Hope in 2021

This year has come to an end.

It barely seems to have started — there were no movements. We stayed indoors the whole year. The otters disappeared from the waterfront in front of our home just as the planes seem to have disappeared from the skies. I do not like being sad over anything. 

Much that is good has happened to me and mine though we have not been left unscarred by the deadly virus. The sadness of mankind tinges our existence. We live on an island but we cannot live in a bubble. The world stretches out its grief to us, its terror to us in pandemic proportions. Does the bug of sadness bite us? It does. 

Honestly from my heart it is difficult to celebrate against the misery that seems to have brought many to a halt. The misery of disease, death coupled with the inability to touch physically another human. It is all terrifying. Almost as if Asimov’s vision of Solaria is coming to life. And then there are wars over boundaries, hatred, anguish and anger. A very bleak scenario if we start listing, even if some of the issues have started moving towards  more hopeful outcomes with vaccines and the turn of world events.

Darkness is deepest just before dawn wipes away the blackness with its dappled touch. Maybe the rays of the new sunrise of the first day of the New Year will herald better times. 

I look outside my window at the clear skies, the sunshine and the golden orioles flying; the parakeets chattering and moving in flocks from tree to tree by the quietly flowing river and I feel maybe things will fall into place. Not in the way we knew it but in a new way. 

Maybe it is time for a fresh start, a new world, a new dawn and a new year. With that I wish you all a smoother journey in the New Year towards a happier world. 

Two Poems of Rabindranath Tagore: Translated by Mitali Chakravarty

First Published in SETU, December, 2020

1

Against the monsoon Skies… from BhanusingherPadabali

(from Shaongaganeghorghanaghata, BhanusingherPadabali)

Against the monsoon skies, heavy clouds wrack the deep of night.

How will a helpless girl go through the thick groves,Ofriend,

Crazed winds sweep by the Yamuna, the clouds thunder loud.

The lightning strikes, the trees have fallen, the body trembles

In the heavy rain, the clouds shower a downpour.

Under the shaal, piyale, taal, tamal trees, the grove is lonely and quiet at night.

Where, friend, is he hiding in this treacherous grove

And enticing us with his wonderful flute calling out to Radha?

Put on a garland of pearls, a shithi* in my parting…

Click here to read the translations

Leaden Wings & More…

First published in SETU, December, 2020



Sometimes, 
Sometimes, you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.
Fly — soar the skies. Reach up to the sun, moon and stars. To the universe. Sometimes you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.


Soar like an eagle, a bird high up in flight where wingtip to wingtip spans the infinite; where auroras have ceased to colour the sky. Where nebulae blink in the deep of night. Where the Great Bear speaks the truth and Orion’s Belt lights the darkness to a white. Sometimes, you throw the leaden wings to fly — not to be like Icarus and die — but detaching the wings fly, fly —


Like the bird that breaks all bounds despite the loud cannon sounds and across to the neighbouring skies. No lines are drawn. The lands can be at war. But the sky borderless lies. Unhindered the clouds float. Where songs soar in strange silent waves. Where silence a sound breaks with the speed of light.


There, there will I fly
in quest of an unbordered ...

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Why we need a Bunker Roy in Literature?

First published in Countercurrents.org, December, 2020

With the farmers marching out to demand their rights in India, with more consciousness of the need to close gaps between the privileged and non-privileged worldwide, with climate crisis becoming a major force to redefine our thinking, perhaps the time has come to rethink how literature can be moulded to serve the needs of the masses. That we wake up to the urgency of bridging gaps between different levels of education to create a more evolved world for mankind as a species is fast becoming an unspoken necessity to live with advances that time is unfolding for us. Leaving behind more than one half of the world is not really an alternative. The tiny corona virus has shown us, proven to us, we need to unify as a race.

