Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Remember the good old days? Those magical yesteryears when the skies were bluer, air purer, people nicer, music sweeter and life a rainbow-hued fairy tale. In those mythical halcyon days, love and friendships lasted lifelong. Life was all pristine innocence and goodness. Today's crass materialism and soul-stifling lack of morals were unimaginable then. At least that is what we wish to believe when we daydream our way into a nostalgic time-warp.
Most of us at some time or other, have compared the glorious past to the degenerate present. It’s tempting to tell our successors how we were more intelligent, diligent, honest, better behaved and better in everything than them. We forget that we too were at the receiving end of such grievances from our own elders. Our venerable elders would surely have heard similar complaints from their own venerable elders. Our prehistoric caveman ancestors would probably have lamented the hairless bodies, larger craniums and more erect gait of degenerate younger generations. They would have deplored the new-fangled way of communicating with words as needlessly complicating the traditional hominid system of modulated grunts. Those new bone and iron tools would have seemed more cumbersome than traditional rocks and sticks.

Nostalgia makes us gloss over the flaws and cocoon ourselves in an idealized version of olden days. We feel that in the past people lived better lives. But we conveniently overlook the fact that their lives were shorter because of smallpox, cholera and other ailments which can be cured today. Let's carry the argument further. If the past was indeed perfectly wonderful, what about the Thugs who waylaid innocent travelers on the Grand Trunk Road, and the murderous hordes of Genghis Khan and Timurlane's armies? They too belonged to the golden past. Life in the Middle Ages or Dark Ages as modern ignoramuses call it, was a time of faith. Blind faith. The people were discouraged to learn and ask questions. Thus they were protected from unpalatable truths. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition belonged to the golden past too. In our own land, widows were routinely burnt upon their husbands’ funeral pyres. Human sacrifice, slavery and other progressive social customs prevailed along with all sorts of superstitions and taboos. People dared not cross the seas and travel to foreign lands for fear of being excommunicated from respectable society. Time-honoured institutions, sadly forgotten today.  

In the distant past, cavemen led the purest life. No hectic work schedules; no money, and therefore no need to chase that root of all evil. Issues were resolved swiftly and decisively. They simply smashed opponents with their clubs and either killed, or got killed. The apelike forefathers of the Homo Sapiens lived on a higher plane above their degenerate future progeny. They thrived close to nature with their heads up high, usually in the branches of trees. The remoter the past, the grander everything was. Just think of the dinosaurs. Those primeval monsters truly lived life king size.
So are we the inferior waste products of history and pre-history? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a crazy myth? Is human civilization hurtling toward a cultural compost pit? Think about it. Is nostalgia deceiving us? Was the past ever perfect? Is the present merely imperfect continuous?

Idealized images from the past have their uses. When the computer gives up its ghost to a virus, or when the Internet grinds to a crawl, it’s therapeutic to go strolling through the tranquil bends of memory lane. Sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past; treasuring selective airbrushed and rose-tinted mental images of times long gone; that’s what nostalgia is all about. It’s but human to long for a home and loved ones, who have changed considerably with time. Even loved things such as old movies or books can trigger feelings of nostalgia. An old Lata Mangeshkar, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan or Kishore Kumar song can unlock the gates of magical memories, depending upon the generation and culture to which the listener belongs.

Nostalgia smooths and softens the rough edges of things from the past. In the words of Doug Larson, nostalgia is a device that removes the potholes from memory lane. Nostalgia can add cheer and joy to our rat-race weary lives. How magical it is to leaf to your childhood autograph book, filled with scrawls from school pals, teachers, and those film stars who shot a scene in your school if you were lucky enough. Oh, that dreamy feeling of reliving old memories as you view sepia tinted photographs in the family album! Have you ever felt more delight and contentment? The aromas of your mother’s cooking; that camping trip you took with your father; the warmth of his hug as you snuggled into your grandfather’s lap and listened to his stories; our dear elders had made our lives worth living. They were only human, and not all-powerful superheroes. But when we were young, they were perfect in our eyes as they lovingly nurtured us into becoming what we are today.  Some of them have left this world, but their affectionate memories continue to guide and uplift us.

Inanimate objects like favourite books, songs or movies can similarly boost our spirits. They gain this power because of their association with our dearest people and happy events from the past. That movie or song is evergreen because we enjoyed it in the company of friends from our carefree schooldays. That favourite book is often the one a beloved parent or teacher gifted us, opening our intellectual perspective in an amazing new way. Whenever I pass a Subway sandwich shop in any city, I am flooded with soft-focus memories of the lively addas I once enjoyed with my children’s author friends in a cozy Subway branch in Bengaluru. We all live in different cities now. Distance and time draws old friends apart. But nostalgic memories can bring back some of that old happy glow.

Pleasant memories can help us tide over hard times. I remember how my late brother was once passing through a rough phase in life. When I visited him, we sat together leafing through old photos of our shared childhood. Then, he brought out his file of testimonials. That letter of appreciation from a visiting dignitary; that photo with a famous film star; a glowing recommendation from a former employer; those newspaper clippings; all helped gradually ease his frown and bring back the spring in his stride. Drawing a deep breath, he then readied to face the challenges ahead with fresh hope and energy. Nostalgia helps us overcome setbacks. It reminds us that if winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. If we succeeded before, we have the capacity to succeed again in our endeavors. Nostalgia can give us hope and courage.

Nostalgia is a great way of creating and nurturing human ties. Families and friends bond over happy memories, sharing experiences and emotions. School and college alumni associations are strengthened by nostalgia. When I attended a meeting of the Lady Shri Ram College Alumna Association in Bangalore, I had hoped to reunite with long lost friends from my college days in New Delhi. I scanned the unfamiliar names and faces of attendees, who ranged from august ladies to youngsters who looked as though they had bunked lectures to be there. I didn’t find a dear old friend, but as I chatted with the others, I realized we all shared memories. Our favourite teachers, discovering fascinating books in the library and bonding over snacks at the college canteen; we had been there and enjoyed the same things. People may have studied different courses, and may be born generations apart. But getting together to celebrate the glory of the shared alma mater can draw diverse people closer.

Our memories of what was good in our past, can guide us to build good things in our future. I sometimes feel nostalgic about dear Melly Aunty, an especially friendly and caring neighbour from decades ago. These memories stand as guidelines for my own behavior today.   Nostalgia can help us understand the things that matter the most to us; the memories and emotions that leave a lasting impression in our minds when all else has passed.

Nostalgia can enrich literature and history. Rabindranath Tagore’s enchanting memoir My Reminisces, brings to vivid life Tagore’s unique childhood world as he grew up in the thick of the Bengal Renaissance. Qais Abdul Omar’s Fort of Nine Towers is a moving account of his personal experiences of the beauty of Afghanistan as it was, and of the horrors of recent decades of violence in his homeland. In addition to being memorable reads, such books also help readers experience past realities which they would otherwise never have known. Such memoirs flesh out the gaps and show us the human side of the past overlooked by dry factual history textbooks.  

It’s easy to let the magical enchantment of nostalgia overwhelm our sense of present day reality. We must strike a balance and take care not to get carried away. “Nostalgia is a seductive liar,” as George Wildman Ball so aptly put it. It amplifies the glories of the past and can encourage people to ignore what they can do today. It can make us resist new ideas, progress and innovation as we yearn for what is dead and gone. Love for a glorious past can blind us to the good things in the present.
This ambiguous and bittersweet emotion can also sink us in the quicksand of regrets. We need to guard ourselves from wallowing in misgivings; of dwelling upon what could have been, rather than focusing on the here and now.  I remember being with a friend as she lamented the lost promise of her youth. If only she had built upon her bright academic career and pursued her dream of joining the Civil Services. Meanwhile her little son tugged at her dress, pleading for attention. She scolded him for interrupting while she was talking. The little one toddled away with downcast head. A crushed flower fell from his tiny hand.

