Saturday, November 26, 2016

Of Ruskin Bond and Alice in the Wonderland

My Daughter with Ruskin Bond at Times LitFest
 Kids have the purest of the hearts and neatest of the intellect. This intellect is not yet a tool to defend or explain oneself. It is rather to seek the knowledge, to understand and come to terms with the world around them which as yet is a new, fascinating entity to their fresh eyes. It is such a pity that we have so few writers who are able to understand, respect that unadulterated intellect and that wide-eyed curiosity of a child. 

 When I saw the expectant children listening with unwavering attention to octogenarian author, Ruskin Bond, speaking lucidly with the boyish glint in his eyes, I gather, what is that one thing which makes writing for children so fulfilling, yet so rare. When one listens the way he responds to the children, one understands the mind and heart which doesn't have a disparaging view of the consumers of his art. He bends down gently to listen, to embrace and find comfort in the company of these little people who will some day inherit this world. It was no surprise then that when asked his favorite childhood book, it was Alice in Wonderland. It takes one to know one. 

Most of the writers for kid's stories have either used kids as the props or wrote as a writer looking down at the kids. Those who wrote with due respect to the children as the readers and as people with a keen sense of awareness have been far and between. We can count on our fingers writers like Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, AA Milne, RK Narayan and now Ruskin Bond. It is coincidental as well as somewhat prophetic that Ruskin Bond gets the Lifetime Achievement Award by The Times Literature Festival in Delhi on this date, 26th of November, 2016, which marks 151st Anniversary of the first publication of iconic Alice in The Wonderland

In the writings of all these greats, we find that writing for kid is extremely difficult. Contrary to what a lot of sub-standard literature which passes off as children literature would make us believe, Children literature need not be lazy representation of stupid facts. It is rather a simplistic and elegant representation of complex facts of life. It needs a purpose to serve. 

The work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who went with the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll stands testimony to this. Dodgson, a lecturer of Mathematics wrote one of the profoundest and quirkiest tale with immense honesty and great interest in what effect it would produce in his readers. While Dodgson was a mathematician, Ruskin Bond was poor in mathematics as he said today; what connects the two is the immense comfort that they show in company of kids. Whether it be wise advise of Bond to a child who asked about his best childhood friend, that one should be one's best friend, or the diary of Dodgson, mentioning specifically the days when he had the company of kids, it shows. He at one place refers to Alice, the little girl as one without whose infant patronage I might never have written at all. 

Dodgson wrote the story of Alice, a little girl set out on adventures with an eclectic set of amazing characters on her way, while on a trip on 4th July 1862, for Alice, one of the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, George Liddell as Alice's Adventure Underground. Persuaded by friends and with illustrations developed into a novel, it was published on 26th of November, 1865, 2000 copies in all. The book had a slow start but soon became a rage. The quirky genius of Lewis Carroll found an admirer even in Queen Victoria, who desired that Lewis Carroll dedicates his next book to her. True to his genius and naughtiness of the readers of his first book, Lewis Carroll wrote his second book and dedicated it to the Queen of England. Only catch, the book was called "An Elementary Treatise on Determinants"- A book of mathematical theorems (linear equations). 

Of late, Alice books have moved from kid's bookshelves to parent's bookshelves. Presumptuous people that we adults are, we presumed that these books will bewilder the kids, or that it is beyond their comprehension. It is more to do with our own busy, uni-dimensional lives with little time for anything and a laziness which has crept into modern life, in general, and modern intellectual life in particular. In an effort to escape the effort which kids undoubtedly will need to sail through these mesmerizing tales, we have taken these books away from them and given them books of rhyming notes with little message. Those books would do nothing to prepare them for the future, which these books certainly would. I have immense respect in Virginia Woolf as the final arbitrator on any matter literary, and totally agree when she wrote that the Alice books are not books for children. They are the only books in which we become children. Let us not deprive kids with such marvelous treasures on account of our poor judgement. Michael Irwin, Professor of English Literature at University of Kent at Canterbury made perfect sense when he wrote the following lines. 
It has become academically fashionable to claim that these are children's books no longer read by children. I cannot see why this should be the case, unless parents have lost their nerve. 

