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Review

The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Author: Neelima Dalmia Adhar

Publisher: Tranquebar, Westland Books

The Secret Diary of Kasturba by Neelima Dalmia Adhar was an interesting experience as it traverses known ground, albeit from a feminine perspective. The book lays no claim to authenticity or historical veracity since Kasturba was barely literate, obdurate in the face of her husband’s efforts to educate her. Adhar’s retelling of the personal life of the Gandhis is obviously inseparable from Mohandas Karamchand’s huge public persona which acquired almost mythic status during his own lifetime, as he became the “father of the nation”. That the public role came at a certain cost is what this fictionalized memoir/ autobiography makes clear. The fight against imperialism also took its toll and some aspects of this fictionalized biographical account might be seen as a sort of collateral damage.

Married off at a young age when both were thirteen, she describes the sexual passion between the two which cemented their conjugality. At the same time, his early experience of lust and unbridled passion fills Gandhi with guilt and remorse and his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, comes out strongly against the practice of child marriage, as he feels that it stunts the growth and potential of children trapped in the practice.

The other reason for his guilt is the fact that his ailing father was on his deathbed when Mohandas was overtaken by desire. That sense of guilt plagues him later, since he leaves his father’s room knowing well that the father’s chances of survival were slim. Soon after, he receives the news of his father’s death. Later in life, he took a vow of celibacy, but his decision of celibacy was taken unilaterally without consulting Kasturba, who felt resentful about being excluded from something that concerned them both. While Gandhi’s behaviour towards his wife, his tendency to dominate and control, were within the expected parameters of conjugality in late 19th century, they would stand out as oppressive by today’s standards.

Two episodes stand out in this context, both providing ample anecdotal evidence of Gandhi’s high-handedness and tendency to dictate terms to his wife. One is his injunction to clean out the chamber-pots of guests in the house in South Africa. When she refuses to do so, he is ready to throw her out of the house. On another occasion, when they are about to leave South Africa, Kasturba is given gifts of jewelry as a goodwill gesture. Gandhi forbids her to keep any of it and she is forced to relinquish all of it against her will. Her resentment is not because she is greedy but is based on the instincts of a middle-class homemaker who has, in the past, been a mute witness to her own jewelry being sold off, to fund Mohandas’s journey to England to study law. At every step, Kasturba, who comes from a relatively affluent background, has had her desires thwarted. Strong-willed and decisive in many things, with definite opinions of her own, Kasturba is curbed and controlled, her will broken by her overbearing husband.

 A similar pattern follows as far as his children’s lives and education are concerned. The book also shows Gandhi’s attempt to control and shape the lives of his children and his growing rift with his eldest son, which ensues as a result. His ideas of self-sacrifice and austerity do not always sit well with his sons, who view his refusal of a formal education to them as a disprivilege and a denial of opportunity. Ironically, he helps his nephews and other associates, but his immediate family is always put through impossible tests. Not only is the bar raised for them, but they are also made to forego all legitimate desires and aspirations, for example their desire for proper schooling. While there could be an element of exaggeration in Adhar’s book, some of these facts are on record. Adhar quotes a letter from Gandhi to his friend:

“I don’t know what evil resides in me,” he wrote to a friend, “I have a streak of cruelty in me that compels people to attempt the impossible in order to please me.”

The eminent historian K.M. Pannikker once wrote that the Indian national movement was India’s version or an equivalent of the suffragette movement in the West, since it served to grant women equal rights to citizenship of the country. My caveat is that these rights were only in the domain of the political, that too construed in a limited way. While Gandhi called women to join the national movement that he was in the forefront (and practically the face) of, right from 1918 to 1948, he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He was definitely not seeking to challenge the entrenched structures of Hindu society, but seeking to marshal women’s energies to bring about a sea-change in the minds and hearts of men and political system. His attitude to the Dalit-Bahujans was similarly status quoist. His nomenclature for them-“Harijans” or children of God was refused by them; instead they chose to foreground their own oppression by calling themselves Dalits.

There is no denying that Gandhi strode into the national movement like a messiah. He also gave the world a moral substitute for war. Yet his subsuming of all other aspects of his wife’s and children’s identities and aspirations to serve the cause of the nation seems excessive and impossibly demanding. As the blurb phrases it: “He is the Mahatma, a man the world venerates as a prophet of peace. But for Kastur, the child bride who married the boy next door, Mohandas was a sexually-driven, self-righteous, and overbearing husband. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was sworn to poverty, celibacy and the cause for India’s freedom; Kastur spent sixty-two years of her life, juggling the roles of a devoted wife, a satyagrahi and sacrificing mother, who was eclipsed because of a man who almost became God for India’s multitude.”

Ready to sacrifice his family at the altar of the nation’s freedom, Gandhi’s demands as a husband along with his intolerance and harshness as a father, threaten at times to exceed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Such are the paradoxes that constitute history or is glossed over in its official versions. For the longest time, feminist historiography has sought to redress the imbalanced and skewed nature of official history. This book could be seen as an attempt to fill the blanks and gaps in a narrative which tells us about one of the most revered and reviled figures in South Asia.

Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s book is interesting and engaging. Some embellishments and degree of artistic freedom are permissible and in line with historical fiction and fictionalized history. On the whole, the book conforms to well known facts of Gandhi’s life, basing itself on already existing documentation of it.

The Secret Diary performs an important function as biographical/historical fiction. Experiences like the time in South African are detailed in Gandhi’s autobiography but this fictionalized account fleshes it out, adding effect, conflict and detailing tensions of a kind we perhaps know well, both in his public life and between an authoritarian and self-righteous husband/father and his wife and growing children. It captures the everyday, in a layered and nuanced way, helping us to unravel and capture a sense of the various strands that are woven together to weave the fabric of the daily life of Mohandas Gandhi (before he became the Mahatma) and his family. The ‘truth’ that autobiographies, biographical and historical fiction express in never one-sided or singular or a monolith but is often many-sided, plural and multi-faceted. Such a work lends a chiaroscuro effect, where we see the life of the great man sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, adding up to a complex whole.

For a colossus of a man, who was committed to righteousness and treading the path of truth, he did not seem to have acknowledged or come to terms with the fact that his truth might have clashed against the truth of other life-journeys. The search for truth is a fraught task, a journey up a slippery slope, provisional and contingent and comes perhaps at a cost.  

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at 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 and/in literature and feminist theory.       

    

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Review

Transforming Banking Practices

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Transformational Leadership in Banking

Author: Multiple. Edited by Anil K. Khandelwal

Publisher: SAGE Publications/ New Delhi, 2021

India’s banking system, as it has evolved in the past two hundred years, is a mixed bag. It has cooperative banks, domestic financing institutions, scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks, pre-reform traditional private sector banks, tech-savvy private banks, and foreign banks. One can add to this protracted list are the newer entities — small finance banks, payments banks, and the large number of mobile applications.

