, I had felt this way after a long time. Maybe I had felt this way after reading the stories of Manto and Krishen Chander (in Urdu) but that was more than a decade ago. I had read many short story collections in the past few months and years: Kunal Basu’s My Japanese Wife, Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, John Cheever’s Collected Stories, just to mention a few (not counting the innumerable stories well-crafted pieces in The New Yorker and The Paris Review). Even Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Melodies. They were touching, they were literary, some stories were even fluffy and velvety. But none had an impact on me the same way that Between the Assassinations had.

On a different level, perhaps strangely, my reaction to the book reminded me of my reaction to Homicide. I had felt sad after having finished watching the entire series of Homicide (on DVD). The stories, the characters, their dilemmas and tribulations, get into the rhythm of your life, you begin to care about them. That was a series. This was a book. Yet I felt affected in a similar way. I was going to miss something. Even though temporarily, it was going to happen. There is a beautiful word in Urdu, khalish, to describe this emotion. I know I am going to feel this khalish, this ache, at least for sometime.

Why is it so? What kind of stories does Adiga tells in this book? Who are these characters that affect me so much?

Most of the characters in the novel come from the margins of society, well, some kind of margin. Low caste, high caste, rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, Christian—all with their own set of issues, problems, limitations and horrors.

What’s so new about them, one might ask. That’s true. There is nothing new about them. Perhaps these characters have existed in India’s rich vernacular literature for decades but their avatar in Indian writing in English is what’s new. Perhaps we had seen them in some form earlier, in towns such as Malgudi. But in the wake of big advances and biger hype, they had stopped walking our book’s pages.

In the past, when Indian writers like Khushwant Singh (The Mark of Vishnu) or K A Abbas attempted to describe the life of the poor and the dispossessed, their views and voices often came from an exalted position (that’s my impression). Their intimacy with the subject seemed to be contrived (Moreover between then and now, circumstances in India have changed).

Not in Adiga’s case. It is the sensibility, the intimate approach with which Adiga unravels his characters and lets us peep into their inner world—of their thoughts, hopes and humiliations—that makes us feel for the characters. There is an economy in his style which is subservient to a generous vision. Whether you read about the humiliations of a low caste student or a high caste cook, Adiga takes you so close to their skin that you feel you had made a journey into their soul. That too in a language that can look deceptively simple but in fact is rich, masculine and powerful.

How many contemporary novelists or story writers can make us feel this way? Beneath their velvety language, all you might find empty notions of how the lives of others could be. Or painstaking research and history couched in beautiful language. That style has its own uses but let us not go there. In Adiga’s case, you find the real dirt of India, the ugliness of life and society that thwarts the aspirations of millions of Indians. Adiga speaks for them. He had given voice to India’s poor and voiceless but with a dignity that is often denied to them.

Adiga’s language is measured, masculine and powerful. He does not dwell on much description, keeps a sufficiently fast pace for the stories but once in a while his eye catches something (in the background) else and he goes after it. There are many examples:

“Even at this hour of the night, work was still going on. He heard a low, continuous sound, as if it were the audible respiration of the night world: an open-back truck was collecting mud, probably for some construction site. The driver was asleep at the wheel, and his arm was sticking out of one window, and his feet out the other one; as if ghosts were doing the work, morsels of mud came flying into the truck from behind…” (Angel Talkies).

“A dozen women in colourful saris, each with a green or mauve bandana around her head, were cutting the grass from the sides of the road. Swaying in concert as they sang strange Tamil songs, the migrant workers were down in the gutters, where they scraped the moss, and pulled the weeds out from between the stones with violent tugs, while others scooped out handfuls of black gunk from the bottom of the gutters, which they heaped up in dripping mounds.” (The Cathedral of our Lady of Valencia)

What kind of stories are these? Let me reference it to the last story in the book, Salt Market Village. Murali, a Brahmin and a graduate of Madras University, used to write stories (but never got published) before he abandoned them and became a card carrying member of the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Maoist), Kittur. He is in his 50s now but twenty five years ago, he used to roam the villages with a notepad, dreaming of becoming an Indian Maupassant. He sent his compilation of stories under a nom de plume—‘The Seeker of Justice’—to the editor of a weekly magazine in Mysore. A week later, the editor summons him for an interview.

The editor asks him who his favourite writer is? Maupassant, after Karl Marx, he replies.

