Categories
Review

Voices from the Lost Horizon

A Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese

Author: Anvita Abbi

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.

During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).

A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear. 

In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.

The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.

While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.

It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.

The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.

The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.

Click here to read Anvita Abbi’s interview.

.

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Review

Songs of a Rebel

Book Review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems

Author: Bina Sarkar Ellias

Publisher: Red River, 2020

With what word to reach into the future,
With what word to defend human happiness --
It has the smell of freshly baked bread --
If the language of poets cannot search out
Standards of use to later generations?
	Czeslaw Milosz

For centuries, poets have vested ardent faith in the ability of poetry to not just effectively describe the world but also to contour, transfigure and transform it by its disruptive power, its clairvoyance and its messianic faith. In light and dark, hope and despair, and accomplishment and loss, poetry has stood firmly beside life as a pathfinder and witness, leading it to refinement and wisdom. Questioning the world’s logic, battling its ideas and speaking truth to power, poets continue to be its “unacknowledged legislators”, speaking eloquently and memorably on behalf of its disillusionment, rage and suffering, and leading the way for constructive social action. Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a fine collection of fifty-one poems that engages with the injustices of the world in this fiery spirit of moral questioning.

Poet, writer and art curator, Bina Sarkar Ellias is the founder, editor, designer and publisher of International Gallerie, an award-winning global arts and ideas publication from India. Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is her fourth collection of poems, her earlier collections being The Room, Fuse and When Seeing is Believing . An experienced art-critic, her poetic voice draws richly from her committed engagement with art and her poems have found a home in many languages of the world through translation.

“It happens that we live in a world fraught with fragility,” writes Ellias. “There are certain forces that prefer to divide and disrupt humanity and there are certain forces that feed our souls with peace and serenity. Through time, the poems in this book arrived unannounced as all poems do; each time, it was an outrage or a helplessness that compelled a response to assaults on humankind by scheming minds.”

In putting forth a narrative of megalomania and oppression, the book, indeed, documents the keen angst of a sensitive and thinking mind in a callous, unprincipled world. Here are poems that emerge, wave-like, from the depths of fury and despair to speak out against the looming issues of our times – cultures of dictatorship, suppression of the forces of democracy, stifling of plurality, erasure of rights, jingoism, colonisation of nature, blatant capitalism, identity-conflicts and violence against women, amongst others. Ranging from the sufferings of Syria, Zimbabwe, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Istanbul, Baghdad, Lahore, Manchester, the Indian farmers, the Rohingyas, Nirbhaya, our imprisoned student activists and so much more, Ellias poignantly conjures before our eyes a global collage of infringement, discrimination and injury.

In Ellias’ poetic narrative, the only division that exists in the world is between the callous and the compassionate. The former dwell in an unending wilderness – “these minds/ that cannot/ decipher/ the essence/ of humanity/ these minds/ that are mowed/ and manicured/ to erase all/ reason;/ that believe/ a gun or grenade/ can complete/ the circle/ of life; can part/ the sea/ of reason so the/ bludgeoned brain/ and sterile heart/ may cross.” (‘If it’s Not Me, it Will Be You’)

In ‘Cement in Our Souls’, the poet laments the world’s stark sterility – “the dignity/ of life drowned/ in a desire so distant/ from Van Gogh’s/ lust for life/ or Monet’s tranquil pond/ so far from/ Hiroshige’s pastorals,/ so distant/ from Tagore’s/ Song of the Road/ so removed from Lennon’s/ Imagine./ must we celebrate/ concrete?/ must we be robots/ and cement/ our souls?”

For the committed activist that Ellias is, a poem is no leisurely arrival into the world but an urgent statement of its status, “an invasion of clean air.” (‘This is Not a Poem’) Her language, in its fidelity to the colloquial rhythm and its determined, energetic flow across difficult sentiments does away with all impediments of punctuation so that the overall impression that the book offers the reader is one of a tremendous, roaring waterfall intending to sweep all in its restless questioning. Note the primal power of ‘Assault’, for instance, a poem worth quoting in its entirety:

assaulted by malls and high rises
that tower like beasts on the streets
suffocating your breath assaulted
by robotic yearnings for more and
more assaulted by neons that wink
and beckon like lecherous pimps
on the wayside I navigate the city
walking warily through mine fields
of consumption that suck the
energies out of every cell, every pore
of my untrained body that craves to
curl into a cave of nothingness.

The beat of the poem fills one with a sense of desperation, exhaustion and collapse – the exact emotive signification of the idea of ‘assault’. And yet, in the midst of this roaring disquiet, the poet does not fail to remind the reader that her chosen genre of protest is poetry and not prose. Every now and then, she lets fall a rhyme for the perceptive ear and as her lines flow relentlessly, often unforgivingly like rain, the chaos of the world is watermarked by the poetic faith of hope’s resurrection. Mark the following lines in ‘Manufactured Fear’:

manufactured fear
i do not dread
fear that is force-fed
into my flesh
fear of who i am
and who i cannot be
fear of flags
that dictate my identity
fear of food
that betrays my religion
or my lack of one
is seen as blasphemy.

