Monthly Archives: October 2009

“a high-class cheez”


Novelist Chandrahas Choudhury on the state of novel in English in India:

In a scene early in Vikram Chandra’s massive 2006 cops-and-robbers novel Sacred Games, the small-time gangster Ganesh Gaitonde sells some stolen gold and feels, for the first time in his life, wealthy and powerful. He goes looking for pleasure on the streets, and a pimp offers him “a high-class cheez.” But no sooner is Gaitonde left alone with the prostitute than he begins to feel set up. He has only one way of finding out whether his “cheez” is as high-class as promised. “Speak English,” he orders the woman. When she complies, Gaitonde cannot understand the words, but it doesn’t matter. “I knew that they were really English,” he thinks to himself. “I felt it in the crack of the consonants.”

The prostitute’s utterances in English earn her fee, just as the Indian novelist who chooses to write in English has often been accused, especially by readers and critics at home, of being inauthentic or a sellout, forcing characters with their roots in the words and worldview of some other Indian language to “speak English.” The debate, of course, is old, fraught with the historical baggage of India’s British colonial past…

More here.  To read more of Chandrahas Choudhury go here.

Dalit English Poet – Meena Kandasamy


Recently I came across an exciting voice in Indian English poetry: Meena Kandasamy. I first read her poems in a blog and found about her through blogs, her own as well of others. This is an indication in itself that blogging is beginning to be the dominant medium for accessing poetry. Blogging has several advantages in this respect as it unshackles the poets from being dependant on publishers or magazines. It is as democratic as is currently possible. More and more poets, despite their background, can find their  readers without being subjected to the humiliating process of the publishing industry.

Meena Kandasamy has some interesting things to say about blogging. She is a Dalit writer from Tamilnadu who writes poetry in English. She is also an active translator. Her blog makes for interesting reading. A new voice in the field of Indian English Literature, she is very articulate about the aspirations of the dalits. One of her recent blogs was insightful. Here she talks about blogging, caste oppression and women. Here is an excerpt:

from: Meena Kandasamy blog

Big media houses which own the major publications rarely give opportunity to Dalit (ex-untouchable) writers, and there’s an absence of Dalit/anti-caste writers who write in English. The elitist writers want to write the feel-good stuff, India Shining myths, and that’s the work that gets into print. So, I wanted to tap the power and enormous outreach of the internet: how anyone can write and be read/heard in the virtual space. I was not writing because anyone was commissioning me, I didn’t have to follow other people’s diktats, I could speak my mind. Google and tagging ensure that I can get heard without having my own column in any newspaper. Sometimes its helped me bring some happenings to light—such as the recent inside story of Dalit students being beaten up at a law university in Chennai (the mainstream media merely reported it as a “clash” at first) and so on. Blogging on feminist issues, with a caste perspective, was also something that I set out to do, because feminism in India forgets that caste exists at all, and that women at the bottom of the caste hierarchy do suffer more.

Since the cost of establishing alternative media in India is extremely high, activist groups have taken to the Internet in a big way. There is a hunger to use the potential of this media, and human rights defenders are doing it the right way. The campaign to free Binayak Sen; the exposes on state terrorism, fake encounters and police atrocities; the virulent speed in which fact-finding reports can be circulated; the ease with which the LGBT community in India came together and organized their shows of strength in every major city—these have all been possible because of the digital sphere and the space for social networking, discussion and dissemination that it allows.

She has another blog where she has posted several of her poems. She has published a collection of her poems called Touch. Kamala Das wrote the forward where she calls Meena an exciting writer. Believe her. Or decide after reading her poems. One of them is ‘Becoming a Brahmin‘:

Algorithm for converting a Shudra into a Brahmin


Step 1: Take a beautiful Shudra girl.
Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin.
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child.
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times.
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.


Algorithm advocated by Father of the Nation at Tirupur.
Documented by Periyar on 20.09.1947.

Algorithm for converting a Pariah into a Brahmin

Awaiting another Father of the Nation
to produce this algorithm.

(Inconvenience caused due to inadvertent delay
is sincerely regretted.)

While this poem is a frontal attack, there is a nuanced poem which is rich in irony yet trenchant in its critique of the caste system – varna system.


Have you ever tried meditation?
Struggling hard to concentrate,
and keeping your mind as blank
as a whitewashed wall by closing
your eyes, nose, ears; and shutting out
every possible thought. Every thing.
And, the only failure, that ever came,
the only gross betrayal—
was from your own skin.
You will have known this.

