A makeshift shop destroyed by the sea waves at Bakkhali due to the landing of Cyclone Amphan, near Sunderbans area in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal (Photo Credit: PTI)

#PrayForBengal Is Not Enough to Recover From Amphan, We Need a #DoForBengal

West Bengal, Odisha, and Bangladesh have been mercilessly ravaged. The casualty mark in West Bengal is just short of 100 so far. This figure is excluding animals and all the mighty trees the cyclone has managed to fell. When COVID-19 has been already battering the state, the present crisis has deepened the wounds. Life has encountered an exclamation mark while the comma of Coronavirus continues to linger. This further attests to the fact that Mother Nature is not quite motherly after all. Much of the human history before man made enemies of themselves has been a story of struggling against the forces of nature. As much as we like to love nature and worship her, part of the awe rises from our fear that has travelled through our past generations of men and women who lost everything at the hands of not so benign avatar of nature. We have coexisted but not without our constant struggles through millennia.

A picture tells a thousand tales. However, the images of one of the first modern cities of India, Calcutta or Kolkata in the aftermath of Amphan cyclone, no matter how heart rending, are quite tragically hiding a thousand tales. Even as the images of the devastation are trickling through, there are many areas which haven’t yet received their power supply, have not regained access to telecom network, and are fighting shortage of drinking water, food supplies etc.. There are many images yet to come. The exact measure of the destruction will be felt away from the shallow attention spans of the social media platforms, part of it immediately and part slowly.

Even before the cyclone struck, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had a fair idea of the damage that was about to come. As a result, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) had carried out massive evacuation. Bangladesh too had carried out such evacuations to minimize the loss of lives. If the death toll doesn’t rise any higher, we should still be thankful to the people on the field carrying out these exercises with all the handicaps of our Indian bureaucratic machinery. Electricity will be restored, the mobile network will come back, and the urban life will be back on its toes soon, or so we hope.

However, if we keep talking just about Kolkata, then we are making the same mistake that the self-proclaimed ‘National’ media makes – assuming New Delhi to be the sun with other states being in constant motion around this sun, the same mistake a lot of pure urban generations of Kolkata or Mumbai make – assuming Kolkata or Mumbai to be the centre of the universe with rest of the state thrown to the fringes. Let us shift the focus to the region which took the direct hitting of the cyclone. Nature can be swift but it also knows how to kill slowly. Mud embankments of the Sundarbans have been breached and sea water has entered the agrarian lands. This means doom for the farmers of the region as they are completely dependent on rice cultivation throughout the year. According to some reports, about 17,800 hectares of agricultural lands may have been damaged thus. In West Bengal alone, initial estimates tell that more than 1 lakh farmers have been affected. In Odisha, the losses are being calculated in the excess of $129 million. These farmers will need as much help as possible from the state machinery, central government, media, and citizens from other parts of the country.

West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has a huge task at her hand and she did the right thing by calling on the Prime Minister to survey the affected areas. She will need all the help our country has at its disposal – money, minds, and hands. The PM has announced an advance package of 1000 crore for the state. I believe the state is going to need much more than that even if the funds are utilized judiciously. These are the hottest months in the state of West Bengal, more so in Kolkata and adjoining areas, another reason to fast-track the road to recovery. Additional NDRF teams have been sent, Odisha has extended help, Army is on the ground to ensure road and tree clearance in different parts of the city (Tollygunge, Ballygunge, Rajarhat, Diamond Harbour, and Behala). In the coming days and months, the country will need much more resilience and the willingness to recover than ever before – thanks to COVID-19 and now the cyclones.

All this is praiseworthy but what if another cyclone comes next year or 3 years later? People from deluged parts of Sundarbans will migrate to other places now but slowly come back in the next few years. Cyclone is nature’s dialect and there is no stopping it, so it will come again causing similar destruction all over again. This happens because the retreat is not strategic and permanent in nature. An article on the issue of minimising damage in the Sundarbans has been published here. The article in its conclusion says, “Strategic and Managed Retreat instead of repeated disruption and ad hoc temporary resettlement, though expensive, is known to outweigh the upfront costs in most cases. Globally, this is an accepted mode of adaptation! An increase in the frequency of extreme events is symptomatic of the fact that tropical depression forming in the Bay of Bengal has a high probability to reach to severe cyclone stage. Hence, the administration and the people of the Indian Sundarbans have little choice but to consider voluntary relocation to safer locations, but in a participatory manner so as to minimise possibilities of conflicts.”

The article also quotes the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. Considering the number of crises our country faces year after year in different parts of its geography, it appears we let each one of them go to waste.

Consider Bihar. 76 percent of Bihar lives under constant threat of floods. This means when a flood comes in Bihar, about 76 pc of the region is immediately impacted. Now for the uninitiated, Bihar gets its due share of floods almost every year. Loss of human lives, cattle, crops, homes occur annually. Patna and surrounding areas were flooded as recently as last year where even the deputy Chief Minister of the state was seen vacating his house.

study on the flood risk of Kosi basin says, “…It (flood) is the very mechanics of river formation which demands that highest discharges would not be confined within the channel and overbank flooding will occur. The risk from flooding becomes greater because of the increase in population pressure as more and more floodplain is occupied thereby necessitating the efforts to reduce the flood risk to be stepped up. However, it is very rarely possible to provide complete protection against floods, and therefore, all flood management programmes have to be designed in such a way that it does not give a false sense of security to the people living in the region, as is normally the case in India…”

It follows that the areas which should be under constant strategic upgrades and adaptation in the face of natural disasters are left to themselves for the rest of the year. High risk areas which should not be colonized by humans because floods and cyclones are the ways of nature and no amount of preparations can ensure zero destruction to lives and properties are being stressed with overpopulation. The affected survivors are now habituated to see helicopters flying up above them where a politician surveys the affected areas and announces a relief package, only to repeat the exercise every year. Our forefathers died crying over the deaths in floods and cyclones, we will do the same. Particularly in Bihar, flood has become a way of life and inevitably, also a way of death.

I am bringing Bihar into this discussion for one more purpose. Right from the time Amphan made its landfall, the ‘Antifact Slacktivist Internet Bengali’ also made his presence felt like a netquake. This Antifact Slacktivist group exists for other states too. These rebels without a cause, (or if you want me to be more respectful, rebels with a meaningless cause), obsessed with a self-serving obligation to express their racial superiority to the rest of India is the closest to a Nazi Indian you will meet, of course with all the Che Guevara sugarcoating. They keep themselves busy alienating the rest of India from Bengal by raking up fake movements over ‘we eat meat during Durga Puja, so we are better than you’, ‘we don’t worship Ram, so we’re better than you’, ‘we have given you National Anthem, so we’re better than you’, ‘we threaten the airport staff for speaking in Hindi, so we’re better than you’ all their life. Not surprisingly, their first response to the cyclone was to curse the rest of India for not trending #PrayForBengal on facebook. This lot is fast appropriating the whole of Bengal on the internet and is whitewashing the diversities that have existed in West Bengal for centuries. Most of these people have a very tinted understanding of Bengal’s own history and culture, leave alone that of the country.

