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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Arundhati Roy's Broken Republic -- Book review

Broken Republic: Three Essays, by Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Books), 2011, pp. 220, Rs. 499.

‘All movements go too far.’ – Bertrand Russell

Arundhati Roy is India’s best-known polemicist. That she is intelligent, articulate, camera-friendly and media-savvy too has helped, in no small measure, to build her image as an iconic writer, activist and thinker. Since the publication of her first and only novel, the Booker-award winning God of Small Things (1997), she has published three volumes of essays: The Algebra of Infinite Justice  (2001), An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2005), Listening to Grasshoppers (2009); as well as a collection of her interviews, The Shape of the Beast (2008). In Broken Republic, a collection of three essays, Roy goes deep into the forested heartland of India to bring stories of real suffering, stark poverty and plain, undisguised greed.

In the past, Roy has displayed her ability to put her finger, unerringly and unfailingly, on the pulse of the nation, a pulse that the media neglects to read, politicians prefer not to hear, and the middle-class urban Indians pretend doesn’t exist. She has written, and spoken, about the glaring disconnect between the Two Indias, about homelessness, rural destitution, unemployment, shrinking land, industrialisation, privatisation, globalisation, terrorism, US imperialism, Hindutva nationalism, and urban renewal which does away with those at the lowest rung of the socio-economic pyramid as well as atrocities of the state against the most marginalised and least empowered – in fact, all the subjects that are anathema to the proponents of Shining India. In the process, she has earned brickbats and bouquets, laurels and libels from both sides of the Great Divide. Interestingly enough while she finds no favour with the right-wingers for obvious reasons, there is little love lost between her and India’s loose, lumbering and largely disorganised left.

The protection of the tribal peoples, their lands and their rights over the forests that have traditionally sustained them is mandated by the Constitution of India. The Government’s tendency to turn a blind eye when it is not actively hand in glove with agencies bent upon pillaging and looting the natural resources from the adivasis earn Roy’s worst ire. In the first essay, ‘Mr Chidambaran’s War’ she details the suffering of the victims of ‘decades of accumulated injustice’, the over 40 million who have been displaced by development projects such as dams, mining, factories, SEZs, highways. Here, as in much of her writing, a scathing denouement of the selfishness and self-righteousness of urban middle-class India runs through her writing like a liet motif. Equally strong is the case she builds for the Maoists whom she describes as ‘…desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of chronic hunger that verges on famine’ who are being ‘pushed to the very brink of existence’.

The second essay, ‘Walking with the Comrades’ is a somewhat dewy-eyed account of time spent with Maoists deep in their jungle hide-outs. Everything is beautiful: the village, the people, their smiles; her description of their overnight camp borders on the gaga: ‘As far as consumption goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.’ Roy goes lightly over child soldiers in the Maoist army, the casual violence, the summary justice for informers and non-believers for she holds up the ‘idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun’ as the best ‘alternative’ under the circumstances. In the third essay, ‘Trickledown Revolution’, she defends the Maoists from Maoist-baiters and Maoist-haters as people with a different imagination, ‘an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as Communism.’

A word about the quality of Roy’s writing.  While I laud her courage and honesty in examining the ‘idea’ of India in the clear light of her conscience as also her unequivocal and unchanging stand on the issues close to her heart, I despair over the propensity for excess, the hyperbolic, adjectival nature of her prose that has, if anything, grown with her success. The play on words, the coinages and witticisms, to my mind, detract from what could well be the most vivid, the most evocative reportage coming out from the less-shining India today.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil
This review was first published in The Herald, September 2011, Pakistan.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

On Shahryar and the Jnanpith Award

It was with great pride that I watched Shahryar receive the country's highest literary award, the venerable Jnanpith, being conferred upon him on Sunday, 18th September 2011. That the person giving it was Amitabh Bachchan was another matter. In my humble opinion, Mr Bachchan, regardless of his stature in the Hindi film industry, had little grounds for being there. Any grounds he might have had for being present in such an august gathering by virtue of being the son of Harivanshrai Bachchan were lost given his advocacy of Narendar Modi. But the matter of the Chief Guest aside, there is no diminishing the significance of the award itself or, more importantly, of Shahryar as the pre-eminent voice of an entire generation.
We pay tribute to Shahryar and his invincible spirit. May there be more awards, greater recognition and much happiness in store for him.We pray for his health and his long life and for him we say: Allah kare zor-e-qalam aur ziyadah.

