We Have No Time to Stand and Stare

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Poster of Amazon's Show Panchayat

Amazon Prime’s Latest ‘Panchayat’ Raises Important Questions Sans the Baggage of Clichéd Pessimism

When Amazon Prime’s new arrivals notified me of TVF’s new series Panchayat, for reasons that do not exist, I wasn’t very keen on watching. But, a couple of days later, my partner-in-crime suddenly discovered this new show in Prime and was too excited (again, I know not for what reason). I didn’t tell him about how I had noticed it and duly ignored it, but as always he was too excited to notice my disinterest. So, nonchalantly I started watching it with him. But Phulera’s new Panchayat secretary Abhishek Tripathi beat me in nonchalance and slowly I warmed up to the series.

 

Phulera is one of those many Indian villages where the Village Panchayat leadership posts are reserved for women, where these elected female representatives leave the administration in the able hands of their men and go back to their god-given duty of being the ‘caregiver’ at home. Our protagonist, Abhishek is your aspirational neighbour next door who chilled through his student days and is suddenly faced with the reality of his life in Phulera while his friends Instagram away from their uber-cool urban corporate lives.  So, he decides to bring his life around by preparing for the CAT entrance exam. Having been used to too many super-hero stories and feminist web series, I was predicting that the new Secretary’s young blood would boil and he would change the way things worked for these women representatives in Phulera. Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t Ayushmann Khuranna from Article 15 who wants to right the wrongs. He just turned out to be another half-hearted opportunist stuck up between good/bads and right/wrongs. However, now that you have started watching a series, it’s a crime to not finish it. Also, despite my disappointment in the protagonist being non-heroic and very practical, I came to like other people in Phulera who reminded me of many people I have come across. Some I remember warmly, but most I would rather stay away from.

 

I was in college when my Village Panchayat was first reserved for women. My hostel warden was surprised that I wanted to leave to go home to vote. It helped that she was a feminist or at least she thought herself as one. Off I went and elected the first woman President of my village. She was only a few years older than me and I knew her. She was smart, confident, outspoken, and very capable to be a leader. A year later, I was sitting face to face with my interviewer, and again I have no idea why he asked me this, but he asked me to comment on reservations for women. Hold that thought, I now remember why he asked me that. I think that was one of the many times when the 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament was in the news. I told him, ‘reservations for women’ makes no sense until the time their husbands, fathers, and brothers make decisions in their place. I believe my answer was more of a reflection of my disappointment of how my otherwise talented Panchayat leader was sidelined and how her father/brothers took over the reins of administration. I landed the job and moved to the city.

 

A decade has gone by and my village panchayat is still reserved for women, except there hasn’t been an election in the last five years all thanks to politicians and bureaucrats. These days however, I don’t get too disappointed. I feel like I am another Abhishek Tripathi, because how does it matter if it is a man or a woman.The next woman who won the election in my village was more corrupt than all her male predecessors put together, and all these years being grown up, I have seen more unkind, difficult women as well. So, my blood doesn’t boil and I don’t get goosebumps with seemingly empowering feminist or pseudo-feminist thoughts. Or should I say, it does at times, but not as much as it used to? I have come to believe in harmony, although I am not convinced it exists. Yet strangely, unlike the Women Reservation Bill that maintains status quo for many years even after change of regimes, I have changed my stance with respect to reservation for women. I believe reservation for women is essential despite the cultural baggage and excessive corruption that comes with the arrangement. I believe that is the only way to bring out those real leaders who probably are stuck with their heads in the kitchen fire. 

 

Sorry about that long nostalgic monologue, but coming back to Phulera, I was glad I watched it. It was a lesson and an inspiration in some ways. Revolution may not always be the way to go. Sometimes we have to be patient and give way to evolution. Maybe a little push here and there can expedite the process without really breaking down the good things of the past that we want to leave behind.  

 

Having said that, Pradhan Ji and her PradhanPati make a loving couple. Aarav’s Papa and Aatmaram’s Maa too were equally entertaining. But all hearts to Vikas and Deputy Pradhan Prahlad for filling my day with laughter. I hated Parmeshwar (only because he reminded me of many people I know) and Abhishek sir, kabhi kabhi thoda smile bhi kar lo.

 

A Sailor’s Tips to Survive the Corona Lockdown/Isolation

It is day 4 of the government enforced 21 day lockdown. It is being touted as a self quarantine of sorts but we don’t really have a choice here. So, what our approach to this unprecedented event is, will decide how healthy and wise we come out of it. I belong to a profession where social distancing is an undeniable part of my job profile. For upto 9 months a year, I am secluded from the rest of the physical world. I live and work on a merchant ship.

 

The first few days are difficult. Adapting to a new environment and circumstance takes up most of the time and energy. In the case of this 21 day lockdown, that time is now. The first and foremost step in doing that is acceptance. Once we have accepted the new reality, the adapting part becomes easier. Sticking to a dynamic but stable schedule helps. A structured and well thought out routine goes a long way in avoiding burnouts. Judicious use of the internet should be the only use of the internet. There is a reason why the internet is restricted onboard most of the merchant ships. Take the cue. 

 

  • Start your day early, day after day, and you will understand the significance of it.

 

  • Guided Yoga or mild exercise helps in rejuvenating your mind and body, and prepares you well for the day ahead. If not handled correctly, these 21 days can prove to be a lot more stressful than your average working day.

 

  • Prepare an early and moderately heavy breakfast to start the engines. Cut back on oil, spices, and meat. My personal favourite is the Indian cuisine from the south for breakfast viz. Idly, Dosa, Upma etc. They are healthy and easy to cook; to each his own though.

 

  • Pick up a labor intensive physical activity. Cleaning the house, washing clothes, gardening etc. are great examples. Try to enjoy the process. 

 

  • Take a bath daily. Personal hygiene can’t be stressed upon more in these pandemic times. Also wash your hands as many times as necessary. 

 

  • Cook up. Don’t be afraid to try if you are new to this. It’s therapeutic and not that difficult. We have cooks onboard but here you don’t have that luxury, given the quarantine. So, make the best use of it. Experiment, adapt to the scarcity of certain ingredients, preserve the nutrients. You take care of the nutrition and the nutrition will take care of you.

 

  • Eat moderate. Remember the engines are already started, you just have to keep them running now. Eating healthy is the defining mantra for these days.

