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Review

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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Review

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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Review

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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Interview

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Devaki Jain: With Permission from Devaki Jain and Speaking Tiger Books

A woman who at eighty-eight brought out her autobiography based on the urgings of among others, Alice Walker, author of  the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Colour Purple , and  Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate — only much later. Like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, her biography is called The Brass Notebook. Does it talk anti-war or feminism or womanism? I am not sure. What it does show is a woman who despite being surrounded by patriarchal norms managed to live her life as she wanted without resorting to schools of ‘isms’ or feeling injured. In the process, she met many great people and tried to bring in changes or reforms.

Devaki Jain, born in 1933,  graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Needless to say the best introduction to her work and her person comes from well-known feminist journalist,  Gloria Steinem: “Your heart and world will be opened by reading The Brass Notebook the intimate and political life of Devaki Jain, a young woman who dares to become independent even as a country of India does. Because she’s also my oldest friend I can tell you there is no one like her, yet only here in her writings have I learned the depth, breadth and universality of adventures.”

The interview probably reinforces her non-conformist outlook. In an age when intellectuals bicker over terminology and social media becomes the fulcrum of our lives, she lives by her convictions. Despite writing an absolutely gripping autobiography, she has revealed only a bit of herself. Through the interview, I tried to entice more but I got only a very brief glimmer. Her autobiography painted a liberal, liberated and open thinker who fearlessly fought her way against patriarchal and colonial mindsets. In this exclusive, I invite you to savour her spirit at a stage in life when most talk mainly of geriatric issues. Devaki Jain for you —

You were a very independent lady for your times. Could you find parallels of women like yourself in diverse cultures?

Women have been revolutionaries, radical thinkers, resistance leaders, dissenters for centuries. There are not many records of this but one of my colleagues found that there were groups of women, for example, in China even as far as the 12th century who were dissenters. Therefore, the knowledge may not have been recorded but striking for independence and striking for justice has been a part of women’s lives for centuries. 

What drove you to be as you were? What made you feel that marriage was not the ultimate aim of all existence in the 1950s and 1960s?

(a)What drives people to do things differently? This is not an easy question to answer, people are born differently with different aspirations and different nervous systems. It is like asking an artist what helped you to be such a brilliant artist. Such questions are not appropriate. 

(b) I think this question is badly framed that I felt that marriage was not the ultimate aim, it was not like that. It was just that I felt there were other things that I wanted to do.

A young Devaki Jain. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

How supportive was your family, especially your father, of your sense of independence?

My father was an enigma, while he wanted to submit to orthodoxy, he was also very respectful of those who wanted to do things differently. So, in a sense, I think he was supportive of my desire for independence. 

You did face some amount of familial sexual harassment. Did it scar you for life? How did you get over the trauma?

My uncle’s sexual assault on me did not scar me for life, there was no particular need to get over the trauma. In a situation of living in cloisters with family bounds there is no space for lifelong traumas.

You spoke of how funding went inadvertently hand in hand with a different kind of colonial outlook. Would you say that is still true?

No, currently I think both the donors and the receivers have understood the difference and respect the difference.

Womanism is a term you have spoken of in your book. How is this different from feminism in your perspective?

I was basically supporting Alice Walker’s definition and I support her perspective. Please refer to my quotation from Alice Walker*.

[*Alice Walker quote from Pg 173-174, The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger, 2020: “As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of colour, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of colour, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of colour are oppressed by men of colour as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honouring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness, thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc—she honours Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of colour apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who have had enough of being second–and third–class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.”]

Do you think women’s issues across the world are similar? How should they be dealt with?

It is believed that women’s oppression comes from patriarchy which of course is worldwide. I do not think I can answer the second part of the question – “how should it be dealt with?” — except writing three other books.

With Fidel Castro in Cuba as a member of the South Commission. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

You have spoken of how the South Commission fell through. Can you tell us why? Is this what happens very often?

The South Commission fell apart because of a failure of solidarity between the south countries. It was a political statement to join the South together as an economic platform. When it failed, it failed all that. 

You tried to bring many changes for the welfare of women across India and beyond. Will you tell us a bit about the perceived problems and solutions that we could find?

I do not think I attempted to bring changes for the welfare of women. I think I was basically pointing out the contribution that women made to the economy and how they were being discriminated against. 

What are your future plans, presuming you are going to be a grand dame of 150 years?

I would like to write, write and write.

What would be the advice you would like to give young women living in today’s world?

Follow your dreams and don’t be frightened of orthodoxy. 

Thank you for giving us some of your time.

Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Devaki Jain, Lakshmi Jain at a reception. With permission of Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger
With Dr Julius Nyere (centre) in Cuba, 1989. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books
With Desmond & Leah Tutu, Pretoria, 1998. with permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

All the photographs are published with thanks to the author, Devaki Jain, and the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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Excerpt

The Brass Notebook: A Memoir by Devaki Jain

Excerpted from The Brass Notebook: A Memoir by Devaki Jain. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.