Each of such crises and the following outrage is an opportunity to propagate their politics and ideology. If every single reaction or its absence is to be put as a test of nationalism, then the first people to fail this test will be this kind of Internet Bengalis. At least, I don’t remember to have seen any trending #PrayForBihar (not that I care) response from them when Bihar – a close neighbour having its capital city at a distance of about 500 KM from Kolkata – floods every year. When the farmers and the poor of the state who happen to be the worst affected of all and need all the support coming their way from all across the country, this self-posturing is a fraud being committed on the people who have no stake in the ideological battles and who would really welcome help from any part of the country with both arms wide open right now.

Having said that, it is important for us to differentiate between the ideological warriors and the victims of an ecological disaster. These victims cannot fill their bellies with our national anthem, cannot get their crops back by winning the Hindi-Bengali debate, and cannot have their cattle back with the victory of Kali over Ram. Keep the self-serving warriors aside and please come out to help Bengal. It will serve us well to keep in our mind the words of a great teacher from Bengal who embodied an enormity of heart and incisiveness of intellect that made him the true heir to the legacy of both Gautam Buddha, who attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya of Bihar and Adi Shankara who travelled from Kerala to the length and width of the country for the spiritual unification of India.

“You merge yourselves in the void and disappear, and let new India arise in your place. Let her arise – out of the peasants’ cottage, grasping the plough; out of the huts of the fisherman. Let her spring from the grocer’s shop, from beside the oven of the fritterseller. Let her emanate from the factory, from marts, and from markets. Let her emerge from groves and forests, from hills and mountains.” – Swami Vivekananda

Please donate generously and help the ones who really need your help by visiting this link and send whatever amount you can – https://donations.belurmath.org/appeal-amphan-cyclone-relief-services-98376.

Cover Image: A makeshift shop destroyed by the sea waves at Bakkhali due to the landing of Cyclone Amphan, near Sunderbans area in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal (Photo Credit: PTI)

 

Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

COVID-19, Lockdowns, and Our ‘Typical Indian Problems’

We have now crossed the 100,000 mark. Every new day is beating the previous record of one day spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The numbers refuse to budge. Lockdowns have gotten feebler every passing phase. The state leaderships which were collecting adulatory coins till now on social media from film stars, seem to be giving up in a very trumpesque manner. One look at different state governments tells you what they are keeping busy with. Fighting litigations to open Tasmac shops, fudging the numbers on coronavirus, choosing to deliberately get oblivious of the violations of social distancing and lockdown norms by the high and mighty, and cancelling emergency trains because the builders can decide the rights of a poor Indian in a closed door meeting with the Chief Minister, we have seen everything.

Considering the difficulty of our time, the socio-economic diversity of our country, and of course our population, the chinks we are developing are inevitable. In spite of these misdemeanours, the government and bureaucracy have been toiling to contain the pandemic. The pressure to do better than other affected countries is palpable on the face of our leaders. The inconsistencies that we have seen in our political class and bureaucracy is a reminder for us to notice similar patterns in citizens too. While many have cooperated with the law enforcement agencies and the local administration, a huge number for some reason, is determined to dilute all the efforts and our national discipline, assuming it exists.

Back in my hometown, I remember something distinctly from my childhood. I would watch these individuals boarding a bus and on being asked for the ticket charge, they would just utter the word ‘staff’. That was the magic word. Some conductors did not dig deeper than this. A few would ask for an identity card. This would invariably turn into some sort of argument. The word – staff, was just one word from the freeloader (tu jaanta nahi main kaun hoon) vocabulary. This is still common in many parts of our country. I am sure you have seen words like ‘Army’, ‘Police’ on motorbikes and cars. Those are declarations of authority. Even when these vehicles are not being driven by the original owners, these signs have the same power. The point is, once we are made aware of this sort of vocabulary, we use these words whenever we are bending the system for our benefit. In effect, most of the people on the streets are either powerful in some way or are pretending to be. Ask any dhaabawala how many policemen pay their bills.

Last week, I ventured out after about 10 days to get some vegetables and while I was picking my veggies, a woman appeared out from a car without a mask towards the shop. When I asked her about her mask, she went back reluctantly towards the car but came back empowered with the male company who was on the wheels. On being asked again, they went into an argument overkill to defend their choice – “you don’t tell me, who are you?”. All that did not surprise me. In fact, when I answered with – “I am a citizen of this country, and I have a right to point it out if you are doing something so wrong for public health”, she dug into her freeloader vocabulary and retorted – “I’m a doctor. So I know. You don’t tell me!” If only irony were an academic discipline, this lady would win a Nobel.

Delhi customs has confiscated illegal export consignment of PPE kits. Karnataka government has already received requests for opening up mosques for prayers from MLC C.M. Ibrahim. People are coming out in large numbers for religious congregations, Maharashtra is doing everything that could be seen as opposite of a lockdown. It is almost as if people are volunteering for herd immunity by infection. All my visits to the bazaar have brought me face to face with people who don’t care about following social distancing norms or wearing a mask. Closer home, a house had some religious ceremony and entertained guests over a period of 3 days. A neighbour has carried out a complete makeover of his house using around 5-7 workers every day of the lockdown. These workers took the masks from their pockets only when I happened to request them. At all other times, they stayed inside the pockets. Interestingly, the homeowners used masks for themselves. After initial prohibitions from the governments on spitting in public places, I had hoped for some change. I didn’t realise spitting is something that completes our Indianness.

I’m sure you must have come across such situations in your own outings during these lockdowns. Of course, I am assuming you are not the one violating these norms in the first place. Now that the governments have given up on the lockdown restrictions and we are on our own, it is perhaps time to look into our behaviour as individuals during the last couple of months. Our attitude, both at the beginning and now, can finally explain the ‘typical Indian’ problems. I list a few of them here –

  1. Why do we indulge in rash driving and honk like we are composing some Bollywood ‘item number’?
  2. Why does our saliva keep asking for ‘aazadi’ from us every time we come out in public spaces?
  3. Why do our public hospitals spread more diseases than they cure? 
  4. Why does corruption fit so well under ‘essential services’ for us? 
  5. Why have our ponds, lakes, and rivers shapeshifted into exaggerated drains?
  6. Why do we smoke, pee everywhere apart from the places designated for them?  
  7. Why queues are synonymous with waterboarding for Indians?
  8. Why do Indian women get the definition of women-empowerment wrong so often? 
  9. Why do Indian men deny the existence of condoms?

