Essays Posts

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Homeless on Google Earth

( My review of Mukul Kesavan’s book Homeless on Google Earth was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement today, 5 Jan 2014. The online version is available at:  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/lucid-yet-forceful/article5538031.eceThe review is c&p below as well.) 

Mukul Kesavan Homeless on Google Earth Permanent Black, Ranikhet Cantt., India, 2013. Hb. Pp. 315. Rs. 595

 In India we bank on time and forgetfulness to paper over the great rents in our history. They help but can’t do the job by themselves.  (p.252)

As a consumer of news, you could be forgiven for thinking the Indian elections are ideology-free. Pundits in the press and on the television news channels are always saying that votes are bought, coalitions are constructed out of caste fractions, politicians defect, political parties swtich sides with frictionless ease, and the policies contained in party manifestos are irrelevant to the democractic process because they are never seriously discussed. Add up these defects and what India seems to have by way of elections is the mechanism of representative government without the large ideological contestation that is, or ought to be, a democracy’s reason for being. (p. 237)

“The electoral impact of the controversy over the reinstatement of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code might be small, but the political significance of the positions that parties have taken on the decriminalization of homosexuality is considerable.” The opening lines of Mukul Kesavan’s latest column—“A political prism – What the different parties’ positions on 377 reveal”. In one sentence, clearly and sharply, scholar-journalist and historian, Mukul Kesavan, has encapsulated the furore that has dominated recent news but also pithily analysed it, forecasting the impact it will have politically; powerful words, especially on the eve of General Elections in India and after the four state election results were announced. Hence it is not surprising to discover that the web link to this article has been shared, reposted and discussed furiously in social media platforms. In fact, during the last elections, he was often spotted on television channels as a panellist, offering his independent, strong, thought-provoking and well-articulated opinion.

Homeless on Google Earth is a collection of 58 essays, most of which seem to have been written recently, judging by their subject. Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Milia Islamia, a university in New Delhi. In these opinion pieces, he covers a range of topics—his identity in “No place like home”, book launches, literary festivals, travelling to Kruger National Park with Amitav Ghosh, Bollywood, technology, gender issues, travelogues, education and political commentaries that cover topics like Israel, Gaza, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Tibet, Kashmir, naxalism, the pogroms in India of 1984, 1992 and 2002, communal violence, elections and terrorism. The essays in the book are well arranged. They start from the easy-to-read, light and sometimes hilarious essays like “Consuming wildness in Kruger”, to the grim, sober and chilling commentaries on police encounters at Jamia Milia Islamia (“Presumed Innocent”); on naxalites (“Operation Green Hunt”); and communal hatred (“Vox Pop and Varun Gandhi” and “Accounting for the Dead”). He is a genuine historian who marshals his evidence to bolster his arguments in tautly structured essays manifesting his splendid  command of English. Without undermining the intelligence of his readers, his arguments are is lucidly and simply expressed.

Homeless on Google Earth is about important events in contemporary political, social events in  India and aspects of society that usually go unnoticed, like the women taxi drivers or the peculiar social space of society that in which MSM exists in. But read at a sitting, the essays can become very tedious. They are a collection of writings published at various times, originally meant to be read one at a time. When collected as a book, their rhythm and organization can seem to have a dull sameness. But unless one has followed Mukul Kesavan’s columns and other writings, one will not know that the essays were written at different times as there are no dates for them in this book, an unexpected oversight from a historian.

At a time when mainstream papers are slowly going out of business or moving actively and aggressively to online spaces, the vaccuum steadily being replaced by citizen journalists, online and at times armchair activism,  voices of opinion makers like Mukul Kesavan are valuable.  He is rational and sound. He does not seem to be swayed by majority sentiments, and is acutely aware of his academic discipline which he brings to bear on the issues dealt with here. One may not agree with his point of view but it is presented forcefully yet courteously and without shrillness.  It is important for such voices to be heard more often. They reach out to a range of people and ideological groups. The historian E.J.Hobsbawm said in his public lecture in Delhi 2004, that earlier society used to change at a pace that allowed people at least a generation to respond and adapt to it. But recently change has been so rapid that we are having to do this adjusting and adapting in the space of a decade or less. At this speed it becomes imperative to have rational thinkers to actively participate in civil society, as Mukul Kesavan has done in these essays.