Even as India’s banking sector has expanded tremendously in the past few years, there is a lot to be desired from these financial institutions. Banks have, of late, been the government’s whipping boys, and the so-called reforms have only been half-baked. Bank mergers have taken place but they are yet to show up on their balance sheets.

While Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) have grabbed the space vacated by commercial banks, financial stability of banks is at crossroads. Monitoring and supervision have fallen drastically, reflecting in the persistent growth in Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). Post -Covid, there is an unfathomable shadow on India’s banks. It is in this scary backdrop that this book carries enormous importance. Transformational Leadership in Banking: Challenges of Governance, Leadership and HR in a Digital and Disruptive World by Anil K. Khandelwal comes in handy for the beleaguered leadership of the banking sector.

A thought leader, author, international speaker on leadership and governance, Anil K. Khandelwal is an acclaimed authority on human resource and leadership in the banking sector. He is a rare transformation leader. Transforming Bank of Baroda from a staid Public Sector Banks (PSB) to one of India’s most valuable international banks won him many awards, including the Asian Banker Singapore’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His brand of human resources leadership and its application in business turnaround also won him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Human Resource Development Network. He also chaired the government-appointed committee on HR in PSBs and was a member of the first Banks Board Bureau for banking reforms and selection of whole-time directors.

The book, as the blurb says, “offers a roadmap on leadership which is all about converting adversity into an opportunity for transformation. Through an excellent set of articles, case studies and interviews, this book offers a way forward for transformational leadership of the Indian banks.” Despite their many achievements, public sector banks continue to face several challenges, such as increasing non-performing assets, depleting market share and low market capitalization.

The volume is comprehensive because it deals with almost all aspects of Indian banking. With a Foreword by former Comptroller and Auditor General of Inida, Vinod Rai, the book has three parts. In part I there are essays from academics and practitioners. Part II deals with case studies. The last part deliberates on perspectives from experts. With  more than thirty chapters — each chapter contributed by a doyen in the banking sector and the academics — the 500 plus page book is clearly laid out with  sections on governance, leadership, human resources and of course the future of the banking environment

In the introduction, Dr Khandelwal writes: “The book comes at a time when Indian banking is undergoing crisis.” It gives a strong message that banks become robust institutions by addressing governance, leadership, talent and culture. The author’s argument is that the banking sector is likely to remain in a perpetual crisis mode, unless these measures are initiated immediately. 

The book, as the titles suggests, is on leadership in banking. Evidently, it has chapters on changing context of governance and leadership in public sector banks, the digital revolution, future of work in BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance) organisations, human capital and ethical bank governance, leadership choices in building better governance in the context of regulation or culture, strategic human capital management and banking governance (unexplored symbiotic relationship in PSBs), honoring legacy while embracing evolution: (the ethics narrative in State Bank of India), leadership experience and fifteen actionable insights from the trenches, organizational transformational and an agenda for Indian banks, coaching and mentoring in the backdrop of the unsung and underutilized warriors of leadership development, grooming leaders in public sector banks, crafting and living in  bank culture et al. 

There are also some illuminating pieces on leadership in times of crisis. For example, lessons from COVID-19. Employer branding to build human capital advantage, trade unions in the digital economy, skilling  a new currency,  a new manifesto for chief human resource officers in the era of digital change, wellness and yoga investment for the bankers,HR as strategic business partner in SBI ,sustainable people processes and leadership development in Bank of Baroda, the human resources story of ICICI Bank, digital transformation of HR at Union Bank of India, fear psychosis in the executives, and  bank directors require training in specific areas of technology are the other chapters which make a value addition to the book.

In the context of competition and digitalization requiring new business models, the book argues for a fundamental shift in the structure and process of governance, including board-level autonomy, CEOs tenure and compensation, people process, talent development and building a leadership pipeline, to make banks resilient and future-proof. 

Transformational Leadership in Banking is both well-timed and edifying. With admirable standpoints on the issues of authority, management and HR in a digital environment, the book is a clear blueprint for makeover and restructuring. The book is, mostly, meant for public sector banks, and will be of immense value to policymakers, regulators, board members, CEOs, researchers and to all those who are  in  the leadership roles and the public on the whole. 

Dr Khandelwal’s book makes an overriding case for crucial and cohesive reforms in India’s banking sector. It offers timely solutions by focusing on several issues. A must-read for anyone interested in the well-being of Indian banking.

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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.

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Review

Fragments of Happiness

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Fragments of Happiness

Author: Shrilal Shukla, translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Fragments of Happiness is a translation of Shrilal Shukla’s novel, Seemayein Tootati Hain, originally published in 1973. Shrilal Shukla (1925 –2011) was a Hindi writer, notable for his satire. He has written more than 25 books and received the Jnanpith Award, the highest national recognition for writers (2011), the Padma Bhushan (2008) and the Sahitya Akademi (1969). Seemayein Tootati Hain has been translated to English by Niyati Bafna, who has studied translation under Arunava Sinha and is currently a student of Computational Linguistics pursuing an MSc in Prague as an Erasmus Mundus scholar.

In this novel, Shukla, widely known for his satire, weaves the story of a family struggling to come to terms with its reality in the aftermath of an unfortunate incident. Durgadas, a businessman based in Delhi, is convicted for a murder and is sentenced to life imprisonment. He has two sons and a daughter. His children believe in their father’s innocence. Over time, the brothers become convinced that the murderer is Vimal, their father’s partner and a long-time friend. The story is centred on the idea of their father’s innocence and the subsequent efforts of the brothers to find the real criminal. However, the book is not a murder mystery. It does not offer a solution to the impasse that the brothers Taranath and Rajnath seem to find themselves in. And it certainly is not a story which offers closure. Rather it is an exploration of the beliefs, opinions, and nature of its characters as well as of the dynamics of relationships shared by them. The author takes on a well-to-do family in early 1970s Delhi to track the trajectory of each character as they tackle the situation.

Taranath runs a college. Rajnath takes care of his father’s business. Their younger sister Chaand is a 23-year-old researcher in the field of Chemistry.  Rajnath’s thoughts and actions are dictated by his desire to restore the reputation of his family whereas those of Taranath to see his father happy. Chaand is more of a realist, who accepts the situation and is more focused upon her career and her personal life. Vimal, on the other hand, stands by the family through the trial of Durgadas and believes him to be innocent too. However, the zenith of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chaand and Vimal.