When I met these defaulters during my lockdown outings, most of the responses betrayed a sense of invincibility, like ‘it’s nothing, it won’t happen to me’. Another response tried to tell me that since I was safe by following the rules, I should keep shut and not bother others. It is not innocence. It is not any sort of self-sacrifice. It is just a refusal to fall in line, a refusal of responsibility. We do not care. We are great at throwing the blame on someone else. It’s not that we don’t care at all, we do. In fact, as Manu Joseph puts it, we have ‘immense stamina for useless issues’. For example, we care enough to slap a film-maker because his film hurts our group-pride. However, no amount of gutkha spitting hurts our group pride because we haven’t yet identified with any group that takes offence for gutkha spitting. Of course, Maharana Pratap didn’t sacrifice his life fighting the gutkha spewers, how can we take offence for that then?

 

The group that is still largely unrealized and unknown in our land is called ‘enlightened citizenry’, a concept discussed in detail by Swami Ranganathananda in his lecture and now book on Enlightened Citizenship and our Democracy. An individual’s awareness of his social responsibility is at the centre of such a citizenship. Since we have not yet understood this difference between an ordinary ‘adult citizenship’ and an ‘enlightened’ one, our other group associations dominate enlightened citizenry for much of our lifetime. It is up to us then to step back every time our pride is wounded and identify the group we are associating with to inflict this wound upon ourselves. If we find that this group is anything other than ‘enlightened citizenry’, we have our answer to most of the problems that begin with ‘a typical Indian..’.

 

Cover Image: Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

 

Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Down With COVID-19, the Hospitality Industry Remains Hospitalised With No Vaccine in Sight

“Hello sir, I want to cancel my booking for the month of May. Can you please process the refund? Here are my account details,” read a whatsapp message from Mr. Sinha, our guest to be in our latest Sikkim property. I thought of requesting him to change his mind and accept our offer for extension instead of cancellation but resisted the temptation. It was futile though. Almost everyone before him had turned down the offer. Almost every advance booking had been cancelled by now. Transferring the refunds was a big challenge. Once you receive a payment, it does not stay in the bank account. Either it gets invested or spent in various other business activities. No one ever thought of a cent percent cancellation rate and we cannot blame anyone for this. The current COVID-19 crisis has left everyone vulnerable.

Most of the hotels across India work on the lease system. Instead of buying a property from the owner or building it from scratch, it is always beneficial to opt for a lease. This way, one has an option of winding up the business, lest it fails to click. This is the segment the recent COVID-19 crisis has hit the most. Most of the business owners rely on the summer months to cover up the lease value. The school break, peak wedding season and an intolerable heat wave across the country make the summer months an ideal time for family vacations.

People plan their trips well in advance. The advance bookings start right from the winter season. Now that the turn over for this quarter will be a big ZERO, there are now question marks on even recovering the lease amount, let alone the profits. Summer season has always provided meaty profits to the hospitality industry. The outcomes are swollen bank accounts and a hope of a profitable season. These are high motivating factors as hotel industry is cost intensive. Property and staff maintenance require hefty sums. A little negligence on any front can lead to a below par rating across web portals leading to negative publicity and drop in sales. No one in the hotel industry can afford this.

 

Despite the revenue dropping down, staff salaries need to be paid. Staves who have been with the owners through thick and thin also have families to feed. While discussing their hardships I should mention the case of Mr. Pratap, our head chef. Once the situation worsened and we stopped operations, naturally, he desired to leave for his native place in Bengal. However, he was stopped at the Sikkim Bengal border. The Sikkim government had sealed the borders the same morning. Poor chap has been staying in a small lodge near the border and paying for his rent and food, away from family and work.

Some of the hotels have been converted into quarantine centres while some are hosting the stranded tourists. The hoteliers still receive regular electricity and utility bills at commercial rates. The tour operators who form the backbone of tourism are also under immense pressure. The fleet of vehicles need regular maintenance and timely overhaul. Owing to lockdown extensions, the machines will face degradation. Most of the transport services thrive on bank loans. In these turbulent times the EMIs pose a serious challenge. Till now, nothing concrete has been said or done in this regard. Several places where tourism serves as the sole source of income for the people have been the worst affected. List of people affected the most include hotel and lodge owners, drivers, travel agents, tour guides, owners of small restaurants and eateries, and regional craftsmen and artistes.

The government has been mostly proactive in dealing with the pandemic. The nationwide lockdown and economic package for the poor bear a testimony to this. The Prime minister in his latest declaration has announced a substantial chunk of GDP as a relief package for medium and small enterprises. It is still unclear how much of that is aimed for revival of hospitality industryan industry that contributes close to 10 percent of the GDP and employs over 8 percent of the labour force. One can just hope of a generous share out of the package. It may just be the panacea for an industry whose death is imminent. State governments also need to lend a supporting hand. Lowering electricity and other utilities rates, suspension of various local taxes and easing other regulations may also reduce the burden. Waiver of the bills for the next few months will be a welcome measure.

Across the country we have SEZs, why can’t centres of tourism come under the ambit of SEZs? Such centres may be provided with some additional perks like tax relief, subsidised rates for hotel supplies, subsidised fuel etc. Since the goods producing industries will now operate with a much lower labour force, the cost of production will also increase. Add to it the mandatory sanitization protocols, the prices of general use items may shoot up by 25 to 30 percent. All this will trickle down to the customers, the tourists, in this case. This will also act as a deterrent to tourism. Exempting tourism from GST might just pull down the rise in cost. The tourism industry is thus at the mercy of the government.

 

Once the lock down is lifted, other economic activities will resume, albeit slowly. Agriculture will restart, markets will reopen and production of essentials and even non-essentials will commence. Now that people focus on bare essentials, planning a vacation will be the last thing on their mind. Various modes of travel are suspended. Even if the services resume, people will hesitate in stepping out. The future is bleak and there are no signs of recovery for the future. The hospitality industry is looking into a dark tunnel with no ray of hope.  

One solitary positive aspect of the COVID-19 has been the restoration of nature. Mother nature has been at her prime in the past few weeks. Pollution levels have dropped and air and water quality have improved significantly. A deep breath of the mountain air or a gulp of the clear river water is sufficient to rejuvenate the gloomy minds. Hope sustains life! So one can be just hopeful of a COVID vaccine sometime soon. It is the only development that can restore faith in people’s minds. People will travel to new places, meet new people, make new friends without hesitation. Well, all this needs to be seen in the future, but till then the heart can only pray for the well-being of all.

“सर्वे  सन्तु  निरामयाः”

About the Author: An engineering graduate from MIT, Manipal, Nitin Tibrewal, ventured into tourism with his hotel start-up in Sikkim. His company Shree Kunj organises tours and holidays to the north east. Also, as a dedicated teacher, he runs a coaching institute – Mathemagic thereby fulfilling his passion for teaching. You can find more about his venture at here.

Cover Image by K. Kliche from Pixabay

Digital Publishing Startups are Redefining the Industry as Amazon Maintains Lead

The pursuit of hygge during COVID-19 social distancing has forced the Tsundoko-afflicted to dust off the books in their homes, and prompted busy readers to boost e-book sales worldwide. With Amazon shifting its attention to ‘essential goods and services’ and independent bookstores suffering due to reduced footfall, digital publishing platforms and reading services are flourishing globally. According to Emma Charlton, fiction sales in the United Kingdom have had a 30% increase while sales of children’s non-fiction titles surged by 66% in the United States. Even as digital libraries such as Internet Archive and JSTOR have provided access to millions of books and journals, Seagull Books is offering a book a day to readers worldwide. The million-plus subscribed Scribd has also pitched in with free access to its library.

