Monday, June 15, 2015

Yellow River

Today's musical companion for my evening walk was a lifelong favourite, the Yellow River Concerto. I first heard it in my dorm room in Syracuse, sitting with my room-mate from Macau (via Hong Kong, which still existed back then!). Agnes had a large collection of Chinese music, as I did Indian, and it was the music that played as we both fell asleep. There was something about the still dark Syracuse night and the sound of Cantonese opera that seemed made for each other.

But of all the music Agnes played, and that I taped from her, the Yellow River Concerto remains special. I brought back a cassette where I copied it and as I walked around the Fort or Colaba running errands or getting to class, it played loudly in my ears, reminding me (as it still does) that my world is larger than the place where I sit, that all this too belongs to me.

Reluctant to wear out that precious tape further, I was delighted to discover that Lang Lang had done performances of the piece and that I could buy a recording on CD as well--which is what I played today.

As I sat down to write this post, I finally Googled the Yellow River Concerto, I learned that this piece I love was commonly reviled. That must have something to do with its origins as the composition of a collective in the Cultural Revolution era. There are also suggestions that parts of it were plagiarised. I don't know enough about music to pronounce a judgment on the matter.

I can only tell you that this piece of music has always spoken to me.

In school, studying Chinese geography, we learnt that the Yangtze was the source of both life and sorrow to the Chinese who lived along its banks. Frequent floods and changes of course had a dramatic impact on people's lives and livelihoods. The image I took away from geography class of a large yellowish river, so large you could not see one bank from another, rolling, swelling and rising in rage to consume all in its wake found its background score in the Yellow River Concerto.

Sitting in our little room in the International Living Centre, blasting the Concerto on the boombox, or walking across Flora Fountain with it playing on the Walkman, each time it was (and is) as if a story unfolded before me in four parts.

The first part is loud and dramatic. The river comes at you, all sound and fury, and like a horror movie, you run as fast as you can, but the river is just faster and more determined. Like tsunami waves more than a swelling river, the disaster sweeps everything away.

In the second part, you watch a little toddler sleep. The day gone by has been full of tantrums and tears, and much tearing around in between. The household is in a shambles and its other members are wrecked. But the toddler sleeps gently and peacefully, a cherub. You imagine a calm Yangtze after the floods and fury are spent, utterly still as you pick up the pieces of your life.

In the third, the music reminds you that rivers are centres of life--civilizations grow around rivers. You see the bathers, the swimmers, the people washing clothes, the livestock quenching their thirst and the canals that take water out to the fields. You think of what Will Durant wrote: "Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river." 

The first few notes of the fourth part are dramatic, as if a storm weather warning has sounded. All parts of the concerto, all the moods and movements of the Yangtze come together. Some are sanguine, some are scurrying. This is life. 

I think I am fortunate to be able to enjoy music without making every session a game of Trivial Pursuit and Technical Excellence. I am able to close my eyes and imagine the Yellow River, something I may never see in this lifetime, just by listening to its eponymous concerto and cantata--unfettered by other concerns than this journey in my head. 

Watch a performance of the four parts of the Concerto here

This is a recording of the first movement of the Yellow River Cantata, from which the Concerto is said to borrow a great deal. 

This links to the playlist comprising the full Cantata. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

The humble bougainvillaea

I grew up surrounded by bougainvillaea bushes that covered every adjacent wall with their magenta blooms in abundance. The bushes flowered so generously that one ceased to notice them at all. They were as nondescript in my view as the grass or the weeds growing in the cracks of those walls.

And one could neither wear the flower nor use it in decorations.

The orange and off-white or white flower had some value in my eyes but not the unapologetically abundant magenta.

And then sitting here in Asia Plateau, I realise that the humble, shamelessly prolific magenta bougainvillaea is the perfect accessory for the rough-hewn, messy-looking, volcanic remains that make up the terrain of the Deccan Plateau. This is a plain, no-frills, even drab landscape if you are accustomed to your nature coming to you in conventionally pretty looks. The vivid sprays of bougainvillaea are like a beautiful bright shawl thrown carelessly over ratty jeans and an old T-shirt. You look at them and think, "Why, it's the very thing!"


