Categories
The Observant Immigrant

A Post-Pandemic Future …?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Having been a reluctant fan of apocalyptic fiction since I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), I had studied virology when the AIDS pandemic struck and read a great number of virus-related books on infectious diseases. Despite this preparedness and the knowledge that it was not a case of IF, but WHEN, the next virus would strike, I think I speak for most of us when I say we were still all unprepared for Covid-19.

What the pandemic has taught us thus far is immeasurable and I believe it will last several generations, or I hope so. That said, it’s our human nature to want to move on. Not because we don’t care, but part of being alive is putting trauma and suffering behind us and ensuring those who survive, truly survive, which means living. Is that insensitive or just the nature of the beast? It can be insensitive, especially to the millions who have lost loved ones, but it’s also how humans generally operate.

Is it possible to move on and live a full life irrespective of this global tragedy without losing our compassion and responsibility to stop this from ever happening again?

The reality is; it will happen again, and for many of us, in our lifetime. What we can do is be better prepared and all that this entails.

What are the steps being taken to move toward the new post pandemic future? What are we doing differently? And why?

The pandemic divided us, it physically kept us apart. Some who were well versed in social skills and true extroverts, struggled when they emerged from the worst of the pandemic. They found it hard to do the things they used to be so skilled at. From lack of practice. I recall sitting at lunch with a friend who used to be the life-and-soul of any social event. She struggled for, as she put it; ‘her words’. Having become so used to speaking less and not being face-to-face, she said it felt ‘overwhelming’, ‘strange’ and she looked forward to going home.

That is a habit we must break. The comfort of the living room and the immediate family is intoxicating. We can rapidly get used to living in a smaller-seemingly safer, changed world where we see less people, go out less, and become accustomed to an intimate circle. For some of us this was always our life, and maybe not as challenging — a shift as it was for those who previously socialised a great deal.

In a way the pandemic was harder on the extrovert than the introvert. Because while introverts aren’t averse to socialising, they can find it exhausting; whereas extroverts gain energy from it. When you put an extrovert in a forced setting without social opportunity, they may struggle more than someone used to their own company.

But it’s not as simple as extrovert and introverts. Many of us are a little of both, depending on the situation. I can go out with a big group one day. But on other days I want to be alone. Few of us are extremes. Most are like ‘ambiverts’ a combination of extroverts and introverts.

For those who do thrive on socialising, the pandemic was particularly challenging, but there are many ways to be affected, not least the tension and anxiety all of us picked up on or directly experienced.

Fortunately, technology became our best friend as we Zoomed more and met via video chats throughout the world. It opened up an international stage more than we’ve ever experienced and gave children a new normal in terms of how they learned online. Learning solely online had deleterious effects on underperformers. This ‘unfinished learning’ [1] particularly impacted youth who might have already been struggling in the educational system.

Having taught Critical Thinking online for years, I genuinely believe online learning cannot replace in-class learning. There are huge draws to learning from the comfort of home, especially for adult learners who do so after work [2]. “In comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students. Only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students, and even less has used the ‘gold standard’ method of comparing the results for students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.” [3]The amount of information retained is drastically smaller and the social engagement of a classroom has benefits that are hard to quantify but necessary for social development. When you rob children of the opportunity to socialize with each other you isolate them at a crucial stage in their development.

Some kids with learning disabilities[4] are particularly affected by this, as are those who come from unsafe or impoverished backgrounds, where they may not have equal access to technology or reliable internet. They may not have parents who can help them if they are stuck or be able to work from home or have access to lunch. All those necessary elements to the education system were lost in our need to stay home and protect each other. A generation of children will always remember this time as a result.

On the other hand, they have mastered technology in a way that few older generations can boast of, and they are conversant in all the myriad ways of communicating with a wide range of technologies and devices. They are adaptable, versatile and fearless when it comes to tackling the rigors of online learning. For some who dislike social settings, it may also be a vast improvement[5].

