Religion Posts

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

“Eclectic Response”

My article “Eclectic Response” on Partition literature was published in the Hindu on 6 August 2011. I am c&p the text below. 

Each successive generation has confronted the collective guilt of the Partition in its own different way…

August 14/15, 1947 carved the Indian subcontinent into two nations, Pakistan and India. In a second partition in 1971, Bangladesh was created. 1947 saw the largest mass migration, accompanied by genocide. It uprooted and displaced people of all communities — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. But, as Pakistani literary journalist Muneeza Shamsie says, in literature “the response of South English novelists to an event of such magnitude has been comparatively limited. One of the problems is that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were both perpetrators and the victims. Therefore, unlike the Holocaust victims, their moral stand, as individual communities, has been eroded. This has led to a collective guilt, which South Asians find difficult to confront” (Dawn, August 14, 2001).

We know that the literary repercussions of the French Revolution were different on successive generations. The first generation of British romantic poets, for example, was preoccupied with the events as they happened. Similarly, the virtual canon of Partition literature by those who knew undivided India is a moving documentation — Atia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column; Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan; Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”; Chaman Nahal’s Azadi; Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas; Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi; Mumtaz Shahnawaz’s The Heart Divided; Aangan by Khadija Mastur; Akhteruzzaman Elias’s Khoabnama; Surja-Dighal Bari by Abu Ishaque, and Shahidullah Kaiser’s Sangsaptak.

The first post-Partition generation of Indian writers in English was silent for a time. Then, from about the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a surge of Partition memoirs and oral history projects. Seminal examples of these are Stern Reckoning: A Survey of the Events Leading Up to and following the Partition of India, G.D. Khosla; Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, (eds.) Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin; The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Urvashi Butalia; India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization, (Ed.) Mushirul Hasan; Stories about the Partition of India (Ed.) Alok Bhalla, 3 volumes; Pangs of Partition, Volume I: The Parting of Ways and Volume II: The Human Dimension, (Eds.) S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. In India, the Teen Murti Library’s Oral History programme began to be enriched with recordings of those who had witnessed Partition and/or had been administratively/politically involved in it — a rich source of empirical data preserved for posterity. The small crop of Partition fiction in English included Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai; What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin; Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan; Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh; Ice-Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa; Padma Meghna Jamuna, Abu Jafar Shamsuddin. In many of these, realism is replaced by formal and linguistic displays, and individual memory replaces actual events of Partition — a measure of the writers’ distance from actual events.

The literature of the third post-Partition generation is markedly different in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two partitions of 1947 and 1971 resonate in the literature from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The treatment is sophisticated and nuanced in works like Salt and Saffron, Kamila Shamsie; A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam; The Search, Shaheen Akhtar; Ojogor and Mohajer by Haripada Dutta; Agunpakhi, Hasan Azizul Huq; Rain and the Rebels, Syed Shamsul Haq, and Agun Pakhi, Hasan Azizul Haq. In Bangladesh, all genres, poetry, drama, short stories and other forms of prose, are equally important for a discussion of ideas and history. India, however, has little or no fiction from the third post-Partition generation, but much non-fiction documentation of the past. Some examples: Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Alok Bhalla; The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, (Eds.) Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta; The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (Ed.) Suvir Kaul; Translating Partition, (Eds.) Ravi Kant and Tarun K. Saint; Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, Stephen Alter; Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, Tarun Saint; and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Neeti Nair.

But, as writer Shauna Singh Baldwin said in an e-mail to me, “We need more exploration and translations of books on Partition, by fiction and non-fiction writers from all over the world, by people of Indo-Pak and British descent and those who wish to understand modern genocides and imagine alternatives for individuals to resist the descent into group-think spirals. Imagination is our one possession that is truly free.”

Future forms

At present, literature from, on or about Partition is not in the printed word alone. The Internet is a vast repository of video and audio clips, online discussion forums, blogs, and photographs. There’s new historical fiction, particularly for young adults, about Partition and surrounding debates by authors like Irfan Master, Jamila Gavin, Anwara Syed Haq, and Selina Hossain, while professional story tellers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain have a newly created dastango on Partition, dastan taqseem-e hind ki. Fourth post-Partition generation literature may well be born here.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

“Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims” by Skybaaba

I read Telugu writer and Telengana activist Skybaaba’s short stories rapidly. They give an insight into the lives of ordinary Telugu Muslims living in the Deccan and the challenges they experience — loneliness, communal prejudices, casteism, love, hostility, living in penury etc. The English translations done by a team of translators are functional but make a valid contribution to Indian literature by highlighting the diverse cultures we have in India. This collection of stories was published by Orient Black Swan a couple of years ago and has been a steady seller. In fact The Little Theatre group did a dramatised telling of the stories.  

I interviewed Skybaaba after locating him online. He very kindly agreed to do the interview. It turned into an interesting process. He can read and understand English but is most comfortable responding in Telugu. So even if I had to chat to him via Facebook Instant Messenger to get clarifications, I would pose my questions in English and he would reply in Hindi using the Roman script. When I sent the Q& A he replied in Telugu on the document which then a friend of his, Dr. Jilukara Srinivas, Department of Telugu, University of Hyderabad, translated into English. 