Upturning Hierarchies

‘She has wheels on her feet’: I think this phrase is used in several Indian languages to describe women who are constantly travelling (‘kaalile chakram’ in my own language, Tamil). The phrase sometimes carries with it a sense of exasperation or dismissal: why can’t she stay in one place? I was just the sort of person to whom that phrase applies. In retrospect, it amazes me to find that over a span of about fifty years, starting 1955, I have travelled to ninety-four different countries. I have also had the privilege of visiting every one of the twenty-nine states and seven Union Territories in India. In most of them, I have visited some of the poorest and most marginalized villages to meet women and to try to understand their struggles. Very little of this travel was for tourism or holidays. Nearly all of it was professional travel with my costs covered.

This cycle of constant travel began in a sense in childhood, when I accompanied my father on his trips and safaris. So many of my memories of childhood are of me in the back seat of a car, en route to somewhere unfamiliar. But I really became a self-sufficient traveller in my own right in 1962, when I found myself part of an unusual, and now almost impossible, overland trip from Oxford to Delhi. The leader of this bold travelling party was Elizabeth Whitcombe, an Oxford student who had studied ‘Greats’: that is to say, the four-year degree in Greek and Latin languages, literature, history and philosophy. She had only two conditions for members of her party: one had to be able to drive, and to contribute £100 to the kitty. In the end, there were four of us: two men and two women in a hardy Land Rover.

We started, of course, from where we were, in Oxford, and took the ferry across the English Channel into France. We drove across France and Switzerland, all the way down to Greece and then Turkey. Throughout, we stayed in what were called ‘mocamps’—camps for motorists to park their cars and spend the night. Sometimes, we slept out in the open in our sleeping bags. Elizabeth, a seasoned camper who had climbed mountains in New Zealand, brought all the necessary equipment. A well-read scholar, she could educate us about the antiquities in Greece and Turkey—archaeological sites and ancient monuments—that we visited.

From Ankara in Turkey, we went on through Trebizond, Batumi, Erzurum, Tabriz, stopping in each town, walking through and occasionally shopping in the bazaars. We all bought leather coats in the market in Istanbul, where the sturdiest and cheapest leather goods were to be found. The one memory of that part of the trip that stayed with me as a traumatic experience was seeing the decapitated heads of cattle being used to hang things on—bags, hats and so forth. The heads still had eyes and it was like they were staring right back at me when I looked at them.

One of my co-travellers, a mathematician from New Zealand called David Vere Jones, wrote to me recently with some of his memories from this leg of the journey: of a mosque with a wooden floor and many squares of old carpets, of leaving the mosque after dark in search of a camping ground, of eventually settling down for the night in a dry riverbed where some nomads were camping opposite. Some of the children and old men in their encampment came to visit us, bringing us melons; we accepted gratefully, offering them cigarettes and brandy in return. They sang for us, and one old man chose a particularly bawdy number that sent his companions into convulsions of laughter. David can also remember swimming in lakes, and the constant stomach upsets to which we all fell prey during the journey.

About the Book:

In this no-holds-barred memoir, Devaki Jain begins with her childhood in south India, a life of comfort and ease with a father who served as dewan in the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. But there were restrictions too, that come with growing up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, as well as the rarely spoken about dangers of predatory male relatives. Ruskin College, Oxford, gave her her first taste of freedom in 1955, at the age of 22. Oxford brought her a degree in philosophy and economics—as well as 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 candour, she writes of her romantic liaisons in Oxford and Harvard, and falling in love with her ‘unsuitable boy’—her husband, Lakshmi Jain, whom she married against her beloved 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. Her work brought her into contact with world leaders and thinkers, amongst them, Vinoba Bhave, Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger, and Iris Murdoch.

 About the Author

Devaki Jain graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

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Review

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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What is the idea of India?

 

On the first anniversary of a movement that seems to be a reaffirmation of democratic processes in a nation torn with angst, Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India

Title: Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality

Editor: Seema Mustafa

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

Shaheen Bagh is a compendium of writings that document and comment on a watershed moment in India’s history, evoking memories of that other flashpoint in India’s history, the Partition. For Nayantara Sahgal, the nonagenarian writer, it is all too reminiscent of that other critical event in Indian history. Narrated and recounted by journalists, writers, social and political activists, it represents both the uniqueness of that moment when a movement propelled by one of the most dispossessed groups in Indian history took up cudgels on behalf of their communities, the men in their communities. It was a registering of both solidarity and political awareness, capturing moments of protest in a tone that was at times exhilarating, at times despairing.