We will be the ultimate losers if we allow nostalgia to distract us from appreciating life as it is now. It’s important to use our memories of the positive aspects of the past, to improve current circumstances. This can help strengthen our will to move ahead and grow. Sometimes the pain of regrets may be unbearable. That’s when we must delve into our nostalgic impressions of the good times, and remember our positive achievements. This will revitalize our hopes, and help us to forgive ourselves. As a writer so aptly put it, people find it hard to be happy because they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.
Dwelling in a self-created prison of nostalgia can stunt our thinking and vision. Albums, autograph books, school yearbooks and mementoes get damaged or lost as the years go by.  In this never-ending rat-race, the pressures of deadlines, cut-throat competition, soaring inflation and plunging sales graphs all take their toll. We can’t afford to let ourselves be embalmed in old memories. In the course of moving houses, I’ve lost that book inscribed by a long-lost friend. Tears fill my eyes because I cannot find those dainty sandesh moulds my late aunt used to shape mouth-watering Bengali sweets. Physical symbols of our most precious memories fade away with the passage of time, leaving us emotionally orphaned.  I try to convince myself that indulging in nostalgia for what cannot be retained, will make me as obsolete as the defunct past. Instead of mourning the lost sweet moulds, I hope to replicate some of my aunt’s gracious, forgiving attitude. I feel that would be her best memorial.

Dipping into nostalgic memories is a lovely way to soothe and revitalize our souls. But we must take care to dwell just long enough, and not lose ourselves in nostalgia. Our focus should be to use that fresh energy and insight to face today’s challenges with renewed vigour.

This was published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, September 13, 2015

cleaning India

On October 2nd 2014, wondrous scenes unfolded in India’s public spaces. True to the spirit of the Mahatma, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated Gandhi Jayanti by taking to the streets with a broom to launch the Swachh Bharat or Clean India campaign. The media was soon flooded with broom-wielding images of netas, government babus, celebrities of motley hues, and ordinary people like us. Over 31 lakh central government employees from all over the country paused from tying red tape, to pledge to clean up India. Since then, Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest of cyberspace are flooded with memes, jokes and publicity shots of who is doing what to clean up this country. The Clean India campaign is an ongoing one, with multiple suitably impressive goals. Meanwhile, we debate the issue in the social media, sign pledges, and sometimes even flourish a mop for effect. We then continue to relieve ourselves at the nearest roadside wall, and toss our garbage at the neighbours’ doorstep.
So is all this flurry of real and virtual activity leading the way to a cleaner India? Will pouring public money into more toilets be enough to keep our cities and villages clean? How can we counter the surge of environmental pollution from industries? What will happen when people misuse the toilets, and then return to squatting behind bushes or emptying their bladders upon public walls, because the toilets no longer work? Will a carpet ever be found, under which we can brush the mountains of garbage being generated by our cities? Will the dream of a clean India remain just a dream? Can people like us help turn that dream into reality?
Half a century ago, V.S. Naipaul observed in An Area of Darkness how Indians defecate everywhere. They mostly defecate beside the railway tracks. They also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks, he pointed out. We Indians were profoundly hurt. We blushed, we bristled with indignation and we took umbrage. Yet the more things have changed, things and we ourselves, have remained the same.
This isn’t the first time the government has taken initiatives to clean up our country. The Rural Sanitation Program of the eighties was restructured into the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) and relaunched in 1999. To boost the TSC, in 2003 the government launched an award for overall sanitation coverage, maintaining clean public spaces and open defecation -free panchayat villages, blocks and districts.  This award was called Nirmal Gram Puraskar. Then in 2012, the TSC was renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). The campaign was revived in a new avatar as the current Clean India/ Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Even more funds have now been allocated, and constant drum beating in the media, among other things, has made this campaign more attention grabbing than ever before. The government’s and our fervent hope is that all this hoopla will translate into tangible and lasting improvements.  While some other developing nations such as the Philippines also have the problem of open defecation, India’s predicament is in a class apart. India has the world’s largest number of open defecators. Therefore, the cleanliness drive is of special importance to us. According to plans, around 600 million Indians who now relieve themselves in public view because they have no choice, will all have the benefit of private flush toilets within the next five years.

We are sometimes embarrassed by the sight of gentlemen hopping out of their Mercedes to urinate upon conveniently located walls. Don’t we all have relatives and friends who indiscriminately generate plastic waste, or toss garbage wherever they like? We hope the awareness campaigns will also change the mindsets of such educated urban citizens like us. The Intensive drive for awareness also hopes to cover people from all social and economic segments in interior areas of the country. We can do our bit here, by pointing fingers at the wrongdoers among us, and hope to shame them into better behaviour. After all, clean households and a clean environment will help us all stay healthy and keep communicable diseases at bay.
The current Clean India campaign is a multi-pronged ongoing drive, and not a short-lived action and publicity blitz. The Prime Minister is keen on involving the entire country, and hopes that the campaign will inspire youth and encourage everyone to follow his steps. Innovative ways are being explored to encourage cleanliness. Social media is being used as a key platform to spread the message of the cleanliness drive. Our Vibrant festivals are also to become occasions for spreading the good word. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has evolved a new campaign strategy to spread the message of ‘Swachh Bharat and safe drinking water’ at festivals such as the Kumbh Melas, where lakhs of people come together. The renowned Meenakshi Kalyanam festival of Madurai in Tamil Nadu and the Amarnath Yatra in Jammu and Kashmir will soon be occasions to spread awareness among pilgrims coming from far and wide.  Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra of Puri, Odisha, Maharashtra’s Pandharpur Palkhi Yatra, and Bihar’s Sonepur Livestock Fair are among the festivals recommended by the Ministry as platforms for launching the campaign.

 By 2019, the authorities and we, hope that Indians everywhere and from all walks of life will know and actively participate in the cleanliness drive. The drive envisages:
  •  Construction of sanitary toilets for households below the poverty line, offering government subsidy where applicable.
  • Upgrading existing dry pit latrines without a water seal, into low-cost sanitary latrines.
  • Constructing village sanitary complexes for women, with facilities for hand pumping, bathing, and washing. This can be done where there isn’t enough land or space within houses, and where village panchayats consent to maintain the facilities.
  • Total sanitation of villages through the construction of drains, soakage pits, solid and liquid waste disposal.
Let’s hope that key people in the government and in the private sector help the Prime Minister make this campaign a success. May this campaign fire the public imagination and involve the entire country. Only with widespread participation and commitment will the dream of a cleaner India be realised.
The path charted out by the Swachh Bharat campaign doesn’t quite perfectly address all aspects of cleanliness. The programme leaves some gaps in the complete sanitation chain, which goes beyond building better and cleaner toilets. What will happen, for example, when the toilet pits fill up? That’s happening in some states like Kerala with high sanitation coverage. Existing treatment facilities are inadequate to deal with overflowing pits. This creates a different health hazard.
The programme stresses upon providing toilets and offering subsidies. But many toilets are later misused and stop working. Sometimes the money is siphoned off by unscrupulous officials and the toilets exist only on paper. Despite all official efforts and in spite of increasing prosperity, access to education and information, too many of our fellow citizens simply don’t care. They will not properly use and maintain what they have, let alone make efforts to improve things.

