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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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“Talkin’ About A Revolution”

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Inqallab on the Walls

Author: Sutputra Radheye

Publisher: Delhi Poetry Slam, 2020

Sutputra Radheye is an Indian poet. His works have been published in several national and international magazines and journals. This book was published by Delhi Poetry Slam in the year 2020.

Inqallab* on the Walls is a collection of 50 poems. As is reflected by the title, these poems are poems of resistance. In choosing to name it thus the poet, in times disrupted by oppressive forces, seems to be making an attempt to claim a space for his resistance. Walls are spaces which have always become a site of defiance, of resistance of common man against injustices of State in a society. The poet appears to write with the intention of registering his resistance, and the voices of those oppressed, loudly for everyone to notice. 

In his essay, “Resistance and Poetry”, K. Satchidanandan writes:

Resistance in art has a complex relationship with this resistance by the people. It tries to discover parallel aesthetic and emotional structures and create new languages adequate to express the new energy. In one sense art is essentially oppositional as it works against hegemonic ideologies and status-quo structures and ever strives to “make it new”.

The poems in this collection, echoing the voice of common people, reflect an artist’s opposition to the oppressive structures, like state, capitalist system, caste and patriarchy. In the first poem, “Singing like a Crow”, his defiance in the face of accepted structure of poetry comes forth quite forcefully.

You.
Yes you.
I am talking to you.
Look at me.
I too am a poet.
Listen to me.
Though, my feather is burnt
in the fire of corrupt sun,
I carry a bleeding pen.
Ugly, and dangerous,
I fly like the dragonfly.
Cage me. Please try.
My wings won't screech
                            like the tyres 

The poet’s pen is ugly and dangerous because it is bleeding. And though his feather is burnt he knows he can soar like a dragonfly and wouldn’t falter. This poem starts with a promise as the poet appears to challenge the privileged world of Indian English poetry which follows certain aesthetic principles and has long been the domain of a small elite group reading poetry in comfortable spaces. And just as the reader becomes engrossed in the voice, a little sloppiness jerks the attention. Why compare wings with tyres? One wonders if a better simile could perhaps be used, the impact would have been more pronounced.

This is a stanza from next poem “The Dictator”:

There is a hummingbird in my throat, dictator,
Singing the songs of free beckon.
There is a hummingbird in my throat, dictator,
Afraid, who is not, of your weapon.

As much as a reader may wish to admire the intent of poet in giving a voice to resistance, the experience is marred by the evident laxity in choosing words for the sake of rhythm. This happens with many poems in the collection. The choice of similes and metaphors do not add to make the poems impactful which may have been the poet’s aim.

In some poems the poet uses Biblical imagery. For example in following stanzas from two different poems:

When I die-
I shall go to the hell
And meet comrade, Lucifer
To listen to the anecdotes
Of the first rebellion
Of oppressed on oppressors. (When I Die)


I shall light up the torch extracting fire from the sun
To burn the forbidden, puritan trees for freedom
Living hidden from the barbed gates in a corner
Waiting for the comrades with kerosene to reach. (Walk Alone!)

In “When I Die”, Lucifer is referred to as a comrade whom the poet wishes to meet in the hell after death. He doesn’t wish to go to heaven, which might be the place that home his oppressors, but rather to hell so that he may listen to the stories of first ever rebellion. In “Walk Alone”, the poet speaks about burning the ‘Forbidden tree’ for freedom, the reference is to the rigid societal systems which oppresses certain classes of people. However, by making use of such imagery, the poet seems to be drifting away from his notion of reclaiming space in the otherwise established conventions of the art form.

As one moves along in the collection, reading one poem after another, the poems which should speak to you because they seem to be coming right from the heart, the poems seething with anger against oppressors of all kinds, the poems seemingly calling the readers, the fellow people to stand up and take control, somehow fall short on the intended impact because of slack, and sometimes very casual word selection.

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*Inqallab — Revolution

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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Bridging Cultures

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Resilience and recovery can be learnt from a survivor of the Tohoku earthquake as the protagonist learns.

Title: Indigo Girl

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher: GemmaMedia

Suzanne Kamata is an American writer, academician and fiction editor based in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan. She has authored or edited 14 books including, award-winners Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible (GemmaMedia, 2013), Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie, 2019), Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020), Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019); and other novels, travel writings and short stories. Her next novel The Baseball Widow (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing) will be published in October 2021.  

Indigo Girl is a story of Aiko Cassidy, an aspiring manga artist and a confident and sensitive 15-year-old bicultural teenager with cerebral Palsy. She is raised in Michigan by a single mother who is a sculptor and for whom, Cassidy is her muse. When her mother marries Raoul, her Hispanic step-father and he moves in with them, there was hope for her adoption and completion of a dream for a perfect family. But when a baby step-sister arrives, she starts feeling tugged at the margins.

In the meantime, she gets invited to spend three months in rural Japan in Tokushima in her biological father’s home, who is an indigo farmer. She sees it as an occasion to explore the hitherto unknown link of her life and root her belonging. She planned well in advance and looked forward to experiencing and fitting in into her role as a half-Japanese. However, her vacation in Japan is filled with shocks and surprises in contrast to her initial excitement and imaginings. She had conjured up images of her stay and even thought of the summer-break in Japan as a means to provide inspiration for her manga story, Gadget Girl, if not anything else.

