Posted in History, India

Lal Bahadur Shastri–and how he got his name!

Yesterday was the birth anniversary of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. I asked friends if they knew Shastri’s real name, but none were aware of it. Below is an extract from my book The Puffin History of India volume 2, that reveals his name. It had always struck me as strange that such a simple man who dropped his own surname so as not to be identified with any caste, then took on a brahmanical one.

Looking back on those days I remember the food shortages. Shastri requested everyone in the country to skip one meal a week. Would that really conserve food? I don’t know, but most people, including my family, followed this.

The extract is below:

‘After Jawaharlal Nehru died, the major question was, who would

be the next prime minister? Gulzarilal Nanda, who was the

acting prime minister,was one possibility, while others were Morarji

Desai, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jagjivan Ram. Kamaraj was in favour

of Shastri, and persuaded others in the Congress to support him.

Thus on 2 June 1964, Shastri was unanimously chosen as prime

minister by the Congress and assured the support of all the other

leaders. He was a short, slim man, 155 cm (5’2”) tall, always neatly

dressed in dhoti, kurta and cap.

A heavy responsibility

On his appointment, Shastri said, ‘I have been entrusted with a very

heavy responsibility, with the highest charge. I tremble when I am

reminded of the fact that the country and Parliament have been led

by no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru . . . I can assure you I will

try to discharge my responsibility with utmost humility.’

Early life

Lal Bahadur Verma was born on 2 October 1904, at Mughalsarai

near Varanasi. In 1906, his father, a school teacher, died, and he was

brought up by his mother and various relatives. During his school

days, he dropped his surname, as he did not want to be identified

with any particular caste. In 1921, in his last year of school, he heard

Mahatma Gandhi speak, and left school without completing his final

exams to join the freedom movement.

A new name and a new life

Later the same year, he joined the Kashi Vidyapeeth, a national

educational institution, and graduated in 1925 with the ‘Shastri’

degree. From this, he took the name Shastri.After this he joined the

Servants of the People Society, an organization of service to the

nation, and worked both for this and for the Congress. He

participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement and other

Congress activities, and like Nehru, was imprisoned for a total of

nine years. In the meantime, in 1928, he married Lalita Devi, a

young woman of seventeen and over the years had four children.

His family lived in great poverty, specially when he was in jail.

Between 1937 and 1939, he was part of the United Provinces (UP)

Legislative Assembly.

After 1947

After independence he became the UP home minister and transport

minister and then held several posts in the union government. He

was minister for transport and railways in 1952, for transport and

communication in 1957, commerce and industry in 1958, and home

minister in 1961. He resigned in 1963 under the Kamaraj Plan, but

again joined the union cabinet in January 1964, on Nehru’s request.

As prime minister

When he took over as prime minister, the country was full of

problems. The sense of mission and dedication to a cause that had

been there at the time of independence, had diminished. The

Chinese war was a shock from which the economy had not

recovered. The Third Five-Year Plan had begun to show declining

growth figures.’

There is more on him in my book!

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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 History, India

When the Journey Began: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

In 2017, India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan is orbiting Mars, satellites are regularly sent into space, the economy is growing rapidly and India’s diverse art and culture is appreciated globally. And, most importantly, India is the largest democracy in the world.

The story of India as an independent nation began seventy years ago, in 1947, when the country gained independence after almost 200 years of British rule. For the first time, India became a united political entity, a nation with clearly defined boundaries. What type of country would the new India be? Would it remain united and strong?

At this time, the territory known as India consisted of eleven British provinces and some additional areas directly under British rule as well as 565 Indian states (also called princely states) where the British had overall control. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted a separate state of Pakistan, and finally it…

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Posted in History, India

India: 70 Years of Independence

Penguin India Blog

By Roshen Dalal

India celebrates 70 years of independence on 15 August, and we may wonder why this date is so important. A simple answer is that on this date in 1947, India gained freedom from almost 200 years of British rule. But further questions follow. What was wrong with British rule? How was it different from that of earlier invaders and settlers? Through the narrow passes and river valleys in the high mountains, India had seen many invasions from ancient times. Darius I (522-486 BCE)of Persia (Iran) included part of north-west India in his territories. Alexander, the Macedonian conquerer, too, came to the north-west in 336 BCE, but could not stay long. The Bactrian Greeks (from 200 BCE), the Parthians (1st century CE), Kushanas (1st to 3rd centuries CE), Indo-Sasanians (3rd -4th centuries CE), and Hunas (5th century CE), and were among other invaders. All of them set up…

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Posted in Film, History, Poland, world history

The Jewish Cardinal–a French film

Le métis de Dieu (The Jewish Cardinal)[2013]

I saw this film yesterday on the French channel. It introduced me to Aaron Jean-Marie Lustager [17 September 1926 – 5 August 2007], born a Jew, who insisted on converting to Christianity at the age of 13,  and became a bishop, archbishop, and later cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. His mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, his father was never reconciled to his conversion, and Lustiger himself could not forget his Jewish origin.

This historical film also looks at aspects of the history of France,  Poland under the communist regime, the attitude of the pope, and the conflicts over the Auschwitz cross, and the occupation of a part of Auschwitz by nuns.

Here is the epitaph that he wrote for himself, enshrined in the crypt of the Notre-Dame cathedral.

‘I was born Jewish.
I received the name
Of my paternal grandfather, Aaron.
Having become Christian
By faith and by Baptism,
I have remained Jewish
As did the Apostles.
I have as my patron saints
Aaron the High Priest,
Saint John the Apostle,
Holy Mary full of grace.
Named 139th archbishop of Paris
by His Holiness Pope John Paul II,
I was enthroned in this Cathedral
on 27 February 1981,
And here I exercised my entire ministry.
Passers-by, pray for me.’

† Aaron Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger
Archbishop of Paris

For someone like myself, interested in both history and religion, the film was fascinating. There is a lot on Lustiger available on the internet for those who would like to read more about him.

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 History, India

Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi

I wrote this post on 29 December 2016 on another blog. Reposting here in the light of the election results in five states, particularly in UP.

Today, while working on a new book, I reread accounts of the 1971 elections, and began to see parallels between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. In that year, Indira coined the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’, or ‘remove poverty’. The combined opposition’s main programme was to get rid of Indira. They failed, and she returned with 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. Yes, a few years later there was JP’s movement, the emergency, and her temporary downfall, but there is something to be learnt from this.
Catchy slogans have a great impact. Negative campaigns often do not.
In retrospect her policies did not remove poverty. Was bank nationalization a good thing? It could be questioned. What about the other economic policies? Those need more analysis.
Is demonetization a good thing? I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, it hasn’t served its purpose, and has caused a lot of misery. Even bankers are beginning an agitation against it. But if opposition parties want to win elections, they need to focus on some positive programmes. Merely condemning demonetization will not work. Narendra Modi’s policies may or may not bring results, but he is putting forward hope for the future. The opposition must do the same.
That is the lesson one can draw from the past. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, and others should learn from history.

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 History, India

Polish children in India–1942

Little Poland in India

Writing about Poland in an earlier post, I was reminded of Poland’s links with India.During the Second World War, 5000 Polish children came as refugees to India. A documentary on this, Little Poland in India,was released on 7 November 2013, and can be watched on youtube. The 52 minute documentary is based on records and on the memories of the now grown-up children.. The children were orphans, evacuated from Poland to Siberia during the war. They reached India in 1942 and lived in special camps, returning to Poland later.One such camp was set up by K S Digvijaysinhji, the maharaja of Jamnagar in Gujarat. He looked after the children as a father would. There were other camps in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

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.