January 2013 Posts

Children of a Dreadful Midnight, Ruchir Joshi (31 Jan 2013)

Children of a Dreadful Midnight, Ruchir Joshi (31 Jan 2013)

Original post on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/notes/ruchir-joshi/children-of-a-dreadful-midnight/10151468364809434

Dear Fellow-citizens,
Let’s be clear about this: yesterday, Calcutta finally completed its downfall from the cultural capital of all Asia to a narrow-minded, spirit-crippled, morally corrupt, goonda-governed provincial town. From being the great city where Rabindranath Tagore wrote ‘where the mind is without fear’ our urban concentration has now become the champion backwater place where the heart is squeezed by fear, paranoia and the over-riding greed for power. This hasn’t happened overnight, we have watched the slow-motion collapse of our culture and our sabhyata over the last fifty years, but the final implosion has been rapid, the final dive into crass, shameful mediocrity has been sharp. The last shredding of any remaining intellectual honour has been forced through at triple-speed over the last eighteen months.
Here are the facts of the last blow, the final hacking that felled all of Bengal’s and Calcutta’s pretensions to cultural superiority.
At this time last year, just after the events at the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had declared she would not let Salman Rushdie enter Calcutta. This was a bizarre statement, completely un-provoked, since Rushdie then had no plans to visit our city. The chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, had made the opposite statement, that Rushdie was welcome in Delhi any time. But Dikshit then had to revoke the statement, clearly under pressure from her high command. Regardless, within a month of Dikshit’s flip-flop, various state elections now over, Rushdie came to Delhi for a conclave, had a normal, undisrupted and undisrupting time and left. The elections were done and dusted and so was the psuedo-issue that had been raked up in Jaipur to win votes, that of Rushdie and the novel he published in 1987, The Satanic Verses. This demonstrated that Delhi is bigger than Calcutta in more than just size, no one chief minister can hold it hostage.
Cut to this year. The film of Rushdie’s earlier novel, Midnight’s Children is being released in India. Rushdie, Deepa Mehta, the director of the film, and Rahul Bose, who’s acted in the movie, are touring India to promote the film. Mehta and Bose have also been invited to the Kolkata Literary Meet writers’ festival to discuss the adaptation of the book into a film. Rushdie’s name isn’t on the list, but on Tuesday it becomes clear that Rushdie was also planning to come to Calcutta to promote the film. As it is, the only officially announced engagement for the writer was a press conference at a hotel in the city. Late on Tuesday night it became clear that our police had intervened and stopped Rushdie from coming to Calcutta. The end result: a huge humiliation for a so-called city that still deludes itself that it is the home of vibrant culture and intellectual vigour and courage.
So much for the facts one can print.
Fellow citizens, I am a story-teller and also an inept, low-level, sudoku puzzle addict. Allow me to bring a different kind of narrative sudoku calculation to this page. Let’s look at the printed ‘numbers’ and embark on a small adventure of conjecture: Who finally delivered the coup de grace to Bengal’s long failing moral body? Who finally chopped through Calcutta’s ethical spine?
Question 1: was Rushdie only coming to promote the film at a press conference?
Now, if I was an organiser of a literary festival, and if I knew Salman Rushdie was going to be in town during my festival, it’s likely I would have been eager to have him make an appearance. Given how he’s done things in the past, it would have surprised no one had the panelists at the Midnight’s Children session at Kol Lit Meet announced in mid-discussion that they had a surprise guest, and had Rushdie been then led on to the stage. Had I been the organiser, I would have grabbed at this idea, but then, that’s only me.
Question 2: Regardless of whether Rushdie was coming to Calcutta to promote his film, make a theatrical entry at Kol-Lit or just have a quick snack at Bhojohari Manna, who actually pulled the plug on his visit?
a) The Kolkata Police? Fearing a law and order problem? Unlikely. As we know, this police force does not even clear snot from its nose without an okay from Writers’Building. It’s unimaginable that they could make a such a huge decision without serious goading from above.
b) If not the police then the state government? Who in the state government? And how? Not to mention why? Well, let’s keep these squares blank for a moment.
c) The Muslim groups? Maybe. But, wait a minute. In Jaipur last year, the protests against Rushdie attending began way before the JLF festival opened. This year, in Calcutta, we heard nothing till yesterday, and the ‘protests’ only took place on Wednesday morning – well after Rushdie had already cancelled his visit – as if to provide retro-substance to the notion that widespread protests were always going to take place.
So let’s lightly pencil in a tentative sequence. Remember what Mamata Banerjee said last year, unasked and unprovoked? So, could it be that an aide woke her up when he saw the announcement of Rushdie’s visit? ‘Didi, you had said you would not let him come to Calcutta. What should we do?’ Could it be that a phone call went from Writers’, or Kalighat, to Lal Bazar Police HQ? Could that phone call have set off other calls from some department of the police, say Special Branch, to the Muslim ‘leaders’ in the city? Perhaps a conversation like: ‘Maulvi-ji! Imam-sahab! Aren’t you planning to protest at Salman Rushdie’s visit to Calcutta?’ ‘Oh? Rushdie is coming? We didn’t know! When? Of course we will protest!’ Could this have then led to police officers landing up at the office of whoever had (unofficially) invited Rushdie? Could, say, three cops, (played in my imaginary movie by, say, Tapas Pal, Rahul Bose and Parambrata Chattopadhyay) have stood behind the person who’d ‘invited’ Rushdie, (person played by Nandita Das), and glowered at her computer screen till she sent off an email ‘disinviting’ the shaitan Rushdie?
But enough of this guessing game.
Yesterday, Mamata Banerjee, either through action or inaction, kept at least one of the promises she had made to Calcutta’s Muslim community. Of all the many promises she had made, this one was perhaps the most poisonous: Rushdie will not be allowed into Calcutta. What this ‘promise’ actually says is ‘I will use a psuedo-issue to stoke the egos of your leaders, in the gamble that we can shove under the carpet the fact that I have done nothing to improve the condition of Muslims here, which remains worse than the conditions of Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat.’ It’s a vile delivery that cuts two ways into the rotting ‘culture’ of Calcutta: it bolsters the osbcurantists and fundamentalists of all colours, not just Islamic, while snatching away yet more space of expression from that soft pocket of society we call artists.
There was a time when (what used to be) Kolkata understood what ‘freedom’ meant, what ‘free speech’ meant, what ‘imagination’ meant, what was meant by ‘art’. The movement for the stopping of sati started here (it offended the core ‘religious sentiments’ of lakhs of Hindus), the movement for a free India, where people of all faiths and belief and non-belief could live, also garnered huge charge from the thinking of Kolkatiaya minds and hearts. Central to each and everything that Calcutta and Kolkata gave to the yet-to-be-born Republic was the tenet ‘where the mind is without fear’, i.e that you can think and say what you want. What this latest assault on our freedom to think, read and see what we want does is plunge us into a darkenss of a kind we in this city have not yet known. Today, we Calcuttans have really become the children of a dreadful midnight.
Ruchir Joshi for 31st January, 2013

