Essays Posts

“The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani” and “Maryada”

The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai ( Context, Westland Books), is a biography of the famous Bollywood actress, Devika Rani. It is a biography that Kishwar Desai has put together after poring over thousands and thousands of the actress’s personal correspondence. It creates an image of woman who was a strong individual, had an identity of her own, knew her mind and was very sure what she wanted out of the film industry. She was then the only, and perhaps even now, actress/filmmaker/producer and owner of a film studio – Bombay Talkies. She was known internationally in the 1930s, a feat that is hard for many to achieve even today, nearly a century later!

The Longest Kiss is informative and an absorbing read even if one is unfamiliar with the Bollywood landscape of the 1930s to 1940s. Bombay Talkies produced some of the better-known films of its time. It helped launch careers of many actors such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. Kishwar Desai captures the tumultousness of setting up a new business, in what was then uncharted waters, but the manner in which Devika Rani supported her first husband and business partner, Himansu Rai is astonishing. There are glimpses of the tough life she had and the balancing act she had to do often especially with Himansu’s failing mental health and irascible temper. Apparently in private he would take it out on Devika Rani, at times leaving her unconscious and yet she persisted in supporting him and working hard to preserve their business. Often she was also the leading lady in the films they produced together. Having said that she ensured that Bombay Talkies ran smoothly, the women actresses hired found it to be a safe haven and a respite from their domestic drudgery, the employees found it to be professionally run and the presence of the German cinematographers were more a blessing than an interference. So much so when the British arrived at the height of World War II to whisk the Germans away to detention camps, Bombay Talkies continued to work smoothly as the Indians had been trained well by the Germans and Devika Rani ensured that there was no break in the production schedules. Of course, Kishwar Desai details a great deal of the financial ups and downs the firm faced and how deftly Devika Rani steered it through. The actress even survived successfully a revolt within her firm and the board and continued to make films that were a critical and a commercial success. It was later that she was introduced by Bharati Sarabhai to the former Russian aristocrat and painter Svetsolav Roerich. They got along famously well and the rest as they say is history. This too is documented fairly well documented by Kishwar Desai except that it forms a very slim portion of the book. Devika Rani died a wealthy woman, a far cry from the days with Himansu when she had to starve herself or hide the fact that she did not have sufficient clothes to wear.

This is a fascinating book that was fifteen years in the making and will forever be referred to by cinema buffs, researchers and historians curious about India’s past, and of course feminists who would be keen to review how a young woman, newly returned from Britain, left her mark on the film industry in this astonishing manner. All this despite the trials and tribuulations she faced at home, Himansu was known to beat her but she hid it from public, he had reduced her to penury and she had pawned her jewels to help him maintain his illusion of a successful man. There are so many wrongs in this and yet so many women readers will recognise the eternal truth of being caught in this bind of being themselves while being “supportive” of their male partners. There is this particular sentiment that wafts through the book that is difficult to pin down. It is a feeling that develops within the reader curious as to why Devika Rani despite all odds chose to stay with an abusive partner like Himansu even if the rationale of sharing a business interest is offered. Of course, the love that Svetsolav and she had for each other was a blessing. Even so, this steadfast loyalty to Himansu is inexplicable.

Kishwar Desai writes ( p.430):

It was ironic that all these years, she had longed to be looked after. In all her relationships, she had wanted a mentor,a father figure to replace the one she had lost so early — but the men in her life would always lean on her, instead. Somewhere, then, did she always feel unfulfilled? Perhaps it was the loneliness. . . .

I had to take a break from this increasingly bewildering feeling about Devika Rani as to why she stuck it out with Himansu and I was not convinced by the argument that it was loneliness. While on a break, I picked up Arshia Sattar’s lucidly written collection of essays about Maryada, or ‘boundary’ and ‘propriety of conduct’. It is a complicated concept especially since the one version that has held supreme is the idea of ‘maryada purshottama’ or the ‘ideal man’ as the defining virtue of Rama in the Ramayana. But in her essays, Arshia Sattar sets out to explore how the Hindu epics are driven by four ‘operators’ — dharma, karma, vidhi ( fate) and daiva (intervention by the gods). How these especially the various kinds of dharma are fulfilled by individuals by the choices they make. In Maryada ( HarperCollins India) Arshia Sattar tries to delineate the various ways in which these can be achieved or even recognise how others apart from Rama practise this concept. In her concluding remarks in the essay on “Ayodhya’s Wives” where she tries to understand Rama’s arguments about love, she writes:

Rama indicates that Dashratha, too, has acted out of love for Kaikeyi, as Rama is about do now for his wife Sita. Acts of love have to be the most subjective, individual choices that anyone can make, for surely no two people love alike. And yet, Rama feels compelled to transform these acts of will, acts located deep within the sweetest and most expansive spaces of the human heart, into choices that lie within the framework of dharma such as the one that controls him and his father, both as kings and as husbands.