Mrinal Pande, an eminent author and journalist, dubs Shrilal Shukla as one of India’s most unique and beguiling writers. This is evident as the author treads ahead with the narrative that is crisp and advances effortlessly to portray remarkably the interplay between societal influences and individual opinions and behaviour. Speckled with spiritual and philosophical musings and satire, the narrative skilfully captures the subconscious of its characters. The characters are life-like, with their fears and insecurities governing their responses and actions. One of the most unpredictable characters is that of Julie, Vimal’s confidante and once a sex worker. She is taken aback when she comes to know of Vimal’s deliberate silence about his presence at the scene of murder in which Durgadas was convicted and adds she wouldn’t have done so in his place, that she would have spoken the truth. Vimal’s character remains beguiling till the very end, and it may unsettle some readers.

Also, quite notable in the novel is the depiction of early 70s Delhi. Connaught Place, its cafes, espressos, cinema, localities –flavours and sounds of old Delhi, reminiscent of a distinctive era that may tickle the senses of a reader. In carving the character of Chaand, the author portrays an independent woman who has the courage to make her life choices, is determined and not affected by the expectations of her family or friends. Her individuality parallels the rising class consciousness among women in early 70s which recognised the inequalities within power structures of family, tribe and region as well. With Taranath’s character, he addresses the question of religion and with that of Rajnath and his wife Neela, the restrictions imposed within the familial structures. We know next to nothing of the character of Durgadas, around whose conviction and sentence, the story is constructed. By making this choice, the author has consciously aimed to focus on recounting the ways in which different characters try to cope with adverse circumstances in their lives.

To translate such a distinctive novel by an acclaimed author from Hindi to English, while capturing the nuances of the language, is not an easy task. Bafna has done a commendable job. Although, those who have read the novel in Hindi may wonder at some points about the choices made by the translator, the overall experience is closer to reading the original work and is, definitely, a step forward in making the work reach diverse readers.

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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/ .

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Review

The Fascinating Saga of Feisal Alkazi

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir

Author: Feisal Alkazi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Feisal Alkazi is an educationist, a theatre director, and an activist. Over the past 40 years, his group, Ruchika, has directed over 200 plays in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Noor and A Quiet Desire, two plays written by him, were produced recently. He has also directed thirty films, and more than 100 productions for schools all over India. He is actively involved in heritage education, initiating projects in Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, and Hyderabad each of which has culminated in a book. He has written over 20 books.

Enter Stage Right by Feisal Alkazi is a family memoir which recounts the story of two families intertwined by a single love – theatre, of people who helped shape much of the Indian theatre from 1940s to 1990s, of people who came together by chance and stayed on to weave a rich tapestry which not only included theatre but also art, media, cinema and advertising. A memoir which draws an exhaustive portrait of one of the first families of theatre in a subtle yet candid manner, unveils some secrets, shares some anecdotes while capturing the complete attention of the reader.

The prologue of this memoir titled ‘Around the Horseshoe – Shaped Table’ starts with:

English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide- eyed as my Uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.”

These lines open the book with a perfect scene for the reader, drawing attention to the setting which was at the core of foundation of theatre group formed by Sultan Padamsee, the eldest of the Padamsee siblings including Roshen and Alyque. Roshen became a costume designer for plays directed by Sultan and later by her husband Ebrahim Alkazi. Akbar, their cousin, though not a part of the horseshoe table gathering, became a famed painter, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, while Alyque a famous theatre personality and ad film maker, probably best known for playing Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi.

How in the 1940s, the entire Padamsee clan would come together for the preparation of plays directed by Sultan, or Bobby as he was lovingly called, is well recounted by Alyque Padamsee, who was then a kid and Sultan’s younger brother.

There was a little trellis in our bedroom, the roshandaan. We used to climb up on stools and peek through that window to watch what was going on in the drawing room. Bobby reciting Shakespeare, Roshen stitching costumes, Zarina painting posters, Shiraz making some props. It was like a cottage industry, and it was so thrilling to be in a family that had something so exciting to do!”

The seed of this industry, as he calls, was sown by Sultan’s mother Kulsum Padamsee, who had determined the best of English education for her children, which meant that her children were all sent to an elite residential school in Bombay where they had their first lessons in theatre. At her home in Kulsum Terrace, overlooking Colaba Causeway in Bombay, she would allow them to enact plays. Later, she took them to Shropshire, England for further studies where the worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens and Hardy were revealed to them. However it was Sultan, who — having spent six months at Christ Church in Oxford before World War II — began directing plays for the St. Xavier College’s Shakespeare Society in 1943.

Feisal writes about the flamboyant and bold Sultan who revolutionized the theatre scene in 1940s, about his choice of directing Oscar Wilde’s Salome which was controversial enough for the times. His restructuring Shakespeare’s Othello was also a move towards the unimaginable in those days. He writes about Sultan’s suicide at the age of twenty three, the cause of which remained a well-guarded secret of the family for many years. Though Sultan’s untimely demise did create a void, the revolution helmed by him was forged further by the rest of Padamsee clan. As present on the horseshoe – shaped table that day in 1943, was also Ebrahim Alkazi, mentored by Sultan, who was later to become the director of National School of Drama and to shape the subsequent theatre milieu.

In the successive chapters, Feisal delves into the history of his father’s family and staging of plays by the Theatre group after Sultan’s death, about the split in Theatre group with Ebrahim and Alyque going separate ways, about his parents’ stay in post War London and the influences they carried back to India, about his early years at Vithal Court where his father, perhaps continuing the tradition of Padamsee family, turned the whole house into a rehearsal space for theatre! Imagine a life where entire days of the family were spent in reading, rehearsing, soaking in various forms of art, hosting the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Adi Davierwala, where the house constantly bubbled with activities stimulating the mind, where the children, joined by their numerous cousins and friends, would perform plays for the audience, constituted of their families. Fancy having a childhood like that!

Feisal describes the experience:

Sound, smell, touch, flavor. Open windows that allowed the world in, and that allowed me to peep into the world from my tiny height. Not the isolated ivory tower of the Padamsee childhood but a vibrant, open, engaged view of the world.”      

In one of the chapters, aptly titled Six Women Who Revolt, Feisal gives us a glimpse into the choice of plays his father directed during his last phase of directing for the Theatre Unit in Bombay. Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Eurydice, Lorca’s Yerma and Euripides’ Medea – plays with strong female central characters. While offering critique of these plays and sharing some anecdotes about their production, Feisal interestingly remarks how through the exploration of these characters, his father seemed to be trying to comprehend his own equation with women. It is a discreet, well intended remark which somehow seems to familiarize the reader with the relationship shared by Ebrahim Alkazi with his wife Roshen and then with his later partner, Uma Anand.

