Monday, September 11, 2017

From 'Metro' my new novella


Chapter 2, excerpt from ‘Metro’ by Susan Visvanathan, a novella
The waterlilies spun out in incandescent pink. In the middle of the water, was a tree, grown by the gift of winds and winged seeds. Somewhere, bees buzzed, tiny, brown, ephemeral. The honey from Neem trees was mildly tinged with bitterness, too subtle for the ordinary palate, which preferred the adulteration by cane sugar, the honey clotting at the dregs. People came from all over the state to buy sarees, gold,  and to eat in restaurants. No one knew the price of things, they just paid whatever was asked.

When it got too hot in that seaside town they pushed off to the hills, faster than the traffic could carry them, taking lesser known routes, past exquisite churches all dressed up like white icing cakes. There was only the semblance of normalcy, for hunger ruled the land. The world was diminished by war, and more so by fear, for even where there was no disaster, people feared for their lives. Every morning was spent reading newspapers where obituaries ruled the moment. The stories of past lives were more interesting than the stories of every day rapes and death. Obituaries told the story of people who lived normal lives, where there was no terrible occurrence of violence. These were people one probably knew, who lived in the next village, or a nearby town. Marriages and deaths had a statistical regularity to them, for people lived in anticipation of one, and fear of the other. Young people found one another through the investigations of their elders. Beauty was not a criterion, it was whether one could cook or take care of old people that decided the day for the  shy bride. It was the old world, caught between the eyelids.
Stella turned around in the wheel chair. It was another red hued day, with lightening flashes coming through the cardboard sky. The cracks which had formed were simply frightening, the thunder seemed ever louder. She knew that she would be here when the sky rent open, and they were vaulted into an open realm of stars, sun and nowhere to go. She shut her eyes and returned to the safe world of the past, which was indecipherable to those who had not lived in that familiar world. The past, so irredeemable, so ever present, so filled with latent desires before aluminium took over the world, and iron was constantly distilled for newer varieties of steel. No plants could grow in such an environment, and the desert approached ever closer, as did the captive hills, pushed by the energy of it’s galactic past to crush the present in its  imminent lava flows and gravitational pull to the surface. The sky always red and dusty, was shut out by the blue painted canvas, which mimicked the skies in digital reconstructions of how the sky should be, with its fleeting clouds which when counted, could tell that time was passing, for the wind blew them here and there. The artist knew how to manoevre the clouds, create shapes, filter light. It was like being eternally in a planetarium, where the cloth sky absorbed the infinite beauty of the night, and when the lights came on, why, we were back in the auditorium of our very own earth.

The waters spilled around the outskirts of our city. They had become dank and very dreary. Every year, men and women in masks went out, and cleared the sewage with machines that droned for atleast a week. The water was distilled in larger tanks, and piped out. We never knew if there would be enough retrieved to last us for a year. But magically, the machines pumped out that clear fluid so essential for us even though we were now in the last phase of survival before leaving planet earth. How many of us would leave, no one knew.
Stella thought of the time when she had first come to the city, full of hope. The earth had crashed around them, and each of them believed that death was better than living in the ruins of what was once their great city. Yet, day by day, they found that the will to live was greater than their sorrow. They had picked themselves up from the rubble, and moved toward what the politicians said were their new homes, prefabricated aluminium sheds which had been put up overnight. Here, there was no sound other than that of people weeping, reciting litanies of their lost loves, and then the sudden sterotorus sound of someone breathing heavily in their sodden sleep.
Where was Anjali? The girl had become lazy, and was never to be found. The wheel chair had a back, hard and resolute, which jabbed her spine. So, she sat a little away from it, leaning forward. The loneliness of being old was not the problem, that she had managed several decades ago. The music that played in her ears constantly from the little box in her pocket was the best invention of the previous century. Time was ephemeral,  it fleeted past. But the seconds pounded in her ears, as she thought about space travel, which the morning circulars had stated to be the next step in their sojourn on planet earth. They would have to leave soon. The question was who would be chosen, and who left out?
Stella asked this question of Anjali very often, who would desultorily turn her head away, not getting involved in the very real fear that Stella always communicated. How did it matter to her, whether the old woman went to Mars or not? Such a stupid question! She noticed as she looked out of the sparkling glass windows that the Administrators had simulated rain again. Clearly the sparkling bejeweled window glass was a gift from the lewd microbe replete troughs running outside the metro.  The used condoms, the disgusting trophies of late night copulation and the indestructible plastic that was thrown by young mothers who had not found a way to potty train their children had been digested by the incinerators.  The water returned to them, clean, flawless, with a lucidity that was no longer grey and worn out, but fresh, smelling of lavender. Everything was ofcourse chemically produced, but the effect was the same as if it was natural. As for drinking water, they had stopped accessing it from taps, or asking for it. It came to them piped every day, just as the food did.

Stella thought again of the days in Paris, when she had lost her memory, and was frightened that the State would notice. She had become frail, wind wafted, perfumed, bejeweled, not knowing where she was going, or how she would return. The days had been listless, watching the skies turn their incredible colours, as if congealed in the palette of the sky. She would lower the blinds, sleep till late in the morning, and then start again to wander the streets that her feet knew so well, she did not need memory, names, landscape, maps. Twenty years later, in another continent, with the tarpaulin sheds painted over the crumbling surface they knew to be ruined buildings of another century, long gone, she realized that life was only breath, breathing.
It was as if memory was a shard, sharp and double ended. At one level, she responded to the impulse to remember, and in remembering, live again in an opulence of a world which once she had known so well. The earth was tender and brought to her more gifts than she could have wanted. It gave her fruit and flowers, and the gentle gaze of animals, almost doe like in their captivity. Here, too, had been their protected canvas of the familiar, no one stepping out of their bourgeoisie tableaus. When the earth had rent apart, first by war, and then by convulsions unbeknown to them, they had realized that they were human, subject to geological change, galactic time. The newspapers reported the finding of new universe of stars and planets.  With that, hearts calmed down, they returned to the chores so familiar to them, waiting for the seasons to change, and the fruits and flowers that beckoned them from the gaily blazoning shops with their lights and perfumes. They were happy to have more days at hand, and then when the darkness fell on them, their own sense of belonging was quite gone. Everything that was theirs, fell to another. In a commonality of loss, the powers that be became profoundly tyrannical, creating an artifice of light, sound, life. And things began to move again, simply at first, but with a growing complexity as the years went by. Fear was camaflouged, and civility reigned again.