Acting within the constraints of dharma, taking on the roles and walking the paths that have been circumscribed for an individual who is a man, a king, a husband, a son, a brother, minimizes the potential these personal choices have for subversion. …Free will has been eliminated from the discourse of right and wrong, and once again, dharma has been instrumental as the basis not only of action, but also of choice.

It may be a bit far-fetched to think that Devika Rani was at some level following the ideals of the faith she had been brought up in and was whether self-consciously or otherwise fulfilling her dharma. Who knows? And we shall certainly never know. But it is this very fundamental concept of choices that a woman makes that is at the core of the third wave of feminism. Perhaps this angle could have been explored further if Kishwar Desai had chosen to exploit her strength as a novelist to create a thinly veiled fictionalised biography based on facts as David Lodge had done in his novel Author, Author that is about American novelist Henry James. For now I have reservations about The Longest Kiss kind of a biography that oscillates between sharing documentary evidence, especially of the financial aspects of running Bombay Talkies, and ever so often delving into the fiction when imagining the romance between Devika Rani and her husbands, does not quite come together seamlessly. The non-fiction narrative is absorbing to read even if it is based on facts that are never footnoted in the text. So why disrupt the flow of reading with romantic episodes that do not sit well in the text? It does not make any sense even if Devika Rani was a romantic at heart.

Having said that Kishwar Desai’s biography of the actress will be considered as a seminal piece of work even if my Eureka moment of attempting to understand who Devika Rani was by reading some of Arshia Sattar’s brilliant essays. But isn’t that what reading is all about? It raises questions reading a book and that may or may not get answered by reading another one?

Read the books for yourself and judge.

12 Jan 2021

Ways of Dying

It has taken the pandemic for many of us to confront our mortality. Living with the fear of contracting the virus is like living in the shadow of death 24×7. It is a gloomy existence. Fortunately those able-bodied souls who have the chance and exercise their choice, know how to plan for their future, assuming they live. Yet “death” has been explored in literature ad nauseam. It is a complicated part of life since death brings with it a flood of emotions. Grief being predominate but much else happens too. Every individual affected by grief react in their own way.

“Ways of Dying” is a fine collection of literary writings around death and its rites that are observed by the living. All the pieces assembled in this book are extremely well known. But to have them arranged in this manner, shifting gears constantly between the public and personal spaces, unleashes a roller coaster of emotions in the reader. For instance, descriptions of the communal riots in the heart of the Indian capital in Oct 1984 (Amitav Ghosh), Khushwant Singh recalling the last hours of his grandmother, Amitava Kumar’s moving account of his mother’s death, or the fascinating extracts from David Davidar’s book “House of Blue Mangoes” and Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” leave one’s head spinning. The quality of writing is excellent. Controlled and measured . It engulfs the reader in the writer’s hurt at witnessing death. It is an indescribable moment. But at least we are spared that finality of the moment. Because when it comes, it is devastating. It is numbing. These stories can only bring you close to the experience. No more. But it is sufficiently chilling to read especially during the pandemic.

Pick it up. It is worth it.

9 Nov 2020

Hanif Kureishi’s “What Happened?”

Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.

The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.

The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.

The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.

From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.

Read it.

22 Oct 2020

“United we are Unstoppable”

United we are unstoppable: 60 inspiring young people saving our world — in their own words is a collection of essays, compiled and edited by Akshat Rathi. Rathi is a London-based journalist for Bloomberg News. These testimonies are brief and clearly spell out the young activist’s mission. Some start with the particular incident that transformed them to start a personal campaign to do their bit towards saving the planet, others on what worries and propels them to start a movement and how it dovetails together beautifully with similar campaigns run by equally enthusiastic and committed individuals scattered around the globe. The essays are arranged according to the continents the young activists reside in. Illustrated b/w maps acting as separators accompanied by key points of climate crisis in that geograohical area are a fantastic snapshot introduction to the problems being faced by the locals. Organising the essays within each section on the youth’s local contribution interspersed with ways in which the readers can also assist is a good way to understand, navigate and understand on how to make relevant changes in our lives The book slips into that space of a cross between a primer and narrative nonfiction but it makes easier to appreciate environmental activism and perhaps even be motivated to be agents of change ourselves It is only collective will that can help save Earth.

