Literature · politics · Thoughts

An Islamist and a Drunkard

Poets and writers use imagery to convey their points. This isn’t such an extraordinary point to grasp. Even if you are not a literature enthusiast, you have heard and sung songs. Bollywood songs, at least? Pardon me, my examples might be slightly old because I can’t seem to recall the lyrics of more recent songs. But “maine poochha chaand se ki dekha hai kahin” does not mean that the hero of the movie actually asked a question to the moon. It would make him delusional. He intends to convey that what he thinks about his beloved’s beauty must be believed because it isn’t just his bias, everyone – even those who may be famed for their beauty – agree with him. When they sing in the movie Border that “hamare gaon ne, aam ki chhaon ne, purane peepul ne, baraste badal ne” have asked them when they are returning, they didn’t really mean that they had received a letter written by their village, mango or peepul trees, or the clouds and rain. They are really talking about the people back home.
I feel stupid that I am even trying to explain this. But the world has come to this. I have to make these arguments so that I can extend it to Faiz and his famous poem “Hum Dekhenge”.
The poem uses Islamic imagery to actually convey the ideas of revolution. But oh, what about sentences like “sab but uthwaye jayenge” and “bas naam rahega allah ka”? Well – read the full poem
जब अर्ज़-ए-ख़ुदा के काबे से
सब बुत उठवाए जाएँगे,
हम अहल-ए-सफ़ा मरदूद-ए-हरम
मसनद पे बिठाए जाएँगे,
सब ताज उछाले जाएँगे,
सब तख़्त गिराए जाएँगे।
On “sab but uthwaye jayenge”, what will the icons removed from Kaba be replaced with? With pure-hearted (अहल-ए-सफ़ा), but hitherto powerless people (मरदूद-ए-हरम). The icons in Kaba represent not the actual, physical statues, but the powerful rulers who are repressing the people. And if there is any confusion still, read the last two lines. All the crowns will be thrown away, all the thrones smashed. There is *nothing* religious about it! It is a very strong revolutionary political statement, however.
बस नाम रहेगा अल्लाह का,
जो ग़ायब भी है हाज़िर भी,
जो मंज़र भी है नाज़िर भी।
उट्ठेगा अनल-हक़ का नारा,
जो मैं भी हूँ और तुम भी हो।
And “bas naam rahega allah ka” comes after that. Representing not an Islamic rule, but that just state of the world where people would be important, not the powerful rulers. “Jo gayab bhi hai, haazir bhi, jo manzar bhi hai naazir bhi” might actually make Islamists raise their eyebrows. The later part of this stanza is even more telling. “Uthega anal-haq ka naara”. Anal-haq translates roughly to “I am the truth”. And guess what, the Sufi who had spoken this had been executed by the orthodox keepers of Islam because they found it blasphemous. If Faiz were an Islamist, what on earth was he doing with Anal-haq? You know who should identify with Anal-haq? Those who understand “Aham Brahmasmi” (अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि).
Faiz was actually a communist. He may or may not have been a card-carrying atheist but he definitely was not an Islamist in any sense of the word (positive or negative).
Why did Faiz have to use Islamic imagery though, you ask? My answer is why should he not? Using imagery well is a poet’s craft. Faiz was a terrific poet, great at his craft, he knew Islam and Islamic traditions well, and he has used the imagery to convey his point powerfully. There is nothing to be judged here.
Talking of imagery and a poet’s use of imagery not representing anything personal about him, I can’t help but talk of Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ and his famous creation – Madhushala. If you are young or unfamiliar with Hindi literature, you may have to know him as Amitabh Bachchan’s father. But much before Amitabh Bachchan, the actor, was this national hero, Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ was a stalwart of Hindi literature. His most famous creation is Madhushala – a book-length poem written as a collection of “rubai”s. Rubai is a specific form of verse. Some people may be more familiar with it because of Manna Dey’s rendition of the part of the book. The thing with this book is that it uses the imagery of a tavern throughout. And Madhushala is not the only book in which Bachchan employs this imagery. If you were to extend the logic that declares Faiz or “Hum Dekhnge” to be Islamist, Madhushala would be a book promoting unfettered drinking, and you would think that the writer would have been a career drunkard.
But Bachchan was as much of a drunkard as Faiz was an Islamist. Bachchan was a teetotaller.
And Madhushala is as much about drinking as “Hum Dekhenge” is about religion. See a few verses here –
Need a lesson on focus?
मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीनेवला,
‘किस पथ से जाऊँ?’ असमंजस में है वह भोलाभाला,
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ –
‘राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला।’
This could be an entrepreneur’s anthem.
बहती हाला देखी, देखो लपट उठाती अब हाला,
देखो प्याला अब छूते ही होंठ जला देनेवाला,
‘होंठ नहीं, सब देह दहे, पर पीने को दो बूंद मिले’
ऐसे मधु के दीवानों को आज बुलाती मधुशाला।
And if you want to hurt Hindu sentiments.
बने पुजारी प्रेमी साकी, गंगाजल पावन हाला,
रहे फेरता अविरत गति से मधु के प्यालों की माला’
‘और लिये जा, और पीये जा’, इसी मंत्र का जाप करे’
मैं शिव की प्रतिमा बन बैठूं, मंदिर हो यह मधुशाला।
Or in general the keepers of religion.
कोई भी हो शेख नमाज़ी या पंडित जपता माला,
बैर भाव चाहे जितना हो मदिरा से रखनेवाला,
एक बार बस मधुशाला के आगे से होकर निकले,
देखूँ कैसे थाम न लेती दामन उसका मधुशाला!।
Why would Bachchan use imagery of a tavern to talk about the complexities and lessons of life? Well, because he was great at his craft and could do a phenomenal job at it.
Madhushala was a comfort book during my time at IIT Kanpur.
In today’s world, it would perhaps be banned.