The narrative incorporates the accounts of various women protestors who recount that significant moment when they were catapulted into assuming  unexpected and unlikely roles as torchbearers of democracy and custodians of democratic rights of citizenship. Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighbourhood in the capital city of Delhi in India became the epicentre of an unprecedented protest, an unbroken continuous sitting for over 70 days by citizens with Muslim women coming out in large numbers against the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted with a huge majority by the national parliament in December 2019 and also the National Register of Citizens, a notified national population register perceived rightly or wrongly to be hugely discriminatory against the Muslims and some marginalised groups. The CAA or the Citizenship Amendment Act is also perceived and presented by sections of the population as violating the spirit of the Indian Constitution adopted in 1950 as a sovereign democratic republic with the preamble adding the word ‘secular’, distinguishing it from a theocracy in 1976. The government however has refuted these claims and fears and with the counter claim that the CAA is only intended to grant citizenship to migrants, read as persecuted minorities, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31st, 2014. Clearly the Muslims of all sects have been kept out of this particular dispensation. Just to remind us all, India has 11% of the world’s Muslim population around 16% of the Indian population , at least 226million of one billion population are Muslim. Interestingly the Supreme Court of India has refused to order a stay on its implementation which has been requested by about 144 petitioners and has granted the government time to come up with a response. It has also restrained other courts, the high courts for example from hearing please against the CAA till it arrives at a decision to take it forward.

Shaheen Bagh captured the imagination of the youth in India and of women’s groups in particular. India is still a young country, 50% of its population is below the age of 25, 65% below 35 years of age. The people that converge here everyday in large numbers are young women. Shaheen Bagh evokes memories of earlier resistances that the world has witnessed or known. US campuses against the Vietnam war, Occupy Wall Street, Tiananmen Square, Ken State University, Tahrir Square, the student uprising in Paris in the 60’s closer home to the US Montgomery March and Nashville Tennessee. But this was all that and more as many women  in burkhas and  hijabs crossed several boundaries, broke several barriers and some even stepped out of conservative homes and conventional customs and taboos for the first time in a civil disobedience vigil to uphold the values of equality and freedoms enshrined in articles 15 and 19 of the Indian Constitution. Placards that these women used often said: ‘Don’t be silent but don’t be violent’.

As the Introduction to the book Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India pithily states: Shaheen Bagh became a “first in living memory. As the days passed, Shaheen Bagh acquired greater strength, for the women ,” brought no malice, no anger, no abuse into their protest, and countered every allegation hurled at them with a smile and an honest and forthright response. Moreover, “the idea of Shaheen Bagh ignited, and became, the idea of India for hundreds, because the women sitting in protest spoke a language that came from the compassion of the matriarch.   It was born of the love for children, and brought with it a smile and an embrace for the youth who spent the nights sitting and singing with the women.”

In the process, the protest empowered women. They played an agential role in the proceedings and the experience helped to develop their confidence in their own abilities, in their judgment and their decisions.  There was never any doubt that the women were in the lead. They were sitting on protest, they commanded the stage, they spoke to the media.

Shaheen Bagh became the site of a major exercise in the dance of democracy. It became a site which enabled and catalysed a kind of consciousness-raising for both the participants and the witnesses. While I would stop short of calling it a great leveller, it offered a kind of space for forging solidarities, of experiencing community and of practising democracy. Shaheen Bagh assumed a unique significance since it presented a vignette of inclusiveness from the start. “There was no religion or caste here. “

In a somewhat romanticised vein, a scholar who had spent a substantial chunk of time in Delhi , described it as a  “pilgrimage’’ for many Delhiites. A young professor from Delhi University  who spent time at the protest site said that “I come to Shaheen Bagh whenever the world outside depresses me. I find solace and peace here.” Whether to seek social salvation or rub shoulders with the Delhi literati, who were also here  from time to time, Shaheen Bagh represented an experience of democracy that few had imagined possible in the gloom and doom of our recent history. Many privileged youngsters also joined the milling groups around the protest site, preferring to savour this experience over their usual modes of entertainment. Some sat with the women as they collectively , and in solidarity, sang Faiz’s song, “Hum Dekhenge” ( “We shall see” in Urdu and Hindi) a stirring anthem raising a flag to unity and harmony .  All axes of identity — religion, castes, class — seemed to recede and fade in this space that helped  “Delhi find its conscience”. The moment seemed to resonate with other similar moments in the course of the freedom struggle. This laying claim to democracy and its variegated symbols by lower and lower middle class Muslim women, people  who were probably among the most dispossessed and marginalised groups, and among the most disaffiliated from the lineages of class and economic power, struck a chord. The question that had come up here was an enormously significant one: to whom does the nation belong?
The book captures the mood-defiant yet resolute-of the protest told in a racy journalistic idiom, conveying both its political implications and its historical significance. The mood of the nation — which was simmering with rabble — rousing hate speeches the order of the day and condoned and overlooked by the ruling dispensation, was brought to a boil by the unlikely protestors of Shaheen Bagh. Wearing their hijabs and burkhas in February 2020, the unlikely political actors of this moment were also making “history” or “herstory”. It was a unique moment of historical significance, as the women fought their numerous fears and limitations. It was also a moment of political and feminist assertion with women occupying the centre, not huddling on the margins or periphery.

