The February Reading List: Short Stories for a Shorter Month

With the hope that you were able to pick a few books from our January reading list, we bring you a set of recommendations for the month of February. As this month is always a day or two short when it comes to a calendar year, we have dedicated the month to short stories. We are sure you will enjoy all these books and get to know more about Indian people, our habits, and our culture through these stories.

Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories – Janice Pariat

This book brings the northeastern part of India closer to us through stories that touch historical contexts as well as the folklores of the region. Janice Pariat weaves tales that paint pictures from different time periods in this book published by RHI. You can purchase a copy here.

In a Forest, a Deer: Stories by Ambai (English & Tamil)

Originally written in Tamil by Ambai and translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom, the book tells many tales with female protagonists and touches several social subjects of Indian life. Published by Oxford University Press, you will read great prose written in the inimitable style that has come to characterise Ambai’s writing. Get a copy here.

Teresa’s Man and other stories from Goa: Damodar Mauzo (English translation from Konkani)

Damodar Mauzo is one of the most effulgent signatures of contemporary Konkani literature. His collection of Konkani stories boasts of stories that manifest the not so known facets of Goa. The stories are relatable and yet very essentially local. The book has been translated by Xavier Cota and published by Rupa Publications. Buy the book here.

Meri Priya Kahaniyaan – Amrita Pritam

This book is in Hindi and has a collection of legendary writer Amrita Pritam’s favourite stories from her own writings. These stories sketch the love, desire, emotions, and pain in a woman’s life. Published by Rajpal & Sons, pick this book up to read some heartening stories by the author. Get a copy here.

Usha Kiran Khan Ki Lokpriya KahaniyanUsha Kiran Khan

Padma Shri Usha Kiran Khan is a prolific writer in Maithili and Hindi and is also a Sahitya Akademi award winner for her book – Bhamati: Ek Avismarniya Premkatha in Maithili. This book has 24 Hindi stories from the author that deal with questions of female identity, dignity, and the difficult realities of their lives. Published by Prabhat Prakashan, this book consists some of the most loved stories by Usha Kiran Khan. Buy your copy here.

India’s Freedom, Partition, and the Two Birthdays of Khushwant Singh – A Tribute

The first time I was introduced to the writings of the veteran Khushwant Singh was in the secondary classes of my schooling. The short story that was taught as a chapter of the English text book was ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ It’s a memoir about his grandmother and her last days with him. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by his nuanced portrayal of his grandmother and her eccentricities. It was indeed like a portrait coming alive in a child’s mind. Well, the association ended with writing answers about the text in the class tests but the fact that I remembered it even after the school days can be ascribed to his way of putting the words together so perfectly that they get etched forever in your mind. They generate a sense of belonging whose essence lingers around for long.

The next time I picked up his book was in my college. My roommate had issued this book whose title was the same as the story I had read in school. I recalled it immediately and seized it from her to taste more of his fascinating stories.

It was while reading these stories; I discovered that his stories remain with you for a long time because they have an element of human emotions and follies amalgamated into a lucid plot full of twists. He is funny and bold. He does not hesitate to say what is difficult to say. For instance, stories like ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Riot’ in the book left me startled and numb for a moment, so did his captivating novel Train to Pakistan. It is yet another tale of partition and its aftermath but told with such appalling episodes and gripping description of the most bloated times of Indian history that it makes a unique space for itself in the Indian literature. The story traces the fate of an otherwise silent village which erupts in the flames of hatred among different religious communities after the arrival of a train full of dead bodies in the wake of partition.  The story shivers you with fear and leaves with pity.

His love for his religion and cities he had lived has frequently seeped into his writings. He wrote two volumes on the history of Sikhs which till date remain the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the Sikhs and the evolution of Sikhism. He had been deeply attached to his birthplace, Hadali situation in Punjab of undivided India, now in Pakistan. After partition, he visited Hadali for three times and after he passed away in March 2014, a portion of his ashes was taken by train to Pakistan and buried there, as described in one of his journals collected in the book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. The book is a nostalgic journey to the anecdotes of his life relating to the state of Punjab and its people who had great influence on him. The book starts with a description of the land of Punjab and its beauty in different weathers which teleports you to the land itself. It’s like a vicarious stroll in the fields of Punjab with a light breeze scenting the surroundings with its freshness. He not only wrote about his land and its people but also stood up right as the true son of the soil. His anguish at the storming of the Golden temple by the army during Operation Blue Star was so great that he returned the Padma Bhushan awarded to him by the government.

How much ever one writes about him falls short for what he has given us to chuckle and ponder upon. He was among India’s best-known and most widely read author and an acclaimed journalist. He published six novels among other works. The book, Delhi: A Novel, his magnum opus sold its first edition even before the copy was available in the stores. The novel weaves the city of Delhi and its life over 600 years into his bold and bawdy imaginary characters bound in love, lust, violence, and vendetta.

There is no dearth of his work even if one commits to read all. He has been a treasure house of stories and anecdotes. I cannot end this without sharing an interesting anecdote from his book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. His parents forgot to make a note of his birth date and years later, when his father was filling his school form in Delhi, he put his birthday as February 2nd, 1915 out of imagination. Further, he writes-“Several years later, my grandmother told me that I was born in badroo (roughly in August by Gregorian calendar). I decided to fix it in the middle of the month, to 15 August 1915, and made myself a Leo. Thirty two years later, in 1947, 15 August became the birthday of independent India.” So unknowingly, he even contributed to the diary of coincidences. He indeed deserves two birthdays!

Wishing the master storyteller and a man full of life and laughter a very Happy Birthday. Shall wish him again in August too!

