Thursday, April 21, 2016

Women’s stories: Finding voices

Women’s stories: Finding voices


Short Stories are always enchanting, captivating you within its ebbs and flow and ten leaving you with an aftertaste. Its too personal a premise often, not overplay of characters, but then peaks the emotions higher and reverberates with you.
And what if these are stories by women, of women, or different parts of the world, or different countries of South Asia and even Iran. Can we discover a common thread amidst the myriad emotions?
The four books, and reading and re-reading them, made me stir in serendipity, joy of discovery and familiarity of emotions.
The books are:
1.       Neither Night nor Day- 13 stories by Women Writers from Pakistan
2.       Galpa- Short stories by Women from Bangladesh
3.       Afsaneh-Short Stories by Iranian women
4.       Katha- Short Stories by India Women
The title story of Neither Night not Day is remarkable. In fact it speaks of identity and the struggle with it. Often we embrace one and feel proud about it in one context and the next moment are too embarrassed to carry it. Sabyn Javeri-Jillani’s short story speaks about this Pakistani women, now married to a British, settled in London and yearns for mangoes and Biriyani. Her access though to get them from the well-guarded ghettos, are not easy, a constant reminder clashing with her identity. The ending of the story is beautiful, she looks at the grey London sky, and sees the Sun and the Moon together at 7 p.m. and thinks, well in London, let them shine together- which quite explains immigration, the yearning for it by many.
Muneeza’Shamshie’s  The Heathen Air speaks of colonization but more of patriarchy in the guise of it. Colonization happens with the urge to captivate. Men any which way are too eager to do so. The royal born princess with all her grandeur is as equally oppressed as the maid in her chambers. She has no say to keep her son with herself and not send him to England for education. The interesting part is the men are often surprised at finding the women even having any opinion about themselves.
The Job Application by Nayyara Rahman, shows the class difference in the Pakistani society. In Bath Island, a young aspiring typist, struggling to get a job is almost dismissed, imagining her inability to cope being a single mother. In fact her life was thought over, dissected in front of her, one who had come with hopes of earning a few thousand more.  And when being dismissed, she wonders “they didn’t even offer a glass of water”.
Galpo, the Short stories by Women in Bangladesh, is my favorite collection. It starts with an excerpt from Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Shekhaway Hussain. Sultana’s Dream speaks of an imaginary Woman’s Land, where now there exists a Mardana Mahal. There are very interesting sections, where someone ponders that men are too restless for embroidery. We all now know that merely changing status-quo wont make lives any better, since patriarchy will still sustain in the name of oppression, however, the thought of the story, written in the 1920s is incredible.
One of my favorite story from the collection is The name of the story is Troubles by Razia Mahboob.
The story starts with a slice of domestic life of Sarkar Sahib, a high profile social worker, being nagged by his superstitious wife. She sees troubles everywhere in her life since morning, with increased electricity bills, son's marriage, uninvited guests, domestic help quitting the job. The Man of the household leaves her amidst these "petty chores" and comes back in the evening with a problem at hand. The tenants next door, have a scandalous past. In fact the colony people suspects that they are not married as a couple and hence needs to be evicted. They refused to show marriage deed. To this, the wife remarked that, hardly any marriages have a deed. And what is the need for such harassment. And its not easy to evict tenants- they may resort to legal aid. Sarkar Sahib replies, that they have already started packing, since the regular stone-pelting, boycotts, heckles are too much, they can cope up. And when asked, what is he doing as a social worker- of course he is analyzing the situation, two meeting failed, since the person are too adamant and not ready to budge from not showing marriage deed. And since the local mosque is involved and many other landlords, its a difficult situation to solve by not alienating anyone... His wife listened and this is what she did- (excerpt- a few lines from the story)

Next day, everyone heard in amazement the way Sarkar Sahib's wife had gone over to the couple's house and scolded them openly. " I may be your distant aunt, shameless girl. I cannot look after all my relatives, but i was there at the wedding. May be my present was not to nice. Is that any reason not to look up your aunt?"...
and when later asked by her husband, for carrying out this "irreligious act of lie", she simple retorted... " I can hardly bear all my troubles... how can i bear the trouble of seeing something wrong.."

That's it... and there was nothing else.
and this is hope. We know, we must know, when and how to act... and to keep on listening to that authentic voice, which makes you one with the other, or them with you... is the only hope... its non-paternalistic, liberating and above all.... embraces love...

Radha will not Cook Today is another gem.. Radha, a mother of a 4 year old, with her husband, mother in law, sister in law, mundane domesticity, chores, duties, bickering was fine... All in a rhythm, till one fine morning she decided she will not cook... For no apparent reason.., and how that created an ugly stir in the household... a short story titled in Bangla as Arandhan by Purabi Basu speaks about agency, coercion... And the false facade called peace and love in a family... All in humour...

