Posted in Books, History, India, stories

The Peshawar Express

Rereading a book of Partition stories, I began to wonder whether there were any happy stories? Every story is this volume seems depressing. And once again one begins to ask that unanswerable question, why did it take place? Could it have been avoided? One million deaths would have been averted. Ten million would not have lost their homes. And India and Pakistan would not be constantly in a state of hostility. The book, Stories about the Partition of India, ed by Alok Bhalla, is one I have had for many years. It includes Manto’s famous story, Toba Tek Singh, and many more.

The Peshawar Express by Krishan Chander [translated from Urdu by Jai Ratan] is perhaps one of the lesser known stories, yet it is extremely poignant, a typical story of one of the many refugee trains. Here it is the train, the Peshawar Express, which tells its story, as it sets out from Peshawar loaded with refugees bound for India. The Hindu passengers looked like Pathans, says the train, fair and hefty, speaking Pushto or rugged Punjabi. Each coach was guarded by Baluchi guards. The passengers ‘ were bidding goodbye to their homeland with heavy hearts…I felt so weighed down under their cataclysmic grief that it slowed my speed.’

The first station was Hasan Abdal, where a number of Sikhs got on the train. But by the next station, Taxila, the carnage started. Taxila, once a great centre of learning, with a wonderful museum, where the Buddha preached….

The tracks were covered in blood and ‘I feared I would derail…’. Corpses piled up along the way, till finally the express reached Amritsar. ‘When I arrived at Amritsar, the joyous cries of the Hindus and Sikhs  shook the earth. Corpses of the Muslims were  piled high.’ Killings continued as the train crossed through Punjab. Even a young girl college student, reading ‘Socialism, Theory and Practice’ was not spared.

Finally the train returns to its shed in Bombay… ‘I have been given a thorough wash….I would never go on such a horrible journey again. … I want to pass through a land studded with barns of golden wheat, and swaying mustard fields on both sides of the track. I want to hear the Hindu and Muslim peasants sing the love legends of Punjab, while they sow their fields, while their hearts brim with love for each other and they are even full of reverence for women. I am a lifeless train—But even I hate to carry a cargo of blood and flesh dripping with hatred. I will haul food grain to famine stricken areas. I will carry coal, oil and iron ore…I will carry groups of prosperous peasants and happy workers….Then there will be no Hindus and no Muslims. There will only be workers and human beings.’

Posted in Books, Literature

Reading plans for 2017

I have already read a number of books this year. But my future reading plans are to focus on literature from India. I’d love to read all the Jnanpith award winners, and am hoping to find translations of all, in either Hindi or English. I have read some of the authors, but not many. Next I will focus on the Sahitya Akademi winners–some are common to both.

The Jnanpith Award is given for the best creative literary writing by any
Indian citizen in any of the languages included in the VIII Schedule of the
Indian Constitution.

Here is the list:
Year : Name – Works (Language)
1965 : G. Sankara Kurup – Odakkuzhal [Flute] (Malayalam);