Ellias’ images are assiduously wrought as she consistently attempts to summon both shock and tenderness to her verse. In ‘Intangible Knowing’, conformity is the myopia of those who live “barren linear lives” with “mathematical/ precision,/ and weigh/ life’s moments/ with the entitlement/ of acquisition.” In ‘This Skin of Freedom’, freedom is the fragile skin that all have the right to lay claim to. Rivers become arteries in ‘Ode to Bangladesh’. ‘Call of Resistance’ visualizes the hammering of the coppersmith barbet as a ceaseless call of resistance. In ‘It Was Then’, Shaheen Bagh and Mumbai Bagh are “sister fields – fertile/ with bloodied wounds” that blossom “when the fires of hate/ had burnt them.” The poet selects her allusions from a sprawling cosmopolitan canvas of art and life as she steadily links minds and agonies across the cultures and conflicts of continents in a seamless whole. In ‘Ode to Utopia’, utopia assumes the form of a diffuse oneness of mind – “it was as if raag bhairav/ was in dialogue with/ Mozart’s Nocturne/ and a shamisen strummed/ to the tinkle/ of the African kalimba -/ it was as if/ spring had migrated/ into our lives/ for permanent/ residency.”

Making way into the world of Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is to be receptive to the poet’s testimony of the acute disjointedness of our times and the imperative for healing through acknowledgement of the need for dissent. In ‘Rebel’, the poet compares the rebel to “a tired/ moth-eaten/ leaf/ that once/ knew/ its green/ shield/ could battle/ arrogant winds/ that swept/ over its/ tree abode.” It is easy and legitimate, perhaps, to bow down and give in to helplessness and dismay in the face of the rampancy and ruthlessness of our times. However, as Ellias reminds us, the act of resistance is a duty both civic and humane:

life can be bitter –
but you can dwell
with love and courage
if you repel.

life can be better
if you repel-

life can be better
if you rebel.

In ‘books’, the poet writes, “a book is a river; a voyage into the unknown/ on a paper boat.” Bina Sarkar Ellias invites her readers to make this voyage with conviction and faith in the possibility of a better world. To rebel, as her poems point out, is no more a philosophical choice but a compelling necessity given the depravity of our times. We are living through an important moment in history dominated by tales of “tattered democracy” and “new age fascists” (‘I Hear’). The choice is no longer between whether to rebel or hold on to silence but overwhelmingly now, a question of life and death.

Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems is a wake-up call to humanity worldwide to adopt defiance as a mode of life if being is to chosen over annihilation.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her recent (second) collection of poems is Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021). She loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Horses have a captivating and curious existence in India. Stallions have been graciously carved into the Indian landscape in a variety of ways. To view the subcontinent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept back in its power and propriety. Horses have a galactic connection to Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also popular belief.

The political symbolism of the horse, its vital function in social life, religion, sport and war, its role in shaping economies and forging crucial human bonds is too obvious to point out.

Emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri is an interesting tale of gallantry. In India’s modern history, there were fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. Horses have an intimate connection to grooms, blacksmiths, breeders, traders and bandits.

Rana Pratap’s legendary Chetak, Ranjit Singh’s much-contested Laili, Pabuji’s cherished black mare and those horses captured in paintings and equestrian portraits are riveting. This glorious age of the horse met its painful decline with the onset of colonial rule and automation.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger is an engrossing book not only for the subject but also the research. In this inspiring and scholarly book, Doniger — who has been called the greatest living mythologist — examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history, from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, followed by the Greeks, the Turks and Mongols (who imported Arabian horses) and the British (who imported Thoroughbreds and Walers). 

Along the way, she delves deep into the rituals of horse sacrifice in the Vedic age. She rummages through the stories of warring horses and snakes in the Mahabharata. She digs into   tensions between Hindu stallion and Arab mare traditions; imposing European standards on Indian breeds; the reasons many Indian men ride mares to weddings; the motivations for murdering Dalits who ride horses; and the enduring myth of foreign horses who emerge from the ocean to fertilise native mares.

Doniger combines erudition with storytelling and gives the reader a persuasive account on the horse in Indian culture just as she does it in her other books on Indian mythology. 

Quoting from the book: “The horse is not indigenous to India, except in a few small pockets. Even after it was brought to the subcontinent sometime between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE by the Indo-Europeans. It played almost no part in the lives of ordinary Indian villagers, being too expensive for all but the most privileged people to own. In India’s folklore, epics and popular culture horse stories abound and there are some brilliant images of the animal.”