In Afsaneh, the story which wins me over is Goli Taraqqi's The Shemiran Bus- reminded me of Kabuliwala by Tagore... Every child finds a friend in the most unlikeliest of spaces... Transcending class, caste, geography...bonding from the heart... Mini the 5 year old daughter of a middle class Bengali Family in Kolkata found her friend in Rahmat from Kabul, the big, fat Kabuliwalkah... Goli Taraqqi's little girl in Tehran finds the same in Aziz Aqa the bus driver... Her genie of the magic lamp... Feelings transcend all...

The stories in Afsaneh, do speak about the repression on women in Iran, but sounds universal, across. It’s the longing of the women in words, description of their lives, its mundanities, failed dreams and often surprises and yearnings, which make them seem so known, so true and so vivid.

And in Katha, the collection of Indian Stories, The one on Kava and Kavi is indeed interesting- the tribal context of bride price explained as the way of captivating the free-spirited mind of Kavi through gilted gold and jewellery.
My favorite is the story by Ambai. Too many emotions. Story of three women, feminists, with now broken dreams, how they believed the world will be, and now facing communal violence. Excerpts of the strory:
"Those were times when they faced everything with an energy that said, ‘You can’t define us. We will break your definitions, your commentaries, your grammars, your rules.’ They felt an urgency to defy everything. She and Sakina had gone to a Chinese beauty parlour and had their hair cropped close to their heads. When she went home, Ramu only asked, making no fuss, ‘Well, Selvi, was it a pilgrimage to Palani or to Tirupati?’ ‘Neither; it was to China,’ she told him. Lively times, those were." ........
"‘This is going to be a huge battle, Charu,’ she said. ‘It begins with someone else giving me an identity.’"....,.........
"Roshni, Light, I have strung together for you fifty years of doubts, rebellions, battles, struggles. This is only a song. When I write an epic for you – and I will write it one day – I will speak of all this in detail. But don’t think the song is complete. It is true communal violence, caste-wars and human degradation have all dispirited us greatly. But our battle continues. We still raise our voices to safeguard rivers, trees and animals. To safeguard human beings, above all. You will hear in this song, resonances of our joy, despair, disappointments and exhilaration. Sleep well, Roshni. And when you wake up, let it be to the sound of our song. You and I and many others must complete it. For we believe that a song, once begun, ought to be completed".....Excerpts from A Movement, A Folder, Some Tears.. Why do you make me cry every time I read you....???...every single time...

Arupa patangia Kalita’s story viz. Numoli’s story is based out of Assam during the Ulfa insurgency. Numoli the doe-eyed simple Assemse girl seems to be the earth, surprised and scared and violated by violence and oppression, all claiming their parts and bleeding the earth. Its lyrical and beautifully written.
Bulbul Sharma;s Mayadevi’s London Yatra is interesting. And Meenal Dave’s Nightmare, is another little star. Speaking about the divisiveness we suffer within and how that transcends with one peck at the back, is something Nightmare deftly puts.

This theme of women leading estranged and desperate lives in a patriarchal and oppressive society is the thread that connects almost all the other stories in this collection. 


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Home, Sparks and Splinters- Matchbox

