Tuesday, August 27, 2013


It has been a long hiatus.
This blog has remained like that neglected piano at the end of the room, gathering dust, and nursing memories of times when I had more time to spare.
It has been a more turbulent year, but one of the more positive outcomes is that my modest efforts at writing have finally gone from the confines of this blog, to more promising locations.

A magazine, of the online kind.

As long as the 8th issue is live, you can read my first published poem, "If, on a winter's night" here. 

A writer's first publication is probably his most cherished, one that he remembers even when the pages have yellowed, and it has long disappeared from the memory of the few who read it. This poem is a particular favorite of mine, not only because of its significance as my first published piece, but also because it was one of my earlier poems, which I have recited in a number of open mics, and polished and revised numerous times according to many suggestions. I have seen it evolve and change, each time making a faint attempt to cling on to the previous version, to words which were written with long thought and care. I had written this about two years ago, during a snowy East coast Christmas, spent far from home. I can still feel the wintry melancholy in that lazy afternoon, when I penned those words. And yes, I was reading a lot of Yeats at that time, in case you have noticed the obvious influence of style.

Monday, April 16, 2012

April Afternoons

Clouds hover over April afternoons,
Their shadows hang heavy
 like curses from old friends.

 I long for raindrops on window sills.
Dripping into forgotten crevices.
Caressing my aging soul.

My pasts hover over April afternoons.
Naked, gaping holes staring.
Empty wanderings, meaningless choices.

Aimless scribbles over Coffee tables at dusk.
The heavy breath of darkness
surrounds my withering longings

Evenings creep in, like age.
Empty promises of rain
Like wishes, like fleeting loves
haunt our days,nights, seasons.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Alone, on a nameless street

Where the dusk wanders, in search of darkness,
Dim twilight rests on your cheek, with a soft caress.
There, we shall meet.
Alone, on a nameless street.
Where your laughter melts into a smile,
Your deep eyes stretch, that blissful mile.
Where tragedy turns to grief, too cruel to bear,
Sorrow in your moist eyes, sheds a soft tear.
There, we shall meet.
Alone, on a nameless street.
Where our alleys meander, to November graveyards,
Teeming life stares at death, from its fertile barnyards.
Where our crowded cities merge into lonely suburbs,
Its million voices rise, civilized silence it disturbs.
There, we shall meet.
Alone, on a nameless street.
Where our slogans turn to poetry,
Our pamphlets script a new history.
There, we shall meet.
Alone, on a nameless street.
(Inspired from Kabir Suman's "Tomar songe eka")

Sunday, September 04, 2011

What Anna Hazare achieved

In these times, when emotions and hyperbole are pumped up to suit the needs of TRP, and political battles are played out like John Le Carre thillers in the theater of 24 hour television, it is hard to separate the historical from the mundane, to distinguish the mediocre from the great.Thus, when television anchors and new age journalists hail Anna Hazare as the "New Gandhi", and when the nuances of political debate legislative legalities are drowned in chants  of  "Vande Mataram", it is a challenge to cast a critical glance at Anna Hazare and his movement, one that has gripped the nation for the last few days.

But even when I carefully keep aside the rhetoric , I cannot deny that what Anna Hazare and his team has achieved is monumental. Anna is no Gandhi, he is not even a Jayprakash Narayan, but he is certainly one of the tallest political figures we have had since JP. There are questions about Anna's own ideology. Anna's creation, Ralegan Siddhi, inspite of its amazing development story, has not had an election in the last 25 years. "Politics" apparently, is considered a bad word there. Anna's praise of Narendra Modi (although retracted later) cannot be taken lightly either, if we are to rally behind him in our subsequent struggles.

However, inspite of these ideological differences, I salute his leadership. With a young and inexperienced team behind team, this man with only small time political experience, has successfully fought the Congress Party, with the establishment, administration, propaganda machinery and experienced bigwigs behind it. Anna has managed to capture the collective imagination of the nation. In a large and heterogeneous country like India, which is often bitterly divided along the lines of religion, caste, ideologies, this is no small feat.

From the start of the movement, I have been quite ambivalent and cautious about it. There are important issues that the movement conveniently (I believe) ignores. The most notable is that of corporate corruption. While it is true that the corruption that has crept into bureaucracy and among the politicians of this country is scary, this is only one side of corruption. The source of the corruption in the higher echelons of the political establishment is driven largely by corporate greed. Economic liberalization has led to large amounts of capital pouring into the economy, and the stakes are high. Our politicians are acting merely as small time brokers, was they dole out telecom licenses or give permissions to bulldoze through villages and tribal hamlets to create SEZ and mines. Without a check on this corporate agenda, corruption cannot be curtailed, simply by trying to discipline the politicians. Anna Hazare's movement has largely been silent about this. Perhaps, they would lose a large amount of middle class and media support, if the issue was brought to the forefront.

Then again, there is a constant demonization of politicians. Speeches are made from the Anna platform, making the politicians responsible for all the ills of the society. That this resonates with the largely apolitical middle class is no surprise. They might be successfully playing to a certain gallery, but this is a dangerous exercise. Indian democracy is a miracle in itself, and long struggles have ensured that the flag of democracy is held high. The political system is one of the few weapons left for the powerless lower classes. Agitations and the right to vote remain the sole privilege of the poor. Nandigram is an excellent example, where the fear of a popular backlash has forced the political powers from pursuing the corporate agenda shamelessly. One only has to look back a few years, to take notice of the fall of the mighty Chandrababu Naidu, who was busy creating his high tech city and having photo ops with the Clintons, while cotton farmers in rural Andhra Pradesh were committing suicide. The poor have very few choices on how to influence the development agenda. The democracy, that Anna's team has so often jeered at, is perhaps the only one. In this, the Anna movement reeks of middle class privilege. The reason that I spent so much time harping upon this issue is because when Kiran Bedi's antics on the Anna stage are recieved with popular cheers, it scares me.

However, keeping all these reservations in mind, team Anna at this moment have achieved a momentous victory. The political system, inspite of its strong institutions, needed a jolt. They have been able to provide a power structure that successfully challenges the political establishment. Democracy, as any other system, performs best with checks and balances. The multi-party system ensures some of it. But it also poses the danger of politics itself becoming an establishment that believes it is supreme. The Anna Hazare movement, probably the first time after JP, has brought out the masses to the streets, irrespective of political color or affiliations, and has tried to influence the course of lawmaking of the nation. I do not see it as a bypassing of parliamentary democracy in any manner. Time and again, this allegation has been leveled at the Anna movement from various quarters. However, I find the allegation is flawed in its basic premise. The Parliament is not supreme in a democracy, it is the People who are. The supremacy of the Parliament is only till the time when it represents the people. That the Parliament has lost the confidence of a large majority of people is quite evident from the popular support behind Anna Hazare. It is because of this popular rage that the Congress Govt. has been forced to listen to Anna Hazare, and has not been able to ignore him like it has done to Irom Sharmila. Other critiques of Anna Hazare have raised the question of blackmail. Here again, I think Anna has a totally legitimate point. Fasting has been used time and again to express demands ranging from the withdrawal of draconian laws to separate Statehood. Anna is not the first to employ this political weapon, nor has he broken any laws. Since when did making demands to a Government become a "blackmail"? Are all worker's movements, all "Bandhs", "gheraos" blackmail then? The history of political movement is the history of ordinary people who have demanded justice. I do not see how Anna's demands are somehow more "illegitimate" than the others.