As adults, we hold the power. Let's not get unnerved. Let us open up the vistas of glorious literature to our children, let us help them be better prepared for the capricious character of life which awaits them. Let us write for them with respect and let us read to them with affection.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Demonatization - The Dignity of the Poor

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail…The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write these things. It is his privilege to help men endure by lifting his heart.”- William Falkner, Nobel acceptance speech, December, 10th, 1950

The moments of crisis brings out the best and worst of human spirits. Then there are moments which rewrite the course of a nation. For India, the wars of 62, 65 and 1971 were such moments, so was the Emergency imposed in the late seventies by the Congress government. When we look at those moments, we wade through the old, black and white pictures of those family photographs and wonder where our parents were when these events were unfolding. I am writing this on #Demonetization, which is one such historic event.

Before you sigh, roll your eyes upwards and throw your arms up in despair, and walk away, let me put forth the disclaimer. I am not an all knowing economist; I am also not an all-feeling journalist. I am the common man, who has stood his turn in the queues to exchange the currency and then to withdraw the money.

I write. I write poetry and fiction, mostly. But then why am I writing and further muddying the waters in which already too many people have stepped in. That is answered by Faulkner in his Noble Prize acceptance speech. I write on behalf of the poor man behind whose name every black money hoarding businessman, every corrupt politician, every tainted bureaucrat hides.

Tragic stories are floating in the market. But then, they are just being visible now. The poor man is confounded as rumors float. Some come and tell him that his zero-balance bank account will be acquired by the government, with all the money into it. But you stand in the queue and the anecdotal poor man is not complaining. He stands in silence, with great grace. He is the man who sends his son to army to stand guard on the Line of control. He is not a retired income-tax officer, nor will any senior Income Tax officer marry him. He is facing unprecedented hardships. He neither has resources nor inclination to visit exotic foreign location for introspection for months. Unlike a middle-aged man about to touch his fifties and still in search of his widely anticipated political mojo, he makes money each day and feeds his family.

He does not seek greatness. It is just logical. He understands that when things of this magnitude happen in a country of this magnitude, inconveniences will happen. He knows the inconvenience of processes first hand, much better than those who claim to represent him, when he had visited a government officer to get something as basic as a BPL card or a Ration card, and was asked to pay bribe in cash. This demonetization has discomforted that Babu. What is great about this drive is that it even hits those who charged in kind for making of a ration card. He laments that a child died because the parents could not pay in the new currency. But amid all the noise he understands that even without demonetization, that heartless hospital would have been turning away kids who had no currency at all. He understands that with this revolutionary effort, maybe, just maybe, cash will reach some hands, or better still, there will be some hospitals which will not need currency, new or old, to attend to a dying child.

There have been plenty of stories about maids. Once again, please don’t shut your laptop down so hard. The helps I had at home, both of them had the zero-balance account under the PM Jan-dhan scheme, but had never deposited any money. I asked them why. They had their fears. This is the basic of the worries, whatever might be. For long, we were under slavery. The government did not belong to the people. When the British left, white officers were replaced by brown baboos. Congress was a club of rich people and the Jawahar Lal Nehru, foreign educated, son of a rich lawyer of Allahabad became the first Prime minister, even when the appointed committee chose the one who began his political career from peasants’ movement in Bardoli. The voice of the people was vetoed and the man whose dad knew the founder of the new company called India, became the CEO.

The distrust to the government was thus perpetuated and a layered society was created as dynastic rule was legitimized, slowly but surely. It is this distrust which makes it difficult for the poor to bear the trouble of demonetization and its fall-out. It is truly to the credit of the PM that poor have not only been able to overcome this inherent distrust towards the government, the rulers; they have rather risen in his strongest support.

It has placed the opposition in a very difficult situation. They are out on the street protesting. Situation is very funny. The opposition is out protesting, supposedly on behalf of the poor, while those they claim to represent are protesting their protest.  Some politicians are so distraught by the loss of their personal, illegal wealth that they are unable to detect the disgust that their desperate dramas are creating in the minds of those they claim to be representing. This is not to say that there is no inconvenience. There is. Not everyone has means to do online commerce. Which is sad after almost seventy years of independence. But things are not as bad as the naysayer claim they are. Truth always lie somewhere in the middle of the extremes. True, fifty regrettable deaths have happened. Some out of those fifty (remember in a nation of 125 Crores), were later found to be unrelated to the government move (sample, someone died counting new currency notes, would she have not died if the notes she was counting were old currency? Or Newspapers reported someone died at the ATM in Mumbai, at a place where there was no ATM.). But consider the proportion. Only two months back, around the same number of people died and was in news. Only, the deaths were not spread across 125 Cr people, it was limited to the city of Delhi. And the CEO of Delhi, the Chief Minister, most incensed by this Anti- Black money move, submitted the courts that he had managed to spare only five minutes to spend in his office as the city reeled under epidemic. How seriously can one take his concerns? 

