Majnu ka Tilla: A legacy in exile

Buddhist prayer flags were fluttering on top of the footbridge that connects both sides of Majnu ka Tilla (Hillock of Majnu), the largest settlement of Tibetan refugees in Delhi. A pagoda gate welcomed us into a long alley, which seems blind at first glance. The sound of ‘Om Ma Ni Padme Hum’ from the CD stores, the assembly of colourful Tibetan thermos, the smell of barbecued beef and incense stick: all conspired to give you a feeling that you are in some exotic land.

As we made our way past Nor Khyil restaurant, Norling Gallery, Kham Coffee, Cho’s Pyod book shop and Sera Jey Dharamsala, it seems that this new civilisation survives by selling artefacts, Thangka paintings and by ferrying people to and from Dharamsala.

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At Ama Cafe

We checked in at Ama (meaning mother in Tibetan) Café. The murals portraying a Buddhist monastery, lamp shades made of bronze wok with perforated bottom, and a prayer wheel next to our plunge sofa seem to recreate Lhasa.  As we sat down to drink Chinese Jasmine Tea and Banana Muffin, I came across a glossy cover page of the Tibetan Review (magazine) with the Dalai Lama peering at us.

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photo credit: Sayantani Chatterjee

The first whiff of despondency was evident in the pages I flipped through. One of them read, “While the Dalai Lama’s popularity is becoming stronger than ever, he is not growing any younger.” Others admired the leader for his ability to “convert sorrow into benediction”. In another instance, I read one of the Indian ministers referring to the Dalai Lama as “the most powerful refugee in the world”.

Once back to the buzzing by-lanes, we headed to the monastery. The snaky walk led us to an open courtyard where women in their 60s sat weaving woollen sweaters, men in their 70s looked content with their prayer wheels and some of them in their 80s reflected a sagging hope for serendipity.

The history of this 50-year-old settlement is that of emigration and its future seems to lie in immigration. I am not saying this because I spotted a few immigration offices in this small neighbourhood of north Delhi, but the sense of living a borrowed life is palpitating. The desire to leave the ‘refugee’ tag and escape into a promised land looks inescapable.

Yet, they are graceful in times of despair.

 

Begum Hazrat Mahal: the freedom fighter and the last queen of Awadh

Until today, I didn’t know who Begum Hazrat Mahal was. My ignorance is unpardonable. Thanks to Delhi Karavan, now I know something substantial about the last queen of Awadh.  She was only 36 when her husband, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, conceded defeat and was sent to exile by the British. She inherited a kingdom steeped in chronic corruption and on top of that she had the onerous task of defending her territory from the formidable forces of British East India Company.

Hers is a story of a royal concubine’s ascension to the throne and a gradual metamorphosis into a military leader, a war strategist and an astute administrator who not only resisted British attacks but also inspired people across all religions to unify for the cause of their country.

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Mohi-ud-Din Mirza’s 26-minute documentary screened at today’s event in Indian Habitat Centre was a glimpse into the veracity and compassion of a queen whose commitment to her country and countrymen made her achieve unimaginable feats.

The pages of history might inform you about her 10-month rule, the Siege of Lucknow and her 20 years of exile in Nepal, but they might miss out on the larger contributions of the young queen.  She stonewalled the British ploy to create a religious divide and heavily criticised them for desecrating temples and forcing people to eat pig fat.

Behind her beautiful appearance was a resolute soul that had the gumption to ignore Queen Victoria’s proclamations and lures of a luxurious life.  She lived to challenge oppression, and in death she continues to inspire valour.

It was heartening to see Begum Manzilat Fatima, the great great granddaughter of Begum Hazrat Mahal, beaming with pride for the legacy that her family has been carrying forward for generations. She has taken it upon herself to spread the story of her great great grandmother across the world. She wants the deeds of Awadh’s last queen to inspire girls who are looked upon as vulnerable and gullible.

PraatohKrityo: A Dance Drama that Debunks Societal Claims

One can be vocal without being verbose. Message can be driven home without any language. That was perhaps the foundation of PraatohKrityo – a dance theatre presented today at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi.

I don’t remember when was the last time I had seen so much energy on stage. But then, this dance theatre was not just about tireless  acrobats, but also about letting the body do the talking.

PraatohKrityo  is a story of women who are wary of the world, tired of being wolf-whistled and squeezed between moral policing and political nit-picking. They are restless to live life on their own terms. They are the progenitors of womankind that doesn’t find anything wrong in sitting with legs spread, flaunting  hairy underarm and making love to fellow women. They don’t fall in line.