Here are edited excerpts: 

Interview with Skybaaba about ‘Vegetarians Only’ Stories of Telugu Muslims

  1. How long did it take you to write these stories?

I took 11 years to write these stories. Initially I wrote poetry. But as feminism, Dalit movement in literature Muslimvadam had to be discussed  in the mainstream I began to write stories. Muslimvadam got recognition as an identity movement as feminism and “Dalitism” did in Telugu literature.  In that process I have played an important role. I have edited many poetry anthologies, stories collection ‘Vatan’, and Mulki, a special issue on Muslims. I had to spend lot of time and had to face a lot of pain. I lost my secured life for completing these works. I think it’s the first time in the history of Indian literature that a hundred muslim writers have come together and created an identity movement for Muslim community.  To make it a ‘movement’ I have maintained a continuous interaction with many Muslim writers who have been engaged in writing lives. In 1998 I compiled many wonderful poems by Muslim poets as Zalzala. It was ground-breaking poetry, first of its kind powerful poetry in Telugu. It was the time in which Muslimvadam came up significantly. There were doubts and uncertain conditions at that time. An opportunity was there to brand Muslimvada literature as a fanatic and religious one. We tried to make it clear that Islam is a religion and the word ‘Muslim’ is a social nomenclature as Dalit. Zalzala, as a poetry collection, was an effort with this understanding.   Dalit poetry has not received any opposition because it was considered as a problem of “Hindu” society. Its not the same with Muslimvadam. It can be branded as “other”. Not only that, there was a possibility that it could be termed as terrorism. I was ready to face all the charges and hardships. The poems in Zalzala criticise the Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists equally. There are multiple dimensions to the anthology. I say this collection of poems is a milestone in the literary history of India and Telugu literature too. Zalzala (1998) and  Aza (2002) were two anthologies consisting of poets of two states Telangana and Andhra.  A few poems of Zalzala were translated into English and Hindi. In 2002 along with another poet Anwar I also published poetry on Gujarat genocide titled Azaan. After both were received well, I started working from 1999 to 2004 and collected 52 Muslim stories from 39 different writers and published the first ever Muslim stories compilation titled Watan. Around that time, I started writing stories and started weaving my stories from different angles of Muslim life.

  1. At times it seems these stories particularly those about migration read more like reportage than fiction. Was that the intention?

I depicted realism of lives. I think you can’t write aesthetics when life is ending in pathetic situation. My stories in fact very have a colourful beauty in terms of content, weather, language and narrating style. All my stories end sadly. Lives are same too. In reality, most of the lives are like that. I tried to portray the lives as they are with such detail which enables the reader to find alternative solutions –that is the crux of my writing.

The two ways of finding solutions are — One, create a space in the story for the reader to engage and in understanding and let him find a solution to the problem pictured in it. Second, a solution can be suggested by author to a reader. I prefer the first way. Let readers have an opportunity to find their ways in resolving issue.

  1. How did the translation come about? Why were there so many translators for the stories?

Translation came really well but  the team of translators and editors worked extra hard to achieve it. Because my language is special. It belongs to me too. I created my story language. I am a pro-active muslim. I belong to Telangana. Our household speaks Urdu. Street language is Telangana Telugu. But the language of educated belongs to coastal Andhra who dictated for quite long time. Even language of every magazine is costal Andhra dominated. Hence I consciously chose the language I was raised in and speak which is a mix of Urdu and Telangana Telugu.

Telangana Telugu is different from Andhra Telugu. Telangana language was dishonoured by Andhraites. I use to write Urdu words like Aapa, abbajan, bhaisaab and etc. I kept Urdu sentences for dialogues. For the nativity I used familiar Urdu words at the outset of story. It was to suggest that dialogues are going on in Urdu. “Zaldi Zaldi Jani is going towards Edgah” – it’s a line in a story. Zaldi, Zaldi, Edgah, and Jani are Urdu words. Telangana words like dikk’, nadustundu, Jebatti, Adaada, and chestunnay are mixed with Urdu words to form beautiful sentences.

So it came out as special language. Translators had a hard time translating my stories into English. Similarly, editors had to edit it precisely to get the feel of the language and content. They had to consult me also many times on that. My stories have depicted vulnerable conditions of Muslim woman. These characters will haunt after reading. For this reason editors have selected 5 famous women translators who have fabulously grasped the feelings of women characters in the stories. This was a big project which took three and a half years to complete.

  1. Why did you include a glossary in the book instead of including the meaning of the words within the context of the story, as is largely practised now in modern translations?

Muslimvada literature has started a trend in using Urdu words. Readers will look towards the Muslims in their neighbourhoods with curiosity. So we came to a conclusion that meanings of Urdu words should not be given immediately We thought this method will create interest among readers. We followed the same for English version too but publishers asked us to provide at the end.

  1. Were you involved in the translation process? If so did you work on the stories for the English version or do they all remain true to the original stories in Telugu?

I’m not acquainted with English language. Complete rendering of my stories has been carried out by the translators and editors. They have discussed with me about the atmosphere, context in which words are used and sense of the certain Urdu terms too. I feel the translators have done a tremendous job and have exceeded my expectations.

  1. Are any of the stories autobiographical? I get the sense that the story about the young couple house-hunting as well as “Urs” are about you. I may be wrong.