The poor have been most decent and graceful under such testing times. The rich and affluent have been crying foul. The poor understand that the history is being made. And he wonders that some years down the line, the same question will be asked. Where were you when this historic fight against corruption and black money was initiated? Did you handle it with the quiet dignity and poise of the poor, or with the noisy, complaining arrogance of the affluent when the nation sought your support to create a better nation for future generations? Future will pose that existential question to all of us when the time comes- What did you do when your nation called you for your services? What did you do when for the first time the gulf of distrust between the government and its people, perforce was being filled, as an unnoticed fallout of an anti-corruption move? How did you respond when the economy was shaken and cashless and accountable business became the order of the day for the first time in the life of our nation? Did you welcome it as a mature citizen or you went down as a cribbing, complaining kid? I write not with data. I write as an ode to the poor man in the queue, I write to help him endure this moment by lifting his heart. Let us all do that. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Feminism Without Noise- A Room of Her Own- A Review

"Surely since she was a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of her life, she will soon give over this pretense of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (and as long as a woman thinks about a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking). And then she will write a short note (and as long as she writes short notes, nobody objects a woman writing either)" 

I had read the above passage in Virginia Woolf's Orlando, and was immediately hooked. Orlando was the first novel of Ms. Woolf I had ever read and much too late in life.  I had stayed away from her, fearing the feminist credentials of her, which are almost as famous as her writing is. However, Orlando was such an eye-opener. It is such a vast canvas over which the story is spread-out. She masterly tells the story, with a easy efficiency of a master who is totally in control of her craft. Orlando was of course followed by Mrs Dolloway and The Waves, all masterpieces in their own being. But the spread of the story and the nuanced, unafraid manner in which she wrote Orlando stands apart from any of her other work. No where will one find a patch of ink blot, not one slip of a pen- every word - smooth, sophisticated and nuanced. 

The gloom, the dark sadness of a world of early Nineteenth century slithers through the pages of Orlando. The days are not very bright, the sky is not azure, the sky is dark, as if the rains are about to pour over. But Woolf is never sad, never disappointed. She fights, but is never shrill. She is analytical. Looking at the today's world where the symbolism has become so all-encompassing that even elections are being fought on symbolic gender equality, it seems so soothing and fresh. She writes so cleverly in A Room of Her Own, with so much control over what she writes. She never allows her narrative to become propaganda. 

She describes her own world, in way only she could. 
A wind blew, from what quarter I know not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so that there was a flash of silver grey in the air. It was the time between the lights when colors undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish..

She floats, rises above the world, and we, the readers rise with her, levitating above the world, we look at the beauty of the world, till suddenly we are stopped in our way. She then writes, ever so softly, without us noticing where the seductive pen of the brilliant writer is taking us, about how men are caught up in their own self-image and how women are the mirrors in which they see themselves. Virginia Woolf, refers to her inheritance which enables her to write. She then takes us to the world when there were few occupations available to women. She explains that could be the reason why we don't have female writers in the history. She also refers to the male writers and quotes how in the list of greatest of English poets there are few who were not rich. She does not let it go off her hands for a moment, never let it fall into the rhetoric. She writes- It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control. 

She points out that if one went only by the writing of the men, and the role of women in them, one would believe that women had a very important role in the society. However, she points out that the fact that no women wrote those stories, proves, on the contrary, that women, in reality, were relegated to a role of insignificance in the society. She imagines a character named Judith, fictional sister of Shakespeare. Assume that her sister was as gifted as Shakespeare himself was. In a society, where no reading and writing opportunity was available to women, what would happen to her. Woolf writes:
She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. 

