Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Eka Kurniawan: Man Tiger.

This striking novel set in the lush hinterlands of Indonesia was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Kurniawan draws readers into a richly complex tale with the very first sentence. “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat...” The killer and the victim are identified beyond doubt, yet a riveting mystery is deftly built up.

 Why would a good-natured and popular young man kill his harmless middle-aged neighbour, that too in an unimaginably gruesome manner, by biting through his neck?

Yet there are eye-witnesses, and the victim’s mauled body stands testimony to the brutal attack. When the story begins, Margio has already admitted to the killing and surrendered.

The killer, Margio, is a popular 20-year-old who drank, smoked weed and made out in shacks in the cocoa planation along with other village boys. Like a helpful son to his neighbour Anwar Sadat, Margio was much in demand for his prowess during wild boar hunts. “While some of his friends got into fights, he wouldn’t lay a finger on anyone.”

Just before killing Anwar Sadat, Margio gave clear, ominous signals of his intentions. “Right now, I’m afraid I’m really going to kill someone,” he told a friend over drinks, shortly before attacking his victim. “But of course nobody who hadn’t been there would believe these words came from Margio. He was the sweetest and most polite of his peers.” When Margio went to Anwar Sadat’s house on that fateful day, he didn’t even carry a knife or a cleaver or a rope with which to commit the murder.

“Who could predict he might end a man’s life with a bite?” Colourful and bustling rural Indonesia is brought to vivid life by the author. Cacao plantations are criss-crossed by paddy fields, ponds, and peanut gardens. Clouds of mosquitoes take charge over the swamps and ponds, and Major Sadra’s ancient motorcycle loudly traverses the mud roads of the villages. An old Panasonic radio is the greatest asset in Agus Sofyan’s tea shack, where the villagers enjoy listening to soccer commentary or dangdut or other types of pop music. This half-dead machine with its insides hanging out in a messy tangle from an open top “could make enough noise to be heard booming at half the soccer field’s distance.”

Soon, darker and mysterious facets of this cheerfully chaotic world emerge. Margio’s abused mother Nuraeni expresses her stifled sorrows and desires through her lush garden, which soon overwhelms the house itself with brilliant flowers of every hue.

Margio’s Grandpa “would take the boy to a rivulet he called the Kingdom of Genies” and talk of spirits, and of tigresses, whom many men in the hamlet called their own.

“Some married one, while others inherited a tigress, passed down through the generations.” Little Margio wonders when their family tigress, which has belonged to them from the times of distant ancestors, will choose to belong to him.

Deftly sketched minor characters with their own quirks further enliven the setting. Occasionally they lighten the mood as the mystery builds up. They also add to the mounting tension by casually dropping significant clues. The worst these easy-going and peaceful villagers do is gamble on pigeon races and cock fights, or hunt down wild boar. Margio’s harsh private world is a stark contrast. As the story inexorably flows in a flashback towards Anwar Sadat’s killing, we learn that Margio did, after all, have this latent murderous streak. He ran away from home because, as he confessed to his sister Mameh, he was afraid that he might really kill his father someday. The news of his father’s death brought him back home at last. Everyone noticed how happy Margio was, but they thought it natural, for his father was well known to have been very harsh with Margio and his gentle mother, Nuraeni.

From their conversations we learn early on that Margio took Anwar Sadat’s daughter Maharani to a film show the night before he killed her father. Maharani cut short her vacation and suddenly left next morning for her college in the city without giving any reason, refusing to talk to her father.

The mystery revolves around the strange and terrible, yet protective tigress ruling Margio’s inner world. “It was bigger than a clouded leopard, bigger than the ones people saw at the zoo or circus or in schoolbooks. If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged... The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”

A heady and memorable blend of magic realism, murder mystery and a deeply sensitive and sympathetic exploration of what drives a gentle soul to kill, this is a beautifully crafted and memorable read.
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer  
Viet Thanh Nguyen  
2016, pp 371, Rs. 499
When tinged with humour, the gravest of subjects like war acquires an interesting and profound colour, writes Monideepa Sahu about ‘The Sympathizer’
This engrossing tragi-comic novel set in the final days of the Vietnam War richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016. The story and its style and rendering are striking, to say the least. The novel startles with the vastness of its scope; the clash of civilisations, cultures and ideologies; war where no party is right, and its futile aftermath; art as insight or propaganda; the many faces of racism in America and in Vietnam; the flaws in the dazzling American Dream, and in the egalitarian Communist dream. The narrative negotiates complex ideas with a flawless touch, showing how everything has multiple contradictory facets.

 Momentous concepts do not weigh down the narrative, but are turned inside out to expose their inherent absurdities. Even torture need not necessarily be gloomy, but can ironically be laughable. Even American military muscle flexing can be incongruously self-contradictory. “After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” All this is deftly woven into an exciting, action-packed plot, with espionage, bombings, executions, military evacuations, movie shootings and musical extravaganzas, and romantic interludes.

The novel opens with the nameless narrator writing his confession in a prison interrogation cell. He is addressed as ‘Captain’ by his commanding officer, while others never think of referring to him by any name at all. After all, he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, (he is) also a man of two minds.” This spy hides “where everyone can see him and where he can see everything. “We cannot help but admire his intelligence and talent for seeing every issue from both sides, unveiling the comic and ironic aspects of the dangerous situations he negotiates. He is a rare man capable of laughing at himself.

As he writes and rewrites lengthy confessions as a prisoner of the same communists for whom he had been spying, the narrator reveals many conflicting identities. He is a socially ostracised racial-hybrid illegitimate son of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl; too tall and fair to blend in with the native Vietnamese, and too oriental in appearance and upbringing to be accepted as a Westerner. As a Captain in the vanquished army of South Vietnam, he is a mole passing information to the Communist ‘enemy’ northerners. He is a communist sympathiser who studied in a US university to understand Americans through their perception of the Vietnamese. This education and exposure to a decadent culture makes the narrator see too clearly how a war “that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world” could mean “nothing to most people in the rest of the world.” It also makes him a reactionary sullied by American ideas to the hard-core communists into whose fold he wishes to return.

His political choices and his secret police service eventually force the narrator to cultivate his violent side. But his saving grace is his sense of humour and irony. He is “not just any mole” or spy, as his friend Man tells him. He is “the mole that is the beauty spot on the nose of power itself.” He is “more lover than fighter.” With quirky insights, he can turn traditional morality upside down, sometimes with hilarious effects. “Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly non-consensual squid? Not so much.”

We feel for the narrator’s inner struggles when he is commanded to plot the killing of the probably innocent Crapulent Major. He even shares with the Crapulent Major’s widow his compensation money for a grievous accident or murder attempt (depending on your perspective) he suffered on the sets of a Hollywood movie. Memories of his execution victim Sonny the journalist, the Crapulent Major, and the tortured Communist woman agent, whom he failed to protect, haunt him throughout the narrative. This reluctant killer is capable of deep lifelong loyalties and love, towards his mother, and his childhood friends Man and Bon. We grow to love him for his intelligence and insightfulness, his sense of self-criticism and his ability to see the absurdity of it all. We feel his pain as he undergoes torture to become what he cannot; transformation from an American into not just an anti-American, but one hundred percent Vietnamese.

We share his inner struggle as he powerlessly watched and did nothing, while a beautiful young female communist agent was tortured and gang raped. She defiantly says to her tormentors that her surname is Viet and given name, Nam. Her torture symbolises the ravaging of Vietnam itself, not just by foreigners but also by her own people. If only “we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play...” The narrator’s ironic insightfulness turns upon revolution itself as revolutionaries metamorphose into reactionary imperialists. “How our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power... Hadn’t the French and Americans done exactly the same?” He urges us to question along with him, “Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”
Packed with exciting action and undercurrents of deep ideas, this is a brilliantly executed and deliciously memorable read. 
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni: Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess
Chitra Banerjee
Simon & Schuster
2016, pp 208, Rs 499

This is a sensitive and delicately rendered tale of love and longing, of pain, misunderstandings, exile, self-inflicted isolation and of reaching out for affection.

