“I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters” – Rehana Munir

Rehana Munir ran a bookshop in Bombay in the mid 2000s, a few years after graduating with top honours in English literature from St. Xavier’s College. An independent writer on culture and lifestyle, she has a weekly humour column in HT Brunch, and a cinema column in Arts Illustrated magazine. She is also an occasional copywriter. Rehana lives in Bombay among food-obsessed family and friends. She is a local expert on migraines, 1990s nostalgia and Old Monk. We wrote about her debut novel Paper Moon here and had a little chat over her book and writings.


What is the most satisfying part of writing ‘Paper Moon’ for you?

The sense of having translated an actual experience into a work of fiction. Of crafting Fiza’s coming-of-age story out of my memories, but more importantly, my imagination.


What does it feel like when you finally finish writing a book?

An overpowering urge to share it with the world! At least that was how it was with my debut novel.


How much of yourself is in the characters you write about?

From personality traits to philosophical leanings, I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters. But more than them being literary stand-ins for me, I think I’m in dialogue with them.


Did you read all the books and authors who find a mention in ‘Paper Moon’?

One of the pleasures of writing the book was to squeeze in my favourite authors and their works. But there are way too many references, and not all of them appeal to me. They were names that suited the narrative.


How much research and travel did Paper Moon take?

A lot of time travel, since the book takes place in the early 2000s. I did visit some of the haunts that the book mentions, but mostly to check up on a name or a detail. A few of the pillars of the book still hold up my life in Bombay. As for the bits in London and Edinburgh, they too were etched in my mind but needed some research for reasons of accuracy.


How does it feel to have gone from a reader to bookstore owner to an award-winning author? 

Very fortunate. (Though, unlike Fiza in the book, I ran a bookshop but did not own it. It belonged to a friend of my father’s.) There’s so much to learn. As a bookseller, I largely interacted with book distributors. As a writer, I’m learning about the publishing industry. Paper Moon seems like such a quaint world in the era of digital marketing.


Who is your first reader?

My two sisters, Kausar and Mariam.


Did you have a “When I become a writer, I will…” list?

Not really, but one thing comes to mind, now that you’ve asked the question: Not to write prescriptive lists for other writers.


Is there going to be a second part to ‘Paper Moon’?

I have been asked this question on a few occasions, which is very encouraging. It’s certainly an exciting idea, a sequel. Or maybe even a prequel.


What is the best criticism that you received for ‘Paper Moon’?

One reader likened my book to a jazz progression. I found that analogy to be very satisfying, especially since the book borrows its name from a jazz song.


Do you feel pressure that your next book must be better than ‘Paper Moon’, especially after all the love that it’s been receiving?

I’m currently savouring the appreciation from readers. If anything, it’s encouraging me while I work on my next.


What are you reading currently?

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran Khan. I read it a couple of months ago but I’m already drawn back to it. It’s a deeply thoughtful exploration of a city’s troubled history, through a personal lens. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is next on my list. I love the energy and optimism in her writing.



Speaking of Sexual Violence with Robert Uttaro (Magazine Special)

Robert Uttaro is a Rape Crisis Counselor, Public Speaker, and Community Educator. Inspired by his Undergraduate studies in Criminal Justice, he continues to embrace a life long commitment to activism and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence. He published his book ‘To The Survivors’ in the year 2013. Bookstalkist spoke with him about his work and related subjects. This interview was conducted in March, 2018. 

You have used the medium of a book to speak to the world about the problem of sexual violence. There are many people in today’s age who would have preferred a motion picture to a book. The question comes from a context. As a human race, we are increasingly growing thicker on our skin. It follows that we aren’t moved today unless we are shown images or videos. A documentary perhaps hits more than a newspaper story on any crime. What led you to write a book on this subject?

I did not consider myself a writer and never once tried to write a book until the experience of an intensely vivid dream one morning changed my life. I woke up from this dream and said, “I have to write a book.” I interpreted this dream as a vision from God. I prayed to God, moved from the bed to the computer, opened up Microsoft Word, and continued to pray. That is how To the Survivors began. In other words, God inspired me to write To the Survivors. God never asked me to make a movie or documentary, and I never once interpreted anything I have experienced in life or my dreams as a signal to make a movie or documentary.

I am not opposed to taking part in a documentary if someone ever asks me to, but creating a documentary was not the purpose for To the Survivors. I believe that To the Survivors can spread throughout the world because there is rape, evil, pain, and suffering in the world; and a book can help to educate, inspire, and heal. I love documentaries and movies but there is something powerful about the written word where people sit alone and read. Also, I love that there are no images or faces in To the Survivors. I have always hoped that people would interpret the book any way they choose and connect with it in any way they can. I always wanted it to be a universal book with universal messages. I believe people can possibly have more of a personal connection with messages in the book without images of people but through words and emotions. They can pick it up and read it any time and hopefully find comfort, strength, and peace in it.


You have also touched upon the subject of ‘Forgiveness’ in your book. That was a part we don’t usually see in common civic discourse. A large part of the public asks for retribution. Why is ‘Forgiveness’ so important to you?

Forgiveness is important to me because God has forgiven me of my sins. I have experienced God’s love and mercy over and over again, so it makes sense to me to extend the same to others. I believe forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do for people who have been hurt but the effects of forgiveness and unforgiveness are incredibly powerful. I believe in forgiveness even though I have struggled with forgiveness at various points in my life.

I am not here to tell people what to do and how they should live their lives. I believe forgiveness can mean something different for all of us and all of us make a choice to forgive or not forgive if we have been hurt. Do the survivors want to forgive? Do the perpetrators ask for forgiveness? It’s not for me to say but one of the saddest effects of sexual violence is when people blame themselves. So many people all over this world experience horrible, evil violations and they blame themselves. So, in terms of sexual violence, I do hope and pray that all survivors forgive themselves.

And if the unforgiveness of the perpetrators is continuing to hurt them, then I hope they can forgive, so that they can heal for themselves. As Timothy said in the ‘Forgiveness’ chapter, “lastly, be able to forgive their attacker for the survivor’s sake, not the perpetrator’s.”

