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Mapping the literary roots between ASEAN and India

By Mitali Chakravarty

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The first ever ASEAN INDIA Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival was held in Singapore with great success.

More than 30 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and India participated in the first ever ASEAN Indian Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Writer’s Festival on 6-7 January in Singapore.

Many leading literary figures of ASEAN such as Edwin Thumboo, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari participated in the two-day event held at the posh Marina Bay Sands.

The ASEAN India Writers Festival, an initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, was organized by Kitaab International, Singapore, on behalf of the High Commission of India in Singapore, with the support of many partner organisations such as The Arts House, and La Salle College of the Arts. De Ideaz, Singapore, were the main event managers for the festival, which had more than 5,000 registered visitors.

Exploring ASEAN and India connections though literary and cultural roots

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Zafar Anjum, the Programme Director and Founder of literary and publishing platform Kitaab, gave the welcome address. He welcomed the participants and reflected on the attempt to bring together writers from diverse cultures and language backgrounds to create an environment of learning and growth.

Edwin Thumboo, a celebrated poet and academic of Singapore, traced how Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and customs spread through South-east Asia from the start of history. He touched upon Hindu and Buddhist influences in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia with graphic maps and slides in his talk, ‘A Sense of India in ASEAN’.

The panel discussions were broad-ranging in topic and included all kinds of voices and literary genres – from mythology to novels, and from short stories to children’s literature. There were sessions featuring literary performances too. Four new titles by ASEAN and Indian writers were launched at the festival: The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 edited by Monideepa Sahu and Zafar Anjum; Senserly, Amakoby Anita Thomas; The Sacred Sorrows of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta, and Tawassul by award-winning Singaporean writer Isa Kamari, the first Urdu translation of a work of Singaporean literature.

India in the Imagination of ASEAN

The first panel discussion with prominent award winning ASEAN writers, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari, focused on “India in the Imagination of ASEAN”.

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The moderator, Nilanjana Sengupta, traced how Nalanda University played a non-confrontational role in spreading the ideas in the region and asked the panelists to talk of Indian influences in their writings. Suchen Christine Lim talked of how her Indian characters grew out of her experience of Indians that she met or read about and how Buddhism, which was born in India, influenced the Chinese and Asian characters she portrays in her books.

Isa Kamari said he realised that both Hinduism and Islam were monotheistic after visiting Bali, where Hinduism had travelled from India around 1st century. He added that Hinduism existed before Islam and spoke of his positive experience of traveling in India. All these experiences are to be found in his novels.

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The great Vietnam war novel was not written by an American

In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.

I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

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Book Excerpt: Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi by Ghazala Jamil

Muslim Localities in Delhi

Re-Imagining Political Contestation and Death (pp 116-120)

Political assembly and protest are also performances of citizenship status and claims. While enactment of violence by protesting publics with non-Muslim identity markers are considered routine and normalised, an assembly of protesting Muslims is potentially just another site of their fatal targeting. Another important example that effectively illustrates the preceding analysis is the case of the ‘Sealing Drive’ in Delhi in 2006.

The importance of this instance in the recent history of Delhi unveils complex dynamics of the political economy of built environments, the material logic of segregation, contestations, and negotiations of elite circuits with the unorganized sector in claiming their vision of the city, and biopolitics of the state.

The case exemplifies a tussle between big capital and elite networks represented by RWAs on the one hand, and traders and small manufacturers on the other. Elite RWAs insisted in getting this case filed at the High Court of Delhi that their sense of security, peace of mind, tranquillity, and aesthetic sensibilities were being off ended by business establishments within residential areas (Ghertner 2011; Bhuwania 2016). An appeal for preventing mixed land use was in line with the vision of the Delhi Master Plan, and on the agenda of previous Delhi state governments headed by the BJP and the Congress. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Sabharwal showing keen interest in the case passed a verdict which effectively read as a mass eviction notice to lakhs of establishments which were ‘illegal’ (Mehra 2012).

Allegations of misconduct on the part of Justice Sabharwal came to light later, illuminating the nexus between big capital and the judiciary (Roy 2007, Mid-day 2006). Justice Sabharwal’s son owned a real estate firm that gained substantially from an instance of demolitions as a result of the implementation of the court order by civic bodies.

The traders in Delhi have mainly been Punjabi Hindu–Sikh but many small traders and small manufacturers belong to various diverse social backgrounds too. Diya Mehra (2012) points out that the movement run by the traders’ association employed Partition rhetoric profusely. While on the other hand, they used the daily wage workers associated with their businesses to pitch up the protest against a judicial order which was anti-poor, anti-worker, and anti-unorganized sector.

During protracted protests, in which the traders associations were reluctant to go to the Supreme Court because it could have also given a judgement adversarial to their interest, the traders’ associations continuously negotiated with the state and Central Governments, the municipal corporation, as well as the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Violence and rioting was also used strategically as a final device of pressurizing the state and elite networks. There were many incidents of rioting and damage to public property such as state transport buses. Eventually the government informed the court of its inability to implement the order as it would give rise to a law and order situation.

