Mexico City in Christmas Time

A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition

A Time of Madness by Salman Rashid 
Aleph, 2017

Salman Rashid in his slim memoir about a visit to his ancestral house, has also written about many more among the two million displaced by the Partition of 1947.

As someone whose grandparents migrated to Indian Punjab from what became Pakistan, I grew up on a healthy dose of family recollections about Partition. All my relatives who I know made their way from places like Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi – to Delhi, Jalandhar and as far as Gwalior. In all those stories, the overall sentiment was that of having made it in life despite losing almost all material possessions. Consequently, I grew up without much sentimentalism or curiosity about the event.

The silence was not just mine; I noticed how in several films, references to the Partition were replaced by metaphors like an earthquake. Waqt and Ek thi Ladki come instantly to mind. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is a rare exception. It was not until 1997, fifty years after the event, that the Outlook magazine carried a special issue on the Partition on August 15, which opened a floodgate of discussion on the topic. The online oral history initiative ‘1947 Partition Archive’ is of even more recent origin.

So when I chanced upon a review of Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness, I would have moved on had my eyes not fallen on this sentence: “Rashid travels to the land of his forefathers armed with a grainy photograph of a house on Railway Road in Jalandhar.”

My heart skipped a beat. Continue reading “A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition”

The Year Gone By – 2017

Without doubt, the best read of the year was Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, a result of the young Indian journalist’s investigation into the extrajudicial killings of Sohrabbudin and others and its cover up by a network of government functionaries, civil and police officials and the majority of the mainstream media. Indeed, the key change in the last few years has been the throttling of the media as it has become corporatized and aligned with the government in power. Ayyub took on the identity of an Indian American filmmaker to gain access to middle and senior level officials.

Her own employer recalled her just when she was about to get direct access to the Chief Minister of Gujarat (and now the Prime Minister of India), Narendra Modi. The key person allegedly involved in the execution of the extrajudicial killings by the police was the then Home Minister of Gujarat and the current national president of the ruling Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s not just the courage of the journalist and the depth of her findings but also the breezy narration, which reads like a crime thriller, that makes Gujarat Files such an engrossing read. In more open times, a book like this would have shaken the government.

On a related note, the 84 page booklet The Amit Shah School of Election Management by another young journalist Prashant Jha provides a number of insights on how the far right Modi- Shah election machine continues to roll on- with the BJP being the ruling party in 18 out of 29 states in India this year.

Random Picks

A book I picked up randomly just because I haven’t read recent Russian literature for a while was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. The novel is about the late Soviet period, a time that hasn’t inspired any great works of literature. The Queue is a notable exception. The book is a subtle take on the dreary years of scarcity in the last few years of the USSR and an insightful look into the lives and minds of the ordinary citizens. The absurdity of the situation is revealed in the dramatic end, as funny as it is ironic. Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2017”

What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today

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Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and Social Justice
People’s Literature Publication, 2017

It is tempting to think of B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy as a hegemonic one, for today there is no one who contests his ideas and legacy. Just as one was a socialist of one variety or the other in the mid-20th century India (even the Bharatiya Janata Party adhered to ‘Gandhian socialism’), everyone now is an Ambedkarite, or at least not opposed to the man and his ideas. However, in the absence of a coherent ideology that could be identified as Ambedkarism, the term has been pulled in many directions, which has both diluted it and, in some ways, allowed a creative efflorescence. It remains, at best, a nebulous concept.

Much before it became an academic rage, Ambedkar’s thoughts were a beacon for activists in post-independence India. Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and SocialJustice, Vidya Bhushan Rawat’s collection of interviews with the many foot soldiers and friends of what has come to be called the ‘Ambedkarite revolution’, attempts to collate what is sometimes left out of academic studies. It brings together many different perspectives on what constitutes Ambedkarism and, more importantly, what it has meant to individuals and activists working in various spheres.

The diverse selection of the individuals interviewed in this book provides a comprehensive picture of what Ambedkarism is or can be – these include associates and inheritors of Ambedkar who helped keep his ideas alive after he passed away, as well as contemporary activists who are guided by Ambedkar’s thoughts. The ideas debated centre around the connection between caste and class, conversion to Buddhism, human rights, secularism and culture. The personal experiences of those who grew up in Dalit families add another dimension to the discussions and help the reader understand the evolution of their ideas. Continue reading “What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today”

Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions

By Bhupinder Singh

I was 16 when two major political events happened: the first was the Indian army’s assault on the Harmandir Sahib, and the second was Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her security men. Even then, I realized that Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was historic, so much that one of the only two full editions of newspapers I have saved in my archives is dated November 1, 1984, which published the news of her assassination. The other one is the day that Mikhail Gorbachev was deposed in a coup organized by the hardliners within the Soviet Communist Party.