The novel spans 3 generations of women protagonists. Grandmother Sabitri flounders in search of love, blaming her daughter Bela for driving a wedge between her and her husband. Finally, she finds her true calling as the creator of delicious sweets, just like her own mother before her. Bela, the truant daughter, elopes to the US with a man who ultimately fails her. Bela’s daughter Tara turns out to be another rebel without a cause.

Flawed, rebellious and often inconsistent, they make mistakes and suffer, and irreparably wound the ones who love them most. They “appear so ordinary”. Yet their lives are “filled with violence and mystery”. Proud and stubborn, these women are so like each other. If they had had anyone else to turn to, they would never have called their mothers for help. Yet they are also eminently capable of giving and receiving love.

The characters are memorable, and finely etched. “Why, you could be acquainted with a person for years, thinking you knew them. Then suddenly they’d do something that showed you there were layers to them you hadn’t ever suspected.” Minor characters like Mrs Mehta, whom Tara helps to transform from a frumpy, lonely old woman to a lively person, who happily fits herself into the American way of life, add interesting touches to the story. However, Bela’s gay friend Kenneth crops up as more of a detour from the main path of the story.

Sabitri grows up in poverty in a village in Bengal, helping her mother Durga make delectable sweets in order to eke out a living. Her dream of going to college appears to be coming true. A wealthy client is impressed with the sweets and the girl who delivers them. She offers to support Sabitri if she does well in her exams and gets admission in a college in Kolkata. Sabitri succeeds. But once in Kolkata, she becomes infatuated with the wrong man, and cannot wholeheartedly reciprocate the right man’s love. From being the good daughter and fortunate lamp brightening her family’s name, Sabitri strays into becoming the firebrand, who blackens the family’s fame.

The novel opens with the ageing Sabitri receiving a desperate phone call from her wayward and estranged daughter Bela, from the distant US. Bela pleads with Sabitri to persuade her granddaughter Tara against dropping out of college and ruining her life. “What can she write in her rusty English to change Tara’s mind? She cannot even imagine her granddaughter’s life, the whirlwind foreign world she lives in.” The only link Sabitri has to a granddaughter she has never seen, is a handful of photos. They remind her of the pang she felt when she received them, “because she had so wanted to be present at Tara’s birth. But she hadn’t been invited.” The author deftly uses clear, simple yet powerful images to bring home the character’s deepest and most aching emotions. Everyday things like photographs and photo albums capture life’s turning points, and show new facets to those we think we knew and understood.

Elsewhere, the author uses beautiful, poetic descriptions to evoke deep feelings. When little Bela goes to Assam with her parents, she misses her friend Leena, and realises early on how physical distance can pull the dearest friends apart. “Bela tried to write back, but she was struck by a strange paralysis. How to describe the riot around her: the night-blooming flowers with their intoxicating odor, the safeda tree with its hairy brown fruit, the oleanders with their poisonous red hearts? She wanted Leena to be here, to run hand in hand with her across a lawn so large it was like a green ocean. But what was the point of wanting the impossible? She never answered the letters... But inside loss, there can be gain too. Like the small silver spider Bela had discovered one dewy morning, curled asleep in the centre of a rose.”

The plot is aesthetically structured around Tara’s life-changing visit to the temple of an accepting Hindu goddess. “The goddess doesn’t care how many minutes you spend in front of her... Only how much you want to be here... The goddess does not care about what we are wearing, only what is in our hearts.” Throughout the novel, small and apparently ordinary incidents change lives. “How she got back at her one-time hosts but learned that revenge extracts its price. How the problems between (Sabitri) and (Bela) began, with words of deadly innocence spoken in a car, and a slap that echoed through the years.”

The persistent and frequent shifts to and fro in time can distract and confuse the reader, however.Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable read rife with insights.

This review is published in Deccan Herald

Friday, October 14, 2016

Usha K R: 10 questions

It's always a pleasure to meet author Usha K R. Warm and welcoming, a lively conversationalist and an empathetic listener, this lady is as modest as she is outstanding in her achievements. I took this photo at her home, during a chat over home made cake and snacks. Her warmth added the perfect touch to the evening.
This interview is published in Kitaab

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
To make sense of the world; to explore and order to my thoughts and feelings and understanding of it. Or to quote Flannery O’ Connor who said fiction is concerned ‘with that is lived; ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience’.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
It’s still gestating 20151215_185901

Describe your writing aesthetic.
Lots of idle thinking time to allow thoughts to gather and connections to form. Then, when I am ready, a disciplined writing schedule.

Who are your favorite authors?
All of Jane Austen, some of Edith Wharton, Henry James, E M Forster …

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
That which is to come

What’s your idea of bliss?
A morning that begins with a cup of filter coffee, a good spell of writing where the words on paper are a close approximation of my thoughts – an exact match would make me wonder, and no calls or visits for the rest of the day.

What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Lots of crime fiction — literary fiction is meaningless if you aren’t in the thick of things.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
The longer I live the more I realise how little I know.

Usha K R writes fiction in English. Her novels are ‘Monkey-man’ (2010/ Penguin India), ‘A Girl and a River’ (2007/Penguin India), ‘The Chosen’ (2003/Penguin India) and ‘Sojourn’ (1998/EastWest Books). Her novels have been listed for several awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Crossword Award, the Man Asia and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. ‘A Girl and a River’ won the Vodafone Crossword Award, 2007. ‘Monkey-man’ was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012.

Payal Dhar: Interview

Payal is an old friend, and I took this photo some years ago on a picnic. This interview is published in Kitaab
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
This is a deceptively difficult question. I’ve thought about it for days, wondering how to answer it without sounding hackneyed. (And does the fact that I don’t have a deep, clever answer mean I have no good reason to be writing?!) The main reason is I write, I suppose, is because I like it. There are the beginnings of all these stories inside my head and the only to find out what happens next is to write them down and see where they go. This process of a story unfolding and then coming together is very exciting. It’s almost as much fun as reading a book.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I have a few works in progress at the moment. One of them is a fantasy novel I’ve been stuck on for more than half a decade. Some people say I should abandon it, but I feel it has a life still. Another falls somewhere between a school story and mystery story, and also between MG and YA. The third is a standalone YA fantasy where we find out that a deja vu is actually a time jump (!); and the fourth is a secret!
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I like to keep it simple. The best writing advice I got was from a journalism teacher who told us that the kind of writing we should be aiming for was “Famous Five” (of Enid Blyton fame). At that time I thought that was ridiculous — why should you write like you’re writing for ten-year-olds? Only later I realized the wisdom behind that thought. That rather than showing off how many big words you know, write so that even a child could understand it. And it is harder than it looks, even when you *are* writing for children.

Who are your favorite authors?
Jonathan Stroud, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters, Astrid Lindgren (for Pippi Longstocking), Ian Rankin… for now. They keep changing depending on what I’m reading or have recently read.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
My last novel, Slightly Burnt. Not just because I was writing about sexuality for a teenage audience, but also because it was the first time I was moving out of my comfort zone: fantasy. In fantasy, since you have the luxury of world-building, the realities of what you’re setting your story in are manipulatable. But in this book, for the first time, I was dealing with, for want of a better word, “real” reality.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Anything that involves cool weather, chocolate, books, games and a computer with an internet connection — preferably altogether.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Wow. I’d fill my e-reader with as many books I could cram into it! It would have to be a mix — of crime/mystery, fantasy, YA and MG, and anything that catches the eye — so that I have options.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
There was a time when I’d have said my laptop without hesitation, but that’s no longer the case because of the wonderful technology called cloud back-up.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Bill Watterson, a cartoonist’s advice.

