Posted in Books, Literature, Russian literaure

“No Day Without a Line”

Roshen Dalal

[I had written this article earlier and it was published in the Garhwal Post, a different version in Hindustantimes.com]

“In everything I want to reach
The innermost kernel
In work, in life’s constant quest
In the heart’s trouble;”
(Boris Pasternak)

Literature of the former Soviet Union was once popular, but has now largely been forgotten. Though ‘Soviet literature’ is perhaps too wide a term, the great writers of the USSR, had something in common – like Boris Pasternak in his poem above, their writing had a certain intensity, reflecting that ‘constant quest’ to reach ‘the innermost kernel’ of everything. Their greatness was recognised in the West, and some of them– Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky– were Nobel Prize winners. Other brilliant writers included Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Sinyavsky, and many more.

Several of the Soviet writers were imprisoned or faced problems of some kind with the authorities in…

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Posted in book review., Books, Poems

The Golden Treasury of Poetry–Favourite Books-2

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About a month ago I was a judge at an elocution contest at a local school. Twenty-nine schools participated, and one from each school, from each of the classes 3,4, 5, had to recite a poem. Listening to and giving marks to around 85-90 children was quite a task!

All had perfect memory and confidence, despite mispronouncing some words. Many poems were repeated, perhaps they were in their textbooks? For some reason ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was a favourite with class five.

I wished at that time they had access to this wonderful book, The Golden Treasury of Poetry, selected by Louis Untermeyer, and with the beautiful drawings of Joan Walsh Anglund.

This book was gifted to me when I was nine years old, and it is still a prized possession. As the Foreword says: ‘This is a book to grow on, this is a book to grow with…’ It has funny poems, short poems, long serious poems, and others of all kinds that would appeal to a growing child. They are by poets well-known, less known, and even by those who are anonymous.

Some have remained in my head over the years, for instance: ‘Speak gently spring, and make no sudden sound,/For in my windy valley, yesterday I found/ New-born foxes, squirming on the ground./ Speak gently.’ [Four Little Foxes, by Lew Sarett]. There is T.S. Eliot on cats, William Cowper on a snail, Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember, I remember’, extracts from Shakespeare, poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, classic poems such as The Pied Piper and The Inchcape Rock, Kentucky Belle, and an entire section called ‘Laughter Holding Both Its Sides’, as well as so many more. Rosalie Grayer’s ‘Altar Smoke’ too, comes to mind, beginning with the words: ‘Somewhere inside of me/There must have always been/ A tenderness/ For the little, lived with things/ A man crowds upon his worn fistful of earth….’

The book is still available and I thought of recommending it to schools till I saw its exorbitant price of Rs. 74,000! Certainly, a valuable book to have!

I have other wonderful poetry collections too–will write more on them sometime.

 

It

Posted in Books, History, India

Why is 2008 an Unforgettable Year for India?: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

Author Roshen Dalal in her new book, ‘India at 70’, explores the journey of India through its 70 years since Independence in the minutest details. The enthralling read is not just a dive into the rich history of the country, but also a celebration of the major milestones in every aspect and field of society.

In the following excerpt from the book, Roshen Dalal takes a deeper look into why the year 2008 will always be considered unforgettable in the history of modern India.

The year 2008 had some unforgettable moments.

Floods are not uncommon in the monsoon season, but in August that year, the floods in Bihar were exceptionally severe. River Kosi changed course, and over 2.3 million people were affected.

In October, the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement was signed and was considered a landmark treaty. According to this, the US would provide India with nuclear fuel and technology…

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Posted in Books, Bookshop

A basement full of books

As I woke this morning a memory surfaced of being in a basement full of books. Not sure why I remembered it but gradually all the details of that day surfaced.

I had gone to a bookshop in Delhi, and was browsing through books on religion in ancient India. A young woman came up to me. ‘I have a lot of such books’, she said, ‘and I want to give them away. They belonged to my father-in-law, he has died, and I don’t want them, I want to clear the basement where they are stored.’

‘Ask a second-hand bookshop’, I suggested. But, she said her father-in-law loved those books. She wanted to give them to someone who would love them too. Won’t you come and see them?, she asked. ‘I’ll come some time’, I said, trying to put her off, but, ‘Why not come now?’, she insisted. ‘I’ll take you there in my car and drop you back.’ For some reason, I agreed, got into this unknown woman’s car and went to her house. As we entered, she locked, bolted, and triple locked the door. I began to have some doubts. There was no one else in the house. Soon, she led me to the basement, and I saw it certainly was full of books. As I moved forward to look at them, the electricity went off. There was a faint light from a high-up window. ‘Oh’, said the woman, ‘let me check’, and she left, locking the door behind her. Now here I was, stuck in a dimly lit basement, surrounded by books that I  hardly wanted to look at. To add to it, somehow I had left my handbag upstairs. Those were the days before mobile phones, but still I began to regret everything I had done that morning. Was I going to end my days in a basement, and if so why?

To my surprise, about five minutes later the door opened. ‘I can’t tell what has happened to the electricity’, she said. ‘Would you like to bring some of the books upstairs?’ I picked up two books and ascended the stairs. ‘I’ll  make tea’, she offered. ‘I need to go’, I said.  ‘Please take the books you have chosen’, she said. ‘Take more if you can.’ ‘I’ll come some other time’, I responded.

I picked up my handbag, I could see it had been opened. Somewhat reluctantly she unlocked the triple-locked door, and muttered something about not being able to drop me back. I escaped into the sunshine, and took an auto home.

An anti-climax? A pointless story? Perhaps, but the memory has remained all these years. And those two books are still with me.

Posted in Books

Thinking about books….

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Medieval Indian Literature

A reading group posted about how unhappy they were about people who borrowed books and did not return them, or who returned them stained and tattered.

Perhaps I was like them once. Today, I don’t lend non-fiction for practical reasons. I need to refer to them when I write. But I lend fiction to anyone who requests a book, and if the book is not returned I forget about it.

I used to be an avid book-collector, and to some extent I still am, but that possessiveness of earlier days is gone.

When I went to teach in Rishi Valley, I took with me two suitcases–as so many things had to be packed for a stay that lasted several years, I could take only four or five books with me. The rest were stored in the house of a friend.

As time passed I realized I did not need those books. Those I liked were in my head, in my memories. Rishi Valley had a good enough library, so that I was never short of books to read. By the time I returned from there, half the stored books were lost. I did not mourn them, as their essence remained in me.

Today I once again have a large library as well as many on kindle, but my attitude to books has changed. Nothing is ever lost, even if I never see those books of the past.

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

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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.