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Image Credit: PraatohKrityo

The women  in the play have the ‘sassiness’ of Maya Angelou, persistence of Ashapurna Devi, and the rebellious streak of Ismat Chughtai. Their every somersault is a strong statement and every leap is laced with symbolism.While saxophone, ghatam, drums and guitar create a rare symphony,  women on stage pick themselves up after every fall. Their rise is cathartic. PraatohKrityo is certainly a revolt well choreographed.

Listen to the Echoes of Empty Vessels

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Image Credit: Sarvam Foundation

Empty vessels sound much. We all know that. But there are only a handful of people who really want to know what this sound is all about. It’s a desperate appeal to listen to their pathos and free them from a parched existence. The Echoes of Empty Vessels was the theme of a thought-provoking event gifted to the people of Delhi by Sarvam Foundation, an NGO that does the dual service to the nation:  promote rich Indian art and culture through diverse ways and create awareness about pressing issues concerning the country.

Their latest cultural endeavour was aimed at creating awareness about water scarcity which is a reality in large swathes of India.

The two-hour event felt like an unnerving journey into the dry river beds, cloudless sky, bone-dry farmlands, empty vessels, and the sagging faces of rural women struggling to fetch enough water for their family.

The distinct bass tone of ghatam (pot-like percussion instrument) played by Elathur N. Hari Narayanan, the stellar efforts of R. Sridhar to express agony through violin and the empathy of esraj (string instrument) drove home a strong message: lend ears to what these empty pots are saying.

While eminent Bharatnatyam dancer Nehha Bhatnagar paid a tribute to the ebullient flow of the River Ganga, poet Anamika breathed life into words to emphasize the need for sustaining the rivers. The beautiful finger techniques of percussionist Fakhroddin Ghaffari and the wisely choreographed mimed play by Lise Moulet made the moments even more overwhelming. The empty pots did open up their hearts and cried out aloud before those who cared to understand them.

Just as the acts were meticulously (and diligently) sketched and the use of instruments was inventive, the people of India need to think beyond the obvious and act in unison to fill the vessels, because, as Nehha Bhatnagar (founder of Sarvam Foundation) said, “Water is worship and worship is water”.

 

My Days of Recovery at AIIMS and Other Qualms

My few days at AIIMS were enlightening on many fronts. It was a five-day trip to one of the most prestigious hospitals in India. During the days of recovery, I made some observations that tugged at my conscience for so many reasons.

For the first time in my life I realized what it takes to get lost in the sea of patients not knowing who is suffering the most. I am talking about the Emergency Ward of AIIMS. It is one of the few places in the world where an ailing person has to prove that he is ill enough to get immediate treatment. Your condition should be miserable enough to get access to medical care. Even if the junior doctors are convinced that your condition is ‘serious’, you have to jump the queue which is at least 30-patients long.

Even if you cross the first hurdle and get a doctor allotted, you realize that the patient-doctor ratio is skewed heavily against you. Hence, there’s a visible haste in inserting a catheter into your veins and an acquired apathy towards the groan of hundred others who are seeking a quick rescue from the cauldron of pain. Although the first dose of analgesic did help me calm down, the helplessness around me was disturbing me profoundly.

In case you don’t know, you will meet two kinds of people in a hospital. First set of people are just doing their job and the other group is in love with what they are doing. For obvious reasons, I insisted on being taken care of by the ones in the latter group.

During these days, my respect for doctors grew manifold, especially the resident doctors. They are young, suave and eager to help. When I asked one of the doctors how is it that I see him at eight in the morning and also at 11 pm, he enlightened me about the 48-hour duty. You still see them smile at the end of the day, talk to the patients’ family, dish out sarcasm to drive home a point, and prescribe patience to the anxious visitors.

I have also formed a very strong opinion about the patients at the Gastroenterology ward. They are incorrigible. Even though they were being injected a healthy dose of Pantocid 40 every day, you would hear them admire the quality of samosa in Rohtak, paratha of Murthal and Paneer Pakoda of Bahadurgarh.

I also met a woman whose husband has been diagnosed with cancer. You would respect her for her resilience. Throughout the day she would scamper from CT scan department to doctor’s duty room and watch over her husband in intervals. From changing his diapers to feeding him and encouraging him with a smile to giving him a mild massage every now and then, she does everything in her capacity to make him feel better. Every night, I could hear her weep while clasping the feet of her husband. One night she told me how handsome her husband used to be even two years ago.