Despite these inherent stumbling blocks, palpable positive change has happened in pockets in our own country. Best and lasting improvement has been seen where various agencies and the people themselves, have actively coordinated their efforts at all levels to achieve a common goal. In the 1990s, the Nandigram II block in West Bengal became the first block in India to take pride in providing a sanitary toilet for every rural household. To make this success story happen, officials at the district and block levels worked together as a team along with the Ramakrishna Mission. Competent technical support was secured, and funds were released according to needs, and in time. The state sanitation cell monitored the overall process. Similar successful projects later happened in some areas of other states. They were all marked by active involvement and leadership from within the community itself. With the help of strong political and governmental support, the local people themselves helped to usher in positive change.
Success can happen. Ordinary people like us can help make good things happen. It’s time we stopped passing the buck and criticizing the ‘system’.  We are ourselves a part of that very ‘system’ we never tire of blaming. Here are a few ways we can do our bit to clean up our environment:
People like us can help spread awareness and support government initiatives by our personal actions. As members of local citizens’ groups, residents’ welfare associations, or as volunteers with social service organizations, we can help facilitate positive action at the grassroots level. Best and lasting results are seen when ordinary citizens participate wholeheartedly. Aware citizens groups can point out shortcomings in government policies, and offer suggestions for fine-tuning those policies so that optimum results are achieved in their own communities. Knowledge is power. Spreading that knowledge and using it to help ourselves, increases its benefits exponentially.
The Government authorities are making some efforts to address various issues involved in cleaning India. A committee set up by the National Green Tribunal, for example, has suggested that the use of fresh river water for industrial processes, railway and bus cleaning, fire-fighting etc. should be prohibited and made an offence. This will help maintain the minimum environmental flow of the highly polluted Yamuna River. In a seemingly unconnected move by the Government Railway Police (GRP) in Agra, 129 people were fined for allegedly urinating in public, in just three days in June. Noise and light pollution is another problem in our cities. Increasing amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluents and other waste are finding their way into our rivers. We can help spread awareness about the many ways our environment is being sullied. We can draw attention to the importance and interconnectedness of all measures to counteract environmental pollution, and thus help policy makers and fellow citizens more conscious of the big picture.
The authorities need to clean up their act in implementing pollution control measures upon our industries. Too often, the small fry fall below the radar of the authorities, while big money has a way of getting its own way. Vigilant citizens groups can help by whistle-blowing on such pollution generators within their own communities. Citizens groups can also help pinpoint the sources of corruption, which help polluting industries find loopholes, and siphon off funds meant for public projects or paying sanitation workers.
We need to get over our feudal prejudices, and treat with respect those who clear our garbage and help keep our surroundings clean. We can show some concern for the welfare of the sanitation workers in our own neighbourhoods, by guiding them towards better healthcare or educating their children.
Cynicism is ingrained in many of us. We take it for granted that government measures will fail. We justify our own inaction by averring that others will dirty our surroundings anyway, no matter how hard we try to keep everything clean. The murky side of human nature sometimes surfaces not just in our own country, but elsewhere in the world. Plastic waste ‘islands’ stretch for miles in the Pacific Ocean. Mt Everest’s majesty is being sullied by mounds of waste left behind by mountaineers. Around 30% of the Great Wall of China has disappeared over time, not just due to natural wear and tear, but also because of reckless human activities. Reckless constructions and deforestation are increasing the risk of flash floods and landslides in the Himalayas. It’s up to us to resign ourselves to the elephant of pollution in the room. Or, we can pick up our brooms to help make a difference.
The fact is, that small groups of ordinary citizens with full time jobs and families to care for, have come together to show results. Instead of just talking, they have worked in silence even in our very own namma Bengaluru to clean up spots such as Church Street and Malleswaram’s vegetable and fruit market.  Once they have taken the lead, other folks like us have seen the change and curbed their native muck-tossing instincts.
This brings us to a bigger question of our role on this planet. The rate of extinction of species has been precipitated in recent times by human activities. We have a hand in making our earth less liveable, not just for other creatures, but even for ourselves. We seem hell-bent on transforming our planet into a toxic junk heap someday. If we don’t want to clean up out act and save this world, perhaps we can still hope to discover new worlds to colonize and exploit.  

This essay is published in Sunday Herald

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Flood of Fire :book review

Flood of Fire 
Amitav Ghosh
2015, pp 624, Rs 799

This novel brings to life an exciting chapter in history, as it traces the events culminating in the Opium Wars of the 19th Century, the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and the rise of British imperialism.  This painstakingly researched finale to the monumental Ibis Trilogy extends far beyond dry scholarship.  Rich descriptions, memorable characters and exciting action; this novel has it all. Rife with minute linguistic, cultural and military details, this is a fascinating read.
 History’s mysterious twists and turns, the ironies, fallacies, tragedies and triumphs, are dramatized through the perspectives of interesting characters. They range from fugitives on the fringes of society, to the super rich movers and shakers of world affairs. Diverse as they are, they are tied by the bond of the Ibis, the slave and opium transporting ship, in which they or their dear ones sailed at some time, and where they shared secrets. Through their stories, we see the interconnectedness of things: of how British enforced cultivation of opium yielding poppy in the plains of Bihar can have profound effects in distant China.
Zachary Reid is a young American sailor from Baltimore. The son on a white man and his African slave, Zachary is assumed to be a white man wherever he travels. Compelled to work as a ‘mystery’ or artisan in order to pay off his debts, he has a torrid liaison with his employer, Mrs Burnham. Their affair flourishes under cover of amusing euphemisms and subterfuges. Mrs Burnham gets after Zachary with crusading zeal to cure him of an ‘ailment’ which is considered a normal sexual activity today.  Such touches lends comic relief, and prevent the narrative from being weighed down by the gravity of unfolding historical events.
Zachary’s ambitions are fuelled by proximity to the Burnhams’ riches and influence. Following Mr Burnham into the lucrative opium trade seems to be the best way for a talented but poor young man like himself to make a mark in life. His initiation into drug dealing happens in the lanes of Calcutta. “Through the odour of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.” By the end of the novel, Zachary evolves from “an ingenuous, good-natured boy,” into a man of the times, who does not know the meaning of ‘enough’…Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.”
Shireen Modi is the sheltered widow of a prominent Bombay based merchant and opium trader. Braving social ostracism, she dons western clothing and journeys alone to China to clear her beloved husband’s lost reputation, and claim compensations due to him. She witnesses the war for supremacy in the opium trade in China, and the birth of Hong Kong. On the personal plane, this model Parsi wife learns to overcome her shock upon learning of her husband’s parallel life. She reaches out to her husband’s son by a Chinese woman, and opens herself to a new life and love.
Havildar Kesri, the son of a farmer from Bihar, runs away from home to join the British army, the rising power in India. As he travels to China to fight for his British employers, he realises that “in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight” in the way Chinese soldiers did. “For something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time. An unnameable grief came upon him then…”
Bankrupted and disgraced by the British whom he once so admired, Raja Neel Rattan Halder resurfaces in China as a fugitive from British injustice. He becomes Ah Neel, the linguist and translator who compiles and assimilates information for the Chinese rulers. His diaries and commentaries add depth and perspective upon the advances of the East India Company into China, and the onset of war. His little son Raju travels all the way from Calcutta to China in search of his father, who is reported to have drowned. Raju’s experiences first as a ‘kid mutt’ or servant to Zachary, and then as a fifer in the British army, lends further depth to the story. 
Ghosh sketches the larger sweep of history, showing the sinister nature of imperialism, and on how commerce and the profit motive can be at the root of shaping international policies and war. Battles shape the course of history.
“I suppose this is much how things were in Bengal and Hindustan at the time of the European conquests and even before”, Neel notes in his journals. “The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.” Baboo Nob Kissin Pander’s observation of the innocent Zachary’s rapid transformation into “a perfect embodiment of the Kali-yuga” is thought-provoking, but lightened by the Baboo’s comic speech and persona. Such passages of reflection and commentary are never too long. They are alternated with battle scenes and action in bedrooms and ballrooms, in military barracks and ships. The rich use of various languages and dialects enlivens the story and prevents it from sinking under the weight of scholarship and political commentary.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

