If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Meghnadbadh Kabya: A super rendition



Meghnadbadh Kabya (Slaying of Meghnad) was the most significant literary work by the greatest flawed genius of Bangla literature, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824–1873). It was published in 1861, the year Rabindranath Tagore was born.

To briefly explain the qualifier “flawed genius”, right since his days in Hindu College (Presidency College later), there was plenty of evidence of Madhusudan’s literary talent. But he was also snooty, quite shamelessly opportunistic (he converted to Christianity not out of faith, but to cadge a ticket to England from the colonial masters), and famously undisciplined. Thanks to his luxurious lifestyle and lack of self-restraint, Madhusudan went through long spells of penury and ultimately, drank himself to death. Had it not been for the consistent financial and moral support from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – who I believe was among the three greatest Bengalis in modern history – Michael possibly would have died much earlier, and Bangla literature would have been poorer.

Meghnadbadh Kabya, a tragic long verse in nine cantos, is exceptionally brilliant both in terms of its content and literary style.

In this poem, Michael looks at an episode from the Ramayana from a contrarian perspective. Indrajit, also known as Meghnad, was Ravana’s son and a great warrior. He had almost killed Rama and Lakshmana twice.

But in the morning just before he was to join the battle, while he was worshiping Shiva in the royal temple of Lanka, Laxman entered the palace “like a thief” with the help Bivisana, one of Ravana’s brothers. Meghnad welcomed Laxman as a guest, but rebuked him for being such a coward and asked him not to fight an unarmed man. But Lakshman killed his defenceless enemy anyway, making a mockery of the so-called “kshatriya dharma”.

A proof of literary genius is that catch phrases used by great writers become idioms in their language. Meghnadbadh Kabya in particular and Madhusudan’s poetry in general abounds with such gems. Here’s one that my mother often quoted when she had to refer to a troublesome adversary:

Raban swoshur momo, Meghnad swami, amiki dorai sakhi bhikari Raghabe?

Ravana is my father-in-law, Meghnad my husband, could I be scared of that beggar Raghava?

Michael once wrote:

Kato je aishwarya tabo e bhabo mandole
Sei jane, banee pado dhare je mastake

What treasures abound
In your boundless universe,
Know only those,
Who’ve embraced the feet
Of the Goddess of Letters.


Watching fine plays (and films) too is embracing the feet of the Goddess of Learning. And last night, I discovered a new treasure trove: The theatre group Naye Natua and Gautam Halder’s rendition of Madhusudan’s epic verse at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.

It was two hours and twenty minutes of solo-acting by Gautam, supported by two drummers and four other musicians, every one of them joining in chorus too. Gautam recited and sang, acted and danced while effortlessly transiting from one character to another, playing every character of the story including both the combatants Meghnad and Laxman, with effortless ease but with tremendous passion and physical exertion.

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have known that such performance was humanly possible on stage. And the beauty of the performance was that he hadn’t left out even one word of the original. Michael Madhusudan’s language contains lots of Sanskrit words and even educated Bengalis may not follow it entirely. But despite that, Gautam and his team kept the audience spell-bound, no one – well almost no one – moved or checked their stupid cell phones during the performance.

It was a captivating show, and almost flawless. After many years I was watching a play at the Academy of Fine Arts with every seat occupied. For average performances, there are 20 to 200 viewers and it was indeed heart-warming to notice that fine performance is still appreciated in a city where ignorance is bliss officially, filthy language is heard everywhere, and uncouth behaviour is considered normal.

I’ve been watching plays since when titans like Sambhu Mitra, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyaya, and Utpal Dutta straddled the theatre stages in Bengal. After their departure, there was an inevitable period of lull, and personally, I lost touch with the Bangla theatre as I moved away.

Yesterday, I realised that the tradition of Bangla theatre is very much alive. The flame burns with equal brightness and the pursuit of the pinnacle of excellence continues unabated.

19 November 2017

Photo of Michael Madhusudan Dutta courtesy: Wikipedia: By Unknown - Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51736483

Picture of the stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBWXwJgUns




Friday, 17 November 2017

When I don't know ...


Monday, 13 November 2017

Note to My Students # 17





The best way to learn English (or any other second language) is to fall in love with her/him (depending on your gender and orientation!).

I fell in love with her long before my wife (confusion intended). And this is an affair where one doesn't feel jealous about competition. 

What about you?

13 Nov 2017


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Secret Superstar: A must-watch movie


I can recall lots of movies which end with teary melodrama or long speeches, but can’t remember even one of them which I loved so much. In fact, Secret Superstar is beyond love and hate; it brings you – once again – face to face with the reality of the perversely anti-woman world we live in, where a majority of half the humanity manage to live their troubled lives quietly, thanks to their abiding faith in the mantra jhel lenge: I’ll manage my pains, as they know there’s no escape. 