The day I was discharged, she gave me a smile that seemed to say: I would not give up no matter what.

 

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘We and They’ and the Author’s Dig at Intolerance

On a wintry morning of 2012, I made my way to the front lawn of Diggi Palace. The sun was suave and the place was teeming with a motley crowd in colourful warmers. Like a habitual last-bencher, I chose the corner seat in the last row. There’s something convenient about sitting away from the scene of action. You can be deeply involved in the discourse, yet let your thoughts wander into different territories without getting caught.

Incidentally, it was the Republic Day. While New Delhi was busy showing off India’s military prowess to the world, four wise men on the podium were discussing Rudyard Kipling and his writings on colonial India. The four wise men included three biographers of Kipling — Charles Allen, David Gilmour and Andrew Lycett – and the moderator of the session, Swapan Dasgupta.

I had read the poem ‘If’ during my school days and that was my only rendezvous with the author. Interestingly, none of his works were included in the curriculum for those doing a major in English from Calcutta University. Yet, my limited exposure to his works didn’t deter me from forming an opinion about the author. I really felt that Kipling was a well-intentioned individual who chose not to sermonize but sensitize his readers by assuming a fatherly figure.

What deepened my understanding of the man was the poem ‘We and They’. It took just five minutes to make my very first day at the Jaipur Literature Festival memorable. I distinctly remember the giggles among the audience when Andrew Lycett read out the poem for us.

It was evident that the poet had let the cat out of the bag in the first few lines of the poem.

“FATHER, Mother, and Me

Sister and Auntie say

All the people like us are We,

And everyone else is They”

The entire humanity was split into ‘We’ and ‘They’. Since Kipling knew the pitfalls of being pedantic, he presented the world as seen from the eyes of a kid, the narrator. Although the poem tickles the funny bone and seems to make a social comment on values being taught and ideas indoctrinated at an early age, I discovered its greater relevance only after several reads.

Every time I come back to the poem, I think of Kipling as a man with a more evolved consciousness and empathy. Like Amartya Sen in ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Kipling seemed to ridicule all those who pay reverence to his own sect and disparage the sects of others. The profundity of his thoughts became even more pronounced when I compared them with Kalidasa’s applause for “beauty of varieties of human customs and behavior” and Akbar’s “unequivocal pronouncements on the priority of tolerance.”

A poem, that was written perhaps hundred years ago, was so oracular in its content that it opens the eyes of the 21st century Indian citizenry who are on either side of the debate over growing intolerance in the country. Substance has been replaced by slurs and the idea of holding debates has suffered a jolt. A new wave of intolerance and king-can-do-no-wrong attitude dominates the political discourse.

In this context, Kipling’s poem comes as a whiff of truth. I can’t think of better euphemisms to describe those who show disregard to anything and anyone who doesn’t ascribe to a particular view. One need not be cerebrally superior to understand what Kipling meant in the following lines:

“All good people agree,

And all good people say,

All nice people, like Us, are We

And everyone else is They”

 

On Returning Home

When you return home before her and look across the drawing room, you notice a certain change in orderliness. On giving a closer look, you realize how she must have struggled to make up for waking up late. There is palpitation in the unfinished bowl of cornflakes and there’s disgust in the haphazardly torn packet of yogurt. The half-wet towel in the washroom was the final surrender before time. Three to four pair of shoes heaped over one another. What does that mean? She must have tried all of them in a mad rush to see which one goes well with her attire.

Why bother about the physical beauty of a shoe? I need time to wonder.

Has it ever happened to you that you return very late at night and since the only member in the family is sleeping away to glory, you try to figure out what has changed in the house ever since you left? The dining table looks half-empty and unusually prim. The nightly silence is often broken by hesitant drops of water on the wash basin. You tiptoe into the bedroom and find her in sleep and with glasses on. My Feudal Lord (by Tehmina Durrani) lies on the bed in abandonment. You are too tired to bother either of them.

Returning home is a strange feeling when the only member is either missing or sleeping. Moral of the story: arrive on time.

Iranian Movie ‘Hush! Girls Don’t Scream’ and the Undercurrent of Helplessness

What happens when society stops looking inward? How do people suffer when they refuse to admit victimisation lest it jeopardises their social standing? The victim is declared the convict and the suffering of the hunted is perpetuated.

