Auschwitz Posts

“Voices of History: Speeches that Changed the World” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

When a historian such as Simon Sebag Montefiore who is also a brilliant public lecturer/ performer, puts together a collection of speeches that changed the world, then it is best to read the book. Regularly giving public engagements, ranging from lectures to conversations and performances such as dramatised readings of extracts from his last book — Letters that Changed the World, it is amply clear how crisply he selects and contextualises the speeches in his recent book Voices of History: Speeches that Changed the World.

He apologises to the purists but admits to editing some of the longer speeches for brevity so that the general reader may enjoy them. Many such anthologies exist in the market and are useful in their own way but Voices of History is special for the selection and its horrifying relevance to modern times. It is as if Simon Sebag Montefiore has accurately picked up the undercurrents of his audiences and his various worldwide engagements and put together a selection of speeches that were pertinent when they were first read out and are sobering to read today. More importantly, like a true historian, to lay out the facts and let the reader judge, albeit with a little nudge in terms of the arrangement of the material. Take for instance the inclusion of the only two speeches in the “Genocide” section. Unsurprisingly both belong to the Nazis — Adolf Hitler on “The annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” ( 30 January 1939) and Heinrich Himmler’s “The Jewish people are going to be exterminated” ( 4 October 1943). These are immediately followed by the next section on “Good vs Evil” where the first speech is by Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and a survivor of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. Wiesel spoke on “The perils of indifference” ( 12 April 1999) at a speech he gave at the White House before President Bill Clinton.

What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means ‘no difference’.

A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practise it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?

Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another;s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbours are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction. …

This is a well-picked collection of speeches. Sobering reminders of recently past events that should not be forgotten.

12 October 2019

“Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India”

On 4 September 2017, a group of volunteers led by Harsh Mander travelled across eight states of India on a journey of shared suffering, atonement and love in the Karwan e Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love. It was a call to conscience, an attempt to seek out and support families whose loved ones had become victims of hate attacks in various parts of the country. Along the way they met families of victims who had been lynched as well as some of those who had managed to survive the lynching. The bus travelled through the states, meeting with people and listening to their testimonies. It is a searingly painful account of the terror inflicted in civil society that has seen a horrific escalation in recent months. 

The book is clearly divided into sections consisting of an account of the journey based upon the daily updates Harsh Mander wrote every night. It is followed by a collection of essays by people who travelled in the bus. There is also a selection of testimonies recorded by journalist Natasha Badhwar of her fellow passengers. Many of whom joined only for a few days but were shattered by what they saw and heard. 

Reconciliation is powerful and it is certainly not easy to read knowing full well that this is the violence we live with every day. The seemingly normalcy of activity we may witness in our daily lives is just a mirage for the visceral hatred and hostility that exists for “others”. It is a witnessing of the breakdown of the secular fabric of India and a polarisation along communal lines that is ( for want of a better word) depressing. Given below are a few lines from the introduction written by human rights activist Harsh Mander followed by an extract by Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil. Prabhir who was on the bus is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management Tiruchirapalli (IIMT), India. The extract is being used with the permission of the publishers. 

Everywhere, the Karwan found minorities living in endemic and lingering fear, and with hate and state violence, resigned to these as normalised elements of everyday living.

…..

Our consistent finding was that families hit by hate violence were bereft of protection and justice from the state. In the case of almost all the fifty-odd families we met during our travel through eight states, the police had registered criminal charges gainst the victims, treating teh accused with kid gloves, leaving their bail applications unopposed, or erasing their crimes altogether. 

. . . 

More worrying by far was our finding that the police had increasingly taken on the work of lynch mobs. There were tens of instances of the police executing Muslim men, alleging that they were cattle smugglers or dangerous criminals, often claiming that they had fired at the police. Unlike mob lynching, murderous extrajudicial action has barely registered on the national conscience. It is as though marjoritarian public opinion first outsourced its hate violence to lynch mobs, and lynch mobs in BJP-ruled states like UP, Haryana and Rajasthan are now outsourcing it onwards to the police.  ( Introduction, p.x-xi)

Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil is an assistant professor at theIndian Institute of Management Tiruchirapalli (IIMT), India. He teachesbusiness ethics and his research is focused on the influence of business oninequalities and the rise of religious fundamentalism.