In writing about his parents, Feisal dwells more upon his father’s professional life, the plays he directed, the experiments he did with the use of space and light, the revolutionary ideas he brought to NSD (National School of Drama, New Delhi), the fine actors he mentored during his years as Director, but not upon the personal life which Ebrahim shared with his mother. In the chapter where he writes about his parents’ separation, he does write about his mother’s sadness and their difficult initial years in Delhi but focuses more upon his mother’s endeavour in establishing and running an art gallery with her husband and continuing designing costumes for all of his plays even after their separation. What’s even more intriguing is that his parents continued travelling together, every alternate year, to Europe and Beirut to visit Ebrahim’s parents and siblings. Despite their differences, they came together to enrich their children’s lives by revealing to them the best of art and theatre the world had to offer and by letting them spend time with their paternal grandparents, soaking in love, and mores of a culture they lived far away from.

Back home in Delhi, both Feisal and his sister Amal would spend time at NSD, where their father would rehearse and direct plays and their mother would design costumes. During his college years at St. Stephens, Feisal made his own theatre group called Ruchika and spent considerable time in acting and directing the plays. However, it is while he writes about the theatre of questioning and dissent which gained momentum during the late 1970s and 1980s, that the readers get a peek into his role in taking theatre to wider audiences. He talks about the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the rallying of Narmada Bachao, Babri demolition, brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and about terrorism in Kashmir. Despite his very humane account of repercussions of violence in a society in those times, he does not anywhere refer to the present regime and the sufferings faced by people in the current times.

In writing about his family, he also gives an account of his maternal grandfather Jafferbhai and his aunt Pearl Padamsee, wife of his Uncle Alyque Padamsee. He credits Alyque for making English Theatre accessible, popular and relevant to middle-class audience of Bombay. According to him, Safdar Hashmi, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Alyque were three individuals who widened the scope, subject matter and audience for theatre in 1970s and 1980s, so that it never looked the same again.

Feisal pays homage to his mother by saying that it was the greatest privilege of his life to have been her son — an endearing tribute to the one who taught him all he ever learned of life. He ends the memoir befittingly with an epilogue in which he mentions the death of his father in August 2020. Ebrahim Alkazi was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horse-shoe shaped table in 1943 and his going marked an end of an era.

Writing a family memoir comes with its own challenges, especially when the entire family is engaged in pursuits which are open to speculations and public opinions. There is always a risk of either going overboard or offering little to the reader in terms of a relevant account. Feisal does a brilliant job in maintaining that balance while offering this memoir. He gives us a detailed account of what matters and merely touches upon that which can be omitted. His writing is astute, rational and pragmatic while being vigorously ebullient.

This memoir is not only the story of a family dedicated to theatre but also an important document which chronicles the history of Indian theatre as well as arts centred around the two important cities of Bombay and Delhi, of the plays which shaped much of the theatre’s panorama in India, of actors, playwrights and directors whose entire lives revolved around enhancing and taking the form to a wider audience, of the efforts the theatre and people associated with it made to give voice to the common man’s concerns in difficult times. This is an essential read for anyone interested in theatre and in the broader art scene happening in the country during the period.

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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/ .

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Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Raising a Humanist, Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World

Authors: Manisha Pathak-Shelat & Kiran Vinod Bhatia

Publisher: SAGE Publications India/SELECT, 2021

Unusual times warrant unusual responsibility. And, when the responsibility is manifest in parenting, it becomes even more important. Raising a Humanist: Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World by Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia is, as the title suggests, meant for the troubled times in which we live. 

On the face, this book is not a typical work on parenting, rather it goes far beyond the remit. Written by   two media professionals, it is a sort of prescription   for modern day parents. 

Says the blurb: “The world is immensely divided and broken. We have lost the art of having conversations with those who are different from us. While we cannot change the world, we can take small remedial steps starting with our homes and communities.” 

Manisha Pathak-Shelat is a Professor at Centre for Development Management and Communication, MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India) and Kiran Vinod Bhatia is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Coming as it is from two media professionals, the book results from their engagement with parents, teachers and the youth. Being communication scholars, the authors mull over their work, contributing meaningfully and substantially   towards a better world. And, they have succeeded in this effort to a large extent. 

Using critical questions, rational tips and exciting anecdotes, they touch upon the abysmal number of discordant issues of our society and provide fascinating ways to use art, technology and media. The idea is to provide the progenies with a nurturing community. The conversation is appealing and enriching because the writers have a vast experience in the area.

With a Foreword by Lina Ashar, Educationist and Entrepreneur, the book has in all nine chapters and the approach of the subject is avant-garde. It provides a much-needed investigation of how adults can guide children to become kind, liberal and critically thoughtful humans in an ever-changing technological world.

The authors write in the preface: “Critical thinking, empathy and the readiness to engage with different viewpoints have to be a gradual and lifelong process — beginning with ourselves, including our children  and extending it to our larger social circles.” 

That the authors   have taken up a subject as vast as ‘parenting’ is itself challenging. How to raise a child in this polarized and conflicted world is every conscious parent’s concern and the book offers the solution with insight and wisdom. It is multidisciplinary in its sweep and yet not wandering off from the root issue. The mainstay of the book is its account of everyday experiences.

Raising a Humanist results from over three years and interactions with more than 120 parents. It aims to help parents deflate stereotypes, prejudices, mental conditioning about gender, caste, religion and class. 

That politically complex and technologically upsetting times warrant responsible parenthood needs no reiteration. If children from a young age are conditioned into stereotypical and biased ways of thinking, parents are largely to blame. The book not only raises the right questions but also offers solutions by providing a deeper understanding of popular culture and the role of the media in gender, religious, caste and class portrayals. This scholarly book tells us how to unlearn and re-learn as parents. 

Raising children in a scrappy world who can walk through life with self-confidence and empathy is challenging. This book solves that challenge. ‘Raising a Humanist’ mainstreams the power of initiating hard conversations and discussions, guided by a strong yet sensitive rationale at its core. The lucid case studies and the real-life examples are educational and motivating. The book not only sketches the social divide but also remediates it by addressing its concerns. The book talks of the nuances of religion and prejudice in the most succinct manner.

 It is a must-read, especially for parents, educators and concerned citizens who are ambitious for a radical vision of the world that will leave our children free from anxiety and misgiving. This book is a refreshing departure from the tiresome ‘how to’ books imposed on caregivers, as you see guilt and fear taking a rightful back seat to more nuanced, critical and creative conversations that generate excitement for how we would like to see the world turn for the better.

For delving deep into some of the most challenging questions of our times in a rigorously and thoughtfully way, it is an essential reading for anyone interested in parenting. Bold and provocative, this influential book is a decent companion in raising a humanist in the child.

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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.

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The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Book: The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories

Author: Shakti Ghosal

Publisher: Half Baked Beans, 2020

The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories by Shakti Ghosal is a collection of four compelling stories that hover around people in different times and places around the majestic Hooghly in Kolkata. As the river flows, the narratives flow with the current as long as there are storytellers and listeners.