1966 : Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya – Ganadevta (Bengali)
1967 : Kuppali Venkatappagowda Puttappa (Kuvempu) – Sri Ramayana Darshanam
(Kannada)
1967 : Umashankar Joshi – Nishitha (Gujarati)
1968 : Sumitranandan Pant – Chidambara (Hindi)
1969 : Firaq Gorakhpuri – Gul-e-Naghma (Urdu)
1970 : Viswanatha Satyanarayana – Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu [A resourceful
tree:Ramayana] (Telugu)
1971 : Bishnu Dey Smriti – Satta Bhavishyat (Bengali)
1972 : Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ – Urvashi (Hindi)
1973 : Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre – Nakutanti [Naku Thanthi (Four Strings)]
(Kannada)
1973 : Gopinath Mohanty – Paraja (Oriya)
1974 : Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar – Yayati (Marathi)
1975 : P. V. Akilan – Chitttrappavai (Tamil)
1976 : Ashapurna Devi – Pratham Pratisruti (Bengali)
1977 : K. Shivaram Karanth – Mookajjiya Kanasugalu [Mookajjis dreams] (Kannada)
1978 : Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan ‘Ajneya’ – Kitni Navon Men Kitni Bar
[How many times in many boats?] (Hindi)
1979 : Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya – Mrityunjay [Immortal] (Assamese)
1980 : S. K. Pottekkatt – Oru Desathinte Katha [Story of a land] (Malayalam)
1981 : Amrita Pritam – Kagaj te Canvas (Punjabi)
1982 : Mahadevi Varma – Yama (Hindi)
1983 : Maasti Venkatesh Ayengar – Chikkaveera Rajendra [Life and struggle of
Kodava King Chikkaveera Rajendra] (Kannada)
1984 : Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai – Kayar [Coir] (Malayalam)
1985 : Pannalal Patel – Maanavi Ni Bhavaai (Gujarati)
1986 : Sachidananda Rout Roy (Oriya)
1987 : Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar (Kusumagraj) – Natsamrat (Marathi)
1988 : Dr.C. Narayana Reddy – Vishwambhara (Telugu)
1989 : Qurratulain Hyder – Akhire Shab Ke Humsafar (Urdu)
1990 : V. K. Gokak (Vinayaka Krishna Gokak) – Bharatha Sindhu Rashmi (Kannada)
1991 : Subhas Mukhopadhyay – Padati (Bengali)
1992 : Naresh Mehta (Hindi)
1993 : Sitakant Mahapatra – “for outstanding contribution to the enrichment of
Indian literature, 1973-92” (Oriya)
1994 : U. R. Ananthamurthy – for his contributions to (Kannada) literature
(Kannada)
1995 : M. T. Vasudevan Nair – Randamoozham [Second Chance] (Malayalam)
1996 : Mahasweta Devi – Hajar Churashir Ma (Bengali)
1997 : Ali Sardar Jafri (Urdu)
1998 : Girish Karnad – “for his contributions to (Kannada) literature and for
contributions to (Kannada) theater (yayati)” (Kannada)
1999 : Nirmal Verma (Hindi)
1999 : Gurdial Singh (Punjabi)
2000 : Indira Goswami (Assamese)
2001 : Rajendra Keshavlal Shah (Gujarati)
2002 : D. Jayakanthan (Tamil)
2003 : Vinda Karandikar – Ashtadarshana (poetry) (Marathi)
2004 : Rahman Rahi – Subhuk Soda, Kalami Rahi and Siyah Rode Jaren Manz
(Kashmiri)
2005 : Kunwar Narayan (Hindi)
2006 : Ravindra Kelekar (Konkani)
2006 : Satya Vrat Shastri (Sanskrit)
2007 : O. N. V. Kurup (Malayalam)
2008 : Akhlaq Mohammed Khan ‘Shahryar’ (Urdu)
2009 : Amar Kant (Hindi)
2009 : Shrilal Shukla (Hindi)
2010 : Chandrashekhara Kambara – for his contributions to Kannada literature
(Kannada)
2011 : Pratibha Ray – Yajnaseni (Oriya)
2012 : Ravuri Bharadhwaja – Paakudurallu (Telugu)
2013 : Kedarnath Singh – Akaal Mein Saras (Hindi)

2014 : Bhalchandra Nemade – Hindu: Jagnyachi Samrudhha Adgal (Marathi)
2015 : Raghuveer Chaudhari – For his contributions to Gujarati literature
(Gujarati)

Posted in book review., Books, India

Book review: A good book on wrestling!

I was looking up details on the food wrestlers eat [in India], and came across a fascinating book, The Wrestlers Body, by Joseph Alter.

This was published in 1992, so it doesn’t include the female wrestlers, and the recent movies, Sultan or Dangal, but it explores all aspects of a wrestler’s life in an akhara.

What do they eat? Most are vegetarian. Ghee, almonds, and milk are essential along with normal vegetarian food. No alcohol or tobacco, no drugs. No sex, they are supposed to be celibate. There are a lot of guidelines on how they should maintain this.

Their daily routine, worship of Hanuman, celebration of Nag Panchami, and a lot more is part of this book.

‘This is a study of wrestling as a system of meaning, and it must be made clear at the outset that I have not undertaken to study the technical aspects of the sport.’ says the author in his preface.

There are chapters on the akhara, the guru-chela system, patrons, and the discipline a wrestler requires.