In terms of sexual violence, many perpetrators feel no remorse. Sexual perpetration is arguably the hardest criminal activity to change. I believe God’s mercy is endless for those who genuinely ask for it, but not everyone does. I have seen some perpetrators achieve true remorse and change, while many continue to rape. This sadly will continue. I do believe perpetrators should be incarcerated for long periods of time and we can still have punishment and forgiveness. But does retribution solve anything? Does retribution stop evil? I wrote in To the Survivors, “What if we are not able to forgive? Does it hurt or affect us in the short and long term? If so, how does it hurt or affect us? Does it help people who are able to forgive, regardless of what they are forgiving? If so, how is it helpful? Ultimately, what are the impacts on our lives if we forgive or don’t forgive?” I believe our answers to these questions deeply impact our lives and that is another reason why forgiveness is important to me.

A lot of these people who perpetuate sexual violence might have had a difficult childhood. A few of them have themselves been victims at some point in their lives. Have you met such people? Are they open to be healed?

A lot of people have difficult childhoods but do not rape or attempt to rape. It is true that some of the perpetrators of sexual violence have been victimized but sexual violence should never be accepted or minimized. I have met perpetrators and people I have suspected as being perpetrators. In my experiences and from everything I have learned thus far, it is rare to see sexual offenders open to being healed.

That does not mean it can’t happen because it can but I would not say it is the norm. Human trafficking continues to be on the rise and is now the second most lucrative criminal activity. Some people travel from different countries to rape children, even if they think it is just sex (which it is not). That demand and desire is not going away any time soon. It is more common for me to see people who have been victims/survivors be open to healing as opposed to the perpetrators but like I said before, anyone can choose to change and be open to healing. That is their choice.

Have you found anyone in your personal relationships who has been sexually assaulted? Have you tried to help them? Have you been able to heal someone close? What was your approach like?

By the grace of God, I have played a positive role in the healing process of some survivors. Yes, I have known people in personal relationships who have been raped and I have tried to help them in any way possible. I believe we should try to help each other with anything, not just people who are sexually assaulted. My approach is the same as what I described in the book. I believe people and listen to them. We must believe and listen to each other. The way we respond to sexual violence is incredibly important. We have the ability to send people down a path of healing or destruction. Believing, listening, and supporting people in whatever they need is vital. I try my best to meet people where they are at. Some people want to talk, some cry, some want to just listen to music or watch television. Some people want to go to the police and others have no desire to speak to the police. So, I try my best to help survivors with whatever they need.

People who are raped or sexually assaulted have their power and control taken from them. We have to help them regain their power and control. I don’t think we should tell others what they must do but rather support them and allow them to make their own decisions. We need to be sensitive, gentle, empathetic, and compassionate. I wrote in the ‘Victim Blaming’ chapter, “If we believe, listen, and validate, we strengthen and help. If we blame, we confuse and hurt.”

How do you see the entire #MeToo movement? 

I think it has been very empowering for many women while also negatively affecting others. I personally believe it has been great for women who connect with the movement and use their voices. Sexual violence is extremely difficult to talk about for so many people, so I do believe it is special for so many women to speak out against sexual assault and harassment. I know of one woman who was raped and struggles deeply with shame and insecurity. Sadly, she sabotages almost everything good in her life. But she was moved by the #MeToo movement and joined it. For her, it was empowering. And to me, that is beautiful.

The movement has also brought a significant amount of awareness to some of these issues, so I think it is good that much of the public has been thinking and speaking about it. It clearly has caused dialogue. However, some women have been upset with it. They do not openly talk about their experiences and don’t want to feel pressured to do so. They don’t want to feel like they haven’t reached a certain point in their healing. So I think it’s important to also respect those people who do not wish to participate.
Finally, the #MeToo movement has done wonderful things for millions of women who have suffered and continue to suffer, and I think that is special. But I also think the pain that many men and boys experience has gone unnoticed. I will never diminish the pain that countless women experience but men and boys are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped as well. When discussing sexual violence, I believe we must think about and care for all genders and all victims/survivors of these crimes.

Do men assault more than any other gender?


Are assaults on men not being taken seriously enough? Is it discouraging men from opening up and talking about it?

I do think assaults of men are taken seriously in certain parts of the world but I would not say that is the norm. Can that deter some many men from opening up? Absolutely. Far too many men are not believed or made to feel even worse when they do choose to open up. But some people do care and take it very seriously.

I will never forget an event I went to for male rape survivors where the male survivors’ wives expressed complete devastation. Their tears and facial expressions pierced my heart. Many of them came over to me and bought my book. I do not believe they knew their husbands were raped as kids when they began dating and I am willing to bet, it has been difficult in their marriages.

They were very supportive and sought resources to help but they also looked completely lost. As for the men, some men stood and shared their stories while people continued to cry. I remember a man in particular who shared his story and did so in angry tones. He yelled, “I ain’t thriving, surviving, none of that!” I believe many men are like this man, but I know it is possible to get to places of healing like other male survivors have.

You have written about survivors who were assaulted during their childhood. The problem is that children do not realize that there is something wrong happening to them before they grow up to understand crimes of sexual nature. What would you suggest the parents or the society at large to prevent sexual assaults on children?

This is true. Many children do not realize something wrong is happening to them before they grow up, while others may know but do not know how to speak about it. So many children are also terrified to speak and worry that no one will even believe them. Parents and society as a whole, need to be aware of what is going on with their children and others around them. Most of the sexual abuse committed against children is perpetrated by someone the child victim knows. So, much abuse exists within families and other safe spaces where pedophiles have easy access to children. I believe we need to be educated on the realities of sexual violence, stop abuse from occurring if we see something happen, and check in with our children. I also think we have to acknowledge that there are people from all genders sexually abusing children of all genders.

First of all, the best way sexual violence against children can be prevented is for people to not sexually abuse children. A change in the heart must occur for those who are committing these evil crimes. There is a desire for far too many to rape and molest children. They choose to commit atrocities against our most innocent and they can choose not to. Sadly, many will not change and not all sexual abuse on this earth will be prevented. With that being said, there are plenty of things we can do.

