Om Puri

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Om (18 October 1950 – 6 January 2017)

We are a selfish people.

We remember others only when they die. It has nothing to do with the people who have passed on. The only reason we remember them is because a part of us dies with them.
It is no different when one reads about Om Puri’s passing on. I remember him not so much for what he was but for a purely selfish reason.

My first memory of Puri is of him being in a dilemma, switching on and off a table lamp in Ardh Satya. Of him reading Dilip Chitre’s poem, on which the film is titled, Half Truth.

In an inspired moment I wrote down the poem, translated it and then showed to a comrade who worked for the Communist Party’s Punjabi weekly newspaper. It so happened that at the same time, Santokh Singh Dhir, a well-known short story writer close to the CPI, was looking for someone to translate his poems from Punjabi into English for the Indian Express. This comrade connected the two of us, and I had my first claim to fame, as a half page supplement of the city’s Indian Express weekend edition carried the poems that I translated. I was in my teens.

My next memory is the film Aakrosh, in which he played the role of an adivasi whose tongue has been cut off. As idealist youngsters, we sympathized with him, his tongueless screech made us wrench and our blood boil. We felt like that bearded, kurta clad, jhola wielding, young man played by an actor whose name we never cared to find out- because we were him.

In those years, I grew up with Om Puri, whose pockmarked face captured the many pockmarks of our young, sometimes scared and sometimes hopeful adolescence.

As the news of his passing on sinks in, I remember him because a part of me goes with him.

It also awakens a part of me that time and age has camouflaged but never been able to kill.

A part that is alive.

Every obituary is also a celebration of what has survived.

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The Year Gone By – 2016

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Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.

***

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)

After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection: Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2016”

In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City

Bhupinder Singh and Bhaswati Ghosh

PART 1

A welcoming refuge: Bhupinder

Cuba, and not Mexico should have been the first Latin American country I visited. In my youthful years, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara held a special place in my mind.

Mexico came to me much later — in the murals of Diego Rivera, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the magical realism of Juan Rulfo and other writers like Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes and Mariano Azuela. It was the country that had provided refuge to the leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky, the Indian communist and radical humanist M.N. Roy and later to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Mexico, therefore, held the promise of an exotic land that found a resonance in my literary and political imagination. It seemed like a welcoming home for those who were hunted and ostracised in their own countries.image00

The decision to make a trip to Mexico during the long Canadian winters when ‘snowbirds’ make short trips to warmer lands in the Caribbean was intuitive. What wasn’t as intuitive was our choice of destination. Much to the surprise of friends and colleagues accustomed to take vacations at beach resorts, we decided to travel to Mexico City. A few lessons in rudimentary Spanish provided me with enough confidence to take the plunge. Tripadvisor provided a good enough idea of the key sights to see.

It was with trepidation and expectation that we landed in Mexico City in the afternoon on Good Friday. The weather was perfect for our sun-parched eyes. The drive from the airport to the hotel reminded me of cities in India — New Delhi, Chennai — and also of how much at home I had felt on my trip to Tokyo. Being a holiday, the shops were closed and the traffic was relatively easy. The bright colours — green, orange reminded me of Chennai, the wide roads of parts of New Delhi and the easy walk of the pedestrians, in contrasts to the near-military gait of the Western people, reminded me of Tokyo.

The city purple: Bhaswati

I’ve come to the City expecting to see a riot of colours — bold reds, blues, greens and yellows. Yet, the colour that holds me in a dreamy sway all through my stay turns out to be purple. From the time we land in Mexico City on a warm Friday afternoon, the sky appears canopied on all sides with jacarandas in bloom. I instantly know what love is. It is to be in an absolute new place and not feel like even a traveler, much less a tourist.

Continue reading “In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City”

Fragments of a life

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra (2015)22542595

My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.