Why Indian Media Should Stop Obsessing Over Kamala Harris’s Indian Roots

Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States of America on January 20th. The same day, Kamala Harris became the 49th Vice President of United States of America. In doing so, she created history by being the first ever woman to become a US Vice President. She also created history by being the first Person of Color to be selected to the second highest office in the US. You must be wondering why I did not refer to Kamala Harris as an Indian American. Before I address that, let us understand who a Person of Color is. In the US and rest of Anglosphere, Person of Color is an accepted and respectful way of describing someone who is not White or Caucasian. Now let us get to why I call Kamala Harris a person of color, instead of Indian American.

After keeping the American public guessing for almost a year, Joe Biden finally, on 11th August 2020, invited Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate for the US Presidential election. While her name had been floating around for months as one of Biden’s top five choices, she was relatively unknown to most people within and outside the US until that day. Soon after the announcement, there were several articles, and opinions in the US media about her bi-racial background, the cases she handled in her law career, and her accomplishments as a US Senator since 2017. Other than the occasional op-eds and media rantings about whether she was really for the Black people (based on her prosecutorial record as a District Attorney and Attorney General), the American media remained focused on Joe Biden and Trump. Her name came up again in the news when Biden won the presidency in November, and last week, when she was sworn in as the VP.

This is a far cry from what has been happening in the Indian news and social media since her name was announced as the VP candidate. It has been fascinating to watch sections of Indian media racing to connect the dots of Kamala Harris’s Indian background. Not a day has gone by in the past five months, when I did not see an article about her mother, her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu, how she speaks fluent Tamil, and her love for Indian food, especially Idli. Just this morning, I saw a famous Indian chef cooking Puliyodarai to celebrate the US VP’s south Indian roots. When Kamala Harris uttered the word “My Chittis” (a Tamil word for maternal aunts), during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, the Indian media went into a frenzy. One news anchor even went as far as proclaiming that Kamala Harris was creating history for India on global stage by using an Indian word in her speech. My well-meaning friends also started sharing video clippings of her speech on WhatsApp. After watching all this, anyone not in tune with the realities of American politics, would be convinced that Kamala Harris was surely going to come up on stage one of these days, waving the Tiranga!

The facts, as usual, are starkly different. A simple online search would provide sufficient information about her life, both personal and professional. One would learn that she went to Howard University, a historic African American college, not Harvard University, as promoted by some Indian news sites. In that same speech where she used the word Chitti, she also said, “My mother instilled in my sister Maya and me, the values that will chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong, Black (African American) women, and to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.” She then went on to describe her mother, as a hard-working immigrant single parent, who spent her time providing for her daughters, helping them with school, and getting them to their church choir practice.

This was a brilliant strategy if you ask me, and kudos to her speech writer and staff! Joe Biden had already secured the votes of progressive women, the day he nominated Kamala Harris as his running mate. Now, with that speech, she had also endeared herself to millions of Blacks, Evangelical Christians, and those Indian Americans who are US citizens, and can vote. The first three groups are well organized, and extremely important to win over, if a candidate wants to be the President. Winning over the Indian American voters who would lap up anything “Desi“, was just an icing on the cake. This last group does not really change the election outcome, but it does provide a steady source of individual and business donations towards election funds. The tried and tested principle of employing Sam, Daam, Dand, Bhed is applicable to Rajneeti everywhere!

I am sure Kamala Harris loves her Indian heritage, as much as she loves her Black heritage. I have also no doubt that she speaks some Tamil. Like millions of Americans, she also loves Indian food. None of those things, however, matter to people in India, nor should they. The US foreign policy, which includes India, will be what Joe Biden chooses to adopt, and if the early indicators are accurate, it will be like what his old boss Barack Obama adopted. China and Russia, not India, will influence that policy. Depending on the direction the wind blows, India, Africa and middle east will have roles to play in the grand scheme of things. Make no mistake, her Tamil speaking skills, and love for Indian food aside, Kamala Harris will always do what is in the best interest of the United States of America. The Indian media should take a page from her book, and devote its precious time to doing what is best for India.

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Kings of Indian Democracy and Their Love for Constructive Criticism

Do you know a politician who does not say, “Criticism is healthy for a democracy”? This statement does not come out without its paradoxical context. Most of the time, a politician is telling you this only because he has been recently criticised by somebody and the offence has been taken, rather openly. This politician is hurt, and dangerously sulking. Once you begin to take note of their actions just before or after they have made such a statement, you realize that such statements are made as if they are talking about a distant alien mass of land known as democracy that nobody has seen or been to and the more it is kept that way, the easier it becomes for them to tell us these unknown things about democracy.

Bihar government has pulled a new rabbit out of its hat – a circular on 21st January which states that “individuals and organisations who post “objectionable and indecent” comments (online) against the State Government, Ministers, MLAs, MPs and officials could be booked under the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code”. Before you start outraging on how shamelessly this law stands against all the principles of democracy, let me tell you a lot of chutzpah has been lost in translation. The circular is in Hindi and reads like this –

eow-bihar-converted-388058

In practice, our fundamental right – freedom of speech with ‘reasonable restrictions’ is constantly being appended with a copious amount of ‘unreasonable’ restrictions.

However, since 2020 was a dark year for almost everyone and one of my new year resolutions is to make 2021 a better year for myself and everyone around me, you are in luck. Even though, this circular appears to be a terrible thing for the people in the state, if our police system had any interest in poetic justice, or any flair for drama like the UP police have expressed theirs with criminal-containing jeeps turning turtle, or at least slightly more empowered than having to draft such circulars after all those years of preparations for Public Service Commissions and subsequent training, this circular can become a blessing in disguise.