A risky step…

If you have followed me online or on social media for even a bit, you are likely to be aware how big a fan I am of Kiran Nagarkar. In particular two books of his – Cuckold and God’s Little Soldier.

Over the years I have been disappointed that none of the publishing or literary events I attended ever had this favourite author of mine as a speaker. So, you can imagine how happy I was to discover that he is going to be at Times Litfest right here in Bangalore. I will attend the event tomorrow (Sunday, Feb 1). His session starts at 11 am (Come one, come all!)

But it is a risky step to take. Enjoying what someone writes or creates is no guarantee that you would like the person too. What if once I hear him in person, I end up not liking him? Won’t it spoil my enjoyment of his books too? It will, I think. And so, although excited, I am also a little scared. Probably it is better to just let the author be a mystery?

But I think fangirl is going to win this time. I will go there and listen to him. And I hope I like the author as much as I like his books! If not… too bad!

Edit (Feb 1, 2015): I am happy to report that the risk I took paid off. He is a very likeable person on stage. Down to earth, genuine, and with a sense of humour. I got my copies of Cuckold and God’s Little Soldier signed by him. 🙂


Additions to To-Read List from Jaipur Literature Festival and Some Notes

I am yet to read Haruki Murakami whose books I had asked recommendations about last year. Besides, my re-reading resolution for 2015 is still in place. And now, attending sessions at Jaipur Literature Festival has added more authors and books to the to-read list.

Well… a girl can dream, right? Of reading it all!

Since I have read and liked White Mughals by Dalrymple and since he is the festival director, I figured it would be worth going to a session called The First Firangis in a Strange Kind of Paradise that was being hosted by him. And it resulted in the discovery of the following two books, whose authors were there on the panel

  • The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris
  • A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller

Sheldon Pollock was a name we had heard earlier too. But after hearing him in the session Why a Library of Classical Indian Literature I think The Language of Gods in the World of Men has become a must-be-in-the-to-read list book.

Eleanor Catton is of course a Man Booker Prize Winner. But she was also charming on the stage in the session Beautiful Offspring: The Art of Historical Fiction. Now, I must read The Luminaries.

In the session Anatomy of a Disappearance Hisham Matar was intriguing. So, up goes in the list his novel by the same name.