Ovais Sultan Khan, a participant of this study gave me an account of the occurrences that led to the shooting. This foretold law and order problem took place when the police opened fire at a protesting crowd in Seelampur on September 20, 2006.

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Ten Books That Changed The World

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first significant text in world literature, and a perfect example of the power of written stories to shape history. By bolstering cultural cohesion across the region, the epic helped maintain the earliest territorial empire. Written in cuneiform, it disappeared without a trace because it was never transcribed into any other writing system, until it was rediscovered by accident two thousand years later. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of history, wrote a novelistic adaptation of the epic. To his great surprise, it failed to secure the survival of his regime.

Ezra’s Bible

Written texts became increasingly important for Jewish life during exile in Babylon, the most literate place on earth at the time. When the scribe Ezra led his followers back to Jerusalem, he held up him Torah scrolls and demanded that the returning exiles bow before them as they would to a god. It was the beginning of sacred scripture, giving rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We have been living in a world shaped by sacred texts ever since.

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra commemorates the life of the Buddha by portraying his interactions with students and his daily habits in unusual detail. When the sutra was committed to writing long after the death of this great teacher, it became so influential that devoted monks carried it all the way to China. It was here that the Diamond Sutra encountered paper and print. With the help of these technologies, it spread to Korea, Japan and beyond, making Buddhism a world religion.

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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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Hakim Sana’i of Ghazni

Hakim Sana’i was one of the most significant poets in the history of Islamic mysticism. The proper name of Sana’i of Ghazni was Abul Majd bin Majdud bin Adam. Sana’i was born in the province of Ghazni in southern Afghanistan. He was one of the three great mystical mathnavi writers of Persia, the second being Shaikh Faridu’d-Din ‘Attar and the third jalalu’d-Din Rumi, who write; “Attar is the soul and Sana’i its two eyes, I came after Sana’i and ‘Attar.”

Sana’i was the court poet of Bahram Shah, according to afghanland.com sources, and spent many years praising the king and his court but few years later he became more devoted to God and abruptly left the court of the king.

Bahram Shah was planning to lead an expedition to India, Sana’i wrote a verse and took read it to the palace at the presence the King. On the way to the palace he heard a drunkard ordering the Saqi (the, Cup bearer) to serve him wine, which he would drink for the King’s stupidity. The cupbearer said, “Don’t talk nonsense, Bahrarn Shah is not stupid, he is wise and just.” The drunkard retorted, “His expedition to Ghazni has not yet come to an end; he is planning to lead an expedition to India. What else can be more foolish than this?”

After finishing one jaam of wine he asked for another saying he would drink the second to Sana’i’s foolishness. The cupbearer said, “Why do you call Sana’i foolish? He is a good natured poet with lofty ideas.” The boozer answered, “He writes in praise of unworthy persons, goes to them and with folded hands recites what he has written for worldly gains. Is he not a fool? What will he say to God, on the day of the Reckoning when He (God) asks him, ‘what have you brought for me? ”

The words of the drunkard opened Sana’i’s eyes; he left the king’s service, gave up writing panegyrics and retired into seclusion.

Sana’i wrote his most famous mathnawi Hadiqat-ul-Haqaiq (“Garden of Truth”) at a very old age and died soon after its completion in A.D. 1131. He uttered the following words at the time of death:

I returned to what I had said previously because there is no word in meaning -nor words in meaning.

Hakim Sana’i is the first writer to introduce “Tasawwuf” in poetry.

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10 MUST-READ HISTORIES OF THE PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT

November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British government famously promised to establish a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. A century of conflict in Palestine/Israel has produced a vast and ever growing historical literature in English, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew. Conflicting or irreconcilable narratives mean that works which tell the story of, and from, both sides, are rare. Views of fundamental issues like the legitimacy of Zionism or the Palestinians’ right to resistance inevitably color the interpretation of key events from Balfour to the 2014 war over the Gaza Strip. Perceptions can still be polarized about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the 1967 war, and the character of the occupation that persists 50 years later. Well-known books, especially by Israel’s “new” historians, have made a big impact on knowledge of the formative pre-state period. Here are ten others which in different ways and at different times have made a significant contribution to illuminating this unending story.

Ronald Storrs, Orientations

Storrs was the first British military governor of Jerusalem after the Ottoman surrender in December 1917. His memoir is elegantly if pretentiously written. It reflects contemporary colonialist assumptions about Arabs and Jews, the innate authority and arrogance of the world’s largest empire and the author’s mounting frustration as the confrontation unfolded in its earliest days. Storrs was in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration and in the early Mandate years. Perhaps his most memorable line, as resentment and tensions mounted, was how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

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