After watching ‘Hush! Girls Don’t Scream’ as a part of the FFSI International Film Festival at the Indian Habitat Centre, my faith in Iranian cinema strengthened further. As far as the story goes: A woman gets her hands smeared in blood by murdering a security guard on the day before her marriage. As the fear of capital punishment lurks, the interrogator and the attorney try to unearth the real reason behind this crime, and that too at a least opportune moment for the accused.

It turned out that the accused was a victim of child abuse. She has been living in “fear, doubt, and hatred” because she has been repeatedly violated and her honour was decapitated from her existence. Life is one long nightmare for her and she is too afraid to turn off the lights. The childhood trauma graduated into an everlasting phobia that made her do things which are hard to justify.

A nation (read Iran) that treats ‘women’s rights’ as an oxymoron, is still a hostage to a justice system that is incapable of delivering justice. Like all other nations, conclusion is drawn based on proofs and circumstantial evidence. There’s no place for contemplation (or introspection, if you wish). Bodily harm leaves behind traces of crime and the perpetrator faces the noose. But what happens to those offenders who commit crimes against the soul? Their ghastly act doesn’t leave any tangible trace for the court of law to consider.

Director Pouran Derakhshandeh took it upon herself to highlight the inept mechanism in use for delivering social justice. She takes a leaf from the everyday situation wherein the victim is left at the mercy of ‘evidence’ to convince the judges that she is not the hunter, that she is being hunted.

The movie smacks of courage. It doesn’t shy away from raising another grave concern – under-reporting of cases of child molestation. This is rooted in the tacit acceptance of the age-old practice of intimidating the ‘weaker sex’ into silence. The women in the movie didn’t keep mum. They poured out their angst and anger. Yet, they looked as helpless as the judiciary – incapable of safeguarding the tormented.

Manjhi: The ‘Mountain Man’ and his Momentous Journey

A young man sincere in love, a bereaved husband faithful in his yearnings, and a determined soul up against a mountain: this is Dasarath Manjhi for you. From a freewheeling individual who gives himself to the pursuit of love to a resolute ‘mountain man’ who hammers a hillock, Manjhi’s life is a story of persistence.  Director Ketan Mehta’s foremost achievement has to be the idea of casting Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manjhi. The actor, who is known for going deep into the skin of a character, has outdone himself, once again.

The film is rich in symbolism. While the hillock stood for everything that’s thought to be insurmountable, the poor and lonely Manjhi was the epitome of determination. It’s only he who has the temerity to think that the mountain’s might is just a misconception.

‘Manjhi’ is quite a departure from the contemporary school of thought. Pathos is not exaggerated, the script is not guilty of verbosity, and the screenplay has trodden off the beaten track. While Radhika Aapte looked sensual and sensible as Phaguniya (Dasarath’s wife); Tigmanshu Dhulia seems to have grown even more wicked and detestable since Gangs of Wasseypur.

From the sepia scenes of lovemaking to blue starlit nights and fiery drought-stricken landscapes to a monotonous brown hillock, the cinematographer was given a free run when it comes to balancing desire and despair.  And yes, it does take a brave heart (and a great deal of editing skills) to compress such a long struggle into two hours of cinematic experience.

Music composer Sandesh Shandilya has tried his best to keep the folk flavour of the songs intact. If I am not wrong, the background music did have a generous contribution from sarod, sarangi, ektar and other not-very-frequently-heard instruments.  The song ‘O Rahi’ might remind you of “Aaoge jab tum oh sajna” from the film “Jab We Met”.

The social commentary in the film makes Dasarath’s struggle look even more real, even more unnerving.  While casteism, corruption, and the undercurrent of political inertia during the Indira Gandhi regime actually played out as a Goliath of trouble, the plight of the oppressed looked very real.

I don’t know whether faith can move mountain, but doggedness can surely help you carve a path through a hillock. 21st century audience may not have any inkling of what love consumed the creator of the Taj Mahal, but they can say this with certainty that Dasarath’s love for Phaguniya deserves to be narrated over years and handed down to generations as oral traditions.

This film will remain in our collective memory as a reminder that there’s much power in passion. So, even if you have to walk alone, even if your altruism is misinterpreted, and your sanity is being questioned, don’t wilt and wait for the God’s grace “kyunki kya pata bhagwan hamare bharose baitha ho”.

Dear Religion, How’s the World Treating You?

Your God is mourning, and so is mine

Slow death of humanity is the trademark of our time.

You practice aggression in the name of religion

I preach hatred with same precision.

Your faith is soiled by parochial views;

My belief is smudged with different hues.

My brother, your arrogance and my ignorance make us diffident.

My friend, your skull cap and my last name don’t make us any different.