So, in summary, as a popular newspaper editorial described, "I am a bit of Anna". It is dangerous to get carried away by rhetoric and television propaganda. However, it is also important to understand the source of the popular rage that drives this movement, and support the cause of a stronger Jan Lokpal Bill which brings greater accountability. The political fallout of the Anna Hazare movement and how it would change this country's political landscape is another story altogether. I would not get into that, but let me end with an interesting observation.

The first "fast-unto-death" that had shaken modern independent India was about 60 years ago. The political weather in the capital looked very similar. The Congress party was literally invincible with a weak opposition and no threats to its popularity, or so it seemed. Nehru's political authority seemed to be abolute. A frail idealistic Gandhian, Potti Sreeramalu  undertook a fast unto death in a private home in Madras, demanding the creation of the State of Andhra Pradesh. The division of the State would be on a linguistic basis, a demand that Nehru had opposed all along.

 The indifferent Government in Delhi did not make any political efforts to negotiate, and Potti Sreeramalu became one of the first activists in independent India to die due to a fast unto death, after 82 days of continuous fasting. There was a huge popular backlash, which brought the powerful Nehru Government to its knees. In a few days, the Government acceded to the demands of the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh. This was the first time a state was carved out on linguistic lines, and this changed the course of Indian history and politics forever. As history repeats itself, the Anna movement has perhaps done a lot of similar things. It remains to be seen how history will judge it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pyaasa (Thirst)

There are those who make films, and then there are those who live their life through their films. Guru Dutt was cinema's ultimate narcissist. His cinema was his own story, as he liked to tell it to the whole world. Inspite of his successes, Dutt was a misunderstood genius, a man who felt Bollywood never recognized him for what he was as an artist.

"Pyaasa" was Guru Dutt's masterpiece. Again, against his own wishes. It was "Kagaaz ke Phool" which he thought was his most heart wrenching work, one which should have got the highest accolades. But the in the confusing world of cinema, it is Pyaasa for which millions of film goers have remembered Guru Dutt. For the record, it is the only Hindi movie,to have featured in the Times All time 100 list of movies, and quite rightly so.

"Pyaasa", like "Kagaaz ke Phool" is Guru Dutt's story, in more ways than one, enacted by Guru Dutt himself. Vijay, the protagonist is a misunderstood poet. Shunned by his greedy brothers and a college sweetheart who marries into wealth, Vijay roams across the streets of the city, looking for food, shelter and writing verses that he hopes to publish one day. The only admirer of his verses is the prostitute Gulabo, played by the exquisitely beautiful Waheeda Rehman. Gulabo is his only solace, the only one in the whole wide world who recognizes the poet for what he is.

Perhaps here too, Guru Dutt wants to tell his own story to the whole world. Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the eminent singer Geeta Dutt, Guru spent her whole life wooing Waheeda, in one of Bollywood's greatest real life romances. In an industry which paid little attention to his style of cinema, it was probably his fantasy to be admired by that one woman, Waheeda.  As I said, Guru lived through his cinema, he dreamt his fantasies through his cinema. Waheeda was Guru Dutt's discovery, his own Anna Karina. This was also the first movie in which she played a leading role, and what a performance she delivers! ( "Kagaaz ke phool" is a more intimate portrait of the Guru Dutt-Waheeda romance, and how the protege leads to the ruin of the great director).

The first part of the movie seems a little slow to me, peppered with comic reliefs and song-dance sequences, a signature of the 50's Indian movie.After facing numerous trials and tribulations, Vijay finally reaches his breaking point with the death of his mother, the only one who cared for her, except Gulabo, in this big wide world. Tired with a world which did not give him recognition, Vijay attempts to commit suicide, but instead of him, it is the beggar to whom he lends his coat, that falls infront of an approachig train. The body is identified to be Vijay's while the officially dead Vijay recovers in a hospital. A young, brilliant, vagabond poet, who dies without any appreciation, suddenly becomes an important story, and a very profitable one. An indifferent world wakes up to this tear jerker, and to his poetry. Publishers who used to throw his poems in waste paper baskets begin to offer hefty sums for royalties to his poems.

Vijay, meanwhile, by a trick of fate, anguishes in an asylum. He manages to escape from there exactly on the first anniversary of his "death". The whole city is abuzz with news of programs in remembrance of the great poet. In a sombre program, publishers shed crocodile tears and men who never ever cared for a good-for-nothing had heart wrenching tales to tell. Amidst this farce, Vijay makes the most spectacular entry. He expresses his indifference as a poet can do best. He sings what is to become some of the most famous lines in Indian cinema.

"Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, to kya haaye" ("Even if I win the world, how does it matter?"), he asks. The recognition that he had so yearned for, had finally arrived. But what did it mean? The deeply personal heart wrenching work of a poet had been converted into a grotesque public spectacle.

Any other hindi movie would probably have ended there, with the hero's success and glittering smile. But not this one. As he confronts the world, the poet sees the dark face of success. Greedy publishers and relatives and friends queue up for a piece of the pie. The next day, Vijay declares to a stunned audience, that he is not really the poet that they have been thinking he is, and turns his back to success and recognition. Guru Dutt walks away into darkness with Gulabo, the only one who ever understood him. Inspite of his many successes in commercial Bollywood cinema, Guru Dutt had walked away into darkness as a lonely soul.Seven years after he made Pyaasa, a morbid and distressed Guru Dutt committed suicide in a rented apartment in Mumbai. Perhaps it is the exit he had always craved, but reality is a harsh mistress. His real life Gulabo, the very same Waheeda Rehman remained the La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

As Woody Allen said in "Annie Hall", "You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it's real difficult in life."

I would like to change this review later. This is a very favorite movie of mine, and I don't think the review presently does justice to that. But being burdened with work as I am, I am putting off the "modify the draft" for a future time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reclaiming the Red Fort

This article appeared in Countercurrents on April 26.

Lalgarh, the arena of the latest of India’s tribal rebellions, has a name that is mildly ironic. Literally translated, it means the “Red fort”, that hallowed seat of the world’s largest secular democracy. But here, in this faraway Red fort, a tribal hamlet in West Bengal, Indian democracy shows a very different face. It bears little resemblance to the tolerant democracy of Gandhi and Nehru, or even the corrupt but benign version of the State that the Indian city dweller is accustomed to. The reality of Lalgarh seems like an anachronism amidst the glitz and glamour of India’s shining new economy. In fact, it seems prehistoric.
Lalgarh’s development statistics are few and little cared for, perhaps a sure sign of Government apathy. The few reports that exist paint a grim picture. 95% of the children between 6 and 35 months suffer from anemia. The average number of working days in 2008-09 under the NREGA scheme was 6.02, 6.72 and 8.06 in the violence affected districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia1. Merely 6.5% of the population of Lalgarh receives clean drinking, and only 12.5% of the land is irrigated2.

Combine this with the oppressive social picture that is slowly emerging from the media reports at recent times. While the Left Front Government, with its ambitious land reforms program, had managed to transform the feudal hierarchy of the landed gentry, a new hierarchy, consisting of local party leaders and musclemen has taken its place. Nobody exemplifies it better than Anuj Pandey, general secretary of the Lalgarh zone of the CPI(M). Pandey had amassed a fortune as a CPI(M) leader, and his palatial two storey house on a sprawling 20 acre land, stood as the only “pucca” house in the whole village3. Angry villagers razed it to the ground and smashed refrigerators, LCD television and air conditioners in the house in an act of mob revenge, as the movement had finally given them a voice. Anuj Pandey’s story seems to be picked out of a seventies Bollywood flick, in its grotesque excesses and dramatic climax. In collusion with the local leaders are the police, whose stories of oppression are now coming out in the open. In fact, the movement at Lalgarh started out as a protest against police atrocities. Numerous cases of rapes of Adivasi women, strip searches of schoolgirls, police torture of pregnant and elderly women have been reported in the area4.
While there is a broad agreement about the genuine demands of the tribals, it is the form of the tribal resistance that has been questioned, in Dantewada and elsewhere. To civilized India, the violent forms of tribal resistance often appear medieval. However, in Lalgarh, the tribals answered not in the language of the violence that they have been subjected to, but in the language of a democracy, of which they never received any. The “People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities” (PCAPA) came up as a democratic organization, with its modest demands of the apology of guilty police officers and the removal of police camps from schools and Panchayet offices 4. Their political activity was in the form of gheraos, boycotts and peaceful assembly. For the moment, it appeared that a new paradigm in tribal politics was emerging, with West Bengal’s mainstream political opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) standing behind Chatradhar Mahato.  