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

On poetry — my thoughts ( 29 Jan 2013)

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry
Edited by Sudeep Sen
HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2012. Pb. Pp.540. Rs. 599.

Panchali’s Pledge Subramania Bharti
Translated by Usha Rajagopalan
Everyman Classics, Hachette India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 274 Rs. 350

Dom Moraes: Selected Poems
Edited with an introduction by Ranjit Hoskote. Penguin Books India, 2012, Pb. Pp.282. Rs 499.

The River Speaks: The Vaiyai Poems from the Paripatal
Translated by V. N. Muthukumar and Elizabeth Rani Segran
Penguin Classics, Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 176. Rs. 250

These my Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry
Edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo
Penguin Books, India, 2012. Pb. Pp. 450 Rs. 499

In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir
Rainlight, Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2012. Hb. Pp. 206. Rs 499

2012 was a delicious year for poetry from and being published in India. There were plenty of books to choose from — anthologies, collections, translations and some even for children. The anthology edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo (p.xxi) “comprises almost thirty languages and dialects, all translated into the English except of course those poems written in English. It includes poems, folk songs, and oral narratives that have now been transcribed. We have sought for a collection which tries to represent the breadth and diversity of Indian poetry – we wanted poems that surprised and delighted, poems that illuminated, and inspired further reading—a book for readers, not scholars and academics. We chose poems that worked in translation, those which crossed the boundary of language, which faithfulness to the original combined with adaptation to produced work that existed on its own merit.” It gives a good bird’s-eye view of what was written over the centuries, the various traditions that spawned poems and the transformation to the form over time. While reading it, you get a sense of the variety of poetry, the forms, the reasons why poetry is written and what can actually travel in translation. It is extremely difficult for me to even give a snippet of what is in the anthology since every poem is perfect. It forces you to engage with the content, takes you to a different world and time, and yet encourages you to move on to read the next poem. In no way is it dull to read such a volume.

In fact the editors achieve very well what Gulzar says in the absolutely delicious book In the company of a poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir that poetry is about “direct communication” and “What a poem says on the surface is not all that it means. You have to unpick the lines and see the shadows of words. That what makes it poetry, otherwise it would be prose. You usually have to be less ambiguous in prose, which is often an elaboration of thoughts: whereas in poetry, thoughts are usually compressed. A poem has an element of mystery. You have to unravel that mystery. Of course it depends on every poet—how much they reveal, and how much they choose not to.” He adds, “when you understand a poem’s meaning, you can never forget it. You find yourself reciting it at some occasion and it is appreciated. The idea of writing poetry appealed to me because reciting poetry is so pleasurable and the appreciation I got made me happy.”