The second dimension of Secret Superstar is equally significant. As far as I know, no other Indian film ever has talked so openly and strongly about the sub-human existence of women in the Muslim society in today’s world. Here I must quickly add two caveats. First, the Muslim society is no monolith, I personally know several enlightened Muslim families and also, Muslim women – educated and not-so-educated – who are as free as the blowing wind. Secondly, it is not about Muslims alone, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Tarun Tejpal are no exceptions, they are visible threads of a huge and abominable pattern. Having said that, I do believe no major religious community practises institutionalised misogyny the way the Muslim society does in the 21st Century. And It works at numerous levels: from Triple Talaq which was legal until recently, to erudite men preaching the virtues of the hijab (in the narrower sense of the term meaning a head cover) on their Facebook wall.

The film deals this somewhat taboo topic boldly and I wouldn’t be surprised if an imbecilic mullah came out with a fatwa against its makers.

The story revolves around a woman in her late thirties, a victim of repeated domestic violence, and her teen-aged daughter who tries to free her, while simultaneously trying to make it big in the world, using her natural musical talent and gifted voice. The girl insists that her mother divorce her father, but in a poignant scene, the older woman observes that no one ever asked for her opinion about her own life, neither if she wanted to marry, nor if she wanted a divorce. The irony cannot be missed.

Moving back to the girl and her ambitions, the third dimension of the film is about the by-now clichéd “aspirational India”. Sadly, like many Bollywood movies, this film too glosses over the impossible odds stacked by a dysfunctional gerontocracy against a young person from an ordinary background trying to come up in life. Instead, it offers a quick-fix solution to make the girl an instant superstar. Consequently, it lacks credibility unlike say, Dangal by the same actor-producer Aamir Khan, which truthfully chronicles the long and punishing work required for success on a big stage.

However, if you suspend your disbelief willingly to create a hypnotic engagement with the characters on screen, you will see a significant Indian film in Secret Superstar. It is significant because – I believe – it will create a wider impact by making Indian Muslims take a hard look at themselves. After all, communities – like individuals – can reform themselves only from within.

We do not know how we can come out of the self-defeating bind of growing state-sponsored communal hatred that is tearing India apart, but it is essential that every religious community shed their baggage and look at everyone else as just another human being, like the young protagonist Insiya (Zaira Wasim) and her boyfriend Chintan (Tirth Sharma), who effortlessly rise above their religious milieu.

If the film helps some of us take a step in that direction, it will have served a huge social purpose. Let’s hope it will.


Wednesday, 01 November 2017



Monday, 30 October 2017

CBI, the saviour?


On 22 June 2017, fifteen-year-old Junaid Khan -- with Rs 1,500 in his pocket -- left his home in Khandawali village of Haryana along with elder brother and two friends to buy clothes, shoes, and gifts for the coming Eid.
The next day, the Indian Express (IE) reported: "On their way back in a Mathura-bound train, Junaid was stabbed to death by a group of men after an argument .... The men allegedly mocked the boys, tugged at their beards and accused them of eating beef. This was before they threw them out of the train at Asaoti station, where Junaid bled to death on his brother Hashim’s lap."
The government and the ruling party immediately swung into action. CCTV cameras in Asaoti station mysteriously conked out and NO RAILWAY EMPLOYEE HAD SEEN ANYTHING, although it was a bright and sunny day.
Therefore, although the case has reached a lower court in Faridabad, and is being tried as "State of Haryana Vs Naresh Kumar", only people like me who are insanely optimistic would expect a conviction.
Be that as it may, let's appreciate what the Additional District and Sessions Judge, Y S Rathore, who is hearing the case, has just done.
According to the IE, he evicted the Additional Advocate General of Haryana from his court because he was assisting the counsel of the main accused during cross-examination of witnesses. The judge said that the government lawyer was “suggesting questions to be put to the witnesses” during hearings on 24 and 25 October.
Expectedly, the evicted law officer told The IE it was a "wrong impression” that he was assisting the defence counsel. He happened to be there and had innocently helped another lawyer in matters unrelated to the case!
The Additional Advocate General is the second highest law officer of the state and must be an awfully busy bloke. Yet, his love for the accused criminal's counsel was so deep that he had to be at the lowest court on two consecutive days! The excuse simply doesn't hold water. He is a government pleader, and has no business to assist the lawyer of the accused, against whom his own government has filed a case.
Incidentally, Junaid’s father, Jalaluddin has filed a petition in the High Court "seeking transfer of the probe from the Haryana Police to an independent agency such as the CBI, as well as security for his family and the prosecution witnesses."
His lawyer has appealed, “It is the grievance of the petitioner that the statement of all the witnesses has been deliberately distorted to introduce ambiguity, discrepancies and contradictions, with the calculated interest of benefiting the accused.” He also said a person who was among the attackers was made a witness to help the accused. (IE)
That is how the BJP government in Haryana Government is ensuring justice for the victim's family! And the Jalaluddin family are so helpless that they have to seek investigation by the "caged parrot" called CBI, which has proved its neutrality beyond a shred of doubt while hounding Teesta Setalvad and in numerous other cases, and has also exhibited their superb efficiency in the recent fiasco in the Talwar couple’s case.
Our wretched governments are doing everything possible under the sun to destroy the criminal justice system in the country. They have to. Otherwise, how will India become the banana republic of their dream?
30 October 2017
(Photo courtesy the Indian Express, 2 July, 2017)