The segment, ‘Timeline’ , covers the chronology and clarifies that it was the deliberately rigged  Delhi riots and then the lockdown in March 2020 that brought the gathering of crowds to a grinding halt. Seema Pasha’s chapter on ‘Women , Violence and Democracy’ presents witness and participant accounts as “Ground Reports from a Protest. “This engagement with people  and facts on the ground, the micro-histories of the protest constitutes one of the features which add to the readability of the book . Instead of an academic or theoretical approach, the book takes a lively “ankhon dekhi” (a vividly visual and engaging account, translated from Hindi) approach and this works well. In addition to this is the fact that the book brings in voices and narrative accounts  of some sane voices like that of Harsh Mander — of writers and activists– who represent a holistic and secular, democratic and not divisive, vision of Indian history and democracy. Collectively, these voices maybe said to articulate a vision which upholds an “idea of India” which is not idealised or utopic but reflects the vision of many of its founding fathers. It is in that vein that Seemi Pasha writes, that in spite of the terror unleashed in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections, “Shaheen Bagh endured, and continued to showcase the best of India’s tradition of secularism, liberalism and ethical, non-violent resistance.” It was a reminder that the idea of India was premised on a vision of democracy and freedom, which stands threatened  today. Shaheen Bagh was an attempt at reclaiming some of these affirmations which are in grave danger of erosion and violation.

Moving and poignant,the book is both a testimony and paean  to a beleaguered  idea  of India, as it is to the courage of  some of its marginalised citizens. It is also an interrogation of the protectors and ‘custodians’ of India and the idea of India.Till we all wake up to an awareness of our roles as active citizens, the idea of India continues to be a threatened and endangered  one.

Acknowledgements

The discussion of the CAA-NRC is drawn from Dr Meenakshi Gopinath’s observations as part of a feminist conversation on Shaheen Bagh and Citizenship, conducted under the aegis of the “International Feminist Journal of Politics.”

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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How Non-nonsensical is Sukumar Ray’s Nonsense Verse?

Book review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Habber-Jabber Law:  Nonsense Adventure.

Author: Sukumar Ray; translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha  

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

It is believed by and large that Ha Ja Ba Ra La (1921) by Sukumar Ray, the father of Satyajit Ray, was attempted as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Both start with the child protagonist going off to sleep out of doors on a hot summer’s day, under the shade of a tree, and entering a dreamscape in which creatures that are a mix of the real and the fantastic live out their lives. These characters are caught in situations where they constantly argue with one another and the protagonist about the strangest of words, events and ideas. Yet the very normalcy, credibility and sanity offered through the voice of the first person protagonist, juxtaposed and tested against the curious and the implausible in their formulations, is portrayed satirically, critical of some of the assumptions and values we take for granted, and interrogated for their logical fallacies.

Although Alice travels down a rabbit hole that leads her to Wonderland, Sukumar Ray changed everything from this point onward to match the ambience of an Indian, more specifically Bengali, way of life. And in the process, he not only crafted an original which is a milestone in the genre of nonsense writing in Bengali for children but offered food for adult thought to anyone who could read between the lines.

The book has an attractive cover and design and includes all the delightful original illustrations by the author. But it is a colossal task to actually translate line by line, if not word by word, this early twentieth century Bengali classic into English. Over the last forty years, language based translations have moved to culture based translations. This initial spadework was taken care of by Sukumar Ray in his adaptation of Alice.

When Arunava Sinha translates this text into English, we can assume that it is meant for an Indian readership. A crow (read human being) that traces its upper caste pedigree to the pure-blooded Rex Ravenus, a man who coyly appeals to people not to ask him to sing only because he wants his singing to be heard, and a court case for defamation in which the number of witnesses goes up because they get paid (bribed) for the ‘work’ are not unfamiliar across a pan-Indian spectrum. But the facetiousness and irony also extends to a universal human predicament in which the child encounters the worldly wisdom of ‘money is time’ that has to be factored in every calculation (reminiscent of a railway journey scene in Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass), when he iterates a multiplication table correctly but naively. Or in the utopian make-believe of making the world a happier place, when he learns, to his bewilderment, of an odd reversal in which the ages of people turn backward after they are forty, so that nobody dies old age.

Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La provides undiluted amusement to child readers but communicates more seriously to adult readers. Ashish Lahiri, an academic and writer, in an essay in 1982 in a magazine called Prabashi, had underlined the significant dichotomy between the first and second parts of the story. In the first, the current ‘scientific culture’ with its discourses of temporal and spatial relativity is tried to absurd extremes by the nonsensical utterances of the cat, the crow and the two dwarfish brothers. To start with, the handkerchief-turned-cat deconstructs our accepted structures of logic and common sense by arguing that he can be called cat chief, kerchief or capital zed, and extending its reasoning to spell out the ridiculous combination of alphabets that can identify it. Exact nomenclatures and absolute definitions are challenged in this episode.