Your perception is correct. Many of the stories are made out of my experiences. It means many of my stories are autobiographical — “Jani Begum”, “The Wedding Feast”, “Sheer Khorma” , “Life in Death” , “Urs” and”Vegetarians Only” too. My wife and I, in fact, have experienced all the situations while searching to rent a home. “Vegetarians Only” which is about a young married couple house hunting but constantly being denied accommodation as the landlords did not want beef-eating tenants and preferred vegetarians. Ultimately it was a dalit family willing to rent a tiny room to the couple. I wrote this story as a reflection of the prejudices Muslims experience on a daily basis.  Now this story is being taught as part of the post-graduation syllabus for 400 students in Kakatiya university.

  1. Why did you choose the pen name “Skybaaba”?

I’m Shaik Yousuf Baba. When I was in school I would write my name as “Skybaba”. “Sk” from Shaik, “Y” from Yousuf which made it sky and then I added “baba” to it. I introduced myself as “Skybaba” to literary friends. My first poem was published with this name. From then it has been my name. many have suggested me to keep Yousuf. But I like Skybaba. You know, when I tried to use it for Facebook, and for a blog, it was not available. So, I have added a syllable “a” making it “Skybaaba”. Now nobody can use it in social media as a name for a profile. We used the same in translation too. In two Telugu states, people will recognize me with “Skybaaba” only.

  1. In the introduction it is mentioned that your father was well-read but most of the women were uneducated. I am struck by how educated your father was and how many stories he read. How did this disparity in education levels between him and his wife come about? I ask since some of the women you have in the stories are educated even if it means fighting for the space.

My father studied up to 9th standard but he was able to read in Telugu, Urdu and Hindi.  He read many novels in the three languages. I use to listen him while he narratied the stories to my mother. I also use to listen to my mother tell the very same stories to the neighbours. In my father’s generation  there was no opportunity to get education for woman. You cannot see the identity movements at that time. I mean that social justice and equal rights to backward classes, untouchables and minorities. It was a result of awareness. It does not mean that opportunities have come to me. But the Muslim community has received something like Muslim reservation out of my struggle.  In Telugu, it was started before our generation. Like me, many of us have reached this stage because of identity movements. It is the reason behind keeping our stories as lessons to the students and reason for conducting researches on our literature.

  1. There is a reference to the anthology of 52 Telugu Muslim stories Watan: Muslim Kadhalu ( 2004) by 39 Muslim writers. Is this available in English?

No. It’s not available. It is as yet to be translated.  It was a result  out of my five years hard work. It contains 400 pages. For this I travelled two Telugu states and met Telugu Muslim writers to persuade them to submit their stories. I compiled it with good stories after editing and making writers to rewrite some stories. With this collection of stories even the movement of Muslimvadam was received well and its situation got changed. A lot of change occurred in the expression of stories. A lot of people appreciated it. One of my critics told me to keep the book available in the market always. So that non-Muslims can learn the lives of Muslims who are the equal sufferer of poverty, violence and humiliation as other marginalized sections. By reading this book, the hatred which is propagated against Muslims will reduce.  Misconceptions like Muslims are anti-nationals, terrorists and foreigners will be erased from the psyche of masses.  People will realize that Muslims are their friends. Muslims like any other community experience poverty, unemployment, love and affection.

  1. Please tell me more about how you came to be a writer. I know this is a clichéd question but after reading this book and reading the notes in the book I want to know. I am impressed by one of the small jobs you explored was a “book-renting shop” (why don’t you call it a library?), becoming the editor of the literary page of Telugu daily Andhra Jyoti etc.

The  uncompromising nature of my mother, courageous nature of my father, grand mom’s different integrity and commitment, my village Kesarajupally’s nature, my close friend Janardhan’s atheism, Parasharamlu’s experiences with untouched social system, my keen observations, and dedication, extensively reading habit from childhood, stories, novels, poetry of woman’s issues, etc all have shaped my personality and integrity. I have a great respect and sympathy for women’s issues and problems. My love, failure, discontinuity of education, poverty, failures in business have made a good writer. Everyone cried after reading my stories. As an activist I have attended thousands of meetings and visited a lot of villages so that I became mentally strong. In a single word, I stood up because of Sufism which I have internalised  and my inherent nomadic nature.

  1. You have started several literary magazines – “Telugu Dalit Voice” ( 2005-2006), “Mulki” ( 2002-2004), “Chaman” ( 2006-2007) and “Singdi” ( 2010-2011). Why did you feel the need to start a literary magazine? How were they different to each other? How did these magazines find their audiences? What did they contain?

Yes, I have started my literary magazines and encouraged others to start. I have also worked for many small magazines too. For the reason of mainstream media which is not supporting Dalits, Muslims and Telangana issues. Now the situation has become worse. In such a situation, I tried to disseminate the ideas and information to educate the communities. “Dalit Voice” is all about Bahujan politics whereas “Mulki” and “Singidi” is about Telangana Movement. A special issue of “Mulki” and “Chaman” have been brought out to sensitize the readers about Muslim’s issues. As an activist I tried to make them available at public meetings, gatherings and in serious book points. Useful information, interviews and articles for the social movements were given priority in the publications. They helped readers out across the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.

