What men read

Camus and Orwell are the favourite authors among nearly 500 men surveyed in England, a study shows.

“We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do,” said Prof Jardine. “They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals.” Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

“The men’s list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading,” she said. Ideas touching on isolation and “aloneness” were strong among the men’s “milestone” books.

Some of the observations are contentious- there is an element of stereotyping of both men and women that stands out in the study.

The only observation I could find myself agreeing with is that most men do indeed read fewer women writers.

Related Links:
The Books that Move Men
There are some interesting comments at the guardian blog discussing this article.

My own list of 5 books that helped helped to shape me emotionally over the years:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (age of 13)
Mother by Maxim Gorky (at age of 16)
What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernesvesky (at age of 19)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (at age of 24)
The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta by Mario Vargas Llosa (at age of 35)

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Mistaking a Rope for a Snake

A friend of ours wrote a play called Maruti and Champagne. It is genuinely funny and quite exciting. It is not at all nasty or provocative. Its humour is ‘nirvish’ (that is, not malicious, to use a word rather popular in the language of the newspaper reviews in the language of the marathas). No body would have thought that a comic play like that would ever invite anybody’s wrath.But it did. There is a group called Patit Pawan Sanghatana (PPS). It is one of the five Hindutva-oriented organisations in Maharashtra, the other four being the RSS, the Samarasata Manch, the VHP, and of course the Shiv Sena….It stormed the little theatre where the show was being staged and forced it to close down.

…But the story does not quite end here. The silence that the national press and media observed was deafening. All the so-called local “news lines” faithfully observed a mystifying silence.

In contrast Arundhati Roy’s turning down the Akademi award made greater news. All papers noted it. And look at the irony of the Booker prize winning novelist’s position. When small and defenceless groups are being victimised by non-governmental semi-fascist groups, the “Booker lady” is angry with the government. She does not see who is threatening whom and how. The fact of the matter is that in our country it is less the government and more the semi-fascist groups, which are threatening the cultural rights of the people. To go on attacking the government in such a situation is a classic case of what is known in Sanskrit as ‘Sarpa Rajju Nyaya’ (mistaking a rope for a snake).

Full text here.

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‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’

Hindu mythology tells the story of Ekalavya – the tribal youth who cut off his thumb on the demand of Dronacharya so that Ekalavya would not be a better archer than the kshatriya boys. Ekalavya, being a tribal, must have been a natural archer – but he was mutilated and robbed of his traditional skill and his right to self-defence and survival. Today, one gets the feeling that the story of Ekalavya is being played out again and again.

Two hands and a leg amputated. The remaining limb yet to heal, has turned gangrenous and may also have to be removed. His kidneys have been damaged due to excessive bleeding and he can hardly eat and digest any food.

And yet defiance still sparkles in the eyes of Bant Singh, a Dalit agricultural labour activist, as he lies in the trauma ward of a state-run hospital in Chandigarh where doctors are battling to save his only remaining leg and even his life.

It is precisely for this defiance, coming from a ‘lower caste’ Dalit, that Bant Singh from Jhabhar village of Mansa district in Punjab was beaten to pulp and left for dead by armed upper caste men around a fortnight ago.

Bant Singh is known in his village and among his comrades as a singer of rousing protest songs.

When his comrades met Bant Singh in hospital, they broke down – but Bant Singh told them, ‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’

Full account here.

Link via Mahmood Farooki.

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Gandhi in India Today

Douglas Allen, activist and professor of Philosophy at University of Maine in an interview with The Hindu, an excerpt:

I first came to India in 1963. People felt the need to parrot Gandhian slogans but no one really followed his ideals. In the 1980s, it was mostly the politicians who used him. In the 1990s, I found that politicians could take an open anti-Gandhi stand and still win an election. People were openly critical of Gandhi, something you would not hear in the 1960s.

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Madrasas in West Bengal- Different Strokes

A report on the secularization of madrasas in West Bengal:

While statewide figures reveal that 12 per cent of the 3.29 lakh-odd students in West Bengal’s madrassas are Hindus, in some the percentage is much higher. At Badaitari Ujiriar High Madrassa in Jalpaiguri district, 25 per cent of the students are Hindus while at Elmenoor Barkatia High Madrassa in North 24 Parganas, nearly a third of the students are Hindus.