 

  • Take up a book, if you are a reader. If not, watch TV. If the 24×7 dissemination of garbage over cable is too much to handle for you, then if not already, subscribe to any of the streaming services. Thankfully, we don’t have televisions onboard ships but at the same time the internet is too slow. You have it better here. Beware of binging on anything though. It guarantees burnout and is a breeding ground for unhealthy habits. Yes, binge-reading, binge-watching, binge-eating, all are equally bad for you. Stop it now if you want to last these 21 days unscathed. We last for a lot more than that just by avoiding binging on anything. 

 

  • Stay hydrated and keep busy. Important thing is to keep switching between activities to avoid boredom. Remember you are in it for the long haul. Make it count.

 

  • Take time out for meditation and pranayam. De-stress. Meditation has many forms. Find out what works for you. Listen to your favorite songs. Develop a taste in a music form you are not familiar with. Watch sports.

 

  • Talk to your loved ones if they are with you, call them if not. Have gratitude and be thankful for the life that you have. Make it better.

 

 

With all the prayers and hope, we do not know when this is going to get over. Have we seen the worst already? We don’t know yet. However, some of us have the option to play a Hero in this battle against Coronavirus by just staying indoors while the other heroes sort it out outside with their exceptional work. As we stand in gratitude to the medical community and usually ignored denominators of the society who keep us going every day with their work for sanitation, daily wage workers, police departments, NGOs, and other volunteers, let us also spare a thought for the entire seafaring community who are out there in the high seas facing adversities from all sides, but still keeping the supply lines operational so that the oil, coal, and grains keep on reaching where they are needed in these trying times. 

 

About the Author : Ambikesh Kumar Jha is a social writer and a sailor, presently ashore.

 

Pickles by the Jar

A thick layer of grease lined the jar, as pieces of sundried mango struggled for their rightful place in the midst of water strongly impregnated with salt, mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds. A strong yet inviting smell wafted as I toyed with the lid.

I plunged a finger in the bright red pickle and fished for a piece of mango but in vain. I retreated my finger to lick its residue off. The tangy smell greeted me before my finger could touch my lips. I licked my finger greedily in one swift motion like a homeless man deprived of food for days at a stretch. It made me cherish every bit of the red greasy substance. 

 

Each piece of the mango dipped in pickle transported me back to my childhood. Reminding me of my father combing my hair and plaiting it with red ribbons whose tassels would tease me. Sitting by the kitchen slab while my mother would tirelessly make perfectly shaped rotis. The jar of pickle would be placed inside the glass cabinet and would be a silent observer witnessing me turn into an adolescent and acquiring a new found love for pickle.

My taste buds grew rather fond of this relish consisting of dried up mangoes preserved in brine. It made my gastric juices crave for more. The pickle seemed to blend effortlessly with every dish. Rice flooded with spiced yellow lentils or toor daal is a staple in every Indian household. The simple act of putting a spoonful of pickle on the steel plate would turn the humble meal into an elaborate royal dish. It made the gulping down of vegetables like bottle gourd a pleasurable task. These flavors of the dish would be emphasized only when eating it with one’s raw hands instead of using tools such as spoons and forks to mediate between the food and your mouth.

 

Little did one know that the pickle was made in kitchens of ordinary women; women that were a part of the crowd.  It turned into sacred spaces where they would throw together spices that would become the object of envy. Kitchens would be consumed with the stench of lime, mangoes, and an assortment of items to be turned into this savoury. It stood incomplete without the clatter of bangles along the edges of glass jars. Mornings would be brimming with activity like milk boiling on the stove, threatening to rise, and spill over the edge of the vessel. The afternoons would turn into a lazy stupor with minimal movement of the body and a casual whisk of the hand. As the day neared its end, the kitchen would be left in a near state of abandonment; a group of women giggling by their jars like houseflies buzzing around the last crumbs of cake.

These age old recipes would then be passed on from one generation to the other. It would often be kept away from the male gaze. Ironically, it was only with the touch of a menstruating female that the pickle would rot. This belief was ingrained in Indian households and did not discriminate between social strata and class.

 

One could still sight the rare shadow of a woman clad in chiffon saree peering from the walls of the kitchen. The shadows lingered. You can’t shut shadows out when they come to seek inside; can’t sweep them out with a broom, scrub them out with a brush, wipe them out with a mop. They always come on top. They would linger around the space, turning it sour, and curdling the limpid air.

Eyeing the plates laden with pickles being served to guests and males who played minimal role in the making of the pickle, women seemed to feed their hearts instead of their mouths simply by gorging on it with their eyes.

But sight is a ruthless censor, stiffens your throbbing nerves, strangles your resolution, stifles your inner cry.

 

Cover Image: nguyenhuynhmai

 

“Shivaji Represented the True Consciousness of the Nation” – Swami Vivekananda

The following memoir was written by Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Rao and was published in Vedanta Kesari November 1914 issue. We are reproducing the piece on the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (19 February 1630 – 3 April 1680).

 

An evening-talk on Sivaji

It was a beautiful moonlit night and Swamiji was sitting in the verandah of the bungalow of the late Mr. Bhattacharjee on the South Beach of Madras (already referred to), conversing in Hindi with Mr. Munshi Jagamohanlal, the private secretary of the Maharajah of Khetri. This gentleman had been sent by the Maharajah to trace out the whereabouts of the Swamiji and to fetch him back to Khetri to bless the newly born son and heir to the State. When Swamiji was at Khetri about a year previously, the Maharajah of Khetri had begged of him to confer the boon of a son and Swamiji while he was in one of his higher moods had actually blessed him saying that God had granted his prayer. So the Maharajah wanted Swamiji back in his palace at any cost and could not remain contented until he saw him. When I went over there after my office work I prostrated before Swamiji and took my seat; and suddenly Swamiji began to sing a Hindi song in praise of Sivaji in his own masterly way, the last two lines of which were:—

दावा द्रुमदंड पर चित्ता मृग झुंड पर, भूषण बितंड पर जैसे मृगराज हैं ।
तॆज तम अंशपर काह्न जिम कंसपर, त्यॊंमिलेच्छवंसपर शर शिवराज हैं ॥

(As forest-fire is to the forest trees, a leopard to the deer-herds and a lion to the stately elephants; as the sun is to the darkness of the night, as Krishna was to Kansa, so was king Sivaji, a lion, towards the hordes of Mlechchas.)