Similarly, in keeping with findings in astrophysics and geography about the rotation of the earth, the cat says that we will never find anyone where we expect to find them, because no creature remains rooted in the anticipated spot, even if they are stationary. This hilarious observation while looking for someone called Big Tree Brother dwells on the relativity of time. It is corroborated by the logic of the crow who says that seven times two is not always fourteen because time is forever on the move and the arithmetical calculation changes by the time one works it out. Yet, all the bodily measurements of the first-person protagonist are fixed at twenty-six inches by the very creatures who make a case for the idea and practice of relativity, perhaps because he carries a baggage of absolute and rigid assumptions imposed on him by the adult world of common sense.

Hzzbuzzbuzz (whose original Bengali name Hijibijbij suggests hijibiji, a scribble that is garbled and meaningless) connects the two parts of the story with his compulsive need to laugh at the most hypothetical and incredible of situations. The second part, set in the open air courtroom of fantastic creatures, is resonant of human society at large for its dishonesty and deceit. It keeps the reader’s focus on the incongruity, dissonance and comicality of everything we ever learned or cultivated, from science and philosophy to the legal arbitration of civilised, educated, middle class life.

The court scene includes the moss-ridden coat or camouflage of the fraudulent lawyer, the book of law that epitomises a theoretical and meaningless justice and the owl-judge who cannot see things that are obvious by the clear light of day but only when they are under cover of nocturnal darkness. The crocodile’s convoluted questions for the sake of questions and his own weird interpretations suggest the ambivalences and distortions involved in the legal process. That the entire organisation of law and other human institutions and systems is based on big, unintelligible and fancy words that are absurd lies is critiqued in Hzzbuzzbuzz’s incoherent, unrelated but irreverent ramblings that tickle his funny bone. These anomalies, it suggests, are extant not only in law but every template of our civic rights and duties.

The transference of culture, except for very Bengali-specific ways of talking, social and professional behaviour, is not required in an Indian context. The simplicity and transparency of the situations would also not be difficult to translate verbatim if they were not based on tongue in cheek utterances that are apparently nonsensical. The translator’s credit lies in his translating each and every one of the nonsense rhymes, and much of the word play, including alliteration, assonance, puns, internal rhymes and onomatopaea. Evaluating what is technically termed as the aesthetic equivalence of the source text against the target text, these word and sound-related fragments are commendably done.

Sinha has, at times, morphed the nonsense expressions to equally incredible but compatibly bizarre sounding words and phrases that maintain an altered meter and matter in an attempt to integrate the English language within the coordinates of an indigenous linguistic culture. In a rhyme, for instance, that uses three different words for female ghosts – petni pishi, shankchuni and ultaburi, for example, the translator uses banshee aunty, ghouless and crone to cover all of them. Rhythms and cadences can hardly be the same in both languages, but Sinha struggles with and juggles the nonsense vocabulary by muting certain words, mutating others but also ends up mutilating a few. That, of course, is unavoidable in the linguistic upheaval of such a landmark of nonsense prose.

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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. Some of her works on children’s literature are Family, School and Nation: The Child and Literary Constructions in Twentieth Century Bengal. (Routledge, 2015), The Gopal-Rakhal Dialectic: Colonialism and Children’s Literature in Bengal (Tulika, 2015), translated from Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s book, and articles on Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass in Alice in a World of Wonderlands (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2015) and Libri et Liberi: Journal of Research on Children’s Literature and Culture (2016).

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The Dissent of Man –Asserting Humanity by Raising Voices

Book review by Debraj Mookerjee

Title: India Dissents — 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument

Editor: Ashok Vajpeyi

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Every man loves liberty and freedom.
Do not interfere with another’s freedom.

– Gautam Buddha

They say inside the heart of a black hole there is a point of singularity. A point of singularity is where no laws of nature exist, like in the instant before the big bang. That point is so powerful that it obliterates all the rules of the universe. It is a place where the laws of nature collapse. We cannot know what happens inside a black hole, because we do not have the tools with which to predict what might be happening inside. There is no physics. Essentially there are no bearings. There is a lesson in the analogy presented here. When power becomes absolute, it freezes everything within its domain. The only way to prevent power from becoming absolute is to check it. Edited, and with an introduction, by poet Ashok Vajpeyi, India Dissents (Revised and updated edition: 2017, 2020) is a critically important book at a time when many believe India might be hurtling towards its own tryst with ‘singularity’. This timely tome is an attempt to articulate the contrarian views inherent in the Indian tradition, spanning from times of yore, to the present. It is an attempt to chart the organic link between freedom and the courage to check power and its manifestations, whether spiritual, social or political.

The most effective way to check power, as demonstrated by this compendium of ‘3,000 years of difference, doubt and argument’, is to call it out. Dissent is at the heart of the human desire for freedom. And without freedom, we are not human. Lord Acton (who’s by and large more quoted than understood) defines liberty thus: “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (The History of Freedom in Antiquity).

