BLF2020 | Food and Faith – Shoba Narayan with Mani Rao

Mani Rao started off the session by giving an introduction about Shoba Narayan and her writing techniques. Upon discussing her versatile writing style, her various interests, and her works, she prompted the discussion further. Shoba Narayan, aided by Mani Rao’s questions and thoughts, explored the connection between food and faith, just as she has in her book with the same name. In today’s session, Narayan talked about Prasadam (sacred food) that is served all over the country in different temples. She made it clear that she covered many places of worship, not just Hindu temples, but also other sacred places like Churches.

Narayan narrated her experience in deciding on these particular places that she would visit and write about. She looked for places wherever there was a deep connection between religion/faith and food. Through an intense discussion, she conveyed her thoughts on how the connection between faith and food, regardless of which religion, is intimate and powerful.

Narayan took us on a journey across various regions all over India, each and every direction. Engaging with her, we traveled from Bangalore to all these different places like Madurai, Udupi, Kashi, Ajmer, Goa, Puri, Amritsar and so many more.

Later, the discussion steered towards the method and technique she had adopted to make this book a reality. She gave insight into the style of the book which is similar to a travel memoir, along with intense research work. As a writer and a columnist about everyday topics like food, travel, fashion, etc., she revealed that she adopted a similar method by drawing many ideas and research from her articles.

She talked about how in the book, she draws from her experiences with a lot of countries that she has visited which carry the remains of old civilizations, like Greece, Egypt, and China. She compared and contrasted these different cultures with India. She talked about how India has sustained older civilizations and religious practices, which acted as a catalyst when she was trying to decide on the content of this book.

Rao commented on Narayan’s belief that she is a “skeptical seeker on a pilgrimage.” This fueled an intense discussion about her religious beliefs and how this journey shaped that belief system. Narayan also shared many anecdotes about her numerous experiences as a part of this journey. These tales gave us an insight into the working of these temples and how they produce Prasadam, how they perceive it, and their beliefs. These experiences, we could clearly see, changed her entire thought process about faith. She also talked about how she learned to respect the different places and their working, but also critique problematic approaches without being offensive.

Later, she revealed to us that she was driven to go on this journey and explore this connection because she was interested in finding the inner truth far more than focusing on different doctrines prevalent in India. Towards the end, she also briefly covered the working of these different places of worship through a feminist lens. The session concluded with a very interactive question-answer session.

About the Author: Immersed in the process of unlearning and relearning different values and ideas, Nanditha Murali chooses writing as her medium to approach the world. She is currently pursuing her English (Honours) degree at Christ University, Bangalore. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | A Tale of Two Spies – Asad Durrani and AS Dulat with Anand Arni

If there were to be a recollection of long-standing political issues through the last few decades in India, the Indo-Pak relationship is one that’s impossible to miss. The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace is a book that looks at the very same, in the eyes of two experts on the topic.

The session was moderated by Anand Arni, a former Special Secretary at the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), currently a Distinguished Fellow of the Geostrategy Programme at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore. The two guests at the session were the voices in the book as well; Lt. Gen Mohammad Asad Durrani is a retired Three-Star rank General in the Pakistan Army, and currently is a commentator, speaker, and author. The conversation also had the co-author of the book, AS Dulat, a former Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau, and former Chief of the R&AW, and former advisor on Kashmir to the Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004.

The session’s first few pointers were on the pursuit of peace between the two countries, and how the former Chiefs viewed the prospects of it, and how it could be achieved. Durrani went back in time to when he was in office and his perception of how India’s stand was strictly status quo, and any movement on the same could spiral a situation out of control. However, he suggested his counterpart, AS Dulat, seemed far more optimistic, a tone that could be sensed throughout the session. Dulat believed and still does, that the situation between the neighbours could certainly improve, and how this could be incremental. Dulat stood by his stand of how the prospect of peace is dependent on engagement and that both countries should keep trying. The case has been so, through the tenures of past leadership within the country. Dulat’s reiteration was strong on the lines of moving past a stalemate, of a status quo that may favour one nation over the other. He acknowledged that both countries have had their fair share of issues, but must be ready to negotiate and get “something moving”.

The second topic of discussion brought forth by Anand Arni was that of Pakistan’s perception of India as a threat, and how Pakistan’s army plays a role in controlling the narratives in context with the Indo-Pak relations. Durrani acknowledges that the main threat or the most imminent ones are mostly internal, irrespective of the country. India may not be the biggest of the lot, given that multiple other facets of a political situation and the dynamics of that country with others in the World could be bigger, also sighting the example of Afghanistan’s dynamics with Pakistan. The threats have also been managed over the last few decades as well, and this certainly is not new. He also brought in the context of why or how the army could even have the power of Vetoing. He insisted that the army would have stepped in at a point when they had to because something was amiss, and certainly would not have been the only one wielding power, and banks on a combined effort.

The conversation steered into understanding what India could do, to ease this. Dulat recommended a mindset change. Many frameworks that have come from India, that of a composite dialogue formula or how former governments have been able to address quick wins. He brought back the challenge of moving away from the status quo, and for the country to be magnanimous and generous with its dialogues.

Towards a conversation that focused on the more recent topics around Kashmir, such as that of Article 370, Dulat also shed light on how both countries have had considerable emotions on newer developments. He insisted that conversations and actions to ease situations must be driven top-down, instead of bottom-up. Encouraging governments to have open and friendly conversations, perhaps increase visits and help discover ways to move forward are important, Dulat affirmed.

The last leg of the conversation revolved around how multiple parties, and not just India and Pakistan, understand and are expecting the countries to resolve, and address the issues between the two. Everyone is aware, he says, and there exists an expectation of resolution, not just sympathetic, but also if seen in the context of the book, even as a minuscule example, Durrani and Dulat’s association and coming together have been appreciated.

About the Author: A believer in the subtlety of magic in everyday living, and Shobhana seeks the same from the books she reads, and the poetry she writes. Immerses herself in music, literature, art, and looking out the window with some coffee. She curates her poetry, and occasional verses in her blog Thinking; inking. She currently writes for TheSeer.