Payal Dhar writes fiction for children and young adults, and has several books under her belt. For almost two decades, Payal has been an academic copy-editor and a freelance writer on technology, games, sport, books, writing and travel. She has been published in a variety of print and online publications, and also done live online coverage of cricket and football. Payal has written six young adult novels and co-edited a unique Indo-Australian collaborative anthology of feminist speculative fiction for young adults. Payal was on the jury of the 2014 Crossword Award for Children’s Writing. Her interests include reading, writing, gaming, web development, tinkering with her gadgets, photography and crochet. She lives in Delhi, but often mysteriously pops up in Bangalore.
Payal Dhar’s website |

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Samudra Arati in Puri

ELEMENTS AT PLAY The Maharaja of Puri (in white) and the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math at the annual 'arati' festivityOn the evening of Pausha Poornima, a unique prayer rose from Swargadwar on Puri Beach. The Bay of Bengal provided a majestic natural backdrop for the resplendent arrangements made by human worshippers. As dusk fell, the beach glowed with lamps, lights, and the holy fire. Chants and devotional music filled the air. Hundreds of Hindu saints from all over the country, the Maharaja of Puri, and other dignitaries gathered for the grand annual Samudra Arati, to be performed by His Holiness the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math, Puri Peeth.

Behold the beauty

The Samudra Arati is offered to the sea according to vedic rituals. Hymns and chants rise up with the clang of gongs to blend with the eternal rhythm of waves rolling on the beach. Colourful flowers and other ritual offerings surround the holy fire. As lamps spread light through the descending darkness, the Samudra Arati presents a scene of immense earthly beauty.

This prayer to the sea is also infused with deep spiritual significance. It is done to spread the message of peace and harmony among humanity, and the natural world around us. The sea is the abode of Lord Vishnu. Life on earth originated in the sea. All living beings are sustained by water. The sea is attuned to the cosmos, its tides influenced by the pull of heavenly bodies. The vastness of the sea reminds us of the Divine Creator of this infinite universe.

The holy kshetra of Puri in Odisha holds great spiritual significance for all Hindus. Lord Vishnu abides here as Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. As such, Puri is considered to be ‘Martya Vaikuntha’, or the abode of Lord Vishnu on earth. Puri, along with Rameswaram, Badrinath and Dwarka, are the most holy Hindu Char Dham or four divine sites. Through the ages, saints and sages have come here seeking divine enlightenment. The Adi Shankaracharya came to Puri in the 8th century C E.

Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Ramanujacharya and Nimbarkacharya also visited Puri. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, prayed here for 24 years. Srimad Vallabhacharya visited Puri and performed a seven-day recitation of Srimad Bhagavatam. The maths and meditation spots of many of these saints continue to exist in Puri.
Samudra Arati is performed daily after sunset by the young disciples of Shankaracharya of Puri. It’s a serene and dignified ritual evoking peace and tranquillity. Every year on Pausha Poornima, the Shankaracharya of Puri himself performs the grand Samudra Arati. Pausha Poornima, which falls in January, is considered auspicious for worship, especially at sacred water spots. The sea at Swargadwar (gateway to heaven) is considered most holy, and no pilgrimage to Puri is complete without a dip at this hallowed spot. Guru Nanak and Shree Chaitanya sang devotional hymns and prayed here.

The Samudra Arati was first performed here in 2008 by the present Shankaracharya of Puri as a prayer for the well-being of this beautiful world of nature. At that time, the strange restlessness of the sea terrified local residents. They feared a tsunami may come. Since the Shankaracharya began the tradition of evening prayers to the sea, the sea is considered to have calmed down. The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati Maharaj, is the 145th in the line of apostolic successors of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, to head Shree Govardhan Math, Puri. The Govardhan Math was established by Adi Shankaracharya. It is associated with Lord Jagannath’s temple, and is one of the four cardinal maths. The Adi Shankaracharya himself had installed the deities of Govardhananatha Krishna and Ardhanareeshwara Shiva here.

The Adi Shankaracharya’s original meditation seat is preserved with care in the math. The spiritual territory of Govardhan Math spans the entire eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. It extends from Arunachal and Meghalaya in the east, to Allahabad, Gaya and Varanasi in the west, and Andhra Pradesh till Rajahmundry in the south. Bangladesh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are considered to be within the spiritual jurisdiction of the math.

Great contributions
The Shankaracharyas of Puri have nurtured a time-honoured tradition of scholarship. The 143rd Shankaracharya, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960), made valuable contributions to mathematics. Before being anointed as the Shankaracharya, he passed the MA examination for the American College of Sciences in Rochester, USA, from the Bombay centre. His book Vedic Mathematics is the best-known among his many works.

The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri is also a renowned mathematician who has authored over 20 authoritative books on the subject. He is currently working on a textbook of mathematics for high school students. He is as adept with computers, as he is interpreting ancient religious texts and their relevance in today’s world.
The Samudra Arati is itself a wonderful blend of the ancient and the modern. Timeless Vedic rituals have been incorporated into a recently-launched tradition. The prayers to the sea for universal peace and harmony also touch upon present-day concerns about sustaining our environment.
This is published in Deccan Herald

William Dalrymple, an interview

man of many talents William DalrympleWilliam Dalrymple is a writer, traveller and historian, and one of the co-directors and founders of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Return of a King, White Mughals and Nine Lives. His latest book, The Writer’s Eye, revolves around a collection of photographs.
Curated by bestselling writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye photograph exhibition opened at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, on March 18; and will be followed by shows at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi on March 29; and at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in June.

How did you start writing?

My writing happened in college, and my first book came about when I was 21. I saw an announcement about a fund for research travel for the college’s medieval historians. I looked up in the library for the longest and most ambitious medieval journey I could think of following. So I applied for following the outward journey of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application.
A month later, I received a letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700. The expedition remains the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has equalled the thrill of that 16,000-mile, three-month journey — walking, hitchhiking and bussing across Asia. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever. My first book, In Xanadu: A Quest, was the result.

You’ve written on the history of art in India and in other Asian countries; on religions, and on travel and history. Which topic fascinates you most? Among your own books, which is your personal favourite?
I’m a man of many talents (laughs) and interests. Archaeology, history, various art forms, travel and many other subjects fascinate me. What I enjoy most is testing my artistic talents. Artists have the freedom to move and play around; to try and test things.

My most recent book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, is my favourite. It is about the First Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century.

Which has been your most challenging project?My biggest challenge has been raising funds for the Jaipur Literary festival.
No doubt the festival has grown, and writers are ready to support and participate. But getting adequate sponsors is an ongoing challenge.

The Writer’s Eye is your first book of photographs. You’ve taken photographs since a young age, and your photographs have accompanied the text in several of your books.

Apart from the convenience of your new Samsung Note, what made you return to photography in a major way?

My wife is an artist, and has been an encouraging influence. The idea for this book began from a casual conversation with my friend Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who suggested an exhibition of my photographs. I posted some of these photos on Facebook and
Instagram, and the response was great. The project took on a life of its own.

I’m a micro-manager for my books. But this book was not pre-planned. I was between books. These photographs are a record of my travels during that time. My camera phone freed me to just concentrate on the images. With it I could do things that were difficult with a big camera. With its complicated attachments, a big camera is too cumbersome and obtrusive. It makes you and your subjects self-conscious. The cell camera has this sneaky quality, letting it catch your subjects unawares. I captured whatever struck me, like the wild landscapes of Scotland; my home which I visit every year.
These are random images from my travels, from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna; some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. I’ll never forget the astonishing flight last year over the rib-cage of the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, the dark slopes all etched in ice, each river valley white against the black granite of range after range of folding mountains. In the centre of the Pamirs, on the roof of the world mid-way from Kabul to Bamiyan, there are no signs of any habitation — it is a clear, empty, silent landscape lined with frozen crevice-skeletons of unmelted snow.
Certainly they have been inspired by the same travels and there are common themes — Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda — but the photographs show, I think, a taste for the dark and remote, the moody and the atmospheric. My writing isn’t bleak or dark at all. I’m quite proud of the finished product.

Do you have any advice for budding art photographers?

