Posted in Books, History, world history

Who is Claudette Colvin?

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With the killing of George Floyd in the USA the Civil Rights Movement is back in focus. It seems unbelievable that the act for voting rights for African Americans was passed only in 1965, and that even in the 1950s they were strictly segregated in schools, buses and elsewhere. In buses, they had to sit at the back. Many who have a basic knowledge of the movement have heard about Rosa Parks, the young woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on 1 December 1955, and who sparked a movement to end segregation. Rosa Parks became a symbol of the movement, but there were many others who remained unknown. Claudette Colvin was perhaps the first of these to be arrested and imprisoned and this happened  in the same city,  nine months before the Rosa Parks incident when Claudette was only 15. On her refusal to give her seat to a white person, she was arrested in the bus, her schoolbooks went flying, she was handcuffed and imprisoned. She was locked in a cell in an adult jail, and not allowed to make a phone call. Fellow students in the bus told her mother, who reached the jail along with her pastor, Reverend H. H. Johnson. Johnson managed to get her released on bail. But Rosa Parks, middle-class and in her forties, seemed a more acceptable symbol of the movement, and she remains famous in history. The bus boycott, and the move to end segregation, started because of her. To know more about Claudette, the true founder of the movement, read Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice  by Phil Hoose.

Posted in Books, History, world history

Books on North Korea

This week  I have read a number of books on North Korea. For those who are interested, here is a brief summary.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is a work of fiction, with a historical background. The story covers about eight decades, set in both Korea and Japan, and its aim is really to depict the complexities of the lives of ordinary Koreans, first under Japanese occupation, and then after the division into North and South Korea. The negative Japanese attitude to Koreans is clearly brought out.
  2. Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. An incredible book by someone high up in the hierarchy of North Korea, who then escaped to the South. The predictive reality of Orwell’s 1984 is clear in this book, as while working for the government the author had to take on a fake South Korean name, and write in praise of the North as if he was writing from the South.
  3. A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa. An apt title for a really dark book about the poor conditions in North Korea, a life of deprivation and starvation. The author finally escapes, but it is not exactly a happy ending. Being half-Japanese, he was accepted neither in Korean nor in Japanese society.
  4. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. Another harrowing escape story from North Korea. However, life in North Korea was much better for a Korean, rather than a half-Japanese. She writes of a close knit society, good neighbours, and prosperity during the 1960s and 1970s when the North was well-funded by China and the USSR.
  5. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park. Another escape story, and a description of life in North Korea.

All these books also provide descriptions of the typical way of life in North Korea.

 

 

Posted in History, India, Mahatma Gandhi, Writers, Writing

Writers and nationalism

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There must be innumerable writers who are, in some sense nationalists, or who write about their own country.  The Russian writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to mind. However, nationalism which leads to hatred of the ‘other’ seems unacceptable in a writer. The best writing, one that is long lasting, can include details of a place or country, and yet have a universal theme. Writers are rooted in the land where they live, or where they were born, and that forms the theme or background of much writing. I too write on India, and from an Indian perspective, about its history, culture, religion and its natural beauty, its wonderful arts and crafts. At the same time, one can still appreciate other countries and their histories and traditions.

India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, but forgets his words. Gandhi, lived, worked, and died for India, but his views were never narrow or limited.

Here is a quote from him.
I would like to see India free and strong so that she may offer herself as a willing and pure sacrifice for the betterment of the world. The individual, being pure, sacrifices himself for the family, the latter for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, the nation for all. (YI, 17-9-1925, p. 321)

 

Posted in History, India, Religion

Looking at the history of religion

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Each religion has both positive and negative aspects, as they change over time and are added to and interpreted by innumerable people. Even those immersed in faith, belief and spirituality, may like to also trace the history of their own religion, to understand how it developed.

The sources for the study of the history of religion are immense. Apart from texts, sources  include artefacts and material remains discovered through archaeological explorations and excavations;   coins, seals and inscriptions; sculptures, images, and various extant structures.

There are several different approaches to the history of religion, including the sociological, Marxist, and psychoanalytical approaches, as well as the anthropological, historical and phenomenological approaches.

One can either ignore religion entirely, or maintain some beliefs and practices. For people who believe in or practice religion and move from outer beliefs to an inner spirituality, tolerance, understanding and knowledge, expand and grow.  From the sages of the Upanishads, to the Bhakti saints, the Sufi mystics, and the spiritual gurus of more recent times,  all religions emphasise  the Oneness of life and the sense of universal love that underlies every spiritual experience.

