Friday, August 29, 2008

Hampi: Notes on Departure

I left Hampi on a Volvo 9400, a symbol of the liberalization that transformed the landscape of South India. Sturdy and elegant, it stood out in an otherwise unremarkable bus station. What Volvo did to Road Transport system of South India is a bit of unsung story.  Before Volvo started its operations in 2001, access by land to any place in India less than a metro was, owing to either the condition of the roads or the efficiency of the decrepit road transport system, a pain - in all possible sense of the word. But soon after Volvo was introduced, the world shrunk into a miniature playground. Suddenly, even the farthest tip of Kerala or the hills of Tirupati was just a night away and without any painkillers. Instead you got a refreshing bottle of mineral water.

The Interior of the 9400 was modified, with seats and overhead cabins converted into a series of berths of twos and ones on either side of the aisle. This was new. Though it reduced the number of passengers, the idea, I thought was not all bad. Like in the days of the notorious Leyland Panthers there was no misery to pack oneself in half a box of seatspace with a snoring Bengali seated beside. On a Volvo with new arrangement, one could lie down in a mini enclosure of his own.

I located my mini-bunk at the far end of the bus and snuggled in. It wasn't as comfortable as it looked at first, but it was worth every penny than that of business class British Airways. I experimented with a few possibilities before aligning myself in the most comfortable of positions. I considered taking down some of the dictations made in the day, but the jaunts of the ruins all morning in the scorching sun had left my being totally exhausted. So instead, I lazily switched on the iPod and laid there gazing through the window.

It was an experience watching the world at such an unique elevation from this sort of midprone gaze. The world looked like a space hidden in an oyster handshake between the land and the sky. The smooth moving Volvo made it a slow silent disney animation of a sort.

The road was flanked by a series of trees planted by the department of forest; they ran one after another, equidistant and almost identical with concentric circles painted around their torsos; they looked almost endless and were only interrupted by settlements, shops or small villages . Beyond them, spead all across was vast hinterland - there was no grass, no fields, no weeds, no vegetation - nothing. Except for a faint hint of distant hills the whole region looked glabrous and widowed. The earth was parched and the sky forsaken. Night started falling at its own pace.

Old glories notwithstanding it is surprising to see how the region so desolate, with no real spectacular attraction in a post modern sense, continues to attract so many visitors from all over the world.

As I wondered about such things of the day,  the volvo went past a million things beside the road : creaky old cars, a large herd of cattle returning home, huts springing up here and there with dimgrey smoke rising lazily through their narrow chimneys - perhaps a supper being cooked?, vendors on their rickety cycles, a train of trucks parked roadside for a break , women carrying water, a congregation of men sharing a joke with their tea in small tea stall. The montage rolled past like an Eisenstein's cut.

One by one I let all the thoughts they evoked wash over me. I wondered how it was to be one of them, to be so content, so assured when being so very aware that they are so oblivious. It was inexplicable. I must have pondered a while because I did not notice that we had stopped.  A crowd had gathered into a mini road block as one of the trucks had run into a tree. The driver had been taken to a nearest hospital.  The incident must have been a few hours old and a small crowd around it seemed settled with all their speculations. The driver was suspected to be driving under the influence. After everyone on the bus had satisfied their curiosity, we slowly made our way.

I went back to my window and found the sky changing its character. The distant hills had vanished and the air was filled with anticipation. Suddenly, as though attending a call, clouds of all form and shape started hovering in from all directions. The temperature dropped and light faded in a few minutes.

It was so sudden, it was magical. I watched it with a sense of awe.

The ipod  started playing amelie soundtrack. And as if to match the crescendo of Yann Tarsien's notes conveyed through the tiny white tubes to my ears, the sky built up its symphony note by note to its highest pitch, and then gracefully like an opera singer climaxing her note into silence, it all went still for a moment.  Just a fraction of a moment later, it opened up pouring the most furious rain I had seen for a while that hastened to meet the dry earth as fast as it could. It was incredible.

The world in one space of a ipod song had transformed from nothing to marvelous. Through the rear window I could see rain splashing the wet road as it  trailed off into an eternity.  As I gazed at that road, I thought this could have been anywhere: Texas, Kenya, France. But it wasn't. It was a remote corner somewhere in south India. It occurred to me, in a world when ipods are named for the time duration in which they can be rebuilt , here was a place where a great empire was just once, now forgotten, unclaimed in time. But then what is the worth of anything when you think of time in terms of A Brahman who’s  breath is a billions of years?

The rain stopped after a good while; through the sealed window, I could almost smell the ozone of the rained earth. It smelt like how it exactly did when I was a six year old - marvelous.

Monday, August 25, 2008

15 August 2008 In Mhow....

Pandrah Agast Ki Tasveerein.... Images of 15 August

I clicked a few photographs on 15 Aug 2008.
It was an overcast day but the farmers were happy. We have had only 13 inches of rain this year as opposed to 40 inches last year.

Baba Saheb Ambedkar's statue at the town hall was garlanded. He was born in Mhow as his father, a Subedar Major in the Mahar Regiment, was posted in Mhow during the late 19th century. Mhow has been renamed Dr. Ambedkar Nagar a few years ago. Something which hasn't gone down too well with the 'upper castes'. The compulsions of vote bank politics ensured that the state government had no choice...

Flag seller sitting by the side of the road as an Army school bus takes kids back home after attending the I day function at school. Mhow and the Indian Army are synonymous. A Cantonment has existed here since 1818 when the Scotsman John Malcolm led the East India Company troops to a victory over the Holkars who ruled Indore state.

This kid wanted a flag. The flagseller tells me that he is from a village in Depalpur, not far away. He gets good business on 15 Aug and 26 Jan every year so he comes to Mhow along with his family members and sells flags and toys.

The flag seller's mother taking some stock over to her son....

A shy schoolgirl at the middle school of village Gangliya Khedi. The colony where I live with my parents is in this village. The students were given a special treat of puris, aloo subji, laddoos on this day by the school.

The principal and staff pose for a group photograph. It was an overcast day. I have promised copies to each teacher. As the males were fewer in number I told them to sit on the bench. The lady teachers were chivalrous enough to agree...

