Literary fiction has an obligation to environmental refugees

img_20170118_165131“For a long time I missed home; it was a missing tooth,” said Sholeh Wolpe, an award-winning Iranian-American poet and literary translator. She was recently in India to talk about her experience of living an exiled life. She left Iran at the age of 13 when the Iranian Revolution stifled freedom and fettered people’s dreams.

The sense of banishment from one’s own land was palpitating in the expression of Valzhyna Mort—a Belarusian poet who now lives in the US—when she narrated the helplessness of her grandparents who saw their lands being taken away by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution and given to collective farms for “better good” of the people. “Everything that’s ours has also been claimed by others,” she sighed.

These stories of anguish and living in parts are worded and recited across the world.  But there’s another form of forced migration that we don’t get to hear or read: climate-induced migration. Islands in the US and Canada are vanishing fast against the rising sea level; people in Bangladesh are seeing their lands being gobbled up by raging river and those in the Horn of Africa have turned into reluctant itinerants due to the staggering pace of desertification and prolong drought.

We are not deprived of an impressive line-up of academic books on refugee crisis across the world, especially Middle East and Africa, but those are mostly critical analyses of State-engineered subjugation and religious conflicts. They succumb to statistics and academic jargons.

While I was reviewing UR Anathamurthy’s ‘Bara’ (meaning drought)—written in the 70s and translated into English by Chandan Gowda—it occurred to me how truth can be told without moving away from the literary landscape and how political inaction and machination can turn an extreme weather event into full-scale disaster. Literary fictions, which would imagine beyond the current crisis and expose layered victimisation of those who are hounded by extreme weather events, must exist. Is it the lack of awareness or lack of creative imagination that is preventing contemporary litterateurs from writing about the disenfranchised lot living at the mercy of weather gods? I don’t know.

Author Amitav Ghosh recently sparked off a flurry of discussion on whether the issue of climate refugees has been largely ignored in contemporary literary fiction. “If we believe that the arts are meant to look ahead, open doors, then how is this huge issue of our time, absent from the arts? It’s like death, no one wants to talk about it,” he rued recently. His latest book, ‘The Great Derangement’ is an evocative work of fiction on climate catastrophe and its impacts.

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe used to say, “It is difficult to identify with someone you don’t see, who’s very far away and who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.” We must heed his words.

 

 

Does it not bother you?

Are we losing the art of having patience?

It wears thin too fast and argument dies an early death

We have less time to “stand and stare” and more to slam and scare.

Is it still a virtue to delve deep?

There’s so much to listen, but we choose to look the other way

While half-truths and heedlessness create jaundiced notions,

Our attacks grow imitative, criticism too acerbic.

Is perseverance no more in vogue?

Mythology has it that persevering Bhageerath brought Ganga to the earth

Dashrath Majhi could carve a path through a hill, all alone.

Can’t we invoke due diligence and finish the steeplechase graciously?

Is it too difficult to realise the rewards of optimism?

Every challenge is now seen as conspiracy, every difficulty an act of hostility

Why can’t we admit our indolence and put up with the rain?

Take off your cloak of cynicism and enjoy the rainbow dear

Has anger been enshrined as a potent survival strategy?

A small scar on cars makes us froth at the mouth

And we are often at each other’s throat to prove a point.

How long can we look back in anger and not reflect before reacting?

Do we ignore the call of forgiveness?

I see a grumpier and crankier generation unable to unburden the past

An ugly spat or a sentimental tussle gnawing at their hearts.

Forgiveness shows the road to future; don’t go astray and for too long.

While standing outside an ATM and awaiting my turn…

Date: December 8. Time: 10:45 PM. Location: CR Park (Delhi)

Exactly a month after that damned (some call it haloed) day when the Indian PM declared Rs.500 and Rs. 1,000 worthless, I ran out of patience and money. The resolve to withdraw Rs. 2500 from any ATM was too strong to be dampened by biting cold.

These days, people don’t crib much about long queues outside ATMs. They set aside two unproductive hours, accepting this vivid waiting. I felt tad confident when I approached the queue in front of the Canara Bank ATM near Market 1. But then, when you have about 80 people standing in front of you and stories do rounds about unfortunate countrymen and countrywomen coming back with empty pockets despite waiting for hours, a feeling of fighting a lost battle doesn’t escape you easily. I have hours to wait before I get cash. That was the only certainty.

While some grumbled about coming from as far as Badarpur Border to withdraw money, few others had a stoic expression on their face, perhaps hardened by the harassment. Some red-eyed folks with stinking breath had lined up in a group. While they were sharing wisdom about which ATM in the vicinity is dispensing cash at some ungodly hours, I was toggling between Twitter and Dr. Manmohan Singh’s write-up that demonises the idea of demonetisation.

Distraction appeared in the form of a young fellow, who, in a bid to get attention of the crowd, suddenly proclaimed, “Machine kharap ho gaya, doosri ATM mein jaao (the machine has conked off, go to some other ATM). He narrowly escaped being beaten up for the cruel joke he played. Just when the frayed tempers had calmed, a clamour from inside the ATM made the wait even more tense. Someone was trying to use second debit card to withdraw money and faced the ire of the fellow queuers.