Like many others, I grew up with the usual doseof religiosity and nationalism. But I was also enrolled in a Hindu school (Chinmaya Vidyalaya) that injected an additional dose of Hindu supremacy. Therewas a short phase in my life (jobless, in my mid-twenties) when I went aboutexploring and trying to understand and justify Hinduism. I am the kind of person who tends to immerse himself fully to understand and make sense of theworld. My exploration brought me in close contact with gurus in various ashrams and bhajan groups. I learned Vedic chanting, studied Hindu theology, and even dallied with the idea of becoming a monk. I interacted with groups and individuals committed to Hindutva and attempted to see the world from their perspective (many remain my friends). I could not put my finger on it then, butI was deeply uncomfortable with what I later realised was unadulterated hatred and a stifling resistance to questioning and reason.

Around this time, in 2004, I was admitted into a masters and then a PhD programme in the Netherlands. Lectures by my teachers and exposure to the lives of classmates and refugees with personal experiences of life in theocratic regimes accelerated my disgust with religious nationalism of all kinds. Exposure to liberal political philosophy and to Dutch society made me appreciate the benefits of living in a place run on democratic and rational principles. As my education both in and outside the classroom progressed, my fascination with extreme perspectives rapidly diminished andturned into concern and disgust. It was, however, a visit to Auschwitz in 2012 that made me realise how easy it was for a society to be sufficiently intoxicated by supremacist world views to justify the annihilation of those deemed inferior. That a human tragedy on this scale had happened in the same society that had made incredible contributions to art, philosophy and music was unthinkable.

Over time, I have lost what remains of my beliefin the supernatural and purged myself of superstitions. I would now call myself a rationalist or secular humanist. Ibelieve that the irrationality promoted by religion is a barrier to progress and that religion is unnecessary for morality, and not a guarantee of it.

When I returned to India in 2013 to join the IIM, I did not expect religious nationalism to influence my research in, andteaching of, business ethics. My focus was on inequality. With the BJP’s victory in 2014 and the support of the corporate sector for the party, it became impossible to disentangle business ethics from religious nationalism. Istarted research on a paper on how religious nationalism emerges and whatbusiness schools could do to resist its advance.

When the lynchings began, more than thepsychology of the vigilantes and their victims, my sociological interest waspiqued by the nonchalance and even the endorsement of cow-vigilantism by many people I cared for, particularly among my family, friends, colleagues andstudents. Their unwillingness to recognise bigotry for what it was and rejectpolitical leaders who create an atmosphere of hate resembled the attitudes prevalent in Germany during the Nazi era. It disturbed me deeply to see sectarianism slowly taking hold of persons I loved. I started to worry that the possibility of concentration camps being built in India was no longer a gross exaggeration.

In the meantime, I had initiated a conversation with Harsh Mander. I wished to invite him to give a lecture at the IIM inTrichy. When the Karwan e Mohabbat was announced, I felt it was important to take part. I wanted to see for myself and talk about it to my friends and family and to students in my classes. The experience of looking into the eyesof persons who had lost loved ones was emotionally tough. After each meeting, my mind was constantly wondering how human beings could allow such tragedies to happen. A quote by Gandhi kept ricocheting in my brain: ‘It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.’

Looking back now, the memories and emotions of my visits to Auschwitz and of the victims of Hindutva are difficult to distinguish. The same helplessness, resentment and fear captured in the countless pictures of Jews subjected to the Holocaust seem to be reflected inthe eyes of the victims of cow-vigilantism. In contemporary India, I worry it may be unnecessary to build a standalone Auschwitz to implement a sectarian agenda. Terror has been decentralised and imposed through a variety of spaces. The entire country now risks being transformed into one large concentration camp.

How do we push back? Being a committed rationalist, my first instinct is to train citizens to use their reasoning and the language of liberalism and human rights to push back against bigotry andreligious nationalism. But the inroads made by Hindu nationalism into thepsyche can make it difficult for liberal vocabularies to reverse. The languageof ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ can be branded as alien and hence ridiculed and dismissed. Furthermore, there are studies that show how groups tend to cling more firmly to their beliefs when threatened by outsiders.

