Spiritual Posts

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 2017 

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 

“Mahabharata”

DK India has published an incredibly sumptious edition of the classic epic Mahabharata. It was put together by a large in-house team working along with well-known mythologists and Mahabharata experts. It has resulted in this extraordinarily beautiful edition, impressive design, detailed page layouts where the text and illustrations complement each other well and incredible layers of information. In a sense the publishers have achieved practically the impossible of transfering the layered and embellished narrative style of oral storytelling into the fixed printed form.

The story is told through the 18 parvas as is in the familiar arrangement of the oral epic. As far as possible the structure of the oral narrative tradition has been adhered to in this print version. Every page a small portion of the story is narrated in simple English making it accessible to other cultures too. To accompany the text every page has been specially designed with different elements relevant to that particular context. These could vary from boxes on cultural details, mythology and folklore associated with the particular story, prayers and rituals passed through the ages, references to the versions of the epic/characters in art and literature, photographs of modern-day dance and theatre interpretations of the stories and a liberal sprinkling of historical artefacts and monuments that may help illustrate the text.

I interviewed Alka Ranjan, Managing Editor, Local Publishing, DK India who led the team which put together this book. Here follow edited excerpts of an interview published by Scroll.in on 20 August 2017:

1. Which version of the epic did you refer to?
We were keen to tell the entire story of the Mahabharata, including the Harivamsa, and, wherever possible, dip into the regional versions as well. To be true to the classical version, we referred to Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes of the Mahabharata, from where came some of the details of the stories and also the quotes. Ultimately for DK India it was the visual rendering of the epic which was more important, something that was not attempted before, and something that makes our book unique, setting it apart from the other books available in the market.

2. How long did this project take to execute from start to finish?
It took us almost 8 months to put together this book. To this we could also add 3 months of production. The entire team, including the technical members, reached 15, in some stages of the book.

3. Does DK have other religious texts illustrated in a similar fashion? Was there anything unique as a publishing experiment in this book?
DK has brought out the Illustrated Bible in the past. This book is in the same series style. Unlike our other reference books which work mostly like non-fiction with their dry, neutral tone, our version of the Mahabharata is yet another retelling of the epic. It was a challenge for the editorial team to adapt their skills to storytelling, to ensure the text flowed like a tale, weave in dialogues wherever needed, and inject drama to create impact.

4. It seems to be meant for the general market but the stories are easily told that a child too can read them. If that is the case then how did you manage such a gentle and easy style?
Our aim was to keep the stories accessible for a large readership, and in a lot of ways that is DK style. While we segregate our books in adult and children categories, depending on subject matter, comprehension level, interests, so on and so forth, the text for the adult ones is almost always aimed at ages 14 and above.

5. If you could have a section on “Mahabharata in art” why not have a section on the history of texts through the publication of this epic through the ages?

We could have done so many things with our book, but because it was going to be a visual retelling we decided to focus on art, showcasing the pervasive reach of the epic in our daily lives, and which made more sense, although a lot of our “boxes” talk about the different versions of the epic, including drawing parallels with Greek mythos.

6. This epic has been translated in other languages. Why not have images of those texts at well?

It was not always possible to get all images that we wanted, but we have used a couple of book covers to make the point about translations or different takes on the epic – mostly for latter. I can think of a book on Yudhishthira and Draupadi by Pavan K Varma which we used to discuss their relationship. We also used Mrityunjaya’s cover (Shivaji Sawant’s much celebrated book on Karna) on Karna’s profile. The choice of other retellings of Mahabharata invariably depended on the context of the stories we wanted to tell and the point we wanted to make and not the other way around. Some of the other books that find mention in ours are:

Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam
Tagore’s Chitrangada (with cover image)
Pavan K Varama’s Yudhisthira and Draupadi (with cover image)
Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Kichaka-Vadha
Dinkar’s Kurukshetra and Rashmirathi
Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (with cover image)
Bhasa’s play performance by Japanese students – Urubhangam

7. It would have been fascinating if a chapter on myth-making in this epic had been included as a standalone chapter rather than inserting boxes in various chapters. Why not address myth-making?