Do you still remember,
how, the first distractions arose?
And you blamed skin as a sinner;
how, when your kundalini was rising,
shaken, you felt the cold concrete floor
skin rubbing against skin, your saffron robes,
how, even in a far-off different realm—
your skin anchored you to this earth.
Amidst all that pervading emptiness,
touch retained its sensuality.
You will have known this.

Or if you thought more variedly, about
taste, you would discount it—as the touch
of the tongue. Or, you may recollect
how a gentle touch, a caress changed
your life multifold, and you were never
the person you should have been.
Feeling with your skin, was
perhaps the first of the senses, its
reality always remained with you—
You never got rid of it.
You will have known this.

You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.

Photo from: Meena Kandasamy blog.

Bhakti Expressions


H S Shivprakash is a brilliant poet who writes in Kannada. He has been a from: wikipremier poet and dramatist in Kannada for decades running. A poet of unique voice, he beats no trodden path, or perhaps he retraces the lost paths. Persistent in his search for alternative traditions to the hegemonic ones, Shivprakash has not hesitated to turn against the mainstream literary practices. Serving as a professor at JNU, Delhi, Shivprakash has also edited Indian Literature for some time. While he has a special liking for the vacana tradition, he has taken to explore the Sufi, bhakti, and other diverse mystic traditions in both life and letters. Shivprakash’s poems are not attempts to retrieve the bhakti form of writing poetry but that of bhakti spirit. More often Shivprakash’s poems explore the ‘narratives’ of the bhakti, sufi and other mystic personalities. Here again, he usually wanders far into the untrodden ways to steer away from the hegemonic fields. His poetry is a poetic rendering of the history of marginal forms of life.

Here is an excerpt from his article on Bhakti traditions “Transmutations of Desire and Power in Bhakti Expressions”.

One of the challenges associated with viewing India , as unified literary space is to trace continuities between creative practices in far-flung times and spaces of the many-tongued subcontinent. In this context, the study of various Bhakti movements assumes great significance for the simple reason that, as pointed out by Manager Pandey, Bhakti is the first and greatest pan-Indian literary and cultural movement across languages and regional barriers which altered cultures of people at large. The socio-historical and at times even the philosophical aspects of this pan-Indian movement have received sufficient scholarly and critical attention; at the same time, the literary and aesthetic dimensions of the movement have not yet received the attention they deserve. Because Bhakti mode of expressions dominated Indian creative psyche for well over a millennium, the study of patterns of continuities and divergences of the enormous body of literary and aesthetic practices relating to Bhakti can go a long way in helping us understand India as a common literary and cultural space.

A judicious mixture of synchronic and diachronic approaches is necessary to arrive at a comprehensive view of the achievements of Bhakti movements.  The obstacles are many, however. As Manager Pandey pointed out again we do not have in India the likes of continental critics of the west – Rene Wedlock or George Steiner, for example – whose scholarship extends over several languages, classical and modern.   This is true of literature on Bhakti, too.  For instance, even an eminent authority like V Subramaniam, who has written the most comprehensive account of Bhakti movement from a comparative perspective, can be accused of lopsidedness. For his superb analysis of Tamil Bhakti in relation to North Indian Bhakti passes silently over Karnataka, the next door neighbour of Tamil Nadu. The Karnataka experiment pioneered the subaltern forms of expressions of urban artisan Bhakti that paved the way for Nirguna Bhakti of North and of Orissa. Neither does he say anything about Sakta Bhakti whose paradigms are considerably different.

Attempts made to synthesize Bhakti in classical Bhakti texts also suffer from shortsighted view. For instance the typology of Bhakti worked out in Narada Bhakti Sutra in the form of nine types of Bhakti, though it relates Bhakti to mundane ways of relating, ignores some forms of labour-centered expressions characteristic of artisan Bhakti.

Such lopsidedness results from a) the enormous volume and bewildering variety of Bhakti expression and (b) our own limited familiarity with this vast material.

More here.



Kannada theatre and modernity


What is the significance of modernity in India? The question is quite old and has fostered diverse debates. But the answers have varied. A historical view from: hinduonnet.comof the debate on the status of modernity in India may trace various positions. For a long time the debate basically took a pro and anti stance. There were also questions about the form it takes in India. In the recent past, sociological theories of modernity have been quite influential. Increasingly people have been undertaking micro studies insisting on the diverse ways in which modernity has been accessed and practiced in India.