The quotes given below are a few examples of thousands of similar sayings:

‘God has no country, dress, form, limit or hue. God is omnipresent, his universal love is everywhere.’ (Guru Gobind Singh, Jap Sahib)

‘In every age and dispensation all Divine Ordinances are changed and transformed according to the requirements of time, except the law of love.’ (Bahaullah).

‘I have come to light the lamp of Love in your hearts, to see that it shines day by day with added lustre. I have not come on behalf of any religion.’ (Sathya Sai Baba, 4 July 1968).

However, there is no one religion that is the sole representative of Truth, or that has all the answers.

‘Truth cannot be shut up in a single book, Bible or Veda or Quran, or in a single religion. The Divine Being is eternal and universal and infinite’, says  Sri Aurobindo, and adds, ‘All religions have some truth in them, but none has the whole truth; all are created in time and finally decline and perish.’ (The Integral Yoga, Selected letters p.352). This can clearly be seen in India, where so many religious beliefs coalesce, and where religions change over time, and are re-created, emerging in different forms.

Long ago the emperor Ashoka [ruled 269-232 BCE] wrote in his Twelfth Major Rock Edict: ‘One should honour another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other…Concord is to be commended, so than men may hear one another’s principles and obey them’.

[This  is based on extracts from  my book,

Religions of India: A Concise Guide to Nine Major Faiths [Penguin India, 2006, 2010, 2014]].

 

 

Posted in Books, History, Writing

My first published book

I had written this post below four years ago, and thought of re-posting it, as this morning I remembered an incident related to the book. I had read a book called Small Miracles, and this was something that could be categorised as one. Of course, a critique of the book said they were just coincidences, so this is a coincidence I still remember. It was probably 1996, mid summer in Delhi, temperatures around 44 centigrade. There were no mobile phones in those days. Finally, I had been allotted an editor for the book, and as she had a small baby she was working from home. I had her address and set out to visit her in Chittaranjan Park. But once there I could not locate the house. I walked in circles, asked everyone, received directions, but still could not find it. The heat was unbearable. I stopped to breathe, and thought I had better go home. At that moment a sannyasi in orange robes passed me. I hardly noticed him, but suddenly I felt a gust of cold air. In that blazing dry heat, it was cool and moist. Refreshed, I walked on a few steps, and there I was at the gate of the house I had been searching for . A very small incident–only if one had actually experienced the heat and exhaustion, and then that cold air, could one know why I still recollect it.


The earlier post

The Puffin History of India
The Puffin History of India

Perhaps because my mother was a writer, and because the house was always full of books, and I spent most of my time reading, I always believed I was a writer. Somehow, though, I became one only late in life, and almost by chance. After a stint in academics, a PhD, spending years doing research in a musty library, I moved on to become an editor. Then an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti took me to teach in a school in south India run on his philosophy. After a few years there, teaching history and geography to youngsters, I realised there were no books in history that they wanted to read on their own. Teaching there I had begun to understand the kind of books young people required. I approached Penguin India with an idea for several small books on different dynasties, but instead they suggested a single book on Indian history. After sending them a synopsis and sample chapters, I had a contract. I wrote the book in longhand, got it typed, revised it, and got it retyped–I think it was probably the only book for which I kept to the deadline! Meanwhile, Puffin, the children’s division of Penguin, had its own problems, and closed down for some time. Submitted in 1993, the book was finally published in 1997! I had almost given up on it by then, had left the school, and was back to editing. This book, now called The Puffin History of India vol 1, is in its 3rd edition, and continues to have steady sales. A few years later I was pushed by my editor to write its sequel, on India after independence, which is now The Puffin History of India vol 2. After that I went on to write more books.

Posted in History

People in history

 

My interest in history began with a fascination with the ancient world, particularly of Egypt and India, and with myths, legends and religious texts. One went on to focus on socio-economic history, and to look at the factors that shaped religion and other aspects of the past, and my next specialisation was the fascinating subject of historical geography.

Yet somewhere along the way my focus turned to people, the people who adorned the pages of history,  and the millions who didn’t. There were just so many, who did their best, who contributed so much, who lived and died, and who today are rarely remembered. Many founded new religions, others started reformist movements. There were kings and leaders, both good and bad, and with time they all faded into the past. There were even children, who formed part of historical movements, and who, as we see today, are recruited into wars, and suffer as a byproduct of conflicts they hardly understand.