Back to the bazaar in the evening. This young papaya seller wanted me to click him. "Hamari bhi photo lo na ... " The bazaar was full of people shopping for the festival of Rakhi which was on the 16th.

A flag planted on M.G. Road where the road joining Tin Gali and Hammal Mohalla crosses it.

My blogpost on Republic Day Celebrations at Garrison Ground Mhow

Friday, August 22, 2008

Indian writers dominate the longlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008

The Man Asian Literary Prize is an annual award for an "Asian novel unpublished in English". The first Prize was awarded to the Chinese writer Jiang Rong for his novel Wolf Totem on 10 November 2007.

I remember one of the novels in the long list in 2007 was an english translation of N S Madhavan's Malayalam work Litanies of Dutch Battery . The translator was our own Rajesh. There were 143 submissions this year and 21 have been chosen for the longlist according to a release dated July 22.

The number of novelists in India seems to be increasing by leaps and bounds. Just take a look at the longlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. It seems to be dominated by writers from India or those who are of Indian origin. Among the Indian names I see in the longlist are established well known writers as well as those whose names I am reading for the first time. Here they are:

(1)Tulsi Badrinath Melting Love

(2)Hans Billimoria Ugly Tree

(3)Anjum Hasan Neti, Neti

(4)Daisy Hasan The To-Let House

(5) Rupa Krishnan Something Wicked This Way Comes

(6) Kavery Nambisan The Story That Must Not Be Told

(7) Sumana Roy Love In The Chicken's Neck

(8) Vaibhav Saini On The Edge of Pandemonium

(9) Salma Midnight Tales

(10) Sidharth Dhanwant Shanghvi The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

(11) Sarayu Srivatsa The Last Pretence

(12) Amit Varma My Friend Sancho

And there is also 1931 born Abdullah Hussein whose novel The Afghan Girl has made it to the longlist. His work has been published in India and Pakistan but to add to the fun his nationality is not mentioned. A delightful list indeed. May the best work win.

Click here to get to the website of the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Read more about those in the running in the article titled
A Man Asian For Every Season, every Reason by Namita Gokhale (Tehelka, Aug 5 2008)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thoughts on Grand Indian Malady

Earlier this year, there was a season when practically everyone from Mia Farrow in her New York Condo to Soha Ali Khan in her flight attendant suit had an opinion on Beijing Olympics. During this, rather busy period, Sharon Stone, who generally knows how to enjoy her money, in one inexplicable weak moment - as if because of a naughty butterfly flapping its wicked wings in Jamshedpur – instead of flashing her jouly smile and walking away, stopped and opened her mouth before a few waiting journalists to utter what would become history.

This is what escaped from her hapless mouth:

"Of course. You know, it was very interesting because at first I am not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans, because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else, and so I have been very concerned about how to think and what to do about that because I don't like that". "Then I have been concerned about, oh, how shall we deal with the Olympics? Because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine."And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought, 'Is that karma, when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?''

Sharon stone is an actress past her prime. Her position in Hollywood as a sexy seductress has been long since coveted. She has little reputation for her social insights. In fact she is remembered for a different type of insight. In short, she was a woman that the world never took seriously. But yet, as soon as she uttered those words, the response was swift.

Western media went on an over drive, printing her words in block quotes as headlines. People around the world amused themselves at her expense. Parodies abound, the fun was instantaneous. Within twenty four hours YouTube went berserk with angry Chinese who posted their video responses. Chinese government called a press conference and in essence scoffed at her. Dior, her famed sponsor, dropped her from their Asian campaign. She apologised: unasked, unconditionally. No one wanted to dismiss her as a stupid woman. All of this was in May 2008.

Three months later, this weekend, speaking on an Indian television show run on primetime, Shabana Azmi, a nominated Member of Indian Parliament and a respected actress (I am told) , in a pre-prepared, recorded interview accused the Indian polity of being a hypocritical democracy, a shame to secularism. She alleged that India discriminated against her Muslim subjects. All because someone refused her a flat in Mumbai.

Shabana Azmi , curiously was born in Independent India in a region not disputed. Her father, a famous writer and lyricist in Bollywood Mumbai(!) came from Uttar Pradesh which has, as far I know not seen a dispute over sovereignty or allegiance to the Indian republic. Shabana went to St Xavier's College Mumbai, and FTII Pune. Both it could be argued from a point of Indian history as Hindu strongholds. She has won many national awards. Further, one time or the other Shabana has been on various committees and boards of the Indian government, including the censorship board. She has represented India on international forums and Film festivals. Most important of all, in recognition of their talent and contribution, various Indian governments had conferred upon Shabana and her father and her husband (!) one of the highest civilian awards of the nation. This as you can imagine is only a snapshot of her association with India as an Indian over the last 58 years.

This enviable and illustrious history is undone by a nation because someone in some corner of the country has discriminated against her. His prejudice is instantly transferred on to that of the nation. A democracy has all of a sudden become unsecular, fascist! What Shabana Azmi did not see herself as all these years, she has transformed into instantly. A Muslim. Rest is of no significance. Her entire identity and being is reduced to a religious label in a post-modern world. In the history of the Islam in all the lands where it is/was practice/d there has never been a woman or never likely to be, with a greater freedom to achieve what she has, yet, all of that suddenly doesn't matter because someone said no to her. This is as far as a mind primed in Muslim theology can get- back to itself.

She is a Muslim and there can be no explanation beyond this. Therefore, the world, with all its glories and blemishes is to be understood only through Muslim eyes. Outside this, there can be no view, no theory, no world.

This has to be made public; her pain has to be shared with the nation on prime time television. Mind you, the words are not of an uneducated, biased, mechanic in Hyderabad; this is an educated, liberated, experienced, socially conscientious mind speaking to the masses. With no intent of offence but only analysis, this is - to use her own label, a mind of a Muslim. --After years of human civilization there is no process or no procedure to be followed. If someone stares at you, you gorge his eyes out; if someone misbehaves, you stone him to death; if someone steals, you chop his hands off; if someone says no to you, you go on national television to cry foul. Peace be upon him but not on the world which is out to get you. This is exactly what Naipaul had long back called the religion of narcissism, and a German friend here calls more of an affliction than a religion.