Recently, I watched a TED talk by a man called Bunker Roy.  He was a squash champion in India for three years, with a privileged education from Doon school (where also had studied the scions of the Indira Gandhi family) and the high-browed St Stephen’s College of Delhi University. He was all set to be a diplomat. Then, he decided to see what a village was like and went to one during the 1965 famine. He came back with all the boxed ideals of a glamorous bureaucratic future replaced by a dream of digging 500 wells. He lived out his dream much to the chagrin of his mother. He started a barefoot college in arid Rajasthan, called Tilonia. This, he claimed in his talk, is the only college in the world where postgraduates and doctorals are not welcome. It has non-collegiates to teach the illiterate. They teach life skills. And now he has a bunch of grandmothers who are laying solar cells and lighting up the world from Afghanistan to India to Africa to Sierra Leone. His work has now spanned 64 countries, beyond all borders. He goes where there is a need to bridge a gap between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ worlds.

This is a man who broke out of boxed thinking, reached out to people and made changes in the lives of people. I would love to write of what made him choose as he did, what made him opt to leave a life of glamour and ease and work for developing a village. He did not see if they were bhakts or liberals, Republicans or Democrats or educated or non-educated entities. He just saw them as fellow humans and he touched their lives and work with his unboxed choices.

The reason I write of him is because I would want to use somebody like him as a role model for writing. But he does not write. He works with his hands. How could he be a role model? To me, he is a role model because he could break out from boxed thinking and create a new concept in learning and reach out beyond borders drawn artificially by mankind. Is that not what all great literature should be doing? Breaking out of boxed thinking to create new inroads into human thought, to discover new paradigms for the souls that thirst for succour in these trying times. He lived out Gandhi’s dream as I read it in the Mahatma’s autobiography — My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi was another man who thought beyond his times. He was talking of developing villages the way Roy has done, long before Roy decided to dig wells. And yet his books were not prescribed for any literature classes three decades ago, in my university days in India. We did read translations of Plato and Homer — but not anything that would bring us closer to the people of our own country, to their needs. If Plato can be seen as a part of English literature, then why not Gandhi?

Recently, I read a book called Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which has been prescribed as compulsory reading for my son’s international Baccalaureate English Literature course. I was happy to see this bridge. For, I would call it a bridge. The book is in the form of black and white cartoons with writing, which has effectively conveyed the plight of Iranians crushed between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini regimes. With a few bold strokes, it expressed so much. Though comments behind the book are many, some convey my own sentiments. This, written by Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, I felt was the most apt to describe my experience: “Part history book, art Scheherzade, astonishing as only true stories can be, Persepolis gave me hope for humanity in these unkind times.” Another by journalist Gloria Steinem, said: “You have never seen anything like Persepolis — Marjane Satrapi may have given us a new genre.”

Value based writing like that of Satrapi is important in educating and bridging gaps between those who have time to indulge in literary cogitations and those who grow food or build roads for us, both of these being the necessary function to survive in this world. Of course, the farmers and road makers may not be able to read in English but that is where translators can help. And if they cannot read in any language at all, literacy and making books about things that concern them so that they can be weaned into reading…

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Bapu

First published in SETU, October 2020

Will he be reborn again?


Nonviolent, tolerant, defiant of norms
that lock people into boxes


Searingly honest


Who said he was great?


He was like you and me —
A student who evaded
difficult courses in university,
who was scared to give speeches.
A timid man was he — looked for easy options.
The only redemption,
his love of truth—


Who said he was great?


A quiet man who silently
sliced, analysed from inside
till peel by peel, he unravelled the mysteries
that life invited. Self-reflected devoid
of the glory that borders weave,
spliced hatred, dirt
till it all changed to tolerance and love.
Weaponised unviolenced silence


Who said he was great?


Lived for his passion — One world
undivided by faith, colour or creed.
Caste he defied when he crossed
the seas. No hatred for skin colours.
Fought with his wife. And yet
tried to give every human their rights.
He was a man — not a divine.