Recently Akshara, who is a theater scholar and a major figure in the Kannada literary scene, wrote an interesting piece on the ‘contradictory multiplicities within Kannada modernity’. He argues that the story of theater history is imprisoned in colonial categories and has not sufficiently attended to the diverse negotiations that Kannada theater has made with modernity. He indicates that the urge for coherent and linear narrative is the reason why the contradictions are not adequately incorporated in the story of modernity in India. He recommends a fragmentary, non-coherent historiography to develop a nuanced theater history. Akshara presents such a fragmentary narrative in his essay “The Contradictory Career of the ‘Modern’

in the Kannada Theater”. In this essay he grapples with the issue of ‘modern Kannada theater’ and asks how one can constitute a category such as this. He enacts his own recommendation by presenting micro-stories of Kannada theater to comment on the categories of historiography of theater in Kannada. He suggests ambitiously that if such a study is successfully carried out, it is possible to discover a ‘desi modernity’.

Here is an excerpt from this very fine essay. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Seminar here.

How do we account for these contradictory instances of ‘modernity’ while we write our history of Modern Kannada Theatre today? – This seems to be the key question to me, and this is the reason with which I set out to write my essay, invoking the contradictory multiplicities within Kannada modernity, that is perceived to be one single body. It is generally accepted by critics in Karnataka today, and elsewhere, that the term ‘modern’ denotes not only different things in different contexts, but is also defined by the particular context it emerges from. Today, we are also aware that the future of this concept, especially in the desi languages/cultures in India is an intricately woven multifaceted narrative. On the one hand, it is a fascinated acceptance of Western modernity (as it was perceived), and on the other, there are various attempts to adapt, alter, and even parody it, consciously or unconsciously. But what we have still not been able to do is to develop a nuanced narrative that captures the contradictions, ambivalences, multiplicities within the Kannada theatre traditions, without resorting to simplistic stereotypes generated about it.  Or, in other words, we have still not been able to create new ways of conceptualising the contradictory career of our modern theatres and instead, we are stuck with the imported and imposed categories like ‘folk’, ‘urban’ and ‘commercial’ and the like in almost all our narratives on the history of regional theatres.

Akshara is a fine playwright and an all encompassing theater personality. He currently heads the theatre school NINASAM. Read an interview with Akshara here. He is not an intellctual pretender. He writes with deep commitment. Not easily swayed by current fashions, Akshara’s views are always refreshingly practical and uncluttered.

Seamus Heaney, Digging


Seamus Heaney


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.



Caste consciousness and the sociology of public culture in India


In his book Mistaken Modernity Dipankar Gupta has an essay presenting a sociological explanation for the unclean public spaces in India. The apparent dirt in the public environs is something everyone comments on. Everyone notices it. Many attempts to clean up have been made both by the state and by the individuals. But the general habit of dirtying up the outside-the-home-environs seems to defeat all efforts to clean up our environment. Surprisingly, in our society with regards to inside-the-home, the general habit is the opposite of this: there is an excessive concern to clean the house.

This attitude finds itself expressed in public parks, tourist centres, bus and railway stations, hospitals, roads, and even cinema halls. Spitting and urinating in the public, littering the place with polythene bags and pieces of paper, tossing cigarette buts or food crumbs onto the road are all too common to shock us. You can rarely find a public utility place – hospital or a bus-stand – which is not spattered with the colours of pan or gutka.

Is this so because we are a dirty tribe? Such a characterisation can fall into the essentialist trap because what can explain a habit common in our society though across any recognisable commonality of social practice? Dipankar Gupta in fact gives exactly such an explanation by invoking that which is common across the country and that which inculcates a certain attitude to cleanliness in us. He contends that this has to do with caste consciousness. Gupta argues that the attitude to cleanliness in our society is related to caste. He points out that the idea of there being castes to clean up the toilets and the gutters meant that cleaning the public place is an inferior job meant, in the caste conscious mind, for the ‘lower caste’. This attitude leaves the responsibility of keeping the public places clean on the ‘cleansing castes’. In short, Dipankar Gupta, much more clearly and persuasively than my summary can do here, argues that the Indian middle class does not consider it their responsibility to keep their environs clean as they take it for granted (a) that it would lower their status to do so and (b) that it is someone else’s job (the cleaning castes).
This argument is very convincing. It also leads me to think that we should be able to find explanations for several of our social evils in this manner. Ambedkar in his “Annihilation of Caste” does a similar sociological analysis: he points out that the reason why there is so much political disunion is to do with the caste feelings in this society.

I think it is important that we conduct such a sociological theorisation explaining social phenomena with respect to caste because otherwise these tendencies will be seen as natural. For example, through the analysis of caste consciousness in the society we must try to find the reasons for such general habits as:

i. easily accepting inferior quality in any work

ii. easily resorting to destruction of public property

iii. failure of our education system, even in private sector institutions

iv. extreme disregard for environment in every endeavour

v. extreme disregard for public hygiene and health in manufacturing sector

vi. extreme disregard for public convenience or safety in our town planning

vii. etc.