Vedica Kant was very articulate about the human aspects of the life of Indian soldiers who fought for British Imperial army in the first world war. I would really like to read her book India and the First World War, but as an illustrated, hardcover book published by Roli Books, it is super expensive. I don’t think I am buying it any time soon. Probably someone could gift it to me 😀 But Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Across the Black Waters was mentioned appreciatively in the session. And since as an Indian it is almost a shame to not have read Mulk Raj Anand, I guess I have to put that one on the list.

Jung Chang, Ma Jian and Anchee Min were all superb in the session Cultural Revolution. One has to look at China beyond its economic progress of last decade or two. I have not yet decided which of their books I will read. But something or the other I must!

Some other moments, experiences and sessions from the festival are also worth mentioning.

Gideon Levy was heart-warmingly convincing in the session Against the Grain.  In fact, none of the other panellists quite matched up to his experience in what going against the grain entails. In the same session Aakar Patel made an interesting, though potentially controversial point (what do against-the-grainers care about controversy? 🙂 ). He claimed, and supported with examples, that vernacular media and audience in India are really closed-minded. The media won’t publish what the audience do not want to hear and if they do dare to publish they are punished heavily by the audience, sometimes even forcing big names to shut down. English media, on the other hand, is more accommodating and dissenters who write in English in India are more fortunate that way.

The Murty classical library is going to bring out the translated editions of work in classical languages. While answering a question Sheldon Pollock said something that reminds me why we should read out of our comfort zone. He said that the aim of reading a classical book is not to read something you identify with. Rather, it is to discover non-self, to discover the ways of being human that we no longer recognize. Think about it. Isn’t that the reason we should read fiction too? Not only to identify with characters that are like us, but also to empathize with those who aren’t like us and in the process widen our horizons, our understanding and our tolerance of differences.

Arshia Sattar, fed up of the questions worrying about what is lost in translation reminded the audience that instead of worrying about the one thing that will be lost in translation, why don’t we celebrate the hundred things that will be gained, which would have been lost but for the translation.

One of the panelist in the session The Medium is the Message practically pushed the topic off the cliff by rambling on about the ultimate truth. The only message everyone is looking for, he self-assuredly claimed, is the truth and there is only one truth! Co-panelist Ravish Kumar silenced him and brought the focus back by pointing out that if we started discussing that truth we’d all have to go to Himalayas or consult Babajis. Instead the focus of journalism is on worldly truths. In that realm there are indeed many truths, and they are not always accessible, despite the availability of the newer and better mediums to disseminate them.

There were some off-putting moments too. कैसे चल पाता यदि मिलते चिर-तृप्ति अमरता पूर्ण प्रहर? So, while I have to thank the people responsible for such moments because they kept me grounded, I feel like calling them out too. So, here I go.

Firstly Mr. I-will-stalk-you-till-I-have-opened-my-mouth-and-made-a-fool-of-myself. I am not sorry that I don’t know you or your name. You seemed personally affronted by Anchee Min pointing out just how repressive Mao’s regime was and how it brought out the worst in Chinese people. Even after the Cultural Revolution session was over and the panel could not take any more questions from audience, you kept shouting at them demanding to know how she could talk all negative about him without mentioning all the great things he had done too. Not satisfied with that you followed her to her next session In Exile, got hold of the mike from an unsuspecting volunteer this time and then ranted on about the same thing. You weren’t even asking a question. You were accusing, and literally shouting. She answered, rather passionately. Even after that and despite being reminded by the volunteers and the panel moderator that you were stepping the boundaries of time and decency, you kept hurling accusations, shouting at the top of your lungs. When you walked out of the room you had a triumphant smile on his face. As if you had gained a huge victory. No Sir. You hadn’t gained any victory. You had just proven what an a**h*** you are. Did you hear a word of what she had to say? Did you hear that as a young child she had witnessed a daughter abandon a dying father on the street because she feared being seen as helping an enemy of the people? Did you hear what the tapeworm medicine had done to her when she was just a teenager? Did you hear that when she was chosen to be an actress what stories she had listened from senior actresses about Chairman Mao’s fascination for beauties? Did you hear how she had to escape China fearing for her life and struggle to find a new life in a country whose language and ways she did not know? Did you hear all of that and still had the heart to shout at her? For not being gracious towards Mao? Did Mao have to face all of that? Did you? Even if you are some kind of a soldier, who believes that individual must be sacrificed for some higher, social good, do you really think that the burden of respecting your idle intellectual muses, and not disturbing them, rests on the shoulders of a girl who has barely escaped death in an autocratic, arbitrary regime and struggled to build her life anew? If so, do you know what a middle finger represents? That’s what you deserve. And worse. Probably you deserve to be in China. And to be transported back to the time of cultural revolution.