All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired. Continue reading “Fragments of a life”

Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar

Shahid AnwarRemembering theater activist Shahid Anwar ( 20th Sep-1965- 1st March 2016)

Death is like a sudden chill. It freezes liquid life into a block of ice. Memories, conversations, email messages become hard like rock, like frozen sculptures. When this rock is the life of a person like Shahid Anwar, it will be a long time before it begins to melt.
I knew Shahid initially as the colleague of a common friend. I never saw any of his plays although he talked to me about some of them. He went on to become a friend whom I met sporadically, but we developed a deep bond over time. I lived in Gurgaon and visited him, sometimes at his Sainik Samachar office in North Block — our first meeting and conversation was on an autumn evening under the shade of the trees on North Avenue. Later I met him a number of times at his house in RK Puram and then in Vasant Vihar.

Continue reading “Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar”

Where did the Indians go?

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Statesbhupinder
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Beacon Press (2015)

In my many years of professional life in the US and Canada, I have worked with people from many nationalities but not encountered even one Indigenous person.

As I read through Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, it became easier for me to understand why this is so.

Dunbar-Ortiz delves into the history that is missing from the mainstream US history’s obsession with biographies of great men. Dunbar-Ortiz contends that the depopulation of the Indigenous people from around 100 million when Columbus reached the place was not just the result of diseases that the Europeans brought to the Americas, as is commonly perceived.

It is her well-argued conviction that it was the result of a genocide carried over the last five centuries.

Read the full review at Cafe Dissensus

The Year- and a decade- gone by – 2015

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A combination of unusual circumstances at work and home ensured there was more writing than reading for me this year. I reviewed some of the books I read besides writing two review essays based on blog posts written over the last decade. Several more — on subjects of caste, Indian politics and Marxism remain to be written.

Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams had been long on my list of to-read books and I finally managed to ‘read’ the audio version, and no disappointments all. Freud makes the book engrossing by including his own and some of his patients’ dreams to illustrate his method of analysis. It is a fascinating subject and helped me immediately to begin interpreting my own dreams using some of the concepts explained in this work. The book is long and sometimes long-winded, not unlike some other works written over a century ago. I was daunted by its sheer size and even though the audio version is lengthy as well, the journey is not without its rewards. Continue reading “The Year- and a decade- gone by – 2015”

The Significance of being Lalu Yadav

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Twice in his lifetime, Lalu Prasad Yadav has made history by taking on, and vanquishing the Bharatiya Janata Party, from its juggernaut roll. In 1990, he arrested L.K. Advani leading the  so-called Rath Yatra meant to liberate the Ayodhya temple. In 2015, he has stopped the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine from winning in the state of Bihar. Much decried by the secular liberals, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s one year has been marred by increasing intolerance and institutionalized mediocrity — whether it be in the quality of its central ministers, its appointees to educational institutions or in administration and governance. Its threat has been magnified by its continued successes in the states even after the 2014 general elections that brought it to power at the Center.

As in 1990, when the Rath Yatra seemed to know no fear and advanced across the country as few mass movements have in recent decades, the communal onslaught was stopped not by the ‘secular left’ or the the Congress — a party that swears by secularism but has followed a policy of balanced communalism for as long as one can remember. Though they were much relieved, as they are now, the same set of secular liberals deride the caste politics, as they perceive the politics of Lalu Yadav, and Mulayam Singh Yadav or Kanshiram and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, to be. Ironic as it is, the reason for this is not far to seek. Continue reading “The Significance of being Lalu Yadav”

Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society

(The background to this post is the return of literary awards by many Indian writers, to protest against the killings of some writers and increasing attacks on minorities over issues like eating beef.)

Thomas Mann’s observation that “a person lives not only his own life, but also that of his contemporaries”, applies to everyone, but perhaps even more to writers and poets because they feel and speak for us even when we are not able to put into words our deepest feelings, and sometimes are not even conscious of them until a poet or a story writer tells us.

Writers respond to what goes on around them and to the mood of the times. As thinkers, they occasionally express ideas and views that do not always find acceptance. This brings writers into conflict with the powers that be.

Books are banned and even pulped — as in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism. Authors are physically attacked and even killed for their writings. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for many years because of death threats. In conditions where writing is stifled, the form evolves and morphs to find expression. Continue reading “Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society”

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, thoughthediscreehero his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.

In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.