So, why do so many Hindus in West Bengal choose to study in madrassas? “Why not?” asks Dr Abdus Sattar, president of the West Bengal Board of Madrassa Education. “The syllabus is the same as in regular schools, the certificates we issue are recognised and considered as secondary school and high school equivalents all over the country. We also enjoy some advantages over regular schools. We charge minimal tuition fees while providing the same or even better quality of education than schools.

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One Nation, One People

I have never been to Pakistan. But I have a strange, unexplicable nostalgia for Lahore and Karachi.

My mother was born in Karachi. My father, in Lahore.

My maternal grandfather came from Hyderabad, Sindh.

As a child, one heard of how they made it across the border after partition. Some of my early childhood years were spent in Jalandhar, on the first floor of a shop where my grandfather, with his white beard with matching turban and Turkish features traded in wood and counted his rupees and coins, read his prayers in Gurmukhi, maintained his records in Urdu and read Urdu newspapers till the end of his life, which was in 1984, as tanks marched towards the Golden Temple and curfew was imposed all over the truncated limb that was called Punjab, but really should have been called East Panjab.

Very much like the Indian Bengal that is still referred to as West Bengal. Somewhere, at the back of the mind, the feeling of One Bengal remains, whatever be the conventions of the modern nation states.

Whenever I read about buses and trains going back and forth between Lahore and Amritsar, I am moved, followed by a strange calmness that overwhelms me. Jaise beemaar ko bewajah karaar aa jaye, as Faiz remarked so poignantly in a different context but so aptly.

I feel as if I am walking in Krishna Mohalla in Lahore. Maybe, my grandfather’s house survives there. Maybe. Maybe some walls survive, perhaps even a door and a few windows that look out into the red brick lane that had turned brown and black over the years, as people rush by and my grandmother haggles with the vegetable vendor over the price of brinjals…

Born in Bikaner, near the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan, Reshma’s family had migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition.

‘‘What is the difference between India and Pakistan? We’re one people, one nation. There is no difference in the minds of artists and common man,’’ she said.

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Stealing Food from India’s Poor

Jayati Ghosh writes on how the UPA government’s decison to reduce the distribution of foodgrain to the the poor in India is leading to a situation that is nothing short of a national crisis.

Yet, the dominant media ignores these developments- preferring the story about Chidambram voted as the best Finance Minister in Asia, for example. Meanwhile, the situation of the poorest of the poor turns catastrophic:

Only four respondents out of 1,000 said they had eaten two square meals the previous day. Out of the remaining households, 48 per cent had eaten two poor/partial meals, 35 per cent got one poor/partial meal plus one distress meal, 11 per cent could get just one poor/partial meal, 0.2 per cent had eaten only one distress meal and 5 per cent had eaten only jungle food on the previous day.

The UPA will wait for the next election for being taught the same lesson that the NDA/ BJP government was taught in May 2004.

(Graph: from The Frontline magazine)

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A Partition Story

Here is a touching partition story.

The Samjhauta Express, called ‘Train of Emotions’ today re-united Rabia Bibi with her brothers after a gap of long 58 years. “Now I could die peacefully as Allah (the Almighty) has accepted my prayer to meet my brothers”, said Rabia.

The Sikh brothers, Mr Kesar Singh and Mr Joginder Singh, both residents of Dam Ganj, Amritsar, who were here along with their daughters, sons and grandchildren said that their sister who was only 12 was separated from the caravan which was coming to India.

A related story here.

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Yesteryear actress Nadira was hospitalised in Mumbai’s Bhatia Hospital, five days ago, following a mild stroke.

One is surprised to find that little attention has been paid to Nadira, the actress of Bagdadi Jewish origin who was immortalised in the song “mud mud ke na dekh” in the movie Shree 420, certainly the most powerful of Raj Kapoor’s early cinema that bore the mark of not only Raj Kapoor, but many others among them Khawaja Ahmad Abbas.

