Friday, August 30, 2013

Incorrigible Patna

Book Review: Non-fiction/ A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar, Aleph, 144p; Rs295 (Hardback)
The city part of Patna is eternally incorrigible—because most of those, who make this city complete, have no permanent rapacious leaning. This is unusual trend, seeing the kind of progress India has made over the years, with its semi-reformed economy and very active ‘cronyism’. These two together make ‘billionaires’ at filthy high pace—we all know them, as they don’t do petty acts like fodder scam.

Their modus operandi are accomplished, so they do speak on ‘innovative practices’ in packed halls of India’s glittering metros unlike Bihar’s clueless political frauds, bound to make more ‘defame than fame’ through their visible mean acts. The whole country has rats, though people of Bihar believe in co-existence, so they let allow rats to do wishful. But, can believing on animals, with sharp teeth, is a fair idea?

Amatava Kumar inquires it through his new book-A Matter of Rats, which is slim, sharp and appealing for readers, with faceless distinction. Personally, I read his previous books too—and those were belonging to the different genres. I grew up in Madhubani and lived in Patna for a year during the height of state’s political misrule (2001-02)—have also read for first time the writings of Phanishwar Nath Renu and Baba Nagarjun in school days and had stroll on the roads of this state capital.

So, I could understood the genuine nostalgia, which makes Amitava Kumar recalling places, events and people of Bihar, with remarkable or shocking characteristics. The merit of the book lies in Amitava Kumar’s frank observation about his own elite background, the smoke of feudalism and the official lacunas, which for long have gripped the whole state. Still, the claimed changes are not on the ground in Bihar—the author is right in saying, through his firsthand account on this city.

On the positive side—Bihar has been a land of knowledge-seekers. This is not less, because common Bihari people were more competent with their knowledge than other resources to survive in the big bad world. So the book has detailed attention on the achievers from Bihar, who have travelled long path and their success in different field are indeed worth of admiration.

Amitava Kumar doesn’t ignore the positive changes, which took place in the state in last few years. However, categorically he proves why still Patna is a place to be visited by its young absentee population, but not for living permanently. We all think on this, while being on walk in morning or evening or talking to our ageing parents—the sense of void is pervasive everywhere. Biharis’ are doing well outside —but back at home things wear the same non-changing look.

Lack of enterprise and hiatus in cultural exchanges are the two reasons, which make Patna less happening than it deserves actually. So, people should have urge to live in their city and to love it as much they wish. Among the earlier journalistic works on Bihar —Arvind N Das’s Republic of Bihar and Vijay Nambisan’s Bihar Is in the Eye of the Beholder had captured the ground realities. Both these books were written with great insight and meticulous efforts.

After a long break, Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats is a valuable edition in those literatures on Bihar. This book breaks the monotony in different way—it sensitizes the readers towards the state, which for long had seen losses of perceptions and fortunes. Now it is rebounding—whose marked sign is this book.

A well-established writer, Amitava Kumar has looked with utmost care on his home state—and has searched the odds, which are recognizable and addressable. His account of Patna is though much more deep than ‘home-matters’. This is about an incorrigible city, and shaped by the memories and perspectives of Amitava Kumar. The book has come out naturally meaningful, and deserves wide readership.
Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on 7September2013)

India in sepia tint

Book Review: Non-fiction/ Mofussil Junction by Ian Jack, Penguin/Viking, 323p; Rs599 (Hardback)

Ian Jack’s Mofussil Junction is a treasure trove of scintillating sketches of a bygone time, when he traversed and documented rural heartlands of Bharat.
For the veteran Guardian journalist Ian Jack, India is not just a subject close to his heart, but a second home. The compilation of his essays, written during his active days as a journalist/traveler in pre-liberalised India, emphatically announces at the outset the impossibility of collating India at the altar of coherence. This volume deserves far wider reading by those born after 1991, when the ‘enigma of reform’ finally arrived at the slumbering power corridors of Delhi.

India decided to go another way in early 1990s, not because of the Indian leaders’ newfound love for the verses of Victor Hugo, but to escape a wretched existence, wherein wealth creation had become really tough. So, it was then that ‘an-idea-whose-time-has-come’ kind of prose came into prominence and shifted the entire India narrative, turning it inside out as the country embarked on an unprecedented journey.
Ian Jack is no Max Mueller — he has real feelings for India. Unlike the German Indophile, Jack keeps himself at arm’s length from hypothetical arguments. However, he is a superlatively articulate journalist. Jack has seen much and the result is this volume, a treasure trove of scintillating sketches and travels by road and rail through the length and breadth of India, with the spotlight on rural heartlands of Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. From metropolitan India to mofussil Bharat, he appears to be a neutral observer of a changing nation.