Common Threads

While the life stories of each of the men are different in many ways, what unites them is the disappointment that their sons turn out to be. The optimism of the hard-working fathers is offset by the pessimism of their descendants. The perceived optimism is limited to that of the two businessmen fathers enriched during Peru’s neoliberal upturn in the 1990s. Continue reading “The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies”

Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand

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Nek Chand passed away on 12 June 2015.

Nek Chand‘s Rock Garden was one of the first places I went to see when I moved to Chandigarh in 1981. There were few places to see in Chandigarh — the Rose Garden and the Sukhna Lake being the other two major attractions. What made the Rock Garden stand out was the inventiveness with which everyday waste had been recycled into beautiful creations.

The middle classes at that time had not yet tasted the explosion in wealth that came in the 1990s, and as children our hobbies bore the imprint of the economic necessities that marked our lives. During summer vacations, I would try to make papier mache crafts from old newspaper and jell bits of leftover soap into a soap bar. The melted wax of the candles during Diwali would be patiently collected the next morning and melted again with a wick to create home-made candles.

Perhaps it was this economic frugality in the everyday life that subconsciously attracted us to the Rock Garden and left a deeper impression than most other landmarks in Chandigarh.

Unlike Le Corbusier, whose name we struggled to pronounce and spell, Nek Chand was a common man’s name. “Nek” means “a good natured” person and we imagined a person whose heart was full of kindness. The sculptures seemed to bear that out, too. We were awed by the presence of a local hero, a living legend. There were stories about how he moved around in the city on a bicycle. Kids claimed to have seen him in the garden, and I would not have believed them had I also not spotted him there myself.

DSC02790Stories about his simplicity abounded and sometimes made headlines. Continue reading “Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand”

A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III

south_america2The Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War gives a glimpse of the deep involvement of poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes that “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”.

Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure.

I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.

Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III”

A Decade in Blogging: A Literary journey to Latin America – II

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Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 -3 of this post.

(Continued from Part I of the post)

Among the writers who have looked at the impact political dictatorship in suppressing natural human instincts is Manuel Puig (1932-1990). One of the first post-Boom writers, he’s best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Llosa once said about him,

Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig.

The plot of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, Manuel’s first novel in English, is seemingly straightforward. Ramirez, an Argentinian trade union-organizer and revolutionary, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization and is provided an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous stream of dialogue between the two, as the attendant, Larry takes Ramirez around New York. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Literary journey to Latin America – II”

A Decade in Blogging: A Literary Journey to Latin America – I

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Map depicting the countries and some of the writers that are discussed in part 1 -3 of this post.

Latin American Literature is like the Amazon river, massive in its expanse and meandering across many thematic streams. The most well known of these is its association with magical realism and what has come to be called the “dictatorship novels.” But there is more to it. It has explored fantasy, the eternal theme of love as well as that of sexual suppression and, of late, the psychological life of the individual as the collective village communities give way to urban angst.

There is a lot more to Latin American literature than magical realism.

Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Literary Journey to Latin America – I”

How I became a “pure non-vegetarian”

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My earliest memory of food is eating roshogollas at our neighbour, the portly Mrs. Sen’s flat in Bokaro. Other memories from that age—three—and later, mostly include things I did not like— milk, brinjals, karela, spinach and yogurt. Over the years I’ve made peace with and even begun to like all these, except yogurt, for which I retain a strong revulsion.

Read the complete post at Antiserious.

A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia

Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.

Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us all feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.

The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .

If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.

***

During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest of this journey through my reading lens. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia”

Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Capital: the Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Katherine Boo Capital

“He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”

Chris Abani

Quoted in “The Planet of Slums” by Mike Davies

India’s recent spurt in urbanization pales in comparison with that of China, where the urban population has increased from 26% in 1990 to 50% in 2010. During a similar 20 year period India’s urban population went up from 25% to 31%. However, it is a significant shift when seen in the context of the pace of the preceding 90 years — it took 90 years for it to increase from 11% in 1901 to 25% in 1991.

According to a recent report, an astonishing 49% of India’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the super rich.

