Uncomfortable Truths of a Cloud-Capped Star in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara

Of late, a particular word is being used so often that perhaps out of discomfort, most people like to ignore its existence entirely. The term is privilege. Perhaps because of the intense negative connotations attached to it, we, as the more advantaged members of the society, would not like to agree that we possess any of it in the first place. Recently, Tillotama Shome, after the success of her phenomenal film Sir, Is Love Enough? where she portrayed a domestic help, spoke about this exact phenomenon. She says that she has made a career out of playing characters who are the poorest of the poor, while in real life, she comes from a position of privilege and entitlement. She belonged to a middle-class family and has pursued an education in excellent institutions across the globe. She admits to the journey being difficult. However, one must not confuse that with being disadvantaged. The fact that I am sitting and typing this article on my state-of-the-art laptop is nothing but a privilege. Is the process difficult? Yes, most things are. However, to deny that we relish ownership is criminal.

A film that will make you realise the same to the point of it being downright uncomfortable and acutely sensitive is Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). I remember watching it for the first time in my Film Studies class, and in the end, when the lights came on, our professor, who was an ex-army man, had burst into tears and asked for a 10-minute break to compose himself. The film is world-famous on more than one account. It is noted for its radical political statement and feminine narrative. Still, cinematically it is a work of art because of the sound design, mise-en-scene, and framing of shots that mirror the character’s psyche and the tumult of post-Partition identities. Throughout his films, Ghatak’s primary complaint remained the brutal division of Bengal that caused disenfranchisement of unimaginable magnitude.

Based on a story written by Shaktipada Rajguru, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a part of Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy. The remaining two films are Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. Like Mani Ratnam’s Terror Trilogy (Dil Se, Roja and Bombay), the three films are connected by a singular thread of post-Partition trauma and the frantic scramble for individualities and income by families caught in a limbo; neither here, nor there, or anywhere. Meghe Dhaka Tara particularly stands out of the larger corpus of Partition-centric cinema because of the privilege it accrues to the experience of female refugees and working-class members. It exposes the dark underbelly of “empowerment”; women forced to abandon personal development for the betterment of their families. Such is the devouring of her existence: they become unidimensional grains of sand, thrown about by winds of oppression and utter lack of support from community members.

Meghe Dhaka Tara follows Nita (Supriya Chaudhury), an extraordinarily hardworking and profoundly caring woman who struggles to alleviate her family from crippling poverty. She is the sole breadwinner in a family of six, where each member is dependent on her. Her father is a helpless schoolteacher. Her mother, embittered by scarcity, always scolds her for not earning enough. For her, Nita is wage-earner first and woman second. So terrified is she of losing control over Nita’s income that she even connives to have Nita’s love interest marry her youngest, more beautiful daughter. Nita has three siblings, each selfish in their cruel way. Her youngest sister Gita is only interested in pursuing a good life, and Nita’s meagre earnings are her way out. Montu, their brother, is a bright man who refuses to contribute financially. When he meets with a terrible accident, Nita borrows money and fends for his expenses. Finally comes Shankar, the oldest son. He is a talented singer but lacks direction and accountability. He is the centre of all taunts, for he represents the weakened male authority. However, as opposed to Gita and Montu, he is deeply attached to Nita and loves her dearly. Nita’s life is the function of her family members’ demands, as she hurries from one financial setback to another, from one emotional blow to the next, until what remains is a beaten body and a wounded soul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara is often described as the best in Partition cinema, next to MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Like the latter, Meghe Dhaka Tara uses the Partition to highlight several social biases that hold till this very moment. Garam Hawa was about the exclusion of religious minorities. Meghe Dhaka Tara leverages a fractured family’s symbolism to highlight patriarchal subjugation, prejudices against working-class women, and the burdens they face as the sole emotional and financial force accountable for rebuilding the family from scratch. Simultaneously, Ghatak routinely draws imagery from religion by harshly commenting on the deification of women. A phenomenon painfully still existent, worship goes a long way in elevating women but rarely uplifts them. Recently, the Netflix special Bulbul resonated a similar sentiment, depicting the story of a young bride flitting amongst being a Devi, Chudail, Gudiya and Choti Bahu but never becoming Bulbul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara skillfully represents women as different forms of the Goddess Incarnate. Nita, the sole provider of the family, is likened to Goddess Jagadhatri or the eternal giver. On the other end is the fierce Chandi, who feeds on the living to sustain herself. For Ghatak, that is Nita’s mother. Nita’s mother is a tremendous parasitic force. She doesn’t bat an eyelid before encouraging Gita to pursue Nita’s love interest Sannat. Her argument is simple. She’d willingly force her daughter into a life of labour and sterility than let go of the only member who earns and, above all, is willing to sacrifice her financial, sexual and intellectual freedom to sustain the family’s consumerist tendencies. In fact, reputed film scholar Ira Bhaskar has observed how Ghatak sets up the home’s courtyard like a venue of a ritualistic yagna. In that courtyard, demands are made to Nita, who, as the Divine Provider, must fulfil.