“Let’s stick to literature,” the editor retorted. “Every character in Maupassant is like this…” he bent his index finger, and wiggled it. “He wants, and wants, and wants. To the last days of his life, he wants. Money. Women. Fame. More women. More money. More fame. Your characters—“ he unbent his finger “want absolutely nothing. They simply walk though accurately described village settings, and have deep thought….That’s it.”

“They do have thought of changing the world for the better…” Murali protested. “They desire a better society.”

“They want nothing!” the editor shouted. “I can’t print stories of people who want nothing!”

He threw the bundle of short stories back at Murali.

Perhaps the bundle was picked up by Adiga. And daringly, he rewrote those stories and sent them for publication. The result is a pounding piece of harmonized anger, a precise and humane account of people, whose small truths make a staggering reality that is India today. But unfortunately an India that is rarely written about, its unglamorous existence not considered being worthy of a mention. India’s middle class is so huge and so hued that in itself it constitutes a world and its mirror—and most of the IWE caters to the problems and hopes of this narcissistic class of people. Arvind Adiga is a chronicler of the world that is beyond the pale of this self-consumed middle class.

But the book is not without its weak moments. All the stories are not that sparkling. The Cool-Water Well Junction is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire (nothing extraordinary here), the story of Jayamma in Valencia (To the first Cross) is predictable in its conclusion, the point of the story Bajpe is lost on me, Ziauddin in The Train Station seems to be a confused character.

Despite these flawed tales, Adiga’s Kittur is a fascinating town with charming people. People who want something in life. There is a drive in these stories’ characters that one can’t resist. Maybe Kittur is the new Malgudi.

There are very few books that I become attached too. Very very few. I can count them on my fingers. Between the Assassinations has joined that rank. It can gladly stay on my shelf, next to Manto, Krishen Chander, Naipaul, Kafka and Carver. And I don’t give a damn what others have to say about it. It’s my book shelf.

PS: Is it a novel? Maybe yes, it is. Kittur is the protagonist here. If you have a problem with that, call it a collection of short stories. The common factor is that it is all happening in a small town in South India, Kittur.

Fighting terrorism with entrepreneurship

Early eighties. In a pre-liberalization India, the angry young man image of Amitabh Bachchan rules the imagination of millions—fighting his fight, achieving his goals against all odds. In such times, in a typical Bachchan-movie like flashback, a boy is running after a coal powered rail engine near Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh. The boy collects the raw pieces of coal that falls off the train so that his mother could cook the next meal.

The boy’s name is Shahid Parvez Sayed. When he is 12, his father passes away. He drops out of school and looks for ways to support his mother. He does odd jobs. He even sells kites from his home. He makes his own manjha (sort of an abrasive), that he brands as Shahid bhai’s manjha. He even entertains the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station.

Then comes a turning point in the boy’s life. His mother sends him off to Mumbai to be with a relative. The goal is to get further education. There again in Mumbai, he does odd jobs – from fetching chai to supervising a construction site during his senior secondary school.

With the help of a benign being, determination and scholarships, Shahid lands up in the USA for a degree in Engineering (Masters in Civil Engineering, at Atlanta, Georgia,). Now in his late 30s, Shahid is finishing up his MBA in the USA and wants to come back to India to help his fellow brethren come out of the trap of poverty.

“Looking back I don’t think I did that badly,” Sahid says. “The bottom line is you dream and it will be given. Nature, Allah, God is kind to hard working good people, and this is my firm belief. There is always a road that springs up from somewhere if you have the right intention.”

“In the years of my growing up in India, I was witness – as everyone else – to a regular diet of Meerut, Bhiwandi, Mandal and anti-Sikh pogroms. Corruption ruled, and here, I was a mere small time jebroni, almost as if I had no role in deciding the future course of my life and the nation,” he says. “My journey to the US must have begun long before I actually landed here. I recall that when I was in my final year of engineering, I wrote a short story in which the hero of the story declares ‘I am either going to change the System or get out of India’.”

“At that point of time, I chose to get out of India. After completing my Masters in Civil Engineering, at Atlanta, Georgia, I did go back to India. This was 1992, and this was when my country welcomed me with the images of some folks dancing on the top of an abandoned 500 year old masjid and the later dance of evil that followed in my city.”