  1. Is Nasal Kitab Ghar your publishing house? Does it still exist?

Yes, it’s been working. It’s my own publishing house. So far, I have brought 16 books out. They are very valuable as no publishing house came forward to print the Muslimvada writings. Even NGOs were not agreeable.  So, I have established Nasal Kitab Ghar. Isn’t it great to record a victim’s version? Is it not valuable? I have recorded diversity of Muslim community and its social and economic situation. I know some of the issues like burkha, parda, caste structure among Muslims which I recorded in anthologies will not be received well even by our own community. Yet these stories have their relevance in Telugu literature. Nasal Kitab Ghar will be there till my last breath. I will bring wonderful books forward.

  1. Why did you feel the need to have a strong Muslim identity to define your literary activities such as Muslimvada poetry and the short-lived Muslim writers’s forum Marfa ( 2003-2004)? Is the Telengana writers’ forum Singidi ( 2010) which you co-founded also with a strong Muslim identity?

From 1995 feminism and the Dalit movement came forward with a strong ideological base and argument. I and some other Muslim writers were inspired by these movements. We launched Muslimvadam. I worked very hard for the movement. All the important collections of writings have been published by me only. We have provided a view to look into and understand the Indian majoritarian social order. It is Muslim view point. We tried to educate Muslim community to think in terms of social and political. We also sent a message to mingle with other communities which are struggling for justice. We made them to realize that all the SC, ST, OBC, MBC literary movements are brotherly things to Muslims. ‘Haryali’ Muslim Writers Forum, ‘Marfa’ Muslim Reservation Movement intended to do the same. As a founder and leader of these organizations I worked as a key person. Unlike feminist and Dalit movement there was no support readily forthcoming for Muslimvadam. I had to bear the brunt of all the burden. I had to put my security at risk. There were threats to me from Hindutva groups but I persevered and worked steadily for years.   I worked in Singidi as a Muslim representative among SC, ST, BC and women representatives. Singidi was a collective voice of oppressed sections. Dalit, BC, Tribal and Muslim literary movements have an understanding that all these communities have same roots and divided from one stem. It’s an indigenous perspective. It’s the base for these movements. It extends the concept of brotherhood among victims.

  1. What is the Nilagiri Sahiti group?

I see Neelagiri Sahiti as a “mother” institution since it was instrumental in shaping me as a poet. It taught me what literature is. I attended its inaugural meeting and then after I worked as a secretary for five years. Dr. Sunkireddy Narayana Reddy was its founder who was a Telugu lecturer. He is a famous poet, critic, cultural historian of Telangana. He founded many literary organizations.. He is my literary mentor. With his vision and support I have become an uncompromising writer as  I have my commitment towards oppressed communities. I know there are many opportunities for the writers and activists who surrender to the state. I never thought of working with the State which denies the basic human and civil rights to Muslims , Dalits, OBC and Tribes. So, I was branded as a stubborn and headstrong poet.  I may be branded in any manner but I will not abandon interests of my communities. We have organized number of programmes which have helped me grow as a powerful writer.   I learnt many ideological issues from debates, conferences and talks organized by Nilagiri Sahiti. Eminent poets, writers, and intellectuals were invited to monthly and weekly meetings.

27 July 2017 

 

“The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi” by Vicki Mackenzie

The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi by Vicki Mackenzie is an account of an extraordinary Derby-born woman Freda Houlston. Born in 1911, educated at Oxford and married in 1933 to Baba Bedi bringing her to India at the height of the freedom struggle for Independence. She met her husband during the local meetings of the Majlis, the Indian students’ society, and listened to debates about Gandhi and India’s quest for freedom. According to Andrew Whitehead ( who too is working on a biography of Freda Bedi ; Derby Telegraph & The Wire ) “she went to the more tumultuous October Club, where left-wing students gathered to oppose fascism and cheer on the hunger marchers. At lectures, she came across a well-built student – he was a champion hammer thrower – from Punjab, BPL (Baba) Bedi. He invited her to tea. Freda went along with a friend as a chaperone, as the rules required, and was charmed.”

Along with her husband she became a left-wing activist — her socialist spirit was never to leave her even in later years upon conversion to Buddhism. Her marriage took her through Lahore ( in undivided India), Kashmir, Delhi, and Dalhousie. She witnessed Partition and though a firm follower of Gandhi and his non-violent means of struggle when in Kashmir she joined the women’s militia — the Women’s Self Defence Corps — started by some feisty members of the Communist Party affiliated with Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference Party. Her husband was close to Sheikh Abdullah. Baba Bedi worked in the Kashmir administration “doing his part in promoting counterpropaganda” writing articles both in Kashmir and Delhi. The Bedi family spent five years in the state before the two men fell out in 1952 over their views on the Kashmir plebiscite, a political decision to let the people of Kashmir decide whether they wanted to join Pakistan or accede to India. She returned to Delhi to take on a government job as editor of Social Welfare, publication of the Central Social Welfare Board, part of the Ministry of Education. Social Welfare was written in English and translated into Hindi to reach as many people as possible. According to Vicki Mackenzie, Freda Bedi “chose with her heart — still wanting to help the poor and needy. The pay was low, but with her job came a government apartment”.