While Partition’s trauma, the axis on which the film rotates, is an experience lost with those who faced it and their immediate generations, in the 21st-century, Megha Dhaka Tara exists as a strong narrative on the cyclical nature of domination. It is also a reminder that as women, we are equally capable of debilitating another woman. That patriarchy is a struggle for power that can be executed by a woman as much as by a man. In a distressing scene of the film, Nita confesses it is her fault that she allowed her family to exploit her continually. For years, her silence fanned the flames of the symbolic yagna. But as a person, ask yourself how often you have faced injustice and conjured the strength to protest? Easier said than done.

Coming back to where we started, from privilege. A few months ago, while casually discussing the Meghe Dhaka Tara with a friend, I was shaken to find that as a 23-year-old woman in 2021, my friend strongly related to Nita’s life and character. It made me acutely aware that capitalising on a woman’s financial and emotional labour is a reality not just restricted to society’s lowest socioeconomic rung. It happens everywhere. In your home. In your friend’s house. In your domestic help’s house. In your professor’s house. Of course, the magnitude will vary, from a simple act of not being consulted in financial decisions to greater and more dangerous formats of abuse. Meghe Dhaka Tara tells us that subjugation starts small. In simple denials. In little and invisible acts of prejudice. In small favours. It is supported by men and women because who doesn’t enjoy power? Look around. We are in a crowd of Nitas.

Women Who Won the Sahitya Akademi – TheSeer’s March Reading List

8th March was International Women’s Day. Among several other important events that occured in March, there is one date that we don’t usually remember or talk about. On 12th March, 1954, Sahitya Akademi was inaugurated by the Government of India. The Government of India Resolution, which set forth the constitution of the Akademi, described it as a national organisation to work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country. Though set up by the Government, the Akademi functions as an autonomous organisation. It was registered as a society on 7 January 1956, under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.

For March, we were torn between reading books by women authors and books that have won the Sahitya Akademi award. And then we decided, why not get and give you the best of both worlds! TheSeer presents a list of books authored by women which have also won the Sahitya Akademi awards. You can’t get wrong with such filters.

Book of Rachel – Esther David

This book won the award in the year 2010. The story revolves around a lone Jewish woman who fights against the land sharks to keep her community thriving. The writing is graceful and the story is captivating. The book will also enrich your understanding of the Jewish life in India. Buy the book here.

Inside the Haveli – Rama Mehta

What happens when an educated, independent girl gets married into a conservative family where she has to hide herself behind purdah and follow the traditions that limit her identity. This book is a tale of a girl’s struggle towards claiming her own space and preserve her independent identity through all the challenges the conservative Haveli throws at her. The book won the award in the year 1979. You can get a copy for yourself here.

Kadachit Ajoonahi – Anuradha Patil

Anuradha Patil won the Sahitya Akademi for this collection of poetry in Marathi. Her poems take us into the lives of women, their pain, desires, love, happiness, and their quest for knowing themselves. The boook has a collection of 51 poems. You can order a copy here.

Hrudaya Netri – Malathi Chandur

This novel in Telugu presents a fictional account of the Indian freedom struggle in Andhra Pradesh. Through the story of the protagonist Gopalan, the novel brings forth the case of social justice through the years of the freedom struggle. The book received the award in the year 1992 and can be purchased here. An English translation by Parvathy B is also available.

Deou Langkhui – Rita Choudhury

Rita Choudhary won the Sahitya Akademi for her Assamese novel on the Tiwa community in the year 2008. Apart from informing its readers about the ways and culture of the community, the novel also boasts of other elements like romance, conflict, betrayal, loyalty that make it an interesting book to read. You can purchase your copy here.

We hope you will find these reads interesting as well as informative. If you have read any of these books, please let us know about it in the comments section.

Indianisms in English – A Language of Our Own?