Stella had chosen to leave Paris when the first tarpaulins came up above the great cities, and the sky had become punctured by air craft which had to leave from outside the known radius of the world as people knew it. They had to choose their destination, tunnel to airports which like filigree jewellery appeared outside the metropolis. And then in a matter of days, they would have assimilated in another part of the globe, a little frightened, but somehow sure that they had done the right thing, yes, moved towards their own survival.
If she had chosen New Delhi as the site of transitioning to  outer space it was because she had been familiar with it in her youth. The intellectual world of writers always served to protect the narcissus, and she had thought she would walk through familiar streets in the new world, where the sign boards had changed, and the old became abused by neglect. She had no fear in the beginning, since her memories of her work world were somehow quite intact. And people had taken to her immediately, providing her with facilities and home, papers and Internet. She had served them well once, and the records of her brilliance were sufficient for the new municipalities, charged with electronic devices, not to repel her, or exclude her. Or so she thought,  but then her foreignness was so palpable, her accent so pronounced, that she fell out of the web of belonging again, retreating into silence. The young girl she had adopted was the only one she now could turn to, but over the years, the sense of familiarity had reduced them to non presence, each busy with their thoughts, living life by the day.
How completely hopeful the girl had been when she had come to the house, and offered her services, in exchange for learning new languages, and the scientific aura which surrounded the old woman who expressed her innate ability to keep up with the alarming technological changes that most people found difficult to handle. Yet, unfortunately, the problem of memory had surfaced as the greatest deficit, and both Stella and Anjali started to feel they were sliding into a place of great danger. Stella managed to keep composed, putting her blue eyeshadow every morning on her heavy lids with a trembling hand. She felt that if she could communicate that dressing up was important, then the girl would make greater effort to dispense with the casualness of her own attire. Anjali was often dressed in crumpled pyjamas and her blouses though clean, were never distinguishable. She had none of the sophistication of the women Stella had been associated with, the pallor of her face showed that she had never had food which was nutritious. She was born in the days of piped food, and if she survived at all, it would be due to her will power and that of her boyfriend, who stayed listlessly with them, always poring over his work without looking up, or out at the cardboard sky. He had over the years, grown a little dense, his short frame picking up the carbohydrates in the food with ease, as he never stirred from his chair. However, the couple were happy, smiling at each other peacefully over their many chores. The government was now keen that people should inhabit the houses they stayed in as if indeed they were in outer space. The simulation of the circumstances of floating in a vacuum were being increasingly made available. For Stella, who was from an older generation, the act of looking out of the window was still replete with images she was comfortable with, familiar with. For Anjali and Ashter the inner spaces of their minds, without the vinyl of reproduced images was quite enough.
Stella could hear the drone of their conversations, sometimes there was muted laughing. They were always aware of her presence, and sometimes they would appear, looking innocent and yet guarded. Had she called, did she need something. Then, when she shook her head, a veiled look of relief crossed their faces, and they disappeared again, into that world of which she knew nothing.
The warmth of their personas was sufficient for her, they were alive, they were human, they lived in the adjacent room, making the house accessible to her wheel chair by their quick inventions, all plastic, but unimaginably brilliant. It had been a long time since she actually got out of it, her limbs had atrophied, but in a second, they were able to roll her out painlessly on to her bed every evening, and slide her into the chair in the morning. She had stopped thanking them, for they shrugged their shoulders placatingly, placing an affectionate hand on her shoulder when she did.
The world was not spinning anymore, gravity was congealed in the last echo of the wall that separated them from the universe. It was not clear when they had lost their axis, but just as they never enquired, so too, they never doubted. The radio told them that they were lost people, and that the will to survive must be their own. They listened, placating one another, as the days shredded into countless anonymity, each moment going unrecorded except for the cries of the cicadas, which had survived the catastrophe. It was not cockroaches that had survived, for they got eaten up during the last days of the war, when all else had been cooked.
Stella shuddered. She called out again for Angel and her companion. They seemed to be rising, she could hear the house come awake, with it’s several sounds. There was the beep of the alarm clock, the radio playing music, the buzzing of their conversation. She could hear the water being filled carefully, half a bucket each of lavender fragrant distilled water. Yes, she knew the sound so well, that she was comforted. She heard these every day. They would come soon, she knew that. She waited. The old world, the memories drew her back.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Thinking Like a Planet, published in the Financial Chronicle 5th September, 2017



There are several ways in which we know that a new evolutionary step in the recorded and fossilized histories of the planet,  is on the way. Sometimes, when the earth seems more prone to disaster, we watch horrified as cities crumble into running water, when earthquakes and wars coincide, when bombing destroys beautiful terrains, and leaves them looking like deserts, without people or oases. Theologically, and experientially speaking, people during these moments wait for the world to end. The mortuary rites of people dead in large numbers, during disasters, are often quite different from the ones that such victims would have had, if they had died in due course, of old age or lingering illnesses. The idea of  “mass deaths” then, is represented through the morgues, the recognition of amputated body parts, the state funeral in the case of heroes, or the recital of sacred verses for the lost body at sea.
 The statistics of suicide also go up, during this time, as people who feel they cannot withstand the pressure of the times, lose their life by irrevocable individual choice. The crushing of the peasantry in the 19th century in Europe, was reflected in the large number of suicides that occurred in every country.  Based on these statistics, Emile Durkheim provided a typology of four basic kinds of suicides, since the subject matter of Sociology had to be foregrounded as a discipline.  By reading the Suicide rates, he understood that  firstly, individuals could take their life if they were too integrated in the society, and felt that their  very lives were being demanded of them, by Society, resulting in altruistic suicide. Cultic suicides belonged to this set, as did heroism in the battlefield. Then there were egoistic suicides, where individuals did not feel integrated in the norms of the society, felt alienated, and sometimes, (as with intellectuals) saw themselves as being different from their fellow beings. Anomic suicides occur when the norms exist, but have no hold on the individuals who commit suicide because normlessness is rampant, because of social crises. And the fourth kind of suicide, fatalistic suicide, occurs because the individual has no solution, no possible avenue for survival. Clearly, typologies are used only for the purpose of bringing some clarity and order to reality, which is blurred, fleeting, constantly changing.
The loss  for the Nation, of S. Anita, the young woman from Tamil Nadu, (Indian Express 2nd September 2017) who committed suicide, because there was a huge gap between the  syllabi and training of  Dalit students from the State run schools, and   that provided to more privileged students from CBSE schools, while entering Medical Colleges,  show us how much pressure is put on young people. In this respect, their lives are ransomed to death, because they take on the burden of their community upon themselves, and draw attention to the state of educational hierarchies which are  so evident in India. Such young people believe that mobility is the avenue to freedom, and that with education they can hope to achieve a better life, while at the same time serving their community. How can we protect these young scholars? Privatisation of education is not the answer.
The idea of Human Rights is placed in a planetary circumference, and globalization is the way in which young people initially draw their vocabulary and their strength. They find, to their horror that the established system with its hierarchies is larger than their motivations, and the despair they feel is so total, they take their lives. Durkheim proposed the institutionalization of guilds (associations) as the best way by which this call to suicide, could be restrained. “Currents of Suicides” have also been seen  recently with regard to Blue Whale Challenge. Durkheim excluded the element of psychological  disorders, while explaining rates of suicide, and presented the concept of social causes, as the predominant aspect of analyzing suicides. One of the most important films made by a young  contemporary director, Abhay Kumar, is Placebo. Here, he shows how completely alienated medical students can feel in their work place, the hospital, and the sense of constant panic they experience, when the absorption of other people’s pain, leaves no time for understanding one’s own.