However, things changed quickly. The democracy of PCAPA was answered not by democracy, but by the primeval brutality of force. The administration did not heed their modest demands. On the other hand, Chatradhar was captured in an illegal manner, and is being held in custody under the draconian anti-terrorism law, POTA. About six months have elapsed since his arrest, but the police have still not been able to produce evidence to back up the charges made against him5. The TMC and intellectuals close to the TMC have also increased its distance from the PCAPA, citing it as a frontal organization of the Maoists, after the party joined the Central Government. Regardless of political affiliations, mainstream political parties have failed to lend any helping hand to democratic voices emerging from the tribal areas. On February 2010, the Government forces led another blow to PCAPA, killing their president, an elderly Lalmohan Tudu, in a suspected “fake encounter”. Tudu was not known to have any Maoist leanings, and was never known to carry arms, not even the traditional bow and arrow that the tribals always carry with them. Various eye witness accounts suggest that an unarmed Tudu, and two of his relatives were picked up from their house shot at by a police force, which was apparently engaged in anti-Maoist operations6.

Thus, the events at Lalgarh, as they unfold before us, clearly suggest the administration’s intention of stifling democratic voices raised against it. There is little disagreement over the fact that the adivasis of Lalgarh have genuine grievances pertaining to the lack of development and law and order in the region. The only solution, albeit a slow one, is to reach out to movements fighting for the Adivasis, establish meaningful dialogue with leaders like Chatradhar Mahato, and most importantly, to make a sincere effort to develop these regions. This would not be difficult for a nation riding on the powerhorse of 8% growth rate. Unfortunately, the State has decided to act otherwise. It refuses to see the rebellion as representing the aspirations of disenchanted masses who the State has failed. Rather, in order to evade the problem, those in power have created their own spin on the turn of events, labeling it as a “law and order problem”. The Maoists suit this purpose just fine, and clubbing all anti-State movements as Maoist allows the administration to go on the path of “extermination”. 

The argument equating the tribal resistance to a Maoist uprising is based on entirely false premises. The tribals and the Maoists have a symbiotic relationship at present with regard to their common goal of a fight against an administration that has been unjust to the tribals. The Maoist ideology, attempting a violent overthrow of elected Governments, is not compatible with that of democracy and their mindless violence and destructive ambitions must be dealt with severely, within the ambit of law. However, it would be a grave error to believe that the tribals, who are now the foot soldiers of the Maoists are also stringent believers in the ideology, and unleash a full fledged war aimed to “exterminate” them.

 The justifications of violence have been debated long and hard. Violence is not sought for, whichever side it comes from. However, even free India (and every other civilized democracy for that matter), built on the ideals of Gandhi found it difficult to resolve conflicts without violent interventions, both inside and outside the country. The maintenance of law and order, however, one would argue, is legitimized by the authority vested on the State by the people, in a democratic system. What if the people are not represented? What if the State has failed its people, not once or twice, but at each and every instance? Does it still retain that legitimacy?  The violence of the tribals is a desperate battle for survival and the violence of the State has lost its legitimacy in these tribal hamlets. The endless debates on the form of the movement are thus a diversion from the real problem. To lose oneself in the quagmire of the morality of violence, without an analysis of its context is dangerous and unproductive. It must be realized that the resistance of the tribals have taken a violent form (and aligned itself with the Maoists) in the absence of development and because of the stifling of democratic means of resentment. The State must respond not with unthinking violence, but with diplomacy and humanism towards its own subjects, who have been wronged for the last sixty years. The use of military power without a functional democracy in place is not the hallmark of a People’s State, but that of a military dictatorship, the last thing that the founding fathers had wished for this country.


1. Sankar Ray (23 July, 2009). “Where have the Maoists gone?” The Statesman.

3. Rabi Banerjee (Feb 7, 2010). “Comrade Bourgeois”  The Week.

4. Amit Bhattacharya (2009). “Singur to Lalgarh via Nandigram” Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan

5. Sujit Nath and Aloke Mukherjee (March 9, 2010). “PCAPA leader gets bail in most cases” India Today.

6. Tusha Mittal  (March 13, 2010). “Attack On CRPF Camp Or Fake Encounter?” Tehelka.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ward No.6

Ward No. 6 is widely regarded as one of Chekhov's greatest stories and one that shaped the way the modern short story is written. Apparently, it profoundly influenced the young Lenin, who, on reading the story,  himself felt like being transported to the dingy interiors of Ward No. 6, as one of its inmates. Another prominent writer proclaimed "Ward No. 6 is Russia".There can be no greater praise that can be showered on a single story.

However, I must warn the lay reader, Ward No. 6 is bitter, depressing and dull, as Chekhov himself acknowledges in his private communications. It is a long story with no love interests, female characters, no tensions, and even the climax does not hit you in its O' Henry-esque suddenness, but creeps into you  slowly, searing through your heart, like a long forgotten pain slowly emerging from the depths of obscurity. In my scant readings on Russian literature (lets say 19th century Russian literature), I have found this sense of gloom very universal. In Gogol, in Dostoyevsky, and now in Chekhov, a picture of Russia emerges that is very similar in its gray bleakness. With its cold damp wintry streets, man's soul tortured by suffering and seeking solace in alcohol,  and a society whose values have become all but extinct, 19th century Russia, is a land, where man blended in with the colors of melancholy nature in the most undesirable fashion.As Chekhov himself observes, nature provides little respite in Russia from the sufferings. In one of the last few scenes, when Andrey Yefimitch looks out of the window of Ward No. 6 to see nothing but a "cold, crimson moon" and the adjoining prison cell. Along with society, the simple solitary pleasures of nature too, seemed taken away from the man in this cursed land.

But Ward No. 6 is much more than a harsh indictment of Czarist Russia. It is a story that is deeply symbolic, its characters are like voices in a man's head, whose whispers grow into violent argument in the solitude of the night. The whole story, its setting, its characters are finally a build up to the philosophical debate between Yefimitch and Gromov, and a tragic account of how society views this engagement. Chekhov questions the nobility of renouncement, the Hindu way of Nirvana (and probably engages with Tolstoy, too, on this point). In Yefitmitch's rejection of the futility of real life, Chekhov sees the naiveté and indifference of a nobleman, and the dumbness of a vegetative life, signified by Gromov's neighbor. (Remarkable, how each of his characters, even the most insignificant convey an essential point. A master short story writer indeed!) Yefimitch's entry to Ward No. 6 is also his entry to the reality of Russia's common man, his introduction to the pain and suffering of real life. And how beautifully Chekhov describes the scene:

"So this is real life," thought Andrey Yefimitch, and he felt frightened.
The moon and the prison, and the nails on the fence, and the far-away flames at the bone-charring factory were all terrible. Behind him there was the sound of a sigh. Andrey Yefimitch looked round and saw a man with glittering stars and orders on his breast, who was smiling and slyly winking. And this, too, seemed terrible.
Andrey Yefimitch assured himself that there was nothing special about the moon or the prison, that even sane persons wear orders, and that everything in time will decay and turn to earth, but he was suddenly overcome with desire; he clutched at the grating with both hands and shook it with all his might. The strong grating did not yield.