The meeting of cultures and the clash of expectations and reality sets in, as she travels deeper into lives of people in Japan. Cassidy has her many complaints and concerns as a differently-abled teen stuck in-between the construct of family and relationships. In the conditions rendered by marriage, or in coping with grief and loss of a young one, or in turning homeless, or in living the life of a refugee, she comes across the many complicated truths and realities of people.

She meets Junpei, her Japanese half-brother, who dreams of getting out into the world as a young boy but for his predicament in being the sole heir to the 200-year-old family farm and the indigo farming legacy. Obashan, her grandmother obsessed with the love and loss of Kana, her younger Japanese step-sister to leukaemia, ignored the existence of Cassidy, her other granddaughter. Mariko, her Japanese step-mother, whose silence spoke louder than her words was more like a friend to her. In her Otosan’s (father’s) house, she figured out a lot was left unsaid but decided to speak out her heart and build bridges on the rift between her father, her father’s family and her.

Cassidy confronts her father by juxtaposing their places as characters in fiction and in reality. While they discuss the Italian opera, Madame Butterfly, her father gives his own point of view and she does hers to realise how complicated life’s choices and what we become are. Every small experience through participation in the family trips, visiting people, stories, visits to parks, temples and shrines made her culturally and personally wiser. She realises that “Change is inevitable” and that “life goes on”,

Cassidy’s story is a stand-alone sequel to Kamata’s book Gadget Girl, as it uniquely represents the story of a differently-abled child’s quest for greater clarity on her desires and the reality.

In her brief stay, having come from the West and with cerebral palsy, she attends a bilingual school and is introduced to all as Junpei’s cousin. She falls for Taiga, an upcoming figure skater. He respects her feelings for him, becomes a good friend. From his dedication to his profession, she learns the art of persistence against self-doubt. She tells Taiga that she is not Junpei’s cousin and Taiga says it is not a secret to many at school. She gets conscious of being called “disabled”, “bastard”, and “unwanted”. She draws inspiration from the resilience and learns to hope to “begin again” from Kotara, a refugee of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster which killed 15,500 people, caused a nuclear power plant meltdown and damaged the economy, making many homeless to this date. Kotara was one of them. Taiga’s understanding, Junpei’s sibling bonding and her friendship with Sora and other manga enthusiast members in the club at school, make  her feel as one with them.

Today’s continuously growing multicultural world needs more diverse stories. Kamata does her share of diversity writing by touching on issues such as biracial upbringing, single motherhood, divorce, re-marriage, step-children relationship, sibling rivalry, sibling bonding, trust, jealousy, parenting, love, death, disaster, refugees, stereotyping, stigmatisation, differently-abled children and inclusion. Kamata beautifully brings up the unconventional and often untouched areas in fiction with warmth and understanding. Family secrets, rituals, traditions, and what is spoken and what is left unspoken, speaks in volumes about the lives of people. The characters voice relevant issues with ease and confirm the importance of writing and speaking out on the many challenges and realities of life.

Kamata’s love for writing blends with the love of a mother in her works to reflect experiences of a multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and multi-abled world.

In the beginning of the story, Cassidy talks about her present self and her trip to her real father’s home in Japan and puts her condition as: “I’m in the sky. Here above the clouds, I’m in limbo: between America and Japan, between the past and the future. It’s weird, but for once I feel as if I’m where I belong.” In the concluding chapter, she again says, “And then I’m in the sky again, above the clouds. Between Japan and America, the past and the future.” The experiences in between, though happy and sad, come as a treat to the reader.

I would call Indigo Girl a heart-warming and compelling coming-of-age novel, a must read.   

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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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Ray’s Goopy Bagha Revisited

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: The Adventure of Goopy the Singer and Bagha the Drummer

Author: Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, translated from Bengali to English by Tilottama Shome. Illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee.

Publisher: Talking Cub, an Imprint of Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.

Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury’s name was well-known as an innovative children’s writer, painter, musician, photographer and a pioneer printer-publisher in the late nineteenth century. His grandson, Satyajit Ray, immortalized his long short story for children ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ as a reputed film that deployed a lot of music, dancing and fantasy elements.

This graphic version of the story, particularly its musical score that was penned and directed by Satyajit Ray himself, had almost obliterated the children’s tale that was a household word in Bengal earlier. Since it is a story about two naïve, rustic boys who desperately try to be a singer and a drummer respectively, Satyajit Ray worked on and elaborated the musical potential of the story by writing lyrics for songs that could be sung by Goopy, with Bagha’s drumming as accompaniment. The songs like Dekho re Nayan Mele ( Opening Your Eyes and Look), Bhuter Raja Dilo Bor (The King of Ghosts Grants a Wish) and Maharaja Tomare Selaam (Salute to you Maharaja) have been all time favourites for the last fifty years. The two sequels to the film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (Hirak King’s Kingdom) and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Goopy Bagha Return) were written by Satyajit Ray himself, although the latter was directed by Ray’s son Sandip Ray. The innocuous Bengali story therefore surfaced on the celluloid screen, and then extended through sequels to follow the adventures of Goopy and Bagha through time.

The status of an internationally acclaimed film also enabled the story to traverse across space by getting translated in different languages, particularly English. Among recent translations are those by Swagata Deb (Penguin, 2004) and Barnali Saha (Parabaas, 2012). Perhaps in order to communicate a different tone and emphasis, in this one, Tilottama Shome took up another translation. She has stuck to each and every word of the original. Although Upendrakishore’s stories have been translated by well-known scholars, editors and translators like William Radice, Madhuchhanda Karlekar and Arunva Sinha, this translation is also very fluent. The use of casual vocabulary in English that is used on a daily basis, like ‘vocal warm-ups’, ‘country bumpkins’ and ‘spooked’, add to the readability of it. The illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee, which include a lot of the ghosts, is brilliantly evocative of the ghostly fun and frolic in Ray’s film.