But the purpose of the post is not Islam. My interest is in what I call the grand Indian dynamic. Let's consider the response vis a vis Sharon Stone episode.

But there has been no response. There are no regrets expressed, no apologies solicited, and no calls for resignation. The media is oblivious, ignorant. I have keenly followed the issue on technorati and google blogs. Save for one or two negligible expressions of emotional outbursts, there have been no reactions. It is, as if the event never happened. A shallow mind might be quick to point out the comparison of the examples are mismatched; that Sharon stone was insensitive during a tragic time. I have used it only as a popular example. The purpose is to emphasise the value of identity and not of similarity. A couple other latest but less known examples would be of Germany disapproving
a book on Kafka and Serbia withdrawing another book . Just yesterday a Top Policeman in UK accused the Metropolitan Police Department of discrimination . Not the entire nation mind you. He did not go and cry his heart out in front of the media. He went to a tribunal. And this is the first news item in UK.

That is elsewhere. And this is India. In India, one can casually a throw an allegation at her most sanctum sanctorum and get away with it . It is okay.

Consider these:

Sania Mirza, an upcoming tennis player is threatened by men of her own religion for reasons singularly religious. In turn she conveys her distress to the nation as a -threat - should such problems persist she shall not represent the country. But no Shabana Azmi wants to come forward to talk about any religion.

Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer is attacked by men of her own religion in various cities in India. The government of India is held responsible for her safety and security. No Shabana Azmi comes forward to talk about any religion.

City after Indian city has been targeted by bomb attacks for reasons inexplicable except that of zealous religious fundamentalism. All the newspapers, all the television channels, all the blogs express anger, disbelief and concerns of lack of security etc, but no one and certainly no Shabana Azmi comes forward to talk about any religion. It is never the religion; it is always the goon, the illiterate, the fundamentalist, the terrorist. As if they all are exotic entities with independent existence that dropped by from a distant planet.

But a Shabana Azmi would choose to talk of religion because she did not get a flat in Mumbai.
And therefore, naturally, India is undemocratic and intolerant. A Nation is held accountable for a tennis player, a writer for matters of concern of one religion. In other words a nation is held ransom by a religion. In India this is all right. It is borne in silence. This is the Indian notion of secularism, the Indian Idea of democracy.

These are only examples and religion is just handy tool to study; Indian mind is far more complicated and layered to be assessed by a single tool. Indian life to be honest is difficult to read. It is an effort. This is essentially because even a casual question on India ricochets from one end to another- a religious enquiry, before you can realise, would have turned political or a contemporary question would have in no time lead you to antiquity hidden in layers of mindless tradition. It is because of this reason however modern an Indian seems or sounds, his is a mind burdened by the weight of his own history. It is deep buried within him and yet so distant and inaccessible. Caught in between so many things, his modern mind takes refuge in Russian literature or Pink Floyd. What can be seen now and here on the surface is what India has internalised for centuries. A habit has been turned into an addiction to tradition to culture to identity to malady. Many Indians call it greatness.

This greatness is an idea. But India is a land of free floating ideas. You can find one anywhere.

Beliefs erase and erode over time, but it is a gradual process. And these are replaced by another set of beliefs of no consequence. It is an abstraction passed on through centuries without any active enquiry. It can be seen in all spheres of life; and all through: from politics, sports, entertainment, literature et al. This is what binds Indians – recycling their own absurdities from time to time.

Consider the other religion Hinduism which is replete with every possible abstraction a human mind is capable of. The last one of such abstractions came after the industrial revolution. It is a story of Bengali Man called Narendra. He is now referred as a divine soul Swami Vivekanda. You can notice the fading photograph of his handsome face in small town sweetshops. There are schools, public parks and organisations dedicated to his name. Yet, after a long and tiring day, all a Hindu can remember about this divine sage – is that he swam a few miles of an ocean and he represented India in a conference in Chicago in 1891, where, he was applauded and sent home. (That was just America bemused by a funnily dressed Indian speaking English in late 19th century). For a few years Hindus obsessed after him, worshipped him, after which his divinity was forgotten. This story is just around 100 years old, the more farther you go the more fantastic they become.

On the other side of the spectrum are the so called modern Liberal Indians without any apparatus to evaluate their history or identity making every effort to assimilate someone else’s history and covet others identity as their own.

Here is a question to a contestant in a beauty pageant in Mumbai

Have you heard of marital rape?
Err uhhm (bit confused)

How shall you respond if you are subjected to marital rape?

I will scream. ( after few secs of thinking)

I would say the girl had loads of commonsense, and her answer was apt. But they will not let her proceed onto the next round, because she is wrong! She is not intelligent enough.The term has been chosen from a glossary of a liberal western text or a women magazine in an airport, it has no plank to hang it by, no meaning in India. It is expected to elicit a textbook answer, which, if not received shall mean the failure of the candidate. This is how India appraises its candidates in all the competitions including academics and examinations. A set of questions and answers. Rights and wrongs.

Men and women who have come out of such a system find the life outside in a big world with its immoral rights and flexible wrongs without any ready answers extremely uncomfortable. Some even disconcerting. For some others it is a shock. Some run back into the familiarity of old ideas. Some start looking out for answers, and once convinced of having found the correct answer, they start imagining the questions.

Regard this:

A few women meet for a coffee in a local Barista. They agree how distressing it is to change their names after marriage. They all don’t like it. Since it involves women like themselves they unanimously decide it is feminism. They will apply all the answers- all the rights and all the wrongs they had learnt and reaffirm that it is indeed feminism. Just like those Hindus who believed that Vivekananda was divine, they have neither the means to evaluate their conclusions nor have inclination to find its relevance to the population of the nation. Like Shabana Azmi, they simply project their thoughts onto a nation as that of a nation. Their idea of its relavance or its connotations in the world is nil. A misunderstanding is invented and turned into imagined activism. It is another caste system. Now they will have to find a population for their grievance, so they endlessly write about this, as liberal, as lofty. With no tool to assess the impact or change, they go nowhere. For Mother India this is not at all new so it endures them and lets them be. A few years later, when capitalism has uplifted a few more Indian women, having done nothing on their own, they would move onto a different notion sitting in another cafe.


