Leading Ordinary Lives / Kunwar Narayan

Kunwar Narayan
(Translation mine)

I know
I can’t change the world,
Or win a fight against it.

It’s possible that I
Become a martyr fighting
And beyond that earn a martyr’s
Tomb or an artist’s fame…

But being a martyr
Is a different game altogether

There are people who despite
Leading entirely ordinary lives
Have been known to become
Martyrs, quietly.

मामूली ज़िन्दगी जीते हुए / कुंवर नारायण

जानता हूँ कि मैं
दुनिया को बदल नहीं सकता,
न लड़ कर
उससे जीत ही सकता हूँ

हाँ लड़ते-लड़ते शहीद हो सकता हूँ
और उससे आगे
एक शहीद का मकबरा
या एक अदाकार की तरह मशहूर…

लेकिन शहीद होना
एक बिलकुल फ़र्क तरह का मामला है

बिलकुल मामूली ज़िन्दगी जीते हुए भी
लोग चुपचाप शहीद होते देखे गए हैं

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A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.

The Wolf’s Eyes are Red/Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena

(Tr. mine)

The wolf’s eyes are red.
Glare at him
Until your eyes
Turn red, too.
What other choice do you have
When it’s in front of you?

भेड़िए की आंखें सुर्ख हैं / सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना

भेड़िए की आंखें सुर्ख हैं।
उसे तबतक घूरो
जब तक तुम्हारी आंखें
सुर्ख न हो जाएं।
और तुम कर भी क्या सकते हो
जब वह तुम्हारे सामने हो?

The Crop by Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Even if I were to
hold the pen
like a plow,
a spade
or a trowel,
I wouldn’t be able to
harvest the crop.

I can only prepare the soil.
A few rare ones will sow the seeds of revolution
and nourish my toil,
carrying my journey forward.

Tomorrow, when I’m no longer there,
the crop will grow and flourish,
ripple in the breeze.
It will touch the feet
of those who planted the seeds
The ones who harvest it will sow more seeds
I shall only sleep buried in the earth underneath.

फसल / सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना

हल की तरह
कुदाल की तरह
या खुरपी की तरह
पकड़ भी लूँ कलम तो
फिर भी फसल काटने
मिलेगी नहीं हम को ।

हम तो ज़मीन ही तैयार कर पायेंगे
क्रांतिबीज बोने कुछ बिरले ही आयेंगे
हरा-भरा वही करेंगें मेरे श्रम को
सिलसिला मिलेगा आगे मेरे क्रम को ।

कल जो भी फसल उगेगी, लहलहाएगी
मेरे ना रहने पर भी
हवा से इठलाएगी
तब मेरी आत्मा सुनहरी धूप बन बरसेगी
जिन्होने बीज बोए थे
उन्हीं के चरण परसेगी
काटेंगे उसे जो फिर वो ही उसे बोएंगे
हम तो कहीं धरती के नीचे दबे सोयेंगे ।

Book review: The Historian’s Daughter by Rashida Murphy

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

Patch of sky for hopes to fly

First published in DNA.

While in middle school, my brother and I would often press our grandmother to tell us a story. Not any story, but a particular one from One Thousand and One Nights. I don’t remember the details, except it was about a clever royal minister. But it wasn’t really the content that pulled us back to this tale; it was the way our grandma narrated it — modulating her voice, colouring the details with her facial expressions. This is the essence of oral storytelling — the capturing and relaying of characters, places, scenes through the unique lens and voice of each individual storyteller. Given how difficult it is to transfer the drama and verve of the spoken tradition to print, the authors of Speak Bird, Speak Again— a collection of Palestinian folktales — have done a worthy job of conveying that flavour.

In the late 1970s, two Palestinian scholars, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, set out to collect Arab folktales from Galilee, Gaza and the West Bank. Their search resulted in the book comprising 45 such tales. The storytellers were mostly women. “The most common setting for taletelling was the small family gathering, consisting of two or three mothers from a single extended family and their children…” The stories were usually told after supper during long winter evenings when field work was at its minimum and folks liked to huddle indoors. To make the story — usually fantastical — more accessible, the teller would often compare characters from a story to someone in the neigbhourhood.

The community, then, is the natural pivot around which these entertaining stories turn, and sometimes twist. Of course, imaginary flourish abounds in the tales, but never without the context of one’s immediate bearings. And cultural parallels with our own South Asian community life are striking. There are wedding processions in which the couple’s relatives and friends dress in finery and sing and dance in the street. There is even the practice of a girl choosing her mate by throwing an apple or handkerchief over his head that is derived from the Indian tradition of swayamvara.

Neighbours know each other for generations and come together to celebrate and grieve as well as to borrow and lend items of utility for hosting guests. “Because they were inviting the vizier, they borrowed a mattress from one neighbour, a cushion from another, and plates and cutlery from others.” Sounds similar to our neighbour lady knocking on our door when she ran out of sugar or me knocking on hers to borrow some ice, for we had no fridge.