Africa 39: book review

Fables rub shoulders with  realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are  juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones.
Africa 39; new writing from Africa south of the Sahara    Edited by Ellah Watakama Allfrey
Bloomsbury        Rs 450/-                Pp 360

During the last century, the winds of change loosened the shackles of colonial rule over Africa. Soon enough, as the editor of this eminently readable anthology observes, the thrust towards freedom changed direction and character. A few leaders genuinely believed in adopting foreign ideologies for improving and revitalizing their homelands. For them, writers and intellectuals were allies to usher in positive social change. Other postcolonial African leaders saw such social doctrines as weapons for quashing dissent and pressuring citizens into intellectual submission.  
This collection of fresh and established contemporary African voices celebrates the freedom of thought and imagination. These stories explore the myriad facets of African life, daring to probe “the hidden, censored and denied histories of ourselves.”
In Alu, Recaredo Silebo Boturu portrays how western missionaries “who believed themselves to be greater and more intelligent than others… with neither permission nor compassion… plundered the lands of foreign peoples… plucked out their personalities… indoctrinated them so that they abandoned their traditions and their culture.” In a town where people were ashamed to have African names, little Alu’s rare African name stood out perhaps as an act of courage, or as a matter of principle.
Mama’s Future by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a fable about the fate of African nations. Mama is on her deathbed since nearly a century. A cavalcade of experts have since theorized what exactly was killing her. “Some said poverty. Others, corruption. Another strand blamed her penchant for foreign lovers… She bled what money was left, after her lovers had stolen what they hadn’t been able to dupe her out of.”
Centuries of foreign subjugation followed often by autocratic African rulers, has resulted in ongoing internal strife. The upheavals and uncertainties have taken their toll. Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls explores through intriguing images and metaphors the near-death condition of today’s young African artists, poets and intellectuals, and by extension, of Africa itself. “She is dying and her body is in this experiment of reverse engineering and she is tearing into ribbons of primary colours – wait, wait, are these wings?” After cycles of popular uprisings, wars and social upheavals, “their fathers’ favourite musicians had failed them… Their poetry came down to that important question: would the dead lover ever return?”
Some stories explore the common people’s apathy and lack of understanding about their society and country. In the imaginary world of Shadreck Chikoti’s Azotus, the Kingdom, citizens “had taken their freedom for granted for so long that they no longer felt the need to exercise it or the need to explore why freedom should be exercised… Freedom had become commonplace, and therefore meaningless.”
Linda Musita’s Cinema Demons portrays the fate of young college educated Africans. Derrick is arbitrarily assigned by the Joint Admissions Board to study for a degree in Recreation and Leisure Management, and weighed down by an education loan which he must repay. He becomes the butt of mockery from prospective employers. “What the fuck is that, boy?... What sort of qualifications are these? Such a waste?”… Failing to secure even menial work, Derrick attends a dubious religious meet promising salvation to the faithful. The writer offers a hilarious account of the opium offered to ignorant masses. “Derrick watched the ushers battle the demons all the way to the ‘altar’ and wondered why they were doing it with their eyes open… There were close to fifty evil spirits on the stage. Demons making faces, hugging each other… called on Lucifer to save them. They wrestled the ushers and threw punches at them.” Rejecting such spurious gimmicks, Derrick chooses to take the road and walk ahead.
Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures.  Africans also migrate to distant lands, resulting in unique experiences of isolation or revealing underlying similarities. Shafinaaz Hassim’s The Pink Oysters is about an innocent young Afghan refugee’s initiation into smuggling blood diamonds and weapons. Despite centuries of strife, remote cultures also offer intellectual gems. Edwige-Renee Dro’s The Professor shows how gems of 19th century French literature can continue to move sensitive souls in modern Ivory Coast. In Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s The Old Man and the Pub, the narrator strives to build a business in distant Geneva. He sees the futility of trying to cash in on his unique ethnicity. “Nobody I met on the streets of the city seemed to be aware of Malawi as a country”. Yet he is surprised by a windfall legacy from an unlikely foreign client.

While the individual pieces are well crafted, their numbers and variety can confuse. Fables rub shoulders with realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones. Chika Unigwe’s novel Soham’s Mulatto, is about a mixed race girl born in 19th Century England. The brief excerpt fails to do justice to the complexity of the subject. These stories offer tantalizing glimpses of the complex and sometimes conflicting realities of Africa and her peoples. It’s a must-read for its insights, and its rich bouquet of literary voices.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

The Last Illusion: book review

The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour, Bloomsbury 2014, pp 319, Rs 450The Last Illusion    
Porochista Khakpour
2014, pp 319, Rs 450

This is a rich amalgam of myths, legends, and human emotions of love, alienation and courage. These elements are interwoven with premonitions of New York, 9/11 into a fascinating fable of modern times.
Author Porochista Khakpour creates a unique and memorable protagonist. Zal is an Iranian boy who has spent his childhood among captive birds. Shocked by the unusual pale skin and white hair of her newborn son, Zal’s demented mother hides her ‘White Demon’ in inhuman conditions as a detested oddity among her beloved pet birds. Bereft of human affection and society, Zal identifies with the birds around him; cheeping, shrieking, flapping his arms like wings. A decade after his birth, his sister ‘rescues’ him and draws the attention of the media to his plight. He is named Zal after the hero of Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, the white skinned prince who was abandoned by his family and raised by a giant bird.
Fascinated by Zal’s story, Hendricks, a behavioural scientist, takes him to America and adopts him as his son. Hendricks showers Zal with love and understanding, and hope for a normal life and future awaits Zal in New York. Zal continues to surprise scientists by his adaptability. Beating all odds, he learns to walk, talk and behave, for the most part, like other people. Yet he cannot completely overcome his bird identity. As Zal grows up, he continues to dream in bird, and secretly enjoys snacking on candied insects. Zal is drawn to the magician Silber, who creates the illusion of humans flying like birds.
Defying scientists’ predictions, Zal begins to assert his independent adult human identity, and even gets romantically involved with Asiya, a disturbed and clairvoyant artist. Yet Zal is forever treated very, very carefully by others, and finds himself in “special consideration relationships, where his story would eclipse him… and once again leave Zal the loneliest man on earth.”
The strongest and most enduring aspect of this novel is Zal’s evolution as a human being. Overcoming his miserable bird past, Zal learns to appreciate the feelings of others and reciprocate love. He wants Asiya to “know that he supported what she did – after all she had taken his story without a qualm, a judgement, without horror, disbelief. She had taken him in just as he was – he owed her the same.” Zal’s intimacy with fellow outcast Asiya, motivates him to overcome his fear of dead birds, reach out to fellow human beings, and become whole and ‘normal’. In the course of the story, Zal also learns to value and love his father Hendricks. “I’ve come to you over and over in pieces and you’ve put me back together, I owe you my life.” Towards the end of the novel, Zal realizes that he has “grown up a lot since you’ve last seen me. It’s not my story that defines me any more.” This freak oddity, this human-bird, sometimes manages to see the truth better than the ‘normal’ people around him. And this quality endears Zal all the more to the reader.

