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Book Review: Karno’s Daughter by Rimli Sengupta

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.

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Fragments from a war-torn childhood

(From Guernica. Link to the complete article given below)

I spent the first eight years of my life in a war zone. Eight years of deafening noise: the staccato scream of anti-aircrafts, the whiz of military jets, the rattle of Kalashnikovs, the successive booming of landing mortars. Eight years of blinding lights: the dark orange cloud of fire after explosion rolling over and onto itself, the thin red thread of bullets shooting out of gun barrels, burning cigarettes shining in the streets like lighthouses in nights of total blackout.

In September 1980, several days short of my first birthday, the Iran-Iraq war began. At the time my parents lived in Ahvaz, Iran, seventy miles east of the frontline. Ahvaz is an expansive, flat urban area home to more than one million people and known for the Karun River, fertile palms, and flames that leap out of burning oil wells. A few months into the war it became clear that Saddam was seeking to annex the state of Khuzestan and nothing less, and that all the Western superpowers supported him. The people of Ahvaz began to leave. Neighbors and friends crammed their most precious belongings into cars and hit the road, transforming overnight from well-off southern oil families to internal refugees.

My parents stayed. My dad had a sensitive position at the oil company. My mom was a nurse. The gravity of their tasks, combined with their desire to fight for home and the disappointing reception of refugees elsewhere in the country, compelled them to remain there through the war. The war went on, uninterrupted, for eight years. It claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and scorched vast swaths of land on both sides of the border.

I am thirty-eight now. The war that made me who I am ended thirty years ago. I don’t talk about it much, if at all, though the tentacles of my mind frequently slip into the bag of memories I’ve been hauling around. Like many people with PTSD, I am a minimizer. I recall my life at six years old and think, Sure, it’s horrific that you saw that man looking at the hole a piece of shrapnel burned through his stomach before he fell to the ground. Yes, it’s traumatizing to wait with five hundred other kids in a small concrete bunker without ventilation for hours for Iraqi jets to get the bombing done. It is indeed depressing to think of your seven-year-old self stalking around rubble to collect shrapnel pieces and bullet jackets to expand his collection with the intention of arousing the envy of other kids in the neighborhood. But, I tell myself, look at the Iraqis and the Afghanis. They have lived this way for generations. Extend your eight years of war outward so that they fill a lifetime, multiply the amount of horror several times over, and you wouldn’t even approach the experience of the average Iraqi. The average Iraqi would laugh at your “war memories.”

Read more at The Guernica link here


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Excerpt: ‘Restless: Chronicles of a Policeman’ by V.R. Sampath

Restless

Epilogue

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

—MURIEL RUKEYSER

Every human being, at some point in time, needs to develop a concept of life. Science rests on two principles— experimentation and repeatability—before accepting any hypothesis. I decided to employ the same method on spirituality. In a way, it is easy to accept something by faith, and all religions demand faith, to begin with.

My theory goes somewhat like this: the life of an individual is the story of his evolution towards full potential, which, in other words, can be defined as the purpose of their life. I might have had smaller objectives and aims within this framework, such as aiming for a good education, making a career, earning well and starting a family. However, life’s purpose can be different things for different people; it can even just be an aim to be happy, whatever that happiness may mean. But a larger picture is essential to obtain a better perspective and to avoid certain complications and complexities. Chasing happiness may sometimes become tiring if you don’t know what will make you happy or what happiness means.

This overarching view of life, as a process of self-evolution towards reaching one’s full potential, opened many questions and possibilities. What exactly do the words ‘self’, ‘evolution’ and ‘potential’ mean and how am I supposed to attain this goal? I was born with certain things and I had no choice in the matter, such as a body, a mind and the environment into which I took birth. These are irreversible, and I could have done nothing about it. I needed to work from that point towards realizing my full potential. To that extent, these things which are given to me at birth become my tools for such a work; a body with all its limitations and potential, a psychology including my mind and its possibilities, and the cosmology, which includes the environment into which I was born.