JSTOR - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books – E-Book Offer

Although the COVID-19 lockdown has positively impacted the global e-book industry, publishing startups have been re-drawing the boundaries of the traditional printing press and conventional publishing houses for years.

BlondePlotters
The Blonde Plotters

My VLF, winner of Bookseller’s FutureBook Booktech Startup of the Year, is the global online literary festival. Launched in 2019 by The Blonde Plotters, Gwyn GB, Kelly Clayton, Deborah Carr, who found travelling to literary festivals expensive from their residence in Jersey in the Channel Islands near France, My VLF provides free access to thousands of books and author interviews, similar to a venue-based literary festival. Co-founder of My VLF, Gwyn GB says, “Although the award has not made much difference in registered users since it’s an industry award, the recognition has prompted new publishers and authors to get in touch with us.” The Covid 19 lockdown has also brought collaborations with publishers who had scheduled book launches, and cancelled British book festivals coming together for My VLF’s Big Book Weekend.

Lee Constantine (Publishizer)
Lee Constantine (Publishizer)

As with most startups, gaps in industry paradigms often precipitate identification of technological solutions. My VLF is similar to Notion Press which was established when engineers, Naveen Valsakumar and Bhargava Adepalley were unable to find a publisher despite friend Jana Pillay’s father owning a publishing house. According to Publishizer’s Lee Constantine, “96% of book proposals get rejected by agents and publishers… And many authors are left to navigate this process on their own… So Publishizer started as a way for authors to crowdfund their own advance by selling pre-order copies… All of these happens before the book is written, so it’s a very lean approach to publishing a book.”

Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)
Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)

Among start-ups taking the unconventional route in the publishing industry is Qwerty Thoughts. The social book-reading platform’s discussable format of a book enables readers to simultaneously interact with the text and other readers. Co-Founder of Qwerty Thoughts, says, “Every book is a virtual reading room. We have incorporated chat rooms plus live reading. So while you are reading, you can see who all are reading a book at that particular time. You can directly chat with them inside the book; and if you’re reading the same chapter, you can directly have a live chat on that particular chapter or that particular paragraph even which you are reading together”.

Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)
Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)

The range of publishing startups include publishing start-up veteran, Pothi.com, crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and photobook printer Binder. Co-Founder of Canelo, Michael Bhaskar’s list of publishing startups includes more than 500 companies worldwide. While many companies on Bhaskar’s original 2014 list have remained active, companies like Red Lemonade found it difficult to continue operations. Richard Nash of Red Lemonade, who was unable to raise the capital necessary for business development, explains that “One of the biggest challenges that publishing start-ups face in the East and the West is adoption cycles. It takes a very long time for publishing start-ups to scale… Any investor, they want to see activity on the platform.”

Shubhojit Chatterjee
Shubhojit Chatterjee (Binder)

B2B publisher and founder of photobook publisher, Binder, Shubhojit Chatterjee agrees that it is more difficult to retain consumer clients than business clients. Citing Pothi.com as an example of how long it takes to establish a publishing start-up, Shubhojit says, “customer relationship management is really important. Whenever a customer has an issue, we ensure we respond immediately to address their concern… And customers remember that we went the extra mile to resolve their issue.” 

 

Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)
Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)

Among the first Print-on-Demand companies in India, Pothi.com, has come a long way since it was established in 2008, with nearly 12000 print titles and 8000 e-books presently. Co-founder Abhaya Agarwal attributes the platform’s success to “word-of-mouth publicity. We have always prided ourselves on our customer service and transparency. Because self-publishing can be a very scammy thing… There are tons of companies making huge promises and charging large amounts. So we have always been very careful. we can under-promise and over-deliver but never the other way around.” Abhaya is also proud of being able to provide opportunities to unconventional authors including graphic novel illustrators through the Comix India collaboration.

Of course, Amazon, the tech behemoth that started the publishing disruption, is still going strong with “authors earning more than USD 300 million from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select Global Fund in 2019, totalling more than USD 1.1 billion since the launch of Kindle Unlimited.” As Brian Heater & Anthony Ha assert, “Kindle can take credit for doing the lion’s share in changing our perception of what a book is.” As more publishing start-ups try to re-define the reading and publishing experience worldwide, the modern printing press of digital libraries and independent publishing is expected to incorporate more technological solutions that blend existing printing standards with innovations for the narrative of digital humanities.


 

Cover Image - A writer writing on her laptop with books beside her.

How to Write a Book Review – Take Your First Steps

Some reviewers end up writing a book report while writing a book review. Some even don’t read the book before writing a book review (yes, it’s a scam!). Some write it to prove that they are Shakespeare incarnate and just one book away from churning out bestsellers like Stephen King.

Well, some reviewers just miss the point of reviewing a book. So, we are releasing a few-pointer guideline to write a book review that is nothing else but a Book Review. Let’s dig in.

There are two stages of writing a book review. One is written in your head while you are reading it and the second is written when you pick your pen or the writing device to actually write it down. So, we have divided our guide into two sections –

  • The Reading Part
  • The Writing Part

The Reading Part

  • Read the book. Yes, that’s the most essential part. If you review a book without reading or after partial reading of the book, you are being dishonest. If there were licenses for book reviewers, yours would be revoked in no time.
  • Make notes, create highlights, and mark quoteworthy parts. This will help you avoid a re-reading of the book while writing the review.
  • Check for difficulty or ease of reading. Define a benchmark according to your journey as a reader. What books have you found to be good and easy to read, bad and easy to read, good and difficult to read, bad and difficult to read? Place your current book in the permutations appropriately.
  • Determine if the book is a pageturner – 10% rule. Read atleast 10% of the book to decide if it is pageturner. Remember to mention your finding to your readers.
  • Determine if the beginning and the end are done well. They are important for all kinds of writing, including your review.
  • Understand who does the book relate to. Are you able to relate to the book? If not, who is the right reader for the book?
  • Take note of the editing quality. Editors can be lazy and because they have the power to spoil a book, they sometimes do it. Make sure you take note of the editor’s performance.
  • Don’t mind the author’s reputation. It is not your job to please or displease the author. Remember you are not judging the author, you are judging the book. A few touchy authors don’t understand the difference and that’s okay.
  • Most importantly, be honest to your feelings.

THE Writing PART

  • Start with a bait, something that intrigues your readers. This bait should make your readers dive right into your review. For example – “Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist.” Also, a bait doesn’t have to be a lie.
  • Introduce the book, author, theme, and publisher.
  • Give a short introduction of the plot without spoilers. Again, no spoilers.
  • Discuss the parts that appealed to you the most. Use the quoteworthy parts you noted while reading. Discuss other findings from your reading such as ‘if it’s a pageturner’, ‘how difficult or easy was the read’ etc.
  • Discuss things that are unique about the book. If you don’t find anything unique, we are sorry that you’ve to review this book.
  • Discuss the parts you didn’t like but do not act mean. Book writing is hard work and even if you are reviewing the most boring book of the world, the effort alone deserves a round of applause.
  • Whether you are recommending a read or suggesting abstinence, provide reasons. Use stars if you use stars for rating.
  • Most importantly, be honest to your feelings.