The song is picturised tantalizingly on Nadira as the hero (Raj Kappor) struggles to decide between Maya (Nadira) and Vidya (Nargis), between the bourgeios (“Maya”) and the plebian (“Vidya”). His choice falls on Maya. Few moments in Indian cinema have been as poignant and stark as this particular song.

It stuck me that she is 74, that means that she must have been little over 25 when she acted in that movie.

One wishes Nadira a speedy recovery and a long life.


Toronto, after the first snow of the season last week

It was a return to Toronto after 9 years, and I found my impressions this time very different from my last visit from when I carried the images of dark, gloomy skies and snow and rain. This time, it was sunshine and visits to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery that temporarily housed the Catherine collection from the Hermitage, a deferential visit to the Niagara (again after 9 years and from the opposite, Canadian side). But what turned out to be best was a walk through Chinatown, and meeting a friend- Gaurav Joshipura- after nearly a quarter of a century…. suddenly I realized that not much had changed !The Bible in arabic script, from the Syrian Orthodox church. Royal Ontario Museum

Tusks at the Royal Ontario Museum

A feast in a Vietnamese eating place in Chinatown and …

… some imaginative names for a bookstore and a pub, both next to the Art Galley/ Chinatown.

Mukhtaran Mai

Three years ago, four men from her village in Pakistan gang-raped Mukhtar, then 33, to punish her brother for an offense they believed he’d committed. Her honor destroyed, she was expected by her community and even her own family to kill herself in shame. Instead, she marshaled deep reserves of dignity and strength to show her village what honor really is. Over her own father’s initial objections, she went to the police, ultimately facing her attackers in a trial that put the four men in jail (an appeal that could free them is still pending).

When the government rewarded her with $8,300 in compensation, she chose not to flee with her cash, but to remain in her hometown and use the money to start the village’s first-ever schools, even as her rapists’ tribesmen continued to threaten her. “If women aren’t educated, it’s hard for them to speak up for themselves,” she has said.

And only education, she believes, will stop future generations of men from abusing women (she has even enrolled her rapists’ children).

Coverage of Mukhtaran Mai’s press conference in Washington (source: Despardes)

Dr. Manzur Ejaz places Mukhtaran Mai in a wider context of a tradition of women’s stuggle in feudal Punjab.

Responding to a question about Dr Shazia Khalid, Mukhtar Mai expressed sympathy and solidarity with her as a fellow victim of rape. However, she made a subtle distinction between herself and Dr Shazia Khalid suggesting that the good doctor may have abandoned the struggle by leaving the country. This reminded me of two famous characters from Waris Shah’s epic story.

Waris Shah distinguishes between love as a vehicle of social struggle — to overcome class, creed and tribal prejudices — and the desire to be with the lover by any means. Heer chooses to fight the predominant socio-economic system by openly embracing a buffalo herder, Ranjha. By contrast, her sister-in-law Sehti, portrayed as a very scholarly woman, seeks personal resolution by eloping with her lover, Murad Baloch. Heer, a woman of knowledge and faith, has to confront her family, tribe, religious institutions and legal system. Sehti takes the easy way out.

Waris Shah makes the point that mere suffering or its awareness are not enough to change an oppressive system. He is so intent on distinguishing between social struggle and efforts for self-gratification that his hero Ranjha refuses to elope even when Heer, in a weaker moment, suggests that. He says,

Heeray ishq na mool swad dainda nal chorian atay udhalian dey
(O Heer, the love, carried through deceit and elopement, is never fulfilling.)

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The ‘Hindu’ Speed of Traffic

In the small town of Nuh in Mewat district in Haryana, I once counted as many as 76 passengers coming out of a single jeep (locally called “maxi- cab”), a very normal mode of transportation in that region that is less than a 100 kilometers, yet a century away from New Delhi.

Its not just the volume, but also, as Praful Bidwai observes, the speed of traffic that is changing:

Most people in big or small cities would say it now takes twice as long to commute from one place to another, as it did a decade, even five years, ago. This is borne out by micro-level studies. For instance, in Mumbai, motorised traffic slowed down from an average of 38 kilometres per hour in 1962 to 15-20 kmph in 1993, in Delhi from 20-27 kmph in 1997 to 15 kmph in 2002. In Chennai, the average speed was as low as 13 kmph in 2002, and in Kolkata a glacial 7 kmph in the city centre.