The Essential Ved Mehta

The Essential Ved Mehta

The Essential Ved Mehta, 2013, Penguin IndiaThe Essential Ved Mehta is a collection of the author’s writings spanning 1957 to 2003. These are excerpts from his non-fiction writing, but each extract is prefaced by a new introduction he has written especially for this volume. So there is a filtering of the texts, his looking back and at the same time, guiding the reader on how to read the texts he has selected. This is curious and at the same time interesting. He writes, ” I have written an introduction for each selection and ordered them in such a way that each piece speaks to the next one. Read together, they will, I hope, give a sense of my writing life.” 

The last time Ved Mehta came to Delhi, it was in 2009. During  a literary halt at the CMYK store, Meharchand Market, Mayank Austen Soofi ( The Delhiwalla) was present with his camera. Here is a link to some photographs of that evening:  http://thedelhiwalla.blogspot.in/2009/11/city-sighting-ved-mehta-meharchand.html

Ved Mehta The Essential Ved Mehta Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 390. Rs 599.

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

of mothers and others: stories, essays and poems

This is a collection of essays, some fiction and some poetry published in support of Save the Children. All by women except for one, which is by Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Even the editors of Zubaan, Urvashi and Anita have contributed essays. The other contributors include Kishwar Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Tishani Doshi, Namita Gokhale, Sarita Madanna, Smriti Lamech, Shinie Antony etc. All the women discuss their experiences of motherhood — expecting, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to differently-abled children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection without having to be responsible for their upbringing and all that comes with the every second to second engagement of rearing a kid as the delightful Bulbul Sharma is to her brood of five grandchildren. But when her descendants complain, “why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home.” Bulbul Sharma agrees that at one time the nanis and dadis did stay at home. But now “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases. …but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

The other day I met an old college friend after years. She lives abroad and visits India infrequently. She has a daughter who is 13 months older to Sarah. Naturally we were watching our daughters wander through the park, chase butterflies and watch the gorgeous flowers blooming and chatting, you know the conversation which skirts or suddenly revs into top gear with both women talking rapidly at the same time, exchanging information and surprisingly assimilating it too, all the time multi-tasking too. Suddenly my friend says, you know it is incredible what a sense of freedom you get when the kid learns how to clean herself. It is a moment of sheer independence –maybe more for the mother than the kid. As Shashi Deshpande says “what really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” It’s so true!!! Some things never change.

This collection of essays and poems is worth reading. The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur grieving for the loss of her 21-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident, twenty years ago. Some of the others are Sarita Madanna’s short story, “the gardener’s daughter” and Shalini Sinha’s essay about the relationship between her mother/nani with her son/grandson who had been born with Down’s syndrome. As always Urvashi Butalia when she writes is very readable. Her essay on being childless dwells upon not having had a biological daughter (and comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have) but she does not mention how as a professional she has/is been a mentor to many, nurtured fledglings much like a mother would do with her offspring.

This book has been making its presence felt given the high profile launch at Jaipur Literature Festival 2013 when well known film actress Shabana Azmi released it. At the Delhi launch of the book, Bollywood actress Nandita Das while holding her son on her hip, released it in Delhi. In today’s day and age having celebrities being associated with a book does wonders for it. But after closing this book (which may I add I read in one sitting) I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards, what left me very concerned was that except for Anita Roy, no one commented upon the importance of nutrition and by extension, the importance of self-preservation of the mom. I say this advisedly since late last year Zubaan co-published a book of essays with a Delhi-based NGO, Cequin. (Cequin amongst many of its activities runs nutrition camps for the urban poor women. A very good initiative since it teaches them how to create a balanced diet within their budgets.) What I found most alarming was that the women were being taught how to stretch a small portion of milk (given its spiraling price )to give maximum nutrition to their families. Maybe a short comment could have been included from the Cequin team too?

Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays and Poems (ed. Jaishree Misra). Foreword by Shabana Azmi. (Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013). Hb. pp.286. Rs. 495.

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