The supporting characters are interesting and convincing, multifaceted as they are with their strengths, flaws and unique experiences. Silber the gimmickry loving, glib talking magician; the generous and affectionate Hendricks; Asiya who grapples with her own troubled psyche to reach out to Zal; Willa who tries to bury childhood trauma by eating her way into magnificent obesity; these characters are unique.
The grotesque, dark and deeply sorrowful elements of this story are deftly counterbalanced with dashes of humour. Zal’s efforts to get a job are hilarious, as he breaks free from the past and feels he has nothing but a future. He looks up resumes on line, and cuts and pastes what he thinks might impress prospective employers into hiring someone who had absolutely nothing in the way of life experience. He successfully presents himself as a pilot with a culinary background who went to Yale. This killer resume gets Zal a job as a pet shop attender, where he regresses to fall in love with a canary.
Meanwhile, as the world struggles to regain balance after doomsday forecasts of Y2K, Asiya’s premonitions and Silber’s plans for his last illusion remind us that 9/11 is imminent. The re-invention of those terrible events is a rather contrived climactic point. Silber’s much publicized illusion to make the Twin Towers disappear and reappear with the help of mirrors, goes impossibly off. “The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong either. It had gone real.” As everyone runs for their lives, Zal is “mesmerized by their faces, the brief moment of joy in all that world-ending clamour.” It is then that he masters that human trick, “a beautiful small and yet essential trick of the spirit, a simple contortion of the will.” This life-changing finale, this symbolism, seems a bit too clever and laboured.  The symbolism at this point overshadows Zal. The profusion of odd, dysfunctional and damaged characters, their freakiness and strange experiences, can also weigh down the narrative.
Overall, this is a beautifully written and engrossing read.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The price of genius

“Make your child a genius!” This hoarding on a Bengaluru bus grabbed my attention. The advertisers promised to make your kid, anybody’s kid, a master of general knowledge, elocution, creative writing, art, dramatics, fashion designing, film making and heaven knows what esoteric else. A universe of knowledge and talent, stuffed into your kid in just six weeks for a fancy price. The savvy promoters knew that busy people like us will refuse to waste our time to think. Can talent and genius be bought like potatoes or chappals? Who cares as long as we can keep up with boastful neighbours? Superficial glitz can readily be bought and cobbled together. No wonder they score over hard-earned substance. We ourselves are busy scrambling up the slippery ladder to ‘success.’ Who has time to nurture their own children these days? The problem is not with training courses and camps, which can indeed be useful. The problem is with our own attitude. By forcing our children into countless extra-curricular programmes, we expect them to become multi-faceted geniuses overnight. Buying talent, genius, all-round development and sundry mind-blowing intellectual accomplishments for our precious darlings, seems to be the latest craze in shortcut privileged parenting.
Heavy schoolbags and endless exams are no longer enough to satisfy ambitious educationists and parents. A lady proudly shared how her child, enrolled in an exclusive school, even had library exams! What on earth is that? The sixth standard student did not know or have the energy left after a deluge of edifying activities, to care. She simply ticked random choices and submitted her paper to the teacher. Children fare best in extra-curricular activities if they pursue them out of interest, and not external pressures. A rigid and compulsive approach kills any natural curiosity and joy of discovering fascinating and fun activities. A hollow sham of all-round development is the end result.
Many Indian children are denied even primary education due to poverty. A global report tracking nutritional status of children worldwide, states that half of Indian children below five years are stunted. One fifth of Indian children are wasted, and a large number of them don’t even get ORS when suffering from diarrhoea. On the other hand, privileged Indian children are denied childhood joys and holistic growth by having an avalanche of curricular and extracurricular activities shoved down their throats .While pouring money to buy such education and accomplishments for our children, we seem hell-bent upon turning them into mindless robots and dysfunctional, disgruntled future adults.
Educated urban Indians like us are a hard-nosed, materialistic lot. Our houses, cars, clothes and other possessions certify our ‘success’ in life, which in turn defines our sense of self-worth. We live vicariously through our children, projecting our own unfulfilled ambitions on them even before they have grown out of diapers. Modern Indian parents strive to buy education as a commodity for their children .The more privileged ones vie to also buy every sort of accomplishment for their precious darlings. This begins when children are starting to walk and speak a few words. We push them into play homes, prep schools and tutorials before they can remember their own names. In the good or bad old days, Indian kids bent under schoolbags heavier than themselves. Youngsters routinely took their own lives, unable to cope with the pressure of eternal exams, and the compulsion to get that vital half mark more than the next kid. That’s now become an accepted part of ordinary Indian life. Meanwhile, people like us strive to rise above the average herd by pushing our children into a bottomless quagmire of structured extra-curricular activities. We insist on regimenting every moment of their residual time after academics, and drag them into courses, camps and classes to hammer all-round intellectual development into them.
Vacations are when tiger dads and lion moms go on the rampage. We enrol children into swimming and horse-riding camps, followed by Bharatnatyam and sign language classes. We won’t allow them to waste a precious second, for there’s also coaching for singing and dance contests on TV.  To meet the skyrocketing demand, creative coaches will soon launch courses for mushroom cultivation, sand grain carving and grave digging.  We ensure that the miserable young ones are given no breathing space. God forbid they should have choices or a few moments to reflect and ask uncomfortable questions.
To meet the growing demand from well-heeled, busy parents, a new crop of fancy schools promise fast-track all-round development of the child.  I’ve written books for children, among other things. Times were when committed librarians and teachers invited me to interact with their students, taking care to familiarize themselves with my work. Together we encouraged students to read and enjoy books of their choice, and freely explore many ideas outside the academic curriculum while having fun. It was an exciting experience for youngsters to actually meet and talk to someone who had written a book they enjoyed. Such breaks from the routine helped recharge the children’s’ spirits and excite their curiosity.
Times are changing. During a recent visit to a posh school, the teachers’ demands dampened my excitement. I had to teach the kids to become authors in the space of a half hour session! I spent many years improving my writing and working on those books, and I still feel there is much more to learn. I began my journey as an avid reader. Even as a pre-school toddler, my parents left me free to choose my favourite picture books. But my experiences were irrelevant here. These children from privileged backgrounds had no time for books, the teachers explained. They only needed to learn to become authors themselves. They had far too many enlightening and personality building activities to keep them busy, and dazzle the world with their accomplishments. Meanwhile, their guardians and instructors saw no sense in allowing them time to understand, absorb or enjoy any of it. They were so busy manufacturing budding geniuses, neither the students nor most of the teachers even knew who I was! I realized how my presence was part of a marketing gimmick. The parents would be informed of the school’s efforts to expose children to experts in various fields. And this would justify a hike in school fees. Since many among us earn a living by providing various goods and services, we will appreciate this innovative concept of selling Mt Everest to busy parents with no time to bring up their children. Parents are squarely to blame. Genius shops are selling what they desperately want to buy. Something that cannot be bought. But we try to overcompensate for our own lack of involvement, by pushing our hapless children into an endless whirlpool of activities.
Research by scientists is confirming what wise parents have known all along. Babies and young children have immense potential for learning. Findings by Carolyn Rovee-Collier, a psychologist at Rutgers University, suggest that "even at two and a half months, an infant's memory is very developed, very specific and incredibly detailed." Language skills and emotional responses to the world around them, also begin developing early. Early and sustained nurturing is vital in shaping intelligent, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults of the future. Parental involvement is essential for a child’s ongoing development. Parents are the first and most important teachers long before a child begins school. The sincerest teachers in the best schools have to deal with many children. They cannot give each child individual attention like the parent. Yet a growing number of educated young Indian parents are too busy to spare enough quality time and attention for their children.
Helping children to develop their intelligence and skills does not mean tossing textbooks of Medieval History and Trigonometry into the cradle to produce precocious geniuses. Nor is enrolling kindergarteners into the friendly neighbourhood creative writing school likely to manufacture many bestselling Nobel laureates. We need to adopt the right attitude and not allow ourselves and our children to get trapped in rigid and unimaginative training programmes. As caring and concerned parents, we need to carve time out of our busy schedules to enjoy watching and participating in activities that interest and stimulate our children. Reading aloud, for example, is a joy shared by both parent and child. And you don’t need to pay hefty fees for it. Far from being a waste of time, reading encourages children to explore and learn. When parents read to their children during the first three years of life, the foundation is laid for a lifelong interest in learning. While vital for building brains, reading to young children while they cuddle up to a loving parent or elder also nurtures children emotionally, and lays the foundations for trusting and close emotional relationships as adults.
Reading books to children opens their mind to new things and places in the outside world. When children learn that books contain exciting stories and pictures, they want to read more. They do far better in school, as books are not something to be dreaded, but a thing of joy. They can understand their textbooks better, and organically improve their vocabulary and writing. As the child grows older, reading expands their horizons of knowledge. Children who are allowed to spontaneously enjoy and take interest in reading, painting, music and other activities, become independent learners and thinkers. They can attend their school work with minimum help, and entertain themselves when they are alone. Once a child enjoys such an activity of her choice, the habit will serve her well for the rest of her life. A child who can think independently will be more competent to deal with the challenges of adult life.
Studies and life haven't become harder these days. It's the attitudes that have changed. Kids habitually cram lessons, and go to private tutors for spoon-feeding of fixed notes. Then parents and schools herd children into activities such as film appreciation, chess or piano playing, without taking their choices into account. If we allow children to play, to think and decide for themselves, then they will derive maximum joy and benefits from extra-curricular activities. Extra professional coaching certainly is helpful, but parents and teachers need to motivate the children first.
Unstructured play time is also essential for children. As parents and educationists, it’s up to us to allow young people some time to breathe freely, and even play in the mud if they wish to. When children explore something that interests them, they learn more quickly and readily remember what they enjoyed learning. By allowing children choices, we can help nurture important skills such as making decisions, solving problems and forging healthy bonds with others. By encouraging children’s questions and curiosity, we can boost complex thinking.
Pushing children into strictly regimented activities is a reflection of our own fear of failure. We all need to overcome that fear of falling and getting dirty, of failing, if we are to ultimately succeed. Success cannot come quickly simply from unimaginatively planned, one-size-fits-all tutorials forced upon exhausted children. We cannot buy our way into genuine achievements, or expect our children to become perfect at one shot.  Let’s take a tip from American author Toni Morrison, whose impressive awards list include the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. “As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work… then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. …What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it.” Even for such a towering, world-renowned literary figure, success and confidence came with time, introspection and constant effort. Who are we, then, to bamboozle our children into camps and courses with the ambition of turning them into TV stars or authors overnight?
Are we turning our children into intellectual bonsais by dumping our unrealistic expectations upon their tender shoulders? Is it so difficult to appreciate our children for themselves? Do we have to push them into endless courses and camps in order to transform them into star performers overnight? It would be better if we try to bring light and joy into children's lives. If only we could allow them some space to play freely, let them figure things out for themselves and guide them to activities they find interesting and refreshing. 
This is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wishes for the new year