BLF2020 | The Masked Intruder: Pandemic and You

What could be a more relevant discussion during these pandemic times than having three versatile panelists discuss at length about it!

Amandeep Sandhu opened the conversation with his view on how in the last 9 months, as a nation, we had a strange emotional graph from denial, bravado, to freezing and then abandonment. His first question to Anna Chandy, a psychology counsellor, was on her recollection of advances made as a nation before the pandemic. Anna said that she views the world as pre, and post-March 2020 and feels that good progress was made in mental health. She also elaborated on 3 types of mental health – public, societal, and self-stigma. Because of uncertainty since post-March 2020, mental health conversations were hijacked by people who do not have the competence and thus the progress was reversed. This resulted in the cornering of suffers and their families.

Amandeep asked Dr. Farah, a family physician in Narayana and an author, to tell more on her book “Newborns and New Moms”. Dr. Farah explained how despite being a doctor, no professional education prepared her for the life of motherhood.  She said that her book was a step by step guide for mothers. Especially during pandemic times where the work boundaries are not respected and mothers have suffered more, the book has helped many mothers.

The conversation then moved onto drawing parallels between mental health and COVID. How both sneak up to us without realizing and both cause short- and long-term damage.

Anna put across that depression and anxiety are pandemic too, but without a lockdown. Stigma and society exclusion are the commonality between them, thus punishing the patients for something that is beyond their control. She also compared the seriousness of the entire situation to World War II. The next generations will have an impact on the psychological construct, and it will play out differently when they are adults. She said that this is not being spoken about as much as it should be.

Amandeep steered the conversation to Dr. Farah on whether there was a change in statistics related to infant mortality, TB patients, diabetics etc. He wondered aloud on how are they managing post-COVID?

Dr. Farah gave insights from her experiences. She said that doctors racked their brains to understand why there was a decline in heart attack patients coming in emergencies. Is it fear to report or have the incidences reduced due to less pollution and commuting? Narrating a few stories of her patients, she brought about the aspect of psychological effects on all ages. It was heartening to hear her story about her son who is under the autism spectrum, progressed in his speech in the last few months. She accounted for this change to the attention and time children are receiving from parents. She said that a lot depended on how patient parents are with their kids.

Continuing the conversation, Anna spoke about the changes going on inside the counselling circles. She said that people from age groups 25-30 are reaching out and openly seeking support.

The discussion proceeded to serious impacts on women and their monthly cycles. Dr. Farah had many examples to share in this regard. She strongly sent out the message that most problems are psychological where the body is manifesting itself and reaching out for help. Anna aptly made a strong recommendation to the book “The body keeps a score” by Bessel van der Kolk.

When Amandeep asked her views on collectivism, she said that most Asian countries are collectivist society, where the needs of the groups take priority and are thus governed by group laws. These laws are mostly unsaid, covert, and transmitted silently on how to be or not to be.

She brought about the advantage of such societies and pandemics is an opportunity to work in groups to our advantage. She also said that different communities are dealing with pandemic differently. In smaller towns, community support is higher.

Anna had an interesting take on dealing with pandemics and quoted the ABC concept. A – Accounting for your feelings, B – managing anxiety through breathing, C – care and communication. She also suggested that this is the time to ask fundamental existential questions if one has faced job loss.

The last leg of this discussion turned very exciting as Dr. Farah stood up, removed her mask and performed a rap sporting demo of one of her parodies on “Apna time aayega”. The parody was a take on how messed up every mother’s Sunday is. Her intent of these parodies is to send across feminist messaging through a lighter medium.

With that delightful performance, the last question was, who is actually the masked intruder?

Anna, Dr. Farah and Amandeep had variations but primarily the same answers – “ourselves”, “the selective versions of ourselves”, “our fearful selves” are the mask intruders.

Amandeep gave a heartfelt dedication of this session to all the front-line staff who seamlessly work for the safety of all of us during these thought times!

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

BLF2020 | India Love Project – Samar Halarnkar

The session started with the context of the ‘Love Jihad’. Two couples- Natasha and Ashraf, and Sadaf and Yatin, were being interviewed by Samar Halarnkar. Samar Halarnkar began the session by asking Natasha and Ashraf about how their relationship changed- from the time that it had begun, until today.

Afzal responded first. Change, he said, was more personal. There was no government involvement. You could take support from the administration. They were not the enemy of the social figure back then. At the time the relationship began, Ashraf and Natasha were scared of their parents first, before they began fearing the government.

Ashraf’s parents were not concerned about his marriage. Ashraf kept delaying getting married, and his parents had given up on him. As long as Ashraf got married, they were okay with anyone marrying him. He faced no resistance from them. Natasha, on the other hand, faced a different response from her parents. Her father was very adamant in what he thought- she could marry anyone, but not a Muslim. When the two had started dating, Natasha was concerned if they were doing the right thing.

Samar referred to a picture on the page of India Love Project- a picture of Sadaf and Yatin’s mothers holding each other’s hands had become very popular.

Sadaf continued to tell the story about their relationship. Her family is from Lucknow. “My mom told me it’s important to find love.” It was easier for Sadaf to talk to her mom. Her father, however, was against the marriage and only wanted a Muslim husband for Sadaf. She described her father as soft-spoken, but still his “no” was quite affirmative. He understood the differences in opinion between him and Sadaf, so he suggested Sadaf and her father to “part ways”. Sadaf thought of it as nonsense- she kept trying to convince him for a year.

Refering to the popular picture, a Sadaf added how the couple’s mothers had become very close. Yatin’s family members were okay with the marriage, and their mothers had started to bond. The photo had been taken last year. Samar then inquired about Natasha’s daughters, and how she introduced them to topics like religion.