I take your point, and it would have been certainly interesting to have such a chapter now that you point it out. However, when we conceptualized the book, we were sure that we wanted the focus of the book to be on retelling the epic and layering them by adding side stories in boxes. We also wanted to have a few chapters/spreads on Hindu gods and goddesses, and philosophies, mainly to facilitate the understanding of the non-Indian readers, people not familiar with our cultural ethos.

8. How did you standardise the spelling of the names? What’s the back story to it?
We wanted us to use the more common spellings of the popular characters (Draupadi instead of Droupadi), although we did finally add the vowel sound at the end of some names, for instance “Arjuna” instead of “Arjun”, “Bhima” instead of “Bhim”, which takes the names closer to their Sanskrit pronunciation, but stuck to “Sanjay” not “Sanjaya” because it was a more common spelling.

9. Does the text of the books mentioned conform to the original text or have some creative license liberties been taken to retell it for the modern reader?

While most of our stories came from the original, classical text, we also dipped into the regional versions to borrow a few. For instance, Iravan’s story (A Human Sacrifice) came from the Tamil Mahabharata. Few other stories borrowed from regional versions are : Pururava’s Obsession

Draupadi’s Secret, Gaya Beheaded, Divine Vessel, News of Home, The Talking Head

10. Would you be creating special pocket book editions of relevant chapters? For instance I see potential in the section on women. If you had to resize it to a pocket edition with an introduction +original shlokas, the sales would be phenomenal.

Thank you so much for the suggestions. The book does lend itself to several spinoffs, and we have thought of a few. However, we wanted the current book to run its course before bringing out another one.

20 August 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 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Order, Asian Age

My annual feature in Asian Age which highlights the forthcoming titles of the year was published on 8 January 2017

2017 is going to be a fascinating year for books with big names too. 2016 was extraordinary for the number of strong debuts, overabundance of thrillers, revisionist accounts of history and established names releasing new books. There is a tremendous list of books to look out for – Amitava Kumar (The Lovers), Elif Shafak (The Three Daughters for Eve), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints), Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Nadeem Aslam (The Golden Legend), Irwin Allan Sealy (Zelaldinus: A Masque and a travelogue called The China Sketchbook), S.V. Sujatha (The Demon-hunter of Chottanikkara), Sami Shah (Boy), Neil Gaiman’sCinnamon illustrated by Divya Srinivasan, Namita Roy Ghose’s historical fiction (The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the time of Netaji) and The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan.

Debut novelists slated for 2017 that are already being spoken of highly include Prayaag Akbar’sLeila, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds, Torsa Ghoshal’s Open Couplets and Devi Yashodharan’s novel, Empire.

 

natasha badhwar

Mythology continues to be hugely popular (backbone of local publishing) with its innumerable retellings. For instance the eagerly expected Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Others include Mandakranta Bose’s The Ramayana in Bengali Folk Paintings, The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (Translated by Rohini Chowdhury) and popular storyteller Krishna Udayasankarreturns with The Aryavarta Chronicles (4). A curious one to watch out for would be Jaya Misra’sKama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana — a fictionalised biography of the author of The Kama Sutra(illustrated by Harshvardhan Kadam). Then there is Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Kurukshetra War: A Reconstruction and the ever-prolific Ashok Banker who has been commissioned by PanMacmillan India to write The Shakti Trilogy and by Amaryllis to deliver The Shivaji Trilogy.

The winning genre of thrillers is set to burgeon with some new and some established writers, such as Karachi-based police officer Omar Shahid Hamid’s third novel, The Party Worker, award-winning writer Jerry Pinto’s first detective fiction, Murder in Mahim, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Here Falls the Shadow, Sanjay Bahadur’s Bite of the Black Dog, Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her,Nikita Singh’s Every Time It Rains and long-awaited Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters. The bestselling duo Ashwin Sanghi and Dan Patterson are back with Private Delhi. Three intriguing books based on investigative reporting by prominent journalists are in the offing: The Nanavati Case by Bachi Karkaria, Sheena Bora Trail by Manish Pachouly and Who Killed Osho? by Abhay Vaidya.