Doniger’s ride through four millennia of Indian legend and folklore is full of sacrificial horses, horse-headed gods, transformations and couplings. Like Doniger’s other works on Indian mythology and history, this book  is astonishingly accomplished with the threads of mythical narratives woven into a meaningful depiction of the Indian imagination.

Author of classic works like The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger has two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford. She has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her other books include Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities; The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra.  

The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (Fleet). Doniger retells the story thus:

“The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (Savarna) and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.”

Doniger takes us on the trail of the horse into and within India. What follows is a surprising and exhilarating journey, covering caravan-trade routes originating in Central Asia and Tibet, sea routes from the Middle East, and the dominions of different sultans and Mughal emperors, the south Indian kingdoms as well as the Rajput horse-warrior states. 

Doniger professes her earliest exposure to India and the horses was in 1963 when she was twenty-two years old. Her meeting with Penelope Betjeman — daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode who was the head commander of the British forces in India from 1928 to 1935 — gave her an introduction to these creatures. Doniger has dedicated the book to Penelope who died accidentally in 1986 in the Kulu Hills.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares has about a dozen chapters — most of which have a throwback to the Vedic and Puranic times. It is only in the last two chapters where she writes the horse saga of modern India. With a slew of illustrations and profound research, the book makes for a gripping read. 

.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Women Who Wear Only Themselves by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha   

 Title: Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
                                                                              

This is an unusual book–unusual because of the theme, approach and style. And when it comes from a skilled author, it ought to be still more engrossing. A tiny book of about two hundred pages but not so diminutive in its journey to profile four women — who are known little outside their small world of followers and who matter in the arena of spirituality. It is a melodious presentation.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves–Conversations with Four Travelers on Sacred Journeys’ by Arundhathi Subramaniam is prophetic, in-depth and counter-revolutionary.

Author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, Arundhathi is an award-winning author. Her most recent book is Love Without a Story. The Other books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a modern-day mystic, Sadguru: More Than a Life are also the talked about ones. Arundhati is widely known as a poetry editor, curator and critic. Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020 besides being shortlisted for various other prizes.

Arundhathi’s book provides glimpses of four spiritual practitioners – Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani, and Maa Karpoori — who unlike the chatty sadhus prominent on the social media, practice in isolation. Arundhati talks at length to these women of substance and in doing so, she gives some promise for the jaded souls. Besides, she looks for a gender-balancing act and tries to widen the circle of women spiritual leaders.

In a world where women have been seen traditionally as someone’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister, why would a woman choose to follow a spiritual path? Perhaps because, deep inside every woman has a longing to be someone in her own self, confident and in control.

In the last two thousand years, women have not fully used their spiritual power. Instead, aspects of the feminine have taken mainly symbolic forms from the Virgin Mary to the vestal virgins, from Earth Goddesses to the Shakti Devis. Women have been put on pedestals and worshiped on account of their purity or femininity; but have been excluded from religious activities and barred from entering places of worship.

In the present book, she talked to Annapurani Amma who left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint (she lives naked but delivers prophecies.) Balarishi Vishwashirasini who was predicting futures ultimately transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, she is a gifted teacher of nada yoga. Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. The fourth woman is Maa Karpoori, who had a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood.

Writes Arundhathi in the Preface: “The primary motivation behind this book is simple. Thirst. Hopefully, a shared one. As a seeker, I have spent years thirsting for conversations. With spiritual teachers, with fellow travellers committed to the life of the spirit. I cannot complain. My life has been rich in conversations.

“I have had conversations with seekers of various persuasions. I have spent long hours listening to the yogi and mystic who later became my guru. I have eavesdropped on countless conversations with mystics in books — Shirdi Sai Baba, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Osho. I’ve even imagined the lapping waters of the Hooghly quieting to listen to the extraordinary exchanges between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciples. But another kind of thirst remained.”

So, what made her plan this book? “There was no crusading zeal that motivated this book. There was no schematic design. No spirit of advocacy. But there was a longing to listen to the voices of lesser-known women—women who choose to live in relative seclusion and shadow, and yet burn brightly. Women whom I met, accidentally, in the course of my own journey, and who generously allowed me a glimpse of their light. Something shifted within me after each of these chance encounters. I did not leave any of them unmoved.”

Arundhati doesn’t skip history: “The Indian spiritual landscape is not devoid of its women. We are routinely reminded of an illustrious litany: Maitreyi, Gargi, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Gangasati, Meerabai. The list is long and varied. There are well-known figures in more recent times too, from the 20th-century mystics, Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry, to contemporary guru, Mata Amritanandamayi. Remarkable women. Beacons for many even today.”

 Says Arundhathi admittedly: “These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals. There were no bargains being hatched here. I write about these conversations primarily because they were so remarkably free of agenda.