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Maldives


I was working in Trivandrum and once when my father came, I took him to the famed Kovalam beach nearby. It was in the late Seventies, and Kovalam was almost pristine then. I have to add the modifier “almost” because, although the hideous shacks selling trinkets to coconuts that are there now hadn’t come up then, some religious thugs had just built an ugly pink mosque right on the beach then, which damaged the harmony of the place immensely. On the contrary, the ITDC Hotel, a simple minimalist white structure with red tiles on the slope of a hillock, merged with the backdrop of the blue sky and millions of green coconut trees seamlessly. And barring the mosque, the empty semi-circular beach and the turquoise blue waters with silhouettes of dark fishermen on catamarans returning from a dipping golden sun were fascinatingly beautiful.

After reaching there, my father turned his back to the sea and started smoking a cigarette. Surprised, I asked him, ‘How do you find Kovalam?’

‘All seas are the same,’ he answered absently.

I had had no clue that my father, who had keen interest in lots of fine things in life, was a complete philistine as far as nature was concerned.


As I walked out of the Velana airport, I saw a sparkling sapphire sea which merged into a deep cobalt blue in the distance, colours that I hadn’t seen in my short young life. I recalled the incident in Kovalam and felt even my father wouldn’t have been able to turn his back to these magical waters.


The Maldives consist of over 1100 coral islands, but there are humans on only 188 of them. And I guess most of them have resorts, hotels and liveaboards frequented by tourists, mainly from the West. You can get a sense of the size of the tourism industry there if you consider that this tiny country has four international airports, one for every 100,000 people. (France, Spain, and Sri Lanka have three each.) For our destination, the gateway was Velana Airport, on an island with nothing but the air strip, offices / counters of fifty plus resorts, and a few eateries selling American junk food.

After a short wait, we were on a speed boat to an island which had nothing but the resort. The reception office, the dining hall, an open-air bar, and a store selling knick-knacks at exorbitant price were near the jetty where we got off. In that egg-shaped island, a pathway goes around which you could cover in 20 minutes of leisurely walk. Between the pathway and the beach, there are three two-storey buildings on the western side and two on the east for guests. The space within the elliptical pathway houses the back offices and living quarters for the resort employees. But the entire area is covered by a deep green foliage, you wouldn’t see any of these if you passed by the island on a boat.


From our ground-floor room, we can see the sun dipping on the western horizon beyond a beach of white sands through trees and bushes. It’s late afternoon, but some sun-bathers are still scattered on the shore. I can’t but reflect that although people from the West devour natural resources quite thoughtlessly, they are true minimalists when it comes to swimwear. The women were all in slender bikinis. And their clothes fitted the description that the great Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali once wrote, “You could stitch the panties of three girls with my tie.”


Apart from natural beauty, the clear waters in which you could see millions of corals and colourful fish, what I found wonderful were the people at the resort. Managerial positions were held mostly by Maldivians, and they were unfailingly polite, pleasant, and efficient. At the lower levels were some Maldivians, but mostly, Bangladeshies. They brought from home the famous Bangladeshi hospitality.

Suman, who was obviously at a lower end of the hierarchy, told me that he earned enough to send a decent amount home, and got a two-way ticket to Bangladesh every two years. If he wanted to go more often, he would get a one-way ticket every year. Suman, Sukur Ali, and most other Bangladeshi workers were happy souls and were happier to talk to us in Bangla. But not everyone was equally fortunate.

We met Ahmed (name changed), a deck-hand who accompanied us on the boat when we went dolphin watching. Ahmed had been imported from Bangladesh by another resort. He was treated shabbily, not paid wages, and harassed by his previous employer. He had to run away from that place – sans papers – and had found a temporary job with the boat owner. He too managed to send some money home, but lived with the risks associated with every illegal immigrant.

‘Are you married, Ahmed?’

‘Yes I am. Have a boy and a girl back in Khulna.’

‘How will you go home without a passport?’

‘I don’t know Sir, but Allah will help.’

It is amazing how the poor of the world depend on just one psychological counsellor who does nothing to help them. I have always felt that the most foolish of intellectual pursuits is trying to prove to the believer that god doesn’t exist. He may not exist, but they need him badly.

Bangalore / 21 October 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Asima Chatterjee and ...

