Friday, August 17, 2012

Geetha Chandran's interpretation of Kasturba

I've just returned from a very lovely dance performance at the JNU Convention Centre sponsored by Indian Council of Philosophical Research, focussing on  the life work of Kasturba. There was pin drop silence and a standing ovation for Geetha Chandran after the show. Her performance was slow and meditative, a lovely courageous act, supportive of khadi and village life from one of India's best known artists. The designer, Sandhya Raman had created three simple costumes for her: the first in brilliant merged hues of magenta and other vibrant colours, the second costume was of white and a deep dark green, ofset with indigo, and a third was pure white, with careful edging of handcrafted lace. The simplicity of the costumes offset the meditative aspect of Chandran's perfomance which was meditative and instinctive. Many months of research led to the choreography of this dance drama called GandhiRama. An upright charpai was sufficient cover for Chandran to change her costumes deftly, as the poor often do in their villages and shanties. The feminist courage of artists is distilled by a certain notion of honour and chastity, which by itself is disturbing in its profound ability to communicate that a society ridden by Draupadian  or Seethain politics of obedience, honour and servitude is problematised by its very re-telling in new ways.
By using the context of women's daily chores such as cleaning, cooking, nurturing, feeding and weaving, Chandran moves it to the political ambit of dalit politics, by thematically spinning the narrative of sound, dance and music to the event of manual scavenging: a deft space where sorrow, victory and the impaling of human consciousness all combine. Postmodernity allows that moment of merging when time and narrative are merged in the same moment, where fusion is a syllable comprehensible across ages, whether it is a cry of pain, a political uproar, or a prayer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Liberation Day 2012

Sixty five years of Independence is a long time, and our celebration
is about the survival of the concept of citizenship and freedom. When
freedom came to us, the subcontinent was ravaged by blood and tears,
to the extent that no one spoke about the horrors of partition for
atleast thirty years in personal contexts, because they wanted to
forget. One of my neighbours in Lawrence Road, New Delhi, where we
lived in the early 1980s, was an old woman who said she had lost her
husband for several years, he went missing, and then one day he turned
up. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's biography where she and her
husband who had been sent to different concentration camps, suddenly
found each other, as they turned a corner in an unknown city, where
they had been dislodged for a while from their respective groups.
So Freedom is a miracle, and every year, we know it will drizzle when
the flag goes up and the rose petals fall, and the Prime Minister
makes his speech. Since he is from the days of partition, his speech is
written in Urdu, because when he turns the pages he goes
from the back to the front, and the calligraphy is clearly visible. How interesting that our lives
are meshed in this multilingualism and this diversity of language and
faith and experience, including the freedom not to believe  in the
divine, should that be one's inclination.
What is truly interesting, for me, is that the people's will survives,
inspite of hunger and poverty and mismanagement. The middle class
knows that it acts as a buffer group between the rich and the poor,
either through imitation of the upper class and it's tastes, or by
philanthropic concerns, which may also draw from ideological
preoccupations which are typically the site of freedom."What the
People Want" maybe at both ends of the spectrum, the right to buy
bling and shop in the malls for synthetics or sequins, or the right to
speak on behalf of the poor. To me, it seems interesting that when the
Prime Minister speaks of the resilience of the Indian economy he
speaks of the investments of the people, and this is not conspicuous
consumption, it is post office and SBI savings, as the socialists have
long shown to be the reason for India's economic resilience.. Inspite
of terrible circumstances of work and life, the people still believe
that they can hope for the future, plan for a wedding, a feast, an
education, or old age security. And the middle class ofcourse has
bought into stocks and shares right across the board, so that the
investments of the capitalists are really the investments of the
salaried and professional classes.
However, Utsa Patnaik, in her book, "The Republic of Hunger" has said,
very emphatically, that the low income of workers, is a repudiation of
the right of people to eat the food that they are used to eating. This
is the real crux of the matter, that the minimum wage and the Rs 28 or
Rs 20 indicator is the bases by which the poor are forced to eat less,
and their body weight is then an index of how much degradation
follows, from the acceptance of this minimum as a socially acceptable
index by the rest of society. This is thus an ideology, where the
hunger of the worker is seen to be an average index of the ability to
offer his or her labour power, for a minimum wage: the right to
survive and to reproduce as it's basic motif. Unless there is a call
to commonsense, rather than falling back on oligarchic indexes of
efficiency in theory, Indians cannot look at their common human
condition as anything but pitiful. This demands that bonus production
by farmers is matched by transparent processes of securing food for
the people. Gandhi's idea of daridra narayan is one of the most humane
of ideas. Let the Indians look to their poorest to know if their
survival predicts our future as a democracy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"For Whom the Bell Tolls"