Going against the Western trend to look at the East through either rose-tinted glasses or shambolic poverty-goggles, Jack comes across as a moderate polemicist, especially when he’s writing on Bombay or George Orwell’s Motihari, where, to his dismay, few knew the acclaimed Englishman. Similarly, Jack’s essays on the Bhagalpur incident, or the Mansi Railway accident, break the convention of traditional journalistic reportage that eschews opinionating. Knowing it to the bone, Jack’s intuitive grasp on eastern India, which he has seen and felt like no other Western traveler, spellbinds even some of the most astute readers.

The essay on Tagore confirms it, where he diligently recognises the Bard’s unmatchable fame and how that has become a myth in itself, available for popular regression. It is another thing that now Bengalis, and other Tagore-scholars, have developed many, often conflicting, sets of opinions on the Nobel laureate, but none of those challenge his supreme authority in the cultural affairs of the clan. So, while Jack confronts their obsessive side, which hinders the dogmatic Bengalis to see merit in others, he also strikes a resonant note when he asks why Tagore has suffered in translation, and why his preeminence within the Bengali cultural superset is not without its reasons.

Jack’s essays on good English-speaking people like Sonny Mehta, or his landlord in Delhi, Sham Lal, have greater symbolic value, as they were written in simpler days, when speaking mannerisms and accents accrued greater degree of appreciation than the real content. On the Gandhi troika – Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv — his pieces seem to give primary information. I would like to believe this hardly showcases his limitation; rather, it allows us to believe, blissfully so, most of us are perfectly enlightened about the precious and trashy details of our political first family.

But Jack is an old horse at narrative journalism, and it’s humanly not possible to keep the inner perspicuous observer in him hidden behind the reluctant annalist of the Indian dynasty. On 1984 Delhi riots, he provides fresh perspective. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s an old issue and India has, unfortunately, had periodical bouts of turbulence, violence and bloodshed since then, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom being one, Jack’s eyes discover new details that had gone unnoticed in the deluge of politically-motivated accounts of the ugly chapter of modern Indian history. As a democracy, India has been ceremoniously plagued by the ‘culture of riots’ and the fertile ground of hostility is right inside the polity, and partially, Jack, too, hints at the unpalatable truth.

The book has a fleeting subcontinental touch as well. It becomes evident in his recollections of Benazir Bhutto and her mother, who once danced with a white politician, interestingly, which even Oxford-educated Benazir couldn’t do, that there was more to the embrace of modernity and Western ideas than the South Asian mind would like to admit. On Benazir’s reluctance or refusal to dance with a white man, Jack muses whether it was because she was a determined conservative who had learnt Urdu to use it for embellishing both her slang offerings and fiery speeches, which we most of us have heard at some point of time.

Jack’s essays are musings, repositories of collected memories — memories which are personal but have huge relevance for the larger audience, whether Indian or Western. At a juncture, when the incessant drone of breaking news clogs off the sieves of mind, and few are left with a proper appetite for narrative journalism, essentially, which is the better part of the trade, Jack’s work comes as a whiff of cool breeze and refreshing change. Mofussil Junction is here to buck the trend and is a delightful addition to your library, big or small.
Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on 1September2013)

Tales of Kashmir Walla

Book Review: Anthology/Non-fiction: Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir by Fahad Shah (Edited), Tranquebar/Westland, 264 pp; Rs395 (Paperback)
Fahad Shah, a young journalist from Kashmir has been mainstreaming the Kashmiri people’s voice through an alternative, but very remarkable online magazine —The Kashmir Walla. Like his journalistic works, his first book too sets a new trend of narrative and has potential to diminish the limitless polemics channelised by ‘poet-philosopher to hand choppers’!

The essays of this anthology are handpicked under a clear editorial policy, which is guided with precision and ‘native touch’. The perspective is new and expression exuded by most of the writers of this volume drastically differs from the romantic notion —‘Kashmir is only paradise lost’. But here, one can see the personal and collective angst overturning those beliefs.