Women’s writing continues to be a popular segment and has firmly established itself as a well-defined market. Some of the anticipated non-fiction titles are Status Single by the sharply perceptive Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by the extraordinary feminist Laurie Penny, fabulous writer and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s memoir My Daughters’ Mum: Essays and popular mommygolightly blogger Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Stick Bits of Being a Woman. Finally significant women in history and myth will be highlighted with books like Women Rulers in Indian History by Archana Garodia, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History by Ira Mukhoty.  Some of the other significant titles planned are Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes, Sanam Maher’s The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch and Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Ground Reportage on Rape from the World’s Largest Democracy.

Translations are slowly expanding reading horizons by becoming a robust addition to the local imprint. Some prominent translations expected in 2017 are well-known Malayalam writer, Sethu Madhavan’s novels The Saga of Muziris (translated by Prema Jayakumar) and Aliyah (translated by Catherine Thankamma) which is about the migration of Kerala’s black Jews to the promised land of Israel. Rakshanda Jalil’s translation of Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander is titled Traitor, and there’s also the magnificent 900+ page novel Against the World by Jan Brandt (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire), award-winning writer Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm andThe Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (Vol I, translated by Nasreen Rehman) to look forward to.

Evidence of a mature Indian publishing and a stable nation are the increasing number of academic analysis of the literary traditions. For instance two volumes edited by Rakhshanda Jalil — An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai and Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On (with eds.Tarun Saint and Debjani Sengupta).

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will take place in 2017. Plenty of books are in the pipeline. Sudhai Pai’s Uttar Pradesh: A Political Biography, Sajjan Kumar’s The Ailing Heartland: Communal Politics in Uttar Pradesh Since Independence and Venkatish Ramakrishnan’s Dateline Ayodhya. Coincidentally, 2017 is Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year too and her constituency was Allahabad, home of the Nehrus. Two biographies planned are Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife and Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. Ashoka University’s Rudranghsu Mukherjee’s The Nehru Reader is also slated for release.

2017 is also the 70th year of Indian Independence. Some of the books slated straddle academia and lay readership. For instance  Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Barney White-Spunner’s Partition, Sheela Reddy’s long-awaited Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Bertil Lintner China’s India War, Nikhila Henry’sThe Ferment and Aruna Roy’s The RTI Story. Journalist Poonam Snigdha’s Dreamers: The Heart of Modern India is a much-anticipated title for it focuses on the majority of India

Paddy Rangappa

which is under the age of 25. Another title bound to cause ripples with its publication is Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, a polemic on the Western intellectual origins of Islamic fundamentalist. Delhi, seat of political power of the subcontinent for centuries, continues to be the favourite city for writers. Three books due are — Delhi: Power Politics Destiny by Sheila Dikshit, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by historian Swapna Liddle and Maps of Delhi by Pilar Maria Guerrieri.

Business books continue to be bestsellers. Two prominent titles are Paddy Rangappa’s Spark: The Insight to Growing Brands and financial journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets — which has been a long time in the making.

14 February 2017 

Anita Nair’s preface to “Muezza and Baby Jaan”

( Anita Nair has  just released a beautiful children’s book retelling tales from the Quran called Muezza and Baby Jaan. Her publishers, Penguin Random House India, have kindly granted permission to reproduce the straight-from-the-heart explosive preface on my blog. Do read the book too. It is time well spent.) 

It was 11 a.m. on 21 September 2013. I had just sat down with my pen and notebook. I had been working on my historical novel, Idris, when news came of unidentified gunmen opening fire in one of Nairobi’s upscale malls. It was a Saturday and my first thought was for my friend Jayapriya Vasudevan, her husband, Harish Vasudevan, and her daughter, Miel Vasudevan, who were living in Nairobi. Where were they? Had they chosen to go to that mall on that particular day? Were they safe?