In To the Survivors for example, there are two stories of men (Jim and Chris) who were sexually abused as children. In both stories, the pedophiles groomed the boys. There were many inappropriate things happening, mainly isolation from others. Jim was taken out of school during the day to smoke a cigarette with a priest, and Chris’ camp counselor constantly took him away from everyone else at the camp. How did no adults see these things occurring? And if they were aware, how could they not step in and confront the issue? Adults could have prevented the sexual abuse of two young boys and the suffering that they endured for many years but that did not happen. So, we must be aware and act. We have to act if we see adults trying to isolate kids for no reason. The least we must do is check in to gain clarity on what is happening.

Another odd behaviour we can notice is unhealthy touching. Kids need physical affection and should feel safe and protected. I work with kids quite often and we play tag games where kids and adults are touching each other by tagging. This is normal. It’s also normal for an adult to hold a child’s hand when necessary and help them when they are physically hurt.

But unhealthy touch is different than healthy touch, and we need to know the difference. No adult should tag a kid or touch a kid on the buttocks, chest, or genitals. We have to be aware when adults have kids on their laps for significant periods of time unnecessarily and when we see any kinds of unhealthy touch.

We need to act if we see abuse occurring. Far too much abuse is happening and people know but do not act. For example, plenty of children are sexually abused by family members. Some do not know that their loved ones are being abused, but some do. Those who know abuse is happening and do not act to stop it are allowing it. They may not intervene for different reasons such as fear, not being believed, cultural norms, or not wanting to break up a family but survivors suffer deeply as a result of our inaction. And if someone cannot intervene themselves, they need to seek out a trusted adult to intervene and that adult should intervene.

Our legal systems must also incarcerate paedophiles who abuse children when convicted. Most perpetrators are never arrested or incarcerated. We need to have a supportive and welcoming environment for people to make reports of sexual abuse against children. Convictions can be difficult in sexual abuse cases but if a legal system does find a perpetrator to be guilty of sexually abusing a child, I believe the person needs to be incarcerated for a lengthy period of time. Many perpetrators are never even brought to trial while others are brought to trial but exonerated. Others are found guilty but receive a light sentence.

Lastly, we need to check in with our kids. How are they doing? Are they happy? Are they receiving what they need? Are they struggling mentally or emotionally? If the answer to the last question is yes, what are we doing to help them? We need to protect children at all costs and cultivate their education and development. We need to help in their trust and healing if they have been abused. Children are so deeply influenced in both good and bad ways by us. The way we treat them and respond to them is incredibly important. We have the power to make powerful changes in their lives and I hope and pray more adults support children in any way they know how.

Humanity continues to be in chaos. Too many people hate, fight, rape, and kill each other. Human beings differ in so many ways but no matter where we come from, what language we speak, or what we believe in; all of us should love and protect children.

India is debating marital rape at present. Do you think the issue of marital rape is complex in nature from a legal angle?

I do not believe marital rape is complex from a legal standpoint. Rape cases can be complex, but not every rape case is complex. Some cases are quite clear, so why would marital rape be different? Complexities can be the same whether it is marital rape or non-marital rape. For example, if a man rapes a woman and there is clear evidence that she was raped, that is not complex. It is complex if a woman is raped but there is no evidence of rape. The same is true in a marriage. If a husband rapes his wife and there is clear evidence of rape, what is complex about that? But if a man rapes his wife and there is no evidence, then that is complex.

I just read that the Supreme Court ruled that marital rape cannot be considered a criminal offence in India. That decision is truly horrible. The Supreme Court has continued to allow men to rape their own wives. This decision says it is perfectly acceptable to rape your wife. There is no logic in that decision and it is infuriating and sickening. How do we prevent sexual violence? We can at least begin with not allowing it through the law.

Think of the pain so many women go through. Think of the fear so many women live with. Think of the utter lack of love so many women experience. Also, think of what the Supreme Court’s decision endorses and teaches Indian men. Think of what this shows and teaches Indian boys. My heart breaks for the people of India and other countries that legally permit marital rape. I pray for everyone affected and I pray for a legal change in the future. The Supreme Court’s decision is inhumane and will play an active role in the rape and deep shame and suffering that many will continue to experience.

You mention in the introduction to the book that it is painful to know of the stories of survivors. There may also be rage to see so many people affected by this. Does it take a toll on your psyche? How do you deal with this feeling?

Yes, working with rape on a daily basis affects my psyche but I love what I do and will never stop. How do I deal with it? God. Jesus. Mary. Music. Meditation. And my beautiful wife.

I cannot begin to explain how much God loves us and how God is always with us, even when we do not feel it or believe it. God has never once left me and has always strengthened me and given me anything I have needed. God is more powerful than any pain on this earth. Sadly, far too many people keep their pain inside and suffer inside. I want them to give their pain away, either to someone else or to God. I take my pain and give it to God, and when I do that, I am relaxed and strengthened to continue this work. I am always moved when I pray with my heart.

Jesus is my greatest teacher. I learn so much from him when I read the Gospels — especially the Gospel of John — and when I meditate and pray. I ask for his guidance and wisdom, and I ask for his gentle words and touch to heal others. I have seen it happening. I also have a deep love of Jesus’ mother Mary, the queen of peace. I pray for Mary to use her motherly love to help those who are suffering. For me personally, praying the rosary gives me clarity, peace of mind, and strength.

I love to mediate and listen to music, and I equate the two. Today while I was teaching in school, another teacher led a yoga class with 8th grade students. I participated and experienced so much relaxation and peace through yoga and the sound of the music. I also just have a deep love of music. I can listen to music for hours and hours. Music means so much to me and has impacted me throughout my life.

Lastly, I am so incredibly lucky to have met my soulmate. My wife means the world to me. She is a constant source of love for me and she is always there for me, especially in my darkest moments. She has seen how working with rape has sometimes affected me in negative ways and she has always been a light to me. I can go to her with anything and she has always been there with me through this journey. I can look into her beautiful eyes and feel comfort. I truly am a lucky man.

We have often seen people turning away from God in the face of pain or misery. As someone who comes face to face with so many stories of suffering and pain, how do you continue to believe in God? Or how do you explain so much pain to yourself in spite of the presence of a divine power?

You are right that many people turn away from God in the face of pain and misery. It makes me very sad. This is one of the reasons why I believe I was meant to do this work and write To the Survivors. My faith is what strengthens me and keeps me going. I can understand why so many people don’t believe in God but ultimately, God is always with us on this earth.