 People light candles forming the words 'Happy new year 2015' on New Year's eve in Allahabad.  PTI photoAs another year ends and a new year begins, we look forward with hope, and with some trepidation. Will acchhe din be here to stay? Will we finally have rainbows day after day?

Which one of us wouldn’t wish for a world with rising pay packets and dwindling inflation? Bigger malls with even bigger discounts; smarter and cheaper gizmos to make life breezier; accommodating bosses and more opportunities for all of us to become bosses; a swachh Bharat free of garbage and pollution; friendlier neighbours across the road and borders; miracle pills to make us all beautiful and super brainy for a reasonable price; that’s just the beginning of our collective daydreams. Along with fresh hopes, each year also brings newer and recycled fears. This year too, we will need to grapple with various threats, such as deadly viruses, noxious chemicals, wayward comets, trigger-happy extremists or hostile aliens out to wipe us off the face of the earth. 
Indians excelled in many spheres in the year gone by. Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal bagged both the men’s and women’s titles at a major badminton tournament in China. Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia of India were conferred sainthood by Pope Francis at the Vatican. Our scientists’ efforts culminated in Mangalyaan, which was listed by Time magazine among the 25 best inventions of 2014. India’s Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize. May we continue to shine and innovate, and do our very best.

However, we hope Indians will cease to outperform in the scams department. With so many thousands of crores of unaccounted money stashed away, who says we are a poor country? Yet the rich-poor divide continues to grow. Impoverished farmers commit suicide every day, sometimes honoured with tiny news items. In our cities, street children and migrant labourers lead harsh and deprived lives. The Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam showcases our native talent as cheaters par excellence. Small wonder then that last year’s annual nation branding survey by research firm Anholt-GfK ranked India at a pathetic 31st among 50 countries. Efforts are on to curb our skulduggery. 

While signing a global treaty on sharing information to track black money, the government has decided to streamline resource-sharing between the investigative wings under the revenue department. The SIT probe has already brought under the tax net Rs 3,000 crore undisclosed money lying in Geneva. Eleven cases related to undervaluation of iron ore exports have been acknowledged by the traders, who have now paid up around Rs 117 crore due to the government. In another welcome move, all life-saving drugs will now come with a bold red-tag indicator of government-fixed rates, so that needy patients do not easily get cheated. May the coming year bring more such effective checks and balances, and may our scoundrels and crooks go out of business. While the rich prosper, may there be more equitable distribution of wealth so that our poor can also afford better lives.
May advancing technology offer us wonderful new ways to spread peace and healing. Science and technology are but neutral tools in human hands. We can use technology to create lethal machines of destruction, or to explore new worlds and new ways to fight death and disease. So, away with bombs and guns, and more innovations like robotic surgeries, please. We also expect more impressive forays into the vast unknown. European Space Agency’s Rosetta just landed on a comet. Our very own super smart MOM dazzled the world by reaching Mars on its very first attempt. Space exploration gives fresh hope to humanity. We seem hell-bent bombing and polluting our planet to death. Thanks to new discoveries in space, we can now aspire to junk the old home and move on to exploit new planets.  Meanwhile, we will never cease to be delighted by new ingenious gadgets that make chores easier, or simply make life a little more fun.  

Freedom reigns

We are fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers that be, without being packed off to concentration camps and gas chambers. May democracy continue to prosper, and may we use our rights and freedom with responsibility. 

Writers, intellectuals and the media have a vital role to play in disseminating information, moulding public opinion, and positively influencing those in power. Noted American author Ursula K. Le Guin foresees hard times, and the need for “the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” Let us echo her plea for responsible book publishing and authorship. May they rise boldly beyond the narrow bounds of commercial interests, sales strategies and advertising revenue. 

There is a growing public impression that the Indian media is no longer an impartial observer, but a participant in the power-games between commercial and political interests. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta feels that “the media definitely has to do a lot of introspection.” He notes how Parliament recently “passed a major constitutional amendment without discussion. The entire political class got together against the judiciary. And there was no public protest... Today, sometimes, you get the sense that people are willing to crawl when nobody is bothering to ask us to even bend.” Let us hope for undying integrity among our opinion makers. May they continue to show us the light freely and without fear.