Behind these statistics are the lives of the people and individuals who are living through these transformative years. Two recent books, focused on the two largest cities in the country–Delhi and Mumbai, explore these lives in the times of this transition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is by an American journalist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo married to an Indian and the other Capital: The Eruption of Delhi is by the British-born writer of Indian descent, Rana Dasgupta, who is married to an Indian as well and now lives in New Delhi. The contrast between the two books is remarkable- Boo explores the lives of the poor in one of Mumbai’s slums while Dasgupta converses with the rich and super rich of the country’s capital city.

Katherine Boo’s tells us the humane stories that we just don’t hear any longer in the mainstream media or even popular cinema. The characters in Boo’s book live in Annawadi. This Mumbai slum of 335 huts and 3,000 residents is next to the international terminal and surrounded by four 5-star hotels, is home to people segregated by boundaries of caste and community. There is a Tamil dalit community in one part, a Maharashtrian in another and a Muslim section, all cramped into the one acre area. Continue reading “Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city”

The Year Gone by- 2014

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2014 for me was the year of reading long e-books, on Kindle as well as books borrowed from the local library using Overdrive. I finished not one, but 3 books, each more than 300 pages long. For someone who has struggled for the last few years to use an e-reader, it is a feat in itself.

The most important book of the year was undoubtedly “Kanshiram” by Badri Narayan, and the first long book read on the kindle app.

The biography was long overdue about the man who single handedly was responsible for changing the face of North Indian politics and bringing Dr BR Ambedkar to the center stage. The lingering image that I have carried from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar is when he spent a night under a tree because, despite his appointment to the court of the prince of Gaikwad, no one in the town was willing to rent out a house to him because of his belonging to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste.

The image that I carry from Badri Narayan’s book is that of Kanshiram sitting on a stack of the paper that he brought out and carried around on trains scouring the length and breadth of the country.

On a related note, “The Chamcha Age” by Kanshiram (available as a free pdf), was an eye opener. This is the closest to a ‘theoretical’ tract that Kanshiram ever wrote and provides a glimpse into his critical take on contemporary Dalit politicians and the subsequent praxis of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Continue reading “The Year Gone by- 2014”

And in such myriad ways your memories come to me, as night falls

faiz-by-sunil-janah(written on 20th November 2015, the 30th death anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a poet much loved in Pakistan and India)

(Picture by Sunil Janah)

21 November 1984. Faiz Ahmed Faiz came to me in an obituary in the newspaper, The Tribune, when I was a curious high school student preparing for a general knowledge quiz.

1987. Faiz reappeared in a communist march, with his tarana, “Hum mehnatkash jagwalon se jab apna hissa maangeygain,” the equivalent of the Internationale in Hindustani – on my lips.

Faiz came to me a year later, in a small booklet published by some radical outfit that is long gone.

Faiz came to me in his collected poems, “Saare Sukhan Hamare” (“All words are ours”). I made a long trip to old Delhi’s Daryaganj in DTC buses to Raj Kamal Prakashan to procure the newly-published book at the then royal price of Rs 100. It was that difficult and that expensive to buy it. The book still accompanies me, along with the “Diwan-e-Ghalib”, a quarter of a century later.

Faiz’s quatrain, “Raat yoon teri khoyi hui yaad aayi” (“And in such ways your lost memories came as night fell”) became my first painting that I created inspired by a poem.

“Raat yun dil mein teri khoyi hui yaad aayi,
Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye,

Jaise sehraaon mein haule se chale baad-e-naseem,
Jaise beemaar ko be-wajhe qaraar aa jaaye.” Continue reading “And in such myriad ways your memories come to me, as night falls”

Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India

Bipan Chandra
Bipan Chandra (27 May 1928 – 30 August 2014)

It is natural for Bipan Chandra who died last week on August 30, to be best remembered as the author the NCERT text book “Modern India”, but his work as a historian went far beyond that.

His PhD thesis, later published as “The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880-1905”, as well as “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” and “India’s Struggle for Independence” provided new vistas for research and understanding of modern Indian history.

The latter two works were particularly significant and hotly debated. “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” was the first work dedicated to the study of communalism, and “India’ Struggle for Independence” used Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution and counter hegemony to understand India’s struggle for Independence. Continue reading “Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India”