Also, remember George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Image by expresswriters from Pixabay

Agni Sreedhar’s The Gangster’s Gita Evokes a Whirlwind of Emotions


The first time I heard the name Agni Sreedhar I was sitting in one of the conference rooms of the Hotel Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru, editing a blog for the Bangalore Literature Festival. Mr. Sreedhar was one of the guest speakers for the festival and was in conversation with renowned Kannada writer Prathibha Nandakumar about his new book The Gangster’s Gita (published by Eka). Like many others before me, I too was intrigued reading about his life and one of our team members filled me in with more details about this so-called gangster turned writer, which only piqued me further. His story has been so unlike the usual that it wasn’t too difficult for me to register his name in the memory amidst the long list of speakers who came to the festival. From then till today, there had been many occasions when I had serendipitously crossed paths with Gangster’s Gita. As lame as it may sound, I have always believed that a good book will always find you when the time is just right.

 

Last night I was window shopping on Kindle and once again found The Gangster’s Gita sitting there asking to be read. I instinctively downloaded it but it was almost midnight. I told myself I will have a look at the ‘Translator’s Note’ and read the rest of the book the next morning. The translation is done by Prathibha Nandakumar and the original title in Kannada is Edegarike. In her note, she talks about the author and his love of literature. She also talks about how translating his book hasn’t been an easier task given Sreedhar’s distinct style of writing along with the need to retain the nuances of the original narration in Kannada. However, all the hard work and the multiple drafts of translation seems to have paid off, because I couldn’t just stop with the translator’s note. Before I knew it, I was already reading the last lines of the book and I must credit the translator as much as the author for the scintillating read. Personally for me, one of the best things that happened to the book is Prathibha’s translation along with her note.

 

The publisher’s note claims that this is a work of fiction and the usual that follows. However, the book begins with words of Erik Erikson – ‘A novel is not necessarily a work of fiction’. The narrator is our very Sreedhar Anna who entered the criminal world under the strangest of circumstances. However, the real protagonist of this stirring story seems to be Sona. Sona belonged with the mafia of the Mumbai underworld and was sent to Bangalore on an assignment that involved Sreedhar Anna and his boss. The sudden turn of events leads to Sreedhar Anna meeting Sona. The duo is then compelled by circumstances to leave Bangalore to Sakleshpur along with Sreedhar Anna’s boss and some of their boys. During their adventurous trip and their stay in Sakleshpur, Sreedhar Anna and Sona get acquainted with each other.

 

The book follows the life of Sona through conversations with Sreedhar Anna. Sona, who is barely thirty years old, intrigues Sreedhar Anna with his calm and poise. Their conversations and Sona’s demeanour unleash a storm within Sreedhar Anna and stirs up the readers too without fail. In her note earlier, Prathibha talked about how they arrived at the title of the book and it can’t be any more apt than this. The book stands on the shoulders of two men who have killed and questions the concepts of strength and weakness, heroism and cowardice. It wretches open the seemingly cold-hearts of these men and drench you in the blood of warmth that flows inside them. The choices that they made, the choices that are made for them, their regrets, their gracefulness demolishes all pre-established ideas of good- bad and right-wrong.

 

Orwell says “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane.”, and that is exactly how our author writes. He forgoes the decorative language and sticks with straight yet evocative narration. It is a thin book with only 103 pages yet with its powerful, thought-provoking narration it invoked a whirlwind of emotions within me that I could barely fall asleep. It has been one of the very fulfilling reads for this year and I am grateful for all the happenstances that led me to the discovery of this book.

 

COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

Palghar Lynching and the Individuals Who Make the Mob

Observe yourself. Look at your thoughts. Understand your speech. Fathom your actions. Now, with all those weapons at your disposal – do you stand with the lynched, the mob that lynched, or the policemen who served the Sadhus on a silver platter to a bloodthirsty mob? If this doesn’t help, ask yourself if you have done anything in your life to prevent such a blood-curdling incident, or on the opposite, have your weapons actually further strengthened such forces? We incessantly post hateful comments, we alienate people we don’t like, we write a deceitful article, we keep hiding the flaws of things and people we love, and then we go to bed with a self-bravo on our back while remaining completely unaware of what we have contributed to. There are people of course who do it on purpose and paycheck but I’m not writing to them.

 

We choose a side according to our predilections. Our group identities are running on a rampage. First, we are Hindus or Muslims or Brahmins or Dalits. These group identities give anonymity to the individual. The individual no longer has to bear the burden of his face and individual identity. He becomes part of a group – no matter how small or big. The group has a mask. This mask hides everyone. The question is who is it hiding the individual from? 

 

The first person an individual needs to hide from is himself – his own conscience. We keep judging our actions everyday. Imagine how much you judged and punished yourself the last time you reprimanded your kid. How is it possible then, that an individual goes and kills 3 people with such nonchalance? The mobocracy hides the individual from his own conscience and this makes it easier for him to do what the mob does. “We were not wrong when we voted our Member of Parliament in on the basis of our group identity, how can we get wrong now? This person must be punished.” The second person this individual is hiding from is the person standing next to him. It’s not that it’s just you who judges yourself. Usually, if you are a youngster, more specifically a juvenile, and you get into a silly fight with your friend out in public, someone will come and chide both of you to end the scuffle. That’s a responsibility an individual of a civilized society takes upon himself without anyone telling him to do so. Why then, the person standing next to a kid who is about to murder someone does not do the same thing when he is part of a mob? Of course, the other person is hiding from his own conscience first. Secondly, he also needs protection from the kid’s conscience. The symbiotes assist each other, become stronger than they were alone, and feel the rush of all-consuming power from inside out before they go for the kill. A life or several lives end. People outrage. People blame the group they hate. Job is done. Only problem – the symbiotes keep coming back.

 

So, what are the group identities involved here? A group of offended muslims because a group member’s daughter loved a Hindu boy, a group of offended gaurakshaks because a few muslims were smuggling cows, a group of offended villagers because somebody stole their child, and a group of angry policemen determined to prove their worth to the country as well as their power over a failed judiciary – these are a few groups that have in recent times been accused or found guilty of lynching. For the entire length of their lives on media – social or otherwise, these killers are referred to with their group name – a few more often than others sometimes. The 2 sadhus and 1 driver – namely – Sushil Giri Maharaj, Nilesh Telgane, and Chikane Maharaj Kalpavrikshgiri were being referred to as thieves or alleged thieves by the media outlets till the time those agonizing visuals came out. On one side, there was hardly any outrage before this and on the other side, once the visuals came out and it was conclusively proved that these were sadhus, a very consorted movement was launched to pin the blame on muslims. On the opposite camp, the people who usually lose their heads and leave no stone unturned to shame every Hindu of the country when an individual of Islamic faith loses his life in a similar situation began to shed ‘I told you so’ and ‘Now, you know how it feels’ tears of joy over the corpses of these men. 