 The questions that Ram Rahim, trickster godman, (in jail, now, for rape of devotees,)  poses to society, is essentially the same, “what or who will integrate the declassed?” By providing a make-believe world, the opium of the masses, (as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx diagnosed it) he provided solace to those who whether rich or poor, were already in the clutches of misery, by drug abuse or by hunger. By manufacturing illusion, through film and  pseudo architecture, he wished these people to understand that the experienced world, through hallucination and emotional manipulation, was easier to follow than the real.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yoga and Meditation, published in the Journal of Yoga and Physiotherapy


Yoga and Meditation

These two, yoga and meditation, are indivisible, since even those who are secular, enter into deep states of reflection, while engaging in yoga. The day begins well when one is able to contemplate, and do one’s exercises simultaneously. The energy that is released is substantial, the mind is calm, one lets go of all the negativism that might have accumulated because of the disturbing events all of us are constantly exposed to. Best of all, the predatory instincts we have, as human beings, constantly engaged in competition with others, is muted.

Yoga helps to build up immunity, as our nervous systems are affected very badly by the noise pollution, the contaminated processed food that we all eat, and the way in which we live our lives, generally without stoppers. We move, as metropolitan citizens from one excitement to another, often stopping to  merely draw breath, before we begin another excruciatingly exhausting assignment. The carbon trail we leave behind is as reminiscent of our own absorption of it, as we stand next to aeroplane exhausts while disembarking, as frequently as we get stranded next to a spewing truck or bus or SUV in traffic jams, which last up to ten minutes at a time. How do we get rid of this carbon which accumulates in our blood, always making us yawn through the day, as we work endlessly. A good diet helps, and the free radicals are washed out by our drinking quantities of  water and eating well washed salads and fresh fruit.
Yoga makes us, through its initial emphases on breathing exercises, spill out the air which is locked in our lungs, and by concentrating on the breathing, as we pull air in and push it out, it clears our brain. The concentration that is evident, as we do pranayama is probably the first step to meditation, since our mind and body becomes integrated in this preliminary exercise.
The integration of body and mind, which yoga brings to us is it’s greatest benefit. As we proceed with the exercises that our guru teaches us, we find them appropriate to our age and physical condition. The guru selects exercises that are necessary for our well being. Even in a group setting, where there are people of different ages, it is the guru’s wisdom that allows us to participate in some, and not in others. If our age and physical circumstance does not permit us to do some exercises, we should not feel incompetent. I had an uncle  in Kerala, who did head stands at the age of 90, and he always did his yoga and meditation before leaving for a twelve hour day at his shop, where he had been a spice merchant since his early youth. So age, by itself is not a determinant, but for those of us, who suffer from multiple sclerosis, the paralysis maybe so subtle, that even the simplest of exercises, such as lifting one’s spine while lying on the floor, may take some time.

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological illness, which is neither genetic nor infectious. However, living in polluted cities, eating food which has been loaded with pesticides does affect one’s chances of developing it. The similarities with rheumatoid arthritis, and with diabetes is compelling. Many of the symptoms of MS, which is the slow or rapid loss of faculties, and the deadness of nerves in the brain and spine may result in blindness, loss of hearing and ofcourse, paralysis. MS patients live with the dread of these, waking up in the morning, finding an eye inflamed, or ears blocked, or a body part stiff, without apparent cause. Yoga and meditation calm the body, and the mind. Shava Asana, like Pranayama, are excellent for returning the body to its accustomed  tranquil space. For the galloping form of MS, where loss of limbs is immediate, meditation is calming, since the body accepts the context in which it has been placed. Most MS patients, whether it is the slow or rapid form of degradation, know that time is of the greatest essence, that what they have may well be taken away from them by the end of the day. They suffer exhaustion, which is almost continuous, and ofcourse, fear, despair, anxiety. Care givers find their lack of attention to every day tasks, or their hypersensitivity to these, annoying in turn. They also suffer from the need to be attended to immediately. Meditation helps in controlling this need to be understood and attended to, as often, caregivers are busy with other tasks.