Of course, just as every human is beautiful in their own way, the Deccan Plateau is also quite spectacular to the discerning eye. I still don't have words for it, but if you look closely, you can imagine the rock-faces of the hill-sides are sheets of lava frozen in time. Look on the ground--no one cleared after the last eruption--or the last horse-ride. Grass grows on some surfaces, not others. There is little tree cover, except where the Tourism Department has landscaped the terrain, planting mainly... bougainvillaea.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Because compassion is all that counts

I will tell you the truth. I did not really think about the word 'compassion' for the first two decades of my life. I knew it, and had some sense of its meaning, but it did not figure in my universe as often as words like 'kindness,' 'consideration' and even 'gentleness' did. And then, someone described me as compassionate--something that surprised me (still does) and that also made me wonder what the word really meant.

Today, I cannot stop thinking about compassion. It seems to me to be the only thing that really matters. I've never valorised human physical appearance, nor even appearances in general. I thought being intelligent was important to me, and I valued it in others, until my years as a graduate student introduced me to an unbearable amount of intelligence. Intelligence came in a package with arrogance, rigidity and self-importance and I came to think it was overrated. After all, life is not a seminar. Compassion, however, undoes me. Kindness, consideration, the ability to notice another person's situation, to notice and give before being asked, generosity and empathy--now I think this is all that counts. And I know this is what every teacher or prophet has preached.

For me the word 'compassion' evokes two images from Buddhist art most of all.



I had seen photos of Ajanta's beautiful Padmapani Bodhisattva all my life, having grown up in Maharashtra. It was only when I saw the actual mural did I understand the power of his compassionate gaze. It sees and it understands and it looks for ways to help. The bronze Avalokiteswara from the Colombo Museum I first met and fell in love with at the Smithsonian. I could gaze at him forever, for his stillness and beauty. But the more I thought about that Avalokiteswara, the less the icon mattered and the more, the compassionate promise he represents. "I will be there for you," a promise friends make to each other. When I was in Class 1, I sat next to Ranee, who is still my friend. Ranee and I had this thing--because we were friends, we would write the same word at the same time and if one of us got ahead, we would stop and wait for the other to catch up. Avalokiteswara is everybody's friend, deferring nirvana until all of us catch up. 

But this is about compassion, of which Alice Walker writes, "if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough." Give compassion freely, without measure, without thought, without expecting a return, but take only enough. "Stop short of urge to plead. Then purge away the need."

As I have come to treasure compassion as an individual trait, I also wonder what compassion means in the public sphere. How does it come into play in the state and its institutions--or does it not? What does it mean for society? How do we create a compassionate society? Does compassionate mean charitable or equitable or inclusive or something else? What are the attitudes and behaviour we would identify with a compassionate community? I am looking for the questions that will give me the right answers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Daughter of Shivaji

This is a good post to write the week before I travel to Maharashtra, not just Maharashtra but to Shivajirao Bhosale country--Pune, the Western Ghats and Panchgani.

I was born in that great state and raised within its educational system. And the Maharashtra State Board followed the educational principle that a child's universe should be expanded in concentric circles so that in Standard II when we first encountered the world beyond 'Wash your hands' and 'Be nice to your parents' we studied about our city--Bombay. Bombay was made up of seven islands, people of different faiths and we all had to live together and so it was important not to litter, to cross roads carefully and to remember and use the five golden words: please, thank you, sorry, excuse me and welcome. Armed with civic sense, we stepped out in Std. III to study about great Indians. A stern Dadabhai Naoroji and BR Ambedkar featured in the same book as a weeping Shah Jehan (who went on to build the Taj Mahal) as far as I can recall, with portraits of them that used picture effects and colour washes that presaged Photoshop.

But in Std. IV, it was all about Maharashtra. Geography classes introduced us to Maharashtra's hills and rivers, its districts and divisions, its crops and its droughts. The Deccan was dry and its terrain rough. Life was difficult in the Deccan and easier in Konkan, with its lush coastal plains where we learnt our beloved Alphonsos were grown. "How could life be difficult where Alphonso mangoes were grown?," our 8 year old brains reasoned.

Std. IV was also the year we were introduced to the man who would define my view of many things political as much as any political thinker or political scientist I read in the next thirty years: Shiva Chhatrapati.

