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