Critical moments in history have seen the suppression of freedoms. The progress of the human race has not been linear. Ancient India experienced great enlightenment in thought and philosophy. Those who have had to endure the attempt – by contemporary media platforms and concomitant experts – at manufacturing consent vis-à-vis a  narrow world with narrow identities, via appeals to visceral emotions and spurious theories of hurt and cultural assault,  might be surprised to read from the Brihaspati Sutra (foundational text of the Charavak school of Indian philosophy, composed in 600 BCE):

“There is no heaven, no final liberation, not any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders or priesthoods produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes,
Were made by Nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness …”

The Classical Age saw the birth of Democracy in ancient Greece. Absolute power was kept in check by the voice of the people within the Senate. In India, the counsel of wise voices ensured virtuous actions by Kings. When power heeded the voice of the people or the counsel of the wise, society remained enlightened. But there were intermittent periods of darkness, such as the 1,000 year long dark ages in Europe. The modern world had apparently understood this, which is why modern societies were founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, the call of the French Revolution against the singularity of power enjoyed under feudalism. But that world is at risk, not only in India but in so many other nations that are otherwise functioning democracies.

Vajpeyi’s book does weigh heavily on recent dissenters whose works are widely in circulation. There is no new ground broken here. And yet it is important for those who have not transcended the plethora of voices that are constantly articulating views smoke-screened by the cacophony of mainstream opinions, championed uncritically by the media, that has long forgotten its mandated role as the Fourth Estate. Some attention is also paid to the freedom struggle, and the thinkers and freedom fighters who left with us a rich legacy of dissent. Amartya Sen traces India’s argumentative nature to our ancient text. He observes how the national penchant for dharnas (strikes) and protests are seared into souls by the struggle against colonial oppression. These voices feature in the book. But the real meat of the book is in the voices of minor poets and dissenting voices (little voices if you like) from our past, unknown perhaps to most.

Here are some voices from the book for you to gauge the diversity of dissent articulated in it. Ghalib in his plaint against God, “Whenever I open my mouth you snap: And who are you? / Is it your culture that I must not speak, only listen to you?” Raja Rammohun Roy against social customs: “Men are in general able to read and write and manage public affairs by which means they easily promulgate such faults women occasionally commit but never consider as criminal the misconduct of men towards women.” And then there is Kazi Nazrul, who along with Tagore, is revered as Bengal’s poetic voice:

“Blow your horn of universal cataclysm!
Let the flag of destruction
Rise amidst the rubbles of prison walls
Of the East!
Who’s the master? Who’s the king?
Who is it that gives punishment
Having snatched away the truth of freedom?”

These words of Nazrul would speak to power, were they to be voiced today. Whether it is Gandhi’s articulation of dissent against colonial rule, or Tagore’s denunciation of the idolisation (literally the worship of the nation as Mother, venerated via the slogan: ‘Vande Mataram’) of the nation over humanity, or even Periyar’s cry against superstition and caste oppression, and of course Bhagat Singh’s sharp critique of the world of oppression around him, India Dissents reminds us of what lies at the core of who we are: a plural society shaped by myriad traditions and cultures bearing the influence of peoples from faraway places. No one ruler, no one rule, no one singular identity, can ever define ‘the wonder that is India’ (to misquote A L Basham slightly).

Particularly amusing is the inclusion of the ‘obscenity’ trial against Chugatai and Manto (who was a born dissenter), presented in Chugtai’s voice. The presiding judge being perceptive decided he needed to talk to the contestants in his chambers and had drawn them therein. Chugtai: “The judge called me into the anteroom attached to the court and said quite informally, ‘I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is ‘Lihaf’. But Manto’s writings are littered with filth.’ ‘The world is also littered with filth,’ I said in a feeble voice. ‘Is it necessary to rake it up then?’ ‘If it is raked up it becomes visible and people feel the need to clean it up.’” The judge laughed. Today, no anchor on prime news TV would laugh if told someone needs to rake up what’s wrong with our system so that we could work together to fix it.  Such a person would be labelled ‘anti-national’. 

India is at the crossroads. Not because its politics is troubled. Politics is all about rotation, and every moment in history is contested by that which is to follow. The world so far has witnessed many ups and downs and so shall India. What is troubling is the anger throbbing inside the people who are ready to rake offense, at almost anything. This is particularly true of the entitled, the middle classes — those with a modicum of education and material wealth. The facile credulity of the great mass of people who can be led by fake news, ‘What’s App University’, misogyny and the willing suspension of disbelief is what is truly threatening I contemporary India. To dissent is to grow. To accent without questioning is to shrink. To read India Dissents is in a way therefore an attempt to try and rediscover India’s soul.