As a token of my respect for one of the greatest living Urdu poets, I append some of my translations from his nazms below:

Tonight the night presented me
With a new dilemma

It emptied the basin of my eye
Of all sleep
And filled it with tears

Then, it whispered in my ear:
‘I have absolved you of all sin
And set you free, forever

‘Go, wherever you wish
Sleep, or stay awake
The doorway of dreams is closed for you.’


 A black poem
Let me write a black poem on virgin paper
Let me light up this banquet with unseen, formless silences

The smell of unripe guavas maddens me
It makes my empty eyes brim with wetness

Far away wild animals growl and snap at each other
Between us, lies endless nights

An uncreased bed stares at me
My body half sleeps, half wakes

And I resolve
To write a black poem


 Let me speak
Let me open
Let me open the window of fragrances

Let it fly
Let this bird-like soul fly far, far away

Let it speak
Let the red blood imprisoned in this body speak

Behind the gold and green curtain
Lies an impenetrable silence

Don’t hush me, don’t stop me
Let me speak


Do you remember?
Do you remember
You had sworn
Placing your hand on night’s palm
That the glitter and keen of morning’s sun-sword
Would no longer frighten you
And you would give away
The dream treasures
That you had hidden in your eyes
As gifts
To someone
Braver and stronger
Than you
So, what stops you now



In the defence of sleepless nights

Think, my friend
Open your eyes and see
This barren night
Is the enemy of all your dreams
Don’t sell your sleeplessness
To this night

(The above translations are from Through the Closed Doorway: A Collection of Nazms by Shahryar, translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, Rupa & Co., 2004.)

Friday, 9 September 2011

Zehra Nigah: In a woman's voice

 

Zehra Nigah is a much loved and highly respected poet in Pakistan. In India she is an eagerly awaited figure on the mushaira circuit, especially the annual Indo-Pak mushaira hosted by the DCM family. Her poetry is about the compulsions and compromises of being a woman and a poet. Amidst friends and family, she is equally well known as a raconteur par excellence and a qissa-go. She talks as she writes: with grace and poise and wry humour.

Always immaculately dressed in impeccable cotton saris, given to no adornments except a smile she chooses to bestow occasionally, she is a woman completely at peace with herself. But as she says in the much-recited, much-quoted nazm ‘Samjhauta’, the easy calm hides the many compromises that she – like all women -- has had to make:


Mulayam garm samjhaute ki chadar
Yeh chadar mein ne barson mein buni hai
Kahin bhi sach ke gul boote nahi hai
Kissi bhi jhooth ka taanka nahin hai
Issi se main bhi tan dhak loongi apna
Issi se tum bhi aasooda rahoge
Na khush hoge, na pashmanda hoge


Warm and soft, this blanket
Of compromise has taken me years to weave
Not a single flower of truth embellishes it
Not a single false stitch betrays it
It will do to cover my body though
And it will bring comfort too,
If not joy, nor sadness to you



Is she a writer of feminine poetry or a feminist poet? I ask. She counters by saying she does not subscribe to tags and dislikes compartmentalisation of any sort. She views the world around her through the eyes of a woman, yes, but her concerns are not those of a woman alone. She speaks in a woman's tongue, using feminine imagery and idiom to make powerful social and political comments. She has alluded to the bitter fratricidal war that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh as well as the heart-rending situation in Afghanistan in lyrical, pathos-driven yet politically astute poems such as ‘Bhejo Nabi ji Rehmatein’ and ‘Qissa Gul Badshah’. She has written of the repressive Hudood Ordinances introduced during General Zia's oppressive regime as also about love, friendship and small everyday joys and sorrows. A recent poem about female foeticide was occasioned by the brutal statistics on the sheer numbers of the girl child put to death before they have the chance to live.


Ask her how the structure of her imagery-laden poems evolves and she says anything around her can "trigger the creative process". For instance, ‘Bhejo Nabi ji Rehmatein’ is a brutal poem about rape, yet it employs everyday images of tranquil domesticity — a woman teaching her pet parrot to invoke the Prophet’s blessings, the chapati on the tawa, the infant rocking in its cradle. A shrill newspaper headline about the rape of countless women by marauding West Pakistani forces resulted in this chilling poem, its seeming gentleness more powerful than any diatribe on the atrocities committed on women in the guise of politics. Similarly, a TV report on the use of landmines in Afghanistan resulted in the ballad of Gul Badshah, a child soldier in a war that the adults around him have long ceased to comprehend, a war that has maimed and mutilated countless boy soldiers too young to understand the ‘cause’ they are fighting for.