Who said he was great?


He nursed. Loved goats.
His own sons wept for uncare,
for they suffered — no school...

Click here to read the full poem

Bapu in 2020

First Published in SETU, October 2020

The sun streaked an orange-gold across the Himalayan range in Dehradun. There was a chill in the air. Bapu wrapped the shawl closer to his body and looked out sadly. He was dressed in his traditional dhoti and a light wrap. It felt too cold in mid-September to be dressed like that and yet, it was too warm to don a warm shawl. Global warming had truly set in as God had said.
He adjusted his glasses — though they were more cosmetic now. His body was different too — not his own but borrowed from a stripling of twenty-four! 
If you are wondering what was happening, here is the flashback. 
It was 2020. Delhi riots in March had shattered Bapu's dream of a united India — where all religions co-existed. The mishandling of the Citizenship Amendment Act had been a bad blow. But the riots in New Delhi around Holi where there were Hindu- Muslim clashes had Bapu in Heaven weeping and beating his chest. What had happened to his India? 
In Heaven, there is but one rule that is compulsory for all the souls. They need to be happy. If they expressed unhappiness, they were sent back to Earth to serve another lifetime to find peace and happiness. And if it was something that needed emergency handling, God exchanged souls — kept the other in limbo anaesthetised. 
So, when God caught Gandhi weeping, he asked him, "What has happened to you?" Kasturba, Gandhi's wife, was stroking his back with concern written all over her face.
Gandhi, between broken sobs, expressed what had happened, God said, "Fine, you need to fix it now. You had said hate the sin, but not the sinner, and were a friend to the underprivileged. And now, worldwide, there is a spree of envy, hatred — more for the sinners than the sin, widespread violence, intolerance, and no peace anywhere. The world as you knew it is no more. Nature has also unleashed COVID 19 to discipline mankind — so that the planet continues habitable and man ceases to be rapacious in his greed and outlook. You need to get back there al pronto. Let me check with the human resource to see what can be done to have you there."
Kasturba said, "Can I go too...?"
God interrupted, "No Kasturba. Don't complicate matters. Hopefully, this can be fixed fast and Gandhi can return in a few days."


God returned after half-an-hour. "Gandhi, we have found a perfect spot. One 24-year-old boy is in a coma as he has had a motorbike accident. Only his head was injured because he rode without a helmet. So, his soul is already in limbo. You might as well go into his body — do your hunger fast or whatever and get back soon. Then we will awaken his soul and send it back!"


Gandhi had no choice, but to accede to God. He came down on Earth and twenty-four-year-old Abhishek woke up calling himself Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! 


He was instantly put under psychiatric care. Meanwhile, as lockdown had emptied hospitals off patients, Abhishek or Gandhi was considered safe and non-violent enough to be sent home. He came home. To his mother's distress, he turned vegetarian and took to dressing in a loincloth and wrap! 


When he tried to go on a hunger strike, no one listened. He was back in the hospital with a glucose drip! And force-fed. He did not have the media attention or following that made hunger strikes effective in the twentieth century. The COVID19 lockdown had imposed restrictions on gatherings. He would be in jail if he tried to use Gandhian tools as a lunatic lawbreaker! He had already broken it once speeding on his bike and riding without a helmet.


Gandhi felt distressed. He could do nothing. The hatred raged. The economy was in the doldrums. And the China border skirmish was an ongoing discomfort. No one listened to Abhishek — for that is what the world regarded him as. 
On top of that, there was something called television that raved about the suicide of a Sushant, as if poverty had ceased to be an issue or the collapsing economy or the China conflict... Bollywood, a strange name for talkies makers, hogged all the news! And the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, organisations to which his killer Godse had belonged, seemed to be in ascendancy along with something called the BJP... it was chaos. 
He felt unvalued. His teachings were ignored despite his title — Father of the Nation. Congress had fallen into weaker hands of those who had distanced themselves from the pain of the poverty-stricken. 


