Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lions and porcupines

...Ananthamurthy said he would not want to live in an India where the prime minister is Narendra Modi...."I would get phone calls asking me, 'when are you leaving'?...I would like to visit Pakistan! I have friends there who love India"....“Modi wants India to be a lion but as a Gandhian I can tell you that Gandhiji wanted India to be a porcupine”.....
In all the time that has passed by since he came to prominence in 2002, Narendra Modi has faced numerous critics without even raising a hair. However there are some people who have been known to have pierced the armor, people who can (justifiably) claim to be upholders of Bharatiya Sanskriti (Indian Culture). One of them is the classical dance exponent Mallika Sarabhai, daughter of Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai (the father of  the Indian space program).  

Another example is the celebrated Kannada author Udupi Rajagopal-Acharya Anantha-Murthy (21 December 1932 - 22 August 2014). Please note below the excellent profiles by Sudheendra Kulkarni and Ramchandra Guha.

It is true that over time Indian politics has become more democratic (the Leader is a Shudra while the main opposition party is led in the Parliament by a Dalit - Mallikarjuna Kharge from Karanataka). Unfortunately it has also become more shrill and people seem to be losing their sense of propriety.

Prof. Ananthamurthy is a national icon, and when he passed away it is reasonable to wish for a dignified send-off. But that was not to be. Even as the Prime Minister was quick to send his condolences, Hindutva-vadis were bursting crackers and celebrating.This is not right and it needs to be condemned. 

Of course URA was a petty man in many ways, especially in the way he used to slander SL Bhyrappa, the most popular novelist in Kannada literature for all times who writes from the right. But that is just professional (and ideological) jealousy. Again in all of these match-ups it is the skill (and fore-sight) that counts- SLB in his bumper novel Avarana has mischievously created a shifty character who resembles URA. With time people will (may) forget the masters but not their creations. It will be a pity if future generations recognize URA only from a book composed by his rival in arts.

Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad, Gopalakrishna Adiga are all recognized as luminaries in the Marxist-Socialist universe that drove the glorious Navya (new) movement in Kannada literature. Now they are all fading away or gone, just when the left as a whole is dying in India and the right is on the ascendant. Again it is a pity that literature has become so politicized, primarily driven by the need for getting grants in India and acceptance in the West. 

If some one wishes to enjoy an authentic Indian view (and viewpoint), our advise is to avoid the Indians-in-English "lions" and try instead the "porcupines" who prefer to compose in the vernacular (best to be read in the original, however excellent translations are now available). Samskara by UV Ananthamurthy (and Parva by SL Bhyarappa) are too good to be ignored by Indians who would like to know more about their history and culture, and to comprehend what is that needs to be preserved, and what is that needs to be discarded. 

UR Ananthamurthy, the great Jnanpith laureate Kannada writer who passed away in Bangalore on August 22 at the age of 82, will long be remembered for his controversial remarks on Narendra Modi (before he became the prime minister) in the run-up to the last parliamentary elections. "I'll leave India if Narendra Modi ever became India's PM," he had said, a statement that he later withdrew.

Nevertheless, there is far more to Ananthamurthy as a writer than the controversy over a non-literary matter that he invited upon himself. A person from literature should be judged, and remembered, primarily on the basis of his or her creative writing. 

Literature is a product of solitude. It is also read and experienced in solitude. Best fiction illuminates human condition immensely more than either journalism or political discourse. If this is true, then there is no doubt that all those who have read Ananthamurthy's novels or short stories, both in original Kannada and in translation, will forever cherish him - and his characters such as Praneshacharya in his most acclaimed novel Samskara (1965) - in their hearts.

I read Samskara when I was studying in the seventh or eighth standard, in my little home town Athani in Karnataka. I have re-read it several times thereafter. It left a haunting effect on me.

Praneshacharya, its protagonist, is a pious and scholarly priest living in a Brahmin village where moral corruption and hypocrisy abound beneath the veneer of religiosity. A peculiar set of circumstances, unleashed by the outbreak of plague in the village and culminating in him getting attracted to a noble-hearted prostitute, push him into a vortex of moral dilemmas. He finds himself compelled to question Brahmin orthodoxy's many verities about untouchability, sex and bookish knowledge.

Samskara is not an overtly political novel. However, its story of how Praneshacharya confronts his own socially inherited convictions about the meaning and purpose of life contributed in some way to the awakening of the rebel in me early in my own life. That rebellious attitude shaped my response to the Emergency Rule (1975-77) imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

I was a student at IIT Bombay those days and got involved in Left-wing anti-Emergency activities both on and off campus. When Snehalata Reddy, a committed Bangalore-based socialist and a close associate of Ananthamurthy died during the Emergency, a victim of torture in prison, I wrote a letter (in Kannada) to Ananthamurthy expressing my anguish over the death of democracy in India and the need to strengthen our collective voice against it. Ananthamurthy, whose own allegiance lay with non-Marxist socialism espoused by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Rammanohar Lohia, wrote back to me with words of encouragement and solidarity.