Ms. Woolf traces the imaginary life of Judith and without melodrama ends it with a sadness that suddenly wraps itself about you that you almost lose your breath, when she writes- who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? She says - That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife with herself. It is not only about being a woman. She aptly mentions that writing in itself is not an easy profession. She writes..To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. ...A curse, a cry of agony, rises from those books of analysis and confession. 'Mighty poets in their misery dead- that is the burden of their song. 
Such is the general state of the affairs, and it turns even worse for women writers. She writes- The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you chose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What's the good of your writing? Women writers were not only not encouraged they were considered incompetent. She draws a parallel to the view the world had towards a woman preacher, as she quotes Dr. Johnson- "Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on hind leg. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." The affection with which she mentions Jane Austen should be a benchmark for all women writers. She writes- Here was a woman about the year 1800, writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That is how Shakespeare wrote, I thought...when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare..

This book should be read by all the people who love reading and writing and see how far we have traversed from the time when women seldom wrote, and were seldom appreciated for writing when they did. This review is to open a window to this great book by a great writer, and as a tribute to women writers who have arrived in more ways than one, whether she is a JK Rowling, or Marta Moran Bishop, or Chitra B Divakaruni or Radhika Mukherjee. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Common Theme Between DeMonetization in India And Trump's Election

India for all practical purposes refers to the East of the East and US of America is the West of the West, and the twain, wise men said, shall never meet. In the span of two days, one rolling after another, like the wheels of a great Juggernaut, bashful, arrogant wheels, changed the way we look at the world. We have been raised with a concept of right and wrong. It was a good idea which provided a pattern to a world which is as illogical as the forces of nature, its whims unfathomable, its furies uncertain. But those ideas were formed in a dynamic world, and were as volatile as ecosystem in which they were formed, raised and eventually flourished. 

Wisdom is like a freshly caught fish and goes stale quickly. The biggest wisdom which survives time is the one discovered by good, old Darwin, whose law of survival, the survival of the fittest is one which has survived change of civilizations, change of regimes, and change of political seasons. Men are feeble animals. We have nothing except our minds which is our probably most formidable organ. We do not have the speed of a leopard, the strength of an elephant or the teeth of a Lion. We do not even have a killer instinct to compare the wild animals. We develop it mostly out of our necessity or hatred. We are the devices for our minds to play with. We are able to protect ourselves, and more importantly our future generation using mostly this great faculty nature has provided us with. We cannot have any of the wisdom, with the whitest of it form, fool our minds. Our minds are watchful, and are mostly driven by nothing but survival instincts, which also converts into the customs and culture which has stood by us against the harshest winds of time. 

Security, survival instinct is something which drove the United states to make an odd choice of Trump as their president. This does not preclude that those who insisted that Hillary ought to win were also driven by their own survival instinct. The Pundits declared the results of the elections from their high pulpits and then went on designing the results to suit their deductions. US probably never had it so bad. There was no good choice. They had to chose between the worst and the less bad and there was no way of knowing which was which. This is not about deriving the same. It all will depend on which side your were looking it from. One had a string of misogyny on his side, another a history of defending a child molester and repeat offender of a rapist. But it was not about morality and righteousness. That is where Hillary got it wrong, and Trump, accidentally or somehow got it right. 

The elite thought leaders, those who thought they knew it all ignored the man who was going to vote. They had made that mistake earlier in India, in 2014. The elite media, the intellectuals threw their weight behind Congress and the man on the street, the man driven by the most primitive instinct, of survival and security, went with Modi. This essay is not about finding equivalence between the elected, between Trump and Narendra Modi. While Trump came into politics as an amateur, Modi has spent all his life in public work, even though not as a politician; while Trump has been known to have splurge in wine and woman, Modi has been near-ascetic in his life. This is not a commonality between the two elected men, this is about the commonality between the two electorate. There were people who placed themselves on high pedestals and laughed, speaking sermons about the goodness, the righteousness, the love. Those were the same people whose role in spreading violence via various modes was thoroughly exposed. The ecosystems were established, just as it was in India in 2014, and everyone wanted it to continue, under the garb of justice, feminism, liberty, call it whatever high sounding name you might, it was the elite and the powerful and the classy, busy trying to serve their own survival instinct, the continuity of things as they were, no matter how many people were dying. 