Simone De Beauvoir, Nelson Algren and Ernest Hemingway

Algren appears in Simone De Beauvoir’s “Force of Circumstance” as the hero of low life. It’s not surprising that Algren’s preoccupation with reading Chicago was so structured around the hobos, pimps, drug addicts, prostitutes. The Chicago School was well entrenched around the study of urbanism, where it was believed by Robert Park and his followers that the city was the ecological zone of everyday survival, and the physical circumstance of location would help us understand the mental life of the inhabitants.
Simone De Beavoir writes of Algren with love and longing. He had been her friend and lover, but she was unable to break from Sartre, and Algren saw no future in their friendship. She writes on pg 262, of her memoir published by Penguin as “The Force of Circumstance,that “Algren was going to remarry his ex-wife. As  I walked along the beach during the last days of October, between the dunes dusted with gold and the changing blue of the water, I thought to myself that I would never see him again, nor the house nor the lake, nor the sand being pecked at by the little white waders; and I didn’t know which I would miss most: a man, a landscape, or myself. We both wanted to keep our goodbyes to a minimum…..Atlast I said that I had a very nice time there and that at least we still had a real friendship for each other. “It’s not friendship,” he replied brutally. “I can never offer you less than love.”
Algren had written a letter to her, where he said, “One can still have the same feelings for someone, and still not allow them to rule and disturb one’s life. To love a woman who does not belong to you, who puts other things and other people before you, without there ever being any question of your taking first place, is something that just isn’t acceptable. I don’t regret a single one of the moments we have had together. But now I want a different kind of life, with a woman and a house of my own…The disappointment I felt three years ago, when I began to realize that your life belonged to Paris and to Sartre, is an old one now, and it’s become blunted by time. What I’ve tried to do since is to take my life back from you. My life means a lot to me, I don’t like its belonging to someone so far off, someone I see only a few weeks every year…."
In Notes from a Sea Diary:Hemingway all the Way, Algren shows us his real and only great love was perhaps Hemingway. Published in 1959, it received rave reviews. Algren  was after all a prize literary figure in the 1950s.What Algren does is describe the life of the harbours replete with stories of alcoholism and prostitution, fights and tedium. He researches the class and family backgrounds of the prostitutes of Bombay and of Calcutta, one of whom he almost falls in love with, and meanders through the unlikely routes of sea smuggling and landings and corruption and colonialism  along with some hard hitting prose focussing on critics of Hemingway. Algren’s greatest love was Hemingway, and his greatest hate was jargon. Attacking a critic, he wrote in this slender book, “Jargon, therefore, is the corruption of prose deriving from the writer’s own corruption.” Further on he writes,
“Ernest Hemingway’s need was not to write declarative sentences with a beautiful absence of subordinate clauses. It was not to meet celebrities: he was on speaking terms with Georges Clemenceau, Benito Mussolini and Mustapha Kemal before he had heard of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. He was one of the most highly paid correspondents in Europe. Therefore the man had at his disposal a lifetime of meeting celebrities while living comfortably with his wife and children in the capitals of the world; enjoying that degree of fame a foreign correspondent earns….Hemingway didn’t care for it either way. He was a soldier whose life had been broken in two. He didn’t come to the Moveable Feast as to a picnic begun in Kansas City now being continued in the Bois De Boulogne. He had seen the faces of calm daylight looking ashen as faces in a bombardment…”
The point of writing and reading and critiquing, Algren seemed to believe was the immediate enjoyment of life and it’s recording, not the successes or failure, not being finally remembered or  even read or not!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Down with DOW

This is an excerpt from my book which is in press. It's called Selected Essays, for want of a better title.