As an English literature graduate, I have been approached often to correct grammatical inaccuracies in a random sentence. Both strangers and acquaintances have asked for tips on how to improve their English, particularly spoken English. To those like me, who went to higher-end English medium private schools, English was not a choice- it was the language of theatre, public speaking, projects, and even casual conversations. But many spend a good part of their lives aspiring towards English proficiency as is evident from the flourishing number of English-speaking classes in the country. This has much to do with English increasingly becoming the language of formal communication and being seen as a pathway to better jobs.

The impeccable English we want to achieve is usually an ideal British English – however, with the growing influence of American pop-culture and increasing use of the internet, we find ourselves increasingly speaking American lingo. An interesting product of colonialism and neo-colonialism is this standard English that looks down upon Indianisms- any literal translations from Indian languages into English. The internet houses a myriad of articles and videos that teach us how to avoid grammatically incorrect Indianisms: Your good name please?, Will you take tea?, or words like prepone, wheatish, and native-place.

The slangs of American English are also understood as being grammatically incorrect and must be avoided from all formal communication. But Indianisms are usually the subject of mockery and humor. They indicate a rustic lack of education. Why are these seen as incorrect translations into a foreign language that Indians claim to master? Don’t the decades of English use as an official language in independent India make it a language of our own that can be tweaked and turned?

Establishing the legitimacy of Indian English has been a long drawn conversation. Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ is often seen as making a case for Indian English. It is a criticism of modernity that laments the loss of Indian values. 

‘I am standing for peace and non-violence.
Why world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understanding.
Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct.
I should say even 200% correct.
But modern generation is neglecting-
Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.’

This sentiment very typical of the Indian post independence period cannot be fully expressed in standard English. To do so would mean losing key cultural context as well as inferences about the time period and social location of the speaker.

For many, the existence and legitimacy of an Indian English which has undergone changes over the years and has varieties of its own is not a matter of debate. For Shashi Tharoor, Indianisms slip into casual conversion quite routinely and Indian English has the right to be as distinctive as Irish English or American English. He points out, for instance, that a word like brinjal is not used in any Indian language or in English spoken in the western world (where it is called eggplant). It is a word from distinctive Indian English. Google dictionary has also started including an Indian English pronunciation for some words. With India claiming to be the world’s second-largest English-speaking country, recognizing Indian English as a distinct language of our own seems non-negotiable.

However, it is also true that English is often seen as a foreign language that many Indians master. I am not simply referring to the pleasant surprise at our ‘good English’ that quite a few foreigners express, but the way we perceive English ourselves. Indianisms being perceived as incorrect translations are simply evidence of this perception. The three-language formula of India’s Education Policy requires two out of the three languages taught to be native to India and in doing so regards English as a foreign language.

To embrace English as a language of our own is not simple. The statistic on English speakers in India does little to explain the complex position of the language in the country. Its growing importance is, in fact, a source of much contention to those who see it as a threat to cultural diversity. It is criticised for being a language accessible only to the elite, thus widening the class gap by creating a language gap. At the same time, English instruction is celebrated as being the means to uplift the poor and marginalized. The politics that mar English use is of the many who do not speak it.

Within such realities, the possibility of Salman Rushdie’s chutnification’ of English being widely accepted, with its abundant use of Hindi and Urdu words and reflection of India’s hybrid culture, seems too optimistic. Yet its existence is reassuring and hopeful. Indianisms may not be accepted into the standard or even as the slangs of a distinct Indian English. Yet they will continue to exist on the margins, spoken every day. Because perhaps, we are like this only.

Lewis-Carroll-Feature

To, But Not Restricted to, Children. Love, Lewis Carroll

There are a handful of books that every child is made to read during their growing-up years. For parents, syllabus committees and English teachers, they are akin to an instruction manual which they hope will instill a love for reading in children and strengthen their grasp over the English language. Popular inclusions in the list include Secret Seven, Famous Five, Chronicles of Narnia, Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s gem, Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the same children grow up to enjoy fiction, one hardly ever returns to these books because they are relegated as writing for kids. So, when I found that January 27th marked the 189th birth anniversary of Lewis Carroll, I tried hard to remember what his writing was about.

Apart from glimpses of Cheshire Cat’s smile and few stray anecdotes from Alice in Wonderland, everything else was a blur. So, while going through Carroll’s Wikipedia page, I was completely caught off-guard by the sheer expanse of his genius that even the most avid reader has ignored because once again “he’s not for grownups”.  Not only was he a master of wordplay, puns, and imagery, but he was also a proof that science and arts can merge beautifully without emitting a pungent smell of discord. His writing floats lightheartedly on the confluence of mathematics and language.  