Women left the workforce in droves [6]when the pandemic hit, with 2 million less in the work-force. The inverse of this was men began to return to work having been dropping in numbers whilst women rose. The Pew Research Center found “What accounts for the larger labor force withdrawals among less-educated women than men during the pandemic? It is complex but there seems to be a consensus that it partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic. Although women overall are more likely than men to be able to work remotely, they are disproportionately employed in occupations that require them to work on-site and in close proximity to others.” Jobs men traditionally do like physical labor, were in high demand, whilst many jobs traditionally filled by women, were shut down, often not returning[7].

We can be glad our restaurants are open again; we’re opening borders, we’re flying abroad, we’re living again. But let’s also spare a moment to think of those who lost so much it’s almost impossible to conceive. Covid was the third leading cause of death in America during the height of the pandemic, how did this many deaths become normal? Covid killed an estimated 13% of people over 80. Aside the tragedy of a generation of elderly dying[8] and the loss of grandparents, and parents for so many, we’ve also seen younger people dying from a virus, which has shaken the belief younger people have that they are impervious to viruses similar to the flu, what effect with this have on their sense of safety going forward?

And what of the health consequences of those who technically survived bout of the pademic but developed ‘slow Covid’ or worse, the side-effects and lingering legacy of being seriously ill with the virus?[9] How many lung transplants will occur? How will ‘long haulers’ cope with lingering serious effects? What of those who live in countries where this isn’t an option? How many chronic illnesses will continue for decades as a result of this pandemic? It’s not enough to point to those who have died but also include those who survived but at such a high cost.

Financially we have collectively poured money into research, vaccines, countermeasures and prevention, but where has that money actually come from? And can we feasibly borrow that much money from our coffers without a reckoning? Economist Anton Korinek, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business thinks: “People sometimes frame the policy response to COVID-19 as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods, and they ask whether it’s worth killing our economy to save people’s lives. But what they forget is that people won’t go back to a normal life and consumer demand won’t really recover if the virus is spreading through our country and killing people.” But the result of these hard choices and repeat closures, is they now predict an impending worldwide recession of global proportions, which had already been mounting prior to the pandemic, but promises to be far greater in its aftermath. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the fall out; it begins with massive inflation but that’s just the start[10].

History tells us when we go through challenging times and survive, ‘the near miss experience’ as it’s known as, we want to live more than ever before[11], but economically this will not be possible for so many who are robbed of their financial security because of inflation, redundancy, underemployment and post-covid illness. We should be mindful that none of us are all right if many of us are still suffering and if we can support those who struggle, this battle with covid should have taught us all that we should care more about each other.

Perhaps these are the steps we can take to move toward a new post-pandemic future, where we consider ways, we may be better prepared for an invariable future of emerging viruses. We can try to find ways to avoid spilling into areas with high disease potential. “According to a group of UN biodiversity experts, around 1.7 million unidentified viruses circulate in animal populations, of which 540,000 to 850,000 have the capacity to infect humans.” So, we can avoid wet markets, and sloppy scientific research, both of which are vectors for the spread of viruses. We can pay more emerging virus hunters [12] to seek out those emerging viruses and begin work on treatments before they devastate countries. We can be borderless in our unanimous approach to equity for all, especially access to healthcare.

In America, we learned we were far from unassailable. In a New York Times article about Covid Deaths, the authors wrote: “For all the encouragement that American health leaders drew from other countries’ success in withstanding the Omicron surge, the outcomes in the U.S. have been markedly different. Hospital admissions in the U.S. swelled to much higher rates than in Western Europe, leaving some states struggling to provide care. Americans are now dying from Covid at nearly double the daily rate of Britons and four times the rate of Germans.” Nothing can diminish that fatal statistic or rectify the unnecessary deaths[13]. Our healthcare system, considered superior, proved to be full of holes. Without some type of socialised healthcare our costs and resources are too high and scarce. We don’t value the front-line workers like nurses, porters, assistants and care staff and we do not pay them for the risks they take, and whilst we do pay doctors good wages, we have severe shortages of knowledge and progress. Finding out we didn’t have enough ventilators, masks for medical staff, PCP equipment and beyond, exposed the shame of putting profit over people. [14]

