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Book review: Indian Nationalism – The Essential Writings, ed. S. Irfan Habib

A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

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Short story: The Witch by Muddasir Ramzan

‘I believed, like everyone else, that the stories about wild creatures, particularly about Rantas and Wan-Mohneu, were only myths, created to scare children. Until I was lugged here.’

‘Would you like to share your story?’ Talib asked. ‘How did you reach here?’ asked Hamid, Talib’s master. They lowered their gazes, stealing the odd glance at the Wildman.

‘My name’s Bashir. It was sometime in the winter of 1998 or 1997, no, 1999. No! I don’t remember the exact date. I awoke in the middle of a night. My wife Laalie and my little son Aalim were fast asleep. I didn’t bother to wake them and went outside to check the cow. Snow fell heavily, making the trees arch. There was a thick white blanket of snow in my lawn.

‘I took my umbrella in one hand and lantern in another and went straight to the cowshed to check if the cow was fine – she was to give birth to her calf soon. She seemed fine, so I locked the cowshed and began walking back to my house, stopping a while to watch the whirling snow. What an amazing sight it was!

‘As I tried to shake off the snow from some trees, I heard a woman’s voice calling out my name. I thought it was Laalie and responded but recalled immediately that I had locked the main door of the house from outside. The voice wasn’t Laalie’s. Couldn’t be. I waited. The voice called out again. Afraid but excited, I looked around, trying to locate the voice as I walked towards the pomegranate tree. There was so much snow on the tree’s leaves and branches that the main branch had snapped and fallen on to the snow-covered ground. As I went closer, I saw what I thought was a woman dressed in white, looking at me. It was a mere illusion created by the snow, I told myself, but the lantern slipped from my trembling hands and the light went out. Was it an evil spirit or an apparition? Then, just as I began to run towards my house, which was only a few steps away, she called out, ‘Stop!’ My pounding heart, quivering legs and the deep snow made the few steps to my door seem like a thousand miles. With great effort, I managed to reach the steps and breathed deeply in relief. I had escaped her!

‘I was wrong. As soon as I tried to push open the main door, a huge hand grabbed my left shoulder; I struggled to free myself but it was no use. Even as I cried out, a hand capped my mouth and another clasped my head. I struggled; I even managed to kick the door but the powerful hands dragged me back. I could see her closely now. Her stench filled my nostrils. She had a hairy face, a huge, dirty, hairy body with heavy breasts and long nails. Her untidy hair fell over her shoulders. I noticed her feet last: they were turned backwards.

I was terrified. Rantas! She was exactly like the creature whose stories grandmother told me in my childhood, to distract me whenever I cried or wanted something that was not available. For some time, I thought she would eat me alive. I had lost all my strength and began to think she had cast a magic spell on me. Helplessly, I let her tie me to her back with her long hair. I could have cried or made some noise, asked for help, or at least struggled to escape.

‘I…

‘Yes, carry on, what happened then?’ asked Talib, listening keenly to him. When the Wildman didn’t reply, the young man looked towards his ustaad.

‘It is clear she brought him to this cave then, isn’t it?’ Hamid remarked loudly, hoping to stir the Wildman from his thoughts.

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News: Launch of Miniya Chatterji’s Indian Instincts

Indian Instincts

Indian Instincts

Indian Instincts by Miniya Chatterji was launched at the Google headquarters, Singapore on June 29, 2018. The launch included a panel discussion with authors Eunice Olsen, Miniya Chatterji and Zafar Anjum, journalist, filmmaker and chief editor, Kitaab, Singapore. Indian Instincts is a collection of 15 essays that offer an argument for what the book describes as ‘greater equality and opportunity in contemporary India’.  The essays cover issues of paramount importance to India and its residents, from what could be the possible beginning of human advent in India to love, sex, culture, money, values, current ideas around nationalism, democracy – in short, it seeks to address all things Indian in the current scenario.

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 Book launch of Indian Instincts with Eunice Olsen, Miniya Chatterji and Zafar Anjum

The book is readable and accessible to everyone while simultaneously retaining its intellectual rigour and philosophical depth. Here is contemporary India and its myriad hues from a writer who explores the institutions we have created and their stranglehold on our lives, or what we have allowed them to become.

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Panel discussion – Zafar Anjum, Miniya Chatteriji, Eunice Olsen

The panel discussion covered many burning topics including social impact of economic development, nationalism, gender equality and violence against women, education and its role in developing rational thinking among the masses. Olsen emphasised that there is need of more awareness on gender equality in Asia. Chatterji advocated women in India should not be seen or judged through parameters of males. She said that an education system that encourages critical thinking, rationality and debate is the key to many of the problems plaguing India.