Incidentally, Snehalata Reddy was the heroine who played the role of Chandri, the prostitute, in the cinematic rendition of Samskara. Girish Karnad acted as Praneshacharya in this gem of a black-and-white movie, produced in 1970 by Snehalata's husband and fellow-socialist Pattabhi Rama Reddy. It became a trailblazer in Kannada cinema and went on to win many national and international awards. Ananthamurthy's short story Ghatashraddha was made into another widely acclaimed film by Girish Kasaravalli in 1977.

Ananthamurthy's other novels Bharathipura, Avasthe and Divya did not reach the story-telling excellence of Samskara. I often felt that his literary creation was hampered by his activism. Yet, as an activist and a public intellectual, he was always very original and incisive in his thinking and in the way he responded to the world around him. 

He stuck his neck out for the causes he believed in, as is evident from his close association with the environmental movement, his deep sympathy for the empowerment of Dalits, and his spirited struggle for the protection of mother tongues in India. He felt, rightly, that the great literary creations in Bharatiya languages were overshadowed by several mediocre, but commercially successful and globally more recognised works of Indian writers in English. He was a patron of progressive theatre, especially Neenasam, a legendary cultural institution in rural Karnataka founded by his friend KV Subbanna.

Ananthamurthy was a strong critic of the RSS and the BJP throughout his life. Promotion of Hindu-Muslim amity was a cause very dear to him. Yet, he was a great admirer of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the admiration was mutual. When the former Prime Minister went to Bangladesh on a pathbreaking visit in 1999, he had taken Ananthamurthy (and also the late Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh) as a member of his delegation. I met him for the first time on that trip and we spent a lot of time on the flight and in Dhaka conversing in Kannada.

Ananthamurthy was non-traditionalist and yet he had almost a reverential admiration for the good aspects of India's cultural and spiritual heritage. I remember one essay in which he posed an important question, which I am paraphrasing here:  

"Why is it that even the best of political, governance, educational and business institutions get weakened, corroded, eroded and extinct with the passage of time, whereas several religion-inspired institutions such as maths and seminaries remain alive and vibrant for centuries? Is it because the former have their foundation in the transient material world, in contrast to the eternal certainties that the latter believe in? Is this the reason why people's allegiance to the former is always fickle, and to the latter fixed?"


He was always full of laughter and lived life intensely even when sick. For the last 10 years he has been critical many times. Through it all he kept going. Till his last breath he was engaged—intellectually and politically — which is so admirable.

The biggest loss is that of a genuine public intellectual. I wrote a piece for his 80th birthday. I said at the end of it that when he dies, his death will be mourned in every district of Karnataka. When an English writer like me dies, maybe, India International Centre will have a memorial meeting. Full stop. He has such deep roots in society. I don't think any of the current writers have that kind of organic connection.

Writer as a public intellectual, as a moral conscience of society - that's a phenomenon that was once quite common in every linguistic group in India. URA is almost the last representative of it. As society gets more commercialized, as writing itself gets commercialized, this larger than life role of the writers gets reduced. He's the last of the kind.

Twenty years ago, 40 years ago, we had Shivaram Karanth here, PK Atre in Maharashtra, Nirmal Verma in the Hindi-speaking world, Mahashweta Devi in Bengal — novelists who took a stand on public issues; who were seen as conscience-like figures. This tradition goes back to the 19th century, to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, later to Tagore. After print arrived in India, novels, literary journals, newspapers began to appear and from then onwards writers occupied an important position in moulding public debate. They wrote essays and fiction on social reforms, women, caste, India's place in the world.

Today, as professions get more specialized that tradition's slowly eroding. As writers focus more on their craft, career, books, advances and contracts, the larger role is lost. I would say URA and Mahashweta Devi were the last of the those who were also prominent public figures.


Link (1): the-modi-controversy-did-this-great-writer-a-disservice-by-sudheendra-kulkarni

Link (2): A-moral-voice-has-fallen-silent



Don't cry for me Yezidi

Like everyone else I've pretty much been inundated with issues from the Ummah (Iraq, Pakistan etc).

It sure seems a lot easier when we had the triumvirate of Ottomania, Safavid & the Mughals (who were at the vanguard of syncretism fwiw).

It's pretty obvious that the world is at an inflection (or reaction) point to Western globalising tendencies. Much as English will emerge as a lingua franca, it's instructive to note that it hasn't yet murdered any other languages (apart old Celtic rivals from centuries ago) and remains a real primacy in the Old Commonwealth.

While English in the Old Commonwealth has started to standardise to various varieties, which remain somewhat intelligible with Her Majesty's Speech (which after all seems to be the central standard for this incredibly inchoate & ever-expanding medium) in the African & Asian New Commonwealth English has begun to evolve into different varieties (in Uganda, the language elides with Luganda to form Luglish, High standard English is an upper-class / educated phenomenon).