He could see it all from a distance so clearly. Why could not his countrymen?


Social media was a major player — he ...

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Make Mankind Great Again

First published in Countercurrents.org, October 2020

“It has often been said that the only thing that could unite mankind was a threat from space.”

I read this in Arthur C Clarke’s novel, 2061, Odyssey Three. The threat in Clarke’s science fiction was a second star — which mankind renamed Lucifer but was actually Jupiter set ablaze by superior space engineering by an intelligent species far more evolved than Homo Sapiens. The interesting thing here was the statement he made that “mankind could unite”. Arthur C Clarke wrote this novel in 1987 with perhaps a positive hope for the future of our race. At that point, global warming and climate change were not as big a threat as they are today and COVID-19 had not infringed to decimate the human race. I do not know if these issues can be regarded as a threat from space, Nature, Universe or man’s own unwitting movement towards the destruction of his species and his home planet.  I have read that the absorption of solar radiation increases as the white ice sheets thaw to give way to dark waters that trap solar heat and hasten the pace of cyclic melting and global warming.

While climate change and the corona virus have failed to unify us till now, voices are being raised about economic downturns and stock markets. Weapon trade and skirmishes over borders have not halted. Economic activity is said to have been slowed down by lockdowns, an attempt to combat the spread of the virus. I wonder if the world of finance can exist without man. Who created these concepts of economy and money? Can they exist without man?

These questions haunt me, especially, every time I hear people give voice to their yearnings to go back to the life they had before the advent of the pandemic. I cannot say I do not miss my old life. I do. The freedom to move around, the freedom to talk to anyone and most of all the freedom to travel to any place in the world if one has the financial means — are things I miss very much. Sometimes I wonder, is the pandemic a warning for us to mend our ways, a warning from a superior intelligence or maybe just Nature and Earth?  An airplane guzzles lot of fuel —  petroleum (kerosene) based — to ferry us around. Is it all right to spend this much fossil fuel on a regular basis to hop around the world? I do not know. But it does make me question myself. Is it all right to fly off for a holiday at the drop of a hat? I live in a little island. Right now, that seems to be the only sane place to be in the world to me. We have had only 28 COVID deaths here in Singapore though the total number of cases near 60,000. The government is building dykes to prevent losing our homes to rising water levels as a result of climate change. Things seem to work. I feel fortunate to be here during this crisis.

However, when I look out through the window of my television and internet, I find a world torn in despair. A second wave of COVID, world leadership that is unable to manage the situation and some of it, unable to fathom both the seriousness of the pandemic and climate change. They are still finding reasons to draw borders and talk of economy as it was, instead of thinking of alternative lifestyles that will be in harmony with Nature and yet suit mankind. Twenty first century guru, Yuval Noah Harari, has rightly pointed out in a recent interview with British actor, comedian and activist, Russell Brand, that global leadership is not envisioning a future that factors in climate change and COVID but wallowing in the past. Though Arthur C Clarke does not factor in climate change or the pandemic, he does project a future. A future where a united world had colonies in space stations. Clarke writes: “The dismantling of the vast and wholly parasitic armaments industry had given an unprecedented — sometimes, indeed, unhealthy — boost to the world economy. No longer were vital raw materials and brilliant engineering talents swallowed up in a virtual black hole — or, even worse, turned to destruction. Instead, they could be used to repair the ravages and neglect of centuries, by rebuilding the world.”

In his projection, the arms race has halted. And China, USA and USSR are working in harmony. There is some amount of global governance. The world seems to be a more upbeat place. In the prequel to this book, 2010, OdysseyTwo (1982), where the countries have lessons in rising above politics and learning to survive together, you have a fleeting mention of ‘ahimsa’ — the Gandhian concept. An Indian robotics specialist practices it on an autonomous robot which turned rogue and killed its human counterparts in the earliest and most popular, 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), made into a film by Stanley Kubrik, a movie that projected a human colony on moon. When ‘ahimsa’, or non-violence, is practised (by honestly explaining the crisis to the machine) as opposed to violence (pulling the plug out on the robot and technically killing it), the robot complies and the expedition returns safely, in a way reviving Gandhian lore and Gandhi’s philosophy coming to the rescue of science. The humanitarian is woven into the scientific lore.