It is from the stinking insanity of Ward No. 6 that the sanest voices emerge, for theirs is a philosophy carved out of suffering. Gromov desires life, he desires life's simplest pleasures, his freedom and does not buy into a philosophy that, in denouncing the material life, not only expresses its naiveté but is also a convenient politics to deny the masses their rights.

Chekhov questions the concept of insanity, and the power structure that benefits from the existence of this institution. In pushing Gromov and Yefinitch's intellectual engagement to the periphery of society, in dismissing man's thirst for philosophy as an insane exercise, Chekhov's small Russian town represents, in a microcosm, the world's great power structures, where artificial rituals, moralities strengthen beliefs that make it easy to push the inconvenient off the cliff, in this case, to Ward No. 6.

I think it was Herman Hesse, who once said Nietzsche's madness is not his madness, it is the madness of the modern man.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Avatar: Liberal Guilt and Liberal Fantasies

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things..... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Thus begins Howard Zinn's magnum opus "The People's History of the United States". It is a book that many a "Proud" American would place in his closet rather than his bookshelf. The stories of heroism that he tells his children in late night stories and school history books, the inheritance to the Western enlightenment and visions of democracy that he so vehemently proclaims, would be reduced to a mere exercise in rhetoric and hypocrisy, if history was known to the ordinary man as in this fashion.

James Cameron has brought out the skeleton from the closet. In this he has not said anything new. In fact a thousand activists are fighting Jake Sully's battle at this very moment, as I write. These battles are being fought with more ordinary weapons, and the familiar unfairness that God bestows upon reality. Jake Sully's tale is another fairy tale from the big screens of Hollywood, but it is unique in its exploration of the issue of development, in "entertaining, mainstream cinema", in the pop-corn munching, soda sipping multiplexes,those mosques of urbanity, which, ironically, are often the very symbols of the development that Cameron questions.

Cameron has also played out the ultimate intellectual's fantasy, in pitting the liberal,eco-friendly, pacifist, science PhD intellectual brigade against the unholy alliance of the headstrong stupid six pack, and the suave, clean shaved cold blooded calculating businessman (I was often tempted to replace W and Cheney in these two positions as I watched the movie!).As Col. Qaritch talks of pre-emptive attacks, and Selfridge talks of the quarterly earnings, the liberal is taking his sweet revenge over an world it has failed to control.

Avatar's position on the politics of development does not come out loud and clear though. In fact, it seems, it is happy to take the Luddite position, without much explanation. It is in the end, only good triumphing against the evil. But is the evil a necessary one? Avatar refrains from answering this all important question (But then, it is probably expecting too much from a fantasy film of sorts). However, it is a question that requires a deeper thought. For Avatar's villains are also the heroes that we have worshiped since the dawn of civilization. If Christopher Columbus is a shame that the white man would like to hide in the myriad descriptions of conquests, so are the early Aryans, whose invasion of India left very few traces of its original inhabitants.Almost all of the world's greatest civilizations have been constructed over the carcasses of a weaker people. Development, too, has followed a similar path. And it is not the greedy capitalist or the feudal emporer alone, who have wreaked the havoc. The cherished Empire of the people, Stalin's USSR sacrificed millions to the altar of development. Today, as India's "socialist" Government goes on a development spree to become a superpower, we see the all too familiar faces. From the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, to Nandigram in West Bengal it is the same question that haunts the modern liberal intellectual, the child of Socrates and Columbus. In fact, one cannot hide a chuckle at how Art imitates life, when the Vedanta Inc. threatens to take over the Nyamgiri mountains in Orissa, home to the Nyam Raja, the deity of the Kondh tribals who inhabit the adjoining area.

Very soon, such insignificant details would be buried within the weight of history books, and the obscurity of academic theses. The history of India's development, would probably have such trivia as mere footnote, or may omit them altogether. For as Kundera says, the powers that be do not want to change the future, but want the authority to rewrite its past. As the deeds of Columbus, or W or Chidambaram are erased from the books of history, and the memory of the people, sometimes, they would peek from obscurity in the form of Clementin's fur hat, or Cameron's movie.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Interpreter for the Bengali Diaspora

Like Ray’s globe-trotter Manomohan Mitra (in “Agontuk” or “The Stranger”)1, the Bengali has never been a “KupoMonduk”. The Bengali migration has not just been across the barbed wires separating the two Bengals, but has often carried him across the oceans, to new continents and cultures. Jhumpa Lahiri is a product of that “Wanderlust”. More than any other writer of her time, Jhumpa has emerged as a spokesperson of her generation, one that has been born and brought up outside Bengal, spent their lives far away from the sights and sounds of this land. It is a life lived in a myriad of fragmented cultural identities. The middle class Bengali values of home, the All-American values at school and the big wide world, the Indian identity at Diwali, all combine, collide, embrace and sometimes repel each other in this strange whirlwind of immigrant existence. We have met this generation, often looked at them with the curiosity of a stranger, but have never quite been able to fathom the complexities and confusions that surround their lives.

It is a generation, often misunderstood, by Bengalis at home, and at large, by the Indian community, which alludes to the word “A.B.C.D” with deriding connotations. But such casual, offhand criticisms do little in understanding the complex dynamics of the American born Bengali generation. The one dimensional clichés that have existed in Bollywood (and very recently in Tollywood too) in the name of “crossover cinema” have only worked in order to enhance these widely believed stereotypes, but have failed to give us a more nuanced look at this generation. Jhumpa, on the other hand, tells the tales of more ordinary people, multihued characters who are far away from the cartoonish caricatures of pop culture. In the “Namesake”, Moushumi Majumder (often described as a character close to Jhumpa’s own self) does not try to balance Bollywood and ballet, nor is she given to the stereotype of the Western Bengali fawning over “Baul”. Moushumi is intelligent, self assured, reads French feminist theory, and carries herself in her own friend’s circle without the burdens of expressing her Indianness.

But questions of identity creep in more subtly into her literature. The sense of belonging or the absence of it expresses itself in strange ways through the pages of her stories. To some, the faraway land that one has left behind becomes a mere detail in their lives. Dev, in “Sexy”, defines his identity simply by a point in the map of the subcontinent. Beyond that, he says to his girlfriend, there’s
“nothing she’ll need to worry about”. It was a life that he was prepared to forget, just like the wife he had at home, in those precious moments with Miranda. While some forget easily, others cling to their identities with a zealous passion like Mrs. Sen. She wears her identity in multi colored sarees (and stores more of it in the form of more sarees in the wardrobe), her cravings for fish and in her refusal to adapt to the customs of the new land.

The house has come up as a dominant motif in diaspora literature, time and again. In Naipaul’s protagonist Mohan Biswas, whose life is in many ways a symbolism for the existence of the displaced amidst others, we notice the strange yearning to own a house, a tract of land that he can call his own. Amidst strange people in strange places, one’s own house becomes the only expression of a threatened identity. Sanjeev, in “the Blessed House”, becomes zealously protective of his home. Although not overtly religious, he violently opposes the placing of Christian memorabilia in his home. His repeated insistence signals the insecurity that he faces over his identity, and that he wants to cling on to the image of the house that he presents to strangers as the only source of his identity in a foreign land.