As Rathi says in his introduction, “These young people don’t just bring new energy to the climate fight; they bring new perspectives, fresh tactics and unwavering resolution. They don’t just understand that everything in the world is connected; they also know how to bridge the divides that have been forming. They know that tackling climate change requires cutting emissions, but that getting there will require facing up to and rooting out deeper injustices perpetuated in society. The youth climate movement has sprung from the grass roots, brought millions into the fold and changed the global conversation.”

Powerful form of storytelling. Share widely!

4 October 2020

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

Tim Parks, “Pen in Hand, reading, rereading and other mysteries”

Tim Park’s essays are always a pleasure to read. Short and always packed with information. Some of it familliar, some of it unexpected. Pen in Hand is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily between 2014 to 2017. There are many to choose from but one particular one entitled “Too Many Books?” has a fascinating section on patronage for the independent writer, the history of mass printing and accessing mass audiences and with it the evoluion of the concept of copyright.

Here is an excerpt:

…in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.

For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the one of the only ways anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literary elite, sharing the same written language — Latin — that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.

In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city state, or the Church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not the circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.

With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.

Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.

In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.

This essay was first published in New York Review of Books on April 16, 2015.

4 July 2020

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 4), 9 July 2019

Dear Reader,

It is a tough choice to select the books I wish to mention in this newsletter. There is so much good literature being published — a delight to read. Many times the ideas and motives for a book are also tremendous. But sometimes the execution of the idea or perhaps even the production in the book fails. Sadly such moments leave the reader in a pall of gloom.

But let us begin with the first book, a gorgeous, gorgeous collection of essays by the late Oliver Sacks. British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author who passed away in 2015. Fortunately he was a prolific writer and left a magnificent literary estate. His posthumous publications have included two collections of essays. Everything in its Place is the second of these books. It consists of his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!”  Read on more in this blog post.

The second book which I read ages ago but was unable to write about since there was so much to dwell upon was debut writer Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It is impossible to put in a nutshell the feeling that this book leaves you with. It is a mix between disturbing and thought-provoking narrative. Perhaps it is best to reproduce the book blurb:

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Unsurprisingly this book has won or been shortlisted for many awards including the prestigious International Dylan Thomas Prize and Jhalak Prize. It has been a remarkable run for the filmmaker-turned-writer Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City is a tremendous book but it will be Guy Gunaratne’s third book ( if he ever does publish it) that will be the one to watch out for.

The last book is The Churches of India by Australian Joanne Taylor. It is a heavily illustrated book with an interesting collection of churches in India. This book is an attempt to put together a history of some of the better known churches of India. Unfortunately the definite article in the title raises expectations of it being a comprehensive overview of the churches in India, which it certainly is not. It is a book that is focused very much on the churches found on the well-established tourist circuit of Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry and Chandannagar. The influences of the Portugese, British and French colonial rulers is evident in the architecture. So the churches showcased are definitely magnificent and some of the buildings are many centuries old. Yet, the glaring gaps in the representation of churches even within the National Capital Region of Delhi such as of St. Johns Church, Meerut is unforgivable. It is a church that was consecrated by Bishop Heber when he visited India in the early nineteenth century. It is also the church associated with the events of 1857. It is about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Delhi so its exclusion is surprising. Similarly by focusing predominantly on magnificent colonial structures with a scrumptious display of images gives the impression that Christianity came to the subcontinent with colonialism and that is far from the truth. Christianity came to the subcontinent with the arrival of one of Christ’s disciples, St. Thomas, nearly two millennia ago — mentioned briefly in the book’s introduction. Subsequently congregations are known to gather in different parts of the country with churches as simple and bare as mud floors and thatched roofs to the more elaborate colonial buildings as documented in this book. The vast silences of churches that exist in central India, north east India with its wide variety of churches belonging to different denominations or the northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, is inexplicable. Finally, glaring errors such as referring to The Cathedral Church of the Redemption as “Roman Catholic” (p.230) is preposterous. As stated accurately in the book it was built for the Viceroy in 1931 by Henry Medd. Given that the British designed and built it for their Viceroy, a representative of the British Crown, it has to be an Anglican or Protestant church — a fact misrepresented in the entry. While the hardwork of the author is evident in putting together histories of the churches profiled, the reader’s trust in the facts presented is weakened considerably by these errors. Books like this while fulfilling a wonderful requirement of documenting these beautiful buildings mar their very own credibility by being slipshod in factchecking. Perhaps this is something the editorial team could have assisted the author with rather than the entire onus resting upon the author alone?