When I came across the sentence quoted below, it seemed to make sense to me, to give the lives of those forgotten souls, some value and dignity.

‘This galaxy of human genius that enriches and beautifies the pages of history is at the same time the glory and the hope of all mankind, for we know that these greater ones are the forerunners of the rest.’ C. W. Leadbeater, from The Masters and the Path.

 

Posted in History, India, Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru: as a writer

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Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, died on 27 May 1964. Memories on his death anniversary.

(First published 2003)
“ Last month I went back to Kashmir after an absence of twenty-three years. I was only there for twelve days, but those days were filled with beauty, and I drank in the loveliness of that land of enchantment. I wandered about the Valley and climbed a glacier, and felt that life was worthwhile.”
These words were written by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940, in the midst of political struggles and prison sentences. Today we tend to forget that Nehru was not merely a leader of the fredom movement and India’s first prime minister, but also an accomplished writer. His books include Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India, and An Autobiography, as well as collections of essays, and of thousands of his letters and speeches.
During the course of the freedom struggle, Nehru was imprisoned by the British authorities for a total of more than nine years. In this enforced isolation from political activity, he found time to think, reflect, and write.
Glimpses of World History offers a panoramic sweep of the history of the world, and was written mainly between 1930 and 1933, in the form of letters to his young daughter, Indira. He writes about the Greeks, about Asia and Europe, Africa and America, about Mohenjodaro which has just been discovered, and intersperses his account with advice to Indira, and comments on life in jail.
Discovery of India was written in Ahmadnagar Fort, where he was imprisoned from 9 August 1942, the start of the Quit India Movement, to 28 March 1945. Though he begins with ancient India, the best sections are of the India in which he lives, the India that is struggling for independence. His style is graphic, fluent and compelling. Thus on the Bengal famine of 1943, he writes “ Famine came, ghastly, staggering, horrible beyond words. In Malabar, in Bijapur, in Orissa and, above all in the rich and fertile province of Bengal, men and women and little children died in thousands daily, for lack of food.” Adding his personal comments, as he usually does in most of his writing, he says, “Death was common enough everywhere. But here death had no purpose, no logic, no necessity; it was the result of man’s incompetence and callousness, man-made, a slow creeping thing of horror, with nothing to redeem it”.
He writes also about the personalities which shaped India, and tries to understand the growth of communalism, the strange idea of partition. Jinnah puzzles him. He was head and shoulders above other members of the Muslim League, he says and that is how he became their leader. Once Jinnah was considered the apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, but now, “ Some destiny or course of events had thrown him among the very people for whom he had no respect.” This book thus looks at history from within, through the eyes of a man who participated in and created history, and should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand the tumultous years befor independence.
His Autobiography, the most introspective of his books, was written mainly in Dehra Dun jail between 1934 and 1935. Here he writes not only of his life and the ongoing political struggle, but of his jail companions – hordes of wasps, bats, a puppy he nursed through a serious illness, a kitten he made friends with; he describes the weather, the incessant rain, and the glorious view on a freezing cold day, of the mountains, covered with snow.
All these books were written before independence. After 1947, he continued to write thousands of letters. His Speeches have been collected in five volumes, and reflect India’s growth and problems in the early years of independence.
Nehru’s historical perspective, wide knowledge, philosophical approach and subtle wit, make whatever he has written worth reading even today.

Posted in book review., Books, Hiroshima, History

Learning from history: Hiroshima and memories of the bomb

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What is the point of knowing about the past? This was a question often put to me as a teacher. Why do we need to know about it at all? Considering how different versions of the past are put forward and misused to prove some  point or the other, one can sympathise with the is question. Still, one hopes that by knowing about the past at least some of its terrible tragedies would not be repeated. And among the greatest tragedies was that created by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 6 August 1945, the first ever nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan by  an American plane at 8.15 am. Eighty thousand people were killed that day, and many more thousand died over the years of sickness caused by radiation. Three days later, on 9 August, another bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, killing between 60,000-80,000 people. Most of the deaths were of civilians. The bombing brought an end to World War II, with the surrender of Japan, but the USA continues to be criticised for this till today.

There are historical, as well as survivors accounts of this horrific event. Yet one of the best accounts, clearly depicting in detail the aftermath of the bomb, can be read in a book by a Japanese novelist, which focuses on Hiroshima.

Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), by Masuji Ibuse, though classified as fiction, reads like a memoir. It is an account of that day and subsequent events, and at the same time brings us vignettes of Japanese life. These are not based on Ibuse’s own experiences, but as he was born in Hiroshima prefecture,  obviously  what happened there affected him deeply, and he later wrote the book using the accounts of survivors. His story Kakitsubata (Crazy Iris) was published earlier, also with the theme of the atomic bomb, about an iris that changes after radiation.

Black Rain was first published in Japanese in 1966.  Paul Brians, who has written on the atomic war in fiction, calls it, ‘the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written.’ The book opens with Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, more than a 100 miles east of Hiroshima, wondering how to get his niece  Yasuko married. It  was difficult as there were rumours that she was the victim of radiation sickness. At the  time the bomb was dropped, the Shizumas, Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko, were living in Hiroshima, and Yasuko lived with them, as she was working in a factory at nearby Furuichi. She and Shigematsu took the same train to work every day. The book begins  four years later .

Shigematsu was suffering from radiation sickness. He could still manage his daily life, he explains, as those who had a mild sickness could stay alive by eating nutritious food and not doing anything strenuous. Unable to work, Shigematsu and his two friends in a similar situation decided to try fish farming, and to rear carp. How was he to get Yasuko married? He thought that her would-be suitor could be convinced that she was healthy, if he was provided with her diary, which showed she was not affected by the bomb, and was not even in Hiroshima on that day. But Yasuko also records, that even if only for a minute, black rain had fallen on her.

About that day Yasuko wrote: ‘At Furue there was a great flash and boom. Black smoke rose up over the city of Hiroshima  like a volcanic eruption.’

‘It must have been about 10 am. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks, the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.’  Yasuko found her skin and clothes had marks like splashes of mud all over. They were impossible to wash off. She adds in her diary, ‘As a dye, I thought, it would be an unqualified success.’

Shigematsu decided to copy his diary out too, to preserve for posterity. He wrote: 6 August. ‘On my way to work, I entered Yokogawa station as usual to board the Kabe train’.  Kabe was just 14 km away.

‘At a point three metres to the left of the waiting train, I saw a ball of blindingly intense light, and simultaneously I was plunged into total unseeing darkness’. Then he describes the resulting confusion, as the black veil was pierced by screams and cries, and Shigematsu was pushed out as people struggled to escape, and bodies piled up. Shigematsu clung to a pillar, using all his strength. When he finally opened his eyes, ‘Everything within my field of vision seemed to be obscured with a light brown haze, and a white, chalky powder, was falling from the sky.’ He describes the sights, the wounded and the dead, he himself being slightly injured, the skin peeling off his left cheek. The Yukogawa shrine and all else around was destroyed. Then he describes the mushroom cloud. ‘The head of the mushroom would billow  out, first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever-changing shades of red, purple, lapis lazuli or green. And all the time it went on boiling out unceasingly from within….The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce…’.

He continues to copy out his diary, recording  the terrible sights and endless deaths, in between describing their quiet life in later years in the Japanese countryside. One farmers’ festival follows another, including one where prayers are said for dead insects, those that are killed while ploughing the land. And this peaceful Japanese life is contrasted with details of the terrible destruction, the dead bodies everywhere, teaming with maggots and flies, the weeds that somehow seemed to grow when everything else was a barren waste, the endless mass cremations that had to take place.

It seemed that Yasuko’s suitor was convinced that she was fine, and marriage became more likely. But though Yasuko remained apparently healthy for many years, the black rain or some other contamination had seeped into her, causing her to finally get radiation sickness, and details of this terrible illness too are provided. They could only hope for a miracle, but it seemed unlikely, she was just one more casualty of the all-round destruction.

Black Rain was made into a film by Shohei Imamura in 1989.

Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), a well-known Japanese writer, had written several books and won a number of awards, yet as far as possible he tried to remain away from the limelight.

Memoirs of the effects of the bomb include the recently published, Hiroshima: Memoirs of a Survivor by Sachi Komura Rummel, who was a young 8-year old girl at the time. Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) wrote down his experiences in a notebook, but committed suicide in 1951. His nephew Tokihiko Hara gained the copyright to his notebook and included it in his book, Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) also to be made into a movie. Sankuchi Toge (1917-1953) wrote poems on the terrible event. He died at the age of 36. There are also several eyewitness accounts which can be accessed online (for  instance www.hiroshima-remembered.com), as well as a number of books, both historical and personal accounts.