Then Swamiji began to give a brief account of the life of Sivaji, with great feeling and enthusiasm and we listened to the same with great eagerness and rapt attention; for so engrossing and interesting it was to listen to those soul-stirring words of Swamiji who spoke at the time with so great an earnestness and yet with so much pity and kindness. It was a pity there was no one to take down all that he spoke that evening in shorthand, nor did I make any notes at the time either, for my mind was so absorbed in following his narrative that the idea of taking down any notes never entered my brain. Yet the indelible impressions he made on even our callous hearts that memorable evening do still persist though somewhat dimmed, and the following is but an imperfect reproduction of those impressions.

 

It was a long song as I learnt it afterwards; but I who had learnt in my school days that Sivaji was a cunning unprincipled freebooter, ‘an upstart robber,’ a marauder and a treacherous murderer, suddenly interrupted Swamiji and asked him how that praise and those lines were justified in the case of Sivaji. Was he not a mere child of fortune, a marauder who collected similar men like himself and succeeded in establishing a kingdom by sheer cunning and treachery?

 

Swamiji immediately gave up his singing and saw me full in the face, his face being lit up with the fire of indignation and said,

“Shame on you, Doctor. You are a Mahratta and still that is all you know of the greatest king that India had produced within the last three hundred years; one who was the very incarnation of Siva, about whom prophecies were given out long before he was born; and his advent was eagerly expected by all the great souls and saints of Maharashtra as the deliverer of the Hindus from the hands of the Mlechchas and one who succeeded in the establishment of the Dharma which had been trampled under foot by the depredations of the devastating hordes of the Moghals. This is what comes of your reading Indian History written by foreigners who could have no sympathy with you, nor could they have any respect for your culture, traditions, manners and customs which they could not understand.

Is there a greater hero, a greater saint, a greater bhakta and a greater king than Sivaji? Sivaji was the very embodiment of a born ruler of men as typified in your great Epics. He was the type of the real son of India representing the true consciousness of the nation. It was he who showed what the future of India is going to be sooner or later, a group of independent units under one umbrella as it were, i.e., under one supreme imperial suzerainty.”

 

I was simply thunderstruck and seemed to myself so small, so foolish and so ignorant; still the spirit of enquiry in me could not be put down even by those eloquent and fiery words of indignation which Swamiji gave expression to, for I thought whatever might be said of Sivaji there could be no explanation for his treacherous conduct towards Afzul Khan, the great Pathan commander sent from the court of Bijapur, whom he is said to have killed under circumstances which any one who has a spark of morality in him could not but abhor. Still with some amount of hesitation but with a mischievous curiosity to find out how Swamiji could condone this treacherous deed of Sivaji, I begged of him to tell us something about the real life-history of Sivaji and what he thought of his one act which had been considered the greatest blot in his life and on account of which his character had been painted so black.

 

“Doctor,” began Swamiji, “it is a pity that in our schools, History of India written by foreigners alone is taught to our boys. The foreign writers of the Mahratta History can never shake off their bias nor understand the real character and greatness and the inner motive of the actions of Sivaji. We cannot blame them for their beliefs which more or less depended on the writings of the Mussalman chroniclers who out of spite and hatred, denounced Sivaji as a falim or freebooter. On the other hand there are many Mahratta bakhars or chroniclers who have written about him but who, true to their ancient puranic ideal, looked upon Sivaji as an incarnation of God born to relieve His devotees from the oppressions of Mahomedan fanaticism and to re-establish the Dharma.

Naturally the foreign writers leaned on the side of the Mussalman chroniclers and considered the account given by the Mahrattas as mere superstition. But fortunately there are many independent Persian manuscripts dealing with the history of Aurangzeeb, Sivaji and the Bijapur kings. They corroborate the account of the Mahratta chroniclers so far as facts are concerned, though they do not share in their belief of the superhuman nature of the exploits of Sivaji. And if young men who have any patriotic feeling towards the history of their motherland were to make researches in finding out and translating these manuscripts much truer light may be thrown on the greatness of the doings of Sivaji and of many others who helped in the formation of the great Mahratta Confederacy and it will be a valuable addition to our knowledge of the real History of India.” (November 1914, p. 218-219)

 

Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

The characters are perpetually settling and resettling; be it in Kuwait, Ammam in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon. A few characters such as two of Alia’s children, Souad and Karam, also move to Boston and Paris for some time. However, Palestine is never called home again.

In portraying one family’s dispersal across the world, Salt Houses lays bare the human cost of conflict: the trauma of war and displacement that generations carry. 

The novel makes that pain ever so palpable through the characters’ memories and lived experiences. Yet, despite the sadness, their stories uphold the value of relationships and of family. There is deep warmth in the family’s get togethers. The young ones move in and out, they go looking for greener pastures but still maintain a sense of attachment with their family despite the fraught situations and tenuous nature of their relationships.

This is not to say that Hala Alyan has romanticised Palestine or the idea of the homeland and family. Yes, the past is a prominent aspect of certain characters’ lives; it is where one longs to go back to. But such narratives are set against very realistic goals of survival and staying safe, and having stability. When one of Alia’s granddaughters, Manar, visits Palestine (particularly Nablus and the home Alia grew up in), she attains no jubilation because the place has transformed. It is no longer the lust green land of orange trees that her grandmother remembers. Manar’s visit acknowledges that change has occurred. In such ways, the story steers clear of surfeit nostalgic sentimentality. The memories of older generation of Palestine are different than the realities in 2014. “Nostalgia is an affliction”, Alia remarks. Certainly, characters such as Alia live off nostalgia but that is not the only narrative employed in the novel. It does not suffer from overindulging in the oft-used connections of nostalgia and memory.

Even the fragmented identities that they have, especially Alia’s grandchildren, highlight the unrealistic idea of nationality based on borders. Alia and Atef are Palestinian and have lived in Palestine till they fled to Kuwait but none of their children or grandchildren have lived there or were even born there. They are Palestinian by nationality but also partly Kuwaiti and Lebanese. They have seen Jordan and the U.S. Alia’s grandchildren have grown up in the U.S. and are ‘ajnabi’ or strangers because of their Americanised ways. How does one explain such criss-crossings of identity to any person? The characters are constantly marked by their difference and even their friend circle includes people who are similarly anomalies from what is considered ‘normal’ identity.

While the Yacoub family is definitely a privileged one as they are moneyed and were probably landowners in Palestine, they are still refugees. They live drifting lives; lives that are unsettled by the whims and fancies of dictators and so called democratic regimes.

This privilege is acknowledged right at the beginning in Salma’s narrative when she feels grateful for having a house in Nablus and not having to languish in refugee camps, grateful that she can protect her children at least in that way from war. Alia has similar thoughts about her own children and her privilege is also set in stark contrast when she randomly meets a Kurdish refugee woman in Kuwait who tells her about what hunger really means. Yet, in no way does Alyan diminish any kind of suffering. Instead, she juxtaposes this disparity often and keeps the characters’ privilege in check.