Writing about Stories by Ashapurna Debi, Translated by Prasenjit Gupta

Two Debis ruled my literary preferences, amongst the women writers writing in Bengali- Ashapurna Debi, whom my mother admired and the other Mahashweta Debi- who my father loved. In fact my father was almost dismissive of Ashapurna Debi as someone lacking a serious line of discourse. Yes, she indeed appealed to women, for she wrote about the home and hearth, apparent trivial issues in family between women, conflicts and mundane. Mahashweta, baba (my father) found much more political. She was writing about caste and class, was writing stories about rural Adivasi women, bringing their saga to the forefront, strong feminist, leftist views. And mind you, I must be 12 or 13 then when I had finished reading Pratham Pratisruti, Bakul Katha and in fact had cherished the autograph my mother had secured from Ashapurna Debi in her college days. And I thought I lacked political understanding then. So reading Draupadi or about Titu Mir, often I found troublesome, unrelatable. Whereas, Ashapurna’s stories I could see playing all around me- within the house, between the people I know well. Of course I did not have the maturity to understand that what I am thinking is a strong political argument. Tilottatama Majumdar, Bani Basu, Suchitra Bhattacharya and other women writers came to my life a little later and by that time I have been exposed somewhat to discourses of feminism, but through western writings. I never looked back at Ashapurna, till a couple of months back when I came across this book- collection of short stories by Ashapurna Debi, translated by Prasenjit Gupta, titled matchbox.  I settled to read and found such strong political voice in the story. This of course comes to me at a time when I sort of understand the blurring line between personal and political. Feminism is against this heteronormative patriarchal system. And this starts at the home and the family. One cannot fight the battles outside without starting negotiating at home. And there comes the challenge.
The tittle story Matchbox is brilliant and in fact there in the last few lines, Ashapurna summarises with aplomb, which feminism movement has understood long back, but failed to address, failed to keep the anger contained-
This – this is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s highmindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets
In fact this is the catch, which perpetrates sexual division of labour, impedes property rights and many such things which forms the metrics of the broad level understanding of gender discrimination.
Matchbox or Deshlai Baksho is the story of Nomita, the rage, her potential to flare up in splinters like the matchbox, and then containing all of that, for that illusive social prestige of “happily married ever after”. Ajit’s Namita’s husband is often intrusive, hides her letters, disrespectful without knowing to the needs of her impoverished mother and family. Nomita, understands, is angry about all these, and however succumbs to her internal need of a better world, with a roof and family. And I think we know enough women like Nomita- who in reality have nothing to lose, but are fearful of a loss, which has so cleverly conditioned in them from the beginning.
Oishorjo or Wealth- the first story of the collection is an interesting one. In fact it is intriguing as well which shows the strength of a woman in a conjugal relationship.  She is aware of her husband’s philandering ways and nonchalant about it. In fact it’s her irreverence that causes much heartburn amongst the other women in the family, who are unable to sympathise on her great loss of wealth- love of her husband. Oporna is a remarkable character here- who knows that love of her husband often is a transactional relationship between a couple bound in a marriage. She had much more to herself, the aura, her self-respect. However, isn’t she too at a loss? This systemically created dignity also had come to her at a great personal sacrifice- but then every fight for self, calls for sacrifice doesn’t it?
Du-Shahoshik or Foolhardy, is a story which makes me think of who is the one who acts out this fool-hardiness, this act of bravery? Partho re-intrduces Otonu, again to his wife Sheema, who happened to me Otonu’s ex. However the triangle all want to defy their inner insecurities and try out a new act of bravery? Why is it? To become larger than themselves. When asked by Sheema, whether he ever feared losing out, Partho said “ If I’m afraid even now of losing to that boy, and I have to live always on my guard- it’s very much better to be defeated and die”..  And to me now this story becomes something more than just Partho’s act of bravery. In fact he was putting their fidelity and marriage on test. Was Sheema an approver of the act? No, but she did have her say and her voice as well.
Another of my favorites in Ponkhi Mohol or Bird Palace. No other story can bring out this interplay of emotions and anguish of one woman older in age, against the other now set to replace her in the finely crafted house of cards called patriarchy. The feuds would remain confined to these women, without both of them realizing that whoever wins, the loss is equal on both their parts.
Shok or Grief, one of the best in the collection.  Shoktipodo and Protibha, through their act of defying emotional urgency, delayers the facades of filial ties and responsibilities, showing the hollow fakeness lying within. The news of Pratibha’s mother’s demise was held up by Shoktipodo cleverly, since he didn’t want to get delayed for the first day of the month to office, He really wishes the news to play out at his convenience. And Protibha too holds up her exuberance without the absence of someone to share her grief. The selfish treachery of each other, almost known to one another, but still they play out their roles to the T- that’s what Samsaar is.. Maybe...

It’s needless to mention that I have come to love Mahashweta more, but credit also goes to her presence even in academia and subaltern studies. However, today I am surprised, why we never look back at Ashapurna Debi and bring her into feminist discussion circles… since writing about home for her meant also to offer home as the sanctuary and shelter as well as the cage for binding desires. And for different people, with interplay of emotions and power structures, home means to be different, patriarchal archetypes controlling the strings.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Personal is Political- these stories reverberate...