India’s strength lies in its diversity, best explained in the words of Maheswata Devi’s words, reproduced from the book: “Indian culture is a tapestry of many weaves, many threads. The weaving is endless as are the shades of the pattern. Somewhere dark, somewhere light, somewhere saffron, somewhere as green as the fields of new paddy, somewhere flecked with blood, somewhere washed cool by the waters of a Himalayan spring. Somewhere the red of a watermelon slice. Somewhere the blue of an autumn sky in Bengal. Somewhere the purple of a musk deer’s eye. Somewhere the red of a new bride’s sindoor. Somewhere the threads from words in Urdu, somewhere in Bengali, somewhere in Kannada, somewhere in Assamese, yet elsewhere in Marathi. Somewhere the clothes frays. Somewhere the threads tear. But still it holds. Still. It holds.”

Diversity and dissent go hand in hand. To be able to dissent is also to be able to accept the dissent of others. Dissent is not always angry. It is questioning and it is curious. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. It is what makes us modern and free of the prejudices that have often laid civilization low. It is Des Cartes’ great call ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ (I think therefore I am). The method of doubt foregrounded by the advent of reason, as it were, led not just to political emancipation, but also to the great scientific discoveries that define modern existence. Dissent is the source of discovery and research. Dissent is our door to adulthood, our way of finding ourselves. Any society that demonises dissent shuts the door to what it can become; it shuts the door to as yet unmapped possibilities. By crushing dissent, a society seals its tryst with negativity and slides into the prison-house of its worst fears and anxieties.

But then who is the most distinguished dissenter among them all? My choice is clear: It is none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself. To understand the nature of Gandhi’s dissent, one must first recognise the fact that perhaps along with Emperor Ashoka and the Prophet Muhammad, he was among those who believed in the imperitive of morality in politics, and in the politics of morality. Said he: “In my opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” By imbuing a moral quality to political action, Gandhi brought to bear exacting standards to politics, unheard of in the modern era. His very politics dissents against the existing dictum of political action: That politics is the art of the possible.

But Gandhi’s is not merely a great dissenter in politics. He is, in the words of the author of the internationally recognised novel Samskara (1965), and litterateur, UR Ananthamurthy, a ‘critical insider’. Gandhi, avers Ananthamurthy, allowed himself to be absorbed by the traditions of India, and from within that position, articulated his critique of what he saw as wrong with that tradition. He was a devout Hindu who was secular to a fault, and against the evils inherent in Hindu society. It is precisely because of this that Gandhi was so successful in mobilising India both politically and socially.

Alas today, those who are critical are seen as outsiders: westernised, liberal, socialists, and so on. And those who are insiders are not critical: they are viewed as provincial, obsequious, bigoted and belligerent. India will have to find the will to shake itself free of the straight jacket it finds itself in at the moment. That can happen with only more, and not less, dissent.

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Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

Categories
Review

The Myriad Hues of Love

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire

Editor:  Debotri Dhar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire edited by Debotri Dhar is a timely and illuminating book. It asks the right questions, sets up the debate on issues which need to be debated in order to bring the many hues of love and desire out of stranglehood of monolithic constructions. Dhar has brought together some interesting essays  by noted academics, art historians and curators, cultural and literary  historians  and writers  musing on the theme of love, its histories and its manifestations in religious mythography.

In the first essay in the anthology, ‘Swayamvara, Arranged Marriage, Desi Romance’, Professor Malashri Lal brings her considerable acumen and expertise to offer “some fascinating perspectives on Indian love, mapping both continuity and change, possibility and paradox.” She draws upon a spectrum of sources to unsettle some of the binaries and clichés about love and marriage in India. She points out the very heterogeneous nature of Indian realities and the simultaneous existence of designer weddings along with the prevalence of child marriage, the latter motivated by  stark poverty and custom. In this heterogeneous context, where contradictions exist and jostle with one another, it is difficult to formulate one overarching reality which collapses every aspect of Indian reality into one single, overwhelming truth.  Drawing upon a diverse set of sources from the Indian epics like Ramayan and Mahabharata to the writings of diasporic women writers in the US, to Bollywood films, Lal problematises the question of women’s choice in love and marriage, even when it is arranged. In her essay, she highlights the exercise of agency enabled by the ancient practice of  swayamvara, where the  bride reviews a number of suitors and selects one as her husband to the popular Hindi film, Queen (2014), where the ‘bride’, jilted by her suitor at the eleventh hour when practically at the altar, sets off alone on a ‘honeymoon’ to Paris and Amsterdam. All these vignettes, according to Lal, point to a long history of critiques of compelled marriages for women. Decoding the history of marriage and the space both accorded to and  negotiated by women within it, the author traces both continuities as well as complicating questions of love versus arranged marriage, choice, desire and agency.