The story, which is something between a folk tale, a benign ghost story and a fantasy around a realistic setting with two ingenuous protagonists, has many violent episodes. Most of Bengali children’s folk-fairy tales like those in Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli portray such unpleasant interludes, which is not different from Grimms’ or Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales depicting brutal human behavior and blood and gore. Such violence and deaths go back to the earliest children’s stories, possibly to equip children with the overpowering truth that is an important, if an unsavoury, aspect of life. The violence becomes an indispensable component of children’s stories, since children need to be aware of what they might confront in the real world.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who tried to read fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, said that children need to be exposed to fairy tales with grim episodes in them. He demonstrated that these dark happenings, fantastic as they may be, expose and initiate the child to real life that is inclusive of the ruthless and the arbitrary and contribute to children’s holistic understanding of life. In this story, when Bagha goes home, he finds that his parents have died in the interim he was away. Goopy’s parents remain alive, perhaps to signify that deaths in real life are ubiquitous, imminent but random. But there is greater cruelty than death in children’s stories.

According to Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer and a psychoanalyst in his own right, the savagery in children’s stories represents expressions of the unconscious mind like the jealousy and hostility inherent within family relationships. He elaborated how abstract moral concepts like anger, fear and guilt are ‘physicalized’ and ‘externalized’ in children’s tales to enable children to conquer them. Also, after acknowledging these harsher primal feelings and instincts, the child gets to make sense of what is happening all around.  Goopy and Bagha’s boat loses balance and capsizes due to their cacophonous singing and drumming, causing the passengers to tremble and roll around. This drowns and kills all the passengers except the two of them who are also terrified but keep afloat by clutching on to Bagha’s drum. But Gidwitz, a twenty first century children’s writer, explains how violence is deployed as a didactic tool to reinforce the moral certainty of good triumphing over evil, which must be punished. For example, in another episode where the garden house of the king is burnt down by the guards in accordance with royal injunctions, everyone who was responsible for proactively setting fire to the house dies but Goopy and Bagha, who are inherently good,  escape with the help of their magic boots.

Goopy Gyne is also a ghost story with a difference. Ghosts appear in such a story within a realistic backdrop, not by invoking them or within a supernatural setting, but out of the blue. They also do not haunt an individual human being, a particular place/ house or a specific object, and are therefore aliens who are removed as suddenly as they appear from the forest in which they are discovered, after they have performed their task. They are not characters who take part in the narrative.

Goopy and Bagha initially get panic-stricken on seeing the glowing eyes of the ghosts that are like burning coal and their radish-like teeth. However, these are not the spirits of the dead that have revived to take revenge or to try to fulfill their unfulfilled desires in life. These ghosts continue to act as external agents who empower the two friends, much like the fairy godmothers in fairytales who grant boons to the protagonists and rescue them from perilous situations.

The terror that these ghosts have the potential to invoke is one that instead becomes a pleasant experience because Goopy and Bagha learn very soon that these spirits are extremely generous. The film is also enlivened with the scene with the ghosts. The narrative describes a curious reversal in which Goopy and Bagha are themselves mistaken as ghosts, thanks to all the miraculous scenes associated with their magical powers.  But their achievement of raining delicacies and sweets, their accoutrements in looking like princes or the magic episodes of the two friends fleeing from any difficult situation with the help of their enchanted boots is actually an outcome of the three wishes granted to Goopy and Bagha by the ghosts. The ghosts are responsible for bestowing melody and rhythm to Goopy and Bagha’s music that used to be tuneless, jarring and noisy before.

The music in the story is wholly their contribution, something that has been underscored by Satyajit Ray in delightful compositions in the film. It might, in fact, be a pioneering enterprise, copyright permitting, to translate the screenplay that includes the songs.

Nivedita Sen is 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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Travel Stories Beyond Borders

Book Review of an anthology of travel essays by Gracy Samjetsabam

Book: Across and Beyond

Editor: Nishi Pulugurtha

Publisher: Avenel Press, 2020

Across and Beyond edited by Nishi Pulugurtha is an anthology of sixteen essays by multiple writers on travel. Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic and writes on travel, films, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Besides Across and Beyond (2020), her works include a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a volume of poems, Real and the Unreal and Other Poems (2020). She has a number of publications in various newspapers, journals and magazines.

Through the essays, the contributors share their travelogues to entertain and enliven our imagination and reason. Pulugurtha opens the introduction by invoking “small little things” from a travel as passages to our journeys taken in which nostalgia, memory, and longing play a significant role in recreating the magical experiences and knowledge gained and shared.

She contends, “Travel is about negotiating with the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar.” The essays traverse on these negotiations to humanise the travelling self by pondering on perceptions before and after the travels. Thereby, highlighting how travel writing is not merely about the journey but is more about the experiences of people, places and cultures. And in this, the memory ignites the experiences to a better comprehension on life, politics, history and geography.