In fact, if adopted across all the states of India with some minor modifications, our democracy might actually get healthier. Rahul Gandhi can be sent to prison for offending all the chowkidaars and of course our Prime Minister if he says, “chowkidaar chor hai” one more time. Mr. Modi can be sent to jail for offending people who are still waiting for INR 15 lacs in their bank accounts. Even if Amit Shah gets him out, he can still be dispatched back if he finds anything wrong with Nitish Kumar’s political DNA again. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar can be sent to jail for offending his honest alter ego if he collaborates with the RJD again and offending his secular alter ego for joining hands with the BJP now. Sushil Modi can be arrested for offending the flood affected population of Bihar by himself becoming homeless during Patna floods in 2019. Tejasvi Yadav can be arrested for offending Nitish Kumar by drawing larger crowds than the latter. Tej Pratap Yadav can be arrested for offending himself every now and then. Lalu Yadav can be arrested for.. er…ok…he is already in the jail for offending the entire cattle community of the state.

Bottom line is, the circular, first of all, must be applied to all the politicians who keep abusing each other on social media as well as on unsocial media (NDTV, Times Now, Republic, Zee News, India Today, etc.). Can you feel the democracy breathing again, just like the planet was breathing once again during the COVID-19 lockdowns?

India is a great country, and also a funny country; or perhaps all countries are, not as great as us (UNESCO has already said we have the best national anthem) but definitely funny and funnier. Our politics and policies do not only expose the hypocrisy of our political class but also the person living next door or in our twitter feed. About a month ago, a similar circular was introduced by the Kerala state government – BJP fans fumed and raged. Now, the Bihar government has joined the party, Congress and Communist comrades are outraging.

Our governments hate criticism. Our bureaucracy abhors the ones asking questions. It is our everyday experience, the one that cannot be denied and can never be forgotten, because it repeats itself.

Forget the previous paragraph. That was Suresh Raina’s nephew again. Four children in one hospital bed is a lesson in ‘sharing is caring’, patients lying around on the floor of a better known hospital of the state is ‘remaining grounded and humble’, and annual floods have great potential for ‘water sports’ in the state. The biggest problem Bihar faces today is ‘online criticism’ or the lack ofconstructive criticism. Our sincere politicians and bureaucrats have come together to solve this problem. It is an occasion to celebrate our healing democracy, a gift to the people of Bihar for the Republic Day by the kings of our democratic republic.

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Walking the Thin Wall Between Death and Freedom in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Many mornings we find ourselves waking up to thoughts that question the purpose of our existence. The endless monotony of our lives makes us wonder why we do the things we do. I am no different. I have spent years questioning the sufferings of life. I have always wished for someone, anyone who can answer these questions for me and put an end to this agony. I realised I have been looking in the wrong direction, until I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

This classic book comprises two parts. In the first part Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The second part introduces you to the concept of Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy founded by Viktor Frankl. Although I have read about Holocaust through internet and various articles, this was the first time I was reading a full blown book based on it.

Being aware of the horrors of these camps, I was prepared to drown myself in tears of despair. However, my experience with the book turned out to be quite the opposite. It was empowering to my surprise and I can’t begin to explain the strange strength  that it instilled within me. It could probably be because of the detached, ‘academic’ narrative style of the author. It could also be because of the realization that none of my sufferings are nowhere near to that of Viktor’s.

The book  doesn’t merely chronicle the everyday experiences of a concentration camp. Instead, it examines the human behaviour through each of these events and thereby encourages you to introspect the events in your own life and your reactions to them. That the ‘existential vacuum’, ‘the state of boredom’, and ‘sunday neurosis’ of which Viktor spoke of as early as 1945 is still relatable in 2021 is rather preposterous and yet comforting. When he speaks of   ‘the thought of suicide’ as something that “was entertained by nearly everyone if only for a brief time”, I begin to understand a little of the many suicidal deaths that left me rattled in 2020. He says, “It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others”.

The part where Viktor talks of his wife and how “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved”, is achingly beautiful. Despite the knowledge that he survived the camp, your heart skips a beat when you learn of those days when he was walking a thin wall between death and freedom. From the young woman who talks to the tree to those men who walk through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread, the book brings to you many inspiring tales. As Frankl puts it, “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The greatest comfort that the book gave me, however, was the opportunity to realign my attitude to the circumstances of life. I remember writing in the beginning of 2020, that I would ditch ‘forced positivity’. However, Frankl’s inspiring inferences have got me thinking again. According to him, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Not the answer I was expecting, but this changes the way I look at life and its purposefulness. I am only grateful that this is one of the books I started the year with because it fills me with such hope and vigor.

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Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

The Color Purple: Understanding Alice Walker’s Womanism

Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.

The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.

The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.

It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)

Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.

Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”

Reference: WHAT’S IN A NAME? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond by Patricia Hill Collins

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5 Books Everyone Must Read to Understand Swami Vivekananda, His Work and Message | National Youth Day Special

Swami Vivekananda was born today i.e. 12th January in the year 1863. As he went on to become the extraordinary man the world knows now, he influenced several men and women, directly as well as indirectly in his lifetime and beyond. From Alasinga Perumal to Subhash Chandra Bose, we find for many great lives, the deep impression Swami Vivekananda left on them. His work and message inspired people from all walks of life, from Indian revolutionaries and key political figures in the struggle freedom struggle like Bagha Jatin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jawaharlal Nehru, Hemchandra Ghosh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C. Rajagopalachari to industrialists like Jamshetji Tata and John D. Rockefeller, philosophers and scholars like William James, John Henry Wright, S. Radhakrishnan.

Fortunately, for our generation and the generations to come, we have his literature that we can pore over ourselves to understand this phenomenon. His speeches, letters, poems, and writings are in print, in demand, and easily available for us to find out his message first hand. Apart from these, there are also hundreds of biographies, commentaries, and articles across magazines and internet. To help you create an easy To-Read list on Swami Vivekananda, we are presenting 5 books that you can read to go deeper into his philosophy and understand the man who was hailed as the ‘cyclonic monk’ by the western world and the ‘spiritual father of the modern nationalist movement ‘ by Subhash Chandra Bose.

