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”

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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.

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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”