Just look at the world we live in. Many people say things like, “God can’t exist. Look how horrible this world is.” I say, “Look how horrible this world is. This can’t be all we have. Paradise awaits anyone who wants it.” Too many people blame God for the pain of this world but the reality is that human beings commit atrocities against each other. Too many people like to blame something, anything else other than looking at their own lives and choices.

People have asked me the exact same question you asked. My relationship with God has grown even closer since becoming a rape crisis counselor. My faith in God has strengthened while my faith in human institutions has decreased. Just look at this world. Far too many people put their faith in our political leaders. How are our political leaders doing? Are they fixing our problems? India just ruled that marital rape is not a criminal offense. So many American politicians do not do what they should do and lead. Our political systems are corrupt and human institutions are flawed. They always will be.

Look at our religious leaders. How are they doing? Are they teaching the truth about God or are they distorting God? Are they using religious texts to promote peace, love, and mercy; or are they using these texts to promote division and violence? There are far too many religious leaders who lie, manipulate, and even rape. Too many take money from people, including poor people, for their own selfish desires. Some religious leaders truly care and teach the truth about God’s love while others use God for evil. This is part of the reason why many do not even believe.

You say there is a divine power. Just look at the universe. It is endless. We can’t even see it but we know it exists. I hope and pray people look up to the sky, see the stars, and commune with the universe. I have already told you that I wrote a book due to a dream. I have had spiritual experiences through dreams that I will never forget. For me, I can think of them as I continue to live my life. Thinking of those dreams strengthens me and gives me clarity to continue in my work and to continue asking for God’s guidance.

I talk to God in both good times and bad. People from every ethnic, socio-economic and religious background have difficulties in life. Jesus never once said life was easy but Jesus did say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, “Do not fear”, and “Have faith.” Some people say that to believe in God makes no sense. To me, it’s one of the only things that make sense.

In conversation with Jasmin Waldmann | Part 2

Is Natalie Kofman your own reflection?


What brought you to India? Also, you’ve got a lot of Indian things right in your book. How did you manage to do that?

Sportsfit by M.S. Dhoni asked me for my services in early 2012, to come and work with them in India. Developing and training the trainers, bringing up a new system, educating personal trainers and bringing up my own product Pilardio® here.

I agreed and after press release and the opening of Sportsfit, I relocated to India.

I am here since mid 2012 in India. I learned all about the north Indian culture, including the food, music and the typical habits.

I also give cross cultural difference programs for foreigners coming to India or Indians relocating abroad soon. When it comes to writing I have in my team a few Indian writers who support me. When I started writing on Change Me in 2014 I had a lot of interaction about Indian families and cultures with one of my writers. That gave me again a different add-on to know about the culture even deeper.

You’re now equally an ambassador of India to Germany as you are of Germany to India. German writers and philosophers have been taking keen interest in India since long. What do you think is the reason behind that?

That is true. Well, Germany is the land of thinkers, as we know. No wonder that they are interested in the spirituality from the east. And the home of spirituality was/ is India.

Speaking of the book Change Me, what made you do the self help through story when the norm is formulaic instructional approach?

I wanted to create an easy time to read and get guidance from my book. That means if my book would have been non-fiction, it would have been very factual. That would be for some people boring or soon tiring. Specially for people who don’t read frequently.

But everybody loves stories and through stories one learn and make almost automatically use of what was read. So I wrote this book for everybody who wants to change. My readers can enjoy reading and learning out of it, become self-motivate and to take action.

According to the book, it is possible to go inside our mind palace and heal old wounds. However, it may happen that we, in the process, inflict more wounds upon ourselves. Would you suggest a way to avoid that?

If you look inside and touch your wounds it can be healing. Of course it depends on how deep you feel hurt, sad, even numb because of this happening in your past. But if the first (big) step is taken- identify and allow that memory to come up into your consciousness – it is a sign that you can digest it mentally now.

Going then inside, you need to know what to do. Worse case is that you feel again the pain from that time without solving it. Means you simply live (experience) it again.

Going inside does not inflict more wounds. Here I can give you some inside. A way is to see happenings from the past dissociated, means from the point of view as an observer. In that way you see yourself in the past, doing, talking, listening, whatsoever was the painful scenario. And as an observer you look without feeling what you felt at that time. You learn out of this situation. In therapy the therapist would guide you far more in this.

Best is to get some support to make it as less painful as possible and as fast as possible. No need to invent the wheel yourself. It costs unnecessary some energy and power. You can get specialists.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Do you like any particular self help coach or writer? What are you reading at present?

A lot of my inspiration comes from sheer observations. I sit with a coffee and observe people. Also I get inspired when I interact with a colleague of mine. He is a Life Coach in Germany. My inspiration comes also when I read philosophy and talk with some Coaches from my team.

I am inspired from biographies (last one I watched about Coco Chanel);

When it comes to writers, other coaches, therapists, and inspirational speakers, I have a few great people who I listen to. Like Les Brown, Swami Rama, John Bradshaw.

I usually read 3 – 4 books at the same time. As I am writing on my second book, I read a lot of literature related to nonviolence communication, about family therapy by Virginia Satir and John Bradshaw’s book “Homecoming”. I read some special books again and again. Right now I read Meditation, by Marcus Aurelius and a book from Gretchen Rubins.

The business makes us speak only of success stories. Failure is seldom spoken about. Have you had clients who you couldn’t help in spite of your best efforts? Did they have something in common?

I love that you point this out. The world is full of success, which lead not to the desired outcome. We call it failure. I don’t believe in this word. It demotivates and is simply wrongly used in most of the cases. I call it learning.

I had a client when I was a pretty inexperienced Coach, many years ago. She was a lawyer and wanted to reduce weight. I realized after two months that she wasn’t able to reduce weight as her problem was pathological. So I told her that she needed some other specialist and suggested her psychotherapy.

I learned a lot out of this experience. Mainly that we need to check carefully if we can really help this person or somebody else could help far better. From that day onward, I choose my clients very carefully and tell them to do the same.

‎Amit Malhotra Recognizes and Realizes through a couple of incidents in his life. Let me call them triggers. Did you have such triggers in your life where-from you started to change things for yourself?