Eight year olds spent the year reading chapters from his heroic life, in narratives that I realised later drew greatly from the work of historians like Jadunath Sarkar. My imagination was completely captured by the story of the young boy who smarted at the thought that his father was an underling when he could be independent. My mother's family in particular had been part of the freedom movement, and the words "my country" and "freedom" had a special resonance for me. I had heard freedom movement stories from the time I was born, and the words evoked something special in my heart. How could I not sympathise with this brave young boy? When he wore 'waghnak' to tear into Afzal Khan, we cheered at his cleverness. When he attacked Shaista Khan, we marveled at his strategic planning (although we did not know those words). When Shivaji conquered Raigad, we won. When Tanaji scaled Kondana, we would have pumped our fists in the air had we known the gesture. When Shivaji was slighted at the court of Aurangzeb, we smarted. When he was smuggled out of Agra in a basket of sweetmeats, we chuckled. Smart, brave and independent, that was our own Shivaji. When Shivaji was crowned, it meant little to us, although later reading extracts from Jadunath Sarkar, I would be struck at how familiar that scene felt to me. The climax of this amazing life, according to our textbook and my eight year old's understanding of it, was Shivaji's just rule. Shivaji was fair and even-handed in his dealings with people across communities.

These are things I remember from that one year. Shivaji's life taught me lessons I have never forgotten.

That independence and autonomy are desirable; as another Maharashtrian put it, they are our birthright. That you can achieve anything by thinking it through and acting as if you cannot fail. That help (in scaling the Kondana forts of one's life) can come from all quarters (although I am not a fan of lizards) and everyone plays an important role. That the centre will always be arrogant but the smart can slip back out to their peripheral safe havens and do exactly what they wish; there will always be a basket of sweetmeats available! Shivaji's life has filled me with a lifelong distrust of the Delhi durbar, no matter what the dispensation. It has made deference generally impossible; my inner "mountain rat" (the term used by his enemies in comics to revile him) will not allow it. And it has valorised justice and even-handedness as a feature of good governance--an idea reinforced by every history textbook description of a good ruler, from Harishchandra to Razia to Sher Shah to Akbar to Krishnadeva Raya.

Imagine my horror when as an adult, I encountered in Delhi Board books the question, "Was Shivaji a nationalist?" What sacrilege, I thought! After everything that Shivaji did for freedom, how could they ask? And then of course, the books are written from the point of an Indian state that frowns on "fissiparous tendencies." Shivaji's politics were quite fissiparous, seeking first to separate from the Deccan Sultanates and then to assert Maratha independence from the Mughal Empire. Then, the Delhi books told me Shivaji's struggles had been to establish Hind Swaraj--that is, a form of Hindu Rashtra. This did not make sense given how much time had been spent learning about Shivaji's just rule and his respect for all religions and their followers. But it did not help that those in Maharashtra who took their inspiration from Shivaji kept drawing smaller and smaller circles around themselves--Bombay and Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, India for Hindus--no room for the rest of us. A caricature of the Shivaji we had grown up idolizing appeared in Indian politics, and correspondingly, it was hard to explain why Shivaji was still such an icon to anyone who had not grown up in Maharashtra, reading State Board books.

For us, it was not just Shivaji's life but it was the post-Shivaji centuries too that underscored a certain idea of what Shivaji's rule had been. The decline in the generations following him, the break-up of the Maratha Empire and the Peshwa period--seemed to underscore the importance of thinking big from a small base. You do not have to lobby power to be effective. Your efficacy can be a source of power. And having power does not make you great; having vision does.

As I now think about those stories we learnt at the age of eight, I recognize the racial profiling in the illustrations I can still recall so vividly. I recognize now that to attack Shaista Khan's mahal at night is not done according to tenets I now advocate and that our own tradition endorses. I wonder at stories and histories that equate heroism with violence and they fill me with shame and anxiety.

But I completely embrace discomfort with the overriding, overreaching power of the imperial centre. As Shivaji's daughter, I am instinctively sympathetic with those who want to pull away, to speak for themselves and who ask for different kinds of autonomy. As Shivaji's daughter, I take umbrage when I travel to Delhi and people do not keep appointments--as if their time is important and mine is not. As Shivaji's daughter, I will not defer to those who see themselves as important, or even those who are seen as important. As Shivaji's daughter, I will always have my version of that basket of sweetmeats or a waghnak tucked away--the appurtenances of power do not deceive me and should not trap me.

I have not lived in Maharashtra since 1992 but the state lives within me and I still belong to it in all the ways that matter. I work elsewhere but I bring its tough spirit to bear on the things I do. And I will do those things autonomously, without deference and in my way. Like Shivaji.

PS: It turns out I wrote this post on the eve of Shiv Jayanti. I just learned that his offical date of birth is February 19th, 1630.