Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A glimpse of MY India

My great-uncle, Padi Venkatrama Krishnamoorthy, was born and raised in Rangoon in a Tamilian family, teaching himself Rabindra Sangeet by listening to lessons offered on the radio. In his very musical family (also mine) genres run into each other like colours in a leheriya dupatta--you start a song in one mood and genre and the odd phrase takes you into another state of mind, language and musical world. All this before we learnt words like medley and mash-up. For three generations, we grew up singing everything we heard, making up our own words some of the time, but always faithful to the tune and the beat, and never forgetting the background music.

Krishnamoorthy Mama's All-India Radio (and later Doordarshan) career took him all over India, and his work facilitated his hanging out with the best musicians of the moment.

Today, he shared with us that AIR Kolkata's collection of 'Ramyo Geete' has three of his compositions. These are all songs we have grown up hearing, sung by him and by aunts, uncles and cousins over and over again. I honestly had little idea of who had sung the original recordings of "Mama's songs." In my universe, he has always loomed larger than those recording artists.

Trying to locate the CDs so I can buy a set, I found the songs on YouTube and heard the original recordings for the first time.

This medley of Kanchipuram-Padi-Rangoon-Kolkata-Cuttack-Delhi-and-any-other-cultural-element-you-want-to-add--this is the India I inherited.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Those wretched three fingers

Like the festival season or the season for sales, it seems always to be the right season for protest and outrage.

Somebody says something and by 8 a.m., we’ve all gone up in smoke. By 9, we’ve ranged ourselves on either side—because it’s always a binary, right. We’re sure of our positions. Everybody knows about everything, and therefore, can arrive at a position on all matters expeditiously. 

As I slowly wake up to the day, I am often surprised by the news, and before I can wrap my mind around it and place it in context, I see that verdicts have been delivered.

We seem to be easily incensed, quite often infuriated. I worry about some of the things we outrage about (see, outrage has even become a verb now!).  We outrage about casual remarks. We outrage about life-choices. We outrage about genuine mistakes that others make. We outrage about the way things are done—by a person, by a community, by an office, by an organisation. And now we outrage about the outrage of others, asking why are they protesting thus and why choose this moment to protest.

I worry about this. To be honest, it scares me.

Does everyone (except me) really know what the perfect action or words are in every situation and what the perfect moment is to deliver them? Do we know exactly what the correct way to do something is? Can we predict the outcomes for that correct way with perfect confidence? The question I worry about most is this one: Can we be sure we would get it exactly right in the other person’s circumstances? I am not.

Yes, there are some things about which we can be sure, each of us. We can be sure of what we value. We can be sure of what strains our tolerance. We can be sure of what we do not consider acceptable. But can we be sure we will always meet our own standards or live up to our own ideals? I do not know.

Nothing frightens me more than the ring of certainty—in the king and in the mob, both.

I worry about our insistence that all our actions, each of ours, should be consistent within our lifetimes. Is being consistent a virtue or is being able to change with the times a virtue? Is change growth or fickleness? The answer is probably not an either-or answer. But I know that sometimes I let things go and sometimes I react. In both situations I am being true to myself. Can that be wrong? Can I impose upon another my demand for them to be consistent when I cannot? That does not seem right to me.

I feel pusillanimous in my inability to call for blood at all times. Indeed, I have no taste even for the endless argumentation that in India is a sign of intelligence. I want to hear from you and maybe share a little, to learn—that is all. Let’s keep it quiet and gentle—and safe for us to set aside our egos and defences and hear each other out. Perhaps this is because I am not as smart, articulate or passionate as those who would argue into the night. 

Enough, my heart whispers to my mind, very quickly. I let things pass. Everything does not require my commentary or intervention.

Yes, there are things I feel strongly about too, and if you pay attention, you will know what they are and how I feel. I too know how to speak my mind and how to speak out. But I am grateful that till date, I also know how to listen and learn. I have still not learned everything.

And I remember learning this in school: When you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.