Fahad, who stays in Delhi too and has friends here, yet looking at home, makes him feel ‘disconnected’ from rest of India. This still stays a typical status of mass Kashmiris, who struggle for existence rather supremacy and feel vindicated with unrelenting misdeeds from all corners. Fahad’s long introduction of this book and his essay—Kashmir: A Colony of India affirms those unwavering tussle of ‘self and others’ generated out of political follies and adamant stand of opportunists.

Famed novelist and sensible depicter of actual social realities, Siddhartha Gigoo’s Looking Back at the Roots gives balancing touch to the book. His essay marks unending shocks—started with Pandits’ exodus from valley to their turning into a prosperous community, sans cultural affiliations. This is a void hard to fill by ‘artificial get-togethers’ or tempted to live in divisive ghettos, created by confused state machinery.

Gigoo maintains his own track-record of looking on Kashmir’s socio-cultural outbreak and does not make himself to be like partitions— the way many young Kashmiri writers are doing these days at the risk of making plights’ graver. The sense for inter-community life, which once used to be the strength in Kashmir, witnessed its intense wane in 1980’s and since then continuing with the worldview, which is sectarian in actual and holds no amicable solution.

Gigoo can read the pulse of his community—and also to his neighbours back at home—with whom he is separated physically but not at the cost memory. Here, Kashmir still exists in mind and frame—atleast this is a case with few who have been living in honest memory for over two decades. Those subtleties of memory walks further in Nitasha Kaul’s articulately presented Everything I Cannot Tell You About The Women of Kashmir.

With convincing intellectual puts in recalling an important chapter of history—Mridu Rai traces the advent of nationalism, as well as the ‘discontents’ through essay—Memorialising 13July1931in Kashmir. She presents her views on popular compulsions of convergence& alienation as:
“Beginning in the 19th century, ever since nationalism became the predominant ideological vehicle to counter colonial dominance in India, memory became apotheosized in its culture. Events, people, places, words, memory became symbolized. And memory became history; history, however, mapped out in specific ways.”

If these essays brings back the historical turnings into glare—the other pieces, particularly written with bylines less known (from band singer/ M C Kaish, young journalists, stone palters, corpse bearer etc) —too touches the core subject of the book. They are in resistance mode—in life or writing. Irrespective of checks& barriers at theoretical level—they think on sovereignty differently. But in cases, when state protects crime committed by its own men and doesn’t stop watching kitchens of its claimed ‘citizens’—such voices will be remain in vogue.

Since 1947, Indian democracy has grown-up—mostly in terrible shape but at bright side, it has made citizens overtly conscious about the dignity. Unfortunately, we see double standard quite often than not in conflict zones or with whom, who have no representation in power circle.

If, routine check-up in Kashmir makes mockery of basic citizenship rights—the powerless as hysterical level faces similar fate. Although, the variance could be noticed at the level of violence—Fahad not appears colour dyslexic when he terms ‘red is blood in Kashmir’. Those who flirts this lost paradise have no time to think for people—they are sponsoring puppets in state machinery and keeping the pressing questions out.

Freny Manecksha’s How I Understood Kashmir’s Resistance and Gautam Navlakha’s The Matter of Truth, Lies and Manufacturing Consent in a Conflict Zone gives impetus for deeper observations but at occasions, confine their viewpoint at pre-determined level. The essays written from distant geography are less serious than in totality this book comes out—the good thing is, the deviation are surfacing only on few pages.

This book is about the present Kashmir, which comes into this shape and away from age old socio-cultural equilibrium through the political overplays. Both the definition and narration can be diverse but at the end—the realisation has to come—the plagued state of occupation and resistance cannot ensure the democratic ideas blossoming.

It was wrong the way, the interlocutors sent from Delhi to Kashmir, saying—the issues of Kashmir are impossible to be solved under the India constitution. This was among the improper conclusions from the mavericks. It could have much better, had they timely acknowledged that the stone is being pelted there by the youth—not because, they are not in employment, but with urge to resist against the tyrannies of better placed and powerful state forces.

This could have controlled the violence—and peace might be imminent there. Things are in altered shape there—as the will-power lacks in Srinagar and New Delhi equally, and without even the difference of fraction second. Though with the changing time—state as well as the pampered lot of Kashmir’s local leadership has to be extra-conscious—as the young Kashmiris’ are less receptive to outdated whims& fancies.

They are looking for normalcy—and that should not be merely confused by some more political maneuverings. Fahad, with his first book has brought attention on Kashmiri people—this is a valuable accomplishment and will put forth positive turnouts. The hope has better chance to stay now!
Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on August08,2013)