“My initial encounters with the women in this book were unplanned. I happened to have spent large swathes of time in southern India in the past decade, and so, not surprisingly, that is where these meetings happened. They are not meant to represent the religious plurality of the Indian subcontinent, although I do believe that they reveal the still-vanquished hospitality of vision that characterizes its spiritual ethos.”

While she is on the subject, her incredulity and concerns goes farther than the original remit: “The terror of uncertainty is more blazingly evident in our world than it ever has been. To carve a path between the certitudes of a frozen faith and the dogmas of arid materialism can be challenging. I marvelled at how these women held their own in a world so conceptually fragmented. A world that divides the material and the spiritual into such impermeable categories. How did these women tune into their own inner guidance? How did they come to terms with that simple but oddly elusive truth: that we are both flesh and spirit? That we do not have to masquerade as simply one or the other?”

Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.

Interspersed with her own poems to uphold the content, the four conversations in the book are as fascinating as pathbreaking. Appropriate for an awakened reading!

.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

.

Click here to read Arundhathi Subramaniam’s interview and poetry.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL


Categories
Review

Where Buddhist Monks’ Voices Ring

Book review by Keith Lyons

Title: Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Author: Jessica Mudditt

Publisher: Hembury Press, May 2021

Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon by Jessica Mudditt is a thought-provoking memoir about a foreigner’s experience as a journalist and outsider in Myanmar, a country emerging from decades of military rule and international isolation.

Australian Jessica Mudditt arrives in the former Burmese capital of Yangon in 2012 with her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa just as the nation is moving towards greater democracy and opening up to the world after decades of oppression, dictatorships, civil wars, and economic sanctions.

Newly arrived Mudditt discerns a fresh optimism and hope for transformation in Yangon as she negotiates the culture shocks and cultural quirks of enigmatic Myanmar (also known as Burma). Yet there are few happy endings in ‘Our Home in Myanmar’, just some sobering realities.

While their outward quest is to find a place to call home (and secure visas to legally work), the couple’s inner journey is about trying to understand the complexities and contradictions of a largely Buddhist country where monks are among the most vocal protestors — and the daughter of the independence leader and founder of the armed forces had been under house arrest for 15 years.

Covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi is just one of the assignments Jessica undertakes; her role as a journalist for various publications and organisations gives her access to the newsmakers as well as those seldom featured in the media. But for every door that opens, another one slams shut. Nevertheless, the reader gets a window into the machinations, superstitions, and craziness of the military regime in what appeared to be its decline. Spoiler alert: in light of current events, it turned out to be a false spring.

She gets a frosty reception from the old-hand expat editors at the major English language newspaper co-owned by an Australian maverick media mogul, but later one of the most emotional high points comes in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) gets a landslide victory while Mudditt worked as the first foreign editor at the newspaper considered the propaganda mouthpiece of the junta.

This underlying theme contrasting expectations and realities gives the book momentum, as do the challenges and hurdles for a naïve foreign journalist struggling to comprehend the strange yet fascinating aspects of Burmese life and governance during this turbulent time. While many visiting media have fawned over Aung San Suu Kyi, she finds the NLD leader lacking charisma, in contrast to the vibrant President Barack Obama who champions Myanmar’s freedoms during a landmark visit.

The book weaves personal narratives with political backstories and cultural backgrounders. The author’s vulnerability and bravery make it a riveting read, with the reader drawn into the risky plight of the writer as well as the precarious situation of her host country. With a clear empathetic voice, attention to detail, and well-crafted chapters, Mudditt, who has written for The Telegraph, Marie Claire, GQ, and CNN, reveals she is not just a good storyteller but has something to say. She survives sudden earthquakes, dilapidated hospitals, and tropical turbulence, often finding solace in cigarettes, alcohol, and her Sherpa. She is a social butterfly with the cool expats who have arrived in Yangon, but her work for the UN and the British Embassy shatters the dream that Myanmar has broken free of its backwardness and nastiness. Amid the moments of despair and farce, thankfully there are dashes of absurdity and humour.

The author left Myanmar in 2016 amid a rise in Buddhist nationalism, but an ‘Epilogue’ has been added to highlight the unexpected but not unsurprising military coup earlier this year. The book concludes with a ‘where are they now’ update on some of the key people depicted in its pages.

Perhaps without realising it, Mudditt has chronicled a significant period in Myanmar’s modern history. Our Home in Myanmar is a good introduction to Myanmar, as it sheds light on the intriguing former British colony, its rocky road towards freedom and democracy.  The author was fortunate to be in Myanmar during a small window of opportunity.

With Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing declaring himself prime minister at the start of this month, but promising to hold elections by 2023, Myanmar remains out-of-bounds for any outsiders. By the middle of August 2021 as much as half of Myanmar’s 55 million population could have Covid-19, experts reckon.