It is not very difficult to see that if we cared about the individual, the outrage would have come two days ago. If we had cared enough to understand that no matter the group identity, an individual’s life should not be lost this way, we wouldn’t hurt each other in riots after riots. If we had cared about the life of the last person standing in the queue of our country’s civilizational progress, we wouldn’t have beaten up the doctors and nurses who have become our first line of defence in these disheartening times. 

 

Research Psychologist Irving Janis (1918-1990) who coined the term ‘GroupThink’ (inspired by Orwell’s DoubleThink) gives eight symptoms to identify GroupThink – 

 

Type I: Overestimations of the group — its power and morality

  • Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

 

Type II: Closed-mindedness

  • Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

 

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

  • Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  • Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  • Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  • Mindguards— self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

 

To see an example, between 347 and 504 unarmed people were killed by the U.S. Army soldiers in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War on 16 March 1968. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated as were children as young as 12. In Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing, a veteran described talks about the “ordinary, basically decent American soldier”

“You put those same kids in the jungle for a while, get them real scared, deprive them of sleep, and let a few incidents change some of their fear to hate. Give them a sergeant who has seen too many of his men killed by booby traps and by lack of distrust, and who feels that Vietnamese are dumb, dirty and weak, because they are not like him. Add a little mob pressure, and those nice kids who accompany us today would rape like champions.”

 

Add social media to the mix and groupthink becomes a godzilla that we can essentially refer to as MobThink. I can be meaner on social media than I would normally be with you in person without much of a regret. We create echo-chambers where we keep listening to thoughts and people we like. We hate with much greater gusto augmented by a sense of apathy for the opposite side. We mock people with gau-mutra slurs, we keep calling them puncture-wala, we insult each others’ Gods, we keep insulting the migrants in our states, we keep junking languages our mothers didn’t speak, we keep blaming Brahmins for all the wrongs done to us, we keep discriminating against the Dalits, this is a never ending list. There is always someone else responsible for our failures and problems. 

 

The other group or mob loses all its rights to exist. While social media has come to the party late, its rise and ways retrospectively explain what has been happening in our society for a long time. We are raised to conform. We inherit groups and segregations of caste, language, culture, wealth status, religion, dietary choices and what not. Naturally, we inherit groupthink too. The inheritance might not have been a problem if the individual is given his due place but we spend a lifetime being taught that a group is bigger than the individual. Conformity is expected, resistance is condemned, and quickly a whole society forgets that it is made up of individuals who must have the freedom to think, to question, to discriminate between ideas to become a productive unit of the society. That is a utopian dream though. The group-leader who keeps flipping between leading the groupthink and falling victim to it, is the only individual who is important. Rest are born to follow, propagate the virus of group-thinking, and die facing dystopian realities. 

 

To use an analogy from the story of Ramayana, Vibhishan, who was the only one to see the right in the middle of so many wrongs and could stand against the groupthink of Ravan and his associates is remembered more as a traitor than an individual who had a mirror of truth in his hand to show to the society. On the other hand, Ram had a group of people around him who thought differently and had different solutions to the same problems. From Lakshman who wanted Ram to punish the Ocean God against Ram’s preferred way of prayers to Hanuman who finds out Sita’s whereabouts and Angad who happened to be the son of Baali who was earlier killed by Ram, each individual had a specific role to play in the victory of Lanka. While the epic was written for us to perhaps aspire and work for individual excellence leading to a group’s progress, we have degenerated into clusters of Lanka where the only task at hand is to protect Ravans of the society and their criminal behaviour. Vibhishans are still unpopular and are getting kicked out from their groups with the same disdain and alacrity. This way, mobs preserve their homogeneity and commit to thoughts and acts where everyone is always a participant and no one is ever guilty.

 

What part of the incident should we choose to get shocked at? Should we be shocked that a group of people can kill three people without a moment of hesitation? Or should we be horrified at the fact that the police, which employs a large number of individuals who otherwise derive great joy and frolic by carelessly raining lathis over the vulnerable, literally handed over these men to the hunters as if they were the mob’s marked prey? Or should we be surprised that such an incident could happen in a country under strict lockdown? The lockdown doesn’t surprise us anymore though. Since it began, we have read news about doctors and nurses becoming victims of mob violence in different parts of the country. As recently as yesterday, there are reports coming from Tamil Nadu that the ambulance carrying Simon Hercules’ body, a doctor and medical entrepreneur who ran the New Hope Private Hospital and died of a coronavirus infection, was attacked and his cremation resisted by a mob. 

 

As long as we keep hiding behind the mask of a mob or a group, this is not going to change. The mask has to fall and it is time to bring the individual in focus, the same individual that was taught to us as the basic unit of society and then conveniently forgotten. Individualism holds that a person taking part in society attempts to learn and discover what his or her own interests are on a personal basis, without a presumed following of the interests of a societal structure (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not follow one particular philosophy, rather creates an amalgamation of elements of many, based on personal interests in particular aspects that he/she finds of use. On a societal level, the individualist participates on a personally structured political and moral ground. Independent thinking and opinion is a common trait of an individualist.” For Carl Jung, individuation is a process of transformation, whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality. It is a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche to take place. Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development. 

 

Evidently, our current central process of human development is rotten and individuals go unaccountable. Since mobs either have no answers and generally possess the demonic power of mob-justice with them, can we absolve ourselves from the sins of these groups? Do we stand the rigours of morality an individual must abide by? We don’t! There was a time when to get such results, psychologists needed elaborate experimental setups. Several psychological experiments of the past have shown that if put in a situation where we – yes, I and you, had a choice to follow a mob to commit an act of crime or not, we are more likely to join the mob.

 

Right now, social media is a live laboratory of several experiments and one doesn’t need to make much effort to see how we join warring mobs online – sometimes against another mob and many a time against an individual. We keep killing our own individualism and vacate more spaces for the mobs to assemble and kill more individuals. When we keep planting the seeds of hatred every day in our lives, how can we expect to out-outrage the lynch mobs? Our polity is filled with individuals hiding behind these hate-mobs, our universities and institutions are saturated with hate-mobs, our media has prime-timed hate in our living rooms. Our government system has accepted people who come out during the elections, use the power of this mob to spew venom against other groups, and then crawl back to their hole with zero accountability or repercussions. Our public discourse is largely ‘against somebody’ than ‘for anything’. Our inner dialogue has disappeared under the pressures of conformity to the lynch-mob psyche. Why does it surprise us then that three people have been killed in the most gruesome manner possible? Are you sure that you are not the rumour-monger of the town who will effect more such killings in the days to come?