Vodka and Death in Russia

One of the most enduring images of the former Russian President Boris Yeltsin is making important speeches while drunk high on vodka. Now two researchers suggest that there is more to vodka drinking in Russia than anecdotal stereotypes- it is actually the liberalization of vodka production and distribution that has contributed to increasing mortality rates, which are now about 16.9 per 1000- a rate comparable to the worst AIDS afflicted African regions. Interestingly, the mortality rates are not the worst among the poorest sections.

Vladmir Putin has recently expressed support for the nationalization of vodka distribution

Dr Rafiq Zakaria passes away

It is hard to believe but Rafiq Zakaria was indeed the father of Fareed Zakaria, the Newsweek editor. One read Rafiq Zakaria’s writings like the one on Iqbal , Jinnah and Islam (Muhammad and the Quran) with a sense of bewilderment, for his range of knowledge was enormous, as it was for a generation of intellectual- politicians that has more or less passed into history with much of their dreams un- realized. Kaifi Azmi best summarized their quest: I was born in a country under colonial yoke, lived in a free country and will die in a socialist one.

Less of a radical than Kaifi and many other among the Muslim youngsters who turned to the Congress and the Left in the 1930s, Rafiq’s secular credentials were impeccable. Which is what made it always difficult to digest that his son went on to become an apologist for the West’s dominant preceptions on Islam in the last decade. The eternal father and sons contradiction at work perhaps.

The BBC and the Indian Express carry the news about his demise.

Marching for the World’s Poor

I am touched as I myself sit in a reasonably comfortable hotel on the riverfront in a Southern US coastal city as I read this story. I often wonder about a statement that a person once made, about 16 years ago, when TKR introduced me to his friend saying that this young man is a communist. His friend replied: a communist at 20, and a capitalist at 40. I am still a couple of years away from being 40…will the about turn be complete by then?

BTW, it is hot and sultry in Savannah. The waters at the Tybee island beach, brownish and muddy…I liked the walk around the old downtown yesterday and also the visit to the Pulaski Fort today morning. The River cruise for today afternoon is what I am looking forward for the evening and then a good dinner and sleep before going off to South Carolina and then to Atlanta tomorrow. And back to work.

Tomo Chi Chi

I am in Savannah today. I took a walk along the Riverfront, the statues and the parks and the evidently European flavour of the neighbourhoods near the riverfront reminded me of Pondicherry, the heat and the humidity adding to the effect.

The surprise discovery was the grave of the Indian chief who practically gave away the state of Georgia to its white founder George Oglethrope (and after whom a major road in Savannah is named). The Indian chief has been praised as a ‘man of fine physique, tall and of great dignity’.

All this for one who in the pre-ceeding paragraph on the same plaque has been identified as the person who negotiaged the ‘treaty that ratified on May 23, 1733, pursuant to which Georgia was settled‘. When it should have said annexed.

In India as well, we had terms to identify persons of such great stature. They were referred to as the running dogs of British imperialism.

TKR: The Portrait of an Editor

TKR: The Portrait of an Editor


Over the last fourteen years I had the opportunity to know T.K. Ramasamy, as an editor, a person, a friend and even as ‘a spinner of yarns’- all at the same time. As I attempt to write about him I can only hope that my perspectives will help to construct or conjure at least a part of the person himself.

Let me begin by admitting that my experience with TKR was above all, highly educative- he instigated one to write but also plodded, corrected and showed the way forward.

As an editor, TKR worked hard on some of the articles and book reviews that he received. In my case, my very first one was substantially changed- for good reasons, for after he had read my review he asked me (rather maliciously as I imagined it then): is it a book review, an article or an essay? I didn’t know the answer. However, I more than understood when I saw the review in print. That was my first lesson in writing.

Subsequently, my relations ship with him was more like an Urdu poet of yore sending his couplets to his ustad, who would bring about corrections here and there and for which one would wait impatiently. Over the years these corrections became less frequent and increasingly nuanced. Once he told me that he had to work very hard on a review that I wrote on a book on Indian nationalism. On reading my published review, I commented that I saw no change to what I had written. He only smiled.