The book is well-researched. I am not interested in wrestling or outdoor sports, nevertheless I really appreciated the book, and its insights into the philosophy and spirituality behind a sport, and how it transforms the individual.

Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6n39p104/

 

 

Posted in Books, Poems, Sahitya Akademi

Lament of the Flowers [ Pushpa Vilapamu] by Karuna Sri, [ Jandhyala Pappaya Sastri, 1912, -1992] translated from the Telugu

038

I came across this poem recently, in The Sahitya Akademi collections, and really liked it. It must be better in the original Telugu, but the translation is below:

—————————————–

Bent on worshipping you

I woke up with cock-crow:

Bathed, clad in pure white,

Entered an orchard to fetch flowers.

As I stood by a plant, held the bough

And touched a flower, lo: all the flowers raised

Their voices in chorus, wailing, ‘Must you kill us all?’

My hear sank, something flashed in me, as ‘Lament of Flowers’.

‘Will you nip us all and collect in baskets

As we play in the tender leaf-lap of our mother

And sell us to gain salvation? What use

Any worship, when you are heartless?

‘We are dull heads, you are wise;

You have intellect, imagination;

Has your heart turned to stone?

Doesn’t it yield a few flowers to offer to god?

‘While we breathe,  we air the identity

Of our creeper- mother—enjoy rocking freely

In her hands–and as the hour approaches,

Contented we close our eyes–at her holy feet.

We facilitate the air dashing scents; feast the bees

That court us with sweet nectar; please the eyes

Of the likes of you; why this selfishness and–

Stop, don’t snap us–Do you sever mother and child?

‘You’re fine–cutting other’s throats for your sake—

How mean of you to acquire merit thus? Will the Master of all

Accept this bloody offering? Won’t the all knowing Lord

Receive our poor souls? Why an intermediary?

‘Strangling our throats with a thread of wool,

Sending needles through our hearts, they bind us

To deck their fashionable hairdos—

Alas, pitiless indeed is your fair sex!

‘Squeezing us in presses to the last drop

Of life, you men make attar

With our heart’s blood to was the foul

Smell of your bodies, O murderer!

‘Alas! All those luxuriating beasts of men

Sprinkle us on their beds, trample our tender bodies

Under their heavy feet–crush and crush– and next

Morning throw us out, all faded and unpetalled.

‘Offering all our priceless tender sweet lives

At your feet, aren’t we lost,lost? Having

Plundered our youth, beauty, you sweep us away

With a broom! Do men have any ethics?

You are born in the land of the Buddha,

Why is natural love just dead in you?

O murderer, murdering beauty,

Tainted indeed is your human birth.

For God’s sake leave your worship,

Don’t cut our innocent throats!

Oh! What grace can you earn

Killing us with your own hands?’

Thus admonished by the flowers–so

I thought–I had no hands to pick them;

To report the matter to the Lord

Thence I came, all empty-handed.

[1944, trans K Godavari Sharma.]

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Posted in book review., Books, History, Literature

Red Scarf Girl

 A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  by Ji-Li Jiang [Harper Collins, 1998].

Many years ago I was involved in a project on post-Mao China. Reading through copies of the Beijing Review, I was captivated by the Chinese method of encapsulating long statements and concepts in a couple of words. Of course, the ‘double hundred’, was easy to understand, it was Mao’s policy stating ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,’ but several others were not so simple. The ‘two whatevers’  referred to following whatever policy Mao laid down, and whatever instructions he gave, which in the post-Mao period was not recommended.  ‘Eating from the same pot’, meant that everyone got the same payment, regardless of the amount and quality of the work done, while ‘the iron rice bowl’ was a term for a permanent job, which could not be terminated on any grounds.  Even some longer phrases were intriguing, for instance, ‘The Kremlin wants to pluck the ripe apple and put it in the basket.’ In this case, the ‘ripe apple’ was a reference to Iran.

I was reminded of all this when I read Red Scarf Girl, and the key phrases, the‘Four Olds’ and the ‘Four News’. Red Scarf Girl by  Ji-Li Jiang, is actually a book for young people, describing Ji-Li’s life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. The red scarf they proudly wore was a symbol representing communism and Mao. The name ‘Ji-Li’ means ‘lucky and beautiful’, and Ji-Li was a happy young girl till she was twelve. In the prologue to the book she says, ‘I never doubted what I was told: “Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.”’