In Gandhi’s own country, they recently celebrated his one hundred and fifty-first birth anniversary. One would hope, it would serve as a reminder of his values and his principles. Here was a man who believed that developing each sector of a region mattered. He has clearly said in his autobiography (published as a serial in a magazine, 1925-29), Experiments with Truth: “As I gained more experience of Bihar, I became convinced that work of a permanent nature was impossible without proper village education.” That was his solution to growing as a nation — not just freedom from colonialism. He actually lived among the people he served and tried to be a part of the community through his actions, while enforcing his own standards of hygiene and cleanliness on his surroundings.

Though India gained freedom from colonials officially, did it actually grow out of colonial administration? When the British Civil Services were copied, maybe the administrators should have given it a Gandhian touch — even the colonial rulers listened to Bapu. Along with horse riding, the Indian Administrative Services officers should have been trained to open schools; to organise potable water, electricity, roads, food; to teach cleanliness, toilet and kitchen both; to build bathrooms and educate about their maintenance and usage; to get rid of blind beliefs and treat the residents like their own and not as their subjects. And perhaps, they should have been quartered among the people in villages and small tehsils, not in colonial mansions made for the British ruling class. That is pretty much what Gandhi might have done had he continued to live for longer.

To be given the self-respect to work for a living, earn one’s bread, is more important than giving out doles of social security. One has to strike the right balance and generate more jobs, as did Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah in Lucknow when he built the Bada Imambara with its labyrinth of tunnels called Bhool Bhulaiya. The elites in 1784 were commissioned by the Nawab to break the walls built by the workers so that he could continue generating income for all through work, and not charity, through a terrible famine. This went on for eleven years — for as long as the famine lasted. That was long before Gandhi. But, Bapu also said it in black and white in his autobiography: “The grinding poverty and starvation with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more men every year into the ranks of beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our philanthropist, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their working for bread, give them alms.”

Though Gandhi has been a favourite with many and influenced greats like Martin Luther King JrNelson Mandela and more, is his own country impacted by his teachings beyond the currency notes which bear his imprint and the naming of many roads and parks after him?…

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Durga Puja: Past and present

First published in Different Truths, October 2020

যে দিকে তাকাই সোনার আলোয়

দেখি যে ছুটির ছবি,

পূজার ফুলের বনে ওঠে ওই

পূজার দিনের রবি।

Whichever way I gaze, a golden haze

Mesmerises with dreams of holidays.

The festive floral forest invokes

A glorious gala sunrise.

That is an attempt at translating Tagore’s poem describing the puja season, which is perhaps the biggest festival for Hindu Bengalis all over the world. For us, during our childhood, it heralded a time of celebrations. There would be a cold nip in the air and whiffs of jasmine and madhabilata(Rangoon creeper), and a haze of festivities.

Durga Puja, was quintessentially a time when families got together and celebrated an annual community event, met with friends and relatives and had a whopping good time, which included new clothes for those who could afford. Food, festivities and fun punctuated with fasting before the offering of flowers or pushpanjali every morning. Multiple Durga puja pandals were set up all over town. We patronised one but went pandal hopping to see all the pujas.

Other than appreciating the ornate statues of the Goddess with her family in each pandal, we bought and savoured seasonal delicacies in the temporary stalls that cropped up around the community celebrations.  These celebrations were open to all and sundry without any charges and I have never been able to adjust to the fact that often overseas celebrations outside of India restrict visitors by imposing monetary charges. These overseas festivities to me never quite capture what I found in my childhood. They create only a shadow, but it is never the real thing, I feel.