“Somewhere along the line, I came back here to the US, but with my heart stayed with the need to do something for the youngsters back in India, who could not avail of a better life.”

Operation ‘Threshold India’ 2009

Early this year, Shahid came out with 'Threshold India 2009', a programme to promote entrepreneurship amongst the Muslim youth. The premise of the programme was that even after nearly two decades after India’s liberalization, Indian Muslims still felt marginalized in the society. “The idea came to me in an Entrepreneurship class here in my MBA program,” he says.

He saw the answer to the ailment of Muslim backwardness in entrepreneurship. For a starter, he chose the Maharashtra College in Mumbai. He launched a workshop cum competition to make money by the female students of the college.

“A sweet young relative from SNDT Women's University brought her entire class to the forum and it became an SNDT v/s Maharashtra College competition, he says. “My young guests were in for a surprise when they were divided into 8 groups and offered Rs. 1000 each. With the help of a few tips and insights, they had the freedom to do whatever they chose to do with the money. All I wanted in return was for them to engage in some creative brainstorming to generate ideas, utilize their talents in making the money grow. It was impressed on them that it was not important if they made 50 paisa or 200 rupees, or even if they lost their allotted amount, as long as they made a sincere and honest effort in going through the process.”

“As expected the students had felt overwhelmed initially by the task of using RS 1000 to make maximum money in just one week,” says Shahid. “However, each group mentioned how their initial fears were tackled, as the creative ideas started flowing. From selling handbags, ear rings, attar to holding food festivals, making PAN cards for a lower fee to applying mehndi to foreign visitors at the Gateway of India.”

“Although two winning teams were chosen, the theme of the day was truly that everyone was a winner. Not a single team had come back with a loss.”

(More information on the project is available here)

How did the idea of helping Muslim youth came to him? “Since 9/11, I had been looking for an opportunity in helping the demoralized Muslim youth, so this idea came as a blessing. I wanted to see if I can motivate Muslim youth to fall in love with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Shahid mentions the Rajinder Sachar report: “Compared to Muslim males, Muslim females in India have a higher percentage of finishing graduation. The Muslim male dropout rate is higher and the reasons are manifold. One : The Muslim youth feels alienated and deprived of job opportunities upon graduation, and two, they want to start earning their way sooner than later. Somewhere along the line, they lose motivation to continue the efforts that a college degree demands.”

Lack of motivation and a sense of victimhood can drive the Muslim youth to fanaticism, even terrorism. Given the conditions of the Muslim youth in India and huge opportunities that exist in the country, Shahid wants to fight the spectre of "terrorism" with entrepreneurship?

“When we can create fanatically dedicated Fidayeeen Saddam, Fidayeen 9/11 and Fidayeen 26/11, we can certainly create Fidayeen - i.e. intensely motivated - in Finance and Entrepreneurship,” he says emphatically. “I am sure the Muslim youngsters today are as brilliant as anywhere else. What is needed is a little guidance and the right resources – not just financially but even of motivation and encouragement.”

“Ideally, I would want to create entrepreneurs in India irrespective of caste, creed, religion and state of origin,” says Shahid. “However I do want to focus on a certain socioeconomic strata of our society that has been left behind. India is about to enter the elite club of developed nations and we cannot afford to leave a part of our population behind.”

Shahid is already making plans to make his dream concrete. “Preparations are on to take the next steps of “Threshold India”,” he says. “The idea is to spread this at the grassroots, across cities with more involvement and the seeking of long term winning ideas. We plan to offer micro credit loans to those who would want to take forward their ideas in the real world. As well as tacit support in these endeavors.”

Help is coming from all directions for Shahid. “Fortunately, there are some great brains in the business that are supporting me in this endeavor,” he says. “These are the people who show up in Mohallahs without a trace of hesitation, an area they would not have visited if it was not for this cause. And they are entrepreneurs/writers of repute like Piyul Mukherjee, Pia Verbic and Rashmi Bansal. Their continuous support and guidance is helping "Threshold India" sprint towards its goal with a lightning speed.”

If you want to help Shahid in his mission, contact him at

Rewritten from a longer piece published on this blog two months ago. An edited version of this raw, rewritten piece was published in the June 2009 issue of India Se magazine.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Jodhaa Akbar/Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi

After 17 years of probe, the Babri Masjid demolition report has been finally submitted by the Liberhan Commission. The contents of the report are yet to be made public. But politicians have already started the blame game.