Ji-Li’s family lived in Shanghai. Her father was a theatre actor, who also loved reading and was knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Her mother worked in a sports store, and her grandmother had been the vice-principal of a school.  The family included Ji-Li’s younger brother and sister, as well as a housekeeper, who had been their nanny and was was like a family member. There was also a pet cat, to complete the household.

Chairman Mao’s picture adorned her classroom, and was respected and revered. Ji-Li was a bright and confident girl, who excelled in school and had many friends. Her life began to change when a Liberation Army member from the Arts Academy, visited their class and chose Ji-Li as one of the students to audition for entry into this Academy. When an excited Ji-Li shared this news with her parents and grandmother, they asked her not to go for the audition, and explained that she would not be selected, because of a wrong background. Later, Ji-li learnt that her father was the son of a landlord. In the new China landlords were criticised,  yet  tradition mingled with the new, as the background and ancestors of a family were still considered important. Every day the people of China listened to Chairman Mao on the importance of removing the ‘Four Olds’, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits, but did not seem to realise that  looking at a family through its background, could also be one of the ‘four olds’, an inability to break with the past.

As the Cultural Revolution set in, the names of shops reflecting old culture had to be changed, for instance ‘Great Prosperity Market.’ ‘Prosperity’, ‘good fortune’, ‘innocent’ and even ‘peace’ were among names considered part of old culture. ‘Prosperity’, for instance, could only be achieved by exploitation, and ‘good fortune’ indicated superstition. Clothes too reflected the old, such as pointed shoes and  pants with narrow legs. At first Ji-li and her siblings felt proud and excited to contribute to the new way of life and wondered why their parents and grandmother were not as enthusiastic, when initially they had been staunch supporters of Chairman Mao. Gradually Ji-li felt increasingly confused, as the ‘Four Olds’ were extended to all walks of life, and youngsters gained the right  to torment others. Respecting parents, teachers and elders, long hair worn in braids, the prevailing educational system, protecting one’s own property, storing old clothes of the pre-revolutionary period, reading stories from other lands, were all among the ‘four olds’. Even pictures of people of the past wearing long gowns or mandarin jackets, were burnt. Weak students used the opportunity to criticise those who did well . Getting good marks in school was a hazard. Youngsters became Red Guards while those even younger were named Red Successors. Final exams were abolished in Ji-li’s school. She could not go to the high school of her choice. Red Guards approaching with gongs and drums ransacked houses looking for ‘four olds’. Punishments began to be meted out to older people by these young Red Guards. When Ji-li’s house was searched even her stamp album was taken away. Her father was detained, her mother and grandmother suffered.

Confused by what was going on, Ji-li even thought of changing her name and repudiating her family, something she was encouraged to do. But finally the love for her family prevailed. One thing that stands out in this book, is that there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. Ji-li and her family were Muslims, and there were very few in Shanghai, but among all the problems they faced, this was not one of them.

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasized equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to  illogical extremes. Behind this revolution were  political struggles  and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. Many were killed by Red Guards, others committed suicide. Fighting among Red Guard factions, killed some more. Did this phase in China’s history have long-term effects? Was eliminating aspects of the past a contributing factor in making China an economic super power? Today China once again has huge inequalities.

Ji-li  moved to the USA in 1984, where she wrote this book. Though there are several books on the Cultural Revolution, this memoir is among those that provide the details of everyday life at the time,  the difficulties that so many ordinary people faced, and the insanity of those times. Other memoirs include Ji Xianlin’s, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, and several more.

 

Posted in Books

Favourite Books-1

 

When I was around four years old, my family and I moved to Mt Abu where we lived in a huge house called Eagle’s Nest, perched on a small hill. Apart from the other aspects of the place, I remember the books I read there, in different corners of the house, or on a rock in the garden.  Among the earliest books, two were my favourites, Whose Little Bird am I?, and a book about a koala bear named Wish. The second was one I liked so much, that I requested twelve live Koala bears as a present for Christmas. I am not sure why despite living in India and not being Christians I was writing a letter to Father Christmas [no Santa Claus those days]. Was it because of the Catholic school I was going to? Or was it a family tradition, a remnant of British days?