Stories have always had a very strong relation with me. Books have been my best companions and since childhood, growing up in a Bengali household, short stories have dominated my love and longing. I still remember the magazine “Desh”, which we used to subscribe. My mother and my aunt would be busy following up the sequence of the novels (I think those were the days of Pratham Alo  and I was in school, in primary classes), while I used to look forward to short stories. The novelty of idea, the fast pace and the lingering aftertaste, which baba (my father) used to quote as “” Shesh Hoiao Hoilo na Shesh”.. always stayed with me. The short stories written by the English writers came to me later and then too I read O henry and Oscar Wilde. Contemporary English authors like Jack London and even Fitzgerald, I read much later. But Bangla short stories and thereby the authors seemed too lucrative and too loving a territory for me. We used to subscribe to Anandomela as well, but the short stories in Desh and in the Puja Barshikis were something I coveted for always.  And soon, Subodh Ghosh (his 3 volume short stories I still carry along with shifting cities), Tarashankar, Bibhutibhushan and my all-time favorite Manik Bandopadhyay came along.  Travelling in different cities, settled somewhere where access to Bangla books are less, and of course having circle of friends from all over the country, having a spouse who doesn’t read Bengali (I am married to a Kashmiri), made me love these stories even more as anecdotes, I mentioned to these friends. And often struggle to find translations. How would I ever be able to explain the phenomenon called Parashuram to anyone, who is not oriented to the warp and weft of the language, its wry humor?
These days, I am delighted to see so much of translation works happening and thanks to Arunava Sinha. Half of the books by Bengali authors that I have gifted to my non-bangla reading friends have been his translations. Hence needless to say, the moment I saw this book published, with an interesting title- The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, I downloaded the Kindle version and now that I am done, I want to speak of few of the stories which have moved me completely. Not that I haven’t read them earlier. Narendranath Mitra’s Ras I had read and so did Ashapurna Devi’s story, still in this collection few stories just stand out for me, with multiple possibilities..
They are:
·         Einstein and Indubala (Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay)
·         Thunder and Lightning (Ashapurna Devi)
·         Ras (Narendranath Mitra)
·         News of Murder (Moti Nandy)
·         India (Ramapada Choudhury)

Of all these stories, the first fours almost weave and complement each other, as I try to look at them from the perspective of Personal is Political.
Well personal is political is an essay by Carol Hanische, an interesting piece written to analyze the feminist movements and its peripherals. Hanische through her experiences found that often women groups were criticized of bringing the issues of their personal life into political discourses. And the second wave of feminism tries to argue and dismiss the concept of both being different. In fact why more and more women were not joining the movement was because the liminality was not clear to them and they found the movement theoretically too conceptual to be of any use to their lives at home. Personal is indeed political at every sphere and for the feminist movement more so, since every single experience of oppression or love that the woman goes through is a result of an all-encompassing patriarchal system and hence to make someone understand the system and to defy it, be angry or have the desire to break the shackles, it’s important to engage with her through her home and personal life and family. Hanische said (aptly)- “One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say—not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are “apolitical,” not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think “apolitical” women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail.”
This has stayed with me since the time I read Hanische and her essay and others speaking on the same area. And I now try and look into things which speak about this strongly.
These stories to me bring back the gender lens.
Interestingly Einstein and Indubala, many may disagree with me and I when had read it first, had typified it as a sexist story in parts often (quite wrongly). At multiple instances the story refers to the decision of everyone especially the males to go and see Ms. Indubala’s performance alibi the women’s demand. This angered me, since even today such stereotypes exist be it in office or at home. However now when I reread it and in the light of Hanische, it seems so political to me and refreshingly so. Einstein with all his knowledge and his idea of space can be of no interest to women or men of a different class, the non-intellectuals, and I am not invoking caste here. However together they all represent whom is the question and whom do they choose? It is pertinent today especially in a majoritarian democracy where doles and benefits seem to be a political choice of winning votes, shall we raise our noses demeaning the choice of many (which I do often) or try and see the political significance of the choice of others. Women find Indubala more endearing than Einstein, someone they may not even have heard. Rightfully so, since he doesn’t even understand them, doesn’t try to engage. In fact he really thinks that French pamphlets will work in India? Einstein hasn’t reached their home and their hearths. However, somehow Indubala’s presence also seem to liberate the men from their fa├žade, alibi accompanying the women. This story in fact is the icing on the cake.
Ashapurna Devi, stands for her stories set in the private spaces- home and family. She always presents a slice of intimate lives within the 4 walls of the home, the daily chores, the interplay of relations, with the woman at the centre. In the introduction to Prasenjit Gupta’s collection of Ashapurna Devi’s short stories Jhumpa Lahiri mentions: The home itself, as both physical setting and symbolic space, is the most central feature of Ashapurna Debi’s stories, and it frequently plays a complex and contradictory role. At times the home represents an adversary, a physical prison, a site of constraint beyond which the truth about a family cannot be disclosed. At other times her stories endorse the home as a haven, a refuge representative of ownership, comfort, and escape, which protects the individual from the danger and disorder rampant in city life. This polarized notion of home, as both prison and sanctuary, provides perpetual grist for Debi’s fictional mill”.
Thunder and Lightning is no exception. However here the protagonist Bula almost poses a very political question through living her personal life and her choice of financial access. Bula, the rejected wife and the ever-servile daughter-in-law leaves her in-laws house to join films. The family disowns her, however is seen at an interesting quagmire when she sends money order. And this also exposes the biggest question- is financial independence the way to woman’s liberation, so called economic empowerment, or its merely a negotiation tool, softly buying and bribing existence- since the so called inherent right to dignity is not there. Also for Bula, home and her access to family become symbolic of her existence-the lines between oppressors and the oppressed becomes blurred here.
Ras by Narendranath Mitra again brings forth this question of economics in marriage or family. This translation was published earlier in Caravan (http://www.caravanmagazine.in/fiction-poetry/ras­) However in this rural economic setting there is more to the story that mere economics and games around it. This is equally the story of two distinct women- Majubi and Phulbano, women who were open and unabashed about their choices and their desires. That is incredible. Phulbano seeks divorce from her first marriage due to her dissatisfaction with an older husband and Majubi, being divorced by Motalef, is clear about her options. The interesting part of the story is, one cannot distinctly side with anyone. At one point I may hate Motalef with his schemes and transactions, however did Majubi doesn’t appear to be a victim. This interplay is what made Ras remarkable to me.
News of Murder by Moti Nandy reminds me of an essay I read sometime back about the anxiety that all women go through in fear of violence of any form. It said that the fear of rape permeates our lives.  And the social stigma associated with it. The cage seems to suffocate the living. Bibha’s paranoia was brought upon by her family and its confines. A small news on the newspaper, having the name of the victim same as he name, got the family fussing over her apparent security and more of saving their honor at the cost of her impending confinement. Something I think women go through at every point in their lives.
India by Ramapada Choudhury of course needs to be looked with a different lens. The last few lines, is still going through my mind- “The train left. But everyone at Mahatogaon turned into beggars. All those people who lived off the soil- all of them had been turned into beggars”.  Isn’t this something too well known to all of us- we may not even need the Americans throwing off coins as amusements. There are structured organizations to do the same, banks, UN agencies with doles and schemes, with good intentions of helping communities. This reminded me of Damisa Moyo, the African author and economist who writes critically of the aid culture, ripping communities of their rights and dignities in the pretext of help.  This is indeed a very interesting piece and I am planning to use this as a story for discourses on development, sometime in a group.
However, it’s a very interesting collection and of course contributed to making my Saturday a great one.