Zehra Nigah appeared on the literary horizon as a child prodigy in the 1950s and has consistently been hailed as the one voice worth listening to in the Babel of the mushaira circuit. When she began to make a mark as a poet in the 1950s and 60s, women poets were a rarity. Women from respectable families were not encouraged to come on stage to recite their poetry let alone express themselves with any degree of sensuousness. So, she hid her femininity behind demureness, read her poems with eyes downcast and scuttled back to the safe haven of domesticity. But the sheer lyricism of her words, the engaging simplicity of her poetic idiom and the sharp insightful comments couched therein built a formidable reputation and amassed a legion of admirers, not to mention the felicity of her tarranum! To this day, a hush invariably descends at noisome mushairas when she stands up to recite her poetry.


Despite early critical and popular acclaim, she has only three slim published volumes of poetry: Shaam ka Pehla Taara, Waraq, and Firaq. She says she has never felt the urge to be prolific, to write when there is nothing to say. Yet every word that emerges from her pen, every syllable that she speaks, carries the spark of a luminous intelligence. Given her command over idiomatic Urdu and her very idiosyncratic sentence constructions – seemingly simple yet syntactically convoluted, she presents many challenges for the translator. What follows are rough drafts from a planned volume of translations. It is to be hoped the reader will see them for what they are: a work in progress and a pale imitation of the original.


  1. Ant
Someone would fling a morsel before me
That is how I crawled through life for countless mornings and evenings

I would carry those morsels on my frail body
And, creeping and crawling, return to my hole

Till, one day, the sun made me realise:
If you want you can bring strength into these legs

And the winds, too, stopped to whisper:
Come out of your hole, look at the world

I was scared of standing on my own
I tottered and fell, got up and swayed unsteadily

Till, suddenly, someone came to steady me

Earlier, my breast would hug the ground

Now, my head rests against someone’s shoulder



  1. Sheherzade in London

I met the Sheherzade of Baghdad
In a teahouse in London
She had changed beyond recognition
Relying upon the commonality of religion
Holding on to tradition
I asked her with affection:
‘Do you remember your art --
The art of telling stories
The art that could bring life to lifeless hearts
The art that gave new life to someone every evening?’

Sheherzad was quiet for a while
And then she said:
‘Like the rest of the world, you too don’t know;
Meetings have been suspended in the city of Baghdad
Like people, words too are dead
And my art
Is dependent upon meetings, upon words
Following my ancestors
Walking the path of hijrat, I came here
The city of London is a benevolent city
Morning and evening, newly-descended caliphs come here
Travelling with the change in the seasons
Like birds
They call me
They listen to new stories from every fibre of my being
And then they go back.’



  1. Stop

It is as though someone has said, ‘Stop’, and halted the river of time
It is only now that I have fully understood the magical properties of this word
Each and every moment, flowing in its own orderly row, seems to have stopped
All my friends and all my enemies gaze at me, as though turned to stone
How strange it seems
Even though, from the day this benighted city was built
I have been scared of such a thing


  1. The Story of Eve

I did not urge you to eat the apple
Nor was that grain of wheat grown on my palm
And the serpent was no friend of mine

If I had a friend, it was you
If I liked someone, it was you



  1. Dildar Begum is Buried Here

An unknown fear
Was imbued in her
From the day she was born

The fear of a dark chamber
Was steeped in every pore
The terror of falling from a height
Had been dogging every footstep

The habit of hiding behind the lee of a door
Had been her earliest wish
To watch the spectacle in the streets from behind shuttered windows
Had been the first aspiration of her life

As time passed
And the skeins of her brain awakened her body
The spectre of safe-keeping grew so terrifying
That she became ashamed of her body

Soon, a little curiosity fluttered through the world of buyers
The sound of a beating heart was muffled
Adorned with the ornaments of fear
Weighed under the countless flowers of hesitancy
The buyers imprisoned her once again into a dark chamber
The same chamber that had terrified her since her childhood

Some semblance of awareness came
As youth passed and the curtains before her eyes parted
To reveal the spectacle of the world
Her feet moved towards the threshold
She had barely set one foot forward when tiny hands appeared, like manacles
Now she stands on a road that is said to be the path of death
The spectacles of the world do not stay fixed in in her glazed eyes
Now her feet do not move towards any threshold
The tiny hands have become so big
That they have long since left her palms
Now she is a captive of her own chains

Her dark chamber carries the following inscription:
‘Dildar Begum is buried here.
That pure, pious, patient and praise-giving woman sleeps here
Strange men are forbidden to come close by
Those who wish to offer prayers
May do so from a distance.’

(Rakhshanda Jalil is translating a collection of nazms by Zehra Nigah. This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on 9 September 2011.)