Born as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll led a fascinating life in which he donned many hats; each contributed to his fine sense of nonsense, rhyme, and lush imagery. Carroll exhibited an immense liking and strong talent for mathematics, cyphers, chess and puzzles, culminating in his lifelong studentship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. His deeply analytical tendencies percolated into his creatives, rhyme scheme, labyrinthine landscapes and highly stylised verses with hidden clues. In short, Lewis Carroll being tied down by the burden of being “a children’s author” is probably one of the worst sins a literary academic could commit.

In fact, when Martin Gardner approached publishing houses for commissioning a version of Alice in Wonderland that contained scholarly notes, they were quick to dismiss his idea. No one does all this for a children’s book. Gardner went on to author The Universe in a Handkerchief, a comprehensive volume delving deep into the works of Lewis Carroll; from his popular fiction down to his puzzles and letters. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly just so that we can acquaint ourselves to the genius we have missed out upon. 

As standard with most fabulous creators, Carroll was mostly associated with one of his many dazzling creations. Of course, its Alice in Wonderland. But many remain blissfully unaware of his pioneering contribution to the criminally underrated world of nonsense verse. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were the earliest proponents of this form of writing. In India, Sukumar Ray’s (father of Satyajit Ray) Abol Tabol is the nonsense poetry handbook for Bengali children. Every child is acquainted with Bombagorer Raja (The King of Bombagor) who did absurd things like frame dried mangoes while his crazy Aunt chased pumpkins with a bat. 

Carroll’s Jabberwocky is one of the most refined examples of nonsense verse appearing in Through the Looking Glass. It is a ballad, a good versus evil story but primarily remembered for its funky language and unique visual and sonic quality. In the poem, a father warns his son of three vicious monsters: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch. It is a concise poem, about 28 lines, and you can see why it is handy to instill dread in children. When we are kids, we are told of many unnamed monsters who are out there. They wait for kids to misbehave or not finish their food, and then they’ll appear. For most of our lives, these monsters remain faceless, just like Jabberwocky and its evil partners. The feeling of fear comes because we don’t know why we have to be scared of the Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch or what they do that makes them vicious. Typical to Carroll’s storytelling, he uses unknown words like galumphing, vorpal, mome raths and borograves

Another favourite, particularly in schools, is Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem is a mix of narrative and nonsense; about a walrus and carpenter who lures oysters into a conversation and then eats them all. It’s a funny, absurd poem full of outlandish settings where the sun and moon are in the sky simultaneously, and oysters wore shoes although they had no feet. The Walrus and the Carpenter hugely inspired culture and wild interpretations. A faction believes that they represent Buddha and Jesus Christ. Others thought that they stood for the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Of course, Martin Gardner rubbishes both sections. The poem did appear in iconic pop culture references. Beatles’ I am the Walrus refers to the poem. Much later, Lennon regretted doing so because he hadn’t realised that the walrus was the antagonist. Lines have been quoted in Dr Who, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Agatha Christie’s The Clocks.

It would not be a complete discussion if we didn’t touch upon Alice in Wonderland, the book that catapulted Carroll into fame that lasted across centuries. This book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are swarming with banter, math, puzzles, and paradoxes. The narrative is full of riddles. Everyone must vaguely recollect the Mad Hatter’s famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”.

Interestingly, Carroll admitted that he too had no answer to the riddle when he wrote it. The puzzle perplexed many, including Aldous Huxley. In the later versions, the answer was included. According to Carroll, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in the front.” Notice how he misspells nevar as a rearrangement of the word raven. His narratives frequently included acrostic poems, a writing style in which every stanza provides clues to a particular word. 

The fact that we know so little about Lewis Carroll stands testament to the systematic marginalisation of children’s fiction as just for children. Several other books suffer the same fate of not being taken seriously because their central readership continues to be kids. Whether its Wind in the Willows or Gulliver’s Travels, we do tend never to revisit the books we’ve read and loved even if fiction, reality, and language were just half-baked concepts in our innocent minds. Somedays, it is imperative that we stop to thank the authors who we’ve perhaps given fame but not enough credit for shaping our imagination. 

Lewis Carroll, thank you for normalising the weird. Thank you for providing children in every house of the world a rabbit hole to jump into and explore in their dreams.

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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