Skills for Life--Dilemma, conflict, truth, humanity…Children’s books tugging at the strings of your heart

Skills for Life--Dilemma, conflict, truth, humanity…Children’s books tugging at the strings of your heart

Moral Science can often be a boring lesson at school, unless few teachers wanted to make it interesting, by bringing stories and the questions associated with them- what do we think right or wrong? Suddenly as a 9 or 10 year old, to be asked about our thoughts and decisions used to be a big deal, engaging us in discussing with each other, falling upon our limited experiences but with clairvoyance and of course giving us the agency. Stories did that very well. Suddenly putting yourself into the shoes of those characters and trying to think as you would in those space and time, made me imaginative and of course my ever-lasting love with stories was inevitable. I remember once when we were discussing one particular story Elves and the Shoemaker, especially when the happy shoe-maker loses his peace when he was no longer needed to toil hard for a leaving. At the age of 8 or 9, I really could not understand why would one lose his peace when he gets all he wanted and still wanted to work hard. What was it that was missing and so dear to the shoemaker even amidst his penury. Those were the years of innocence and tinted glass, where you want to wipe out sorrows and pain from everyone and you look at poverty only through the angle of a single story- the story of deprivation and oppression, and not the story of inherent human dignity. Even now, elves and the shoe-maker intrigue me a lot, especially now when I somewhat know the development sector and the fund dependencies as an adult.
However how do to bring curiosity and question to the young minds. To not give them answers and make them imaginative thinkers. Especially when it comes to intrigues like right or wrong- not to make them followers but seekers. And isn’t seeking a skill for life?
I always look for books which bring forth such dilemma, especially when it comes to children and I have a few to speak of.
Satyadas by Bimal Kar – adapted by Katha with beautiful illustrations.