Yoga builds up those muscles which are in danger of atrophy due to the lack of blood  circulation in such patients. Even flexing hands and feet, while in bed, or at the computer, can go a long way in releasing the blood, where it has jammed or coagulated. Many times, MS patients wake up, in the middle of the night, with some limb gone completely dead on them. Ayurvedic treatment is a great boon, and sometimes, the patient emerges completely free of pain for a couple of months. The food that helps MS patients most are fruit and salads,  cooking in sesame oil. Ofcourse staying clear of butter, meat, chocolates, cakes, pickles and oily food does help in slowing the onset of illness. Since heat is the catalyst, those foods which are heating, trigger off MS episodes, or aggravate existing conditions. The heat rash and the inflamed eye is the first symptom. If the patient reads the sign that the body is overheated, and attends to it, then the chances are that she or he will work to cooling the metabolism down. Some are allergic to dairy products, some to meat. Each patient has to find out which is the catalyst to the exacerbation of their condition. Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation and Diet are the most important in tailoring the palliative measures useful to controlling the disease, as it’s tumultuous appearance disturbs everyone equally, without being very visible. MS patients, before paralysis sets in, look like everyone else, but deep within they are trying very hard to lead normal lives, and they experience the world much more dramatically than others. Homeopathy has great remedial doses for each symptom, as it appears differentially for every patient. It is tailor made to the person according to the situation in which he or she finds himself or herself to be in, at any given time. The odd thing about MS is that every week, the patient finds a new body part is acting up, and standardized allopathic medicines like cortisone or interferon, are not equally available to all patients, and come with their own side effects, and are not custom made to the individual and unique nature of each afflicted person. Yoga, essentially, is a preventive system of therapy, which handles the pitta (heat) in the person’s metabolism with it’s ability to understand that our relationship to the cosmos is constantly being divined by our attitude to it.

Susan Visvanathan, Professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi 110067. Email: susanvisvanathan@gmail.com and susanvisvanathan@hotmail.com

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Memory, Time, History: Adi Shankara and Other Stories


Memory,Time, History:Reading Adi Shankara and Other Stories




Sociologists are essentially concerned with the construction of narratives, whether theoretical or empirical. This aspect of writing Sociology is dependent on both value neutrality as well as self aware subjectivities. Clearly, the idea of the charismatic hero evades statistical Sociology, primarily because the aspect is not of numbers and aggregates, the generalizing principle or the question of the average. In this context, it is interesting that fictional histories, whether hagiographies or genealogical charts are of immense interest to us. When the genealogies appropriate the cosmos or divinity, as often happens in caste histories, then the clan ancestor may very well be the sun or the moon. The truth value of these fictional histories are regarded not in terms of their approximation to reality, but they are sacred to people. The line between genealogies and sacred histories pertaining to legends and myths is not very clearly drawn.

When people say that they are the spiritual descendants or the biological descendants of some personality or the other, they are essentially communicating how important the legend is to them. Legends have a historical specificity, a rationale about time as approximate to ours, which then differentiates it from myths, where sacred histories and geographies are much more representational. The question of orality or literacy thus becomes even more specific, since these stories may be passed down by people through the use of hieroglyphics, writing, oral traditions in verse or song, or through painting and other art forms. History  thus takes many aspects in this reorientation to the popular. Local communities may say they emerged from a hole or a tree, but the real intent is to represent their identity in relation to a particular topography. Their maps of arrival may be known to them, or to specific individuals, or may have been forgotten Migration trails thus tell us about forms of co-habitation, as much as it does about symbols of familiarity with local dialects or languages, food, and the customs pertaining to the relations between men and women. Sociologists are familiar with the notion that every one came from  Africa, until such time as the latest researches show that Australia is where human beings made the dramatic evolutionary jump from being tailed and hairy to what we are now, metropolitan men or women.

The question of extinction is thus not just about art forms, but also about moral world views. Each society has its particular preoccupations about what is acceptable, and what is not, and the limits of the discourse are about rules, who fashions them, and why. If we do not follow the rules, then indeed we are ostracized. So, why does the accident of history turn up at odd intervals, and point out contexts of just such inertia, passivity,  possible dread, and the way in which rule breaking brings out a new framework within which the moral code is re-read? Does passivity bring about a certain reordering of the world because the individuals accept the rules without questioning them? Pilgrimage provides us a way of looking at both migration trails as well as an orientation to changes in world view. Historical conjunctions place us in the terrible circumstances of how these are formulated through the work of legends. Synthesis is both a map of the world as lived, and the unificatory principles of assimilation. The world view then represents itself through the questions of the significant other, who draws the myths and legends into a convergence that becomes acceptable to the masses. The process of this assimilation used to be by  fear of the sword, or in our terms, the fear of war and death, but it could also be by the domesticating spaces of love and words. Love in its myriad ways would present itself as if it were the conclusive argument on how people must follow the path. The debates around conversion centre around two aspects: statistical conversion which is about numbers, and may include the exchange of wealth or property, and individual conversion which is centrally about the transformation of the self. Adi Sankara, the novella, looks at all these aspects with the gaze that comes from a severely imposed detachment. The characters are impaled upon each other in terms of the terrifying possibilities that they represent. The mother may swallow the son, the crocodile and the snake may equally kill him. The teacher may protect him from fellow students, but solitude is a better companion. The loving companion is brushed away, and in homology two cohabiting lovers are separated. Negotiating the everydayness of divine absorption, Adi composes verses, where the distinctions between the Gods and Goddesses, and the humans is rendered osmotic, continually blurring, yet manifesting themselves when so desired. The line between dream, poetry and revelation is too fine to be visible. This constant stepping between the worlds is what Adi does in his philosophical work. He accepts the cosmos in its entirety, and the microscopic detail which he looks at the world around him becomes the essence of the fission and fusion that is anticipated as a philosophical process. The map of the world is in the body, the travels engage with the immediate sacralisation of the things around him, people and nature. But they remain things, because it is shunya that beckons most conclusively. What is mapped therefore is biography as journey, and the establishment of the maths (mutt or institution of religious learning and administration), which are then reintegrated into  sanatan dharma as points of significance. They too, as pilgrims, make the journey and see the world Adi saw, they too worship at the shrines where he made his presence known. The map of pilgrimage thus becomes the map of the self, and the possibility of death is never far away, as the ability to make these journeys is imposed on those who have the means to travel these vast distances, be they renouncers or householders. For those who cannot, the verses and the tantric images are sufficient to create the cosmos within the home.

