By Abhinav Kumar

 

4. Caption - Lothal city (left) and dockyard
Lothal city(Left) and dockyard

Everyone has a place they return to time and again or a thing they simply can’t resist while on vacation. Think beloved mountains or beaches, spas, street food, an 18-hole course or bungee jumping, et cetera. For me, it’s World Heritage Sites*: majestic reminders of a glorious, often mysterious past, scattered all over the globe, to be guided through, explored solo, photographed and cherished.

My search for such sites led me to Lothal — an enigmatic lost port-city, one of the central characters in the mysterious drama of the subcontinent’s origins. Part of a national obsession – the Indus Valley Civilisation: perpetually hiding in plain sight, its broken cities scattered across the north and west. Its script continues undeciphered, its story always tantalisingly beyond reach — confined, until that moment, within the yellowing pages of my schoolboy history books, with their prim descriptions of planned cities, streets meeting at right angles, baked bricks and standardised weights.

At a distance of just 80km from my hotel, Lothal was perfect. Lying forgotten in its ruinous state, Lothal was perfect.

***

Gujarat’s well-laid roads zipped past as we hurtled towards our destination. Bountiful rains this year, the driver Ratan informed me curtly, as we passed soaked paddy fields that glittered in the morning sun. Unprecedented. Looking out at the gentle, jovial cumulus clouds that glided past, I prayed that they withhold their yield until at least that evening.

By Gargi Vachaknavi

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

― George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

 

Doublespeak in Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), was a way in which an oppressive regime brainwashed its common population. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), people were fed ‘soma’ and taught rhymes in praise of the intoxicant so that they would live in a state of morbid obedience. In both the books, rebellion or democratic principles were non-existent. The contexts in these novels were based on world orders around the two world wars and while much is being quoted from Hitler’s and Himmler’s regime to create parallels, the fact that we are witnessing the triumph of democracy gets lost in the goriness of the events.

‘Hum Dekhenge’ has been at the fringes of a controversy with a panel condemning the non-Hindu status of the poem. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written this poem against the Zia regime in 1970s to inspire people to look forward to better days – a secular attempt to energise people weighed down by the burdens of tyranny. Intolerance for another world view seems to stare us in the face and generate endless violence and bloodshed. This situation brings to mind a story written by Satyajit Ray which won him national and international acclaim in 1980 — a dystopic story but with a positive end — a story that earned kudos as a film called Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King). It is a sequel to the 1969 production of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — another one of Ray’s highly regarded and awarded masterpieces.

IMG_3194
A DVD cover of Hirak Rajar Deshe

Hirak Rajar Deshe depicts a totalitarian regime by the Hirak Raja or the Diamond King who brainwashes people with the help of a machine called ‘jantarmantar’ and a weird scientist who feeds rhymes into it, rhymes like these, which could be perhaps seen as eternal because they seem to be playing out the current reality with all the attacks on universities and their inmates —

Lekha pora kore jei, onahare more shei

(Those who study, die of starvation)

 

Janaar kono shesh nai, janaar cheshta britha tai

(There’s no end to learning, so to try to learn is pointless)

By A. Jessie Michael

Of all the major festivals in the world, none I think is more universally celebrated than Christmas. There is something in the air in December that reaches far and wide.

When I arrived in China in 2012 to teach, I found a dismal artificial, Christmas tree with tangled streamers, in my classroom, in March of all months! The students who had put it up had no notion of the origins or the meaning of Christmas (or any other religious festival) except that it was universally fashionable to celebrate this thing called Christmas, in December, with a tree. It did not occur to them that it should have been taken down in January. It was in Florida and Australia that I discovered the Christmas Shops. I could not imagine that they stayed open all year round. At Christmas, Floridians have Santa Clause, sleigh, reindeer, and lights and whatnots on their rooftops, down the driveway and all around the garden. Sydney lights up the city and has amazing light displays of the nativity on the outside walls of a Church. Singapore lights up Orchard road and makes it a tourist attraction. No city is spared this dressing up.

In the Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur near where I live, this year it is a White Christmas! There were white trees laden with white cotton and white streamers; there were white swans, still, on a glassy lake and deer motionless under cotton laden trees. There were even polar bears in mid-prowl on snow. Outside it was 33 degrees Celsius. The hotel lobbies in the city are even more beautifully done up. When our children were small, we used to take them hotel-lobbies just to view the decorations.

