Lajja by Taslima Nasreen

Babri Masjid demolition, under whatever justifications, is undoubtedly the single greatest failure of our democracy and secularism. While it spiked communal unrest in India, immediate butterfly effect was visible somewhere else, someplace that shares the same secular values, at Bangladesh.

Nasreen claims to have written this novel over a week of religious unrest, which escalated into demolition of century old temples and violence against minority Hindus, in retaliation to what happenings in India. Like every other riot in the history, religious hatred and violent oppression were inflicted by and towards friends and colleagues who were, dear ones till yesterday. Lajja tells the story of a Hindu family, torn between their love towards lush green motherland they and their ancestors fought Independence for, and the choice of escape to India for the safety of their lives. Protagonist himself isn’t a practicing Hindu, in-fact he is shown as someone who identifies himself more in the company of his muslim friends. But the circumstances, silent State comply on violence, second status in his own country on grounds of an ideology he doesn’t necessarily upheld, gradually contaminate his rational thoughts with anger, frustration and eventual hatred towards muslims, which he almost succumbs to.

79578631-they-can-destroy-babri-masjid..-but-they-cant-destroy-our-imaanAuthor craft-fully establishes the intricate differences between religion and culture, for one find him or herself comfortable around people from same language and practices than the single ideology of religion, which in-turn paid a great deal in liberation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh in 1971. But secularism in the new found nation was a grey line, or it became one over time, with the declaration of Islam as state religion and rapid islamisization of institutions. Through the thoughts and words of the hero, she subtly addressees the politics of language, how the streets and institutions were renamed, and how the ones that retained their old hindu names were reduced to acronyms.

Nasreen uses the characters as reader’s surrogates for understanding the minority population decline and migration to India, on grounds of secularism. Those who left the country to escape prosecution found their properties acquired by State under the pretext of ‘Enemy Property Act’. She subtly references through human relationships, oppression of weak, nepotism, religious fascism and much more with statistical figures, discussion of which would be rendition with spoilers. It is easy to understand this book getting banned, for her active criticisms against Awami League, BJP, RSS and other communal political coalitions on their vote mongering hate politics, is very visible.
Lajja wasn’t an easy read, all of this, but it offered a great deal about human consciousness and how easily are we blinded by religion. I don’t think she was writing against Islam, but against the usage of religion as a sorry excuse for masking morality, peace and love, all of which every religion essentially stands for.

And the scariest part is, the relevance this book still holds, even after a decade of pogrom, in a world we proudly call modern.

Folklore of Kerala by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

The element of fascination this book can offer depends greatly on the reader and what he or she is looking for; for the writing is mostly scholarly, and devoid of any gimmicks intended to act as incentives.

KN Panicker captures the coastal beauty of present State of Kerala, from her historical and cultural roots. Starting from the geographical location, mythologies associated with Western Ghats and mentions of the land in ithihasas like Mahabharata to the works of ancient Chinese, Arabic, Babylonian texts. This book gives a pretty good account of the diaspora and its cultural interbreeding via international trade and non violent advent of abrahmic religions, as early as their inception. From there on, Panikkar uses these infos as preface for explaining the land’s myth, mythology and traditions that extends to present day. This approach, in my opinion really help readers to understand the present day religious socio-economic state of land better.

As an illustration, I would like to mention book’s take on Kalaripayattu, ancient martial arts form ingenious to the land in origin and practice. It is very rational to have this explained using skirmishes, wars and competitions. But, he links its faculty of postures and style of movements with Kathakali, a complex temple art form that demands extreme discipline of mind and body to perform( to watch also, atleast for me ). He in turn uses Kalari to elucidate Kerala’s oral literature through Vadakkan Pattukal, ever fascinating warrior stories. And further encores in social system by explaining the practice of same by every communities as opposed to the orthodox martial reservation with Kshatriyas.

What it suffers from, is the modulation losses in translation of nouns, phrases, parables and literature from vernaculars. It felt really weird to read about ‘Krishnagatha‘ or ‘Chavitunatakam‘ or even the melodious ‘Omana Thinkal Kidavo‘ in English. If you are from Kerala or are interested in its religions, customs, festivals, oral literature, music and theater; this book acts as a wonderful introduction.