Food, of course, is at the centre of this hospitality. Cabbage rolls stuffed with minced lamb, ghee, rice and spices; the simple fare of leavened bread, yogurt, olives and fresh vegetables; Palestine’s national dish, za’tar — a condiment made by grinding together herbs, roasted wheat and garbanzo beans; or the poor farmer’s lentil soup add as much zest to the region’s folktales as they did to its primarily agrarian society. In the story, Sahin — a vizier’s clever daughter — steals food — roasted rabbits, partridges, gazelles — prepared by a young man from right under his nose to share with her girlfriends day after day, leaving his hardworking brothers to manage their supper cooked with leftover ingredients.

That the creators of these tales weren’t shy of introducing atypical female characters have made the stories lively and real. Despite the region’s deeply-entrenched patriarchal system, we meet the clever daughter of the vizier in Sahin and in Soqak Boqak, a king’s wife who mounts a horse as she goes in search of a bride who fits her son’s choice and description. There are angelic women — indulgent mothers and motherly sisters, loving wives and affectionate daughters — and there are regular, everyday women — possessive mothers and jealous sisters, selfish wives and cunning daughters.

“Now, the daughter of the minister was something of a devil. She asked her father, if anyone should come asking for her hand, not to give his consent before letting her know.” [Sahin]

In these stories from Palestine, the clever and the beautiful, the devilish and the pitiable merrily join the supernatural — jinns, ghouls, and residents of the netherworld. The resulting whirl sweeps the listener/reader to a realm suspended between what is and what-you-wish-could or would-not, be. Seemingly magical, which by implication is unreal, this dimension subtly shines a light on the underdog and even breaks stereotypes. Half-a-halfling, the crippled son of a king, despite being ridiculed and humiliated all his life, comes out a winner in the end because of his intelligence and compassion. And ghouls and ghoules, who appear (and disappear) constantly, aren’t always ghoulish in their deportment — depending on how one treats them, they can be benevolent or beastly.

In The Green Bird, my favourite story of the collection and the one from which the book derives its title, the love of a sister for her brother is amplified by the poignancy of the brother’s death at the hands of their stepmother and the sister burying his bones, which help him turn into a bird who reveals to the world the stepmother’s atrocities and delivers justice in the end.

Everyday occurrences in the world we inhabit are sometimes more bizarre than what a fabulist can ever spin into a story, and the implicit allegory of these Palestinian folktales can’t be overlooked. In a recent episode of container politics, the leader of a political party in Pakistan and his followers protested against the current regime from a “container” — a luxury bomb and bullet-proof truck furnished with beds, washrooms and air-conditioners.

When I read a report about the container being fired upon, I recalled a scene from Half-a-Halfling. In the scene, the crippled young hero is on a mission to defeat a ghoule. Given how greedy the latter is, he approaches her with a huge box filled with halvah. She asks him the price of the dessert and keeps buying and eating it, unable to satiate her appetite. That’s when Half-a-Halfling suggests she get inside the box so she could have the whole container to herself. The ghoule’s greed precludes her from understanding the risk associated with this, and she jumps inside the box. As she busies herself with devouring the rest of the halvah, Half-a-Halfling brings her to his village and tells the villagers to alight the box. Greed, thus, costs the ghoule her life.

Screens and gizmos of varied shapes and colours have now replaced the playground in many developed and developing countries. Folktales and their telling might appear obsolete. Or maybe not. A friend told me how, on a recent trip to Latin America, her five-year-old daughter was shocked to discover that a girl younger than her had no playroom with toys stacked up to the ceiling. “That’s all they have,” my friend told her when they visited the other girl’s jammed-but-toy-less two-room house, packing eight family members.

For many Palestinian children, a proper house — even a crammed two-room one — could be a luxury. Listening to stories — with fantastical twists and happy culminations — might be the only sky on which their hopes can fly.

Image source: Wiki

Flickering embers in verse: Of venereal sores and poems that kill: The fiery legacy of Namdeo Dhasal and Amiri Baraka

First published in DNA

 

By delving into the poetic oeuvres of Namdeo Dhasal and Amiri Baraka, two towering voices representing the marginal, one comes closer, in a somewhat unsettling way to the lives of the oppressed and the outrage such an existence can cause. With both poets, the blaze of words often leaps off the printed page to singe the reader — with guilt, violence and even catharsis. The similarity doesn’t end there.

Dhasal, the Marathi “underground” poet and Baraka, the Black Arts revolutionary poet, playwright, music historian, find much of their literary ammunition in the life and surroundings in which they are rooted. Poetry for them isn’t about romanticising in tranquillity. Nor is it separate from activism.

“…we want ‘poems that kill’./ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/ Guns.” — Black Art, Amiri Baraka

Dhasal echoes this idea of poetry being a weapon of protest, without caring much for labels such as political or social poetry. . “…As long as there remain contradictions and conflicts between individual and collective life that affect my feelings, my poetry will be about them,” he says. This rootedness, a sense of where they come from is the constant even as the two men evolve in or deviate from their affiliation to different ideologies over the course of their lives.