It is wonderful to wake up and see Google celebrate the centenary of Dr. Asima Chatterjee, a scientist who is either unknown to or forgotten by her compatriots.
Asima Chatterjee is fortunate to have been just forgotten.
Subhash Mukhhopadhyay, a physician and a fellow Bengali scientist who independently created the second "test-tube baby" in the world almost single-handed in his primitive lab, was the target of intense envy of his fellow scientists and the all-knowing bureaucrats warming the chairs in the government secretariat in Kolkata.
Under the watchful eyes of a communist government lead by another "great" Bengali, a Commission was formed to verify the claims of Dr. Mukhopadhyay. The Commission, which included an atomic physicist among other luminaries, rubbished Mukhopadhyay's claims. Mukhopadhyay was humiliated as a fraud and transferred to a TB hospital. (I think, but will have to verify, the atomic physicist was the head of the panel.)
While we are proud that the world today recognises Asima Chatterjee's basic research in chemistry which has contributed to development of chemotherapy for treatment of cancer, let us also remember another Indian scientist of her generation who couldn't take it any more and committed suicide in 1981.
Durga, the baby who got her life thanks to Dr Mukhopadhyay, and Louise Brown of England, the first test-tube baby in the world, were both born in 1978, Durga 67 days later.
Twenty-nine years after Mukhopadhyay's death, in 2010, Robert G. Edwards, an English scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the technique of in vitro fertilization.

23 September 2017



Monday, 2 October 2017

Stand calm and resolute

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg
These verses are from the The Mask of Anarchy by the English romantic poet Shelley. Gandhi once recited them to a Christian gathering in India.

As I woke up this morning in a country where hatred has become the dominating force in just a few years, I thought of the great man, and the lines which sum up his political creed.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away.

Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

It seems for us, Indians, the old chains of colonialism have been replaced by new shackles of meanness and mutual hatred. India always had many fault-lines like religious, social, and economic, which Gandhi managed to join, not seamlessly, but effectively nonetheless. And I believe our success, rather, our survival as a federal country largely depends on how well we manage these fault-lines on a continuing basis.

Astonishingly, at present, some Indians are working overtime to widen these fissures like never before in recent history. In fact, they are dividing the country far more effectively than our ruthless alien rulers could, except for the last two years of their miserable rule.

One hundred and forty-eight years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born, I think recalling these lines once again would be a fine way to pay tribute to the flawed genius, who perhaps was more a human with multiple failings (like you and me) than a Mahatma.

Bengaluru
2 October 2017

[Photo courtesy news24.com: Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg. It is at this place in South Africa where Gandhi, while travelling to Pretoria, was thrown off a train at the instance of a white-man who objected to his travelling in a first class compartment, though he had a valid first class ticket. Did the makers of the statue "return in shame"?]