It was during a United Nations assignment to Burma that she had an epiphanic experience concerning Buddhism and decided to convert. She soon began to drift away from her material existence and in 1960s moved to Dalhousie where she established the Young Lamas Home School. She also gave shelter to the many Buddhist nuns who had fled Tibet after the Dalai Lama escaped. She created a system which went against the severely hierarchical and patriarchal structure of Buddhist monasteries but allowed the nuns to have a more democratic and responsible way of functioning.

Vicki Mackenzie documents this period of Freda Bedi’s life relying on extensive interviews with her three children — Ranga, the film actor Kabir Bedi and daughter, Guli — along with innumerable people who knew Freda. In fact she is unable to mask her surprise at how forthcoming everyone was with their recollections of Freda Bedi, sharing pictures and documents  making Vicki remark that it was if this book was wanting to be written. Most importantly Vicki Mackenzie heard that the Dalai Lama himself would wonder why no book had ever been written as yet on Freda Bedi. Ever since going on a Buddhist retreat in 1976, Vicki Mackenzie’s writings have focused on Buddhism, reincarnation and role of women.

Even though Freda Bedi devoted the last twenty years of her life to Buddhism and left the family to work for its cause she remained extremely close to her children and husband. Her young daughter, Guli, who had been put into boarding school aged five recalls that every week punctually a letter would arrive from “mummy”. Even her sons knew that though they may have had an unorthodox upbringing, rich in experience but in financially straitened circumstances, they knew they could rely on their mother. For instance Kabir Bedi recounts he needed money to pay his fees at St. Stephen’s College and his mother advised him to ask a friend of theirs who readily gave the required amount. Her love for her family is also evident in a charming collection of poems she wrote for her eldest son, Ranga, called Rhymes for RangaIt was published as a collection of rhymes in 2010.

Freda Bedi was the first European woman to convert to Buddhism. She was ordained in 1965. She is also credited with being the first nun to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West. She was known as Sister Kechong Palmo although many Tibetans believed Freda to be an “emanation” of Tara, the female Buddha of Compassion in Action or the Divine Mother. Significantly whereever Freda went she was well-connected to the powers that be so was always able to get her way. In India, for instance, she knew politicians like the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira, diplomats and other prominent citizens. In England she counted among her friends Barbara Castle, a fiery left-wing cabinet minister in the 1960s and 70s. In fact when Freda returned to Delhi in 1979 to attend a world buddhist congress she stayed as a guest of the hoteliers Oberois at their five star luxury property. It was here that she passed away aged sixty-six years and was cremated on the Oberoi farm. It is believed that a couple of years later Freda Bedi was “reincarnated as a Tibetan girl, Jamyang Dolma Lama, the daughter of His Eminence Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, a respected lineage holder enthroned by the Sixteenth Karmapa. Born in Tibet, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche had known Freda Bedi well, and had set up his own center in Bodhgaya”.

Today it may seem commonplace to discuss Buddhism and encounter many celebrity converts such as Freda Bedi. But historically her contribution to Buddhism is extraordinarly. Her conversion and single-minded focus to do good constructively by the Tibetan Buddhists, soon after their spiritual leader — the Dalai Lama — fled Tibet for India was unusual for the day. As she was not only committed to the cause but would do anything in her power including calling upon her friends in senior positions to help her.  Her persistence paid off and she was able to leave a well-defined legacy as is apparent in the Buddhist institutions she created at Dalhousie.

More than a century after she was born the important influence Freda Bedi had on Buddhists is slowly gaining traction. For instance Beyond Mud Walls  a short documentary by a distant relative of hers, Nalini Paul, discusses the theatre performance she has conceptualised based Freda Bedi’s book.

Vicki Mackenzie’s biography of Freda Bedi is readable and well-researched. The effort to collect information to build a portrait of a formidable woman so many years after her death could not have been easy. Yet she did it. Despite Vicki Mackenzie’s fascinating account of an Englishwoman who made India her home during the Indian freedom struggle, it is quickly overshadowed by the stronger and better narrated time of Freda Bedi’s life as a Buddhist nun.

Vicki Mackenzie The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun Shambala Publications, Boulder, USA, 2017. Pb. pp.190 $16.95

13 May 2017

Saint Teresa

Saint Teresa or Mother Teresa (as she was known till 4 September 2016) and her Missionaries of Charity are known for their care of the poor and establishment of hospices worldwide. Many considered her to be a living saint in her lifetime and after her death miracles were attributed to her. By the time she died in September 1997 her Missionaries of Charity had 610 missions spread across 123 countries.

There are plenty of books written about Saint Teresa. The first is Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of her Life & Legacy , a beautiful collection of photographs by Raghu Rai. He has an impressive collection of pictures taken while he would shadow her at work and some of her canonisation ceremony in Rome. The few anecdotes he shares of his interactions with her confirm her gentle, charitable nature and her overwhelming desire to do good by people especially those who are suffering. There is a particularly revelatory episode he shares about casteism and caregiving.