Shakti Ghosal, an MBA from IIM, Bangalore, is a seasoned corporate personnel with more than four decades of experience both in India and abroad. The globetrotting Ghosal and his passion to explore new places and cultures are vividly imbued in his writing. The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories,  is a well-researched debut book entrenched in history.

His stories help us make sense of our realities. Ghosal admits that intense and traumatic events in life have contributed to the creation of these stories. Part-memoir, part-historical, Ghosal paints the stories with strokes of personal experiences and from chapters of India’s long history, selecting those that converse about Kolkata. This tapestry makes the readers more aware of the nuances of history and vividly recreates these scenes in the imagined reality. Ghosal impressively weaves history and imagination to blend fiction and reality, thereby providing a voice of the unrecorded, the myths and legends around what happened on the other side of known history during the colonial period in pre-independent India or at present.  

‘Ashtami’, the first story starts with a nightmare, a dream Lord Curzon had since his childhood days setting the tone of the story. The story opens in 1912 with Sujit, a Junior Clerk in the British administration and his wife Bina as they are all set to relocate to Delhi. Weaving the story in close quarters with the time of Ashtami during the Durga Puja festival of Bengal, Ghosal raises the idea of birth and death, beginning and ending in the personal lives of the characters along with the history of the nation, thus proposing life coming in full circle with fragments of joys and sorrows. Change is the only constant that is destined in the uncertain future.

From 1912 to 1947 and after, Sujit and Bina witness progress in life through their journey from Kolkata to Delhi with their children, the double irony of the life of the youngest child Shanti is a touching twist. A human error of a delivery gone wrong, makes Shanti a differently-abled child. As a result, he is mistreated, ignored, and judged by siblings and society but at heart, he is a sensitive soul. Shanti’s home schooling, errands, plea for help as his brother is murdered in an unjustifiable situation during the communal violence of the Great Kolkata Killings, an aging mother’s concern for a differently-abled child and the death of his mother leaving him helplessly alone, makes him and, subsequently, the reader, wiser on life and life’s little ironies. The lighter notes on the Howrah, Lal Qila, horse drawn tonga rides at Civil Lines, interstate train journeys, Burra Bazaar to Chandi Chowk, typical dust storms in Delhi, Durga Puja, food and communication through postcards make the story flavourful.             

‘Pandemic’ moves through different time zones within a century, dealing with similar situations in history. Dipen in 1919 is caught in the mahamari at Khidderpore docks where he is a labour supervisor. Indranil from Gurgaon in 2020 is caught in the pandemic situation in the middle of a safari trip with his wife in the Dooars forest region of West Bengal. Although a hundred year apart, the stories highlight similarities and differences in the human condition. Amidst the pandemic, Dipen is caught in all that happens between his home and the dockyard. Ghosal touches upon health issues both physical and mental, quarantine, human emotions, personal secrets, sacrifice, and life choices. Ghosal also beautifully brings out the gender readings as he sheds light on life as a widow or a widower, childlessness and society, and of perceptions on ill-luck and how ironically, the characters deemed as unlucky or  how just what is deemed as bad luck convert to beacons of hope and goodwill. Through Indranil, Ghosal discusses lockdown and cytokines, the science and signs of the disease along with the issues of present-day work and marriage and brings to light different aspects of youth, the working class, newer trends that govern passions, aspirations, families and priorities.         

In ‘Fault Lines’, a deadly gas explosion changes Anjan’s life forever. The accident broke the artificial shell that Anjan and Jaya made their home in and the realities that lay hidden in his subconscious haunts him in disguise of Savio, Anjan’s friend. Set in the idyllic Middle-East, and shuttling back and forth in time and between places, Anjan finds enlightenment through lessons on karma. Jaya closes the story with the understanding that nothing good can be built on the foundations of deceit and hurt.

The titular story, the last one in the book, ‘The Chronicler of the Hooghly’, has the protagonist, Samir, reacting to his dying mother who utters a panic-stricken whisper, “mukto malar abhishap” or the curse of the pearl necklace. Here Ghosal intricately and imaginatively spins history and myth to take us into a string of narratives strewn in their pathway by the fabled curse of the necklace. The ‘Chronicler’, or narrator, mystically and mysteriously asks, “What could be behind you taking this trip today and me telling you this tale?” He narrates the stories to Samir in the breath-taking boat ride on the Hooghly with a feeling both of nostalgia and curiosity, swaying between past and present to highlight the bigger picture. He touches upon England and Calcutta (1842-1846), Murshidabad palace of Siraj ud Daula in June 1756, Chandernagore (1757), Plassey (1757), and Calcutta (1846-55), along with the present day beautifully guiding the reader to the climax of the story.   

What is most fascinating is the telling of the stories in an alternative voice making the readers experience history with a fictitious veneer that magically brings into sight the hitherto unknown facets. Despite being set in a different time frames and in different situational events of history, the timeless elements in Ghosal’s stories are priceless.

The elements in the stories such as the anxieties of moving to a new place, the concerns of leaving behind old parents, the generational gap on how one looks at traditions, reflections on crisis and resilience on issues ranging from the Partition to communal violence to casteism to the pandemic and more, changing belief systems over time and experience, old age, diseases, mental health, loss and grief of a child or a partner, a parent’s concerns for their children, on the importance of empathy and decision-making,  on acknowledging uncertainties, on karma and enlightenment, finding home or solitude, or coming to terms with oneself – Ghosal sprinkles confetti of his coaching in life skills into the storytelling to create a set of modern-day tales that are easily relatable and palatable. The style and the settings are like fresh air that enlightens as it entertains. The stories are vibrant and close to current realities, making them a worthy read.

These are stories of changing times and a reminder that life is short, and that time will not wait for us. But we need to be positive, hopeful and be aware of the best we can do for ourselves and for others.     

 

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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. 

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Finding Hope in Despair

Book review by Candice Louisa Daquin

Title: The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the last

Author: Azra Raza

Unless you are an oncologist, what would possess you to read a book on cancer?

Azra Raza’s unexpectedly well written book gives you the only reason you’ll need. Because it’s necessary.

Why? We go through life without thinking of death very much. Maybe this is a good thing. However, all of us shall die. And many of us shall develop or die of cancer. Whilst we may not wish to think about this during life, that she tells us is precisely why the progression of cancer treatment has been stymied. It’s not the only reason of course. There is more money in treatment than cures. But as long as we are all too busy to read on these subjects, we can be assured nothing will change and it really does need to change.