I had many triggers/ happenings in my life. My grandmother who mainly raised me, as my mother was hard working, died when I was 12 years old. My father never lived with my mother, grandmother, and elder sister.

Then my mother died when I was 13 years old. I was alone from one day to the other. No proper guidance, no talks, no therapy. I struggled for very long – unnecessarily. To overcome those happenings I needed to find my way out. I started reading books, had behaviour therapy, turned then to a Life Coach and Gestalt and Family Therapist. The latter was the most helpful one. And I learned how amazing those work is for people – sometimes life saving. That was also the reason for me to become then a Life Coach myself.

Amit Malhotra is rich and successful in a conventional world. Was it an intentional device used in the story or was it a compulsion? A lower middle class or a poor Amit Malhotra perhaps couldn’t have afforded a personal coach. Is quality personal coaching the privilege of the rich and mighty?

The character Amit is an accumulation of my clients from the past 10 years. Usually my clients have a specific income and can afford Coaching and Training sessions.

My intention with the book is very simple. If you know you want to change, you need some guidance. And if the barrier is very high (distance and money) it would be a no-go for some people. A book can reach almost everywhere in India and is very much affordable.

Not only rich people need and want to change – actually almost everybody can utilize the services of professional Life Coaching as well as Personal Training.

Easy with a book. At least to start with!

Jasmin Waldmann is an International Life Coach, a Happiness Guru and a Mind and Body & Transformation Expert. She lives and works in Gurugram, India since July 2012. She recently published her first book Change Me through Jaico Publishing House. Bookstalkist spoke with her after reading her book.

Click here to read Bookstalkist’s review of the book Change Me.

Click here to listen to the first part of this interview.

Nationalism, Intellectualism, and Us – Makarand Paranjape

Makarand R. Paranjape, has been the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla since August 2018.  Prior to that, he was a Professor of English at JNU, New Delhi. Mr. Paranjape is a scholar, critic, poet, novelist, and columnist. He read English at St. Stephen’s College before getting an MA & PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA). He has published over 45 books, 170 academic papers, and 500 newspaper/periodical articles. His recent books include Cultural Politics in Modern India (Routledge, 2016), The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo, 2016), an Indo-Brazilian book of poems. Makarand is currently a columnist for Swarajya, DNA, and Mail Today. The Seer (formerly Bookstalkist) spoke with him on sidelines of the Bangalore Literature Festival, 2017. 

Tagore’s essays on nationalism are really about the dangers of ideologies and the people who get blinded and brainwashed.



Going through the works of Swami Vivekananda and then the literature of Tagore, do you think there is a conflict between them when it comes to the idea of nationalism?


There is no conflict and that is because Swami Vivekananda did not write about nationalism. People aren’t aware of this but he hardly said anything directly on nationalism. He passed away in 1902 and by that time, the national movement had not yet really arrived at a tipping point. Bengal partition took place in 1905 and he passed away before that. He did see himself as a great awakener of the Indian conscience as well as the dormant force of the nation but he never made a lot of remarks about nationalism whereas Tagore really engaged with nationalism. However, even Tagore had a context, the context was the first world war. What people often do not understand is that Tagore’s comments on nationalism were actually a critique of imperialism and he had a different idea of Indian nationalism which he set forth in Swadeshi Samaj, an essay he wrote long before. There, he talks about, like Gandhi did a bit, about self sustaining communities which are able to look after their own needs  without the intervention of the state. One reason that he became a bit cautious about this ideology of nationalism is that during the Swadeshi Movement when Bengal was partitioned, some people think that it was the source of partition of India and that’s where the idea has come from. British wanted to partition India and Bengal was the first experiment. This experiment was done in Bengal and luckily it was also undone because there was a huge uprising  in Bengal. However, during that time, Tagore was disillusioned with the kind of nationalist ideologues or leaders he saw. He found that they were dividing the community’s unity and causing a lot of havoc. He wrote about this in a book called ‘Ghare Baire’  where the whole family gets destroyed because of the intervention of a demagogue. Tagore’s essays on nationalism are really about the dangers of ideologies and the people who get blinded and brainwashed. Then, they lose their humanity, they lose their sensitivity, and they lose their capacity to be human. For Tagore, as a poet, that was a disaster.


In his lecture on nationalism, Tagore mentions the conflict of nations. There is a reckless competition between nations for making profits and it works like a machine and has been successful in robbing humanity from people. So, when it comes to the subject of this whole capitalist idea of making profits for countries and organisations, is he on the same page or closer to Marxism?

I don’t think that he had anything to do with Marxism. Marxism is about collective ownership of land, goods, and of means of production.  It’s against individually owned property. It’s about the proletariat owning all the resources. So, I think it’s an entirely different ideology. If you want to create some kind of connection, you will have to say that in Tagore, we find some sympathy for the poor, for the underdogs, or for the oppressed. But again our Bengali friends don’t like it but Tagore is a very bourgeois writer and this is what exactly a leading Marxist critic whose name is György Lukács who was a Hungarian and at his time, the leading Marxist literary critic, denounced Tagore as being a charlatan, a minor and a sentimental writer. This is because in Tagore’s writing, the revolutionary impulse is viewed with great suspicion. Tagore was quite obedient to authority. Though he was critical of authority, he was not a revolutionary, he was not a Rebel. He didn’t have rebel characters in his novels in good light. They always came out looking really bad and Lukacs catches this. He says, “you know this Tagore, he is a petty bourgeois. He is not at all a progressive writer.” Our Bengali friends often don’t like this because they have deified Tagore. But there’s one thing, speaking about Bengal, Bengalis, and Bengal Renaissance, there is a major difference between the trajectory of Tagore on one hand and that of Vivekananda on the other. That distinction is clear and the reason for that is that while Vivekananda was definitely for pluralism and respecting diversity, he also wanted to make India strong and his idea of virtue was that ‘weakness is sin and strength is life’. So, this emphasis on  empowerment in Vivekananda’s literature is then picked up by people who are also looking for role models for a more muscular nationalism whereas Tagore is meeker and accommodative. The way that Vivekananda then gets picked up by different factions is essentially in the service of this sort of more militant Hindu self-assertion of identity. But what is interesting about Vivekananda is that love him or hate him, as it were, everybody wants to appropriate Vivekananda. Whichever political ideology you represent they all say that we considered Swami Vivekananda a Hero. So, there is something universally acceptable about him which is not true even of Gandhi because a lot of people don’t like Gandhi But go around asking who doesn’t like Vivekananda, you will find hardly anybody, even the Marxist and the communist have tried to appropriate him.