I wish though that Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo had a longer note about the translation process. Or at least got a few of the translators to speak and then carry a transcript of it as an afterword on their experience at translating poetry. Obviously it takes a while for a satisfactory conclusion to be achieved. An insight into this is given by Sudeep Sen in his Aria introduction on translating poetry “Sculpting language, altering tongues, intoning arias” (p.4), “In almost all instances — whether it be Hebrew, Danish, Korean, Macedonian, Polish, Persian, Spanish or Portuguese — I have worked closely with poets of the source languages themselves. They would do literal translations of the original poems in very raw prose. Once I got down the contents in an accurate version, I would then enter the process more proactively and often singularly to sculpt and revise the jagged prose texts to give them a poetic shape in English. After every revision and draft, I would ask the poet to read aloud the poems in their original tongue, so that I got down the rhythm, rhyme, and the cadence correctly — getting them as close to the original as is possible. Once both the poet in the original language and I as a translator were happy with the versions we came up with — which happened through several working sessions over extended periods of time — we would let go of the poems in their new avatar, in a new language.” Maybe knowing this he chose to consciously create a useful anthology of English poetry by Indians (based in the country and from the diaspora). It was fifteen years in the making, but it is time well spent. Unfortunately that is not the case with Usha Rajagoplan’s translations of Subramania Bharti’s Panchali’s Pledge. I cannot read the poems in the source language but I realize that the translations are missing something from the original.

Of the recent set of publications on poetry my favourites are the translations of Lal Ded’s poetry by Ranjit Hoskote (I, Lalla) and his selection of Dom Moraes poems. Even if you have never read poetry or been hesitant about taking a dip in it, start with Ranjit Hoskote’s introductions. His selection, translations and arrangement of the poems introduces you to the poets, their techiniques, form and evolution very well.

And if you have children. Then some of the anthologies that I absolutely enjoy reading out aloud to my daughter are The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes; The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse selected and illustrated by Quentin Blake; The Puffin Book of Modern Children’s Verse edited by Brian Patten, illustrated by Michael Foreman (revised and updated); The Macmillan Treasury of Poetry for Children with a foreword by Charles Causley and A first poetry book selected by Pie Corbett and Gaby Morgan (published by Macmillan). As Charles Causley who used to be a school teacher till one day he discovered the joys of reading poetry to his students says, “A poet, of course, is not obliged to make a poem, whatever its form, entirely accessible at a first reading. A poem, by its nature, may hold certain qualities in reserve. It may not burn itself out, so to speak, in one brilliant flash of light. A poem is a living organism, capable of continuous development and the most subtle of changes. It may contain both a revelation and a mystery. We need to be aware not only of what is said, but of what the poet most carefully has left unsaid.” Pie Corbett says it aptly “Let the poems become shafts of sunlight to brighten up the day.”

The Convert, Deborah Baker

The Convert, Deborah Baker

http://www.thehindu.com/arts/books/article2420670.ece (first published in the Hindu Literary Review, 3 Sept 2011)

The Convert is about Maryam Jameelah who converted from Judaism to Islam and became a hard-line defender of Islamic values and culture.
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism is about Maryam Jameelah, the well-known conservative and hard-line defender of Islamic values and culture, currently living in Lahore. She has been publishing books, articles, and pamphlets since the 1960s. Some of the recurring issues are “condemning Western efforts to influence the Muslim world or criticising the ill-begotten efforts of the modernising reformers of Islam” (p.84). The Convert is predominantly about the conversion of Margaret Marcus, as she was born, from Judaism to the Jamaat-e-Islami brand of Islamic ideology.

Margaret or “Peggy” Marcus was born in 1934, but did not begin to speak till she was four years old. By this time, her anxious parents, Myra and Herbert, had taken her to various psychiatrists. When she finally began to speak, it was in complete sentences. Very much like the apocryphal, but well-known story about Macaulay, whose first words were, “Madam, the agony is abated.” Her mother described Margaret as hyper-sensitive and of a nervous disposition, but “she was considered an exceptionally gifted young girl. Her paintings were always praised in school and she had a beautiful singing voice” (p.109). At the summer school, where she was happy learning how to dance, she was severely condemned by the director and requested not to return as she had no flair for the art. Likewise with her painting — upon being informed by Mawdudi that painting was not looked upon kindly in Islam, she gave up painting till the late 1990s. Later, she was unable to complete her course at the University of Rochester as she had a nervous breakdown. By the time she began her correspondence with Maulana Abdul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, she had been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia and had had a “fifteen-month long stay at the New York Psychiatric Institute and later the Hudson River State Hospital” (p.125). The other correspondents included “mature Arab Muslim leaders deemed reactionary fanatics by the New York Times”, such as Sayyid Qutb of the Society of Muslim Brotherhood and Shaykh Muhammad Bashir Ibrahim, leader of the insurgency against France and a member of the Islamic clergy (p.140).