Delhi Diatribe:The Diorama of The Bhopal Union Carbide Victims

My former colleague at Hindu College, Suroopa Mukherjea,  (an “obsessive activist, with a one point programme” on behalf of gas victims) asked me to sit with the Bhopal gas victims for a day. I went to Jantar Mantar on a cloudy warm summer day, and sat on a dhurrie for a couple of hours with some of the fifty persons who have walked from Bhopal.  On 12 June 2008, it had been five months since they came to our glittering city of malls and luxury hotels. Their life, unlike the facade of the multinational hotel or business house, reveals everything on the kerbside. These are the citizens of a free country. They believe that the state will hear them. Half a dozen children play, no food is being cooked, old people lie in the glare of a Delhi summer. The clouds are transitory.
“When one has no one, then one has God” one woman told another. They walked for six days to get to Delhi. People on the way, in villages and towns and woods, asked them about their plight. They fed them, and helped them. On Parliament Street, in Delhi, outside the dusty shamiana which has housed them for these four months, fast cars speed by. I read  Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Transformation of Nature in Art as I wait for them to get used to me, as I use the time to observe them, while simultaneously preparing for this semester’s classes in my University. The book is about the coalescence of art and life, it is lessons from Chinese and Indian texts to show how art and life are merging constantly. And suddenly in a lightening moment,  I realize these “victims” are in control. They are indeed citizens, with their shabby banners, and their survival instinct, fighting for the pittance which was allocated to them, but never fully given; these workers, clerks, labourers, children, housewives and seamstresses are saying that an accident is an act of negligence, an accident is a crime, an accident must not be condoned for reasons of convenience and statecraft. Neglect is a crime, and ignorance is no excuse.
This is an important lesson for us, because if once condoned, it can be made to happen again, and then there will be more victims.   After about two hours, a man comes and sits down with the agitators, ten of whom are on hunger strike. He is from Indore, and he says that the gas affected them too in their town, so he can imagine how bad it was for those who were in the direct path. Again the stories are recounted, the cases so similar, the cough, the  sealed eyes, and  the lungs which dismembered. “So you have become good at nethagiri (politics)?” he laughingly says to one of the women. “How? When my brother died, and I can no longer see him, and if he were alive, I would see him everyday!”
These people, who wait for justice, can’t understand why anyone would want to keep their money from them, unless it is to accrue interest on the sum for themselves. Well, we are the state, and we are implicated. They received two hundred rupees for the first month, two hundred rupees the next month, and then eleven thousand rupees and then nothing after that. So where is the remaining money?  The survivors say, as they come back after bathing in the favara or fountain, that their lives have been reduced to waiting. Everyday goes by, in making of the pavement, the diaroma of the dysfunctional state. And we watch, knowing that it must not happen again.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


My first memories of using a pen are from when I was about ten years old. We shifted from pencils to pens in class 5. Geometry was called space-work, and trignometry was unknown. The pens were ink pens, and ball point pens were frowned upon, they were messy and spoiled writing. The ink pens were called pilot pens, and we felt very important using them When they dropped on the ground, their nibs broke and then with ten paise you bought a new one. Everything was replaced, and the new nib, like, the ink filler rubber tube was a mystery. A broken nib could however give you a fashionably thick writing, which was somehow very aristocratic, and not against the rules. It looked like the quills that my sister and I wrote with when we were in my father's village Niranam.   You could pick a rooster's feather, or a hen feather and write with it, making as much mess as you wished, since it was the summer holidays and people left you free to roam and idle. Even if there was holiday homework, no one was supervising it. Since I  had a problem with numbers, I was the only one set to the table by my father's brother, and I had to slog away endlessly memorising tables which did not stick in my head for more then five minutes, and then they were gone. The family was quite perplexed by my inability to count. However, I survived the exclamations.
A pen was something everyone coveted. It was like being grown up and self assured, like wearing chiffon and pearls, which none of us grew up to do. We were born to cotton, and stuck to wearing cotton all our lives. The moment synthetic touched our skins, we would break out in rashes. Niranam had it's own silk cotton trees, and the cotton would fly around, but before that, my grand mother would have harvested it to make new pillows. They were amazingly light. Now when I shop for quilts and pillows I have to settle for  some ghastly polyester. I sleep well enough though on them, so clearly all of us are implicated in the death of the cotton farmers from debt.

Tiger lilies

There is something statutory about spider lilies in University gardens. When it rains, they all come out, like grandiose spider armies, their pollen dust very flagrant, their leaves huge and glossy, their white petals very austere and transparent and completely beguiling. When I was small, about five years old, we had rows of these lilies in our garden in Jamia, and I was a little scared of them. There was something extraterrestrial about them, reminding me of the spiders of which I was so frightened of. But they stood there, asking to be admired. Now in JNU, I find them in all the gardens, even in my own. My gardener came and planted them without my permission, and I watched aghast as he dug them into the soil in the summer, and now, hey presto, it's raining and the flowers have all bloomed. The candy striped lilies which I truly love with their spice fragrance have bloomed too, and I am waiting for the yellow crocus.