Is it a matter of faith? Is it an issue of rule of law?

I think the problem is our definition of secularism in India. We have taken the concept of nation state from the West but not the definition of secularism. Secularism means the state is without religion. But here, the Indian state supports all religions. Can equality and impartiality be ensured in that case? After all, we are humans.

Invocation of secularism then becomes subjective. That's why we have seen so much politicking happening in the name of religion in India. In the Indian kind of secularism, rule of law becomes a joke. That's why we have riots (rioters are never punished), we have commissions (reports' recommendations are rarely implemented), but hardly any justice.

I am not very optimistic about the fate of the commission's report.

Personally, I feel that the Babri Masjid issue will remain a thorn in the side of Indian secularism, the symbol of gulf between the two blood brothers, Hindus and Muslims. I feel that Indian Muslims should have gifted the controversial structure to the Indian Hindus. Just as Akbar had, in the film Jodhaa Akbar, allowed his bride Jodhaa to build a temple in the prayer room of the Red Fort. Can there be anything bigger than peace? Doesn't Islam itself means peace?

Like, to attack and destroy does not signal strength. It signals brutality and animal power. Similarly, sacrifice does not signal weakness. It demonstrates higher values.

Is that too Bollywood type of a wish? Let me expound it a bit more.


Recently, when Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar swept all the IIFA Awards, I made up my mind to see it. I had missed the film when it had released in the theatres. Luckily, on last Saturday afternoon, Vasantham Channel showed the movie in Singapore. I liked the film--for its gentle tone, its beautiful production, its credible acting, soulful music and above all, its message of harmony and love.

However, being a student of history (having had the opportunity of studying history from the masters of Mughal History at AMU), I could not be convinced of its authenticity. The details were there but the film did not give me a feel of the public life of the time of Akbar. I am not even going into the historical authenticity of Jodha, whose existence is denied by authentic historical records of Akbar's time.

But that is not the point of the film, as I understand it. On a plain level, it is a love story between two powerful, beautiful people--an emperor and a princess. They have an elaborate wedding, like all big budget Hindi movies have--NRI women love this kind of stuff, don't they?

But the film goes deeper than that. I think, at a subliminal level, Ashutosh wanted to appropriate the legend of Jodhaa and Akbar and create a myth: a Hindu myth. In a way, it was a Hindu appropriation of the Mughal history. The film shows the self-respect of a Rajput princess; it shows the bending of a Muslim emperor to the power of that self-respect and love triumphing over narrow religious dictats. Despite the protests of the mullahs, Akbar allows Jodhaa to have her own shrine in the Mughal palace. He abandons the Hindu pilgrimage tax and bans the forced conversion of Hindu prisoners. All very noble things to do! I am glad Akbar did that (did he?) and in fact, all Mughal emperors should have done that--at least the last two acts.

In a way, the film makes the (often portrayed as barbaric in the case of many rulers) Mughal rule more palatable to the Hindu mind (that has been made to see the 1000 years of Mughal rule, as Muslim rule, with Jizya and all that, as slavery of Hindus, destroying the great Hindu civilization). In a way, the filmmaker seems to say that yes, this is how we can remember the Mughals/India's Musilm rulers: by remembering Akbar and denying other rulers not much space in our minds and myths. And by extension, he seems to propose that this is how Indian Muslims could assimilate themselves in the Indian nation--with love and sacrifice, and mutual self-respect. You may disagree with me, but this is how I saw Ashutosh's film.

There is a great message in this film. For Muslims, the message is to be more accommodating. That's why, I was saying that Indian Muslims should have gifted the controversial place in Ayodhya to our Hindu brethren. As a gesture of goodwill. As a token of our love. As a recompense. Why did it not happen? Now it is too late. India would have been a different country today had it happened 17 years ago. Or is Jodhaa Akbar 17 years too late?

As for the film, I was disappointed only in one respect: the battle scenes could have been more impressive. After seeing several Chinese films made in recent years (especially John Woo's Red Cliff and Yimou Zhang's The Curse of the Golden Flower), one expects similar kind of action and production values and I expected that from a UTV production.

Finally, I want to say that let us banish (from our streets) all violence to the film screen. Let us keep all religions private and not allow politicians to make it a votebank issue. Let us love, live and let live. Let us be good humans.