The essays are arranged thematically into four sections. Each covers multiplicity of themes on language, identity, gender and culture. In the first section – ‘Music, Textiles, Food and Travel’, Srirupa Dhar’s ‘From the Womb of Wien’ beautifully blends motherhood and music to her travel experiences and takes us on a tour to Vienna, the home of Hayden, Mozart and Strauss. In ‘Here and There: My Experiences with Food’, Usha Banerjee shares her gastronomic travel explorations of places in and around the two places she calls ‘home’ – Roorkee and Calcutta (now Kolkata). Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath’s ‘Celebration of Everywomen’ races her memory of travel to Lyon in France and a nostalgic remembrance of her childhood days in Tipling village in Assam and juxtaposes the two different cultures across time and space to weave new ideas and thoughts. As she ferries across the Brahmaputra, she remembers seeing Le Mur des Canuts, one of the largest murals in Europe, a tribute to silk workers in the city, a celebration of textiles. She thinks of women, weavers and the Muga silk in Assam and hopes for such an “art that celebrate the life of Everywomen”. In “A Journey to Santa Barbara”, Ketaki Datta muses over her trip to Santa Barbara and compares her taking the route Tagore took in 1916, experiencing the Danish culture in the city and visiting the Christian Anderson Museum to getting into portals of history.

In the second section – ‘The Solo Women Traveller’, Sohini Chatterjee’s “Travelling with fear and baggage of vulnerability: Reflections on Gender and Spatial mobility” juxtaposes her travel from Kolkata to Nottingham with the issues faced by women traveling alone, stressing on fear and vulnerability. Amrita Mukherjee’s ‘How Work Travel Taught me a Thing of Two About Life’ recollects her trip to Kashmir to emphasise on how an enriching travel is more about discovering people than places. Debasri Basu in ‘Journey’s Mercies Please – The Female Traveller in Perspective’ recalls her trip to the Himalayan province of Uttarakhand.

In the third section – ‘Literature and Travel’, Nishat Haider’s ‘Travelling Memory: A Study of Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire’ critically explores concepts of time, history and memory and examines plurality of culture. Haider notes how the novel evades conventional boundaries of historiography or narratology and is “like time travel across the map of memory”. In Arundhati Sethi’s ‘Re-mapping A Small Place: Examination of the Tourist Gaze and Post-colonial Re-inscription of the Antiguan natural and social landscape in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Village’, one can read to find out how Kincaid “uses the Antiguan consciousness to reveal the inerasable tie between the colonial past and the post-colonial present”. Gillian Dooley’s ‘From Timur to Mauritius: Mathew Flinders’ Island Identity’ analyses the travel accounts of the British navigator Captain Mathew Flinders to enlighten us on how the islands inspired him and “never quite lost the aura of romance for him”. Nabanita Sengupta’s ‘A Bibliophile’s Sauntering in and Out of London’ tells us about the joy of actually travelling to re-live familiar places that have earlier featured in books. Sayan Aich’s ‘In Search of the Lost Travellers: Tradition of Travel in the Bengali Milieu’ debates with humour and serious concerns on the label “Bengali tourist”, the community’s passion for travelling and pauses to reflect on how political and social turmoil can dampen the spirit of inclusivity and cultural heterogeneity.

In the fourth Section — ‘History and Travel’, Sheila T. Cavanagh’s ‘“The Sun Shines Bright in Loch Lomond”: Geography Meets Politics in Scottish Highlands’ explores the narratives of the 18th century travellers Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell to point out the power of narratives in shaping political and social agendas of the time. Himanshu Sharma’s ‘The Exotic Tropics of William and Thomas Daniell’ is an interesting take on how one of the earliest travel impressions of the ‘Oriental scenery’ of the two engravers-painters travel to British India from 1786 to 1796 indirectly contributed to coloniality by creating new materiality of India.

Ankita Das’s ‘The Private Lives of Memsahibs: A Study of Emily Eden and Fanny Parkes’ Experiences in India’ discusses multi-layered experiences based on a traveller’s social class or caste and their purpose of travel to relate race, gender and politics in narratives. She explores representation of Otherness, cross-cultural contacts, feminist discourses in Europe and on mental health and travel. Ruskin Bond’s story ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’ later made in the Bollywood movie Saat Khoon Maaf was inspired from the life of a Dutch lady Susan Anna Maria who lived in Chinsurah, whose tomb is locally known as “saat saheber bibir kabar” (tomb of the lady with seven husbands). This and many more stories through art, architecture, culture and heritage interlocking history and literature in and around Chinsurah finds life in Nishi Pulugurtha’s ‘By the Ganga-Chinsurah’.                    

Rich and delightful, subjective yet universal, whether you are a citizen of the world of globalisation or a postcolonial scholar, Across and Beyond is a book for everyone. Ranging from personal accounts of travel to critical essays on literary texts, it engages to connect and cater to mindful and meaningful travelling. Passionately written by a group of travel enthusiasts from their own experiences of travel, their shared moments and memory make the set of essays a bumper harvest for anyone looking for ideas or insights to solo travel or group travel, or for those who want to partake in what Jumpa Lahiri wrote in Namesake, “… to travel without moving your feet”.     

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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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Beyond Dharma

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Beyond Dharma – Dissent in the Ancient Sciences of Sex and Politics

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

When one of the world’s most acclaimed and charming scholars of Hinduism presents a trailblazing interpretation of ancient Indian texts and their historic influence on subversive resistance, the book ought to be of more than ordinary interest.

Eminent Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book was published by Yale University Press earlier under a slightly different title. It has now been republished in India by Speaking Tiger Books, thus widening the scope of readership.

Their blurb on the book reads: “Ancient Hindu texts speak of the three aims of human life: Dharma, Artha and Kama. Translated, these might be called religion, politics and pleasure, and each is held to be an essential requirement of a full and fulfilling life. Balance among the three is a goal not always met, however, and dharma has historically taken precedence over the other two qualities, or goals, in Hindu life.” 