Till next week!

JAYA

9 July 2019

Oliver Sacks “Everything in its Place”

British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015. A huge loss to the world particularly to the world of writing and reading. He read voraciously, wrote beautifully and with a precision that is a sheer delight to behold. Fortunately after his passing, some of his unpublished writings were published in a collection called River of Consciousness and now Everything in its Place puts together his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” In Everything in its Place there are two particular instances when this happens. One when he wistfully records the demise of print collections in libraries in favour of digital books thereby losing the opportunity of serendipitous gems such as the 1873 book Megrim. This is what he writes in his essay “Libraries”:

When I was a child, my favourite place at home was the library, a large oak-paneled room with all four walls covered by bookcases — and a solid table for writing and studying in the middle. …The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favourite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

When I went to university, I had access to Oxford’s two great university libraries, the Radcliffe Science Library and the Bodleian, a wonderful general library that could trace itself back to 1602. …But the library I loved the most at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, weere the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me … .

I first came to New York City in 1965, and at that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of a refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

But a shift was occurring by the 1990s. I would continue to visit the library frequently, sitting at a table with a mountain of books in front of me, but students increasingly ignored the bookshelves, accessing what they needed with their computers. Few of them went to their shelves anymore. The books, so far as they were concerned, were unnecessary. And since the majority of users were no longer using the books themselves, the college decided, ultimately, to dispose of them.

I had no idea that this was happening — not only in the Einstein library but in college and public libraries all over the country. I was horrified when I visited the library recently and found the shelves, once overflowing, now sparsely occupied. Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything “of worth” had been digitized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft. I thought of how this library once cherished “old” books, had a special room for old and rare books; and how in 1967, rummaging through the stacks, I had found an 1873 book, Edward Liveing’s Megrim which inspired me to write my own first book.

The second instance is when Sacks rues his failing eyesight is robbing him of the pleasures of reading print books. For him it was the print book that held the greatest appeal and no amount of technological innovation such as audio books could persuade him to think otherwise. He has a point when he writes in “Reading the Fine Print”:

In January of 2006, when my vision began to decline, I wondered what I would do. There were audiobooks — I had recorded some of them myself — but I was quintessentially a reader, not a listener. I have been an inveterate reader as far back as I can remember — I often hold page numbers or the look of paragraphs and pages in my almost automatically, and I can instantly find my way to a particular passage in most of my books. I want books that belong to me, books whose intimate pagination will become dear and familiar. My brain is geared towards reading — …

We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.

there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one read’s in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.

Writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible — George Bernard Shaw called books the memory of the race. No one sort of book should be allowed to disappear, for we are all individuals, with highly indivualized needs and preferences — preferences embedded in our brains at every level, our individual neural patterns and networks creating a deeply personal engagement between author and reader.

This is so true! Any true-blooded reader would identify wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed. For me it rings true at another level too. My nine-year-old daughter prefers print to audio books for she claims “audio interferes with her imagination!” Till I read this essay I attributed it to a child’s quirk. Now I know better.

Read Everything in its Place! There is so much to discover.

1 July 2019

Zainab Priya Dala’s “What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa”

Like a white net veil worn over a red saree, or an ivory satin gown sleeve that borders ornate paisley mehndi patterns, the people of Indian origin in South Africa evolved from holding tightly onto the shreds of Indian culture that they came with inside locked boxes and sewn into hemlines. But, like all migrants, or perhaps refugees the world over, evolution is the Holy Grail, the ability to blend into the current social strata. The result became the South African Indian. A mix of names formed and re-formed, and clothing worn and then not worn, and eventually as apartheid was abolished, an identity searched for and still to be found. 