A communist party of India believes nuclear treaty with America is harmful for the nation. But it refuses to explain to the very nation why or how the treaty is potentially harmful. It doesn't wish to engage in a debate, and declines any suggestion of a discussion. A belief that it held without evidence is transformed into an opinion and a political stance.

With such a stance politicians meet around their New Delhi residences and party offices. Shots of cream and ivory coloured ambassador cars are shown to get in and out of residences in the leafy suburbs of Delhi. For the average Indian voter this is all surreal, as if watching a bollywood movie after which he will walk back into his real life. Nevertheless, they all watch, not because of their interest in politics but because of their stake in the markets. A day later, the communist party of India withdraws support and the government is called in for a No Confidence Motion. It is that easy. Now a different dynamic commences, if the motion is carried the government survives, else the nation is subjected to another general election worth billions of rupees. Even if there was a new election little changes, players are altered here and there, roles are shifted. And the whole cycle repeats. This in India is politics – like feminism above - a system of unverifiable personal beliefs.


In Mangalore I watched a Indian blockbuster they called Chak De. Apparently it was a huge hit and had revived a nation’s idea of pride and patriotism. It was lauded by all Indians of all class and customs- from Bay Area to Southall to Chandni Chowk as a very sensible and intelligent portrayal of Indianess. Chak De was even adopted as the slogan of the sporting teams representing the nation.

And the story of this great movie is this: An Indian hockey captain, a Muslim, is accused of treason by the nation for shaking hands with an opponent after having missed a crucial penalty stroke. The entire country of one billion falls into the trap of its own misunderstanding. It comes natural. Painful shots of being called a traitor are emphasised in rapidly edited montage of national newspaper headlines alternated with slow moving shots of the crestfallen, betrayed actor with a screaming Sufi music playing in the background. He vanishes. Eight years later he resurfaces all of a sudden and trains a motley team of girls into an unlikely junior championship victory. He becomes an instant hero. He is redeemed. All is forgiven and forgotten. After eight long years, suddenly everyone agrees that he is or was not a traitor. Thus the story ends.

If you look at it, it is not all that a new story to India. With minor alterations it could be a - a story of Rama or Pandavas or Mohammed who all vanish into oblivion, accused or cheated of this or that and after many years return to glory. It has been rehashed and remade for the new, intelligent, liberated generation which welcomes it as progressive. There is no sense of period or perspective. The story happened. It could have been 1911 or 2007. In India such absurd stories are passed on for intelligent cinema.


Like anywhere in the world, any question of intelligence is inevitably related to that of identity. But Indian identity, from bits of what we have seen is a simile of its own, for its insurmountable complexity and intrigue. It is fluid and elusive. It is in its belongingness and its absurdity. The state government of Kerala, a southern state in India half of whose population can easily find a Sharjah in the Middle East than a Chandigarh in northern India wanted to recognise the achievement of Abhinav Bindra, a chap from Chandigarh who had won a gold medal for the country in the recently concluded Olympics. So The State of Kerala decided to confer its own gold medal on an Olympic gold medal winner. This is the Indian idea of belongingness.


Indian idea of intelligence is perhaps most special in that it is compounded by its own ignorance. Of the world and itself. To Indians Intelligence is not a faculty of judgement but of information. The more one knows, the more intelligent he is. Thousands of university students in Bangalore and Delhi pursue Quizzing. It is a game of collecting information and remembering it. But there is no interest in anything that involves judgement. Some even speak of it is as a career. An Indian can tell you a remote trivia about American History but he doesn’t have an opinion on say, Kashmir. It takes many a years into his third decade in his life to realise that Trivial Pursuit is game of 16-18 year olds.

Such notion of intelligence is best seen on Indian blogosphere, where the most intelligent of the nation, apparently hang about. It is here, you can dissect out their idea of intelligence and their confusion about their identity. This confusion is a direct result of the synthesis of the past and the future floating and ricocheting in the Indian present .

For an Indian a generation back, he was nothing more than what he did or where he came from?

What do you do?

Or where are you from?

These were the second and third Indian questions in a new introduction. The rest of the talk revolved around this and called itself a conversation. These days the Indian identity has moved on from the concept of vocation to a label:

We are feminists. An young Indian will declare blindly. Consider my new feminist friend Anindita : She writes here as delicately, as elegantly any rubbish can ever be written. The muddled thoughts flow from one big word to another - art, civilization, activism, feminism et al to eventually arrive at this conclusion - Women should be encouraged to write. Else the civilization is not complete.

The article cant bear itself out. There is no commitment to any meaning. It could be a subhashitaa (well intent couplet) from 4000 BC. An intense personal wish, with no endemic idea, no identified collective need , with no independent validity, no feedback loop is disseminated as activism of the nation, for the nation. In modern parlance it is similar to a bollywood song. It has no past, no future. It happens and any sense , if at all, has to be found only within it. Outisde of it , there is no sense. In India, this is the understanding of civilization and feminism : A personal idea constructed around a publishing house.

Indian web is full of such muddled up mediocre minds. An Indian in Calcutta will befriend an Indian in Pennsylvania over their blogs, because they believe they are feminists. A mutual interest in a movement and its understanding from two different contexts of the globe is the basis of their friendship. It is theoretical. They reaffirm their beliefs by linking to each other and exchanging links of feminist articles which are written in another context in another part of the world. Their idea of identity is in their concordance - a sense of sharing of a word and its agreed meaning. Without this word, they are strangers.

After such personal agitations and imagined activisms comes favourites.

We all are our favourite authors or our favourite movies.

An Indian blogger in Delhi will exchange thoughts with an Indian blogger in Hyderabad on the French poet Rimbaud. And without any perspective or judgement on his life they talk about Rimbaud as if he was a local Kalidas about whom they have no clue. They both insist on impeccable English grammar without which they can’t comprehend each other if speaking their respective tongues. Two days later both of them shall be seen talking about the Turkish poet Cavafy. Next week it is someone fresh say, Darwish. What Indians of the past did to gods for centuries, Indians of now are doing it to poets and writers. It comes natural.