Stayadas doesn’t tell clearly about a moral practice but poses a question. Its about Raghunath, running a small grocery store in a small colliery town of Bengal. He struggles to make ends meet, however is not bereft of empathy towards fellow human beings. This inherent sense of human connect prompts him to give shelter to Satyadas, a stranger peddler on a rain soaked evening. Satyadas goes away next day, but leaves back some gold coins and thus his part magic presence becomes temptation to Raghunath. Raghunath waits for Satyadas to be back for days and then in utter need, he falls back on these jewels. The stones symbolise the eternal clash between good and evil, while the six gold coins embody the six seasons. A year later, and after Raghunath has spent the gold coins, Satyadas returns. This time he is an embodiment of conscience. For when he goes away, he leaves behind a guilt-ridden Raghunath. The author portrays Raghunath’s inner conflict skilfully as he battles with the demons inside him and debates the rightness or otherwise of having taken someone else’s money. However indeed we may side with Satyadas and understand Raghunath’s act as that of treachery, dishonest. However, was Satyadas for real, never claiming his possessions and what would one in the place of Raghunath do, when it comes to the question of survival or keeping up with the times? Even for an adult with absolute stand and clarity between right and wrong, black and white the book with lovely charcoal illustrations give a sense of grey. Would be interesting to know how a young reader will think about this.
Pinti Ka Saboon:

Pinti Ka Saboon is another interesting story based now in Kumaon, in a small hamlet at the foothills of the Himalayas. The little hamlet was indeed aware of fragrant soap- they had seen Pinti, the once stationed army officer’s daughter using it and leaving a trail of fragrance behind. But none in the village ever possessed one, till Hariya won a nicely packed and wrapped piece of pink soap. Possessing something which none had, gave him a sense of power and alienation. The relations coveted to him now seemed to him as a threat, who would try and dispossess him of his new-found treasure. This engulfed him. The simple Himalayan foothill village suddenly becomes a place of conspiracy, threat and enmity for him. And it also brings in a cloud of unrest amongst others in the family and village. Something they were happily unaware of in their equal status quo of not having. A very interesting story, for all. And for children, for all that we often covet, it’s a cue to make us think, all that we want, are we ready to share it with everyone?
Curfew
Curfew again is a story of inherent human bonding. Posted in the conflict ridden city of Shrinagar, soldiers in charge of curfew, suddenly find themselves in an awkward position. They become one and all with the citizen’s struggle to carry on with life, with the natural ebb and flow, sometimes picking up ball for a crying infant or passing food from one house to the other across the street. They find themselves torn at the inner war within them to listen to the call of life and its demand, or to bring in the iron hand, alibi ensure peace and security.  This is something which should be introduced to young people, to make them understand the multiple possibilities, the existence of multiple stories..
Ek Anmol Sathi ke Liye
Ek Amnol Saathi ke liye is more about moral courage and taking a stand. A young impoverished painter gets a commissioned work- his make or break in life, to pain Buddha, with all animals in the universe barring cats. The guy however had a pet cat and had a unique relation with the little cat, who was his only friend. In the eyes of his little friend, he saw the desire to be included into the canvas and he decided to go ahead, to place the little cat with the all forgiving Lord. Once discovered, the monks were furious. However once the portrait was revealed, it showed Buddha placing the cat on his lap, showing the universe has a place for all. It’s a beautiful story by Rosalind Wilson adapted by Katha.
Aapni Aapni Pasand

Vijay Dan Detha’s story are part magic, part folklore. Katha’s adaptation of the story through beautiful illustration is interesting yet thought provoking. As an adult there are different angles to look at the story. The story is about two women a florist cum gardener and a fisherwoman. One fine day they meet and decide to swap their places. For few days they remain happy, till they start missing their old professions, the smell of fish, the scent of flowers. If I want to look at it from an angle of caste and class, this will be a little unacceptable for me, where somehow the story ends with both going back to their old states-However there can also be a more philosophical way of looking into this, related to the core belief or value of one self. Would be great to know how children will look and think of this.
Fledolin

Fledolin is the story of the little bat who almost embarrasses his community by defying what is considered normal or natural. He doesn’t enjoy hanging upside down. The illustrations are immensely engaging where it is seen everything upside down is normal and Fledolin on the other side. The parents and other bats are wary of his future, till the local yo-yo competition comes, where Fledolin’s deftness to deal with gravity helps him to win. This is interesting to raise self-esteem and also to question what is normal finally.



Wings to Fly:

This is a beautiful book of little Malathy, pinned to the wheel-chair, but wit hopes to win competitions though running. This is in fact the story of the remarkable disabled athlete Malathy Holla.

These books give the scope to imagine, think, and question. Why a bat should not hung upside down, will also give the trust to hope that a girl in he wheel-chair can win races, its possible. Multiple possibilities and stories exist. Soldiers not only kill but are also human beings, and Kashmir is not a place of militants but also of children who want to play in the streets. Its fine to win gifts and ask for more, but like Pinti, will more not make way for having less love within me for all around me. Also shall we not listen to the voice within our hearts, our authentic voice, since right or wrong as Satyadas said, “ you know within yourself”… and hence reading these books can also be a journey of seeking….