The narrative is intimate and will tear you apart with its mixture of joy, longing, nostalgia, death and birth. The reader glimpses their lives, thoughts, and gets involved in their interweaving strands of family stories. It feels melancholic to read this novel, especially when reading about the constant political turmoil the characters are confronted with. How does one settle in life when war is always at one’s doorstep? But the multiple voices in the novel do exactly that –take brave steps, even risky ones, to carry on with their lives even though they are often ruptured by bombs and battles.

Salt Houses is a must read as it reveals layers of intertwining history and displacement through a portrait of this one family. It triumphs as a literary work as it does what literature does best: show the humane behind the cold statistical headlines. The writing is tender, delicately depicting the characters’ lives through such heart wrenching metaphors of beauty that are jarring to the reader.

“Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh.” This vivid image is as haunting as describing a morgue; it tells a different tale of the destruction yet it is still talking about war. Her writing often portrays the beauty vis a vis destruction. This is exactly what hurts the reader when reading this novel.

The novel’s take on extremist tendencies remarks bravely on its flaws. When Alia’s grandchild, Abdullah, is influenced by these Fascist thoughts, Alia speaks up against them and calls out the inherent evil in such ideologies. Alia had seen how her own brother Mustafa was lost because of this. Abdullah is Riham’s son; Riham is Alia’s eldest child. Riham transformed into a devout person after her adolescent years and in a scene, after Alia confronted Abdullah, Riham is also shown reflecting on how the religion peddled by these extremists is suffused not with faith but with anger and misinformed ideas of lost identity. It was heartening to read about characters who themselves disowned these ideas. This is very different from mainstream depiction of Muslim characters which relishes on showing them as fanatics. Here is Riham who loves her faith because of how it is, and not because someone is shouting at her to assert her religion. She truly believes in it rather than only using her religious identity as a way to channelize her anger and injustice, which is what she thinks the fascists indulge in.  This rational dissection of extremism is important in the face of constant stereotyping against an entire religion.

Salt Houses is a gut wrenching novel that leaves you hollow and sorrowful because of the sweeping history and trauma that pervades the story. Yet, it hails the sheer strength of hope amidst the barrenness of war.

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Book Review – Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire

It would be an understatement to say that the British Empire in its heyday was an engine of gluttony. But that is the story that Lizzie Collingham wants to tell in her book, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. The Empire changed the world. There are arguments to both sides of the Empire’s deeds, that it did good is commendable, but the bad it did against the good is even more reproachable. 

Trade was the first area through which the Empire propelled its power. A small trading company that went on to rule more than half the world and engineered the largest empire in history. From the 16th and 18th centuries, trading became the driving force behind innovation, both political and economic. This trade disrupted the life-cycles of many cultures and countries that eventually became part of the Empire. 

This is what Collingham depicts in her enchanting history. The subject of this history is food. Food that drove trade and “helped to turn the wheels of commerce” (pg. xvi). Food that bolstered progress. However, with such progress, destruction went hand in hand. British traders settled in far off corners of the world for food, disrupting local cultures, and the people, even going so far as to annihilate entire native populations.

 

The food web that was woven by … [these developments] … created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet.

 

In this way, Britain changed the way the world tasted food. And yet, it should be noted that food was still just one aspect of commerce that British merchants were concentrating on. Indeed, with most histories “focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices” (pg. 5). Among other things, Britain also traded in textiles, spices, tin, rubber, wood, dyes, etc. But food was important simply because it was a basic necessity that superseded all others; and trade thrived around food. 

The book starts with “fish day on the Mary Rose.” Salt cod was never popular in English cuisine, but it lasted long and could be used for long sea journeys. It laid the foundation of English expansion. The ship Mary Rose itself became a shipwreck that, upon its rediscovery, became one of the best artefacts for historians. There was evidence in the shipwreck of the presence of beef, pork, and salt cod, and other things that could last for long without spoiling and becoming inedible.

“Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market (pg. 79).” It was rare and expensive, and came to London through the Dutch East India Company. As Collingham writes, sugar was popular with the English and led to the sweetening of tea overtime. 

 

Collingham writes fluidly, without breaking her tone. Her main prerogative is getting the facts straight and putting them down in front of the reader. The pieces fall into place themselves. It is a fairly straightforward narrative that she has established. The author also supplies actual illustrations and colour plates depicting the history of food-making in the world. These illustrations complement the narrative easily.

Another thing of note is the recipes peppered throughout the book. These range from archaic recipes taken from old books that are still used in the kitchen today to authentic recipes passed down through families and friends across generations. 

 

Even from the start, despite all the history provided in abundance, there really ever was only one topic of focus under discussion in this book: food. There are nuggets of information, both fascinating and unheard of at the same time. For example, the medieval cosmic view was that black was the colour of melancholy so it was not used in food. A combination of ginger and saffron was used because it was yellowish in colour and that meant the nourishing energy of the sun. But, this world view changed with the arrival of black pepper. Collingham helps the reader wade through this sea of history without any problems whatsoever. 

Collingham is clearly fascinated by the effect the British Empire has had on the culinary arts and trade across the world. Sometimes, this fascination seems a bit laudatory, as if she can’t help admiring it. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Empire encouraged slavery or colonized countries like India, or that it appropriated cultures, even destroyed them. But she doesn’t openly criticize the actions of the Empire to a large extent. Since the topic is food, Collingham concentrates on that; sometimes to the detriment of any timely criticism.

The book is highly readable as an introduction to the past based on what is on your dinner plate.

 

 

Cover Image: AshPrad

Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life are Not Meant to be Broken!

If you have followed Dr. Jordan Peterson’s trajectory closely, you would agree that if nothing, he has at the least gotten under the skin of the shallow, lazy intellectuals who have been enjoying an extended honeymoon in the marketplace of intellectuals. Right from their stranglehold on the academia to their presumption of privilege to be heard first on all matters significant or otherwise, the foundations have been shaken. Now, some of them have gone to their study to revise the fundamentals of their worldview and the ones who were there only by the virtue of intellectual nepotism have unwittingly come out in open with their lack of depth and understanding about matters Dr. Peterson speaks of. Faced with such a situation, I have seen them doing, one of these two things – either they keep talking to the straw-man their professors had created for them back in their schools or they keep throwing off meaningless personal allegations against the man. This is such a common streak in Dr. Peterson’s interviews (mostly, the ones that have been taken by the flag-bearers of lazy intellectualism) that most of the time, he is not being heard. What we see instead is some sort of passive listening while their active brain is busy stitching its next net to trap him. On the other hand, Dr. Peterson doesn’t shy away from taking his own sweet time to listen so as to draft better responses and throw in an honest question at the end of it which even though seemingly honest, pops up only by design . In a few minutes, aware or unaware, the interviewer is choked for space and starts following Dr. Peterson’s streak. So, while the interviewer is already zoned out, Dr. Peterson is still in the ring, ready to land his knockout punch.