Simply do it, go ahead and shoot what you like. Camera phones give you so much freedom. Photography should always be about the eye, not the equipment. It is the vision that counts, not the camera. The Internet is a democratic forum where you can post your photos and get spontaneous feedback.

Have you considered writing fiction?

No. I’m clear about my choice to continue with non-fiction. My talents are not of a novelist, and I’m happy with what I do. I’m interested in the real word, in giving order to chaos in photographic images; of discovering and artistically conveying the threads that bind facts together.
This is published in Deccan Herald

Shashi Deshpande's Strangers to Ourselves; Book Review

Shashi Deshpande weaves a memorable story about human relationships, the ties that bind people, sometimes stifling or tearing them apart, and occasionally uniting kindred souls. The novel revolves around the ongoing jugalbandi between Aparna and Shree Hari Pandit; two people, quite different, yet having more in common than they could have ever imagined. Through their relationship they explore themselves and the eternal enigma; what really is love?
That Shree Hari Pandit “is a singer, is the main thing about him. That’s his life. He was born with music in his genes, he grew up with music in his ears.” Aparna is captivated by his music, and by him, after witnessing a performance. That mutual instant attraction grows into a deeper relationship, as Shree Hari pursues Aparna with boyish spontaneity. Aparna soon learns that he idolises his grandparents. His grandfather was his first guru, he learnt Tukaram’s bhajans and the Geet Ramayan from him.

She is charmed by his old-fashioned ways, of addressing her with the quaintly courteous tumhi. “I could listen to him all day,” Aparna confides to her cousin Madhu. “Both the language and the voice are so wonderful. And he speaks English with a Marathi accent.” She realises that she’s smitten, because far from judging him from the standpoint of her superior education and command of English, she admits she loves even the way he speaks.

US-trained cancer surgeon Dr Aparna Dandekar comes from a world far from Shree Hari Pandit’s. The only child of a once-renowned Marathi playwright, she has carved a place for herself in a demanding profession. Yet she finds herself seeking common ground with Shree Hari. “Hari’s singing reminds her of a surgeon at work, a precise meticulous search for the place he has to get to, finally getting there with marvellous skill and finesse.” Aparna is also haunted by the tragedy of her late parents, of “their togetherness which had so abruptly ceased. Ended without dignity...”
How can she believe in love, when even her own marriage to a colleague ended because she had mistaken the counterfeit for the true thing? Yet Aparna feels an emptiness in her life, living as she does “in homes that belong to others, among the possessions of strangers.” It’s “so easy to say yes... so easy to submit, to stop thinking,” and go along with the man she loves. Yet she can’t wholeheartedly. Perhaps “it is not marriage, but love itself that Aparna distrusts.” Aparna’s inner struggles are portrayed with delicate nuances, endearing her to the reader and lending dramatic tension to the story. Will she? Won’t she? And will he continue to wait for her?

Shree Hari has also suffered, coming up the hard way, and refusing help from his father. Yet his passionate love for Aparna is almost boundless. “I was singing Tuka’s words, I was addressing Vithala, but I could only think of you. Bhakti, Ajoba said, is another face of love... I’ve sung these songs all my life, but I understand what they mean only now... You are my light, my world, my music.” He would be in his late 30s or older, yet he follows Aparna like a lost puppy, and won’t take her rebuffs for an answer until that last straw cools his ardour. He cooks for her, and is solicitous about dropping her home. He seems to have all the time in the world for her, and he’s exquisitely delicate and hesitant about getting into a physical relationship with her.

Adorable as Shree Hari is, one wonders. More than a flesh-and-blood man, he seems a projection of what a woman like Aparna would want her man to be. This is, after all, a woman-centric story. Shree Hari’s role is clearly secondary to Aparna’s. Other men do make brief appearances. Aparna’s father and her first husband, or rather her memories and impressions of them, surface occasionally. But the women dominate, and their relationships with Aparna throw light on the many aspects of affection and emotional connections.
Jyoti plays a major role in the story. Her relationship with Aparna evolves from patient and doctor, to friendly neighbours, into soul sisters. Ahalya appears as a mystery woman from the past, whose memoirs are found among Aparna’s father’s manuscripts. Jyoti begins translating it to distract herself from her own terminal illness. Soon, Jyoti is drawn into Ahalya’s account of her unusual life, struggles and loves. Jyoti comes across as a positive woman who supports Aparna with her fading strength. Ahalya’s story throws fascinating light on the trials women faced in days gone by, and how they too dared to love, despite all social constraints. She also unveils fresh truths before Aparna. “Jyoti, in getting back Ahalya, has reclaimed the Baba of my childhood... I no longer see him as the suffering, bitter man he became in his last years.” Ahalya’s memoirs in the archaic style of her times, slows down the narrative though. And the revelation that she is a common ancestor to both Aparna and Jyoti seems like a convenient plot device.

Overall, this is beautifully crafted story, a slow and melodious symphony with memorable characters, who stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Strangers to Ourselves
Shashi Deshpande
Fourth Estate
2016, pp 322, Rs 450
This review is puiblished in Sunday Herald

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto         Author: Mitch Albom     Sphere      Rs.499/-          Pp 489

This is a turbulent yet soulful love story of a talented musician and the love of his life, who nurtures his inspiration to create life-changing music.  Frankie Presto’s unique talent in singing as well as guitar playing takes him through the universe of Western music. Frankie earns dazzling mastery over classical music as well as contemporary jazz and rock and roll. Music leads him from friendless penury to a place among stars like Duke Ellington to Hank Williams, Carole King and even KISS.  As a member of Elvis Presley’s troupe, Frankie becomes the first successful Elvis impersonator.  Frankie is blessed with dashing looks and a magnetic stage presence, as well as a sonorous voice and mastery of the guitar. He becomes a pop star himself, with runaway hits and adoring fans.  He gives a brilliant performance at Woodstock, but incognito. He meets and impresses The Beatles, Rolling Stones and more. Contemporary western music buffs will love these threads woven into the story. Readers unfamiliar with western music will also enjoy being carried along by the Frankie Presto wave. Number one New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom has deftly woven music into a fast-paced plot, enriching an exciting story that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
Orphaned at birth, Frankie spends his early childhood in revolution-churned Spain. His mother dies immediately after his birth, in a church attacked by revolutionaries. A nun promises the dying mother to look after the orphaned newborn.  Cruelly abandoned by this first guardian, the infant Frankie is rescued by Baffa, the middle aged bachelor owner of a sardine factory.  Baffa and his hairless pet dog give Frankie affection and a stable home. Baffa takes him for music lessons to El Maestro, a talented but moody and alcoholic blind musician.
This peaceful life of home, school and music lessons is short-lived. Nine-year-old Frankie meets, and instantly falls in love with, Aurora York, a British girl, who is drawn to his guitar playing. Their innocent first meeting is violently interrupted. They watch horror-struck as Spanish soldiers execute civilian prisoners and bury them in a mass grave.  Aurora urges Frankie to play “something that says we won’t forget them.”  That defining moment “was the first time Frankie Presto attempted to give his music to someone else.”  This enduring passion for music defines Frankie’s character and endears him to readers.
On that same fateful day, Frankie learns that Baffa has been arrested by the soldiers, and that he himself is being hunted down. With Baffa’s instructions and the help of El Maestro, Frankie is sent to America hidden in the bottom of a boat, with the hope that he will find shelter in the home of Baffa’s sister in Detroit. Betrayed and robbed by those in whose care he was entrusted, all Frankie has left are his guitar, and six strings gifted by El Maestro.  He soon realises that these precious strings have magical powers. Frankie’s music can change people’s lives.  It doesn’t happen because Frankie wills it that way. And when a life is altered, one of the magical strings turns bright blue.
In America at last, little Frankie accompanies musician Django, and learns the gypsy guitar technique. From the wings of the stage in Cleveland Music Hall, he experiences the first blasts from an orchestra. “The elegant twirling of clarinets and saxophones... even the look of the band... handsomely dressed in dark tuxedos... And the crowd! Nearly two thousand people!”  Frankie realises that he wants this applause for himself. His struggles slowly bear fruit, and Frankie progresses from the sidelines to centre-stage.
Stardom, name and fame come, yet Frankie remains unfulfilled. He seeks Aurora, for she alone can give him soul-satisfying inspiration.  An inner restlessness grips this “most purely musical guitarist”, who rebels against the commerce driven music business.  At the height of fame and popularity, Frankie vanishes far from the intrusive eyes of the world. Encouraged by Aurora, he plays freely again: “better, richer, because his music now was passionate, more thoughtful... the way a great painter chooses not just a color but the perfect shade.”  He reappears decades later to give one last life-changing performance.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read with never a dull moment. The passionate rapport between Frankie and Aurora is convincing. But the strings of coincidences holding the story together seem far-fetched. True, an explanation is given at the end, but it fails to satisfy. The device of using the muse Music to narrate Frankie’s story and linking tributes from musical celebrities, enriches the story with insights. However, the shifting timelines can be confusing at times, as the narrators speak of different times and stages in Frankie’s life.  Overall, this is a first-class entertainer, which could make a great movie someday.
This review was published in Deccan Herald. 

