My eleven-year-old daughter and I are reading Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Maus. It is chilling as Spiegelman draws his father’s memories of Nazi Germany and surviving the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Then I read Sameera Khan’s article in the Indian Express — “That January“, published on 6 January 2021. It is about the mobs that went on a communal rampage in Mumbai in Jan 1993, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 Dec 1992.
Sameera Khan recounts how they were the only Muslim family in their block of apartments and thus a marked family.
We first heard about the election lists circulating in neighbourhood with Muslim names conspicuously identified. The newspapers reports on mobs entering buildings and pulling residents out. Many residential buildings removed the boards listing names of flat owners. Our apartment building decided to take out only our name from the board below. The only Muslim residents of A-wing. The B-wing had no such problem: There were no Muslims living there. My parents tried not to get upset about this in front of us but I recall my mother calling up the building secretary and asking most decorously how this was allowed to happen. When you are the only ones, you keep your voice low. One morning a chand-sitara (moon and star) was scrawled in chalk on the wall next to our door. We had been marked. … That was Bombay, India, January 1993. It might have been yesterday.
Decades may have passed; but inexplicable, senseless hatred and cruelty of man vs man persists.
Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.
This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.
It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.
On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.
Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.
Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.
Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.
Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.
His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.
Men in tall black hats and flowing black
robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and
some had long beards. It was a summer
afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in
Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people,
why the costumes?
“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back
from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since
Why were they dressed in such a pronounced
manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in
London. It didn’t make sense.
We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical
Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan
josh, yakhni and matsch. I had
met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table,
reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed
a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.
“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish
festival of lights, Hanukkah.”
Until then I had thought Diwali was the
only festival of lights.
in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And
they are very nice people.”
The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in
office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had
said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in
England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic,
the other English and Jewish.
“There are other interesting things that we
do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a
“Why?” I said.
He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In
Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian
meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed
the moon’s wax and wane. Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid
moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.
are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.
My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar,
a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t
count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not
rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.
Years went by. In which my grandfather
died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back
to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked
for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became
friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.
It was the Persian new year, on spring
equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told
Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt,
a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.
“We do something similar on Navroz, and we
call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.
I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed
Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the
coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told
Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and
the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper
napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.
I didn’t know either, when growing up in
Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather.
I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling
conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.
Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets
when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant
father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled
off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit,
when he did his puja every morning, with
lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was
small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.
I told Paymon all this in the office
canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.
My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie
Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over
low flame for three hours. My wife
wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a
large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just
in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods
of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian,
Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.
“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon,
looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.
“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and
Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate
it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.
When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon
wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English:
Thank you for enlightening me about
Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go
but I wish you all the best.”
I think Paymon said something about those
Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.
The card remained unread for years. Later,
I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I
wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my
childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a
ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in
15 official languages, each in its own script.
ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls,
whirls, and dots.
“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,”
said my mother.
“What’s the difference?”
“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh,
because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And
Muslims bury their dead.”
My mother also told me that the ancient script
for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.
Pandits and Muslims had other differences
too. I was aware of some. My pheran, the
long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim
friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My
great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim
women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.
Many differences, all small. Until someone
powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths
and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit?
Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this
knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called
my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled
the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him
pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid,
his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the
tremble in my fingers.
Not much later, a powerless young boy, just
out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s
cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.
It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This
year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which
my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in
Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the
sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And
on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would
wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous
Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook,
on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits
now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi
calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.
“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend
messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.
On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script
that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or
like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.
I had read a book long ago about the
revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was
invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common
language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.
I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of
deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran
border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams
and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my
roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go?
Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?
I am sure the Jews had said this too.
I thought about Iran. I remembered my
conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card
from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children
had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was
the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be
I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon,
asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know
why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I
thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to
fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able
to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like
a broken promise.
I asked an English friend to help me. He
sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law.
A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox.
Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:
keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist
maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist
gham e on yar che bayad khordan
ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist
“A friend who sees no difference between a flower
and a thorn,
In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are
Why should we worry about him?
As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse
are the same.”
Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to
distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.
Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his
promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend,
he knew me more than I knew myself.
A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from
my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years
ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have
a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.
That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews
walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were
dressed like that.
What they were holding on to.
Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill
up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a
pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And
pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.
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.