Burma-watchers will find it nostalgic and insightful, while democracy-watchers and those concerned about press freedoms, will find information and substance. Intrepid travellers to the Land of Golden Pagodas will find the book provides a fresh perspective on modern Myanmar, a troubled country facing a difficult uncertain future. Given Myanmar’s strategic buffer location between superpowers China and India, the former British colony will continue to play a significant role in the region’s development, direction and alliances. That’s why anyone with an interest in South Asia and South-east Asia should read this perceptive and illuminating book.

(Click here to read an excerpt of the book.)

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Sylvia: A Genre-Bending Book

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends

Author: Maithreyi Karnoor

Publisher: Tranquebar, 2021

Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia is a genre-bending book which appreciates the immensity of life while treading insouciantly.

Maithreyi Karnoor has won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharti Prize for translation from Kannada to English. She was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and twice for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her essays, poetry, translations and reviews have been published in most mainstream and literary journals in India. She is currently putting together her poetry collection Skinny Dipping in Tiger Country, and collaborating with Rhys Hughes on Rainbow Territory. Sylvia is her debut novel. 

We live life linearly. Growing, ageing and experiencing, we pass through events which stop us by to assert the primacy of time. Still, too often, we tend to dwell much upon the emotions we happen to go through – focusing hugely on our own desires and despairs. So much so that we lose sight of the only event which is bound to be certain – death. We overlook the fact that our lives, though lived in a linear manner, are also tangentially connected to lives of others, to all those people we come across. And taken together, the web that it creates, affirms our nothingness in the immensity of this design. Wouldn’t it be then wise to live the life in the constant knowledge of it. And not to take our own emotions too seriously, to make the journey bit easier for us.

Maithreyi Karnoor’s experimental novel appears to be an exploration of this idea. She gives us a character, Sylvia, and then proceeds to create a tapestry of life which includes warps of lives of the people she either meets or stumbles by, where her own life runs as an underlying nap, at times palpable while at others, invisible.

The novel is divided into two parts. Part I tells us the story of Bhaubaab, Sylvia’s uncle whom she happens to meet accidently, and of Lakshmi, Bhaubaab’s neighbour in a sleepy Goan village. Part II consists of nine distinct stories, telling the tales of its characters who may or may not be acquainted with Sylvia. At times, one wonders whether it is the same Sylvia in each story but the author doesn’t make it apparent. She weaves these stories with a confident hand, like a weaver who knows the design instinctively and doesn’t have to necessarily abide by the set patterns of construct.

Spanning sixty pages, Bhaubaab is also the longest story in the book. Cajetan Pereira or Bhaubaab returns and settles down in a village in native Goa from Africa where his forefathers had migrated. Karnoor’s research into the practices of living in both the places comes through her deft narrative. She touches upon the notions of familial conflict, ambitiousness of impressionable youngsters, smugness of educated elite and homosexuality as she intertwines the three characters of Bhaubaab, Lakshmi and Sylvia in the first part.

In Bhagirati, Karnoor probes mental illness of a character who dies by suicide. In Venison, she looks at the superstitious beliefs of people of a village where a young couple, Shaila and Sujeeth, make a home far away from conventional city life. In Blue Barrel, Karnoor tells us the story of Reshma, from an underprivileged background, who has to steal water even to bathe. Eighteen Spoons, presents a snippet of Sylvia’s life as a well-established writer through the lens of another character with whom she exchanges messages. The title draws its name from a poem included in the narrative which exemplifies Karnoor’s craft as a poet.        

The story A Cat named Insomnia seems to render a closure to the stories of characters from previous stories in the sense that it suggests an ending whereas the other stories give the impression of seeping into each other. We meet Bhaubaab from Part I again in The Afterlife of Trees and RIP but not Lakshmi. The last story, RIP of Part II, also appears to suggest a closure as we witness Sylvia getting ready to go back to her home after what looks like some years of travelling.  

All rest and peace is for the living

Know peace while you can

What if what lies beyond is more of the same thing

Get some sleep tonight

Appearing at the beginning of last story, these lines are a remarkable expression of the underlying idea of the genre-bending book – that of appreciating life for its vastness, of accepting, to borrow from the author, that love, loss, success, disappointments, shouldn’t be taken as seriously as we do. That if all these are taken in our stride perhaps they would hurt less. That we must know peace and cling to it. The pen which so assertively forges to interpret and portray this imperative view towards life is a pen worth watching for.

.

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Review Tribute

Under the Shadow of Death: Memoirs of Tagore’s Last Days

To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs

Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021

The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.

Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.

The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others.  Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.    

In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.

The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.

In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”

The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.

The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.

Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.

Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come  close to hagiography. They also lay bare a  performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.

The socio-cultural context  is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of  a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes  to get the landslide cleared.

With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.

A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often  in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.  

Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:

“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”

Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:

You had brought along with you

 Deathless soul

In your death you have

Donated that

You have donated that

In your death.”

.