It is no surprise then that the UK and USA were among the top offenders in the rise and spread of the pandemic and their death rates exposed this. No one ethnic group appears to be at greater risker of dying from the virus based on ethnicity alone, but Hispanic, Black, and native Americans or AIAN people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts and that Hispanic and AIAN people are at one and a half times greater risk of COVID-19 infection than White people[15]. This is caused by social reasons (inequality) not ethnicity, as can be proven by Africa and some AIAN countries having some of the lowest Covid mortality rates. In the article ‘Racism not Genetics’ in Scientific American, the authors point out “the genes that influence skin colour are distributed independently of genes that influence the risk for any particular disease. Given the heterogeneity of groups we call “black” or “white,” treating those categories as proxies for genetic variation almost always leads us astray.”[16]

Even if there are increased susceptibilities related to blood type[17] and age (More than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur in people over age 65. The number of deaths among people over age 65 is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29 years). The real risk is how healthy the population is and whether they have safe access to healthcare[18]. Both America and the UK failed because they put profit above people and have large populations of sickly people[19]. Going forward this needs to change, which means redesigning what we prioritise. People need to have access to healthcare and make lifestyle changes that will reduce their risks which they cannot do if they cannot afford to see a doctor or in the case of the UK find it hard to see a doctor because of long wait times and reduced staffing. It’s not as simple as socializing healthcare as the UK proved, this alone doesn’t save lives, what saves lives is considering the larger picture.

But politicians gain from older populations dying, consider what happened in Brazil when the President denied the danger of Covid and for a time Brazil had the highest Covid mortality[20]. This is the harsh truism rarely mentioned: It benefits those in control of a society to lose the most fragile members who will suck up precious resources, much like a form of eugenics, it behooves them to let it happen and there are many examples[21]. For a politician who is looking for ways to reduce healthcare costs, what is better than some of the potentially most expensive ‘customers’ dying? This happened in France where number of elderly people died one Summer, shockingly little was said at the time, but all signs pointed to a collective signal of relief from those in power who benefited from less older people making claim on an already taxed medical system[22].

When Italy [23]and Spain [24] and Brazil [25] became epicenters of Covid 19 deaths, they did so because of ill preparedness and it’s a cautionary tale to witness which countries succumbed to the ravages of covid 19 repeatedly, versus those who learned from them. What we have learned is more, not less, needs to be done and if a country keeps its borders open including air-travel and business-travel, then as much as they hope to save their economy, they do so at the expense of their most vulnerable. For some countries this was a conscious choice (economy over lives) whereas for others it was poor communication and slow response times. For some a lack of money, for others a desire to gain at any cost. All this speaks of the tapestry that is the pandemic’s aftermath (and truly, is it really vanquished?)[26].

I’d love to say a new post pandemic future looks rosy, but the only way that happens is if we learn from our mistakes, which history tells us, we rarely do. The most important thing is empathy, when we saw others take their masks off and simply not care if the vulnerable died, we saw how bad we as humans can fall. But we also saw how wonderful humans can be, including the infinite sacrifice and compassion of thousands who sought to help strangers. If there is a way, we can reward the good and not the bad, if we can get our priorities right and stop paying sports figures astronomical sums but perhaps emphasise on compassion, kindness, and diligence, we can all grow together.

I was particularly moved by youth who in the turmoil of the pandemic created inventions or systems to help others[27]. Believing youth are our future, and thus, our hope, it gives me great faith in the future when I see those too young to vote, care for strangers and seek to do their part. We should always encourage this as we should encourage a continued dialogue into how we can create an international rapid response to emerging diseases. It is not if, but when, and now all of us should know this and have no excuse for putting our heads in the sand again. Yes, it hurts to think of it, yes, we’d rather go off and have fun, but what fun is it if we are only postponing the inevitable return of a lethal virus? Part of being responsible for our planet and each other, is not avoiding the harsh truths; of environmental changes and devastation, global poverty, continued inequality and elitism, and of course, the increasing risk of deadly diseases.

We have within us all, the power to effect change. The steps we should take to move toward a post pandemic future must necessarily include keeping our eyes open and not taking the easy road. Sure, governments don’t want to spend the money on research, science, virus hunters, predictions. And preparedness, but I challenge anyone to say this isn’t exactly what they need to do. It is necessary we keep this in mind when we vote and protest. We should be marching about this as much as any other cause, because it affects us all and equally, brings us all together with one cause.