Award-winning writer Pam Munzo Ryan’s Echo is a stupendous book. It is four stories intertwined, much like a symphony coming together in the last movement and hence, “a novel”. The first three stories are about four children — Friedrich Schmidt ( Oct 1933, Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany), orphans Mike and Frankie Flannery ( June 1935, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA) and Ivy Maria Lopez ( December 1942, Southern California, USA). Each story focuses on their love of music, playing the harmonica, piano and flute exquisitely. It is a beautiful space the children create with their talent at a time of grim reality — concentration camps, rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews and the marginalised, the Great Depression, state of orphanages, adoption, the captivity of American Japanese after Pearl Harbour by the government, segregation of Mexican children in schools, etc. There is a touch of magical realism which seems to be perfectly acceptable in young adult fiction (but would have been nitpicked about in adult trade literature such as Yann Martel and Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novels). The magical thread binding the stories has an extraordinary fairytale element to it. It is the harmonica presented to the craftsman Otto when he was a child by the three princesses Eins, Zwei and Drei upon whom a spell has been cast by a witch. Once Otto as an adult decides to donate the harmonica it is found by the other children — Friedrich when he worked as an apprentice at the local harmonica factory, Frankie who had dreams of playing in Alfred Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards, and later Ivy Maria Lopez who uses it to perform in her school orchestra. In 1951 the young musicians perform Gershwin together at Carnegie Hall.
Ivy felt as if she’d been touched by magic. Her eyes caught the glances of other musicians. And it was clear they felt it, too.
Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.
Some enchanted evening. . .
Tonight there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars. . .
. . . and connected by the same silken thread.
Here is a wonderful profile from Kirkus Reviews of Pam Munzo Ryan ( https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pam-munoz-ryan/)
Echo is written for young adults but it is a magical book that will appeal across ages. Appreciate it for its inspired storytelling or read it as a conversation starter in classrooms but read it you must.
Pam Munzo Ryan Echo: A Novel Decorations by Dinara Mirtalipova. Scholastic Press, An imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2015. Hb.
Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:
‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’
Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.
Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.
“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”
Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”
“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?”
( p. 292-4)
Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.
It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.
Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.
However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)
With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.
Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499
Dr. Reza Aslan on why he wrote his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is the author ofZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was in the news a few months ago and also reached the number one slot on The New York Times Bestseller List.
He is the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East. His first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was translated into 13 languages. His other works include How to Win a Cosmic War(published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
Excerpts from an interview:
How long did it take you to write this book?
I have been researching for more than two decades, ever since I began my academic work on the New Testament as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in California. Of course the quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for 200 years. Countless scholars and academics have written about the Jesus of history. The methodology for that is more or less written in stone by this point. I have distilled these two centuries of debate and analysis and rendered it in an appealing and accessible way for a general audience.
What was the target audience you had in mind?
I wanted to give those who worship Jesus as God a different perspective of him as a man. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus was both God and man, yet they rarely understand the implications of that belief. If Jesus was also a man, it means he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place shaped who he was. This book is an introduction to that time and place. But I also wanted to write to a non-Christian audience to help explain why, 2000 years later, this man and his teachings and actions are still so significant.
Has your upbringing influenced your thinking?
My upbringing taught me to take faith seriously, to respect it and not denigrate it, even when I am questioning some of the most fundamental tenets of that faith.
What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?
I suppose the most surprising thing about Jesus and his time was just how many other messiahs there were around the first century, many of whom were far more popular and far more successful in their lifetime than Jesus was.
What is the difference, if any, between the men who claimed to be messiahs in Jesus’ time and the many god men (across religions) today?
I suppose if you believe that all religious experience is a matter of the psyche, then there is not much of a difference.
In the “Author’s Note, you state that you “have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called Gnostic gospels… they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself”. But did not the Gnostic gospels actually reveal much more about the man we know as Christ, including that he probably belonged to the Essene sect? So would not a close reading have helped you “reclaim” the historical Jesus before he became synonymous with Christianity?
The Gnostic Gospels were written in the second and third centuries. While they shed light on the enormous diversity of Christianity in the years following the death of Jesus, they do not give us much information about the historical Jesus himself. Neither does the Gospel of John, which by the way was written between 100 and 120 A.D. These texts are simply too late to be of much use to those looking for the Jesus of history.
The Jews attached great importance to writing things down. Yet the testaments were written only some 70 years after Jesus’ death. Muhammad knew the importance of writing things down, yet the Quran ended up being a careful reconstruction of his words. In your opinion, why isn’t there a Book of Jesus?
Mostly because nobody could have written it. Jesus and his disciples were Galilean peasants. None of them could read or write.
Was your choice of Christ as a subject a natural result of being a scholar of religion or did it have something to do with the number of books on the topic, including Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary?
I think Jesus has always been an interesting character and always will be. While some argue that there has been a sudden flood of books about Jesus recently, the truth is that such books have been appearing every few years for some time.
Do you think that the days when men could start major world religions are over?
On the contrary, take Mormonism, which is only 150 years old and already a major world religion. I think the same could be said about Scientology one day. Religions are born all the time. Who knows which one will be seen as “great” one day?
Reza Aslan Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Harper Element, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 499