In my case, they point to a person who doesn’t always understand what’s going on. There are a few things I know a little bit about and heaps and heaps of things about which I know virtually nothing. I try to learn as much as I can, but that is a lifelong process. I kind of know why I do what I do in a given moment. I make the best choice I know to make. It may not be the best choice ever nor even a good choice. But being true to myself in a given moment might mean acting on that choice regardless of what follows. In time to come, I will learn more and I may know better. But for today, I am doing my best. The three fingers point to a human being doing the best she can. 

That is all.

Friday, August 14, 2015

After the war ends

I just read Kazuo Ishiguro's "An Artist of the Floating World." I picked it up in a hurry. I was thinking about Japan and Hiroshima. I knew I liked his writing. I did not give much thought to what the story might be.

The book is about a retired artist and teacher of art, Ono. The storyline is just an excuse for us to learn what he is thinking and remembering, but it begins with Ono trying to arrange a marriage for his daughter, Noriko, and then uses his reflections on a few family conversations to get us thinking about something that rarely catches the eye.

Rarely, even for people like me who do spend time reading about conflict and its aftermath.

The story is set in the period right after World War II, when Japan was being refashioned under the auspices of an American occupation. Ono has lost a son in war, and has also, like much of Japan, been a part of the militarisation of Japanese culture in the preceding decade or so. He has willingly been a part--however small or large--of the state's mobilisation of society in support of its military campaigns across Asia. The war is over, a climate of shame and distancing now surround the war effort and people like Ono have to live uneasily with their work--neither acknowledged nor forgotten. Ono moves from denial to expressing remorse to finding a way to justifying his actions in the course of the novel.

There are no direct conversations about this issue between Ono and his family or acquaintances. One reads the situation--of a society coming to terms with its own temporary transformation--through Ono's thoughts. Even the family's comments are very subtle--the elder son-in-law expresses disgust over those involved in the war effort going unpunished, the elder daughter hints that their family may be coming up short in the pre-marital investigations and Ono simply adds these things up his own way.

The larger questions the book raises are valid even where the war or conflict effort is more marginal than it was in 1930s Japan. Are we all complicit in actions a state takes in our name, when we do not expressly protest? When all of society seems to be moving in a certain direction, is it right or fair to single out individuals for their small part in a large war-machine? What happens after a war? Who gets to be called a war criminal and who is to be labeled a victim of circumstance? There are no answers to this. The book ends on a surprising note; having seemed to alert Ono at every turn on the consequences of his wartime actions, his family dismisses the importance of anything he did, cautioning him not to have delusions of grandeur.

This is a book I will remember whenever I sit down to write about post-conflict justice and reconciliation and whenever I participate in discussions on impunity. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

To remember Hiroshima: Memories of a peace pilgrimage

October 1985. I am visiting my friend Masumi at her Tokyo home. The two of us, 21 year olds, have spent a crazy day at Tokyo Disneyland, enjoying ourselves like 8 year olds with permission to wander alone. We get home at midnight to a note from her parents. They have bought tickets for us to go to Hiroshima. We will leave just a few hours by the Shinkansen (Bullet-train). I am overjoyed and touched. For a person who decided at 7 she was going to work for world peace, this is a pilgrimage she has hardly dreamt that she would make.

A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park begins at the Atomic Bomb Dome. This was the building upon which the bomb was dropped. The vertical walls survived. Nothing else within or in the area did.

There are photos of us before the dome. We are not smiling. We are not smiling in most of the Peace Park photos. How could we be?

The Peace Park is full of monuments to various groups of people who were killed--in this locality, from that profession, of that ethnicity--but those were the days of 24-exposure film and I have photographs of just a few.

This is the Prayer for Peace Statue. The plaque next to it bears a poem by Shinpei Kusano. Translated from the Japanese:

Over the crescent moon in the sky
A tangible statue of a mother and her child stands.
This is the symbol of lasting peace.
Dear little child, embraced in your mother' s love, play the gold trumpet.
Sound the clear tunes of peace over the earth and to heaven.
Puffing up your cheeks, play the gold trumpet, the tunes of No More Hiroshimas,
No matter what our future will be like.

This was the memorial to students mobilized for the war effort. In 1944, there was a grave labour shortage and the government required middle and high school students to work in munitions and ordnance factories. 6300 died on the day of the bombing. (Source)

We were students ourselves. I had just got my MA in International Relations and Masumi was studying at Waseda. Older than the students who died but close enough in age to feel terrible anguish. On the other hand, who wouldn't feel anguish?