My point being is that analysts need a geo-historical perspective when analysing the world. I don't write nearly enough these days (even the start of BP represented the last high tide of my writing) but then I'm rather occupied with harnessing my perspectives towards a corporate-commercial end (in my ever-ending war for this Bobo between the Bourgeois & Bohemian, as an aside the Ugandans use "ever" for when they mean "never").

For instance people may agonise over ISIS but at the end of the day when have Sunni Arabs ever gone beyond deserts and plains? When have they gone into the mountains, that domains is for Persians, Turks & shi'ites. The nice tweak of geography is that it's still salient, Israel 2000yrs later captured the wrong part of Palestine and actually is in Philistia instead of Judea.

As a final comment I see the unity of the British Isles so clearly in Uganda. The Irish may stayed apart because of Catholicism (which is no longer as determinant an identity) but the Celtic nations have so inter-mingled with the English that the boundaries are as faint & soft without disappearing. Ironically the United Kingdom is what the European Union dreams to be.

Kerala aims to be Gujarat (2025)

....The Congress-led United Democratic Front government, proposed to make Kerala alcohol-free in 10 years.....The cabinet has also decided to shut down 700 bars by cancelling their bar license.....from April 1, 2015, only five star hotels will be granted bar licenses....Apart from the existing dry days, which include the first day of every month, all Sundays would be dry days...
The first question that came to our mind: will no one think of the tourists? Not all tourists stay in 5-star accommodations (which will also run dry in 10 years).

And shock horror!!! For the first time in our life, we hear the proud denizens of Tamizh Nadu exclaim in anguish: why cant we be as regressive as the Mallus (and shock, horror...Gujjus)?

There are liberal and conservative arguments for prohibition (and liberal arguments against). The economists will focus on jobs, bars with dancing girls result in well paying jobs for the masses and tax money for the exchequer.

The push for a bar-on-bars is also a tale of women-against-women:  women in low-income families have long complained of husbands wasting their pay-packets on other women. This was the argument that convinced Maharashtra govt to shut down girls in bars. Many girls (primarily from Eastern India, Nepal, and Bangladesh) were then forced to become prostitutes.

The bigger argument is about full-on prohibition of drinking and here there is a morality play (backed by the religious) as well as a public health one (doctors on the front-line). It is well known that prohibition failed in the USA, we have just not learned the lessons well enough.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"A small incident of rape"

....'He calls (the gangrape of my daughter) a small incident bcos such things never happen to people like him.' ~ Asha Devi, Nirbhaya's mother....Jaitley speaks out his mindset: 1 "small incident of rape" advertised world over is enough 2 cost us billions of $ in tourism.....@arunjaitley laments about one 'small' incident of rape, @PIB_India deletes small from speech text......
It is a fact that people have in-built expectations about how public figures will behave. We expect the (senior) Leader to be business-like (and dictatorial) in thought, speech and action. We expect the (junior) Leader to be a fire-breather: our Hindu sisters and daughters are in danger and we should take revenge. We expect Madam to stay silent on pogrom I (against Sikhs in 1984) and talk non-stop about pogrom II (against muslims, 2002). We expect Arundhati Roy to be cursing the super-castes and hero-worshiping the Maoists.

Arun Jaitley is a more complex character. He was the person who admitted (ref. Wiki-leaks) that for  the BJP, Hindutva is not a matter of conviction....just a ploy to win elections. Yes, we believe that is indeed the case (but it does not make us feel any better about the BJP or the tactics it chooses to use).

"Pressed on the question of Hindutva, Jaitley argued that Hindu nationalism 'will always be a talking point' for the BJP. However, he characterized this as an opportunistic issue," Robert Blake, the Charge at the US Embassy, said to his government after a meeting with Jaitley on May 6, 2005.

The (tiny) knife

....agree that jihadists are the villains, but remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Americans are the heroes.....My imagination is in thrall to the tiny difficult it would be, to sever a man's head with a little knife like that, and how painful....can't help feeling that the knife was chosen for that provide a contrast with the air strikes of the military industrial complex.....message: "I may not have many weapons at my own disposal, but look what I'm prepared to do with whatever comes to hand".....
Deborah Orr is a fantastic journalist and a clear-eyed leftist. She is no Arundhati unquestioning ideology or blind America hatred for her. Yet when push comes to shove she betrays her own instincts, ignores the truth that stares her in the face, and....she is also wrong on  the facts. The Caliphate does have access to a whole armory of advanced weapons either left behind by the vanquished Iraqi army or purchased with funding from Qatar and Saudia.
One thing people will be puzzling over while perusing the last email the Caliphate wrote to John Foley (father of James): who is this woman...."our sister"....Dr Afiya Siddiqi? What are the circumstances behind her imprisonment by the Americans? Why is she such an inspirational figure for the Caliphate??
Deborah is clear on this point: the ambivalence that Europeans feel about condemning the Caliphate is tied to the fear that it would make heroes out of Americans. She is worried as to how the ISIS is poisoning minds which leads to islamo-phobia amongst common (white) people and blind prejudice against muslims and arabs.