For the longest time, Natasha and Ashraf hadn’t spoken about religion with their three children. Their children’s first question about their identity was if they were Pakistanis. Being a Pakistani, Natasha argued, had become a slur, that was the result of all the discriminatory depictions of Muslims. The children began to engage with politics due to the mainstream media and their depictions. Natasha and Ashraf have three children, who all dwell on their mixed identity of being having a Hindu parent as well as a Muslim one. Their two children, Natasha says with pride, have recently started getting curious about their father’s religious prayers. They have started to fast, and even pray with him. Natasha and Ashraf would like them to have an identity that is reflective of both the religions.

Both the couples discussed their opinion on Love Jihad. Sadaf commented on how, while it’s not openly practised by her family, there was always the little ways in which her religion would be hidden away. Her surname itself- Chowdhary, did not bring in any religious connotations, and kept her Hindu in-laws happy.

Love Jihad, and its entire concept is not funny anymore, both parties agree. They discussed about how the government’s involvement in their relationship has become very problematic. However, it was a fun, filled session with inter-religious anecdotes and personal reflections on marriage, and gave an interesting insight towards the India Love Project.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

“The Willows in Winter” – An Ode to Those Long Treasured Books on Our Bookshelves

I came across this page through a friend, and I saw Vidisha Ghosh’s review of the Wind in the Willows and felt compelled to write about my experience with its sequel this winter. I was gifted the sequel The Willows in Winter as a first edition hard back upon its release back in 1993.  At the age of 10, this hard back with thoughtful character illustrations was probably one of the most beautiful books I owned, but in its beauty and huge size, relative to that of a 10 year old, it almost felt too grown up to read and too beautiful to touch. Needless to say, as teen years passed through to adulthood, I did not feel the draw of a book written for children and it remained on the shelf in its pristine condition. The Willows in Winter has since travelled with me to each home I’ve moved to where it has always taken pride of place on my bookshelf, untouched and unread, but certainly not unloved.

I finally got around to reading The Willows in Winter this January, amidst a bit of a reader’s block and the need for something easy and comforting. The UK government had just effectively cancelled Christmas with its no-mixing-of-households rule and announced its third indefinite lockdown. January can be hard enough in a normal year, let alone without the usual things that keep us going and I’ll admit my mood and resolve was starting to wane. I desperately needed something light and as I perused my shelves, I found myself reaching for The Willows in Winter. I picked it up thinking it might be the perfect book to cosy on up with in the dark winter and to get me out of my reading slump. What I wasn’t expecting was for the words on the first page to hit me with such force, that it brought tears to my eyes.

“I must not be uncharitable” said Mole “I have my home, I have my health and I- I must not be unfriendly”. 

I sat down in my cosy reading chair and felt the weight of those words sink in. The words resonated deeply with the lockdown experience and the gradual increase in feelings of unease. During our first lockdown, I gave myself the motto, “don’t be a brat”. Not eloquent I know, but it was short, sweet and easy to berate myself with whenever needed. By this motto, I meant that regardless of how tough things might become, I resolved to remember our blessings, be grateful for what we have and be extra kind and mindful of how we speak with others, who may be facing more difficult challenges. But, I have to admit that in January, after too many zoom calls, and a seemingly endless stream of calls from others looking to offload their own concerns and troubles, I was starting to feel the need to retreat even further and hibernate in my own little world to feel a bit sorry for myself.

So, at the perfect time, after almost 30 years on my bookshelf, along came the wonderful characters of Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger to remind us of some important lessons. Mole’s opening dialogue is referring to his nephew as an unwanted lodger, when Mole craves nothing more than his peaceful home and privacy. What follows is a tale of adventure and friendship as they each go in search of rescuing each other from various escapades. We are reminded of the need to embrace each other’s differences and that friendship does not have to be with those who are like-minded but should span different personality types, and as a result how much we can learn from each other. For example, in contrast to Mole’s introverted nature, is the polar opposite of Toad. Toad can often be perceived as an arrogant and self-centred rich character, often reckless in his pursuits. However, in reading between the lines, we see a character who has had his sense of adventure subdued and so desperately seeks some kind of release through risky pursuits, much like how some would see a few of our rebel entrepreneurs in the real world, who can be revered and disliked in equal measures. The Willows in Winter is written by William Horwood as an homage to Kenneth Grahame’s classic and is faithful to the original in capturing the essence of Grahame’s characters.

Since reading the Willows in Winter several months ago, I’m now ahead on the reading challenge I set myself for the year and so my readers block has been officially cured. Whether I found a cure for my “uncharitable” nature as Mole would call it, is yet to be confirmed, but I vow to keep being mindful of others and provide a listening ear, whilst protecting my own needs as an introvert to retire and recharge in my own space. As social creatures, this lockdown has been hard on introverts and extroverts alike, and if Toad and Mole teach us anything it is that we need all types and all kinds of friendships to get the best from this world.

The experience also made me reflect on what it is to be a bibliophile. Thinking of the books we covet on our shelves for years, from those in pristine condition too beautiful to touch, to the well-thumbed copies of our favourite books.  Those books that remain with us reminds us of who we were when we read them, much as that “to be read pile” is a nod to who we hope to become as our future selves – I’m thinking here of my literature classics section, that I want to be intellectual enough to read, but still feels somewhat of a chore to start! I also think about the journey of those books that we decide not to keep, those that we pass on to friends in the hope that they will bring similar joy or understanding to them as it did for us. The Willows In Winter, will now remain forever cherished on my bookshelf as a reminder of that Winter lockdown and however tough life gets, we must be grateful for our blessings and keep goodwill in our hearts.

BLF2020 | Poetry Pickings – Mani Rao, Mamta Sagar, Maitreyee B Chowdhury, Nandita Bose and Prathibha Nandakumar

The stage was decked up with five wonderful ladies, all of them poets, and were there to read out selective pieces of their poems themselves. It was the first day of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2020, and these ladies just pushed the radar with an all-woman panel of poets.