The sense of displacement is also often accompanied by the pangs of separation. None expresses it better than Mr. Pirzada. Mr. Pirzada’s life is an anachronism in the most literal sense. The arms of the small pocket watch that he carries, points to the time in Bangladesh, where he regularly calls his own near and dear ones. The concept of time, in this foreign place, carries to him, no other meaning. There can be no better symbolism of displaced existence, one that captures the protagonist in that one small idiosyncratic moment, and reveals him in such great detail. While new identities are created, old identities which have expressed themselves so fiercely elsewhere merge seamlessly in this distant land. The two Bengals come together at the dining table as Mr. Pirzada “eats rice with his bare hands”, and the baffled young child expresses, as nobody else can, the futility of partition.
“It made no sense to me” she says “Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes….chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive…. Nevertheless, my father insisted that I learnt the difference”.

Finally, the greatest source of cultural confusion, as Jhumpa has correctly identified it, is names. Which immigrant has not faced this situation, when in an apparently friendly crowd, the harmless question of “What is your name” suddenly creates that odd feeling of isolation, when you want to look away from the prying eyes? To Gogol Ganguli, life’s confusions start with his own name, a name that suddenly separates the All-American kid from his peers. To the young Dixit girl (in the story “Sexy”), who used to be taunted with “The Dixits dig shit” in her school bus stop, the Indian name is more than a source of confusion, it is a deep scar that she will carry throughout her life. It is Jhumpa’s ability to put into paper these small fleeting moments of humiliation and shame that makes her a great writer.

But Lahiri, inspite of the rich social experiences portrayed through her writings, is hardly an “academic’s writer” or a “postcolonial poster girl”. She is, rather, a “writer’s writer”, more of a craftsman, one who carves a beautiful narratives out of everyday existence. Jhumpa is a product of that new generation of writers, whose training in writing has been in the “creative writing” classrooms of Ivy League universities, leafing through the Janet Burroways and the Yellow Gotham softcovers. One can see in her the qualities of a trained writer, a sharp eye for detail and complex character sketches. She eyes the Bengali life with the wonder and the curiosity of an outsider. The intricacies of mundane Bengali life take a new color in her pen. When the young child wonders why Pranab kaku barges into the house without knocking or an appointment, or Mr. Pirzada makes a deep well in the rice to pour more lentil soup, or when Eliot notes with surprise as Mrs. Sen uses “a blade that curved like the prow of a Viking ship” (“bnoti”) to cut vegetables, it is only Jhumpa who stands with one feet on each aisle can capture these tiny, insignificant moments so beautifully. Her building of a scene often reminds one of John Updike. Like Updike, her portrayal of small town America is rich in detail and imagination, signaling a sensuous engagement with reality.

But perhaps Jhumpa’s greatest strength is in her portrayals of characters. Through each small incident, each idiosyncrasy, she slowly and painfully constructs her characters. Each of her characters is a different human being, one who deals and lives with her immigrant identity in her own unique way. They are often lovable, sometimes selfish, but they resonate with the warmth of proximity. Take Aparna for example, the protagonist’s mother in the story “Hell Heaven”
2. Even when she emerges as a control freak mother to her teenage daughter, we never forget the greyer shades of her character. Her muted expression of love for Pranab kaku, her unhappy marriage and confinement in a foreign land, her conservative Bengali values, all reinforce each other to create a character that is richly layered. But amidst all these complications, she never seems a distant woman, a woman who could reside only in the pages of a novel. In moments that she longs to hear “Boudi”, or discusses “Nargis, Raj and the umbrella” with the bubbliness of a teenager, we could see in her the newly married girl next door. It is this ability to build convincing and endearing characters that separates Jhumpa from the scores of others in the same trade.

The major criticism against Jhumpa is that she has rarely stepped beyond the Bengali-American perspective. New York Magazine, in speaking of her new book, writes
“Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England”.3 But then Hardy never went beyond Wessex or Faulkner beyond the Yoknapatawpha County. R.K Narayan never went beyond the small town in South India, nor did Jhumpa’s other idol Gogol go beyond cold and damp St. Petersburg. Jhumpa herself retorts “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”3 Writing is a craft that’s deeply personal. Stories are not drawn out of vacuum, but out of cold hard reality. But the writer does not merely document reality, she transcends its objectivity. Jhumpa has done it time and again, telling us how upwardly-mobile-South-Asians-in-New-England is not just a stereotype, but an endless variety of faces whose lives and dreams represent the world itself in a microcosm. In doing this, Jhumpa has ushered in a new era in Indian literature, and we hope, there comes out more of her kind, “from Jhumpa’s Overcoat”.

1. http://www.satyajitray.org/films/agantuk.htm
2. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/05/24/040524fi_fiction
3. http://nymag.com/arts/books/profiles/45571/?imw=Y

The post originally appeared in "Bangalnama". This is a very interesting webzine run by a group of friends, in an effort to chronicle and celebrate the culture, politics and identity of (erstwhile) East Bengal. It is an issue close to my heart, as it is an history whose bits and pieces I have grown up seeing. The webzine contains a number of interesting posts, which I would highly recommend.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bikes and Boyhood Memories

As I lifted my new bike up the stairs of my Apartment, I remembered an older bike, thinner and lightweight. I, too, was then, a skinny young teenager, so different from my present persona. I used to lift the bike on my shoulders, my thin frame barely managing to carry it beyond the first floor stairwell. Slim, maroon, shining new, and it was probably one of the few possessions that I was careful to keep that way. Most memories rust, like neglected furniture in monsoon verandahs, but a precious few must be remembered sometimes, wiped clean of dust, to whisper to us, of happier times, more carefree days.

The bike was an everyday companion, one with whom I have probably spent more lonely evenings in little known neighborhoods, than with the best of friends. Small town “mophoswol” childhoods are blessed with a certain feeling of reassurance. Neighborhoods may be unknown, but were rarely unfriendly. I may drift far away, but down a few blocks, I will always know a “kaku” or “dada”, the kind who always knew how to set things right (or so it seemed back then). Long relaxing bike rides across winding alleys, the wayward slum off the township, or planned officer quarters with neatly trimmed gardens started becoming the time I looked forward to, through boring classes on moral science, geography and SUPW.

As dusk settled on blast furnaces and employee quarters, middle aged housewives peeked from their balconies, their eyes still heavy with contented “bhaat ghum”sand a cup of tea in their hands. The cacophony in the kitchen would announce “Kaajer mashi’s” hurry in doing the last utensils of the day, and a tea cup with a Mary’s biscuit at the corner of the plate, would sum up the Bengali idea of “bikelbela”. I would meanwhile, find an excuse to sneak out, carry my cycle downstairs, and away!

It was that time of life, when thinking of profound questions gave me a feeling of wisdom, a sudden heady feeling of being grown up. Big names crowded my head, and “reflection” had suddenly turned into an activity. It was also a time of guilty pleasures. It was in one of those bike rides, a few neighborhoods away, when I gathered up the courage to go and ask a middle aged shopkeeper “ekta filter wills”, feigning the offhand air of a regular. I still remember how I felt dizzy, after my first cigarette, and was almost falling off the cycle. But of all feelings, the sweetest was that of freedom. My protective Bengali childhood, the expectation of peers and parents, the stress of end semester, the pressure to conform to changing fashions of teenage, and most of all, the pressure of growing up, were all tossed by the wayside, as the bicycle whizzed past neighborhood houses.

Today, visions of neat, orderly, contented American life, with plasma Television sets flashing in the living room, and water raining down upon bushes trimmed with geometric precision pass me as I ride down the slopes of Pittsburgh’s hilly terrains. This land feels strange, the smell of the earth unknown, but I can feel the same bliss of freedom on a bicycle seat, that my younger self felt years, years ago.