Turn up the Radio

For over a century, radio has played tunes to the march of human history, setting the background music for our lives.  As we listen to news and traffic reports punctuated with the latest hits while driving, how many of us reflect upon the invention that revolutionised communication? There’s more to radio than songs presented by vivacious RJs.  Did you know, for instance, that radio signals played a vital role in the rescue of over 700 passengers of the ill-fated Titanic, enabling quick communication with nearby ships? In those days, carrier pigeons were the prevalent mode of communicating at sea. Without radio, it would have taken days for distress messages to reach, and there would have been no survivors of the Titanic.
Those of us who grew up when TV was just a single Doordarshan channel with limited transmission timings, will remember how radio brightened up our days.  Latest news bulletins, talk shows, quizzes, radio plays and of course music to cater to varied tastes; radio constantly regaled us with never a dull moment.  Providing infotainment may still be the most obvious function of radio today.  But radio technology also supports many other marvels of modern life. The story of how radio evolved, a product of research often independently conducted over many years by generations of brilliant minds, is fascinating in itself.  
First, let’s see how good old radio still scores over its arch rival, TV. Indeed, once the whole world thought radio would die a natural death with the expansion of TV. But radio reinvented itself by offering FM stations, which are very popular and offer spunky competition to TV. In its heyday before TV stole the limelight, we relied upon radio to make the dullest things sparkle with life and excitement. The sound broadcasts drew our interest, and excited the imagination of individual listeners to form their own special mental images. In my schooldays, classmates with their own pocket ‘transies’ were the cynosure of all ears. Come winter and test cricket season, work slowed down all over town. In school, we would slump upon our desks and perpetually pretend to tie shoelaces, or search for lost erasers or pencils. Ingenious ploys to catch the running cricket commentary from transies smuggled in schoolbags. Ace commentators’ electrifying voices infused excitement into every wave of the bat and each toss of the ball. During a particularly sizzling international test match, our teacher must have sensed how her best speeches were assailing deaf ears. Choosing pragmatism over authoritarianism, she asked, “What’s the score?” Our terror at the prospect of impending doom in the Principal’s office, made way for smiles. Our teacher joined us to hear the commentary for five full minutes, before turning off all transies and resuming the day’s lesson. After subsequently watching cricket on the field and on TV, I now realise that radio commentaries played a major role in creating excitement and hype over test cricket.  Urged by the vibrant commentary without visuals to bring home drab reality, we actively imagined an action-packed game. Minus commentary, traditional cricket is a visually dull affair with players’ languid movements drawn over five long drawn days. No wonder limited over one-dayers, and IPL with its cheerleaders and hoopla are more popular versions of the game today.
The famous War of the Worlds broadcast directed by Orson Welles shows how radio, with sound alone, could excite the imaginations of multitudes.  Broadcast in the USA as a Halloween special on October 30th, 1938, this series of fictitious news bulletins was based upon H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. This radio broadcast sent many American people into a tizzy because they were convinced that Martians were really invading Earth. TV broadcasts on the other hand, show everything while leaving little to the imagination. Thus TV, which encourages passivity in the audience, dulls our imagination instead of challenging it like radio.
News reports of war and violence are clear enough on the radio, without the support of graphic visual images of violence. This is a gentler way of making young children aware that death, war and violence exist, without compromising their natural sensitivity. As little children living in New Delhi during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, we listened intently with our parents to war updates on the radio. Lights stayed dimmed and windows were pasted over with newspapers because of the blackout.  We children would crawl under the bed whenever we heard anything remotely resembling an air-raid siren. We felt concerned and sad for brave soldiers who were fighting and laying down their lives. If we were also constantly seeing visual images of this death and destruction on TV, it is likely we would have grown more insensitive to violence.  Our fear and concern must seem silly to today’s children, who are habituated to a steady barrage of gory images on TV.
Compared to radio, TV with explicit visuals would definitely be a greater culprit in accustoming people to violence by making it a part of our daily routine. Scholarly studies worldwide have made strong statements linking media violence and violence in society. A continuous deluge of sensational TRP-grabbing images in the media (print, TV, movies, video games etc.) can desensitize us by distorting death and disaster which doesn't affect us directly, into prime-time entertainment. When violence and bloodshed is thus presented to be the everyday norm, it is less likely to move us.  This raises deeper and ominous questions. Is the overwhelming graphic violence in print and TV influencing increased aggression on our own city streets? If we are impressionable victims of such subtle brainwashing, then TV would make a stronger impact compared to radio.
Since radio engages only our sense of hearing, it leaves us free to focus our sight and more of our attention on driving, knitting, gardening, jogging and various other things we like to do while listening to broadcasts. TV on the other hand, demands ALL our attention, and turns us into passive couch potatoes.
Music is more enjoyable on the radio, where the focus is on the melody alone. Glitzy visuals do not vie to distract us, or compensate for mediocre lyrics, vocals or instrumental effects. Recently a friend shared a video of a song sung by the inimitable Mukesh.  The visuals were unremarkable, with Mukeshji standing before a mike, while the staid orchestra played behind him. Everyone wore straightforward everyday clothes, and there was no fancy lighting, dancing or histrionics. Mukeshji sang with pure, undiluted passion, and what a song it was!  No special effects distracted attention from the soulful lyrics sung by a timeless, mellifluous voice. Radio supports pure, good music, which doesn’t need to hide behind distracting gimmickry.
Radio has revolutionised mass communication, and is useful in many other ways. Before radio, telegraph was the best way to rapidly transmit information over long distances. But telegraph used a system of codes, while radio carried speech. Telegraph required wires, and could not work across vast areas without wiring. Around 1891, radios began to be used on ships at sea, preventing accidents and helping in rescue operations.  In 1899 the R.F. Matthews became the first ship to use a wireless device based on Marconi’s system, to request emergency assistance at sea. 
Radio spectrum and technology has many applications; from baby monitors and broadcasting to radar and radio beacons. In 1910, Frederick Baldwin and John McCurdy first connected an aerial to their bi-plane, to demonstrate radio’s use for navigating planes. In 1921, the Detroit police first used radio equipped vehicles. Today’s ambulances use radio to monitor and relay the patient’s condition to the hospital.
 In 1902, ‘ham’ or amateur radio was first introduced to the U.S. through a Scientific American article on “How to Construct an Efficient Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus at Small Cost.” Today, there are many ham radio enthusiasts all over the world, connected through ham clubs. Apart from enjoying an interesting hobby, ham operators have been helpful in rescue operations after natural disasters such as earthquakes, when major communications centres have been damaged or destroyed. Their broadcasts have guided search parties and located victims in remote areas.
Radio telescopes pick up radio waves naturally emitted from stars, quasars, black holes and other objects in deep outer space.  This helps scientists to get a better understanding of our vast universe.  Given the infinite expanse of space, it’s possible that other intelligent life exists far away. Radio will play a major role if humanity successfully connects with intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The world has many scientific minds to thank for this wonderful invention. In the early 1800s, Hans Christian Orsted began experimental work on the connection between electricity and magnetism. Further experimental work was continued by Andre-Marie Ampere, Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday. Subsequently James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory of electromagnetism, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves. Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity can be transmitted in electromagnetic waves. Nikola Tesla wirelessly transmitted electromagnetic energy in 1893.
Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose was a pioneer in the field of microwave devices. He invented the Mercury Coherer and the receiver which Marconi used to receive the first radio communication across the Atlantic over a distance of 2000 miles, in 1901. Guglielmo Marconi is widely credited to have developed the first instrument for radio communication over large distances. He was awarded the official patent by the British Government. Marconi established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. The work of each of these scientists and several others was of vital importance. Ultimately it all led to the system of wireless sound broadcasting known today as radio.
In India, radio went commercial in 1965 with the introduction of ads in Vivdh Bharati broadcasts. Catchy radio jingles won the public’s hearts. Tunes like Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifebouy, Doodh ki safedi Nirma se aaye, and  sona sona naya Rexona stayed on every Indian’s lips. Ameen Sayani, with his rich, sonorous voice, was India’s pioneering all-time number one RJ. He first appeared on radio in 1953-54 to change forever the relatively staid tone of AIR broadcasts. Sayani made broadcasting history by hosting the Binaca-cibaca Geetmala film songs programme for 39 years. At the height of his career, he did over 35 radio programmes every week. My personal favourites among the golden radio voices of yesteryear were Gitanjali Iyer hosting A Date With You, and Melville De Mello’s reading of the English news. Yuva Vani programmes and Bournvita Quiz had us kids hooked.
Today’s profusion of FM channels has produced many talented and magnetic radio presenters or RJs, each with their distinctive brand of delivery. Deadpan humour, talent for sarcasm or spoofs, rich and electrifying voices, the ability to talk non-stop with oodles of confidence even when they make a slip of the tongue, the most popular RJs are celebrities with fan followings. Teaming up with copywriters and producers, they make up the most visible, oops audible, face of an exciting profession.
Radio thrives on, reinventing itself and offering new ways to support technological advances. On World Radio Day, and every other day, let’s celebrate this invention which brings music to our ears.
 This was first published in Sunday Herald
****    ****
Landmarks in Indian radio history
June, 1923: Programmes aired by the Radio Club of Bombay.
November, 1923 : First broadcasts by Calcutta Radio Club.
July 31,1924 : The Madras Presidency Radio Club begins broadcasts.
July 23,1927 : Indian Broadcast Company (IBC), Bombay Station inaugurated by Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India.
August 26,1927 : Inauguration of Calcutta Station of IBC.
September 10,1935 : Akashvani Mysore, a private radio station, set up.
January 19,1936 : First news bulletin broadcast.
June 8, 1936 : Indian State Broadcasting Service became All
India Radio.
October 1,1939 : External Service started with Pushtu broadcast.
January 1,1942 : Akashvani Mysore was taken over by Maharaja of Mysore.
1947 (at the time of partition): Six Radio Stations in India (Delhi,Bombay,Calcutta,Madras, Tiruchirapalli
and Lucknow) and three Radio Stations in Pakistan (Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca)
July 20,1952 : First National Programme of Music broadcast from AIR.
July 29,1953 : National Programme of Talks (English) launched from AIR.
1954 : First Radio Sangeet Sammelan held.
August 15,1956 : National Programme of Play commenced.
October 3,1957 : Vividh Bharati Services inaugurated.
November 1, 1959 : First TV Station in Delhi started as part of AIR.
November 1,1967 : Commercials on Vividh Bharati introduced
July 21, 1969 : Yuv-Vani service started from Delhi.
July 23, 1977 : First ever FM Service was inaugurated from Madras