Thinking in terms of one world, we are less divided than ever before and whilst we were separated, I think we also found ways to come together if we choose to. I say, we should. Because, together globally, we learn more than we ever would divided. With the offensive by Russia on Ukraine, we see the lunacy of war, the futility, the devastation and waste. Instead of pouring millions into wars and keeping the rich, rich at the cost of the poor and overworked, we should consider how we can all rise out of the mire and evolve towards a better future. But in order to achieve this we cannot be complacent, and we cannot let our guard down.


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2021/03/31/the-worst-of-times-for-online-education/?sh=401d57623a5a

[3] https://www.edweek.org/technology/opinion-how-effective-is-online-learning-what-the-research-does-and-doesnt-tell-us/2020/03

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/20/students-disabilities-virtual-learning-failure/

[5] https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/how-technology-making-education-more-accessible

[6] https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/over-1-million-fewer-women-in-labor-force.aspx

[7] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/14/some-gender-disparities-widened-in-the-u-s-workforce-during-the-pandemic/

[8] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1191568/reported-deaths-from-covid-by-age-us/

[9] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid-long-haulers-long-term-effects-of-covid19

[10] https://news.virginia.edu/content/economist-societal-costs-covid-19-outweigh-individual-costs

[11] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201803/aftereffects-the-near-death-experience

[12] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20201218-gabon-s-virus-hunters-in-search-of-the-next-covid-19

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/01/science/covid-deaths-united-states.html

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/06/us-covid-death-rate-vaccines

[15] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

[16] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/racism-not-genetics-explains-why-black-americans-are-dying-of-covid-19/

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8286549/

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52245690

[19] https://theconversation.com/why-has-the-uks-covid-death-toll-been-so-high-inequality-may-have-played-a-role-156331

[20] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00529-8/fulltext

[21] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/18/china-covid-19-killed-health-care-workers-worldwide/

[22] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/hong-kong-covid-outbreak-rcna20033

[23] https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/revisited/20210528-covid-19-in-europe-codogno-the-italian-town-where-it-all-began

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/world/europe/spain-coronavirus-emergency.html

[25] https://www.scielo.br/j/rsbmt/a/8FzbQZY57WRTwYL9MnBKBQp/?lang=en

[26] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03003-6

[27] https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/deeply-affected-pandemic-youth-are-committed-helping-others

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Candice Louisa Daquin is 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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Categories
Interview Review

Akbar: The Man Who was King

In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books

“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman

These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.

Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.

Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?

They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.

Akbar by Shazi Zaman in Hindi

The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.

The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’s  Jorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times.  Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.

Shazi Zaman

Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.

If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.

Why did you choose to write of Akbar?

One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.

Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?

I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.

There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?

It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.

Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?

History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.

What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ?  Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.

A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.

In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.

What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.

The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.

My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often.  Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now.  So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel.  However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.

 How did you create the character of Akbar ?

Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.

When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is  Akbarnama which was a monumental image  building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.

Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective.  I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.

Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.

Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters  Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or  were writers themselves. I closely studied them.

Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described.  Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.

In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts.  Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.

I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?

There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.

You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?

More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to  say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of  a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance. 

What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”

There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”

You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?

The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English  version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language.  A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language. 

You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?

I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.

Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?

Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.

Thank you for your time.

This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from Akbar: A Novel of History

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Categories
Essay

Corona & the Police

By Subhankar Dutta

A policeman wearing a ‘corona’ helmet in India to educate civilians on the pandemic

With the onslaught of the massive pandemic worldwide, state and central police forces’ activities increased significantly in India. From the street corner to the deep alleys, the police became one of the frontline forces having close proximity with the suspected victims and also with communities. While describing the exercise of power by the state apparatus on public, Foucault, the French historian and philosopher asserts, “We should not forget that in the eighteenth century the police force was not invented only for maintaining law and order, nor for assisting governments in their struggle against their enemies, but for assuring urban supplies, hygiene, health, and standards considered necessary for handicrafts and commerce” (The subject and power, p784).