The Literature World is Already Adapting to the New Normal

Nothing else seems on everyone’s minds other than the coronavirus pandemic. It has brought entire countries to a standstill. It has brought individual lives to a stop. It has completely changed the way we live, for now. As a result, things have suddenly become more online than physical, from education to office work. The pertinent need for social distancing has brought about this social change.

The world in the pre-corona era saw a resurgence of independent bookstores, but now once again literature has to carve a space in the online sphere and so far, it has embraced this online transformation quite well. Following the lock down rules in India, bookstores and publication houses have been shut down. With that, literary readings, book launches, author sign ups, engaging discussions, and talks have also ceased for the time being.

So where do we go from here?

If one has stable internet and a computer system or a smartphone, for now, a home will suffice. This is because several publication houses, authors, collectives and organisations have turned to the digital medium so that there is not a complete cut off for literature lovers. We can get our dose of literary fun in these trying times too.

 

 

Reading with Kids

Schools and colleges were the first to be shut in March when the coronavirus reared its ugly head in the country. This led to this unexpected scenario where the kids are suddenly home and it is not even summer vacation. The parents were unprepared and so were the schools for this vacuum. The parents had the double task now of working from home themselves as well as keeping the kids engaged.

Some of the initial online literary ventures, thus, focused on kids and getting them to use this spare time to read more since they were forced to be indoors.

An online Facebook Group, Reading Racoons, started #ThodaReadingCorona where till 31st of March everyday at 11am, a video was posted of different children books’ authors reading excerpts from their respective books.

Penguin too launched its series #OnceUponATimeWithPenguin, which lasted till the 1st part of the lockdown.

 

 

Diverse Literary Initiatives

Slowly, as the lockdown got enforced throughout the country, similar events were organised by more publishing houses and literary collectives too. Juggernaut Books in association with the scroll.in perhaps started the first online literary fest, ReadInstead, where celebrities and authors from diverse backgrounds either read book excerpts or discussed them. They post their weekly schedule every Thursday and the videos go live at 1pm. Check out their latest schedule for this week here.

Roli Books has also transformed into Roli Pulse where they conduct panel discussions rather than only having author readings. Zubaan Books joined the bandwagon this week when it began a webinar series discussing myriad perspectives and issues the country faces while battling COVID 19.

 

 

Is It Worth It?

All this begs the question how important and effective are these online ventures? For one, they provide succor to all literature lovers and getting kids to read more is always appreciated. For another, they help literature lovers remain rooted, sane, and well informed even when they cannot physically attend such programmes.

In the age of petty social media distractions and mindless scrolling, such events are a far better alternative. If after three weeks of lockdown, one is thoroughly exasperated by Netflix shows and TV channels, these events are there for you to learn and enjoy.

So, even when and if the lockdown gets eased, these events should continue because of the knowledge they help to disseminate. They do away with physical hurdles of space and are more accessible, albeit with certain technological requirements. You do not have to be in that location or venue to attend the event. You can enjoy all the literary gems from the comfort of your home, sitting on your favourite couch with a pair of headphones. In a way, they could make for the perfect literature festival!

Not to mention they are free of cost and do not carry with them the hustle and bustle of usual literary events or literary festivals. So, if you want to hear your favourite author, you do not have to go through their itinerary or push through hordes of other fans, just sit back and enjoy!

Social distancing might become a norm in the foreseeable future, at least till the pandemic does not recede. Hence, having online literary events and festivals seem an excellent way to keep oneself engaged. They are also innovative models conceptualized by publishing houses or bookstores to remain in business while continuing engagement between readers and writers.

However, in this new world of incessant online communication, the only drawback of the online literary festivals is the online aspect itself. For how many hours can one be attached to a computer? It is one thing to log in and enjoy an insightful online discussion once in a while. But after being constantly logged in, there is a danger of being saturated with it. One would then long for the closeness and human touch of an actual physical event!

Though one possible solution for this is to subscribe to podcasts rather than visual literary festivals, for now, we have in our grasp, well curated talks and readings! Literature now has moved on to greener pastures: the online pastures!

Online Literary Festivals You Should Check Out:

1. The pioneer of literary festivals in India, Jaipur literature Festival, started its digital version which is aptly called, Brave New World.

2. Women’s Web’s #SheReads invites female authors to read and discuss their works. One excellent talk is by Anukrti Upadhyay, author of Daura.

3. Bound India is a great platform to know more about books and budding writers. With the lockdown, they also began a plethora of useful writing workshops and online classes. Their podcasts are a great option for those who are tired of their screens!

4. Harper Collins in collaboration with Algebra: the Arts and Ideas Club initiated RESET that hosts conversations with Harper authors. We recommend checking out their #Lockdown Poetry section where authors read their favourite poems!

5. The Curious Reader’s has two interesting series on its Instagram page: One where authors talk about their work and the other related to staying sane during the lockdown, #StaySafeStaySane

So, spend some quality time brushing up your literary knowledge and exploring its many areas through these and many more such online literary initiatives!

 

John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns


It is sometimes easy to forget, amid the ramblings on politics and culture, and religion, even cricket, that India is a magical place both literally and figuratively. Magic has always played an important part of the cultural makeup of this country. Much like the storytellers who go from village to village, narrating myths and legends, or the community of ropewalkers and acrobats who entertain in the middle of a busy street with feats of daring, there is also a community of artists whose profession is to shock and awe with the help of the supernatural, and the impossible. They are street magicians.

This then, is the subject of John Zubrzycki’s thoroughly researched epic – Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India. It is an exhaustively entertaining book that takes the reader on a journey from the court of Mughal Emperor Jehangir to the streets of Delhi in modern India.

Zubrzycki drew upon a wealth of narratives and anecdotes for his research. From traditional Greek travel accounts to eyewitness accounts of merchants, traders, courtiers, chroniclers, and even kings, to libraries, newspaper clippings, magic journals, and personal interviews, Zubrzycki used all to write this account. So exhaustively large is the story that the author has chosen to tell, that it will feel largely incomplete despite the depth and extent of the narrative before the reader.

Indian magic has existed for a really long time. According to Zubrzycki’s own reckoning, there seems to be hints, even actual verses, in ancient texts as old as the Atharva Veda. Clearly, Zubrzycki has found a very extensive goldmine to write about. It is probably one of the most fascinating stories to come out of the Indian Subcontinent, and Zubrzycki has taken great pains to ensure that the narrative is flowing, succinct and enjoyable, and has succeeded in his endeavour – something that is will be made aptly clear to anyone who decides to give this book a try.