Up first, we had author Mani Rao; she got featured in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry. She has poems and essays published in journals like the poetry magazine, Fulcrum, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, West Coast Line, and Tinfish. She reads out her poem titled, ‘2020’. She expressed her concerns about how this year has been a roller coaster of feelings—a mixture of fear and gratitude simultaneously. A sense of community and sharing, at the same time, a tinge of self-centeredness is how Mani expressed the strangeness of the year 2020. Here are a few lines of the poem 2020 she recited:

There’s nobody I know in the ten thousand dead on the front page of New York times.
Give us this day our daily spread; don’t read the news before going to bed.

Her poem spoke of the uncertainty that this year has been.

Next, we had author Maitreyee Chowdhury; she has four books to her credit “Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple,” “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution,” “Where Even the Present Is Ancient: Benaras,” and “Reflections on My India: An Indian Insight.” She teaches poetry and design at NIFT Bangalore. Maitreyee read out her first poem, which speaks to lengths about an ancient farmers’ life. She described the spirit of the farmers to keep their mother nature always nurtured and alive. The next poem she read was about her father, which mainly revolves around the woes of partition. She said that even if it has been decades since the partition, she carries the pain that her father felt even now, and that lot of her work is directed towards immigration and borders that separate people. Here are a few lines from her poem:

Both brother and sister laugh and cry at once
Their stories last all night in me; they last forever.

Next, we had author Mamta Sagar; she is a noted poet, writer, and translator. She is an active participant in various art and literature-oriented workshops and exhibits. She teaches at the Srishti Institute of art, design, and technology. Mamta reads out Kannada poems and their translations. However, ‘reads-out’ is quite an undertone because she literally enacted her poems! One such verse goes like this:

When words are picked up, carefully splattered, the poem floats out of reach.
Does a poem need order in this chaotic world?

Here she explained how words can have a free fall in a poem and do not necessarily need an orderly arrangement.

Next, we had author Nandita Bose; she is a fiction writer, poet, and book reviewer. She occasionally indulges in writing about films, politics, and current events. She opened up by saying that her poems are usually short and meaningful. She read out beautiful poems about how we should take care of mother earth and nature. Here are a few lines:

On a long hollow night of no ounce
It is up to the stars to sing of emptiness.

Next, we had author Prathibha Nandakumar; she is a bi-lingual author, poet, journalist, film maker, columnist, and translator. She has various publications to her credit: autobiographies, poems, short stories, columns in Kannada, and English. She is also honoured with several awards, including the Karnataka Sahitya academy book award, Bangalore Literature Festival Literary Achievement award. Pratibha mainly read out her Kannada poems, and most of them had a socio-political edge to them. But interestingly, she presented them in a very humorous way, which was quite engaging! Here’s one of the translations titled ‘The Mad Monkey and the Master Act’:

Sanity and insanity are not equal and opposite in my case
And hence measure your words carefully.
Eccentric maybe, but I’m condemned by my master
To obey and perform all things different and dangerous
Normal is boring.

Reading a book is a joyous feeling, but hearing the same from the writer is blissful. That is the experience here; you know what the writer means by the expressions, voice modulation, and body language. Moreover, as far as poetry is concerned, it has great meanings to it in the few verses that they have! This panel was indeed a sight to watch, with the authors being so animate with every line of poetry they read. It thoroughly took me to different worlds and left me meandering with the words.

About the Author: Puja Ambalgekar is an IT employee who finds writing, reading, and books in general as an outer space experience. She believes that words have the power to make the difference you intend to. She likes writing poetry, mythology, and technology. You can find her here. She currently writes for TheSeer.

BLF2020 | A Spotlight on Debuts

The panel discussion started at 11 AM at the auditorium. The session explored two things, firstly the Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking by Krish Ashok and secondly, discussion on the book What’s Wrong With You, Karthik? by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan. The session brought in two different kinds of genres together. This panel was interspersed with many interesting facts and informative stories.

Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking with Krish Ashok

The discussion was taken up by Krish Ashok. This session gave great insights regarding the science behind Indian cooking. Cooking is completely about experimenting with new tastes and there are no set of rules or any one-way guide to cooking. Krish explained the ideas and theory behind cooking through his book ‘Masala lab’. Krish Ashok is not a chef but is excited to cook daily; he is not a scientist but can aptly explain the science in cooking. He learnt cooking from women in his family who could cook perfectly. Krish mostly prefers the scientific way of cooking because it lets him test his own skills and tastes.

The speaker spoke of daily examples which we never have thought about. Have any of us wondered why our grandmother threw a tea bag into the pressure cooker while boiling chickpeas, or why she measured using the knuckle of her index finger? Is this done with knowing the science behind it or just like that? Did our mothers and grandmothers think about seasonings and perfect flavorings? Krish also drew the attention of the audience towards authentic food; relationships between food and science, modern techniques to save time in cooking and the role of chemistry in it which reminded us about our high school chemistry lessons.

Masala Lab by Krish Ashok is a science nerd’s exploration of Indian cooking with the ultimate aim of making the reader a better cook and turning the kitchen into a joyful, creative playground for culinary experimentation. The book is exhaustively tested and researched work that keeps one curious and engaged. The panel was concluded with a quick and informative Q&A.

What’s Wrong With You, Karthik?  Siddhartha Vaidyanathan with Aparajitha Sankar

Soon after Masala Lab concluded, the session was taken over by Aparajitha Sankar in conversation with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan.The panel started with the introduction to Siddartha’s book What’s wrong with you, Karthik?.

The book revolves around a 12 year old boy Karthik who has just got admission into St. George’s, an elite boys’ school in Bangalore. Being born in a conservative family, the protagonist faces big change in his life during this time. The book talks about his life in the period of a year, the challenges he faces, changes he undergoes, things he learnt and finally the recognition he earns. The plot connects well with the city Bangalore and the author shared his experience of living in the city for 22 years and recalled his childhood days. Set in the 90s, the storyline is a coming of age story that anyone could completely relate to. The author also read out a few pages from his book. The session wrapped up with the story on how the author being an engineer stumbled into cricket writing.