Pondering upon the huge impact of the first wave and the ongoing second wave, we can see a close resonance of Foucault’s words in our present condition: the pandemic, nationwide lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfew, and the overcrowded vaccination centers. This new avatar of police forces started to be seen, initially, with the awareness campaign during the first wave of the corona. Several creative re-creations of popular songs and dance numbers were performed by the police at the street corners, residential areas, markets, and other public spaces. Kolkata police gave a twist to Anjan Dutt’s iconic song ‘Bela Bose’ and cheered up the citizens staying inside the home during the national lockdown. The initiative taken by the Gariahat police station was acclaimed worldwide and shared by the Kolkata Police Twitter handle. Similarly, the celebrated song from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) ‘O re sahar basi (Oh, the city dwellers)’ was deftly modified by the Rabindra Sarobar Police Station to reinstall patience and faith in the citizens.

Policemen in Kolkata performing Satyajit Ray’s famed film song adapted to create COVID awareness

Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra police also adapted the popular Bollywood number ‘Zindagi maut na ban jaye Yaaro’(Friends beware, life should not become death)’ from the 1999 Amir Khan action-drama Sarfarosh and made it a corona awareness song.

Madhya Pradesh police performing corona awareness song, an adaptation from Bollywood movie Sarfarosh

Few more popular reincarnations of songs like, ‘Ae Mere Humsafar’ from the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) to “Ae mere deshbaisyo, ghar me hi tum raho. Bahar coronavirus hain, bahar na niklo (O my countrymen! you stay at home. Coronavirus is out there, do not come out)” by the MP Police; ‘Mera mulk, mera desh, mera ye watan (My country, my homeland)’ from the film Diljale (1996) by the Andaman Nicobar Police; and many more were modified and sung by Indian policemen to spread awareness as well as to keep people positive during the new-normal.

The Kerala police went a step ahead in this new creative exploration came up with a unique dance number, and the official uploaded video became an instant hit. Following a similar line, police from Chhattisgarh, Pune, Delhi and other states and cities, also made us experience a new creative side of them: an experience like roadside concert even in the lockdown. Not only in India but also the Spanish policemen were seen singing on the empty street of Majorca during their nationwide lockdown.

Police officers adapting popular song to educate on the pandemic

Holding placards, wearing coronavirus-inspired helmets, donning the attire of the Yamraj ( the god of death in Hindu lore), and the pop-cultural renderings of singing and dancing are the innovative side of the police, directing us towards a new orientation and new conception of the word ‘police’. Owing its origin to the Medieval Latin ‘politia’ meaning citizenship or government, it has changed its significance a lot with time. In the past few decades with growing urban violence, Maoist upsurge in several parts of India, student protest in the premier institutions, and communal combats around events and organisations, the term police and its social significance tend towards a more limited understanding of law, order, and control.

The ongoing pandemic presents before us a new image of police who sing songs, deliver food, campaign for health awareness, assist the migrants with food, water, and shelter; quite a close rendering of the words of Foucault, showing a new compassionate side of them. While we are disturbed, both physically and mentally, watching the viral videos of lathi-charge following the Tablighi Jamaat, huge mass gathering at Bandra (Mumbai) or Anand Vihar, or the farmers’ protest at Delhi, we should also look at the other side of the coin: a new public role that Indian police have been assigned.

Lokmani, a low-income wage-earning woman in Andhra Pradesh, giving cold drinks to the on-duty policeman with affection, was a warm acceptance of this new role: a mutual exchange of respect and care. The Indian police, which is often criticized for rudeness, bribery, and high-handedness, has to be seen from a more humane angle during this ongoing pandemic. A report prepared collectively by Hanns Seidel Foundation and Janaagraha Trust in Bangalore suggests that ninety percent of the surveyed citizens are accepting the police from a new positive perspective. A similar narrative prevails almost throughout the globe.

But what is the new lesson to be learned? It is something that demands mutual consents from both the government and the citizens. What corona taught us is a new image of the police and thus refers to a reformed legal sensibility that we all should bring into existence and carry forward. Our popular Bollywood films have often presented the hero figure or the ‘saviour’ image of police in the hits like Singham, Mardaani, Simba to Article 15, and many others. But when it comes to the real scenario of the police-public relationship, the narrative is quite different.