Paraphrasing Panikkar himself, to those who entertain a nostalgic love for bygone folk culture, amidst rapid urbanization, India can offer a long and continuous living tradition with a sense of balance between down to earth materialism and high spiritualism. And this book, even in its text-book-y narratives, does a good job in capturing the South Western strip of the peninsula in all its might.

Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A.K. Ramanujan

In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Ram is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39).

ramanujan-ramRamayana and Mahabharata are easily identified as the two great Indian epics, though the word “epic” is a weak translation for ‘ithihasa’, popular Sanskrit narrative genre they belong to. In this well researched scholarly article, AK Ramanujan takes readers through the influence of Ramayana in particular, on Indian diaspora and the various tellings of the same basic story structure in South East, Peninsular and Central Asia over past twenty five hundred years.

Author starts by efforts to de-orientalize readers, by differentiating ‘katha’ and ‘kavya’, using ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘sentence’ and ‘speech act’, and finally explains the subtle yet important differences between Ramakatha(Story of Ram) and Ramayana. He uses Ahalya story excerpt from Valmiki Ramyana and Kampan’s Iramavataram to hyphenates the variations in narratives, the increasing God character of Ram in the later, which accordingly was written with knowledge of pre-telling, arguably of the former. Ramanujan carefully compares Thai, Malaysian and South East Asian tellings of Ramayana on the basis of linguistic studies and geopolitical routes over which the ithihasa reached orally, and the culture it got assimilated into. Not to mention the exponential number of variants hosted by Indian vernacular languages in classical and folk traditions.

ravana-3It was fascinating to learn about the Jain traditional tellings which consider Ravana as a noble Shaivite king who met his end by falling for material desires, instead of the classical text book villain figure we are used to (a good place to refer Asura book). There are even traditions where Lakshmana and Ravana are considered as ‘yin-yang’ stye ‘good-evil’ force pair destined to fight time and again, and in this version Lord Ram is venerated as the righteous elevated soul abstaint to violence, which is very understandable once read alongside Jain ideologies. It doesn’t end there, author moves through separate narratives where Sita is Ravana’s daughter, Hanuman is depicted as a ladies man, versions where Vanaras are celstial beings than monkeys, Dashamukha tradition that doesn’t literally considers Ravana’s notorious ten heads and even the variation where Hanuman is credited as the writer of Ramayana who scattered it across the world from Himalayan mountain tops, of which Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment.

Ramanujan calls for a Ship of Theseus style philosophy and open mindedness to rejoice the similarities, and cherish the differences. He ends the essay with a funny folktale about the power of Ramayana, where the listener is entranced and caught up in the action, who is compelled to enter the world of the epic rather than being a mere by stander, thus erasing the line between fiction and reality.

Few years before, this essay was a hot topic of controversy, over ABVP objecting its inclusion in Delhi University syllabus, under the argument that there is/was only one version of Ramayana. Though Supreme Court ruled out the radical’s arguments, University decided not to include them in syllabus over obvious reactionary discords.

Unlike the Abrahmic faiths, Hinduism has always been a highly decentralized religion, like sages say, Hinduism is different for everybody. While West has Jerusalem or Mecca for pilgrimage, East relish in multiple holy sites; When Semitic religions depend on a single religious founder, Hinduism seem to be little interested in historisizing their religion, not until recently; and while West tend to base their theology on single religious text, East has got multiple religious texts to base it from. All these vast differences had always caused huge discrepancies for Said’s Orientalists in understanding the culture and religion of West.

There is a Vedic philosophy which roughly goes like this – ‘You are limiting God by giving him/her/it human attributes’. My personal view is that, (I could definitely be wrong over educated arguments) In efforts to semitize the religion, like Orientalists, radical nationalists are confining Hinduism to Abrahmic religion lines, than the way of life, which it has always been over centuries; not just for people who identify as Hindus, but for people of different faith and ethnicity over the Peninsular region.



Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

discoveryofindiaNever thought I would say these, but I wish I had read this book sooner, atleast for the beauty of Nehru’s writing, if not for the history and this by far is one of the best book I have ever read. It is astounding how someone be this catholic in his views, scholastic about the world, stylist of the English prose, and still remain a politician.