And finally Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary, moderator of the panel Zamana Humse Hai. Thanks, but no thanks, Sir, for doing nothing for Hindi or Hindi literature through that panel. Four young writers were there in the panel. I was really interested in listening to them, about their books, their experiences… But Mr. Chaudhary is a TV veteran. He decided that the panel must be conducted in the same manner as debates on TV are conducted. By enraging everyone and turning it into a shouting match and then patting himself on the back for generating so much engagement (with no meaningful content)! Meanwhile, we were none the wiser of what is really happening in the world of Hindi Literature or what the young writers in the language are thinking and doing. Instead we were grappling with much more important questions like how snotty English speakers are (Kannada speaker, by the way, feels the same about Hindi-speakers in Bangalore), or how the panel members were not speaking pure Hindi (there is an Indian English too, you know, and English speakers in India frequently use words and phrases from all Indian languages), or how Hindi is not the rashtra-bhasha yet, but it should be (Do you know there are languages other than Hindi and English that are important in India? And there are languages that you have clubbed under Hindi, but they demand their own place? That Rajasthani is one such language? That even Rajasthani is not one language?), or how English authors are all super-stars (they aren’t FYI) and Hindi authors are looked down upon, or how the English was responsible for all problems of Hindi (it is actually Hindi-speakers like you, who cannot look beyond the non-issues, and talk about the actual addressable issues! I would have liked to discuss if the children of India are sufficiently encouraged to read for pleasure! I would have liked to discuss why the literate people who spend endless hours watching those mindless soap operas in Hindi do not read a book instead?), or how publishers were evil (many authors love their publishers, you know, including some on your panel!).

It didn’t matter that even the authors tried to stop you from spouting the venom against everyone and everything. It didn’t matter that at least two of authors there had mother-tongues that was not Hindi (Rajsathani and Bhojpuri instead). It didn’t matter that those authors you were supposed to host did not feel bitter or threatened like you did. It didn’t matter that we had not come to watch a TV shouting match there, but to hear a literary discussion. What mattered was that you got to pat your back for doing the same damage to literature that you have done to TV. Thanks to you I do not have a new Hindi book in my to-read list from Jaipur Literature Festival.

With that venom out of my system (ha!), I shall now return to my good, sweet reading list. Ah! The re-reading list first. Oh no… Sleep first.


Re-reading notes: The Discovery of India

Following my new year resolution of re-reading books for at least first three months of the year, I am re-reading The Discovery of India by Jawahar Lal Nehru. I had read it long back and only vaguely remembered being impressed by the way it inspired you to study history beyond a list of events, people and wars. While re-reading it now, that aspect has no longer remained novel. By now, I know that the only meaningful way to study history is indeed to go beyond those lists and dates. But the same exposure to more of life and world, which has made the idea not-so-novel, has given me better ability to use the content of the book in that way.

I have read only about one-third of the book till now. But I still find some observations worth noting down.

Among other things, Nehru discusses ancient India’s relationships with other contemporary civilizations. When I read his views on the relationship with ancient Greece, I was reminded of some portions of History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Russell, of course, discusses the various philosophers of Greece at length. What is interesting is when he talks about the effect of orient (including India) on Greek philosophy, he makes it out to be mostly negative. The eastern influence, which according to Russell seems to have started only with Alexander’s conquests, brought esoteric practices, obsession with other-world, superstition, magic and everything irrational to ruin the more rational Greek philosophy. Nehru’s version doesn’t necessarily counter the influence Russell speaks of. But according to him the contact of the two civilizations much pre-dated Alexander. Nehru says that Pythagoras was influenced by Indian philosophy. (Pythagoras himself was a great influence on Plato.) Even during and post-Alexander period, Nehru’s version talks of more constructive synthesis between Indian and Greek thoughts, which does not feature in Russell’s version at all.