About the Author: Bhuvanashree Manjunath is a freelance writer and a poet, currently pursuing Civil Engineering in Bengaluru. Being an avid reader and book lover, she enjoys working as a Book Reviewer. Apart from literature, her fields of interest include painting, photography, music and teaching. She finds solace in writing poems and blogs. She currently writes for TheSeer.

Subramanian Swamy’s Book Himalayan Challenge Has Critical Lessons for Both Indian and Chinese Policymakers

China, for a long time, has been considered a black box around the world. Particularly in the Indian context, China evokes images of competition, low quality goods, limited freedom of speech, expansionism, and several other uncharitable feelings. On the other hand, there is the entire film industry in the west as well as in India that would like us to believe that everyone in China can fight with their toes on sticks and all they do is meditate all day. The common perception of China is caricaturish at best and devoid of any real understanding of the place and its people.

We can’t blame the common people for nurturing such perceptions since we believe in what we are fed by our media and politicians. You wouldn’t however, be pleased to discover that people sitting at the top of policy making towers have on multiple occasions betrayed their shallow discernment of China and its communist regimes. This has resulted in several strategic blunders by India when it comes to its China policy. The 1962 war, India’s flip-flops on Tibet, Nehru’s dilatoriness on India’s military modernisation while following a rather vacuous Forward Policy with China, and the failure of successive governments to hold a strong hand on the negotiation table have resulted in massive clouds of suspicion and confusion on both sides of the border.

These and a lot more have been discussed with the precision that has come to characterize Mr. Subramanian Swamy over the years in his recent book – Himalayan Challenge – India, China, and the Quest for Peace (published by Rupa Publications). He has travelled to China on the invitation of Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs as an envoy of the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in September 1978. Later in 1981, Mr. Swamy was invited to meet China’s Supreme leader, Chairman Deng Xiaoping where he convinced the Chinese government to reopen the Kailash Mansarovar route for Hindu pilgrims. His keen interest in Chinese studies and his first-hand experience with the Chinese government have helped Mr. Swamy understand multiple perspectives on Indo-China relationship. These perspectives make this book a seamless read with intriguing pieces of information on every page.  

The book starts with a historical context of the India-China relationship with a quick but penetrating glance over the great impact India has had on Chinese culture, religion, and society. The author establishes important timelines related to the export and acceptance of Buddhism, the modifications wrought upon the religion to make it more  suited to Chinese symbolism, Megasthenes’ account of his travel in India, and the claims of Confucius and Buddha being contemporaries. Mr. Swamy then goes into the  details of the borders that India and China share with affiliated events through the annals of time.

The book is concise and never deviates from the point it has to make. That is because the author doesn’t give more than the necessary time and space to the background details and swiftly comes to the makings of the conflicts between India and China. Starting from the policy confusions on Tibet between the two countries, the origin and making of the McMahon line to the 1962 war and points in time when the two countries dumped their thousands of years old unblemished bond into cold storage of mistrust and deceit, Mr. Swamy discusses in detail the doublespeak of Mr Nehru while dealing with China against the suggestions of Mr. Patel, the complacency that had crept into the Indian side due to the era of sycophants in ministry as well as bureaucracy in the 50s, China’s lack of sincerity when dealing with Mr. Nehru and the India of his time, and China’s limitations when it comes to military combats with India. Mr. Swamy is equally critical of parties on both the sides of our contentious border and doesn’t pull any punches while doing so.

Thankfully though, this book is not about military combat and who will survive longer in the event of a nuclear war. Although Mr. Swamy touches upon those subjects, he also explains that India and China do not have anything apart from the border issue in the way of a long lasting friendship and peace. The two superpowers must find ways to trust each other and sincerely look for ways to increase cooperation. This is not to suggest that India should give in to Chinese threats on the borders. On the contrary, Mr Swamy hopes for transparency in communication and expects more assertiveness while dealing with Chinese incursions from the present day government.

The book also has an interesting appendix section consisting of some declassified files, transcript of Mr. Swamy’s conversation with Chairman Deng, Mr. Patel’s letter to Pandit Nehru and Nehru’s note on China and Tibet, a verbatim record of a discussion in Beijing between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong over India-China relationship and Soviet Russia’s role in it. These make for interesting reading.

India has a vast Himalayan challenge in front of it. With Pakistan playing in China’s lap, and a few neighbours finding their voice against India at China’s spurring, India has to define its diplomatic path with maturity minus the naivete displayed by our forefathers. The problem is not going to disappear if we bury our heads in sand. Hence, the future leaders of our country would do better to get a primer on what has transpired between these two great nations so far and why. That way, this book should be a required reading for politicians, bureaucrats, as well as the common citizens on both sides of the border.

Subramanian Swamy’s Himalayan Challenge is an honest assessment of India’s unsettled questions in the North and thus hints at the potential good that could come out for both China and India if these questions were settled. I wonder then, if only these two countries could trust each other more and cooperate with confidence, perhaps both  could have used each other’s help in managing the COVID-19 pandemic with greater effect.

Boating On the River, With Lemonade and The Wind in the Willows!

In 1906, the charismatic 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between Japan and Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. It is difficult to imagine that such a politician who was once a kingpin of global politics read, re-read and fell in love with a so-called “children’s” story about talking animals living by an English River. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest admirers of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In 1908, while still in office, he wrote to Grahame how Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad had become his companions. He loved it so much that he convinced a publishing house to take on the book, whereas England’s initial response to this endearing book had been rather dismal.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, the concept of childhood and its portrayal in literature underwent a significant change. The socio-political milieu contributed. Labour laws were rectified, more children began to attend school, literacy improved, and reading material became cheaper to print. In such a time in history, corresponding to the Golden Age of Children’s Literature and the Edwardian Era in England (1901-1910), The Wind in the Willows was a landmark publication in the literary tradition of anthropomorphic animal characters. They compete with AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh universe to be the most famous human-like animals in literature. During this time, children’s fiction moved away from its instructional, pedagogic leanings. Narratives became about compassion, fun and frolic, domesticity, subtly expressed ideas of morality, and a romantic way of British living. For children, this is an adorable tale of four animals enjoying each other’s eccentric and warm company while exploring life as it passes them by, like the gleaming River around which space grows and blossoms.