The second novel Beyond the Ferry looks at the mundane aspects of existence, knowing very well that marriage can be the most dangerous of contracts. It uses the stereotype of a young woman married to an elderly man, then places the urbane manner in which exploitation regularly occurs within the household, and the possibilities of an illicit romance  upsetting the apple cart. The young man as intruder who sets to stalk the woman, disturbing her self imposed incarceration within the household, is a trope,  which novelists use often, probably because it exists in reality. The intruder is known in the protagonist’s youth, and while she hides her true feelings for him, which is fear and suspicion, the instinct to love is present as a memory that pervades her. The friend of a friend, he becomes in essence the one who carries the hidden language of adolescence, and mutual contempt turns to friendship. Here, too, the map is of the body, in its various aspects of recovering the self, the individuals never remain constant, there is a bleakness about the known world, and yet there are images of hope and possible recovery. The fact that Christians and Muslims may not marry is underlined by the fact that the childhood love that the protagonist seeks to forget is ever present. The young man’s  existence, within the boundaries of his own Christian community is underlined by a reflexive longing, and a practical denial. The novella questions what is love, and doubts it. However, the optimism which arrives from hope is a constant theme. It does not look towards revenge, but to redressal. It presumes that for the protagonists, the future looks towards the practical realities of their conditioning, to the questions woven by society for its own regeneration. Is there a gargantuan appetite that Society has for its rules, and do people conform to them? When they don’t, we have cause for a novella.
In this work too, I attempt to understand why the maps of our country are made flexible by cultural crossing over. Essentially, we are in the warped space of denying these, the questions of migration trails which are entered into by consent, and which lead to the further domestication of impulses and primordial loyalties to caste and clan. Do Muslims have a caste, and how do they overcome these principles of friendly contempt and familiarity, to enter into dialogue? Is the employee and employer status forged in terms of a pretence of fealty? Is hierarchy ever present in how these fealties become feral, or are in turn conceded to? What is the language of adaptation? The novelist asks these questions primarily because they are ever present. The consent to slavery has been a compulsory theme in my work, only because as a St Thomas Christian by birth, I carry the weight of my forbears, who were often referred to as Thamburan or Thamburatti, only because they owned land several generations ago. Their poverty in a rural landscape was profoundly disguised by their ancestral claim to two thousand years of hegemonic authority over local communities. In these clan biographies, it is necessary to communicate how well versed we are in scriptures, how loyal to the Church, how our adima or slaves, remained ever loyal to us, in ties of love and bondage. Further, we communicated in  lineage histories, that we did not need to engage into enquiries about our ancestors, as occasionally we would find biographies that contested the descent from Brahmin ancestors. Nelycinda reoriented the map to older histories, of both voyage and interculturality, asking serious questions about why voyages for trade or religion would affect the way in which people thought about the world in which they lived. They did not have to be charismatic, to be attributed a biography, fiction gave these probable histories, as Natalie Zemon Davis called it, a provenance of it own. Thus, the metalanguage of fiction provided us illustrations of the past and present as ever contiguous. We believe that they co-exist for that is the nature of the human mind. The abstract drawings of cave dwellers, and tribal communities in the post modern globalized world, seek to dwell in just this contemporaneity. Much of the early twentieth century fiction in Europe sought to draw on this primevalism, which they called "primitivism" to engage with the profundities of what  Claude Levi Strauss called the Unity of the Human Mind. In our search for this contiguity between ourselves and those who live in the Third World, a euphemism for the drudgery and dirt in which  eighty percent of our population continues to live, we chance upon extinction as the solution to their distress.  This enforced extinction is placed on the canvas of expectations of our 70 year old democracy as the "costs of development". Do Suleiman ( a former road worker) and Shazia ( a middle class trader’s daughter in a hypergamous marriage) share in the tribulations of being poor by choice, not destiny? When they jump the ship of their wealthy employers, one from the contract of marriage, the other from the contract of apprenticeship, do they consent to the irregularity of their decision, as they share a meal of sardines sitting on a stone bench at the railway station?
For these urbanites, the map of their city, Benaras, is fathomed only by the anchorage of known places, and the continuous congestion of the roads which they travel by autorickshaw, owned by the elderly trader, and driven by the young educated employee. The task of education is to provide survival skills, and to this generation, no obstacles are perceivable, as they proceed with the task of pushing forward. They have to survive, that is the minimum that is required of them as partners. Will their families of orientation receive them with affection and understanding? The novella works with the limited scope of leaving the future empty of intention. Are these people real, do they have a future…every audience of readers asks this question.
By engaging with the commonplace, I also deal with the problem of how Muslims in India define their world, while negotiating past the stereotype we find in North India, which is terrorist equal to Muslim. This is one of the most painful formulae that self conscious Indian Citizens, who may not describe themselves as Hindu Nationalists face. This denial of martiality, which is after all a cultural custom, among fundamentalist religious groups, regardless of their nomenclature is demeaning to the housewife, who is trying to get through the day with the minimum of conflict. Language becomes the space, where he or she defines the necessity of civility, while domestic abuse comes veiled in many aspects as affection and guile. Shazia’s name is changed to Tazia by her mother in law, and her persona changed from free spirit, rowdy and fun loving to the docile housewife, who secretly reads forbidden love stories. Feminism as deciphering the script of the legitimating aspect of docility as servility is the characteristic tool that I use. Killing the angel in the house, as Virginia Woolf described it, is only one way the novelist describes how literature uses the negative example, as a means by which the protagonist finds freedom. There is no angel, there is only competent housework done equally by men or women, and servitude is not an aspect of this grammar. How, then, to look at the trope of the dominating mother?
All three novels engage with this, dealing with the coinage of the suppression of sexuality, either Oedipal or factual. Where this sexuality is liberated, we find a woman like Shazia’s mother, who is indeed caught in her household duties, but prioritises her relationship to her husband, through the convenience of agreeing with him that the stability of the household depends on the marriage of their children.  The harm that she does to Shazia is not apparent to her, content in her own traditions and security, and their weekly conversations are a balm to the mother, because surely all must be well with the daughter even in another naad (country) if she is well fed and well clothed. The marriage of convenience then benefits the mother of Shazia because the reputation of a wealthy trader is bigger than the questions of his age and his preoccupations, which are aesthetic. Don’t ask too many questions, and cover up for seeming lacunae in the cat’s cradle is the general norm of the secure housewife.
The third novella The Palace Complex attends to the problem of pilgrimage as a site of constant hope, ending in an anticipated tragedy. The protagonists are caught both within the web of their own relationships, where war is the unseen bedfellow, and illness a constant companion. The map of the universe is defined in terms of how individuals know where they live, and where they come from, and how transitory is the passage as they make these crossings by sea and land, as they go from place to place. Kinsmen and women, soldiers, and families. all of them are scattered across a vast map. They live by their dreams and hopes, just as we do even today. They define the warped nature of their emotions in terms of their resistance to the stylized way in which others wish them to behave. The urbanite in medievalism is caught within a vast hinterland of social expectations, and the final resolution lies in their ability to mourn what they no longer have… the possibility of stability.