  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Murder at Daisy Apartments

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Murder in Daisy Apartments

Author: Shabnam Minwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Murder in Daisy Apartments (2021) by Shabnam Minwalla is a young adult murder mystery story set in Colaba, Mumbai, India during the COVID-19 lockdown days.

Shabnam Minwalla has worked as a journalist with the Times of India. Her debut novel, The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street (2012) won the Rivokids Parents’ and Kids’ Choice Awards. She writes children’s fiction now. She has written a number of children’s story books including the Nimmi series, and a forward to an edition of Little Women brought out by Speaking Tiger Books.

Murder in Daisy Apartments starts on the forty-third day of the lockdown when 78-years-old Mr. Sevnani a resident of Lily Apartments, who had a bad heart, and an even worse temper was mysteriously hospitalized. The emergency that led him to be rushed to the hospital did not come as a surprise to the residents. Sevnani’s case was one in which a swarm of men wearing masks and sinister blue safety suits took him away in an ambulance.

But it happened again. On the forty-fourth day, a BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) van drove to the housing complex to pick up a dead body. People grew apprehensive. The shock deepened as residents came to know that Raghunath, a long-time resident of these apartments had been evicted by Baman Marker, the Chairperson of the Daisy and Lily Apartments as he had tested corona positive, and the complex had been declared a containment zone. During such severe lockdowns, movements were restricted.

On the forty-sixth day, Mr. Marker was found poisoned in his apartment. Since he was murdered during the pandemic lockdown, the killing could have only been masterminded by a resident of the complex. Nandini Venkat, a 15-year-old murder mysteries enthusiast, who calls herself and her twin brother as “standard issue South Bombay brats” is glued to the details of this “OMG (o my God) moments” in the history of Daisy and Lily Apartments. She joins the dots to detect and solve Marker’s murder mystery. Honing her investigative skills, with keen observation of people and the chronology of events, Nandini turns into a detective on the fiftieth day of the lockdown. Her sunny, social and festival loving brother, Ved, and her best friend, Shanaya, join her to find out more about this mysterious death.

Who could have murdered Baman Marker? Was it the Kurians, the Carvalhos, the Khambatas, the Habibullahs, the Lambas, the Burmans, the Kapadias, Lina Almeida, Maria, Alfonso, Mr. Shetty or Chemmen Saab? Who was the mysterious man that Mrs. Kurain saw early in the morning of the fateful day? Whose were those “black legs” that Nandini spotted climbing up and down the stairs on the night of the murder? More questions assail Nandini and the air gets thicker with thrill, nervousness and excitement all at the same time. Ved sings in a low voice:

"Beware, beware, he’s out and about, 
So be careful ’bout the rumours you monger, the panic you spread. 
The Big Bum’s at the door, revenge cooking in his head."

Ved and Shanaya make the best investigating team with Nandini. Nandini’s “LIST OF SUSPECTS—Means, Motive and Rating” tactfully streamlines the possibilities of finding the murderer. The strong suspects in the list includes Mr. Carvalho, Daniel’s father and a physics teacher who took crazily expensive tuitions and has a shady history; Amrita Aunty, Shanaya’s mother, who had had major disagreements with Marker; old and mean retired principal Lina Almeida, the granny gruesome who makes fabulous immunity boosting juices and detox smoothies; Marker’s chartered accountant Ranjit Burman with whom he had a nasty fight some months back; the secretly courageous Rashida Habibullah; and, the aged and immobile Mr. Alimchandani, who had long-buried secrets.

Amidst the fearful environment of death and pandemic in the Daisy and Lily Apartments, Minwalla beautifully brings out the characters of the young investigators and the residents with many details. The role of internet and social media during the pandemic and in the present day is infused in the narrative. For instance, she has highlighted the unavoidable participation in the Apartment’s WhatsApp groups of adults, where daily updates that thrive with rumours or gossips and the Daisy-Lily kids’ group for the children who discuss school, crushes, movies, people and latest information. Nandini and Shanaya discuss TikTok and Instagram followers, zombie teenagers addicted to social media, FOMO, Zoom call with school friends, Netflix and WiFi connections. Nandini on the verge of solving the mystery says, “My mind will be thinking about nachos or the red boots on sale in H&M, while my fingers pick up my phone, click, swipe, click.”

Minwalla also uses subtle humor to make the story a delightful read. This is evident in the children calling Mr. Sevnani “the Abominable Snowman”, or in imagining Baman Marker, the shrewish Chairperson of Daisy and Lily Apartments as “an arch criminal—a sort of Macavity the Cat” or “SoBo version of Kaa the python” and more. Minwalla’s use of phrases like ‘Work from Home’, disowning someone, sealed apartment, social distancing, stay safe, compulsory registry of visitors, tested corona positive, online meetings, and mental deterioration, instantly connects us and sheds light on the shift in the usage of language for depicting the pandemic. Nostalgia, empathy, magic and mystery mingle as one reads with a sense of enjoyment, revelling in the suspense-filled clandestine moves taking the mystery forward.