For an adult in their 20s, what can The Wind in the Willows possibly signify? If one is to overcome the infantile nostalgia attached to Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad, what literary merit does this spectacular piece of animal fantasy contain within itself? As a child learning the art of finishing a book and understanding complex sentences, The Wind in the Willows was fantastical living at its best. It offered young minds the dual stimulation of thrill escape. As children, it makes us wonder, “Can animals talk?”, “Where is the hidden world where they have picnics with sardines and beer?” and “How do animals drive cars, paddle boats and dispense justice?” As children, books such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book imbue animals with charm and authority. So, when kids notice a rabbit lounging lazily in a pet store, there’s a chance that in the parallel reality of children, that hare is wearing a waistcoat.

Last week, I had the privilege (yes, I believe that is the term) to read the unabridged version of The Wind in the Willows for this article, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. Before, I had only read the Ladybird Classics version. Remember their graceful illustrations, soft fonts and smooth pages? The complete version is exactly 200 pages. It is a story of four friends; their species’ names becoming the names of their characters: Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad.

They live around a River, which is the centre of their lives and the focus of the surrounding landscape. Each is different from the other; their personalities, preferences, backgrounds, role in the group and yes, even financial standing! It is incredible how Grahame has built a world of animals where a Rat and a Mole sit by the fire and discuss how the latter gathered the funds to purchase his burrow. When the book is adapted for children, such aspects are left out because they are not too relevant. However, when you read it as an adult, these little details about wealth, inheritance, and Animal Etiquette add such a loveable layer of realism to the narrative.

A fascinating feature that I enjoyed reading was Grahame’s conversion of the geographical setting into full-scale characters. In the book, the English countryside is more than just a descriptive element, its purpose goes beyond beautification. Grahame injects each location with a distinct personality, mirroring its owner. The primary destinations are the River, The Wild Woods, Toad’s Hall, Rat’s Home, Mole’s Home and Badger’s Underground Burrow. While Toad Hall is large and showy, Badger has a hidden, functional, and practical burrow reflecting his paternal and reserved personality. One of the most unforgettable parts is The Wild Wood, where Mole loses his way in the fabled woods that Rat had forbidden him from entering alone. Grahame conveys the terror of the space through the gleaming eyes of unknown animals, the rustle of trees and the pitter-patter of footsteps. We don’t know who is following Mole or what those eyes are that shine at him through the dark stillness of a winter night. It is the sharp acoustic quality of the words that does the trick. It is a reminder of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, where we never get a perfect visual image, but its idea is terrifying enough. The way Grahame expresses the terror hidden in The Wild Wood is both frightening and amazing. 

Grahame’s writing echoes his love for the countryside. He exhibits a clear bias towards nature and living in a rustic setting than in industrial cities. The detailed, idyllic descriptions of the River, meadows, woods, and every little berry and bush convey the soothing rural atmosphere. The possibilities of thrills and fun are much more in a pastoral setting. So, we have charming anecdotes of boat rides, walks, carol singers, picnics and road trips. Grahame’s disdain towards the uglier side of industrialisation is evident in how he writes about motor cars, a common motif for trouble and the source of unfortunate happenings in the story.

Two recurrent cultural symbols are food and home. Both are interconnected and important to the narrative, especially home. While adventure is important, Grahame believes that there is always unbound joy returning to the place you belong. The essential contribution of an animal/person’s home to their happiness is highlighted, connecting it to virtues like domesticity. Food is a part of that setup. So, the author spends a lot of time laying out an elaborate table for his animals and readers. Quintessential English treats function both as a connecting device and a symbol of stability after a distressing episode. Beer, lemonade, sardine, sandwiches, ham, cold tongue, gherkins and French Rolls are passed around to initiate friendship. In fact, I came across a blog by a lady who created an entire picnic menu inspired by the Rat and Mole’s picnic!

Today, I can see why it is such a popular book amongst children. It is a very different book. It has no human characters but a variety of animals that behave exactly like them. Moreover, they are not regular domestic animals like kittens, puppies or farm animals you find in nursery rhymes or television shows. Every aspect of the book is novel. For parents, Grahame’s inclination towards teaching children etiquettes, camaraderie, and acceptance is a benefit. Something that comes up repeatedly is Animal Etiquette, which talks about things like the correct time to visit someone or how to judge the situation before asking a favour. We are taught to be accepting of differences and make one another feel included. Badger’s character, who appears to be stern and anti-social, is a loveable paternal figure who is always around to mentor and help. It’s an invaluable lesson; do not judge someone at the first go.

Compared to a child’s imagination, The Wind in the Willows offers something entirely different for adult readers. It represents a charmed, simple life sprinkled with adventures, food, friends and coming back to cosy fireplaces and well-made beds for a good night’s sleep. It is a book you can read on days when the commute is too noisy, the traffic unbearable, and monotony raises its ugly head. The language has an elegant, transportive quality that practically airlifts one to the countryside. Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad’s realm is devoid of things that weigh us down; competition, complexes, and even romantic challenges. It is interesting to note how all the characters are bachelors, living a very standalone life with only their dearest friends!

If you are looking for comfort, The Wind in the Willows is a reliable choice. Remember when Mary Poppins, Michael and Jane jumped into Burt’s paintings and enjoyed a day in the country? The Wind in the Willows is its literary equivalent! 

Take a trip down the River. Smell the sandwiches and lemonade.

April Reads to Start Your Indian New Year With a Healthy Dose of Literature

April is a busy month. Around the world, this month is dotted with some of the most significant events in the pages of history. Particulary in India, the month holds a special place as most of the Indian calendars have the new year marked in the month of April. While we celebrate the new year with a hope that the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a thing of the past, here is a list of book recommendation from us to keep you busy, informed, and well fed on literature in these trying times.