Her love was for humanity and was not limited to any one faith, which was why some of her detractors, who accused her of using her work to convert people, did not make much of an impression on the many millions who were utterly devoted to her. It did not matter to her if you were a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, believer, agnostic, atheist or Communist — she treated everyone equally. She loved those who needed her without the slightest regard to creed or caste. I am reminded here of an incident that illustrates this aspect of life. Mother’s credo was that she was not a special worker but a mother who took care of all those who needed her. Once, an old Brahmin lady was dying on the streets of Calcutta. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity wanted to pick her up and bring her to their home for the aged. The woman, however, insisted that she couldn’t be touched by anyone but a Brahmin. When Mother heard about this, she decided she would personally minister unto the woman. As she was about to touch her, the dying woman asked her if she was a Brahmin. While recounting the episode, Mother said she asked herself: ‘Who is a Brahmin?’, to which she felt that anyone who served His people was a good Brahmin, and so she said to the dying woman, ‘Yes, I’m a Brahmin.’ And she picked her up and brought her home.

This anecdote illustrates beautifully her focus on caregiving while ensuring the patient has a dignified closure to their life. It was this generosity of spirit and kindness which enabled her to set up missions around the world. Everywhere she went she was welcomed. Sure she had her fair share of critics. She was accused of siphoning of funds. She was accused of conversions. She was accused of not really investing in improving the health of the people she brought in but focused her energies on tending to them till their death. The fact is she and her sisters of charity offer a social service for the marginalised and the poor, many of whom are shunned by their families and society. This is a stunning photobook from a photographer who in a sense is not only paying his respects to a beloved subject and mentor but is also making  a crucial contribution to history by publicising some of the rare images he was privileged to take. Photography by its very art form can be intrusive and disruptive, yet there is an almost magical quality to the images included in the book as if the subject and photographer had a special relationship.

Conferring the sainthood on Mother Teresa is possibly the reason why Puffin India has launched their  new series, Junior Lives, with a biography of Saint Teresa — Mother Teresa. Junior Lives is a version of the successful Puffin Lives series meant for older children. Junior Lives is meant to be a series of illustrated books created for young readers ( 8+) to acquaint them with world heroes. Unfortunately despite all good intentions at heart the inaugural title of Junior Lives fails to live up to expectations. Beginning with the book title itself launched eight months after sainthood has been conferred by the Pope — how can it continue to be termed as Mother Teresa, why not Saint Teresa? Terminologies have to keep pace with historical changes. Secondly even if this book is meant for younger readers why are facts not spelled out clearly rather than diluted as with the following passage  (Chapter 8):

There are many other examples of how Mother Teresa came to help during a dangerous crisis. In 1984, in Bhopal in India, a large company that manufactured pesticides made a terrible mistake. A dangerous gas leaked out from the factory at night and killed thousands of people. …[Mother Teresa helped raise funds and take care of the injured]. 

Why is Union Carbide as the offending company not mentioned clearly? By soft-pedalling the monstrous manmade Bhopal Gas Tragedy and terming it as a “terrible mistake” by way of an explanation to children is wrong. Children tend to see the world in black and white so why not tell them the truth? Share facts. Not judgements. By swiftly rearranging historical narrative in this manner will contribute in the creation of a new generation who won’t in future see the gas tragedy for the horror it was. This is the converse of what children are taught early that just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so must children learn that every action of theirs has a consequence and they must behave responsibly. Even if it is a biography about Mother Teresa this passage implies that it was an accident and the corporation is not really to blame but don’t worry a charitable soul like Mother Teresa is ever present to tend to the needy. It is teaching an unforgiveable lesson that mistakes happen and people directly responsible for it are not necessarily to be blamed instead there will be others to pick up the pieces.

Another example of poor writing and editing is a few lines later when she travelled “she went to a country called Ethiopia“. Feeling the need to describe Ethiopia as a country especially when Italy, America, Germany and Switzerland were not qualified in a similar fashion in Chapter 7 is cringe-worthy. This smacks of a cultural prejudice that is inadvertantly being passed on to the next generation and at a time when racial diversity and inclusiveness are the buzz words. It is ironical that such unforgiveable errors have been permitted in a biography of a woman who was loved by millions around the world, irrespective of their caste, colour or creed.

Texts for children are to be put together with great deal of care and thought. Every little aspect needs to be taken into account and anticipated. Young readers tend to engage with the text minutely and every little element in it — whether text or illustration — is scrutinised, queried and discussed threadbare before being imbibed and becoming a critical part of their mental furniture. One can only hope that the future titles meant in this series are created with due care.

Raghu Rai Saint Teresa of Calcutta Aleph Book Company, 2017.  Hb. Rs 1499

Sonia Mehta Mother Teresa Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, India, 2017. Pb. Rs 150 

11 May 2017 

 

 

“The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses”

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is a nifty introduction to the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is a peppy reference to the gods and goddesses one encounters often in Hindu mythology. These are the ones such as Vishwakarma, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganeshea, Hanuman, Durga and Kali whom one hears of often. There is a neat catalogue with short descriptions of the prominent gods and their avatars such as Shakti/Sati ( Durga, Kali and Meenakshi); Vishnu ( Matsaya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Balrama, Kalki, Jagannatha ); Shiva ( Rudra, Bhairava, Nataraja, Lingam)  and Ardhanareshwari ( Shiva + Shakti). In the opening pages describing the Vedic gods the authors — Neelima P. Aryan and Ameya Nagarajan — have tried drawing parallels between the gods of Hindu and Greek mythology. For instance, Akash with Zeus — both are considered to be the father of gods. Each description is accompanied by a full-page illustration created in bright colours by Priyankar Gupta that are charming but have done little to break out of the mould created by Anant Pai decades ago.