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Mitro Marjani...Of Desire and Longing..


As women are we supposed to have desires? Carnal?  And if so, how do we express and long for it. Krishna Sobti in her 1964 book Mitro Marjani created Mitro aka Sumitravanta, the wife of the middle son of a mercantile joint family as if to speak it out.. so out of her times and ways.
Mitro is unabashed about her desires and longings. She feels that her body, her beauty has more to it that merely be an obedient house-wife and suppressing wishes. Hence she engages in verbal as well as physical battles with her husband. She is an odd-one out. However the interesting part is the family which although wary and repulsive accepts her frankness. Mitro speaks about sex openly and in fact gets angry at the hypocrisy of keeping things under the wraps.  In fact this is her power, which makes her husband lash at her, her in-laws to keep a distance away from her.
And I wonder what make Sobti write about Mitro. Mitro also has a mother who is open about her desires, to the extent, she being a widow is almost jealous of her daughter and her proximity to her husband. Where have we seen such female protagonists- so full of desire? In fact in many novels of those times and even now, we find the protagonists repentant and almost to do penance for this kind of carnal longing or even longing for an identity. This reminds me of Grihadaha (by Saratchandra) and in fact even in Tagore’s novels, the one who desires, is almost plotted as the one who creates anarchy and even Tagore couldn’t handle anarchy….

Wish there were more Mitros and that would have changed the dialogues and discussions in a household..

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Magic, Madness, Colors and Eternal Strengths of Humanity

Growing Up in Pandupur (Aditi and Chatura Rao)
Amie and the Chawl of Color (Chatura Rao)
The Burmese Box (Lila Majumdar)
The Yellow Bird (Lila Majumdar)
Eid stories


These are books for children and there are books for all. For me, these 5 books are for all ages, some recreating nostalgia and magic and others reminding us the eternal strengths of love and humanity.

Growing Up in Pandupur is an interesting work. Apparently seen as a collection of  13 stories are linked to each other. Its about a township growing up along the banks of the Dhun river and the river has its own song saying..

 "..Of humans who came and cleared and farmed...
home to the native farmer... 
then came the traders beady eyed man, to sell the farms,...

The Government said to build a dam...
.... and
with engineers came their families..."

This is the story of any township in India, growing and accomodating more and more people whereas the natives, the forests keep on getting pushed outside. Pandupur has railway station, schools, but then there are different kind of schools right?- One where the engineers will send their kids and another where the natives (read tribals) will send their children. One interesting story is warm and fuzzy which speaks about this.  This is indeed a warm collection, which may make us ponder over our ideas of growth and development even through stories of a fictitious township.

Amie and the Chawl of color is almost like Dorothy and the wizard of oz, however here it is metaphorical. we know Amie too well and her chawl as well in the city named here Doombay(we know what in real the city is called right!!) Now suddenly Amie's chawl and particularly Amir faces a great crisis. The little bit of sun that managed to creep inside Amie's small pigeon hole of a room, faces threat from entering.due to the billboard set up and the prospects of many such billboards blocking and taking the hues out of their lives. (can we remember what is happening to the Mumbai chawls, the threat from builders..) Amie loves her mother and also the others in the chawl, the microcosm of the cosmopolitan Doombay and takes things to her hands to meet Shah of Vibgyor bring colors back.. part adventure and part magical.. this is a beautiful book.

The Burmese Box and The Yellow Bird.. by Lila Majumdar are lovely reads (the original read by me much earlier in Bangla) The gifted storyteller that she was.. Lila Majumdar has deftly woven treasure chests and detective stories with magic realism. The Scheming Podi-pishi dies lamenting for her lost jewellery box and then adventures cloud up around the box. Whereas Jhogru mixes imagination and myth into the yellow bird to attain the impossible.

Eid stories are my all time favorite. This is a collection of stories circling round the festival of Eid. Paro Anand's story speaks about taking a stand against bullying and weaving integrity and inclusivity in schools. My favorite is Sweets for Shankar by Aditi Rao- taking cues from an incident where a young Muslim boy met Gandhiji during his rounds of appeal for communal harmony to stop riots post partition. This young Muslim boy, puts his life on threat to pass on sweets for Eid as promised to his friend Shankar, something the poet fictitiously created as if was a re-assurance to the Father of the Nation to have faith in Humanity in those dark days of madness.

Highly recommended for all to read..