Observant Hindus can be convinced more easily that sectarian hate and bigotry goes against the grain of Hinduism. The definition of Hinduism could be expanded to encompass empathy and compassion.This strategy would require formulating something like the liberation theologythat emerged in Latin America to challenge the interlocking interests of thebusiness elite and the top echelons of the Church that perpetuated inequality.

Excerpted with permission from RECONCILIATION:Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India, Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and John Dayal, Context, Westland 2018. 

The pictures in the gallery are from Karwan e Mohabbat‘s Facebook page. 

19 December 2018 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014Last night I attended a public lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It was delivered by Siddharth Mukherjee entitled “First they came for Rushdie: Scientific Ambitions in an Age of Censorship”. It was organised by Penguin Books India to celebrate the occasion of Siddharth Mukherjee having received the Padma Shri.  He is a physician, scientist and writer. His book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is currently an assistant professor medicine at Columbia University in New York. Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Random House India, announced that her firm would be publishing his forthcoming book–on genes. Penguin invite

The lecture consisted of three distinct sections. He read out two papers. An essay, “The Perfect Last Days of Mr Sengupta”, published in Granta 124: Travel (http://www.granta.com/Archive/124/The-Perfect-Last-Days-of-Mr-Sengupta). It is about his visit to the Cancer centre of All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( AIIMS) based in New Delhi, where he meets a terminally ill patient Mr Sengupta. A precisely written, sensitive and thought-provoking essay about mortality, disease, care giving, and death.

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji RoseHe followed it up by reading an extract from an unpublished essay. ( I suspect it is from his forthcoming book.) It was about science, scientific thought and research, especially genetics, in Nazi Germany. In a measured manner, calmly Siddharth Mukherjee read out his paper. Not once did his voice waver while he patiently retold the well-known facts of medicine as practiced in Germany.  He talked about Berlin in 1931 and the close link between science and literature. He spoke of the Nazi scientists such as eugenicist Alfred Ploetz who coined the term Rassenhygiene or racial hygiene, Josef Mengel or the Angel of Death who was responsible for the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camps, physicist and Nobel Prize winner ( 1905) Philipp Eduard Anton von Lenard who advocated “Deutsche Physik” as opposed to the ideas of “Jewish physics”, by which he meant chiefly the theories of Albert Einstein, including “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. He spoke of the influence many of these scientists had upon Hitler, even when he was in prison and he wrote of his admiration of them in Mein Kampf. He commented upon the close relationship between the legal wheels that were constantly turning to justify and legitimize these absurdly illogical “scientific” theories, resulting in the enactment of the anti-Jewish statutes called the Nuremberg Race Laws ( 5 Sept 1935) institutionalizing many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideaology. He mentioned the establishment of the Aktion T4 or the euthanasia programme that led to the establishment of  extermination centres where inmates were gassed in carbon monoxide chambers. He cited examples and read out extracts of contemporary accounts by scientists and men of letters such as Christopher Isherwood, of how slowly German society was being slowly and steadily cleansed, sloughing of genetic detritus. He argued that there was sufficient evidence of how this young science propped up a totalitarian regime and the cycle was completed by producing junk science. He  documented the muzzling of free expression, books, media, radio, cabaret were slowly brought under Nazi doctrine. Music such as jazz and swing or the “negro noise” were stopped. There was a slow and methodical decimation of intellectual and cultural freedom. Audience at the Siddharth Mukherjee public lecture

The concluding part of the lecture, Siddharth Mukherjee cited the example of Salman Rushdie not being permitted to attend or even speak via satellite link at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. He received death threats. At the time three writers — Hari Kunzro, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil — tried reading out extracts from the banned text The Satanic Verses but were not permitted to do so. Instead they were advised to leave Jaipur immediately. At the time this episode was met by a “galacial silence” by the powers that be. It was as “all realism without magic”. Since then this kind of literary censorship, a capitulation to bullying, according to Siddharth Mukherjee has become a predictable pattern in Indian society. Wendy Doniger  is the latest victim of literary censorship. For Siddharth Mukherjee there is a symbiotic relationship between science and literature since they co-exist in the same ecosystem. “Science happens in the same fragile place where books happen and plays are enacted. You spoil the ecology of one, you tarnish the soil of the other.”

28 April 2014