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is the kind of book which will forever be in demand. It is a beautifully produced four-colour book printed on good art paper allowing for rich reading experience in print. A good production will also ensure that despite being flipped through often the book will withstand any rough use. Creating a reasonably priced book as an in-house department product by the Puffin team will definitely ensure a steady stream of revenue for the firm — a classic formula used often by other firms as well. It is also a fine example of sharp commissioning that straddles the hyper-local and diaspora markets.

Having said that there are a few more examples of illustrated books on the Hindu gods and goddesses that have proven to be extremely popular — Bhakti Mathur, Pixar’s Sanjay Patel‘s series, a wonderful series of cut out board books for children by Om Books editorial team and splendid books on Hanuman and Krishna by
Mala Dayal and on Shiva by Subhadra Sen Gupta published by Red Turtle.

Now for some enterprising publishing firm to create books on gods and goddesses of other religions as well. Puffin India, Juggernaut and Om Books have opened the innings with collection of stories from the Quran and the Bible with their retellings. Goodword books creates phenomenal Islamic books for children. In the past Penguin India had also published a beautiful anthology of greatest stories ever told from various faiths edited by Sampurna Chattarji ( 2004). Maybe it is time to revive some of the backlist publications once more.

16 March 2017 

“Letters to a young Muslim” by Omar Saif Gobash

Omar Saif Gobash is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. In addition to his post in Moscow, Ambassador Ghobash sponsors the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and is a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in collaboration with the Man Booker Prize in London. Ambassador Gobash wrote Letters to a Young Muslim for his two sons.

I write these letters to both of my sons [Saif and Abdullah], and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them. …I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. 

Ambassador Gobash has been in this current diplomatic post since January 2009. UAE has a population approaching ten million, with over 180 nationalities represented. The ambassador’s mother was a Russian and descended from Orthodoxy clergyman. Although his wife is from Al Ain in the Emirates and her upbringing was “more uniformly Arab and Muslim” than her husband’s they took the joint decision “that we were not going to let our children be educated to hate”.

The ambassador writes:

Because I speak English, Arabic, Russian and French, and have friends and colleagues in the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world, I have had access to the thinking that takes place within different cultures and political systems. The longer I perform my job, the more I am convinced of the power of ideas, and language, to move the world to a better place. 

One of his most significant testimonies in the book is that ” We need to find a theological and social space and place for the following ideas: doubt, question, inquiry and curiosity”.

Letters to a Young Muslim are an extraordinary set of letters written by a father to his son explaining Islam, modern geo-politics, the growing hatred towards Muslims and explaining the importance of ideas and personal experience and not just reliance on texts interpreted by a few to make the world a better place. The format of writing letters is age-old but has come back in vogue with the powerful award-winning Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Writing in the epistle form gives a sense of intimacy and allows a certain amount of “frankness” which other forms of structured prose may constrict.

It is worth reading.

Omar Saif Gobash Letters to a Young Muslim Picador, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 245 Rs 499

12 March 2017 

 

 

 

Attukal Amma

Today the Hindu carries a front page photograph of a woman devotee at devotional gathering on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. This is for Attukal Amma or the people’s Goddess as she is popularly known. According to Lekshmy Rajeev who has written an illustrated book ( HarperCollins India) on the goddess Attukal Amma is Bhadrakali, the all-pervading and protecting Mother.

The book blurb says:

Legend has it that the Goddess chose the spot at Attukal, near Thiruvananthapuram, for an abode. Millions of women devotees the world over repose their unalloyed love and trust in Attukal Amma, and they throng Attukal during the annual Pongala festival. Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions familiarizes the reader with the Bhadrakali cult in Kerala and provides a ringside view of the Pongala festival and the various rituals associated with it, even as it raises doubts about the authenticity of the myth of Kannagi, the heroine of Chilapathikaram, associated with the temple. The pages of this book are interspersed with rare photographs and paintings, some of them depicting candid moments of the awe-inspiring rituals of the worship of Goddess Bhadrakali. It introduces the reader to the esoteric world of rites and rituals of daily worship at the temple.

The book can be bought on Amazon.

12 March 2017 

 

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur’an and her Role as an Independent Publisher

( My interview with Anita Nair on her new book, Muezaa and Baby Jaan , and launch of a new independent publishing press, Attic Books, was published in Bookwitty.) 

Award-winning and bestselling Indian author Anita Nair is the editorial director of the recently launched Attic Books, an independent publishing firm focused on making world literature available in English in South Asia. This new responsibility has coincided with the publication of her new book, Muezza and Baby Jaan— a beautifully illustrated (by Harshad Marathe) book for children that retells stories from the Qur’an. The succession of events that birthed this book were Anita’s research for Idris which required familiarising herself with the stories but more importantly it was the equation of terrorism with Islam, which troubled her, and she felt needed addressing. As she says passionately in her preface:

“Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists had already made many non-Muslims wary of the religion. And I thought this was grossly unfair to Islam and what it taught. I had been brought up as a secular individual and felt a calling to clear this misinterpretation in my own way.