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Death of Professions or Saga of Subaltern

Death of Professions or Saga of Subaltern

Review_ The Lost Generation- Chronicling India’s Dying Professions by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

India currently is proud of its demographic dividend and is keen on leveraging of this. Hence an estimated 550 million people need to be trained in skills, so that they can get employed thereby changing their fate as well as contributing to the GDP of the country. Interestingly almost 80% of these trades belong to the informal sector with no regulations, minimum wages policy, hostile working conditions. And in addition there are hundreds and thousands of people who are earning their livelihood, without any recognition of the means as a trade. These are the questions which I often struggle with. A young boy from Tejpur, comes all the way to Delhi to work in a shopping mall, earning 8000/- per month and sharing his accommodation with 7 others in a pigeon hole is supposed to do meaningful contribution to the economy, whereas in his village a vegetable seller who pushes his cart ful of greens to the local market doesn’t.
Interestingly the one who sells his own veggies and may even produce them has the capacity to think, create a livelihood option with this hands and is independent to some extent, still reeling under the burden of financial insecurity- being an entrepreneur. And the ones, who migrates, to work under someone is the one who contributes. However what will happen if suppose the Mc Donalds in Haryana, where this guy is working gets gutted down. What about his profession? He is employed under someone and what about social security etc. How as a country we look at jobs and not at entrepreneurship and in fact let many of the professions die. Many however cannot cope up with the changing demands of time. What are the fates of professions, if winds of time render them useless. What happens to that community? Or it is again the saga of the sub-altern? The one who had no voice and even the profession was not a choice or “ freedom as development”. They fell into accepting those, or compelled to do so, unable to get rid of the class, caste, gender baggage.
The Book- The Lost Generation- Chronicling India’s Dying Professions by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, exposes us to a magical journey of 11 such professions, many should have been obliterated long back for its sheer oppression with respect to gender and class.
Nidhi takes us to Jharkhand to view the Godna Artists doing tattoo on forehead of little girls to the Rudaali women in feudal Rajasthan village.  There the women from upper caste cannot try or show emotional exuberance or vulnerability in front of others- repression works even to prevent them fropm expressing sorrows and the Rudaali women are the surrogate sorrow- bearers, emptying their soles and their eyes. At Haridwar the genealogists, seem to exude a feeling- how deep rooted caste sits in our system. The Kabootarbaz in Delhi refuse to accept their profession as an abuse to animal rights- however oblivious of the fact that the entire scheme was the fancy or whim of some rich nawab once upon a time. At Vikarabad in Andhra, we meet the Burrakatha story-teller, the part of the Jangam tribe, considered untouchables, and whose next generation has no problem in accepting a stable government job as a garbage cleaner with the municipality. At Baroda, the street dentist questions the relevance of medical schools, if the poor cannot afford the fruits of such education and he is proud of his own skills. The Urdu Scribes in Delhi are fighting not only the technology which has now given way to fonts, but also the idea of “ nationalism and other” which is hastening the decay of Urdu language. The Boat makers of Balagarh depict how culture and politics can go hand in hand- when the boats are used across the river for election propaganda and then re-used for immersion during Durga Puja. The Ittar Wallahs of Hyderabad, fondly reminisces his skill of creating the aroma for the “rooh” and seems to feel proud at his skill of identifying fragrances of the rich and poor, through some uncanny logic. The Bhishti Wallahs of Kolkata, now rendered of no use, are struggling with poverty, unable to get the OBC certificate and clutching on to the nostalgia of old camel skin “ bhishtis”- the word originating from the Persian word “ Beheshth” or paradise. (indeed water meant paradise in the deserts and the battlefields, where these water carriers or Bhishtiwallahs use to quench the thirst of the wary).
The most interesting one was the letter writer in Mumbai. Coming from Benares, he had made his living with honor, dominating the script of the ones who had none. However 2002 onwards, computers and email  and mobile phone has now posed a threat to this very profession. His deftness to express in form of the letter, is now not needed.
Throughout the book, however I could also see class playing a large role in the professions. Those who belonged to the upper caste dominated the “script”, be it through genealogists in Haridwar or the Letter Writer from Benares or the Urdu Scribe, who takes pride in curating books for Kashmir schools. Whereas the rest, once the subaltern in colonial domain, still reel from the pressure of caste or marginalization. Which makes me question- “has the saga of sub-altern really changed?”. Indeed the story-teller of the Jangam tribe in Andhra will become a garbage cleaner while son of the letter writer will join marcom industry and that of the genealogist in Haridwar has joined IT industry.
And when we charted the course of skilling, to employ 550 million people, we have also done the same, hardly giving them a freedom of choice, we know who will become a construction worker toiling in the concretes and living in a shanty and who will become the software engineer.
This is an interesting book- and after reading this wonder when would we realize that all professions will die, unless we have the power to create and choose one that befits us and our thoughts and wishes?..



 
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