I would like to go to fundamentals here.  We see that currently most of the writers that we read on social media or otherwise, have boxed themselves inside the Right or the Left.  So, according to you, what is Left and what is the Right?

These are misnomers, specially in the Indian context because according to the more classical definition, if you look at the European context, the right authoritarians were the fascists and the left totalitarians were communists and in a way, both are highly avoidable. The experience of Europe has shown us that. So, you have Stalinist totalitarian regime.  In the east, you have Maoist and North Korea and other varieties of these. These  regimes don’t respect freedom, individual rights, liberties, and due process. Freedom is not very important for them. That is one extreme. In the other extreme are so called fascists, the Mussolinis and others who enjoyed power for sometime. Then, Nazis  were actually  nationalist socialists, that’s what the Nazi party called itself.  So, these are varieties of, you might say, the bad guys but after that the rest of the spectrum is broadly democratic in at least western democracies. In the Soviet sphere of influence again, individual rights and liberties were curtailed, there was no economic freedom or competition. That was the left. The right was capitalist. Now, most of the greater Indian intellectuals or thinkers have been telling us that none of this is suitable for us. They are saying that we should find another path and hence, for some time we tried a mixed economy model, then we tried for sometime other more dharmic economic model which may be they are still trying.  Long and short of this is the same thing –  we can’t be out and out capitalists, when making money becomes be all and end all. Capitalism without humanity or on the other hand, command and control of economy completely under the state can’t be our way. That’s why I am saying left and right in that sense have hardly any meaning. But the political configuration has become this – you are  pro current ruling regime or you are not, that is a very big divide. I think, not just social media but India I feel and I would say Hindu society is going through a huge civil war and some of the other communities are watering from the sidelines but they’re going through their own civil war and so the problem in India is not left and right at all. The problem is something different. It’s about two competing narratives. Which one is to capture the national imagination and through that capture and enjoy power, enjoy dominance, enjoy economic benefits is the question today. And that is why the battle is so vicious because so much is at stake and a particular elite which enjoyed  earned and as well as unearned privileges and benefits is now being pushed aside and when you get pushed aside you will fight, you will fight for your turf.

…I were a Muslim, would be a completely idiotic appeal. I would look what are you doing for education.



In your poem, Tipu’s Fall, have you referred to Tipu Sultan as the first Indian nationalist?


I didn’t say that. That’s not actually what I have said. Tipu Sultan has a divided legacy and his own historical record is deeply divided. He fought against the British and that makes him from a modern standpoint,  anti imperialism but he did not see himself necessarily as an anti imperialism person. He wanted to protect his kingdom, a kingdom which his father had  usurped. So, the thing that we don’t want to understand about Islamic conquerors is that they are basically people who go and invade  areas and through the power, through the weapons, and the armies, they control and then  they rule. Then, they also use Islam as a  legitimating device. They present an ideological justification and the ulema is harnessed to  support them. This is the template and this is followed, we are talking 1790s and this is still followed, look at Bhopal, look at some of the recent examples, a few hundred thousand horsemen come in and invade and then they establish the Darul Islam, whether the population is 100 percent Hindu or 80 percent Hindu or 70 percent Hindu. And certain things are followed. Certain temples will be taken over, Khutpa will be read from there and all such things happen. So, this has happened for hundred times and hence, you can’t deny this either.  So, when the Indian nationalists were looking for some role models against the British, they went back to 1857. It was Savarkar whom the leftists don’t like who called it the first war of Indian independence. It was called the sepoy mutiny otherwise. He said that the British were the enemy, let’s make a common cause against them. This is something very interesting that we don’t know about Savarkar which is that he did not start off as an advocate of Hindutva. His book on 1857 was published in the same year as Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in 1909. Hindutva comes much later  in the twenties because his thinking had changed and he found that the composite nationalism was not going to work.Finally Gandhi realized this same thing in 1947.  He is conceding that we tried and tried and tried.  So, what I wanted to say is that certain narratives were created to make a common cause against the British and in that process Tipu becomes an anti-imperialist force, that’s how he is taught  in history and elsewhere. The Sword of Tipu came, all this is done because of the state sponsored media. They are funded by the state and they don’t tell you that how many  people were converted, how many temples did he destroy, or what his policies were. Also, like all rulers, he also had to make compromises. He had to make a compromise with the Sringeri Mutt. That is also a fact.  So, there was some arrangements there but at the same time, little south of Sringeri in the Malabar, north of Kerala,  he was  totally vicious because those people went against him. In other words, we have to see these figures in the context of their own times and their own compulsions. We can’t superimpose upon them or project upon them or own problems. Right here in Karnataka, the problem is partly because they want to use Tipu to get the minority votes. So, every year they want to celebrate some Tipu Jayanti which is actually a way of dividing  the  voters into vote banks,  saying look we are doing Tipu Jayanti so the muslims who are at 10% , 12%, or 20% of the constituency, they should vote for us. Why? Because we will do a Tipu Jayanti which to me if I were a muslim, would be a completely idiotic appeal. I would look what are you doing for education. There’s no Muslim  road and Hindu road, no Hindu electricity and Muslim electricity, but yes they will say Hindu schools and Muslim schools. What I am trying to say is that to divert  from the real issues they do this.  So, the moment you have a celebration, the other guys will say but he was a tyrant, he was a murderer, they are also using the same figure divide and not just divide but to appeal to another bunch of people. This is what’s going on.

Should there be no resistance?

My point is these fights are not at all about Tipu. Similarly, left and right is not at all about left and right. These are power struggles between competing claimants to both national and regional power. So, when we think it’s about Tipu we are so misled. And I think this is true of much of the debate that is happening in India today because we are not able to read them symptomatically. They are symptoms of something else. But we get fixated on these issues and then we started debating them.

