Category Archives: South Asian literature

A poem by Surjit Paatar

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Candles

Light these candles.
Rise, light these candles.
There will remain,
These quarrelsome winds,
But you should light these candles.

May darkness not think the moon scared.
May night not think the sun dead.
Light these lamps to honor life.
Rise, light these candles.

Granted, the night’s reign may be stubborn,
But rays of light still survive.
On dark pages, verses revealing life.
Rise, light these candles.

These cruel whirlwinds will remain,
The fall will shake away the leaves,
But this does not mean that new leaves will not grow.
Rise, light these candles.

Unafraid of the poison that spreads daily in the wind,
Nature continues to do its duty,
Of transforming poison into nectar.
Rise, light these candles.

Girls, do not cry, this is the time of Rahiras.
Do not linger on death, reflect upon the passage of time.
These difficulties will pass away.
Rise, light these candles.

 

Translation Courtesy: Wikipedia

Githa Hariharan on Kannada Vachanas

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Vachana means, simply, “what is said”. They are intensely personal, even intimate conversations, between the poet and the beloved — some form of Siva the vachana composer is deeply enamoured of. I fell in love with the four major Virashaiva “saints”, Basava, Dasimayya, Allama, and Mahadevi.

I think I was attracted most by Mahadevi’s work at first. For a girl whose literary intimacies were confined to Jane Austen, at best George Eliot, how heady it was to read lines such as “Take these husbands who die, decay, and feed them to your kitchen fires!” and “How can I bear it when He is here in my hands, right here in my heart, and will not take me?”

But as I read on, the need to “identify” with the writer — so major a guiding force in adolescent literary judgement — loosened its hold. The intellectual puzzles in Allama Prabhu’s vachanas teased me with their complexities. His poems are called “bedagina vachanas”: “fancy” poems, apparently obscure and riddle-like, written in “twilight” or “topsy-turvy” language. The yield, I found, usually made up for the difficulty of cracking the hard little nut open with persistence. (“Light devoured darkness. I was alone inside. Shedding the visible dark, I was your target, O Lord of Caves.”)

But perhaps it was Basava’s poetry which summed up best everything I learnt from Ramanujan’s vachana translations: that it’s possible to find a contemporary voice in the past. That the tussle between tradition and modernity is a continuous one; that the gap between the powerful and the powerless is as wide (if not wider) within a temple as it is without. “The rich will make temples for Siva. What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold. Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.”

Read full here.

Image courtesy: githahariharan.com

“Urdu is very much alive in contemporary India”

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Words Without Borders have focused in their current issue on the Urdu fiction from India with a delightful bunch of stories including those of Qurratulain Hyder, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Zakia Mashhadi and others. Muhamma Umar Memon has edited the issue and has written an introduction. An excerpt from the intro:
The partition of British India in 1947 took its tragic toll not only in human lives and displacement, but also in culture. Like everything else, the Urdu language, an unmistakable product of India, in which all Indians participated without regard to religion or creed (of the three most celebrated Urdu fiction writers of the twentieth century, one was a Hindu, the other a Sikh, and the third a Muslim), also split apart in the frenzy of linguistic nationalism, with distinct religious identities foisted upon it. So now it is a language of the Muslims and Pakistan—Indians believe that and, worse, even Pakistanis believe that. Nevertheless, Urdu is very much alive in contemporary India. And not just among its Muslim minority, roughly the size of the population of Pakistan, but also among the expatriate South Asian communities in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. The total tally of those who can speak Urdu runs into several hundred million, a greater number than the combined speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.
An excerpt from Hyder’s story “Beyond the Fog”:
Throughout the day English sahibs, memsahibs, and their baba log cross the bridge on mules and horses or riding in rickshaws and dandis. In the evening, the same bridge becomes the site of milling crowds of Indians. The swarm of rushing humanity going up and down the slopes huffing and puffing looks like the surge of a massive tidal wave. Movies starring Esther Williams, Joan Fontaine, Nur Jahan, and Khursheed are playing in the local cinemas. Skating continues in the rinks. In the ballroom of the Savoy the Anglo-Indian crooner and his band will soon start “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Drums will be struck; maharaja and maharani log, nabob log, bara sahib and bara mem log will start dancing.
Following is an excerpt from Sajid Rashid’s story “Fable of a Severed Head”:

5:40— verar local express

Shifting his heavy, red canvas bag from his left shoulder to his right, he looked up at the Churchgate Station monitor and scurried toward Platform 3. People were practically running to the platform to board the 5:40 local. Women office workers were scrambling into the ladies’ compartment, pushing and shoving, being pushed and shoved in the wild crush, barely managing to keep their stride under the weight of their dangling purses and shoulder bags, as if this was the last train. Dog-tired from the day’s grueling work, he only wanted to plop down by some window and let the fatigue of the day, indeed of his whole life, slowly ooze out of his bones.

Questioning the Conceptual Validity of Nativism

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Among the literary critics in India are some who feel that the quiet acceptance of the Euro-American critical models in literary criticism in India is a problem. They insist on developing native models of literary criticism.  This school of thought is less pronounced these days though some years ago it was in circulation more prominently. I am unsure of the conceptual validity of this school of criticism. My article on the issue “Violated Spaces: Questioning the Conceptual Validity of Nativism”  was recently published in The Atlantic Literary Review, January-March 2009 issue. Below is an extract of the article.

What is nativism? It is a bad question. Because before completing itself as a question, it takes on the shape of answers. These become visible if we attend to its parts: the first part ‘what’ is already imposing a structure to the possible answers as ones that offer an essence, an identity as against, say, a time, a space or a mode. The second item ‘is’ presupposes singularity, presence, not something past, yet complete, total and definite. Contrast it with ‘are’, ‘may be’. The third item is a name, indicating an already formed entity, the ‘ism’ suggesting its reaches as a model and programme of action. The symbol item ‘?’ asserting it to be a question despite the answers already posited, presenting the sentence as a seeker of answers but that are within the structure of the question itself. There is yet another item which is unstaged in the sentence: that is the asker, the seeker who may also be the provider, the one structuring the answers. Thus the question is an act – a performance, an action in time/space, a pretence and in its insistence on structuring, a law. Some of the difficulties alluded above are implicit also in the conceptual field bearing the name ‘nativism’.

Why should we talk about nativism? I consider this concept a major departure from the imperial and brahminic paradigms of cultural criticism in India. In sentiment, nativism is both anti-imperialist and anti-brahminical. But practically, in some of its manifestations I am here considering, it is neither entirely free of the structures of thought that are entangled in imperialist or brahminic discourses, nor does it have the potential to be a pan-Indian theory in literary and cultural criticism. While the conceptual terrain of nativism makes the claim for a native theory of being, of cultural self, the very condition of the proposition and its field of operation are violated by the simultaneity of the singularity of self and the extensive plurality of everyday life. In this sense, the hope that nativist thinkers entertain, of inhabiting an uncontaminated homogenous space, is always already violated. This paper is concerned not so much with the merits of nativism, whatever those might be, as the problems with the concept.

The journal is published by the Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi.

Embedded Imagination and Otherness in Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence

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Intersections is a journal maintained by Australian National University’s Gender Relations Centre. The current issue is a special issue on “Face)t)s of Woman: Gender in the Indian Cultural Context” guest edited by Subhash Chandra. The journal’s editor is Carolyn Brewer.  It has several interesting articles including those by Joya John, Malashri Lal, Chaitya Das etc. Access to the journal is free. My article on Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence appears in the issue. Below is the basic argument I make in the paper. Here is the link. Do visit.