Their identities lie in their relentless assimilation of the exotic and irrelevant interests which has no meaning to their lives. It is a self imposed struggle against oneself. If someone challenges them, they will respond by distilling their beings and projecting it as an abstraction - poetry is universal which is the new version of God is in everyone. Others typically engage in why and why not arguments? Some others respond by getting into details- rhyme, meter etc. After all these charade they will return to eat their Dhal Chawal Aloo Sabjis. To them these are not interests or pursuits of men, these are the men themselves. To them like their ancestors before, it is hard to distinguish a myth from a reality, an interest from an identity.

This, imagined, self-imposed strife, is the modern Indian idea of intelligence.


The concept of Literature is more interesting. There is no shared lineage or history of national literature. In fact the very idea of those are at a distant safety. I personally believe it is absurd for a nation as big and as diverse as India to think of National Literature. There was some promise of vernacular literature, which never took off in the 20th century. Mostly because it was perpetually cursed by the Indian way of looking which was always religious and mythical, until 20th century when it turned mostly political and reformatory - to address social stigmas and such issues. It was focussed and limited. Barring a few works from Kerala, it could not transcend to reach out for anything. Except for ancient sanskrit dramas and the stories, there is nothing autonomous and worth enriching to be found there. The novel in India is less than hundred years old. There has been an odd voice here and there. There is no experimentation or innovation. For the mind primed in religious tomes, it tries to get back to them through the novel; stories about large families, grandeur, weddings, and other rubblish when India was importing wheat from USA. So all that remains of an never existent Indian novel now is, what was left in india all these centuries: a formula, fakery and lies. Earlier it was written by brahmins, now by journalists in Delhi and Mumbai. Naturally therefore, all that literature implies for an modern young Indian is a potpourri of exotic favourites. The one who has read the most distant and the most obscure is the most respected. It is a rule to be followed and not a judgement.

Committees are formed to discuss writing. A communion gathers on a Sunday evening on a terrace in Delhi or a living room in Hyderabad. They read out for each other - sonnets imagined in cubicles, villanelles written for the sake of writing villanelles, short stories without any perspective or relevance. Someone might correct a transitive verb or a wrong tense. As politely and as vaguely as they are naturally given to. They commend and critique each other. Samosas and pakoras are passed around. They discuss - form, characterization structure etc of a Murakami writing about 60s Japan or a Winterson writing about lesbianism in Manchester.
In the next meeting they will consider the works of a Jhumpa Lahiri living in LA or a Kiran Desai hiding in a Himalayan cottage who has written about them - their lives, how all of them think, feel and behave. They would admire a character, the prose, the craft. Some might not. It doesn't matter.

End of it all they go home feeling intelligent and sublime. This is the ritual. This is the Indian idea of reading books, of literature. Just like a few hundred years ago when Indians used to gather in a temple and read together Hanuman Chaleesa which had no meaning to their lives but the communion gave them strength and consolation to forget their own insignificance in the world. It is another rehash.


For a nation that has internalised the myth of a cycle, understandably it is difficult to distinguish what is past and what is future, more so when you cant see yourself which way you are looking. This is the fundamental tragedy of India. Sixty years after existence, better of her citizens - from Shabana Azmi to Sania Mirza to Anindita Sengupta haven’t been able to grasp the concept of the state.

There are comical understandings of words like marginalised, civilization and literature. The idea of growth both in its consciousness and activity is zilch. Amidst all the celebrated vibrancy and diversity there is this underrunning monotony. India’s new found status is only that of one facet - economic. A market of one billion must account for something in a post-modern world. Apart from economic, rest is drowned in a huge static muddled pool. As a friend who had visited India recently for the first time observed - there is no independent thought. Contrary to what you might be told, this is no renaissance Italy or Industrial Britain.

Simply because :Nothing is learnt, therefore nothing is applied.

My interest to investigate India arises from my need to understand my own position and history in the world. It is understandable to be dismissive or indifferent. It is easy to get lost in the marvels of the post modern world. But such a life , however grand it may be, I know shall eventually amount to nothing. I know I am an Indian and there is little sense in disowning that. But I had to know so much of myself that is not Indian, despite being an Indian. This is my motivation, because somewhere in there must lie my own identity. In this aspect, the last twelve years have been fruitful . This quest has found me many answers to questions I have long pondered over. I have been able to explain aspects inexplicable a few years back. I do realise that, in a sense it is brutal to be so honest , so antagonistic , so negative but I need the perspective to evaluate without bias - the world and myself. To see it and see it right. Nothing for me as a human is more important.

Getting back to Shabana Azmi : I hadnt seen much of her, but having seen her two interviews I dont have much to say of her. As a 20 year old brit so eloquently described her on youtube: she is a great lol. As per her comments, at the worst, a couple of months later, if she manages to rattle a few , a group of totally aimless Hindu youth would pelt a few stones at her portico window and the country would be in uproar. Young reporters would start another wave of screaming and howling into the microphone. Indian bloggers from all over the world would exchange thoughts on the meaning of tolerance and secularism in India. Page 3 celebrities - models, one time novelists, university professors rooted in 60s with no idea of Indian history or perspective would discuss in an air conditioned studio in New Delhi on a Sunday evening, screaming over each other.

Give the country a week more and everything shall be forgotten. Business resumes as usual. Bloggers move on to booker lists and movie reviews. And soon the entire country would start looking forward for the Australian cricket team to land.

Further update on Mrs Azmi: Here is a latest forward. A sort of reluctant defensive Indian version of an explanative apology from Mrs Azmi. Hiding behind the self proclaiemd label of moderate muslim, she conflates it all typically like an Indian, bringing past history and other issues like Dalits to Female infanticide. Such a shame she calls herself a social activist who fights against discrimination. So who wants to be in the choir?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Women post menopause...

Previous Chart topper:
"Of course. You know, it was very interesting because at first I am not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans, because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else, and so I have been very concerned about how to think and what to do about that because I don't like that". "Then I have been concerned about, oh, how shall we deal with the Olympics? Because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine.
"And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought, 'Is that karma, when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?'"