 

“India’s pantheon of magicians – jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, jadugars, madaris, mayakaris, maslets, qalandars, sanpwallahs, sanperas, katputliwallahs, bahurupis, peepshow-wallahs, the list goes on – ranges across creed and caste. Stronger than religious ties, is their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of twelve, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats. Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth made out of three stones whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India as they have for millennia.” (pg. 10-11)

 

Surprisingly, according to Zubrzycki, there is hardly any scholarship on the subject of Indian Magic. That is how Zubrzycki’s book was conceived. During the course of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the mysticism and grandeur of Indian magic was strange enough that there were many anecdotal accounts written about it by English men and women who witnessed the tricks first hand. “Even Harry Houdini started his career posing as a ‘Hindu Fakir’.” (pg. 19)

These legends and tales of magic from the Land of India had existed since ancient times. The Greek physician Ctesias listed the races of fantastical people living in India as early as 400BCE. There were several such instances. The Greeks wrote extensively about the marvels of India. And they weren’t the only ones. Over time, the feats of magic witnessed by Kings and Queens of India were recorded by courtly scribes and later translated and read by Westerners, increasing the mystery of India. In fact, so unreal and supernatural did these recorded feats of magic feel, that the mystical magical lands of India were living up to their reputation. Afterwards, when they witnessed it first-hand themselves, the western audience was even more enamoured of India and the marvels it had to offer.

 

A chapter that is surely going to take the reader by surprise is the one that Zubrzycki has dedicated to Motilal Nehru, the barrister and father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India. Zubrzycki found a letter during his research written by Nehru to the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay. “I have just learnt that in order to send a party of Indians consisting of performers, musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Protector of Emigrants. As I am about to send such a party, I beg to state the necessary particulars for your information.” (pg. 241) The chapter takes a heavy-handed look at the state of immigration laws imposed on Indians by the British.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the exploration of the most famous of all Indian magic tricks: The Great Indian Rope Trick. The trick was written about in many histories, even in the Jahangirnama, as a feat that was both strange and surprising. It was the subject of much speculation and debate between Indian and Western magicians, with neither being able to successfully accomplish the trick without the use of props. It was a trick that “that was the most marvelous of all and would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured.” Zubrzycki dedicates an entire chapter (13) to the trick and details its further history in the next chapter. Zubrzycki also tells the history of P.C. Sorcar, arguably the greatest Indian magician, in the final chapter of the book.

 

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, Zubrzycki states at the onset that his intention is, quite literally, only to present a history of Indian Magic. in order to do so, he refrains from giving away the secrets of any of the magic tricks he has witnessed. Filled with lavish portraits and full colour photographs, this is the book that will certainly have people talking about the beauty of Indian magic again.

 

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We Have No Time to Stand and Stare

It has been a month now since life started slowing down for me, thanks to the pandemic. With the numbers still spiking in my home state where my parents live, I wake up with anxiety and go to bed hoping for the pandemic to come to an end. However, on the other hand, despite all the extreme inconveniences, I am still grateful for things especially this standstill in our days. I now have time to sit outside my door and watch those squirrels playing around. The street dogs who happen to be my husband’s best friends tease me with their yoga stretches. I play cat and mouse with those evil cats in the neighbourhood. Every time I hear the sound of a truck, I go out without fail to check what they are selling. At times, I sit in peace watching the leaves sway, the butterflies flutter while not yielding to those big bees who try to perturb me. I soak in some sun and I keep wondering how this pandemic has taken me back by 25 years at least.

 

Growing up, we didn’t have a television at home. It was our parent’s decision that there won’t be a TV until we finished our education. In the current times, it might sound like a bigger sacrifice, except it wasn’t that big a deal when we grew up. Guests would ask why did we not buy a TV and then they would be impressed with my parents’ answer and that would be it. We did buy our first TV a few years back after me and my brother graduated. But, not having a TV at home meant that I wasn’t able to relate to Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Jungle Book or any such tele/cartoon series that my friends now feel nostalgic about. I did occasionally sneak out and catch a few episodes of Chandrakanta or Shaktimaan from my neighbour’s home, but those experiences barely make me nostalgic.

 

Instead, I followed ant trails trying to find their hidden treasure. Sometimes, I would place my little finger in the trail to see how the ants got back to their trail. Even before I learnt science, I was convinced that they left behind a secret scent for the rest of the group to follow. I would also try straightening our pet dog’s tail and see how it would stay straight before it curled back. I was also convinced that if I did it daily, it would become straight someday. In the evenings, when the koel started calling out, mimicking her used to be my favourite evening activity. But before she was koel, I knew her as “Akka Kuruvi”. Someone told me that the koel had lost her family tragically and she missed her sister dearly. Apparently, since that day she had been calling out to find her sister or Akka. That is how she came to be called the Akka kuruvi. I always responded to her hoping she will come to think of me as her Akka and be at peace someday. I was very convinced of my theory when one evening I found her outside my grandmother’s home where I was spending my summer vacation. But, now I can’t remember when the dear Akka Kuruvi went on to become koel. Anyway, coming back to my younger days, when I was done with the animals and birds, I sat outside our home and watched people who walked by but then, I grew up in a village, which meant most of the times the streets were quiet in the day time, just the way it is right now in the streets of Bangalore. So it’s no wonder that I feel like the world has gone back by 25 years.

 

That is not all. Those days without tv and with not too many friends to play with naturally led me to read. I read newspapers page to page, including the ads and obituaries. Sometimes much to my mother’s annoyance, I even read from bits of papers that came wrapped in groceries. I always finished reading my language textbooks in the first week. I read the Bible from Matthew to Revelation. And then I topped the scripture test in my school and I was given the Old testament. Again, I read from Genesis to the end. I began to borrow books from friends. I read the book their parents read, most of them, spiritual literature. When I discovered that my school had a library and they were ready to lend books to students, I was the happiest. Every Saturday post-lunch, I bugged Indrani Miss who was in charge of the library. I had a partner in crime, Tamilselvi. We always picked the biggest books in the library, two each. Those kept me going through the entire week. That’s how I ended up finishing War and Peace over a weekend in barely a day and a half. I wept through Uncle Tom’s Cabin but waited for the Saturdays to come. Saturdays became the favourite day of my weeks. Even after being introduced to TGIF, Saturdays continue to be my favourite day, and just like those days many years ago, the pandemic has blessed me with the privilege to sit down and drown myself in endless pages of words.

 

In the last few weeks, I caught myself exclaiming how there is so much peace around although my neighbourhood has always been peaceful, except for my husband’s four-legged friends. Now when I think about it, it wasn’t the peace outside. It was truly the peace from within, or should I say the meme-worthy ‘inner-peace’. Even as we continue to work from home, there is an undeniable sense of calm and quiet that has settled in these days. Even though workload continues to be the same and sometimes even worse, I must say there is less to be stressed about. I do miss the fun of being in office. I do miss going out. I do miss those movie halls I had given up on after the advent of Netflix. I do miss the chaos on the street. And there are times I am just too bored that I end up falling asleep. But despite all the inconvenience and anxieties that fill our days, there is an invisible bliss. I might sound insensitive but I am being honest that I have longed for all these running and chasing to stop for a while. I have wanted life to come to standstill and as always life has a weird way of granting your wishes. To call these days a blessing, I know is a privilege especially when the world is paying for it with thousands of lives every day. Nevertheless, I am not sorry for the strange sense of peace it brought to my doors. I shall go when my time comes just like the many others before me, but for today, I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.