A perusal of the newspaper datelined a day after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination makes for an interesting reading, 33 years on.

bhupinder-singhThe Tribune’s City edition, which used to be the last one printed in the early hours of the day and carried the latest news stories has a huge capitalized headline on the front page, “Indira Gandhi Shot dead”, followed by three more subtitles, “Rajiv Gandhi takes over as Prime Minister”, “Security men involved in killing” and “5-man Cabinet sworn in”. All of the front page is predictably filled with reports titled “Alert in region”, “World leaders shocked”, “Funeral on Saturday”, “Dastardly act: President”, “Shun violence, says Rajiv”, “12-day state mourning”, “Army alerted”, “Eyewitness accounts”, “Anguish, confusion in Amritsar” and “One killed, many hurt in violence”. It is ironic that the event is now associated less with Mrs. Gandhi herself and more with the violence that followed it. Continue reading “Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions”

Om Puri

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Om (18 October 1950 – 6 January 2017)

We are a selfish people.

We remember others only when they die. It has nothing to do with the people who have passed on. The only reason we remember them is because a part of us dies with them.
It is no different when one reads about Om Puri’s passing on. I remember him not so much for what he was but for a purely selfish reason.

My first memory of Puri is of him being in a dilemma, switching on and off a table lamp in Ardh Satya. Of him reading Dilip Chitre’s poem, on which the film is titled, Half Truth.

In an inspired moment I wrote down the poem, translated it and then showed to a comrade who worked for the Communist Party’s Punjabi weekly newspaper. It so happened that at the same time, Santokh Singh Dhir, a well-known short story writer close to the CPI, was looking for someone to translate his poems from Punjabi into English for the Indian Express. This comrade connected the two of us, and I had my first claim to fame, as a half page supplement of the city’s Indian Express weekend edition carried the poems that I translated. I was in my teens.

My next memory is the film Aakrosh, in which he played the role of an adivasi whose tongue has been cut off. As idealist youngsters, we sympathized with him, his tongueless screech made us wrench and our blood boil. We felt like that bearded, kurta clad, jhola wielding, young man played by an actor whose name we never cared to find out- because we were him.

In those years, I grew up with Om Puri, whose pockmarked face captured the many pockmarks of our young, sometimes scared and sometimes hopeful adolescence.

As the news of his passing on sinks in, I remember him because a part of me goes with him.

It also awakens a part of me that time and age has camouflaged but never been able to kill.

A part that is alive.

Every obituary is also a celebration of what has survived.

The Year Gone By – 2016

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Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.

***

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)

After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection: Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2016”

Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar

Shahid AnwarRemembering theater activist Shahid Anwar ( 20th Sep-1965- 1st March 2016)

Death is like a sudden chill. It freezes liquid life into a block of ice. Memories, conversations, email messages become hard like rock, like frozen sculptures. When this rock is the life of a person like Shahid Anwar, it will be a long time before it begins to melt.
I knew Shahid initially as the colleague of a common friend. I never saw any of his plays although he talked to me about some of them. He went on to become a friend whom I met sporadically, but we developed a deep bond over time. I lived in Gurgaon and visited him, sometimes at his Sainik Samachar office in North Block — our first meeting and conversation was on an autumn evening under the shade of the trees on North Avenue. Later I met him a number of times at his house in RK Puram and then in Vasant Vihar.

Continue reading “Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar”

The Significance of being Lalu Yadav

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Twice in his lifetime, Lalu Prasad Yadav has made history by taking on, and vanquishing the Bharatiya Janata Party, from its juggernaut roll. In 1990, he arrested L.K. Advani leading the  so-called Rath Yatra meant to liberate the Ayodhya temple. In 2015, he has stopped the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine from winning in the state of Bihar. Much decried by the secular liberals, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s one year has been marred by increasing intolerance and institutionalized mediocrity — whether it be in the quality of its central ministers, its appointees to educational institutions or in administration and governance. Its threat has been magnified by its continued successes in the states even after the 2014 general elections that brought it to power at the Center.

As in 1990, when the Rath Yatra seemed to know no fear and advanced across the country as few mass movements have in recent decades, the communal onslaught was stopped not by the ‘secular left’ or the the Congress — a party that swears by secularism but has followed a policy of balanced communalism for as long as one can remember. Though they were much relieved, as they are now, the same set of secular liberals deride the caste politics, as they perceive the politics of Lalu Yadav, and Mulayam Singh Yadav or Kanshiram and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, to be. Ironic as it is, the reason for this is not far to seek. Continue reading “The Significance of being Lalu Yadav”

Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society

(The background to this post is the return of literary awards by many Indian writers, to protest against the killings of some writers and increasing attacks on minorities over issues like eating beef.)