When I say I am given my body and mind, that implies that I’m not them. If I have a car, I’m not the car. Then who am I? Shall I call that the self? The Bhagavad Gita calls it atman. My body has a name, Sampath, and address, some qualifications, family and possessions, and terabytes of impressions and experiences pouring out of all these things every second of my life and existence. If I’m not my body, then who enjoys the fruits of such experiences? My body can’t because it’s inert, it’s driven like a car which can’t enjoy the coastal ride. It’s the occupant of the car who enjoys the journey or suffers injuries when met with an accident. Shall we then say it’s me, myself or simply the ‘self,’ which enjoys or suffers the experiences?

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News: DISQUIET Literary Prize 2019

(From Disquiet International )

Ends on January 10, 2019

$15.00 USD

 

Multi-genre award for the best poetry, fiction, or nonfiction on any subject. Entries must be in English. Entries may not be previously published.

The winner in each genre will be published. The grand prize winner will also receive a full scholarship, including tuition, lodging, and a $1,000USD travel stipend, to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. Runners-up will also be considered for merit-based scholarships.

One entry may include up to six poems (to a maximum of ten pages) or a single prose piece up to twenty-five double-spaced pages in length. Excerpts from longer works are welcome. Multiple entries must be accompanied by multiple reading fees.

Deadline: January 10, 2019

For more info on this year’s program, see our website: http://disquietinternational.org/


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Book excerpt: Job be Damned by Rishi Piparaiya

job be damned - cover

From Chapter 13

SENIOR LEADER SPECIAL: EMPLOYEE MANIPULATION
Manipulating with appreciation and meaningless rewards

Anyone who is not a senior executive is requested to log off this chapter. We are going to be discussing manipulation strategies and insights into our deviousness will give you an unfair advantage.

Great, now that we only have top management reading, here goes: employees need to be kept motivated and engaged, at least occasionally. It’s a waste of time because they are really not important. While most corporations rhapsodically claim that their people are their most important asset, it is all bollocks. The most important asset of Google is its search algorithm—if that were to suddenly vanish, all their so-called most important assets would be sitting around doodling home pages in Mountain View. Likewise, the most important asset of Coke is its secret formula. The most important asset of Apple is its products. As the pointy-haired boss in Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle states, employees are in fact the corporation’s ninth most important assets, right after carbon paper.

That said, you still might have a few foot soldiers who need to be kept suitably engaged and it’s imperative that you identify them rather than waste your efforts in keeping everyone charged up. You can either use complicated psychological tools and personality tests or simply adopt the Job Be Damned Boffins and Bozos grid to pigeonhole all your employees.

Motivating the Boffins

Once you have classified all your staff, focus on motivating the boffins.

  1. Pretend to care about their development

Employees want to believe that someone gives a damn about them so act as if you do. Learning motivates early careers so pretend to share your vast experience—gift the latest management book or have them attend some wishy-washy training programme. Middle management professionals crave increased responsibility—ironic given that one’s sole objective should be to avoid work. Send them on international jaunts, award home-printed certificates and write them LinkedIn recommendations—anything that looks like a progressive step in their career will keep them motivated. The downside of investing in employees is that it makes them more marketable and they might leave to join competitors. However, effect drug-induced amnesia as part of the exit formalities—the ungrateful wretches should forget everything that they learnt at your expense.

Boffins: Must-have employees with useful skills and attributes

Divers Enthusiastic and eager to please; they dive straight into a project and get it started
Systematics Masters at organization, creating flow charts, to-do lists, pros and cons columns and schedules
Coordinators Enjoy directing things along and putting some order into chaos
Specialists Experts in one particular subject
Conscientious doers The engine of every team and the ones who do all the real work
Glib communicators Great at articulating complicated concepts to the people who matter

 

Bozos: Useless dead-weights who do more harm than good

Gyaani babas Spout theoretical wisdom unbacked by execution capabilities
Naysayers Party pooping, energy-draining pessimists who have all the reasons why your plans won’t work
Socialists Mother hens who don’t care about what gets accomplished as long as everyone is happy and participating
Conspiracy theorists Everything about the organization, team and task is a dark conspiracy
Dumbos Double-digit Iqs who incessantly ask irrelevant questions
Spectators Step back and watch, occasionally piping in with useless suggestions

 

  1. Conduct Employee Engagement Activities

Interacting with personnel is excellent for your morale. Conduct breakout meetings, hang-outs, online chats and parties. Have the occasional whine-and-dine lunch where you swallow the unpalatable canteen food while chatting with them. Keep the interaction one way—you talk, they listen. Have a Q&A session at the end but make a mental note of anyone who has asked you controversial questions and get your revenge in the next appraisal cycle.