There was another class, which could see things, in spite of supposed lack of education more clearly. They could see, even with their intent of preserving the left-leaning, falsely righteous way of life, the fire of violence which they had lit far away in Asia, was slowly extending, like a forest fire and reaching to their shores. The liberal elite in their greed and their lazy lustful existence had almost missed the fire which followed the warmth. I do believe all men are equal, must love another, and must be free. But there is again this thing about the way things are done, the way things have preserved the life of the original inhabitants. It is about survival. The new coming in to far shores and wanting the change the ways of life of those who have been raising generations in those lands is scary idea. It is unavoidable, but it is fearful when it is done by force. It gets people raise their guards when they feel that the change those coming in threaten to bring with them will not be slow amalgamation of cultures, which takes and preserves the best of the two worlds, but will be a clash of civilizations. There was a new wave threatening to overwhelm those who felt it was their land. Amalgamation requires a certain level of flexibility on the part of the two parties. It is impossible when one party considers its inflexible orthodoxy as its right. And the history around the world was not very reassuring. And nobody bothered to reassure them. How could they trust the guest who instead of respecting the customs of the host, wanted to have his own customs, at least for himself, if not to impose them on his host. Not for now, they felt when they looked at other countries of the world. No one bothered to assure that man, if they did, it was not seen in their actions. The man on the ground, who do not read the complex yet luminous words of those who lived in safe, secure surroundings would not understand them and if they understood them, they could not believe them. They were pulled away by their affluence so far away from the poor that they could not understand him any longer. Even after Trump won, they called his voters the working class white men, a description full of disdain and even xenophobia towards those men, although they will blame them with the same. 

They could not address the fear of the man they call- semi-literate, working, white men. The hatred to the man oozes through their words. They call themselves liberals, and while they mocked the insecurity of the man on the street in America, they are now driven mad by their inability to maintain a status quo, which could have protected their polished, prosperous way of live, for them and their off-springs. So we find the pretense of peace is gone and wicked hatred in the beings of those who once were voice of righteous sanity is exposed. In India we have seen the bile spill on the editorials, over champagnes. Both Modi and Trump, to the elite represent the men who came from nowhere. They come from the place were one life stands for one life and majority life is not lesser than the minority life. The assumption that just being in majority population brings a lot of confidence in people is incorrect. Poverty, lack of power makes people week. Another assumption that Majority populace can never come together as one unit is also wrong. 

This is one common factor about #DeMonetization. When Narendra Modi made announcement of cancelling the legal tender of existing currency, a strange euphoria gripped the nation, which sustains even today as people have started facing hardships. The elite, the righteous of the nation, the old order, media and erstwhile rulers alike are not able to understand the phenomenon. They don't understand that the poor are not so unhappy. They had little to lose, they know you have lost big. Your losing big gives the poor a chance to hit at equality much more certain than what all those lofty leftist lectures offered. It offers them a future for their children. Those who have never seen the hardship will never understand this. The poor can go a day without even food for the welfare of their children. It is all about survival instinct. It is about protecting our selves and our future generations and their distinctly Indian identity.  Luxury makes our understanding of social principles and identity concerns weak. Those with bungalows in Lutyens will not understand this. But this is what connects Indian poor in favor of Narendra Modi with those voters of Trump. It is about fear and it is about the disenchantment of the fearful from those who mock their fears, who call their natural instincts, evil. It is not about race or religion. It never is. It is always very basic. Sometimes fears are genuine and one ought to address them. Once we had politicians and writers and thinkers who would do that without apology. Those who spoke of the English way, or American way or Indian way without squirming and feeling ashamed. Majority is also a voice and has its own fear and you cannot trample over it. That is democracy. Cultivating minority-only politics will serve only so far as long as the majority does not feel threatened. When there is pollution, action is taken in Lutyens, the last man in the street is as vulnerable as a fresh migrant, and as afraid. Someone ought to listen to him. You cannot think for him. You have to listen the his thoughts floating through the air. You cannot merely shout rhetoric in his name without giving his thoughts a voice. You cannot shout him down. That is what happened in the US, that is what is happening in India, when a Kejriwal or Mamta or Mulayam claims that the poor is getting discomforted for the government action on black money. Poor is not greedy, he will let go of his today, for the tomorrow of his children.