I associate my childhood with these ordinary flowers. a lot of my posts will be about my father, for the plain reason that I spent huge amounts of time with him. He was an excellent gardener, and excelled in growing things which are easy to grow, like jasmines, and wild Indian rose  - the desi gulab as it is popularly called. And ofcourse there were guava trees, we woke up on hot summer mornings with the delicate fragrance of the guava flower over our heads. Our charpais would be pushed out of sight from  the garden, bedding rolled and put away, and the table fan disconnected, baths had. breakfasts swallowed with hot tea, and tomato sandwhiches hastily packed for school, and we would be at the bus-stop ready for school. This was circa 1968. Just like charpais which were reknit (because they sagged),every summer by wandering artisans, new mosquito nets would be got from  Chandni Chowk.
Even today, when I wake up every morning and step out into the garden, it is so amazingly cool. And that's how summer mornings in Delhi always were. In the evening, when we went to sleep the stars would be plastered across the sky, there would be dust storms occasionally which forced us to roll our bedding and run inside the house, and in the morning, there would be the constant presence of Venus before the sun rose.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Table

This morning as I was putting away things, I saw the table, with its round top, cleaved in between where the carpenter had wedged two planks of wood. I remember it being fixed when I was three years old. It was my height, about 1 and a half feet, and it had a small round wooden base to keep the day's newspapers in. I remember the carpenter saying that it was uneven, and asking for a piece of metal. So my  father went to the kitchen, and got an old Farex tin (from which the servant girl must have  mixed some milk  for me,  when I was younger) and the carpenter got a metal cutter and made an oval shape, which he hammered the tin into the table leg. That metal piece is still there. What is memory, but an odd and fleeting thing? I hadn't thought about that table for decades, though it's always been there, like the old sofa and two chairs we still use in our house as drawing room furniture. There is a cupboard too,  which is five feet, the height my father was. It's hardy, and it has a mirror that allows you to look into it, if you bend a bit. The cupboard was a gift to my parents when they got married from their closest friends in 1951, and the chairs were bought by them from a Sardar carpenter who had migrated to Delhi from Punjab. When I was small  I would sleep on the sofa, and if that was taken by my sister, I would join the two chairs and sleep on it.  I still sleep on the sofa some afternoons.  Obviously I dont fit but have to extend my legs, but I sleep soundly for the ten or fifteen minutes after lunch, which is so therapeutic to the writer. Partition furniture had its stereotype appearance: I have seen the same sofa set in my former colleague Amrit Srinivasan's house, and her parents were wealthy people, my parents were not. So there must have been quality wood work which was available on the streets as much as in the shops. I have seen the same cupboard in the second hand wooden shops in Lajpat Nagar. I was tempted to buy it, for no other reason then that it matched the cupboard at home, which was my father's, but I didn't because the less furniture there is the better. I get quite startled by the new furniture one sees around, but then, that's my middle class utilitarian background.

October 2011: field work trip

I stayed with a wealthy clock merchant's family for a few days, not very far from Allapuzha. It was hidden away from the main roads and tourist tracks, and it was my first time as guest in a Nair household. I heard a very interesting story which he told me several times as a Malayali's response to the world he lives in. He told me this story  because he knew I was a sociologist of religion, and assertive to the questions that Comparitive Religion raises for us. In the '90s of the last century, he had a dream. The Devi, known in Kerala as Bhagyavati, appeared to him. She told him that he should go to Chenganoor, and he should pay for the feast there at the temple. He went there and spoke to various people including government officers. It turned out that the temple feast was a relic from the time of the colonial resident Lord Munro. Munro's wife had non-stop menstrual flow after he had scoffed at the local belief that Chenganoor was where Parvati's yoni had fallen. After a few days, Munro had turned up at the temple, frightened and regretful and offered a donation for public feasting. It was this particular feast, the responsibility for which my Nair host had been asked by the Goddess to take over. He saw this as the break from colonialism and it's institutions, and the sponsorship of temple feasts as now a prerogative of citizens and merchants. He himself lived an immensely frugal life, as befits a man who saw reading the Bhagavatam for seven hours a day as his vocation. He liked his fast car, and his expensive watch, but other than that his simplicity could be likened to that of a mendicant seer.
This meeting point between tradition and modernity is the most interesting vantage point for us as Sociologists. In an earlier visit in 2009, Molly, my cousin's wife took me to Paramala on her little scooter. Paramala Tirumeni is one of the most saintly of the Orthodox priests. We ride for 40 kms to and fro. She is a nervous rider, taking me to the church as a promise to prayer she had made, and my frequent requests to her, whenever I visited Pennikara a neighbouring village. Every time she sees a truck she stops the scooter and pedals with her feet. "Yeshue! Yeshue! I can hear her praying desperately. She is terrified of the traffic, and keeps referring to me as the load. It's the first time she is driving on the main road with a load.