Thomas Mann’s observation that “a person lives not only his own life, but also that of his contemporaries”, applies to everyone, but perhaps even more to writers and poets because they feel and speak for us even when we are not able to put into words our deepest feelings, and sometimes are not even conscious of them until a poet or a story writer tells us.

Writers respond to what goes on around them and to the mood of the times. As thinkers, they occasionally express ideas and views that do not always find acceptance. This brings writers into conflict with the powers that be.

Books are banned and even pulped — as in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism. Authors are physically attacked and even killed for their writings. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for many years because of death threats. In conditions where writing is stifled, the form evolves and morphs to find expression. Continue reading “Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society”

Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand

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Nek Chand passed away on 12 June 2015.

Nek Chand‘s Rock Garden was one of the first places I went to see when I moved to Chandigarh in 1981. There were few places to see in Chandigarh — the Rose Garden and the Sukhna Lake being the other two major attractions. What made the Rock Garden stand out was the inventiveness with which everyday waste had been recycled into beautiful creations.

The middle classes at that time had not yet tasted the explosion in wealth that came in the 1990s, and as children our hobbies bore the imprint of the economic necessities that marked our lives. During summer vacations, I would try to make papier mache crafts from old newspaper and jell bits of leftover soap into a soap bar. The melted wax of the candles during Diwali would be patiently collected the next morning and melted again with a wick to create home-made candles.

Perhaps it was this economic frugality in the everyday life that subconsciously attracted us to the Rock Garden and left a deeper impression than most other landmarks in Chandigarh.

Unlike Le Corbusier, whose name we struggled to pronounce and spell, Nek Chand was a common man’s name. “Nek” means “a good natured” person and we imagined a person whose heart was full of kindness. The sculptures seemed to bear that out, too. We were awed by the presence of a local hero, a living legend. There were stories about how he moved around in the city on a bicycle. Kids claimed to have seen him in the garden, and I would not have believed them had I also not spotted him there myself.

DSC02790Stories about his simplicity abounded and sometimes made headlines. Continue reading “Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand”

How I became a “pure non-vegetarian”

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My earliest memory of food is eating roshogollas at our neighbour, the portly Mrs. Sen’s flat in Bokaro. Other memories from that age—three—and later, mostly include things I did not like— milk, brinjals, karela, spinach and yogurt. Over the years I’ve made peace with and even begun to like all these, except yogurt, for which I retain a strong revulsion.

Read the complete post at Antiserious.

Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India

Bipan Chandra
Bipan Chandra (27 May 1928 – 30 August 2014)

It is natural for Bipan Chandra who died last week on August 30, to be best remembered as the author the NCERT text book “Modern India”, but his work as a historian went far beyond that.

His PhD thesis, later published as “The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880-1905”, as well as “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” and “India’s Struggle for Independence” provided new vistas for research and understanding of modern Indian history.

The latter two works were particularly significant and hotly debated. “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” was the first work dedicated to the study of communalism, and “India’ Struggle for Independence” used Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution and counter hegemony to understand India’s struggle for Independence. Continue reading “Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India”

Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review

9780670085095Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan Published by Penguin India 2014

Dalit politics in the late 20th century India owes its rise to the vision and work one man–Kanshiram.

The bedrock for this movement was laid in the mid-20th century by its tallest leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Despite his brilliance and lifelong commitment to the cause of the dalits, Dr Ambedkar had been largely forgotten in the national consciousness till the rise of the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and then the Bahujan Samaj Party- both creations of one man, Kanshiram.

Born in a Ramdasia Sikh family in Punjab, Kanshiram was named after a local baba who apparently predicted that he would grow up to be a big leader. He grew up more or less unaffected by the stigma that his caste was subjected to in most of the country.

Kanshiram’s eyes opened to the reality of caste oppression when he was employed with a government research laboratory in Pune. Spurred by the extant Dalit movement, primarily led by the Mahars in Maharashtra, he went on to dedicate his life to the cause that he took upon himself. He decided not to marry or have any relations with his family. His encounters with his family back in Punjab were sporadic, and interspersed over many years. For a long time, his parents and siblings did not know his whereabouts.

There is limited first-hand information about Kanshiram–he left behind no autobiography or work except a very short pamphlet titled “The Chamcha Age.” Badri Narayan has collected the facts of Kanshiram’s life from accounts of some of his associates and later, with the BSP’s emergence as a major political force in the late 1980s, from the media. Continue reading “Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review”

A Rendezvous with the Maoists, and other links

Arundhati Roy reports from her rendezvous with the Maoists:

It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered.