Friday, 8 September 2017

Being and nothingness

Swapna Chaudhuri

[On the Internet, we often come across brilliant writing by nameless authors. I often read wonderful writing on my friend Swapna's Facebook wall. Here is a translation of one of her pieces, followed by the original] The other day, Manju, one of my colleagues – she is an amazing singer – said with a touch of deep sadness in her voice, ‘Swapna, tell me, what have I done all these years? Nothing!’ I said, ‘even Rabindranath said, “Sadly, nothing has been done.”’ And that started me thinking. True, I’ve lived long, but done nothing. But in the autumn of my life, the song by Tagore is indeed a soothing salve on my utter futility. And there is some consolation: we can look at it from another point of view. The immortal writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya’s oeuvre is fascinatingly diverse and powerful. His novel “Ganadevata” (God among People) is an eternal jewel in Bangla literature. How many educated Bengalis have read it? In every short story, Jagadish Gupta fascinates us with his ability to bring in the unexpected in a myriad ways. How many Bengalis read him? I suspect that after a few generations, no one will read his work. I ask my husband’s students if they have heard Dhananjay Bhattacharya. The question of listening to his songs doesn’t arise; they haven’t even heard his name! But I always thought some of his songs would transcend generations. Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali are two fulcrums of Indian classical music. But I’ve seen, even those who’re learning khayal haven’t heard their names. Let me stop, there is no point in extending this sad story. However, in my pointless life, they are my greatest solace. Should people read me, or Shirshendu Mukhopadyaya? Who will listen to my khayal when no one has time for Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Malini Rajurkar, or Kumar Gandharva? I am insignificant but happy. God hasn’t blown His bugle for me. But has given me boundless, profound peace. 08 September 2017 এক অনুভব ======= সেদিন মঞ্জু, আমার সহকর্মী, অসাধারণ গায়িকা গভীর মর্মবেদনায় বলে উঠল,"স্বপ্না, কি করলাম বলতো! কিছুই তো করা হল না।" আমি উত্তর দিলাম এই বলে যে, স্বয়ং রবীন্দ্রনাথ গাইছেন,'কিছুই তো হল না,হায়'?! তো বসলাম ভাবতে।আজ জীবনসায়াহ্নে রবীন্দ্রনাথের এ গান আমার অপদার্থতায় সান্ত্বনার প্রলেপ তো বটেই। সত্যিই তো, কিছুই করা হয়ে উঠল না এ দীর্ঘ জীবনে। তবে সান্ত্বনা-ভাবনা আরও আছে,এই ভরসা। অমর কথাশিল্পী তারাশঙ্কর--কি শক্তিশালী অসাধারণ বৈচিত্র্যময় তাঁর রচনাসম্ভার!'গণদেবতা' বাংলা সাহিত্যের এক চিরন্তন সম্পদ। কিন্তু শতকরা কতজন বাঙালি সে লেখা পড়েন বা পড়েছেন? জগদীশ গুপ্ত-তাঁর প্রতিটি গল্পে কি অতর্কিত বৈচিত্রাঘাত, কি সমৃদ্ধ তাঁর গল্পগুলি! কতদিন বাঙালি পড়বে তাঁর রচনা? এই বঙ্গে তো আর দুটি জেনারেশন এর পর বাংলা সাহিত্যের পাঠক পাওয়া যাবে কিনা আমার সন্দেহ আছে। অধ্যাপকের ছাত্র দের প্রশ্ন করলাম, ধনঞ্জয় ভট্টাচার্যের গান শুনেছেন কিনা। গান? নাম ই জানেনা। আমি ভাবতাম তাঁর 'চামেলী মেলোনা আঁখি' বা 'এমন মধুর ধ্বনি' একেবারে কালজয়ী। আবদুল করিম খাঁ সাহেব বা বড়ে গোলাম আলী খাঁ সাহেব ভারতীয় সঙ্গীতের দুই প্রধান স্তম্ভ। দেখেছি খেয়াল শিক্ষার্থীরাও অনেকে এঁদের নাম ও শোনেনি।
এ দুঃখের আলোচনা দীর্ঘায়িত করতে পারি তবে লাভ নেই তাতে। আমার এ তুচ্ছ জীবনে পরম সান্ত্বনা এঁরাই। শীর্ষেন্দুর বই পড়বে না আমার? কেন লিখব? বীণা সহস্রবুদ্ধে, মালিনী রাজুরকর,কুমার গন্ধর্বের খেয়াল শোনার লোক নেই আমার খেয়াল কে শুনবে?সময় থাকতে বৈজ্ঞানিক গবেষণা করতে পারলে হয়তো মানুষের কাজে লাগত! তুচ্ছ আমি,সুখী আমি! দুঃখের পথে আমার নীরব তূর্য জ‍্যোতির্ময় হতে দেয়নি আমায়! বড় শান্তি, নিবিড় আরাম।

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

NIGHT: “A slim volume of terrifying power”



When the slim volume arrived by courier, I’d been reading other books. I looked at the new arrival, read the blurbs, and smelled it for its deeply sensual pleasure. Then I decided to read a few pages before returning to Barbara Tuchman’s history of the Vietnam War.

I could put down Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT only after reading it completely, every word of it. 

If the lines above gave you the impression it was pleasure reading the 135 pages, you would be grossly mistaken. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing books I’ve ever read. It tells us about the monster that lives within each one of us. It is mind-numbing, and I wouldn’t even try to review it. I am just presenting the basic “storyline”. It will help you understand human nature better.

Eliezer Wiesel’s Jewish family lived happily in the small town of Sighet, Romania. Buffered by Austria and Hungary from Germany, they believed they were safe. Moreover, in the spring of 1944, “there was splendid news from the Russian front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated.” A deeply observant 13-year-old Elie watched elders going about their life, concerned about everything else except “their own fate”.

Their fate was foretold when Budapest radio suddenly announced that the Fascist Party had seized power in Hungary. In less than a week, the German army was in their street. And shortly, the entire Jewish population of the town was moved into and confined in two ghettos. Even then, they believed they would just live there in peace until the Red Army came to free them. “The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.”

Soon all of them would be packed in closed cattle cars so tightly that they wouldn’t even be able to sit down. They would be transported to Auschwitz death camps, where 90% of the deportees would be murdered on arrival, after being shorn of whatever valuables they had on them, including gold teeth. Most would die in gas chambers. Children would be thrown into a fire-pit.

The healthiest 10% would live on to deliver hard labour on near starvation diet … and die slow, miserable deaths.

As Eliezer’s family entered the camp facing SS men and their guns and clubs, someone commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Just eight words “spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion” decimated a family. And many other families. That was the last time Elie and his father saw his mother and little sister, who – unknown to them – would be killed soon. He would meet his two older sisters after many years at a camp for war orphans.

The real story begins. The Nazis, with their famous eye for details, would have calculated the bare minimum nutrition needed for a person to survive. The prisoners got not a calorie more. Food consisted of watery soup, and bread, that too on good days. They went without any food many a day.