Pakistan or The Partition of India by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

One of the most important figures who gave shape to the Indian constitution and the way our nation functions today has been Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He was born on 14th April, 1891 and has left a huge body of work behind him for us to understand his ideas and thoughts on multiple subjects. One of the most important books written on the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan is Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Pakistan or The Partition of India’. In his inimitable style, Dr. Ambedkar goes to the roots of several untackled questions behind the idea of Pakistan and enlightens the readers with finer details of the path India took to be standing face to face to the tragedy that was partition. Buy the book here.

Khooni Vaisakhi by Nanak Singh

On 13th April, 1919, India saw one of the worst crimes under the British rule. Following the orders of Gen. Dyer, the police opened fire on an unarmed assembly gathered to protest against the Rowlatt Act at Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds were killed and thousands were injured in this shameful act. Punjabi writer Nanak Singh who at the time was all of 22 years at the time, was present in the gathering and lived the trauma. Later, he penned down his pain in long form poetry, known as Khooni Vaisakhi. The book has also been translated into English by Navdeep Suri. Buy the book here.

Novellas Exemplares by Miguel de Cervantes

April 23 is celebrated as World Book Day in several countries and by UNESCO. The date was chosen because it coincided with the death anniversary of several authors, including the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes who is more popular for his book Don Quixote. The date also marks the death anniversary of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and David Halberstam. Coming to the book, this is a series of 12 novellas by the author written between 1590 and 1612. The story series are categorized by two main characteristics – one characterized by an idealized nature and others that are of realistic nature. Buy the book here.

Honourabe Mentions: Apart from these books, you can also pick Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Democratic Administration in the Light of Practical Vedanta by Swami Ranganathananda, and Himalayan Challenge – India, China and the Quest for Peace by Subramanian Swamy.

Death by a Thousand Rallies, Modiji’s Surgical Strike On India’s Population Explosion

I am not sure how many feel insulted by all the election rallies happening around us these days. I certainly do. When COVID-19 patients continue to suffer and die in thousands for the lack of adequate medical care and facilities, our politicians have once more proved that we are nothing more than  a single vote – a step in their ladder to power. On other days, one vote could be a powerful identity but as things stand out now, it is nothing more than a mockery of our democratic functions, values, and commonsense.

All the states that went or are going through elections – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, and the union territory of Puducherry saw politicians from all shades and hues. The campaign rallies by their star campaigners drew huge crowds at every occasion in complete disregard of the healthcare bloodbath our country is going through. When you know that for most of these rallies, people are enticed to attend using money, liquor, and other kinds of allurements, two sets of voters can be distinctly seen in this reality. The first one is the poor voter who knows that the offered money can help him fend off for a few days. The second set is that of the greedy voters who have consciously put a price tag on their attendance as well as their votes, and in this case, also their lives. While you may feel that we can’t do much about the first set, the second set is not going to disappear anytime soon either.

Under the given circumstances, who must take the blame for such gross violations of COVID-19 protocols laid out by the Election Commission (EC) of India? Of course, the political class. But before we go there, the EC itself must be held accountable. The fact that this body has not been able to do anything about these huge rallies has shown us again that it lacks the teeth it wants us to believe it has. Even with all the reforms, the commission has remained a tiger that can only roar after its hunt has been robbed away by the hyenas, hyenas being the political class of our country. Our vote is their meat. 

Since the BJP is in power and Mr. Modi is our Prime Minister, a huge part of the blame of such a vulgar joke on us must lie with them. It is not that they did not know. We have had similar rallies during the Bihar elections. Most states in India have pathetic numbers on all kinds of healthcare charts, and still by not doing anything to prevent these rallies or not exploring other options for campaigning, they have put our healthcare infrastructure under extreme stress. The doctors and medical staff find themselves in the same situation they were in a year ago. So, while the common citizenry is told to ring bells and sound plates to applaud and encourage the corona warriors, our supreme leader is hitting record numbers rally after rally to insult the very same people.

Come to think of it, hasn’t our democracy been always this way? I feel insulted but not surprised by this apathy displayed by the most important people of our political system. Right from our Prime Minister to candidates fighting for a seat, no one has had the strength to lead by example. BJP, DMK, AIADMK, TMC, CPI – there is no party that has not made a joke out of the pandemic. The surprising part is that most of these people have experienced the pandemic first hand. Even then, they have conducted themselves in a way that has proved that selective amnesia is a more dangerous disease. For example, our Home Minister Amit Shah has himself recovered from the virus but can still go on from one state to another in search of vote count. Amit Shah is one example but there are several politicians who have suffered or are suffering due to COVID-19, including the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. How is it possible then that they can treat the pandemic with such callousness?

Are we then taking these people more seriously than they deserve to be? Are they mere instruments of the electoral institutions and processes of our country? If electoral victory is the only deity these political parties have, are we all just being pushed into the sacrificial fire as offerings to this deity? If decades of politically engineered Hindu-Muslim faultlines, caste based seat allocations, minority appeasement, cash for votes have not adequately underlined this fact, the pandemic has settled the debate. At present, we are not more than a single vote that can fetch victory for a political ambition. Our lifespan starts at the ‘massive rally’ claim tweet of our politicians and ends at the button press on the EVM. After that, even if we get infected by the virus and die, it will be for the good of the polity of our country.

When they say, we must be prepared to die for our country, they actually mean ‘die for the polity’, and perhaps nothing else. We refuse to believe this for a good night’s sleep. The first thing they did was to coin the term ‘corona warrior’ so as to attach a sense of pride in dying at work while our politicians keep at their criminal election campaigns. Second thing they did was to bring out the thaalis and diyas to pay pompous respects to these corona warriors. Then they organized political rallies and offered 200 bucks and alcohol to the attendees in order to create noble causes for our corona warriors to die. There is not one missing link, no loose ends in this political drama.

If you are more religious than political, not that there has remained much of a difference between the two, you can also visit the Kumbha Mela. They have made state-of-the-art arrangements for you to get infected. In any case, going by the popular saying , “Modi ji kar rahe hain toh kuchh soch kar hi kar rahe honge”, it could very well be ‘Modiji’s Surgical Strike’ on one of our lingering problems since Chacha Nehru’s time – India’s population explosion.