My mother, a well-known writer used to review books for both adults and children, and many of my favourites were among those, perhaps Wish had arrived as a book for review, the year would be 1958. She also wrote about the oddities of her children, and my request for twelve koala bears formed one of her articles.

Looking up the internet I found Whose Little Bird am I. It is by Leonard Weisgard, and a second edition is still available on Amazon. But I could not find anything about Wish, the koala. I located a good site for old children’s books,  www.oldchildrensbooks.com, but there was nothing there on Wish.

So if anyone who reads this knows about this book, do let me know.

These two books remained my favourites, even as I progressed to more complex reading, including Enid Blyton, James Barrie’s Peter Pan, A.A. Milne’s Pooh books and poems, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I still remember the horror I felt while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Apart from these classics there were many more, including Wild Animals I have Known, that had several sad stories, fairy tales from across the world, poems, stories of all kinds. In non-fiction I was fascinated by The Buildings of Ancient Egypt and the Golden Book of Astronomy.

We moved from there when I was around eight or nine. Before that I had started on adult fiction. The very first adult book I read was called Capitan China. I never forgot it as for an eight-year old or perhaps eight-and-a-half, it was fascinating and scary.  Looking it up on the net I found it was by Susan Yorke, first published in 1961, it must have been one of my mother’s review books that I picked up. If I remember right, this was about a Malay peasant girl, planting rice, who looks up, finds that no one observes her, and decides to walk away. Many adventures follow, she lands up in a brothel, is sold to some king or chief, has to make a journey across the seas to him, and along the journey has an Italian guard–he teaches her about the world, answers her simple questions on life and god, and they fall in love. Was his name Cavileri? Perhaps. Anyway reaching their destination, she is given to Cavileri as a gift by the king, they are married [?], but she has this horrid job of counting heads in some war, and as Cavileri is fighting in the war,she one day gets his cut off head. Going off in grief into the jungle, she is bitten by a snake and dies.  I remember this book as its powerful story haunted me for many years, and I reread it several times, though perhaps if I had read it as an adult, it would not have meant much.

On the net I find Susan Yorke was born 24 March 1915 in Mannheim, Germany, moved to Australia in 1965, and died 4 May 1997 in Sydney, New South Wales. She wrote thirteen books.

Posted in Batya Gur, Books, writer

Batya Gur: Writer and Journalist

 

Batya Gur [1947-2005],  an Israeli and a writer in Hebrew is best remembered for the creation of complex, closed  worlds in her detective fiction.  Her writing reflected the social, economic and political realities of Israel.  As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said: ‘No part of Israeli reality escaped her eye: ethnic discrimination, poverty and unemployment, the life of new immigrants and all those at the margins of society.’

She taught literature for several years before writing her first novel, in which she created the sensitive and intelligent detective Michael Ohayon, whose ideas  reflected her own . Born in Morocco and educated at Cambridge, Ohayon joined the Jerusalem police, but remained to some extent an outsider. Writing in Hebrew, her Ohayon books have been translated into English and other languages. The Saturday Morning Murder [1992] takes a look at the world of psychoanalysis. In Literary Murder [1993], the background is the academic setting of Hebrew University. Murder on a Kibbutz [1994], includes an interesting sociological and historical analysis of the changes and development of the institution of the Kibbutz. A Kibbutz member recollects,  “ It’s difficult to transmit what the first contact with the land was like. The hardship, the dryness, the water, the hunger. Especially the hunger, and the hard work. Twelve hours at a stretch sometimes, clearing and ploughing and gradually building…” But as the years passed the Kibbutz movement and its communal way of life was questioned, and individual freedom became more important.

The next book, Murder Duet [1999] is about a murder in a musical family, and rich in detail on music and the life of musicians. Another in the Michael Ohayon series, Bethlehem Road Murder was published in 2004, and  Murder in Jerusalem in 2006. Gur’s other books include I didn’t Imagine It Would Be This Way and Stone For Stone.