Bangladesh recognized Akashvani for its contribution in Bangladesh Liberation War. On 27th March, 2012, Sh. L. D. Mandloi, DG, AIR received the award at a ceremony in Dhaka.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2016 Wish List

People hold balloons during the New Year celebrations. PTI photo
As another year comes to an end, we welcome the New Year with hope in our hearts, and prayers on our lips. May strife and enmity reduce in the world around us, and in our own backyards. May our elected leaders continue to work for improving our economy, our environment and the living conditions of our masses.  May netas bury their hatchets and expend their energies and lung power on nation building instead of launching tirades against their opponents.  May the spirit of freedom and respect for our fellow citizens and for our motherland continue to prevail. May we continue to deserve and value our freedom by also being conscious of our responsibilities as citizens of the world’s largest democracy.  May we also remember that freedom does not mean license to indiscriminately and aggressively do and say as we please. May humanity survive the unending onslaught of wars, terror strikes and growing environmental pollution which are bent upon destroying us and our planet.
In 2015, terror, war and hapless refugees fleeing war, cast shadows all over the world.   Paris began the year with a murderous attack on the office of Charlie Hedbo, a magazine which published, among other things, satirical cartoons of various religions, and religious and political leaders.  Another heinous terror attack upon Paris ended the year. Meanwhile, Mali is emerging as a centre of terror in Africa. Hostage taking, attacks on public utilities are becoming business for insurgents along with narcotics smuggling. Boko Haram has continued to launch deadly assaults in Nigeria, and strife has flared in Yemen and in Palestine. Terror has spread its tentacles to Denmark, where there were attacks near a Jewish synagogue.  Peace eluded Ukraine, while ISIS continued to launch offensives and execute hostages. Somalian militants have targeted non Muslims in attacks such as the one in April 12th on Garissa University College in Northeast Kenya.  The IS claimed responsibility for attacks in a beach resort and the National Bardo Museum in Tunisia.
The tragedy of Alan Kurdi, a cute Syrian toddler whose body was found washed ashore on a Turkish beach, personified the worldwide refugee crisis. Alan Kurdi and thousands like him, died violently while fleeing war in their homelands. The immigration crisis in Europe intensified. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Syria and turbulent regions of Northern Africa, poured into the Balkans. Many European nations offered refuge to only a few migrants, turning away the rest. European Union officials struggled to reach an agreement on tackling the crisis. Western nations are concerned that terrorists will mingle with genuine refugees to infiltrate their countries. We pray the New Year will bring peace and reconciliation among all the countries and factions at war.
Indians can take justified pride in the fact that India has always been a welcoming haven for immigrants from distant lands, and for victims of religious persecution. The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, also called Syrian Christians, trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas in the 1st century, at a time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperors. This is among the oldest Christian communities of the world. According to Wikipedia, St. Thomas Christian culture is Hindu in origin with influences from East Syrian, West Syrian, Jewish and later European sources. Our fellow citizens include Jews, and Zoroastrians whose forefathers came to India to escape religious persecution in their native Persia. India has generously sheltered huge numbers of refugees from war-torn Bangladesh in 1971, and later from Sri Lanka. Over the decades, many of these hapless victims of strife have found new lives in our motherland. May the rest of the world embrace the spirit of magnanimity, and continue to shelter unfortunate victims of war and persecution.
Bangladesh born author and literary translator Mahmud Rahman now lives in the US. “Back in 1971,” he says, “I joined millions of my countrymen and women to flee an insecure life in an occupied land. India gave us refuge, and for that I have always been grateful. When I flew to the U.S. with these identity papers (issued by India to refugees from Bangladesh) -- newly independent Bangladesh not yet recognized by many countries -- I could not stop in London for a planned visit with some friends... When I landed in Boston -- I did have a proper visa in my possession -- the immigration official said, "Welcome to the U.S." That was a precious moment. There's no question as to what's right today when it comes to Syrian refugees. It would be a shame if our borders were shut on them.”