We pass the most beautiful country road. Chenganoor is Gulf country diaspora inhabited - fields are few and the tiled bungalows of the rich are many. The flowers are of the most brilliant hues, reds, oranges, purples. I have never seen flowers of such colors, ordinary flowers like hibiscus and 4 o'clock flowers which have grown to larger than life proportions. An old man who looks like Peter the Apostle walks gravely along the road: he looks like he is a pilgrim. Molly says he was a cripple on all four who can now walk. How does she know? I do not ask. Parimalla Tirumeni, sweetest of bishops to the Syrians, is known to do miracles for those who believe in them. The Syrians are called Syrian because they follow the  liturgy which came to them by the visits of bishops and priests from the Middle East.
We reach the church. I look for old buildings. There are none. I am aghast. Where's the old church? This is the Church. Molly likes its largeness, its blazoning quality. It is huge. It is white. It is MAMMOTH. Inside the stained glass is of modern art. A fish. In blues and greens. It has three sets of altars. Its airy, sunny, empty, open. A few dozen people are sitting on the benches, or talking to priests, or praying. After a while I too began to enjoy and accept the modern-ness of it. There is an ancient lamp in the middle of the hall which is like an amphitheatre, its ceiling impossibly high. And a ceremonially garbed priest is baptising a baby at one of the altars.

We step outside into the bright sunshine. There is a memorial to the man who had donated land to the seminary in the early 20th century. And then Molly shows me what I had come all the way to see. It is the tiny house in which Parimala Tirumeni had lived. It is so tiny. It's now a chapel. Its the size of a 12 feet by 10 feet room, and though it is a tiled room, it has the sense of austerity and bareness - the ideal of a simple soul.

Molly waits outside for me, increasingly impatient. She is a farmer's wife, in reality, a lady farmer. All she has on her mind is something else that needs to be done. I absorb Parimala's holy gentleness, it's there in the room. I hear him in my mind saying, "We have to adapt to changing times." (I hear voices and luckily no one has thought of sending me to a shrink.) I come out, and we go back to the church to re-enter the room where the cot he slept on (again very small cot, but bishoply in its cast of wood.) People are praying fervently against its glass case.

When we leave, Molly runs into a cousin. He is the local pharmacist. He teases her for not visiting them. She is his mother's brother's daughter. So we do go there.... Molly turns off into a country road, and then we stop at a country house. Nobody opens the door. We have to wait ten minutes till the sound of bathing and splashing water abates. Atlast the door opens. It's her cousin's wife. She is freshly bathed,  and in the ubiquitous nightie which is another legacy from colonialism (the 'gown' as it is popularly called) with her hair tied in a cloth. She welcomes us and takes us immediately to the living room, where an old lady sits absorbed in her prayer books. There is something warm and clever and sturdy about her, but she is shivering, as she is freshly bathed too. Her scanty black and pepper hair fans her shoulders on a damp cotton cloth. She is wearing the traditional white shirt and fantailed white sarong of the Syrians. She is delighted to see us. She leaps up to greet us. I heard that she was ill, paralysed - but no, this woman is full of a bountiful spirit for she walks for two kilometres every day to the church.

"How many children do you have?"
"Three, and my eldest is 25"
"And fifty two years old! You don't look it. A comfortable life keeps away wrinkles!"
We eat delicious pulum cake with our tea. The Syrian Christians keep plum cake for their visitors all year around.
Then we drive 25 kilometres back home, through bright sunny cheerful villages, rain drops gleaming on irridiscent flower petals, birds singing, butterflies pelting through the sky like flower petals. Chenganoor is busy crammed with vehicles. An out- of- work fisherman, (for all the rivers are being sand mined and dying,) sells carnations, roses, jasmines at a traffic crossing.