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Writing Matters: In conversation with Siddharth Dasgupta

By Pervin Saket

Siddharth Dasgupta

Siddharth Dasgupta

Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet, novelist, and travel journalist. His words have appeared in global literary journals such as Litro, Entropy, Cha, Punch, The Bombay Literary Review, Coldnoon, and Burning House, included. He also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has three books to his name thus far; the short-story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and the poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy emerged in 2017. Siddharth is currently looking to secure an adequately courageous publisher for his next literary release – a new collection of poetry. He writes at https://citizenbliss.squarespace.com | @citizen.bliss

 

Pervin: You’ve worked with the long-form and the short-form of fiction, as well as with various kinds of verses. What are your reflections on the processes behind all of these? In what ways are all three distinctly demanding and fulfilling?

Siddharth: The most compelling thrill for me in all of this is not knowing what comes next, and not knowing how exactly to control or demarcate ‘the process’ once it finally does arrive. In that sense, I treat each form the same – as an arrival with whom a courtship needs to be formed over time. Whether this leads to a relationship that is thrillingly brief or a drawn-out epic, sometimes manifesting itself over years, the frame of mind doesn’t actually alter itself all that much. You simply go in with the knowledge that with some journeys you’re going to have to buckle in for the long ride, while with some it’s more of a ‘wham-bam-Amsterdam’ time frame. Novels and stories will test time, patience, friendships, and perceived ideas of sanity. Poetry will test line lengths, dance forms, the heart, and an almirah of desires. The sense of fulfilment from both is proportionate, and dare I say it, contagious.

Pervin: Your work is very firmly anchored in various geographies, whether remembered or imagined or explored, and yet, there is rootlessness, a wandering, a yearning that characterizes your narratives. Where does this absorption with nostalgia and voyaging come from? And do you use place to actually talk about time?

Siddharth: I find this shared habitat between lastingness and rootlessness to be an entirely natural one. It speaks to our human existence as a motley crew of nomads, refugees, and wanderers. A sense of movement has always been integral to my life; it’s only natural that this state of being would extend to my life as a writer as well. It’s often been second nature to find myself at home, or at least something resembling home, at different places in the world. Concurrently though, I’ve found that you can very well be in a specific place at a specific point in time, and yet find yourself longing for it. You’re right: I think nostalgia lies at the heart of it. Some of us were assembled in that manner, I suppose, with a deep ache for another time and other horizons resident as permanent companion in our lives, nestled peacefully beside this to-and-fro between finding home in different longitudinal addresses and fleeing. In my literature, place is often the strongest indicator of time, even more so than character. A place doesn’t have to speak or gesticulate or enter into lengthy monologues; a place simply conveys.

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Book excerpt: Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving by Dean Nelson

Jugaad Yatra

 

Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Twitter hashtag, #JugaadNation became a social media sensation with popular websites like BuzzFeed showcasing the ‘hilariously creative ways Indians get shit done no matter what’. There was a bicycle where a missing handlebar was replaced with a car steering wheel, a broken shower head replaced with a taped plastic water bottle pricked with dozens of holes at the bottom. Household irons were shown being used to straighten women’s curls or upturned as hotplates to boil milk. Air conditioner units with missing grills became chillers for beer while a desert cooler was adapted to cool two neighbouring rooms by attaching a pair of old trousers to divide the flow, one leg for each. There were pressure cookers propped up by two bottles and heated by burning candles taped together, a shattered clock missing numbers 1 to 7 made good with the digits scrawled onto the wall on which it hung, and endless varieties of crop-sprayers and ploughs made from bicycle wheels, discarded oil barrels and bits of old scrap metal.

There were stories too, along with pictures. In November 2016, when Narendra Modi scrapped ₹ 1,000 and ₹ 500 banknotes to target black money and corruption, India’s ATM machines were suddenly under siege and customers were forced to queue for many hours to get cash. Satjeet Singh Bedi had a jugaad solution to hand—he set up BookMyChotu.com to supply labourers to stand in line on behalf of the well-to-do who could hire a chotu—which literally means ‘little one’—for ₹ 90 per hour to take the pain out of Modi’s demonetization.

These pictures and tales went viral on a global wave of LOLs and OMGs, shared by Indians as a celebration of their inspiring resourcefulness and optimism amid scarcity and poverty. It reflected the extent to which jugaad had been claimed as a treasured ‘we are like that, only’ Indian trait.

In his book, India’s Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship in the World’s Biggest Democracy, veteran Congress leader and former cabinet minister Kamal Nath described how jugaad creativity had blossomed in the hardship of India’s early post-independence years. The shortage economy—when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government curbed imports and restricted foreign investment in favour of domestic production—demanded frugality and turned ‘every Indian’ into a ‘master of jugaad’.

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