Continue reading “A Rendezvous with the Maoists, and other links”

When it was Bliss to be a Communist

Between 1936 and 1947, the Communist Party of India grew from a base of few hundred cadre to 80,000. During one of the most critical phases of its history, when it supported the British war effort in 1942, the Party actually expanded and brought into its fold people who later became major cultural figures. When the Royal Indian Mutiny took place in 1946, the flags of three political groups were flown on the mutinous ships- that of the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the CPI. The then leader of the CPI was also the first person to address Gandhi as the ‘father of the nation’. Given the aura that the party built up at that time, its leader at that time is relatively little known. If his comrades in arms in the party who took over immediately after him had their way, his name would have been completely written off. As it were, they almost succeeded.

There has been little or no remembrance on the part of the CPI and CPM for PC Joshi.

After all, the intellectual decline and current mediocrity of the CPM was achieved at the cost of dismantling the heritage of Joshi, particularly by Pramod Dasgupta.
Continue reading “When it was Bliss to be a Communist”

Links

Robert Fisk created quite a flutter last week with his article on the decline and possible demise of the dollar. Probably the rumours are untrue, but then there isn’t a smoke without a fire. Martin Wolf critiques Fisk’s views in FT (needs free registration).

The award of the Nobel for literature to Herta Muller confirms that East and Central Europe, along with Latin America, is the happening place for contemporary literature. An extract from one of her novels.

Why did Rama fight the war with Ravana? In his own words, it wasn’t for Sita. Read a superb piece by a card- carrying feminist and translator of the Valmiki Ramayana.

The award to Olstrom is path breaking both because she is the first woman to receive the Nobel for economics as well as because, strictly speaking, she isn’t an economist. A good introduction to her work on the collective use of common resources.

One may love or hate her, but the fact is that Arundhati Roy continues to give expression to the angst of our age.

This is the first part of an inspiring Hungarian travelogue by a group of Dalit students.

You can also follow these occasional links real time via twitter.

Caste, Racism and the UN Resolution

Hats off to the Maoists in Nepal for taking the caste question to the UN level. This is in sharp contrast to the stance taken by the Indian government all through. During the World Conference Against Racism in Durban (2001) India had opposed equating the caste system with racism and the then Attorney General Soli Sorabjee had gone on record stating that:

“There were misconceived attempts by some NGOs to equate racism with caste-based discrimination which is based on birth and occupation and has nothing to do with the race of a person.”

Earlier this year in April the Indian government had succeeded in having caste discrimination ignored in the resolution during the World Conference on Racism held in Geneva. Continue reading “Caste, Racism and the UN Resolution”

IT: The Future is Here, Almost

This article was written 14 years ago when internet services officially started in India. I had expressed a number of fears in this some of which have been happily proved incorrect. However, I find it interesting that there are almost no fundamentally new technological breakthroughs that have come around since the article was written. Some of the concerns raised in the article still hold, particularly its conclusion.

Trivia: The original article was typed on a PC- XT machine using Word Star 7.

I had used email for just over a  month then using a corporate account and the browser I was then using were Mosaic and Gopher !

Anyone remember using these ??

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Information Revolution
The Future is Here, Almost
by Bhupinder Singh
(Op Ed, The Tribune, Chandigarh, 19 August 1995)

India formally joined Internet, the real information superhighway- on Wednesday. With a PC and a modem, Indians now have the wide, wild, world of information at their button tips. This article by a computer engineer talks about new vistas and, hidden traps.

While we were not looking, the future arrived.

It did not arrive the way popular science fiction had predicted- with personal trips to Mars on weekends, et al. Instead, it arrived as a social, cultural, informational and technological revolution more world- changing than the futurists could have dreamed. This change is so headlong and profound that it is more than difficult to comes to terms with or even grasp it, let alone understand it.

Within the lifetime of people who have barely got beyond middle age, human society and the relations of people within them have gone through a sort of economic and social earthquake. To a large extent, technological change since the Industrial Revolution, has not much been derived from it as it has driven this cataclysmic change.
Continue reading “IT: The Future is Here, Almost”

A Pilgrimage

The vihara at Nagarjunakonda island (click to enlarge images)

It required a visit to the ancient town reconstructed at Anupu on the banks of the Krishna river to drive home what a great setback the decline and destruction of Buddhism was to Indian civilization. A number of reasons have been ascribed to account for the atheistic religion’s demise in the land of its birth. This includes the one pointed out by DD Kosambi- that the Buddhist monasteries succumbed to their opulence. Another theory is that it was too closely aligned with centralized states and when those broke up, so did the religion. Whatever be the reasons for its ultimate decline, it is certain is that its successor- Brahmanical Hinduism, was worse. As I gazed over the monastery and the amphitheater a deep sense of reverence and awe came over me. It was soon broken, though, by the chants of shalokas from the Bhagavad Gita over the loudspeaker from a close by temple. The sound was metaphorically shattering. It was Shancaracharya, after all, who sounded the death knell of Buddhism and revived the Gita.
Continue reading “A Pilgrimage”