In Pur-Kanersar, the village where Dhasal was born and spent part of his childhood, even water — elementally unrestricted — had been divided. The up-river portion of a small river that ran through the village was the exclusive reserve of the privileged castes while the village’s oppressed untouchables were allowed to draw water from only the down-river part.

“Upstream, the water is all for you to take/ Downstream, the water is for us to get/ Bravo! Bravo! How even water is taught the caste system.” — Water, Namdeo Dhasal.

Though separated in age by more than a decade and born in different countries, both Dhasal and Baraka represent larger traditions within their own milieus — traditions of oppressed and dehumanized peoples. Their dissent is not theirs alone — it is a pastiche, if a dissonant one — of the anguished cries, pent up for centuries, within millions belonging to their tribes.

This irrepressible need to break the silence and galvanize the voices of the silenced led these two iconic men to establish socio-political platforms. Disillusioned with the existing framework of racial discourse in America, Baraka became a founding member of the Black Arts Movement, which would lead to many an African-American artist gaining traction in that country’s literary thoroughfare.

“We are beautiful people/ With African imaginations/ full of masks and dances and swelling chants/ with African eyes, and noses, and arms/ tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place/ full of winters, when what we want is sun.” — Ka’Ba, Amiri Baraka

Dhasal’s watershed moment would arrive in 1972. That year Golpitha, his first collection of poems, broke new ground in Marathi poetry, by smashing linguistic and idiomatic barriers, written in, what Dilip Chitre, Dhasal’s long-time translator and friend calls, “an idiolect fashioned in the streets of the red light district of central Mumbai, and from the Mahar dialect…his (Dhasal’s) native tongue.” In the same year, Dhasal also founded Dalit Panther, an organization on the lines of America’s Black Panther, to politically unite Dalits.

The poems in Golpitha sear with rage against suppression on the one hand and the helplessness of those on the receiving end of such systemic oppression on the other. In a tone mnemonic of Baraka’s outburst in Black Art, Dhasal unleashes his furore on the page in Man, You Should Explode.

“F**k the mothers of moneylenders and the stinking rich/ Cut the throat of your own kith and kin by conning them; poison them, jinx them”

Using ostensibly brazen and often crude language, the long poem lambasts symbols of effete aesthetics cherished by the privileged castes and calls for a complete breakdown of existing civil and social norms and structures. All this upheaval isn’t without hope though — in the form of the resulting implosion.

“After this all those who survive should stop robbing anyone or making others their slaves/ After this they should stop calling one another names — white or black, brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya or shudra;… One should regard the sky as one’s grandpa, the earth as one’s grandma/ And coddled by them everybody should bask in mutual love.” — Man, You Should Explode, Namdeo Dhasal

Both Dhasal and Baraka are credited with developing new lexicons geared towards and representing their particular audiences. They both played a seminal role in redrafting the manifesto of their respective agendas — equality for Dalits and that for Blacks.

“If you ever find/ yourself, some where/ lost and surrounded/ by enemies/ who won’t let you/ speak in your own language/ who destroy your statues/ & instruments, who ban/ your omm bomm ba boom/ then you are in trouble/ deep trouble/ they ban your/ own boom ba boom/ you in deep deep/ trouble/ humph!” — Wise I, Amiri Baraka.

Indeed Baraka and Dhasal have both been pioneers in carving out a space for literature from the margins. However, they too had other influential figures to guide them in their quest. If for Baraka it was Malcolm X, whose assassination triggered the Black Arts Movement, for Dhasal, the overarching impact of Dr BR. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit and a champion of equality, is a constant. Time and again, Dhasal invokes Ambedkar in his poems, lamenting how much of what the visionary statesman dreamed still remains unfulfilled.

“You are that Sun, our only charioteer,/ Who descends into us from a vision of sovereign victory, / And accompanies us in fields, in crowds, in processions, and in struggles;/ And saves us from being exploited.” — Ode to Dr Ambedkar, Namdeo Dhasal

Rooted yet restless, armed with deep convictions yet manifesting puzzling contradictions, these two poets of protest have come under criticism for their debatable ideological stances from time to time. Baraka’s pronounced homophobic and anti-Zionist utterances have unsettled readers and critics as much as Dhasal’s support for Indira Gandhi, the Shiv Sena and even the RSS shocked his friends and admirers.

For all the controversy both these poets courted, the depth of their words — smouldering embers in verse — makes them not only significant but indispensable chroniclers of the history, trauma and defiance of the repressed. Even if that entails disturbing refined sensibilities.

“I am a venereal sore in the private parts of language.” — Cruelty, Namdeo Dhasal

“My color/ is not theirs. Lighter, white man/ talk. They shy away. My own/ dead souls, my, so called/ people. Africa/ is a foreign place. You are/ as any other sad man here/ american.” — Notes For a Speech, Amiri Baraka