P.S. The post is heavy on Bengali words. So, here is an appendix.

"mophoswol" :small town


"Dada":Elder brother


"kaajer mashi": housemaid

"bhat ghum": En extended nap after a heavy lunch (which consists mainly of rice and curries)

"ekta filter wills": "One filter Wills please" ("Filter Wills" is a popular brand of cigarette)

Saturday, May 30, 2009


This is more of a note to myself than a blogpost.
I just started reading William Barrett's "Irrational Man: A study in existential philosophy".
I have merely read through 30-40 pages, but I can feel that same sense of excitement, that I had encountered when I was first introduced to Postmodernist thought. In a sparsely populated classroom of a fourth year IIT elective, a most lucid and wonderful teacher had introduced the engineer to Beckett and Camus.

Now, as I try to make sense of postmodernist thought, trying to break through the shackles of fashionable jargon mongering that much of this field is believed to be about, I find in Barrett, the most able guide.

Dostoyevsky seems to make more sense to me now. Raskalnikov's critique of the liberal rationalism that was pervading Russia at the later half of the 19th century seems more fathomable. With the advent of the modern industrial age, as science made inroads into the very depths of the human mind, faith, with all its elaborate rituals and symblisms which had given man strength and purpose, was slowly eroding away from human cosciousness. The great void, a nothingness,surrounded this loss of faith. For the rationalist philosophies which emerged out of this churning never adressed mankind's most intimate issues.
Marxism believed in religion as the opium of the masses, the sigh of the opressed, and it sought to drown the individual within rigid definitions of class. However, what the rationalist philosophies failed to capture was the despair of the modern man, the irrational being whose consciousness transcended the mere mechanics of rational beliefs, whose thoughts were much more than elements made of simple building blocks that the English empiricists loved to play with.

And the journey of the modern man has not been easy, as he has traversed to fill this void that the disappearance of faith has created. Through Nietzsche's sufferings, through Dostoyevsky,Kiekergaard we finally come to the existentialists.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Blogging the elections

I know I am late in the party. The elections have already begun, and the great festival of democracy has reached the zenith of excitement. The war of words have taken ugly turns, the "musical chair" of the less reliable partners is also in full swing. Twenty four hour news channels no longer have to rack their brains to come up with inconsequential news items to fill that void in the "Breaking News" category. The TV channels are having a feast, and so is, I imagine, the middle aged Indian male. Finally, in the battle for the "TV remote control" , there is a credible excuse!

But where do we start analyzing the elections? Is it an election of many firsts? or is it simply a repetition of the same old game of coalition politics, the same "dirty politician's game" that much of middle class India seems to be tired of?

The foremost difficulty in giving a fair perspective of general elections is the problem of memory. Elections come once in five years, and the news that had created waves five years back, the headlines that we had swallowed eagerly has already gone out of our minds. We dont even remember the high drama of the previous elections, the feuds that began and the friendships that were forged, the promises that were made, and the critiques that were made (of the previous regime).

However, to start off, probably all of us acknowledge, that the elections are being fought at times that are quite remarkable, in its own accord. The global economic meltdown has forced the Government in the backfoot. Surely, anti-incubency factor would help the Opposition. However, the BJP does not seem to be interested in cashing in on this issue. This is of course, quite predictable, given that their economic stance has always been more pro free market, pro capitalist. Hence, it is impossible for them to suddenly come out and acknowledge the obvious failures of a newo-liberal economic agenda, and press for a more closed economic system. This wouls also dent their middle class voter base, who depend on the BJP to push forward a more pro-reform policy. The only parties who are at a perfect position to exploit the accidental coincidence of the meltdown and the elections, are the Left parties. They are doing their bit, in blowing their trumpet on how they saved India from being badly hurt by obstructing the reform agenda when they were sharing power. However, the influence of the Left is limited to a few States, and much of their energy in West Bengal is spent on having a one to one battle with Mamata Banerjee,the mercurial leader of Opposition. Little else matters there, as far as election campaigning is concerned.

This is also an election marked by a lack of frenzy, a lack of an utopian hope on a new order, of change that is going to show a new path. Rather, it seems to an election where keeping the house in order seems more important, than shooting for the star. This also looks rather odd, when we look back, and see that the last big election that we followed was an election of huge promises, the "hope for a change". While America was fighting for change amidst an economic recession, and a terrible blunder of a wasteful war, in another part of the world, in a matter of few months, we are seeing an election, where the country is having an election on rather dull issues, and spicy non-issues, where there is little that is expected from each side. India has seen more exciting elections. BJP riding on the Ram Mandir wave, or more recently on the "India Shining" wave, a byuoyant Congress riding on the Gandhi factor. However, all this have become cliche now.
Hence, to keep up the pace, we only see a battle of words between two rather dull people, people for whom words cannot spell the same magic as it could have done for better politicians.

So much for now. It will be a rather busy week in terms of academics, but I promise to come back here and keep up my election blogging.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Spicy Chicken Curry

Cooking,to me, is a weekend luxury, and an integral part of that grand narrative, often described as the "grad student experience". As a rule, I never take the trouble to go through the detailed rituals of Bengali cooking, in weekdays. Weekend evenings, however, are filled with th fragrance of exotic spices, and the smoke alarm lies in the table, its batteries stripped off.
What do I call it, the "chicken kalia", the "chicken bharta", the "chicken korma"? It matters little to a novice like me. Also, not being a "food blogger" technically, I will take the liberty of not classifying the dish into a specialized compartment.
I shall only say, that in this big wide world, I differentiate the tastes of Bengali chicken, into two subclasses. In one class is the "jhol", chicken pieces floating in an enticing watery soup, one that used to be the staple of elaborate Sunday lunches, back in my childhood. Bengali food bloggers often use the name "Robbarer chicken"(The Sunday chicken), which I find immensely nostalgic, and can identify myself readily with the origins of the name. The Sunday chicken is a delicacy, that I have never ever eaten outside, and is actually, an extremely tough dish to make, though you may think on the contrary. It is the simplicity of the dish, and the lack of spices, that makes it tough for a novice cook, who attempts to hide his lack of intution behind the mystifying effect of a concoction of spices, that might entice the indian food novice.
The second, is the chicken with a spicy gravy, one that is relished with a "Roti" or a "Naan" (Indian bread), one which I have ordered in restaurants without fail, since the time I have started eating out.
Still today, the perfect dinner for me, is spicy chicken curry, with Bread.
Hence, the Saturday aventure.Without more ado, let me present to you, my version of the spicy chicken curry. A bachelor, as I am, the quantities are meant for 1 person. Of course, I must caution you, in cooking, the multiplication of spices,does not proceed in a simple linear fashion.