While technology and commerce are bringing the world closer as a global village, there continue to be enough divisive elements out to pit people against each other. Discrimination keeps rearing its ugly head in various ways. We Indians are masters at communalism, sexism, and all sorts of groupisms. We can be nasty racists too. 

Women students are arbitrarily banned from university libraries and rapes are an everyday occurrence. Meanwhile, anti-dowry laws are being misused by some wives to threaten and settle scores with husbands and elderly in-laws. So much so that the Supreme Court recently observed that the dreaded Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code had “dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives.” Discrimination and bigotry in any form can hurt us all. As individuals, we should shun snap judgements and the urge to bully or deprive those who are different in any way. Let us work together towards gender equality and social justice.

Last September saw a mob assault on three African men — two from Gabon and one from Burkina Faso — at New Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk metro station. Would those men have been beaten less brutally, if they looked more acceptable to the bystanders who rapidly turned into a violent mob? The fact is, we Indians are more accepting of foreigners with lighter complexions, while African visitors can find it painful to overcome racial prejudices, and being stereotyped as criminals and drug dealers. In the coming year, may the spirit of tolerance and unity prosper, and narrow-minded prejudices be kept at bay. Neatly consigning people into categories robs them of their individuality. It also smacks of our own intellectual poverty. 

All men are not rapists, just as all Indian women are not Sitas or Savitris. All members of religions other than our own are not rabid fanatics. Let’s do away with the ‘us against them’ attitude and see others as fellow human beings, no matter where they come from. This is one area in which each of us can make a difference. 

Our rapacious greed is bleeding the life out of the environment. Pollution is increasing, and water tables plummeting as borewells run dry. The flora and fauna of the unique Sunderbans is threatened by a massive oil spill in the Bay of Bengal. Petition website Avaaz is mobilising public opinion against an Indian industrialist’s bid to raise a billion dollar loan from State Bank of India to build a coal port near the Great Barrier Reef. World heritage agency UNESCO has warned that the proposed project would endanger the world’s largest and most diverse oceanic ecosystem. Due to public pressure, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Goldman, Citi, HSBC, RBS and Morgan Stanley have already opted not to be associated with this controversial project. Let us hope for more transparency and public debate over such environmental issues. Only then will the best decisions be taken for the long term benefit of us and our home planet.
What else shall we wish for? I, for one, would want a year filled with cheerful news headlines. Why limit your wishes to specifics, when fate and the ingenuity of other people can sometimes throw up undreamt of gems? But our dreams will remain daydreams in this fragmented and strife-torn world. Good news will be the norm only when the world is more peaceful and stable. We can of course wish for world peace, but that will be as improbable as a beauty contestant’s dream of becoming another Mother Teresa. What we can realistically wish for is that humanity learns its lessons and takes positive steps to atone for mistakes from the past. 

2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of World War II, and a quarter century after the fall of that grim symbol of Cold War, the Berlin Wall. The first Great War introduced innovative killing machines and strategies. Poisonous gases, battles with armoured tanks, and planes built to fight and kill from the skies, all began here. Empires and countries disintegrated, and new ones rose from their ashes. In times when there were far fewer people, the casualties of the war was the most stupendous faced by humanity. Around 16 million people were estimated to have died. Millions more were wounded and maimed. 

This “war to end all wars” unfortunately became the forerunner of more and fiercer wars, with newer and more lethal high-tech purveyors of death and mayhem. People, and those who lead them, seem to never tire of destruction and death. Friction and armed antagonism still simmers today in many parts of our planet. Ongoing conflict continues to claim innocent lives in Gaza. ISIS militants are spreading horror over West Asia.

Innocent aid workers, who chose to believe in the goodness of mankind, are being executed in the most gruesome manner. As the Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, children have suffered the horrors of detention and torture.” The fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 brought home to people around the world, the terrible effects of war. 

That plane with 298 civilian passengers was shot down in mid-flight over Ukraine, a nation ripped apart. The dead are from various countries, ordinary citizens of nations at peace. A family looking forward to a vacation in Bali, a pilot on his way to celebrate his child’s birthday, a healer pursuing pathbreaking research on AIDS, all fell in a war which they were probably not even aware of. Such tragedies drive home the fact that we are all interconnected. Strife in a remote and little-known land like Ukraine can result in immediate and disastrous loss to people like us. 

May this coming year see less conflict, and strengthen the spirit of peace. Let’s keep in our hearts the sentiments memorably expressed by Bob Dylan:
Yes, ’n’ how many times must
the cannonballs fly 
Before they’re forever banned?... 
Yes, ’n’ how many years can
some people exist 
Before they’re allowed to be free? 
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a
man turn his head 
Pretending he just doesn’t see?...
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one
man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it
take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’
in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Let’s hope for those winds of change, and that leaders around the world move closer to finding those answers. Let’s salute the voters of J&K, who came out with hope and courage during the recent elections. Braving boycott calls by separatists, the residents of Chrar-e-Sharif, once a hotbed of terrorism, registered an outstanding 82.14 per cent voter turnout. May their spirit inspire us to make our own individual efforts to bring about a better common future.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Shashi Deshpande: an interview

Shashi Deshpande’s dignified presence, her innate warmth and grace, can win the hearts and minds of anyone from aspiring writers to intellectual opponents. Her twinkling eyes belie a razor-sharp mind; one who sees through human subterfuges and smiles at the quirks and ironies of life.Shashi

This prolific author began her career with short stories and has gone on to pen nine short story collections, twelve novels and four books for children.  She has also written essays on topics such as feminism, literature and language. Translations are another part of her rich repertoire, and her own work has been translated into several languages. Among her many honours, is India’s prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel That Long Silence. Her latest novel, Shadow Play, has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize, 2014. She was honoured by the Indian Government with the Padma Shri in 2008.
Deshpande’s fiction is rife with women who display uncommon inner strength as they cope with frustrations and disappointments in love, marriage, family life, and come to terms with thwarted personal aspirations. As they struggle within the constraints of their daily lives, they realise truths about themselves and strive to rise above their circumstances. Their personalities evolve as they test the boundaries of their resilience and courage. In That Long Silence, Jaya's life crumbles around her as aspersions are cast on her husband’s professional reputation. He loses his job and the foundations of Jaya’s seventeen-year-old marriage and family are rocked. Jaya is haunted by her memories of a repressed childhood, her failure as a writer, and of growing disenchantment with her marriage and her children. In A Matter of Time, Gopal, a respected academician and caring father and husband, abandons his family without warning, for reasons even he cannot articulate. His wife Sumi is compelled to seek shelter with her three daughters, in the home of her parents. The silent ancestral home unveils its mysteries, stories of sorrow and loss. This tale spanning three generations, weaves an intricate tapestry of the characters’ passages through love, loss, endurance and glimpses of hope. The Binding Vine[M1]  is another moving exploration of the dignity and forbearance shown by women as they face the daily challenges of life. The lives of three women who are "haunted by fears, secrets, and deep grief" (Washington Post) are bound together by strands of life and hope—a binding vine of love, concern, and connection that spreads across chasms of time, social class, and even death. The Baltimore Sun declared the novel, "Chekhovian . . . Deshpande’s story of a woman who loses a daughter is linked to the politics of India and its tradition of patriarchy."
The range and variety of Deshpande’s work is displayed in novels such as Come Up and Be Dead, which can be termed a literary mystery. A school is shaken from its normal routine by the suicide of one of its young students. Rumours and speculations thicken the atmosphere around characters who could very well be our neighbours or relatives. The Narayanpur Incident is a novel for children set in the heady days of India’s freedom movement against British colonial rule. Babu and Manju find themselves swept up in the popular protests during the Quit India Movement of 1942. Their schools close down, their father is imprisoned, and their older brother Mohan goes underground to join the freedom fighters. The children move with other family members to the obscure village of Naryanpur. Waves of turbulence rocking the nation reach even this remote place, where children fall victim to police atrocities, and a group of children gather the courage to stand up to the colonial police.
There is so much more to say about her work, which is best expressed by the author herself. We at Kitaab thank Shashi Deshpande for being with us and sharing exclusive insights with our readers. This interview is published in Kitaab

1.     How much did your environment shape your writing? As the daughter of renowned Kannada dramatist and man of letters Sriranga, you would have grown up in the lap of literature. Might your interests have taken a different turn if you had been nurtured in a more mundane milieu? Any anecdotes you would like to share about your first experiences in writing?