Murder in Daisy Apartments is entertaining and organically Indian. It gives a flavour of Mumbaikars to those willing to step into a local residential complex and mingle with the residents.

.

Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

The Third Eye of Governance

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: The Third Eye of Governance

Author: Dr N Bhaskara Rao

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Populism may be   a decent expression for politicians; but social science researches would give a damn to the way government policies are planned shorn of any rationality and wisdom. Research is key to whatever social development one talks about because that gives an edge to the expected change. This book takes forward precisely the idea of good research and the downsides of not having an investigation into the way governments’ function.

The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao is an eye-opening book because it is written by a pioneer of social research in India. Being  Founder Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) and of Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA), Rao  built up the equally prestigious Operations Research Group (ORG) as its CEO.A member of the National Population Policy Committee and one who reorganized the media units of the Information and Broadcasting ministry, Rao has authored a couple of other books : Social Impact of Mass Media, A Handbook of Poll Surveys in Media , Sustainable Good Governance, Development and Democracy, Citizen Activism in India and The TRP Trick: How Television in India Was Hijacked. 

A first-of-its-kind history and analysis of social research in India from Independence to the present, this book discusses India’s most important research projects, and the policies based on them. That includes the family planning programme, the five-year plans and the decennial census which has been put on hold because of the pandemic. 

According to Dr Rao, there has been a steady decline in social research with the rise of populism in Indian politics, and there is an utter disregard for transparency and accountability. The volume shows how data, statistics, analysis and research have become politically sensitive and belligerent. Rao argues that if the current refrains about development and progress are backed by applied social research, India can reach new heights in democracy, development, and governance.

Forthright to the core, Rao says with political parties dominating policies, there has been a greater emphasis on winning elections. And this trepidation has to become the priority for research. He contends that research is a distinctive form of enquiry — and that is why he calls it ‘third eye of governance’. The book is a valuable investigation of public policy successes and failures of governments led by different PMS, from Nehru and Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. 

Writes Rao: “Populism is an outlook of leaders, and a methodology and strategy of those in power to control, command, and exert their authority. What we are witnessing today is an altogether new populism where ideology has little importance. The new instruments of communication and network have changed the course so much that populism is being made to appear or sound synonymous to democracy and development, when in fact it can turn out be a countervailing phenomenon.

“What is being regarded as a boom may turn out to be a bubble. This depends on the leaders’ grip or control over the instruments of administrative authority or political power. In populism, the difference between ends and means becomes blurred.”

Terming the new wave of populism sweeping across the nation ‘rhetoric-centered’, he argues: “It purports people as masses but is led by a few who are masters of rhetoric. Here, institutions matter less, as do future implications and research and feedback. Populism depends on revisiting the past rather than focusing on the future beyond three-five years. Polarizing people through destabilization is part of the strategy. Perpetuating hate, anger, and resentment form the core of populism and help sustain the phenomena. Double-talk also comes handy in this process.”

Academically comprehensive, the book cites the example of how the ‘melting pot’ idea of American society in the mid-20th century was studied closely by sociologists and contributed to the assimilation process that changed the course of American social progress by changing the mindset. In India, however, Rao says, despite Nehru embarking on the idea of assimilation, people continue more divided, and development has not reached a large number. Part of the reason, according to him, is the lack of critical research and independent appraisal of policies and plans.

While acknowledging the potential of the development themes echoed by Prime Minister Modi, Rao points out the glaring gaps between the stated intention and actual practice. The ideas have to be backed by “high-quality independent and unbiased research”. Slogans and themes such as ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (united, we progress)’ deserve to be followed up far more seriously, consistently, and critically.

The government’s recent campaigns such as Swachh Bharat (clean India) or Smart Cities has brought about a new research. He calls it “Endorsement research” or supportive research. Whether research is independent is no longer the preferred criteria. Even the credibility of independent institutions, which have been the primary sources for the country’s statistics, have come under questioning. There has been more reliance on audit-based method than evaluative research in recent years, according to the book.

Divided into ten chapters and running through a little more than 300 pages, the book unequivocally tells how credible public institutions of the country are being reduced to the level of drum beaters. “Covid numbers being doled out by state after state reminds the extent political leaders stoop to suit their immediate advantages. As if we are reviving a regime of numbers.”

The book further says, citizen activism, debates, deliberations, and checks and balances are no longer virtues, and may even be snubbed. Populism does not care so much for self-correctives or plurality. He goes to the extent of saying populism needs an imaginary or a virtual villain or an enemy to prompt realignments. It submits a polarization that thrives in terms of ‘We of now’ and ‘They of the past’.