 Doniger is the author of several acclaimed and bestselling works, among them, The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and JewelryHindu Myths; On Hinduism; Siva, the Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities and Reading the Kamasutra. She is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and has also taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and the University of California, Berkeley. Then, she has also been a controversial historian. Her earlier book The Hindus: An Alternative History was banned in 2009 because of some disruptive exemplifications of Hindu gods. 

In the present book, she offers a spirited and close reading of two ancient Indian writings—Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra. She argues that scientific disciplines have offered animated and continuous criticism of dharma over many centuries. While she chronicles the tradition of veiled subversion, she uncovers connections — to voices of dissent all the way through Indian history. 

The book offers deeper insights into the Indian theocracy’s subversion of science by a limited version of religion these days. In the preface she contends: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to replace genuine science with ludicrous religious science debases not only the work of real scientists working in India today but a strong ancient tradition of scientific opposition to religious dogma, a tradition that we can see at work in the two great texts.”  

The Hindu belief system has always encouraged deliberations, debates and questioning of not only one’s beliefs but also, of all the ancient Indian texts — whether they are religious or impious. Consequently, Doniger’s book offers to the readers an occasion to deliberate on Indian texts in the modern day context. 

The book with its exemplary research is insightful and also somewhat controversial as it attempts to define the elusive word dharma and its overall place in human life. It is not just about the philosophical aspect of dharma, rather it draws parallel between Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra and how both oppose what is mentioned in the Dharmashastras.

The book picks up popular terminologies from Hinduism, such as moksha (freedom from the cycle of birth) and provides different views of the word when mentioned in Arthashastra and Kama Sutra.

While talking about Hinduism and dharma, it is impossible to not talk about Manu. Doniger argues, “There are many other dharma texts, with significantly different ideas on many of the subjects that concern us here; some are older, some later than Manu… But Manu’s text remains the gold standard that later texts either accepted or rebelled against, and it provides a base against which we may measure the other two texts that are our main concern.”

Doniger makes some interesting observations that exists in the two ancient texts. For instance, in the section ‘Spying and Seducing’, the author brings out exhilarating facts. “The paranoid psychology of the political text casts its shadow over the erotic text. Eternal vigilance is the price of tyranny — but also the price of adultery.”

Divided into eight chapters, the book pronounces, “As not only Protestants but Victorian Protestants, the British rejected as filthy paganism the sensuous strain of Hinduism, both the world of kama and much of Hindu theological dharma, with what they saw as kitschy images of gods with far too many arms. It reminded them of Catholicism.”

In the epilogue, Doniger brings forth the colonial impact on these texts. She says, after the British colonized India in the eighteenth century only a sanitized version of the Kamashastra arrived.

As a whole, Doniger’s book must be read with panache. Even though it is a well–researched book with a liberal outlook, her point of view would surely give rise to opposing discourses.

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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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Tales of conflict along the MacMahon Line

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Gone Away — An Indian Journal

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

When a travelogue resurfaces sixty years after it was first printed, that ought to be meaningful. “Gone Away – An Indian Journal” by Dom Moraes was originally published in the UK by William Heinemann. Republished as a paperback edition by Speaking Tiger Books (New Delhi) in 2020, the travelogue carries the same magic for the reader as it was then.

Dom Moraes, a poet, novelist and columnist, is perceived to be a foundational figure in Indian English Literature who published thirty books in his lifetime. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994, Moraes passed away in 2004.

Son of the Editor of the Times of India, Dom had grown up in well-off and generous circumstances. After traveling with his father through Australia to New Zealand and Malaya to the borders of Red China, he watched and wrote poetry. Moraes met Stephen Spender in India, showed him his poems and had some published in “Encounter.” The combined efforts of Spender and his father had gained him admission to Jesus College, Oxford.

Reads the blurb: “One of the most unconventional travelogues ever written, Gone Away covers three months of Dom Moraes’ life spent in the subcontinent at the time of the Chinese incursions on the Tibetan border in 1959. In that short time, a remarkable number of memorable things happened to him, some of them the sort of fantastic situations that could only enmesh a poet, perhaps only a young poet – a visit to a speak-easy in Bombay; an interview with Nehru and an hour spent closeted with the Dalai Lama in Delhi; and a meeting with the great Nepalese poet, Devkota, whom he found already laid out to die by the side of the holy river Basumati.”

After a short stay in Calcutta, where he tried, with limited success, to investigate the lives of prostitutes, he went up to Sikkim, the north-eastern border state into which no visiting writer had been allowed for almost a year. Having made his way by jeep right up to the frontier, he ran into a Chinese detachment and was shot at, but escaped to safety.


Full of comicality, felicity of phrase and oddity of behavior, Gone Away communicates the special excitement of the traveler on every page. Example: Unforgettably funny is the account of the Sikkimese soccer match played in an impenetrable mist and involving the loss of several footballs kicked over an adjoining cliff. Though wit and impertinence prevail through the pages, this is a book which catches and holds the mood of modern India and illuminates as much as it amuses.

This is both a political and a personal voyage of discovery, told simply. Moraes’ travelogue is also significant because it gives us the poet’s eye view: providing details from the Indian cityscape and draws our attention to the zeitgeist of the early decades after Independence.

