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? 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saying goodbye

How many of you have difficulty saying goodbye to objects? I do. I wear clothes until they really should not be worn at all. I hold on to gadgets long after others would declare them obsolete. I used never to give away books until I saw how much others yearned for them. And I have had cupboards built to house old letter and cards.

When I was really, truly young, out of every letter pad I bought, I kept one sheet for posterity. So obsessed was I over the idea of posterity, that I would date my book purchases with an 'AD' in order to help the material culture scholar of the future date my books to the right historical period--the period of purchase and enjoyment, not the period of publication, that is.

In recent times, I am learning that objects are no longer created for a lifetime's use--not shoes, not phone, not computers. And the idea of quick disposal (as in the earliest possible cremation of a body) is acquiring great appeal. For reasons of economy and in order to leave a diminishing footprint on my world, I am beginning to try and limit my wants--a lifetime of financial struggle and delayed gratification greatly help.

I am beginning to think of tearing up all those diaries and letters--the historian is losing this battle to the person who wants to say, let me be gone with the  moment. I think that perhaps I am learning detachment.

And then today, copying files out of my previous laptop, I feel miserable that I am forcing that friend into retirement. The Toshiba laptop has stood me in good stead for almost eight years. Eight years of photos and blogging. Eight years of Prajnya planning--all of Prajnya's funtional life actually. Eight years of research and consultancy projects as varied as can be. And many years of teaching myself how to write for newspapers and websites--as opposed to academic writing and blogs. I feel like I am betraying a really good friend. And this, despite the fact that I will still use that laptop for work meetings on Skype--at least for that.

I guess I am not even on the road to detachment yet! After all, last year, when I gave away three boxes of clothes that had been in storage for 12 years, I took photos of everything that wasn't coming home with me.

Parting, even with (especially with) objects, is indeed such sweet sorrow. 

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.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The theft of Shakti

Yesterday, my friend took me to the "Jogini Peeth" outside Bhubaneswar. This is the archaeological site labeled "64 Yogini" in Hirapur. I had seen photographs of the site online, and as someone whose ishta-devata is Devi, it had drawn my attention and interest. But I did not want to go there alone. 

The idea of the shakti of 64 Yoginis focused on a small circular, semi-interior space was overpowering. I did not know how I would feel in such a space--either utterly empowered or totally intimidated. The thought of it thrilled me and frightened me at the same time. I wanted Asha to come along with me.
As you enter the ASI site grounds, you first encounter a modern, functional temple on the left with a small Shivalingam. It's very much a street-corner temple, the kind that nestles at the foot of a tree--nothing grander and certainly not fancier. It appears as if anyone can officiate; a village woman was performing the aarti as we entered.

We walked on to the 64 Yogini temple site, which is smaller than it looks in photographs. Something about the space reminds me of the Kailashanatha temple in Kanchipuram--an enclosed courtyard open to the sky. There are no meditation niches in the inner walls here, but 64 Yoginis occupy the inner wall of the structure. Outside, carved into niches on the exterior wall, nine Katyayinis (nava Durga?) stand guard. At the centre is a raised platform that looks like it may have been used for sacrifices or initiations. With that kind of energy, what a great place for deeksha! You circumambulate the structure and at the back there is the main icon--Mahamaya. Or rather, you are told it is Mahamaya.

My friend told me that on a visit right after the site was excavated a few decades ago, the temple was charged with energy--and in disuse.

Yesterday, the conversion of the temple to a village shrine was complete. There were coconuts and flowers placed befor each Yogini icon. And Mahamaya was shrouded in cloth screens. Two officious men were officiating. Water, probably coconut water, made the ground slick. A worshipper sat waiting for the ritual to end. When I walked in for a second look, one of the "priests" offered me kumkum and a flower and asked for baksheesh. The desecration of the Yoginis was complete in my view. I walked out and kept walking, irritated by being accosted, being asked for money and being chased to the entrance by one of them.

But that is normal for most temples in India, unfortunately.

What broke my heart yesterday was how pedestrian the experience felt. To my mind, a place that represented the channeling of the spiritual energy of 64 Yoginis should have been completely charged. Positive energy should have been bouncing off the walls. There should have been an electric wildness in that space, barely contained, channeled by great discipline. That's what the idea and images of the structure had evoked in me.

I found that spirit had been broken. It was domesticated by coconuts and everyday petitions. It was desecrated by the interference of priest-like individuals. It was defused by the normalising rituals of patriarchy. Free spirits had turned into deities and men were now mediating between feminine energy and the women who are its embodiment in the world.

Rather like the story of every bright, talented and energetic girl who is taught to conform and adjust.

What had we done to these independent, spirited and powerful creatures, the Yoginis? I grieved.

I left with one small hope. That the 64 Yoginis have escaped and found a safe space to hide from the machinations of patriarchal Hinduism in the tangles of this tree outside the complex. Or that they are submerged in the waters of this pond, biding their time, waiting to emerge and wash away all the things that limit our thought and agency.

I need to believe that so much shakti, such a concentration of feminine energy, this feminine/ feminist spirit cannot be so easily dissipated and destroyed.

My own spirit depends on it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Puri, bhaji and Satkar

I came across this report that Satkar restaurant near Churchgate is moving to New Marine Lines. So many memories of childhood came flooding back.

I think 30-40 years ago there used to be an Indian Express office in that building, maybe the circulation office. My father would sometimes have to go there early in the morning on a Sunday, and when he did, he would bring back hot puris and aloo bhaji from Satkar. The hot, brown paper-wrapped packages just made our day. We could scarcely wait to feast on the puris, still hot, but somewhat deflated in the 5-10 minute journey home. In any case, the bhaji had onions, green chillies and coriander, all of which I would pick out in those days, so what was the point of waiting?

My father never bought exactly eight puris for four people; he was a generous person and it would seem to us that puris continued to emerge forever, keeping pace with our voracious appetites as growing children. It was a true feast for us!

Eventually, I stopped picking out the onions from the bhaji, and discovered the joy presented by the combination of the raw onions and lime pickle they sent home. Loving that combination--puris, raw onions and lime pickle--has been a lasting Satkar legacy for me.

In time, I would go to Satkar with friends on the way to and from other places, and I have eaten other things there, but I remember nothing as well as I remember the puri-bhaji. Some years ago, I visited Bombay for a visa interview in the Churchgate area and practically ran over to Satkar after that for a nostalgic feast of puri-bhaji. The surly waiter told me it is no longer served there. I was disappointed and outraged.

The news about Satkar moving from its landmark location would make me a lot sadder if they still served puri-bhaji. Without that dish, I guess the restaurant I am nostalgic for has not existed for a while anyway. Perhaps it really doesn't matter where they move.

Unless it is to the location of Sanman. And that's another story altogether.


I want to add a disclaimer to this post. I am not a "foodie," a word whose meaning I only learnt after moving back to India in 2003. Food doesn't have to be special and unique and authentic and exclusive for me to enjoy it, and eating is not performance for me. I like food to be filling and heart-warming, and as I grow older, the simpler the better, actually. I have no patience for conversations about recipes or special ingredients.

So this is not about how authentic the food at Satkar was, it is about how special the memory of Satkar food is to me. Satkar's puri-bhaji memories are also happy memories of my father, and of us as a family, sitting around our dining table in Bombay.