Her novels  were also televised.

At times the troubled conditions in Israel  forced her to comment on politics.

At a  conference in Brussels in March 2004 to celebrate International Women’s Day she said, “The suicide bombers sadden me and are destroying my heart”. But,  she added, it was the Israeli leaders who were responsible for this tragic situation.

A frequent writer for  Haaretz, Gur recounted in one  article how she was arrested when she asked three young policewomen why they were harassing a Palestinian, old enough to be their grandfather. She wrote, “I found myself saying that I refuse to feel like a German walking past an abused Jew in Nazi Germany and turn away indifferently or fearfully. ‘You’re calling us Nazis!’ shrieked the soldiers, and within a minute the word became a precious possession on their lips. They rejoiced in their justice and I could already imagine all the self-righteous people gloating over the use of this word.”

The history of Israel and Palestine in some ways reminds us of India and Pakistan, and causes one to reflect on problems that seem created and fanned by political decisions. Batya Gur, both in her books and her articles,  looks beyond man-made conflicts, at the common humanity of all people. Regarding her support of  the old Palestinian, she says, “ I know very well that such an act by a woman like me, someone who avoids any political activity or any consistent struggle for human rights, is actually a sentimental act. Such a trivial act of protest is a bit like sweeping the path to my own private garden ….”. Yet it is perhaps such trivial and seemingly irrelevant acts, that could one day bring about positive change.

Unfortunately Batya Gur died on 19 May 2005 after a nine-month battle with cancer. She was 57 years old.

Posted in Books, History, Music

The siege of Sarajevo

evstafiev-vedran-smailovic-sarajevo1992w

Vedran Smailovic playing in the destroyed building of the National Library in Sarajevo, 1992. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

——————————————————————

Radovan Karadzic was in the news a few months ago, appearing on TV screens as an old and tired man. I would not have paid much attention to him, if I hadn’t  recently read a novel based on the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, b.1945, a Bosnian Serb,  was the president of the Republic of Srpska from1992-96 during the Bosnian war. He wanted to unify Srpska with Serbia.Sarajevo was part of the struggle.

Sarajevo, located in a valley through which the Miljacka river flows, has a chequered history. It became a city under the Ottomans in the 15th century, though it has ancient settlements, the neolithic Butmir culture, with flint tools and pottery. This was followed by the Illyrian culture, and later there was Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages it was part of the province of Vrhbosna in the Bosnian kingdom. In 1875 Austria-Hungary took over the region, though technically it remained under the Ottomans. In 1885 it was so advanced, that it had an electric tram network, only the second city in the world to have one, after San Francisco. In 1914 the archduke of Austria was assassinated here, and the First World War started. After this, it became part of Yugoslavia. In World War II it was captured by Germany and formed part of Utashe’s independent state of Croatia. After the war, it was again part of Yugoslavia, as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, on 3 March 1992, but the Serbs did not accept this. The  Bosnian Serbs wanted a new state, Republika Sprska, that would include some Bosnian areas. At first the Yugoslav army besieged Sarajevo, and then Sprska forces from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. A siege force of about 13,000 encircled the city on the hills, and attacked with artillery, tanks and guns. Though there were 70,000 Bosnian troops in the city, they were poorly equipped. Snipers on the hills shot people on the streets.

The siege of Sarajevo was possibly the longest siege of modern times. Sarajevo at that time was a city of about 500,000 people, but several were killed and 70,000 Sarajevan Serbs left and went to Republika Sprska. According to UN estimates, almost 11,541 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded.  Fifteen hundred children were among those dead and 15,000 among the injured. Hundreds of shells hit the city every day and in one case, 22 July 1993, there were 3777. Finding ways to survive, ‘Sarajevo Roses’ was a poetic name given to craters created by shells.Ten thousand apartments were destroyed, and thousands more damaged.

There are more than 20 books, films, plays, and songs on the siege, as well as two video games. How accurate are these?  And is accuracy important in fiction?

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway dramatizes a real incident that took place. According to the book, on the afternoon of 27 May 1992, mortar shells hit a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 70 injured. To honour the dead, a well-known cellist of the city, came to the exact spot at the same time for 22 days, and played on his cello. Every day he played the same piece, Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. There were snipers on the hills, and the cellist could have been killed at any time, but he played on. The book is quite gripping, revealing the life of ordinary people living under a terrible siege. Water, power, health care, and life itself were all problematic.