This memoir is a delightful read and is both modest and polished. Moraes’ account of India’s friction with China and India’s relationship with Nepal at the end of 1950s is convincing, especially in the context of the new tensions on the borders. Recording public disquiet over China’s infractions in 1959, Moraes mentions that General Thimayya had asked that the Indian troops on the NEFA border should be supplied with automatic weapons, as they were inadequately armed in case of Chinese attacks. Krishna Menon is said to have refused the request. Then came Longju, when inadequately equipped and outnumbered Indians were put to flight by the Chinese. Indian foot soldiers, caught in the cross locks of war, continue to be ill equipped, even to date.

There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy and many more. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of the subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to exude. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but reading this firsthand experience is something exceptional.

Moraes travels continue to Calcutta, Gangtok and Sikkim, where the Chinese army’s presence is strongly indicated and the Indian state does not provide enough information. Reporting a readable narrative about independent India’s first decade, Moraes’ love for India anticipates his eventual homecoming.

He captures the occasion with candour, his narrative provides a perspective that tells the whole truth, with little sentimentality or precision, and is peppered with humor that is situational and occasionally self-deprecatory.

With an introduction by Jerry Pinto, “Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Moraes. It is a fabulous testimony to India and many of its rarities.

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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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A Story from Manipur

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Author: Veio Pou

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

In his debut novel, Veio Pou weaves fiction to chronicle the forgotten history of Naga people, a past whose dust, even after three long decades, is yet to settle. Waiting for the Dust to Settle is set against the backdrop of Indo-Naga conflict in Northeastern India.

The story of this novel follows the life of a ten-year-old Rokovei from Senapati district in Manipur from late 1980s onward. He lives a peaceful life with his parents. Fascinated by the convoy of army trucks passing daily in front of his home, he secretly wishes to become an army officer. Once, while visiting his native village of Phyamaichi, he witnesses atrocities committed by the soldiers on the villagers. His disenchantment with the army comes to the fore when he becomes aware of his people’s sufferings as a consequence of confrontation between Naga undergrounds and the Indian Army. At the center of this novel is the Operation Bluebird, carried out in the state in 1987.

In September 1958, the Government of India enacted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North-Eastern states to quell Naga resistance. In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district. The Naga undergrounds of NSCN looted large arms and ammunition from the post. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation code-named “Operation Bluebird” to recover the looted arms and ammunition. This intense search operation, which was carried for three months in nearly thirty villages, was a torturous period for the residents of those villages. The Rifles committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the soldiers.

By spinning the narrative around the operation, the author attempts to give voice to the otherwise erased account of a people’s history from the consciousness of a country. The final erasure came when in 2019 the Manipur High Court disposed case against the Assam Rifles, filed by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), after twenty eight years citing dislocation of entire record of the case. Nandita Haksar, who was the lawyer who filed the case on behalf of NPMHR, wrote in an essay that the entire record consisted of twelve volumes of evidence and ran into thousands of pages.

Through account of Rokovei and his family’s life after Operation Bluebird, Veio Pou brings to notice the physical as well as mental sufferings endured by the victims of army brutality.  Disillusionment of natives with respect to Naga undergrounds and their cause, the splitting of NSCN and rivalry between Naga factions, increased awareness among natives for better education, the issue of racism that people from North East face in Mainland India, are the themes dealt prominently within this novel.

Rokovei, while studying in Imphal, witnesses the hostility between Kuki and Naga factions after their conflict in the 1990s. When he moves to University of Delhi few years later, he comes in contact with Lalboi – a Kuki, but does make friends with him because he is the only other boy from the state in his class. After coming to Delhi, he realises the difference of living in a place where no ASFPA is enacted, an experience which should have come as a breather but is marred by racism which he confronts and leaves him astounded. The prejudice that he faces makes him wonder about his identity. Rokovei wishes to find answers. His conversations with his cousin Joyson, with whom he lives in Delhi, gives him a clearer perspective on the history, issues and realities of his people and state. 

Finally, keeping in mind better prospects for the future, he settles down in Delhi. It is the year 2008, five years after the leaders of NSCN visited Delhi to meet PM Vajpayee and yet a solution to the political question his people face is nowhere near. Rokovei ponders over the relevance of Naga resistance which had once started with the dream of a sovereign state but was subsequently made weaker by the split in the party. He reflects upon the corollaries of a struggle which had left the natives disappointed because at stake was a peaceful existence that has long been denied them. For him the dust hasn’t settled yet and his hopes are tinged with despair. 

The history of a place is essentially the history of its people. To recapitulate it, especially when it is complex and painful to remember, must be an arduous task for the people who have witnessed harrowing times and have lived every subsequent day of their lives watching the repercussions unfold. To pen a fictional account of such history therefore requires conviction and also courage to endure the trauma all over again.

This book is not only an attempt at chronicling the events which led to the political question that kept haunting the lives of the Naga people but is also an effort to bring their predicament to the attention of people who have little idea about their sufferings and about the gravity of denial of justice to them.

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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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Unraveling Odisha

Book Review by Bijaya Kumar Mohanty

Title: No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha

Author: Bhaskar Parichha

In No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha, Bhaskar Parichha brings together some of his earlier published essays, primarily written for The Political and Business Daily and other newspapers. The well-known journalist and author begins with a preface in which he quotes Oscar Wilde: “Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” I would rather begin by inserting a slight modification to Wilde’s quotation, ‘Journalism is certainly readable and literature is not widely read’. I have inserted this modification, keeping Philip L. Graham’s quote in mind. He states: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history”.