It was beyond ordinary to see how people cope with difficult circumstances. As I write, I can distinctly recollect a motley crowd who stood in the queue for the second time after a long-one-and-half-hour wait in their first turn. They had withdrawn Rs. 2,000 at about 11: 45PM on December 8 and they are now ready to wait for few hours more after midnight, as the new day entitles them to withdraw Rs 2000 more.

In the same queue was a 20-something guy who was bragging about how he hoodwinked a security guard in one of the ATMs into using two debit cards and withdrawing Rs. 5000. There was a smirk on his face. Desperate times drive people to break rules.

As we moved one step a time, gathering hope by looking at the shrinking length of the queue, a mini scuffle emerged. This time, a man was accused of absorbing his recently-arrived friend into the queue. The lady, standing in front of me, asked in English, “Why do they have to jump the queue every time?” I didn’t know to whom was the question directed, but my instant response was an unconcerned shrug.

All this while, a little fellow was sitting on his father’s back, quite patiently. Seeing me come out of the ATM, he uttered in excitement “Humara number aa gaya”. I sincerely hope that this child grows up to see Modi fulfilling his promise: “Line that I’ve made you stand in is the last line, to end all lines”.

As I reached home at quarter past 12, I am reminded of what the old security guard at the ATM had said sardonically, “Acche din ke intezaar mein, humari raatein kharab ho rahi hai.”

Women in Africa and their story of acquiescence

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Credit: Rod Waddington

“Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.”   –  Francis Bacon

In Africa, a woman is not Adam’s ribs, but rather his shoulder and backbone. She represents 80% of the manpower working on the continent. But these women are still forced to believe that men hold the reins of power.  My first look at Chema Rodriguez’ documentary, ‘Will you marry me?’ stirred up some thoughts you might agree or disagree with. In India, we have several instances of parents marrying off their daughter due to poverty or for fear of straying from tradition. But familiarity should not breed contempt.

The Ethiopian city of Harar, with 110 mosques and 102 shrines, is called the ‘City of Saints’. However, the same city shelters sinners who force their daughters into marrying people of their father’s age. They fix marriages which are in ‘everyone’s interest’ except the bride’s. The story of a 23-year-old Rachel is that of a rebellion. She fled to Addis Ababa at the age of 16 to avoid such a marriage and now she is seen as an infidel who hasn’t followed the prophet’s book. Much as her mother sheds tears in secret and wants her to come back, she cannot convince her husband to bring the daughter back because “women can’t take decisions in such matter”.  Rachel’s story looks even more believable when you know that about 125 million girls in Africa are married before the age of 18.

From Ethiopia, the documentary takes us to a fishing village in Mali where people have no qualms about polygamy. If you have read the stories of water wives in drought-hit Maharashtra, you won’t be taken aback by the idea of getting married just to increase the number of helping hands in a family. But for men in this village, a second or a third wife doesn’t only mean an additional worker, but also an additional partner who can comfort them in bed when their other wives have just become a mother.

It’s a taboo in many parts of Africa to have sexual relations with a lactating wife. According to folklore, sperm can taint mother’s milk and cause kwashiorkor in the suckling child. Public opinion also link infant diarrhea with resumption of sexual intercourse. The man, who featured in the documentary, is a product of a gerontocratic society that peddles such ideas. While it’s true that new moms prefer to abstain from sex due to fatigue, fear of pain and often due to lack of interest in the first few months after childbirth, that doesn’t mean she would like this phase to be prolonged.

Howsoever hard you try not to see the gender inequality in this whole discourse, you can’t turn away from the fact that women are subjected to more restrictions and control than men are. The man in the family gets a new woman, a new helping hand and someone to give him company at night. And the first wife has to make her husband promise that he shouldn’t make his second wife his favourite.

In West Africa, at least 30% of men are polygamist and interestingly, more than half the polygamist families in West Africa are either animists or converted Christians. One of the common reasons cited for polygamy flourishing in Africa is the decades-long civil strife and insurgencies that create war widows. In some countries, especially Rwanda, Somalia, Senegal and Libya, there are double the number of women than men of marriageable age. Men take advantage of this distorted sex ratio and their “relative bargaining power increases”.  With men being scarce, women enter into a polygamous marriages and often settle for less. They end up marrying men whose advances they would have otherwise declined.

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Credit: Eric Lafforgue

In Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, women participate in Miss Yongama competition—a platform for single women to feel beautiful and to attract a prospect. For them, it’s the best way to find a good match because only crème de la crème of Senegal flocks to this beauty and style contest. The documentary also shows how cosmetics stores have mushroomed across Senegal to meet the growing demand for harmful skin lightening creams and other beauty products. The locals blame it on the West for dumping their products on African soil and infecting the locals with racist thoughts.

These days, between 52% and 67% of Senegalese women use skin lightening products: all in anticipation of higher social standing, better employment and increased marital prospects. Others try to keep their husbands’ attention with perfumes or sexy lingerie. One of the protagonists spoke her mind when she said, “Men are like children. When they get home, you have to serve dinner to them and get dressed up to play with them. You have to keep them excited.”

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.

Begum-Hazrat-Mahal

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”