If you read the news, you’d be forgiven for believing cancer treatments have progressed and improved. After all we want to believe that don’t, we? But like any statistic, it can be inaccurate and miss the larger picture. Unfortunately, much as we want to be positive, we need to be realistic. The truth is cancer deaths have only lessened because of social change (less smoking, healthier lifestyles) and early detection (screening programs) and not because of the actual treatment.

The actual treatment (cut, poison, burn — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation) remains the most popular of choice for battling majority forms of cancer. We can all point to the notable exceptions but they make up a relatively small percentage. The vast percentage of cancer patients are given these options in varying forms.

Those cancers that do not necessarily kill, may not terminate lives. But it isn’t because of the treatment so much as the cutting out of, or sheer luck, that the cancer was caught in time. The treatment itself, if you are unlucky enough to have an advanced cancer, hasn’t changed much (with the exception of gene therapies that have been advancing but are not applicable for all cancers) since the 1950’s. Yes, that’s right, the 1950’s.

So, while doctors want to offer hope, they do so more out of a stubborn desire to ‘try anything’ rather than because the six months they may give a dying person, is really beneficial when you consider the sheer backbreaking cost (bankruptcy from medical costs being the number one reason) and very small gains (six months more of life and you have spent all your money on a treatment which only benefits Big Pharma). The unwillingness of doctors to give up, is admirable and very human (who wants to tell someone there is no hope?) but it brings with it, a false promise.

What’s the solution? Azra Raza’s solution is very simple but mostly overlooked. She believes from her own experience of watching her husband die of cancer despite her being an oncologist and researcher that we have to stop looking for the ‘magic pill’ and go back to basics. Let’s find out what causes cancer. Let’s intervene before cancer gets a foothold. Why are we only looking at how to treat the incurable? Why aren’t we looking at how to prevent it in the first place?

Raza points to a Westernized, masculinized perspectives in the medical world that makes true research very prohibitive, that research being done is drowned out by the lack of people who will be willing to take it to the next step, and a lack of funding. Without this, we cannot hope to change a decades old ‘tradition’ and yet, this tradition is causes enormous suffering. Every time Raza sees a new advertisement on TV for a ‘platinum-based treatment’ or something that offers ‘real hope’ to cancer survivors, she is acutely aware of the enormous price tag and literal months or weeks these treatments really offer patients. She asks; ‘Is throwing up every day in agony really worth spending your life savings on for a scant six weeks more of life?’

Of course, there are miracles. But Raza says, rather than looking at the outliers, we need to be honest about how many people with cancer have horrible odds and suffer hideously at the hands of an unchanging system that doesn’t really address the problem at its root.

“We have seen that the current cancer landscape is worse than it was in the 1970s. Even today 95 percent of experimental trials continue to fail…. By law the FDA can only take safety and efficacy data into account when reviewing a drug for approval, not its price-tag.”

So, if we were to do that, what would it look like? When someone is treated for cancer, doctors reverse engineer the tumour to see if the cancer is returning in the body, that way they can ‘detect’ returning cancer and treat it. What if we could do this before cancer exists in the body, by looking at biomarkers and other evidence that pre-dates the actual development of cancer, so that along with improved screening measures, we can stop cancer before it starts?

Once a cancer has metastasized, we are chasing our tails in many ways and while this can give a patient many years of life, just as often it does not. And rather than slashing and burning and causing more cancers, if traced prior to the onset, the ‘first cell’ can be a less invasive and less catastrophic method of treating or avoiding cancer where no ‘work-up’ costs a million dollars. The concept of ‘prolonging survival’ needs to be re-examined against the invariable suffering of those who are terminal.  

As Raza says: “The very terms meant to empower end up detracting from the profound human experience of an individual facing mortality head-on in all its chaotic savagery, the physical suffering, anxiety, the grief…. The terminology of positive thinking also stigmatizes by indirectly blaming the victim.”

Additionally, we test on the wrong thing, by testing on animals we cannot hope to reproduce the effect a medication has on a human body. “I’m not saying all scientific research on animal models should be abandoned. What I am saying is that animal models are misleading and harmful for cancer drug development, because the disease cannot be reproduced in such simplistic, artificial systems.”

Using poetry from India and the Middle East, interspersed with recounting of real lives affected by cancer, Raza makes the unpalatable subject, readable. I cannot say this is easy reading, or that it will be a book many lay people read, but I’d hope more than cancer sufferers pick this up, because there is a real answer here, and it’s written with such compassion and intelligence, it’s as evocative and vital as the very treatments it considers.

I was so impressed with the bright star that is Azra Raza and her courage, compassion and bright mind. If more were like Raza, maybe we’d already be further along the road in offering long lives to those with cancer. We may instinctively wish to turn away from this subject and thus, this book. But if we do one thing for ourselves, we should read The First Cell and consider, if not for ourselves, for someone we love, if we are mindlessly ignoring the problem and thus, letting it perpetuate. We need to have this conversation and we have needed to have had it since the 1950s. Let’s be brave enough now. As Raza says:

“There is no activism without despair, no despair without hope. Despair can be as powerful an engine for change as hope.”

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Reconciling Difference

Title: Reconciling Difference — Beyond Collective Violence in India

Author: Rudolf C. Heredia

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

“When the British Imperialists left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, they left behind a legacy of governance based on communal and ethnic polarization. Since then, India has been engulfed by religious and ethnic violence—from the Partition to the more recent Gujarat riots of 2002 and Delhi riots of 2020. This trajectory is in direct opposition to the ideals of ‘justice, liberty, equality and fraternity’ enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Our increasingly polarized society is now faced with the question: Will India follow the ethnic nationalist route that seems to be becoming a global phenomenon?” enquires the blurb of this remarkable book.

Reconciling Difference — Beyond Collective Violence in India by Rudolf C. Heredia is an attempt by an anxious citizen and academic to understand the nature of hate and violence prevalent in India. It is also an effort to find practical ways to restore peace and harmony–so essential to present turbulent times.

A leading sociologist and thinker, Heredia is an independent writer and researcher. Based in Mumbai, he taught sociology at St Xavier’s College, where he was the founder director of the Social Science Centre. With a keen interest on issues related to religion, education and globalization, Heredia has authored Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India andTaking Sides: Reservation Quotas and Minority Rights.

In the preface to the book, Heredia writes: “Violence has no borders. It is like a forest fire which once lit, even if by an accidental spark, in a dry, hot summer drought burns out of control, fanned by the wind until the entire forest is gone. It must then wait for the next rains to restore it. If the rain fails, desertification will inevitably follow.”  

He continues: “But first the crisis must be recognized before it can be addressed, the problem understood, before a resolution can be attempted. The urgency of the present emphatically suggests that collective violence in India, with its brutalizing horrors, is now becoming the new normal.”