I heard of the book 12 Rules for Life in one of his talks on YouTube. Since the subjects and delivery of his YouTube lectures had me hooked on to them already, I didn’t have much questions about going ahead and buying his book. Typically, you would place this book on the self-help shelf in a bookstore but even if the book is kept in the autobiographies section, it would make equal sense, if not more. This is because Jordan Peterson is not into empty lecturing and tall tales. He draws heavily from his own life, his struggles, and his attempts to understand the ever-elusive meaning of life to explain his rules. This works in favour of the book because a book that is meant to help you should have at least helped the author before taking birth as a book.

One must increase one’s strength by sadhana; otherwise one cannot preach. As the proverb goes: ‘You have no room to sleep yourself and you invite a friend to sleep with you.’ There is no place for you to lie down and you say: ‘Come, friend! Come and lie down with me.’  – Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel/Vol2/34.html)

Jordan presents the book as an antidote to chaos. What chaos is he actually talking about? Before he starts explaining the rules, while telling us about the title, he says, “Perhaps if we lived properly, we would be able to tolerate the weight of our own self-consciousness. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our insufficiency and ignorance. Perhaps we could come to avoid those pathways to Hell-and we have seen in the terrible twentieth century just how real Hell can be.”

Now, if I had to count the attributes of today’s individual that contribute to the chaos Mr. Peterson is talking about, they would be the following –

  • Loss of Self-Esteem

    Too many in this world are being brought up with a sense of criminality about the human race. While a bunch of people keep working to make this world a better place, there are so many individuals who really believe that humans are not good enough for this planet. Add to this, the deliberate divorce from one’s own history, culture, and heritage being effected by the academia and popular media, our youngsters grow up without any self-esteem. They only know to loathe themselves and others with increasing intensity every day.

  • Playing the Victim Card

    We have become too touchy, we like flashing the victim card all the time to outshout others and make ourselves heard. We play the victim card when we are on the wrong, we play it when we have wronged someone else. This has far reaching consequences. One, nobody is ready to take responsibility for their actions. Two, the real victims are almost never heard or ignored and they keep suffering. Three, we end up living a life based on lies and deceit. We reduce ourselves to mere actors and manipulate our own worldview to see the world as a stage and everyone else as fellow actors.

  • Loss of Purpose

    This point in part is connected to the first point. Our world is more connected than it has ever been. With 24/7 internet life, online profiles, avatars, the need to flaunt or fake your happiness and success has migrated from our neighbourhoods to the World Wide Web. That world is naturally more fierce, less forgiving, and changing at a breakneck speed. So, individuals end up making stories and exaggerating their experiences instead of living a truly meaningful life with any sense of purpose.

  • Envy

    This is one aspect of our chaos that is not always addressed openly. This feeling is not unnatural but what we let it do to us is very much our own choice. While some people let it drive them to lead a meaningful life, most of the people let it destroy them one sad day at a time.

  • No Respect for the Other Person

    This other person can be your friend, family, parents, sibling, teacher, colleague, or somebody you don’t agree with on political issues. The lack of respect has made all our exchanges a zero sum game where either you are with me or against me. If you are with me, good. If you are against me, you are a fascist. The middle ground of mutual respect has perished. What am I talking about? Check this piece by Dr. Shashi Tharoor – am-i-a-closet-sanghi-for-mourning-demise-of-an-rss-man-somethings-terribly-wrong-tharoor

  • Handling Grief

    For all the interconnectedness chatter in the world, we are not really doing ourselves proud when it comes to making real connections. More families are going nuclear, people have fewer friends, we seldom know who our neighbour is, and trusting colleagues has become an impossible thing at work. While solitude can be empowering when exercised by choice of time and place, compelled loneliness leaves us terribly vulnerable in times of grief. When something happens to somebody close to us, we are caught helpless while trying to deal with our grief.

Now, this is of course not an exhaustive list, so you may add to it whatever you feel brings chaos to our life. Just one word of caution, when you start adding to the list, do not begin by thinking of the society at large. Instead, begin by thinking about yourself and your own life. Start by including the chaotic aspects of your own life. Human beings are not too different from each other. What you find in 1, you fill find in n. It is for this reason Dr. Peterson highlights the importance of changing the world by changing the self. In his Rule No. 6, Mr. Peterson says, “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your own enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you…”

 Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

Mr. Peterson has addressed all the points mentioned here and more through his 12 rules. Every rule picks on one thing that he wants you to start doing. For each of his rule, starting from ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ to the last one – ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’, Mr. Peterson explains the fundamentals, his reason for framing such a rule, the positioning of the rule in his own life, and the biological, psychological, and historical context to the rule. All these rules are an attempt to help an individual live a meaningful life. It’s not that all of these rules will sound new to you. On the contrary, you must have heard most of them at different points in your life. Many of the points Mr. Peterson identifies are in fact ancient wisdom of our sages. However, Mr. Peterson with this book lends a new seriousness to these rules that they deserve in modern times. A new teacher is good only if he helps you understand things that the previous teacher could not. So, if you have heard about these rules before and could not understand their import or function in your life, Mr. Jordan Peterson makes an excellent new teacher.

The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong. – Swami Vivekananda

The book doesn’t end where the 12 rules end. The author adds a beautiful chapter titled ‘CODA’ to conclude the book. The chapter features a ‘Pen of Light’. Mr. Peterson received it as a gift from his friend. I would leave out the details of this pen for you to read in the book. However, I must tell you that this book seems to have been written with the help of this pen of light, metaphorically if not literally. This book is an attempt of the most sincere kind to help individuals become stronger. Our popular culture values victimhood more than strength but it is your strength that helps you escape victimhood. By strength, one doesn’t refer only to the kind you use to thrash your enemies. Strength means something far deeper than that. Strength of character, of conviction, of intellect, of emotions, and of spirit is what today’s individuals need and the book, through stories of our author’s own struggles in his life, is an attempt at leaving you stronger that way.