The origins of Christmas are religious and holy but always seen as a time for joy for everyone.  Over the years with the advent of Santa clause with his legendary beginnings and his multiple selves, followed by Rudolph and his red nose competing with the Baby Jesus, Christmas has taken on two separate lives, the sacred and the secular. The first sings of the Child in the manger and the other of jingle bells and chestnuts on the fire. The sacred is Middle-Eastern, the secular is undeniably Western what with snowflakes and sleighs- bells. Yet there is no tension between the two. Somewhere in between, the twain do meet. The droves of people at the Mall with their children and cameras seem genuinely happy. The mood is infectious. I know for a fact that many non-Christians and total non-believers put up trees and exchange gifts just not to miss out in this season of goodwill.

91RK0gVPWQL.jpgFor believers in my city and in other towns in Malaysia, I know the churches will overflow at every service — the Christmas eve services and the morning ones. It is always the case.  The giving-trees are up where one can hang gifts for orphans. Christmas choir performances are on full swing if you care to check your events page on Facebook. At the same time, embassies are running their Christmas charity bazaars. There are the untold tales of those who celebrate with almsgiving. They visit the prisons, the homeless, the orphans or the aged with food, gifts and cheer. It is the season of giving and prayer and the season of joy, one in which even the saddest of hearts will smile a little and the hardest of hearts will melt a little. Everybody is in the mood, even the naysayers, who, like Scrooge, stomp their foot and  say — “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge then did a volte face.

Charles Dickens  had captured the essence of the season beautifully in his novel written in 1843, A Christmas Carol — that charity, compassion and love reign supreme in this holy season.

At a press conference last month, the Islamic Foundation of India announced their decision to build a mosque in Sahranpur  that would outdo all others in splendour. The foundation plans to collect Rs 100 crore from the 10 crore Muslims  who vote in India. This money will be used to build a bulletproof, earthquake proof mosque with engineers brought in from Belgium. The structure will be made of glass, wood, steel, silver and gold with 11000 laser lights adding to the glitter, they claim. In this essay, read what Sahitya Akademi Winner Ather Farooqui has to say.

 

Let me begin by bluntly saying that to criticize any issue, however fake or farcical it is, related to Islam is quite dangerous. Indian Muslims are quite averse to any introspection even regarding the worst social evils; unfortunately no Muslim organization that has an impact on Muslim minds tries to address this. The role of religious leadership in this regard has been along expected lines.

A significant chunk of literate Muslims, particularly the neo-educated, are no different from, rather worse than, the erstwhile elite which was pro-establishment. Of these educated Muslims, the alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who still take pride in calling themselves Old Boys, form a sizeable portion. Their association world over is officially called AMU Old Boys Association with few exceptions of AMU Alumni Associations.

Clearly, they don’t consider girls a part of society. Educational backwardness of the community is the subtext of every discussion on Muslims, without any effort to address it. For example, AMU alumni across the world relish a grand dinner on the birth anniversary of the founder Syed Ahmad Khan every year. If they remember their founder over a cup of tea and spend the same amount on education, they can build a university every ten years or establish at least three functional intermediate inter colleges in different parts of India.

Apart from marriage and other institutions, we see wastage of money by the impoverished community on the same pattern as the Hindu middle class. The ugliest among them is the tradition of animal sacrifice on Eid.

I am in no way criticizing the right of sacrifice on Eid-ul Azha, popularly known as Baqar-e Eid or Bakar-e Eid, where flaunting money on most expensive goats has now become fashion more than religious duty. This can be rationalised in two ways: sacrifice male goats that are reasonably priced, and, in case of families with many members who are obliged to make a sacrifice, replace the goats with a buffalo. The calculation is simple; one buffalo can be sacrificed for seven people. Not all seven need to be from the same family. So, any seven people can contribute. It was a trend some twenty years ago, but now it is a social stigma even for those who cannot afford mutton for guests in the normal course. Worst is the competition to sacrifice the most expensive goats.

I was not surprised when, about fifteen days ago, after the debate on the Supreme Court Ayodhya judgment had subsided, there was an announcement from the people of Saharanpur about building a grand glass mosque with a hundred crore budget. It was all over the media, but did not attract attention of the social media tribe that started the day abusing the RSS or making mockery of the Prime Minister and the BJP government.