The real cellist, Vedran Smailovic did not appreciate the book. He said he did not play for 22 days, but every day for two years, at different times and in different places. He was not so crazy that he would go to the same place every day. He was also annoyed that the writer never met him or asked him his version of events.

In real life, Smailovic, playing his cello in the midst of ruined buildings, became a symbol for the whole world. Impressed, Joan Baez joined him one day. But the man himself did not want publicity. He left Sarajevo in December 1993 and moved to northern Ireland.  He lives in Warrenpoint in an attic flat overlooking Carlingford Lough, where he composes music and plays chess.

Vedran was the focus of another book too, this time for children. But in this case, the author, Elizabeth Wellburn, actually worked with Vedran, and consulted him, producing a more authentic account, Echoes from the Square. This fictionalized story of Vedran, has an added character of a young boy, and was published in 1998. The boy’s life is almost destroyed by the war, but hearing Vedran playing every day gives him courage. This picture book illustrated by Deryk Houston,  is available as an audio book on youtube.

History records massacres at Sarajevo worse than that described in the book. In the Markale marketplace massacre on 5 February 1994, 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded; there was a second Markale massacre on 28 August, with 37 killed, 90 wounded. Others provided records of the siege. There was no light, no gas, no water, no schools, phones, transport or industry. ‘We learned to live by candlelight again,’said Resad Tribonj.

A memorial of 521 children killed was erected on 10 May 2009. The case of 500 more children was being investigated.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were charged with war crimes in 1996.

And to get back to the question of whether accuracy is important in historical fiction. Steven Galloway’s account of the cellist was not accurate. Even so, it led me to read more about him, and about that terrible siege, and  about Sarajevo itself. But would a more accurate portrayal have detracted from the book? I don’t think so–in fact it would have improved it. To know what the cellist thought, how he chose the different places in which to play every day–it would actually have taken the book to a higher level.

 

Posted in Books, History, writer

Signing other people’s books!

 

I am not sure if any other author has experienced this—Recently I was invited to a book fair held at a local school, and an announcement was made that I was available to sign books. A few people did buy my books and bring them to me to sign, but many more brought me other authors’ books! At first I refused but they seemed so disappointed. A compromise was worked out. I would sign at the back of other authors’ books, and in the front for my own. Then there was someone who kept waiting, he said, for my signature, even after I had signed. He expected a fancy and complicated signature, not the simple way I sign.

One 12th class student announced, as she gave me another person’s books to sign, that she had finished with history as she was going to be an accountant. Can one ever finish with history? That may be the topic of my next talk. I had earlier spoken to them about sources in the context of Ashoka, his grand inscriptions, and his policy of dhamma. Could one ever forget him, and so much else of the past?

Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Pali texts, Sahitya Akademi

A wonderful gift

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Some time ago I had written about the translations of the Sahitya Akademi and how much I appreciated them. I had their selected collection of Medieval Indian Literature and  a month ago, a good friend sent me a wonderful gift–the Ancient and Modern selections, each in three volumes. The ancient series has selections from Vedic Sanskrit, Pali, classical Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa, Tamil and Kannada, while the modern series has the whole range of languages, which had not developed in ancient times.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the Sutta Pitaka, a Pali text, on dialogues with the Buddha. Potthapada puts a question to the Buddha. ‘Is the world eternal? Is this alone the truth and any other view mere folly?’

‘That, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’ Then Potthapada asked each of the following questions: ‘Is the world not eternal? Is the world infinite? Is the soul the same as the body? Is the soul one thing, and the body another? Does one who has gained the truth live again after death? Does he not live again after death? Does he both live again and not live again after death? Does he neither live again, and not live  again after death? ‘ And to each one the Exalted One made the same reply: ‘That too, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.’

‘But why has the Exalted One expressed no opinion on that?’

‘The question is not calculated to profit, it is not concerned with the dhamma, it does not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquilization of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to insight, nor to nirvana. Therefore I express no opinion about it.’