Exploring Islam

It was after these stints in mental asylums that she began to explore Islam seriously. In fact, “Mr Parr, the librarian in the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library brought her attention to Muslim Digest where she would publish her first essays on Islam. “After reading Islam at the Crossroads by Muhammad Assad, the Jewish convert whose book The Road to Mecca had made such a deep impression on her, Margaret began to articulate the kernel of her argument against modern America” (p.136). But it was Sheikh Daoud Ahmad Faisal, a pure Moroccan Arab and his West Indian wife, Khadija Faisal, who ran the Islamic Propagation Centre of America, housed in a run-down storefront in Brooklyn Heights “who finally convinced Margaret Marcus to submit to God, to obey His commands as set forth in the Holy Quran, and to sacrifice her life in this world for the life in the hereafter” (p.138). It was “Peggy’s paralysing childhood fear of death had forced her to ponder the most profound questions of existence for hours on end. When she grew older she compared the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for their teachings on the hereafter. Of all these faiths, only Islam provided her the clear assurance that her efforts to live a pious life would be justly rewarded” (p.137-8).

Most of her arguments and tension with her parents were over the formation of Israel, their religious prejudice against the Arabs, the Palestinians and their support for Zionist activities and institutions, though her parents were also to convert later, but to the Unitarian Church. In fact, she began a novel, Ahmad Khalil: The Story of a Palestinian Refugee and His Family, and illustrated it with sketches at the age of 12 but it remains unpublished. Margaret Marcus began to write on Islam and by the time she reached Lahore, “her work began to appear in translation in the Arab daily An Nadwah, out of Mecca; in the Daily Kohistan, a Karachi monthly; in a newspaper out of Kerala…in a few Urdu publications out of Lahore. A collection of essays was released in Istanbul”(p.84).

Margaret Marcus was so taken in with the religion that she converted. Then, at the behest of Maulana Abdul Ala Mawdudi she travelled to Lahore to become a part of his family. Soon the relationship turned sour and she was packed off to Pattoki. But from there too, she was soon transferred to the Pagal Khanna in Lahore. She stayed there till August 1963, when she was released into the custody of Mohammad Yusuf Khan, a Pathan whose family were powerful feudal lords in Jullunder, but post-1947 had fled to Pakistan as refugees. He was “connected with the Jamaat-e-Islami as he was responsible for the publication of the Mawlana’s works and for selling skins of sacrificial goats donated to the party during Ramadan. While the party was banned, Khan oversaw the publication of the Weekly Shahab” (p.157). Later in the month, he married Maryam Jameelah, who became his second wife. They had five children, but it was Yusuf Khan’s first wife who brought up Maryam Jameelah’s children, along with her own brood of ten.

Deborah Baker has based her book on “…the Maryam Jameelah collection on deposit at the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library” and interviews, including with Maryam Jameelah in late 2007. She focuses on the 24 letters written from the 1950s to 1963 and these dominate The Convert. Then the 30 years of Maryam Jameelah’s life documenting her marriage, motherhood and political upheavals are reduced to a few pages. Baker claims that this book is “fundamentally a work of nonfiction”, though she refers to it as ‘a tale’. She says that “unless her words are accompanied by quotation marks and a specific citation, the actual and imaginary letters of Maryam Jameelah do not appear here as she wrote them. … I have also moved an anecdote or thought from one letter to another, or taken an anecdote or thought from an essay and put it into a letter. …I do not make anything up. Some readers might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled. …” Nor did “Maryam …ask to read the manuscript before publication. She trusted, as the reader will have to trust…” (p.225-6). In some instances it is as if writing this book was also for Deborah to understand her own Catholic upbringing, the conversion of her father to Catholicism for love, the family arguments over religion and the answers her siblings found.

Fiction or biography?

If Baker was interested in writing a bio-novel of the kind that David Lodge and Peter Ackroyd have written, then she should have been honest and done so. In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to have a fictional license and insert or embellish parts of the narrative. As David Lodge wrote recently in The Guardian, “…as long as they are compatible with the factual record, and the book is presented and read as a novel, not as history, no harm is done, and something may be gained. Bio-fiction does not pretend to replace biography, but complements it, offering a different kind of interpretation of real lives.” It may have been best if the empirical data had been presented as is, with a good analysis of the subject, rather than intruding into the narrating like a “nosy …biographer” (p.130). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, co-editor and translator of Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain, says that working on a woman’s memoir is a “fine line between editing a memoir and completely reconstructing her life story —especially around one significant event”.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker, Viking, 2011, p. 256, Rs. 450.