Some of the themes and issues initiated by the first essay are questions that come up elsewhere, albeit in varying registers. Professor Makarand Paranjape’s essay focuses on immortal love and on the lover-God Krishna and his consort Radha, who is “a milkmaid elevated to the status of the erotic and holy beloved of the Supreme Godhead”. Paranjape reads the figure of Radha in the context of Indian history, art, culture and metaphysics, traces the genealogy and argues that the increasing importance of Radha acted as a corrective to the male-dominated theology which lacked a strong Goddess prior to the emergence of Radha. According to the author, she is largely absent in the classical sources and in the scriptures, her origins shrouded in obscurity, but assumes importance later as Krishna’s chosen paramour in Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, which is how medieval poets like Chandidas, Vidyapati and Surdas write of her.

A common theme which is indicated in the previous essay is developed by Paranjape and then later, by Alka Pande in the subsequent essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s tale’. The flattening out of desire in keeping with the imperial puritanical norms of social control dwell on how desirous voices create discomfort. The messiness of love and desire is sought to be controlled and circumscribed into the heteronormative frame of marriage. Both imperial control and nationalistic schemes of reform collude to silence and erase traces of lascivious female desire and the erotic is therefore subdued and subsumed into the discourse of female purity, with which it sits uncomfortably. Thus, Prof Paranjape discusses how, “with the beginnings  of colonial modernity in India, Radha the Goddess underwent another drastic modification, now coming to often represent illegitimate sexual desire. In the new Puritanism fostered during the so-called Indian renaissance(18th to 19th century), Radha and her dalliance with Krishna proved an embarrassment to the agenda of social reform that the proponents of Hindu respectability espoused.”

By the 20th century, Radha was represented as “a victim of patriarchy” — as a symbol of the degraded and exploited woman, a fallen or abandoned woman. This is a far cry from the tantric version of Radha , which exalts her, sometimes over Krishna. In other traditions, she is often domesticated and shown to be a “chaste and jealous wife”, very possessive of Krishna, given to fits of rage. The theme of romantic love  is played out in varying registers and the sacred and profane so intermingled and intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two.

Alka  Pande’s essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s Tale’ is deliciously erotic in its texture as it  narrates the tale of Amrapali, the “nagarvadhu”(bride of the city) of Patliputra, who lives life and fulfils her desire on her own terms. It shows the courtesan as an empowered figure, who exercises considerable agency in her choice of partner after the demise of her royal consort. As a reader and an editor of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, she claims to have transformed the book “from a compendium of living a deeply enriched and sexually fulfilled life to much more: strategies of romance, love, longing, desire, seduction and an unabashed valorization of carnal love.” (Pande,44) The essay also sets the record straight about the popular reception in the public imagination which sees the book as a manual of sex; rather it conforms to the Indian philosophy of “Purusharthas” which includes the goals of “dharma”, “artha”, “kama” and “moksha”, roughly translatable as virtuous living, material prosperity, aesthetics and pleasure and salvation, respectively. Kamasutra, in this narrative, emerges  as  a document which explores the art of living life to the fullest. Love and its many facets are explored along a spectrum of aestheticism, in a way that elevates it to a level beyond hedonism.

Christina Dhanaraj’s essay on ‘Swipe me Left, I’m Dalit’ explores the world of possibilities of romantic love for Dalit women, and finds the odds heavily weighted against them on account of caste prejudice. She therefore finds the optimistic and celebratory accounts on social media and /or dating apps like tinder which declare ‘caste’ as a thing of the past to be false and facile. Dalit women, according to the author, “carry the double burden of gender and caste, and are one of the most socially undervalued in India, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version that mimics the ‘savarna’ (upper caste) ideal.”

From the problems besetting inter-faith Hindu-Muslims relationships because of a persistent polarisation intensified by right-wing ideologies to the variegated spectrum of love’s vows and woes in Urdu poetry, are some of the themes explored in some of the subsequent essays.

 Rakhshanda Jalil, the eminent literary historian , points out interesting aspects of the “Barahmasa”( Twelve Months)which are songs of love, separation and yearning, both mystic and secular, in a woman’s voice. However, while the form concerned itself with the “women’s world, adopted a woman’s voice and spoke of a woman’s needs , none were actually written by women poets.’’(Jalil,125)Further, a study of the “barahmasas show how the word was lost to text, and orality to textuality, but also how pluralism was replaced by Unitarianism, multi-culturalism by puritanism, the feminine-gendered narration by the masculine, and inclusion by exclusion.”(Jalil,112)

Debotri Dhar’s thought-provoking musings on the profoundly gendered nature of love and waiting is a delightful read, punctuated with valuable insights into women’s writing and experiences. So are the other essays by Sumana Roy, Parvati Sharma and Didier Coste.

In its exploration of the variegated hues and discourses of love and its analysis of its many histories, the essays in the book demonstrate that love — as text, as play, pain and pleasure, in somewhat unequal measure —  is truly a many-splendoured thing and makes the world go around. These essays also illustrate the peculiarly gendered nature of love, where we are tempted to echo Byron’s  lines from Don Juan

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,

‘Tis woman’s whole existence

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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