Nehru’s main intention behind writing this book was to rekindle the lost nationalism among people of India, which was then divided into British Raj and nearly 556 Princely States. I found it quite extra ordinary of him, trying to evoke that feeling, without the strands of hegemony or aristocracy, which could have easily been established from India’s celebrated past; in fact he was more interested and invested in acknowledging India’a pluralistic society and the heritage of it’s neighbors which she influenced and learned from over centuries. What adds colour to this is the fact that he wrote this book while serving jail time at Ahmednagar Fort, without any notes, in a state of being emotionally torn off, by his wife’s recent death. Unlike average contemporary accords, Nehru’s discussions are not limited to the mainland India or peninsular region alone; commendable share is given to the history, art and cultural exchanges with Middle East, Central Asia and the South East Asia, on which the Indian diaspora extended it’s influence over. He was keen in accepting the cosmopolitan nature of Indian society against modern communal arguments, which assimilated even it’s enemies, irrespective or religion or ethnicity, the fuzzy nature of which, organized West had huge trouble in understanding.

ahmednagarfort.jpgThis might have moulded his foreign policy, though economically debatable, that was based on mutual respect and peace, and equal growth opportunity for all nation States; all of which helped India achieve a benign undertone to it’s growth globally. There were downsides as well, like the failure in foreseeing a threat from the divine land -China, whom he counted as an everlasting ally (India China bhai bhai- India China brothers), based on the glorious past of both countries; or the matter of linguistic based division of state. Anyhow, there was one major element that this book has been missing, for which I was more than glad about – Orientalism.

“The day today religion of orthodox Hindu is more concerned with what to eat and what not to eat, who to eat with and from whom to keep away, than with spiritual values. The rules and regulations of kitchen dominate his social life.”

Pandit Nehru wrote this is in 1942, before Independence, and with the recent ‘beef’ fiascos, I say, we are not so far away from colonial mindset. He never, consciously or unconsciously, let the mega narrative of India create an asymmetry in relations with her near neighbors, which could lead them into suspecting predominance in every call for co-operation, even from reader sides. He kept great admiration towards other Asian civilizations and envisaged that international co-operation has to be between equals and comrades, which obviously meant equal growth opportunities, mutual respect between strong neighborhoods; a policy India still holds dear to, however debatable it is. His world view wasn’t limited to the East alone, he constantly looked towards America and Russia, and seemed to be genuinely troubled by the developments in Europe and Africa; and to his Independence of India was paramount not only for her people, but for the rest of the world under Imperialism and development of humanity as a whole. He displayed class even during criticizing someone, which often went like a very honest effort to understand their complex stand, which included an acknowledgement for all the things he admired about them as well.

Discovery of India, starts and ends in Ahmednagar Fort prison, with Nehru reminiscing the pleasant memories of his election campaign across the length and breadth of undivided India, often with marvel on it’s incredibly diverse culture and perseverance. He then tries to define mainland India from the far ancient period, from Indus Valley civilization, with the limited information unearthed then. Then follows Hinduism, Vedas, Buddhism, Jainism and their philosophy, concept of monism against the monotheistic and polytheistic outlook Indian religions now associate with. The narrative moves through the political history of India, from Mauryas, Gupta dynasty to Delhi Sultanate and Mughals and eventually to the British, and the often neglected South is given due credit for its empires and colonies in South East Asia. The most fascinating part is, having the chance to read this book now, with clear accords of Nehru and his India at our disposal, and India further ahead,  and I must say, he adhered to his ideas without pretexts, and even by modern standards his outlook was very progressive.

My lousy reading is non professional to such extends that the only historical quote I remember of, is by Captain America(probably not originally by him even) – Those who ignore the past are bound to repeat the same mistakes in future. The point is, this seemingly political history book, had me(the local yokel here) baffled, with amusement and admiration, towards it’s concise and polished prose, excellent research and humility in presentation.

I don’t see a reason why anyone should keep them aloof this book because of issues with Nehru as a political figure or ideologies of Congress, for Discovery of India is essentially and solely about India and her history and geopolitics, transcending from ancient times to far near future in common era. And there is something youth of India can learn and mature about here, to take pride in one’s history,culture and religion without being a dick to other’s.

“It was in India’s ways in past to welcome and absorb other cultures. That is much more necessary today, for we march to the one world of tomorrow where national cultures will be intermingled with the international culture of human race. We shall therefore seek wisdom and friendship and comradeship wherever we can find them and co-operate with others in common tasks, but we are no suppliants for other’s favours and patronage. Thus we shall remain true Indians and Asiatics, and become at the same time good internationalists and world citizens.”