~Sharon Stone , making a fool out of herself in response to China Earthquake .
Current Chart Topper:

"I wanted to buy a flat in Bombay and it wasn't given to me because I was a Muslim and I read the same about Saif (Ali Khan). Now, I mean, if Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi cannot get a flat in Bombay because they are Muslims, then what are we talking about?"

~ Shabana Azmi trying to explain how hard it is to live with paranoid delusions on an Indian National television.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On the Indian Gold Rush

Andrea: "Unhappy is the land that has no heroes"
Galileo : "No, Unhappy the land that needs heroes."
~From Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht. (Never has been a quote more apt )
I must admit it was a bit puzzling to watch the youtube clip of Abhinav Bindra receiving his gold medal at Beijing. Probably because - the moment was so unique. I had never, and , as it turns out no one had ever seen an Indian on the top podium at the Olympics since it was introduced in 1896.

For someone else seeing from outside, a nation as vast and as populous as India not having managed to hit a gold in an Olympics event after all these years even by accident might occur as a bit strange. But for us, it would be anything but natural. So my first reaction, as often as in such cases, was that of cynicism- it must be pure chance. But his demeanor, made me curious about him.

Thanks to Indian Media which was preoccupied with Scarlett, Aarushi et al, I had never heard about Abhinav before. A cursory study of his profile online easily ruled out any suggestion of luck. His success was, so it seems now, a thing waiting to happen sooner or later. And the lad has willed it with tremendous fortitude. Though people would argue that funding himself to practice in Europe with a coach of his own as a bit of luxury by Indian standards, nevertheless, it still reflects considerable self-belief that an Indian only gets to see in a Bollywood movie.

Abhinav Bindra - How dare you having a laugh at Indian media?

But above all , Abhinav's Gold, in its most charming implication is the proof for the utter joke that is the Indian media, which is made of thousands of thoughtdistorted-menopausal writers/editors (Tehelka running a cover story that Tibetans are hyper articulate) along with dozens of 20 something reporters screaming into the microphone while counting days to drown their stress in a gulp of Bloody Mary at a Goan Beach resort. It is then of no surprise that none of sports editorial/reporting team of any newspaper or TV channel had an iota of a hint (forget confidence in their own judgement) that Bindra was likely to end up in the top three if not the top.

It is only natural that they make up for it now. Suddenly with their new-found judgement sports editors who couldn't predict this a few months back would wax a ghazal; what the gold means to the long term future of Indian sports! Just like how they deified Ishaant Sharma into a Glen McGrath when all he did was to bowl one extraordinary spell in a cricket match a few months back. Where is the poor fellow now? Add to that flowery eulogies and Didnt-I-tell-you congratulations from every Ram, Sham, Ghansam : from popular Parker Pen Salesmen like Amitabh Bacchan to I dont know - Ram Vilas Paswan?

But Media is just a part of a nation. It is unfair to hold any Media anywhere solely responsible for something so inherent in its water supply. India is but, a land of deities. For a population of a billion and growing, even thirty million odd gods would never be enough. For in India, God is not a person, a force, or a consciousness; he is only an act – like killing an evil demon or rescuing the helpless lady or winning an award or hitting a match winning century. He is only -- an avatar-- to be celebrated, to be revered and to be consigned to the realm of supernatural, before, as if all of it didn't really matter, moving onto the next available one.

As a weed smoking Sadhu in the Himalayas once famously wrote in an Upanishad – Rock on!


A list reproduced ( not in the naughty sense) from Wikipedia about the awards Bindra has been showered with after his Beijing Gold.

Rs. 1 crore cash prize by State Government of Punjab.[17]
Rs. 2 lakh cash prize by Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee[citation needed]
Rs. 25 lakh cash prize by the Board of Control for Cricket in India[18]
Rs. 15 lakh cash prize by Steel Ministry of India[19]
A free lifetime railway pass by the Railway Ministry of India[20]
Rs. 10 lakh cash prize by Chief Minister of Maharashtra state[21]
Rs. 5 lakh cash prize by State Government of Orissa[citation needed]
Rs. 1.5 Crore by L N Mittal, Arcelor Mittal
Rs. 10 lakh cash prize by the State Government of Karnataka[22]
Rs. 11 lakh cash prize by the State Government of Bihar. The Patna Indoor Stadium will be renamed after Abhinav Bindra.[17]
Rs. 1 lakh cash prize by the State Government of Chhattisgarh[17]
Rs. 25 lakh cash prize by the State Government of Haryana.[17]
Rs. 5 lakh cash prize by M. Karunanidhi, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu[23]
A Gold medal by the State Government of Kerala.[24]

This list as we all know is never going to be complete. Not even if Maharashtra Electricity Board awards Free electricity for the rest of his Life, Not even if the State of Bengal announces him 2500 acres of land, Not even if Russia makes him a AB-47....

Interestingly, amidst all hosannas, Wiki also notes that the Bindra business has a turn over of Rs 300 Crores INR.

Having gone through the above list, I thought it was only natural, and without any intention to dampen the thunder of the boy that I share the following; Here is a superficial list of compensation for casualities of the major Bomb Blasts In India over last year:

1. Bangalore Blasts July 25 2008: 1 Lakh, Govt of Karnataka, 1 Lakh , Govt of India

2. Ahmedabad Blasts 26 July 2008 : 5 Lakhs Govt of Gujurat, 3.5 Lakhs, Govt of India

3. Jaipur Blasts 13 May 2008: ? Govt of Rajasthan , 1 Lakh Govt of India

4. Hyderabad Twin Blasts 25 August 2007: 5 Lakhs Govt of Andhra Pradesh, ? Govt of India

5. Hyderabad Mosque Blast 18 May 2007 : 6 Lakhs, + a Govt job to the nearest relative Govt of Andhra Pradesh, ? Govt of India.

Surely when a nation yearns for a hero more than the lives for whom he is a hero, it must be Oh, Herr Brecht, truly unhappy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Travelling Brit and Culture Shock at Home...