South African writer Zainab Priya Dala’s What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a collection of essays that are a mix of memoir, sharing opinions on the changing political landscape and the growth of Dala as a writer. These essays are sharply written detailing the complicated histories South African citizens of Indian origin have to contend with on a daily basis. It informs their identity. Even details such as if their ancestors came as “indentured labourers” or as “passenger Indians” makes a world of difference to their sense of identity in a foreign land. Zainab Priya is of mixed parentage as her father is a Hindu and her mother a Muslim. Later she married in to a well-established Muslim business family who had come to South Africa relatively recently but she regularly encounters variations between the families in their habits and living styles.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a slim collection of powerfully written essays. These essays by a South African Indian reflecting upon multiple aspects of her existence is much like this book being the sum of many parts of her life — mother, wife, daughter, writer, activist, migrant, political awakening etc ( and not necessarily in the given order of importance). Fact is the moment you are aware of your personal histories the complexities of one’s ancestry become evident and it is no longer quite as simple to speak of genealogies in puritanical terms or of political action in black and white terms of “us and they”. Zainab Priya Dala is sharply articulate about these complex inheritances and is very aware of the fine negotiations it demands of her on a daily basis which is a given way of life. And it is precisely these day-to-day exercises in living that also sharply bring home to her details in society that Gandhi was blinded by. The South Africa in which he honed his political activism was primarily aimed at the racist modes of governance and not necessarily at recognising the microcosm of South African or South African Indian society and its distinct threads of identity. Curious that Gandhi who otherwise was so very sensitive missed these finer distinctions of identity especially since he and the author both have links to the Gujarati community. Yet for Gandhi it was apartheid of far more importance and it remained so till the 1990s when many of the South African social structures were realigned. In the new era it is not so much as race governing lines of social separation but money. With money becoming the defining factor of ancestries and communal make-up become even more acutely apparent. And as in the jungle, it is the survival of the fittest, same holds true for civil society. Those who survive in the new socio-economic terrain are also confident of their identity while aware of their historical, soci-political and genetic inheritances — a fact that Zainab Priya Dala is clear she will spell out for her children.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa  is a sharp commentary on contemporary South Africa. It must be read. The thought-provoking essays will resonate with many readers especially women, across nations. Also for how smartly it puts the reader under the scanner and forces them to question and understand their inherited narratives better.

Read an extract from the book used with permission from the publishers — Speaking Tiger Books.

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My father, a third generation non-resident Indian, whose grandfather had come from a village near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, preferred not to talk much about his heritage. But, things changed when he reached sixty years of age. Why? I will never know. But what I do know is that everything about my heritage from my paternal side had been spoken of by others, including my father’s brothers and sisters, not him. Maybe, he suffered the affliction of a love marriage to a woman who was seen as superior to him, and he wanted to delete his inferiority in the eyes of his children. But, I am seeing now how I also do the similar thing to my children. My husband, like my mother,  comes from the big city of Durban, and his heritage is one of the Muslim business class that came to South Africa long after the indentured labourers** and anyway, let me just say it – he is considered higher class than I am, so we tend to appropriate this onto our children. Perhaps my father had done the same for many years.  And, perhaps he decided to speak openly about our mixed up heritage only after my sister and I were safely and happily stowed away into good marriages. Things are sometimes as ugly as that. But speak he did. It became a river that never stopped. One day a year ago we were at a fancy dinner party held by my cousin from my mother’s side of the family – a very rich and successful doctor amongst a family of doctors. He lived in an area we still call today a White Area, which means that before 1994, none of us would have ever dreamed of walking past a house there, let alone living in one. My father was quiet during this dinner, but perhaps a few glasses of expensive whiskey loosened his tongue, and he started talking about his childhood on the farm. My mother tried to quieten him, not because she was ashamed, but because she knew he was about to cry. The room went silent as if a spell had been cast by a mournful farm-accented voice ringing out among the posh “white” accents of my cousins and his friends. But, minutes into his monologue, my cousin’s husband blurted:“Oh really now, Babs, should we get you an audition for another ‘Coolie Odyssey’?” (‘The Coolie Odyssey’ was a play on the indentured labourers written, directed by,  and starring,  Rajesh Gopie, a South African Indian dramatist).