My Maa passed away on 31st January, 2019 after hoping for about 14 months that she would be able to defeat pancreatic cancer. I have not been able to come to terms with her absence in my life. Perhaps, that will never happen. However, I wanted to look at other people and their grief in order to understand mine better. I began to read a lot of personal blogs of people to understand how other people have handled grief and how do they see the helplessness that comes along with it. Thereafter, I stumbled upon C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Jordan’s 12 Rules for Life reached me after that.

In the last chapter, Jordan narrates the story of his daughter Mikhaila who was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) when she was about 6 years of age. He writes, “…it begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation… If you are already everything, everywhere, always there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen has already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being. It helped my client, too. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I don’t want to claim that somehow this makes it all OK. She (talking about his client) still faced the cancer afflicting her husband, just as I still faced my daughter’s terrible illness. But there’s something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked….”

Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations-in the depths-it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations.  – Jordan Peterson

The healing perhaps never happens, or maybe it does. I’m not so sure about it at this point of my life. However, to ‘notice’ that there are many others trying to understand life and its ways just like I am, gives a meaning to my own struggle. Mr. Jordan Peterson, like many other teachers of the past, reassures my belief that my struggle is not irrelevant, it is not insignificant. That belief according to me is ‘strength’ and that’s what 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos is about.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer - A.M.Hurrell Camera - Minolta X700 (35mm film)

The Toy Train That Runs From Ooty to Coonoor

Ever since Shahrukh Khan danced atop a train for the famous song, Chhaiya Chhaiya from the movie Dil Se, toy trains have created a romantic idea of a train journey through the hills for me. When I recently got a chance to travel in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that runs from Ooty or Udhagamandalam to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, I felt like that childish romantic ideal was coming true.

 

I have travelled on the Neral Matheran toy train before as a child. Matheran is a cosy hill station close to Mumbai. That delight experienced was altogether different back then as I was only a kid who was simply excited by any prospect of travel, any prospect of being away from home and homework! Now, all grown up and supposedly an adult, travelling in a toy train is like bringing out, to be very clichéd, the inner child in you, to have the luxury of marveling at the train and its compartments itself, at the lush views and the fragrant eucalyptus forests; to stick your head your head out like a fearless child for a quintessential toy train photo while feeling the cool breeze graze your cheek.

Perhaps simply the word, toy train, is supposed to help us channelize our hidden childlike wonder!

 

1024px-Udhagamandalam_or_Ooty_railway_station_14.jpg
Ooty railway station in Nilgiri Mountain Railway, Tamil Nadu | Credit – Pinakpani

 

While I remember being utterly awestruck when travelling in the Matheran toy train because it was so different from the trains we are used to traveling in, part of my reaction to travelling in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway also included absorbing the historical tidbits of the train and the colonial stations it winds its way through.
As a child, I do not think I would have been impressed or even fathomed the age of the Matheran toy train but years later, knowing that the NMR has been running for over 100 years did transport me to a time when Coonoor and Ooty would have been just tiny specks of hill towns, with British people milling about amidst verdant forests to escape the heat, while the locals went about their daily lives.

 

Everything about this toy train ride was filled with excitement: from seeing it chugging into the station, to gaping at the antique engine, from boarding the train to hearing the final whistle blow! I caught the train from Ooty and was going to get off at Coonoor. The train’s ultimate destination was Mettupalayam near Coimbatore. In the seat opposite mine, was a family of three: parents and a daughter. I think I saw myself in that little girl, since I was as excited to be on the blue train of these blue mountains. As it slowly left the Ooty Station, I could hardly contain the thrill!

 

It snaked its way through the forests and the heady smell of the eucalyptus trees was overpowering. The most childlike happiness came from the girl sitting opposite me when she pulled out like a magic wand a bubble toy and blew bubbles in the air! Her father also joined her! At least it wasn’t only me whose inner child was roused in this ride! So ephemerally beautiful the bubbles were; floating away oblivious to the vistas below.

 

Passing under tunnels and navigating the bendy loops were the other highlights. Tunnels had all the passengers screaming in delight while the sharp bends in the route made us look at the train’s snaking figure and its contrasting beauty of blue against all the green.

 

The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. |
The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. | Credit – Gcheruvath

 

The entire train ride was steeped in the whimsical. Even the names of the train stations on the way brought out an old world charm. The first stop after Ooty was Lovedale. As expected, the station was miniscule, quaint, one of those that are stuck in time with their beautiful bright blue buildings and benches and the typical germanium flowers. All the stations (Ketti, Aravankadu, and Wellington) after that possessed a similar aura; they felt like they came straight out of a Ruskin Bond novel. They were frozen in time. Each time the train came to a halt at a station, the engine doors would open with the red flags waving and people would joyfully peer out to take in the views. As the train would depart, dozens of green flags were waved and you could hear the train whistle. All these were signals for the train’s departure. When was the last time you actually witnessed trains arriving and departing to the signal of flags? I couldn’t recall. I think I must have read about it in Malgudi Days! And so, it was amazing to actually witness it.

 

This is why travelling in the toy train feels like you are going back in time, not just to your childhood but also to a world where times were easier and simpler. The toy train gave me the space to be like a child again and to dip in a bit of nostalgia. Getting off at Coonoor, I felt absolutely satisfied. I took in the narrow criss-crossing railway tracks, the blue doors of the train all open, the vast blue skies and the teeming exciting crowds on the platform.

 

 

Cover Image: Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer – A.M.Hurrell Camera – Minolta X700 (35mm film)

 

My Recipe For a Perfect Literature Festival

Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) was first held in 2006 and it is perhaps the one event that gave the most impetus for literary festivals to blossom in India. It provided a space for spirited debates and discussions on myriad literary topics and in turn generated more interest in such literary events. 

However, over the years, JLF has been plagued by increasing controversies. Add to that, people who go there not for intellectual discussions, but to be seen and photographed. Similarly, the number of literary festivals that have come up throughout the country can at times fall short of their true purpose, becoming only events for a great photo op. 

 

Of course, that is not always the case. They still continue to be platforms where people can interact with many authors, writers, and speakers. Even the authors themselves get an audience to introduce their work to . Literary festivals can also introduce readers to new ideas and books to read. Thus, like any other aspect of our lives, literary festivals also have their pros and cons. 

Now that the JLF 2020 is over, I wondered what kind of a festival I would want to concoct and here is the recipe for my perfect literary festival. 