The end of 2015 saw mass shooting in the U.S. and stabbings at a London Underground station. Terror links to both incidents are being investigated. Countries around us are in grave crises because of rifts created among their own people. Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria were peaceful once.  Like India, these countries have a rich cultural heritage, and were home to ancient civilizations. Yet today opposing factions  are killing each other, while ordinary citizens drown in the seas to escape anarchy and mayhem.  The poison of pointing harsh, accusing fingers, and spreading hatred among our fellow Indians, is extending vicious tentacles over our homeland.   We must be alert to nip in the bud messengers of divisions and enmity among the people of India, and prevent our motherland from becoming another Syria or Afghanistan.  
We are most fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers that be, without being beheaded or imprisoned.  May our democracy continue to prosper, and may we enjoy our rights and freedom responsibly. The mainstream media plays a vital role in disseminating information. The onus falls on mainstream conveyors of news, to provide a balanced and rational perspective, which in turn moulds public opinion and people’s reactions to current events.

 “What's with our media?” wonders literary translator and editor Keerti Ramachandra.  “Unless their callers, panellists, respondents blame government, the authorities...  they are not happy. Anyone who says a good word, shows any appreciation of the government’s efforts, is choked off. Why not highlight the generosity, the helpfulness of the people of Chennai, the constable, the fireman, the staff of the corporation (who, by the way, are also ordinary people whose homes are probably flooded) and yet they continue on duty.” The media is getting really ugly these days, “ says Chitra Iyengar, a young engineer. “I miss those days when news was a 10 minute one every hour and half an hour programme every 3 hours. That news was actual news, useful.” 

The comparative sobriety of the Western news channels in reporting the recent terror attacks in Paris must be appreciated. Our media prefers a shriller, sensational tone. TV news presentations sizzle with histrionics, and invited guests are shouted down before they can speak a single sentence. Newspapers too, abound with aggressive headlines with phrases such as “strikes back”, “lashes out” and “blazes away.” This aggressive tone can help pit people against each other, fan the flames of controversy and deepen rifts and animosity.

When these controversies and enmities move on to social media, a multi-headed monster is born. Malicious rant writers latch on to selective quotes and facts, and spread misinformation and half-truths to further their narrow agendas. Incendiary messages flood our social media feeds, urging us to react and take sides. The facts get buried under the noise and ordinary people like us react wrongly without realizing the sensationalism or spiteful insinuations.  Heaven knows who will benefit from spreading such divisions and hatred. If this poison continues to spread, we will surely die in the cross-fire. People like us must remain cautious and balanced and not hastily react to, or pass on such messages. We must remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Terror is just one among the many dangers our world faces. Climate change and uncontrolled environmental degradation will surely destroy this planet, finishing what terrorists have started. Global warming and the El Nino effect are considered major causes of the recent unprecedented deluge in Chennai and neighbouring areas of coastal Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and coastal Andhra Pradesh. While some parts of the country reeled under floods, other areas such as 50 districts of Uttar Pradesh were declared drought hit. Crop losses due to the vagaries of nature, and mounting debts continue to push our farmers to take their own lives. The Hyderabad High Court recently described the farmers’ suicides and the crisis-like situation of agriculture in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as “alarming.” Delhi, like most of our urban settlements, is beginning to smell like a gas chamber, prompting the state government to control the number of vehicles on the city’s streets.
“The Paris COP 21 talks could determine the outcome of our immediate history,” says author Amitav Ghosh. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has supported Prime Minister Modi’s case for India’s growth, saying it will be unjust to make developing nations shift to low carbon emission green energy, when it is much costlier than tradition fossil fuels.
Governments and ordinary people are spreading awareness, and rays of hope are piercing the noxious fumes. India’s total forest cover has increased to 24.16 % environment minister Prakash Javadekar said, releasing the India State of Forest Report – 2015. If pollution is increasing, the carbon sinks provided by forests are also increasing, he added. India has been shown as an example at the Paris Summit. However, pollution continues to grow, and we are yet to attain the desired 33 % forest cover. Meanwhile, various species are becoming endangered and sinking into extinction due to increasing pollution and the ongoing human-animal conflict. The return of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles for breeding on beaches off the Bay of Bengal, delighted wildlife lovers. We hope they and other rare species will survive and thrive to enrich the beauty of our planet. We also pray that our planet itself will survive, and continue to sustain us all.
There’s more good news to cheer us.  India is, for the first time, leading the World Bank’s growth chart of major world economies in 2015, overtaking China’s 7.1 per cent growth rate. The Bank said reforms had buoyed the confidence in India. Concerns over the current account deficit, fiscal deficit and inflation have dissipated with the fall in oil prices. It said new reforms were improving business and investor confidence in India, attracting new capital inflows.
There’s hope on the  international relations front. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan had a cordial impromptu meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the Conference of Parties (CoP) 21 climate summit. The National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan met in Bangkok on 6th December and "agreed to carry forward the constructive engagement". China was happy to see a thawing of relations between India and Pakistan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.  In another instance of positive international cooperation, Germany has promised 125 million Euros to help finance green energy projects in Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.  May our leaders set aside rivalries and work together to nurture these green shoots.

Meanwhile, ordinary Indian citizens have quietly worked to make this world a better place. Indian doctors from major hospitals such as the all India Institute of Medical Sciences, Fortis, Mauling Azad, CMC Vellore and Apollo have conducted free camps for African patients, partnered with local hospitals, organised continued medical education programmes and exchange programmes through the Pan African e-Network Project linking 48 African countries.
During the recent disastrous deluge, citizens of Chennai embodied the true spirit of India as they poured out of flooded homes to help others in greater distress.   The official rescue forces pitched in bravely to do their duty in Chennai, and wherever else their help was needed. Among the many ordinary Indians overcoming narrow divisive forces, were members of Jammat E Islami Hind, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), who cleaned temples as well as mosques in flooded areas of Chennai.
As we remember the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26th, 2008, let us salute the courageous Indians who laid down their lives selflessly to combat terror. Slain Maharashtra Anti Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare, Assistant Commissioner of Mumbai Police Ashok Kamte, Senior Police Inspector Vijay Salaskar, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, ASI Tukaram Gopal Omble;  these noble bravehearts are the real heroes of our country and of our times.
All these brave and generous Indians may not command prime time TV, but let us keep them and their ideals alive in our hearts. When confronted by repeated images of animosity and divisiveness, may we the people of India refuse to take the bait to destroy each other.  May we continue to stand together as proud and responsible citizens of a great nation.

This was published in Deccan Herald

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Remember the good old days? Those magical yesteryears when the skies were bluer, air purer, people nicer, music sweeter and life a rainbow-hued fairy tale. In those mythical halcyon days, love and friendships lasted lifelong. Life was all pristine innocence and goodness. Today's crass materialism and soul-stifling lack of morals were unimaginable then. At least that is what we wish to believe when we daydream our way into a nostalgic time-warp.
Most of us at some time or other, have compared the glorious past to the degenerate present. It’s tempting to tell our successors how we were more intelligent, diligent, honest, better behaved and better in everything than them. We forget that we too were at the receiving end of such grievances from our own elders. Our venerable elders would surely have heard similar complaints from their own venerable elders. Our prehistoric caveman ancestors would probably have lamented the hairless bodies, larger craniums and more erect gait of degenerate younger generations. They would have deplored the new-fangled way of communicating with words as needlessly complicating the traditional hominid system of modulated grunts. Those new bone and iron tools would have seemed more cumbersome than traditional rocks and sticks.

Nostalgia makes us gloss over the flaws and cocoon ourselves in an idealized version of olden days. We feel that in the past people lived better lives. But we conveniently overlook the fact that their lives were shorter because of smallpox, cholera and other ailments which can be cured today. Let's carry the argument further. If the past was indeed perfectly wonderful, what about the Thugs who waylaid innocent travelers on the Grand Trunk Road, and the murderous hordes of Genghis Khan and Timurlane's armies? They too belonged to the golden past. Life in the Middle Ages or Dark Ages as modern ignoramuses call it, was a time of faith. Blind faith. The people were discouraged to learn and ask questions. Thus they were protected from unpalatable truths. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition belonged to the golden past too. In our own land, widows were routinely burnt upon their husbands’ funeral pyres. Human sacrifice, slavery and other progressive social customs prevailed along with all sorts of superstitions and taboos. People dared not cross the seas and travel to foreign lands for fear of being excommunicated from respectable society. Time-honoured institutions, sadly forgotten today.  