In History and Truth, (1965) Paul Ricoeur describes History as development, involving decisions, crises and growth. Thus, objectivity becomes an ethical premise. The Philosopher. according to Ricoeur, looks to the ‘advent of man’ in the flux of history. This preoccupation with biography is concerned also with events as they occur and the selection of these by the subjectivity of the historian in the writing of a narrative. There has to be a theoretical framework  which marks out the way in which the view of the world is defined, and how narrative composes it.The essential premise is, then, that of the same and the other: how can we describe the institutions of the past in terms of the present? The historian’s choice   implies looking for something. We must be motivated in looking for something, or we will find nothing. So, history is a kind of composition. Historians are looking for attitudes, human attitudes. Philosophers turn these attitudes into categories. This is the difference between event and advent. Ricoeur writes,

“Our initial dilemma between varying history and the idea of immutable truth henceforth takes on a more subtle form: a neutral sympathy becomes attached to history; engagement and the risk of being mistaken becomes associated with the search for truth.” ( Ricoeur 1965:30)

The contrast between the closure of history is the openness of being. Alongside, or rather mediating this, is the axes of communication. Communication is the structure of true knowledge. This praxis of knowledge is dialogic. All truth must enter into an inter subjective arena, there must be the communication of ideas and interests, and combat is essential in the explaining of oneself.
We must connect this to Max Weber, and the quest for the historical actor, where causality and consequence are integral to sociological explanation. What is the role of the catalyst? How do we understand charisma?  Can we locate our quest for sociological analyses in terms of that which cannot be analysed?

Ricoeur defines our problem set as Theology vs History and Eschatology vs Events.  Following the aspect of Tradition as 'Truth as an Agreement', he suggests that there has firstly to be an agreement of judgement as affirmation, or negation. Do we agree with Tradition? Is there a conclusive relationship between speech and reality? Is there an agreement among ourselves? There are, according to him, truths which are visible, truths which are about dispositions. Some truths appear inseparable from the process of verification, from possibilities of instrumentation, from the particular methodology of a given science. This is different from experimental truth, which includes the very basis of the anticipation of exclusion of all that which is known, and which springs from the conviction of community. The historical novel plays with these possibilities that these subjectivities, so strong, so palpable are ever present.
Ricoeur is interested in the triangular relationship that exists as a dialectic between perception, knowledge and action. The perceived, with its world horizon, encompasses knowledge and action as the vastest theatre of our existence. Laboratories, the applications of science to work, well being, and war, give a perceived presence to science, which is thus woven into our life and death. ( Ricoeur 1965:169) The botanic presence of death, or its entropic manifestation is now returned to us as the formulae of the industry of war and it’s constant manipulation of our psyche. We return to legends to fulfill our sense of prophecy as an integral part of tradition.
Ricoeur confirms in History and Truth (1965) that it is the dialectic that brings institutions into fruition. A value is recognised only by serving it. The universal is the historical. The statistical value of the universal is to be located. Art is also anchored in truth. Art must have coherence. It may not be imitative. It must communicate authenticity to the receiver, the complete presence in the mind of the receiver and creator which dominates and convinces. Yet, this truth of submission is also a truth of doubt and questioning.
The true artist, for Ricoeur, only experiences the motivation which is proper to his/her art and does not yield to any commands, exterior to his or her art. He/She does not popularize the Revolution or submit to the tyrant. Art does not plagiarise from a given social science, but draws from its sensitivity. It is a rupture. Others follow the artist, as he or she reveals, where the Scientist shrouds. By creating figures and myths, the artist interprets the world, and establishes a permanent ethical judgement on our existence, even if he/she does not moralise, and specially if he does not moralise. Poetry is a criticism of life. All the orders of truth are mutually contested and reinstated in an endless order ( Ricoeur 1965:174)
Raziaudding Aquil and Partha Chatterjee in History in the Vernacular (2008) collate the works of several authors, each contributing to our understanding of why the linear Collingwoodian notion of time and history are still evident in the teaching of syllabus, but why genealogies, family histories, biographies, and re-reading of charismatic heroes will embellish how we think of the past. Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subramanium argue for the presence of traditional texts called the niti texts. These are essentially directed to the lay reader so that he/she may know the customs and conventions, the political etiquette that are present in any place. It also presumes that people read the legends, or hear them, that they have access to a corpus of learning which are traditionally defined as essential for reading.
 The construction of historical narratives thus locates the way in which ideologies are represented as totalizing spaces. These provide legends and myths with ways by which their endorsement may be continuous as providing security to those who benefit from their claim to legitimation. The sensibilities of communities and individuals are honed by their absorption of these myths, the
call to power and the verification of allegiance is all something we are aware of. Can a poet write about Magadalene if he/she comes from another faith, can a novelist write about Adi Sankara, if not a Hindu? The legitimation of narrative as sacred history in Mircea Eliade’s sense of the term is something which we need to go back to. This double bind of being objective value neutral students of the Humanities or Social Sciences has become problematized by our manifest desire to vehemently espouse citizenship rights, or defend them for those who have no access to the signature so conclusively  representative of freedom. The right to selfhood is marked entirely by self consciousness that enables free thought, and free speech. Let us be clear that if this is denied to us, then there can be no literature.
This obligation to be free is typical of the 21st century. Atleast, one should have the self awareness that decries subjugation, or the varieties of colonialism that constantly reappear. Migration histories today define how the world is evolving, through war and deprivation. Fifty percent of migrations are  today sea based migrations, and they are of people fleeing from war. Migration for work, as was characterized by the 20th century is now replaced by terrible circumstances of defining what it means to be human in the most terrible terms. As Malthusianism represents itself, it calls upon humans to define on a day to day bases, how they will view the accidents of history. With global warming, the statistics of death through suicides or starvation are posed as the new symbols of extinction. We know that those who survive will do so because the rampant aspect of annihilation in rapid industrialization is technologically given. Food becomes the symbol of excess, but with it, the chemicals that accompany processing and preserving food are essentially visible. Each civilization attempts to understand seasons and compatible forms of occupation as given to it in terms of its familiarities with its  logic. With climate change, that vocabulary is destroyed. When should the farmer plant, when sow, when reap?
The novelist is essentially  concerned with how the world begins to change with each catastrophe, and offers new insights into how this world will be viewed. The different epochs of time give us a frame from which we can compare our different locations.
Adi understands the cold winters of the Himalayas as a time of both meditation as well as the utmost challenges placed upon his physicality. The anticipation of death is ever present, he fears only that the oscillation between the here and now, and the images of the past will reduce him to a corporeality which cannot be depended upon. The body is freed from these obligations, and the mendicant withdraws into himself, assured that he will be returned whole, or atleast in pristine condition to his waiting audience. Hundreds of years have passed since he walked from place to place, and yet, to those who follow his pilgrimage, the contexts of language and moral codes, stigmatization and exclusion, life and death, unassuaged longing and its converse, fruition and opportunities, are still immediately visible.








Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Invest in Children, published in the Financial Chronicle. August 16th 2017



Adityanath ruled Gorakhpur, like a robber baron, being voted into Parliament several times by his unruly mob of RSS platoons, recreating with ardor his sense of  male chauvinism. Gorakhpur is the site of a pristine temple, its white neat structure, nestling in a grove of trees. People come from all over UP to worship, and taxi drivers describe the kanphatta  (a sect of yogis) monk as having a large diamond in his ear.  The excessively large glittering diamond in his pierced ear says it all. The rural  lumpen proletariat is in awe of him. They describe him as having authority over scriptures, holding classes for them every day, and generally providing samosas and tea as part of their everyday sustenance as they work hard to fulfill the criteria of being foot soldiers for him. Gorakhpur represents Saivite splendor, martial Hinduism, in which the Gita printing press and the town itself become the manner in which a millennial old renunciant  tradition of gathering itself into  continual martiality is represented.
Gorakhpur has fields  which are rich with rice and sugarcane, the markets brim over with vegetables, and the people are representative of Indian villages, where subsistence farming allows them to survive. However, education and health benefits are what the State provides, and  given a  routine lack of attention to them, the hospital tragedy where infants died of encephalitis is seen as a “normal” aspect of life in the monsoon. BEMARU states represent that borders are infact osmotic, and the people catch overcrowded trains to various parts or Bihar, Maharashta, Rajasthan and Uttara Pradesh, to become a floating population of labourers who provide India with it’s resilient work force. Nepal lies very close, and the king of Nepal often visited Gorakhpur in the past. Cows and bulls eating plastic in  filthy garbage dumps is a very typical scene in Gorakhpur.

Kushinagar, fifty three kms from Gorakhpur, is in the excellent hands of the Patna Archaeological Circle. The immense statue of the Buddha in eternal sleep  (parinirvana)is the site that pilgrims from Japan, Sri Lanka and Thailand visit. Guest houses have been built for them, as they are well paying tourists, who have come to see the gilded Buddha who sleeps in the company of mourners, most of whom are Dalits from the town, simple people, without mobiles or movie cameras. The Gupta rulers left us a monumental legacy in this small hinterland town, companion to the larger untidy, crowded, eternally noisy Gorakhpur. Here, there is a silence, large empty roads, and beautiful lawns aound the memorial to Buddha’s cremation. Kushinagar is emblazoned by Maurya stone and brick work, the austere compounds and relics sufficient to remind us of the Buddha’s constant presence in architecture that commemorates his life and teaching. The anguish of the Dalits as they mourn his death is so palpable in Kushinagar, because  local legend has it that he shared their food, and died because what they ate was habitually rotten stale food. If there is an intensity of suffering it is there, in the room, where the  immense image of the  dying Buddha lies in deep sleep, coated in gold  metal.

Mediating these two towns, Gorakhpur and Kushinagar, are woods, where Buddhiyama  holds sway over pilgrims. They believe in her ability to save them from drowning by water. She is as integral to our understanding of small towns as the legends which inform them are matters of everyday practice. In these towns with agrarian hinterlands, and many stagnant pools, children often drown to death. Buddhiyama  is not a footnote to Saivite authority, she is the divinity that protects the householder. In the woods, in a temple built to her, she is visited and beseeched to. She provides the fulfillment that householders seek in the virtue of their ordinary lives. She does drown some, though, according to legends and fear compounds pilgrimage. The Gods do as they will, and human beings respond, sometimes by fearing them, and sometimes forgetting them.
The poor who visit Buddhi Ma bring their families to this site so that they may eat and drink festival foods, buy clothes and toys, have their hands henna patterned, balloons and amulets purchased. Since Indians believe in karma, it’s a little frightening, when we see politicians behave as they do, uncaring of the  poor and the disabled. It’s essential that we return to the secular frame of our constitution and demand human rights as the basic platform for our negotiations across party lines, or religious faiths. We must invest in our children the right to freedom of expression, and the possibilities of religious variation. Masculinist theologies, whether secular or religious tend to see power and domination as the curricula of post modernity. But it is the hidden away, the unspoken, the secreted, that appears as a contrast.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Rumour, Gossip, Death published in the Financial Chronice on 10th August 2017


Certain parts of  India are  occasionally subject to the circulation of rumours. These are often vindictive and violent, resulting in death or mutilation. Either through the use of emotional manipulation or extreme forms of aggression, a vulnerable group is targeted. These may be the elderly, women, uneducated, young people, the extremely poor, or the wealthy.

Quite often, the cry of witchcraft as an accusation accompanies the rumours. Where women are widowed, or in their later years, powerful because they own property, or control their sons, in economic decisions, they become targeted. The accusation of  that they bring bad luck is often made, and such women are turned out of their homes. In a mimicry of feudal situations, where ever tradition has begun to hold a very strong claim to legitimacy, men and women are drawn into a strange and surreal space, often not of their own making, where mutual violence finds release.
 Women, too, co-operate in the Malthusian aim of bringing down their own numbers, because breeding of girl children is thought to bring hunger, poverty and shame to the family. The girl child whether in Tamil Nadu or in Haryana is thought to be an aspect of excess, so she maybe killed in the womb, or as soon as she is born, or given less food, or opportunities for education if the parents see her birth as a curse. These relic customs are a sign of demographic responses to situations of hunger and deprivation. When huge numbers of girl children had been killed off in  the womb, in Haryana and Punjab, manifesting the lust for male offspring, the brides had to be imported from Bihar  and Bengal in the 70s, and from Kerala in the early decades of the 21st century. Superstition, fanned by watching tv, and media hype, continues to hold sway in these regions.