Hygiene was limited to a jar of disinfectants kept at the entrance of every block, with which the men had to soak themselves before having a luxurious shower followed by sleep on tightly packed hard wooden bunks without sheets. They would begin a day of hard labour early next morning.

They would be driven like than animals, but without the faintest trace of compassion that humans have for cattle, besides incessant abuses, threats, blows, lashes, and execution by public hanging for the slightest perceived lapse. (The extra effort was clearly unnecessary as people were shot at the drop of a hat, but I think the SS needed the spectacle to drive in the wedge of terror deeper into the heart of the prisoner.) Nazis had discovered a simple management principle, if you fell at work, you’d be marked for slaughter.

So the men toiled under the shadow of a chimney bellowing smoke a part of which had been living human beings a few hours ago. The men struggled to the limits of endurance literally under the shadow of death. Period.

If you thought things couldn’t be worse. You would be wrong, again. As the front came closer, Nazis decided to relocate the prisoners to another camp, this time, deep within Germany, in Buchenwald.

To the utter misfortune of the prisoners, the winter had set in. All they had for warm clothing were shirts and trousers removed from their dead comrades. Wiesel writes: “We each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns, wider than tall, more dead than alive, poor creatures whose deathly faces peeked out from layers of prisoner’s clothes.”

An icy wind was blowing violently that morning. The prisoners were made to run on snow, pushed by gun wielding guards shouting, “Faster, you filthy dogs!” They ran through the day, they ran through the night. Their guards changed shifts when tired, but the prisoners ran on. Anyone falling behind was shot. But it was more for pleasure, because anyone lying on snow under a pitiless winter night sky didn’t have a ghost of a chance to survive in any case.

It is not clear how long the journey went until they are transferred to another cattle-car, this time, without a roof! And as the train trudges on through pouring snow and stops for eternity, the prisoners have nothing to eat or drink, except when curious German onlookers throw a few loaves of bread to the pitiable creatures on board. And as many men fight for the crumbs, people die. Eliezer – he is just 15 – watches a son snatching away bread from his dying father. They old man desperately clings on to his bread and pleads, “Son, you are killing me for a loaf of bread?”

By the time son achieves his goal, father is dead. The living desperately munches the food that might have saved the dead.

On the way, corpses are thrown out casually by men who themselves could have been cast away, dead. A hundred men boarded a wagon with Elie; only 12 get off at Buchenwald, where they would wait for death or liberation.


Some tragedy can only be described only in words, and not by pictures or films. Printed words can expand our horizon in a unique way and help us see the unseen, without which our world view would be much poorer.

Please read this book if you can. And think how well we have been able to deal with the monster that lives within every one of us.

06 September 2017


[Photo of Buchenwald Camp taken five days after its liberation by the Red Army; Elie Wiesel is on the second row from bottom, seventh from left, next to the plank. Courtesy the Wikipedia]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

‘He would never forgive himself if anything happened to her’



On 14 August 2017, New York Times published a few anecdotes by the survivors of the HIndu-Muslim riots 70 years ago, which killed more than two million people, according to the Wikipedia.


The estimate tracked people who left their homes in India and Pakistan, but never reached the other side, and was based on the census figures before and after the Partition. The actual figure would have been much higher. And the tragedies of raped women, broken families, orphaned children would be far beyond the scope of statistics.


I am sharing one of the anecdotes from the NYT written by Sohail Murad. Please read the story, it reinforces our faith in humanity.

"When partition was announced, my father, who worked for the British Indian Government, was posted in Bombay. He was advised that as a Muslim he would have better career opportunities in Pakistan. He was asked to report to offices in Rawalpindi as soon as possible. He left and my mother, Rosy, who was 20, and their six-month-old daughter stayed behind until he could arrange for their accommodation. Because of the chaos he could not come back to get them, so he asked my mother to take a train to Lahore. On the train a Sikh gentleman noticed my mother alone with an infant and asked her where she was going. When she told him Lahore, he was shocked and told her about the massacres that were taking place on trains going to Pakistan — my mother and father hadn’t known.

"He said he was traveling to Amritsar (30 miles from Lahore) but would accompany her to Wagah, a border town between India and Pakistan, because he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her. He told my mother that if anyone asked, she was his daughter. He thought her name, Rosy, was fine since it was secular. But my sister’s name, Shahina, was distinctly Muslim, so if anyone asked her name was Nina. He stayed with them until Wagah and walked with them to the Pakistani border, kissed them both on their foreheads and told them he wished he could take them all the way to Lahore, but he would not make it back alive.

"My sister, who lives in Karachi, is still called Nina by everyone in the family. My mother insisted on that."