9/11 has always been a date to dread ever since 2001 when the New York twin Towers were bombed down by a terror attack. This year too, 9/11 left a feeling of dread in the hearts of many as the Supreme Court gave a verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue… In this article, Zafar Anjum traces the Ayodhya  movement from the 1990s to pause on a pertinent question he had asked in his short story published in 2015, ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ — “…what is more pleasing to God? Your temple after destroying a mosque or the suffering of those whose place of worship you destroyed?”

While TV journalists and anchors dissected the verdict and its fallout, my mind briefly traveled back to 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished. I was studying at Aligarh Muslim University then. The Ayodhya movement was at its peak and we knew that something sinister and violent was going to erupt, so we made our way to our hometown in Bihar in late November. I was at my maternal grandfather’s place when the news came of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We saw the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao appear on TV and offer apologies and shed some tears. Later on, we learnt that Rao could have done more to stop the demolition but he chose not to. Through Rajiv Gandhi and later through Rao, the Congress Party had, wittingly or unwittingly, made its own contributions to the Ram Temple movement.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s “tremendous work”, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination”.

Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara”*. “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind,’’** wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence a vast majority of Indians treated Lord Ram with.

But of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil [perfect man]”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened Hind [India] from a deep slumber”.

By Farah Ahamed

The aim of tragedy, according to Aristotle is to bring about a ‘catharsis’; to arouse in the spectators’ pity and fear and to purge them off these emotions so that they left the theatre with an understanding of the ways of gods and men. The audience witnessing the changes in the fortunes of the protagonist creates the catharsis. He wrote:

“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery.”

IMG_0810To Die in Benares*, (2018) translated from the French by Blake Smith, is a collection of seven stories, which have this cathartic effect.  I will illustrate this by analysing the first story “A Paper Boat in the Ganges”, which centres on the life of Fougerre who has to confront Aristotlean obstacles in his life; colonialism, mythological gods, and fate. Set in Pondicherry at a time when it was still under French occupation, the story covers almost fifty years and presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes each with intense gesture and detail.It opens with these weighty lines:

“India is probably the only country where fate’s grip on the lives of individuals is so easily accepted. Life isn’t fair. People say it a lot. People hear it said still more often.”

The introduction sets the sombre mood for fate to hijack the character’s life with the ‘epic proportions of the cruel Gods of ancient Greece’. We find the two protagonists — Manu and his Tamil friend, Fougerre — in the sixth grade at a school managed by the French Government. The school is attended by French, and Indian students whose fathers are retired French soldiers or French functionaries, who have a strong attachment to French culture and some Tamilian students like the narrator, Manu, and Fougerre who are less so.

Fougerre, in particular, is an “outsider”. He is a dark-skinned Tamilian, which his white French classmates associate with their servant classes. A reticent and timid boy from a more modest background than his white French classmates, Fougerre is hardworking, bright and meticulous. His white peers copy his perfect homework, and resent “his remarkable brilliance”, because he reminds them of their servants. Manu, in particular, is jealous of Fougerre’s artistic skills.

IMG_0780
Nicanor Parra … courtesy Arteaga

With protests staged by environmentalists of different ages in many parts of the world, one is left wondering if this is not a major issue that needs to be addressed by the literary community over other issues as it links to our basic survival. These lines by Nicannor Parra, the famous Chilean poet, say it all.

The mistake we made was in thinking

that the earth belonged to us

when the fact of the matter is

we’re the ones who belong to the earth.

He redefined himself as an eco poet in the latter part of his career and said: “The eco-poet also works with contradiction, he defends nature, but he cannot fall into the trap of a new dogmatism. So there are some eco-poems which are apparently anti-ecological, like the following: ‘I don’t see the need for all this fuss, we all know the world is at its end.’ It must be kept in mind that any type of dogmatism, including ecological dogmatism, produces a hardening of the soul. To avoid this hardening, this new dictatorship, this new central committee, one has to denounce even ecological dogmatism. Paradoxically, this is also the soul regulating itself. The man who only affirms runs the risk of freezing up inside. Constant movement, vital motion is crucially important for me.”