Note: The image used in the article has no scientific basis and is purely based on political hearsay. For more accurate data and charts, please refer here.

The Unreliable Narrator: Exploring Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

How many voices can an author create? How evolved can craft be that there comes the point when the creator ceases to exist, and all that is left is the immersed reader, intruding in another world? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, the man who, for me, has taken first-person narration and a compromised narrative to the point of no return. Choose a character, and he will get into its skin like an invisible cellular organism with no home of its own. He will do so in so fantastic a way that it leaves you questioning the truth, like speaking to someone you aren’t too sure about. After he or she departs, you think, “What are they hiding? Am I in the dark?” 

An Artist of the Floating World is a masterpiece that glides in out and of many dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of generations separated by a massive ideological gulf. On the other, it is about an older man attempting to come to terms with his mistaken philosophies. It is also a historical fiction set in the Japan of limbos; Japan, which has suffered because of its misplaced imperialism, been shattered by bombings and is now critical of the past and every person representing it. At the heart of it is an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. Once an acclaimed painter, Ono is our guide through post-World War II Japan and its sociopolitical and emotional trauma; felt in extremities like the once-vibrant pleasure districts destroyed by bombings and kids who loved Popeye and Godzilla.

The book is a contemplative journey, spread across four time frames: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950. We are introduced to a retired artist of great acclaim, Masuji Ono. Ono lives with his youngest daughter Noriko, and his attempts to secure a good match for her is a central theme. In the past, Noriko’s engagement had been called off. While Ono likes to believe that his family was more powerful than the boy’s, Noriko’s often belligerent behaviour suggests the unsuccessful engagement has more to do with Ono’s past. His older daughter Setsuko asks Ono to meet his acquaintances and rectify his errors should Noriko’s prospects inquire about the family’s history. This simple task is the starting point of his recollections, opening twisted alleys of memory.

We seek to understand concepts like Ono’s rise as an artist, his relationship with his students and peers, the moral chasm that exists between him, his sons-in-law and his grandson, and the politicisation of art. I have reasons to say that we seek to understand Ono’s life – the untrustworthy memory and what he is telling us. Ono’s narration is not dependable, and there is not a second perspective to corroborate what he is saying. This is displayed continually; Ono never completes an anecdote in one go, one recollection invariably gives rise to another or how he thinks he knows someone only for us to find that the person has no memory of him. What Ono thinks of himself does not resonate with people in that world. For his disillusioned son-in-law, Ono is one of the many traitors who led the country awry with grand plans of Japanese Imperialism that caused only pain and loss. Ono himself lost his son to the Manchurian War and his wife to a freak raid. The reader might assume these topics to be of particular importance to him. Still, Ono avoids speaking about any issue that exposes his emotional vulnerability and delves too much into his past affairs. Mentions of these deaths come and go, as little remarks stuffed into the larger scheme.  

Why our narrator is unreliable is a debatable topic. At first go, it can be age. After all, Ono is well-retired with two daughters and grandchildren. However, the irregularity in information can be attributed much more to more unpleasant circumstances than memory failing. As the novel progresses, Ono is revealed to have been a man of controversial associations. During World War II, Japan was an Allied Power alongside Germany and Italy. A considerable section of the population was pro-War, viewing any opposition to the war effort with great scepticism. Ono, a pro-government imperialist, broke away from his master and drawings of the floating world (a phrase used to describe Japan’s pleasure districts) to begin painting subjects that depicted military might. At the beginning of the war, he becomes a part of a state committee clamping down on unpatriotic art. Ono reports Karudo, once his protégé. As a result, Karudo’s paintings are burnt, and the police harass him. Ono tells us that he tried to step in and convince the authority to go easy on Karudo. However, whether it is the truth or just another way to hide his betrayal and cruelty, we don’t know.

The ideological tussle between Ono and his family members is an essential thread in the novel. To some extent, Ono realises that he was vastly mistaken during the war and the younger generation, like daughters and his son-in-law’s look at him with a degree of suspicion and contempt. The latter want men like Ono to take accountability for steering Japan on the wrong path. They now live in a post-war society where America is the centre of culture and politics. This is not a phenomenon that has gone down well with Ono, who would rather have his grandson enjoy samurais than behave like a cowboy. Although he claims to be unaware of his importance in society, we understand that Ono likes to think of himself as someone who has been quite influential, a part of the crème of the art world. Towards the end, when Setsuko (his older daughter) consoles him that his pro-militancy paintings weren’t influential enough to have caused massive harm, it is a very hurtful thought for him.

Like Ishiguro’s celebrated The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful lesson in restraint. The former is the story of an English butler whose commitment to service caused such emotional limitation that he could not pursue the woman he loved. In the latter, we have an ageing man whose convictions are failing him as he grapples with guilt and ethical tussles. War is an important occurrence in both, and more than war, the sides one chooses. In The Remains of the Day, the protagonist reflects on how the reputed British manorial lord he served sided with Nazi Germany because he did not know better. In such scenarios, as both age and regret become strong, exuberant or verbose writing would not be relatable. Ishiguro’s writing is fluid, hard-hitting, but not raw. His style is refined, elegant prose at its best, entirely moulded according to the narrator’s realities.  

An Artist of the Floating World was a delightful, very enlightening experience about a unique world that conventional reading may not expose one to. Despite being a history student, I was surprised at the nuance of ideology and radicalisation in post-War Japan that the author highlighted so brilliantly. The writing flows; through former pleasure districts, reception rooms in Japanese homes, the villas of master painters and pubs where artists gathered with pupils. Each of these spaces stands for a different ideology and a different time in Ono’s life. Ishiguro’s most outstanding merit is shaping his style in a way that changes with age. A young Ono is much more aggressive, while Ono as a grandfather is loving and almost endearing. The tonality changes beautifully, and this requires immense, almost God-gifted skill.

Ishiguro gifts his readers a story that is almost the truth but has enough cracks for falsities to creep in.