They are seen as the ‘privileged alien forces’ who are an obstacle to the smooth life conduct of general citizens. Similarly, the police station is also perceived as a place of fear and terror. The different spectacle of ‘policing’ by the police and other contextual brutalities created a fear-figure of them, very authentically. In our childhood, policemen were used to instill fear in us. This was probably the start of imbibing the ‘fearful-figure’ syndrome into our minds. But it is essential to bridge the gulf between reel life and real life, and the corona crisis provides us an idiom for that. This new attentiveness of the police towards the public, their different methods of spreading awareness, helping families in cremation, and other pandemic related help have made them a new emblem of hope and courage. As the Commissioner of Delhi Police, SN Shrivastava tweeted recently, “Policemen are living upto the motto of ‘Service’, even though it entails risk to their own safety. Despite many of them falling sick, it has not dented their morale and desire to help citizens gasping for breath. They are the ultimate saviour.”

On our part, we need to transform our concept of tyranny associated with policemen to a more humane identification of these men as our local guardians or local legal representatives. The government, on their part, should ensure the same by giving a permissible space where the local police and administration can frolic at ease. The police, because of its proximity to the public, can become a significant tool for public health, risk management, and other inclusive public services. The legal system could re-animate its view of law and police, from as an over-autonomous power which is separate and self-contained, to a kinder configuration where they are more constructive, interpretative, and contextual: rooted in the local life, local necessities. It is like giving the police more power: power to become more humane.

However, though this will not change mindsets overnight, it widens the possibility of making the police and the citizens work for each other in the future. Hopefully, corona will respond one day by becoming endemic or disappearing, to either the ‘Go Corona, Corona Go’ chanting at the Gateway of India, or to the vaccination drive (the sooner, the better), but the new affinity that is building up between the police and the civilian should be retained for a better future. As the corona crisis continues to hover, it has proven that we could learn to build a reciprocal sensibility between police and public for the benefit of both.

Go Corona chanting in Mumbai

Whenever the necessity comes, we should again be together with a safe distance and sing with the Chhattisgarh cop, “Ek pyar ka nagma hai, hum sabne ye thana hain, milke ab humko corona ko harana hain (This is a song of love, we have all decided in unison, together we need to defeat corona).”

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Subhankar Dutta is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant at Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Bombay. For more details, please visit the link. https://subhankarduttas.wordpress.com/

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Categories
Humour Poetry

Carnival of Animals

By Rhys Hughes

 Silky Salathiel

Silky Salathiel was a travelling cat

with the taste of the Orient on the tip of his tongue.

He wandered the streets of Mandalay

enticed by the scents of ginger and lime,

where the oldest songs are sung

in the Rub-Al-Khali

he scratched at the rugs in Bedouin tents.

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I knew him well when I was young.

We sailed the Brahmaputra in an old sea-chest,

lived in a basket in Kathmandu,

climbed the mountains of the Hindu Kush,

bathed in fountains of milk in Xanadu,

and I was the friend whom he loved best;

the oldest fish in the Caspian Sea.

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But of course I lived longer than him

(now he is gone memories are all that remain).

He was not just a cat but a travelling cat

who danced flamenco in the castles of Spain,

licked the cheese in shady Provence

and drunk the ale in the snowy Ukraine.

Silky Salathiel the travelling cat

with the taste of the East on the tip of his tongue

and the taste of the West

on the tip of

his tail.


THE CASANOVA KANGAROO

The Casanova Kangaroo
    is a bounder
       but he’s no cad
    or utter rotter
(and if he was an otter
    he wouldn’t be
fishy either). He’s not a
        womaniser
who disguises his desire
as charm. In fact
the only thing he has in
      common with
the original Casanova is
that they both wrote
      their memoirs.

       Chapter One,
‘My Early Life in a Pouch’


PANDEMONIUM

Pandemonium is
not a state of disorder
but a state ruled
by pandas. They
will try to bamboozle
you with booze
made from bamboo
shoots and seduce
you with the music
of bamboo flutes.

The capital of the state
of Pandemonium
is called Nebulosity
City but I don’t know
why. No one actually
lives there. Pandas
prefer the countryside.

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Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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