If I  add to the same vein, a major portion of the history that is probably inconvenient to some people, has not been taught to students or scholars. What I see is that the entire Mughal tyranny has been whitewashed.  I also see that the partition pain has been whitewashed. It’s not there in history textbooks. All they mention is that India and Pakistan were divided in 1947. Do you think such sections of history should make an entry into the text?

Absolutely. We should have many many histories but I’ll tell you what I worry about and why this is again a problem which we don’t properly understand. The debate is not just over with what happened. I wish it was. The debate is what is the official history to be taught. So, again, it’s about mind control. They want to substitute one narrative by another but I am interested in finding the truth. Now why are they doing it once again? Seeing the potential to indoctrinate young people, from school you will be raised on a particular ideology, like they have already done in Pakistan, or like they did in India, everyone was raised on some kind of secular diet. Though I am in favour of corrective history, I am more interested in seeing that the power of indoctrination in schools and colleges is reduced through the plurality of sources. This requires deep thought which is that there are no simple truths in such subjects. However, these subjects are being taught in such a way that only one answer can be right. Because of this, you are going to force people. In other words,  what I am really so concerned about is the attempt by our political establishment to use the coercive powers of the state to influence our populace. Here, they are doing it now by making Kannada compulsory. I don’t think states should make things compulsory or not compulsory, it’s not their business.  And it has become their business because they are taking your money and my money, and deciding how to spend it. And because they are controlling the budgets, they are enforcing their own political ideology on the passive populace.

Imagine what would happen if governments let people decide, let communities decide, and this again this whole issue of one certification, SSLC,  so you’re controlling thousands of people. Why do we do this? Everyone knows this that SSLC doesn’t work, everyone knows this, but well CBSE is marginally better, but if you work for Infosys they will train you because they don’t trust your degree. So, the kind of reform that we need in India and the kind of transformation I am interested in Abhishek is not at this level, at the superficial level at which many of our debates are conducted. I am interested in deep change and for that you need a lot of smart people who really want to go into this and examine. You see the US, there is no central board of certification. Every High School gives its own high school leaving certificate and its own grades, there’s no one centralised system but people figure it out eventually, centralization comes during SAT,  that means if you score, that’s it. So, we should do that and forget these boards what are these boards anyway? That’s one way but they have at least got out of forcing everybody across US to study one textbook. Why not let every school decide?  So, I am all for decentralisation. You can’t  indoctrinate, but here both sides again, both sides want to use the power of state to control others. So, for us, unfortunately power is seen in how you can inconvenience somebody, how you can force your will on someone, not on how you can enable things. Even though so called assertion of the Hindu Right is often seen in terms of bullying or enforcing some notion of theirs on others, in not making many different narratives possible, I don’t blame them entirely  because because they have also been forced into this binary and I think it’s the purpose of intellectuals to  not succumb. I always tell people to resist, you may be drawn into either camp, it’s so much easier to be a camp follower  but at least intellectual shouldn’t function like that. We are not the sheep. I don’t know about the Dharma of the troll because I am not a troll or dharma of a party worker because I am not a party worker but I know a little bit about the dharma  of an intellectual, of an academic, of a writer, and of a citizen. All these dharmas require you to be critically aware, be well informed, be responsible, and to make decisions based on good evidence and not just on the basis of either populist measures or misinformation. Speaking of populism, it’s completely wrong to think that only one side is populist. All sides  are populists. Whenever you appeal to the sentiments of the people, often making them do things that are not there in their self interest including possibly Brexit, that is populism. So, how can you say only right is populist?  No, left is totally populist. Quotas, sops for women, all that is populism. It’s a way to hand out favours from the state. What I have been saying to people is , let’s create a system where you don’t need a quota because there are so many opportunities, hundreds of colleges; anybody can be a doctor. That is something the polity doesn’t want. They want to have a small set of goodies which they will control. You take 5, you take 3, I will take 10. Then, they distribute it. So, they just want to hoard and control the resources. But if you really want to see the potential of a country, let every society decide they need so many doctors and that’s the number they will support and the rest will fall by the wayside. Right now, it is the opposite and in the places you need doctors, you won’t find them. Where are the barefoot doctors? They are all in Bengaluru. Why? Because you make money here.  We have created the worst kind of combination of feudalism and heartless ultra capitalism. No person can get good medical treatment, no poor person can get their rights  and here we are, always speaking in the name of the poor. ‘Oh you are deprived, we are going to give you this!  O you’re underprivileged, take this!’  This is hogwash. So, what I am trying to say is for India to be, forget about India being a great country, I hope we are and we will be, but even to just live up to our potential, there is so much that needs to be done. One of the major changes needed is to get governments to stop interfering in all kinds of stuff.  You look after law and order. You are not here to tell people what to wear, what to eat, how to live their lives, or how to worship! That’s not your business. Your business is to make systems work,  maintain law and order, and develop infrastructure. You and I can’t build roads because they are big projects, but even that we should be able to build. In an ideal society, suppose we are a neighborhood, 20 neighborhoods can come together and make a road going through them. You don’t need some agency. These are deep changes and they can’t be sorted out immediately but here I think, the good news is we are in the process of a  huge churn and in this  churn, the creative energies of our people will be unleashed.

Coming to the question of intellectuals taking sides, intellectual’s being on the payroll of the king, it is a system that was there even in ancient periods of our country but I’ve also heard about examples where such advisors guided kings in the right direction in spite of the the payroll factor. Coming to later years during emergency, Advani made a statement, “..when the journalists were told to bend, they crawled”.  do you think anything has changed in the last few decades?

Things have changed in last 1000 years. You see, these things that we talk about belong to another era. Many of them are only in story books, legends and myths.  We don’t have very good historical records but yes, even if you in more contemporary times, we have seen the role advisor (Madhava Rao) to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad played. Even in those times, there were a benign set of advisors who were very competent. Sir Visvesvaraya is an example from Karnataka. Sir Mirza Ismail is another example. So, the point is that obviously throughout the ages, the priests and the Kings were always the collaborators. That’s how power was maintained but the domains were well demarcated. However, that should not really worry us. The real point is this – every person needs to understand what their job is,  like today, we had a lovely session here on the Governor of The Reserve Bank. It’s an office which is obviously subordinate to the finance ministry. It’s a government office but it has its dignity. That is the point. How is democracy destroyed? It is destroyed when all these institutions are destroyed and that’s exactly what has happened in the last 60 years. Emergency is the classic case, but the gradual erosion of these institutions was already in place. Now when we come to the intellectuals, intellectuals traditionally and even today in the western world, they are not statists, they should not be statists. They should be independent. Statist intellectuals should be directly hired by the state and they should work on Niti Ayog or other government think-tanks but otherwise, intellectual should be independent. Sad thing is, in post-independence India, intellectual as a class was so degraded that they became either aligned to some foreign mission or foreign network of patronage or they got aligned to the state. They were patronized by the ruling party and very seldom were truly independent. That is true for regional ones as well.