This is the Children's Peace Monument. Sadako's story is well-known. She was two when Hiroshima was bombed. Nine years later, she was diagnosed with leukaemia, an effect of being exposed to radiation. 

It was believed that folding a thousand origami cranes would help cure any illness, so Sadako folded cranes tirelessly. Still, she died. Children (and adults) now bring cranes to the Children's Peace Monument in her memory. 

This is the cenotaph to those who died in the atomic bomb attack. Through the arch, you can see the A-Bomb dome.


As if one atomic bomb were not horrific enough, a second was dropped over Nagasaki three days later, on August 9, 1945. This Peace Bell is a gift from the people of Nagasaki to the people of Hiroshoma.

Every year, the Mayor of Hiroshima reads a peace declaration on August 6. The Declaration is then placed in the Peace Museum. This is the one from 1985, the fortieth anniversary year. Here is what it says:

"No more Hiroshimas.
It was forty years ago today during the hot summer that the heat waves, fiery blast, and radiation emitted by the first nuclear weapon ever used against a human target burned all living things in a blinding flash and turned the city of Hiroshima into a plain of scorched rubble.Standing in the ruins, we, the citizens of Hiroshima, foresaw that any war fought with nuclear weapons would mean the annihilation of humanity and the end of civilization - and we have consistently appealed to the world for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Despite these untiring efforts, more and more nuclear weapons have been produced; they have been made more and more sophisticated; and they have been deployed ready for strategic and tactical use. Humankind continues to face the threat of nuclear annihilation.Although the nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, finally resumed their long-suspended negotiations on nuclear disarmament this March, the talks have made deplorably little progress as the superpowers use the facade of negotiation to jockey for advantage while they expand the nuclear arms race into outer space.
Today's hesitation leads to tomorrow's destruction.In order that Hiroshima's inferno never be repeated anywhere, we strongly urge the United States and the Soviet Union, who hold the fate of humankind in their hands, to halt all nuclear testing immediately and to take decisive steps at the summit talks in Geneva toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons in the interests of all humankind.
As the only country to have experienced nuclear devastation, Japan and the government of Japan should steadfastly adhere to its three non-nuclear principles policy and should take the initiative in seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. A census of A-bomb victims is being conducted this year, and it is our sincere hope that all due measures will be taken to mitigate the suffering of A-bomb survivors on the basis of the principle of national indemnity, taking into consideration the distinctive characteristics of ailments induced by atomic bombing. 
Along with these efforts, Hiroshima, an A-bombed city, has been devoting itself to building a city dedicated to peace - a living symbol of the ideal of lasting world peace. It is in this spirit that we are hosting the First World Conference of Mayors for Peace through Inter-city Solidarity this year, for it is our hope that all the cities of the world aspiring to lasting peace will be able to develop inter-city solidarity transcending national boundaries, ideologies and creeds and will impart added momentum to the international quest for peace. 
This year also marks the International Youth Year. We hope that the young people of the world - the leaders of the twenty-first century - will inherit the Spirit of Hiroshima, strengthen friendship and solidarity among themselves, and exert their utmost efforts in the cause of peace.The fates of all of us are bound together here on earth. There can be no survival for any without peaceful co-existence for all. Humankind has no future if that future does not include co-prosperity. In order to save this verdant planet from the grim death of nuclear winter, we must draw upon our common wisdom in overcoming distrust and confrontation. Sharing our planet's finite resources in the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, we must eliminate starvation and poverty.
No more Hiroshimas. 
We must strengthen the bonds of friendship and solidarity among all peoples so as to save the world from the evil of war. 
Today, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we pray for the souls of the A-bomb victims and rededicate our lives to the eradication of nuclear weapons and the pursuit of lasting peace.  
August 6, 1985 
Takeshi Araki 
The City of Hiroshima"

This sculpture marks the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II to the Peace Museum. The sculpture bears an excerpt from his address

"War is the work of man.
War is destruction of human life.
War is death.
To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. 
To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. 
To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

"To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

Nothing left to be said, is there?