Dr Rao delves into the history, successes, and failures of research since Independence. He seeks to “regroup social sciences towards a trajectory of good governance, development and democracy, so that social research can lead towards a citizen-centric, society-sensitive future than one focused on just the market and consumer”.

With a foreword by Dr RA Mashlekar, former Director General Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the book is in-depth, fetching and has a broad sweep. It looks at the outlines of public and social research in India through a critical lens. An indispensable read.

.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Hurtling through Time

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: A Sense of Time

Author: Anuradha Kumar

Publishers: Weavers Press, 2021

A Sense of Time is a collection of short stories by Anuradha Kumar that stretch across different periods of time, hurtling through the past into the future. A two-time Commonwealth award winner, Kumar has authored thirty-one books, written for Economic and Political Weekly among many other journals and newspapers, woven stories for children under a pseudonym and has released two books almost together in 2021, the other being The Hottest Summer in Years amidst excellent reviews.

Reading Kumar’s A Sense of Time is akin to going on an unplanned journey which takes you to places most unexpected, the roads twisting and turning as you march on with bated breath, wondering where or what it might lead you to. You have to remain alert at all times lest you might miss something crucial to a story. The narrative style in each story is crisp, never faltering once. And the most striking thing is Kumar’s ability to conjure vivid imagery in the mind of the reader. The spaces that her pen creates might either be real or illusive, the enticement is decidedly palpable.  

The story, ‘Entomologist at Trial’, is a about a small town lawyer trying to make it big at High Court. He fails each time he bases his decisions on idealism. It is essentially a satire on the society which derides integrity and where being successful is far more important than being right. ‘Pandemic 2121’ is a love story based in an imagined future where the protagonist is separated from her lover, from a different planet, because of the policies of her planet’s government. Here the author addresses the innate human longing for things simpler and basic to human nature for sustenance amidst a pandemic like situation similar to that witnessed in 2020.

In some stories, Kumar explores the world of women from distinct backgrounds. Rekha from ‘Rekha Crosses the Line’ is a bored middle class housewife looking for ways to distract herself from her mundane existence and from the anxieties forced upon her by the familial expectations. It also explores the murky world of Godmans thriving in a society where people flock in the hope to find answers or to while away their time deliberately, knowing exactly what they are entering. ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’ follows the events of a day in the life of Gauri who works as a house help for different apartments in a society. Kumar focuses upon the perilous circumstances women engage in this work sometimes confront, their apprehensions and the acts they feel obliged to do to for the sake of their livelihoods. It is also a peek into the apathy with which the society treats women working as domestic helps and employers’ lack of concern to the vulnerabilities they might be exposed to.

Dorothy Cries in the Busis the story of a journey taken by two women of different nationalities brought together by circumstances and their effort to connect with each other. It essentially focuses on their similarities as women dealing with their marriages and discovering a kinship in unusual circumstances. ‘Missing’ takes us to the world of a woman married to an army soldier and her efforts to keep the household functioning in the absence of her husband who rarely gets a leave from his posting. The story, however, also turns our attention to the meagre salaries the army soldiers earn and the psychological stress they endure which is seldom focused upon. The heroic welcome that Gudiya’s husband receives in the village upon his return on a vacation stands in stark contrast to the reality of his everyday life marred by difficulties to procure even nutritious food for his ailing father.

Some stories are also biting satires on the ways a society acquires and becomes accustomed to. ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’ is a story of a man who gets invited to play Mahatma at various events. Das takes great pain to look like Gandhi, wear similar clothes, practice the same kind of gait and the way of spinning the charkha. He also memorizes Bapu’s speeches which he delivers to sometimes a rapt audience. As the years after independence progress, he realises people don’t really care about the Mahatma or his ways anymore. At one event, he is invited to appear only to be made to disappear again — as a magician’s prop. Through the course of this narrative, Kumar highlights the growing indifference of the citizens towards the ideals or edifice upon which India was constructed after a long struggle faced by the independence movement.

‘Big Fish’ takes us to the world of a refugee family living on the brim of society, its fears and vulnerabilities. It also showcases the apathy of a government towards such people whose sole existence could hang on the whims of officers given charge to identify them.

The titular story, ‘A Sense of Time’, has elements of supernatural where time gives the impression, of drifting and sometimes advancing, but traps the reader into a delusion with such alacrity so as to leave her mystified by the experience. The disorientation which Kumar manages to entice a reader into is at once intriguing and spell-binding.

Kumar’s writing clearly comes out as bold, experimental and confident. The pace with which she commences a story never loses its hold on the reader. Though there are a couple of stories where the ending may leave a reader wondering or wanting for a closure but author’s choice to keep them open ended emulates life as sometimes experienced in reality. Instances where you may come across people only passingly and may never come to know everything about them. But then this is how life is. This is the beauty of it, our ability to keep some experiences in memories and identify our own existence as transient, only fleeting for those we unexpectedly meet on our journey.

.

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.