Bengaluru 
16 August 2017


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Thotadhahalli In the Land of Coffee



In a way, the desk that I’m writing on is like a sepia photograph. Made of teak and intricately carved, it can be a hundred years old. It’s five in the morning, dark outside, but the world is far from silent. Sibilant sound of air rustling through thousands of silver oak trees is interspersed with gusts of rain lashing the tiled roof of our cottage. But unlike yesterday, the birds are quiet. Are they too soggy and dispirited after the long night of relentless rains?

Welcome to Thotadhahalli Coffee Estate, a short five-hour drive from Bengaluru, but it’s actually on another planet. Two days ago, on a sudden impulse we drove down to this place, which is 10 kilometres from the coffee capital of the country, Chikmagaluru.

As we left the tarred road that goes to Shimoga at Kaimara, Google Map died peacefully and Mother Nature filled our world completely. Fortunately, there were signposts to tell us that our destination was at the end of the narrow alley covered with black soil.

The bungalow, like the other planter’s bungalows, is large. On one side of the main building is a cemented flat space for drying coffee beans. On the other side are the cottages given as home stay. As we enter, quaint charm of a faraway past greets us.



Around a lush green garden, there are cottages with wide verandas with dark red floor and roofs covered with vermilion Mangalore tiles supported by solid carved rosewood pillars that have the stamp of the refined taste one comes across all along the Malabar Coast, in the Raja Rao country. The cottages and the verandas are strewn with ancient wood carvings, gold-inlayed Tanjore paintings, and artefacts from around the world. And not one of them is kitsch!

If you can turn your eyes off the pieces of art and look at the garden again, you will be greeted by orchids, aerophytes (plants that grow without soil, drawing sustenance from moist air), and bonsai plants, while majestic oaks that provide shade to coffee plants sway in the background.

It is a planter’s home, but it could well have been an artist’s – everything has a touch of class here, including the brass lock on our door which has the head of a soldier stamped on it with the inscription “Field Marshall Sir Thomas Biyami”. When did anyone make such a lock last?

Back to the 21st Century, our hosts Pallavi and Prakash make their guests feel at home, literally. The food offered is refined Coorg fare, and every meal is different from the previous one. While we have food, one of our hosts makes it a point to come and check that everything is fine.

Well, everything is, when old-world charm meets the convenience of modern amenities, with the added blessing of the absence of the TV and the Internet.

Ah! As I come to the end of another page in my diary, birds have just been waking up and filling the sky with warble, and the ground below is taken over by the aroma of the finest Arabica coffee. And the sky is clearing up; it’s time to go for a lazy walk through the coffee estate which has denser foliage than most jungles.



Thotadhahalli / 04 August 2017

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alone, and a Few Others


Eka ebong Koekjon (Alone and a Few Others) is a long Bangla docufiction – if I may use the term for novels – by Sunil Gangopadhyay that covers numerous voices bearing witness to an eventful time of the Twentieth Century India. Beginning a little before the Second World War and ending after the independence of India, the narrative covers the war and the vulgar profiteering that accompanied it, the burst of patriotism and resistance during the Quit India Movement (1942) in which some of the fading terrorist freedom fighters of Bengal got a new lease of life and then died out as quickly. It covers the Great Bengal Famine (how can a famine ever be great?), the agony of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946 followed by the ecstasy of 1947, and ends with the disillusionment that came upon people when the reality of the free India turned out to be harshly different from the utopia of equality and endless happiness nurtured in the mind of ordinary Indians.

Two storylines, around cousins Surya and Badal, who began their life’s journey at the time of the war, intertwine the novel. Their names, meaning the sun and rains, eponymously tell the reader the contrasting lives the two protagonists would live. Badal is clearly autobiographical. He is a budding poet with just about an average academic career from a rootless family that migrated from East Bengal to Kolkata, like the author himself in every which way, who tries to find his feet in a pitiless and chaotic post-independence India that doesn’t offer an easy passage to a young man without the support of a papa with power or pelf. Badal comes out in flesh and blood, an ordinary boy with sparks of brilliance being buffeted by the gigantic forces unleashed by history yet to be written.

Surya, on the other hand, is the son of a self-made businessman and a dancing woman, who he had married after forsaking his first wife. After his mother killed herself for inexplicable reasons, Surya was brought up by her stepmother in his early childhood and later, after her premature death, by wardens in a Jesuit boarding school.

Given his unusual childhood, Surya offered tremendous scope to his creator to sculpt an unusual character. But unfortunately, despite Sunil’s brilliance as a storyteller, I think he went overboard in his efforts to construct Surya with everything that doesn’t fit into normal scheme of things. That Surya would be a non-conformist is more than plausible, but what stretches the reader’s credulity is his complete lack of empathy for the people around him. He seems too cardboard a character with far too many self-contradictions. For example, nothing in his life correlates to his absolute commitment and boundless love for a comrade when they come face to face with death, or the empathy he shows to the young boys who supervises in an ashram run by a Gandhi follower, although he has unmixed contempt for the philosophy behind the ashram. Neither is it clear why he has to be a sex-maniac.