Parichcha’s book ably presents the author’s long bilingual career in the field of journalism. He primarily writes in Odia and English. The wide variety of essays in the book is intended to create a yearning to know more on the subject. This book would attract all those who are interested in a brief understanding of modern Odisha in general and post-millennial political narratives in particular. It fills a void in the field of political economy of contemporary Odisha.

The book is divided into four parts: ‘Portraits’, ‘Politics and Beyond’, ‘Conflict Zone’ and ‘Odds and Ends’. And concludes with a postscript on “what to expect from Naveen Patnaik’s fifth term as Odisha Chief Minister”.

‘Portraits’ consists of six essays. It starts with Madhusudan das aka Madhubabu, the architect of modern Odisha as ‘the global Indian’.  In Odisha, when children are first introduced to the world of education, they get to learn a widely popular Odia rhyme:

Patha Padhibi, Okila Hebi,

Kalia Ghoda re Chadhibi,

Madhu Babu sange Ladhibi…

A rough translation of the popular memory is: ‘I will study with all the commitment, will achieve all the success and will fight for the nation like Madhubabu’. Madhubabu was one of the earlier institutional builders in the context of colonial inter-region specific cultural and economic conflicts. As rightly concluded by the author, Madhubabu “had a practical sense of realism and fought fearlessly against the ‘mental’ darkness of early twentieth century Odisha”. 

The other five essays are on the maverick Biju Patnaik; the legendary Harish Chandra Bakshipatra; the arrival of astute Naveen Patniak along with two cultural icons of post-colonial Odisha, Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi and the noted film scholar/maker Nirad Mohapatra and his world of Maya Miriga.

This section concluded with Nirad Mohaptra’s Maya Miriga (The Mirage). This was one of the few new wave regional films ever produced in India, as observed by C.S. Venkiteswaran, the noted Kerala based film critic, academic, documentary film-maker, who contended: “There are two kinds of film-makers — those who create an oeuvre of their own and leave a personal imprint on their field, and those who not only want to explore the medium and create a body of work, but also want to communicate and connect with society of their time”. Nirad Mohapatra belonged to the latter kind, by quoting Mohapatra’s words, the author argues that “the making of Maya Miriga was an exciting experience of improvisation within the broad framework of a written story”.

The beauty of Maya Miriga lay in shooting almost the entire film in a single house, which was renovated beforehand by the filmmaker to portray the characters as realistically as possible. To Parichha, Nirad Mohapatra’s kind of cinema truly “sought after truth, didn’t obey convention, and certainly didn’t become subservient to common notions of what was good and palatable”.

The second part, is called ‘Politics and Beyond’. This part accommodates sixteen essays written on issues related to the rise of BJD ( Biju Janata Dal). The strength of these essays revolves around the BJD’s immediate rivalry with parties in context of everyday governance and its electoral prospects in the state.

The third part of the book has some exciting pieces on the issues titled under the sub-section name: ‘Conflict Zone’. Essays written in the context of ‘Polavaram Tangle’ and ‘Make in Odisha Conclave 2016’ are impressive. These have comparative analysis with neighbouring states, like Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, or with richer states, like Gujarat, for attracting foreign direct investments. They even address issues of rehabilitating displaced people as a result of Andhra Pradesh’s unilateral actions with regard to Polavaram Project.

Finally, the last part of the book, has 16 essays titled ‘Odds and Ends’. This section hosts governance issues that range from chit fund scams to a news item on the terror attack in the state capital, Puri; safety issues in the world of Odisha’s industrial corridors; the big confusion around the so-called – India’s single-largest foreign direct investment by the POSCO (Korea) and the aftermath issues of Phailin (a book on Odisha without touching the issues of natural disasters is indeed an incomplete one).

 In ‘Is Odisha a litigant State’, Parichha justifiably contends: “It is high time the Odisha government comes up with a litigation policy on the lines of the Haryana government in order to bring about a visible, qualitative and quantitative improvement in the manner in which litigations are pursued and managed by the state.” ‘How healthy is Odisha?’ brings out the dismal state of public health care as well as private health sector. He urges for an increase in the outlay for public health expenditure from the annual budget.

In ‘Baina, Itishree and Nirbhayas’, Parichha highlights the issues of widespread domestic violence, discrimination against women at the workplace etc. Towards end of the essay, he mentions the introduction of Gender Inequality index (GII) in 2010 as a result of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) report. The quality of having such an index, according to the author, can be put to use by the public sectors to address the existing anomalies of “poor distribution of resources and opportunities amongst male and female”. He rightly says, “Acknowledging the presence of a problem will lead to solutions sooner or later”.

Parichha’s book is an open ended one. The author’s wide array of interest on the issues related to Odisha would be of interest to both lay persons and researchers.

 

Mr. Bijaya Kumar Mohanty, teaches Development Process and Social Movements. He is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Ramjas College, University of Delhi. Email Id: bijaya@ramjas.du.ac.in

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The Brass Notebook

 A recently penned autobiography by eminent economist Devaki Jain, written based on a suggestion made by Doris Lessings in 1958, with a forward by Amartya Sen and reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha.

Title: The Brass Notebook – A memoir

Author: Devaki Jain

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

This is an unusual memoir. Unusual because it isn’t archetypal, not old-fashioned nor even written in a sequential order. The autobiography is set apart into personal and professional years, covering all that happened in a long and distinguished career.

The Brass Notebook by the celebrated economist-writer, Devaki Jain, is structured in such a way that it is no-holds-barred and edifying. In the brilliant life account, she recounts her own story and also that of an entire generation and a nation coming into its own.