Shashi Deshpande’s novel That Long Silence, through details of everyday practices, routine, mundane, and particular stories, engages with issues of collective identity. The novel explores how images of nation are embedded in the ordinariness of lives and how the nation-state through an affective mechanism of individuals’ imagination institutes them as citizen-subjects. Through this exploration the novel develops a critique of the patriarchal construction of ‘nation’ and contests the legitimisation of the male discourse as the ‘normative’ national discourse. I wish to argue in this paper that the equalised terrain of the victimisation of women that the novel presents glosses over the cultural marks of the women characters represented in the novel leading to the appropriation of the cultural other into a universalised brahminical ‘woman.’ This critique is further supported by calling attention to the way there is a belittling of female discourse in the novel.

Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, nationalism and caste

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Raja Rao’s Kanthapura enacts some of the motifs of postcolonialism. In my previous post here I point out that Raja Rao critiques the simple position al010that the discourse of colonialism instituted a notion of the natural superiority of the colonising race and this was internalised by the colonized. In the second piece on the novel I point to how the novel problematizes viewing colonial modernity as having had a liberating impact on the Indian society. Let me take this reading further.

The problematising potential of the novel extends to anti-colonial nationalism too. In order to examine this let us turn to another dimension of the novel. The emergence of novel as a genre in 19th century India raises the question of whether it is derivative. While there is a debate on this issue, the novel’s role in enabling the notion of nation-state to take shape is an important one. Benedict Anderson has argued that novel is partly responsible for a community to imagine itself as a nation. The novels written in 19th century and even beyond in India may be used to support this claim. While in Kanthapura, the action is restricted to the village itself with none of the characters venturing too far out, yet the village is not insulated against the happenings in other places. In fact, the stimulation for action is not local. The grand events that form the focal points of the novel take place in response to events elsewhere – Lahore, Bengal, Gujarat, etc. The village community moves from an insulated identity towards a national identity. In one sense, Kanthapura chronicles the formation of a national identity within a remote village. This thematic is also supported by the manner in which the village becomes a kind of a microcosm of the nation. The narrative tends towards mythicizing. For example Moorthy’s fast, Ramakrishnayya’s death, the receding of the flood, and nationalist struggle itself are mythicized. The narrative takes recourse to Vedantic texts and Puranas and inserts nationalist struggle into them. For example, in a harikatha, Jayaramachar brings in an allegory between Siva, Parvati and the nation. The three eyed Siva stands for Swaraj. Later Rangamma standing in as the commentator of Vedanta after the death of her father reads the Puranas allegorically, interpreting hell as the foreign rule, soul as India and so on. Shall we say nation is thus constructed hermeneutically?

The process of imagining a community – of imagining nationhood – also underlines the homogenising tendency of nationalism. The congress workers, who so vehemently are ‘swadeshi’ and give up anything foreign, unwittingly embrace the European model of nation. This notion requires a nation state to have a singular form. A nation is a community of people who have a common language etc. Thus in Kanthapura, Congressmen including Moorthy follow the same model of the nation-state. Sankaru epitomises this: his insistence on speaking Hindi even to his mother instead of the local language Kannada; his fanatic resistance to the use of English and so on. This conception of the nation informs that of everyone: e.g. the narrator visualises Moorthy {when in prison} to be wearing kurta pyjama instead of dhoti. The Hindi teacher is not from any Hindi speaking region but a Malayali [Surya Menon]. Thus, the very conception of ‘Nation’, which is conceived after the European model of the nation-state, undermines the ‘Swadeshi’ spirit of nationalism. Any pure form of nationhood untouched by colonialism is seriously questioned.

Another problem arises when this novel is read as a record of a nation-in-the-making.  It would seem to exemplify Jameson’s argument that third world literature is necessarily a national allegory. When we keep in mind that Benedict Anderson’s thesis about the emergence of nation-state is a work on the emergence of nation-state in Europe, Jameson’s argument seems to put third world literature in the past of European literature. This only re-enacts the familiar theme that comes across in the colonialist historiography of Indian nationalism: that Indian nationalism is a learning process as has been pointed out by Ranjit Guha (Subaltern Studies I). This particular view of nationalism characterises Indian nationalism as a response to the stimulus of colonial administration. The view of the history of the colonised society as a march towards the teleological goal of becoming ultimately ‘Europe’ places them always at a past time in relation to the colonisers present time. The denial of coevalness of time is a necessity in the discourse of colonialism.