Now, we have to recreate an ecosystem where intellectual competence is recognised, is rewarded, and independence of intellectuals, writers, journalists, thinkers is safeguarded and encouraged. We don’t want an ecosystem where everything is politicised and everybody has to fall in some political camp or the other. This is what happened even in Bangalore Literature Festival. It went through a huge churn because people said it was hijacked and used as a forum for Award Wapasi. So, what I’m trying to say there should be space for not just debate but to some extent dissent and the plurality of views that is supposed to emerge from these spaces.  We have seen that there is a systematic attempt to capture, control, and  infiltrate these spaces through well networked ideologically committed groups. And they work together because in solidarity there is strength. Everything is like match fixing,  everything is like an echo chamber and this we have to change and that is why we are coming back to to the Civil War. It’s very important to participate in this ‘uncivil’ war in a very civil way and take issue based positions and instead of blanket positions. This is for good intellectuals, there will be party intellectuals also, it’s important to maintain that autonomy because it is the autonomy of certain group of people who are sincere that is really Satyagraha. Satyagraha is the insistence on truth. It is not the ‘belonging to a particular political ideology’ at all.

You spoke about the Civil War in the Hindu community itself.

Just to clarify, it’s an uncivil war. In a civil war, people kill each other, so I’m just playing on the word here.


hindu-2628776_1920I see three kinds of Hindus right now. One is all for the strengthening and flaunting of muscles, there is another set which says no this is not my Hinduism, my Hinduism is more spiritual,  it is about my soul and introspection,  reflecting and knowing myself,  and then there is one more which is unaffected by this entire debate, they are immersed in their own lives carrying on their daily worship and rituals. Where do you see harmony between these?

This is very interesting. There have been different ways to try and define this. Some people say that there are secret Hindus, for them Hinduism is a private affair. In public sphere, they may be completely secular or non religious but they may also be marxists or scientists, nothing to do with their faith, that’s living like schizophrenics. You live in two worlds. That’s one Hindu. There is another kind of Hindu which is Hindu inside but is afraid to be Hindu outside. They say, ‘No, I am not a Hindu. I am secular’ or ‘I am just spiritual but not Hindu’. Then, there is a third kind of Hindu that says I am Hindu inside and from outside too, I want to be recognised as a Hindu. The third kind of Hindu has become a huge threat to certain other kinds of Hindus. Why? Because this third kind of Hindu, by flagging his identity in the public sphere, has also created the possibility of capture of power which is very threatening. So, this political Hindu is the biggest threat. All the other kinds of Hindus are not an issue. It’s only the political Hindu which everybody is criticising from left, right, and centre for the fear that this this political Hinduism will capture power, will displace all other people. That fear is expressed in the terms of fear of one religion, one language, one god, or one deity. This is what I would call a ‘spoiler’s mentality’. It’s not like look we ruled, let’s give them a chance, they have won. It’s like this, these are different from us. These are like the Nazis, once they takeover, that’s the end of democracy.  This is the kind of argument that was made even for Trump. The losing side never accepted him as the President. Here it’s not as bad. In a sense, Narendra Modi enjoys a widespread support . It’s only the intellectuals who don’t like him. That is partly because nobody cares for them anymore. So, it’s much more complicated than it seems and you’re right, I don’t know how this civil war will be sorted out but I suspect that it may be sorted out if this political party can continue to rule for a certain number of years. Then they are going to, I would like to think, bring in some lasting changes. But it will not end the basic issues which are endemic to Indian democracy – issues of pluralism and  freedom. I think they will just find out another way of saying yes we accept your views but don’t denigrate Hindus or we accept everything but Hindus will be a little bit superior because we are the majority.  So, they will come up with some kind of package which some people may not like. You ask many muslims, under the Congress as well, they did already feel as if they were second class citizens. To be the first class citizens, you had to be secular or you had to go to right colleges, speak good English but then they say they are not muslims at all. So, the problem that we’re going to face is definitely the dominance of certain classes or communities over others. In other words, if you consider a state to be something you want to enjoy, then certain sections seem to have a prior claim on the state and the other communities are already marginalised, and they are used only as vote banks. So, now you’re going to say well there is huge difference between official marginalisation and not so official marginalization, then you can make those arguments, if you like. But you know in any democracy the Demos which means the mob or the numbers will matter. How can you just evaporate the numbers? You evaporate them by saying no no, they are hindus only in name, but they are Lingayats, they are somebody else. That worked for a while, okay, but after a while for the sake of voting they will also come together. Now, they are caught with the same twist that they were trying to catch the other guys with. You create a Sikh vote bank, you create a Dalit vote bank, now, by the same logic, you have got a Hindu vote bank which is majoritarian and if you don’t like it, too bad for you. You’ve got to suffer the consequences, because it’s a logical corollary of exactly what you did for so long.




After the Kanhaiya Kumar episode, and even before that, people have a certain kind of perception of JNU. Are you a minority at JNU?

Yes, of course I am a minority at JNU.

The book that came out from the JNU, ‘What the nation needs to know’, you look at all the talks there. You will see that I am certainly an exception. There may be two or three talks that are saying slightly different things but mine is in a way most different. So, definitely in that sense, I am in minority there. But JNU is also changing. The administration is now more aligned to the present government and the student unions, of course the left unions have won, but the right students are gradually gaining and who knows, things at JNU may change drastically, and then, the narrative that’s going around about JNU might also change once that conversion takes place. But I think the demonisation is also a little excessive because it’s based on a misrepresentation. Only those things are highlighted which are bad. The good is not highlighted and when the change happens, I do hope that all the good things are not lost.