As soon as it was established that they were all right, I went back to my novel. Later in the day I began tracking the situation. TV channels and online newspapers had plenty to say. The mass shooting had left 67 people dead and more than 175 people injured.

Amidst all the kerfuffle of reportage, one thing struck me in particular. An eyewitness was reported to have said that the attackers had asked Muslims to leave, declaring that only non-Muslims would be targeted. Among other aspects of the vetting process, the hostages were asked to name Prophet Muhammad’s mother as a litmus test that would distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims.

It seemed both astounding and horrific that a piece of information could have saved a life. But why was this information not out there for all to know?

In many parts of the world, including India, almost every non-Christian knows that Jesus’s mother was Mary and his father, Joseph; and of the story of Jesus’s birth and his crucifixion. Non-Hindus know that the Ramayana is about Rama and Sita and Rama’s battle against Ravana; that the Mahabharata is about the Kauravas and the Pandavas, that Krishna was an avatar of Vishnu. But even the most erudite among non-Islamic people know nothing about the Quran or what is in it.

If you had asked me then what Prophet Muhammad’s mother’s name was, I would have stared back too, clueless.

Teaching a faith demands expertise; but what of the accompanying lore that goes into fleshing out the wisdom? Why is it that we barely know anything of Islamic lore? Religious preachers have always sought parables to explain a tenet. But even in isolation and removed from doctrine, these allegorical stories have an appeal of their own. The storyteller in me roused and shook herself.

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. And yet why was it that no one was actually trying to redeem the understanding of Islam? Why was no one willing to try and make Islam more accessible to the world so that the teachings in the Quran would be seen for what they truly are—a call to righteousness and peace—and not for what we have beguiled ourselves into believing?

During the writing of Idris, I had studied the Quran and tried to understand what I could of its lessons and the associated Islamic fables. But now I had another purpose. I had already written two books on mythology for children. One was based on Hindu mythology and the other drew on lesser-known world myths. I would now try and write about Islamic lore—stories culled from the Quran and the Hadith. And I was certain that the book had to be for children—for young minds are what we need to invest in for a chance of change. Let children everywhere—Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Jain or otherwise—discover the stories from the Quran and delight in them and learn from them. Stories are, after all, stories; and no religion can stake claim to them.

In what could only be termed providential, I found a translation of a book of stories drawn from Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidayah Wan-Nihayah (The Beginning and the End). The author was born in AD 1300 and died in AD 1373. A Sunni scholar and historian of great repute, Ibn Kathir hailed from the Shafi’i school of Islamic law and lived during the reign of the Mamluk Sultanate in Syria.

Suddenly I knew where to begin. And then, as it usually happens with each book I write, two characters—a cat and a camel, in this case—appeared from nowhere, and I had my epiphany on how to take the book forward.

This is a book for young readers. But it is also a book for anyone who wonders what the Quran contains, apart from the teachings of a religion. In fact, al-Quran literally means ‘the reading’; and how can a work that means this most beautiful of phrases be limited to just being a scripture? The wealth of its stories, and the lyricism, poetry and flow of its narrative make it as much a literary text as a holy book.

I have been told that I am entering dangerous territory. That, as a Hindu writing about the holy book of Islam, I’m inviting trouble. That to me smacks of prejudice more than anything else. How can any religion close its doors to someone who knows nothing of it? How does one learn about a religion unless one is given access to it?

And that is my only act of faith here. To lead from ignorance to the beginnings of knowledge; from prejudice to comprehension; and to reaffirm, in these times that are wreaked with discrimination and terror, that all religions are the same. That all religions just strive to make of us better human beings.

If only we would make an effort to understand their truth.

PS: The name of Prophet Muhammad’s mother is Amina.

September 2016

12 February 2017 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016