If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alone, and a Few Others

Eka ebong Koekjon (Alone and a Few Others) is a long Bangla docufiction – if I may use the term for novels – by Sunil Gangopadhyay that covers numerous voices bearing witness to an eventful time of the Twentieth Century India. Beginning a little before the Second World War and ending after the independence of India, the narrative covers the war and the vulgar profiteering that accompanied it, the burst of patriotism and resistance during the Quit India Movement (1942) in which some of the fading terrorist freedom fighters of Bengal got a new lease of life and then died out as quickly. It covers the Great Bengal Famine (how can a famine ever be great?), the agony of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946 followed by the ecstasy of 1947, and ends with the disillusionment that came upon people when the reality of the free India turned out to be harshly different from the utopia of equality and endless happiness nurtured in the mind of ordinary Indians.

Two storylines, around cousins Surya and Badal, who began their life’s journey at the time of the war, intertwine the novel. Their names, meaning the sun and rains, eponymously tell the reader the contrasting lives the two protagonists would live. Badal is clearly autobiographical. He is a budding poet with just about an average academic career from a rootless family that migrated from East Bengal to Kolkata, like the author himself in every which way, who tries to find his feet in a pitiless and chaotic post-independence India that doesn’t offer an easy passage to a young man without the support of a papa with power or pelf. Badal comes out in flesh and blood, an ordinary boy with sparks of brilliance being buffeted by the gigantic forces unleashed by history yet to be written.

Surya, on the other hand, is the son of a self-made businessman and a dancing woman, who he had married after forsaking his first wife. After his mother killed herself for inexplicable reasons, Surya was brought up by her stepmother in his early childhood and later, after her premature death, by wardens in a Jesuit boarding school.

Given his unusual childhood, Surya offered tremendous scope to his creator to sculpt an unusual character. But unfortunately, despite Sunil’s brilliance as a storyteller, I think he went overboard in his efforts to construct Surya with everything that doesn’t fit into normal scheme of things. That Surya would be a non-conformist is more than plausible, but what stretches the reader’s credulity is his complete lack of empathy for the people around him. He seems too cardboard a character with far too many self-contradictions. For example, nothing in his life correlates to his absolute commitment and boundless love for a comrade when they come face to face with death, or the empathy he shows to the young boys who supervises in an ashram run by a Gandhi follower, although he has unmixed contempt for the philosophy behind the ashram. Neither is it clear why he has to be a sex-maniac.

As I read the 626 pages, I couldn’t but think that the novel was trying forever to stand up on one leg, but despite that, I am convinced it is worth reading.

In fact, it is much more than worth reading because of the historian in Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recall, in his autobiography titled Ordhek Jeeban or Half a Life, he narrated the events leading to the Second World War in passing, in just about six pages. I think those six pages would make any historian proud. In Eka ebong ... too, Sunil captures an enormous historical canvas almost effortlessly. And to the extent I know, he depicts about the quarter of a century of tumultuous time accurately, in brilliant prose. In the introduction to his memoir Bangalnama, a significant Bangla book of our time (In English, The World in Our Time), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote that as a historian, he wanted to feel the heartbeat of the men and women who lived in the past. In Eka ebong Koekjon, I felt the heartbeat of some people who lived in both Bengals during the time.

I believe Eka ebong Koekjon was one of his earlier historical novels. Sunil was developing the skills needed to mesh history with lives of ordinary men and women. He would develop his skills more completely in Purba Pashchim (The East and the West) written with the freedom struggle of Bangladesh as the background, and of course, Sei Samay (Those Times), his magnum opus which covers the history of the nineteenth century Bengal with an élan unmatched in Bangla literature.

Bengaluru / Thursday, 20 July 2017

Friday, 14 July 2017

“What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity.” – Liu Xiabo

Liu Xiaobo, writer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and China’s most well-known dissident and prisoner, has died today from cancer at a hospital in China. The Chinese authorities diagnosed his liver cancer only when it had advanced possibly beyond cure. And as could be expected, they refused Liu to travel abroad for treatment of his choice. They were certainly criminally negligent, but they allowed Liu to leave jail so that he could die in relative dignity under the watchful eyes of police guards. Thank communists for small mercies.