My father fell into silence, and my husband, who is sensitive to the point of extreme protection of my father at most times, ushered him outside. I was carrying my baby son, and looking at these two men, standing next to a Balinese-inspired swimming pool, sharing a cigarette and probably chatting about the price of fuel, it was not lost on me that I was carrying in my arms the actual reality of a class divide.  My son will always have to negotiate this divide and there is nothing I can do to protect him from it. Why would I need to protect him? Well, to put it as succinctly as I can, in South Africa, we let go of the caste system in the bowels of a ship in the 1800s, but we adopted a system that became very insidious. Fellow writers and historians, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their detailed opus, Inside Indenture, A South African Story 1860 – 1914, describe these people who dropped their caste into the Indian Ocean as “twice-born.” Here, they refer to the fact that in the shiphold, there was no room for caste or class. An Indian inside there was an Indian who ate and slept alongside all others. But once they arrived at the port, and the documents of demographics were being created, a lower caste could easily take himself up a few notches. Today, in contemporary South Africa, caste is obsolete. We all know enough by now to question the Maharaja and Singh surname with a studied eye for actual refinement in behaviour, language and of course education. This does not mean there are no divisions. The divisions go deep. They are based on religion, economics, language and colour. Of course, I know that these divisions are changeable ones much like dropping your caste at a shipyard, now you can change your religion, think and grow rich, lighten your skin and perfect your English. This malleability scares the ones who wielded class like gold crowns. I admit, my maternal family and my husband’s family are those that did. They are forgiven because they didn’t know they were doing it.

In South Africa, the business class came to the shores of Natal mainly from the villages of Gujarat. My father-in-law describes it well when he tells me in thick Gujarati: “One side of the street is Muslim Desai family. Opposite side of street is Hindu Desai family. Both Desais understand each other and get along better than even Muslim Urdu speakers or Calcuttiah people.”

I don’t look at anything he is saying as derogatory. The reason is that he is not insulting anyone, he is simply stating facts. The Gujarati community aggregated together in a code of business and called  each other “Aapra-wallahs’. They still use this term today. An acquaintance, who is a great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi,  once came over to my house to collect items I wanted to donate to a family rendered homeless after a fire. I had known him for some years, and had interacted with him many times on charitable or literary correspondence. But, within minutes of the mutual spotting of an Aapra-wallah in the room, I ceased to exist in the conversation. My husband, a Muslim,  and my associate, a Hindu, both spoke Gujarati that went far above my head. I had learned the basics of the language, to communicate with my husband’s family who spoke only Gujarati. My mother’s family were too high class to speak any vernacular, and only the Queen’s English would do. My father’s family spoke a combination of Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri. My best friend spoke Afrikaans and the children I grew up playing with spoke Zulu. Add to this mix the terms that each of us reserved for each grouping, which are as derogatory as being called Coolies, and it is no wonder that I cannot sleep some nights.

Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Calcutta are called Calcuttiahs, and Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Madras are called Madrasis. The Muslim community have their own lines of division and I find that these lines are deeply hurtful. Muslims who arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers are thought to come from Hyderabad. Although many chroniclers say that the majority of the Muslim community in South Africa who are not business arrivals are actually converts to Islam. This is how the Muslim community divide their people – colour and language. It used to be money, but now everyone is keeping up with the Joneses and the famous Gujarati Trust Funds** are running on empty, having cossetted very large and extravagant families for two generations.

The Memon Muslim community is a very small one, but they wield a large economic clout.  They are known to have come from different areas around India, originally from Kathiawar, but finally settled as a community near Porbandar in Gujarat, from where a number of them migrated to South Africa as traders and businessmen. Another batch of Gujarati Muslims came from different villages in Gujarat, and left for South Africa from the port of Surat. They proudly refer to each other as Surtis and use the term “Hedroo,” to describe any other Muslim who is not Gujarati or Memoni. Hedroos, a terrible term, is used to speak of the class of Muslims whom the Surti community look upon as low class and  poor. Inter-marriages between Surtis and Hedroos are still frowned upon. I am reminded of my own wedding day, when my husband’s aunt told me that in the history of the Dala family, it was the first time they had accepted a “mixed” girl for any of their boys. Their bloodline had remained pure Gujarati till 2006, the year of my nikkah. I responded to the aunt by a small nod that day, and replied to her: “Hahn ji.”

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Footnotes

**Over 100,000 Indians arrived as slaves from the subcontinent in 1684 and lived in Cape Town.  The first Indian indentured labourers arrived on 16 November 1860.The passenger/ trader Indians began arriving around 1875 to meet the need for commercial trade in the community, Black and  Indian as well as  Coloured.

**Gujarati Trust Funds were set up from the mid 1870s by wealthy Gujarati families, to cater for all educational, medical and housing needs of their community. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, the Gandhi Trust was set up to cater for legal needs and to publish a newspaper called The Indian Opinion.

Zainab Priya Dala What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 150. Rs 499

27 November 2018 

 

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