Later when I compared my original review with the published one, I realized that he had indeed modified it: he had cut off its rough edges, chiseled it with an adroitness that smoothed out the words and brought it to an even tenor. Subsequently, it forced me to look for every tittle that he changed- it was an education that one started taking for granted. It upsets me today to think that what I write will not pass through the clinical gaze of TKR. It feels as if a pillar that one had got accustomed to lean on has disappeared.

TKR was a teacher in another way. Having studied engineering at college my forays into social science and literature was mostly by self- learning- an unstructured learning guided by the study of Marxist classics in the company of equally amateurish activist students. It was the Marxist ideologue Mohit Sen, and next only to him, TKR who provided a more mature appreciation of theory. Both, however, were contrasting in their methods. While the former provided, as he continues to provide, broad sweeps and direction, TKR was concerned more with the nuts and bolts. While the former was always convinced about his formulations, allowing little space for disagreement, TKR always retained a streak for skepticism.

TKR’s criticism of a point that I would make was in pointing out small, dark recesses of the argument- rarely a direct or frontal attack. Instead, he would make a statement of fact or offer an opinion countering a seemingly irrelevant point in the case that I would have built. He left extending the argument to its logical conclusion open. In other words, he would leave its generalizations and theorization to me.

Slowly, as I began to understand his method, it often shook me as the flaws in my argument dawned on me. Sometimes, it was overwhelming- because I thought that by making a minor criticism and not questioning my broader argument, he had conceded my main point. Little did I realize that his seeming surrender had been, in fact, a conquest.

Going over to Ramasamy’s house on the weekends that I was in Chandigarh, especially the last few years, had taken on something of a ritualistic rendezvous. I often found him with his regular set of friends, and there would be discussions on everything under the sun, always illuminating.

On less crowded days, he would quiz me about computer viruses or how the Internet worked. I tried to explain the more intricate technologies involved, rather clumsily I suppose. I would get my own back, quite gainfully, when he explained terms and processes in economics, a subject of which I was completely ignorant.

Sometimes the topic would span different terrains- I particularly remember once when he discussed how change in technology affects journalism, in fact, the thought process of the journalist and therefore the content itself. Journalists of his age, he remarked, usually thought out everything in their mind, revised and altered it a number of times in their minds before sitting down behind a typewriter to put them on paper in a single shot- a process that took only the time that depended on the typing speed of the person behind the typewriter.

Not having known many journalists of his times, I am not sure if this applies to everyone, but it surely did for him. The actual time that he took to churn out an editorial was a few minutes- for he had composed and refined it over and over again in his mind.

His own initial opposition to computers melted into a grudging learning of the technology and later to a comfortable co- existence as he tried to learn new features and use the computer for his daily work.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He would insist on using my full name in the byline, while I preferred only the first name. I could never decide what I could buy for him as I scoured the malls and specialty stores abroad. His needs were few, and gifting him something that went beyond those would have offended him. I always came back empty handed.

He would also dislike certain traits in people but suffered them in silence. He would take his drink slowly and avoided eating much, even as he relished talking about delicacies and intricacies of recipes.

What, however, appeared as idiosyncrasies were mostly a manifestation of the world outlook of the man, which was a confluence of many streams- customs of his native South Indian upbringing, his ideological moorings and his liberal dispensation. The last two were especially important, and interesting because while he remained on what he considered to be the more radical version of Marxism, and therefore should have been, I felt, to be more sectarian and less accommodative of contrary opinions, he was quite the opposite.

As I moved quickly in the four years at college from fringe versions of Naxalism to Soviet Marxism and still later to what TKR generously termed as the liberal left, I realize that it was actually TKR who assisted with the transition and made me question a number of my premises. I feel that he never renounced the core of his beliefs as much out of conviction as because of loyalty even as he refused to force others to kowtow his line of thought.

For TKR, like for many others of his generation, Marxism was the contemporary face of humanism. Their embracing of Marxism had involved among other things, a deep commitment to its ideals and a substantive break with the past.