The recently published Lastminute survey has just confirmed that Brits are the rudest of all the travellers.  I certainly tend to agree with that, but , I must say it is only applicable to the younger generation Brits who are brought up on the irresponsibility of party-drink-drug-benefits culture. In my experience most of the middle aged Brits have been charming conversationists and unbelievably passionate enthusiasts in exploring the the foreign cultures and scapes.

It is not a new fact that a Brit on a holiday abroad is totally different from a thank-you- yes- please Brit at home. Though one does acknowledge accomplished and passionate travelers like Chatwin or Woods, a typical image that a traveling Brit evokes in many a minds is that of a dead drunken idiot violently pushing it all up by the streetside, followed being carried by his mates back to the hotel. And if you have been to stag-spots in Europe like Amsterdam or Dublin, you would surely know to avoid the disgusting Brit crowd with their appalling definition of revelry.

Incidentally, around the same time of the lastminute survey, Radio 4 has aired this episode of You and Yours programme about the same problem. (Click on Tuesday Programme)  I am not sure if it was prompted by the former, but it is surely an interesting listen.  

Often in the segments of the programme it is highlighted how the Brits, though not exclusively, take the local culture and customs for granted. They either dismiss or ignore the local sensibilities expecting the natives to somehow understand and approve of their lifestyles. Easy examples are asking for Pork dishes in a Muslim restaurant or hovering in a bikini near a local settlement.  

In India, while I certainly would not spare a moment's feeling to commercial tourist destinations - say, Goa, and Kerala , it makes me livid to see 'unadulterated' places being slowly poisoned. Havelock Island of the Andaman Archipelago, my favourite place in India, is being slowly subjected to same insult over the recent few years. 

Greta Garbo amongst all asian beaches
Beach 17 or Radhanagar Beach on Havelock Island, India

 If you talk to the natives there,  they will explain their plight. Here is an extract from  Lonely Planet India -

Well my family cant go to the beach and I can't go out fishing sometimes, when my boat's on-shore and men and women are sunbathing naked on the sand beside it. We don't take our clothes off in front of the strangers. They never see us like that, so why do they think it's okay and that we don't mind?

Anjuna Beach, Goa

The amazing bit of all is how these disapproving voices are lost . While one half of the country is fascinated by the fair skin, the  other half is busy writing blogs how it is so wrong and immoral to be fascinated by fair skin even if it is bare and roaming in your backyard. The latter as I gather is called 'Feminism' in India.

PS- Photo Credit : Anjuna Beach, Ganuullu @flickr

Monday, August 04, 2008

Notes from India: Hampi

Ugra Narasimha:

I stepped out of the Virupaksha temple from beneath the long shadow of its colossal tower onto the main street. It was lined on its either sides by an arcade of shops. And immediately I was thronged by a dozen guides, who must have, all this time patiently waiting in the shadows of the side-shops while I was clicking the snaps of the main tower trying out different combination of filters.

The main Tower of Virupaksha Temple, Hampi.

They were of all ages - from a boy of sixteen to a man of about sixty, falling on one another in a semi-stampede, eager to tout themselves before the other. It was like being in an Indian rock concert. I couldn't make out a word, though I was sure it was English - a type of hip-hop Indian English where all the words ran as a song-train without any spaces in between. The sentences were typically, incomplete.

I replied loudly in Kannada, which seemed to settle all the confusion. A mild wave of disappointment passed over the faces of a few, who one by one, dropped out of the crowd. I haggled with the accoster who stood closest to me - He was a small built man with a balding head which, along with his deep eyes made him look wiser. He wore a faded striped shirt and a beige trouser. He looked weak but he kept endlessly enlisting in a rapid spray of words the names of all the local attractions -- presumably to mean that he covered them all. And finally, to keep up his advantage over others he started flashing an old, half torn, and what imaginably was once an ID badge, while shouting into my face - 'apprrroved gaid',' apprrroveddd gaidd'.

A sepia burnt photograph on the badge showed a more cheerful younger face, the head was as bald as now. I don't remember the name but the year was a distinct scribble of a cheap pen- 1983. He confirmed this, in a rather proud tone, that he had experience over twenty years.

We settled for Rs. 200.

He led me, over the steep Hemakuta Hill through the pediment where the Jain temples and other mandapams looked abandoned, burning helplessly under the pitiless summer sun. Through our climb, he often spoke in bursts of paragraphs which were monotonous and incredibly quick for me to follow. And whenever he spoke, as if he couldn't help, he was throwing the name of Abdul Razzaq almost after every other line. Abdul Razzaq said this, Abdul Razzaq wrote that etc. I suppose he wanted to be heard as quoting Abdul Razzaq. But in his enthusiasm, he sounded as if he had appropriated Abdul Razzaq. Obviously he was trying to impress.
I gauged him cautiously; a cursory probing into some of the details perplexed him, which he shrouded in another incoherent ramble. For all the twenty odd years of being a guide here, he gave me an impression that he did not know any other traveler to Vijayanagar other than Abdul Razzaq. It seemed he hadn't heard of Nuniz. And when I mentioned his name, he nodded rather disinterestedly. But Abdul Razzaq was his favourite. May be just because the name was easy for him to repeat.

His, like thousand others Indians of his generation was an unexamined life. A life, that had to perhaps struggle so much for a living during a miserable time of the nation that all his vast experience had been given no chance to be accounted for , either by opinion or judgment. All he had learnt was to smile often.

I just followed him.

By the time we coursed our way through the gigantic boulders that hung precariously, and climbed onto the Huge Ganesh temple, I had realized that I could not expect to learn much from him about Vijayanagar than what I had already known. In a sense, I suppose he realized this too. But he was polite and well mannered. That was more than enough for me. So, I asked him to just show me around and help me with the directions. To my surprise he understood.

Down the hill we walked on the road that cut through vast hillocks of dust beaten rocks. And rocks. And more rocks. Never in my life, had I seen so many rocks in one place. It was, so unique. Rocks- they glistened in grim quietitude under the sun. Often, they were interrupted by scattered ruins: a half fallen dome, a suggestion of a rampart, a possible wall, a colonnade hiding in an ongoing excavation, a few disabled pillars, a temple long desecrated - from whose interior I heard the unmistakable Mancunian accent. Silently, we walked in the middle of a million structures. Among all of them, as if it was only natural there existed not a single thing which had a sense of completeness.