The reality of those days still stays seeped in my bones and spirit. Every evening, there were drummers who played this huge drum, called dhak, amidst the incense and crowds. In the evenings, people danced to dhak, in front of the goddess with incense, dhoonochi nritya. Then there were entertainment shows in the pandal. Most had fun watching the evening and the late-night programmes that were to an extent performed by amateurs, our friends and neighbours. Some of the performances would be by artistes invited all the way from Bengal.

The other event that happens parallel to the puja is Dussehera. Dussehera is a north Indian celebration of Rama’s killing the evil king Ravana, who with his ten heads ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Interestingly Rama also prayed to the Goddess Durga to help him defeat Ravana. Ram Lila, a performance of the story of Rama’s life, were performed all over town adding to the chaos of festivities. Sometimes, followers of Rama would drop in to watch our festivities and occasionally, we would trickle over to watch the fun of amateur Ram Lila productions. These performances of the life of Rama ranged from the elaborate and exclusive hosted by exclusive dance troupes, often based on Indian classical forms, to those performed by amateurs. The puja programmes, I remember were often interrupted in Delhi with loud music from amateur Ram Lila performances within the same park. The Durga puja we attended was held in a huge community park. The two blaring microphones of Ram Lila and Durga Puja coexisted without major outbreaks of intolerance exhibited by any of the parties. When, I think of it, I wonder is it still the same? I have not been to such celebrations for almost the last three decades because we moved out of India.

Durga Puja is an old — very old — tradition. No one is quite clear about the origins of the festivities other than that it started in West Bengal. Some myths link it to Rama’s invocation around this time and to the legend of Mahisasur. It probably started somewhere around the late 1500s.

For us, the advent of the season was heralded a few weeks before the real five-day-long event, on the day of Mahalaya, when we appeased our forefathers with offerings and prayers, much like other cultures do on days like All Souls Day or the Qingming festival. Mahalaya trumpets the start of the Puja season. We children were told Durga started her descent to Earth with her family on this day. This event, in those days, meant listening to the famous rendition of Mahisasur Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, a legend unto himself. We would wake up at 4 am and sit glued to the radio — I must say I did try to get my forty winks in too but never quite managed. The music was powerful.  The lyrics and the rendition still bring tears to my eyes with its majesty. It strengthens. It heals. It emboldens. To me, Durga was the all-powerful, the ultimate female force. She was given weapons by each God and Goddess, to destroy the demon Mahisasur.

Birendra Bhadra’s rendition ingrained her immensity into our systems. The festivities, which lasted five days for us, gave me an assurance that women were powerful enough to battle all evils and win without losing their femininity. For, the statue that was made was of a ten handed Goddess who not only rode a lion to destroy Mahisasur but also nurtured her children and lived in harmony. For me, this myth was so powerful and impactful that I could not then and still cannot comprehend how women see themselves as helpless. That is more after more than half a century of my Earthly existence. For almost thirty years, I have not heard Birendra Bhadra’s rendition as we live in time zones different from his home. I hear snatches of it in the daytime or evening but never in the way I listened to it as a child.

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Migrants

First published in Countercurrents, October 2020

The mass migrants to Mars
stood poised to take their first step.
The Red Planet crimsoned further
by the blood of scientists who
realised the vision of a
musky monied man odoured
with fame, made into godhead.
Out of deep freeze, led by the god
who saved them, stood more monied men.
 
They had left a planet in turmoil.
A methane-filled viral sun burnt with heat.
I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe —
became the norm. The cry of those
condemned to die in the coils of
poisoned air or floods that ate
the land. No place left to stand.
Reddened by sunsets on rising seas,
humans treaded water till deadened —
leadened by weight they sunk into
an Ophelia like stupor, the kiss of death.
Lands that glowed with heat turned aflame...

Click here to read the full poem