SD:  It is always difficult to answer hypothetical questions like this one. The facts are that my father was a writer, our house was full of books, there were often literary friends visiting and literary conversations going on. But the huge passion for reading, for words, for language -  these were mine. I read everything I could lay my hands on, including dictionaries  and self-teaching books, like books that  taught    French, German, Hindi  and so on. The interest in people was also my own. So I guess I was born to be a writer. In fact my father was troubled by my habit of reading books other than texts and that,  unlike my sister, I never got a first or second rank. He often said that I would grow up to become a clerk in the Collector’s office! (I’m grateful he took it for granted that I would shape my own future, that it did not depend on who I married.) In fact, there was a time when my father  asked my teachers not to allow me to borrow books from the school library. Did that help? Not at all. My friends borrowed the books I wanted and handed them over to me.
As for writing, it took me a long time to  begin writing, though  I do remember entering a writing competition run by the Illustrated Weekly  of India and getting a prize. And writing a story for a school exercise. That was all. But I wrote diaries (soppy ones, I’m sure) and letters to pen pals. Real writing began after I was married and had two children.

2      Among the many memorable characters you have created, which is your personal favourite? If you were to begin writing that same story today, how would your own subsequent life experiences impact that character and her story?
SD: It is very hard to say who is my favourite character. It’s like asking a parent about her/his favourite child. However  I suppose I can say that the character closest to my heart is Aru, who first appeared in A Matter of Time. I admired her greatly but was unable to make her the heroine in that novel. I made a kind of promise at the end of the book that I would make her the heroine next time. And nearly twenty years later Shadow Play came to me in which Aru played the major role. Generally characters make a graceful exit once the novel has been written. The fact that Aru stayed with me for such a long time shows how much she meant to me.
3.      Your fiction is widely appreciated for your ability to weave complex nuances and intricate layers of significance into what might appear at first glance as tales of ordinary people leading ordinary Indian lives. Did you consciously choose your subjects, or did the stories choose you?
SD: There are two questions here. The first  one is whether I consciously choose my subjects or do the stories choose me. No, I never choose a subject and then begin writing.  I could not and would not do that. The people  come first to me and lead me into their lives, and then their stories evolve through their characters, through their interactions with others, through the choices they make. Actually, I don’t  even know how the novel will end when I begin writing.
But  the point I really want to make is about your comment  that  my stories are of `ordinary people leading ordinary lives’. In the 5th question, once again my stories and novels have been described as `revolving around ordinary middle class women’. I am a little intrigued by the word `ordinary’. I would have thought that all, or, at least most writers, write about ordinary people. Extraordinary people are few, maybe a handful in an  entire generation. Besides, however ordinary we may seem to others, to ourselves we are always extraordinary, we are unique, we treasure that `special-ness’ of ours greatly. It is this special-ness that the fiction writer looks for in human beings, it is this uniqueness that the fiction writer finds. Therefore I do not understand why my work is often singled out as being about `ordinary people’. So too, `middle-class’. I often wonder what class  of people other writers write about, whether any writer thinks of class at all! Most writers write about the people they know best,  that’s all!

4.       One of the Nobel Prize judges for literature judges, Horace Engdahl, stirred a debate very recently when he pointed out that we are endangering literary fiction when we treat it at par with commercial fiction. Publishers say that commercial fiction pays the bills while literary fiction brings awards and accolades. Do you think the balance between literary fiction and commercial fiction has been lost, even here in India?
SD:  Yes, I read some of his statements. But I am not able to understand why there should be a conflict between  literary fiction and commercial fiction. And I’m not sure that he meant that only literary fiction is endangered by treating it on a par with commercial fiction. I think that literature itself is  harmed by such a treatment, if it really happens. It’s true we need all kinds of books, not only because the publisher needs to make money but because of the vast number of readers with a vast number of tastes out there.  All readers cannot appreciate the same kind of books. The problem, as I see it, especially in India, is that  we seem to confuse fast-selling fiction with significant writing and  then giving it undue importance. Until now, our country has not seen  the kind of sales figures some books now have and the media  has gone overboard celebrating this success.  The publicity and hype attracts more readers and not-very-knowing readers think these books are  a must-read. That we are not able to draw a line between writing which sells well and writing which is good and will last, that we allow statements about the need to dumb down the language for readers,  doesn’t augur well for the future of good writing in India. We need  literary books, we also need well-written books which are not so literary, but certainly we don’t really need badly written books.

5.      You have written several volumes of short stories and novels for adults, which often revolve around ordinary middle class Indian women striving to break free from a painful past, and seeking dignity and grace in their lives as they deal with the constraints of their present day existence. You’ve also written books for children. Come Up and Be Dead is a mystery set around the suicide of a schoolgirl, followed by the death of Pratap, the brother of Kshama, a teacher. What are your impressions about the comparative challenges posed by these diverse genres of writing? Does alternating between different genres give you a respite from the monotony of focusing upon only one? Does this help you to gain fresh insights?
SD: All writing is a challenge.  Whether it’s a short story, a poem, an essay,  a drama or a novel – each genre poses some challenges. And there never is any monotony in writing just one genre. For instance, I prefer the novel to all other forms and I am at ease and comfortable with it. But I started with short stories and then, when I felt I could, I wrote a novel.  For quite some time I wrote both short stories and novels, but slowly the novel, being a more demanding form, in terms of time, took over. Then I wrote short stories only when commissioned. I also wrote  a large number of prose pieces, either for talks or as essays. These too came out of my feeling that there were things I wanted to say about  Indian Writing in English, about language, about women’s writing, feminism etc. Now I feel I have  said all that I want to say, but still write reviews when asked. So it is a question of wanting to write about a subject and using the form the subject demands.  As far as insights are concerned, these can come through any form of writing.
6.      Recently, a Malayalam language writer said that Indian writers focus on personal agonies and that denies them place in world literature. Do you agree?
SD:  I dislike generalisations and I don’t take such statements seriously. Why single out Indian writers as focussing on personal agonies? Writers everywhere have done and will do that. According to me, what makes it difficult for Indian writers to find a place in world literature is the plethora of languages, the `frog in a pond’ attitude that the small readership gives and the lack of world-class translators.

7.      What do you feel about the proliferation of literary festivals? Are they a welcome move to bring authors closer to their readers? Or do they distract readers as well as authors from the very private enjoyment of reading and writing?
SD: Literary festivals can be fun and  they are a good place for writers and readers to meet – no doubt about that at all. But there can be too much of a good thing and that’s what literary festivals are becoming in India. Every little town now wants to host one. A literary festival  has become a celebrity and wannabe writers jamboree. It has become a place to celebrate celebrities and you find the same writers moving from festival to festival. I often wonder: when do they write?

8.      What advice would you offer to upcoming writers?
SD: I would say read, read and read. Then write, read your own work and  be honestly self-critical. Never feel complacent about your work. That’s death for a writer.

9.      What are you working on now?
SD : A novel – what else?