Of course, Nehru and Russell are writing for different reasons in different countries on presumably different subjects (History of India in case of Nehru vs. History of Western Philosophy in case of Russell). But what links the books together is that they were written at about the same time. In 1940s – during the second world war! Nehru’s inclination to find and point out praise-worthy elements in Indian history and philosophy is understandable. There was a need to bring respectability to Indian identity to justify India’s claim to independence. But when you read Nehru, you can also see that while he may be modulating his expressions for political necessity, he is not a fanatic nationalist, who needs to glamourize everything Indian. Nor is his ambition so misplaced that he will deliberately mislead you about India and history. He is critical of things he sees wrong in India. He appreciates the good that he sees outside India. So, I think there is a need to take Russell’s dismissal of oriental philosophy and its influence on West with a pinch of salt. I do not know what the contemporary Western philosophers think about it. But I hope, for the sake of the discipline, that it isn’t the same dismissal.

There is another interesting claim in the book. Vedic religion was not big on idol-worshipping. In India the first idols that were made were those of Buddha. And that too hundreds of years after his death. Vedic/Brahminic Gods made their entry later in the world of statues. The effect was apparently Greek. And the word बुत for statue apparently comes from “Buddha”.

One place where I cringed was when Nehru dismissed the linguistic diversity of India. Fifteen languages cover entire India according to him and the “so-called” hundreds of languages of India is about bad definition of language in census. Let’s be fair to him on this count though. The diversity of India – most visibly represented by the linguistic diversity – was considered a threat to or even a proof of non-existence of a united Indian identity. Many who tried to “impose” one language on India had no sinister motives against the other languages. They were simply overwhelmed by the need to maintain the unity of India which they were sure was essential for our freedom and progress. In retrospect it is easy to see the problems it created and easier still to find faults with what they tried. But let’s be a little generous here, and not judge those well-intentioned people by a future they couldn’t have known about. They did get a lot of things right. We do have a more stable country today than many other more unfortunate former colonies

Finally, do you identify with the following? 🙂

“Probably there was more unity and harmony in the human personality in the old days… But the problem is a more difficult and complex one now, for it has grown beyond the limits of the human personality. It was perhaps easier to develop some kind of harmonious personality in the restricted spheres of ancient and medieval times. In that little world of town and village, with fixed concepts of social organization and behaviour, the individual and the group lived their self-contained lives protected, as a rule, from outer storms. Today the sphere of even the individual has grown world-wide, and different concepts of social organization conflict with each other and behind them are different philosophies of life. A strong wind arising somewhere creates a cyclone in one place and an anti-cyclone in another.”

I do. Remind me to do another post about it!


“The Woman Who Did” By Grant Allen

The story of how I ended up finding this book and reading it will be left for another post. This post is about the book itself. It was written in 1985 and is set in what I assume to be contemporary England. The author is a sympathizer of feminism and this is his contribution to it.

I don’t know how the characters and philosophy espoused in the book should be judged in the historical context of feminism. Reading it as myself in 2013, I often felt like giving Herminia Barton (the independent-minded female protagonist) a whack on the head. Her fancying herself as a martyr and long monologues from her as well as the author, which seem to imply that all the women’s troubles would be over if they started defying the institution of marriage, can make you cringe. But the worst mistake she makes is thinking that her daughter will carry her legacy forward. It turns out that the daughter has more awareness of the miseries her mother’s principles have bought upon her than the appreciation of her principles. Despite all the whacking I want to give her, my sympathies are with the mother. Still, I don’t blame the daughter. Because I grudge any parental presumption that the children should be an extension of themselves.