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Posted in History, Religion

Rewriting history

I wrote this article after listening to a rather bizarre discussion on TV, published in today’s Garhwal Post–the word file is below.

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Rewriting history

A 14- member committee has been appointed by the Ministry of Culture in India, to rewrite India’s history. Historians constantly do revise their opinions on the past, based on recent research, but to start with certain aims and assumptions, before even looking at the evidence, would lead to the project lacking authenticity.

This group  seems to have definite aims and to be looking at specific aspects of the past–firstly that there was no large migration of a branch of Indo-Europeans into India around 4000 -2000 BCE. For this, they do not require a new committee, as the theory has already been challenged by several historians, while it continues to be supported by others. In my book on the Vedas, I attempted to look at all the evidence again with a fresh mind, along with the different viewpoints of hundreds of scholars. After this exercise, it seemed to me that no definite conclusion could be reached one way or the other–on both sides there was an attempt to reach conclusions through scanty evidence, often examined out of context.

Next, the committee wants to prove that the ancient river Sarasvati existed–but the probable course of this river has already been identified by archaeologists and geologists.

In addition, they want to trace Hindu culture back to the earliest days–this is certainly impossible, without inventing evidence. India was occupied in the Stone Age, but archaeological evidence cannot point to  any clearly identifiable religion, which could be equated with Hinduism as it is known today.

On a TV programme yesterday, a participant insisted that Shah Jahan did not build the Taj Mahal, nor the Red Fort, nor the Jama Masjid. All these were constructed by Hindus. He added that he based his ideas on those of Stephen Knapp, someone of whom I had not heard. The wonderful internet though, provides information on him. According to his theories, every civilisation in the world was founded by Hindus. What was Rome, if not a version of the name Rama? And Romulus and Remus, can be identified with Lava and Kusha. The Romans’ togas were only modified dhotis…and so much more. Arabia was ruled by Hindus, the Kaaba is a Shiva lingam, and practically every name in the world is derived from a Hindu etymology!

Rewriting history has taken place across nations and countries in all parts of the world, along with different types of histories that challenge those of the mainstream. Yet even so, this kind of imaginative reconstruction is relatively unique. It of course does not originate with Stephen Knapp–there was P N Oak, in the past, among several others.  Konraad Elst, an a blog post [23 June 2010] says about Oak, ‘I expected his star to wane and get eclipsed by more sensible voices of Hindu historical revisionism, but the opposite has happened.’ He calls his views ‘fanciful and totally unfounded.’ He goes on to say, ‘The popularity of P N Oak’s theses is a sign of gross immaturity among contemporary Hindu activists’. Konraad Elst, a Belgium Indologist, is sympathetic to Hindu nationalism, and is considered a Hindutva supporter. Yet even he, calls these theories absurd. Obviously, if this kind of rewriting is done, the new history wil have no credibility anywhere in the world.

Fortunately, the panel  appointed by the ministry, does have some serious and genuine scholars, and one has to wait to see what comes out of it.

George Orwell’s  predictive book 1984, was first published a long time ago in 1949. He portrayed how history was constantly being rewritten to serve the interests of the party in power, and was probably inspired by Soviet Russia, which, among many others, used history as a political weapon. More recently, Putin too has had  a hand in new Russian textbooks. In fact,  across the world countries have tried to change  versions of the past. In Chechnya, criticizing the Russians and portraying their negative role in their history is no longer allowed. In the USA there is an attempt to sanitize slavery and downplay the achievements of, and tragedies faced by, marginalized groups. In China, the Cultural Revolution attempted to destroy everything of the past. And in many former colonial countries there are attempts to criticise and set aside the years immediately after they gained independence, and to seek inspiration from a distant, and often mythical, past.

In the book 1984, Winston, the main character actually works in a department that obliterates and recreates the past. As he works, according to the dictates of the Party he puzzles over this. Why did they want to do this? And would a time come when there was no way of knowing what was true and what was not? If both the past and the world had no reality except in the mind, then could controlling the mind alter the past?  In his diary he writes:  ‘At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today to believe that the past is unalterable.’

But in the 21st century, it is difficult to understand this obsession with the past. Why not allow genuine historians to write history, while politicians focus on the present? Doesn’t the present have enough challenges? Though  politicians seem to believe in the statement, ‘He who controls the present controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future,’  the world is no longer isolated, and it may not work if the version of the past is so fictionalized as to be unbelievable.

[Roshen Dalal is a writer and historian living in Dehradun.]