Not a soul was visible in any direction; an odd cow that had wandered into the road from her herd or a lazy stray dog that made a brief appearance once in a while was all we saw. Otherwise we were as old and as forgotten as the history that surrounded us. It was midday and sun slowly sucked the life drop by drop.

But we walked on, a bit slowly now. As the boulders became smaller in size, the hill tapered down and eventually opened out as a vast land looking endlessly lush with shades of green fields and trees. And through all this the road carried on further, gently curving to the left. Into more history.

We turned right onto a small dusty bridle path and found ourselves suddenly surrounded by fruit orchards and banana plantations. Overlooking them few tall coconut trees shot out into the heaven. Few women, with their heads wrapped in cotton towels, were tending to the crops while a couple of goats cheerfully gamboled about in the corner. The air became pleasantly cooler and the earth smelt fresh; just as I had suspected a narrow canal ran beside carrying olive grey water that moved in silence. The land was being irrigated. We kept on walking.

By the time I asked the guide where we were headed, it was easy enough for him to just raise his arm with his finger pointing at an angle to announce in a quick breath, as if the word was made of just one syllable - Narasimha.

And before me, in this unseemly silent banana plantation with its cool air smelling of old cheddar, had suddenly appeared a gigantic idol of Ugra-Narasimha, the fourth Avatar of Lord Vishnu!

The image was a huge monolith of a chimera - Half man and Half lion, carved in gray washed beige stone squatted and staring over your head into a distance with a pair of ferocious eyes imaginable, mouth wide open in a mid roar. A multi-headed serpent roofed lazily. It was striking. I had seen the pictures of Narasimha before, but seeing in real was breath taking. Though all of hundreds of years old, except for a broken arm, and as I learnt later a small Lakshmi along the arm, the idol looked mighty and majestic.

Ugra Narasimha, at Hampi, India.

I was immediately reminded of Lion of Lucerne (Löwendenkmal) which I had visited the summer before. It was a mesmerizing monument in The city of Lucerne designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen, dedicated to the six hundred Swiss guards, who lost their lives guarding the Tuilleries and Versailles palaces and their royal inhabitants in Paris during the French revolution.

The story goes something like this: After Bastille was successfully stormed the mob headed to Versailles Palace where the King and the Queen were believed to be resident. The Palace was guarded by a thousand Swiss Guards hired by the King who did not trust his own army.

By the time the blood thirsty mob reached Versailles, the royal family had already received news of the fall of Bastille and had escaped via a secret tunnel. But the hapless Swiss Guards still under the impression of protecting the Royal family fought on a long brave battle, until finally around six hundred of them lay killed. Versailles was eventually taken and their lives went unaccounted- to no man, nation, wealth or idea. It lacked sense. It is such an irony to think of it now that the most neutral country in the world had lost six hundred of its very own men in perhaps the most mindless battle of all time. And to these six hundred brave men who laid their lives in Versailles on August 10th 1792 was dedicated the Lowendenkmal.

A huge lion carved in a niche before a pond is stabbed in the back and lies dying in dolour and deep anguish of betrayal amongst the broken sovereigns and symbols of the French royalty. The Latin reads as dedicated to the loyalty and courage of Swiss.

The Lion of Lucerne, Lowendenkmal, Lucerne Switzerland.

Back to Hampi: The story of Ugranarasimha, another lion in a sense, is more enthralling. Narasimha was the fourth incarnation of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu who chose this unique avatar to kill the evil Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu was one of the powerful demons (asuras) wanting to avenge his brother who had also been killed by Vishnu. He had subjected himself to great penance and had gained enviable powers and favours of many gods. But his son Prahlada was a devout follower of Vishnu. This naturally upset him, and he started harassing his son. But Prahlada was firm in his devotion. He refused to accept that his father was greater than Lord Vishnu.

In one such argument, when Prahlada had claimed that Vishnu was omnipresent, Hiranykashipu had scoffed at the idea and challenged Vishnu to present himself before him if he really was present in one of the random pillars of the Palace. It is said that Vishnu, all furious at the mockery emerged from the very pillar in the great Ugra-Narasimha Avatar. Ugra means furious. And after a long battle killed Hiranyakashipu at the doorway of the palace by disemboweling him with his bare hands.

But the interesting bit is the mode of killing- which abided to all the boons Hiranyakashipu possessed - he was killed by a chimera- not entirely human, neither god, demigod nor animal. He was killed in the hour of twilight between day and night when neither sun nor the moon could be seen, and on a threshold using claws which is neither human nor inanimate. He died on the lap of Narasimha between earth and heaven.

Mark Twain it is quoted had remarked that Lion of the Lucerne was the most moving piece of stone he had ever seen. I know Twain passed through Northern India but not sure if he visited Hampi. I wondered what he would have thought if he had seen the Ugranarasimha?

Somewhere between my thoughts the guide mentioned something about vandalism and the gated enclosure protecting the idol, but I did not register much. I stood in silence unable to take my eyes off this magnificent piece of stone that had been vested with form and myth for eternity such that in spite of all the desecration, and all the negligence that extended for centuries, the idol continued to - mutely, gracefully exude great power. You see, the stone in Lucerne had become a lion, but this stone here at Hampi had become Lion and a Liongod. In world we live, there isn’t anything more, any stone can ever become.

Hindus, it is said abandon their idols if it is desecrated. They hold that, once violated the sanctity of the idols cannot be restored. So the great Liongod wasn’t being worshipped or offered prayers. I do not know if this could be called praying but I stood there before this forsaken Lord in silence, in awe, in unbelievable sense of calm with my hands clasping each other and head bowed. I do not know what it was; it just seemed like the natural thing to do.

We stepped back onto the road; the sky hovered like a huge ivory gossamer with patterns of cirrus clouds being weaved at a distant height. We sat under the shade of a nearby Jacaranda tree and ordered coconut water from the vendor beside, who as we drank, argued for about ten minutes with another customer over the quality of his coconuts.