The circulation of rumour about the cutting of hair of women in Delhi (zee news 3rd August 2017) has had such an impact that an old woman of sixty years got killed because her accidental entry into someone else’s house had the young men suspicious that she was there to cut off the tresses of someone in their household. Nobody knows where these events are orchestrated from, and by whom.
Old women being targeted is a sure sign that someone in the society sees them as useless eaters. In fascism, the need to constantly assert oneself as being within the group of the efficient and the  functionally useful if not notable is  seen to be necessary. The army of men and women who offer themselves as soldiers of the state demanding purity of blood, and tradition as their legitimating talisman become absorbed in  activities rousing needless violence that gives them a sense of euphoria and power. Enclaves of violence begin to knit together to give the appearance that it is the moral right of this self proclaimed army to kick its opponents, or those they do not think fit to live. Such people do not have a theology specifically, they use a representative text to claim that jihad is righteous, or Manu’s teachings are legal. In the modern nation state, which operates with a historical mandate towards citizenship, the abuses of justice by the valorization of traditional laws became more than visible. The political endorsement  of murder and rape, and lynching of those whom communalists consider to be different is terrifying. The threats and rumours that they pass around become even more ugly when they say that they are in power, it is their party, it is their state, and what they say goes.

 The greed for money acts as a catalyst to define how people will behave towards one another in this cleavage of social worlds. There are laws which define in tradition how each category should behave or should be treated. The absorption in  ritual and to priestly access has made many  lower caste communities side with the upper caste fundamentalist groups. The actual caste lines and norms do not change, as marriage, food sharing and occupation are still defined by traditional rules. As lower castes become more wealthy and powerful, it is possible that they will dominate the political sphere. Sanjay Subramanium, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman have shown us in Symbols of Substance  (1992) that the reign of the Nayaka kings in early medievalism extending right upto  the coming of European colonialists, provided for the rapture of theatre, poetry, food, grand ceremonies and other  forms of conspicuous consumption. Tradition then provides a royal panapoly of excess as power is incubated through success at war.  Nayaka rule in medievalism is the test case that upper castes had to bow down to the lower castes, if the latter were kings. although Shudra.


Monday, July 3, 2017

published as Ideologies are Myopic by Financial Chronicle on June 26th, Delhi


Secularism, Socialism and Social Good
While multinationals have stabilised in India, and recruitment portals are replete with the statistics of employment, we have to look at the various spaces people occupy mentally, while serving the nation.
Ideologies tincture our worlds. We presume that right wing ideologies are totalitarian, but then, so were left wing ones. And those who were fence sitters, representing the right to remain neutral, were generally vacuous. When India won it’s Freedom, from the British, the Gandhi Nehru leadership had it’s moments of extreme tension, since mutual dialogue was not always possible. Industrialisation and Nehru’s “new temples of India”, have always communicated  that the Nation knows best. As a result rural people are always buttressed between the world they have known, and the rights to tradition, which they hold so sacred, and the sensibilities of the elite, who mark them as backward, ignorant and superstitious. Worse, they often play on these sentiments in a bid to bring them to their side of the fence.
A former Naxal  from St Stephen’s College, once said that they had to leave the villages because the villagers could no longer feed them.  The daughter of a famous  BJP politician said that actually they were like everyone else, but for reasons of political gain, they played the Hindutva card. “Like everyone else” in the late seventies, when the Jan Sangh flags were beginning to flutter in places like Ashram and Lajpat Nagar, in New Delhi, meant “modern, anglophile and looking towards America as the site of popular cultural consumption.”
It is not surprising,  then, that forms of socialisation make us perceive agriculture as something that industrialisation should promote, trampling the interests of the farmer with small holdings, underground. That two and half acres is the national average for producing bumber crops is something Indians should be  proud of. However,  that industrial elites look to colonising everything is a self evident fact. The joint stock companies, sociologists argued in the  1960s, created a buffer between bourgeoisie and proletariat. That was when the factory was the mode of organising, and joint investments integrated a rising middle class into the profits to be made by investing in companies. Today, however, as the Sociologist Daniel Bell foresaw, it is the laboratory that predominates, and since secrecy and surveillance are its bywords, the oligarchy of scientists excludes the common masses from decision making, and ‘fear and trembling’ are the natural consequences.
Socialism, co-operatives, unions all become redundant in these new economies. Political organisation in these new States disclose that federation is irrelevant when it comes to the colonisation of rivers, mountains, fertile lands, deserts, even the sea. The commons are considered to be the right of exploitation by contract to private parties, for enhancement of industrial goals. Tribals and peasants are rendered even more marginal. Craft communities are deprived of their natural skills, as their poverty forces them into manual labour for construction.  Since they are dehumanised, they are merely paid minimum wages and left to their skills as a lumpen proletariat to survive in the midst of real problems such as infant mortality, maternal mortality, and decrepitude in old age. Caste comes in as a useful explanation for their condition, as everything is blamed on their previous life. Consensus about religious participation between upper castes and lower castes leads to euphoric states during ritual events. Merchants and workers combine to engage in participation where the presence of Gods and Goddesses further elaborates this forced servitude upon the  lower castes. The depletion in the numbers of the  working class members enrolled in Unions is only too apparent.
Socialism by itself, without it’s self regulating mechanisms leads to tremendous inefficiency. The   industrial barons, as debtors to Nationalised Banks, clearly represent the way in which the bourgeoisie are able to thwart the codes of modern banking and send the entire nation into paroxysms as we saw in the winter of 2016. Earlier recessions had not disturbed the Indian economy because of the resilience of post box economies which nestled in the Post Office, and ofcourse keeping money under the bed, and in cupboard by housewives who always managed to stow away savings for a rainy day.  The mountains of cash which surfaced are still to be recycled, after being shredded, to make notebooks for government school children.
The second example of Socialism without legitimation is ofcourse Air India.There is a category known as tickets for LTC, which charges more than the sum routinely charged by Airlines companies for air tickets, by several thousands. If the government employees do not book through a company called Laurie and Balmer (some relic mnemonic from the past) the tickets are not refunded by the government. So this is a form of corruption, as the government siphons money from one account to uphold another.