In this in-depth study, Heredia urges citizens to seek contexts beyond punitive justice. What he suggests is returning to the Gandhian ideas of ahimsa — non-violence and compassion — in order to heal the fraying fabric of the society. While doing so, he recalls Nehru’s ideas of a pluralist and inclusive India, as well as Ambedkar’s idea of the republic.

With eight reasonable and coherent chapters, Heredia inspires the readers to undertake a politico-historical journey — the way promises were broken and hopes betrayed, the cultural/psychic/political roots of the “spiraling violence”. In this quest, he feels the need to understand Gandhi as “a new hermeneutic is needed to dialogue with Gandhi’s counter-culture and its basic themes of swaraj, swadeshi and satya”.

Relying heavily on pedagogy, Heredia is unfaltering in his conviction. He feels intensely about restoring the country’s damaged polity. Drawing inspiration from the Truth and Justice Commission set up in post-Apartheid South Africa, he urges steady and thoughtful discourses between polarized citizens in order to heal the past wounds of collective violence. Drawing on India’s history, the Constitution and even contemporary initiatives, he shows us how we can bring a healing touch to close the fault lines in our society.

Sample this: “If this dream of peace is to become a reality, we must divest ourselves of a great deal of the presumptions and pre-options we have been, and still are being socialized into by exclusive communal identities and religious fundamentalisms, national extremists and radical rationalism.”

What distinguishes this volume from other such works is its ability to persuade the reader to see the disgruntlements of the times we are living in, comprehend the pathology of the limiting identities, cultivate the art of dialogue, understand plurality and differences, and move towards peace.

Heredia concludes the book by saying: “We need to deconstruct this ideology of exclusion and the politics of hate. We need a struggle, a jihad, a crusade, a padayatra for the idea of a sovereign, democratic secular socialist India. We need to sow the good seed of meaningful, relevant, liberating humane cultural and religious traditions for a hundredfold harvest of a harmonious peace, premised on tolerance and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. For if we stop dreaming peace, we will stop dreaming India.”

Written in a florid yet graspable language, the argument put forward is persuasive and convincing. Far from being a hypothetical one, the 300 plus paged book is observant, dialogic and meticulously researched and with a touch of contemporariness. Heredia offers solutions to every problem and every delinquent behavior. Coming as it is from a renowned sociologist-activist, this book is an essential read, especially for those who are concerned about preserving the secular and democratic ideals of India.

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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.

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Whose Land is it Anyway?

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Nomad’s Land.

Author: Paro Anand.

Publisher: Talking Cub (an imprint of Speaking Tiger Books), 2020

We live in times when the business of children’s literature increasingly turns towards desanitising the world around child readers to expose them to real life accounts of hatred, violence, othering and numerous other ills that are perpetuated around them in a way that they can decide for themselves who or what they want to be amidst all this. In a universe torn by war and the hostile drawing of lines, Paro Anand’s writings are sentient, sensitive and sensible exemplars of portraying the child reader’s realm as one that can subsume the world within it if s/he wants it to. In her book of stories Like Smoke, or her novels No Guns at my Son’s Funeral and now Nomad’s Land, she has let her child protagonists tread on and explore many of the concerns in the lives of adults.

Anand has talked about two ethnic groups – the Kashmiri Pandit community that had fled the valley in the eighties due to terrorist violence that often targeted them, and the imagined Qhushvaha people in the higher plateaus who had got dislodged from their homeland due to the political upheaval in which they had been ostracized by their own kinsmen, a combination of many such marginalized groups of children that the author has been interacting with. The Qhushvahans have come and resettled in what can perhaps be recognised as Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan resettlement colony of Delhi, although Delhi has been named in the entire novel only once in relation to the Kashmiri Pandit girl Shanna’s grandparents’ residence.

The refugees have made it their camp, their home away from home, by severing their link with their own ancestral territories, reinventing the colony’s open sewer lines as the river that flowed in the lap of Mother nature back home, and reinforcing their disconnect with their own land of not so long ago. Anand claims that this group is based on a combination of children from Tibet, the North East, the Rohingyas, the Syrian child who had been left to die between shifting sands, decriminalised tribes like the Pardhis, and finally the children of the migrant labour who had to flee the cities to walk back to their villages immediately after the declaration of the lockdown with no sense of belonging to any definite region. When Anand mentioned the last group in an interview, one could sense a goosebump-raising contemporaneity about the story. The Qhushvahans represent what Anand calls the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s land’.

Amidst all messages of acrimony that children receive from their parents, Anand, who works with children of various backgrounds, says that they do not necessarily internalise those abrasions, fissures and fractures. She uses a beautiful metaphor when she says in an interview that she wants to spread the message of love and peace by teaching children addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division. Shanna the Kashmiri girl is one such child who overcomes her diffidence in the subtle manner in which she connects with the other children of her school when Pema her friend is away and suggests to them that we could all be trees. What she means is that even if we have lost our own roots, we could grow not only branches but new roots, a message of inclusiveness that makes them rethink their inherited prejudices about the Nagas. It suggests a review of inbuilt bad blood passed on by our parents.

Pema, the Qhushvaha girl in the refugee colony, is preoccupied with something else — liberating her old grandmother or mola from her racking cough and releasing her into death through an ancient practice of ‘breathtaking’ that is performed on those who are leading vegetable lives in the twilight of their lives. It has, of course, been banned by the government because it is a kind of mercy killing. Anand points out that when laws and policies are framed in a country with a multicultural canvas like that of India, we do not take into account that one size cannot fit all. Interestingly, Shanna is included in this project. She is entrusted with the task of enabling Pema’s mola cross the bridge to death because a kinsman is not supposed to do it.

The cough becomes a motif that unites the frail and elderly across the book — Debek Dan, the only man who can teach Shanna how to perform the breathtaking ritual, Shanna’s grandfather who significantly learnt indigenous medication from a Muslim hakim friend, and Pema’s grandmother. Shanna realises that the cough that links these three people has to do with the pollution in a big city, which is where they had had to resettle after having been natives of “forever skies and endless horizons”. 