1. Mustard Oil: Chicken needs lots of oil (My weekend cooking is exempt from the general principles of healthy food that I attempt to adhere to)

2. Whole Garam Masala (This is a mixture of spices that my mother used to make at home, but you can find the mixture at any Indian Grocery Store)

3. Onion: 1 (Assuming onions in your kitchen are as big as the ones that abound the supermarkets in Pittsburgh)

4. Ginger Paste

5. Plain Yougurt

6. Minced Garlic (I used the readymade one)

7. Salt

8. Two Split Chicken Breasts

9. Ground Garam Masala (another Indian Store specialty, unless your mom put it in your suitcase while leaving home)

10. Salt

11. Sugar

13. Bay Leaves

14. Green Chilli :1

15. Ground chilli
  • Cut the onion into half. Put half of the onion into the mixer with a little water. Make a paste of the onion.
  • Cut the chicken into medium sized pieces
  • Put the chicken pieces in a bowl. Pour the onion paste into it. Add 2-3 spoons of ginger paste, about half a spoonful of minced garlic (I am not so sure about the garlic, as I have grown up in a non-garlic household. However, I just add a pinch, influenced by the bengali cooking experts on the internet). Add about 4-5 Spoons of Yogurt. 1-1.5 spoon ground Garam Masala and about 1/2 a spoon of turmeric.Add about 1/2 a spoon of ground chilli (Depends on how spicy it is). Cover the chicken and let it marinate for a couple of hours. The more, the merrier. When I plan in advance for guests, I would generally do this process the day before, and let the chicken marinade overnight. However, the bachelors own eating plans are never made days in advance, and hence a couple of hours is the standard advice. In my scant experience, I have found marination to be an extremely useful tip in the chicken cook's bag of tricks. The more you marinade the chicken, the more the juices go into it, it becomes softer, and the less you have to cook it.However, you need not worry if you want to skip the marination part also. If you are in a real hurry, just leave it for 5-10 minutes, while you are arranging the other stuff, and getting the oil to heat up.
  • Okay, part One is over. Come back after two hours. Put 4-5 spoons of mustard oil in the pan and heat.
  • While the oil is heating, slice the other halkf of the onion that is left.
  • Once the oil is smoking hot,Put the bayleaves.
  • Now put the onions into the hot oil. Be careful to stir the onion continously, otherwise the hot oil will cause the onion to burn black. This is one of the most common mistakes of the novice cook. You must cook the onions only till they are transparent. Never let them turn dark brown.
  • Put 1 spoon of sugar. The sugar in US really does not do anything to the taste. In this case,it is advantageous, because I want the sugar only for the color. If its the Indian sugar, add less.
  • As the onion starts turning transparent, add the whole Garam Masala. I just add it with my hand. It is difficult to give an exact estimate, but lets say 1 spoon. Keep stirring it in this whole process. Otherwise, the masala will get burnt spoiling the whole effort.
  • When the onion starts turning brown, add the marinated chicken.I add 1-2 more tablespoons of oil at this point. Since most of the initial oil is now spent in frying the onions and whole garam masala..Voila! you are done. thats it to the "adding ingridients" process. The rest is the painful task of stirring it throughout the cooking procedure.
  • Make sure, throughout the process, the gas is set at high. Now, keep stirring it, coating the chicken with the masalas. I cannot overemphasize the importance of continously stirring the whole concoction, for otherwise, the oil will burn the masala, which will stick to the bottom of the pan, and this will spoil the whole taste ( I have burned it a number of times, and hence, the advice, even at the cost of repetition).
  • Add about 2 spoons of salt (or as per your own estimate).
  • Add one sliced green chilli.
  • The gas should be high, and the pan uncovered, so that the water evaporates. Then, the masala, as well as the chicken will get fried in the oil. The process should continue for a painful 20-25 minutes (Trust me you will get more than compensated when you start eating!). As you keep stirring it continously, you will find the oil is seperating from the spices. This process is called "koshano" and is an integral part of the art of bengali cooking.Its also one of the cook's "Nirvana" moments, when he finds that he has learnt the art to perfection, and without burning the spices, he has managed to get the separation.
  • Keep adding little water when you feel the spices are sticking to the pan. Add water, and let it evaporate, then add a little more water. You should do this a couple of times.
  • If you have not had the chance to marinade the chicken, you can cover it cook for about 10 minutes, so that the chicken gets cooked properly.
  • Then remove the cover, and let the water evaporate, so that you are left only with a thick gravy.
  • Remove the pan from the stove.
  • The best way to eat the dish, as I said, is with Naan, or Roti.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Issues and Non Issues

So is this a new trend in this year's elections?
Or is it my memory turning rusty?

First there was Varun Gandhi, the neglected stepson of the Gandhi family, playing hard to make it to the frontpages. Then there was the non descript journalist from some mediocre Hindi daily, hurling shoes at Chidambaram in the Bush way. There's Narendra Modi discussing some shit about "Budiyas" and "Gudiyas", which I have not even cared to listen to.

Elections in India, just as in other parts of the world, have always been fought over fancy issues, over utter non issues. But, this, somehow, is carrying politics beyond levels of ridicule.

The country has a lot on its plate. There is an Indian economy that is fighting its own battles over an inclusive model of development, and is being further tested by the recession, that is shaking the very foundations of the free market. Then, there is the issue of security, one which the BJP, one would have thought, would aggressively campaign about.
However, these campaigns have been a damp squib. What has taken centerstage, rather, is the Advani-Manmohan battle of words, or the shoe throwing tantrum.

One wonders, what happened to serious democracy?
When cricket has reduced itself to IPL, has the election also reduced itself to a few fast food'esqe news bytes on the front page?

Monday, March 23, 2009

I have been reading some African-American literature in bits and pieces for the past few weeks. Not that I had specially planned to educate myself about this dark underbelly of American culture in some systematic fashion, but it just happened that the books that I picked up at random in the last few weeks, among my busy APS meeting schedule, were loosely in that genre.

BTW, the APS meeting was great. It was a busy week, getting to know peers and listening to very fascinating talks. It is one of those moments, when you look up from the drudgery of everyday research, and can have a birds-eye-view of the fascinating research that is going on around you, and can feel the passion and excitement of fellow researchers, highly motivated to do good science. My talk went well, and it was especially motivating to hear words of encouragement from people in the community, having the highly reassuring feeling, that the research that I am doing is indeed important to the community, and the problem is not trivial or unimportant to people in the community.

Back to African American literature. I picked up Maya Angelou's "Heart of a Woman" from the thrift sales in the campus. I would not consider her a great literary talent. I have read better writers, definitely, but the story of her life is fascinating. She has lived through exciting times, been through the whole sixties/seventies thing, and has the uncanny ability to attract the best and the brightest, towards her. From Billie Holiday to Malcolm X, her fate has crisscrossed with the most famous of her generation. When Black America was fighting its greatest fights, Maya Angelou was at the center of the action, in Harlem. She was fighting with Martin Luther King, hobnobbing with the black intellegentsia at the Harlem Writer's Association, was sometimes living the struggling black woman's life,singing in the city's poorer night clubs, fighting the loneliness of the single middle aged black woman, or struggling to become a good mother to her son. What her story,as well as Barack's story reveals is an aspect that we often miss out on, while concentrating on the more "important aspects" of the racial question. The questions that foremost come to our mind are more stark issues, that of equality in rights, harassment in workplace or in the street etc.

But what we generally tend to miss out in these more controversial political questions, are the very deep personal struggles of a man, the more subtle problems, which go beyond the more political definition of "discrimination". When Maya sees her otherwise well behaved son threatening to resort to violence, to counter a threat given by a local teenage hoodlum, we feel the helplessness of the Black mother, fighting not only against discriminations, but against a society that has been created out of it. There is little an individual can do, to prevent her loved ones getting sucked into this vicious circle of Black crime(fortunately she manages to do something dramatic in this case).

Obama presents pictures of a more subtle form of discrimination.In his own words:
"Still the feeling that something wasn't quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder, or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball, or when the school principal told me I was cool.............".

One is instantly reminded of Dubois.
"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

There is probably no other man who has expressed the deepst wounds of the Black man in as many words. Beyond the political struggles, beyond the questions of rights or affrimative action, it is probably these hidden spears in the most casual of smalltalks, that hurts the Black man the most.