No religion preaches hate or violence. No religion condones killing or the taking of human life. However, flawed interpretations do lend a religion a misguided twist that it does not claim in the first place. Those with vested interests manipulate aspects of a religion to justify heinous crimes and the massacre of innocents. And so it had happened with Islam.”

Anita Nair kindly answered questions about her new book and her new job:

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 2

You are a rare kind of writer who has the ability to write books for children and adults. Given the current milieu why retell stories from the Qur’an in Muezza and Baby Jaan for children and not adults?

Three specific reasons why I chose to re-tell stories from the Qur’an for children and not adults are:

I am not an expert of Islam and my understanding of the scripture is at a basic level. I read the scripture for what is it and didn’t want to read sub texts hence, it occurred to me that the Qur’an as I understood it, would be more apt for a child’s reading rather than an adult seeking spiritual guidance.

Any religion is best understood when explained in the form of stories. Children are more receptive to stories rather than adults who seek complexities, twists and justifications.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood and I thought it important that our children learn about Islam through the stories from the Qur’an so as to accept it as another scripture that like all scriptures advocate only peace and love.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood…

Is there any reason why you selected these particular stories to retell?

During the course of my research I discovered the stories of the ten blessed animals and wanted to build my stories around these animals for they brought in accounts about various Prophets. Some are familiar names from the Old Testament, which furthered my cause that all religions are the same to a great extent, and also it helped me follow a certain chronology in the telling.

Today communal intolerance particularly towards Islam is on the upswing globally. Do you think by this pushback of sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help to create a secular future?

I certainly do believe sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help in creating a secular world, where a person is judged by what they do and not what religion they follow.

Why did you opt to anthropomorphize the cat and the camel to share the Qur’an stories rather than merely retell them yourself?

Apart from wanting to open up the Qur’an for general reading I wanted to bring alive Islamic lore and it seemed to me the best way to do so was by anthropomorphizing the two protagonists of the book namely Muezza the cat and Baby Jaan the camel. When they voice our thoughts, be it on friendship, prejudice, peace or trust, the characters strike a chord in our hearts and we immediately start relating to the stories on a very personal level

As a successful writer yourself you have been published worldwide but why have decided to launch a publishing house: Attic Books? Who else is on the team?

The reason I decided to start a publishing house is because we are all exposed to literary giants and Nobel laureates writing in languages other than English but we are oblivious to all other wonderful writing from around the world. Attic Books was conceived to be a small boutique-publishing house that will focus on a small number of books from spectacular authors that the Indian reader has yet to encounter. I want to bring these authors the readership they deserve.

As of now, we are working with only international fiction. But we hope to expand to international non-fiction as well and one work of translation from an Indian language. The only Indian fiction we will be publishing at this point is the anthology of short fiction drawn from my creative-writing mentorship programme in Bangalore, Anita’s Attic. The plan is to keep to the promise of what an Attic holds: Hidden treasures and surprises so as the curator of the list, I may decide to mix up fairy tales with crime with lit fiction to travel. I do hope we can acquire rights to unpublished works but given that we have no angel investors, commissioning an original translation of international fiction may be an expensive prospect.

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 3

Our 2017 list comprises of Evald Flisar’s literary novel If I Only Had Time (Slovenia), Suchen Christian Lim’s literary romance The River’s Song (Singapore), Andres Neumann’s literary novel Talking to Ourselves (Argentina/Spain), Bei Tong’s LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades (a translation by Scott Myers) and I. M. Batacan’s crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines).

I am in the process of acquiring books for 2018. There are so many good books out there but I don’t want our list to repeat themes and I have to be diligent about the list we are putting together. Attic Books is a partnership between Anita’s Attic (which is a company made of Anita Nair and a digital agency, *ConditionsApply) and Logos – a Malayalam language publisher based in Kerala.

Given the range of genres you publish in, will there be any overlaps with your plans for Attic Books?

No, I am very certain that it will not clash with my own work, which will always be housed as it always has been in publishing houses where I have a sound editor to work with. I value the role of an editor in my writing process and wouldn’t want to lose that objectivity and editorial input.

Does your personal experience of being published by others inform the business of establishing your own publishing firm?

Business-wise the decision to try and turn publisher ranks along with that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the old knight for trying to keep alive the romanticism of a period even though it may seem delusional to everyone else. However, over the years I have drawn my own insights on what makes publishing exciting and would like to see if they are really true.

How do you find time to balance writing, mentoring and now publishing?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that. I guess I just don’t stop. And that what I am doing is exciting makes me put in long hours without thinking of it as a job to be done.

Is there space for another publishing firm in India?

Yes and no. Yes, if one can move away from the traditional confines of publishing. No, if one is seeking to replicate what is already there and available.

Will you focus only on print or also digital? How do you plan to distribute your books?

We will be only be focusing on print. One of our visions for Attic Books is to help people put together a library of their own at home. Books that people will read, keep, and read again and pass on hopefully to their next generation; hence, the stringent process of choosing who we publish.

Distribution will be through select bookstores and online sales. And we have created Attic Club, which is a subscription model where a reader can take an annual subscription at a fabulous price that will bring the books to their homes and will also put them on a list to the exclusive book events we will host.

25 February 2017