Life of Swami Vivekananda – His Eastern & Western Disciples

Published by Advaita Ashrama, this book is one of the most authentic and exhaustive biographies of Swami Vivekananda with details that earlier biographies do not cover. The book is available in two volumes and is a required reading on the life of Swami Vivekananda. You can purchase both the volumes here.

The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel – Romain Rolland

This book is one of the very first biographies of Swami Vivekananda and was penned by the French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland of the Jean-Christophe fame. A lucid account of Swamiji’s life told in beautiful prose makes this book a literary masterpiece and a joy to read. Buy here.

Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review – R.C. Majumdar

This book by the great historian R.C. Majumdar takes a look at Swamiji’s life with a historical perspective. A great attempt to underline the siginifance of Swamiji’s life and message from the vantage point of history, this one deserves a place in your shelf if you want to understand how Swami Vivekananda influenced not only his time but also the future course of history. Buy here.

Josephine MacLeod and Vivekananda’s Mission – Linda Prugh

Although this book is a biography of Josephine MacLeod, also lovingly called Tantine by Swami Vivekananda, her life is invariably conjoined with Swami Vivekananda’s as she was one of his first friends in the west and helped his mission both in the US and India. This book is a treasure trove for people who are looking for accounts related to Swamiji’s life hitherto not well-known in popular culture. You can read a review here and order a copy of the book here.

The Master as I Saw Him – Sister Nivedita

Sister Nivedita, earlier known as Margaret Noble left her country and adopted India as her motherland on the clarion call of Swamiji. She went on to influence Indian politics, sciences, arts, and literature in a very short span of time and remains arguably the most well known disciples of Swami Vivekananda. This book contains Sister Nivedita’s writings on Swamiji and gives out siginificant insights into his life and message, as seen by Sister Nivedita. You can purchase the book here.

We hope you will like these books. If you have read more books on Swami Vivekananda or have more suggestions on book related to him, please write to us in the comments section.

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BLF2020 | Jeena Yahaan, Marna Yahaan – Padmavati Rao, MK Raghavendra and Vidyashankar N With Samantak Bhadra

This session felt like a cinematic experience! When the veterans of cinema come together a very insightful discussion ensues. Samantak opened the session with the question if over time Indian cinema was trying to glorify an ideal life to help the masses get out of the drudgery of life? While doing this does it compromise on the realities?

Padmavati Rao, a renowned actor and writer, quoted her personal experience of what Nazir Husain, a famous actor during Indian independence days, said. He said that art cinema is very good to talk about, but people do not want to see their lives on screen. Thus, we need to create cinema that entertains them. Nazir’s films Jewel Thief, Carvaan etc. depicted what people wanted. She said that she feels it was a matter of choice then, but might be a compromise today.

Vidyashankar N, the founder member of Bengaluru International Film Festival, brought about a very interesting comparison between politics and cinema. He said that while for all other countries, cinema acted as a tool for political propagation, for India that was never the case. He spoke about how Gandhi was very against Indian cinema from the onset. This gives a picture of why Indian cinema was not used as a tool for political discourses.

He also added that the purpose of Indian cinema is not art but to serve as a tool of evolution of the capitalist mode of market economists. He thought that cinema is a cultural expression rather than an artistic expression. He brought about an important observation about villains before and after the 70s. Before the 70s, they were the smugglers, feudal lords, underworld dons, who also got unintentionally legitimized over the years. After the 70s, it changed to politicians, bureaucrats, and executives, where the idea is not evil, but the villains are.

MK Raghavendra, a writer on culture and international cinema, had such amazing knowledge and anecdotes to share about innumerable movies of all times. His view was that Indian cinema cannot avoid politics. The common factor that binds the public is politics. The messaging might not be explicit, but it has ingrained general political messaging. He quoted an example of 1948 movie Anokhi Ada and compared the plot and characters to the then political scene, with Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Gandhi. Another example of the movie Anmol Ghadi by Mehboob khan and explained the underlying message.

He said that always dominant politics is followed in all cinemas. He took examples of Duniya Na Mane and Queen movies, to bring his point on how women are celebrated for performing their celebrated role in society. He also quoted examples of movies like Deewar and Johny Mera Naam that depicted Indira Gandhi’s anti-western agenda.

Samantak then moved the discussion to the next key topic related to gender issues. He asked in women-centric films is it the perpetuation of stereotypes or is it the reality?

Vidyashankar’s view on this was that one must look at the common denominator to sell for the audience. Cultural expressions, including music, dialogues, relationships are used because they are received very well by audiences. Basic instincts like sexuality, violence etc., the dominant ideologies, sell more. By doing this, the moviemakers get the cinematic dividends they are looking for.

Padmavati’s take was that women have been portrayed as victims because that was reality. She quoted an example of the movie English Vinglish where the protagonist is patronized to do housework. She also confessed that movies like Thappad are bringing a change in this direction in small measures. But the challenge still is that a liberated feminine audience too will be tempted to take side with men. It is so ingrained in our DNA, that we don’t allow ourselves to think otherwise. She said that she feels that women are contributing in a constructive way, saying we all need to coexist. She continued with her view that over years access to art has become less. It has become spectatorship now, while earlier it was participative.

She strongly brought out the point that cinema has been a culture keeper and has kept alive folk.

Raghavendra said that Indian cinema is constructed like a fable and thus every film has a message, and every character has to have only one meaning. The victim is also one of the parts and is essentialized.  He said that if someone is perceived as a victim, then one cannot bear to see them rise. Based on the essence of being, the rich are always rich and the romantic are always romantic.

Vidyashankar shared his challenges on taking Indian cinema to International Festivals. He spoke about the notions that are internationally carried about Indian cinema which makes it difficult to take many good ones to that level until it is truly representational of universal cinema.

He also spoke about an important aspect of social and natural orders in context with gender issues depicted in films. He said that natural order is the dominant aspect, to do with people’s attitude, which is unfortunately not changing. This makes it difficult to make a film where natural order is questioned.