In the distant past, cavemen led the purest life. No hectic work schedules; no money, and therefore no need to chase that root of all evil. Issues were resolved swiftly and decisively. They simply smashed opponents with their clubs and either killed, or got killed. The apelike forefathers of the Homo Sapiens lived on a higher plane above their degenerate future progeny. They thrived close to nature with their heads up high, usually in the branches of trees. The remoter the past, the grander everything was. Just think of the dinosaurs. Those primeval monsters truly lived life king size.
So are we the inferior waste products of history and pre-history? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution a crazy myth? Is human civilization hurtling toward a cultural compost pit? Think about it. Is nostalgia deceiving us? Was the past ever perfect? Is the present merely imperfect continuous?

Idealized images from the past have their uses. When the computer gives up its ghost to a virus, or when the Internet grinds to a crawl, it’s therapeutic to go strolling through the tranquil bends of memory lane. Sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past; treasuring selective airbrushed and rose-tinted mental images of times long gone; that’s what nostalgia is all about. It’s but human to long for a home and loved ones, who have changed considerably with time. Even loved things such as old movies or books can trigger feelings of nostalgia. An old Lata Mangeshkar, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan or Kishore Kumar song can unlock the gates of magical memories, depending upon the generation and culture to which the listener belongs.

Nostalgia smooths and softens the rough edges of things from the past. In the words of Doug Larson, nostalgia is a device that removes the potholes from memory lane. Nostalgia can add cheer and joy to our rat-race weary lives. How magical it is to leaf to your childhood autograph book, filled with scrawls from school pals, teachers, and those film stars who shot a scene in your school if you were lucky enough. Oh, that dreamy feeling of reliving old memories as you view sepia tinted photographs in the family album! Have you ever felt more delight and contentment? The aromas of your mother’s cooking; that camping trip you took with your father; the warmth of his hug as you snuggled into your grandfather’s lap and listened to his stories; our dear elders had made our lives worth living. They were only human, and not all-powerful superheroes. But when we were young, they were perfect in our eyes as they lovingly nurtured us into becoming what we are today.  Some of them have left this world, but their affectionate memories continue to guide and uplift us.

Inanimate objects like favourite books, songs or movies can similarly boost our spirits. They gain this power because of their association with our dearest people and happy events from the past. That movie or song is evergreen because we enjoyed it in the company of friends from our carefree schooldays. That favourite book is often the one a beloved parent or teacher gifted us, opening our intellectual perspective in an amazing new way. Whenever I pass a Subway sandwich shop in any city, I am flooded with soft-focus memories of the lively addas I once enjoyed with my children’s author friends in a cozy Subway branch in Bengaluru. We all live in different cities now. Distance and time draws old friends apart. But nostalgic memories can bring back some of that old happy glow.

Pleasant memories can help us tide over hard times. I remember how my late brother was once passing through a rough phase in life. When I visited him, we sat together leafing through old photos of our shared childhood. Then, he brought out his file of testimonials. That letter of appreciation from a visiting dignitary; that photo with a famous film star; a glowing recommendation from a former employer; those newspaper clippings; all helped gradually ease his frown and bring back the spring in his stride. Drawing a deep breath, he then readied to face the challenges ahead with fresh hope and energy. Nostalgia helps us overcome setbacks. It reminds us that if winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. If we succeeded before, we have the capacity to succeed again in our endeavors. Nostalgia can give us hope and courage.

Nostalgia is a great way of creating and nurturing human ties. Families and friends bond over happy memories, sharing experiences and emotions. School and college alumni associations are strengthened by nostalgia. When I attended a meeting of the Lady Shri Ram College Alumna Association in Bangalore, I had hoped to reunite with long lost friends from my college days in New Delhi. I scanned the unfamiliar names and faces of attendees, who ranged from august ladies to youngsters who looked as though they had bunked lectures to be there. I didn’t find a dear old friend, but as I chatted with the others, I realized we all shared memories. Our favourite teachers, discovering fascinating books in the library and bonding over snacks at the college canteen; we had been there and enjoyed the same things. People may have studied different courses, and may be born generations apart. But getting together to celebrate the glory of the shared alma mater can draw diverse people closer.

Our memories of what was good in our past, can guide us to build good things in our future. I sometimes feel nostalgic about dear Melly Aunty, an especially friendly and caring neighbour from decades ago. These memories stand as guidelines for my own behavior today.   Nostalgia can help us understand the things that matter the most to us; the memories and emotions that leave a lasting impression in our minds when all else has passed.

Nostalgia can enrich literature and history. Rabindranath Tagore’s enchanting memoir My Reminisces, brings to vivid life Tagore’s unique childhood world as he grew up in the thick of the Bengal Renaissance. Qais Abdul Omar’s Fort of Nine Towers is a moving account of his personal experiences of the beauty of Afghanistan as it was, and of the horrors of recent decades of violence in his homeland. In addition to being memorable reads, such books also help readers experience past realities which they would otherwise never have known. Such memoirs flesh out the gaps and show us the human side of the past overlooked by dry factual history textbooks.  

It’s easy to let the magical enchantment of nostalgia overwhelm our sense of present day reality. We must strike a balance and take care not to get carried away. “Nostalgia is a seductive liar,” as George Wildman Ball so aptly put it. It amplifies the glories of the past and can encourage people to ignore what they can do today. It can make us resist new ideas, progress and innovation as we yearn for what is dead and gone. Love for a glorious past can blind us to the good things in the present.
This ambiguous and bittersweet emotion can also sink us in the quicksand of regrets. We need to guard ourselves from wallowing in misgivings; of dwelling upon what could have been, rather than focusing on the here and now.  I remember being with a friend as she lamented the lost promise of her youth. If only she had built upon her bright academic career and pursued her dream of joining the Civil Services. Meanwhile her little son tugged at her dress, pleading for attention. She scolded him for interrupting while she was talking. The little one toddled away with downcast head. A crushed flower fell from his tiny hand.

We will be the ultimate losers if we allow nostalgia to distract us from appreciating life as it is now. It’s important to use our memories of the positive aspects of the past, to improve current circumstances. This can help strengthen our will to move ahead and grow. Sometimes the pain of regrets may be unbearable. That’s when we must delve into our nostalgic impressions of the good times, and remember our positive achievements. This will revitalize our hopes, and help us to forgive ourselves. As a writer so aptly put it, people find it hard to be happy because they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.
Dwelling in a self-created prison of nostalgia can stunt our thinking and vision. Albums, autograph books, school yearbooks and mementoes get damaged or lost as the years go by.  In this never-ending rat-race, the pressures of deadlines, cut-throat competition, soaring inflation and plunging sales graphs all take their toll. We can’t afford to let ourselves be embalmed in old memories. In the course of moving houses, I’ve lost that book inscribed by a long-lost friend. Tears fill my eyes because I cannot find those dainty sandesh moulds my late aunt used to shape mouth-watering Bengali sweets. Physical symbols of our most precious memories fade away with the passage of time, leaving us emotionally orphaned.  I try to convince myself that indulging in nostalgia for what cannot be retained, will make me as obsolete as the defunct past. Instead of mourning the lost sweet moulds, I hope to replicate some of my aunt’s gracious, forgiving attitude. I feel that would be her best memorial.

Dipping into nostalgic memories is a lovely way to soothe and revitalize our souls. But we must take care to dwell just long enough, and not lose ourselves in nostalgia. Our focus should be to use that fresh energy and insight to face today’s challenges with renewed vigour.

This was published in Sunday Herald