Born in 1933, in Mysore, Karnataka, Devaki Jain was the daughter of the Dewan (prime minister) in the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. A student of Mysore University, where she studied Mathematics and Economics, she furthered her education in St Anne’s College, Oxford University and graduated in Economics and Philosophy, where she is now an Honorary Fellow.


Devaki Jain made significant contributions to feminist economics, social justice, and women’s empowerment in India. From 1963 to 69, she was a lecturer in economics at Miranda House, Delhi University. She moved on from teaching to full-time research and publication as the director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust.

Over the years, Devaki Jain founded a wide range of institutions such as the Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era (DAWN), a Third World network of women social scientists, and a research Centre in Delhi — Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST). She had been a member of several policy-making bodies in India and abroad, including the State Planning Board of Karnataka; the erstwhile South Commission, established in 1987 under the chairmanship of Dr Julius Nyerere; the Advisory Committee for UNDP Human Development Report on Poverty (1997), and the Eminent Persons Group associated with the Graca Machel Committee (UN) on the impact on children of armed conflict.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa, the eighty-seven-year-old wrote: “It was difficult to reveal my personal life, but because I felt that my story could be a source of strength for many women, I decided to share both my political engagements and my personal adventures.” Her earlier works include Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics and Harvesting Feminist Knowledge for Public Policy: Rebuilding Progress.

With a ‘Foreword’ by Amartya Sen, The Brass Notebook has been inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Not just the title, but the idea of the book itself was suggested by Lessing when Jain first met her in 1958. It took Jain 60 years to honour that advice.

In the memoir, Devaki Jain begins with her childhood in south India — a life of comfort and ease. But there were restrictions too, that come with growing up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, and the rarely spoken about dangers of predatory male relatives. 

She writes in the autobiography, “While most of the other students, largely Anglo-Indian or Goan Christians, would walk or cycle from their nearby homes, my younger sister and I came to school every day, to our great embarrassment, in a coach drawn by a beautiful chestnut brown horse. There were no buses or any form of public transport from where we lived to the Cantonment. It was like two different cities. We wore the standard school uniform: a blue serge pleated skirt with a white shirt, tucked neatly in, and a brown-and-gold tie with diagonal stripes. We all sang the school anthem–‘Brown and Gold’–with great fervor, every morning at assembly.

I loved the various prayers and litanies that were part of the Roman Catholic tradition of the school. I would go to the chapel, make the sign of the cross, and sing all the hymns, ‘do’ the rosary (a friend gave me one to pray with). The rosary had to be hidden when I was at home, and my private devotions restricted to the bathroom. Like so many girls who feel the aesthetic appeal of Catholicism, I wanted more than anything to be a nun. Of course, I breathed nothing of these thoughts to my family at home, upper-caste Hindus who would have been shocked at one of their children abandoning both her family’s religion and hopes of a happy domestic life.

“As it was, we were not allowed to enter the house proper without first shedding our uniforms, bathing and changing in the bathroom which we were to enter by the back door. We had two very orthodox grandmothers living with us who regarded close proximity to Christians as polluting.”

Elsewhere in the memoir she writes about the Gandhian way of life at Wardha Ashram: “Another experience, which took me deeply into the ethos of India’s freedom movement, while I was still cocooned in the orthodox family, was a student seminar in Bangalore in 1953. This was convened by the Quakers, in this case the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Normally I would not be allowed to go to such workshops and conferences, but as I have mentioned earlier in this memoir, my brother Sreedhar had me invited. He was studying in the US and was drawn to the spirit and culture of the Quakers.

“At the seminar, I was gripped by the simple attire and eclectic ideas of two young men, aged twenty-one and nineteen, who had come all the way from Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha–one British, David Hoggett, and the other Indian, Vasant Palshikar. I was fascinated by their attitude, behaviour, clothing and ideas. They were living in Wardha at the Sarva Seva Sangh Ashram. They dressed like Gandhi–that is, dhotis made of khadi, tucked high up between their legs, a light sleeveless banyan, vest, also made of khadi, and coarse handmade leather chappals. They were very calm, friendly and totally at ease with the mixed bag of people that we were.”

Ruskin College, Oxford, gave Devaki Jain her first taste of freedom in 1955, at the age of twenty-two. Oxford brought her a degree in philosophy and economics — and hardship, as she washed dishes in a cafe to pay her fees. It was here, too, that she had her early encounters with the sensual life. With rare candor, she writes of her romantic liaisons in Oxford and Harvard and falling in love with her ‘unsuitable boy’– her husband, Lakshmi Chand Jain, whom she married against her father’s wishes. 

Devaki’s professional life saw her becoming deeply involved with the cause of ‘poor’ women — workers in the informal economy, for whom she strove to get a better deal. In the international arena, she joined cause with the concerns of the colonized nations of the south, as they fought to make their voices heard against the rich and powerful nations of the former colonizers. 

The book — divided into seven parts and running into a little over two hundred pages and with photographs from the album —  is as absorbing as thought-provoking. In all these encounters and anecdotes, what sparkles is Devaki Jain’s uprightness in telling the story. In the chronicle, there is a message for women across generations: one can experience the good, the bad and the ugly, and remain standing to tell the story. Honesty permeates the narrative in whatever challenges Devaki Jain has faced in her life.

An entrancing memoir, The Brass Notebook is a must-read for women who want to know how to survive and succeed in a patriarchal society, for men to know that women are not a weaker sex but just uninformed about their inherent strength, and for policymakers to know that even seven decades after Independence, the basic flaws in their policies on women’s empowerment have still not been addressed.

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