About the Author: Neha Agrawal carries a spirit of positivism and a smile that emanates from the heart and wants to reach out to the world. She dreams to make this world an inclusive one. She works as a strategic leader heading multiple areas like inclusion & diversity, corporate social responsibility and organization culture. She is a public speaker and an influencer. She loves travelling, especially to the mountains. She writes poetry under the handle #fursatkealfaaz on Instagram, enjoys reading and having conversations. She currently writes for TheSeer.

Rutger Bregman’s Humankind Amplifies the Voice of Hope in Human Nature

How many times have you come across a really disturbing piece of news or development where humans have indulged in the most inhumane acts possible and wondered if humans are after all terrible creatures who stay civilized only because they are regulated by law? How many times has someone tried to convince you that a law abiding citizen is abiding only because he has never got an opportunity to become a terrorist, that if the circumstances allowed, people would resort to their primal instincts and eat each other alive?

Remember the much celebrated movie – The Dark Knight? Joker puts his philosophy thus – “They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other...” Throughout the story, Joker is trying to establish that when humans get into the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, they choose themselves over others. He devises a social experiment with the passengers of two boats – one has the civilians, other has the prisoners. He proclaims – “Tonight you’re all gonna be part of a social experiment. Through the magic of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, I’m ready right now to blow you all sky high. Anyone attempts to get off their boat, you all die. Each of you has a remote… to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I blow you all up. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So, who’s it going to be: Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection, or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose… oh, and you might want to decide quickly, because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.” How many times have you found yourself in agreement with Joker?

The Joker Meme

Recently, a Gangetic Dolphin was hacked to death by a group of men in Uttar Pradesh, India. It looked like they were killing for fun, out of a compulsive thirst to do something outrageous. Of course, such incidents make us want to believe in that seductive philosophy of Joker. A meme keeps roaming around in the social media space and must have at some point appeared on your timeline/inbox too.

What if I told you that several pioneering psychologists and scholars of our world would stand by Joker’s side when it came to the nature of human behaviour. Not only that, they also created different experiments to establish that humans are inherently evil. One of the most famous experimenters of the kind was Philip Zimbardo who is attributed for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Such experiments have been repeated in different time periods with minor modifications time and again by different people to theorize the same piece of ‘fact’ – that we are bad people! (Note: If you like watching Big Boss or other reality shows like Big Brother, you should read the book right away!)

In such a dark and depressing universe, what then remains of ‘Hope’? That and then some more are answered in Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History‘. Bregman begins with the contrasting models of human behaviour propounded by Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau, and argues that we would be better off with the goodness of Rousseau than the cynicism of Hobbes. It is a difficult side to pick in a debate on human nature and that makes the book a riveting read from cover to cover. By the time I got done with the prologue, I had already put this book on my ‘few good things to come out of 2020’ list.

In order to bolster his argument, Bregman takes up the most famous episodes of human history and evaluates the conclusions drawn from each one of them. Some of the cases selected for investigation in the book are Stanford Prison Experiment, Death of Catherine Susan Genovese, Holocaust, and the novel Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding. Even though the author seems to have indulged reams of research papers on the matter, the book has been brilliantly composed to not overburden its readers with the routine of an academic journal. In fact, you will be surprised by the writing style, the tone of narration, and the impeccable transitions between themes. The book keeps you hooked on till its very last word.

A very touching tale unfolds in the chapter ‘When the Soldiers Came Out of the Trenches’ when the trenches on opposing sides celebrated Christmas together during the first world war. While the author draws several lessons from this episode, we as readers are given a reality check on how the social media, originally meant for connecting with people, use the same tool to judge, hurt, and stereotype people according to our prejudices. In this context, Bregman’s unconventional arguments on empathy & compassion shape the heart of the book around which all the remaining narratives flow.

It is tempting to like the Joker meme. However, I have never personally been a fan of such overarching generalization and could never bring myself up to like this theory that when the situation arises, we are going to eat each other. This was also the reason I could not convince myself to like the ending of an otherwise outstanding movie ‘Jallikattu’ which also happens to be India’s official entry to the 93rd Academy Awards. The ‘pessimistic’ view of reality sells like wildfire. In the video of the murder of this gangetic dolphin, even though I knew how it would end, I kept waiting for someone to stop the killers. And then I heard a voice in the video pleading with them not to kill. It sounded like hope. But like the men in the act, we have either ignored or silenced that voice at several turning points of our history. With Humankind, Rutger Bregman tries to amplify that voice to a decibel where it cannot be ignored or unheard anymore. I want to see him succeed.

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COVID-19, EPL, and the Evolution of Socially Conscious Advertising

Mesut Özil’s Tweet on Xinjiang 
Source: Mothership

Let’s solve water’… Like it’s a problem to be solved, which it is. The brilliance of the copywriting simplicity can be witnessed during the currently underway, English Premier League (EPL). In the aftermath of COVID-19 and necessary health and safety precautions, the uncertainties of potential revenues and absent audiences has the Premier League grappling with reworking the broadcast environment. Additionally, with the recent moratorium on unbridled advertising by the EPL’s advisory group, league clubs and associate brands have been given food for advertising thought. In June 2020, the “Premier League’s broadcast enhancement advisory group capped advertising at 25% of the branding at each club’s ground, with 65% reserved for images of fans and 10% for the Premier League’s imagery and logos.” Even as the EPL’s “500 million pound (USD 665 million) deal with PPTV” has been terminated due to acrimony over Mesut Özil taking on China about its Uighur Muslim camps, the global movement against discrimination and racism is expanding its influence in the golden game of advertising.