 

 

Book Releases

Having authors release their book and talk about it is a good practice that exposes readers to newer writers and their work. For example, in Tata Lit Live! I discovered Rehana Munir’s novel, Paper Moon which is about the protagonist, Fiza, opening a bookshop in Bandra in Mumbai. 

 

Literary Quizzes and Games

Literature does not necessary have to be about only private reading. Festivals do not always have to be about discussions and ideas. Perhaps, they can be spiced up by having some fun games such as quizzes or Pictionary revolving around literary themes. This also leads to better engagement with the audience. 

 

Author Signing

Lining up to get your copies signed is the best thing about literary fests. It is not easy to meet authors in this country. They can be overshadowed by the media and their publication houses, making them inaccessible to their readers. And if your favourite author happens to be an international one, good luck ever getting a chance to meet them! Having author signing is a great way for readers to interact with them and to be proud owners of signed books. It is any book lovers’ dream! 

 

Having it in smaller towns 

This is more to do with looking at the larger picture since organising a festival in smaller towns helps them be put on the tourist map as well. Jaipur attracts major tourists throughout the year and the literary festival has added another feather in the Pink City’s tourist cap. Smaller towns can get a different exposure through these festivals, wooing readers and book lovers to visit the town and its attractions. 

 

Enchanting locales

Associated with this is the location of the festival. If one is to have it in a small town, one can pick a touristy place for it. Diggi Palace in Jaipur is one example. The recently concluded Kerala Literary Festival 2020 also took place in Kozhikode, on the beautiful Calicut beach. Khushwant Singh Litfest’s location is the scenic Kasauli. These events have the potential to boost tourism, hopefully in an environmentally sustainable manner. 

Musical and Dance festivals organised in the country often cash on this idea such as the Elephanta Festival in Mumbai that uses the ancient sculptures as backdrop for mesmerising performances. 

 

Boosting Local Authors 

In connection to the above points, smaller literary festivals help local artists and writers to showcase their work and give them much needed exposure too. It is always a delight to appreciate local and regional writers. The Arunachal Literature and Art Festival is one commendable example.  

 

Out With Pretention!

However, what should be done away with in any literary festival are unnecessary crowds and pretentiousness. Everyone in India would appreciate a sparsely crowded event that offers a space to breathe and relax. Literary festivals really need to have better crowd control. Smaller, lesser known literary festivals such as ones in Kasauli  or Arunachal have fewer people turning up anyhow but definitely bigger names particularly JLF attracts huge crowds. People come from all over the country to attend the fest. 

Ticketing the festivals could perhaps be one such solution but one that might be opposed as well since these are some of the few places left in India that do not charge to be there. 

One of my major critiques of literary festival’s attendees is that they might not be there out of any genuine love for the topics or ideas. They might be pretentious attendees. They can be found anywhere, in all events actually because our world has become increasingly shaped by online presence. It becomes a norm to “check in” to places both offline and online and to show it off. 

I might sound quite a prude in saying this but for me, a screening test or tool that could detect only the photo takers would make it an ideal literary festival. 

 

Regional Languages and Poetry 

The recent anti CAA protests saw protestors expressing their dissent through the use of poetry and in North India, the poetry used were in regional languages. It is the true mark of poetry when people use it as a form of questioning and speaking out against injustice. Literary festivals most often focus on English writing and the prose form. They could have sections devoted to regional writing such as Bengaluru Literary Festival 2019 having engaging discussion on the state of contemporary Hindi Writing, discussing the role of women in Odia and Bengali literature or about Kannada Literature

Poetry slams would be another ideal way to encourage interest in poetry and audience participation. 

 

Book Review – Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

This happened in 2015. I had a bad day and I wanted to take my mind off things. So, I walked into a movie hall, looked at the list of movies displayed on the ticket counter, and picked the next show which was just about to begin. I had no clue about whose movie it was or how good the reviews were. I had only learned the name of the movie a few minutes back while paying for the ticket. When the lights went off and the first dialogue played, I was super joyed because the voice from the movie told me that my day was going to get better from there. It was Tom Hanks’ voice and the movie was Bridge of Spies. Such happenstances are a rarity but when they happen they wash off all the blues and fill your days with a refreshing air of goodness. Imagine chancing upon a book the same way.

 

I had no idea that The Mysterious ailment of Rupi Baskey was the debut novel of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar who also authored the famous The Adivasi will not dance. I also did not know that Hansda won the Yuva Puraskar for the book. Strangely enough, I didn’t even remember adding the book to my library. I was travelling and I badly needed some sleep. As horrendous as it might sound, I had picked the book so I could fall asleep quickly. I know how unforgivable it is, but I have been using books as sleeping pills lately, except this book wouldn’t let me sleep. I was tired and my eyes were begging to be shut. Yet, I kept peeping through half-shut eyes and still read. When I dozed off due to exhaustion, I woke up and tried to stay alert to continue reading. That riveting was the tale of Rupi Baskey or should I say Kadamdihi.

 

The book possesses you right from the first line because Hansda didn’t bother to take his readers through a long winding road to introduce his protagonist. She is right there on the opening sentence, squatting in the middle of a rice field to deliver her first child. Rupi arrives in Kadamdihi, a Santhali Village as a new bride and her husband Sido is one of those educated Santhali men working as a teacher in Nitra. The book follows the life of Rupi Baskey from the time she arrives in Kadamdihi and also some of the others whose lives are intertwined with hers.

 

Hansda calls his protagonist the strongest woman in Kadamdihi but you will realize that all of Kadamdihi or at least the women whom Hansda speak of in the book are no less stronger. The characters of Putki, Della, Younger Somai-Budhi are representations of women who are indeed strong of their own accord. Even the ones who crossed over to the dark side, like Gurbari, Dulari, and Naikay’s wife, display indomitable strength and conviction. As for the men in Kadamdihi, while Somai and Khorda are likeable, most men in Kadamdihi seem powerless as a puppet, in front of the dahnis. That way the dahnis rule, both in Kadamdihi and in the book.

 

It’s interesting to note that Hansda is a medical officer by profession and his debut novel is woven over the fabric of dahni-bidya or black magic. The world that he paints through his descriptions of dahni-bidya, is scary and exciting at the same time. I wonder if he drew his inspiration from the many patients with mysterious ailments he might have met during his career as a medical doctor. But, on the other hand, he introduces you to a faith that is more intense, unpolished, and very real nevertheless. The rolling eyes, women bathing naked under the moonlight, the food enchantment etc. might remind you of similar faiths across India and will only add on to your curiosity. At one point in the story, Hansda through Dulari almost justifies black magic as a weapon that women use to protect themselves. She explains how she did not have a choice and how she had to do what she did to reclaim what was rightfully hers.

