Emergency Posts

“My Father’s Garden” by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

…on each trip home, I found my father working unrelentingly in his garden. And under his loving care, it flourished more than ever. A hibiscus tree, which had been falling over on one visit, would be propped up with bamboo staves on the next, covered with pale orange blossoms. The lime and lemon bushes woudl hang heavy with fruit in season. As would the mangoes, guavas, bananas and jackfruits. Before we left our quarters, my father had carefully plucked a litchi sapling from the premises as a memento. That, too, was flourishing. And just behind our kitchen, my mother and aunt cultivated their own little patch of earth. Thick, deep green vines of pui leaves climbed the iron grille of the verandah outside our kitchen. Tusli, dhania and pudina grew lush in the cool space near the tubewell where the water keeps the earth always moist. Birds made their home in our garden. The caws-caws and the chee-chees would start at dawn and wake us up. At dusk, their raucous homecoming would tell us that the day was at an end.

I once read somewhere that the single-minded pursuit of one course over a lifetime can only be justified if one engages in two enterprises — building a garden, or raising a child. I now understand that my father’s garden is truly his child. And this child gives him the happiness and peace of mind that nothing else could ever give him.

Award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden is narrated in first person by an unnamed medical student (later doctor) and is set in Jharkhand. It is divided into three sections of unequal lengths — Lover, Friend and Father.

“Lover”, set in Jamshedpur, is a self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-centred portrayal of a young medical student for whom sex is liberating, needy and satisfying but it is also self-consuming when he is rejected by all his lovers for heterosexual relationships that are socially acceptable. It pushes the narrator to depression and a suicide attempt when he slashes his wrists only to wake up the next morning to discover the blob of blood congealing near his bed. He returns home to his parents.

“Friend”, set in Pakur, while ostensibly about a colleague Bada Babu — a successful man if measured by his genial generosity, his popularity and his ever welcoming home with a lavish party organised at every festival or birthday. The unnamed narrator becomes a permanent fixture at these parties. Yet “Friend” is also about the socio-economic horrors that plague society, particularly one where most of the locals are gullible, innocent and absolutely ignorant of their rights. There are also easy prey to be economically exploited by the very same person, in this case Bade Babu, who while being politically shrewd turns out to be the the victims’ benevolent benefactor as well. It is illustrated by the horrendous episode of evicting the people from the land where Bade Babu also has built a house, although his did not have a permanent roof. The poor people had invested their savings into buying the land not realising that they had been conned and were actually illegally squatting on government property. Bade Babu’s house is also demolished on the day everyone else’s is but to the narrator’s chagrin he discovers that Bade Babu has secretly managed to build himself quite a magnificent mansion, many times bigger than his present home, and the new place has a permanent roof. Many of those evicted had no one to turn to except Bade Babu for help which he magnanimously promised to provide. It is an age-old vicious cycle that can also be perceived as the Survival of the Fittest.

“Father”, set in Ghatsila, is about the narrator’s return home and witnessing his father’s entry into politics. It is an eye-opening journey of self-discovery not just for the father but for his family too. They watch the father become a trustworthy footsoldier in the Hindu India Party. With this is a brief encapsulation of the political history, the rifts created for political gains between the Adivasis, Santhals etc. The narrator’s grandfather was a prominent Santhal leader and an associate of Jaipal Singh. The father’s political spark probably stems from this inheritance. So he continues to give it his best including running successful campaigns at the ground level allowing unknown candidates to make critical inroads into the voter base and slowly transforming local politics. All the political ambitions that the father may have nursed come to a griding halt the day the father discovers he has been outsmarted by the very same leaders he trusted and hoped would one day support his candidature too. He gives up his political existence. After a period of self-reflection he takes to gardening with enthusiasm. With his nurturing it is vibrant, alive and bursting with health.

The garden as a metaphor is a classic literary trope. Whether it is used knowingly in this manner by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is uncertain but it certainly works very well in this story. The garden becomes the paradise everyone yearns for, and it is no less hard work than any other activity one engages on a daily basis. It is equally hard work for it is nurturing life.

And here I have to digress with a personal anecdote to emphasise the significance of a conversation about gardens and political commentary. My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was Union Cabinet Secretary when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister of India for the first time after Emergency. At the first Union Cabinet meeting held after the new government had been sworn in my grandfather took his place in the room. According to the story he would tell recount all eyes were upon him and Mrs Gandhi rather than the agenda to be discussed. Everyone was watching expectantly to see how Mrs Gandhi would engage with Mr Mukarji given their past. When Mrs Gandhi had wanted to impose the Emergency she knew it could not be done while N. K. Mukarji was the Union Home Secretary. He would never have agreed to sign such an unconstitutional move. In a swift move she moved him to the Civil Aviation Ministry and did exactly what she wanted to. Rest is history. So when they met again a few years later in the cabinet meeting everyone present was naturally curious. Before beginning the meeting Mrs Gandhi had a quiet word with my grandfather which to all those watching seemed as if she had made her peace with Mr Mukarji and thus she very smartly and with all her politcal savviness set the tenor for a new working relationship with her Cabinet Secretary. And what did she discuss? Gardening matters!

My Father’s Garden is in all likelihood part-memoir for there are similarities between the life of the author and the narrator especially that of being a doctor in Jharkhand. But unless otherwise confirmed it is perhaps not wise to attribute too much into the fiction. Nevertheless as with his previous books Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes powerfully, borrowing heavily from real experiences, combining it with his remarkable ability of transforming these episodes into fine literary fiction. A fantastic mix of the personal, political and literary always makes for a great story. It also allows for precise detail about the local landscape. The eye for precision makes its presence felt even in the unapologetic use of borrowing phrases from other Indian regional languages such as Bengali and Hindi and letting them flow naturally in the conversations — without italicising them!

My Father’s Garden is a tremendously confident piece of writing and an absolute pleasure to read.

15 February 2019

Book 20: 18 – 24 November 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 20 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

24 November 2018

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018 

 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015