The Most-Watched Football League – English Premier League
Source: Project 11

Billion-Euro Covid Hit to Premiere League Revenue
Source: Deloitte & Bloomberg
Mesut Özil
Source: football.london

According to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance 2020’, “the Premier League continues to generate the highest revenues across the ‘big five’ of EUR 5.9 billion IN 2018-2019.” Considering COVID-19 has prompted the richest domestic soccer competition in the world to ask for “80% prepayment of broadcast rights fees,”  the EPL revenue is likely to be hit further after losing access to China’s 1.4 billion market. In early 2020, CSM Live was commissioned to print ‘stadium wraps’ for the expectedly empty stands of the club stadiums. Based on the advertising guidelines issued by the Premier League, club designs began veering towards positive brand associations such as Manchester United Against Racism. 

No Room For Racism
Source: Sky Sports

While the No Room for Racism campaign was launched by the English Premier League in March 2019, furthering the efforts of the Kick It Out initiative against discrimination; the EPL’s history with racism and discrimination continues with the recent racial abuse directed at Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha by a 12-year old from Solihull.

In response to the offender’s arrest, Zaha tweeted, “People need to understand that whatever your age, that your behaviour and your words come with consequences and you cannot hide behind social media…It is important social media platforms do as they did yesterday and seek out these individuals and remove them… It isn’t enough to just say #notoracism. We need action, we need education, things need to change.

According to Stop Funding Hate’s Alex Murray, “there’s the ability for football to come together to demand action. I think that the influence clubs have, as well as their massive spending power, means there’s a real opportunity to get behind a campaign like this and add to the impact it’s already having.” Even as campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate and ‘No Room for Racism’ promote initiatives against hate and discrimination, the Conscious Advertising Network is pressuring advertisers to be more conscious of branding associations. Launched in June 2019, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) was formed by co-founders Jake Dubbins and Harriet Kingaby as a response to media industry reports such as by The Times which demonstrated that big brands were inadvertently advertising next to content by extremists, pornographers, and white supremacists.’ According to Kingaby, “CAN feels strongly that all parts of the industry – brands, agencies, media owners, ad tech, regulators and civil society – should come together to fix the significant problems in the system… and now has over 70 members who are committed to ensuring industry ethics keeps pace with the technology of modern advertising.”

As the golden game of EPL advertising undergoes a makeover, one of the most loved and profitable exercises in global sporting collaboration will have to keep up with a more socially-conscious audience in its brand imagery as television/digital audiences worldwide stare at their screens for their favourite team’s next goal-making move.

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As Kerala’s Palm-Lined Beaches and Backwaters Call You Again, Stop by My Panamanna

The much-needed COVID vaccine is almost within reach for the masses. In a few months, the roads, seas, and skies will open, providing the lifeline that the global tourism industry, decimated by COVID 19 and sputtering on life support, desperately needs. This is also one instance where patience does not fall under virtues. The industry, understandably, is impatient to welcome customers with open arms, and with little to no restrictions. Their wish is about to be granted. The demand for business and leisure travel has never been higher. While the pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of millions, there are several sectors that have been relatively left unharmed, and people associated with those sectors have not really seen a dip in their earnings. Add in the wanderlust that is encoded in human DNA, the proverbial floodgates are about to open. There is no time like now to start planning for the next adventure, and with that, comes the biggest question: What should be my first travel destination in 2021? For me, it is a small village in Kerala.

Panamanna – My Home in Kerala

The decision, quite frankly, surprised me. Until ten months ago, I was a proud member of the frequent flier community, thanks to my profession. My job allowed me to fly on a weekly basis, to some of the world’s most popular cities. Then COVID19 happened, and like everyone else, I was grounded. Since the news of an approved vaccine broke out last month, my excitement to fly again has been building up. I vividly remember the giddiness during my maiden flight from Delhi to Chennai 21 years ago. Something tells me, my first flight of 2021 will invoke similar emotions. Since last week, I have been making a mental list of all the places that I want to fly back to, once normalcy resumes. Some have the best food and breweries. Others are known for their architecture, skyline, or beaches. As I was making this list, one place kept pulling me harder than any other. My village of Panamanna under Ottapalam Taluk in Palakkad district of Kerala.   The reasons are amazingly simple. Pure nostalgia, being frozen in time, and a sense of being one with mother nature. I guess, one must be from Panamanna to get these feelings. If I add the number of days that I have spent in Panamanna, from the time I started remembering things. it still would not be enough to make two full years. Even then, I am unable to resist that strong pull. Not that I want to try.

A view from author’s front gate. A wide stairway built with laterite stones, and lined by coconut and betelnut trees, leads to a narrow pathway to the rice fields. A similar stairway on the opposite side leads to the pathway to the village.

How the Gods Designed Kerala

Kerala has over 600 kilometers of shoreline with many famous beaches and backwaters. Panamanna, however, is inland. It is a part of Palakkad District, which is known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala. The entire district is full of lush green rice fields and family-owned plantations that grow rubber, coconut, betelnut, mango, spices and Teak among other things. There is no shortage of water bodies, or rain for that matter, to meet the needs of this farmland, and Panamanna is no exception. A Thodu (local word for a river tributary) slithers across this village, like a gigantic snake, eager to merge with the Bhartappuzha river. In the dry summer months, this thodu is a harmless stream with ankle deep water that is pristine and clear. Most villagers now have a two-wheeler or a car but just until recently, the entire village used to walk through the rice fields and cross the thodu to get to Ottapalam, the nearest town which is a few kilometers away. This shortcut shaved off over five kilometers between the village and the town, so it was a well-travelled route during day or night. The only other option for the residents was to wait for one of the three private buses that came at specific times during the day. If you missed one, you had to wait a few hours for the next. Another option was to hop on an occasional autorickshaw that was heading back to town after dropping a passenger. Those were also rare back in those days. Most people just walked. As teenagers, my cousin and I used this shortcut to sneak into the town, to buy and smoke cigarettes since smoking in the village where everyone knows everyone would be foolhardy!