(P.S. I am halfway through the Obama book. He again amazes me. I did not expect such powerful writing skills from such an amateur writer. He expresses himself with a passion that is unequalled by any other commentator. BTW,Dubois is next on my reading list. So,more on this next time)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Cafe Evening

The music melts into the ears as an integral part of the decor. The lights seem to reflect my moods, or does it define them? The sunlight which comes through the frosted glass panes, that open up to the busy thoroughfare, is the only sense of time, that one can feel inside. Twilight seems to stretch infinitely, even in the cold wintry evenings, slowing down time, as if the laziness inside seems to affect the celestial order.

The large porcelain coffee cup stares into my face. I always love my coffee dark. That's the way I have always had it, since my awkward "fresh off the boat" experimentations. The waitress knows this. She never asks. Her warm smile has a familiarity that separates her from the tons of other smiles that one encounters at the more big, professional stores.

I never put sugar in my coffee. It somehow gives me the odd feeling of trying to artificially sweetening the bitterness. Is coffee bitter? or probably its the inner bitterness that just talks to you in your most solitary moments. Have you noticed your coffee speaking to you? Doesn't it taste different on drowsy weekday mornings, when the dread of the impending work, as well as last night's fatigue, fights against the caffeine in your mind? Or when the day's 7th cup on the "day before the deadline" suddenly gives that odd feeling making you want to throw up?
But this coffee is different. It seems soothing. The fatigue of the weekdays melt away as you feel the evening is going to last for ever. The quiet sips, and the words of your book, they will go on and on. Neither sleep, nor the watch will intrude.

The white porcelain cup is stained with coffee drops, creating strange patterns. The fluid dynamicist in me is amused. I gaze into it for some time, then go back to my book. Tension is building up within the characters in my novels. I look up again. I need a break. I turn my head an notice my neighbors. The strange unfamiliarity that surrounds unknown faces, the blankness that reveals nothing, makes me think, if they can ever be characters in a book? If they can ever express the variety of emotions, if their lives were ever touched by most incredulous people, the most weird events, if their eyes can tell stories of lands far away?

The girl beside me is typing away in her computer, what is perhaps a school assignment. She never does the occasional "looking up" act. Her eyes are staring at the screen intently, from behind those nerdy,minimalist glasses, that you often encounter in engineering grad schools. Her nails are unkempt, and her dress seems so hastily put up that you would imagine she went out of the house in a great hurry.

There's a woman at the table to my left. Her thick glasses and age that speak through the wrinkled patch of skin around her eyes, tell of a life spent in intense scholarly pursuit. I take a peep at the book lying in her table. Its the obscure stuff that is the holy grail of liberal art academics, and wannabe intellectual parties, where they are blurted out with little understanding. Beside her is the so-familiar "Shantiniketan Jhola", that great hallmark of Indian intellectual tradition.

The chair beside that hosts an younger man with a athletic build. He is the adventurer guy, the one who hikes in mountain trails, goes to unknown arid lands, and would probably tell you tales of his treks in mount Kilimanjaro or about smoking grass somewhere up in the icy confines of the mighty Himalayas, if you strike up a friendly conversation with him. The very light hint of the golden beard gives a certain softness to his face when the light falls on it. He is sifting through a book of photographs. Its like the ones you see in National Geographic magazines. He has a camera beside him, on the table, the one whose complicated design assures you of its infinite powers of optical trickery.

There's an young couple to my right. Dressed immaculately, both of them have a glass of hot chocolate in the table. They talk softly, as if of great secrets, and carefully hidden wisdom. Their hands often touch, hinting at that charming unfamiliarity of strangers just fallen in love. A pair of sleek mobile phone lie on the table, its screen brightening up at intervals, announcing ethereal communications, from acquaintances elsewhere.

My eyes travel again to my book. I take a sip at my coffee. The last sip is all that is left. I always take the last sip, unlike the "tea tradition" that I had learned from my father. I get up ot order the second cup. The waitress' familiar smile welcomes me.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Samajwadi,Left and the ethics of politics

A new 24 hour soap opera is playing out in the corridors of power in Delhi in the recent days,following the debates on the nuclear Deal. This is the kind of mega serial that we have been used to, since the days of coalition politics have begun. Remember Vajpayee's 13 day Government or the drama surrounding DeveGowda's resignation in the days of the Third Front.

These dramas have given rise to new kinds of politicians, the "deal brokers". The greatest of them all is a one time small grocery shop owner from Kolkata,a man called Amar Singh. Amar Singh is having a gala time these days, happily playing his role as the King maker.

While on end of the spectrum is Amar Singh, whose stands on important issues can change faster that a chameleon changes color, on the other end is the ever-so-stubborn Prakash Karat. It is in these times of crisis that the true colors of politicians and parties come out.

The media and a portion of the Congress party has been consistently blaming Karat and the Left Front for opposing the Government's developmental plans (read neo-liberal reforms) and coming in the way of functioning of the Government. However, the politics of the Left has always been straightforward. CPI(M) has never joined the Government in the history of independent India,even when Jyoti Basu was openly offered the Prime Ministerial berth by Sonia Gandhi after Deve Gowda's resignation (If it were the Samajwadi Party,or some such, it would have fallen head over heels over such an offer:) ). It has given its support from the outside, always maintaining that it has irreconciliable differences with the Congress Party. The Party's opposition to policies has also been consistent, and even its worst enemy would not blame that Karat has flip-flopped based on secret meetings in 10 Janpath (discussing you-know-what).

That is what the Left is doing even today. With SP supporting the UPA,the Left is virtually isolated now. However,that does not bring them to a compromise on the issues of policy. Also, in the short run, it was not at all in the advantage of the Left to withdraw support from the Govt. It is not in a good shape in West Bengal where it has fared badly both in the Panchayet and the Municipal elections. Also,it is in power in all the three States it is most powerful in (West Bengal,Kerala and Tripura) and with the rising inflation, there will be a huge anti-incubency factor acting against it due to the price rise. Thus, strategically speaking, the Left would want to delay the polls for a few months now. However, these short term political complusions have not caused the Left to make U turns in policy decisions.

Let us take a peek into the Samajwadi Party's role now. SP, probably on account of their Muslim votebank,had been opposed to the Nuclear Deal till about a week ago. Suddenly, at the press conference of the UNPA, Master Blaster Amar Singh says, their knowledge and concerns on the Nuclear Deal are based on what the newspapers have said and what their "Communist friends" are said. (Here again, this time more clearly,"I am in constant touch with Prakash Karat on nuclear deal. Everything we know about the N-deal is through the Left parties.....")

Wow!! I mean Wow!!!

Leave alone a responsible political party, does even a responsible adult individual form opinions based on their neighbor's judgements? Thus, we come to know that the SP's opinion on this important issue was not based on its own judgement of the situation,but simply from hearsay.The next episode, meticulously planned by Amar Singh, is to land up straight on the doors of former President APJ Abdul Kalam (I suspect Mr. Singh had a secret phone call with Ekta Kapoor that afternoon). Now,while Abdul Kalam may be knowledgable on the technical aspects of the deal (its effects on India's atomic research etc.),his knowledge on its political fallout (Concerns on India's strategic alliance with the United States) may only be as much as that of a layman. Therefore, to hold a single individual's views as sacred and immediately declaring a 180 degree turn on policies is "naive", at best. It was a poor attempt to hoodwink the people who have voted them to power, who expect them to take a principled stand on issues, irrespective of the kickbacks or the ministerial berths that they recieve. The drama probably does not end there, for to support the UPA Govt. is to support not only the N Deal, but its various other policies (economic for instance),which they had been opposing tooth and nail till a few days ago.

And the worst part is that portions of the media, and a large part of the "Shining India" seem to have turned their backs to these facts in a frenzy of left bashing. Or it probably says a lot about the priorities of a certain section regarding issues such as "ethics" and "ideologies".