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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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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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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book Extract: from Reshaping Art by T.M. Krishna

Reshaping Art

(Pages 4-9)

Art is not an accident; it does not happen by mistake. It is a deliberate, conscious act of creating an art object; it is a willed human endeavour. Art does not depend on a general acceptance of attractiveness. In fact, subjective notions of beauty are entirely secondary to the act of art creation.

Art probably began from humankind’s need to map or record life as a survival strategy. Much like animals, early humans also discovered that they could use their limbs and voices to interact with their surroundings and make markings and sounds. But soon these tools became something more than record books or sonic appeals. Somehow the human mind discovered within itself the capacity to extract essence from life and reimagine, recreate and curate that spirit in the form of shape, sound, colour and space. What was vital was that the nub of life was preserved in art creation. The real world around and the experiences felt within provided the inspiration. From the never-ending flurry of images, sounds and events, some individuals began distilling moments, movements, tonal combinations and shifts in light and space. What were they distilling: literal shapes, colour and sound? They were securing within art the emotionality of nature through the soliloquy of a creative meditation.

These processes, for want of a better word, had a deep impact on the emotional nature of humans. From this arose imagination and, from its overflow, the unbridled desire to create things that allowed us to be in touch with that spirit. Imagining possibilities from all that existed and beyond what they saw, heard and felt, they created objects of art. Playing with colours, space, shape, materials, tones and rhythms, humankind entered an entirely new area of emotional enquiry. Art was mystical, its conjuring evoked an untapped experience, almost a magic trick. I say ‘almost’ because the intention of this magic was not to trick someone into believing but to draw them into experiencing. At times, the impact of such art could become more powerful than the ‘original’ inspiration from the real world. Art does not copy life; it encapsulates the essence of life.

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Book Excerpt: Why I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor

Why I am a Hindu

Pages 24-27

…. When Buddhism sought to reform Hinduism, Hinduism turned around and sought to absorb it too, by including the Buddha as a reincarnation of Vishnu and his agnostic teachings as merely a nastika form of the mother faith. As a result Buddhism has hardly any strength or presence in the land of its birth, having been absorbed and overtaken by the religion it sought to challenge. Hinduism could well have tried the same with Christianity and Islam, too, had it been allowed to do so; but these faiths were not interested in being embraced by Hinduism, since they saw themselves as the revealed Truth rather than as one among multiple versions of truth.

Hinduism is also unusual in seeing God, Man and the universe as co-related. As the philosopher Raimon Panikkar has explained, in Hindu thought, God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’; Man without God is just a ‘thing’, without meaning or larger purpose; and the universe without Man or God is ‘any-thing’, sheer unexisting chaos. In Panikkar’s explanation, nothing separates Man from God; ‘there is neither intermediary nor barrier between them’. So Hindu prayers mix the sacred with the profane: a Hindu can ask God for anything. Among the tens of thousands of sacred verses and hymns in the Hindu scriptures are a merchant’s prayer for wealth, a bankrupt’s plea to the divine to free him of debt, verses extolling the union of a man with a woman, and even the lament of a rueful (and luckless) gambler asking God to help him shake his addiction. Prayer and worship, for the Hindu, are thus not purely spiritual exercises: they enhance the quality of his life in the material world, in the here and now.

 GANESH, MY ISHTA-DEVTA

Hindus are often asked, during certain ritual prayers, to imagine their ishta-devta, their personal God, or rather that way of imagining the abstraction of the Absolute in an anthropomorphic form that most appeals to them. I pick Ganesh, or Ganapathi, as we prefer to call him in the South, myself, not because I believe God looks like Him, but because of the myriad aspects of the godhead, the ones He represents appeal most to me.

Om maha Ganapathe namaha,
sarva vignoba shantaye,
Om Ganeshaya namaha…

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