The wet months create a whole different set of challenges. Monsoon lasts for almost six months in Kerala. It gradually builds up before tapering off. During the first couple of months, the stream is still shallow enough to cross. I remember, all someone had to do, was fold their Lungi or Mundu (reserved for formal occasions), lift their Saree or Pavada (worn by younger girls), hold their leather sandals in one hand, umbrella in the other, and walk across! It was a true skill to be able to do all this while crossing the stream and trying to stay dry! As I type this, I can picture the cold muddy water running past my legs, the undercurrent trying to trip me, as I attempt to cross. Growing up in the north, I was used to shorts and jeans. Wearing mundu was a novelty, one that I truly embraced. Even today, when I fly to Kerala, I only pack two pairs of Jeans. Mundu is my outfit of choice for the duration of my stay. The first few years, I struggled with the whole process of folding my mundu, holding my sandals and umbrella while trying to cross that stream. As the years went by, I became skilled at this whole process.

Floods and Floodgates of Emotions

Some years, as the rains continue to pummel the region, this once shallow stream, suddenly and with no warning, transforms into a nasty raging force that breaks its banks and floods the entire village. Acres of crops are destroyed. The whole valley looks like a giant muddy lake. Thankfully, most of the houses in the village are built on hills that surround the rice fields, or on elevation, so the damage from flood to the houses is minimal. It is usually the incessant rains that destroy the tiled roofs. Animals and even humans sometimes, do not understand the deceptive forces of nature. The narrow embankments and even the main road that was visible to human eyes just a few minutes ago, become blurrier or worse invisible during sudden flash floods. Next thing you know, you are being swept away. There is not a single family among the original settlers in Panamanna, that has not lost a bovine, a pet, or a human, to this deception in the past few hundred years.

My mother, as the only kid in the family who could not swim, was one of the lucky ones who survived and lived to tell the tale. An infamous village drunk, who by sheer luck, happened to see her getting swept away, quickly dove in to pull her out and saved her from a certain death. I never met him, and he had been dead for decades, when I first heard this story, but the legend had lived on in the village. Every now and then, someone in the extended family would bring the story up during our stay, and my mother would laugh it off. I do know that she is grateful to that old drunk to this day, and probably says a silent prayer for him each morning.

Kolams and the Feudal Era

When I think of water bodies, I cannot skip mentioning the Kolam. Kolam, the Malayalam word for pond, is a staple of rural Kerala. Every major temple has one for the devotees to bathe before the Darshanam, and so do most of the older Nallukettu Veedu (traditional Nair and Namboodiri Brahmin homes built with Laterite stone and wood, with a courtyard in the middle). The oldest properties have two ponds. One built indoors, was usually well maintained for the family’s private use, and the second one was built closer to the fields for use by the farm animals and farmhands, a reminder of the feudal era when the Nairs and Namboodiris controlled every aspect of social life in Kerala. This was also used for washing clothes. I distinctly remember, waking up as a lazy teenager, to the sound of wet clothes being banged against one of the rocks installed next to the pond and specifically flattened out for washing clothes. Many of these ponds, now largely unused since the introduction of farm machinery and washing machines, have been run over by an overgrowth of water lilies and lotuses. Surrounded by tall and slender coconut and betel nut trees, these ponds with their flowers in full blossom, further enhance the already beautiful landscape. The entire Palakkad district is abundant with these beautiful properties. Therefore, so many Malayalam movies from the eighties and nineties were shot in these villages. These movies focused on Natumpuram Jeevitham (life in the countryside) and Pazhankalam (medieval glory days), and these properties offered the perfect setting for the story that the director wished to capture through his lenses. The annual maintenance cost of these houses, some of which are now hundreds of years old, is not cheap. The current homeowners, descendants of the feudal lords who had been stripped of their vast lands, wealth and status during the Sixties’ Land Reform acts enacted by the first Communist government of Kerala, were only happy to lease these houses to movie producers for what was considered as lucrative sums in those days. Some of these houses have now been permanently rented out to movie studios.

Food and Alliances

Panamanna is certainly not a melting pot of global cultures or cuisine. The place, however, has the best food in my humble opinion. There is no shortage of family recipes that are unique to the village and passed down the generations. Most of the original families living here, have been neighbors for over a century, perhaps more! Nairs of Kerala and the Khasis of Meghalaya are the only two matriarchal societies in India. Traditionally, in the Nair community, a woman inherited her family’s wealth and lands, and became the landlady. Additionally, Nairs also practiced the now almost extinct custom of Morapennu (wherein a Nair boy married his maternal uncle’s daughter and the couple lived and raised their family in her ancestral house). There are many theories proposed by modern historians and anthropologists regarding the traditional Nair society. One theory is that the custom of women inheriting her ancestral property, was practiced because the Nairs were a warrior clan, where the men were always fighting or waging wars with other kingdoms, and women needed to not only run the household but also supervise the domestic staff and farmhands that either worked as free, or indentured labour.

With regards to the practice of Morapennu, the theory proposed suggests that this custom of marrying first cousins was established simply to ensure that the family wealth and assets stayed intact in the family, and that the bloodline stayed pure. Whatever the reasons may have been, these customs contributed to women empowerment and women camaraderie that has been fostered over centuries in the Nair community. I tend to believe that this bond shared between women across the village is what has led to the creation of a few dishes and recipes that are utterly unique to this village. As someone who has traveled a lot, and has tried authentic cuisine from every continent, I can confidently say that a simple dish like Karapara (a crepe made from left over rice battered and mixed with various lentils and spices and served with onion chutney)tastes better than any dosa that I have ever eaten. These dishes always, without fail, get me to gastronomical heaven. What makes it even better is that these recipes are so uniform across the village, that I could try the same dish prepared by my mother, an aunt, or a neighbor living on the other side of the village, and still could not tell the difference!