In Herminia Barton’s case, it didn’t look like she even knew how exactly was the daughter supposed to carry forward the legacy. With the same doomed martyrdom? Ultimately  martyrs cannot change the society. Survivors do. I am not dismissing the martyrs. My comforts of today owe too much to the martyrs of the past to do that. But martyrs play a role by drawing more people to the fold and then some more until finally there are survivors leading a changed world. Martyrs may fail, but at least there has to be a vision of how their martyrdom will change the world. Herminia Barton’s martyrdom seems to be for its own sake. She is willing to take all the miseries that comes her way by defying the institution of marriage. Fair enough. But how is it going to inspire others to follow the suit? There is no thought spared for that. I, personally, think that it is fine to live by your principles and suffer for it, even if it doesn’t help or inspire anyone else. But in such cases you should not fancy yourself as some kind of saviour for others of your creed. You don’t describe yourself as a martyr who is being sacrificed to somehow do right by other members of her sex. That’s presumptuous.

That said, even if with my sensibilities, sitting in a world that is much more receptive to empowered woman, I find Herminia Barton to be naive who could have done better for her cause, there is no denying that she is a brave, self-confident character. Even if her idea of women being meant for motherhood, and not for earning, is repugnant to me, she possesses an independent mind in a society that demands conformity, and attempts to earn for herself even if only because society isn’t “perfect” yet.

It isn’t going to a feminist’s inspiration is today’s world, but the book is a must-read. And it is available for free on Gutenberg and Amazon Kindle. 🙂


History Turns to Dust, Stories Live On: Highlights from Dozakhnaama

Just finished reading Dozakhnama.

It is a very interesting novel. Originally written in Bengali by Rabisankar Bal, translated to English by the prolific translator Arunava Sinha, the novel has the legendary Urdu poet Ghalib and the famous Urdu writer of 20th century Saadat Hasan Manto conversing from their graves in Delhi and Lahore respectively. They talk about their lives, about the futility of history and glory of stories; they play with words and bemoan their lives; they make the gore and panic and pain of 1857 and partition come alive; they recite poetry, tell stories and spout philosophy. Despite being separated by a century in time and social consciousness, the bond they share, the parallels in their lives is striking.

What I have been wondering about is if the personalities, thoughts, and life events depicted for the two historical characters are mostly real, or are they author’s imaginations. Is it history in fiction? Or is it historical fiction?

The content can be depressing, but worth a read.

To lighten up the mood, here are some highlights from the book

  • No writer matches the image his writing suggests.
  • History turns to dust, stories live on.
  • We cannot give birth to anything beautiful without causing pain. Then how can God? All the games of creation and destruction in his world are played to give birth to new kinds of beauty.
  • Peace comes from abandoning hope.
  • But a man does want to understand another. That’s where they go wrong. When a man cannot even understand himself – when all he can see is only the tip of the iceberg – isn’t the attempt to understand someone else laughable?
  • Is there anyone who doesn’t want to hear his own story?
  • The desire to be different from everyone else is nothing but the arrogance of youth. The truth is that every person is unique; no two persons are alike. Everyone is different in their own way.
  • Firdausi among poets, Hasan Basri among sages and Majnu among lovers – these were the three beacons of the world.
  • Nothing can be created, not even love, without madness, without abnormal behaviour.
  • Has anyone in this world given birth to beauty on a starvation diet?
  • Some people can smother their dreams, others cannot; the one who cannot goes mad.
  • Heaven exists within women; but the very same women become bloodsuckers within the confines of family and society and a cloistered existence.
  • One person’s truth is of no use to another.
  • He who cannot leave his home and go out on the road will never find happiness. A prolonged existence within human society turns even god men into sinners.
  • Madness is nothing but the name of a soul without an address.
  • May be the history of civilization is nothing but the history of barbarity from another perspective.
  • The truth can only be spoken by individuals. Collective opinion is inevitably a lie.
  • Whatever colour there is in life comes from lies.
  • The truth doesn’t sound entertaining unless lies are added to it.
  • Those who God favours are the ones who squander their talent the most.
  • The only thing you can do with power is to mock it.
  • The soldiers can fight wars and raze cities, but they can never usher in freedom.