As I read the 626 pages, I couldn’t but think that the novel was trying forever to stand up on one leg, but despite that, I am convinced it is worth reading.

In fact, it is much more than worth reading because of the historian in Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recall, in his autobiography titled Ordhek Jeeban or Half a Life, he narrated the events leading to the Second World War in passing, in just about six pages. I think those six pages would make any historian proud. In Eka ebong ... too, Sunil captures an enormous historical canvas almost effortlessly. And to the extent I know, he depicts about the quarter of a century of tumultuous time accurately, in brilliant prose. In the introduction to his memoir Bangalnama, a significant Bangla book of our time (In English, The World in Our Time), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote that as a historian, he wanted to feel the heartbeat of the men and women who lived in the past. In Eka ebong Koekjon, I felt the heartbeat of some people who lived in both Bengals during the time.

I believe Eka ebong Koekjon was one of his earlier historical novels. Sunil was developing the skills needed to mesh history with lives of ordinary men and women. He would develop his skills more completely in Purba Pashchim (The East and the West) written with the freedom struggle of Bangladesh as the background, and of course, Sei Samay (Those Times), his magnum opus which covers the history of the nineteenth century Bengal with an élan unmatched in Bangla literature.

Bengaluru / Thursday, 20 July 2017

Friday, 14 July 2017

“What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity.” – Liu Xiabo


Liu Xiaobo, writer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and China’s most well-known dissident and prisoner, has died today from cancer at a hospital in China. The Chinese authorities diagnosed his liver cancer only when it had advanced possibly beyond cure. And as could be expected, they refused Liu to travel abroad for treatment of his choice. They were certainly criminally negligent, but they allowed Liu to leave jail so that he could die in relative dignity under the watchful eyes of police guards. Thank communists for small mercies.

Liu was born in Jilin in north-east China. The Guardian writes: “His parents were devoted to the party, but from his youth Liu struck an independent course. After studying Chinese literature at Jilin University, he began an MA in 1982 at Beijing Normal University, where he stayed on as a lecturer. His keen intelligence and razor tongue soon established his reputation: hundreds watched his dissertation defence, while students from other universities packed out his electrifying lectures. He was also a visiting lecturer at the universities of Oslo and Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York.”

Since 1989, he was given four prison sentences, the last of which he couldn’t complete as he died at the age of 61. But his biography could have been different.

Liu was at Columbia University in New York as a visiting lecturer just before Tiananmen Square happened. He could have lived in peace and prosperity and written lofty pro-democracy articles if he had chosen to appeal for citizenship or political asylum in a First World country. Instead, he returned early to China in May 1989 to join and lead – he was one of the four foremost organisers – the movement that was sweeping the country. It culminated in the pro-democracy movement we know as Tiananmen Square protest which was brutally crushed at the cost of no-one-knows how many thousand human lives.

The Indian Express reports:

“After spending nearly two years in detention following the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu was detained for the second time in 1995 after drafting a plea for political reform. Later that year, he was detained a third time after co-drafting “Opinion on Some Major Issues Concerning our Country Today.” That resulted in a three-year sentence to a labour camp, during which time he married [poet] Liu Xia. …

“Released in 1999, he joined the international literary and human rights organization PEN and continued advocating for human rights and democracy.”
His final prison sentence was for “Charter 08,” a document he co-authored and circulated in 2008. It called for more freedom of expression, human rights, and an independent judiciary in China in the line of “Charter 77”, which had been a civic initiative in Czechoslovakia in 1977 that partly led to the Velvet Revolution 12 years later.

*

Liu Xiaobo was just 61 when he died. As I read the news of his death, a deep sense of personal gloom gripped me. I do not know why. Maybe, because he was younger than me. I have developed a completely irrational belief that people who came to the world after me should leave it later.

Maybe, because we in India have started living in a strange version of democracy which looks increasingly like the repressive Chinese regime in many ways, although its characteristics are vastly different. If our present masters are allowed a free hand, we cannot but reach a situation

Where the mind lives in constant fear and the head isn’t held high

Where knowledge isn’t free

Where the world has been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls …

I couldn’t but wonder … what inspired Liu Xiaobo to stand up – again and again – and take on a vicious regime that doesn’t care a fig for human rights. That brooks no dissent. That doesn’t think twice before sending people to jail just because they think differently or rolling down columns of tanks to physically crush unarmed and peaceful protestors. What makes people like Liu Xiabo sacrifice everything and suffer so terribly to uphold the honour and dignity of humanity?

Liu Xiaobo is dead. But the values that he stood for do not die.

Human desire to “lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity” is an inalienable fundamental right. There will be setbacks, like it has been happening in India today, but ultimately, Liu Xiaobos are going to win.

We are going to win.

13 July 2017

Photo courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54542145