 

When Hansda is not enchanting with the story of the dahinis, he is busy enlightening his readers with tidbits of information about this wildly beautiful state of Jharkhand. He sings to you, songs about the kadam trees and stories of how various gushtis came into existence. He explains how the villages are named after trees that are found in abundance, how each paaris have their own story of how they came into being, how marriage within one’s village is looked down upon and more. He also talks about Sarna religion that the Santhals follow and the caste discrimination in these villages. Above all, he introduces his readers to the political affairs of Jharkhand from the time Jaipal Singh founded the Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938 which demanded a separate state for Adivasis in Chota Nagpur area to the times of All Jharkhand Student Union under Besra. Hansda like most of us sounds disappointed with the political leaders of the state and tell us how these political leaders rode on the sacrifices of many young Adivasis who were hoping for a homeland for themselves.

 

For a book with such a compelling story with a lot of intriguing information, there is one challenge in reading it. Although the book is written in English, Hansda didn’t shy away from using a lot of native tongue during his storytelling. He doesn’t use the English equivalents even when they are available and many a time doesn’t even bother to explain what the word means. He instead expects the reader to understand from the context which we do most of the time. I learnt dahni-bidya means dark magic, dhai-budhi means midwife and more. Having to assume the meanings of these words has its own shortcomings apart from the fact that it slows down the reader, but I wouldn’t hold it against him. If English can find its way into the conversations made in the native tongue and that too in a very generous proportion, why can’t we make do with native words in an English narration? I would say I am rather grateful to Hansda for having introduced me to this new language which only makes me more curious about it.  

 

So, if you are looking for an engaging read or wanting to get off a reading block, go find Rupi and read all about her mysterious ailment.

 

mumbai-urban-transport-project

Urban India’s Public Transport is Yet To Arrive!

Consider the state of public transport in your city – How accessible is the network of public buses or trains…How cost-effective in terms of your intended destination? If you live in an Indian metropolitan city which has begun metro operations, is the situation better or has it become worse? Then consider India’s financial centre, Mumbai, with a population of 13.9 million and a governmental budget sufficient for an additional INR 36 billion for the construction of the Shivaji Memorial in Arabian Sea. Compare to Tokyo, Japan’s financial powerhouse, with a population of 12 million residents. Despite recent upgradation of Mumbai’s BEST buses, the stark contrast of public transport systems in both cities is testimony to poor planning in urban development, rather than access to resources. While Mumbai has the second highest migrant influx per year after Hyderabad, India’s annual rate of urbanization of 2.37% has burdened the public infrastructure in nearly 500 cities comprising more than 70% of the India’s urban population.

 

Although capacity building has become a developmental norm since decades, instead of adequate development that envisions future needs, governmental projects for urban transportation have been playing catch up. Despite initiatives for city-specific Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority(UMTA) and the Sustainable Urban Transport Project (SUTP) including capacity building projects being implemented under various schemes such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation & Urban Transformation (AMRUT), India’s public transport system (Fig. 1) remains fragmented and lacking in meeting the requisite demand. 

Fig. 2: Mode Share in Various Indian Cities (2013) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs
Fig. 2: Mode Share in Various Indian Cities (2013) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs

 

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Rupa Nandy, Regional Head, UITP India (International Association of Public Transport)

According to Rupa Nandy, Regional Head, UITP India (International Association of Public Transport), the biggest challenge is that “there are no adequate public transportation systems that exist in India.” Combined with multiple authorities instead of a centralised authority, “seamless journey experience to the user” has been difficult to achieve. Although Kolkata (57%), Hyderabad (49%), and Mumbai (44%) utilize public transport than any other mode of transport, public transportation facilities in major Indian metropolitan cities are inadequate on varying parameters such as availability, frequency, capacity and fleet condition. Compare India’s population of nearly 1.37 billion to Singapore’s 5.70 million. Perhaps the hybrid challenges of developing urban transport can be addressed with best practices from Singapore’s development planning which has resulted in nearly 80 per cent of trips (4.24 million) in the country performed on Public Transport comprising of bus, MRT, LRT, Taxis.

 

To mitigate the burden of urbanization on infrastructure, the central and state governments have initiated multiple initiatives such as developing metro rail systems (Fig. 2) and technological integration through data sharing such as General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). However, inadequate support from the public transportation available in many urban agglomerations in India has resulted in the expansion of private vehicle ownership and shared mobility services, which has caused traffic congestions across multiple cities. According to NITI Aayog’s Transforming India’s Mobility Report, “Citizens spend almost 1.3-1.6x additional time in peak traffic for our top four metros, compared to 0.6x for Singapore and Hong Kong.” 

 

Metro Rail in India (February 2019) - Operational (642 KM) and Under Construction (691 KM) | Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Maps of India
Fig. 2: Metro Rail in India (February 2019) – Operational (642 KM) and Under Construction (691 KM) Source: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Maps of India

 

Adoption of technological solutions have been similarly fragmented. While Kochi was the first city to integrate GTFS data with the Chalo app for commuters, Delhi is rapidly integrating its public transportation system through initiatives such as the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System, mobile applications such as PoochhO and the Common Mobility Card (ONE). NITI Aayog’s Transforming India’s Mobility Report suggests that economic loss of congestion has been estimated “at over USD 22 billion annually for India’s top four metros.” In addition, challenges in India’s urban transport development include safety issues such as adequate installation of CCTV cameras, and enhancing accessibility for persons with disabilities through the Accessible India campaign. 

 

Despite multifarious transport development schemes being implemented, including the Pradhan Mantri Jal Marg Yojana (PMJMY)’s mission envisages creation of 110 new waterways across the country, the diversity of India’s urban agglomerations present hybrid challenges for transit-oriented urban planning. Even as Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced a INR 102 lakh crore national infrastructure pipeline, the Indian Government has already begun multi-administrative integration, beginning with Indian Railways’ restructuring through the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS). While effective utilisation of technological solutions can enhance seamless integration in multi-modal connectivity, customising city mobility plans for mode appropriateness are essential to developing the transport infrastructure and ensure productive deployment of resources. Even as public transport agencies in various small towns and metropolitan cities of India compete with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Ola expanding across the country, the hybrid challenges of developing urban India’s existing public transport systems will require faster adoption of technological solutions and strengthening integrations between multiple operators and agencies around the country.

 

Cover Image Source: World Bank