Liu was born in Jilin in north-east China. The Guardian writes: “His parents were devoted to the party, but from his youth Liu struck an independent course. After studying Chinese literature at Jilin University, he began an MA in 1982 at Beijing Normal University, where he stayed on as a lecturer. His keen intelligence and razor tongue soon established his reputation: hundreds watched his dissertation defence, while students from other universities packed out his electrifying lectures. He was also a visiting lecturer at the universities of Oslo and Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York.”

Since 1989, he was given four prison sentences, the last of which he couldn’t complete as he died at the age of 61. But his biography could have been different.

Liu was at Columbia University in New York as a visiting lecturer just before Tiananmen Square happened. He could have lived in peace and prosperity and written lofty pro-democracy articles if he had chosen to appeal for citizenship or political asylum in a First World country. Instead, he returned early to China in May 1989 to join and lead – he was one of the four foremost organisers – the movement that was sweeping the country. It culminated in the pro-democracy movement we know as Tiananmen Square protest which was brutally crushed at the cost of no-one-knows how many thousand human lives.

The Indian Express reports:

“After spending nearly two years in detention following the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu was detained for the second time in 1995 after drafting a plea for political reform. Later that year, he was detained a third time after co-drafting “Opinion on Some Major Issues Concerning our Country Today.” That resulted in a three-year sentence to a labour camp, during which time he married [poet] Liu Xia. …

“Released in 1999, he joined the international literary and human rights organization PEN and continued advocating for human rights and democracy.”
His final prison sentence was for “Charter 08,” a document he co-authored and circulated in 2008. It called for more freedom of expression, human rights, and an independent judiciary in China in the line of “Charter 77”, which had been a civic initiative in Czechoslovakia in 1977 that partly led to the Velvet Revolution 12 years later.


Liu Xiaobo was just 61 when he died. As I read the news of his death, a deep sense of personal gloom gripped me. I do not know why. Maybe, because he was younger than me. I have developed a completely irrational belief that people who came to the world after me should leave it later.

Maybe, because we in India have started living in a strange version of democracy which looks increasingly like the repressive Chinese regime in many ways, although its characteristics are vastly different. If our present masters are allowed a free hand, we cannot but reach a situation

Where the mind lives in constant fear and the head isn’t held high

Where knowledge isn’t free

Where the world has been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls …

I couldn’t but wonder … what inspired Liu Xiaobo to stand up – again and again – and take on a vicious regime that doesn’t care a fig for human rights. That brooks no dissent. That doesn’t think twice before sending people to jail just because they think differently or rolling down columns of tanks to physically crush unarmed and peaceful protestors. What makes people like Liu Xiabo sacrifice everything and suffer so terribly to uphold the honour and dignity of humanity?

Liu Xiaobo is dead. But the values that he stood for do not die.

Human desire to “lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity” is an inalienable fundamental right. There will be setbacks, like it has been happening in India today, but ultimately, Liu Xiaobos are going to win.

We are going to win.