An ecological concern over the abuse of the environment comes through in the images of the open drain choked with plastic wrappers that acts as a surrogate for a river or the respiratory distress that affects the elderly across communities that were inhabitants of the mountains. That is when Shanna and Pema hit upon the idea of going back to Kashmir to procure some ingredients like roots and herbs for Nanaji’s medicines from the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

Both of them want to become doctors of indigenous medicine when they grow up, and Debek Dan’s daughter, Doyang, is willing to be an accomplice in their enterprise. The starting point of the fantasized venture would involve a reconnaissance trip to Kashmir themselves to stay with Huma and her family.  And the novel ends with Shanna and Pema undertaking a  mission that seamlessly and happily weaves together so many disparate strands in the novel — Shanna’s mother’s stops mourning to start a new life by accompanying the two girls, the reunion with Huma on whom Shanna had perpetrated communal hatred without any provocation, the understanding that Huma’s family has also been the victim of terrorist violence, the fusing together of Ayurvedic, Unani and Qhushvaha medicinal practices to solve a medical crisis in which the elderly in the novel suffer due to the hazardous air quality index in the urban pockets of the plains, and the children’s environment-friendly command over the ambience we live in. As Anand admitted herself, despite her effort to expose her child readers to sordid truths about the life around them, she ends her stories on a hopeful note so as not to leave them feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Pema is a doer to begin with, and both the girls go up and about towards the end, therefore, to act positively on something that needs to be done to make the world a better place to live and breathe in.

Anand’s invention of the race of Qhushvahans involves not only creating a history and a geography about them, representing a protagonist, Pema as the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s Land’, but constructing a language that expresses itself in the quaint Qhushvaha deathbed rituals and chants, and making up nomenclatures (like Mola for grandmother) and facets of their culture like clothes. The English language is used by the possibly pre-teen protagonists in a way that shows real children imitate their peer group and improvise. Shanna, it is shown, feels progressively proud of being included in a group that uses adolescent colloquialisms like dude, swag, grandmom, wanna, whack, lezzies – what she calls “real TV language”.

The book deploys an anachronistic time scheme in which internet and cellphones exist in the early eighties in which the story is set. She says that this is to enable the children of the here and now to identify and feel more at home with its setting.

Paro Anand’s themes and portrayals have been such that a lot of censorship has been imposed on them by the adult gatekeepers of children’s morality. One of her books was banned from school curriculums because two adolescents of different communities share a fleeting kiss in it, and Anand justifiably calls such censorship the banning of books “for the love of hate.”

It is a work for children that is not only food for thought for children who are trying to find their feet around in a big, bad world but also makes adults pause and revisit the biases with which we inadvertently indoctrinate our children. 

Nivedita Sen is an Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more. 

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Socio-political Thought of Rabindranath Tagore

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Socio-political Thought of Rabindranath Tagore

Author: Bidyut Chakrabarty

Publisher: SAGE Publications India, 2021

Eighty years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore continues to be written about. Any biographical or critical account of Tagore’s life and works — whether it is in Bengali, English or any other language — is noticeable and is received with reverence and respect. Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’, demonstrates the continuing universal appeal of the poet’s signature composition.

For the bard whose immortal lines reverberate even today — “If no one answers to your call, walk alone, walk alone” — no number of books can be enough to have another look at this great mind.

Tagore’s vision of transcending time, place, space and national boundary continues to resonate with people’s dreams and hopes all over the world. To read and understand Tagore, it is also necessary to understand the various national and global events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which critically shaped the poet’s language, incorporating distinct narratives.

The Socio-political Thought of Rabindranath Tagore by Bidyut Chakrabarty presents a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the socio-political, socio-economic and ideological preference of Tagore, with emphasis on nationalistic, inclusive and gender development ideas. It shows that Tagore’s socio-political ideas remain relevant not merely as a package for intellectual rejuvenation but also as a meaningful device for socio-economic transformation for the world.

Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, West Bengal, and former professor in the Department of Political Science, Delhi University, Bidyut Chakrabarty is a reputed academician having taught in prestigious universities across counties. Chakrabarty has also authored Public Administration: From Government to Governance, Winning the Mandate: The Indian ExperienceCommunism in India: Events, Processes and IdeologiesIndian Politics, Society since Independence: Events, Processes and Ideology and The Governance Discourse: A Reader. His new book, Socio-political Thought of Rabindranath Tagore — all of 400 pages — is a venerable account of Tagore’s mental universe, his idea of nationalism, his thoughts on socio-economic reconstruction, his understanding of gender issues, his approach to education and, finally, his comprehension of universal humanism.

Says the blurb: “Rabindranath Tagore, an icon of humanism and universalism who always privileged India’s argumentative traditions, remains a source of inspiration for humanity. However, Tagore’s social and political ideas appear to have received inadequate attention presumably because of the hegemonic influence of derivative Western ideas and thoughts. This is where Tagore stands out, not only as a poet but also a visionary who charted a course of action in tune with human betterment, cutting across all kinds of man-made barriers and customary restrictive social, economic and political practices.” 

Chakrabarty sets out to understand Tagore’s political and social philosophy of universalism, humanism and cosmopolitanism, which the poet, to a large extent, inherited from his distinguished family lineage. As Tagore himself wrote, “It was as if we lived close to the age of pre-Puranic India through our commitment to the Upanishads. Along with that, there was a genuinely deep love of English literature among my elders.”

Writes Chakrabarty in the introduction: “An icon of humanism and universalism who always privileged India’s argumentative traditions, Rabindranath Tagore, popularly known as Gurudev, remains a source of inspiration for humanity. Born in a wealthy family with serious concerns for India’s cultural heritage, Gurudev designed, through his creative writings, a uniquely structured tapestry for India and the globe.

“Based on his own understanding of India’s cultural past, Tagore revived the lost socio-cultural traditions and ideological inclinations of the past just to develop a repertoire of knowledge that he thought was one of the effective means of rejuvenating a moribund nation reeling under colonialism.”

Chakrabarty writes in the prefacing remark  : “The book is a historical document in the sense that it was written at a critical time in India’s recent history when the entire nation voluntarily accepted home quarantine  to defeat the invisible  enemy in the form of COVID-19 virus that led to a pandemic in 2020.This was a testing time for humanity and the exemplary  steadfastness shown by everybody cutting across spatial boundaries  once again  proved that we win if we are united  and fail when divided.”

The book offers insights into Tagore’s political viewpoint developed through his interaction with leading personalities and ordinary people in India and abroad. There are several contradictory layers in his political vision. Tagore admired Ram Mohan Roy, but differed from his ideological outlook and disdained Bengali elites for imitating their colonial masters. He disagreed with Bankim Chandra’s ‘aggressive nationalism’. Though he appreciated the Western ideas of scientific progress, he made a trenchant critique of imperialism. He attended meetings of the Indian National Congress (INC), but disapproved of its policies and scorned its leaders for mimicking the West in their language and attire.

Then, how different was Tagore’s universal humanism? Writes Chakrabarty: “A firm believer in the notion, Tagore stayed away from the hurly-burly of national politics. Despite sharing the nationalistic condemnation of the colonizer, Tagore never allowed this restrictive vision to cloud his concern for human emancipation.”

What makes the book noteworthy is the logicality, lucidity of the language and its wholesome approach. Engaging and informative, the book is an essential read to know Tagore’s belief in social cohesion and the all-inclusive approach articulated in his political ideas.

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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.

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