This view of India’s history being bound to Europe takes us to Dipesh Chakravarthy’s thesis that as far as history as a discourse is concerned, Europe remains the sovereign theoretical subject of all histories, including the one we call Indian (Provincialising Europe OUP, 2001). Further, he says, as opposed to other narratives of self and community, history is the meta-narrative that looks to the state/citizen bind as the ultimate construction of sociality. Other constructions of self and community speak an anti-historical consciousness. With modernity, history becomes the site where the struggle goes on to appropriate other collocations of memory. In Kanthapura, the narrative in the beginning reflects an ahistorical consciousness. The description of the village life is as a timeless continuum in the form of Sthalapurana. Or the Harikatha wherein nationalist figures become mythical. Whereas, colonialism disrupts the narratives of the community and introduces ‘history’. In as far as the change in the narrative technique, which becomes more linear while narrating the freedom struggle in Kanthapura, history really begins with Europe inhabiting Kanthapura. This is most clearly suggested in the loss of mythicizing tendency of the narrative in the later part when the arrival of newspapers, novels and pamphlets has exposed the first person narrator to techniques of historicizing.

This whole reading of the novel harps back upon the exchange between the coloniser and the colonised. The interesting insights offered by the novel are about the immense complications and violence that attend the arrival of colonial modernity in India.

The novel highlights with no subtlety the collusion between colonialism and Brahmanism. The manner in which Moorthy becomes an outcaste in the Brahmin quarters with his campaign against untouchability indicates the tension between Brahmanism and nationalism. For Brahmanism, the colonial ruler is not the enemy but Gandhi’s anti-untouchable movement is. The collusion between Brahmanism and colonialism is suggested through the alliance between Bhatta, Bade Khan the policeman and the Sahib of the Estate. Swami, who is waging a war against ‘caste pollution due to this pariah business’, sees British rulers as protectors of the ancient ways of Dharma. Swami receives a large amount from the govt as Rajadakshina and is promised that he would receive moral and material support in his war against caste pollution.

While this reading posits nationalism in conflict with brahminism, something more interesting is available if we push our reading a little further. Moorthy’s politics in the village mobilises people of all castes for the struggle against colonisers. In so doing Moorthy radicalises his sociality by visiting the untouchable quarters, and even having milk offered by one of them. Interestingly after this he is troubled by his action and takes a bath. Though he does not change his sacred thread as then he would have to do it daily, he does take a little Ganga water and we are promised that he would do that every time he visits the pariahs. His politics aims at assimilating the lower castes into the nationalist movement. This may also operate as a move towards containment. For example, the discourse of nationalism meets the discourse of religion at different levels in the novel. While Bhatta, Swami and their followers {who have often material motives such as Venkamma) resist Gandhism in the name of religion, in Kanthapura, the nationalists increasingly employ the religious discourse and customs and symbols for nationalist purposes. Religious resources are mobilised for the politicisation of the people. But the customs, rituals and symbols that become tools of nationalist mobilisation are primarily Brahminic: arthi, puja, conches, bells, Vedanta, bhajan etc. They do not include the cultural practices of the lower castes though their participation is prominent.

The overall idea I have of the novel is that it is an immensely clever novel that very ably reflects much of the nationalistic themes including the patronising attitude towards the lower caste society. The novel, much like hegemonic Indian nationalists, deploys anti-caste postures to dissemble the projection of brahminical culture as the legitimate national culture.

Dalit English Poet – Meena Kandasamy

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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

Begin.

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.

End.

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.

TOUCH

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.