Speaking of differences, something that I am absolutely craving, is a bottle of Nadan Kallu which loosely translates to country liquor. Yup, as the connoisseurs of adult beverages reading this would attest, the best destinations are those that have good alcohol! I am a lover of scotch. Single malt scotch from the Highlands to be specific. I will drink anything in a social setting but when I am by myself, and wish to unwind, it is always a glass of scotch that gets the job done. That being said, I am a sucker for a good nadan kallu, or Toddy to be precise. The kallu is unlike any alcohol that you will ever drink. I credit my grandfather for getting me hooked on this, even though the poor guy had no idea that he unknowingly introduced me to Toddy. He was the only man who has left indelible impressions on me, and one of those impressions was his habit of drinking toddy. Making toddy from palm tree sap, is a centuries old skill that is a dying art. When I was a kid, I used to watch this local farmer sell fresh toddy to my grandpa. I always emulated him and wanted to be like him when I grew up. One day, when he was not around, I got my chance to take a sip from his toddy pot. Let me tell you, it is an acquired taste. The initial disgust at that moment has turned into a lifelong love for the taste. While some licensed liquor stores do serve toddy, the real deal is found only in the village, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a bottle!

I have so many fond memories of my summers spent in Panamanna. Living in a town where coal was abundantly available to generate power, I was spoilt. We rarely lost power where I grew up. On the other hand, electricity had not reached Panamanna in the early nineties, even though the electric poles had been installed on all streets, and wiring was completed to all houses in the early eighties. They just “forgot to turn the power on” for over ten years. There is a shining (pun intended) example of corrupt and careless governance for you! Folks in the village relied on Vallakku, which in Malayalam means lantern. There are many types of vallakku. Petromax was the most popular and trendy brand of pressurized paraffin lanterns. Some families also used the regular vallakku, which was a kerosene wick lamp. Then there was the original Vellakku. These have been used in Kerala for centuries to illuminate homes as well as temples. Fueled by sesame seed oil, called Nella Enna which means good oil in Malayalam, this vallakku is considered Shudham (pure).

Lack of streetlights meant that while walking through the fields and plantations, villagers used either a battery-operated flashlight or a homemade Choottu, a type of torch made from burning dried coconut leaves tied together like a broom and soaked in oil, another one of the many uses of the coconut tree. Like the Neem tree in the north, the coconut tree is a gift of nature that keeps on giving! The mud embankments that separate the fields, and used as walkways, are also a fertile ecosystem for snails, crabs, frogs, and their predators, the snakes, many of whom are highly venomous. People back then, traveled with both a torch, and a stick, that they used to tap on the embankments to scare away any unwanted reptiles. On moonless nights when it was pitch dark outside, I could see these traveling lights from a distance. Looking back, I wonder if the local ghost stories about flying lanterns suddenly disappearing in the farms, were simply the product of someone’s imagination!

Memories and an Invitation that Never Expires

Summer nights can be brutal in Kerala even though the temperature cools down a little. It can still be unbearable at times. I somehow became immune to the heat because of the people I got to spend time with. Back in the nineties, joint families were the norm in Panamanna. There was no shortage of cousins to fight and play with. An icing on the cake was neighbors showing up for dinner and drinks with my grandfather. There was always extra food for an unexpected visitor or two. The village was going through a spike in crimes those days due to rising unemployment. Burglaries were common, so all the men slept outside, armed with Vadi, a type of homemade baton and Arivalu, a sickle used in farming, Sometimes, the neighbors joined us, which turned into one big sleepover. Occasionally, we would hear a loud whistle, almost like a howling, a unique sound invented by the villagers called Olli. This was everyone’s cue to quickly get out of the beds and pick up their vadi and arivalu and run towards the sound! The hills surrounding the fields in Panamanna create a natural echo chamber which acts as a sound amplifier. Someone who thought their house was being robbed, or someone who feared that they had heard unwanted footsteps or noise in their yard, would make those howling sounds and everyone else from the neighborhood would run towards that sound. Most times, it was a false alarm but at least on three separate occasions during my stay, we hit the jackpot! While no one dared used the sickle, villagers did not mind meting out their own form of justice to the robbers with the vadi. The person(s) caught was tied to a tree or a pillar and was given a good beating. The elders ensured that the mob did not get out of control before the authorities showed up. Imagine my excitement as a teenager running with my cousins and uncles to catch a robber! Where else could I find that thrill?

Every house in Panamanna now has power, modern facilities, electronic gadgets, smartphones and vehicles. All the streets are now well lit. Numerous new families have moved in, so each time I go back, I see new faces and make new acquaintances. A lot has changed over the years, but some things have stayed the same, the most important one being my love for the characters and stories that shaped my early years and youth. I spent most of those years in the east, and consider myself a proud product of that environment, but sprinkled, somewhere in there, are a few traits, that I acquired during my short stays each year in Panamanna. 

I think of it as a short documentary that still leaves a lasting mark on you. Most of the live characters from my documentary have either gotten old or passed away, but their memories and my time spent with them, will forever be etched in my heart. I get to go to Panamanna every few years, sometimes every couple of years if I am lucky. The last time I was there, was in 2018. A trip is long overdue! Usually, someone is there to pick me at the airport, but sometimes I arrive at odd hours and just get a cab. The ride from the airport to Panamanna is over three hours and on roads that take no pity on your back. It does not matter if I am exhausted from the long journey, or if am in a stranger’s vehicle, or driving with my folks sitting next to me, the moment the vehicle makes its first turn towards the road that leads to my village, there is this inexplicable feeling of bliss that washes over me. All the fond memories come bubbling out to the surface. My heart rate goes up, and a smile comes to my face that stays for days, and only fades when it is time to say goodbye. I honestly do not know if it’s just separation anxiety, or the child within me, trying to relive the glory days. I do hope that I never find out the answer. Why ruin magic?

Cover Image: Image by ejakob from Pixabay
Article Images: Shashi Nair

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