He saw himself as part of a larger army that comprised some of the finest minds of his generation. They felt that not only the future was bright, not only that they had deciphered the genetic code of history and hence mastered the future but also they were its harbingers- the future belonged to them! Only the details had to be worked out. They had a role in shaping this future.

However, unlike many others who aspired or placed themselves at the head of this movement, TKR was content to be a foot soldier. His area of operation remained at the molecular level.

As the years went by to give way to doubts and eventually the smothering of their dreams as fort after fort of ‘existing’ socialism collapsed like a house of cards and their Indian vision began to give way to popular neo- liberal propagandists, it was clear that the dream had soured. The general optimism was giving place to a pessimism- but TKR did not let pessimism lead him into the labyrinth of cynicism.

It did not mean an abandonment of his core beliefs- for him Marxism combined intellectual rigour with an abiding ethical appeal for the underdog. For those like TKR, as he once wrote about himself, who wore their heart firmly on the left, it took on the form a religion in the affirmative sense- a religion for the modern world, a religion whose belief rested in iconoclasm. ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (‘Doubt everything’), as Marx had put it.

In addition, it imposed a code of personal conduct, Stalin himself had firmly instructed the then Indian communist leadership of Sripad Dange, Rajeshwar Rao and B.T. Ranadive when they went to see him: above all, renounce your personal interests.

TKR’s formative years also coincided with the emergence of the newly independent country. A general optimism suffused the air.

The more impatient ones opted for Marxism as frustration with the relatively bland flavour offered by Nehru-ism became evident. The historic split in the Indian communist movement found TKR on the more radical wing. This was surprising and somewhat contradictory for in his writings he was always balanced and mild. One exception was a eulogy that he wrote on the death of B.T. Ranadive, whom he admired.

At the risk of a hyperbole and over- stretching a historical analogy, one cannot help feeling that while his age produced its fair share of Bazarovs and Rudins, it is yet to produce its Turgenevs.

TKR worked all his life with small newspapers, and before he joined the Tribune, with ideologically left of center papers.

His professional life was guided by ideas and his ideas were moulded in the fire of Marxism, his puritanism a part of not only his moorings in the Old Left but also his Brahmanical upbringing in a South Indian family- a legacy whose living content he continued to uphold and, mediating through his new glasses, channel them in new directions. As a small aside, one can remark that his knowledge of classical music, for example, helped him savour the Punjabi Sufiana qalam of a Puran Shahkoti or the Wadali brothers in whose singing he found a confluence of the classical with the folk, though he did not fully know the language.

To Chandigarh, a city devoid of history and traditions in a country where time is measured not in centuries but in millenniums, TKR brought a part of that history, traces of that tradition and inklings of the social and political struggles that had raged there. He adapted himself and them into the local conditions. Without him, the city is devoid of a piece of architecture that Le Corbusier forgot to design- an edifice of the mindscape.


TKR changed in certain respects over the years, at least with me. The early years (in late 1980s and early 1990s) of debate and verbal criticism gave way when he would recount his days in Nagpur- as a child and as a student. His escapades conjured up images of a little Swamy, not in Malgudi, but in Nagpur as he waded with his listeners through the lanes and by lanes of Nagpur with flourishing portraits of the people he had known.

My last meeting with him was three weeks before his death. I was meeting him after nearly five months and I felt a substantial change in him. He was much weaker physically and somewhat incoherent.

I had noticed, for the past few weeks, small spelling mistakes or a stray typographical error on the book review page- these should have been an indicator enough of his health, so immaculately was this page normally done, which he insisted on doing all by himself. But that winter evening, as we clinked our glasses, my eyes briefly met his- and in that moment I discerned a softness that betrayed resignation. The final news came as a vindication of that momentary encounter when one had desperately hoped for a refutation.

But then death and tragedy had stalked Ramasamy’s home for the last few years of his life. Illness and fatal accidents claimed, first his nephew, then his youngest brother and then the disappearance and presumed death of his remaining younger brother two years ago- all making for a gory sequence that would have made any other person of his age turn to superstition and mysticism. TKR felt emotionally depleted but tried to make as little of this as possible. ‘My grief is my personal grief’, he remarked to a friend, ‘No one can share it.’

Bhupinder Singh
07 March, 2002