So, what is eco literature? Is it the same as cli- fi ?Is it in the genre of speculative fiction or science fiction?

Diwali is celebrated by Indians all over the world — as Kali Puja, as Deepavali — exuding a festive spirit of joie de vivre. For some, it is the biggest event of the year, much like Christmas or Id. We invite you to enjoy the festivities with one such enthusiast, young Aishwarya Ganesh.

The lights lift my spirits and, with tranquility in my heart, my wings rise to the song of Diwali, to the scent of Diwali. Every year, this festival modifies the atmosphere itself sensually. The smell of the air circling us, the hue of the sky and the melody of nature — all herald the arrival of the festival of lights.

Diwali for me is a reflection of hope. It is the light that radiates the spirit of possibilities. It begins a week before the festival of lights. Our home is all ready for its wash and a grand deck up. The neighbourhood, the streets and the city sing a glorious song to celebrate the arrival of memorable times. Strings of lights dangle at the entrance of every household and lanterns swing in balconies. In addition, the smell of new garments and preparations for a variety of delicacies generate a festive scent. The city is thrilled with its shiny new gown — the golden, gleaming dress saved for a special occasion! It is all lit up in its new avatar and eagerly awaits Diwali. People flock to shopping malls and return with huge bags that are ready to give their home and themselves a fresh makeover! The season annihilates all negativity and promotes the spirit of togetherness.

Front cover

Title: Kiswah

Author: Isa Kamari

Publisher: Kitaab

Year of publication: 2019

Price: S$18

Pages: 201

Links: Singapore Writer’s Festival

About:

It is a story of a honeymooning couple in Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Kathmandu and finally Mecca. The story unveils the true nature of Ilham, the husband whom Nazreen thought was a pious and morally upright person. As it turned out he was overwhelmed by his sexual desire and abuses her. Nazreen maintained her calm and integrity and tries to seek solace in their final destination, Mecca.

As they were performed the Umrah, Nazreen was kidnapped by a taxi driver. Ilham was shocked and at a loss. Disappointed he left Mecca, blaming God for his misfortune. He vowed not to return to the Holy Land.

In Singapore, Ilham continued with his hedonistic ways and kept a Chinese mistress whom he met at a massage parlour. Susan had an ailing mother who dreamt that her sickness would only be cured if she visited Mecca. Incidentally, Ilham was coaxed by Nazreen’s friend to return to Islam and amend his ways. He decided to marry Susan who presented him with a condition: they must visit Mecca with her mother.

Ilham was in a dilemma. Would he return to Mecca? Finally, he did, but not without deep introspection. A mysterious event ensued. He met his destiny in front of the Kaabah.

Kiswah attempts to probe the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, by letting both confront one another to find peace.

 

Dara Shukoh

Title: Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King

Author: Avik Chanda

Publisher: Harper Collins India

Publication Date:  2019

Pages: 368

Price: Rs 699 

Links: Amazon

About:

Dara Shukoh – the emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite son, and heir-apparent to the Mughal throne prior to being defeated by Aurangzeb – has sometimes been portrayed as an effete prince, incompetent in military and administrative matters. But his tolerance towards other faiths, and the myths and anecdotes surrounding him, continue to fuel the popular imagination. Even today, over 350 years after his death, the debate rages on: if this ‘good’ Mughal had ascended the throne instead of his pugnacious younger brother, how would that have changed the course of Indian history?

Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King brings to life the story of this enigmatic Mughal prince. Rich in historical detail and psychological insight, it recreates a bygone age, and presents an empathetic and engaging portrait of the crown prince who was, in many ways, clearly ahead of his times. Eminent journalist Arun Shourie says, “The Book we need — about the man we need.”

 

jakarta

Title: Jakarta Jive Bali Blues

Author: Jeremy Allan

Publisher: Yellow Dot 

Year of publication: 2019

Pages: 350

Price: Rp.192,500

Links: https://afterhoursbooks.myshopify.com/products/jakarta-jive-bali-blues

About:

A true-to-life look by an insightful writer, Jakarta Jive / Bali Blues is a collected edition of two books chronicling a pair of seminal events in modern Indonesian history: the end of the Suharto government in 1998 and the terrorist attack in Bali in 2002, from the point of view of the people most profoundly affected: the Indonesians themselves.