13 July 2017

Photo courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54542145

Monday, 26 June 2017

The valley of death

On Thursday morning, 22 June, a 15-year-old Junaid Khan left home in Ballabhgarh in Haryana to buy kurta-pyjama, a pair of shoes and some khushboo for Eid from Delhi. He returned home dead.
On his way back on a train with his elder brother Hashim and two friends, he was stabbed to death by a group of 15 men between 7-8 pm. Their crime? They were Muslims. Last night I saw on NDTV Junaid’s older brother, who too was attacked, say that the attackers were taunting them over their clothes, and also talked about “beef eating” before taking out their knives. Another victim said to the Indian Express, “Hashim told me the men threw them off the train at Asaoti station. Some people there called an ambulance and they were then taken to a hospital in Palwal.” * How can anyone hate a stranger, that too, a child, so intensely just because he is a Muslim? Unfortunately, mindless violence against Muslims and Christians in this country by insane men in recent years is not the end of the gruesome story. What is far worse is a conspiracy of silence by a large number of Hindus. Please check this report on Indian Express today (25 June) with the heading: AT RAILWAY STATION WHERE JUNAID BLED TO DEATH, ALL SAY: DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING “FROM the station master and his staffers to a nearby post-master, to vendors at the platform, nobody appears to have seen anything at the Asaoti railway station where few trains stop, where Junaid Khan bled to death after being repeatedly stabbed aboard a local passenger train on Thursday evening. The CCTV THAT LOOKED ON TO THE SPOT HAS BEEN FOUND TAMPERED WITH, an official of the Government Railway Police (GRP) told The Sunday Express. [Emphasis added] “The only sign of the murder that evening at this sleepy station … are the blood stains still visible on platform number 4, where Junaid’s body lay for some time. “… Station Master Om Prakash says the guard of the train, which was enroute from Delhi to Mathura, told him around 7.21 pm on Thursday that a “huge crowd” had gathered on platform number 4. “I immediately asked two of the staff present to see why the crowd had gathered. When they reached there, no one was present. The public might have taken away the body. I did not see anything, neither the body nor the crowd,” says Prakash. The Station Master claims he was busy in the control room at the time. The control room, that is adjacent to platform number 1, is 200 metres from where the 15-year-old died. * Do all these men who “have seen nothing” share the hatred of the 15 men who killed the child for no reason whatsoever? Or are they plain scared because everybody knows that the government of the day and their huge machinery will side with the murderers, not the victims? I am too disturbed to write anything more. Let me share with you a translation of a few lines of a Bangla poem by late Nabarun Bhattacharya. I have deliberately changed a few words of the poem. I believe Nabarun Bhattacharya would have approved the changes. This valley of death is not my country ============================ The father who’s scared to identify the body of his son – I hate him The brother who is shamefully normal even now – I hate him The teacher, intellectual, poet and clerk Who don’t want to avenge this death – I hate them. The body of a dead child Is lying on the path of our conscience I am going insane A pair of open eyes look at me while I sleep I scream out They call me at all hours … to the garden I’ll lose my sanity I’ll take my life I’ll do whatever I wish to … This valley of death is not my country The dancing executioners on stage are not my countrymen This extended crematorium is not my country This blood-soaked abattoir is not my country 25 June 2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

West Bengal and an award for helping girls?

There is little doubt that the queen of Bengal – who’s always dying to hear the next round of applause – is gloating over the award that her government has got from no less than an arm of the UN. There is little doubt that her fawning chamchas are now jostling to catch her eyes and show how god-damned delighted they are over HER success. As I write, I am sure that sweets are being distributed and gulal is being showered from her party offices infested with criminals, which often terrorize people of the locality. And millions of rupees will go down the drain in the months to come in endless newspaper adverts and hoardings with her smiling face telling the world what wonderful things SHE has done for girls!

Yes, the West Bengal government have distributed cycles and school books and school shoes and what-not to girls of her state. I do not question this fact. But will they get a job after they graduate under a collapsing education system with ever-falling standards?

Even the beggars on the streets of Kolkata know the answer.

The West Bengal government today presides over a crumbling economy inherited from their predecessors, and does nothing about it. In my childhood, lots of people came to Kolkata from the Punjab to Kerala in search of livelihood. In the Lake Market area near my house, there were more Tamilian and Malayali office employees than Bengalis. Today, people from West Bengal are seen washing dishes and carrying bricks from the Punjab to Kerala. You would have seen them even in the less developed sates like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. I have.

No jobs are created here in Bengal; it is a fallow land where no industry grows. A small segment of the population blessed by the ruling party earn their living through extortion rackets in which the top leaders of the party are intimately involved, as the Narda sting operation has shown shown beyond a shred of doubt. But for the majority, opportunities are so insignificant that even a free cycle seems to be manna from heaven.

In West Bengal today, the entire state comes to a grinding halt the day exams are held for primary teachers’ positions because every young man and woman who hasn’t been fortunate to go to a handful of premiere institutes is unemployed. Come the day of the entrance test, millions of young men and women flood buses and trains, and thousands miss the test because they just cannot board one.

So, what is the big deal about giving pittances like bicycles to girls, Your Highness? Can they ride their bicycles after dusk? How safe are girls in your state with a dysfunctional police force?

Isn’t the state competing with Uttar Pradesh to be designated as the rape head quarters of the country? Haven’t luminaries of your party repeatedly tried to shame rape victims by calling them prostitutes? Haven’t you yourself tried to brush incidents of rape under the carpet by calling them “sajano ghotona” or concocted stories?

Isn’t it a fact that – a few hours after the sun has set – every dark alley hidden behind the garishly illuminated roads of the capital and small towns of your state comes under the control of drunken goons who are protected by your party and police?

Isn’t the state No.1 in trafficking in women? Aren’t Kolkata and other towns in the state, where my mother and aunts would happily return home after watching a late night film show close to midnight 50 years ago, a strict no-fly zone for women after 9 PM?

The UN hasn’t honoured the state government for helping girls, it has disgraced itself!

24 June 2017